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Fire Safety: Schools

Volume 783: debated on Monday 3 July 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the Grenfell Tower fire, what plans they have to review their guidance Fire safety in new and existing school buildings.

My Lords, our thoughts and prayers are with the relatives, friends and families, and all those people affected by the Grenfell tragedy. The department certainly has no plans to introduce any changes to its guidance that would make fire safety laws for schools less strict. Alongside the rest of government, we will review and act appropriately on any findings from the tragic events at Grenfell Tower. We are undertaking an analysis of all school buildings to identify any at a fire risk from cladding.

I thank the Minister for his reply and share his concerns about the victims of Grenfell. Is he aware that last year the London Fire Brigade did 184 school fire safety consultations and that, despite it feeling that all new and refurbished schools should have sprinklers fitted, only 2% of such schools were fitted with them? This indicates that the current guidance is not being followed. Given that sprinklers can save lives and reduce the rising cost of property damage, will the Government commit to making sprinklers mandatory in new and refurbished schools and producing up-to-date and robust information about the cost of school fires in lives, cash and educational disruption?

My Lords, all new schools must comply with fire safety guidance before they are allowed to open and only in those assessed as low risk are sprinklers not expected to be installed. The number of fires in schools has halved in the past 10 years. The department is not aware of the claims that the noble Baroness makes. Our recent consultation involved discussions with experts from across the fire sector, including the Chief Fire Officers Association and the London Fire Brigade. We would welcome any intelligence that they or she have to offer in relation to this.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the school immediately adjacent to Grenfell Tower is the Kensington Aldridge Academy. It has sprinklers installed, thanks to the regulations that I pushed through when I was a Minister, with the presumption that all new schools should have fire sprinklers fitted. Has the Minister seen the figures from the London Fire Brigade that show that, in the nine years since those regulations came in, there have been 717 fires in schools in London and in only 15 of those schools were sprinklers installed? I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said. Now is the time to go further than the regulations I agreed, to listen to the London Fire Brigade and to make sprinklers mandatory in all refurbishments as well as all new schools.

I am fully aware of the situation in Kensington Aldridge Academy, which is right next door to Grenfell Tower, and that a number of its pupils have died. Of course we will look at this further. We have not changed the regulations. The regulations that the noble Lord introduced are still extant. Although we thought they were absolutely on the right lines, we thought that in some ways they were a little long and potentially confusing. We have been discussing some changes, but we have no intention of changing those regulations and we would welcome discussions with anybody about any further changes and improvements they think are necessary.

My Lords, with many other Peers of the realm, I sit on the All-Party Group for Fire Safety and Rescue and sprinklers and the Fire Brigades Union and so and so forth. I have to tell the House that the most frustrating of meetings take place because these people who are really keen on having sprinklers all over the country, not in Scotland or Wales but excluding England, are very frustrated that the Government of the day are not acting accordingly.

As I mentioned, the recent rather technical consultation we had on the precise wording upset a few people who thought we were reducing the expectation, which we certainly were not. I thought I had pretty much reached an agreement with the APPG on this—but I am very happy to have further discussions.

My Lords, I am also a member of the APPG for Fire Safety and Rescue, which I joined when I came into your Lordships’ House because the primary school where I was chair of governors burned down in 2004. Because one and a half classrooms survived, it was deemed to be a refurbishment, and under the guidance there was no requirement to increase the level of safety to that required in new schools. The key thing for both new and refurbished schools is that the Government’s advice is advice—it is not statutory. Will the Minister ensure that it becomes mandatory to have the highest standard of safety protection, including sprinklers, in all schools, new and refurbished?

We would expect all schools to follow that guidance, but I certainly will look at the point the noble Baroness makes.

I, too, am a member of the all-party fire group. Is it not right that Members of this House and others who comment from outside should now take a deep breath and hold back a little and allow those who are competent in this world to tell us what action is needed? These actions should flow from proper, deep investigation—and hopefully we as a House will be told as soon as possible what changes are to be made.

My noble friend makes an extremely sensible suggestion. We will have to wait on this, but the DCLG has set up an independent expert advisory panel to advise the Government on any immediate measures needed to make buildings safe. That panel met for a full day last Thursday.

My Lords, what discussions has the Minister or any of his colleagues had with his counterparts in Scotland to exchange experiences north and south of the border and advice? Here is another sensible suggestion: if he has not had any meetings so far, will he do so now?

We have had conversations on this, particularly in relation to recent events and to universities, but I will look more closely to see whether there is more we can learn.

My Lords, closer to home, given the long delay to the refurbishment of this building, is the Minister satisfied about fire precautions in the Palace of Westminster?