HC Deb 06 February 1941 vol 368 cc1189-98

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Grimston.]

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke)

I desire to raise the question of the Fire Prevention Order which was issued when the House was in Recess. Let me make it clear that I do not raise it in any factious spirit. Anyone who has had the experience which we have had is bound to support steps to be taken to prevent a repetition. As a result of that experience, and having moved among the population that went through it and walked miles in order to survey the damage, I put several Questions down with a view to being as helpful as possible, so that we could profit by the experience and take steps to prevent a repetition of it. I now want to make some observations on behalf of the thousands of people who have rallied to the call that has been made, in the industrial areas in particular, and who have suffered as a result of the new fire tactics carried on by German aircraft. It is clear that if fire watchers are injured by enemy action, they are entitled to compensation under the Personal Injuries (Civilian) Scheme. What are their legal rights if they are injured while going to duty or while on duty, apart from being injured by enemy action? Suppose a man stumbles in the office or in the works yard or road, or is injured in any other way through no fault of his own, what is his legal position in regard to compensation?

This duty will mostly be carried on at night, and often men and women will be engaged on it from 6 at night until 6 in the morning, particularly during the winter. They will require additional tea, probably a supper which they would not otherwise have, and breakfast in the morning. I know one firm which is allowing fire watchers £3 10s. a week. On the other hand, one of the largest and best-known combines is allowing only 2s. a night. There ought to be snore equality of treatment, and it is the responsibility of the Ministry to advise employers, municipalities and other responsible authorities what is a reasonable amount to be allowed. At the same time, more regard ought to be paid to the welfare of the Auxiliary firemen than in the past. What does the Ministry consider is a reasonable allowance that should be made to enable watchers, particularly during the night, to have light refreshments and other essentials?

The Order states that before making any such arrangements, the occupier of the premises shall consult with the persons working at the premises or with their representatives. What action has been taken to see that this consultation takes place? At present very little consultation is taking place and this background of compulsory powers is being exploited by employers and others in order to enable them to instruct their workpeople what duties they must undertake. That ought not to be encouraged, and it is the duty of the Ministry to take early steps to see that the maximum of consultation takes place between the authorities and the representatives of the workpeople.

Have the responsible organisations in industry been consulted with regard to this Order? It is the practice of the Government that the maximum of consultation should take place between Government Departments and the responsible organisations before any change is brought about. Was that done in this case and, if not, why not? Have the responsible organisations been consulted since the Order was issued and, seeing that we are now calling upon people to accept the responsibility in connection with this, as soon as possible the Ministry ought to send out notices to all firms and municipalities indicating to all interested that the maximum amount of consultation shall take place between the authorities and the representatives of the people engaged in this kind of work in accordance with the Order. If the Ministry is not very careful, a great deal of uneasiness and unfairness is going to be brought about as a result of the publication of the Order. You may have a small office on this side of the road engaged upon important national work and perhaps fulfilling an important national service. It will probably employ a small number of specialists, and, because the Order has been issued in this way, this duty will fall upon them more heavily than it will in another office. An office on the other side of the road, which may have large resources, may be employing thousands of people. They will probably be employing the same kind of specialists, but, with their great resources, the responsibility for fire watching will not fall so heavily on their shoulders as upon those employed in the smaller office, though their work may be as important as the other.

Men engaged in the munitions industry will probably be going out to their employment at 6.30, and, as the result of overtime, many will be at work until 7 o'clock at night. On the other hand, the staff that goes to its work at 8.30 as often as not finishes at 5. How will that work out? It means that work-people who turn out at 6 o'clock or 6.30 in the morning will work the whole of that day and will carry out their fire-watching duties during the night. They will work the whole of the next day as well, with the result that they will be away from their homes for two days and one night. Although people are ready to play their part, the result of working under these conditions will be that the energies of the men will be sapped to such an extent that production will be affected. I know of one large place where incendiaries were rained down, where, because firms were carrying out their legal obligations by providing fire watchers, the fires were quickly being got under control. At this point two special German aeroplanes dived down and machine-gunned those putting out the fires, with the result that the men had to run for their lives and the fires caught hold, with serious consequences. Therefore it should be the responsibility of the Minister to get into touch with the Secretary of State for War and the Secretary of State for Air with a view to seeing that Bofors guns, or similar guns, are installed on important buildings, so that those engaged on putting out fires can be safeguarded and can carry out their duties without fear of being machine-gunned.

