§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
The history of fire fighting in this country is very interesting, and I recollect that it was very fully explained to the House by Sir Samuel Hoare, now Lord Templewood, when he moved the Second Reading of a not dissimilar Bill from this in 1938. Therefore, I do not intend to deal very much with the history this afternoon, except with the glorious page in the history of fire fighting that was written during the recent war. I hope that in my remarks I may be able to pay some tribute to, the Fire Service which we are bringing to an end this afternoon by this Bill.
In the early days, fire fighting appears to have been confined either to the individual householder or to the insurance company with whom he had insured, and occasions were not unknown when one insurance company tried to prevent the fire brigade belonging to another from getting to a fire which was occurring on property insured with the second company. Most of us, I imagine, can recall the days when lathering horses were driven very rapidly, attached to a red fire engine with a great deal of brasswork, through the streets to the fire. There was a story at the school to which I went that, in the year before I went there, the art master, hearing the clanging of the fire bells, left the classroom and jumped from the corner of the street on to the fire engine, as he was the engineer of the local fire brigade. The class followed him. Two or three managed to get on to the engine, and the rest, faint but pursuing, reached the scene of the fire. It was the last occasion, I believe, on which there was a general fire call in the whole of the county of Surrey, and I recollect seeing horses being driven most recklessly and furiously by brigades that had come 10, 12 or 15 miles to be able to attend 1423 the fire. It was a "good" fire, in the language of firemen, but the place where it occurred has been restored, and is now the baronial mansion of the first Lord Beaverbrook. I am afraid that any other comments I might make would be outside the scope of the Bill. Then, we had the time when the horses were used by the municipality partly for scavenging duties and partly for fire duties, and I have seen the scavenger unharness his horse, mount it, and proceed at a furious speed to the fire station in order to harness it again.
Until 1938, the only local authority in this country which had the duty to provide a fire brigade, as apart from the power, was the London County Council. In 1938, with th imminent shadow of war over us, the Act of that year was passed, and established 1,668 fire authorities in Great Britain, of whom approximately 1,440 were in England and Wales. A few of the larger brigades, but only a few, trained recruits, but it was very rare for a brigade to provide organised instruction for the officers. In 1937–38, prior to the passing of the 1938 Act, the Auxiliary Fire Service was started, and in a number of areas a Women's Auxiliary Fire Service was commenced; and the training of the huge voluntary forces thus enlisted threw a heavy burden on the small corps of professional firemen, of whom there were fewer than 6,000 in the whole of England and Wales.
During the war, 700 firemen were killed on duty, 7,000 were injured, and in one raid alone on London 90 firemen gave their lives in an attempt to save the City and County of London from the destruction which the enemy sought to inflict. Among the 700 dead were 20 firewomen. I am sure the House would like to pay a tribute to the gallantry of these people who, in comparative obscurity, served the country and their locality to the end. Two George Crosses and 90 George Medals were awarded to members of the National Fire Service. One C.B.E., 27 M.B.E.s, 191 British Empire Medals, and 380 Commendations were also awarded. It became evident, early in the war, that if the fires caused by the enemy were to be effectively fought, there must be a much greater unity of control and power of direction in some central authority than had ever been the case before.
§ Mr. Ede
After all, Birmingham was saved from some of the worst catastrophes by the fact that people had the right to direct fire brigades to go to Birmingham, and strongly as I support local government, in time of war one had to accept the position that there should be a central authority which could say to a fire force commander that he must leave his area, denuding it of fire-fighting appliances, in order to deal with a catastrophe that had occurred sometimes over 100 miles away. Such places as Plymouth, Southampton, and others, which suffered very heavily indeed, would have suffered much worse but for the power of central direction and control.
My right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council recommended to his colleagues in the Government of the day, and carried through the House, a scheme of nationalisation which became operative on 18th August, 1941. The service became organised on a far more centralised basis than had ever been possible before, and was not merely of assistance in fighting fires, but in rendering other assistance to other services that were engaged in the war effort. I wonder whether it is realised that the caissons that were required for "Mulberry" were in many cases actually floated through the efforts of the National Fire Service. They were launched into rivers from their specially excavated docks, and the National Fire Service had the task of washing away with their water jets the mud bank separating those improvised docks from the river, and thus enabling these great concrete structures to be released and made available for transport.
I want to include in the tribute that I am paying not merely the whole-time members of the fire brigades, but the part-time people who, in their thousands, had undertaken certain duties and, when the war came, nobly and in the most self-sacrificing manner fulfilled those duties. I am sure their whole-time colleagues in the service would desire that they should be included in any gratitude that the House pays to the whole-time men. I hope the lessons we have learned will not be entirely lost. I hope, in the first place, that the magnificent work done by women in control rooms and in similar parts of the service will not be forgotten 1425 now that we have returned to peace, and that we shall not expect those duties to be performed by strong, ablebodied men who, in our present manpower shortage, if they are to be in the Fire Service, ought to be in the active rather than in the passive branch of the service. There is a tendency, I know, among some authorities to think there is no place for women even in the big fire brigades. My own view is that, for example, in the control room, and in looking after the welfare of the firemen when they are at a fire by bringing a mobile canteen along, there is ample room for women in the service.
I do not want to leave this part of the story which I have to tell this afternoon without mentioning by name two very stalwart servants of the State who have left an indelible mark in the history of the country and of the Fire Service through the way they helped in the organisation of the National Fire Service. The first is Sir Aylmer Firebrace, who was formerly the chief of the London County Council Fire Brigade, who became the Chief of the Fire Staff, and whose knowledge of firemen, quite apart from his knowledge of the fire fighting service, enabled him to weld this great force into the magnificent service that it became. He retired at the end of last month, and I am sure that all who have been associated with him in this service will wish him many long and happy years to recall the splendid service he rendered this country. The other is a former civil servant, Sir Arthur Dixon, a man who, inside the Home Office, has rendered great service to two important branches of public work. He is very largely responsible for the standards of the present Police Service. He has left his mark on that, and certainly, when it came to organising the National Fire Service and giving it its appropriate place in the Civil Defence Forces of the country, he brought to that task a loyalty and a tenacity that were beyond all praise. He also has retired. I had the great privilege, at the National Fire Service College, of presenting him with his portrait last year, and I know that he is held in great affection and esteem both by the Police and by the Fire Service of the country.
