Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I should like to say four things about the nature of this amendment, which has been very carefully thought about and, in fact, argued about, among the movers of it. First of all, on our express wishes, it stands alone in the groupings because it has nothing to do with most of the other amendments to Clause 1. It is nothing to do with ballots. It is nothing to do with abolishing the right to strike and so on. It stands alone and it refers to a series of defined emergencies, disasters or crises—whatever one likes to think of them as—which have been built on a certain amount of study of previous statute. It refers to disasters which in the opinion of the Secretary of State are likely to occur, which we thought included terrorism but also a whole series of other things. We ask in the third part of the amendment for a declaration which need state only the nature of the emergency in general terms. I am happy to give way.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, how can it stand alone if it makes no provision for resolution of a terrorist attack? How can it stand alone without the means of resolution?

10.30 p.m.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord. He will understand the point when he reads Hansard and will see that the amendment stands alone. It covers threats of terrorism, but a great many other things too:

in the jurisdiction, or a situation in which the use of troops is permitted.

10 Sept 2003 : Column 407

The reason why the amendment contains those various elements is as follows. The Water Act 1989 gives emergency powers where there is a threat of disruption of energy. The civil contingencies Bill which the Government are gradually putting into the processes of Parliament—and which I hope will be enacted fairly soon—includes the serious threats referred to in the amendment, very carefully set out; and the position in which the use of troops is permitted is covered by the Emergency Powers Act 1964, and indeed by powers under the prerogative. Those, we thought, were proper precedents to which we could implicitly refer in building up some description of emergency. Some of us thought—I am not sure that we all agreed on this—that the restructuring of the fire service was for the big Bill that is to follow the White Paper, although it will be in the Government's mind. The White Paper having been published, it cannot be absent from the Government's mind and policy.

Having reached a broadly common position on those matters, we then looked with enormous care at what had been said in Grand Committee—about which the populace at large is, unhappily, largely ignorant—and at what happened in the other place, which to us is in a way the most important.

When the Bill was presented for Second Reading in another place on 8th May, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister said that he was reluctant to produce it. I want to refer to government statements in another place and in this House, because the amendment is a genuine attempt to understand the Government's position in the light of what they have said about their wishes—not from snippets; if I quote any matter which is thought not to be in context I shall be happy to read out the context. The Deputy Prime Minister said, quite naturally at the time, that although he would have preferred not to introduce the Bill,

    "after 12 months of negotiations and three separate pay offers, the fire dispute has reached deadlock. Legislation is therefore necessary in the public interest and to protect public safety".—[Official Report, Commons, 8/5/03; col. 856.]

On 1st May, he wrote to the Joint Committee on Human Rights:

    "I would even now prefer the matter to be settled by agreement and without my intervention. However this appears unlikely . . . I am seeking the powers in the Bill because settlement cannot be achieved through negotiation".

That was the first position.

The second position, when the Bill came to this place, was that a settlement had been reached. Government spokesmen—if I may put it in this phrase—accentuated the fact, which in our view is a normal fact of life in collective industrial agreements, that a large number of matters still had to be worked out under the settlement. It would be a remarkable settlement that did not have to have matters worked out under it. The settlement referred to the procedure for doing that in the national joint council Grey Book.

I want as fairly as I can to quote what has been said by my noble friend the Minister in this connection. I shall not repeat at length the quotations cited by my noble friend Lord McCarthy. My noble friend Lord Rooker

10 Sept 2003 : Column 408

has been the government spokesman on this Bill on all important matters, and therefore I can only quote him. At Second Reading on 19th June, he said that the Government preferred a negotiated settlement. He went on:

    "This is so that they can move forward in partnership to help deliver a modern fire service, which can prevent fires from starting in the first place and save more lives when responding to fires that occur".—[Official Report, 19/6/03; col. 1015.]

We entirely accept that statement of policy. My noble friend went on to say that the settlement was dependent on further negotiations on some key issues. He later said that one primary object was to,

    "ensure that the public is properly protected. That is why we intend to proceed with the Bill".

