HC Deb 06 March 1963 vol 673 cc556-63

Amendment made: In page 16, line 35, leave out subsection (2).—[Mr. Hare]

Mr. Hare

I beg to move, in page 16, line 45, after the first "the", to insert "greatest".

I think that with this Amendment it would be convenient to discuss the following Amendments in page 16, line 45, page 17, lines 26 and 27, and page 18, line 38.

These Amendments follow from an Amendment moved during the Committee stage by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Matthews). He drew attention to the practice in some large shops of employing two shifts of part-time assistants. In such cases it is reasonable to relate the requirements regarding means of escape to the greatest number of persons employed on the premises at any one time and not to the total number employed. The Amendment provides that the number must be stated by the occupier when he applies for a certificate and by the authority in granting it, and also by the occupier in notifying a material change in the number employed. I should like to take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for his useful contribution.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 16, line 45, after "work", insert "at any one time"—[Mr. Hare.]

Mr. C. Johnson

I beg to move, in page 17, line 2, to leave out from "and "to end of line 4 and to insert must be accompanied by such plans as the Minister shall, by regulation, prescribe". I feel sure that the Minister will not be indifferent to the purpose of this Amendment, which is designed to reduce some of the administrative work of fire authorities in connection with premises affected by the provisions of the Bill. Subsection (3) of the Clause provides that if—and it is "if"—regulations made by the Minister so require, an application for a fire certificate is to be accompanied by … such plans of the premises as may be specified in the regulations". A somewhat similar provision appears in the Factories Act. It is important to note that there is no obligation on the Minister to make regulations under this Bill or the Act. I understand that, though the right hon. Gentleman has been pressed in the past by the London County Council, and by other fire authorities, he has refused to make such regulations. I think that the Minister is aware of the strength of the case which has been presented by the fire authorities. He has recently taken steps to make changes in the form of application to bring home to applicants the desirability of furnishing the fire authority with adequate plans of the premises. That marks some progress, but it does not go far enough.

I have therefore tabled this Amendment with a twofold object: first, to strengthen the Clause; and, secondly to reduce, if possible, the heavy additional burden of work which otherwise would fall on the fire authorities. Unless plans of the premises are provided, it will be necessary for the fire authorities to make special surveys of the premises for the purpose. I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that much of this additional work could be avoided if applicants for certificates under the Cause were required to submit plans of the premises. I should not have thought this an onerous obligation to put upon them.

I hope that, in these circumstances, the Minister will feel that the Amendment is a worthy one which he can accept. It seems right and proper to make it compulsory that applicants should submit plans of their premises under regulations which will—not, as provided by the Clause, "may"—be made by the Minister. Otherwise, the application of the provision will be left in some doubt in future and that, I hope the Minister will agree, would not be desirable.

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. C. Johnson) has argued his case in his usual very reasonable and fair manner. I say at once to him that there is a lot in what he has said. He has argued that it would ease the work of enforcing authorities responsible for certification of means of escape if all applications for fire certificates were accompanied by plans of the premises in question. My right hon. Friend is certainly in sympathy with the hon. Member's objective of helping the enforcing authorities, but we have to take care in doing so see that we do not place a burden on owners and occupiers.

I agree at once that plans of premises would help the enforcing authorities in some cases, but I am afraid that if we were to make it mandatory, as suggested in the Amendment, for plans to accompany applications for fire certificates, owners and occupiers would think automatically of architects' drawings, even if a sketch plan would in fact be good enough for the purpose. This would put them to expense, but I do not rest my argument on that. What is more important is that it might cause delay in submission of applications for fire certificates. It is surely better for the enforcing authority to have an application without a plan than no application at all, particularly as in any case many authorities prefer to consult plans deposited with the local authority under the building byelaws.

For these reasons my right hon. Friend would prefer not to change the position, but to keep the power to make regulations, if he thinks that necessary, to require the submission of plans. We shall be discussing the whole certification procedure with representatives of the enforcing authorities. I think there is no doubt that, as the hon. Minister himself suggested, this is one of the points which will be brought forward. It may be that the best solution arising from those discussions would be an explanatory paragraph in the application form for a fire certificate urging owners and occupiers to submit plans in appropriate circumstances. I think the hon. Member indicated that he might agree to this procedure, which probably would be wiser.

It would be better to leave the matter to careful consideration at a later stage. If it became apparent that the fire authorities were being handicapped in regard to certification because of lack of plans, my right hon. Friend would certainly consider using regulation-making powers. I hope that the hon. Member will feel satisfied with that explanation, that we are prepared to discuss all this with the enforcing authorities and will consider an explanatory paragraph in the application form and that, if all this does not work, my right hon. Friend will consider using the regulation-making powers. I hope the hon. Member will feel satisfied and able to withdraw the Amendment.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)

The Parliamentary Secretary has addressed us with his usual persuasion and charm, but does he expect my hon. Friends to accept that an explanatory memorandum would cover this important point? The whole essence of the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. C. Johnson) was that even to leave this matter to regulations would not be sufficient, and he explained why it should be clearly stated in the Bill. The Parliamentary Secretary seemed concerned about the importance of the time element in this matter. He should realise, therefore, that if applications are sent in and, subsequently, the fire prevention service must call to inspect the premises, even more time will elapse.

I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to consider the expense involved in a report being presented by the Fire Prevention Service in, say, Glasgow. I have a document with me in which it is stated that if all this work is to fall on the Service, consideration will have to be given to staff requirements. It is stated that an increase of 75 per cent. in staff might be necessary, apart from increased typing staff. He should also recall that Edin- burgh pressed for Amendments to be made to the Bill. Despite the Parliamentary Secretary's remarks, I hope that he will consider the matter again and give us a further assurance.

