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Fire Precautions In Residential Premises

Volume 387: debated on Wednesday 30 November 1977

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2.52 p.m.

rose to call attention to the need to investigate fire precautions in small hotels and old people's homes; and to move for Papers. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am very grateful to have the opportunity of bringing this important matter before the House, and I hope that the outcome of this debate will be that some further action will be taken. When the Minister in the other House, Dr. Shirley Summerskill, spoke in regard to inspections and certificates up to 31st December 1976 she gave the following facts in columns 150 to 154 of the Official Report. She noted that 559 hotels which originally applied for fire certificates under the 1971 Act are known to have closed, though the reason for closures is not known. No figure is known for the cost of fire precautions up to 31st December 1976 for hotel owners. Up to the financial year 1975–76, £4 million in loans had been given.

Dr. Summerskill noted that reports from the local authorities indicated that only limited use had been made of this authority. I should like to know from the Minister whether the people really know about these loans, and perhaps he can tell me why they have not applied up to date. Of the estimated 37,000 hotels and guest houses in the United Kingdom— many, of course, housing elderly people—82 per cent. have applied for certificates, 52 per cent. have been inspected, and regrettably only 40 per cent. have been issued with a certificate, and 16 per cent. have reduced their accommodation so as to come out of the scope of the Act, which I think is a worrying factor.

As I understand the present situation, the Fire Precautions Act 1971 strengthens the law's provisions relating to fire precautions where hazard to life is concerned. A system of fire certificates has been introduced in certain places which were outside the scope of the Factories Act 1961, and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963. These include places of public amusement, residential premises, such as hotels and boarding houses, guest houses and very high blocks of flats where people may be especially at risk. In addition the Fire Precautions (Loans) Act 1973 will give local authorities discretionary powers to grant loans to people incurring expense in complying with the requirements of the fire authorities.

Obviously there is a financial problem with expenditure necessary to implement the legal requirements which is very prohibitive on restricted budgets of small hotels, voluntary organisations and the local social services. For example, they have little money at their disposal. For all these services the capital outlay has to be balanced against the benefits. It is often thought easier to contract out rather than meet the requirements.

I must quote an example of an hotel in Barmouth in North Wales where the proprietor decided that the cost of £10,000 for improvements was totally beyond his means, and in consequence he had to reduce the number of the guests in his hotel from 20 to six. Other hoteliers, I regret to say, have not been so lucky and have had to reduce their numbers altogether, or have been forced out of business. Closures are not just affecting smaller hotels. In Cardiff a 43-roomed three-star hotel was also forced to close, and the city suffered a net decrease in hotel accommodation of 300 rooms in 1971 as a result of the present legislation.

Many retired persons live in small guest houses and boarding houses, and, as I understand it, it is the Government's policy to keep the elderly people, so far as they can, in the community and not force them to go into either voluntary homes or those run by social services. Therefore, the cost of implementing the new regulations can be phenomenal. For an hotel in Argyll it was £27,000, and £10,000 for an hotel in Barmouth. In theory these should have been helped by the Fire Precautions Act 1973. It allows local authorities to give loans towards the cost of safety measures. In practice, for some unknown reason, local authorities seem unwilling to go out of their way to let people know that these loans are available. For example, in the seaside town of Rhyl three years after the introduction of the loan service, and before its existence became widely known, several businesses and hotels had been forced to close. Where the loan scheme was in operation penal rates of interest have been asked for. For instance, in Clwyd in Wales 18 per cent. per annum.

Despite the promises of financial assistance, there has in fact been very little. The only possible benefit has been the ability to set costs against profits for tax purposes. Many small hoteliers feel that during this period they have been unable to improve the amenities of their hotels while paying for the increased fire precautions. This puts them at an even greater disadvantage if they wish to have a Continental tourist industry.

The voluntary organisations are also able to quote examples of residential homes for the elderly and the handicapped that have had to be closed, or plans for new homes that could no longer be offered. The National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children, for example, recently closed a home in Liverpool because they felt it to be unnecessary; the fire regulations were too expensive. The major problem with the legislation is, however, the practical application. The Fire Precautions Act calls for the fire certificate to be issued having taken notice of the building and its potential fire hazards. Unfortunately the Act does not lay down statutory requirements to be met, and this of course makes for difficulties. The requirements for the building may be an arbitrary decision of a local fire officer. Like other human beings, fire officers will often differ in their likes, dislikes and preferences, and with few guidelines to go on it is hardly unusual that experts disagree.

I wonder whether the noble Lord who is to reply can say whether the Act can be amended so that we can have further instruments given to the fire officers to help them. May I take a factory as the easiest example I have been able to get hold of; it is a small engineering firm in Halifax. The owner wished to expand by the introduction of a spray bay. This needed fire fitted doors. The owner chose what he thought was suitable and set out what he could afford. His insurance company agreed and said that they were suitable. The factory inspector did not, and instructed that an alternative set were needed. As I said, the fire officer has the final decision. The fire officer came round but did not approve either set and said he would produce another report detailing a correct set of doors. The result is that the fire officer's report is still awaited, and this is three months later. In consequence there has been a loss of capacity in the factory and of employment.

