HC Deb 19 April 1995 vol 258 cc213-21 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement about the report by Sir Reginald Doyle on the fire which took place on 2 January 1995 at Parliament buildings, Stormont, and the implications of that incident for fire safety precautions at other Crown buildings in Northern Ireland.

I have this morning placed copies of Sir Reginald's report in the Library of the House, and in the Vote Office.

Although I am glad to note that Sir Reginald has concluded that the overall standard of staff safety in Crown buildings is generally satisfactory, his report points up serious shortcomings, both in relation to the Parliament buildings fire itself and to wider procedures dealing with fire safety matters. Several of his findings are deeply disturbing, and I am determined to address the shortcomings in the most serious manner.

Sir Reginald's view is that the most likely cause of the fire at Parliament buildings was an electrical fault in the wiring below the Speaker's chair in the Commons chamber. He considers that it is improbable that the fire was started deliberately. His conclusion on the cause of the fire is in accordance with the findings of the Northern Ireland forensic science laboratory, assisted by an, independent electrical consultant.

A number of matters relating to the fire give me very serious concern. First, the watchkeepers in Parliament buildings did not detect the fire and incorrectly attributed an unusual smell to new lagging on heating pipes.

Secondly, part of the first floor of the building was not patrolled because one section was subject to restricted access from 1992 as it had been set aside for political talks.

Thirdly, there was no water supply to the fire hydrant system at Parliament buildings when the fire broke out owing to a valve at the Stormont reservoir having been closed, despite the fact that non-availability of water had been reported 18 days before the fire to the Department of the Environment staff.

Fourthly, over a period of nearly five years, there was no fire drill in Parliament buildings even though there was official guidance that a fire drill should be carried out at least once every 12 months.

Finally, some fire brigade appliances did not approach the building by the agreed access—Massey avenue—but approached it by the Upper Newtownards road entrance, which was locked on 2 January 1995 as that date was a public holiday. I shall deal with those in turn.

The watchkeepers have been interviewed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Sir Reginald Doyle and their personnel officer in the Department of Finance and Personnel. They reported that on their regular patrols of the building they found no evidence of fire. Their written instructions are being revised with regard to the timing of patrols, the reporting of unusual circumstances and access to all parts of the building.

Further investigations have shown that, in addition to part of the first floor being inaccessible, the Commons chamber itself has customarily been regarded by the watchkeepers as outside their remit because it was normally locked. It is clearly wrong that any portion of the building should have been inaccessible to the watchkeepers. This has been rectified, and the management of the entire building has now been made the responsibility of a single Department, the Department of the Environment.

As for the absence of water in the fire hydrant system, it is clear that no action was taken to seek out the cause and to restore the supply following reports on 15 December 1994 that the system was dry. Three officials have been reprimanded. In addition, the Department of the Environment has reminded the contractor and the consultant responsible for the current contract at Parliament buildings of their continuing obligations in respect of maintenance of existing services and installations during the period of the contract. Sir Reginald notes that, by chance, the lack of water at the building was not a significant issue, owing to the prompt action of the fire brigade.

On the question of fire drills, there can of course be difficulty in setting a convenient date for a trial evacuation in a building that is often used for meetings with the public, but a gap of five years is inexcusable. It indicates that fire precautions were not accorded proper priority by management in Parliament buildings. I have taken steps to ensure that those responsible for these matters in all Crown buildings in Northern Ireland are in no doubt about their responsibilities, and of my continuing concern that those responsibilities are properly exercised. An accelerated training programme for premises officers is being implemented by the works service of the Department of the Environment; Departments have been reminded of their obligation to comply with the fire precautions guide, which provides advice on fire safety matters. Some aspects of the guide require revision or clarification, and that work has been initiated.

On the question of access, the fire brigade has been reminded of the agreed access route. Sir Reginald finds that, in the event, the resulting delay amounted to less than one minute.

The cost of restoring the Commons chamber as it was is estimated at about £1.5 million. I have authorised the Department of the Environment to proceed with the work, which will be part of a general refurbishment of Parliament buildings extending over two years at a cost of £20 million.

