HC Deb 05 February 1973 vol 850 cc167-78

10.24 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mills)

I beg to move, That the Fire Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 19th December, be approved. First, I must apologise profusely for my voice which has been affected by a bad cold which I caught in Northern Ireland only last week-end.

The purpose of the order is to provide for the establishment of a single fire authority to be responsible for fire cover for the whole of Northern Ireland.

A Fire Services Bill was introduced in the House of Commons of Northern Ireland on 1st March 1972 and was given a Second Reading in that House on 16th March 1972, but it fell with prorogation of the Parliament of Northern Ireland. This order follows closely the provisions of that Bill.

At present Northern Ireland has two fire authorities, namely, the Northern Ireland Fire Authority which is responsible for the fire cover for the whole area of the province outside the Belfast County Borough boundary and the Council of the County Borough of Belfast which is responsible for the fire cover for the area of the county borough.

The Northern Ireland Fire Authority was established in 1950 when that authority and the Council of the County Borough of Belfast became the two fire authorities for Northern Ireland. These authorities operate under the Fire Services Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 which consolidated the Fire Services Acts (Northern Ireland) 1947 to 1965.

The majority of the fire-fighting personnel of the Northern Ireland Fire Authority's fire brigade are employed on a part-time or retained basis, while the Council of the County Borough of Belfast employs a full-time fire brigade.

The establishment of a single fire authority will have the effect of bringing together into a single fire fighting force of roughly 1,200 men two very efficient fire brigades with a wealth of skill and experience behind them. Even though I have been in the Northern Ireland office For only three months, I am full of praise for all the work they do. They are remarkable forces, and only this weekend they demonstrated that in the way in which they dealt with the tanker. The citizens of Northern Ireland and we here should be extremely grateful to these men and their officers.

The size in manpower terms of the new brigade will be that suggested as the optimum by the Holroyd Committee in its report on the fire service in Great Britain, namely, one containing between 1,100 and 1,300 men.

The order introduces an important change in the financing of fire services in Northern Ireland by providing for the new authority's funds to come from the Exchequer or Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland. Under existing arrangements the Northern Ireland Fire Authority's funds come partly from a Government's grant and partly from a levy on local authorities, while the Council of the County Borough of Belfast receives no direct financial assistance from the Government towards the cost of fire services in Northern Ireland will become a regional service and a regional rate will be levied for the purposed of all regional services.

This is a short order which seeks to provide for the reorganisation of Northern Ireland's fire services by the adaptation of the Fire Services Act (Northern Ireland) 1969. This it will do by amending many of the provisions of that Act, repealing others and adding some new provisions.

Lists of the amendments and repeals necessary are set out in the schedules to the order, while new provisions to be inserted in the Act appear in the body of the order.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

I understand the Minister's physical difficulties. Remove a politician's voice and he becomes almost powerless, but the hon. Gentleman managed to get over the main points that he wanted to put before the House.

I propose to make a few brief comments on behalf of the Opposition and to reiterate that the occasions on which we have this type of legislation in the form of orders late at night, with short debates, is mounting. This is the 28th piece of legislation that we have had in this form, though there is an exception in this instance in that the matter was debated at Stormont and received a Second Reading. It is, however, worth pointing out that although there may not be a large attendance in the Chamber tonight there was not a large attendance at Stormont either when the matter was debated there. The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) who, unfortunately, is not here, made that point during the debate at Stormont and it was underlined by Vivian Simpson, a Member of the Labour Party in that House.

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

I hope that there is no reflection in what the hon. Gentleman said. He will be aware that in this House, with 630 Members, many important measures are passed with a very small attendance.

Mr. Orme

I was making the point that we do not have a large attendance tonight. It was debated, but only for a short while. Probably the unanimity on the issue was one of the reasons for its general acceptance. The Opposition accept the general proposals outlined in this Statutory Instrument.

It is also worth remembering that we have consulted the Fire Brigades Union, which recommended a unified fire service for Northern Ireland in its evidence to the Review Body on Local Government and the Macrory Committee. Therefore, the order, the central purpose of which is to create such an authority, is to be welcomed, especially as most of its detailed provisions are eminently sensible from our point of view.

I have one or two reservations. I am not too sure about the new name for the force, which is the Ulster Fire Authority, in view of the historical connotations of the word "Ulster". In the setting up of different regional authorities in Northern Ireland—

Mr. Peter Mills

If I may clarify that point, it is the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Orme

I probably saw that from an earlier debate. For electricity, housing, and so on, they are known as the Northern Ireland authorities, so that clears up that point easily.

