§ Question again proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Levy
The interruption occurred at a point in my speech when other hon. Members might have embarked upon a peroration, but when I, who am always short of perorations, was about to sit down. In conclusion, therefore, perhaps I might briefly recapitulate the two points I wanted to put for my right hon. Friend's consideration. Firstly, that the Minister should not exclude the assumption of enabling powers to allow the Secretary of State to authorise, where necessary in exceptional cases, delegation of powers to a smaller unit of control. Secondly, I ask him to reconsider the question of the Exchequer grant, and in connection with that, the possibility of drawing on the insurance companies.
§ 6.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold Roberts (Birmingham, Handsworth)
If any man could commend a dubious proposition to the House, it would be the Home Secretary. His charm of manner, his knowledge of history, and his acquaintance with the intricacies of local government would enable him almost to get away with murder. I am bound to differ from his idealised description of this matter. It was that all the services taken away, in pursuance of a dire war emergency, are now being handed back in view of the solemn pledge given by the Lord President of the Council, and that the pledge was being fulfilled accurately and fully. Over and above that, the Home Secretary, on the testimony of Alderman Dale, has been able as no one else has to get a grant from the Treasury—a sort of kind uncle to the local authorities. When I heard the oblique commendation passed by the Home Secretary on himself, I was reminded of the classic remark of Mr. Squeers who, when confronted with rather thin soup, said, "There's richness for you." I am in doubt where the richness is here. Supporters of the Home Secretary are inclined to interpret this rather differently, having in mind those tiresome people we are apt to forget, namely, our constituents.
The history of this matter goes back a little further than 1938. The matter was first considered by a Royal Commission in 1923, which recommended administra- 1456 tion by boroughs, county boroughs, urban districts and rural districts, and that these powers should be taken over by county councils only in the case of default. The Riversdale Committee, which was a very strong Committee, to which reference has been made, would not go so far. It did not recommend that county councils should even have the power to take over in the case of default. Expenditure was computed by the Riversdale Committee to be about £3 million a year. If one took into account the large amount of re-equipment, the amount of grant was something in the neighbourhood of £700,000 a year, which was the amount to which the Home Secretary made reference.
The next stage is the Act of 1938, which crystallised and made permanent the classifications of authorities. The next passage is really rather amusing to anyone who is cynical. The Lord President of the Council, in his capacity as Home Secretary, brought in the Act of 1941, which, in view of the dire blitz emergency, proposed to take away all the powers from local authorities, except in the case of the county councils. I recommend anyone who wants to be amused to read his speech. He spoke very severely about people who were inclined to be totalitarian and of a gauleiter mentality. He spoke about people who wanted to ride roughshod over local authorities, and pointed out how he was a very strong democrat and local authority man. He spoke up for rural district councils, and bodies of that kind. Having done that, he gave a carefully worded pledge, to which the Home Secretary has made reference, and a little later began to explain that perhaps these things had better be handed back to the county councils, and not to the same local authorities. It is strange, very strange, how beliefs can alter, and this perfervid democrat, who was all for the smaller authority, seemed to cool off once the power had been centralised on larger units. It was not more strange than the spiritual conflict which agitated the breast of the Home Secretary, who was apparently most anxious the police forces should be preserved for boroughs and smaller people, and actually put clauses to that effect in the first draft of the Police Bill which never reached this House. I should never have suspected it.
1457 In 1938, the city of Birmingham ran its fire brigade at a cost of £168,000. That amounted to approximately a 7d. rate and there was no grant. The fire brigade was taken away and merged into the National Fire Service; the memorandum issued to this Bill shows there is a fivefold rise in costs and therefore it will fall upon the services being handed back. And so the cost will be some £800,000 a year for running the service. It will not all fall on us because the kind Home Secretary has been able to get the Treasury to give us no less than £200,000 a year and is good enough to say to us that he hopes we shall spend it wisely. I hope we shall, for even after that we shall still have the pleasure of finding a 1s. 11d. rate instead of a 7d. rate. Let us see how this generosity comes about. In the present financial year, as nearly as I can make out from the Estimates, the total cost of the Fire Services is round about £16 million of which some £4 million is in respect of gratuities and postwar credits, and so the true figure is round about £12 million.
It will be remembered that when the National Fire Service was formed the Minister was given power to levy a grant from the local authorities to the Treasury—an extremely unusual procedure. In the present financial year the grant is more than £2,250,000 a year, which leaves some £10 million to be found. It is computed that under this Bill and by the generosity of the Treasury in giving the local authorities some £3,500,000 a year the kind Chancellor of the Exchequer has got rid of a £10 million liability. Then the Home Secretary tells us we hope we shall spend this £3,500,000 wisely. It is very good to know that the national finances are being looked after so carefully but I doubt whether the various local authorities will take that view. I have to go back to another body of which I happen to be an alderman and let them know the cheerful news that we are going to spend £800,000 a year instead of £168,000 we formerly spent and then instead of the £122,000 we spend on Government subsidy we are to get back £200,000 with a moral lecture from the Home Secretary.
It has been said that this is a Measure to denationalise. The only reply which the Home Secretary could make to that was a rather feeble one that the services are being kept under public ownership. I remember the classic story of the man who 1458 said that life was not worth living, because life and death were all one. When asked why he did not commit suicide he replied "It is all one." If it is all one, why is there this keenness to deal with larger units which are remote from the common people and the electorates? I was brought up to believe that county councils were the feudal strongholds of the country gentlemen, very different from the democratic borough councils, rural district councils and so on. One thing is certain, that they are more remote from the ratepayers, and it is to these people that the Government are entrusting these powers. I am in a difficult position because I dislike to halt between two opinions. I cannot vote against this Measure to hand back fire services to local authorities even if they are being handed back on bad terms. On the other hand I cannot vote for a Measure which contains financial provisions which are so unjust and which is so unfair to the smaller local authorities.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Blyton (Houghton-le-Spring)
Might I as one who lived in a town that was heavily blitzed pay my tribute to the N.F.S. who did such valiant work? I entirely agree with hon. Members opposite on the inadequacy of the grant. I would like to see a grant of up to 75 per cent. This Bill provides for national fire service cover, and will bring about uniformity. But I suggest that the Minister should contemplate a wider area than a county borough. I represent a large constituency which takes in parts of two county boroughs, and part of a non-county borough. It would be more economical to take Jarrow into the Home Secretary's constituency, South Shields, than for them to go into the county as a non-county borough which is governed by the county council. These authorities are worried as to what will be the price they will have to pay in future for this fire service. They have paid to the Exchequer each year since 1938 the amount it cost in that year to run their fire services. Under this Bill, the powers which fire brigade committees had in 1938 are not being given back to them. They must carry out a whole rigmarole of regulations laid down by the Home Secretary. The local authorities are being used as an instrument to carry out a nationalised lire service, through the Secretary of State. The powers of the local authorities are so far reduced in their autonomy that 1459 they must carry out everything that is laid down by the Secretary of State. The expenditure to be borne by local authorities will be controlled by the Home Secretary, and 75 per cent, of that must be found by them.
There is an old philosophy that he who pays the piper calls the tune, but, by this Bill, that philosophy is being reversed. It is the Secretary of State who will call the tune, and the local authorities who must pay for its calling. The wages and conditions will be covered nationally, and I do not disagree with that Regulations will be made to deal with equipment, premises, and establishment. In the past, that would have been the local authorities' job, through their fire brigade committees, but, in future, this is to be done by the Secretary of State. Chief officers, deputy chiefs, and other persons, are to be subject to the Minister's approval. Even in the matter of promotion, which has always been the responsibility of the local fire authorities, there is procedure laid down in the Bill by which that promotion must take place. We are to have a higher standard of fire cover—with which no one disagrees—but it is estimated by the town clerks in my area that the cost will be five times what is was in 1938. That means that in the area which I represent, which was a distressed area between the wars, and which has for years been highly rated in the towns, is to have a further burden put upon it by this Bill. In Sunderland, part of which I represent, they used to pay £8,000 to £9,000 a year in 1938 for fire service. If we take the figure at £8,500 for that year, and multiply it by five, the cost will become £42,500 a year. But they are only to get a grant of 25 per cent, which is equal to £10,625. That leaves the local ratepayers to find £31,875. The rate of that town stands at 17s. 6d. in the £, and it is likely to increase. Yet this Bill will add, for this fire cover, another 8½d. to the rate.
In another part of my constituency, in Jarrow, a place which was much talked about between the wars, their rate stands at 21s. 4d. in the £. They had an efficient fire service before the war, which used to cost £700 per annum. This Bill will run the fire service for that area, under a county precept, at a cost of £3,500, and £2,600 will have to be found by this little highly-rated borough. That is equivalent to a rate of 6d. in the £. In South Shields, 1460 which the Home Secretary represents, and part of the town I represent, and in which I live, the approximate cost of the fire service there, before the war, was £3,100 a year. If we multiply that by five, we get a figure of £15,500. The ratepayers in South Shields will have to find £11,500, or a 5d. or 6d. rate in the £, to meet the new service as proposed by this Bill. I was talking recently to a prominent alderman of South Shields Council, who told me that their present estimates will further increase the present rate of 18s. 6d. in the £. I put it to the Minister, and to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that in these development areas, to which we want to attract businessmen, to build factories which will bring to us industries between the heavy and light industries, it will be difficult for us to encourage them to come to these areas. I am, therefore, asking the Minister to give us a higher grant, up to 75 per cent.
I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend when he referred to the revision of the block grant. Between now and the block grant formula being accepted, and the redistribution of available grants to local authorities, these burdens must be faced. I am sure that the voice of local authorities will be heard loudly when the implications of the finances of this Bill are fully appreciated in the months to come. I put it to the Minister, quite plainly, that the local authorities in the north are reaching saturation point in their rates. The obligations of their ratepayers are becoming extremely heavy. If a higher Exchequer grant is not given this will have a serious effect on the people who must pay for a service which ought to be paid for nationally. The local authorities will be administering this Bill and its regulations on behalf of the Secretary of State. Those regulations lay down everything that they must do. I implore the Government Front Bench, in the interests of the hard hit areas of the north, to give us a higher grant in order to ensure that our financial obligations will not be made worse than they are today.
§ 6.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)
I hope that the Government will pay attention to the speeches which have been made from both sides of the House in criticism of this Measure. We have just heard two very pungent and realistic speeches from 1461 Members with great knowledge and experience;—one by the hon. Member for Handsworth (Mr. H. Roberts), and the other by the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Blyton). When local authorities asked the Government to redeem their pledge to hand back the fire services to them, I think they expected something different from what is outlined in this Bill. Those local authorities who had their first services taken away from them interpreted the pledge given by the Government at that time as meaning that they would be given back to them. It is no answer to say that subsequently the Home Secretary, as he was then—now the Lord President of the Council—interpreted that pledge in a different fashion. It is not for one party to a pledge to be the sole authority in determining what the pledge was. If you say, "We will give back to the local authorities what we have taken away from them," I am sure that the ordinary man would understand by that simply what it says, that what had been taken away would be giver. back to those from whom it had been taken. In another respect, the way in which this pledge is being fulfilled is unsatisfactory. By this Bill, the local authorities who will have to carry out its provisions will simply be the agents of the Minister. The Minister has done a very good deal from his point of view. He is for all practical purposes, retaining all the powers he has under a national fire service, and is setting up some authorities to work out a scheme which will mean much less cost to him but put increased burdens on the local authorities.
I want to pay a tribute to the National Fire Service. I believe the efficiency of the fire service was very much improved under the national scheme, and if I had to choose between the continuance of the National Fire Service and the alternative presented by this Bill I should prefer the National Fire Service, because the Minister is keeping the realities and is giving just the shadow to the local authorities. They will bear a very heavy burden for the sake of having the shadow of control while he retains the substance. I hope, however, that whatever else may be the result of this Bill there will not be any t lessening of the high standards of efficiency set up by the National Fire Service. That is most important.
I am very much concerned to find that once again county councils and county 1462 borough councils alone are the authorities to be recognised under this scheme. The Home Secretary has, I am afraid, a very bad record in his treatment of non-county boroughs. He was a Minister when the Education Bill was introduced in the last Parliament, and that deprived them of their education powers. He is the Minister who has deprived them of their police powers, and now, in this Bill, he is proposing to deprive them of their fire-fighting powers. Does he really want to go down to history as the Minister who put more nails in the coffin of the non-county boroughs than any other Minister? I do not think he will wish to be known for that, but in point of fact that is what he is doing. He is handing over these powers to the county councils although they are quite inexperienced in administering a service of this kind, and it is no answer for him to say, "Can I possibly deal with 1,600 authorities?" There is something in between having to deal with 1,600 authorities and what he proposes in the Bill. I should have thought that he might at least have agreed that non-county boroughs with populations of 50,000 or over which had an efficient fire service before might be included in this Bill, and I would ask him still to consider that point.
