HC Deb 08 May 1889 vol 335 cc1418-37

Order for Second Reading, read.

*MR. DIXON-HARTLAND (Middlesex, Uxbridge)

In moving the Second Reading of this Bill I wish to say that there are in London 65 theatres and about 500 music-halls. They provide entertainment for 325,000 persons every night, or 1,750,000 a week, or nearly -one hundred millions in the course of the year. I think these figures show the importance of the subject I wish to bring before the attention of the House, and give the House a reason for investigating the manner in which these places of amusement are governed, and how the safety of the public is provided for. At the present moment there are at least six or seven jurisdictions over theatres; the Crown has jurisdiction over two patent theatres, the Lord Chamberlain has jurisdiction over 58, and the Middlesex and Surrey magistrates and the late Metropolitan Board of Works had jurisdiction over others. These jurisdictions are constantly overlapping and are so contradictory that no theatre manager knows exactly bow he stands, and it is frequently possible to set one authority against another. The Local Government Bill of last year brought the London County Council into existence. The powers of the London County Council with regard to theatres and music-halls are not greater than those which the Metropolitan Board of Works possessed, and that Board admitted during the last two Sessions that their powers were insufficient, as they applied to Parliament for greater powers. What the public want is proper supervision; that the supervision shall be continuous, always on the same line, above corruption, and not open to fads. How are we to get that continuous supervision in the London County Council? It is a varying body subject to re-election every three years, and if at one time there are a body of gentlemen on the Theatre Committee holding strong views, they may be followed in three years by others who hold entirely opposite views. The consequence may be that the order of one Committee may be entirely upset by the next Committee, each Committee being conscientiously of opinion that they are performing their duty. After what has lately taken place in the London County Council, I object to hand over the jurisdiction in regard to theatres entirely to them. We have already seen members get up there and say that all theatres ought to be put down. If that is one of the "fads" of the County Council it is impossible to say how soon the whole Council may be drawn into it. It is a question which the Government ought to take up and deal with as they deal with mines and factories. If there were permanent Inspectors appointed in whom theatrical managers had confidence the nation need be put to no expense in connection with the matter. Theatrical managers would be quite willing to pay the whole of the expense. I am told that the Home Office is very much overworked and has no staff available for the purpose. I would be perfectly satisfied with the Board of Works or any other Government Department, provided there is continuous supervision. Everybody says that something ought to be done for the safety of the public. But what is everybody's business is nobody's business, and we are no better off now than we were in 1878, when power was first given in this matter to the Metropolitan Board of Works. Since the dreadful accident at the Ring Theatre in Vienna, at the Opera at Nice, at the Opera Comique in Paris, and at the theatre in Exeter, public attention has been strongly directed to the question. There is no doubt, however, that we are no more forward now than we were then, and that an accident may occur before we have put our house in order. The Metropolitan Board of Works neglected its duties with regard to theatres; a deputation which I had the honour to introduce to the Home Secretary concerning theatres brought out the whole question of the corruption of that body, and I believe they got their death in consequence of their neglect of their duties in connection with theatres. After my Bill was brought in several theatres were closed and not allowed to be opened until certain alterations were made; but the point to be considered is whether theatres were safe now. There are not two theatres in London constructed so as to be safe to the public. There is one underground theatre, the Criterion. Could anything in the world make that theatre safe? If a fire broke out above that theatre every one in the house would be stifled as if in a wasps' nest. Captain Shaw's report has never been published. If it had, very few people would have gone to theatres since. The safety of the public is the point to which my Bill is directed. I do not care one straw as to the safety of the