When the fire officer makes his decision and it is implemented there is then the likelihood that he may be replaced—after all, they do change jobs—and the new fire officer is likely to have a different set of judgments about fire precautions. This could result in the certificate given by the previous fire officer being with-drawn on the arrival of the new one.

Voluntary organisations complain that some modern fire precautions are impracticable. The warden of an old people's residential home said that, while since the 1971 Act there had been no fire at his home, there had been 30 cases that is quite a large number—of elderly people having been injured as a result of heavy fire doors closing automatically, by spring-loaded fire hoses and by heavy fire extinguishers. Some of the injuries had been serious and the examples he gave me included broken hips and a broken femur.

Voluntary organisations also complain that in some ways the fire regulations make life intolerable for the elderly and infirm. If a heavy fire door must be opened to reach, say, the lavatory, the person concerned might not be able to reach it to open it, especially if he is in a wheelchair. A recent report was given to the DHSS; the Residential Care Review said there was a call that expenditure on fire regulations should not take priority over other facilities and should not cause such financial hardship that voluntary organisations would have to close clown.

The Abbeyfield Society, with which I am sure noble Lords are familiar and which does excellent work, is a voluntary body which has small residential homes for the elderly. It complains that, because it is not directly covered by the Act in that its homes are too small, it has to employ special fire officers of its own, and of course it is at the whim of other fire officers. As I said earlier, fire officers apply different standards to homes in different parts of the country. Abbey-field feels that while it is able to budget for increased precautions in new developments, it is extremely difficult to do so in older properties, with which the Society began originally, especially when it comes to putting in fire escapes.

I understand that a Home Office committee met to hammer out specific safety standards but regretfully was unable to agree on more than guidelines. I suggest it is time that fire officers and the other organisations concerned had something better than guidelines; in my opinion it should be mandatory. Abbeyfield is now forced to employ two full-time fire officers, both of whom feel that the Home Office should be more explicit in the regulations that are issued and should not be content with guidelines or leave the matter to arbitary decisions. Other complaints from the elderly and infirm concern lifts which are automatically put out of action on the sounding of the fire alarm; somebody confined to a wheelchair, for example, must be carried out of the building.

In the hotel and guest house trade examples have been quoted of fire doors at the top of stairs, and noble Lords have probably seen instances of this. Only the other day such a door was opened and a person, who obviously could not see through the door, and not knowing stairs were there fell down the stairs. This recently happened at a home in Rhyl when a small child went through a door not realising there were stairs on the other side. In the same town somebody was severely injured by tripping and falling through a glass panel in a door.

Although loans are available, they are hardly known about. For example, the Welsh Tourist Board, who I gather have taken a special interest in the matter, particularly from the point of view of small hotels, feel that not enough publicity has been given to this aspect and that loans are taken up, when they can be, at penal rates of interest. The present regulations are not specific enough and, as I have said, they allow for arbitrary decisions by fire officers. Different regulations often apply to different uses of buildings. Further, the system is operating very slowly.

In Wales, up to the end of 1976, only 54 per cent. of the hotels and guest houses which the Fire Brigade wished to inspect had been inspected and only 24 per cent. had been given certificates. The fire brigades and tourist boards disagree on the types of building that need certificates and, again for Wales, the Fire Brigade issued a figure of 3,000 hotels and guest houses while the Tourist Board put the figure at 5,000.

The voluntary organisations are concerned about the fire regulations and have called a special conference for 1st December. Anybody will be welcome to attend and I hope the Minister will be able to send a representative from the Home Office. All the voluntary organisations are perfectly willing to give the Minister any help regarding the reasons for wishing to make alterations, and I have with me a whole list of such organisations if the Minister would like to have it. Only today I received a letter from the National Corporation for the Care of Old People from which I will quote only one passage:

"The main hope there"—

that is, the National Corporation—

"for carrying out the work is that the registering authorities"—

that is, for example, the social services departments—

"in conjunction with the fire officers will agree a programme for spreading the cost over a period of years and for an increase in the fees"—

the fees of the people living in these homes—

"to absorb the annual cost which arises as a consequence."

I hope I have said enough to induce the Government to give me a helpful decision in regard to the action they will take in

future. I hope they will be able to send a representative to the meeting on 1st December so that they may have firsthand knowledge of the reasons why so many anxieties are caused. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.8 p.m.

My Lords, I wish at the outset to congratulate my noble friend Lady Vickers for adducing some very important facts. She has been brave indeed in attempting to put over what is a very serious problem concerning the fire protection of smaller businesses such as small hotels and old people's homes. This is not an easy subject with which to deal, but my noble friend has dealt with it admirably.

It is the custom in your Lordships' House to divulge an interest from the past or otherwise, if one has one. Some years ago, I was employed by one of the leading industrial fire protection engineering manufacturers and, as a result of that, I learnt about the different aspects of both machinery and fire. I assure the House that the training I received, even though I was on the sales staff of that very senior company, was severe. I treasure it to this day because, in the event of the slightest danger of fire, while I fear perhaps the worst, I know a little more than some about how to handle it.

