Fire Services (London)

Clause 5 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th June 1979.

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

11.17 p.m.

Photo of Mr Edward Graham Mr Edward Graham , Enfield Edmonton

I begin by acknowledging that I have no quarrel with either the Home Office or its officials, even less with the Minister, who I am delighted to see here ready to take part in this short debate. However, it appears to be only through the hon. and learned Gentleman that I can influence the Greater London Council and its leader, Horace Cutler, who in my view are the villains of the piece.

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise an issue of concern to all Londoners. In essence, London tonight stands less protected against fire, flood and disaster than at any time in the post-war period.

My charge against the GLC and its leader is that they have decided as a matter of policy to gamble with my constituents' lives to save on the rates, and that they have been more concerned to score points against the London Fire Brigades Union than to provide full cover against disaster. Even now, they are engaged in a process of deception and delay designed to hoodwink the Home Office and put the lives of Londoners at risk. I want the Minister to help me stop this outrageous confidence trick.

Many organisations have expressed their fears to me, and I urge the GLC to act responsibly and promptly to put safety first. Amongst those organisations are the council of the London borough of Enfield, the Enfield Federation of Ratepayers' Association and the Federation of Enfield Council Tenants. They and many other separate community organisations have written to me. I am delighted to see in his place the hon. Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry), whose constituency takes in part of the London borough of Enfield, and I am sure that he has received many similar expressions of concern about this matter.

I quote from the Edmonton Weekly Herald of 15 March, reporting some comments of the Haringey area health council administrator, Mr. Don Gardiner: He admitted that fire service cuts were worrying. 'We are not happy about any cuts that will reduce the speed in which fire appliances can reach our hospitals.' At this stage, I want also to acknowledge the debt which we in London owe John Ayres, the Fire Brigades Union branch secretary at Edmonton fire station, who has proved a credit to all London firemen and has served his community well.

We know that the present crisis—I call it a crisis—arises directly out of the introduction of a 42-hour week following the national firemen's strike in January 1978. We know that the National Joint Council for Local Authorities reached agreement for this to be implemented on 1 April 1979. The Minister will know that the former Government encouraged authorities to recruit the additional men required to man a 42-hour week—as distinct from a 48-hour week—by announcing that the additional expenditure would be forthcoming in the 1979–80 rate support grant setttlement.

Six out of the major metropolitan authorities were able to negotiate and recruit up to the level required. Alone, the GLC dragged its feet, leaving Londoners in danger. It is not without significance that the GLC fire brigades committee censured its own chairman last year for wasting six months before taking action. The Minister should know that the GLC, in most arrogant fashion, summoned the Fire Brigades Union to tell the union how it intended to meet the nationally negotiated date for the 42-hour week. This it did in December 1978, six months after other authorities had begun their work and less than four months before April 1979, when, one recalls, the London Fire Brigade was already undermanned for a 48-hour week.

One can appreciate the impossibility of meeting the April deadline. Why, it may be asked, was London left in such a dangerous state? Let me quote from a statement issued by the Fire Brigades Union in December 1978 concerning the undermanned London fire brigades: This is due to the fact that the Brigade in the past 14 months have not made, despite continual requests by the Fire Brigades Union, a genuine attempt to man up to the 48-hour week and, in our opinion, have not at this time even seriously considered agreeing a permanent establishment figure for the 42-hour week. What has happened since 1 April? There have been, first, a reduction in first-line appliances from 215 to 187; secondly, a reduction in turntable ladders from 26 to 18; and thirdly, a reduction in specialist support appliances from 27 to 20. What has this meant in practice? I am told that Edmonton used to be able to respond to a fire call on its patch with two fire appliances—a pump escape and a pump—within three to five minutes on 85 per cent. of all occasions. Edmonton has now been reduced to one appliance, which also has to act as reinforcing appliance to adjacent stations for fire calls.

This has meant that since 1 April Edmonton has been without an immediate response to calls on its own patch for periods up to three hours. Edmonton has had to rely on appliances covering from places as far afield as Hendon. I want the Minister to bear in mind that the main access routes for Edmonton are along the A406, the North Circular Road, and the A10, the Great Cambridge Road, two of the most congested roads in Greater London. With a 10-ton fire engine, it is at times an impossible task to battle through these conditions.

Last month, Edmonton fire station was called to a fire at the premises of MK Electric, a large and important employer in my constituency. Its one appliance arrived but its 1,000 ft. of hose was unable to be used: it could not reach the fire as the hydrant was situated too far away. The officer in charge asked for five reinforcing appliances and the first arrived five minutes later, eight minutes into the fire. An effective attack on the fire could not be mounted until the other appliances arrived 15 minutes later. The damage was estimated at £100,000.

