HL Deb 12 July 2004 vol 663 cc1097-122

Consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 36:

After Clause 19, insert the following new clause—

"LIMITATION ON POWER TO AUTHORISE CHARGING

  1. An order under section 19 may not authorise a fire and rescue authority to charge for—
    1. extinguishing fires or protecting life and property in the event of fires;
    2. rescuing people in the event of road traffic accidents or protecting people from serious harm in the event of road traffic accidents; or
    3. discharging any function relating to emergencies conferred on it by the Secretary of State under section 9.
  2. An order under section 19 may authorise a fire and rescue authority to charge for the provision of emergency medical assistance only in circumstances where a National Health Service Ambulance Trust is authorised to charge for such provision."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should like to return to the sentiment behind Amendment No. 36 as I am still unsure about aspects of the Government's thinking. In order to save time I am speaking to the amendment having accepted some of the arguments against parts of it. For example, I understand the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, against subsection (2) of my amendment. I am glad that the Government have gone further than this amendment would allow by precluding all charging for emergency medical assistance.

However, we seek reassurance that the situation will not arise where a person will pay for emergency medical assistance according to whether the fire or ambulance service is the first to arrive on the scene of a road traffic accident. I realise that this question is primarily about whether the scope of the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Act 1999 is pertinent. The Minister did not answer that point on the previous occasion.

I also understand the arguments deployed against adopting subsection (1)(c) of my amendment as various incidents may fall within Clause 9 that require charging such as a chemical spill by a commercial operation.

Finally, I appreciate the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that detailed why subsection (1)(a) of my amendment would be unnecessary. This leaves subsection (1)(b) of my amendment where I am not clear about the Government's reasoning. I understand that the order-making provision of Clause 19 will allow the Government to ensure that there are no moves towards charging for road traffic accidents without further consultation while preserving the principle of being able to charge for these incidents if it is appropriate.

Clause 8 makes rescuing people from road traffic accidents a core function of the new fire and rescue service, however, so why would the Government not want to reflect that in a Clause 19 order by ruling out charging for road traffic accident rescues? A point to bear in mind is that the amendment would not rule out charging for certain non-rescue actions associated with dealing with road traffic accidents. It would simply ensure that the rescue of people from life-threatening situations should not be a chargeable activity.

I hope that the Minister can address our concerns. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, as the noble Lord said, the proposed new clause in the amendment would extend the restrictions on the services for which a charge might be made by excluding all the emergency statutory functions on an authority.

With the passage of time, it is true that the fire and rescue service has acquired a great deal of experience and skill in dealing with the effects of road traffic accidents, yet there has been no obligation on the service to render rescue assistance. That is amazing, really. We have brought forward a new duty for the service to respond to such incidents in Clause 8. At the same time, we have recognised that fire authorities already have a power to charge for dealing with non-fire assistance rendered at such an incident, although they appear not to have used it.

The ODPM Committee report on the fire service, published earlier this year, noted the potential for authorities to recover the costs of dealing with traffic accidents from compensators in a manner similar to that which exists in the National Health Service. That scheme recovers flat-rate charges for treatment received in an NHS hospital, and later this year will levy a charge for ambulance conveyance to hospital for such treatment. Further work needs to be done on how any such scheme might operate for the fire and rescue service, and the impact that it would have on authorities, the insurance industry and the public. In the light of that, it would not be appropriate to close off the possibility of charging for road traffic accidents in the way countenanced by the proposed new clause.

The range of incidents that may fall within Clause 9 is not confined to the new terrorist threat. It can include major incidents of flooding or damage caused by the accidental or sometimes negligent discharge of a large volume of harmful chemicals by a company. Proposed new subsection (1) in the amendment would mean that such incidents would be excluded from the scope of charging. We want to know whether it is right, for example, that a major commercial undertaking could cause huge disruption and escape the cost of putting it right. Regrettably, the drafting of the proposed new clause is as defective now as it was when tabled in Grand Committee as Amendment No. 115. It does not remove Clause 19(3), so would leave us with two conflicting provisions on emergency medical assistance. Amendment No. 36 would also prevent charging for fires that occurred at sea or under the sea outside the jurisdiction of any fire authority. The ability to charge for dealing with such incidents was inserted into the 1947 Act by Section 2 of the Marine Safety Act 2003, at the specific request of marine salvage operators. They had been concerned that there was no incentive for authorities to deal with incidents that occurred outside their jurisdiction, and so were prepared to meet the costs of such intervention in the hope of reducing the losses incurred. It would be a retrograde step if we took that provision out, having just put it into legislation.

I appreciate that the area is complicated, and that not much is known about it. However, I hope that the noble Lord will feel reassured. We are not looking to be onerous, but there are circumstances in which it would be quite right for the fire and rescue service to make a charge for the services that it provides.

Lord Hanningfield:

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Before the dinner break, I spoke to a group of amendments pointing out the areas in which one could charge. If you were locked out of your house, for instance, and telephoned the fire service asking to be let in, perhaps there would be a charge. A fire engine might go out with four or five people on it to let you into the house. However, if there were a major road accident in which someone was seriously injured, one would not expect the fire service to arrive and ask the person to produce a credit card before receiving help.

There are potential areas from which one can help fire service budgets, but I remain confused on the Government's thinking. The Minister agrees that there are incidents for which charges could be made; for instance, it should be possible to recoup costs from a large lorry spilling sulphuric acid on the road. I hope that before Third Reading the Minister will be able to clarify the Government's thinking on charging, otherwise we might have to explore the matter further. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 21 [Fire and Rescue National Framework]:

Lord Hanningfield

moved Amendment No. 37: Page 10, line 32, leave out paragraph (a).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 37 is an important amendment regarding the status of the framework. I think that last time we were in clear disagreement about what a framework or guidelines mean. Perhaps we are all agreed that this was a debate about the balance between local and national.

The framework is a key document that will define how fire and rescue authorities discharge their functions and, by virtue of provisions later in the Bill that require compliance, it will allow the Secretary of State to dictate the blueprint for the operation of the fire and rescue services. That is already too far down the line of undermining the principle of local service accountability and too much centralisation.

The amendment would remove the obligation for the framework to set out priorities and objectives for authorities and the discharge of their functions. As I said last time, it is the proper role of Parliament to set out the functions of fire and rescue authorities in primary legislation, as this Bill does. The Secretary of State already has substantial powers, particularly under Clauses 9, 14 and 17, to direct how those functions will be discharged. Under subsection (2)(b), the Secretary of State will be able to issue guidance to authorities, in connection with the discharge of any of their functions". That should be a sufficient level of intervention. The discharge of their proper functions must be a matter for local fire and rescue authorities rather than something to be defined in exact detail by the Secretary of State.

