§ 12.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Reader Harris (Heston and Isleworth)
I beg to move, in page 1, line 7, to leave out paragraph (a).
The paragraph seeks to delete from the Fire Services Act, 1947, Section 1 (3), which gives to the Secretary of State for the Home Department power to make regulations prescribing standards of efficiency in various matters relating to fire fighting and the activities of fire brigades. I hope you will allow me, Sir Charles, to make one or two rather general remarks in view of the fact that we had no opportunity to debate this matter upon the Second Reading of the Bill. I will keep as near to the Amendment as possible.
Section 1 of the main Act gives to the Secretary of State—
§ The Chairman
If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a general speech on Clause 1 he had better wait until Clause 1 is proposed from the Chair. In addition to the Amendment he is moving, the hon. Gentleman has two further Amendments, in lines 9 and 12, to leave out paragraphs (b) and (c). Does he wish to move them?
§ Mr. Harris
Yes, Sir Charles, I would like to do so. I will stick to the question of efficiency of fire brigades and the power of the Secretary of State to see that that efficiency is maintained.
During the last twelve years, since the National Fire Service was denationalised, the Secretary of State has never made any regulations prescribing the efficiency of fire brigades. The Home Office has exercised control by various methods under other Sections of the Act, and the Home Office Inspectorate, which has no more duty in this regard than to report to the Home Secretary on the efficiency of fire brigades, has no power to order fire authorities to do anything. In the last resort, there has always been power to the Home Secretary to withhold all or part of the 25 per cent. grant, if the efficiency of a fire brigade was not up to scratch.
The power which the Home Secretary would have had in the last resort to make regulations on the efficiency of fire brigades is now to be taken away. This is a matter of some importance. The whole question of loosening the control of the Home Office over the efficiency of fire brigades is of great concern. I am moving the Amendment in order to get a statement from the Joint Under-Secretary of State on exactly how the Home Office intends in the future to ensure that the efficiency of fire brigades is maintained.
Fire brigades in this country are, in a sense, a national service. They certainly become a national service in time of a national emergency. If war were unfortunately to break out, the fire services would once again have to be nationalised and would become the cornerstone of the Civil Defence services. It is obviously in the national interest that their efficiency should remain on the highest possible level.
Under the new régime, how is the Home Secretary going to ensure this efficiency, having regard to the fact that the 25 per cent. grant has now been merged into the block grant? There is concern among members of fire brigades about this, although possibly not among the public who do not know what is happening because this is a rather abstruse point to the ordinary member of the public. How will the Home 793 Secretary exercise a measure of control over this most important service?
§ Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)
I wish briefly to support what the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris) has said. We always listen to his contributions on this subject with great interest, because he speaks on it with an authority which I think is denied to most other hon. Members of the Committee.
We are anxious about this situation and, as hon. Members will remember, we opposed the Local Government Act and sought to exempt fire services from the block grant because we took the view that in many ways the service was analogous with that of the police and, to some extent, was a national service, requiring a national standard of efficiency.
In some ways the service is more national than the police. The reinforcement schemes, combination schemes and schemes for mutual assistance call for the maintenance of certain common standards throughout the country. If there were any fall below those standards, that would weaken the general fire service. We regret that the Government have decided to remove the power of the Home Secretary to issue regulations prescribing certain standards of efficiency. I appreciate, as the hon. Member has said, that it has not been necessary for the last twelve years for the Secretary of State to issue such regulations, but it is difficult to deny the fact that because the Secretary of State had those powers that was a negative incentive to local authorities which might have wanted to avoid having to do certain things to maintain their services at a high level. We are anxious that there should be no falling off in the general level of efficiency and we very much hope, as we know this is the view of the men in the service, that the Joint Under-Secretary will accept this Amendment.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and lsleworth (Mr. Reader Harris) and to the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) for having raised 794 this point, because it gives an opportunity to clear up what I believe to be a genuine misconception.
