HL Deb 24 October 1984 vol 456 cc219-25

3.59 p.m.

Debate resumed.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, for introducing the order. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, put many questions. I, too, have a few questions to ask. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, paid tribute to the brave efforts of the fire services in the Province, with which we should like to be associated.

We are told that this order consolidates, with amendments, the law relating to fire services in Northern Ireland and makes fresh provision with respect to fire precautions. The noble Lord the Minister has done something to clarify the amendments to the law and the changes to the system. Can he please further clarify if and how—I am not quite clear about this—the law in Northern Ireland will differ from the law in the rest of the United Kingdom?

The troubles in the Province have been going on for some 15 years and the battle against the danger of fire is comparable to the battle against terrorism in general. In each case, total success is unattainable without quite exceptionally severe restrictions which would be intolerable in a free society. I shall be grateful if the noble Lord can comment. In Part II of the order, Article 4(2) states: The Authority shall make the provision required under paragraph (1)(a) by securing—(a) the services of the fire brigade to meet efficiently all normal requirements"— and I emphasise the word "normal". In times of accepted threat from terrorist bombings, what would abnormal requirements be? Perhaps the noble Lord will comment also on Article 5(1)(e), which states that the powers of the authority shall include the power: to pay to any persons who render services in connection with the extinction of fires and the protection of life and property in case of fire such rewards as it thinks fit, which in the case of a member of the fire brigade may be"— and here is my emphasis— in addition to the renumeration of any such member". What is the significance of those words?

In Article 10(1)(a) there is the rather surprising statement that the department may by order provide: for the establishment and maintenance of one or more pension schemes"— and so on. Does this mean that a pension scheme is only just being considered? It also amazes me that it is felt necessary to state in Article 12(1), dealing with accounts, that: The Authority shall keep, in such form as the Department, with the approval of the Department of Finance and Personnel may direct, accounts of all moneys received and of all moneys paid out by it". Am I right in thinking that one penalty of consolidation is that nothing, however obvious, can be left out?

Article 22 contains a list of uses of premises for which a fire certificate is compulsory. This is difficult because one tragic accident will bring the call for tighter precautions. I know of charitable organisations in Britain who have been put to great expense by having to install fireproof doors where none has been considered necessary before. I shall be glad if the noble Lord can comment on why no fire certificate is required in respect of Article 23(a): any premises appropriated to, and used solely or mainly for, public religious worship". Presumably the fire-fighting techniques of the congregation are considered adequate in themselves.

Finally, can the Minister say how the proportion of Protestants to Catholics is balanced in the fire service?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I should like to thank both noble Lords—

Lord Inglewood

I am sorry, my Lords, but may I ask one short question before my noble friend the Minister replies? What scope is there under this order for a voluntary element or for a part-time element in the fire services? Such elements are very prominent and useful in some countries on the Continent, and could be very useful in Northern Ireland. I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend in that way.

Lord Lyell

Not at all, my Lords. I thank all three noble Lords who have spoken and all noble Lords who listened to my exposition of this somewhat complicated order this afternoon. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, was kind enough to give me more than adequate warning of the points he was going to raise. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, since my necessary absence in the Province prevented me from getting in touch with him. Perhaps I might have done better, but I will certainly ensure that the channels of communication will be better on future occasions. However, I believe that I shall be able to satisfy most of the noble Lord's questions.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, mentioned the Assembly and its recommendations. I am sure your Lordships will be interested to know that the Assembly made no fewer than 13 recommendations on the draft order. Of these, the Government accepted one for immediate action; they accepted four for action at the appropriate time—when, for example, other regulations are in the course of passing through your Lordships' House—and they accepted six further recommendations on which there was agreement following some clarification.

It follows that the Government found themselves unable to accept two of the Assembly's recommendations. One related to the composition of the fire authority, where the Assembly believed that a totally elected authority of 17 persons was appropriate. The other recommendation concerned a pension scheme for part-time firemen; the Government were unable to accept the Assembly's recommendation concerning that particular aspect. I have one or two further points to raise on the question of pensions in a few moments.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, further raised designation of the fire and rescue services. It has been remiss of me to delay until this point my thanks for the tributes paid by the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Hampton, to the fire services who performed so heroically in Brighton recently—and to all the fire services who provide in similar, non-fire situations, a rescue service as well.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, may be interested to note that Article 5(1)(g) of the draft order states that the authority is empowered to employ the brigade: for such purposes other than fire-fighting purposes as it may think fit". I hope the noble Lord will agree that this wide power covers the point he has in mind.

