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House of Commons Hansard
Fire Safety (Schools)
23 March 2010
Volume 508

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the compulsory installation of automatic fire sprinklers in all new-build educational establishments; and for connected purposes.

The purpose of the Bill is simple: all new-build nursery, primary and secondary schools, academies and technology colleges should be fitted with sprinkler systems in order to reduce the damage caused by fire and to save lives. I am aware that this is a very topical issue. The Welsh Assembly has passed the Legislative Competence (Housing) (Fire Safety) Order 2010, which proposes the installation of fire sprinklers in all new residential premises in Wales. There was clear support for that in the Assembly. There is also a Bill going through the other place—Lord Harrison’s Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill.

Approximately 1,400 schools in the UK are damaged by fire each year—roughly 20 schools per week. That is only the reported figure; there may be many smaller fires that go unreported. The Arson Prevention Bureau states that almost a third of school fires occur during the day, putting the safety of staff and pupils at risk. According to the 2007 figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government, 42 per cent. of the fires in that year were arson. It is estimated that fewer than 200 schools of the 28,000 are fitted with sprinklers. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, the cost of school fires stood at £58 million from 2000 to 2004, with the total cost estimated by the National Union of Teachers to be in the region of £100 million. In 2006, six fires resulted in damage of £1 million each. That is enough to employ a substantial number of new teachers and provide new building facilities.

Fire causes untold damage to school buildings and facilities. We can all recall examples of school fires in our own constituencies that have caused great damage. As I said, the true cost is estimated to be about £100 million per year. However, fires also have many serious knock-on effects such as necessitating the hire of temporary accommodation for staff and pupils. The National Foundation for Educational Research estimates that the education of approximately 90,000 children is disrupted each year by school fires and that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are most likely to be affected. Coursework can be lost and exams postponed due to fire. It can lead to a drop in morale among staff and pupils. It can have an impact on those in the wider community who use the facilities for adult education or sports, for example.

The published Government guidance for fire safety in schools, “Building Bulletin 100: Design for Fire Safety in Schools”, states that

“all new schools should have fire sprinklers installed except for a few very low risk schools”,

subject to a risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis. The value of sprinkler systems has been applauded by the Government as a weapon against arson. To quote from “Building Bulletin 100”,

“Sprinkler systems installed in buildings can reduce the risk to life and significantly reduce the degree of damage caused by fire.”

That is a welcome statement, but installation is not currently compulsory. Government statistics state that 70 per cent. of new-build schools are fitted with fire sprinklers, but it is not a legal requirement. Although “Building Bulletin 100” is to be commended for the importance that it attaches to sprinklers, it is not enough for the Government merely to expect new schools to be fitted with sprinklers; it should be mandatory for all schools.

The figures for 2007 show that 58 per cent. of school fires were accidental. That means that a school classed as being at low risk from arson attacks would still be at a high risk from accidental fires. In my constituency, for example, the west midlands fire service reported a 100 per cent. increase in accidental school fires in 2008-09. They could have been caused by many factors, such as an electrical fault. We need to ensure that all schools are as safe as possible for our children and to protect against all types of fire, accidental or deliberate. Fire sprinklers would help to achieve that.

It is for local authorities to determine their policy on fitting sprinklers. However, while some local authorities, such as Coventry city council in my constituency, have a clear policy of fitting sprinklers in new schools, some do not. There is no unified stance across local authorities. There is also a worrying trend that private finance initiative projects need not comply with Government guidance on this issue, as they do not come under local authority jurisdiction. For example, in Coventry, there was recently a fire at Woodway Park school. The building is derelict, but it took 60 firefighters to fight the blaze. Crucially, the PFI project next door, Grace academy, has just reopened after a fire that cost £15 million. That school does not have sprinklers. One must argue that if one school can burn down, there is an equal risk to the school next door. I do not believe that the Government envisaged PFI projects opting out of the guidance, so there needs to be a mandatory requirement.

There are many benefits associated with fire sprinklers. They reduce deaths; there have been no fire deaths in UK buildings fitted with a fully maintained sprinkler system. Sprinklers act within three to five minutes of a fire starting and help control and contain it in a small area of a building. They improve firefighter safety, as the fire is controllable. Fires are smaller and more controlled, which limits the rebuilding costs. Recent research estimates that property damage has been reduced by 80 per cent. where a sprinkler is fitted. They also have environmental benefits, as they use less water to tackle fires. It is estimated that fire hoses uses 1,000 litres a minute, whereas fire sprinklers use only 60 litres per head per minute. Water is also used more efficiently, as sprinklers act earlier.

My Bill would make a simple change that would have a huge impact on schools’ fire safety. Schools should be one of the safest places for my constituents and residents around the country, and my Bill would help achieve that. Powered sprinklers are a simple, efficient way to increase fire safety in schools. They minimise the property damage caused by fire and dramatically reduce the risk to life. Many organisations, such as the west midlands fire service and the Chief Fire Officers Association support this Bill for the mandatory installation of fire sprinklers. I commend it to the House and thank the west midlands fire service and everybody associated with it.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr. Jim Cunningham, Mr. Michael Clapham, Mr. Brian H. Donohoe, Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, Mr. Brian Jenkins, Mr. Ian McCartney, Annette Brooke and Rosie Cooper present the Bill.

Mr. Jim Cunningham accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed (Bill 93).