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3.16 pm

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): I am sorry that Mr. Speaker did not select the amendment that I signed, but I shall speak about its message. The Bill will be a disaster. People who live in a democracy cannot be forced to do something that they do not want to do. Professor Burchill offered a way out and I hope that we can return to that.

I am immensely proud to be a member of the Labour party and a lifelong trade unionist. When the Labour party and the trade union movement work together, they create a huge civilising force. I was active during the 1970s when wonderful legislation was introduced with the full co-operation of the trade union movement to bring us equal pay, health and safety at work, and other good civilising laws. I am proud of the way in which this Government have moved the agenda along and given us more rights at work.

I wanted to get that on the record, because I shall now criticise the Government heavily for introducing the Bill. It will effectively end firefighters' collective bargaining rights to allow their democratically elected leaders, for whom I have a lot of time, to negotiate their members' pay and conditions now and in the future. I am sorry that a Labour Government are proposing such an unprecedented attack on workers' rights. The Bill undoubtedly breaches many international treaties to which the Government are signatory, such as the International Labour Organisation convention. In the words of the Fire Brigades Union leader, Andy Gilchrist, it is

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If one thinks about Iraq, we seem to making a habit of doing that, and I deplore that fact.

The Government offer two main arguments in support of their attack on the FBU. First, they argue that firefighters endanger public safety when they take industrial action and, secondly, they claim that collective bargaining has broken down in the fire service and that they must impose a settlement in the national interest. Neither claim is true. The Government have interfered too much and the dispute could have been settled on at least two occasions. I wish that they had not taken such a line.

The Government have contradicted themselves: the FBU gave a clear commitment that its members would respond to emergencies in a professional and caring way, as we saw during the few days' strikes that were held. It also said that there would be an immediate response if there were a need to protect public safety, and we saw examples of that throughout the strikes. Indeed, the Government praised them over and again for the responsible way in which they responded during those few days of action.

Ms Walley : Does my hon. Friend realise that the FBU in Staffordshire was asked to intervene five times, which it did?

Mrs. Mahon: That was repeated across the country, and I am grateful to the firefighters for looking after our safety.

The second argument relates to the breakdown in negotiations. The Government bear a heavy responsibility for that. The dead hand of No. 10 came down at least twice on a settlement. I wonder how many of the policy wonks in No. 10 who are thrusting this policy on us have belonged to a trade union or have negotiated on behalf of members. I suspect not many.

Many of us, including the Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and myself, have negotiated in difficult circumstances on issues on which we thought we could never get a result that would satisfy both sides, but we managed to achieve that. Indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister cut his political teeth on a serious dispute as a trade union activist. He was unfairly accused of being politically motivated when all he wanted to do was to get a just and fair settlement for some of the most exploited people in the country. The seafarers had dreadful pay and conditions—I am old enough to remember all the arguments on that. That background makes the Deputy Prime Minister eminently suited to the role of getting a settlement. Unfortunately, I do not think that he is being allowed to do that by people who dislike organised labour and who have adopted all the Tory bad past practices.

On Professor Frank Burchill's proposals, like many of my colleagues, I attended an FBU briefing last night, which was useful. His proposals could settle the dispute to the satisfaction of the firefighters, their unions and employers. The Deputy Prime Minister said that he did not think that the firefighters would accept the Burchill recommendations, but that is not what I gathered when I spoke to them. I think that they would accept them and the pay claims could be settled. Of course, that would not be to everyone's satisfaction. People always end up

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with a compromise in such circumstances, but the alternative will seriously damage the best firefighting service in the world, which is an extremely valuable public service.

I do not like the Government's draft guidelines. They are all about cuts and the new philosophy of getting as much out of someone as possible regardless of the consequences. I cannot believe that a Labour Government have not considered the possibility that losing 5,000 firefighters will affect safety; I think that it will. At last night's briefing, we were told that if we were to compare the loss of 5,000 jobs with a proportionate cut in the number of nurses, it would be like sacking 40,000 nurses. No one would contemplate doing that. I urge the Government to think again when they say that the redundancies will be painless and harm no one. I think that they might harm the public if not enough people are available to protect them.

Firefighters are members of a much-valued public sector work force and should be given the chance to have an honourable settlement. I want the dispute to be settled, but in the interests of being brief, I shall not go over old ground—I am tempted to say I shall not throw petrol on the flames.

The dispute is unnecessary. The Government must bear some responsibility for it and I am saddened that a Labour Government are trying to impose a settlement. The Bill is about imposition, not arbitration. I have a full copy of the letter from the general secretary elect, Brendan Barber. He makes it clear that he is

I think that all Labour Members believe that. He goes on to say:

I add my voice to that and plead with the Government to accept that the Burchill proposals could be the way forward.

The Bill should be dumped. As a democrat and a lifelong trade unionist, something of which I have always been proud, I intend to vote against it. I hope that my colleagues will do the same, because it marks a serious backward step in industrial relations.

3.25 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), who always expresses her views on such matters with great sincerity. I am sorry that the Deputy Prime Minister is not in the Chamber, because I wanted to congratulate him on a fine speech. He seemed to be enjoying himself. Perhaps he was speaking on a subject on which he has great experience, as the hon. Lady said. I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) that the right hon. Gentleman spoke passionately and that he was reluctant, as he admitted, to be here today. Indeed, I wish that none of us had to be here to discuss this matter.

There is something inherently wrong with the Bill. Intellectually, I could be persuaded that it is needed. We have heard what went on during the industrial action and no doubt will hear more about that, but something

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inside me says that we should not be introducing the Bill at the moment. In one way, I am relieved that the amendments were not selected because I might have found myself having to support one of them. Having received membership forms from the Campaign group as a result of previous votes in which I have participated, I was a little worried about that because I do not want to start a Conservative branch of the Campaign group.

I have got to know the firemen in my area over many years. Before I came to the House I was a retailer and my involvement with Uxbridge town centre meant that I met them many times. Shortly after being elected, I made representations, along with other hon. Members who represent the London borough of Hillingdon, to stop the Government snatching the second pump away from us. I got to know the firemen well.

I saw the firemen again during the course of the action and once took my 13-year-old son, Peter, with me. Afterwards he said, "Dad, they seem like absolutely normal men and women. They are not the militants that we are seeing on the television. They nothing but hardworking people. I don't think they want to strike." He was right. That station decided in its ballot not to strike, but we must all take collective responsibility and they did what they had to do. They also assured me that there was no question but that if public safety were at risk, they would go out.

Today's situation is deeply problematic. I regret greatly the inability of both sides to come to an agreement. All of us as Members of Parliament rather fancy ourselves as great arbiters and think that if only we were given a chance we could sort out this dispute, but many people have tried to do that and there is a great deal of intransigence. I understand the frustration. We all deal with disputes between neighbours in our constituencies. For people on the outside, those disputes are seemingly about nothing and, we think, could be sorted out over a cup of tea. However, they end in almost open warfare. That seems to be the situation with the fire dispute.

The fact that there was a build-up to action in Iraq during the course of the dispute made the situation much more difficult, and the firefighters, who had been supported by the public in many ways, started to be demonised. I have no particular regard for the leadership of the FBU, but I was slightly surprised to find that no restaurant bills have been found in the Iraqi Ministry of Information. The leadership, however, has let down the ordinary members—that is the view of members of my local branch of the FBU. As many hon. Members have said today, the holding of a secret ballot may reflect better what is going on. When we vote in the House we are accountable to our constituents, so we must have an open vote. If the way in which we voted were not a matter of public record, some votes might have gone a different way. Luckily, we do not have that system.

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