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19 May 2009 : Column 339WH—continued

9.52 am

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) on obtaining this debate. I am glad to see the Minister in his place. He was a member of the all-party fire safety group and a promoter of sprinkler systems, and he knows that sprinklers are an important aspect of the package that is needed to give protection to schools and other buildings.

There has been a marked improvement in fire safety in recent years, which is basically due to the great measures and proactive work of the fire and rescue service. This is an opportunity to tell the fire and rescue services that we are pleased with, and thank them for, their work in protecting schools and communities more generally.

It is interesting to put fires in schools in the context of the general cost of fires to society. The latest statistics from the World Fire Statistics Centre for 2008 show that the cost of fires in the UK is £7.03 billion a year, which is almost 1 per cent. of gross domestic product. Clearly, the costs are great, and some 28 per cent. of them are incurred because of domestic fires—there were 55,000 domestic fires in 2007-08. The statistics indicate that there were 1,300 fires in schools. I looked on the internet last night, but the costs are not entirely up to date. My right hon. Friend has referred to the figure of £1 billion, which is enormous, but the figure that I found is subject to a lag.

Mr. McCartney: The NUT reckons that the cost will be £1 billion over the next decade.

Mr. Clapham: I am grateful for that correction.

The net suggested that between 2000 and 2004, the cost of fires was £58 million per year on average. Again, that is an enormous cost compared with the programme that the Government are pushing through in building new schools. In my constituency, we are building a raft of primary schools and new learning centres at secondary level. We built our first school after the Labour Government came to power in 1997—it was built at Mapplewell in that first year. As the school building progressed, someone phoned me to ask whether I realised that the new school, which was the first to be built in Barnsley for 25 years, was being built without any plan for a sprinkler system. I telephoned the chief executive and reached an understanding that we would press for sprinklers. As a result of his pressing, sprinkler systems were fitted to the school.

As my right hon. Friend has said, when a school burns down, there is a much wider effect than disruption to the school, although that is in itself substantial, because it means, for example, that some children have to travel many miles to another school to continue their studies. Because schools are used by the community much more than previously, fires in schools cause bewilderment and vulnerability in the community, which can undermine determination. It is therefore important
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to ensure that we use every means to protect schools and that we ensure that any fires in schools do not spread.

Of course, as the Minister is aware, one way of doing that is by using sprinklers in vulnerable points in schools. However, we cannot use sprinklers alone—they must be part of a package that includes fire doors, warning systems and so on. Within that combination, sprinkler systems can save schools, because they can prevent fire from spreading. Ensuring that fires cannot spread quickly is the main point of sprinkler systems.

I was pleased when the Minister announced—in March 2007, I think—that he expected all new schools to be fitted with sprinkler systems. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield has said, there is now a necessity to firm that up and for some reinforcement, which the Minister could obtain by meeting, and getting an understanding from, the LGA. That understanding could then be fed down the line to local authorities, so that we can get the support that is required to ensure that all new schools have sprinklers. However, we would then have to deal with older and refurbished schools.

Mr. Drew: My hon. Friend will have heard my earlier intervention. Surely local authorities’ role must be preventive. As important as the exhortation from the Government is, local government has an obligation to ensure that it is putting sprinkler systems in. Rather than passing the buck and saying, “It is up to central Government to legislate or regulate,” it is surely up to local government to take responsibility.

Mr. Clapham: I accept my hon. Friend’s point but, as he knows, local government will often try to reduce the cost of a building, even to the point of making it less safe. That is why the Minister needs to consider how he might firm up and reinforce the point to ensure that local authorities follow that duty, as instructed by his Department.

