§ 6.24 p.m.
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
The Bill would confer powers for Ministers to fix or modify the conditions of service, including pay, of fire brigade members, and give directions to fire authorities on the use or disposal of property or facilities. However, before I describe the general principles behind the Bill, I hope it will be helpful to your Lordships if I first say a few words about the current position on the long-running pay dispute between the Fire Brigades Union and their employers.
Noble Lords will be aware that on 12th June the Fire Brigades Union recall conference voted to accept the employers' offer of a 16 per cent pay rise over two-and-a-half years, linked to modernisation of the fire service. This is a very positive development following over 12 months of negotiations between the parties, during which the public have had to endure 15 days of national strikes, with emergency fire cover being provided by the Armed Forces.
I am sure that noble Lords from all sides of the House will wish to join me in welcoming the decision of the Fire Brigades Union. It has always been the 1016 Government's preference for the two sides to reach a negotiated settlement. This is so that they can move forward in partnership to help deliver a modern fire service, which can present fires from starting in the first place and save more lives when responding to fires that occur.
In the light of the decision taken by Fire Brigades Union, noble Lords may ask why the Government intend to proceed with this Bill. It is a fair question and I shall set out our reasons.
First, the Government's preference is not to have to use the powers that the Bill would confer. The F BU's decision last Thursday makes it much less likely that we would need to use them. But I draw the attention of noble Lords to the fact that the pay offer to which the FBU has signed up is dependent on negotiations and consultations on a number of key issues being completed and, where necessary, ratified by the appropriate bodies over the next few months.
These issues include the agreement of a new pay structure by 31st October 2003; a new pay formula for 2005 and 2006 to be agreed by 31st July 2003; evaluation of the relative job weights of fire-fighters and control room staff to be completed by 31st July 2003; revisions to the so-called "Grey Book", the document setting out detailed conditions of service, to be agreed by 31st October 2003; a review of the current procedure for settling disputes to be completed by 31st October 2003; and proposals for the revision of the National Joint Council's constitution to he made and ratified before the end of this year.
The pay increases for stage two, which is November 2003, and stage three, which is July 2004, are subject to the completion of all the negotiations and consultations referred to in the agreement and, where appropriate, ratification by the fire service national employers, the Fire Brigades Union and the Government, and verification by the Audit Commission that the intended benefits, including the savings and the various national changes, are being derived locally.
This is quite a list of work to do over the next few months, with specific target dates to be achieved. Many of the things which I have referred to have changed little over the past 25 years. While the decision of the Fire Brigades Union is to be welcomed, and while we very much hope that negotiations on the outstanding issues can be satisfactorily completed, I believe that noble Lords will agree that we must consider the possibility—however remote—that implementation of the reforms contained in the deal could be delayed or put at risk. There have been other occasions during this dispute where agreement has seemed likely, only for hopes to be dashed at the last moment.
Against that background, we want to be prepared for all eventualities so that, if necessary, we still have the ability to draw a line under this dispute and, most importantly, ensure that the public is properly protected. That is why we propose to proceed with the Bill.
1017 For the avoidance of doubt the stage one increase, which is from last November 2002, should be paid by the end of July—next month. The Bill is a time-limited long stop. We do not want to use the powers in the Bill—we hope that we do not need to—but, in the light of experience, it is prudent to have them available. If further problems arise during the forthcoming negotiations and those dates are not met, the public will rightly claim that we should have known better and been prepared. They will say to us, "You could see this coming, yet you did nothing about it". We have done something: we have brought forward the Bill, which, I might add, has been approved by the elected House of Parliament.
Before discussing the details, I wish to refer to the human rights issues contained in the 12th report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It states that the Bill,as it stands at present gives rise to a significant risk of a violation of Article 6 of the European Social Charter and of Article 8 of the ILO Convention No. 151".Article 6 of the European Social Charter requires states to take certain steps to ensure the effectiveness of the right to bargain collectively. Article 8 of the ILO Convention No. 151 states that settlement,shall be sought … through negotiation between the parties".The Joint Committee's report acknowledges that both provisions are subject to various exemptions where there is a public emergency or where collective bargaining has broken down.
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 had failed to produce an agreement. For example, if the detailed negotiations that I mentioned previously failed to produce agreement, we think that it would be appropriate to consider using the powers. It has take more than 12 months to get this far. We could not stand by if there were further breakdowns that either threatened to lead to a resumption of industrial action or delayed the changes to the Fire Service that we believe will deliver improved community safety. As I said earlier, we hope that those circumstances will not arise.
Again, I draw noble Lords' attention to the fact that the powers in the Bill are time limited to two years so the issue will not be around for ever. If the powers in the Bill are not activated after two years, they fall. They cannot be resurrected by order or any such mechanism; a new Act of Parliament would be needed. That is what the sunset clause means. In that respect, I hope that the concerns of the Joint Committee on Human Rights can be satisfactorily addressed.
I hope that it will help noble Lords if briefly I set out the Government's general strategy and vision for the Fire Service. The reform of public services, including the Fire Service, is one of the Government's key priorities. We have already introduced some elements of modernisation. We hope to repeal Section 19 of the 1018 1947 Act, which would remove the need for the Secretary of State to be involved in changes in numbers of fire stations and appliances—the minutiae. That change is contained in the Local Government Bill, which is before your Lordships' House. There will of course be consultation on integrated risk management plans.
The Bill is a temporary measure designed to deal with the dispute and its immediate aftermath, not the long term. The long-term vision for the Fire Service will be set out in our White Paper, to be published shortly—I mean shortly, but I cannot be more precise. The White Paper will set out comprehensive and coherent proposals for a new framework for the Fire Service that we believe will give it a new sense of purpose and prevent the kind of stalemate that has prolonged this industrial dispute. The White Paper will articulate the Government's vision for the Fire Service. It will set out the reforms that we have in mind to ensure that the service is modern, well-managed and efficient, serving the needs of the community and able to respond to the challenges of the 21st century. We intend setting out the legal, institutional and managerial changes required to deliver that vision.
I shall now discuss the powers in the Bill, which simply confers two powers. First, the Secretary of State would be able to make orders to fix or modify conditions of service, including pay. The powers would be similar to those in the Fire Services Act 1947 as originally enacted. Those powers could include some elements of modernisation.
The Secretary of State is required to consult the negotiating body—currently the National Joint Council—on his proposals and consider its comments before making any such order. The Deputy Prime Minister has also said that he will consult his statutory advisors, the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. Orders would be subject to the negative resolution procedure of Parliament.
