§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.5 a.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Richard Sharples)
I beg to move, That the Bill he now read a Second time.
The Bill is designed to strengthen and to rationalise the law relating to fire precautions where hazards to life are concerned, over a wide sphere. Although it is quite true that there is an element of consolidation in the Bill, the House will have noticed that it is more than simply a consolidating measure. Its purpose is to enable us to deal promptly and effectively with new fire hazards as they arise in the wide sphere of social activity covered by the Bill.
It is a fact that all too often in the past before action has been taken it has needed some major catastrophe to focus attention on some weakness or other in our provisions for the safety of life in the event of fire. It is fair to say that the law relating to means of escape and other fire precautions has evolved over the years to meet different needs at different times.
There is now a widely recognised need for the law relating to places of public amusement and resort, as well as to certain kinds of residential premises, not only to be consolidated into a single, effective instrument, but for necessary improvements in its scope and operation to be introduced as well.
The fire at Eastwood Mills, Keighley, in February 1956, for example, when eight people died, had an important effect on the drafting of the fire safety provisions 1590 of the Factories Act 1959, now incorporated in the Factories Act, 1961. The House will also recall the fire at Henderson's Department Store, Liverpool, in June 1960, when eleven people died. This gave impetus to the fire safety provisions of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963.
The tragic fire at the Top Storey Club, Bolton, in May 1961, when nineteen people lost their lives—a number of them by having to jump from top storey windows—led to the incorporation in the Licensing Acts of safeguards relating to fire.
I will give the House some of the figures relating to lives which have been lost in fires in 1968, the last year for which we have full statistics. In 1968 215,000 fires, excluding simple fires, such as chimneys on fire, had to be dealt with by fire brigades. In those fires 3,514 people were rescued or escaped by emergency means. Of those, 974 were rescued by the fire brigade. That is one side of the picture. On the other side, 865 people died in fires in 1968, and 4,600 received injuries more serious than could he dealt with by first-aid treatment.
It was general concern about the adequacy of fire prevention measures which led the Government in 1962, when the present Lord Brooke was Home Secretary, to set up a committee to investigate the problem. This committee, which was a committee of officials, concluded that so far as employees were concerned the fire protection provisions of the Factories Act, 1961 and the Offices, Shops and Railways Premises Act, 1963 were broadly satisfactory, and it proposed no change in those arrangements.
The committee also concluded that it would be neither appropriate nor practicable for the Government to compel owners, by legislation, to protect their property against damage by fire. This is a responsibility which should rightly fall on the owners of property themselves, and should be left to voluntary arrangements between them and the insurance companies.
What the committee did find, however, was that the law relating to fire precautions in certain kinds of residential accommodation and in places of public entertainment and resort was inadequate. It found that it was inadequate, both as 1591 to the categories of premises to which it applied and as to the extent of the precautions that could be required under it. I shall at a later stage be saying a little more about the deficiencies.
The committee recommended new legislation to remedy what it found, and at that time it prepared an outline of a suitable Bill. This outline Bill was considered by the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council for England and Wales, and also for Scotland. It was also discussed with the local authority associations, the fire service organisations, and many other bodies with an interest in, or likely to be affected by, the proposals. Following those discussions, in 1964 the preparation of a Bill was put in hand.
I do not think that anything that has happened since those consultations took place in 1964 has cast doubt upon the need for the Bill. We have only to look across the Channel. The tragedy at St. Laurent du Pont, near Grenoble in France, in which over 140 people died in appalling circumstances in a fire which swept through a dance hall, is reminder enough to us of the need for effective precautions and means of escape in places of public amusement. Here in Britain we have recently had a series of fires in hotels, all resulting in loss of life. I do not need to remind the House of the tragic consequences of the hotel fire at Saffron Walden.
The law today which relates to tire precautions in places of amusement and resort, and certain kinds of residential premises, is inadequate in three main ways. First, some of the existing provisions, especially those contained in Sections 59 and 60 of the Public Health Act, 1936, are too narrow, both as to the classes of premises to which they apply and as to the precautions which they impose. These provisions do not extend, for example, to some of the more modern developments in entertainment. One example that I can give to the House is that of bowling clubs. The provisions deal in the case of residential accommodation with some hotels and some boarding houses, but not with others.
As for the fire precautions which can be imposed, these, too, are limited. To give the House one example again, they do not deal with the requirements for giving warning to people who might be 1592 on the premises and whose lives might be at risk as a result of a fire occurring on those premises.
Second, as I have already explained, the law has developed piecemeal to meet different needs from time to time, and therefore the law as such relating to fire precautions where danger to life is involved has not been conceived as a whole. It is applied by different authorities for different purposes—fire authorities, local authorities and licensing authorities. Nor is it in a form which enables it to be applied to new hazards arising from technical developments or changes in social habits.
The third deficiency in the law as it stands is the accumulation of separate laws, both general and local, and the different ways in which they are enforced. There is no doubt that this leads to confusion. Under the existing provisions the owners and occupiers of property do not know, and cannot be expected to know, what is expected of them.
The object of the Bill is to remedy those defects in so far as it is possible to do so by substituting a single comprehensive, yet flexible, system of fire prevention control for the present miscellaneous and varying provisions. It will also enable new fire hazards to be dealt with promptly, without the need for further legislation. The Bill will apply to England and Wales, and also to Scotland.
I think that it would be helpful if I were to say a few words about the content of the Bill. Clauses 1–9 lie at the heart of the Bill, because they deal with the main system of control that is imposed under it. This control, in essence, is that none of the premises concerned will be allowed to be used for a given purpose unless the fire authority has issued a fire certificate to the effect that the means of escape and other fire precautions are satisfactory. This form of control is similar to that provided by the Factories Act, 1961, and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963. The House will, I think, be prepared to agree that this system has been found to work well in practice, and there is an advantage in a uniform system which applies to the premises where people go as members of the public, either residential or recreational, as well as to premises in which they work.
1593 The kind of premises to be covered by the Bill fall roughly into four groups. The first group consists of places of amusement, recreation and public resort, and as examples of that I give theatres, cinemas, dance halls and bingo halls. The second category—I am giving these only as examples; they are by no means comprehensive—consists of residential establishments such as hotels, boarding houses, hostels, hospitals, institutions for the residential care of the elderly, children and handicapped people. The third group to which the Bill applies consists of educational establishments, and these are chiefly schools. The fourth group, for which there is special provision in the Bill, consists of certain private dwelling houses where people may be specially at risk in the event of fire, and we are thinking here principally of the very high blocks of flats.
I want to make it clear, to remove any doubt, that the Bill does not apply to an ordinary private dwelling house—that is, a house normally occupied by a single family. It would not be practical to apply it to such houses. I do not think that people living in ordinary houses will want to have them inspected or to have a procedure of that kind conducted in their homes.
The Bill does not apply to factories, offices, shops and railway premises. Such premises are already covered by the 1961 and 1963 Acts.
The method of bringing the Bill into effect, with certain exceptions, will be chiefly by means of orders designating a particular use. On such an order being made, all premises put to that use, regardless of their description, will be brought within the scope of control of the Bill.
There are also contained in the Bill special arrangements for premises other than buildings where there is a particular fire risk, such as a circus tent—a big top—and a moored craft used as a club for recreation. Those are covered by the Bill. There is no intention of applying the Bill all at once to all premises which fall potentially within its scope. The designating order procedure will enable the Bill to be brought into effect by stages. We shall have to have regard both to premises offering the highest risk and to the resources of the fire authorities to deal with the very consider- 1594 able amount of extra work which will be involved in implementing the Bill. Designating orders will not usually be made until a code of practice has been worked out in consultation with those who will be principally involved, including representatives of the undertakings concerned.
I draw the attention of the House to Clause 21, which must be read in conjunction with Clause 41(2). It lists the various kinds of premises for which a fire certificate will not be required under the Bill. These include the places already covered by existing legislation and places where the risk of fire is very small—for example, churches. It is seldom that there are fires in churches, and it is very seldom that there is any risk to life from a fire in a church.
§ Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)
I hope later to refer to this point and to ask the hon. Gentleman questions on it. It seems to me that what he said about churches is open to discussion.
§ Mr. Sharples
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me warning that he proposes to refer to that matter.
Houses in multiple occupation are also excluded from the Bill because means of escape in such dwellings are already provided for in the Housing Acts.
Clause 3 deals with dwellings of the kind to which I have already referred, namely, high blocks of flats, and particularly the upper floors of such buildings. These will not be subject to the designation procedure, but a special procedure for dealing with them is laid down in the Bill. Fire safety in such premises is closely bound up with housing policy generally. Clause 3 provides that the question whether a fire certificate is required in a particular case is to be left to the discretion of the fire authority in consultation with the housing authority and when a notice is given under Clause 3 it will be a specific notice and will deal only with the premises which are the subject of the notice.
When premises are brought within the Bill by either of the methods I have mentioned—general designation or the special procedure in Clause 3—applications for fire certificates will have to be made to the fire authority in the form prescribed in Clause 5, and a fire certificate will not 1595 be issued until the fire authority is satisfied that the standard of fire precaution provided is adequate.
Clause 7 lays down penalties for using premises without a fire certificate. In Clause 9 there is a right of appeal to the court against a fire authority's refusal to issue a certificate or against any of the requirements imposed.
Clause 10 is important. This is a reserve power to enable a fire authority to bring before the court specially dangerous cases in an emergency. For instance, suppose that a dance hall is not designated as a class of building under Clause 1. When a fire authority considers that a dance hall presents a hazard to life because of the inadequacy of the precautions taken in it, or the number of people using it, or overcrowding—and I have in mind, for example, the fire which happened in France—it would be possible for an application to be made to the court under Clause 10 for a special order to be made.
Clause 11 empowers the Secretary of State to make building regulations on means of escape from new buildings or extensions to buildings in case of fire. In practice, this power will be exercised by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. It is an extension of his power to make building regulations under the Public Health Acts of 1936 and 1961.
Clauses 13 to 17 deal with consultations between local authorities and fire authorities. It is essential that these authorities should work together and that anyone affected by the Bill, developer or occupier, should not be faced with conflicting requirements about means of escape.
The main responsibility for enforcing the provisions of the Bill is placed on fire authorities by Clause 18. It is our hope that the fire authorities will use the tire brigades for this purpose. It is, I think, generally recognised that people who have the responsibility placed upon them of fighting fires and saving life are undoubtedly the best judges of what is needed to ensure the safety of occupants of a building in the event of fire.
Clause 41 provides that the Crown is bound by the Bill in so far as it may be relevant to Crown premises. When cer- 1596 tification of a Crown building is necessary it will be undertaken by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Fire Services.
Clause 42 relates to premises which are occupied by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority.
I have tried to cover the main points of the Bill which is of necessity fairly long and complex. It marks an important step in the development of fire prevention legislation and its provisions will save lives which need not unnecessarily be lost. I strongly recommend the Bill to the House.
§ 11.30 a.m.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)
I agree with the concluding remarks of the Minister of State about the importance of the Bill. Indeed, this sort of Bill is one of the most important that could come before the House. It could also be introduced by a Government of either party.
By origin, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Bill dates back, I believe, to the Government before last. It was certainly a Bill in which I was extremely interested when I was in office, not only for itself, but because, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South-East (Mr. Callaghan), and like, I am sure, the Minister of State and his right lion. Friend, we had a deep interest in the fire department and the fire service. The Bill, however, is only part of what has to be done in a direction in which there is not nearly enough interest except when a tragic event occurs. I sometimes feel that if we used the title Gurkha Fire Brigade there would be more interest in the House and more letters to The Times about the matter.
The delay in introducing the Bill was due mainly to the reason that the previous Administration took a decision in November, 1966, to appoint a Departmental Committee of Inquiry into the fire service. As the House will recall, that committee was under the chairmanship of Sir Ronald Holroyd, F.R.S., and it was commissioned in February. 1967. Its Report was published during the Press strike and during the General Election period and, therefore, it came out rather quietly. I reflect that when on considers some of the things that were considered during the General Election, we might 1597 all have been better employed in discussing some of the information and conclusions of the Holroyd Report. Waiting for Holroyd was, therefore, necessary and understandable, but it slowed up decisions. I for one was certainly looking forward to implementation.
I should like to ask one main question at the outset, because the detailed questioning can be properly left to the Committee stage of such a Bill. Has the Bill taken the Holroyd Report into account? Have alterations been made in the Bill? If that is not a proper question to ask because of constitutionality, perhaps I may frame it differently. Was the decision to publish the Bill taken eventually in the light of the Holroyd Report? I hope that all the detailed work that went into that Report was not lost when the final draft of the Bill was drawn up.
My overall view is that more than legislation is required in fire prevention and fire precautions. Despite the Local Acts, the Building Regulations, and Public Health Act, 1936, the Factories Act, 1961, the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963, the Housing Acts, 1961 and 1969, the Acts dealing with petrol and explosives and the Fire Services Act, 1947, which allows fire precaution advice to be given, there are still fires. Legislation is important but it is not enough. I shall return to this later.
When we come to the Committee stage of this long and complex Bill, we on this side of the House will help the Minister in every way possible. This is more than simply the usual parliamentary help with time. We will keep an open mind. It is our feeling on this side that all interested parties—of whom there are many, as I have discovered this week if I did not know before—will put their minds to it also and that, in Committee, we can all do our best to look at some of the details of the Bill. It might well be that even with the long period during which experts have been considering these matters, there may be room for minor adjustment. From our side of the House, the spirit will be to make the Bill better if that is necessary.
With regard to Clauses 1 and 2, again as a matter of generality, has the Minister made any estimate of how much extra work will be entailed? Is there adequate 1598 staff? I understand why the hon. Gentleman said that the Bill would be implemented in stages, but, given the money that will be required to make the Bill effective, there is a danger that because the money is not available, the whole of the implementation will be strung out. We ought to know the maximum number of extra staff that will be required centrally and in the various fire brigades and the amount of equipment that is required to make the Bill meaningful.
