HC Deb 16 December 1974 vol 883 cc1139-46
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Roy Jenkins)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about two tragic fires that occurred in the last few days.

The first occurred at the Grand Metropolitan Hotels staff hostel at 9–17 Clifton Gardens, London, W.9, shortly after 3 a.m. on Friday 13th December. The premises comprise five interlinked terrace houses consisting of a basement and four storeys, with an attic. The fire developed rapidly in the upper part of the building, and although 19 people were rescued by emergency means, I very much regret to say that seven persons, including one fireman, were killed. Three other firemen were injured.

The premises fall within the scope of the Fire Precautions (Hotels and Boarding Houses) Order 1972. Application had been made for a fire certificate, and the premises had been inspected and the necessary work specified, but it had not yet been carried out.

The London Fire Brigade is conducting a full inquiry into the cause of the fire, and I will decide in the light of the out- come of that inquiry whether there is a need for further action on my part.

The other fire occurred at Fairfield, an old people's home, at Edwalton, Nottinghamshire, shortly before 2 o'clock in the morning of Sunday 15th December. Although two fire appliances arrived within six minutes of receipt of the fire call, the fire spread rapidly, and resulted in the deaths of 18 people.

These premises consisted of a single-storey, purpose-built building, comprising a central core from which radiated a number of self-contained units each of eight or nine bedrooms. The premises were equipped with smoke-stop doors, fire alarms, and fire extinguishers and means of escape in accordance with the recommendation of the fire authority.

The cause of the fire and its place of origin are not yet known, but this is being investigated by forensic science experts. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has called for a full report from the Nottinghamshire County Council on the circumstances.

I should like to take this opportunity of expressing, I am sure on behalf of the whole House, my deep sympathy with the bereaved and injured, together with my appreciation of the gallant work of the fire brigades concerned.

Mr. Arthur Latham

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement about the dreadful tragedies that have taken place within the past three days. I should certainly like to be associated with his expressions of condolence to the bereaved and sympathy with the injured.

I should especially like to pay tribute to the fireman, Mr. Hamish Pettit, who lost his life in the Paddington fire on Friday. He was one of a group of brave men who knowingly and valiantly risk their lives daily to save others, and there is no greater community service and courage. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend could assure me that adequate provision will be made for this man's young widow and baby son.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that it is alarmingly significant that only 18 months ago the Worsley hotel was in full use as a hotel, some two years after the passing of the 1971 Act? Does he confirm that in London there are still four out of five hotels not complying with the safety regulations? Could he establish a study into that general problem to see what may be done to speed up the process, perhaps with particular emphasis on the financial difficulties that arise and possibly some bridging financial assistance if that is appropriate?

Lastly, could my right hon. Friend seriously consider whether hotel buildings used as staff hostels represent by the very nature of that use an even greater hazard than a hotel building used for normal hotel purposes? My right hon. Friend will recall the Islington incident of not long ago. Could he look into a tightening of the standards applying to hostel accommodation of this kind?

Mr. Jenkins

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the moving way in which he has expressed his tribute to the fireman who lost his life, and not only to that fireman, but to all those who played, as they so often play, a gallant part. I will certainly look into the question of proper provision for the young widow and the baby son of the dead man.

There is a major problem about hotels complying with the safety regulations. We are making progress. In the GLC area, out of 1,489 applications received 1,475 had been surveyed to a recent date. But only a relatively small number of fire certificates have been issued, and, as was the case with these premises, there is a great deal of work to be done, although it is in hand.

But it is no good the House pretending that we can solve the problem overnight. The responsibility is finally that of the local authority, in London and elsewhere, to operate under the 1971 Act and the regulations of 1972, and certainly we shall give them every encouragement to do so. However, there is a major problem.

There is no doubt that these premises were clearly within the scope of the Hotels and Boarding Houses Order 1972. An application for a certificate in respect of them had been made. I should like to look into whether there is some special hazard associated with their being used as a hostel rather than as a hotel. I am not sure whether there is any validity in my hon. Friend's observation on that matter, but I should certainly like to look into it. As a result of the Islington tragedy we are issuing new guidance to local authorities and they are to report to us at an early date. We will keep these points in mind for any further guidance that we may issue.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

Is the Home Secretary aware that my constituents and the relatives of those who died in the Fairfield fire will be grateful for his expressions of sympathy? With many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I should like to be associated with what he has said.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the old people's home in question was modern, very well appointed and well administered, and that those concerned have nothing but praise for the action of the staff on duty and the emergency services that responded to the fire call? That shows that there is full confidence locally in Nottinghamshire in the local inquiries into the cause of the accident.

Nevertheless, the CLASP system of building, which was pioneered in Nottinghamshire, is now used widely in many areas for this kind of building. There is a local expectation that the Home Secretary will order a wider public inquiry so that other users of this system may be reassured, and so that we may all be reassured, that the fire precautions standards of this kind of building are brought up to date. Does the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he has not ruled out the possibility of a full public inquiry into the cause of the fire?

Finally, when his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, whom I see in her place, calls for a report on this tragedy, will he ask her to bear in mind the possibility that this kind of tragedy is due in no way to lack of fire precautions or the proper provision of facilities, but to the fact that a very high proportion of the residents of these oldish people's homes are either bed-ridden, or very infirm and immobile, so that they cannot take any advantage of the precautions? With the wisdom of hindsight, if that is to be applied, could the right hon. Lady perhaps consider whether local authorities should be advised to keep down the proportion of totally immobile residents in the larger old people's homes, or to reconsider staffing arrangements, or the manner of exit, when they have a high proportion of totally immobile residents housed in one complex?