The second area of the Bill's powers gives the Secretary of State the ability to give directions to fire authorities about the use or disposal of property and equipment. This is primarily aimed at ensuring fire authority assets—stations and fire appliances paid for by the public—are available to those providing emergency fire cover in the event of a strike. But the powers could be used for some modernisation; for example, to provide joint control rooms, or require that resources are distributed on a risk assessment basis.
The Secretary of State is required to consult those who might be affected by his direction, or their representatives, as he thinks fit. The sunset clause means that the powers of the Bill are time limited to two years. This was agreed in another place as an addition to the Bill. This demonstrates that the Bill deals with the current dispute which we hope is over. Longer-term strategy will be set out in the White Paper, and we will seek legislation to implement it at the earliest opportunity.
As I have said, this Bill has been sent from the elected House of Parliament. I have detailed the dates in the agreement to which I have already referred.
1019 There is more than one date of the 31st of July on more than one subject and more than one on the 31st October. Following my opening speech, we have an amendment that would delay the Bill for six months. The juxtaposition of that amendment with the dates I have mentioned, effectively means this amendment completely negates the Bill. It wrecks the Bill and it would be misleading to claim this amendment as a technical delay.
I will be very interested to hear what my noble friend will offer as the alternative if problems arise and the Bill is not on the statute book. We need to hear a decent reason for effectively refusing to consider a Bill sent by the elected House to your Lordships' House. We are a revising Chamber, not a wrecking Chamber. In this House, unlike another place, there are no less than three stages during which to amend a Bill. I still cannot get used to the idea of amendments on Third Reading, although I admit that the Government make use of this occasionally. Do we decline to give a Second Reading to a Bill from another place when it can be amended at Committee stage, on Report and Third Reading? If we do, I say to my noble friend that that is outrageous. We would have a huge task explaining it to another place if we carried this amendment. If my noble friend wants to sign the death knell to the current arrangements in your Lordships' House, this is the way to go about it.
Knocking the Bill on its head for six months when we have agreed deadlines and dates with the trade union, and providing the Government with no long stop if things go wrong, is not very professional in industrial relations terms. If my former tutor, Alan Flanders and my former professor Hugh Clegg were about now, they would be taking my side and not that of my noble friend.
In conclusion, 1 would stress that we value the work of the Fire Service. There is much that is good about it, and we want to build on those strengths. It does need to change, so that it can be more effective and so that firelighters can have the opportunity to have more rewarding and flexible careers—and, most importantly, so that it can save even more lives. By accepting the employers' offer, the Fire Brigades Union has taken the first step along the road to change. We commend the union for that, and we will play our part by showing the leadership that the Fire Service deserves when we set out our vision for the future in the forthcoming White Paper.
While it is prudent to proceed with the Bill for the reasons that I gave earlier, it is a backstop. We hope that we will never have to see it, handle it, or use it. It is not our intention to use it. In light of that, I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Rooker.)
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ Lord McCarthy
rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out "now" and at end insert "this day six months".
1020 The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am not concerned, and no one who supports the amendments is concerned with traipsing over the settlement, saying who is right, who is wrong, why it took 12 months, and so on. It is much more important to move on. I am the last person who would want to traipse over the settlement, because it is arguable that it is my fault.
Some 25 years ago, I was responsible for the formula that settled the last Fire Service dispute; the Upper Quartile of the Manual Workers (Male) Index. Although it gave us peace for 25 years, it blew up at the end. It is possible to argue that those of us who were concerned with that should have foreseen that it would last only for 25 years, and we should have said that we wanted it to be periodically reviewed. We did not do that, and in a sense I feel a little guilty about that. I do not want to traipse over the settlement; everyone makes mistakes. I want to talk about the process.
I am asked why we are doing this by amendment. The true, real and substantive reasons will emerge as I proceed. The quick answer is that what we want to do with this Bill cannot be done by amendment. We want the Government to go away and think again about the imposition of what is not arbitration. It pretends to be arbitration; it is not arbitration; it is an imposed settlement. The Government should pause to consider the purpose.
Some might question what happens if it all goes wrong in six months' time. Well, if it all goes wrong in six months' time, the Bill will come in. That would be a wonderful reason to introduce an imposition. I will come back to that later on, but in general terms, those are the two reasons.
Finally, for my preliminary chat, I want to declare an interest; not a financial interest, but an interest that the whole House should share. We all have an interest in clarity; this is not clear at all; we all have an interest in equity; this Bill is not fair; and we all have an interest in common sense. The Bill at this stage is an insane Bill. It is a botch-up. We have seen quite a few botch-ups; this is another one. It is halfway between a cock-up and a conspiracy.
It would be much better, and easier for industry, and the attitude of the unions, the Fire Brigades Union and the employers, if the Government buried this altogether. It would be better if they took it away and thought about it, and came back after a pause of six months with a Bill, the broad outlines of which I will come to now.
Why do I say that it is not transparent? The Minister and the Secretary of State have repeatedly said, and the Secretary of State said three times on 8th May, that the legislation was based on the 1947 Act, which provided for arbitration. No, it is not. He said that it,provided for arbitration largely because everyone recognised the importance of fire and other emergency services".—[Official Report, Commons, 8/5/03; col. 860.]No, they did not. The 1947 Act had nothing to do with that. No, no, no.
If we read the introduction to the 1947 Bill by the late Chuter Ede, we find something common in those days that the Government have forgotten about.
1021 People wanted to extend the ambit of collective bargaining. They were afraid that, once we had nationalised the Fire Service for the period of the war, as we had to do in 1941, changing it from a part-time service run by 366 local authorities, those local authorities would not deal with it properly, if we gave it back to them. In particular, they could not be trusted to carry out national agreements on terms and conditions in all parts of the Fire Service. That was made clear by the Home Secretary at the time. It was made clear that we had to have a reserve power.
Those of us who go back that far will remember that reserve powers were very common in those days. I am sure that Flanders and Clegg knew that; that was what they lectured on. The industrial disputes tribunal was one; the issues procedure was another; the wages councils, which we extended in 1945, were another one; and the fair wages clauses were another. In those days, people believed that collective bargaining was a good thing and that, if workers negotiated an agreement and could not be sure that the employers would carry out that agreement, the state should come in and enforce the negotiated agreement. That was generally accepted.
