HC Deb 03 July 1959 vol 608 cc815-28
Mr. Robert Jenkins (Dulwich)

I beg to move, in page 3, line 45, after "paragraphs," to insert "(a)."

The Chairman

I think it would be for the convenience of the Committee also to discuss the Amendments in page 3, line 46, leave out from "appointment" to "shall" in line 1 on page 4 and insert: and promotion of members of fire brigades), and in page 4, line 5, at end add: (2) A fire authority shall not appoint a chief officer of a fire brigade except after consultation with the Secretary of State.

Mr. Jenkins

Yes, Sir Charles.

These Amendments in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon), the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) and myself bring to light a fundamental point of local government. They would give effect to the policy of the Association of Municipal, Corporations and the County Councils Association, and I support them. The object is to prevent the Secretary of State from making regulations as to the method of appointment of chief fire officers and to require fire authorities to consult the Secretary of State before appointing a chief officer of a fire brigade.

The local authority associations whom I have mentioned, although I do not really represent them and I am certainly not their delegate, welcome the Bill as a measure towards the fulfilment of the promise made by the Government in the White Paper of July, 1957, entitled "Local Government Finance," to simplify and reduce Departmental control of local authorities.

In the debate in the House of Commons on 29th July, 1957, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government referred to the proposed review and said: I give the House an undertaking that this review will be thorough, and that we shall be prepared to abolish or relax any controls over the freedom of local authorities to act as they think best, which cannot be shown to serve a useful purpose."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th July, 1957; Vol. 574, c. 935.] If local authorities are responsible bodies, competent to discharge their own functions and exercise responsibility in their own right, one would have thought that they would be allowed to appoint their own staff without having to seek Ministerial approval. At the moment, they are free to appoint most of their chief officers without any such control: for example, the town clerk, the treasurer, the water engineer, the surveyor, the architect, the housing manager, and so on. Other than the chief constable, they have to receive approval from the appropriate Government Department for the appointment of chief education officers and children's officers, but these are being brought under review by the Government Departments concerned and consideration is being given to the abolition of the approval which is at present necessary.

Before the war, there was control in certain borough and county districts of the appointment of medical officers of health, and for a particularly good reason at that time. About ten years ago, however, that control was discontinued by the Minister of Health. In other words, the one chief officer concerned with housing for whom it was thought necessary to have control of his appointment in the hands of the Minister of Health, has been removed from this control since the war.

At a time when all other Departments have relinquished their powers to approve the appointment of local authority chief officers, I submit that the onus rests upon the Secretary of State to show, in the words of his right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government, that his power of control over the appointment of chief fire officers serves "a useful purpose", if he seeks to retain this power in its present form, having regard to the other factors I have mentioned. I therefore ask whether the present arrangement for approval serves any purpose which prior consultation between the local authority and the Secretary of State could not equally serve.

The Government's case, which has been expressed in another place and in conversations, is that in a disciplined operational service like the first service it is vital to its operation in peace and war that every possible care should be taken to ensure the appointment of the right man as chief fire officer. There may be other arguments for retaining this power, but that is the principal one which has been put forward.

The Association of Municipal Corporations and the County Councils Association and many other bodies agree that it is important to appoint the right man for this job. They do not, however, agree that, merely because the fire service is a disciplined service, local authorities are less capable of making appointments than in any other local government service. Nor do they accept the fact that because of the interest of the Secretary of State in the fire service consequent upon his wartime responsibilities, it is necessary for him to have approval of the appointment of chief officers of fire brigades during peacetime.

The Government have stated on several occasions that there is an analogy between the appointment of a chief fire officer and his operations and the office of chief constable, whose appointment by the Secretary of State is at present similarly required to be approved.

1.30 p.m.

Chief constables, with great respect to the Joint Under-Secretary of State, are not servants of the local authority at all. Indeed, they have statutory powers and duties to perform over which the local authorities have no control. Therefore, in that respect, they are entirely different from the chief fire officers, who are entirely subject to the control of the authorities by whom they are appointed. There is the same relationship of master and servant between the local authority and the fire officer as there is between the authority and the various other chief officers appointed by it.

The argument about war time has been used, but many of the other chief officers would carry out duties in wartime at least as onerous and important as those of chief fire officers. In practice, as the Lord Chancellor has stated, in another place, the power of approval has not had to be used in the past ten years to reject a candidate selected by the fire authority. Not in the last ten years has there been any veto at all, particularly after the Home Office has had the opportunity of expressing views on a short list submitted by the fire authority.

