HC Deb 12 June 1947 vol 438 cc1392-404

(1) Every fire authority (other than the London County Council) which is the council of a county shall constitute a fire brigade committee in accordance with the following provisions of this Section, and—

  1. (a) shall refer to the fire brigade committee for report and recommendation all matters relating to the authority's functions under this Act, except such matters as the authority may with the approval of the Secretary of State determine, and shall unless in their opinion the case is urgent receive and consider the report of the committee with respect to any matters referred to the committee before taking action in relation to those matters;
  2. (b) may delegate to the fire brigade committee, either with or without conditions or restrictions, any of the authority's functions under this Act other than powers of raising a rate or borrowing money.

(2) Until the coming into force in accordance with the provisions of this Act of a scheme (hereafter in this Act referred to as a "management scheme") determining the constitution of a fire brigade committee under this Section, the constitution thereof shall be such as may be determined by the fire authority, and thereafter such as may be determined by such a scheme.

(3) As soon as may be after the appointed day every such fire authority as aforesaid shall make a management scheme in accordance with the provisions in that behalf of the First Schedule to this Act.

(4) A management scheme shall provide for the appointment to a fire brigade committee by the fire authority of such number of members of that authority as may be specified in the scheme, and for the appointment to the committee by or on behalf of councils of county districts comprised in the area of the fire authority of such less number of persons representing those councils as may be so specified.

(5) A management scheme shall be submitted to the Secretary of State, and shall come into force when approved by him, either as submitted or subject to such modifications as he may direct.

(6) A management scheme may be varied by a subsequent scheme made in the like manner and subject to the like provisions as the scheme varied.

(7) If as respects the area of any fire authority such as is mentioned in Subsection (1) of this Section—

  1. (a) before the expiration of three months from the appointed day, or such later date as the Secretary of State may in special circumstances allow, no management scheme has been submitted to the Secretary of State, or
  2. (b) at any time it appears to the Secretary of State, whether on the representations of the council of any county district comprised in the area of the fire authority or otherwise, that the management scheme in force is not satisfactory,
the Secretary of State may, after affording to the fire authority and to every such council as aforesaid an opportunity of making representations to him, make a scheme.

(8) The provisions of Subsections (4), (6) and (7) of this Section shall apply to a scheme made under the said Subsection (7) as if it were a management scheme submitted to and approved by the Secretary of State.

(9) The foregoing provisions of this Section shall, subject to the provisions of the Second Schedule to this Act, apply to a fire authority—

  1. (a) which is constituted by a combination scheme,
  2. (b) the area of which includes one or more counties, other than the County of London, as they apply to such authorities as are mentioned in Subsection (1) of this Section.—[Mr. Ede.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Ede

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

Hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee will know that we gave a considerable amount of time in the early discussion to the problems that would arise in local government when this Bill became law. That was a reflex of what happened in the House on Second Reading, when there were two main objections to this Bill. The first objection was the local authority set-up; and the second, the question of the size of the grant. We were unable to pursue the question of the grant in Standing Committee, so that we were able to concentrate with a single mind on the problem of local government. In the Second Reading Debate I said that there was one thing I would not do, namely, to agree to the appointment by district councils of members of the committee of the county councils. Now, that chance remark of mine caused the most tremendous enthusiasm to be aroused among county district councils for exactly that solution to the problem. That enthusiasm became so great that it was obvious that I was going to give the greatest pleasure to the greatest number by retracting from the position that I adopted in the House; and I decided, in these sad times, that it was as well to make somebody happy if one could. This new Clause does what, I frankly confess, I said I would not do on Second Reading.

