19 May 2009 : Column 333WH

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 19 May 2009

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Fire Safety (Schools)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Barbara Keeley.)

9.30 am

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) (Lab): I hope that this will be a sober debate—in the best possible sense of the word. I am pleased this morning, because at 6 am I received a telephone call and heard a baby crying at the other end; my 10th grandchild had just been born—a lovely little girl. She weighs 6 lb 8 oz and is a Glaswegian, by the way. She came early, so I cannot tell hon. Members her name yet, but obviously it will not be Ian.

In the mid-1980s, I was a member of the then Greater Manchester fire and civil defence authority. As a consequence of my experiences working with courageous and dedicated firefighters, I made the rather rash promise, when I left the authority, that within two years of becoming a Member of Parliament, I would organise a campaign to get dangerous foam furniture banned outright, and last year we celebrated the ban’s 20th anniversary. The link between the ban and the introduction of smoke alarms nationwide has saved an estimated 14,000 lives and 100,000 injuries. Changes in the law on fire prevention work extremely well.

Over the past 20 years, the United Kingdom—whatever party has been in power—has been at the forefront in fighting the dangers of fire and introducing measures of prevention to minimise the risk of death and injury from fires. In my view, sprinkler systems in schools are an essential part of that armoury of fire prevention, but despite the efforts of the firefighting community, the insurance industry, teaching unions and the Government’s declared public policy of supporting sprinkler systems in schools, of the 30,000 schools in the UK, only just over 200 have sprinkler systems.

Every week in the UK, 30 schools are damaged or destroyed by arson attacks, and the number of major school fires has risen by 55 per cent., according to the National Union of Teachers. Costs relating to these fires have risen by more than 170 per cent. over the past 10 years, and teaching unions say that the cost of school fires is now equivalent to building 45 new primary schools or employing an extra 3,750 teachers. Fifty people are injured in school fires every year. Thankfully, no one has been killed, but, given the number of fires, the number of children and other people involved, and the nature of the fires—an increasing number are started during school hours—it is only a matter of time before a tragedy strikes.

School fires account for nearly 5 per cent. of all non-dwelling fires every year. In the United States, which has more than 150,000 schools, fire costs are about half those in the United Kingdom. Why? According to the Zurich Municipal insurance company, the answer is quite simple: most American schools have sprinkler systems fitted. Greater Manchester fire and rescue service
19 May 2009 : Column 334WH
published a report on arson in schools. It was the work of Terri Byrne, who is the crime and disorder development officer. The research is frightening. Sixty-one per cent. of all UK school fires are deliberate, whereas only 45 per cent.—I say “only”—of other building fires are deliberate. That means that schools are more vulnerable than other buildings.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): There is a large number of non-accidental fires in schools, in particular, for reasons that we all understand. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on a narrow, but important subject. One very helpful initiative was taken by the superb Essex fire service, which puts wayward kids through very intensive and demanding firefighting and fire prevention courses. The courses take a number of kids, and at the end of them the kids pass out. I have been there and presented the prizes to them. It puts these rather wayward kids back on the right road. Would he recommend that other fire services look at that and expand that excellent scheme?

Mr. McCartney: The hon. Gentleman is right; indeed, Greater Manchester is a pioneering fire authority working with his authority. Most authorities in Britain have developed such models. Across the country, firefighters are giving their time, free of charge, on evenings and weekends, to establish relationships in the community—with community groups and organisations and children at risk, either from fire or of being involved in setting fires.

Increasingly, fires are being set during school hours, with 25 per cent. actually starting in classrooms. Four out of 10 school fires are started deliberately in normal school hours. In Greater Manchester, six out of 10 school fires are started deliberately. In my own borough of Wigan we have more school fire incidents than any other part of the county and almost double the number in many other boroughs. Overwhelmingly, these fires are being ignited by naked flames such as matches and lighters. The average cost of a small school fire in Greater Manchester is about £50,000. In 2005—the last year for which I can get figures—school fires in Greater Manchester cost about £5 million a year.

Quite frankly, our schools are under attack. It is no wonder that the Association of Teachers and Lecturers has been campaigning for the installation of sprinklers to be a legal requirement in all new build schools and college refurbishments. The NUT has also been campaigning for the installation of sprinklers and believes that the total cost of school fires is being seriously underestimated. It believes that the true cost is more than £100 million a year. The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association, working with British fire services, says—this is astonishing—that a school has a one in eight chance of a fire, and every week, somewhere in the UK, a school is totally lost to fire.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful case on this very important issue. I congratulate him on his new grandfatherly status—I am sure that everyone is delighted for him. He is rightly focusing on the risk to life and limb and the cost of such incidents. However, does he agree that a wider problem is the huge disruption to the education of pupils in the schools themselves? Even if those pupils are nowhere near the building when the fire
19 May 2009 : Column 335WH
is lit, the consequences can last for weeks and months, if they are disrupted or their work damaged in any way. There are wider ramifications. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will come on to them in due course.