structures themselves; I leave that to the managers. What we ought to do is to see that the public can escape in the event of fire. We have to provide, not only against fire, but against panic, which is always of a selfish character. There ought to he rules that all doors should open outwards, that the exits should be always available to the public and should be used every night so that people were habituated to their use, that no two parts of the house should be served with the same stairs and door, and that all theatres should be closed where these conditions are not complied with. These are the rules in Rome, St. Petersburgh, Paris, Marseilles, Vienna and various other cities on the Continent and in New York; while in Australia the regulations are remarkably in advance of any which exist in England. But we have to look to the safety not only of the public, but of the actors and actresses, the provision for whose security is still worse. The Savoy is said to be as safe a theatre as any in London; it is lighted by electricity; but if there is electricity before the curtain, there is gas behind. The means of exit for the actors and actresses is by a small staircase, which leads to a little hall which would hold about eight people, where the door opens outwards; but on the other side of the hall is a door which opens inwards, so that it forms a regular death trap. All these are examples which show how necessary it is for the safety of the public that some regular supervision should take place; that it should be supervision that would be above all question and such as the public could depend upon. In 1888 there were 25 theatres burnt, and the average life of a theatre is only 23 years. We have been fortunate in London, but people who go to theatres should not forget that one of the largest of the London theatres has been burnt down three times, and one no less than four times. I am told that the Government mean to oppose the Bill. I can hardly believe that they can be indifferent to the possibility of accident to more than 325,000 people who are to be found in theatres and music halls in London every night, and if the Home Secretary would only go round and visit them as I myself have done he would be horrified at the carelessness which is manifested on all sides. The managers give instructions to the best of their ability, but they cannot look after every individual in their employment. I know of one case in which the protection against gas was removed in order that a scene shifter might be able to read the newspaper. I have seen the scenery so close to the gas that a breath of wind would set it all in a blaze. The utmost carelessness is displayed on all sides; and things are now done which, if an Inspector would go round and take a note of, would at once be put a stop to. It was formerly said that sufficient powers already existed, but that assertion can no longer be made, seeing that the Metropolitan Board of Works themselves admitted that they did not possess the necessary authority and adequate powers. The Second Reading of the Bill will be opposed by an hon. Member opposite (Mr. J. Rowlands) who claims to represent the working classes. Well, I would point out to him that the working classes go in great numbers to the theatres, that they occupy the worst places, and that the parts of the houses they frequent are the most difficult to escape from. They are the people who deserve the greatest consideration in connection with this or any other Bill on the subject, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not wish to see their interests neglected. There is another point in connection with the matter which is of the utmost importance to the working classes. There are between 100,000 and 200,000 employed, directly or directly, at theatres, and every fire that occurs at one of these places of amusement greatly reduces the incomes of a large number of poor people. This is not a political question; it is one at our doors. The Bill is proposed for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of people. Duty, the first watchword of Englishmen, requires that something should be done in this matter, and done at once, not six or 12 months or two years hence. I hope the Government will rise to that occasion and enable the House to legislate upon this question, so that we may not some morning be horrified to learn that some terrible catastrophy has occurred at one of our London theatres, destroying hundreds of our fellow citizens. I beg to move the Second Reading of the Bill, and I leave the responsibility of dealing with it on the shoulders of the Government and the House.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill he now read a second time."

