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4.30 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am pleased to contribute to the debate. It is peculiar that every Labour Back Bencher who speaks is likely to speak against the Bill. I should like to respond briefly to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) so that there is no misunderstanding about how we could handle a ballot. We can have a ballot on pay and on the outline framework of conditions. But given that the Government want to impose a series of solutions at brigade level and at the level of individual stations, unless we allow a ballot to take place at those levels, we cannot get a meaningful result. We must agree to disagree on that.

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Members have paid tribute to the earnestness with which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has approached the matter but, with the best will in the world, I cannot understand how we can see the Bill as anything other than counter-productive, and it could be very disadvantageous. My part of the world is not known for its militancy but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), I have spoken not only to the FBU, but to retained firefighters. They feel angry; partly because of the time taken without reaching a settlement, but also at what has been, at best, a series of misunderstandings and, at worst, recklessness.

I do not see why we cannot look at what Sir Frank Burchill suggested. All the evidence shows that he is an independent person who speaks for no one other than himself and his proposals contained the basis of a settlement. No one has yet costed them. No one pretends that they are an end, but they are the means to an end. But why cannot we have a costing of the repercussions if Burchill were the basis of a settlement?

I have been critical of the FBU in one respect. It would have made sense for the union to take part in the Bain investigation, although, with the benefit of hindsight, it may justify its position because of its feeling that Bain was an imposition. Perhaps we should reconsider the repercussions of what Bain brought forward, but, as with any settlement, there are points in Bain that will, in due course, be agreed.

My biggest concern remains the fact that we have moved beyond pay. Pay alone was a difficult issue to resolve, but most people who have any understanding of the fire service, including the Deputy Prime Minister, suggested that, because of the lack of appropriate reward in recent times, we had to recognise that the fire service was a deserving case. We have gone well beyond that now, and into the difficult arena of whether there will be job losses, how firefighters will be asked to work and how some things of which the service is proud will have to alter.

There is a trap—the Deputy Prime Minister fell into it—to do with the nature of why there has not been willingness among firefighters to change their pattern of work, and that has to do with the fact that they supposedly all have wonderful second jobs. One of the best ways to make anyone in any place of work angry is to repeat old wives' tales about what may have been true in previous generations but is not the case now. The firefighters I talk to do not have second jobs. They recognise the advantages of their shift pattern and the way in which it allows them to use their time in ways that other people cannot, but, in the main, they do not have second jobs, and I wish that we could move on from the belief that the dispute is all about an overtime ban because of interference with second jobs.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Like my hon. Friend, I have visited FBU members in my constituency, and he is right that only a minority hold second jobs. However, those who have second jobs do so because they cannot afford to live on the income that the first job provides. It stands logic on its head to suggest that anything else is true.

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Mr. Drew: That is a fair point, and it is why we need to get away from disconnecting pay and conditions. They are linked, and the insults often thrown at the profession are unfair.

I do not want to exaggerate the point, but my main reason for being upset with the Bill, notwithstanding the fact that I do not think it will allow any opportunity for a settlement, is that it creates a precedent, as other hon. Members have said. That precedent has already been noted on the Opposition Front Bench. The Opposition cannot wait to look at the opportunities that it will provide in Committee and elsewhere. It opens the door to no-strike arrangements, and more, for those who work in the public sector. In a democracy, that is totally reprehensible, and as a socialist, I find it completely unacceptable. We should not be creating that precedent.

Mr. Hammond: To ensure that the hon. Gentleman does not inadvertently misrepresent my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), let me say that there is no wider agenda on public services in general. This is a specific issue to do with an emergency service that is rightly regarded as absolutely essential and on a par with the military and the police in its importance to the community.

Mr. Drew: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but we can judge each event only on its merits. The problem is that as soon a decision is made that may appear appropriate in a particular case, it becomes easier to argue a much harder line for the future. I would go even further. We could be looking at a whole series of industrial relations changes, which may not come about through primary legislation as such, but could lead to a breakdown in relations.

With the best will in the world, the fire service, like many of our public services, can only operate at local level. What saddens me is the danger of this precedent. I have a lot of evidence that the relationships have not been dangerously put at risk locally, but I fear that, if we get this wrong—the Bill is evidence that we could get it wrong—those local relationships could begin to suffer, and we could ratchet up the possibility that such impositions have to be made in relation not just to no-strike arrangements, but to the operation of firefighters' shifts. There may be some dangers given the way in which those who work with the fire service are asked to work, and we are in danger of opening a can of worms.

