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Defence Safety Fire Authority: Fire Safety Review

Volume 795: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the Defence Safety Authority Fire safety review—defence single living accommodation, published on 4 January.

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence takes the safety of its people extremely seriously and is committed to addressing the areas identified in the Defence Safety Authority’s report Fire Safety Review. The MoD has taken action on recommendations and has established a new committee to deliver improvements. The Defence Safety Authority will hold the MoD to account for progress on the recommendations through its annual assurance report.

My Lords, I am not surprised that this report was sneaked out on 4 January, during our Recess, having been sat on since last August. It is an appalling indictment of the Ministry of Defence’s whole approach to fire safety and to the care of personnel in its charge, despite earlier warnings. To quote from the executive summary,

“The majority of the issues identified in this report result from a failure by Top Level Budget (TLB) Holders and Heads of Establishment (HoE), as Accountable Persons (AP), to comply with Fire Safety legislative duties requiring them to have adequate arrangements in place to manage Fire Safety”.

How does the Minister react to the news that some military personnel deliberately interfere with and disable fire safety systems for their benefit, and others apparently illegally cook meals on camping stoves in their living quarters to save cash? Do we not have a military Grenfell just waiting to happen?

The report in itself is an admirable piece of work—thorough, analytical and robust. It has been pivotal in ensuring and securing improvements to fire safety in MoD single-living accommodation. The specific issues to which the noble Lord referred were indeed in the report—my recollection is that they form part of paragraph 6.6, and led to recommendation 5, which, importantly, is a priority 1 recommendation. I can say that the MoD has already addressed those areas of concern. The Defence Fire and Rescue Service has provided a signposting document that details a hierarchy for fire safety management across Defence. This includes terms of reference for adequately trained individual building fire focal points, who have been appointed by their heads of establishment, so that they can appropriately manage all fire safety risks, such as those identified by the noble Lord, within their respective buildings.

My Lords, would this be a case of the defence fire safety establishment benefiting from training in this regard? I commend the work of what used to be called the Civil Contingencies Centre—the EPC, as it is now called—in Easingwold, which does great work in training many of the civilian fire services. Would my noble friend investigate whether this would be a possibility for defence fire establishments if they have fallen short of best practice?

The report made a swathe of recommendations, leading to a total review of governance and governance structures. The committee to which I referred in my first Answer, the fire safety management committee, is new, and I can reassure my noble friend that it meets quarterly to review progress by recommendation owners. If progress is unsatisfactory, the chief fire officer will raise concerns directly with front-line commands or other top-line budget holders. There is a process in train to ensure that progress is monitored and that any tardiness or deficiencies in meeting recommendations will be identified and addressed.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lee, is right that this is a damning indictment of the situation in single-living accommodation. There is no doubt that a lot of the single-living accommodation onshore for the military is not really up to standard, and we have to put a major effort into this. I have to say that, in the naval sense, the best place for single-living accommodation is at sea, but sadly we have too few ships to have many of them there. I am sure the Minister would agree that more ships would be a good idea. The report really is a damning indictment, though, and is it not true that it was rather sneaked out? If the noble Lord had not brought this to my attention, for example, I would have been completely unaware that such an appalling report had been produced.

My Lords, to take the noble Lord’s last point first, I would observe that this is an internal report so there is not an obligation to publish, but it is important that it is in the public domain. I have already reassured your Lordships that, following the report being made available to the MoD, immediate steps were taken to progress recommendations, and that has been done to very good effect. On the specific issue that the noble Lord raises about single-living accommodation, I entirely support his desire to have a well-structured Royal Navy, which I believe we have, but I want it to be attending to front-line activity, not being a B&B facility. I say to him with reference to single-living accommodation that, in the last decade, 50,000 bed spaces have been delivered through a modernisation programme. He will possibly be aware that, in the financial year 2018-19, £4 million was programmed on SLA fire safety works, and in addition £9 million has been programmed on SLA refurbishment works that include fire safety upgrades.

My Lords, we can be grateful that changes have been made, but how was it that the circumstances were allowed to arise in which the committee said there had been a lack of priority afforded to fire safety, major weaknesses and an unacceptable degradation of barracks? We ask our young men and women to risk life and limb in action. Surely we can go out of our way to ensure that they are safe in their own barracks.

I entirely agree with the noble Lord. The issues were identified in the AAR of 2016-17, when it was realised that steps had to be taken. Since then there has been a systematic review and efforts have been made, culminating in the excellent report that we have just been discussing, to provide the necessary safety and the improvements that we all want to see.

My Lords, I read this report. I did not find it that clear at all; it was something of a bureaucratic emulsification. It was virtually impenetrable to the common reader and gave you the view that the sole answer to fire safety was the application of layers of bureaucracy. It reached something like the truth in paragraph 8.2, where it talked of people disillusioned and fatigued by the universally accepted situation that the infrastructure was underrepaired and underresourced and there was a complete absence of suitably qualified personnel. Does the Minister agree that this is another example of the Ministry of Defence attempting to bridge the gap between true capability and resources by the application of hope and risk?

I do not agree with the noble and gallant Lord at all. I think there is a widespread understanding across the Chamber that this report has been pivotal in ensuring that improvements have been forthcoming. I have some sympathy with him over the opacity of some of the language; I too struggled with the sea of acronyms. I finally got the department to provide a diagram for me showing who is doing what, who is responsible to whom and where they rest in the chain of command. I am very happy to put that diagram in the Library.