It is clear from the report that fire safety precautions have simply not been given a sufficiently high priority. As Secretary of State, I greatly regret that. Sir Reginald notes that at the time of the fire a refurbishment scheme for Parliament buildings had been under way since February 1994, concentrating on health and safety and fire precaution work. That programme had been extracted from a more extensive and general programme identified in the mid 1980s, but delayed first because of the need to relocate DOE staff into other accommodation and latterly because of other financial priorities.

Obvious difficulties are involved in arranging the refurbishment of aging but heavily used public buildings, but I accept that Government are responsible for doing it in order to ensure proper health and safety standards. Sir Reginald comments that fire safety work, once identified as necessary, should be carried out as a matter of urgency and should not be allowed to wait until it can be incorporated in a wider refurbishment scheme. I accept that, and have made it clear to all Departments that health and safety provision is of such fundamental importance that it must merit high priority in expenditure plans.

I have accepted all Sir Reginald's recommendations, and have instructed a senior official in the Department of the Environment to ensure their urgent implementation and report progress to me on a quarterly basis. A task force under his chairmanship has been established, and has already met on three occasions.

Sir Reginald indicates that the overall standard of staff safety in Crown buildings provided by fire alarms, escape routes, the protection of escape routes, fire extinguishers, hose reels and other means is generally satisfactory. However, he considers that the legislation for Crown buildings is not satisfactory, and recommends alternative informal safeguards to ensure that Crown buildings comply with the standards set out in the Fire Services Order (NI) 1984. That recommendation is accepted, and applications for all certifiable buildings are being submitted on an accelerated—but also prioritised—basis. The objective is to have complete certification coverage within two years. A comprehensive and definitive list of all Crown buildings requiring certification is being compiled.

For the protection of the fabric of buildings, modern fire detection systems will be installed on a phased and, prioritised basis in buildings where it is considered necessary. In addition, an urgent review has been initiated to identify buildings in which the installation of sprinklers or gas flood systems might be justified.

I am grateful to Sir Reginald Doyle for his report, which I believe will lead—through the implementation of his recommendations—to a general improvement in fire safety arrangements in all Crown buildings in Northern Ireland.

Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I want to express our thanks for the courage and professionalism of those who tackled the blaze, especially the police and the firefighters. We are greatly relieved that the fire did not result in loss of life.

I agree with the Secretary of State about the recommendations in the report, which is deeply disturbing. I am pleased that he is determined to address the shortcomings in policy. I am equally pleased that he accepts that it is the Government's responsibility to ensure proper health and safety standards. It is sad that it has taken a fire to make those policy shortcomings transparent.

It is clear from Sir Reginald Doyle's comments that the Government's responsibility to protect public property and individual safety has been neglected in Northern Ireland. The exemption of Crown properties from the formal obligations under the Fire Services Order (Northern Ireland) 1984 should not stop the Government ensuring that buildings are kept up to the necessary standards. At a minimum, those standards require adequate means of escape for staff, means for ensuring that the escape can be used at all material times, means of giving warning and means of firefighting.

As the Secretary of State explained, the fire probably went undetected for as long as eight hours, the staff patrol bypassed the area, the new detection system was not connected and there was no water supply at the hydrants.

The alarm and firefighting provisions at Stormont castle were inadequate at the time of the fire and it is clear that the minimum standards were not complied with.

I want to ask four specific and direct questions. First, the report refers to the Government's review of fire safety legislation and enforcement. I am sure that the Secretary of State will remember that the report said that there was no reason why the Government should not announce that in future fire precautions legislation will apply to Crown properties. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell the House why the Government have made no specific response to that recommendation, which was made last summer? Will he now make it clear to the House that none of the more than 1,000 Crown buildings in Northern Ireland will be immune from fire and health and safety regulations?

Secondly, the Secretary of State announced that he will publish a quarterly report, to be produced by the Department of the Environment, on the implementation of Sir Reginald's recommendations. At the same time, will he tell us the date on which he will publish a list of all the Crown buildings requiring certification? Thirdly, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman recommend the reallocation of funds within the Department of Economic Development to respond to the four-year backlog of buildings waiting to be inspected?

