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Mr. Hammond: I am disappointed to see the Minister shaking his head. I hope that he has an extremely good reason for not accepting such a sensible amendment. If it were accepted, I should expect the current offer to be voted on in the sad event that agreement could not be reached on 12 June.
I shall touch briefly on the Liberal Democrat amendment, No. 27. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) intervened on me to agree that the Deputy Prime Minister's powers under the Bill appeared to ignore the integrated risk management programmes. The right hon. Gentleman's powers are not constrained so that they can be used in a way that is supportive of the integrated risk management programmes adopted by individual fire authorities. However, amendment No. 27 also fails to address that point.
If the integrated risk management programme requires that conditions of service change, what is the relevance of arbitration? Clearly, delivery of the integrated risk management programme will require a change in those conditions of service. Arbitration can be used to settle paythe compensation required to work under different conditions. That is a perfectly legitimate consideration, but to subject changes to other conditions to arbitration could undermine the integrated risk management programme, and I do not think that the hon. Member for Ludlow really wants to do that. Perhaps he is considering pay only. I look forward to him clarifying that point.
Finally, I turn briefly to amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 15, which were tabled by the awkward squad on the Government Back Benches. Their effect would be disastrous and give the FBU a veto over any order that the Deputy Prime Minister might make under the powers granted to him by the Bill. If those who tabled the amendments are successful, we can be assured that our consideration today would be entirely wasted. The Bill would have no purpose whatever. The amendments would effectively allow the FBU to usurp Parliament's role, and that probably neatly encapsulates the bizarre and often offensive view that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) takes of the world. These are wrecking amendments and not worthy of consideration in the House. If those Members want to wreck the Bill, the correct course of action for them is to vote against Third Reading, not to table such amendments. We certainly will not support them.
Matthew Green: This group of amendments is particularly important because it addresses the issue of postal ballots. As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) has suggested, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives come to the issue from broadly the same direction. He said that our amendments would not work, but I suspect that the wording of the Conservatives' amendments probably would not work either. The difficulty is that amendment No. 32 does not say that the ballot would decide whether FBU members have accepted the conditions. It says only that it would "ascertain their views". Therefore, it appears to be more a consultation than a ballot, and there is concern about the way in which it would be carried out.
If the Minister cannot accept Conservative amendment No. 32 and our amendments Nos. 25 and 26, I hope that he will say that the Government can find a way of inserting similar provisions into the Bill. Because of the rush and the guillotine motion, the opportunity for the Government to do that on Report will be limited. However, the Bill has to go to another place and I hope that the Government will consider tabling an amendment there.
Two issues of concern arise from what happened when the FBU executive accepted a settlement and it was rejected by a conference. The first was outlined by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. There is the potential for peer pressure to be exerted at a fire station when a show of hands mandates the person going to the conference.
The second concern is that a mandatory system can lead to the same problems that were faced in the last American presidential elections when fewer people voted for the current American President than voted for the Democrat candidate. That happened because people voted in areas for a mandated delegated to take a bloc vote forward. Under a mandatory system, even if secret ballots were held in fire stations, a majority of FBU members might want to accept a deal but the minority might be able to ensure that there were enough mandated votes to defeat them.
Mr. Hammond: I have just examined the figures, and I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman needs to go as far as the United States. If he looks at his general election result, he will find that more people voted against him than for him.
Matthew Green: I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that, but it is probably the case for many hon. Members. However, there is a slight difference. We are the representatives not the mandated delegates of our constituencies. My point about the American election was that, although the people from the individual states are technically representatives, they are to all intents and purposes mandated.
The key point is that a secret postal ballot of all members would ascertain the view of the majority of FBU members. I have spoken to FBU members in Shropshire, and I am certain that a majority of them would have accepted the previous settlement. Indeed, many of us suspect that that is true across the country. A postal ballot would ensure that, instead of the Government imposition of a settlement, all the FBU's members would have an opportunity to decide whether to accept it. That must be preferable to the Secretary of State imposing a settlement.
Amendments Nos. 25 and 26 may be technically defective but I suspect that Conservative amendment No. 32 is, too. We do not have the Minister's access to the skills of the parliamentary draftsmen, but I hope that he will accept that we have a strong point and that he will be willing to table amendments at a later stage to satisfy our demands. If he does, many of our overall concerns about the Bill will be removed.
On amendment No. 27, I take on board what the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said. It was our thinking that the provisions in the amendment should apply primarily to pay. Although the amendment may not be technically perfect, its intention is to ensure that the Secretary of State could modify the conditions of service only following the recommendations of an independent arbitration process. Clearly, as the hon. Gentleman attempted to elicit from the Minister, if a settlement from the Government is unfortunately needed, we hope that it would probably be the one on the table from the employers. It has gone through a process of arbitration, and the intention of the amendment is to ensure that that would happen in future.
I accept that the amendment may not be perfectI do not pretend that it isbut I hope that the Minister will accept the need for any pay settlement to be tested. I am sure that that is his intention, but the problem is that the Bill will effectively give him the powers to impose
Mr. Hammond: I am sure that that is not the Minister's intention However, he will leap to his feet to correct me if I am wrong when I say that I have the distinct impression that the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that, should the settlement currently on the table be rejected, it is likely that an imposed settlement would be less generous.
Matthew Green: The hon. Gentleman may be right that that impression has been given. It is perhaps an attempt to force the union to accept the offer and we shall wait with interest to hear what the Minister says.
The Bill gives Ministers open-ended powers to impose a settlement as they choose. Liberal Democrat amendments Nos. 25 to 27 suggest the use of ballots, arbitration or both as an attempt to ensure that Ministers could not abuse the process. I am sure that the Minister would not abuse the powers but they could be abused to achieve retribution for a long and drawn out dispute. I am sure that he will be only too keen to tell us that that is not the Government's intention. If that is the case, we would feel a great deal happier if the Bill included a provision indicating that the Government would propose a settlement that had been through arbitration or put to a ballot. They are two further ways in which our concerns about the Bill could be mollified.
It has already been said that amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 15 are essentially wrecking amendments. They would take decision-making power away from everyone else and put that straight into the hands of the Fire Brigades Union. We have been in that position for at least a year and that is why the Government are doing what they are doing, although we would do things differently. The amendments would take us back to square one, meaning that we would have wasted all our time and effort on the Bill, so we shall not support them.
However imperfect the various amendments in the group are, I hope that the Minister will say in the spirit of understanding that the Government will table amendments that will satisfy some of our worries. If he does that, the remaining significant concerns that we have about the Bill will be largely satisfied.