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House of Lords Reform

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That, notwithstanding the practice of the House that matters already decided may not be brought forward again during the same Session, the House may vote on all of the seven Motions standing in the name of the Lord Privy Seal on Tuesday 4th February; and that Standing Order 41 (Arrangement of

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the Order Paper) be dispensed with on that day so that the seven Motions may be taken before other public business.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Renton: My Lords, bearing in mind that we have already spent 20 hours or more discussing this very important matter—three and a half hours in a debate before Christmas and at least 17 hours last week—is it necessary for further discussion on the seven Motions? If all those Motions were put to the vote, they would collectively take a good many more hours to dispose of. Would it not be better if we went straight into voting on these Motions?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: Oh yes, my Lords. But it is not my birthday on 4th February; it is on the 5th. Therefore, I do not think that I shall have a present on the 4th. That is entirely a matter for your Lordships. Most of your Lordships will think that we gave the issue a fair ventilation—if that is quite the word I am looking for—last week. It was 15 hours, only. There is much to be said for going directly to the Motions. If we vote on the seven Motions without any, or too much, discussion, that will take approximately an hour and a half.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Business of the House: Debates, 29th January

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debates on the Motions in the names of the Lord Freyberg and the Baroness Warnock set down for tomorrow shall each be limited to two and a half hours.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Fire Dispute

3.19 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I wish to repeat a Statement made in another place. The Statement is as follows:

    "With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the fire dispute and the Government's proposals in the light of the breakdown of discussions at ACAS.

    "The House will be aware that all sides welcomed the resumption of talks after last Tuesday's 24-hour strike. The chair of ACAS agreed terms of reference for those talks with both the Fire Brigades Union and the employers. The terms of reference are very wide and say that both sides should,

    "bring their respective agenda to the table and neither side should seek to rule any issue in or out".

    "Despite that, the Fire Brigades Union executive decided yesterday to go ahead with further strikes and at nine o'clock this morning the FBU walked

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    out for the fourth time. They will be on strike for 48 hours and at present are scheduled to walk out again for a further 48 hours on Saturday morning.

    "While we sit here, the Armed Forces and other emergency services, including the police and the many retained fire fighters who have continued to work during the strikes, are providing cover for the striking fire fighters. I am sure that the House will want to join me to express our thanks for their courage and hard work and for the way they have conducted themselves throughout this dispute.

    "I have made clear that the Armed Forces will have the resources they need. As I said when I made my last Statement to the House on 20th January, we have now provided 177 red engines to augment the Green Goddess fleet. I can now inform the House that for the first time in these strikes we have a number of aerial water towers to provide cover in extreme situations. The Armed Forces also have 30 new thermal imaging cameras.

    "The history of this dispute has been one of last-minute ultimatums and walkouts by the FBU. Let no one in this House be in any doubt. The switch from a series of eight-day strikes before Christmas to a programme of one and two-day strikes after Christmas does not represent a change of heart on the part of the FBU. Far from it. All it represents is a change of tactics. Its aim is minimum pain for FBU members and maximum disruption for everyone else.

    "It is the Government's duty to maintain public safety and we will continue to do so. But the House should be aware that so far this dispute has cost the taxpayer more than 70 million. And costs continue to rise at 1 million a day for as long as the dispute continues—whether or not the FBU is on strike. That money has not come from the reserve. It has come from programmes in my office designed to help the most needy in our communities.

    "The FBU is now trying to shift its ground by claiming that this dispute is about job cuts and protecting the Fire Service rather than pay and modernisation, as set out by Sir George Bain's independent review of the Fire Service.

    "The FBU is not interested in the modernisation agenda. It has put out false and misleading information about thousands of job losses and hundreds of fire station closures. That is a gross distortion of the proposals set out by Sir George Bain. Sir George made it clear that there is absolutely no need for compulsory redundancies. Modernisation will not lead to hundreds of fire station closures. Instead, it will lead to a better Fire Service, greater safety for the public and more rewarding careers for Fire Service employees.

