Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The Deputy Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will probably make some points about the employers' responsibilities in this matter. It would be quite wrong, however, to think that there is any question of sequestration under this legislation. That is not the case. As there is no legal requirement in that regard, the action of sequestration would not be taken. That action would be taken, however, were we to pursue outlawing the strikes. Having been through sequestration, I know what little effect it has on the matter.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful for the Deputy Prime Minister's clarification on the sequestration issue. Perhaps that is not an avenue that would be available under this legislation, although it might be available under the legislation that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden would like to see. The Deputy Prime Minister did not, however, answer the question of whether he would have to sack firefighters who refused to work under his imposed conditions. What would happen if they did so? He indicates from a sedentary position that the Minister of State will answer that important question.

I say this in a spirit of genuine, democratic debate, because that criticism could be levelled at all options. It could be made of the idea of the right hon. Member for

8 May 2003 : Column 880

Haltemprice and Howden to ban strikes, as it could of our proposals for independent compulsory arbitration. It could even apply to a secret postal ballot, as, in theory, the FBU could decide not to engage in one. We in Parliament, and the Deputy Prime Minister, as a member of the Government, need to think about what we would do were the FBU to refuse to co-operate in all reasonable situations. That is why I asked the Deputy Prime Minister what preparations the Government are making to deal with a situation in which there is no co-operation, even after a settlement has been imposed. If the firefighters refuse to accept modernisation and the solution offered, and the Deputy Prime Minister pursues the logic of that outcome by sacking them, how will he ensure fire cover? What preparations are being made to ensure that there is some way of tackling fires and providing for public safety?

Mr. Hammond: Can the hon. Gentleman explain what would be the sanction under his model of compulsory arbitration if the firefighters refused to accept the decision of the arbitrator?

Mr. Davey: I have said that that criticism could be levelled at all our solutions—[Interruption.] If the Deputy Prime Minister would listen, given that that criticism could be levelled at all options, the question is which of the options will work best and be most acceptable, and which might persuade the FBU and its members to agree to the settlement and to modernisation. We must make that judgment. I believe that the judgment at which the Government have arrived is the wrong one. Their solution is less likely than ours to get the FBU and the firefighters to agree. In a free society, we must persuade people; otherwise, logically, we must start sacking people, which none of us, I hope, would want. The Government are therefore making a tactical error. Their solution will not persuade firefighters.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman does not know that.

Mr. Davey: The Deputy Prime Minister says from a sedentary position that I do not know that. Of course not; it is my judgment. The point is that we must debate whether the Government have got the judgment right, and we think that they are wrong. Because of all the arguments put forward by, for example, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley, it will annoy trade unions up and down the country. They will see that some serious and important rights that they have treasured—and that the Deputy Prime Minister clearly treasures, given his reluctance in relation to this Bill—are under threat. The Government are therefore making a serious tactical mistake.

It is interesting that this approach has never properly been used before. The Deputy Prime Minister might point to the 1947 Act, and he might also point to section 50 of the Police Act 1996, which contains similar powers to impose pay and conditions. The point is that the powers contained in those two pieces of legislation have never been used to settle an industrial dispute. Of course, they were used to finalise pay and conditions in those two services when they had been agreed by negotiation, but the powers in the 1947 and 1996 Acts

8 May 2003 : Column 881

were never used in the situation that we face now. That is why imposition is unlikely to work. There is no precedent for it, and if the Government persist with this approach, they will prolong the strike.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The 1947 Act is clear. It transferred the fire service from being basically a nationalised service to being a civil authority-based service. When two parties had refused to agree, the 1947 Act allowed a Secretary of State to arbitrate. As for the fact that the power was not used, it was repealed by the Conservative Government in 1959.

Mr. Davey: The Deputy Prime Minister is right in what he says—I have a copy of the 1947 Act and the relevant section in front of me. My point, however, as he has just admitted, is that those powers were never used. I assume that the Deputy Prime Minister now wants to use those powers when we have a serious dispute on our hands.

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Passionate reluctance.

Mr. Davey: The Minister of State quotes my words back to me. Yes, it is passionate reluctance, but we must make the judgment about whether the Government are taking the right way forward, and we think that the Deputy Prime Minister is wrong.

There are other problems with the Bill. For a start, paradoxically, although we debated in the House a few months ago a measure to decentralise powers in the fire service through the repeal of section 19 of the 1947 Act, the Government are now centralising powers and taking even more draconian ones. It is odd that the Government say one thing one month, and a completely different thing the next.