When this Service was taken over from the local authorities in 1941, a pledge was given in the name of the Government of the day that when the war was over it would be returned to local government. 1426 It is in fulfilment of that pledge that the Bill is being promoted today. [Interruption.] I did not give the pledge. I have only been called upon to fulfil it, and it is quite frequently easier to give pledges than it is to fulfil them. This Bill fulfils the pledge that was given, not merely by my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council, but also by Sir Donald Somervell, who was Home Secretary during the nine weeks' interregnum between the fall of the Coalition Government and the establishment of the present Government. I want, in the first place, to deal with the statements that were made by my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council when he met the local authorities on 12th May, 1941, in order to ask them to agree to the establishment of the National Fire Service—statements which he repeated in the House during his speech on the Second Reading of the Bill on 20th May, 1941. He said:It is the very definite intention of the Government that this is a war-time expedient only, produced by war conditions made necessary by a battle, an active fight that is going on day by day. It is certainly my very definite view that after the war the fire-fighting forces should again be a local authority service; that is to say, that they should not be permanently run by the State, but should again become a local authority service. It is only fair that that should be so. The brigades are taken over for a war-time purpose; and I do not think there is any reason why after the war they should not again become a local service, subject to the State then making provision for mobilisation on a national basis in the event of a new emergency."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th May, 1941; col. 371, c. 1429.]That was a statement made by my right hon. Friend the present Lord President of the Council, to the local authorities.
§ Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)
Will my right hon. Friend explain what body of local authorities it was?
§ Mr. Ede
I am coming to that. I am approaching this carefully because I know the doubts and hesitations there are—quite unworthily—in the minds of some of my hon. Friends.
On 30th June, 1943, my right hon. Friend was making a statement in this House, and he then said:Questions have been raised about the future of the N.F.S. after the war. I do not know what that will be. I frankly admit that I gave an absolute promise that the Brigades would go back to local government after the war. I did not say they would go back to the same authorities, but I said they would 1427 go back. I said that sincerely and categorically, and no other decision has yet been taken by His Majesty's Government. I am bound to say, in all fairness to the Committee—it is not I alone who say it, a good many other observers say it—the experience of the N.F.S. has taught us a great deal, and we must not be unwilling to think again, when we come towards the end of the war, as to what would be right to do in the national interest."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th June, 1943; Vol. 390, c. 1737–8.]It is quite clear that my right hon. Friend there made it quite plain that he did not regard himself as having given any pledge to return the fire service to the same authorities who had previously had it. And when he met the local authorities to commence the negotiations which have ended with the present Bill, after quoting the remarks he had made to them in 1941, he said:That statement is categorical and perfectly definite, and I do not quibble about it in any way. I said it and I meant it. My language was careful because I wanted to keep a free hand as to whether the Service went back to the local authorities from which it came, or whether it would go back to different local authorities, and, to be quite frank "—This is a statement made by my right hon. Friend to a conference of local authorities—what I bad in my mind was the possibility that it would go back to the counties and county boroughs.That statement was made in November, 1944, while the country was still at war.
My immediate predecessor in office, Sir Donald Somervell, sent a letter to the local authorities' associations on 28th June, 1945, and this is what he said, on behalf of the Government then in office:The Government have considered the views on the future of the Fire Service which have been expressed by the representatives of the local authorities, and have authorised me to continue the consultations on the footing that Parliament will not be asked to sanction the retention of the National Fire Service on a permanent footing against the express desire of the local authority associations to have the Service transferred to local authority control. They consider it, however, essential to frame the Service, in matters of organisation, equipment, training, size of units, etc., so as to take advantage of the experience gained during the war in the operation of the Fire Service over wide areas, and to secure the highest possible efficiency on the part of officers and men.It is quite clear that that did not mean handing back the Fire Service to a fire authority with the resources and capacity of the Borough of Montgomery, where a 1428 penny rate produces £12. It is clear that all who have studied this matter have come to the conclusion that we cannot re-erect 16,000 odd local fire authorities in this country, and the question, therefore, merely arises as to what are the suitable authorities to exercise this power.
§ Mr. Turner-Samuels
My right hon. Friend will agree that in regard to implementing the pledge, the question of power is important?
§ Mr. Ede
Yes, but let us deal with one thing at a time. My mind is not as subtle as that of my hon. and learned Friend. I find it difficult to keep one subject in my mind at one time. He is apparently able to juggle with at least two.
The Government had to consider whether they would use the present local government bodies, or whether they would establish some new form of local government authority to deal with this question of the Fire Service. I venture to say that it would be quite impossible to justify the creation of an ad hoc fire authority. If one tried to differentiate between one county district council and another, one would inevitably get landed in great difficulties as to where to draw the border line. I have had two Bills before the House, one under the Coalition Government, in which I dealt with education authorities, and another in this Government, where I had to deal with police authorities, and any effort to draw the line creates more anomalies than it solves.
§ Mr. Harold Roberts (Birmingham, Handsworth)
Would the right hon. Gentleman say whether, in the Police Bill, he attempted to draw the line?
§ Mr. Roberts
My question was whether the right hon. Gentleman attempted to do it in the Bill or in his own mind.
§ Mr. Ede
No, I do not say it was in that.
There is one other thing with which I want to deal before I come to the provisions of the Bill, and the powers that are conferred on the Secretary of State and the local authorities. No provision has previously been made in a Bill for the giving of a grant, and one thing on which the local authorities had been very keen was to secure a grant. I do not intend to go into the history of the negotiations under former Governments with regard to a grant. All I want to say on that matter is something which was said to me by Alderman Dale, of Stoke-on-Trent, when I said that we were to have counties and county boroughs as the authorities, and that I intended to approach the Treasury with regard to a grant. Alderman Dale said:Before we depart may I, as one of the representatives of the associations, thank you very much for a free, frank, open and forthright discussion. We welcome you to this office, and hope you will be very tolerant with us. If you persuade the Treasury to change its mind on the grant, yon will be the best Home Secretary we have ever had.In spite of that, and in spite of the fact that I am the first Home Secretary who has ever managed to get a grant out of the Treasury for this purpose, and have got them 25 per cent., I am afraid that some of these eulogies are not quite as vigorously expressed today as they were when the grant was only in very doubtful prospect. However, there is 25 per cent., and I hope that the local authorities will be able to make good use of it.
I wish now to deal with the structure of the Bill which I am putting before the House. I propose to repeal the whole of the Act of 1938, re-enacting such of it as may be required. I do that, quite frankly, because I dislike legislation by reference, which is sometimes involved where one takes an old Act and makes little refinements, here and there; it is almost impossible for the ordinary Member of the House to follow it, and he is reduced to relying on the guidance of my hon. and learned Friend the Member 1430 for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels). I, therefore, propose to repeal the Act of 1938, but most of its Sections reappear, suitably adjusted, in this Measure. I shall want regulations to deal with four main categories among the provisions. The first are those provided for in Clause 13, transitional provisions to arrange for a smooth handing over of the National Fire Service to the new local authorities. The second are the provisions for permanent standards of efficiency prescribed in Clause 1, for uniformity of hydrants and hydrant markings provided for in Clause 15 (6), and for standards of training, uniform and equipment set out in Clause 21. The third group consists of those dealing with the conditions of service and pay in Clause 18, procedure and qualifications for appointment in Clause 19, and for pensions in Clause 26. The fourth group consists of regulations to deal with the Exchequer grant, which is provided for in Clause 25.
