HL Deb 18 June 1959 vol 216 cc1264-76

3.22 p.m.

Read 3a (according to Order).

Clause 6 [Appointments and promotions]:

LORD MILNER OF LEEDS, had given Notice of two Amendments to Clause 6, the first being after "paragraphs" to insert "(a)". The noble Lord said: My Lords, as your Lordships are aware, the purpose of this Bill is to amend the Fire Services Act, 1947, and to do away with the great majority of the powers which the Secretary of State for Home Affairs possesses in regard to the verious fire services. This Bill does, in fact, abolish various requirements whereby the Home Secretary's approval is required to a number of matters, but the Bill insists upon retaining the present power of the Secretary of State to approve appointments to the office of chief fire officer. The purpose of this Amendment is to ensure, if your Lordships approve it, that these appointments of chief fire officer shall now be handed over to the local authorities, as are the appointments of all other officers in the fire brigades, and not left subject to the approval of the Home Secretary. I say this on behalf of the Association of Municipal Corporations, who feel strongly about this matter, supported by the County Councils Association.

Your Lordships may remember that my noble friend Lord Stansgate raised the matter on Second Reading, and the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack was good enough to reply to the arguments we then advanced. The Associations, however, are not satisfied with the position, and have pressed that this Amendment might be put down. On Second Reading the noble and learned Viscount indicated that the Government felt that as the fire brigade services were a disciplined organisation it was vital to the operation of the service in peace, and unquestionably in war, that every possible care should be taken to secure the appointment of the right men as chief fire officers. For that reason the Government insisted on retaining power of control of these appointments.

The local authority associations do not accept that argument. They say that they are no less capable of making the appointments than the Home Secretary; and they do not accept that, because of the interest of the Secretary of State in the fire services consequent upon wartime responsibilities, it is necessary for him to approve these peace-time appointments. In war time the position is different; but, as your Lordships are aware, it is proposed to nationalise the fire brigade services in the unfortunate event of war. In peace time, however, in the view of the local government associations, there is no necessity for the Home Secretary to approve the appointment of chief fire officers. I might remind your Lordships that in the case of war the Home Secretary has the power to appoint regional fire brigade officers who command the various areas in which the chief fire officers work. So that in this way, in the view of the local government associations, the position is safeguarded.

The chief fire officers are obviously in no different position from other chief officers of local authorities, who are, incidentally, responsible for services no less important than the service rendered by fire brigades. As your Lordships will also appreciate, the freedom to make these appointments is fundamental to important, and indeed to all, local authorities having the right to their own fire brigades. At present local authorities have the right to appoint clerks of county councils, town clerks, treasurers, medical officers, surveyors, engineers, architects, planning officers, welfare officers, land agents and, indeed, civil defence officers, to whom one would have thought the same argument advanced by the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor would apply. There appears to be no cogent reason why chief fire officers should not similarly be appointed.

I would remind your Lordships that there is no absolute guarantee as to the propriety of appointments approved by the Home Office, as has been evidenced by recent cases affecting chief constables. In the case of chief constables the Home Secretary has to give his approval, to an appointment, if he does not actually appoint. Yet his approval has not in recent years ensured the propriety of all those appointments. The noble and learned Viscount mentioned the analogy, though I do not think he drew it too closely, between chief fire officers and the office of chief constable. But chief constables are not the servants of local authorities; they have certain statutory duties outside their local duties, over which the local authorities have no control. Chief fire officers, however, are subject to the control of the local authorities by whom they are appointed. There is the same relationship of master and servant as between local authorities and the other officers whom I have mentioned to your Lordships.

The noble and learned Viscount said that there was no guarantee, if this power were not retained by the Home Office, that the fire authority would consult the Home Secretary. I am instructed that there would be no difficulty in putting some provision in the Bill, if so desired, to ensure that such consultation takes place—indeed, I am told that on all occasions consultation does, in fact, take place, and that the local authority associations will do all they could to encourage that practice. Obviously it is desirable for local authorities, before making these appointments, to have the benefit of the advice of Her Majesty's inspectors of fire brigades. I should have thought that among the powers handed over to local authorities, this power might well be included. I submit that this is not one of those cases where "the man in Whitehall knows best", and that the local authorities, important and autonomous bodies, are fully competent to appoint their chief fire brigade officers. With that purpose in mind, I beg to move my first Amendment.

