Smoke Alarms

October 12, 2005 11:00 AM
By Paul Rowen MP in Jim Fitzpatrick MP (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) and Mark Williams MP (Ceredigion, LDem)
Paul Rowen MP - Highlighting the importance of Smoke Alarms!

Paul Rowen MP - Highlighting the importance of Smoke Alarms!

Paul Rowen (Rochdale, LDem)

I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this short debate on smoke alarms. I know that the Minister, as an ex-firefighter, has personal experience of what happens when a fire alarm is not fitted. I wish this morning to consider the issues and the current state of affairs concerning smoke alarm provision.

I was prompted to ask for the debate by a very bad fire in Rochdale on 25 June, when a young mother and three children, a baby of 11 months, a three-year-old and a nine-year-old, lost their lives. On that same weekend there were two other serious house fires around the country, in which another three children lost their lives. That demonstrated to me why, although there has been considerable improvement in smoke alarm provision, there is room for more.

Across Greater Manchester last year there were 18 blazes that ended in tragedy. Of those 18, 14 were in buildings with no smoke alarms. Nationally there were more than 4,000 similar fires. The figures show that only 1,813, or 41 per cent., of those fires were in premises with a working smoke alarm. Another 11 per cent. happened where there was a smoke alarm that was not working. Sadly, that was what happened in the case of the fire in my constituency. An alarm was fitted, but there was no battery in it.

Typically, those affected by fires where there is no smoke alarm are old people, single people, people from ethnic minorities or families with young children. It is twice as likely that someone will suffer death by fire where no smoke alarm is fitted than where there is an alarm. In Greater Manchester, the fire service tells me, approximately 200,000 households still do not have a smoke alarm. There has been a considerable improvement since 1987, when 9 per cent. of households had smoke alarms. The current estimate is 80 per cent. Nevertheless, as the tragedies remind us, one life lost through fire is still one too many. I shall suggest some measures that are not dramatic and do not carry huge cost implications, and which could go some way to improve the statistics.

In 1997, the community fire safety task force report, "Safe as Houses", concluded that enforcement of regular checking of smoke alarms was likely to be difficult and excessive. Notwithstanding that, I am aware that in the past few years the Government have extended relevant provision so that, for example, since 1992 all new houses have had to have a working smoke alarm; in 2000 that was extended for loft conversions; there is also now provision, through the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997, if a risk assessment is carried out, for a local authority to insist on the fitting of a smoke alarm. That, typically, applies to houses in multiple occupation. I am also aware of licensing arrangements that local authorities can make, extending the provision. However, that does not make it compulsory.

For private rented properties in particular-because the people affected by the issues I am raising are predominantly those who live in such properties-I ask the Minister to consider extending the annual gas check. At present, it is a requirement for there to be an annual check of the gas fires in all private rented properties. When gas engineers carry out that check, could they not also check that a working smoke alarm is fitted? If that were done, any enforcement difficulties could be overcome without a great deal of extra expense. As all the figures that I have quoted show, there is no doubt that people who have a smoke alarm fitted in their homes have a greater chance of escaping losing their lives. I ask the Minister to consider my request; nearly 50 Members have signed my early-day motion on the matter.

There are a couple of other areas where there is a need to bring about improvements, and which I have been asked to raise. One of them is the provision of smoke alarms for deaf people. More than 2 million people in this country suffer deafness that requires a hearing aid, and 450,000 of them suffer severe hearing loss and would be unlikely to hear a conventional alarm. Earlier this year, for the first time ever there was a deaf awareness week, during which local brigades worked to raise awareness of the importance of smoke alarms, and in particular of the types of vibrating alarms that deaf people require. I ask the Minister to consider making that an annual requirement as part of the fire service plan, because there is a need for us to continue to reach such people.

From February 2006 there will be a new provision: the home oxygen service will be introduced. Currently, more than 50,000 patients receive oxygen at home. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the fire triangle and the causes of fire, and of the need to exercise caution when using oxygen. I am grateful that the company that has won the contract to supply the new oxygen service products is working with brigades in some areas of the country to target the people who use them and to make sure that they understand the dangers that are involved in using oxygen.

Some brigades are taking such targeting of at-risk groups further. The brigade in West Yorkshire is visiting people over the age of 60 and replacing their chip pans with deep-fat fryers. The brigades in Leicestershire and West Yorkshire are also checking electric blankets. That is good; it demonstrates that we have extended provisions with regard to fire safety-such as smoke alarms-but, again, I would like such good practice to be replicated throughout the country.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion, LDem)

My hon. Friend has talked at length about domestic arrangements and the domestic threats that are caused by not having suitable fire alarm equipment. Is he satisfied that the testing arrangements for fire alarms in schools are rigorous enough, and in particular the mechanisms by which they can be monitored, and also that fire drills in schools are undertaken as frequently as they should be?

Paul Rowen (Rochdale, LDem)

As a former deputy head of a secondary school, I would say that we would be carrying out our fire drill at some time during this week. The biggest issue is the concern about the age of many of our schools and the current requirements for them, compared with the requirements when many of them were built. Fire officers throughout the country are producing reports on schools. From my experience, without extensive rebuilding or knocking it down and starting again, my former school would not meet modern practice. The Department for Education and Skills needs to make specific sums available for local authorities and church authorities to bring such buildings up to a safer standard.

