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Hostels And Lodging Houses (Fire Precautions)

Volume 982: debated on Monday 31 March 1980

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Cope.]

10 pm

It is with no relish that I raise tonight the question of risk of injury or death as a result of fire which faces too many vulnerable people in hostels and lodging houses in this country.

Four months ago, in a debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean), I drew the attention of the House and the Minister to the confusion that exists in all too many cases about who is responsible for ensuring that hostel premises have effective fire precautions. As I asked then, is there any wonder that there is confusion and urgent need to tidy up this matter before there are further disasters?

Two weeks ago tonight, a fire gutted a hostel in North London run by a religious charity. Nine homeless women lost their lives. The very next night, fire severely damaged an East London hostel for men recovering from tuberculosis. Thankfully, there were no casualties arising from that incident.

I am sure that the Minister was as shocked as the whole House by the tragic events, and I know that he would join with us in sending our sympathy to any relatives of those victims—and, indeed, to the voluntary organisations which suffered a great deal as a result of those tragic incidents.

I do not intend to discuss the causes of those fires. I believe that the London borough involved has launched a full inquiry into the circumstances, and we must await its outcome. It is inevitable, however, that I mention these fires in the context of the dangers facing vulnerable people in such hostels nationally.

Two facts emerge from the media coverage of the North London fire. First, the London fire brigade was quoted in the Daily Mirror as saying that there was no alarm system and no fire escape. No other reports have so far refuted that statement. The Daily Telegraph quoted a council spokesman as saying:
"There is a point of dispute about who is responsible for enforcing the regulations. We say the premises are not a common lodging house and therefore responsibility rested with the London Fire Brigade, and they say the opposite. So there is confusion."
According to The Times, the hostel was overcrowded. It stated that 21 homeless women were staying there on the night of the fire, when the council had given approval for only 10.

These two facts argue strongly in my opinion for the responsibility for enforcing fire precautions to be clarified and for Government action on the housing and public health standards in such places, along the lines outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West last year.

It would be only too easy to blame the voluntary organisations for these tragic events. I hope that we shall not do that, because this week we are debating a wide range of cuts in public expenditure affecting local authority services, throwing even more pressure on voluntary organisations, which are themselves facing cuts in resources and grants and rapidly increasing costs. Yet they are very often the only refuge available to people in serious and urgent need.

The voluntary organisations are in a "Catch 22" situation when faced with a desperate referral. Do they turn people away, to face perhaps worse conditions, or do they take them in—even with the sparse accommodation available? I do not think that we ought to put these dedicated people in such a position.

The fire in East London on 19 March proves my point to a certain extent, because there were no casualties there. There were adequate fire alarms and fire precaution systems and the hostel was not overcrowded.

These fires are but a sad further example of a series of fires which, to the knowledge of the all-party parliamentary committee, CHAR—Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless—have claimed 27 lives in Birmingham, Leeds, Clacton, Manchester and London since early 1978. The Government's own report in 1976 warned that the risk of fire involving serious loss of life was great. We are debating the issue tonight—and I know that other hon. Members wish to intervene—because we cannot sit around having further reports, further tragedies, more reports, more tragedies and so on.

In his reply to the debate on 29 November, the Minister showed concern and sympathy with the issues which my hon. Friend and I raised. He made two proposals which I now want to take up. He announced that he would extend the special grant to cover improvements to houses in multiple occupation in order to provide assistance to their owners towards the cost of installing fire precautions. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West wishes to refer to that matter specifically. I simply ask the Minister to reconsider seriously the proposals in the Housing Bill to set a £500 ceiling as the maximum eligible amount of that grant. For a hostel such as the one in North London, let alone many larger premises, such a ceiling is totally inadequate and ought to be revised immediately.

Secondly, the Minister directed the housing services advisory unit to visit substandard premises and to talk to local authorities about the present framework for enforcing standards in hostels and lodging houses. I subsequently wrote to him offering the support of the all-party group and that of the voluntary organisations concerned with CHAR. I know that the unit has made a number of visits. It has sent a very good questionnaire to local authorities. I know that local authorities have been helpful to the Minister. However, I was concerned to discover that the unit had been asked to recommend action which would be at nil cost. In my view, that is impossible.

