HC Deb 17 March 1958 vol 584 cc981-1002

6.10 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

Under this Vote we are asked for an additional £131,900 to meet the cost of grants for fire authorities in England and Wales as a result of increases in pay and increased strengths of fire forces. We must set against those increases the increase in the load which the fire services are carrying.

None of us begrudges the increase or the revised Estimate of £5,547,900. We regard it as a small payment for the gallantry and devotion of the men and women in our fire brigades. Firemen have always held a very special place in public affection. Certainly, that has been my own experience since the days when, as a small boy, I was allowed to visit a fire station at Oxford, to sit on a horse-drawn fire escape and to ring the bell as much as I wanted. Those were days when bell ringing was a perfectly respectable pastime without any political significance.

One's respect for the service grows as one grows older and as one appreciates the dangers which firemen face and the inconvenience which their occupation involves. Tragedies like the Lewisham rail crash remind us of the incomparable and varied service which the fire brigades render to the community. Tragedies like the loss of two brave men in the Smithfield disaster bring home to us the risks they run and the courage they show. Yet Smithfield was not an isolated incident. Just before Christmas an officer and two men were killed in a fire in Kent. In my submission, therefore, the Home Secretary was right, when he met a deputation from the Fire Brigades Union in December, to pay tribute to what he called the devoted work of the union's members and the high reputation and regard they enjoyed with the general public.

The amount which we are asked to vote is a quite inadequate way of expressing our appreciation to the men and women of the fire service, and on a strictly materialist level it is a very small insurance that we pay against greater losses. Last year in England and Wales, as far as I have been able to ascertain, 436 lives were lost in fires. A comparable figure for Scotland was 57.

During the same period the financial loss in capital terms was about £27 million. But, of course, the capital sum involved does not represent the real loss which the country sustains. Fires like the £2¼ million fire at the Jaguar works at Coventry and the £1 million Goodyear tyre works fire at Wolverhampton must affect production and may affect our export trade. Any increase in expenditure which makes for a more effective and more efficient service is therefore to be welcomed by the House.

At the same time, there are certain questions which I want to put to the hon. Lady the Joint Under-Secretary of State. The first concerns the extent to which the increased expenditure is due to increased activity on the part of the fire services. If we look at page 7 of the Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Fire Services for the year 1956, we find that the inspector reports that, The number of fires attended shows an increase. In that year fire brigades in England and Wales attended 111,000 fires, other than chimney fires. In addition, the Fire Service assisted in the rescue of about 300 persons from dangerous situations. The report went on to say that, Heavy demands continue to be made on Fire Brigades in respect of attendances to chimney fires, special services and false alarms. The number of calls to this type of incident totalled no fewer than 226,678 in 1956.

On page 9 of the Report the Chief Inspector goes on to say: In spite of increasing demands on their time, Brigades have continued their day to day activities in close contact with members of the public, by inspection work in pursuance of the statutory liabilities of their own and other Local Authorities, visits of an advisory nature and lectures to school children and to youth and other organisations. The total number of inspections and other visits carried out in the period was 201,546. There is no reason to suppose that that increase in the work which the fire services are asked to do diminished in the year which we are at present considering. I ask the hon. Lady to tell us whether that state of affairs persisted throughout 1957 and whether any part of the £131,900 is attributable to it.

While we are considering the extra load which the fire services are asked to carry, there is now one special additional hazard, and that is the hazard of dealing with radioactive materials. First, there is the risk of accidents in unloading radioactive material at docks, or accidents in transporting that radioactive material to its destination. I want to ask the hon. Lady whether any special equipment is being provided for use in such emergencies and, if so, whether that special equipment is covered in the Supplementary Estimate.

The second special risk arises from the possibility of nuclear bombers crashing in this country. I should like to quote to the House the letter which the General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Mr. Horner, wrote to the Under-Secretary of State on 13th December, 1957: My Executive Council has had requests from various Brigades that the Fire Service Department should be approached in order that the Fire Service might be adequately advised as to the particular dangers likely to be met with by appliance crews if called upon to deal with an incident involving the crash of aircraft carrying atomic weapons. My Executive Council considered these requests at its meeting this week. It has now instructed me to approach you to request that you issue appropriate guidance and instructions to all Fire Brigades. My Executive Council has noted the various statements of the Prime Minister that if one of these aircraft, carrying nuclear weapons, crashes it is assumed to be unlikely that a nuclear explosion will take place. However, it would appear that there is evidence that as a result of fire, various physical and chemical reactions will follow, giving rise to radioactivity and the creation of dangerous gases. We consider that the Fire Service should be equipped to deal with such a contingency, that personnel should be provided with safety clothing and that as far as is possible guidance and instructions should immediately be issued to Chief Officers. The Executive Council of this Union regards this as a matter of considerable urgency… That letter was written on 13th December, and it was only recently that a reply was sent enclosing an answer given in the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Zilliacus). I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to say what steps are being taken to comply with the very reasonable request made to her Department by the union representing the vast majority of men in the fire service.