Then he put the issue slightly more widely, as my noble friend Lord McCarthy said:

    "I can assure the House that the Government would exercise the powers that the Bill would confer in respect of conditions of services only if we considered it necessary to do so in order to maintain or enhance public safety; and if negotiations failed to produce an agreement".—[Official Report, 19/6/03; col. 1015-6.]

When the issue came to Committee my noble friend Lord Rooker made the two propositions that my noble friend has referred to. I want to quote him exactly. He said:

    "I am not saying that there is a legal use of the word 'emergencies' but the Bill is a temporary measure. It is time-limited and would be used only in circumstances that would almost amount to an emergency".—[Official Report, 3/7/03; col. GC 265.]

Then at col. 266 he referred, as my noble friend said, to the Bill being used and orders being made in,

    "a crisis situation which will have required the Bill to be used".

Then he said:

    "I have to repeat the fact that it would be quite exceptional circumstances in which we had to operate the Bill. We make no bones about it. I have used the words that the Secretary of State would have to impose a solution to a dispute because he would consider that to be in the public interest".

He said that if the parties agreed to arbitration,

    "it would be extremely unlikely that the Secretary of State would want to intervene at that point to exercise his powers to fix or modify conditions of service if there was a realistic prospect that the parties could, by seeking arbitration, resolve their differences".—[Official Report, 3/7/03; col. GC 282-3.]

Then in col. 204 on 14th July, he said:

    "The point I am making is that the Bill would be activated only if a disaster arose of another dispute occurring with no sign of being settled in which case the Secretary of State—he has made this absolutely clear and we make no apology for it so there is no surprise in that regard—would impose a settlement as a way of drawing a line under the dispute".

I pause to point out that the likelihood of a disaster arising is quite clearly covered by our amendment. We took account of that passage when we drew it up.

In col. 205 the Minister said that,

    "it would take several months to process the current agreement so that it becomes fully operable. Therefore, we need this as a backstop. I am not saying that there are any blank cheques here. It is not an agreement just because two parties agree that we pay the Bill; that is a conspiracy against the public. To that extent, we would not actually foot the Bill".

10 Sept 2003 : Column 409

That passage came after—and this is what I think the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, was perhaps implicitly referring to; I apologise if I am wrong, but I thought it was—an intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. He said:

    "But if the parties do not agree with what we"—

meaning the Government—

    "want them to do, we shall impose the Bill".

My noble friend Lord Rooker said:

    "That is entirely the case. The noble Lord expressed the matter perfectly".

He said that,

    "parties could have a sweetheart agreement",

and that if they did and that it offended government financial arrangements they would say,

    "Sorry, we are not paying the bill".

But in that same context he said that,

    "if they reached an agreement which was absolutely contrary to the financial settlement for the department and went against what had been agreed previously, we would say, 'Hang on a minute'. As I say, the Bill is intended for use in an emergency situation".—[Official Report, 14/7/03; GC 204.]

He also added they would allow the Secretary of State to ensure fire authority assets paid for by the public are available to those providing emergency fire cover in the event of further strikes.

I appreciate the point that the Minister of course had a view about the serious matter of the parties reaching an agreement of which the Government did not approve. We come to that in a later amendment. In that sense, there is a link with that later amendment but no other. Most of those passages rely on the intimation that the Government would wish to use their orders under the Bill in a crisis or emergency or—to use the exact words—"almost an emergency" situation. If we have got it wrong in subsection (2) of our amendment and the description of likely emergencies or forthcoming emergencies is inadequate, I will be happy to accept any manuscript amendment now from the Government, or indeed to have them put down their own form of words on Third Reading.

I think that the amendment is a fair representation of, at least, the core of the Government's position. We do not think—we will come to this on later amendments—that that being absent from the Bill is satisfactory. Nor do we think, especially in the light of a decision, to which I shall refer, in your Lordships' Judicial Committee on 10th July, that statements of Ministers as to the Government's intention, however genuine, proper, honest and straightforward, are the same as legislation. The House of Lords judicially has recently had great moment, in a constitutionally vital case, to refer to that difference. I do not go further with it now; it will come later. I support this amendment and I hope it will be taken seriously as an attempt to bridge a gap which otherwise makes the Bill a very dangerous precedent as far as industrial peace is concerned.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page