HC Deb 12 May 1952 vol 500 cc1073-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

2.12 a.m.

Mr. Reader Harris(Heston and Isle-worth)

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for having been so kind as to wait to hear what I have to say at this hour of the morning.

I wish to speak about fire precautions in hospitals of the West Middlesex Group, which are the West Middlesex, the South-West Middlesex, the King Edward at Ealing, Clayponds at Ealing, St. John's at Twickenham, St. Mary's Cottage hospital at Hampton, the Teddington, Hampton and District, the Queen Victoria at Hanwell, Perivale Maternity, Norwood Hall at Southall, Brentford Cottage, Answick Maternity, and Ealing Chest Clinic.

Briefly, I want to ask the hon. Lady if she is satisfied with the fire prevention arrangements at these hospitals, bearing in mind the following facts. Up to the time that the Regional Hospital Board took over these hospitals it was customary for nurses and other staff to be instructed in fire drill in case of a fire emergency. But, since the Board took over, I understand that the nursing staff has not been given any fire drill or instruction in the fire fighting equipment since 1948. Each new batch of nurses is given a lecture on the use of the equipment but, is that enough? I should have thought that something more ought to have been done.

The Middlesex county fire brigade is situated not far away and could get to the hospitals within a few minutes; but, it would be five minutes at least before the brigade could get into action after receipt of a call and, of course, it is in the first five minutes of a fire that action is all-important. The prompt use of extinguishers can, of course, make it unnecessary to call the local fire brigade, but if nurses are to be able to use firefighting equipment efficiently they must be fairly regularly instructed in its use. It is not good enough just to give them one lecture at the start of their training.

Is the Parliamentary Secretary satisfied that the amount of money spent in the group during the last four years is sufficient? In 1948, I understand, no money was spent on fire prevention; in 1949, £50 was spent; in 1950, £100; in 1951, £100, and, I believe, a similar amount in 1952. I believe there are a number of things which need doing urgently. I should like the hon. Lady, if she can, to have some of the fire extinguishers examined.

I want to know whether the lead coating on the insides of the extinguishers is still intact so that they will work, or whether there has been any corrosion. If there has been some corrosion and they are not in working order, is there enough money to replace those needing replacing? Has the hon. Lady any information about the actual extinguishers in use in the operating theatres?

I believe it is common knowledge that a metal bromide extinguisher is not a satisfactory one for an operating theatre because of its toxic effect, and that if the money can be raised it is desirable to have carbon dioxide extinguishers for such use. Could the hon. Lady have an examination made of the threads on the hydrants? No doubt she will make the point that the county fire service can get to the hospital within a matter of minutes, but that is not much good if when they get there they cannot get to work quickly.

The national standard thread for hydrants now is what is known as the London round thread. I believe that at some of these hospitals some of the old-fashioned threads, such as the bayonet lug thread and the Metropolitan B thread, are still in use. The fact that some of these old threads are still in use might cause delay in the event of fire.

Then there is the question of the fire escapes attached to these hospitals. I am particularly worried about the fire escape at the South-West Middlesex Hospital. When I say I am worried, I hope no one will think that there is cause for great alarm. It would be a pity if the patients in the hospital were of the opinion that they were in any very great danger. I do not for a moment believe that they are, but I think escapes are useful having regard to the fact that all the hospitals are about 45 or 50 years old.

In most cases there is probably more than one staircase, but if it was thought necessary to provide these escapes in the first place, it is probably worth while keeping them in good condition. At the South-West Middlesex Hospital there has been considerable erosion on these escapes particularly where they meet the ground and where they are fixed to the building.

