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John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): The key question that we need to address today is whether the Bill will contribute to the settlement of the dispute. That is fairly straightforward. To do that, we have to understand the strength of feeling among firefighters across the country. Because of the nature of the dispute
The depth of anger about the Bill, and about its presentation at this particular time, is palpable, and we must take that into account when we discuss these issues today. Many FBU members and firefighters across the country see this as a strike-breaking Billan attempt to break their strike. To attempt to break the strike, one would need to defeat the union, and many of them see this as a direct attack on their union. But the Bill goes further than that. It gives the Deputy Prime Minister powers to impose conditions of work on firefighters and to force through a programme of cuts in firefighters' jobs, fire stations and fire tenders. All of that is set out in the Bain review. Most firefighters across the country see the Bill as an attempt to break their strike, to break their union and to cut their jobs. We need to appreciate that as we debate these issues.
The Bill also sends out a clear message to other public sector workers. This point has been made by many of the speakers today who have any form of trade union involvement or history. The message that is going out to teachers, nurses and local government workers is that, if they enter into a dispute with this Government over wages and conditions, the Government will resort to the use of Parliament to impose a settlement. We cannot avoid that conclusion. It was reinforced in the Prime Minister's birthday message to the nation published in the Financial Times, in which he made it clear that any trade union standing in the way of what he sees as reform would be taken on. Many in the public sector have already experienced reform, and it has meant privatisation, increased hours and worsening conditions, despite the investment that has gone in.
We need to understand how we got into this messbecause it is a mess, by anybody's judgment. The history of the dispute has been rewritten every time a Minister has risen, and I can understand where the anger comes from, because we could have resolved this matter 12 months ago. In step one of the dispute, the negotiators on the employers' side prepared an offer 12 months ago. It was a claim based on going at least some way towards what the union was demanding. In other words, it followed the normal negotiating process, whereby the union makes a demand and the employer comes back, usually at about the mid point. That is where we were in June last year, but an intervention occurreddenied by the Government, but at that point admitted by some employer negotiators. That offer was blocked.
That was the first disastrous Government intervention, and I do not name names. It soured the atmosphere of the negotiations immediately. The employers lost all control of the agenda and the unions were not sure who they were negotiating with. So when the ballot on the offer occurred, what was the response? In Northern Ireland, 97 per cent. voted to reject it. On average, 90 per cent. of trade unionistsFBU
Step two was industrial action, which was solid to a person among FBU members across the country. It was responsible action, as firefighters made it clear that if lives were at risk they would leave the picket lines. I thank them for that, and we pay tribute to them for it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) pointed out, that situation occurred on five occasions in her constituency, and on five occasions they responded. What was the Government's response? The Bain review.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) referred to Wilberforce. I worked for the National Union of Mineworkers for a time, and I was a member of the National Union of Mineworkers-Colliery Officials and Staff Association, so I know that Wilberforce was a joint initiative from unions and employers, which, with the Government, agreed who sat on the review body and its terms of reference. Eventually, results came from that. Bain, however, was imposed. There was no consultation on membership or on terms of reference. As a result, there was no agreement on the outcome.
Then, in November, a clear deal was drafted. Virtually every Member of the House saw the draft after publication. It was acceptable to employers and the unions, with the TUC present. Many of us were up during that night, and we breathed a sigh of relief at 3.30 because we thought it was all over. Then came the second disastrous Government intervention. I do not care whether the Deputy Prime Minister was in or out of bed. We know that civil servants were present throughout the night. The employers confirmed the next morning that the offer was costed, but the Government intervened again to prevent agreement.
I believe that we could have had a settlement in November to solve the dilemma and get us all off this terrible hook. The result of such inept and dangerous interventions is the worst industrial relations atmosphere in the fire service for 25 years. Across the trade union movement, there is widespread disquiet at a Labour Government's behaviour, which was never expected and never planned for.
What happened then? The FBU took further industrial action, which, again, was responsible. We were told in the House before that action that there was no agreement on the gold coverthe standard of emergency cover. There was. We were told that there was no agreement on actions to be taken should a terrorist incident occur. There was. The FBU gave those assurances to the Deputy Prime Minister personally.
Then the Prime Minister intervened and associated the strike action with the election of Andy Gilchrist as general secretary. Most of us have been shop stewards, so we know that a union general secretary cannot persuade 97 per cent. of members to go on strike if they do not want to. The FBU behaved appropriately throughout.
The Government's interventions destroyed trust, good will and any belief in the honesty of the discussions and negotiations that were taking place. I urge Members to take account of the depth of firefighters' anger about their treatment, and the way in which they understand this process.
We now reach the fourth stage of the process. Mr. Burchill comes forward. He is no running dog of Trotskyism, no lapdog of the militant trade union movement; he is the independent chair of the joint council. He has proposals that the FBU leadership see as a basis for negotiation and for a settlementfor that is what the leadership thought at that stage. What do the Government do? The employers say "We cannot accept this," but the FBU wants to negotiate. The Government say "No, we will not fund it," and they invent a figure of £100 million. There has been no negotiation with any fire authorities about the cost of Burchill. How do we know that? We know because the fire authorities have been asked, and they say that they have not been involved in the calculations. So a figure is invented that undermines a climate in which Burchill could have been agreed.
The current consultations in the fire stations may well cause some FBU members to go back to their executive next week and say that Burchill does not look like the basis for a deal; but there is time for the creation of a climate in which we can persuade people that it could form the basis for a negotiated settlement.
What happens then? The next intervention. What perfect timing! We present this Bill, as a threat to impose a settlementfor that is what it is. The timing, in fact, could not have been worse, undercutting FBU leaders' ability and authority to try to secure a negotiated settlement and alienating the entire trade union movement.
John McDonnell: The point of the current consultation is to reach a stage at which Burchill could be presented as a formal offer, on the basis of which a ballot could take place. That is the normal process of negotiation: union leaders discuss with their members what a proposal means, going through it line by line. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). It is difficult to organise a ballot on a complex negotiation: the leadership needs time to discuss it with members, and when it constitutes a formal offer it is subjected to a ballot.
We had reached a point at which a climate was being created for resolution of the dispute. Then the Government produced this Bill, saying that whatever happened in coming weeks they would drive it through. It is no good Ministers coming here and saying, "We're only doing this because if we don't, there will be more draconian measures in the wings, coming from No. 10 or elsewhere." Ministers who have some experience of industrial relations should be standing up to No. 10 and saying that this is no way to resolve the dispute.