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Fire Services Bill

Volume 486: debated on Wednesday 18 April 1951

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Order for Second Reading read.

7.25 p.m.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This is a short Bill, and I believe it to be a non-controversial Bill. Its purpose is to amend two Sections of the Fire Services Act, 1947, which relate to firemen's pensions. As the House will remember, the 1947 Act was an interesting example of de-nationalisation. It brought the National Fire Service to an end and placed the fire brigades under the control of the county councils and the councils of county boroughs.

The general administrative provisions of the 1947 Act have, on the whole, worked well, and whereas there are, of course, some improvements which have been suggested, my right hon. Friend would not have submitted this Bill to the House this evening had it not been for a special difficulty which has arisen, the fact that the pensionable status of some members of fire brigades is in doubt. They believe, and the employing authorities believe, that they are earning pensions when it is probable that they are mistaken.

I am sure the House will agree that this is a matter which should be put right at once, and that is the main purpose of this Bill. I say "the main purpose," because we have taken the opportunity of the Bill to suggest to the House one or two minor Amendments in the pensions Sections of the Act. I should say at once that the local authority associations have been consulted, and that they agree to the Amendments proposed in this Bill. Two Sections are concerned. Section 26 is the one which empowers my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department to make a Firemen's Pension Scheme by order. Subsection (2) contains a number of paragraphs detailing the various matters which may be covered by the Scheme, and subsection (5) gives power to vary the Scheme by subsequent orders.

Section 27 is the one which has led to the difficulty to which I have referred. It provides that, as regards members of fire brigades, the Firemen's Pension Scheme shall have effect to the exclusion of any other statutory pension provisions. This provision about exclusion from other pension enactments would cause no difficulty at all if all members of fire brigades were covered by the Firemen's Pension Scheme, but they are not. A fireman's job, as we all know, is an extremely hard and exacting one, and, because of this, his pension arrangements are much more liberal than those of a more sedentary worker.

For instance, a man of 55 who has had 30 years' service can retire on a full pension of two-thirds of his pay. Because they are so liberal, these pension arrangements are restricted to those members of fire brigades who are, in the words of Article 43 of the Scheme, "appointed on terms under which they are or may be required to engage in fire-fighting." There are, however, some members of fire brigades employed on ancillary duties, for instance, men and women engaged in control duties, who are not liable for fire fighting duties, and are not, therefore, within the general scope of the Scheme.

In 1948, when the Scheme was made, it was decided not to include in it a separate set of provisions for the non-fire fighting members of brigades. It was so decided for this reason. It was believed that the result would be that, as local government employees, they would come under the Local Government Superannuation Act, 1937, or the corresponding Scottish Act, or one of the various local Acts, and that, therefore, they would enjoy the same superannuation benefits as other men and women who are employed by local authorities.

What has happened? In many cases local authorities have acted in the belief that this is the position. As a result the appropriate pension contributions both from the men and women and from the employing authorities have been paid into the superannuation fund.

It may well be argued that the exclusion provisions in Section 27 (1) of the Fire Services Act, 1947, applies only to men and women who are in fact covered by the Firemen's Pension Scheme and, therefore, that those members of brigades employed on duties not involving any liability to fire fighting are not excluded from other pension enactments.

I am sure that hon. Members who study the matter carefully will agree that this is not a safe assumption, and that the position of these people in regard to pensions is at best uncertain. Clause 2 of the Bill therefore amends Section 27 of the original Act in such a way as to legalise what was done under the Act and under various local acts which applied to these men and women.

Clause 2(1) and the first part of Clause 2 (2) deal with the future. The second part of Clause 2 (2) deals with the past. The financial result of the change in the law effected by Clause 2 is that the pension contributions will be payable by the employing local authorities to the superannuation fund. These contributions will be in respect of between 900 and 1,000 men and women—it is difficult to estimate the exact figure—who do not now come under these Acts. As I have already explained, the pension contributions in question have already been paid in a number of cases under a misapprehension. Those contributions include these payments which this Bill legalises. The total local authority liability for contribution to pension funds will be about £20,000 a year and the annual charge on the 25 per cent. Exchequer Grant will, therefore, be about £5,000. The authority for these charges on the Exchequer Grant is in Clause 3.