It was accepted by the Conservative Party. When they abolished this thing, they told the Labour Party, then in opposition, "We don't think that the employers will act like this. We think that they have learnt their lesson. They will carry out the results of national bargaining, whether or not there is legal enforcement". The Labour Party said, "Yes. Probably, the employers have learnt now. We don't this any more". That is what is was about. Nobody said that it was about independent arbitration, because it was not. We were imposing settlements on employers. That is not arbitration.
The Oxford English Dictionary says that arbitration is a situation in which the parties agree that the settlement of an issue shall be done by one who, the parties agree, shall, in fact, try the case and decide it. The parties decide to refer their claim to the third party that they have selected, and they define the terms of reference. That is independent arbitration. That is what ACAS does. It is not what the Bill does. The Bill gives the Secretary of State as many bites of the cherry as he wants. He can interfere, as he has already has, in the negotiation process. If I understood what I read in the papers, he twice prevented a settlement. He was active among the employers, and then he bobbed in and created a separate mediation theme. I say nothing against the Bain commission, but the chairman was not chosen by the parties and no terms of reference were agreed. Finally, the Secretary of State says that he wants to enact something that will enable him to enforce by law the same settlement that he would not allow the parties to divert from in the first place. He has three bites at the cherry. In 1947, no one would have thought that that was anything but a farce.
It is not easy to be a negotiator on the government side in public sector industrial relations. There are two phrases that I use to describe the situation. The first is the problem of the ghost at the bargaining table. There 1022 is always a ghost at the bargaining table. On the union side, it is the members. They are outside the room, but they are making demands. On the employers' side, it is the Government. They are outside the room, and they may be on the phone, but they are making demands. It is difficult for the negotiators, who are not really in charge—it is not their money. They must settle with their members and be as co-operative as they can, because of the ghosts at the bargaining table. It is particularly difficult for the Government because the public expect them to do three different things. And that is the second phrase sometimes used—the Pooh-Bah dilemma of the three-hat syndrome.
It comes to this. The Government, with the Treasury watching, have to keep the settlement down. But the Government, with the public watching, have to avoid industrial action—because the public do not want that. However, one the whole, the public are rather fond of many of the people involved in the dispute. They rather like nurses, paramedics, policemen and firemen; they do not want them pushed down. They want them to get a fair crack of the whip. So here is the poor old Government with their three different hats. What are they to do? Should they be on the Treasury side and be in favour of industrial peace? They could not say, like an employer, "Go out and have a strike" because the public would say, "What about the graveyards?" or whatever. The Government have to try to give justice—or some kind of justice—to the workers.
We have found one way only of doing it; we have found one way only through the wood. We must have a form of independent arbitration. It could be a pay review; it could be ex parte arbitration; it could be just mediation, followed by arbitration—or perhaps not. But there must be some independent person or persons able to say what they think is fair. One can wander around the world or read books—for example, Alan Flanders—and it is said over and over again: there must be some independent assessment. Otherwise, in the long run the Government are in an impossible position, especially if the workers are well thought of and especially if the service is totally funded and there is no room for self-financing productivity deals. And if the Government think that they have one of those they are even more simple than I thought they were!
Therefore, there must be some form of independent arbitration. One can go through this Bill and not find anything which remotely resembles independent arbitration. What happens is that the Secretary of State appears and has a ghost at the bargaining table in the first place. If there is to be any overall assessment of the issues, the pattern is that he sets up his own inquiry. If he does not like the results, he takes action under this Bill and forces through any settlement he likes. I call that a reactionary system of industrial relations.
I do not believe that any student of industrial relations would say that it was anything else. It goes against all collective wisdom that we have had in the settlement of public sector disputes. We are told—the Minister mentioned this—that it is probably contrary 1023 to international law. At least, that could be the opinion of the relevant committee. Most importantly, it could act as a precedent.
In my opinion, the Government were so happy to use the 1947 Act—I do not believe those responsible had ever read the Act, although I could not say precisely what they did—because it seemed to provide a precedent. It did not really provide a precedent, but it seemed to. Once an actual Bill is on the statute book, one has one's precedent.
The doctors rumble away, but if the doctors were to say that they rejected every settlement offer put forward by the Minister, what is different about them? I do not say that the Government will do this; I say let them tell me the difference. Why should there not be something like this for the doctors or nurses or paramedics or any other fully-funded service that no one wants to see using industrial action? Of course, people would say that we do not have this problem with the police. But the police have got what I should like to see these people have—or some form of it. They have got pay review.
What we are asking the Government—it cannot be done by a series of amendments—is to allow a short period when the Bill sits on the shelf. The Government can then go out and consult and determine what form of independent third-party intervention they would most like to see. Thai is sensible. That is the way through the wood. The Government shut the road through the wood many years ago. Weather and rain have undone it again. One would never know that there was once a way through the wood. The old lost road through the wood must be found again. I beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out "now" and at end insert "this day six months".—(Lord McCarthy.)
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, we on these Benches do not welcome the Bill; indeed, we deplore it. Were it not for the obvious reluctance to refuse a Second Reading to a Bill passed by the elected House, we would wish it to be halted in its tracks tonight. We have taken the matter seriously, and we did not need the strictures of the Minister to do so. We realise the seriousness of opposing at this stage a Bill that has come from another place.
Instead, we have tabled an amendment to the Motion for Second Reading. I would have described the Bill as a sledgehammer, and my first version of the amendment regretted the use of the sledgehammer of legislation applied to a collective bargaining procedure. I was told, inevitably, that that was not how things are done here, so my amendment is in more measured language.
I appreciate that I cannot move my amendment at this point, but I have tabled an amendment to add to the Second Reading Motion that,this House regrets that Her Majesty's Government have decided to take the extreme step of introducing legislation as an alternative to collective bargaining procedures in the fire service".1024 We were encouraged by the Minister to deal with the Bill at the three forthcoming stages by way of amendment. However, the Bill seems close to unamendable—I say "close to" because I do not want to preclude the possibility of tabling amendments myself, and I am sure that if I said that it was wholly unamendable, I would be teased about that in a week's time.
I cannot begin to imagine the frustration that Ministers have experienced during the current—almost the past—firefighters' dispute. But then again, I cannot begin to imagine the frustration of the employers, who are not actually free to reach a settlement on their own. Their every move is supervised and they are not holding the purse strings, which must have been more than a little restricting. It has occurred to me that this dispute has been the political-industrial relations version of "three in a marriage". We are of course in the middle of proceedings of a Bill designed to "free up local government". Since irony does not always work well on the printed page, for the benefit of Hansard I shall point out that that is ironical.
