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19 May 2009 : Column 345WH—continued

10.23 am

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), whom we have just learned was one of the “Three Amigos”, on securing both the debate and a new granddaughter, Ian.

The Department for Communities and Local Government estimates the average cost of fires in schools at £58 million a year, whereas the Arson Prevention Bureau puts the UK total higher still at about £100 million a year. If one multiplies that figure by 10, one gets the National Union of Teachers’ figure of £1 billion, which the right hon. Gentleman quoted for the decade. It is fortunate that there have not been any fatalities from school fires in the past 10 years, but there have been 290 injuries, and, as he said, it is only a matter of time before tragedy strikes.

Schools that suffer serious fire damage face other problems. Pupils and staff may need to move to neighbouring schools, and teaching may have to be in temporary accommodation for long periods. When I was a fourth-year pupil at Roundhay secondary school in Leeds, a neighbouring school had to be closed to repair concrete cancer in the ceiling, and we had to share our school with that school’s pupils, each having a morning or afternoon shift. Although I had my afternoons free as a child, that sharing arrangement was very disruptive to all involved.

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On top of the practical difficulties, schools’ educational resources can suffer drastically when a school burns down, as data on pupil performance, teaching materials and lesson plans may be lost. Senior staff at St. Felix school in Newmarket told TheTimes Educational Supplement that they felt like newly qualified teachers again, when their school burned down, having lost all the material that they had accumulated over a lifetime in the teaching profession.

The DCLG has provided figures showing that there are consistently more than 1,000 fires a year in schools in England. The TeacherNet website says that, each year, more than 1,300 UK schools suffer fires that are serious and dangerous enough to warrant calling out the local fire brigade. The figures are made all the more alarming by the fact that a high proportion of those fires—often the majority—were started deliberately. In 2006, 589 out of 1,075 recorded fires—55 per cent.—were started on purpose. In the DCSF press notice that accompanied new safety guidance in 2007, the Minister said that

A second disquieting statistic about school fires is the average age of the arsonists. In March 2009, TheTimes Educational Supplement pointed out that the average age of “fire vandals”, as it correctly called them, is just 12. That echoes the view of fire brigades up and down the country that run arson prevention programmes, such as those that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned. In April this year, The Birmingham Post carried an article on the fire prevention work of the west midlands arson task force, whose work, focusing on 10 and 11-year-olds, had brought about a sharp dip in the number of school fires in that area. In May, the Hull Daily Mail reported that Humberside fire and rescue service had targeted its Fire Friends programme at children aged between five and 11. I was interested in the Nick Ross idea, which the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) mentioned, of putting three MPs—one from each party—into a controlled fire. That sounds like an interesting experiment, but I am not sure how advisable it would be in today’s climate.

There is no doubt that schools can take sensible measures to protect themselves against the threat of arson. They can co-operate with fire programmes, such as those that I have mentioned, and invest in good security, such as perimeter fencing. They can also make special arrangements for the school holidays, when few staff will normally be at the school site. However, all those precautions address the symptoms rather than the causes of the problem. Given that many fires are caused by schoolchildren, this issue is, to some extent at least, about behaviour. The children who start fires are likely to be those who struggle at school, particularly with basic skills. They are likely to be disruptive in lessons and to cause other problems around the school. TheTimes Educational Supplement has pointed out that arsonists will invariably have a “history of troublemaking”, and that

Deliberate school fires do not arise out of the blue. They are not random or isolated occurrences, but one more troubling consequence of the breakdown in behaviour that is all too common in too many of our schools today, even at primary school level. We have argued on
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many occasions that teachers do not have the powers that they need to keep order in schools and to underline their authority. They are hampered in setting detentions, in searching pupils and in permanently excluding persistently disruptive students. Often, they do not have the autonomy that they need to create the type of whole-school ethos that can shape the behaviour of pupils for the good by setting and enforcing high standards and expectations. We know that standards of pupil behaviour are an absolute priority for the public, but, as the evidence for arson in schools shows, the Government are still struggling with this issue. We recognise, however, that not all fires are started deliberately, and that this problem can only be reduced, rather than solved, by concentrating on behaviour. There are other issues to consider, such as building regulations and, in particular, sprinklers, as the right hon. Gentleman has said.

