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5.43 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I can assure the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) that the Deputy Prime Minister, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) and I will continue to approach with an open mind the many difficult issues that this entire matter has raised. I should tell the hon. Gentleman that we shall try to avoid mixing our metaphors in the way that he did at the end of his speech.

As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said when he opened this debate, this is not a Bill that the Government would have wanted to introduce in normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances. This dispute has dragged on for a year. It has been a year in which there have been 15 days of strike action and the threat of strike action on many more days; a year in which the possibility of disruption of normal services has never been far away. It has been a year in which thousands of members of the armed forces have been required to provide emergency fire cover, or held in readiness to provide it, instead of performing their normal duties; a year in which the public have faced repeated periods of uncertainty as to whether their regular fire service would be working. It has been a year in which there has been growing concern about the FBU's willingness to accept long-overdue modernisation and the use of new equipment to cope with possible terrorist threats. It has also been a year in which the hard-earned reputation of the fire service—I refer to both employers and employees—has, frankly, been damaged.

We have consistently made it clear that we would prefer the two sides to reach a negotiated settlement. We made that clear a year ago when the FBU first launched its 40 per cent. pay claim. No one should forget that the FBU's claim remains at 40 per cent. for firefighters and 50 per cent. for control room staff. Since then, we have done all we can to try to ensure that a negotiated settlement is achieved. Last autumn, when negotiations broke down for the first time, we commissioned Sir George Bain to undertake an independent review of the fire service. Incidentally, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) was wrong to say that there was no consultation on the membership or the terms of reference of the Bain review. The FBU was informed and consulted, and asked to give its views on both those matters. It chose not to participate. My hon. Friend also forgot to mention that a very senior member of the TUC was one of the three members of the review team.

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Early this year, after several strikes and inconclusive discussions, we set up a forum in which the FBU and the employers had the opportunity for constructive dialogue on how best to modernise the fire service, in parallel with the ACAS discussions. We indicated that we were willing to provide up to £30 million worth of transitional funding to support a negotiated settlement. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I have met representatives of both sides on numerous occasions in the past year to explore a range of options to help to resolve the dispute. But there still appears to be no prospect of a negotiated settlement.

That state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue. The public has every right to a fully functioning fire service. We are therefore seeking the powers in the Bill so that we can draw a line under the dispute, so that the two sides can make a fresh start, and, most importantly, so that the public can be properly protected. In addition, we have made it clear that, dispute or no dispute, the fire service has to change. It cannot be right that the service continues to be riddled with outdated work practices, many of which have remained unchanged for decades. It cannot be right that new options for saving lives, for ensuring better co-ordination between all the emergency services, and for protecting the public against the new threats posed by international terrorism are thwarted by resistance to change. There are better ways—better in terms of protecting the public and better in terms of giving fire-fighters more rewarding and flexible careers.

As the Bain report made clear, modernisation is essential to save lives and provide a better service to the public, but it is also a real opportunity to enhance firefighters' pay and prospects. Bain made it clear that the only justification for a substantial pay increase was the scope for savings from modernisation. Therefore, it is wrong of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge to suggest that we have made a mistake in linking pay with the modernisation savings. That is the clear message from Bain and the only justification for a substantially above-average pay settlement for firefighters.

We value the work that firefighters do, we want them to be able to do an even better job in the future and we want them to receive a fair reward for their work. We will use the powers in the Bill, if necessary, and the measures in the forthcoming White Paper, to make that possible.

Numerous themes were raised in the debate and I shall try to do justice to them. However, I ask hon. Members to bear with me if I cannot cover every single point raised. I shall start with the attempts to rewrite history. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) started that theme, but it was picked up by several other hon. Members in the debate. The reality of the Government's interventions in the dispute is that they were motivated solely by the requirement to make it clear that there are limits on what costs the Government will pick up. Any settlement above the amounts currently provided for must be justified by modernisation. Those are the two messages that we have sent consistently from the summer of last year to today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) made an important speech and rightly emphasised that it was right for the Government

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to place limits on the costs that we will pick up. It is not appropriate for settlements to be agreed by those who expect others to pick up the tab.

The principle that pay and modernisation must go hand in hand was clearly agreed by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). He differed with us about tactics, but he agreed with the strategy, and was firmly of the opinion that those matters must be taken together.

