HC Deb 13 June 1950 vol 476 cc163-72

10.1 p.m.

Major J. R. Bevins (Liverpool, Toxteth)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Regulations entitled the Fire Services (Appointments and Promotion) Regulations, 1950 (S.I., 1950, No. 619), a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th April, be annulled. Perhaps I ought first to explain that these Regulations deal with the appointment of chief officers of fire brigades in England and Wales and also with the appointment and promotion of other ranks within fire brigades. My personal objection to these Regulations as they stand is that, in part, they are unnecessary and that, to some extent, they constitute the most unwarrantable interference with the functions of those local authorities in England and Wales which are fire authorities.

I shall deal, first, with the lack of need for certain of these Regulations. The first deals with the appointment of chief officers and stipulates that they are to be selected on the basis of advertisement, consideration and interview, all of which is perfectly well-established procedure on the part of local authorities. There is no need whatever to incorporate it in ponderous official language in Regulations. For the appointment of ordinary firemen local authorities are told that they shall be of British nationality, of good character, strong and healthy with an elementary knowledge of the three Rs. Really, it is rather an impertinence for a Government Department to issue a Regulation of this sort for the enlightenment of local authorities. It is completely unnecessary.

My serious objection to the Regulations is that here and there there is wrongful interference with the functions of local authorities. For example, the Regulation No. 1, dealing with the appointment of chief officers, concludes by saying that before the appointment is ratified it must be approved by the Home Secretary. I do not think that has been the case in the past, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us why the Home Office wish to assert this right. I believe that local authorities are capable of appointing officials of this sort without any interference from the Home Office or any other Government Departments. Regulation No. 5 deals with promotions within fire brigades on the basis of examination. It states: before the examination is held, a draft of the questions proposed to be set to the candidates shall be sent to the central examination committee, and that committee may for not more than half of the questions proposed substitute other questions … Then we are told: after the examination has been held, the marks proposed to be awarded to each candidate in respect of each question answered by him shall be submitted to the said committee … Further, the committee may have the privilege of altering the marks awarded by the people who look after the examinations in the various localities. It seems to me that this is a priceless example of bureaucratic nonsense which ought not to be countenanced by either side of the House.

I should like to remind the House that, on 27th April this year, when the Home Secretary was dealing with certain questions bearing upon the Fire Service, he made the statement that the fire services are now entirely local services. A little later, on 18th May, when speaking on the same subject in this House, the right hon. Gentleman said: No instructions are issued by my Department, but circulars giving advice are sent round."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th May, 1950; Vol. 475, c. 1387.] I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman regards these Regulations as pieces of advice or guidance for local authorities, or whether he takes them for what they actually are—arbitrary orders to local authorities to do as they are told.

The position as I see it is that, since the fire services returned to the local authorities a few years ago the Home Office has been paying a grant of 25 per cent., but, while paying only a fraction of the total costs of these services, they have been consistently seeking to gain more and more control over their administration. It has been said commonly by officials of local authorities that it is a case of a 25 per cent. grant for 75 per cent. control. It seems to me that, when the actual control of the service is divorced, as it is here, from financial responsibility, there are bound to be duplicated systems of administration and extravagance in the running of the service. I would like to point out that, according to the official statistics, in 1938 the cost of these services throughout the country was just over £3 million, whereas today it has risen, according to the right hon. Gentle man's own estimate, to £12 million.

I could understand these Regulations perfectly if the fire authorities in England and Wales were smaller or irresponsible or mischievous bodies of one sort or another, but, in fact, they are all either county councils or county borough councils, and I believe myself that the chief officer of a fire brigade in Liverpool, Cardiff, Birmingham or any other large provincial city knows a great deal more about his own locality than his self-appointed masters in Whitehall. The effect of all these Regulations, which are now churned out week after week, is to transform the chief officers of fire brigades from the good old healthy fire-fighters which they were into a glorified uniform service.

