HC Deb 05 July 1938 vol 338 cc318-25

Amendments made:

In page 24, line 29, column 3, leave out "Sub-sections (1) to (3) of."

In line 31, column 3, after "seven," insert "(except in so far as it relates to recovery of expenses)."—[Mr. Lioyd.]

10.7 p.m.

Mr. Lloyd

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

The House will not expect an elaborate statement from me at this time. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I thought I was expressing the feeling of the House. This Bill forms a landmark in the history of fire brigade services. Different views may be taken in different quarters about some of its provisions, but its principal objects have been recognised as necessary and, indeed, welcomed in the discussions in the House and in Committee upstairs. I should like to express on behalf of my right hon. Friend his thanks to Members in all parts of the Committee and to the Opposition for the help they have given to improving the Bill. From the beginning of the Committee discussions the hon. Member for Stirling and Falkirk (Mr. Westwood) expressed his object as that of being to improve the Bill, and I think it may be said that it has been improved by the Amendments that have been moved in Committee and on Report.

One of the great benefits of the Bill is the consolidation of the fire brigade law which has hitherto been scattered about in a number of Acts, some of which were antiquated. It is common ground that there is urgent need for the fire services to be recognised as a definite obligation of the local authorities and for the transfer of the fire brigade powers from the parishes, which are obviously too small units, to the district councils. Another important provision is that definite plans should be made for insuring that organised arrangements are made between authorities for mutual support in the case of exceptional fires, and the appointment of a commission to review the co-operative arrangements made between the authorities for this purpose. The provision of a centre for technical training is another important development. I do not propose to go into further detail, but I shall be glad to answer any questions that are raised.

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Westwood

We on this side of the House have done our best to improve what at the beginning was a very ill-balanced Bill, to the preparation of which there had not been adequate thought given. The enormous number of Amendments that have been necessary prove that it was a Measure that was hurried in its preparation and that those responsible for its drafting did not seem to realise the difficulties that would face local administrators in dealing with some of the problems that arose under the Bill. We have done our best to make it a workable Measure. I noted a statement made by the Under-Secretary that the Bill will be considered a landmark in the fire-fighting service. I regret to say that it will also be a millstone round the necks of the local authorities, a new charge being imposed upon them at a time when they are meeting ever-increasing burdens. No provision of any kind is made to meet the new duties that are being placed upon local authorities. Under the old conditions it was optional to set up fire-fighting services. The Bill makes it mandatory on them to provide fire-fighting services of, a standard prescribed by a central authority. It adds to the burdens of local authorities—burdens which are rapidly increasing, as was shown by some figures given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in answer to a question by one of the London Members as to the new charges that have been imposed on local authorities by legislation passed since 1936. I find that of those charges £210,500 a year has been added to the burdens of local ratepayers in Scotland.

This Bill adds a burden which will make it still more difficult for local authorities to meet their financial liabilities. We have lodged our protest repeatedly during the Committee stage and the Report stage against the inadequate financial arrangements in this Bill. I would, nevertheless, appeal to the local authorities who will be responsible for the administration of the Bill to make it as successful as possible because its main purpose, admitted by the Home Secretary to-night for the first time, is to speed up the fire-fighting services as part of a Defence policy; and anything that tends towards Defence requires speedy arrangements in order to make them effective because of the international situation. It is regrettable that a Bill of this kind should have been brought in merely because of the necessity to meet war measures, instead of being a carefully thought out Measure to deal with and to meet the peace requirements of firefighting services. We shall not go to a Division on the Third Reading. We wish the local authorities all success in its administration, and we hope that in the near future the Government will recant from their previous position and will provide some financial assistance to ease the burden of the local authorities who are responsible for the administration of the Bill.

10.14 p.m.

Sir Arnold Wilson

Before this Bill goes to another place I venture to draw the Home Secretary's attention to one real defect in it, namely, that under Clause 15 compensation for injury can be given only if the injury happens to a man not through his own default, thus putting upon the man the onus in law of proving that he was in no way to blame for the accident. In that way all members of fire brigades under this Bill are put in a more unfavourable position than any other municipal employés. I am well aware that that is the present law as stated in the Fire Brigades Pensions Act, 1925, and that the same provision applies to the police; but in the past few years the practice has grown up among municipalities of insuring against their liabilities towards employés. Insurance companies take the strictest view of their liabilities under the Act, and have not hesitated to disallow and to contest claims which a municipal corporation would as a matter of course have admitted, and there are half-a-dozen cases within my knowledge, some occurring in the course of the last 12 months, in which a corporation has been compelled to appear in court to contest an action by an employé for compensation for injury and has explained that it would never have done so but for the fact that it has insured against this liability.

I put down Amendments, which were ruled out of order on the ground that they were likely to create a fresh charge, suggesting that the words "arising out of and in the course of his employment" might be substituted for "without his own default," so as to assimilate the law in regard to fire brigades with the workmen's compensation law. I do not wish to detain the House now, but I venture to hope that the Home Secretary will feel able to consider the point in another place, because I am sure, if there is any serious development of the duties of fire brigades in this country, that sooner or later this sort of claim will be raised and will be contested in court, and we shall be told by the Judge that it is not his business to do anything but interpret the law as Parliament laid it down, and that Parliament has the responsibility for differentiating between the status of a fire brigade officer and any other municipal employé.

