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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): My right hon. Friend is right to flag up the incredible and

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superb support of the retained firemen, many of whom are based in small village fire stations of the kind that can be found in his constituency and mine. They are very concerned about the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, as they fear that many small stations could be closed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that would be an appalling thing to happen, after the loyalty that they have shown?

David Davis: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. In fact, the Deputy Prime Minister answered the point in a previous exchange, when I asked him whether he would guarantee—that was the word I used—that retained firefighters would not lose their jobs as a result of the reorganisation. The right hon. Gentleman gave me that guarantee. Moreover, I think I heard him say earlier that the retained firefighters would be involved in the process of resolution in the last stages of the reorganisation. That benefit is also well worth while.

David Winnick: Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify whether a Conservative Government, faced with a firefighters' strike, would have made the strike illegal? That is the policy of the Opposition now.

David Davis: First, there was no firefighters' strike throughout the entire time that the Conservative Government were in office. That was no accident, but I shall deal specifically with the point that the hon. Gentleman raises later in my speech. If I do not deal with that exact matter, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later on.

The situation that we are in today simply cannot go on. That is why the House of Commons has been put in the position of having to decide on the Bill before us. It is simply to rescue the British public from the consequences of the Government's incompetence.

This Bill is designed solely to bring the dispute to an end on the Government's terms. In his speech, the Deputy Prime Minister referred to the process as arbitration, but arbitrary action is not arbitration. Many of the people involved in the dispute will see the Government's response as arbitrary action. They may be right or wrong, but that is how they will see it.

Even from the Government's perspective, the Bill is a botched job, in three different ways. First, it does nothing to offer the ordinary firefighter a way out of the strike with dignity. The Government are quick to rebut any criticisms by branding them "inflammatory", yet now they propose to do something which, if it goes wrong, could leave a legacy of bitterness for decades.

The Government are giving the Deputy Prime Minister effectively unfettered power to impose pay and conditions and direct fire service assets. What the Government should do, in my judgment, is put a new clause in the Bill to require the FBU to have a secret, postal ballot—not a show of hands at fire stations—on the proposed settlement, before the relevant parts of the Bill come into effect. Then at least there would be one last shot at achieving an agreed outcome.

The Opposition will propose an amendment to that effect in Standing Committee. We hope that that will ensure that the voting practices of the FBU, which seem little better than the pit-head ballots that we thought

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that we had eradicated years ago, are put to bed once and for all. That would give the ordinary firefighters an opportunity to be truly represented within the FBU.

Mr. Drew: It is a nice notion that a ballot could be held on national pay and conditions. The element of pay could be the subject of a ballot, but the proposed changes will have many implications at local level. Those implications will differ greatly across the country. I therefore do not quite understand how people could be asked to ballot, on a set statement and using a set ballot paper, when the outcomes could be different in different parts of the country.

David Davis: That is an extraordinary statement. The implication of what the hon. Gentleman has just said is that there can never be a resolution of the dispute. As I listened to the Deputy Prime Minister's speech, I learned a number of things that I had not known before. For example, I learned about the right hon. Gentleman's interpretation of matters such as compulsory redundancy and compulsory shift change. I suspect that many of my constituents—some of whom work in the same fire station as constituents of the Deputy Prime Minister—will not have been aware of the right hon. Gentleman's interpretation of those matters. It is very important that all firefighters have the right to express their views in an unintimidated and unfettered way, on the basis of all the available information. Of course that will not give him a route map for the next five years, but it will allow him to determine what his own union does on his behalf. That is the point of my proposal.

Secondly, the Bill gives the Deputy Prime Minister the right to impose a settlement, but fails to deal with the consequences. It gives him no power to act if the FBU continues to strike, either completely or in its most militant areas. I was surprised that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) pointed that out; his is a surprising corner for such an observation to come from. The absence of any such clause to deal with that matter robs the Bill of teeth. The Deputy Prime Minister may have the power to impose a pay settlement, but he has no power within the Bill to prevent a strike.

In what I have said was a good speech, the Deputy Prime Minister failed to tell the House what he will do to protect public safety if a strike occurs after he has imposed a settlement. If he cannot answer that simple question, the Bill will be pointless. We could be talking about a local, national or wildcat strike in the capital, in Liverpool or in a county such as Essex. We might be talking about a strike announced at long or short notice. It could be a long or short strike. This comes in a week in which the newspapers claim the existence of 50 suicide bombers inside the United Kingdom, along with sharp reductions on border checks that stop incoming terrorists from outside the UK.

My next line was written before the Deputy Prime Minister's speech. It said: "Are we to have 16,000 troops on stand-by in perpetuity?" We will not, apparently; the figure is 9,000.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I am slightly confused, and it is important for the whole country to understand where the official Opposition are

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coming from. The right hon. Gentleman describes the Bill as botched and pointless and he referred indirectly to no-strike clauses. Is it the intention of the Opposition to support the Bill tonight? If so, is it their intention in Committee to seek to insert a no-strike clause in the Bill?

David Davis: The hon. Gentleman invites me to jump three or four pages ahead in my speech. We will not block the Bill tonight. In my judgment, the Bill is a defective vehicle, but it is a vehicle to try to bring an end to an overlong dispute. As a responsible Opposition, we will attempt to amend the Bill to give it the teeth it requires. I shall explain how in a second. We will also deal with the three errors or failures in the Bill. I have talked about the problem of not allowing the firefighters a dignified way out; the question of the enforced ballot. The second error concerns strikes. I am dealing with that and the hon. Gentleman will see what our approach is.

We will not have 16,000 troops on stand-by in perpetuity; the Deputy Prime Minister says that the figure will be 9,000. In perpetuity, that will be a crippling burden on our armed forces. Is that what our troops returning from Iraq will come back to? Will this mean the cancellation of yet more training exercises, in addition to the 12 we have lost already, damaging the combat readiness of our troops, and thereby putting at risk Britain's defences yet again?

Given that 9,000 troops are to be on stand-by at high-risks levels, what will the Deputy Prime Minister do in the event of a terrorist attack on a major British city? Will he gamble that the FBU does not go on strike? If it does, who will pay for the troop cover and the consequences of this inaction? Will it be his Department or the local authorities? I suspect we know the answer to that.

What is missing from the Bill is a clause that makes strike action by the FBU illegal for the period of high risk to the public. We will propose an amendment that puts strikes in the fire service on the same basis as under the police discipline code for the duration of the legislation.

Mr. Miller: I want to pursue this a little further. My constituency is dominated by areas of extremely high risk. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that, in perpetuity, the fire brigades would not have the right to take industrial action? That risk is there every day and not just during national emergencies.

David Davis: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, which is a good one. I shall come back to it. For the purposes of the Bill, the answer is, "For the duration of the Bill." I want to move on to what that duration should be. I shall return to the permanent risk issue at the end of my speech.

I take a strong view that, in the 21st century, it is wrong for an emergency service to use a 20th century tactic, strikes, to resolve their pay and conditions. That is the wrong approach. It is wrong for trade unions to be able to hold the public hostage. There is nothing uncivilised in that view, although I know that there is a difference across the Chamber. These constraints apply to the police and to the armed forces and are a necessity for those whose work is so important that the safety of the public depends upon them. That is the key issue.

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The men and women who provide our communities with protection from fire should be proud, as the Deputy Prime Minister said, of their role in society. They are entitled to expect fair pay that recognises their skills and commitment, as well as fair conditions of work. But the communities that they serve are entitled in turn to expect them to be there when they are needed.


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