The DCSF responded to a series of parliamentary questions by explaining that it does not hold data on the number of existing schools that are fitted with sprinkler systems, and that it will be able to provide data only on fittings in newly constructed schools from the current financial year onwards. It seems likely, however, that the vast majority of existing schools do not have sprinkler systems, as our own anecdotal experience tells us. Zurich Municipal puts the proportion at just 1 per cent. of schools.

The Government sought to change the situation in 2007, and I congratulate the Minister on implementing new building bulletin 100, which was designed to deal with fire safety in schools. That document summed up the fire safety precautions that schools were required to take, and it included guidance on many issues, such as evacuation and alarm systems. The document’s key recommendation concerned sprinklers. It introduced a new expectation that all newly built schools should include sprinklers, unless they were classified as particularly low risk. When winding up the debate, it would be helpful if the Minister were to define “low risk”.

A written answer from the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), stated:

The Minister himself said in a parliamentary answer that

When the new guidance was introduced, the Minister said:

Clearly, sprinklers are important and are cheaper to install as part of a new build school than as an addition
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to an existing building—particularly because large water storage tanks need to be constructed as sprinklers are not just connected to the water mains.

When sprinklers are built into a newly constructed school, they typically cost between £250,000 and £300,000, which the contractor, Willmott Dixon, has said can

Sprinklers are not a statutory requirement, so funding is not always available. Yet, the Government have set a strong expectation that almost all new schools will be fitted with sprinklers, and the risk assessment tools that the DCSF provides reflect that assumption. Very few schools that take the test will be classified as low risk and therefore, after the application of the risk assessment tools, contractors often face the problem of having to incorporate a sprinkler system.

In addition, the school or local authority face the problem of finding additional funding to install a sprinkler system. The time taken for those deliberations can be costly. According to the engineering firm Buro Happold the

which in turn

Will the Minister confirm whether, in practice, it is all but compulsory to have sprinklers in new build schools and whether that cost is incorporated into the Building Schools for the Future and primary capital programme budgets?

As the hon. Member for West Lancashire has mentioned, it is important to note that insurance premiums are significantly lower for schools that have sprinklers. Zurich Municipal, for example, has suggested that sprinkler systems in schools reduce insurance premiums by around 75 per cent. According to the House of Commons Library, that could result in a payback period of between 13 and 21 years for a typical secondary school. Considering that a school is supposed to last more than 21 years under BSF, that seems like a good economy.

This has been an important debate about safety in schools. We all share the concerns expressed by the right hon. Member for Makerfield—this is certainly not a party political issue. We have been fortunate that no recent fatalities have resulted from fires in schools. However, 290 casualties during the past 10 years is clearly 290 too many. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

10.34 am

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Many of us come into politics hoping to impact on people’s lives in a positive way. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) for his achievements in the field of fire safety. His hard work and commitment in relation to the legislation surrounding dangerous inflammable foam furniture and the installation of smoke detectors in homes have helped to save many lives. His achievements in public life are many, but I am sure that he is particularly proud of those.

I join others in congratulating my right hon. Friend on becoming a grandfather for an unbelievable 10th time. It is worthy of great congratulations for someone who is clearly so youthful in demeanour to become a grandfather
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on the 10th occasion. I also congratulate him on his speech. I could easily have delivered such a speech myself in this Chamber in the last Parliament—but it would perhaps have been without the same passion and professionalism that he obviously applies. I congratulate him on securing what I and others consider a hugely important debate on a significant issue. The nature of the debate has shown this Parliament at its best—as being well-informed and passionate, and caring about something that really makes a difference to people. That is worthy of note, given the current climate in relation to the nature of this Parliament.