The regulations under Clauses 1, 15, 19, 21 and 26 must be referred, in the first instance, to the Central Advisory Fire Council, under Clause 18, upon recommendation of, or with reference to, the negotiating machinery provided in that Clause, before I can place the regulations before this House. Regulations as to grant require the consent of the Treasury. The negotiations about the handing over of the National Fire Service to the new authorities are already taking place, and I would like to express my gratitude to the representatives of the associations for the way in which they are co-operating in this matter. All regulations are required, by Clause 35, to be submitted to Parliament. They can be annulled by a negative resolution.
As I have said, the main object of the Bill is to transfer the Fire Service from its present national direction and control to the counties and county boroughs. That is the effect of Clause 4. I hope to bring it into effect on 1st April, 1948. There are certain matters in the Bill where the provisions with regard to Scotland differ from those with regard to England. I will not venture on any exposition of the Scottish Clauses and arrangements. For instance, I understand that 1st April is not regarded in Scotland as an appropriate day on which to commence the new service. They choose 16th May, I understand. I inquired what particular saint's day it was, and I was told that it 1431 was the commencement of the Scots financial year. I pass no comment on it. It only proves how unwise it is for an Englishman ever to ask any questions about procedure under Scottish local government.
It is felt by some authorities—not, I think, by those who have taken the trouble to compare this Measure with the Measure of 1938—that the Secretary of State gets more power under this Bill than he had under the Act of 1938. I am sure that if hon. Members compare what the actual provisions were under the Act of 1938, and then study this Measure, they will find that there is no increase of power given to the Secretary of State except that he can withhold the grant whereas previously he had the power to take over all the powers of a fire authority if he did not like the way they were discharging their duties. Under this Bill, I have placed the Secretary of State under an obligation to consult one or other body, about every step that he takes that may have repercussions on the existence of a fire service or on the conditions of the authorities and of the men and women actually employed in the service. I was hoping that it would be possible for the associations representing the county councils and the county district councils to arrive at some agreed way in which the county district council could either advise or help the county council in the discharge of its duty. I was assured by the people who gaily started on the task of arranging such a provision, that they would be able to do it.
§ Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)
Is the right hon. Gentleman including non-county boroughs among county district councils?
§ Mr. Ede
Yes. I still hope that these authorities may be able, by getting together and considering the needs of the Service in modern conditions, to arrive at some arrangement which will enable the county district council to have its appropriate influence on the way in which a fire service is administered, while the Bill is going through. If, during the Committee and Report stages of the Bill, I can be assured that any arrangement that they have been able to reach will be workable, I shall be very happy to embody it in the Bill. I make that offer here and now. It has already been made privately to the associations concerned, 1432 and I will endeavour to see that it is implemented if such a scheme can be brought forward.
§ Mr. Benson (Chesterfield)
Assuming that the negotiations between the county councils and county district councils take rather longer than the passage of this Bill through the House, does that mean that there is no possibility of embodying such arrangements that might be come to, either by new legislation or by Orders? Could not the Home Secretary take power to put such arrangements into operation, if and when they are agreed upon, instead of having a time limit?
§ Mr. Ede
Yes, but I understood that my hon. Friend opposed capital punishment. Nobody is being hanged here. Let us face up to that. These people are not fire authorities at the moment, and I am asked in a time of great manpower shortage to hand this service back from a highly centralised form to a localised form. Having regard to the demands on manpower and the needs of a highly qualified technical service, I cannot hand this service back to 1,660 different local authorities. I am willing to do everything I can to ensure that local feeling shall be given an opportunity of expressing itself. I sincerely hope that, during the passage of this Bill through Parliament, it may be possible for the various associations representing the county councils and county district councils, whether they be the non-county boroughs, urban districts or rural districts, to come to an arrangement that will commend itself. It is not myself who must be satisfied; Parliament must be satisfied.
§ Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)
This is a matter of great importance. It must be my own fault, but I am not at all clear from what the right hon. Gentleman has said, what he has in mind. Is it contemplated that there may be some arrangement under which the county councils may delegate part of their powers and duties under this Bill to the smaller authorities—the county districts—or has he only in mind some special arrangement for the 1433 representation of these county districts upon the fire committees of the larger authorities?
§ Mr. Ede
No. I certainly would not contemplate representation of the smaller authority on the fire brigades committee of the larger authority, because that would lead to an unwieldy committee and would put people who had no responsibility for the finances in an executive position. I would not contemplate that, but I do not shut my mind to any other way that will satisfy the two groups of authorities—the county councils and the county district councils. I am willing to consider anything that they would like to bring forward, though I could not contemplate lacing representatives of the non-county boroughs on the fire brigades committees.
§ Mr. Lipson
If the Minister could indicate what part the non-county boroughs could usefully play, it might help the two bodies to come to some agreement.
§ Mr. Ede
I am tempted to say something on that which I will not say. What I will say is that I think that they should be members of an advisory committee, to whom the county council would have to have regard in framing a scheme to be submitted to me for consideration for the county as a whole. The advisory committee should continue in existence after the scheme has been framed to watch the working of it, to make recommendations to the county council with regard to improvements that might be effected, and generally to keep the county council informed of the views of the county districts within the county. I suggest that is a way in which the thing could best be done.
§ Mr. Benson
Does what the right hon. Gentleman has in mind exclude some arrangement similar to that in the Education Act with regard to delegation?
§ Mr. Ede
I do not think I ought to be asked to develop a Committee stage argument at this stage of the Bill. I hope I have indicated that my mind is quite reasonably open on this matter and that I am willing to consider any scheme. If the county councils and the county district councils could arrive at a scheme where delegation was possible, I would not mind looking at it. I do not think 1434 that it is a very hopeful line of approach, but that would not shut me off from considering it if they thought it was more hopeful than I do myself.
§ Mr. Burden (Sheffield, Park)
The Minister will remember the bitter experience of the county districts in relation to the Education Act and the various undertakings which were given. Would he indicate that in his view the county councils ought to be more forthcoming in their discussions with the districts in order to get some sort of arrangement?
§ Mr. Ede
No. I am not going to say that the county councils are the people who are at fault in this matter. It would be very wrong for me to Say at this stage that the recalcitrant party is A and not B. Really, I would ask the House not to expect me to develop a Committee stage detail. I am trying to avoid saying anything that would prejudice these authorities in their mutual approach and in their final approach to me.
