PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

DRAFT FIRE SERVICES (AMENDMENT) (NORTHERN IRELAND) ORDER 1993

Wednesday 5 May 1993

LONDON: HMSO

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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Martyn Jones

Atkins, Mr. Robert (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)

Barnes, Mr. Harry (Derbysire, North East)

Canavan, Mr. Dennis (Falkirk, West)

Corbyn, Mr. Jeremy (Islington, North)

Faber, Mr. David (Westbury)

Fishburn, Mr. Dudley (Kensington)

Gorman, Mrs. Teresa (Billericay)

Lightbown, Mr. David (Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household)

McGrady, Mr. Eddie (South Down)

O'Brien, Mr. William (Normanton)

Parry, Mr. Robert (Liverpool, Riverside)

Porter, Mr. David (Waveney)

Robinson, Mr. Mark (Somerton and Frome)

Shaw, Mr. David (Dover)

Trotter, Mr. Neville (Tynemouth)

Walker, Mr. A. Cecil (Belfast, North)

Waller, Mr. Gary (Keighley)

Winnick, Mr. David (Walsall, North)

Dr. P. C. Seaward, Committee Clerk

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3 Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 5 May 1993

[MR MARTYN JONES in the Chair]

Draft Fire Services (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1993

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Robert Atkins): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Fire Services (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1993.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton): I thank the Minister for moving the order, which I welcome because it brings Northern Ireland into line with the fire safety regulations and provisions that apply to the rest of the country. A mild criticism is that it has taken six years to do that. I understand that the Fire Brigades Union has been pressing for the order and it would be interesting to know the reason for the extensive delay. I referred to a similar situation when considering another Northern Ireland order. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that, and on the fact that the order requires occupiers to be responsible when there should be some responsibility on the owners of properties to report any changes and make observations on the need for the order in Northern Ireland. Some properties will be exempt from the requirement for a fire certificate. Some may now have a fire certificate, but due to changing circumstances may apply for exemption. Who will police the changes? If there are changes to an establishment, it will have to be inspected to see whether the exemption from a fire certificate can be maintained. We support the order, but further clarification is necessary. It will ensure a proper safety code for the people of Northern Ireland, but we want to know how it will be policed. The notes about the order state: "The new provision imposes a duty on occupiers of all premises put to a designated use, which are exempted from the requirement to have a fire certificate, to provide and maintain such means of escape in case of fire, as may reasonably be required." While I accept that occupiers have some responsibility, owners of properties also have responsibility. A further point concerns article 13 of the order which "amends Article 39 of the 1984 Order … so that it imposes a duty on the Fire Authority to cause premises to be inspected in accordance with guidance which may be given by the Department. It should be noted that this Article is subject to an appointed day Order." It would seem that this order is allied with another, which gives some guidance as to when this one should be applied. Will the Minister address those points? We should have some information about them because they lie at the heart of the matter.

Mr. Atkins: I am grateful for the spirit in which the Member for Normanton Mr. O'Brien welcomed what is essentially a deregulatory instrument. I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's first point about a six-year delay, which started before I took office. The fact that it has taken six years to implement the order is indicative of some of the concerns expressed by Northern Ireland 4 Members about the delay in legislation for Great Britain being applied to Northern Ireland. The Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987 was thought sufficient and it has taken rather a long time to amend it, but the hon. Gentleman's strictures were well meant and well taken. The fire authority will carry out inspections, especially for the purpose of issuing exemption certificates. If someone applies for exemption, the fire brigade will inspect the premises and judge whether they constitute a low-risk building and, therefore, qualify for exemption. There will be a right of appeal, but I hope that it will not apply in most cases. I am somewhat confused by the hon. Gentleman's third point, which, frankly, I did not understand, but I accept his general point about owners and occupiers. Clearly, it is usual for the owner of premises to bear some responsibility, even thought he may not reside on the premises. In the first instance, the occupier is required to ensure that the house, office or factory is secure and, in the normal course of events, that it is insured. Therefore, the prime responsibility falls upon the occupier, although I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point about the owner. I shall try to clarify that in legal terms and write to the hon. Gentleman. If he would like to reiterate his third point, I might be able to give him a more specific answer.

Mr. William O'Brien: When premises are built, let or offered for occupation, one would suppose that it is the owner's responsibility to ensure that they conform to all the fire regulations laid down by the chief fire officer. Allied to that is the question of payment for the certificate. When I read the report in 1987 about the introduction of the orders, I said that the cost should not be so high as to prevent people from reporting such matters. Before people move into new premises, an inspection should take place and a certificate or an exemption should be issued where appropriate. The owner of premises should have some responsibility in addition to the occupier. Related to that is the matter of charging for certificates. In the statement of accounts for the fire service for 1991–92, the only cost was a small charge for fire reports. Charging for inspections and exemptions is a significant part of the exercise. I hope that the Minister will be able to address my points.

