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10 Mar 2003 : Column 94—continued

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No.26, in page 110 [Schedule 7], leave out lines 16 to 18.

Amendment No.27, in page 72, line 22 [Clause 125], leave out '118'.

Amendment No.28, in page 72 [Clause 125], leave out lines 25 to 28.

Amendment No.29, in page 74, line 31 [Clause 126], leave out '113 and 118(a)' and insert 'and 113'.

Amendment No.30, in page 74, line 33 [Clause 126], leave out from 'the' to 'section' in line 36 and insert

'entry in Schedule 7 relating to'.

Mr. Hammond: The context in which the House is considering these changes to the Fire Services Act 1947 is well known: the rumbling dispute between the Fire Brigades Union and the fire service employers that flared into action in the last quarter of last year and which, sadly, looks as though it might re-ignite in the near future, if press speculation is to be believed. From that dispute stemmed the Government's commissioning of the Bain report on the modernisation of the fire service, and I shall return in a moment to the question of what modernisation means.

The Government's view is clearly that subsections 3 to 8 of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947—the parts of the Act that provide for the Secretary of State to give his approval to certain aspects of establishment schemes—should cease to have effect. Clause 118 of the Bill will effectively remove a large chunk of section 19 of the 1947 Act and place at least the notional power to change deployments of fire appliances and fire fighters, to close fire stations and open new ones, and to alter manning levels, into the hands of local fire authorities. I should like to make it clear at the outset that Conservative Members have absolutely no wish to stand in the way of the genuine modernisation of the fire service. There is consensus among fire service employers that there is a need to remove section 19, for many of the reasons that the Minister will no doubt outline in a few moments.

The reason for tabling amendment No. 2 is a rather technical one, but it will be clear to anyone who has read the Standing Committee proceedings. When the Government introduced what is now clause 118, which will scrap section 19 of the Fire Services Act, the Minister made it clear that an understanding of the Government's intentions would depend critically on the draft guidance that would be issued to fire authorities on how they should go about developing their integrated risk management plans, and how they should consult the local community and stakeholders on those draft plans.

As the Minister was unable to let the Committee see a draft at that stage, the Committee was unable to do its duty of scrutinising the Government's intent—the words in the Bill are not terribly informative.

8 pm

The Minister gave a commitment in Committee to do his best to ensure that he could place the draft guidance at the disposal of the House before we considered the clause on Report. My hon. Friends and I tabled

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amendment No. 2 simply to allow the House to debate the issue, consider the draft guidance and discuss the issues arising from a review of it. I shall raise some specific issues in a moment, but I ask the Minister—no doubt he intends to do this anyway, but we should avoid any doubt—to make clear to the House what discussions have taken place between the Government, the employers and the FBU on the draft guidance, which he placed in the Library of the House last Wednesday and which will form the basis of the development of integrated risk management plans.

Amendment No. 2 has attracted the signatures of what I can describe only as a wide cross-section of opinion in the House, ranging from my hon. Friends and I to Labour Members who are not normally noted for their inclination to agree with Conservative Front Benchers on many issues. I have made it clear that, through tabling the amendment, we intend to allow proper consideration of the Government's guidance. [Interruption.] As the Minister has helpfully reminded me, some of those Labour Members are not always known for their willingness to agree with the sentiments expressed from the Government Front Bench, either.

Our purpose is clear—to allow proper consideration and debate in the light of the draft guidance—but other Members, in adding their names to the amendment, may have other intentions. They will no doubt make them clear in due course. I am extremely grateful to Labour Members for tabling all the consequential amendments, which I would otherwise have had to work out and table for myself. I do not know whether they are responsible for the amendments or whether they had outside assistance, but what they have done is extremely welcome.

The revocation of section 19 of the 1947 Act could have been a tidying-up exercise in the context of an agreed settlement of the wider dispute, which has been rumbling on for the best part of a year, but, after seeing the reaction to the offer tabled by the employers last week—it looks set to be rejected by the FBU—it seems that the dispute is not about to end and there is a clear possibility of further strikes in the near future, including during military action, which may occur in or around Iraq.

If I may, I shall put two specific questions to the Minister, and I hope that he is prepared to deal with those wider issues. First, in the circumstances that the country finds itself in, are the Government now prepared to make a commitment to use the powers available to them either under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, although they have disputed that that power is available to Ministers, or through the medium of the declaration of a state of emergency to ensure that no fire strike, which would place additional burdens on our military, naval and air forces, is allowed to take place while military action is under way in the Persian gulf?

Conservative Members believe that it is deplorable that any trade union would even consider, or certainly threaten, such irresponsible action at a time like this, when military forces would have to provide cover to protect the civilian population in the event of a strike and against the threat of any terrorist or enemy action

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at home during any military action abroad. I urge the Minister to make an unequivocal statement of the Government's intentions.

Secondly, will the Minister deal with press reports, which Members on both sides of the House have read, of refusals by the FBU in some areas to allow training on and commissioning of decontamination units, which have been bought at considerable public expense to protect the public in the event of a chemical or biological attack on this country? Can he confirm whether those press reports are true and that the FBU has prevented work on those things from going ahead in some areas? What action will he take to ensure that such risks to preparedness for a terrorist attack are eliminated?

In the absence of a settlement of the dispute, the revocation of section 19 becomes one more step in the conduct of that dispute. It was about pay—the FBU originally claimed a 40 per cent. increase—but it became linked to the Government's modernisation agenda, although there is a clear difference of opinion about what modernisation really means. What is clear is that the Government see local risk-based redeployment of resources as the key to modernisation of the fire service. For that reason, they wish to remove the section so that the Secretary of State would no longer have a role in sanctioning such locally determined reallocations of resources.

However, one of the principal problems throughout that long-running dispute—the proposal to scrap section 19 simply underlines it—has been local fire authorities' notional responsibility for running the fire service and dealing with the fire service employees—the fire workers, as we have come to call them in the House. The reality is that effective control is exercised by central Government through their control of the purse strings. We saw that clearly in the early hours of Friday 22 November, when the Government pulled the plug on a settlement that the fire service employers had offered to the FBU and which the FBU was apparently minded to accept.

Immediately after that, we heard the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister going on the record to declare that any settlement above the 4 per cent. inflation-linked settlement that had already been offered had to be self-financing through modernisation of the fire service. I urge Members to remember those words of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister—"self-financing through modernisation".

The fire service employers are apparently responsible for negotiating a settlement of the dispute. Now, with the integrated risk management plans, local fire authorities are, apparently, supposed to make risk-based assessments as the basis for identifying the resources required to provide appropriate community safety and fire cover in their areas. That is what the Government guidance tells us, but the Prime Minister himself has already made it clear that the settlement of the fire service dispute must be financed through modernisation.

Thus the Prime Minister has corrupted not only the word "modernisation", which is the word that has been most corrupted by new Labour over the past six years, but the process of risk assessment, which the Government guidance document is all about, by preordaining the outcome. If a higher-than-inflation

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settlement of the firefighters' pay claim is agreed, the integrated risk management plans, which are supposed to be risk based rather than resource driven, must conclude that fewer resources are required.

What would a cynic—not that there are any in this place, Mr. Deputy Speaker—make of clause 118 and the proposal to abolish section 19? A cynic would fear that local politicians are to be invited to take responsibility from the Secretary of State for the politically unpopular cuts in services that are possibly to be dictated by a central Government finance settlement based on the Prime Minister's and the Deputy Prime Minister's declaration of the need for any settlement to be self-financing through modernisation.

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