HC Deb 13 December 1926 vol 200 cc2589-99

"It shall be lawful for any county or borough council to adopt the provisions of chapter 38, 51 and 52, Victoria, the City of London Fire Inquests Act, 1888, by Resolution passed by a majority of the members of such council present and voting.

Provided that Section two of that Act shall be construed as if for the words If the coroner be of opinion that proper cause for such an inquiry exists,' were substituted the words If the county or borough council, as the case may be, be of opinion that proper cause for such an inquiry exists."— [Mr. Gates.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

4.0 P.M.

I would like to explain that the proviso has been added at the instance of the London County Council. Perhaps I ought to apologise for submitting this Clause again, but when it was put forward in Committee the Under-Secretary, who was in charge of the Bill and discharged his duties with his usual charm and skill, rather made fun of the Clause. Owing to unfortunate circumstances I was not able to move the Clause in Committee, but I know that my hon. Friend the hon. Member for South Poplar (Mr. March) did very good justice to the subject. Under the provisions of the City of London Fire Inquests Act, in the case of loss or injury through a fire in the City of London it is the duty of the coroner to consider the report of the Commissioner of Police or the Chief Officer of the Fire Brigade, and a coroner's inquest is to be held if the Lord Mayor, the Lord Chief Justice or the Secretary of State order it, or if the coroner is of opinion that proper cause for such an inquiry exists. That is the law in the City of London to-day, and the City of London is the only place in which an inquest can be held in a nonfatal fire. When the City presented their Bill to this House in 1888, the House of Commons Committee, in reporting on the Measure, said: The expediency of holding inquests in cases of fire is so important that the extension of these powers to the whole of the Metropolitan area is, in the opinion of the Committee, desirable on a future occasion. A Departmental Committee was appointed by the Home Office in 1909 to consider and inquire into coroners' inquests. That Committee reported in 1910, and paragraph 12 of the Report says: We have come to the conclusion that the system of fire inquests established by the Act of 1888 has worked well in the City of London, and that the benefit of this Act ought to he extended to the country at large. The operations of the Act are both preventive and remedial. It might be well, however, if the system of fire inquests is to be extended, to begin with an adoptive Act empowering any county or borough council to adopt for its own district provisions framed on the lines of the City of London Act. It is in consequence of that recommendation that I have ventured to put down this Clause for the consideration of the House. The Committee which made that Report was a very important Committee, and was under the presidency of Lord Chalmers. One of the members of that Committee was Sir Thomas Bramsdon, one of the Members for Portsmouth, and himself a coroner. In a memorandum which he attached to the Report, he says that he only signed the Report on the consideration that the system ought to be universally adopted throughout the country, and that he did not believe that it would be advisable to have it adoptive. Sir Thomas, in his experience as a coroner, thought the system ought to be universally adopted. The Report of the Departmental Committee was considered at many important conferences, and one in particular, at Bristol, of the Professional Fire Brigade Officers, when it was universally approved and endorsed.


May I ask the date of that conference?


