HL Deb 18 March 1971 vol 316 cc607-29

5.28 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is a Bill designed to strengthen and rationalise the existing law dealing with means of escape and other relevant fire precautions in places of public entertainment and resort, and in certain kinds of residential premises. The need for a measure of this kind has long been recognised. Indeed, it was my noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor, when he was Home Secretary, who set up a committee of officials to inquire into this problem and, on the basis of their findings, arranged for the first draft of the present Bill to be prepared. The previous Administration also accepted the need for this legislation, but, unfortunately, the pressures on the Parliamentary timetable have been such as to prevent it from being brought forward before now. In another place, the Bill has been welcomed and no differences between the Parties have emerged.

Uncontrolled fires, my Lords, have long been one of the greatest natural forces that have threatened mankind. In these surroundings we need look no further back than 1834, when on the evening of October 16, a fire was first noticed in the Palace of Westminster. It spread so rapidly that the firemen had no option but to let the old Houses of Parliament burn out in the interests of saving Westminster Hall.

Public opinion (which is a feature of this subject) tends only to be aroused when there is some particularly serious fire—such as at the Rose and Crown Hotel in Saffron Walden at Christmas, 1969, when 11 people lost their lives, or more recently at a dance hall near Grenoble in France when 140 people, mainly young people, died. But the evidence points to a continuing and steady loss of life resulting from fires, while injuries caused by fire are also considerable. In 1968 (the latest year for which accurate, detailed figures are available), fire brigades in the United Kingdom attended about 215,000 fires. There were 865 deaths in these fires, and there were 4,612 non-fatal casualties excluding those requiring first-aid treatment only. As for fire losses—that is to say, the loss of buildings and their contents in fire—the British Insurance Association statistics show that these are already in excess of £100 million a year. And this figure, large as it is, takes no account of the loss of markets, unemployment and the other consequences which fires inevitably bring in their wake. It is against this background that this Bill has to be considered.

Before going on to describe the existing law concerning fire precautions it would, I think, be right to pay tribute to the admirable and efficient work done by the fire brigades. The British Fire Service has earned a high reputation and without the vigilance and courage of its members there is no doubt that the loss of life, injury and material damage caused by fire would be far greater than it is. The committee of officials to which I have already referred carefully studied the nature and extent of fire prevention legislation as it existed in 1962. They concluded that, so far as employees were concerned, the fire protection provisions of the Factories Act 1961, and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963, were broadly satisfactory and they proposed no change. For this reason, premises already within the scope of these Acts, mainly places of work, are outside the scope of this present. Bill.

The committee also came to the conclusion that it would be neither appropriate nor practicable to try to compel owners, by legislation, to protect their property against damage by fire, but that this should continue to be left to voluntary arrangements between owners and their insurance companies. The committee nevertheless stressed the need for more education and publicity, and urged managements in industry and trade to seek the advice of the fire authorities on fire protection measures in factories, warehouses and other business premises. The Departmental Committee on the Fire Service, the Holroyd Committee, which reported in May of last year (Cmnd. 4371) took a somewhat similar line. In particular, they did not consider that direct legislation to deal with fire losses was practicable, although they recommended certain other procedures which are currently under discussion with those concerned. But I should point out that while it is not the purpose of this Bill to deal with fire losses, of course it remains true that any measure which leads to a reduction in loss of life clue to fire will also lead to a reduction in the amount of damage done to property.

The Bill, then, is concerned with the protection of life in the event of fire, but even in this field its scope is limited. Except for certain types of dwellings where the occupants are particularly at risk—for example, in high-rise blocks of flats—the ordinary dwelling-house is not covered by the Bill, even though rather more than half the deaths and injuries resulting from fires which I mentioned earlier occurred in private homes. But, as both the Holroyd Committee and the earlier official committee recognised, legislation to require adequate fire precautions to be observed in the ordinary home is impracticable. Even if the large number of extra inspectors who would be needed to deal with the 15 million or so homes in this country could be justified, their work would be ineffective without powers of entry to the private home. Thus we must continue in this field to rely mainly on publicity and education, a matter to which both central and local government are giving increased attention and one to which the Holroyd Committee attached particular importance. What we are left with are premises, other than ordinary dwelling-houses, and other than factories, offices and shops, to which the public may resort for purposes of recreation or amusement, or where they may stay for holidays, residential care and so on.