In my experience—though perhaps I am rather biased—the United Kingdom fire protection engineering industry produces some of the finest equipment the world could possibly use. We have the finest scientists who invent and test new chemicals for extinguishing fires. There is the equipment into which the chemicals go, and there are the management and the staff in the factories. They are geared to nothing other than finding the quickest and most efficient way for anyone to fight a fire. This industry is seldom heard of, but wherever we go we can always see its products. It exports a considerable amount. It produces fine products which are bought abroad, and at present there are, in particular, exports to the Middle East.

This is a vital and important subject which we are debating. It involves many hundreds of thousands of people, as well as many small businesses and old people's homes throughout the country. I think it would be best if we were to divide the subject into two parts—first, the small hotels, and, secondly, the old people's and children's homes. I say that because the small hotel is a complete business on its own, and many are probably open for only a certain number of months each year.

When considering the experts, the fire prevention officers, it should be borne in mind that our legislation is stricter and our fire prevention standards are far higher than in the EEC countries. I believe that this is important, not least because of the tourist trade in this country. Many people stay in our small hotels. It would be a serious setback to the tourist trade if a hotel did not have fire protection equipment and, as a result, tourists were either injured or lost their lives.

The 1971 Act was introduced by the Conservative Party to strengthen the law relating to fire precautions where hazards to life were concerned. A new system of fire certificates, to which I shall refer in a moment, was introduced for certain premises which were outside the scope of the Acts covering shops, offices and factories. They were the Acts of 1961 and 1963, as your Lordships may remember. In this context, one should also include railway premises. The intention was to include places of public amusement and residential premises such as hotels, boarding houses and very high blocks of flats. In addition to that Act, there was a further Act, the Fire Precautions (Loans) Act 1973. This Act gave local authorities discretionary powers to grant loans to persons incurring expenditure in complying with the requirements of the fire officer and the Fire Precautions Act itself. We can deal with the latter in a little while.

At this stage, I should like to refer to another person who is involved in the implementation of the Act; namely, the fire prevention officer, who, as a result of his training in fire fighting, is authorised by the Act to go into any premises and inspect them for fire precautions. He is the vital man; he is there to ensure that the Act is carried out to the fullest extent. These fire prevention officers, with whom I have worked and whom I much admire, go into buildings solely to find the weakest points where fire may break out. I have every admiration for the work they have done. Indeed, there is no knowing how much good work they have done and how many lives may have been saved as a result.

I now want to refer to some figures relating to small hotels. I must apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, as I have been unable to give him prior warning that I may ask some questtions on this. My figures may now be rather out of date, though I believe that, in general, the situation is the same now as it was in March. There may have been a slight alteration, though not much, I think. There are 37,000 small hotels and guest houses throughout the United Kingdom, and at present 82 per cent. of these hotels and guest houses have applied for a certificate. Out of 52 per cent. which have been inspected, only 40 per cent. have been issued with certificates.

Your Lordships may imagine that there is an enormous job to be done here. The Act came in in 1971, and so implementation has not taken place all that quickly. What is even more alarming is the fact that 16 per cent. of those premises have reduced their accommodation so as to fall outside the scope of the Act. I say that this is alarming because this country is an attraction to tourists and we are short of small hotels, as well as large hotels for that matter. Thus, if hotels reduce the number of their rooms, tourists from abroad, as well as our own holidaymakers, may find that they are unable to come here on holiday because of lack of accommodation.

We should now examine the reasons why this legislation has not been implemented in such a way as to meet what was required. There are certain factors which contribute to the slow implementation of the Act. First, we must look at the cost of fire prevention equipment. This equipment has never been cheap, but in inflationary times, as at present, small hotels and guest houses are faced with enormous costs, to such an extent that many of the people who run them feel that they cannot possibly continue in business. It has been said that fire protection can cost a small hotel anything up to £10,000, and that for a larger hotel the figure could be £27,000.

In considering that cost, it must be remembered that some hotels are not open the whole year round. There must also be borne in mind the fact that hotels have other problems because of legislation which is weighted against them. For example, hotels may be inspected by a hygiene officer or a weights and measures officer. If the weights and measures officer does not agree with the measures used for serving drinks he can order the measures, which I believe cost £5 a time, to be sent back to the manufacturer. That means further cost to the hotel.

The owners of these small hotels also have to maintain the fabric of the buildings. A preservation order may be put on a hotel, for instance. Thus the hotels are really up against tremendous costs. This matter of costs is always a problem for small businesses. Whenever legislation is passed in Parliament it is not the large businesses which suffer; it is always the small ones. Here, legislation calls for fire prevention equipment, which is vital to save life and limb, but which costs the small hotels far too much. We are everlastingly passing this type of legislation which affects small businesses.