I should like to draw the Minister's attention to the alarming losses that are suffered nationally from fires and paid out by insurance companies. In 1976, the nation's insurance companies paid out £231 million for fire losses. In 1977, the figure was £261 million, and in 1978, £309 million. No account is taken of property not insured. No account is taken of losses of export potential. No account is taken of losses of employment. Last year the London Fire Brigade attended 98,000 calls. If ever there was a strong case for more men and appliances rather than fewer, it is made by those figures.

Another example which would not have posed a problem before 1 April arose when Edmonton's one appliance was not available recently because it was out of Edmonton on a four-pump fire. A constituent of mine was trapped in a high-rise development in a lift in Walbrook House. The nearest vehicle available was Hendon's pump at Finchley Central. This was called for at 17.14 and arrived at the scene at 17.38. The Building Research Station has shown that the average modern house can be totally destroyed in 12 minutes. The chief fire officer of London told the Court of Appeal in 1971: The snatching of a fellow human life from a terrifying death may easily turn on a quarter of a minute—a matter of seconds. I am told that there was a large fire in Brantwood Road, Tottenham, just over the border from Edmonton, on 3 May and the firemen requested urgently a turntable ladder. None was available in the whole of J Division—that is, the whole of North London. When one eventually arrived, 40 minutes later, it came from Soho.

I am told that before 1 April there were three in J Division, yet when that situated at Tottenham went out of action on 28 April it meant that a call on 5 June to the Prince of Wales hospital to which a turntable ladder is normal provision could not be supplied. It was only when Tottenham station made strong representations that a turntable ladder was resituated from Soho to Tottenham.

Incidentally, I am told that, of about 100 50-ft. escape ladders supposed to be available to London at this time, 12 are off the run due to age and disrepair.

Will the Minister also investigate reports that I have received that a number of fire appliances lie condemned as beyond repair at the Ruislip workshop? Since the GLC has said that vehicles taken off the run will form a pool of reserve vehicles, I fear that the reserves appear to be exceedingly thin, if not non-existent.

Will the Minister also comment on the device being used by the GLC to avoid having its actions studied by the Home Secretary? By declaring that the changes now made are temporary—this is one of the crucial points that I beg the Minister to study and understand—the GLC avoids the Home Secretary examining in detail the consequences of the changes. The position is summed up in a letter from the former Home Secretary on 30 April to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish): Under Section 19 of the Fire Services Act of 1947, as amended by the Fire Services Act 1959, a fire authority may not vary the establishment scheme for their area by closing a fire station or by reducing the number of whole-time members of any rank of their brigade or of part-time members or of appliances without my approval. If, therefore, the GLC wish to vary their establishment scheme by making any such reductions to it, they need to come to me for my approval. He added: They have not done so. He went on: The Home Office has been informed by the GLC they intend to replace the interim arrangements as soon as is practicable by a permanent revision of their establishment scheme, taking into account the experience gained of the interim arrangements and that the new establishment scheme will be submitted to me for approval. Until such formal proposals are received from the GLC, however, there are no powers under the Fire Services Acts for me to intervene. The leader of the GLC has made allusions to some kind of approval or seal of authority that he has received from various places. In the same letter of 30 April, the Home Secretary wrote: The Home Office Fire Service Inspectorate, through the normal liaison which they maintain with all fire brigades on a regular basis, have had informal discussions with senior officers of the London Fire Brigade about the GLC's interim arrangements. The fact that information has been given to the Inspectorate and their opinion sought about the operational implications of these interim arrangements should not be construed as implying that approval has been given to them by me or by the Home Office. I appreciate that the Home Office lays down standards. I draw the Minister's attention to the feasibility study into a 40-hour week which reported to the former Home Secretary in January 1978. Paragraph 15 of that report is clear that those standards must not be construed as inviolate. The report said: With few exceptions fire authorities consider it necessary to make provision for first attendance in C and D areas somewhat in excess of the minimum standards recommended in appendix B. … Generally they provide for second supporting appliances to attend incidents. The report also referred to the possibility of one appliance failing to arrive or being delayed because of traffic congestion, road accidents and mechanical defects.