The Bill will apply in practice to four main categories of premises: places of amusement, recreation and public resort, theatres, cinemas, dance-halls, bingo clubs and the like; residential establishments, such as hotels, boarding-houses, hospitals, and institutions for the residential care of the elderly, the young and the handicapped; educational establishments—mainly schools; and certain private dwellings—chiefly the high-rise blocks of flats to which I have referred—but not houses in multiple occupation, for which fire safety provisions already exist in the Housing Acts.

There are, of course, some safeguards under the present law, particularly under the Public Health Act 1936, but the present position is far from satisfactory. The laws concerning fire precautions have developed piecemeal to meet different needs which have arisen from time to time in the past. They are applied by different authorities for different purposes, and are not easily adapted to meet new hazards arising from technical developments or from changes in social habits.

The object of the Bill is to remedy these defects as far as possible by substituting a comprehensive and flexible system of fire prevention control covering the type of premises that I have described. It will enable new fire hazards to be dealt with promptly and without the need for further legislation. It will apply to Scotland as well as to England and Wales.

The main instrument of control under the Bill will be by way of fire certificates. These will be issued by local fire authorities once they are satisfied that the provision made for means of escape, and other relevant fire precautions in the premises concerned, are of a satisfactory standard. In this, the Bill follows the precedent of the fire safety provisions of the Factories Act 1961 and the Offices, Shops and Railways Premises Act 1963.

The next important point to note is that the Bill will operate according to the use to which premises are put rather than to their description, and Clause 1(2) sets out the various classes of use from among which the Secretary of State has power to designate, by order, a particular use. This method of bringing the Bill into operation, by designating orders, will have three advantages. First, it can be done in stages taking account of relative hazards and the capacity of the fire service to deal with the work involved. Second, it is an adaptable system, and one that can take account of leisure patterns as they develop in the future. And third, there will be no difficulty about applying the Bill to premises which are used for different purposes on different occasions—the village hall, say, or the cinema regularly used for bingo on certain evenings of the week.

If we move on to those categories of dwellings coming within the scope of Clause 3 of the Bill—as I have explained, mainly blocks of flats—the procedure is somewhat different. The question of imposing adequate fire precautions in such cases is so closely tied up with other questions of social and housing policy affecting the area concerned, that it is proposed in this instance to leave the matter to the discretion of the fire authority acting in consultation with the local authority which is responsible for housing. There will thus be no general order applying to all dwellings within the scope of Clause 3. Particular premises will be dealt with by the authorities concerned who will have to serve a notice in each case applying the provisions of the Bill to that particular property.

If premises are brought within the scope of the Bill, either by way of the designating order procedure visualised under Clause 1 or a notice under Clause 3, an application for a fire certificate will have to be made to the fire authority in the form prescribed in Clause 5. The fire authority will then be under a duty to inspect the premises, and if satisfied as to the adequacy of the means of escape and other relevant fire precautions, to issue a fire certificate. If the fire authority are not satisfied, they must indicate what they consider should be done to bring the premises up to a satisfactory standard. The applicant is not compelled by the Bill to do this. He could, for example, decide not to continue to use the premises for the purpose which brought it within the Bill, but a fire certificate will not be issued until the fire authority are satisfied as to the adequacy of the fire precautions. Clause 7 makes it an offence, subject to stated penalties either on summary conviction or on conviction on indictment, to use premises without a fire certificate or to contravene any requirements imposed by the certificate.

Clause 6 sets out the various detailed requirements which may be imposed under the fire certificate in order to ensure the safety of the occupants in the event of fire. It should be noted that the main purpose is to ensure that people will be able to escape quickly and safety from the premises in the event of fire, even before the fire brigade arrives, and only those measures necessary to achieve this end may be imposed. Clause 8 provides the fire authority with the necessary powers of entry and inspection to deal with any change of circumstances affecting the fire precautions and generally to ensure that the fire precautions are maintained at a satisfactory standard. Rights of appeal for occupants and others affected by the fire authority's decisions or requirements are provided by Clause 9.

My Lords, this is the broad pattern of the way in which the Bill will operate, but before closing I ought briefly to mention one other matter dealt with in the Bill. As I said earlier, the Bill is mainly concerned with the way in which buildings are or will be used. But Clause 11 enables the Secretary of State to make Building Regulations regarding means of escape in new buildings; that is, buildings under construction or buildings for which substantial alterations are being planned. Although this power exists in Scotland, it has hitherto been lacking in England and Wales. It is obviously desirable for a builder or developer to know in advance what will be required in the way of means of escape in any new building he proposes to erect. The new power will now enable this to be done. He is also entitled to some assurance, however, that having satisfied the building authority he will not subsequently be confronted with a separate set of requirements from the fire authority which will involve him in much heavier expense than if he had known about these, too, from the outset. The Bill deals with this problem in two ways.