A further problem they have is the time fire prevention officers have in which to inspect their premises, and the length of time before they get a certificate—and it is here that I find certain rumours going around. My noble friend Lady Vickers mentioned the fact that one fire officer will go in, will have his survey dealt with, and so on, and will then retire or go on elsewhere, as a result of which a new fire officer will come in. He wants to win his spurs, so he doubles tip on his predecessor's report, though still in line with the fire prevention requirements; and so you are getting a confusion here. I wonder whether the noble Lord could possibly throw any light on this. I feel that if one fire prevention officer goes into a building and carries out a survey, that survey should stand and no other officer should go in there and start another survey, since that would only confuse the issue and, in the end, cause the hotelier himself, or the proprietor of whatever business it is, to withdraw and say, "No more. I am going out of business".

There is the further problem, as I understand it (though I have only heard this from rumours), of local authorities saying that they will do fire prevention surveys and inspections. If this were the case I would find it very serious, because in my view no one but the fire prevention officer, with his training and experience, should survey any building, let alone issue a certificate. I am wondering whether the Government can throw any light on this subject. I gather, though, that local government officers have thrown it back on the fire prevention officers. I think that would be a confusing issue in itself. I have dealt with one or two of the difficulties, and have found that, probably throughout the hotel industry, the situation is confusing.

Let me now, for a moment, turn to old people's homes. I wonder whether your Lordships know the weight of a fire door, and whether, if you were an old person, you would be able to open it—and a fire door has to be opened in a certain way—especially if you were in a chair, or having opened it, to get your chair through. Within this Act I find there are great weaknesses. It seems to be thought that the staff of an old people's home at night time (which is generally the time when fire strikes; it never seems to be the day time), when there may be only one on duty, could handle all those people through that door, whether they are in chairs or on crutches. I agree with the Fire Prevention Act. I believe its provisions should apply in all our private homes, but I think it has probably gone too far without anybody appreciating the difficulties in applying it.

I know full well the weight of a two-gallon fire extinguisher. Try to lift one. It is not the easiest thing to lift. They say that two people can lift one. There are not generally two people on duty at night time. A foam extinguisher, which is used for fire and highly inflammable chemicals, can only be used upside down. In my training it was the most difficult thing to get a foam extinguisher up in front of my face to protect myself from the extreme heat in front of me; and yet we are asking the staff of a small hotel or of an old people's home to handle this equipment. I think that the Act, rather than dealing with two-gallon extinguishers, could be implemented with one gallon foam or one gallon water extinguishers, and that we could look at the situation.

I should like to ask the Government whether we could look at the fire protection equipment, to see if it can be altered and made easier to handle. Certainly if it was made easier to handle we might be able to make it cheaper. So I feel that old people's homes must surely have a difficulty and that they will shut down if they cannot find the finance to cope with the fire prevention officers' recommendations.

A further tragedy which comes into one's mind when dealing with this subject concerns children's homes. There are many people throughout the country who take in invalid children in order to look after them, but this Act forbids them to do so over a certain percentage. What we are saying now, therefore, is that, instead of these children being cared for in these smaller homes, these small homes will become non-existent because of the insistence of fire prevention officers that the Act should be carried out as it stands. I think this is a great tragedy. I believe that we should, somehow, try to modify this legislation.

I feel I have said quite enough. Eighteen minutes is long enough and hot enough, and I am very grateful to your Lordships for listening. This is a subject which is very difficult. I do not think I could point a finger at anybody, including the Government, and say, "Why are you not implementing this legislation?" I believe it will take some years yet for it to be fully implemented. But what I should like to see, as I am sure some of my noble friends would like to see, is this legislation modified and made easier. If we can do that, then I am sure that this legislation will be implemented much more quickly and its provisions carried out much more quickly by the fire prevention officers and others.

3.27 p.m.

My Lords, I, too, am very grateful indeed to the noble Baroness for raising this very important matter at the present time. There are one or two rather ironical comments one could make on some of the things which have been said. We are told that in this country our standards of fire fighting and fire protection are among the highest to be found on the Continent of Europe. This is a two-edged weapon, one might say, because on more than one occasion the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, who is going to speak after me, and I myself have raised the question whether it would not be possible to stop people from smoking in theatres, cinemas, et cetera, as occurs in, I think, every other European country I know. We have both always been told that it is entirely unnecessary to do that in Great Britain because the fire precautions are so well done that there is no danger of fire, whereas the point which the noble Lord and myself were trying to bring out was not the danger of fire but the danger to health from people smoking indiscriminately in theatres and cinemas.

Another point which interests me and which was raised by the noble Baroness is this. I was for a very long time one of the governors of the National Corporation for the Care of Old People, so I came across a good deal of mixed information about homes, in addition to which I ran an annexe to my department at the hospital which was, in effect, an old people's home. I think the thing that the fire protection people must have continually brought home to them (this has been said by both speakers this afternoon, but I can see no harm in repeating it a third time) is that fires frequently occur at night, when there is not a very big staff on duty. The fact that there is not a very big staff on duty at night is not due to people not wanting to have them but they cannot afford them. Therefore, it should be made as simple as possible for elderly people to find and manipulate the escape routes and the doors.