Mr. McCartney: I have been practising as a grandfather for a number of years—this is my 10th grandchild. I had a misspent youth.

I hope to address the hon. Gentleman’s point in my next comments. Much work has been done by the Local Government Association on the impact—not only the economic but the social costs—on communities, pupils and staff when a fire devastates a school.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on two things: securing this debate and his 10th grandchild. The social cost, to which he referred, tends to spread into the community. Does he agree that, because schools are now used much more by communities, a fire can leave them bewildered and vulnerable? Much more can be done to support communities, and not just the schools.

Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend is right. The impact does not last only a few days, weeks or months. Sometimes, schools are closed for a year and a half or more, and I hope to give evidence that some teachers’ health is so badly affected that they end up retiring early or cannot return to the school where they worked.

The LGA and its partners produced a very well-researched document, entitled “The Impact of School Fires”, which looked at the economic and social impacts on schools and local communities. It makes it clear that

The LGA puts the economic case quite succinctly, but the social case is more devastating:

to the community. It goes on to say that


therefore, the greatest total cost and risk. The report says:

and goes on to say that

It states that

19 May 2009 : Column 336WH

That is a devastating blow to pupil and staff morale. It also says that

A fire undermines the capacity of community groups to continue to operate. The evidence is all in place.

Craig McCartney—no relation to me—is a teacher at Copleston high school in Suffolk. Believe it or not, pupils set fire to that school. The damage cost more than £1 million. Inevitably the delay between the fire and the rebuilding work meant that there was no staffroom or other facilities for 18 months, thereby causing major stress to both pupils and staff. Teaching unions and the fire service have literally hundreds of examples of personal hardship caused by school fires.

After a fire in Clifton primary school in Greater Manchester, the pupils had to use a church hall, but they could not be educated on Mondays because the hall was already booked. The rebuilding work was done around the children in some of the classes, and it took a year before all the work was complete. Loss adjusters ground down the head teacher and governors over some of the costs. The children’s education was severely disrupted and the impact immense: SATs results fell from 80 per cent. to around only 53 per cent. I am pleased to say that they are well over 80 per cent. again. For the affected children, the damage cannot be undone. Such was the effect of stress on the head teacher in trying to keep his school and community going, he had to retire at the age of 52 and never go back to the school again.

Before my right hon. Friend was even a Minister, let alone a Minister in this Department, he had a long record of campaigning on fire safety issues. He was a very active member of the all-party group that I helped to establish some 20 years ago. I know that in this debate I have a Minister who not only understands the issues—both intellectually and organisationally—but is a friend at court in terms of what we need to do. The debate is not about chivvying along this Minister; it is about finding a way for him to put into practice what he believes is the current policy, which is that local authorities are required to install sprinklers in new schools.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend consider an example in Gloucestershire, in which a new school, Rednock, is being built under PFI arrangements? It is not open yet. At a late stage in the planning, Gloucestershire county council decided to make a budget cut and took the sprinkler system out of the plans. That cannot be acceptable. I raised the matter with the council and asked it not to do it, but it wilfully carried on. That is not acceptable, is it?

Mr. McCartney: It is absolutely scandalous. There is no financial, safety or community rationale for doing what Gloucester did. My hon. Friend may want to go back to the council because, at the weekend, the Fire Service College, which has been in Gloucester for 30 years, was burned down. If it had installed a sprinkler system, it would have been okay.

My right hon. Friend the Minister made a very important statement on 9 November 2007 in which he said:

The policy, therefore, is absolutely clear, so what we need to discuss is how to implement it on a wide scale.

Fire safety manager, Officer Mark O’Meara, carried out a survey of local authorities in Greater Manchester, and the results make sobering reading. Three boroughs have no policy of fitting sprinklers in BSF or other new schools. Six boroughs have a policy to fit sprinklers, but not all of them use the Government’s national toolkit, so they cannot guarantee the outcome. My borough of Wigan, which I will come back to in a moment, is to fit an aqua mist system. One borough indicates that the toolkit does not show a risk index requiring sprinklers, which is strange when the Minister has made it absolutely clear that it does. All 10 boroughs have no policy to fit sprinklers in refurbished schools. Instead, they go for other cost-effective provisions such as CCTV, which means that someone can stand and watch their school burning down. That does not seem sensible when the Government have given authorities millions of pounds to refurbish and rebuild schools.

