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9.43 pm

Matthew Green: Until the introduction of the Bill, we supported the Government's strategy throughout the strike. We have now departed from that line, because we feel—it is a matter of judgment—that this is not the right way in which to resolve the dispute. Indeed, as has been said, the Bill's very existence may harden opposition to such resolution in some instances. As I have said, it is a matter of judgment; there is no hard-and-fast rule, and we realise that there is an element of guesswork in the assessment of the Bill's likely impact on the feelings of FBU members.

We hope to see the White Paper soon, although I fear that the word "soon" should be replaced by the word "mañana", because it is always being promised. It is always threatening to appear. I do not quite go to bed expecting to wake up and discover that it has been published, but we have been given the impression that it is about to appear. We would welcome its early publication because there are issues that need to be addressed, not the least of which is pensions. The financing of pensions is one of the biggest issues that the fire service faces, and we want a resolution to it.

We wanted amendments to three specific areas, the first of which was the sunset clause. We are glad that the Government accepted some movement in that regard. We would have preferred that the Bill fall sooner than after two years, but such a time limit is acceptable.

On the substantive issues of a secret ballot of members and the introduction by the Government of new pay proposals through independent arbitration, we felt that such measures would give the employers and the Fire Brigades Union the confidence that this was a way forward—a way not of creating greater difficulties, but of resolving the dispute. Unfortunately, the Government saw fit to reject both of those measures; had they accepted them, we might have shifted our position and supported the Bill. One glimmer of hope is the Government's resistance to the Conservatives' idea of banning membership of trade unions. The Conservatives will come to regret suggesting banning the membership of those who carry on a dispute for a long time.

Overall, the Bill sets a very dangerous precedent. A particular concern is the use that will be made of it not this time, but in future years by future Governments. It will be alluded to time and again. There will be those

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who will say, "We had to do it then, so we must do it now," and such legislation will be applied to different disputes and different unions. I am afraid that it could be used repeatedly, and all because a Labour Government have seen fit to introduce this Bill. Our judgment remains that this Bill will not help to resolve the dispute. We accept the strategy that modernisation and pay must go hand in hand, but we believe that that can be delivered through other means. The way in which the Bill has been framed will not help to end the dispute, and we will continue to oppose it tonight.

9.47 pm

Jeremy Corbyn: This is a very sad day for the Labour party and for this House. We are passing this legislation apparently as part of industrial negotiations, but in reality it threatens to take away a fundamental tenet of the British labour movement scene: the right freely to negotiate wages and conditions. The Government are not prepared to negotiate wages and conditions; instead, they are threatening to remove that power and impose a settlement. That has caused anger among ordinary firefighters—members of the Fire Brigades Union—and as a result, their attitude towards this House and this Government is serious. The House would do well to recall many of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) during these debates, and to thank him for all the work that he has put into using this House to scrutinise Government legislation.

Like other hon. Members, I have met and talked to many firefighters in my constituency. They entered into a dispute knowing full well that the Government were reluctant, shall we say, to concede their wage demands. But they felt that as an emergency service—a service that everyone in this House relies on and is happy to praise when an emergency is sorted out in their constituencies—theirs had a good case and a good deal of public support, which it certainly does. Now, they are being told of the possibility of an imposed settlement, or that under that threat they will agree to some new proposal—all of which is to be paid for, apparently, by the sale of buildings and job losses. For us to have reached this situation is a very sad day indeed.

When the question is raised of what will be done next—I raised it in previous debates with the Deputy Prime Minister—there is an obvious answer. If the Government seek to impose a settlement and the firefighters continue their strike action, something else will have to be done.

The logic is clear: the procedure is in line with Conservative proposals to take deeper and greater control of industrial problems that should be sorted out through collective bargaining. I hope that the Bill will not be passed, but I suspect that it will. It will certainly not gain my support. I am pleased only about the sunset clause, but it is a pity that it is such a long time away.

The House should represent ordinary people. The Labour party and the Labour Government should represent ordinary trade unionists, who have supported us throughout their lives. Such people are looking for support from our party and our Government. As I said, today is a truly sad occasion. I hope that a similar Bill

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will not be applied to other services. I have organised in the public sector and I know the pressures on ambulance drivers and people who work in accident and emergency departments. Such people love their job, but they feel a sense of moral blackmail all the time. We should treat emergency workers properly and with respect. We should recognise their rights under the International Labour Organisation and other human rights conventions and not pass legislation such as the Bill. We should respect the right of independent trade unions freely to negotiate and to reach a free and independent settlement.

9.51 pm

Mr. Hogg: The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) has expressed his opposition to the Bill. I agree with him, but I must say that my process of reasoning is not exactly the same. He knows that we agree quite often, which must distress us both. We agreed on Iraq, for example, but that is by the way, as we are dealing with the Fire Services Bill.

I do not believe that the Bill should secure a Third Reading and I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) has made that clear on behalf of the official Opposition. I disagree with the Bill for several reasons. First, it has not been properly debated. I greatly objected to the programme motion: I spoke and voted against it. Its effect was to shut out many amendments—and, indeed, speeches—which we otherwise could have debated. Many amendments have not been discussed, far less voted on, because of the programme motion. The other place will have to debate an imperfectly considered Bill, which is itself a reason for opposing Third Reading.

There are other more substantive reasons for opposing the Bill. We have to start by recognising that, notwithstanding its sunset clause, the Bill is draconian. It gives to the Secretary of State—the Deputy Prime Minister—a unilateral power to vary conditions of service. I made that point in debating the first group of amendments. It also empowers the Secretary of State to order the disposal of property and to impose financial imposts on third parties. The powers conferred on the Deputy Prime Minister are substantial, and the only check on them is the negative procedure. Again, we debated that point in respect of the first group of amendments. I do not believe that the negative procedure is a proper or sufficient check on the Secretary of State's powers—a good reason in itself for not supporting the Bill.

I must ask why the Bill was ever introduced. The reason is that the Fire Brigades Union embarked on industrial action. If that union had not embarked on industrial action, we would never have had the Bill. The House should bear in mind the fact that a power is already on the statute book to allow the Attorney-General to go to the courts and obtain an injunction. If the Attorney-General had done his duty, he would have made an application to the High Court for an injunction and there would then have been no requirement to interfere with the contractual rights of the Fire Brigades Union. The Attorney-General would have done his stuff.

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I believe that it is lamentable that the Attorney-General is not a Member of this House. If he were, we, the elected representatives, could have asked him why he was not going to exercise his discretion under statute.

Because he is a member of the other place, and not subject to proper scrutiny or debate, he is not subject to such inquiries. It is another example of the contempt that this Government—whom I detest—have for democracy. If they had any respect for democracy, they would have the senior adviser on legal matters to the Government in this House, but they choose not to do so. The Bill has been introduced solely because the Attorney-General would not do his duty, as prescribed by statute, and go to court. Had he done so, we would not have had the Bill.

The Bill allows the FBU to continue going on strike. The Bill provides no penalties for going on strike, but any hon. Member will recognise that those members of the FBU who go on strike are putting at risk the lives and property of their fellow citizens. What possible moral right is there to do that in a civilised society? It is profoundly wrong. If people do not understand that, the House should take the power in the Bill to say that it is wrong. I gave the House the opportunity, in new clauses 1, 2 and 3, to say that industrial action should not be permitted.

I never criticise the Chair, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but those new clauses were not selected—

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