Has the unit yet reported to the Minister? Has it advised him that the law covering fire safety standards is effective and is not confusing the authorities or the owners of the premises? Is he satisfied with the present situation? Will the Minis- ter assure me that he will allow me and my fellow members of the all-party group to see that report, if it is not to be made public, because that would help us to be as constructive as we would like to be on a matter which is of concern to all parties?

I also remain concerned that the present responsibilities are confusing. For example, there are local authority responsibilities under section 60 or part IX of the Public Health Act 1936 or section 16 of the Housing Act 1961. There are also fire authority responsibilities under the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and the various other Acts covering fire prevention and precautions. I also want much more evidence from the Government to convince me that the measure put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West is not needed.

Most local authorities do not know how many houses in multiple occupation—in fact, how many death-trap houses—are situated in their areas. Last November, the Minister promised to consider how he might remedy that lack of information. I hope that he will announce some steps tonight.

Last week, the Bishop of Stepney and the Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster pointed out in a letter to The Times that fires such as the tragic one at North Kilburn showed how exposed single homeless people are and how the voluntary organisations which seek to assist them lack resources.

The Budget proposals announced last week make it all the more likely that that situation will continue. Single homeless people deserve to be granted access to decent housing, just like other groups in our community. So long as they have to live in hostels, they deserve safe and decent conditions. What financial assistance will the Minister give to the agencies to provide accommodation in which those men and women who so lack protection no longer run such risks as the recent tragedy has exposed?

10.10 pm

I support all the comments of the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) on what can only be called one of the most horrific tragedies of the era. I refer to the continuing plight of single homeless people. We have had many debates in the House on this problem, but some of us perhaps fail to realise that in general we are talking about the most vulnerable section of the community, mostly men and women who are dependent in the main upon many charitable organisations.

Registered housing associations are able to bring their properties within the high standard that is required of them and to meet the fire precaution regulations by the grants that are made available to them. A large number of voluntary organisations throughout the nation are giving shelter, care and affection to the down-and-out, the alcoholic, the drug addict and the mentally disturbed. Christian people who do not want them in their street are always glad to see them somewhere else. I remind my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who I know to be a compassionate and caring Minister, that even in the survey conducted by the Government in 1976 there were about 30,000 recognised as sleeping in the care of voluntary organisations.

An enormous amount of publicity has been given to disasters that have occurred recently in London hostels. These disasters are not happening in London hostels alone. They have happened elsewhere, but they have not caught the eye of the press. On many occasions people stay in hostels that are a fire risk. They are a danger not only to those who live in them but to those who run them.

I plead with my hon. Friend to take action in two respects. First, I ask him to examine the appalling record of many local authorities that have the power to make grants. In my constituency we had a lodging house, a Rowton house, before the registered housing associations came into operation. At that time 52 men a night were given shelter in those premises. The local authority was good enough to make a grant. It provided a loan that enabled us to ensure that these men could go to bed in comparative safety at night.

There are at least 60,000 single homeless throughout the country who go to bed each night of the week in peril because there are not only no proper fire precautions but not even a fire extinguisher. There is nothing whatsoever. I am sorry to say that the sum that is suggested as a ceiling is totally inadequate.

The Providence Row night refuge in Whitechapel is a hostel which is well thought of and which has a high reputation. It is run by the Sisters of Mercy. I am sure that my hon. Friend knows as well as I do that they wanted to put their house in order. They have spent £34,000 on providing merely a fire alarm system. If they had met the standards that are required in other institutions—for instance, a fire detection system and emergency lighting—that would have cost another £100,000.

There is a small home for youngsters in Gloucestershire that can accommodate six people. It came within the fire precautions legislation. It would have cost £20,000 to comply with the requirements set out in that legislation.

I do not believe that on either side of the House we are suggesting that people should go to those extremes. Our complaint is about the dismal lack of protection for single homeless people, who in many cases are totally unable to protect themselves. They are put into unregistered accommodation without thought of the risk that they run.

I support the all-party group CHAR. It has fought unceasingly to try to alleviate the sorrow and sadness of the multitude of people who are a scar on our society. Surely in the 1980s we can do something better for them.

I hope that the Minister will say not only that he will ensure that local authorities are reminded of their responsibilities but that he considers that the £500 limit is woefully inadequate and should be raised.