I know of no more forcible way of bringing home my argument than by quoting from an article which appeared in the "Manchester Guardian." The article states: It is wise to try to organise adequate fire watching on the voluntary principle. Full-blown compulsion will be difficult to apply and would consume the administrative energy of officials who already have their hands full. I wish to ask the Minister whether we are not running the danger of making local authorities top-heavy. Should not we be harnessing the wonderful spirit which exists in this country, and let that spirit find expression through channels of voluntary organisation? In this case public-spirited men and women could be found who would organise themselves and work "on their own." The article continues by stating that it is a waste of local government time waiting for the Administration to organise something which they could arrange themselves and that that was perhaps even more dangerous to the national effort than the wasting of valuable raw materials. The article complains that it is unfortunate that the Ministry of Home Security has not yet sent a guide which will set the standard for the scheme required. I should like to ask the Minister whether that guide has been sent. I read a guide which had been sent out by the Chief Constable of Stoke. It was an admirable guide, but this matter should be a national responsibility. Finally, the article stated that an appeal has been made for volunteers to watch over them- selves and suggested that large firms with a superabundance of hands might help to guard neighbouring unprotected buildings.

When I first raised this question, I furnished the Parliamentary Secretary with the points that I was going to make. Therefore the Ministry knew the points which I proposed to raise. One point was that fire watchers should be provided as soon as possible with steel helmets. Imagine my surprise when I heard and saw what was arranged, that a Private Notice Question was put here and the way in which it was answered, and all that that means. I do not want to pursue the matter. I have been brought up in a different school from that, in which no big employer would have done a thing like that. If we are to maintain the arrangements which are supposed to be in practice in this House, and we are to be encouraged to pursue the line that we have followed up to now, that kind of thing ought not to take place. I do not want to say any more about it. Fire watchers should be provided with all equipment as soon as possible. The spirit of the men and women who are volunteering is wonderful, and the only way we can be worthy of our responsibility to them is to see that they are provided with all the necessary equipment as soon as possible.

What is the position of the problem of the locked buildings? What is the duty of the fire watchers in cases where they find that buildings are locked? I suggest without any hesitation whatever that it should be made compulsory for all premises to be easily accessible in case of need. Fire-fighting groups are being set up in all areas. The response has been remarkable, and it is for those people that I am speaking. I intended to develop these remarks, but I am limited for time, so I shall conclude by mentioning a particular area. There is no harm in doing so, because it has already been broadcast. The Ministry of Information announced, after the Manchester and Salford experience, that the people responsible for certain buildings had apparently neglected their legal obligation to provide an efficient service of fire watchers. Why have steps not been taken under the previous Order to see that the people responsible fulfilled their legal obligation? Whose duty was it to see that the Order was observed? What action has been taken with the responsible people and those who did not prepare? We all suffer as a result of that neglect, and the House is entitled to an answer to my questions.

My final point is that it should be the duty of the Regional Commissioner of the area to attend the City Council meeting in order to profit from that experience. None of us know it all, particularly in these times, and we can learn something from one another and profit as a result of attending meetings of that kind. When I raised this matter in the House, the Home Secretary replied by saying that the Commissioner may have been too busy. My reply to that is that very few people are more busy in this country than Cabinet Ministers, and yet they have to attend regular meetings of this House. Most of us would agree that Cabinet Ministers profit by being in contact with this House and by our Debates. Their efforts are often stimulated by our discussions. If Cabinet Ministers can attend meetings of this House, it is not asking too much that the Regional Commissioner should attend meetings of the City Council.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Home Security (Mr. Mabane)

I fully appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Member has raised this brief Debate. He has not brought forward his points in any factious spirit, and what he has said reflects the real, practical difficulties which, not unnaturally, have arisen in connection with the operation of Orders so novel and so far-reaching as the Fire Prevention Orders—Orders in which speed is so clearly the essence of the contract. I can assure the House—and indeed I would like to tell hon. Members—how hard the officials of the Department, always hard-pressed, have worked to launch this scheme, the object of which is to safeguard us from the ordeal by fire which apparently the enemy is determined to press upon us. It has needed day-and-night work to produce these Orders with the speed with which they have been got out. But at the same time it was quite clear to us that there were likely to be gaps in these Orders, that practical difficulties would arise in their operation, and that we should have to deal with these difficulties as they arose. Difficulties are always easy to find, and it is our belief that the people of this country—the people concerned with these Orders—will not look for difficulties, but that they will set about the creation of the fire-prevention organisation with spirit and determination. If they do that, I am certain that in many cases they will find the job done, and well done, before they come to the difficulties. Already there is much evidence that that has been the case. Business firms and ordinary residents in suburban areas are providing these parties, and almost all the letters which come to the Department are imbued with the spirit of getting on and not holding back. I think it is in that spirit that the hon. Member has raised this Debate.