Finally, the report also refers to the lack of awareness of contractors about where their specific responsibilities lay. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the Government's policy for restructuring Departments and for contracting out services has led to confusion and a lack of transparency and accountability between those who make policy and those who implement it? What recommendations will he make to alleviate that chaos?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

First, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her tribute to those who tackled the fire so extremely effectively. As Sir Reginald Doyle pointed out, it was only their very prompt action that saved the building from much worse damage, because there was no water in the hydrants. I am also grateful for the hon. Lady's endorsement of the Government's approach to this serious report.

The hon. Lady referred to exemptions for Crown buildings from the Fire Services Order (Northen Ireland) 1984, which is the legislation that applies to Northern Ireland. It relates to the first of her specific questions. There are difficulties inherent in applying that legislation, with its sanctions, to Crown buildings. These are matters of policy for the Home Secretary in Great Britain and for me in Northern Ireland and I should like to reflect on the matter and consult my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Secondly, the hon. Lady asked about the quarterly report that I mentioned and about the progress being made by the task force. I did not say that I would publish the quarterly reports and I do not think that to do so would be necessarily appropriate. What is important is that they are made quarterly, because regular progress and regular monitoring are necessary.

I believe that the third of the hon. Lady's questions—she will correct me if I am wrong—was about the list of buildings that have acquired certification. I have said that our target is that work on the whole backlog shall be completed in two years. Of course I shall be perfectly prepared at any time to answer questions about the progress that is being made.

The hon. Lady's last question was about contractual obligations. I am not aware of any standard form of contractual obligation. I am given to understand that in this case there was a clear contractual obligation to maintain existing services on the part of the consultant and the contractor. As I have said to the House, each has been reminded of the importance of those obligations during the currency of the contract.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I join the Secretary of State in thanking Sir Reginald Doyle for a useful and thorough report and, on a personal level, for the courtesy that he extended to me when I provided him with evidence and proposals. I also join the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), in congratulating the RUC and in particular the fire brigade, whose professionalism stemmed the spread of the fire.

I welcome three things that the Secretary of State said in his statement. First, I welcome the undertaking that he is determined to remedy the shortcomings. Will he specifically state whether he is prepared to do so immediately in financial terms? We need more fire inspectors on the ground to reduce the length of time that it will take to inspect all Crown buildings. We need the resources to make the necessary changes to Crown buildings that the inspection report identified.

Secondly, I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has said that he intends to restore the Commons chamber at Stormont. Will he confirm that it will be restored as closely as contractually possible to its former glory with all, let us say, the British trappings that it had previously? Will the Secretary of State confirm that, when he says that fire precautions were not given sufficiently high priority, it was because complacency had trickled down from the highest level to produce the incompetence that the report suggests?

For more than 18 months I have raised issues relating to fire safety in Crown buildings. They have been virtually ignored at the very highest levels. If heads are to roll on Stormont lawn, let there be some easily recognised heads among them.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's tribute to Sir Reginald Doyle and to the RUC and the fire brigade. That will be much appreciated. I also welcome what he had to say in the remainder of the first part of his question. He asked whether there would be practical expression of my determination to see the recommendations fulfilled, whether resources would be made available. The answer is yes, it is necessary to ensure that sufficient resources are available to fulfil what I have said. In particular, we intend to recruit an additional four ex-fire brigade officers to the fire inspection branch of the work service which has these responsibilities.

It is appropriate for me to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the assiduity with which over a considerable period he has raised the safety of staff in the context of fire precautions. He will, I know, be as glad as I am that Sir Reginald has made the general finding that he has on the safety of staff—that it was generally satisfactory throughout the Government estate. However, that is not to underestimate the criticisms that have been made. As the Secretary of State, I of course take responsibility for that. It is of great importance that the problems should be rectified. It is of great value that we have a report of this thoroughness.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Although the work of the emergency services in rescuing the building from a terrible fire was remarkable, was there not an appalling level of laxity in the management and care of the buildings, which is all the more worrying when security risks have meant that heightened awareness has been necessary all the time? In looking forward to the refurbishment of the building and its occupation by a democratic assembly serving the people of Northern Ireland, does the Secretary of State also look forward with some confidence to a building that will be looked after properly and with a continued level of awareness of risk appropriate- to its importance and to the dangers to the people using it?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his tribute to the services. Naturally, there have been shortcomings in the management of the Parliament buildings. In part, that has been due to a division of responsibility. As from noon today, the Department of the Environment has attained full responsibility for the management of that building. That division led to the misunderstandings and lack of communication that were apparent in the instructions to the watchkeepers and their understanding of those instructions, for example.

