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12 Nov 2003 : Column 316

Fire Services Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

Motion made, and Question proposed, pursuant to Orders [28 June 2001 and 29 October 2002],

Question agreed to.

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Orders of the Day

Fire Services Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Clause 1

Powers of the Secretary of State

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 1, at end insert "or disposal".

2.8 pm

The Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendment is intended to clarify the consultation arrangements for directions about property or facilities made under the power in clause 1(1)(b), which allows the Secretary of State to give directions to fire authorities about the

As originally drafted, the consultation requirements in clause 1(4) applied only to directions about the "use" of property or facilities. It is and was our intention that the same consultation requirements should apply to all directions under the clause 1(1)(b) power, whatever their content. The Secretary of State would therefore be required "as he thinks fit" to consult persons, or representatives of those persons, who

Concern has been expressed about the possible use of the power to require disposals of assets. In Committee, in response to some strongly expressed concerns, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr Leslie), then the Under-Secretary of State, said that the provisions were

He went on to remind the House that, as the Bain review highlighted, there were

of the public,

I want to repeat that we do not intend to use directions under clause 1(1)(b) for asset stripping, some sort of privatisation or a mass fire station closure programme. However, we want to ensure that the proper modernisation of the fire service can be implemented. I fully expect and hope that this can be done without the use of these powers, but that may not be possible. If it is not, we will consult fully, as the Bill requires. I would not want to leave anyone with the impression, however mistaken, that the Government thought that lesser or no consultation was needed for any orders dealing with disposals. Therefore, to ensure consistency between the two connected provisions, we accept that the words "or disposal" should be added to clause 1(4).

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): Nobody could disagree with the notion that there

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should be consultation in the case of a disposal, as well as a direction for use. However, I want to place on the record that this was a simple mistake—a word was left out of the Bill's original text, which is the sort of error that we would usually expect to be picked up during a proper Committee stage. That rather underlines the dangers of a rushed process—of taking a Bill through all its stages in one afternoon. It proved possible for it to go to the other place with an important word missing from the text, and for that fact to be overlooked, despite it being scrutinised in this House. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board and consider long and hard before trying to rush through legislation again. We owe a debt of gratitude not to Government Front Benchers, but to the noble Baroness Turner, who picked up this error from the Back Benches.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I, too, accept the Minister's emollient statement that this is a minor amendment, but it will be important to ensure that any consultation required under the Bill is full in respect of all of the proposed changes. It is worth placing on the record that the amendment does not make the Bill any better; overall, it is ill thought through and unnecessary. Although the Minister may say that the current impasse or delay in the negotiations justifies the Bill, the fact that both sides are negotiating suggests that it and the amendment are not needed. It is worth pointing that out, given what is happening outside this place.

Lords amendment agreed to.

New clause

Lords amendment: No. 2, after clause 1, to insert the following new clause—Interpretation of the June 2003 agreement
'For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this Act affects the possibility of the parties agreeing on a reference to mediation, conciliation or arbitration on the interpretation of the June 2003 agreement between the Fire Brigades Union and the local authority fire service employers.'

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): I beg to move amendment (a) to the Lords amendment, in line 6, at end, add

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this we may discuss amendment (b), in line 6, at end, add

John McDonnell: I begin by preparing the background to the amendment. Lord Lea moved amendment No. 2 as an avoidance-of-doubt clause because he was anxious to clarify in the Bill that nothing stands in the way of mediation. In other correspondence, the Minister has made it clear that such clauses are seen by Governments as clearly helpful, if not regular. They are helpful in avoiding any future

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misconstruction of the Bill by including in it an explicit statement as to its intent. I agree with, and support, this type of clause in principle.

The purpose of my amendment is to seek to extend the avoidance-of-doubt clause to clear up—helpfully, I hope—a further doubt that entered into the debate after the Bill left the Commons and went to the other place. It is a straightforward amendment that explicitly overcomes that doubt, and it reflects the Government's intentions as stated in correspondence with Members of the other House and also in the debate in that House.

That doubt was expressed in the other place at various stages by the noble Lords Wedderburn and McCarthy and by Baroness Turner. Those of us who have had any dealings with industrial relations and the related law during the past 30 years appreciate that Lords Wedderburn and McCarthy and Baroness Turner expressed a view on this subject that is based on decades of experience, and it comes from those who are the most qualified to express such a view. In fact, many in this House learned their industrial relations law at the feet of Lord Wedderburn, as an expert practitioner.

The doubt expressed by those Lords is set out in a briefing note prepared by Lord Wedderburn, Professor Emeritus of commercial law at the London School of Economics, which was published on 1 November. I tried to place this note in the House of Commons Library, but I was informed that only Ministers or Mr. Speaker may do so. However, I have copies available in my office if Members wish to peruse the note.

2.15 pm

Mr. Hammond : The hon. Gentleman has set out the credentials of the noble Lords who first raised this issue as amendment No. 3 in the other place. As the Government refuted their case entirely, can he tell the House whether he believes that the Government are simply poorly advised by their legal advisers or are being duplicitous?

John McDonnell: I am trying to create a climate in this debate that is not confrontational. Doubt exists. The Government's advisers are not duplicitous or in any way incompetent; they simply have a view. The noble Lords, who have vast experience in these matters, have another view, and that leads to doubt. The situation is no more contestable or challengeable than that. This is not an "in your face" allegation.

Mr. Edward Davey: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that his amendment would simply clarify what Ministers say is already the position, and that it would therefore be helpful to include it in the Bill?

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