Skip to main content

Fire Precautions (Schools)

Volume 457: debated on Thursday 1 March 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of great concern to my constituents and of much wider and more general significance.

On 13 September last year, a serious fire broke out at Lympne primary school in my constituency. Most school fires occur when schools are closed, but this time the fire began at the beginning of the school day. In a very short time the school’s buildings were gutted by the fire. The chief fire officer for Kent told me that

“it was mainly due to the prompt actions of staff and pupils that casualties were avoided”.

Two hundred and thirty children and their teachers were evacuated to safety. It could so easily, and so tragically, have been different.

The chief fire officer went on to tell me that

“the incident…gave a graphic illustration of how quickly fire can take hold, and despite the best efforts of the Fire Service the school was destroyed. Clearly this had a devastating impact on the staff and on pupils and although there was no loss of life or serious injury, the long term effect has been considerable. As a consequence over 200 children had their lives disrupted and alternative education facilities had to be found.”

I live in the village of Lympne and when I visited the school I was shocked by the scale of the destruction. The school hall, where children and staff were attending morning assembly at the time the fire broke out, had totally collapsed. We owe a great debt to the professionalism and prompt actions of staff and the alertness of the child who first spotted the signs of fire. But we cannot presume that that will happen every time. According to the chief fire officer:

“The severity of the fire and the damage already caused prevented the firefighters from even entering the building.”

What if, for all the efforts of the school’s staff, a child had been left in the building? That child might very well not have been rescued. He or she might not have survived.

Yet there is one simple step that could be taken which could make a huge difference when fires occur in schools. As the chief fire officer said:

“If the school had been fitted with a properly designed and installed sprinkler system the fire may have been controlled if not extinguished in its early stages thus preventing the total loss of the school”,

and, I would add, making it much easier to save lives.

I am glad to say that Kent county council has said that the replacement for the school buildings will incorporate a sprinkler system. The county council and Kent fire service are also in discussions with the aim of fitting sprinklers in all new and refurbished schools in the county in future, but I regret to say that such a forward-thinking approach is not the norm among our local education authorities.

Even though lives are potentially at stake, even though more than 90,000 pupils a year have their education disrupted by school fires as a result of damage to classrooms and loss of coursework, school work, teaching notes and aids, even though 20 schools a week are affected by arson attacks, even though school fires last year cost us £74 million—£7 million up on the previous year and £25 million up on 11 years ago—of the United Kingdom’s 30,000 schools, only around 250 have sprinkler systems.

The financial cost of school fires is enormous. As I said, school fires cost Britain, in which there are 30,000 schools, £74 million last year, but in the United States, where there are about 150,000 schools, the cost was just £50 million. Why do school fires in the United States cost seven and a half times less, school for school, than in Britain? The answer is clear: following a series of major fires in the late 1950s, the United States introduced building codes to ensure the installation of sprinklers in almost all schools. The difference between the risk faced by schools with sprinklers and the risk faced by schools without them is striking: last year, not one United Kingdom school with a sprinkler system suffered a major fire.

Sprinklers are 99 per cent. effective in controlling fires, normally with fewer than five sprinkler heads operating. That dramatically reduces the severity of fire damage to the school, and water damage is minimised because the fire is contained in the part of the school where it started. Crucially, the school can be back in use on the same day, rather than two years later, after it has been rebuilt, as is likely to be the case in Lympne.

The Government are keen to tell us about the money that they have spent on school buildings. They have, for example, promised to refurbish or rebuild at least half of all primary schools over 15 years, but the refurbishments that have taken place have been completed under the existing building guidance and generally have not incorporated sprinklers. It has been argued that the cost of installing sprinklers is too high. Although the installation of sprinklers may well make up between 1 and 2 per cent. of total build cost, that can be offset. Sprinklers give greater design freedom to architects, who can use them to reduce other costs, and there is the potential for a major saving in insurance premiums, too. Schools with sprinklers can benefit from a three-quarters reduction in their insurance premiums, recouping any additional cost over time, and eventually actually saving money.

Of course, in the event of a fire, the costs for a school without sprinklers is astronomical, quite apart from the potential loss of life. The insurance premiums will have been very high to start with, and the cost of rebuilding an entire school or a large part of it, instead of refurbishing perhaps a solitary classroom, is obviously very high. Also, there is a major expense to be met if children are to be educated at a different site for two years while work takes place. That is not only financially costly, but extremely disruptive to children’s education. Teaching aids, coursework and class work are often destroyed. However dedicated children’s teachers are, the very fact of being taught in temporary accommodation will inevitably severely disrupt their education.

I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend, to whom I pay tribute for his excellent early-day motion on the subject that we are discussing.