What the right hon. Gentleman said about the chamber enables me to reply to one of the questions of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), which I omitted to do. It is my intention to restore the chamber to its former position and state, but that will be subject to representations that parties—whether political or otherwise—may make to me, especially in the context of a possible assembly, which everyone hopes will come into being. That is the contingent intention, but it is open to that qualification. I believe that, as a result of this inquiry, we shall have a much tighter management, which is desirable for the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman gave.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his swift response in accepting full responsibility for this report and the events that led up to the fire? May I also add that it is entirely characteristic of my right hon. and learned Friend to accept the blame and not to duck it in any way? When does he expect the work to start?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. To be perfectly frank, there are not many grounds for congratulation in this story, but she has characteristically found one—perhaps the only one. The work on restoration of the Commons chamber is already under way and I am told that the refurbishment programme for the whole of Parliament Buildings should take about two years.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

May I declare an interest, Madam Speaker, as chairman of a company that owns one of the properties listed in the report? The Parliament building at Stormont is of importance in Northern Ireland and of architectural and historical interest. It is also a listed building. Hon. and right hon. Members who have visited it cannot but be impressed at the entire building and its location and setting outside Belfast. I join other hon. Members in placing on record our thanks to the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Northern Ireland fire brigade for their prompt attention to the fire. It should be placed on record that the fire brigade was called at 9.5 in the morning. Even with the difficulties presented to it, the brigade gained access and was on the spot at 9.12.

We have heard that the fire might well have been caused by an electric wire under the Speaker's chair. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman conclude that there was no criminal or terrorist-related involvement in the fire? If so, can he confirm whether all the workmen involved in the work in the Chamber at the time were screened? The fire was detected by a member of the public at 8.50 in the morning. The patrol within the building had checked it only 30 minutes beforehand, yet the fire had been going for some eight hours. It seems most unusual that the patrol had not observed a fire that had been smouldering away for eight hours but that a member of the public out for a walk with his dog should have noticed it outside.

We now hear that one reason why the security patrol within the building did not observe the fire was that it was not allowed to enter parts of the building because of political talks going on in that section of the building. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the security patrol within the building walked along the corridor that passes the main door into the House of Commons chamber? That is the key question. How close did they get to the location of the fire?

It is outrageous that no fire drill had taken place for the past five years in Parliament buildings at Stormont, and it is incredible that that is confirmed in the report. There has certainly been a degree of incompetence. My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) had a question listed on yesterday's Order Paper asking whether the chamber would be restored and the estimated price of that restoration. Unfortunately, that question was not answered, but we have had the reply in today's statement. As the Secretary of State knows the estimated cost, he must have some idea about the design for the new chamber. Will it be designed to accommodate a parliament, a legislative or administrative assembly, or a regional authority? He must be in a position to answer that question.

Madam Speaker

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but this is not a debate. It is questions to the Secretary of State on his statement and I should be grateful if he would come to some pertinent questions so that we might hear a response from the Secretary of State.

Mr. Taylor

I am trying to find out what kind of chamber will be rebuilt now that the Secretary of State has confirmed that it will be restored.

I shall move on to the subject of the lack of fire certificates for Crown buildings throughout Northern Ireland. Why will it not become a legal requirement that Crown buildings have fire certificates, as private owners in Northern Ireland must have? In that connection, I refer the Secretary of State to paragraph 10.4 on page 53 of the report, which says that sufficient resources do not exist and that it will take at least four years for the buildings to be examined.