The district councils, other than the Council of the City of Belfast, have only the same number of representatives as Belfast on the new authority, although the population involved is about double that of Belfast. The Minister is entitled to appoint more members than there will be local government representatives. Therefore, the representatives of local democracy could be out-voted—I do not suppose that that is the Minister's intention, but that could occur—as there is no specific representation allowed of either the members of the brigades or of the Fire Brigades Union. We believe that the union should have a specific representative on this body.

On the first point, this could be altered by changing the present nominations proposed by the Ministry to, for instance, four, six and seven respectively. I am talking now of the four by the city of Belfast, four by the other district councils and nine by the Minister. The balance could be changed, if this were felt to be sufficiently important.

We understand that it is estimated that the new authority will employ 1,242 people. That is an increase of only 6 per cent. and is accounted for almost entirely by an increase in part-time firemen. Representations we have received from firemen in Northern Ireland make it clear that the present forces are seriously undermanned, especially as a result of the exceptional demands made on the service in recent years.

We associate ourselves with the Minister's remarks about the work that this fire service does. We fully support the special allowance the men receive. In that regard, the fire services are often closely associated with the police force, and so on. As we know, they have made such a demand, and we would support them in their current representations.

Those are salient points, particularly that about the name of the service, which has been cleared up by the Minister and which the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) will try to contradict. We make these representations to the Minister. Although, because of the nature of the instrument, we cannot amend it in any way, we look to the Minister seriously to consider the valid points we have made. Under the terms of the order he will have powers to make such changes. We welcome the order.

10.35 p.m.

Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)

I join the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) in commiserating with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on his cold and his lack of voice. If at the end of this debate he feels that it would be more appropriate to reply by letter we shall be perfectly happy. We think that he is very gallant to undertake his duties tonight in his present state.

The hon. Member for Salford, West, spoke of this being the 28th Order in Council, and that is perfectly right. It is a very difficult, cumbersome, undemocratic way of dealing with legislation, and it is useful to take this opportunity of underlining it. This order, however, differs from all the others in that it is almost entirely non-controversial. In fact, it was passed through the House at Stormont, and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, received general approbation—so much so that hardly anybody attended the debate. Indeed, we do not want to keep the House very long tonight because we approve the order.

On the other hand, it would be wrong to let the occasion pass without asking one or two important questions and paying tribute, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and the hon. Member for Salford, West did, to the work performed by the fire services in Ulster. I do not think anybody who lives in the comparative calm and quiet of the rest of Great Britain can possibly understand exactly what it costs the people who operate the normal public services—the police, the police reserve, the fire and ambulance services. When one thinks of an unarmed fireman going out into a potentially dangerous riotous area, with bullets and other things flying about, having to do his duty in that kind of situation, the extent of the courage shown by these people almost passes belief.

In passing, I would make one point. It perhaps does not concern my hon. Friend, but it ought to concern somebody when it comes to recommendation for decorations and awards for gallantry. If anybody deserves awards for gallantry, if anybody deserves recognition, it is people of this sort, in this walk of life, in Ulster, who carry out these tasks with so much devotion to duty.

The order, as has been said, was passed in Stormont in the form of a Second Reading. Curiously enough, it should have come about many years ago. I do not know whether my hon. Friend or the hon. Member for Salford, West had a look at the situation in 1950 when the fire authority for the rest of Northern Ireland was established. If it had not been for petty disagreements at that time —and petty disagreements they were—the Belfast Corporation fire authority should at that time in 1950 have been included with the rest. It is a pity that this did not come about. The Belfast Corporation fire authority not only set a high standard in efficiency but until recently it has been the only local fire brigade in the United Kingdom which has received no financial assistance from central Government. Perhaps that says something for its independence throughout this time, but I think the Macrory Report and everybody concerned understands that that cannot continue.

Both fire authorities are entirely satisfied with the Bill and with the order. There is no complaint on that score. In fact, they have been working very closely together for some considerable time. In 1962 the joint Northern Ireland branch of fire engineers was set up and there has been close co-operation between the two bodies from that time. A joint working party was set up a year ago chaired by the principal officer at the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the order merely gives legislative effect, therefore, to what has been happening already.

To a large extent the Northern Ireland fire brigade is dependent upon the good will of outside employers. It is not often realised to what extent employers in Ulster have been co-operating with the fire authorities. The authorities have been happy with the co-operation they have been getting. Each of the authorities feels that morale in its own fire service is excellent and that the service is of a high order when, due to terrorist activities, it has been stretched to its full potential. I agree with the hon. Member for Salford, West that every effort must be made to increase the number of firemen, to improve their conditions of service and the rewards they get. They are vital to the community.