My second question concerns factories. I can frame it in the context of my own City of Leeds but it is relevant to any industrial city which has many factories. Will there be two sets of rules and, perhaps, two sets of people responsible? I realise the difficulties when there are two pieces of legislation, but is there not a need, at the least, to have a common code of practice? We shall want to probe the matter of who is to be responsible for a fire certificate in a factory.
This was brought to my mind when I was on the Government side of the House. On an official occasion, I saw a film which had been made concerning fires in factories. What worried me was the grave disregard shown in the film at many places of work where the directors were, no doubt, concerned with cost-benefit analyses, cash flow, and so on, but nobody seemed to be concerned whether fire precautions were being carried out in the factory concerned, where one side of the fire exit was blocked by boxes which somebody had put there.
I know that the hon. Member for Leominster (Sir Clive Bossom), who has an interest in fire precaution in a wider sense, knows that through bodies in which he is interested, a lot of lip-service is paid to fire precautions but when it comes to the crunch of a fire, doors are found to be locked and boxes are stored behind them.
We shall need to consider this in the wider sense. I hope that it is relevant to the Bill in the way it is drawn up and the question of who issues a fire certificate. If it is not issued by the fire brigade, how will a brigade know its way around when it has to go to the factory to deal with a fire, apart from whether it has enough staff to have visited the place during the preceding months? Paragraph 383 of the Holroyd Report is extremely relevant. I will not go into it 1599 now, but it is part of the Bill. In Committee, we ought to look at it closely.
Still on Clause 1, I turn to schools. I am not crystal clear, and I think that others are in the same position, about who is responsible for safety in a school in the sense in which it is raised in the Bill. Will it be the local fire service who will make the necessary inspections? Will it be the fire service who will issue the fire certificate?
I ask this question because in an area I know the local fire brigade inspected a school and made a number of suggestions, including the need for certain fire precautions on or near the stage which the school used for drama and so on. To make the necessary fire-precaution arrangements, money was required. I understand that eventually the money was provided. I mention this to demonstrate how problems can arise with some authorities—in this case it happened to be the education authority—when there is a division of responsibility and there are many demands on the money that is available.
I commend Clause 15 and the fact that the fire authority is brought into the picture. However, what does "consult" mean? It is possible to consult and carry out the spirit of the Bill but go no further. Consultation alone cannot be the end of the matter. I appreciate that the word "consult" was used in Holroyd, but when I was in office I found that many complex problems arose in this sphere, such as the fire authority not being the local authority for consultation purposes.
An even worse situation can arise when the local fire service does not have sufficient staff to become involved in depth in these matters, let alone in consultations. Indeed, this is a weakness of the building regulations. When I was at the Home Office we were in consultation with the then Ministry of Housing and Local Government about redrafting the building regulations so as to word them to ensure that "consultation" was more meaningful.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen (Mr. Gregor Mackenzie) will, when he winds up for the Opposition, deal with Scotland. My only comment is to question why Scotland is dealt with 1600 as it is in the Bill—and this brings us back to the question of the additional cost that will be involved. The sum proposed seems far too small. We believe that a greater number of professional administrative staff will be needed, as well as more money.
Clauses 7 and 19 deal with offences, enforcement and fines. These provisions will have to be examined closely in Committee, when perhaps backbenchers opposite will do the same as they did yesterday morning in connection with money. The sums provided seem too small and the maximum fines should be higher because if those responsible for fire prevention do not carry out their duties, in some cases the monetary penalty may be the only way to make them act properly.
We shall have to look carefully in Committee at the position of the Atomic Energy Authority, though I appreciate that there may be good administrative reasons for handling the matter in the manner proposed.
Despite my long connection with the Armed Forces, I give warning that we shall want to examine the necessity to exclude certain premises used exclusively by the Forces. I appreciate that, for security reasons, some premises should be excluded from the Bill. However, is there any reason why premises such as what used to be called Army apprentices' colleges should not be included? The present blanket exclusion will need our consideration.
We note that mental hospitals are also excluded. This seems to be an area of the hospital service which should receive our close attention. I have received a number of representations in the last few days on the hospital side, not just in connection with mental hospitals, and I give warning that we shall want to examine these provisions.
We have some difficulty in understanding why, in Clause 2any premises constituting, or forming part of, a place of public religious worship which belongs to the Church of England or to the Church in Walesare excluded. Why are the dissenting Churches in and the established Church out?
§ Mr. Rees
Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Education will look closely at the Scottish Clauses. From a reading of Clause 1, it seems that Scotland is even more mysterious from the religious premises point of view. Perhaps religion is a more mysterious business in Scotland.
We shall want to look carefully at the Clauses dealing with hotels, restaurants, theatres and cinemas, but I think that the matters raised in those Clauses are mainly procedural. I understood the Minister to say that circus big tops are included.
§ Mr. Rees
In that event I will not comment on that issue, though we shall wish to examine the provisions dealing with football grounds, speedway tracks and other places where there are terraces. Near to where I live is the Leeds United ground. The directors have been giving a lot of attention to fire precautions in collaboration with the local fire chief.
The Minister referred to dance halls and spoke of a special order that could be made. Although one might think that where inspection is sufficient the sort of special order provision which the Minister mentioned might be relevant. Not just because of the recent fire in France but because of the need for fire precautions at places like dance halls, we shall want to examine this matter in greater detail.
§ Mr. Sharples
I hope that I did not mislead the House on this matter. I mentioned dance halls merely by way of example. If there is any building—a dance hall or anything else—for which a designation order covering a whole class of buildings has not been made, it is possible, under Clause 10, to make a special order if there is a particular hazard in a building.
§ Mr. Rees
I am grateful for that explanation. We shall need to consider whether there will be sufficient staff on the fire prevention side. Obviously the 1602 number of staff and the ability to inspect will be important to the success of the Bill, and we can discuss this matter in detail in Committee.
I will not comment further at this stage on the detail of the Bill. I repeat that legislation is important, but not enough by itself. We have legislation now but we still have fires, and the cost of fires is rising annually. Hon. Members have access to the figures and some statistics have been provided to me by the Fire Protection Association. They show that fires cost £120 million in the last year as against £82 million in 1966. Legislation is only part of the story. The Bill must be seen in the context of the Holroyd Report, in which, to use the words of the Fire Brigade Union,Holroyd sets out a programme for the fire service which fits it for the last quarter of the twentieth century.By itself, the Bill would be a waste of time. In the 1960s, there has been a move away, in the fire service, from a firefighting-only service. This has been the theme of people interested in fire precautions and prevention for the last 20 years. I am sorry, not just for political reasons, that my ex-hon. Friend, Mr. John Horner, who was in this House and who concerned himself with this, not only here but outside over a long period, is no longer here to play his part in this discussion. I know that the subject of both the Bill and Holroyd has been dear to his heart.
We must build on developments so far in the fire service. An excellent feature that I found when I went to the Home Office was that technical college at Moreton-in-the-Marsh, which is absolutely first rate. In this respect, I found, we lead the world. Particularly at a moment when, for other reasons, we are in one of our moods of running ourselves down, which is a national characteristic, in the fire service, people the world over look to what we were doing in this country, and the technical college was something that they came to see and admire—with the new changes in training of firemen, particularly the programmed learning ideas based on modern management training and the like.
But local authorities must learn to use the fire service. In too many cases it is the poor relation. But we shall not prevent fires without more trained staff. If 1603 the hon. Gentleman will look again—I know that he has looked already—at paragraph 391 of Holroyd, he will see that there will be a need in the fire service for more trained staff. In regard to officers, we have come almost to the end of those who came into the service through the N.F.S., as many excellent chief fire officers did.
I have no wish to get involved in the question of pay and so on in the sense that it is being discussed widely now, but this I do know—that in terms of this Bill, in terms of getting people who will implement the Bill in the fire service, until there is a different pay structure, we shall not attract into the service people of sufficient ability in the long run to operate this wider fire service which is coming about as a result of the Bill and Holroyd. If amalgamations in the fire service, which are a step to improvement in organisation, have to wait for local government reform, I can only ask heaven to help us.
It is important to get the command structure right. I am one of those—it is far too late now: it is water under the bridge—who have always felt that it was a retrograde step after the war to end the National Fire Service. I can see that it had to be fitted into the local government structure, which has happened and in this sense that may be right, but we must get the command structure right.
The Bill cannot deal with technical developments, except in one respect, in terms of finance. But technical developments are very relevant to precaution and to prevention. The research side in the fire service is not well organised, and Holroyd deals with that. Fire detection needs using the firms who have developed fire detection methods, it needs money, and it also needs looking at tax allowances and things like that. In terms of prevention, if men are thin on the ground, more could be done with fire detection methods.
It also needs a great deal more publicity. I am sure that it has happened to the Under-Secretary already, but I saw far too many photographs when I was at the Home Office of after-the-event fires, of what happened to bodies which lay there after a fire. Frankly, when I 1604 was going around the country, the first thing that I did in any hotel I visited was to see where the fire exit was.
When one considers what happens—and what happens in homes as well—the need for publicity to go alongside this is valuable. Despite all we do, there are still fires. Despite factory legislation, there are still fires. In our technical, centrally heated world, there will be far more fires. But the cry is at the same time for less public expenditure, at a time when, in this field, the only solution is for more public expenditure.
Finally—I choose my words carefully here, summing up two years' thought on this matter—I went to the Home Office from being the Minister responsible for the R.A.F., a technical service, flying daily, whose parameters of action were clear, and which was extraordinarily efficient.
At the Home Office, one of my responsibilities, under my right hon. Friend, was the fire service. I admired it greatly, both the civil servants and the professions. This is a time to say something about the Chief Fire Inspector, who has served the fire service for a very long time. I and everyone have a great admiration for him, which needs to be put on the record, and the fire service owes him much. But we do not provide the command structure, either at the Home Office or in the wider fire service, we do not provide the status for firemen or fire officers and we do not provide sufficient money for them to do their work properly.
Nor, frankly, do we provide the right sort of Ministerial responsibility for the fire service in a Department in which there are so many other calls on the time of Ministers. Until we do—I hope that implementation will not be in dribs and drabs—all the legislation in the world will work only partially. This must be seen in the context of Holroyd, or it too will not succeed.
We commend the Bill, but we ask the hon. Gentleman and the Home Secretary to let us implement it at the same time as implementing Holroyd. Then we really shall have moved in a different direction in a service which needs the commendation and admiration of everyone in the country.
§ 11.57 a.m.
§ Mr. John Tilney (Liverpool, Wavertree)
I have listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and agreed with him when he said that the Bill was only part of what has to be done. I hope that it is a first step, but there are a number of others which I hope will in due course be followed by the Government.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary referred to the appalling fire which took place in Liverpool, at Hendersons, in 1960, when at least one of my constituents perished. He also referred to other fires in Lancashire, like that at Bolton. One is appalled at the large number of unnecessary deaths which occur every year.
My hon. Friend pointed out that certain high-rise flats were included in the Bill. Unfortunately, there are other flats—particularly in private houses—which, for one reason or another, are excluded. I do not quite understand why, in the long term, those private houses which are owned by corporations—in Liverpool, a large fraction of our total residential houses is owned by the Corporation, and this applies also to many other cities—should not come under some form of compulsory fire escape regulations.
In so many cases, the best is the enemy of the good. I remember seeing in old houses on Merseyside, which are now in multiple occupation or turned into flats, that the whole top floor is now unused because of the expense of an outside fire escape. I should have thought that one of the spring-loaded rope fire escapes would be reasonably acceptable. However, time and again this has been turned down. Admittedly, it must be tested from time to time. I have one in my house and I generally forget for years at a time to test it.
There are others even cheaper than that. A factory in Lancashire manufactures steel ladders which can be bolted to the wall of a bedroom or other upper storey room. The lid can be merely thrown out of the window and the attached ladder then drops to the ground.
Had such a ladder been installed at Saffron Walden, the people in that hotel need never have died. Had such a ladder been installed in the house at Park Lane, Liverpool, where a whole family perished only a few weeks ago, that 1606 catastrophe need never have happened either.
I hope that the next stage of the fire precautions that we are discussing will apply to a much larger area. It is absurd that the factory which manufactures these fire escape ladders should be selling them on the Continent in a major way, yet no British corporation as far as I know has been prepared to say, "This will do in England". It is not absolutely the best escape, because old people, the decrepit and babies cannot go down it, but most people from three to 80 could do so.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State said that the protection of buildings was purely a matter for the owners with the insurance companies. In this economy people say, "We can insure", quite forgetting who are the insurers. Lloyd's or the big insurance companies are part of our economy.
I am alarmed that there is no real incentive for people to install proper fire precautions in modern buildings. Last year fire damage amounted to no less than £120 million, an increase of 20 per cent. on 1968. The British Insurance Association has said:There was a record number of 7 catastrophic fires in 1969, each costing £1 million or over compared with 4 in 1968. Of these 7 fires, 6 were on premises which were not protected by sprinklers.How foolish we are not to provide some financial incentive to ensure that there are sprinklers, either chemical or a curtain of water, in comparatively modern buildings.
The association has also stated:Since 1964 annual fire damage has risen by 57 per cent. (from £76.7 million to £12.4 million). … The record suggests that no decrease in fire damage can be expected in 1970. The best that can be hoped for with any confidence is a stabilsation around £10 million a month.We constantly argue in the House about the saving of less than £1 million. The figures quoted above are a direct charge on the economy. I therefore hope that the Bill will be merely a first step towards other measures.