*SIR A. ROLLIT (Islington, South)

I desire to say only one or two words in seconding the Motion for the Second Reading of this Bill. The Measure seems to me to deal with a practical and pressing danger which is sometimes brought under our notice by terrible calamities in this and other countries—dangers which are forgotten as soon as the flames die out — and in respect to which little or nothing is done, notwithstanding all the teaching which these accidents give us. The object of the Bill is to provide remedies and to prevent the recurrence of these accidents in the future. I may say that I personally take interest in this question as representing a constituency in the midst of which one of these calamities occurred recently. I allude to the destruction by fire of the Grand Theatre in Islington. That occurrence caused great alarm in the public's mind, and serious injury to the managers, but it had also a most serious effect upon a large class to whom the hon. Member who moved the Second Reading has referred. The public we can protect, managers can protect themselves, but the employés are not persons who usually have the means of protecting themselves by insurance, and, in earning their daily bread, they have to subject themselves to risks from which they should be freed by legislative regulations. My experience in Islington in connection with their Relief Committee has shown me that when a disaster occurs at a theatre the suffering caused amongst the employés is intense. The musicians, for instance, lose their musical instruments, and, as these are essential to their earning a livelihood, they are for a long period out of employment and have, with their families, to endure great misfortune. Fortunately, generosity is the complement of misfortune in this country, and ultimately, thanks to the large subscriptions received from the public, the misfortunes of the employés in the case of the Grand Theatre were mitigated. Great effect was produced on my mind by coming into contact with these people, and it was my experience amongst them which made me resolve to support this measure and do my best to get their interests protected. As examples of what has been done abroad to minimise the danger of accidents in theatres I would refer hon. Members to the State Theatre at Munich, and the Opera House at Frankfort. At these places it is clearly perceptible even from the exterior of the buildings that the greatest precautions have been taken. No theatre in London can be said to be absolutely safe, and if a conflagration occurs in one of them the loss of life may be terrible. The position of the law in relation to the matter is clear. It is beyond question that at present there are not sufficient and adequate regulations for the purpose of preventing accidents. The Metropolitan Board of Works, which had long experience of these matters, thought it necessary to bring in a Bill to give themselves further powers, and as that Bill did not pass it is clear that the London County Council, the successors of the Metropolitan Board, have not adequate powers. And speaking of the County Council I may say that the question, as to the authority who should be entrusted with the powers of a Bill of this kind, is to myself a secondary consideration. It is a matter that may be dealt with in Committee, and provided the authority be central and possess proper powers, and be prepared to carry them into effect by adequate inspection, I should have no objection to the provisions of the Bill being made to apply to the County Council. As to the proposal in the Bill, that the Home Office should be the authority, the Commission of 1866 recommended that the Central Authority should be the Lord Chamberlain with an appeal to the Home Office. I certainly prefer the proposal of the Bill. If there be a new authority constituted. It should be the Home Office directly, without any appeal whatever. For this matter of taking precautions against fire is one which will not admit of delay. Speedy action is necessary, and I therefore think that to introduce a principle, such as that recommended in some quarters, would be an unwise proceeding. If some portion of the Executive is to deal with the question it should be either the Home Office or the Lord Chamberlain, with more ample power. Still, as the powers possessed by the Metropolitan Board of Works are already transferred to the County Council, and. if the House is prepared to increase these powers and make them effective in Committee, as I hope it will, I, as a Metropolitan Member, should be the last to detract from the powers of the County Council. What I desire is that the House should grasp the great fact that something ought to be done; that the law is defective; and that the responsibility rests to some extent with the Home Office, but also with the House itself, I trust the House will read the Bill a second time.

MR. J. ROWLANDS (Finsbury, East)

