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Lord Rooker: My Lords, it is a sunset clause; there is no argument about that. It is a general principle in English law that action taken before the repeal of legislation authorising that action is not affected by the repeal of the legislation. If an order were made, it would not fall under the terms of the sunset clause. The point about the sunset clause is that if an order is not made within two years there will be no power to make one as the relevant Act will no longer exist. The Act will be off the statute book.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, that was precisely my point. The order cannot be made after the two-year period but if the order is made before then it stays. It hovers on the horizon. The effect of the order will remain after the end of the two-year period. The Minister has confirmed that.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I refer to the part of the Bill that gives the power to rescind the order after the two-year period, if one has been made. We do not know what circumstances will arise. If the order has been made, and the Act has been invoked—which is what we do not want to do—clearly there has been an incident and the Secretary of State has had to take certain action. We cannot say that at the end of the two-year period that action will stop because we do not know the relevant circumstances. However, one would need the power to rescind the order at some time after the end of the two-year period.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I do not think that the Minister and I disagree about the matter. Of course,

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there is a power to rescind an order. It is a power not a requirement. I cannot immediately think how one could phrase a requirement in the circumstances. I thank the Minister for that immediate response. I did not expect to receive a response for about another hour.

My other question concerns the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Minister mentioned its reference to Article 6 of the European Social Charter and to Article 8 of the ILO Convention 151 and said that the Government regarded the Bill as compatible with both articles. As I understood it, the Minister said that the application of the Bill, when enacted, will meet the exemptions. The National Joint Council asked whether the Bill itself met the exemptions. In a sense, that is a similar point. The Government are saying, "Trust us. The way we deal with it will meet the issue".

The Library research paper introduces the Bill by saying that it would,

    "allow an imposed solution to the continuing fire dispute".

In football parlance, it may be a result, but I question whether it is a solution. We on these Benches do not believe that an imposed solution is a real solution.

7.5 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I urge the Government not to proceed with the Bill. I wonder why it should now be thought necessary. I was not impressed by the reasons given by the Minister.

The union has reached a settlement. I have seen a copy of the agreement. It provides for not only the staged pay deal, which will bring the members' earnings up to 25,000 per year in three stages—not an enormous amount of money for a job that demands skill and involves hazards—but also a pay formula for the future. There is a section dealing with integrated risk management plans, which fire authorities are required to produce, and a section on duty systems. Moreover, both sides of the National Joint Council recognise that fire fighters are now placed in the associate, professional and technical occupational classification in the Government's new earnings survey, which I understand means a great deal to the fire fighters.

We know that the recent delegate conference of the union voted three to one in favour of the agreement on the recommendation of the leadership. However, it is clear from press reports that it was not an easy win for the leadership. Resentment and dissatisfaction had been growing within the service and not all sections were happy to go along with the leadership's recommendation. I believe that that was particularly true in London, but it may also have applied to other areas.

The dispute was long and for much of the time attracted a high level of public support. Furthermore, the members on strike behaved reasonably and responsibly. In the event of the possibility of fire threatening lives, they left their picket lines. There was no question of their putting lives at risk on account of the dispute. Why, therefore, do the Government want

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this Bill, which gives them power to impose settlements? Admittedly, the Bill contains a clause that limits its life—the sunset clause. But why introduce the Bill now when most of the issues have been resolved and the Government apparently have a settlement with which they can live?

The union has asked that the Bill should not pass. I have received a letter from the FBU, which states:

    "We believe that the resolution to the pay dispute now means that the Government's Fire Services Bill, which would allow the imposition of a pay settlement on the Fire Service, is even more unnecessary and unjustified. I therefore hope that the Government will decide not to continue with this piece of erroneous legislation".

It is signed by Andy Gilchrist.

Although it may not be the Government's intention, the Bill seems to represent an attempt to humiliate the union. That is how it will appear to the sections of the membership who were unhappy with the agreement, which could make matters more difficult for the union leadership in future discussions to be held within the scope of the agreement.