As I have said before, most of these fires occur at night and if you have a lot of elderly folk being suddenly awoken by a fire alarm then they tend to be far more confused than a younger, normal person would be. You have to take great care that the fire escapes and the way to them can be easily found and that the doors are not too difficult to manipulate. I think that one noble Lord mentioned the question of fire doors being too heavy. It is a simple thing to happen, if you are frail, feeble and confused, that you cannot cope with heavy fire doors—and particularly doors which open on to a flight of stairs so that even though you can get them open you may perhaps be pitched down the stairs and are much more likely to be killed in that way than to be burned to death in the fire. These things are important. The fire precaution officer should bear them in mind when dealing with old people's homes and should not regard those homes as being in the same category as hotels or even children's homes, because children are more active and more able to do things than are these elderly folk.

I do not want to go into a great amount of technical detail about the cause of fires in old people's homes, but one quite frequent cause is the habit that elderly people have of taking a cigarette when they go to bed. That is a difficult thing to stop. It is a horrid habit and, it seems to me, a dangerous and unpleasant one, but old people enjoy it. Quite a number of fires get started in that way and it may be that, by the time the fire is discovered, it has taken quite a big hold on the premises because it comes from a cigarette setting fire to bed sheets and it may be some time before the attendants are able to discover it.

Another point I should like to make, one to which the noble Baroness referred, is that some kind of permanent or fixed guidelines or rules could be laid down so that individual fire authorities do not make different demands as to the various kinds of criteria required. I think, too, that once a home has been given a certificate of being safe it should not be changed merely because a different chap is appointed as a fire officer. I think that if we could get more of that sort of work done, it would make things easier. Of course, to achieve the ideal in old people's homes—and by this I do not merely refer to private voluntary homes but to places which are part of the National Health Service where elderly folk can stay for quite a long time—comes down, as it always does, to the question of money. You must be able to afford to pay the staff. If you can afford to pay the staff and to find them, then you will get rid of a good deal of the danger, but both of these things are rather difficult to do at the present time.

Finally—and I do not want to go into any great detail of what has already been said—I wonder whether it would not be possible for there to be far more fire escape lessons, given both to the staff and to the inhabitants. After all, if you go on to a ship you get boat drill from time to time and you know what to do if there is going to be a collision or a wreck. I wonder whether more people should know what to do in a fire, where the fire doors are or where the escape routes are— and to be taught it rather than to pick it up by going round. That might afford some kind of protection to people when fire breaks out. It might make it easier to have fire precautions rather simpler and not quite so expensive as they are at the present time. My Lords, I have nothing further to say except that I can appreciate the danger in old people's homes and the fact that, if there is a really bad fire in an old people's home, then as things are at present the number of people who will be rescued alive may be very small.

3.36 p.m.

My Lords, I rise first of all to thank my noble friend Lady Vickers for inaugurating this debate and to declare that I should gladly support her in any way I can in this debate or on any other occasion, and also to thank my noble friend Lord Long for having forced me to brevity because he brought up some of the things that I wished to speak about. Now I can leave them be, unless I should want to be unduly repetitive, which I do not.

I put my name down to speak today because, a little over five years ago, I was in ray work with the Greater London Council, working in the building regulations division and architects' department and working in connection with fire prevention and in assisting establishments to obtain their fire certificate. Mention has been made of the small hotel owners who have reduced the numbers of their guests. The reduction in order to become exempt has to be rather extensive because exemption is rather restrictive. I have here a copy of an application form for a fire certificate under the Fire Precautions Act 1971. I also have some photocopies should any noble Lord care to have one. It says on the first page of the form:
"Notes on completing the application form for hotels and boarding houses. A fire certificate is required for any premises used as an hotel or boarding house if sleeping accommodation is provided there for more than six persons, whether guests or staff, or where there is some sleeping accommodation above the first floor or below the ground floor."
To be exempt from the legal requirements for a fire certificate, means that there must be fewer than six people sleeping in that hotel, guests and staff included, and they must be confined either to the ground floor or to the first floor. To run a business on those lines is rather difficult.

Many of the small hotels are really converted private houses. The first thing the owner has to do is to make an application. Unfortunately, he might think that he is exempt and then finds that somebody has told on him, and he gets a letter from the local authority to say that his premises need a fire certificate and asking him to apply for one quickly. He must then get one of these forms, complete it and send it in. Then along comes an inspector or some other authorised person. I never knew exactly what I was when I was doing this job—an aspirant for the job of a fire prevention officer, perhaps—but I was given a warrant card entitling me to go into all sorts of places, and have been involved also in the examination of cinemas and places of entertainment.