Clauses 5 to 11 provide for the combination of two or more fire authorities. The fire authorities have been asking for guidance in this matter so far as England and Wales are concerned. I object to coming before the House—and I would object if I were not the Minister, to a Minister coming before the House—with cut and dried plans ready, and then attempting to get them through under general powers such as there are in these Clauses. I want the initiative for the combination to come from the local authorities themselves in the light of the practical difficulties which they have to face. The supervision of efficiency of the fire services by the Secretary of State is secured by Clauses 1, 2, 12, 20 and 21. These are modelled on the Act of 1938 so adapted as to secure direct access by the fire authorities to the Home Office instead of the interposition of a fire service commission, as was provided in the Act of 1938.
I am assured that this direct approach is preferred by the fire authorities and I have been very glad to be able to include this provision in the Bill. The only other important changes are to add first-aid, salvage, the giving of advice on fire prevention, the restriction of the spread of fires, and facilities for escape, to the functions of the fire authorities. We must get away from the position where a fire authority could stop its appliances on the 1435 boundary of its area, because it had not received a promise from the authority on the other side of a few dots that King Alfred the Great placed on the map. that they would defray the cost that might be incurred if the brigade went across.
In Clause 1 (3) my powers to prescribe the standards of efficiency are re-enacted. They include the safeguard obtained by the fire authorities in 1938 that authorities whose services reach the prescribed standard shall be deemed to have complied with the provisions of the Act.
§ Mr. Benn Levy (Eton and Slough)
Does the right hon. Gentleman say that Clause 20 had its counterpart in the 1938 Act?
§ Mr. Ede
I mentioned it because it is among the Clauses which enable me to secure the efficiency of the fire service. That was all I said about it at that stage. Clauses 2 and 12 are re-enacted in sub stance from the 1938 Act. Clause 2 deals with the fire which in its initial stages can be dealt with by the local brigade, but when the fire outgrows that brigade, aid can be obtained more quickly from an adjoining area than from the home area. Clause 12 deals with the case where for reasons of economy or geography it is better to have the fire attended from the beginning by the brigade from the area of the adjoining authority. For both these cases the charge will not depend upon the individual fire but upon the arrangement which has been made in respect of a continuing employment. The conditions of service are dealt with in Clause 18 which carries out a pledge in the announcement I made to the House on 21st March, 1946, that the Measure would deal with conditions of service as well as with efficiency and that there should be substantial uniformity throughout Great Britain—
§ Mr. Turner-Samuels
Can the right hon. Gentleman say where the provisions of Clause 18 are to be found in the 1938 Act?
§ Mr. Ede
Really, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, this is not the Committee stage of the Bill. I would ask my hon. Friends to realise that on the Second Reading we deal with the general principles in the Measure. I do not want to be lured unduly into interesting details, because I have already spoken far longer than I intended to. If I answer every question on the lines of those which have already been put, it will be 10 o'clock before I have finished.
This Clause establishes negotiating machinery which covers all brigades, and when the decision has been reached and ratified, it will be enforceable on all brigades. There will be a national series of conditions for the fire service which will have to be observed by every authority. The unification of pensions is dealt with in Clauses 26 to 28. There are now several schemes, varying from London, where a maximum pension of two-thirds of the wages can be earned after 28 years' service to those firemen who are under local government superannuation schemes and have to serve 40 years in order to get a similar pension. The difficulties have been further complicated by the National Insurance Act, and Clause 26 enables a scheme to be prepared by the Secretary of State after consultation with the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. Again, merely as an indication of what is probable, I would like to say it is contemplated that this scheme will be analogous to the police pensions scheme, but of course during the Committee stage of the Bill any other views can be put forward.
The Exchequer grant is dealt with in Clause 25. Hitherto, the only grant has been one of £10,000 a year paid to the London County Council. The Riverdale Committee in 1936 made a recommendation in regard to this matter. Their recommendation was not very dissimilar from the one that is included in this Bill. Although it was rather more complicated, it worked out in the end to approximately 25 per cent. It was originally intended that this grant should vary as between authority and authority. We have found 1437 it simpler to deal with it on the basis of a flat rate grant, and the necessary adjustments with regard to the riches and poverty of an area will be dealt with in the revision of the block grant.
Water supplies are dealt with in Clauses 14–17, and there is only one important alteration. That imposes a duty on a fire authority to take all reasonable measures to ensure the provision of an adequate water supply. Clause 19 deals with the procedure and qualifications for appointments and promotions. We shall endeavour to lay down as far as possible a standard procedure which may differ for various ranks. It is not intended to interfere with individual appointments by the fire authority, except in the case of the chief fire officer whose appointment will be subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. The Regulations have to be framed after consultation with the Advisory Committee.
There is a provision for central purchase in Clause 22 which we hope will enable a greater standardisation of fittings and equipment to be secured. One of the difficulties in the past has been that when more than one brigade has been at a fire, the second brigade to arrive has sometimes had couplings and other equipment which would not fit either the local hydrants or the extensions of the local equipment. In Clause 23 we make provision for training centres. The Act of 1938 provided for the establishment of a college, and we have gained valuable experience in this matter during the war at Saltdean. I hope shortly to be able to transfer the college at Saltdean to other premises. The larger fire authorities may still like to have their own schools for recruits, but I would urge on them the advisability of considering the use of a national college as giving the members of their brigades a wider opportunity for receiving training than they can get in a local college. I hope that they will encourage and assist their officers to attend the college for staff courses which we hope to arrange from time to time.
The Central Advisory Fire Brigades Council was included in the 1938 Act but is now amended by the inclusion on the council of representatives of persons employed in the fire service, and it is my hope that I shall see the organisations that deal with all ranks of the service included on that council. In addi- 1438 tion, the council is empowered in future to act on its own initiative without reference from the Secretary of State. If there is some matter that they think should be considered which they suspect the Secretary of State would rather not be worried with at the moment, despite the fact that they think he should, it will now be within their power to initiate discussions, to send them forward and to bring their views before the Secretary of State.
Inquiries are dealt with in Clause 33. Their scope is extended to enable inquiries to be made into a particular fire. Under the Act of 1938 it was the general efficiency of the service that was at stake. Under this Measure inquiries can be made into a particular fire, and by bringing in appropriate powers under the Local Government Act, 1933, it will be possible to strengthen the position of the persons holding the inquiries. We now come to Clause 20 which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Levy). This is a new Clause, but it flows from the fact that in future the Secretary of State will be responsible for part of the financing of the local fire service. It is, therefore, essential that he should be in a position to ensure not merely that the service is efficient but that it is not extravagant.