I am surprised by the Minister's comments, since I know that he has been an active trade unionist and knows how much the trade unions value free collective bargaining. The Bill seeks to undermine free collective bargaining, the NJC and the union leadership, and allows the Minister to dictate terms and conditions at a time when the co-operation of the workforce is necessary to put into operation the procedures outlined in the Bill, particularly the consultative procedures.

The Bill will undermine the leadership and make co-operation much more difficult. That really will not do. I understand the point that the Bill has been passed by the elected House. It is surely still open to us to urge the Government to think again about the Bill and to say, "Please do not go ahead with it. We think that it will be harmful and not at all to the benefit of good industrial relations in the future".

7.10 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I am the third Member on the Back Benches in this House—this makes all three—who is wholly unable to support the Bill. The convention being that on Second Reading we do not turn down a Government Bill, save in wholly exceptional circumstances, I ride by convention, but I want the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to understand that I merely defer to convention and that I am totally opposed to the Bill. What is a sunset clause, for a start? It is a sword of Damocles to dangle over those workmen, so that if they do not toe the Government line—the imposed resolution of the Government—the sword drops.

That to me is anathema. To put workmen in that position when there is no national emergency is anathema. I do not believe that any government of any party should ever do it unless there is an emergency. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, probably feels much the same at heart, because he asked the noble Lord, "Well, what are we to do?".

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What are we to do now that we have got these changes? We have got an accommodation at the moment. Towards the end of July, it should work. Then there are the other stages—I shall not go through them all—but the assumption is that with the good offices of the TUC, and it has given its good offices, and of ACAS, which has also given its good offices, industrial relations shall virtually settle down. If they do not, any government at any time, at the drop of a hat, can invoke Order in Council legislation. It was done in the war; it was done in emergency situations. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, shakes his head, but when we came back after the war, we found three large green books full of emergency legislation, which governed practically everything. That is the last thing in the world that one wants, but in our flexible society, it is a sensible way to deal with what truly is an emergency situation. There is no reason at all why, if, for example, there were a terrorist attack and the firemen were on strike and remained on strike, the substance of a Bill such as this should not be dealt with by Order in Council.

Again, I think that this is such an insult to the firemen. Let us suppose that there were a terrorist attack—we are probably going to get one; it is no use pretending that we will not. Can you imagine that those firemen will not do their duty by their country? I do not. I believe that they will all turn up irrespective of politics or union considerations. I reckon that they would all turn out. The attitude of the Government to assume that they would not is desperately insulting. I understand why the Bill had to be introduced on 21st March, in the light of the Statement the day before in another place, when the sense of the House then was, "for heaven's sake, yes, but let us see whether we cannot resolve the matter without resort to government-imposed terms and conditions".

In those wholly exceptional circumstances—and they were; there is no need to go through them all, including the Armed Forces and the Scots Guards not being able go and having to do fire duty—the Government were entitled at that time to think in terms of this sort of legislation. However, it is apparent, from the comments of my right honourable friend Mr David Davis and the Deputy Prime Minister in that debate, that they did not wish to use the legislation. They hoped that it would not be necessary.

The matter that astounds me is, now that we have reached the state of affairs that the Minister has explained, including various stages and so on, why is there a need to bring the Bill before this House in order that it may be approved and passed into statute? Why do they not leave the matter alone? The Bill is wholly directed against the fire services and their members—whether they are union members or not, although they all are. Is there any government policy on how to deal with strikes in the general public sector? Has any thought been given to the matter—by any party? I do not know. As yet, I know of no such policy of any party. But it is the Government who matter and who are in the driving seat. We have this problem of strikes in the public sector. It is a problem of general

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application that causes substantial damage, discomfort and misery to the country—and there is the threat of more to come.

This type of imposed Government decree, ad hoc, against a single service—the fire service—in circumstances where there is no emergency, is wholly unacceptable. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy—I do not usually agree with much that he says—that there must be some form of independent arbitration to deal with this situation. One cannot proceed—no government should proceed, and if the Conservatives were in power I would say the same—by a form of ad hoc, imposed decree to resolve terms and conditions of employment disputes. The country cannot run in that way. There is truly no excuse for the Government wanting to hold the power in reserve.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and share her regret; I really feel that the matter is one for regret. I share her reservations. That is about all that one may do on this occasion.