    "The FBU is now seeking a judicial review of the proposed repeal of Section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, now before the House. That is a sign of how completely it is opposed to modernisation. The repeal of Section 19 will do no more than put the management of the Fire Service in local hands. All it removes is a bureaucratic obstacle, but it is an

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    obstacle that the FBU has used to good effect to protect its outdated working practices. Contrary to what the FBU claims, local communities will still be consulted on Fire Service priorities and plans. That has not changed.

    "Let no one be in any doubt, the FBU's claim remains what it has been for the past nine months—a 40 per cent pay rise for fire fighters and 50 per cent for control room staff without any commitment to modernisation whatever. No change. No compromise. No modernisation.

    "Talks at ACAS started on 4th December. There have been days and days of talks about talks. And yet the FBU has walked away without any substantive negotiations.

    "I have had numerous discussions with the General Secretary of the FBU and the Government have given him the benefit of the doubt. But this latest strike—coming so soon after the terms of reference for the negotiations were agreed—leads me to conclude that the FBU executive is not serious about a negotiated settlement.

    "This latest round of strikes confirms that the FBU is playing cat and mouse with the employers, the Government, public safety and public money. The Government and the local authority employers want to see a fully modernised Fire Service providing the best service to the public. The FBU refuses even to negotiate about that.

    "The employers are rightly now insisting, in the light of the past two months of strike action, that talks cannot take place while strikes are in progress or threatened. As yesterday's decision by the FBU showed, the union is determined to press ahead with further strikes. As a result, negotiations have broken down and we are in deadlock.

    "The Fire Service is not like any other industry. The public cannot be put at risk on a weekly or monthly basis. It is essential to resolve the dispute.

    "We all want to see a resumption of talks. The employers have rightly put forward a fully costed proposal on pay and modernisation based on Sir George Bain's agenda. This is the only basis for negotiations. But the Government have to be prepared. The FBU may continue to refuse to discuss modernisation. So, it is against this background that I have concluded that the time has come to take a further step to help break the deadlock.

    "As a matter of priority, I will introduce legislation in the public interest to take new powers of direction over the Fire Service. These powers will, it is to be hoped, bring a new and much-needed sense of reality into future negotiations.

    "I will discuss through the usual channels, including the devolved Administrations, the best way forward to introduce this legislation. I will draw on provisions in the Fire Services Act 1947, which were repealed in 1959. Those provisions allowed the Secretary of State to specify the pay, terms and

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    conditions of the Fire Service. In addition, we will propose powers to direct the Fire Service on its objectives and its use of facilities and assets.

    "Legislation in itself will not end the dispute, but it is prudent to take these powers to use if necessary to help reach an agreement.

    "The current strike is due to end on Thursday morning. I hope that the FBU will sit down again and negotiate with the Fire Service employers. But for the avoidance of doubt, the Government's position will not change. We will continue to implement the Government's part of the Bain agenda. We will continue to resist these strikes. And we will continue to do all that we can to protect public safety—especially at a time when there is a heightened level of terrorist threat and the Armed Forces are under increasing pressure from competing demands.

    "Mr Speaker, it will take some weeks to put in place the legislation and the discussions and consultation I have proposed today. Meanwhile, the whole House will agree that the best possible outcome is for the employers and the FBU to reach a negotiated agreement. I urge the FBU to call off further strikes and get back to the negotiating table".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.27 p.m.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating yet another Statement on the fire fighters' situation. While I and the House appreciate the courtesy which is extended to us and the information which is brought to us on a regular basis, it is becoming wearisome for everyone. As I and the Minister have said, it is about time the matter was quickly and equably resolved. It is extremely unfortunate that the fire fighters decided to step back from the talks which started at ACAS. I hope that when they return on Thursday, those talks will be renewed and reach a beneficial conclusion.