I am grateful to the House for having allowed me to make this detailed exposition of the Bill. In some areas prior to the war there was a substantial amount of cover that was unnecessary, having regard to the resources of adjoining authorities. We had a collection of comparatively small boroughs and urban districts in, let us say, a suburban area, where each authority thought it was necessary to have exactly the same appliances as each neighbouring authority, with the result that there was a considerable wastage of equipment and also of manpower in those particular areas. There were, of course, other parts of the country which were very inadequately covered. I hope this Measure will enable us to provide adequate cover for every part of the country, and to restrict extravagant cover in those areas where it may previously have occurred. I sincerely hope that in the passage of this Bill through the House, through the Committee and on the Report stage, I shall have the assistance of all hon. Members who are brought in contact with the Bill so that I can get from their advice 1439 and experience guidance as to the way in which this Measure, which has been carefully thought out in consultation with the authorities and employees in the fire service, can be improved.
I want to thank the representatives of the authorities and of the employees of the fire service for the way in which they have co-operated so far. There is still a not inconsiderable distance to go in reaching complete agreement on some of these issues, but I believe that if we can maintain the spirit which has been shown by all bodies in their approach to this problem so far we shall be able to return this service to local government control in the certainty that in future it will be well administered and adequate to the tasks it has to discharge.
§ 5.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)
I should like in my opening words to join in the tribute which the right hon. Gentleman paid to the gallant men and women of the National Fire Service, many of whom suffered injury or lost their lives in the war. I should also like to join with him in his tribute to those two great public servants, Sir Aylmer Firebrace and Sir Arthur Dixon. I remember that in the first few months when I was Under-Secretary at the Home Office there was a dispute as to the efficiency of a particular borough police force, and the Home Office were insisting upon the appointment of some additional 20 constables. The Members of Parliament representing the borough came to me, and suggested that this was unnecessary, and in an interview with Sir Arthur Dixon I suggested that we might compromise on some middle number. Sir Arthur Dixon thereupon gave me a firm, clear and concise description of the duties and responsibilities of the Home Secretary in relation to the efficiency of the police force. I remember a little later remarking to my right hon. Friend the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson), who was the Home Secretary of the day, paraphrasing the words of the Iron Duke, "I do not know what effect Sir Arthur has upon the police authorities, but, by God, he frightens me." He was a great, well-respected and well-loved public servant.
We have many points of criticism on the Clauses of the Bill, and we shall make sub- 1440 stantial complaint of what I regard as the niggardly nature of the Exchequer grant which is being made. At the same time we, on this side of the House, cannot bring ourselves to divide against the first Measure of denationalisation brought in by this or any other Government in this country. Such Measures will no doubt become more frequent as the years go by, but this is a memorable precedent which will give much comfort to those who view with dismay and foreboding the various Government Measures bringing vital services under national ownership and control. Many people doubted whether it was feasible to denationalise a vital service; whether it was possible, as they put it, to unscramble the omelette. Well, here the Government are showing us the way, and this will be valuable pioneer work. I feel that the Government are blazing a memorable trail today.
§ Mr. Peake
Well, possibly the right hon. Gentleman would prefer the word "decentralisation" or "localisation" but the word "denationalise" finds its place in Webster's Dictionary, where it is defined as:To divest or deprive of national character or, rights.And it is a word which will become of much more general use in the months that lie ahead.
The fire services have a long and fascinating history, and, as the right hon. Gentleman reminded us, in the year 1938 when the Fire Brigades Bill of that year was going through this House, Lord Templewood, as he now is, gave us a most interesting speech going back into the history of the fire services. For the purposes of this Bill we need to go no further back than that year. Before 1938 the provision of fire services was a voluntary or a permissive Measure sanctioned by a large number of private Acts of Parliament, and one or two general enabling ones. The powers were exercised efficiently by some authorities, inefficiently, or not at all, by many others. No powers at that date, or even now, in this matter are vested in the county councils, and outside the municipalities the principal authority before 1938 was the parish council, and fire fighting was largely an affair of the parish pump.
1441 The Act of 1938 constituted, as the right hon. Gentleman told us, boroughs, and urban and rural districts as the fire authorities and imposed a duty on them to maintain efficient fire services. That Act was to a considerable extent a preparation for war and for the incendiary bomb. It is true that despite protests, which came among others from the present Secretary of State for Scotland, there was no Exchequer grant in 1938, but much valuable equipment for the emergency services was provided by the Exchequer free of charge. The war began before that Act became fully operative. The regional commissioners were established and did much to co-ordinate the fire fighting activities in their regions, but in 1941 it was found necessary, for the purpose of the war, to establish the National Fire Service. Now the financial arrangements made at that time were these; the local authorities were to pay towards the cost of the National Fire Service three-quarters of the peacetime prewar cost of the services. The whole of the remaining burden fell upon the Exchequer. It is worth while noting that, in view of what the right hon. Gentleman now proposes should be done in regard to the division of the burden of cost. As the right hon. Gentleman has told us quite fully, unqualified pledges were given by the Lord President of the Council and others that this should once again become a local authority service after the war.
During the last few months of the Coalition Government there was much discussion as to the future of the fire fighting organisation. Clearly the pledge had to be honoured. At the same time it was recognised generally that the authorities set up by the Act of 1938 were too numerous for really efficient fire fighting under modern conditions of mobile appliances. My own view, which is no doubt on record in the Home Office, was that the organisation for the future should be built round the county borough and the county council and the right hon. Gentleman has, of course, used those bodies as the basis for the new organisation of the Police Force under the Police Act of last year.
There, are however, in my view exceptional cases. There are cases where, in a county sparsely populated, there are one or two important boroughs or urban districts, and one must bear in mind that the county councils have hitherto had no 1442 experience of this form of administration. There are cases, on the other hand, like the West Riding of Yorkshire where the boroughs and the urban districts are extremely numerous and where again, in my view, a more efficient fire fighting organisation could be built up if powers of delegation were granted to county councils under the Bill. I want to ask a question about Clause 12, one of the Clauses to which the Home Secretary did not refer. It seems to contain, on the face of it, certain powers of delegation by fire authorities. Subsection (1) reads:A fire authority may make arrangements with any other fire authority or other persons—Those are the important words, "or other persons"—who maintain a fare brigade, so as to secure by the provision of services by the other fire authority or persons the discharge of all or any of the last-mentioned—In fact it should be "first-mentioned".fire authority's functions under this Act in respect of all or any part of its area…Then there is a proviso:Provided that no arrangements shall take effect under this subsection unless submitted to and approved by the Secretary of State.I do not think that Clause intends to make it possible for a fire authority that is as county council to delegate its powers to a non-county borough or to an urban district. I do not think those two latter bodies come within the definition of the words "or other persons who maintain a fire brigade" mentioned in this Clause, but it would indeed be a simple matter for this Clause to be amended in such a way as to confer powers of delegation on county councils where they themselves do not wish to exercise fire fighting powers, and where the only parts of their counties which can afford or which deserve to have measures to fight fires are authorities which already have experience of maintaining fire brigades.
