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5.28 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): This has been a very interesting debate, if one can call it a debate. The Deputy Prime Minister has spoken in favour of his Bill and everyone else has spoken against it. One can only imagine that those in the Government's usually efficient Whips Office are having a day off after their hard work last night.

Mr. Stevenson: I hope that I said that I was prepared to give the Bill the benefit of the doubt, when I made my speech.

Mr. Hammond: If the hon. Gentleman represents those in favour of the Bill, the Government have an even bigger problem than I was about to suggest.

To consider the Bill in its proper context, we need to see it against the backdrop of the current dispute and the Government's programme for the modernisation of the fire service. I would like to state clearly at the outset of my speech that the Conservatives want a speedy resolution of the dispute and the establishment of a proper procedure for future pay determination in the fire service. We also recognise the need for reform of the fire service and strongly support the Bain agenda for the decentralisation of control and a reconfiguration of the service, so long as that is based on genuine risk assessment and is not simply an exercise in cost cutting. The House is considering whether the Bill will assist in achieving those two objectives.

The men and women who provide our fire and rescue services are held in very high regard in the community, and they are entitled to expect fair pay and conditions for the arduous and sometimes dangerous work that they do. It has been clear to most people for years that the issue was coming to a head and that the formula agreed back in 1977 was not working due to changes in the nature of the firefighters' job and the composition of the work force. It was also clear that some employers, and perhaps the Government, saw a window in which to negotiate changes in working practice and an end to the rigid deployment formulae.

In the aftermath of the 11 September disaster, with public support for firefighters probably at an all-time high, it is perhaps not surprising that the FBU made the mistake of thinking that it was pushing at an open door with a 40 per cent. pay claim. The union has not served the firefighters well in the dispute, however, as it has manoeuvred them into a corner from which intransigence is the only weapon that they can deploy.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) explained, the Government also must share the blame for the impasse. They did not intervene early enough to make it clear that they would demand that any pay settlement be self-financing. They repeatedly insisted until the very last moment that pay settlements are a matter for the unions and the

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employers, and nothing to do with the Government. Then they intervened publicly with lead boots to scupper the deal that the unions and the employers had agreed.

Indeed, earlier this afternoon the Deputy Prime Minister criticised the employers for being "not prepared to move" while emphasising that the Government would not find a penny more for any settlement. They oscillate between claiming that they are not directly involved in the issue and emphasising that they exercise a full veto over any settlement through their control of the purse strings.

Once the strikes were under way, the Government's refusal to use the powers available to them to halt that action and their preference instead for diverting a large proportion of our armed forces to providing fire cover again showed where their priorities lie. Now, with the negotiations between employers and the unions at an end, they propose to turn back the clock and reintroduce a power to set pay and conditions that the Secretary of State relinquished in 1959. As far as I am aware, that is their only proposal to settle the dispute.

I have already emphasised our support for the modernisation agenda. At the heart of the proposals is flexible redeployment to achieve fire cover that reflects the real threats to life, not the notional and rigid relationships to buildings on which the current 50-year-old standards are based. The proposals are based on integrated risk management plans to be drawn up by each fire authority, but implementation of those plans will require controversial redeployment decisions, and at least in some areas we can anticipate active local union resistance to specific changes. Such action will fuel inevitable community scepticism about changes that look like cuts. A number of Members mentioned that issue.

The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Local Government and the Regions have already announced publicly that the settlement of the dispute must be self-financing—paid for through modernisation—so they have cut the legs from under the supposedly objective risk assessment process. They are judging in advance the outcome of that process and judging that, overall, an objective risk assessment will lead to a requirement for fewer resources to be deployed, generating the savings that Ministers insist must be found from the modernisation process to pay for settlement of the dispute. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) emphasised that point.

Mr. Edward Davey: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that there appears to be no place in the Bill for integrated risk management plans? If he does, will he join the Liberal Democrats in voting against it?

Mr. Hammond: I shall make the Conservatives' intentions clear, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. The Bill does not constrain the Deputy Prime Minister to act in accordance with integrated risk management plans that have been drawn up and adopted.

The Government are digging a hole for themselves. They have caused a fatal confusion in the public mind between the financing of a pay settlement and the

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unanswerable case for reorganisation based on risk. When the Government try to sell the changes in the integrated risk management plans to the public, their problem will be that the public will—I suspect—be inclined to see those changes as old-fashioned cuts, based not on an assessment of risk but on a need to balance the books following settlement of the dispute.

