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Duties As Regards Safety Pending Determination Of Applications For Fire Certificates

Volume 115: debated on Thursday 7 May 1987

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I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 10, line 3, leave out 'and' and insert—

'(aa) the means for fighting fire with which the premises are provided are maintained in efficient working order; and'.
This is another important amendment. Its main purpose is again to meet an undertaking that I gave in Committee on an amendment moved by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs). Because of that undertaking, the hon. Gentleman felt able to withdraw his amendment. I hope that he will support the amendment I am moving. It might be helpful if I were to give the House an indication of what the amendment is designed to achieve because I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office has a particular interest in it.

Clause 8 imposes a duty on the applicant for a fire certificate to secure that, pending the disposal of the application, the means of escape with which the premises are provided can be safely and effectively used, and that employees receive instruction or training on what to do in the case of fire. The amendment adds the further requirement that any means for fighting fire with which the premises are provided shall be maintained in good and efficient working order.

I should like to describe the amendment which the hon. Member for Battersea moved in Committee. It was intended to extend to means for fighting fire the interim duty which applied under clause 8 to premises subject to certification in order to cover the period between the date of the application and the date of certification, or, for that matter, the granting of exemption. What he had in mind was to include means for fighting fire amongst the measures that the occupier was required to secure.

There were problems about his amendment. First, there is no fire-fighting appliance that can properly be prescribed for all ills. We might find ourselves providing a statutory requirement which involved an occupier in obtaining fire-fighting appliances which were either wholly inappropriate or positively dangerous. The Committee found that a compelling argument and the hon. Member for Battersea was good enough not to proceed with his amendment.

However, a point which required consideration was whether we should impose on the occupier a statutory obligation to maintain the means for fighting fire which exist at the time of the making of the application. That seems to be a sensible thing to do and is consistent with the approach that we have more generally adopted in the Bill. That is reflected in the amendment now before the House and I very much hope that it will command hon. Members' approval.

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I wish to welcome this amendment, too, which reflects very closely my intention in Standing Committee. There are already two conditions which have to be met when an application for a fire certificate has been made. One is that a means of escape in case of fire is provided, and the second is that persons employed to work on the premises are trained in what to do in case of fire. This amendment adds a third condition—that the means for fighting fire with which the premises are provided shall be maintained in efficient working order.

This may seem, on the face of it, to be a small amendment, but we know that there are premises which could suffer from fire and which present hazards should a fire break out. By having adequate means for fighting fires, both the premises and lives could be saved. Therefore, I believe that this amendment will be an important addition to fire safety.

We are referring, of course, to a variety of premises, as the Minister made clear. I have in mind, for example, small workshops in the clothing trade. Unfortunately, there have been some rather tragic fires in such premises, particularly in the east end of London. I believe that this amendment will lessen the risks of a dangerous fire occurring in premises of that kind and in other premises covered by this provision.

The words of the amendment are to me very important:

"the means for fighting fire with which the premises are provided are maintained in efficient working order; and".
I am concerned indeed when we use words of this nature. What do we mean when we say "the means for fighting fire"? How far should it extend? Does it mean that one must be able to indicate that there is a fire? Does it mean that one's alarm and communications systems must be correct? Does it mean that the warning system must be efficient? Does it mean that the provision for sustaining the responsibility for communication and dealing with a fire must be adequate?

"The means for fighting fire" implies that the communication services are totally alerted. It means that when someone presses the privatised British Telecom 999 button it will operate. Are we sure of that? Are we assured that when one presses the 999 button to call the police, the fire service or the hospital service there will be a response without a question being asked by British Telecom about who will pay for it and who will accept the responsibility for it?

I wish to be assured that when the 999 button is pressed the full communications system will come into play for fighting the fire. Ratepayers and taxpayers should he totally covered by the system. When one presses the 999 button, one should be fully protected.

The word "and" at the end of the amendment worries me. I want to know, and I hope that the Minister will spell it out to me, that when someone presses the 999 button British Telecom will not ask the ambulance service or the fire service if he can pay for the call. Will the 999 service be maintained and will the full fire service be called upon irrespective of who presses the button and asks for full fire service coverage?

I am very pleased that our fire communications service in the Palace of Westminster has recently been brought up to date. The fire service has been enlarged, it is able to cope and there is no 999 problem. I hope that when this clause is established with this amendment the 999 system will be totally applied and there will be no restriction whatsoever, so that it is possible to maintain the fire services in efficient working order.

As one would expect, the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Harrison) has raised an important point which deserves a careful answer. I am sure that he appreciates that clause 8, in particular, is meant to deal with the interim position between the time when the certificate is applied for and the time when the fire authority either grants a safety certificate or decides to grant an exemption. Therefore, it is intended to cover a fairly narrow period. In effect, clause 8 provides that the systems which are within the premises for fire escape and for fighting fire shall be maintained in good and efficient working order.

The right hon. Member asked, very fairly, what was meant by the phrase "means for fighting fire." The phrase has a narrow meaning and is intended to extend only to fire-fighting appliances rather than to the more general considerations which he mentioned. But of course some of the wider points that he has brought to the attention of the House would feature in the safety certificate, which could be issued once the fire authority had determined the application.

I hope that the right hon. Member will bear in mind that this amendment is intended to cover a fairly narrow period, but I am very grateful to him for raising what is clearly an important point.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 8, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.