HC Deb 23 July 1975 vol 896 cc552-8
Mr. William Hamilton

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the fire which took place in Arbroath on 22nd July when six people died.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Harry Ewing)

At 23.44 hours on 21st July the Arbroath Fire Station received a call to attend a fire at a guest house at 34 Addison Place, Arbroath. A fire appliance manned by whole-time personnel responded immediately and arrived at the guest house within four minutes. A second appliance manned by retained personnel arrived within five minutes later.

The house, which is a stone semidetached house on two floors, was found to be smoke-logged, and there was considerable fire damage in the living-room and in the staircase. One male guest was found dead outside close to the doorway. The proprietor's wife and two-year-old son were rescued from an upstairs bedroom, but the wife died before reaching hospital and the son died later in the hospital. The male guest's wife, his daughter and grand-daughter were all found dead in upstairs bedrooms. The proprietor escaped and is recovering in hospital. The fire was extinguished by the fire brigade by 01–06 on the morning of 22nd July.

I express my sympathy to the relatives of those who lost their lives, and I am sure that the House would wish to join me in this expression of sympathy.

I understand that there was no application for a fire certificate under the Fire Precautions (Hotels and Boarding Houses) (Scotland) Order 1972, and, indeed, that none was required, since the sleeping accommodation was not being provided for more than six guests.

It is too soon to say what was the cause of the fire. An examination by experts is still going on. A report is being submitted to the Procurator Fiscal, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate will consider, after he receives a report from the Procurator Fiscal, whether to instruct an inquiry under the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiries (Scotland) Acts 1895 to 1906.

Mr. Hamilton

I am sure that the whole House will share the expressions of sympathy for the relatives and friends of those who were bereaved in this sad accident.

The accident happened in Arbroath, which is not my constituency, but I understand that the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Welsh) is ill, and, in any case, most of the people who have died were my constituents. Indeed, three generations of one family were bereaved as a result of this accident.

I should like to ask the Under-Secretary of State one or two specific questions. First, how many of these guest houses are there in Scotland which are not covered by the 1972 fire regulations which he mentioned? There is an editorial in the Glasgow Herald this morning—my hon. Friend may have read it—which indicates the enormous scope for likely repetition of this kind of accident. Will he consider asking the local authorities to take the kind of action recommended in that editorial today, and will he take every opportunity of trying to influence the Lord Advocate to have an inquiry, and to urge the local authority to do everything in its power to prevent a repetition of this kind of accident?

Mr. Ewing

The position in relation to those boarding houses and guest houses which do not provide accommodation for more than six guests is as I explained in my statement. When the 1972 order was made, a decision was taken to exclude the smaller premises. I am bound to say that, with only the larger hotels and boarding houses requiring designation, the existing resources of the fire brigades are so stretched that less than half of the premises which have applied —those accommodating more than six guests—have been inspected and received fire certificates.

As to my hon. Friend's question concerning the number of guest houses which do not come under the 1972 order, this is not recorded, but it is known that since 1972 there have been a number of guest houses which have reduced their accommodation from more than six guests to under six in order to exclude themselves from the fire prevention regulations that were made in 1972. Certainly we shall look at this aspect.

Concerning my hon. Friend's other question, about the need to impress on my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate that a public inquiry should be held, I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that this decision can be taken only against the background of the report which is given to my right hon. and learned Friend by the Procurator Fiscal.

We shall certainly consider the point made by my hon. Friend in respect of the local authorities.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

May I associate my right hon. Friends, hon. Friends and myself with the expressions of sympathy given by the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) and by the Under-Secretary of State in relation to this accident.

Since this happened in a town in a neighbouring constituency to my own, I am sure that I express also the sympathy which my colleague the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Welsh) would wish to express were he able to be here. I also express the very deep sense of shock in the town of Arbroath as a result of this accident.

May I ask the Under-Secretary of State three questions? First, following the question by the hon. Member for Fife, Central concerning the Fire Precautions (Hotels and Boarding Houses) (Scotland) Order 1972, will the Under-Secretary of State acknowledge that the Tayside Region, under the fire master for Tayside, has been one of the most active in Scotland in seeking to implement the order, and will he state what plans the Government have to assist the fire services over staffing matters to make sure that that order can become effective?

Secondly, are the Government considering at any stage the extension of the order to smaller guest houses?

Thirdly, will the hon. Gentlemen—this is of the greatest practical importance in immediate terms—consider how to have more publicity and more help from the fire prevention departments of various fire brigades in Scotland in order to bring home to guest house owners a number of very simple, sensible precautions that can be taken, without a great deal of expense, to prevent the sort of very serious and unhappy tragedy which has occurred in Arbroath?

Mr. Ewing

I think that these are three very telling points made by the hon. Gentleman. It is important to point out to the House that in the fire brigade area in which this unfortunate accident took place there have been 497 applications for fire certificates by hotels and boarding houses that come under the 1972 order. All these premises have been inspected, a situation which is the exception rather than the rule. In actual fact, the fire brigade area in which this unfortunate accident took place has a 100 per cent. record in respect of inspecting premises which have applied for a certificate. It is important that this should be on the record.

