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Fire Safety

4.44 pm

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): Two years ago, a terrible fire shattered the local community of Crowborough in East Sussex, just outside my constituency. Mr. and Mrs. Kent had their two sons, Alex and Philip, staying for the night. Alex was an off-duty fire officer. At about 2.30 in the morning, the East Sussex fire and rescue service received a call from the property. Alex Kent had woken up and discovered a fire in the lounge. This had triggered the smoke detector, and he had shouted to the others to escape. His parents hurried out, but there was no sign of Philip. Alex went upstairs to find him. They were never seen again. Both sons died in the fire. Mr. and Mrs. Kent lost their only two children and almost everything that reminded them of their lives. The couple eventually moved back into the house a year after the fire. Now a sprinkler system will ensure that such a tragedy never happens in that house again.

Adrian Brown of the East Sussex fire service, who managed the rescue attempt on that fatal night, is here as a visitor today. He told me about this sorry event. This drastic example shows how a house fire can devastate a family. It also shows that, despite all the security precautions, despite a smoke alarm, and even despite an experienced emergency worker staying in the house, terrible loss of life and injuries and massive property damage cannot be prevented.

This is not an isolated example. In the UK, two people are killed and 50 are injured in fires every day. Three out of four fires occur in private homes. Most of the people dying are young children, old people, disabled people and people under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The family in Crowborough relied on the old saying that there is nothing as safe as houses. Today, I want to call for people to be safe in their houses as well—safe from a terrible fire death, from injury through smoke and burns and from severe property damage and loss of every precious little thing that matters to them. That is why in the first part of my speech I shall focus on fire sprinkler systems in domestic dwellings: private properties, care homes, houses in multiple occupation, and high-rise buildings. I am aware that fire sprinklers in schools is a contentious issue. Therefore, I shall add some thoughts on that at the end of my speech.

I call on the Government to use the current rethink of building regulations to consider the wider use of fire sprinklers in all new residential buildings in England and Wales. At the very least, it is high time to fit fire sprinkler systems in all newly built care homes for the elderly, for children and for the disabled. This must also apply to all care homes that are being refurbished. We must ensure that sprinklers are installed in all new high-rise buildings.

HMOs pose a particular problem. They tend to house a higher proportion of vulnerable people. Nationally, only about 5 per cent. of people live in HMOs, although Brighton and Hove, with 14,000, has a much higher percentage. Multi-occupancy properties account for more than one third of all fire deaths. Many of those living in HMOs are on a low income and are people who cannot be reached by the Government's fire safety messages.
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In an Adjournment debate on HMOs in 2000, the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), acknowledged the considerably higher risk of dying in a fire in HMOs. He stated:

He went on to say that

I am not saying that sprinklers will guarantee that tragedies such as Crowborough never happen again. However, there is now a growing body of research and practical examples that shows that they would make a decisive contribution to the safety of our people.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I agree with my hon. Friend about the need to install sprinkler systems in HMOs. Does she agree that, if implemented, the effect would be as radical and as effective as the measures introduced after the 1979 Woolworths fire in Manchester? Fire safety regulations were overhauled for public places and workplaces.

Ms Barlow : I agree with my hon. Friend. The Woolworths fire was a tragedy, and it is a great pity that there were not fire sprinklers at that time. I agree that the Government have made advances in fire safety—there is no doubt about that.

I called for this debate because Brighton and Hove city council recently passed a motion to encourage developers to install sprinkler systems in all new buildings. It also asked the three Members of Parliament for Brighton and Hove to lobby the Government to include the installation of residential sprinkler systems as part of the revision to building regulations.

The motion had the unanimous support of the entire city council. That support reflects the unanimity that can be found among experts when it comes to fire sprinklers. The chief executives of the fire services, the fire fighters' unions and the Association of British Insurers are all in agreement that fire sprinklers are beneficial and should be used on a much greater scale.