The right hon. Gentleman may laugh, but I do not think he has had the opportunity of sitting on a fire services committee, as other hon. Members of the House have done, or has had the experience, as a publicly-elected representative of the people sitting on one of these bodies, of being reduced to the level of a mere rubber stamp. It is true that they sit as the elected representatives of the people, but they have lost all freedom of making their own administrative decisions, because they are overridden by regulations and so-called guidance from the Home Office.

I hope that, when the Under-Secretary replies, he will not rest his case on the possibilities of the international situation. I hope he will give us an assurance that he realises that what is important in this matter is not uniformity throughout the country but efficiency. Until we lay responsibility for these services fairly and squarely on the shoulders of those who are bearing the brunt of the financial burden, we shall never get the efficiency to which I think we are entitled.

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Thompson (Liverpool, Walton)

I beg to second the Motion.

I should like to support the remarks of my hon. and gallant Friend the Memfor Toxteth (Major Bevins), although I will not go over the argument, which he has put before the House in support of his case, that local authorities are quite well qualified to make these appointments themselves. Past experience in many large corporations has shown that satisfactory and successful appointments have been made. All those arguments are perfectly valid. These Regulations are another example of the endeavour which has been made for five years to encroach upon the proper area of responsibility of local authorities.

In the last few weeks, the country has seen so many of the recommendations proposed by this party during the General Election put into operation by the party opposite, as belated, amended thoughts that it seems to me that they might now take some notice of the poster which we presented for their edification showing the Ministry official grabbing the responsibility of the local authority and of the local authority representative. This is precisely the kind of case we had in mind when that poster was prepared and when the case was presented to the people during the February election.

This is not a flippant matter, although the matters with which the Regulations deal are only small. There are one or two very serious implications which can follow from the kind of practice of which these Regulations are a prime example. If it is the responsibility of the Department in Whitehall to lay down the precise and detailed form in which selection and promotion shall be made, then there is the inevitable temptation on the part of local authorities to shed their own responsibility and to cast it where the Minister would, apparently, have it lie, and to tend to say, "We can now take no responsibility for this matter, but put the blame on the Minister who approved the final selection." If that comes to pass, then local authority services of all kinds—the Fire Service and others—will be the weaker and the less efficient for it.

But there is an even more serious consideration. Appointments are made of officers who are men with a career to serve. They hold certain appointments within the Fire Service, and they seek higher and better paid appointments, and who is to blame them for that? If it is seen—as it is already in many fields of local government service—that the high royal road to promotion is to seek and obtain the favour of the Minister and his officials, then the local authority departments will have no chance at all of maintaining an independent and efficient service.

If the final approval of the Minister is the seal to a successful career, then there is a grave danger, which, I am pleased to say, is being resisted by most officials at present, that instead of seeking to give efficiency and loyal and thorough service to the local authority, what will be sought will be the good will and the beneficent approval of the Minister. If ever that comes to pass, then the Fire Service, like other local government services, will lose efficiency and the community will be the poorer.

10.14 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas)

I wish that the two hon. Members who have just raised this matter, and who, I understood from the hon. and gallant Member for Toxteth (Major Bevins), had some respect, if not for bureaucrats, for the duly elected representatives of the people, had read what the elected representatives of the people, sitting here in Parliament in the last Session legislated on, and had looked particularly at Section 18 of the 1947 Act. Had they done so, they would have seen that these Regulations, made pursuant to that Section, are Regulations made by the Home Secretary giving effect, except for one or two small points, to unanimous recommendations of the advisory council set up pursuant to that very Act. The Central Fire Advisory Council is not a bunch of bureaucrats, but a collection of men representing not only the firemen, the officers, and other interests, but the very local authorities to which the two hon. Gentlemen were referring.

