HC Deb 09 October 1946 vol 427 cc319-26

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. R J. Taylor.]

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Medlicott (Norfolk, Eastern)

I am very glad to have this opportunity, so early after the reassembly of the House, of raising a matter which is causing a great deal of concern in various parts of the country. I refer to the continued use in various districts of the air raid warning sirens. It is a matter of considerable surprise to many people that these sirens are in use at all, and we are entitled to ask how this has come about.

The siren was designed as a general warning, and one would imagine that its use would be confined to cases of threatened danger to the community as a whole, such as an impending flood or some other form of threat which needed communal action. In fact, these air raid sirens are being used merely for the purpose of summoning from their homes a handful of part-time firemen, with the result that, in the districts where this takes place, the entire community is startled in order that half a dozen or so men can be told there is a fire. During the war the wailing and moaning of the air raid sirens was universally regarded as one of our greatest inflictions. There was no single weapon of war which caused greater anxiety to certain classes of people, and in the raided areas everybody found the noise extremely disturbing. There were many people who said they found even the noise of the bombs less disturbing than that of the preliminary warnings which were given by these sirens.

The Minister in his reply will probably say that it is not the "warning" sound which is now given, but the "Raiders passed" signal. It seems to me an extraordinary situation that, fifteen months after the end of the war, we should have the "Raiders passed" signal inflicted on us. One hopes they have passed a long time ago. But it is the structure of the sirens to which one takes such exception and the curious mournful tone which this instrument was expressly designed to produce. In any event, it was quite common during the war for people to ask, "Was that the 'warning,' or was it the 'All clear?'" The instrument itself, no matter what sort of noise it made, brought great disquiet and anxiety. Those who are in charge of the National Fire Service claim that the siren is the most effective means of summoning the firemen to their duties, and I can well imagine that to be the case. But surely they have some duty to regard the effect upon the community at large? We can all think of expedients which would be extremely useful in our own businesses and affairs, if we were allowed to use them without any regard to their effect upon our fellow citizens.

This brings me to a point of principle. One wonders why it is that people in official positions are able to do things which, if done by private citizens, would be punishable. If any private citizen were to buy one of these sirens, and use it for his own purposes, he would very speedily be prosecuted for creating a public nuisance, or for doing an act calculated to provoke a breach of the peace. Why is it, then, that an official should be put in a position above the law, so that he is able to do something which would be regarded as a public nuisance if done by anyone else?

The fact is that on this quite simple matter the Home Office have fallen down very badly. The Home Secretary is noted, and rightly noted, for his judicial qualities, but it is only too often the case that people with judicial qualities have very little imagination, and very little imagination has been shown by the Home Secretary, in considering the effect of these sirens upon children, upon invalids, and upon not only the aged, but the middle aged. They all find these noises extremely disturbing. Secondly, the Home Secretary has shown an entire lack of imagination in not trying to devise a more effective and more reasonable method of summoning firemen to their duties. I ask the Minister who is to reply what real effort has been made to try to find some more sensible means of warning firemen that they are needed.

I wish to make two suggestions. These warnings can be individual in character— that is, by means of the telephone, or some other system giving direct contact with the firemen themselves. It has, I believe, been said by the Home Secretary. in answer to Questions in the House, that the telephone would not be adequate because the men would not always be at home. We know that quite well, but the average part-time fireman-is a steady type of man. He does not flit from home to home or from job to job. It would be perfectly feasible to connect him up by telephone, or by a simple electric bell, so that the message could be got to him in that way. During the night time he will generally be at home; during the day time he could be connected up at his work; and during the remaining three hours he is probably at the pictures or some other place of relaxation where he would not hear the siren anyhow. If however, the system of personal warning is rejected, there is surely some better method of general alarm.

In this connection I return to the point that it is the particular note of the siren which is found so objectionable. Surely it is possible for the Home Office to get into touch with those people who are experts in the matter of sound amplification and to do something better than they have done up to the present time. We live in an age when sound amplification has reached heights or depths previously undreamed of. It should be perfectly possible to devise a type of fire hooter which would have a new note altogether. I do not know why it is that in the past fire hooters have always been pitched in a mournful minor key. I hope that in future the possibility of setting these alarms in a major key will be considered. We do not want to make a song about our fires, but there is no reason why the firemen should not be sped on their way cheerfully. It would be very fitting if the hooter could be pitched in the note of B sharp.

The Home Secretary really must think again upon this matter. We hear a great deal about the inertia which settles down upon Whitehall, but this is the sort of problem which, during the war, the Departments used to settle every day before breakfast. Surely, it is not beyond the wit of those in authority to devise some better means. The Urban District Councils Association raised this matter and made a spirited protest at their conference in June. In Bognor there were cases where children dived frightened under the desks when they first heard this fire warning, and it was only after a six months' battle that the local authorities were able to get the siren removed. Medical officers of health have also testified as to the undesirable effects of this instrument in its present form.