The motion followed a long-standing campaign by East Sussex fire and rescue service calling for all newly built domestic dwellings and major refurbishment schemes in similar houses, including HMOs and schools, to be fitted with an appropriate sprinkler system. I recently spent a day at the headquarters of the East Sussex fire and rescue service and saw its professionalism and the excellent work done by the fire fighters day by day to keep everyone secure. They impressed on me the need for wider provision of fire sprinklers to avoid the terrible loss of lives, injuries and property damage that happens every day throughout the country. The advantages of sprinklers have been proven over many years. In short, they prevent casualties and avoid great property damage caused by fire and by water. They help to save water because they fight the fire in its early stages. Examples of sprinklers being tested and widely used have shown that they
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reduce the number of fire deaths considerably. According to the Fire Sprinkler Association, they reduce injuries by at least 80 per cent. and property damage by 90 per cent. They also use less water so are more environmentally friendly.

In 2004, there were eight fire deaths in my region of south-east England, four of them in residential dwellings. The Government have set a target to reduce the number of accidental fire-related deaths in the home by one fifth and they are moving towards that target. The progress made has been encouraging. In the UK in 2004, the number of fire-related deaths was just 500, which is the lowest for 45 years. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend and hon. Members will agree that that is still too many. The general public often do not take fire seriously; it is something that happens to other people. However, fires happen as often as burglaries. We spend millions on crime prevention, yet only £5 million on information about fire safety.

According to the Association of British Insurers, fire claims were at a record level in 2005, costing £1.15 billion throughout the year. Domestic fire losses were £358 million. Again, that was a record level. The insurance companies predict that that level is set to rise with an ageing population that is more vulnerable to smoking materials. We need to change our attitude to fire and the Government have made a great start with their consultation on building regulations last year.

A study by the Building Research Establishment commissioned by The buildings division of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister commissioned a study by the Building Research Establishment. Its report, "The effectiveness of sprinklers in residential premises", concluded:

However, the project concluded that sprinklers were cost-effective only in buildings of 11 storeys or more and probably cost-effective in residential care homes.

I welcome those propositions and urge my hon. Friend to enforce them as soon as possible. However, in my constituency the redevelopment of the King Alfred sports centre is currently going through its planning process and under the current regime, only the car park will be protected by sprinklers; the people who will live in the flats above will not be protected by sprinklers.

Smoke alarms have a good track record of warning people of upcoming danger. However, for people who are infirm or disabled, the alert may not help. For example, in a care home at night with only two duty members of staff present, evacuation could take a long time and that time could run out too quickly. In reality, smoke alarms are often tampered with in HMOs as residents simply cut them off after a false alarm, thereby leaving everyone unprotected when a real fire breaks out.

What is more, smoke detectors may be ineffective when they are in the wrong place. Often they go off only when smoke from the room where the fire started has reached the hallway and that is particularly so in HMOs. That happened in the case of the fire in Crowborough which I mentioned earlier. That can mean that escape routes are blocked or that people sleeping upstairs have already inhaled a toxic amount of smoke.
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Returning to the question of high-rise buildings, I argue that 11 storeys is too high a threshold for the installation of sprinklers. There was a terrible blaze in my constituency in 1992. Five people died in Palmeira avenue in Hove when a fire broke out during a party in a third-floor flat. The escape routes were blocked and the only way to survive was to jump from the roof and the windows. At least 12 occupants jumped or fell from the building to escape the flames. Three of them were later confirmed dead and a further two bodies were discovered inside. In addition, two people were seriously injured.

That dreadful event illustrates my point that it can be lethal to jump from the third floor. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider the 11-storey threshold.

In any case, smoke alarms should be complemented by sprinklers. Two good examples from north America show us how well they can protect lives and properties. The first is from Scottsdale, Arizona. In 1985, the town passed an ordinance requiring the installation of fire sprinklers in all new homes. The 15-year report states that more than half the homes in Scottsdale now have a sprinkler system installed. As people moved into older properties, they asked for sprinklers to be installed. There have been no deaths in a sprinklered home, but there have been 13 deaths in un-sprinklered homes during that period.