The fact that this additional volume of work is being undertaken is the more surprising when we realise that the service is still under strength. Indeed, it is so much under strength that many practical firemen question whether the efficiency of the service can be maintained. If there is anything in that point of view at all, we are entitled to ask whether we are having the best value for the money expended or whether great risks are being taken in spite of the additional expenditure we are being asked to vote tonight.

After the Fire Services Act, 1948, was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council was set up. One of the first actions of that council was to lay down an establishment for the fire service and to settle fire cover requirements. The establishment was designed to provide a full crew of five for all appliances at all times. Unfortunately, recruiting has been such that most brigades have never come up to those figures. A Select Committee of the House recommended a review in 1954. That Committee, in paragraph 25 of its Report, gave its views: Your Committee are…convinced that the time has come for the whole basis of risk categories and standards of cover to be reexamined in the light of the experience and developments of the last six years. The Committee went on to suggest that the Home Office and the Scottish Home Department should initiate a comprehensive review of risk categories, standards of cover, and of the Fire Services, area by area. They further recommended that similar reviews should be held at regular intervals, say, every five years. It is interesting to note that on the same page the Select Committee paid a remarkable tribute to the London Fire Brigade, saying: Your Committee consider that the London Fire Brigade demonstrates how a well organised Brigade can, by efficient management and the continuous adoption of new equipment, meet substantially increased calls not only without such an increase in establishment as would require the expenditure of more public money, but even within the frustrating limits imposed by a shortage of authorised staff. Although the Select Committee made its Report in 1954, no new standard has yet been laid down. I appreciate that there is here, of course, a difference of opinion between the local authorities, the employers, and the Fire Brigades' Union. I should like to quote the passage in the Report of the Fire Brigades Advisory Council to which the Association of Municipal Corporations and other local authorities have agreed: Some standards of cover are necessary for the purpose of settling fire brigade establishments, but we are conscious that the practical question is how to determine establishments so as to ensure that the risk to brigades of being unable to make an effective attendance is not unduly great after all relevant circumstances have been taken into account. This is a question which it is primarily for higher authorities to answer since it is upon the individual fire authorities that the primary responsiblity for the preparation of establishment schemes rests and must always rest. It is fair to quote that, I think, as the view of the local authorities concerned. Equally, of course, it is the primary duty of the firemen to put out the fires when they occur. It is a sobering thought that, in 1956, 85 per cent. of the fires requiring an initial attendance of two fully manned appliances were dealt with by appliances under strength. I have no doubt that the same position continued in the year we are now considering.

I have here some figures sent to me by the Fire Brigades Union after conducting a survey of returns from various parts of the country. The union says: Out of 75 reports examined, the majority show that serious manpower deficiencies exist because no adjustment to authorised strength has taken place since 1947 and present strengths will only allow manning up to standard, i.e., 5 and 5, when all personnel are available. In fact, a good percentage shows that very few authorities are able to comply with 5 and 5 and cannot guarantee even 5 and 4 for 50 per cent. of calls. Of the better reports, only one brigade, that is, Cardiff, shows 100 per cent. manning up to, and, in some cases above, present requirements, but, in view of the general type of report. I am inclined to doubt this report. That is the Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union making that comment. The Report goes on: Of these 'better' reports, in Salford up to authorised establishments can provide full manning, that is, 5 and 5, on only 56 per cent. of occasions, Burnley provide full manning or more on 83 per cent. of occasions, while Barrow-in-Furness consistently provide an average of 12 riders for two appliances. One of the worst examples of under-manning is Essex where it appears that the 56-hour week is to be operated with fewer men than were found necessary for the 60-hour week. There is, therefore, considerable apprehension on the part of the men responsible for putting out the fires. In the circumstances, before voting this additional amount, we are entitled to ask whether the money is being wisely spent. Any hon. Gentleman who refers to the edition of "Fire", the journal of the British Fire Services, for October, 1956, will find there a description of a fire at Peterborough where an ambulance driver had to go round collecting off-duty personnel because one turntable ladder had turned up with only one man to man it. It is not, perhaps, without significance that on that occasion the fire spread from one side of the street to the other, and there had been suggestions that if it had been possible for more men to deal with the fire the gravity of the outbreak would have been less.