The real problem about the Bill is that it is going to be a monumental waste of time and resources, because the Long Title specifies fire services. There is no way in which the Long Title can be extended to include all public services or designated public services. If it is not possible to amend the Bill to deal with the general concept that there must be some form of mandatory arbitral procedure, independent of government, that binds the Government and the parties, what is the object of the Bill? We cannot amend it in that way.

I want to mention one point that is relevant to my objection. It is no time for repetition. The relevant history, problems, devastation and misery occasioned by disproportionate action in our public services, at the behest of the trade unions in those services, has already received consideration on both occasions in the passage of the Public Services (Disruption) Bill, approved on the last occasion on which it went through this House. Fire brigade services were only included as an amendment on that second occasion.

The discussions that we had are relevant to the concept that I advance—it has already been advanced by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy—that the only way to deal with the problem is for the Government, as a matter of policy, to agree to set up some independent, mandatory arbitral arrangement, such as the CAC, whose awards should be binding on government. Until that is done, this ad hoc disposal by complex provisions, albeit with sunset clauses, hardly mitigates the insult to the working people involved and the ineptitude as a means of resolving trade disputes.

7.25 p.m.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I submit to those noble Lords who have done the Fire Service the honour of attending this debate three main submissions for supporting the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord McCarthy to pause for six months.

The amendment finds precedents in the past twenty-five years; I shall not list them. I preface my comments by saying that no one can pretend that the Bill is

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receiving the legislative attention it deserves. True, it was passed through the procedures of the elected House, for which I have the greatest respect. But the Government guillotined it into a few hours, and there were protests. The Bill is time limited, in the sense of a sunset clause for two years, but orders made under the Bill in those two years are revoked only if the Government choose in their discretion to do so. There is no case for this legislation to be rushed through in the interim period before the White Paper and the big Bill.

I am not arguing for the employers; I am not arguing for the union; I am arguing for the integrity and the safety of the settlement dated 13th June.

The first of my three submissions is that the Bill provides the Government with powers use of which will lead them inevitably to a breach of international law by which the United Kingdom is bound on workers' and trade union rights. The instruments are Convention 151 of the International Labour Organisation, an agency of the United Nations, and articles 5 and 6 of the Council of Europe's European Social Charter. The Minister gave his own account of those sources—he will want to look again at Hansard to see how he put it.

In the words of the leading authority, Professor Valticos, articles 7 and 8 of ILO Convention 151 prescribe,

    "the procedures for determining terms and conditions of service of public employees",

as follows:

    "They comprise negotiation between the public authorities and public employees' organisations or 'other methods' which allow public employees to participate in such determination. The settlement of disputes should take place through negotiation between the parties or through independent and impartial machinery such as mediation, conciliation and arbitration".

What my noble friend Lord McCarthy has said about such third-party intervention as essential for the stability of the settlement is quite clear.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights considered the convention in its 8th Report on 11th April. The committee answered the Government's main argument that the Government had been seeking to get a solution by collective negotiation in its letter to the Deputy Prime Minister in this way:

    "However, the Bill would not restrict the use of the power to make orders to circumstances in which collective bargaining has been attempted and has failed to produce a satisfactory result after a reasonable time. It therefore seems possible that an order could be made in circumstances which would give rise to a violation of Article 8 of ILO Convention No. 151".

In this case, collective bargaining has not failed. We have a settlement. The case under the European Social Charter is even clearer: the states parties agree to promote the settlement of terms and conditions by means of collective agreements and to promote the use of appropriate machinery for the conciliation and voluntary arbitration for settlement of disputes. The Government's reply to that is that the charter permits restrictions in the case of emergency, public interest, public health or morals. However, in its letter to my

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right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Prescott, the Joint Committee on Human Rights wrote:

    "The Committee accepts that orders made under the Bill might be justifiable on the ground of public interest and public health. However, the Bill would not restrict the use of the power to make orders to circumstances in which there is a public emergency or collective bargaining has failed to produce a satisfactory result. It is therefore possible that an order could be made in circumstances which would not be justifiable under Article 6 of the European Social Charter".