As someone who has spent his life as a trade unionist, I believe that it is always worth going the extra mile to try to find a settlement. There is no doubt that this dispute has lasted too long, but there seem to be signs of a settlement. There are certainly those on both sides who would say that a settlement is not that far away, yet just as we seem to be edging towards it, we are resorting to the possibility of creating a complete impasse. I fear that a lot of anger will result, and we must avoid this precedent in every case.

4.41 pm

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I begin with a couple of tributes. I want to join colleagues who have paid tribute to members of the fire services in the different areas that we represent. I am particularly grateful to them for the patience that they have shown

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me during different stages of the dispute, not only in educating me about the risks that they face and are willing to take in the course of their everyday duties as firefighters, but in taking me through the modernisation agenda that they themselves have been a part of. They felt that they were partners with the Government in that agenda right up until 2001, when the draft White Paper prepared by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), appeared to be the document that would have modernised the fire service and produced not only a restructuring, but a consequent pay settlement that would never have taken us into this dispute.

It seems somewhat perverse that we have gone through a process whereby we have plucked a settlement from the jaws of a national agreement and plunged it into the grip of a national dispute. That is a perverse political achievement for anyone to wish to lay claim to, but I am grateful to the firefighters for making it clear to me what the press often fails to make clear: that the firefighters have never opposed modernisation that would stand on the basis of addressing risk to the public and putting that at the centre of any change that takes place. The House would do well to return to that as its own benchmark for acceptable change dressed up in the name of modernisation.

I also want to pay tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister. It is important to put on record that his whole life, certainly in the Labour party, has been devoted to campaigning for workers' rights and to challenging and tackling the exploitation that irresponsible employers have been able to get away with for decades—in fact, centuries. It is very sad that the Deputy Prime Minister has been a victim of what I regard as the Baghdad bounce from No. 10. Sadly, the Bill pursues a series of mistakes into a comedy of errors.

The Bill will solve nothing. It will give the Secretary of State powers to impose a settlement. It will give him powers to impose changes in conditions, which is a euphemism for the cuts that will be needed to pay for the settlement. It will not be acceptable to FBU members and it will almost certainly precipitate a strike. As various Members have said in the debate, we are far from clear about what the Government's reaction will be to a piece of legislation that makes industrial action more likely rather than less. We could see the glee on the faces of Opposition Front-Bench Members when they knew that that would take us one step further towards what they would dearly like to see: a Government who stepped into public sector disputes and removed the right to strike. It would be a tragedy of enormous proportions if a Labour Government were responsible for taking us right to the edge of a trap into which we would then be forced to step, and which would be celebrated only by the Conservatives, who have always wanted to see the removal of the right to strike in the public sector.

I am opposed in principle to any Government intervention that seeks to remove or undermine the right of workers to be involved in collective bargaining. As other Members have pointed out, that breaches article 8 of International Labour Organisation convention 157 and article 6 of the European social charter. As I said, it

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takes us perilously close to a precedent that other Governments would use to undermine systematically the right of public sector trade unions to pursue collective negotiation towards negotiated rather than imposed settlements.

We are told that this approach is inevitable because of the breakdown in negotiations. It is difficult, however, to see how that claim is substantiated. The breakdowns have occurred because of external interference. The FBU offered voluntary arbitration, but, as I understand it, that was rejected if it went outside the terms of any financial settlement that was acceptable to No. 10. We are now told that the Burchill proposals—which, again, in the terms of the FBU, may form the basis of a settlement to which it could agree—are not acceptable because they too would involve costs of £100 million over three years. As other Members have pointed out, how that figure has been reached is the subject of a great deal of conjecture. If that is the stumbling block, let me remind the House that the Deputy Prime Minister made it clear in his opening speech that the costs of providing cover by the Army so far have been £100 million, not over three years but just during this dispute period. The costs of providing emergency cover now are £1 million a day.

For the cost of 100 days of emergency cover, therefore, we could have a settlement, even if we accepted the totality of the costs, for a three-year period. That does not sound like a bad deal to me, even if we were to accept those costs without qualification. It seems perverse that, instead, we are considering imposing legislation that prevents the very negotiated settlement that I suspect both the unions and the employers would wish to reach via the Burchill mechanism. We should give that process space to work its way through, without putting a No. 10 veto on the possible outcome.

