HL Deb 05 March 1973 vol 339 cc972-81

8.25 p.m.


My Lords, this is a slightly different subject, and I apologise in advance for the fact that my voice is going to last for a short time only. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, and others who may care to listen, will forgive me.

I suspect that the House may remember the Fire Precautions Act 1971, which was piloted through this House by my noble friend Lord Windlesham—largely, if I remember rightly, on Friday afternoons. It is now being applied, and its first application has been to hotels and boarding-houses under the Orders made in February, 1972. Probably the House will agree that this was right, because there had been some bad fires in certain hotels, and I think that, with the advice of the fire experts in this country, we were correct to attack this problem first. The Orders had the result that hotels and boarding-houses with sleeping accom- modation for six people or more—that is, staff plus guests—must have a fire certificate. The method followed is that the proprietor applies; the fire authority inspects; and, if anything needs doing, a notice is served on the proprietor setting out what, in the terms of the 1971 Act, are the steps which have to be taken and the date by which the work has to be done. I do not think there is any reason to suppose that the fire authorities are being unreasonable. They have a duty under the Act to be reasonable, anyway; and there is a good deal of room for negotiation on exactly what has to be done and the date for doing it. In the last resort, there is a right of appeal to the courts, which can consider matters like cost in terms of looking at what is reasonable.

But, of course, where work has to be done money must be found to pay for it, and some of the hoteliers and keepers of boarding-houses who ran the rather smaller premises foresaw trouble in raising the money to do this. They had not, perhaps, expected that the Act was going to apply to them, or at any rate quite so soon; and they thought that they might well not be able to borrow the money from the normal commercial sources. So, last July, the Government promised to legislate on this subject and to provide for local authority loans in certain cases; and that is the reason for this Bill. At the present moment it is intended to be applied by an Order under Clause 1(1)(a) only to small boarding-houses and hotels. There is power under this clause to extend, as the 1971 Act itself extends, to other premises, and we may come on in due course to certain small charitable organisations, perhaps, which are doing useful social work and which put people up in the process. If one wished to go further than that, extensions of these powers would need consideration if and when the question arose.

People under this Bill can apply to the local authority for a loan if they are required to carry out structural or other alterations under a notice from the fire authority, or if, under Section 12 of the 1971 Act, there is any further tightening up of the fire precautions necessary made by order under that particular section. People under this Bill can apply before they start work or, by an Amendment made in another place, even if they have already started before the Bill gets on the Statute Book. If they have not finally paid the bill, they can still apply for a loan under the provision of this Bill.

The local authority has a wide discretion on the amount of the loan, the security they require for it and the length of the term of repayment; and they have more discretion as we have drafted it than in the case of rather similar loan schemes under Section 36 of the 1971 Act for housing. I think this will ease matters (and it was intended to do so) for the sort of case where a hotel keeper has a short lease. He will be able to reach an agreement with the local authority, with his landlord and with anyone else who may be relevant to the scene, to provide the necessary security for the loan and to do anything the local authority require in order that they should advance the money. The local authorities' association have supported this provision. The actual terms of the loan are dealt with in Clause 1(3) by referring to the matters set out there and a technical matter in Clause 1(4), which is really the rate of interest concerned.

We then come to Clause 1(5) where there are powers to describe the type of building by order for which loans can be made available. It allows the physical description of the building to be done by order, but it will have to be supplemented by guidance to local authorities on what is the other half of this matter, the personal circumstances, to see that we are dealing with the people of a smaller degree of wealth and resources. It is impossible to put this point into the Statute itself and it will therefore be clone by way of administrative guidance.

The idea is to give support to the smaller hoteliers and boarding-house keepers. It is no novelty to have administrative guidance on this matter; because when the 1971 Act was applied to hotels there was produced the red book that I have here, which is a book of guidance about the effect of the Act as applied to hotels. Because there has been a certain amount of misunderstanding about this book I would point out that it was issued in order to try to get a degree of uniformity throughout the country on the standards to be applied, but not in order to lay down a rigid code of regulations. It was simply to set out some guiding principles. I hope that those who have read it will agree that it does this. We shall be taking that sort of line under this Bill by adding further advice for the local authorities as to the sort of clientele that they should accept under the loan scheme.

There is a slightly obscure provision in Clause 1(7), but it is not really difficult. It would enable a charity, if brought in under this Bill, to mortgage its property for a loan without getting the express consent in each case of the Charity Commissioners. The Charity Commissioners have asked that they should not have to be involved in every individual case. So we have exempted that particular provision in general law.

