HC Deb 25 May 1865 vol 179 cc828-41

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving the second reading of this Bill, said, that in 1862 a Select Committee of that House was appointed to inquire into the existing state of legislation with respect to and into the existing arrangements for the protection of life and property against fire in the metropolis. The Report of the Committee first made it generally known to the public that the London Fire Brigade engines which were to be seen attending all the fires in the metropolis were considered to be connected with the Government, or with the municipal authorities, had, in fact, no official status whatever, but that the Brigade was merely an arrangement originally instituted by one insurance company in the metropolis, and subsequently carried on by other companies for the protection of their own interests; so, however, as also to render assistance in the protection of life and property against fire, without reference to whether it was insured or not. The Select Committee made it clear that this establishment was, as regarded its staff, engines, and stations, wholly inadequate for the efficient protection of the entire metropolis and the suburbs. They said in their Report— The present scale of staff engines, and stations is utterly inadequate for the general protection of London and its vicinity from fire. This is admitted by the managers of the brigade, but as they consider it efficient for the protection of that part of London where the largest amount of insured property is located, they have no desire to I add to their expense by placing additional stations in situations where, if a fire occurs, it is I not likely to cause so much injury to the offices as if it occurred in the water-side, or warehouses in the City. This being so the Committee directed their attention to find a substitute for that state of things. They made three recommendations. First, that a fire brigade should be formed under the Commissioners of Police, on a plan to be approved by the Home Office, and that the Act requiring parishes to maintain engines be repealed; secondly, that an account of the expenditure should be annually laid before Parliament; and thirdly, that the area of the new fire brigade should be the same as the area of the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Board of Works. After that Report it became clear that the Government must deal with the matter; and that it was thenceforth impossible that it should be left in the hands of insurance companies, who might at any time abandon their brigade. Indeed, in 1862 the companies gave notice to the Home Secretary of their intention to abandon it. The sum necessary to maintain the brigade had risen from £8,000 to something like £25,000 per annum, and they considered that it might be better for them to abandon the brigade and to raise the rate of insurance if necessary rather than to continue so large an outlay. Negotiations had taken place between that time and the present, between the Home Secretary, the companies who maintained the fire brigade, and the Metropolitan Board of Works, and these negotiations had resulted in the Bill which he now asked the House to read a second time. The Bill was founded upon a very careful estimate of the expense required in order to have a really efficient fire brigade for the district, under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Board of Works. The Secretary of State had placed himself in communication with Captain Shaw, the chief officer of the Fire Brigade, and the result of the communication with him and with the insurance companies was that a scheme for the protection of the metropolis from fire, at an expense of £50,000 per annum, was formed, and received the concurrence of the insurance companies. The next point was how the £50,000 per annum should be raised, and the basis of the arrangement contained in the Bill was that a rate not exceeding a half penny in the pound should be raised within the metropolitan district, and at the same time that the Act of 14 Geo. III., under which parishes within the weekly bills of mortality and also some others in the metropolitan district were bound to keep fire-engines in a state of efficiency should be repealed. Most parishes had not complied to the full with the Act. No doubt they relied to a very great extent upon the London Fire Brigade; but if they had complied with the provisions of the Act they would have had to raise their expenditure far above what it was at the present moment. Added to this, it was obvious that a number of detached fire-engine establishments belonging to parishes in different parts of the metropolis must be far less efficient than one establishment, able to concentrate all its force upon anyone fire which should require a great force to extinguish it. The small additional rate which would be put upon parishes would be compensated, therefore, by relieving them from the statutory burden which they now bore. The Committee of 1862 said that one parish—that of Hackney—kept up a very efficient fire engine, in accordance with the statute of George III., and that the cost of that fire-engine was £500 per annum, which was precisely a halfpenny in the pound upon the rating of the parish. The same would happen in other parishes if they carried out the statute, so that they would thus incur a burden of a halfpenny per pound, the same as was proposed to be placed upon them by this Bill. The second source from which the £50,000 per annum would be made up was a rate of £35 per million upon the amount of insurances in London, which sum the insurance companies would pay. The Bill proposed that this rate should be levied upon all the London insurance offices. He believed that there were one or two of these which had not contributed to the maintenance of the brigade; but it seemed to him quite fair that those offices should pay the same as the others. The third source of income for the maintenance of the new fire brigade would be a sum of £10,000 yearly, an amount which the House had already voted out of the Consolidated Fund, as a contribution in aid of the brigade. Some discussion had taken place in Committee upon that Vote; but he thought that the Committee were satisfied that the large amount of Government property in the metropolis made it proper that they should contribute to the fund out of the public revenue. One of the great deficiencies of the present fire brigade was its