§ Mr. Peake
I am coming to that, point, but the right hon. Gentleman will remember, if he has studied the Debates on 1443 the Bill of 1938, that a Clause was inserted in that Bill enabling the Secretary of State for Scotland to leave the crofter counties of Scotland clean outside the scope of the Bill, for the reason that as a matter of economy of manpower and finance it was not worth having fire fighting services in those counties. One has in this matter to balance advantage against disadvantage. It is really much cheaper in a rural area to have an occasional rick burned out, or an occasional farm burned down, because, as a rule, these places are not on the telephone and the fire brigade does not arrive in time anyway, than to maintain a large number of men in idleness in case an eventuality occurs. The case I am putting, where power of delegation ought in my view to be operative, is where you have a wide, sparsely populated county with one or two urban centres in it.
It is recognised in the Bill that the needs of localities vary. Urban fires are much more expensive and much more dangerous than rural fires, and it is essential that we should husband our manpower. If hon. Members look at Clause 1 (3) of the Bill, which re-enacts a provision of the 1938 Act, they will see:The Secretary of State may … make regulations prescribing standards of efficiency … and the standards may vary according to the requirements of, and the facilities available in, different kinds of locality.It is clearly recognised in the Bill that fire fighting needs vary according to the nature of the area for which they are to be provided.
Now I want to say a word about the finances of the Bill. The estimated cost for England, Scotland and Wales is £13,250,000 a year against a cost of £3,000,000 a year before the war. If 75 per cent. of the present cost is to be borne on the rates, there will be £10 million a year of rate-borne expenditure as the result of the Bill. Before the war, up to the year 1941, of course there was the ordinary peacetime cost estimated at £3,000,000, and from 1941 onwards, under the arrangements made, there was a burden on the local authorities of only 75 per cent. of the prewar cost.
That is somewhere about £2,250.000. So that as a result of this Bill there will be added to the backs of local authorities a burden of between £7 million, and £8 million a year. Why on earth should not 1444 the grant here be 50 per cent., as in the case of the police? There is a division of responsibility. The right hon. Gentleman is taking just as wide powers in respect of fire brigades under this Bill, as he enjoys in respect of police forces under the various Police Acts. He has enormous powers under the Bill, and can not only prescribe standards, but say how many men there are to be in a particular fire brigade, and prescribe every sort of detail. It would be a much fairer division of the heavy burden involved if there were 50 per cent. from the Exchequer and 50 per cent. from the rates.
After all, these fire-fighting services are today part of the national defences against the risk of war. We do not ask that local rates should contribute towards the cost of the Army, Navy, or Air Force. On that ground, the Exchequer ought to make a substantial contribution towards the cost of the fire-fighting services, which are an insurance against the risk of war. We should not have suffered anything like the losses from fire which we suffered in the years 1940 and 1941 had we had an efficient fire service throughout the country in 1939. We must regard part, at any rate, of this expenditure as a defence service, and we ought to treat that in the same way as we treat expenditure on the Navy, Army, or Air Force.
§ Mr. Peake
But the right hon. Gentleman makes a grant of 50 per cent. for the police forces. Why on earth should he not do so for fire brigades? There is no answer in logic to the case which I am making. There is another point of importance in relation to the finances of the scheme. The right hon. Gentleman, by making county councils fire authorities, will make the remote and sparsely populated areas bear the same rate burdens as towns within the county. There is bound to be a standard poundage for the fire rate. There are no provisions in this Bill for differential rating as there have been in the past in respect of water supplies. The rate in the pound will be the same throughout the whole of the local authority area. On the other hand, when the right hon. Gentleman comes to prescribing standards of efficiency, he is bound to decide that standard by reference to the needs of the most densely 1445 populated part of the area. As a result, unless powers of delegation are permitted, injustice must be inflicted on the sparsely populated areas. Even if they have a fire in those areas, the fire brigade seldom arrives in time, because they are not served by telephone. The Act of 1938 specifically gave power to exclude the rural areas of Scotland from the provisions of the Measure. The right hon. Gentleman ought not to inflict a burden on the rates spread over the county as a whole, when the whole benefit will go to two or three urban areas within the county.
§ Mr. Burden
Is the right hon. Gentleman overlooking the fact that, under de-rating at any rate, urban areas will be supplying rural districts, and maintaining the whole cost?
§ Mr. Peake
Once or twice during the war the National Fire Service turned up to put out a heath fire on the Yorkshire moors. In prewar days it was either left to burn itself out, or to the farmers to extinguish it by flogging. It is not an economical proposition to maintain fire brigades to put out heath fires. When the hon. Member for the Park Division of Sheffield (Mr. Burden) says that people in agricultural parts of the country do not pay rates on agricultural land, he is right. But they do pay rates on farmhouses, and cottages, and, in my opinion, they will be paying more than the fire risk justifies.
There are two most useful new provisions in Clause 1. Paragraph (e) of Subsection (1) lays down that every fire authority shall secureefficient arrangements for ensuring that reasonable steps are taken to prevent or mitigate damage to property resulting from measures taken in dealing with fires in the area of the fire authority;So often one has heard the complaint, "I wish to goodness the fire brigade had not turned up at all. They completed the wreckage." Paragraph (f) provides for efficient arrangements for giving advice in respect of fire prevention Those two provisions will be generally welcomed. As regards Clause 4, which constitutes 1446 fire authorities, Subsection (2) compels the fire authority, which is the county council and the county borough council, to constitute a fire brigade committee. I have heard it said that in many cases that is not necessary, and, in fact, it is not done at present by London County Council, which, I am told, has a committee which deals with sewers, as well as the fire brigade. But, whether it is done by London County Council or not—
§ Mr. Sargood (Bermondsey, West)
When the London County Council had control of the fire brigade, they did, in fact, have a fire brigade committee dealing specifically with that service.
§ Mr. Peake
I am much obliged, but I am told that at some stage or other there was a committee dealing with sewers, as well as with the fire brigade. The point has been made that it is not necessary to have a special committee for dealing with fire brigades, and that some other committee of the council, already established, might be able to take on this work. I put forward that point for what it is worth. It has been put to me by one or two people who are interested in local government.
