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Mr. Llwyd: The Minister said that, even if a settlement were reached, the Bill and its powers of direction would remain necessary in order to bring it into effect. He now says that he hopes that the Bill will not be used at all. I may be stupid, but will the Minister clarify which is the correct version? It is an important point.

Mr. Raynsford: At the risk of going over the ground again, I hope that I have made it clear that we believe that the Bill is necessary to oversee the period during which the implementation of the settlement takes place. On the employers' offer, the settlement will cover a two and a half year period. The Bill is necessary to ensure implementation because pay and modernisation are inextricably linked as part of the settlement. That is why the powers are necessary, but we have repeatedly said that it is not our intention to invoke them or use them, assuming that agreement is reached and implemented.

Mr. Drew: When we talk about the employer, we need to be clear that we do not mean central Government or an employer, but a number of employers. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that if a fire authority failed to settle with its employees, for whatever reason, the Government would not seek to impose a deal retrospectively on that authority? Otherwise, this process looks like the Government telling each fire authority what it should do with every one of its conditions of employment, and that is not desirable.

6 pm

Mr. Raynsford: No one would regard a settlement as satisfactory if it applied only to some areas of the country and not to others. People expect a properly functioning fire service in every part of the country, and it is our objective to achieve a national settlement. All the parties, including the employers—the local authority and other fire authority employers—the union and the Government, want an agreement that applies nationally. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that circumstances could arise—I have outlined them in response to earlier questions—in a continuing dispute, in which certain authorities were more helpful in making equipment available to others to protect the public interest. In such cases, it might be necessary to use the powers selectively to protect the public. That is why the powers in the Bill may be applied generally or to particular authorities.

Mr. Drew: The implication of that is that we will have a national settlement for not only pay, but all

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conditions. If that is the case, we should be honest and open about it, and we should tell local authorities that their room for manoeuvre will be considerably constrained, regardless of the passage of the Bill. That appears to be the direction in which the Government are going, and it may be the right direction, but we should put it on record.

Mr. Raynsford: My understanding is that all parties, including the local authority employers and the FBU, want a national agreement. They do not want regional bargaining or negotiation with individual fire authorities. It is in everybody's interest that we reach an agreed national settlement.

John McDonnell: If we are to assist in the resolution of the dispute next week, it is important to achieve clarity in our debate. The union and the employers want a national settlement that applies to all parties, but the Burchill proposals allow for local resolution of individual issues, especially conditions and operational matters. That is the key message. Our concern is that the legislation offers a vista of detailed interference at local level if the agreement is not implemented. We need to assure the union and the employers that that is not the process that the Government envisage.

Mr. Raynsford: I agree that everyone involved agrees that we seek a national settlement, not a fragmentation. The proposals that Professor Burchill made a couple of weeks ago are not on the table and do not form part of the current offer made by the employers and recommended by the FBU executive. Of course there will be a role for individual fire authorities in the future in assessing the appropriate way to respond to the needs of their areas. Indeed, they are preparing integrated risk management plans to ensure that they are well organised to meet those needs. However, as far as pay bargaining is concerned, the objective of all sides has been a national settlement. That remains the case, and the Government do not wish to do anything to prevent that from happening. We want to see a national settlement.

Matthew Green: The Minister said that the Bill was compatible with article 6 of the European social charter because it would address a risk to public safety. However, the Bill makes no mention of public safety and it will confer a power that has nothing to do with a risk to public safety. That is not what the Minister intends, but will he make it clear that he will use the powers only in the case of a direct risk to public safety? If so, we will have no concerns about article 6.

Mr. Raynsford: The theme that has been repeated time and again in the debate is the inevitable risk to the public of a continued or repeated incidence of industrial action in the fire service. If firefighters withdraw their labour, the public are put at risk, especially if the military resources, which have responded magnificently in the past, are seriously stretched and we cannot deploy comparable numbers. In that situation, the public would be at risk and the provisions of article 31 make it clear that any use of the powers would not be incompatible with the charter.

Matthew Green: The Bill does not say that the powers will be used only in the event of strike action. The

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powers could be used at any time, so I am giving the Minister the opportunity to say that he would use the powers only in cases of a threatened strike or actual strike action.

Mr. Raynsford: I thought that the hon. Gentleman had heard me say that repeatedly. If he has not, I repeat that it is not our intention to use the powers in the Bill if a negotiated settlement is properly implemented. If not, and there is an industrial dispute, there will be a clear risk to the public and, therefore, the permissive powers in article 31 would bite and there would be no conflict with the charter.

The second concern that the Joint Committee raised with me was about article 8 of the Labour Relations (Public Services) convention, known as ILO convention 151. The article requires that settlement of disputes about conditions of employment of public employees should

No one could argue that a settlement has not been sought through negotiation. We have done all that we can to encourage and facilitate that. The question is how long the fire service can go on seeking a settlement without finding one. Article 8 describes what should happen but does not define what to do when negotiation fails. That is what we are now seeking to address. I can therefore confirm—as I said on Second Reading—that in our view the provisions in the Bill are compatible with article 6 of the charter and article 8 of ILO convention 151. Requiring the publication of reports to that effect looks like just another obstacle put in place by Opposition Members. As we can give them the assurances that they seek now, there is no merit in delaying commencement of the Act.

The powers in the Bill have a specific purpose: to draw a line under the present dispute so that the two sides can start afresh. We are heartened by the progress that they have made, and we are sure that the whole House hopes for a positive outcome, but we must be prepared for all eventualities. In the event of a negotiated settlement not being reached, accepting any of these amendments would delay a resolution to the dispute. I have made it clear that the Government are happy to accept amendment No. 17, but I request that all other amendments be withdrawn.

Mr. Hammond: This has been a very interesting debate, if somewhat lengthy. The Minister's remarks about the time scale for the introduction of new legislation following the publication of the White Paper were entirely plausible, and I accept what he said. I suspect that some Labour Members may not have realised that the Government's intention was that the Bill should act as a bridge to a piece of permanent legislation covering the same areas. However, I certainly anticipated that that would be the Government's intention, so I am happy to accept the two-year sunset provision that the Minister deems adequate.

It is amusing to think what the Minister's speech would have looked like if I had proposed a two-year sunset clause in amendment No. 35, and if the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) had proposed a period of 18 months in his amendment. No

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doubt the Minister would have found time in the legislative timetable for the House to deem an 18-month period to be adequate. However, I am very happy with the outcome. The Government have cleared the first of the three hurdles set by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). I very much hope that we can continue to make progress in the same spirit, so that consideration of the Bill can be concluded with consensus on all sides.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 32, in page 1, line 4, at end insert—

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