want of strength upon the river Thames. At present they had only one efficient and one inefficient engine upon the river; but under the new arrangements there would be three efficient engines there, and if the House would consider the amount of Government property upon the banks of the river they would feel that the £10,000 a year was not too much for the Government to contribute. At Deptford there was the Victualling Yard; at the Tower, the War Office Stores; and there were also the Custom House, Somerset House, the Government of India Stores near Hunger-ford Bridge, the buildings at Whitehall, the Houses of Parliament, Millbank, the Clothing Stores at Pimlico, and the Barracks and Hospital at Chelsea. Then as to the property of the Government not upon the banks of the river There would be new fire stations at Woolwich, Greenwich, near the British Museum, Temple Bar, St. James's Palace, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Museum, and Chelsea; so that great protection would be afforded by the new brigade to Government property throughout the metropolis. It was proposed that the Metropolitan Board of Works should undertake the management of the Brigade. It was perfectly true that the Committee of 1862 proposed that the fire brigade should be placed under the Commissioners of Police; but, upon considering the subject, it appeared to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, that it would be preferable, as a matter of principle, that the new brigade should be under the Metropolitan Board of Works. The brigade was to be supported by a rate extending over the metropolitan district; and it would seem that the ad vantages of putting the brigade under the control of the Commissioners of Police were not so great as might at first sight appear, for those serving in it required a greater amount of training than the ordinary policeman, as well as training of a different description. It must also be borne in mind that the proposed area was identical with that one over which the Metropolitan Board of Works exercised jurisdiction, while it was not identical with that under the control of the metropolitan police, which did not embrace the City of London, from which representatives were sent to the Metropolitan Board. There was another point alluded to by the Committee upon which he wished to say a word. In the city of Manchester the fire brigade was maintained partly out of the police rate, and partly by fines levied upon persons who had fires upon their property. The Committee considered the propriety of levying these fines, but they came to no conclusion upon it. It appeared to him, however, that as the fire brigade was to be principally maintained by a rate it would be very hard that those whose property happened to be on fire in addition to the rate should pay a further tax, and that at a time when they could perhaps least afford it. There was another strong reason against imposing this fine. A most important thing for securing the extinguishing of fires was that there should be no concealment; that so soon as a fire broke out there should be no scruple in at once calling for the assistance of the brigade to put it out. Imposing a fine, however, gave great inducement to conceal fires in the hope of extinguishing them without calling for aid. He could quite understand that the insurance companies should he anxious that the system of fining should be adopted, because it tended to increase insurances. There was only one other point which he would notice, and that was the clause with reference to fire-escapes. It was proposed to give the Metropolitan Board of Works power to make arrangements for having fire-escapes. He believed that the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire deserved every credit for the manner in which they had placed fire-escapes in different parts of the metropolis. It was far from the object of the Government to interfere with them by the present Bill. Still it was a work which probably could be more efficiently and economically carried out in connection with the fire brigade. Therefore it would have been satisfactory to the Government if they could at the same time have placed fire-escapes under the same management as the brigade, and thus have relieved a volunteer society from the performance of this duty. Unfortunately the £50,000 a year was only sufficient for the maintenance of an efficient fire brigade, and insufficient to make fire escapes part of the system. However, the rateable value of property in the metropolis would of course increase, and possibly the number of insurances would increase in consequence of recent legislation, and, therefore, it might be in the power of the Metropolitan Board of Works, m a few years time, to take fire-escapes under their charge. This being so, power was given by Bill to the Metropolitan Board of Works to purchase or take, in such form as they might agree with the Royal Society, their plant and staff of fire-escapes. He proposed, also, to insert a proviso to enable parishes—as he believed it was the wish of many of them to do so—to continue their contributions in aid of the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire. It would be necessary to add certain words at the end of Clause 30 to enable this to be done. He felt that the object of the Bill was one of very considerable importance. The property in the metropolis was estimated at £900,000,000, and there were over 1,400 fires in the year, or about four every day. This showed the importance of establishing a proper and efficient brigade. There were as many fires in the metropolis as in Paris, St. Petersburgh, Vienna, Berlin, New York, and Philadelphia, put together, and they had increased from 438 in the year 1833 to 1,400 last year. Although, therefore, the existing fire brigade had given the greatest possible satisfaction to the public, although it had been commanded by one so highly respected as Mr. Braidwood, and was at present under the orders of Captain Shaw—an officer who had fully upheld its high position, and whose services he hoped and understood would be continued under the new system—being yet a force which was maintained exclusively by the insurance companies, and might at any moment be dissolved by them, it was of the utmost importance to establish a fire brigade of a permanent character. He hoped the House would agree to the second reading of the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. T. G. Baring.)


