HC Deb 24 April 1939 vol 346 cc922-32

10.42 p.m.

Mr. Fleming

I beg to move, in page 8, line 37, leave out from "Act," to the end of the Sub-section. This Amendment has been put down in order to draw an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman on the question of the code. In Sub-section (1) are the words: and he may from time to time by order revise any such code by revoking, varying or adding to its provisions. I understand that what is worrying a great many occupiers of factories at the present time is how long, once the code has been issued, it will be before the conditions are altered. If they are altered once the work has been undertaken, it is not difficult to imagine that there will be added expense to the occupiers of factories. I desire to get an assurance that once the code has been issued it will not be unnecessarily altered, and that occupiers or owners will not be forced into additional expenditure unless it is absolutely essential.

10.44 P.m.

Sir J. Anderson

I should like to have given the assurance asked for by the hon. and learned Member, but I am bound to make this point, that the whole science of Civil Defence is in an experimental and developing stage. We are a long way from finality in regard to matters of protection. The technical aspects of protection are the subject of continuous study, and while I do not for a moment contemplate that the obligation of employers in the code, which we are about to issue, will be the subject of continuous change, I do not think it would be right to exclude the possibility that, with further knowledge and experience, it might be found desirable to make amendments or additions to the code. For example, an amendment to the code might take the form of suggesting a further alternative method of providing shelter. Such an amendment, surely, ought to be provided for. From the practical point of view, obviously we must try to avoid, by amendments of the code, placing fresh obligations upon employers who have already done all that could reasonably be expected of them in carrying out the requirements of the code as originally issued. Subject to that, I do say that it is necessary in this Clause to contemplate the possibility of additions to the code as originally issued.

10.46 p.m.

Mr. Dodd

I hardly think the statement of the Lord Privy Seal has gone sufficiently far. What we have in mind in the Amendment is that the draft code which is to be issued should be capable of being amended from time to time. The code has been drawn up by a very skilled body of experts, and I presume that the first operations will be based on it. To a very great extent, employers are in the hands of the factory inspectors, who work very much by rule of thumb. It is possible that a factory inspector in one district might put an entirely different interpretation upon particular articles of the code from that which another inspector in another area might put upon them. The net result of this would be confusion between one district and another. In the case of a concern employing 4,000 or 5,000 operatives, if we assume a figure, of £4 per operative—which is the amount mentioned in the Financial and Explanatory Memorandum—there would be a total preliminary expense of £20,000. As there would be a grant of only about 25 per cent., a very large burden would be put on the people concerned. If a factory inspector said to that concern that the code had been altered, and that they would have to scrap all the work they had done, or extend it, or make alterations, they might be involved in an additional expenditure of many thousand pounds. Therefore, the point is a very important one. I feel sure that if my right hon. Friend can give the Committee some further assurance, hon. Members will be grateful.

Mr. Fleming

In view of the statement made by my right hon. Friend, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10.49 p.m.

Mr. Sandys

I beg to move, in page 8, line 42, at the end, to add: (3) In the case of air-raid shelters, the construction of which was commenced before the issue of the code, the Minister shall accept them as being within the terms of the code provided the Minister is satisfied that they give a reasonable degree of protection, notwithstanding that they may not in all particulars comply with the requirements of the code This Amendment deals with the case of air-raid shelters which have been, or will have been, constructed by employers before the passing of this Bill. As hon. Members will remember, not only my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal, but more especially his predecessor, the Home Secretary and even his predecessor, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, on many occasions made strong appeals to industrialists throughout the country, telling them quite clearly that the Government, relied upon them to provide shelters for their workpeople. I am glad to say that many of them in all parts of the country—although, perhaps, not as many as we should have liked—responded to the appeals that were made to them by the successive Ministers responsible for air-raid precautions and did not wait for the Government to take the compulsory powers which they are now doing under this Bill.

