Skip to main content

New Clause—(Rights Of Fire Authorities In Connection With Registration Of Clubs)

Volume 641: debated on Friday 5 May 1961

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

(1) Where the local authority is not the fire authority, the clerk to the justices shall as soon as may be give the fire authority written notice of the making of an application for the issue of a registration certificate for any premises, or for the renewal of a registration certificate in respect either of different, additional or enlarged premises or of premises previously notified to him by the fire authority as being premises in respect of which the authority desire to be given notice under this subsection.

(2) As regards any matter affecting fire risks a fire authority other than the local authority shall have the like rights—

  • (a) in relation to the inspection of premises under section twenty-five of this Act; and
  • (b) in relation to the making of objections, on the ground mentioned in paragraph (b) of subsection (2) of section twenty-one of this Act, to the issue or renewal of a registration certificate;
  • as the authority would have if they were the local authority.

    (3) In this section "fire authority" means in relation to any premises the authority discharging in the area where the premises are situated the functions of fire authority under the Fire Services Act, 1947.—[ Mr. R. A. Butler.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

    I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

    It may be convenient if, with the new Clause, we discuss the Amendments to page 34, line 13, at the end to insert:

    (13) A magistrates' court may refuse an application for the issue or renewal of a registration certificate if it appears to them that the premises to be registered do not provide for efficient means of escape in the event of fire.
    and to page 34, line 32, after "police", to insert:
    "by the chief fire officer".

    It may also be convenient if we cover the Amendment to page 35, line 22, at the end, to insert:

    (f) that the premises are not provided with efficient means of escape in the event of fire.
    This new Clause seeks to cover the matters, with which those Amendments rightly attempt to deal, in a rather more fundamental way. Its object is to try to deal with the sort of situation which arose with the fire in Bolton, on 1st May, as a result of which 19 persons in club premises lost their lives. We concluded that, as drafted, the Bill was not sufficiently broad to cover the problems of a club, if only because premises can be brought into use before action can be taken to secure adequate means of egress from them. We therefore think that in a licensing Bill we must do as much as we can about fire precautions.

    I shall not go into great detail about the Clause, because it is fairly obvious. In general, however, although we cannot here discuss fire precautions outside the Bill, under the Factories Act, 1959, new fire precautions came into force on 1st December, 1960, and we contemplate taking further steps in any legislation which we introduce in relation to health, welfare and safety in shops, offices, and so on. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government, in the present Housing Bill, has under consideration the problem of fire precautions in relation to multi-occupied dwellings. Although the provisions are spread about, with the aid of this Bill we shall be able to provide fire precautions regulations rather better than they have been, and I think that we are right to do so. The main fire precautions regulations are included in Section 59 of the Public Health Act, 1936.

    4.45 p.m.

    The new Clause provides that any fire authority which, as the Bill stands, is not given the right of inspection in any matter affecting fire risks, should have the rights of inspection which are provided in Clause 25, that is, the inspection of premises before first registration.

    In the Clause reference is made to the "authority" and Clause 28 (3, b), the Interpretation Clause, provides that a local authority means
    "the Common Council of the City of London, or the council of the county borough, metro-polian borough or county district, according to the situation of the premises in question."
    Clause 25, taken together with portions of Clause 21 and the Interpretation Clause, means that county borough councils, for example, would have sufficient powers of inspection and, as they are fire authorities, they would have absolutely full power to deal with the matter. However, we found on examination that those provisions would not cover counties or combined authorities, and we therefore decided to put down the new Clause which deliberately gives to fire authorities the powers which they think that they ought to have. I think that that is satisfactory, and it covers renewal of registration.

    In paragraph 2 (5) of the new Schedule, opportunities are given so that when, instead of applying for registration, a club applies for a justices' licence, there would be power for the authority to intervene and to be informed. The Clause contains full provision for the club to inform the fire authority when there is a likelihood of risk. That, taken together with the powers in Clause 25 and the powers of inspection, covers the danger of fire and enlarges the definition of fire authority as it should be enlarged.

