HC Deb 14 April 1959 vol 603 cc935-43
Mr Wood

I beg to move, in page 8, line 17, to leave out from " of " to " duties " and to insert: reporting to the inspector on any matter falling within the inspector's ".

Mr Speaker

I think that the Amendment in page 8, line 24, at the end to insert: (3) An inspector shall not authorize an officer of a fire brigade to enter or inspect any premises except with the consent of the authority maintaining the brigade. goes with this one.

Mr Wood

I agree, Mr. Speaker.

These Amendments stem from a considerable succession of discussions which we had in Committee about the relationship between the certifying authorities, county councils and county borough councils, on the one hand, and the factory inspectorate on the other.

Perhaps I may briefly suggest to the House the principles which I think should be borne in mind. I hope that I can also satisfy the House that we are meeting those principles which I hope in turn will be acceptable.

In Clause 6, which we have been discussing this evening, we have given effect to the first principle, that the duty of issuing certificates as to means of escape in case of fire should rest with the county councils and county borough councils. We agreed in Committee, I think, that the responsibility for other fire matters, to use that abbreviation which will be very familiar to Members of the Committee, should rest with the Factory Inspectorate, that is to say, all other matters apart from inspection of means of escape. That is met by the general requirements of Clause 13.

9.30 p.m.

The third principle was that, when an officer of a fire brigade is designated by the appropriate council to carry out the duty of examining fire escapes, it should be possible for a factory inspector to empower him to look at other fire matters. The purpose of the first Amendment, the one in page 8, line 17, is to secure that result. The fourth principle was that the factory inspector should be able to empower an officer of the fire authority to examine other fire matters in factories than those dealt with in Section 34 of the 1937 Act. That, again, would be achieved by the first Amendment.

We agreed also that the factory inspector should empower officers of fire brigades in the last two senses which I have been mentioning only with the consent of the fire authority. The factory inspector would have to obtain the consent of the fire authority before he gave the permission. That is what we are trying to achieve by the second Amendment, in page 8, line 34.

Lastly, there was a point about which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens), among others, felt very strongly. He felt that the fire brigade officer when he made his inspection and noted certain things about other fire matters should report to the factory inspector and the factory inspector would then take the necessary action. That, also, is met by the first Amendment.

I hope, therefore, that what I have said will convince the House that we have tried our best to meet all the principles which were generally agreed by the Committee. If there is anything which we have, by any chance, overlooked, we shall certainly consider further any advice which the House may give us. I think that we have generally kept our undertakings, and I hope that the House will accept the Amendments.

Mr MacDermot

It is not an exaggeration to say that (these two Amendments, modest though they appear, are among the most important of all the Amendments on the Notice Paper. The starting point is the fact — I hope that the whole House will agree on it now, after our earlier lengthy discussion — that fire prevention is a highly technical matter. There are in he fire brigades specialist fire prevention officers who are able to give exceedingly useful and valuable advice, which no one else is able to give.

As a result of the Bill and these Amendments, if accepted, there will in future be two different authorities, as it were, who will be able to authorise fire prevention officers to go into factories. One will be the certifying authority under Section 34, which will now be the county borough council or county council, and the other will be the factory inspector. Of course, the certifying authorities themselves will have different responsibilities. Quite clearly, it would be a great waste of time if, when the fire prevention officer was inside a factory looking round, he was not able to look at the factory from both points of view.

Considerable care has had to be taken, and I think has successfully been taken. in the drafting of the Amendment to see that nobody's corns have been trodden on and that fire prevention officers do not cause trouble or difficulties by investigating and reporting on matters without notifying the necessary authorities and getting their permission before exercising the roving commission which we would like them to exercise.

The success of this operation will depend entirely on close and intimate liaison between three different bodies, that is to say, the certifying authority, the fire prevention officer, and the factory inspector. If the provisions which we are passing into law are to work, it is essential that there is really close personal co-operation between the officials representing these three bodies.

To show the complexity of it, perhaps we might consider the case of a fire prevention officer being sent by a district council to inspect a factory for the purposes of a certificate under Section 34 of the Factories Act, 1937. Before the officer is able to look at and report upon the aspects of fire prevention which concern the factory inspector, he will have to notify the factory inspector that he is going, he will have to ask the factory inspector for authority to report upon matters which concern the factory inspector, and he will have to receive authority in writing from the factory inspector to do so. If he has done all those things he can then look at all the aspects of fire prevention and make his report to the factory inspector.