It is not just old buildings or those which were constructed before the war that go up in flames. In last year's large fires, in fact, fires involving buildings constructed between 1946 and 1950 1607 cost nearly £6 million; fires involving buildings constructed between 1951 and 1955 cost nearly £3 million; fires involving buildings constructed between 1956 and 1960 cost nearly £10 million; fires involving buildings constructed between 1961 and 1965 cost just over £5 million; and fires involving buildings built since 1966 cost £3.5 million. These are very large figures.
In this so-called technological age it is absurd that further incentives are not given to the builders and owners of these buildings to protect their property. That would automatically make it easier also to protect the lives of the people employed.
§ 12.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
I do not share the views which have been expressed by the Minister of State and by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees). I agree with much of what was said by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney). There is an air of considerable complacency hovering over the Government Front Bench.
Of course we all welcome the Bill. Of course it is desirable that we should have a Bill whose function is to improve, if possible, the protection of life. However, it is not appropriate completely to forget the protection of property. Apart from that major point, I am concerned by some of the things which were said by the Minister of State. He said that it was desirable to have a uniform system. We all agree that this is entirely rational.
As one who passionately supports the local authority principle, I should like the central Government to give more powers to local authorities so that they could be used in diverse ways in diverse parts of the country. However, fire precautions are the one feature which does not need to be run locally. There is such unanimous agreement on the need to prevent fires and to stop them if they break out that there is no need for variation locally.
The Minister of State made that point and said that there are many Private Act powers and that the Bill would deal with them. However, Clause 33 does not say anything of the kind. Quite the contrary, it says: 1608A person required by or under a local Act to do any thing in relation to any premises shall not be treated as having acted in contravention of that Act by reason of his failure to do that thing in so far as the failure is attributable to the fact that remedying it would involve a contravention of this Act or of regulations made under section 12 thereof.Removed from its turgid wording, it appears to me that all the existing provisions of local Acts stay in force unless they require something that contravenes the Bill when enacted. In other words, what individuals, companies and organisations throughout the country must do is, not deal with a uniform code, as the Minister of State suggested, but deal with a uniform code plus local variations and then decide whether the local variations contravene the Bill when enacted.
I should like the Government spokesman in winding up to clarify whether it is the Government's intention to have a uniform code which, like the building regulations in another context, saves an enormous amount of trouble, labour and effort throughout the country. It may be that this is the Government's intention. If so, will they amend the Bill? Alternatively, is it the Government's intention to have this rather weak Clause 33 which does nothing of the kind?
Another fault in the Bill is its extreme concentration upon things as distinct, strangely enough, from people. I shall criticise it in the opposite way in a moment. But there is an extreme concentration upon the construction or alteration of buildings and appliances inside them. In Clause 6, for example, all the items but one relate to the use of the premises, the means of escape, the means of fighting fire, the location of the means of fighting fire, and so forth. These are things. They do not start fires. People start most fires. It is rare that a building or items in it start a fire spontaneously. It is people who have to put it out once it has started. There is only one item, in Clause 6, which can conceivably be said to involve the administration:the means … with which the relevant building is provided for securing that the means of escape with which the premises are provided can be safely and effectively used. …I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South who mentioned administration inside organisations. Anyone who has worked in industry has come across the totally 1609 blocked exits, the fire doors which will not shut and all sorts of minor points of this character. In the Factories Act there are many provisions, and under other Acts a great many provisions, for the inspection of the administrative system. I hope that the Government will again consider imposing some requirement to ensure that appropriate officers can go round and not merely inspect whether appliances are there and are located in a given place but inspect and ascertain whether everybody knows how to use them—not merely inspect whether the means of escape are there but, by spot checks, inspect whether they are always accessible and how far people are told when and where to use them.
This is important, as my hon. Friend said, in schools. Are we always certain that everybody in schools, universities and other places knows these things. There is a tremendous gap in the Bill. One can demand the possession of a fire certificate, and one can say that the building must have such-and-such a provision and various appliances. One can then go away and leave it, assuming that the people will operate it competently and effectively. But the facts do not show this to be true. The hon. Member for Wavertree mentioned fire losses. He said that there was hope of stabilisation at the 1969 figure of £120 million. I do not see why there is hope of stabilisation. In the last ten years that has been a 500 per cent. increase. Even at the rate of inflation at which the Government are going—
§ Mr. English
Even at the present rate of inflation, that cannot be accounted for by inflation alone. It was an extraordinary thing to say, and this is where there is an enormous element of complacency.
My hon. Friend correctly said that when he was in office he was waiting for the Holroyd Committee to report. That was reasonable. He set up the Committee and in due course it reported. The complacency lies with the present Ministry, which had the Holroyd Report but merely accepted its basic principle.
Opening the debate, the Minister said that he agreed with the Holroyd.
§ Mr. English
The hon. Gentleman agreed with the principle which is mentioned in the Holroyd Report, that one should not intervene in industry and that one should leave it to business. I am trying to be fair. The words were that one should leave to business and industry the job of protecting property. If I have not got that correctly, the hon. Gentleman will intervene. The Holroyd Committee puts the same principle in a slightly different way:New legislation directed specifically at reducing property losses in fire is not justifiable.There is no supporting argument for the principle.
The hon. Member for Wavertree rightly pointed to this defect. The fire losses which he mentioned of £120 million in 1969 are a quarter of the annual increase in investment in fixed capital in this country. As most hon. Members know, as a country where investment is relatively lower than in some other countries, which is possibly one of the faults of our economy, we are saying that we are happy at wasting a quarter of the increase in our investment. A Government capable of saying that are complacent.
I appeal to the Minister, as did the hon. Member for Wavertree, that before the Bill is finally passed he should consider dealing with the protection of property against these enormous losses. We rarely get a Bill on fire precautions. We cannot afford the burden on the economy which these losses represent. We cannot afford the 500 per cent. increase in that burden in a period of 10 years, and a 20 per cent. increase in the last year for which figures are available.
Even with the Government's noninterventionist philosophy, we cannot sit back and say that this is the sort of burden that we are prepared to tolerare and leave it to industry and the insurance companies to do something about it. The facts illustrate that that is not a satisfactory method of dealing with the problem.
§ 12.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler (Nottingham, South)
Everyone will agree with my 1611 hon. Friend that fire is a problem to which extremely little attention is paid, bearing in mind the serious loss of life occurring each year. The figure of 1,000 dead is more on the scale of a war than on the scale of a disaster. Fire is a problem which affects vulnerable sections of the population, the old and the very young, people who are least able to help themselves at a time of crisis. Therefore I welcome unreservedly the provisions in the Bill. It is a major step in dealing with the mass risk of fire hazard in this country. I congratulate my hon. Friend in bringing it forward.
I do not accept for one moment the strictures of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) when he accused this Government of complacency. It could be argued that the last Government could wait for Holroyd, but six years is a very long time to wait for Holroyd. The Holroyd Committee was not set up until February, 1967, and then it was set up to deal mainly with the fire service. These proposals were on the table in 1964 when it was open to the Government to act on them.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
This is not a subject where I would have thought party advantage lay. This might well do on the hustings. Holroyd is concerned with fire prevention, and when I was responsible, I thought it would be silly to introduce a major Bill of this kind which, as soon as it was on the Statute Book. Holroyd would show to have great holes in it. This is not party political.
§ Mr. Fowler
I accept that this is not a subject in which party politics should play a large part. I was pointing out that no charge of complacency should be made against the present Government which seems to have acted with commendable speed on this important subject.
The Bill concerns the mass fire risk hazards. This is only the tip of the problem, because most of the increase in deaths in recent years have occurred in private houses. In this connection it is good to see a provision in Clause 3 about flats. But it seems to me that when talking about flats there is a very great temptation to think in terms of the purpose-built block. A great number of the flats particularly in London, but also in 1612 other major cities, are conversions of what used to be single houses, and in many of these cases there is a real fire hazard which is not sufficiently recognised.
I have in mind particularly those tall, often gracious, buildings in West London. These form housing for many young people who come to London, sometimes from other countries, to take up jobs or to attend universities. They come to houses which were designed in another age and for another age, but which have been converted to the demands of today. Very often these form very good accommodation but it cannot be denied that one effect of the new type of occupation is that the fire risk is increased immeasurably. Instead of a single family going into this kind of house, very often groups of two or three live on separate floors, which means that there can be in one house five or six separate groups consisting of 15 or 20 people.
In itself the risk of fire as a result of that situation is very much increased by the normal every-day activities of cooking, smoking and the use of electrical appliances. This is worrying enough. But there is also a very real mass risk here. When a party is given—and, after all, it is exactly in this kind of property where parties are often given—there can be 40, 50 or 60 people crowded on to one floor in this sort of building. The risk is that a fire on the lower floor may cut off the staircase or any means of escape. This problem affects that age group involved so tragically in the fire at Grenoble to which reference has been made.
My impression is that in this kind of converted house the fire precautions are often very limited and sometimes virtually non-existent. In very few are there any instructions displayed. In few have I ever seen evidence of alarms or means of fighting fires. In some there are no obvious means of escape. I suspect that even when such means of escape exist, the people in the converted houses know very little about how to reach them. I remember living in one of these flats and coming to the conclusion that in the case of a fire the only solution would be to climb out of the fanlight and clamber over the tiles to the next-door house. The prospect of 30 or 40 people carrying out this kind of operation is not easy to contemplate. In these 1613 kinds of properties there is a very real lire danger and a risk that we should take very seriously indeed.
I wish to refer to the exact scope of Clause 3. I appreciate that this Clause will apply to blocks of flats, but will it apply also to the kind of converted property which I have mentioned? Clause 3 gives the impression that perhaps it will not, although the Explanatory Memorandum, by using the term "multi-occupation" gives the impression that it perhaps could. The Minister used the term "multi-occupation" this morning. I gather that there is no exact definition of "multi-occupation" but the working definition is one which makes the test one of shared facilities. Here there will obviously be a very difficult line to draw. In some of the houses to which I have referred the flats are self-contained, but in some of the others the facilities may be shared between floors, such as the bathroom which is used by the occupants on two floors and shared by two groups.
I should like to be clear about what is covered by the housing Acts and what is covered by the Bill.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
This is a matter which will exercise us in Committee, and it is one which we on this side of the House have been considering. This would be so, whatever the political situation. Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the major considerations is not only the interpretation of the various Clauses and their inter-relationship with the housing Acts but whether, for example, in the hon. Gentleman's own City of Nottingham, there are anything like a sufficient number of trained firemen who could go round and carry out the inspection of this type of property, even if the Measure said that this ought to be done?
§ Mr. Fowler
Yes, I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. It is very valid and means that the Bill cannot be extended ad infinitum. It is a point which I shall come to later.
On the question of multi-occupation, I should like to read what the Holroyd Committee said in paragraph 395 of its Report about this difficulty between the housing Acts and the Bill. The Report says: 1614Many fire fatalities occur in houses in multiple occupation. We consider that a deficiency in the present provisions is that there is no power to ensure that the means of escape are kept free from obstruction and can be safely and effectively used at all times.The Committee recommends that consideration should be given tostrengthening the powers under the Housing Acts to enable these requirements to be enforced and to secure adequate inspection.I commend that part of the Holroyd Report particularly to my hon. Friend.
My next point relates to the enforcement of Clause 3. The procedure here is a matter for the discretion of the fire authority and the housing authority. I hope that when this Measure becomes effective, tenants living in such property will be invited to make representations that they be considered as living in conditions which give rise to some kind of fire hazard.
In the case of what are undoubtedly private dwellings—that is, dwellings occupied by single families—it would be impracticable to extend this Bill. Yet I hope that in this case the Minister will use the opportunity presented by this Measure to mount a publicity campaign on the kind of danger that fire presents. It seems to me that the case has not been presented with anything like enough force and that the public have not been made aware of the kind of dangers that can exist in a private household where, after all, most casualties take place.
The argument against this may be that it will cost a great deal of money to mount an effective campaign. I suggest that not all publicity will necessarily cost a great deal of money. One method might be to present the Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Fires in a slightly more arresting manner than it is at the moment, particularly as this Report goes into every newspaper office and is assured of some attention as a result. I am making absolutely no complaint about the content of the Report, and I agree with everything that hon. Members opposite have said about the Chief Inspector. But, as a working journalist, I was taught to put over the point that one wanted to make in the first few paragraphs. When one reads the Chief Inspector's Report, issued by the Home Office, one generally meanders through such items as the results of the promotion examination, the number of 1615 junior firemen, the changes in the higher ranks, and, taking last year's Report, it is only in paragraph 33 that one gets to the actual point of the Report at all, and that is the number of losses and the cost to the nation of fires.
I do not for a moment pretend that that alone would be sufficient or that it would radically improve the publicity—clearly, much more is needed—but paragraph 33 of the Chief Inspector's Report does offer part of the answer to the question of cost. It shows that the annual losses in property are running at over £100 million a year, which is an enormous total by any standard, and I think it not fanciful to suppose that even a relatively small amount of money spent in this direction could substantially reduce those losses. It could prove a well worth while effort from the point of view of both the Government and the country, bringing a return in fewer lives lost and in the reduction of property losses. I hope that the Home Secretary, when implementing the Bill, will accompany it with a publicity campaign directed to the private householders not covered by the Bill as it stands.
§ 12.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)
I join in the welcome given to the Bill from both sides. Its object is to make general throughout the country the requirements which the best authorities now impose upon the buildings which they licence. As has already been said, the achievement of that purpose will depend in some degree upon the answers to some of the questions which one has in mind, and, perhaps, upon whether we are able in Committee to correct what some of us regard as possible defects in the Bill as it stands. It will depend, above all, on the manner in which the Bill is implemented once it is passed, and this is the overriding question which troubles some of us.