    I wanted myself to move the new Clause because I knew of the anxiety of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. E. Taylor) and the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Holt) about the risk of fire. I hope that the new Clause will be regarded as satisfactory.

    Will the right hon. Gentleman say why the Clause is confined to clubs? What about restaurants, and so on? Will the Clause have any application in that respect, or are restaurants and hotels, and so on, covered in another way?

    Restaurants are covered by the existing law, but clubs are not. Clubs providing liquor—this being a licensing Bill—will now be covered by the Bill.

    Are we to understand that from now on, as restaurants and guest houses of all kinds all over the country will be entitled almost as a right to a licence, fire precautions will have to be approved by the appropriate local authority before a licence can be granted?

    I am sure that the whole House will welcome the new Clause, so far as it goes. I am sure that I am speaking for every hon. Member when I say that we were all profoundly shocked to read of the Bolton fire and that we recognise the urgent necessity of trying to make certain that, as far as possible, similar catastrophes are avoided in future.

    I would like to press on the Home Secretary the points which my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) and the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) have already put. The Clause clearly relates only to clubs which fall within Part III of the Bill. It enables the fire authority concerned to object to the grant of a registration certificate in the case of such a club.

    The Home Secretary referred to the Public Health Act, 1936, of which Sections 59 and 60 contain fairly drastic provisions about providing fire exits and anti-fire precautions in general. Why does the new Clause not apply equally in the case of other licences with which the Bill deals—restaurant licences, residential licences, combined licences and the ordinary licences which are granted in respect of licensed premises?

    To some extent it does, in the sense that licences of those sorts can be refused if the premises are unsuitable, but I suggest that there is no reason why one should not go a great deal further than the new Clause. Bearing in mind the fire risks and the appalling catastrophes which can result, why should there not be similar provisions about the other types of licensed premises? Why should not the law provide that the fire authority must be notified in the case of an application for any licence of that sort, or renewal of any licence of that sort, so that that fire authority can object?

    Equally, I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is certain that the existing provisions of Sections 59 and 60 of the Public Health Act, 1936, are sufficiently wide. I have looked at this matter. Section 60, as I read it, applies to inns, hotels, and to restaurants. I would have thought that we should enact a similar obligation under this new Clause to notify the fire authorities in the case of any application for a licence for restaurants and hotels.

    We already have Section 60 of the 1936 Act, which applies to them and which makes it obligatory on the owners and others in control of such premises to provide fire exits. But I should also like to ask, as I have done by implication, having enacted that there must be a notice given to the fire authorities in relation to clubs, why we should not enact that Sections 59 and 60 of the Public Health Act, 1936, should equally apply to clubs, which would then also have to submit to the rather stringent obligations imposed by those Sections about the provision of fire exits, and so on.

    Section 59, as far as I read it, applies to a club required to be registered under the provisions of the Licensing Consolidation Act, 1910. I ask whether that Act, by virtue of the changes in the law which we are now proposing, automatically applies to a club required, under Part III of the Bill, to have a registration certificate. I would have thought not.

    I see that the Solicitor-General is indicating that he agrees with that conclusion, and that the Act does not apply to these clubs. If it does not apply to the clubs under Part III of the Bill, then I press the Government that it should do. As far as I know, all that is to be contained in legislation, applicable to clubs which will be required to have a registration certificate under Part III of the Bill is what we now find in this new Clause. I press the Government that that is not enough, and that clubs which fall within the provisions of Part III should be under the same obligations as other premises which come under Sections 59 and 60 of the 1936 Act.

    I know that the Government and the House will agree with me that there is no step that we should not take to avoid a possible recurrence of the sort of catastrophe that we have in mind. I can say that without fear of contradiction. I submit that the Government have not gone far enough, that this Clause should be more extensive in that it should apply equally to restaurants, hotels and licensed premises, and that, in any event, we should make sure that Sections 59 and 60 of the 1936 Act will apply in future to clubs which fall within the provisions of Part III of the Bill.