10.17 p.m.

Miss Wilkinson

I have been asked by the Town Council of Jarrow to raise a point, which has also been put forward by other hon. Members during the Debate, concerning the extra burdens which will fall upon local authorities to pay for these improved fire fighting services. They are prepared to do all they can, but in such a hardly-hit area as Jarrow, where a penny rate brings in only £379, as against £27,000 produced by a penny rate in Westminster, every few hundred pounds which have to be spent are felt as an added burden. I know that those of us who come from the distressed areas are constantly pleading this point, but I hope that before the Bill gets to another place the Minister will give further thought to the representations which I know have been made to him by the Association of Municipal Corporations and other bodies. In view of what the Home Secretary has said we feel that this expenditure goes beyond a local charge for a local service, because to a very large extent this is becoming a national service. It is a national service that we have in our minds in passing this Bill, and we should like some assurance from the Home Secretary that the case of the heavily-rated Special Areas will be borne in mind by the Government.

10.19 p.m.

Mr. David Adams

Whilst we on this side have decided not to oppose the Third Reading, it is not because we have any affection for this Measure but because we believe that on patriotic grounds we ought to give it our support. I also have been asked to make a special protest against the additional burdens which are being thrust upon an already altogether overburdened area, the Consett area, which has sent me here. The additional financial liability arises under two heads. In the first place the ex gratia payments which were formerly received from insurance companies have been done away with, and in the second place a heavy burden will be involved in the provision of additional water supplies, an obligation which now rests upon the local authorities. Water companies and statutory undertakings charged with the obligation of making such provisions will in their turn charge the local authorities with the cost of any necessary extensions. I am advised that that will mean a very substantial additional charge upon the local rates in the district from which I come. The local authority is moreover to be prevented in the future from receiving any payment for services rendered to outside areas. In the past that payment has been a source of income and a matter of good will between the larger authority and the smaller authorities concerned, but under the Bill that is to disappear.

In this Measure, we have an illustration of the policy which the Government have been pursuing ever since they came to power, namely, of placing additional burdens upon local authorities, wherever possible and whatever the conditions, to the relief either of private concerns or of the taxpayers. In this way there seems to be a felicitous division of the spoils between the taxpayers and private corporations such as water companies and insurance concerns. The Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State, both in Committee and in the House, have been somewhat proud of this marvellous Measure, but in my judgment the Measure is years late. We are asked to assent to alterations being made in another place because of the shortness of time, and information which should have been at the disposal of this House years ago is now to be obtained in the course of the next week or two. I certainly do not compliment the Government on attending to their duty of protecting the public, and in the main I am bound to declare that, in my solemn judgment, this is a very reactionary Measure.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Davidson

I would like to have my last word on this Bill. As a representative of an area which has an efficient fire brigade system I have done my best to bring that efficiency into other areas. The Bill seems to have brought about a reunion of the Scottish Ministers. At one time we had the Secretary of State, the Under-Secretary of State and the Solicitor-General all on the bench together; I think my colleagues will agree that that was very unusual in the House on any Bill. I think that the Home Secretary will realise that I am in deadly, serious earnest when I say that this Bill does not depend upon Members of Parliament here to-night or at any other time, but on the local administrators of this country and on their loyal co-operation. Their co-operation cannot be expected by any Government that is continually placing hardships on those local authorities by this type of legislation.

I feel that the Home Secretary has been forced to make a bad job of this Bill. He is unable to guarantee to these local authorities the reasonable expenses that they ought to have in order to carry out this nationally important work. This is a question now of national defence. The work of these local administrators is just as important as ours, and they have to face an electorate with regard to expenses just as we have. Any Bill that provides for national defence and places the burden upon local authorities is a bad Bill, and one that must raise an amount of objection, controversy and opposition on the part of those local authorities such as will not give the Bill a reasonable chance in the country. The defences of Scotland are bad enough; they are a complete farce. I regret that the Secretary of State for War has not been on the bench while we have been discussing the Bill, because I know that, when we criticise him in the future, he will be able to say that, although the defences are bad, although they are a farce, they are not nearly as bad as the fire brigade system in this country.

10.27 p.m.

Mr. Tomlinson

I think we are all agreed that this Measure was necessary; the need for efficiency in the fire services of this country has been recognised for a long time. In that sense I believe the Bill to be overdue, and I am sorry we have had to wait until it became to all intents and purposes a defence Measure before efficiency was sought in the firefighting services. But when it was found that these services needed to be made efficient in the national interest, I think the least we could have expected from the Government was that the local authorities would receive some contribution towards making these services efficient. We find, however, that those districts where efficiency has been brought to the highest level in this country and in Scotland are to be penalised because of their efficiency. I do not think that that can be gainsaid, because the advantages they have hitherto had with the insurance companies on account of their efficiency are to be taken away from them by this Bill. I think we are entitled to protest against efficiency being penalised and inefficiency being rewarded because of a national danger. I hope that, if this is to be recognised as part of the defence policy of the country, those authorities who have called upon the Government for assistance in making their fire-fighting services efficient will not be lost sight of when the Amendment in substitution for Clause 5 is introduced in another place.