May I say straight away that the Home Secretary is not abandoning his powers of control, but rather, in the manner in which the Bill is phrased, avoiding them being duplicated. I can assure my hon. Friend that if his Amendment were accepted it would virtually leave the existing position unchanged, because similar powers to those conferred by Section 1 (3) are in fact provided by the Local Government Act, 1958, and the corresponding Act for Scotland, which empowered the relevant Minister to prescribe standards and general requirements for any of the services covered by the general grant. The repeal of Section 3, therefore, merely removes one of two parallel powers and would still leave the Secretary of State in possession of the relevant power regarding efficiency.
As to the sanctions available, since 1st April, 1959, and in Scotland as from the beginning of the financial year 1959–1960, a 25 per cent. Exchequer grant paid to fire authorities under Section 25 of the Fire Services Act, 1947, has been abolished. Expenditure on fire services in future will be treated as relevant expenditure for the purposes of general grant payable under Section 1 of the Local Government Act, 1958, and the corresponding Scottish provisions. Section 3 (1) of the Act provides thatif the appropriate Minister is satisfied that a recipient authority has failed to … maintain reasonable standards in the provision of any of the servicesunder the general grant provisions, and considers that the general grant payable to the authority should be reduced, he may lay a report before Parliament stating the amount of the reduction and the reasons therefor and any representations by the authority and, if the House of Commons approves the report, the grant may be reduced accordingly.
Section 3 (4) of the Local Government Act and Section 3 (2) of the Local Government and of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Scotland) Act, 1958, provide that the Minister may make regulations subject to the negative Resolution procedureprescribing standards and general requirements for the administration of any of the 795 services giving rise to relevant expenditure, and in determining … whether there has been any such failure".to maintain reasonable standards or requirementsregard shall be had to any such regulations and any other standards or requirements imposed by or under any enactment.That sounds very involved, but I want to emphasise that the abolition of the Secretary of State's power to prescribe standards of efficiency under the 1947 Act does not mean that he is giving up what is an essential power and what I agree with the hon. Member and my hon. Friend is an essential control over the maintenance of efficiency.
May I help hon. Members by giving four or five of the very important controls which the Home Secretary will, in fact, retain? The Home Secretary will retain power to make regulations about the qualifications for appointments, including examinations, and he retains the power for prescribing the minimum number of men to be on fire establishments. He retains power over the standards of training and equipment and power to hold inquiries under the Act in the case of an outbreak of fire.
It should be remembered that power to lay down standards of efficiency as to fire cover, training, equipment and fire prevention under section 1 will remain, but it will be exercised under the Local Government Act, 1958, instead of under the Fire Services Act. I hope that I have been able to reassure the hon. Member and my hon. Friend that the Home Secretary will retain these key controls, which, we agree with them, are very necessary in a service which has such very substantial and vital national duties.
§ Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)
I wish to put two points to the hon. Lady in connection with the list of items for which she said the Secretary of State will retain this power. Is it retained in relation to the efficiency of water supply either static or from supply points?
Secondly, can the hon. Lady say whether the Secretary of State has power over the conversion of water supply points to a uniform character? This applies particularly in Scotland, where only about 30 per cent. of the water supply points are of a uniform character 796 and others are being converted. I want to be assured that the Secretary of State, in the powers that the hon. Lady listed, has authority to see that there is efficiency of supply in Scotland. In the north of Scotland, only the other day, there was an outbreak of fire which destroyed hundreds of acres of young saplings, because of the lack of water supplies. The vehicles employed on that outbreak had to travel half a mile to the outbreak and keep a relay of water supply in operation to deal with it.
§ Miss Hornsby-Smith
I apologise for the fact that I did not make it clear that the list I gave of controls which the Home Secretary is retaining was not exhaustive. I mentioned only some of those which apply particularly to the Amendment. I assure the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) that the Bill has to be read in conjunction with the Fire Services Act, 1947, in which there are provisions for water supplies. Nothing in this Bill alters in any way the existing law under that Act in relation to water supplies.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Mr. Reader Harris
I beg to move, in page 1, line 9, to leave out paragraph (b).
