Local government department breaches its own fire laws

Several government departments have been breaking fire safety laws, a BBC investigation has found.

The most serious breach was at the headquarters of the local government department, which oversees fire safety policy in England and Wales.

Several faults were found including a faulty alarm system and an inadequate fire risk assessment, Radio 4's Face the Facts programme reports.

The government says steps have been taken to rectify the issues.

It said none of them posed an "unacceptable threat" to staff or visitors.

Image caption The Fire Service College, where 11 fire engines were destroyed in a fire, was found to be in breach of laws

Multiple failings

In February 2010 an enforcement notice was issued on Eland House in central London, the headquarters of the Department of Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for fire safety.

The notice required urgent changes to the building and listed a series of faults.

These included a fire risk assessment that was not "suitable and sufficient", a faulty alarm system, emergency exits which would not open easily and smoke vents which were not being maintained.

Alterations to the premises meant there was a risk of "uncontrolled fire-spread throughout".

The building was described as being "unable to support a phased evacuation" and it was stated there was a "lack of national policy, guidance and ownership for fire safety management across the Communities and Local Government estate".

Fire consultant Colin Todd said: "Not only were they in contravention of the legislation itself but in many respects they were failing to follow the guidance that they publish for others."

The department has since said that fire engineering specialists had been consulted over building works at Eland House, but inspectors had disagreed over some elements of the project.

Enforcement notices

But Face the Facts has discovered that some of the other main offices of the Communities and Local Government department also breached fire safety legislation.

Inspections of government premises revealed buildings without "suitable and sufficient" fire risk assessments which is a legal requirement for almost every type of building except private homes.

Serious fire safety failings have led to a total of 20 enforcement notices being served on crown premises since the law changed in 2006.

Apart from Eland House, the exact locations are unknown, but they could include buildings including prisons and palaces as well as government offices.

Fire minister Bob Neill said: "We want to keep the number of notices under review.

"My job as someone fairly new in post is to understand why we are at this situation and to make sure we get improvements."

In June this year, the London headquarters of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was issued with a lesser "notification of fire safety deficiencies".

It stated the fire risk assessment was "not suitable or sufficient" and that "no emergency plan specific to the premises was available".

"It's serious because health and safety and fire safety matters," says Charles Cochrane, the Secretary of the Council of Civil Service Unions.

"What we don't want to do is to wake up one day to a headline we've had a serious fire or a serious health and safety issue in a government building and there have been serious injuries or fatalities."

College fire

In 2009, the Fire Service College in Gloucestershire, an executive agency of the Department of Communities and Local Government, was found to be in breach of the law after part of its premises burnt down.

No fire risk assessment was in place on the garage where 11 fire engines were destroyed.

Ministers and civil servants have crown immunity from prosecution for even the most serious breaches of fire safety law whenever they work in buildings classed as "crown premises".

But they could face charges under the Corporate Manslaughter Act, if anyone died as a result of fire.

Image caption The New Look store in Oxford Street received a record fine of £400,000

In the private sector, prosecutions for failing to comply with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (which applies to England and Wales) are rising.

The Chief Fire Officers Association says 60 companies or individuals in England were fined or imprisoned for the most serious breaches of the law in 2009, up from 42 in 2008.

Among them was the fashion chain, New Look, which received a record fine of £400,000 following a major fire at its Oxford Street store in London in April 2007.

Face the Facts: Risky Assessment is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 12:30pm on Thursday 22nd July, repeated at 9pm on Sunday 25th July or is available through BBC iPlayer.

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