HC Deb 17 April 1888 vol 324 cc1463-72

Order for Second Reading read.

MR. TATTON EGERTON (Cheshire, Knutsford)

said, that in bringing forward this Bill on behalf of the Metropolitan Board of Works, he would remind the House that it was essentially a continuation measure of the powers already given to the Metropolitan Board. At the time those powers were granted they were tentative. They were powers granted in response to a Report brought up by a Committee of the House whose recommendations were embodied in the Bill of 1878. Those powers referred, in the first place, to existing theatres; and, in the second place, to theatres which had to be built. In both cases the powers which were granted were only with regard to one certificate, and left out entirely the question of supervision which was necessary whenever any alteration was made in a theatre. It had since come to the knowledge of the Metropolitan Board of Works, in carry ing out the Act during the past nine years, that many theatres, which, in old times, had received a certificate from the Board, had been entirely altered, and altered in a manner which was not conducive to the public safety. The Bill, as it was now introduced by the Metropolitan Board, contained a provision that the Board should have power to enter the theatres, to examine them, and lay down such conditions as were necessary for the public safety. Those powers, however, could not be exercised arbitrarily, because there was a clause in the Bill providing arbitration wherever there was a difference between the proprietors of the theatre and the Metropolitan Board of Works. The opponents of the Bill had drawn up a manifesto which consisted of extracts from the report of a deputation to the Home Secretary last year, and the principal fault they found with the Board was that the powers now proposed to be conferred by the Bill had already been exceeded, and that requisitions had been made on the theatre proprietors which were not justified. Now that statement was absolutely false; because 98 per cent of the requisitions made upon the theatre and music-hall proprietors, both old and new, had been confirmed, and out of six appeals from theatre owners only 16 out of 93 requisitions made by the Board had been unconfirmed, while only 11 out of 105 requisitions made in regard to music halls were unconfirmed. One of the principal reasons why Parliament handed over to the Metropolitan Board the charge of theatres was to be found in the Report of a Committee which sat upon the subject, and it was because the Board had at its disposal a staff of officers who were accustomed to building, and because they had been made the authority for supervising the buildings erected in London. It was, therefore, thought that they were for those reasons the proper persons to have charge of the theatres as well. The present Bill could only be objected to by those theatre proprietors who had the intention of not carrying out their duty to the public by making alterations after they had received a certificate from the Board. He might refer to the Grand Theatre, which was burned down as lately as last December. On inquiry into that disaster, and on referring to the original plans under which the certificate of the Board was granted, it was found that a most serious alteration had been made after the certificate of the Board had been granted, and that a dwelling house had been constructed in the very centre of the theatre—namely, out of the smoking foyer in the front, and that bedrooms had been built over it as well. In the case of the Comedy Theatre two new houses had been added to the frontage of the theatre, and incorporated with it. In addition, they were built in an improper manner, without the walls which were necessary for preventing a fire from spreading from the stage to that part of the theatre set apart as the auditorium. He thought these were sufficient reasons why the Bill proposed by the Metropolitan Board should receive the assent of the House, and be referred to a Select Committee. One of the allegations of the opponents of the Bill was that during the nine years the Board had had charge of the theatres they had not overtaken the work they were called upon to do. As a matter of fact there had been, including old and new theatres, music halls, and places of entertainment, each covering an area of over 500 square feet, which was the minimum the Board could take action upon, a total of some 458 licensed upon inspection, in regard to which plans and elevations had been made by the Board. He thought that if the Metropolitan Board of Works were to be disestablished, as they were told, under another Bill now before the House, that still the Board would not be doing its duty if it were to relegate into futurity any provisions for the safety of the public which it felt necessary to carry out. As he understood from the newspapers that it was the intention of the Government to confide those duties to a future County Council, he would only say that he felt he should have done his duty in the interests of the safety of the public by pressing this Bill to a Division, so that those who declined either to bring in a Bill on the subject themselves, or to allow the Bill to go forward, should bear the blame of any catastrophe which might take place. He begged, therefore, to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

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

MR. DIXON-HARTLAND (Middlesex, Uxbridge)

