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4.58 pm

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), and I am about to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who said that all contributions by Labour Members will oppose the Bill. I want to put on the record the important reasons for my position.

We have heard many claims about being in the Labour and trade union movements, all of them valid and based on experience, and we have benefited from the knowledge gained from such experience. I want to associate myself with the comments on the dedication of the fire service. I know that to be the case from my area, and it is the same throughout the country. I also associate myself with what has been said about the frustration and anger, which everyone can see. There is a theory among fire brigade members, both in London and in my area, that they have been severely let down by the Government. Whether or not that is true, perception, as in politics and life, is extremely powerful.

A lesson from my years of experience in industrial relations, trade unionism and representation has been burned on my mind: the longer a dispute goes on, the sooner we forget its true basis. That is happening now. I do not hear very much about 40 per cent., but I did initially. Firefighters said, "We want 40 per cent. now because we're worth it." I do not think that anyone

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would argue that they were not—they had a good case. I do not hear a great deal of such talk now. At the beginning of the dispute, my constituents were throwing their 50p coins into the buckets, sounding their horns, waving and so on. Now, however, they say to me, "We can't understand why they don't accept this. I wish I'd got 16 per cent." That is a simplistic view of a complicated, messy situation, but again perception is important, and we must take such views into account. When we deliberate on these important issues, we must consider how we will justify the Bill to our constituents as well as members of the FBU when we go back to our constituencies. My constituents are increasingly saying to me, "George, what is the problem?"

Mr. Hammond: "George"?

Mr. Stevenson: Yes, they call me by my first name, the hon. Gentleman may be surprised to hear—there is no "Mr. Hammond" in my constituency. I pick up more cases in my local Tesco than in my surgery, but that is another matter.

To be serious, we must justify the Bill. My constituents are asking me why, if the pottery workers have had to accept a nil increase in their pay, the FBU will not accept 16 per cent. It is difficult to try to argue that through, and it is a factor that needs to be taken into account when we are challenged in our constituencies about our actions in the House. I shall deal with employers' organisations later, but a related issue is important. If offers are made, as they have been in the dispute, by employers who do not have the money to pay for them, but then ask the Government to sign a blank cheque, the Government are right to say, "Hang on a sec—if you want us to sign that cheque, we want to know what's going on. We want to know how this is going to be paid for. If we do not sign it but the settlement is agreed to, the money has to come out of local government coffers." That would mean lower pay increases for my constituents who work in local government, and a threat to services that, in many cases, are already under strain. We must take that into account when considering the mess that the dispute now represents.

It is therefore not a matter of recognising, as important as it is, the dedication of the FBU and firefighting personnel. Nobody argues about that, or their professionalism, or their anger and frustration. When we are considering how a settlement will be paid for, we would be irresponsible, may I suggest to my hon. Friends in particular, not to take into account the effect that it could have on our constituents who are asking those important questions.

Mr. Hammond: I am not sure whether I follow the hon. Gentleman's logic. The Deputy Prime Minister, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Local Government and the Regions have made it abundantly clear that any settlement will be paid for by cuts in the fire service, and not by spillover into other services.

Mr. Stevenson: That may well turn out to be the case, although we hope not. If the hon. Gentleman is patient with me, I shall deal with that issue in a moment.

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I submit that my general point is a valid one. When employers' organisations offer deals but do not know how they will be paid for, and then ask the Government to sign the cheque, is it not the Government's responsibility to turn around and say "Hang on a second—how is this going to be paid for? We're not going to sign that cheque until we're satisfied about that."? I think that that is a perfectly reasonable line for the Government to take. It is unreasonable for the employers, as happened in this case, to offer a settlement that they know cannot be paid for without the Government signing the cheque and would be bound to affect the services that local authorities provide to our constituents. That is part of the mess that we are in.

When disputes continue for as long as the current one has, we begin to forget the original problems and point the finger of blame. We point at the Deputy Prime Minister or the general secretary of the FBU—it is Tom, Dick or Harry. We look for people to blame and forget about the initial issues. The issue can become one of personality, so people say, "Oh, if it weren't for the Deputy Prime Minister doing this," or "Oh, if it weren't for the general secretary of the FBU doing that." That attitude can become the basis of the debate, and we have heard a lot of it today. In my experience, that is what happens.

The Bill is important in that context, although I have severe doubts about whether it will settle the dispute. I am prepared to lay a bet that, even if it is enacted, this dispute, like others, will be settled by negotiations—they always are and always will be. The Government should not step back when there is deadlock. By the admission of the Liberal Democrats and the official Opposition, even if their position and amendments were accepted, there would be no guarantee of finding a solution. There is a public interest argument from which the Government cannot turn away. There is deadlock, and public interest is at stake. I am far from convinced that the legislation will solve the dispute, but I would be equally unhappy if the Government did not show that they had a responsibility and were not prepared to act on their best judgment. As to whether that judgment is correct, we shall have to wait and see.

If it is the Government's intention and desire to deal with this messy, long-standing and dangerous dispute, and if it is settled by negotiation even between now and Third Reading or Report, in my judgment—I say this with the greatest of respect to my right hon. Friend the Minister—the Deputy Prime Minister will have a duty and responsibility to bend over backwards to facilitate that negotiated settlement in the short period available. If that means using Burchill as the basis for a settlement, I hope—I would use a stronger word if I could think of one—that the Deputy Prime Minister will be able to say that agreement has been reached in the interim for Burchill to be the basis of negotiation for a settlement. In that case, the legislation will not be necessary.

If there is one fundamental criticism of the Bill, in addition to some of those that we have heard from my hon. Friends, it is that it is probably irrelevant. The Government will not send anybody to jail. They will not sequestrate union funds. They will not sack firefighters.

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Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): How do you know?

Mr. Stevenson: We have heard from the Deputy Prime Minister, and it is not in the legislation as I understand it. So the Bill is probably irrelevant.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend will have heard the Deputy Prime Minister's speech, in which he sought the support of the House for the Bill, but if a settlement is imposed, the Fire Brigades Union refuses to accept it and the members take strike action, what do the Government then do?

Mr. Stevenson: Exactly. The question was asked, and the response was, "Well, there ain't much we can do." That is why I use the word "irrelevant".

However, for the Government to sit back and do nothing when a public interest issue is at stake would worry me almost as much. I view the Bill as a catalyst, no more, to show that the Government are serious about the public interest, which I recognise is an important factor, and to say, "Look, come on, you really have to get to grips with this."

I insist—that is the word I am looking for, not "hope"—that the Government in the interim fulfil their even more special responsibility to facilitate the negotiations, even if that is based on proposals that have been made only recently.

David Winnick: We know what the Tories would do. They would ban strikes in the public sector by people such as firefighters and many other essential workers. They use the word "emergency", but they mean essential.

If the Government said that the Bill was being introduced to facilitate a settlement of the present dispute, I might change my mind, but it contains no sunset clause. Regardless of what happens, under the Bill the Government can impose a settlement whenever the Minister wants to do so. Hence the reason for my concern.


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