All 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester—Salford, Manchester, Bolton, Trafford, Stockport, Tameside, Bury, Wigan, Oldham and Rochdale—participated in the survey about sprinklers. Manchester said that its primary schools had sprinklers but not its BSF schools. Bolton and Trafford said that they had no policy, although I understand that today they are telling the press that they do. Salford has a policy to look at the toolkits, but it is not clear whether the policy should be applied to primary or secondary schools or both. Stockport will use a toolkit for BSF schools—secondary schools—but not in any non-BSF schools, so some schools will get sprinklers and some will not. Tameside said yes, there will be sprinklers in all circumstances. Bury expects sprinklers to be installed in all BSF schools, but not in refurbished schools.

In my authority, aqua mist sprinklers will be installed in all new schools. As I understand it, the Department is not happy about aqua mist programmes because the system has not been tested for widespread use in schools. Therefore, such installation does not make sense. In my constituency, a new multi-million pound school is to be fitted with this second-class arrangement, and it is not acceptable. These systems should not be put in schools until they have been nationally tested and are seen to be effective in areas as large as a school and its associated structures.

Oldham said that sprinklers are to be fitted in all new schools, and in Rochdale, they will be fitted in BSF and all other new schools.

My right hon. Friend can see that, despite what the Government are saying, even in an area that is well respected for its educational attainment across the board, irrespective of which party is in control, and which has 10 boroughs that have all got a reasonably good—or indeed excellent—reputation in school attainment, there is still a wide diversity in what they will install in refurbished and new build schools. The building programme is massive, and I know that my right hon. Friend will tell us about it. I will not steal his thunder and give out all the figures; suffice to say it is a multi-billion pound
19 May 2009 : Column 338WH
programme. Within such a context, the cost of installing sprinklers is miniscule. It is not even 1 per cent. of the programme.

If we are not careful, we will have a situation in which 1,500 schools a year will be subject to a fire, and some of them will be completely destroyed. In just five years’ time, when the programme is in full swing, my right hon. Friend will be rebuilding new schools that have been burned down before the cycle has been completed. The NUT reckons that over the next decade, it will cost £1 billion from the new BSF programme to replace and rebuild schools that have burned down. Some of those schools will be new ones. In fact, they will practically all be new schools or refurbished schools. It is not common sense to spend £1 billion to go back and rebuild schools that have just been built.

A school in my constituency was burned down 20 years ago and has been rebuilt without a sprinkler system. As part of the new phase of BSF, it will be rebuilt again, but it will not have a sprinkler system. It has had other fires since the one that totally burned it down. I ask my right hon. Friend to meet the Local Government Association, education authorities and the rest of industry to consider this issue as a matter of urgency.

British insurance industry evidence is unchallengeable. All the myths about water damage and vandalism arising from the installation of sprinklers—I heard one recently in my borough—have been totally debunked by the figures. Sprinklers detect, extinguish and control fires, raise effective alarms and save schools 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There is absolutely no reason why the current carnage should be allowed to continue.

I offer my right hon. Friend the experience of this House in 1988 and 1992. I wish to pay credit to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), formerly the Member for Bury, North, and the former Conservative Member for York, Conal Gregory. We were called the three amigos. We campaigned for the banning of dangerous foam furniture and linked it to the introduction of new building regulations to force the building industry to ensure the introduction of smoke alarms in all new build and refurbished properties.

The decision in 1988 to ban dangerous foam furniture and to amend the building regulations resulted in millions of houses in England and Wales being totally protected. I gave the dramatic figures of lives saved and injuries prevented. From that experience, we know that simply asking people to do the right thing does not work. In the BSF programme, local authorities are not only being asked to do the right thing; the Minister has virtually given an instruction. However, it is not happening. We have already built hundreds of millions of pounds’-worth of new schools in the programme, and perhaps only one or two have been fitted with a sprinkler system.

I urge my right hon. Friend to find a way to regulate so that no local authority is able to sign a contract unless it precisely and clearly includes an instruction that sprinkler systems be fitted in all refurbished and new build schools, including primary schools and colleges. Such a measure would not only save our investment for the future; it would save injuries and, although this has not yet happened, it could, I hope, save lives if there was an arson attack in school hours. People go to school expecting to come home again.

I hope that I have made a clear, precise and effective case and I thank hon. Members on all sides of the
19 May 2009 : Column 339WH
House who have come to participate and see whether we can get a policy whereby schools will from now on be built with sprinkler systems.

Next Section Index Home Page