I rise to move the rejection of the Bill, and I do not do so without having considered the scope of the measure as it has been brought before the House. When Bills are presented and circulated we must, of course, take them as they stand and form our opinions on them; but I am pleased to see that the hon. Gentleman the Member for South Islington has admitted that he at least would be prepared to accept some other authority in place of the Home Office. I may say that the gravamen of the whole of the opposition to the Bill on the part of Members on this side is as to the proposal to give the Home Office control of the theatres. We endorse everything that has been said by the two previous speakers as to the necessity for making the theatres as safe as they possibly can be made. We agree to anything necessary for the protection of the lives of the people who frequent theatres, and the people employed in them. We do not for a moment allow ourselves to be considered as at all behind the supporters of the Bill in our desire to render theatres safe, but we object to the proposal to hand over the authority to the Home 'Office in place of the County Council. The hon. Member for the Uxbridge division of Middlesex has drawn attention to a case in a theatre where, the protectors being taken from the gas burners, the flames rose up very near the scenery. Well, a thing of that kind would not have been less likely to occur if the theatres had been under the Home Office than if they had been under the County Council. It was gross negligence on the part of some employé, and I sincerely trust the hon. Member complained to the manager and brought about the instant dismissal of the offender as an example to his fellows. It has been pointed out by the hon. Member for Middlesex that at the present moment we have in London more than one authority, namely, the Crown in the person of the Lord Chamberlain, and the County Council as the successors of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Now, I am as strongly opposed to having these various authorities as the hon. Member is. I consider it a serious mistake to keep up the old farce of Crown theatres. We know that they stand on the same footing as all others since the patent houses have been done away with, and they have all been put, so far as the public are concerned, in the same position. We hardly think it comes within the duties of the Lord Chamberlain to be responsible for the safety of the exits of a theatre. We are at one with the hon. Member in this matter, but what we do object to is the machinery by which he proposes to carry out his proposal. He proposes in Clauses 6 and 7 to vest the control of the theatres in the Home Office, leaving them to appoint a series of Inspectors. He says he proposes this as he desires to place the theatres under a power where the control will be continuous and not varied—and he considers that the control under the County Council would be varied, as the Council has to be reelected every three years, and will be open to changes of policy. I ask hon. Members of this House whether, with their acquaintance with representative bodies, they are prepared to say that any one of them responsible for the protection of life and limb, and having a staff of Inspectors under it, has ever been known to sweep away a policy because a new election has taken place? I know that one County Councillor suggested that all the theatres in London should be shut up, but I venture to say that that gentleman could not possibly have adopted a more efficacious mode of rendering himself unpopular with his constituency. I am sure, whatever his general views, I should not vote for him if he were to be a candidate for a place in which I had a vote. I maintain that the whole condition of London has changed since the passing of the Local Government Act of last year. Up to that time you had the control of the theatres vested in two non-representative bodies, one of them being the Metropolitan Board of Works. I was one of those who never had any confidence in the Metropolitan Board, and events proved that we were not far wrong in our view. You had then a body which could not be got at, but you now have in its place a directly elected body, and you may depend upon it that the moment it is pointed out that a certain theatre is not safe, the person to whose knowledge the fact is brought will communicate with his representative on the Council, and the evil will be remedied, so far, at any rate, as the power of the Council will admit of the application of a remedy. It is said that the Council have not sufficient power. Then, I am in favour of conferring upon them the powers contained in this Bill. I have every confidence in the Council. The hon. Member opposite says the present condition of theatres is bad, and he says that if we will not pass this Bill, we must accept the responsibility for what may happen. But if there is any force in the arguments of the hon. Member, he should extend his Bill to the whole country. Will he say that the theatres in Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham, and still more in the smaller places throughout the country, are in a perfect state? If not, why is this Bill limited to London? I maintain that by so limiting it, he has shown the weakness of the whole of his case. He has not proposed that, because he knows that it would have provoked the strongest opposition throughout the country. I object to hon. Members coming down here and saying, "We are going to deal with you in London, in an exceptional manner, because you cannot take care of yourselves." I thought we should have had some reference made to the system of "tips" which existed under the old Metropolitan Board of Works. We are all of us conversant with the case of Mr. Hebb, which was brought out at the Inquiry into the proceedings of the Metropolitan Board of Works, but as the best antidote to a recurrence of such a case as that, we should pass the Bill of the noble Lord the Member for Paddington (Lord R. Churchill). Under that Bill any of the Council Officials, if they should deviate from the path of honesty and integrity in the discharge of their duty, could be punished for it. As to the Home Office, it has too much to do at the present time, and the Bill would simply increase its responsibilities, and lead to endless discussions in this House on theatre management and kindred subjects when the Vote for the Home Secretary's-salary is proposed in Committee of' Supply. We, in London, object to be.made exceptional any longer—as we-are in regard to the police—and if the hon. Member will substitute the County Council for the Home Office the Bill may go into Committee without delay. I beg, however, seeing the way in, which the Bill is framed, to move that it be read a second time this day six months.

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. W. Rowlands.)

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

*MR. CAUSTON (Southwark, W.)

I second with pleasure my hon. Friend's Amendment, and I think we are justified in passing it, especially after the speech of the Mover of the Bill. We all agree that there must be a proper inspection of theatres in the interest both of actors and actresses and of the public at large. The hon. Member for the Uxbridge Division of Middlesex (Mr. Dixon-Hartland) says that the County-Council is a varying body and cannot be-entrusted with these powers. That observation would, however, apply to any powers with which the Council is. entrusted, and it would also apply to, the Home Secretary, who is certainly not a permanent official. What we are determined to have is Home Rule for London. We think that we in London are as competent to manage our own affairs as people in any other parts' of the country are to manage theirs. It is true we have bad a Metropolitan Board' of Works, but they have been found out and disposed of, and if the Members, of our present County Council cannot discharge their work efficiently they will be found out and disposed of also. But the sooner we learn to conduct our own business the better. It seems that we are to be treated in London just as-the Government treat Ireland. We are not allowed the control of the police or the control of the open spaces for public-meetings, and I am told that it is only in London and Ireland where you can- not get copies of the police instructions. That is a state of things which I hope will not be allowed to exist much longer, and I think the London Members—Tories as well as Liberals—will be wise, whenever they perceive any disposition to say that London is not competent to manage its own affairs, to enter a vigorous protest.