Everything that we have heard tonight shows that it may be possible—indeed, it is probable—that any orders made would be in that category. I know of no informed observer on these international instruments who does not envisage that the Bill opens the door for flagrant contravention and no Pepper v Hart assurances from the Front Bench can in any way undercut that.

My second and third submissions can be easily stated and they are independent of the first. The Minister, Mr Raynsford, adverted to the second when he said that the Bill gives the Secretary of State the power, if necessary, in the absence of an agreed settlement to the dispute, to impose a settlement. In the letter he wrote to your Lordships' Joint Committee on Human Rights, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister wrote:

    "As to the ILO Convention No 151, Article 8 says that settlement 'shall be sought through negotiation between the parties'. For over a year now, that is what has been sought but without resolution. I am seeking the powers in the Bill because settlement cannot be achieved through negotiation".

That is why it was widely and reasonably thought that if there was a settlement, the Government would not proceed with this Bill. That was the wide expectation of working people, employers and of a large number of other reasonably-minded people.

But the Government foresaw that—they are not lacking in foresight—and quietly invested in another argument that at the time went rather unnoticed. My right honourable friend Mr Raynsford, the Minister, put it in this way when he said that even if there was a settlement, the terms of the employers' offer means that there would still have to be detailed negotiations over the next few months and that it is important that we enact the powers of the Bill so that we are able to intervene if any such negotiations break down.

My noble friend Lord Rooker finally sent me a special letter on Monday to explain that point. He wrote:

    "Under the terms of the deal agreed there remain a number of key issues to be resolved by further negotiations over the coming months".

He went on to say:

    "If the negotiations were to falter, and the dispute flared up again as a result the Government would want to intervene decisively to resolve matters".

His argument tonight was along the same lines. What kind of argument is that? Any and every collective agreement ever made needs negotiation and agreement between the parties in its interpretation and application on the ground.

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The lines of negotiation for the application of the agreement are set out in the clauses of the 13th June agreement, including disputes procedures. It is a rather first-year element of industrial relations that you do have disputes procedures and negotiations for the interpretation and application of collective agreements.

What the Government are really saying is, "We wanted a negotiated settlement", and for all their mistakes I believe that they did, "but we want this Bill now with its powers to oppose our interpretation of any issues we choose on pay, on hours, and on organisation of the fire service in case the parties don't apply it how we say they should". That authoritarian proposition is quite unjustified and strikes further fear of what is to come into many employers and certainly into the trade union movement; a fear which the nation heard well expressed on Sunday on the BBC by the General Secretary of Unison when he said:

    "We will not be treated as the fire-fighters have".

We now have a settlement for this extremely difficult dispute which the parties have not only made but are pledged through their own procedures to effectuate. It was not easily won. The firefighters supported it by a vote of three to one and commentators tell us that at least a third of union members, perhaps more, still feel angry and disappointed. For Heaven's sake give us a period of six months before unsettling the deal with provocations.

The final point that I make to the 15 or 16 noble Lords who have done the service the honour of attending this debate is that, in the spirit of common interest and in the light of what was said in another place, Conservative policy envisages new limits on the right to strike or even to be members of the union, a view which I manifestly do not share. The Conservatives also said that there should be some kind of arbitration. That general policy will certainly not be supported and furthered by rushing this Bill into law in the next two months.

The Liberal Democrat view—I say this with the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who spoke from their Front Bench—is that the Bill is not the right way to resolve the dispute, that it sets a dangerous precedent for the future and that the Liberal Democrats favour independent arbitration. With the greatest respect, I say that that approach provides nothing in relation to the Bill being held up for a few months so that cool heads can look at it again. Frankly, if the matter goes to a Division, the question for them is whether they have the spine to line up with their colleagues in the Commons.

