HC Deb 19 November 1968 vol 773 cc1116-24

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he will make a statement on the fire in Glasgow on Monday, 18th November, which resulted in the loss of lives.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)

All Members of the House will have been shocked to learn of the tragic loss of life which occurred as a result of a major fire in the centre of Glasgow yesterday. As soon as the dimensions of the catastrophe became known to me, I arranged that the Joint Under-Secretary of State should immediately fly to Glasgow. The statement I now make is based on his report to me.

Glasgow Fire Brigade responded to an emergency call at 10.31 yesterday morning to warehouse premises in James Watt Street, Glasgow. The premises consisted of a basement and three storeys. The basement and top storey were used for the storage of glass articles and the remainder of the building was used as a furniture and upholstery manufacturer's premises.

Shortly after 3 p.m. the fire had been brought under control and at that time 20 bodies had been found. I regret to have to inform the House that today a further two bodies have been discovered, bringing the total death roll to 22—five women and 17 men.

This is a tragic loss of life and I am sure that the deep sympathy of the House and, indeed, of the whole country will go out to the relatives of those who died.

So far as is known, all the victims were employees of the two firms occupying the premises. Of the total number of people in the building at the time of the fire, only four persons escaped, none of these seriously injured. No casualties have been reported among members of the fire service or the other services in attendance.

I take this opportunity of paying tribute to the members of the Glasgow Fire Brigade whose actions were in the best traditions of the service. They prevented the spread of the fire beyond the building in which it started and no one regrets it more bitterly than they that they were unable to prevent the loss of life.

I wish, too, to pay tribute to the part played by the police and the Glasgow welfare service, by the ambulance service and by the various voluntary services who gave their help, particularly the Salvation Army and the Seamen's Bethel, who did much to comfort bereaved relatives.

The Lord Provost, who himself attended the scene of the fire until late yesterday afternoon, has arranged to have all the next-of-kin visited today in order that they may be offered help and advice including where necessary, financial help.

There must now be a full public inquiry into this fire. This will be held under the Fatal Accidents Inquiry (Scotland) Act, 1895, before a sheriff and a jury.

Hon. Members will appreciate that in these circumstances it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on the facts or on any theories about the causes of this fire and the reasons why its results were so costly in human life.

Mr. Brown

I thank my right hon. Friend for his full statement. May I associate myself and all my hon. Friends from Glasgow with the expression of sympathy to the relatives of those who lost their lives?

May I also compliment the various services referred to, particularly the public volunteers, for their brave but unsuccessful rescue efforts?

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the deep anxiety and, indeed, anger at this shocking tragedy, causing allegations of criminal negligence to be raised?

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the powers under existing legislation for inspection and fire prevention on high risk properties?

Finally, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the fatal accidents inquiry will be detailed and exhaustive enough to satisfy the public demand for urgent action?

Mr. Ross

My hon. Friend has asked a number of questions about fire regulations. I have no reason to suppose that the statutory requirements had not been complied with, but these matters will come out in the inquiry. If there are lessons to be learned, we will be quick to take advantage of them. An independent Departmental Committee on the Fire Service, under Sir Ronald Holroyd, is now sitting and is due to report next year.

I understand and appreciate the feelings of everyone concerned. The public expects that there should be a full inquiry, the circumstances demand that there should be a full inquiry, and I am glad to say that the law provides that there can and must be a full inquiry.

If I read part of the Statute, I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate how exhaustive it is. It says that the jury, after hearing the evidence and the summing up of the sheriff, …shall return a verdict setting forth, so far as such particulars have been proved, when and where the accident and the death or deaths to which the inquiry relates took place, the cause or causes of such accident or death or deaths, the person or persons, if any, to whose fault or negligence the accident is attributable, the precautions, if any, by which it might have been avoided, any defects in the system or mode of working which contributed to the accident, and any other facts disclosed by the evidence which, in the opinion of the jury, are relevant to the inquiry. There is scope, therefore, within the terms of the Statute, for a full, exhaustive inquiry.

Mr. Noble

May I say to the Secretary of State how much every right hon. and hon. Gentleman on this side of the House, from wherever he comes, shares in the horror of the tragedy that took place yesterday and would wish to express sincere and deep sympathy to the relatives concerned?

I am delighted, as I am sure all of us are, that the Secretary of State has put in motion the necessary movement for the full inquiry. May I say that whoever may be found to have been responsible for this fire has probably already got quite enough on his conscience, if he survived it. But will the Secretary of State do his best, perhaps through the Committee that is at present sitting, to see that this type of disaster—and we have had some terrible fires in whisky warehouses—does not occur again before the inquiry reports? There seem to be some particularly sad and tragic parts of this disaster and I hope that something can immediately de done to see that such disasters do not occur again.

Mr. Ross

As the right hon. Gentleman suggests, there are some rather disturbing and very anguish-making facets of this tragedy. I think that we can problably provide for everything except human error. I am sure that if there are lessons to be learned by other people they will be learned. Certainly, concerning statutory requirements arising out of this inquiry, we will not be slow to enact anything that is necessary.

Mr. Rankin

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that in Glasgow today there are not buildings of this type in which people are still working and liable to the dangers which we are now deploring? What is my right hon. Friend doing to preserve their lives if such disasters should occur in these types of buildings?