said, he rose for the purpose of moving the rejection of the Bill introduced by the Metropolitan Board of Works, and he did so on the ground that, quite irrespective of the question how long the Metropolitan Board of Works was to remain in existence, it was most improper to be entrusted with the charge of the safety of the public in our theatres. When the Board asked for further powers, it was desirable for the House to look back to the powers they already possessed. In 1878 the Board obtained the powers with regard to the Metropolitan theatres which had been referred to by his hon. Friend (Mr. Egerton), but for four years—and he had already called the attention of the House to the fact—down to 1881, the Board made no movement at all. It was not until after the question was brought prominently before the House that the Board began to stir, and at that time the Home Secretary, who was then the right hon. Member for Derby (Sir William Harcourt), stated officially that the Board had ample powers and everything that was necessary in regard to the supervision and safety of theatres. That answer was repeated year after year by the Chairman of the Board, the late Member for the Hornsey Division of Middlesex. The Metropolitan Board now maintained that they had not had sufficient powers in the past. Certainly they had not done their duty, for after the lapse of nine years, during which they maintained that they had ample powers, they now came to the House of Commons declaring that their powers were inadequate, and asking for the extension of them. The persons who were interested in the theatres and music halls in the Metropolis comprised a very numerous body, and represented a capital of between £2,000,000 and. £3,000,000 in the Metropolis alone, besides directly giving employment to 150,000 people, independent of those who were indirectly employed. These gentlemen were altogether opposed to the action of the Metropolitan Board. They did not object to inspection. On the contrary, they invited it; but they objected to the way in which it was carried on by the Metropolitan Board. They were quite willing that the Home Secretary, or any authority he might appoint, should inspect their theatres and carry out whatever alteration might be considered right and safe in the interests of the public. But they wanted the system to be carried out on steady and consistent lines year after year, and not to be conducted in the arbitrary and whimsical manner which had been adopted under the Metropolitan Board, so that it could never be known what was required to be done. One year a Committee of the Metropolitan Board went round to inspect the theatres and give instructions that certain alterations should be made, and when those alterations had been made, perhaps at the cost of thousands of pounds to the lessees and managers, three years afterwards another Committee was appointed that went round the theatres and said that all that had been done was wrong, and required such and such other alterations to be made, the result being that the lessees never knew whore they were, or what they had to do. Another question to which the proprietors of theatres objected was the loss of time involved. Owing to the red tape system of the Board, plans were lodged with them for many months without eliciting an answer. Lastly, it had been elicited by the noble Lord the Member for South Paddington (Lord Randolph Churchill) that the official appointed by the Board to look after these matters was the very official who was always applying to the theatrical managers for orders for admission, with an indication that unless he received boxes and orders, the work which the Board had power to do, and which was under his management, would be pressed forward. On all these grounds, he did not think that the Board was the proper authority to be entrusted with increased powers, and he, therefore, begged to move the rejection of the Bill.

MR. JAMES STUART (Shoreditch, Hoxton)

said, he had much pleasure in seconding the Amendment. So far as the result of inquiry went, it was plain that the Metropolitan Board of Works had made a muddle and a mess of the inspection of the theatres of the Metropolis. Up to the present moment, a considerable amount of extra expense had been thrown upon the proprietors of theatres, and there was a possibility, if this Bill passed, that the rates of admission in some of the East End districts would be considerably increased. He also objected to any proposal for placing further powers in the hands of a moribund body like the Metropolitan Board of Works, who, no doubt, would muddle this matter as they had muddled many others.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Dixon-Hartland.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


said, that as that occasion seemed to be seized by some hon. Members as an opportunity of throwing stones at the Metropolitan Board of Works, and as that was the constant practice of some Members who were opposed to the Board, he thought it would be in better taste, seeing that the Board was to be put upon its trial, that no observations should be made on either side meanwhile to prejudice the case. He was one of those who believed that the opening inquiry would redound to the credit of the Metropolitan Board, and that those who had made allegations against it would find that they had been misinformed. However, the immediate question before the House was whether additional powers should be given to the Metropolitan Board, for the continuous inspection of theatres, so that the Board might know that the arrangements they had sanctioned were being faithfully carried out from year to year. The best answer to the objection which had been raised with regard to giving additional powers to the Board was this—that before the Bill came into operation, or, at any rate, its operation could be deferred, a new body would have been created, and therefore the objection was a very frivolous one, that the Board were not the proper persons to have the charge of the theatres, seeing that in the course of another 12 months the Council of the County of London would have all the powers of the Board transferred to them, and would then be the authority to be entrusted with the control of all matters of this kind. If the additional powers sought by the Metropolitan Board were vested in the Home Secretary the Board would be very glad indeed to get rid of a very troublesome part of their work; but he understood that that responsibility was declined by the right hon. Gentleman, who thought, and probably rightly thought, that it would be better to leave it to the proposed new authority which was to represent the County of London in the future. He asked the House to consider the matter from that point of view. The Metropolitan Board, on various grounds, were desirous of leaving the law affecting the Metropolis in such a state that their successors would have the greatest possible assistance from it in discharging their duty. Experience, however, had shown the Metropolitan Board that their present powers were not sufficient. He could only claim for the Metropolitan hoard that there had been no serious disaster in the theatres since this jurisdiction had been given to them, and it was only for the purpose of making the jurisdiction more complete that the Bill had been introduced. When the proper time came the County Council would take over the duties of the Board, and he hoped that the unjust suspicion which seemed to prevail among certain persons as to the action of the Board would be removed. He begged to support the second reading of the Bill.

MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

said, the hon. and gallant Gentleman who had just sat down had expounded the extraordinary doctrine that when the Metropolitan Board brought in a Bill for further powers, it was bad taste on the part of the House to consider the matter of public notoriety. The hon. and gallant Gentleman knew very well that not only was an investigation now going on with regard to the Metropolitan Board of Works, but that, to a great extent, that investigation was deemed necessary on account of their action in reference to Metropolitan theatres. The hon. and gallant Member said that in all probability the Board would disappear in the course of 12 months. If that were so, why did the Board waste the money of the ratepayers in bringing in a Bill which was only to be in operation for a year? He hoped the Home Secretary would meet the question by distinctly stating that the Government objected to the provisions of the Bill. It had been intimated that, under the powers already vested in the Metropolitan Board, the officers of that body were always running about for orders for the theatres, and it had been proved that the whole Metropolitan Board of Works was a greedy, cadging body.


rose to Order. He asked if it was competent for the hon. Member to speak of a public body as a "greedy, cadging body?"


said, he would withdraw the term, and say that the Board were the reverse. It was the habit of one Committee of the Board to visit the theatres and propose a series of alterations. Another Committee came in shortly afterwards, and altogether reversed the decision of their predecessors, requiring fresh alterations to be made. He would not say that the managers of theatres were ruined by this action, because they had a profitable business; but they were put to great annoyance and expense. He trusted that the matter would not be entrusted to the new County Council that was about to be called into existence. Instead of being the best authority, he was afraid that it would be almost as bad as the Metropolitan Board. He hoped the Home Secretary would have the courage to take over to the Home Office the power of looking into the condition of the theatres in regard to fires, and he believed that would be a change which would be satisfactory to the Metropolitan Members, and also to the public.

MR. R. G. WEBSTER (St. Pancras, E.)

said, he looked upon the question purely from a public point of view. Prior to 1858, the duty of protecting the safety of the public visiting the theatres from the consequences of fire was vested practically in the Lord Chamberlain. Parliament in its wisdom passed an Act, in 1878, transferring the duty to the Metropolitan Board of Works; and, notwithstanding the attack made on the Metropolitan Board by the purist Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere), he (Mr. Webster) asserted that the Board had done its duty to the Metropolis and to the people who frequented the theatres honourably, faithfully, strictly, and well. If an inquiry were to take place, he believed that that would be found strictly true. The Bill now before the House simply gave the Board continuance powers. At the present time they had power to inspect theatres and see that they were so constructed as to give security to life against fire; but they had no power to go in from year to year, and see that the theatres were in the same condition as they had been left. It was in the power of the Board to go down to the theatres now and to see that the passages and exits were in proper order; but, after having given their certificate, they had no further power to assert that everything had been kept in the same condition. That was an improper state of affairs, and ought not to be continued. All the Metropolitan Board asked was to have more continuance powers, so that they might, from time to time, inspect the theatres in the interest of the public. It was stated that the Metropolitan Board would cease to exist. It might, or it might not. In all probability it would; but the new County Council would have so many duties to discharge that it would have no time to go into the question of the protection of life in the theatres from fire. Therefore, the Metropolitan Board desired to place in the hands of the new Council the best Act of Parliament they could, and he could not believe that the House of Commons would say that it was undesirable to protect the public safety, either in the theatres of the Metropolis or elsewhere. The hon. Member for the Uxbridge Division of Middlesex (Mr. Dixon-Hartland), who moved the rejection of the Bill, and who appeared to have taken charge of all questions relating either to the rating of Londoners, or any matter in which Londoners were primarily interested, either in the administration of their local concerns or the protection of their lives and properties from the ravages of fire, presumed to know more about these questions than the Metropolitan Board and all the other authorities in London. Perhaps the hon. Member might not be aware that Petitions had come to the Metropolitan Board in favour of the Bill from various Local Boards in the Metropolis.


said, he desired to say a few words on the Bill. He could not help regarding it as somewhat unnecessary under the circumstances. It was introduced on behalf of the Metropolitan Board of Works; but they did not know whether the proposals in the Local Government Bill with regard to London would be adopted or not. If they were, the existing powers of the Metropolitan Board would be transferred to the new Council. The hon. Member who spoke last (Mr. R. G. Webster) had a little under-stated the existing powers of the Board. He did not say that those powers were sufficient for the protection of theatres—probably they were not—but they were more extensive than the powers in the hands of any authority in the Provinces. The Act of 1878 gave the Metropolitan Board power to point out what works ought to be carried out in the structure of new theatres, and also to point out, within reasonable limits, what alteration should be made in old theatres. But the Board had also power, under the Act of 1882, to see that doors and exits were properly constructed. The greater theatres were in a much better condition as to safety and protection than theatres elsewhere; and whatever urgency there was in the matter with regard to the Metropolis, there was more urgency with reference to the Provinces. As had been pointed out, the Local Government Bill proposed to transfer the powers of the Metropolitan Board to the new Council of the County of London. Perhaps, under the circumstances, the best course would be to wait and see how the Local Government Bill went on; but it might not be impossible before the Bill left the House to introduce clauses in that part of it which related to the new Council of the County of London in regard to the inspection of theatres. But, be that as it might, the present moment seemed to him to be inopportune for giving further powers to what he might call a moribund body, which would probably never have an opportunity of putting those powers into force.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 18; Noes 144: Majority 126.—(Div. List, No. 71.)

Words added.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Second Reading put off for six months.

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