Amendment moved— Page 3, line 45, after ("paragraphs") insert ("(a)").—(Lord Milner of Leeds.)

3.31 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support the Amendment which has been moved by my noble friend Lord Milner of Leeds. Local authorities are very sensitive about interference with their functions, especially in matters of this kind, where they are the responsible authority. They feel, it seems to me quite correctly, that with that responsibility for the general administration of the service should be coupled responsibility for appointing the chief officer of the service. This Bill goes—and they are glad to have it so—a long way towards removing the centralised control of fire services which took place during the war. The fact that it does so is, I think, a recognition that if this country should have the misfortune to be involved in another war it would not he difficult to create such central organisation as was required for the purpose of co-ordinating fire services.

As my noble friend has pointed out, local authorities have the full responsibility, without any central guidance or interference, to appoint other chief officers, such as town clerks, medical officers and surveyors, all of whom, in practice, have very high responsibilities in time of war. If the local authorites can be trusted to make those appointments, it is difficult to see any reason why they should not be trusted to make the appointment of chief officers of fire brigades. I am sure that it would give a great deal of satisfaction to local authorities generally if this Amendment could be accepted, and it is fairly certain that there will be no appreciable damage to any public interest. It is, of course, conceivable that on occasions appointments might be made of persons who turned out to be somewhat unsuitable for the post; but I do not think that the Home Secretary himself can guarantee that that will never take place. It is one of the misfortunes of public affairs generally that such things occasionally happen, but there are generally means of correcting the trouble if it should become of any serious importance. For these reasons I submit that this is a case in which local authorities should be trusted to exercise their duties in a responsible and considered fashion.


My Lords, I rise to make a brief intervention in support of the noble Lord who has moved this Amendment. I do not propose to weary the House by repeating his arguments, with all of which I entirely agree. But I suggest that as a matter of principle, of administrative efficiency, it is a good principle, especially in a democratic country, that the exercise of responsible authority should be pushed down as low as it can efficiently and reliably be exercised. We have in our dealings abroad to-day in the Colonial Empire innumerable instances of responsibility being entrusted to bodies superficially far less able to face them and undertake them than are these local authorities in our country.

I suggest that if we regard county councils and municipal corporations as reliable, responsible, autonomous bodies, then we should not give way to this tendency to wonder whether they can be entrusted with such appointments as these. It is in many ways a remarkable thing that the County Councils Association and the Association of Municipal Corporations, who do not always agree, are unanimous in this matter, and feel that their members are competent to exercise the authority. They are perfectly willing to, and no doubt will, consult the Secretary of State, but it is, I suggest, a good principle that they should have the power to appoint their own chief servants in the fire services as they do in other cases.


My Lords, the Lord Chancellor was kind enough, when I raised this point on Second Reading, as to give an interim reply. But a new point has arisen since then—namely, the willingness of the county councils to have it put in the Bill that they should consult the Home Office before they make such appointments. I believe that that undertaking completely overcomes the difficulty which the Lord Chancellor put forward, and I would ask him to consider it.


My Lords, I venture to hope that Her Majesty's Government will resist this Amendment, and for three reasons. If I may say so with the greatest respect, I do not think that the other positions enumerated by my noble friend Lord Milner of Leeds are parallel positions with that of chief fire officer, because what the noble Lord has overlooked is the fact that chief fire officers operate, on many occasions, over their own borders when bringing reinforcements to other brigades. If only on account of this overlapping of spheres of influence, it is extremely important that there should be a standard form of operation throughout all brigades throughout the country, and for this reason again I believe that it is as well that the chief fire officer should be appointed by the Ministry.

I should like to make one other point. Your Lordships will have gathered during the earlier stages of this Bill that I have considerable anxieties as to the efficacy of the Minister's influence over fire authorities which would force them to give additional cover in areas where new risks had grown up. This, again, is important in this connection, because if the chief fire officer is so to speak, appointed by and in the closest relation with the Ministry, then I think he will be far more likely than he would be if he were purely a local authority nominee to press for enlargements of his powers in cases where he deemed it to be necessary, and despite the opposition of a local authority which might not be prepared to incur the expense. I trust that Her Majesty's Government will resist this Amendment.


My Lords, I should like to support what has just been said by my noble friend Lord Faringdon. I do not want to go over the ground which I went over on the Second Reading of the Bill. While I have a great deal of sympathy with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Milverton, in regard to the general position of local authorities, I do not think one ought to allow oneself to be too much influenced in regard to this particular matter by a general consideration of that kind, because the fire brigade officer is unique in his position. He is quite different from a town clerk or a city architect or anybody of that kind, and in the event of war he will fill one of the key positions in relation to the defence of this country. Think about the situation which will arise in the event of war with the use of nuclear weapons. It is perfectly clear that what the nuclear weapon does is to cause conflagrations of a tremendously difficult character to control, even by the most efficient fire-fighting organisation.

I do not believe that all local authorities are really capable of exercising this important choice efficiently. I am sorry to have to say that. I made a slight slip in my speech in saying that town clerks and county clerks had to be appointed by the Home Secretary. That, of course, is wrong. But during the war—and that is really what my mind was occupied with; I spoke impromptu—arising out of the fact that the town clerk or the county clerk normally fulfilled a very important position in the civil defence organisation, the Regional Commissioners had control over the appointments of these officers. There were a number of cases where, even at the height of the war, a local authority could not be relied upon to appoint the right man and the Regional Commissioner had to prevent the appointment.

If a war breaks out, it is quite obvious that these fire officers are going to be extraordinarily important. The set-up in the fire services before the war was very inferior to the present one, but in the fire-fighting services before the war there were some outstanding brigades which were highly competent. Any survey at the end of the war would have shown that a large proportion of the first-class officers were drawn from a comparatively small number of outstanding brigades. I believe that the only way of getting a corps of officers of real ability is to increase the considerable amount of control at the centre in regard to this matter, which is one of very great importance.

As to the point which the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, made about chief constables having in a number of cases not proved satisfactory in recent times, surely that cuts against that argument, because if, even with the assistance of the Home Secretary, the local authorities cannot be relied upon to appoint the best men as chief constables, then it is still more so in this particular case. It seems to me that the case for reserving to the Home Secretary this power under this Bill is overwhelming, and I hope that the Government will not give way to this Amendment.

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, there are two points which make this Amendment deserving of full consideration. The first is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, has said, it is put forward at the instance of the Association of Municipal Corporations, who are supported by the County Councils Association. I myself have the happiest recollections of working with the A.M.C. in various matters where central Government meets local government. I have the greatest admiration for their work, and although I disagree with them on this point I hope they will believe that I have given full consideration to it. The second point was the general one put forward by my noble friend Lord Milverton. I again have the greatest sympathy with the general thesis of devolution. I would ask my noble friend to note that the whole purpose of this Bill is to increase devolution, and that the Government have gone a long way on various points, and especially, of course, on the financial point where the Government check has been withdrawn. In fact the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, speaking on the Second Reading, and with all his experience of the work of Regional Commissioners during the war, told your Lordships that in his view we had gone rather too far in the direction of devolution and had not retained sufficient controls.

What I said on the Second Reading was that the principle of the Bill was that we should give as much devolution as possible, subject to the retention of the key controls; and I think that, on reflection, your Lordships will agree with me that the approval of the appointment of a chief fire officer is one of the most essential key controls that we can have. In answer to the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Stansgate, on the Second Reading I deployed a number of arguments. I have counted them up and there are nine of them, and they are to be found, for those of your Lordships with antiquarian interests, at columns 546 to 548 of the OFFICIAL REPORT for June 2.

Today I want to deal with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, and also with the point which the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, mentioned in his speech. With regard to the first point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, I want to emphasise that the purpose of the Secretary of State's power of control is not to secure the appointment of a particular candidate of his choice but to ensure that the candidates who are definitely unsuitable for the post are eliminated. I think that is most important, because this is the way that it works in practice. The Home Office indicate, on the basis of a short list, which candidates they consider suitable. The final selection is made by the fire authority within that field, subject, of course, to subsequent confirmation by the Home Office. That is the way the system has worked, and I think that meets an underlying fear of my noble friend Lord Milverton that this is an imposition. It is not that: it is to secure that the person who is appointed will be one of a number who are in the opinion of my right honourable friend qualified for the task.

I did mention on the Second Reading—and your Lordships might at first consider that this cuts both ways—that the power of approval has not had to be used in the last ten years to reject a candidate selected by the fire authority because of the method which I have mentioned to your Lordships. But the fact that none of us—the four of us—has had to reject a candidate at the end of the day is, in my view, an argument for the reasonableness of the scheme and the way that it has been operated. It is certainly my experience and that of my right honourable friend Mr. Butler (and, though I do not know, I should think that our two predecessors would agree) that the existence of the power has influenced fire authorities to take the advice.

But even if, as the noble Viscount suggested, the requirement of consultation were put in the Bill it would be no guarantee that the local authorities would continue to take the advice of the Home Office if the power were abolished, even if their associations supported the consultation. Consultation is one of the most useful and most dangerous words in modern legislation. It is one of the most useful words because it is the easiest piece of paper to plaster in where there is a disagreement. Where the real question is, shall one side or the other have the right to veto? then you blur it over, and say, "No, there shall be consultation." All that consultation means in law is that one party will put forward its suggestion and the other party will consider it. But, of course, the second party is not in the least bound to adopt the suggestion or to go further than consider it. I think it is an argument for the point of view that I put to your Lordships that the existence of the power operated in that reasonable way, of putting forward a short list of approved persons for the choice of the fire authority, is immensely valuable in securing the right choices.

I think that really meets the point that the noble and gallant Viscount has put forward. In the majority of cases I concede that there would be agreement by the fire authority. But the difficulty is the case where, for some reason which might arise in any way, there is a great local feeling to adopt a local man who would not be so good as the other candidates—for example, for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Faringdon, in his speech to-day. It was because of that that I emphasised on Second Reading, and I remind your Lordships to-day, about it being a disciplined service—one that has to be ready to be re-nationalised in time of war and one which has to deal with very serious problems in that regard. Therefore, I think it is just as important that there should be this check which would ensure that the best man is appointed.

There are two other points. One is that I respectfully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Faringdon, that this is a service which does not necessarily operate within the confines of its own borders; and the other is that although it is a great service and one which has already acquired great traditions in our own lifetime, apart from those of long ago, it is nevertheless a service where there are no definite qualifications. It is not like the other posts that have been mentioned, where there is a well-defined standard on qualifications. In the fire service that is not so. Therefore, the process of selection for the key post, the most important job, is one that I think requires very serious consideration. For this reason, in my submission to your Lordships, it comes within the sphere—and this is an answer to my noble friend Lord Milverton, which I should like him to consider, quite apart from the matter before us to-day—where there ought to be an actual partnership between local and national Government.

As has been seen from the various speeches we have heard, this is not at all a Party matter, but it is a most important matter in the science and functioning of Government. The keenest devolutionist must recognise that there is a sphere where national Government and local government must work together. In putting forward this Bill—and I would repeat that it is a Bill that has been most forthcoming in freeing the local authorities from control—I have suggested that there is a sphere where the national Government cannot abrogate its responsibilities. I would say to my noble friend that the criterion is the key points of control. Where a disciplined service is concerned, the central Government has a responsibility, which it may be necessary to exercise in time of war—though we hope that will not arise. It would be wrong of the national Government to abrogate its responsibility to keep these key points. And clearly, this is a key point. We have heard the others.

The noble Lord, Lord Faringdon, questioned me at the Committee stage about the powers under the Act of providing schemes if necessary—whether they were enough to ensure sufficient fire cover in expanding localities where conditions change rapidly. That is obviously another example of the key control. I hope that I was able to reassure the noble Lord that we had retained sufficient of that.

It is on these broad questions, and on the broad issue of not only the health of our general administration but the proper balance in the partnership between the national and local Government, that I should ask the associations to think again on this matter. It is not an argument which absolves your Lordships from deciding to-day, and it is a flatter which is worthy of consideration. This Bill is starting in your Lordships' House. It has been well discussed here, and I ask your Lordships to accept my argument that it is not the end of the day if the Amendment is not pressed this afternoon. But I do not put it on that ground, which is a ground which commends itself to me as a general matter: I put it on the broad ground that in this Bill we have achieved a proper partnership between central and local Government which adoption of this Amendment would undoubtedly disturb, and I ask your Lordships not to agree to it.


My Lords, before my noble friend Lord Milner of Leeds replies to this part of the debate may I ask, really for my own information, two questions? I ask them because I have not been in consultation with my local government friends in Scotland, and therefore my recollection is perhaps a little hazy. But am I right in thinking that in Scotland, where, for instance, a city like Glasgow is itself a fire authority, but in which a city like Edinburgh is part of a joint authority, the appointment of a chief fire officer is not in a sense controlled by the fact that the grants available to fire authorities can be used as a kind of sanction where an appointment is not approved by the Secretary of State? The second point is this. Am I right in thinking that this procedure is part of a larger system, as for example in the appointment of a chief constable, where again the central Government or the Secretary of State may intervene in order to say that they do not, or he does not, approve of the appointment of a particular individual, and that the local authority must select a man of whom the central Government or the Secretary of State does approve? Those are my two points. Have I made myself clear?


Would the noble Lord put the second point again? I have not quite followed him.


My Lords, the second point is whether we are now witnessing a new kind of administrative scheme in which the central Government, or the Secretary of State, more or less determine who will be the chief constable, in spite of what a local authority may decide, by choosing their own man. Is that clear? Is that part of the general scheme or is it something which applies only to chief fire officers?


My Lords, on the first point—the question of the grant—I should have thought that the position today was that it was more difficult, but I do not think impossible (there are more checks on it), to use the grant as a method of compulsion. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, will allow me to write to him on that point because I am not so well equipped on it; therefore perhaps he will take my impression, subject to my writing to him to give him the position fully—because I do not think it affects very closely the immediate point. It is, however, a very important general point and I should like to inform him fully upon it.

On the second point, of course this Bill is not altering the position. At the moment the Secretary of State is in control. The Amendment would alter the position so as to remove the control of the Secretary of State. It does not affect the police position, which remains in both countries exactly the same as it is to-day. It is not part of a general policy to get a further control; it is an exception to a policy in which a large number of controls are being relaxed on both sides of the Border. The Bill contains all these relaxations and I went through them, and at the instance of my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross I assured the House that they applied, too, to Scotland. So that here we are dealing not with a new policy but with the question are we to retain one of the controls which we believe are key controls?

On the other point, I am sorry that I cannot tell the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, of the exact position that had been taken up by the three Scottish local authority associations. I believe I once knew, but the noble Lord will have to forgive me for it has gone out of my mind and I cannot find a note in my papers. Those associations have been consulted in the matter, of course, but as to their actual position on this specific problem, unfortunately I cannot inform the noble Lord.


My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Viscount very much.


My Lords, while the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack will not expect me to agree with all the arguments that he has advanced, he has obviously taken great care and has extended the courtesy which he always extends; and in those circumstances, and having regard to the suggestion that the matter may be reconsidered by the local government associations on whose behalf, if necessary, the matter may be raised in another place, I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

An Amendment (privilege) made. Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.