He held out some hope that the county councils, in their negotiations with the district councils, might come to some agreement by which the district councils would be enabled to play their part. It is a vain hope. I do not think he can know very much about the relations which exist between county councils and the smaller authorities in their areas. The county councils will not give way an inch unless compelled to do so, and it will require a good deal of pressure from the Minister if any agreement is to be reached. I think he ought to come to the aid of these efficient non-county boroughs and I hope he will agree to a delegation of the powers to them. He said they could not be represented on the committees that are to work the fire service because they did not pay towards the expense of the service, but, of course, they do. In point of fact, it is the large non-county boroughs that make the biggest contribution towards the finances of county councils. But for them the county councils could not function at all. Therefore in the interests of efficiency, the right hon. Gentleman ought to see that they play a really 1463 active part in the administration of this service.
I am very much worried, and I speak as a member of a county council and of a non-county borough council, at the extension of so many powers to county councils. Except in special instances, the overwhelming majority of the citizens never trouble to register their votes in county council elections; very little interest is taken in the activities of those bodies; but if there is any further weakening of the non-county boroughs we shall be destroying some of the most efficient units of local government administration and depriving a great many keen and active citizens of the opportunity to play their part in local government. I most strongly urge the Minister to give further consideration to this point. The 25 per cent, grant is most unsatisfactory and nobody realises the illogical position in reference to the grant more than the Home Secretary. With all his ingenuity he could not possibly justify the distinction between the percentage of grant given for this service and for the police service. The two services are comparable in every respect, and the least he could do would be to bring all the pressure he can to bear upon the Treasury to see that the percentage of the grant is the same for both.
I wish to emphasise what has been said about the increased burden of local rates. This service will cost non-county boroughs something like five times as much as it did under the old system. They estimate that, allowing for increased costs, they could produce as efficient a scheme as they had previously for something like twice the cost, but this scheme is to cost five times as much and they ought, therefore, to have more than a 25 per cent, contribution towards it. The rates of the local authority which I have the honour to represent in this House have gone up to 20s. in the £ now, and this Bill will bring an added burden. We know that talks are to commence with the representatives of local authorities with reference to the block grant and relieving the rate burdens, but those negotiations will take time, and as an interim measure, which would not mean a great deal to the Treasury but would be of great benefit to local authorities, I ask the Home Secretary to reconsider the amount of the grant and at least to be consistent and logical in 1464 respect of the fire and police services. I hope that when we come to the Committee stage the Home Secretary will be prepared to pay attention to the criticisms which have been made from all quarters of the House. We are all agreed that we want an efficient service, but if the Minister wants anything like the control that he is claiming for himself under this Bill—and there is a good deal to be said for establishing a national standard—the least he can do is to say "If you are going to give me what I want, I will see that the State makes its proper financial contribution to this service."
§ 6.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Kinley (Bootle)
May I begin by complimenting my right hon. Friend upon having produced a very good Bill? As a Bill it is worthy of praise. But after that I want to tell him that I, personally, differ from everything which it contains, from beginning to end. I know that the local authorities have pressed for the return of their fire brigades, and my own local council will be glad when they know that their fire brigade powers are to be restored to them. Nevertheless, as one who has served on that local council for many years and has taken a keen interest in local government, I regret that the decision has been taken to turn this from a national service into one which is a local one in name only, for that is what it is. On behalf of the ratepayers of my borough I would bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend the fact that every step taken in this direction definitely reduces the standard of living of the common worker in working class areas. At one time my borough was a mixed borough, with a residential section and a working class section. The residential section has now disappeared and the borough is entirely working class. Working class people and old age pensioners are the only ones who have no power to pass on these burdens. The cost of this increased service will fall upon the wage earners, who are employed very largely by employers who are benefiting by derating.
I know that my right hon. Friend has suggested that the block grant will be adjusted later to help the hard-hit areas. That does not touch the evil at all. The block grant has never yet compensated the hard-hit areas for what they have lost, nor will any adjustment that one can anticipate as coming from the Minister of 1465 Health. The position of local government in this country calls for very considerable changes in the attitude of Government Departments. Every local authority is exercising itself very seriously in an effort to avoid increasing the demands upon local ratepayers in respect of the services for which they are now responsible. The same story comes to us from town after town and county after county—that the services which have been forced upon local authorities by Parliament, growing and developing year by year, call for additional money from the ratepayers, and those who are responsible for spending the local rates are occupied for many hours and even many days every year in trying to avoid any large increase of rates without curtailing the services which they are providing for the people.
The system which operates now is wrongly based because, as has already been pointed out, the county borough councils are being compelled by Parliament to operate services which are truly national in their character, but by virtue of the existing machinery, which goes back actually to the days of good Queen Bess, the local people bear the main burden financially of what is truly a national service. Public health is not a local service, but a national concern. It is imposed upon the local authorities by Parliament. The police is another national service, but as to half its cost, at least, it falls upon the local ratepayer, although it is controlled entirely by the Home Office. Education is a truly national service. It is the duty of the national Government to see that all the children of the country receive an adequate education, and it is entirely wrong that half the cost of this should be thrust upon the local ratepayers.
We now have this business, which will add to the burdens, already too heavy, of the local ratepayers. I regret that the Home Secretary has decided to take this step. While I would prefer to see this remain a national service, I hope that those who have pleaded with my right hon. Friend for an increased grant may succeed. I wish to make a further suggestion. I hope the Home Secretary will give thought to the suggestion that, since so heavy a burden in respect of fire fighting is now to be put upon the local authorities, it should be accompanied by legal authority to institute, side by side with the fire fighting service, a fire insur- 1466 ance service, so that they may recoup themselves and divert profits which are now going to the insurance companies to their own funds to pay for the fire service.
§ 7.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Marlowe (Brighton)
I wish to support the case that has been made by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Kinley), and particularly by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson), with regard to the position of non-county boroughs. As the argument has been repeated often enough, I will not repeat it again. It is merely a matter of adding another voice in protest against the way in which these non-county boroughs are being treated. This Bill is part of a system which has gone on throughout the whole period of office of the present Government. There is more and more elimination of the power of local authorities and more and more taking of power into the hands of the central authorities. I believe that to be bad for our general system of government. A great deal of the spirit of our people was built up on local pride and independence, and that is being very seriously damaged by the present system of government. It is part of a general policy which we saw exemplified in the case of the police. The same process was gone through of taking wartime powers in relation to the police with a promise that everyhing would be put right at the end of the war, and now that the present Government are in power, those promises are not being implemented, but instead the centralised system is retained.
No one disputes that we must have efficient fire services, but I do not believe the Government have bothered in the least whether this method will give efficiency. What they have aimed at is administrative convenience, and if efficiency is to be sacrificed to administrative convenience, we shall arrive at a most deplorable condition. I ask the Home Secretary at least to keep his mind open on the subject of non-county boroughs of substantial size. He will remember the argument that took place in connection with this matter on the Police Bill, and the suggestions that were made with regard to non-county boroughs of a certain population. The hon. Member for Cheltenham suggested 50,000, and I would support him in that figure, or something in that region. If non-county boroughs of that size, which have shown that they have been able efficiently to run their own fire services, 1467 are allowed to do so, the Home Secretary will go a long way to meet the grievance that we have.
It is wrong to approach this matter in the way the Government are doing at the moment, that is to say, applying a general principle of enlarging and centralising all these organisations. The fire service comes into a different category even from the police service, in connection with which there might have been a case; the fire service is quite different. The administration of the fire service is entirely a local matter. One cannot have a fire engine 20 miles away from where it is wanted. It has to be kept locally, and it might just as well be administered from there. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to hold out some hope that, at a later stage of the Bill, he will reprieve the present death sentence on local administration which hangs over the non-county boroughs. With regard to grants, I agree with the hon. Member for Cheltenham, and I hope the Home Secretary will also look at that matter, which is throwing a heavy burden upon the local authorities.
§ 7.6 p.m.
§ Mr. Sargood (Bermondsey, West)
I will not repeat the arguments that have been made about the inadequacy of the grant, but will content myself with making three points, two of which will show up in greater relief the reasons why the amount of the grant is inadequate. If one looks at Clause 36 (6, b), one finds that this Bill enables the Home Secretary, by regulations made with Treasury approval, to require authorities in specified cases to pay compensation for loss of emoluments, including compensation in respect of diminution of pension attributable to loss of emoluments, to members of the National Fire Service who have become members of such fire authorities as will be set up under this Measure, and who join those fire brigades and suffer a reduction in their emoluments.
The London County Council, in common with the County Councils Association and the Association of Municipal Corporations, hold the view that no good reason has been advanced why local authorities should have to shoulder that burden. The National Fire Service was considerably swollen as a result of the demands of the war, and a number of the people who were taken into the National Fire Service 1468 during the war will become a liability on the fire authorities set up under the Bill. I am aware, of course, that it has been difficult up to now for the Home Secretary to give an assurance, because the Treasury are, no doubt, considering the general principles in regard to compensation in relation to legislation generally. I would like to have an assurance from my right hon. Friend that fire authorities to be set up under this Measure will not be called upon to shoulder the responsibility and the burden to which I have referred, apart from the fact that the total amount of grant will be inadequate.
The second point I want to make refers to Clause 25. The annual grant payable by the Exchequer to the fire authorities will be confined to expenditure incurred by those authorities in the exercise of their functions "under this Act." The operative words are "under this Act." Under the Bill, fire authorities who were fire authorities before the war, such as the London County Council, would not be enabled to include continuing liabilities, such as debt charges on previous capital outlay, or pensions to former local authority firemen, etc. I would like to have an assurance from the Home Secretary that continuing liabilities of the nature I have described will be borne by the Exchequer, and not be taken from the 50 per cent. grant, or whatever the figure may be which the Bill finally allows.
The third point relates to Clause 29. Under the constitution of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, the Home Secretary will have power to determine the representation, and no indication is given as to the proportion of representation that will be given to the different interests. It is conceivable that the Minister will, by his appointments, be able to swamp the representation of fire authorities, such as the London County Council, and therefore, I suggest that bodies of that description should have designated to them, or the County Councils Association and the Association of Municipal Corporations should be given some indication of, the proportion of representation they would be allowed to have. I would like the Home Secretary to give serious-consideration to those three points, and, if possible, to meet the objections I have put forward.
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)
I find myself very much in agreement with 1469 all that has been said by most of the hon. Members who have spoken in the Debate. It appears to me that, broadly speaking, there were two alternatives open to the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland—and I would observe here that the Debate has been going on for three hours before the word "Scotland" has been breathed. One alternative was for the Government to run the show themselves entirely, and the other was to hand it back entirely. It is clear that, for reasons of national policy and national security, the Government have decided that the fire services to be made available, and to be kept available, are to be on a much higher scale than was envisaged in the 1938 Act.
Between 1938 and 1941, a good deal of development took place in fire services, and in rural districts, at any rate, the people considered that the development of the fire services was satisfactory; indeed they must have been certified to be satisfactory by Ministers before the war, under the 1938 Act. If the Government now come along and say "The state of your fire service must be better," then it is up to the Government to pay that difference between the two. The overall cost is to go up four-and-a-half times as compared with prewar. If the Government insist that the cost postwar is to be greater than the cost prewar, it is up to them to make up the difference. The least we can ask the Government is that they should pay the 75 per cent. and the local authorities should only have to pay 25 per cent. The proof that the Home Secretary is retaining control completely in England and Wales is to be found in Clause 20, on which he said very little. He is actually laying down the establishments that are to be maintained, and it is no use his saying that that is being done to curb extravagance. The whole House knows that there is rarely much need to curb extravagance in the case of local authorities. It is done purely and simply to keep the fire services in a state of national preparedness.
If English Members will bear with me, I wish to deal with the application of the Bill to Scotland. In this Bill there are five-and-a-quarter pages devoted to Clause 36, dealing with Scotland. That falls in that part of the Measure which is described as "Miscellaneous and General." This is obviously not general because it applies 1470 to a particular part of Britain. Therefore, it would appear that Scotland has been classed as "miscellaneous," which is not the height of tact on the part of the Home Secretary. I suppose that the answer would be that the Act of 1938 also applied to Scotland, and in that Act, Section 28 had three-and-a-half pages dealing with its application to Scotland. The point is that the 1938 Act applied exactly the same principle both in Scotland and in England and Wales. But the Home Secretary has come to the House today and said that he wished to encourage county authorities and county districts to get together. He said that he would not have liked it if a Minister had come to the House with a cut-and-dried scheme.
That is exactly what the Secretary of State for Scotland is doing. He is coming to the House with a cut-and-dried scheme. We do not like it, and I am glad to have the Home Secretary on my side on this occasion. In England, under Clause 5, the counties and county boroughs are free to come together and make joint schemes, if they so wish. In Scotland we are presented with a fait accompli. Scotland is divided into 11 regions, which are virtually under the direct and complete control of the Secretary of State. I hope that the Secretary of State will not take what I am about to say as being intended to be personal. It is not a matter of being personal, it is a question of the system. This Bill illustrates the authoritarian tendency growing up in Scotland, which is bound to occur when several Ministries are rolled into one. The Secretary of State for Scotland corresponds to some half-dozen Ministers in England and Wales. I see that there are no Welsh Members present, or I would most solemnly warn them against falling into the same trap. We do not want the Secretary of State for Scotland to become a mere satrap, or protector, to use another and more recent phrase, gathering ever wider and wider powers, to make certain that he can comply with the instructions he receives from his masters in the English capital.
Surely this is a case where we should have had a separate Bill for Scotland. To a certain extent the Bill recognises that the circumstances are different, by establishing a separate Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council for Scotland.
