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Schools: Fire Sprinklers


3.28 pm

Asked By Lord Harrison

14 Oct 2009 : Column 224

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Baroness Morgan of Drefelin): My Lords, on 1 March 2007, Jim Knight, the Minister of State for Schools and Learners, launched a new policy to install fire sprinkler systems to protect the fabric of new schools. This has resulted in more than 70 per cent of current new schools including sprinkler systems. Only those buildings which are unsuitable or of low risk do not now include sprinklers. Sprinklers are not required for life safety but are primarily a property protection measure.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, some 20 schools a week suffer considerable fire damage, costing the nation some £65 million. My understanding is that fewer than six out of 10 new-build schools are fitted with sprinklers. Given the advice from Jim Knight, which was for all schools, with just those at the very lowest risk being excluded, will the Government now make mandatory the fitting of fire sprinklers in schools, thereby saving lives, saving up to 70 per cent on insurance premiums and avoiding the wasteful disruption to schools which so spoils opportunities for children to learn?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question, which gives me the opportunity to reiterate our expectation in DCSF that, where appropriate, all new schools should be fitted with sprinklers. They are an extremely important tool in combating the distressing and unnecessary loss of school property to fires, whether they are set on purpose or happen by accident. We are absolutely committed to doing the right thing. While I recognise my noble friend's commitment, I have to say that we have made really significant progress in reducing the number of fires in schools.

Baroness Walmsley: Can the Minister tell us about the retrofitting of old schools with sprinklers? We have not only the situation outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, but total disruption to young people's education and loss of teaching notes and coursework. There is also an environmental problem, because if the fire brigade has to come in, it uses enormous amounts of water, while sprinklers use about 5 per cent of that, as I understand it. You also get contaminated water run-off. Could the Minister tell us what plans there are to retrofit all schools with sprinklers?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, the advice that I have had is that it would not be appropriate to retrofit all schools, because to fit a sprinkler system into a refurbishment programme is twice the cost of fitting a sprinkler system into a new building. There are significant issues about the cost-effectiveness of doing that. We are therefore very much of the view that fire prevention must be promoted as a key tool. I totally accept the assertion by the noble Baroness about the environmental impact, the impact on children and young people, and the impact on the community when there is a fire. There is also the effect when there are injuries and, sadly and rarely, loss of life. We take this issue incredibly seriously, but it must be the right step in the right place.

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Baroness Verma: Is it not time to ensure that teachers are able to search for and confiscate items that are likely to cause harm or disruption in schools, such as lighters and matches, to reduce the risk of fires?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I agree that we need to ensure that teachers have the powers that they need to ensure that the school environment is safe and is the right environment for learning, with all the host of issues that brings. I remember when those of us who were concerned about the fabric of our schools and about education in this country spent far too much time worrying about leaking school roofs and the appalling fabric of the school estate that was promoted by the Government from the Benches opposite.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter: My Lords, given the number of schools that have recently been replaced under a private finance initiative, is the Minister satisfied with the responsibilities laid on and the performance of private sector partners in ensuring that there is high-standard, long-term fire protection in place in these PFI replacement schools?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, as regards the PFI approach, the cost-benefit analysis on the proposal for the use of sprinklers allows for the reduction in insurance premiums to be taken into account. Therefore, there is a good record of sprinklers being fitted in PFI schools. I am delighted that we have seen a significant improvement in the number of schools fitting sprinklers. Ultimately, this is about reducing the number of fires in schools-and we have reduced them. In 2003, there were 1,232 school fires, whereas in 2007, there were 825. That is an extremely important reduction.

Lord Patel of Bradford: My Lords, given that this is National Schools Fire Safety Day, will the Minister and the House join me in recognising the enormous contribution that the fire and rescue service makes to the safety of our communities, and also the enormous number of educational and social activities that it undertakes with communities?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: Hear, hear, my Lords. I am delighted to join my noble friend in recognising the incredibly important contribution that our fire and rescue services make throughout the country-not only in saving lives, but also in fire prevention. That is what the National Schools Fire Safety Day today is all about-helping children in all schools around the country, focusing in particular this year on year 2 children, to understand simple, key messages about what to do in the event of a fire, and encouraging them to take those messages home to their families, so that they can act as young educators and help to prevent fires in their homes.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, referred to 20 school fires a week. The Minister, too, has given us some figures. Will she say what proportion of the fires take place within school hours and how many take place outside school hours? My impression is that the majority happen outside school hours.

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Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. I do not have the figures, but I will write to him and copy the letter to interested Peers. The implied question is whether fires are accidental or deliberate and whether they are set by young people with a grievance outside school hours. We are working with school leaders and fire services to ensure that we take the right steps to ensure that school security is promoted, so that we can reduce the number of deliberate fires that are set. These are reducing consistently with the overall total. I will check on the information required by the noble Lord.

Welsh Ministers (Transfer of Functions) (No. 2) Order 2009

Government of Wales Act 2006 (Consequential Modifications, Transitional Provisions and Saving) Order 2009

Motions to Refer to Grand Committee

3.37 pm

Moved By Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

Motions agreed.

