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Lord McCarthy: It is not really much to say, "The only answer I can give you is that it is not covered by the Bill". That is disputable. I should have liked the Minister to say, "It is a pretty doubtful exercise". But he did not say that. Let us hope that someone will read what has been said, will think about it and say, "What idiot decided to put this in the White Paper?". It seems to be the only hope that we have. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 24:

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 24, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 25, with which it is grouped, which stands in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. She will be surprised that we have moved on quite so fast, although one should not complain about that.

Clause 1(7) provides that no order shall be made more than two years after the Act commences, which, I believe—unless the Government have some procedural device up their sleeve—will not be before mid-September at the earliest and probably later; in other words, some four or five months after the Bill was originally introduced.

As I understand it, the Bill was introduced to deal with a particular dispute which is now over. I acknowledge that the sunset clause included in the Bill was not there before and we welcome the fact that the Government have introduced it. I rather liked the comment of the honourable Member for Manchester Central, Mr Tony Lloyd, in another place who said that the sunset clause was designed for a difficult Bill. I beg the Committee's pardon, I am looking at the wrong page. When the Minister was challenged on the concept of a sunset clause he was about to stand up and tell him,

    "'Minister, I am your sunset', but being the sunset for the Labour Government is a task rather bigger than I wish to take on".—[Official Report, Commons, 3/6/03; col. 38.]

The Minister in another place argued and confirmed that the Bill should be a temporary measure. He said that it was necessary for the Secretary of State to have powers in place until there is new legislation based on the White Paper. In less formal language, I read that as the Government retaining for themselves a legislative cosh until they have the next piece of legislation in place. I am sure that the Minister will say that I am wrong about that, but that is an interpretation that will be widely made in the context, as many acknowledge, that the Government much prefer settlements to be negotiated and not imposed.

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We are told that the Government do not want a hiatus between the lapsing of this Bill and the implementation of the new one. Mr Raynsford said that they did not think that would be healthy or sensible. We do not believe that it would be healthy or sensible to retain the power for the two years provided in the Bill. I spoke to this issue at Second Reading and there is a clause stand part debate to come. I do not need to repeat the arguments against the Bill that I made at Second Reading and I do not intend to prolong the Committee stage by so doing. They are on the record.

The amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, seeks to substitute "eighteen months" for "two years" rather than my substitution of "one year" for "two years". The noble Baroness may be able to explain why 18 months is preferable to one year. I am rather glad that I referred to her amendment because she will now be given an opportunity to do so. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham: I apologise for my momentary absence. The Bill contains a sunset clause of two years, which I recognise has been agreed in the other place. However, it was agreed before the unions said they would consider the settlement. We all hope now that there will be a successful outcome.

The timetable laid down for negotiations and discussions after Royal Assent, which we can reasonably assume will not be very soon, will ensure that these matters are all completed within 18 months and therefore the Bill will need a shorter time length if it ever becomes law at all. That is the reason for reducing the period from two years to 18 months. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—to whom I apologise for not being here to hear her speak—has made a good case for reducing it to one year.

Lord Rooker: I shall do my best to address both amendments. The thrust of the amendments is the same but the timetables are slightly different. In some ways, the timetable is not an unimportant matter.

I appreciate that the two-year sunset clause was not contained in the Bill at the Second Reading stage and was inserted during its passage through another place and it is true that a settlement of the dispute has been achieved. However, we still have to consider the timetable of the other agreements. The White Paper in regard to modernisation has been published and no one will claim that its recommendations will be achieved overnight. We therefore need to retain the powers in the Bill to be reasonably sure that the improvements we want to see are well on the way to being achieved.

A time limit of 18 months would take us to the beginning of 2005—I am not being prescriptive about the date—which sounds a long time away. It might just be sufficient if a Bill to implement the White Paper policies was to be introduced in the next Session and received Royal Assent. But that cannot be guaranteed. With a 12-month time limit, there would be a serious

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risk that the powers would lapse before any Bill setting out the long-term strategic framework would receive Royal Assent.