    It is not my intention to make a long speech, but I feel that the House will expect me to say a few words about this subject, because this tragic club fire happened in my constituency. I was on the spot a few hours afterwards, because I am still a member of the local watch committee. There was strong feeling in the town, for the people knew the limitations of the regulations.

    I want to say here and now that I am very happy about the way in which the problem has been faced up to and dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Holt) and I were in touch with my right hon. Friend after the accident and many representations were made. I believe that this new Clause will be quite enough to ensure that a tragedy like this cannot happen again. For my part, I welcome it and say at once how happy I am about it.

    The people concerned after the Bolton fire examined the Bill to see whether Clause 21 (4), which does not actually refer to fire precautions, gave full authority to local fire officers. I take it, however, from what the Home Secretary has said, that Clause 21 (2, b) is adequate and that the words

    "…the premises are not suitable and convenient for the purpose in view of their character and condition of the size and nature of the club"
    are grounds for making objection to the club being opened—or, if it is already opened, for making application that the licence should be withdrawn.

    I consulted some of my legal friends on this point and there appears to be a division of opinion. Some said that this was wide enough to include everything, and that a club could not be suitable or convenient if the fire precautions were not adequate. On the other hand, there is doubt, and it seems, from the nature of the Public Health Act, 1936, that there is some ground for this doubt, because I notice that Section 59 of that Act contains the words
    "…ingress and egress and passages or gangways…"
    I was advised that this did not refer to fire precautions, but to exits being adequate so that people should be able to get in and out easily. That seems to be borne out by Section 60, which specifically makes reference to
    "…means of escape in case of fire…"
    My concern was whether this Bill as it stood adequately covered everything regarding fire precautions, except in this one matter where the local authority was not the same as the fire authority. I take it, from what the Home Secretary has said, that the legal advice that he has had is that the Bill is quite adequate, so that any fire officer will be enabled both to enter the premises under Clause 25 prior to their being opened as a club, or to go into them after they have been opened—to see that the fire precautions are still being maintained—and that if, on either occasion, he is not satisfied he can then object to the licence. If that is the case, I am quite satisfied with this new Clause.

    I rise to follow up the point made by the Home Secretary before he resumed his seat. Everyone was shocked by the disaster at Bolton, and, naturally, we expected the Government to take note of the fact that there were premises of this sort which were not inspected as they should be by fire authorities. But I believe that we could have an equal disaster at a restaurant where drink is sold. One could have it in any other licensed premises, because, wherever drink is sold, fire danger is increased.

    People become less careful under the influence of drink. They take chances which they would not otherwise take in a sensible moment and, therefore, in letting the Bill go through the House, we must take extra careful precautions. I shall be very disturbed until I hear further from the Government that they are quite satisfied that all restaurants, and all places where a licence to sell drink is granted, come under a provision like this proposed new Clause for prior examination by the fire authorities.

    To my mind, it is quite inadequate to have an inspection of premises after they are opened. The transfer sessions will be asked to give new licences to restaurants and the local authority may feel that because a place has been a restaurant for twenty years it will be quite all right as a fire risk if it is subsequently licensed to sell strong drink. I believe that a place may be a reasonable fire risk if no drink is sold, but may become quite a dangerous risk if drink is sold. I am not satisfied that we should make this requirement operate merely for clubs.

    A short time ago the Solicitor-General seemed as though he intended to reply. I hope that he will be able to satisfy us on this paint. If he does not, we shall have to pursue the matter at greater length, because it is an issue on which there is great public concern.

    5.0 p.m.