In the Canadian city of Vancouver, a similar success has been observed. During the 1970s, the fire death rate forced city officials to act. It reached its peak in 1973, when there were approximately 40 fire deaths. The city of Vancouver passed a byelaw requiring all new residential construction in the city to be built with fire sprinklers installed. In 1998, that city of more than half a million people recorded its first year with no fire deaths.

Sprinklers can be portrayed as too expensive, too ugly and prone to malfunction. I admit that their cost is an issue. However, I argue that if we change the building regulations and make it mandatory for all new homes to have sprinklers, that will become a normal part of the building process, together with the installation of pipes, electricity and the heating system, and that will drive the costs down considerably.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister could also explore opportunities to produce standard sprinklers for new homes. The British standard for sprinklers is higher than, for example, the American regulations. It is sometimes too over-engineered to be cost-effective. Research and development is also making progress. We should not forget that the normal lifetime of such a system is 50 years.

As I said, one objection is that sprinklers can look ugly or be intrusive. However, modern sprinkler heads can be integrated into the ceiling. If the heat is too high, the head will fall off, and only when the heat grows significantly greater will a bulb break and release the water—far less water than, for example, a fire hose uses. Sprinklers operate very early in the development of a fire and consequently require only a relatively small quantity of water to extinguish it.
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As for malfunction, the chances of a sprinkler going off without mechanical assistance are one in 16 million. They are activated by heat rather than smoke. Sprinklers can make a significant difference. They are also effective at minimising property damage, which leads me to my second point, on the installation of sprinklers in schools.

Happily, no child or staff member has been killed or seriously injured in a school fire in recent years, but a fire can damage a school and disrupt learning for years and can traumatise the children. According to figures released by the Zurich Municipal insurance firm, the number of large fires causing significant damage to schools increased by more than 55 per cent. in 2004; 90 per cent. of the fires were a result of arson attacks. That firm believes that those large fires would not have escalated to such damaging proportions had the schools been fitted with sprinkler systems, and it is not alone in calling for sprinklers to be made compulsory in all new or refurbished schools.

A year ago, a school in Newhaven—near my constituency—in East Sussex was severely damaged by fire. Students lost all their coursework and the school was shut because of asbestos contamination. The children had to watch in horror when decontaminators in protective suits moved in and tried to clean their books. Their coursework had to be held up at windows to be photographed to assess their standard of reading and writing. That example shows that a school fire can be very damaging to a local community. Children lose their sense of safety and the central venue for their learning. Many schools are also used as a meeting point for the local community. Therefore, we cannot ignore the growing number of school fires and pretend that, because people are not dying, the issue is not important.

I realise that this topic comes under the remit not of this Minister but of the Department for Education and Skills, but I ask my hon. Friend to press for better fire safety in our schools. He knows much more about fire protection than many others do. Could he use his knowledge to have a word with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools to ensure that our substantial investment in education is not diminished by school fires? In addition to the statistics that I have mentioned, there are many small school fires.

I would like to draw hon. Members' attention to the early-day motion on sprinkler systems for schools that I tabled today. I am asking hon. Members for their support, as there should be nothing more precious to us than the safety of our children and the opportunity for them to learn without disruption.

It is high time to consider the use of sprinklers in private properties and schools. Over time, I am convinced that they need to become compulsory in every new residential building in England and Wales. At the very least, I urge my hon. Friends to commit to the installation of sprinklers in all newly built or refurbished care homes and high-rise dwellings. I should like the Minister to have a word with the Department for Education and Skills about sprinklers in schools.

People can lose everything that they value in a fire—every precious little photo, letter or book that they treasure—they can lose their health and, sometimes, even their life. It is time we took the danger of fire more seriously. We need sprinklers to be safe in our homes.
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5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick) : It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) on securing this important debate. She is fast gaining a reputation for being a champion of fire and safety issues, for which I commend her. Clearly, her interest is a result of her own experiences as well as that of her constituents, who have told her stories like the one from Crowborough. I send my commiserations to her constituents on their tragic loss.

Whether we are talking about the fire and rescue service, central Government or local government, the voluntary sector, or MPs and Ministers working on or interested in fire-related issues, we all share the same goal, which is to cut deaths and injuries from fire. That is reflected in the public service agreement target to reduce the number of accidental fire-related deaths in the home by 20 per cent. by April 2010, and achieve a 10 per cent. reduction in deliberate fires by the same date. These are ambitious targets.