*MR. WHITMORE (Chelsea)

I shall support the Amendment. We have just created local representative governing bodies for London and the counties, and one of our principal objects in doing so was that we might free from some of its work the overburdened Government Departments, and the overburdened House of Commons. It seems to me an extraordinary proposal that we should at this moment take away some of the functions local bodies have been performing and give the additional work to the Home Office, and consequently to the House of Commons. We are asked to make this change, not because the new London County Council has in any way shown itself to be incapable of carrying out this work, but partly because another body, very differently constituted, did not properly carry it out, and partly because it is said the existing law does not give the Local Authorities sufficient powers to insure the safety of those who go to theatres. Every Member would support legislation that would make our theatres as safe as possible. But the essential provision of this Bill is that the authority which is to control the matter should not be the County Council, but the Home Office, and I cannot conceive anybody voting for the measure on the understanding that the authority should be decided in Committee. If the London County Council is not able to discharge these duties, the County Councils in the country cannot be trusted to discharge them. Of course, there must to some extent be in the personel of elected bodies a lack of continuity, but we may certainly suppose that in the main outlines of their action they will be guided by general principles of policy, just as the Home Office is, although the principal tenant of that office varies from time to time. Even if I did not most strongly object to the taking away from the London County Council of functions which it has not shown itself incompetent to perform, I should object to entrusting them to the Home Office. Every hon. Member is sufficiently aware how multitudinous are the duties which the Home Office has to perform. The whole tendency of modern legislation will be to increase its duties of supervising and inspecting the conditions under which trades are carried on in this country, and under which the working classes work and live. That may be very right and proper, but I confess I do shrink from recklessly and unnecessarily adding a new and not cognate class of work to the Home Office. As at present constituted, I do not think there is any department of the Home Office competent to undertake the duties which would be thrown upon it by this Bill. A new staff of Inspectors would have to be established, which would mean additional cost to the country. It is all very well to say that the managers of theatres would supply the funds, but a State Department could not be carried on by means of voluntary subscriptions. You could not compel managers in the future to subscribe. Obviously, then, the adoption of the proposal of the hon. Member would mean an increased burden upon the taxpayer. For these reasons, therefore, I trust that we shall not read the Bill a second time. I hope it will not be said that we who oppose the measure are not as sensible as its promoters of the very great dangers to which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Middlesex has alluded. I, equally with him, wish to give security to the hundreds of thousands of Londoners who go to theatres, and at an early date shall be glad to vote for an extension of the powers of the London County Council in regard to the inspection of theatres.


