HC Deb 14 April 1959 vol 603 cc874-931
Mr. Wood

I beg to move, in page 5, line 22, at the beginning to insert: (1) The council of the county or county borough shall, as respects England and Wales, be substituted for the district council throughout sections thirty-four and thirty-five of the principal Act (which relate to means of escape in case or fire); and accordingly,

  1. (a) paragraph (a) of subsection (14) of the said section thirty-four (which substitutes the London County Council for the district council) shall be omitted;
  2. (b) in subsection (5) of the said section thirty-five (which modifies the section in its application to London) there shall be substituted, for the words from " as if references " to " to London ", the words " as if subsection (4) were omitted ";
  3. (c). the references to the district council in subsection (2) of section one hundred and sixteen and subsection (2) of section one hundred and fifty of the principal Act shall be construed as including references to the council substituted by the foregoing prohibitions of this subsection; and
  4. (d) the reference in subsection (5) of section one hundred and twenty-eight of the principal Act to the duties of the district council under that Act shall be construed as including a reference to the duties of the council of a county borough under the said sections thirty-four and thirty-five.
(2) Any certificate issued by, or notice given by or to, the council of a county district under the said section thirty-four before the coming into operation of subsection (1) of this section shall after the coming into operation of that subsection have effect as if it had been issued or given by or to the county council; and the district council shall send to the county council a copy of any such notice given within twelve months before that time and of any such certificate.

Mr. Speaker

There are a number of consequential Amendments later in the Bill.

Mr. Wood

I was about to ask you, Mr. Speaker, if we might discuss at thesame time the Amendments in line 23, the first Amendment in line 25, that in line 29, that in line 37 and the third Amendment in page 6, line 15. That, I think, is the complete list.

Mr. Speaker

Yes, I think that all those Amendments may be discussed together.

Mr. Wood

The House, or at least those hon. Members of the House who were members of the Committee, will remember a long discussion which we had on this general point as to which council should be the certifying authority and should issue certificates for fire escapes from factories. It will be remembered that it was the original intention of the Government, as it still appears in the Bill, that the district councils should continue to issue fire escape certificates, and it was only after very considerable argument —argument which I recognised had been entirely against the view which I at first expressed that the Committee decided that the transfer of functions should be made and that the fire authorities should from now on be responsible for this certification.

I should like to make quite clear —I think it was the general view, though possibly not the unanimous view, of the Committee —that this change implied no dissatisfaction with the work which had been done by the district councils in the past. In fact, if I may so assure the House, there are a great many district councils whose record in this matter of certification is extremely good. Although I shall mention no names, I would say that it is rather better than that of some of the other councils to which we have transferred this work. It may be that it is still exercising the minds of various hon. Members of the House whether the Committee was right in the decision which it took. It may be suggested, and I have heard it suggested, that this job, which involves a good deal of going in and out of factories and necessitates friendly relations between the inspecting authority and the factory occupier, would be better done by what I might call the more local local authorities. That is the first argument that is suggested.

Secondly, it is put forward that this work is closely related to the work of planning and building control which is at present carried out by district councils, and, therefore, it would be better, so it is argued, if the two jobs were still kept together. Thirdly, it is pointed out that there might be dangers of conflict between the fire prevention officers and the district councils. Lastly, it is pointed out that the changes will certainly involve a good deal of transfer of paper, and the resulting confusion, certainly at the beginning of this exercise, might be fairly considerable.

Having considered all these matters, am quite convinced that the decision which the Committee took when it decided to transfer the functions to the fire authorities was the right one; and I am so convinced because of the irresistible logic, at the present time, as well as in the Committee, of the convictions strongly held by a number of Members of the Committee to the effect that, this being a fire job, and being as closely connected as any job can be with fire matters, it should be in the hands of the fire experts —that is, the fire authorities.

That was the basis on which I think I am right in saying the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Greenwood) rested his case, and on which a number of my hon. Friends rested the case for the transfer. I am certain that it is the strongest argument that can be used, because, as I see it, it would be illogical for the two functions to continue to be divided. That is the reason we were persuaded that the change should be made.

6.30 p.m.

There is one further matter. Hon. Members will have noted that there is no mention of Scotland in the Amendment. That is not an oversight. As a number of hon. Members know, these things are slightly differently organised, as so many things are differently organised, north of the Border. Consequently, the same Amendment would not deal with the position in Scotland. This matter is being considered, and it is the intention of the Government, if the House agrees with the principle embodied in this Amendment, to put down an Amendment to regularize the position in Scotland when the Bill goes to another place.

Mr Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

This Amendment applies a principle contained in one I moved on behalf of my hon. and right hon. Friends in the Standing Committee, and I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for meeting us by introducing it, just as I also thank him for his helpful approach to fire questions throughout our discussions in Standing Committee. The hon. Gentleman has very properly stated the general grounds upon which we base our case; but, for the benefit of those who were not present during our earlier deliberations, perhaps I may spell it out in rather more detail than the hon. Gentleman has done.

Our main contention was that under the 1937 Factories Act the authority charged with the task of certifying that the means of escape in facories was adequate was the district council which, at the time that Act was passed, was the fire authority. The 1947 Fire Services Act, however, made the county councils and county borough councils the fire authorities. That change, which many of us opposed at the time when my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) introduced it, left the non-county borough in the position of having to issue certificates on fire matters without the necessity of using an officer specially trained in fire and fire prevention work.

It seemed to us that it should be the fire authorities which had the task of doing this work, and I hope that when the Measure goes on to the Statute Book the Minister will see that the special knowledge of the fire services and the fire prevention officers will be used fully. There have been great developments in fire prevention and in other aspects of fire work since the Act of 1947 was passed, and there is now a great fund of knowledge and experience available for preventing the kind of disasters which from time to time happen in factories.

I echo what the Parliamentary Secretary said about the attitude which was adopted by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee to the smaller local authorities. I do not think that during the proceedings in the Standing Committee there was a single word of criticism spoken of the local authorities or the staff they use. I will read to the House the point of view I expressed on behalf of the Opposition. I said: We certainly do not want to go on record as being critical of the smaller types of local authority or their officials… Nor do we wish to be on record as being critical of the qualities of the officers discharging these functions. They are all excellent at their own jobs, but their own jobs, as the Minister conceded, in most cases are very different from the job of advising on the best way of preventing fires … We do not criticise the quality or achievements of the officials concerned, but because of the multiplicity and onerousness of their other duties, combined with the fact that qualified health inspectors are very difficult to come by nowadays, it would be wise to relieve them of this responsibility and entrust it to officials specially trained in fire prevention work." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B,3rd February, 1959; c. 269 and 270.] The case made from both sides of the Committee was that at present public health inspectors were being used to advice on a matter completely outside their ordinary professional experience.

The Government accepted the principle of the Amendment and we were pleased that they did so. I am happy to know that apparently there is no intention on the part of the Government to go back on that. At the same time, it is right for us to face the fact that certain difficulties have been created by this change in the Bill. The local government associations, such as the County Councils Association and the Association of Municipal Corporations, have stressed the difficulties which were frankly touched upon by the Parliamentary Secretary himself.

For example, the County Councils Association draw attention to the situation which will arise in Kent, where the Kent County Fire Authority covers the area of the County Borough of Canterbury but the Kent County Council and the Canterbury Borough Council will continue to be responsible for certifying means of escape. They draw attention also to the position which arises where there are joint fire authorities, as in the case of the County of Worcestershire and the County Borough of Worcester.

The Association of Municipal Corporations stresses a rather different aspect of the problem and emphasises, among other points, that the non-county boroughs will still have considerable responsibilities as regards the passing of plans for factories. I will quote an extract from a letter written to me by the Association: District councils, as building byelaw authorities, have to pass the plans of new factories and it would clearly lead to extra administrative work, confusion and additional cost to factory owners if building plans were approved by byelaw authorities and then, after the building had been constructed, the fire authority required alterations to be made to satisfy Section 34. That is a fair point to make, but I should have thought that these are purely administrative difficulties, that they can be resolved administratively, and that all that is needed is good will, co-operation and suitable administrative arrangements for consultation between the various local authorities concerned. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that it is the intention of the Government to promote proper arrangements for consultation between the local authorities, and will agree that it would be unwise at this stage to make further amendments in the law which would have the effect of making consultation mandatory upon the local authorities concerned.

Mr Geoffrey Rippon (Norwich, South)

I rise to express doubts about the Amendment in its present form, but in doing so I would emphasise that I do not criticise in any way its policy and purpose. I am concerned about whether the intention of the Amendment will, or indeed can, be carried out.

Undoubtedly my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) were both correct when they said that an anomaly has arisen as a result of the Fire Services Act, 1947. The county councils and the county boroughs are now the fire authorities. Prima facie, therefore, it seems obvious that they should be responsible for carrying out these functions under Section 34 of the 1937 Act. Fire prevention is a matter for the fire authority; indeed, it employs expert fire prevention officers for the purpose.

In those circumstances, I will not complain that there should be a local government Bill to adjust functions as between the various types of authority. I will not complain that the result of this Amendment will be that three sets of officials, instead of two, will have the right to enter private premises and will have the responsibility between them. Nor am I concerned with the fact that district councils will retain other functions under the Factories Act, 1937, relating to workers' health, drainage and matters of that kind. As was pointed out, there is no connection under the Factories Act between drainage and workers' health and welfare, on the one hand, and fire prevention on the other hand. There is no statutory or other difficulty which I can see in separating those functions.

Nor would I say that it is anything more than just illogical to make this Amendment in respect of factories while still leaving district councils with their responsibilities under Section 60 of the Public Health Act, 1936, for determining what is the proper means of escape in respect of shops, flats, institutional and other such buildings over two storeys high.

All I am concerned with is that if the Amendment is enacted there will be a clear conflict of authority between the fire authority carrying out its new duty under Section 34 and the district councils carrying out their bye-law functions under the Public Health Act, 1936 —their functions under that Act to approve the plans of the proposed factories submitted to them.

The hon. Member for Rossendale said that there was no difficulty in the matter and that it could all be settled administratively. It is not quite clear what the administration is to be under Section 34. There is nothing in the Amendment which says that the fire authorities will have any responsibility for dealing with plans. The Minister, of course, retains power to make regulations to that effect. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary can help us a little about the position in practice. It may be, as the hon. Member for Rossendale said, that the plans will be sent first to the district council as the bye-law authority and secondly to the fire authority to carry out its functions under Clause 34. In that case there may be difficulty in so far as the local authority may approve plans for one purpose and the fire authority may seek to amend them for another.

A greater difficulty might arise if the builder of a factory sends a duplicate set of plans to the fire authority and both authorities reach their decisions simultaneously, one approving a structure of wood and the other stating that it must be a structure of steel. They have both made their decisions and they are both functus officio, but there is a clear conflict in their decisions. If in those circumstances both are unenforceable, we have created a statutory nonsense.

