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Baroness Maddock: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He has told us the Government's intention. But Members of the Committee are concerned that as the Bill stands certain things could be done. Recently I used an example from the White Paper. It talked about what they will do before 1st April 2004. If they do not have a new piece of legislation they must presumably intend to use this
Lord Rooker: With all due respect, it cannot be necessary. The Bill would be activated only if there is almost an emergency in which the parties could not settle and the dispute had blown up again. That is the only reason this Bill would be used. It is not there to plan for the long-term future of the fire brigades and the fire and accident service. The White Paper will generate a Bill which will do that. I do not deny that if this Bill was activated in the circumstances that I have explained, orders could be given which could say to two fire brigades, "Oi, this is chaos. Fix a joint control room or work together". That could take place because of the nature of the dispute or whatever has come up. But the Bill would only be used in the context of that emergency and for that specific purpose, not for the long-term planning of the fire brigade's service. That is the point.
One is almost in parallel worlds. We have this Bill that we do not want to use; it is there as a backstop just in case. There is enough evidence around to say that we need this comfort factor. At the same time, we have the White Paper and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, we will be back on Thursday with the Local Government Bill. That Bill stands on its own. It is passing through the House. I do not know when that clause was inserted in the Bill or whether it was there from the beginning because that Bill was consulted on as a draft Bill last summer, just after I arrived at ODPM. I am no expert on its background. The issue of Section 19 stands or falls on its own. It is our intention to leave it in the Local Government Act, as I hope it will become. It would then not be subsumed in any new Bill as a result of the White Paper.
From that point of view, one could argue that we are open to criticism. If there were a flaring up of a dispute, we would have this Bill activated. We would have the Local Government Act as it would be hopefully on the statute book, and coming along the next conveyor belt would be a Bill based on the White Paper. I fully accept that. But those are circumstances that the Government do not envisage. We do not want those circumstances because we do not want this Bill to be used. I accept that. I can understand that from a reasonable standpoint we are open to criticism. I do not think it is justified, but if I were sitting on the other side of the Chamber, I would make the same points with some justification. We do not want to use the Bill. It is there in the locker as a longstop. It would be absolutely barmy to put material in this Bill which affects future decisions of the Fire Service when we have just published the White Paper. That is why the Bill is only two clauses long and, hopefully, as I say, will stay on the statute book and not actually get its pages opened.
I ask the Minister to consider what would happen if the powers had already passed down to the local fire authoritiesif they had made or were beginning to make one lot of decisions. Something blows upI do not mind whatperhaps with the on-going negotiations. Is the situation such that the Secretary of State could potentially blast in and say to those local authorities: "Never mind what the Local Government Bill says. Sorry, guys, that is completely irrelevant at this moment because we now have a crisis and I am taking over and these are my instructions".
I think the Minister will be in court. There is no clarity about which comes first and what overrides the other. Somewhere within the next few weeks, we perhaps need amendments to be inserted and for the Minister to take advice to sort out what that process is.
Potentially, I see lots of roads for this all ending up in the courts; the fact that the unions can actually define what the Minister says will end them up in court. I know the Minister does not want to use the Bill, but I think we must assume that any legislation that comes forward will potentially be used. That is why I moved that Clause 1 should not stand part. Clearly, I cannot do anything about it now, but the Minister may like to come back.
Lord Rooker: I genuinely want to respond to the noble Baroness. I am speaking from memory now. When the Local Government Bill was in Committee, I do not think that we debated the Section 19 change. To the best of my knowledge, I do not think that we did. In other words, it was accepted in Committee. We are going to have the Report stage. I shall take advice so that on Report, if it is appropriate, I can clarify the situation. I accept that, although the purpose is different. Section 19 is abandoned, as it were, because the Secretary of State is apparently involved in the minutiae of changes. Transferring one appliance from one station to another needs the Secretary of State's permission, which is absolutely barmy. That is nothing to do with the dispute, by the way. It all comes back to Whitehall, which is absolutely crazy when there are professional people out there running the Fire Service.
I suspect that it would be possible even to have localised disagreements settled under the disputes procedure rather than causing the Bill to be activated. As I say, the Secretary of State would have to have good reasons to activate the powers in the Bill. Those reasons would be wholly rational. If people argued it, maybe there would be court action, but there would certainly be parliamentary comment, to say the least. The two things do not need to be confused.
Bearing in mind that I was not able to say anything about Section 19 on the Local Government Bill, and that we shall have a couple of days or more on Report, I am quite happy to see whether it is possible to say something without necessarily having an amendment.
The question deserves an explanation, however, bearing in mind that when the other place debated the Local Government Bill, it was a long time ago and this Bill was not around. Secondly, when it debated this Bill, the White Paper was not around. The Bill happens to come to this House when all three are around at the same time, and the questions are quite legitimate.
Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: Will the Minister look at Hansard for this House for 24th June, cols. 8085, where he will find a quite important debate on Clause 120 of the Local Government Bill? That was the debate to which my noble friends and I referred when we moved an amendment concerning consultation. It is quite true that the Minister did not himself deal with the debate; it was dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton. So far as concerns there being no rules in this House, those who have read the Companion and the Standing Orders will want the Minister to look again at that remark.
Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: If the Minister wants it, I have a copy here of the debate on 24th June, at cols. 80-85. I am sorry, but if the Minister makes these propositions to the Grand Committee, we want to be able to rely on them. With the greatest respect, I suggest that he should admit that he is wrong.
Lord Rooker: The record can be straight. There is no need for my noble friend to shout at me. I was quite wrong in what I said about the matter not having been raised. I looked at my noble friend's Second Reading speech on the Fire Services Bill and believed that that was the reference. The matter was raised during debate on the Local Government Bill by my noble friend Lord Bassam. I shall have another look at the report of the proceedings, but I imagine that the answers were satisfactory and that the matter was accepted at the time.
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