We also need to bear in mind that the normal pay settlement date for the Fire Service has usually been in November each year. The deal now agreed will change that, bringing the date forward to July. So, if there are any problems with the agreement and the dispute flares up again, we could be faced with the possibility of having to make an award not only for November 2003 but also for November 2004. If we were in that situation, it would not help to be working against a 12-month time limit running out before the November 2004 settlement date.

In any event, experience—particularly over the past 12 months—has taught us that we need a backstop. Reform of the Fire Service and the legislation that it will entail is a Government priority but obviously I cannot say that it will be in the next Queen's Speech. At my humble level in Government I cannot be certain of that, nor can anyone else. The Bill will be a stopgap which will enable us to deal with the immediate future but not tackle the long-term challenges. As I have said repeatedly, we are not proposing that.

At the moment there are good and excellent grounds for optimism because of the agreement between the employers and the Fire Brigades Union. We sincerely hope that we will not need to use the powers at all but we would be open to criticism if, in 12 months' time, we found ourselves facing further disruption and frustration without the powers in the Bill, having had them and given them up. Two years gives a greater degree of certainty which, in the circumstances, is reasonable bearing in mind the change in the pay date and the milestones which are to be achieved under the current agreement. That will see us well on the way to a future modernised Fire Service.

While I accept that a case can be made for 12 months or 18 months—indeed for the minimum period possible—I hope that I have given sufficient comfort that, given the way in which the dates come together, two years should see us safely into the new system.

One could argue that three years would be unreasonable because it would indicate that the Government were not treating the modernised Fire Service as a priority. But we do intend to treat it as a priority and have taken the powers for no longer than we feel reasonably necessary—that is, two years. I hope that the noble Baroness will not pursue her amendment.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: I understand the Government wanting two years. The logic of the Bill is that they must have quite some time to do what they want to do. I hope I have followed my noble friend's reasoning. The Government want to exercise the powers to ensure that the improvements they desire are well on the way to being secured. Those improvements will affect not only the use and disposal of property but conditions of service. Therefore the proposition has a great impact—without repeating any word of it—on the debate about the previous two resolutions.

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Twelve months would not be enough because what I shall call the big Bill—the long-term big Bill—may not have secured Royal Assent. With the pay settlements in July—which I believe is a very material factor—the Government may, as the Minister said, "need to make an award". I comment on that only because it repeats the suggestion of my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister that this was some kind of "arbitration". He used that word many times in another place. I apprehend that it is not wrong of me to refer to his statements because, as the Companion makes clear, one should refer to the other place only on matters of government statements.

But he is not making any kind of arbitration award. As we have seen from the amendments moved by my noble friend Lord McCarthy, arbitration of any kind is outwith the concepts that underlie the Bill. It is a government imposition of terms. It is interesting that the Minister talks about making an award. Words matter to me—I accept that. If I may put it this way, judging from what he said the Bill is to shepherd something in as a stop-gap. It is the shepherd dog to the collection of the big Bill into the fold.

Of course two years are needed for that, with great respect for the noble Baronesses who tabled amendments about shorter periods. It only makes sense if the powers are to be available. In the form that we have explained to the Minister, they are available. Of course the Government cannot see exactly when they want to use them, but the width of the powers is clear. That makes the case for two years. In fact, it might make the case for a longer period, so the Government are being quite modest. The fact that the Government want two years and to make orders that do not necessarily come to an end after two years, unless they choose to make them do so, is a logical hole. It is therefore of great importance that this debate should put the context around the debates on the other amendments.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Hanham: Will the noble Lord agree that the sunset clause was imposed in the other place, and was not an original part of the Bill? Therefore, it seems not unreasonable to test whether that sunset clause gives the right amount before the sun sets.

We have grave doubts about the Bill on all sorts of fronts, as I have made clear. To us, the important thing should be that the provision is in for the most limited time necessary, if it is to go in at all. Looking at the timetable that has been set out for the negotiations and discussions, 18 months would be perfectly within those limits. That is why I tabled the amendment—so that the Bill is not effective for a moment longer than it needs to be.

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