said, though he approved of the scope of the Bill which had been very clearly stated by the hon. Member, he had doubts upon the manner in which the brigade was to be managed. They were about to cast another tax upon the ratepayers of the metropolis, and to relieve the wealthy and enterprizing body of the insurance companies at the expense of the public. Now, some doubts might arise as to whether there ought not to be some provision introduced into the Bill to make those companies contribute to some extent to the maintenance of that which they themselves had hitherto maintained at their own special cost. The Metropolitan Board of Works were not a body sufficiently long in existence to be intrusted with the management of this brigade. Nothing analogous to such a body had the charge of putting out the fires in any foreign metropolis, hut the Government themselves attended to the matter. The Board of Works acted as a sort of independent and not very businesslike body, which professed to manage its affairs in a manner not known to any Department in the State, and, perhaps, the result of the transfer to them of these new duties would necessitate a series of dejeuners and dinners. Sewers such as they had constructed were no doubt great works, well worthy of admiration, but whether it was desirable or necessary to provide breakfast for 800 persons at £1 5s. or £1 10s. a head on the occasion of the opening of those works—an expense which must eventually be levied on the ratepayers—he felt himself unable to determine. Such a course of conduct made many wish that the Board should become more a part of the local system before fresh powers were placed in its hands.


said, he had to express his satisfaction at the introduction of the Bill. He regretted to find that any person in that House should suggest as a defect in the measure the proposal that the administration of that which was purely a local matter should be confided to those who had been specially charged by Parliament with the conduct of the local affairs of the metropolis. He thought that the reasons assigned by the Under Secretary were conclusive against any attempt to place the administration of the fire establishment in the hands of the police. Formerly, every parish was supposed to provide machinery for extinguishing fires within its own area, but, practically, the parishes were the very worst authorities to whom this duty could be intrusted. The jurisdiction, therefore, had been replaced by another as completely as steam fire-engines replaced the hand-pumps of former times. The re-constitution of the system for putting out fires in the metropolis was a consequence of the re-construction of the body who managed metropolitan affairs. But as they were about to embark on a more efficient and extensive fire brigade, they ought to consider how the great expense was to be raised. The expense was estimated at £50,000 a year, but it must be more than that if the brigade was to be efficient. It was said that there were £900,000,000 of consumable property in the metropolis, but that was an extravagant estimate, and half the amount would probably be nearer the truth. The exact sum insured at £35 per £1,000,000 would not produce more than £10,000 a year, so that they were going to relieve the insurance companies of a sum of £15,000 a year. If the charge were simply put upon the capital insured, the property creating great risk would only be charged at the same rate as that which created no risk at all. The proper mode of computation was by a percentage on the premium paid, and then every person would pay according to the risk he occasioned. But then it was said that by adopting such a principle the provident man alone paid, while the improvident man escaped. He entirely subscribed to this objection. If they wanted to raise a fund by taxing combustible property, it ought to be imposed equally and alike on that which was and that which was not insured. In this point of view the measure was at variance with the views accepted by the House in the last Budget, and which had now become part of their fiscal system. The Under Secretary for the Home Office (Mr. T. G. Baring) objected to a scheme of payment which would include both insured and uninsured property, because he said if a fire broke out in the house of a man who was not insured he would conceal it instead of raising the alarm. It was difficult to say what a man would do under such circumstances, but the House ought to consider what was just to all classes of the community, and if a man were fool enough to let his house burn down rather than communicate with the nearest fire brigade station he ought to be allowed to do as he pleased. Manchester, which had an admirable brigade, had set a wise example, and one which ought to be followed. When a fire took place in that city the person in whose premises it occurred was compelled to pay a considerable sum as a contribution towards the fire brigade, whether he was insured or not. Instead of the Bill having in it a clause imposing a penalty of £1 whenever a chimney was on fire, there should be a well-considered scale of payment to be made in case of fire by the owner or occupier of the property, not as a penalty, but as a sum that he might be legitimately called upon to pay for the assistance he received from the fire brigade. If the rule prevailed in the metropolis the contributions would be repaid by the person in whose premises the fire occurred out of the money paid by the insurance company. [An hon. MEMBER: How can he pay it if his house is burnt down?] He did not know. How could the man rebuild his house? The very fact that he would be called upon to pay a contribution to the fire brigade would induce a man to insure. If 1,400 fires took place every year, a sum of £8,000 or £10,000 might be raised in this way without oppressiveness to any one. He hoped it would be understood that the Parliamentary Vote would not be withdrawn. In making an arrangement of that kind some distinct guarantee ought to be given that this payment was to continue, or otherwise some gentleman from the country might one day raise an objection, the Vote might be dropped, and the metropolis might be left without the money. As to the rate, it must be borne as inevitable, although it was not of the most just character, because it was only on the house and not upon the goods contained in it, so that the valuable goods in a warehouse would pay nothing, although the building was the least feature of the risk, and that for which the fire engines were of the least possible use. That was a difficulty which the House would have to meet sooner or later; but there were besides that several of the details which must be carefully considered when the Bill was in Committee.


