HC Deb 03 July 1959 vol 608 cc831-41
Miss Hornsby-Smith

I beg to move, in page 7, line 25, to leave out subsection (5).

This is a Government Amendment of a purely formal character. Subsection (5), which provides that nothing in the Bill shall impose any charge on the people or on public funds or vary the amount or incidence of or otherwise alter any such charge in any manner, or affect the assessment, revenue, administration or application of any money raised by any such charge, is a formal provision, inserted in another place to avoid questions of Privilege.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, with Amendments; as amended, considered.

2.10 p.m.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

As the Second Reading of the Bill was got through in the minimum possible time I hope that I may claim the indulgence of the House in moving its Third Reading, because I think that on such an important Measure, which affects fire brigade officers throughout the country, it is necessary that we should have an opportunity of expressing what the Bill sets out to do. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me for a few minutes while I outline the general principles and effects of the Measure as a whole.

The arrangements for the administration of the Service which were introduced by the Act of 1947—a form of partnership between local and central Government—have generally worked well and we have seen the establishment and consolidation of a highly efficient public fire service to which I am, and, I know, all hon. Members are, glad to be able to pay a public tribute.

The modification in the controls exercised by the Secretary of State under the 1947 Act are, as the House will be aware, proposed in the light of the cessation of the specific Exchequer grant of 25 per cent. which was first paid in 1947, and the introduction in the Local Government Act, 1958, and the corresponding Scottish Act of new financial arrangements by which the first service became one of the services to be aided by the general Grant. It was in view of this that the Government decided that the central controls over the fire service should be reviewed, and in conducting this review they have aimed at giving the local authorities a greater measure of freedom to run their brigades while at the same time securing that the central Government would retain those "key" controls which were considered essential for the maintenance of adequate standards of efficiency.

The Bill does, in fact, go a long way in increasing the extent of the discretion which fire authorities can exercise in the management of their affairs, and administrative steps, not requiring amendment of the law, have already been taken to relieve local authorities from the need to seek Departmental authority for expenditure in what are in many cases only day-to-day operations. This does not mean, however, as I have heard it suggested—and I emphasise this as strongly as I can—that my right hon. Friends will cease to take a close interest in the efficiency of the Service.

While fire authorities are being given greater freedom to exercise their responsibilities in their own areas it is right that the main structure of the post-war service should be retained. It has promoted a growing efficiency and it incorporates lessons sometimes dearly learned in such matters as the provision of fire cover on a settled yet flexible plan, the extension of training facilities, the standardisation of hydrants and equipment and the regular discussion of problems common to the service through two Advisory Councils. Despite the relaxations effected in Clause 7 and the remaining provisions of the Bill, the Secretaries of State will retain various "key" controls.

At an earlier stage this morning, I mentioned the very vital controls which are, in effect, to be retained by my right lion. Friends, particularly that in regard to reduction of establishment and others in regard to the standardisation of equipment, etc. Moreover, my right hon. Friends have eyes in the shape of Her Majesty's inspectors of fire services, and very good eyes they are, too—indeed, I think that all who are concerned with the fire service would join with me in paying tribute to the way in which they have worked for the betterment of the service throughout the country since 1948—and I am sure that Her Majesty's inspectors can be relied upon to bring to our notice any instance of possible inefficiency arising from a failure to develop fire establishments to meet increasing fire risks.

As I have said previously, in formulating the proposals now before the House, the Government have tried very sincerely to strike a balance between reasonable relaxation of controls on the one hand, and the retention of necessary controls on the other. We believe that we have succeeded—that a just balance has been struck. We realise, of course, that when we are negotiating matters we can never satisfy everyone wholly, but we believe that the negotiations have been conducted wholly in the spirit of the best interests of the service, that, indeed, there has been a fair give and take and that we have struck a reasonable balance in the Bill.

We believe that in this crowded island we have the most comprehensive fire service in the world—that our firemen, who are often called upon to risk their lives, are a highly trained and wonderful body of men and women. Under the arrangements proposed in the Bill, I am confident that not only will none of the efficiency of the service be lost, but that it will continue, as it has done since the war, to improve the standard of the protection which, sometimes dramatically, sometimes with unobtrusive diligence, it offers to us all.

2.25 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood

Like the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary, I shall set an admirable example of brevity to the House, but I think it would be a pity to let the Bill go without paying a tribute not only to the inspectors of the fire services, to whom the hon. Lady rightly referred, but also to the men who man our fire brigades. They are, I think, a body of men who enjoy the unqualified admiration of the whole population. They follow a calling which involves a great deal of personal courage and also a great deal of interference with the ordinary family life that most people like to live.

Theirs is an arduous and, I think, not an overpaid calling, and the least that we can do on an occasion like this is to express our admiration of the men who constitute the fire services of the country. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon), who seemed to think that the hon. Lady was under fire this morning, should not have stayed for the Third Reading debate so that he might join in paying a tribute to the hon. Lady for the way in which she has piloted the Bill through the House and also to the men and women of the fire service.