I wonder if the hon. Lady could have these escapes examined, and, where they are perished and are unsafe, would either have them renewed, or, if that would take too much steel, remove them altogether. If it is necessary to have any means of escape outside the building at all, there are, of course, other means of saving life such as the canvas chute, which does not require the use of steel at all, and which could, perhaps, be fitted up much more cheaply.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree it is a bad thing to have an escape that possibly will not take the weight of the people escaping. I am not saying that there are any in such bad condition as that, but in some cases, from investigations I have made, they are not safe and have been allowed to perish. I do not think that nearly sufficient steps have been taken to keep them properly painted. That does not require steel or a great amount of money, and I should like to know if the hon. Lady would see that all the escapes at these hospitals were examined with that in view. I believe that there is a faulty escape at the Brentford Cottage Hospital, but there is nothing so serious that it could not be easily put right.

Is there any information about the action taken by hospitals to install testing panels in the operating theatres, as advised in a Ministry circular about a year ago? I do not know whether any of these panels have yet been installed. If no steps have been taken, it would be interesting to know if any hospitals are anywhere near being able to install them. This is particularly important in view of the attention drawn in the Press to accidents occurring in the theatres. There is a further question: Who is responsible for fire prevention in a particular hospital? Does it rest with the hospital or on a higher authority, like the regional hospital board? I do not suppose there is any need for immediate alarm but we do not want to wait until there is a disaster before things are put right.

2.23 a.m.

Mr. P. B. Lucas (Chiswick)

My hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isle-worth (Mr. R. Harris) has referred directly to two hospitals within my constituency and has kindly given me notice of his intention. He speaks with considerable authority on this subject, and I would not for a moment dispute his suggestion —indeed, I support it—that the best arrangements must be made regarding anti-fire precautions in these hospitals. But we have to be careful not to exaggerate any deficiencies. To do so would undoubtedly give cause for alarm among the patients, and no one wants to do that.

My hon. Friend has mentioned particularly Brentford Cottage Hospital, and, because I had notice, I took the opportunity last week-end of looking over the fire prevention devices there and having a word with the matron. To my inexpert eye the precautions appeared quite adequate. The majority of the wards in this hospital are on the ground floor and there are only three small private wards on the top or first floor. In any emergency it would be possible for patients on the ground floor wards to walk quickly into the garden, either through french windows or doors in the passages. There would be no real danger there. As for the three private wards on the top floor there is a perfectly safe exit down one of the two fire escapes. I walked down both of them and they are in my opinion satisfactory, although I agree that both of them could do with a coat of paint.

My hon. Friend made one particular point about fire practices. I was given an assurance by the matron that fire practices take place regularly every three months. In point of fact the next is, I think, due to take place on Thursday. If my hon. Friend can make the necessary arrangements with his Whip on this occasion no doubt they will be very glad to see him at the hospital. I understand that every three months firemen from the local fire brigade give the nurses lectures on anti-fire precautions. On all these matters the matron assures me she is given the fullest and most willing cooperation on the part of the Chief Engineer of the South-West Middlesex Management Committee.

On the broad point I must say that I wholly agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of ensuring a proper supervision over anti-fire precautions. But after my own personal inspection of the Brentford Cottage Hospital I am bound to say that I think the anti-fire precautions are here satisfactory, and I consider that they are wholly in keeping with the manner in which this hospital is so well run.

2.26 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Lucas) for the restrained manner in which they have raised this very important topic.

In the time available I should like to deal with as many as possible of the points which have been raised by the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth; but perhaps he will for give me if I am not so full in some details of the 12 hospitals he mentioned, as most of his complaints were concentrated around the largest hospital—the West Middlesex Hospital, which has 1,100 beds, where an officer of my Department carried out a very thorough and full inspection last week.

On the point of financial allocation I think my hon. Friend was not wholly fair—perhaps unwittingly——in giving the sums of expenditure on the fire prevention services; because there is no specific allocation for fire prevention services, as such. As part of the general maintenance of all buildings and equipment a sum of money is allocated for that purpose and covers among other matters the necessary precautions with regard to the structure, fire prevention, fire escapes and the like. Therefore, his figures do not fully reflect the money which may be spent on items which could be calculated as fire prevention devices. The South-West Middlesex group are, however, steadily carrying forward, within the limits of the financial programme, maintenance and painting of the fire escapes at the West Middlesex Hospital. All except seven—which includes the four about which the hon. Gentleman complained—have been scraped and repainted during the last two years. Sixty extinguishers in the whole group have been noted for replacement, of which 30 will be replaced this year and the remaining 30 next year.