10.15 pm

I support my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) and the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving). This is a matter that has had all-party support.

I had the good fortune to be able to introduce a Private Member's Bill on this subject. Unfortunately, the Government could not find time to allow it to proceed. I also had the good fortune to have an Adjournment debate on the subject last November. It would be churlish if I did not acknowledge that I was grateful for the Government's response on that occasion. I prised open a door. However, subsequent events have shown that the immediate offer made by the Minister for Housing and Construction was not adequate.

The problem is overshadowed by the recent horrific tragedy in London. There is no point in debating the cause of that fire, which is not relevant to our debate. I wish to give the Minister ample time to reply, so I shall deal briefly with the general problems of fire. On 29 November I said that unless a start was made immediately to eradicate the problems at some time in the future yet more tragedies would be reported in the press. I do not criticise this Government particularly, because previous Governments are also guilty, but unless a start is made immediately tragedies will occur again.

The offer of £500 was generous at the time, but it should be placed on a sliding scale, because all building construction requirements differ. I hope that the Minister will keep an open mind. The Minister and I are on the Committee for the Housing Bill and will debate other issues there.

I also said in November that if implemented the Bill would clearly save lives. That cannot be challenged. What I find sad is that the House itself, over the last few months since I made that speech, thought fit to devote the whole of private Members' time to a Private Member's Bill on abortion that had no such guarantees. It is a sad fact that here we have the other end of the scale, whom no one will protect unless the House gives mandatory protection. It was not thought important enough.

As I say, I do not particularly accuse the Government. The House itself must bear some responsibility in this matter. At the time, I received almost 150 signatures, from Members of all parties, asking for the Bill to proceed.

Will the Government look at this situation? I am not speaking of the Government in a critical sense, but unless they start now the Kilburn disaster and the tragic loss of life that occurred there will be repeated over and over again. One cannot guarantee the intervals at which it will happen, but it will surely happen unless we start taking action now.

10.19 pm

The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) has given us another chance to debate the subject of hostels and lodging houses, which we last discussed in November. I have learnt a lot about hostels since then, particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), who has a substantial number of hostels in his constituency.

I welcome the chance of responding to this debate. I also share the very deep regret of hon. Members who have spoken that we are holding this debate in the shadow of the recent fires at Tower Hamlets and Kilburn. I should like to express my deepest sympathy with those who were injured or bereaved as a result of those two fires. It is especially poignant that a young woman who had given up her career to help the homeless and disadvantaged should lose her life.

We shall, of course, have to await the facts before we can establish whether any weakness in existing arrangements contributed to these two disasters. I cannot comment on these specific cases until the inquest has been held. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary told the House the other day that he will be receiving a report from the London Fire Brigade which he will copy to all his ministerial colleagues who have an interest in the subject. In the light of the inquest, this report and other information, the Government will consider what lessons can be learnt from the two fires.

But, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction said on the earlier occasion, the concern that all reasonable precautions should be taken against fire in lodging houses and hostels is one shared throughout the House. For that reason, as the House knows we have incorporated provisions in the Housing Bill which will enable housing authorities to pay grant towards the cost of providing means of escape from fire in houses in multiple occupation—or HMO.

I recognise that there is a difference of opinion at present over the figures. All that I will say to the hon. Member, for St. Pancras, North and the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean), and to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving), is that I hear them.

Indeed, where such work is required to be done, the payment of the grant will be mandatory. I hope that the House will continue to agree that this is a useful and helpful initiative.

It was also explained in the earlier debate that local authorities had a wide range of powers covering almost every physical or structural aspect of the occupation and management of houses in multiple occupation. They are empowered by the Housing Act 1961 to serve a notice on the proprietor specifying and requiring works to provide means of escape from fire. The local authorities must consult the relevant fire authority before taking any action under the section.

If a local authority thinks that a house in multiple occupation cannot be provided with the necessary means of escape from fire at reasonable expense, it may ensure that a part of the house—for instance, the top floor—is not used. It does this either by accepting an undertaking from the owner or mortgagee or by making a closing order on that part of the house.

There are penalties—up to £500 for the first offence—for failure to carry out works, and local authorities have powers to carry out the necessary works themselves and to recoup the costs.

These measures seem to me to reflect a very useful range of provisions which, if properly applied, offer a considerable assurance of protection.