The second thing in this Bill with which I am concerned is the tendency to set up joint authority areas. I would like to ask 1471 the Secretary of State to what extent he has in mind combining the same authorities for different functions. We do not want to have certain counties combined for health services, certain other counties combined for police services and another combination again for fire services. After all, if these things are to be planned if there is to be some concentration, we are entitled to hope that the planning will lead to simplicity and not to complication, cross-division and confusion. If there is a proof that the National Fire Service is really still to continue in Scotland, it can be found in the Scottish Home Department's Circular No. 6149, issued in September, 1945, which at that time recommended ten areas, "whether they were administered on a national or local basis."
There is really no handing back to the local authorities; it is only a facade. It is all very well for the Secretary of State to speak, in one of those flowing phrases of his, of "a full measure of local autonomy" when he has already made schemes for all the areas, appointed fire force commanders and had deputies chosen by a selection board, decided the establishment, fixed the pay of fire force commanders, determined what equipment is to be held and prepared programmes for building. When all that has been done, how can we say that this Service is being handed back to local authority management?
There is one point I should like to make about the further cost in rural areas. Obviously the fire risk is less, and the probability of the fire brigade arriving in time is a good deal smaller. Yet in the county of Dumfries the cost is to be 20 times what it was before the war. Again, the cost of the National Fire Service for the county of Angus during the war was less than 1½d. Now it is to rise to 8½d. at least—2d. more than Glasgow, where the risk is infinitely greater. That is the effect of the compulsory amalgamation of Angus with the city of Dundee. The Secretary of State had wished to include Perth and Kinross also, but I believe that the outcry of my hon. Friends the Members for Perthshire was so great that he had to provide a separate area at half the cost.
Surely, the basis of this whole scheme is the continuation, in some form, of the 1472 National Fire Service. It did splendid work in the war, but there is a strong pressure, unlike the Armed Forces, particularly in the higher ranks, to remain in action instead of demobilising. I would sum up by saying I would infinitely have preferred a separate Bill for Scotland, I deplore the direction that is perpetually to be given to the local authorities while the local authorities are being made to bear the bulk of the financial burden, and I consider that real autonomy should be restored to local bodies, and not merely the semblance of it.
§ 7.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)
Finding myself suddenly in the middle, as it were, of a Scottish Debate, perhaps I will be permitted by the House to deal with something which is common both to Scotland and England, that is, the general conditions of service of the men actually in the various fire services. We have heard a great deal today about what local authorities do not want to put up with, and matters of that sort. It is perhaps a good thing to turn for a moment to the conditions of service of the men in the force. I am sure that would have happened before now had it not been that of the two officials of the Fire Brigades Union who are in the House, one finds himself a Minister, and the other is in the even more responsible position of being the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary.
This Bill will make a considerable difference to the conditions of service of the ordinary fireman. It is generally conceded that it is not sufficient to leave the fire authorities in the position of ordinary employers and to say to them "If you do not like a fireman, you can dismiss him." Obviously, there has to be some sort of discipline. And, indeed, since the fire service is a pensionable one, it is desirable that there should be some penalty imposed which is less than dismissal, because dismissal in a pensionable service is a considerable penalty. But when those who are in the fire service agree to this, they are making considerable sacrifices. They are making a considerable sacrifice of what are considered to be normal trade union rights. Their employers are allowed to impose a fine, to override the Truck Act and to impose additional duties at will.
1473 I suggest to the Home Secretary that he should consider, when framing the regulations which he has to make under this Measure, the possibility of giving the ordinary fireman a certain security of office in exchange for his giving up these particular rights. He might possibly consider, first, that a fireman ought only to lose his job on four grounds, the first obviously if he is medically unfit—if he is not able to come up to the strict medical standard necessary for a fireman; secondly, if he has reached an age when it is impossible for him to continue; thirdly, if he has committed an offence under the disciplinary code; and fourthly, when he and the Authority mutually agree to part.
I suggest to the Home Secretary that the disciplinary code should be drawn with some care, ft is clear that it is impossible to go back to the situation which existed before the war. Then there was no standard disciplinary code. Indeed, most local authorities did not have any code at all. In London there were the general fire orders of the London Fire Brigade which provided a code which worked very well, but the general consensus of opinion is that it is not particularly suitable to apply to smaller brigades. But if the prewar codes were unsatisfactory, I suggest to the Minister that the wartime code was much more unsatisfactory. It was introduced at a time when the fire service was conscripting men and when, therefore, dismissal was not really much of a threat. It was a time when discipline had to be very strict. The fireman was doing just as good a job as many men in the Forces. However, in these new peacetime circumstances, I think the Home Secretary might consider the possibility of framing his new disciplinary code on certain broad principles which I will outline.
First, the firemen should only be punished for something which they have done in the course of their job. It is very fortunate that when I come to intervene in a Scottish part of this Debate, I can draw an example from a Scottish town where the wives of two of the watch-room attendants quarrelled with each other. In the end the thing reached such a degree of acrimony that one of the husbands complained to his fire commander. The fire commander ordered the other man to apologise. "Well," said the second man, "as a matter of fact, 1474 my wife never said these things," and so on. In consequence the commander proceeded to discipline this man for disobeying an order by refusing to apologise. Clearly, that is most undesirable. Private relations of that sort should not be brought under the fire code.
Many of the brigades will be comparatively small and a trial before, the chief officer is undesirable. They are a few people together, they all know each other; it would be much more suitable if the trial took place before the fire brigade committee or a sub-committee which would investigate charges. Perhaps the Secretary of State would consider that the right of appeal in these cases might be extended. At the moment it only exists in a somewhat imperfect form in cases of dismissal. The Minister might well consider extending that to cases where there is a reduction in rank or where a heavy fine is imposed.
My fourth point is that, generally speaking, under most contracts of service, a worker cannot be suspended by his employer unless he is kept on full pay. In the fire service at the moment there is an undesirable provision that a fireman who is suspended is placed on half pay. There may be numerous occasions on which it is necessary to suspend a fireman. I will quote one case which comes from Aberdeen. There was a case there where two firemen were charged with an offence which arose out of a fire. They were, very properly, I am sure, suspended and it was then decided to wait until the result of civil proceedings, arising out of the same incident, became known, before the charge was dealt with under the disciplinary code. The consequence was that for months and months these two unfortunate men were dependent on half pay, which was not sufficient to maintain them and they were in a position that they could not seek any other employment. Finally, there ought to be some arrangement by which the conduct of the chief officer can be investigated. Under the general orders of the London Fire Brigade there was such a provision. My right hon. Friend might consider whether that provision, at any rate, from the general orders of the London Fire Brigade might not be put into any disciplinary code which he makes.
To conclude, I wish to refer to one of the Clauses to which the Minister, oddly 1475 enough, omitted to refer in the very exhaustive account of the Bill which he made. As I understand it, Clause 12 permits the use of private fire brigades of various sorts. At a later stage perhaps the Minister would consider the general issue here. There may be a fire brigade whose first loyalty is not to the area as a whole but to some local business organisation. The question also arises of the compensation payable to the men who work in that type of brigade, especially where there is a joint scheme working one with the other. I do not want to develop this point beyond saying that I feel that this Clause follows rather too closely Section 1 (3) of the 1938 Act It is a Committee point. I suggest that the Minister might, before the Committee stage look at this matter again to see how far he feels that the general framework of the Bill has' not outgrown the provisions which he is now including in Clause 12.
§ 7.33 p.m.
§ Mr. John Morrison (Salisbury)
I hope the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) will forgive me if I do not follow him in what he said, except to remark that I entirely agree with him regarding the importance of discipline. A suitable disciplinary code is an essential part of the efficiency of a service of this nature. As one who represents an ancient city which did not suffer so much as some the damages and dangers of the blitz, I wish to add my tribute to that of the Home Secretary to those who did such marvellous jobs in those places which were badly blitzed. Particularly, I pay a tribute to the women who assisted so much, and add the hope that they may play their part in the future and thus assist to solve our manpower difficulties. The Minister said that he was willing that all local bodies should be heard. I hope that in the remaining stages of the proceedings on this Bill, he will listen to their views on detailed matters of administration.
A great deal of criticism has been voiced from both sides of the House in regard to the treatment of non-county boroughs. I know what my namesake, the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President of the Council, thinks about this matter, because when he was Home Secretary he said:It is the very definite intention of the Government that this is a wartime expedient only … It is certainly my very definite view that after the war the fire-fighting forces should again be a local authority service; 1476 that, is to say, that they should not be permanently run by the State, but should again become a local authority service."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th May, 1941; Vol. 371, c. 1429.]Incidentally, I hope soon the right hon. Gentleman will be back in this House. No doubt, many local authorities took those remarks of the right hon. Gentleman literally to mean that the service would be handed back to them. This has caused some disappointment. I hope that the Home Secretary will meet these various local difficulties as far as possible, and particularly in regard to the delegation of authority from the county council. This point has been mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) and the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson). The non-county boroughs have had rather a raw deal throughout, as I think hon. Members in all parts of the House will agree.
I hope that we shall find that, where a county authority is satisfied that a district authority can take over the fire service and work it satisfactorily—as indeed many district authorities did before the war—they will be allowed to do so. Apart from any other consideration, that would promote a local interest and efficiency which makes a great deal of difference to the running of this type of service in the interests of the community. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) has discussed the question of compensation. I believe the sum of £6,800,000 was mentioned as being the cost of the apparatus originally taken over by the National Fire Service. How, and in what way, is this to be paid for when it is taken over now? I hope we shall hear more about that subject.
On the question of the pensions scheme, I hope that, either now or on the Committee stage, we shall be given more detail regarding the minimum age at which a man can retire and the pension scale covering the various ages of retirement. I would like to reinforce another point which was mentioned—the question of the standardisation of equipment. If that is to be done—and it may be a good thing in some instances—so that hose pipes and other appliances should fit between different fire brigades. But we do not want it to lead to a loss of progress and inefficiency. After all, through the years, efficiency has been brought about by new ideas in the fire services. I hope that matter will be very carefully considered.
§ 7.38 p.m.
§ Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)
Like the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. J. Morrison), I would like to begin by paying my tribute to the National Fire Service, particularly in regard to the readiness with which those members of the Force stationed in non-dangerous areas agreed to go to the assistance of their comrades in the areas that were being attacked. I listened with interest to the Home Secretary's introduction of this Bill. Neither he nor I was present at the conference at the Home Office in May, 1941, and therefore both of us have to rely upon the evidence which is available to us of what took place. I attempted by an interjection, to obtain from the right hon. Gentleman information on what authorities were present at that conference. He intimated that he would indicate that later in his speech, but for one reason or another he omitted to do so. He made a good deal of the point that the service was being handed back to the local authorities. But how it is possible to "hand back" a service to a local authority which never had it before 1941 I fail to understand.
I would remind my right hon. Friend that the County Councils Association were not represented at the conference in 1941 because they were not interested, not having been fire authorities. The organisations represented were the Urban District Councils Association, the Association of Municipal Corporations, the Rural District Councils Association and the London County Council. As far as these associations are concerned, they are quite clear in their minds. They understood that the promise given by the Lord President of the Council when he was Home Secretary was, that the service would be returned to the authorities from whom it was taken in 1941. It is contended that the changes which the right hon. Gentleman now proposes to bring about are not consistent with the Report of the Royal Commission on Fire Brigades of 1923, nor are they consistent with the Report of the Departmental Committee on Fire Brigades of 1936, and certainly not in conformity with the Fire Brigade Act, 1938. I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman what special qualifications county councils possess suddenly to become fire authorities. One could think of one very eminent reason, but I hesitate to suggest that it is because the Home Secretary has a county council mind.
§ Mr. D. Jones
That has not been reflected unfortunately in the legislation for which the right hon. Gentleman has been responsible in this Parliament or the last Parliament. Delegation by designation is an unsound procedure because of the differing sizes of local authorities. What are the actual facts? If we take the figure of 50,000 as an optimum figure, we find there are five administrative counties—four in Wales and one in England—with a population of less than 50,000. We find there are seven county boroughs each with a population of less than 50,000 persons. The right hon. Gentleman suggests that he wants a bigger area and a bigger unit, and he proceeds to designate five administrative counties and seven county boroughs with populations of less than 50,000 as fire authorities, overlooking the fact probably that there are 44 non-county boroughs in this country with a population of over 50,000 and 12 urban districts with a population of over 50,000. If he wants a bigger unit, he might have looked to an optimum figure rather than delegation by designation because as a result of that he has created this unfair position.
In Clause 5 there is power for authorities to agree to combine. In Clause 6 there is power for the Home Secretary to make combination schemes. With these powers in his possession, he could have returned the fire forces to the authority which possessed it pre-1941, exercising the voluntary or compulsory rights contained in the Bill to order the amalgamation of authorities smaller than 50,000 in order that he might bring them up to that or any other figure he might have considered desirable. There was no need for 1,440 separate fire authorities to remain in existence. By the powers contained in Clauses 5 and 6 they could have been reduced to a smaller total, each authority being of a serviceable size.