My focus is on the provision of domestic smoke alarms, which are cheap, simple to install and save lives. People can buy a hard-wired system, or one that would fit in a light bulb for under £10. Since 1987, we have come a considerable way in improving the provision of smoke alarms. Notwithstanding that, there is still room for improvement. As the statistics have demonstrated, people are twice as likely to lose their life if they do not have a smoke detector fitted, and certain sections of the community are affected disproportionately.

To reiterate, will the Minister consider extending the annual check on gas fires that is currently carried out in rented accommodation to include a simultaneous check on the smoke alarm? In that way we can make the requirement that alarms have to be fitted enforceable, and ensure that batteries are not removed, because people often take those out, making the alarm worse than useless. Although such a check would be made only once a year, it could help save lives.

A loss of any life is to be regretted, but when a life could be saved by the provision of a cheap and easy system, such as a smoke alarm, it is plain ridiculous that we do not try to enforce something that could save it.

Jim Fitzpatrick (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

Mr. Cook, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) makes a strong case on the supply and use of smoke alarms, and I welcome this opportunity for the House to consider this important subject. I should say, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges the fact, that I am not unsympathetic to the position that he has advanced. I will come to the points that he raised later.

I take this opportunity to offer my sincere condolences to the families mentioned earlier by the hon. Gentleman. As he says, it is clear that there is, sadly, every reason to think that many of those deaths were, in principle, avoidable. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman said, the house in Rochdale had a smoke alarm fitted, but it was not working on the day of the fire. That is one of the key issues to which I will return in due course.

I assure the House that the Government agree about the importance of a working smoke alarm, which is crucial to give occupants early warning in case of fire and precious time to escape. Smoke alarms are cheap, easy to get hold of and easy to fit, whether they are hard-wired in building construction, contain 10-year lithium batteries, or are even ordinary battery operated alarms.

As it has been mentioned, the Government have, since the mid-1980s, promoted the life-saving benefits of smoke alarms through high-profile media campaigns, most of which have been focused on raising awareness among householders of the need to install and maintain smoke alarms. Those campaigns included "Excuses kill. Get a smoke alarm" and "Push the Button, Not Your Luck". The strategy has been highly successful and has raised smoke alarm ownership in households in England and Wales, as the hon. Gentleman quoted, from 9 per cent. in 1987 to the current level of about 80 per cent. We estimate that the strategy is saving about 50 lives per year as a direct result.

The Government are determined to increase smoke alarm ownership further. Last October we announced a major fire-prevention programme to target the 1.25 million most vulnerable households, to whom the hon. Gentleman referred. The home fire risk check initiative is a four-year, £25 million funded programme. All English fire and rescue authorities will be funded to help them establish a dedicated programme of home fire risk checks. Moreover, free 10-year battery-operated smoke alarms and, where deemed necessary, automated fire-suppression systems for high-risk households that can be protected in no other way will be installed. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises that there is no use in putting smoke detectors in homes where people with disabilities are living independently-they may alert them to the fact that there is a fire, but they may not be able to move. Therefore, fire-suppression systems for people with disabilities who live in such dwellings may be the only way to protect them.

Fire and rescue services have widely welcomed the initiative, and all are implementing programmes. I am pleased to announce that, since the initiative was established, almost 170,000 home fire risk checks have been undertaken, which has resulted in the installation of almost 190,000 smoke alarms. We are on course to meet our target of reaching 1.25 million vulnerable households by 2008.

Greater Manchester fire and rescue service has received more than £250,000 per annum through the initiative. It has undertaken more than 6,000 home fire risk checks, which have resulted in about 10,000 smoke alarms being installed. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is an excellent start.

Moreover, following the tragic fire in Rochdale, Greater Manchester fire and rescue service, working with various agencies, has mounted a media campaign on the importance of fitting smoke alarms in all rented properties. It has pledged to ensure that, within five years, each household will have a working smoke alarm in place. I wholeheartedly support that initiative to help reach those most at risk from fire.

The debate so far has focused, albeit not exclusively, on fire safety in private rented accommodation. As has been mentioned, no statutory requirement is placed on landlords to install and maintain smoke alarms. They are, however, encouraged to do so as a matter of good fire-safety management. That includes ensuring that all exits are kept free from obstruction and that fire apparatus is kept in good condition. Since 1992, building regulations have required that mains-operated smoke alarms be provided in all new dwellings. Government guidance that was issued in 2001 also encourages local authorities and housing associations to provide hard-wired smoke alarms in their dwellings. In addition, local authorities will, from this month, have a power, under the Housing Act 2004, to introduce a licensing scheme for privately owned properties. It is a mandatory condition of any licensing scheme that smoke alarms be provided and maintained.

I am delighted to say that Rochdale metropolitan borough council, with which the hon. Gentleman has a close association, is already acting to raise standards in the private rented sector. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has been part of that project. In 2004, the council introduced a landlord accreditation scheme that focused on housing-market renewal areas. It now has a landlords' forum with 1,700 members, who, three times a year, receive fire-safety information and details of free home fire safety checks by the local fire and rescue service, which also provides speakers for landlord forum meetings.