As the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North pointed out, there is complementary legislation in the Fire Precautions Act 1971.

I remind the House that the 1971 Act enables a fire authority to apply to a court for a prohibition or restriction order in circumstances where it is satisfied that, in the event of fire, there would be excessive risk to persons in the premises concerned. But, in order to avoid any potential conflict with Housing Act controls, my right hon. Friend has advised fire authorities to make use of the power in respect of HMO only in cases where there would be a serious danger to life and the local authority is unable to take suitable action by other means.

I turn to the visits by my Department's housing services advisory unit. What evidence is there to support the case for making changes? In the previous debate we discussed briefly some cases in which my hon. Friend pointed out that failure to comply with existing fire precautions or interference with means of escape, rather than deficiencies in the legislation, seemed to have been important factors. But we must not try to reach general conclusions on the basis of a few cases.

It was for that reason that my Department's housing services advisory unit was asked to visit a number of local authorities. I can tell the House that during January and February this year my Department's advisers visited 35 local authorities and two housing associations. Full co-operation by the local authorities that were approached enabled them to have access to a wide range of HMOs, hostels and common lodging houses. Among these were examples of the worst in each area.

In all, visits to 74 hostels and numerous small HMOs were undertaken. They included night shelters in redundant educational and commercial buildings, a converted railway arch shelter, Salvation Army and Church Army hostels, refuges and a reception centre. Some were purpose-built, others were conversions. As a result of these visits, the information available to my Department has obviously been greatly improved.

The results of the visits are still being analysed and I shall not prejudge any conclusions that we might reach on the issues identified. However, it is clear that performance varies. The enthusiasm of particular officers and members of local authorities is a vital ingredient to success. I should like to see the example of the best being the target for the worst.

Many of the people who inhabit these places are inevitably among the most vulnerable. They include many "castaways"—some have cast themselves away from what is seen by most of us as normal family life or society; others have been cast away by family and society. They ought to have a decent place to live in, but their problems go deeper than housing, and other bodies and agencies—statutory and voluntary—have a part to play. There is no basis for the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North saying that the unit entered on its visits with a precondition of "no-cost".

I can confirm that overcrowding was one of the aspects covered by the programme of visits. Again, without prejudging, I think I may say that we have gained the impression that while overcrowding exists it is not a universal problem.

The strongest evidence of overcrowding seemed to emerge from night shelters and was quite often explained by the keepers as being a result of a particular period of the year—that is, in winter time and at public holidays there was a tendency for more people to turn up at the shelter—and it was admitted to my Department's officers that on such occasions it was difficult to turn people away. Indeed, it would appear that one or two organisations operated a policy of never refusing admission, even though it did produce temporary overcrowding. But there are also examples of hostels and lodging houses which are commonly only two-thirds full.

Let me re-emphasise two points and make one new one. First, we must await the results of the inquiries now being made and take them into account, together with the findings of my Department's housing services advisory unit, in deciding whether any changes are needed.

Secondly, we must be careful to guard against creating new problems in attempting to solve the one causing immediate concern; and I again commend to the House the provisions in the Housing Bill designed to ease the burden on those providing HMOs, arising from compliance with fire precaution measures required by housing authorities.

Thirdly, I remind the House that during the debate on 29 November my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction undertook to consider with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the adequacy of the penalties pre- sently set out in the Housing Acts relating to HMOs.

We have concluded those considerations and I can inform the House that an amendment to the Housing Bill, providing for appropriate increases, will be tabled at a suitable opportunity.

I hope that what I have said in the all-too-short time available to me shows the House that the Government are fully aware of the problem and understand the deep-seated anxieties of hon. Members across the party spectrum. We also understand that in trying to help the unfortunate people who, for a variety of reasons, find themselves in the circumstances that have been described in the debate we have to act in a way that will assist them and not in a way that will make it more difficult for them to find accommodation.

It follows that the Housing Bill and the existing powers for local authorities in fire precaution legislation and HMO legislation ought to be able, between them, to make a significant contribution to solving the problem.

It cannot be done quickly, but I assure the House that the Government are sympathetic to what is being asked for and, within the limitations that I have described, we will do our best to make certain that these unfortunate people are not exposed to the risk that has been so tragically brought to our attention in the past few weeks.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.