Of crucial significance, in the context of the action by the GLC, is paragraph 16, which says: There is no scope for savings under existing fire cover provision which might be used to finance a reduction in firemen's working hours. This, I submit, is precisely what the GLC is attempting to do. The leader of the GLC has never hidden his view that substantial cuts can be made in personnel. Indeed, he wrote to the secretary of the Edmonton trades council more than a year ago and said: As to the London Fire Brigade, I have expressed my belief that, given certain operational changes, we will be able to achieve a service as good as, if not better than, the present one with about half the men. I come to what I would like the Home Secretary to do. I would like him to insist that the GLC brings forward its proposals for these calamitous reductions immediately, to allow them to be reviewed by the Home Secretary. I hope that they will be rejected as wholly inadequate if London is to be provided with a proper level of cover for fire, flood and disaster.

Second, I would like the Home Secretary to insist that appliances taken off the run be returned piecemeal as and when the trained manpower becomes available. Third, I would like him to see what he can do to speed up recruitment. God forbid that London must suffer a disaster of the Moorgate tube crash proportions, or those—more recently—of the Manchester Wool worth's fire before the GLC puts people before plans. I believe that it may come to that before action is taken.

11.33 p.m.

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Cleveland and Whitby

I am delighted to learn from the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) that he has no quarrel with the Home Office. I am even more delighted to learn that he has no quarrel with me. It is apparent that he has a considerable quarrel with the GLC. I do not answer for the GLC and it is, therefore, inevitable that the instances he has mentioned are matters with which I cannot deal. It is also fair to say that the GLC is not in a position to deal with them in this House.

Of course, those concerned with matters in London, including the GLC, will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say and will no doubt wish to consider carefully whether the examples he has given—which he fairly said were what he had been informed of and of which he could not have personal knowledge—were accurate and whether those events which occurred would not have occurred if the changes he deplores had not taken place. Those are matters which, if they are to be looked at, must be looked at in another quarter.

I think it will help the House if I make clear what the nature of the Government's involvement in this matter is, and how far it extends. We start from the position that responsibility for providing and maintaining public fire brigades rests with fire authorites—that is, with county councils and, in London, the Greater London Council. They are required under the Fire Services Acts 1947 and 1959 to make provision for fire-fighting purposes in their areas and, in particular, to maintain a fire brigade of sufficient strength to meet efficiently all normal requirements. My right hon. Friend has certain powers and duties relating to operational efficiency under the Fire Services Acts, but in general he has no authority to intervene in the discharge by fire authorities of their functions under the Acts or to give instructions to them. His powers are largely negative or advisory in character. I will come back a little later to those powers which relate to fire cover provision and how they bear on the situation in Greater London which the hon. Member has described. Broadly speaking, however, it is for an individual fire authority to decide on the numbers of personnel, of appliances and of fire stations which are needed to enable the authority to discharge its statutory obligations.

Fire authorities also have responsibility for the pay and conditions of service of members of their brigades, including their hours of work, although in practice these are negotiated in the National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Fire Brigades, on which the two sides are the local authorities and the fire service representative staff organisations. As the hon. Member has already made clear, the reason and occasion for the changes in the London Fire Brigade recently made by the Greater London Council is the agreement reached in the National Joint Council that firemen's working hours should be reduced from 48 to 42 per week. Agreement in principle upon this reduction in the working week was reached in January 1978, as part of the agreement on pay and conditions of service which ended the firemen's strike, but the agreement was subject to further negotiations on the problems which, as both the parties to the agreement recognised, would be associated with the introduction of the 42-hour week. Further agreement was reached in December 1978 on the broad terms on which the 42-hour week was to be introduced, including the date of its introduction, which was to be no later than 1 April 1979. That was part of the agreement.

Although in the formal agreement reached in the National Joint Council there is no reference to the exent of any increase in manpower which might be needed for the introduction of the 42-hour week, I think it is fair to say that the local authorities' representatives had it in mind to introduce the 42-hour week on the most cost-effective basis possible—that is, with the minimum increase in manpower necessary to maintain fire cover and the most productive use of working time. Although additional recruitment was envisaged, it was certainly no part of the agreement that this should be on the scale which would be required if the existing methods of working were simply to be continued on the basis of the 42-hour week instead of the previous 48-hour week.

It was therefore open to fire authorities to make adjustments to their fire service provision to facilitate the introduction of the 42-hour week, and the Government are aware that most have done so in varying degrees. Indeed, fire authorities have had to do so, because the national agreement obliged them to introduce the shorter working week on the basis of the resources available to them at the time. The Greater London Council introduced the 42-hour week in the London Fire Brigade on 31 March this year, and it is from the attendant adjustments to the level of services made by the council that this debate arises.

