Fire Safety (Case of Sophie Rosser)

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 3rd March 2015.

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Photo of Jonathan Evans Jonathan Evans Conservative, Cardiff North 11:00 am, 3rd March 2015

May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be able to start this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth? I know that it is usual and traditional to say that, but—as I just reminded you before we started—despite our first meeting more than 30 years ago in Cardiff, this is the first opportunity I have had to start a debate under your chairmanship in Westminster Hall, albeit in my last month as a Member of Parliament. It is a great pleasure to have you in the Chair.

Sophie Rosser was brought up in Cardiff, and her parents are my constituents. She was a bright and intelligent young lady with everything to live for. In her early 20s, she relocated to London to pursue a career in architecture and interior design. She lived with her boyfriend at Meridian Place, an upscale Docklands property that had been redeveloped, as so many have been over the past 20 years in that part of London.

Sophie came to national prominence in August 2012 when she faced the awful dilemma that most people will have thought about at some time in their lives. Faced with a building that was ablaze, would we risk our life to rescue a loved one? We are all well aware of the sound advice that we should follow, which is to act calmly and leave everything to the professionals, but at some time in our lives we must all have thought about how we might react were we faced with such awful circumstances. Sophie returned to her home and knew that her boyfriend was still in the building. She made the immediate decision to try to enter and save him—a decision that cost her her life.

Fireman Carter of the London fire brigade was attending his first actual fire at Meridian Place. He honestly informed Sophie’s inquest that he was frightened when he entered the building, even though he was a fully trained fireman with all the correct safety equipment, breathing apparatus and so on. He told the coroner that he was frightened. He was on his hands and knees, groping across the fourth floor of the building, when he found Sophie. She had been overcome by smoke and had clearly been disorientated before losing consciousness. Although she was removed from the building, she died shortly afterwards.

Sophie’s inquest was held in September last year. The coroner, Mary Hassell, highlighted a number of fire safety issues at Meridian Place: the fire alarm had not been working for two years; there were issues with the self-closing fire doors; the building had been constructed with inadequate smoke ventilation shafts; and there had been only one fire risk assessment since 1997. Nevertheless, I want to make it clear to the Minister that the purpose of today’s debate is to highlight general issues of fire safety that are of relevance given the circumstances of Sophie’s death. It is particularly important that I reiterate that because the London fire brigade is continuing its investigations regarding the tragedy and has not yet concluded as to whether any charges might be raised. For the avoidance of any confusion, I do not expect the Minister to comment on the specifics of Sophie’s case. I have said as much as I intend to say about that, but it sets the background and context for the fire safety issues that I want to raise.

My purpose today is to examine the adequacy of the current legislative framework as it relates to fire safety. I do so not only given my constituency interest, but in my role as chairman of the all-party group on insurance and financial services, which has held a number of meetings this Parliament on the issue of fire safety. I will touch on some of the other issues later in the debate, but the primary concern that has been expressed by Sophie’s parents, as well as by many professionals who deal with fire safety, is the lack of clarity about who is accountable for the implementation of fire safety laws. In large-scale developments, who has that responsibility? Is it the owner, the property management company, the residents’ association or the individual tenant? Responsibilities sometimes seem to overlap to such an extent that each party comes to believe that it is someone else’s job to ensure that fire safety rules are followed.

Three million new fire doors are bought and installed every year in this country. They are not just doors, but sophisticated pieces of engineering that are fundamental to fire safety strategy in buildings. Critically, they protect escape routes in communal areas. If they are to save lives, they must work correctly and be regularly inspected and tested. However, in a recent survey by fire risk assessors, it was found that no fewer than 80% of escape routes in buildings were obstructed—that is four fifths of all escape routes. Some 65% of fire doors, which are fitted with a spring to ensure that they close, were wedged open, and 85% had their self-closing mechanism disconnected. People see such examples every day; the surveys show that the failings are the norm. In fact, there cannot be one of us who has not seen many such instances in public buildings, even in the Palace of Westminster—I have seen such instances here. It is an offence to have a fire door wedged open, but who checks or enforces that? When failings are found, the lines of accountability are not clear enough.

