Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Fire Services Bill

8.34 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.

Moved, That the Bill be further considered on Report.—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 1 [Powers of the Secretary of State]:

Lord McCarthy moved Amendment No. 18:

"(5A) Where the Secretary of State submits proposals under subsection (3) and the negotiating body or a member of it submits to him within the requisite period a reasoned statement not accepting the proposals, the Secretary of State shall not make the order until the process of assistance is exhausted.
(5B) In that process the Secretary of State shall consult with ACAS with a view to the appointment, after consultation with the members, of assistance from a person or body for the purpose of mediation, conciliation or arbitration, as seems to him and the Service appropriate, in order to resolve the issues without delay.
(5C) Where the issue is the subject of arbitration, the Secretary of State shall take the result of that arbitration into account as guidance before making any further proposals."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we return to a debate that we raised in Grand Committee because we did not receive satisfactory replies at that stage. This amendment has, in effect, three limbs. It suggests that when proposals are met by a reasoned rejection on the part of either one or both of the parties, then the Secretary of State should consult ACAS, the official conciliation machinery, in order to see whether it can help by introducing some form of third-party dispute resolution—conciliation, mediation or possibly arbitration. The amendment merely suggests that if that happens and if, as a result of the initiative taken by the Secretary of State, there is some positive movement, either in terms of mediation or arbitration, then that should be taken into account before the order is issued.

This is, in effect, our final attempt—on Report, at least—to introduce into the consideration of the problems which arise from the Bill the possibility of what I prefer to call an "independent assessment". But the essential nature of the kind of independent assessment that we suggest in the amendment is that it takes place after the introduction of the Secretary of State's orders.

When we debated this matter previously, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker—I am sorry that he is not in his place—said, "Well, of course, we have built into this process all kinds of measures of conciliation, mediation and arbitration. We even have" (and it is true) "a very forward-looking provision whereby we can have ex parte"—that is, one party—"mediation

6 Oct 2003 : Column 95

and arbitration. How could you be more progressive than that?" He said, so far as I remember and he is not here to correct me, "We are a listening government".

A Noble Lord: Where is he?

Lord McCarthy: I do not know where he is but never mind. He said, "We are a listening government. We have listened to what you say and we tell you that all these provisions exist".

However, when this Government say that they listen, I am reminded of Falstaff. The House will remember that Falstaff listened but he did not know it. He said that he suffered—he was rather proud of it—from the malady of not marking; in other words, he failed to reply to the arguments. He failed to provide any additional data which showed that the arguments put forward against him were wrong. He replied in the way—I believe that this is very much the Government's way of replying to points that we have put forward in this debate—that the late Lord George-Brown used to do. He used to say that he reacted to criticisms with what he called "ignoral". The Government are absolutely dominated by the philosophy of ignoral. They ignore all our suggestions; nevertheless, we shall try again. I want to make several points in relation to this amendment.

First, we are not suggesting any interference in the conciliation, mediation and arbitration procedure that exists before an order is introduced. Of course, there are perfectly adequate procedures at present. As far as I know there is nothing at all—maybe the Minister charged with the debate will tell me—that happens after an order is introduced. The moment an order is introduced, the moment the Secretary of State gets on his high horse and says that there shall be an order, there is no appeal; there is no conciliation, no mediation, no arbitration—nothing. We are talking about what happens after the Government have introduced their order.

My second point—I shall be pleased to be corrected—is that I believe that this makes the fire fighters unique. I shall say why and in what way I believe that they are unique. One can take the view, as different countries in different ways have and as to some extent this country has, that there are certain groups of workers in the economy whom we do not want to see involved in industrial disputes; we do not want to see them on the stones. Their work is too essential so we restrict or discourage their general right to strike because they are an essential service. As they are an essential service, industrial action is particularly unnecessary and counterproductive. I accept that.

We say that about the Army; we say that about the police; we say that about the Prison Service; we say that to an increasing extent about health workers, doctors, nurses, paramedics and people of that kind in the health service. To some extent we say that about top civil servants; we say that about judges; we even say it about members of the Government and about the Prime Minister. He is not expected to take industrial action to get decent wages. In a sense, such

6 Oct 2003 : Column 96

people are above and beyond that; they are in a special category; they are essential to the work of the body politic. I accept that.

However, almost all have some alternative, some substitute, some extra something to compensate them for the fact that society does not expect them to use industrial action. The most common factor is that they have a form of pay review, an independent injection of outside expertise, in which the Government make their case, in which the union makes its case and in which the pay body—we have an increasing number of them—takes the decision and says that it believes that the Government and the union are wrong and that the reasonable view is somewhere in the middle.

Where industrial action is inappropriate we have what I call some form of independent assessment. We have that because we are a civilised society. If one does not give that to workers who have no right to use crude industrial power—many of those workers would have a lot of crude industrial power if they used it—they will be either slaves or outlaws. They would be slaves if they had no alternative but to buckle down and do whatever the Government said, or if they took action that essentially was unlawful, they would be outlaws.

In the Bill—I say this with great concern and regret as it is being done by my own party—the Government are making the fire service slaves or outlaws. They are offering the fire service no alternative. Before the chopper comes down, before the final decision of the Secretary of State—who knoweth all things—we are asking that the Secretary of State should explore the possibility of some kind of independent assessment.

Let the Government reject our amendment, but let them defend what they propose. Whoever may or may not be present today, let the Minister's representative say why it is not reasonable for me to suggest that if they do not accept this amendment they are saying to the fire service, "You are either slaves or outlaws". I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I wish to ask the noble Lord a question for clarification only. Does he agree that the amendment could not apply in an emergency situation such as a terrorist attack and that the problem is in the devil of the drafting of Clause 1?

8.45 p.m.

Lord McCarthy: My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord says about the devil of the drafting of Clause 1. He and I have crossed swords and yet we have agreed about the various defects in the drafting of Clause 1. The problem is that the Government will not say in Clause 1—and we have moved many amendments—what is and what is not an emergency situation. Sometimes when the absent Minister is present he says, "Well, of course, we do it in emergency situations only". Then he says that even the previous strike was not an emergency situation. So we do not know where we are.

The noble Lord is quite right. If there were a proper definition of what was an emergency situation, as against a situation where there is no definition, the

6 Oct 2003 : Column 97

problem would be easier to solve. Nevertheless, even within that context and even in the emergency situation, I do not see why, if the Government are aware of what is happening, they should not at that point allow for some form of independent assessment. After all, they are not committed to this. Our amendment commits them only to exploring the possibility of consulting ACAS. If one says, "Well, it is such an emergency situation that something has to be done", the noble Lord may be right.

However, I would argue that in 99 per cent of cases, if the Government know what is coming, if they have good intelligence, there is plenty of time before introducing this kind of extreme legislation to have some form of third party assessment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page