We deplore the overriding of free bargaining and the centralising nature of the Bill. That is not to say that we support the way in which the FBU has acted—but that is not the point of the Bill tonight. Like the Minister, we welcome the union's decision and the likelihood of a settlement and, like the Minister, we very much admire the work that firefighters do and will he faced with in future.
However, it must be a bad principle to rely on legislation to deal with a specific dispute, and a bad principle for central government to intervene in negotiations, and in so heavy-handed a way. As a matter of psychology, how does the Bill play with those who support the settlement? My suspicion and fear is that it will lead to further polarisation. If it does that, it will play directly into the hands of those who are already at the opposite pole. I wonder, too. how it will play in future negotiations in other sectors. Will it not be said, "Well, the Government haven't produced legislation, so they're not really serious"? I make that as a serious point.
We on these Benches have supported the modernisation of the Fire Service as recommended by Bain, whose executive summary stated:We therefore conclude that a fresh approach is required. This must start with a lead from the Government".Some lead. I am sure that someone would say, "Some lead, some government".
It is not as if the alternatives have been exhausted. What about a secret postal ballot of all FBU members? What about independent arbitration? What about compulsory independent arbitration? I am mindful of what the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, said in that regard—that there must be scope for arbitration.
We do not support the Bill but we have some questions for the Government. How will the Bill, when enacted, affect the right to strike, if at all? What is its relationship with the Local Government Bill, which is set to repeal most of Section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1025 1947, which concerns the Secretary of State's functions, and part of the 1959 Act, which concerns the Secretary of State's powers? What happens if the Local Government Bill is not passed until after this Bill is enacted, or is not passed at all? Is it all irrelevant?
The Explanatory Notes state at paragraph 5:The Bill has no effect on the powers of the National Assembly for Wales and no other particular effect in Wales".Will the Minister translate that in view of Clause 2(7), which states that the Bill extends to Wales? It may be that what is being said is that the National Assembly had no powers in the first place so the measure does not have any effect. When the Explanatory Notes refer to the Bill having no particular effect in Wales, they may mean no different effect in Wales, but it is a bit puzzling.
I am aware that there are pressures on time tonight so I may return to those questions without receiving oral answers at this stage. However, I have two particular questions to which I should be glad to receive answers tonight. The first concerns the sunset clause, of which the Minister made great play. It was accepted by the Government, having come from a Back-Bench Labour Member in another place, and provides that no order can be made more than two years after commencement. But it does not seem to mean that an order, once made, ceases to have effect after two years. So is it truly a sunset clause?
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, it is a sunset clause; there is no argument about that. It is a general principle in English law that action taken before the repeal of legislation authorising that action is not affected by the repeal of the legislation. If an order were made, it would not fall under the terms of the sunset clause. The point about the sunset clause is that if an order is not made within two years there will be no power to make one as the relevant Act will no longer exist. The Act will be off the statute book.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, that was precisely my point. The order cannot be made after the two-year period but if the order is made before then it stays. It hovers on the horizon. The effect of the order will remain after the end of the two-year period. The Minister has confirmed that.
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, I refer to the part of the Bill that gives the power to rescind the order after the two-year period, if one has been made. We do not know what circumstances will arise. If the order has been made, and the Act has been invoked—which is what we do not want to do—clearly there has been an incident and the Secretary of State has had to take certain action. We cannot say that at the end of the two-year period that action will stop because we do not know the relevant circumstances. However, one would need the power to rescind the order at some time after the end of the two-year period.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I do not think that the Minister and I disagree about the matter. Of course, 1026 there is a power to rescind an order. It is a power not a requirement. I cannot immediately think how one could phrase a requirement in the circumstances. I thank the Minister for that immediate response. I did not expect to receive a response for about another hour.
My other question concerns the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Minister mentioned its reference to Article 6 of the European Social Charter and to Article 8 of the ILO Convention 151 and said that the Government regarded the Bill as compatible with both articles. As I understood it, the Minister said that the application of the Bill, when enacted, will meet the exemptions. The National Joint Council asked whether the Bill itself met the exemptions. In a sense, that is a similar point. The Government are saying, "Trust us. The way we deal with it will meet the issue".
The Library research paper introduces the Bill by saying that it would,allow an imposed solution to the continuing fire dispute".In football parlance, it may be a result, but I question whether it is a solution. We on these Benches do not believe that an imposed solution is a real solution.
§ 7.5 p.m.
§ Baroness Turner of Camden
My Lords, I urge the Government not to proceed with the Bill. I wonder why it should now be thought necessary. I was not impressed by the reasons given by the Minister.
The union has reached a settlement. I have seen a copy of the agreement. It provides for not only the staged pay deal, which will bring the members' earnings up to £25,000 per year in three stages—not an enormous amount of money for a job that demands skill and involves hazards—but also a pay formula for the future. There is a section dealing with integrated risk management plans, which fire authorities are required to produce, and a section on duty systems. Moreover, both sides of the National Joint Council recognise that fire fighters are now placed in the associate, professional and technical occupational classification in the Government's new earnings survey, which I understand means a great deal to the fire fighters.
We know that the recent delegate conference of the union voted three to one in favour of the agreement on the recommendation of the leadership. However, it is clear from press reports that it was not an easy win for the leadership. Resentment and dissatisfaction had been growing within the service and not all sections were happy to go along with the leadership's recommendation. I believe that that was particularly true in London, but it may also have applied to other areas.
The dispute was long and for much of the time attracted a high level of public support. Furthermore, the members on strike behaved reasonably and responsibly. In the event of the possibility of fire threatening lives, they left their picket lines. There was no question of their putting lives at risk on account of the dispute. Why, therefore, do the Government want 1027 this Bill, which gives them power to impose settlements? Admittedly, the Bill contains a clause that limits its life—the sunset clause. But why introduce the Bill now when most of the issues have been resolved and the Government apparently have a settlement with which they can live?
The union has asked that the Bill should not pass. I have received a letter from the FBU, which states:We believe that the resolution to the pay dispute now means that the Government's Fire Services Bill, which would allow the imposition of a pay settlement on the Fire Service, is even more unnecessary and unjustified. I therefore hope that the Government will decide not to continue with this piece of erroneous legislation".It is signed by Andy Gilchrist.
Although it may not be the Government's intention, the Bill seems to represent an attempt to humiliate the union. That is how it will appear to the sections of the membership who were unhappy with the agreement, which could make matters more difficult for the union leadership in future discussions to be held within the scope of the agreement.
