Factories (Fire Prevention Services)

Clause 3 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd December 1968.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McBride.]

3.52 a.m.

Photo of Mr John Horner Mr John Horner , Oldbury and Halesowen

I would wish my words to have been heard by a Minister from the Home Department, but I understand that my hon. Friends from the Department of Employment and Productivity is to reply. I wish to stress the importance of the better employment of operational members of local authority fire brigades. I am delighted to see the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland in his place; it is relevant that he should hear what I have to say. I shall be referring to the work of the Factory Inspectorate, and it is thought appropriate that the Department of Employment and Productivity should handle this matter.

I suggest that the 25,000 or so operational firemen in the local authority fire brigades of England and Wales could be more usefully employed. Nothing I say is to be regarded as detracting one iota from my great respect, after many years of personal knowledge, for the work of the Factory Inspectors for which my hon. Friend is responsible. Their devotion to duty, and the enormous amount and high quality of the work done by factory inspectors in the course of a year is worthy of the highest praise.

The work of factory inspectors could be supplemented and supported to their benefit. In the legislation which has been put through the House in recent years dealing with safety at work and from fire in workplaces, shops and offices, we have witnessed what is known in the fire service as stable-door legislation.

The 1961 Factory Act was passed after a number of disastrous fires in special circumstances affecting factory workers where lives were lost. One was the notorious Keighley fire, where women workers in a woollen mill were obliged, due to the absence of proper means of escape, to jump from windows into a canal. Then we had the Shops and Offices Act, which followed some disastrous fires involving loss of life in large multiple stores. These pieces of legislation placed additional duties on the operational fire service in respect of inspection and ensuring that proper means of escape and alarm in case of fire were maintained. Although, in the precise terms of the legislation, it was the then Ministry of Labour which had primary responsibility, if the fire authorities so wished, it could devolve upon the operational fire service. Therefore, nothing that I say tonight will detract from the admiration that I have for the fully trained and very efficient fire prevention services, which are branches of the local authority fire brigades.

I am proposing that the work of the fire prevention officers, of which there are some 2,000, should be supplemented and much improved, and that the coordination which has grown up over recent years between the factory inspectors and fire prevention officers of the local authority fire brigades should be extended by making greater use of the operational firemen. When I say that, I am not referring to firemen in rank, but those men whose job it is to put out fires when the fire prevention provisions have broken down.

It might be argued that we have all the inspectors that we want, and that there is no need for what I am proposing. However, I am in no two minds about it. Fire losses run at something like £100 million a year, and that sum represents only the compensation paid by insurance companies in respect of losses directly involved in fires. The indirect fire losses are not capable of precise calculation, involving as they do the loss of trade, of export markets, and of employment, and the restoration of equipment, machinery and factories destroyed, as well as the sad loss of life.

The responsibility for fire prevention is spread over a number of Government Departments, including the Home Office and the Department of Employment and Productivity. In the local authorities, it is spread over a proliferation of local authority departments, involving city engineers, architects, public health officers, building inspectors, weights and measures inspectors, and sanitary departments. In the recent fire in Glasgow which cost the lives of about 20 people, the responsibility for fire prevention fell upon the department under the aegis of the Master of Works of Glasgow.

My proposal is simply that the 25,000 operational ranks—the men who wait to go to fires—should be employed to supplement the very good work which is being done by the two Departments represented by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench.

Photo of Mr Norman Buchan Mr Norman Buchan , Renfrewshire West

It might be of value to my hon. Friend to know that I have asked the Scottish Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council at its next meeting, which is a week on Friday, to look at this very question—the possibility of the use of operational personnel on fire prevention duties. I thought my hon. Friend would be glad to know this.

Photo of Mr John Horner Mr John Horner , Oldbury and Halesowen

I am delighted to hear this news. It supports my opening remarks that if we had a Minister from the Home Department here I might have truncated my speech even further. I am delighted to hear what the Under-Secretary has said. I know that he will not mind, therefore, if I draw my remarks to a close. Perhaps he will be kind enough to convey to the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council in Scotland the points that I am going to make.

First, is my suggestion practicable? Can we bring men out of fire stations to do this work? I say that it is wholly practicable. Every fire appliance is equipped with short-wave radio. It will be possible to equip firemen with personal radio sets, if that should be necessary, as with the police. It is easy to evolve a system whereby firemen and their appliances can be on ready call, as quickly available as though they were in their fire stations, with the advanced means of communication that are in existence, and doing this sort of good housekeeping work, seeing that after the factory inspector has been through the building and the fire prevention officer has made his report there is a constant follow-up inspection and that the regulations are carried out, instead of waiting the inevitable long period until there is a further visit from the fire prevention officer or the factory inspector.