I suggest, therefore, that the opinion of the Association of Municipal Corporations and of the County Councils Association is right—that there is no reason why such practice should not be continued, but it must be based on the concept of consultation, and this is where the third Amendment comes in. I am informed that the two associations would be prepared and glad to commend to their fire authority members that consultations should take place, and would be prepared to agree to that, but that it is voluntary consultation with the Home Office and with Her Majesty's Inspectors of Fire Brigades that ought to take place and not this compulsory submission of names and final approval.

I repeat that the Amendments touch local government substantially and deeply. Other Departments of State are returning powers to local authorities and increasing their responsibilities. I think that a case can be made out that this handing back of the power to appoint a chief fire brigade officer is something which would not be contrary to the public interest. I ask the Committee to imagine the situation in which at present the London County Council is compelled to go to the Home Office for consent to and approval of the appointment of a chief fire brigade officer. It is absolutely ridiculous that that should be so.

Who are the best judges, the members of the fire brigade committee of the London County Council or somebody in the Home Office? Naturally, the matter would come to my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary eventually, but who can best decide it? I suggest that the trend of handing back responsibility to local authorities is being stopped in this one instance.

It has been shown in debate on several other Amendments today that the Government are handing back powers to local authorities. I believe that this is one which they could well hand back without any danger to the country, without any loss of prestige to themselves and with great advantage to the local authorities.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood

I hope that it is not necessary to urge the hon. Lady the Joint Under-Secretary to resist the Amendment which was moved by the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) with what I thought was a specious argument, if he will forgive me for saying so. I have already said that we on this side of the Committee regard the fire service as essentially a national service which is locally administered. We are to some extent already weakening its local character through financial provisions, and I would prefer not to weaken it further, which I think would be the case if the Amendments were accepted.

With great respect to the hon. Member for Dulwich, there is no analogy whatever between a chief fire officer and a housing manager, a librarian or a borough treasurer. It does not matter to one local authority what kind of librarian there is in a neighbouring local authority, but it matters to one fire authority what kind of chief officer is in charge of the men and appliances of another authority. Therefore, I think it is essential that some control should be maintained by the Home Office over appointments of this kind.

I do not want to get involved in the rather difficult problem which the hon. Member raised about the exact status and position of a chief constable, but I regard the position of a chief fire officer as much more analogous to that of a chief constable than to that of a librarian or housing manager. It would not be enough for the Home Office merely to retain the right to have consultation with a fire authority before a chief officer was appointed. Presumably, on the hon. Member's suggestion, there can be consultation with the Home Office but the local authority could then snap its fingers at the Home Office and appoint exactly whom it wanted. I do not regard that as a satisfactory situation. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Lady will be quite firm and resist the Amendments entirely.

Mr. Rippon

I hope that my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary will adopt a sympathetic attitude towards the Amendments. What the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) has said follows quite logically from what he had been saying earlier today. I do not think that the Amendments are in any way out of line with the policy which the Government have adopted in the rest of the Bill. I said earlier that I thought it was accepted that district councils could no longer have a statutory right to nominate to a county council fire brigade committee, because I thought that function ought to be exercised as of right. I was then speaking for myself, but I believe that that is the view generally held in local government today.

The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who has great wisdom in these matters, was right when he stressed the importance of consultation. That is the right way of dealing with it. In the composition of committees, a county council can consult downwards and co-opt under its permissive powers, and that is a reasonable way of ensuring a high standard of service. Equally, there can here be consultation upwards, and there is no reason why the Home Office should not be as satisfied with consultation in this case as district councils ought to be in the other.

I believe that where the responsibility directly lies it should be exercised by the authority making the appointments. I see, of course, the force of the argument about the fire service being a national service and how in an emergency it would have to be brought once again under central control but, as far as I can see, the Government have not carried it too far by allowing these relaxations. I cannot see why we cannot accept that the fire service is in that sense a national service and still leave the fire authority with the direct responsibility of making the appointment.

I should have thought that the appointment of a fire officer was at least analogous with the appointment of a medical officer of health, if not with the appointment of a librarian. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) pointed out, that was a case where an appointment had to be confirmed because it was important to maintain a national medical standard. No doubt in a national emergency there would have to be all sorts of arrangements. Regional controllers might have to be appointed and perhaps there might have to be a suspension of local authority powers altogether. I do not think we should be led astray by that argument.

I hope that the hon. Lady will feel that it will be possible to allow the local authority to make the appointment subject to consultation. This would work just as well upwards as downwards.

