HL Deb 07 January 2004 vol 657 cc167-9

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty's Government:

What more they can do to reduce school fires, both caused by arson and accidental.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Education and Skills are working together closely on this very important issue of fire safety in schools. The ODPM will begin work on a major revision of the fire safety aspects of the building regulations early in 2004 and that will cover schools. The DfES issued the guide Fire Safety in 2000 and is currently working on new and more comprehensive fire safety guidance for schools. This covers risk assessment and will include advice on security and the prevention of arson.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Given that school fires have doubled in the past 10 years, costing education authorities £96 million and losing us the opportunity of having 3,000 extra teachers, will the Government redouble their efforts by publishing the statistics for fires that are accidental and those started by arson; by better protection of buildings by the greater use of CCTV and non-flammable building materials; and by supporting initiatives such as that taken by Cheshire County Council to target schoolchildren who believe that schools are there more for torching than teaching?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I think that the Government's record in recent years has been excellent. We have gone for stronger regulation, more effective guidance, significant investment in safety in schools and closer partnership. However, the noble Lord is correct—this is an important matter. Some 60 per cent of fires started in schools are thought to have been set deliberately. We are very keen to reduce that figure. As for CCTV and other intelligent alarm systems, the extra funding that has gone into capital investment—£3 billion as of this year—is making a big difference. Schools are certainly making use of those new systems. As for young people, it was very interesting to hear about the Cheshire initiative. We need far more of those sorts of initiative.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether schools have automatic sprinkler systems and, if so, how effective they are? If they are effective, are they being used wrongly, so that people deliberately light fires under them to drench the school?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, sprinkler systems are used by some schools. The fire safety advice given to schools suggests that if the school is at high risk, a sprinkler system is good value. However, they are extremely expensive; if we were to put them into all schools, it would cost about £3 billion. In some cases sprinklers would not be appropriate. When fires start in roof spaces—in the Tiffin Girls' School, for example—sprinklers make no difference. Ironically, sprinklers also become targets for vandalism.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, the Minister has not told us whether the Government have decided to install sprinklers in all new school buildings, where presumably the installation cost would be a good deal lower than it would be after the building has been built.

On a different subject, detection rates for arson are generally extremely low—about 8 per cent, compared with 23 per cent of crime in general. Presumably the very large proportion of fires that are started in schools by pupils can be detected more easily. Has the department issued guidance to head teachers on how they should deal with pupils who are thought to be, or prove to be, the culprits in these matters? When are they sent to the police, and are they brought before courts?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, we have not given, and we do not intend to give, general guidance on installing sprinklers in new schools. The building regulations do not require it and we do not intend to change them. As new schools are subject to building regulations, they have better compartmentation, for example, which makes a difference to safety overall. The figure which the noble Baroness cites is quite correct: arson detection rates are low. We know that about 65 per cent of fires in schools are started by pupils; so that detection rate is quite high. Although head teachers are the best possible people to deal with troublemakers, the DfES has recently issued guidance on dealing with troublemakers in schools. It is a fairly fat document and sets out a whole range of initiatives.

Lord Laming

My Lords, does the Minister agree that matters of this kind lend weight to the importance of proper resourcing for the youth service in this country? In particular, young people, especially those in deprived areas, should have access to good sports facilities to occupy them in more constructive ways.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, but I would go further. By enabling schools to stay open longer and by developing sports and arts programmes after school, we are seeing a reduction in vandalism. It is a very cost-effective programme. We want to see more of that, and also more schemes such as the Splash Scheme, which the police have been actively and successfully promoting. I believe they have seen a significant drop in vandalism. So we want more of the same.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, does the Minister realise that one does not have to be in a deprived area to have arson? My husband was headmaster of University College School, which was burnt down through arson in 1976. The culprit was never caught.

Baroness Andrews

Yes, my Lords; it is a very sad fact and absolutely true. So far as I know, the figures that we have do not break down the type of school that has been subject to an arson attack. There are also different types of arsonist. There are opportunists, for whom arson is another form of delinquency, and then there are pathological children for whom fire has a great attraction. It is difficult to deal with both of those types.

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