We have been criticised for not aiming for zero deaths, but that is obviously unrealistic. The latest figures published only yesterday are encouraging. In the year ending June 2005, accidental fire deaths in the home in England were down 21 per cent. to 219 and injuries were down by 4 per cent. The only way we can continue achieving this kind of reduction and continue this downward trend in the long term is through prevention. We have a world-class emergency fire and rescue service—probably the best in the world—and we must maintain it. But however good it is, it can do no more than respond. More than half of all fire fatalities occur before the fire and rescue services are even called out.

Prevention must be, and is, the new culture, and that means helping the most vulnerable people in our society as a priority. We have made a great deal of progress, but statistics continue to show that a third of all fire deaths are people aged 65 and over, with the highest rate of all among those aged 80 and over. The demographics are working against us. We have an ageing population. By next year there will be more over 65-year olds than under-16s. We must do all that we can to protect the most vulnerable groups, including older people and the very young. The good news is that we are making significant progress.

The £25 million initiative from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to provide smoke alarms and fire safety advice to 1.25 million vulnerable households was launched nearly two years ago. So far, more than 416,000 home fire risk checks have been carried out and more than 451,000 smoke alarms have been installed. Older people have been one of the main target groups.

On behalf of the ODPM, I recently announced £11.4 million grant funding for fire and rescue authorities in England to cover the period April 2006 to March 2008 and it is to support fire prevention work, including community fire safety, arson reduction and work with children and young people. The single grant to all fire and rescue authorities replaces the grants paid to some authorities under the community fire safety innovation fund, as well as the arson control forum
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implementation fund up to 2006. The single grant provides revenue funding to complement the capital grants paid to all fire and rescue authorities under the home fire risk check initiative up to 2008. This substantial investment will support fire and rescue authorities, working with local partners, to continue reducing the number of accidental fire deaths in the home and the number of deliberate fires in our communities.

Statistics clearly show that vulnerable groups, deprived households and certain communities are at far greater risk of fire and suffer a greater impact from its effects. We will use the funding to narrow that inequality gap. In that way, the additional funding will also support the Government's wider neighbourhood renewal plans and dovetail with the Government's respect action plan agenda and antisocial behaviour plan.

The main theme of this debate is sprinklers. Sprinklers have an important role to play, particularly where their provision is targeted at buildings where the occupants are most at risk from fire. However, they are not a panacea, and it is important that they form part of a package of measures, both active—such as smoke detectors—and passive, such as fire doors, fire-resistant construction and compartmentation, the efficacy of which has been proved over many years, along with effective building management.

My hon. Friend referred to the success story with sprinklers of Scottsdale, Arizona, and asked why we do not copy its example. We follow its experience very closely; indeed, I should own up to having gone on holiday there in 2001, which shows how sad I am, but I wanted to see things for myself, and, as it turns out, Scottsdale is a beautiful part of the United States. If anybody wants a decent holiday in the desert, I can warmly recommend it, and they can benefit from some professional advice as well. Data from the United States show that about 0.3 per cent. of its residential premises currently have sprinklers. I will be happy to continue discussing Scottsdale after the debate.

I fully agree with my hon. Friend that the experiences of other countries can provide us with a valuable insight into the implementation and effect of residential sprinkler policies. But it is not a simple task to translate experience from other countries with different built environments from ours. That is why in April 2001 we commissioned an extensive research project with the Building Research Establishment to consider fully the effectiveness of residential sprinklers.