To my friends on the Labour Benches I say that in their hearts they know very well that they did not come to this House to support a Bill of this kind. They know that it will be seen as an affront to trade union rights and to collective bargaining. Today is the time to stop singing the sad anthem of the dispirited that has been so common among us in private, that great number of the 1960s, "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to". It is time to sing a different song and do something honourable for the party of which I have been a proud

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member for 56 years. Join in sending back this Bill whence it came. Give us a few months. Give the Government pause in their pell-mell rush over the edge of a terrible precipice.

7.37 p.m.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for allowing me to speak in the gap. My reason for doing so arises from a number of noble Lords drawing attention to an unanswered question—the distinction between a Bill that somehow is not amendable and a Bill that is amendable. Different formulations were touched on by my noble friend Lord McCarthy, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. It is interesting to list, to identify and maybe to add to the different permutations on this matter. They centre on the proposition about arbitration: compulsory arbitration, arbitration at the request of one party, joint agreement on the selection of the arbitrator, whether ACAS or the Central Arbitration Committee, and so on.

Given the long history, to which reference has been made by my noble friend Lord McCarthy, and now that my mind has been jogged, I remember that the two famous orders, during the war and after the war—1305 and 1376—were different formulas on exactly this kind of matter. Of course, other discussions are taking place as we have this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, raised the issue of whether it would be reasonable to do something aimed at the Fire Service asking where, after a strike has lasted so many weeks—the issue of strikes lasting more than eight weeks is being debated—arbitration fits in to all those matters. That would be a matter to be dealt with across the economy, not particularly affecting the public service.

Does my noble friend accept that these matters can be considered as amendments? Otherwise the case made by my noble friend Lord McCarthy is that the procedure he adopted this afternoon is necessary because the Bill is not amendable although that may overstate the point.

7.40 p.m.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, we should thank the Minister for the time that he took to summarise the situation in which we find ourselves today as regards the Fire Service, which is a little different from when the Bill was introduced.

The Government both here and in another place have made it clear that they are introducing this Bill reluctantly, but, nevertheless, as has been observed during the debate, what they are introducing is an imposed settlement from the centre. Most people find it very hard to come to terms with that issue. People have a great deal of sympathy with the situation in which the Government find themselves. People wish to reach an agreement, but there is almost no support for the method that the Government are using to reach that settlement. Indeed, in this House no one has

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spoken in favour of what the Minister has said today. At Second Reading in another place only one Member of the Government supported the Minister.

My noble friend Lady Hamwee and I have spent quite a number of hours with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, as regards various Bills. He has a habit of saying, "I'm not threatening", but his language and his body language are very threatening. Indeed, that was the case today concerning the position of the House of Lords.

When I agreed to come to the House in 1997, I expected to vote properly to reform it by 2003 and perhaps not have a job at all. But the House is still here. Whether the elected Chamber has passed the legislation, the system applied means that it goes through both Houses. Whether the Minister likes it or not, we have the right to express our views and do our very best by all methods to try to reach the settlement that we want.

We believe that the Government's strategy was right, but their tactics wrong. That is clearly true for many other people. My noble friend has already said that we have a great deal of sympathy with the Government's situation. We may be reaching a settlement without a Bill, which is a very desirable situation. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, said rather more on that issue.

The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, gave us a very good exposition of the history of the matter. I did not know of his role in these issues at an earlier date. It was a very interesting part of the debate. The main point of what the noble Lord said was that many of us believe that independent arbitration, not only in this country, is the correct way to try to settle disputes.

The Minister made much play of the "sunset" clause. It was not introduced by the Government; it was reluctantly accepted as an amendment from a Back-Bench Member of the Labour Party. We have heard from others who are much better versed in the law than I on the problems with that clause. The Minister made it sound as though everything was all right because of the sunset clause, but it is not quite as simple as that. My noble friend Lady Hamwee said so, as did the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway.