First, Clauses 13 and 14 prevent the fire authority, save in very special circumstances, from requiring more than is required by the Building Regulations. Second, Clauses 15 to 17 lay appropriate duties on the various authorities concerned to consult one another in defined circumstances. In this way, we hope that developer, building authority and fire authority will work in close co-operation from the outset, especially where a new building is being planned, so that the question of overlapping or conflicting requirements between authorities will not arise. These arrangements for statutory consultation apply, of course, only where the authorities for building and fire are different. We cannot legislate for relationships between different departments of the same authority, although the Government are sure that the authorities concerned will see that appropriate arrangements for consultation are made in the spirit of the Bill.

Finally, my Lords, I should say that it is not the intention to bring the Bill into force for any particular use (unless the matter is too urgent for delay) until we have had the fullest consultations with all those concerned—central Government, fire authorities and representatives of other interests—and have worked out a code of practice for that particular use. This will mean that everybody will know what is required, leading to as great uniformity as possible in the operation of the Bill.

My Lords, this is, I am afraid, a rather technical measure, but, as I have explained, it is one that has a very simple aim, and it is this: to apply to places of public amusement, hotels, institutions, and certain residential premises broadly similar standards of fire precautions to those that already apply in places of work. The method of control envisaged is the same—a system of fire certificates—and we must all hope that in placing this measure on the Statute Book we shall be doing something to reduce the number of lives lost as a result of fire in the future. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Windlesham.)

5.47 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, both for the clarity and for the brevity with which he has introduced a quite important and lengthy Bill. As he said, this Bill is welcomed by all Parties in both Houses, and, so far as I am concerned, the sooner it gets on the Statute Book the better. I shall certainly not go over the ground so fully and efficiently covered in another place, and by the noble Lord in his admirable speech, but I should like, on behalf of my colleagues on this side of the House, to add my tribute to those he paid to members of the fire services, a tribute which was indeed well deserved.

So far as the Bill is concerned, there are two points of criticism which might be made. One is against the Parliamentary system—or possibly I ought to say the Whitehall complex—which has prevented this Bill from getting an appropriate place in the Parliamentary programme before now. That is not a Party point, because I think we ought to have introduced it in the previous Government. The second point is that the Bill does not go far enough: it leaves important areas of the fire problem entirely uncovered. For example, the Bill, as the noble Lord said, is concerned with the loss of life by fire; yet I am told that of 1,000 lives lost in each recent year by fire, only about 30 or 40 were in premises covered by this Bill. That gives me certainly pause to think. It would seem, surely, that we have as yet not really tackled the fire hazard problem.

Most of the fatalities occurred in private houses, which, as the noble Lord says, are not covered at all, except in certain cases of high-rise blocks of flats. I am not quite sure about the position of what one might call houses of multiple occupation. The noble Lord made some reference to those, and to the fact that they were covered by the Housing Act. But what about those older types of house, sub-let into bed-sitting rooms, or probably divided up into what are sometimes called self-contained flats? Are they or are they not covered by the Housing Act to which he referred? Are there regulations made to ensure adequate exits, and so on, in such buildings?

I know that there are difficulties in extending the area to be covered by legislation. Mostly it is a matter of inspection and enforcement. It is a real problem, which I suppose involves the most profound of economic and political issues. How are we to ensure in the sort of acquisitive society which the present Government are seeking to set up, adequate public services, when large wage claims go unchallenged in the private sector and we turn down essential services like the postal service? How are we to get the essential work done?

My Lords, I will not pursue this thought on this Bill, but it is relevant. It is a fact that we could reduce the national loss of hundreds of millions of pounds if we were to pay more, and to attract more staff, to the fire services. We can do more. An increased expenditure in public services can be a positive investment in terms of material goods saved. There is a tendency to say that the loss was covered by insurance. The fact is that goods and property destroyed by fire are real losses of national assets, whether they are insured or not.

There is another angle from which the problem might be tackled, rather than by penalty and enforcement of regulations: it is by using the carrot rather than by the stick. Is it impossible to conceive incentives to go beyond minimum safety requirements? Can we do something to encourage extra precautions by some form of tax relief; or, at the very least, can we not ensure that work done to property specifically for fire precaution will not mean an increased rateable value? It is ironic and unjust—indeed, absurd—that if a property owner spends money to try to reduce the chance of calling upon the fire brigade he has to pay an extra amount for the payment of their services because the rateable value is increased as a consequence of the precautions he has taken. I know that these matters do not come under this Bill. Nevertheless, they are part of this problem and they deserve consideration.