I am surprised by the Minister's comments, since I know that he has been an active trade unionist and knows how much the trade unions value free collective bargaining. The Bill seeks to undermine free collective bargaining, the NJC and the union leadership, and allows the Minister to dictate terms and conditions at a time when the co-operation of the workforce is necessary to put into operation the procedures outlined in the Bill, particularly the consultative procedures.
The Bill will undermine the leadership and make co-operation much more difficult. That really will not do. I understand the point that the Bill has been passed by the elected House. It is surely still open to us to urge the Government to think again about the Bill and to say, "Please do not go ahead with it. We think that it will be harmful and not at all to the benefit of good industrial relations in the future".
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I am the third Member on the Back Benches in this House—this makes all three—who is wholly unable to support the Bill. The convention being that on Second Reading we do not turn down a Government Bill, save in wholly exceptional circumstances, I ride by convention, but I want the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to understand that I merely defer to convention and that I am totally opposed to the Bill. What is a sunset clause, for a start? It is a sword of Damocles to dangle over those workmen, so that if they do not toe the Government line—the imposed resolution of the Government—the sword drops.
That to me is anathema. To put workmen in that position when there is no national emergency is anathema. I do not believe that any government of any party should ever do it unless there is an emergency. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, probably feels much the same at heart, because he asked the noble Lord, "Well, what are we to do?".
1028 What are we to do now that we have got these changes? We have got an accommodation at the moment. Towards the end of July, it should work. Then there are the other stages—I shall not go through them all—but the assumption is that with the good offices of the TUC, and it has given its good offices, and of ACAS, which has also given its good offices, industrial relations shall virtually settle down. If they do not, any government at any time, at the drop of a hat, can invoke Order in Council legislation. It was done in the war; it was done in emergency situations. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, shakes his head, but when we came back after the war, we found three large green books full of emergency legislation, which governed practically everything. That is the last thing in the world that one wants, but in our flexible society, it is a sensible way to deal with what truly is an emergency situation. There is no reason at all why, if, for example, there were a terrorist attack and the firemen were on strike and remained on strike, the substance of a Bill such as this should not be dealt with by Order in Council.
Again, I think that this is such an insult to the firemen. Let us suppose that there were a terrorist attack—we are probably going to get one; it is no use pretending that we will not. Can you imagine that those firemen will not do their duty by their country? I do not. I believe that they will all turn up irrespective of politics or union considerations. I reckon that they would all turn out. The attitude of the Government to assume that they would not is desperately insulting. I understand why the Bill had to be introduced on 21st March, in the light of the Statement the day before in another place, when the sense of the House then was, "for heaven's sake, yes, but let us see whether we cannot resolve the matter without resort to government-imposed terms and conditions".
In those wholly exceptional circumstances—and they were; there is no need to go through them all, including the Armed Forces and the Scots Guards not being able go and having to do fire duty—the Government were entitled at that time to think in terms of this sort of legislation. However, it is apparent, from the comments of my right honourable friend Mr David Davis and the Deputy Prime Minister in that debate, that they did not wish to use the legislation. They hoped that it would not be necessary.
The matter that astounds me is, now that we have reached the state of affairs that the Minister has explained, including various stages and so on, why is there a need to bring the Bill before this House in order that it may be approved and passed into statute? Why do they not leave the matter alone? The Bill is wholly directed against the fire services and their members—whether they are union members or not, although they all are. Is there any government policy on how to deal with strikes in the general public sector? Has any thought been given to the matter—by any party? I do not know. As yet, I know of no such policy of any party. But it is the Government who matter and who are in the driving seat. We have this problem of strikes in the public sector. It is a problem of general 1029 application that causes substantial damage, discomfort and misery to the country—and there is the threat of more to come.
This type of imposed Government decree, ad hoc, against a single service—the fire service—in circumstances where there is no emergency, is wholly unacceptable. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy—I do not usually agree with much that he says—that there must be some form of independent arbitration to deal with this situation. One cannot proceed—no government should proceed, and if the Conservatives were in power I would say the same—by a form of ad hoc, imposed decree to resolve terms and conditions of employment disputes. The country cannot run in that way. There is truly no excuse for the Government wanting to hold the power in reserve.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and share her regret; I really feel that the matter is one for regret. I share her reservations. That is about all that one may do on this occasion.
The real problem about the Bill is that it is going to be a monumental waste of time and resources, because the Long Title specifies fire services. There is no way in which the Long Title can be extended to include all public services or designated public services. If it is not possible to amend the Bill to deal with the general concept that there must be some form of mandatory arbitral procedure, independent of government, that binds the Government and the parties, what is the object of the Bill? We cannot amend it in that way.
I want to mention one point that is relevant to my objection. It is no time for repetition. The relevant history, problems, devastation and misery occasioned by disproportionate action in our public services, at the behest of the trade unions in those services, has already received consideration on both occasions in the passage of the Public Services (Disruption) Bill, approved on the last occasion on which it went through this House. Fire brigade services were only included as an amendment on that second occasion.
The discussions that we had are relevant to the concept that I advance—it has already been advanced by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy—that the only way to deal with the problem is for the Government, as a matter of policy, to agree to set up some independent, mandatory arbitral arrangement, such as the CAC, whose awards should be binding on government. Until that is done, this ad hoc disposal by complex provisions, albeit with sunset clauses, hardly mitigates the insult to the working people involved and the ineptitude as a means of resolving trade disputes.
§ 7.25 p.m.
§ Lord Wedderburn of Charlton
My Lords, I submit to those noble Lords who have done the Fire Service the honour of attending this debate three main submissions for supporting the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord McCarthy to pause for six months.
The amendment finds precedents in the past twenty-five years; I shall not list them. I preface my comments by saying that no one can pretend that the Bill is 1030 receiving the legislative attention it deserves. True, it was passed through the procedures of the elected House, for which I have the greatest respect. But the Government guillotined it into a few hours, and there were protests. The Bill is time limited, in the sense of a sunset clause for two years, but orders made under the Bill in those two years are revoked only if the Government choose in their discretion to do so. There is no case for this legislation to be rushed through in the interim period before the White Paper and the big Bill.
I am not arguing for the employers; I am not arguing for the union; I am arguing for the integrity and the safety of the settlement dated 13th June.
The first of my three submissions is that the Bill provides the Government with powers use of which will lead them inevitably to a breach of international law by which the United Kingdom is bound on workers' and trade union rights. The instruments are Convention 151 of the International Labour Organisation, an agency of the United Nations, and articles 5 and 6 of the Council of Europe's European Social Charter. The Minister gave his own account of those sources—he will want to look again at Hansard to see how he put it.