Modernisation must also mean a decisive move away from the old-fashioned confrontational methods of pay bargaining. Conservative Members think that the time has come to recognise that our fire and other rescue services are as critical to the safety and well-being of our country and communities as our police and armed services. Many Labour Members raised the spectre of rampant strike-breaking spreading across the public sector, but I have heard not one Member challenge the long-established practice of preventing strikes in the police force and armed services. It is a tribute to the role played by firefighters and other rescue services in our communities that they are rightly seen to be up there with the armed forces and the police as a vital element in guaranteeing security and safety.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hammond: No, I must make progress.

The time has come to put our fire and other emergency rescue services on a basis similar to that of the police and the armed forces, and there should be an independent mechanism to determine fire service pay to ensure that firefighters are properly and fairly rewarded for their invaluable work, linked with an obligation not to strike. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden made clear, we expect the Government's promised White Paper to address pay setting in an equitable way that is fair to firefighters, in the context of a no-strike environment.

With the questionable exception of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson), every Labour speaker opposed the Bill. The Deputy Prime Minister emphasised the military impact of the dispute, and said that in the event of further strikes cover would be reduced to just 250 appliances for the whole United Kingdom, thus massively increasing the risk to the public. The right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) criticised the Deputy Prime Minister specifically for the Government's performance on the night of 21-22 November, and said that the Bill was not about arbitration but an imposed settlement.

The hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) went a little further, calling the Bill unjust and even criticising the legality of what was proposed. She spoke of the dead hand of No. 10, although she and her hon. Friends should be advised—after last night, some may already know—that the hand of No. 10 is probably still very much alive and wriggling. She ended by saying that she could not believe a Labour Government were going down this road.

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The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) emphasised the depth of firefighters' anger about the timing of the Bill, and his concern about its use as a negotiating tool—or, as he put it, a threat and a strike-breaking measure. He accused his own Ministers of rewriting the history of the dispute every time they rose to speak, and gave us his own version. I will not bore the House by saying which version I prefer. He concluded by saying that the Government had cut the legs from under the FBU general secretary, destroying any prospect of a deal, and accused his own Government of inventing the £100 million given as the cost of the Burchill proposals. He spoke of an historic break between the unions and the Labour party, and of a Bill that is a disaster and a disgrace to the labour movement. Other Members spoke in similar terms, and I only wish that the Deputy Prime Minister had been present to hear them. Perhaps he will read tomorrow of the strength of feeling not just in the speech of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, but among all his hon. Friends.

Our conclusion is that the Government have lost their sense of direction. While publicly espousing an agenda of decentralisation of control, they now propose a hugely recentralising measure. They propose a Bill that will impose a pay settlement at the Secretary of State's discretion without reference to any independent mechanism; that is unfair. They propose a Bill that has no power to enforce the settlement that it imposes; that is ineffective. And they propose a Bill that does not provide for the existing offer to firefighters to be tested properly first, which makes the Bill unnecessary. So the Bill is unfair, ineffective and unnecessary.

The Liberal Democrat reaction is to oppose the Bill, and I fully understand that instinct. Our approach, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden set out, is slightly different. We recognise that the Bill is the only immediate vehicle available, and we prefer to try to engage constructively with the Government, to propose amendments to the Bill, and to seek to persuade them to turn it into an effective short-term measure to resolve the dispute one way or another and lift the threat of further strikes, as part of progressing towards creating a long-term solution that is fair for firefighters and fair for the public.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden set out the three essential amendments that we will seek to the Bill: a requirement for a postal ballot on the current offer before the Secretary of State exercises any of his powers; the introduction during the lifetime of this legislation of a power to ban strikes in the fire service, so that any settlement imposed can be effectively imposed; and a sunset clause to recognise explicitly that this is a short-term emergency measure that cannot be a long-term solution to the problem, because it is not sufficiently just or fair. With these changes, this would be a workable short-term measure to lift the threat of strikes, end the current dispute and pave the way for a permanent solution. Without them, it will be a toothless tiger. It will be a heavy-handed instrument for imposing a settlement without having first required proper consultation, and it will lack the teeth to enforce the settlement imposed. Without a sunset clause, it is a recipe not for modernisation but for a reversion to the pre-1959 situation—a status quo in which huge power would rest with the Secretary of

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State, and the Government's decentralisation agenda would be abandoned. That, in our view, is not the future for a modern, locally managed fire service.

I hope that the Minister will say in a few moments that he will take an open-minded approach in Committee to our proposed amendments, and to the issues that my right hon. Friend has raised today. On that basis, we shall not attempt to deny the Bill a Second Reading, but I say to the Minister now that if those issues are not addressed in Committee or on Report, we will vote against it on Third Reading.


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