HC Deb 23 October 1984 vol 65 cc646-54 10.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Chris Patten)

I beg to move, That the draft Fire Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 17th July, be approved. The order has two purposes: first, to consolidate with amendments existing provisions relating to the composition and functions of the fire authority for Northern Ireland; and, secondly, to make further provision to strengthen the law relating to fire precautions in Northern Ireland to bring it into line with Great Britain.

Part II of the order reproduces those elements of existing legislation dealing with the constitution, powers, duties, administration and finance of the fire authority, but with some important amendments. No change is proposed in the present composition of the authority. There is a mixture of members drawn in the first place from the district councils, reflecting the local government involvement in the pre-1973 provision of fire services and, secondly, from a wide range of other interests.

In its consideration of the proposal, the Northern Ireland Assembly recommended that the authority should be composed entirely of nominees from district councils. However, I have decided that the existing arrangement has stood the test of time. It provides for membership of the authority to be drawn from a wide range of interests and experience, as befits a body providing an important Province-wide service. However, I propose that in future the chairman and vice-chairman will be appointed by the Department rather than being elected annually by the members. That is not an implicit criticism of the present or previous holders of those posts; each has given excellent service to the authority. Nevertheless, I believe that on balance it is now appropriate for the authority to be brought into line with other bodies administering Province-wide public services, such as the Housing Executive, the police authority and the electricity service.

I should add that it would not be my intention to exercise that power of appointment during the current term of the authority, which expires next September. The order also provides for the chairman and vice-chairman to be paid salaries commensurate with their enhanced responsibilities and duties.

The second major change relates to the functions of the chief fire officer, who, under existing legislation, is responsible to the authority for the efficiency of the fire brigade while the secretary reports direct to the authority on administrative matters. I now propose that, as in Great Britain, the chief fire officer should be the chief executive and answer to the authority for brigade and administrative matters. I have noted the Assembly's support for this proposal and article 9 has been re-drafted so as, I hope, to clarify the matter.

Part III deals with the important topic of fire precautions and will bring this aspect of the law in Northern Ireland into line with the corresponding Great Britain legislation. In essence, it establishes a system under which the occupiers of premises used for purposes designated under article 22 will be required to obtain from the authority a "fire certificate". This will be issued only when the authority is satisfied that the premises are provided with efficient means of escape, an adequate alarm system, fire fighting equipment and other fire precautions. Article 22 is so drafted as to enable a wide range of premises to be designated—hotels, boarding houses, residential care institutions, work places and places to which the public resort in large numbers. Many of those premises are, of course, already required to be provided with means of escape and other fire precautions under existing legislation.

The new designation system will ensure greater flexibility in the introduction of fire precautions as the need for such control arises from the way in which premises are used. The remaining articles in Part III deal with the practical operation of the fire certification procedure providing for such matters as offences and penalties. They are being brought into line with those applying in Great Britain.

The fire tragedy at Maysfield leisure centre earlier this year underlines the importance of fire precautions. The order will place on the authority considerably increased fire precautions responsibilities and so, as I said at the time that the report on the Maysfield fire was published, finance is being made available to the authority to enable it to create a further 10 posts in its fire precautions department.

Part IV of the order restates the functions of the department as they relate to the power to appoint inspectors to report on the performance of the authority. For some time, the inspector appointed has been from the Home Office fire inspectorate, and it is my intention that we should continue to make use of the experience of that inspectorate.

This draft order should enhance our ability to prevent fires and to deal with those which tragically occur. I am sure that the House would wish to take this opportunity to commend the admirable work done by the fire service in Northern Ireland. The draft order should help the service to do an even better job in the future, and I have no hesitation in commending it to the House.

10.21 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

This is an appropriate time to place on record our gratitude to the men and women of the Northern Ireland fire service. It is one of the busiest in the world. It answered 18,600 calls in 1983, 55 people died and 786 were seriously injured. More than 130 firemen were injured.

Since 1969, at least one fire officer has been shot dead, four others have died undertaking their duties and scores have suffered multiple burns as a result of their occupation. Again, this is an appropriate time to bear in mind that throughout that period Northern Ireland's fire officers have not been on what we would describe as high pay. Indeed, the present figure for firefighters is around £100 a week net—less for part-timers.

