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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support on this. We have been grateful to all sides of your Lordships' House, who, to date at least, have given the Government fulsome support in their position. I entirely agree with the noble Lord that we are looking for an injection of common sense within the FBU leadership. Sadly, that has not been displayed. It is greatly to be regretted. I hope that the FBU considers what has been said today very carefully; that it rethinks the issue; considers the position of its members, who must be more than frustrated and wondering how events will turn next; and return to the negotiating table. The machinery is in place. More than a month ago, the FBU welcomed the opportunity to put its case in front of ACAS. But there have been talks about talks, and so far the FBU has not moved on the issue.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I congratulate the Government on, at last, having proposed to do something. It is difficult to assess objectively the value of what they propose to do. We have no idea other than that there will be a series of emergency directions. Be that as it may, the measures may or may not resolve the dispute, which has hardened, largely through the ineptitude of the Government, who did not know how to deal with it.
As usual, the fundamental question was raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who rightly said that the Government are floating alongit is not quite how he said iton the coat-tails of Lady Thatcher, and had not really extended the relevant concept of law to deal with the situation that has now arisen. That leads to the fundamental problem: shall we deal piecemeal, ad hoc, with every dispute by emergency legislation, in consultation with the Attorney- General and the usual channels; or shall we settle down and try to establish a general concept of law to deal with disruption of public services by collective industrial action? I respectfully suggest that a piecemeal approach using emergency legislation must serve to deal with an emergency. It affords no substitute for a stable system of law established by Parliament.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I greatly respect the point of view that the noble Lord has put forward in this regardhe has expressed the view consistently. I know that he has played a part in the past in advising on industrial relations law and has sought to introduce legislation that no doubt gives effect to some of the points that he makes. But, this Government have been acting in a concerted way throughout the dispute. They have respected the negotiating machinery that is properly in place. They have reminded the unions and the employers of the importance of the positions that they occupy. I cannot agree with the assertion that we are, "floating along on
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, in my experienceand I have been around this place for a long timeif the Statement that he has just repeated had been made by a Tory Minister, there would have been howls of anger and dissent from the Labour Benches? The Government, in respect of a particular dispute, are using a huge hammer to crack what could be a small nut. To take control of the Fire Service nationally and to seek to impose their will on a trade union is not what the Labour Party is about. It effectively removes the right to strike from a democratically elected union in this country.
Is that really what he wants? Is that the Government's intention? If that is soand, believe me, it is so, because he said it would be futile for the unions to strikeevery other public service union is under threat if it takes strike action to gain what it considers a legitimate settlement. I am most disappointed in the Statement. We are supposed to have a new Labour Government; but it is becoming clear to some that we have an anti-Labour Government.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it will not come as a great surprise to your Lordships that I cannot possibly agree with a word that the noble Lord has spoken. I do not think it is right that we should have a situation where an important, major public service such as the Fire Service acts irresponsibly and undermines public safety. It is not part of the role of any government, not least a Labour one, to do anything to undermine public safety. That is why we have adopted a firm position in this dispute.
That says nothing about removing the right to strike. We fully respect that the fire-fighters' union has that right to exercise. But it also has a responsibility to conduct industrial relations in a way that does credit to trades unions generally, and to its union in particular. At the moment, it is hard to see that that is the case. I simply use this opportunity to urge it to return to the negotiating table and to use what has been put before it on the table in the past as a reasonable basis on which to formulate a settlement. That would be in the interests of FBU members and in the greater interests of the public. It would do the Fire Service great credit, too.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, is not the FBU very likely to interpret today's Statement and the legislative provision it contains as simply a threat designed to get it back to the negotiating table? Can the Minister make it clear that the Government intend to go ahead with the legislation whether or not the FBU comes back to the negotiating table?
Secondly, I echo the remarks of my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway and the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that it is not right to use the occasional dispute with one union as a basis for legislation that should apply to vital public services generally.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, before any confusion about legislation enters into this discussion, let me make it plain that what we are suggesting today relates simply to the Fire Service. To pick up the noble Lord's earlier point about threats, it is not, in our view, a threat. We are simply making our intention plain so that the dispute moves on and the FBU is under no illusions as to the strength of the Government's commitment to their position. I hope, as I said earlier, that the FBU reflects calmly and clearly on what has been said today and takes the sensible stepthe step that everybody in your Lordships' House wants it to takeof returning to talks later this week when the current 48-hour strike concludes.
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that some of the statements being made here today are somewhat far from the mark? I am old enough to remember the Conservative government's 1970 employment legislation and experienced the raft of anti-trade union legislation enacted in Margaret Thatcher's time. However, we have a Labour Government who have been extremely patient and are not attacking the public sector workers. The situation would not necessarily happen elsewhere because other public sector workers, or most of them, would not require the Army to do their job. That is a very different situation. Given this crisis, and a possible war in Iraq, the Labour Government are taking a stance against the Fire Brigades Union that is sensible in view of the safety precautions that this country needs.
The people of this country are the Government's responsibility. The Government have taken this measure with a view to bringing collective bargaining closer; it might also be a spur to bringing about a settlement. I do not see it as extreme, compared with measures taken by previous Tory administrations.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, has far more experience of industrial relations than I, and I take great encouragement from what he has said. The Government have been patient and it would be understandable if that patience began to evaporate. We have taken a clear trajectory on this and have been measured in our response, but public safety must be paramount. We must do all that we can to ensure that there is proper and adequate fire cover in our nation. If what we propose today helps us establish that in the future, it is a valuable step. I am sure that that is what we will be seeking to do. We remain patient and diligent, and we hope that at the end of this dispute, there will be a return to cooler and calmer thinking, particularly on the part of the FBU, on the way in
Lord Glenarthur: My Lords, in the mid-1980s, as a Home Office Minister, I had responsibility for chairing the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. It was a useful body that brought together the Government, the Fire Brigades Union, the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association and others. As far as I know, it still exists. It was not a particularly easy ride. Nevertheless, it was a useful forum and I hope that when the Government consider the form of the emergency legislation that they will bring before both Houses, they will bear it in mind that that forum is a useful way of making at least some progress even if it gives Ministers a hard time, as in my case.
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