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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I just comment further on the trade union position. The noble Lord,
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Lord McNally, is absolutely correct; there tends to be a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the Conservatives. I think that is wrong. It may very well be that their attitude is modernising. It could also very well be that we could build on this particular clause to get more protections for a wider range of people.
I get back to the question of official and unofficial strikes. The trade union movement and the trade union leadership are there to prevent chaos. Indeed, trade unions bring order where there may be chaos because they exist and are recognised. They are in touch with their members and can often defuse situations and, in any event, control situations.
I have very bad memories of the 1969 unofficial strikes"the winter of discontent" as it was called. Even as a trade unionist, I was appalled to learn from a government Minister that a group of unofficial shop stewards were able to say whether and when supplies of food and medicine went to hospitals. That is the sort of thing I am talking about. That is unacceptable under any circumstances. Whereas protection for responsible trade unionism and trade union activity under proper leadership is legitimate, I believe that mob rule of the unofficial strike in certain circumstances is unacceptable and dangerous.
Lord Lucas: In his answer to my question on subsection (3)(b), the noble Lord said that employers could take action to produce a substitute work force. Suppose there was a regulatory problem with that. Suppose we had a strike of HGV drivers. It was necessary to substitute for them but there were not enough people around with HGV licences. Would not the wording of subsection (3), as it is now, prohibit the Government from making a change to regulations to allow people without HGV licences to drive the lorries, because that would be a change made in connection with a strike?
Baroness Buscombe: I remind the Minister of an example I used at Second Reading. On 21 June of this year the London Fire Brigades Union chose to hold industrial action on the grounds of health and safetyvery good grounds as it happens. It was deeply frustrated because it felt that it had not been given enough chance to practice, prepare and train for an emergency. The resultant consequence was that only two out of the 10 immediate response units remained active. In other words, the response units that should have been available if there had that night been an unprecedented act, the kind of which we are trying to envisage in this legislation. Is that something that we have to accept?
Lord McNally: There are a group of questions to be answered, but the Minister slightly ducked the question about whether the Government were contemplating making strikes by firemen illegal. Perhaps a more positive spin on it is that, instead of, as the Official Opposition seemed to be trying to do, writing that into emergency powers, would it not be better for the Government to pursue a wider use of non-strike agreements in public services, such as the
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fire service, the ambulance service and, indeed, the Underground as a protection rather than deal with the matter through emergency powers?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Lord, Lord McNally, talks a lot of sense on this issue. I can only dig a hole for myself after that, I know. He is right in his general approach. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. What he describes I, too, find reprehensible. He repeated his earlier question: when should one be able to ban official strikes? Regulations could of course be made to address the effects of an unofficial strike, but we do not think that emergency regulations are the appropriate vehicle with which to deal with that. Obviously, we have discussed the provisions with responsible trade unionists in the form of the Trades Union Council. Unsurprisingly, it is happy with the package in the Bill. I am sure that that is no great shock to your Lordships' House.
I think that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked whether the wording prohibits regulations to break strikes such as one of HGV drivers. I think that the answer to that is no, but that is an example of where it might be appropriate to modify legislation in an emergency. To pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, in the circumstances that I think that she is envisaging, it would clearly be right to find some form of substitute labour to carry out that important work.
Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. One of the real problems here is entirely practical. The reason why there was industrial action that night was that those who were supposed to be using the emergency response units were deeply frustrated because they lacked training. They do not know how to use them. They are desperate to have the proper training, so that they can put them into good use in the event of an emergency. In that case, what is the point of having those emergency response units? If you or I, if I may say so, were asked to take their place if they were out on strike, we would not be able to use them either. We would be useless in that event because they require training. That is why those who are supposed to be manning them went out on strike.
We must be practical here. This is not some deep-seated Conservative anti-trade union thing. My noble friends have made clear that we are not against industrial action. We are saying that we have this peculiar exception. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, talked about trade unions being in touch with their members, which can help enormously in the event of an emergency. But the noble Lord said earlier that that also applies to Members of Parliament, who want to be in touch with their constituents. Under the Bill,
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it is entirely possible that they will be denied that opportunity. Why does one class of person have that exception?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: It is not so extraordinary. It has not been as extraordinary as an inconsistency that has been on the statute book for the past 85 years. Perhaps I am wrong, but I have a horrible feeling that, had the Government decided to remove this provision, noble Lords opposite would simply have added it to the charge-list of freedoms that we have impinged upon. I cannot accept the noble Baroness's explanation.
Firefighters and their training is obviously a delicate issue on which I accept that there were strong feelings. The modernisation programme for fire and rescue services has had some bumps along the way in its progress, but most parliamentarians, certainly the Government, have firmly embarked upon it. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that we must ensure that such training is adequate, thorough and completed so that cover can be provided in an emergency.
Baroness Buscombe: I have probably said all that I can at this stage. I thank Members of the Committee for their contribution to the debate. I remain entirely unconvinced that this clause should remain in the Bill, unless
Lord Archer of Sandwell: I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. She has made a point more than once about what appears to be an inconsistency between two sets of rights. During the course of the day she has stoutly asserted a number of rights which she says should be protected in the Bill. If protection were introduced for them, would she be content that protection for this right, too, should remain in the Bill?
Baroness Buscombe: Yes, exactly. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, is one step ahead of my thoughts. I was about to say that, if the Minister could come forward with suggested amendments or table amendments on Report that would give balance and consistency to the clause with respect to limitations on emergency regulations which would then make sense, it would move our views on the inclusion of this clause in the Bill. There is no question about that. I accept entirely the noble and learned Lord's point. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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