It is often asked why the Orders were not issued earlier. I should like to remind the House that, as has often been said before, the enemy will condition his attack to our defence. One method of attack is tried, and the defence overcomes that form of attack. Then there is another form of attack, and so on. War, as Debate in this House should be, is a matter of cut and thrust, and it is always difficult, and sometimes impossible, to predict what form of attack will come next. Surely, on the whole, it is more wise to provide ourselves with defence against the attack which is being used against us at the moment, than to provide ourselves with defence against some attack which we think might come upon us in the future. The incendiary danger has always been realised. Under the Civil Defence Act there were, and are, obligations upon employers. It was realised that these obligations left gaps. Last September the Fire Watchers Order was promulgated, and now the obligation has been made universal. The hon. Member asked why the Fire Watchers Order was not in all cases carried out. There were real practical difficulties. In many cases it was impossible for employers to get the men they wanted to do the jobs.

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay (Kilmarnock)

Could the hon. Gentleman say whose responsibility it is, supposing employers cannot find the men?

Mr. Mabane

It is the responsibility of the local authority.

Mr. Lindsay

Not the regional commissioner?

Mr. Mabane

No, the local authority. Now we have this universal obligation which we have imposed upon the country in the speediest possible form. It is interesting to recognise that in ordinary times these new measures would have needed a Bill, and the Bill would doubtless have been one of major importance. Since speed was the essence of the contract, we proceeded by the speediest method which the House has permitted us to employ.

Now I come to a specific point which the hon. Member raised, namely, why consultation did not take place with those organisations which are often consulted in these matters? Had consultation taken place there would have been delay. Also, this matter does not affect merely the ordinary organisations of employers and employés. It affects the whole of the country, and all are equally entitled to be consulted. Had the Department set about consulting everybody, then the practical difficulties would really have been overwhelming. If there was any body which ought to have been consulted, that body was this Assembly, the Mother of Parliaments.

Another question the hon. Member asked related to compensation. He quite rightly said that people who are in these fire parties will come under the ordinary Personal Injuries (Civilians) Scheme and he asked what would happen if they were injured while on duty but not through enemy action, or what would happen if they were injured while on duty at night if no alert had sounded. The answer, I am glad to say, is quite simple: it is that they are fully covered. If they are members of enrolled fire parties they will come within the Personal Injuries (Civilians) Scheme and will be covered in the way in which he wishes them to be covered.

The hon. Member then asked what would be a reasonable allowance to be made for food, etc., for those doing duty. I would remind him that under these Orders no person is entitled to any remuneration at all in regard to fire prevention duties. It is a matter in which we are all doing our bit. I would remind him, too, of the significance in this respect of the provision in the Order to which he referred with regard to consultation. It is to the effect that before making any arrangements the occupier of the premises shall consult with the persons working at the premises or with their representatives. Surely by this form of consultation a friendly arrangement will be arrived at in almost all cases that will deal satisfactorily with these matters of refreshment and so on. He also asked what steps were being taken if such consultations did not take place. I would like to say first of all that the Order is very fresh and that we have yet had no word that the consultations are not taking place. If they were not, I should have thought that the representatives of those who ought to have been consulted would soon have made their voices heard. Certainly the appropriate Department will have something to say on this matter. In some cases the Admiralty, the Ministry of Supply, and the Ministry of Aircraft Production are responsible for the arrangements, while in others it is the Ministry of Labour. I am quite certain that those Departments will make it their business to see that the consultations intended under the Order are carried out. Certainly, it is reasonable that occupiers should provide suitable sleeping accommodation and so on, but it is the intention that this fire prevention service should be regarded as an unpaid service, just like the service which has been so devotedly rendered by many wardens and others in the ordinary Civil Defence services who have had no remuneration at all throughout a long period.

I am sorry that the hon. Member seems to think he has been treated with discourtesy by me or by someone else on the matter of supplies of steel helmets, but I should like to say that there was no connection between his Notice of Motion and the Answer given to the Question to-day. At any rate, he will agree that the answer fully meets the points he wished to raise. It is not considered necessary that these fire parties should be provided with service or civilian duty respirators. The provision of other equipment, stirrup pumps, etc., is being made as rapidly as possible, and I am glad to say that preparations are well ahead. Clearly the distribution of supplies will have to be arranged according to a system of priorities, and not all areas will get their supplies at the same time.

I think what I have said deals with most of the major difficulties raised by the hon. Member. He spoke of unfairness, and said that the obligations bore more heavily on some than on others. All I can say is that, of course, it will do so. That is bound to happen. He also asked how buildings could be entered if locked. The members of these parties, like members of the Civil Defence services, will have power to break in if there is a fire. That deals with the specific points the hon. Member has raised, but I should like in a final word to urge that everyone concerned should set about this matter with a will, not looking for difficulties, but employing practical common sense, and to give an assurance that we in the Department are doing our best to overcome the various difficulties as they arise.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.