This paragraph seeks to delete from the 1947 Act subsection (3) of Section 3, which states:Before making any standing arrangements for the exercise of the powers conferred by paragraph (e) of subsection (1) of this section, a fire authority shall obtain the approval of the Secretary of State to the proposed arrangements unless they have been approved by the Minister in charge of any other Government department.This is a point of considerable substance for members of fire brigades. One thing on which they are very keen is that their activities, as far as possible, shall be confined to fire fighting and the ancillary services which a fire brigade normally gives. These ancillary services are fairly wide in their range. In the fire service they are called special services, and they are virtually all of an ad hoc nature. They are not affected by this subsection of the Act.
There are occasionally, however, circumstances arising in which members of a fire brigade are given work to do 797 on a long-term basis which has nothing whatever to do with the fire service. One example, which is not a bad example in the normal sense of the word, is the use of members of a fire brigade in running an ambulance service. I am excluding that from the Bill because it has received sanction from both the Ministry of Health and the Home Office and has been recognised by the employers' side of the National Joint Council by the granting of extra pay where this duty is performed. There are other duties which the members of a fire brigade committee of a county or county borough council may give to members of the fire brigade which have nothing whatever to do with the fire service. One's mind goes back to before the war to the time in Scotland when firemen were regularly used for such work as lamp lighting. It might be possible for them to be used extensively today on building operations of one sort and another. I could give many examples.
Everything has been all right for the last twelve years because before any arrangements of this kind could be made the approval of the Home Office had to be sought, and that has acted as a deterrent. The Bill would remove this deterrent. I must tell my hon. Friend that there is great concern among all ranks in the fire service, both in the National Association of Fire Officers and the Fire Brigades Union, at what may happen if the Section is removed from the Act.
On this occasion I have not put down a probing Amendment to obtain a palliative statement from my hon. Friend. This is a matter of great substance and concern. I hope that she will see her way to delete this subsection from the Bill. No great harm would be done, but if the subsection is taken out of the main Act as is at present proposed, we feel that there will be nothing whatever to prevent a fire brigade committee from using members of a fire brigade on almost any work they like, subject always to the agreement of the trade unions—and sometimes that may be difficult to operate. I hope that my hon. Friend will reconsider the matter in the light of what I have said.
§ Mr. Anthony Greenwood
Here, again, I am in broad agreement with the hon. 798 Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris). This is not an easy matter to decide because in all these questions one has to strike a balance between giving a reasonable discretion to the local authority and at the same time retaining certain powers of direction, advice and control at the centre. One wishes at all costs to avoid too grandmotherly a control of the local authority. Not that the hon. Lady could ever seem to be grandmotherly, and I hope that she will not take it that I was referring to her.
There is, however, a good deal of objection on the part of members of many brigades to these extraneous duties which they have to perform. They volunteer for the fire service in order to fight fires, they take great pride in the calling which they have adopted and they are not enthusiastic about pumping out sumps and cleaning out mill lodges, for which standing arrangements may be made. There is some apprehension on the part of the Fire Brigades Union, which is very closely in touch with the men who work in the fire service, that if this subsection remains in the Bill there may well be a deterioration in the situation, that some of the less good authorities—there are no bad local authorities—may gradually extend the standing arrangements and there may be a general lowering of the type of work which the fire services are called upon to do.
Having given a good deal of thought to the matter, it seems to me that it would be right for the Home Secretary to retain his power to approve standing arrangements made by the local authorities but to be liberal and flexible in his interpretation of it. T should like to read what my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), whom we are delighted to see with us today, said in Committee on the Fire Services Bill, 1947. He said:… it is difficult to have positive or negative lists,"—that is, lists of the kind of things which ought to be approved—and realising the common sense and humanity that are generally displayed in matters of this kind I am prepared to leave it to the good sense and discretion of the authorities.Frankly, what I do desire to protect myself against is finding the fire brigade used regularly for purposes which might interfere 799 with its work as a fire brigade."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 24th April, 1947; c. 1592.]That seems to me to be an unexceptionable statement by my right hon. Friend and I very much hope that the Joint Under-Secretary of State will find it possible to endorse that principle and accept the Amendment.