I have already explained that since legislation was necessary for the purpose I have just described opportunity has been taken to make one or two minor improvements in the pension provisions in Section 26 of the original Act. These minor amendments are in Clause 1 of the Bill. Clause 1 (1) and (2) will give the Home Secretary power, which Section 26 of the 1947 Act does not appear to give at present, to consolidate the order made under the section embodying the Firemen's Pension Scheme and any subsequent orders which have been made amending the Scheme.

There have been a number of amendments. Hon. Members will appreciate that in 1948 when the new fire brigades came into existence it was to be expected that the earlier careers of the members would vary widely in character. As a result the Firemen's Pension Scheme is complicated, particularly as regards provisions for counting earlier service as pensionable service. In the years since 1948 points have arisen which need amendment.

Consolidation would simplify the scheme, particularly as a number of points covered in earlier orders were merely transitional and need not be included in any consolidation. Of course, any consolidation under Section 26 (6) of the 1947 Act would have to be approved by the Treasury; and the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council for England and Wales and for Scotland respectively would have to be consulted. Clause 1 (3) is concerned with small drafting amendments to Section 26 (2) of the 1947 Act.

This is not a very exciting or interesting Bill possibly, but it is important, especially to those men and women covered by Clause 2, and I commend it to the House.

7.35 p.m.

As the Under-Secretary of State has said, this is not a very exciting Bill, but at first sight it is a very difficult one to understand and I should like to thank him for the way he has explained it. There are two points which arise out of the Bill which I should like him to comment on if he will, later, by leave of the House.

The Bill appears to provide for two things. One is consolidation. We are all entirely agreed about that. The other is to clear up the anomaly to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. I think I am right in saying it was the intention of the 1947 Act that members of fire brigades engaged on ancillary duties should continue their existing pension arrangements as, under that Act, they would be excluded from the Firemen's Pension Scheme.

As the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, under the Scheme which has been introduced, fire fighters alone are embraced and the definition of a fireman in the regulations is someone who is liable to be called upon to be engaged actually in fire-fighting. It appears, therefore, that the ancillary employee in the fire brigade service has fallen completely between two stools. He is not a fire fighter under the regulations and he cannot carry on with his present pension arrangements because doubts have been cast on the legality of that. The Home Secretary, therefore, has introduced these regulations to clear up that point.

As far as we go, that is all right, but there may be some authorities—the hon. Gentleman will tell us if there are—who, owing to the doubt which has been cast upon the legality of continuing their schemes for non-fire-fighting members of their fire service, may have wound up their schemes. In such a case a man will now be faced with the position that when the scheme is restarted he has to pay back contributions or has to give up certain benefits.

Clause 2 (3) refers to the fact that any person who would be liable to pay contributions can give one month's notice, presumably, of his intention not to pay. It seems to me that some injustice may arise here. A member of a fire brigade in this position may be suddenly faced with having to pay back contributions for a benefit of which he would never have been deprived had not this mistake arisen in the drafting of the 1947 Act and in the regulations. It seems to me that there is a case for consideration whether, in those circumstances, such a person should be credited with contributions.

We have the same psychological approach here as that at the introduction of P.A.Y.E., when it became apparent that it would be very difficult to collect Income Tax at the end of the year. P.A.Y.E. was introduced to deal with the problem so that small contributions could be made at regular intervals. Here, for the same reason, if, through the abrogation of the scheme, anybody is called upon to pay back contributions there is a case of hardship and a case for the Home Secretary to inquire whether those contributions for which the man might now become liable should be credited to him.

That is the one point of substance I wish to raise on the Bill, but there is another small point I might mention. It concerns our procedure. The introduction of these regulations is subject to the negative Resolution procedure in Parliament and, having regard to the fact that this amending Bill widens the scope of the schemes the Home Secretary might introduce, I suggest that it would be a good thing to see whether an affirmative Resolution should be substituted when future schemes are introduced. Apart from those two points, however, I agree that the Bill is not controversial and is certainly necessary.

7.41 p.m.

I wish to emphasise a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. R. V. Grimston). Back contributions are certainly a burden in these days. Every hon. Member knows what a trouble it is for people to pay back contributions of P.A.Y.E. when the Income Tax rates are changed. The reason is that there is nowadays no margin for anybody to save anything. As a consequence, back contributions are a considerable burden.