Given that we have a sunset clause, it would be very helpful if the Minister were to give us an indication of when we are to receive the White Paper. I believe that that was alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn of Charlton. In view of the proposals that the Government intend to introduce, and if there is to be a permanent settlement and a modernisation of the fire service, we need to know when that document will be available. I hope that one of the big issues that will be addressed in it will be pensions. I hope that the Minister can throw some light on the matter when he responds to the debate.

My noble friend Lady Hamwee asked the Government how the Bill interplays with the rights given to local government in the Local Government Bill, which is still passing through this House. I remind the Government of that question, as we are

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approaching the end of the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn of Charlton, made a very full speech about the problems of complying with international and European law. Again, my noble friend Lady Hamwee referred to that matter.

We have always held the view that a negotiated settlement would be easier without the Bill. Other noble Lords made that point also. We tried to amend the Bill in another place to include independent arbitration in the settlement. Perhaps we were wrong; it might not be possible to amend it. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, we tried to ensure that there was a secret postal ballot, as we believed that that would aid the process.

A subject that was not touched on in the debate is the very difficult time that many retained firefighters have experienced. Their financial settlements have been held up because of the long dispute. It has been a very difficult time for those in areas where fire services have already been modernised. South Shropshire, the area of my honourable friend in another place, is definitely ahead of the game. In Northumberland, where I live, the whole service is run by retained fire-fighters. If the Government are going to enact the Bill, we would like to know precisely how they will deal with that situation. What happens where some areas have modernised and others have not?

The whole sorry saga emphasises one of the Government's problems—their inability to put what they say into practice, particularly on decentralisation. The regions Bill would decentralise, but the Government are not giving away enough power. They say that in the Local Government Bill they are giving away powers. Indeed they are, but the powers are all hedged around bureaucracy, detail and a little bit of clawing back all the time.

The Bill involves a centralised settlement. Employers in local government managed to reach a settlement. However, they could not continue with it: when the Government decentralise and give away power, they are very reluctant ever to give away the financial power that goes with it. If the employers had been able to have the financial power, as they wished, we would not be in the current situation. That highlights the Government's problem.

We have said before, both in another place and in this House, that we think this is the right strategy but the wrong tactics. We certainly agree, as my noble friend said, that pay and modernisation must be linked. We agreed that we needed to set up a review, and we agree with the Bain review.

However, there are problems. When the various settlements have been discussed, obviously there has not been very good communication between the various people listening to what the settlement might be. Clarity of information for members making decisions about offers is very important.

If the Government were to implement the Bill, the practicalities would be quite difficult, particularly as some areas have modernised and others have not. But, above all, it would involve a centralisation of power. Local authorities have not been able to achieve the settlements that they wanted.

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We were challenged as to whether we had the spine to support the amendment. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee made very clear, much as that might be our desire it is not what is normally done in this place. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, agrees with us. Nobody, other than the Government, seems to support the Bill—that applies across all sides of both Houses of Parliament. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, said that the Government really should think again. This debate has shown them that that is the view across this House and another place.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, in his introduction the Minister very nearly provoked me. I have always been a radical on the reform of your Lordships' House and it is very tempting to persuade him to get his colleagues in another place to do something drastic. However, I must not let my personal position intervene.

I am bound to say that I read this Bill with very mixed feelings—a combination of amazement, horror, despair and regret. In the late 1970s/early 1980s, I was chairman of the Association of County Councils' Fire and Civil Defence Committee. I was also a member of the National Joint Committee. The reason for my mixed emotions is the fact that in the fire service nothing has changed. The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, made this point. The settlement in the 1970s which created a mathematical formula for the settlement of pay differences in the Fire Service killed the ability of the NJC to negotiate. As a result, the Fire Service has ossified and the same problems that were there in my time are still there today. The impossibility of changing things is a matter of serious regret.