There are 1,428 firemen in Northern Ireland, 579 of whom are full-time, working 42 hours a week in nine-hour shifts. The demands placed on them are often heavy and severe. It is interesting to note that there are no women firefighters in Northern Ireland, although there are five in the British firefighting service. Although I know that there is resistance to it in the Northern Ireland fire service, at some time it will be worth looking at the possibility of employing women in that area.

Part II of the order restates the constitution, duties and powers of the fire authority. Part III extends and consolidates the fire authority's powers by enabling the department to designate certain types of premises as requiring a fire certificate, and imposes standard requirements in relation to fire alarms, firefighting and so on.

I was interested to note that the Northern Ireland Assembly approved the order but wanted more accountability. I accept that nothing more can be done about that at this stage, but the Assembly also drew attention to pensions for part-timers. We would welcome a ministerial response to that.

The Assembly also wanted to include places of worship as places needing fire certificates. The Minister might be tempted down that road after the experiences at York Minster, and at some stage that might be worth looking at. [Interruption.] the Bishop of Durham crossed my mind, but I am not thinking of asking him to serve there or to tighten up the argument for fire certificates in places of worship.

According to the Assembly, there is a need to tighten up certain other provisions and to check on the use of specified materials. These issues also deserve a more detailed response than we have so far had from the Minister.

My comments relate primarily to the Fair Employment Agency's report which was published earlier this year. I know that the Minister is aware of that report, and the Northern Ireland fire service is anxious that he should respond to it. That investigation discovered that in preceding years the number of Roman Catholics serving in the fire service were substantially below the number expected, given the proportion of applicants. In 1983, 33 per cent. of the applicants were Roman Catholic, but only 12 per cent. of the successful applicants were Roman Catholics. That is quite a discrepancy. That is on the basic grade. Above that grade, the representation of Roman Catholics is even less than it should be by any criteria of fair employment practices.

The Protestant success rate in reaching the interview stage is double that of the Roman Catholic rate, and the success rate of appointment of Protestants is three and a half times greater than it is for Roman Catholics. When that was brought to the attention of the fire service it went into the matter and began to look at ways to tackle the problem. It has looked at methods of interviewing and ways of training interviewers. It has looked at the possibility of identifying people by reference numbers rather than by name, as names are used as a basis for discrimination. I could offer the Minister the services of the Greater London council, which his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is anxious to get rid of. It has performed a useful operation in making sure that there are fair employment practices in the GLC firefighting service. There is plenty of experience to be drawn from around the country.

This is an important matter. I know that the Government accept that the Fair Employment Agency report is a fair one, and one with positive guidelines. I know, as well, that the firefighting service in Northern Ireland is anxious to conform with the aims of the Fair Employment Agency. What steps does the Minister think are being taken? Does he think that they are adequate to improve the employment prospects of Roman Catholics in the firefighting service of Northern Ireland?

10.26 pm
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South)

Before I speak about the order, I put on record my party's admiration for the tremendous work and the courage of the fire service in Northern Ireland. It fully lives up to the standard of the other services and give a tremendous service to Northern Ireland in the tragic times through which we are living. Because of our praise for the brave and dedicated men who fight fires in Northern Ireland, we should look closely at the order, which will affect their everyday lives and the running of that service.

Only recently, in the tragedy that happened at Brighton, we saw, in the graphic photographs on television, the excellent work that the fire service men do. We give our greatest praise to that work.

Although this order may not be the proper occasion for raising this matter, we should consider the retained firemen's superannuation. They deserve to have the matter looked at by the Minister.

It is rather unfortunate that, when speaking about the order, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) did what our party is always accused of doing—introduce sectarianism into a Northern Ireland order. I am disappointed about that.

We should make great efforts to back up the hard work and bravery of the fire service men in Northern Ireland. The idea of the order is to bring Northern Ireland into line with what happens in the rest of the United Kingdom, but a few points need to be made about where the Northern Ireland service differs from the one in the rest of the United Kingdom.

One would have expected that the experts in this operation—the Fire Brigades Union—would have been consulted on matters such as this. Unfortunately, the union did not even receive a copy of the order from the Department. The excuse that was given was that the copy had gone astray in the post. That is something rather unfortunate in this day and age.

