HC Deb 28 January 1980 vol 977 cc1087-98

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Newton.]

11 pm

Mr. Tim Sainsbury (Hove)

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise a subject of concern to many of my constituents—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant God-man Irvine)

Order. Perhaps hon. Members wishing to leave will do so quietly. In the meantime, we shall await the observations of the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury).

Mr. Sainsbury

It is a matter of concern not only to many of my constituents but to people throughout the country. I welcome the presence of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office. I appreciate that he is here at short notice. It would be helpful, perhaps, if I describe the present situation regarding fire precautions. There are nationally some 5,600 registered residential homes for the elderly. Some are run by social services departments and others by the private sector. They have, in aggregate, about 160,000 places.

In East Sussex, where my constituency is situated, there are 229 private residential homes for the elderly, having 4,663 places, and 46 county council homes with 2,118 places. In Hove, there are 41 private homes with 776 places and six county council homes with 353 places. It will be seen that the public sector has much bigger homes. The homes run by social services departments tend to be much larger than privately run homes.

I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend appreciates why residents in homes for the elderly are especially at risk. The first and most significant reason is that, on the whole, they are relatively immobile. In the event of an emergency, even a minor one, they find difficulty in getting away quickly from fumes, smoke or fire. Many have impaired hearing and are perhaps not sensitive to smell. Their personal early warning system is not very effective.

The elderly residents of these homes tend to spend a great deal of time indoors. A number of them—like some hon. Members—smoke in bed. Unlike hon. Members, however, they may occasionally fall asleep while doing so. This can be especially dangerous. In 1977, fire brigades attended no fewer than 380 fires in residential homes for the elderly—a large number when one considers that there are only 5,600 such homes. In those incidents, there were 13 fatal casualties and 32 residents were injured. This is a high total, bearing in mind the total number of residents and the total number of homes.

The House showed its concern about fire precautions when it passed the Fire Precautions Act 1971. But, effectively, that Act is an enabling Act. It allows my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to designate particular uses or types of premises that shall be required to have a fire certificate. To get a fire certificate, they must be inspected and requirements must be laid down for them by the fire prevention officers. When those requirements have been satisfactorily fulfilled, a certificate is issued and they are subsequently subject to inspection to ensure that the requirements laid down in the certificate are being maintained.

Until now, only hotels and boarding-houses have been designated as premises requiring a fire certificate under the terms of the Act. Since 1972, work has been proceeding on improving the fire pre cautions in those types of premises and on issuing hotels and boarding-houses throughout the country with certificates when the officers are satisfied with the standard of their fire precautions. Thanks to the work that has been done—it is appropriate to pay a tribute to the hotel and boarding-house industry for the way it has co-operated with the fire brigades in this fairly arduous task—and to the fire prevention officers, we now have perhaps one of the highest standards of fire protection in hotels and boarding-houses of any country in Europe and, possibly, the world.

In most areas, most of the necessary work has already been done. The figures that were available for the end of 1978 showed that in a large number of fire authority areas the premises awaiting in spection were in single figures or in some cases nil. Certificates had been issued to over three-quarters of all the premises requiring them. I think that we can safely conclude that by now the work has been substantially completed in many places. In East Sussex, where 879 hotels and boarding-houses required inspection, 858 had been inspected and only 21 were awaiting inspection about 13 or 14 months ago. I believe that that number has since been reduced.

It can be concluded, therefore, that at least in most areas the work required under the designation order relating to hotels and boarding-houses has been largely carried out. It would, therefore, be logical to be considering at this time where next it would be right to concentrate the inevitably scarce resources and skills of the fire prevention officers. May I suggest that, recognising that the availability of the time and skill of fire prevention officers is inevitably limited, it would be most attractive to deploy that time in those areas where, as yet, there has been no inspection or identification of the work that needs to be done rather than deploying it in reinspecting premises that have already been inspected and certificated merely to check that the conditions of the certificates have been adhered to.

Of course, there will be unfortunate occasions where, for a variety of reasons, there has been a falling off of standards, but I suggest that it would be far more effective if the fire prevention officers were now to devote their skills to looking at another category of premises which as yet remain uninspected. For the reasons I have already advanced, I suggest that residential homes for the elderly would be the next priority area.

Considerable care is needed in our approach to this type of premises. We do not want to impose too great a burden on the fire service, and, equally, it would be counter-productive to impose too great a burden on the homes so that some of them were forced to close prematurely and deprive the community and the elderly of residential places which are urgently needed.

I suggest, however, that the task which we might impose here on the fire services and the fire prevention officers is nothing like as arduous as the burden that they were asked to fulfil in inspecting hotels and boarding-houses. There are, as I have said, only some 5,600 residential homes for the elderly in the country whereas there were more than 24,000 hotels and boarding-houses which required inspection, and many of those hotels and boarding-houses, of course, were much larger than the residential homes which, I suggest, should next receive attention.

Further, I think that we can safely conclude that many of the homes which would require inspection are already in possession of fire precautions to a relatively high standard. Many of them are operated by social services departments of county councils.