Mr. Atkins: I shall deal first with costs. The hon. Gentleman is authoritive on these matters and will know that the legislation as it pertains to Great Britain means that charges are levied. Those are usually calculated on the cost of the administration of examining the premises and the cost is £100-£140.1 cannot say whether that would be the exact figure in Northern Ireland, but it would be similar. The hon. Gentleman's point about the owner is well taken. In the case of a new building, I should have thought that the organisation which constructed it and the owner of the property—the two might be the same—would have to abide by planning regulations and would have to meet the specifications of the planning application and the fire service when the building is handed over for occupancy. Occupancy of a new building and, in particular, of an existing building, confers enormous responsibilities as well as rights. In the same way as hiring a car or chartering a ship, the occupier or user is responsible for insurance. I should not want a landlord to take advantage of an occupier to the extent that an occupier would have to meet 5 unfair charges. That point is justified and, because the hon. Member for Normanton has raised it, I shall examine it more closely and write to him. However, the occupier bears the responsibility for ensuring that the property is well-found for fire insurance.

4.43 p.m.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I pay tribute to the men of the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland. Not only do they risk life and limb from the normal hazards of fire and toxic dangers, but face the additional hazards of the bomb and bullet. Therefore, it is appropriate on every occasion to pay tribute and to record our thanks for their service to the community which is carried out in a courageous and open-handed way. Article 6 deals with exemptions. I urge the Minister and the fire authority to proceed with great caution when granting exemptions, particularly, for premises that are in multiple or public use. I hope that the fire authority will lean towards certification rather than exemption and will err on the side of safety rather than convenience. I hope that that will be emphasised to the Department and the fire authority. We have already touched upon article 8 which deals with charging for fire certification work. The useful explanatory note supplied with the order states: "such charges do not include any costs incurred relating to the inspection of premises." I take that with a grain of salt because the back page but one of that manual states: "The duty placed on the Fire Authority to carry out inspections may result in additional costs. The amount however, will depend upon guidance to be issued by the Department as to the frequency of inspections and on the extent to which the Fire Authority has already carried out inspections. Such costs should be offset by savings arising from the exemption from the need to have a fire certificate of low-risk premises and from income received for administrative charges for certification work." It appears that, willy-nilly, there will be a budget-balancing exercise, no matter which way one looks at it, and that the comments alleging exemption from the costs of inspecting premises are somewhat tongue in-cheek. The Department, and the fire authority if it has a self-regulating budget, would be wise not to exceed a fair and normal rate for certification. Buildings in Northern Ireland already incur considerable licensing fees for planning and building controls and there are many other extensive regulations. The fire authority or the Department should not place an unnecessary additional cost burden on planning applications or on buildings, there appears to be no overriding authority or restraint that can be imposed on the fire authority if it infringes the public good or the public interest. Article 11 deals with means of escape from buildings such as hotels and boarding houses. When considering such premises, one generally thinks of fire escapes and all the usual ways of getting away from danger, However, it is evident that there is no ready escape mechanism in many houses in multiple and separate occupation in the student land of the city of Belfast and in other university campuses, that is never referred to. The Northern Ireland Executive has an obligation to carry out inspections of houses in muliple occupation, but it is necessary to expand the parameters of the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland to take particular cognisance of such premises. They are not considered as multiple occupations because they are often 6 terraced houses and contain from six to 12 students. The fire risk in such houses is great and fire safety precautions must be applied much more rigorously than heretofore. Article 16 deals with the removal of exemption for premises used for public religious worship. We should not be in danger from fire while on our knees, but there may be potential hell fires all around us of which we are not cognisant. Many of our places of worship are ancient buildings and were built when fire precautions were nonexistent. It would be difficult for many of those buildings to be readily brought up to modern standards of fire safety. I suggest to the Minister and, through him, to the appropriate departments, such as the historic buildings department, that sympathetic consideration be given to providing sufficient funds so that buildings of historic importance are not destroyed architecturally or environmentally in the process of enforcing regulations. I am not suggesting that the regulations should not be enforced—I am all for them—but simply that in those sensitive areas some additional consideration or assistance should be given. Article 4 deals with the annual report of the fire authority. Here I touch upon a slightly sour note. Unfortunately, the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland has a long history of gross discrimination in respect of employment. It is only in the past two years that it has begun to put its house in order. I suggest that part of the fire authority's annual report should deal with its commitment under the Fair Employment Act to monitor the various aspects of fair employment which the authority is by law obliged to apply. It is interesting that in the 1992 report of the Northern Ireland fire brigade, considerable attention was given to the issue and an analysis was provided under the heading "Equal Opportunities/Fair Employment". Progress in that area is a cause for great satisfaction. However, further analysis is required regarding proportionality in salary levels, whether they apply to those in top administration posts or to temporary firemen. I have another point about the annual report which the Minister may wish to deal with personally. I refer to the composition of the fire authority, which has 17 members. Four of them are nominated by Belfast city council and another four are nominated by the Association of Local Authorities of Northern Ireland. Not one of them represents a minority community. It has been necessary for various Departments to correct such imbalances by ministerial appointments. That has not been done in this case and the polarity in Northern Ireland, whether political or religious, is not represented on the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland. We have elections on 19 May. As the Association of Local Authorities of Northern Ireland is a one-party association and therefore its nominations are one-party nominations, perhaps the Minister will consider exercising his ministerial largesse for the benefit of the community once the dust of the elections has settled. I apologise for introducing that rather sour note. I hope that the regulations will greatly enhance the safety and welfare of the people of Northern Ireland, as well as enhancing the valuable work and services provided by the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland.