Sophie’s father, Julian Rosser, fronted this year’s fire door safety week, an awareness campaign that is all about highlighting the issues and encouraging everyone to check the condition of fire doors and to report faults. The campaign is actually part of the Government’s own communication strategy on the matter—Sophie’s father was fronting a Government campaign, but he does not think that an awareness campaign goes far enough, or that such campaigns are ever likely to be enough, given the massive risks that we face every day from fire safety being compromised in the way that I have outlined. It is particularly troubling that new research published as part of fire door safety week showed that half of those surveyed who had legal responsibility for fire safety did not know that they had that responsibility or were unclear about what their responsibilities were.

In 2009, a major fire broke out at Lakanal House, a tower block in Camberwell in London. Six people lost their lives. Ten years earlier, the local council had scheduled the building for demolition because of what were believed to be fire risks, but that did not happen. Following the fire, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority set up the Lakanal House working group to consider the fire safety issues that arose from the tragedy. It formally completed its work last year.

The basis of fire safety management is the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which radically changed the previous regulatory landscape. Following the receipt of the report from the Lakanal House working group, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority reached these conclusions:

“Nearly 10 years after the introduction of the…Fire Safety…Order…the Authority wishes to explore whether the regime is achieving all that is desirable. The Government has already undertaken some of this work in relation to business, as part of its wider deregulation and burden reduction strategy, but the extent of that work— according to the planning authority—

“was limited.

Specifically, the Authority is concerned that there are issues about: complexity; understanding among responsible persons”— in fact, the evidence that I have referred to highlights and endorses that concern. The authority also believed that there were

“contradictions or gaps in the total legislative framework…and that the system of devolved managerial and democratic oversight of fire safety protection activities is unsupported by common methodologies or performance measures. There are also issues about how well guidance is informing responsible persons”.

Accordingly, the planning authority has commissioned a study of the legislative framework, which is now under way. The study will consider, among other things, the general background to and the principles underpinning fire safety legislation, including who has responsibility for fire safety and, in particular, the impact in our capital city. My constituents want clearer definitions of who is responsible for fire safety in multi-occupancy lettings, and legislation to require regular fire risk assessments by properly certified people.

I indicated earlier that our all-party group has been looking at general fire safety issues as well. One of the matters to cause me deep concern was learning from many fire authorities that fire services do not respond to some 80% of fire alarms that go off in urban areas every day. The reason for that is that the fire services have come to believe that such alarms are most likely to be false ones. In fact, the fire brigade comes out when it has an individual physical report of a fire in addition to receiving information about a fire alarm going off. Without any such report, however, it does not follow that the fire brigade will attend. The all-party group was astounded to hear that information.

We also heard from the Glass and Glazing Federation about its concern with a lot of the improvements in building specifications, in particular as they apply to glass in buildings. I do not need to explain quite how critical that can be, especially given how glass can burst and, as a result, let air into a building to feed a fire. The federation wrote to me when it knew that the debate was to be held today. It referred to its previous meeting with the all-party group and drew attention to

“a general issue which should be of overall concern—that is insufficient attention given to provisions in the fabric of our buildings to protect against fire, which severely threatens levels of fire safety in practice (especially we note, built-in resistance against fire and its effects).”

I also want to draw attention to the recent argument from the deputy commissioner of the London fire brigade for sprinklers to be fitted into more buildings. I have a copy of a briefing note that he produced for the London planning authority only last year:

“There is clear evidence that sprinklers are effective at rapidly suppressing fires; in buildings fully protected by sprinklers they control 99 per cent of fires.

Sprinklers also greatly improve the safety of firefighters…they are effective in reducing the risks of flashover and backdraft conditions.

LFB believes there are opportunities for developers and building owners to save money, save property and protect the lives”,

by putting sprinklers into more buildings, not least because sprinklers are nowhere near

“as expensive as people think”.

Yet again, however, sprinklers are put forward as an awareness issue, rather than as a legislative one, and that is a matter of some concern.