There was an incident at Torquay on 18th October last year. On that occasion, two women were rescued from a fire, but, in the view of the local fire officers and men, not enough personnel were available at the time. It is described in a letter from the Devon area secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, as the old, old story of not enough hands, of the superhuman efforts of just four men to effect the rescue and fight the fire, wondering where the hell was the help they'd sent for". The report ends as follows—and I emphasise, Mr. Speaker, that the language used is that of the Devon area secretary and not mine— But I can tell you something of the feelings of the firemen here at Torquay. The Sub-Officer was Reg Elson, B.F.M., a regular fireman since 1933, ex-Torquay Fire Brigade, no technical expert but a dedicated practical fireman. He came back from this jab shaken—shaken in his faith in the Service, in the administrators and policy-making officers who had made it possible for such a near tragedy to occur. John, this is a bloody system. We had our branch meeting last Thursday, and the morale is very low. The Sub-Officer asked, the Leading Firemen asked, everyone asked: 'What can we do? We can't make any impression on the C.F.O. We can't get at the Local Authority. When things go wrong the public consider it is our fault. Something has got to be done. Or do we go on until there is a disaster, have human lives to be lost before attention is attracted to this criminal state of affairs?'. It is not for me to know whether that is a highly coloured report of an account of an incident which took place, but, if it is, as I understand it to be, the considered view of men with great experience in these matters, it is a point of view which the House ought to take into account in reaching a conclusion about the present state of manning in the Fire Service.

There has been, of course, an increase in manpower in the brigades throughout the country. That has improved the situation, as reference to the inspector's report will show. The surprising thing is, however, that there are no more men riding to fires now than there were in 1948, although the calls on the fire brigades have enormously increased in the intervening period. The reason is that so many men have been taken off fire-fighting work for other duties—for instance, fire prevention, staff duties and civil defence; also there has been a creation of new fire risks in new housing and industrial areas and there is the increase in personnel made necessary by the intention to go from a sixty or even seventy-two hour week to a fifty-six hour week. These factors have meant that nearly 2,000 men have been knocked off the present strength of the fire service.

Under those circumstances, it seems particularly regrettable that the Home Secretary should have rejected the fire-women's claim, which had been agreed to by the local authorities and the union. I am afraid that his action may well have damaged the general recruiting position of the fire service. Therefore, in view of the grave disquiet among firemen, we feel justified in asking whether this money is being effectively spent. In spite of the extra expenditure which we shall vote tonight, we are still not getting adequate fire cover in every case. It is a great pity that a saving on the inspectorate is shown in the Supplementary Estimates, because the inspectors more than earn the money that they received.

I have dealt at length with the question of fire cover and, therefore, at this stage I want to ask only two more questions. First, I would like to ask the Joint Under-Secretary of State how much of this extra sum that we shall vote tonight is to be devoted to research into the possibilities of safer and more efficient fire-fighting and how much is to be devoted to fire prevention work, ensuring that architects, builders and others are made aware of the fire risks that are inherent in certain types of construction.

Secondly, I would like to ask whether the Home Office is sure, before we vote this money, that every fireman or fire-woman is being used in the most productive way. If one glances through the various publications which deal with the fire services, one comes across allegations of firemen being used, for example, as gardeners or french polishers. One comes across cases in which firemen are said to have had to submit written reports to the local authorities because they had round rubber heels on their boots.

It is impossible for anybody who is not intimately associated with the service to know whether these allegations are or are not true. But there is a duty upon all of us to do everything we can to ensure that the men and women in the fire service are being used in the most effective possible way so that the service can be as efficient as we want it to be. It is a great and important service. We should remove from it as many irritating restrictions as possible and I have no doubt that, because we have great confidence in the service, the House tonight will gladly vote the additional amount for which the Home Secretary is asking.

6.34 p.m.

Mr. Reader Harris (Heston and Isleworth)

I am glad that the Opposition have chosen for debate the Vote for the fire services. So far, the most interesting point that has come out is that the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) once rode on a horse-drawn fire appliance. I never knew that he was that old. He certainly does not look it. I have never ridden on a horse-drawn appliance myself.

