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House of Lords

Wednesday, 7 January 2004.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth.

Schools: Fire Safety

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What more they can do to reduce school fires, both caused by arson and accidental.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Education and Skills are working together closely on this very important issue of fire safety in schools. The ODPM will begin work on a major revision of the fire safety aspects of the building regulations early in 2004 and that will cover schools. The DfES issued the guide Fire Safety in 2000 and is currently working on new and more comprehensive fire safety guidance for schools. This covers risk assessment and will include advice on security and the prevention of arson.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Given that school fires have doubled in the past 10 years, costing education authorities 96 million and losing us the opportunity of having 3,000 extra teachers, will the Government redouble their efforts by publishing the statistics for fires that are accidental and those started by arson; by better protection of buildings by the greater use of CCTV and non-flammable building materials; and by supporting initiatives such as that taken by Cheshire County Council to target schoolchildren who believe that schools are there more for torching than teaching?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I think that the Government's record in recent years has been excellent. We have gone for stronger regulation, more effective guidance, significant investment in safety in schools and closer partnership. However, the noble Lord is correct—this is an important matter. Some 60 per cent of fires started in schools are thought to have been set deliberately. We are very keen to reduce that figure. As for CCTV and other intelligent alarm systems, the extra funding that has gone into capital investment—3 billion as of this year—is making a big difference. Schools are certainly making use of those new systems. As for young people, it was very interesting to hear about the Cheshire initiative. We need far more of those sorts of initiative.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether schools have automatic sprinkler systems and, if so, how effective they are? If

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they are effective, are they being used wrongly, so that people deliberately light fires under them to drench the school?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, sprinkler systems are used by some schools. The fire safety advice given to schools suggests that if the school is at high risk, a sprinkler system is good value. However, they are extremely expensive; if we were to put them into all schools, it would cost about 3 billion. In some cases sprinklers would not be appropriate. When fires start in roof spaces—in the Tiffin Girls' School, for example—sprinklers make no difference. Ironically, sprinklers also become targets for vandalism.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, the Minister has not told us whether the Government have decided to install sprinklers in all new school buildings, where presumably the installation cost would be a good deal lower than it would be after the building has been built.

On a different subject, detection rates for arson are generally extremely low—about 8 per cent, compared with 23 per cent of crime in general. Presumably the very large proportion of fires that are started in schools by pupils can be detected more easily. Has the department issued guidance to head teachers on how they should deal with pupils who are thought to be, or prove to be, the culprits in these matters? When are they sent to the police, and are they brought before courts?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we have not given, and we do not intend to give, general guidance on installing sprinklers in new schools. The building regulations do not require it and we do not intend to change them. As new schools are subject to building regulations, they have better compartmentation, for example, which makes a difference to safety overall. The figure which the noble Baroness cites is quite correct: arson detection rates are low. We know that about 65 per cent of fires in schools are started by pupils; so that detection rate is quite high. Although head teachers are the best possible people to deal with troublemakers, the DfES has recently issued guidance on dealing with troublemakers in schools. It is a fairly fat document and sets out a whole range of initiatives.

Lord Laming: My Lords, does the Minister agree that matters of this kind lend weight to the importance of proper resourcing for the youth service in this country? In particular, young people, especially those in deprived areas, should have access to good sports facilities to occupy them in more constructive ways.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, but I would go further. By enabling schools to stay open longer and by developing sports and arts programmes after school, we are seeing a reduction in vandalism. It is a very cost-effective programme. We want to see more of that, and also more schemes such as the Splash Scheme, which the

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police have been actively and successfully promoting. I believe they have seen a significant drop in vandalism. So we want more of the same.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, does the Minister realise that one does not have to be in a deprived area to have arson? My husband was headmaster of University College School, which was burnt down through arson in 1976. The culprit was never caught.

Baroness Andrews: Yes, my Lords; it is a very sad fact and absolutely true. So far as I know, the figures that we have do not break down the type of school that has been subject to an arson attack. There are also different types of arsonist. There are opportunists, for whom arson is another form of delinquency, and then there are pathological children for whom fire has a great attraction. It is difficult to deal with both of those types.

Websites: Personal Details

2.42 p.m.

Lord Greaves asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to take action to deal with threats and intimidation arising from websites which provide personal details of active opponents of fascist and racist parties.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, we have discussed this with the police, the Information Commissioner and the Internet Watch Foundation, all of whom are aware of these websites. It is important that the provisions of the Public Order Act 1986 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 be used when breaches occur. Anyone with concerns should make them known to the relevant authorities and to the Internet Watch Foundation. We are currently working on an e-crime strategy that will include consideration of issues such as these.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. The website concerned, Red Watch, was set up about two years ago by Combat 18, a Nazi hit group. It is registered by the National Front and the White Nationalist Party. A great deal of the material upon the website appears to be posted on it and sent to it by active and leading members of the British National Party. The material consists of more than 1,000 photographs of anti-Nazi, anti-racist activists with their addresses, telephone numbers and, where applicable, car registration numbers. I believe that the Minister confirmed that the security and police forces are looking at the matter. Will she reconfirm that? Will she also tell us whether they are devoting sufficient resources to this particular problem which quite clearly involves breaches of the law, incitement to violence against individuals and their property and incitement to racial hatred? This is a serious matter. Just because the people concerned are on the Left does

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not mean that they deserve less protection than if they were businessmen or other people. Will the Minister confirm that?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I confirm that all proper steps will be taken if any person is found to be in breach of the law. The difficulty that we have experienced is that operators of certain websites have sought to avoid overstepping the conduct that the legislation defines as criminal. They fly very close to the wind. I reassure the House that although we intend to keep the position under review we do not believe that the absence of charges so far against any particular website has yet established that we need new offences or safeguards. However, I confirm that the matter will be kept under close scrutiny.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I am very grateful for the noble Lord's Question. The Chief Rabbi drew attention to the growing threat of racism on Radio 4 last November following the bombing of synagogues in Istanbul. It seems to me that the matter goes beyond present legislative abilities. Do the Government agree that the precious gift of freedom of speech is being abused and that action needs to be taken to protect very vulnerable people, including some young people, and to make clear to those who are just getting on the thither side of existing legislation, but not quite, that there are limits to the toleration that the rest of the community can extend to them?


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