Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I am much obliged to my noble friend. Can he tell me of any major agreement—especially in the public sector—in the past 30 years in which the parties have not had to negotiate serious and central issues in the course of applying that agreement? What would be the difference between this agreement and those agreements, given the Government's case that they must have power to apply their own interpretation of the agreement in its application?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I defer to the noble Lord's knowledge of trade union law. I am not in a position to give him an example. I can say that this is a vital public service. We have had an extraordinarily difficult year of negotiation. This is the Government's way of putting in place a framework that will mean that the public are protected if things get difficult again.

I return to the points I was making. The Bill is a stopgap; it is a long stop. We realise that it would be appalling to define the future of the Fire Service in the aftermath of the dispute with this Bill. As my noble friend Lord Rooker said, the Bill is a temporary measure, designed for a specific task. Our long-term strategy for the service will be set out in our forthcoming White Paper, to be published shortly—I

19 Jun 2003 : Column 1039

can say no more than that—and we will seek legislation to implement the White Paper proposals at the earliest opportunity.

The powers in the Bill will, to all intents and purposes, lapse after two years, by which time we hope that the process of modernisation—with its expected benefits both in terms of public safety and in giving fire fighters even more rewarding careers than they have now—will be well under way.

I should like to—

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I have a point for clarification. Is the noble Lord saying that there will be a White Paper, after which there will be another Bill? Did I mishear him? We would be going slightly mad if every collective agreement had to be ratified by a form of legislation. I may have got it wrong.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I think that my noble friend Lord Rooker, in his opening remarks, said that the Bill will be about the new Fire Service, not about the dispute. I should like briefly to dwell on a few points made by noble Lords. My noble friend Lord McCarthy, in introducing his amendment, twice said that he did not want to traipse over the settlement. I hope that I have explained that this is not a settlement; it must be described as a conditional settlement. He also talked about it being imposed, but it was interesting—

Lord McCarthy: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I do not want to tread over the ground raised by my noble friend Lord Wedderburn but I do not see that this agreement is any more conditional than thousands and thousands of agreements agreed every day. In a sense, the only simple unconditional settlement is one that just depends on giving the boys and girls the money—4 per cent. Once one gets to conditions, all agreements are the same.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, in the view of the Government the Bill is prudent. My noble friend Lord McCarthy and I will have to agree to disagree on this point. It was interesting that the FBU agreed to the conditional settlement knowing that the Bill was in the House of Commons. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised the point about the attitude of the FBU to the agreement. My noble friend Lord McCarthy also talked about arbitration, as did the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and my noble friend Lord Lea of Crondall. My noble friend Lord Lea also argued, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that the Bill was not amendable. We disagree. We think that the Bill is amendable. If amendments must be tabled for Committee, we shall look forward to debating them.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, no, this is quite serious. This is a specific one-object Bill which cannot be amended in the way that I wish to amend it.

19 Jun 2003 : Column 1040

That is what I was saying. It can be amended within its object but not to meet the McCarthy point or my point or the Liberal point.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, this Bill is about one dispute. It is not about the whole public sector. We do not believe that the arbitration road is the one to take. It is right that the democratically elected Secretary of State with overall responsibility for the Fire Service is the appropriate person to settle disputes if the two parties cannot agree. The major causes of disagreement in the recent dispute have been issues which are not capable of being arbitrated—for example, how the service should move from nationally prescribed standards of fire cover to a locally determined risk-based approach to fire cover.

The Bill requires the Secretary of State to consult negotiating bodies on his proposals for fixing or modifying conditions of service. This means that he can take their views into account before making his final decision. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked some very interesting questions. She said that there were two matters on which she would like answers today—that is, the sunset clause and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. My noble friend Lord Rooker leapt to his feet and gave her an answer on the sunset clause—a matter also raised by other noble Lords—to which we shall have to return at a later date.