I would like to support everything that the hon. Member has said, particularly his point that no one begrudges the amounts expended on the fire services. I am very glad of the support that he has given to the increased expenditure in view of the importance of the fire service in our national life. I am glad of this opportunity to be able to tell the Home Secretary that there is at present in the fire service considerable concern about what may be the pattern of future events in the light of various expressions of feeling which have come from local councillors in different places during the last few months.

We are living in days when the Government and everybody else are trying to do their best to curb the rise in the cost of living and to restore the value of the £. In so many cases, this means reducing expenditure. Of course, local councils, which have the job of spending the ratepayers' money and trying to make Government grants go further, are inclined to look around to see where they can save a few pounds here or a few pounds there. Inevitably, with about 135 borough authorities, there are bound to be a few where the feeling is expressed by various county councillors or borough councillors that expenditure on the fire service is too extravagant.

Public statements have recently been made, which I personally deplore, where officials or councillors have said, "Before the war, we managed to put out the fires in our town with six whole-time firemen. Now we have 30. Why do we need this enormous increase?" There are answers to this question which the public should know. Today, we have a far higher standard of fire cover than before the war. Furthermore, there are infinitely better conditions for members of the fire brigades than they ever enjoyed before the war or, I should say, suffered from before the war.

There are plenty of people in the fire service today who look to the Home Office to exercise the control which was retained to the Home Office under the Fire Services Act, 1947. Many of us who are connected with the fire brigades, as I have been for the last fifteen years, hope that the Home Office will continue to exercise its control and make absolutely certain that the standards in each fire brigade are not allowed to drop. Indeed, we hope that everything will be done to ensure that the standards, if anything, are improved—standards with regard to the manning of appliances and standards of equipment—and nothing should be allowed to interfere with these standards.

As the hon. Member for Rossendale said, the amount of property which today has to be given fire cover has increased. There has been a great increase in housing, thanks to the Government. I am glad to get in that "dig" in answer to the quip of the hon. Member for Rossendale about bell-ringing. There is a vast number of private houses now which require fire cover, but which did not before. Furthermore, there has been a large increase in the number of factories. If anything, this number is increasing all the time, and there is not a case for cutting down the fire service.

It is very probable that the fire cover and the methods by which the standards of fire cover are assessed need to be reviewed. I would be interested to hear from the Joint Under-Secretary what steps are taken to review the standards of fire cover from time to time. When I was a fire brigade officer, during the war, at the London Fire Brigade headquarters, it was the job of my department to work out the standards of fire cover that would obtain in the London area after the war.

The walls of my office were covered with maps, upon all of which were little circles. The method of working out what fire cover was required for a particular area was determined by putting a compass on to the map in a particular place, and the radius of the compass represented the distance which a fire appliance could cover in so many minutes. When one drew the circles, which were based on the various fire stations, one had to be certain that the whole of the map was covered to make sure that a fire appliance could reach a given area within a certain number of minutes. I should imagine that these circles need to be redrawn from time to time as building in the various localities changes. It will, however, be found that fire cover must, if anything, be stepped up rather than stepped down.

The undermanning of appliances is a persistent problem, as the members of the association of which I have been a member for many years—the National Association of Fire Officers—well know. It is impossible, and, I think, it always will be, to get 100 per cent. manning of appliances on every occasion. The Fire Brigades Union has expressed the view, with which everybody would agree, that 100 per cent. manning should be the aim, but I think that the reasonable thing to expect is that there should be full manning of appliances on 75 per cent. of attendances. If we can do that, we shall have done very well. The trouble at present is that the figure is much less than 50 per cent., which, obviously, is far too low. The Home Office should do everything possible to ensure that we get the full manning on at least 75 per cent. of occasions.

When my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary replies, I hope that she will be able to say a word on a matter which is at the moment of great concern not only to members of fire brigades, but also to the public. I refer to the investigations now being conducted, and about which I am not very well informed, into the use of breathing apparatus in the fire service. In the last few years, some disastrous accidents have befallen fire officers and firemen. The recent notable occasion was the Smithfield disaster.

There is concern in various directions to know whether the breathing apparatus now in use is the latest and best and whether it is fitted with any form of alarm which a fireman or fire officer who is wearing the apparatus can use if he finds himself in distress. I have no wish to present an alarmist picture by suggesting that if such a system of apparatus and alarm had been in use, past disasters might have been averted. It is, however, conceivable that they might have been and I do not suppose that we have seen the last of serious fires underground, in which smoke makes it impossible for men to operate without apparatus of this nature. If my hon. Friend can say something about this and the investigations which are now taking place, she could set the minds of many people at rest.