It is important that there shall be a levelling up and no levelling down as a result of the Bill. It may be thought there is no such danger, but there are certain points which we shall have to examine. One has already been touched on, namely, the curious question of places of religious worship. Clause 2 at one point seems to suggest a measure of religious bigotry going beyond the 1616 bounds of reason, implying that certain Churches have a protection from the Almighty which is denied to others. They, apparently, do not need the benefits of the Bill, while other Churches do, the implication being that His beneficence is withheld from some Churches while falling upon, apparently, the Church of England and the Church in Wales. I am sure that this is not the intention, but it is an implication which, I think, some people will inevitably read into it, and I hope that the Minister of State will be able to reassure us on that point.
There is a serious question to be raised in connection with the churches. It is an anomaly that many church buildings are licensed for stage plays, and they would still be controlled under the existing entertainment licensing Acts. Some churches have attached to them church halls which are frequently used for dances and other entertainments, and it is not clear whether these would be required to have a certificate. We shall want to know about that. It appears that such church buildings which come under the existing licensing control of some authorities would not be required to have a certificate under this Bill, and we may well find that a modification is required in this respect.
Clause 11 provides that the Minister of Housing and Local Government shall have power to make building regulations to imposerequirements as to the provision of means of escape … and for securing that such means of escape can be safely and effectively used at all material times".The term "means of escape" is, perhaps, appropriate when people are in a building, as it were, accidentally or incidentally, but the planning of circulation in places of assembly designed as such is a highly technical matter. It is of paramount importance to ensure not only that such places are safe in normal conditions but that they will remain so in conditions of semi-panic. Such places require to be constructed originally in such a way that automatic ease of departure—not in terms of escape—is built into the building so that it can be emptied within a matter of minutes or, perhaps, even seconds. This can be done if the building is conceived and constructed correctly from the beginning. We shall need to consider this aspect of 1617 the matter and ensure that the professional skill which is available for the purpose is fully taken advantage of under the Bill.
Clause 12(5) provides:It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State, before making any regulations under this section, to consult such persons or bodies of persons as appear to him requisite".That is, I believe, the standard provision. We shall wish to know what persons or bodies will appear to him to be requisite. In the world which, perhaps, I know best, the world of entertainment, there are bodies which are highly qualified to be consulted. I am thinking of the Theatres Advisory Council and the Association of British Theatre Technicians, both of which contain specialist people who know the problems, and I hope that it is envisaged that these would be among the bodies normally consulted.
Without going into detail, I have a point of doubt to raise on Clause 13. It appears to imply—perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can reassure me—that if an existing building already complying with building regulations is used as a place of assembly, there will be no power to require structural, electrical and mechanical alterations such as would be considered essential if such a place were specially constructed for the purpose. If that is the intended meaning of the Clause as it stands, it is wrong and will have to be altered. I recognise that there may be a little difficulty, but it ought not to be said that a building which has a change of use should not be subject to the same sort of stringent regulations and requirements which apply to a building specially constructed. The sort of circumstances created by a change of use are just those in which a disaster could occur.
Clauses 15, 16 and 17 provide for consultation by local authorities and planning authorities with the fire authority, and, conversely, for consultation of the local authority by a fire authority. This has some relevance to what was said in the Holroyd Report, I think. In paragraph 403 the Holroyd Committee said:The best and most economic way for brigades to obtain specialist advice would be by consultation with the appropriate specialists in other local government departments, in government research bodies or in industry. We do not see any need at present, therefore, for professionally qualified civilian staff to be 1618 attached to brigades for fire prevention purposes".That is not necessarily so throughout the country. On the Greater London Council, for example, there are highly trained specialist personnel, and association between those expert staff and the fire brigade would be the right way to go about it. One does not know, however, whether this is necessarily true elsewhere, and there might be an argument for a fire brigade to have its own specialists if they are not readily available through the local authority. An alternative would be for the fire authority to call upon outside expert knowledge. As I have said, that expert knowledge and advice is available, and I hope to be assured that it is the intention that fire authorities should take advantage of it.
I want to stress the importance of the use of professional and technically qualified people with experience in these matters, with wide experience of the constructing buildings so that fire precautions fit normally and naturally into them. Secondly I would stress the use of technical groups already existing within the fire authorities and local authorities and particularly the outside specialists such as the Theatres Advisory Council and those under the local authority aegis, for example in the Greater London Council.
I welcome the Bill which is much-needed. Only the day before yesterday I was considering this Bill with a member of the Theatres Advisory Council who was in the A.F.S. during the war. He told me that he had recently visited a club theatre and because of his A.F.S. and professional experience he was completely distracted from what was going on on the stage by his consideration of the building. If anything had gone wrong he would have had the utmost difficulty in getting out of the building and so would other members of the audience.
It may be said that we have not had any disasters of that sort happen here. The advantage of the Bill is that it gives us the opportunity to put things right before this happens. It is no advantage to anyone concerned with any area of entertainment not to provide the best possible conditions for those who come to see performances and those conditions include their safety from the hazards of fire.
§ 12.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)
The House might think it a little early for me to embark upon parliamentary reminiscences, but this debate reminds me of one rather unnerving moment when, as a new Member, in the Members' Lobby I was advised that I could pick up any telephone and call the Department I wished. I just managed to prevent myself picking up a telephone marked, in large letters, "Fire". I had visions of the massed fire brigades of London descending upon the House—not the sort of thing for which a new Member wants to be remembered.
It occurred to me to wonder, if that had caused the bells to sound throughout the building, whether many of us would know what the bells meant. I thought that large numbers of new Members instead of running out of the building might have run in thinking that there was a Division taking place.
Having read the Bill I am still not clear whether it applies to the Palace of Westminster as one of the Crown premises, but if it does it is doubtful whether we would be eligible for a certificate. This Chamber gets distinctly overcrowded at times and the means of exit for ourselves and the persons in the Public Gallery would be regarded, I imagine, as grossly inadequate.
I join with those who have welcomed the Bill and am pleased that hon. Members have not treated this as the last word in fire precaution and prevention. Nearly everyone has said that there is a great deal more to be done. I hope the fact that we have waited, by all accounts for many years, for this Bill does not mean that we will have to wait many more years for a further Bill touching many of the other aspects raised by hon. Members.
The answer to fire prevention lies in far greater awareness by the public of the risks of fire and therefore I am a little disappointed that this Bill has been introduced very quietly indeed. Far from it being made clear to the public what it is about, the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum does little to define what categories of premises are supposed to be covered.
If we want to see clubs, restauarants and hotels and the like improving their 1620 fire precautions, I would have thought that rather than rely upon the Minister to quote examples it would have been possible to specify them far more clearly in the Memorandum. This is a subject involving hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of damage every year and the loss of a large number of lives. Nearly all the legislation on this subject is based on the principle that it is only concerned with the protection of life and limb and not the protection of property. This has become an entrenched principle and I am glad that other hon. Members have touched upon this.
We ought not to accept it as an entrenched principle but to discuss it in more depth. Taking the principle as it stands for the moment there seems to be the general feeling that this Measure now covers the gaps as far as it can in the area of protection of life. We have already heard that 1,000 deaths a year result from fire and 800 of those were not covered by any of the legislation which the House has enacted. Those are primarily deaths in the home, deaths arising from the conflagration of the buildings or from controlled fires within homes.
We cannot by any means be complacent and imagine that we have tackled this part of the problem of fatalities resulting from fires. If this House thinks it is tackling that problem I would respectfully suggest that we have not really begun. It was said earlier that Holroyd concerned itself considerably with fire prevention and not exclusively with the structure of fire brigades. While this is true it gave less attention to the prevention of fatalities in the home than it might have done.
This Bill does not touch on the subject at all and I suggest that consideration be given to expanding it—because with the best will in the world it is unlikely that we will get another in the foreseeable future—to place an obligation on fire authorities, with the necessary finance, of course, to carry publicity into private homes. In that way the publicity advocated by Holroyd could be implemented.
This basic principle that we are not concerned with the protection of property but that it can be left to general commercial practice to remedy the situation is not one which should commend 1621 itself to the House. The figure for fire damage last year amounted to £120 million and that figure has risen 500 per cent. in 10 years. It is only part of the story. If we add to that all the consequential loss, the massive business interruption that flows from these fires, a lot of which is uninsured, incapable of being recorded in statistical terms, much of which is hidden through consequential factors in the economy and can never be defined, it could be that the total figure is double £120 million.
If we add the £61 million we spend on the maintenance of fire authorities it will be seen that as a nation we are spending in direct financial terms probably £300 million a year as a result of fire damage. I would have thought that the House could and should concern itself with the problem. Also I would have thought it impossible to separate the protection of life and limb from the standards of construction of the property concerned. It seems at the moment that many industrial buildings, particularly single-storey buildings, are effectively exempt from many of the building regulations apply to larger structures, presumably on the grounds that it is considered that such buildings do not offer the same hazard because it is easier to ensure means of escape. But the recent tragedy in France occurred in a single-storey building. It is not so much the height of the building that is important as whether the means of escape not only exist but are continually open, which means that there must be regular inspection.
It is almost too obvious to be worth saying, but the nature of the property, whether it is made of a fire-resistant material or a sub-standard material, is also directly related to the hazard to lives and limbs of the people inside it.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is regrettable that his Government have persistently refused to take action on various furnishing materials, such as polyurethane and foam rubber, which are proven beyond doubt to constitute a grave hazard? Yet the Government refuse to make any Orders about them.
§ Mr. Moate
The hon. Gentleman has a very fair point in principle, but it is 1622 not necessarily a criticism of this Government or of the Opposition when they were in power. The House must concern itself much more with the type of materials being used in the internal furnishing and construction of buildings, whether we are concerned with the protection of life or trying to reduce the loss to the economy.
We are always wise after the event. We could be faced with a disastrous fire in a single-storey industrial building constructed of inferior materials, and then the nation would rightly be up in arms and ask why we did not do something to ensure that that sort of thing was not possible.
The Bill goes a certain way in laying down standards, but it can not be said to go very far until we know what the regulations will say, and what codes will emerge. It does not cover very much in the way of categories of premises, and it does not say what sort of standard will be demanded. It certainly does not tell us whether the authorities will have the resources necessary to carry them through. We cannot say that the Bill is anywhere near the answer to the problems unless we can be sure that the fire authorities will have the resources and the inspectorate necessary to ensure not only that the certificates are issued but that there is regular inspection.
As just one example of the problem, I heard of a certain large retail organisation which is subject to plently of regulations but for security reasons has to lock many of its exit doors. That was the sort of situation in Grenoble, and it could apply equally in hundreds of premises which are subject to regulations but where those regulations are not properly enforced.
A report in the newspapers yesterday told of an analogous situation. It was about a Soho restaurant where rats were pouring into the kitchens. Plenty of health regulations cover that, but the health inspector pointed out that the inspectorate cannot enforce them because it cannot act sufficiently quickly. It does not have the staff to go around ensuring that the regulations are enforced. The Bill is concerned with exactly similar property—the restaurants and clubs of Soho. That inspector said:Many of the buildings there are 200 years old and were designed as houses and not 1623 restaurants. The basement of these premises are being used as kitchens, and they are completely unsuitable.The Bill could have been much more explicit about clubs and club basements, of which there are so many in the London area. I understand clubs are intended to be covered by the use of the word "entertainment", but I hope that when the Bill finally becomes an Act clubs will be much more closely defined. It has been found necessary in previous legislation to have a much closer definition of what is and what is not a club.
The hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) raised the question of church halls attached to churches. Are they places of recreation for entertainment? Are they clubs? We do not know. We want to know about scout halls, which are often of wooden construction, and other halls used for similar organisations. Are they clubs? I do not know. Certain disciplines should be imposed on such organisations at least to ensure that minimum regulations are complied with. We do not want to be commercially unreasonable, but if the Bill is to have any effect and we are to prevent loss of life we should try to ensure that certificates are issued for the widest number of properties to which the public, whether club members or not, have access, and that those properties are regularly inspected to ensure that the rules and regulations are complied with. Whilst some people might react against the regulations, their proper application must in the long term be in the interests of the Proprietors of hotels, clubs and restaurants as much as in the interests of the general public.
One of the great problems we face on the whole subject is that fire insurance and regulations applied by the Public Health Acts and so on have been regarded as a nuisance. The time has come when they must be regarded as an essential part of business management, in entertainment premises, factories and the like. A new awareness is growing up—and the Bill can only help in furthering it—of the need to ensure that there is proper risk management and that fire considerations are taken into account at the time of the construction of properties.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
We are still waiting for the Government to produce regu- 1624 lations under the Act already on the Statute Book. It is their responsibility to enforce the compulsory insurance, and they are still refusing to do so.
§ Mr. Moate
The hon. Gentleman has the advantage of me on that Act. I am not aware of the position there, but in general I accept that Government should interfere far more in the interests of protection of life and prevention of property damage. We are not in disagreement on that.
This raises one point I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to clarify. The Bill specifically refers to the type of requirements in all the Acts so far enacted, namely, that they are concerned with fire escapes, fire alarms and fire extinguishers. Presumably, the certificates can only relate to those factors or similar factors. But Clause 10, which gives considerable powers to the fire authorities and the courts to prevent premises being used, refers to a far greater risk of fire damage. There is a slight contradiction there, in that that power could be applied, despite the fact that all the regulations have been complied with, where the standard construction is so inferior that it is incapable of being improved. If that was the intention, it should be made much clearer. I do not believe it to be an undesirable interpretation of the Clause.
A detailed point of some significance concerns the size of the fine. A debate in one Committee yesterday resulted in a fine of £100 being increased to £50,000. I am sure that we shall not have a dispute of that nature when this Bill goes through Committee. But £400 is not much of a fine if, as a result of a breach of the regulations, serious bodily injury or a fatality occurs. On the other hand, it is grossly excessive if the legislation is applied where a hotel infringes the regulations by altering the internal arrangements of its furniture. It may be that that is a misinterpretation of the Bill's intentions, but I hope that that point, too, can be clarified later.
