HC Deb 15 May 1969 vol 783 cc248-54W
8. Mr. James Hamilton

asked the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity if she is now able to indicate the conclusions of the Government on the recommendations of the jury in the fatal accident inquiry into the fire at the premises of A. J. and S. Stern Limited in James Watt Street, Glasgow, on 18th November, 1968.

Mrs. Castle

Yes, I have now considered the jury's recommendations with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for the Home Department. In the course of our study we have had discussions with members of a special subcommittee set up by the Glasgow Corporation to consider the Inquiry's findings. In reaching our own conclusions we have taken fully into account what the Corporation's representatives said to us, and we are grateful to them for the careful and painstaking thought which they gave to the problems.

2. The jury's first recommendation was that local and fire authorities and the appropriate Government Departments should collaborate in the preparation and use of a register of factory managements found to be in serious breach of statutory fire provisions. While we take the view that it would be impracticable to create and keep up to date a comprehensive register on the lines envisaged, we do accept the need, brought out by the Inquiry, for existing arrangements for the exchange of relevant information between Factory Inspectors and fire authorities about cases where occupiers move to new premises to be made more systematic. The need is for arrangements to ensure early attention to firms which move to new premises and whose practice in relation to fire hazards has persistently and materially fallen below the statutory requirements. Factory Inspectors are accordingly being instructed that they should ask the fire authorities to give priority to cases of this kind as regards both means of escape certificates, where these are required, and any inspections which they may be undertaking on behalf of the Factory Inspector as allowed by the Act. The Factory Inspector will, of course, accord the same priority in his own inspections.

3. The second recommendation was that bars on the windows of factories should be prohibited. The Government recognises that not all bars are necessary and fully accepts that something needs to be done to improve the present situation. The tragedy of James Watt Street has shown that because of human fallibility perfectly good and authorised means of escape can be out of action at the time they are needed. The major cause of the disaster was the fact that the fire exit was padlocked contrary to the law and the warnings given by the Factory Inspector. In such a situation windows which can be opened might help to save life. The fire authority can accept any window as part of the means of escape in the event of fire and in such cases bars or other obstructions would already be unlawful. In general however fire authorities do not take account of windows in deciding what means of escape are required from a particular premises. I am advised that this is a fundamental fire service principle. Moreover there are many cases where it is reasonable for windows to be obstructed to stop people from getting in and I do not therefore consider that a legislative ban on window bars or other means of obstruction is justified. I intend however to press for the removal of unnecessary bars and Factory Inspectors are being instructed to do this. The fire authorities are being urged to take parallel action. We will keep a close watch on the position and if the action we are taking does not yield satisfactory results we shall consider in the context of the new safety, health and welfare legislation now being prepared whether any compulsory powers are necessary.

4. In their third recommendation, the jury suggested that the storage and use of foam plastics and other inflammable materials which give off toxic fumes when ignited should be controlled. The law already includes important safety provisions relating to inflammable materials. Under section 45(d) of the Factories Act, 1961, every factory, however small, in or under which highly inflammable materials are stored or used must have a certificate as to means of escape in the event of fire and limitations may be imposed as to the quantities of such materials. Special additional requirements have been imposed in relation to the storage and use of certain materials which carry a specially high risk of fire, for example, because they give off a flammable vapour at relatively low temperatures, or because they burn at an abnormally high speed. Foam plastics, though they are liable to burn rapidly, do not have characteristics which would justify their selection in preference to many other materials found in industry for special storage and use regulations comparable to those which already exist, for example, in the case of cellulose solutions, celluloid or magnesium. What is of the utmost importance in the case of materials like foam plastic is that the means of escape should be adequate and unobstructed. In spite of repeated injunctions by the Factory Inspector, the law as to means of escape was not obeyed on the day of the fire in Stern's factory; if it had been the outcome would have been very different. It is not clear that the addition of yet further legislative requirements to those already in existence would lead to a real improvement. Nevertheless, stringent though the existing legal requirements as to means of escape are, we propose to consider whether they might be further strengthened. Another matter which we think needs examination is the level of penalties provided under present legislation for breaches of the fire provisions. We are not satisfied that these sufficiently reflect the gravity of the risks. We shall be giving this matter the closest attention in preparing the new safety, health and welfare legislation. We also feel that there is a real need for a better understanding, both by occupiers and their workpeople, of the risks involved in the handling of inflammable materials such as foam plastic. In the months since the Glasgow Fire, Factory Inspectors have paid special attention to upholstery works in an effort to ensure that the lessons of the fire have been learned.

5. The fourth recommendation was that restrictions on smoking in factories should be extended. The Government accept that there is a strong case for further legislation to restrict smoking in certain circumstances in the interests of safety. I shall consider, in the light of the jury's recommendation, the inclusion in the new safety, health and welfare legislation of a prohibition of smoking in places where highly inflammable materials are present and the circumstances are such that smoking would give rise to a risk of fire.