We heard not only my right hon. Friend’s passionate and strong argument, but the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who I enjoyed serving with as an officer of the all—party group on fire safety and rescue. He raises these and other health and safety issues, such as asbestos in schools, with me regularly. He pursues those matters with great passion. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) has to some extent taken over the baton that I had to abandon when I took up ministerial office: advocating in the House on behalf of the National Fire Sprinkler Network. I join her in paying tribute to Bernadette Hartley, who was instrumental in getting me interested in what some describe as the slightly weird and arcane subject of fire safety and sprinklers. When she died recently, it was a great loss.

We also heard from the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who talked about Lytchett Minster upper school in her constituency. I have visited that school in a ministerial capacity to see what could be done to unlock the unacceptable time delay in rebuilding the school, following the devastating fire there. I am happy to hear that it is opening tomorrow and hope that the encouragement I was able to instigate through the Department was in some small way a contributory factor to getting on with things. From my visit, I well recall the huge impact that the fire had on the people in that school community—the teachers and pupils. I particularly remember what could almost be described as the shanty town of mobile classrooms that were reached by going down a long muddy path on the far side of the lawn. I look forward to visiting the school again in due course to see the impact of the new investment that has taken place there. I will try to address the hon. Lady’s questions later.

With his characteristic style, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) contributed in a well informed way. I was interested to hear about the disruption to his education during what we describe in modern parlance as year 10—the fourth form, as it probably was then. Just imagine how much better he would be—even better than he is now—if he had not had that disruption to his education.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield will know that—I have hinted at this—I am passionate about the subject. I have advanced it through my patronage of the National Fire Sprinkler Network, as treasurer of the all-party group on fire safety and rescue, as a director of the Fire Protection Association and as chair of the Fire Safety Council. I first got involved with the issue because I was persuaded that, certainly at that time, no one in this country had died in a fire in a building that had a properly maintained sprinkler system, and that fire deaths occur disproportionately among people who suffer disadvantage.

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Beyond all the technicalities of passive and active measures, tanking systems and water pressure, this issue is about social justice. This is not just about people’s safety; the matter is vital to our schools. Contributions from all hon. Members, including those who have intervened—the hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose)—have demonstrated the effect of the issue on the education of children and their work. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, there is also an effect on teachers’ work and careers. That was behind my motivation when I was appointed Schools Minister to do something about the situation.

The initial advice that I received was that the installation of sprinklers would add 10 per cent. to the build cost. Through dialogue and bringing in experts from outside, we managed to achieve a happy consensus that the figure could be as low as 2 per cent. or less, so there was the ability to move forward; hence the announcements that we made in 2007 around a presumption.

There has been some discussion about the statistics, with which I do not disagree. It is worth pointing out—I am pleased to report this—that in the past three or four years there has been some reduction in the number of arson cases and fires overall in schools, and, consequently, in the costs. In 2003, there were just over 1,300 fires, in 2004 there were just under 1,300 fires, and in 2005 there were just under 1,200 fires. The percentage of arson cases went down by 60, 56 and 45 per cent. respectively. In 2006, by far the largest number of fires fell into the £1 to £500 cost band—I assume that that is the property cost—but six fires resulted in more than £1 million of damage. It is clear that we must not ignore the issue, and that I and other Members of this House must continue to focus on it.

As right hon. and hon. Members have said, fires in schools inflict considerable damage both in the risk that they pose to staff and pupils and in terms of cost. In March 2007, as I said, my Department introduced a new policy on fire sprinklers in schools. We announced our expectation that almost all new schools and some refurbished schools should have sprinklers fitted. My right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield was right to say that that is not a compulsory measure. The decision to install sprinklers is one for local authorities, but with the presumption that I have articulated and which is articulated in guidance.

In terms of how the decision making works, I would like to read out part of a letter that I sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who slipped me a note saying that unfortunately he had to get away to attend a meeting with another Minister about an important matter in his constituency. In that letter, I stated:

That refers to the new tool that we introduced in 2007 to assist local authorities in measuring their requirement for sprinklers. The letter goes on:

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to which many hon. Members referred—

Those are important areas of progress. I went on to state:

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