I want to draw the attention of the House to what my constituents and many others regard as a gap in the existing legislation and practice. Are responsibilities and roles clear? Are they understood? Do they get discharged in practice? Such questions were posed to the London fire brigade by LFEPA when it set up the review. The specific answer came in paragraph 28 of the fire professionals’ response:

“In general terms, there must be some doubt that the answer to these questions is yes and the ability of the Brigade to comment on how well others are doing their job is constrained by the absence of the necessary tools, information and locus. As set out above, the legislative framework remains overlapping and complicated, some of it no doubt necessarily so (buildings like The Shard are not the product of simplicity)”— a rather chilling line—

“but with worrying potential implications. It would not be against the grain of experience to conclude that these factors mitigate against success.”

That is not an opinionated individual, but a professional, reporting to the London planning authority for the fire services. That paragraph sets out the challenge not only for all of us, but for Government. My constituents hope that that challenge is one that the Government will embrace.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 11:16 am, 3rd March 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jonathan Evans on securing the debate on behalf of the family of his deceased constituent Sophie Rosser, and on the clear way in which he put forward his views.

My hon. Friend said at the outset that he would talk about the generalities of fire safety, because an investigation by the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority remains ongoing, and I will have to respond in kind by dealing with the building regulations and other requirements in force. I cannot comment specifically on the sad case that has led to our discussion this morning.

Never has the clear fire safety advice to get out, stay out and call 999 rung so true as in that case. Yet we must accept that with the best will in the world there is always the risk that individuals will not heed the advice. They will not always put their own safety above their concern for others. In Sophie’s case, she simply wanted to ensure that her fiancé was safe. I am sure that we can all understand that primary instinct to protect those whom we love, even, on occasion, in the extreme circumstances that faced Sophie on that tragic night.

The Government’s long-standing and well recognised Fire Kills campaign, which is run in partnership with the fire and rescue authorities, works hard each year to provide the public with advice and information on how best to protect themselves and their family and friends from the risk of fire in the home through sensible safety precautions. We believe firmly that fire prevention is always better than cure.

Fire Kills provides regular fire prevention advice and reminders to householders, irrespective of tenure. Advice given includes: to install smoke alarms on every level of the home and to test them regularly to ensure that they are working; to carry out a bedtime check, including shutting doors; never to smoke in bed and to ensure that cigarettes are put out properly; never to leave cooking or candles unattended; and to check electrical equipment and never use faulty products or appliances.

The campaign also provides clear advice on what action to take should householders be unfortunate enough to experience a fire in their home. They and their family should use a planned and practised escape route and, to repeat the exhortation, they should get out, stay out and call 999. Thankfully, in most cases such messages, repeated regularly through a variety of channels, have proved highly effective. Householders are increasingly safe from the risk of fire in the home and its tragic consequences: over the past decade the number of fire incidents has fallen by 64%, and the number of deaths in the home by 36%.

Of course, we can never be complacent. I understand why my hon. Friend has brought forward this debate. We must always be vigilant to make sure that advice, guidance and requirements are up to date. It is obviously right, especially given the distressing circumstances, that we expect that someone should be held to account for any fire safety failings that may have led to Sophie’s death or exposed other residents to an unacceptable level of risk. Fire and its causes, however, are always complex issues. Investigating what went wrong in a particular circumstance is of necessity a time-consuming and detailed process. It is vital that such work is done, both to ensure that lessons are learned, so that we prevent similar tragedies, and, crucially, to ensure that those responsible for any fire safety failures or shortcomings identified in an investigation are held to account.

There can be no doubt that in the case of residential blocks of flats there is robust legislation in place to ensure that landlords, freeholders and others who exercise a degree of control over the management or maintenance of a building take action to remove the risk of fire or reduce it to the lowest level that is reasonable. The principal means of regulation and control for residential properties, including those in blocks of flats, is the Housing Act 2004. Owners—whether landlords or freeholders—and housing authorities are responsible for ensuring the safety of the whole building; under the housing health and safety rating system, that includes fire safety. Local housing authorities have a clear responsibility to keep the condition of all housing in their area under review, and to take action to ensure that hazards to residents—whether in their flats or in the communal parts of a building—are removed or reduced to an acceptable level.

Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, all those responsible for workplaces and buildings to which the public have access are required to assess the risk from fire and to ensure appropriate fire precautions are in place and maintained in good working order. For new buildings, the building regulations in force at the time of construction dictate the range of fire safety measures that need to be installed and managed to afford an acceptable level of life safety in the event of a fire. For blocks of flats, the regulations require that walls, ceiling and doors be built of fire-resisting construction materials that ensure that, in most cases, a fire should not spread from the room in which it has started.