Again, I think hon. Members will re-collect that many of us in all parts of the House have, for two years or more, urged the Government to issue detailed and specific advice upon the structural precautions which it was desirable that factory owners should take to protect their workpeople. It is true that after a very long delay some, I will not say inadequate, but insufficient, leaflets were issued. But it was only this afternoon— and I have not had time to look at it yet—that the first complete code of advice to factory owners has been published. Therefore, it will not be surprising if quite a considerable proportion of the shelters which have been constructed already in response to the Government's appeal by industrialists do not comply exactly with the provisions laid down in the code issued this afternoon. I am sure it is not my right hon. Friend's wish that those who have responded so promptly to the Government's appeal, and who have shown in a marked degree their sense of responsibility, should in any way suffer by the public spirit which they have displayed.

10.52 p.m.

Mr. T. Johnston

I think there are arguments why something in the nature of this Amendment should be accepted by the Government. Quite apart from the shelters which have already been constructed, there are shelters which could be created forthwith without waiting for the completion of the code or the passing of the Bill. I suggest that for other reasons it would be good social policy if the Lord Privy Seal could state publicly now that anything that was created in accordance with his requirements, and has been passed by his officers already, should rank for grant at a later stage. I put it to the Lord Privy Seal that unless the Government are very careful they will create a situation in which there will be thousands of proprietors of commercial buildings rushing on the market, demanding materials, cement, skilled plumbers, and so on, and, what is worse, making an immediate call on a very limited labour supply, causing grave shortages in materials and labour, and they will jump the costs of these alterations in commercial buildings twofold, threefold and probably fourfold.

What is still worse, there will be diverted from our present housing schemes builders, labourers, employers, and plant, and a stoppage in housing schemes all over the country will be caused. One further effect will be that the cost of these alterations, the basements and so on, will be such that any number of employers, even with the Government grant, will be financially unable to face it. They might be able to undertake the work at present prices, but they will not be able to do it if prices double or quadruple. I submit it would not only be good social policy, but also in some respects an absolute necessity, for the success of this Measure to intimate now that whatever work is proceeding" under Part 111 to the satisfaction of the right hon. Gentleman's officers will rank for grants at a later stage when these grants are availablt.

10.55 p.m.

Sir J. Anderson

I am in a position to give the assurance that has been asked for. Where work has been done already under the advice issued by the Department, or where work is done in anticipation of the passing of this Bill, if the shelter provided comes substantially up to the standard contemplated by the code, that work will certainly rank for grant. I am inclined to think that the best way of meeting the substantial point involved in the Amendment would be by an Amendment to Clause 10(2) extending the definition of "shelter of an approved type" for this purpose, and I undertake that such an Amendment will be brought in at a later stage. In the meantime I give a definite assurance on this point.

Mr. Sandys

In view of my right hon. Friend's statement, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10.56 p.m.

Mr. Sandys

I beg to move, in page 8, line 42, at the end, to add: (4) Any such code issued by the Minister under this Section shall be laid before each House of Parliament for a period of 10 days during the Session of Parliament, and, if an Address is presented to His Majesty by either House of Parliament before the expiration of that period praying that the order may be annulled, it shall be void, but without prejudice to the making of a new order. In reckoning any such period of 10 days as aforesaid, no account shall be taken of any time during which both Houses of Parliament are adjourned for more than four days. We all have the utmost confidence that my right hon. Friend will discharge the duties entrusted to him by the Bill to the satisfaction of the House and in the best interests of the country. Nevertheless, I think we must recognise that the effectiveness of that part of the Bill which deals with the provision of air-raid shelters is largely, if not wholly, conditioned by the nature of the codes which the Minister may from time to time issue. Therefore, I think my right hon. Friend will recognise that it is not unreasonable that the House should preserve some right to express its opinion upon the provisions of these codes which the Minister is entitled under the Bill to issue for the guidance of industrialists. We all know the intense interest which the House has taken in the nature of the shelters to be provided. Very important issues are involved. In the circumstances it would not really be reasonable for the House to give the Government a completely free hand to decide at any time what shall be the character of the shelters to be provided in factories and business premises. In moving this Amendment we do not wish in any way to delay the carrying out of the provisions of the Bill. My right hon. Friend will observe that we have specified a very short time limit of only 10 days in order not to delay or obstruct the effective and swift carrying out of the provisions of the Bill. In these circumstances I hope my right hon. Friend will see his way to accept the Amendment.

