HL Deb 07 July 1959 vol 217 cc806-12

5.15 p.m.

Amendments reported (according to Order).

Clause 9:

Exercise by fire authorities of functions relating to means of escape in case of fire

9.—(1) The functions of the district council under sections thirty-four and thirty-five of the principal Act (which relate to means of escape in case of fire) shall, after the coming into operation of this subsection, be exercisable by the fire authority; and accordingly any reference in the principal Act (except in subsection (4) of section one hundred and fifty-six thereof) to the district council which is or includes a reference to the authority exercising functions under either of those sections shall, as the case may require, be construed as a reference or as including a reference to the fire authority.

LORD CHORLEY moved to add to subsection (1): Provided that any fire authority being a county council may with the concurrence of the council of a county district delegate to that council with or without restrictions and upon such conditions (if any) as may be agreed their functions under the said sections thirty-four and thirty-five of the principal Act.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Amendment to Clause 9 which stands in my name on the Order Paper. Your Lordships will remember that at the Committee stage we discussed an Amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Milverton which was designed to restore this Bill to the position in which it was when it was first introduced into another place—namely, to leave to the district councils the duty of looking after this particular aspect of the matter. The Government found themselves unable to accept that Amendment, and the noble Lord did not press it.

I supported the noble Lord, Lord Milverton, in his attempt to get this Bill returned to the position in which it was. In a speech in which I possibly used slightly strong language about the attitude of the county councils in, as I suggested, trying to get this particular job into their own hands, I used the expression that they had at the Committee stage put down a fast one". I am informed that the county councils, so far from wishing to take charge of this particular job of work, have no desire at all to do so; and while they are very ready to carry through the requirements which may be put upon them by any Bill passed through Parliament, it was quite unfair to charge them with having, so to speak, tried to obtain an advantage over other local authorities in regard to this matter. My Lords, I am very content to accept that assurance, which has been made to me authoritatively, and to withdraw anything which I said in my speech a fortnight ago which suggested anything to the contrary.

This Amendment is put down in order to give to the county councils the possibility of delegating to the district councils this particular job in cases where it may be thought fit to do so. The noble Earl, in replying to Lord Milverton, indicated that it was necessary to make this transfer to the county councils because at Keighley it had been found after a serious fire that a very substantial number of factories had not been inspected by the district council involved; and he suggested that it was not really safe to leave this matter to the district councils to carry through. I am sure that he did not intend to make any sort of sweeping charge. In fact, he accepted the statement which had been made by my noble friend Lord Shackle-ton a little earlier that many district councils had done this job very well. Indeed, in another place an eulogy was paid by the Minister responsible there, and he said that some district councils have a record which is "quite extraordinarily good".

It would seem, and I believe, that there are many district councils, not just a handful of them, who have done this work efficiently over a long period of years. If so, it would seem unfortunate, at least, to take away these functions from the district councils and transfer them to the county councils when they are doing the job so well. It would be much better to leave as it is an organisation and a set-up which has developed the "know how" and a system in regard to the administration of these matters, and give to the county councils the possibility of delegation. Obviously, there are going to be a certain number of administrative awkwardnesses, to put it at the lowest, in effecting this transfer. No doubt after a time it will settle down, but I should have thought that it would have been valuable to enable that change to take place in a gradual sort of way and make provision for the county councils to delegate during the intervening period.

I am aware of the suggestion that there is no need for this Amendment, because under the Local Government Act, 1933, there is a general power of delegation. There seems to be some little doubt, however, whether that power is effective to enable transfers of this kind to take place. I know that the power given by Section 274 (2) of that Act enables district councils to act as agents for the county council in a wide number of respects, one of which includes the present matter, but it is not dignified for a district council to act just as agents. I suggest that it would be better to have the matter dealt with as in the Amendment I have put down, which would have the additional advantage of bringing it clearly to the attention of county councils that this can be done. I am informed that there is a greater tendency on the part of county councils to delegate in cases where express power of delegation is provided in Acts of Parliament than when it is left to a general section such as Section 274 of the Local Government Act.

The noble Earl was not unsympathetic on Committee stage and said that he would look at this point between Committee and Report, with a view to seeing whether some method could be found for salving the wounded susceptibilities of the district councils, if I may put it that way, by giving them some sort of arrangement which would enable them to carry on the work they had been doing effectively in the past. In these circumstances I hope the noble Earl will be able to accept this Amendment. I beg to move.

Amendment moved—

Page 6, line 22, at end insert the said proviso.—(Lord Chorley.)


My Lords, this Amendment would empower county fire authorities in England and Wales to delegate their new duties to the district councils. As the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, indicated at the end of his speech, the Amendment is entirely unnecessary, because county councils already have the suggested power of delegation by virtue of Section 274 of the Local Government Act, 1933, which gives them general power to delegate a wide variety of functions to district councils. I would immediately assure the noble Lord that the delegation of fire duties under the Factories Acts is included in those functions. There is no doubt about it at all.