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4.53 p.m.

Mr. Atkins: I thank the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) who, in his traditionally generous spirit, has paid a tribute to the fire service which I shall ensure is recorded and passed on. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members recognise that the fire service in Northern Ireland carries out its duties impeccably, bravely and professionally, without any fear of challenge from any side of the community. That in itself is a great tribute to the stance of the men and women in the fire service and the very high regard in which they are held by the vast majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman said that the fire authority and the fire brigades should err on the side of caution when issuing exemptions. I agree entirely. Of course, if there is any doubt, the authority to exempt must not be given. I have every faith, for the reasons that I have spelt out in general terms, that the fire authority and fire brigades will not do anything that puts lives at risk or property in danger. Exemption would not be granted unless there is every possibility that a site is low-risk—which they will define— which would, to an extent, deregulate the requirement affecting citizens and organisations in that respect. But the point is well made. I cannot yet give a direct answer about the administrative costs. We are awaiting the advice of the Home Office, which is considering the matter. I too shall be interested in what it has to say and shall ensure that the hon. Members for South Down and for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) are aware of those constraints or costs when we know them.

Mr. William O'Brien: Can the Minister assure us that if the income from the certificates does not cover the administration of the service, as the order says it should, there will be no reduction in fire service cover, which is necessary to maintain the service?

Mr. Atkins: I cannot comment on the detail of the cost, but I can give an absolute and unequivocal assurance that I would not be party to anything that would reduce the quality of the service, generally or specifically, in relation to the order and to fire cover generally. As to appeals, there is a judicial process to undergo if it comes to it. One would hope that it will not, but if it does there is the usual recourse to law. I hope that these matters can be resolved reasonably at a sensible level within the fire authority, with the involvement of a senior officer. If necessary, the judicial process will, it is to be hoped, resolve long-term difficulties. The point about student occupation is an interesting one. Those with an interest in these matters—whether in education, housing or fire prevention—will recognise the worry that the hon. Member for South Down described. At the moment the fire authority would certainly be able to issue a prohibition notice if it considered a boarding house or student accommodation not to be up to scratch. That is the protection, I suspect, that the hon. Gentleman seeks. As a member of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust I have considerable sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's point about churches and places of worship in general. I am advised, and was surprised to learn, that they 8 do not require a fire certificate and that therefore the wrath of God can take effect without the fire authority becoming involved. The hon. Member for South Down raised in addition to those specific points, a general one, which, as he will recognise is technically outside the scope of the order. None the less I recognise that this is perhaps an opportunity for him to raise the matter. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I have nothing but regard and respect for the way in which the fire authority and its employees operate in Northern Ireland, in prevention and in dealing with problems, whether those generated by bombs or terrorist activity, or ordinary fires. The hon. Gentlemen's point about the composition of the fire authority is one that I shall take to heart and consider. He will know that the Fair Employment Commission takes a great deal of interest in all these matters. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that if a formal complaint is laid the FEC will deal with it in the right and proper way. I am not aware at present of any investigation that is under way, but the fact that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter will remind me to reexamine it. Although I do not give any guarantee about largesse, patronage or any other such thing, he will know that Northern Ireland Ministers, whatever their responsibilities, are determined to try to ensure an equitable balance, in law and in community terms, so that the fire authority and all other authorities are representative of all concerns and strains in Northern Ireland. I commend the order to the Committee.

Mr. William O'Brien: In the report that was published in 1992, the number of employees is given as 2,022. Of those, 1,291 were Protestants, 623 were Catholics and 108 were not determined. There is a significant imbalance. The equal opportunities and fair employment bodies are obviously worried about that. The point that the hon. Member for South Down made is significant. Perhaps the Minister could look at the report, which highlights the imbalance in the number of people employed.

Mr Atkins: It is with no sense of evasion that I say that this is perhaps not the place to discuss that in detail. The hon. Gentleman's point was well made, as was that of the hon. Member for South Down. I undertake to examine the matter. Perhaps we can have informal conversations to try to resolve it. I cannot comment on detail because much depends on locations, employment processes, interests and so on. If there is a specific cause for concern that the FEC should be investigating, and which should therefore be drawn to my attention or to that of the Secretary of State, I assure the Committee that we shall take whatever action is necessary to rectify it.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the draft Fire Services (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1993.

Committee rose at Five o'clock.

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THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Jones, Mr. Martyn (Chairman)

Atkins, Mr.

Canavan, Mr.

Faber, Mr.

Fishburn, Mr.

Gorman, Mrs.

Lightbown, Mr.

McGrady, Mr.

William O'Brien, Mr.

Parry, Mr.

David Porter, Mr.

Mark Robinson, Mr.

David Shaw, Mr.

Waller, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(2): Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

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