The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, mentioned my previous inquiries. I remember coming in on a Question some years ago about smoking in cinemas. Then the business begins because the authorities will demand that drawings are produced. They may send a surveyor to make some plans of their own. But, on the whole, it is up to the owner himself to be responsible for the provision of plans of his house. Unless he is qualified and experienced in building surveying or architecture, he is going to have to bring in a professional to do it. That is a further expense that he has to consider. Having submitted the plans, he will find that they are returned with very interesting, helpful, coloured lines on them indicating which parts of the house require fire protection; for example, stairs, passages, and so on, and doors which should be made fireproof and kept shut at all times. There will be indications where there should be fire exit signs.

I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, for referring to fire escape drill in hotels. It is not often in an hotel that a member of the staff will refer to fire drill. This should be the responsibility of the management. I have heard of hotel porters who, once they have the guests comfortably installed in their rooms, promptly draw attention to the fire notices which are usually pinned on the doors. These inform the guests about fire exits, telling them where the nearest exit is. I should like to underline what has been said earlier, that the hotel owner has heavy responsibilities with all the matters he has to deal with: tax, licensing, hygiene and accounts. He is almost afraid of authority because of the further expense that may be involved.

In defence of the building regulations, although they may seem harsh or severe, they are practical. London particularly has to be grateful for them. The rules concerning fire go back to 1666 after the famous Great Fire of London when architects like Sir Christopher Wren, and other people connected with building, were determined that such a fire should never again hit London. They took account of this in building regulations. Most of the buildings then were private. In the years to come—and especially in 1940—one of the things that saved London from greater destruction was the fact that buildings had been constructed in accordance with the fire regulations. Although many areas were destroyed by fire, the fires were contained and we never had a fire storm. When our Air Force bombed Germany, in Hamburg they had fearful fire storms caused by fire sweeping through old buildings. Many Governments on the Continent are trying to copy our ideas.

The small hotel owner is in the ranks of the small private business which is vital for the tourist trade. I remember going into several hotels in the course of my work in the King's Cross area and, on walking away, I was met by travellers looking for hotel accommodation. They did not know who I was but asked me to recommend any hotels. I was able to give them one or two. There is an example of what a small hotel can do. People coming into London quickly do not want anything luxurious; they want something small, comfortable and central. They often come in at short notice and want to be able to book into somewhere like that quickly.

In defence of authority, we have to be consistent but we are also sympathetic. The hotel owner who has problems will be told how he can best overcome them. But there is the matter of expense. There are loans or grants which are available. At the moment they may not be adequate, or it may take time for them to become available. I hope this debate will help in this direction. The hotel owner is almost in a vicious circle and it is nobody's fault. It is not the fault of the Government, the local authorities, the tax man or those in weights and measures. They all have to insist on the law being carried out. There is no such thing as a completely vicious circle; there is a way of breaking it. Usually somebody says something must be done, but nobody can work out how to do so. If everyone gets together, a way can be found to ease the situation. I am looking forward to what the noble Lord has to say on behalf of the Government. I repeat my hope that we will see something beginning soon.

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I say this: surely the best way to get things moving is for small hotel owners to receive grants to make hotels fireproof. Perhaps that is already done, but that is surely the best way to get things moving.

My Lords, that has been mentioned. Some grants are available but they are not enough. We need to make improvements on these.

3.49 p.m.

My Lords, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Gainford has just said, and we are indebted to the noble Baroness for raising this matter today. The response of the House has demonstrated that there is a wide recognition that this is a matter of some importance and, inevitably, a great deal of the time of the debate has been occupied by discussion regarding the situation affecting old people's homes. The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, and others, including the noble Baroness who initiated this debate, dealt with that particular issue.

Certainly it is a serious matter. In a period of a little over two years we have had two extremely serious fires in old people's homes. In December, 1974, in the fire at the Fairfield old people's home, in Edwalton, Nottinghamshire, 18 of the residents died. In January of this year, at the Wensley Lodge home for the elderly, in Hessle, near Hull, 11 residents died. In a situation of this character, it is right for two questions to be asked: First, whether it has been sensible to devote so much time, money and effort into applying the Fire Precautions Act 1971 to hotels and hoarding houses to the exclusion of other categories of premises, because I should make it clear, at the outset, that the Act does not cover old people's homes. Secondly, as the Wensley Lodge inquiry report asks, why should the proprietors of hotels and boarding houses
"… be required to provide higher standards for guests, who, generally speaking, are able-bodied and staying for short periods than are local authorities for providing accommodation for residents who are often seriously incapacitated by physical or mental infirmity?"
Let me, then, at the outset set out our general approach to this issue. It would probably be agreed by most of those who have participated in the debate today that it would be right, when discussing the case for the introduction of fire precaution controls to any type of accommodation, to ask oneself what is the identifiable risk in respect of that category of accommodation. But, inevitably, that can be assessed only by establishing the losses caused by fires over a period of years. Having said that, let me take the case of hotels. There were serious hotel fires in Church Stretton and Saffron Walden in 1968 and 1969, in which 16 people died. Hotels, as I have indicated, are now designated under the Fire Precautions Act; but the reason for that, quite apart from the two fires I have mentioned which took place in 1968 and 1969, was that hotels in this country had been a major source of preventable fire casualties for many years and had not been subject previously to any adequate form of control.