I support the remarks of the hon. Member for Rossendale about the pay of firewomen. It came as something of a shock when the Home Office rejected the recommendation of the National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire Brigades that firewomen should have an increase in pay. The male members of the fire service had an increase in pay in June last year and the increase which was later recommended for fire-women was largely consequential upon the increase given to the male ranks. We therefore considered it extremely hard that the firewomen should be deprived of this increase when the male members had had theirs.

The opportunity was taken to revise the whole structure of firewomen's pay, but things probably went wrong at the Home Office, because the increase recommended for the firewomen, instead of being in the region of 5 per cent. to 6 per cent., worked out at considerably more.

I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that the firewomen have had a raw deal over the past few years. It may be that both the Fire Brigades Union and the National Association of Fire Officers must accept blame for not having done enough to ensure that the pay of firewomen kept in line with that of the male members of the service. On this occasion, opportunity was taken to try to break away the pay of firewomen from that of women in local government and to ally it to the pay of male members of fire brigades. That is a reasonable thing to do. After all, firewomen do not perform the same sort of duties as women in local government. Women in local government work about 36 to 38 hours a week, whereas a firewomen works a 48-hour week. She works on a shift system, she is not always working during the hours of daytime, she may be working late at night, she has to wear a uniform, she works under a discipline code and her conditions are altogether different. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be able to agree to the increase in pay which has been recommended for the firewomen in the fire services.

There is one other matter on which I should like to know whether my right hon. Friend can give an answer and which is causing concern to members of certain fire brigades. Among the 135 fire authorities, there are 17 in which the fire brigade is responsible for running not only the fire appliances, but also the ambulances. These are called joint fire and ambulance brigades. As a result of an arbitration court decision a little over a year ago, the officers in the fire brigades were given an increase in pay for the extra responsibility which they had to undertake in being responsible for ambulances and, in many cases, for the personnel who operate them. These allowances which were given to the officers in their fire brigades have not been extended to junior officers, many of whom have much the same duties as the station officers and higher ranks.

One of the extraordinary things which can never be overcome in the fire service is that although a station officer may be put in charge of a fire station, because of the incidence of what is known as rota leave or annual leave, sickness or attendance at courses, inevitably junior officers—or as they are known in the Armed Forces, N.C.O.s—find themselves in charge of fire stations for a remarkably large proportion of any week. If these junior officers are doing the same work as the station officers and those of higher rank, there are many who consider that it is only right that they should get the same allowances when they carry the extra responsibility. I do not expect my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary to give a firm answer tonight, but if she can give an undertaking that her right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will look into the matter to ensure that justice is done to the N.C.O.s in the fire service, I shall be obliged.

I hope that the House will keep its eye on the fire service. It is not very often that its activities are discussed here. I am happy to say that the fire brigades are not nowadays in the cockpit of party politics and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) for the Act which he piloted through Parliament in 1947, which, by and large, is working very satisfactorily.

6.48 p.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

It is not my intention to delay the Supplementary Estimate very long. I notice that most of the £168,300 is for increases in pay and I should not dream of holding back an increase in pay to the firemen. It is, however, also concerned with inspection and training and the increased strength of the fire forces. I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) for introducing the question of danger arising from radioactivity following nuclear weapon accidents. This is a real danger and one which must be faced by the Home Secretary, the Home Office and the fire service in general.

I should like to know to what extent training is taking place to deal adequately, efficiently and safely with accidents that may arise from nuclear weapons and their handling. I have in mind the possibility—I put it no higher, but, nevertheless, the possibility exists—of a nuclear-armed bomber crashing and subsequently bursting into flames, the heat generated being sufficient to burst the canister of the bomb, oxidising the plutonium and consequently radioactivating a large area around the scene of the accident. As yet, such an accident has not happened—let us hope that it never does; nevertheless, the possibility exists. According to the strength of the prevailing wind, a large area could be affected.

Before we pass the Supplementary Estimate, I should like to know to what extent the Home Office has considered this possibility, why the fire services have not been issued with special instructions, why no special training has taken place and why the fire services have not been issued with adequate equipment to deal with this type of accident.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is getting a little wide of the Supplementary Estimate. He would be quite entitled to ask whether the increased salaries and strength mentioned in the Estimate would cover an accident to a nuclear bomb, but he cannot go into the question in detail. In the Supplementary Estimate, we are dealing only with increased pay and increased strength.

