Windsor Castle (Fire)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:04 pm on 23rd November 1992.

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Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 4:04 pm, 23rd November 1992

The Opposition share the profound sense of loss at the destruction of such a valuable part of our national heritage in the Windsor castle fire. However, we regret the failure of the Minister to set up a public inquiry into the causes of the fire and the lessons to be learned. We echo the tributes to the impressive work undertaken by the firefighters of the Berkshire fire service and others involved in the rescue operation. They displayed great courage in extremely difficult circumstances. All of us owe a great debt of gratitude to them. However, Opposition Members have several serious concerns about the safety arrangements and fire precautions at Windsor. Those questions were not fully dealt with by the Minister.

Sir John Garlick's report following the fire at Hampton court recommended more effective fire drills held jointly between the local fire brigade and Hampton court palace staff. Was that recommendation implemented in the case of Windsor castle? How many fire drills have there been involving castle staff and the Berkshire fire service, and what were the dates of those drills? If the Secretary of State does not have that information today, will he let me have it tomorrow? On the same basis, can the House be informed whether British standard 5839—the code of practice for the installation and servicing of fire-related equipment, including the use of a logbook—was implemented at Windsor castle during the period before the fire?

Why did the Property Services Agency, as part of its preparation for privatisation, transfer responsibility for fire protection at royal buildings to the royal household two years ago? Does the Secretary of State agree that if, as he said, they are buildings of the nation and part of the nation's heritage, the nation should be responsible for fire protection?

Can the Secretary of State say why the Government closed the Crown Suppliers, which was responsible for providing expert advice on fire protection? Can he inform the House who is left within the Government to provide expert advice to Government Departments and to the royal family on anti-inflammable materials? Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether it is true that the royal household refused English Heritage access to survey parts of the castle that have been rewired and structurally altered in the past few years?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that Windsor castle's 12 part-time firemen were made redundant under a cost-cutting exercise five years ago? Does he agree that the fire could have been dealt with much more effectively in the crucial first few minutes of the blaze if that force had still been in place? Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on suggestions that there was considerable ambiguity about the respective roles of the royal household, the PSA, the internal fire prevention services and the Berkshire fire brigade—an ambiguity which delayed the firefighting exercise?

Is the Secretary of State aware that, according to documents leaked to The Sunday Times, the castle was considering abandoning its computerised alarm system because it was "very labour-intensive"? Is it not the case that, as the consequences of cost cutting, high-pressure water-jet pumps were replaced by inferior pumps less capable of fighting a major blaze?

Can the right hon. Gentleman give more details of the safety conditions imposed on the private contractors involved in rewiring the area around Windsor chapel? Were contractors undertaking electrical work in that part of the building where the fire started? English Heritage, the National Trust and most national museums have banned hot work except with stringent safeguards. Can the Secretary of State say whether such safeguards were in force at Windsor?

Can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will include within the remit of any inquiry clarification of what is public and what is private property on the Windsor estate—what is ours, what is theirs, and whether there are any grey areas?

The Garlick report on the Hampton court fire concluded: Perhaps the most important lesson of the Hampton Court Palace fire … is that the preservation of our national heritage requires that the best material contribution from science and technology is matched by a corresponding commitment to securing the best organisation and use of human resources. The whole country is asking whether we learned those lessons.

Several of my hon. Friends as well as members of the public raised the question of who should pay. The right hon. Gentleman has already pledged this afternoon that the total cost will be paid out of the public purse. While there is a great deal of public sympathy for the monarch, there is also legitimate public concern that the total cost of repair should not be paid exclusively by the taxpayer. Has the right hon. Gentleman ruled out a contribution from the royal family, and would he welcome such a contribution if it were offered?