HL Deb 13 May 1993 vol 545 cc1429-33

7.11 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (The Earl of Arran)

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th March be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, this order introduces amendments to fire safety requirements broadly in line with those already put into effect in Great Britain by the enactment of the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987.

The main purpose of the order is to amend the Fire Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, which is the main legislative instrument for controlling fire precautions, in order to afford better protection for the lives of the people of Northern Ireland.

I shall come to the detailed provisions in a moment, but before doing so perhaps it would be helpful if I reminded your Lordships that the central feature of the 1984 order is the requirement for those occupiers of premises, put to a use designated by order made by the department, to obtain a fire certificate from the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland. Fire certificates require that premises he provided with adequate means of escape, means of fighting fire and other necessary fire alarm measures.

While the present system of fire precautions has on the whole worked well, it is clear that amendments can be made to secure improved standards. The desire to improve safety standards prompted a review and a consultation exercise in Great Britain in 1985 which resulted in the enactment in 1987 of provisions similar to those contained in this amendment order.

The order would confer powers on the fire authority to exempt certain low risk premises from the need to have fire certificates, while at the same time imposing a statutory duty on occupiers of exempted premises to have adequate means of escape and fire-fighting equipment, for which the department will issue a code of practice. It would also provide for limited charges for the administrative costs of issuing or amending fire certificates, impose a duty on the occupier of exempt and non-certificated premises to provide reasonable standards of fire precautions, impose upon the owners or occupiers of premises who have applied for certification a statutory duty to maintain a certain level of fire safety while their application is pending, enable the issue of prohibition notices in respect of premises where there is serious risk to persons and, finally, impose on the fire authority a duty to carry out programmes of inspection. The department will give guidance about which types of premises should he inspected and how frequently. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th March be approved.—(The Earl of Arran.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Arran, for his explanation of the order. We on these Benches fully support the order. It strengthens the law relating to the safety of premises against fire risk.

However, the order comes seven long years after the introduction of similar provisions for the mainland. I am sure that the Minister will know that the Fire Brigade's Union has been pressing for the order for years. One wonders whether the delay reflects the Government's odd sense of priorities. Can the Minister explain to the House why it has taken seven years to bring the law in this respect in Northern Ireland into line with that of Great Britain?

I see that the order is to be backed by a code of practice regarding means of escape and fire-fighting. Can the Minister say whether the code is already in draft form and whether it has, been the subject of consultation? Moreover, can he say when it will come into force?

The legal status of codes of practice is immensely variable, as the House will know. However, the legal significance of this code is clearly set out in the proposed Article 31 B. That being so, can the Minister please explain why it is necessary to introduce Article 44A(a)?

I have two questions about Article 29A(2) (c). First, if a certificate imposes a limit on the number of persons who can be on the premises at any one time, will the holder of the certificate be guilty of an offence if the limit is breached, if only for half an hour?

Secondly, in the absence of a computer at the entrance to the building, how can the holder of the certificate possibly ensure that the limit is not exceeded at any given time, particularly where people are constantly moving in and out of the building, as they would, for example, where the premises are a licensed club? Is that not an impracticable condition? I should welcome some light on those two matters.

Finally, I have a couple of straightforward questions about the structure of the fire service administration in Northern Ireland. I am sure that these questions will pose no difficulty for the Minister. Will the Minister tell us what body in Northern Ireland is responsible for maintaining the local fire brigade? Is it the department, or has that responsibility been devolved to a district council? I am conscious, as all Members of the House will be, that the fire service in Northern Ireland carries an exceptionally heavy burden of responsibility, for which we are all deeply grateful. In many ways its services are allied very closely to the civil defence functions. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm to the House whether the fire service is currently up to its establishment and whether there have been any problems in relation to recruitment in any particular part of the Province.

I trust that the Minister can help me with those few questions. We gladly support the order.

Lord Meston

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham, I wish to join in welcoming this order. I make only one point, which is to reiterate the hope which was expressed in another place that the authorities will be sparing in the grant of exemptions, particularly for properties in multiple operation.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Meston, for their questions. The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, in particular asked a number of searching questions which I hope to be able to answer. He raised a number of points concerning codes of practice, the maintenance of the fire brigade and breaches of an exemption certificate. I shall deal with each of the detailed points in turn.

With regard to codes of practice, I am advised that a draft of the code has already been prepared. It will be circulated to interested parties for comment before being issued in its final form to coincide with the enactment of this order, which is likely to be in late August.

In relation to the code of practice, the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, referred to Article 44A(a). I should explain that its purpose is to make it clear that nothing in the Fire Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, as amended by this order, confers a right of action in civil proceedings in respect of any contraventions of the 1984 order.

The Fire Authority for Northern Ireland is the body responsible for maintaining and securing the services of the fire brigade. It is almost up to full establishment and no particular difficulties have been encountered regarding recruitment.

In regard to breaches of exemption notice, I should explain that the number of persons to be specified in an exemption notice would be an ad hoc figure and intended as a safety guide in premises which are regarded as low risk. Such premises by their nature would be limited in size and consequently would accommodate relatively few persons, either employees or persons expected to be there. Any breach of the number specified would not in itself constitute an offence. However, if exempted premises were altered in such a way that their use would involve a greater number of persons than that specified, the occupier would be guilty of an offence under Article 29A (1) if he did not advise the fire authority accordingly. Premises such as clubs, to which the noble Lord referred, would be subject to licensing by local authorities and would fall outside the scope of these provisions.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, also asked the interesting question: why so late? Why is it seven years after the GB order? The Fire Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1984 introduced for the first time in Northern Ireland provisions relating to fire precautions which had been in operation in Great Britain since 1971 by virtue of the Fire Precautions Act 1971. Shortly after the enactment of the 1984 order, the Home Office decided to amend some of the fire precaution provisions. Those were ultimately incorporated in the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987.

As the new provisions of the 1984 order had only just become established in Northern Ireland, the department did not consider it opportune to make the further changes introduced by the 1987 Act. Consequently, and in the knowledge that neither the people of Northern Ireland nor their property would be exposed to any risk or damage, the department decided to defer action on the proposed amendments for a few years. Work commenced on the Fire Services (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order in late 1990. The order would have been enacted in late 1992 had it not been for a considerable delay caused by the general election.

However, I would add that one of the main provisions of the order relates to exemption from fire certificates. In the six-year period leading up to this order, I can assure your Lordships that neither life nor property was at any greater risk due to the absence of those provisions. The existing provisions would require full certification.

I take the point about which the noble Lord, Lord Meston, asked. It is certainly an interesting one. If I may, I prefer to write to him. I can assure him that I shall do that by the end of next week. I should like to make quite sure that he has an accurate and correct answer. I commend the order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.