The noble Lord also mentioned fire hydrants. The existing arrangements for the supply of water for fire fighting purposes have been in force since 1973. Article 6 would re-enact the provision of the Fire Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 requiring the authority to arrange with the Department of the Environment for the provision and maintenance of these fire hydrants. Your Lordships may be interested to note that Article 35 of the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 empowers the Department to: enter into an agreement with the fire authority for the provision of adequate facilities for making water available for the purpose of fighting fires". Your Lordships will see that no formal agreement exists at this point, but there is a close working liaison at divisional level between officers of the water service and the fire authority. This takes the form of consultations as to the location of hydrants when new mains are being laid and the operation of hydrant patrols by the authority. The department aims to remedy any defects as quickly as possible.

The noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Hampton, both mentioned the question of a pension scheme for retained persons in the fire service. I am able to tell your Lordships that pay and conditions—which include pensions—for all firemen in Northern Ireland are identical to those which are determined by the national joint council for local authority fire brigades in Great Britain. I hope that will go some way to reassure both noble Lords.

In common with their counterparts in Great Britain, retained firemen in Northern Ireland do not have a pension scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, mentioned the absence of a scheme. That is indeed being challenged at the moment in the courts in Great Britain. We are awaiting that judgment and thus it would be inappropriate for me to comment or speculate on that matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, raised also the question of the fire authorities in relation to their giving of advice to the Government. The draft order charges the authority or indeed the department to carry out fairly specific, and some quite specific, functions in this particular respect. I take one example. In Article 4 the authority is charged to provide an efficient fire service while the department is charged under Article 50 to appoint inspectors. There is the closest link between the various departments on a day-to-day basis in carrying out their separate duties under Articles 4 and 50. Therefore, we do not feel that it is necessary, or indeed practical, to enshrine the detailed aspects of what is a major problem; but, of course, there are new problems arising all the time. We do not think it is necessary to enshrine in the order this link and this liaison in legislation.

The noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Hampton, raised the question of churches and, above all, the problem of churches which might be used for public functions from time to time. Your Lordships will notice that Article 23(a) exempts what are known as, premises … used solely or mainly for, public religious worship. It exempts these premises from the need to have a fire certificate. I am advised that if the fire authority considers that a church is used substantially for other purposes, it can require a fire certificate to be applied for. Therefore, this is a matter of degree resting with the discretion of the authority.

I should like to dwell a little on this point. There are two main types of case where a church might be used for a non-ecclesiastical purpose. The first example would be if the church was used occasionally for an orchestral concert, a play, or something of that nature. Such uses might attact the need for certain basic safeguards to be imposed; for example, forbidding the locking of doors or, alternatively, banning the use of naked flames or highly inflammable drapes, although it takes some imagination to think of a play of such nature being performed in a church—perhaps "Murder in the Cathedral" would be such a one. Indeed, the regulations might require chairs to be battened together or require the provision of an adequate number of attendants to assist with the audience. However, these are all matters which could without any difficulty be included in regulations. The noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Hampton, would, I think, agree that for an occasional performance of this kind it would be inappropriate to apply the full controls of a fire certificate.

The second example of a church being used for non-ecclesiastical or non-religious purposes might be where it belongs to a less well known denomination and consists of a small assembly room on the upper floor of a building or in a separate part of the building. It might be an office block, which I understand is the case in one or two areas in Northern Ireland. In that case the church may already benefit from controls under other legislation which would apply to that building or to the premises as a whole. Even if it did not, the regulation-making power under this part of the order—this is still Article 23—would be sufficient to ensure that adequate means of escape and the other fire precautions were provided. I do not think I should take your Lordships down any more fascinating ecclesiastical avenues as to whether a church might or might not be used for the purposes.