11.0 p.m.

Sir J. Anderson

I have no intention of seeking to resist what I understand to be the purpose of this Amendment. No doubt it is right that the House should retain ultimate control of what can be done under these provisions. I suggest, however, that the method adopted by the framer of this Amendment is probably not that best adapted to the purpose. As the Committee knows, the code is to be issued in advance.

Mr. Sandys

In advance of what?

Sir J. Anderson

In advance of the passage of the Bill, and everyone hopes that action in conformity with the code will be taken without delay, but under this Clause the code has to be approved by order before it has legal effect, and I would like to suggest that the best way of preserving to the House the power of control which it may be thought the House should retain, would be by making the order of the Minister an order which has to be laid for an appropriate period. That would give the House the desired control and generally meet the purpose of the Amendment. I should be perfectly prepared at the proper time either to accept an Amendment for that purpose or, after consultation, to put an Amendment on the Paper.

11.2 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I am very glad to hear the line that the right hon. Gentleman has adopted this evening, because it is a distinct improvement upon the line that he adopted last Thursday, when this matter was raised at Question Time and when he told the House, in reply to a question, that inasmuch as he was discussing the matter with the local authorities and there was nothing of controversy in the code, the opinion of the House need not be sought. I think it is clear that, important as associations of local authorities are—and I should be the last person to attempt to deprecate their influence in any way—this House must retain the final word with regard to the suitability or otherwise of any code that is proposed. I am not so very much concerned about the exact method or machinery, nor do I desire to see anything incorporated in the Bill that would lead to unnecessary delay, but I am very glad indeed to find that the right hon. Gentleman now recognises that this House of Commons has the last word in these matters.

11.4 p.m.

Mr. Foot

I hope that, while the right hon. Gentleman is considering the matter, he will consider the question of the method. There are two methods by which we can control an order of this kind. There is the class of orders which can be laid on the Table and which may be challenged within a certain period of time, and there is the other and rarer method by which the affirmative assent of the two Houses is necessary. This is a matter of very great importance. We are deciding by this code exactly what form of shelter and air-raid protection is to be provided for a very large number of persons, and I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that this would be an appropriate case for the adoption of the second method, requiring that the orders should receive the assent of the two Houses.

11.5 p.m.

Dr. Guest

I agree with the desirability of some form of control, but I want to emphasise a point that has been made—and I think the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys) made it by inference—that it is not only a question of control. There are a considerable number of Members on all sides of the Committee who have great experience of local government, and a considerable number who have some experience and knowledge of this new subject of Civil Defence. It will be a definite advantage from a practical point of view that the House should be consulted and should have the opportunity of making its own contribution in this way. That is not a question of control but of co-operation with the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Sandys

In view of the satisfactory assurances which my right hon. Friend has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

11.6 p.m.

Mr. Alexander

This Clause deals with the code of procedure to be followed by factory owners and occupiers. As far as one can see, the code which is in the Vote Office to-night is confined entirely to plans relating only to blast and splinter-proof shelters. Apparently there is to be no code for factory occupiers and owners for any other type of shelter. In view of the fact that there are a large number of people who are interested in the problem of what they are to provide in their factories, it would be an advantage if the Lord Privy Seal said at the earliest opportunity what procedure they will have to follow if they wish to adopt more adequate means of protection for their workers than those provided for in the code now issued. If there is to be a question of payment of Government grant for other types of shelter than that indicated in the code, there ought to be the earliest publicity to the owners as to how they are to proceed in order to get approval and payment of the grant.

11.8 p.m.