The Fire Prevention Officer informed the inspector from my Department that periodical testing is carried out on all this equipment and he was satisfied that patients were in no way endangered in the event of fire by anything in respect of the present extinguisher position. With regard to methyl bromide extinguishers—which, as my hon. Friend knows, are very effective in care of fire—it is realised that there is the possibility of a toxic effect in confined spaces and these, as and when possible, are gradually being replaced.

So far as threads on the hydrants are concerned, some are admittedly of old types; but they have been tested and they are considered to be serviceable, because the fire brigade carries adaptors for all types of threads, and to scrap and replace all this equipment would involve enormous cost and could not be carried out in one operation; but as and when replacements are necessary the new standard type will be installed.

The Fire Prevention Officer expressed himself as satisfied with the alarm system and with the fire-fighting equipment generally, in all the hospitals in the group, to meet any emergency. I am pleased to inform my hon. Friend that testing panels are nearly ready for installation in the theatres of this group.

With regard to the five escapes he mentioned, on the one at Brentford Cottage Hospital—on which the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick tried his strength—there was a broken tread which has already been mended.

So far as the four escapes of the West Middlesex Hospital are concerned, these are admittedly old, but they are substantial cast-iron columns in good condition with steel stringers and platform supports. Some of the supports are corroded but they have been tested and it is not felt that the fundamental, underlying strength is yet in danger of collapsing in any way. They have been fully inspected. There are 1,100 beds in the Hospital and of the escapes, upon which criticism has been raised, two serve two blocks which are occupied by 16 nurses and certain of the doctors. They are only one floor high and could be dispensed with, if not used for patients as they would not be in this instance, and each block has alternative fire escape avenue, as well as ample window space on the first floor.

There are two other escapes, about which the hon. Member made complaint. In "J" block, with eight patients on the second floor, there is a fire escape adjoining a slightly bulging wall. Criticism was made by the hon. Gentleman regarding that, but it has been tested and is not considered to be a source of danger. The other escape is in "O" block with 30 geriatic patients. We consider it to be in the best condition of the escapes in question and in no way in a dangerous state.

In "J" and "O" blocks, there are two alternative avenues of escape, a central staircase and another fire escape at the end of each block. We do not feel that there is any present cause for alarm in respect of these particular escapes and the methods to be used in case of fire.

So far as the other hospitals are concerned, I was not aware of any detailed complaint, but if the hon. Gentleman cares to let me have details and if he would like investigations made regarding smaller hospitals, I will be only too happy to have this done. At West Middlesex Hospital, drills, as such, are not so conducted today, but each school does have four hours lecture and technical demon- stration of equipment given by the fire prevention officer. To that extent, it is felt that Hospital is adequately covered.

It is very near indeed to one of the main fire brigade stations and in considering the West Middlesex Hospital one has to bear in mind the important consideration that there is a direct line to the fire brigade station, which can have two appliances on the scene in 2½ minutes, and that five other appliances, with 18 to 25 professional firemen can be inside the Hospital within four minutes. Everyone will agree that is an adequate coverage for this important Hospital.

The group engineer is the senior officer ultimately responsible to the Hospital Management Committee for the fire prevention arrangements, but there is a full-time fire prevention officer, who also acts as a specialist in his particular line under the group engineer, and is in charge of arrangements at this Hospital. Generally. I believe precautions are adequate. We would like to replace much of the old and indeed any sub-standard equipment. but anything we do in that line must be done in accordance with the money and materials available. Fire escapes are very costly in steel.

The safety precautions are constantly under attention by qualified officers and there is no need for alarm. on the part of patients or those whose relatives are in the Hospital. I should like to thank my hon. Friend for the manner in which he raised this matter and to tell him that we shall be only too glad to look into any points concerning the remaining hospitals he mentioned.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-five Minutes to Three o'Clock a.m.