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Lord Rooker: This is part of a group of amendments on consultation, therefore I do not intend to repeat the general points that I made with reference to Amendment No. 5, though they apply equally to this group. Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 further extend the requirement in Clause 1(3) so that consultation must take place if the Secretary of State's proposals to make an order or give a direction would affect the employment, hours or conditions of work of fire brigade members, or the recruitment of members. Amendment No. 18 has a similar effect.

Clearly, everyone must be concerned about the potential effect of the proposed directions and orders about conditions of service on the employment terms of fire brigade members or contractors and recruitment of staff. The amendments would mean that the negotiating body would have to be consulted about those matters in so far as the amendments did not stop the Secretary of State making an order about them anyway.

I do not think that the amendments are needed. First, the negotiating body will be consulted about any proposed orders on conditions of service. It will be up to the negotiating body to decide whether, in its opinion, the orders affect employment or recruitment, and to include its conclusions on those points in the report that it makes to the Secretary of State. There is no real need to spell that out in legislation.

Another point that we have not touched on so far, but which is worth putting on the record, is whether or not a Secretary of State is required to consult he is under a general requirement to act reasonably. I know that people say that Ministers always claim that they are acting reasonably, but those actions are always subject to being tested in certain circumstances before my learned friends. The Secretary of State must take advice, but there is a general requirement to act reasonably and not irrationally or on the basis of a hunch. It is therefore extremely unlikely that the Secretary of State would not consult fire brigade staff or their representatives if he thought that they were likely to be affected by the proposed direction.

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However, the directions to fire authorities under Clause 1(1)(b) are not intended to be a direct or indirect way of affecting the employment contracts of fire brigade staff—I wish to make that clear. A direction about the use of assets could have an impact on staff. I accept that point from previous debate. But that is not the route by which we would seek to change the terms and conditions of staff, given that we would have the powers in Clause 1(1)(a).

So far as concerns the detail in respect of Amendment No. 18, which refers to,

    "the community affected by the order"

I have not taken advice. However, I have not got a clue about the matter, as it is as long as a piece of string. I can see the provision being used as a tool for prevarication and lots of debate. In my former life, when a fire station closed for a new one to be built there was a moot point about which community was affected: the one that lost the fire station or that which gained a new one nearly three miles away. As it was the first community fire station in the country, I supported it fully. I am not clear about the matter, so I cannot give my noble friend a positive answer. The term,

    "community affected by the order"

is probably as long as a piece of string.

Baroness Turner of Camden: I thank the Minister for that response. Again, I wish to consider what he has said. I do not know about the Local Government Bill, as I have not been following its progress. Is there anything in that Bill that would cover the community at all?

Lord Rooker: Speaking from memory, no. The Bill contains 120-odd clauses of which only one—or two at a maximum—relates to the fire Act and deals with only Section 19. The rest of the Bill deals with Section 28 and a whole new range of capital expenditure and a new financial structure for local government. But it includes nothing that would help in this respect.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: Before my noble friend finishes with the point, does he not agree that the draft consultation guidance, which, I apprehend, is a consequence of Clause 120 of the Local Government Bill, clearly sets out that many of these matters are to be the subject of consultation with communities, business organisations, local authorities in the area covered by the matters concerned and employee representatives? I shall not read them all out again, as I did so in moving Amendment No. 5. There did not seem to be great difficulty in defining it there. Is the Minister aware that that code of guidance will exist parallel to this Bill?

Lord Rooker: Of course I am, but this Bill has a totally different purpose. As I said, the codes of guidance apply to the Local Government Bill and not to this one.

Baroness Turner of Camden: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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[Amendment No. 8 not moved.]

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton moved Amendment No. 9:

    Page 1, line 22, after "proposals;" insert—

"( ) publish that report within seven days after it is made;"

The noble Lord said: I beg to move.

Lord Rooker: This requires the Secretary of State to publish the negotiating body's report on his proposals within seven days. If someone can tell me why it is needed in the Bill, I can probably give an answer. However, there is nothing in the Bill to stop the negotiating body publishing its report. I am sure that it would wish to do so. I have nothing more to say.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord McCarthy moved Amendment No. 9A:

    Page 1, line 24, at end insert—

"(d) where a report under paragraph (c) shows that there is no dispute or disagreement between the members of that body concerning the matters dealt with in his proposals, whether or not they agree with his proposals or prefer provisions different from his proposals, withdraw his proposals and engage in new consultation with them."

The noble Lord said: I must be careful because I am concerned about how I can get a response from the Minister without falling into one of his reservations. If I understand him correctly, he is telling us that he speaks on a subject only once, whether or not we understand what he has said. I think that he also said that he could not consider anything if he knew that the Secretary of State did not want the power being offered to him. If we are told that he cannot consider anything that he knows the Secretary of State does not want, we will not be here for very long.