The noble Lord Underhill, asked about Article 8 and mentioned notices. Quite rightly, he asked about a notice or minutes being given to the Fire Brigades Union. Article 8 requires the authority to publish notice of its meetings, but I am afraid there is no provision in the draft order for the minutes of the authority to be made available. This is not the case in Great Britain, where minutes are available for inspection by electors. I hope your Lordships will accept that this difference reflects the differing composition of the repective fire authorities, with the Northern Ireland authority being comprised only partly of the elected representatives. My honourable friend in another place is examining this particular issue and I shall certainly ensure that all the points raised by your Lordships, in particular this one, are brought to his notice.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, also asked about inquiries and public inquiries. This appeared to be in relation to the article dealing with the submission of an establishment scheme. He will find this in Article 51. Article 51 merely empowers the department to hold an inquiry, but such inquiries attract the provisions of the Interpretation Act of Northern Ireland of 1954. This provides that such inquiries may be public. I think the noble Lord will accept that where there is genuine concern his fears will be met.

Article 50 deals with inspectors. This comes in Part IV, on the functions of the department. Article 50 merely seeks to renew what is current practice on the appointment of inspectors and the department will continue to rely on the services of the Home Office Inspectorate in these particular matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred to two other major points. The provision in the 1969 Act for an advisory council is to be repealed. I am advised that no advisory council was ever appointed under the old Act. I see the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, nodding his assent. I give the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Hampton, the assurance which I am sure they seek in relation to the maintenance of standards on, first, advice, secondly, performance and, thirdly, conditions of employment. All these three points will continue to be the standards which are applicable in Great Britain, through the mechanisms which are already known as the Home Office Inspectorate and the National Joint Council for local authority fire brigades.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred to Section 6 of the British legislation and Article 27—the parallel provision in the order we are now discussing—and, above all, the omission of sub-paragraph (f) in Section 6 which deals with factory premises and the storing of explosives. This does not represent any derogation from British standards whatever because the omission of the storing of explosives on factory premises in Article 27 represents no change from the standards. Explosives and their control are reserve matters and are dealt with under the Explosives (Northern Ireland) Order.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, had one more point which concerned Fire Brigades Union consultation. I understand that a copy of the order was sent to the Northern Ireland secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, but I am advised that he had moved home and I regret to say that it took some time to arrange for a copy to be made available to him. I apologise for this omission. Indeed, I find that where a recipient moves home, normally the Post Office or neighbours are very helpful and can give some advice as to where he is to be found.

In addition to the points he raised on churches and pensions, the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, drew attention to the use of the word "normal" which occurs in Article 4. I am advised that the staff of the brigade in Northern Ireland regularly attend all fires to which they are called. These can include fires which are provoked by terrorist action. I understand that there are other aspects to that. The fire brigade will attend any fire, but, of course, in terrorist incidents the security forces have to take the first action.

The noble Lord, Lord Hampton, also asked about Article 5(1)(f). I understand that this provides that payment by way of reward may be made to persons who are present in connection with the extinction of fires or indeed who assist in this process. I am advised that this is to reward particular acts of bravery, or indeed assistance to the brigade. I understand that it is permissive far more than anything else.

I hope that I have answered all the queries that have been raised—I must apologise; I was forgetting my noble friend. I understand that he is quite right. Very valuable assistance is given by, I think he suggested, part-time firemen. I understand that they are paid or rewarded on the same basis as in Great Britain. I also understand that the strength of the fire brigade and fire services in Northern Ireland is considerably reinforced by the use of, as I think my noble friend suggested, part-time firemen. I think that I can probably obtain the approximate strength in numbers of these part-time firemen, so, if I may, I shall write to him briefly on that point. I stress to my noble friend and to all your Lordships how grateful we are in Northern Ireland to all members of the fire service, both part-time and full-time.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, the noble Lord did not reply to my question about the proportion of Catholics to Protestants in the fire service.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I apologise. That was one point which I seem to have lost amid the sea of papers. As I understand it, the proportion is something in the region of 83 per cent. Protestant and 17 per cent. Catholic. If I am wrong, I shall certainly write to the noble Lord. He will of course be aware that the fire service interviews and selects on an entirely non-denominational basis; the first parameter being that applicants must be suitably qualified for the duties which they may undertake. I understand that that is the approximate figure. If I am wrong I shall write to the noble Lord.

Finally, I should like to thank everybody who has taken an interest in this specially difficult problem of the fire services which affects us in Northern Ireland. I should like to pay tribute to the continuing devotion to duty and bravery of all the firemen and other people concerned with the fire service in Northern Ireland. I commend the order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.