The hon. Member asked questions about the order which I should like to underline. In Article 3, for example, what are the principles for selection in the authority? In Article 3(b) the hon. Member pointed to an imbalance between the appointed and the elected representatives. For some considerable time there will be no elected representatives because the district councils themselves will not be coming into operation until at least the autumn, or whatever it is. What arrangements will be made in the interim? Will there be no representatives from local authorities in the interim period? The existing local authorities are continuing. Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to look into this matter. I know that it is slightly esoteric but the hon. Member for Salford, West was on to a fair point in that there should be some kind of democratic representation, even if it be in only a token sense.

The order lays down that four persons shall be nominated by the Council of the City of Belfast and that four shall represent the interests of the district councils. It is true that Belfast has one third of the population but I am inclined to agree with the hon. Member for Salford, West here. Surely a more representative distribution would be three from Belfast and five from elsewhere. Is there to be no representative from Londonderry, the second city of Ulster? What about each of the six counties which geographically represent large areas?

There is the issue of disqualification in these bodies. It may be that local district councillors with an eye on a political career will find themselves disqualified from membership of the central Parliament because they serve on the Ulster Fire Authority. Is that a weakness at a time when there is need for education of a new political cadre?

Why is the new chief fire officer to be appointed by the Secretary of State or by whatever authority may succeed him and not by the fire authority itself? If the fire authority does not have the power, perhaps subject to the Secretary of State's approval, to appoint the chief fire officer, does not that make the fire authority a purely advisory body instead of its having the proper executive authority, with the real power in its hands? Will there be an annual report of the fire authority which we could debate in the House from time to time if the need arose?

I understand that the Secretary of State received a deputation from the Fire Brigades Union fairly recently, and that a Mr. McArdle, one of the leaders of the union, stated that the union was concerned about two matters. The first was that the legislation should not be deferred too long. That point has been met. His second point was that at present the Joint Working Party was adequate, but that once the legislation was passed the union should be allowed representation on the fire authority, too. I believe that that is a reasonable request. The union has a considerable vested interest in putting a point of view on the fire authority. I support the hon. Gentleman on that.

There is not much more that I can say, except to ask the question that the hon. Gentleman asked in reverse. He asked why the title should be the "Ulster Fire Authority". I ask why that should not be its title, and upon whose instigation it was changed. It was originally to be called the "Ulster Fire Authority" and it is now to be the "Fire Authority for Northern Ireland." Why has the change been made? What is wrong with the name "Ulster"? [Interruption.] It is obvious that the nigger in the wood pile is not the hon. Gentleman, because he did not even know that the change had been made.

Subject to that point, we on this side are absolutely satisfied with the order. We hope that the new fire authority will have considerable success, and that the greatest possible support, encouragement and reward will go from this House to the devoted servants of the Crown covered by it, who are doing such good work for their fellow human beings in a ghastly and difficult situation.

10.48 p.m.

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

As the hour is late, I do not intend to keep the House long.

I welcome the establishment of the fire authority. The Bill on which the order is based had its Second Reading in Northern Ireland before the Parliament there was dissolved, which underlines the great difficulty this House has in finding time for necessary measures which have already been considered in Northern Ireland. The delay mentioned by the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme), emphasises the point made frequently during such debates—there have been 28 of them now—that the House is not capable of dealing with the many items of legislation for Northern Ireland, simply because of the great pressures on the time of Parliament at Westminster in dealing with all the affairs of State. Therefore, we should repeat tonight that the Ulster Members look forward to the restoration of a democratic form of government in Northern Ireland which can deal with such matters—and that as soon as possible.

I also underline what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) said, and pay my own tribute as a Belfast Member to the great courage of the firemen in Northern Ireland. I have seen them operating under considerable difficulty. I have seen them being shot at whilst attending to fires. As we all know, there have been a large number of horrible bomb outrages in Belfast during the past three years. Many people have been killed and injured in those outrages. But it is even worse to see the firemen shot at by IRA terrorists when they are called to deal with the resulting conflagrations.

The feelings of commendation which have already been expressed should take a more tangible form. The firemen in Northern Ireland should receive special remuneration to meet the peculiar risks and difficulties under which they are now operating. In spite of the pay pause, consideration should be given by way of special remuneration to take care of the special risks. Some consideration should be given to increasing their take-home pay.

That should be done for two reasons: first, to reflect the esteem in which the House holds the fire service in Northern Ireland; secondly, to encourage recruitment. We are dependent on these people, If the situation grows worse over the vital weeks ahead—and I am afraid the indications of the past week-end are that it may become worse—it is essential that the men in this public service should be properly looked after by the Government.