At the third sitting of the Standing Committee the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston) moved an Amendment—on which we had a long and good-tempered discussion—proposing to give power to county councils to delegate their functions to county district councils. That Amendment was defeated, after a long and friendly discussion, by 25 votes to 13. In that Debate I indicated my intention to seek a solution of the problem in the following two directions: By giving the county districts an appropriate representation on county fire brigade committees; and by giving the county districts an opportunity of making representations on schemes proposed by county councils for the establishment of fire brigades. Subsequently I held a conference with representatives of the County Councils' Association, the Association of Municipal Corporations, the Urban District Councils Association and the Rural District Councils Association, at which almost complete agreement was reached on the details of a plan on the above lines. As far as the second part was concerned, I was able to make the necessary Amendments upstairs, because we had not reached that part of the Bill when my decision was made. Clause 20 and the First and Second Schedules show how that has been carried out. I could not deal upstairs with the representation of county districts on county fire brigade committees, because an involved Amendment to Clause 4 could not be moved in view of the stage we had reached. I propose to put that matter right in this new Clause.

The substance of the new Clause is contained in Subsections (4) and (5). They provide that county councils shall submit for approval by the Secretary of State schemes to secure representation of district councils on the county fire brigade committees, subject to the county councils retaining the majority of members on the committees. County councils dissent from two points in this matter. In the first place, they think that the representatives of the district councils should be nominated but not appointed. My own view is that a county district council is a responsible body, and one must expect it, when it chooses people to serve on a county committee, to choose a fit and proper person. I do not think it should be left to the county council to have the right to say that they do not like one of the nominees, and decline to have him in the county hall on one of their committees. I do not think they should have the right to say, "Will you please think again and send us along another nominee." I am bound to say that the power to reject a nomination would hardly ever be used, but the county district councils set considerable store on the power of appointing, and as their nominees would undoubtedly be appointed, it would be very foolish to quarrel over words when we have got so near to agreement.

Their second objection was that they thought that county councils should have a two-thirds majority on the committee. I want to make it clear that the Bill does not require that the difference between the number of members appointed by the county councils and the number appointed by the district councils shall be a difference of only one. There will be some counties where there are substantial numbers of important county district councils, in which case it may be desirable that the proportion shall be very high. There may be other counties where the number of county district councils is small, and it may well be that the proportion representing district councils will be low. As we found on one of the first Amendments we discussed today, it is very difficult to lay down a hard and fast rule, when dealing with the structure of local government, in a country where the population is so unevenly spread, and the size and importance of local government authorities are so different. I told the conference, therefore, that I proposed to give to county district councils the power to appoint, and that the maximum number of members to be appointed under any scheme would be one fewer than half the whole of the committee.

It will be for each county to prepare its own scheme in the matter. I can imagine this kind of thing happening, although this is not to be taken as a uniform pattern. There will be some large and important district councils, entitled to have at least one direct representative on the Committee; there will be smaller county district councils which will have to be grouped into "electoral colleges," for want of a better word, having the right to choose two, three or four members to represent them on the county committee. A scheme will have to be considered by each county council in the light of the circumstances in their area. I have no doubt that with the good will which prevailed at the conference, these schemes can be brought into operation without very much difficulty.

There are a few other matters on this new Clause to which I ought to draw attention. The provision for the appointment of district council representatives on county fire brigade committees is not to come into operation until after the appointed day. The procedure required by Clause 20 for the settlement of establishment schemes leaves little margin of time, if the work is to be done before 1st April, 1948. The following steps will have to be taken before establishment schemes can be settled. Firstly, the county council will have to appoint a fire brigade committee and instruct it to provide an establishment scheme. Second, that Committee will have to circulate a draft scheme to all the district councils, giving them one month in which to submit their representations. Third, the fire brigade committee will have to consider any representations received from district councils, and then submit them, with final recommendations, to the county council. The county council will have to obtain a report from its finance committee, because a county council cannot incur expenditure of more than £50 unless the finance committee submits the estimate. Lastly, the county council will have to submit the scheme to the Secretary of State for approval by 1st January, 1948. The establishment schemes can come into operation on 1st, April, which I hope will be the appointed day. It is quite clear that if that programme is carried out, it will not be possible to constitute the fire brigade committees contemplated under this Clause.