If noble Lords want to ask me questions about this Bill I shall be happy to try to answer them, but I think that the loan scheme set out under the Bill supplements the 1971 Act, that it is simple and flexible and that it will allow the local authorities to act as a lender in the last resort, to people in a small way of business, or small charitable organisations who are doing useful social work and who unexpectedly find themselves in difficulties over the cost of very necessary fire precautions under the 1971 Act. Therefore, although it is a small measure, I think it contributes to the safety of all who use these buildings and of those who run them. I commend it to the House and I hope that it will be welcomed this evening. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Viscount Colville of Culross.)

8.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad to see this Bill. Fire damage goes up and up and expenditure on fire precautions is extremely necessary. I am not quite sure, from the general tenor of the noble Viscount's speech, whether the Bill is intended to apply only to hotels and boarding-houses, whether the Government are going to specify powers for that type of use or whether, in fact, small offices, and so on, are likely to be able to participate. My doubt is strengthened by the fact that they have brought in this clause about charities. That provision, I know from personal experience, could be very useful; because charities are apt to live in rather old and cheap buildings which have not been specially built as offices and in which the fire arrangements often leave much to be desired. Moreover, they have often very little cash to put into the necessary alterations prescribed by the local fire office. I can assure your Lordships that these can be extremely expensive, as I know when we had to spend a lot of money on the Chichester Diocesan Office at Hove. I think that the insurance companies will support anything that helps people to put in the necessary alterations and arrangements that the fire brigades can suggest. Therefore this Bill is regarded as a helpful one.

8.37 p.m.


My Lords, may I first thank the noble Viscount for his usual clear explanation of the Bill. The 1971 Fire Precautions Act made it necessary to have fire certificates for two main classes of building: buildings in which people assemble for entertainment, education training and the like; and, secondly, buildings in which sleeping accommodation is provided, such as hotels, nursing homes and the like. In order to get fire certificates the occupiers, in most cases, have to do a certain amount of work, and the Bill which is before the House is to enable local authorities to make loans to the people who have to carry out the work.

The Bill is an enabling Bill. First, it enables the Secretary of State to make an order specifying the buildings in respect of which local authorities may make loans. The buildings must be those which are subject to the 1971 Act, but Clause 1(5) gives the Secretary of State wide powers in determining which buildings shall be the subject of loans. As I understand it, the Act so far applies only to hotels and boarding houses and the Minister intends, in the order which is made, to provide that the smaller of the hotels and boarding houses should be able in the last resort to get loans from the local authority. The Bill goes much further than that, and the 1971 Act went much further than the extent to which it has been applied at present. Ultimately, it will be applied to ail the kinds of buildings that I have mentioned. Is it the intention of the Secretary of State at a later stage to extend the powers of local authorities to make loans applying to a wider range of buildings than he has in mind at present? Ultimately, places of entertainment will be required to bring their buildings up to a standard necessary to get a fire certificate, and they may require loans. How far is it intended to use those powers?

My Lords, my second point is that the Bill enables local authorities, if they think fit, to make a loan for the purpose of carrying out the work required to get a tire certificate. The 1971 Act affects some towns more than others, and particularly seaside resorts where there are a number of hotels, boarding houses and places of entertainment. In the local authority areas where the principal occupation is catering for tourists, those employed in that industry are usually well represented on the local authority. There can be no doubt that in the seaside resorts the local authorities will use the powers given to them under this Bill to make loans. But what about other areas where people who may need loans are not so well represented on the local authority? We must bear in mind that the 1971 Act will not apply only to hotels and boarding houses. In places other than seaside resorts there will be fire hazards just as great, although perhaps not so numerous, as those in seaside resorts.

Loans will be granted only if the local authority is prepared to take advantage of the powers given by this Bill. In due course, therefore, we shall have a patchwork effect. In some areas local authorities will have taken advantage of the provisions in the Bill and will be prepared as a last resort to make loans available to enable people to bring their premises up to the required standard. In other areas the local authorities will not have taken advantage of these provisions. Has not the time arrived when we should have uniformity in this matter? Our country is relatively small, and modern communications have made it smaller. Have we not reached a point when citizens who have the same problem and can offer the same security should have the same facilities, and not be dependent on the awareness of the local authority?

The Bill gives wide powers to the local authority. It can determine the amount of a loan and the guarantees and security required. It can determine the right of repayment. The Act itself indicates the rate of interest. So a local authority has virtually all the say. In those circumstances, would it not be wise to make the application of the provisions in the Bill uniform over the whole country so that citizens who have the same problems would get the same treatment? Would it not be wise to ensure that the public in all parts of the country get the same measure of security against fire which the 1971 Act gives, and which this Bill facilitates by loans permitted for the purpose of carrying out work under the 1971 Act? I would say that there is a strong case for facilities for loans to be applied on a universal basis. People who need loans will be influential in some parts of the country but not so influential elsewhere. The Minister will appreciate that I am dealing not with boarding houses alone but with all the buildings dealt with under the 1971 Act. Ultimately, they will be subject to the provisions of this Bill. Looking ahead, I suggest that the facilities for loans should be made general throughout the country and should not be confined to those local authorities who care to exercise the powers. Finally, I notice that the provisions of the Bill do not apply in Northern Ireland where I should have thought they were needed more than anywhere else, having regard to the present position.

