Summerland Fire: 50th Anniversary

– in the House of Commons at 6:47 pm on 12 July 2023.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Fay Jones.)

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy) 7:02, 12 July 2023

It is our duty in Parliament not to hide from the past but to learn from it. The Summerland fire has never before been the subject of a debate in this House and, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the fire, it is time that changed.

I take the House back to 2 August 1973, when my constituent’s life and the lives of so many others changed forever. Heather Lea was enjoying the start of married life with her husband, Reg, while her parents and little sister, June, were on holiday on the Isle of Man, a place that held special memories for them all. Sadly, those memories are all Heather has left, because on that day her mother, Elizabeth, her father, Richard, and her little sister, June, were among the 50 people who lost their lives in the Summerland fire. As we will hear, the disaster could have been avoided yet, despite this fact, the bereaved families are still fighting for recognition and an apology. Sadly, the chances of there ever being justice appear to have long gone. Heather tells me:

“Fifty years is a long time but the burden has never diminished, and it never will.”

The Summerland leisure centre in Douglas on the Isle of Man was state of the art when it opened, two years before that fateful day, and offered a Mediterranean climate in a British seaside resort encompassing a swimming pool, amusement arcades, an underground disco, restaurants and bars. On the evening of 2 August, a fire was started in an unused kiosk on the crazy golf course outside the complex. The kiosk caught fire, collapsing against the exterior wall of Summerland. Due to the materials the architects used in the structure, the fire quickly spread.

The architects of Summerland had opted to use Galbestos in its construction. Galbestos is a plastic-coated metal cladding with limited fire resistance and, in combination with the use of decalin, which burns rapidly, for the internal walls, created the perfect cocktail for a disaster.

The fire broke through the highly combustible surface and burned undetected for a whole 10 minutes before bursting into the ground floor of the leisure building, igniting the Oroglas acrylic panels used on the walls and roof. The open-plan design aided the spread of the fire, with the internal spaces acting as chimneys to spread the fire. The terror that those in the building must have felt is unthinkable; survivors described mass panic, with the building appearing to melt before their eyes. One survivor said:

“There were fireballs coming down. It was like raining fire. There was no way to get away from it.”

The fire was the deadliest on land since the second world war. I realise as I say these words just how difficult it must be for the loved ones of those who were there to hear them.

Just over a month after the disaster, the lieutenant governor of the Isle of Man appointed a commission to investigate the Summerland fire, under its chair, the hon. Mr Justice Joseph Cantley OBE. The Summerland fire Commission identified several factors in the high number of deaths, including the construction of the building and the evacuation process, which was described as “delayed, unorganised and difficult” with a number of exits locked. It became clear that the materials used in the construction were known to be a safety risk. Either through the ignorance of professionals who ought to have known better or as a result of downright deception, they were still permitted for use. It is clear that regulations were bent to allow that to happen. The original inquiry in 1973 refers to the drawings submitted as unclear, with no dimensions and minimal details, including a serious error where the composition of the sixth floor was incorrectly labelled.

Significant changes were then made to the design to keep costs down, which the report said did not illicit any “particular discussion or anxiety’, despite replacing reinforced concrete walls with Galbestos, which was already known to have limited fire- resistance. The planning submissions relating to Summerland contravened a number of building byelaws and failed to meet the requirement that external walls of any building were to have fire resistance of at least two hours and for ceilings to provide adequate protection against the spread of fire. Permitting the use of both Galbestos and Oroglas contravened such byelaws. However, a waiver was agreed, as permitted under the local government building byelaws legislation of 1950.

The inquiry reported that the borough engineer had been orally informed by the architect of the corporation that Oroglas was non-combustible. Although the chief fire staff officer made it clear that Oroglas was combustible and offered no fire resistance, he raised no objection to the planning committee, which was tasked with reaching a decision on the waiver. Correspondence between the various architects made it clear that the design of the centre could not be delivered in any other way, as it said:

“Unless we are granted”— an Oroglas waiver—

“we shall be in the soup as I cannot suggest an alternative.”

Compensatory safety measures should still have been taken, such as more exits and a sprinkler system, but no sprinklers were installed.

Oroglas was blamed for the disaster. Although it burned with frightening speed, the main culprit was Galbestos, which was used instead of reinforced concrete, but the fire resistance of that material was never even considered. The failure to consider the properties of materials was not isolated to those in the authorities. The decision to substitute decalin for plasterboard without understanding that it was also combustible, thus giving risk to a combustible void, is described by the inquiry as what

“may well have been the biggest single structural contribution to the disaster of the fire”.