The second issue to be raised was the Burchill report, and the proposals that it contained. Frank Burchill is the chairman of the national joint council, and in that role he has been involved with both the employers and the FBU over the period of the dispute. The proposals that he has recently made are different from other proposals considered earlier, in that they were not discussed between the parties, as is normal in the national joint council. The employers made it very clear that they had serious reservations about the way in which Frank Burchill had come forward with the proposals without ever consulting them, and without looking into the proposals' costs and implications.

Given those reservations, I wrote to Professor Burchill on 10 April. I think it right that the House should know the terms of the letter that I wrote, as there has been considerable misrepresentation. I wrote:

The House should be aware of the reply that I received by e-mail from Frank Burchill, on 13 April. He wrote:

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That response is not a promising basis for a settlement, given Professor Burchill's clear unwillingness to engage at all with the issues of costings, and of how the modernisation savings can help to finance a settlement.

The third issue brought up during the debate was the question of a secret ballot. I make it clear to the House that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I have said, on several occasions, that that could be a sensible way forward, and that it might provide a basis for gauging firefighters' opinions. I certainly would not want to prejudge those opinions in the way that at least one hon. Member did in this afternoon's debate.

The fourth issue raised was the risk to public safety. It was highlighted in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), who did not think that there was threat to public safety, as she believed that firefighters would respond in an emergency. I accept entirely that, as a matter of course and natural instinct, firefighters would want to respond if there was a threat to life. In any case, where the normal service is withdrawn, there is inevitably an enhanced risk. The military responded magnificently to the challenges of the winter strikes, but there is a limit to what they can do or cope with, given the other pressures on their time. The Deputy Prime Minister has spelled out the necessary reduction in manpower. I must put it to the House that further strike action against that background would inevitably create a greater risk to public safety.

Conservative Members suggested that there should be legislation or other action to ban strikes. The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that he is not convinced that that is appropriate, but that the Government will set out our view, as promised in the White Paper to be published in the very near future. Also, the Attorney-General will review the position, as he has done throughout the dispute, and we will keep him fully informed.

We were asked about the duration of the Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South and others asked about the possibility of a sunset clause. We believe that the issue should be considered in due course and I am sure that it will be raised in Committee. The White Paper will set out the basis for future legislation. If it is agreed that there should be a sunset clause and that the Bill should have only a short life, further longer-lasting legislation, whatever that might be, will need to be introduced subsequently. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks.

We were asked about the basis on which the Deputy Prime Minister might reach a decision on a settlement. We hope that we will not have to do so. It has always been our wish that there should be a negotiated settlement. Also, my right hon. Friend is committed by the Bill to consult before any decision is reached with both the national joint council and the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. It would be wrong to pre-empt that.

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There is one point that I should make clear. The employers' offer of 16 per cent. over two and a half years, linked to modernisation, depends on savings from modernisation. It is not possible to assume that this is payable indefinitely, or that the offer will remain available indefinitely. There is a time factor here and I must put it to the House that time is beginning to run out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) asked about compatibility with human rights legislation. On 20 March, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made it clear that, in his view, the provisions of the Bill were compatible with the European convention on human rights. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has carried out an initial examination and has formed the provisional opinion that the Bill is compatible with convention rights and the Human Rights Act 1998.

On the European social charter, the Bill does not affect the right to strike, nor does it seek to prevent collective bargaining. On the International Labour Organisation convention, article 8 says that a settlement shall be reached through negotiations between the parties. That is our objective—to achieve precisely that negotiation.

I want to talk about misinformation. We have heard a series of wild and inaccurate allegations about threatened cuts and alleged risks. There is no question or possibility of cuts of 5,000 or 10,000 firefighters, or of increasing risks. Our proposals are all about a better response to risk; to ensure a more effective response to the risks of today, rather than retaining the provisions established in the 1940s, which were related to risks to property at that time. There is a real case for change to enhance public safety and it is right that we should do that.

We are introducing the Bill with great reluctance, and only because we cannot sit on our hands when there is no prospect of a settlement. We are doing so to draw a line under this dispute so that firefighters and employers can work together constructively to provide the service that the public deserve and expect. No responsible Government can stand aside and allow the current wholly unsatisfactory situation to continue indefinitely. It is time to move on, and I believe that the House will send a strong message to all involved by giving the Bill a clear endorsement on Second Reading now.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second Time:—

The House divided: Ayes 284, Noes 59.

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