I can answer some of the questions that the noble Baroness asked. The Bill has no effect on the ability of fire brigade members to take strike action. In the view of the Government, employees' ability to take lawful strike action should be withdrawn only in exceptional circumstances. We have no plans to do so at present in relation to fire fighters.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, if the Bill, as I understood was the case, does not affect the right to strike, is it correct to present it in terms of its inevitably creating a settlement of the dispute? It is possible for the fire fighters to strike against the Secretary of State's attempts to impose conditions.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, the Bill does not in any way prevent strike action. That is an unambiguous and simple statement. The noble Baroness asked about its relationship to the Local Government Bill, and asked what would happen if that Bill were not passed. In fact, that would have no particular impact on the Fire Services Bill. She also asked about the note in paragraph 5 of the Explanatory Notes relating to Wales. That simply means that the Bill will apply to Wales as it applies to England—that is, it contains no specific provision for dealing with fire fighters or fire authorities in Wales.

The noble Baroness raised the matter of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I can only repeat—although I shall not do so in full—the statement made at the beginning of the debate by my noble friend Lord Rooker. We do not believe that we are violating any convention, national or international. I am sure that we will return to these matters at a later stage.

19 Jun 2003 : Column 1041

I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, for his adherence to convention. Many of his comments were supportive of the Government in that he said that one should never introduce a Bill like this in case of emergency. Exactly. Those are the only circumstances in which the Government would plan to introduce this Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, made a number of extremely interesting points, to which I am sure that we will return. We do not agree with him, but I am sure that we shall discuss the matter at a later time.

I have dealt with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lea, about amendments. Of course, amendments can be tabled.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend the Minister for giving way. He may be aware that some of us are considering exactly this question of tabling an amendment. Until we get to the debate about the amendment at Committee stage, about variations on arbitration, all I was saying was that the rationale behind the inability to vote down a Bill at this stage was to leave open the possibility of amending it. That was the only point I was making. Will the Minister indicate that he understands that that is our position?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I fully understand, and I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Lea for clarifying the matter.

The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, raised a number of interesting points. She mentioned the sunset clause. She also asked about the White Paper, which should be coming shortly. The whole question of firemen's pensions will be discussed in the White Paper.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, hates the Bill but seems extraordinarily supportive of the need for change. He referred to Jekyll and Hyde and described the fire service as ossified.

In conclusion, we really do hope that we will not have to use the powers that the Bill will confer. Recent events are very encouraging, but while we hope that the circumstances in which the Government would have to use the powers will not arise, it is right that we take the powers so that we can intervene decisively if the implementation of the agreement between the FBU and the employers is blocked or unduly delayed.

I again stress that the Bill is intended for a specific short-term task—to allow us to deal with the dispute and its immediate aftermath. Our long-term vision for the Fire Service will be set out in our White Paper with legislation to implement its proposals being brought forward as soon as possible thereafter. That is why we have agreed that the Bill, if enacted, should have only a limited life. I commend it to the House.

8.15 p.m.

Lord McCarthy: My Lords, like the noble Lord,

19 Jun 2003 : Column 1042

Lord Wedderburn, I should like to thank all those who participated in the debate. It has been an excellent debate.

I should like to start by dealing with the arguments of those in favour of the Bill, which will not take me very long because that amounted to the Ministers. Their best argument was that the Commons had already decided the issue. That is a very strong argument and I am a great believer in the supremacy of the House of Commons. It was the best argument they had. But the trouble with it is that, as other speakers said, the Commons did not take very long to decide the matter. They could not find more than one Back-Bencher who had a good word to say for the Bill. The rest of them just stayed mum and voted. Although I am a great admirer of the House of Commons, we all know that that is one of the things you have to get used to in the Commons. That is the way they carry on. But they do not necessarily vote in a heartfelt way. Indeed, I do not think that the Ministers commended the Bill to the House in a heartfelt way.

I tried hard to find out precisely what the Secretary of State said about the Bill. That was difficult. I believe—I have marked this at col. 861 of Commons Hansard—that he hoped that the Bill would go away. That was before the settlement. He seemed to say that if only the Bill would go away there might be a settlement, and that if there was a settlement, the Bill could go away. I believe that most of us thought that it would go away. But all of a sudden it is here with us and the Government must explain why it is with us. The more they explain why it is with us, the worse it gets. They say that it is with us so that if anything goes wrong, we can thump the union with it, we can enforce the contract and we can go on doing it so long as we do not get rid of the orders. That does not help them get support, it just makes people feel that it is rather a shoddy affair.