The hon. Member for Rossendale said that all this can be done by consultation. There is no difficulty about that at present. There is power to consult, and indeed local authorities ought to consult at present. I should have thought that it was much better to have voluntary consultation, but we must accept that in this case there ought to be something stronger. I suggest that the district council, which has the primary responsibility as the bye-law authority, should still issue the certificate but should he under a statutory duty to consult the fire authority on this aspect of the matter. That would ensure consultation in every case.

I do not ask my hon. Friend to withdraw the Amendment. I ask him, before the Bill is considered in another place, simply to consider this aspect of the conflict of duties which may arise under the Act.

6.45 p.m.

Mr Hunter

When the Parliamentary Secretary began to move that Amendment he gave the impression that he was opposed to it, but when he finished he gave his reasons for having moved it. Section 34 of the Factories Act, 1937, lays on district councils the duty of examining factories with a view to issuing certificates as to means of escape. These duties have been carried out by the district councils for many years, and there is no evidence that they are behind in this work. In fact, my evidence is to the contrary. It is that the district councils have done remarkably well in examining factories and in issuing certificates and that there has been close co-operation between district councils and fire authorities.

The point which I want to make is that the Minister has not had consultations with the district councils through their associations. That is the information which has been given to me, and I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to deal with the matter. I also understand that the Association of Municipal Corporations strongly opposes the Amendment. There has been no consultation with the local authorities concerned through their associations. It seems to me wrong in principle for the Government to impose an important and far-reaching change in a Bill without consulting local authorities when their associations are available for this purpose.

The district councils are very keen on their work. They are in the local community. Unless the Parliamentary Secretary gives some reason for this lack of consultation it may give the impression that this is an attempt to transfer powers and to give them to the county councils at the expense of the district councils. I very much hope that the right hon. Gentleman will clear up these points when he replies.

Sir Cyril Black (Wimbledon)

I should like to support the main point made by the hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter). I must confess to being very doubtful about the wisdom of the transfer of powers and duties which is envisaged by these Amendments, but, however doubtful I may be on that point, I am in no doubt at all as to the fact that the Government have gone about this matter in the worst possible way. If they wanted to create difficulties with local authorities and local authority organizations, they could not have been more successful.

It seems to me wholly wrong that on matters of this kind decisions should be taken and should be placed on the Notice Paper in the form of Amendments before the House without any kind of consultation, so I am informed, between the Minister and the local government bodies. Whatever the merits of this proposal may be, it is contrary to practice, unwise and, I think, involves an element of discourtesy that there should have been no consultation with the people who are vitally concerned.

I point out to the Minister, furthermore, that what he is seeking to do in these Amendments is directly contrary to the whole trend which is taking place in the reorganisation of local government, because what the Minister of Housing and Local Government is trying to do, wherever possible, is to transfer powers and duties from the larger local authorities and to make the district councils more effective, more representative, more influential and more important than they are at present.

I should very much like to know from the Parliamentary Secretary whether the Minister of Labour has had any consultation in this matter with the Minister of Housing and Local Government and, if he has, what is the attitude of the Minister of Housing and Local Government, because what is proposed to be done in this matter is contrary to the whole trend of reorganisation of local government which is taking place throughout the country.

Reference has already been made to the anomalies which will be created if these Amendments are written into the Bill. The point has already been made that the district councils will still have the same kind of powers in respect of other classes of property such as flats, tenements, shops and other buildings more than two storeys high, as it is proposed to take away from them in respect of factories. It seems to me to be a most extraordinary decision to take away these duties in respect of factories from the district councils while leaving with them the duties in respect of other classes of property.

Reference has been made to the duplication of work that will be involved, to the overlapping of powers and duties and to the additional administrative costs that may well be involved. If the Amendments are adopted, we shall have three different bodies dealing with matters of this kind. There will be, first, the fire authorities; secondly, the district councils in regard to the provisions of the principal Act relating to workers' health and welfare; and, thirdly, the factory inspectors.

I am quite satisfied that the right way to deal with this matter would be to leave the duties as they are at the moment, with the district councils, but to make it obligatory upon the district councils to consult the fire authorities before reaching a decision. That would, in a statutory form, bring the fire authorities into the matter. It would, by compulsion, mean that they would have to be consulted on any matters with which the district authorities were dealing, but it would still leave the matter as it is at the moment with the district authorities while making the admitted experience arid knowledge of the fire officers available in dealing with these matters.

I very much hope that there will be further thoughts on this matter and that a decision more in line with the present development of local government may be reached.

Mr Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

I do not intend to detain the House for more than a minute or two. I was not a member of the Standing Committee and I certainly would not pretend to be an expert on fire prevention. It seems, however, as, if there were considerations which might induce not merely the Government but my hon. Friends to reconsider the matter.

I understand from what the Minister has said that the Government were at first satisfied to leave the responsibility where it was and that they had approached this matter from the viewpoint of leaving the responsibility where it has always been, namely, with the district councils, which include the non-county borough councils, many of which represent large bodies of people and have a great deal of experience. If the Government were looking for occasions on which they might change their mind in the light of representations made to them by the Opposition, I can recommend to them a number of much more suitable occasions for such changes of policy than the one they have chosen. On this occasion, although I say it with some regret, I think that they have accepted arguments leading them to change their mind which might well have been resisted.

If the Government, or if any responsible person or authority, were saying that there was some loss of efficiency, some neglect, some lack of responsibility or ineffectiveness of some kind, which required the change that they are now proposing, that could have been considered on its merits and considered with other things and might, in the end, have been the decisive or conclusive consideration.

That, however, is not the Government's case. It is not the case put forward to them, I understand, in Committee by my hon. Friends. It is conceded that there is no complaint. In moving his Amendment, the Minister went out of his way to say that no kind of criticism whatever was implied in making the change. So far as one can see, it is merely a concession to some kind of administrative tidiness.

Mr. Reader Harris (Heston and Isleworth)

The hon. Member ought to know that there was plenty of complaint.

Mr. Silverman

That may well be. The hon. Member will, however, forgive me for dealing with the argument presented by the Minister for the Amendment. If there are other and better arguments, my mind is sufficiently open to listen to them when they are deployed. I have, however, heard nothing of any complaint from the Minister and I am dealing with the arguments in favour of the Amendment as they seem good to the Government.

The Minister said that there was no such complaint or criticism. If he likes to say that he has changed his mind about that or would like to withdraw and say that, on the contrary, there are many complaints, that would create a totally different situation. I see no anxiety or enthusiasm, however, on the part of the Minister to get up and say that the real reason for the change which he is proposing is that the existing position is inefficient. He does not say so at all.

Even if that were so, I should have thought that the proposal made by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) of providing that in the discharge of these responsibilities it should be statutorily obligatory on the local authority to act in concert with the fire authorities, would meet any such criticism of that kind. So far as the Minister put forward the case—and I think my hon. Friend put it in exactly the same way—some logical compulsion or administrative tidiness has made it reasonable to make this change.

The position is not administratively tidy after the Amendment is made. It has been made quite clear by the speeches which have been made so far that logical and administrative anomalies, and quite substantial ones, remain after the Amendment is made. Neither on administrative tidiness, therefore, does the case seem to be made.

It seems to me that if the rest of the arguments are more or less evenly balanced—and, I suppose, it might fairly be said that they are—there is one overriding consideration which should tilt the balance against the Amendment rather than in favour of it. The hon. Member for Wimbledon said that the Amendment was against the present trend of transferring functions to local authorities. If it were so, that would be a good reason. I am afraid, however, that it is only too much in line with what the tendency has been over the past ten or fifteen years.

Sir C. Black

I was speaking of the trend in the last two years or so. I agree with the hon. Member about the tendency over ten or fifteen years.

Mr Silverman

I am glad that we agree. Unless there is an overwhelmingly compulsive reason for taking functions away from local authorities, they ought to be left where they are. If there has been a trend towards taking functions away and if the trend is now against it, the change is a good one.

Many things have been taken away from local authorities which they were carrying out with reasonable efficiency. In some cases, one has to concede that it was necessary to make the change. Nevertheless, necessary or not, it left the local authority with diminished responsibility and scope and made local government, to that extent, less real and less live than it was.

Democracy in most countries depends far more on the discharge of governmental representative functions locally than centrally. The more we have of such functions in direct control of the local authority, so that the people who administer the functions are in constant touch with, and constantly answerable to, the people who elect them to perform them, the better service we do to democracy and to keeping alive interest in representative governmental functions.

It seems to me, therefore, that any proposal to take away further functions from the local authorities must be looked at with extreme care. I do not say that it has to be looked at in a hostile spirit—certainly not. It must be looked at from the viewpoint of whether it is necessary to make the change. If it is necessary to make the change, we should make it without hesitation, but unless there is a compelling reason or where the balance is fairly even I should have considered it much better on general considerations, on the ground of general public policy, not to denude the local authority further of its power, its authority and its administrative scope.

7.0 p.m.

Mr. Reader Harris

Whenever I listen to doctrinaire arguments I always become a little frightened. No doubt doctrines and theories have their place, but in matters of life and death practical considerations are of supreme importance. I am supporting this Amendment proposed by the Minister, the principle of which was accepted by him in Committee as a result of an Amendment proposed by the Opposition, and I have no doubt in my mind that what is being done is the right thing. I speak with some experience, having been the negotiating secretary of the National Association of Fire Officers for the last fifteen years and seen how the 1937 Act worked in practice.

I am going to say straight away to the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) that there is a compulsive reason why the duties of certifying factories means of escape should now be removed from the district councils and placed upon the fire authorities. The overwhelming, compulsive reason which the hon. Member wants for it is that, at the time of the Keighley fire, about twenty years after the 1937 Act procedure for certification was instituted, still less than 50 per cent. of the factories of this country had been certified. That is the overwhelming, compulsive reason which the hon. Member requires for supporting this Amendment.

The hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) was quoting from a letter from the town clerk of Heston and Isleworth, which I also received, and who was in turn quoting from a brief given him by the Association of Municipal Corporations, which says that everything has been lovely in the garden for the past twenty years. I have no doubt that the Borough of Heston and Isleworth, seven-ninths of which I have the honour to represent, my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham representing two-ninths of it, has done its duties admirably and that there is no criticism attaching to the borough council which has now certified 90 per cent. of the factories in the constituency. However, I am able to tell the House, from what I have heard from members of the National Association of Fire Officers, to which Association pretty well all the fire prevention officers belong —90 per cent. of them, at least—that approximately half of the district councils have not over the last twenty years ever taken the trouble to consult the fire authorities about certifying means of escape.

To certify means of escape without consulting the chief fire officer or the officers in his department seems to me sheer madness. I admit that half the district councils do the sensible and obvious thing, but a great number of them do not. It seems to me, therefore, that there is the most obvious need for seeing that the fire authorities now do this job, which is essentially a fire prevention job.

Sir C. Black

Would the hon. Member not agree that the difficulty he mentions could be completely overcome by the simple expedient which I have suggested of making it obligatory for the district councils to consult the fire authorities? If that happened then we should have 100 per cent. consultation instead of 50 per cent. consultation, and the conditions which the hon. Member says are satisfactory in 50 per cent of the cases would then be satisfactory in 100 per cent. of the cases.