The purpose of these Regulations is clear. It is to ensure that officers and firemen, no matter in what brigade they may be serving, are up to a certain standard in technical knowledge as well as in experience and in brawn as well as in brain. Regulation No. 1 much moved the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Toxteth, particularly the point that the Home Secretary must approve the appointment of a chief fire officer, which he described as an unwarrantable interference. He asked why the Home Secretary now asserts this right.

In 1947 on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report my right hon. Friend made it quite clear that he intended to introduce a Regulation giving him the power to do just this, and there was not one word of criticism from any quarter of this House. It was not to be expected that there should be, for the very good reason that fire brigades throughout this country must be efficient. Parliament recognised that the Home Secretary for the time being is the Minister entrusted with that task; and what better way is there of making fire brigades throughout this country efficient than by seeing that only good fire officers are appointed?

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and East Perthshire)

Does the hon. Gentleman really tell the House and the country that excellent as is the judgment of the Home Secretary, whoever he may be at that time, local authorities, properly elected and highly experienced, are not capable of appointing their own chief fire officers?

Mr. de Freitas

I am not saying that. I am saying that the hon. and gallant Member was a Member of this House, as indeed I was, during the last Parliament when the Home Secretary made this clear on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report and no objection was taken at the time. I say, most emphatically, that it was recognised by Parliament that if there were to be efficient fire brigades then the Home Secretary must have the right to do this and, of course, the Home Secretary would not over-rule a fire authority except in extreme cases. But Parliament recognised to a man that he should have that power. [An HON. MEMBER: "Will the hon. Gentleman answer?"] I have answered that Parliament, recognising that the Home Secretary was responsible for the efficiency of fire brigades, gave this power, which the Home Secretary does not and will not abuse but which is there as a safeguard for the efficiency of the fire brigades of this country.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

Is the hon. Gentleman telling us that local authorities are not competent to appoint their own fire officers?

Mr. de Freitas

If the hon. and gallant gentleman reads that into what I said he will read anything. Possibly he may think he is representing the local authorities, but the fact is that even bodies as important as county councils, who have their representative on the council accepted this. If hon. Gentlemen opposite will study this Act, and the council set up pursuant to it, they will see that these authorities are represented on the council.

Let me pass to the second point. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] Is it really suggested that I have not made it perfectly clear that Parliament gave this power to the Home Secretary, that he will not abuse it but that it is there as a safeguard in the case of a rare occasion—

Major Hicks-Beach (Cheltenham)

The hon. Gentleman was asked a question.

Mr. de Freitas

And I have answered the question.

A lot of fun was poked at the examination. Hon. Members should know better than that. This examination was deliberately set up to see that men who became station officers were worthy of that appointment, because, it is station officers who are the field from which are drawn the senior officers of the fire brigades throughout the whole country. The Regulations provide for a minimum length of service and the passing of an examination, and were unanimously approved by the fire authorities in the Advisory Council. When the 1947 Measure was debated the Home Secretary made clear his view, which the House shared, in Committee and on Report that questions of the promotion of individuals should be left to the fire authorities but that he would make regulations prescribing qualifying conditions which would cover the whole country. That is exactly what these Regulations do. They embody the Advisory Council's recommendations how best to solve this problem of an examination, leaving as much power as possible to the fire authority and, at the same time, setting up this national standard.

The hon. and gallant Member who raised this matter referred laughingly to the fact that the draft of the questions must be sent to the Central Examination Committee. This Committee is a subcommittee of the Advisory Council. It prepares a syllabus. After the fire authority sets the paper the Committee must see if the paper meets the national standard. Inevitably this will be done by senior fire officers, that is experts, and not a lot of bureaucrats. These experts will report to the Committee. The fire authority holds the examination after that.

Of course, the Committee has these supervisory functions, because the object of the Committee is to ensure that a high national standard is set and maintained in the field of fire fighting. The idea of the Central Examination Committee is not a new idea, thought out by bureaucrats. It is operated by many joint committees of the Ministry of Education and professional organisations such as the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, the Royal Institute of Chemistry and the Institute of Gas Engineers. These joint committees exercise the same functions of looking at the way the examination papers are set so that national certificates can be issued.

