Backbench Business — House of Commons Administration and Savings Programme

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:47 pm on 8th November 2012.

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Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Shadow Minister (Transport) 1:47 pm, 8th November 2012

It is a pleasure to follow Adam Afriyie. I will be mentioning his constituency in my remarks, which were written before I realised that he would be speaking before me, although I am happy to take any credit for the choreography.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on mid-term financial planning. Most hon. Members share the view that it is an honour to work in these magnificent buildings and surroundings. I am fortunate because my constituency is only three miles away, and I think that I have personally guided between 5,000 and 10,000 of my constituents round these buildings over the past 15 years. My majority is 7,000 and I do not think those numbers are unconnected. It is a privilege to show people round, and when I tell them that I spent 23 years in the London fire brigade, and say that this is the best fire station I have ever worked in, they all recognise that that must be a matter of fact. I want to keep it that way; I want to keep these buildings here, so I disagree with some of the comments made by my hon. Friend Mr Winnick.

I wish to speak about fire safety. All hon. Members know the history of fire in this place, and the great fires of 1512 and 1834 were central to these buildings. I speak as a member of the parliamentary fire safety committee, which is chaired by Mr John Borley. I thank him and Ms Charlotte Simmonds, who is also on that committee, for helping me to prepare these remarks.

I wish briefly to raise three issues and ask the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House, and John Thurso and his colleagues, to respond, or at least to be aware in future discussions of the matters I am about to raise. The Leader of the House will be aware I have tabled three parliamentary questions this week on fire safety. The three issues I want to raise must be dealt with in the financial envelope of the House. They are: first, the evacuation arrangements from Parliament and the Chamber; secondly, the level and lack of take-up of fire safety training by MPs, MPs’ staff and House staff; and thirdly, the overall future fire protection spend.

On evacuation, a number of hon. Members in the Chamber now would have been here during the only evacuation that has taken place in anger, when two chaps hit Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, from the Gallery with three packets of powder. The Speaker suspended the sitting, and hon. Members walked out of the Chamber into the Lobbies. How wrong that was, although we did not know at the time. I should have remembered that it was wrong from my fire brigade training. I was busily writing Her Majesty’s message for the day as Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty’s Household. It is a matter of regret that I did not scream out to the Speaker and tell hon. Members to stop. Had the powder been toxin, hon. Members would have trailed it through central London. Nowadays, the Doorkeepers are trained to lock us in. Many hon. Members might not realise that, but if it happens again, we are not going anywhere.

That is the situation in a bio-terrorist attack, but if there is a fire, we need to evacuate. How many Members of Parliament since 2010 have even thought about evacuation from the Chamber? I propose that we have an evacuation of the Chamber and the Galleries to test our procedures, perhaps on a Thursday afternoon, which is when we debate Back-Bench business. We could extend the debate for 30 minutes to accommodate the evacuation. There would be some cost, but it would not be great.

Such an evacuation needs to be considered. It is not health and safety overkill. Subsequent to the fire at Windsor castle—I said I would mention the constituency of the hon. Member for Windsor—Her Majesty personally participates in evacuations when she is there. If it is good enough for the Head of State, it should be good enough for parliamentarians. We ought to understand the procedures to keep ourselves, members of staff and visitors safe.

On training, the parliamentary intranet home page features an A to Z index, which lists fire safety awareness training for MPs, MPs’ staff and House staff. The training provides simple awareness of whichever building people occupy—exits, muster points, safety procedures and so on. It is simple, useful and effective. It is money saving, but it could also be life saving, and it takes fewer than 10 minutes. The number of MPs who have undertaken the training is three; the number of MPs’ members of staff is 52; and the number of House staff is 714. That is 0.5%, 2.8% and 35% respectively, which is not good enough. To escalate those numbers considerably, I ask all hon. Members in the Chamber to find 10 minutes next week to take the training—it takes no longer than that—but more importantly, they should ask their staff to do it, because they would be looking after their safety.

Evacuation marshals are needed in most parts of the parliamentary estate. There have been several evacuation drills recently—colleagues would have participated in them—and we should thank all the volunteers who undertake those duties on top of their normal work, because they, along with others, look after us. All fire safety legislation has come about because of a tragedy or disaster. Therefore, I appeal to all hon. Members to think about fire safety.

Finally, on future fire safety improvement works, the proposed medium-term financial plan includes £20 million for fire safety improvement works on the parliamentary estate from 2013 to 2017. Key aspects of the works include the fact that work is required in advance and as part of renewal works. In addition, fire safety works in advance of any renewal works will aim to minimise disruption to Members, but they should be aware that some disruption could be necessary. Fire safety works in advance of any renewal work will seek to achieve value for money and avoid nugatory spend. Clearly, the programme has been agreed, and I hope it will be delivered, but if the plan proposed by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross is not approved, future fire safety improvement works will be in jeopardy and the future of the Palace will be brought into question.

I should say a quick word on the performance of the fire safety section and those who work so assiduously to protect us. Despite ageing infrastructure and systems, improvements to the management of fire safety have resulted in a 94% reduction in fire incidents and a 54% reduction in false alarms on the estate since 2005-06. Parliament experiences in the region of 200 to 300 false alarms per year on the estate. Although they are managed, only about 15% result in evacuation. Colleagues will be aware of the Fire Brigades Union lobby of Parliament yesterday concerning cuts in the fire service throughout the country, some of which—I suspect—are inevitable. One London fire station suggested for closure is Westminster, which will obviously cause concern to those who take an interest in fire safety in Parliament.

In conclusion, we should commend those key members of staff who work so hard to keep us safe. I ask the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and his colleagues to keep sight of the fire budget in their financial planning to ensure that these buildings are protected for hon. Members and generations to come. I fully support the report’s recommendations and hope the House does likewise later.