The noble Baroness mentioned the financial problems of, I think, an hotelier in North Wales; but certainly this applies to a number of hoteliers, in introducing these fire precaution controls into their premises. But I think we have to recognise—and the noble Viscount touched on this matter—that when people provide accommodation for profit (that is a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do) they have an obligation to their guests to take reasonable precautions to safeguard their lives. I think that is something we all recognise.

In a situation of this kind—when human life is involved as directly as it is in this area we have been discussing today—it would be quite wrong to permit any form of complacency. Nevertheless, I think it is right to examine our priorities extremely carefully. Let me discuss, just for a moment, these two classes of occupancy: on the one hand, hotels and boarding houses and, on the other hand, old persons' homes. During the years 1971–74, before the Fire Precautions Act had really begun to affect the smaller premises, the number of hotel and hoarding house fires was just under 6,000. That related to an average occupancy level of some 400,000 guests. Old people's homes, on the other hand, accommodate about 160,000 guests at any one period of time. Therefore, other things being equal, one would look for a fire and casualty incidence about 40 per cent. as great as that in hotels, In fact, the number of fires, which is just under 2,500, is roughly in that proportion; but when the number of casualties is compared the situation is quite different. If we disregard the single casualty fires—which, as the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, pointed out, are often caused by people, particularly old people, smoking in bed, and sometimes caused by cooking and other accidents which the measures available under the Act for improved fire warning and means of escape can do virtually nothing to prevent, we find that the figure was not 40 per cent. as it would have been if the same proportion has been carried through, but only about 14 per cent., and there were only 15 per cent., as many fires in which there were a number of casualties in old persons' homes as compared with hotels. Overall, therefore, the situation is that fire problems in old persons' homes is one of a significantly lower dimension than in the case of hotels.

This particular matter, the degree of relative risk, was touched on in the Wensley Lodge inquiry. Evidence presented by the Fire Research Station, which was accepted at the inquiry, suggested that elderly people are in fact safer from fire in old persons' homes than they are in private dwellings. That is an indication of another difference between old persons' homes and hotels: that is, the extent of effectiveness of the fire precautions which can be achieved without designation. The powers available to control fire precautions in hotels were negligible before designation—very limited indeed—but every old persons' home not only has to be registered with the local authority but is also required by regulations to take adequate precautions against the risk of fire. It is the practice for fire brigades to advise the registering authority on the precautions that should be taken. Although homes provided by local authorities are statutorily exempted from these controls, the same procedure is, in practice, generally applied in their case also—

My Lords, I do apologise for interrupting the noble Lord: I fear I am going to prove my ignorance. What is the difference between an old people's home and an old persons' home?

My Lords, none at all: I am moving from one to the other. There is no distinction at all: it is the looseness of my language. I have dealt with the position so far as the local authority is concerned. I think that in the light of these factors our predecessors decided in 1972 that priority should be accorded to the designation of hotels over other classes of occupancy, such as old persons' homes. I recognise that it could be argued that, had some part of the fire brigade's time and effort which was deployed on hotels and boarding houses been devoted to old persons' homes, we might have been spared at least the Wensley Lodge fire; but, on the other hand, as a consequence of the work which has been done in the hotel field, we have in this country avoided other disasters. The noble Viscount, Lord Long, referred to our position and I think I would agree with him. We have a rather happy situation in this country compared with other countries.

Indeed, in this year alone there have been major hotel fires in both Amsterdam and Brussels. In Amsterdam 30 people died and in Brussels, 18 people, 13 of whom were British. Nor can one discount the potential danger of even a small boarding house fire: one cannot minimise the risk there. Only in 1975 was there a tragic fire in Arbroath, in which six people died. These are the real risks that are involved when people provide accommodation, and inevitably they are ones to which it was right for our predecessors to address themselves when they put the Fire Precautions Act through Parliament and made the designation orders. Certainly I think it is true that at least one problem was not foreseen in 1972: that was that fire certification would be so demanding, both in terms of the costs it would impose and of its demands on the resources of the Fire Service.

First, if I may, let me deal with the cost, which was more than touched on by the noble Baroness who initiated this debate. So far as the private sector is concerned, the opportunity exists, at least to a limited extent, to recoup the cost of fire precaution measures by increased charges. Moreover, a great deal has been done to ease the financial burden which the Fire Precautions Act would otherwise impose. Tax relief is available on all expenditure on fire precautions required by a fire authority under the Act. And, under the Fire Precautions (Loans) Act 1973, local authorities may at their discretion make loans to enable the proprietors of small hotels and boarding houses to carry out the requirements of the fire authority, although I must accept that that provision has not been nearly as widely used as might have been expected.