Mr. Grimston

It will be necessary for the county councils to constitute fire brigade committees at once to get on with the job. Will they include members of the county district councils?

Mr. Ede

I have tried to explain that. I think we can assume that this Bill will become law before 1st August. I need not say anything about the Government's legislative programme, but we hope that this Bill will cause no controversy after it has been considered today. I think that that is a reasonable assumption. If these establishment schemes are to be got through, and the negotiations satisfactorily conducted, I am sure that it would not be possible to wait until the appointment of district council representatives on the committees had time to operate. August and the early part of September is not a very busy period usually in 'local government circles. The provisions as to fire brigade committees will apply also in the case of any combined area which includes the administrative county, and an Amendment which I shall propose, in page 40, line 41, will enable the necessary provisions to be made before the appointed day by way of amendment to a combination scheme after the appointed day.

6.0 p.m.

I would direct the attention of the House to the provision of Subsection (7), which allows direct action to be taken by the Secretary of State, although I think it improbable that any necessity will arise for the exercise of these powers. When the Bill was before us on Second Reading the problem of the future local government of the fire services appeared likely to cause great controversy, and very considerable heartburning, no matter what solution might ultimately be found. I have been much impressed by the cordial spirit in which the county representatives and county district representatives have approached this matter, and I commend this Clause to the House in the full knowledge that all the associations concerned are hoping to work it to their mutual advantage, for the benefit of the service and the community which the service exists to serve.

Mr. Grimston

As the right hon. Gentleman has said, there were two main points of controversy when the Bill was introduced, and he has exhibited strength in respect of both of them. He tied the Financial Resolution up so tightly that there was no more to be said about that, and on the question of delegation and bringing in the county district councils he has changed his mind. This Clause is part of the general framework, the other part of which was introduced in Committee, whereby county district councils are brought into the making of the schemes and the administration of them afterwards. In his discussions with representatives of the various local authorities, the right hon. Gentleman arrived at a scheme which met the objections which we and they had when the Bill was introduced. It was feared that many local authorities who had run their fire services well in the past would not get them back at all, and that a great deal of prestige, local pride, and efficiency would be lost in this new setup. Through the introduction of a new Clause and Schedule in Committee, and the introduction of this new Clause now, that position has been covered. The associations of local government bodies are, I think, agreeable to the set-up of the Bill, and I would like to express our appreciation of the way in which the Home Secretary has handled this matter.

Mr. Maclay (Montrose Burghs)

I hate to raise a point which might not be so friendly and delightful as what we have just heard, but I would like to know whether this Clause is to apply to Scotland? I do not think it will, but I cannot find, anywhere on the Order Paper, a consequential Amendment which would mean that it would not apply to Scotland.

Mr. McLean Watson (Dunfermline Burghs)

I wish to raise the same point. My right hon. Friend will remember that several times in Committee I drew attention to the difference between the local government system in Scotland and that in England. While the district councils in England seem to be bodies of some consequence, they are bodies of no consequence in Scotland. I hope it will be made clear, before we part with this Clause, whether it applies to Scotland. I cannot think that it does. The Home Secretary has moved a new Clause to meet representations which were made to him about English conditions, but the provisions laid down in the Clause do not fit in with Scottish conditions.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Buchanan)

Perhaps I may intervene to clear up this point. We have an Amendment down, in the name of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, in page 37, line 34, at the end, to insert: (c) section (Fire brigade committees in counties), which, if carried, will mean that the new Clause will not apply to Scotland.

Mr. Maclay

That Amendment is such a long way after the new Clause that I could not find it.

Mr. S. Marshall

I would like to add my congratulations to the Minister. As one who is still engaged in county and local government, I would point out that I was concerned, when the Bill was first introduced, at the entire absence of any power of delegation to the county district authorities. I am a great believer in the delegation of powers by a county council to its district authorities, wherever it can, but I could not see how such powers might be delegated, because it became obvious that effective fire services could only be carried out by a central authority. I am, therefore, glad that a way has been found by which district authorities will have some representation, or some say, in the question of carrying on the fire services in their counties. For many years, it has been one of the great privileges of parish, district, and borough councils to give a great deal of attention to their fire brigades and fire services. This work has formed a very large and interesting part of local government. There was dismay at the thought that these authorities might lose all their privileges, and the solution which the Minister has found will be gratifying to them, because they will still have a finger in the pie.