In East Sussex, for instance, I have seen in my constituency the programme of work which my county council social services department has been undertaking for the past five years. It identified three categories of home for which it was responsible. In category A it made, as I would, homes for elderly people top priority, and in that first category it broke down into three phases the programme of fire precautions which it started in 1975.

The first phase was to provide early warning systems in all category A establishments, the early warning system almost always taking the form of smoke detectors or heat detectors to provide vital advance notice of a potential problem. The second phase was providing for the compartmentalising of the premises by the provision of additional corridor doors and the enclosing of staircases. The third phase which the county council has in mind is to improve the fire protection of individual sleeping compartments and bedrooms by improving the doors. Interestingly enough, in that part of the work the social services department is examining ways of using special door closers and latches which are not too difficult for the elderly, and the frail elderly in particular, to operate.

That sort of programme exemplifies the approach which I believe to be correct. If, as I hope the Minister will in due course, we are able to designate additional classes of premises to be covered by the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and to make residential homes for the elderly the next category to be so designated, we should learn the lessons of the work which has been done in hotels and boarding-houses and not try to impose upon each home immediately a complete programme of work which must be carried out straight away.

I believe the approach adopted by East Sussex county council to be correct—that one can identify the first, second and third priorities and suggest to the owners and operators of residential homes for the elderly that the work be done over two, three or four years to bring such homes finally up to the best possible standard.

The early warning should have first priority, with smoke detectors and so on. The second priority would be improving the means of escape and, in particular, the protection of staircases. The third priority would be improving the protection of the bedrooms.

It will be important throughout to avoid making life unnecessarily difficult for the frail elderly, and I commend to my hon. and learned Friend the work done and the discussions held at a conference recently organised by the Personal Social Services Council on the whole problem of fire precautions in residential homes. There were illustrated at that conference the difficulties which can arise when heavy fire doors with self-closing latches are put up in corridors which effectively isolate some of the more frail residents because they are unable to open the doors.

I think that the phased approach avoids excessive costs in the short term, and I further suggest that it might be worth considering introducing the need to obtain fire certificates for residential homes for the elderly on an area-by-area basis. The figures that have been given to me in parliamentary answers indicate that, whereas the majority of fire brigade areas have carried out most of their hotel and boarding-house inspections, there are a few areas where there is still a considerable backlog. In those areas, which I am happy to say do not include Sussex, it might be right to continue to concentrate on the hotels and boarding-houses before imposing an additional burden on the fire prevention officers.

It is now about 18 months since I was first informed by the previous Government that consultations were taking place with regard to the next category of premises that should be designated under the Fire Precautions Act. I appreciate that other Departments are involved, especially the Department of Health and Social Security. I realise that the fire services themselves and the local authorities also need to be consulted. However, we have reached the time at which one might say "We have delayed long enough." Bearing in mind the inevitable period that must elapse between the designation of a new category of premises and the work on those premises proceeding, I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will assure the House that he will come back—perhaps in no more than three months—and report on the consultations. By doing so, he would reassure all the residents in homes for the elderly, as well as their relatives, that the few laggards are being brought up to the standard of the best.

11.16 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Leon Brittan)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) on taking the opportunity at short notice to raise this important subject. He has persistently raised these matters during Question Time and elsewhere. It is nice to have the opportunity to consider them at the slightly greater length which is possible on this occasion, compared with merely answering a question.

Of course, no subject causes more concern for those with any human feeling than the conditions which operate in homes for the elderly. The prospect of fires taking place, with potential risk of loss of life in such premises, is an appalling one, and we are all anxious to do whatever we can to avoid tragedies of that kind occurring. Therefore, I very much welcome not only the opportunity to debate the subject but also the constructive way in which my hon. Friend has consistently raised the matter, bearing in mind the benefit of his experience in that his constituency has this problem very much to the fore.

Under the Fire Precautions Act 1971, a fire certificate may be required for all premises put to a use, or uses, designated in an order made by the Secretary of State. However, the Secretary of State may designate a use only if it comes within the following classes of use: first, use as sleeping accommodation; secondly, use as an institution providing treatment or care; thirdly, use for entertainment, recreation or instruction, or for purposes of any club, society or association; fourthly, use for teaching, training or research; and, fifthly, use for any purpose involving access to the premises by the public, whether on payment or otherwise.

Use of premises as a place of work was, however, subsequently brought within the scope of the 1971 Act by section 78 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. So far, two such designation orders have been made under the 1971 Act. First, the Fire Precautions (Hotels and Boarding Houses) Order 1972 came into operation on 1 June 1972, applying the Act to hotels and boarding-houses. My hon. Friend rightly paid tribute to the work of the hotel industry in coming to terms with the operation of that Act. I, too, represent a seaside constituency, and I have personal knowledge of the considerable efforts involved in doing that for the fire services and also the hoteliers and those running boarding-houses. It has not been free from difficulties and it has been a considerable achievement all over the country as well as in Yorkshire and West Sussex.