The Minister then said that it was a short-term Bill and that he could not consider long-term matters. I wish to say something on an issue that is quite long-term and about which I do not think we have spoken. Perhaps the Minister will tell me that he has done.

The amendment refers to the situation,

    "where a report . . . shows that there is no dispute or disagreement between the members of [the negotiating committee] concerning the matters dealt with in his [the Secretary of State's] proposals"

We suggest that, where there has been a failure to agree and it has reached the point where the Secretary of State has made his proposals, they will consider those proposals. The amendment further states that,

    "whether or not they agree with his proposals or prefer provisions different from his proposals".

If the negotiating parties should agree, the Secretary of State should,

    "withdraw his proposals and engage in new consultation".

In other words, the process begins again. But the Secretary of State must seriously consider the proposals that the negotiating body has made because there is an agreement between the parties.

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This is not about conciliation, mediation and arbitration. It is the amendment where we want to raise the issue of why, if there is an agreement between the parties, it is necessary to have resort to the compulsion in the Bill. The parties agree. Perhaps they agree because there has been a threat compelling them to agree to something that they do not like. Perhaps what they agree is significantly different from the terms of the proposal advanced by the Secretary of State, but they agree. Why should we then have that agreement set aside—perhaps the Government do not think that that would happen—and the Government going their own way?

One could take the view that the amendment is unnecessary because the Government have the opportunity to sit in, to ring up or to control. At Second Reading, I referred to that act as being a ghost at the bargaining table, whereby the Government are there on the employers' side. If I believe what I was told in newspapers when this dispute was not settled—perhaps it is wrong—there were two separate occasions when the Secretary of State in effect blocked an agreement that could have been undertaken between the parties. We never found out quite why—whether he said that it was not detailed enough or that it would cost a lot of money. At any rate, he stopped an agreement; he was an effective ghost outside the room.

It might be argued that that is what will happen now. If the parties disagreed and the Secretary of State had gone far enough to issue one of his orders, he would certainly ensure that the employers' side did not agree something different from what he put in his order. You might say that this is just a decoration effect. I am not certain of that; nor am I certain that the Secretary of State will always have complete control. Some disputes may not involve large sums of money but rather different ways of doing things.

In any case, in a sense, this is a probing amendment, but it is also a decoration. As I believe in collective bargaining, I think that, where the parties agree—if the union can get its representatives outside the room to agree and the employers' representatives can get their side to agree—there is something there that ought to be honoured. I would like the Minister to tell me that, if there were an agreement between the parties, it is inconceivable that the Secretary of State would not accept the results. I shall wait and see. I beg to move.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Rooker: The answer to my noble friend's final question would be edged around in some ways. To any reasonable person, I suppose that the answer would be yes, but it would depend on whether we were talking about the private sector or public sector. If the unions and employers have done a deal that the employers are prepared to pay for, fine. If it happens to be in the public sector and it comes down to Ministers to be accountable, that is asking for a blank cheque, which is not a runner, as we have made abundantly clear.

I shall stick to Amendment No. 9A. My noble friend said that it was probing, but it completely wrecks the Bill. It goes against the whole thrust of the Bill. That is

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why it is not acceptable. Let us take a negotiating body. I do not know about this case, not being the policy Minister, but I understand that there are perhaps two or three dozen members; I know that there are negotiating committees. If a negotiating body of employers and the union held a common view on the Secretary of State's proposed order on conditions of service, the proposals would have to be withdrawn and a new consultation would have to be undertaken.

Effectively, that means that together the negotiating body has a veto over what the Secretary of State proposes to do. The whole point is that the Bill would come into being as an Act to be operated only if the Secretary of State had got to a position in which he wanted to draw a line under any future dispute by making certain impositions. That is what it is about. That is why we will be very reluctant to use the powers. We do not want the powers to be used, and we certainly hope that we do not have to use them. However, if we need to draw a line under another dispute, it means imposing a solution.

The proposal that the Secretary of State has the power to draw a line by making impositions has been approved in principle by both Houses of Parliament. Not to put too fine a point on it, this place unusually voted on Second Reading to approve it in principle. Amendment No. 9A would stand that completely on its head. It would turn it completely upside down. The very parties whose failure has led us down this route in the first place—to get the Bill activated, to make the Secretary of State want to make proposals to issue an order—have then been given a veto to say, "Oh no, we don't like what you're doing". That is why the amendment is completely unacceptable.

The Secretary of State is trying to improve matters, or at least to protect the public in those circumstances. The provisions are not for generality, but for the purposes of the Bill, which deals with a very unusual situation. I hope that my noble friend has probed far enough, and I hope that I have answered him.

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