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Baroness Hanham: My amendment is coupled with Amendment No. 2, tabled by the noble Baroness. First, however, I must issue an apology to the Committee. It has been mentioned already that I was unable to attend the Second Reading. However, I waited until 10.30 p.m. on the night that the debate was due to take part. Unfortunately, on the day on which the debate was finally held, I could not break my prior engagement. Of course, I have read the Second Reading debate in Hansard.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, we are more or less ad idem with the amendments. Mine, unlike hers, would introduce an obligation for the Secretary of State to conduct a postal ballot on any matters that he sought to impose on firemen under the Bill, taking in Clause 1(1)(a) and (1)(b). It extends somewhat the amendment put forward by the noble Baroness, in that it would require a fire authority to supply any information to the Secretary of State, or by definition to any organisation acting on his behalf, such as an independent organisation employed to carry out the ballot, as long as it was in his name. I refer to information that would enable the ballot to be carried outfor example, the details of employees, which would enable them to be sent ballot papers and information on the proposals.
As the noble Baroness said, it could be possible that a ballot would be organised by the trade union on the Secretary of State's behalf, in which case the union would probably have all the information required. However, there might be a situation where that was not a desirable or practical solution, and the amendment would provide an alternative. We would hope that, since negotiations are now taking place following the fire-fighters' decision to accept the offer on the table, that would not be necessary. Indeed, we will come at a later stage to a discussion on the rationale behind the Bill continuing at all. I have tabled the amendment in the spirit of scrutinising the Bill.
Lord McCarthy: I want to ask a few questions. Amendment No. 4 is simpler than Amendment No. 2 because the Secretary of State does it all. On Amendment No. 2, we do not know who does it all, or who refuses to do it. It might be left to the union, who might refuse to do it. Would that mean that the Secretary of State was in a better or worse position to produce his order?
Amendment No. 4 is simpler, but we are still not out of the woods. What do we put on the ballot paper? Do we put, "Would you like to strike?"and if the fire-fighters say they would, does that mean that the Secretary of State cannot issue his order? Do we put, "Do you accept the offer now on the table from the Secretary of State?"and if they say, "No we don't", it means that he cannot introduce his order? They may not like his order or his proposals. On the other hand, if they accepted the proposals made by the Secretary of State, there could not be a strike and he could produce his order. But then if they accepted the proposals, he would not need an order, would he? I am not sure what the relationship is between having the ballot, the words on the ballot paper and the consequences that follow from whatever result we get.
Baroness Hanham: The noble Lord has taken me one step further than the amendment goes. I was not anticipating that I would have to write the ballot question. The whole purpose of the Bill is related to a mandatory requirement by the Secretary of State to put forward a question for an order that he is about to introduce. The Bill says that the Secretary of State will be able to say that this or that is going to happen. My amendment, and the one tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, say that whatever matter the Secretary of State wanted to introduce should be the subject of a ballot. How the words were put together and what question was asked would relate solely to what the matter was, and the implication behind the Secretary of State's intention.
As far as it goes, the purpose behind my amendment is clear. If it was necessary for there to be a wording of the ballot paper, it would have to be a matter for advice, either from the Law Officers in Parliament or perhaps from the Electoral Commission.
Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: I am most grateful for the explanation given by the noble Baroness, but will she inform us further on the purpose of a provision to be made by virtue of subsection (1)(a) under a,
Baroness Turner of Camden: I want to put a question to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who tabled the amendment about ballots. It is really a bit arbitrary to suggest that legislation should state that there be a secret ballot of such members within a three-month period. There may be all sorts of ways in which negotiations are quite legitimately conducted. What very often happens is that a negotiating team will report back to the executive, and the executive may then consult a delegate conference. There may then be a reference from the leadership to the membership as a whole, who will recommend rejection or whatever. To specify that there has to be a postal ballot within that time limit is a bit arbitrary, and may interfere with quite legitimate national joint council arrangements, which I gather are being considered at the moment anyhow.