Coroners and Justice Bill

Order of Consideration Motion

3.38 pm

Moved By Lord Tunnicliffe

Motion agreed.

Afghanistan and Pakistan


3.40 pm

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows.

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"With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan: first, on our work with the Government of Pakistan to counter the terrorist threat from al-Qaeda and the Taliban; secondly, on our priorities for Afghanistan in the next stage of the work our Armed Forces and civilians are undertaking there; and thirdly, on the conditions that we are setting down for the next stage, including for the best possible protection of our troops, especially against the growing threat of IEDs.

Earlier this afternoon we honoured those who have died serving our country in Afghanistan. Today I also want to honour and thank all those who serve, and who have served, there. Each time I visit them, as I did a few weeks ago, I find myself in awe of the immense skill, courage and sacrifice of our forces. It is right that we also put on record in this House-and for times to come-our gratitude for their immeasurable contribution to our security. We should also pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of our allies in the 42-country coalition, including that of the 873 American soldiers who have been killed, and of two of our closest partners in central Helmand-the Danes and the Estonians-who have disproportionately suffered among the largest losses of all.

Every time I read to this House the names of those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan, every time I write a letter of personal condolence to their families, every time I meet the wounded at Selly Oak, I ask myself the question that has already been asked today-whether we can justify sending our young men and women to join our allies to fight on the other side of the world. I have to conclude: that when the safety of our country is at stake, we cannot and will not walk away; that three-quarters of the most serious terror plots against the UK have roots in the border and mountain areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan; that, as our security services report to me, while the sustained pressure on al-Qaeda in Pakistan, combined with military action in Afghanistan, is having a suppressive effect on al-Qaeda, the main element of the threat to Britain still emanates from al-Qaeda and Pakistan; and that a peaceful and stable Afghanistan would be a strategic failure for al-Qaeda.

Our objective is clear and focused: to prevent al-Qaeda launching attacks on our streets and threatening legitimate government in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But if we limit ourselves simply to targeting al-Qaeda without building the capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan to deal with terrorism and violent extremism, the security gains will not endure. So, over the past two years we have sought to build and support the Afghan army and police and to work with the Pakistan security forces. Our strategy is dedicated to counter insurgency and what we have called Afghanisation. This guiding purpose, reinforced in our strategy and in the NATO strategy in April, is at the heart also of the announcements that I am making today.

The first is our work with Pakistan against terrorism and extremism. At the meeting of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan, which I chaired in New York on 24 September together with President Zardari and President Obama, there is now a clear plan for stabilisation and a policy that will assist reconstruction. We welcomed

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the recent success of the Pakistan Government, who have decided to take action against the Pakistan Taliban in Swat, Dir and Buner. The support of the opposition now demonstrates that a wide cross-section of Pakistan society accepts that terrorism poses a threat as serious to Pakistan as to the rest of the world. It is vital that basic services and economic assistance be provided in the liberated areas of Pakistan as soon as security conditions allow. So the Development Secretary is today announcing a further British contribution of £10 million on top of the £22 million that we have already provided for humanitarian assistance.

Secondly, in Afghanistan we will now move further and faster to implement our strategy-one that starts with training, mentoring and partnering the Afghan army and police. The more the Afghans can take responsibility for security, the less our coalition forces will be needed in the long term and the sooner our troops will come home.

In recent weeks I have discussed this approach with President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen. I have met Admiral Mullen, the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Generals Petraeus and McChrystal, as well as our own military commanders here and on the ground. Britain supports General McChrystal's ambition to accelerate the growth of the Afghan security forces, with the Afghan army building to 134,000 by next October. The Afghans are committed to the recruitment of 5,000 soldiers a month from next spring; the new NATO training mission established at Strasbourg expects to help train 40,000 Afghan soldiers in 2010; and Britain is setting up a new training centre which will train around 900 junior officers and NCOs each month.

In Helmand last year there were only 4,200 Afghan soldiers. This year there are 50 per cent more. At our request the Afghan Government undertook to send more units to support Operation Panther's Claw. While those units arrived, they were below strength and not yet fully ready for the task. In a province which faces 30 per cent of the violence in the country we need more and better Afghan participation, and we need it now. That is why I can announce that the Afghans will set up a corps headquarters in Helmand and that British forces will be ready to partner 5,000 of the 10,000 Afghan troops. The coalition will be training in Helmand over the next few months, not just embedding mentors with Afghan units but working integrally right up the command chain. In future operations the protection of populated areas must be the shared responsibility of Afghan and coalition forces. This will be central to the new benchmarks and timelines that we and General McChrystal will set out as part of a new framework for the transition to Afghan authority-Afghan forces taking responsibility for security for the Afghan people, and doing so area by area.