Clause 6 contains powers of compulsory amalgamation, which the right hon. Gentleman took from the Police Act. Is it really necesary for him to have powers of compulsory amalgamation as between these large authorities which he is constituting? I should have thought that county boroughs and county councils are units quite big enough. I very much doubt whether it is necessary to take powers to compel amalgamation between counties and county boroughs. I have already asked whether Clause 12 permits the delegation to smaller authorities, and I hope that that question will be answered at the close of the Debate.
I wish to ask about the transfer of property from the National Fire Service. In Clause 13, which deals with the transitional provisions, Subsection (3, d) provides by regulation:for the transfer to fire authorities of property, rights and liabilities vested, enjoyed or incurred on behalf of His Majesty for the purposes of the National Fire Service.Are those new authorities to receive, free of charge, large quantities of equipment used by the National Fire Service? Are the smaller authorities, which were 1447 fire authorities before the war, and are no longer to be fire authorities today, to receive any compensation for the fact that their fire fighting appliances have been taken from them, and used by the National Fire Service, and will now be handed to the new fire authorities? The property of the old ratepayers will pass to a new authority, as far as I can see, without any provision for compensation.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Clause 22, which I think is a very astonishing Clause. It gives power to the Secretary of State, that is, the Home Secretary, toprovide equipment for purchase by fire authorities for the discharge of their functions.First, I thought this must refer to surplus property of the N.F.S. But the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that what is proposed are arrangements for central purchase and uniformity of fire fighting appliances. It is a very strange thing that the Home Office should undertake purchase of appliances of this character. I should have thought it much better left in the hands of one of the Supply Departments which have contracts branches which are experienced in this type of negotiation. I am very surprised that the Home Office is going to set up a new contracts branch, and going into the market for the purchase of fire fighting appliances wholesale, and for retailing them over the counter to the new fire authorities.
There are one or two general questions to which I think the House would like an answer. What progress has been made in the demobilisation of the National Fire Service? Is there to be any provision under the new scheme for part-time firemen? They are not mentioned anywhere in the Bill. I should have thought that part-time firemen might serve a useful purpose and effect a great economy in manpower in certain circumstances. I should like to know to what extent their employment is contemplated in the future. I ask whether in the future, as in the past, fire authorities may expect to receive any contributions from the insurance companies, who to a large extent subsidised them—if that is the right word—in the old days, to provide fire brigades?
I have mentioned a number of specific points of criticism which we will have 1448 to reserve for the Committee stage. It is a great regret to me that the Financial Resolution is so drafted as to make it impossible for us to move to increase the amount of the Exchequer grant. I hesitated on that account whether or not to advise my hon. Friends to vote against the Bill. However, opportunities for supporting the present Government in the abolition of Measures of nationalisation are not likely to be very numerous in either the near, or remote, future. On balance, therefore, I find the temptation to support the Government today irresistible.
§ 5.44 p.m.
§ Sir Jocelyn Lucas (Portsmouth, South)
There are many points to be raised on this Bill in Committee but I do not propose to refer to them at this stage. I was delighted to hear the Minister refer to the employment of fire women. I intended to raise that point myself. The employment of women in the fire service is a wartime innovation, and in the watch-room, at any rate, they were a very great success. They showed great courage under heavy bombing. I speak from personal experience, because I served as a fireman in the A.F.S., and N.F.S., for four years in London. Not only in the control room, but also in welfare work, these girls were very useful, in canteens and so on. They were always ready with a cup of tea and a cheery word. Women's Services such as the W.R.N.S., the A.T.S., and the W.A.A.F.S. are being retained and I am very glad to hear the Minister say that he is going to urge on the local authorities, some of whom are not very keen on the idea, that women should find their place in the local fire service, thereby relieving more men for industry. At the beginning of the war, with a great increase in personnel and a large number of sub-stations being formed, I was very struck with the unnecessary discomfort which we had to undergo in view of the lack of adequate welfare arrangements. I know that I had to give all my spare bedding and blankets to my station, and we "whipped round" to see what we could provide in the way of amusement. Hon. Members must remember that in those days the hours were 48 on and 24 off, and except in the blitz periods, this meant long hours of boredom with nothing to do. One cannot drill, or spit and polish all the time.
1449 In peacetime my station, which was at Knightsbridge, with normal luck seldom had more than three fires a week. Many of these, of course, were only chimneys and minor events. I believe Soho had a better record from the activity point of view, as they had many little fires caused by cooks upsetting fat. But the long, boring hours of inactivity emphasised the need for adequate welfare arrangements, arid I hope something will be done by the Minister to see that the local authorities do look into this point of view. During the war I remember men coming to me and asking if it was possible for them to help the country in some way by making munitions or doing something useful. Eventually, we got a scheme going in certain stations whereby munition boxes and various gadgets were made, but we had to fight to be allowed to do it. One Minister whom I approached said, "What would happen to production in the case of a raid?" I pointed out that if there were a raid, production would be upset anyhow.
What I want to suggest is the possibility that firemen in the duty hours when they merely wait might welcome the chance of being allowed to help in industry in some way by working at their stations, even by keeping pigs, poultry or doing gardening, which is better than being idle. I should like to make a suggestion which is entirely personal, that any money earned be divided between the men themselves and some welfare fund, because, after all, they would be drawing their ordinary pay as well. That, of course, is a matter for the unions to negotiate. With regard to welfare conditions generally, the men are fortunate in being allowed to have unions to represent them—one for officers and one for men—a point which differentiates them from the Navy, the Army and the Air Force. It is for this reason that I do not object to the fact that power is given to the Secretary of State to make Regulations. Consultations between the Secretary of State and the union is far more likely to result in satisfactory terms of service than Amendments in Parliamentary Bills by hon. Members, who, in the main, can have no real knowledge of the conditions.
This Bill does include certain injustices. Let me give one example. Any fireman who goes to prison for a month loses his right to the pension towards which he has contributed. Yet a policeman, who 1450 should have a greater knowledge of right and wrong, does not lose his unless he gets three months' imprisonment. If he goes to prison for two months he still retains his pension rights. Surely the fireman should not be penalised more than the policeman. I hope the Minister can look into that point again. Again, will the fire service be allowed to run local ambulance accident services? It would be more economical. The fire service has already rendered service in rescuing people trapped in lifts or under buses. In addition the average time taken for a fire appliance to turn out is between 20 and 30 seconds only, whereas the long delays which usually occur before the accident ambulances usually arrive make a very poor comparison. Speed may make all the difference between life and death.