§ Miss Hornsby-Smith
I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris) that considerable thought has been given to this matter. I realise that the intention of the provision which he seeks to keep was to provide a check on the habitual use of fire brigades in non-fire-fighting work which may effect the primary function of the brigade. The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), then Home Secretary, was considering the Bill in 1947 at a time when the Fire Service organisation was in the melting pot and fire brigades were about to be transferred to the authorities, many of whom had no previous experience of fire brigade administration.
A provision of this kind was a sensible precaution at that time, although from the quotation which the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) has read it seems that the right hon. Gentleman even then realised that these were very responsible and powerful bodies who would not lightly abuse so valuable a service by using it on less important work when its major work was that of fire cover and fighting fire.
In our experience during the eleven years since the main Act came into operation we have had no reason to believe that without the control which existed on fire authorities they would have misused their powers. My hon. Friend suggested that every case had to be referred to the Secretary of State, but that is not so. The great majority of cases in which fire authorities have exercised their powers under Section 3 (1, e) to employ their brigades for non-fire-fighting purposes have been cases in which the approval of the Secretary of State has not been required. Experience of these cases has suggested very strongly to us that if the requirement for the Secretary of State's approval is abolished the fire authorities can be relied upon to make an equally reasonable use of their powers 800 in the case of those standing arrangements which at present require such approval.
It is inconceivable that these large and responsible authorities, be they county boroughs or counties, would habitually use members of the fire brigade for such jobs as collecting refuse or cleaning sewers, jobs which have no relation to fire brigade work and might seriously interfere with the primary function of the brigade. There is no reason to think that these responsible bodies will abuse the concessions which the Bill makes. They are important and responsible bodies, and I am sure that they are as conscious as we are at the Home Office that the first function of the brigade, to which all other functions must be subordinated, is to be in a state of readiness to fight fires with the maximum possible efficiency and the best cover.
They have shown that they are aware of their responsibilities in this matter. Discussion in the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council has shown that it may be confidently expected that the power to use brigades for non-fire-fighting services will be reasonably exercised. The danger of inefficiency is so small that for the Secretary of State to retain this power in the present enhanced state of the fire service, would, we believe, be unjustified.
There are other statutory safeguards against inefficiency. Although my hon. Friend dismissed rather lightly the responsibilities of Her Majesty's fire inspectors, they can be relied upon to bring to notice any instance of inefficiency which might arise as a result of employing brigades on non-fire-fighting functions.
I can assure the Committee that we have given very serious consideration to this. Local authorities feel that it is a responsibility to which they are entitled and that their record over the past years justifies us in having this measure of confidence in them. I hope that my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Mr. Hannan
I have no intention of drawing the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to his feet, but I want to make this point in furtherance of the Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris). The Joint Under-Secretary of State will have noted that in the Chief Fire Inspector's Report for 1958 the point 801 is made that the numbers attending the fire services' own colleges for instruction and training have been kept down because of the great need for men being on the spot to discharge their own duties of maintaining fire cover.
I am using that as an illustration of the great need for ensuring that those employed by the fire services are employed on their primary duties and not allowed to undertake jobs outside those duties. We are all aware of the occasions when they are asked to rescue a cat in extremity at the top of a tree, or help someone's pet, or go to the rescue of someone locked out. Those sort of duties will continue, but their first function is to give adequate cover in the case of emergency. In view of this statement about the difficulty of maintaining numbers of classes, it is evident that the fire services have not adequate numbers to provide outside services to any large extent.
§ Mr. Nigel Nicolson (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)
If my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State replies, will she, at the same time, elaborate a little further than she did just now on what extra powers will be given under the Bill to local fire committees? She said that the great majority of cases where fire brigades are used for other purposes than fire fighting were already in the hands of local committees, but that a few powers were still reserved under the existing Act for the approval of the Home Secretary.
