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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is tempting me to revert to my former occupation. I do not believe that the Human Rights Act restricts necessary action. A human right is the right to withdraw one's labour, but it is not an absolute right, as the noble Lord knows and did a great deal to bring about. All of the human rights legislation deals with proportionality and the balancing of different interests. To put it at its simplest, my right to free speech is constrained by the noble Lord's right not to be defamed by me. I do not believe that the social chapter and the human rights legislation will inhibit the Government from acting as they think appropriate.

I cannot give an answer to the redundancy point, which is a very important one. But I will put this question, if I may, because the noble Lord asked questions which were utterly devoid of any party-political advantage. What happened when the dispute

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arose? I will put it neutrally. The Government set up an independent inquiry. Could it be said that Sir George Bain was likely to be a placeman or a preacher? Emphatically not. He is respected by everyone in this particular field: he chaired the Low Pay Commission after all.

The Bain committee, which included a former president of the Trades Union Congress, said, "We must modernise. Here is a first report. We hope that you will be able to discuss it". The way forward is of discussion, of attempting to cost and attempting to forecast the future. It is difficult with firemen, as the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, knows because they can retire at different times; one can retire after a certain period on a half pension and, with more years' service, on a two-thirds pension. All of those things will be actuarially difficult to propose unless we have negotiations.

The FBU would not co-operate at all with Bain, part one or part two. To my understanding, it has put forward no proposal for modernisation. I believe that if the Bain inquiry said, "Let us sit down and discuss. Here is our initial draft, please rejoin us in December", then some of the answers to those questions—I agree with the implicit point of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that they are difficult questions—can be arrived at. But we shall never arrive at them if someone is holding a gun, with loaded chamber, at our head.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I echo the strong support given to the Government by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition for resisting the 40 per cent claim, or anything like it. As the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House said, it would be catastrophic for the public sector as a whole and for the economic management of the country.

I regret the rather unworthy little jibes which the noble and learned Lord directed towards the previous government's economic policy. Quite frankly, the present economic prosperity that Britain enjoys, which is well ahead of most countries in Europe, is based on the Conservative inheritance of very sound economic policy. So let us get that out of the way.

I strongly support the Chancellor in his apparent decision that to meet the shortfall that will occur in his revenues he will not increase taxes, he will not cut spending but he will increase borrowing. That is clearly right.

Does the noble and learned Lord agree that the firemen are led by a highly politically motivated leader, who is one of a group of such who have recently emerged? I have had the opportunity to talk to some of them. Does the noble and learned Lord realise that they are every bit as antagonistic and opposed to the new Labour Government as they would be if there were a Conservative Government? That is another reason why it is so important to try to separate them from the membership and to stand up against them.

I turn finally to a short technical point, which I raise after talking to people in Suffolk. Is the noble and learned Lord aware that some of the retained firemen are members of the Fire Brigades Union because in

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these days of liability claims the insurance facilities offered to members of other unions are not adequate to protect their apprehension of being sued if something goes wrong when they are tackling a fire? Will the noble and learned Lord at least feed that into the process of considering the wider aspects of the dispute?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, perhaps I may deal with the noble Lord's latter point straightaway. I do not know the intricacies of the insurance position in his part of the world but, as he knows, my noble friend Lord Rooker will be repeating the Statement—if that is what the House wishes—to be made by the Deputy Prime Minister tomorrow and I hope that we may at least have made some inquiries about that. I undertake to do that. The noble Lord can see my noble friend Lord Rooker sitting next to me.

I was not making unworthy little jibes. I was making a serious point, which is this: if we do not stand firm we shall drift backwards into the old lethargy which was a characteristic of this country. It is not a party political point because a good deal of the inheritance left by the government in which the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, served has been to the public benefit in this country. I was not making the point that everything was bad. I was making the serious and sober point that once we start to lose our resolution we will be in danger of returning to the bad old times—hyper inflation, people losing their houses, people losing their jobs and a general feeling of social insecurity and uncertainty which has endless social ramifications, as I know the noble Lord would be the first to agree.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord was absolutely right in what he said in his last sentence. Perhaps I may ask him why there was no plan B. The Government have had months to know what was in store for them.

Is it not possible to look at—not necessarily to accept—the practice in both Denmark and the United States of a decentralised fire service, where each individual county or town runs its own fire service without the centralised block wage bargaining which clogs everything up? For example, Surrey or Yorkshire could arrive at their own arrangements, which could be different for each county because their circumstances are different. No one has thought of that.

I get the impression—I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be able to dispel it—that the Government have been caught on the hop. There is no plan B and no one has thought of an alternative. That is the criticism I would raise against Her Majesty's present advisers.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Earl may raise that criticism but it would be mistaken. One cannot sensibly approach an industrial dispute by saying to the employees, "We may take away your jobs altogether and go a completely different way". The true plan B was the setting up of the Bain inquiry. It

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was a perfectly sensible thing to do. No one said its terms of reference were wrong; the employers were willing to contribute; its constitution in terms of the people on it was immaculately independent—and the union, I repeat, refused to have anything to do with it. It put forward no ideas for modernisation—not even on one side of a postcard—and forbade its own members to give evidence.

In those circumstances a government have to take a firm stand, and that is what we have done. It is being misrepresented—we shall have to bear that. It may well be unpopular in the short-term—we must bear that.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I declare an interest. I am a county councillor and I have been involved in negotiating with both the Fire Brigades Union and the police.

The negotiating machinery is very bad indeed. It involves a huge number of people—about 40 on the management side and about 40 on the police side. I went to a meeting at the police national negotiating body two weeks ago, where all those people were in a room and only one person on each side was allowed to speak. They then went away into other rooms and talked among themselves, and then they came back again. I plead with the Government to give some thought to streamlining this negotiating machinery. There is no doubt that huge misunderstandings arise when so many people—some representing counties, some representing employers' associations and some representing national bodies—are all merged together. As soon as we get a simplified negotiating machinery, I am sure that in reasonable circumstances we can look forward to better and clearer outcomes.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, makes a very good point. But he said "in reasonable circumstances". I recognise in my mind the citation from the American President, I think, who said, "Come, let us reason together". But, mixing the citations rather inappropriately, it takes at least two to tango. There is no reason why we should not have different views of how we carry out negotiations. Lots of other professional bodies have to change; lots of other trade unions have to change. It is not reasonable simply to say, "Here is a 40 per cent claim; we will do nothing in the context of the Bain inquiry; we will offer no evidence; we will destroy none of your misapprehensions".

For the long term, to use the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, of course there will be lessons to be learnt. But one of the lessons we are adamant about is that we will not give in to blackmail.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that although 40 per cent was the original claim there seems to have been a shift in the FBU position and that 16 per cent has been mentioned as a possible solution, phased in over a

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period, with 25,000 as the aimed for pay for fire-fighters? There seems to have been a shift in the union's position judging by the press statements which came out over the week-end.

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