I have a certain suspicion that the noble Lord was aware that this was so, and perhaps his real purpose in moving this Amendment is to persuade me to say that the Government think that it would be a good thing if county fire authorities should delegate this power to district councils. Well, I cannot say that, because after some slight indecision in the matter—it was a very nicely balanced question—the Government accepted the considered advice of the great majority of honourable Members in another place that the right principle was that the people who had the duty of putting out the fire should also have the duty of seeing that the means of escape from fire were adequate. Therefore I cannot say anything to indicate that it would be a good thing if this procedure were reversed; but I would assure the noble Lord that we are not proposing to repeal Section 274 of the Local Government Act, 1933, and therefore these powers of delegation will remain. It is for the county fire authorities to decide whether in any case it would be proper or suitable that they should exercise their power under this section and delegate their fire duties to the district council.


My Lords, so far from saying that it would be a good thing to delegate these powers, the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, has clearly indicated that it would be a bad thing.


No, my Lords, I did not say that it would be a bad thing. I said that I could not give a general statement to the effect that it would be a good thing. I had pointed out that we had taken a little time to make up our minds on the general principle, to which we must adhere and which was clearly approved in another place—namely, that the people who have the duty of putting out fire ought to have the duty of looking after fire arrangements. But I am not saying that in exceptional cases the county councils ought not to use the power of delegation which they have under the Local Government Act.


The noble Earl has only made my point rather more strongly. He said that the Government are not prepared to repeal the power of delegation in this field. Once the Bill is passed into law, surely it is a matter not of any definite principle but entirely a practical consideration. It will be entirely a matter of whether the district councils are capable of doing it. In my opinion, many of them are not. Some are too small and are not the right people to do it. We all accept that there should be some fire authority, but the noble Earl's remarks left me with the impression that in view of the decision taken in another place and confirmed here, he would regard the delegation of these powers as something which should take place only in exceptional circumstances. I would submit that it is not a Question of exceptional circumstances, but of the best circumstances in a particular area. District councils vary much in size. Therefore I hope that if the noble Earl cannot bless my noble friend's Amendment, at least he will leave it entirely to the judgment of circumstances and perhaps withdraw his remarks about exceptional circumstances.


No, my Lords, I am afraid that the impression which I left with the noble Lord was precisely the impression I had wanted to leave with him, and I cannot give him the benediction he asks me to bestow. I am saying that we are not repealing this section of the Local Government Act and that it is a matter for the county councils, who have this power under the Act, to decide what is the best thing to do in every case.


My Lords, I am very disappointed in the attitude of the noble Earl. He left exactly the same impression on my mind as on that of my noble friend. Obviously the Government have completely changed their attitude in this matter since Report stage, after the Committee stage in another place, when the Minister in charge of the Bill made it clear that he did not have this distrust of the district councils which the noble Earl has.

I read a little out of his speech, but in view of what the noble Earl has said, I feel that I must read a rather longer passage. In the Report stage in another place he said: [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 603, col. 917]: …no part of the Government's case in putting down these Amendments can be rested on the alleged inefficiency of district councils. It would be quite impossible to make such a case and as I tried to suggest when I first spoke, there are some district councils whose record is quite extraordinarily good… I think it has been agreed in this discussion this evening that the arguments in this matter are well balanced. The noble Earl is now telling us in effect that there is no question whatever that the county councils are much the better authorities for handling this problem. I think it is unfortunate that the Government should, at a time when powers are being withdrawn from the smaller local authorities, develop this sort of argument. I can only think that these hardworking and public-spirited people who work in the districts as members of district councils will feel a sense of frustration and be disheartened. But it is obvious, if the Government are going to take this attitude, that there is nothing I can do to prevent it, and I can only ask your Lordships to allow me to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 31 [Revocation of Defence Regulation 59]:


My Lords, this is a drafting Amendment to remove a small defect which has been discovered in subsection (2) of Clause 31.

My right honourable friend has made orders under Defence Regulation 59 of a type which will in future have to be made by special regulations under Clause 23 (3) of the Bill. It is desired, however, to preserve those orders which have been made under Defence Regulation 59, and that is the purpose of the words after the semi-colon in line 42. But Parliamentary Counsel has now advised that there is some doubt whether the subsection in fact achieves this aim, because it provides that the orders in question are to be treated as if their provisions are contained in special regulations only "while the order is in force"; and that could be interpreted as meaning until the order comes to an end with the expiry of Defence Regulation 59 itself on December 10, 1959, under Section 5 of the Emergency Laws (Repeal) Act, 1959. The present Amendment avoids any ambiguity by providing that the provisions of general orders made under Regulation 59 shall be deemed to be contained in special regulations made under Section 23 "until the order is revoked". I beg to move.

Amendment moved—

Page 16, line 44, leave out ("while the order is in force") and insert ("until the order is revoked").—(The Earl of Dundee.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.