Mr. Drew: Having attempted to get this point across to the Conservative spokesman, I shall try again. As far as I can see, the Liberal Democrats want a vote of the FBU to make up its mind. It can have a vote on pay, but how can it have a vote on conditions—given the nature of the changes that must be introduced, they will almost certainly have to be introduced at brigade level, if not at station level? Is it not a case of negotiation being required?

Mr. Davey: It is possible to vote on the principle and the framework, although I take the hon. Gentleman's point. It was interesting that one of the most important details of the Deputy Prime Minister's speech was that the Local Government Association and the employers are now working with some of the largest brigades to see whether they can implement one of the more contentious aspects of what is supposed to be decided locally—reform of the rotas—to see whether the fears of the average firefighter can be dispelled. I welcome that announcement. It represents the right way forward because when firefighters start to see the reforms in place, many of their fears will go. It will be possible for them to vote because they will see the framework and hopefully, with the new announcement, the implications of the Bain review.

I am worried by several of the Bill's details. It does not seem to have borrowed every word in the 1947 Act. It is interesting that the Government have reworded that Act

8 May 2003 : Column 882

because it is much more specific about the types of imposition that the Secretary of State may make by order. The Bill will give the Secretary of State a general power, but the House should limit the Government's power, not give them huge general powers. I am worried that this or another Government could use the power in clause 1 in a way that this House would not intend or consider appropriate with regard to the dispute. For example, the power could be used to reform firefighters' pensions, which is a contentious issue, as we all know. Some readings of the Bill suggest that the power could be used to stop strikes. The power is broad and dangerous.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden that if the Bill is to be passed—I hope that it will not be—it should include a sunset clause so that its powers may be time-limited. The Bill should provide for a mechanism to return powers to local authority employers.

I have made it clear that the Government could pursue alternatives. The Bill is not the only way to break the deadlock. We have already debated the secret ballot, but independent compulsory arbitration would also represent a way forward.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): Having been around the course a few times during the years in which I have been involved in trade unionism, I have heard the phrase "compulsory arbitration" on many occasions. However, even compulsory arbitration requires agreement by both parties. What would happen if compulsory arbitration were accepted but either side did not accept its outcome? What would be the hon. Gentleman's policy in such a situation?

Mr. Davey: As I agreed during my exchanges with the Deputy Prime Minister, the logic behind compulsory arbitration, the Government's policy or a no-strike policy means that there must be a mechanism through law, such as sequestration of the union's assets or the sacking of firefighters, although no one wants to contemplate or adopt either option. A free society must have a final recourse in law for such action. However, compulsory arbitration would engage the FBU and firefighters, so it would be a much better way of reaching a negotiated settlement. That is why the Deputy Prime Minister was wrong to say that the Bill would provide for a further type of arbitration. I would not say that he misled the House but he misrepresented the Bill. The problem is that the Bill will provide not for arbitration but for imposition. Compulsory arbitration would provide a much better way forward because it would engage both sides.

I know that some local authority employers worry about arbitration. They feel that when they experienced it before, the independent arbitrator or panel of arbitrators did not understand the fire service and its details. They believe that people such as Professor Burchill may come up with solutions that do not push the modernisation agenda in the way in which it must be pushed. However, I should have thought that ACAS is now quite in tune with the issues and if compulsory arbitration were held in the context of the Bain modernisation and financial regime—although not according to every dot and comma—it would provide a way forward. After all, the FBU executive has recommended a way forward on two occasions.

8 May 2003 : Column 883

One could comment on many aspects of the dispute. Many issues, such as pensions, have not been addressed by the Government. I know that firefighters are worried about the implications that Bain will have for pensions. Retained firefighters should be addressed. They have done a fabulous job during the strikes, as they do every day of the year. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, it is worrying that retained firefighters' pay increases are being delayed as the dispute drags on. Has the Minister of State found a mechanism other than the Bill to determine whether retained firefighters could receive a pay increase before the dispute is settled? They deserve that and it is a real shame that they must wait for such a length of time.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden was right to pay tribute to the incredible role that the armed forces play when they deputise for the firefighters. They have showed that a modernised approach to fire prevention and putting out fires can work because they used several of the ideas for reform proposed in the Bain review.

Many hon. Members want to speak, and I am especially keen to hear Labour Back Benchers because I hope that they will help to get the message over to the Government. The Liberal Democrats cannot support the Bill in the Lobby tonight. The Government might have the right strategy on modernisation and pay, but the Bill represents a wrong tactic that will backfire.

Next Section

IndexHome Page