My right hon. and learned Friend is perhaps aware that the early-day motion has been signed by nearly 100 colleagues of all parties. Does he agree that the Government’s current refurbishment and new build plan, which, it has been announced, will continue for many years, presents an opportunity to start making sprinkler systems a natural and inherent part of all new build and all refurbishment? That chance should be taken, because we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get sprinklers into a large proportion of our schools as part of normal refurbishment operations.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and that is why this debate is so timely. Not surprisingly, given what I have said, there is wide-ranging consensus in favour of installing sprinklers in our schools, and last year the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government strongly recommended it. I understand that every chief fire officer in the country has written to the Minister for Schools to press him to introduce sprinklers throughout our schools. The insurance industry is lobbying hard for that change, too. Thus far, the Department for Education and Skills has maintained that decisions to fit sprinklers are best made locally, by local education authorities, but as I said, local education authorities are, to a great extent, failing to make those decisions.

I know that the Department intends to include further information on sprinklers in its new guide, building bulletin 100, “Designing and Managing Against the Risk of Fire in Schools”. There has not been any indication from Ministers that they intend to make the installation of sprinklers a requirement, and the Government have repeatedly delayed publication of the guide. I understand that the latest date for publication is April. I understand, too, that on Monday, the Minister for Schools told the all-party fire safety parliamentary group seminar that the Department will issue a risk assessment tool and supporting documentation to ensure that, of new build and substantially refurbished schools,

“all but a few low risk schools will be fitted with sprinkler systems.”

Will he repeat publicly to the House the private assurances that he gave on Monday? Are those involved in the design of schools required to use the risk assessment tool or not? Will it be compulsory, or is it just an optional ready reckoner that developers are free to ignore? How will the tool categorise a school as low risk? Will the judgment be based purely on the level of probability that it will be the subject of an arson attack? If that is the case, schools such as Lympne in my constituency are likely not to be judged high risk. A rural location may reduce the risk of arson, but it does nothing to reduce the risk of an electrical fault, which was what caused the fire at Lympne school.

Will the risk assessment tool apply to all new builds, to major refurbishments, or to both? If the risk assessment states that a school should have sprinklers installed, will installation be required, or just recommended? Would it not be much simpler to make the installation of sprinklers mandatory for new build and substantial refurbishments? Today, with so few sprinklers installed in schools, the lives and education of our children are at risk. By not introducing sprinklers in new and refurbished schools, and by not phasing them in throughout the school infrastructure, we are living on our luck. It is simply not good enough to hope that, in the event of a school fire, drills will be implemented smoothly and everything will go without a hitch. It is simply not good enough to leave our children’s lives to chance. I urge the Government to make mandatory the installation of sprinklers in new and refurbished schools, and to phase in their introduction throughout the rest of the nation’s school buildings. I hope that the Minister will have encouraging and reassuring news to report this evening.

I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) on securing a debate that he rightly described as timely.

I have long been interested in the use of fire sprinklers to help overcome the devastating impact that fire can have on schools and elsewhere. I am a former patron of the national fire sprinklers network, and I served as a non-executive director of the Fire Protection Association until I joined the Government. I am therefore familiar with the problem and the scope of fire sprinklers to offer a solution to fire safety. I am familiar with the statistics cited by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. As I recall, there have not been any deaths in fires in buildings where a properly installed fire sprinkler system is in place. I am well aware of some of the myths, too. The Hollywood image of one sprinkler setting all the sprinklers off is not a reality, because sprinklers depend on heat bursting their glass filament sprinkler by sprinkler. I am familiar, too, with the evidence of the effectiveness of active measures in Scottsdale, Arizona and Vancouver, where sprinklers have been extensively installed.

I listened carefully to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who shares my concern about the issue. I am very sorry to hear of the fire that affected Lympne Church of England primary school in his constituency last year. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the firefighters who fought the blaze and to the head, governors, staff, parents and pupils, who not only had to deal with a traumatic experience at the time, but have had to cope with the upheaval to their education and their school community that has followed. I pay tribute to them for the ongoing work that they are doing as a result.

Given how many hon. Members have seen the effect of school fires in their constituencies—small bin fires occur fairly regularly in schools, but there was one in a primary school in my constituency a few years ago that caused serious damage—it is no surprise that there has been widespread interest in the House, with over 100 signatories to the early-day motion calling for fire sprinklers in schools, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), whom I am pleased to see in his place.

Earlier this week, as the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe mentioned, I was pleased to address the national fire sprinklers network and I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to bring our new policy on fire sprinklers to the attention of the House. First, let me set out the scale of the problem.

The number of school fires has decreased over recent years. Provisional figures for 2005 show that the number of deliberate fires in schools has approximately halved since 1996. I am aware that other fires, such as the one in the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s constituency, are caused by other factors. Schools are generally very safe places, and so they should be. One is more than three times as likely to be injured in a supermarket fire than in a school fire, although we do not want any injuries from fires anywhere.

