What is the problem? - summary:

The case studies from those affected around the country since 1 October 2006 make it clear that:

  • There is very wide inconsistency between different fire departments in their approach to accommodation owners; for instance, for the smallest "domestic" properties some fire departments are happy with hand torches and some "demand" commercial-type emergency lighting systems (this is just one small example amongst many we could quote)
  • Some fire departments are adopting a very prescriptive approach, against the express intentions of the RRFSO
  • Some fire departments seem to be "enforcing the guide", which has no legal status, rather than recognising that the owner has fulfilled his responsibilities by carrying out his own "suitable and sufficient" Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) and (only if they have 5 or more employees) to record their FRA, and then in the light of their FRA to make appropriate fire safety arrangements
  • There is often no recognition that many of the premises concerned are primarily domestic premises
  • There is all too often little heed taken of the RRFSO's emphasis on proportionality, ie a low compliance burden for the smallest domestic and semi-domestic premises

    What is the problem? - in more detail:

    It is important to remember that the Government intended the RRFSO as a deregulatory measure, bringing in a new self-assessment regime to replace the old "Fire Certificate" regime. It is expressly not intended to place onerous new burdens on businesses or render whole categories of small businesses economically unviable. The Order states that "the Secretary of State is of the opinion that this Order does not remove any necessary protection or prevent any person from continuing to excercise any right or freedom which he might reasonably expect to continue to excercise".

    Unlike the old (1971) regime, it is not prescriptive - ie the new regulations do not oblige any owner to put in any specific fire precautions. Rather, they oblige every owner to carry out their own "suitable and sufficient" Fire Risk Assessment (FRA), and (if they have 5 or more employees) to record their FRA, and then in the light of their FRA to make appropriate fire safety arrangements, having regard to the size and the nature of their business.

    In the light of all the evidence since October 2006, it is clear that the Government (through its Department for Communities and Local Government, 'DCLG') need to give strong and clear guidance on all this to fire departments, to ensure that the RRFSO's key principles of deregulation, lighter burden, and proportionality are followed, and that householders are treated consistently across the country.

    There is a real urgency about this, as hundreds of tourist accommodation providers are closing or about to close as a direct result of the way the RRFSO is currently being implemented. The Minister of Tourism, Margaret Hodge, shares the concerns about the resultant effect on tourism, which threatens to undermine key parts of the Government’s tourism strategy (including the Olympic tourism legacy). This impact departs widely from the proportionate, self-assessment based, risk-based regime expressly laid out within the RRFSO.

    Many Fire Officers themselves recognise the problem, and point out that the RRFSO has imposed on them a huge culture-change for which they have not been given adequate guidance, support and training. The following quotes are from serving Fire Officers, and were posted on a fire industry online forum:

    "My only difficulty has been with the lack of proportionality out there and the inflexibility that is often applied when an audit does take place - that the same standards that would have been imposed in certificated premises in the past are now being imposed on a 2 storey chocolate-box cottage or working farmhouse without regard to character and nature of the building."

    "What fire officers should learn from this is that we need to be proportionate and follow the ethos of the [Enforcement] Concordat. We can't expect people to talk to us if we project ourselves as being unapproachable. Whilst I'm certain that many inspectors are approachable, I reckon a few who maybe don't have the confidence to enter into a reasoned debate with a risk assessor or [property owner] may possibly hide behind the guides using them as a smoke screen. That's a problem for FRA's [local Fire & Rescue Authorities] in terms of training, support, management and the like. Don't forget, the RRFSO has been as much of a culture change for FRA's as it has been for everyone else".

    "FRA's are enforcing the law based on guidance from the CLG. That's what they have to go on. It's becoming obvious that this situation has to some extent been left to sort itself out - find its own level as it were. Ministers should be aware of both the difficulties being experienced by B&B owners and also (importantly) the problems being experienced by FRA's in enforcing the legislation. Perhaps we need to raise the profile of fire safety enforcement issues. Having said that, maybe the reason the profile isn't so high is the relatively low number of fire deaths in B&B's as compared with, say, certain demographic groups of the housing sector... it makes sense to put in most effort where it will have best effect."

    Tourism South East's view is that:

    "We believe that whilst this guidance [a new booklet for accommodation owners] is a welcome addition to the information already available, it should be considered as a second priority for the DCLG. It is far more important to deal with the inconsistent approach being pursued by the different Fire and Rescue Authorities which is already having a detrimental effect on the tourism industry in some locations of the South East of England."