Certainly; 1912. In 1913 the Coroners' Society themselves prepared a Bill which contained a Clause providing for the extension of the 1888 Act throughout England and Wales, but, that being a Private Member's Bill, I am afraid it never proceeded any farther. In 1920, the London County Council in their General Powers Bill put in a Clause providing for the holding of such inquests by coroners in the county of London if so directed by the London County Council or the Home Secretary, and that Clause was withdrawn on the understanding that there was at that time pending legislation. The wheels of legislation grind slowly, and we are now six years later, and I suppose this is the legislation in consideration of which the London County Council withdrew their Bill in 1920. I am bound to refer to another Commission which was appointed in 1923. It was the Royal Commission on Fire Brigades and Fire Prevention. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary referred to one of the recommendations of that Commission in Committee upstairs, but I would call attention to recommendation 350, in which the Commission says: We are satisfied that in certain cases inquiries into causes of fire, whether or not any fatality has occurred would serve a useful purpose from several points of view. That they have value as a deterrent to crime, and that valuable information might be obtained on technical questions—structural conditions, fire-resisting properties of materials, means of escape, and method of fire extinction. Then, in recommendation 353, they go on to say: We cannot recommend that the coroners' function should be extended to the holding of fire inquests when no fatality has occurred, but that such inquiries should be conducted by persons possessing technical qualifications. That is the recommendation to which my hon. Friend referred in Committee upstairs, and upon which I have no doubt he will rely again this afternoon. I submit that this recommendation is against the evidence of responsible people, and against the experience of those who are responsible for the working of the Fire Inquests Act in the City of London. May I quote the evidence given by important people such as Colonel Fox, the Chief Officer of the London Salvage Corps, when he said: He was of opinion that such inquiries acted as a deterrent, and that it would be a goad thing if the system were extended to the country at large. Colonel Fox is an officer of very great experience, and I submit that his evidence is of very great value. Then the District Surveyor of the City of London also said: I have had considerable experience, covering attendance at fire inquests on nonfatal City fires, during the last 18 years. I agree that- prevention is important, and that fire inquiries are useful, and that they have a deterrent effect with regard to arson, incendiarism, carelessness, and gross negligence, and I am of opinion that fire prevention should he included in the Coroners Bill now before Parliament. May I also mention the name of Mr. Morrison, the London manager of the Southern Union Assurance Company of Australasia? He said: I think these inquiries are most useful, and that all the fire insurance companies approve of them. I am in favour of an extension of these inquiries to the area of Greater London at any rate. These are all opinions of people of very great experience, and I think they should weigh with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. The inquiries, as this witness who has experience in the City of London proves, a-re exceedingly valuable in checking cases of arson and incendiarism, especially when very heavy stocks are carried in warehouses and there has perhaps been a serious fall in the price of those stocks. To unscrupulous people there is a very great temptation to get hold of the insurance money, and, if no such opportunity exists as the Fire Inquests Act of 1888, various frauds may be committed with impunity. I might mention that there is a similar Act and similar inquiries in parts of the Dominions, notably in New Zealand and in Australia. I do not think I need say more. The City experience shows that inquests are necessary only in a very small proportion of the fires. I think the City Coroner, in evidence somewhere, has said that certainly is not more than 3 per cent. of the fires, and the expense, of course, is very small.

The Under-Secretary, as I say, rather made fun of these proposals before the Committee by asking my hon. Friend the Member for Mile End whether he would suggest that there should be a fire inquest if a lady dropped a cigarette upon her frock and set fire to it. That, of course, is really only a matter of chaff, and could not be held to be a reason why there should be any inquiry under the Act. My hon. and gallant Friend is stating an absurd proposition merely to demofish all case for the Clause. He also stated that this was really a matter for general legislation. I do humbly submit to the House that this is the opportunity, if the House will take it, to call upon the Government to make this provision. Six years ago the London County Council withdrew their Coroners Bill because they were told that there was pending legislation. Now my hon. and gallant Friend says in Committee: "This is not the opportunity; wait for some general legislation on the matter." I hardly like to ask him whether he would be prepared to give any pledge that the Government will introduce some general legislation on this point, and will give the House an opportunity of considering whether or not this is in the best interests of the State. But I do submit that behind this Clause stands a very great body of experience and valuable opinion. The City authorities have had the advantages of this Clause with great satisfaction to the Corporation and to all large interests in the City. I want to say that the London County Council, with the addition of the proviso to which I have referred, also give it their support. It follows the recommendation of the Report of 1910, and I do press my hon. and gallant Friend if he cannot see his way to incorporate it in the provisions of this Bill.


I beg to second the Motion.