Exactly what are the latter powers? One assumes that the emergency use of a fire brigade for non-fire-fighting purposes is already in the hands of the local committee. For instance, no one will suggest that the approval of the Home Secretary is required before using the fire fighting equipment locally available to rescue a cat from the top of a tree or a small boy from the bottom of a well. Clearly, those emergency powers must remain locally.
If we, as I sincerely hope that we will, reject the Amendment, will it put very great power in the hands of local committees to use the equipment for purposes which have nothing to do with fire fighting?
§ Mr. Anthony Greenwood
I listened with great attention to what the hon. 802 Lady said. She allayed some of the anxieties which I had. Clearly, the essence of democracy is giving other people the right to make what we ourselves would regard as mistakes. One does not want to keep local authorities on a leading rein and be too strict in telling them exactly what they ought to do. At the same time, the hon. Lady's confidence in local authorities in some respects may be excessive, because I have had occasion in the past—no doubt other hon. Members have—to draw the attention of the Home Office to the position in certain local authority areas where firemen are employed as gardeners and on other extraneous jobs of that kind, which does not betoken real responsibility on the part of local authorities.
It may be using too much of a big stick to include in the Bill powers of direction in matters of this kind, although I should have thought that perhaps the Home Secretary might have retained them and exercised them liberally and flexibly. If the Government do not feel able to meet the point of the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris), will the hon. Lady undertake that, when the Bill becomes an Act, in any guidance given to local fire authorities emphasis will be laid upon the need for being sensible and restrained in making standing arrangements of this kind?
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Motion made and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.
§ Mr. Reader Harris
Before we part with Clause 1, which in all its four paragraphs adds up to a relaxation of control by the Home Office, I draw attention to Clause 1 (c), which constitutes a form of relaxation of control from below. Clause 1 (c) seeks to delete Section 20 of the Fire Services Act, 1947, which makes it compulsory upon a fire authority to maintain a fire brigade committee, at any rate in a county council. Section 20 applied to counties other than the London County Council.
I remember very well the discussions on that Section which took place at the Home Office when the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) was 803 Home Secretary. The Section was welcomed by all connected with fire services. The employees welcomed it, because they saw in it ways of preventing fire brigades once again, as in some parts of the country pre-war, becoming tied up with the police or any other local authority service.
The Section preserved the integrity of the fire brigade and kept it separate from any other local government service. It was welcomed also by representatives of many local authority associations, because it gave an opportunity for urban district councils, non-county boroughs and rural district councils to have representation on the fire brigade committees. At the time that was very important, because those councils had had fire brigades before nationalisation and the right hon. Gentleman had not returned their fire brigades to them, but had given them—rightly I think—to counties and county boroughs. In order to allow those authorities which had had fire brigades to have some say in the fire cover in their areas, fire brigade committees were constituted, which gave local representatives some say in what was going on in fire fighting.
I am speaking now as a representative of Heston and Isleworth, which is one such country district which used to have a fire brigade, but lost it on denationalisation and never got it back. It is very useful that local authorities at the lower levels should have an opportunity of saying what goes on in fire fighting in their areas. I am aware that every urban and rural district council is covered for representation purposes by a county councillor.
On the other hand, that county councillor may not be a member of the county council's fire brigade committee, in which case the say which the rural district council, for instance, has in fire cover is very remote. After all, a county coucillor is a busy man. He may be far too busy on other committees to pay attention to what is going on in the fire brigade committee. Surely it is right that there should be a continance of the existing system whereby non-county boroughs, county districts, urban districts and rural districts should still have some say about fire cover in their areas. I know that in Heston and Isleworth they take a very great interest in fire cover. It is a pity, if we are to 804 relax control from above, that we should also relax control from below, because this proposal is in no way related to the 25 per cent. grant or the block grant. Therefore, before we part with this Clause, I wonder if my hon. Friend would give an undertaking to reconsider the matter at a later stage—if, indeed, there is time to do so. It would be appreciated by the representatives of the local authorities, and would meet the wishes of the trade unions in the fire services.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Norwich, South)
I feel somewhat sorry that my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary should, apparently, be attacked on both sides on a Bill that relaxes controls. It would be a great great pity were the impression given that there were not a great many people who warmly welcome the provisions of the Bill.