Given the time constraints, I am able to provide only a brief overview of the concerns in the processes that resulted in permission being granted to Summerland. However, just from what I have said, it is clear that there were multiple failings across the board, any one of which could have been disastrous on its own; put together, it is sadly all too clear how this tragedy unfolded. Even using the standards of the time, though, it is difficult to see how the judgment of death by misadventure, which the inquiry reached, can stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I rise on behalf of my constituent Jackie, who came to tell me what happened to her last year. I had not heard about Summerland before, but she was in Summerland with her mother and her best friend. They both died, but she survived. I know that the hon. Gentleman is going to come on to what we can do now, but, having talked about the fire deficiencies, does he agree that 50 years on we need an apology for those deficiencies? Does he agree that we also need an apology for and recognition of the suffering caused to the survivors? Thirdly, and most importantly, does he agree that we should request that the Isle of Man Government have another review of the death by misadventure verdict?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention and for the support he has given to the campaign. As I will go on to say, the Apologise for Summerland campaign has made those requests, which I will talk about in more detail later in my speech.

Taking the point raised by the hon. Gentleman, death by misadventure equates to an accidental death caused by a risk that is taken voluntarily. The 50 people who lost their lives did not voluntarily walk into a building comprised of materials that offered limited or no fire resistance. They were on holiday and they trusted that those involved in building Summerland would not knowingly have used dangerous materials. They believed that the building they were entering was safe. I do not think there is anyone who would think that that is not a reasonable position to take. That is why, among many other reasons, death by misadventure is such an inappropriate verdict to find.

The lack of clarity over the fire protections and precautions at Summerland is a huge concern. No schedule of the means of escape existed for Summerland. Enclosed staircases had no ventilation. Openings were not all fire-resisting or self-closing and contained materials that were not fire-resistant. The physical shortcomings of the construction were clear, but the organisation of emergency procedures was also sorely lacking. Some members of staff who were part of the “fire-fighting party” were not aware of their membership of it, demonstrating the absence of satisfactory training.

There had also been unapproved changes to the fire alarm system, creating a delay before the alarms sounded and the fire station was alerted. The automatic fire alarm from Summerland alerted the fire service at 8.05 pm. However, the public alarms at the leisure centre were still yet to sound. The inquiry concluded that

“no organised system of staff training member of the staff was given any duty or any instruction whatsoever as to his or her actions in the event of a fire”.

It is plain to see why there was mass panic when the fire started.

The lack of training is sadly borne out in the events following the discovery of the fire. One of the most startling and troubling parts of the account I have read—it is a very troubling read—is when the organist, who was playing at the time the fire was discovered, was asked to continue playing to prevent panic breaking out. Only two minutes after he was given that instruction, he reported that the fire was clearly visible at the back of the amusement arcade. Evacuation began only at that point, when the flames had become visible to the visitors, causing mass panic and undoubtedly making matters worse.

Around 20 minutes prior to that, staff had been unsuccessful in dealing with the fire or in notifying the fire service via the automatic alarm system. The inquiry concluded that the building, and by inference the lives of those lost, could have been saved if the fire service had been called shortly after it was found that the firefighting efforts of the staff had failed.

While there was some guidance and a document had been drawn up in 1971 in regard to evacuation, knowledge among managers and staff was limited. There was no evacuation procedure in place and drills had not been carried out. Those in management were unclear as to who was responsible, but failed to make enquiries to clarify that. Staff were not properly trained and there was no one exerting overall control. Had there been, the necessary alerts could have been made and evacuation processes could have been carried out. Instead, some exit doors remained locked, despite the fire service complaining to management about this previously; the escalator remained on, preventing a safe means of escape; and the generators failed to provide the emergency lighting that was needed.

The inquiry concluded that there were failures by the Douglas Corporation and the local government board in terms of providing and scrutinising plans and a lack of inter-communication. The choice of architects was also criticised, with the inquiry exposing their lack of scientific understanding and a failure to focus on fire safety. The inquiry said there was a lack of design management and a continual failure to examine the development of plans. That is important, because that could have highlighted the flaws, resulting in errors being identified.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on bringing forward the debate. As it happens, I was in the Isle of Man last week, as a guest of the President of Tynwald and the Speaker of the House of Keys. One of the official guests was a lady called Ruth McQuillan-Wilson, who has written a number of books about the Summerland fire; she herself was a survivor. I want to put on record a tribute to Ruth, who described the events of the evening to me and the events that have subsequently followed, as the hon. Gentleman has outlined.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I echo the support that he has given to the many campaigners who have fought for more than 50 years to bring this matter to light.

The structure, once it was built, did not have proper technical inspections, which would have been yet another stage at which issues could have been raised. The chief fire officer did not consider issues of firefighting on receiving the original plans and was then not consulted on significant changes to those plans. The certification for the building, and indeed the processes in general, are said not to have been stringent or rigorous, and there was an absence of fire safety and evacuation plans.