The problem with the national framework is that it is only at the beginning of its life, and it already mocks the idea of a partnership between local fire authorities and central government because it is full of mandatory requirements. I fear that this will get worse over time. I disagree with the right honourable Nick Raynsford on this matter. The amendment would not sink the framework. The framework can provide strategic leadership without central diktat, and this amendment would help to achieve that. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee:

My Lords, we support the amendment. As my noble friend Lady Maddock pointed out to me, it is consistent that we should do so when we did not support the Conservative amendment on targets. Perhaps there is a little inconsistency between this amendment and that one and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, might like to comment on that in winding up.

This is far too meddlesome a provision. I do not disagree with some sort of framework being developed through consultation. However, I do not believe that having a statutory framework which deals with the matters set out in Clause 21(2), including "priorities and objectives" which should be sorted out by the individual fire authorities working out how they will go about achieving their core functions, is the way forward. And that is despite the Government's Amendment No. 38, which we shall debate in a moment, under which an order will be unamendable. In our view, the framework—the subject of it—will have to be minimalist indeed for this to be the right approach.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, that is not very fair, rubbishing the amendment in the next group before I have had the opportunity to move it! Before we reach the Government's "supreme" Amendment No. 38, we think that to advocate that the strategic priorities should not be set out at a national level first would not be sensible and secondly, goes against the respected recommendations of Sir George Bain and his colleagues, who advocated stronger strategic leadership of the fire and rescue services from central government. That was a point that they made.

Indeed, when examining the Bill, the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said that the services need strong political leadership from the Government to ensure the successful implementation and management of change during a potentially very turbulent period. That is the considered view of Sir George Bain and his colleagues and the Select Committee in the other place. I am not sure why the noble Lords and the noble Baroness opposite wish to remove the provision which is aimed at fulfilling that recommendation.

I must rebut some of the things which have been said. The accusation that the Government are increasingly prescriptive and not allowing local discretion is false. I remind the House that we have done more than any other government since 1947 in allowing the fire and rescue authorities discretion in discharging their functions, so our record is a good one. We have repealed Section 19 of the 1947 Act and removed the quite outdated national standards of cover. They have been replaced with local integrated risk management plans, which give local fire and rescue authorities the flexibility they need to meet the needs of their communities. This is the Government letting go. As I clarified at earlier stages of the Bill, the legal status of the national framework is guidance to which the fire and rescue authorities should have regard in carrying out their functions. As such, it does not impose mandatory requirements which would be the consequence of imposing by legislation.

In order to provide strategic direction for the fire and rescue services, the national framework sets out priorities and objectives. We have said that authorities should consider the majority of these in carrying out their function. However, these priorities and objectives will be delivered locally and will be done differently in different areas of the country. It is a matter for the authorities to decide, not for us to tell them.

We want to be able to strike the right balance between a strategic overall government direction and decision making by the local authorities. Had the Bain committee and the Select Committee recommended that we provide that leadership, and we did not, we would be "found guilty". We have to get that balance right. We will not be able to prove that we have got it right until it is working, but it would be quite wrong to put all the emphasis on the fire authorities as it would be equally wrong for the Government to take it all on board, make it prescriptive and then enshrine it in legislation. We are not doing that.

Lord Hanningfield:

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I am afraid that I disagree with that totally. James Strachan, the chairman of the Audit Commission, in a major speech on Friday to a local government conference, also disagreed with that totally. We are all agreed that the Government should set out their strategic position and set their priorities. No one disputes that, but, as was said by James Strachan, they take on a managerial role, increasingly in every area of local delivery. One sees that all the time. The comprehensive performance assessment tries to turn out everyone like peas in a pod. I totally disagree with what the Minister said there. I think he must see what is happening on the ground rather than make speeches.

This is an important amendment. I repeat: no one disagrees that the Government should set their priorities and a strategic framework. However, it should then be left to local authorities to implement it. It might be different in Cornwall from Cumbria, and it should be. Increasingly, we see a blueprint that everywhere should be the same. The Government should recognise that, and I hope that the Minister will recognise that too. The intention behind the amendment is to try to ensure that that happens, not to disagree that the Government should set their priorities. We might have to return to this at a future stage. However, in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Rooker

moved Amendment No. 38: Page 11, line 16, leave out subsection (6) and insert— (6) The Framework as first prepared, and any revisions to the Framework which appear to the Secretary of State to be significant, have effect only when brought into effect by the Secretary of State by order.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in Amendment No. 38 the Government seek to acknowledge and address the concerns that noble Lords raised in Grand Committee about the level of parliamentary scrutiny attached to the national framework.

Noble Lords were concerned that Parliament would not get an opportunity to examine the framework before it came into effect. This amendment meets those concerns by requiring the Secretary of State to make an order, subject to negative resolution, to bring the national framework into effect. An order would also have to be made before the Secretary of State could introduce any "significant" changes to the framework.

The amendment will provide Parliament with an opportunity for greater scrutiny and I hope that it will reassure those who were concerned that there had been insufficient opportunity to examine the national framework. It also addresses the first part of Amendment No. 39, which likewise requires that the framework be subject to a negative resolution statutory instrument.

However, Amendment No. 39 also goes on to require that all revisions to the national framework are laid before Parliament. That would be impractical. The framework may need to be altered in all manner of minor ways to correct errors, to reflect changes in other guidance documents and legislation and to refer to examples of best practice as they emerge from the fire and rescue authorities. To expect all those changes to be laid before Parliament is, frankly, to misunderstand the role of Parliament. I was going to intervene in the previous contribution, simply to point out that the chairman of the Audit Committee has his job to do and that the Government have their job to do. We know where the dividing line is.

The Government's amendment clearly states that where changes to the national framework are significant, Parliament will have the opportunity to consider them. By "significant", we mean that the revision represents a change in policy or a new requirement of the fire and rescue authorities; so it would be possible to recognise when parliamentary scrutiny was necessary. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham:

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his amendment. Despite comments coming from my right, we are prepared to accept it as a reasonable response to the concerns we have raised.

Both the Government's amendment and the one we tabled, which has now resulted in the government amendment, raise the whole question of the scrutiny of the framework. As I understand the amendment, it means that the framework will come forward as an order before it is implemented. We will have a chance to look at it from top to bottom, which we have not been able to do during the passage of the legislation so far. That should give us quite a few happy hours. I hope that enough time will be set aside for that.