The second designation order, the Fire Precautions (Factories, Offices, Shops and Railways Premises) Order 1976, came into operation on 1 January 1977. It rationalises existing fire precautions legislation affecting factories, offices, shops and railway premises. The order brought within the scope of the Act factories, offices, shops and railway premises previously requiring a fire certificate under the Factories Act 1961 and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963.

Under the two orders, at the last count 24,168 out of 28,277 hotels and boarding-houses had been inspected for purposes of certification and 19,237 had received fire certificates. Under the second designation order, 26,708 factories, offices, shops and railway premises remained in need of certification. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the situation varies from one fire authority area to another. Although in most areas it is satisfactory, there are others where a substantial burden of work remains.

The question of future designations under the Fire Precautions Act 1971 was considered in 1978 by a sub-committee of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Councils for England, Wales and Scotland. The committee expressed the view in its report that a number of factors should be taken into account in addition to conclusions from statistical analysis when considering future designations. Foremost among these were a large concentration of sleeping accommodation, a large concentration of people for work and other purposes, a predominance of people who are elderly and suffer mental or physical disability, and the presence of a process or other high hazard risk, especially when considered in conjunction with such other factors as the design, age and construction of the building. The first and third factors were regarded as particularly significant.

It was on the basis of these considerations that the committee recommended that homes for the elderly and hospitals for the mentally ill and handicapped should be first on the list for designation, but the committee accepted that the case was not clear-cut. The report of the inquiry into the Fairfield old people's home fire said:

The needs of the elderly are in competition with many other kinds of need for scarce public, private and charitable funds. Excessive expenditure on fire precautions, particularly in existing homes, could result in fewer new homes being built, and some existing homes might have to close if too stringent requirements were imposed on them.

Mr. Sainsbury

My hon. and learned Friend refers to fewer new homes being built, but does he not agree that new homes or the change of ownership of existing homes require fresh certification in any event? That is normally required by the social services department that issues the certificate requiring a fire inspection which will probably bring the home nearly up to the standards required under the Fire Precautions Act.

Mr. Brittan

I accept what my hon. Friend says. I was merely quoting from the report and giving its conclusion. Even if what my hon. Friend says is right, it would not produce the same result as certification under the Act.

By contrast, I was about to quote the report on the Wensley Lodge fire. That report took the view that there was as good a case for designating accommodation provided for old persons who are often seriously incapacitated by physical or mental infirmity as there was for guests in hotels and boarding-houses. While recognising the financial problems involved, the report suggested that designation would be justified within a decade of the date of the commencement of the Fire Precautions Act 1971—that is, in 1982

There is a clear conflict of considerations. On the one hand, there is the obvious concern that the old and infirm who cannot protect themselves should not be exposed to unacceptable levels of fire, risk. On the other hand, there is the consideration that the protection which is provided should not impose so great a financial burden as to affect standards of care, because no useful purpose would be served if, ultimately, there were fewer old persons' homes in existence. Nor would it be desirable to place undue demands on a fully stretched fire prevention service. That could lead to all types of hazard arising elsewhere. At present, we are experiencing extreme financial constraints, and this conflict of considerations becomes particularly acute.

Like my hon. Friend, the committee of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Councils thought that this problem might be overcome by a phased basis of designation whereby the larger homes for the elderly might be dealt with first and the smaller ones later. This is the type of approach to the problem that the Government are currently investigating.

In many cases in both public and private sectors there is no doubt that steps have already been taken to achieve an acceptable standard of fire precautions. That is what is desired, whether it is done by certification or without certification. Guidance was given by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Fire Services to all chief officers in May 1976 as to suitable means of achieving phased improvements in fire precautions in homes for the elderly so as to spread the cost over a number of financial years. This was passed on to the social services departments of local authorities by the Department of Health and Social Security the following year.

In quoting what has taken place in East Sussex, my hon. Friend has shown the considerable advance that has been made in improving security and the precautions taken against fire in such premises. We are currently investigating the feasibility of further developments—for example, the micro-processing of detectors to improve their operational reliability. That was no more than one of a series of recommendations, ranging from structural precautions to staff training, all of which may be relevant to the needs of individual premises.

The position which now obtains is that a considerable number of homes for the elderly have achieved a standard which may be expected to be comparable with that likely to be recommended for purposes of designation. Where they have not done so, it has largely been financial pressures which have prevented the achievement of such a standard.

For the moment, the Home Office and the DHSS are in consultation about how to overcome difficulties that may remain. Meetings are taking place regularly to deal with the problem. It is clear that it would be necessary, before any question of designation arises, to produce a suitable code of guidance, similar to those which have already been produced for the other classes of occupancy designated under the Act, setting out the standards which will be considered reasonable in relation to means of escape and other matters. We acknowledge the need, which has been impressed upon us by those concerned with social welfare, to reconcile these requirements with the preservation of proper standards of care. The Home Office and the DHSS are working together to bring this about.

That action impresses us as being the necessary precursor of designation. When adequate opportunity has been afforded to those responsible for the conduct of homes for the elderly, in both the public and private sectors, fully to consider the implications of the standards which have been promulgated, we shall wish, in the light of the financial and other implications, to consider the feasibility of proceeding to the formal designation of this class of use.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.