I am sorry that my hon. Friend could not be present in Committee when this matter was discussed, but he seems to have read, with a great deal of care, certain of the arguments that I used on that occasion. I do not want to repeat what I said then, but my hon. Friend to-day has quoted from certain observations which were made by certain individuals, generally speaking some long time ago. I admit that he has recent evidence from several associations and municipal authorities which confirm him in the pressure he is bringing to bear upon the House to accept this new Clause. He is quite right in pointing out that at present the City of London Fire Inquests Act of 1888 is a local Act which enables the City Coroner to hold an inquest on a fire whether or not there has been anybody killed as a result of that fire. But he did not tell us that other cities do not require or do not ask for this facility, and one must assume, if they do not ask for it, they are not desirous of having such power. But I would quote from an Association which I am sure he will acknowledge is a great authority in connection with this matter—the Association of Municipal Corporations. On the 27th July this year they wrote to the Home Office as follows: I see that an Amendment has been pit down to this Bill to include a provision to the effect that it shall be lawful for any borough or county council to adopt the provisions of the City of London Fire Inquests Act, 1888. May I express— I am leaving out certain words— the hope that the Government will not support the proposed Clause. To make certain of their argument in this matter they wrote on the 1st November, enclosing an extract from a report adopted by the Law Committee on the 28th October, and said: This subject has been before the Association on several occasions, and they have always objected to coroners being empowered to hold fire inquests, and we see no reason from departing from the view previously expressed by the association. Although it is perfectly true that some years ago there was a feeling in some parts of the country that there should be fire inquests by coroners even where there was no fatalities, in recent years opinion appears to have swung round in the opposite direction. My hon. Friend the Member for North Kensington (Mr. Gates) has quoted quite fairly from the Report of the Royal Commission on Fire Prevention, and I am not going to deny the fact that sometimes in these cases an inquiry is necessary and desirable. I can quite see that on occasions it may be absolutely essential to have an inquiry in connection with a fire, even though there has been no fatality. My only objection is that a Coroners Bill is the wrong place to deal with an inquiry of that sort. The hon. Member has quoted from paragraph 353 of the Royal Commission on Fire Prevention, and I think it would be well if the House listened to a few more words from that Report: Having given full consideration to the whole matter, we have come to the con- clusion that we cannot recommend that the coroners' function should be extended to the holding of a fire inquiry where no fatality has occurred, but such inquiry should be conducted by persons holding special technical qualifications for building construction, engineering, fire prevention, etc. I think that is the most important thing we could consider. The coroners have not had much experience in connection with the construction of houses. They have not had the necessary technical experience, and however well this particular Act of 1888 may have worked in London and however much a particular coroner may be qualified in this connection, that might not be the case in a good many other parts of the country.

My hon. Friend who proposed this new Clause has given another quotation to show that it is desired by certain other authorities, but I would like to point out that there are many other people who do not desire that the Act of 1888 should be extended in this way. In this connection I should like to quote from "The Justice of the Peace," a very important paper which circulates very largely throughout the country and from which magistrates, coroners and legal people get a great deal of information. They say: Why the City of London Fire Inquests Act, 1888, should ever have managed to commend itself to the legislature is a profound mystery, for it violates all the canons of English criminal justice, and nothing like it exists outside the City. Under the provisions of the Act a. City man who is unfortunate enough to have a fire on his premises is liable to be put in the dock on a charge of arson, which is not supported by a tittle of evidence that a Court of law would listen to for one moment. Admittedly some non-fatal fires should be inquired into and promptly inquired into, but not by coroners. I am not suggesting that no such inquiries should be held; on the contrary, I am advocating inquiries, but I say that general legislation on fire inquiries is not a suitable subject to be dealt with in a Coroners Bill. Any extension of the system of allowing coroners inquisitions on a subject like this would cause duplication and this Bill is largely intended to prevent duplication. What is suggested would cause a duplication of the procedure for coroners' inquests as regards murder, manslaughter and other cases, and Clause 20 is intended to prevent that duplication. I regret having to refuse my hon. Friend's request, and I must adhere to the decision reached by the Committee that this Bill is not the proper place to provide for such inquiries. Fire inquests should be carried out by people who have more technical experience than we have a right to expect a coroner to possess, and for these reasons I ask the House to resist this new Clause.


I confess to a feeling of disappointment in regard to the reply which the Under-Secretary has made to this new Clause. As a matter of fact, the arguments deduced from the documents the Under-Secretary has read are not good ones. He has told us that coroners have no knowledge of building construction, and consequently they should not be empowered to hold fire inquests. The duty of the London coroner, when holding a fire inquest, is not so much to consider the construction of buildings, but to find out whether there has been any negligence in regard to the cause of the fire. Therefore I think the new Clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for North Kensington (Mr. Gates) is quite a reasonable one. It would not compel all local authorities outside London to adopt this practice, but it would give them the opportunity to do so, and that is why I contend that the proposal is a reasonable one. The Under-Secretary has placed before the House, in opposition to this proposal, one of the reasons which he gave upstairs during the Committee stage. I put it to the hon. and gallant Gentleman that, if the argument he has put forward to the effect that the City of London Fire Inquests Net, 1888, is of no use and has not produced any good results, then he ought to have brought in an Amendment to this Bill to secure those results, or else he ought to repeal the Clause which allows this privilege for the City of London alone. That is the logic of the argument which he has put before us. I am very anxious, however, to see this Bill become law because it is a good Bill, and I trust nothing will be done to obstruct it. We shall, of course, offer some severe criticisms later on certain parts of this Measure. I do not know whether my hon. Friend intends pressing this matter to a Division, but I hope that, whatever happens, this Bill will be passed into law to-day.