Mr. Harris

I am now going to tell the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black), that that just would not work, and it would not work for this reason, that merely to certify a factory as having suitable means of escape at the time when it is built or the Act is passed is only half the battle. Indeed, it is less than half the battle; it is about 10 per cent. of the battle. The important thing is the follow-up inspection. I can tell the House this, that I should think that of the factories certified under the 1937 Act procedure the district councils never again went near 90 per cent. of them to see if the means of escape were still being maintained.

The only people who can do that job properly are the fire prevention officers and the fire authorities, because the fact is that every fire brigade officer has some fire prevention experience and every part of this country is covered by a fire brigade and there is an officer in charge of every single square yard of this land. The station officers, the officers in charge of the fire stations, know the buildings in the areas of their stations; they know every factory and they know the factories which need regular follow up inspection.

Not only is the job almost beyond the district councils, but it is a job which is beyond the factory inspectors because there are not enough of them. The only people. who can do this satisfactorily—and there are factories which ought to be inspected at least once a year—are the fire prevention officers.

Mr. Rippon

My hon. Friend is suggesting that the district councils have fallen down on the job. Will he explain why he thinks the county councils would do better, bearing in mind that the London County Council has certified only 21 per cent. of the factories and, according to the Minister's own evidence before the Royal Commission on Local Government of Greater London, many firms have made frequent application without result?

Mr Harris

We went into all this in Committee. The reason is that a district council has to put its officers on doing this job of certifying the means of escape and those officers have other responsibilities as well. They have responsibility for examining drains and a host of other things. Inspection of means of escape from factories is only a minor part of their duties, and they can give only a limited amount of time to it.

If we now remove these duties and give them to the fire authority we give them to a complete department, for there is a fire brigade department which can give a great deal more time to them than can a district council.

There has been some argument about the anomaly which will arise by reason of the fact that district councils will still have duties under Section 60 of the Public Health Act, 1936. This is a matter I very much want to deal with, I intend at some suitable stage when we have time for it to suggest that Section 60 of the Public Health Act should be altered to give some of these powers where they properly ought to be given, to the fire authorities who have experience, even of flats and offices and shops, which, perhaps, other officers of the district councils have not got.

For these reasons I hope that the Minister will stick to his guns on this matter. It is a possible point of criticism that he did not consult the local authorities' associations. I sympathies with him there. It was not entirely his fault, because the Opposition moved an Amendment in Committee, and after a long day's debate, in which the Minister was simply overwhelmed by arguments from both sides of Committee, he accepted an Amendment; but there was, perhaps, not much time 'or him to consult the local authorities.

Mr S. Silverman

He could have done so since. Has he done so?

Mr Harris

Whether or not he has done so I do not know, but had he consulted the local authorities' associations I know what would have been the result, because there is in existence an important body called the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, set up in 1947 by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who appointed me a member of it. I had the honour to be appointed a member of it by him in 1947, and I have been a member ever since. There was a special committee of the Advisory Council on 2nd January when all these matters were discussed. I am bound to say from what I heard of the attitude of the associations that I do not think the Minister would have got very much help from them because their view was, " What we have, we hold."

Mr. D. Jones

Will the hon. Member say whether or not that committee was officially consulted by the Minister?

Mr. Harris

As far as I know, it was not consulted at any time by the Minister either before or after the introduction of the Bill. It was a point of criticism we had. I think the Advisory Council thought at the time it ought to have been consulted before the Bill was drafted. So far as I know it was not.

Mr. S. Silverman

What is the point of having a Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council if we do not consult it about fire prevention?

Mr. Harris

My own view is that would have been a very good thing if the council had been consulted, but the difficulty is that it is convened by the Home Office and this Bill is a Ministry of Labour Bill. I think that one of the difficulties from which the Minister of Labour has suffered all along in dealing with the Bill is that so many of the matters in the Bill are not Ministry of Labour matters but Home Office matters. The Bill's fire Clauses are the concern of the Home Office. the health Clauses are the concern of the Ministry of Health, and there are no doubt Clauses which are the concern of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. The Minister of Labour has a fearful job when he introduces legislation dealing with factories. His attitude in Committee to the many suggestions which came forward from both sides was most helpful, and I hope that he will stick to his guns with this Amendment.

Mr. C. Howell

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris). I am only sorry that some hon. Members opposite, who were not selected to serve on the Standing Committee which considered the Bill, have been so busy that they have not been able to read the OFFICIAL REPORT of its proceedings. If they read it after their contributions tonight, they will be somewhat ashamed of what they have said.

I could not care less about the prestige of district councils. I am concerned about the lives of those working in factories. Nor am I concerned with local authorities dealing with the exits from shops and with other matters which have been mentioned and which have nothing to do with factory legislation.

Some of the biggest closed shops imaginable are to be found in the departments of local authorities. Some officials do not even speak to one another. For personal reasons they dislike one another. I was a member of a committee of a local authority which was dealing with a major housing project. I also happened to be a member of the fire authority. The chief fire officer told us that he could not get his appliances to the housing estate which I had been discussing earlier. No one had consulted him when the estate was planned.

There might be a fire in a factory which had no means of access available to fire appliances. There could be a factory in which there were wide passages and markings on the floors to show where obstructions were not permitted, and where all personnel could leave the buildings as quick as lightning, but from which personnel could not get out via the back or front doors in case of fire. That is the sort of matter in which a fire prevention officer is interested. He is also concerned with how to get his appliances to a factory to deal with any fire.

In Committee, I quoted a letter from the town clerk of Birmingham indicating that the chief fire officer of the city was quite happy about the present arrangement. However, that got back to the chief fire officer and he wrote to the town clerk and to me complaining that he had been misunderstood. Incidentally, from this it is obvious that many local authorities were consulted about this matter. The letter says: On the question of the responsibilities of chief fire officers, I have had a discussion with our Chief Fire Officer here. He was apparently a technical adviser to the committee of the Association of Municipal Corporations which considered the Government proposals for the Bill when it was being drafted "— it is perfectly clear, therefore, that the Association was consulted— and he took part in the discussions with the Ministry during the drafting stages. He is, personally, happy with regard to the terms of the Bill. He informs me, however, that the National Association of Fire Officers, the Fire Brigades' Union and about half the country's chief fire officers are of opinion that the Bill does not go far enough ". 7.15 p.m.

I represent a constituency whose chief fire officer, although quite happy with his arrangements, says that most of the other chief fire officers are not happy about the present position, so there is obviously something wrong. Referring to those officers who disagree with the chief fire officer of Birmingham, the letter goes on to say: They would like the Fire Service to have powers of enforcement rather than be merely authorised to act as an agent of local authorities and H.M. Inspectors of Factories. That is exactly what we want.

Mr. Rippon

How is Birmingham affected, since it is both district council and fire authority?

Mr. Howell

What applies to Birmingham applies to other areas. The hon. Member will follow my argument if he will contain himself and allow me to finish and not himself get on fire.

Speaking of the chief fire officer of Birmingham, the letter goes on to say: So far as he is concerned, however, he does not support that view and is happy with the present arrangements, under which the Fire Service have a duty of advising anyone who seeks advice. I do not want there to be the option of seeking advice. I want the fire authority to be satisfied about the fire conditions of every factory which is built or changed.

As the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth said, a fire prevention officer would be able to visit factories every twelve months. In view of the new conception of modern production, there might be a complete change-over in methods. What was not dangerous in 1958 might be dangerous in 1959.

The hon. Member said that fire officers knew about fire prevention. A fire prevention officer has to have six months' special training in addition to his ordinary training before he can become a fire prevention officer. Hon. Members have spoken of sanitary inspectors and other inspectors making such visits. Is it possible that they would be competent to make proper inspections without having had six months' special training? More often than not a sanitary inspector is also a meat inspector and responsible for other matters. He is a Jack-of-all-trades, but the one which he understands least is fire prevention.

A sanitary inspector or other local authority inspector might even connive at something which was dangerous from the fire point of view. When this matter was discussed in Committee, I pointed out that hon. Members were sitting in a room the doors of which opened inwards. Perhaps hon. Members do not see the significance of that. If there is a fire and the people in a room want to get out quickly, and the door opens inwards, that constitutes a danger. Such an arrangement has been responsible for many fatalities, both in this country and in America. There have been serious losses of life in fires in cinemas when doors have opened inwards. During a fire in Chicago, children were killed because the doors of a building opened in that way. That is the sort of thing which a sanitary inspector would not notice.

In Committee, the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) referred to the structure of a Coventry factory where there was a fire 10 minutes after most of the personnel had left. That fire spread so rapidly that there might have been a great loss of life. A fire prevention officer is trained to recognise such things. If a fire authority has to certify a factory as being fire-proof, it is worth offending district councils who want to remain in their little domains as the certifying authorities.

Hon. Members have said that it should be made obligatory for local authorities to get advice. The Clause makes it obligatory to get a fire authority's approval. When the hon. Member said that the district council could do that, I agree that it can and always has been able to do it, but there have been so many cases where it has not been done that it has now been agreed by the Minister—and I hope that he will not go back on his undertaking—that it is essential that there should be a certificate of fire prevention and fire protection from the fire authority to cover all new factories and any changes in existing factories.

I asked hon. Members to remember that the proportion of factories coming within the district council's responsibility will be very small. They will still have to go to the district council for building certificates, but the fire prevention certificate must be that of the fire authority. It is not taking any other responsibility away from the district council.

The Minister himself, in Committee, had to agree that we had adduced so many points to emphasise the need for such a Clause that he accepted the principle of our proposals. As he said earlier tonight, he accepted the principle but not the whole of the wording. He has now had an opportunity of seeing the whole of the wording and I certainly commend the resulting Amendment to the House.

I hope that hon. Members opposite will believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) was quite sincere when he said that we have no disagreements with, and are making no criticisms of, the district councils and their officers. We are saying that the officers themselves have not the necessary training which it is only possible for the fire service to have.

I am quite certain that the Association of Municipal Corporations and other authorities, a number of whom have written to me—and I have had a letter from an association today—telling me that the Clause now meets with their approval, were alive to what was happening during the Committee stage of the Bill. I am quite certain that if they had had any grievances on these matters at that time, knowing that an Amendment had been tabled which was eventually accepted by the Minister, they would have gone out of their way to write to some of us, as other associations did, to tell us that these proposals would whittle away their powers and do something which they did not want.

The last thing that the House ought to consider is the loss of prestige, especially when we are concerned with the possible loss of life. We know what happened at Keighley, where some of the conditions were condemned ten years previously and not put right. They would have had to he put right if the fire prevention officer had had the right to go into the premises. I say to hon. Members who were not on the Committee —those who were have heard these arguments time after time—that a fire prevention officer could be working in a street, testing hydrants, or something of that kind, and see something in a factory which, to him, was a horrifying fire risk and yet have no authority to go into the factory to inspect and make a report.