This machinery may seem very complicated, but it is necessary. I need not go into the reasons now. A number of reasons were put forward during our discussions in Committee why misunderstandings and complications might arise if this procedure were not adopted to ensure that the proper authorities were obtained. I hope that the Minister will use his influence to ensure the very closest degree of co-operation between these three different authorities and that these provisions are put to valuable use. If that is done, this will be amongst the most important changes in the law made under this Bill.

Mr. Reader Harris

I hope the House will excuse me if I say a few words, and after that I promise to say no more on the Report stage in view of the lateness of the hour.

The importance of this Clause is that it sets out quite clearly the rights of a fire brigade officer in a fire authority. The position is that the fire authority can send the fire brigade officer into a factory, as of right, under Clause 6 of the Bill to deal with escape certification and also to follow up inspections in connection with means of escape certificates. There is also a right under the Fire Services Act, 1947, Section 1 (I, d) enabling a fire authority to send one of its fire brigade officers into a factory to look at the fire fighting arrangements.

There is still no power, as of right, for a fire authority to send one of its tire brigade officers to examine the premises for fire prevention. It can send one of its officers in under Section 1 (1, f) of the 1947 Act if the property owner invites the fire authority to do so. There will now be a right for a fire brigade officer to enter a factory if the factory inspector invites him to do so. This, therefore, does not mean that the Government have gone as far as I had hoped, but I will not argue about it. The Minister, perhaps, has done the right and sensible thing, and I accept it.

If a fire brigade officer, having been sent in to examine for certification the means of escape or the fire fighting arrangements, happened to see something which he did not regard as being good fire prevention he would not be able to do anything about it. I gave an example to the Committee of an actual case where in a cellulose spray shop it was found that the partition was built of breeze-blocks and the cavities of the blocks had become filled with cellulose, turning the shop into a deathtrap. In the event of a fire, the factory would have gone up in a sheet of flames in a matter of seconds. The fire brigade officer had no right to say, " You must take the partition down and put up a glazed wall which can be washed." In practice, he must ring up the factory inspector arid tell him, under what I described in Committee as Section 1 of the " Old Pals Act ", " There is something wrong and you must do something about it."

The House must be quite clear that a great deal of co-operation will still be needed on a purely voluntary basis between the fire authority and the Factory Inspectorate. I should have liked the fire authority to have had power to say to the owner of a factory, " You must do something about this." As things have turned out, this must be done through the Factory Inspectorate, but I will not argue about that now. I think that the Bill is an enormous advance in every way.

Mr. C. Howell

Like the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris), I, also, am disappointed that the Minister has not gone the whole way. In Committee, I mentioned what happens when this type of inspection takes place on the railways and how, if anyone gets a hint or a tip that the inspector is visiting one spot, the news is passed on immediately and everybody elsewhere is ready for him. That will happen in this case, too, if the inspector is not able to make spot checks. The Clause gives no powers of entry to officers of the fire authorities for that purpose. Even now their powers are to be restricted, though I approve the Amendment, which will widen the scope of certain of their powers to some extent.

It would have been a very Gilbertian situation if a fire prevention officer were to enter a factory and, when he saw that although the means of exit was all right something else was entirely wrong, he could be told that he had not entered the factory for that purpose and that the second matter had nothing to do with him. I am not happy, however, about the provision which says that a fire brigade officer shall not be authorised to enter and inspect any premises except when authorised in writing by an inspector.

What does that mean? Does it mean that he must obtain a certificate from the authority in respect of every premises that he enters Has he a carte blanche authority, like a police officer with his warrant? Does he obtain a warrant to enable him to carry out these duties as he thinks fit or, as I explained to the Committee, will he be in the position where, for instance, he may be in charge of a hydrant inspection party and, though he sees that the factory is transgressing regulations governing fire prevention, he cannot go into that factory until he obtains a certificate from the Factory Inspectorate in respect of it?

9.45 p.m.

Is that what it means? Must he have a special authority which will bear the name and address of the factory? Is he to have it every time? Can he not go in without a special authority? Is he not to have a warrant? I hope that the Minister will have a look at this, because it would curtail the officer's powers and place him in a very invidious position if be sees something at 5.30 p.m. and knows perfectly well that the inspector will have gone home or be somewhere else and he cannot get in contact with him, while knowing that there is a fire risk somewhere.