Finally, may I ask the Minister a little more about the consideration which he says is being given to the possibility of increased education and publicity of this fire risk. The losses in life and property are of such an order that something similar in kind, if not in degree, to the road safety campaign would appear to be justified. The noble Lord said that the local authorities and the national Government were giving attention to the possibility of a publicity campaign. Is he satisfied that they are envisaging something on an adequate scale? Certainly the road safety campaign is a massive campaign, and it costs a lot of money. I would not necessarily say that we should duplicate that campaign, but we ought to do something along those lines if we are really going to bring some of these points home to all the people concerned.

As I have said, I do not propose to rehash all the many interesting points already made in another place, but I hope that the noble Lord will be able to give me some indication that the time we shall save by a speedy consideration of this Bill in this House will be used to consider the further Bill which really is necessary to supplement this one, or at any rate the other efforts such as publicity campaigns, which are needed to complement it.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, in my experience—and I believe it is general and not confined to my term of office—the Home Secretary hardly ever received any complaints against the operating efficiency of the fire brigades throughout England and Wales in fighting particular fires. Bearing in mind the almost innumerable complaints which a Home Secretary receives about almost every other part of his responsibilities, I think this is a significant fact which ought to be known, and I cite it today because it underlines the tributes which we pay, and rightly should pay, to our fire service throughout the country. But of course they are helped or handicapped by the state of the law, and by the conditions which they find when they are called to a fire.

Some seven years ago it gave me deep concern as Home Secretary to discover that the law relating to fire precautions in places such as hotels, boarding houses, clubs and places of entertainment—what I think are known collectively as places of resort—was patchy, confusing and out-of-date. My Lords, death through fire is a terrible death, and it is not always swift. From that day on it has weighed on my mind that there might at any time be in this country a fire with grave loss of life which could have been prevented if the law on fire precautions had been sounder and stronger. There was that terrible fire at Grenoble the other day. I am not in a position to say where the responsibility for that lay, and whether, therefore, anyone was at fault. But we as a Parliament should have it on our conscience if there were a similar fire in this country in any premises and it were to be found that we had been partly responsible because we had allowed the law to fall out of date.

What I did at that time when I was Home Secretary was to give instructions that a Bill to modernise the law in this field should be put in hand. That is the origin of this present Bill, and that is how I know that a draft of it has lain in the Home Office for years in readiness for introduction. That, indeed, is my excuse for speaking on two different Second Readings of Bills this afternoon—something that all your Lordships would wish should happen seldom, because no one person should take up too much time.

In Session after Session of the last Parliament, not for the sake of controversy but for the sake of public safety, I used to ask the Government why this Bill was not included in the gracious Speech and I urged them to bring it forward. I therefore congratulate the present Government on recognising its urgency and including it in the programme for their very first Session. As the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, has said, the Bill is not in its provisions controversial and, like him, I feel sure that it will go through your Lordships' House quickly. It was the act of recognising its importance and giving it priority in the legislative programme which was crucial.

I, too, am not going into technicalities, and I have only one general point to make. It is not enough to have the most perfect fire prevention equipment in the physical sense, if the personnel who will have to act in an emergency are not fire trained and fire conscious. I do not know how many of your Lordships have had experience of this—I hope very—but even a small outbreak of fire is a frightening thing if you are not mentally prepared for it. It is easy at such a time to lose one's head, at the very moment when cool thinking may be all important. Secondly, it is often easy, surprisingly easy, to put out a fire in the first half minute of its existence, whereas if it is not discovered until five or ten minutes later it may have gained an unbreakable hold.

The assurance I should like from my noble friend is that the Home Office and the local authorities, in using their powers under this Bill, will not only insist on modern and efficient material and equipment, but will do one more thing too. I should like to be sure that they will bring home to owners and occupiers of the premises covered by this Bill the importance of always having someone on the spot who not only understands the fire prevention and fire escape arrangements, but is trained as a fire guard, trained in fire vigilance; a man whose duty it is to ensure that, at any hour of the day or night, any outbreak of fire is swiftly detected and warning flashed to the fire brigade. The existence of first-class equipment, fire escapes, and so on, may otherwise lull people into a sense of false security, because although it may be impossible to save life if the equipment and the escapes are not there, the fact of their presence does not by itself ensure that they will be used properly; and still less does it ensure that the fire brigade will be called at the earliest possible moment.