Baroness Hamwee: I bow to the noble Baroness's practical experience in the matter. Three months may not be the right period but, unless one puts some period in, the whole thing seems so uncertain that one could not apply such a process at all. The amendment is an attempt to make it work.
Lord Rooker: Amendments Nos. 2 and 4 are both generally on the same issue. I know that they are on secret ballots, but basically they are designed to put a hurdle in the way of the Secretary of State making any orders. I understand that that is their prime purpose. There is no argument about secret ballots not being central to our approach to industrial relations; they indeed are. The current situation is that only industrial action that has the support of such a ballot is protected under the legislation.
Of course, the Fire Brigades Union held a secret ballot before it embarked on the recent dispute. That is perfectly lawful, but what they balloted about was not whether to accept a particular offer. That was not the issue, which makes things more difficult. The issue is whether to take industrial actiona strike or other action that might be held to be short of a strikewhich is perfectly okay.
We have no plans to legislate to require the Fire Brigades Union to hold ballots on offers made to it by the employers. That would be quite wrong. Why single out the FBU for that? That is all that this Bill is about. There is no logic in that at all.
As I say, these amendments are not, however, about secret ballots as a reasonable, or the best, mechanism for establishing opinion on a dispute. Their effect is simply to set up hurdles over which the Secretary of State must jump.
Our judgment is that, while we trust and hope that we shall never have to use the powers in the Bill, they are necessary so that all parties understand without any doubt at all that, in the event of a further dispute, the Government are prepared and, indeed, will take action. That being so, if we get into a situation where
Amendment No. 2 would mean that the Secretary of State could make an order only if a secret ballot of all fire brigade members about an employers' offer had been held within the previous three months. One problem with this is that there does not exist a mechanism for a secret ballot of all fire brigade members. That issue was raised in the other place.
The Fire Brigades Union could ballot its members at any time but not those who are members of other unions or of none. The other unions could ballot their members but they are not currently party to the negotiations or part of the negotiating body, so strictly speaking they could not have an offer made to them by the employers. So, it is difficult to see how this condition could be met.
There is no way of fulfilling this requirement. The amendment provides an alternative: that the Secretary of State may himself make an order under the Bill requiring a secret postal ballot of all fire brigade members about an existing offer organised independently.
Similarly, Amendment No. 4 suggests that the Secretary of State should conduct a postal ballot about his own proposals to make an order, rather than about an offer by the employers. The difficulty with that is that it would take time without getting anywhere. Under the normal process of negotiation, employers and unions discuss. They reach an agreement which the negotiators think acceptable and put to their members for endorsement, perhaps by secret ballot, perhaps not. That could be done at delegate conferences, as the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, said.
The powers in the Bill are designed to deal with the situation where this normal process has broken down. This Bill is not designed for ordinary situations. It is designed for the situation where the whole process has broken down. We have made that abundantly clear; otherwise, we would be legislating for normal activities, and we are not.
Anyway, it is not clear what we would do with the results of a ballot. I am not sure how we would conduct a ballot. When I was at the Home Office I discovered that we did not even have the addresses of police stations. Therefore, we might have difficulty holding a ballot for the Fire Service and getting the addresses of members. We probably do not have the addresses of the fire stations. I know that the example I gave of the police stations sounds barmy but police authorities and other such bodies are sometimes reluctant to divulge that information. We could consult telephone directories but they are not always up-to-date. Let us not assume that the Government have all the information necessary to conduct a ballot. I do not believe that that is the case.
If a ballot were held and an offer rejected, we would be no further along. Not making an order might deprive fire-fighters of a pay rise. The amendments could in many circumstances prevent employees getting a pay rise. There are difficulties in that regard.
Lord McCarthy: Before the noble Lord sits down, can I try to get some clarity about the point that he made several times; namely, that the amendments would prevent fire persons from getting a wage increase? Presumably they would only come in, and only be required, where there was a failure to agree; in other words, when the workers in the Fire Service said, "We are not satisfied. We want to improve on it". They would not want to take the money because they had not agreed to take the money. There would be a failure to agree.
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