I believe that we can improve the Bill considerably. If that puts it into conflict with a large body of other legislation, we shall just have to improve that as well. We could improve it by setting 1625 higher fines of £5,000 or more for breaches of the regulations where injury results.
I again stress the point about the need for more funds to ensure an adequate number of inspectors. The Bill refers to 400 inspectors. I wonder whether that will be sufficient. There is the danger that if we do not get extra inspectors or if they cannot perform the job an extra burden will be put on the fire authorities to carry out the regulations under the Bill. Therefore, that, far from increasing the chances of saving life, could work the other way, and that is the last thing that we want.
Many of the tragic fires to which reference has been made, involving considerable loss of life, could still occur. The Glasgow tragedy, when 22 people died, resulted from the exit doors being locked. They were there, a fire certificate could have been obtained, but still the doors would have been locked and people would not have escaped. That applies to the recent fire in France. A fire certificate could have been obtained there and we could be happy thinking that we had done our bit, but people could still not have escaped. So it comes back to the renewal of the certificates. I ask the Minister whether they have any period of validity or are perpetual and whether he will give the fire service the necessary backing to carry through the regulations effectively.
Having been critical of one or two points in the Bill, nevertheless I welcome it wholeheartedly. I hope that it will go through very quickly. I hope that we will see the Act on the Statute Book very soon and that we shall see the regulations and the orders under it issued rapidly with the necessary funds being given to the fire authorities.
§ 1.1 p.m.
§ Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)
Like other hon. Members, I welcome the Bill as a contribution to public safety. Indeed, I hope that, coming so soon after the tragedy at St. Laurent, it will help to focus public attention on the need for improved fire precautions. The flames of public interest soon die down—in fact, almost as soon as the conflagration is brought under control. It is, therefore, good that we should remind the public that Parliament at least is interested in fire precautions and new regulations.
1626 One or two points need clarification. I refer, first, to Clause 1. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) I should like to know what happens in the case of school and other educational premises. But another form of building which does not seem to be covered by any regulations is the warehouse. Whilst it might be true that certain warehouses will be covered by the Factories Act and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, the great bulk are outside any control or regulation. Therefore, the Minister might take the opportunity of including warehouses in Clause 1.
Reference has also been made to Clause 2(d) which concerns church premises. I am considerably puzzled about its meaning. Some church halls are separate and quite distinct from churches; others form part of churches. Since many activities go on in church halls—bingo, dancing, and what-have-you—it is clear that we need clarification whether such buildings will be covered by the Bill. The position appears to be covered in Scotland by reference to the phrase,no profit is derived by that body from the use of the premises for any other purpose.I do not know whether there is something different about Scotland in that people there are more aware of the problem. Perhaps this point will be dealt with in the winding-up.
Clause 3(b) refers toexplosive or highly flammable materials".I understand that these materials must be prescribed by regulation. This is good. But I understand that, in the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, these materials have not been prescribed after six years of operation of the Act. I ask the Minister to consider publishing draft regulations in relation to highly flammable and explosive substances at an early date. In other words, we do not want to wait six years before this kind of material is prescribed by the necessary regulations.
I also make a plea for good lighting of emergency exits. It is all very well to provide escape doors and to keep them clear, but it is of little use to somebody with failing eyesight if the access or egress emergency exit is badly lighted. I hope that some attention will be given to ensuring that escape routes are properly lighted and that that lighting is maintained 1627 at all times. For instance, a bulb can fail and not be replaced. Then, when the place goes up in flames, the emergency exits are in darkness and there is panic and chaos all around.
I turn to penalties for offences. I was not going to make much comment about the upper limit, but, on reflection, I feel that it is too low. A further point is that offences—let us make no mistake about it—could involve loss of life or severe injury. Indeed, it could be criminal negligence if these fire regulations are not maintained, if they are not carried out, if they are broken by people who run the type of premises covered by the Bill. It is therefore essential that the penalties are stiff enough at the upper limit. I hope that we shall prescribe a minimum penalty as well. I realise that there may be legal objections to this proposal, but we must bear in mind that the public all too often judge the nature and seriousness of an offence by the size of the fine imposed by the court.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
Is my hon. Friend aware that in the case of the fire in Scotland, to which he referred, the fine on the individual who caused the 22 deaths by his indolence and criminal negligence was only £500? But he could not pay it anyway, because he was a man of straw. I ask my hon. Friend to address himself to the point that, however high the upper and lower limits may be, if the person involved is a man of straw we shall still create problems. Therefore, the emphasis should be on the certificate and being prepared to withdraw the facility of such a certificate.
§ Mr. Stoddart
I appreciate that point. Nevertheless, that argument could be applied to all our law and to all our legal penalties. There are many men of straw who do not pay their fines. The fact is that up to now Parliament has not said that because there are men of straw we shall not prescribe and impose fines in our legislation. Such a situation would be absurd. Therefore, I make a plea for penalties to act as a deterrent. That after all, is the object of penalties. Indeed. I would go further and say that in the event of repeated ignoring of the law there might be a case for an escalating fine. I consider this so important that I would go that far.
1628 I come to the question of consultation between local authorities and fire authorities, and once again this is a matter which other hon. Members have raised. There will be occasions—indeed, there have been occasions when I, as a member of a local authority have been involved in this kind of thing—when the local authority, perhaps as the planning authority, or as the education authority, has an interest in the financial implications of providing fire precautions. I do not say that this will occur very often, but I know of an instance in which it was only by a great deal of political and personal arm-twisting by my colleagues and myself that a local authority was prevented from ignoring the advice of the chief fire officer and relaxing the regulations for a building. I hope that the Minister will consider inserting into the Bill a provision that in the event of a disagreement between the fire authority and the local authority, the Home Secretary will be the final arbiter.
It is estimated that about 400 people will be employed by local authorities to administer the Bill when it becomes an Act. I am not sure that that number will be sufficient to impose control and also to carry out the necessary inspection, but their employment will result in local authorities and the Government having to spend more money, and the bulk of the extra expenditure will fall on local authorities, and not on the Government.
That is an important consideration, and it becomes even more important if we bear in mind the rumours and the statements that have been made about the future level of the rate support grant, especially the announcement, which I believe was made last week, or perhaps it was earlier this week, that the domestic element of the rate support grant is to be reduced below the 5d. increase that has obtained for the last few years.
The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Education, Scottish Office (Mr. Edward Taylor)
There has been no announcement.
§ Mr. Stoddart
I am glad to hear that, and if the Minister is thinking of making such an announcement I hope that he will change his mind.
There is an impression abroad that the Government are going to lean on local authorities and use pressure by means of 1629 the rate support grant to make local authorities, as it is said, more efficient. This is a danger because, this being a permissive Bill, it may lead to difficulties about the employment of the extra people who will be needed to administer the Act.
I hope that the Government will consider making this a direct grant service. If they want the Act administered as we, as Members, would like it to be, they should make the local authorities responsible for carrying out its provisions, but they should also make a direct grant to them rather than make any contribution a part of the rate support grant. Being a member of a local authority, I plead for the rate to be 100 per cent., and not something less.
I welcome the Bill. I sincerely hope that all those who will be concerned with carrying it out will ensure that its provisions are rigidly enforced, because it is only by rigid enforcement that we shall make a real contribution to dealing with the problem.
§ 1.15 p.m.
§ Mr. J. R. Kinsey (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
Like other hon. Members who have spoken today, I am more concerned with what is not in the Bill than with what is in it. The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum says about Clause 3:This clause will not apply to houses in multiple occupation …".As a new Member, I have been looking round London for accommodation during parliamentary sittings. The problem that I encountered is one that is to be found in many of our large cities. It exists in Birmingham, Liverpool—to which reference was made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney)—Manchester and other places. Because of the great need for accommodation, it is quite common for houses to be in multi-occupation.
During my search I was offered the shell—one of the best buys that was offered to me—of a burned-out building. I shall not tell the House the price, because even in that state I thought it was expensive. Nevertheless, I looked at the property, and noted that directly across the road from it there were two more burned and blackened houses. I was rather concerned about this, because I thought that perhaps it was an area in 1630 which some bomb outrages had been carried out, but that was not so.
Houses of this type are at the greatest risk, yet local authorities and the Government encourage people, by means of grants, to utilise such premises. We want to be sure that the Bill contains provisions applying to that type of dwelling as well as to the high blocks of flats. We must ensure that we introduce precautions to protect the people who have to use that kind of accommodation.
The Bill talks about homes, and about the inspection of homes. It is perhaps difficult to differentiate between a multi-storey occupied home—and it is a home in every sense of the word—and a single-storey occupied home. Why should the former be differentiated against? Why should people in those homes have to sacrifice their privacy? I believe that we should look at these provisions a little more closely.
Where do the risks to these homes come from? I have made inquiries of my fire authority in Birmingham, and I am told that there are two sources of risk—oil heaters, and electric wiring. Fire prevention is far better than fire escapes. I hasten to say, because I know that my manufacturers in Birmingham will quickly point this out to me, that if oil heaters are properly used they are as safe as any other method of heating. Great strides have been made by the manufacturers to ensure that oil heaters are safe for home use. Properly applied and used, they would be. The trouble is that people carry them about when they are lit, they fill them when they are lit, and they place them where they can be knocked over. These are all factors which aggravate the hazards in multi-occupied buildings. People place clothes to air on heaters, and we have had fires in Birmingham as a result of this practice. This is the sort of risk which people take for the sake of convenience in the privacy of their homes.
Would it not be possible to incorporate in rental agreements provisions about the usage of heating appliances in homes? Oil fires are the easiest forms of heating to use in multi-occupied property. Why should not provision be made in the regulations that they should be properly secured? They could easily be properly secured and sited. The fire authorities and local authorities should look into 1631 this matter, particularly in relation to new agreements or grants in respect of multi-occupied property.
Retail sales of oil heaters are controlled, but person-to-person sales are not. Why should they be excluded? People are allowed to sell to next-door neighbours oil heaters which may be in a dangerous condition. This practice should be controlled. I know that it would be tough, but it is tougher still to lose a family.
Electrical faults are also a hazard. Electricity is a wonderful servant, but an absolutely satanic master. People will overload the electric system. Also, people do nothing about replacing electric wiring. I do not think that we can escape from the grave difficulties caused by the inspection of many homes.
The hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. David Stoddart) referred to the expenses which local authorities will have to bear. We must ensure that we do not, as a result of legislation, overburden local authority finances. We must try to afford the best protection possible in the vulnerable areas in the cities.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
Will the hon. Gentleman help us on one point which we shall have to discuss in Committee? When he discussed with the fire chief in Birmingham the question of inspection, whether of oil-fired or electricity-fired heating appliances, in multi-occupation property, was any estimate made of the extra number of firemen and therefore the extra expenditure which would be required in Birmingham? I ask the question, not to be clever, but because it lies at the heart of many points made by hon. Members.
§ Mr. Kinsey
That is a valid point. I discussed with the fire chief only very briefly this morning the grave difficulties which will arise, but the Government should consult fire and local authorities about how best the manpower can be utilised. Would it not be possible to make at least random checks? That would be valuable in respect of larger buildings. I know that it would be difficult in smaller buildings, but I wonder whether it could be fitted in with the duties of fire authorities.
I propose to be controversial at this point and very likely I shall be shot 1632 down. The fire stations are a mass of gleaming metal. Possibly that is a very good thing. But I wonder whether a day's inspection of houses would be better than a day's polishing. There would have to be consultations to see whether that was possible. I am sure that in the crowded and vulnerable areas householders would not object to the invasion of their privacy if it ensured safety in the long term.
In the older houses in Birmingham we have put in break-through panels from house to house. This is a simple but effective precaution. Often the simplest things are the best. In the welfare services in Birmingham we are experimenting with such simple things as whistles. When a fire occurs in the middle of the night, the more people who can be alerted the better. Many points have been made about the fittings which go into buildings. Fittings are as much a part of the building as the building itself. I am particularly concerned about the question of the extra expense to local authorities.
Clause 40 refers to the question of finance. It reads:There shall be paid out of moneys provided by Parliament any expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State under or by virtue of this Act …What does that mean? Is the money intended for use by the Department, or will it be used by the local authorities? Does the Clause simply cover the expenses of the Act, or does it also cover the expenses of inspection? We are anxious to know whether such expenses will be passed on to local authorities.
At the end of the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum there is reference to the effects of the Bill on public service manpower. It states:It is calculated that the fire authorities will build up to total additional staff approaching 400. … It has been assumed that the staff will all be members of fire brigades.That will not be the case in Birmingham. The public works department in Birmingham deals with matters relating to means of escape in the event of fire. Matters which come within the Petroleum Act and legislation dealing with explosions are handled by the public works department. The Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, the Licensing Act and the Gaming Act are implemented on a shared basis between the fire department and 1633 the public works department. The question of the division of responsibility must be taken into account.
I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill. I am sure that many of the Government's explanations in Committee on matters which are troubling us will satisfy us. I am sure that they will be sympathetic towards useful proposals because they know what grave fire dangers face the people.
§ 1.29 p.m.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South-West)
I shall not detain the House much longer because most of the points which I wanted to raise have been made by other hon. Members and eloquently supported. Although I may not seriously expect an answer from the Minister about this when he replies, I wonder whether he can tell us how long the Bill—not as finally drafted, but intitle at least—has been in the Whitehall queue, gradually getting higher and higher up the ladder.
I echo strongly the remarks of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Fowler) about multi-occupation. The most important part of the Minister's speech in opening the debate was the first part, in which he indicated the classes of buildings which he would expect to designate. As I read Clause 1(2), especially paragraph (e), there is almost no class of building which could not be designated. It is worded as follows:use for any purpose involving access to the premises by members of the public, whether on payment or otherwise.That is a very wide provision. Therefore, what we need to know more than the interpretation of the Bill is the use which the Minister proposes to make of the powers of designation.
