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Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): In the interests of getting a negotiated resolution before legislation imposes a resolution on the firefighters, does my right hon. Friend agree that much in the Frank Burchill report could assist us on the issue of arbitration? Is it not the case that other models, such as those used by ACAS, could greatly assist the Deputy Prime Minister in bringing to fruition his work in trying to resolve the dispute, without his having to impose one at great cost to the trade union movement?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We were two months at ACAS.

Mr. Barron: From a sedentary position, the Deputy Prime Minister says that we have been to ACAS, and that process has failed. We have to accept that there are no grounds for settlement at arbitration, as we know it, with the FBU. That is a great shame. As I said earlier—I shall say it one more time and that will be it—there has been bad leadership by the FBU, which should have represented its members in respect of Bain, because nothing in society is for ever for any of us.

The idea that the Bill involves arbitration is wrong; it is an imposition. I am not convinced that imposing a settlement at this stage on a service where modernisation will have to come under any circumstances will take us any further forward than where we are today, unless some people feel that the threat of imposition will do so. I do not want to allude to too much, but my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) intervened during the opening speech and referred to accepting that wages and conditions can be imposed on the public sector.

I find that principle unacceptable, and I say that as an active trade unionist and as a Member of Parliament who saw the coal industry, which had 4,500 jobs in my constituency, effectively destroyed by bad industrial relations. Massive changes have taken place. I am pleased to say that we went through the worst days years ago and unemployment in my area is less than the national average—it used to be twice as much when all the pits were open—but I would not want the pain that went through that industry because of the way things were handled to be repeated.

There is one thing that we have seen in this country: we can do without thousands of coal miners. We cannot do without firefighters. This is not an offer of arbitration but an imposition, and I honestly do not understand how it takes this industrial action any further forward.

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I have to tell the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who will speak on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, that there was one thing in their amendment, which has not been selected, that I would have sooner seen in the Bill: some form of compulsory arbitration, where the arbiter would be independent of both parties. The Government cannot be independent of both parties in this instance. We should go down that route even if that were a bitter pill for all sides to take. I would be happier if that proposal, not what is in clause 1, were part of the Bill, because at least both sides—employers and employees—could blame someone else and then get on with providing a service that is vital for all our communities.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister received a letter—I think that it was dated yesterday—from the general secretary-elect of the TUC, in which he says that modernisation will be achieved only by negotiation, and what he says is absolutely true. All my history in the labour and trade union movement shows me that, in the end, that is how modernisation takes place and how we get things changed. Change does not happen by taking on people publicly, which is what this dispute boils down to on all sides. I have to tell my right hon. Friend that I will have been in the House 20 years next month and I have never knowingly gone against a Labour Whip in all that time, but I cannot accept the principle in the Bill and I will not vote with the Labour party tonight in Parliament.

2.53 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I agree with the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), with one exception: his criticism of his right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. Those of us who have paid detailed attention to every aspect of this dispute cannot fault the energy that the Deputy Prime Minister has put into trying to find a solution. We may not have agreed with all his tactics, but his energy has been impressive. What was impressive about his speech was his passionate reluctance for the Bill. I have never seen a Minister be so passionately reluctant in introducing a Bill.

Perhaps we have taken a slightly different judgment from that of the Deputy Prime Minister. We will not support the Bill—in fact, we will vote against it—but that is a question of judgment. As we said in our reasoned amendment, which has not been selected, we think that there are other ways forward. The Bill will set a very dangerous precedent.

We have agreed with the Government's strategy throughout the dispute. Our criticisms have been about the tactics. The strategy is right. We need modernisation in the fire service. We need to ensure that no pay deal is agreed until we get that modernisation. Linking modernisation and pay was exactly right. Setting up the Bain review was right, and ensuring that the employers do not resile from the link between modernisation and pay, as was in danger of happening in the overnight discussions that have been mentioned, is essential.