We are seeking to have the fire authority recognized as the only authority that should deal with fire protection. This Amendment goes a very long way to doing that. It will provide that in future fires there should be a better means of exit for personnel and a better means of access for the fire authority. That means that a fire could and probably would be brought under control much more quickly. I say with absolute sincerity that the House has a duty to those who have to earn their livelihood in factories to make those factories as safe as it possibly can from fire. The Factory Inspectorate has the job of making a worker as safe as possible from machines. Fire prevention is something which does not come under its control and needs to be brought in.

I hope that the Minister will put this Amendment into the Bill. If we weigh the prestige of the district council against the overwhelming necessity of considering the lives and limbs of the people who work in factories, I think that even some hon. Members opposite, who have some trepidation about the writtling away of local authority powers. will realise that the balance is well weighted in favour of the workers inside the factories, in which case they can support the Amendment without any qualms of conscience.

Mr John Hall (Wycombe)

I think that everyone in the House would agree with the concluding remarks of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. C. Howell) that the primary consideration that the House has to bear in mind is to ensure conditions and regulations under this Bill are best designed to assure the safety of human life. I agree that that must be the overriding consideration. The hon. Gentleman should not assume that because some hon. Members on both sides of the House differ from his point of view we have not read the evidence of the Committee or heard the arguments already deployed on both sides. I can assure him that those who have taken part in this debate at least have some understanding of the problems that are involved.

I am very sorry that the Minister changed his mind. I think that he was seduced by the charming personality and eloquence of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) and was probably overwhelmed by the fiery and statistical evidence submitted by my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris). Curiously enough, although his Amendment is designed to relieve some of the local authorities of some responsibility and additional work, it has not been welcomed with the overwhelming sense of gratitude which one would have expected.

There has been much protest against this Amendment being passed. In my own constituency, the Borough of High Wycombe, which is not a fire authority, is anxious and perturbed about the proposals to carry this Amendment because it thinks that it will add very considerably to the costs involved without increased efficiency of the service now provided. High Wycombe has a very special interest in fire risks. It has a large number of furniture factories which provide a very special fire risk indeed and yet over the last ten years or so, when the responsibility for certifying factories for means of fire escape and so on has been in the hands of the borough council there has been no loss of life in any of the fires. In recent months there have been two or three very serious fires indeed in furniture factories in High Wycombe. The main reason I understand for suggesting this change is that it is logical for the fire authority to be the authority that both certifies and inspects premises for fire risks and fire escapes.

I accept the fact that it seems logical, but if we always passed legislation in this House only on the basis of logic the amount of legislation would be halved. That we do not always work in this country on the basis of sheer logic must be apparent to hon. Members on both sides of the House. When something is working very well, I find it hard to find any good reason for disturbing it.

Mr Reader Harris

It is not working well.

7.30 p.m.

Mr Hall

My hon. Friend says that it is not working well, and during the course of his speech he gave examples where it was not working well. But neither the Minister—who was very lukewarm in his commendation of the Amendment nor the hon. Member for Rossendale, who spoke for the Opposition, in any way criticised district authorities for any lack of attention to or efficiency in their duties. Indeed, I should have thought that if there had been any laxity in the implementation of Section 34 of the 1937 Act, it was due mainly to the weakness of that Act rather than to any lack of attention by the district authorities.

Mr C. Howell

The hon. Member has just said that he had a number of fires in furniture factories in his area. How can he reconcile that fact with his statement that the present system is working well? If the Clause had been in operation there would probably have been no fires, and it is probably only through luck that there were no fatalities.

Mr Hall

That shows the danger of drawing conclusions without knowing the facts. If the hon. Member likes to make inquiries he can satisfy himself that the safeguards imposed against fire in the factories of Wycombe were the best that could possibly be taken. There was, I am sure, full consultation with the fire authorities in the district of High Wycombe and in surrounding districts. Everything that could have been expected to be done was done. I do not believe that anything was left undone which could have led to the fires which took place.

There is a special risk in the making of furniture. A good deal of wood has to be used, and also a number of inflammable liquids, for which local authorities have to issue licences. It is part of the fire risk, and the responsibility for issuing licences in these cases still rests with local authorities. I do not think that anyone can blame the High Wycombe authorities for the fires which took place there. In High Wycombe the present system works well, as it no doubt does in other parts of the country. The chief health officer, in conjunction with the architects, factory inspectors and the borough surveyor is able to give all the advice necessary to ensure that the necessary safeguards are included in any new factory buildings, or put into existing buildings, and that is done with probably the same amount of efficiency as would be displayed by individual fire officers, even although it may be done by people without their specialised training and knowledge.

If we make this change additional copies of plans of new buildings, and perhaps even existing buildings, will probably have to be provided to fire authorities, over and above those which are already provided for local planning authorities. That will place an additional burden upon the fire department. But that is only part of the work, and possibly not the most important part. The really important part is the follow-up, and the continued inspection thereafter. Fire officers will have to inspect the premises, and that will mean a considerable addition to the strength of the fire departments of local authorities.

That may be welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth, but it will mean that additional cost will have to be borne by the fire authorities, which are usually the county authorities, and that cost will eventually percolate down to individual local authorities. They will say, " We have been doing this job efficiently for a number of years. No one except the fire officers have criticised us. It has not been stated that we have been inefficient. No official statement of inefficiency has been made of any district authority."

Mr Reader Harris

In an election year, my hon. Friend surely does not expect the Government or the Opposition to attack district councils and say that they have not done their job—I am joking about the election, of course—but we back benchers can tell the truth.

Mr Hall

I am astonished at that intervention. Do I understand my lion. Friend to mean that the Minister can make a statement which he does not believe to be true, on a matter of grave importance which has to do with human life, merely in order to curry favour with local authorities? I do not accept that. My opinion of the Minister is too high, and I do not think that he would say such a thing if he believed that local authorities had not done their job properly.

Further, even if the Minister were not prepared to say so, no such inhibition prevents the Opposition from saying it. No such inhibition prevents the hon. Member for Rossendale from saying that he thinks district authorities are not able to do their job efficiently. There has been no official statement of that kind. Therefore, district authorities will say, " If we have been doing our job well and efficiently, and there is no evidence against us, why, for the sheer sake of logic "—as the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) said—" and for the sake of the administrative convenience of bringing things under one general administrative heading, should we change the situation now, when all that will happen is that the problems of consultation will be doubled, and there will be an increasing amount of paper work in various offices, which will make additional difficulties and add to the cost, which we will have to bear in the end?"

I hope that the Minister will consider this matter again. I commend the suggestion advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black). It is an excellent one, and would probably meet the case which everybody has in mind without causing the disruption and dissension which the Amendment would create.

Dr. Stross

At the beginning of his speech the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) referred to the seduction of my hon. Friend by the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris). The hon. Member says that he has looked through the OFFICIAL REPORT of our discussions in Committee. That being so, I am sorry that he did not quote the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), who expressed himself strongly on this point, in an interjection he made during the speech of the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth, who had just said: The crux of the matter is that we cannot have the same man inspecting for nuisances and drains, and also looking for things that make for good fire prevention. When the hon. Member said that, his hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster immediately interrupted, and said something which is absolutely correct, although it was said, as always, in the hon. Member's very forthright manner. The hon. Member said: We could have the same man, were he a competent and expert person in fire prevention and escape and in the matter of drains, but do we think that Little Piddlecombe-onthe-Marsh District Council, which happens to have a large factory in its area, will have a staff competent to advise on the prevention of fires as well as upon drains? However brusquely that was put, it is the crux of the matter. In no way did any hon. Member wish to denigrate the smaller authorities. Indeed, in Committee we had sitting with us hon. Members who represent district councils, but not one person spoke in favour of the Bill as originally drafted. Everyone who spoke was in favour of the Amendment, the principle of which is contained in the Amendment now proposed by the Government.

We are very grateful to the Government for putting it forward. When we were discussing the matter in Committee we had in mind the best way of bringing about an improvement so that we should never again risk having a catastrophe such as we had in Keighley, when eight people choked or suffocated in carbon monoxide gas because the district council failed in its duties. We must say that, because there has been a report of the fire and that is what the report said. This does not mean that we attack district councils generally; it simply means that a district council failed in its duty on this one occasion, and nobody would deny it.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale said: It would appear, and I think that it would be difficult to controvert this, that both the municipal authority at Keighley and the factory inspector failed in their duties in respect of the mill where that disastrous fire occurred." — [OFFiciA[. REPORT, Standing Committee B.3rd February, 1959; c. 237–44.] We ought to be frank with each other. Members who served on the Committee should be exonerated by those who did not serve on it of having had in mind anything that would insult or strike a note of censure against the smaller authorities. Facts are facts and we must face them. If we have further loss of life and property as the result of inaction or improper or insufficient action by us, we shall not have done our duty.

The Parliamentary Secretary made a very strong speech in the first place, rejecting our Amendment. He gave reasons why, and they were very similar to those which we have now heard in the House. After nearly two hours' discussion, we again heard from the Parliamentary Secretary. I have quoted the hon. Gentleman very often. What he then said was a pattern for all of us now and in the future, showing that when arguments are listened to with care a Minister can change his mind. The hon. Gentleman said: I acknowledge frankly and sincerely that the whole weight of argument has gone against my case. Therefore, if the Committee would permit the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw his Amendment, on the clear understanding that my right hon. Friend and I accept the whole principle that has been argued today…" — [OFFICIAL REPORT, Stand-in. Committee B,3rd February, 1959; col. 268.] That sort of thing does not happen out of the blue. That unusual statement happened because the Parliamentary Secretary and the right hon. Gentleman felt: that a true bill had been made out for the action that is now being taken by the Government themselves. We are grateful to them for doing the right thing, buy: it is understandable that hon. Members who did not hear the arguments in Committee should say, " Need you do this? Could you not have done it another way, as by arranging for consultation?"

The hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth gave the answer earlier in the debate. It is not only because of inspection, which is possibly the least important part of the process, but of regular inspection. We made it clear that there should be consultation with the factory inspector throughout. He shall always know what is being, done. We said to ourselves that, as the result of the most terrible tragedy of our lives, we knew that there was nobody so knowledgeable about fire prevention as the special officers in this country, and perhaps in Germany, a country which suffered much more than we—perhaps rightly—and that we wished to make fuller use of them.

We have to do this. Everyone agreed upon it in Committee. Let no one think that we are being censorious, but facts are facts and the truth must be faced. The truth is that the old way is not good enough.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I have listened with great care to the debate and have read with great care the OFFICIAL REPORT of the debate in the Committee, on which I did not have the honour to serve. Like the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) I cannot find any compelling reason for the transfer of authority in this case.

I will go further. I feel that the Amendment is not achieving what Members on both sides of the House and on both sides of the dispute, so to speak, want to achieve. Those who support the Amendment and those who oppose it want to bring in the expert, to give the fire prevention officer full power to exercise the duty of telling the local authority whether the fire escape precautions are adequate.

There is no guarantee that if we transfer this duty from the district councils to the county councils we shall achieve that object. It is true that county councils are the fire authorities, but I am not satisfied that they will adopt any better practice than the practice of many district councils at the present time. I have been informed by the borough in my constituency of the procedure which it adopts, and which seems admirable. The building inspector goes to look at a factory taking with him the fire prevention officer.