Mr. Mason

I am obliged, Mr. Speaker, I will try to keep in order, but I notice that the Supplementary Estimate covers the cost of inspection and training, and I query the training that is to take place.

We are voting a sum of £168,000, most of which will be devoted to increasing the strength of the fire brigades. I am particularly concerned about the training, and I am wondering whether the fire service will receive instructions and will have the opportunity of extending training to deal with this type of danger which is very real now, particularly having in mind the accident which occurred in America when a nuclear bomb was accidentally dropped. Here is something which could possibly happen in this country.

I understand that flights are taking place over this country and, for all I know, there may be one flight per day. There could be a T.N.T. explosion which could scatter radioactive particles. Are we satisfied that when a fire brigade has to go out to deal with such an accident its equipment is sufficient to ward off these particles. Are the gas masks adequate to deal with these dangers, and have the men the necessary protective clothing in the event of such an accident?

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Member will look at the details of the Supplementary Estimate, in page 64 of the Estimate as a whole, he will see that it is Additional provision required to meet the cost of grants to Fire Authorities in England and Wales as a result of increases in pay and increased strengths of fire forces. So far as the hon. Member can connect what he has to say with that, he is in order, but he was mentioning equipment just now and I do not see that that comes into it.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood

Would not my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) be in order in deploying the line of argument that we are asked to vote an additional sum to cover increases in personnel in the fire service but that there is no point in voting this sum to increase the personnel unless the men are adequately equipped to deal with these new hazards?

Mr. Speaker

That is very ingenious, but I doubt whether it would cover the point.

Mr. Mason

I will content myself by begging the Home Office to take notice of these increased dangers, particularly when these weapons are being transported by road and perhaps on British Railways. An accident might occur and fire brigades would be sent out to deal with that kind of danger. I hope that we shall hear from the Department whether fire brigades will receive instructions and, if necessary, training to deal with these dangers.

I am worried about recruitment. I notice from a recent leaflet issued by the Fire Brigades Union, which is entitled very appropriately, "Don't Gamble with Lives" and is extremely well presented, that in the last five years the number of fires attended in England and Wales has increased from 63,000 to 111,000, that is, has very nearly doubled, and that the total number of calls made upon the firemen for all purposes has risen over the last four years from 178,000 to 226,000.

It is worth while noticing also that the duties of firemen are on the increase. They have now to spend a great deal of their time on fire prevention, inspection, administration, training, Civil Defence, and, of course, on "spit and polish." All this gradually eats up the working day. I am worried about the recommendation of the Select Committee on Standards of Fire Cover which advocates the manning of the second machine with only four men. I understand that the Home Secretary is now considering this recommendation.

I am very much against this retrogressive suggestion and I hope that he will turn it down. The majority of large fires require two fire engines and are being fought by undermanned crews. In 1956, 85 per cent. of such fires were fought by crews which were well below strength.

It would appear that the Select Committee has decided to bury its head in the sand on the main problem, that of making the fire service more attractive and building up recruitment, thereby ensuring that adequate fire cover will be guaranteed with machines fully manned. Surely the Home Secretary must visualise a storm of protests against this suggested undermanning. The House can imagine simultaneous calls being received, involving life and property. It might be that a house or even only a room would be lost through lack of trained firemen, but it might be a life. What, then, of the uproar that would legitimately follow such an incident? I sincerely hope that the Home Secretary, in his wisdom, will turn this recommendation down.

Finally, there is the question of replacing obsolete and in many cases inadequate fire stations. Very little progress seems to have been made in solving this problem, which is having an effect on recruitment. My own town, the County Borough of Barnsley, is urgently in need of a new fire station. Plans have been completed. Arrangements to build were in an advanced state but they had to be postponed, the 7 per cent. Bank Rate having played a part in that postponement.

In situations of this kind, even the few men enrolled in the service are not working as efficiently as otherwise they might be. When they are housed in out-of-date premises and inadequate stations frustration naturally develops and this does the service much harm. Therefore, I should be obliged if the Minister could deal with the points which I have raised—instructions and advice and training to deal with accidents connected with nuclear weapons, the Home Office attitude to the suggested four-man appliance, and the programme of replacing obsolete premises and fire stations.