We cannot overlook the fact that the fire fighters' job is currently being done by retained fire fighters for whom there is little reward and for whom Bain rightly says there should be proper reward based on the same pay as that given to the fire fighters. All of us believe that that must be a proper outcome at the end of the discussions, if only to acknowledge their loyalty and the service they have provided throughout the dispute. I join the Minister in thanking not only them but also our Armed Forces, who earn much less than the fire fighters and substantially less than the fire fighters would earn if they achieved the objectives they laid out at the beginning of the dispute.

We cannot continue to rely on our Armed Forces. We know that and the country knows that. It is abundantly clear that over the next few weeks—as has been the case during the past few weeks—the attention of our Armed Forces will properly be engaged elsewhere. So in a few weeks time we may not have sufficient Armed Forces available to take over this role.

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In the situation of a possible war—but certainly of the withdrawal of many of our troops to a potential front—why will not the Government use the legislative powers they already have at their disposal to prevent further strikes? With each Statement I have asked repeatedly why the powers to seek injunctions are not being used. Each time the Minister has replied that they are under review and will be used if necessary. But nothing happens and we end up in the same situation, over and over again, of talks starting and the fire fighters then going on strike.

What further thought is being given to using the legislation that is currently available to the Government to put a stop to these strikes? Will not the Government give thought to doing that before they start considering the value of the new legislation—or the old legislation which was taken out of the provisions of the 1947 Act but which the Deputy Prime Minister now seeks to put back in.

We on this side of the House wish to consider very carefully whether the action proposed by the Deputy Prime Minister will be beneficial. If we think it will, we shall of course co-operate with the Government. But it will take time—more than a few weeks at the very least—before legislation that may be of use to the Government in this situation is on the table. However, there is no guarantee that even that legislation will have the slightest effect on the Fire Brigades Union, which appears hell-bent on defying every obstacle put in its way. Even if the legislation is put in place in a timely fashion, what will happen if the union still refuses to co-operate? Again, I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that current legislation could be used.

Bain's proposals have been on the table for some time now. The proposals in the interim report, which was rushed forward in an attempt to prevent further strikes before Christmas, would, as matters stand at the moment, bring a substantial extra reward to the fire fighters. But we have been told by the fire fighters that the proposals, which embrace modernisation, will bring with them substantial job losses for fire fighters—I believe a figure of 4,500 has been produced—and the closure of 150 fire stations. In the Statement, the Deputy Prime Minister makes clear that he does not believe that to be the situation. He suggests that there would be, or could be, some job losses, but without compulsory redundancies. Can the Minister give a clearer view of what he believes the implementation of Bain's proposals might mean under those circumstances?

The cost of the dispute is becoming very substantial. I watched the Deputy Prime Minister giving evidence to the effect that he had already spent 70 million that could have been usefully used elsewhere. As he says in the Statement, the dispute is costing more than 6 million per day. But, whatever happens, at the end of the dispute there will be transitional costs for the introduction of whatever new pay scale comes about. I know that there is a real concern among local authorities—the employers—about the kind of transitional funding that will be available at that stage.

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I bear in mind what was said in an earlier question about the forthcoming increase in council tax. Potentially, these additional costs could add extra money to that. Can the Minister say whether or not transitional resources will be available when, it is to be hoped, we get to the end of the dispute.

The offer from the employers has also been on the table for some time. If we are not going to get any further with ACAS, at what stage will that offer be removed and the negotiations moved back to stage one?

I am also glad to note from the Statement that at last—I say "at last" quite heavily—the red fire engines have been made available to the Armed Forces and the retained fire fighters so that they are at least not fighting fires with one hand tied behind their backs. That is a good and useful move. I am only sorry that the point was not taken when we on this side of the House first made it and that those fire engines were not made available earlier.

If the situation was not so tragic this would indeed be a farce. There have been repeated Statements; repeated walk-outs; repeated television appearances of the general secretary making repeated suggestions that he was rushing off to come to an agreement with ACAS; repeated withdrawals; and repeated strikes taking place one after the other. I return to what I said earlier: if the fire fighters are to seek judicial review under Section 19 of the 1947 Act, why do not the Government get in first?