Mr. Robens

Which fire prevention officer?

Mr Page

Of the fire authority.

Mr. Robens

Not of the district council?

Mr. Page

No, not of the district council. It has not got one. It takes the fire prevention officer of the fire authority, and the building inspector includes in his report the views and the report of the fire prevention officer.

Mr. Robens

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman unduly, because the case for the district council should be put. While the district council in which the hon. Gentleman is interested takes along the fire prevention officer of the county council or of the borough council, I must point out that there is nothing in law to say that that shall be done. It is possible, is it not, that the district council might not invite the fire prevention officer, in which case we lose the benefit and the advantage of the technique and the knowledge of the fire prevention officer in a matter which concerns the safety of many workers in case of fire.

Mr. Page

The right hon. Gentleman is running ahead of me and making my argument for me. I was saying that this was the best practice, and that if it were made compulsory we should be more certain of bringing the fire prevention officer, the expert, on to the scene than by a mere transfer of function to the county council. The Amendment does not seem to go far enough to satisfy those who oppose it and those who support it. If the good practice of some district councils were made compulsory on those who have failed to adopt it, we should achieve what we desire.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon) spoke just now about the failure of the London County Council to certify more than 21 per cent. of the buildings after a certain period. That shows that even county councils are not free from the sort of suspicion which was thrown by my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris) on the district councils.

I accept that many district councils have not failed, but have not been able to carry out their duties because they have not adopted the right practice. If we made the best practice compulsory they would take into consultation and receive the report of the fire prevention officer, and would embody that in their certification, and we could achieve what both sides of the House want.

Mr. Ede

It is with the utmost regret that I have to support the Government on this occasion. I am further put into embarrassment in that I very rarely like to support both Front Benches when they agree with one another. As the author of the Fire Services Act, 1947, my past has caught up with me and has landed me in the deplorable position which I have just explained.

I have no doubt that the Borough of High Wycombe has a most competent set of officers. I am related to one of them. I have no doubt that the Municipal Borough of Crosby likes to walk hand in hand with the Lancashire County Council, even under its present régime. It will do Crosby good. But High Wycombe and Crosby, and even Wimbledon, of which I happen to be an honorary Freeman, are not a fair example of the people who have these powers at the present time. There are far too many county district councils whose full-time officers are not competent to discharge this duty and there are some which have only part-time officers. The Local Government Act we passed last year may have some effect on that position, but it has not come into operation yet.

Factories are now growing up, and will continue to grow up, in areas which were not regarded as industrial areas before the end of the Second World War. Those are the places where it is necessary to have a person competent to deal with this important question of fire prevention as the result of his experience and training. I was glad to hear what the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) told us about the practice in his constituency, but I wonder, if, in High Wycombe, the Buckinghamshire County Council suggested that its fire prevention officer should go round with the health inspector, or the other person who may discharge this function, what response that County Council would get when I recollect the attitude of the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) on the Bucks Water Board Bill only a few weeks ago.

Mr. John Hall

My attitude was adopted towards the Bucks Water Board rather than to Buckinghamshire County Council.

Mr. Ede

It does not matter, but Buckinghamshire County Council was on one side and the hon. Member on the other.

Let us realise that since the creation of the large fire authorities the competence of individual officers in the fire service who are charged with particular duties has very considerably increased. Also, modern factories continually present new problems in regard to fire prevention which require special consideration as industry develops along new lines. The creation of a large amount of dust in some new industries presents a particular problem, especially with the possibility of explosion at an early stage of a fire.

I do not claim to be competent to discuss technicalities. All I know is that in the year before I went to my secondary school there was a fire in an adjoining urban district, which was then a local health board area. The art master of the school was the engineer of the fire brigade. The bell tolled and he left the class of boys, who followed him, and ran tour miles to the fire. That was at Cherkley Court, which was saved and is now the residence of Lord Beaverbrook. I wonder whether it was worth saving.

There is an entirely different situation today. Up to the outbreak of the Second World War, we still had same fire services organised on the basis I have described. No one would be willing to go back to that now. Logic is a very dangerous Ming in human affairs. The logic of this Proposal is that other services to which tie hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir T. Black) alluded are also to be allocated to the appropriate department.

I know the problem which confronts the Minister of Labour in this Bill. In some respects it is a rag-bag of a Bill, dealing with all sorts of problems. It deals with fire and with health; it might be with highways, and so on. On such occasions as this we ought to have the advantage of these proposals being at least spoken to, if not defended, by the Minister for the department brought into the discussion by the mere fact that we have this diversity and overlapping.

I hope that the Government will stand by what they have done. It may not be complete logic but, after all, the other things can be dealt with at appropriate times, when there is a Bill dealing on a wide basis with that particular branch of the public services. No one will deny that all the urban districts and all the rural districts in the country are not as competent as those for whom speeches have been made tonight and they will retain the powers which at present they ate quite incompetent to use unless this Amendment is made to the Bill.

It is noticeable that in these matters there is always a great deal of talk about local authorities as if county councils were not local authorities. The hon. Member for Wimbledon is, for a few more days, Chairman of Surrey County Council. He now sees the shades of night falling upon him in that capacity and is trying, like the man who was asked to make out his bill, to write it down quickly. He is making his peace beforehand with those to whom he will now descend as an alderman of the Borough of Wimbledon.

Let us face it; we could not contemplate giving fire powers to the minor county district councils of whom I have been speaking tonight. Here is a matter in which the fire officer's technical assistance is of the utmost importance. We must, therefore, enable the authority which is the fire authority to handle these matters.

Mr. D. Jones

As I listened to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) describing the Fire Services Act, 1947, I could not help thinking it has taken me twelve years to discover one of the reasons why he decided at that time to hand the fire services over to county councils and county borough councils. Apparently it was because the art master in his school was the fire chief of a district council.

Mr Ede

No, he was not the fire chief.

Mr. Jones

I claim some small connection with that Bill. When my right hon. Friend introduced it he sought to make county councils the exclusive fire authorities. I and some hon. Friends persuaded him eventually to agree to representation on the county fire committees of county districts within those counties. We are faced tonight with the difficulty with which we are always faced when it is a question of adding powers to or taking powers away from what are loosely described in legislation as "district councils ". Unfortunately, in most legislation dealing with local authorities we confirm the powers by designation rather than by size. That is one of the problems with which we are faced and with which my right hon. Friend was faced in 1947 when he sought to reorganise the fire service.

8.0 p.m.

How can a district council, or even a borough, with a population of 10,000 or 15,00—there are many such boroughs and urban districts—provide the necessary finance to have fully qualified fire officers to do this job? However well intentioned the officer charged with doing the job in the smaller district councils may be, he cannot possibly be an expert in all the jobs which he is asked to undertake. Industrialists never ask in advance what is the size of a local authority before building their factories. The result is that some of the biggest factories are in rural districts and small urban districts where it is impossible for the district council to have the staff available to carry out the work which it is called upon to do. The Act of 1937 calls upon the district council concerned to undertake the duty but does not lay down provisions to ascertain whether it has the financial capacity to do the job. The problem with which we are faced tonight is whether in these modern days the highly skilled and highly trained fire prevention officers serving in the fire services should be used to do the job.

I am concerned about one small matter to which the Parliamentary Secretary or the Minister may reply. There seems to me to be no problem in connection with existing factories. The fire prevention officer can do the job. But we are not at the end of the road, I hope, in building new factories. New factories will be built in large or small local authority areas. The local authority is the authority which has to approve plans for the building of a factory. Is there to be any form of statutory consultation between the fire prevention officer and the planning authority in passing plans for a new factory so as to ensure that when a factory is built it has the most up-to-date means of exit in the event of a fire? It seems to me to be unfair that there should not be some form of statutory consultation between the fire prevention officer, who is skilled in the matter of determining up-to-date and modern methods of fire escape, and the planning authority.

If I may digress for a moment, the boundary of two local authorities passes right across the centre of a trading estate in the County of Durham. A factory has been built on that trading estate which is part in one local authority area and part in the other. The two fire prevention officers for the neighboring authorities were consulted. One wanted toughened glass fitted in the lower windows and the other wanted ordinary glass. The official who spoke to me about it said that it was a toss of the coin whether plain or toughened glass was put in. This is an example to show that fire prevention officers do not always agree one with the other.

I support the transfer of this power to fire prevention officers because the most important factor is the saving of human life, irrespective of whether we take powers from fire authorities or from district councils. What we want to achieve is the most efficient and up-to-date method of saving life in the unfortunate event of fire. It would be unfair to impose undue burdens upon industrialists building factories if the factory is planned and the plans are approved by the local authority only to find that the fire prevention officer is not satisfied with the exits.

I ask the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary to have another look at this matter to see whether in another place provision can be made for statutory consultation between local authorities and fire prevention officers in considering new plans for factories so that the fire prevention officer can make in advance of the factory being built any demands which he desires to make upon the local authority and thereby avoid unnecessary costs.

Mr. Martin Lindsay (Solihull)

My local authority, the Solihull Borough Council, takes an extremely poor view of this proposal, and it seems to me that a devastating case can be made against it. It appears to me that the Ministry has not considered the administrative difficulties which are involved. For example, district councils have a function similar to that under Section 34 of the Factories Act, 1937, in respect of flats, tenements, shops and institutions which are more than two storeys high. If any change is proposed, these two matters should be looked at together.

Again, building plans at present come to the notice of the district council because of the byelaws. It therefore seems to me that those whose statutory duty it is to consider plans for future building are in a much better position to judge what safety considerations are involved. The structure of a factory has a bearing on the requirements as to the means of escape. Building plans are very much better looked at by qualified surveyors than fire officers who may misinterpret them and make recommendations which are in conflict with sound building requirements.

Also, presumably there would have to be a duplication of building plans and administrative arrangements if a county council has to be brought in, and no thought appears to have been given to the situation which may arise if plans are passed by the byelaw authority but rejected by the fire authority. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to deal with this point when he replies. I should like to know how such a situation would he resolved.

Another point which I do not think has been considered is that if this proposal is passed there will be no less than three authorities with a direct function. These would he the fire authority, the district council— as respects other parts of the Act relating to workers' health and welfare and those responsible for the enforcement of the greater part of the Factories Act, the factory inspectors. I should have thought that this form of divided control would be extremely detrimental to the proper enforcement of the Act as a whole.

This is a major change of policy which should not be gaily entered into by the Ministry without proper consultation with local authorities which have asked to see the Minister in order to put forward their views. Yet, we are going forward with the proposal without such consultations having taken place.

I am informed that local authorities are not taking a dog in the manger attitude, and their attitude is quite reasonable. They do not say that fire prevention officers have nothing whatever to contribute to the examination of means of escape. On the contrary, they believe that they should be associated with the district councils in carrying out what should remain a district council function.

The Bill in its present form permits district councils, if they wish, to approach the fire authority with the object of having the certifying work done by one of the authority's officers. If the district councils do not wish to pass the work entirely over to the fire authority, they could, by administrative arrangement, get all the advice they want from the fire prevention officer.