Provisional figures for 2005 show that around one in 21 schools experienced a fire that year. The cost of those fires is not yet available, but in 2004, it was in the region of £52 million. It is estimated that between 55 and 65 per cent. of those fires are started deliberately. This causes immeasurable damage to the schools affected, as the community where the right hon. and learned Gentleman lives is discovering to its cost, with learning disrupted, facilities damaged, and coursework up in smoke.

Despite the steady decline, there can clearly be no room for complacency. We must improve fire safety in schools, getting the balance right between active measures such as sprinklers and the passive measures with which we are more familiar, such as fire doors. That is why we have taken the view that all but the very low risk schools should have fire sprinklers, which have been proven to be an effective weapon against fires, including those started deliberately.

However, we do not intend to make this a compulsory measure for all schools, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman anticipated. Although the vast majority of schools will find sprinklers a useful weapon against fire, there are a few, but only a very few, which are at low risk of fire. In those instances it would not be sensible in cost-benefit terms for schools to install sprinklers, and we do not want to force them down that route. Instead, we have to offer schools and local authorities clear and comprehensive advice to help them make the right decision on a delegated basis.

Building bulletin 100, which was mentioned, will be published in early summer and will include extensive guidance to schools about the value of sprinklers, stressing their importance as a weapon against arson and clarifying our expectation that all but the few very low risk schools should adopt them. We have also developed new practical materials to help schools make the right decision.

I hope the Minister is going on to tell us, and if not, I invite him to tell us, how the document defines low risk schools. Is it not the case that Lympne primary school, a relatively new school in a rural area, unlikely to be and indeed not subject to any arson attack, might have been categorised as low risk and therefore not, even under the new measures that the Government propose to introduce, the kind of school in which sprinklers would have been installed?

I was going on to say that we would help schools and local authorities to make that assessment using the new risk assessment tool to which he referred. We would point it out in the guidance. Following the letter that I received from all the chief fire officers in the land, which urged me to develop the use of sprinklers in schools, I put together a working group that included representation from the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association and from across the fire safety and insurance industry, as well as our own officials and the Local Government Association, in order properly to analyse the cost and risk associated with fire. It is on the basis of consensus from that group that we developed this risk assessment tool and the guidance on which we will consult.

It is reassuring to know that some heavyweight fire professionals have been involved in developing the risk tool, but could the Minister help further by providing a rough estimate of the number of low-risk schools that he expects to find in the total population of UK schools, which would help us to understand how few will not be eligible for sprinkler systems?

I cannot provide an exact figure, though I can repeat the phrase that there will be very few. I am coming on to say that we will write to MPs who signed the early-day motion. In many ways it will be a repeat of what I am telling the House now, but we will send a copy of the risk assessment tool on a CD, so that hon. Members can use it for themselves if they choose to and see what risk assessment would apply to the schools in their own constituencies.

That tool will help a school to establish whether it is at high, medium or low risk, to decide on the action that it needs to take and to establish whether a fire sprinkler system is necessary. Similarly, a cost-benefit analysis tool will help schools to decide whether a sprinkler represents good value. In private finance projects, where it is easier to account for the whole-life cost of a building, lower insurance premiums mean that the cost of fire sprinklers is recouped within 10 to 12 years.

I launched these new materials earlier this week, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman told us, and will ensure that they are properly disseminated to local authorities, all MPs and chief fire officers. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked whether I could go further towards forcing the use of the tool. What I would say on that is that we will refer in the guidance to the need to use the tool to measure risk—and it would be a foolish authority that ignored it and failed to have proper regard to that guidance. I would also say that I am still interested in whether there should be a presumption in favour of the use of sprinklers. It would then be up to authorities and schools to demonstrate to the community why not. However, I need to discuss and develop that further with officials before I take a final decision.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be familiar—he referred to it—with the Government’s unprecedented capital investment in school building. There has been as much school building in the past five years as in the previous 25 years. By 2020, we will have rebuilt or refurbished all secondary schools through “Building Schools for the Future” and half of all primary schools through the primary capital programme. That is why now is the right time to give fire sprinklers in schools a higher priority, as he said. Clearly, it is most sensible and cost-effective to install fire sprinklers as part of this building work rather than later on when the additional cost of retrofitting sprinklers can often be prohibitive.

So the suite of guidance on building specifications for “Building Schools for the Future” will include a pamphlet on the specifications for fire sprinklers. We will consult industry on that pamphlet later on this spring, so that the document will be available in the summer. The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to some of the delays around publishing some of these documents, guidance and so forth. It is very much informed by the work that has been going on with the fire safety industry, chief fire officers, the LGA and my officials, to whom I am grateful, because we wanted to ensure that we had secured consensus around both cost and risk. That is why—because of the work that I instigated—there has been something of a delay.

I hope I have offered the right hon. and learned Gentleman my strongest assurances that this issue is of the utmost concern to me. I am taking robust action to raise the profile of sprinklers within schools in order to crack down on the problem of arson—and school fire more generally—and ensure that every school remains the safest possible place to be.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Six o’clock.