6.58 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) for the manner in which he opened a very interesting debate, and for the opportunity to deal with a service to which all hon. Members have paid tribute. I would join in those tributes to the very fine work which is done by the fire service throughout the country. I fully endorse the statement which the hon. Member made about the Smithfield tire. I share his regret at any loss of life anywhere in the service, and particularly in two cases to which the hon. Member referred, at Smithfield, where I had the opportunity of seeing the fire and the service in operation, and at Oakwood, which is in my county—I am also very familiar with the unhappy disaster which occurred there.

The greater part of the Supplementary Estimate, £131,900, is for additions to the grants to local fire authorities in respect of their fire services. This sum has been greater than anticipated, for two reasons. The first is the pay rise granted in June. 1957, and the second is the increase in the strength of a number of brigades following a reduction in hours of duty from 60 to 56. I cannot give the hon. Member for Rossendale the exact comparative figures for which he asked, but the estimated increase in strength is about 300 for 1957. When the final figures are available, the total may be slightly higher.

As to the remaining sums in the Supplementary Estimate, £25,000 is required to cover superannuation, and relates to transfer values paid to fire authorities in respect of instructors who ceased to be employed at the Fire Service College and emergency training centres and who returned to their brigades.

There is a further sum of £13,400 in respect of compensation paid to owners of derequisitioned property under the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939, and this results from the more speedy de-requisitioning of emergency water sites. The total Supplementary Estimate, is therefore, £170,300 and, on the other side, there is a saving of £2,000, representing the salaries of two posts, one still vacant and one which was vacant for a short time. Therefore, we are asking for a net Supplementary Estimate of £168,300.

The hon. Member for Rossendale asked specifically whether any research was provided for in this Supplementary Estimate. The answer is not in the Supplementary Estimate. But as regards general research into fire-fighting problems, I am satisfied that, in the Joint Fire Research Organisation—which is jointly financed by the Government and the Fire Offices Committee—the country has a most efficient instrument of research, of which much use is made, both by the Government and by the local authority brigades, to solve the many problems which arise from time to time in fire fighting and fire prevention.

The hon. Member for Heston and Isle-worth (Mr. R. Harris), and, I think, also the hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), raised the question of breathing apparatus, to which particular publicity was given as a result of the coroner's recommendations after the inquest on the victims of the Smithfield fire. The facts are that before this recommendation was made, the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, the members of which are appointed under the Fire Services Act from persons representing the interests of fire authorities, as well as persons who are employed as members of the brigades, very recently set up a committee, under the chairmanship of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Fire Services, to inquire into the operational use of breathing apparatus. This committee was set up at the request of members of the Advisory Council, in fact, before that particular recommendation was made at the inquest. It has already had one meeting, and it is going into the matter very thoroughly, but. I cannot, in advance of its report being received by the Home Secretary, anticipate what the result will be.

Both the hon. Member for Rossendale and the hon. Member for Barnsley raised the question of the instructions issued to fire services in the case of the crashing of an aircraft which might be carrying a nuclear weapon. There is very little that I can add to what my right hon. Friend told the House in his reply to a Question on 4th February. In that reply, he stressed that, in the event of an aircraft crashing while carrying a nuclear weapon, The risk from radiation, if any, would be small. Contamination of the ground, if it existed at all, would be confined to the immediate vicinity of the crash and could be dealt with in due course by special military teams.…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th February, 1958; Vol. 581, c. 983.] It has not, therefore, hitherto been considered necessary to give further instructions in this matter to the fire service. At the same time, my right hon. Friend has these instructions under continuous review, and while I cannot anticipate any reply that may be made in response to Questions put down for answer by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister tomorrow on this topic, I think that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in the course of his general review of the instructions given to civilian services, will most assuredly take note of any relevant information which may become available as a result of the recent accident in South Carolina. The instructions are, in fact, amended from time to time in the light of new knowledge and experience which has been gathered.

I should like to take this opportunity of clarifying the rôle of the Civil Defence services. The chance of accidental contamination—which would be from alpha rays—from the type of incident which the hon. Member raised, is very small indeed. We feel, therefore, that it would not be justifiable to equip and train for this hazard a service already equipped and trained for the much greater wartime hazard from gamma rays, and we do not think we should go beyond a few highly skilled and mobile military teams capable of dealing with this type of incident.

Mr. Mason

In view of the accident which has taken place in America, which confirms the fears which we have expressed about the results of accidents to nuclear-armed aircraft, does not the hon. Lady think that these instructions should now be reviewed and fresh instructions sent out to the fire services?