The matter will be subject to discussion in Parliament both as the framework as first prepared and if there are any revisions. I agree that commas and semicolons should not come into it, but I hope that "significant" represents, as the Minister says, a change in the policy within the framework. I thank the Minister for his response to that.

[Amendment No. 39 not moved.]

Clause 22 [Intervention by Secretary of State]:

Baroness Hamwee

moved Amendment No. 40: Page 11, line 23, leave out from second "to" to end of line 24 and insert "discharge its functions under section 6, 7, 8 or 9

The noble Baroness said: I supported the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, on this issue in Grand Committee, although I rather unkindly but unintentionally pre-empted him in the argument by tabling it in a previous group. When I drafted the amendment I made a note to myself that it was because Clause 22 allows for the Secretary of State to intervene on a fire and rescue authority on the basis of its likely failure to have regard to a non-statutory document.

We have just discussed the government amendment, which requires the framework to come before Parliament, but as I said when discussing the group before last, we will still be unable to amend it. I do not depart from my view that including the framework in primary legislation approaches the matter in a way with which we are not comfortable, giving it the wrong sort of status—which is not to say, as I said before, that there should not be discussion, consultation and working together to arrive at best practice.

Clause 22 allows the Secretary of State to intervene in a failing authority, or one that is likely to fail, for reasons that are well rehearsed and into which I shall not go now. We oppose the comprehensive performance assessment process; we oppose intervention. I do not seek to preclude intervention altogether by the amendment, but can we not pin it down to failure on the part of the authority to perform its statutory functions? Here, we have intervention if an authority is likely to fail to act in accordance with the framework. As the previous clause simply states that authorities must have regard to the framework when carrying out their functions, I do not view the two as wholly consistent.

It is a document to which authorities should have regard, which must mean that there is at least some opportunity for them to say, "That does not really fit with the way in which we are doing things. We have thought about it; we have had regard to it; but we are not going to take it on board—at any rate, in its entirety. Our priorities and objectives are a little different. Our circumstances—the geographic or demographic area in which we work—mean that our priorities should be adjusted a little from those imposed by the framework. We have thought about the guidance in Clause 21(2)(b). We take account of it. But we have a slightly different way to achieve what may be an agreed outcome".

Or, under Clause 21(2)(c), the framework, may contain any other matter relating to fire and rescue authorities or their functions that the Secretary of State considers appropriate". So we are enabling the Secretary of State to do something about a fire and rescue authority that is likely to fail about which none of us yet knows anything, because the Secretary of State may take a view about what is appropriate some time in the future.

It may be boring, but I shall say it again: it may be a Secretary of State who is not a member of the Government whom the Minister represents. That enables us to think about the matter a bit more objectively. I wrote down that the Minister cannot in the same breath defend the clause and say that the Bill is not a centralising measure; but he has already done so, so that disproves my point; but he should not put both in the same breath. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, yet again, I stand by everything that I have said about the clause. It is about last resort, reserve powers, which are the action of any responsible government. Frankly, any responsible government consisting of members of other parties would seek such powers—perhaps not in these particular circumstances, but such powers would be natural and useful and any government would be failing in their duty if they did not include them in the Bill.

The fire and rescue authorities are best value authorities and subject to the provisions of the Local Government Act 1999, which empowers the Secretary of State to issue guidance and set standards, and to make directions and provisions to provide for the performance of functions. It is precisely because the national framework goes wider than the local delivery of core functions and sets out national and regional performance expectations of critical functions that the intervention powers in Clause 22 are necessary to supplement those available under the existing best value regime.

9 p.m.

Examples of those wider-than-core functions are recorded in paragraph 4.17 of the White Paper Our Fire and Rescue Service and paragraph 2.9 of the draft national framework. They are: ensuring resilience to emergencies; specialist or common services; control rooms; procurement; training strategies and personnel and human resource functions. It is essential that we have those powers, albeit that we hope never to have to use them—that is the whole point. We have said repeatedly that the intervention powers will be used only in accordance with the agreed Local Government Intervention Protocol; it will not be based on a whim or done behind closed doors.

We want to ensure that the national framework retains flexibility to evolve as the process of modernisation in the fire and rescue services changes and progresses. If intervention powers are tied to functions written into the legislation, we will lose the scope for change and development in the service as the measures begin to take effect.

The framework will also give practical and current guidance on how authorities should exercise their core functions. It therefore deals with the detail of what the service needs to do to promote public safety, economy, efficiency and effectiveness. It will be essential for the Secretary of State, if needs be, to ensure that practical measures outlined in the framework will be implemented. That is a further reason for which we need the reserve powers. Anything less could undermine the whole modernisation agenda. There is a big agenda. These long-stop provisions in the Bill are designed not to be used, but to send a signal that if the modernisation agenda fails or authorities fail the reserve powers are there. That is a strong signal, which, I think, will ensure that the powers will never be used.

Baroness Hamwee:

My Lords, we are not going to agree on the matter, but I repeat that we have not sought in this amendment to exclude intervention powers. That is important. The Minister suggested that any responsible government would find a means of intervening on a failing authority. If the means as distinct from the functions are so important, they should be contained in the legislation. The point is partly met by having an instrument subject to negative resolution, but only very partially, given that neither House can amend the order. As I said, we will not agree, but this is not the time of night to test the opinion of the House. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hanham

moved Amendment No. 41:

After Clause 22, insert the following new clause—

"INTERVENTION CODE

  1. The Secretary of State shall publish a code specifying the circumstances and the manner in which—
    1. he may make an order under section 22; or
    2. he may issue a direction under any provision of this Act.
    1106
  2. The code shall include, in particular, details of—
    1. the persons or classes of person the Secretary of State will consult before taking the action referred to in subsection (1);
    2. any other codes of conduct or agreements with any other persons or bodies to which the Secretary of State will have regard when contemplating any action referred to in subsection (1).
  3. Before publishing the code referred to in subsection (1) the Secretary of State shall consult—
    1. all fire and rescue authorities or persons confirmed by them as representing them; and
    2. all persons or bodies recognised by any fire and rescue authority as representing any group of its employees; and
    3. any other person who appears to the Secretary of State to have an interest in or to be likely to be affected by the actions referred to in subsection (1)."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I return briefly to the possibility of the Government producing an intervention code. We discussed the matter in Committee in the context of Clause 22. It comes about as a result of the concerns expressed throughout about the amount of power that Clause 22 will give the Secretary of State. I hear very clearly what the Minister says; once again, this is a last-chance saloon or last resort. As we have heard from the Minister, much of the Bill has "last resort" status. It seems a lot of effort to get round to something that the Deputy Prime Minister will do if all else fails.

