HC Deb 22 May 1974 vol 874 cc376-8

Mr. Robin F. Cook [by Private Notice] asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the fire tragedy on Tuesday 21st May in a disused local authority office in Edinburgh involving the loss of life of five elderly residents.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)

At 3.17 am on Tuesday 21st May the fire brigade received a call to a fire which had broken out at the junction of Castle Terrace and Cambridge Street, Edinburgh in a building belonging to the corporation. Part of this building was empty and had until recently been used as offices for the Social Work Department. The upper floors were in use as flats. The fire spread through the building, destroying the main staircase, and through to the back staircases trapping people on the third and fourth floors. I regret to say that five people died—three women and two men.

The fire brigade arrived within two minutes of receiving the call, but by this time the building was well alight. The first attendance was by three appliances, and ultimately there were seven pumps, two turntable ladders, two pump escapes, a snorkel, an emergency tender and a control unit. The fire was brought under control at 4.47 am.

A full report on the incident is not yet available, but a report is being submitted to the Procurator-Fiscal. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate is considering whether a public inquiry should be held under the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiries (Scotland) Acts 1895 to 1906. I am sure that the House will wish to express its sympathy with all of those who have been bereaved.

Mr. Cook

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. I join him in expressing sympathy with the friends and relatives of those who died in the blaze. I also pay tribute to the firemen who fought the blaze, who showed great courage in trying to effect a rescue as long as there was any hope. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that there must be a full and public inquiry into how the disaster occurred in what was a publicly-owned building.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the fire precaution arrangements on the first three floors of the building, which were in office use, were regularly inspected whereas the top floor, because it was in residential use, was apparently exempt from such inspection? In the light of this tragedy, will my right hon. Friend look at the fire regulations of office premises and consider extending them to cover isolated residents living above office premises? Many thousands of residents in our major cities live above offices which are empty for two-thirds of the day.

Mr. Ross

I understand that this is the kind of case for which fatal accident inquiries are normally ordered by the Lord Advocate. My hon. Friend has said that the building concerned was publicly owned. It is regrettable, no matter who owns the building, that a fire of this kind should end in such tragedy. I am glad that my hon. Friend has brought out the fact that there was regular inspection of the offices. I think that it was in March of last year that the inspectorate visited these offices and issued a certificate. Residential property, apart from new property covered by the building regulations, which are my concern, is not covered by the fire regulations. This is a matter which might be relevant for any inquiry that takes place.

Mr. Monro

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I express sympathy with the relatives of the victims involved in this tragic fire. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are concerned about the mounting number of fatal fires in Glasgow and now in Edinburgh? Will he indicate whether the fire authorities are doing everything possible to publicise the necessity for adequate fire precautions? Will he assure the House that he will report the findings of any inquiry that is set up?

Mr. Ross

Such inquiries are held in public and so the findings will be well known. If any special report is found to be necessary following the inquiry I shall be pleased to give it to the House. I welcome the statements that have been made from both sides relating to the efficiency of the fire service. No one was more distressed than the members of the fire service, they having been on the spot so quickly after receiving the call, that they were not able to effect a rescue. I know that the fire authorities, as a result of previous fires in residential acommodation—for example, the Maryhill fire involved residential accommodation above commercial premises, although the circumstances were slightly different—have been paying attention to the matter of getting people to be fire conscious.

Dr. M. S. Miller

An increasing number of fires have occurred in recent years in various parts of Scotland. Have my right hon. Friend's advisers on these matters given consideration to the basic cause of these fires? Has his attention been drawn to the distinct possibility that the great increase in the use of all kinds of electrical appliances might be the root cause of fires of this description because of inadequate wiring and the inadequate inspection of wiring?

Mr. Ross

Thought has been given to wiring and the overloading of wiring. Publicity has been given to these matters. Another factor is that the building was over 100 years old. We shall consider later whether that has any relevance at all to causation.

Mr. Ancram

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the Maryhill fire disaster which started in a shop which at the time was not being used. The shop was empty at night. Is he prepared to consider fire detection devices as well as fire precaution? It appears in both cases that lives were lost because the fires took some time to be discovered.

Mr. Ross

Yes, that is equally relevant.