We have had a very important statement from the Under-Secretary on this question, and it seems to me that the attitude of the Home Office would entail sweeping away the powers now contained in the City of London Fire Inquests Act, 1888. The hon. 'and gallant Gentleman said quite clearly that a coroner was not the person who should be entrusted with this particular work. I would like to point out, however, that the position is extremely anomalous as between the City of London and other parts of the country. In the City of London the coroner has this particular power. On the other hand, the Fire Brigade in London is under one authority for both the City and the County of London, and it does seem somewhat contradictory if a fire happens to be in the area of one square mile in the City then you can have these fire inquests, but if the fire happens to be just over the border then no such inquests can be held. Either it is right or it is not right that the City coroner should have these powers, and if it is not right then it is the business of the Government to bring forward legislation to take this power away from the City coroner and set up entirely new machinery for the whole country.


Does the hon. Member desire to take away the power now possessed by the City of London, and does he wish to prevent the City of London coroner holding fire inquests?


I do not suggest that, but I am rather surprised that the hon. and gallant Gentleman should condemn these powers being vested in the coroner. As far as my advice goes the coroner in the City of London does this work to the satisfaction of all the parties concerned. The Under-Secretary has taken advice and he speaks with the authority of a Government Department. It is agreed that some sort of machinery is necessary, and as that machinery does not exist outside the City of London it is the duty of the Home Secretary, who is responsible, to give this House a lead in regard to this particular matter. As I understand the hon. and gallant Gentleman's statement, his lead is that this work cannot he clone by a coroner. Of course, you cannot have it both ways, and I think the Minister should give us a lead. If the hon. and gallant Gentleman is not Prepared to condemn the administration of the coroner in the City of London, I am going to support this new Clause, because my advice from the London County Council is that as the fire prevention authority for the whole of London they think this power is necessary if you are going to prevent and eliminate arson, and some of those disgraceful things which have taken place where people have deliberately set fire to buildings and fires have been caused through negligence. I think we are entitled to a clear lead from the Home Office in this matter, and without that lead being given to us I shall support this new Clause.


There are two points which I think ought to be made in connection with this new Clause. I desire to oppose the passing into law of this proposal. If this new Clause is passed it means that the authority, which has power to hold the inquest, is to be changed from the coroner to the local authority. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO"] I want to point out the danger of giving to the local authority the power to hold a fire inquest. At present the local authority is in charge of the fire brigade and it is also the housing authority, and if anything should arise in the circumstances connected with a fire, such as negligence in the construction of the building or faulty staircases, it would he the fault of the local authority. They would be responsible, and they might he interested in doing what they could to prevent such an inquiry being held. I want the coroner to retain all his judicial powers, and such powers as those connected with the holding of fire inquests should not be handed over to the local authorities.


I support this Amendment. I have yet to learn that any time is not a good time to do good. I am rather pleased to find that the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Mr. Harris) agrees for once that the City Corporation does some good. I am certain that the Act which empowers the City of London to provide for a coroner's inquest when a fire has occurred has clone an enormous amount of good, and, surely, what is good for the City of London must be good for every other place in the country. It has worked extremely well in the City. We have been able to detect how fires have been caused, very often to the benefit of fire insurance companies, and I think that coroners should have this power everywhere. It is all very well for the Under-Secretary to say that the coroner is not experienced in building and so on, but he can, and he does, no doubt, call expert evidence, and, if he has that expert evidence to help him, surely the verdict he gives must be a right verdict, and one that is in the interest, not only of the public, but of everyone concerned who wishes to put down fires,. We know that fires are often incendiary, and, if no inquest is held, the guilty people are never brought to justice. I maintain that the addition of this Clause to the Bill would do a great amount of good, and, accordingly, I have much pleasure in supporting it.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.