    I hope that I can clear up this matter to the satisfaction of the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas). He is worried at the thought that we may be unduly limiting the provisions concerning fire risks and he thinks that, in particular, we ought to ensure that a licensed restaurant where intoxicating liquor may be sold should also be inspected, or made liable to inspection, by a fire officer on prior notice. That point is covered by the new Schedule, to which we have referred but which we have not discussed in detail. If hon. Members will refer to that Schedule—(Licensing Procedure and Appeals)—they will see that paragraph 2 (5), which deals with applications for a new licence, provides that

    "The notice required…to be given to the proper local authority shall be given…"
    and goes on to provide:
    "and, in the case of a new licence or a removal shall also be given to the authority discharging in the area where those premises are situated the functions of fire authority under the Fire Services Act, 1947."
    The fire authority therefore receives notice of an application for a licence, which will include a restaurant licence or any other Part I licence. If hon. Members will then look at Clause 2 (2) they will see that it provides that
    "Licensing justices may refuse an application for the grant or renewal of a restaurant licence…on any of the following grounds, that is to say…that the premises…are not suitable and convenient for the use contemplated",
    so that it would be open to a fire officer, having had notice and having the power to inspect, to come forward and make his objection that the premises are not suitable in view of the fire risks.

    It seems to me that there is another defect in this new Clause, with which the right hon. and learned Solicitor-General may be good enough to deal. We are all anxious to do everything possible to reduce the fire risks in clubs and licensed premises. As I understand the new Clause—which the Home Secretary explained and, in explaining referred to Clauses 25 and 28—it does not seem that fire authorities will be given all the rights of inspection which they ought to have if we are to do the maximum possible to reduce fire risks. The Home Secretary seemed to think that the Clause would give a fire authority the right to inspect premises on an application for the renewal of a licence.

    The new Clause deals with the registration of clubs, and not of licensed premises.

    I quite agree, but I gathered from the Home Secretary that he was under the impression that the new Clause gives a fire authority the right of inspection prior to an application for a renewal of a licence for a registered clubs. If the Solicitor-General will look at Clause 25 he will see that it deals with the right of inspection of local authorities, and this is important, because the new Clause, by reference, incorporates Clause 25. The object of Clause 25 seems to be to give a local authority as well as the police the right of inspection of premises prior to first registration but not subsequently, unless the case falls within subsection (4), which refers to the case of the club which applies for the renewal of a registration certificate in respect of different, additional or enlarged premises.

    There is the ordinary case of a straightforward application for the renewal of a registration certificate, under Part III, and I cannot see why a local authority and, a fortiori, a fire authority, should not have the right of inspection prior to any application for the renewal of a certificate. It does not seem sufficient merely to give local authorities, including fire authorities, the rights of objection which they are given under subsection (1) of the new Clause unless they are also given every opportunity of inspection, so that they can examine the premises and satisfy themselves whether or not they should object to the application.

    I raised this point in Committee, but the Minister of State did not seem fully to appreciate the importance of the Amendment that we then moved, because in that context we were dealing with the rights of local authorities to inspect in order to see whether the premises were structurally sound, and on planning grounds, and so on. We were not dealing with fire risks; we were dealing with the general grounds on which local authorities should have the right of inspection. At the end of column 1086 of our proceedings in Committee the Minister referred to what was then Clause 22 (4) and has now been renumbered Clause 25. The point I made then, which I now make with greater emphasis because of the fire risks involved, is that the right of inspection should not be limited to an application for first registration, or for first registration of enlarged or changed premises, but should be applicable in the case of any application for renewal.

    I cannot see any objection to that. This is an extension of a Clause desired by the Association of Municipal Corporations, and if the Government intend to do everything possible to reduce the risks of fire, as I am sure is the case, I suggest that they should extend this right of inspection, given by the new Clause to fire authorities, to every application for renewal.

    May I say that I think—in fact, I am pretty certain—that the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) is quite right in his reading of the Clause? The reason the Committee came to the conclusion that we should limit the right of inspection was, of course, on broad policy grounds. Ordinary clubs resent very much the right of inspection which does not extend to other private premises.