Miss Hornsby-Smith

I have already said that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will, in the light of any relevant information and reports that come from that incident, review the instructions given to civilian services, but it would be premature to anticipate his decision before full reports have been received.

The hon. Members for Rossendale and Heston and Isleworth both raised the question of fire cover, and as the hon. Member for Rossendale said, the Select Committee on Fire Services recommended that a national review of standards should be undertaken in 1954. After the preliminary technical survey, the English and Scottish Central Fire Brigades Advisory Councils, in 1956, set up a joint Committee to review the standards of fire cover. This Committee, after carefully considering the whole field of fire cover and conducting a very intensive statistical investigation into the problem of manning, reported to the Advisory Councils in May, 1957.

The Councils accepted most of its recommendations, particularly those which did not involve any great change in the present standards, but the Advisory Councils were unable to agree upon a recommendation relating to standards of manning. The Fire Brigades Union, as one hon. Member has rightly said, suggested, in a minority report, standards of manning which would result in a very large increase in the present manpower of the brigades. My right hon. Friend saw a deputation from the Fire Brigades Union in October, 1957, and has fully before him their case, which, as I have said, would result in very large increases in manpower establishment. In a matter of this kind, however, and particularly at the present time, it is important to weigh with extra care any case for increased expenditure.

As the Advisory Councils have disagreed upon this question—and they are very fully representative bodies—it falls to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to decide what action should be taken about promulgating the standards of manning. They are determined, as I am sure all hon. Members are, that the standards of efficiency of the fire service shall be maintained. There is no question about that, but, as the deliberations of the English and Scottish Joint Committees have shown, several views are possible. I do not think that one can accept that, because not everybody on those Committees agrees with the Fire Brigades Union, those people—local authority representatives and the like—are any less conscious of their responsibilities or of the need for an adequate standard being maintained.

As there has been a difference of opinion, and as several views are possible about the right level of manning, this is a question into which my right hon. Friends must go very carefully and exhaustively. I can only say that they hope, in not too long a period—reasonably soon—to be able to issue guidance to the fire authorities in the light of their joint decision.

If I may turn now to the question of firewomen's pay, may I say that in October, 1957, the National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire Brigades asked the Secretary of State to approve increases in the pay of women members of fire brigades of from £23 to £60 a year, and the Council also proposed that the pay of firewomen should in future be related to that of firemen, instead of, as hitherto, to a certain grade of local government officer. The recommendations put forward were very carefully considered by the Secretary of State before reaching his decision, and may I say that there is no question of refusing approval of any increase in the pay of women members of brigades.

The disagreement is over the amount of the increase which ought to be granted. My hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth referred to the pay increase of 3.6 per cent. awarded to the firemen in June last year. The increase which has been asked for in respect of the fire-women is 13 per cent. at the maximum, whereas if the old basis had been retained and the new maximum made £445 instead of £475 a year, the increase would have been 6 per cent. and in closer relationship to the increase given to the firemen in June last year.

It may be suggested that this decision was an unjustifiable interference with collective bargaining, but the Fire Service Act, 1947, gives the Secretary of State express power to refer back to the Council a recommendation of which he does not approve, which is what my right hon. Friend has done. In this case, reference back was justified in the light of the statement on Government policy made in the House by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 29th October, 1957, and it is fair to point out that the increase which would have resulted from the acceptance of the proposals would still have increased the maximum pay by 6 per cent.

The Secretary of State decided to take this step, reluctantly, in the light of Government policy. He has indicated to the Council that he will be prepared at an appropriate time to approve a proposal to relate directly the pay of firewomen to that of firemen. Meanwhile, he is prepared to consider the grant of increases which appear to him to be adequate in present circumstances and are in line with the reference back he has made to the Council.

I have endeavoured to deal with the various points raised by hon. Members and I am grateful to them for the manner in which they have dealt with what we in this House believe to be one of the very efficient services. When I say "very efficient", it was noticeable that in dealing with fire cover no hon. Member mentioned that, whereas one may be considering man for man, it is also fair to take into account equipment with equipment. We must recognise that with more modern, more efficient and more powerful equipment, with better and speedier notification, each man is more valuable by virtue of the increased number of, and more efficient, appliances he has behind him. It is fair to make this point when we are considering the numbers and efficiency of the brigades. I am grateful to hon. Members for their pronounced support of this Supplementary Estimate.

Question put and agreed to.

Third Resolution read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution.