HL Deb 18 April 1961 vol 230 cc570-93

5.11 p.m.

LORD STONHAM rose to draw attention to the serious situation arising from the decline in the strength of the firefighting services; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I wish to discuss another very important service on wheels by drawing attention to the serious situation arising from the decline in the strength of our fire-fighting services. Our fire-fighters are fit, highly trained, disciplined men who at any moment are ready to spend their skill, their courage, and if necessary their lives, in our service. Not surprisingly, the Fire Service is held in the highest public esteem. Its standards are such that it is seldom, if ever, criticised. We have always regarded the fireman as a friend in need. Now he is in need—in need of justice and fair treatment. And if he does not got it, then soon our fireman friend will no longer be there when we need him—because the numbers of firemen are seriously declining at the very moment when their duties and responsibilities are being sharply increased.

Most large brigades work the concessionary 56-hour week—a long week—but in London it is still 60 hours; and in some rural areas the regular firemen are working as many as 80 hours a week. On the basis of a 56-hour week, which is the concessionary working week, including an allowance for training establishments, we need just under 23,000 firemen in England and Wales. Last December there were only 20,347, which means a 12 per cent. shortage over the entire country. But the point is that the shortage is most acute in large towns where fire risks are greatest. Many of the largest brigades, in fact, have never achieved their full strength since the local authorities took over the National Fire Service twelve years ago. Chief officers have tried everything in their efforts to get enough young men of the right kind. Education and physical standards have been lowered, and the lower age limit has been reduced to eighteen years. Even desperate remedies like cadet systems have been proposed as a means of attracting enough recruits. But all to no avail.

Month by month the numbers decline. London, for example, is 21 per cent. below strength on the 56-hour basis. I know that a lower percentage figure than that is sometimes quoted, but that is because London is still on the 60-hour week. In fact, it is quite impossible for London to allow their men to work the 56-hour week at present unless they send four men out on a fire tender, instead of the customary and proper crew of five. At December 31 last the metropolis was down to 2,330 men (that includes headquarters staff and recruits), and in the first nine months of last year those 2,000-odd men dealt with 26,000 fire calls. That is a rate of 34,000 calls a year. The really alarming thing about the future is that a very considerable proportion of our fire-fighters all over the country are former auxiliary firemen who stayed on after the war to keep the brigades going, and also Service men who were recruited actually before they left the Services. Recruiting agents were sent to Europe, Burma and other war theatres to persuade men to join a fire service on demobilisation, on the promise that they would get the same terms and conditions as the police; and a good many of them did join.

All those men will be retiring within the next four or five years, and if we do not begin to recruit their replacements now it will soon be impossible to maintain minimum fire cover. Indeed, some brigades, as I shall show, will cease to function. For example, apart from normal wastage, one-third of London's force of 2,300 men consists of A.F.S. men, who will leave by 1967. Middlesex, with an establishment of 1,310, is already 180 short; but of the 1,130 on the books, no fewer than 900 (that is, over three-quarters) will go by 1966. Essex, with an establishment of 1,057, is to-day 185 men short, and about 250 of the total are A.F.S. men due for retirement. Kent, with only 650 men out of an establishment of 800, has 200 A.F.S. men, and nearly one-third of their active strength is due to retire in the next five years. To quote the case of one London borough, West Ham fire brigade, which is 14 per cent. under strength at the moment, has not recruited a single man during the last twelve months, and faces a certain 28 per cent. shortage by 1965. That is roughly the position of the whole country, because within five years one quarter of the present serving firemen will have gone on age grounds alone.

These facts prove beyond dispute that unless speedy and drastic action is taken to remedy the situation, minimum fire cover will be impassible to guarantee. Already in many areas pumps are being taken off the run in quite a disturbing number of cases, and this tendency will increase. The consequences to life and property can only be imagined. The volume of work constantly increases. In 1950, eleven years ago, the total of fire and other calls all over the country was 80,000. In 1959, which was a dry year, there were 240,000 calls—three times as many. That year was, perhaps, exceptional. But even under the weeping skies of 1960 there were 160,000 calls.

Moreover, we continue to load new duties on the Fire Service. For example, the civil defence firemen can be trained by regular fire officers and firemen only at week-ends. If they are not available as instructors, then that part of the Home Office civil defence plans goes completely by the board. Then, with very considerable agreement on all sides of the House, we passed the Factories Act requiring fire officers to inspect and advise on prevention and safety measures. There is the Shops and Offices Bill, which so rightly strengthens fire precautions. But in London alone the Shops and Offices Bill will impose on fire officers the duty of making 100,000 additional inspections—I repeat, 100,000. That would be a major task for a full strength brigade, but an impossible one for an overworked, undermanned force.

These new duties require new training, and on the recommendation of the Home Secretary's Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council hundreds of officers are to do residential courses on the new Factories Act. Then there is the Radiation Hazards Sub-Committee, which is trying to deal with the new risks firemen have to face. But to use radiac instruments, to build the fire prevention-fire extinction services of the 1960s, requires many more young men who, apart from the traditional qualities required of the fireman, must be capable of absorbing the new training. As things are, it is impossible in many brigades to spare the men to go on training courses. The Advisory Council, of course, are doing a good job of building the theory of a new fire service, but men are needed to put it into practice. Unquestionably, plans for a comprehensive fire protection service will be so much waste paper unless we can quickly get the right type of men, in the right numbers.

My Lords, there is no doubt that one of the main barriers to recruitment is the too low rates of pay. Before the war there was no difficulty. The disadvantages of shift work, discipline and danger were offset by the certainty of a job in days when there was a good deal of unemployment, and the certainty of a pension. Moreover, the rate of pay for firemen, identical with that of policemen, was, at its maximum, 43 per cent. above the average earnings in industry. Today, compared with average industrial earnings of £15 3s. per week, the fireman gets £11 rising to £13 8s. 6d. maximum—and this for a 56 or 60 hour week, compared with 44 hours, or less, in industry.

The fantastic argument is sometimes put forward that these low rates are justified because a fireman is not fighting fires every minute of his 60 hours. It would be just as valid to argue that soldiers should be paid only when there is a war on; that the police should be docked when their catch of burglars and motorists is not up to the norm; that shop assistants should not be paid while they are waiting for customers, or that railway signalmen should be paid only when they are actually passing trains through their section. Even so, I have heard that argument over and over again.

The fact is that for the whole of his 60 hours the fireman is in the station on instant call. When the call comes he has to be out of the station in less than 60 seconds or there is trouble. As I was coming to the House this afternoon, just up from the fire station in Bishopsgate a fire tender came along, clanging its bell; and within seconds it was followed by another. That was about a quarter of a mile away from the station. A chap was still buttoning up his tunic, but he was on the tender. That is the case. They work their 60 hours all right, and it is 60 hours at a second's notice. If the fireman was in industry, 16 of those 60 hours would he overtime, first of all at time and a quarter, then at time and a half, and then at double time, long before he got up to the 60 hours.

Then there is what I regard as a great iniquity in those brigades where men are working 72 or even 80 hours; and this applies, generally speaking, to the nucleus of full-time firemen in mainly rural areas, who are supported by voluntary part-time firemen. A man is working 72 or 80 hours; what reward does he get? For regular shift systems requiring more than 60 hours, which in industry would call for overtime rates of at least 10s. an hour, a fireman gets the insulting reward of 1s. 6d. per hour—1s. 6d. per hour after 60 hours. Small wonder they cannot get recruits!

Another major difficulty is that the Fire Service has lost parity with the Police. In 1920, following the 1919 Desborough Committee on the Police, we had the Middlebrook Committee on the Fire Services; and that Committee recommended that firemen should be treated more generously than other local-authority employees, and no less generously than the police. Thereafter, for 30 years, national rates of pay in the Fire Service were identical with those of the police, and firemen enjoyed the same rent allowances. When police rates changed, fire service rates moved with them. Since 1950, when local authorities took over the fire services, that parity has been lost. Rent allocations also have been lost: firemen do not get them at all. Firemen are thus not only at a considerable disadvantage in pay compared with industry but painfully so compared with the police. Station officers, in charge of up to 60 men and responsible for the safety of millions of pounds worth of property, were always equated with inspectors. Now, their pay is roughly equal to a constable's maximum. A sub-officer is the equivalent of a police sergeant. Recently, one sub-officer was in charge at a London fire when the lives of 21 people were saved. The sub-officer personally saved four of them. His pay was less than that of the young policewoman who was keeping the children back.

In January last year, as may be recalled, I moved a Motion on police pay, so I am sure that it is not necessary for me to say how completely right and justified, in my view, are the present rates of pay of the police. But it is fair to say that their award has aggravated the already extremely difficult situation in the Fire Service, because until fairly recently basic pay in the two services was comparable. They recruited men of the same type. Age limits for recruitment and retirement were the same. The physical and educational standards are similar. Recruits to both Services have to be of exemplary character and ready to endure strict discipline and the inconvenience of perpetual shift work. Both are public security services whose members are placed in positions of great trust. Until the recent pay awards, the police were unable to compete with industry for recruits. Now they can. But, in comparison, this adds to the difficulties of the sister service, which, broadly speaking, recruits in the same field.

Unfortunately, the present 100 per cent. local authority control and 100 per cent. local authority responsibility for payment of salaries and costs leaves the fire services competing with all the other local services for a share of the ratepayers' money. Thus it makes it impossible to have anything like a National Fire Service, or anything approaching adequate consideration of its pay problems. Even though the Treasury paid 50 per cent, of police costs, the local authorities so effectively prevented proper consideration of pay claims that the Home Secretary was obliged to appoint the Royal Commission on the Police. The Commission, as we now know, rejected the local authorities' arguments that all was well because of rent allowances, free uniforms and a pension, and recommended for the police scales of pay in accordance with the responsibilities of the job and the need to attract the right type of man.

Now it is significant that Mr. Griffiths, the Secretary of the Police Council, is also employers' secretary of the Fire Brigades Council, and he is using exactly the same invalid arguments against the firemen as were formerly used against the police. Indeed, he has gone further; he has, in my view, been sufficiently unwise to characterise the crisis in the Fire Service as a "crisis of envy". But however foolish Mr. Griffiths has been, he is, of course, merely trying to carry out the instructions of the local authorities. Their attitude was made perfectly clear soon after the police pay awards were announced, when, to prevent hopes rising unduly, the County Councils Association announced that claims by other employees of local authorities—and I quote—would find no basis of support in the recent distinct and peculiar circumstances of the police service. It is obvious, therefore, that any major claim has been virtually rejected in advance, and that the "distinct and peculiar circumstances" of the Fire Service cannot be adjusted in the ordinary negotiating machinery.

My Lords, an award of three half-crowns a week would aggravate the problem, not solve it. It is painfully obvious, in my view, that the Government made a grievous mistake eighteen months ago, when they decided that the 25 per cent. of the cost of the Fire Service which was formerly borne on the Home Office Vote should be merged in with the block grant. Of course, at that time the police were very properly excluded from the block grant. But the fact that to-day the Home Secretary has no direct financial responsibility for the Fire Service does not, of course, relieve him of his responsibility for ensuring that Britain has adequate fire protection. We have it now, just about. We shall not have it in two or three years' time, unless the Home Secretary acts now.

Rates of pay are not the only problem; there are also the questions of control and a fair apportionment of the burden. Let me give just one example. The ratepayers of the small county borough of Bootle pay for the Bootle Fire Brigade, but the Bootle Fire Brigade is responsible for fire security in the Mersey Docks area. That is a big area with a tremendous responsibility, and it is borne by the ratepayers of one small county borough. This area is a national responsibility. It houses national assets, such as the ill-fated "Empress of Canada", which was destroyed by fire there two years ago.

Therefore, if we are to have an efficient Fire Service, there must be some degree of central control. We cannot run a National Fire Service off the parish pump—or, rather, off hundreds of parish pumps of varying size and quality. If the facts I have given are accepted—and I honestly do not think they can be seriously challenged—the Government must agree that we are confronted with a situation which could prove very dangerous to the lives and property of our people. Equally, it must surely be accepted that the situation cannot be put right within the present administrative and negotiating set-up. I therefore strongly urge the Government to appoint, without delay, an independent Committee to inquire into the administration of the Fire Services, with particular reference to the question of pay and working conditions, and then to act on the findings of that Committee with all possible speed. This alone, in my view, can save us from disaster a few years hence. I beg to move for Papers.

5.36 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Stonham has dealt with the general problem of manpower in the Fire Service as a whole. He has touched upon the grave deficiency of firemen in London and has referred to the increasing responsibilities and expanding number of calls to render all forms of assistance which the London Fire Brigade is meeting year by year. I want to deal in somewhat greater detail with the critical situation facing those who are responsible for protecting our metropolis from fire. The facts that I shall adduce will, I believe, establish beyond any doubt that unless really drastic—indeed, I may say dramatic—steps are taken, the London Fire Brigade will be unable to maintain full cover in a few years' time. This is a position which the Government can no longer afford to ignore.

Before the war there were 2,469 officers and men in the London Fire Brigade. To-day there are 2,311. Your Lordships may remark that my figures are slightly different from those of my noble friend. His, I think, were the figures at the end of last year: mine are the figures to-day, or yesterday. The implication to be drawn from them is a very serious one, for it is that already over 20 men have left the London Fire Brigade since the end of last year. Calls for assistance have risen from 12,002 to 28,251 in 1959, the last year for which figures are available. So that, with fewer men on the machines, the London Fire Brigade is attending 130 per cent. more calls. To-day, the firemen are working a 60-hour week, although their official duty system is 56 hours per week. To give the men the 56-hour week would require 2,955 men. The Brigade is thus suffering from a deficiency of well over 20 per cent. But for the perpetuation of the 60-hour week—and London is, I am informed, the only large brigade still keeping its men on a 60-hour week—out of every five firemen on a fire engine one would be missing. And the situation gets worse and worse.

Let us now see how grievous this position is likely to become. I assert that there are real dangers ahead. Nearly 25 per cent. of the present officers and men—and my noble friend has already mentioned this figure—were recruited during the war as auxiliary firemen in the National Fire Service. The London County Council willingly kept these men on when the National Fire Service broke up, since this was the only means available to the Council to maintain any brigade at all. Within the next four or five years, all these men will reach the age of compulsory retirement. The years 1938 and 1939 were peak years of recruitment for pre-war regular firemen. Those men who joined then and have continued to serve in the Brigade will be due for retirement in 1966 and 1967.

The London County Council know that they can expect a major exodus of fully experienced men within this narrow compass of a very few years. Now is the time when the Fire Brigade ought to be building up a substantial reserve of men, gaining the experience and skill ready for the exodus in the middle of this decade. In fact, of course, far from building up a reserve of manpower, the London Fire Brigade is condemned to witness a constant drain away of fully trained and experienced men, who leave for other jobs at higher pay and without the inconvenience of shift work and the threat of danger.

There are further factors which the Government should take into account. I have already mentioned the increasing industrialisation of the London County Council area. New fire risks are building up with the many new industrial processes and materials used in industry. All this has led to the phenomenal increase in the demand upon the services of the Brigade, and continues to place an ever-increasing strain upon its depleted manpower. As my noble friend Lord Stonham has pointed out, the Government, very properly concerned with greater security measures against fire, have in their recent Factories Act and in their pending Shops and Offices Bill placed a whole new range of duties upon firemen and officers. I am not surprised to hear the figures the noble Lord gave, obtained apparently from the Chief Officer of the London Fire Brigade, who estimates, if I understand it correctly, that this will entail an additional 100,000 premises which will have to be inspected and reported upon. In addition, we must not forget the enormous increase in the height of buildings being constructed in London, and that high buildings present certain highly-specialised problems of their own with regard to fire risks.

Now, how can this situation be met, and the fire appliances be kept fully manned, if the London Fire Brigade sees its strength sapped away by competing industry and other Services? Sixty hours a week is too long a tour of duty to expect from London firemen in these conditions. I am happy to learn that fire authorities have agreed that in this year of grace a 40-hour week may be introduced, if the individual authority so decides. The London County Council have promised their men a 40-hour week when sufficient recruits have been enrolled. My Lords, this is to make a mockery of the agreement on duty systems. The London Fire Brigade cannot even go to the promised 56-hour week. Yet it may well be that in various parts of the country fire authorities here and there will be able to grant their men a 40-hour week. We shall thus witness the single largest brigade in the country, and one of the busiest brigades in the world, stagger on from year to year with a dwindling personnel doomed to a perpetual 60 hours of duty each week. What chance has the Brigade of recruiting young men in those circumstances?

Moreover—and this I should like to emphasise—the Brigade needs to recruit a particular type of young man. Not only must he be willing to undergo the rigours of actual fire-fighting, to serve as a disciplined member of a crew, willing to place himself in danger, undertaking a difficult and arduous job; he must also be of the necessary intellectual standards to equip himself with the technical knowledge which this developing fire service requires of its members as fire protection and fire fighting becomes a more and more highly developed science.

I recently read that the Secretary of State's Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council is applying itself with considerable energy to this whole question of training of and tuition for all ranks in the Fire Service. I was shown one of the Home Office documents on the training of recruits. It said: To-day a recruit fireman should be capable of becoming a technician. To be efficient, he should be much more than an artisan trained to use tools. He should be equipped mentally to deal with the many problems with which he will be faced during the course of his service And quite right, my Lords. But my noble friend Lord Stonham has shown that, far from recruiting technicians, it will be difficult enough for many brigades to recruit labourers at a starting rate of £11 a week.

Higher fire risks, mounting calls for assistance, combined with a dwindling manpower, present a grim picture. Within four or five years the core of the most experienced men in the London Fire Brigade will be retiring, and unless energetic measures are taken will not be replaced. Together, these facts present the Government, who have a very direct responsibility for the security of the people of London, with the duty of acting with speed and with energy. Otherwise, it may well be too late to save the great London Fire Brigade.

My Lords, I have tried to speak in no alarmist fashion; I have tried to speak factually. But the facts are alarming, and it is therefore with all the emphasis that I can muster that I support the demand of my noble friend for the setting up of a Committee to inquire into the conditions of the Fire Services of this country. I have heard that the noble Earl who is to reply for the Government has been interesting himself personally in this matter. If he has, he will know that what I have said is true. He will be fully appraised of the dangers of the situation, and I hope that he will be able to give us a satisfactory reply.

5.47 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add a few words to the debate, because I had the honour of serving for three years with the Suffolk and Ipswich fire authority as one of the West Suffolk representatives. I am a little out of date now because I left that authority three years ago to go on to another committee. I must say that I enjoyed the work on that Committee, enormously, but at that time we were just holding our own.

When I saw this Motion down on the Order Paper, I made a few inquiries of my colleagues, and I found that the position is getting very difficult indeed. The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, said that the large number of men who were recruited after the war are leaving the service because they have to retire at an early age, as they perform a very dangerous and hazardous service and must be highly physically fit. It is extremely difficult to replace these men, because young men are not coming forward, especially as regular firemen. That is one of the great difficulties in a big rural area like that which I represented, which covered the City of Ipswich as well as Lowestoft. We just got enough regular firemen there. That brigade was a big brigade, and recruited about one-third of its strength in regular firemen and two-thirds in part-time firemen. We cannot possibly, of course, afford to have all regular firemen throughout the country in every small place. The whole success of the fire authorities' work depends upon the regular firemen training the part-time firemen, who play such a very important part. I am told that it is a struggle, but that they are getting just about enough part-time men, who take on this work only on a shift basis.

As the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, rightly said, another very important aspect is that the regular firemen do not only train the part-time firemen, who are, as I say, very important to the brigades, but also train the auxiliary fire- men. A very large number of them in Newmarket, Bury St. Edmunds, Sudbury, and the area I know, are trained on civil defence machines. So clearly this is a matter which must be looked into closely.

It is not only a question of pay, but also of hours, which are long; and, of course, of housing conditions. When I was in the Fire Service, we had a certain number of houses, but not enough, and we were so busy trying to provide modern fire stations and modern equipment—much was done in my day, and much has been done since—that we had not the money to provide houses. Through the good offices of the local authorities we got as many houses as possible, but, of course, they had long waiting lists. It is difficult to get men unless you can house them, and this is most important. I was reading a pamphlet the other day, in which it said that over £50 million of property was destroyed and over 1,000 lives lost last year by fire. So we must take this matter with extreme seriousness and see what can he done. Therefore I support the Motion moved by my noble friend Lord Stonham, and agree that we should hold an inquiry to see what can be done to bolster up recruiting for this important Service.

5.52 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add a few observations to what the noble Lord, Lord Wolverton, has said and in support of my noble friends, whose forthright and well-informed speeches will, I hope, bring home to Her Majesty's Government the crucial nature of the situation in regard to fire-fighting operations in this country. My noble friends are closely in touch with the fire authorities and with the union of the men who are in this hazardous and highly skilled profession, as one may truly call it. During the war, I had the honour and great interest of being responsible to the Regional Commissioner for the North West for a section of the National Fire Service, and from that time I have been a trustee of the Fire Service Research and Training Trust. That has enabled me to keep in touch with what is going on, and I have not the slightest doubt that the picture which has been painted this afternoon is not in any way too black

It is clear that in many parts of the country fire forces are under strength, and that in a very short time they will be even more so. Pay is undoubtedly one of the essential elements in this situation. We seem to forget that before the war most of the leading fire forces were joint police fire services. That was not so, of course, in London which always has had an outstanding fire brigade, famous all over the world, to which during the war not only London but the world had to look for recruiting many of the best highest officers. But, by and large, in the big provincial cities, the fire brigades were joint police fire brigades and established a sort of standard. The pay of firemen has been allowed to get behind, and the men do not forget that it is not so long since the reorganisation took place. We cannot expect men to work under conditions which appear to them to be unfair and unjust, as, indeed, they are; and I hope that this aspect of the matter will be looked into very quickly.

There can be no doubt at all that the reorganisation which was carried through immediately after the war was successful up to a point. I was very sorry that the National Fire Service was disbanded, and despite the promises that were made in the heat of the war to local authorities, I still feel that it would have been better to hold an independent inquiry into the question of whether it would have been better to keep the National Fire Service in being. My noble friend Lord Morrison of Lambeth felt that he was bound by the promises which he had given. He is a very honourable man, and one had to respect the view which he took, and which undoubtedly greatly influenced the Government at that time. Nevertheless, I still feel that the weight of argument was in favour of maintaining a National Service.

I do not think that there is any doubt that the effects of the reorganisation of the Service, its grouping into much larger units and the much higher standard of training and technical efficiency which has been achieved, were due largely to the work put in during the war by the National Fire Service. We learned a tremendous amount as a result of the attacks made upon us from the air. In the earlier stages of the war, we probably learned more in a few months and were ready to put it into operation in the later stages, than had been learned during almost a generation beforehand. That is the reason why smaller fire brigades have been coping with much more difficult fire risks during recent years. I have got to know something about these years: as a Trustee that is my duty.

It is clear that operational problems in fire work are now infinitely more complex and difficult than they were even in the years immediately before the war. The expansion of all kinds of new industries, every one of them bringing into being different and highly technical risks, which can be effectively handled only on the basis of real scientific knowledge and a complex technological method of training, has made the task of the fire brigades much more difficult. They have succeeded in a remarkable way, as the result of the reorganisation, in coping with a much heavier burden of fire fighting with forces which are seldom any larger, and often are smaller, than they were in the previous period. But this state of affairs just cannot go on, and it seems to me to be essential that the matter should be looked at again.

This was the subject of a careful and able inquiry carried out a year or two before the war, with the war looming ahead. Unfortunately, full arrangements had not been made when the war started, and even that Committee did not envisage how heavy the fire attack would be. Nevertheless, the later reorganisation was carried through largely on the basis of the researches and investigations made at that time. But that is now going on for 30 years—at any rate, a full quarter of a century—ago. This is a matter which continues to develop all the time, and it ought not to be allowed to remain in the sort of situation which was examined a generation ago. Therefore I strongly support the argument put forward by my noble friend Lord Stonham, that the Government should quickly appoint an expert Committee to go into these problems and present a Report about the present situation and the methods of tackling it.

6.0 p.m.


My Lords, as so often happens in your Lordships' House, at a rather late hour, in a rather thin House, and with relatively few speakers, a short debate takes place which is of vital importance to the nation. It is my hope that as a result of this debate the ratepayers will take as much interest as the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, would like them to take in the question of the Fire Services, which he has brought before your Lordships. The debate has been undertaken by experts in your Lordships' House. All noble Lords who have spoken have first-hand experience. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, who intervened, has experience of the Fire Service at the firemen's end; the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, is of course an expert on the local authority view, as, indeed, is my noble friend Lord Wolverton; and the noble Lord, Lord Faringdon, too, for a long time has been an expert in the Fire Service itself.

The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, painted a gloomy picture, but there were a few things that he did not say which I should like to put before your Lordships before going further. There are roughly 2,500 more firemen in the Fire Service this year than there were in 1955. There has been a net gain of firemen every year since 1955. I am not going to say that that net gain is big enough; nevertheless, recruits are coining along, and more recruits are coming along than those who retire. I am talking, of course, of the Fire Service as a whole. The noble Lord, Lord Faringdon, mentioned London in particular, and I am glad that he said it is not only the largest fire service and fire authority but is also the most envied in the world, and fire authorities come from far and near to find out how the London Fire Service works. There is one particular point the noble Lord mentioned in regard to high buildings.


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves the question of figures, may I say that it is an extraordinary statement to listen to that the number of recruits is exceeding the wastage each year. It is totally in conflict with my information and certainly not correct about London. Can the noble Lord say whether the numbers he quoted are on the basis of full-time firemen or whether part-time firemen are included?


They are on the basis of whole-time firemen, and if the noble Lord would like to see the figures, I have them. I am talking of the country as a whole.


My Lords, surely this does not apply in London.


I did not say that it applied in London. But I do say that London is gaining a net increase in recruits over retirements. It is a small increase maybe, but an increase, nevertheless. I can give the figures. For London, the full-time strength is 2,328, and the strength in 1955 was 2,026, which is an approximate net increase of 300 from 1955. This is, I agree, under the authorised establishment, but that is a completely different problem. What I am trying to point out to noble Lords is that in fact recruiting is taking place. Listening to their speeches, one would have thought that no recruiting was taking place; but, in fact, it is the reverse.

To revert to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Faringdon, with regard to high buildings, I would assure him that all the new high buildings that are and have been going up in London for some years now are fully protected by built-in fire safety systems. As the noble Lord fully understands, that is a combination of systems in the construction of the building, worked in the closest co-operation with the actual fire services who will be working those systems. It has been said that the ladders are not long enough and so forth, but I assure the noble Lord, Lord Faringdon, that that is quite wrong.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt again, but what I said was that it raised special and new problems. I am quite aware that there are rules and regulations under which high buildings are being put up.


The noble Lord did indeed say that, and in many other cases one has seen that the London Fire Service is up to those new and enlarged problems. I wanted to make it quite clear that these problems are fully understood and that, in fact, the London Fire Service copes with them.

My noble friend Lord Wolverton and the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, both mentioned the establishments. Of course, the establishments have increased. But I assure noble Lords that the fire cover- age which the present-day strength up and down the country gives has, in fact, increased also, and is a considerable improvement upon what it used to be. I think that is a point that must be made quite clear to the country in this debate.


My Lords, if the noble Earl is suggesting that the establishment is better than it was before the war, I would say that there is nothing in that argument, because the situation before the war over many parts of the country was quite ridiculous. What we have to face is the situation that exists now.


I fully appreciate that. But from what the noble Lord and his noble friends Lord Stonham and Lord Faringdon said with regard to establishments it might be taken that fire coverage was on the down grade. I assure your Lordships that that is not so, but that the fire coverage has improved.


My Lords, I beg the noble Earl's pardon for interrupting again, but he will realise that fire coverage is possible only owing to the very long working hours—a 60-hour week, in fact.


The noble Lord has described the working hours, and I appreciate what he has said. I must explain the limitations of my right honourable friend's responsibility for the matters the noble Lord has just raised in his interruption, and, in particular, the pay and hours of duty which may influence it. Under Sections 1 and 4 of the Fire Services Act, 1947, to which the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, referred—and, for better or for worse, as the noble Lord has said, that is the Act which gave back to local authorities the powers for looking after the fire brigades—the responsibility for maintaining them in a state of efficiency is placed upon the county and county borough councils as fire authorities. My right honourable friend has a general responsibility for the efficiency of the Service, and for this he maintains an inspectorate.

Prior to 1959 the grant was paid at the rate of 25 per cent. of expenditure incurred by the fire authorities. Since 1959, as the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, mentioned, this has been absorbed into the general grant made to the local authorities. This is reviewed periodically, and the current grant has been agreed to apply during the financial years of 1961–62 and 1962–63. Under the Fire Services Act, 1959, my right honourable friend has responsibility for overseeing establishment schemes with a view to ensuring that establishments are such as to enable fire authorities to maintain the proper standards of fire cover—and that is a point to which the noble Lord, Lord Charley, referred.

Pay, allowances, duty hours and leave are entirely matters for agreement by the National Joint Council of Local Authorities' Fire Brigades, on which the fire authorities and the unions, but not my right honourable friend, are represented. If the unions consider that pay and hours of duty need to be improved, then it is for them to raise the matter on the Council, which has been the normal practice in the past. Similarly, if fire authorities believe that improved conditions are needed to arrest or forestall a decline in the strengths of their brigades, it is for the Council to apply the remedy.

The conditions agreed by the Council need not be uniform for the whole country. They have power, if they so wish, to agree differential rates of pay for different brigades. But presumably they would not wish to exercise this power in such a way as to create competition between the brigades so that in solving the problems of some they would increase the difficulties of others. But they have already agreed to rates of pay rather higher than standard for a few brigades, such as in London, Birmingham and Coventry, where recruitment has been particularly difficult because of competition, not from other fire brigades, but from outside employment. The noble Lords, Lord Stonham and Lord Faringdon, and my noble friend Lord Wolverton with regard to Essex, have given us a most graphic description of these difficulties.


In Suffolk.


I am sorry, I thought my noble friend said Essex. The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, has made a special point, with the support of other noble Lords, that there should be an inquiry. But no approach has been made to my right honourable friend, and I cannot comment on this idea of the noble Lord beyond making it clear that such a proposal has not been considered by Her Majesty's Government, and that it must not be assumed that, if it were made, it would be found possible to accept it.

Now to turn to the hours of duty which have been described by the noble Lord. There are four duty systems in use, of which the 56-hour duty system is the commonest. That consists of an average of 56 hours of duty during the week, with an average of two complete periods of 24 hours off. These duty systems were agreed by the National Joint Council in 1955. The Council also agreed that the introduction of a 48-hour week was desirable in principle, but that it would have to be deferred until a more appropriate time. The unions have now reopened the matter, and the Council are considering it. Since this matter is now under consideration and is, in any case, entirely within the responsibility of the Council, it would be quite improper for me to comment further on it, as I am sure noble Lords will understand.

The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, particularly mentioned, towards the end of his speech, the part-time firemen, and I am most glad that he did. I should like to echo the praise that he gave to those men who undertake fire service duties—I can barely say in their spare time; I would say at any time—and I want to pay a compliment to them for their efficiency and their quickness of turnout, often under the most adverse weather conditions. That is particularly so in country areas, and I have special reason myself to be most grateful to the service of those part-time men. These men who are mainly, though not exclusively, employed in country areas, follow their normal occupations during the day or night, but are on call for fires. I think it would be right here to say a word of praise also to the employers of these men, who often have to put up with considerable difficulty when highly skilled men go off to assist at an emergency. Over the last five years, there has been a slight decline in strength, from just over to just under 14,000. Establishments have, however, fallen even more, so that the deficiency—3,860 in 1960—is less than it was. The establishments are going down for part-time men, which is the reverse for full-time men.

To sum up, throughout the country as a whole the position remains reasonably satisfactory, and I must repeat that, in spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, has said, and despite the impression that might be gained from this debate, recruitment has not fallen, and whole-time strength has, in fact, continued to increase. As I say, there are three times as many firemen to-day as there were in 1939. While establishments have risen even faster, so creating a deficiency (that was again a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley) standards of fire cover have been properly maintained, and in many areas improved.

To this general picture there are, as have said, certain exceptions: London and the industrial centres, and other places noble Lords have mentioned. Any deterioration of the situation here could give cause for concern. Account must be taken for the future of the increasing number of men likely to retire on pension after completing their service, and the possible effects of any reduction in duty hours agreed by the National Joint Council. The problem of the experienced men retiring from the old N.F.S. was brought up by the noble Lords, Lord Stonham, Lord Faringdon and Lord Chorley. These are matters which will need to be carefully watched. We must remember that the Home Secretary's powers are purely supervisory. Responsibility for the Service rests first and foremost on the local fire authorities. They are no less aware than we are of the problems that are confronting the Service, but they have not failed in their responsibilities.

6.17 p.m.


My Lords, I should like briefly to express my most grateful thanks to those noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Wolverton, and my noble friend Lord Chorley, who came in and spoke at the last moment, virtually "off the cuff", out of the depths of their experience.

The noble Earl, Lord Bathurst, said that all of us who had spoken in this debate spoke from the depths of experience. That is perfectly true with regard to my noble friend Lord Faringdon, because during the war he was a member of the A.F.S., and I am quite sure that he spoke very feelingly when he mentioned the increasing height of buildings in London. He has probably experienced just what it is like to go up an escape at a very high building. The noble Lord, Lord Wolverton, of course, has experience with the Suffolk and Ipswich Fire Authority, and my noble friend Lord Chorley had the experience of administration in the North-West, and also as a trustee of the Fire Service Research and Training Trust. I have had no experience whatever. The noble Earl said that I spoke as an authority from the local authority point of view. I regret to say, however, that I have never yet been a member even of a parish council, and such expertise as I show in this matter arises solely from the fact that I checked my references.

I must say that I am disappointed indeed at the noble Earl's reply. A great friend of mine said very graphically, in a way which I will not repeat, what can be done with figures. No doubt we are all fairly guilty at various times of juggling with figures. I think it all depends where one starts. The noble Earl, Lord Bathurst, said of London that in 1955 there were 2,026 firemen, and that to-clay there are 2,328—which is precisely the figure that I, and indeed my noble friend Lord Faringdon also, gave. But what the noble Earl neglected to say was that the numbers in London are definitely declining. I shall study those figures again later, but I know that that is the position at the moment. Indeed, every noble Lord who has spoken has referred to this as an extremely dangerous situation and one which is causing very considerable anxiety. I should have thought that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wolverton, more than any other, reinforces this demand for an inquiry, because from his experience he said that this was not merely a question of pay but of hours and housing conditions, and no doubt other conditions, all of which, I submit, need to be looked into to see what cart be done to bring in the necessary numbers of the right type of men.

I am, of course, aware that the Fire Services Act places on the county councils and county boroughs responsibility for maintaining the fire services in their area, and for questions of pay and hours, and that these matters are dealt with through the Joint Council. But I tried to show in my speech that in the present context that position has been practically ruled out by the announcements already made by the County Councils Association: that they are not really prepared to look at the problem in the way in which it requires looking at. I was interested to learn that no approach for an inquiry has been made to the right honourable gentleman, the Home Secretary, and I am sure that that is a matter that will now be attended to, although I realise that the noble Earl said that it must not be assumed that if it were made it would be accepted. But I feel that we are going to be in an extremely serious position.

Before I ask leave to withdraw the Motion, there are two things I should like to say. First, I would join with the noble Earl in the tribute he paid to the voluntary part-time firemen. Their enthusiasm is quite incredible. In Taunton my gardener was a voluntary fireman and we always had the war-time fire sirens there; I used to say that he hit the saddle of his bicycle in the second bar of the siren. When I lived at Cobham the fire station was at the bottom of a long road, a mile away. The siren would go, and always the door would be open and the tender coming out before the last dying sounds of the siren faded away. It is really amazing.


My Lords, before the noble Lord departs from paying tributes, perhaps he would like to include the works fire brigades maintained by many big industrial organisations, which are often remarkably efficient and do a very good job of work.


Yes, indeed. Firemen as a whole are quite remarkable and special people, and to me it seems unbelievable that they will not get fair and proper treatment. That was the object of raising the question.

The other point is that the noble Earl said that the position as a whole is satisfactory at the moment. I would agree; in fact, I said so in my speech. At the moment it is about right. But he virtually ignores the position—this is the danger—about the very high proportion of A.F.S. men who must be replaced in the next few years. If we say that we are all right now we are very much like the man who fell out of the balloon—we are all right until we hit the ground. The object of this debate is to draw the Government's attention to the sort of position that will arise if urgent action is not taken. I hope they will consider what all noble Lords have said, and that, arising out of that consideration, something effective will be done. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.