In the words of the leading authority, Professor Valticos, articles 7 and 8 of ILO Convention 151 prescribe,the procedures for determining terms and conditions of service of public employees",as follows:They comprise negotiation between the public authorities and public employees' organisations or 'other methods' which allow public employees to participate in such determination. The settlement of disputes should take place through negotiation between the parties or through independent and impartial machinery such as mediation, conciliation and arbitration".What my noble friend Lord McCarthy has said about such third-party intervention as essential for the stability of the settlement is quite clear.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights considered the convention in its 8th Report on 11th April. The committee answered the Government's main argument that the Government had been seeking to get a solution by collective negotiation in its letter to the Deputy Prime Minister in this way:However, the Bill would not restrict the use of the power to make orders to circumstances in which collective bargaining has been attempted and has failed to produce a satisfactory result after a reasonable time. It therefore seems possible that an order could be made in circumstances which would give rise to a violation of Article 8 of ILO Convention No. 151".In this case, collective bargaining has not failed. We have a settlement. The case under the European Social Charter is even clearer: the states parties agree to promote the settlement of terms and conditions by means of collective agreements and to promote the use of appropriate machinery for the conciliation and voluntary arbitration for settlement of disputes. The Government's reply to that is that the charter permits restrictions in the case of emergency, public interest, public health or morals. However, in its letter to my 1031 right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Prescott, the Joint Committee on Human Rights wrote:The Committee accepts that orders made under the Bill might be justifiable on the ground of public interest and public health. However, the Bill would not restrict the use of the power to make orders to circumstances in which there is a public emergency or collective bargaining has failed to produce a satisfactory result. It is therefore possible that an order could be made in circumstances which would not be justifiable under Article 6 of the European Social Charter".Everything that we have heard tonight shows that it may be possible—indeed, it is probable—that any orders made would be in that category. I know of no informed observer on these international instruments who does not envisage that the Bill opens the door for flagrant contravention and no Pepper v Hart assurances from the Front Bench can in any way undercut that.
My second and third submissions can be easily stated and they are independent of the first. The Minister, Mr Raynsford, adverted to the second when he said that the Bill gives the Secretary of State the power, if necessary, in the absence of an agreed settlement to the dispute, to impose a settlement. In the letter he wrote to your Lordships' Joint Committee on Human Rights, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister wrote:As to the ILO Convention No 151, Article 8 says that settlement 'shall be sought through negotiation between the parties'. For over a year now, that is what has been sought but without resolution. I am seeking the powers in the Bill because settlement cannot be achieved through negotiation".That is why it was widely and reasonably thought that if there was a settlement, the Government would not proceed with this Bill. That was the wide expectation of working people, employers and of a large number of other reasonably-minded people.
But the Government foresaw that—they are not lacking in foresight—and quietly invested in another argument that at the time went rather unnoticed. My right honourable friend Mr Raynsford, the Minister, put it in this way when he said that even if there was a settlement, the terms of the employers' offer means that there would still have to be detailed negotiations over the next few months and that it is important that we enact the powers of the Bill so that we are able to intervene if any such negotiations break down.
My noble friend Lord Rooker finally sent me a special letter on Monday to explain that point. He wrote:Under the terms of the deal agreed there remain a number of key issues to be resolved by further negotiations over the coming months".He went on to say:If the negotiations were to falter, and the dispute flared up again as a result the Government would want to intervene decisively to resolve matters".His argument tonight was along the same lines. What kind of argument is that? Any and every collective agreement ever made needs negotiation and agreement between the parties in its interpretation and application on the ground.
1032 The lines of negotiation for the application of the agreement are set out in the clauses of the 13th June agreement, including disputes procedures. It is a rather first-year element of industrial relations that you do have disputes procedures and negotiations for the interpretation and application of collective agreements.
What the Government are really saying is, "We wanted a negotiated settlement", and for all their mistakes I believe that they did, "but we want this Bill now with its powers to oppose our interpretation of any issues we choose on pay, on hours, and on organisation of the fire service in case the parties don't apply it how we say they should". That authoritarian proposition is quite unjustified and strikes further fear of what is to come into many employers and certainly into the trade union movement; a fear which the nation heard well expressed on Sunday on the BBC by the General Secretary of Unison when he said:We will not be treated as the fire-fighters have".We now have a settlement for this extremely difficult dispute which the parties have not only made but are pledged through their own procedures to effectuate. It was not easily won. The firefighters supported it by a vote of three to one and commentators tell us that at least a third of union members, perhaps more, still feel angry and disappointed. For Heaven's sake give us a period of six months before unsettling the deal with provocations.
The final point that I make to the 15 or 16 noble Lords who have done the service the honour of attending this debate is that, in the spirit of common interest and in the light of what was said in another place, Conservative policy envisages new limits on the right to strike or even to be members of the union, a view which I manifestly do not share. The Conservatives also said that there should he some kind of arbitration. That general policy will certainly not he supported and furthered by rushing this Bill into law in the next two months.
The Liberal Democrat view—I say this with the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who spoke from their Front Bench—is that the Bill is not the right way to resolve the dispute, that it sets a dangerous precedent for the future and that the Liberal Democrats favour independent arbitration. With the greatest respect, I say that that approach provides nothing in relation to the Bill being held up for a few months so that cool heads can look at it again. Frankly, if the matter goes to a Division, the question for them is whether they have the spine to line up with their colleagues in the Commons.
To my friends on the Labour Benches I say that in their hearts they know very well that they did not come to this House to support a Bill of this kind. They know that it will be seen as an affront to trade union rights and to collective bargaining. Today is the time to stop singing the sad anthem of the dispirited that has been so common among us in private, that great number of the 1960s, "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to". It is time to sing a different song and do something honourable for the party of which I have been a proud 1033 member for 56 years. Join in sending back this Bill whence it came. Give us a few months. Give the Government pause in their pell-mell rush over the edge of a terrible precipice.
§ 7.37 p.m.
§ Lord Lea of Crondall
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for allowing me to speak in the gap. My reason for doing so arises from a number of noble Lords drawing attention to an unanswered question—the distinction between a Bill that somehow is not amendable and a Bill that is amendable. Different formulations were touched on by my noble friend Lord McCarthy, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. It is interesting to list, to identify and maybe to add to the different permutations on this matter. They centre on the proposition about arbitration: compulsory arbitration, arbitration at the request of one party, joint agreement on the selection of the arbitrator, whether ACAS or the Central Arbitration Committee, and so on.
