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Risky Assessment

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Jon Douglas | 17:01 PM, Thursday, 22 July 2010

riskassessment.jpgA new series of our sister programme, Face the Facts, started today and the topic? Well, it's one we've touched on previously. In January, Face the Facts reported on the tower blocks which broke the law on fire safety, potentially putting residents' lives at risk. In March, we reported on the Fire Service training college in Gloucestershire which had also been in breach of fire safety legislation when part of its premises burnt down. Now we've discovered central government buildings don't always comply with fire safety law either and, more surprising still, that includes the very government department responsible for fire safety policy in England and Wales. You can 'listen again' to the tale in full here.

What we don't have (and it's not through want of trying) is a definitive list of the state-owned or occupied buildings where the worst fire safety failures have been found. At least, not yet....

Central government offices are classed as 'Crown premises'. But 'Crown premises' include all manner of buildings - palaces, prisons, job centres, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) etc. Inspectors are employed to check the owners/occupiers of such buildings follow the law on fire safety and keep their inhabitants as safe as reasonably possible. In England, that duty falls to the Crown Premises Inspection Group. It has 9 inspectors with 8000 Crown premises to monitor (last year it inspected 198 of them). Where serious breaches of the law are found, those inspectors issue 'Crown enforcement notices' requiring urgent fire safety improvements. So, using the freedom of information act, we asked for copies of all such notices issued since new fire safety laws came into effect on 1st October 2006.

At the time of writing, the Crown Premises Inspection Group (CPIG) is still considering whether or not it can release copies of those notices. It told us our request raised "complex public interest considerations" which it needs more time to address. We've been told it will release any notices it can, but the suggestion is that there might be security issues involved in releasing at least some of those documents if, for example, they reveal details of premises such as high-security prisons. CPIG needs to check with the premises concerned that security would not be compromised before it can release the information. Fair enough. But we already know one of those notices relates to an office block (Eland House - the HQ of the Dept of Communities & Local Government in London) so surely such sensitivities don't apply to all of the other premises where Crown enforcement notices were issued? We'll have to wait and see...

The difference here, as we covered in today's programme, is that people working within Crown premises have Crown immunity. It means breaching fire safety law won't land them in prison or result in a fine. Meanwhile, in the private sector, prosecutions are going up and courts are taking a tough stance where the most serious breaches are found. The fashion chain, New Look, received the highest fine to date under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order. It was ordered to pay £400,000 following a major fire at its Oxford Street store in April 2007.

John Douglas is a senior producer on Face the Facts and You and Yours

You & Yours is on BBC Radio 4 at 1200 weekdays. Listen to today's episode on the Radio 4 web site.

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