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4.30 pm

Amendment No. 28 looks like another example of Liberal Democrat enthusiasm for curbing the sovereignty of this Parliament at every opportunity and making it subject to external constraints. The Liberal Democrats are apparently concerned that the Bill's powers may not be compatible with the European social charter or the International Labour Organisation convention. I am not clear about whether that is so, but I point out to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) and his colleagues that this is, by consensus, a short-term emergency measure—

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): What colleagues?

Mr. Hammond: My right hon. Friend asks "What colleagues?" with some reason. I am sorry to see the hon. Member for Ludlow in such splendid isolation, but I am sure that, when the time comes, he will deliver mightily on behalf of his party.

I know not whether these powers contravene the European social charter or the International Labour Organisation convention; quite honestly, when the issue is one of public safety, I care not either. I take the view that the public safety of this country's citizens is the main issue of concern in Committee today and I suspect that the hon. Member for Ludlow may learn to his cost that that, rather than compliance with some obscure treaty, will be the issue of principal concern to the good people of Ludlow.

We want to ensure that we move as soon as possible from an emergency powers regime to a longer-term, more equitable and more sustainable arrangement that delivers the same objectives. I am usually all in favour of constraining the Secretary of State's powers, but I recognise that the Bill does not provide for normal circumstances and that substantial powers are being bestowed on the Secretary of State for a specific reason, so the constraints advocated by the Liberal Democrats are not helpful and will hinder the delivery of the objectives that the Bill is designed to achieve.

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I hope that in replying to the hon. Member for Ludlow on amendment No. 28, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions will do better than he did in response to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who raised a similar point on Second Reading. On that occasion, the Minister said:

That may be his objective, but it is not the Bill's purpose, which is to impose a settlement. I do not support the attempt of the hon. Member for Ludlow to impose further constraints, but the Minister will have to do better than he did on Second Reading in addressing the substantive issue.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): If I understand my hon. Friend correctly, he is saying that it would have been more candid of the Government to admit that they might be in breach of article 8, but to say, in the light of the pre-eminent consideration of public safety, "What of it?"

Mr. Hammond: That would certainly be my inclination, but no doubt the Minister will try to have his cake and eat it by saying that the Government are not in breach, but that if they were he would put public safety first. I have spent enough time opposing the Minister on various occasions to be able to predict, to some extent, what he is about to say.

I owe you an apology, Sir Michael, for addressing you by your former title earlier. I have had to make a similar apology to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) on several occasions.

I am glad that consensus has emerged on the need for a sunset provision for the powers bestowed by the Bill. I shall listen to the Minister's remarks, but I am optimistic that the first of the three conditions for our support for the Bill, which were set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) on Second Reading, will be fulfilled this afternoon. The Government have accepted the need for a sunset clause, in one form or another, and we will be magnanimous about whether it comes into force in 18 months or two years. The important fact is that the Bill is seen as a temporary, short-term response to an immediate problem.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): I was intrigued by the debate on the programme motion, when my right hon. Friend the Minister was challenged on the concept of a sunset clause. I was about to stand up and tell him, "Minister, I am your sunset", but being the sunset for the Labour Government is a task rather bigger than I wish to take on, no matter how much the Opposition might like to see that.

I normally listen with enormous respect to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), as one of the more reasonable faces on the Opposition Front Bench, and he is normally clear and concise. He mentioned the emergence of a consensus today, but I must tell him that I shall ensure that a copy of his speech is sent to the general session of every trade

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union as soon as I can lay my hands on it. One of the very real differences between the modern Conservative party and almost everybody else could be seen in the words that he used and those that he nearly said.

Mr. Hammond: Nearly said?

Mr. Lloyd: I shall attempt to shade in the gaps in a moment. Historically, Conservative Governments have tried to honour and protect our international treaty obligations. They were seen as the very centre of what one nation commits to fellow nations, and signing up to such treaties was not seen as a restraint on the rights of Parliament. Indeed, such matters are gifted by Parliament to the Executive to perform on our behalf. The idea that abrogation of our obligation under the International Labour Organisation treaty should be dismissed as irrelevant, or as something that we can trample all over, is outrageous. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on that.

The ILO exists to protect employees all over the planet and, in fair societies, it protects good employers against rapacious employers. As Winston Churchill put it many years ago, we need to ensure that the worst employers do not drive down standards for the better ones. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on whether the Conservative party wishes to stake its name on ripping up international treaties on labour law or anything else. The signals that he has given will be read widely as showing that the Conservative party is still in retreat from the rest of the world and, especially, from the rest of Britain.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that the Bill introduces draconian powers. I have enormous misgivings about it, as do many Labour Members. It will remove the ability of fire service personnel to take part in proper negotiations, and that will not help to resolve the dispute, in either the long term or the short term. If the Bill becomes law, it may not even contribute to the process of dispute resolution, but instead be massively counter-productive.

A modernised fire service must be able to deal with conventional emergencies and with the greater difficulties arising out of, for example, terrorism. It is in everybody's interest that fire service personnel can negotiate properly in connection with the changes that take place. In the end, it is not possible to impose an operating structure on any service—

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he is making something of a Second Reading speech. I remind him that he must speak to the amendments before the House, and especially to the one in his name.

Mr. Lloyd: I am sorry, Sir Michael. I was trying to respond to the comments of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, and I thought it necessary to set out the context for the amendment tabled in my name.

The Bill has a role in the narrow sense that the most important development in the fire services dispute will take place, not on the Floor of the House this evening,

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but during next week's recalled Fire Brigades Union conference. I profoundly hope that the union will accept the recommendation by its general secretary and executive, and that we can move away from the period of dispute.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions will repeat today what he and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister have said before—that the Bill will become unnecessary and redundant if the dispute is resolved. Such a statement would have great importance, as it would amount to the sunset clause that everyone wants. It would not set an expiration date in 15 or 18 months, or two years, but apply in a matter of days.

Mr. Bercow: I accept the general principle that this country should honour its international obligations, unless there is an extraordinarily compelling reason not to do so. However, does the hon. Gentleman accept that, if either the social charter or the ILO convention had the perverse effect of denying this House's right to pass a Bill such as this for a short period to attend to a specific problem, it would be equally perverse for this House to acquiesce in such an arrangement?

Mr. Lloyd: I am sure, Sir Michael, that you want this exchange to be as rapid as possible. Most international treaties to which this country is a signatory contain emergency provisions that detail the circumstances under which it is possible and necessary for the Government to abrogate certain rights. These are difficult matters, and require enormous caution. All hon. Members expect such powers to be used with restraint, even in the most extreme circumstances. It is important to put on record the fact that restraint is exactly what was displayed by the FBU and its members while the conflict in Iraq was going on. At that time, industrial action was—de facto, if not de jure—suspended. That is very important, as rational people do not seek to exploit national emergencies. I hope that Opposition Members will join me in paying tribute to the FBU for the restraint that it showed in that period. The spirit of the FBU's response to the conflict was consistent with what the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) asks me to endorse.

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