It is not the business of those who are working on the premises to fight fires; that is essentially the technical business of the fire brigade. If serious fire is to be avoided, the fire brigade must be notified as swiftly as may be. An outbreak of fire may go undetected, and even when detected may not be met with the cool, quick thinking that is required, unless those who may have to deal with such a situation are trained as to what they may have to expect, and as to what they will need to do instantly. I am not sure whether the provision for regulations in Clause 12 of this Bill adequately covers this point of mine. I trust that it does, but in any case I hope that it will be looked at before the Bill becomes law.

6.3 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships will agree with me when I say that when anyone with the experience, knowledge and clarity of the noble Lord who has just resumed his seat speaks, we are only too happy that he should speak twice on Second Readings of important Bills such as these. I would add just a few words in this debate to underline what was said by my noble friend Lord Beswick in his admirable criticism of this Bill. Of course, so far as the Bill goes it is a very good Bill. I have been interested in these problems—particularly problems of fire prevention—ever since the War years, when I spent much of my time in the National Fire Service. It was in the National Fire Service that fire prevention first began to be studied and applied in a really scientific manner. It has always seemed to me a great pity that the remarkable progress which was made at that time has not been adequately carried through in the 25 years and more since the end of the War. We had not very long ago the Holroyd Committee which produced an admirable Report, but nothing seems to have come from it because, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, has said, this Bill was on the stocks before that time.

It seems to me that this Bill does not go anything like far enough, not only in the provision for safety of life, which is obviously very important indeed, but in that it makes no effort whatever to safeguard property—and property which is of really outstanding national importance and value. It is quite absurd to say that it is all right to leave this to private insurance; it is not. Some years ago there was a terribly destructive fire at the Jaguar Works which could have been prevented very easily indeed. This matter was raised in your Lordships' House at the time. Some millions of pounds' worth of damage was done, and export of that very valuable export commodity was seriously held up. That was a matter of importance not only to the Jaguar company and to the workmen who were employed there, but to the national economy and the country as a whole. The destruction by fire of valuable property in this country has been going up since the end of the War until, I think, last year, when there was a slight recession. That recession was very welcome indeed, but the destruction has now been standing for a year or two at over £100 million in value per annum. I think the country ought to be ashamed to allow this to happen, because although this is no doubt private property from one aspect, it is national property from another, as my noble friend underlined.

It is high time that fire precaution inspection and fire precaution desiderata were made compulsory over the wide range of British industry, to prevent the terrible loss to the national economy which has been going on year after year and which, over the last twenty years, has amounted to a really frightening sum. It is high time that the Government tackled this problem, and I hope that, already plans are in progress in the Home Office for the implementation of the proposals of the Holroyd Committee, which attached great importance to this question of fire prevention. It must be three years since the Holroyd Committee reported, and, as we understood it at the time, the Government accepted the Report.


My Lords, I must correct the noble Lord. I think I mentioned in my speech that the Committee reported in May of last year.


My Lords, I apologise. It seems a long time ago. If the noble Lord can tell me that active preparations are in fact being made in the Home Office for a Bill which, I hope, will be brought before Parliament much more quickly than this Bill was, I shall be very grateful.

As I say, I have been very interested in these things over these years. The late Lord Morrison of Lambeth did me the honour of making me a trustee of the Fire Research and Training Trust, which has done very valuable work, within its rather limited financial resources, over these last years. They will be very happy to co-operate with the Home Office and with the Fire Service, with whom we are in close contact already in these matters. In the Trust, fire prevention has always seemed to us to be of outstanding importance, and I hope that measures which will enable it to be carried through, not only for the prevention of danger to life but also for prevention of destruction to property, will soon be brought before Parliament.

6.8 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to apologise to the House for not having put my name down on the Order Paper to speak. I should also like to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for having given him only the briefest notice that I was intending this afternoon to introduce a note of dissent into this debate. I am afraid I did not realise until late this afternoon that this matter was coming before the House to-day. I do not quarrel with anything that has been said up to now by noble Lords in support of the Bill; indeed, I am in no way qualified to speak on the major aspects of the Bill. But there is one part of the Bill which causes me considerable surprise and alarm, and that is the provisions which deal with the enforcement of the law. They are contained in Clauses 18, 19 and 20 of the Bill. When I heard the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, speaking on behalf of the Opposition and making no criticisms of the Bill other than technical criticisms, I must say I was a little surprised, because it seems to me that one has only to read these clauses under the heading of "Enforcement" to realise that we are giving to fire inspectors powers that we give to nobody else in the land, including, in particular, the police.