It is important to make sure that even though it is not intended that, at least in the short term, a particular class of building—for example, multi-occupation houses—will be designated, they should, nevertheless, be designatable under the Bill. If it is found that they are not designatable, it will be another five years before another Bill crawls its way up the Whitehall ladder.
I also very much support the remarks by an hon. Member from the Government side concerning clubs. It frequently happens that a building, sometimes little 1634 more than a shack in the yard of a residential building, is used as something like a private club or boys' club to which people go once a week. As I read paragraph (e) of Clause 1(2), it is adequate to make such a building designatable. It would, however, be useful to know whether the Minister intends to place that class of building near the top of the priority list of the classes to be designated.
There is one aspect which bothers me very much and in which I have a constituency interest but which has not been mentioned. It may be that this aspect is adequately covered by other legislation. Clauses 15 to 17 of the Bill provide for consultation between the fire authority and other authorities. There is certainly nothing in those three Clauses to require consultation on traffic schemes. In the middle of my constituency, there is an area where a traffic scheme has been adopted which involves going a very long way round to parts of the area and which, it has been suggested, would cause intense difficulty for the fire brigade in the event of a fire.
By way of illustration, it took me about 10 minutes to get into the street of the lady who was given a great deal of publicity in some of last Sunday's newspapers as being possibly subject to harassment to leave her tenancy. It would be likely to take a fire brigade the same length of time. This is an increasing problem as one-way systems are adopted, certainly in the London area.
I know that the Bill as it stands deals exclusively with buildings, but there is nothing in the Title to say that it relates only to buildings. As I read it, it would be possible to include a provision that there should be consultation on traffic schemes if this did not take place otherwise. I should like to know from the Minister whether this point is covered by other legislation and, if not, whether he will consider putting down an Amendment to take account of it.
Clause 22(2) deals with a person who impersonates a fire inspector. I scratched my head to think of a motive for impersonating a fire inspector, and I can think of one which is not too far-fetched. There has been impersonation of health inspectors by people intent upon driving tenants out of controlled tenancies so that a considerable profit can be made 1635 from the sale of what then becomes an empty house. I cannot think of any other purpose for which somebody might want to impersonate.
I agreed with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart) about the size of the fines, in particular because that is the only motive I can foresee for impersonating a fire inspector. I believe that the penalty specified in the Bill for that offence is grotesquely too low. It may be in line with existing fines on the Statute Book for offences of harassment, but they are too low also. When we are introducing a new offence and penalty in the Bill, the penalty should be much higher and it should have a minimum as well as maximum level.
§ 1.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Gregor Mackenzie (Rutherglen)
This has been an interesting debate and we are all indebted to the considerable number of hon. Members who have made important contributions to it. It is, perhaps, an unhappy state of affairs that we do not discuss these important questions often enough, but we have seen from the discussion today that it is a problem which certainly draws concern, sympathy and a great deal of understanding from all parts of the House.
The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Education, Scottish Office, will share with me the initial concern that we first of all have in fire prevention. I recall, as does the hon. Gentleman, that the first time that I ever attended a large public funeral in my native city, and that of the hon. Gentleman, was when I attended the funeral of 20 or 30 Glasgow firemen and members of the salvage corps who died in fighting a fire in a bonded warehouse in the inner core of the City of Glasgow. It was not very many years later before we saw a similar fire in a similar district where a number of my constituents—and, I think, constituents of the hon. Gentleman—died in James Watt Street in a fire which has been referred to on several occasions today.
It is not for me to go into detail about those two instances. Suffice it to say that such tragedies have left me with an unshakable conviction that there is a great deal of work still to be done in fire prevention and that it is unfair that we 1636 should ask young officers and men of fire brigades to fight fires in circumstances such as they have to fight in the Anderson district of Glasgow at that time.
There is a great deal of work to be done beyond simply the sort of legislation that we are discussing today in the form of prevention and enforcement. I am sure that the Under-Secretary agrees with me that the work which we are able to do in town councils on town planning control and the development of planning is an extremely important part of the whole question of fire prevention. It is important that we have research and development into the materials used in both old and new buildings.
I agree with those who have pointed out that fires are invariably avoidable. Often they are caused by negligence, indolence or a sheer lack of consideration on the part of employers, workers and others. This lack of concern applies in many industries and only a great deal of education in fire prevention will avoid many of the tragic fires that now occur.
The Minister pointed to a number of tragic fires which have broken out in recent years. He had in mind the fire which occurred in the constituency of his hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk). We have seen fires in nursing homes and in places where the old and the physically and mentally sick live. There have been fires in places of public entertainment.
I recall that when my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) was at the Home Office and introduced legislation on gaming he was particularly concerned to ensure that there was adequate inspection of the many premises that were being established and used by the public in great number for bingo and similar games. Because a large number of halls had been converted for that purpose, he was anxious to ensure that they received the closest possible examination by the appropriate authorities.
In addition to the remarks of the Minister, our attention has been drawn to what has been said by chief fire inspectors for England and Wales and Scotland. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Fowler) said that, as a journalist, he often thought that the punch line of any story should be in the first two or three comments of any report. I know from 1637 being associated with the Home Office as a very minor cog some years ago that those employed in that Department do all they can to spotlight the attention of the public on fire questions by issuing excellent pamphlets and other material.
I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) in paying tribute to Sir Ronald Holroyd and his colleagues for presenting an excellent Report. Although their Report is not the sole basis of the Bill, it has played a large part in the Measure's preparation. A number of professional organisations, fire officers, the Fire Brigades Union and local authorities, have been of great help in the evidence they have given.
My hon. Friends and I see the need for the Bill and we appreciate the difficulties that the Government face in trying to codify legislation on this subject. We have been studying this legislation recently and we are aware that something must be done about the vast number of regulations and powers possessed by far too many people. It is vital that, because the Measure will deal with virtually every member of the population, its provisions are got across as simply as possible. I make no complaint about the Bill now because these are matters for the Committee, and hon. Members will want at that stage to go in detail into the question of codifying legislation. One need only glance at the appendix to the Holroyd Report to see just how much legislation there is on this issue.
I give the Minister an assurance that my hon. Friends and I will do all we can to assist him to get the Bill through its various stages. We will do so in a spirit of genuine co-operation and we know that a number of people outside the House will wish to make representations to both the Government and my hon. Friends. This is the sort of Bill on which we must work together to produce something that is worthy of us all.
We must keep in mind the vexed problem of staffing and responsibility. Much guiding, advising and enforcing must be done to prevent fires. I say, without wishing to make a party point, that hon. Gentlemen opposite will quickly learn that any good piece of legislation neces- 1638 sarily involves increasing the number of people employed in the public sector.
In recent years, often with monotonous regularity—I exclude the Minister of State from these remarks—hon. Gentlemen opposite criticised us for the growing number of public servants. They will come to appreciate that a good Bill containing good enforcing measures leads to more people being employed in the public sector.
It is not easy to transfer a group of public servants to another function because in a case like this we need people with professional experience, and people with the expertise that we need to operate this Bill are not easily redeployed in the Civil Service.
We are always extremely interested in reports we receive from fire officers and we have been alarmed to hear of the difficulties they are experiencing in recruiting people to fight and prevent fires. I understand that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Kinsey) thought it peculiar that men trained as firemen should spend much of their time performing duties which could easily be performed by less professional people. That point has been represented to me strongly by the Fire Officers' Association and members of the Fire Brigades Union.
They raise the point not because they do not like performing what might be described as menial duties but because their expertise could be put to greater use in, for example, advising people on fire prevention methods and so on. If particularly younger members of the fire service could feel that their time was spent on valuable work of this kind, they would be less inclined to leave the service. Fire officers would have a more rewarding life and their expertise would be put to greater use if they could spend more time visiting premises, advising people on how best to prevent fires and generally getting to know their localities better.
There is a point of substance in Clause 2. I thought at first that it might be a Committee point. When we consider that most of the thousands of churches in England, Wales and Scotland are used not just as places of worship but for many other purposes, then it is possible 1639 to see the real danger of excluding them from the provisions of the Bill. The Minister of State thought that there was little risk in churches. I know from experience in my own area that they are used as youth clubs, for dances, meetings of women's guilds and by old people who have dining and lunching clubs, as the hon. Gentleman knows. We would be well advised to have another look at this. It could be very important for churches in new housing centres where, in the absence of a village hall, they are a central part of community life.
When I read the provisions dealing with churches I thought, with respect, that it was a touch on the messy side. I cannot see why we in Scotland do not have a mention of the Established Church while in England and Wales there is specific mention of the Established Churches. The hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) said that some Churches got better blessings than others. That reminds me of the story of my grandmother who came down from the Highlands and joined the United Free Church in Glasgow. She wondered whether her prayers would be properly heard because they were not being said in her native tongue, which seemed a more appropriate way of making representations.
When we come to deal with Scotland I think that we might be getting a little too wide. I am not trying to be facetious when I say that it is easy for organisations to set themselves up as religious organisations. We have seen examples of this in Scotland recently when organisations have called themselves religious and have seemed to me to be very far from that.
The Bill says at 2(e)… which belong to or are held by a religious body.Normally in Scotland one would have to apply to the fire authority or the local authority under building regulations. Where we operate a feudal system and where the Church of Scotland is the principal feudal superior, in Scotland, to have proper town and country planning permission and to have alterations made, it would sometimes involve a change in the feudal charter. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock 1640 (Mr. Ross) had envisaged that had he been allowed to continue his responsibilities he would have introduced the second part of a Bill on feudal reform. The Secretary of State has said that he will do likewise and perhaps we could have some clarification here.
If there has been a recurring theme it has been the question raised by many hon. Members, particularly by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney), about houses in multi-occupation There are difficulties here. We know that there is a form of protection. The Minister of State has said that these are encouraged under the Housing Acts. We would like to have this point clarified. We are not sure about the enforcement provisions. When we see so many of these houses we want to be assured that the provisions governing multi-occupation are effectively covered, not just through the Housing Acts and building regulations, but through the fire authorities and those associated with the authorities. They, too, must have an important rôle to play.
The hon. Gentleman will have appreciated that we are all concerned about the effect of this exclusion. We can summarise our concern by saying that these houses are invariably very old and they were certainly never designed for their present purpose. Often in their reconstruction and renovation little thought was given to fire prevention. Often materials used have not been suitable for fire prevention purposes. We know from experience in our own areas how often there have been fires in such houses caused by electrical wiring—one of the principal fire causes. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. George Cunningham) and others have pointed out that in many cases those who occupy single rooms in such buildings are the very old who would find great difficulty in getting out of these buildings quickly. Often too they are people with young children who for some reason cannot obtain council houses. There are thousands of these houses, invariably in the older and more congested parts of our major cities and I think that we might with profit consider seriously whether we are adopting the right attitude and the proper enforcement provisions with regard to such houses.
1641 The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Education for Scotland and myself are well aware of the difficulties of fighting fires in ordinary tenement properties. Over the years we have seen the terrifying prospects involved in fighting or containing such fires or trying to prevent them occurring in the older tenements of our major cities. This is not perhaps a problem affecting people south of the Border to the same extent. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West and myself are well aware of the difficulties of trying to do something in older tenements. The Bill mentions the older type tenement property, but there will be difficulties about enforcing the Bill's provisions in that type of property. A large sum would be required to bring these properties up to the standard which will be prescribed in the Orders.
There has always been a great deal of controversy about the wisdom of constructing multi-storey blocks. Although living in such blocks has produced many problems and a more sophisticated way of life, it has eased the housing problem in major cities. People living in these blocks will want reassurance that there are practical ways in which they can be assisted in any difficulties they may have should tragedy occur.
Fire brigades make a substantial contribution prior to the construction of multi-storey blocks of flats, particularly at the design stage. I hope that architects employed by local authorities and by private developers are aware of the advice and guidance which they can receive from the fire authority and make use of it—not only in design, but also in the matter of the materials to be used, which is one of paramount importance with the new industrialised form of building multi-storey blocks.
This problem should be considered, not only in the light of what the Bill provides, but also in the light of any further legislation dealing with this new and more sophisticated form of home. I understand that much useful work has been done at the Home Office. I hope that the useful information which has been collected will be published as soon as possible so as to assure people that the question is being considered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney raised the questions of the prob- 1642 lem of theatre managers in London, of the people who control cinemas, and of theatre guilds. I believe that theatre managers, both in the West End and in the Provinces, are genuinely concerned about their relationship with the fire authorities.
I hope that in moving to my next point I shall be forgiven by my hon. Friends if a dialogue takes place between the Under-Secretary of State and myself, because I want to raise some specifically Scottish questions which may not be of great interest to the House as a whole. Perhaps you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, can be included in this discussion across the Table.
I have had discussions with my fire-master, and he has consulted a number of colleagues, about the number of times Scotland is excluded from the operation of provisions in the Bill. My firemaster is particularly concerned, as are fire-masters generally in Scotland, as to why Clause 15 is not to apply to Scotland. It may be that this matter is covered in other legislation. Fire authorities in Scotland would like this matter to be explained.
Likewise, Clause 11, dealing withBuilding regulations as to the provision of means of escapeis not to apply to Scotland. Many people think that the Building Standards Regulations, 1970, which is a very useful consolidating Measure, should be mentioned somewhere.
Clauses 16 and 18 are not to apply to Scotland. Clause 18 is especially important as it deals with the whole question of enforcement. Perhaps I and those with whom I have spoken have not read the Bill aright, but it seems that the enforcement provisions in England and Wales are must stronger in this respect than are those in Scotland. In a Measure of this type it is important that the two countries march together, because some of the companies who will be developing in Scotland may be based in England.
The hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. David Stoddart) raised the question of the extent to which people can be fined. The day after the Government suffered the traumatic experience of being defeated by their own supporters on the question of 1643 fines, it is not appropriate for me to say too much on this question. It is a matter for the Government and their supporters. I hope that the Minister will say something on this question.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West and the hon. Member for Faversham said that the Bill is concerned substatially with things rather than with life and limb. They also mentioned the annual cost to the country of disastrous fires. I know from experience in my constituency that it is not only a question of the financial cost. There is also the dislocation of industry. There is also the question of the number of people who are thrown out of work. In recent weeks in my constituency nearly 200 people have been thrown out of work, perhaps permanently, because of such a tragedy.
The hon. Member for Wavertree stressed the importance of their being some Government assistance in financing the provision of prevention equipment, means of escape, and so on. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will be good enough to comment on the provision of grants, especially in warehouses and certain houses listed in the Bill, and also in places which have not been listed.
In recent weeks we have concerned ourselves with the whole question of investment grants versus investment allowances. I am not clear whether an investment grant always and in every circumstances covered the means of escape and other measures in fire prevention. I believe that the incentive scheme does not quite cover this point. I am open to correction, but I believe that the building grant, which is to be given only in development areas, will cover some of the points which have been made; but the Ministers would be well advised to consult Treasury officials on this important question.
§ Mr. English
I am open to correction, but as I understand it the only grant specifically available to deal with fire prevention is one that is available, for example, for sprinklers and so on.
§ Mr. Mackenzie
Therefore, it would be all the more important for the Minister of State to draw this to the attention of 1644 his hon. Friend in the Treasury, because concern was expressed on both sides of the House about this point.
My last point concerns the rather novel Clause, perhaps not all that novel, about the loans from local authorities to assist with work we have been discussing today. In broad terms, this is meant to be a very helpful Clause, but we shall find a little difficulty in Clause 37 in administering this. It will depend on the attitude of the authorities to the conversion of houses, flats and tenement buildings. As I said earlier, if this were to be done in the West of Scotland as effectively as the Under-Secretary and I would hope, it would cost a vast amount of money which local authorities may well find difficult to obtain. It would also involve the local authorities in employing even more people in the public service than envisaged in the manpower comments in the introductory section of the Bill.
One would hope that the Government might look at this Clause, appreciating the difficulties of getting the money in the sort of amounts that we hope, and there would also be some concern in the Government about the increase of staff in the local authorities, especially in view of the rather alarming statements we read yesterday about the future of the rate support grant. My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon mentioned this. And we read in yesterday's Guardian that the Government are likely to save some £12 million. I was delighted, and I am sure those of us who were in the House were delighted, to hear the Minister say that he did not think this was on. I think he came close to a specific denial of the rumour published in The Guardian yesterday. If he is saying that he denies the truth of the article, we shall be more than delighted.
§ Mr. Sharples
What the article said was that an announcement had been made. I said that no announcement had been made.
§ Mr. Mackenzie
We would be even happier if the hon. Gentleman had said that no announcement would be made. If no announcement is made, we shall give him all the support in his non-announcement that an Opposition can give to any non-action in that regard.
1645 We have had a good debate and we have raised a number of matters. We hope that we can help the Minister to improve the Bill, but he will appreciate that the Bill is only just a beginning. It is a good beginning, but we consider that the Report which Sir Robert Holroyd and his colleagues published will be the future basis for all fire legislation.
I have been approached by fire brigades unions, fire officers, local authorities, and all the people who are concerned with these fires which are caused by negligence, carelessness, and thoughtlessness. I know that they look forward to the time when Holroyd will be discussed in the House in much greater detail. The Bill is part of the answer. We look forward to the time when the Government can look at the whole question of the fire services in Scotland, England and Wales. We shall be ready, as an Opposition, to give the Government every help possible.
§ 2.15 p.m.
The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Education, Scottish Office (Mr. Edward Taylor)
It is a pleasure to reply to what has been a most constructive debate on the Bill.
Perhaps I should first refer to the speech of the hon. Member for Rutherglen (Mr. Gregor Mackenzie). I understand that this is his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. I congratulate him on a most informed and distinguished contribution to what has been an excellent debate. He was able to cope excellently with so many points raised in the course of the discussion, and I shall do that as best I can. Many matters have been raised by hon. Members, and I shall deal with as many as I can; and I assure all hon. Gentlemen who have spoken that we shall bear their observations in mind in our future deliberations.
I was grateful, as I know was my hon. Friend the Minister of State, for the general welcome given by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) to the Bill. There has been a general agreement that this is only part of a process and that the Bill will not solve all our problems. It is only a step. But the hon. Gentleman agreed that it was a step in the right direction, and that a path along which he wanted to co-operate with 1646 us fully, in general, in making the Bill law as soon as reasonably practical, consistent with a thorough study of its provisions in Committee and elsewhere.
As the hon. Member for Rutherglen referred to some Scottish points, and as he had the pleasure of winding up for the Opposition, my hon. Friends and everyone in the House will forgive me if, while not in any way trying to designate importance to the arguments, I dealt first with the points raised in relation to Scotland. Those were in relation to Clauses 11, 15, 16 and 18, which the hon. Member for Rutherglen rightly said did not apply to Scotland or had some exclusions in respect of Scotland. I am grateful to have the opportunity of explaining why the Bill is drafted as it is. I hope that that will provide an opportunity to put at rest any fears which there may be.
Clause 11 relates to building regulations and the provision of means of escape in case of fire, and related powers to amend local acts. Subsection (5) disapplies this Clause to Scotland as the power to make regulations for means of escape already exists in Scotland. The hon. Member for Rutherglen pointed out that this would probably be the case. I can confirm that Section 3 of the Building (Scotland) Acts 1959 and 1970 as read with the Fourth Schedule to the 1959 Act gives the Secretary of State for Scotland power to make regulations dealing with means of escape in the event of fire. Regulations covering means of escape were included in the Building Standards (Scotland) Regulations, 1963, now the Building Standards (Scotland) (Consolidation) Regulations 1970, which first came into operation on 15th June, 1964. In short, we have excluded Scotland in this respect because the powers already exist.
Clause 15 concerns the duty of local authorities to consult fire authorities before dispensing with or relaxing certain requirements of building regulations. Subsection (2) of that Clause disapplies Clause 15 to Scotland, as the intention of the Clause is to be met in Scotland by means of procedure regulations made under Section 4(8) of the Building (Scotland) Act, 1959, as substituted by Section 2 of the Building (Scotland) Act, 1970. These procedure regulations will require persons who apply to building authorities for a relaxation of the building standard 1647 regulations to send a copy of the application to the fire authority in every case in which a dispensation or relaxation is sought of a regulation which is specified as dealing with fire authority interests, including means of escape. The fire authority will thereby have an opportunity to make representations on the application and on the building authority's proposed decision.
Clause 16 imposes a duty on local authorities to consult fire authorities in certain cases before passing plans. Again the hon. Member for Rutherglen rightly raised this as an important point. Subsection (3) disapplies Clause 16 to Scotland, since mandatory consultation would be unnecessary and time consuming against the background of building control in Scotland. Hon. Members will be well aware from listening to debates on Scotland and Great Britain as a whole that we have separate local provision in building control regulations and the like in a field in which we are rather different. The Scottish building regulations dealing with means of escape are in quite specific terms and there is, therefore, little or no room for differing interpretations. Any differences that might arise are likely to be excluded. These regulations have been in operation since June, 1964.
§ Mr. Gregor Mackenzie
The hon. Gentleman has helped to clarify the situation, but I hope that in Committee we shall get some further assurance from him on this whole question of building regulations, trying to tie them up a little better.
Of course we shall be glad to provide whatever information is available in order to deal with any points which the hon. Gentleman has in mind.
I think it fair to say, on the question of Clause 16, that mandatory consultation would in these circumstances be a little pointless and could lead to delays arising in the grant of warrant to developers carrying out structural alterations. Consultations of the kind proposed in Clause 16 have not been considered necessary in the course of the past six years, during which fire certification procedure has been carried out in a wide range of buildings under the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963, and there have been no complaints that 1648 developers have suffered from a lack of statutory consultation in the sense that they have had many changes for fire certification purposes in a building for which warrant had, and in the event erroneously, been granted.
Clause 18 relates to enforcement of the Act. There is a simpler answer to this point than to the other Clauses, Clause 18 provides that local authorities in Scotland will not institute proceedings for any offence. This looks rather strange in the English context, but the simple answer is that this is because responsibility in these matters rests with the Lord Advocate's Department and the Procurator Fiscal. I emphasise to the hon. Member for Rutherglen that this is not a major departure in the Scottish and English provisions.
§ Mr. English
Leaving out this last Clause but reverting to the preceding three points, has not the hon. Gentleman driven a coach and horses through his hon. Friend's original statement that one purpose of this Bill was to make the regulations uniform? It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is saying, "It is not in the Bill because it is in another regulation." But anybody in Scotland, which is part of the United Kingdom, trying to look up the fire regulations for the purpose of protecting a building has to recollect that he will have different regulations to deal with, or the same regulations in different Acts, in different parts of the United Kingdom. Is there any sense in this?
The hon. Gentleman has raised a wider point which, in a separate way, he raised when discussing Clause 33 relating to the question of local Acts. Here we have something similar. In Scotland we have our building regulations and our legislation. What I was pointing out was not in conflict with what my hon. Friend said but, I hope, underlined it. We are trying to make common provision; but this does not mean common law. It does not mean that we have identical Acts, regulations and all the rest applying to the two countries. We in Scotland have a different legal system and I think that if we were to try to bring about uniformity in all the laws of Scotland and England in a Bill relating to fire precautions, we might find that the Committee 1649 stage would not be quite as short as the hon. Member for Leeds, South hopes, consistent with a careful consideration of all the points.
§ Mr. Gregor Mackenzie
The hon. Gentleman might care to point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) that if we are to have uniformity, we in Scotland would like to keep our present set of building regulations, and perhaps the English set of building regulations could be amended to bring them up to the excellent standards laid down in Scotland.
Yes, as a Scottish Junior Minister, I can pay tribute to our splendid Scottish legislation. After all, we on these benches played some part in bringing about that legislation.
I come to Clause 33 which relates to the point raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). We have the problem of local Acts. The Clause provides that a person shall not be treated as contravening a local Act if a failure on his part to do anything to the premises is attributable to the fact that remedying that failure would involve a contravention of the Bill or of regulations made under it. The hon. Gentleman thought that we were giving sweeping exemptions under this Clause. We are doing nothing of the sort. There are a number of local Acts dealing with means of escape and fire precautions which in their application to premises with which the Bill is concerned may conflict with the requirements imposed under the Bill and regulations made under Clause 12. This is a sweeping-up provision to deal with any such conflict between a local Act and this Bill and any regulations made under Clause 12.
It would be impossible to list all the local Acts and provisions concerned. We thought this was the simpler way to deal with the point. I do not see any great problems stemming from this Clause. We shall be only too glad to look into any further arguments which may be advanced, but, as I have said, this is just a sweeping-up measure to deal with a situation in which this Bill or any regulations made under Clause 12 might conflict with a local Act.
§ Mr. English
I accept that the hon. Gentleman's answer is honest. It is very much a draftsman's Clause. The point that I was making was, however, not quite the one that he answered. My point was that instead of uniformity, what one is saying is that the provisions of local Acts will not apply if they are in contravention of this Bill, roughly speaking. Everybody building in England will have to think to himself, "What are the local Acts? What is this Act? Are they in contravention?" There is no uniformity. There is this Act plus anything in any other Act which is not in contravention to any particular place.
Incidentally, may I reveal myself in the unlikely guise of a Scottish feudal superior?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is delighted that he was not abolished by the previous Secretary of State!
This is a separate question which I shall be glad to go into. We do not expect any major practical problems stemming from Clause 33, but if there are any further arguments advanced which demonstrate that there would be major difficulties arising we shall carefully study this matter.
I come to the point raised by the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) as well as the hon. Member for Rutherglen, relating to churches. The first time I looked at Clause 2 and at paragraphs (d) and (e) I got a surprise because the provisions relating to Scotland and England appeared to be very different, and there seemed to be a considerable exemption here. The fact is that churches and other places of worship are thought to represent a relatively small fire risk to congregations. We have, in fact, had no evidence from the fire services that they need special precautions. We accept, however, that there may be occasions when places of worship, because of their construction, perhaps because they incorporate galleries or because of the activities conducted in them—and here we have very much in mind the position of a new housing area where the church may be the centre of community life—exhibitions and concerts, could demand a measure of control. Power has therefore been taken to make regulations under 1651 Clause 12 aimed at the safety of congregations in churches and other places of worship.
As to the definitions, the definitions of churches in paragraph (e) are taken from Section 22 of the Valuation and Rating (Scotland) Act, 1956, and the English definition follows the General Rating Act, 1967. One or two hon. Members expressed the hope that we were not giving an exemption to one Church, the Church of England or the Church in Wales, and not to others.
Yes, my hon. Friend mentioned the position of the Roman Catholic Church, too. In fact, there is no such intention. We are not discriminating between Churches. Although it is not as clear as it might be, the definition takes this form:any premises constituting, or forming part of, a place of public religious worship which belongs to the Church of England or to the Church in Wales or which is for the time being certified as required by law as a place of religious worship".It is the second "or" which shows that we are not restricting this to the Church of England or the Church in Wales. The important words are,or … certified … as a place of religious worship".
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
Perhaps it is a Committee point, but it will help our thinking in the matter if we know the answer now. Is it a fact that religious bodies other than the Church of England and the Church in Wales have to be certified as being religious organisations? It occurs to me that there are organisations which call themselves churches, and this might complicate the question. Could we have information about that before the Committee stage? Otherwise, the debate that morning might last rather a long time.
I have said that the definition here comes from the General Rate Act, 1967, and I fancy that certification for general rating purposes for the normal exemptions available to church premises would be certification for the purposes of this Bill, too. If exemption is given under our rating and valuation laws, it would follow, I think, 1652 that certification is already given. However, if hon. Members have further points which they wish to pursue, we shall be only too glad to look into them in Committee. I hope that what I have said clarifies the matter at this stage.