3.36 p.m.

Lord McNally: My Lords, like the noble Baroness, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. As he is aware, we on these Benches have expressed our thanks and admiration to the Armed Services for carrying out a difficult job in difficult circumstances, and we do so again. We also associate ourselves with the noble Baroness's thanks to the retained fire fighters.

We have supported the Government in seeking a fair and realistic settlement to the dispute and we support the Government in giving priority to public safety. But why is it that the famous gibe of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, about the last days of the Major administration—"a government in office but not in power"—keeps running through my head? The Statement has all the hallmarks of a panic measure rather than a considered strategy.

That is not surprising because, during the course of the dispute, I can think of at least seven Ministers who have been wheeled out a various times to try to explain government policy. Sometimes the Government have been loftily saying that the dispute is a matter for the unions and employers; at other times they have intervened in minute detail. Instead of a clear strategy for industrial relations and public service pay, we have the usual cocktail of bluster and panic from Mr Prescott. Will the Minister tell the House which Minister in the Government is ultimately responsible for industrial relations policy? The bitter tone of the Statement suggests that the Deputy Prime Minister is not the man to do that job.

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Can we be told whether there is a coherent policy towards the public sector, or is each dispute to be handled by a separate department on an ad hoc basis? Would the Minister now care to answer a question posed by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, before Christmas. Have the Government a norm for public sector pay settlements?

Is this emergency legislation part of the review of the Employment Relations Act 1999? If not, how is that review progressing? What kind of parliamentary timetable do the Government envisage for the legislation? The Minister referred to discussions through the usual channels, but will it be rushed through both Houses in 24 hours? Is it that kind of emergency legislation?

For five years the Government have been living off the fat of the Thatcher industrial relations reforms without giving any thought to a long-term industrial relations strategy. Warnings of a need for urgency have been pooh-poohed and patronised. Ideas such as compulsory and binding arbitration have been sneered at—again today, I notice, by Mr Prescott—or dismissed out of hand. It is not to dodge the issue to say that we would not have started from here. We are here because the Government stuck their head in the sand for too long about changes in public sector unions and in our industrial relations climate.

So do the Government intend to use the breathing space between now and the introduction of emergency legislation to make further proposals themselves? Or is this the domestic equivalent of sending in the weapons inspectors? For example, as the noble Baroness asked, will the Government still finance transitional funding for modernisation if a deal can be struck? Surely, at this stage it is absolute madness to withdraw the offer of funding. Will the Minister clarify that point?

There is still a good deal of goodwill among the public sector unions for modernisation based on multi-year pay deals. The latest edition of PSM, the public service magazine, states that,

    "they guarantee to some extent stable industrial relations where successfully negotiated. Where linked to structural reform, they have also often successfully addressed major staff concerns and provided a greater degree of certainty. Members have largely welcomed them".

We on these Benches urge the FBU to return to the negotiating table. We believe that a multi-year, structural-reform, modernising pay deal is what will finally settle this dispute, probably around the ACAS table.

The Government may well get their emergency legislation, but if they go down that road and if I were Mr Prescott, I would also keep the telephone number of the Official Solicitor handy.

3.41 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her generally supportive comments on the Government's position. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, at least for his comments, if not entirely for their content. The noble Lord is entitled to take the view that he does, but

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I shall try to deal with the various points that have arisen in response to the Statement by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister.

The first point to bang home is, yes, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. It is a rather wearying process. We come to the Dispatch Box week in, week out, to explain the latest twist and turn in the unfolding of this most unfortunate and regrettable industrial dispute. However, I do not think that anyone can question the Deputy Prime Minister's commitment to ensuring that another place and this House are kept fully informed of developments "straight from the heart", as it were. The way in which the Deputy Prime Minister has conducted himself throughout this dispute does him great credit.

