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Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: That is indeed a generous offer which I may very well take up. I thank the noble and learned Lord very much for his comments. As I was about to do when I was hit from two directions, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: I beg to move that the House do now resume.

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Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

Co-operatives and Community Benefit Societies Bill

Returned from the Commons with the amendments agreed to.

        House adjourned at six minutes past ten o'clock.

7 Jul 2003 : Column GC1

Official Report of the Grand Committee on the

Fire Services Bill

(Second Day) Monday, 7th July 2003.

The Committee met at half past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Lyell) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Lyell): I remind Members of the Committee that if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, we shall adjourn for 10 minutes. Otherwise, we are on Amendment No. 11 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy. I remind Members of the Committee that the noble Lord has already spoken to and moved the amendment and that we are continuing a discussion.

Debate on Clause 1, Amendment No. 11, resumed.

Lord McCarthy: For clarification—we had rather confusing statements previously—are we going on until 8 o'clock or 7.30 as the end of business? Will that be a general rule in future in the House or does it apply just to this Bill? We were told last time that we would be going on until,

    "Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday".—[Official Report, 3/7/03; col. GC 289.]

until we got the Bill finished. Was that true or was it just a joke? Will we finish merely the Committee stage or will we go straight into the Report stage? Some clarification appears to be in order.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): I cannot give any clarification. This is a government Bill, the other House passed it and this House is due to consider, revise, assess and analyse it. At the end of the day, the time will necessarily be made available for the House to come to a conclusion on it. I cannot say how many days or exactly which days; I am not the business manager. The general position is that this is a government Bill and we will proceed with it through the House until we reach a conclusion. On when we might finish tonight, frankly, I will decide on the basis of progress at the appropriate time to move the resolution, and I shall do so having had discussions with my colleagues representing the opposition parties.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: With leave, may I clarify a point in the question of the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy? I appreciate that it was put to the Chair and that it is not the job of the Chair to answer the question. I thought that that was the job of the Whip

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who is in charge of business, but the question was answered by the Minister. I have been in a number of Grand Committees and I attended one Grand Committee that went on for weeks and was a matter of very strong government policy. The Whips who were in charge of the business observed—I have checked on this with the Whips—the normal rule, which is that a Grand Committee rises at 7.30—adjourns is a better phrase—or at the end of business that has been taken at 7.30. That is what the noble Baroness on the Conservative Benches said last time was her understanding. I have been told, and I believe that this has been put to the usual channels—although the extent to which they agreed it was obscure when I read Hansard last time—that this is an abnormal Grand Committee, and the noble Lord the Minister has now said that he is in charge of how long we sit. I thought that the House and the Committee were in charge of the normal conventions. If our rules are to be changed by ministerial order, I suppose that there is very little that the Committee can do about it. I wanted to be sure that that is what the position was.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: Perhaps I can assist the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, by reading a note from the business manager. He says that the noble Lord,

    "is right to say that this would be a departure from usual practice, which is to rise around 7.30 p.m.

    "He is wrong if he asserts that there is anything improper about this. It is clearly allowed for in the attached note, embodying the usual channels conventions about the sitting times of Grand Committees. There are no 'rules'".

If I may, I shall read a relevant passage from the note. It states that although the practice in the 2002 Session has been to rise at 7.30 p.m.,

    "there have been exceptions, presumably by agreement . . . Grand Committee seems normally to adjourn around 7.30 p.m., and I gather that Hansard would appreciate an undertaking not to sit later than 8 p.m. if this can be avoided. I imagine that morning sittings will be unusual; but I note that there was one in this Session, on 11 April".

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: I am very grateful to my noble friend for knowledge of that document. I do not know whether the document is available to all of us. We would be very grateful if a copy of it could be placed in the Printed Paper Office to enable us to understand the position. However, is it possible as a matter of courtesy for those who are in charge of the business to give us notice before we start of when they intend to press business beyond 7.30 p.m.?

Lord Rooker: No.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: I am asking the Whip who has quoted the position.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: The Minister and I speak with the same voice. He has set out the tradition. He will make a decision on when we rise, whether

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7.30 or 8 p.m., based on a discussion with me and the progress of business this afternoon. I hope that that is clear.

Lord McCarthy: The Minister cannot tell us before he decides, but surely he can tell us when he does decide.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: When the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, decides, he will tell the Committee.

Lord Rooker: I continue where I left off in our sitting last Thursday, at col. 292 of the Official Report. I had made a preliminary observation—indeed, I agreed with my noble friend Lord McCarthy—about the success of the Clegg report, but I had not said much about Amendments Nos. 11 and 13. I should like to concentrate on one specific aspect of the amendments.

The amendments require the Secretary of State to establish negotiating machinery if the negotiating body or a member of the body disagrees with the Secretary of State's proposals to make an order fixing or modifying the conditions of service. Of course that goes to the heart of the Bill's purpose—that the Secretary of State should have the power to draw a line under any dispute. That is what the whole Bill is about, and we would seek to disagree and oppose anything that cuts across that.

As I made clear, we would consider using these powers in the Bill only if we thought that there was no realistic prospect of agreement being reached voluntarily. As I said in previous debates, it is open for the parties concerned to use the voluntary procedure and the arbitration procedure applied for in their own agreement. So it is difficult to imagine that even the best arbitrator could seek to reconcile the differences between two parties in circumstances where they cannot agree voluntarily. It would be quite wrong to expect them to do so.

We had an independent review of the Fire Service carried out last year by George Bain and his colleagues. The conclusions of that report were widely accepted, and the Government responded to the conclusions in the White Paper published last week. I would also remind noble Lords that, despite being invited to contribute to the review, the Fire Brigades Union declined to do so. That was its free choice; no one was forcing it to participate. However, the result is that its view was missing in a sense from the deliberations.

Against that background, inserting a requirement for arbitration on proposals by the Secretary of State to end the dispute—proposals which would be made only in the event of what one assumes would be irreconcilable differences between the two parties—seems a complete and abject waste of time. That is particularly the case when it is open to the negotiating body to make a report to the Secretary of State and when it is open to the parties concerned to go to arbitration at an early stage. Therefore, the idea that the parties could not go to arbitration is nonsense. It is provided for in their own agreement.

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Again I remind noble Lords that the Bill does not attempt to write the rules for the long term. It is hoped that the Bill will never be used, and it will be consigned to the dustbin after two years if it is not used. It is designed to deal with a specific and extreme situation. We are not dealing with setting up machinery for the future; presumably another Bill will be brought forward to deal with that. I do not know when that will be but, as a result of the White Paper, the Government will propose legislation when a parliamentary opportunity arises.

Therefore, it is hoped that there will be plenty of opportunities to debate, outside the confines of the recent dispute, the future of the Fire Service, its negotiating position and the negotiating machinery. The recent dispute may have been settled but there are still procedures to be followed through as a result of the agreement reached by the two parties. Therefore, in that respect, we do not see that any useful purpose will be served by incorporating Amendments Nos. 11 and 13 in the Bill.

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