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Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman has replied to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) by talking about a postal ballot on an offer that is not on the table. What is his reaction to the suggestion of a postal ballot of all FBU members on the offer that is on the table?

John McDonnell: Time has moved on, and at this point there would, I think, be an overwhelming rejection. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, we can only provide advice according to our individual judgments; that is the best way forward. The atmosphere is so soured that unless the offer is realistic and based on the process that Burchill has gone through, it stands no chance of success—it is as simple as that. We have been led into a quagmire. Rancour has broken out in this dispute because of a series of inept and—I repeat—dangerous interventions.

The FBU executive meets next week. I hope that we can find a way forward, but if the Government think that this legislation can be used as a threat, they need to reassess the people with whom they are dealing. As has been said time and again, firefighters are some of the most courageous members of our community; they put their lives at risk for us every day. They are disciplined, with many coming from a military background. They do not go on strike lightly, and they will not be intimidated easily. They are seriously dedicated people, yet today I heard them be traduced.

I have toured fire stations that are trying to operate the new dimension procedures to tackle ricin and biological warfare. They have been demanding the necessary equipment for nearly 18 months. Some of the equipment that they have been training with during the past six months has been of an appallingly bad standard. We are told today that there are boycotts, but I did not experience a single one in any of the areas that I visited—far from it. Firefighters are willing, yet again, to risk their lives on our behalf. Trying to push through the legislation with threats such as this is totally counter-productive; if anything, it will exacerbate the situation. It will make a settlement more difficult to achieve, not less.

For the Government, this has much wider ramifications. Such coercion of public service workers results in demoralisation. Coercion of one group of trade unions makes others militant and angry, because they know that they could be next. From the Labour point of view, it destroys any semblance of the link between new Labour policies and the tradition of a party and a movement that was founded by the trade union movement, which many trade unionists have devoted their lives to supporting.

This new Labour legislation marks an historic break between the party of Hardie, Attlee and John Smith, and new Labour. If it is passed, do not mention solidarity

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again; do not refer to "our movement"; do not expect the support of firefighters across the country and the many trade unionists who are behind them—and be prepared to go further. Many firefighters will not accept an imposed settlement. What happens then? It was made clear in today's House of Commons briefing that this legislation does contain the power to go further and ban industrial action. So in voting for this legislation, be prepared to go further; be prepared for the consequences: banning strikes and sequestering union funds, taking us back to the Shrewsbury picket days of the imprisonment of trade unionists.

This legislation is a disaster—I never expected a Labour Government to introduce such legislation. It is a disgrace to our movement, and it should be rejected tonight.

4.19 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): The principal argument advanced by the Deputy Prime Minister in introducing the Bill was about public safety. He made it clear that, in view of the special delegate conference's rejection of the latest offer and the reduction from 19,000 to 9,000 in the number of troops available to provide cover in the event of continuing strikes, which would have a significant effect on response times, the consequences for public safety could not be tolerated, so he had to impose a settlement. However, I believe that the Bill will not deliver the public safety that the Deputy Prime Minister rightly desires.

As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) so eloquently pointed out, an imposed settlement will not necessarily be accepted. The Bill has no evident power—unless clause 1(1)(a) contains sinister hidden powers—to ensure that firemen remain at work, thereby safeguarding public safety. The Bill simply does not possess the teeth required to deliver its principal aim of obliging firemen to go back to work.

When the Deputy Prime Minister was challenged when he made his statements to the House at the end of last year and earlier this year, particularly on public safety and whether he would use existing powers to prevent strike action, he consistently said that that was a matter for the Attorney-General and the courts—he had no power. I suggest that the Bill provides an opportunity for him to acquire the necessary power and I hope that the Committee will concentrate on giving him such power, should he so require it. However, giving him the power to impose a settlement raises the question of what exactly he intends to impose. In view of the huge powers that the Bill will accord him to determine terms and conditions and remuneration, he could at least have shared with us—or given us some idea of—what he had in mind in that respect. He has not done so. Will he seek to impose the terms and conditions and the settlement that have just been rejected by the special delegate conference? If not, what terms and conditions will he impose that will provide any chance of bringing about the settlement that he desires?