This whittling away of the power of the medium-sized local authorities one after the other is undermining the respect in which local government is held in this country. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I do not agree with the hon. and learned Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) when he suggests that it started 1479 with this Government. The responsibility for whittling away the power of medium-sized local authorities, if it rests at the door of anybody at all, must rest at the door of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Butler). Education, police, town planning and now the fire service were all services which were administered by urban districts and non-county boroughs. There may be a case for a re-examination of the problem of local government, there may be a case for creating bigger local government areas; but this method of taking away the powers of the minor authorities one by one is pre-judging the position in advance of any complete examination as to what form local government shall take in this country in the future. I want to ask the Home Secretary to reconsider the power which he possesses in the Bill to amalgamate two authorities. The hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Blyton) raised the same point. If power is sought to combine two authorities, why not power to combine one authority and the adjoining parts of another?
Clause 13 seeks to provide regulations to transfer the property of the county districts to the new fire authorities. I repeat a question asked by the right hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake): is compensation to be paid for this property, and if it is, by whom is it to be paid? Clauses 18, 19, 20 and 21 give a much greater power to the Home Secretary than he has possessed hitherto under the 1938 Act. Why this greater power to the central government when the central government provides only 25 per cent. of the cost? It is not handing back this power to local authorities if the central government retains in its possession the greater part of the direction as far as the service is concerned while at the same time avoiding its obligation of meeting what ought to be regarded as its fair share of the cost of running this service.
The Bill seeks to take away one more power from the smaller authorities. I regret this very much. The Bill is not liked by the 572 urban districts in this country, and it is certainly not liked by the 500 non-county boroughs. I suggest to the Home Secretary that if he desires some measure of agreement between the county districts and the county councils. 1480 he must put into this Bill very definite powers of delegation. The county districts remember the speeches delivered in this House during the passage of the Education Act, both by the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden and by my right hon. Friend who was then the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education. Speech after speech was made in this House in which it was suggested that the divisional executive to be set up under that Bill, would be given a life of their own in the educational structure of this country. The Home Secretary might spend the Easter Recess in having a good look at the schemes of delegation which the county councils of this country have drawn up, and the manner in which they treat these divisional executives.
This House cannot depend upon some mutual agreement. If it feels that these minor authorities ought to have these fire authority powers, it ought to be inserted in the Bill. I hope that during the Committee stage these powers will be inserted. If it can be agreed that an optimum figure of 50,000, 75,000 or 100,000 is necessary to create a sizeable unit for fire purposes, that can be done by exercising the powers in Clauses 5 or 6.
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)
I hope the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) will forgive me if I do not follow him in any great detail. There were many points he raised with which I found myself agreeing very sincerely, but I must bring the House back to the question of this Bill in relation to Scotland. It is the most perfect example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpher-son) has said, of the necessity for a separate Bill for Scotland. I cannot think what the Secretary of State for Scotland was doing in agreeing to have one Bill for England and Scotland. We have had this point out with him several times before, and I think, at one time he was more inclined to see the light in this matter than he is now. It is a scandal that a Bill of this kind which requires nearly six pages, including 22 Subsections, to try to make it applicable to Scotland should be found in one cover. It is quite fantastic, and I wish to register a strong protest on the subject.
Apart from this, I cannot help feeling that here we are up against bureaucracy 1481 in excelsis. The local authorities have been told by the Minister that they will have their fire services given back to them. Really, that is hardly the truth. The local authorities will be directed, ordered about, checked, counter-checked from the central Government in every single operation they try to undertake, and it is absurd to say that he is returning to the local authorities the fire services which were taken from them under a guarantee. I do not want to emphasise the question raised already about the speech made in 1941 by the then Home Secretary, but the Psalmist says:Put not your trust in princes nor in the son of man.If he had said "Ministers" instead of "princes," he would have been much nearer the mark, because there is a direct breaking of the pledge in the minds of all the local authorities up and down the length of Great Britain.
I would like to touch briefly on what has been raised several times, the question of the Government taking practically 100 per cent, of the authorities' control in exchange for 25 per cent, of the cash. It is grossly unfair. I do not want to labour the point but, when one thinks what the local authorities are already saddled with 111 the matter of rates, it is nothing short of a scandal that, with all this control, the controlled body should have to provide 75 per cent, of the funds. The cost seems to be enormous. Admittedly, it has to be greater than it was before the war, but I understand that on Lloyds, who have considerable knowledge of these things, the estimate for fire risks for the whole of Great Britain and Eire for 1946 was something like £12,500,000. This means that the administrative cost of this new service under this Bill will be more than the whole of the estimated risks for 1946 for Great Britain and Eire. It does not seem to be a right proportion at all, and I hope the Minister may have something to say on that point.
The ratepayers in remote areas, as was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake), will get a bad bargain out of this In my own constituency I have the borough of Perth, which has an admirable fire service, efficient and excellent, and the lieges of Perth will do well out of this Bill. But what about the citizens of Glenshiel, Kirk-michael and Kinloch Rannoch—miles 1482 away from any fire service? Why should they have to pay this rate for the privileges that the Perth citizens will get? I do not think it is right. Not that I wish the Perth citizens to have any less, but it is not right that there should be the same payment by these people in out lying districts who, quite frankly, will not be covered at all. Just how did these areas into which Scotland is to be divided, actually come about? Who decided this? I hope the Secretary of State will tell us clearly who decided, for instance, that a man sitting in Inverness will control the fire services in the Shetlands? Who decided that a man sitting in Paisley will control the fire services in the farthest flung corners of Argyllshire? Are we to see from Greenock, which come sunder the same area, fire floats setting out to Campbeltown ploughing their way across the main to deal with fires in the South of Argyll? That is an exaggeration, I admit, but how did these areas come about, and who decided them? And why should the English Minister give options to the English county areas for combining when the Scottish areas have had no option? I would like an answer to that.
I would like to know also if the Secretary of State thinks it is good, in principle, that there should be compulsory and not voluntary amalgamation. After all, under the 1938 Act it was to be voluntary, but there were plenty of safeguards for those' who did not play the game. There were compulsory Clauses. I think it is bad in principle to have compulsory amalgamation. The Association of County Council's in Scotland is deeply concerned over this Bill, and so is the National Fire Service Officers' Association—two bodies to whose opinion every deference should be paid. The majority of local authorities, certainly in my part of the world, I honestly believe, would prefer to retain the National Fire Service than function under this Bill. Although I dislike nationalisation of anything, one must pay attention to the people who have thought this out carefully and who have to operate it. I think, now they know, they would rather have the old status. I would also like the Secretary of State for Scotland to tell us what representations the small burghs in Scotland will have under this Bill. I do not think they should be left out. Many of them have had excellent fire services in the past and they are entitled to full consideration. 1483 They may be covered, but I would like that to be made clear
Now I come briefly to the question of appointments. I do not understand this. Under Clause 19 appointments are to be made after consulting with the Fire Brigade Administrative Advisory Council. Yet in Scotland, and certainly in Perthshire, two people—the fire master designate and the depute fire master designate—have already been nominated and are known, and so have many others. By what right does the Secretary of State do this before Parliament has even sanctioned the Bill? This is a most retrograde and quite irregular step. It is perfectly clear that before you can take the advice of an advisory council, you must have authority for setting it up, and the Clause in the Bill is provided for that purpose. But it has not yet been set up, and the Clause further states that these should and must be consultation with that body before making appointments. Then, why were those appointments made in Scotland without such consultation?
Again, on this question of appointments, I ask: are local authorities not competent to choose men for these posts? I understand that there is a pool of trained men who have been serving admirably, and there are other people not in that pool who should be considered. It is an insult to a local authority of standing to say they are not competent to choose a fire master or a deputy fire master but must take whoever the Minister appoints. I think it is an outrageous state of affairs, and sheer dictatorship on the part of the Minister.
In Clause 36, which is the wonderful "Woolworths' stores" application to Scotland, there are miles of it. We have complained about this before, and the Secretary of State said that it was a Bill in itself. It is a Bill in itself, which is quite unintelligible. If taken out of its context, the Clause is absolute gibberish. It is absolute nonsense to say that this Bill is complete as far as Scotland is concerned, because we have this involved Clause 36. On one involved Subsection of the Clause I would like some information. Subsection (15) says that the public Health Act of 1936 shall apply to Scotland. Since when in a purely English Measure, which expressly stated that it should not apply to Scotland, has it become a habit to tuck in this provision, and 1484 say that it applies to Scotland? It seems that we are opening up a. completely unconstitutional way of doing things. I have had it on very high legal authority in Scotland that this has only happened once or twice before, and that a stop was put to it as it was considered unsatisfactory and dangerous. I would like to know why the Secretary of State has given his consent to such a provision being put into a Bill.
I should like to know what the Secretary of State is really up to. There is grave dissatisfaction in Scotland about what is happening in the representation of Scottish interests. The right hon. Gentleman said the other day that no Secretary of State ever had such loyal support from his colleagues as he has had. I think that is excellent, but why are the results so miserable? Why are our rights and interests being whittled down as is being done at present? If it is true that the Cabinet loyally support the Secretary of State—and I have no reason to doubt his word—it is with the Secretary of State that the trouble lies. He cannot be presenting the claims of Scotland as he should be, or his loyal colleagues would be backing him up. I think Scotland knows, as the result of this Bill and many previous Measures, that the representation in the Cabinet is quite ineffective. We are told that there is a loyal Cabinet; therefore, there must be an inefficient Secretary of State.
§ 8.3 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Westwood)
It might be convenient to the House if I were to intervene at this stage, and deal with several of the points which have been raised generally in their application to the Bill, and with particular reference to how these general questions apply to Scotland; and also to deal with some of the specific points put by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson), and the hon. and gallant Member for Perth (Colonel Gomme-Duncan). The right hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake), who opened the Debate from the other side, asked several questions which have a general application. First, he asked what had been the rate of demobilisation of the National Fire Service. In Scotland, the full strength has fallen from a peak of about 10,000 firemen and firewomen, to a total of 2,350, which will fall in the next six months to about 2,000. He asked if it was intended to 1485 employ part-time firemen. The answer is a most emphatic "Yes." In Scotland there are 2,300 part-time retained men. This figure may be slightly increased. Part-time men will necessarily provide the main cover in many parts of the landward areas, and in the small burghs.
The right hon. Gentleman asked if it is intended to pay compensation to former fire authorities. Here the answer is an emphatic "No." But a fully equipped service will be handed to the new fire authorities. He asked if Clause 12 (1) enabled the new fire authorities to delegate to small authorities who were not fire authorities. Here again the answer is "No." It will enable arrangements to be made with other fire authorities and persons who maintain a fire brigade. My hon. Friends from Scottish constituencies know of cases where private fire brigades are provided. It is possible to enter into an arrangement between the fire authorities and efficiently privately owned fire brigades.
A question was asked whether insurance companies would contribute to the cost of the fire service. All I can say is that I did not settle that problem. It was settled for us in 1938, and it was not a Labour Government which was in office at that time. The question was settled when the fire service under the 1938 Act was made free of charge and established in all areas. There were many areas in England and Scotland, particularly in Scotland, where there was no cover prior to the 1938 Act. The insurance companies then made a substantial payment in liquidation of their previous liabilities to contribute to the cost of fire fighting. I think a question was asked in connection with the Islands. There will be an obligation to enable them to provide a fire service. But they will be enabled under Clause 1 (3) to fix standards which have regard to the special circumstances and requirements of the area.
§ Mr. N. Macpherson
The right hon. Gentleman says he is handing back equipment, and so forth. Does that mean that all the equipment available is being handed over free of debit?
§ Mr. Westwood
Certainly. When we nationalised the fire service we had not an efficient fire service in every part. In some places we had. In Scotland, some 1486 of the small burghs had efficient fire services, but, in other places, the councils had made no provision of any kind. We built up a fire service during the war. We intend to hand over an efficient fire service when we are handing back to local authority administration. That will explain one or two of the reasons why I have had to take action on the lines on which I have taken action.
I come to one or two specific points raised by hon. Members opposite representing Scottish constituencies. There was a general complaint that this was a United Kingdom Bill. I am not responsible for that provision. I happened to be in the House in 1938 when the 1938 Bill became an Act of Parliament. I did not hear a single voice from the Conservative Party at that time demanding—
§ Mr. Westwood
The hon. and gallant Member was not here. Maybe if he had been here, he would not have made the mistake of blaming me for what the Conservative Party did, which I think is right.
§ Mr. Westwood
If the hon. and gallant Gentleman had waited a moment I would have told him that I did agree most emphatically, because in the 1938 Act there were three and a half pages of an application Clause for Scotland. In this Bill there are five and a half pages of an Application Clause. I make no apology for supporting this as a United Kingdom Bill. It was a United Kingdom Bill in 1938.
§ Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)
When there is such a departure between the two countries as shown here, surely it would be better to have a separate Bill for Scotland?
§ Mr. Westwood
No. There is no vital departure in the matter of principle. There is only the departure in the way of the application of those principles because of Scottish administrative problems. It was impossible for anyone to say that the 1938 Act was satisfactory. We never had an opportunity of operating it. The war broke out and there is no indication that 1487 the scheme applied in the 1938 Act would either have been successful or unsuccessful. It never had a chance to operate. Therefore, we have experience behind us when considering the handing back of the administration to the local authorities. We desired to hand back an effective service—a service which in our opinion would work effectively and efficiently for fire-fighting purposes.