Given the long history, to which reference has been made by my noble friend Lord McCarthy, and now that my mind has been jogged, I remember that the two famous orders, during the war and after the war—1305 and 1376—were different formulas on exactly this kind of matter. Of course, other discussions are taking place as we have this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, raised the issue of whether it would be reasonable to do something aimed at the Fire Service asking where, after a strike has lasted so many weeks—the issue of strikes lasting more than eight weeks is being debated—arbitration fits in to all those matters. That would he a matter to be dealt with across the economy, not particularly affecting the public service.
Does my noble friend accept that these matters can be considered as amendments? Otherwise the case made by my noble friend Lord McCarthy is that the procedure he adopted this afternoon is necessary because the Bill is not amendable although that may overstate the point.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Baroness Maddock
My Lords, we should thank the Minister for the time that he took to summarise the situation in which we find ourselves today as regards the Fire Service, which is a little different from when the Bill was introduced.
The Government both here and in another place have made it clear that they are introducing this Bill reluctantly, but, nevertheless, as has been observed during the debate, what they are introducing is an imposed settlement from the centre. Most people find it very hard to come to terms with that issue. People have a great deal of sympathy with the situation in which the Government find themselves. People wish to reach an agreement, but there is almost no support for the method that the Government are using to reach that settlement. Indeed, in this House no one has 1034 spoken in favour of what the Minister has said today. At Second Reading in another place only one Member of the Government supported the Minister.
My noble friend Lady Hamwee and I have spent quite a number of hours with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, as regards various Bills. He has a habit of saying, "I'm not threatening", but his language and his body language are very threatening. Indeed, that was the case today concerning the position of the House of Lords.
When I agreed to come to the House in 1997, I expected to vote properly to reform it by 2003 and perhaps not have a job at all. But the House is still here. Whether the elected Chamber has passed the legislation, the system applied means that it goes through both Houses. Whether the Minister likes it or not, we have the right to express our views and do our very best by all methods to try to reach the settlement that we want.
We believe that the Government's strategy was right, but their tactics wrong. That is clearly true for many other people. My noble friend has already said that we have a great deal of sympathy with the Government's situation. We may be reaching a settlement without a Bill, which is a very desirable situation. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, said rather more on that issue.
The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, gave us a very good exposition of the history of the matter. I did not know of his role in these issues at an earlier date. It was a very interesting part of the debate. The main point of what the noble Lord said was that many of us believe that independent arbitration, not only in this country, is the correct way to try to settle disputes.
The Minister made much play of the "sunset" clause. It was not introduced by the Government; it was reluctantly accepted as an amendment from a Back-Bench Member of the Labour Party. We have heard from others who are much better versed in the law than I on the problems with that clause. The Minister made it sound as though everything was all right because of the sunset clause, but it is not quite as simple as that. My noble friend Lady Hamwee said so, as did the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway.
Given that we have a sunset clause, it would be very helpful if the Minister were to give us an indication of when we are to receive the White Paper. I believe that that was alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn of Charlton. In view of the proposals that the Government intend to introduce, and if there is to be a permanent settlement and a modernisation of the fire service, we need to know when that document will be available. I hope that one of the big issues that will be addressed in it will be pensions. I hope that the Minister can throw some light on the matter when he responds to the debate.
My noble friend Lady Hamwee asked the Government how the Bill interplays with the rights given to local government in the Local Government Bill, which is still passing through this House. I remind the Government of that question, as we are 1035 approaching the end of the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn of Charlton, made a very full speech about the problems of complying with international and European law. Again, my noble friend Lady Hamwee referred to that matter.
We have always held the view that a negotiated settlement would be easier without the Bill. Other noble Lords made that point also. We tried to amend the Bill in another place to include independent arbitration in the settlement. Perhaps we were wrong; it might not be possible to amend it. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, we tried to ensure that there was a secret postal ballot, as we believed that that would aid the process.
A subject that was not touched on in the debate is the very difficult time that many retained firefighters have experienced. Their financial settlements have been held up because of the long dispute. It has been a very difficult time for those in areas where fire services have already been modernised. South Shropshire, the area of my honourable friend in another place, is definitely ahead of the game. In Northumberland, where I live, the whole service is run by retained fire-fighters. If the Government are going to enact the Bill, we would like to know precisely how they will deal with that situation. What happens where some areas have modernised and others have not?
The whole sorry saga emphasises one of the Government's problems—their inability to put what they say into practice, particularly on decentralisation. The regions Bill would decentralise, but the Government are not giving away enough power. They say that in the Local Government Bill they are giving away powers. Indeed they are, but the powers are all hedged around bureaucracy, detail and a little bit of clawing back all the time.
The Bill involves a centralised settlement. Employers in local government managed to reach a settlement. However, they could not continue with it: when the Government decentralise and give away power, they are very reluctant ever to give away the financial power that goes with it. If the employers had been able to have the financial power, as they wished, we would not be in the current situation. That highlights the Government's problem.
We have said before, both in another place and in this House, that we think this is the right strategy but the wrong tactics. We certainly agree, as my noble friend said, that pay and modernisation must be linked. We agreed that we needed to set up a review, and we agree with the Bain review.
However, there are problems. When the various settlements have been discussed, obviously there has not been very good communication between the various people listening to what the settlement might be. Clarity of information for members making decisions about offers is very important.
If the Government were to implement the Bill, the practicalities would be quite difficult, particularly as some areas have modernised and others have not. But, above all, it would involve a centralisation of power. Local authorities have not been able to achieve the settlements that they wanted.
1036 We were challenged as to whether we had the spine to support the amendment. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee made very clear, much as that might be our desire it is not what is normally done in this place. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, agrees with us. Nobody, other than the Government, seems to support the Bill—that applies across all sides of both Houses of Parliament. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, said that the Government really should think again. This debate has shown them that that is the view across this House and another place.
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, in his introduction the Minister very nearly provoked me. I have always been a radical on the reform of your Lordships' House and it is very tempting to persuade him to get his colleagues in another place to do something drastic. However, I must not let my personal position intervene.
I am bound to say that I read this Bill with very mixed feelings—a combination of amazement, horror, despair and regret. In the late 1970s/early 1980s, I was chairman of the Association of County Councils' Fire and Civil Defence Committee. I was also a member of the National Joint Committee. The reason for my mixed emotions is the fact that in the fire service nothing has changed. The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, made this point. The settlement in the 1970s which created a mathematical formula for the settlement of pay differences in the Fire Service killed the ability of the NJC to negotiate. As a result, the Fire Service has ossified and the same problems that were there in my time are still there today. The impossibility of changing things is a matter of serious regret.