There is another problem. There is a Jekyll and Hyde characteristic to members of the fire brigades service. When they are attending an emergency, we see their Jekyll characteristic at its best. Unfortunately, when they act collectively—this has been the fact over many years—we see the Mr Hyde characteristic. There has been a build-up which led to the crisis earlier this year. The union embarked on a series of brief national stoppages which eventually coincided with the build-up of the Iraq war. We then began to see pictures in newspapers of soldiers waiting for something to happen and dealing with it competently when it did. Those soldiers should have been somewhere else. Those images did great damage to the Fire Service. People began to question whether the high reputation that they had previously enjoyed was still so thoroughly deserved. I regret that.

There is a sense in which this Bill is equitable. It hits both the employers' and the employees' side on the National Joint Council. The employers are hit because the Bill gives the Minister power over the property which they presently control. It hits the employees because it gives the Minister power to fix and modify conditions of service. To the extent that the NJC must have a share in the responsibility for the present situation, that division is a fair one. But it takes two to reach an agreement.

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Even when there have been attempts to move the Fire Service out of its ossified mode, it has been difficult to do so. I would, and could easily, go into the problems that arise from conditions of service issues. The Fire Service agreements with employees are extraordinary. There are a number of what I would describe as "old Chinese practices" that have no place in this modern age. They must be dealt with.

Like everyone else in the debate, I find the presence of the Bill regrettable. The Government are embarking on a slippery slope. The Liberal Democrats have rightly made much of its being in complete conflict with the principle of devolution that the Government have preached since they came to power, particularly relating to local government.

Looking under the surface at the detail of any such legislation, one finds that devolution has written into it a much greater degree of central control. Here is a Bill that brings that central control slam bang to the Floor. There is nothing hidden or covert about this.

This Bill is here, and it must be dealt with. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway has rightly said that we do not oppose government Bills as a matter of practice on Second Reading in this House, and we will maintain that principle. However, that does not make the Bill right. We must ask the Government where they go from here.

Suppose some other aspect of the public service gets under the Government's skin in future negotiations. Suppose some sector of other public service employees decide that they do not like their settlement, which may well have gone through agreed procedures, and decide to take action against it. We have a deep and fundamental problem. The route that the Government have gone along cannot be sustained in a reasonable society.

It is true that matters in the Fire Service must change. I sometimes feel that I understand why the Government feel that they must have this bludgeon in their hands, but that is what it is. We must recognise it as such. If that is what we are coming to, the Government are heading into fields of unforeseeable difficulty, and they are beginning to sow the seeds of their own destruction.

7.58 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, we have had a wide-ranging debate. Perhaps my noble friend Lord Rooker and I feel lonely, but so be it. A number of important points have been raised. I shall try to answer most of them, but since we are at the early stages of this process some matters must be left for the Committee stage.

I must deal with the Government's reasons for proceeding with the Bill. First, let me reiterate the points made by my noble friend Lord Rooker. As he said, we welcome very much the FBU's acceptance last week of the employers' pay and modernisation proposals. Our preference has always been for the employers and the FBU to reach a negotiated settlement. We are greatly encouraged by the process

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so far and the progress that has been made since the introduction of the Bill. With the headline agreement now in place, we hope that the two sides can move forward in partnership with the Government to deliver a modern, more effective fire service.

As my noble friend Lord Rooker made clear, there is still much to negotiate. Many noble Lords argued that we have a settlement. We have a conditional settlement. In the agreement, the pay increases in stages 2 and 3 are subject to the completion of all the negotiations and consultations referred to in the agreement and, where appropriate, their ratification by the Fire Service national employers, the Fire Brigades Union and the Government. There must also be verification by the Audit Commission. We have made enormous progress, but we do not yet have a final settlement.

There is still much to do. We must negotiate a new pay structure, revised conditions of service, a new pay formula, and so on. We hope that those negotiations will proceed smoothly, but noble Lords will be aware—several have said so today—that the history of the dispute has been characterised by false dawns, with hopes raised only to be dashed at the last moment. We must be certain that history will not repeat itself a little further down the line.

It is therefore right that we should proceed with the Bill so that, if those detailed negotiations falter, we can take action to get things back on track. I am sure that noble Lords will not welcome having to revisit the issues if the detailed negotiations that will follow the main agreement fail to make progress and we find ourselves back at square one.

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