HL Deb 24 February 2004 vol 658 cc112-4

2.51 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many deaths due to fire occurred in 2003; how many of these were in private residences and how many were in other buildings; and, of the latter, how many buildings were fitted with a sprinkler system.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, the latest figures available for the United Kingdom are for the calendar year 2002, when in incidents attended by the fire and rescue service there were total deaths of 578, of which 443 were in dwellings and 25 in other buildings. There was a total of 64,635 fires in dwellings. A water sprinkler system was present in 22 of those fires. There were 40,537 fires in other buildings, and a water sprinkler system was present in 691 of those fires.

For the avoidance of doubt, so that I am not accused of misleading the House, earlier today very provisional figures were published for the financial year 2002–03, but I thought it best to use the figures that we had already prepared for this Answer.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that the Answer that I was given when I raised the matter of sprinklers in relation to schools on 7 January has been acknowledged as wrong by the Lancashire Fire Brigade, which plays a leading role in the National Fire Sprinkler Network? That brigade wrote to the Minister at that time on that question. We were told that sprinklers would not have saved a particular school, whereas the sprinkler people say that it definitely would.

Does the Minister agree that, whatever numbers have died, there would have been fewer deaths if sprinklers had been available? Would they not be particularly important in buildings where people are so vulnerable that they are incapable of getting themselves out, such as in the Scottish incident? I hope that the Minister will not tell me that that is a devolved matter, as it is the principle that I am talking about. A number of people have died very recently in 'those circumstances.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I shall not hide behind the point that it is a devolved matter, because the figures that I gave were United Kingdom figures and this is a UK issue. Our thoughts are with the families of the victims of Rose Park. However, I cannot say any more about that matter because there is an ongoing inquiry into it.

In April 2001, a research project was funded and organised by the predecessor department to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for the Building Research Establishment to consider fully the effectiveness of sprinklers in residential buildings across the piece. It is quite clear that in many situations sprinklers would be useful, particularly when people are vulnerable, whether in homes for children, the elderly or disabled people, and higher-risk houses such as houses in multiple occupation and very tall buildings—including, obviously, high-rise flat developments.

The building regulations are being reviewed and, probably next year, a provisional consideration will be put forward. In 2006, an approval will be made of the document. Those regulations are reviewed on a regular basis. Those issues must be taken into account, as will the new system of the abandonment of fire certificates in favour of a risk-based system relative to the particular premises, which will be much more useful in those circumstances than the present arrangements.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that there is now very powerful evidence that sprinklers in schools are cost-effective, especially if installed at the time of refurbishment or refenestration? Would he also acknowledge that the problem of schools with considerable roof voids can be tackled effectively with the installation of sprinklers?

Lord Rooker

Yes, my Lords, that is self-evident. The issue will be part and parcel of the review of the building regulations that will take place. The research that has been funded has already been published on the ODPM website and will shortly be in the Library. The research occupies a large volume—I think it is 700 pages—but people can get a CD and look at it. A lot of work is being done on the issue, which will inform the new building regulations.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, I have long been very concerned about fire doors. Many people dislike them; many frail people cannot shut or open them properly, and therefore leave them open, which negates their value. Have the Government or the Health and Safety Executive, for example, investigated alternative fire prevention methods, or will they do so? That is a matter of some urgency, given the comments that the noble Baroness and the Minister have made about recent events.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the noble Baroness has raised an interesting point, because the issue is how to prevent fires in the first place. Lots of steps can be taken. I should have thought that that was a matter for the building regulations, although one problem with such regulations is that they usually apply only to new premises, so we must consider the stock that we already have. However, under the new system, when there is a risk-based assessment for a particular building, it will be open to the fire service—in the example given by the noble Baroness, for example—to insist on self-closing doors being fitted, so that there is no issue about keeping the doors open or the doors being too heavy for the elderly and vulnerable people to open. That negates the issue of a fire certificate, which was a piece of paper that gave people comfort but did not necessarily mean that they were safe.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that there is enough regulation concerning fire prevention in student accommodation, both in halls of residence and in smaller houses in multiple occupation? I ask that because I believe that there are exemptions to the housing regulations in relation to student accommodation.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, as I said earlier, that kind of premises would probably be a house in multiple occupation. People are vulnerable in such houses for lots of reasons, and we know of many fires that have happened in those circumstances. That is an issue that this House will debate, as the other place is debating, in the Housing Bill that is passing through it.

Lord Elton

My Lords, would the Minister consider repeating the valuable publicity campaign, drawing the attention of newcomers in the domestic field to the fact that throwing water on a fat fire turns it into an inferno? That is little known, and the knowledge could save many lives.

Lord Rooker

Yes, my Lords, the department will obviously consider that suggestion, and it is an ongoing campaign. It is generally speaking the case that fire is dangerous and kills, but in many cases it is the smoke that is actually the cause of death. The smoke is highly dangerous—to victims and firefighters.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, will the Minister tell us what the evidence is of decreased mortality or lesser danger in houses with smoke alarms in them? It is much easier to introduce a smoke alarm than to introduce a sprinkler system, particularly in a private house.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I cannot. All the figures that I have given come only from fires attended by the fire and rescue service. For example, if there are loads of sprinklers that are effective and put a fire out, the fire service does not get called and the fire is not included in the figures. The figures are assembled only for fires, whether malicious or accidental, attended by the fire and rescue service. They are updated constantly, which is why even the figures that I have given for 2002 are marginally provisional. Every single death certificate and inquest result is checked back to ascertain the actual cause of death. There is a problem in that one cannot always be precise about the figures from every fire; so only the fires attended by the fire and rescue service are included.