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Will the Minister for Local Government and the Regions explain precisely what is meant by clause 1(5)(a), when it says


I am not aware of any precedent for such a power, but I would welcome some clarification of what that means.

Mr. Hammond: I thought that I heard the Deputy Prime Minister clearly indicating, by way of threat, that he could not give an assurance that an imposed settlement would be as generous as the one already offered. Did my hon. Friend not hear that? If he is in any doubt, he could ask the Minister to clarify the matter.

Mr. Swayne: I certainly heard that, but I was hoping for some exposition of precisely what the Deputy Prime Minister intended to impose. I hope that, if the Minister will not intervene now, he will favour us with an explanation in his winding-up speech. The fundamental question remains: if the Deputy Prime Minister intends to impose a settlement, why did it not occur to him to seek to negotiate one earlier? There has been a great deal of confusion about the level of negotiation that directly involved the Deputy Prime Minister. We have heard from the hon. Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about the extent of the Deputy Prime Minister's involvement, and they described how unhelpful it was. Indeed, when he was at his most passionate and eloquent this afternoon, the Deputy Prime Minister said that he was at the heart of the negotiations. I hope that the record will show tomorrow that that was what he said. I am not sure what the Deputy Prime Minister meant by those words but it is clear that he was exercising a veto throughout the negotiations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) pointed out that the Deputy Prime Minister's speech was one of the best that he had made, and I agree. He was eloquent and passionate—most of all when he described his frustration at what he called the misconceptions, uncertainties and lack of dialogue. So why did he not do what the Opposition were urging all along and take a direct, formal part in the negotiations, thereby ensuring that there were no misconceptions or lack of communication?

The Deputy Prime Minister was eloquent when he criticised the employers' communication skills. The negotiations would have benefited from the communication skills that he evidenced this afternoon, when he presented the Bill to the House. The Government should have intervened in the matter when the negotiations were under way, as I pointed out in an intervention. The Deputy Prime Minister did not answer me, saying simply that that was a matter of opinion. We would not be in this position now if there had been direct negotiations, as we argued all along.

One way to get out of the position in which we now find ourselves, short of an attempt to impose a settlement, would be to do what my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) proposed, and hold a ballot. In that way, we could at least test the water.

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The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) responded to the proposal for a ballot with the extraordinary argument that no one could be expected to respond in a ballot to a programme of actions or conditions imposed from the centre, when that programme would have a differential effect in different parts of the kingdom. That seems a pretty good argument against ever holding a general election, but I shall let that ride. In Committee, the Opposition would do well to concentrate on the possibility of inserting into the Bill arrangements for a secret ballot of the entire FBU membership.

I shall finish with some questions that I hope the Minister of State will address when he winds up the debate. When will the White Paper on which much of the Bill is predicated be published? In respect of what is being proposed for the future of the fire services, will he say whether there is any substance to the reports on the front page of today's edition of The Daily Telegraph to the effect that the Deputy Prime Minister is urging local authorities to ensure that they charge when the fire service is called out to deal with domestic floods, car crashes, and so on?

What guidelines have been issued for the purposes of drawing up the risk assessments, management plans and consultations that will be instituted once section 19 of the 1947 Act is repealed? I believe that those assessments are being made even now, so I should be grateful to know what guidelines the Government have issued.

In his statement to the House on 28 January, the Deputy Prime Minister said that it cost £1 million a day to provide cover for striking firemen. Will the Minister give some indication as to how that figure is computed, and what it is made up of? Does it include the salaries of the servicemen who provided the cover? That would surely not be a marginal cost, at any rate, as those salaries would have to be paid anyway.

When the Deputy Prime Minister was asked again and again why he had not made the assets and facilities available, he advanced two arguments. The first was that they were not necessary and that the servicemen were not capable of using them. The second, and more important, was that that would only inflame the situation. Perhaps he can explain why these provisions are in the Bill. If they were so unnecessary and unhelpful then, what has changed?

Principally, the Bill simply does not and will not do what the Government hope it will. If it is to do that, it will require substantial amendment in Committee.


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