Then I was asked to what extent these combined authorities would operate in connection with certain other matters. All I can point out in this connection is that this is not a national administration of the fire service. We had six areas in Scotland. I do not think anyone would say that they were not reasonable areas in the knowledge that we were able to get as a result of the operational efficiency during the war. What we have done in connection with those areas is to split them into two so as to get nearer that point of having a larger number of areas in which to have effective operational control for fire-fighting purposes. I am in favour of a full measure of local authority control, but I want my hon. Friends to realise that this is still a National Fire Service. As far as Scotland is concerned, I will be responsible for handing over an effective and efficient unit ready to operate at once, because fires will not wait during the time local authorities are arguing who is to be put in control of the fire service. I am still responsible for the service until this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament. When it becomes an Act of Parliament local authorities will prepare a scheme, because administration and operational work may vary in different areas. They will put forward their different schemes for consideration and my hon. Friends can rest assured that I am in favour of the maximum amount of local control for these services.
There have been complaints about the 25 per cent. grant. It is a common complaint and almost everyone who has spoken in the Debate has touched upon it. I would remind the House that in the 1938 Act there was no provision for a grant of any kind, and undoubtedly fire services could not have been provided which were efficient based upon the conditions which operated prior to 1938, for inevitably the costs would have been vastly increased if we had had time to put 1488 the 1938 Act into operation. For instance, firemen under normal conditions will not be prepared to work on the six days' continuous system. They have a 60-hour week and there are improved conditions, and those conditions would have to be further improved irrespective of whether we had retained all of the 1938 Act and simply handed the fire services to the local authorities that were mentioned in that Act. The local authorities would have had to bear the increased costs and would have had to face up to that question. I for one did not thrust the fire services back upon the Scottish local authorities. They demanded that those services should be handed over, although a majority of certain types of local authority favoured the service remaining as a nationalised fire service. We are seeking to hand to the local authority administration an efficient fire service.
§ Mr. N. Macpherson
Could the right hon. Gentleman give us the numbers who replied to the question in the Circular which he sent out in September, 1945?
§ Mr. Westwood
Not without notice, but I will endeavour before the Committee stage to give the hon. Member the answer.
I was asked why it was necessary to have the application to Scotland of Section 287 of the English Public Health Act, 1936, followed by Section 27 of the Fire Brigade Act, 1938. The reason is that the powers given are more up to date and satisfactory than the 50-years-old provision of the Scottish Public Health Act, 1897.
§ Colonel Gomme-Duncan
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that if something is thoroughly wrong in 1938 it should still be done in 1947?
§ Mr. Westwood
This is giving power to enter premises. It happened to be in the Public Health Act and gave more up-to-date powers to deal with fires.
§ Commander Galbraith
Would the right hon. Gentleman not consider it better if he had that Section of the Act to which he has referred stated in full here instead of merely referring to it by figures so that people would know what it meant? In the meantime people resident in Scotland, if they want to know, must go to the trouble of hunting up the Public Health Act to look up this Section. It is not a convenient way to deal with the matter.
§ Mr. Westwood
I admit at once it is not convenient, but when we have consolidation these things can be dealt with.
A reference was made to the circular which we have issued. It was issued at the request of the local authorities' association to indicate the considerations involved. The areas mentioned were not announced as those we were proposing but those recommended by the Fire Commission—a body I had in Scotland to advise me in connection with problems associated with fire fighting. These areas were selected as being suitable operational areas irrespective of the form of control.
If I might I would now give one or two facts concerning Scotland and the reason for commending this Bill to the House. In Scotland the fire fighting authority under the Fire Brigades Act, 1938, were the county councils, the councils of counties, of cities and of all burghs. I said burghs and that included the small ones. There were, therefore, in Scotland under the 1938 Act, 228 separate authorities. Under this classification there was the case of New Galloway, which would be a fire fighting authority if we had continued the provision of the 1938 Act. In that area a penny in the pound brings in £8. It would not have given them the necessary amount to buy a barrel or a whistle never mind give effective fire fighting cover.
I am sure hon. Members opposite agree in this connection. Some of the 228 separate authorities which I have mentioned acted in combination, but there were something like 200 separate brigades. The great majority of these consisted of a single pump manned by part-time retained firemen with no adequate arrangements for training and no effective system of reinforcements, except for war emergency purposes. These brigades included in all about 600 whole-time regular firemen, most of them working, as I have already indicated, on a six-day continuous duty system, and about 1,500 part-time retained firemen. The efficiency of this organisation varied from area to area and I admit that it would unquestionably have been improved as the arrangements contemplated by the Act of 1938 came more fully into operation.
I submit, however, that it was inconceivable that, on the basis of that Act, a fully efficient and co-ordinated service with proper standards of training and ade- 1490 quate and mobile equipment of standard design and performance could have been created. That would have been absolutely impossible. Many of the authorities were without the resources required to build up such an organisation, and even if this had not been so, its maintenance for the benefit of the small communities for which they were responsible would have been quite uneconomic. Of the 195 burghs in Scotland, for example, 119 have a population of fewer than 5,000. In 86 of these burghs a penny rate produces less than £100. Of the 33 counties the landward population in 18 is fewer than 25,000; and the yield of a penny rate in 16 of them is less than £500. It is remarkable, and a great credit to the local authorities concerned, that upon this unsatisfactory basis so adequate an auxiliary service was built up before and immediately after the outbreak of war.
But wartime experience showed clearly that in Scotland, as in England and in Wales, a broader-based organisation was essential if the available resources were to be capable of quick and efficient deployment, if adequate standards of training were to be reached—and we had no adequate standards of training under the old arrangements—and if essential uniformity of equipment, of fire fighting practice and in the chain of command, was to be achieved. When the National Fire Service was formed, the Scottish Fire Commission was consulted about the general lay-out to be adopted. That Commission is a body which, under the very able chairmanship of Sir Robert Bryce Walker, to whom the fire service in Scotland owes a great debt, gave us valuable help throughout the war and in the early postwar years, and consists almost entirely of men of wide local authority experience. With its approval it was decided to divide Scotland into six areas, as I have already indicated. In each of these the fire-fighting resources, carefully planned and integrated, were placed under a single command, and at its peak the National Fire Service had at its disposal in Scotland some 2,250 appliances and nearly 10,000 whole-time and nearly 16,000 part-time employees, both men and women.
This wartime organisation which, though greatly reduced in strength, is still in existence, has worked well and effectively—so much so that, as I have said, among Scottish local authorities there 1491 was a strong body of opinion which favoured the retention of the National Fire Service for peace time needs. The Highland counties, particularly, were very anxious for the National Fire Service to continue because of the excellent work which it has been able to do—under sometimes exceptional conditions—in some of those counties. Cut the Secretary of State for Scotland pledged himself at that time—just as did my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for England—to return the service to local authority administration. I therefore took counsel with the Fire Commission in order to decide which areas would, from the operation point of view, best enable a thoroughly efficient service to be organised to meet peace time needs. Here, incidentally, I am dealing with the question which was put to me as to who mapped out these areas. After full discussion and after hearing expert opinion, the Commission recommended the adoption of ten areas in place of the wartime six, that is, exclusive of Glasgow which is left as a separate unit, as will be seen from the Schedule.
That was the body which advised me and it was not the plan of the Secretary of State for Scotland or of his Department. These 10 areas have since been increased to 11. It was thought best to leave Glasgow as a single area instead of joining it in a combined area with the counties of Lanark and Dunbarton. The areas as thus revised are the City of Glasgow and the 10 areas set out in the Second Schedule to the Bill. I am quite satisfied that they provide a sound operational basis for our new service. After all, I have had a double experience in dealing with fire service, for I was myself a convenor of a fire brigade committee in a town where I was an administrator, and it was my work during the war, as Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, to take direct responsibility for the fire services in Scotland. If, however, experience shows these areas to be in any respect unsatisfactory, provision is made in Clause 37 (8) for their modification after due consultation with the authorities concerned, and subject to proper safeguards. If these modifications are made by agreement with the local authorities no further action is required except to put them into effect. If there is disagreement and we still want to make some modifications, they are subject to Negative Resolution in the House.
1492 Having settled the areas we had next to consider how they should be administered. In Glasgow there was no problem and the town council will, as before, become the fire authority. In the other areas we had to choose between setting up a new ad hoc authority and providing for joint administration by a combination of existing local authorities. The first alternative could hardly be justified for the administration for so relatively small a service, and the Bill accordingly proposes to adopt the second. It designates as the fire authorities the councils of counties and large burghs. When it comes to working things out, the scheme will have to provide for a fair representation between the authorities. The small burghs will be able to come in because they have their representatives on county councils, as every hon. Member for Scotland knows. Small burghs are on the county councils and I shall have to watch, when the schemes are presented for my approval, that the county councils have seen that there is reasonable representation in connection with the working of the fire service. I think I have dealt fairly and adequately with the points which have been raised. The object is to try to hand over to the fire fighting authorities which are designated in the Bill an efficient and effective service which will be a credit to those who have the responsibility for it.
§ Commander Galbraith
Can we have any information on how the right hon. Gentleman intends this service to be paid for? Does he intend that there shall be any difference as between the payments of the landward areas and the burghs, for obviously the burghs must receive more protection than it is possible to afford the landward areas?
§ Mr. Westwood
The grant will be at a standard rate of 25 per cent. based upon their expenditure. I am willing to look into any scheme put forward by local authorities who are willing to differentiate so far as the rate charge is concerned. The grant will be a standard grant of 25 per cent., and the local authorities will have to look at the position and see where the major cover is given.
§ 8.32 p.m.
§ Major Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Ecclesall)
I want to add the name of the city I represent to the list of those other cities and local authorities as far apart as Birmingham, Durham and Cheltenham on whose behalf hon. Members have appealed to the Front Bench this evening. If it is any help to hon. Members opposite, I would point out that Sheffield has a large Socialist majority. I have a letter here in which the Sheffield city council oppose very strongly certain suggestions contained in this Bill. These suggestions have already been put by other hon. Members, and all I propose to do is to enumerate them briefly without elaboration. First, under Clauses 18, 19 and 21 there is far too much centralised power taken by Whitehall, and not enough notice taken of local authorities and their experience. It seems, throughout all Socialist legislation of this kind, that the powers of discretion are more and more being taken away from local authorities and handed over to Whitehall. I suggest to the Government that it is best to leave at the lower level such questions as rank, hours, maintenance and discipline, and not to concentrate them on the high Whitehall level.
The point was made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) that the Minister is virtually keeping control in his own hands. On the financial question, it seems illogical to say, as some Members have said, that the powers of the central Government are too large, and that the grant should be increased. If the grant is only 25 per cent., then a great deal more power should be given to the local authorities. On the other hand, if the Minister is prepared to reconsider this matter and give a greater amount of autonomy to the local authorities in comparison to the amount of money which they are asked to pay, then one might easily drop this question of 25 per cent. I do not know what the answer of the Government will be. They must consider very seriously their answer, because upon it will depend the question of voting for or against the Money Resolution. I hope that the other Sheffield Members will add their voices in pressing the Front Bench on this matter. In conclusion, I should like to ask whether any local authorities of big cities and industrial areas approve of the Bill and these two Clauses as they stand.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Symonds (Cambridge)
Like the hon. and gallant Member for Ecclesall (Major Roberts), I should like to say a brief word on the disproportion between power and financial responsibility. When my right hon. Friend introduced this Measure, he gave 1st April, 1948, as the appointed day. In view of the nature of his speech, I wonder whether he may have a vesting day ceremony, and if so, what form it will take. Perhaps the Home Secretary will solemnly descend a fire escape, or less solemnly come down a chute. I think, however, the motto for the day should be "The N.F.S. is dead. Long live the N.F.S.," because that is in fact what is happening. The N.F.S. is, in fact, continuing under another name, but I am not at all perturbed about that, because I have felt all along that a national fire service is likely to be more effective than a purely local service. Our wartime experience has shown that. We are up against the fact that this undertaking was given to the local authorities, and that some day or other it has to be implemented. To hand over the power to 1,600 authorities—I think that was the figure mentioned—would be absurd, and so perhaps the county councils and county boroughs are a better choice; but simply to hand over the powers to county councils and county boroughs without making any allowance for the differing sizes and characters of county councils and county boroughs, is making a big mistake.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) referred to county councils and county boroughs which are considerably smaller than many non-county boroughs. There is also this peculiarity as regards the non-county borough I have the honour to represent. The non-county borough of Cambridge is larger in population than the rest of the administrative county, and in fact pays two-thirds of the county rate. It is, however, steadily handing over power after power to the county council which is numerically smaller. The Home Secretary said he was hopeful there might be some form of arrangement made between the county councils and the county district councils, and he did not seem to rule out the possibility of delegation. I hope he will remember the way in which special arrangements have had to be made in regard to Cambridge, both as regards education and police. We are an excepted 1495 district for education, and we had a special Clause to ourselves in the Police Bill as regards our police force. The anomalous position of this borough must be taken into account when the matter of transfer of powers from non-county boroughs to county councils is under consideration.
