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New Clause 7

Volume 24: debated on Monday 17 May 1982

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Fire Escapes In Mulitiple Occupancy Properties

`Subject to such conditions as the Secretary of State may by order make a local authority shall make a grant in respect of work for the provision of a means of escape from fire from a building which or part of which is let in lodgings.'.— [Dewar.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7 pm

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This is a modest new clause dealing with a modest but important matter which has a considerable history. Those of us who are veterans of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill will remember that a new clause was moved in Committee—I think on 26 February 1981—in exactly the same terms as the one now before the House.

The new clause tries to place upon local authorities a duty to give some modest help with fire escape provisions in multi-occupancy properties and hostels.

The genesis of the clause is the long-term concern of a number of bodies that supply much of the hostel accommodation in Scotland. They have been co-ordinated by the Scottish Council for Single Homeless. Mr. Laurie Naumann of that organisation has argued the case with a great deal of care and proper persistence over a considerable time.

It is right that the House should spend a few minutes on the matter, because there is a great deal of anxiety on the subject in Scotland. It has been highlighted by the recent sad incident at the nurses' home in Kirkcaldy, where there was loss of life. There has been an exhaustive fatal accident inquiry into the circumstances. I have no special knowledge of the circumstances of the fire, and I am not for a moment suggesting that there was anything defective. I am not suggesting that the new clause has that sort of direct linkage or relevance, but that sad incident underlines the need to have adequate fire protection in hostels and in multi-occupancy buildings. It is to facilitate such a provision that we are anxious to have the new clause—or something that will achieve the same result—put on the statute book.

I understand that in England, in the Housing Act 1980—I think the relevant parts are paragraphs 16 and 17 of schedule 12, and schedule 24—there is a provision for mandatory grants to be made to people who are putting fire escape facilities into hostels and multi-occupancy buildings. The amount of money is comparatively small—a 75 per cent. grant, up to a maximum of £6,750, with a maximum of £9,000 in London.

Fire escape equipment can be extremely expensive. Therefore, I am not suggesting that the grants would revolutionise the position, but if there is such a mandatory duty on local authorities in England, and if we accept that there is a crying shortage of that kind of accommodation in Scotland, the same duty should, equally, be laid on local authorities in Scotland.

I know from personal experience in Scotland some years ago that sometimes very valuable projects for the provision of hostel accommodation can be laid low by the sudden realisation of the difficulties of meeting the fire regulations. In such circumstances, it is right that there should be some similar duty laid upon local authorities in Scotland to help. Therefore, we ought to be seeking legislation similar to that which is found in the schedules to the Housing Act 1980 to which I have referred.

The debate on the issue has taken place not only in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill to which I have referred; it surfaced during the proceedings on the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Bill before that. I know that there have been a large number of approaches behind the scenes, and it is in the hope that there will be some good news from the Minister that I raise the matter today.

In the proceedings in Committee on the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill, I referred to letters from a Mr. Alan Fraser, who was Lord Mansfield's private secretary, and who at that time was saying that the Scottish Development Department was giving
"urgent consideration to this and other aspects of house s in multiple occupation with a view to identifying the future action which should be taken in Scotland."
I should like to quote from what was said in that debate by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind). The Minister may get a little fed up with hearing quotations from the hon. Member for Pentlands, but the hon. Member left many hostages behind him when he finally bailed out to another Department. The hon. Member for Pentlands said that a review was taking place on the subject. He said:
"That review is going on now, and the work is expected to be completed some time later this year. It covers not only the question of fire escapes but standard amenities and a number of other matters of importance to properties involving multiple occupation of the kind referred to in this clause. The hon. Gentleman"——
the Minister was referring to me——
"is correct in saying that the statutory position in Scotland is less favourable than that south of the border, for various historical reasons … We hope that the review now in progress will come to a conclusion around October this year. It will almost certainly be necessary to consider some legislative change".—[Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 26 February 1981; c. 739–41.]
That was a reference to October 1981. We are now seven months beyond that point. My information—it may be misleading—is that at the moment the contacts that have been made at official level have not been terribly encouraging in terms of suggesting that something is imminent. The hon. Member for Pentlands agreed that the situation was unsatisfactory, that there was a gap between provision in England and Scotland, and that it ought to be put right. He promised completion of the review by October 1981. What is happening, and when are we to see action?

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) has raised an important point. On technical grounds, I cannot accept his amendment. I do not think that he will dispute that. He has asked where we stand in terms of the review promised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind). I can give the hon. Member for Garscadden an unequivocal undertaking that we accept the principle of the new clause, and that in another place we shall table Government amendments to meet the principle of new clause 7.

Will the inquiries, and any legislation that is to be introduced, cover buildings that are let as lodgings or in the form of lodgings and which are at present owned by the Government?

I have in mind the student residences at Hamilton college of education, which the Government propose to close. Those premises have been used for many years as student lodgings and they do not have any fire escapes, despite the fact that they are multi-storey buildings. I do not know whether there are any other educational buildings used for students that are in the same situation. I should like to know whether the Government will put a statutory obligation upon local authorities to make proper fire provision in their own buildings which have multi-occupancy, and in regard to buildings that may belong to the Government directly or indirectly through boards of governors, as is the case with colleges of education.

Hamilton is the only such college that I know about, and it is proposed to board up the residences at the end of July and to have nothing more to do with them. That is because the Government cannot sell them—they are asking far too high a price. There may be other student buildings that are in the same position, and the Government have an obligation towards students who are in residences to ensure that there is a proper escape from fire if it should occur. That is the lesson of the fire in the nursing home in Fife. It must be the lesson that we must learn with regard to student residences as well.

If students are in residences not owned by the Secretary of State, clearly the provisions that I am proposing would apply to such residences. As for residences owned by the Secretary of State, there is a duty on the Secretary of State to provide appropriate fire escapes for such buildings. However, I shall examine that point to ensure that there are none of the technical difficulties to which the hon. Member has referred.

I welcome what the Minister has said—it would be ungracious of me not to do so. That was a helpful start to this evening's proceedings. The Minister has done well and I thank him. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.