We are establishing this authority for the whole of Northern Ireland, and we are doing it at Westminster. It would be appropriate if some increase in wage or salary, either directly or indirectly, could be made to coincide with the passing of the order.

That is the main point which I wish to make tonight. I endorse all of the re- marks of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South. I was particularly horrified by the incident which took place this weekend when a tanker full of petrol in the centre of Belfast had a bomb placed inside it. If that bomb had gone off there would have been chaos in Belfast. Burning petrol would have poured through the busy shopping streets and elsewhere in the city. When we remember the closeness of the buildings in Belfast, it is easy to understand what a terrible disaster that would have been. It is at a time like this that one must pay attention to the men who are operating in the fire service and ensure that they are properly looked after by this House.

10.54 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills

I will try to answer the points that have been raised. If I do not clear up anything properly I will write to hon. Members. The hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme)—and I am grateful to him for what he said—paid tribute to the gallant and brave men in Northern Ireland. He is right when he said that the matter was fully debated in Stormont. Even though the number of hon. Members present tonight may be small, it is not always numbers that are important but the quality of the people.

The hon. Gentleman was right when he said that the unions are in favour of the order. They came to Stormont recently and I had a long chat with them. I was very impressed. They raised various matters, but there is no doubt that we have their full co-operation. That is terribly important. The hon. Gentleman was wrong about the name of the authority. It is the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland. The commission finally agreed to that name.

Mr. Orme

When did that change take place?

Mr. Mills

I cannot answer that question precisely. I think that the change took place some months ago. That is one of the commission's functions.

It is true that representation on the authority is four plus four plus nine. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is well aware of the union's feelings. It is important to realise that one does need a wide cross-section of representation, for the fire authority is working for the benefit of the whole of Northern Ireland. But, of course, what the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) have said will be noted.

The question of staff has been raised. It is a little early to be dogmatic, but, although I have no knowledge that there is understaffing, I understand that 72 more personnel will be needed, with nine more at the headquarters at Lisburn. I had the pleasure of visiting Lisburn to see the control system and the work done there, and I can testify that it is going ahead even before the order is approved. It shows how well the brigades are working together.

It is important to realise that in this new authority there will be advantages for these very gallant men. There will be more scope for promotion; new equipment is needed in certain areas; new fire stations must be built and so on. A lot of work has to be done but it will be of advantage to the men and to the efficiency of the service in the long run.

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) for his welcome to the order and for what he said about the fire service. If hon. Members could go over to Northern Ireland and see what these men do, and could read of some of the incidents in which men have died, they would be amazed at their bravery and devotion to duty. My hon. and gallant Friend mentioned co-operation, and he is quite right. It is already under way. There is no argument about boundaries. When there is a fire in the city of Belfast, they all help each other, and that spirit augurs well for the future.

My hon. and gallant Friend also mentioned the interim period. If approved, the order will come into force on 1st October and the local councils should be under way by then. I do not, therefore, think that we shall have that little problem.

My hon. and gallant Friend also referred to the question of the choice of the chief fire officer. It is the intention of my right hon. Friend to ask the Civil Service Commissioners to appoint a board of selection. I understand that that is the correct procedure. The annual report, which would normally have been laid before Stormont, will be available to us here to study. I should add that the Advisory Commission decided on the name of the authority.

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East said in welcoming the order. Obviously, in his constituency he has had a lot of experience of the working of the fire brigade and what he had to say was absolutely correct. It is not only the firemen but the police, too, who have to go to incidents such as those we have had this last weekend, for example. The co-operation between the Army, the police and the fire brigade is very important.

I also take note of what my hon. Friend said about recognition, and I hope that those in authority will take note of it as well. These men are very worthy indeed of some recognition.

It is important to recognise that the united brigade in the new fire service will be slightly more expensive, but there will be an expansion of work—for example, through the new legislation on fire precautions in hotels and boarding houses. Their work will expand, and with the new equipment and new stations to which I have referred, a better service will be given.

I understand that the arrangements for pay, rank and pensions are all carefully covered, so that the men need have no fear of being at any disadvantage. The problem of uniform also is being solved.

I commend the order to the House. It represents another advance in Northern Ireland, and I am sure that it will be to the benefit of all concerned there. The whole House, I am sure, will not only welcome the order but will wish the new authority every success and hope that it will be able soon to get down to its task of fighting normal fires, if I may so put it, rather than the very unpleasant fires which the fire services have had to tackle in recent times.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Fire Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 19th December, be approved.