    However, having said that—and I know that the House will appreciate the force of the feeling on that point—it can be argued, as the hon. Gentleman has argued, that fire is perhaps a special case. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied if I say that my right hon. Friend will very carefully consider what he has said before the proceedings in another place.

    I wish to support the point of view put forward by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher), but I am a bit concerned at the way in which the thing works. The local fire authority is given no veto. What will happen will be that the local fire authority and not the local fire officer, except where he is the servant of the local fire authority, will be notified that in certain premises it is proposed to establish a club. Under this new Clause the authority will then have a right to inspect the premises. It will then consider the report of its appropriate officer and will have to decide whether it will appear at the application for the registration of the club.

    After having inspected the premises and looked at the plan, the local fire authority will, if it does not think that the premises are suitable from its point of view, tender evidence to the justices asking, presumably, either that the justices should reject the application or that they should insert in the grant of the application certain requirements for the alteration of the premises. That, I take it, is the procedure.

    Of course, the justices, having heard the evidence tendered by the local fire authority and any evidence that may be given in rebuttal by the promoters of the club, will judicially reach a decision on the matter, and the ultimate result will depend upon that decision of the justices. All that this Clause gives to the local fire authority is the right to inspect and then to tender evidence in the light of its inspection.

    My right hon. and hon. Friends have asked that this right should be extended to premises other than registered clubs. I merely want to say as one who for over sixty years has been a member of clubs affiliated to the Club and Institute Union that I think the resentment of the clubs would be a great deal less is everybody else were subject to the same sort of inspection—and liable to have evidence tendered against them—as this new Clause, apparently, gives to the local fire authority in the case of clubs only. I hope that the Clause will be accepted and I certainly hope that its scope will be extended in the way asked for by my right hon. and hon. Friends

    5.15 p.m.

    As the Solicitor-that the most important change made by General knows, in Committee we learned the Bill is that it creates thousands of new licences all over the country—new licences which are given as of right subject to certain provisions. At the moment, under Clause 1, licensing magistrates are limited in their powers. The Clause says quite clearly:

    "Except on one or more of the grounds specified in this Act, licensing justices shall not refuse an application…".
    The conditions are laid down. Subsection (2, a) states:
    "is granted for premises structurally adapted and bona fide used, or intended to be used, for the purpose of habitually providing the customary main meal at midday or in the evening…"
    In other words, it applies to premises which are suitable for providing meals.

    Will the new provisions enable licensing justices to say, "Whilst we are satisfied that the premises conform in this way, they are not structurally adapted in such a way as to make them secure from the hazard of fire"? I ask the Solicitor-General and the Home Secretary to consider this point again. There will be all sorts of buildings with new licences, big and small, and in many streets there will be a proliferation of them, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish). They will be frequented by young people.

    Let us learn from this latest tragedy at Bolton. As an old miner, I know that, usually, it is necessary for a tragedy to occur before we take the necessary steps. Now that we have had this tragedy I think that it is the duty of the House to make sure that the provisions are such that the licensing magistrates can say, "This guest house or restaurant is not suitable for a licence because, among other things, it has not suitable arrangements to meet the hazard of fire".

    I hope that the Solicitor-General will tell us that such premises are brought within the provisions and are brought within them in such a way that the licensing bench can say, "We will not grant you a licence for your restaurant or guest house until we are satisfied that your fire precautions are adequate".

    I am not sure whether we are to hear another speech from the Government Front Bench—[HON. MEMBERS: "We are."] I am delighted to hear that we are to have another speech. I thought, perhaps, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman had exhausted his right to speak. I would not complain if he sought to speak for a third or even a fourth time.