When the union received notification from the Northern Ireland Assembly's Environment Committee that it could, if it wished, make a submission to that Committee, it had to buy a copy of the order to study it. The net result was that there was not time to study the whole order before evidence was given to the Committee. The union has only recently been able to study the order in detail.

The Minister went out of his way to meet me and members of the union and we had an excellent hearing. But after the officials of the Department had had further discussions with the union, only minimal changes were made to the order.

Throughout the order there are references to the Department of the Environment and to the head of the Department. Article 2, dealing with interpretation, says that

'the Department' means the Department of the Environment". Article 50 says, under the heading "Inspectors", that The Department may appoint an inspector or inspectors". Schedule 1, part I, says that a Chairman, a Vice-Chairman, and fifteen other members will be appointed by the Head of the Department". Will the Minister tell me whether it means "the Department" or the Minister in charge of the Department? Or does it mean the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is in overall charge of all the operations in Northern Ireland?

It also says in schedule 1 that the Minister is to nominate the chairman and the vice-chairman of the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland. I know that there are great reservations about that on the part of the elected representatives of the authority. It is most unfair to change the system, because the authority was able to elect its own chairman and vice-chairman. It could have been an elected member or a nominated member, whichever was thought best. Regardless of what is done in other bodies, it is seen as a step backwards in regard to democracy—or at least the democracy that exists at the moment in Northern Ireland.

Schedule 1 also refers to the quorum that is required within the authority. It says that there should be eight members present out of the 17. It does not say that there should be a percentage of elected members present, or a percentage of nominated members. As the quorum is eight, it would be possible to end up with eight nominated members running the authority at any particular meeting, simply because for some reason or other there were no elected representatives present. I hope that the Minister will think about that.

Article 5(f) says that the Department will act in accordance with section 12 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973". Section 12 refers to relations with the Republic of Ireland and says that A Northern Ireland executive authority may— (a) consult in any matter with any authority of the Republic of Ireland". I would assume — rightly, I hope — that that simply means that if any emergency arises in which one country is able to assist another where firefighting equipment is required, that will be done. I see the Minister nodding his head, and I am pleased that that is so.

Article 6 deals with the hydrants that are required throughout the Province, to be used by the firemen. It is proposed that no longer will the brigade be responsible for looking after the hydrants, painting them the right colours so that people know where they are, finding out where they are and making sure that everything is Al in case there is a fire. It is difficult to understand why that responsibility should be transferred to the Department of the Environment water service, away from the experts. It is the experts who are carrying out the job, and doing it well.

Will resources have to be made available to the Department of the Environment water service because of the change? Will it mean that that part of the fire authority's operation will have to close down? Will it not occasionally bring into conflict the financial restraints within the Department and the services that are required for the safety of the public? I have always found that creating extra facilities in any Department required extra money. I assume that allowances will be made, and that almost a new Department will be created to do the job. It seems silly that we should take it from the experts, who know where the hydrants are, and give it to the Department of the Environment water service, for which I have the greatest admiration, having been in that business. However, on occasions I have also found some shortcomings that all seemed to be connected with finance. I would be worried that the financial aspect would raise its ugly head now and again.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

With regard to the provision of water hydrants, there have been occasions when the worst offenders in covering up water hydrants so that they could not be found were the Department of the Environment road service. Because of that, would it not be a good idea to make sure that the responsibility stayed with the fire service, as at present? It has an inspection service that goes round and clears out the fire hydrants periodically, and tries to ensure that they are kept in proper working order, which is very important. We should keep the job in the hands of the fire service, which, being a separate area of government from the Department of the Environment, might be freer in its criticism when a hydrant is tarmacked in by the Department's road service or its contractors.

Mr. Forsythe

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, with which I totally agree, having had the experience of trying to repair a burst pipe, perhaps in the early hours of the morning around Christmas time, only to discover that the stop cock box had disappeared under about 3 in to 4 in of tarmac.