I should have thought that, if my right hon. Friend feels that some Amendment is necessary, then the type of Amendment which would be entirely satisfactory would be one whereby district councils, while remaining the certifying authorities, would be obliged to consult fire authorities before granting certificates. I hope that we shall have a satisfactory reply covering all these points, which do raise a matter of great concern to the local authorities.

Mr. J. A. Sparks (Acton)

With all due respect to the Minister of Labour, this is really a matter on which the House would have been well advised to have the Minister of Housing and Local Government present. We must remember, in connection with this proposal, that the purposes and functions of local authorities throughout the country are now the subject of examination, and Commissions have been set up to examine in detail whether or not there is evidence or ground for a complete reorganization of local government functions. It is suggested now that another responsibility should be transferred from the district councils to the county councils. We must remember that, in the post-war years, an immense amount of responsibility has been transferred from the district councils to the county councils, and in some cases the county councils are literally staggering under the heavy load of responsibility which is being placed upon them.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has a county council complex. He thinks that the county councils are the be-all and end-all of perfection.

Mr Ede

No; they are only human.

Mr. Sparks

It is proposed by this Amendment to take away certain duties from county district councils and transfer them to county councils whose resources in population and finance are far below the level of many of the district councils from which the functions are to be taken.

Mr Ede


Mr. Sparks

My right hon. Friend knows as well as I do that his strictures against district councils will apply also to some county councils. Some county councils, in my opinion, are not quite as competent to take this responsibility as others.

Mr. Ede

Even though the area of a small county council may not be great in rateable value or in population, it is still greater in rateable value and population than any constituent district within its own borders.

Mr. Sparks

That may be an excuse that my right hon. Friend puts up, but I would not necessarily say that it follows, therefore, that the county council is more competent to take this responsibility.

We must approach the problem in a commonsense sort of way. The basis is really consultation between county councils and county district councils. It is quite wrong to make a line of demarcation and say that all county district councils are out and the county councils shall have the responsibility. That is why I say, in view of all the complications involved and having regard to the whole question of local government functions and purposes, this is really a matter which ought to be deferred and coupled with the examination now being undertaken throughout the country into the functions of local authorities, whether they be county councils, district councils or anything else.

8.15 p.m.

I should not for a moment accept that the borough council in my constituency is incompetent to fulfill this responsibility and only the Middlesex County Council can really do the job. As a matter of fact, there is the closest co-operation between the two bodies in all matters. I represent a highly industrialized constituency, and I resent very much the implication that my borough council is not competent to carry out this responsibility in regard to the many factories in its area. It has done the job exceptionally well, and the Middlesex County Council will not improve upon what has already been done by the borough council.

We must recognise that there are exceptions to what may be regarded as the general rule. I readily admit that there are some county district councils which are not really competent to shoulder the responsibility. But there are many which are perfectly competent to do so, which have done so and which can continue to do so. Why take powers away from hands which are perfectly satisfactorily doing the job and put them into the hands of the higher authority, the county council?

As I have said before, we are inclined far too much to transfer powers and responsibilities from county district councils to county councils. So much of it has been done that county councils in many cases, so I am coming to believe, are not able competently and effectively to discharge all the varied duties which we are placing upon them year after year. We are now facing a situation where we have to consider whether we ought to take away from the county councils certain powers and give them back to the county district councils or, whether, where the county councils remain the responsible authorities, they should delegate to the county district councils certain day-to-day work arising from particular functions or responsibilities.

Local government reorganization is very much in the melting-pot at present. This is a most inopportune moment to seek to make a transfer of functions. The whole subject is being reconsidered, and it is quite obvious that there will be a devolution of responsibility from county councils to county district councils in, perhaps, a whole range of other services.

Is this proposed transfer of responsibility to be the subject of consideration by the Local Government Commissions now sitting, or will it be outside their terms of reference? If it is to be outside, I should regard that as quite wrong. I hope that the Minister will say that this function he now proposes to transfer to the county councils will be considered by the Local Government Commissions which are now working. They ought to have the right and duty to consider this matter in relation to the many other functions of local government and, in due time, make a recommendation to the House of Commons about what should be done.

The proposal is premature. As I said at the beginning, on an important matter like this, the Minister of Housing and Local Government ought to have been here to listen to the debate, contribute to it, and advise the House about how this proposal fits into the general picture of local government reorganisation which is now taking place.

Mr Robens

I rise only because of the speeches to which we have just listened, particularly that of my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks). I speak also as a local authority man—in a borough council, not a district council—and I can well understand the feelings which are aroused if duties are taken from a local authority and transferred elsewhere. I can appreciate the feelings of those who are engaged in the administration of district councils when they fear that some of the duties for which they have been responsible, and which they may feel they have carried out very efficiently, are to be taken from them. I have no quarrel with the speeches made by my hon. Friend the Member for Acton and other hon. Members who have been defining the position of the district council.

May I put my own position and. I think that of the majority of my hon. and right hon. Friends, and certainly their unanimous decision in Standing Committee? We are not concerned with the rivalries between district councils and other local authorities. We are concerned with the safety, in relation to fire hazards, of the 7; or 8 million workpeople who work in factories. I care that the Bill is before us because at Keighley a fire broke cut and one-fifth of the workers in the mill perished because of the failure of the fire authorities.

Mr Sparks

Are all the good district councils therefore to be deprived of this power?

Mr Robes

I am not interested in the rivalries of clerks to councils or rivalries over the powers of local authorities. We are not here considering whether one can pick out good district councils or not. We are here making the law of the country.

Mr Nippon


Mr. Robens

If I am allowed to complete one or two sentences before being interrupted, I will give way.

I am not concerned with whether some district councils are more efficient than others. I am not concerned that some district councils co-operate extremely well with fire authorities. We are not dealing with the administrative angles of this subject at all. When we are dealing with the law in a Factories Bill, then, on behalf of 7 to 8 million workers in factories whose lives are at hazard, the only people in whom I am prepared to put my trust in relation to the whole question of fire hazard in a factory are the fire prevention officers.

This point has been indicated and enumerated at great length by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede). Fire prevention officers are experts; there is not the slightest doubt that since 1940 fire fighting has become an expert job. The responsibility for deciding the safe means of exit in case of fire must be in the hands of an expert, and the expert must be the fire prevention officer.

I do not think that because a number of district councils are efficient and work well with the fire prevention authorities, that makes good law. It does not. Let us put the onus where it really belongs. We have efficient and well-trained fire prevention officers. We have a well-organised fire prevention system. There are schools at which these officers get special training. To ask a district council which is not a fire prevention authority to have authority under the law because it does not want to lose a little bit of power here and there is nonsense.

I hope that the Minister will say that because some district councils are responsible for looking at the plans of buildings there will be consultations, but I want the responsibility of the law put on the fire prevention authority. I want the consultation to come from it to the district council.

Mr Rippon

The right hon. Gentleman offered to give way to me.

The right hon. Gentleman said that we are concerned with the law and not with administration. Would he address himself to the argument I put forward, and also the argument put forward by the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones)? While we agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has to say about the fire prevention authority being the authority that has logically to do the job under Section 34 of the Factories Act, 1937, there ought nevertheless to be a reconsideration of the point that there is a conflict between the district council as the authority under the byelaws of the Public Health Act, 1936, and the duties of the fire prevention authority. We might explore the possibility of drafting an Amendment which provides for consultation between the two authorities.

Mr Robens

This conflict does not arise. I am concerned about the millions of workers in factories. I do not want a district council which is not a firefighting prevention authority to have anything to do with it. District councils have responsibilities in other directions in relation to buildings, and I hope that common sense will prevail. I hope we have not reached the stage when the rivalry between a district council and the county council is so great that they are not speaking to each other. I hope common sense will prevail in local government and the necessity for having a fire prevention officer will be realised. The fire prevention authority is the authority on whom responsibility should be placed under this Bill. That is a matter of sensible local government administration.

Sir C. Black

If the right hon. Gentleman is right that district council authorities are so unsuitable for this purpose and fire authorities should undertake this duty and there is a great risk in leaving things as they are, surely the logic of his argument must be that it is criminal to leave the question of dealing with blocks of tenements and other classes of buildings with district council authorities while dealing specially and separately with factories.

Mr. Robens

We must confine ourselves to the matters which are before the House, and they are the matters in relation to workers in factories. Fire prevention arrangements in factories require an approach very different from the approach to fire prevention in blocks of tenements. At this stage we are not dealing with tenement properties but with the Factories Acts. It is the only point upon which we must concentrate our attention.

In defense of the Standing Committee's decision and of the Government's Amendment, all I say is that the Government have chosen to select the fire prevention authority for the purposes of the Factories Acts. That commands my support, and it commanded the support of the whole Committee. It should command the support of any sensible person who is not pursuing a vested interest on behalf of district councils. I do not say that the Bill would not have emerged at all, but probably it would not have emerged as quickly if there had not been the disastrous Keighley fire. I do not want to worry or burden the House with extracts from the Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories for 1956, but I commend it to hon. and right hon. Members. I do not believe that there is an hon. Member present who could read Chapter 7 of that Report and afterwards suggest that anybody but the fire authority should be responsible for dealing with this matter under the Bill.

8.30 p.m.

Those who are specially instructed, those who are living with the increase in new techniques in industry, which are proving great fire hazards as each month goes by, are the people upon whom the House should rely for advice. I should hope that, from an administrative point of view, the district councils and the fire prevention authorities would consult on matters where their duties overlap. That is common sense.

I hope, therefore, that the House will not look at the Amendment in the light of a rivalry between different types of local authority but will realise that we are dealing, under the Factories Acts, with the safety of 7 million to 8 million workpeople in relation to fire and that the Standing Committee, which is grateful to the Government for the Amendments that they have tabled, decided, after long consultation and discussion of all these arguments, that if we were to look after the interests of those work-people the experienced technical staffs of the fire prevention authorities should be made responsible. I hope that the Minister will say that he stands by the Amendment but that he will accept that there should be consultation between district councils and the fire prevention authorities where there is an overlapping of their duties.

Mr. Wood

Perhaps I may be allowed to answer briefly now one or two points made in the course of this interesting debate. It is certain that we should not be having this discussion had it not been for the Fire Services Act, 1947, as the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has mentioned. It was, therefore. a great pleasure to have the author of that Act present and to hear what the right hon. Gentleman said. I sympathies very deeply with him in the difficulty in which he finds himself by reason of being in agreement with both Front Benches. I hope that the rarity of that occurrence will give him a little peace and that it will not disturb him too much.

Probably the most important point raised in the debate is the one which the right hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) has mentioned and which has been touched upon by several of my hon. Friends and particularly by the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones). That point is the conflict of authority which is likely to exist under the arrangements that the Government now suggest. Put very simply, the means of escape which is part of the structure will be the responsibility of the fire prevention authority—the county councils and the county borough councils, while the structure as a whole, and the building byelaws which the district councils make and administer, will be the responsibility of the district councils.