    I look at the matter in a rather simple, straightforward way. I understand that what we are doing here is to tighten up the law with regard to clubs. The matter has been brought to our notice by the tragedy in Bolton. Such a tragedy should make us well aware of the risks which there are in some club premises. We are going to take precautions here. The only question that arises is whether the provisions apply to restaurants, boarding houses and like establishments.

    I watched the faces of right hon. Gentlemen opposite when the matter was raised and I thought that I caught a glimpse of dubiety on their part as to whether restaurants and establishments of that kind came under the provisions of the Bill. Indeed, there was a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing to the box under the Gallery. As I understand it, they are now satisfied that under Clause 2 (2, b), and under the new Schedule, restaurants and other similar establishments will be covered. Although that Clause can be read as covering fire in their context, up to now we have taken it largely to refer to a case where the buildings were structurally fitted for the sale of drink and the supplying of meals. The fact that egress might be difficult or that there may be only one doorway did not occur to anyone on the Committee when we were debating this Clause.

    Now, we have had our attention called to it, and it is a matter of the utmost importance. I know that fires can arise through carelessness anywhere, but we have been reminded this afternoon that where people are slightly convivial in clubs and restaurants, their sense of control tends to decline as the evening advances. They throw down lighted matches or leave cigarettes on the edges of plates, and these can eventually start a fire. All that kind of thing does happen.

    How does my right hon. Friend know all this if he is a teetotaller?

    I do eat, and I go to restaurants, and, frequently, in restaurants, if one wants them, there are intoxicating liquors. I am not quite so young and innocent as perhaps my hon. Friend—and it is very kind of him—suggests I may be. These are matters that we should take into account and I should like to feel that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be able to say that actual words indicative of what we have in mind will be inserted in the Bill. I am sure that the House itself would be very much happier if the Government would do that and carry on the good work they are already doing in this new Clause.

    Order. The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Holt) has already spoken once.

    I think I can clarify this matter. We are concerned here, in the way in which the debate has gone, with three sorts of premises: first, clubs; second, licensed premises; and, third, restaurants. In addition to that, we are concerned with each of them in three matters: first, in respect of each, is there provision for notice to the fire authority; secondly, is there a discretion on the part of the justices to refuse a licence in the case of fire risk: and, thirdly, is there a right of inspection?

    May I take first the clubs? I think that the House is satisfied that where clubs are concerned there is the requirement of notice, a right of inspection, and the justices therefore have the right to refuse registration if, in the case of a fire risk—

    I hope the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish my exposition. There is also one point outstanding, which was raised by the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher), namely, that the right to inspect relates only to the first registration and not to renewal. As I have indicated, my right hon. Friend will certainly—although this does raise some questions of policy—consider that in the light of this debate.

    Secondly, licensed premises. So far as notices are concerned, licensed premises, including ordinary on-licences and restaurants, are covered by the provisions in the new Schedule, to which both my right hon. Friend and I drew attention. In regard to the right to refuse a licence if the premises are not suitable or are a fire risk, in the case of an ordinary on-licence—a public house—it is a discretionary power. Quite clearly, the justices will refuse, and indeed they are bound to refuse, if the premises are not fit and proper for that use under the 1953 Act. The same answer applies to the right to inspect, because although there is no statutory right to inspect "pubs", if an application is refused, it is unthinkable that the licensing justices would give a licence.

    That brings me to the restaurants. To take first the point about notice to the fire authority, that is covered by the Schedule. The right to refuse in the case of a fire risk is, in my view, covered by the words to which the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) drew attention, as I have done before—the words in Clause 2 (2, b)
    "are not suitable and convenient for the use contemplated by that paragraph,"
    but I will undertake with my right hon. Friend and the draftsmen to consider these words again.

    That leaves only the right to inspect. The restaurant licences are not, like the public house licences, discretionary licences, and therefore I will again consider that point with my right hon. Friend, before the Bill is considered in another place, to see whether, in the case of restaurant licences, it may not be desirable to write in a right to inspect the premises on the part of the fire authority.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.