I support my right hon. Friend the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) in his plea for a 50 per cent. Exchequer grant. I am sure that the Home Secretary has done his best with the Treasury. He has a very persuasive manner and if he tries again, knowing that there is a very strong body of feeling on all sides of the House in regard to this matter, I am sure he will get 50 per cent, as in the case of the police. There are other points including pensions and gratuities as between pre-war and war time firemen, compensation for loss of office and that sort of thing all of which can be raised later, but I should like to see the definition "accidental and non-accidental" injury, which discriminates for pension rates, altered to "due to service" or "not due to service." This was a definition used in war time and was far better and fairer.
Subject to modification I welcome this Bill, but so much power is given to the Secretary of State that I would ask him to bear one thing in mind. After the blitz period in London, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) was asked to strike a special medal for the anti-aircraft batteries, he told this House that the casualties in the fire service were far higher than they were in the anti-aircraft personnel, and if there was to be a medal for the anti-aircraft batteries the lire service would have to get it first. I only want to say here that I never shall forget the courage of those men. There was no suggestion of taking cover during raids. They went to a fire 1451 and put it out, irrespective of the bombs that fell around. May I give two instances? On one occasion a crew were called to a fire, only to find that it was in a house with a freshly fallen unexploded bomb in front of it. If it had not been tackled, the whole street would have been burned. Never was a fire put out more quickly. Luckily it was only the roof and top storey. On another occasion I saw a fireman standing on top of an unexploded bomb keeping the ambulances off as they came to turn after picking up the wounded. The most unforgettable sight I saw was a fireman sitting astride a burning beam in Wool-worths, cutting out the blazing wood with his axe. He was framed by a window and the background was the burning roof of Waterloo Station. People are apt to forget what these men did at that time, and I ask the Home Secretary to do all he can to see that the conditions of service under local authorities are made worthy of these men.
In the last Parliament I raised the question of some certificate of thanks and appreciation being given to the next of kin of those firemen killed in action. Miss Ellen Wilkinson said, "You have something there." I raised the matter again in this Parliament, but was told that consultation was going on. Can the Home Secretary give us an assurance that this simple act of justice, which will cost little and means so much to the relatives will be sanctioned before the demise of the National Fire Service—a Service in which I am proud to have served as an officer in a fighting and not in an administrative capacity.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Benn Levy (Eton and Slough)
I should like to say straight away that I welcome this Bill, which I believe is calculated to produce a very efficient fire service. There are, however, two considerations that I should like to bring to the attention of the Home Secretary. The first is the very controversial and much discussed question of the choice and size of unit, namely county council and borough council. I do not suppose anybody would dispute that there are obvious advantages in having a reasonably large unit nor would the Home Secretary dispute that there are certain advantages in not too large a unit. We cannot generalise 1452 completely. Amongst the advantages of the smaller units are such things as esprit de corps. It is easier to get a certain co-ordination and co-operation amongst men who know each other well locally and perhaps have grown up in the service from being volunteers. It is not a point on which I lay very great stress. More important, I think, is the other question of having people who are really familiar with the routes, with all the necessary topography, with the local obstacles and all the rest of it. I do not say that that is impossible with fire services operating in larger units under the county council. Obviously it is not, but there is the danger of men getting transferred from the area with which they are most familiar and that is something which wants watching.
The main and most important point, however, to be considered in favour of the smaller unit is the exceptional case. There may in other words be certain cases in which it is desirable that a non-county borough should be a unit. For example, if I may quote a case in my own constituency, a large town is scheduled for a further increase in population, and it is likely that it will shortly be rated for county borough status, and when it does it will have the right to run its own fire service. That will probably not be a very long time hence. Therefore, it seems to me highly desirable in such that that the council should have the right to start their new organisation now instead of having to change it in a couple of years time. There has been some criticism on the ground that the Bill invests too much power in the hands of the Minister. It certainly enables him to authorise larger units by means of combination. What I want to suggest is that there is one respect in which there should be invested in him even greater powers, namely, that he should be able also to authorise, where necessary and in exceptional circumstances, smaller units, because of the exceptional cases that I have in mind and of which other hon. Members may also be thinking.
The other point I wanted to bring up is the question of the costs involved. I am inclined to agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) that it is desirable that a larger grant should come from the Exchequer. It is difficult to assess in pounds, 1453 shillings and pence exactly what a fair percentage should be. I accept that point straight away, but it is worth looking at the figures in order that we may make a rough and ready computation. Three million pounds was the cost of the prewar organisation for fire services.
§ Mr. Levy
I am coming to that and do not dispute it. It is now proposed, however, that the figure should be £13,500,000. The service should indeed be better because there is not the slightest doubt that it is impossible to run an efficient service on £3 million. But when we subtract the 25 per cent. represented by the Government grant that means that the local authorities will have to find more than three times as much as before. It may be argued that they ought to have found more before if they had provided an efficient fire service, but the fact is that it was not always a question of parsimony. In return for this multiplication by more than three times of the financial responsibility of local authorities there is to be a 25 per cent, grant—a 300 per cent, increase and a 25 per cent. grant.
Let me try for the moment to relate the control to the grant. Again it is hard to access in pounds, shillings and pence what A degree of control is worth. I raised the question, when my right hon. Friend was on his feet, of Clause 20 because, rightly or wrongly, I understood him to include Clause 20 among those which were modelled on the 1938 Act. I asked him, therefore, whether he did or did not include it.
§ Mr. Levy
Certainly it is. That was my point. I do not want to labour it. What I was about to say is that this Clause is in effect a new Clause and one which vitally affects the degree of control for the local authority. I do not oppose it, and I think that in so far as it is likely to ensure a certain improved standard of efficiency it is all to the good. But it is nevertheless a Clause which leaves with the local authority a very small degree of effectual control of the service. Supposing we 1454 assume that it leaves 20 per cent, of control to the local authority. Against that 20 per cent, of control they have to bear 75 per cent, of the cost. I agree that that is a difficult way in which to assess the situation, but it seems to me that there is an argument there in favour of a larger grant.
One of the ways in which I would like to see it provided has already been touched upon—again by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds. I do not see why the insurance companies should not contribute. That is no novelty; the thing has been done in this country before and it has been done consistently until recent years. It is the practice in Australia and in New Zealand, and indeed in New Zealand there is at present under consideration a Bill whereby the contribution by insurance companies will be no less than 50 per cent. I may point out that before the war fire insurance profits were £8,000,000. Now they are likely to be considerably larger because if the Bill has the effect which we expect it to have there will be a large increase in the efficiency of fire arrangements. That is bound to redound to the benefit of the insurance companies so that one of two things will happen. Either they will make increased profits or they will reduce their premiums. My guess is that there will be increased profits. It seems to me, therefore, that here is an obvious source to be tapped, and one which can be tapped on grounds of equity as well.