Last time, we also discussed the local government intervention protocol and whether it would be sufficient under the CPA and the best-value processes. But we are still very much of the view that whether that is something that will never happen or will happen only on limited occasions, it would be proper for the Government to give an indication of when the intervention powers might apply. Therefore, we propose that an intervention code and guidance specific to Clause 22 be published. That would be appropriate so that people knew exactly what the Secretary of State's powers would be if he felt that he had to intervene under this clause.

That is what this is all about. We discussed it last time when I think we had some discussion on the local government protocol. But we believe that there should be a code of guidance associated with this Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, I shall be brief. I understand the concern about Clause 22. There is also concern about other clauses, but I understand this concern in particular. We do not have a great deal of time because we hope to get the Bill on the statute book. In the short time available, I should like to ask my ministerial colleagues to have a quick think about the matter before Third Reading.

Baroness Hanham:

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 24 [Report]:

Lord Rooker

moved Amendment No. 42: Page 12, line 5, at beginning insert "(1)

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in speaking to Amendment No. 42, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 43 and 44. These are government amendments which commit the Government to reporting to Parliament on the extent to which the fire and rescue authorities are acting in accordance with the national framework at least once every two years.

The Bill states that the Secretary of State will report on the national framework from "time to time". That has been interpreted as a slightly vague commitment. While we always intended to make regular reports to Parliament, the amendments present a clearer timetable for that process. The amendment was suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, in Grand Committee. I am grateful for their suggestion and no doubt they will be happy to support its inclusion. I beg to move.

Lord Hanningfield:

My Lords, we obviously welcome the fact that the Government have accepted our amendment.

Lord Rooker

moved Amendments Nos. 43 and 44:

Page 12, line 5, leave out "from time to time"

Page 12, line 9, at end insert—

  1. The first report under subsection (I) must be made before the end of the period of two years starting on the date when the Framework as first prepared is brought into effect.
  2. Every subsequent such report must be made before the end of the period of two years starting on the date on which the last such report was made."

Clause 28 [Equipment, facilities, services and organisations]:

Lord Hanningfield

moved Amendment No. 45: Page 13, leave out lines 1 and 2 and insert "necessary for the protection of public safety

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 45 and 46 return to Clause 28—fortunately, not the famous Clause 28—which allows the Secretary of State to provide equipment and services to fire authorities, to require their use and to require them to pay for their use. While the Minister explained last time that Clause 28 was principally concerned with centralised procurement, there remains some doubt about the drafting of the clause.

First, the clause should be better drafted so that it would place less emphasis on the role of the Secretary of State in this process. The powers of the Secretary of State are too widely drawn in that area. Procurement efficiencies do not emanate only from Whitehall. Secondly, I do not agree with the argument advanced by the Minister in Committee that because this concerns the tools to do the job rather than the job itself, public safety does not come into it.

The point is precisely that if the Secretary of State is to be so heavily involved in procurement, only the grounds of public safety are strong enough. I reiterate that that is because it is the authority's council tax payers, and not the Secretary of State, who should be driving the agenda of efficiency and effectiveness. Saving lives is more important than saving cash.

Amendment No. 45 is designed to focus the Government's mind on the stated public safety agenda. The Secretary of State may think that it is in the interests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness for him to decide everything. But we disagree.

As before, Amendment No. 46 repeats the same intentions in relation to Clause 28(2), substituting reference to public safety and giving symmetry with Clause 29, which specifically allows the exercise of powers only in the interests of public safety. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, I want to clarify what Clause 28 is all about. It concerns ensuring that the Fire and Rescue Service has the tools to enable it to carry out its job effectively. Unlike many of the clauses we have discussed, it is not about how the service discharges its functions and it is therefore not appropriate to specify public safety as a requirement. The cost of procuring equipment for the Fire and Rescue Service has an impact on local council tax payers and as such we do have to take into account the overall economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the service.

The Bain review concluded that procurement was one area where significant improvements could be achieved if authorities joined together to pool requirements and expertise. The others were the amalgamation of control rooms, outsourcing or collaboration arrangements for vehicle maintenance and the rationalisation of management and support costs. The review suggested that combined savings in these areas could reach some £42 million over three years.

I agree with the noble Lord that saving lives is more important than cost, but if it is possible to save money and still save lives, but do so more efficiently, what is the problem with that? Money can be saved. I say that because the current procurement arrangements for the provision of equipment and services specific to the service are often inefficient due to the small scale on which they are carried out. Fire and rescue authorities can currently collaborate to develop standard specifications, reduce specialist administration costs and place bulk orders. However, this potential has been significantly under-exploited despite efforts over the past decade to achieve improvements. This has led to important equipment such as breathing apparatus not being standardised throughout the service.

Years ago NATO had a problem because its bullets would not fire from the guns being used in all the different countries. It was barmy, but eventually it was sorted out. The idea that breathing apparatus is not standardised throughout the fire service is appalling. There were opportunities to do something about it, but they were not taken. That is not simply a cost implication, it is a question of interoperability. The system must be made more efficient. It is crazy to have breathing apparatus that cannot be swapped or borrowed, or which someone cannot be trained to use. Some kind of standardisation is needed.

It is not acceptable for that state of affairs to continue. We want to give a push in this area. One option is to use Clause 28(2) to establish a single organisation to be responsible for providing Fire and Rescue Service-specific equipment and services. Any such organisation would sit within the local government family rather than be an arm of central government. I want to make that point absolutely clear. We are working with the Fire and Rescue Service and the Local Government Association to establish how best this could be done. One effect of the amendments would be to prevent the Secretary of State establishing such an organisation.

We are well aware that the Fire and Rescue Service has a massive amount of expertise on equipment, both British made and that from overseas. I am not criticising by implication any particular purchase of equipment that has been made. But there is a view in terms of being efficient about the use of equipment by benefiting from bulk purchase and so forth.

We want to make sure that the service is involved at the early stage of any procurement exercise. That has been the case with both the New Dimension programme and the Firelink radio project, and it will be the case with the control rooms project. I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord is reassured that good sense lies behind what we are proposing in the Bill.

Lord Hanningfield:

My Lords, this is not the time to discuss the matter. Perhaps we should have another debate on it. There has been much discussion from Gershon, Bain and others over the past few weeks about the potential savings to be made in procurement. For some years I have been involved in local government procurement, handling contracts worth several billion pounds in association with 13 different authorities. I think that the Government are in for a big shock when they find that the savings are not there.