It is just as important that professional fire fighters in Cumberland or in Kent should have the same qualifications as it is that chemists in Northumberland and Norfolk should have the same qualifications. These are good Regulations. They come to us endorsed by the Advisory Council which has been set up for this purpose, and I ask the House to reject this Motion.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Reader Harris (Heston and Isleworth)

I do not dissent from the principles which have been enunciated by hon. Members on this side of the House about the local authorities having full powers to determine the appointment of their officers and that they should be given the fullest possible measure of local autonomy. At the same time, where the Fire Service is concerned hon. Members and particularly those on this side of the House, should have some regard to recent history in the Fire Service. On 18th August, 1941, the then Home Secretary, now the Lord President of the Council, nationalised the Fire Service. On 1st April, 1948, the Fire Service was denationalised, much to the regret of the Fire Service because it had never been so well off as when it was under the control of the Home Secretary.

I believe in local authorities. I like them and I want them to have the fullest possible powers, but I have not got the unbounded confidence in local authorities that some people have. I can give the name of a county council which, in the last two weeks, has issued a regulation making it imperative for a fireman whose wife dies to have time off without pay to bury her. That is a fantastic state of affairs. One would not believe it possible, but that is the sort of thing that is liable to happen when complete control in a certain matter is given to local authorities. There will always be some authorities which are good and some which are not so good.

There are some things which are very much the prerogative of a local authority to decide, but when something which has been under national control suddenly reverts to local authority control, then we find that some parts of it do extraordinarily well while others do not do nearly so well. The attempt in these promotion Regulations to lay down some guiding principles on which fire authorities should make their promotions of chief officers and others was made to do away with the great evil which often existed before the war and which caused such a great lack of confidence in appointments when, for instance, somebody was appointed to a job who, clearly, was not fit for it but who happened to be the blue-eyed boy at the time. I do not think that sort of thing is likely to happen if there are guiding principles.

I must take the Under-Secretary of State to task on one point. He said this part of the Regulations was unanimously approved by the Central Advisory Council. Through the kindness of the Home Secretary, I was appointed to that body and I should like to say that the local authorities did not quite like having all these things laid down in regulations.

Mr. de Freitas

If the hon. Member looks at my speech in HANSARD he will find exactly what I said. Referring to a certain section I said it was approved unanimously, but in the other connection I think I said that the County Councils' Association agreed.

Mr. Harris

I am much obliged. There was no unanimous agreement in relation to this. Very often we get protests from the local authorities, to the council, to say that they do not want the Home Secretary to tell them what is their job. On the employees' side—and I speak for the officers on that council—we were glad to see some principles laid down. I think I am right in saying that all the representatives of the employees asked the Home Secretary unanimously to lay down some guiding principles.

I will say no more about the promotion aspect. There is only one aspect of the Regulations which I regret, and it is that it was found necessary to set up a central examination committee. My association made this point on the council. I think this is rather a cumbersome and unnecessary procedure. We favoured use being made of the graduateship examination of the Institution of Fire Engineers. I will not elaborate the point because the local authorities would not agree in the end to the use of this examination. They very nearly came to agreement, but at the last minute they drew back because there was some doubt about admitting the principle of recognising the examinations of outside bodies.

I believe I am right in saying that there are difficulties about it. There are two associations of town planners, and they could not make up their minds which association to accept, so they cut out the lot. Use is not to be made of the I.F.E. examination and I think that is a pity. We have a central examination committee which cannot do anything for a least one-and-a-half years because notice has to be given of the syllabus, people have to be trained for it and so on. There will be a lot of expense in that direction. That is the only unpalatable part of these Regulations, so I will say no more except to add that I support the Home Secretary in laying down at any rate guiding principles to ensure that there is no favouritism.

Major Bevins

In view of the reply which the Under-Secretary of State has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.