Following the Lakanal house fire, to which my hon. Friend referred, the coroner called on the Government to simplify the guidance in approved document B of the building regulations. My Department’s Secretary of State committed to a review, which will deliver a revised document in 2016-17; the intention is to simplify the guidance where possible and update and revise the technical content at the same time. My hon. Friend mentioned sprinklers. They are recognised as a highly effective fire protection measure. It is too early to say how they will fit into the revised approved document, but he should rest assured that the potential benefits will not be ignored.

Photo of Jonathan Evans Jonathan Evans Conservative, Cardiff North

My hon. Friend is rightly setting out the legislative framework. Will he think for a moment about the disconnect between the structure of the legislation and what surveys tell us about whether the legislation is actually having an effect? I was astonished by the statistics I have shared with hon. Members today. Is he similarly concerned?

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I was indeed disturbed by the survey findings to which my hon. Friend referred. When I was being briefed for the debate this morning, the requirement that doors to flats be fitted with self-closing devices was made clear to me. He mentioned that quite often those devices are disconnected or the doors are propped open; although it is dangerous to rely on personal observation or anecdote when debating or making policy—policy should be evidence-based—I have seen cases of that myself. That reinforces the need to re-emphasise the Fire Kills campaign every year. We normally do so as a Department when the clocks change; of course, that will be happening very soon, so perhaps he and I can do our level best to circulate that fire safety information to our constituents—they will still be our constituents when the clocks go forward—in Cardiff North and Bristol West.

As we were just discussing, the front door of a flat is clearly critical to the safety of the communal parts, as it will protect the escape route from filling with smoke should there be a fire in a flat. The building regulations require fire-resisting doors to be fitted with self-closing devices, as I have mentioned.

The Government fully support the British Woodworking Federation’s annual campaign to raise public awareness of the importance of fire doors. The campaign draws attention to issues of poor installation and maintenance, and encourages building owners and users to check their self-closing doors and, where necessary, take action so that those that are not satisfactory can be brought back into good working order. The Minister with responsibility for fire, my hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt, was pleased to add her voice in support of the federation’s efforts to encourage owners and occupiers to check that their fire doors are in good working order. That campaign should go some way to press home the message that the maintenance of fire precautions is a duty that should not be ignored.

I have heard concerns about the overlap between the provisions on residential buildings in the Housing Act and in the fire safety order, but the principle of safety lies at the heart of both. I am pleased to note that in 2011 the Government provided the Local Government Association with the funding it needed to bring together housing providers, including the National Landlords Association, and housing and fire enforcing authorities to develop specific detailed guidance to help those with fire safety responsibilities in blocks of flats ensure the safety of residents and comply with their regulatory requirements. That guidance discusses at length the importance of maintaining fire doors and offers advice on how that can be done. The LGA reviewed it in 2013 and concluded that it remains fit for purpose, although I am sure hon. Members would acknowledge that guidance is all very well; the issue here is the observance of such guidance.

In residential buildings, where there is no employer, regulatory fire safety responsibilities may be divided between the building owner and other organisations such as a resident management company or a managing agent with day-to-day management and maintenance responsibilities. The enforcing authorities—in the case outlined by my hon. Friend, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority and the local borough, Tower Hamlets—must be given sufficient time to investigate and unpick the extent of responsibilities to determine whether and against whom any further action should be taken. We will study the results of the investigation carefully. Under the fire safety order, the enforcing authorities have wide powers to take action against the full range of organisations whose actions or failures may have contributed to compliance failures. Let us be under no illusion: investigating is, by necessity, a complex and time-consuming process.

My hon. Friend has outlined a tragic case that illustrates the need for constant vigilance in this area. Whether Ministers or Back Benchers, it is our duty constantly to remind our constituents that guidance and regulation is there. We believe that it is fit for purpose, but if it is not followed, tragic consequences can result. Sadly, the tragedy he has outlined may have been the result of such a failure to follow guidance and regulations. We will have to wait for the results of the investigation and learn any lessons that can be learned when the investigation is complete.

Sitting suspended.