I also want to deal with the subtext of why we are making such a mess of this matter. In his opening comments, the Deputy Prime Minister made a point of referring to the extent to which the dispute had undermined the risk and safety factors of fire cover during that period. His starting point was to say that, before the dispute began, 80 per cent. of the population were able to benefit from a response time of 10 minutes. That is extremely important, but the Government's new guidelines give us no assurance that that response time will continue to be the national benchmark that the fire service must adopt. Everything will be open to local guidelines and agreements, so the current consultation could give the Deputy Prime Minister the power to impose, through the Bill, standards of fire cover that increase the risk of serious injury or death to the public.

We expect the FBU to say, "Fine, go ahead. You take us down a path that will move us from being the best fire service in the world to a second-rate one, although cheaper, with fewer staff and lower standards of cover and response times, and we will say nothing." Any FBU member has a rooted commitment in their soul not to go down that path, but to say that the firefighter's job is to protect people's lives. That is the benchmark against which they would expect to be judged. They will make their own stand in defence of the current standards of service. Any proposal to change that would fundamentally threaten not firefighters' pay, but the

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public's lives. That is the most important issue for which we elected representatives of our constituents and the wider public must take responsibility.

I return to the fact that, despite all the suggestions for modernisation that have been trailed around in the Bain review and picked up by Ministers, one cannot escape the fact that the settlement must be paid for by cutting some 5,000 firefighters' jobs. No one is willing to say how that would be done without increasing risk to the public and reducing the fire service's current standards of service, although that is the issue about which our constituents will be most worried.

There is a case for considering the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 because there have been many dramatic changes since it was enacted. Firefighters have been at the forefront of saying that terrorism, bio-terrorism and increased expectations of their ability to respond to road accidents and floods have changed the demands on the fire service and must be part of the new risk assessment that will form the basis of the standards of service to which we expect it to operate.

The repeal of section 19 also means that the public loses the right to object to a fire station closure, the reduction of a tender or the loss of fire service jobs. The loss of such a statutory right will turn round bite and every single hon. Member, because if chief fire officers decide that, for administrative reasons, they could save money by closing a fire station, one can bet money that the public who would be affected by the closure would go absolutely ballistic. They would vent their anger on their Member of Parliament, who would be expected to create hell in this House. We would have to stand up and ask why we voted for a process that removed a statutory right from the public and replaced it with the more ambiguous provision in clause 1(4) of the Bill to give the Secretary of State the duty to

It is not exactly the same as a statutory right of consultation, because members of the public who think that they are fit to be consulted will have no legal right to claim that. We should be careful before we remove from the public the statutory rights of objection that they have come to enjoy and expect.

We must also consider the basis on which we are putting the cart before the horse. The process of risk assessment should have come first. For the purposes of my constituency, I want that risk assessment to cover legislation that is going through the House. The Licensing Bill will fundamentally change the character of social life in cities such as Nottingham. The character of how the city works will be changed by 24-hour licensing. It will not reduce the risk of demands placed on the fire service, but it will spread those demands throughout the night. Most call-outs and deaths occur at night. It is crazy to say that the ability of clubs to operate through the night will not create an additional risk factor that will fall on the fire service. I want that built into a risk assessment before we talk about modernising the service and changing shift patterns.

Many of us in university cities have noticed the prodigious growth in the number of houses in multiple occupation by students. Anyone who pretends that that does not carry with it risk factors in terms of fire and the response times for emergency services is living in a

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different world. I have been out with police emergency response teams and have attempted to discover what happens in the ambulance service. The two reorganisations of police and ambulance services that have affected Nottingham have had disastrous implications for response times. Nottingham city once had an extremely efficient ambulance service that was merged into a regional service because Derbyshire's service was disastrous. The hope and expectation was that that would raise the worst standards to the best, but we now have a mess on a regional basis, not just on a county basis.

The fire service was the only emergency service that arrived to attend a number of accidents. Fire tenders and fire officers have taken people to hospital in fire service vehicles because they were the only people in a position to do so. Yet we face the prospect of similar administratively convenient reorganisations that will take control units and response units out of cities with the result that units will arrive later. We will face that dilemma if we try to impose a settlement and change people's working conditions ahead of the review on risk, which should be our starting point. That is why I plead with my Front-Bench colleagues, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister, to halt the madness that drives us to this Bill.

Let us understand the wisdom of the first law of holes: when we are in one, stop digging. Let us give the FBU and the firefighters the chance to use the Burchill process so that they have the prospect of negotiating a settlement that will provide them not only with job security and an acceptable pay increase, but with a benchmark for a national framework of minimum standards that will raise the cover for risk that the public's lives will ultimately depend on. I urge hon. Members to vote against the Bill.

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