HC Deb 03 July 1986 vol 100 cc592-3W
Mr. Jessel

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has received the report of the inquiry by Sir John Garlick into the role of his Department in relation to the fire at Hampton Court Palace on 30–31 March; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Ridley

Yes. I have recently received Sir John's report. Sir John was asked in April by my predecessor "to report on the discharge of the functions of the Secretary of State for the Environment in relation to Hampton Court Palace in the light of the events of 31 March 1986, with particular reference to—

  1. (i) Maintenance.
  2. (ii) Fire precautions.
  3. (iii) The action taken when the fire was discovered, and to make recommendations."

I have this afternoon placed copies of this report in the Libraries of both Houses. There have been some very minor deletions for security reasons. They are indicated by asterisks.

The report refers to evidence that indicates that the fire started within an hour or two of midnight in the main bedroom of Lady Gale's apartment and that the cause of the fire was probably a naked flame.

The fire was discovered as the result of an intruder alarm being activated at 5.20 am. The automatic fire detection system did not operate until about 6.15 am. The delay in the discovery of the fire was a material factor in the extent of the damage that ultimately occurred.

Sir John concluded that earlier discovery would not have averted the death of Lady Gale. He also concluded that little blame attached to the custody officers or other staff at the palace. He praised their devotion and courage and that of the palace staff and the salvage squad in seeking to protect life and property once the fire was discovered.

Sir John said that the evidence did not enable him to establish with any certainty why the fire was not discovered earlier. He considered that the most likely cause of the apparent delay in the operation of the fire alarm was that part, or even all, of the automatic fire detection system had inadvertently been rendered inoperative. He criticised the arrangements that allowed an alarm system with design shortcomings to be installed, and then handed over with a less than adequate commissioning process.

Sir John described the exercise of responsibility at Hampton Court palace, divided among different parts of the Department of the Environment, as contributing significantly to the unsatisfactory state of affairs that had developed by the time of the fire. He recommended that responsibility and accountability for Hampton Court should be more clearly located among officials of the Department of the Environment. He also commented on the division of responsibility between the Department of the Environment and the Royal Household and recommended that consideration should be given to achieving a more unified basis of decision-making and authority at Hampton Court palace.

Sir John considered that the most immediate improvements in security against fire would he achieved by implementing 12 recommendations concerning technical improvements to the automatic fire detection system and changes in the procedures for its use and in the training of the staff concerned.

I am putting the procedural changes recommended by Sir John into immediate effect. I have set in hand an urgent evaluation by experts of the technical recommendations; the necessary changes will be implemented as soon as possible; some have already been set in train. I am urgently considering the conclusions and recommendations in the report relating to responsibility and accountability upon which I shall consult with the Lord Chamberlain, as appropriate. As soon as this consideration is concluded, I shall report to the House what further steps I propose to take to improve the security of Hampton Court palace and its management generally.

I deeply regret the fire and the loss of life and the damage it caused and I am determined that the lessons we can learn from it shall be applied to all other historic buildings in the care of the Department.

I am grateful to Sir John Garlick for his thorough report.