HC Deb 08 March 1915 vol 70 cc1213-20

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 3rd February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."

6.0 P.M.


I desire to call attention to a matter affecting the Home Office. It is inconvenient when business is despatched in the way it has been tonight that Ministers, who cannot be expected to wait on the Treasury Bench, should not have some automatic means, such as the ringing of bells, of knowing how business is progressing. It is undesirable to open a case in the absence of the Minister concerned, and then have to repeat it a few minutes afterwards. Perhaps the Chancellor of the Duchy will privately convey my argument to the representative of the Home Office when he arrives. The question I wish to raise concerns the protection of the public utility services of London; that is to say, the special measures adopted for protecting the gas, water, electric lighting and other services of the metropolis. This is a matter the responsibility for which lies with the Chief Commissioner of the Police, and he, being subject to the Home Office, the matter is one relevant to the Home Office. At the beginning of the War conferences were held, and it was resolved that the public utility services of London must be protected to a greater degree than was possible by the ordinary police. Some of them have since been given military protection, but the greater number are protected under the auspices of the authority of the Commissioner of Police. He, finding that his force was being depleted to some extent by enlistment, and that much greater demands were made upon it, called in the special constabulary to help him in the discharge of his duties. I joined the headquarters staff of the special constabulary, and the particular duties that I had were to look after this protection of these public utility services so far as the special constabulary were responsible. So far as inspection, report, and suggestion went it devolved upon me.

The protection of these services is of two kinds. There is the personal protection, and there is the mechanical protection. In most cases both are necessary. On the question of personal protection, that is to say, guarding and patrolling electric stations, reservoirs and the like, I have nothing to say to-night. In certain parts of London there are not enough constables to do the duty efficiently, but that is nobody's fault. Those that are at work have done their work with great zeal, great patience and great devotion. That is not the side of the matter to which I want to allude. It is necessary that there should be mechanical protection in a great number of cases. For example, whatever personal protection there may be, you may have electric works where the vital machinery is so exposed to the street through an ordinary glass window that it may be put out of action in a moment. The guard may be only a few yards off. I think perhaps, in view of the advent of the Home Secretary, I had better begin again. May I ask if the right hon. Gentleman got my letter on Friday?


Yes, I got the letter of the hon. Member, and I am much obliged for it; but I did not know that this discussion would come on so quickly.


I do not want to recapitulate more than I can help, but the right hon. Gentleman knows very well that the protection of the public utility services of London is, with certain exceptions taken over by the military, in the hands of the Commissioner of Police, and through him in the hands of the special constabulary. I was saying that protection was both personal and mechanical, and that there were cases in which vital machinery might be so exposed, that while the back of the guard was turned for the moment very grave injury might be done. Again, you have the premises so complicated that it is impossible for the eye of the sentry to cover all the approaches, or they may be very large in extent, and there may be access to them from very dark places. It is, therefore, absolutely necessary that there should be mechanical as well as personal protection. That I think the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges. Mechanical protection must be first directed to covering vital machinery, and secondly it is essential that undetected access to premises should be made as difficult as possible. The first may be done by expanding metal or wire, and the second by barbed wire and various devices which it is not expedient to enter into in detail.

When I undertook this duty at the end of September I took the best expert engineering advice I could, and after personal inspection of as many of these stations that I could get to see I made representations to the owners, in most instances through the divisional officers of the special constabulary, that they should take such measures of mechanical protection as were necessary. I am bound to say that the great majority have very handsomely responded, some with greater and some with less delay. The great majority have done their duty very well. But there are some, and not an unimportant number, of cases in which they have either delayed or even refused to do their duty. Obviously it is not in the public interest to say where they are. That might attract the activities of mischievous persons. But there are many instances in which the protection is not now sufficiently assured, and if it were necessary I could in private call expert evidence to prove these cases. Where the owners are callous, and will not do their duty, there is at present no legal power to make them do it. There is no power which has yet been assumed by any Department of the Government, although I believe there is latent power. The consequence is that in certain important instances I have no hesitation in saying that the protection of the public services of London is not sufficiently assured. I am not making any attack upon the right hon. Gentleman, or the Home Office, when I say this.

The right hon. Gentleman has plenty of difficulties. I understand that the Home Office position is that any measures of this kind would have to be uniform throughout the country, and that the right hon. Gentleman has no power over the police forces otherwise than in London, and therefore he finds a difficulty in the case. There is great division of responsibility and control of the police forces of the Kingdom which at a time like this is, I think, very unfortunate. If, however, the right hon. Gentleman cannot see his way to take action himself, I do submit that he should urge upon some other Department the absolute necessity of something being done. I say this for three reasons. First of all, I think it is due to those owners who have done their duty that the others should be brought into line. Many of them have taken up this matter willingly. They have spent considerable sums of money, and it is not right that they should see other owners evading their responsibility and calling for, and in some cases getting, military protection. It is also due to the special constabulary that this should be done. This force has undertaken a very thankless and dreary task. It is a task which exposes them to ridicule—though that is nothing—and also to grave discomfort, with practically no chance of any reward and only a remote possibility of any special opportunity of gaining kudos or renown. It is due to this body of men who have been doing this work that in these particular instances their work should not be made ineffective. It is ineffective in many cases, because you have the constables at night watching a station of perhaps a great area, which, for lack of proper precaution on the part of the owners, is still open to attack and injury.