To anyone who supports the idea of a national fire service, the general provisions of the Bill are welcome. It is desirable that we should have a general standard of equipment throughout the country. At the moment, large resources are being assembled for use in the Fens, and it would be a most absurd situation if all the appliances and hoses were not standardised. The result would be chaos. I welcome this preservation, in essence, of a national fire service, but as the Home Secretary lays down the law in almost every detail I think it is quite illogical of him to make a grant of only 25 per cent. My own borough, at the moment, has a rate of about 20s. in the pound. The 1941 agreed cost of the N.F.S. was just under £3,000, equivalent to about a penny rate. According to the Home Secretary's own figures, that cost is likely to be four or five times as much, and that means a fourpenny rate at least, through the county precept, on top of that rate of 20s. in the pound The fact that there will be increased cost is inevitable. Better pay and shorter hours of work are bound to put up the cost—and no one regrets that—but a large proportion of the increased cost will result from the higher standards—desirable, I admit—laid down by the Home Secretary, and over which the local authorities have no control at all. If the Home Secretary has these full powers, then I think he should accept a much greater measure of financial responsibility.
§ 8.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Erroll (Altrincham and Sale)
We on this side of the House have found the speech of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Symonds) most interesting, and most constructive; indeed, it embodied some of the criticisms of the Bill which we have in mind ourselves. This Bill does two things. First, it introduces a new principle of organisation of fire services and, secondly, it carries out a number of tidying-up jobs, such as the improvement of conditions of service and standardisation of equipment. 1496 With the latter I have no quarrel whatever but as regards the general principle of organisation, I feel that transfer to the county authorities will make for unnecessary rigidity. In preparing a paper scheme, it is easy to try to make everything look tidy. It looks as though everything would work better if one allowed fire services to the fire authorities only to the county level. But it is often to be found in large organisations, whether military or civil, that rather less rigidity works better—in other words, that exceptions are often valuable adjuncts to efficient administration.
What the hon. Member for Cambridge said about his town serves to reinforce my point. Exceptions have already been made for Cambridge, as regards police services and education. These exceptions have done no harm to those services, and have done a great deal of good to Cambridge. It is important to realise that these fire services are being transferred to county councils without those councils having asked for them. The services are, in a sense, being thrust upon them, and there has been little opportunity for the efficient non-county borough to put in a plea for retention of their own service. I agree that there must be a reduction in the number of separate fire services from what we had before the war, but many of the smaller authorities did run highly efficient tire services, of which they were justly proud. I am speaking particularly tonight of the fire brigades in the non-county boroughs of Altrincham and Sale. Hon. Members may be interested to know that my constituency consists of these two non-county boroughs. Each had its own fire service. Each town was competitively jealous of its position, and they tended to vie with each other for efficiency. Both are sorry to see their fire services being taken away; they feel that no good can come of it. I regret that in this Bill there is none of the flexibility there ought to be in any new administrative Measure. It ought to be possible to make exceptions where fire services have been efficiently carried out before the war. I think it will be a great pity not to have so much local interest. The hon. Member for Cambridge said that a national fire service ought to be better, or more efficient, than a local service. I do not think that that follows at all—
§ Mr. Symonds
I spoke from the point of view of a more effective fire service 1497 because of the absence of watertight boundaries.
§ Mr. Erroll
I am grateful for that explanation. Nevertheless, I think there is a tendency among many people, including Members on both sides of the House, to think that if a thing is big, it will necessarily be more efficient. That does not follow. We are learning by experience dial a large organisation is often more inefficient because of its rigidity. Local interest does not just mean sentimental interest. In this matter, it probably means that the local fire service will be more efficient. The Secretary of State for Scotland referred to the intention to retain part-time firemen. I was not clear whether he meant that that would apply to Scotland, only, or to Great Britain as a whole. If he meant to Great Britain as a whole, I am glad that a large body of part-time men will be used. But will potential part-time men be so willing to come forward, if there is not the same local interest as there was before? I do not think that you will get these men into a near national service with anything like the same camaraderie and enthusiasm as that with which part-timers went into local fire services when these were under the control of local authorities.
I would like to say a word or two about the heavy cost of the service. I do not think the cost which is anticipated can be excused altogether by saying that it represents improved conditions for staff, and improved appliances. It seems that a most excessive allowance has been made for extravagance. We ought to know why this service will cost five times as much as it did before the war. While it is good to see the Treasury handing out a little money, it seems that they have given the minimum grant while ensuring that the central Government are retaining maximum control. A hard bargain has been driven, if the matter has been subject to any bargaining at all. It savours much more of being a dictate from Whitehall, and I believe that a much more favourable grant should have been allowed.
There is one small point in the Bill which has not, I think, been covered so far. That is the case of those local authorities which, before the war, ran an ambulance service in conjunction with their fire service. Altrincham is such an example. One garage housed the ambulance and fire engine, and one mainten- 1498 ance man was able to look after the ambulance as well as the fire engine. There was interchangeability of drivers, and the whole thing worked cleanly and efficiently. When the fire engine or ambulance was summoned for an emergency call, the call went through to the same headquarters, with the minimum of delay. I am not sure what the position will be in future, whether the ambulance will be transferred with the fire brigade, or whether it will be retained by the local authority and administered separately.
Finally, I should like to say how pleased I am to hear about the standardisation. I put a Question on the subject to the Home Secretary some time ago and had a most reassuring answer. We must make sure that standardisation does not replace progress, and that is one of the besetting difficulties of our time. I regret, however, to see that there are powers for centralized purchase in Clause 22, and I should be most interested to have an explanation of why this principle, because I do not regard it as a mere Committee point, should have been introduced. It seems to me that centralised purchasing will take still more power from the people on the spot, and may well lead to the wrong type of equipment or only out-of-date equipment, though standardished equipment, being purchased. I think that is a Clause which might very well have been removed, and it is one of those matters of detail to which I cannot give unqualified praise.
§ 8.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Berry (Woolwich, West)
There have been many references to the pledge which was given by the then Home Secretary and various interpretations have been given to it. I have in my hand a letter from one of the parties to that conference, namely, the Association of Municipal Corporations, and that runs:At that time it was understood that the Fire Service would be returned to local authorities. There has been considerable discussion and controversy as to the words used by the then Home Secretary at that time, but the view of my Association is that whatever words may actually have been employed the Fire Brigade authorities who were brought into conference with the Government prior to the formation of the National Fire Service certainly obtained the impression that after the war the Fire Service would be returned to those local authorities from which it had been taken.It may be very unfortunate that words were used which are capable of more than one interpretation, but to say that to return the service to local authorities other 1499 than those from whom it was taken is fulfilling the pledge in the eyes of those to whom that pledge was given rather smacks of a casuistry to which we British do not take kindly. I suggest that it will be a very unfortunate day for this country when Ministerial pledges can be misinterpreted and then fulfilled in a way which does not satisfy those to whom they were given. The phrase parole d'Anglais still has some value on the Continent of Europe, and I hope it will long continue to mean a lot to this country.
There is one point which is common to both England and Scotland with which I would like to deal. In the ordinary way I would abstain from dealing with matters affecting Scotland although I do not notice any inclination on the part of Scottish Members to refrain from intervening in English affairs. It is well known that without coal this country would cease to function, and in like manner a fire brigade without water would also cease to function. Here, as in other directions, I notice that the point of view of those who have to administer water undertakings is very largely ignored. They are regarded as the helots of the fire brigade, and are dictated to. We are quite accustomed to that sort of thing from Government Departments, who do not apparently realise the importance of water in the make-up of things. Even when people drink whisky they have to have water—which, of course, is spoiling good water. However, I would like to remind the House that during the London blitzes no less than 100 million gallons of water was used in 24 hours for fire-fighting purposes. That gives some idea of the importance of water in the fire brigade set-up. I notice that there is a total absence of provision for consultations with the water authorities. For instance, by Clause 14, Subsection (6), the Secretary of State, after consultation with the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council is to make a regulation providing for uniformity in fire hydrants. I submit that while it is proper to consult the Central Advisory Fire Committee it is also not improper to consult those who have the duty of supplying the water through those hydrants.
That is one example of the imposition of a dictatorship of the fire brigades towards water authorities. We have another example, of it. If there is a fire the senior 1500 fire officer is to be the person to say what street supplies are to be shut off in order to secure the proper pressure of water. It would be right and proper for the senior fire officer to require that the necessary quantity of water, and at the required pressure, should be available for the fire service, but the water engineer knows how to give that a jolly sight better than does any senior fire officer. Here, again, I suggest we have a case for consultation and a little working out of arrangements rather than this attempted dictatorship. I hope that reasonableness and consultations will always prevail. I well remember the Lord President of the Council, when speaking across the water in connection with another matter, saying that he hoped the London County Council would never be too big a body to join in consultations. I hope no Government Department and no fire brigade will ever be too big to consult with other people, at any rate with those on whom they are vitally dependent for supplies.
This is a most important Measure, and we all welcome it, and I hope there may be a combination of efficiency with that local patriotism that some of us admire so much in provincial towns. It is said that if there had been an attempt to deal with Birmingham in the same manner as London has been dealt with there would have been a revolution in the Midlands. Certainly the tragi-comedy of Waterloo Bridge could never have happened in Birmingham. [Interruption.] There is a river there, only it is not one which would warrant the erection of a Waterloo Bridge. Shall I say the Trent at Nottingham? It is most important that we should harness to all our services the local patriotism that is so evident in the provinces. I wish it were more evident in London. I hope this Measure will mean the harnessing of local patriotism in all parts of the country, and that this new Measure will result not only in efficiency but in a well loved fire brigade service, just as the London Fire Brigade Service was loved by Londoners before the war.
§ 8.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)
It is obvious from the Debate that there is a wide measure of dissatisfaction with some of the provisions of this Bill and that is understandable in view of the fact that the Act of 1938 has had so very 1501 short a trial. It is true that before 1938 the position was unsatisfactory in various ways, but the Act of 1938 defined the position by designating local authorities as fire authorities and placing upon them the obligation to provide efficient fire brigades. In general I think local authorities reacted with enthusiasm to the new duties and powers given to them under that Act. In rural districts particularly there was considerable enthusiasm, which showed itself in the provision of better equipment and better organisation. It is my contention that, in view of these facts, fire-fighting responsibility should now revert to those local authorities under whom it was placed by the Act of 1938.
I say that for three reasons. First, that so far as experience went those local authorities did discharge their duties with skill, efficiency and enthusiasm; secondly, that the very short period of trial of the 1938 Act before the interruption of the war, was altogether insufficient to condemn it as an unsatisfactory arrangement; and thirdly, there was the pledge of the then Home Secretary, now Lord President of the Council, of May, 1941, of which we have heard a good deal today. I agree with the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Mr. Berry) that it is a most unsatisfactory thing if pledges are to be explained away in the manner in which the Home Secretary has explained away that pledge this afternoon. If it is a fact that the Lord President of the Council meant by his pledge that fire responsibility should return to county councils and county boroughs, I can only say that he was considerably wanting in frankness in not explaining what was in his mind in 1941, since all those who heard him quite obviously thought that he meant a reversion to the county districts and non-county boroughs. If responsibility cannot go back to those authorities, I think there should clearly be powers expressed in the Bill for the delegation of responsibility by the county councils to the local authorities.
In any event, I consider that the present position, as envisaged by the Bill, is unsatisfactory in certain main respects. First, it will be extremely inconvenient, to the point of inefficiency, in many districts. That applies in my own constituency, as in others. In particular, there is lively apprehension in the urban district of Hoddesdon that they will not achieve proper fire protection under the suggested 1502 system, an apprehension to which I have already given voice in a Question in the House. Secondly, I think the Bill envisages far too much centralisation of detailed control and expenditure. I think the cost will be considerably higher than the prewar cost of fire services, without any guarantee of a corresponding increase in efficiency. Lastly, it is wrong that the transfer of the property vested in the local authorities should be dealt with by regulations subject only to annulment by negative Resolution of the House. I think that a matter of such importance should have been contained in the words of the Statute itself.
The treatment of the local authorities in this Bill seems to me to represent yet one more retreat from the true principles of local government as we have historically developed them in this country. I commented on this in the Debate on the Police Bill and on other occasions. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) said that the Home Secretary had taken away more powers from the local authorities than had any other incumbent of his office. I believe it was King Edward I who had the glorious title, as it was then considered, of "The Hammer of the Scots"; but the Home Secretary is likely to have the inglorious title of "The Hammer of Local Government." If he continues to hammer away the rights of the local authorities in this way, he will be doing a very grave disservice to the whole function of local government and the spirit of voluntary service which animates it today.
§ 9.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Heywood and Radcliffe)
I am glad to have the opportunity at this stage to speak for the smaller local authorities of Lancashire, the non-county boroughs. As I listened to the hon. Members who preceded me speaking of local interest and knowledge, I recalled a picture I once saw in the "New Yorker" which showed a house blazing on the skyline, a fire engine driving rapidly away in the other direction, and the driver of the fire engine turning round to the men and saying, "This is a rather longer way round, but it is much the prettier." That shows the danger inherent in local knowledge. I would not, however, wish to introduce a note of dissent into the general spirit of agreement on the part of hon. Members in all parties 1503 who have disagreed with the Home Secretary on this occasion. I agree with most hon. Members who have spoken that this is, on the whole, a good Bill, that it will make for a more efficient and more comprehensive service, and, one of the most important factors of all, that it will make for better conditions for the men and women in the fire service.