I agree completely that only one kind of breathing apparatus should be used throughout the UK. However, we have only one manufacturer of fire engines at the moment, so there is little chance of saving any money since no one else makes them; there is only one provider. Similarly, if we move to one kind of breathing apparatus, ultimately there will be only one provider of breathing apparatus, which would have a monopoly. The Government will not make the savings they want because only one body will be bidding for a contract.

Having been involved in this business for many, many years, I do not see any potential for colossal savings; you cannot save much money on paperclips or paper. You can save money on big equipment, perhaps, and possibly by centralising control rooms—I accept that—but I do not believe that any savings will come from procurement and either Gershon or Bain. I say that after many years of experience in procurement in local government.

I cannot accept what the Minister said. I still believe that it would be better to leave this to local authorities rather than for Ministers to employ advisers on big salaries to come up with ideas that do not work. Local authorities clubbing together might do better on procurement. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 46 not moved.]

Clause 31 [Negotiating bodies]:

9.15 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

moved Amendment No. 47: Page 14, line 30, leave out "authorities" and insert "services, such persons being representative of organisations considered by the Secretary of State to be appropriate, and the number of representatives being as considered appropriate by the Secretary of State

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we discussed in some detail the rationale behind the amendment during the Committee stage. I was pleased that there was a degree of shared sentiment on all sides. The amendment would provide the Secretary of State with the opportunity to guarantee any party, including the Retained Firefighters Union, a place at the table to negotiate terms and conditions.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said in unequivocal terms that it was the Government's wish to see the RFU represented in its own right; this being achieved through agreement. Indeed, we hope too that this can be achieved through agreement. We have said all along that we are adamantly opposed to a greater intervention by the Secretary of State. However, at the moment, the RFU are caught between a rock and a hard place. It does not have the required number of members to guarantee it a place at the negotiating table; and because it does not have a seat at that table it is unlikely to attract the required number of new members.

As I have said previously, there are significant areas of the country—for example, Devon—that are covered virtually entirely by members of the RFU. Therefore, to have a truly representative negotiating body that covers the whole country, it is important that the RFU is represented.

We fully understand the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations. However, our previous discussions on this subject took place nearly two months ago in mid May. Can the Minister give the House an update on the position and say whether the Government's view on this important issue has changed since that date? I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, I can be brief. After listening to the noble Lord's speech and reading my notes, I can reassert the Government's position in regard to their intention on the issue of employee representation on a statutory negotiating body. Under the current arrangements, the Fire Brigades Union is the only union that sits on the negotiating body for non-principal fire officers. The Bain review recommended that union representation should be widened, and we agreed. We still agree. We believe that a more diverse representation of employee interests in negotiations is important.

We spelt this out very clearly in the White Paper when we agreed that a new negotiating body should involve representatives of the Retained Firefighters Union. Clause 31 as currently drafted will allow us to ensure that the range of voices across the workforce is heard at the negotiating table. We meant what we said then, and that remains the position; that is what will happen.

Lord Hanningfield:

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. It is very helpful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee

moved Amendment No. 48: Page 14, line 32, leave out from first "is" to end and insert "not independent for the purposes of subsection (2) if he is

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the Amendment seeks to leave out that,

"A chairman"—

of a negotiating body— is independent for the purposes of subsection (2) if he is not"— an employee as outlined in paragraphs (a), (b), (c) and (d), and to insert the wording that a chairman, is not independent for the purposes of subsection (2) if he is". I could hear the Minister's teasing as I was outlining the amendment.

There is an important distinction between the two. At the Committee stage when I raised this issue—it did not occur to me until we were in the middle of the debate—the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said: It could be expressed in the affirmative ... but we have done it the other way round. It is probably traditional drafting".—[Official Report, 24/5/04; col. GC405.] It is not an easy matter to respond to without notice, so I imply no criticism of the noble Lord by bringing it back now. Frankly, if that is traditional drafting, we should change the tradition because the two expressions mean different things.

As the Bill is expressed, there are only four circumstances in which someone would not be independent—if he is a member or employee, a Minister, a civil servant or someone involved with a member or employee of a body representing the interests of fire and rescue authority employees. That cannot be an exclusive list. For example, what if the person is the leader of a major local authority with strong political views that happen to coincide with those of the government of the day? Would such a person be independent in those circumstances? I know that we will be told about the application of Nolan principles and so forth, and I am not making this as a party political point, because it is not a political point in that sense—nor is it a "lawyer's" point. I invite the Government to reconsider the way that they have gone about expressing this because it is a substantial point. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me if I skip over this amendment rather quickly, because I can be nicer about the next one. I want to make it absolutely clear. We cannot accept this amendment. We have given assurances, as have my colleagues in another place, that if we had to use these reserve powers we would follow a rigorous appointment process to ensure that the chair would be genuinely independent.

The Bill clearly states that the chairman—or chairwoman—must be independent. However, were we to accept the amendment, it would leave us with no definition of independence for the purpose of subsection (2). Our legal advice is that that would leave the Government open to litigation on the question of whether a chair or prospective chair was actually independent. There is a legal point here that causes us a problem. However, I can be nicer about the next amendment.

Baroness Hamwee:

My Lords, I do not know how nice the Minister will be about the next amendment. One knows independence when one sees it. The restrictive nature of this provision leaves me unhappy, but I will contain myself until the next amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 49: Page 14, line 37, at end insert— (e) a person who is of a description specified by the Secretary of State in regulations under subsection (1)

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment would enable the Secretary of State to add to the definition of lack of independence. It goes against the grain for me to propose an amendment to allow the Secretary of State to make further regulations, but there we are. If it will meet the point, then I will do so. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, I hope that I will not be accused of misleading the noble Baroness, but this response is nicer. My briefing says "resist" but there is a "but". This is an important matter because there is a problem if one cannot explain clearly in quite short statements to a camera or microphone stuck in front of one's face about the clarity of someone in this position, and one needs to be able to fall back on a process that is rigorous and that people trust. That is what we need to work on.

Amendment No. 49 would enable the Secretary of State to add further exclusions to the people who are independent for the purpose of subsection (2). As it is currently drafted, four groups of people are named in the Bill as being debarred from holding the position of chair, as they are not independent for this purpose. We previously acknowledged that the Bill does not list all those people whom we would regard as failing to meet the requirement for independence in relation to subsection (2). It would simply not be practical to do that. The Government have, however, given assurances that we want a genuinely independent chair. We have absolutely no doubt that the role requires someone of real competence, stature and independence. Bain said that the chair should be independent, and Ministers have long said the same.