Mr. Ross

I think that we want to try to prevent disasters occurring by means of the fire prevention precautions that can be taken and the provision of particular services. Glasgow, like every other large and old city, has its share, and it may be that it has more than its share, of old buildings, particularly in the older part, at Broomielaw, near the centre of the city. This is the special concern of the fire authority.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Glasgow folk will be grateful for his prompt setting up of the inquiry? In view of this great tragedy, will the right hon. Gentleman consider promoting a campaign to encourage all firms in Scotland to review the efficiency of their fire emergency operations? Will he also consider legislation giving local authorities and fire services the power to require the removal of steel bars from the windows of buildings in which people are employed? At present, they have the power only to recommend such action?

Mr. Ross

I think that the point about steel bars is an appropriate one for the inquiry. I am sure that the immediate lessons of this tragedy will not be lost on those who are concerned. Certainly, this event should make everyone aware of the need to re-examine all aspects of fire prevention as they affect the fire authorities, individuals, and firms.

Sir M. Galpern

May I join in the general expression of sympathy to the relatives of those who died in this tragic fire? As quite a number of the unfortunate victims resided in my constituency, can my right hon. Friend say what form of compensation or financial aid will be available to the relatives of the deceased?

Mr. Ross

It is not for me now to pronounce on any compensation that arises out of the Statute, but I assure my hon. Friend—and no one should know this better than he does, as he was once the Lord Provost of Glasgow—that the Lord Provost has a standing fund, and I know for a fact that this is immediately and readily available—

Sir M. Galpern

It is not of very large dimensions.

Mr. Ross

—for special purposes. The fund is always there, and I am sure that the Lord Provost will be willing to receive contributions to it.

Mr. Wright

While we are waiting with great anxiety for this report, will the right hon. Gentleman take immediate action to ensure that the access to staircases in these buildings—in this case the staircase remained intact—is available at both ends for people in the building?

Mr. Ross

That is a matter for the inquiry. I hope that what is left of this building will soon come down.

Mr. Hannan

While awaiting the report, will my right hon. Friend undertake to exercise all the powers that he has to look at the establishments of the fire prevention services? Secondly, will he ensure that the greatest possible number of factory inspectors is brought to Glasgow to get on with the inspection of these old buildings? Thirdly, does this not lend urgency to the preparation of the Holroyd Committee's report about fire prevention, about which Questions have been asked in the House for some time?

Mr. Ross

I mentioned the existence of the Holroyd Committee, and said that it would report next year. The establishments of the fire services generally are relevant to the whole question of fire prevention, but I do not think that we should jump to conclusions about what was the cause of death here. We should leave that to the inquiry.

Mr. Gordon Campbell

As the Press reports of this tragic fire indicate that people were trapped because they could not escape through windows, will the right hon. Gentleman, even before the inquiry reports, look into the hazards and special precautions which are necessary in warehouses and stores, or in buildings which have previously been used as warehouses or stores?

Mr. Ross

I am sure that the fire prevention officers in Glasgow will look at that particularly as a result of the fire.

Mr. Bence

Will my right hon. Friend take steps, and, if he can, powers, to ensure that when a building is transferred from one ownership to another, resulting in a change of function within that building, the building is surveyed to ensure that it is suitable, in electrical work and in general construction, for the new purpose for which it is to be used?

Mr. Ross

That is a very fair and relevant point. As my hon. Friend knows, that is the responsibility of the Factory Inspectorate under my right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State. I am sure that the matter will be drawn to her notice.

Mr. Stodart

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied with the strength in numbers of those who are engaged in giving advice on fire prevention? Can the right hon. Gentleman say how many such officers are at work in Glasgow now?

Mr. Ross

I could not give that information without notice, but I think we must appreciate that it was 10.31 when the first emergency call came to the fire brigade. There was a second call at 10.32, which indicated that there was an explosion and people were trapped. At 10.35, the fire brigade was on the scene and sending back for further appliances, which were forthcoming.

Miss Herbison

I agree with my right hon. Friend that we ought not to jump to conclusions about the cause of this tragic disaster, but will my right hon. Friend consider asking his right hon. Friend to draft into this area in the next few days every available member of the Factory Inspectorate to ensure that all buildings in which people are at work are examined, and perhaps ensure that there will not be another disaster before we have the Committee's report?

Mr. Ross

I think that my right hon. Friend should appreciate that it was in this very area in 1960 that we had a shocking fire which cost the lives of 19 firemen and salvage workers. That fire occurred only 400 yards from this one. I am sure that after that time special attention was paid to this type of property. I sincerely hope that attention will be paid to the results of the inquiry arising out of this accident.

Mr. Horner

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether, following on his last answer, he is aware that the Glasgow Fire Brigade has no statutory right of entry and of inspection of the means of escape in premises such as these? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that the men who fought this fire yesterday, and sought to rescue the trapped men and women, take the view that the possibility of finding escape doors chained and padlocked would be much reduced if members of the fire brigade could be given powers of spot inspections constantly to follow up the prearranged visits of factory inspectors?

Mr. Ross

I am sure that that is one of the reasons why we have set up the independent Departmental Committee under Sir Roland Holroyd. It is the first real look that we have had at the fire services. I assure my hon. Friend that the need for further strengthening the powers of the fire authority will be closely looked into.

Mr. Noble

I think that the right hon. Gentleman missed the point of the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart). My hon. Friend was asking specifically, not about the fire service, but about the fire advisory officers, who come under the jurisdiction of the First Secretary of State. Will the right hon. Gentleman report to his right hon. Friend that there is a real desire in the House that this side of fire prevention should be actively pursued?

Mr. Ross

I shall do that. We learned some lessons from the last fire to which I referred a short time ago, and these were incorporated in the changes which we made under the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963. We must always be prepared and anxious to improve the statutory provisions for dealing with these matters.