I I think the House is very much indebted to the hon. Gentleman for having brought this subject under its notice, for it is one of the utmost importance, concerning as it does the safety of the large number of people who visit theatres, music-halls, and places of public entertainment of that kind. There are two different sets of conditions which have to be considered. It is clear that there should be some authority which should have power to review and control the structure of the place of enter- tainment, the manner in which the audience is disposed in the building, the means of ingress and egress that are provided. That is one set of conditions extremely essential to be properly observed and extremely delicate and difficult to enforce in the old theatres. The Metropolitan Board of Works were conscious of that, and in the legislative powers with which they clothed themselves only took powers to make alterations, if they could be made at moderate cost. I suppose some little concession would have to be made to lessees and proprietors of existing theatres. It would be extremely hard if they were compelled to pull down and rebuild because such matters as ingress and egress have been better attended to in new theatres. There is another class of regulations equally necessary for the safety of the public, and which, I think, are very insufficiently dealt with by existing legislation—namely, regulations regarding the mode of management. Supposing means of ingress and egress are provided, but the doors are kept locked, the means of ingress and egress might as well not exist; or, if means of lighting are not supplied in case of the gas being cut off, in the event of a fire the people have to grope their way out in the dark. These are matters which do not depend on the original structure of the building, but on the way in which the place of entertainment is managed from day to day. The same remarks apply to the way in which the doors are closed, the number of persons admitted, and the appliances for the extinction of fire. These things are all liable to be carelessly dealt with, or get out of order after long immunity from accident, if there is no inspection. It seems to me that with regard to these matters existing legislation is very imperfect. The Metropolitan Board of Works had power to make regulations, but they had no power to enter a theatre from day to day to see that they were observed, nor had they power to impose penalties if their regulations were disregarded. These powers the County Council now possess, and they should continue. Gross and wilful neglect such as has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Middlesex, I am afraid cannot be dealt with by legislation. They can only be dealt with by way of punishment. Having said that much, I hope I shall not be charged with being insensible to the importance of the subject. I have felt its importance so much that, about the time the hon. Member brought his deputation before me, I had in preparation a Bill for the purpose of remedying these defects of legislation which have been pointed out, but the difficulty as to the body to whom the powers should be intrusted, prevented the Bill being proceeded with. It was in an advanced state of preparation though not printed. I entirely share the views of those who regard this as a matter of local interest. I am not insensible to the argument of my hon. Friend that it would perhaps be more agreeable to the managers of theatres to deal with one Government department than with a committee of a fluctuating body. It may be that the Government departments are more easy and less vigilant than a committee of an energetic and critical governing body. Although that is an intelligible view for the managers of theatres to take, I can not think it is a view that the House will admit. With regard to the Home Office, I entirely agree with what has been said as to the want of a suitable staff to carry out the duties proposed to be conferred on it by the Bill. There are no experienced architects and surveyors under my control. The Board of Works no doubt has such a staff; but I entirely agree that the matter is one for local management and administration. I agree also that a distinction can not be drawn between London and the provinces in this matter, and any Government Department which undertakes to control the management of theatres throughout the country will be undertaking a task which will be extremely difficult and expensive, and which is already perfectly well performed by the local authorities. I should certainly have pressed for ward even a provisional Bill if it had not been for the difficulty of the authority to whom the powers should be intrustsd. The Local Government Act had not then been passed, and the powers could only have been entrusted to the Quarter Sessions. The existing Act, in which justices are entrusted with certain powers as to theatres, has never proved a satisfactory Act. Now that local bodies have been constituted in whom the House and the country have confi- deuce, I think the House should lose no time in providing means for insuring the safety of the public in theatres, music-halls—I am not quite sure that I ought not to add churches—but at any rate in all places open for the entertainment of the public for profit. Is the Local Authority to be trusted? I have stated the conclusive objections to the Home Office undertaking these duties, and although I can conceive the Board of Works performing them with satisfaction, I can hardly conceive that we should be willing to do so. I understand that the County Council are willing to undertake the duties; indeed from what we hear from day to day, there is nothing the London County Council are not willing to undertake. Then, are they competent? My hon. Friend suggests that they are not. His argument is that no body which is not permanent can be safely trusted to discharge duties of that kind. I must say I cannot assent to that argument. It is true there may be changes in the constitution of the London County Council every three years, and that they may produce some instability in its management, but still I believe that variations will always be in the direction of progress, and if anything new is required it will he because we have better knowledge, or because the opinion of constituents has been expressed in a decided manner. Therefore, although it is possible that some additional expense may he imposed upon theatres by the fact that the London County Council is not a permanent body, I feel that that is not a reason for withholding from them functions which they have been created to perform. For these reasons I must decline to assent to the leading principle of the Bill, which is the transference to a Government Department of the superintendence of the construction of theatres and of the appliances for the safety of the audiences attending them. The London County Council already have large but insufficient powers, and if they ask for additional powers I shall be happy to give them all the assistance I can to make the control of public buildings, in the interests of public safety, as complete and efficient as possible. Valuable materials will be found in the Bills prepared by the Metropolitan Board of Works, which, however did not go far enough, particularly in the matter of daily inspection with reference to details of management. It is quite possible that a structure in itself imperfect may, by excellent management, by always having everything ready for an emergency or a panic, be more safe than a building perfect in structure but negligently managed so that the appliances, in case of fire or panic, are not ready for immediate use. I have felt the anxiety and responsibility of the existing state of things very strongly indeed, and I repeat that nothing would have prevented the Government from legislating last year but the passing of the Local Government Act, in view of which we did not feel able to make a satisfactory proposal. These, however, are the views we have uniformly taken on the subject, and, holding these views, I feel it necessary to go with those who oppose the Bill.