That is why I have had—the Government ought to think about this—such widespread support this evening. I can say with confidence that I have won the argument because no one has defended the Bill, not even the Ministers other than to say that the matter was decided in the Commons. We were told by speakers on all sides of the House that the Bill will be resented by the fire-fighters. Of course it will. We were told that it could lead to precedents. Of course it could, because otherwise why are the Government enacting it now? They are thinking of the future, and not only the future as regards the Fire Service. The trouble with the 1947 Act was that it served as a precedent. But if this Bill is put on the statute book as it stands at present it will be a real precedent. It can serve as a precedent to be applied to doctors, nurses or others if the Government consider that they are being as awkward as the firemen. That was said not by me but by noble Lords on the other side of the House.

Most importantly, I believe that everyone who spoke, apart from the Ministers, told us that the great weakness of the Bill is that it does not allow the trade union side to have a fair hearing. It addresses only employers. It does not even provide for mediation or inquiry. It certainly does not provide for arbitration.

19 Jun 2003 : Column 1043

All you get is the voice of the employers or the ghost in the bargaining table behind the employers, and there is no independence at all. I leave the Government with that thought.

It is not true that we cannot amend the Bill. I never said that we could not amend it. I will give your Lordships a tremendously important example of why that is so. We do not believe that it can be said that the Bill as it presently stands will not affect the right to strike. This is not the time to deal with the matter. This amendment is worth having. We could ask the Government to make it absolutely clear, in a modern version of the terms in the Trade Disputes Act 1906, that as a result of this Bill no court shall entertain an action that detracts from the present protection of industrial action. We could and will find an important amendment, and I hope that everyone who has expressed views about the strong weakness of the Bill will help us to pass it.

We could therefore find an amendment, but we cannot get to the heart of the Bill. We cannot provide the alternative. We do not have the cheek. The Prime Minister and the Cabinet must do it. The Government must decide that they do not want to continue marching down this defile in which more and more workers have no independent assessment of the justice of their cause. That is not possible. They must think of that. I am not going to suggest which particular variation of "independent" is most appropriate. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that it should be a general one, not a particular one. I believe that that is what is being said all round the House.

Let me add two final points. First, I was misrepresented. I never said that nothing had happened in the 25 years since the formula was provided for. The Bain report states that much happened and that many changes were made. The central problem—I say this because I was misrepresented—is that no one has dealt with the basic problem of the varying level of labour demand for the Fire Service. It is an organisation that deals with crises. In the bad old days before the war, the Fire Service was run with part-time workers, such as agricultural workers and dustmen, who attended every time the bell rang, just as they do today. But during the war we put them all on the payroll and gave them decent wages, and we have not since solved the problem.

The management has encouraged the firemen to get second, third and fourth jobs. It is not for this House to complain about second, third and fourth jobs. The present problem, which the Government do not appreciate, is that if we are to get rid of the culture of the firemen having two, three or four jobs, we shall need to provide them with much more to do, and they will have to be paid for it; and that would create a wonderful service throughout the country. Of course, we would not make any money from it. There is no such thing as a self-financed productivity deal in a fully-funded social service that does not charge for its product. The provision of better hospitals and police

19 Jun 2003 : Column 1044

stations costs more money. It may be that better police stations help to catch more criminals, but it is not a self-financing productivity task.

In conclusion, I want to speak to my friends about two points. First, I have sat in this House since 1976 and, although I have abstained, I have voted against my party only once. Therefore, if I voted against my party on this occasion, I would not do so lightly. Secondly, I do not see voting against the period of a Bill, putting it on the top shelf, as the same as voting against the Bill. I see it as the only possible way of dealing with the problem. Therefore, with the degree of support that I have had in the House today, I am left with no alternative but to beg leave to press the amendment to a vote.

8.25 p.m.

On Question, Whether Lord McCarthy's amendment shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 4; Not-Contents, 61.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page