The research suggests that targeting the provision of sprinklers to particular types of building, typically those where the occupants are considered to be the most vulnerable to fire, would be the most effective and economically robust way forward. In the light of research findings, we have consulted on whether sprinklers should be provided in tall blocks of flats—those over 30m high—and in residential care homes. That is part of the current review of part B of schedule 1 of the Building Regulations 2000 and the guidance in approved document B. I hear what my hon. Friend says about her own views on this, and I can say that we are looking at the responses and hope to publish a revised version of part B and the supporting guidance in approved document B towards the end of the year. The aim is for that to come into force in April 2007.
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We have also looked at the potential role of so-called "lower-cost" sprinklers for domestic dwellings. The findings of our research on their potential role in domestic dwellings—which we funded at Little Rissington in the Cotswolds—are very encouraging, but more work needs to be done. For example, there is a need to conduct more research to determine the robustness of the present design of the lower-cost sprinkler system in a real housing environment. The research also recommends that further supporting work be carried out to resolve a number of issues. Those include the possibility of a pilot scheme to see how the sprinklers would work in practice and to determine actual installation costs and so forth, so that we can take this forward on a fully informed and strong evidential basis.

We hope to make funds available from existing funding streams in 2006–07 to support a small pathfinder programme for installing lower-cost sprinkler systems in new social housing projects. That is under active consideration in several local authorities with several registered social landlords. That would enable us to gather cost data and also to monitor the efficacy of such systems in a real environment. Such a programme would also give potential installers the opportunity to resolve any practical problems and issues, which, in turn, would help us to develop a design and installation standard for lower-cost sprinklers. However, realistically, it will take several years before we have any meaningful results from any pilot scheme and the other further work that is required. It would therefore be premature to commit to any specific course of action, particularly in respect of whether it might become a regulatory requirement.

The capital funding set aside for the home fire risk checks is what the Government like to call non-ring-fenced. In effect, that means that it is open to fire and rescue authorities to use some of the money, if they think fit, to install sprinklers in domestic dwellings. We have evidence from fire authorities across the country who are doing just that, particularly in the sorts of care establishments described by hon. Friend. However, that is a decision for the local fire and rescue service, and it must be based on an assessment of local risks and on local strategies for improving prevention. It is certainly an important option to consider, and we are promoting it within fire and rescue services.

My hon. Friend suggested that one option for progress would be to fit sprinklers as a requirement of building regulations, but that is not necessarily the best way forward in the short to medium term. If lower-cost sprinklers were fitted in all dwellings subject to building regulations, it would affect only new and materially altered properties. In other words, the impact would be
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restricted to less than 1 per cent. of the building stock each year. Evidence shows that the majority of fire deaths occur in existing buildings. As I said earlier, they are often influenced by socio-economic factors, so although lower-cost sprinkler systems would prevent some fire deaths, the number might be fairly limited.

There have also been calls for the retrospective fitting of sprinkler systems in existing social housing by the beginning of 2007. That could be extremely costly and we believe that registered social landlords would argue for additional funding. RSLs are already carrying out improvements to meet the decent homes standard. The housing health and safety rating system will be introduced in April, and all RSLs and local authorities will have to consider whether their stock is free of serious hazards, including fire hazards.

My hon. Friend correctly said that sprinklers have a wider potential role than purely one of protecting domestic dwellings. Their possible role in schools and educational establishments is being considered by the Department for Education and Skills as part of its consultation on the draft fire safety guidance for schools, known as building bulletin 100, or BB100. It is one of a series of building bulletins that provide design guidance on various aspects of school buildings and facilities. BB100 is about designing fire safety at schools. The document highlights the value of a risk assessment approach to determining whether sprinklers should be installed in school buildings. It also deals with fire engineering solutions. I gather that the DFES hopes to publish a final version of BB100 later this year. We have liaised closely with the Department on its development, and will continue to do so.

We believe that sprinklers have a major contribution to make in preventing fire deaths and injuries, but there is clearly more work to do before we can be certain about the best way forward for their use in different places and circumstances. We are determined to go on doing whatever is needed to improve prevention and help the most vulnerable people in our society to live safer lives, free from the fear and tragedy that fire can cause.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue for debate. She can safely report back to Brighton and Hove council that she has lobbied us on this particular subject. It is only through social, business and political pressure that we can make real progress in campaigning for the level of safety that we want for all our citizens. All our officials in the fire and rescue service directorate and, I am sure, all those in the fire and rescue services, thank her for her support and attention.

Question put and agreed to.

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