Clause 19 provides that a fire inspector can do the following at any reasonable time. He may enter any of the premises which are set out thereafter—which are the premises with which we are concerned in this Bill—and he may inspect in those premises, the whole or any part thereof and anything therein"; and he can do that without any suggestion of a search warrant. Those are far wider powers than we give to a police officer because, as I understand it, a police officer can enter premises only if he has either a search warrant or reasonable grounds for believing that an arrestable offence is being committed in those premises.

The clause goes on to say that, having entered the premises in that way—and it is important to bear in mind that some of these premises are dwelling-houses, places where people live—the inspector has power to make such examination and inquiry as may be necessary to establish certain facts, such as who is the owner of the premises and matters of that kind. The clause goes on to state that on entering any premises the inspector may take with him a constable if he has reasonable cause to apprehend any serious obstruction in the execution of the powers conferred on him by this subsection. Then we come to the most remarkable provision of all. Paragraph (d) of subsection (1) gives the inspector power, for the purpose of any examination or inquiry under paragraph (b) above … to require any person whom he has reasonable cause to believe to be the owner or the occupier of the premises or to be a person employed to work therein or otherwise having responsibilities in relation thereto"— such as, I suppose, a caretaker— to answer … such questions as the inspector thinks fit to ask and to sign a declaration of the truth of his answers. Not only that, my Lords. I have left out a parenthesis which states that, in requiring that person to answer any questions which the inspector thinks fit to ask, the inspector can insist that the questions are answered (in the absence of persons other than any whom the inspector may allow to be present)". So if the man says, "I should like to see my solicitor", and the inspector replies, "I do not want your solicitor to be present", the inspector can require the man to answer his questions in the absence of his solicitor, and indeed of any other adviser. Under the Judges' Rules this is the very thing we forbid the police to do, yet this is what is being written into this Bill.

Then subsection (3) of Clause 19 states:

"A person who— (a) without reasonable excuse (proof of which shall lie on him) fails to comply with any requirement imposed by an inspector under subsection (1) above"— that includes answering questions—is guilty of an offence. If he says, "No, I do not want to say anything", he is then guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £50. Furthermore, any person who (b) prevents, or attempts to prevent, any other person from appearing before an inspector or from answering any question to which an inspector may, by virtue of that subsection, require an answer"— that is, any person who advises the man or attempts to prevent him from giving an answer to the inspector; for example, a solicitor who advises his client to say nothing—also becomes liable under this subsection on summary conviction to a fine of £50. I always knew that my profession of a solicitor was a hazardous one, but I did not realise until now that it was so hazardous as that.

Subsection (4) states that when a person, who is called upon to give an answer of this kind, is called upon to make a declaration as to the truth of his answers, that answer given by a person in pursuance of a requirement … shall not be admissible in evidence against that person or, in England and Wales, the husband or wife of that person in any proceedings, whether civil or criminal, other than proceedings for an offence in respect of that answer under the Perjury Act 1911". Under Section 5 of the Perjury Act 1911, to give a false answer on an occasion of that kind—not under oath, but when called upon to make a declaration or a statement under the provisions of a general public Act of Parliament—is a misdemeanour carrying with it a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment.

So we have the position that a fire inspector can go in and ask anybody on the premises whatever questions he thinks fit, and if the person refuses to answer he immediately renders himself liable to a fine of up to £50; while anybody who assists him or advises him not to give any answer renders himself liable to a fine of up to £50. Then, if the man sees fit to comply with the inspector's requirement he is not allowed to call in his solicitor or other adviser, and if he will not answer he is liable to a fine. But if he sees fit to make any false statement at all, he can be prosecuted under the Perjury Act or under a clause of this Bill.


My Lords, it is not perjury unless it is deliberately false.


Certainly, my Lords. I accept that it is only if it is wilfully and knowingly false. But if he wilfully makes a false statement he becomes liable under the Perjury Act, as well as under a subsequent provision of this Bill.

I do no more than draw attention to these provisions. I realise that it may very well be said that almost corresponding provisions appear in the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963. But they are no better for having been on the Statute Book since 1963, and they may have been on it for a great deal longer. Only the other day in another connection, when talking about the Dangerous Drugs Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, was prepared to concede to me that something which had been on the Statute Book since 1923, which touched upon civil liberties, was objectionable and he was good enough to put it right. I hope that between now and the Committee stage, the noble Lord will be ready to look at this provision, too, to see whether it is really necessary, for the accomplishment of the purposes of this Bill, to strike such a serious blow, as I think, against the cause of civil rights in this country.