Mr. Jenkins

Again I am grateful for what has been said. I am grateful, too, for the hon. Gentleman's appreciation of the work of the emergency services and of the way in which this tragic home, as it turned out, was run.

It is, of course, the case that this was not an old building. It was built in 1959–60. The CLASP method of building is not a technical description, but refers to building by a consortium of local authorities, and it originated largely in Nottinghamshire. It has been used for a variety of purposes—old people's homes, schools and other buildings of that sort. I will consider urgently whether there is any matter falling within my responsibility and the Government as a whole will consider whether there is any problem that arises within Government responsibility.

But I do not think that it would be right at this stage for the House and the country to assume that these buildings are unsafe. Fire tragedies of this sort, alas, occur in a wide variety of different types of building. The most rigorous investigation is necessary, and will take place, but it would not be right to assume, immediately and automatically, that the fire was something to do with the type of building, although we will consider that.

I have held open the decision about an inquiry, and I will seriously consider what has been said. My powers to order an inquiry in relation to a fire, or efficient fire prevention, or fire precautions activities, within a local authority area are limited by the Act of 1947. Indeed. I think that there has been only one inquiry under that Act. My power relates essentially to the efficient working of the fire brigade in a local authority area.

My right hon. Friend will consider whether there are other aspects of the matter that call for a public inquiry. I should not wish to prejudge this question in any way. It may be a joint inquiry, between us; it may be one primarily under her authority; it may be one primarily under my authority; it may not be called for. However, we will look at this most urgently. My right hon. Friend has just told me, and I can tell the House, that she is going to Notting- hamshire tomorrow to see the position and to receive reports on the spot

Sir Keith Joseph

I should like to associate the Opposition with words of sympathy to the victims and of tribute to the firemen.

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider initiating a departmental review into the workings of the Fire Precautions Act 1971? We understand the scale of the task that has to be done to protect against fire in so many buildings, but does he recognise that there may be need to consider the delays and difficulties involved in the three different stages of inspection, financing and actual execution of the work? Will he therefore consider a departmental review?

Secondly, as to the fire at Fairfield, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, in the light of the fact that this was a purpose-built home, there were a large number of deaths? There will inevitably be widespread concern and perhaps lessons for widespread application, and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services will be asked why she has not decided to hold a public inquiry. I well remember the tragedy at Coldharbour, as I am sure does the right hon. Lady. At least the inquiry which has been ordered should be published. I hope the Home Secretary will convey to his right hon. Friend the view that a public inquiry might be the best solution in this case.

Mr. Jenkins

If I may deal with the latter part of the right hon. Gentleman's question first, I do not understand that my right hon. Friend has begun to decide that a public inquiry is not called for. One of the problems involved in the Private Notice Question procedure —this is a statement for technical reasons—is that it is right and desirable that the House should be informed and should be able to express its views when national tragedies take place. However, it must also be recognised that the Ministers concerned inevitably have to respond at very short notice, and it is undesirable that by this procedure my right hon. Friend, or I, or any other Minister should be forced into a snap decision, one way or the other, which would be premature. I think it is right that my right hon. Friend should see the position, as she will tomorrow morning, on the spot, and then make up her mind, perhaps in conjunction with me, although probably it will primarily be a matter for her as to whether a public inquiry is justified.

I assure the House that there is no question of either my right hon. Friend or I having begun to close our minds against a public inquiry at this stage.

The earlier part of the right hon. Gentleman's question dealt with whether I should hold a departmental review into the working of the 1971 Act. I shall certainly consider any suggestion of that sort which is put to me. The right hon. Gentleman rightly outlines the three phases of inspection, of financing, and of execution. The Act does not make the fire hazard greater, although it makes it more obvious, which is a step forward. However, by no Act or order or expression of this House can we change overnight the position with regard to fire precautions in a vast range of buildings in London and throughout the rest of the country.

As regards financing, there is an intention on the part of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to table an amendment to the Finance Bill, which will make a limited improvement—I hope a worthwhile one—with regard to the financing aspect of this matter.

I will press on with the other aspects. This is a local authority responsibility primarily, but in so far as I can give guidance and encouragement with the effective implementation of the Act I shall do so, and, without any commitment, I would be willing to consider a review— whether in the exact form suggested or not—if I thought that it would help.

Mr. Beith

I should like to associate my right hon. and hon, Friends with the expressions of sympathy and appreciation already made.

May I ask the Home Secretary whether he knows how deep is the concern that such a tragic fire should have occurred in a building which has passed fairly exacting fire safety standards? Does he recognise that many of us are concerned about old people's homes in converted buildings of more than one storey which are presenting severe financial difficulties to local authorities trying to meet fire standards and which will present difficulties if a fire takes place? Does he not recognise that it would take time to implement this Act and to improve buildings up to the standards which we now have, and that there is a case for temporary measures such as additional fire drills, higher rates of night staffing and possibly lower rates of occupation in institutions which have not yet been brought up to the fire standards?

Mr. Jenkins

Clearly, of the three points mentioned, two—the staffing and the lower rates of occupation—would be matters for my right hon. Friend and not for me.

With regard to fire drills, and without in any way wishing to encourage any sense of panic, I think it would be useful if those responsible for running such homes, which exist I think in 8,000 buildings, within a wide variety of old and new premises, some purpose built and some converted, were to seek guidance from the chief fire officer or from the local fire service at a high level as to the conditions there and how best they can deal in a cautionary, and not a panicmongering, way with the problem which has been highlighted by this tragic occurrence in Nottinghamshire.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Other questions must be put down by hon. Members in the usual way. There are more than 40 right hon. and hon. Members who wish to speak in the next debate.