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Mr. Hammond: My right hon. and learned Friend might want to remind the hon. Member for

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Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) of the fact that, on Second Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister himself said:

Mr. Hogg: One does not have to be very bright to spot that, as it is the inevitable consequence of members of the emergency services going on strike. While individual members might break strike action on occasion, the inevitable and probably intended consequence is to put pressure on the Government. Those on strike put pressure on the Government by putting at risk the lives and property of their fellow citizens. I happen to think that that is profoundly wrong.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I do not agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about the right to strike, which I think is a hard won right that we should preserve in this country. Nevertheless, does not his logic, which I shall accept for a moment, drive him to conclude that, if no right to strike is allowable in the fire service, no right to impose a settlement should be allowed on the part of a Government? If there is no right to strike, the fire service should have an independent decision-making process for agreeing proper wages and conditions for firemen and women.

Mr. Hogg: I start from the first proposition—that there should not be a right to strike. Let me say that when I was Prisons Minister, I argued the same in respect of prison officers, as I thought it entirely wrong for them to take industrial action. I also happened to be Police Minister some way back, and I am extremely glad that the Police Act 1996 and police regulations prevent police officers from going on strike. The same is true of the armed services—and quite right too.

The question whether the Secretary of State should have a power unilaterally to impose a prohibition on the right to strike is another matter.

The important point is that the House, not the Secretary of State, should decide the matter. Amendment No. 23 would at least provide for the affirmative resolution procedure to allow the House to give its support.

I have gone a little wide of what I wanted to say—I am grateful for your indulgence, Sir Michael—in arguing vigorously the case against strike action by fire brigade members, which I feel very strongly about. In any event, these powers are important because they constitute both a unilateral variation of contracts of employment and a right to impose financial burdens and to dispose of property. That should be done only with the proper authority of this Committee. The measure would be imperfect even if the House accepted amendment No. 22, but it is the least that we could properly do, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will consider that.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): First, I record as a declaration of interest my membership of a trade union and say that we should fiercely defend the right to strike, which is so important for trade unions.

I want briefly to speak in support of amendment No. 16 and the amendments tabled in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr.

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Lloyd). The overall point is that we are spending an enormous amount of time debating these issues when we should be talking about the future modernisation of the fire service and the part that the pathfinder report can play in that. In that context, many hon. Members, including me, will listen carefully to every word that the Minister says in response to this group of amendments so as to judge whether the Bill may be unnecessary, given that a negotiated settlement may follow the conference that is taking place in Glasgow next Thursday. Firefighters, too, will listen carefully to his comments, especially in relation to the sunset clause and the affirmative resolution, to determine whether the Government intend to allow a negotiated settlement to be reached. Whatever happens, without such a settlement we will not have the necessary goodwill from everybody to take the agenda forward.

I respect the generosity that my right hon. Friend the Minister extended towards Staffordshire MPs when he met us shortly before the recess. We told him how important it was that a negotiated settlement should be reached, irrespective of the Bill, and that, having met FBU members and the chief fire officer, we want to ensure that not only the FBU but the employers are able to advance the modernisation agenda. His response will be carefully scrutinised, and I await it with great interest.

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Raynsford): The amendments predominantly deal with the issue of whether the Bill should be time limited, which was raised by several hon. Members on Second Reading. At the time, I said that that could be considered in Committee, and so it has proved. As we have made clear on several occasions, the Bill is part of our strategy for dealing with the exceptional set of circumstances presented by the current fire dispute. It is not a vehicle for dealing with our longer-term vision for the fire service, which will be set out in the White Paper that we expect to publish shortly.

I hope that hon. Members will understand that there are always timetable issues involved in the publication of important documents, but it is our intention to publish the White Paper in the very near future.

5.30 pm

As the Committee will know, we are committed to modernising the fire service, and the forthcoming White Paper will describe our proposed reforms in detail. I hope that it will be helpful to the Committee if I take a little time to describe how the Bill and the White Paper will complement each other. Before I do so, however, I want to make it quite clear to my hon. Friends that there is no wider application to any other industrial relations situation implicit in the Bill; it relates specifically to the current position in the fire service. That has been clearly stated by the Deputy Prime Minister and me on many occasions, and I want to make it absolutely clear to the Committee tonight.

The powers that the Bill would confer would enable us to draw a line under the present dispute. The Bill should therefore be a temporary measure, designed solely to address the current dispute and its immediate aftermath. For the longer term, the White Paper will set

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out comprehensive proposals for a new framework for the fire service that I believe will give it a new sense of purpose and prevent the kind of stalemate that has characterised this industrial dispute. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) asked me whether the Bill would address some of the difficult issues that have been thrown up by the negotiations, and I can give him the assurance that he is seeking: we shall certainly set out proposals for a longer-term framework which should ensure a better future without the kind of unproductive stalemate that we have encountered in the course of the last few months.

I should also say to the hon. Gentleman that there is absolutely no significance, so far as I am concerned, in the textual changes in the later stages of the employers' offer. The employers assure us that those changes are entirely compatible with their objective of ensuring the modernisation of the fire service while giving reassurance to worried members of the Fire Brigades Union that some of the wilder fears that have been expressed about some of the consequences are completely unfounded. Those assurances were used as a basis for changes to the document, to give reassurance. That is an entirely sensible and proper thing for the employers to have done, but it in no way changes the fundamental principle that the pay offer of 16 per cent. must be linked to modernisation, and that modernisation must achieve the necessary savings to ensure that the offer is affordable.

Mr. Hammond: I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about the deletion of the reference to the White Paper, but does he not see at least a message, if not a specific significance, in the removal from paragraph 1.1 of the following words?

Those words have been expunged. Is there no significance to that?

Mr. Raynsford: We have made it quite clear to the employers on many occasions that the interim funding of £30 million that we have pledged to make it possible for them to meet the costs of this settlement—given that it will take some time for the benefits of modernisation to flow through and to meet the costs implicit in the offer—is the maximum that is on offer, and that we shall not meet any additional amount. The employers are quite clear about that, and hence about the fact that the offer has to ensure that savings can be made over that time scale to enable them to keep within their budgets. They have made it clear to us that they are satisfied that the latest offer achieves that objective, and of course it is in their interest to do so because, financially, they will have no other means of meeting the costs of the settlement.

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 well managed and efficient, serving the needs of the community and able to respond to the challenges of the 21st century. We intend to set out the legal, institutional and managerial changes required to deliver that vision. One of the keys to this is to set clear targets for fire and

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safety outcomes, to support local analysis of how these can best be achieved, and to insist on best value in the way in which services are delivered.

In the context of this long-term approach, we are prepared to accept the principle that the Bill should be time-limited. However, we believe that the time limits of 15 months, as set out in amendment No. 29 tabled by the Liberal Democrats, or 18 months, as proposed in amendments Nos. 2 and 35 tabled by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, are too short. I will explain why.

Even when a settlement has been achieved, whether by agreement or by imposition, the new direction that modernisation requires will not be achieved overnight. It therefore makes sense to retain the powers that the Bill will confer until we can be reasonably clear about the fact that the improvements that we want to see are well on the way to being achieved.

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