All properties offered for accreditation are inspected independently, and smoke alarms are provided and installed for free. Interlinked alarms are provided for vulnerable households. Other free services available to accredited landlords include gas and electrical safety checks and the cost of installation. Asian landlords have been specifically targeted through the local Asian press and radio and through mosques and shops.

I am also aware of calls for greater use of domestic sprinklers to reduce the risk of fire. We have provided funding through the home fire risk check initiative for sprinkler installation in high-risk households, with a view to assessing their effectiveness in a UK context. We are also tackling another barrier to the use of domestic sprinklers, and that is their high cost. We have funded research into the design and effectiveness of domestic low-cost sprinkler systems, based on work undertaken in other countries. The objective is to examine what can be achieved by way of life-protection from a low-cost domestic sprinkler system using different operating conditions, such as water pressures. The project includes preparation of a cost-benefit analysis for all dwellings and for targeted installation aimed at vulnerable groups, as well as a practical study of sprinkler effectiveness in reducing casualties. Initial findings, I am pleased to say, suggest that a low-cost sprinkler system can be put into a new build house and work effectively, given adequate mains water pressure, at a cost that will be acceptable, I am sure, to the industry and to purchasers.

The Government's overriding objective is to support the fire and rescue service in saving lives, reducing injuries and preventing fires. We have a national target to reduce the number of accidental fire-related deaths in the home by 20 per cent. by 2010, with no local fire and rescue authority having a fatality rate from accidental fires in the home of more than 1.25 times the national average. The Government have put in place the framework to achieve those targets. The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 has put prevention at the heart of the Government's agenda for improving the fire and rescue service and has created a statutory duty to promote fire safety.

Too many people continue to die needlessly in house fires. Our goal must be no more preventable fire deaths. We have set the direction for the fire and rescue service through the 2004 Act and provided local authorities with new powers to regulate private rented accommodation in the Housing Act 2004. In partnership with landlords and the local community, local authorities and fire and rescue services are already showing what can be achieved, but we must not relax our efforts.

Our aim is not only to have smoke detectors fitted in every home; the Rochdale home had one. Our aim is much more ambitious. It is to educate people about their personal safety and how best to look after themselves and their loved ones. We have made real progress, which is accepted. The increase in the number of smoke detectors installed shows that easily. We have yet to win the constant struggle to persuade people that not only can they look after themselves, but they must.

I hear the hon. Gentleman's request to include in the gas engineer's visit the examination of smoke alarms. I will look into that and write to him in due course. He also raised the question of smoke alarms for the deaf, which, incidentally, reminded me that I had not put my hearing aid in this morning, so I thank him for that. Specialist alarms are already provided under the smoke alarm initiative. They exist and many are being fitted throughout the country. The National Community Fire Safety Centre supports the fire and rescue service's involvement in deaf awareness week, which is another dimension of their activity. Fire services should consider local needs and prioritisation within their integrated risk management plans and strongly encourage all forms of additional protection.

I hear also the points that have been made about schools. The Department for Education and Skills has been considering sprinkler systems in schools and other building protections, and we are keen to see the outcome of that. I hear the points raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), and we will consider them and write to him if appropriate.

One of the key issues raised by both hon. Gentlemen is that there is much good practice. I am keen for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to help the existing structures: to work with fire and rescue services, the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association and the structures within which fire and rescue services are organised in order to make sure that best practice, which is being developed in local brigades, is brought to the attention of the national fire service and rolled out if appropriate. One of the key elements of the 2004 Act is that we have delegated much more responsibility for the design and deployment of the local safety plan and the number of fire stations, appliances, fire fighters and other staff to local chief fire officers and local councillors.

No community is the same as any other. The dangers for each community must be addressed by the people who understand them: the local elected councillors, the principal chief fire officers and other fire staff. We need to make sure that they are aware of progress across the country in a variety of different ways, so that they do not have to reinvent for every area what works best. If an initiative suits a local community, neighbourhood or fire authority area, they should be able to follow it. I can see that that patchwork effect is happening. An imaginative campaign was run in Northern Ireland, in which the slogan "Thumbs up, it's Friday" was used on buses and billboards to encourage people to check their smoke detectors on Fridays.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about gas engineers making annual inspections. Smoke detectors need to be checked weekly, especially the one-year battery operated ones. In too many of the give-away schemes that we have run, smoke detectors have ended up being exchanged in the local pub for a variety of other favours. Too often, their batteries are taken out for television remote controls or children's toys, particularly at Christmas, which is an especially dangerous time. A weekly check that the smoke alarm battery is functioning is most important, but an annual check is also critical.

In England, we have run the national "Push the Button! Not Your Luck" campaign. We need to keep reinforcing that message to educate people that there are systems to protect them and their families. We want to provide that protection collectively. A key message in my many visits to fire brigades in the past few months is that fire is not a party political issue; there is genuine consensus across all parties. We are there to support the service and to protect the public. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and allowing us to play our part in reinforcing the message.