I did not mind my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris) making his point on the Fire Brigades Union, but I do not think that he accurately reflects the views of the local authority associations on this matter. I will have something to say later on about the fact that the Bill does not go far enough in relaxing control, but so far as it abolishes the requirement under the 1947 Act that the fire brigade committees must consist in part of representatives of county district councils, I think that it is fair to say that, on the whole, the county district councils are not worried. They feel that the Bill is in line with modern ideas, which are tending towards a situation in which the local authority that is directly responsible for a function should be allowed to exercise it as of right, and without grandmotherly interference either from the Home Office or any other authority—
§ Mr. Reader Harris
My hon. Friend says that I do not accurately reflect the views of the local authority associations, but is it not right that he is putting the point of view of the big battalions—the associations of the municipal corporations and the county councils—while I was putting that of the urban district and rural district associations?
§ Mr. Rippon
I am prepared to accept that, but it is very different from saying local authority associations generally.
§ Mr. Anthony Greenwood
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon) has introduced a note of controversy. I do not think that anybody has so far attacked the Joint Under-Secretary, as I am sure she would be the first to agree. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was here last Friday but, had he been, he might have forced a Second Reading debate, in which case it would have been unnecessary for those of us who were present last Friday and are present again today to raise general considerations in Committee. Because of the way we facilitated the Bill last Friday we have been denied the opportunity of discussing the general principles of the Bill, but, if it is any comfort to the hon. Gentleman, we all welcome those general principles.
There is no objection to the course that the Government have adopted. On the whole, I think that they have dealt very well indeed with the difficult situation caused by what I think was the regrettable decision to change the financial provisions on which all this was based. We accept the general proposals. At the same time, that should not deny us the opportunity of raising questions of detail such as that to which the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris) has called our attention.
I would rather dislike any of us getting into the position of being the spokesmen of various outside organisations, and having to stick entirely and in detail to any advice we got from various local authority associations. Like the hon. Member for Norwich, South, I am a vice-president of the Association of Municipal Corporations, and from any of the advice I have had from that association I am not aware that the smaller local authorities are happy about the suggestion that they should be denied an opportunity of serving on the county fire brigade committees, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not give that impression.
It would be a pity, when we have these county fire brigade committees working very well and happily, and giving the smaller local authorities in which the hon. Gentleman and I are particularly interested a chance to have a say in the control of the county fire services, if that machinery were to be 806 destroyed. It is particularly important in Lancashire—perhaps more important than in any other part of the country—which is a county divided into a very large number of county boroughs, and the non-county boroughs feel very remote from the seat of government at Preston.
Here, again, I should like to tell the hon. Lady that it might be a mistake to write this into the Bill—I think that the Government are right there—but if she would tell us that, in any regulations or circulars issued to the local authorities, or in any advice tendered to them, the Home Secretary would be prepared to say that the Home Office attaches considerable importance to the county fire brigade committees, it would go a long way to allaying the anxiety that some of us feel.
§ Miss Hornsby-Smith
While I cannot go the whole way with my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris), I hope that I shall be able to reassure him on certain aspects regarding consultation. The reason for removing this requirement to appoint fire brigade committees is the same as that applying to the removal of the statutory power in relation to standing arrangements for the employment of fire brigades for purposes other than fire fighting.
The case for the statutory requirement in relation to management and administration is nothing like as strong as it was when the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) introduced his Bill in 1947. Then, we had many smaller authorities with experience in running their own fire brigades prior to the war, and we were devolving new responsibilities on authorities that had not had the experience. There was then a very strong case indeed for having on the committees members of smaller authorities which had previously run their own fire brigades, who could give their knowledge and experience for the benefit of the new members from the larger authorities who, at that time, were charged with the new responsibility for running fire brigades.