The noble Baroness raised the question of whether there was adequate publicity. I will gladly look at that point and discuss it with my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, who deals with the fire service on a day-to-day basis, to see whether anything more can be done so far as publicity is concerned. I think that it is a useful point which she raised, and I will gladly have the matter looked at. The noble Baroness and the noble Viscount also referred to the situation in which there could be unreasonable demands—I do not want to put particular language into their mouths, and I shall try to summarise their case as fairly as I can—made by a fire prevention officer when he looked at buildings. All I can say is that this matter is dealt with in the Fire Precautions Act itself. There is a right of appeal to a magistrates' court against what could be regarded as an unreasonable requirement. Section 9 of the Fire Precautions Act lays down this procedure, and anybody who feels that he has been harshly treated therefore has redress so far as the courts are concerned.

There was another issue raised by the noble Baroness and the noble Viscount; that is, the situation in which it is said that a fire officer carried out a survey and then, after a period of time, another fire officer turned up, carried out another survey and imposed far harsher conditions than the first. The Home Office has, indeed, heard suggestions of this kind in the past, but I am bound to say that, despite the fact that we have asked for evidence, we have not yet received any. All I can say to the noble Baroness and the noble Viscount, and to anybody else who has information on this point, is that we would gladly look into such a case if we were furnished with evidence and would discuss the matter with the fire officers concerned. We certainly would not wish a situation of this kind to arise if it could be prevented.

My Lords, I am much obliged. Nevertheless, if any Member of your Lordships' House has information of this kind and passes it on to me, I shall gladly have the matter looked into within the Department and, if necessary, it can be taken up with the fire authority concerned.

Having dealt with the question of cost affecting people in the private sector, let me now turn to the public sector, because, clearly, any increased charges here must be met wholly from the public purse. At the present time of economic stringency, despite the suggestions made in the report of the Wensley Lodge inquiry, these resources cannot be stretched to allow fire precautions to be funded otherwise than at the expense of other developments; otherwise, there is no way in which one can maintain a proper control of public expenditure.

The Fairfield inquiry was very conscious of this point, and in their report they used the following language:
"Excessive expenditure on fire precautions, particularly in existing Homes—"
that is, old people's homes—
"could result in fewer newer Homes being built, and some existing Homes might have to close if too stringent requirements were imposed on them. Accordingly we take the view that some degree of risk from fire has to be accepted in homes for the elderly. The difficulty lies in drawing the line between precautions which are vital to safety and precautions which, although contributing to a reduction in fire risks, are too elaborate to warrant adoption."
In this situation, the Government thought it right to issue guidance to local authorities and, indeed, to fire brigades, emphasising that schemes should be devised for spending any available money each year to produce as much improvement as possible in fire prevention in old people's homes, with the aim of ensuring that all premises will be brought up to an adequate standard.

Secondly—again, dealing with the public sector—I turn to the burden which the certification procedure imposes on the fire service. Although the initial fire certification of hotels and boarding houses is now probably somewhere in the region of two-thirds complete, there remain substantial arrears of work in some fire authority areas. While restrictions on manpower ceilings remain, the opportunity for the designation of other classes of premises will inevitably be limited. It would clearly be difficult, when many small hotels in all parts of the country have already been certified, to seek now to change the criteria for certification. It would, indeed, be regarded as wholly wrong by those who had brought their premises up to a proper standard, if suddenly the Government changed the basis of the standards applying to accommodation of this character. That being so, we certainly do not think that it is an appropriate policy to follow.

What we want to do in the situation that I have described today is move on to designate other classes of property, as soon as this is possible. We want to extend the Fire Precautions Act on a phased basis, as soon as resources permit. The central problem which we have before us at the moment is to select what are the priority areas—the areas of greatest risk so far as death and injury are concerned—and then decide to make these the next candidates for designation. The Wensley Lodge inquiry recommended that old persons' homes should be picked out for this purpose, and this question is now being urgently examined by a committee set up by the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, which is reviewing the present working of the Act and making recommendations as regards any future possible extensions. I hope that we shall receive a report on this fairly shortly, and I can assure the House that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will make his decision on this matter as soon as possible thereafter. In the meantime, I will ensure that all the points made in our debate today are passed on to the members of the committee, so that they are aware of your Lordships' views on this matter.

4.9 p.m.

My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord the Minister for a much more helpful reply than I thought I would get, and for the consideration which he has given to the points raised. I should also like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Long, the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, and the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, for their support. Perhaps I should have made it quite clear at the beginning that this debate has nothing to do with the present situation. I should not like it to be thought that it had anything to do with that, and of course the Motion was put down long ago. I want to put it on the record that this debate is completely separate.

I feel that many of the points raised will be very helpful, and I hope that we shall soon see the designation of old people's homes which are not at present designated under the Fire Precautions Act 1971. This point is most important, particularly for voluntary organisations, and I am very glad that the noble Lord is to draw the attention of his right honourable friend in the other House to the points raised.

One point which the noble Lord did not mention was whether any Government representative is to be at the conference on 1st December which is being organised by the National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and other voluntary organisations. They will discuss the problem and may be able to give further information which will be valuable. There is no need for the Minister to answer. Perhaps he will let the Society know whether a representative can attend. I therefore thank very warmly the Minister and those who have joined in this debate, and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.