I accept the point made concerning the extension of the provisions of the 1972 order to cover this type of guest house and boarding house. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me when I say that once we have dealt with the premises which now fall under the 1972 order we can examine the possibility of extending the provisions to cover all these other boarding houses and guest houses which at the present time do not come under the order.

Finally, I think it is right and proper to draw to the attention of small boarding house owners, and to the local authorities in whose area these boarding houses are situated, the elementary fire precautions that can be taken. Certainly my Department will look at the possibility of issuing another circular in this respect.

Mr. Grimond

May the Liberal Party also be associated with the expressions of sympathy concerning this appalling tragedy? I fully appreciate that we have to wait until the Lord Advocate has considered the matter, but will the Government bear in mind the very small size of the house in question, and the fact that the fire service appears to have gone there with remarkable expedition, on which I congratulate it, and consider whether there may not have been something peculiarly inflammable about the materials or furnishings in the house? Will that aspect be covered by the inquiry, if there is one, and if it appears that this sort of factor is involved, will there be a technical inquiry into the nature of the materials that may have caused the fire?

Mr. Ewing

The right hon. Gentleman will have read in the Press today that experts are examining all the contents left following the blaze. It is hoped to establish from that examination the precise cause of this unfortunate and tragic event that we are discussing. Following that examination, we shall be in a position to say what caused the fire and, from that, my right hon. and learned Friend will then be in a position to take a decision regarding a public inquiry under the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiries (Scotland) Acts.

Mr. Dalyell

Is it not right to say now that an even greater priority than extending the 1972 orders, which will be very expensive and difficult in terms of time, is the need to do something about the problem of foam which allows a fire to spread so quickly—a subject often raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoredith (Mr. Brown)?

Mr. Ewing

It has to be appreciated that this was a very old house. I do not want to prejudge any expert opinion which may be revealed later, but we are discussing a building which was 80 years old. By the very nature of things, such a building is normally highly inflammable at any time. Therefore, that has to be borne in mind.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Will the Under-Secretary encourage the proprietors of guest houses which do not require fire certificates to get the informed advice and assistance of fire prevention officers? Can the hon. Gentleman also give any indication of the shortage of manpower in fire services in Scotland and say whether the situation is getting better or worse?

Mr. Ewing

Recruitment to fire brigades in Scotland in 1974 was higher than it has ever been. It has been very good. In that respect, therefore, it is true to say that the manpower situation is vastly improved on what it has been in previous years.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

On behalf of my colleagues, may I also extend my sympathy to both families bereaved in this very unfortunate accident during the holiday season, which is a time of happiness? I appreciate that the cause of the fire will have to be sifted, examined and found. Will the hon. Gentleman consider strengthening his resolve in relation to a public inquiry not simply to find the cause of this accident but also to give publicity to the need for fire precaution requirements for accommodation which is offered for holiday purposes? Will he also consider asking fire officers, on a voluntary basis meantime, while he is considering any changes required in the regulations, to make inspections of a brief nature of electrical wiring systems in order to take a first step in making some judgment and to give guidance to house- holders who may be affected? Further, will he ask those who may be involved in the Tayside region, since most of their inspections have been carried out—for which they are to be congratulated—to give urgent attention to these informal inspections of casual accommodation?

Mr. Ewing

Throughout Scotland, fire prevention work has been stepped up considerably, especially over the past year or 18 months. There are many areas through- out Scotland—I imagine the Tayside area is one of them, in view of its high rate of answering applications for inspection by the fire prevention officer—where even household inspections have been carried out. The work of fire prevention officers has been stepped up considerably over the past 18 months, as I said. Nevertheless, we shall consider what the hon. Gentle- man says.

I wish to thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their expressions of sym- pathy to both families. I know that both communities, especially Arbroath, which is a very friendly town and which always welcomes holiday makers, will be stunned and shocked by this tragedy. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) the small town of Ballingry will be equally stunned and shocked by this accident affecting three generations of one family.

Mr. Sillars

Is my hon. Friend aware that none will regret this fatality more than the firemen who attended the incident, and that it is one of the worst parts of a fireman's job to attend an incident in which there are so many fatalities? I think that the turn-out time of the Arbroath Fire Brigade stands to the credit of both full-time and retained men.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that from first reports the main characteristic of this fire appears to have been the very large volume of smoke rather than fire? If he will look at the number of fires in households in Scotland in the past six months he will see that this characteristic runs throughout. Therefore, irrespective of what the Lord Advocate says or finds, will my hon. Friend institute an inquiry into the inherent dangers of materials used in household furnishings?

Mr. Ewing

My hon. Friend brings to this question his own experience before coming to the House. When I received the report of this incident, it struck me that the revealing feature was the smoke-filled condition of the house. This prevented rescue operations even by those who raised the alarm before the firemen reached the scene of the blaze. I shall consider seriously what my hon. Friend said about this matter.