I do not think that I need elaborate upon it, but we have on a number of occasions, and particularly last year, expressed the Labour Party's disagreement with the provisions of the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Bill. We do not like the block grant. We think it may well tend to militate against the efficiency of the service, which is not a very personal service, and we have misgivings as to the possible repercussions on the fire service. Therefore, we would have liked the fire service to be put in the same position as the police. But the House in its wisdom decided on the other course of action, and until we are in a position to remedy that mistake we shall welcome the Bill because it goes a considerable way to meet the criticisms which the Fire Brigades' Union and members of my party have put forward.

During the course of the discussion today the hon. Lady has been most helpful. She has given us a number of explanations and assurances which I think have comforted the critics of the Bill considerably, and we shall now say goodbye to the Measure with rather lighter hearts than we should have done had we not had the discussion and the assurances to which the hon. Lady has treated us.

2.29 p.m.

Mr. Reader Harris

This is not a Bill which I am glad to welcome, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will understand that the best that I can do is to give some rather begrudging recognition to the fact that it is something which the Government probably had to do and have probably done as well as they could in the circumstances. However, we now have the Bill, and, of course, it marks the end of a chapter in the life of the fire service. The new chapter may be better or it may be worse. We do not yet know.

I would merely say that I hope that the Home Office will continue to exercise the maximum amount of control that it possibly can and will not exercise the minimum amount of control. By and large, the intervention of the Home Office, and, of course, of the Secretary of State for Scotland, in 1941 was wholly beneficial to the fire service. Particularly was this so in Scotland. I remember that in 1947, when we were discussing the end of the National Fire Service, there was a big meeting at the Home Office, presided over by the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), with the right hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Isaacs), who was Minister of Labour, on his right, and on his left the right hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn), who was Secretary of State for Scotland. The meeting began at half-past ten in the morning and at twenty-five minutes to eleven representatives of the Scottish local authorities said, "We do not wish to participate in any negotiating machinery or any other sort of advisory machinery. We in Scotland want our own machinery."

When the meeting broke up in some sort of disorder I got in touch with the representatives of my association in Scotland, the fire officers, and I said, "The local authorities now want to have their own machinery for negotiating conditions of service. I presume that that will suit you?" I shall never forget the reply. It was, "We are horrified at what has happened. In Scotland we never had decent conditions under the local authorities until the Home Office laid down conditions of service from Whitehall." That marked a new chapter for the fire brigades in Scotland and, indeed, in many other parts of Britain.

The intervention of the Home Office during the last eighteen years has on the whole been all to the good. Therefore, it is not with any great enthusiasm that now I have to watch the Home Office beginning to relax its control. I hope that it will keep an eye on the fire brigades, because it may well be that another national emergency will occur and it will be necessary again to nationalise the fire service. If that should happen—we all hope that it will not—and the Government have to nationalise the fire service, I am sure that they would wish to nationalise a service which was more efficient than was the case previously.

I expressed the need for this to the hon. Lady the Joint Under-Secretary at a dinner recently which she did the officers of the association the honour of attending. With her permission, I will repeat once again something that I said on that occasion and which, I think, ought to go on the record so that those members of the public who take the trouble to read HANSARD can know about it. I refer to the report of the delegation to Japan after the last war to inspect the results of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The British Commission consisted of 10 representatives of the Home Office, one from the Government of India, one from the Admiralty, one from the War Office, two from the Air Ministry and one from the Ministry of Aircraft Production. It reported: Both in Hiroshima and Nagasaki the scale of the disaster brought city life and industry virtually to a standstill. Even the most destructive conventional attacks, the incendiary raids on Hamburg in the summer of 1943 and on Toyko in the spring of 1945, had no comparable effect in paralysing communal organisation. Witnesses reported a panic flight of population, in which officials and civil defence personnel joined"—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

Order. I cannot see what this has to do with the Third Reading of the Bill.

Mr. Reader Harris

It has this to do with it, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I am trying to ensure that we have a national fire service so far as possible, even if it is under local authority control. I hope that I shall not be ruled out of order. I am anxious not to be out of order, but I wish to stress that after the last war the Commission which went to Japan reported that local services were unequal to dealing with the disaster, either immediately or later, and that planned and energetic action on the part of the central Government is essential. Such a situation may arise again and I am concerned to ensure that the fire brigades shall be ready for such an eventuality.

2.26 p.m.

Mr. Hannan

I am not aware of the meeting referred to by the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. Reader Harris), where there were expressions of disapproval about the conditions in the fire service and particularly about local authorities in Scotland. There was no great rush to leave the fire service, not even in 1947. It may be that at the beginning of the war the conditions were bad but certainly not in 1947 which I understood was what the hon. Gentleman was referring to.

Mr. Reader Harris

I should have said up to the time of the war.

Mr. Hannan

At the beginning of the war there was pressure to improve the standards which, generally speaking, were low. Men were living on the premises all the time with perhaps only a half-day off in the week, and I agree that the conditions then cannot be compared with the conditions of today. In saying that, I do not mean to suggest that present-day conditions are the best possible.