I hope the Under-Secretary will consider two problems. First, there is the position of the man who does not elect to be excluded. Not only will he be called upon to pay back contributions, but he will already have paid contributions which he cannot recover. For the privilege of correcting the Secretary of State's errors of drafting, if I may put it that way, and in consequence of the blunders made in drafting the Act, he is mulcted twice: first, in respect of contributions he has paid and cannot recover and, second, in respect of back contributions he will be required to pay to enter the scheme. I hope the Under-Secretary of State will consider that matter so that it may be put right before the Bill goes further. It is, of course, a Bill which everyone supports.

Would the Under-Secretary also consider whether one month's notice is long enough? Experience so far has been that every period of notice laid down by the statute or the regulations has had to be doubled. That is not surprising. Anybody who has to read and study the masses of small printing in these regulations would have the greatest difficulty in deciding for himself, I suggest, whether it would be to his advantage to elect one way or the other. It is a complicated matter, tiresome even for a professional lawyer. I suggest to the Under-Secretary that it would be much better to give a longer period of notice.

For my part, I support the Bill. We all agree that the life of the fireman is harsh and uncertain and even if he can obtain a full pension at a relatively early age, who are we to complain about that? We do not have the charming task of climbing long ladders to rescue flaming femininity from the top floor window, or the less gallant but not less difficult task of slipping into one's trousers and sliding down a slippery pole at one and the same time.

7.44 p.m.

Passions will not run high on this Bill, I am sure, and I want to make some further comments on the points made by my hon. Friends. I feel that it is about time something was done to assist the non-professional fireman and I wonder whether the consolidated scheme which it intended to introduce when the Bill is passed will include some kind of provision for the voluntary fireman.

In many rural towns in the country there are small non-professional bodies of firemen—ordinary citizens, normally engaged in all kinds of other work who, as soon as the bell rings or the siren sounds, are prepared to drop their work to man the fire-engine and to put out the fire often, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for York (Mr. Hylton-Foster) pointed out, at considerable risk to themselves. These people do a first-class job. They are carrying out voluntary service for the community in the very highest sense of the term, and I have not the slightest doubt that if any hon. Member was asked to carry out the same duties for the same remuneration he would show great hesitation before he did so.

I understand that there are only three types of remuneration which the voluntary fireman receives. The first is an absurdly small retaining fee for the year. The second payment is a sum which he receives if he is called out to attend a fire. Finally, I believe he also receives an additional sum for being at the fire—so much per hour. One might say, as a consequence, that he has a vested interest in the fire continuing as long as possible, although I know that that is not the case.

In my opinion, therefore, something should be done to safeguard the interests of these people as much as possible. I do not ask the Under-Secretary necessarily to answer me at once, but I hope he will give the matter further consideration and see whether some system of pensions cannot be introduced for these voluntary firemen, who do a first-class job throughout the country at great risk to themselves and for very little pay. Many of these men run a serious risk of personal injury when they carry out these duties. We might have to consider the case of a man who is in highly paid employment. If he is injured, he might be out of employment for a long time and receive very little compensation—nothing at all comparable to what he would have earned in his ordinary employment.

Apart from those points, I wish the Bill well. I think it is overdue and I hope we shall give it a speedy passage through the House.

7.47 p.m.

With the permission of the House, I would like to reply, quite briefly. On a small technical Bill like this it is difficult to discuss such points as these without dealing with what are really Committee matters. So far as the point about back contributions is concerned, the Bill allows the fireman to elect to be excluded. No doubt arrangements could be made for him to pay the back contributions in instalments. That does not meet the point put by the hon. and learned Member for York (Mr. Hylton-Foster), however, and we shall have to consider that matter.

The hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. R. V. Grimston) suggested that there should be an affirmative Resolution. I should not like to answer that at the moment, but should like first to consider it. So far as voluntary firemen are concerned, their case would not, of course, be appropriate for consolidation because it is not covered by the present laws.

Perhaps I did not make myself clear. The first clause of the Bill gives the Home Secretary power to introduce a consolidated set of regulations. I was merely asking that when he does so he should also consider whether the regulations ought to contain something to deal with voluntary firemen as well as something to deal with the professional firefighter and the ancillary firefighter.

I will study the position of the voluntary fireman. I was distressed to find that he might have a vested interest in the continuation of a fire, although I do not think that is a serious point, nor did the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay). I will certainly look into the problem which he explained.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House for Tomorrow.