I could give many examples of where, after a fire has been put out, the operational firemen have discovered in the ruins much of the evidence which has confirmed their misgivings and suspicions while fighting the fire that the recommendations of the fire prevention officer or the factory inspector had fallen into disuse, although they may have been adhered to for a time. We cannot legislate for carelessness or stupidity. We can only do our best to see that the recommendations are adhered to as closely as possible. That means careful and constant surveillance. It means having available on the spot a number of properly trained people, and my suggestion is that those men are available.

This is not my idea. It is the idea of the firemen themselves. It is wholly praiseworthy that these suggestions come from the firemen's own organisation, from the Fire Brigades Union. At a time when trade unions are under attack from many quarters, it ought to be noted that here is a trade union which wants its members to be more fully employed, which believes that at a time when fire losses are running at such astronomical figures, with a grave drain on our economic resources, they are employed on tasks which are not the most socially useful. They think that it is a criminal misuse of manpower that they should be required to do work in fire stations which is nothing to do with the operational job or fire prevention work; I refer to the menial chores which are commonplace in many fire stations today.

We have 25,000 men, many of them young, intelligent, keen and disciplined. I believe that it is not beyond the limit of the joint intelligence of the two Departments which are represented on the Government Front Bench to see that the willingness and anxiety expressed by these men to be used for these purposes should be fully exploited, especially at a time when we are all concerned at the growing loss of property and life from fire. Government Departments should understand this urgent demand which is being expressed in so many ways. The Under-Secretary of State to the Scottish Office has referred to the Scottish Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. I hope that the House will give support to the expression which has come from the Fire Service.

4.5 a.m.

Photo of Mr Ernest Fernyhough Mr Ernest Fernyhough , Jarrow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention tonight to a matter which I know has troubled many people recently. It is natural that the calamitous fire in Glasgow should have aroused strong Parliamentary and public feelings of horror and anxiety. I have, of course, long been aware of my hon. Friend's personal interest in this subject and of his very great experience of it. I appreciate the tribute which he paid to the factory inspectors, and I will see that his compliments are passed on to them.

Perhaps I can begin by outlining briefly the present responsibilities of my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, for fire precautions. These are limited to premises which are subject to the Factories Act, 1961, and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963.

The fire provisions of the Factories Act deal with the following subjects:

First, means of escape in case of fire; secondly, instruction of workers as to the means of escape; thirdly, means for fighting fire; fourthly, fire alarms; and fifthly, safety provisions mainly of a structural kind.

As regards means of escape, certain factories, chiefly those in which more than 20 people are employed, are required by the Act to have a certificate of the fire authority that they are provided with such means of escape in case of fire for the persons employed in the factory as may reasonably be required in the circumstances of the case. Except as regards means of escape, fire authorities have no statutory responsibilities in relation to the fire provisions of the Act. Inspection in relation to the other matters fall solely to the factory inspectorate, but the Act does allow the factory inspector to authorise a fire brigade officer—with the consent of the authority maintaining the brigade—to enter factories for the purpose of reporting to him on any matter falling within his duties relating to fire.

Although certification falls to the fire authority, the enforcement of the means of escape provisions remains a matter for the factory inspector. If, for example, the means of escape are not properly maintained or are obstructed, it is for the factory inspector to see that the necessary corrective action is taken and to prosecute where appropriate.

The fire provisions of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act are modelled upon, and follow closely, those of the Factories Act. Since the Glasgow fire there has been some criticism—not all of it very well informed—about the position with regard to means of escape certification. By the end of 1967 about 84 per cent. of the factories concerned had been dealt with. It is doubtful whether the percentage figure is likely to increase much beyond the present level. It will certainly never be possible to achieve a 100 per cent. certification, because there will always be new factories coming along and factories where changes in processes and premises invalidate the existing certificates, which, in consequence, require amendment.

On the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises side, the position is that at the end of December, 1967 fire certificates were in force for about 40,000—just under 29 per cent.—of the 140,000 office and shop premises, and for 231–9·8 per cent.—of the 2,377 railway premises known to be subject to the certification requirements.

Photo of Mr John Horner Mr John Horner , Oldbury and Halesowen

I do not want to argue about statistics, but the Chief Inspector of Fire Services issues an annual report, and his report for 1967 gives figures which do not by any means marry up with those given by my hon. Friend. He ends his report by saying that the fire authorities still have a large and continuing task, and he refers to a figure of 670,000 registered shops and office premises, of which 112,000 have been inspected.

Photo of Mr Ernest Fernyhough Mr Ernest Fernyhough , Jarrow

I shall not try to convince my hon. Friend that the figures I have given are correct. I promise that tomorrow I shall have them checked and write to my hon. Friend. If I am wrong, I shall apologise.

I was saying that it would be wrong to countenance suggestions that the existing arrangements for the enforcement of the statutory fire provisions and the giving of advice on precautions in factories are inadequate though, no doubt, they are capable of improvement.