One of the difficulties we have to face is that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is so disarming and so accommodating when he comes to address us. In the light of this Debate, I hope he will go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and be twice as disarming as he has been in the past, and come away with a 50 per cent. grant instead of the 25 per cent. grant for local authorities which is all that he has been able to offer so far. Like the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson), I am one of the hon. Members who would have preferred to have retained the National Fire Service rather than the hybrid organisation we are promised under the new scheme, but I appreciate the difficulty which the Government have to face. What I do not understand, however, is this completely illogical distinction between county boroughs and non-county boroughs. I do not want to go into that matter any more, but I plead with the Government to put first things first, to decide what is to be the structure of local government in our country, and then to decide what are the proper bodies to exercise the functions which the Government allocate to them.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary suggested that we are asking him to adopt a system which would be less economical of manpower than the one he has placed before us today. In my view, that point was very largely met by the speech of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Erroll). In the borough of Radcliffe, one of the boroughs that I represent, there were before the war the fire service and the ambulance service. Because of the large amount of standing-by involved in both types of work, the two services were largely manned by the same personnel. The result was great economy in manpower and considerable economy in money, and I have come across no complaints about the efficiency of that service before the war. The present position is that, under the 1504 National Health Service Act, the county borough is losing the ambulance service, which was split away from the fire service when the National Fire Service was set up. That ambulance service, which in the old days cost £1,100 a year, is now costing £3,700. The fire service, which in the standard year cost less than £1,600, is going to cost about £8,000 under the new scheme. The general effect is that the ratepayers of Radcliffe will be asked to find approximately £10,000 more for these services than before the war.
It is perfectly possible that there will be an increase in efficiency. We have still to learn that from experience, but even if there is, this additional financial burden has to be met. In Radcliffe a penny rate produces £730. If we are to meet this additional burden it means that the rates are to be increased more than is. We recently increased the rates from 16s. to 18s. in the £. We are now facing a situation where the rate burden will be too heavy for working-class districts to bear. I would appeal to my right hon. Friends on the front bench to consider carefully what the future of local government in this country is to be, and to promise, in the near future, a statement on the whole position of local government in genera] and of local government finance in particular. Once again, I appeal to my right hon. Friend to consider the possibility of increasing the subsidy from 25 per cent, to 50 per cent.
§ 9.8 p.m.
§ Colonel Wigg (Dudley)
I listened with great interest and amusement to the right hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake), particularly when he asserted that this Bill was a Bill of importance, as it blazes a trail that would be followed increasingly, he thought, over the months and years that lie ahead. This, said the right hon. Gentleman, was the first Bill for the denationalisation of something. This he welcomed and his party would speed up the process when they got the chance. Then we had the hon. and gallant Member for Ecclesall (Major Roberts) talking about the Socialist provisions of this Bill, and the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) poured scorn on the Bill and complained of the principles which the right hon. Member for North Leeds so readily accepted. I accept the view of the right hon. Member for North 1505 Leeds that this is a Tory Measure. Moreover I understand why he welcomed the Bill with such enthusiasm. It instances the important Tory principle that the cost is to fall on the public purse and all the profit is to go into the pockets of those private interests which so readily find expression from the benches opposite.
I have the honour to sit for the most progressive authority in the Midlands—
§ Colonel Wigg
The county borough of Dudley, which I have honour to represent, wants an efficient fire coverage, and also, like Birmingham, wants to get it at the least possible cost. Before the war it had an efficient fire service for a twopenny rate. Now it is asked to pay the equivalent of a sevenpenny rate. But what are the consequences of the improved fire coverage? One of the consequences of stepping up the efficiency of the service is that fire insurance companies will pay out much less in settlement of claims than they did in the past, and they did very well before the war. They were making a profit then of £8 million a year and they could very reasonably be asked to pay part of the sum towards the cost of maintaining an efficient fire service.
A Socialist Government might very well be expected to follow the example of New Zealand, and insist on some portion of the premiums, or some portion of the profits, being devoted towards the cost of this service, which directly benefits the companies concerned. Therefore, if the right hon. Member for North Leeds welcomes this as a de-nationalisation Measure, those of us on these benches can say, "Here is an example of what the Tory Party will do if they get a chance. Any industry which we take over will be handed back to private ownership, or organised in such a way as to repeat the principles contained in this Bill." As the Financial Resolution is drafted in such a way that we cannot possibly hope to get a 50 per cent, payment to the local authorities, I very much hope that my right hon. Friends will consult with the New Zealand Government, and see the way their schemes have worked, and that when this Bill is in Committee, will amend it so that the insurance companies shall be required to give up a portion of the profits which has been put into their pockets as a result of public enterprise.
§ 9.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Wilkes (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)
I was glad that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Dudley (Colonel Wigg) referred to the insurance companies. It is instructive, even at this late hour, to realise that there is a Bill on this precise subject before the New Zealand Parliament. If one examines the provisions in that Bill, one finds that the cost of the new fire service in that Dominion is to be borne to the extent of 50 per cent, by the fire insurance companies, who are generally expected to benefit most from the increased efficiency of the new service, 15 per cent, by the State, and 35 per cent, only by the local authorities. I suggest that there is something wrong with a Bill such as the one we are now considering, which allows the insurance companies to get away with their commutation of their responsibilities by the payment of £600,000, which they made in 1938. We are considering a scheme, which is to cost the country in the region of £8 million, falling most heavily on the ratepayers, while fire insurance companies are to get away with the commutation of £600,000.
I beg my right hon. Friend to consider whether he is satisfied that something cannot be done, even at this comparatively late stage, to prevent the burden from falling so heavily on the local authorities. Hon. Members on both sides of the House know what an immense amount of reconstruction work will fall upon our local authorities. We know what an immensely high rateable average there is in northern and midland cities, and we ask that the burden should fall, at least in some small respect, on those most able to bear it.
Clause 19 deals with the selection of the fire personnel. The local authorities will not have any say at all in the selection of their chiefs and deputy chiefs. The relationship which exists between the fire brigade chief and the local authority is one of peculiar intimacy. All the relationships in local authorities depend very much on how people get on with one another. The Home Secretary already has a panel from which these selections will be made. Would it not be better to send to local authorities, the county boroughs—the fire authorities concerned—a panel of 20 or 30 names and allow the fire authority after interview to make their own personal selection? They could then choose the person 1507 whom they like the most. I feel that the fact that the local authorities are represented indirectly on the advisory council is not sufficient.
In welcoming this Bill, I want to point out that it is not really an expensive Bill. It brings the amount of expenditure on our fire services up to the amount which Sweden and other countries pay per head of the population. Before the war we got away with a very inferior fire service. Our fire damage bill was £12 million per annum. Great cities like Oxford ran a voluntary fire service. We cannot afford to continue that state of affairs any longer. County boroughs, such as my own at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which paid £20,000 before the war for their fire service, will pay £60,000, even with the 25 per cent, grant and if the Minister cannot increase this to 50 per cent., then, in view of the immensely high rates in the county boroughs of the midlands and the north, I ask that the Minister should look at this matter with a view to enabling the fire insurance authorities to play a very much greater part in financing this Measure.
§ 9.17 p.m.
§ Mr. Grimston (Westbury)
In moving the Second Reading this afternoon, the Home Secretary commenced his remarks with a very short historical sketch. Amongst other things, he told the story of an art master who was in the middle of his class when he heard the fire bell ring. He dashed out, mounted the fire engine, followed by as many of his students who could get on behind him. That reminds me of an incident which I myself witnessed, and perhaps hon. Members will forgive me if I recount it. I was in the country when a chimney fire occurred. A telephone message was sent to the nearest hamlet which had a fire brigade. It turned up very quickly and consisted of a lorry drawing a trailer. In the lorry were the firemen, and in the trailer were the spectators. The chief, armed to the teeth, wearing helmet and carrying hatchet, climbed the roof, poured salt down the chimney and the fire was put out with a surprisingly small mess. All the parties thereafter broached a barrel of beer and the whole occasion was celebrated with great success and good feeling. Although that incident was efficiently dealt with, it is a sort of Pickwickian setup which is amusing to recount but not what we want to see today.
1508 It is obvious from this Debate that upon all sides of the House there are objections to this Bill—not to the principles of the Bill in the main, but upon two important grounds. One is the inadequacy of the proposed grant and the other is that, as the Bill is drawn at present, the fire authorities' are restricted to county and county borough councils. I want to say, without repetition, I hope, a few words on both those points. In justice to the Home Secretary, I do not think it can fairly be said that he has gone back on the pledge of 1941. He has certainly honoured it in the letter but there is very widespread doubt that he has honoured it in the spirit. He will have an opportunity of putting that right during the Committee stage. I think he should consider this point very carefully because if it is widely felt, as it is at present, that he has not honoured the pledge it is, to say the least, a pity.
I do not know exactly what the attitude of the different previous fire authorities may be. Some of them may perhaps be quite ready to hand over a responsibility which they used to have for fire prevention. Others who have never had it may not want it thrust upon them. There are others where the question of local pride and local patriotism, which lead to good and fine service, may very likely be outraged. For both these reasons, I was glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman say in the course of his remarks that he would keep a reasonably open mind upon this question. He doubted whether it could properly be met by delegation. Our view at present, as put forward by my right hen. Friend the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake), is that an Amendment on Clause 4 in that direction might meet the point, but the right hon. Gentleman may have other ideas. In any case, I welcome the attitude with which he proposed to approach the matter, and I suggest that he leaves, as he did in the case of the Police Act a year ago, a little time between the Second Reading and the Committee stage—since all these opinions have come out—in order to give him and the local authorities time to discuss this question. I therefore hope that we shall not be faced with a very short interval between the Second Reading and the Committee stage, thereby ruling out the chance of coming to an accommodation before we go to Committee.
§ Mr. Ede
As the hon. Member will remember, the case for that interval in regard to the Police Act was the fact that the Second Reading followed very closely on the introduction of the Measure and the local authorities complained that they had not had time to see it. There has been a very long time indeed since the introduction of this Bill and the Second Reading, and, in fact, the negotiations have been going on ever since 1944. There is that difference in the situation relating to the two Bills.
§ Mr. Grimston
All I can say is that the right hon. Gentleman has expressed himself as willing to approach this matter with a reasonably open mind, and I merely throw that out as a suggestion which I hope he will consider.
I now turn to the question of the grant, upon which a great deal has been said during this Debate. We take the view that, having regard to the very large powers which the Secretary of State is taking under Clause 20, the grant is too small. He cannot have it both ways. If he is to take these powers, he must increase the grant, but if he is not going to increase the grant, he will have to clip his powers. There is feeling about this. There will be difficulties about it because of the way the Financial Resolution is drawn. The right hon. Gentleman must take note of the opinion which has been expressed upon all sides on this question—and expressed very strongly—that as things are he is really getting the maximum powers with the minimum of Exchequer contribution.
It is all very well, as he did—he is a past master at getting away with these things—to approach the matter in the way he did in his speech and say, "I have given 25 per cent. They had nothing before, and they are complaining." He cannot get away with it like that. He will have to meet the criticism which has been directed from all sides of the House.
§ Mr. Grimston
I am rather staggered at the increased cost which this Bill envisages—five times as much as the fire service cost before the war. I would like to hear something from the Under-Secretary—others have mentioned this—about the extent to which part-time firemen are 1510 to be employed. No word has been said about that yet. I feel there is a danger that too many full-time people may be employed. I can think of towns of decent size where a fire rarely occurs, and it seems absurd in cases of that sort, where in the past they may have run the thing on local patriotism with part-time firemen, that they are to be compelled to have full-time men. Also I am not sure that the estimated cost may not, be run up considerably on that' account. I think it needs looking into, and I would like to hear what the Under-Secretary has to say about it. I can remember in my own constituency shortly after the war, when all risk of fire from enemy action was removed, that a number of N.F.S. men were kept on doing nothing for a considerable time. One of them protested to me very strongly. He wanted to get back to his own business. He said, "Here I am sitting about doing nothing, when all the time my own business is crying out for me." If that can happen, as it did then, the same thing can happen under this Bill if it is not closely watched.
I will now say one or two words upon the insurance company point which has been raised. There have been some strictures upon the insurance companies by the hon. and gallant Member for Dudley (Colonel Wigg). In justice to them it must be remembered that it was in fact the insurance companies, as indeed the Home Secretary said, who first produced the fire services, admittedly in their own defence but they were the pioneers. The position here is a little different from that obtaining in the case of motor insurance or workmen's compensation insurance, because of course there is no compulsion upon anybody to insure against fires. It is also true to say that the introduction of this Measure, when it comes into force, will not alter the fire risks themselves—a building which is more liable than another to burn will not be rendered less liable to burn by the existence of this Measure—but the resultant damage up and down the country may very well be less as a result if this really works. That being so, I wonder if the Home Secretary has had any discussions with the insurance companies, because it would seem only fair that one or two things should follow and I have no reason to think that they may not from the insurance companies' own volition—either they will, as they have done 1511 in the past, continue to make some contribution to the fire services, or the premiums of those who insure will fall because of the lessened resultant danger.