Mr. Hannan

I, on the other hand, hope that the hon. Lady will resist the Amendment. It may seem strange that support for the Government is coming from this side of the House and opposition from her own side. This problem arises primarily out of the Government's action on the Local Government Bill. Representations were made by the Opposition, and refused, that the fire service should be regarded as a national service. If that had been accepted, these Amendments would not have been necessary.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon) argued that the fire master, as we call him in Scotland, is analogous to the medical officer of health. That will not hold water in relation to this Bill. The Government have accepted the spirit of the fire service being a national service and the appointment of principal officers must be the responsibility of the Department.

Can the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland tell me what the procedure is in Scotland? Am I not right in saying that in Scotland the fire authorities must have the approval of the Department? That is what is being asked for in the Bill. Has the Secretary of State had any representations from local authorities in Scotland asking for any change in the proposals before us? I have not received any, and I think that local authorities in Scotland are satisfied that the procedure here should be similar to that by which chief constables are appointed, namely, with the approval of the Department.

The police service is analogous to the fire service in its national character. I want to emphasise that the fire service, unlike the police service, has been brought into the block grant against the desire of the service personnel. It is the job of the Government and their successors to ensure that the efficiency of the fire service, which has such a bearing on national economy, is preserved. If we go too far in upsetting arrangements for national appointments where people with responsibility can make quick decisions and act in the national interest it will be a retrograde step. The fundamental weakness lies in the Government's action in taking the fire service into the block grant.

I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to say something of some comfort to hon. Members on this side of the Committee.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Niall Macpherson)

In answer to the first question that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) asked, I understand that the joint committees and Glasgow would submit a short leet to the Secretary of State for approval. They would then choose their fire master subject to the approval of the Secretary of State.

In answer to the second question, I can only say that the retention of the power was not queried by the associations.

1.45 p.m.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

My hon. Friends are trying to remove the statutory control which the Secretary of State exercises and replace it with a rather nebulous undefined method of consultation. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland believe that this is an absolutely key control and part of the necessary powers that they must have in being responsible for the overall efficiency of the fire service. My right hon. Friend has met representatives of the local authority associations and discussed this matter. We are aware of their views and have considered them carefully, but neither the Home Secretary nor the Secretary of State for Scotland feel able or justified in relinquishing what they believe is a very essential power which the Minister responsible for this very important national service must have.

The local authority associations have suggested consultation. We understand their desire to have control over the appointment of their own officers and we have no desire to interfere unnecessarily with their freedom in this field. We appreciate that local authorities have ample experience in the appointment of chief officers of various kinds, but there must be a clear distinction between chief officers in the fire service and chief officers in other local authority fields.

It is true that other local authority officers have functions of great importance and some of them are more senior in the local hierarchy than the chief fire officer, but the fire service is a disciplined uniformed service directly concerned with public safety, which, in the last resort, is very much the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Special considerations must arise in the appointment of an officer to command the brigade in each area. In addition to technical efficiency, chief fire officers need the kind of specialised qualities which enable a man to maintain discipline without impairing morale, which is of the greatest importance in maintaining the efficiency of the service.

With the greatest respect, from time to time one finds that there are local authorities, perhaps the smaller county authorities, who tend to take a parochial attitude. They may know their own officers extremely well. In a particular case they may lean towards promoting a deputy who was known to them, and perhaps known locally, but who, so far as the efficiency of the brigade was concerned, had neither the experience nor the knowledge of an officer who was more qualified for that promotion from some other area, and of whose qualifications they had only the first sight when his application was submitted.

We believe that the Home Office, with its general knowledge of the fire service throughout the country, acquired through the Fire Inspectorate, is in a better position to judge of those qualities and is able to contribute essential and important information to prevent an unsuitable appointment. The purpose of the Secretary of State's approval is not in any way to secure the appointment of a particular candidate of the Secretary of State's choice, but to ensure that candidates who are unsuitable for the post are not appointed.

In practice, I agree that the Home Office proceed by way of preliminary informal consultation, and the Home Office indicates, on the basis of the short list, which candidates it considers unsuitable and which it considers suitable. So far there has been no case where the Secretary of State has found it necessary to make formal use of his power to reject the choice of a fire authority, although it has indicated, on the basis of the short list, that a particular individual would not be regarded as suitable. The fact that the power exists has undoubtedly influenced fire authorities in taking Home Office advice.

Local authorities cannot claim that their freedom has been unduly infringed in practice, or that the present system of informal prior consultation, with a statutory sanction in the background, has not worked smoothly. We all realise that if an emergency arises fire services would play a vital rôle, and it just is not good enough to say that they would then come under national control. We should have to rely upon the chief fire officers at that moment, in operation with their brigades, and although it is true that the service would be subject to a different form of organisation, we should be absolutely dependent upon the efficiency and skill of the existing fire officers.