That means that civil servants will have to work in dangerous conditions for many more years, because, even after the four years, the work must then be carried out. In relation to paragraph 10.14, why cannot the fire brigade in Northern Ireland be responsible for inspecting Crown buildings and deciding on the issue of fire certificates, rather than retaining that power within the Department of the Environment?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his tribute to the services. He asked whether I had definitely concluded that the fire was accidental rather than deliberate. I can go only on the evidence that has been given to Sir Reginald and on his conclusion, which is set out at paragraph 3.5.9, that it is improbable that the fire was started deliberately. The right hon. Gentleman will remember the photograph of wiring beneath or close to the Speaker's chair, the insulation of which appears to have been eroded, and the course that the fire took is consistent with that. I can go no further than that of my own knowledge.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the workmen engaged in the refurbishment scheme, which had been going on since February 1994, had been screened. I am told that each workman had been screened for security clearance. He also asked whether the watchkeepers walked past the door. I understand that that was the evidence given to Sir Reginald, but the right hon. Gentleman will remember that Sir Reginald also says that the fire broke out in the one room or chamber in Parliament buildings least likely to result in a warning being made apparent to people because it had no open windows and the doors were very close-fitting.

Reference is made to the fact that the doors, being so stout and close-fitting, confined the fire's spread. It is a remarkable feature of the story, however, that those watchkeepers did not notice, over a period apparently of some eight hours, that a fire was going on. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that they attributed a curious smell to some lagging that had been placed on pipes. I cannot take the matter further than that.

I have already dealt with the design of the restored Commons chamber. I do not want to add to anything that I have said to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). On certification, the position is—I think I have this correct—that Crown buildings must have a certificate, but no legal requirement exists for an application for such a certificate to be made under the Fire Service Order (Northern Ireland) 1984. I am, of course, prepared to consider the legislation following what Sir Reginald and the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) have said about that matter. The important thing is that certification is carried out. That has been the practice, albeit with insufficient sense of urgency, as I must concede.

On the right hon. Gentleman's last point, I have already said that it is not a question of four years being the target. He referred to paragraph 10.4 of the report. I have said that the target for total certification of the Government estate is two years.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome)

It may be belated, but the Doyle report is still extremely welcome by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Will my right hon. and learned Friend just clarify that he intends to implement all the report's recommendations?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. The answer is yes.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Would the Secretary of State, as a UK Cabinet Minister, care to speculate as to how many people in Scotland and England who are responsible for Government buildings muttered under their breath sotto voce, when they heard of the Stormont fire, "There but for the grace of God went we"?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Fortunately, I have enough responsibilities without acquiring responsibility for this place. I do not want to take that matter any further.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that he had to read to us a most disturbing catalogue of errors and omissions? Does he perhaps think that, in recent years in Northern Ireland, it has been necessary for security to take such a high priority that other matters have been subordinated to it?

Has my right hon. and learned Friend ever heard in Northern Ireland a local resident say to him, "Things are different over here, Minister"? Does he agree that that must not mean that standards are lower? In groping to find some way to ensure that standards are the same throughout the UK, might it be appropriate to have a slightly higher level of roulement between officials and inspectors in the UK to ensure that standards are uniformly high?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

My hon. Friend makes a most interesting suggestion. Of course, the House remembers his long experience as a Minister with responsibility for Northern Ireland. It is important that Northern Ireland's standards should be no less satisfactory than those in the rest of the UK. This Administration intend to ensure that that is the case. I do not know whether the lifeline that he threw me—the need for concentration on security—has led to the laxity. All that has to be said, grateful though I am, is that that laxity has ended and must never be allowed to return.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

May I press the Secretary of State? As responsibility for fire protection has gone to the Department of the Environment, is he satisfied that it is able to deal with that, bearing in mind that some of us are concerned that departmental officials' guidance to local councils on fire regulation standards in new building is still being debated?

May I press the Secretary of State on the concept of finances? I recognise that he may not be able to give me the answers today, but will he tell us—the answer may even be available in the Library—the amount of money returned from the Northern Ireland budget at a time when not enough money was available to deal with recommendations to protect from fire? Will he tell us how that now compares with the amount that the nation will have to spend on repairing the damage?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I wish to look at the point with which the hon. Gentleman concluded his question. I want to give him an assurance that both my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss), and I will closely consider the Department of the Environment and its capacity to undertake those very important responsibilities.