As 19 Light Brigade completes its tour of duty, I know that the whole House will join me in thanking Brigadier Tim Radford, and the men and women he leads, for their service throughout this hard-fought summer, and join me also in sending our best wishes to 11 Light Brigade, who are replacing them. 11 Light Brigade will deploy with further enhancements to deal with the deadly threat from IEDs, including more

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specialist troops and more equipment to protect our forces, to find and defuse the IEDs, and to identify and target the networks who build and set them. 19 Brigade were able to prevent 1,200 IEDs from being detonated. They will pass on this experience to their successors, together with the equipment enhancements I announced on my recent visit and which are now coming on stream this month and next: increased flying hours for unmanned aerial vehicles-33 per cent for Hermes, 50 per cent for Desert Hawk and, next year, 80 per cent for Reaper; an extra £20 million contributing to a fourfold increase in the total number of Mastiff and Ridgeback mine-protected vehicles since April; and the first Merlin helicopters to be deployed to Helmand in two weeks.

This is highly specialised equipment, which must be manufactured, delivered and adapted-and personnel must be trained to operate it-before it can be put into action. But no one should doubt our commitment to responding as fast as we possibly can to the new and deadly tactics of the Taliban; nor should they doubt the scale of our financial commitment to our soldiers and to this campaign. Since 2006-07, we have increased annual military spending on the Afghan operation-spending from the Treasury reserve, in addition to the defence budget-from £700 million to £1.5 billion to £2.6 billion to more than £3.5 billion this year.

We are determined to provide our forces with the resources they need to keep them safe, but we are also determined to make the right decisions about equipment and troop deployments as part of our wider strategy. To meet the changing demands of the campaign, which require greater concentration of our forces in central Helmand, we have confirmed the decision we made at the National Security Committee in the summer: that one of the British units, the regional battle group for southern Afghanistan, will be redeployed to Helmand with immediate effect.

To support our plan to train more Afghan soldiers and police, while at the same time maintaining the security of our forces, I have agreed in principle a new force level subject to the following conditions: first, that a new Afghan Government demonstrate their commitment to bring forward the Afghan troops to be trained and to fight alongside our forces-I talked yesterday to President Karzai and Dr Abdullah and received assurances that, with their determination, that will happen; secondly, that, as before, every soldier and unit deployed to Afghanistan is fully equipped for the operations they have agreed to undertake; and, thirdly, that our commitment is part of an agreed approach across the international coalition, with all countries bearing their fair share.

The combination of force levels, equipment levels and tasks that I am setting out today follows the clear military advice from our chiefs of staff and commanders on the ground on implementing our strategy and on reducing the risk to our forces. It is on this basis that I have agreed in principle to a new British force level of 9,500, which will be put into effect once those conditions are met.

As I said, we do not yet know the result of the first round of the Afghan elections. Although they were the first ever elections run by the Afghans themselves

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and took place against the backdrop of a serious insurgency, we cannot be anything other than dissatisfied with the intimidation and corruption which has been exposed by Afghan and international observers. The Electoral Complaints Commission has set out a process of investigation, including the disqualification of fraudulent votes, and that process must be allowed to run its course.

When I spoke to President Obama last week, we agreed that when a new Government are formed, the international community, including Afghanistan's neighbours, must develop a contract with the new Government including a commitment to growing the Afghan army; tough action on corruption; a more inclusive political process, including reaching out to reconcilable elements of the insurgency; and stronger Afghan control of local affairs. Those are the necessary changes that I discussed with President Karzai and Dr Abdullah yesterday, for without them the efforts of our military will be hampered, and the new Afghan Government will not gain the trust of their people.

A better future for Afghanistan, with its village and rural population, can be forged only if there is stronger governance right down to district level, so last year we doubled the number of civilian stabilisation advisers, and now our joint civilian-military stabilisation teams-the first in Afghanistan-are supporting not just Governor Mangal but district governors and village shuras. During the past year, four new district governors have been appointed in Helmand. The Afghan Government are now functioning in nine out of their 13 districts, compared to five last year, and we are supporting community councils to consult with thousands of local people.

To ensure this work has immediate backing, I announced last month an extra £20 million for stabilisation in Helmand-money that is already being disbursed-increasing the number of Afghan national police in Helmand by 1,000 a year for each of the next three years, building a new police training academy and building new facilities for district governors. We are working with coalition partners to extend such support to the 34 provincial governors and 400 district governors right across Afghanistan. British aid will therefore continue to help pay the salaries of teachers and doctors, but we are also ready to fund and partner the first Afghan stabilisation teams sent from Kabul to work alongside us in Helmand, and we want to reinforce the hard-won gains of our forces in this hardest of summers, while fostering greater Afghan responsibility for their own affairs.

We will have prevailed in Afghanistan when our troops are coming home because the Afghans have not only the will to fight but the ability to take control of their own affairs, so the right strategy is the one that finishes the job by giving the Afghans the tools to take over. A safer Afghanistan is a safer Britain. A stronger Pakistan is also a safer Britain. We must never again let the territory of this region, or any region, become a base for terror on the Underground, the streets, the cities and airports of Britain. We must not permit it, and we will not permit it. We have the right strategy, and we will see it through.

I commend this Statement to the House".

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