The arrangements that have been made by the GLC to permit the introduction of the 42-hour week have, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, so far been only interim ones. Although the Home Office has not been informed of the full details, naturally some information about the arrangements has been made available to it and Her Majesty's inspectors of fire services, who have a statutory responsibility under the Fire Services Acts to obtain information about how fire authorities are carrying out their functions under the Acts, have been in touch both with senior officers of the brigade and with members of the GLC about their interim arrangements, as part of the normal liaison which they maintain with all fire brigades on a regular basis.

The fact that information has been given to the inspectorate, however, does not commit the Home Secretary to a view one way or the other on the interim arrangements. Still less does it commit him to any proposals for reduction in the brigade's permanent establishment scheme that may be submitted to him in the future. It is at that stage that my right hon. Friend's powers arise.

Photo of Mr Edward Graham Mr Edward Graham , Enfield Edmonton

How interim is "interim"?

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Cleveland and Whitby

I shall come to that shortly.

I understand that to reduce the working week in London without making any adjustment to services or working routines would have required the GLC to recruit approximately 1,400 more firemen but that the figure which the GLC actually has in mind is of the order of 350 extra. It intends to take some specialist appliances, including a fireboat, out of service and to reduce the number of appliances operating from some fire stations from two to one.

The GLC has not yet placed these interim arrangements on a permanent footing and I understand that it does not intend to do so for some time. What it has in mind is that time should be allowed for experience to be gained of how the arrangements work in practice, and for an assessment of progress in recruiting additional manpower.

Only then will the GLC be able to revise the permanent establishment of men and machines in the light of the experience gained in the operation of the interim scheme.

Any changes in a service which exists to protect the lives and property of the public are rightly liable to excite public interest and concern. I understand that, particularly during the months which led up to the introduction of the 42-hour week in London—that is, during the previous Administration's term of office—a considerable number of representations were received in the Home Office from members of the public and from the Fire Brigades Union, and that the GLC was made aware of the burden of these representations. I am aware also that the hon. Member and a number of other London Members properly represented their own and their constituents' concern to the previous Administration. Some of those representations revealed differences of view about the proper role of the Government in relation to changes of the kind being made by the GLC.

It is, therefore, important for me to set out, in the limited time available, the respective roles of the Government and the GLC under existing legislation. Arising from his powers under the Fire Services Acts the Home Secretary has, of course, a general responsibility for the fire service and concern with the operational efficiency of fire brigades. He has the professional assistance of the chief inspector and inspectors of fire services, who maintain a close liaison with brigades and inform the Home Office and the Home Secretary about technical matters. The inspectors are also available to fire authorities and chief fire officers for advice and guidance. The Home Office has issued advice to fire authorities, after appropriate consultations, on recommended minimum standards of fire cover. It is up to the fire authorities to determine how to ensure that those standards are maintained. These minimum standards provide for the number of appliances and time of first attendance according to the category of risk of the area.

The risk category of an area may, of course, change from time to time as the density of population and the number and type of buildings in an area change. So also may the speed with which fire brigades can attend incidents. This does not, however, mean that the standards themselves necessarily are out of date or need to be changed since, as I have said, they are expressed not in terms of the number of men and appliances which must be kept available but in terms of the number of pumping appliances which should form the first attendance at a fire and the time limits within which they should attend. Those standards remain. If there are any changes in the area it is the responsibility of the fire authority in maintaining fire cover to apply these standards to the new situation and to keep its fire cover arrangements continually under review to ensure that the minimum standards continue to be met.

The Home Secretary has no power to direct a fire authority as to the numbers of firemen, of appliances or of fire stations that it should maintain, nor how these should be deployed. His specific powers are confined to those set out in the Fire Services Acts, to which the hon. Member referred. If a fire authority wanted to vary the establishment, it would have to obtain the consent of the Home Secretary. But until an application is made to him the Home Secretary has no authority to interfere in the determination by a fire authority of an establishment scheme of its fire brigade.

In the present case, the Greater London Council, like any other fire authority, would need to come to my right hon. Friend for his approval. It has not done so yet, but it has introduced interim fire cover arrangements which at this stage do not involve any variation of the establishment scheme of the brigade.

The Home Office has been informed by the GLC that it intends to replace the interim arrangements as soon as practicable by permanent revision of the establishment scheme, and that the new establishment scheme will be submitted for approval when that occurs.

Naturally the public are concerned with safety matters generally, rather than with a particular division of responsibility, and in considering the matter I simply ask the House to take note of a number of points which should go a long way towards reassuring the public. The GLC has a clear statutory responsibility for the provision of fire cover. I have no doubt that it fully appreciates the gravity of the responsibility it has and has satisfied itself that it is maintaining a brigade of sufficient strength to meet all—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes to Twelve o clock.