It was a litany of failings. Despite that, the inquiry concluded that “there were no villains”. I think we can see, beyond doubt, that that conclusion was wrong. There were clear failures in the plans by the authorities, the fire service and the management of Summerland. The inquiry made 34 recommendations, demonstrating how many flaws there were, yet there remains to this day a lack of accountability.

Three young boys appeared before the juvenile court for damage to a kiosk, but apart from that nobody took responsibility or blame—whatever you want to call it—for the failings. I do not know whether it was because there were so many people and organisations that could have been found to be at fault. Perhaps it was the grossly inappropriate finding of misadventure that led to that lack of accountability. Perhaps, given the times that we were in then, accountability was just a little bit harder to find. Whatever it was, once the inquiry finished that was more or less it. Perhaps this failure to hold the authorities or individuals to account is why recognition of the disaster is so limited.

My constituent describes the memorial near to the Summerland site as “insignificant and insulting”, drawing comparisons with a stone bought from a garden centre. She has recently discovered that it is only her family who are mentioned in the remembrance book at the crematorium on the island, and that is only because they paid for their entry in it. I find that disappointing. In fact, I find it appalling and disrespectful. The families lost so much on that day, and recognition of such should not be reliant on payment. That is something that we expect and hope will change.

The original memorial was replaced with something more fitting in 2013, on the 40th anniversary, but we must question why, for the preceding 40 years, those in charge felt that the loss of 50 people did not warrant a proper memorial that would offer a space for reflection and solace. Heather tells me that even at the memorial event in 2013, the dignitaries who attended failed to approach any of the family members present, which she describes as incredibly hurtful for those visiting the place where their loved ones had perished.

After speaking to Heather and Reg and learning more about the disaster, I approached the Isle of Man Government to ask them whether they would commit to a full inquiry, similar in structure to the Hillsborough inquiry—we have a blueprint that could be followed. I accept that, perhaps, given the length of time that has passed it might be a little bit unrealistic to expect that, but I still expected more than the response I received, which simply directed me to the inquiry of 1973. However, the impending anniversary, and perhaps the publicity surrounding this debate, has perhaps focused minds a little more, as I have this morning received from the Chief Minister an email indicating that there will be a national service of remembrance on 30 July, and that he will be holding a private reception prior to that where he has indicated his wish to hear directly from the survivors and victims’ families. That certainly feels as if he has heard the concerns about what happened at the 40th anniversary. He has also indicated that he will be holding an event to thank those from the emergency services who responded to the fire.

The Chief Minister has also said that he will be making a formal statement about the disaster to the Isle of Man’s Parliament next week. Although we do not know what he will say in that statement, I want to use this debate to encourage the Minister to formally write on behalf of His Majesty’s Government to indicate their support for the requests made by the Apologise for Summerland campaign, which, as we have heard, are a public apology from the Isle of Man Government for the

“disregard for basic fire safety in favour of saving money and speedy construction; a public apology for

“the pain and suffering for the last 50 years”; and a public admission that the death by misadventure verdict was inappropriate.

I appreciate that this Parliament cannot tell another Parliament what to do, but I hope that the Minister will be able, diplomatically and sincerely, to make those requests and convey the feelings expressed by Members in the House tonight. It is clear that the conclusions of the inquiry fell short of the standards that we would expect, and fell short of providing genuine accountability. There is a need for an apology from the Isle of Man Government for their role in the disaster.

I hope that the Minister will be able to convey on our behalf that, as we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the disaster, an apology is long overdue. The knowledge of the bereaved families that the loss of their loved ones could have been avoided is still incredibly painful, but the fact that their deaths are still legally categorised as misadventure only exacerbates that pain. I pay tribute to the bereaved families, who have never given up their fight for justice; to the Apologise for Summerland campaign for all that it has done to give a voice to the families; and to Grenfell United, which is standing side by side with the Summerland families. Grenfell United has said:

“The similarities between Summerland and Grenfell are chilling”.

We will never know whether true accountability for Summerland might have prevented the Grenfell tragedy from happening. Sadly, there are far too many what ifs, which must torment all involved. I will finish with a few words from Heather, which echo that point. She says:

“We don’t feel that it’s ever been recognised that 50 people lost their lives. I’ve lost 50 years of having my sister…It was a fire that should never have happened. I feel so sorry for the people of Grenfell. If the reports had been acted upon from the Summerland fire, Grenfell probably wouldn’t have happened. You can’t brush something like that under the carpet anymore.”

I hope that following today’s debate we can build on the cross-party support that we have had to date, and that through the advocacy of the UK Government, families will receive the recognition, apology and accountability that they deserve. I appreciate that the passage of time makes true accountability difficult, but I am certain that they deserve better than they have had so far.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 7:20, 12 July 2023

I congratulate Justin Madders on securing this important debate. Much of what I will put on record he has clearly laid out, with commendable passion for the constituents he represents.