I was much impressed by what my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon) said, and it is quite clear that some means must be found to overcome that difficulty. I do not know exactly what that means will be, but I will give an undertaking that we shall try to find some way of dealing with a problem which has been mentioned in all parts of the House today. If necessary, we shall table an Amendment when the Bill goes to another place.

The hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks) and others made us dwell for some time on the fact, with which a great many of us agree, of the high efficiency of the district councils. I was pleased to see that both the hon. Gentleman and h s right hon. Friend the Member for Blyth agreed with that proposition. Certainly, no part of the Government's case in putting down these Amendments can be rested on the alleged inefficiency of the district councils. It would be quite impossible to make such a case, and, as I tired to suggest when I first spoke, there are some district councils whose record is quite extraordinarily good. Therefore, there is no attempt at all to rest our case on an alleged inefficiency or falling down on the job. I will come to the case in a moment.

The hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) and one or two other hon. Gentlemen suggested that we should have had consultations with the associations concerned. I will be quite frank with the House. The position, which I stated at the beginning, was that originally we took one view. In Committee, however, I was impressed by the whole weight of the argument for the transfer of duties—and I may say that not a single voice was raised against the Amendment then suggested by the right hon. Gentleman—and, therefore, I decided that it would be right to accept the principle of the Amendment which was then moved. Therefore, there could be no question of consultation between our decision, as stated in the Bill, and the reversal of that decision on which decided after having heard the argument in the Committee.

Mr. Sparks

The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, realise that the Minister of Housing and Local Government has very close consultations with all the local authority organisations on a wide range of housing responsibilities, and that, while the hon. Gentleman may have every reason for not doing so, he will recognise that it is the usual thing to consult the local authority associations.

Mr. Wood

Certainly; I appreciate that, but all I am suggesting is that we were not guilty of any discourtesy in not consulting the associations because there was not time to consult them when this happened in the Committee. It would have been quite impossible to hold further consultations. Therefore, I ask the House to believe that we had no intention of being discourteous. We took one view and were then persuaded by the weight of argument to take another.

I think that it has been agreed in this discussion this evening that the arguments in this matter are well balanced. The hon. Member for Nelson and Caine (Mr. S. Silverman), who opposed these Amendments, agreed that there was, in fact, a fairly good balance between the arguments produced. He said that we should not take away functions unless we must. I suggest to the House that this principle which we are putting into effect in this Amendment follows as the logical consequence of the 1947 Fire Services Act. I hope that the case has been too well argued by the right hon. Member for Blyth to require any additional remarks from me.

A number of my hon. Friends have been worried about divided responsibility. It seems to me that this is one of the difficult situations in which, whatever answer one arrives at, one has a certain division of responsibility. As I have suggested, I should like to try to make that inevitable division of responsibility as little as possible by thinking, between now and the time when the Bill goes to another place, of ways in which we could make consultations between the county boroughs and county councils, on the one hand, and the district councils, on the other, as full and effcct've as possible.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 5, line 23, leave out from first of " to " is " in line 24 and insert "the said section thirty-four".

In line 25, leave out " district "— [Mr. Wood.]

Mr. Wood

I beg to move, in page 5, line 25, after "council ", to insert: and, if regulations made by the Minister so require, the application is accompanied by such plans as may be prescribed by the regulations". This Amendment is to give effect to the undertaking I gave in Committee in answer to one moved by the Opposition, which suggested that plans should be submitted with any application for a fire escape certificate. It is suggested in the Amendment, and I hope the House will agree that it is a good way to do it, that my right hon. Friend should have the power to make regulations specifying what kind of plans might be necessary. It is rather a complicated matter, because naturally the kind of plans necessary would probably vary from case to case, and so I hope the House will agree that it would be better to deal with this by regulations than to include it in the Bill.

Mr MacDermot

This is a point we raised as a result of certain representations made to us. We agree that the matter is best dealt with by regulations, but I hope that the Minister will make regulations under this Clause as soon as possible, because I gather that from an administrative point of view it will help a great deal in getting these matters dealt with speedily if there are proper plans submitted.

We have heard reference already today to certain figures given about the number of these certificates which have been issued by the London County Council which, of course, has an exceptional problem to contend with. I believe that one of the reasons why that figure is not higher is that it has not got proper plans, and I do not think it has the power to call for them. This has made it a much slower matter for the L.C.C. to deal with applications than would otherwise be the case. So we welcome the Amendment and hope that action will rapidly be taken under it.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 5, line 29, leave out " district ".— [Mr. Wood.]

Mr. Wood

I beg to move, in page 5, line 35, at the end to insert: (3) The council shall inform the inspector for the district in any case in which the certificate has been, or is deemed to have been, refused. This Amendment is to give effect to an undertaking we gave in Committee that where the council had refused to grant a certificate, the inspector should be told. That was the general wish cf the Committee, and I think it will be the general wish of the House, because it is essential that the inspector in such cases should know that refusal had been made so that he could take the necessary action.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. MaeDermot

I beg to move, in page 5, line 35, at the end to insert: (3) The provisions of subsection (5) of the said section thirty-four (which requires the occupier to give notice in writing to the council of certain proposals relating to factory premises) may be extended by the Minister by regulations to proposals to make such structural alterations or extensions or such increases in the number of persons employed or such changes or increases in the use of the factory as the Minister may by such regulations prescribe. To explain this Amendment I must refer briefly to Section 34 (5) of the principal Act of 1937. That is the Section providing for certification by, as it will now be, the county district authorities of the means of escape in factories. Subsection (5) of the principal Act provides If, after the grant of a certificate, it is proposed to make any material extension or material structural alteration of the factory premises or to increase materially the number of persons employed in the factory or in any part specified in the certificate, or to begin to store or use explosive or highly inflammable material in the factory or materially to increase the extent of such storage or use — Then the occupier has to give notice in writing to the council of the proposal, the point obviously being that if changes of this kind are being made the council should be in a position to reconsider whether or not the means of escape will still be satisfactory after those alterations or chancres have been made.

8.45 p.m.

The wording of the subsection is imprecise and vague. That is why I read it at some length. We have been advised that it would help greatly in the enforcement of this provision if some more precise direction were given as to what are circumstances which require notice to be given to the council. The words " material alterations " are not satisfactory because it is difficult for the occupier to know whether from the point of view of fire prevention the alteration which he has in mind is material. It may be quite a minor change structurally, but from the point of view of fire prevention it may have far-reaching consequences. He cannot tell, he does not send in his notice and nothing happens about it. Then a fire takes place with unfortunate consequences. He has committed an offence but, relatively speaking, he is innocent because he had not the necessary knowledge to appreciate that the alteration was material.

In Committee we put down an Amendment which was not called, because it was out of order, in which we tried to lay down in terms of percentages and figures precisely what sort of alterations or changes would be considered to be material for the purposes of the Section. On reconsideration we think that that would not be practicable. One could not lay down a rule which would apply to all kinds of factories as to what was or what was not material. Nevertheless, we think that if those who have experience Li these matters put their minds to it they will be able to define with more precision, in relation to particular classes of factories, particularly those where the fire risk is high, what sort of alterations would require this notice being given.

The object of the Amendment is to give the Minister power to prescribe by regulations what are the sort of alterations, extensions, or increases in numbers of persons employed which should require a notice to be given by the occupier under t is subsection.

Mr Wood

I am in some difficulty, because the hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) has suggested that we should take power in the Bill to enable my right hon. Friend to do something which the hon. Member admitted that he himself found too difficult to do. I do not think that that is an unfair interpretation of his speech.

I have very carefully considered whether my right hon. Friend could give a more accurate definition of material extension or material structural alteration or material increase, and I have come to the same conclusion as the hon. Gentleman — that it would be impossible to do it. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, a relatively small increase in the number of men or women employed in a multi-storey factory would be far more material than the same increase in a factory on the ground floor with plenty of doors and windows. Similarly, as he pointed out, in some cases a fairly small structural alteration such as putting wire on a window which led to a fire escape would obviously be a material alteration.

I do not see how my right hon. Friend could do this without writing into his regulations almost every conceivable thing that could possibly happen to any factory. I am sorry to give the hon. Gentleman a disappointing and rather weak-kneed answer, but I can only reach the same conclusion as that which he reached and suggest that this would be too much for my right hon. Friend to do. We must leave the interpretation of " material alterations " and " material increase " to those who will be responsible for administering the various Sections of the 1937 Act and the Bill.

One thing that is important in this connection, however, is that we are about to give — we shall be discussing it presently — the certifying authorities a greater right to come into the factories to inspect them than we gave them before. Therefore, possibly the point is a little less important than it was before, although had it been possible I should have been delighted to meet it.

I conclude, therefore, by saying that we have met the same difficulties as the hon. Member for Lewisham, North has clone and that we cannot attempt a definition in the Bill.

Mr. MarDermot

I am not in the slightest abashed by the statement of the Parliamentary Secretary that he is unable to do that which I have been unable to do or the fact that he uses my inability as an argument against the Amendment. In the short time that I have been in the House and attempting my hand at drafting, it has frequently been my experience that matters which I am quite unable to draft can be drafted with great skill by the Government with the assistance which they have of those who are expert in these matters.

I must, however, take it, although the hon. Gentleman did not in terms say so, that those who advise him in this matter have shared the opinion which he has put forward that they would be unable effectively to draft regulations if this power were given. If that really is the situation, we must accept that professional advice. It would be wasting time to write into the Bill a power which the Minister would be unable to use.

I also agree with the comment by the Parliamentary Secretary that the matter will, perhaps, be somewhat less important if the House accepts, as 1 hope it will, the later Amendment which would give powers to the councils, which, presumably, would be exercised through their fire prevention officers, to visit factories from time to time to see whether changes of this kind have been made. If that is the feeling of the House on the matter, I would be happy to withdraw the Amendment and beg to ask leave so to do.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn

Amendment made: In page 5, line 37, leave out " district ". — [Mr. Wood.]

Mr. Wood

I beg to move, in page 5, line 41, to leave out from the beginning to the end of line 46 and to insert: for the purpose of ascertaining whether there has been a change of conditions by reason of which the existing means of escape have become insufficient". The effect of the Amendment would be to delete paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (3) and to insert these proposed words. This is merely consequential on a decision taken by the Committee. Paragraph (a)would become redundant and these words would meet the point adequately now that the question of the intervals of not less than twelve months has been decided as it was upstairs.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Wood

I beg to move, in page 6, line 1, to leave out subsection (4) and to insert: (4) Notwithstanding subsection (12) of the said section thirty-four (which requires examinations under that section to be carried out by officers of the council), where the council is not a fire authority within the meaning of the Fire Services Act, 1947, or arrangements are in force for the carrying out of all or any of its functions under that Act by another fire authority, such an examination may, at the request of the council, be carried out by an officer of a fire brigade maintained by any such fire authority, if he is authorized in writing by the authority. This Amendment is a little complicated. The purpose of the transfer which we have been discussing at some length this evening is to enable the county and county borough councils to use officers of the fire brigade in connection with the work of certifying fire escapes. The difficulty is that there are a few county and county borough councils which are not independent fire authorities. The only purpose of this rather complicated Amendment is to enable those few councils which are not independent fire authorities, if they so wish, to authorize an officer of the fire authority which covers their areas to carry out the examination of means of escape for them.