I promised the hon. Gentleman to leave him time to reply, and I do not think one can say much more on other points of the Bill, which are mostly Committee points. I have dwelt upon the two main criticisms which have emerged. Last year we had before us a Police Bill, and in many respects that Bill reminds me of this one. To start with it was a non-party Measure and to continue, it was very much improved in Committee. I think the right hon. Gentleman said that in his Third Reading speech. It was much improved by the united efforts of those on this side of the House who criticised it and were prepared to vote against the right hon. Gentleman, coupled with the efforts of those on the other side of the House who also criticised the Measure and who left the right hon. Gentleman in doubt sometimes as to whether they would vote against him or not. The combination of those circumstances turned the ever-present appearance of reasonableness in the right hon. Gentleman into an actuality, with the most pleasing results, that we moulded in the Committee what I believe was a very good Bill. Now from the Debate which we have had today I detect very much the same setup and I hope, therefore, 'that if the Home Secretary has not been bitten by the same bacillus totalitarian as some of his colleagues have been lately, and that we do not have a guillotine, we may do the same with this Bill on the Committee stage. If the Home Secretary will meet the criticisms that have been made, we may succeed in producing a Bill which will not only fulfil the pledge given, but will place on the Statute Book a Measure which will give this country fire services such as it has never enjoyed before.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Oliver)
The right hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake), in his interesting observations about this Bill, promised the House that he would not oppose the Bill, because he was having the advantage of supporting a Measure of denationalisation, an experience he was not likely to enjoy again for some time. Although there 1512 were features about the Bill which he disliked, the opportunity, coming as it did when nationalisation of other matters is so prevalent, he would restrain on this occasion from opposing the Bill, notwithstanding the fact that he had made objections against it. Unlike those cases, in the case of the fire services a promise was given that when they were nationalised they would be denationalised. In the nationalisation schemes which have taken place recently, no such promise was given. I do not suppose the right hon. Gentleman will enjoy in his lifetime an opportunity of denationalising them. [HON. MEMBERS: "Wait a few months."]
The first question the right hon. Member raised related to Clause 12 when he asked whetherother persons who maintain a fire brigade",related to individuals, or to some private organisation. The words mean and relate to private fire brigades which, in the main, are maintained by private companies, such as the I.C.I., and other big firms, who find it necessary to have fire brigades for their own purposes. It would not mean that it related to some local authority or some non-county borough who, by reason of this Clause, would be permitted to operate under the Bill. The whole question of Clause 12 is the right of the fire authorities to negotiate with some other authority, or some other body, to maintain a fire brigade to undertake the duty of attending the fire from the beginning of the fire, being solely responsible for offering fire protection in a particular area. That appears to be the interpretation of Clause 12.
The right hon. Member raised the important question of the inadequacy, as he described it, of the grant of 25 per cent, and suggested that it should be 50 per cent, on the basis that 50 per cent, is given by the Government in the case of the police. I want to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman and the House—because this matter has been raised time and time again during the Debate, to the effect that the amount is inadequate—that there never has been a promise given at any time, that any grant would be made from the Exchequer. No promise was given by the last Home Secretary, although he made some statement to the effect that the fire services 1513 would subsequently go back to the local authorities. That was the decision of the Caretaker Government. He made no promise that there would be any grant at all from the Exchequer for the maintenance, or partial maintenance, of the fire services. It is not quite right to say that these two forces axe comparable. When all is said and done the machinery is rather different, because the cost of a fire service in the main falls under two heads. One, of course, is the amount of remuneration paid to the service personnel, and the other relates to the number of people employed in the Fire Service.
With regard to the payment of the people employed, that is something in which the local authorities will have a direct influence in the machinery which is set up for negotiating remuneration. The machinery contemplated is that used by the joint industrial councils, and the local authority will have representation on a fifty-fifty basis. Therefore, they will have the right to determine and to agree to a figure in any case that may be put before them.
§ Mr. Oliver
I am coming to that in a moment. That state of affairs does not apply in respect of the police. The negotiations there are between the Home Secretary and the police council and the local authorities have no say in the matter. In the case of the fire services, however, they have a deciding voice.
§ Mr. Peake
I very much dislike interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but Clause 18 (1) says:The Secretary of State may make Regulations as to ranks, pay and allowances.I do not see how with that statement in view the hon. Gentleman can say that the local authorities will have anything whatever to do with the pay of the fire service.
§ Mr. Oliver
It is quite true that the Home Secretary is the final authority, but it must not be forgotten that if a joint industrial council which is composed of members of a local authority and the fire service on a fifty-fifty basis makes a recommendation, something would be very very wrong if a Home Secretary were not influenced by a decision come to by such a body. Clause 18 (2) says: 1514Where—
then if the Secretary of State approves the recommendation he may by regulations under this Section give effect thereto.
- (a) the Secretary of State is satisfied that proper arrangements are in force for the consideration, by persons representing the interests of fire authorities and of persons employed as members of fire brigades maintained in pursuance of this Act, or any class of persons so employed, of questions arising as to the conditions of service of persons so employed or of the class of persons in question, as the case may be; and
- (b) a recommendation is made in accordance with the arrangements as to any matter falling within the last foregoing Subsection,
§ Mr. Oliver
I think it is reasonably clear that the local authorities would have a direct influence in determining the amount which they would be called upon to pay.
§ Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves this question of the grant, does he not agree that it is very complex and ought to be debated in Committee, and in those circumstances will not die Government be prepared to substitute a Money Resolution drawn in wider terms so as to permit debate?
§ Mr. Oliver
Of course, this is a matter which is debatable in Committee because there is a Clause which refers to it, but we are not on the Money Resolution at the present time and it would be inappropriate for me to make reference to it now. I have referred to remuneration in which the authorities have a direct influence.
Now I come to the question of the number of staff employed by local authorities. This is a matter where, as is laid down quite clearly, the Home Secretary would require to discuss the question of efficiency, with the Fire Brigades Advisory Committee. This will be seen from Clause I, which refers specifically to:the services for their area of such a fire brigade and such equipment as may be necessary to meet efficiently all normal requirements.Again, if hon. Members will look at Subsection (3) of that Clause they will find that it provides that:The Secretary of State may, after consultation with the Central Fire Brigades 1515 Advisory Council, constituted under this Act, make regulations prescribing standards of efficiency…There again the local authorities will have representation on the Advisory Committee and it is therefore wrong to suggest that this is comparable to the police grant. I think it is pretty clear that so far as concerns the fire service, the local authorities do play a very considerable part.
The other point which was raised—I think by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake)—referred to contributions from insurance companies. This matter has been considered from time to time by the Royal Commission and the Riverdale Committee and both bodies reported against contributions from insurance companies. There may be, as I have no doubt there are, very good reasons for that decision. Probably it was a policy upon which no Government would like to embark, and it was not forgotten, naturally, that where there are fires, insurance companies must repair the damage and are not so free from obligations as some of my colleagues behind me would lead us to believe.
The other point raised by the right hon. Gentleman was in respect of Clause 22 concerning central purchase by the Government. At the present time an agreement has been made for the purpose of examining, among ether things, instances where it would be useful for the Home Office to continue to maintain for a temporary period an organisation for the supply of stores and the repair of pumps and transport on an agency basis for local authorities. It has been thought that the issue of stores and other equipment from the centralised organisation will be found useful, not merely as a temporary measure, but as a permanent measure. Before any final conclusion is arrived at, the local authorities will be taken into consultation and an agreement reached, because a scheme of that kind would obviously not work successfully unless the local authorities agreed to it. The other point raised related to the transfer of property. The property will be transferred to the fire authorities and—
§ Mr. Oliver
Free of charge. The Regulation will make that quite clear. In the case where a local authority ceases to be 1516 the fire authority, there will be no compensation paid, because taking one thing with another, there will be general equity. That disposes of the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds, with the exception of part-time firemen. Part-time firemen are being used, and the rate of remuneration to retain the lowest rank is £12 a year. There k also a fee paid for the occasions when they are called out. There is a higher figure for those with higher responsibilities.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) referred to the pledge given by the then Home Secretary, and said that the representatives of the authorities who heard the statement thought there was something different from what is obvious from the written word. From the statement which has been made today by the Home Secretary, there can be no doubt what the Home Secretary said on that occasion. It was made crystal clear that it was the intention of the Government of that time, that when the Fire Service was handed back to the local authorities, it would not go back to the authorities from which it came. It is unfortunate that the representatives of the local authorities who heard this statement should have believed something different, but the hon. Member for Cheltenham may rest assured that in the negotiations that have taken place—and they have been long ones—on this Bill, there is no doubt now what the intention was when that statement was made.
§ Mr. Lipson
Can the hon. Member say whether the non-county boroughs were represented in those negotiations, and whether they were satisfied that that is what was meant by the right hon. Gentleman's statement?
§ Mr. Oliver
Yes, Sir, there has been more than one meeting with the non-county boroughs, and there can be no doubt at all that they are satisfied. It is always difficult to follow a statement and understand its implications when it is first made. But there can be no doubt about it that they know exactly, because it was read to them time and time again. They are satisfied with the statement which was read by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary today. My hon. Friend the Member for West Woolwich (Mr. Berry) also made reference to the pledge. He said he thought that the local 1517 authorities had been rather deliberately misled. I can assure him that it is too much on record for there to be any doubt about the fact that no promise was given—
§ Mr. Shurmer
Is it not true to say that while the then Home Secretary meant that there was need for some alteration of the conditions which operated before the services were taken over, cities like Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool were large enough to do the job themselves? We have been misled.
§ Mr. Oliver
I cannot see how Birmingham, Manchester, and large areas which are county boroughs, are affected by this. There may justifiably be a complaint by the non-county boroughs, but there cannot be a complaint by places like Birmingham—
§ Mr. Oliver
The hon. Member for Cheltenham also dealt with the omission of non-county boroughs, and thought that the county councils were much too large to administer the fire services successfully, as they had no previous experience. That may be right, but I can only draw attention to the statement made by the Home Secretary today, when he made it clear that while there could be no question of agency, as agency is properly understood, he does not rule out from his consideration the right of the county districts to negotiate with the county councils and the right to discuss this matter with them. I do not suppose that it would be repugnant to the county councils to have the aid of the non-county boroughs, so that they could offer advice to the county councils on the many problems which must arise. By that means it would be easier for the county council and the county to be adequately covered by the experience of people who have already worked the fire services. It is much a better way, in my view, for these discussions to take place than to split up, to segregate, the fire service into small units.
§ Mr. Benson
Would my hon. Friend say, in more simple language, what he has just said in the last three minutes? It is 1518 important that we should have unequivocal language. It is no use saying that the non-county boroughs will have the right to discuss. That does not mean anything.
§ Mr. Oliver
If I say, "the right to discuss," there is nothing very equivocal about that. It is discussion I mean; there is nothing ambiguous about that. It is only the right to discuss and negotiate with the county councils. But it would give them an opportunity of making it clear as to the right amount of cover they should have and, by that means, there would be a more satisfactory set-up.
§ Mr. Lipson
Will the Home Secretary then impress upon the county councils that he expects them to utilise the experience of district councils in drawing up a scheme?
§ Mr. Oliver
I do not think there was any doubt about that from the statement which my right hon. Friend made this afternoon that there is no cut and dried scheme. This is merely a question that we want to get accommodation for the purpose of making this scheme work well, and it would be contrary to the scheme and to the Bill if the small unit of administration and operation had to come back because the non-county borough is not a unit large enough under the circumstances. The wider the administration the greater the economy and the greater the efficiency. The whole Bill is founded on the larger unit.
§ Mr. D. Jones
If a non-county borough of 65,000 is not a big enough authority, how can it be justified to make in the case of a county borough which is far smaller?
§ Mr. Oliver
The answer is rather a simple one, because under the Bill provision is made for a combination scheme, such, for instance, as my hon. Friend has referred to. There is no rigidity about this matter. There are schemes for amalgamation or combination because in some instances it would be found that neither the county borough nor the county might be an efficient unit for the purpose of operating an efficient fire service. Therefore, the Bill is cast expressly for the purpose of meeting the contingency to which reference has been made. If, therefore, the county were the unit and it could not be altered, or if the county borough were the unit and it could not be altered, there would be justification for the observations which have just been made.
1519 The hon. Member for West Bermondsey (Mr. Sargood) asked three questions. On Clause 13 he referred to members of the service who, by reason of the change and the introduction of this Bill, might lose emoluments and asked whether any provision was made in the Bill for meeting that financial obligation. At the moment there is no provision; a provision may be made—if it is to be made at all—by Regulation, but, in any event, that matter can be looked into between now and the Committee stage. With regard to the debt charges on previous capital outlay, at the moment there is not provision made in this Bill. On Clause 29 he asked what proportion of representation local councils have on the Advisory Committee. I am told these representatives will have the proportion of, I think, about one to one. I regret that, although I have been speaking at a very rapid rate, I have not been able to get through one quarter of the points which have been raised as I promised to sit down by two minutes to ten. I ask the House to let us have this Bill tonight because many, if not most of the points can be dealt with in Committee. I think on the discussion which has taken place that there is a unanimous opinion that this is a very good Bill.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.