There is another problem. There is a Jekyll and Hyde characteristic to members of the fire brigades service. When they are attending an emergency, we see their Jekyll characteristic at its best. Unfortunately, when they act collectively—this has been the fact over many years—we see the Mr Hyde characteristic. There has been a build-up which led to the crisis earlier this year. The union embarked on a series of brief national stoppages which eventually coincided with the build-up of the Iraq war. We then began to see pictures in newspapers of soldiers waiting for something to happen and dealing with it competently when it did. Those soldiers should have been somewhere else. Those images did great damage to the Fire Service. People began to question whether the high reputation that they had previously enjoyed was still so thoroughly deserved. I regret that.
There is a sense in which this Bill is equitable. It hits both the employers' and the employees' side on the National Joint Council. The employers are hit because the Bill gives the Minister power over the property which they presently control. It hits the employees because it gives the Minister power to fix and modify conditions of service. To the extent that the NJC must have a share in the responsibility for the present situation, that division is a fair one. But it takes two to reach an agreement.
1037 Even when there have been attempts to move the Fire Service out of its ossified mode, it has been difficult to do so. I would, and could easily, go into the problems that arise from conditions of service issues. The Fire Service agreements with employees are extraordinary. There are a number of what I would describe as "old Chinese practices" that have no place in this modern age. They must be dealt with.
Like everyone else in the debate, I find the presence of the Bill regrettable. The Government are embarking on a slippery slope. The Liberal Democrats have rightly made much of its being in complete conflict with the principle of devolution that the Government have preached since they came to power, particularly relating to local government.
Looking under the surface at the detail of any such legislation, one finds that devolution has written into it a much greater degree of central control. Here is a Bill that brings that central control slam bang to the Floor. There is nothing hidden or covert about this.
This Bill is here, and it must be dealt with. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway has rightly said that we do not oppose government Bills as a matter of practice on Second Reading in this House, and we will maintain that principle. However, that does not make the Bill right. We must ask the Government where they go from here.
Suppose some other aspect of the public service gets under the Government's skin in future negotiations. Suppose some sector of other public service employees decide that they do not like their settlement, which may well have gone through agreed procedures, and decide to take action against it. We have a deep and fundamental problem. The route that the Government have gone along cannot be sustained in a reasonable society.
It is true that matters in the Fire Service must change. I sometimes feel that I understand why the Government feel that they must have this bludgeon in their hands, but that is what it is. We must recognise it as such. If that is what we are coming to, the Government are heading into fields of unforeseeable difficulty, and they are beginning to sow the seeds of their own destruction.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ Lord Evans of Temple Guiting
My Lords, we have had a wide-ranging debate. Perhaps my noble friend Lord Rooker and I feel lonely, but so be it. A number of important points have been raised. I shall try to answer most of them, but since we are at the early stages of this process some matters must he left for the Committee stage.
I must deal with the Government's reasons for proceeding with the Bill. First, let me reiterate the points made by my noble friend Lord Rooker. As he said, we welcome very much the FBU's acceptance last week of the employers' pay and modernisation proposals. Our preference has always been for the employers and the FBU to reach a negotiated settlement. We are greatly encouraged by the process 1038 so far and the progress that has been made since the introduction of the Bill. With the headline agreement now in place, we hope that the two sides can move forward in partnership with the Government to deliver a modern, more effective fire service.
As my noble friend Lord Rooker made clear, there is still much to negotiate. Many noble Lords argued that we have a settlement. We have a conditional settlement. In the agreement, the pay increases in stages 2 and 3 are subject to the completion of all the negotiations and consultations referred to in the agreement and, where appropriate, their ratification by the Fire Service national employers, the Fire Brigades Union and the Government. There must also be verification by the Audit Commission. We have made enormous progress, but we do not yet have a final settlement.
There is still much to do. We must negotiate a new pay structure, revised conditions of service, a new pay formula, and so on. We hope that those negotiations will proceed smoothly, but noble Lords will be aware—several have said so today—that the history of the dispute has been characterised by false dawns, with hopes raised only to be dashed at the last moment. We must be certain that history will not repeat itself a little further down the line.
It is therefore right that we should proceed with the Bill so that, if those detailed negotiations falter, we can take action to get things back on track. I am sure that noble Lords will not welcome having to revisit the issues if the detailed negotiations that will follow the main agreement fail to make progress and we find ourselves back at square one.
§ 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 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.
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.
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, 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. 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 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.
|Division No. 4|
|Clarke of Hampstead, L.||Turner of Camden, B. [Teller]|
|McCarthy, L. [Teller]||Wedderburn of Charlton, L.|
|Acton, L.||Graham of Edmonton, L.|
|Alli, L.||Grenfell, L.|
|Amos, B.||Grocott, L, [Teller]|
|Andrews, B.||Harris of Haringey, L.|
|Archer of Sandwell, L.||Harrison, L.|
|Ashton of Upholland, B.||Haskel, L.|
|Bach, L.||Hayman, B.|
|Bassam of Brighton, L.||Hilton of Eggardon, B.|
|Bernstein of Craigweil, L.||Hollis of Heigham, B.|
|Brooke of Alverthorpe, L.||Listowel, E.|
|Burlison, L.||Macdonald of Tradeston, L.|
|Carter, L.||McIntosh of Haringey, L.|
|Chandos, V.||McIntosh of Hudnall, B.|
|Clinton-Davis, L.||MacKenzie of Culkein, L.|
|Cohen of Pimlico, B.||Massey of Darwen, B.|
|Corbett of Castle Vale, L.||Milner of Leeds, L.|
|Crawley, B.||Mitchell, L.|
|Davies of Oldham, L, [Teller]||Morgan, L.|
|Desai, L.||Parekh, L.|
|Donoughue, L.||Pitkeathley, B.|
|Evans of Parkside, L.||Ramsay of Cartvale, B.|
|Evans of Temple Guiting, L.||Rendell of Babergh,B.|
|Farrington of Ribbleton, B.||Rooker, L.|
|Faulkner of Worcester, L.||Scotland of Asthal, B.|
|Filkin, L.||Simon, V.|
|Gale, B.||Symons of Vernham Dean, B.|
|Gibson of Market Rasen, B.||Thornton, B.|
|Golding, B.||Warner, L.|
|Warwick of Undercliffe, B.|
|Gordon of Strathblane, L.||Whitaker, B.|
|Gould of Potternewton, B.||Whitty, L.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.