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7.45 pm

Matthew Green: I do not feel able to support the amendments, but they give us the opportunity to ask the Minister a series of questions.

My reading of the Bill was that the point of use and disposal is that in the event of industrial action the Secretary of State could make facilities available to the military or others. That should not be embarked on lightly, even in a dispute, but presumably we are reaching the stage where the Minister thinks that it may be necessary to have that power, or at least to have it in reserve. However, the word "disposal" has more than one meaning, so will he clarify exactly what it means in this context? The explanatory notes do not help to make that any clearer. They say:

Would that be during a dispute or permanently? We are not given an answer to that. In Shropshire, all of us, including the FBU, want a joint control room—only the Government are standing in our way.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) suggested that the Bill may give the Secretary of State the power suddenly to announce that he is closing half the rural retained fire stations in Ludlow. I hope that the Bill does not give the Secretary of State such a power, which I would resist at all costs. I do not believe that that is what the Minister is trying to achieve, and I hope that he will

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reassure us that the Bill is about the events and circumstances of an ongoing dispute and securing public safety during only the time of that dispute.

Mr. Llwyd: In any legal sense, the word "disposal" has to mean "to get rid of". The Bill refers to "use or disposal", not "use and disposal". That leads me to believe that it means the transfer of property, which, in this context, may mean the sell-off of rural stations, as the hon. Member for Stroud suggested. The clause must be read in conjunction with the repeal of section 19, which makes it all the more urgent and important. I have no hesitation whatever in supporting the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and others.

It is only right that there should be an understanding that rural stations are extremely important to communities. I shall give a brief example of that concern. About four months ago, I met the north Wales fire chief. I live in a very rural constituency where we rely heavily on the good men and women of the retained brigades, who do an excellent job. During our meeting, which took place during the dispute and was to do with pay settlements and a whole gamut of issues, I asked him about the future of rural fire stations. He said, "They're all right; they're quite secure." However, a few minutes later we talked about the following scenario. A small village has a retained brigade running the local fire station. Some 12 or 14 miles down the road, there is a full-time station. The chief fire officer told me that his concern was that several of the people who worked in the small retained station were not employed in their day jobs within five miles of the station. What I find amusing is that that station has been run in that way for the past 50 years without any incident whatsoever, giving an excellent service and being held in high regard.

That concern, however, reflects the way in which fire officers—particularly the more ambitious ones—are now thinking. It is, I am afraid, in line with the Government's thinking that we are going to see lots of the smaller stations close, and I believe honestly and sincerely that the Bill is here to ensure that that will be effected with the minimum of difficulty.

With regard to what the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) was saying earlier, closing a fire station is almost as bad for a community as closing a village school. People feel that it is their facility; it is run by and for local people, and the people who run it do a thankless job. I would like to see an increase in recruitment in the retained sector to secure the future. I am quite worried about this, having spoken to senior fire officers. It might well be that the senior fire officers in north Wales are thinking along these lines because they believe that there will be a shortfall in the funding for the pay settlement, and that when that funding is applied to the retained sector, the wage bill will, by definition, shoot up. They would therefore end up having to get rid of considerable numbers in the retained sector.

Mr. Hammond: May I remind the hon. Gentleman that, in response to an intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden

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(David Davis), the Deputy Prime Minister gave an absolute assurance that no retained firefighters would lose their jobs as a result of any settlement?

Mr. Llwyd: But if the money is not there to pay the retained firefighters, what is the obvious conclusion? The Government will not say that it was their fault; it will be the fault of the fire authority, of course, for not using the money wisely. The fire authority would then be forced to make cuts in due course. I hope that I am wrong, and if the Minister gets up in a few minutes' time to tell me that that is the case, I shall be pleased to hear it. That would cheer me up no end, along with my constituents and several other people in north Wales. I say that, having made those few sincerely held remarks.

The amendments are very useful, and we have had a useful debate on them. Reference was made earlier to the Deputy Prime Minister saying that fire stations were public property. Yes, they are public property, and they are very close to the hearts of people in rural communities. They provide a vital service, and the retained sector is extremely important in rural areas such as north Wales. I would like to see amendment No. 11 embellished by a reference to the need for consultation with Members of the National Assembly for Wales as well.

John McDonnell: I was simply trying not to pre-empt amendment No. 30, which we shall come to later.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman is obviously a great thinker, and I stand corrected and slightly embarrassed by what he has just said.

This has been a useful debate. I hope that the Minister will explain why the word "disposal" appears after the word "use". I hope that he will also explain the distinction between the word "disposal" in clause 2(a) and the reference in clause 2(b) to the use by a fire authority of another fire authority's property or facilities. This tends to confirm what I am saying about the word "disposal". Will he tell the House in no uncertain terms that it is not meant to denote a disposal of an interest in land, because that is what I and many other hon. Members are concerned about?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Sadly for Opposition Members and, indeed, for my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), the Government cannot accept these amendments. Some remove the Secretary of State's power to give directions to fire authorities about the use of property. Others would mean that directions could be made about the use of facilities but not about disposal. I will come some of the points raised on those issues in a moment. Two of the amendments would mean that the Secretary of State would be required to consult Members of Parliament and local authorities before making an order, and to lay before Parliament a report on those consultations.

Strike action undoubtedly poses a threat to public safety, so in the event of further strikes occurring, the Government need sufficient room for manoeuvre to direct fire authorities on how they should use their property and assets in a co-ordinated and concerted

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fashion, to the safest effect and to support any emergency fire cover provided by the armed forces. The Government also need the powers in the event that the modernisation of the fire service is obstructed, especially in the absence of any negotiated agreement, so that assets and property can be utilised in a sensible manner. There has been much misunderstanding—perhaps scaremongering in some quarters—and uninformed speculation about the use to which the powers may be put. Our preference is not to have to use them at all, either in response to a strike or as part of the modernisation process. Partnership is clearly the better way forward, but, given the history of the last 12 months in particular, we must safeguard and reserve the right to act.

Furthermore, any directions that the Secretary of State makes will be made to protect and enhance public safety. We do not have an agenda to do anything that would be contrary to that objective—far from it. Anything that we do will be driven by our motivation to protect citizens and enhance public safety. The provisions are certainly not part of some wider wild asset-stripping fire station closure plan being held secretly in a drawer somewhere in the Department, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington and the hon. Members for Ludlow (Matthew Green) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) speculated. That is definitely not envisaged at all.

Mr. Llwyd: Will the Minister define the word "disposal"?

Mr. Leslie: That point was raised by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), as well as by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, particularly in respect of whether the word referred to the selling of assets, or whether it simply meant the transfer of a piece of equipment from one fire authority to another in certain circumstances. We have a deliberately wide definition of the term because in these circumstances we need a piece of legislation that can cope with a wide variety of eventualities. I would not, therefore, wish to be too prescriptive or to rule out one particular component or another.

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