Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I have tremendous respect for the noble Lord, Lord Prior. However, I should make it absolutely clear that I have not seen written down, nor heard uttered in the department in any way, shape or form, the word that he has used several times during his question. I suspect that the "R" word will not appear in George Bain's final report in December, because we have no plans to implement such redundancies. The concept is, therefore, purely hypothetical. We should await Sir George Bain's full report. It will not be as full as it would have been had the Fire Brigades Union had the courage to give evidence to the review.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, the Minister is aware that, basically, I support the Government's central position. However, I have not known whether to laugh or cry at the way in which they handled this issue over the past weekend. Neither he nor the Deputy Prime Minister is the first Minister in British government to have had to cope with the difficulties of a local government negotiating organisation faced with the Government having a clear interest in the outcome and a vital need for the Government and the local government negotiators to have the closest possible contact.

Rather than hark back, I suggest that two messages should go out to the Fire Brigades Union from this House today: first, that this House believes they are entitled to negotiate with local government negotiators who are properly empowered and properly working with the Government on reaching a satisfactory outcome to the negotiations; secondly, that, as the Minister said, it is quite clear that change and reform is long overdue in this industry, which at the present time gives every indication of being run by its union in a very real and significant way; and, thirdly, that the core, as the Minister has said, is the full, not the interim, Bain report. There will be no

26 Nov 2002 : Column 667

smash and grab—40 per cent without any concessions. The Government have now made that abundantly clear.

The question, therefore, is whether there is to be sensible negotiation on the full Bain report, which involved complicated concessions by the unions. Are their members to be kept out on strike, losing pay, during the whole of that period, and is it not also in their interests to get back to work? The longer this strike goes on and the more it is shown that the Armed Forces and the retained firemen can do as well as they have done so far, the more singularly unhelpful it will be to the Fire Brigades Union's case for a huge increase in pay with no concessions whatever. There should therefore be a return to work with a view to agreement being reached by both parties, based on genuine and proper negotiations, on consideration of the full Bain report.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I suspect that the Fire Brigades Union leadership will take on board the points made by the noble Lord, Lord King, when they see the success of public co-operation, the effects of the part-time retained fire service and, of course, the effects of the military and the Green Goddesses. The more they do, the better they will become, and questions will be asked about that.

The noble Lord, Lord King, is quite right about messages being sent out. However, I have to say that no good will come of the employers and the unions reaching a deal by negotiation and then, as they did last Thursday evening/early Friday morning, putting in a paragraph at the end of the document saying—I paraphrase—"We do not know how much, but we need some more money from the Government". That would be very unprofessional and would not lead to a settlement.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, I have listened carefully to the Statements made and to the debate that has taken place in the Chamber, and this is the first occasion on which I have intervened. I am sure that we would all agree that this strike becomes sadder by the day. It is not a happy situation for anyone, including, as the noble Lord opposite said, the Fire Brigades Union's members and their families, particularly with Christmas approaching.

I do not want to discuss the negotiations. I understand that the Government do not have a seat on the negotiations between employers and employees. I also know that a number of different statements were made, or not made, last Thursday night. I believe that in some ways the Government are being hammered, but not through their own fault, and I believe that the employers have a lot to answer for in respect of the discussions that took place last Thursday. If it is known that no money is available to pay for it—in my view, the employers knew that before they entered into the negotiations—then a deal should not be agreed.

I note that a new group will now be established on the employers' side. We always hope against hope when new groups are established. However, there is

26 Nov 2002 : Column 668

one organisation that has not been mentioned throughout the duration of this strike—the arbitration service ACAS, which was established to deal with situations of this kind. I have not heard of that very valuable service being involved. Can my noble friend tell the House whether or not there has been any involvement of that body at any time? It seems to me that its expertise is needed.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I regret that I cannot answer my noble friend's question concerning ACAS. Within a couple of days of the breakdown of negotiations, the Bain committee was formed to conduct an independent review—the kind of review that ACAS would normally have undertaken—because we wanted to get to the bottom of the issue, consider the way forward and consider a new formula. Although two years ago Mr Gilchrist was saying that it was the best formula they had ever had, it was accepted that it had existed for 25 years; so this matter had come quite quickly to his mind. The fact is that it is agreed that the formula is outdated, and part of the remit of the Bain review remit was to consider that.

Having once been a pupil of his in the days when I was at the feet of Alan Flanders and Hugh Clegg at Warwick, I have to say that George Bain is a one-man ACAS and has a good track record; but that is not a criticism of ACAS. I should also tell my noble friend that many things have been said and not said about last Thursday. It just so happens that I know how moderate the Government's response has been to what was said about last Thursday. We would only make the situation worse by simply repeating our views. That is not our intention. Because we want a resolution of this dispute, we shall have to take a little flack. At the end of the day there will have to be a solution, but it will not be in the terms of the 40 per cent increase sought.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister whether a different solution can be achieved to resolve the strike in Scotland or whether the United Kingdom Government are in fact negotiating in respect of the whole of the United Kingdom. I am not quite certain whether that is a devolved or reserved matter. Fire-fighters would appear to involve a devolved matter; the Armed Forces clearly do not.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I shall take advice on that. The matter is devolved but pay is not.

5 p.m.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement and most of us will probably warmly appreciate the robust way in which he put the Government's position. However, I am left with a question, which is related to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Prior. I believe that the Minister said that anything above 4 per cent has to be met out of modernisation. I am not clear about what happens during the interval before modernisation produces savings; nor am I clear about

26 Nov 2002 : Column 669

whether there is any room for funding to be produced in some way to bridge the gap. That point is repeatedly raised by union representatives and commentators. It was striking that the Statement was very unclear about the position. Can he clarify in any way how one gets from A to B?

Lord Rooker: No, my Lords, I cannot. I have not been involved at ministerial level in the day-to-day negotiations but I have heard comments by people who are obviously leading on the Government and employers. I do not accuse the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, of doing that. That approach is very seductive because it involves a common-sense question. In fact, in the absence of any menu of the costs of modernisation and of any agreement from one of the parties to discuss any real modernisation, posing the question begs many questions if one starts to discuss transitional arrangements. It is clear that at the end of the day there will have to be transitional arrangements to get from A to B. Suppose that one starts discussing that; before one knows it, others will claim, "Ah! You have conceded that and we will therefore negotiate from that position". In other words, one has already lost part of what one wanted to negotiate. We were not born yesterday and we shall not fall into that trap.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, like many colleagues in the House, I take a deep interest in these issues and listen to what Ministers say here and in the other place. I hope that the noble Lord the Minister will convey to his ministerial colleagues our gratitude for their patience and control in not going down the route of producing inflammatory rhetoric at this time. Those of us who have been around a while in both Houses, who have served in local government and who have other interests are well aware of the enormity of what is at stake for the economy, the trade union movement and the peace and welfare of the people of this country. I believe that the Statement made by the Deputy Prime Minister, which was repeated by my good friend the Minister, goes a long way towards answering many of the questions, but not all of them; we will not know all of them until later. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will stick to their last. This is undoubtedly a battle—perhaps of wills, perhaps of common sense and perhaps of endurance. My advice to the Minister is, "Keep at it".

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page