People outside read what we say, so I want to put it on record that these are reserve powers, and we hope that we will not have to use them. We will not start out with the intention of using these powers, but if we need to draw them down, the Bill requires us to consult before making the regulations. The detailed proposals for the new negotiating body, including the process for appointing the chair, and ensuring that the chair has met the requirement of real independence, would be a matter of regulation.

I had a brief discussion this morning. I asked if ACAS was involved, because there is no such provision in the Bill. Even after public advertisement, using the Nolan principles, with someone from the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments sitting at your side going through the shortlist and interview processes, I would still expect such a person to get the imprimatur of ACAS as being someone qualified and experienced—and knowledgeable about negotiations and the kind of issues about which the body will be talking. That would give that extra stamp of approval.

We have to go through a process. We cannot go back to the old days and get a list of the great and the good, however qualified they might be. We probably have to do a bit more work, perhaps by letter rather than on the face of the Bill, to make it clear how serious we are that this person will be genuinely independent. Anybody can be independent—we could pick someone at random. A juror is supposed to be independent, chosen at random from the electoral register. We want someone of competence and stature and experience, who will be trusted by all parties concerned. That will not be an easy task, if we ever have to go down this road, simply because the circumstances of making the appointment would mean that the reserve powers have had to be used. So such a person would also need to be something of a diplomat.

We need to do more work in clarifying what we mean by this. Whether it can be done on the face of the Bill, I do not know, but we will put something extra in writing in the next couple of days to give more of our thoughts on this.

Baroness Hamwee:

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I do not take issue with him about the need to have someone who is right for the job. Taking advice from ACAS or whoever about whether applicants have the right skills is common sense. It is welcome information, but I am not sure that it actually goes to the point of this amendment or the previous one. However, I shall wait to see what the Minister has to say over the next couple of days. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 35 [Preservation of existing pension scheme]:

Lord Hanningfield

moved Amendment No. 50: Page 18, line 26, at end insert "except in such cases as may be specified by the Secretary of State in regulations,

The noble Lord said: My Lords, with Amendment No. 50, we return to the issue of whether Clause 36 unduly restricts the employment of police officers as retained firefighters. This clause penalises the retained part of the fire service in a way inconsistent with the stated aims of the Bill to make the fire and rescue services flexible, effective and diverse.

In Committee, the Minister said that there would always be a possibility of a conflict between the duties of the police officer and his or her duties as a firefighter. I do not believe that there have been any examples of any conflict of interest caused by this professional relationship, but I am happy to stand corrected on this point if it helps me understand the Government's position. More importantly, however, I do not understand why a reasoned and rigorous process could not be put in place that could effectively prioritise between potentially conflicting roles. Surely that is not too difficult to implement.

There are many examples in public life where fulfilling the duties of one role ultimately gives way to another. I have no doubt that this choice would have to be made at difficult junctures, such as in emergency situations. That is why a process should be in place so that the police officer and his employers would know exactly where they stood in advance of such a situation arising.

I am also concerned that Clause 36 seems to restrict all employment with a fire and rescue service, whereas the 1947 Act dealt only with employment with a fire brigade. For example, under Clause 36, a part-time police constable could not be employed as a part-time fire control room operator or in a part-time administrative role. That suggests that the clause is not only an unnecessarily wide prohibition on a police officer's right to secondary employment, but also that there may be circumstances that need not result in what the Government would presumably class as an unacceptable conflict of responsibilities.

With this amendment, we are seeking to allow the Government an opportunity to specify in regulations the circumstances in which it would be possible to be both a police officer and a fire and rescue service employee, while not compromising the main intention of Clause 36. That is a much fairer and more effective way forward for both individual employees and the retained part of the fire service. It also reflects the fact that many of us are able to navigate potential conflicts of interest in many walks of life without undue restriction. I beg to move.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, I am in some difficulty. The amendment to page 18, line 26, is actually in Clause 35, which is about the preservation of existing pension schemes. The noble Lord's speech related to Clause 36, which talks about the prohibition on the employment of the police. We are on Amendment No. 50. I have a really good speech on the provision of pension schemes, but that was not the issue raised by the noble Lord. I have not got any notes on the prohibition on the employment of police officers.

Lord Hanningfield:

My Lords, would it be preferable to remove it totally today and bring it back at Third Reading? I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 43 [Powers of fire-fighters etc in an emergency etc]:

Baroness Hanham

moved Amendment No. 51: Page 21, line 9, at end insert—

"( ) if he reasonably believes a fire to be about to break out, for the purpose of preventing the fire or protecting life or property;"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, with this amendment, we return to the issue of extending the rights of firefighters to effect entry if they reasonably believe a fire may be about to break out. In Committee, the Minister suggested that we contact the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association to back up our argument with examples of where firefighters have been unable to take preventative action that they felt was necessary. We received an interesting response. It is true that they did not have any examples where they felt unable to act, or where they had been subject to a legal challenge. Nevertheless, the association is still of the opinion, as are we, that there may be situations that could render their actions technically illegal, or where erroneous preventative actions could be subject to legal challenge if they are not protected by the amendment.

I hope that noble Lords will indulge me in returning to this issue, if only in order to extract absolute clarity from the Government. It is a reasonable objective, and in this case some question marks remain over the clause. The last time we discussed the issue, the Minister said that the Government had considered it since it was raised in the Commons, but they had decided against amending the Bill because it was felt that the powers were already there. However, while I accept these arguments are made in good faith, I understand that the wording of Clause 43 and the Minister's reply in Hansard are such that they require an event to have occurred already in order to give rise to a reasonable belief that forced entry will help to protect life and property. That is not the point of our amendment, which includes the sense of a reasonable belief based on what might happen if certain conditions obtain.

As I was sitting here, I was trying to think of such a situation, and I am afraid that they are all pretty dire. However, one could think of a situation where someone called the fire brigade because they were afraid that a criminal act had been carried out that might end up in a fire; and while there was no fire there, the result of the act was that potentially fire could break out. In those circumstances, the fire brigade would not have the right of entry until the fire had broken out. That is an untenable situation, and it is what this amendment is all about. I am talking about the type of forced entry when it is essential that the fire brigade gets into a building, based on a reasonable belief that a fire was about to break out—although that subsequently proves to be erroneous because a fire does not break out. Could those decisions be subject to a legal challenge, if they were found to be erroneous?

We seek the assurance that the fire service is protected in taking action in anticipation. The fire service believes that it is not protected. The Bill represents a perfect opportunity to put that right, if that is necessary. I refer to when preventive action might be taken and might result in legal action. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, the best way in which to answer the noble Baroness is to give her a couple of examples from my brief.