8.48 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Hawke asked whether the Bill would apply only to hotels and hoarding houses. I think he was answered by the noble Lord, Lord Jacques. Potentially, it would be able to be applied to all the premises set out in Section 1(2) of the 1971 Act. At present we are applying the Act to hotels and boarding houses. It is a painstaking, careful and important job. We want to get the skilled staff engaged in the inspection and the provision of advice and issuing of notices to concentrate their minds on this problem. When they have completed the hotel and boarding house scene, I see no reason why they should not turn their attention to other things covered by the 1971 Act. I do not think that will include offices, because these are dealt with under the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act and not the 1951 Act. If my noble friend Lord Hawke has problems about offices it will not be to this legislation that we shall be looking.

The noble Lord, Lord Jacques, asked whether we intended to extend the scope of the Bill. The case was made for the Bill on the basis of what the hoteliers and boarding-house keepers said when they discovered how the Act was likely to apply to them. I have indicated that some charitable or similar organisations who provide sleeping accommodation—I have very much in mind hostels and accommodation of that sort, which is so valuable—may he brought into this in due course. Whether we go further and to what extent I would rather leave at this stage until we see how the fire authorities and their officers get on, and what sort of case can be made for making a further Order to extend the powers under the Bill. In the matter of places of entertainment, we shall have to see whether the people concerned cannot raise the money in the commercial market and have to go in the last resort to the local authority. That was the case made by the hoteliers and which we have accepted. I hope the noble Lord will allow us to take a pragmatic approach to this, deal with the types of premises bit by bit as they arise, and 'see what specific problems there are at the time when we take on the new ground in this campaign.

The noble Lord said that the public ought to have the same security throughout the country. I wholly agree with him. I think they will, because although at the moment the fire authorities are not applying the guidance pamphlet rigidly, it will be applied so that minimum standards are maintained across the whole country. Taking into account at the same time that the hotelier who receives a notice that something needs to be done to his hotel and does not do it is committing a criminal offence if he takes people in, I think we shall get minimum standards.

The noble Lord was suggesting that we are not sure where the money is coming from, and whether it is going to come differently from authorities in different places. This must he accepted as a risk. But if we look at the provision on housing, which I suspect is considered by this House to be equally important, in Section 36(2) of the 1971 Act we see again that local authorities, if they think fit, have this discretionary power. I have no doubt that there will be areas which are particularly dependent upon the holidaymaking trade or tourist trade and which, as the noble Lord said, will be anxious and willing to extend the loan facilities to people who are otherwise hard put to it in time to meet the requirements of the fire authorities.

As we move into the area of larger authorities responsible for a bigger area and interest we shall get fewer discrepancies of this sort. We shall have an area which consists solely of a seaside town, but it will take in the hinterland as well, and there will be less idiosyncrasy of this sort in the type of local authority concerned. It is perfectly true of the loans or grants available for house improvements that there is a patchwork, but I think the pressure is in the end brought upon those who may be rather reluctant, and with the enlargement of the local authority areas, I think it is probably right to assimilate this process for premises covered by this Bill to the process which Parliament has already passed in relation to housing in Section 36 of the Act.

I am not sure what else one can do. We have already told the local authorities that money they lend under this Bill will come from the key sector, and will not decrease the amount of money available to them from the central Exchequer for other purposes. So they have a guarantee that if they choose to use these powers it will not impinge upon other desirable developments which they wish to do. If you do not let the local authorities do it, but take away the discretion in this case, I am not sure what other machinery could be put in its place. If the noble Lord wishes to discuss this at a later stage of the Bill and put forward something else, of course I shall be prepared to consider it; but I cannot think at the moment of what else you do in order to ensure uniformity.

The noble Lord's last point was on Northern Ireland. At the moment we are not applying legislation to Northern Ireland in quite the same way. There are powers under which this kind of Bill could be made to cover Northern Ireland by Order in Council. I suspect that the noble Lord is right when he says that we need it; but whether under this Bill you will get structural alterations which will withstand the force of a bomb, I am not certain. I will draw the Northern Irish aspect to the attention of my noble friend Lord Windlesham and see whether he is attracted by it. We have powers to do it if we want to. My Lords, I thank the House for the welcome given to the Bill, and I hope that it will proceed swiftly so that people can begin to get their loans under it.

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