Do not let us lose sight of the fact, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North mentioned in his remarks, that this can possibly be the most important part of this Bill. To me, it is most important, for this reason. One can have the finest fire-fighting appliances and organisation in the world, but it is not half as important as preventing the fire in the first place. We simply do not need any life-saving and fire-fighting appliances until we have a fire, and if we can prevent the fire, and if we think of the old adage that prevention if better than cure, then, obviously, we must agree that fire prevention is the important thing, far more important than firefighting itself. It should come first.

Here is one way in which we can insist on giving greater powers to fire prevention officers to see that they are able to carry out their duties. It is most important that they should carry them out by a spot check, without anybody knowing that they are visiting the factories. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will recall that I mentioned this in Committee. With the best will in the world, it is possible for loose conversation between certain people to indicate to someone else that the factory inspector is to visit a certain factory. It can be done unwittingly. Someone may drop a hint that the fire prevention officer is to visit a particular factory.

It may well be that when he gets there he may find that conditions in that factory are very good indeed, but they may only be temporary and produced for his benefit. It is not only in the Armed Forces that there is " bull ". Whenever it is known that the factory inspector is to visit a particular factory, it is always somebody's job to have a look round before he gets there to make sure that there is no transgression of the law. Once he has gone again — and the Minister gave details of how many factories have not been examined for many years, because we know that there is a shortage of inspectors and they do not get round half as often as they should do — it is fair to assume that when a factory has just been examined it will be a long time before he comes round again.

If the people concerned know that the inspector has been and is not likely to come again for a while, they can relax and get a little slack again. I therefore hope that by a spot check we will give the fire prevention officer the opportunity of doing something which will keep these people on their toes.

Mr Wood

I do not think that any of us would have any real complaint if we felt that a whisper of a future visit by the factory inspector or fire prevention officer did, in fact, secure perfection in the fire prevention arrangements in a factory, but it is about the general matters which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Banr (Mr. C. Howell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris) have raised that I should like to say a few words.

I think that we want to avoid, if I may suggest it to the House, making too heavy weather about this. A fire prevention officer goes to a factory to inspect the means of fire escape, and if he sees things such as my hon. Friend suggested at the same time then, obviously, he would get in touch with the factory inspector and say, " This is happening here. Something ought to be done about it." If, as we are visualising, the fire prevention officer and the factory inspector arrange a certain rota of visits in the future, the factory inspector can very easily give to the fire prevention officer full authority to look at what we abbreviated in the Committee to other fire matters " and report to him through the procedure that we have.

Therefore, in practice, I do not think that there will be great difficulty. If we find that there are difficulties we will try to put them right, but I think that if there is common sense and the fire prevention officer looks around him when he is inspecting for fire escapes and receives authority for the full examination of the other fire matters, this will work well. I commend the Amendments to the House.

Mr. Robens

I rise only to say that when we were discussing these matters in the Committee I had two principles in my mind. One was that without doubt the factory inspector was a responsible officer under the Factories Act and that one should not detract from his responsibilities one iota. The second was that in the matter of fire prevention he should have the best advice of the most efficient technical experts in the country who, I always feel, are the fire prevention officers.

We need to combine these two duties without overlapping and without conflict and I congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend on producing Amendments which have met the situation. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris) humorously suggested that this co-operation would be under Section 1 of the " Old Pals' Act ". That may well be the case, but I am certain that the inspector will be glad of the services of the fire prevention officer.

I am equally certain that the fire prevention officer will be more than delighted to know that when he goes into a factory with the authority of the factory inspector he will be able to look at all other fire matters and will be able to report them to the inspector. I believe that the relationship between the inspectors and the fire prevention officers will be such that there will be mutual regard for one another's functions and duties, and that any reports of the factory inspector will be acted upon.

Now that the law is being established 1 regard this as a matter of administration, and I am satisfied that the degree of harmony in the relation between the factory inspectors and the fire prevention officers will be such that it will carry out the best intentions of Parliament.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 8, line 24, at the end to insert: (3) An inspector shall not authorise an officer of a fire brigade to enter or inspect any premises except with the consent of the authority maintaining the brigade. — [Mr., Wood.]