Would a firefighter have sufficient powers to break into a house or flat if the householder had been locked out and was concerned that a pan of cooking oil was heating on a cooker? The answer is, yes. The householder, or any person acting on the householder's behalf, would be able to authorise the firefighter to enter the premises. In that example there is no fire but a good prospect that one might break out. That is fairly straightforward.

My second example is similar. Would firefighters have powers to break into a property if they were tackling a fire in adjoining premises if the fire was in a common roof void or shared roofing material? The answer is, yes. Subsection (1)(a) allows the firefighter, if he reasonably believes a fire to have broken out, to do anything reasonable for the purpose of extinguishing the fire or protecting life or property. If there was a fire in a common roof area then we believe the fire and rescue services would have sufficient powers to enter any premises which might be threatened by the fire to prevent its spread, or equally to help the firefighters tackle the blaze.

Those are two specific examples, one in which there is clearly no fire and one in which there is a fire that might become bigger. I hope that that satisfies the noble Baroness.

Baroness Hanham:

My Lords, I had hoped not to have to use this example, but it is the only one I can use and it is germane to the argument.

Arson is a terrible thing, which sometimes takes place when people shove things through letterboxes and follow it up with an inflammable substance. Under those circumstances, the person concerned or the householder might be inside the property; it might be the middle of the night and they may not know what is going on. Someone passing may see what is happening and call the fire brigade, but there would be nobody outside to authorise the fire brigade to go in. There would potentially be no fire seen at that moment—there may be a time gap. Under those circumstances, would there be an authority to deal with the situation? In that sort of situation, we need to ensure that there is proper cover for the fire service.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, that is a good example, to which I do not have a specific answer. The note that I have says that the incident that a person outside might have seen would probably have been a criminal act, so one would be quite able to summon the police with a 999 call. If that is not sufficient, we shall have to consider the matter.

The concern has been raised—I am not saying that it has not—and we are not unsympathetic, but the amendment would represent a substantial extension of the powers of entry for firefighters. We remain to be convinced that those extra powers would be needed. In the circumstances of the examples that I gave, the answer was yes. In the example given by the noble Baroness, it is clear that the police could be called, and they could then summon the fire service.

Baroness Hanham:

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am still not terribly happy with it. We may need to consider whether another amendment could somehow bring in at least a limited authority for this. I am concerned that there could be situations in which firefighters found themselves legally at risk. So for today, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

Baroness Hamwee

moved Amendment No. 52:

Page 43, line 24, at end insert— "(1A) In section 18 (schemes for basic, attendance and special responsibility allowances for local authority members), after subsection (3G) insert— "(3H) A fire and rescue authority constituted by a scheme under section 2 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 or a scheme to which section 4 of that Act applies shall be treated as a county council for the purposes of the foregoing provisions of this section.""

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 52 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 54. These amendments are also prompted by Welsh authorities. They allow for allowances to members of the fire and rescue authorities to be pensionable. They are enabling powers and do not commit the Government or the National Assembly for Wales to introducing pensions. Clearly, more detailed regulations would be needed to deal with the point about double counting that was mentioned in an earlier debate.

The amendment was resisted in Grand Committee on the basis that the Government are reviewing members' allowances later this year and that if the review proposes a change it could be dealt with by subsequent legislation. I said then that enabling provisions in the Bill would mean that we would not have to wait for another legislative opportunity.

There is also a point on devolution. It may be that the National Assembly for Wales and the UK Government reach different answers to the question of whether members of fire and rescue authorities should receive pensions. Unless the Bill includes an enabling power, the National Assembly is denied the choice given by the Local Government Act 2000 for councillors in England. I know how committed the Government are to devolution so I am sure that they will understand that argument. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, I must repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said in Committee. We will review members' allowances in general later in the year and allowances for members of fire authorities will be considered as part of the review. As the noble Baroness was speaking, my noble friend checked with me. I am a bit surprised to learn that the legislative change would require primary legislation and not an order. I suspect that there is a crossover with police authority allowances and other matters. The matter is obviously much more fundamental than I had thought, particularly as regards the inclusion of pensions.

I am going to have to retreat with that answer, which is exactly the same as the one given in Committee. However, I had not appreciated that primary legislation would be needed. I cannot give a commitment at this time. At the moment, we have no plans to make a change. However, a review is under way, and these allowances will be a part of that. We will need to take the views of all the stakeholders concerned. This is not a five-minute task. I am sorry that I am not able to give a more helpful response.

Baroness Hamwee:

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister appreciates that I am not seeking an answer about the outcome of the review. I am simply trying to smooth the way. As the legislative timetable gets so clogged at this time of year, one is persuaded of the value of enabling legislation. However, having made the point and tried to help out, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 53:

Page 47, line 14, at end insert— "Scotland Act 1998 (Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers etc.) Order 1999 (Si. 1999/1750) 91A (1) Schedule 1 to the Scotland Act 1998 (Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers etc.) Order 1999 is amended as follows. (2) Omit the words "The Fire Services Act 1947 (c. 41), Sections 26 and 27A". (3) At the end, add "Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, Sections 33 to 35"."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment also concerns pensions, as does Amendment No. 56, which is on much the same point. That amendment is not grouped with this one, but that is my fault.

Amendment No. 53 ensures that the Scottish Executive have the functions under the Bill in respect of pensions for employees of Scottish fire authorities. As my notes seem to have negatives in the wrong places, perhaps I will not continue this paragraph.

If the Bill confers functions with regard to pensions in Wales directly on the Assembly, it should protect the current devolution of that responsibility in respect of Scotland by amending the order referred to in the amendment. The Bill can achieve the same outcomes for Scotland and Wales. I suggest saving a little parliamentary time by not having to approve an order. That is a bit cheeky because I received my briefing from Wales and I have not been briefed by the Scots.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, I was not clear whether the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was linking Amendment No. 56 with Amendment No. 53; will she speak to it separately?

Baroness Hamwee:

My Lords, I was going to speak to it separately but, with the leave of the House, I could speak to it now.

The proposed functions for the Assembly with respect to pensions mark a significant development in the devolution settlement for Wales. Why that should happen has not, I am told, been the subject of reasoned argument by the Government; nor have the implications that it would have for other public service pensions schemes been considered. Currently, the Assembly has no functions under Section 7 of the Superannuation Act 1972 in respect of the local government pension scheme, under Section 9 in respect of teachers' pension schemes or under Sections 10 or 104 of the National Health Service Act 1977 in respect of the NHS pension scheme. I am told that the Bill's proposals represent the first occasion on which the Assembly will have functions in respect of pensions in the public sector. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, I shall give the noble Baroness a considered reply to Amendments Nos. 53 and 56, which are connected. Amendment No. 53 seeks to make a consequential amendment to the Scotland Act 1998 (Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers etc.) Order 1999, so that the reference in it to the "Fire Services Act 1947" is updated, to reflect the new legislation.

Ensuring that all pieces of secondary legislation which make reference to the 1947 Act, or indeed other terms such as "fire brigade", are revised is a considerable task—there are hundreds of such references to be amended. We therefore plan to do that as a single exercise, after the Bill has received Royal Assent, by means of an order under Clause 52. That will allow us to ensure that we capture all out-dated references in secondary legislation and thoroughly update the statute book.

Amendment No. 56 returns us to an issue raised in Grand Committee. The question of how pensions matters should be dealt with in Wales has been returned to again. The amendment would deny the National Assembly of Wales the power to make secondary legislation on pensions that the Scottish Executive currently enjoys in relation to the 1947 Act, and which it is our intention to give it, using a transfer of functions order, in relation to secondary legislation on pensions under this Bill.

From the debates so far on this issue, it seems that the concern is not that we are proposing to devolve pensions powers under the Bill to the National Assembly for Wales. The concern appears to be rather that more power should not be devolved to Wales than is devolved to Scotland. I can reassure the House on this matter. It is government policy to devolve to Wales policy matters currently reserved to the UK government in respect of the fire and rescue services. In drafting the provisions of this Bill, we have tried to replicate the outcome in Scotland, but not necessarily the method of achieving that outcome. Without going into the minutiae of detail, that basically answers the substantive question raised by the noble Baroness.

Baroness Hamwee:

My Lords, I am grateful for that. I thank the Minister for the explanation. I am sure that we all look forward to the order to which he referred in connection with the relevant amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 54 not moved.]

Clause 54 [Pre-commencement consultation]:

Baroness Hanham

moved Amendment No. 55: Page 26, line 14, after "force" insert "but after this Act has received Royal Assent

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I believe that this is the last amendment that we shall discuss tonight. I shall speak as quickly as I can. As I said in Committee, Clause 54 legitimises the consultation that takes place before the relevant provisions of the Bill come into force. The purpose of Amendment No. 55 is clear: it seeks to prevent the situation whereby consultation and discussion that took place on the Bill last year or the year before can be used in support of a claim that adequate consultation has taken place in respect of some matter dealt with by the Bill.

We reluctantly concede the principle of pre-commencement consultation in the interests of speeding up matters, but it must take place after the Bill has received Royal Assent. The context in which it takes place will be relevant to the responses received and the consultees must be able to see that context. That means that the Act of Parliament must be completed even if the relevant sections have not commenced.

As I said previously, I think that this is an important amendment because it aims to address the worrying trend of government pre-emption in legislation. I recognise the point made by the Minister that there could be disruption in terms of fire and rescue authorities' business and operational planning if this amendment were to be adopted. However, democratic processes are not adopted because they are the most efficient but because they are the most legitimate. That legitimacy hangs on the proper sequencing of legislative activity and not permitting the Government to enact policy on the basis that it will inevitably pass through the Houses of Parliament unamended.

This is not an issue confined to this Bill in particular but I think that we need to address what is a creeping problem of the executive towards the legislative supremacy of Parliament. My concern is not particularly aimed at this Government—but they just happen to be in office at the moment—though there can be no doubt that we saw this kind of pre-emption on the Planning Bill, as well as in the fire White Paper for the setting up of regional management boards by 1 April 2004. For the purposes of this amendment, and from a democratic point of view, it is only right that proper consultation be carried out once the relevant legislation has become law. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, I take the noble Baroness's point. It is an interesting point. I shall certainly obtain further betters and particulars from my learned friends on the matter. I should like to have provided examples where consultation has taken place on legislation, or the effect of it, before it received Royal Assent. I am sure that that must have happened under previous governments. I am not saying that that is necessarily a good thing. I do not believe that it is a question of usurping Parliament for reasons that I shall explain. However, I would be more comfortable if I had a couple of examples of the matter from recent years and prior to 1997.

We believe it is essential that we obtain the results of consultation on this Bill before Royal Assent and are able to take account of them, for example in relation to the core duties under Clause 9, the national framework and charging. The adoption of the amendment would mean that we would have to start that all over again. There is a problem here. Even if consultation began on the date of Royal Assent, we would have to operate the Cabinet Office guidelines that recommend a three-month period as a minimum. You have to have really good reasons to short-cut that three-month period. There then must be time to consider the responses before laying the commencement order which must lie before the House for a period before having effect. That could result in serious delays to the modernisation process in the fire and rescue services.

I freely admit that the Government are really keen to secure Royal Assent for the Bill before the Summer Recess. I am very grateful to the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties as that could not be achieved without their co-operation. They have facilitated today's debate. I hope that that will also be the case on Third Reading next week. I refer to the implications of the amendment's adoption for the setting of budgets and starting all over again as regards operational capabilities, local authorities fixing their budgets, council tax levels and public safety issues. I make a special case for this Bill in the context of reforming the fire and rescue services. It is important as part of the overall timetable to try to obtain Royal Assent before the Summer Recess rather than in October. I know that my right honourable friends Nick Raynsford and the Deputy Prime Minister were mortified, and we explained to them that the Lords would try to help, which is what we have tried to do.

I make a special case in this instance but, on the general principle—the noble Baroness went outside the Bill and referred to that—I shall make some further inquiries. If possible, I shall write to noble Lords. I would be happier if there were precedents going back prior to 1997.

Lord Bassam of Brighton:

My Lords, I could make a guess.

Lord Rooker:

My Lords, my noble friend suggests a few relevant issues—poll tax, the GLC abolition Bill▀×but I will not be run down the road by him. As a general principle, the point raised is extremely valid and deserves a considered response.

Baroness Hanham:

My Lords, I very carefully said that my concern was not particularly aimed at this Government, because I thought that some noble Lords—particularly the noble Lord, Lord Bassam— might pop up with something controversial. I shall not take the matter any further today. We already have the promise of further consultation on the framework, which is an important part of the Bill. However, as the Minister recognised, perhaps we might start adopting the principle. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 60 [Wales]:

[Amendments Nos. 56 and 57 not moved.]

Lord Rooker

moved Amendment No. 58:

Page 27, line 25, leave out subsection (2).

House adjourned at three minutes before ten o'clock.