6.19 p.m.


My Lords, in the Explanatory Memorandum on page iv of this Bill there is a glancing reference to the question of additional fire avoidance provisions in establishments such as hospitals and homes for old people. As I read Clause 30, which is not a particularly happily drafted clause, it brings within the general scope of the Bill responsibility for fire precautions. These have heretofore not been the responsibility of the local authorities. The question of fire in hospitals, especially hospitals for the mentally ill and subnormal as well as homes for old people, is one which has exercised the minds of successive Ministers and Secretaries of State for a long time. Several of your Lordships have made reference to the recent tragedy at Grenoble, but only three and a half years ago we had a serious fire at a mental hospital which caused many deaths. The real problem there was not so much the existing provision of equipment or the drills which were to be put into operation if fire should break out but the peculiarities of a system which had been prejudiced by gross shortages of staff.

Again, up and down this country there are hospitals for old people, for the mentally infirm and for the subnormal, which were built over a hundred years ago and which have been added to piecemeal; and although it would be grossly unfair to say that the authorities concerned—namely, the group hospital management committees or the Regional Hospital Boards—have neglected this matter, the whole thing has been subjected to lack of capital available to carry out rebuilding, to provide improved access and the like. Only two years ago, in a hospital for elderly women in East Anglia, the cost of reconstruction was so severe that a decision to improve the situation, to make the place safe, had been postponed from year to year, and the local hospital management committee quite rightly, quite justifiably, were incensed when criticisms were levelled against them for not having carried out work which was obviously necessary. Everybody, right up to Ministry level, knew it was needed.

If this were a single case of an old building in the country, perhaps not too much consideration would be given to this example, but I do not think it is. These old buildings, so many of which have still to be used for these purposes, are not easily nor cheaply altered in order to make them safe. Yet, so far as I am aware, even under this Bill there is no obligation to secure an independent, an individual, provision of finance to carry out the necessary work. The Explanatory Memorandum talks about the need for this sort of work, and then goes on to say: However, it is not considered that the total would be significant, in view of the attention to fire precautions which is already paid by the Crown and local authorities in premises for which they are responsible". I have no doubt at all that group hospital management committees and Area Boards have paid a lot of attention to this problem, but if you have not the finance necessary to do the work, nothing can be done. I believe it is a huge financial problem, and not a matter of insignificance, as is suggested in this Memorandum.

Clause 6 of the Bill relates to the contents of fire certificates, and subsection (1)(e) refers to the listing of the points where equipment is sited and the location in the buildings of the means for giving to persons in the premises warning in case of fire. One can have the best provision, the best equipment and the best accesses, but if the staff are not there to deal with the weaknesses of certain types of patient, what can be done? Indeed, the problem of surreptitious smoking by certain categories of old and mentally-feeble people is well known. Many tires start from smoking in bed, and although such behaviour is extremely difficult to control, it seems to me that much more attention should be paid in this Bill to this particular problem. I understood the Minister to say that the provisions of the Bill would not be enforced rapidly unless some incident which was too urgent to be neglected cropped up, but I think that in the case of these hospitals this is a matter which needs urgent attention. I certainly do not blame existing authorities, but I do blame a long line of Governments who have failed to see that there is adequate financial provision for the purpose.

6.26 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. It seems to me that most, although not all, of your Lordships feel that this is a desirable Bill, and have welcomed it. My noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor, is the political godfather of the Bill, which has taken many years to arrive in this House. The noble Lord, Lord Beswick, in opening, reflected on the nature of a Parliamentary system under which it has taken some six or seven years for this Bill to be introduced; and I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, had a very profound point when he remarked on the burden which would have lain on the consciences of those in successive Governments who had some responsibility in this respect had a really serious fire occurred in premises which are covered by this Bill. He said that the burden would have been the heavier if the Bill, having been drafted, was in existence but had not been introduced for want of sufficient Parliamentary time, other matters being thought to be more pressing. We can all be grateful that this has not in fact been the case.

My noble friend Lord Brooke also remarked, very wisely from his experience in this subject, on the need to have properly trained people in the premises covered under the Bill—places of public resort, institutions and others—and this is obviously of considerable importance, because people can place too much reliance on mechanical forms of escape. The need to have trained personnel is extremely important, and the fire certificate procedure in this Bill can require trained staff to be present, and the provision of attendants in appropriate places—in this connection, one thinks, particularly of theatres and cinemas. The fire services are already closely in touch, and I gain the impression that they are increasingly in touch. They are turned to for advice in getting one or two members of the staffs of different establishments to acquire some familiarity with fire prevention. But I should make the point that fire-fighting, of course, is the responsibility of the fire services, and nobody else; and this is the real safeguard.