Mr. Whitelaw

When the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) talks on fire prevention matters one takes particular attention because of the experience he has on this subject. I certainly note what he has said, but I do not think that it would be right now to give an assurance that I will take the matter further.

It is right that these questions of certification should be discussed with the representatives of the enforcing authorities. I have indicated the way in which my right hon. Friend considers we should proceed. We will certainly bear in mind what the hon. Member has said, but I do not think I can go further than that tonight and I hope that, having assured hon. Members that there will be this discussion and having pointed to the way in which our minds are working, the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. C. Johnson) will withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. C. Johnson

I do not feel altogether happy with the Parliamentary Secretary's reply. His arguments were weak, particularly in regard to the plans of premises. I should have thought that it would have been easy to provide that the plans to be submitted need not be of a type requiring the assistance of an architect. However, in view of his assurance that the matter will be discussed with the fire authorities concerned and that his right hon. Friend will consider the procedure under the Bill, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: In line 26, after "the", insert "greatest".

In line 27, after "work" insert "at any one time".

In page 18, line 27, at end insert (12) Subsection (2) of section (Provision of means of escape in case of fire) of this Act shall have effect for the purposes of this section as it has effect for the purposes of that.—[Mr. Hare.]

Mr. C. Johnson

I beg to move, in line 27, at the end to insert, (12) Nothing in this section shall require the issue of a fire certificate in respect of any premises which have, prior to the coming into force of this Act, been erected, modified or maintained in accordance with plans approved under the provisions of Part IV of the London Building Acts (Amendment) Act 1939. I have, once again, tabled an Amendment which is designed to avoid unnecessary administrative work by the fire authority; in this case the London County Council. I consider that special treatment is warranted in the circumstances.

The Clause makes it unlawful

  1. (a) for more than twenty persons to be employed to work at any one time in any premises to which this Act applies;
  2. (b) for more than ten persons to be so employed elsewhere than on the ground floor of the promises; or
  3. (c) for any person to be employed to work in any such premises in or underneath which explosive or highly flammable materials of a kind described by regulations made by the Minister are used or are stored in a quantity not less than such as may be so prescribed;
unless the fire authority has issued a fire certificate in respect of the premises.

All that, of course, appears to be right and proper and is to be welcomed. Moreover, it follows the procedure laid down in respect of factory premises by the Factories Act, 1961. The House might therefore ask the reason for the Amendment. Perhaps I should begin by pointing out that there is one very important difference between the provisions in the Factories Act and that contained in Clause 25 of the Bill. The Factories Act makes special provision for premises in London where the London County Council has already dealt with means of escape from fire under powers contained in Part V of the London Building Acts (Amendment) Act, 1939.

Surely it would not be unreasonable to ask for the same qualification to be written into the present Measure. The purpose of the Amendment, therefore, is to exempt owners or occupiers of premises which have already been inspected by London County Council, and already provided with adequate protection against fire under the 1939 Act, from the necessity of applying for a fire certificate under the Clause.

The position in London with regard to fire risk has long been the subject of statutory provision, as the Minister will be well aware. Ever since 1905 it has been necessary under a succession of Building Acts for the Council's approval to be obtained for nearly all new buildings erected in the county, and the Council insist upon such buildings being provided with such means of escape in the case of fire as can reasonably be required in the circumstances of each case. The powers of London County Council apply not only to new buildings, because the Council has exercised its powers and made requirements in respect of old buildings to ensure that they are provided with proper and separate means of escape in case of fire. As the Minister is no doubt aware, the Council has insisted upon requirements in many hundreds of cases and continues to do so.

It seems, therefore, that the provisions in the Clause will duplicate work which has already been done and I would ask the Minister to consider very carefully the terms of the Amendment which is designed to avoid obvious duplication. Moreover—and I take up the point made by the Parliamentary Secretary a few minutes ago—this provision in the Bill will also be unfair to owners and occupiers of premises who have previously been required to comply with the Council's regulations dealing with fire precaution provisions. I hope, therefore, that on this occasion the Minister will find it possible to accept the Amendment.

Mr. Whitelaw

My inclination would be to respond to the hon. Member's very reasoned argument, but I hope that I shall be able to show him that if I were to do so it might not produce a very satisfactory result and that I believe it is better to leave the Bill as it stands. The hon. Member, of course, will appreciate that whereas the Bill has the primary object of protecting employed persons, the London Building Acts are inevitably designed to secure a number of different objects. Moreover, there are certain requirements in this Bill which would cease to apply if the Amendment were accepted, and one would therefore be withdrawing some of the protections which are provided.

Of course, I accept the hon. Member's argument that it is necessary to keep the administration of the Bill as simple as possible and to avoid multiplicity of inspection. But surely in the case of London this case can be answered briefly because the authority responsible for certification will be the authority administering the London Building Acts —that is, the London County Council. It will be possible, therefore, for the Council to make such administrative arrangements as it thinks fit to harmonise the standards under the two enactments so long as these do not conflict with any other requirements under the Bill. I should have thought this was a simple way of proceeding.

I should also like to draw attention to Clause 67 which provides that a person required to make alterations to a building under a local Act will not be penalised for not making these alterations if they would involve a contravention of this Bill. This gives employers security against the imposition of conflicting requirements under the London Building Acts and the Bill. I would hope that such conflict would not occur in practice, but the security is there. I hope that, with these assurances, the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his Amendment.

Mr. C. Johnson

I should have thought there was a common factor between the provisions of this Bill and the provisions of the London Building Acts in so far as, in effect, the provisions in both cases benefit people working on the premises affected. However, I take the Parliamentary Secretary's point that the matter can be covered administratively by the fire authority, and in those circumstances I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.