The noble Baroness repeated the question that she has asked from time to time with regard to the possible war, the withdrawal of troops and using other legislative powers at the Government's disposal. The decision to seek an injunction rests with the Attorney-General—it is his decision alone. The matter is rightly kept under constant review; the Attorney-General is, of course, kept informed of developments and is no doubt well aware of the current situation.

The noble Baroness asked what would be the impact on the current dispute of the legislation we are considering and proposing to introduce. It is our hope that the FBU and its members realise that further strikes are futile. We have underlined that point by bringing forward our proposals. If, when the Secretary of State had decided on a settlement, perhaps using those powers at some future point, FBU members remained on strike, we should have to review our options and give further thought to what we might wish to do. I repeat the comment made on many occasions by the Deputy Prime Minister that nothing has been ruled out.

A number of references have been made to the Bain proposals. The noble Baroness referred to what I believe to be a calumny; namely, the often repeated message from the FBU that there will be four and half thousand job losses and that 150 fire stations will be closed. The references to job cuts and station closures are entirely false and misleading information. I can only repeat that, as Sir George Bain said, there is no need for any compulsory redundancies. Modernisation is about improving the way in which the service works to ensure that the health and safety of our nation is preserved. It is about saving lives, not costing lives; it is not the situation as portrayed by the FBU during the course of the dispute.

Obviously, we continue to be concerned about the cost of the dispute. In his Statement today, the Deputy Prime Minister has spelt out exactly what that cost is. We said that any pay deal must pay for itself over the next three years. That is very much in line with what Sir George Bain concluded in his recommendations. Also in line with the Bain proposals, we acknowledged, at the time those proposals were brought forward, that some transitional funding might be needed and that we should examine sensible proposals to fund the transitional period. It is obvious

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that, the more we spend on fire cover, as a product of that there may well be some squeeze on the transitional funding; but we remain committed to the principals put forward by Bain and to the way in which we see the Bain proposals being rolled out.

The noble Baroness raised a question about the employers' offer. She commented that it had been on the table for some time. That is quite right—too long. Our belief is that this dispute should have been settled a long time ago. She asked at what stage the offer would be withdrawn. This has to be a matter for the employers. They have rightly said that it is unreasonable to expect them to negotiate against the backdrop of a strike or strike threat. But that offer remains on the table; it is for the employers to seek agreement with the FBU. We hope that once the latest 48-hour stoppage is concluded the FBU will return to negotiation and "talk, rather than walk"—the second has too often been the case over the past few weeks.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, properly raised the question of responsibility for industrial relations policy. In this situation, the Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for the fire service and for handling and prosecuting this dispute. Appropriate arrangements are in place for collective discussions on industrial relations issues across Whitehall, but in this instance it is the DPM who is in charge. We should do all we can to provide him with support in ensuring that the dispute is brought to a speedy end.

With regard to emergency legislation, as the Deputy Prime Minister has said, we shall consult through the usual channels and with the appropriate bodies. Legislation will, we predict, take weeks rather than months. It is not our intention to "bounce" this House or another place, but to introduce it in a timely fashion, taking account, as one properly should, of the usual channels and the usual procedures. But it is important legislation. As I said at the outset, it underlines our commitment to ensuring that no one is under any illusion as to our determination and resolve in bringing this dispute to a timely end.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, asked whether the Government have a norm for public sector pay settlements. The FBU's negotiating position remains that it wants a 40 per cent increase for fire fighters and a 50 per cent increase for control room staff. All that I can say relates to that. An increase of that magnitude would obviously have an enormous knock-on effect and would destabilise our economy and the economic future of this country. We cannot agree to that approach. I hope that the FBU sees the sense of what we are saying and that it will return to the negotiating table. That must be the hope of everyone in this House. It is certainly the Government's firm resolve.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, is the Minister aware that his common-sense approach to this difficult issue is much preferred to the declaration of war issued by the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats today? Is it right that all hope of resuming arbitration is out of the

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question? The Minister has inferred that the Fire Brigades Union will see sense; but is he aware that it is important that the Government assert clearly the possibility that this very grave dispute will be settled if the unions and its members see common sense?

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