I am also told by my colleagues that there are instances where sirens have been sold by the authorities to factories and are used in industry for various warning purposes. We realise that the Government have been extremely short of most commodities, but it seems to me a little hard that, in an endeavour to have something to sell, they should have to dispose of surplus air raid sirens. I do ask that the Home Secretary should devise some more practical method of bringing firemen to their duties and that in the meantime he should make an Order which would have the immediate effect of stopping the further use of this caterwauling instrument, which has such bitter memories for the people of this generation.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

I should like in a few words to stress what has already been said, because the hon. Gentleman who raised this matter has not exhausted all that there is to be said about the N.F.S. use of this instrument. It is not used merely for the purpose of summoning members from rural areas for part time brigades. In Liverpool the N.F.S. use it in the streets instead of the bell used formerly. The effect on people in areas like Liverpool, which were blitzed, is to startle and disturb. I have not heard the siren used for industrial purposes in the town of Luton where I live, although I am told that at least one firm is using it, but I did hear it used in Liverpool recently by an industrial firm. I hope that in view of the horror the sound has for our people and the awful effect it has upon them, because of their very unpleasant war recollections, the Home Secretary will take notice of what has been said tonight about the use of the siren, not only by the N.F.S. but for industrial purposes, and will see that it is abolished.

10.42 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Oliver)

Very appropriate questions have been asked to- night about the use of air raid sirens for the purposes of fire brigade work and I think it only right to say that there is general agreement about the desirability of changing the note which is sounded by these sirens I may say at once that the Home Office has been taking steps to see whether some improvement cannot be made in the present use of these instruments and a more pleasant sound emitted, so that war memories shall not be revived by their use. When the hon. Member for East Norfolk (Mr. Medlicott) says that he would like to know the reason why they are used I think I should tell him this. Since March, 1944, the full-time strength of the Fire Service has been reduced enormously and more than three-quarters of the firemen today are serving in a part-time capacity. It is unnecessary to tell an assembly of this description that part-time firemen work in all sorts of industries and in all sorts of places—on the roads, in the factories, in the workshops, and in the quarries—and, therefore, it is necessary when there are so many part-time firemen, to have an effective and efficient means of giving warning when a fire has broken out.

I have taken the trouble since the hon. Member put this matter down for discussion to ascertain the means whereby warning was given to part-time firemen, before the war. It appears that there were several devices in operation, one of them the siren; steam, compressed air, whistles or buzzers, call-bells in the part-time firemen's premises, maroons, ringing bells hanging at fire stations or other premises —including church bells—runners and telephone calls, and fire calls received centrally and passed on to the men. It is estimated from records at the Home Office that something like 200 or 300 sirens were in use before the war to call part-time firemen to fires. The sirens were taken over during the war, and were adapted for war purposes. Now they have reverted to their original purpose. It is therefore erroneous to say that sirens were not in operation before the war.

Mr. Medlicott

I did not, in fact, say that. I called attention to the effect of using the sirens in view of the changed circumstances brought about by the war, and I urged that we should get right away from them because of their association with air raids.

Mr. Oliver

I beg the hon. Member's pardon. We are desirous of changing the tone, and steps have been taken to achieve the object which the hon. Member has in mind. The air raid warning system is used because it is the most effective method we have for the purpose, but if we could find something equally effective we should be glad to do so. Call bells in the homes of part-time firemen are of limited application. The fireman is usually at work during the day, and in the evening he may go to an entertainment. The call bell can apply only when there is reasonable expectation that he will be at home, at something like 10.30 or 11 o'clock. There is as much objection to a maroon explosion as there is to a siren. The ringing of a bell in the old-fashioned way has been tried during the day, but it audibility is very limited. I am sure it would not fulfil the requirements, particularly having regard to the fact that when these fire services go back to the local authorities, the units of administration will be considerably-larger than they were before the war. The efficiency of the siren has, of course, been mentioned time and time again. I ought to read to the House a letter which appeared in the Press about the use of the siren for the purpose of calling part-time firemen together. It is headed "Well Done, N.F.S." and is as follows: Sir, May I congratulate the part-time National Fire Service in this area? I heard the wailing of the siren in the quiet village inn. Remembering the old saying that fire brigades need a week's notice to attend a fire. I took out my watch. To my amazement as the siren still wailed, eight men appeared at the fire appliance shed at the rear of the inn and were away in 2 minutes 35 seconds to the cottage fire. Good show, you men of the ladders. Yours sincerely, A CITY MAN. The House will see that the use of the siren, according to this correspondent, was effective in the sense that in 2 minutes 35 seconds the men had been gathered together and were off on their job. As to the point raised by the hon. Member for Kirkdale (Mr. Keenan) I shall have the matter looked into—

Mr. Keenan

We want it stopped.

Mr. Oliver

We will do our best. It is necessary first to make inquiries, but the sirens to which we were referring were fixtures. If any new ideas emerge when the speeches made tonight are examined, the House may rest assured that the Home Secretary will be only too glad to do what he can to make use of them. It would be useless for me to say that we can dispense with sirens, but in the use of sirens we shall try to make them as harmonious as possible.

Adjourned accordingly at Eight minutes to Eleven o'Clock.