It is also due to the people of London. The danger of sabotage in these cases may perhaps be remote, but it does exist; ex hypothesi, that is the meaning of the creation of the force, and of their having been given these duties to perform. Therefore, if you assume a danger, you should take means of protection and make that protection efficient. There is nothing unreasonable in what I am asking. Much greater powers were taken under the Defence of the Realm Act—powers to demolish private property, and to demolish whole systems of public supply when the military authorities think it necessary to do so. The powers I am asking for here would almost in every case involve very small expense, and would be perfectly easily exercised. Somehow or other no Department hitherto has seen its way to take the matter up. I do not think I have been unreasonable in this matter. I advocated the question officially on 28th September. Since then it has been through one Department after another. A Clause was framed with very high legal authority, and I thought it had been approved, but somehow or other it fell through. Somebody—not the right hon. Gentleman—some other Department objected, and the thing has been a matter of discussion—I will not say "shuttle-cocked"—between the Departments since. After six months, I felt at last that all that could be obtained by persuasion and without compulsion had been done, and on 1st March I felt compelled to resign my office. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give this matter consideration. If he cannot see his way to take it up himself, I ask that he will bring it before his colleagues, so that by the action of some Department or another the public services of London may be made secure.


The hon. Member has raised a very important matter, and one which has been fully considered at the Home Office. I should like to say, first, that the work which has been done by the special constables in London has been exceedingly valuable. I can quite understand how disheartening it must be to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken so prominent a part in the organisation of the force, to find his work to a considerable extent frustrated by the refusal of individual owners to carry out the reasonable requests which have been made to them. But when the hon. Gentleman asks that the Home Office should take exceptional powers to enforce upon owners of property the duty of defending their property from attack, he is asking for a measure which, in my judgment in the actual circumstances of the law, might be open to considerable abuse. As the hon. Gentleman has stated, in London, in the Metropolitan area, the Home Secretary is responsible for the action of the police. Consequently everything that is done negligently or wrongly by the police in London can be made the subject of inquiry and censure in this House. I think, therefore, that any such exceptional powers of the kind which he asks that might be bestowed upon the police in London would be carefully and prudently exercised. At any rate if they were not so exercised this House would have an opportunity of calling the Minister to account; but it would be impossible to give powers of the kind asked for for London only. I think the hon. Gentleman agrees with me on that point.


No. I can see it is desirable to have the matter uniform, but if that is not possible I think the right hon. Gentleman might take powers under the Defence of the Realm Act for the Metropolitan Police area alone.


I think that would be very undesirable. I do not think I would be able to defend in this House a proposal which I should have to describe as necessary and beneficial, and yet at the same time suggest that the amendment of the law should apply to one part of the country only. I came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that if any such power were to be taken it would have to apply equally over the whole country. Supposing in any district outside the Metropolitan area the power were to be improperly exercised, what remedy would anyone have? The complainant would be at liberty to bring his case before the Standing Joint Committee of the county or before the Watch Committee of the borough. Whether the grievance would ever be publicly argued, whether any censure could be brought to bear upon the responsible person, it is very difficult to say. But there would certainly be no such security for the administration of this new power in a way which would not be oppressive as you would have in the case of London when this House has a Minister whom you fan call to account.

I know from personal experience that what I am saying now is what actually happens. Some people erroneously think that the Home Office controls the police force all over the country. Consequently, anyone who has any grievance writes to the Home Office, and asks me to call the offending authority to account. In every case I do my best. I write to the Standing Joint Committee or to the Watch Committee, as the case may be, but I am powerless to act. I very much doubt whether it would be wise to give such powers as those for which the hon. Member asks to a large body of authorities over the country, without any real effective Parliamentary control over the activities of those bodies. That being the case, I did not feel justified in asking Parliament to give to the police authorities the very strong powers for which the hon. Member asks.


Surely they would be taken by Order in Council under the Defence of the Realm Act; certainly they can be by the military authority, with the right hon. Gentleman's co-operation.


I would not like to express a strong opinion upon that point. Then arises the question whether the military authority should, as the hon. Member suggests, by an amendment of the existing Order in Council, take the necessary powers. We consulted the War Office upon the point. After consideration of the matter, the War Office came to the conclusion, regrettably as the hon. Member thinks, that, on the whole, it would not be of sufficient public advantage to justify their taking these powers. The reasons which led the War Office to that conclusion are strong—very strong—and, knowing as I do all the circumstances of the case, I do not think that I could for a moment, even if it were proper for me to do so, criticise the action of the War Office in the matter. They decided, rightly or wrongly, that they did not think themselves justified in asking Parliament for an extension of these extensive powers, and consequently, there remained no authority which could exercise the powers for which the hon. Member asks.

It must be remembered that the hon. Gentleman, in putting his case, rightly stated to the House the advantages of the powers which he would like to see exercised. But there is another side to the question. We may have very different views entertained by different people as to the amount of expenditure necessary to ensure safety. It is quite conceivable that you might have a police authority who would not hesitate to enforce upon the owner of some works an expenditure of many thousands of pounds in order to obtain an ideal security satisfactory to the mind of the authority in question. But there might be another point of view. The owner of the property might reasonably say that we all have to run risks, and that it would not be fair to impose upon him so large an expenditure when a sufficient degree of safety could be obtained by an ordinary exercise of prudence.


Is that not just what a man says when the military demolish his house?


Yes; the military demolish a house under military necessity, and in this case the military authority, who are the only authority that can decide the case, came to the conclusion there was no sufficient military necessity to justify the exercise of these powers. In so far as the Home Office is concerned, that question must be put on one side. The military authority, who are responsible, have decided there is no sufficient military necessity to justify these powers. I have to look at it only as a police question, and, from that point of view, I had reluctantly to come to the conclusion that I should not feel justified in asking for the exercise of, or in exercising, powers of a kind which might be exercised in a very arbitrary way, and must be exercised by authorities over which Parliament has no direct control.