*SIR WALTER FOSTER (Derby, Ilkeston)

I, for one, am glad to hear the satisfactory statement which has fallen from the right hon. Gentleman. I feel that in this matter a certain amount of responsibility rests with the Government, for, seeing that the London County Council is now established, it clearly would be showing a bad example to the country, if the Government were not to trust the new Local Authority. The Government has refused to the County Council the management of the police, although I think that in this, as well as in other respects, the community generally is in favour of a large extension of the powers of the Council. It seems to me there is no reason why the London County Council should not undertake duties that are efficiently discharged by the Watch Committees of Municipal Corporations with regard to theatres and public buildings, except that the Town Councils have the advantage of controlling the police, a most useful force for this purpose, while London is yet subject to a dualism, in this respect, which involves a weakening division of responsibility. Why should not the Council which governs the most intelligent centre in the United Kingdom enjoy the same privileges as the small municipalities? Why should London be placed in a secondary position? The way to make Local Government strong and useful is to throw upon it all possible responsibility. The more responsible it is, the more care will its individual members take of the interests of their constituents, and the better will they do their work. I think that the County Council of London should not only have control over the theatres, and other places of amusement in the metropolis, but also over places of public worship and every public building in which people assemble in large numbers and run risks from fire and panic. It cannot but be an advantage to have one system of supervision exercised over a whole district. Such a system would be easily worked, and in the case of London it would be much better to have the County Council responsible for all buildings, than to have it responsible for only one class, and the Home Office responsible for another class. I object to a Government Department interfering in this matter when the Local Authority is perfectly capable of exercising supervision. I also protest against depriving London of the control of its police—a control which I feel convinced popular opinion will ere long force from a reluctant Government. In the meantime I trust that after the satisfactory statements we have heard from the Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Middlesex will see fit to withdraw his Bill.

Mr. R. G. WEBSTER (St. Pancras, East)

All the Members who have addressed the House on this Bill have expressed the opinion that it is desirable that some measure should be passed for the better regulation of the theatres and public buildings of London, and I cannot help saying that had it not been for the hon. Members for South and East Finsbury we might have passed the Bill of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Cheshire last session, which would have given to the London County Council powers which it would be very desirable for it to possess. The hon. Member for Uxbridge then opposed that Bill pretty much on the lines he now advances in support of his own measure. To my mind it does not follow, because Mr. Hebb failed in his duty some years ago, that the Metropolitan Board did not, apart from his failure, do its duty to the public as far as its powers went. If anything, the Board was rather too strict. The County Council has only the same powers, and having inspected plans and granted a certificate, cannot interfere, with the placing of chairs in gangways, which is a frightful source of mischief, or with the slightly lesser evil "Room for standing," miscalled "Standing room." Another source of danger is appropriating one or two public doorways to Royal or distinguished visitors. If there are to be separate entrances they ought to be quite separate and distinct from those ordinarily used by the public. I think that the lighting arrangements for the stage should be completely apart from the lighting of the auditorium; and that the carpenters' shop should, if possible, be located outside the theatre. He seeks to take power from the County Council to give to the Home Office. Has he no confidence in the electors, when he wishes to bring in a Bill which seems to be a theatrical management Bill as opposed to a Bill which would throw the power into the hands of the local Body? I think it desirable, in the interests of County Councils and of the Government of London, that this Bill should be rejected. I cannot think that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Dixon-Hartland) seriously intends to press this Bill to a Division. If he does, I do not think there are many who will go into the Division Lobby with him. At the same time, I do think that this question is one of great importance to London and to a great number of Londoners who go to theatres night after night; and in the interests of those who form the theatrical audiences, and in the general interests of the Metropolis, I sincerely trust that the County Council, aided by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, will speedily bring forward a measure for the better protection of theatres from fires, and that that measure will be passed at an early date.


I think, Sir, that the interest taken in this debate will have shown that it has not been useless, and in the hope that a Bill will soon be brought in dealing thoroughly with the whole matter, I will not put the House to the trouble of a Division.

Question put and negatived.

Words added.

Main Question as amended put, and agreed to.

Second Reading put off for six months.