said, he did not agree with the idea of relieving those who had no fires at the expense of those who had the misfortune so to suffer. He objected strongly to the proposed payment by the Government of £10,000 a year, as it was a local question, and ought to be met by a local rate. In all these matters relating to the metropolis there appeared to be a vital error. It was thought that because it was the metropolis it ought to have support from the public revenues; but there was not a city in the realm that would not be happy to give something to have the Government establishments there. The Government proposed to contribute one-fifth of the expenses of the new brigade, but the value of the Government buildings in the metropolis was not nearly a fifth of the value of all the buildings in the metropolis. Therefore the Government, at the expense of the country generally, would contribute by far too largely to the support of the brigade. Let the Government property pay this rate like all other buildings in the metropolis, but do nothing more.


said, that as a Member of the Select Committee that sat on the subject of the Fire Brigade, he wished to observe that he did not complain of the scheme which the Government had proposed, though be thought it strange that they should have entirely contravened the Report of the Committee. The Committee unanimously recommended that the brigade should be placed under the control of the police authorities; but though there were two Members of the Government on the Committee, they put no questions, nor examined any witnesses with a view to show that it was desirable that the brigade should be put under the direction of the Metropolitan Board of Works. The hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton) had alluded to the excellent way in which affairs were managed in Manchester. In Liverpool, also, matters were managed well, and there the fire brigade which worked efficiently was in the hands of the police. He did not complain of the Vote of £10,000 from the public funds; but be would remind hon. Gentlemen opposite that in the city which he represented (Dublin) there was a very efficient fire brigade, and there were several important public buildings, and a small contribution would be useful. It had transpired during the investigation of the Committee that it was in the mercantile portion of London that the greater number of fires took place, and it was there that the most numerous stations of the brigade were established. In other parts of the metropolis occupied by the residences of private gentlemen the stations were sparse. It was proved before the Committee that there was no adequate protection for life and property in many parts, such as Belgravia and Tyburnia, and he trusted the Government would give more stations in those districts. He did not oppose the Bill, but must repeat that he thought it strange that upon such slight reasons as those stated by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Baring) the Report of the Committee in nearly every point should be entirely contravened. What the House had most to complain of was the delay which had taken place. The Committee reported in 1862—it was not till 1865 that the Government had introduced their scheme, and no adequate reason for the delay had been assigned.


said, that the insurance offices were to make over all the plant, stock, and engine-houses of the fire brigade, as at present constituted, to the new brigade, without any compensation, and that was a very handsome contribution on their part. It would still be their duty, at their own expense, to protect salvage. He approved placing the brigade under the management of the Board of Works, which would have greater facility in collecting the rate. The police ought to be confined to their proper duties—namely, the protection of life and property, and not be obliged to look after fires.


said, the origin of the present Bill was, that the insurance companies had given notice that they would not continue their establishments and staff, and, therefore, the question of what was to be done became imperative. He had had occasion to consider the question very much. He entirely disapproved the employment of the police, and he was not prepared to say that this was not the best scheme that had been proposed; but he was afraid that the control of the Metropolitan Board of Works would not prove satisfactory. That Board consisted only of forty members, and they had undertaken works of the most gigantic character, and been intrusted with the most unlimited powers of taxation. He felt that, looking at the experimental nature of the works they were carrying on, looking at the fact that they already taxed the metropolitan districts to the extent of £6,000,000 a year, and that a good many people believed these experimental works would prove a total failure, they ought not to be intrusted with further taxing powers, being still a comparatively untried body. At all events, the Government ought to look to the constitution of the Board and see whether their number was sufficient for the work. If the forty members of the Board were cut up into several committees, it might be found that they would not be capable of discharging their new duties. He objected to any penalty being imposed upon people who had the calamity of their property being destroyed by fire.