I come to several miscellaneous points—I mean no disrespect—before taking up the principal questions which hon. Members have raised. The hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. George Cunningham) asked about consultation regarding traffic schemes to ensure that fire services were not impeded in reaching any source of trouble. I shall have to look into that further. I am not entirely sure of the answer at the moment, and I hope that I may leave it on the basis that I take the interesting and important point which the hon. Gentleman has raised, and I undertake that he will have a reply in due course—certainly, I hope, before the Committee stage.
The hon. Member for Islington, South-West raised the question of impersonation, and wondered what the circumstances might be in which a penalty for impersonation of a fire inspector would arise. We had in mind possible impersonation by a salesman of fire extinguishers, a man pretending to be acting on behalf of a fire authority. There has been trouble of this kind in the past, though not directly in relation to fire matters, when persons have arrived at people's homes alleging that they come from an authority and suggesting that something should be purchased. There are all kinds of circumstances in which impersonation might take place, and that was our concern.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
The motive to which the hon. Gentleman refers may be a likely one and the penalty is, perhaps, suitable for that case, but the motive to which I referred was different and deserves a heavier penalty.
I shall bear that in mind. I hope that my observations later on the question of penalties will assist the hon. Gentleman.
The question of cost was raised in relation to the resources of fire departments, of the Government themselves, and of those who have to make changes in structures or provide means of escape. 1653 The main Government expenditure, falling on the Home Office Vote, will be about £100,000 a year in respect of staff. This represents the cost of about 20 additional staff, of whom five will be civil servants and the remainder members of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Fire Services. Of these, one civil servant and two inspectors will be in Scotland. Not all the staff will be appointed at once. The number will build up in step with the phased implementation of the Bill by designation orders under Clause 1.
Local government costs, again in respect of staff, will form the major expenditure arising from the Bill. It is estimated that this will eventually reach £1 million a year when the full complement of additional staff—mainly about 400 members of fire brigades in England, Wales and Scotland—have been appointed. This is not likely to be earlier than three years after the Bill receives the Royal Assent, or, perhaps, longer, depending on the speed of implementation.
In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Kinsey), I can tell the House that this local government expenditure will qualify as relevant expenditure for rate support grant purposes. It is likely, therefore, that when all the additional staff have been appointed, about £550,000 a year will be met from the Exchequer and about £450,000 a year from local authority revenue.
Some expenditure in addition may be necessary to bring Crown and local authority-owned premises to the standards necessary under the Bill. Generally, however, the existing arrangements for securing a reasonable standard of fire precaution in such premises are thought to be satisfactory and little additional expenditure is expected to be necessary.
The principal categories of publicly-owned premises likely to be affected by the Bill are: schools, perhaps 30,000 in England and Wales and about 3,000 in Scotland; hospitals, about 3,000 in England, Wales and Scotland; institutions for residential care, that is, old folks' homes, children's homes and so on, about 5,000 in England, Wales and Scotland; and blocks of flats, approximately 1654 45,000 in England and Wales. That gives an indication of what we have in mind.
What of our estimates of additional manpower? Some hon. Members suggested that 400 will not be enough, while others said that it will be an over-estimate in relation to what can be done with the available resources. We have tried to make the best possible calculation because we know what the strength of fire prevention staffs is and, from the returns, we know what the inspectors find on their visits made under the current regulations, including good will visits.
We have accordingly estimated the extra work-load in terms of the number of buildings, the type of inspections required, and the notional time scale, working on a proportional basis, according to present performance. We admit that the figures are entirely estimates. The 400 is a peak figure, and we do not expect it to be reached until the third full year of operation. Due provision has been made for the necessary expenditure.
An important point was made in this connection by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate). Although one may say that 400 extra members of fire services are needed, there is a shortage at present. Taking the country as a whole, there is a deficiency of about 5 per cent. in fire authorities' full-time strengths as compared with their authorised establishments. Recruitment and wastage are currently running at much the same level. However—I make this point in response to what was rightly said by the hon. Member for Rutherglen—we cannot be complacent in any circumstances when we have a shortage in this vital public service. We hope that the additional burdens which we are putting on the service by the Bill will not aggravate what is already a significant shortage.
This work in local authorities will be eligible for rate support grant as relevant expenditure. The point has been raised about extra costs not accruing to government or local authority but to owners and owner-occupiers of buildings. It will certainly cost money, and there is no point in hiding that. The expense may be significant in several cases. We cannot say what cost will be incurred in respect of many types of premises to which the Bill may apply. This will depend upon 1655 the extent to which the owners, voluntarily availing themselves of advice from fire brigades or complying with existing regulations, have already brought up their standards to a satisfactory level.
Sweeping criticisms that a fire authority has imposed too strict a condition can be met by the fact that we are dealing with human life quite apart from property and individual suffering. It is fair to say that fire authorities may require only what is reasonable in the circumstances. This is laid down in the Bill. What is required by fire authorities may appear to be expensive or harsh for individuals but there is a general responsibility here to act reasonably. It is important that standards should be correct even if it involves substantial expenditure.
Clause 37 deals with loans. This is a new provision here although not new in local government powers generally. It is designed particularly as a safeguard against homelessness. If the owner of a block of flats cannot afford the expense of improving them to meet the fire authority's requirements, he may find himself guilty of using the premises without a fire certificate. He may be reluctant to go to the expense of an appeal, and this power of a local authority to make a loan covering the cost involved has been provided. It is wholly in keeping with housing policy. Provision is made for loans in various enactments under which expenditure for improvement to dwellings may be required.
There is the difficulty that some may find that their property does not conform to fire regulations because they cannot get a certificate. On the other hand they have protected tenants and must face the consequences of the Rent Act provisions. We hope that by this means in particular cases of difficulty the local authority will be able to help with a loan, ensuring that standards are maintained. This does not apply to commercial undertakings. We do not believe there is a case for making loans from local authorities to the operators of commercial undertakings. If they do not wish to incur the expenditure involved there is no question of compelling them. It is open to them to cease the activity concerned. There is no question of the requirements of a fire authority being 1656 singled out from any other statutory requirement relating to safety, health or welfare which anyone in business may have to satisfy. Loans are not available for such other purposes and there is no reason for treating fire precautions differently.
The hon. Member for Leeds, South raised the question of the extent to which the Bill takes into account the Holroyd Report. The position is that the Report went a great deal further in its concept and recommendations than we are considering now. The inquiry related to the principles and organisation of the fire services, the relationship between central government and local fire authorities, the functions of the fire services and other matters. We have not been able to deal with those recommendations which might have involved legislation. The Bill was in an advanced state of preparation when the Holroyd Report was published. The hon. Member for Islington, South-West asked how long it had been in our pigeonhole. Obviously these things are not rushed unduly but there is a question of Parliamentary time, and that is a fair indication.
We needed consultations with a variety of organisations and there was no time for a full discussion and agreement on all the proposals in the Holroyd Report. Where it is possible, due regard has been paid to the recommendations of the inquiry. As an instance of how we have moved with the recommendations when possible, schools have been brought within the scope of the Bill. The powers of the Secretary of State for the Environment to make building regulations have been extended under Clause 11 to include building regulations dealing with means of escape.
Turning to the matter of penalties, several hon. Members have raised the importance of re-appraising the penalties involved. The substantial offences under the Bill are those in Clause 7(1) and (2) relating to using premises without a fire certificate; 7(4) contravening the requirements of a fire certificate; 12(4)(c) contravening the regulations made under the Bill. The penalties follow the precedent of the 1963 Act and, broadly are in each case a maximum fine of £400 on summary conviction. We have listened carefully to the arguments put forward by several hon. Members as to the 1657 adequacy of these penalties as a whole. I do not want to give a specific commitment but I can assure them that between now and Committee stage we shall consider all that has been said. We are talking about serious contravention of regulations but it would be wrong to go into detail about what we will do.
Dealing with the point raised by the hon. Member for Faversham, who asked about the House of Commons and said that we might be legislating for the rest of the world and forgetting our own back garden, I am happy to tell those who are not aware of it that a fire certificate is in force under the provisions of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963. The certificate was dated 13th October 1969. I can also say that an alarm system is being installed in the building. We all know from the excellent service we receive from the servants of the House that any questions of care can be safely left to them. They will carry out this function with the same degree of devotion that they carry out their other functions.
The question of Crown property has been raised. The Holroyd Committee recommended that all fire prevention inspections of Crown premises should be carried out by fire brigades except where there was a valid objection on security grounds. The hon. Member for Leeds, South referred to the fact that there were some military installations where it would be wrong to provide total access of this sort. It is for this and other reasons that we have not gone as far as Holroyd recommended. We have been content in principle to follow the traditional line of other legislation, that local authorities should not have powers of enforcement against the Crown. The Crown is nevertheless bound by the Bill so far as is relevant and practicable and the work of certification and inspection will rest with Her Majesty's inspectors, just as under the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963 it rests with the factory inspectors.
But we have gone some way towards meeting the Holroyd Committee's recommendations by providing that an inspector may delegate to an officer of the fire brigade such powers as he has in respect of Crown premises. So, although we have not gone the full way with regard to Crown premises, we have made pro- 1658 vision, where Her Majesty's inspector considers it appropriate, for the fire brigades to carry out the work and duties on Crown premises delegated in this way.
The hon. Members for Nottingham, West and Rutherglen, said that in the Bill we were dealing a great deal with buildings and not saying much about people. Several hon. Members said that, no matter how good the law was, if people were not trained in the use of equipment and in escaping from dangerous buildings we should not achieve as much as we wished. I should like to make it clear that the certificates can improve matters relating to education, propaganda and the like. In Clause 6(2)(c) there is provision for the certificate to secure… that persons employed to work in the premises receive appropriate instruction or training in what to do in case of fire, and that records are kept of instruction or training given for that purpose.I accept that that is not the full answer to the point, because obviously even if everybody is trained and all the equipment is there, a human error can result in a terrible tragedy. Hon. Members have referred to such cases of contravention leading to tragedy. But we are specifically making provision for people to be instructed in what to do in case of fire. The certificate can prescribe this, and I hope that this will in some degree allay the fears expressed by hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Leeds, South also asked me about exemptions for mental hospitals. In general, they are not excluded. Those excluded are solely the special mental hospitals like Broadmoor, where questions of security arise in the same way as in prisons and make it very difficult to introduce this general application.
Having spoken for perhaps far too long already, I find that I must now deal with some substantial matters relating to dwelling houses. If one consistent theme has run through the debate, it is the concern about the houses to which the Bill applies and also those to which it does not apply, and whether there are some dwelling houses which cannot be covered at all.
Houses occupied as single private dwellings and houses in multiple occupation are excluded from Clause 3. It is 1659 true, unfortunately, that most deaths in fires occur in the home, and therefore this exclusion has understandably been criticised. But it has been generally accepted that it would be impracticable to enforce the fire precautions without powers of entry to the home which can hardly be contemplated in terms of staff required and public opinion. Such measures as structural fire precautions and alarms may not in any case be the answer to the problems of fire in the home, but, even if they were, the cost would be prohibitive. The fire service has always worked on the assumption that members of the same family should be able to help one another in an emergency, and that is true even if the dwelling-house is very large. I appreciate that it does not always apply. There are cases of elderly people living alone and cases where there are large numbers of young children in a home. I do not want to give the impression that we are in any way complacent about the position in residential accommodation.
§ Mr. Tilney
My hon. Friend has said that the structural alterations will be very expensive. But a ladder such as I mentioned costs just over £20, which I do not think is too expensive.
I was extremely interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney) said about that means of escape. What I am saying is not that we believe that these matters should not be considered but that certain provisions of the Bill will not apply to homes because there is already provision in other legislation or because other considerations are involved. I am sure that fire authorities and those concerned with residential accommodation will have taken careful note of what my hon. Friend said. Although we are generally concerned with what could be prohibitive costs, many important measures could be taken to improve the situation generally without involving great cost.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Fowler) asked about Clause 3, dealing with living accommodation. It deals with living accommodation, whether flats or however described, where the people concerned may be specially at risk, such as in basements or the upper floors of blocks of flats. But it does 1660 not apply where dwellings of that description are houses in multiple occupation. This is because means of escape in such houses are provided for under the Housing Acts. We are not giving an escape clause there; we are simply not including them because they are already provided for.
The hon. Gentleman rightly said that it is very difficult to draw the dividing line. It is not always easy to determine whether a building is a house in multiple occupation or a block of flats, but the statutory consultation between fire authorities and housing authorities should ensure that appropriate action is taken in respect of the premises concerned. Although the dividing line may be difficult to draw, no one will be left out of some kind of inspection or control.
The question of the blocking of corridors in houses in multiple occupation was raised. Whether the provisions of the Housing Acts relating to means of escape should include a requirement that passages are not to be obstructed must be considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. We cannot extend the Bill to deal with all the housing implications.
My hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr raised a very important question about multiple occupation and overcrowding, concerning the use of oil heaters. Regulations apply to oil heaters under the Consumer Protection Act, 1961. These can be applied only at the point of sale. We cannot in any way legislate on the way they are used or misused, but a good deal of publicity, some in immigrant languages, is regularly issued by central and local government and bodies like the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.
Although I have spoken far too long, there may be some other detailed points that I have not been able to answer. But I hope that I have answered the principal point.
It is very encouraging that the Bill has been accepted by both sides of the House as a step in the right direction towards making better provision to deal with fire risks, a matter involving considerable expenditure and the loss of human lives. It is a subject which we all accept is serious and with which we want to deal. 1661 It is the hope of Her Majesty's Government and of my hon. Friend that the Bill will indeed make a significant contribution to reducing fire risks in Britain, which present a real human problem.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).