    Many other tourist authorities agree - for example, Norfolk Tourism have said to DCLG officials:

    "What is needed from your Department is guidance to the Fire Services as to the degree of flexibility they can show towards small B&B's in the type and extent of fire detection and prevention measures required."

    VisitBritain have stated publicly that:

    "VisitBritain (VB) is very much aware of all the difficulties being experienced by operators who were previously not covered by fire certificates...We are very concerned about the way in which some businesses are being dealt with."

    Even the Department (DCLG) itself have admitted that there is indeed a problem: a senior official of DCLG's Fire Safety Policy Team told some of the trade associations that:

    “I recognise your concerns over perceptions of disproportionate enforcement by some fire safety officers, and the adverse impact this is having on some within the sector… CFOA [Chief Fire Officers Association] also recognise the issues [of inconsistency and disproportionality]”.

    “I can assure you we certainly don't underestimate the concerns around business viability and motivation following the introduction of the Order, and the adverse impact that the approach being taken by some fire safety officers is having on the [tourism] industry."

    Finally, even the Fire Safety Minister himself, Parmjit Dhanda MP, recognises the problem: in a letter in August 2008 to four trade associations who had written to appeal for him to issue specific guidance to fire authorities (an appeal he declined at that stage), the Fire Safety Minister admitted that:

    “an over-zealous and, in some cases, a disproportionate approach by some fire safety officers may be damaging both the sector itself and the reputation of the Fire and Rescue Service”.

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    How safe are B&Bs?

    Even though the entire basis of the RRFSO and how it is enforced is specifically "risk-based" - that is, the precautions must be based on the actual risks posed - the Government has no data on the actual fire risks in B&Bs. We thus do not know whether the (one) death caused in the five years from 2002 to 2006 inclusive across all hotels, guest houses and B&Bs was in a B&B. As the data does cover causes, we do know that the death was caused by smoking.

    In the House of Commons on 3 March 2008, Sir Michael Spicer (Conservative) asked the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government how many bed and breakfast establishments have had fires caused by guests in the last five years. Mr. Parmjit Dhanda, Fire Safety Minister (DCLG) replied: "Information on the number of fires involving guests, solely in bed and breakfast establishments in England is unavailable". However, The Fire Safety Minister published the statistics on the number of fatal and non-fatal casualties in accidental fires in commercially run establishments with sleeping accommodation for 2002 to 2006 inclusive - these statistics include fires in hotels and boarding houses as well as bed and breakfast establishments and are not limited solely to guests because "a breakdown of the data held to this level is not possible".

    The Minister revealed that the fatal casualties in accidental fires in all commercially run establishments with sleeping accommodation in England 2002-06 are:

    2002: none
    2003: none
    2004: none
    2005: none
    2006: 1 (caused by smoking)

    To put this is some sort of context, the British Hospitality Association (BHA) alone has members with a total of over 500,000 hotel bedrooms. Even if this represented all the commercial sleeping accommodation in the UK, that equates (at an average occupancy rate of 65%) to 593 million room-nights across the five-year period above. So on the Fire Minister's figures, over the five years the actual overall risk of death by fire in an overnight stay in a hotel or B&B must have been considerably less than 1 in 593 million.

    Such figures are difficult to comprehend - but as a comparison, your chances of drawing all six correct numbers and winning the UK National Lottery is 1 in 14 million.

    To summarise, we cannot precisely quantify the risks as the Government does not separate hotels from B&Bs in the data - but on the overall Government figures we do know that you are at least 42 times more likely to win the Lottery than to die by fire while staying overnight in a commercial sleeping establishment in the UK.

    As the one death in five years revealed by the Fire Safety Minister was caused by smoking, if one removes smoking-related deaths there were no fire accident fatalities at all in England in commercial sleeping accommodation in five years.

    Every death by fire is, of course, a terrible tragedy. Fire safety is very important. But the Government's figures show that British hotels, guest houses and B&Bs are extremely safe by any standards.

    Is the danger from fire increasing?
    No, it is considerably reducing. The very latest Government figures, for the year to September 2007, show that:
  • total fires in all buildings in the UK fell by 6% to 84,500
  • total deaths fell to 450 – the lowest figure since before 1950
  • deaths in dwelling fires fell to 311 from 342 (down 9% in a year)
  • deaths in all other buildings fell from 37 to 32 (down 13.5% in a year)

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