Article 27, under part III of the order deals with fire precautions. While I welcome the major step forward in the fire precaution legislation in Northern Ireland, I am concerned that it is included in the new order. Surely it should have been separation legislate, as in the rest of the United Kingdom. I have compared like with like between the new Northern Ireland fire precautions legislation and that of Great Britain and have found a number of omissions and differences to which I want to draw the Minister's attention. Article 27 is identical to the legislation for England with one exception. Subparagraph (f) of the English legislation has been omitted from that for Northern Ireland. It says: in case of factory premises, particulars of any explosive or highly flammable materials which may be stored or used in the premises. I am assured that that subparagraph is important to the contents of a fire certificate and is not covered by any other legislation such as that on explosives. Why has that subparagraph been left out of article 27? Can the Minister assure us that the omission of this part of the tried and tested English fire precautions legislation from the Northern Ireland order will in no way be detrimental to the comparable standards that should apply in Northern Ireland?

Article 51 appears to give the Department absolute power over the experts in the authority and the fire service. Even in article 5, with its reference to section 12 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, which I have already mentioned, and apparently even where the authority and the chief officer were in agreement that something should be done or should take place, the Department can overrule both the authority and the chief officer. I would take a little bit more kindly to that if it were the Minister who had that authority because he is an elected Member of the legislature and as such we can at least put a little pressure on him. But I cannot say the same for the Department. Therefore, with all due respect to our friends in the higher reaches of the Civil Service, we cannot say that they would be experts on fire services. We could find that the experts are being overruled by cavil servants. Moreover, civil servants are generally ruled by financial considerations rather than practical or safety considerations, which should be taken into account.

Article 50 retains the provision for appointing an inspector, which was previously in article 29 of the principal 1969 order. But no mention is made of the special practical experience required by the 1969 order. For example, experience of the extinction of fires is required. While the provision of appointment has never been taken up since 1969, at least requests have been made for Home Office inspections. If the Minister can confirm that it is his intention that Her Majesty's inspectorate will continue to be used for that function in Northern Ireland I shall be very pleased. If appointments are to be made under article 50 will the Minister tell us what specialist knowledge and experience will be required of such an appointee?

Schedule 5 repeals article 6 of the Fire Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1973, including its reference to added paragraph (b) from section 16 of the principal Act of 1969. That protected the standards and conditions of uniformed personnel. Those standards were derived from the national joint council for the local authority brigades, and were protected by article 6 of the 1973 order.

I am sure that the Minister would not wish to treat Northern Ireland's firemen any less favourably than their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom. Will he therefore assure me that under the order, the authority, the Department and the brigade will continue to accept the standards, conditions and recommendations of the national joint council and the authority's membership of the same, even though I know that the national joint council legislation does not apply to Northern Ireland?

In section 32 and schedule 4 of the Fire Services Act (Northern Ireland) 1969, there was provision for a Northern Ireland fire service advisory council, similar to the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council in Great Britain. This has now been changed, leaving Northern Ireland in the unique position of having no advisory body for standards of appliances, equipment and procedures.

I accept that the advisory council was never appointed, but it must be stressed that that was simply because the principal bodies concerned accepted that most of the council's work would be similar to that carried out by the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, and that it was more expedient to accept that body's recommendations. Will the Minister confirm that in the absence of a Northern Ireland advisory council, the Department, the authority and the brigade will continue to accept and maintain the recommendations and standards of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council?

Under article 8, the fire authority will be recognised as a district council, with sections 23 to 27, 31, 40, 123 and 126 of the Local Government (Northern Ireland) Act 1972 applying. One would have thought that that was fine, but we find that there are two glaring omissions from those public referral sections: sections 121 and 122. They refer to the minutes and notices of meetings. It seems strange that if one knew where the meeting was, one could go along to a fire authority meeting and have the right to sit in on it. However, one would not be entitled to see the minutes or to be told where the meeting was. That seems illogical. In the House, every word is recorded, and anyone can read it. One would have thought that the least that the Northern Ireland Fire Authority could do would be to allow the minutes to be looked at and to let people know the time and place of the meeting. The Minister may

be sympathetic towards doing something about that, and I urge him to take a serious look at it in the near future. I hope that he will come to the correct conclusion.

I am concerned that the order seems to give less power to Northern Ireland's elected representatives and more to the Department. I hope to receive a favourable response from the Minister to the points that I have raised, but I also hope that the order's operation will not in any way lower the standards of firefighting and fire precautions in Northern Ireland.