It is certainly not the case, as appears to be suggested in some quarters, that the Factory Inspectorate is unable to find time to take its fire duties seriously enough. It is true that the Inspectorate is under great pressure and its resources are very stretched. But its members do, in fact, give the most meticulous attention to fire matters in the course of their inspections. Any serious deficiencies revealed at a general inspection are noted for follow-up action to ensure that corrective action has been taken. They do not wait until the next general inspection. The blocking of means of escape, or the absence of a fire alarm, would certainly fall within the category of defects calling for a check visit.

Ever since the Factories Act came into force the inspection of factory premises prior to the issue of means of escape certificates has been a major preoccupation for the fire authorities. Before a certificate is issued a thorough survey of premises is needed from the point of view of conditions of use, structure, and the number of employees.

This can be a time-consuming task, and it is, therefore, to the credit of fire authorities generally that, as I have already explained, at the end of 1967, the latest date for which figures are available, about 84 per cent. of factories liable to certification had, in fact, received certificates. It is true, however, that a certificate can easily be invalidated if, subsequently, there are significant changes of use, new building, or bad maintenance. It is, therefore, important to maintain an adequate rate of follow-up inspections to check on the current state of fire precautions in particular buildings.

The full-time fire prevention staffs of fire authorities are frequently too busy to undertake a comprehensive programme of re-inspections themselves, but they usually make a point of doing so in the case of premises offering the largest and most hazardous risks, at least once a year. For the rest, fire authorities are increasingly coming to rely on the operational fire-fighting personnel of the brigades for work of this kind.

I know that this is a matter which arouses strong feelings; some feel that station personnel should be employed not on what they would regard as menial tasks, cleaning fire stations, polishing, and so on, but, when not engaged on fire-fighting duties, on more appropriate work such as fire prevention inspection. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department feels that this is a worthwhile use of manpower so long as it is geared to the level of expertise attained by the personnel concerned and provided the standard of operational fire cover is not adversely affected.

Her Majesty's inspectors of fire services, therefore, when asked for their views on this matter, usually advise fire authorities, subject to these safeguards, to make the maximum possible use of operational personnel in this field, and the practice may therefore be expected to increase. It does, incidentally, fulfil a secondary purpose of enabling fire authorities to secure information to help them in fire fighting. I must emphasise, however, that this is a matter entirely for the fire authorities concerned, and the central Government have no power to intervene.

The powers conferred on fire authorities under the Factories Act to enable them to carry out the duties of certification are generally regarded as adequate. In particular, an officer of the fire authority may enter a factory where people are employed at all reasonable times to ascertain whether the requirements relating to means of escape are being complied with.

Co-operation between officers of fire authorities and the appropriate factory inspectors is usually very close, and it is common practice for useful information to be freely exchanged. Thus, it is entirely open for a fire prevention officer to draw to the attention of the factory inspector anything which seems to him to constitute a fire or explosion hazard arising out of the particular use of a building, and this form of co-operation is widespread.

Factory inspectors may authorise fire brigade officers to inspect factories as to the observance of the fire provisions of the Factories Act and to report their findings to the inspector for his further action. We leave it to our local inspectorate to decide the extent to which this power should be used. The power is widely used particularly in Scotland and in London. At the present time no less than 2,288 fire brigade officers are authorised to visit factories and to report to district inspectors of factories on fire matters.

I am aware that some fire brigades are concerned because their local fire authorities have delegated their duties as to means of escape certification under the Factories Act (as well as duties under the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act) to local authority departments other than the brigade—for example, the Architects' Department in Inner London and the Master of Works in Glasgow. This again is not a matter in which my right hon. Friend can intervene.

I would not pretend for one moment that the statistics I have detailed do not leave room for improvement. My hon. Friend will know that any differences between us are ones of means and not ends. I want to see the total number of accidents and fatalities brought down as much as he does. He will know, however, that at the present moment we are considering comments on our First Consultative Document for new safety, health and welfare legislation to replace both the Factories Act and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, and clearly it would be impossible for me to comment at this stage on the likely form of legislation which we shall ultimately adopt. Moreover, the future organisation of the fire service is under consideration by a committee set up by my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland under the chairmanship of Sir Ronald Holroyd.

My hon. Friend will also appreciate that I cannot comment on the Glasgow incident as this is to be a subject of a formal inquiry under the Fatal Accidents Inquiries (Scotland) Act, 1895.

I appreciate that it is not possible for me to reply to all the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. Some of them are outside the scope of the Ministry that I represent an dare more matters for the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I will, however, gladly give my hon. Friend the assurance that I will see that the Home Secretary's attention is drawn to the many points that he has raised. I am sure that in giving consideration to them the Home Secretary will, where he thinks it will be helpful, act upon them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Four o'clock a.m.