Since 1997, the proactive work of the fire and rescue services has driven down the likelihood of fires. That work involves reaching out through technology, education, information and publicity. The need for sprinklers is an issue on the technology level, but it is important that education and information are also passed down to communities, so that they are aware and can help to build and reinforce the underpinning for schemes, such as those referred to by several hon. Members, where young people are brought in to work with the fire service. There is a similar scheme in Penistone involving young people aged about 15. They see how the fire service works in training and applies its measures when it goes out to a fire.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield has referred to smoke alarms. A surprising announcement was made not too long ago that 80 per cent. of domestic dwellings are now fitted with smoke alarms, which shows how much the fire and rescue services’ proactive work has done to protect our communities. We need a similarly robust approach to ensure that resilience is built into schools. Sprinklers build in that resilience. If there is a fire, it is quickly brought under control and the school is easily put back into service. Without that resilience, the break in the children’s education programme and the social consequences for the community can be devastating. Sprinklers are a must. I urge the Minister
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to add to the great work that he has done to ensure that local authorities have a duty to equip new schools with sprinklers and that, where possible, schools being refurbished are also fitted with sprinklers.

10.2 am

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) for securing this debate on the vital issue of fire safety in our schools. During the past four years, I have supported and worked with the National Fire Sprinkler Network’s campaign to make the installation of fire sprinklers standard in newly built schools. I was alerted to the problem by Bernadette Hartley, who has, sadly, died. She was a great and passionate advocate for sprinkler systems in schools. She worked tirelessly on the project with many fire chiefs throughout the country, and particularly with Peter Holland of the Lancashire fire service. In recent years, their hard work, persistence and commitment to fire safety have delivered progress, and I congratulate them and the Government on that.

Working with Bernadette was quite exciting at times. At one point, we met the TV presenter Nick Ross, who wanted to put an MP from each party—one Liberal, one Labour and one Tory—into a trial fire building by agreement, leave us in there and then rescue us, so that we would realise the impact on the lives of people who could end up in a fire with no prospect of rescue. It never happened, but it often makes me think what will happen to people if we do not do all that we can, not only in terms of buildings—the cost is huge—but in terms of the social and human impact that a fire has.

It has been a long-fought campaign for better safety on school premises, and there is clearly some way to go yet. I welcome wholeheartedly the move by the Department for Children, Schools and Families to encourage the installation of sprinkler systems in newly built schools. Including that in Department guidance will significantly reduce the costs and disruption caused by fires in schools. In our discussions with the National Fire Sprinkler Network, manufacturers and fire departments, it has been made clear that the more the guidance is adhered to and the more sprinkler systems are put in schools, public buildings, shops and areas where the public are at risk, the more innovation there will be and the more the costs will drop. It is important that we get on with it. Safety in our schools is paramount, and the sprinklers add an extra level of security.

Schools play an increasingly important role as community hubs. They are no longer open from 8.30 am to 3.30 pm; there are breakfast clubs and after-school activities. They offer a place where the local community can come together. In some places, the local school might be the only decently functioning community facility. We must protect those resources as best we can, as well as the health and safety of the people who use them.

Lancashire county council, as the local education authority, includes sprinkler systems in all new schools built under the Building Schools for the Future programme. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield has said, some 2,000 schools are damaged by fire each year. The BSF programme will invest £25 billion in renewing schools. We should not do anything that might put that investment at risk. We should protect it, and sprinkler systems are a logical next step, especially as we are investing such huge sums.

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Installing sprinkler systems makes a great deal of financial sense. The cost of a sprinkler system is 1 to 2 per cent. of the total project cost for a new build. If incorporated at the design stage, it can become cost-neutral, so why not just do it? There are additional benefits. For example, Zurich will reduce a school’s insurance premium by 65 per cent. and the excess, which is often about £100,000, to nil. That is an immediate benefit of putting sprinkler systems in schools. It is even more sensible to do so at the design stage.

I want to place on record my support for the work of the National Fire Sprinkler Network and everybody associated with the health and safety of all the people involved in protecting those who use public buildings. I hope that the Department for Children, Schools and Families, being committed to the installation of fire sprinklers in schools, will push on as hard and as quickly as possible.