A true comparison cannot be made between a chief fire officer and a civil defence officer. As I have responsibility in both spheres, I do not underestimate the excellent work done by civil defence officers, but although their functions are important they do not have statutory appointments. A civil defence officer is a member of a local authority staff, and is appointed to assist it in its civil defence functions, But he is not in command of a disciplined regular service. Civil defence controllers who are holders of part-time appointments in peace time, are also in a different category.

It has been suggested that consultations should be good enough, without the ultimate sanction of the Secretary of State's veto. In this respect I cannot do better than quote the excellent analysis of consultation used by my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor when the Bill was under discussion in another place. My noble Friend said: Consultation is one of the most useful and most dangerous words in modern legislation. It is one of the most useful words because it is the easiest piece of paper to plaster in where there is a disagreement. Where the real question is, shall one side or the other have the right to veto? then you blur it over and say, No, there shall be consultation! All that consultation means in law is that one party will put forward its suggestion and the other party will consider it. But, of course, the second party is not in the least bound to adopt the suggestion or to go further than consider it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 18th June, 1959; Vol. 216, c. 1268.] It is absolutely essential for the efficiency of what is a national service, though locally administered, that this key control should remain with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and with the Secretary of State for Scotland.

The decision to preserve this power is not at variance with the Government's declared policy to grant greater freedom to local authorities. The relaxation of central control is certainly part of Government policy, and the Bill has gone a long way in this direction, but during the negotiations on it it has always been made clear that the "key" controls vital to the efficiency of the service must be maintained. The members of the fire brigade services—both chief fire officers and the Fire Brigades Union—are against any suggestion that this control should be removed from the hands of the Secretary of State.

We believe that this is a key control, which is vital to the efficiency of the service, and that the operation of it restricts only very little the power and authority of local authorities. The manner in which it has worked has in no way been irksome to those authorities. I cannot accept the views of my hon. Friends that in regard to so valuable and disciplined a uniformed service the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State should give up this power, and I ask hon. Members not to agree to the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed. That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Reader Harris

The Clause does something besides dealing with the matters we have been discussing. It deletes from Section 18 (1, b) of 1947 Act, which gives the Home Secretary power to make regulations governing the procedure for the appointment of fire authority members other than a chief officer of a fire brigade. I am aware that the Home Secretary has never made regulations governing the procedure for the appointment of members of a brigade, but this is an important matter, which has engaged the attention of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council during the last few years, because difficulties have arisen in regard to the promotion and appointment of fire brigade officers.

The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) very rightly referred to the national aspects of this service—the need for unity and for the fire services to be regarded as a whole. One of the ways in which it was intended to achieve this was by giving the supervisory ranks in the fire brigades an opportunity of moving from one brigade to another, on promotion or otherwise, so that they would gain the widest possible experience. This would provide a chance for the best men to get on. For that reason the Advisory Council made a unanimous recommendation to the Home Secretary that fire authorities should be advised that when a vacancy occurred for an officer post that vacancy should be advertised within a certain zone if it was in respect of a station officer—that is to say, all the local authority fire brigades adjoining the area where the vacancy occurred were to be informed—and on a national basis if the vacancy was in respect of a more senior officer.

Recommendations went out from the Home Secretary to fire authorities on this point, and it has been a matter of much regret that in the last year or two there has been no instance of fire authorities complying with this recommendation. This has led the Association of Fire Officers to think of going to the Home Secretary and asking him to make a regulation under the Section which is now being deleted by Clause 6.

I would not ask my hon. Friend to go back on the Clause now, but I want to bring this difficult matter to her notice and seek an assurance that she will give attention to this matter and bring all the pressure possible to bear on local authorities to give the widest field of promotion to those officers who want to get on and better themselves. After all, they are the people who set the tone for all the fire brigades throughout the country. It is important to keep the best men and to see that the best men have the best opportunities, and this can be done only if local authorities cooperate in this matter and observe to the letter the recommendations which have so far gone out from the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council.

I hope that it will not be necessary for regulations to be made, but I am a little sorry to see this sanction disappearing from the legislation. If my hon. Friend can give us an assurance on this point it will be helpful to all concerned in the fire services.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

I am sure that my hon. Friend will not expect me to commit myself to giving additional new powers to those proposed under the Bill, but I am sure that note will be taken of the points raised by him. It is proper that any question of advice in regard to the method of appointment should be discussed and considered by the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. In the new set-up we believe that this question is one which the employers on the one hand, and the two bodies, representing the officers and men in the brigades on the other, should discuss and work out for themselves.

I am sure that consideration will be given to the points that have been raised by my hon. Friend, and I hope that he will accept my assurance that I will bring this matter and his views to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.