Mr. Sparks (Acton)

I am glad that my right hon. Friend has been able to retract somewhat from his previous position on this question of bringing county district councils into the scheme of responsibility for the fire brigade services. I think that in putting down this new Clause he has acted very wisely. I need not remind the House that it is the local ratepayers Who will have to provide the finance for the county councils in the administration of their fire brigade services. I believe that they have an important part to play in the development of those services in their own localities, as well as in the larger geographical area of the county. Having gone so far, will he go a step further? As I understand the Clause, the idea is to set up a fire brigade committee which will be responsible for the administration of the fire services for the whole of a county area. My right hon. Friend said that in deciding upon the representation upon that Committee of the county district councils it would not be possible owing to the differing nature of those councils to provide a representative from each county district, and some of the county districts would have to be brought together for the purpose of electing one—

Mr. Ede

Or more.

Mr. Sparks

—to the county fire brigade committee. Is it possible for the county fire brigade committee to have powers to delegate certain functions of a local character to sub-committees formed on a geographical area basis? In some cases the county is a very large geographical unit, and this would involve a considerable amount of time in travelling for county district representatives. In the Town and Country Planning Bill that principle has been embodied, and I think that it would be conducive to the maximum of interest and efficiency if in cases where the county was a large geographical area there could be sub-committees of the county fire brigade committee to which each county district within that area could send one representative, each of these geographical sub-committees being responsible to the county fire brigade committee.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will find it possible to look at that point. I think that we should try to bring the county district councils, however small, into this general scheme. There is a tendency to get away from close contact with a locality and the local ratepayers of that locality. We need to knit the county district councils into the functions not only of the fire brigade service, and I think that this will help to bring the county and district councils together and provide maximum efficiency in the organisations which we propose to set up to provide fire fighting services.

Mr. D. Jones

I think that it is only right that as one of the people who offered some criticism of this Bill on Second Reading, I should join in congratulating my right hon. Friend on having devised this method The Home Secretary can be trusted at all times to find an ingenious way of changing his mind. After all, it is the Home Secretary's job to make the maximum number of people happy. By this Clause the county district councils are enabled to take part in the administration of the fire brigade affairs of a county, and for that, I believe, they will be grateful. The scheme which the Home Secretary has propounded is certainly an improvement on a former scheme with which he was actively associated. He has learned by experience from a previous Act of Parliament. Unfortunately, there are county councils and county councils in England and Wales. Consequently the view expressed by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. S. Marshall) does not find expression in a large number of counties in England and Wares. I agree with the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks) that the fire brigade affairs are, after all, domestic affairs. They are matters which concern the people of the district, and the more interest one can engender into the management of fire brigade affairs the greater will be the efficiency of the fire brigade as a whole.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Pargiter (Spelthorne)

An important part of the new Clause which will be most satisfactory to local authorities is, I think, the very definite right which it gives them to make representation to the Home Secretary with regard to the preparation of the scheme. I do not envisage very much trouble, after the experience I have had of fire brigade authorities, in dealing with matters of administration. The question of dealing with fires is technically one for the officers and men concerned, and it is the duty of the authority to see that they are properly trained for that purpose. There is one question, however, on which I think there will be some heart burning. It is important that the county districts should be able to make representations to the Home Secretary because many of them will be losing their fire stations as the result of the new set-up. In the interests of economy and in view of the present type of fire appliances for which the ratepayers have to pay, it is highly important that they should have the most effective economic system of fire fighting consistent with safety. For that reason, I think it is very wise, in view of the "little breezes" which I am sure will come along when the proposals of the fire brigade authorities are submitted to the Home Secretary, that there should be an outlet on the part of the county districts, and if the fire authority has erred in any way against the interests of any county district, they should be able to make the appropriate and necessary amendments to the scheme as submitted.

