Joint Committee on Human Rights Twelfth Report


Government Bills

Bills drawn to the special attention of each House

1 Fire Services Bill
Date introduced to the House of Commons

Date introduced to the House of Lords

Current Bill Number

Previous Reports

21 March 2003

4 June 2003

House of Lords 71

8th Report

1.1  The Fire Services Bill[1] is designed to allow the Deputy Prime Minister to impose a settlement of the long-running dispute over pay and conditions between the fire services employers and their employees. Initially when we considered the Bill we came to the conclusion that there was no significant risk that it would lead to a violation of any Convention right, for reasons we set out in our Eighth Report.[2]

1.2  However, the United Kingdom has other human rights obligations under international law in respect of arrangements for collective bargaining. We pointed out in our Eighth Report that there seemed to be a risk that the Bill would be incompatible with Article 6 of the European Social Charter and Article 8 of ILO Convention No. 151. Article 6 of the European Social Charter requires states to take certain steps to ensure the effectiveness of the right to bargain collectively. Article 8 of ILO Convention No. 151 requires that settlement of disputes about the terms and conditions of employment of public employees 'shall be sought, as may be appropriate to national conditions, through negotiation between the parties or through independent and impartial machinery, such as mediation, conciliation and arbitration, established in such manner as to ensure the confidence of the parties involved'.

1.3  Both provisions are subject to various exceptions, for example where there is a public emergency or collective bargaining has been attempted and has failed to produce a satisfactory result after a reasonable time. It is strongly arguable that the current fire services dispute would satisfy both those tests. The Deputy Prime Minister, in his letter to our Chair, asserted that it did, and that the use of powers under the Bill was therefore justified. We accept that this is so in the context of the current dispute.

1.4  However, the Bill is widely drawn. The powers which it confers to interfere with collective bargaining could be used in circumstances where there is no public emergency and collective bargaining had not been tried and failed to produce a satisfactory result after a reasonable time. We raised this possibility with the Deputy Prime Minister, asking him (a) whether the Government considers that it would be compatible with Article 6 of the European Social Charter (which guarantees the right to bargain collectively and to strike in support of collective bargaining); and (b) whether the Government considers that it would be compatible with Article 8 of the Labour Relations (Public Services) Convention (ILO Convention No. 151, 1978), which requires that settlement of disputes about the terms and conditions of employment of public employees 'shall be sought, as may be appropriate to national conditions, through negotiation between the parties or through independent and impartial machinery, such as mediation, conciliation and arbitration, established in such a manner as to ensure the confidence of the parties involved'.[3]

1.5  The reply from the Deputy Prime Minister[4] concentrated on the facts of the present fire services dispute. As we have already said, we accept that the use of powers under the Bill to interfere with collective bargaining is likely to be justified in the context of the current dispute. However, nothing the Deputy Prime Minister wrote satisfies us that the terms of the Bill are sufficiently narrowly drawn to avoid their use in disputes where there is no public emergency and there has been no attempt to settle the matter through free collective bargaining.

1.6  We therefore conclude that the Fire Services Bill, as it stands at present, gives rise to a significant risk of a violation of Article 6 of the European Social Charter and of Article 8 of ILO Convention No. 151. We draw the matter to the attention of each House.


1   HC Bill 81 Back

2   Joint Committee on Human Rights, Eighth Report of 2002-03, HL Paper 90, HC 634, paras. 7-10 Back

3   Ibid., paras. 11-21 Back

4   See Appendix 1 Back


 
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