10.8 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) on the birth of his 10th grandchild, which is possibly the most important event for him today. I also congratulate him on securing this important debate and on his achievements in improving fire safety over the years, which have affected so many people.

As we are discussing schools specifically, it is useful to reflect on the scale of the problem. In a recent parliamentary question, my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) established that more than 4,000 fires were attended by local fire and rescue services between 2004 and 2007. The House of Commons Library briefing contains some incredible statistics. For example, 90,000 children are affected by arson each year; an average of 20 schools are damaged or destroyed by arson each week; 12 is the average age of fire vandals; only 400 of 32,000 schools in the UK are fitted with sprinklers; the cost of arson to schools was £70 million in 2008 alone. As the right hon. Member for Makerfield has pointed out, the opportunity costs are considerable in terms of how many brand-new schools, extra teachers and so on we could benefit from, if we were to reduce the number of fires.

Every year, about 2,700 school fires are started deliberately. Sadly, schools are prime targets for arson attacks because the perpetrators are often past or present pupils.

Bob Spink: The hon. Lady is making a lot of sense. Does she believe that better and well-targeted education for youngsters would help to protect not just schools, which have a major arson problem, but heathland? The hon. Lady and the Minister know all about that subject.

Annette Brooke: The hon. Gentleman has correctly surmised that I will mention heathland. He may have seen in the local papers for my constituency that there have been some major heath fires over the past couple of weeks. It would be surprising if I did not mention that.

Levels of fire protection and detection have traditionally been very low in schools. As hon. Members have said, the financial cost is not the only problem brought by a school fire. The Arson Prevention Bureau estimates
19 May 2009 : Column 343WH
that almost a third of school fires occur during the day, putting the safety of pupils and staff at risk. Furthermore, fires disrupt the learning of more than 90,000 pupils a year through damage to classrooms and school property. That can include coursework, school work and teaching notes and aids. The disruption caused by damage can range from one classroom being out of action for a few weeks to a whole school being taught in temporary accommodation for several years.

This debate could not have come at a more pertinent time for me. Tomorrow, I will attend the opening of the new buildings at Lytchett Minster upper school, an excellent comprehensive in my constituency that was devastated by an arson attack in 2000. Tomorrow it will formally open its new maths, science and humanities centre after nine years and £12.5 million of rebuilding work.

I cannot describe the disruption and stress that has been caused. I well recall attending a local carnival on the Saturday afternoon when news of the fire came. Immediately, devastation was caused for local people, the head teacher, staff and pupils. Because of the scale of the fire, about 35 portakabins were required. The country had to be scoured just to get the school up and running again. Over the eight to nine years of the rebuild, a generation of schoolchildren has gone through the system receiving maths and science education in portable classrooms. The portakabins were 400 m from the rest of the school buildings, resulting in less time being spent in lessons and problems during inclement weather.

The new build cost an incredible amount. The owners of the land on which the portakabins were housed had to be paid. The insurance money granted in 2000 was nowhere near the amount needed. A rebuild after a major fire is not planned, so it is more difficult. There were enormous delays, some of which were inexcusable. For example, an infamous tree in a place vital to the rebuild was judged to be of such great value that it could not be taken down. Ironically, the fire hazards over the eight years were incredible. Science lessons were being held in portakabins that were accessed by a narrow path.

It is generally accepted that standards will suffer when children are taught in temporary accommodation. It becomes much more difficult to engage children in education. Many items of coursework were destroyed in the fire. Such things are not quantifiable. I would like to emphasise that Lytchett Minster upper school maintained its incredibly high standards. Prior to the opening tomorrow, I would like to place on the record my congratulations to the head teacher, staff, pupils and local community. As other hon. Members have said, the impact is greater when schools have opened themselves up to the community.

