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Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I will not go into the question of when that could be raised in court. I think that that is highly speculative. What I want to put to my noble friend—I am grateful to him for allowing me to do so—is that the Government have accepted (we are not concerned with the clause at present but the Bill is joined up) a new clause in the Bill which refers to the June 2003 agreement between the Fire Brigades Union and the local authority fire service employers, and accepted a statement, for what it is worth, that the Act does not affect the possibility of parties agreeing on a reference to mediation, conciliation or arbitration.

That shows an intent not to effect that. The disputes procedure already agreed between the same two parties under the grey book applies quite clearly and expressly to the 2003 agreement. If the parties do that, is it so unreasonable to ask the Secretary of State, as our amendment seeks, that when they have done that and received some kind of answer, which might solve everything—I do not know what sort of dispute is envisaged; the Minister should spell out just what sort of dispute he envisages, at least in general terms—to say, "Surely, Secretary of State, before you impose an order, you should consult the members of the negotiating body who have used that procedure, which is already expressly envisaged in Clause 2 of the Bill"?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, my noble friend asked a question: yes, it would be unreasonable in the circumstances in which the Bill will operate, as I have said. This is where I start to repeat myself, for which I apologise but I must put this on the record.

At the end of the day, unusual circumstances will be involved. I repeat that we do not wish to operate the Bill—I have said that repeatedly so that my comments will not be taken out of context at any time in the future—and things are going well, to be best of my knowledge, in terms of the recent resolution to the fire services dispute. The various timetables have been agreed. This is only, as I said, a longstop. I am not denying that the provision is draconian. But the Secretary of State must be in a position to be able to draw a line under a dispute and then not be subject to challenge, but to do it in accordance with the power given to him by Parliament.

However, as I said in Grand Committee, there is another reason why the Bill does not need to provide for arbitration. That is because the arrangements already in place between the Fire Brigades Union and the employers already cover this. As my noble friend has read out, paragraphs 13 and 14 of the constitution

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of the National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Fire Brigades provide that if the council fails to reach agreement on any matter contained in paragraph 8 of the constitution—that is, matters relating to conditions of service—that matter will automatically be referred to ACAS for conciliation. If conciliation fails to resolve the dispute, either side of the NJC can refer the matter to ACAS for arbitration, and the other side of the NJC is required to participate.

So the mechanism already exists. As I have said before, given that the agreement reached on 13th June was signed by both sides of the National Joint Council, it follows that the arbitration procedures of the NJC constitution can be applied.

I hope that what I have just said will reassure my noble friends on Amendment No. 17. I should make it clear that in the event of the parties agreeing to seek arbitration, it would be extremely unlikely that the Secretary of State would want to exercise his powers to fix or modify conditions of service, if he considered that there was a realistic prospect that the two parties could, by seeking arbitration, resolve their differences. But it would, in theory, remain open to the Secretary of State to exercise his power at any time.

I hope that I have been able to give some clarification on the options available to the two sides—the employers and the employees—in the event of a further dispute, or a disagreement, on the interpretation of the current agreement. That is what it is about. As a result, I respectfully request my noble friend to withdraw the amendment.

Lord McCarthy: My Lords, I want to make two points. My second point is about how I do not think the Government have yet grasped what we are saying. On the first point—I say very gently; and I am not trying to be difficult—the Minister in this debate and in Grand Committee mentioned on several occasions the fact that we should do something—and I am not quite clear what it is we should do—because something has happened in another place. He says that in the other place, which is democratically elected, a decision has been taken and that in some vague way that especially should influence what we do.

I thought I understood what that meant we should do. There are conventions in this House—there are practically laws—about the powers of this House in relation to the other place. They apply to every Bill that is placed into this House. I do not know why it is being stressed especially, as though there was something additional about this Bill. Unless, of course, the Minister is arguing that our amendments are wrecking amendments; that we are trying in some way to wreck the Bill; and that we are introducing all kinds of delaying tactics—filibustering and so on—which are not done in other parts of the House on other Bills: something particularly heinous is being done.

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That is not the case. It is not our opinion that that is what we are doing. As I said in Grand Committee, and I shall say it again, the Government have everything but the argument. I do not know why they must have the argument as well. They have got the power; they have got the numbers; and they will get their Bill. No one is trying to frustrate or blow up anything. All they cannot win is the argument. I am sorry about that, but that is the way it is.

I wish to make a point about the amendment that has not been taken on board by the Minister; this is, it would not hold up or frustrate a decision on the part of the Secretary of State. That applies to the next amendment, which I shall move much more briefly, because it deals with the same matter. This amendment would not stop the decision. All that it is saying is that, as a matter of policy, the Minister ought to encourage the use of third party dispute resolution. It is no good reciting what exists already because the Minister is not saying that that applies to an order.

The Minister said that when an order was decided, it comes down instantaneously: "Boom", it goes into the contract. There is no arbitration. After the consultation process, the Secretary of State says, "I am now going to impose an order which is legally binding on all employers"—we will not debate what is legally binding because we have done so previously. But that is an order. He is not saying that the employer can then go to arbitration. All the existing facilities created before this Bill apply to the circumstances when this Bill does not apply.

Arbitration is the wrong word. We are too conventional. We are saying that, in this country—in the absence of incomes policy, I would say, but I will leave that aside—a pretence is growing, quite naturally, that employers and workers in the public sector negotiate like they used to do, as I quoted from the White Paper, as though the Government are stopping outside. They are not. They are, what I called in Committee the,

    "ghost at the bargaining table".—[Official Report, 3/7/03; col. GC 290.]

The Government are deciding what the employers can say. I do not complain about that: those are the facts of life.

However, that means that workers are engaged in industrial action—as the postmen nearly did the other day; and I am very glad that they did not—and there is no appeal against the decisions of the Government. The Government are deciding and nobody even knows what arguments they are using at the bargaining table.

In my experience, employers, both government and private sector, always consistently get one thing wrong—they exaggerate the benefits that will come from their novel proposals. I have said this before. Nobody believes me, but, as we will find out, nothing will be saved by the proposals and everything will be spent by this new method. It always is. There cannot be self-financing productivity deals in the public sector because one cannot charge at the point of distribution. It always costs more money than is saved. It is bound to. However, governments and private sectors and

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people half-way in and half-way out always believe that we are going to save vast sums with more intelligent ways of working. They do not save very much, but that, on the whole, is what independent assessment uncovers. I am not talking about arbitration.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, are we not getting a little way away from the amendment on the general policy of government?

Lord McCarthy: My Lords, I have probably gone on far too long, but the Government are listening, if only for two minutes. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I beg to move that further consideration on Report be now adjourned.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

        House adjourned at one minute before seven o'clock to Monday 6th October at half-past two o'clock, except for judicial business. Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission etc.) Bill [HL] Bill returned earlier from the Commons agreed to with a privilege amendment; the amendment was considered and agreed to.

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