County councils have now had eleven years experience of administering fire brigades, and the case for requiring county district councils to participate in 807 the work of fire brigade administration is not nearly as strong now as it was in 1947. It is the view of the county councils that they should be relieved of what has, in some cases, become a very irksome and burdensome procedure. For example, it is at present necessary for a county council to inform all district councils of even the most trivial amendment to the establishment scheme, and to consider their representations. We believe that the time has come when it is not unreasonable for this particular statutory obligation and requirement to be allowed to lapse.
We have not, however, accepted this as a means by which there should no longer be any consultation, and I am very happy to be able to tell my hon. Friend that discussions have taken place with the local authority associations, and the County Council Association has expressed the following view:While the Association welcome the repeal of the statutory requirement to appoint fire brigade committees, they would feel it unfortunate if one of the first results of this freedom from control were to be that county councils made no effort to co-opt to their fire brigade committees some persons who are members of county district councils. Similarly, the Association feels, although the procedure for consultation with county district councils concerning changes in fire brigade establishments will no longer be necessary, they hope that such consultation will continue to take place in appropriate cases, as for example, when a proposal for the closing of a fire station is under consideration.There is that undertaking, and a readiness to discuss matters that are quite obviously of import to local authorities. It is also a very fair consideration that at the present time the most minute and trivial matters have to be delayed while they go the rounds of all local authorities. I hope that hon. Members will accept the assurance from the County Councils Association that it has no intention, as a result of the new legislation, of abandoning its contact and co-operation with the local authority associations. In those circumstances, I hope that my hon. Friend will find himself able to withdraw his Amendment.
§ 1.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
I was not aware that the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris) had moved an Amendment at this stage.
§ Miss Hornsby-Smith
I apologise. I was misled by the fact that my hon. Friend originally had an Amendment on the Notice Paper and I had for the moment forgotten that it had not been called and that he was using the opportunity to speak on the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill,"
§ Mr. Ede
I hope that what the hop. Lady has told us will be the attitude of the county councils throughout the country to the future relationship with county district councils in this matter, for there is no doubt that people can be gravely concerned about such matters as the proposal to close a fire station, even in a case like suburban Surrey, where only those most closely connected with local government have the remotest idea of the actual boundaries of county district councils.
The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon) was at one time Mayor of Surbiton, and if he were as efficient a member of the House of Commons as he was Mayor of Surbiton I should be a great deal happier about him. He knows the difficulties there were in bygone days over the narrow limits within which fire brigades and fire services operated. He is aware that frequently there was an unnecessary proliferation of services, because each fairly wealthy county district council, as they were in that area, wanted to have cover for each urban district or non-county borough that, except in the case of a national disaster like a war, would have hardly been likely to be required.
I welcome the statement made by the hon. Lady because I think it is very desirable that there should be a direct means of contact between the county district councils and the fire brigade committee where these sorts of intimate details which in this service are most important shall be easily and readily discussed. It is quite easy with a fire brigade committee for a county, not particularising any county, to find that there is a sweep of the county of considerable 809 area and importance which just does not happen to have attracted a county councillor who is willing or anxious to serve on the fire brigade committee.
What we did under the original Act was to arrange for electoral "colleges" of local authorities and county district councils who met to nominate a person from each convenient area in the county to serve on the committee. The county council has the power to appoint co-opted members on to any committee of the county council, and, although this will no longer be statutory, I hope that in any county that has a very considerable area to administer, an arrangement will be made whereby persons in the various localities of the county not serving on the county council but who take a lively interest in this matter, will be able to continue the service which, to my knowledge, many of them have willingly and efficiently given under the principal Act. If it is done in that voluntary way it may even be on occasion more effective than if it depends on a statutory duty.
I sincerely hope that there will be the desire on the part of all county councils not to lose the valuable contacts that the present law has given them.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Clauses 2 to 4 ordered to stand pan of the Bill.