Mr Ede

It is true that this is a complicated matter, but it seems to me that the Government have made it even more complicated than it need be. Where a joint fire authority is brought into existence by the relinquishing to the joint fire authority of the fire power of two or more fire authorities, a new fire authority is created. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) mentioned two such authorities. There is that which covers the County of Kent and the County Borough of Canterbury, and he mentioned also the County of Worcester and the County Borough of Worcester; and there are some others.

It seems to me that the Government have been quite right and have had quite strong support in the House tonight in insisting that the fire authority is to be the authority under whose auspices the certificate is to be given. Curiously enough, having established the fire authority for that purpose for other cases, they are now proposing that when a joint fire authority has been formed the constituents of that fire authority shall now resume the power but employ, as I understand, for that purpose the officer of the joint fire authority.

I admit that, owing to the wording of the original Act, it is necessary that something should be done on this matter, but I should have thought that in the case where an area is under a joint fire authority an officer of the joint fire authority should be the person to give this certificate. Personally, as one who believes that a good many fire authorities could with advantage be formed in the country, I do not want to see a joint fire authority being established and then being immediately split up again for this purpose.

My attention was not drawn to this until it was too late to draft an Amendment, and I frankly admit that the position is so complicated that it will need a skilled draftsman to do what I think ought to be done, but I want to establish the position whereby the fire authority for all fire matters shall be supreme, and I sincerely hope that when two or more authorities have agreed to form a joint fire authority they shall not be able to slip out of the fire authority through the discharge by someone or other of this important function. I think that all the arguments which were used in the previous debate in favour of the fire authority being the authority to issue the certificate should remain in the case of the joint fire authority.

9.0 p.m.

Mr Wood

I am very much relieved to find that even to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) this is complicated. I can assure him it is to me. It is possible that the best way in which I can help the House is not now to try to reply to the point the right hon. Gentleman has raised, but to look into the matter. If there is a more tidy and more efficient way of dealing with it, it will not be too late to adopt it.

Mr Reader Harris

I support what the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has said. There are other joint authorities, and the great argument in support of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, even after the passing of this major Amendment giving county councils and county borough councils these powers because they are fire authorities, is that there is still no guarantee that in every case the fire department will exercise the means of escape certification duties. In the case of a joint fire authority where there may be two counties not themselves fire authorities but which form a joint authority which is a fire authority, Denbigh and Monmouthshire are examples, there will be a greater tendency on the part of the architects' department or the drainage department to retain these certifying powers. There is thus a very strong argument for what the right hon. Gentleman has suggested.

Mr. Robens

I was interested in what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) and the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris). We do not want to have the position where two authorities which are not fire prevention authorities themselves are likely not to call in a fire prevention officer. The whole purpose of our previous discussion was that we did not want the admirable inspector of drains to deal with fire prevention. That was the point of our debate in Committee.

However, we can be satisfied that the Parliamentary Secretary is to give this matter consideration. The House generally wants what my right hon. Friend wants, that the fire prevention authority should be the body to undertake the inspection, with the local authority subsequently giving the necessary certificate. I think that we can rest content with the Parliamentary Secretary's assurance.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Wood

I beg to move, in page 6, line 15, at the end to insert: (6) In subsection (13) of the said section thirty-four (which specifies the factories to which that section applies) there shall be added, after paragraph (d), the words " and the Minister may by regulations provide that this section shall also apply to any class or description of factory specified in the regulations". The purpose of this Amendment is to enable my right hon. Friend, by regulation, to extend the classes of factories which are required to have certificates as to means of escape.

Mr. MacDermot

On a point of order. Would it not save time and be more convenient, if the Minister has no objection, if we also take the Amendment in page 6, line 15, at the end to insert: (6) In the said section thirty-four the following shall be substituted for subsection (13) (which specifies the factories to which the section applies): — (13) This section applies to every factory except a factory not exceeding twenty thousand square feet in floor area and comprising only one room at ground level", which raises a similar matter? Such a discussion would save having two debates covering virtually the same ground.

Mr Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)

That would be convenient.

Mr Wood

I am sorry that I did not suggest that. Clearly, it is convenient.

It was previously thought that under Section 35 (1) of the 1937 Act we had the power to make this extension, but it is now the expert advice that that subsection does not give us that power and that it is, therefore, necessary to have this Amendment. I hope that the House will agree to it, after we have heard the further thoughts of hon. Members opposite.

Mr MacDermot

I do not think that, as such, we would offer any objection to the Amendment which the Parliamentary Secretary has proposed. We would, however, like to hear his comments upon the Amendment in our names to which I have referred. It may be that such a sweeping change as we are proposing is not practicable at the present stage and if that is so, and he satisfies us on that, I think that my hon. Friends would be only too pleased to agree to the Amendment which the Parliamentary Secretary has proposed.

Section 34 (13) of the 1937 Act lays down the classes of factories to which that Section applies and for which a certificate is required. I shall not weary the House by reading the classes now. I think that the general feeling is that, as and when the administrative machinery is able to handle a greater number of factories, those classes should be extended. What our Amendment would do, if accepted, would be to extend the Section at once to virtually all factories, except very small one-room factories at ground level, and make them immediately subject to the provisions of Section 34.

It may be that that is something which is too drastic to do in one step. It is certainly the goal that we would like to see, because it is in many of these small factories that the greatest fire risk exists. The modern well-built and well-constructed factory, one hopes, will have proper and adequate fire precautions included in its design. It is small buildings, often old dwelling-houses, the base- ments of which have perhaps been converted into workshops, which are the real fire traps, and we should like to see this provision extended to that class of factory. They are extremely numerous and there is no point in our passing laws which no one is able to enforce within any appreciable length of time. It may be that it is better to do it by stages through gradual extension of the regulations. That is all I have to say at this stage, but I think that the House would like to hear the comments of the Minister on this matter.

Mr. Wood

Perhaps it would be convenient if I immediately gave my comments. I think that the only issue between us is one of timing. I have suggested taking powers through my right hon. Friend for extending the scope of Section 34 of the 1937 Act, and the hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) has suggested, rather tentatively, that the scope should be extended at once.

The main argument, which seems to me to be wholly convincing — I hope that the House will also be convinced — against doing this at once is that it is tremendously important that we should have 100 per cent. performance on the existing scope. As I said during the Committee stage, there are 60,000 factories which now come within scope and only 67 per cent. of them have certificates. Therefore, I think that it would be essential to get 100 per cent. performance on the existing factories that have to be certified before we extend the Section.

That is an argument, I would suggest, against the immediate extension which the hon. Gentleman has proposed. There is a further argument, which I think may have some importance, that we have taken the decision this evening to change the certifying authority. I think that it would be most convenient if the new system could be given time, as it were, to shake down before we begin extending the number and class of factories which the new certifying authority should have to certify.

I would, therefore, ask the House, if it so agrees, to accept my Amendment to give my right hon. Friend powers to extend the scope, if it might seem to him desirable to do so. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would be willing, after what I have said, not to move his Amendment on the grounds that it would be best to do the lob that we have to do first before undertaking the bigger one.

Mr. Robens

I think that we would accept what the Parliamentary Secretary has said, and my hon. Friend will probably decide to agree to the Government Amendment rather than seek support for his own. But when we bear in mind the fact that after twenty-two years only 67 per cent. of our factories have been inspected in accordance with the Act we realise that something must be wrong with our own administration. This is not a political matter, but one of administration. Is our failure to inspect more factories due to the fact that we really do not have enough inspectors, or is it that even at full establishment it has been physically impossible for them to carry out these inspections since the passing of the 1937 Act?

I would remind the House that the Section about which we are now talking concerns any factory in which more than 20 persons are employed. It also concerns factories which are being constructed or converted, and in this respect I would refer once again to what my hon. Friend said, namely, that it is the converted factory, or the house converted into a factory, which has the most frightening possibilities. This is the place with wooden stairs and wooden floors. It is the place where, if fire breaks out, the possibilities of loss of life are very great.

I agree with the Parliamentary Secretary that it is no use putting into a Bill powers which provide that every factory except a factory not exceeding twenty thousand square feet in floor area and comprising only one room at ground level should be inspected if the job cannot be done, but before my hon. Friend decides whether he can agree to the Government Amendment I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us how quickly he thinks that the rest of the inspections can take place. I am sure that he does not take the view that a 67 per cent. inspection in twenty years is a sufficiently speedy rate for the years that follow. There must be some way of speeding up the process. Is not now the time to ask specially for the assistance of fire prevention authorities in tackling the job? We might then be able to get all these inspection; completed and turn to the kind of Amendment which my hon. and learned Friend has put upon the Notice Paper.

This is a very serious matter. I suspect that it is in those factories which have not yet been inspected that the greatest tire hazards will be found. Although I appreciate the logic of the Parliamentary Secretary's argument that we must get on with this job before we begin to change the provisions of the Act to the kind suggested in my hon. Friend's Amendment, I think that the hon. Member should give us some assurance that the task will be pressed on with increasing urgency. If he could give an estimate of the time this process will take it would be helpful.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Wood

I am not in a position to give any precise information on this point and I do not entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about uninspected factories being a greater danger than the others. One would expect a certifying authority to look at the more dangerous factories first and to leave the comparatively safe ones till later.

The main burden of what the right hon. Gentleman said was to express anxiety about the 33 per cent, of factories within the scope of Section 34 which has not been inspected. At the present rate of progress, leaving out such occurrences as the last war, it will be, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, about another ten years before the present scope of Section 34 is completed. I know that my right hon. Friend is extremely anxious to use the powers which he has just been granted by the House, but he sees no point in doing so until the work is done.

I give an undertaking that we will take what steps we can — although the matter is obviously one for the fire authorities — to see that these inspections take place at a greater rate than in the past. We hope that it will not be long before we can do something on the lines that have been suggested, although I cannot say the precise direction in which we shall move.

I hope that the House will agree to leave the matter there. We have taken powers to extend it when we can, and we will press on to reach that point as soon as we can. We will also try to impress upon all concerned the urgency of the matter.

Mr. MacDermot

In view of the explanation and the assurance which the Parliamentary Secretary has given to us, I feel sure that we will accept what he has said and will wish to pass the Amendment. We shall then not move the second of the Amendments which we have been discussing.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Wood

I beg to move, in page 6, line 15, at the end to insert: (7)In subsection (2) of one hundred and sixteen of the principal Act (which requires a copy of the certificate under the said section thirty-four to be attached to the general register) the words " a copy of " shall be omitted. This is a very small Amendment to make the 1937 Act more consistent by making Section 116 say what Section 34 says.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 6, line 15, at end insert: (8) Nothing in subsection (1) of this section shall affect any byelaw made before the coming into operation thereof. —[Mr. Wood.]