The fire broke out on the evening of Thursday 2 August 1973. It was, as the hon. Gentleman said, a horrific and tragic incident. I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say that our thoughts are with the friends and families of those who lost their lives, and with the survivors who still retain vivid memories of the tragedy and their loss, as both he and my hon. Friend Jason McCartney have clearly said.

I reiterate and put on record that the leisure centre, which opened in 1971, was deemed to be the most innovative indoor entertainment centre in the world. It was described as a “climate-controlled megastructure” and was the first of its kind in the world. However, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, the building was clad in Oroglas, a highly combustible and transparent acrylic sheeting, and Galbestos, a corrosion-resistant steel sheeting. Those materials were not compliant with the Isle of Man’s fire regulations at the time, which stated that

“external walls of any building shall be non-combustible throughout and have fire resistance of two hours”.

It was later established that the fire was caused by an accidentally discarded lit match or cigarette at a kiosk on the outdoor terrace at 7.40 pm. The initial blaze was detected by staff, who tried to extinguish it. Unfortunately, they had not realised that the fire had already broken through the wall of the Summerland leisure centre, spreading across the wall’s interior, which ignited the flammable acrylic sheeting covering the building. As the hon. Gentleman said, the attempt to evacuate the building began only when visible flames appeared through a vent. By that time, the fire was already out of control, and many people were trapped inside, unable to escape. Forty-eight people lost their lives that night, with two more later dying of their injuries, and at least 80 others were injured. The Summerland fire is the worst disaster in Manx history, and remains the third-worst loss of life from fire on land in the British Isles since the second world war.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Isle of Man is a self-governing jurisdiction that is not part of the UK. It was therefore the Isle of Man’s then lieutenant governor, His Excellency Sir Peter Stallard, and not a Minister of the UK Government, who established a public inquiry known as the Summerland fire commission on 3 September 1973. He appointed a three-man commission to inquire into the circumstances of, and leading up to, the fire at the Summerland leisure centre, and to make recommendations.

The commission included Mr Justice Cantley, a presiding English judge and a former judge of appeal on the Isle of Man; Mr Philip Wilson-Dickson, second in command of the UK Home Office fire inspectorate; and Professor Denis Harper, the head of the department of building at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. Sir Peter appointed Mr Justice Cantley to be chairman of the commission and Mr Carter, of the Government Office, Isle of Man, to be its secretary. The commission’s work was finished in February 1974 and its 40,000-word report, published in May of that year, found that, as I have already noted, neither Oroglas nor Galbestos complied with the Isle of Man’s fire regulations. The report deemed the tragedy to be the result of a series of human errors.

I know that constituents of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston lost loved ones that night, and constituents of other hon. Members will also be remembering friends and family affected by that wholly avoidable disaster. It is right that we remember the Summerland fire in the House today as we approach the 50th anniversary. It is also important that those in positions of authority in relation to such matters do all they can to ensure that fires on the scale of Summerland do not happen again. The Summerland fire commission urged the immediate revision of theatre regulations and drastically changed the whole approach to fire safety on the Isle of Man.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Summerland fire, it is important that we remember those affected by the tragedy. The Deputy Chief Minister of the Isle of Man, Jane Poole-Wilson, has announced plans for a series of commemorations to mark the anniversary. These will include a national service of remembrance, a service at the Kaye memorial garden, and a formal presentation to the emergency and health services. The Isle of Man’s Chief Minister, Alfred Cannan, will also be making a statement on the subject of the 50th anniversary to the Tynwald, the Isle of Man’s Parliament, next Tuesday, 18 July.

The commemorations will be an opportunity for the island community to come together to pay its respects to those who were affected by the disaster and to remember the victims. I am sure there will be people living in the UK, perhaps constituents of the hon. Gentleman or indeed of other hon. Members present in the Chamber, who will wish to join the commemorations. I should add that, in addition to those events, Culture Vannin and Manx National Heritage will be hosting online exhibitions and oral history projects as part of the commemorations, which will provide a valuable record of the disaster and help to ensure greater awareness of the Summerland tragedy, not least among younger generations.

The Summerland fire was a horrific tragedy that claimed the lives of 50 people and injured many more. As we approach the 50th anniversary of that awful night, it is important that we remember the victims and the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy. We must never forget the victims of the fire, and we must ensure, as far as we can, that something like that never happens again.

I happen to be going to the Isle of Man tomorrow as part of my regular engagement with the Crown dependencies. I will ensure that this debate and the comments of hon. Members are conveyed to the Chief Minister, who I am sure will take very seriously the comments made in the Chamber tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.