The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, asked what improvements had been made in fire prevention techniques since the end of the war. I think it is one of the most significant statistics that I have seen that in the Greater London area the average time taken by the London Fire Brigade to answer a "999" call is between three and four minutes. That speaks very well for the efficiency of the fire services.

The noble Lord, Lord Beswick, felt that the Bill should go further than it does. He remarked on the fact that he understood that only about 30 deaths had occurred in the premises covered under the Bill. I am informed that that is true of places of public resort, but it is not true if all the premises covered under the Bill, including blocks of flats, are taken. We get a figure of about 230 deaths in all premises covered under the Bill—230 out of a total of 865, which is a very significant number indeed. I could perhaps also make the comment that although, happily, there have been very few deaths in places of public resort, when they do occur—such as the fire at Grenoble which has been mentioned several times—they can be very serious. In that one fire, 140 people lost their lives.

The noble Lord, Lord Beswick, also asked me—pressed me, correctly—on what is being done in the way of public education on the subject of fire prevention. This is a matter of importance, and the Holroyd Committee emphasised that it is. We are aware of the need not only to maintain what has been done so far by way of printed publications, lectures, demonstrations and so forth, but also to use other media. Television has been used fairly consistently by the Central Office of Information, and the noble Lord will be interested to hear that a pilot television campaign is taking place in the North-East of England, accompanied by a built-in research project into the effectiveness of this particular type of publicity. We hope that the information gathered in this campaign, which is in the nature of a test, will enable us to plan national campaigns with greater effectiveness in the future. The noble Lord can be assured that the programme is one of expansion.

The noble Lord also asked me about houses in multiple occupation, which are not covered under this Bill. The reason why they are not covered, although they may be divided into smaller lettings, into rooms or small flats, is that provision is already made for them in the Housing Acts, as I mentioned in opening. Under these Acts, the housing authorities may require such means of escape as they consider necessary to be provided in any house in multiple occupation. "Means of escape" has been taken by the local authorities—the housing authorities—to deal with such matters as external fire escapes; fire-proofing of doors and staircases; self-closing fire-resisting doors; separation of basement and upper floors; smoke stopping and so on. Given the nature and state of repair of many houses in multiple occupation and the limited means of the occupiers—matters which were given close attention during the passage of the Housing Act 1969—it scarcely seems right to impose on those concerned the full rigour of the fire certificate procedure, which will apply to the premises we have been debating this afternoon. In the circumstances, we believe that the local authorities have adequate powers to deal with the basic requirements for the safety of occupants of houses in multiple occupation in the future. So I can give the noble Lord the assurance that the local authorities are very conscious of their duties in this respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Foot, made a powerful speech on Clauses 18 and 19, the clauses concerned with enforcement. As he said, these provisions are modelled on those contained in recent legislation—in the Factories Act 1961 and in the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963. He remarked that it did not make them any the better for that. If Parliament placed them on the Statute Book at that time and if, in his view, the powers were too great, that was no justification for including them in the present legislation. But in this particular instance it is relevant to say to him that if in the last ten years these powers of entry had given rise to instances where people felt that undesirable intrusion by fire inspectors had occurred, we should have heard of it. What I can say to him is that I want to study his remarks, as I think he would like me to do, for this is something that we could come back to in Committee. It is in a sense a Committee stage point.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said at this stage, for it will give me plenty of time to look into it in greater detail and to debate it with him on Committee. But as my noble friend Lord Brooke remarked—and this is also my impression—out of all the thousands of complaints that Ministers in the Home Office see every year on a very wide range of activities by people with power under legislation, the police and others, there are very few which relate to the fire services. I hesitate to speak without checking on the position, but I shall have an opportunity to do so. This is something that we ought to look at and discuss at a later stage.

This comment also applies to the detailed points made by Lord Burntwood, with his considerable knowledge of hospital administration. I should like to study what he had to say about Clause 6 and other parts of the Bill, and to follow up his remarks at a later stage in the Bill. I am grateful therefore to noble Lords who took part in this debate, and although the Bill is a long and technical measure, we have to-day discussed some of the issues of policy that arise out of it. I shall be happy to follow up these and other issues at a later stage.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.