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Palace of Westminster: Fire

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 25 April 2019


Asked by

To ask the Senior Deputy Speaker, following the Notre Dame fire, what steps are being taken to ensure that the current plans for detecting and extinguishing fires in the roof space of the Palace of Westminster are adequate.

My Lords, I feel sure that the whole House will recognise the importance of this Question and endorse that we are the current custodians of this remarkable building and have a duty to do all we can to pass it safely on to future generations. That said, there are no automatic smoke detection systems—

Sorry; I should do this more often, should I not? There are automatic smoke detection systems in most of the roof spaces across the Palace and coverage of the remaining spaces will be completed during December 2019. There is no automatic system for extinguishing fires in the roof space of the Palace, but the roof space is compartmentalised to prevent the spread of fire. The fire safety team regularly patrols the Palace.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord for that comprehensive reply. We all love this place, and when I saw Notre Dame go up in smoke a week or so ago, my first thoughts were that it could happen to us here. I am really pleased we were told that there are smoke detectors in most areas of the roof space. I think the noble Lord said that that work will be completed by the end of this year. My question is: when smoke is detected, how do you put the fire out? We have seen from initial reports of the Notre Dame fire that, within less than half an hour of smoke being found, there was an inferno in the roof. It seemed to me that the only way it could be put out was with cannons of water landing on the roof, but of course that does not work—the roof is designed to keep the water out until it falls down and causes a fire below. Therefore, can we look at a way of installing more extinguishing medium in the roof space to deal with such fires, if and when they occur, which obviously we hope they will not?

My Lords, this is a very important question. We are of course anxious to learn lessons from Notre Dame, as we are from other heritage buildings. We should be clear that all heritage buildings carry the potential for very serious fires. First, in this building there is an assumption that if a smoke detector is activated, it has to be inspected immediately—there is no assumption that it is a false alarm. Secondly, the procedure is to tackle fire from within the building rather than to wait until it goes up. The noble Lord is quite right: when it goes up, very serious issues are raised, not only of getting water up to the roof—although there are systems to do that—but because it means that the fire has taken serious control.

My Lords, does the Lord Chairman accept that the earlier we can bring forward the decanting, the better it will be for the safety of the building? Will he therefore ensure that we look very carefully at Sir Michael Hopkins’s realistic proposal for putting the Chamber of the other place in Portcullis House, which Sir Michael himself was the architect of? If, in addition, we had a temporary structure on the embankment gardens, the two Chambers could be moved far more quickly than under the current proposals.

Noble Lords will know about the arrangements for taking forward the R&R programme. All I can add at this stage is that the fire at Notre Dame ought to be a spur to all of us to get on and implement the R&R programme. It includes well-developed systems, and I feel sure that we will hear more about it in due course.

My Lords, I am really pleased to hear the noble Lord the Chairman of the Services Committee say that the fire service inside the Palace does not accept the concept of a false alarm. That is very reassuring, but it is not what happened at Notre Dame. Will the House join me in thanking the excellent team of fire safety officers who patrol the Palace 24 hours a day? One problem at Notre Dame was the lack of sprinklers. In recent renovations at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, sprinklers have been installed and old beams have been painted with fire retardant. What plans are currently under way for us to do that here at the Palace of Westminster to provide extra security?

My Lords, a huge amount of work has been undertaken during the past three years. I am not rehearsed on all of it but it includes more than 700 fire doors, improving compartmentalisation within the building and improving ways of getting people out of the building should there be a threat of fire. However, there is more to be done. We have managed to get water sprinklers in the basement, which is probably the most vulnerable area of the building, and we will continue with the programme in many ways. I will not go through all of them but a substantial work programme is already in place.

My Lords, has the noble Lord the Chairman of the Services Committee read as I have the press reports that suggested hot works were the root cause of the fire at Notre Dame? Can he assure the House that the hot works procedures followed in this House are of the very safest type and, in particular, that workmen remain on-site for at least two hours after hot works have ceased?

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for that question because, as colleagues will know, a large number of contractors are on the site all the time. The fire officer has a procedure with all contractors that they must ensure compliance with the most rigorous standards, including the kind of detail to which the noble Earl has referred. But we should never be complacent. We must go on learning the lessons, especially in this special building.

My Lords, I am grateful for the very informative Answer that the noble Lord gave. I am sure we are all glad to know that there are smoke alarms in the roof space. But I have to say I am surprised—indeed shocked—that in an area so vulnerable to conflagration there is no sprinkler system. Can he explain why there is no sprinkler system? I am rather sceptical about the argument that compartmentalisation is the answer to vulnerability—that was the case on the “Titanic”.

My Lords, this is a very serious matter. The roof space in Westminster Hall is very precious, as we know. I am pleased to report that we have now managed to get an alarm system in place in that part of the building. The R&R programme will have to address a whole range of issues, and this will be a key one. But we need to be clear that it will not be a simple matter to put a sprinkler system in that part of the building.