Skip to main content

Smoke Alarms

Volume 476: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2008

1. What her estimate is of the percentage of residential dwellings fitted with at least one smoke alarm in (a) Kettering, (b) Northamptonshire and (c) England. (206421)

Ownership of smoke alarms in England now stands at 80 per cent. of households and we are seeking to raise it further as those without alarms are often in those groups who are most at risk from fire.

Information on smoke alarm ownership in Kettering and Northamptonshire is not held centrally. However, 82 per cent. of households in the east midlands region own one or more smoke alarms.

Last year, in Northamptonshire there were fires in 463 homes, 247 of which did not have smoke alarms fitted. Will the Under-Secretary congratulate the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, which has launched a campaign to get smoke alarms fitted in residential homes, and ensure that those that are fitted work? What steps are the Government undertaking to spread the message that those who do not have a smoke alarm are twice as likely to die in the event of fire?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He is right that the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph is running a good, strong local campaign. Eighty per cent. of homes have smoke alarms, but people are twice as likely to die in a house fire if they do not have a smoke alarm. In one third of cases, there is no working battery in a smoke alarm, so we are running a high-profile campaign with the actress Julie Walters’s television programme. It is a hard-hitting campaign to ensure that people check their smoke alarms on a weekly basis. We also pump-primed the fire and rescue service with £25 million over four years. That money has been used to ensure that 1.9 million smoke alarms nationally have been fitted and I think that that is making a huge difference across the country.

I have been delighted to be involved in my hon. Friend’s campaign on smoke alarms. Has he also considered the huge importance of sprinklers? Is he prepared to consider making mandatory the installation of fire sprinklers in residential homes, especially in care homes for the elderly and for children?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for her ongoing campaign for her constituency—we have done some work together on that. We have made it a requirement for all new care homes to have sprinkler systems when there is more than one bed in a location. If there is only a single bed, it is a requirement to have a sprinkler or a system whereby there is a smoke alarm and a door-shutting mechanism so that fire cannot spread. Through building regulations, we have also introduced a requirement for fire sprinklers for buildings of, I believe, over 30 m and for warehouse-style buildings above a certain size and height.

Some alarms can now also detect carbon monoxide, which is responsible for the death of 30 to 40 people every year in this country. There are concerns that many more problems go undiagnosed. Will the Under-Secretary join me in urging the use of devices that can detect not only smoke but carbon monoxide?

I am happy to do that. I believe that Cleveland in particular has provided a strong local service, and it is part of the statutory duty to go out and ensure that community fire safety work is taking place throughout the country. Cleveland and many other fire and rescue authorities focus on carbon monoxide, whereas others focus on smoke alarms. Other fire rescue services have done completely different things—for example, in one area, chip fat fryers are being replaced with safer versions so that there are fewer kitchen fires. I therefore congratulate the hon. Lady on supporting the carbon monoxide campaign, and I know that fire and rescue authorities up and down the land are taking a closer look at it.

The Under-Secretary knows that a good proportion of domestic fires, and the injuries and deaths that go with them, are associated with discarded smoking materials. What steps have the Government taken to pursue the development and sale of reduced ignition propensity cigarettes of the sort that Canada and some states of the United States of America require? They need to be actively smoked, otherwise bars along the length of the cigarettes mean that they go out. Are not they a safety device, and why are we not moving along that path more rapidly?

We are working with our partners in the European Union on cigarettes that are less liable to cause house fires, through my chief fire adviser, Sir Ken Knight, who has been actively engaged on the issue. I am sure that my hon. Friend will see some of that work come to fruition in the coming months, as we work with our partners on guidance to help change the system, both here and across the continent.

Does the Minister agree that one of the most effective ways of increasing the percentage of domestic dwellings fitted with fire alarms in England is through the work that the fire services do in providing people with free advice on the use and installation of fire alarms? In that respect, will he join me in praising Essex fire service for the tremendous work that it does by increasing awareness of safety and installing free fire alarms in domestic dwellings?

I am very happy to congratulate Essex fire and rescue service on the work that it is doing. Such work is being done throughout the land. As I have said, 1.9 million smoke alarms have been fitted through the £25 million that my Department has provided between 2004 and 2008. Some 1.5 million home fire risk checks have been performed by fire and rescue services throughout the country. Fire and rescue services are finding that ensuring that people are alerted to fire risks in the first place not only is effective in saving lives—we now have the lowest number of fire deaths since 1959—but results in savings, because it means that fire appliances and crews are called out less and less often to put out fires.