The strategy is right, but there have been problems with the tactics. Some of the problems were outlined by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who is unfortunately not in his place, and I shall dwell on some of the other wrong tactics later. The Bill is certainly another wrong tactic by the Government, mainly because it will not end the dispute.

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In my initial remarks, let me remind the House that we have supported the Government on their strategy throughout the fire strikes. We believe that those in the FBU need to make a move now. They have a generous offer in front of them. They agree with a lot of the reforms. When we speak not just to individual firefighters but to some of the FBU leaders, they agree that there needs to be reform. They cannot argue against the case for reform because it is so strong. The only problem is that they are not prepared to face up to reform and to push it through the membership.

As the Deputy Prime Minister reminded us, the FBU executive has twice agreed to the settlement that was on the table. Unfortunately, some FBU members have prevented a settlement from being reached at its conferences, so those at the FBU conferences have to move. That is why we believe that one of the mechanisms that the Government should adopt, rather than the Bill, is to require a secret postal ballot, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden said. There is now a willingness to face reality among firefighters across the country; the arguments are being won.

I am not suggesting that the firefighters will accept the settlement willingly. Of course they will not—there will be almost as much reluctance as the Deputy Prime Minister showed today—but they could be persuaded. If they had the chance of a secret postal ballot, they would vote for the settlement. So the Government have been right about the strategy and the FBU should move, but the Bill is the wrong tactic for sorting out the dispute.

I was interested in the exchanges on misinformation, which is a very important point. Throughout the dispute, the FBU has not given the full picture to its members, as was clear when we debated the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 earlier this year. Indeed, I read out in that debate the letter that the FBU had sent to its members and Members of Parliament, and it completely misrepresented the implications of repealing section 19. The FBU has not done its members a service.

The employers may be to blame, as the Deputy Prime Minister implied, but there is one issue where the FBU and its members cannot be blamed. Some of the details of the settlement on offer have not been spelt out clearly enough. That partly relates to the fact that we do not know the implications for each locality of what will happen when the framework for modernisation is put in place. That is an inevitable consequence of devolving power so that the best modernisation settlement is reached for each of those areas. But there is more to it than that.

There are issues about pensions and what will happen with the pay deal in years 4 and 5. There are issues that relate to the timing of the introduction of the new pay scales. When I visited the fire station in Kingston and talked to FBU members and firefighters in my constituency, they told me that they wanted clarification of those issues and, following that meeting with local firefighters, I mentioned that to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions. If we had greater clarification and the FBU and employers had helped to communicate what was on the table, I am sure that we would be further down the line. One argument for a secret postal ballot is that it would provide the opportunity to advance the real arguments, so that we

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could get rid of the misinformation and individual firefighters could understand in more detail, with greater sensitivity, the issues that they would vote on. That is why a secret postal ballot could be won.

Let me outline some of the reasons why we think that the Bill is wrong, which coincide with some of the points made by the right hon. Member for Rother Valley. We think that there are problems with the practicalities of the Bill and worried that it is very centralist—the Government are getting involved in matters in which they should not get involved. But alternatives exist, as I have begun to outline. We are also concerned that the Bill could inflame matters and prevent a negotiated and peaceful resolution.

On practicalities, the question that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of State must answer is this: what happens if the Deputy Prime Minister uses this legislation to impose a settlement on firefighters and fire authorities, and firefighters refuse to work under the new conditions? What happens if they say, "We're still going to put out fires, we're going to go to our fire station, and we're going to work in the old ways. We're not going to accept the new rotas or the new contract that has been imposed by the Secretary of State"? Certainly, in a free society, they could take that action. What will the Government do in that situation? The Deputy Prime Minister has not spelled that out. There seem to be only two options: they could take action against the FBU, perhaps sequestering its assets, or they could sack firefighters. Those would be the only possible courses of action were the FBU members and firefighters to decide not to abide by the settlement imposed by the Deputy Prime Minister. If he does not agree, I am more than happy for him to intervene on me, but the logic of the avenue that he is pursuing suggests that those are the only ways, in practice, that he could make sure that his settlement was implemented.

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