Under the provisions of the Bill local authorities are being given responsibility for maintaining standards of efficiency. If there is one body of men anxious to maintain efficiency it is the Fire Brigades' Union. In the present economic circumstances of the country, with the need for the maintenance of exports and the provision of factories as well as the need to preserve imported raw materials, it recognises the utmost importance of providing the maximum protection against fire. I know that the union will prompt any local authorities which are likely to fall by the wayside in this respect.

That is not to say that Government Departments should escape responsibility. We are giving the right to local authorities to use men and equipment for purposes other than the primary purpose of providing protection against fire. I am not happy about this. We have expressed our views about it and it is something which will need to be watched carefully. Another relaxation about which I am doubtful is that relating to reinforcements schemes. There was one great benefit which resulted from the creation of the National Fire Service, indeed it was the raison d'être for its formation, and that was the need to create reinforcements which the state of emergency had made vitally necessary.

I shall never forget the most frustrating experience that we had during the war on Clydebank and Greenock, when I was serving in the fire service and where I met with minor injuries. We turned up with equipment which we could not use because the local hydrant was of a different type, a ball hydrant, and we had the instantaneous or bayonet type hose fastening. We were reminded of Rob Wilton's grim though humorous monologue, in which he acts as a fireman carrying on a telephone conversation with a caller who has given a fire alarm, and ends by saying, "Well, just keep it going until we get there". That was what we had to do on this occasion; we had to stand by and watch.

I hope that the Government Department will pay attention to this matter, because according to the report of the Inspector General in Scotland, for example, the position is that only about 39 per cent. of the country's hydrants are standard in all respects and with the addition to those to which outlet adaptations have been applied the figure is 64 per cent. of all hydrants.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

May I help the hon. Gentleman by telling him that one of the powers retained by the Secretary of State is to make regulations to maintain and provide for the uniformity of fire hydrants?

Mr. Hannan

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. The essential point is that the paragraph finishes saying: Some brigades have adopted a policy which enables the end of the period to be foreseen. It would be comforting to see that policy adopted by all brigades. The Inspector-General is really saying there, "For goodness' sake get on with the job." It is a long time since the end of the war, when this problem first cropped up. We must get a reform of these conditions throughout the country.

An important Clause that we did not debate at any great length is Clause 7, in which we deal with manpower and adequate fire cover. This is another matter which was outstanding before the war. I would remind the Secretary of State for Scotland, in amplification of what I was saying earlier on the subject of water supplies, of a report which appeared in the Scotsman of 27th June, 1959. Reporting a fire in the north of Scotland among 50 acres of fir trees, it stated: As there are not water on the estate—owned by the Moray Estates Development Company—the tenders fought the blaze two at a time while the other two went to Alves, half a mile from the fire, to refill their tanks. I am very anxious about all these things, and so is the fire service. We would like to be assured that local authorities in the new areas springing up in the north of Scotland, where various small industries are growing up and where, in the countryside, mechanisation is taking place to a greater degree than ever before, realise that the risk of fire is increasing. I hope that local authorities will see to it that their fire protection services are maintained at a very high level. We want this service to be the foremost in the world. I am glad that we have had an opportunity of expressing these views to the Government.

2.34 p.m.

Mr. N. Macpherson

I would make it clear that, in the view of Her Majesty's Government, the Bill does nothing to impair the efficiency of the fire service. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) rather gave the impression from his opening remarks that the removal of one of the powers of the Secretary of State and of the Home Secretary to prescribe standards of efficiency would interfere with the efficiency of the service. I can assure the House that that is not so.

In point of fact, that power has not been used. All that the Clause does, as my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office said earlier, is to substitute for the power that previously existed an additional power which already exists in the Local Government Act and the corresponding Act for Scotland. It was useless to have the two powers existing similarly at the same time. We intend to rely upon the one in the Local Government Act instead of upon the other. I would assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that there will be no relaxation of the general responsibility of the Secretary of State for Scotland and of the Home Secretary for the efficiency of the service.

The question of use of equipment has already been fully dealt with but it is well to remember that existing legislation only prescribes that reference has to be made to the Secretary of State before any standing arrangements are made for the use of equipment for services other than fire fighting. As my hon. Friend has said, we are quite certain, after the experience gained, that we can rely upon the discretion and wisdom of the fire authorities to make certain that all equipment and services are maintained for their primary use and are not dissipated for other uses.

On reinforcement schemes, adequate powers are contained in Clause 2. There is not the slightest reason to suppose that there will be any diminution of the efficiency of the service.

On water supplies, there are parts of Scotland where water is difficult to obtain just as there are parts where it is all too easy to get and we have too much of it. No doubt the hon. Member for Maryhill is aware that the question he raised is being looked at at the present time. I hope that we shall be able to satisfy him that we are doing the best we can.

I thank the House for the general welcome that has been given to the Bill, even though my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris) did not feel able to give it an unqualified welcome. The Bill goes a long way in the direction that the Government have sought of giving the maximum possible powers to local authorities without in any way interfering with the efficiency of the service.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with Amendments.