Sir J. Anderson

It is true that the code does not purport to do more than specify various types of shelter which could properly be described as splinter and blast-proof shelters. It is the deliberate intention of the Government that the legal obligation which under this Bill is to be placed upon owners and occupiers should be limited to the provision of such shelters. There is a Clause later in the Bill under which shelters going beyond what is specified in the code may be allowed to rank for grant, subject to the terms of regulations to be made with the consent of the Treasury. It is contemplated that in places where employers intend to provide more complete protection and to get a grant in respect of such shelters, they should make application beforehand. I do not say that the Department would not be prepared to give proper consideration to any case in which the employer might have gone ahead in anticipation of the enactment of provisions of this kind. If such an employer makes out a case and satisfies the Department that according to the standards laid down the case was one in which the provision of heavily protected shelter was reasonable, the application will not be turned down merely because it was not made before the work was taken in hand. That, I think, answers the question of the right hon. Gentleman. It does remain a fact that the policy of the Government is to secure as rapidly as possible in vulnerable areas the provision of this type of protection for the workers and the general public on the greatest possible scale.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. Ede

The statement just made by the right hon. Gentleman is a very considerable declaration of policy and indicates a very considerable shifting of opinion in the Government in the past three or four years. I understand that now the Government regards shelters as being adequate for the purpose if they afford protection from splinters and blast. Have they, therefore, reached the con- clusion that there is adequate protection from gas in the case of the workers through the provision of gas respirators, and that it is not necessary to make shelters gas proof? In the early days of this Parliament, before we were favoured with the presence of the right hon. Gentleman, the main efforts of the Government, if such feeble efforts as they then put forth could be termed main efforts, were directed towards scaring the public about gas. Now, I gather, that has vanished completely from their plans. I recollect that in those days I suggested that they were considerably over-emphasising that side of the problem.

Further, do they not regard protection from incendiary bombs as being an essential part of the protection? That was a second line they took up then. Are we to understand that they have received evidence as a result of recent hostilities in other countries that gas and incendiary bombs are less to be feared and less likely to affect these workers than high explosives? The right hon. Gentleman must realise that what he has said is a very important declaration of the views of the Government, and I think we are entitled to know whether they have now abandoned the views which were formerly expressed with great vehemence from that Box.

11.13 p.m.

Sir J. Anderson

The Government have not abandoned their policy of encouraging the provision of protection against gas or against incendiary bombs. As regards gas, I have myself expressed the view on behalf of the Government that the extent of the provision already made had probably rendered the risk of gas attack less likely than it would have been if such provision had not been made. I did not say "risk of damage"; I said "risk of attack"—a perfectly valid point. As regards incendiary bombs, what we are dealing with in this Part of the Bill is the protection of workers, and it has never, I think, been suggested that incendiary bombs presented very grave risks as far as life and limb are concerned. The question of incendiary bombs is of very great importance as regards the destruction of property, but here we are dealing with structural protection, involving capital expenditure, designed to give protection to workers. That is why there is insistence here on protection against injury from high explosive bombs. The policy of making reasonable provision against gas attacks and against incendiary bombs stands.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher

I do not think it is possible to allow the Minister to get away with such a statement, that incendiary bombs are not a menace to life and limb. As a matter of fact, as the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) pointed out earlier, gas and incendiary bombs were the whole stock-in-trade of the Minister. It was from this side that we had to insist upon protection against high explosive bombs, but nevertheless we take note of the fact that incendiary bombs, if they are dropped on a factory, can become a very great menace to life and limb; but it all depends upon the precautions that have been taken by the occupiers and the workers in the factory against the danger of fire that arises from incendiary bombs. It is obvious that in the minds of the Minister and of those with whom he is associated there is no wide conception of the problem of the safety of the workers and of the people generally. That is made clear by the so-called explanations that we have been given and that do not meet the case. We are told that some measures have been taken arising out of the menace of gas, and that if they had not been taken the situation would be the same as it was before the measures were taken. When we hear such an argument as that it makes one realise that there is no conception on the part of the Government, or even on the part of the Minister, of the terrible responsibilities which rest upon them in connection with this question.

Motion made, and Question, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again," put, and agreed to.— [Captain Margesson]

Committee report Progress; to sit again To-morrow.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

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