6. In their fifth recommendation, the jury urged that there should be more frequent inspection of factories having a high fire risk. In the light of the jury's recommendation, Factory Inspectors are now being instructed to ensure that high fire risk factories of all kinds are inspected at least once in each twelve months to check compliance with the fire provisions of the Factories Act, 1961. Where the factory is not due for a general inspection in any year, a special visit will be made, either by the Inspector or, if the Inspector thinks fit and the fire authority agrees, by an officer of the fire brigade.

7. The sixth recommendation called for the more effective allocation of responsibility for fire prevention and for the enforcement of statutory regulations relating to fire between the authorities at present responsible; and the application of more extensive resources to fire preven- tion The division of responsibility between Factory Inspectors and fire authorities under which the fire authority deals with means of escape certification and the Factory Inspector with the other provisions will be reviewed in the context of the proposed new safety, health and welfare legislation, and in the light of any relevant recommendations made by the Departmental (Holroyd) Committee on the Fire Service. It would, however, be wrong to suggest that the existing arrangements for the enforcement of the statutory fire requirements were failing because of this division of responsibility or that they are not working satisfactorily in most cases. Although the Factory Inspector is responsible for all fire matters other than the certification of the means of escape, he can, under section 148(1) of the Factories Act, authorise an officer of the brigade to enter factories for the purpose of reporting to him on any of officers have been so authorised. Moreover, both Factory Inspectors and fire authorities give the most meticulous attention to fire matters, and co-operation between them is generally very close indeed. Within the local authority sphere I am aware that, in Glasgow, the responsibility for certifying means of escape under the Factories Act rests with the Master of Works and not with the Fire-master. I do not know whether the jury had this situation in mind in making their recommendation, but the House will realise that this is a matter within the discretion of the fire authority. The Holroyd Committee may, however, wish to comment upon this kind of situation. Meanwhile, the Glasgow, and other fire authorities whose practice is similar, may wish to take note of what the jury said. As regards the devotion of increased resources to fire prevention, the fire authorities are well aware of the need, and have, in fact, been steadily adding to the numbers of full-time fire prevention staff in recent years. Moreover, fire authorities in England and Wales are increasingly making use of operational staff for inspection work, a practice which the Home Office encourage. In Scotland, a Working Party of the Scottish Central Fire Brigades Adivsory Council has been set up to consider adopting similar arrangements.

8. The seventh recommendation proposed the extension of the power of entry which fire authorities enjoy in relation to means of escape under section 41(2) of the Factories Act to cover all aspects of fire prevention. I am advised that section 41(2) does give the fire authority many opportunities of inspecting premises, but this, again, is a matter which we shall review in connection with the proposed new safety, health and welfare legislation and any relevant recommendations which may be made by the Holroyd Committee. I have, however, already referred to the widespread use which is made of the power to authorise fire brigade officers to check compliance with the Factories Act fire provisions. In view of this and the closeness of the co-operation between the Factory Inspectors and the fire authorities it seems doubtful whether any serious difficulty arises from the present statutory position.

9. In their eighth recommendation the jury suggested the introduction of a time limit of six months within which a means of escape certificate should be granted and further proposed that these certificates should apply to the occupier and not (as at present) to the premises. There are strong legal and practical arguments against the suggestion that a means of escape certificate must be issued within a period of six months. A longer period is frequently necessary for alteration to premises and it would be wrong to put an occupier in a position in which he could not legally use his premises because an arbitrary time limit had been passed. As regards the second part of the recommendation, the suggested attachment of the certificate to the occupier would also not be acceptable; an occupier can radically change the conditions in a factory whereas there may be a change of occupier without any significant change in the fire conditions. It may be that we should provide that a relevant change of conditions, whether by the existing or a new occupier, should call for a new or revised fire certificate and I shall consider this in connection with the proposed new safety, health and welfare legislation. Moreover, while we do not feel able to accept the jury's recommendation, the House will wish to know that I intend, without commitment at this stage, to consider in relation to the new legislation two suggestions made by the Glasgow Corporation. The first of these was that a new occupier of a factory should be under an obligation to apply immediately for a certificate of means of escape in case of fire but should continue meanwhile to be bound to keep available the means of escape prescribed in the certificate granted to any previous occupier. The point here is that, while it is right that the certificate should attach to the premises and not to the occupier, a change of occupier increases the likelihood of alterations to the premises and it may therefore be desirable for the fire authority to be alterted. The second suggestion was that occupiers who had been required by the fire authority to make alterations to their premises before being granted a means of escape certificate should be required to exhibit notices stating that alterations had been required, that they were being carried out, and that in the meantime extreme care should be exercised.

10. Finally, I would stress that the Government fully share the concern expressed by the jury about this tragic case. While they have not felt able to accept all the jury's recommendations, they believe that the action they propose will represent a real and effective addition to our protection against fire hazards.