With regard to the question of representation by local authorities, it is obvious that there would have to be some grouping. In a county like mine with 26 local authorities, if there was one representative of each, the fire brigade committee would consist of 52 members which, of course, would be unwieldy and quite unnecessary. In addition, if that was conceded one could imagine some of the larger boroughs saying that if a smaller district was to have one representative, they should have two, and there would be no limit to the size of the committee. I do not consider that in any of the built-up areas, at any rate, a case could be made out for area committees for the purpose of administration. It is a single job, and if you take the experience of London as a built-up area, there has not been found any need at all, in what was probably the most efficient fire brigade in the world, to have anything other than a central committee for the purposes of management.

Therefore, I feel that this Clause goes as far as may reasonably be expected in order to meet the two opposing points of view. We ought to remember that had it not been for the promise that was made that fire brigades would go back to the local authorities, it is doubtful whether we should have had this Bill before us at all. It may be taken that a lot of people have their minds made up about the type of organisation for fire fighting services, and it is because of that promise, and because of the need for compromise, that we have the Bill and also the provision for the additional representation under this Clause, which I am satisfied will meet all reasonable points of view.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I was not a Member of the Committee on this Bill and I do not, therefore, know whether the point I want to raise has been covered. I am afraid I missed the opening remarks of the Home Secretary when he was moving this new Clause, but there is one point on which I am in some confusion. The right hon. Gentleman will see that in this new Clause there is a mention of a "management scheme," and a "management scheme" is referred to the whole way through. In Subsection (3) we are referred to the First Schedule, which I understand refers to an "establishment scheme" with reference to Clause 20, where again the phrase "establishment scheme" is used. I wondered whether the differentiation between the two phrases was deliberate, or whether they should not be the same?

Mr. Richards (Wrexham)

The introduction of this Clause has given universal satisfaction to the people who have been discussing the matter upstairs, but there is one point I should like to have cleared up. The Home Secretary has recognised the claims of the county district authorities to be represented along with the county councils on the fire brigade committee, which I think is all to the good. I had in mind, however, a very large rural district, and a very populous one, at the centre of which is a large borough where, in former days, they had a very efficient fire brigade. Is there to be any representation for a borough of that kind on the fire brigade committee? Hitherto the borough provided fire services for the whole of this rural area, which is now to be represented, along with the county, in the new set-up, and they want to know if they are to be represented in any way.

Mr. Ede

I should like to thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for the way in which they have received this new Clause, and to express my thanks also to the representatives of the local authorities for the way in which, when they realised that this Bill was really to be promoted and was to go through, they got together and reached a mutually satisfactory solution. There are really only two points with which I need deal now, the first being that made by the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke). If he will look at the Amendment Paper he will see at the foot of page 3728 some Amendments to page 40 to insert the words "and management schemes." That I think answers the point he raised.

With regard to the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Mr. Richards), in future, in the county of which he represents a part, the fire authority will be the county council, which will be responsible for the whole of the county. This new Clause provides that when they are constituting their final fire brigade committee they shall have regard to the various county district councils and arrange for them to be represented on the fire brigade committee, and I have no doubt that the part which gives its name to his constituency, representing, as of course it does, a substantial slice of the population and rateable value of the county, will get appropriate representation. The knowledge that their members can bring with regard to the way to deal with the surrounding rural area, which they had previously covered by arrangement with the rural districts or parish councils, will be brought to the county committee and placed at the disposal of that committee, which will in future be responsible for providing fire protection for Wrexham and for the parishes adjoining it, as well as for all the other parishes situated in the administrative county. The arrangement which the local authorities have finally accepted provides for bringing to the county fire brigade committee the very great experience of the men who have served on a borough fire committee which has undertaken the duty of affording protection to the surrounding areas.

Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill.