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Mr. Drew: Has the hon. Gentleman not worked in the Whips Office?

Mr. Randall: Yes—I understand how these things work.

I believe that we should try to ballot the members of the FBU. As I said, the dispute was overshadowed by the conflict in Iraq. I should like to pay tribute to the

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servicemen and women who stood by and took over firefighting duties, particularly the men and women of RAF Uxbridge, who were on duty in our area and manned the green goddesses. I felt secure in the knowledge that they were only half a mile from my house. They did an excellent job, despite worries, which they share with my constituents, about having to go into action.

I am not in a position to know what has gone on behind closed doors in the discussions, but I believe that the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and the Deputy Prime Minister have tried their best. I do not think that they particularly want to be in this position. Indeed, I got the impression from a Government Whip just before the first strike that they thought that the situation would be resolved: there would be a short 24-hour strike, the firefighters would have their moment, then it would all be sorted out and everything would be hunky-dory. Something seemed to go badly wrong, but I do not know what it was.

I shall not go over that, however, as I wish to highlight my concerns about the Bill. Clause 1 refers to the Secretary of State giving

I am concerned about the inclusion of disposal of property in a Bill that tries to set or modify conditions of service. If we are not careful, under the Bill, one of the two remaining fire stations in the London borough of Hillingdon could be closed down. As I said earlier, the first time that I became involved with the fire services was to try to stop a pump being removed from a station, which has happened in many constituencies. The Bill will make such a process a little easier, and I have a great deal of concern about that.

There are increased risks today, as was highlighted by hon. Members who spoke about suicide bombers. I discovered that the suicide bomber who recently blew himself up in Israel worked in Stockley park, which is divided between my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). That young man was on the books of a company next door to his family's shop in Uxbridge. With all the potential terrorism in our area, we are very much aware of increased risks. This is not the time to look at reducing the fire services; it is a time to consolidate and, if necessary, increase them. I shall not go into the details of what firemen have told me, but they feel that being called out to road traffic incidents is an increasing part of their duties, the money for which comes out of their budget.

A couple of things concerned me in the explanatory notes, which say of the regulatory impact assessment:

That may not be expected, but if property is disposed of and the service is reduced, there will be an impact on those bodies. Many Government Members may think that, as a Conservative, I am anti-union, but I am far from being an anti-union person. I have one reason for holding a slight grudge against the trade union movement. On the day on which I was supposed to receive my degree many years ago, the TUC called a day

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of action. My parents could not see the ceremony because it was cancelled, so I never officially got my degree, which is probably why I ended up in the House instead of getting a proper job.

Inevitably, the Bill has been introduced as a result of what has gone on. It has many flaws and, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), I hope that it can be improved in Committee. I sincerely hope that there is still time to solve the dispute. Everyone involved should treat themselves to a good helping of humble pie, try to forget the history of the past few months and see if they can sort this one out. If they can, and the Government and the House can scrap this rather unpleasant Bill, they will be doing the country a service.

3.38 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): It is rather peculiar for me to stand up to speak in this debate, as waiting for rebellions is a bit like waiting for London buses; one can wait for ever and then two come along at once. I am afraid that, again, I shall not be able to support the Government on this Bill. I take that position not out of disrespect for the Deputy Prime Minister, who has done his best to try to intervene in the dispute constructively and find a resolution, but because I do not think that the Bill is the right way of proceeding.

Before I became a Member of Parliament, I was the Fire Brigades Union solicitor for the 17 years up to 1995. During that period, I got to know the fire service and firefighters very well—when I started, they were called firemen, but that changed—as well as the union and management. I also got to know fire service law inside out. Like every other speaker, I have nothing but respect for firefighters, who do a very dangerous job with such great courage and heroism. It was suggested from the Opposition Benches that there were no strikes in the fire service when the Conservatives were running the show, but that is not true. There were a lot of disputes, often at a local level, that did not necessarily get national publicity. Many of those disputes seemed to have been provoked by the management.

I do not dispute the need for reform of the Fire Services Act 1947, and I look forward to seeing the White Paper about that issue in due course, as I have campaigned and argued for such reform for a long time. Reform of the 1947 Act is needed from section 1 onwards. As has been mentioned, the Act does not even require the fire service to operate any form of rescue operation in relation to road accidents and, by extension, chemical incidents and terrorism. All those hazards were never even thought of, or were at least pretty minor issues, when the fire service duties were originally proposed in 1947. Nevertheless, reform of the 1947 Act has to be done comprehensively and not in the piecemeal way proposed in the Bill and in the previous amendment to local government legislation repealing section 19. We will end up with a dog's breakfast of reform that will not do anything to help in settling the dispute. Indeed, I believe that the Bill will make things worse and make a resolution less likely and modernisation harder to achieve.

The Bill gives the Secretary of State power to impose a settlement on pay and conditions, but that will not solve the problem or prevent the union from taking

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industrial action unless trade union law is reformed, the definition of trade disputes is changed or the right to strike is taken away from the Fire Brigades Union. Unless that happens, the union will still be able to conduct a legitimate and legal trade dispute in respect of pay. Even if the Deputy Prime Minister uses the Bill to say "You're not getting any more," it will still be able to strike.

Even if I am wrong about that, local disputes can result from a whole series of consequences, some of which we heard about earlier. Disputes could arise in respect of all sorts of terms of conditions. For example, they could relate to shift patterns. Some of the more enlightened chief fire officers might not try to interfere with shift patterns, but others—the Captain Blighs to whom the Deputy Prime Minister referred—would do so. The removal of section 19 means that there is no way in which the Deputy Prime Minister can intervene to stop them doing so, as they have no obligation to refer such decisions anywhere other than to their fire authorities. In the past, fire authorities have often been seen as rubber-stamping ciphers that merely approve what their chief officers want to do.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): I agree absolutely with everything that my hon. Friend said. Does he agree that, even if the Bill seems the immediate answer to a particular situation, if there is a sense of grievance and injustice among firefighters and it is rammed through, as may well happen, with a huge Government majority, that will do nothing for long-term industrial relations with those very hard-working decent men and women, whom we all want to defend and help us when there are problems in our areas?

Mr. Dismore: I very much agree, and I shall say some more about that shortly.

Disputes can still arise in respect of issues that have nothing to do with pay, such as work load. I remember advising the NASUWT in the days of the Conservative Administration in connection with the Wandsworth strike. Those involved wanted to take on various aspects of Government policy and could legitimately do so in respect of an increase in work load following policy changes. The same thing could happen in the current dispute. There could even be a dispute about the very arrangements for sorting out the issues, as a legitimate trade dispute can be conducted in relation to industrial relations mechanisms. The Bill is not a recipe for industrial peace in the fire service; as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) said, it could be a recipe for continual guerrilla warfare.

I have some concerns about particular parts of the Bill. For example, clause 1(1)(b) deals with the ability of the Deputy Prime Minister to require a fire authority to dispose of its equipment in accordance with his directions. I presume that that could be a way of organising strike breaking. We should be worried about that risk. I am pleased that a door is still open through the negotiation body and that that very important option is available. I am also pleased that the Secretary of State is empowered to consult more widely. What I would like to know is whether the consultation will also

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include consultation with local communities about what they would like to see done in relation to the fire service in their area under clause 1(4).

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