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David Winnick: Presumably, if firefighters are to have the right to strike taken from them because of the essential nature of their work, which is not in dispute, that could also apply to other essential workers. The right hon. Gentleman is in effect proposing as part of Conservative policy that all essential workers should be denied the right to strike. If not, why should this apply to one section, firefighters, alone? If they are not to be allowed to strike, why should others? It seems to me that Conservative policy is to undermine democracy and to take the right to strike away from those involved in essential services.

David Davis: The hon. Gentleman makes an eloquent case in respect of essential workers, but it was not the case that I made. I referred to emergency services, and areas where people's lives are at risk. To give the hon. Gentleman a history lesson about a time when he was in this House, he may remember that, until the 1970s—the Deputy Prime Minister probably knows this—it was illegal for gas workers to go on strike, and it was a Tory Government who withdrew that provision, taking the view that the essential test was whether those concerned were emergency workers.

We want these men and women to get a fair deal—the deal they deserve. I believe that, in return, firefighters should give up the right to hold the public hostage by staging strikes. In a civilised society, in circumstances where there is no right to strike, there is quid pro quo; a recognition of the rights of the work force. That is why we should put in place a procedure that recognises and safeguards the individual and collective rights of firefighters.

David Winnick: Who else cannot strike?

Mr. Bellingham: MPs cannot strike.

David Davis: But sometimes their constituents dispense with their services. It is the other way round—a consumers' strike. [Hon. Members: "You have to be working to go on strike."] I shall let the Deputy Prime Minister speak for himself in that respect.

Whether such a safeguard should be a pay review body, as exists for the police and other public sector workers, a radical alternative, such as final offer arbitration, or simply an old-fashioned mediation and arbitration process is frankly too complex—and raises passions too great—to be decided on on a hurried timetable and under the pressure of a dangerous strike.

As we heard from the Deputy Prime Minister, a White Paper is due shortly. We do not know which way that will come out, but it will, we presume, address dispute resolution in this sector. We shall therefore propose in Committee that the Bill be subject to a sunset clause at a time that will allow it to be replaced by a more permanent arrangement after the House has carefully considered the Government's own White Paper.

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The Government must at last get to grips with the dispute. It has rumbled on too long with too many questions unanswered. Sadly, today's Bill fails to answer those questions. The Deputy Prime Minister has said that he will do what he can to protect the public. This is his final opportunity to do so. He can start by accepting our amendments to the Bill. He can end by ensuring that the forthcoming White Paper includes an independent mechanism for determining fire service pay to ensure that firefighters are properly and fairly rewarded for their invaluable work, but which is also linked to an obligation not to strike. Only that will give a fear deal to firefighters and proper protection to the public. Only then will the Deputy Prime Minister have completed his job.

2.41 pm

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley): I am opposed to the Bill. That said, I do not support the Fire Brigades Union. Nor would any responsible trade unionist, particularly in the public sector, who looked at the FBU's claimed wage increase and its feeling that it need not be affected by the modernisation that has taken place across the whole public sector over not just the past six but probably the past 10 years. Those things are a sign of what I call bad leadership. I know a little about trade unions, having been an active trade unionist for more than 40 years.

I believe that the firefighters have been badly led, but I also believe that what would be done through the Bill is not a job for the Government. I am more convinced of that the longer the dispute has gone on. The Government are inevitably at arm's length on any public sector settlement, direct or indirect. There is no statutory machinery to settle disputes such as the one affecting the firefighters. That is something that should have been thought about long ago, particularly in view of the facts that it is 25 years since the last strike and that, by and large, that part of the public sector has been governed by legislation that has hung around since about 1947, when I was one year old.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The Bill is based on the legislation of 1947—a long time ago—which was designed for arbitration because of the special circumstances of the firefighters. What I have done is taken what was repealed by the Tories to put it in the Bill.

Mr. Barron: I am grateful for that intervention. I shall give my views on what is and is not arbitration later, but I firmly believe that it is not a job for Government, for two good reasons. One is the position that my right hon. Friend was in during the overnight negotiations on Thursday 21 November. An agreement was reached, we are led to believe, at about 3 am on Friday 22 November, which central Government did not look at before a strike started at 9 am. I listened that morning to my right hon. Friend on the radio explaining the events of the last 24 hours, and it was the only time in 20 years as an MP when I have phoned my regional Whip to say that I did not like what I had heard. With all respect to

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my right hon. Friend, people from the Government, who had clearly had a steer on the negotiations, were not around at 3 am, but thousands of my constituents—

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is not true.

Mr. Barron: Excuse me. I shall let my right hon. Friend intervene in a moment. If I am misreporting him, I regret it, but it was said that he was not around at 3 am, and no one was around to look at the settlement that had been made. Within an hour and a quarter of the start of a strike, that was said.

That morning, I was on my way to see a firm of solicitors on a constituency matter, and later I visited an engineering factory where hundreds of people work shifts and are up at 3 in the morning. I used to work shifts and worked all hours of day or night. I was upset that it appeared from the media—I hope that I am not misrepresenting my right hon. Friend—that central Government were not around at the end of the negotiations and, consequently, did not have time to look at the deal before the next strike kicked in at 9 am on the Friday. That is why I phoned my regional Whip. I was unhappy, as a Member of Parliament. I am pleased that no one suffered loss of life in a dispute that may have been related to professional people not being present, from what I heard.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I must make it clear that that is not true. It was put about by the general secretary of the union that I was not available. However, since I spoke to the general secretary of the TUC, the assistant general secretary of the TUC and the negotiators throughout the night—there were conversations at 2 am—I can say we were there right through to the end. Our objection was that we could not be given a copy of the agreement, and the union wanted to make an agreement without any costings. I could not accept that.

Mr. Barron: I hope that I have not misrepresented my right hon. Friend, but I thought that he said in his interview on Radio 4 that he had not had time to look at the deal and was not around. I do not mean anything malicious by saying that I did not like what I heard, and I phoned my regional Whip to say so at the time. I have kept quiet about that.

I do not think that this is a job for Government or Members of Parliament. Anyone who reads the Hansard record of this debate will see what was said in my right hon. Friend's opening speech and the interventions of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) about shift patterns and everything else. Those are not Government, but industrial relations matters. We need competent machinery in different industries to sort such problems out. This is not a matter for Government, and that is why I do not support the Bill.

My right hon. Friend has said several times that we need some form of arbitration, and that the Bill is about arbitration. It is not about arbitration as I understand it. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden mentioned arbitration, referring to two instances—Wilberforce and Bain. I was a working coal miner when

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Wilberforce was around, and it settled a dispute in which I had been involved for weeks. The Wilberforce inquiry was supported by all sides so that we could break the impasse in the mining industry, which had spread across the nation.

Bain was not like that. I am not saying that the FBU was wrong to absent itself from Bain, but I think that its leadership had a responsibility to put its case in front of Bain, to get a decision made by arbitration and get it out of the way so that we could move on to what we all hope will be changes in practices. I want certain changes in my constituency. Not allowing ambulances to stand on fire brigade yards so that they have to park a few yards down the road on children's playgrounds because the FBU do not like the idea of emergency services getting too close is one example. That happened years ago in my constituency, and it is disgraceful.


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