said, that no doubt, ere long, the number of the Metropolitan Board would be increased and a more direct mode of election adopted. He should like to ask the hon. Member for Dublin (Mr. Vance), who wanted a contribution towards the fire brigade of that city, whether the amount raised by licences for public-houses and other similar taxes was not paid into the coffers of the municipality, which thus had a large sum at its command for fire brigades and other municipal purposes. Nothing of that kind was received by the City of London, where the expenses were very great for lighting, watching, paving, and such things, for the benefit of those gentlemen who came from Dublin or the country to enjoy themselves. It was, therefore, absolutely necessary, either that the Government should provide a fire brigade for its own safety or contribute towards one established in the metropolis. He did not think that the sum of £10,000 was at all too much, when they considered the vast amount of property in the metropolis belonging to the country. lie thought the same principle should apply to Dublin, Edinburgh, and any town in which there was a large amount of Government property. He did not think that persons who had the misfortune to have their houses burnt ought to be called upon to contribute largely to the support of the brigade, but it might be advisable to levy a small tax upon them. The Committee, of which he was a Member, found it very difficult to arrive at a definite conclusion on this subject; but the Government had now produced a plan which, he believed, would give general satisfaction to the House.


said, that he had been informed that in Dublin the money for licences to public-houses did not go to the municipal corporation funds. When the question arose in Dublin he was in favour of placing the brigade under the police instead of the municipal Board.


said, the proposition of the Government varied from the Report of the Committee in two respects—as regarded a contribution to the support of the brigade from persons whose houses had been on fire, and as regarded placing the brigade under the Metropolitan Board of Works, instead of the police. The Committee were unanimous in their recommendation that the brigade should he under the control of the police; and the same unanimity pervaded the witnesses, who all rejected the idea of subjecting it to the authority of the Board of Works. With regard to the former point he offered no objection to the Government proposal, as he made some such proposition in the Committee, and it was only lost by the casting vote of the Chairman; but with regard to the second point, he adhered to the unanimous opinion of the Committee and the witnesses, which was in favour of placing the brigade under the police, as in Manchester and Liverpool, where the system had worked well, and not under the Board of Works, which had not the general confidence of the public.


said, he was a member of the Committee, and had always opposed the scheme for placing the brigade in the hands of the Commissioners of Police. There was another matter which took the present Bill entirely away from the arrangements suggested by the Committee. It had been assumed by the Committee that it would not be consistent for them to assume any arrangements with the insurance companies; but if the brigade were placed in the hands of the Metropolitan Board of Works they would be able to make the insurance offices, as well as the Government, parties to this measure. In his judgment the proposed scheme would work remarkably well. At present the insurance offices had their chief stations in the heart of London, where most property was accumulated, and one advantage of the Government plan would be that the stations would be more fairly distributed through the metropolis. He believed that the Bill was an excellent one, and that its principle was sound, though its details might perhaps be improved in Committee. He might observe, that under the Fire Act every parish was bound to provide the means of extinguishing fires, but the Committee ascertained that many of the engines belonging to parishes were no larger than garden engines.


And all of them out of order.


, as Chairman of the Committee which had inquired into this subject, said, that though he was of a different opinion, he now thought that the Metropolitan Board of Works would be likely to carry out this arrangement most efficiently. One reason was that the police in London were divided into the Metropolitan and City forces, and the conflicting interests which thus existed would effect the proper working of the force. The scheme was really the same as that existing in Manchester, where the corporation undertook the whole arrangement, just as here the Board of Works managed the affairs: of the metropolis. It was most important that the Government property in the metropolis should be protected, and it was not unreasonable that there should be a contribution from the public funds for the purpose. As to the insurance offices, they were not relieved altogether; and besides, they had offered to give up the whole of their plant. But what Parliament had to do was to see that there was an efficient fire brigade without reference to the insurance offices. The Metropolitan Board of Works were here similar to the bodies which managed the fire brigades in the great provincial cities, and even on the Continent. As to the suggestion to make a permanent provision for the brigade, he would remind the hon. Member (Mr. Ayrton) that no permanent provision is made for the police or the army.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read 2°, and committed for Thursday next.