When we consider safety in schools, we must look at three aspects. Many preventive measures can be taken. The design of schools, in particular of corridors and ways of escape, is incredibly important, as has been said. Smoke alarms have also been mentioned. Other basic things can be done, such as banning matches and lighters in schools. Waste should be kept in a sensible storage place. Fires, however small, should always be reported to the fire brigade. As has been said, all fire starters should be referred to fire service aversion schemes.
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I will come back to that in a moment. We must ensure that school perimeters and buildings are well maintained and secure. We must be aware that the broken window syndrome attracts vandalism, as the Library briefing paper states.

Education on this issue is important. The average age of school arsonists is 12 and such crimes are usually opportunistic. Dorset fire and safety runs an effective arson prevention unit, which aims to educate schoolchildren about the devastating consequences of arson. Fire and rescue services must not be forced to cut their budgets for important preventive measures. In Dorset, roadshows and the time that fire services spend in schools are under threat. As the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) reminded me, education about fire and heathland is also vital in constituencies such as mine, which have so much heathland.

There is a wonderful safety centre in Dorset called Streetwise, which has been running for more than 10 years. About 115,000 people have visited the centre since its opening. Children act out all sorts of scenarios, identify dangers such as fire risks, and say what should be done. As a charity, it is reliant on the generosity and time of local partnerships and businesses. It is essential that funding for such vital services is not cut during the economic downturn. Dorset fire and rescue service has had to cut its contribution to that important facility. Dorset also has a Firesetters programme, which seeks to educate young people who are referred to it by concerned parents and youth offending teams. It aims to teach a greater awareness of the consequences of fire. Intervention and education are important and we cannot afford for there to be cuts.

Beyond intervention and education, we should think about the design of schools and the inclusion of sprinkler systems. I agree that we must fight fire on all fronts. Sprinklers are a vital ingredient in that. I was pleased in 2007 when the Department for Education and Skills published guidance saying that all new-build schools should have sprinkler systems fitted as standard unless it could be demonstrated that a school was low risk enough and that the system would not be good enough value for money. In principle, I agree that the decision-making process should be local, but I am concerned to hear that the cost is judged to be prohibitive in many schools. Many schools affected by the funding problems of the Building Schools for the Future programme might decide to cut this expense.

The Minister will be aware that there have been some overspends on Building Schools for the Future in Dorset, which have made the cost rocket up. To one set of people in Dorset, that is the Government’s fault—this appears on much election literature at the moment—but to another set of people, it is because contracts are not being managed well enough at a local level. It is probably fairly clear which camp I am in, but the point is that if there is poor contract management at local authority level, costs escalate and there has to be scrimping and saving. That point is important.

The Minister has said that fire safety must be central to the design of new school buildings. He has also said:

19 May 2009 : Column 345WH

Dorset fire and rescue service has compared the cost of providing carpets throughout a school with that of installing sprinklers; we might ask which is more important in this day and age.

I have some questions for the Minister. What does the guidance that all new schools should have sprinklers mean in practice? Dorset county council has said that it will fit sprinklers in certain new schools, but opposition councillors have not managed to get any clear answers about that. I believe that the council has ruled out fitting sprinklers to existing buildings. Is that what the Minister wants? What about part-rebuilds? Sprinklers have not been installed in the new-build part of Lytchett Minster upper school, although it cost a lot of money. It is difficult to know how many new schools are being fitted with sprinklers, and I appreciate that there will be a time lag, as the statement was only made in 2007, but does the Minister feel that any progress is being made? I am against having a centralised system, but I am worried that we do not have a grip on this issue across all local authorities—I imagine that some will be much better than others right across the board.

Cost should not be a prohibitive factor in the decision-making process regarding fire safety, but this all comes down to cost-benefit analysis. Everyone who has spoken today has mentioned costs, including monetary, social and educational costs. It is obvious that there will be huge benefits to installing sprinklers in schools, including monetary benefits. The Zurich briefing points out that reductions in insurance costs mean that there is a relatively short payback period for the cost of installing sprinklers. Can the Government look at payback periods and cost-benefit analyses, obviously without favouring any particular insurance company, in the widest possible sense? This has been an important debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answers.

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