prison revelations

Housing arsonists and reporting 50 fires a week – yet HM Prison Service fails dismally on fire safety

Adam Bannister

Editor, IFSEC Global

Author Bio ▼

Adam Bannister is editor of IFSEC Global. A former managing editor at Dynamis Online Media Group, he has been at the helm of the UK's leading fire and security publication since 2014.
August 3, 2017

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The Grenfell disaster prompted the editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales to issue a freedom of information request to the organisation responsible for fire safety in prisons.

What was sent in response he found “deeply troubling”.

Writing for, Mark Leech said the “issue of fire safety had never really crossed my mind” during his 20 years in the role – until the Grenfell inferno unfolded.

The fat that fire safety is not “mentioned in any inspection report from HM Inspectorate of Prisons” augured badly as he began his research. “The ‘expectations’ document on which all prison inspections are based doesn’t mention the word ‘fire’ once,” he said.

The documents returned to Leech revealed that every single CPFIG inspection conducted in the year to June 2017 – there were 19 in total – had failed statutory fire safety tests and resulted in non-compliance orders. In some cases Statutory Enforcement Notices were then issued to prison governors who failed to take action within the 28-day period stipulated.

“Governors have to prioritise staff and bluntly, when it comes to unlocking prisoners for medication, food or visits, or conducting fire safety checks, the latter doesn’t even come near the top of the list.” Mark Leech, editor, Prisons Handbook for England and Wales

There were nearly 50 fires a week – 2,580 in total – in England and Wales in 2016, Parliament heard in March.

Fire safety in prisons is the responsibility of the Crown Properties Fire Inspection Group (CPFIG), based in the Home Office. It was to CPFIG that Leech submitted his freedom of information request, asking for copies of all CPFIG fire safety inspection reports on prison and young offender establishments carried out in the last 12 months.

Problems found at a prison in Bristol included:

  • Inadequate personal emergency evacuation plans
  • Ignition sources discovered too close to combustible materials
  • Ventilation ductwork between cells did not adequately protect against the spread of fire
  • Emergency doors were difficult to open
  • A lack of water misting equipment

Multiple shortcomings

Seizing on the information disclosed to Leech, The Chronicle has reported that fire inspectors have uncovered multiple shortcomings in fire safety measures at HMP Northumberland.

Inspectors identified “inadequate measures to control the risk of fire and smoke spreading within common areas and staff have not been given enough training about how to deal with a fire in a cell.”

More than 83,000 men and women are currently incarcerated in UK prisons, which equates to 148.3 prisoners per 100,000 people – more than three times that of the Netherlands and much higher than Spain (137.9), France (98.3), Italy (86.4) and Germany (77.4).

Despite the soaring prison population, £900m has been slashed from the prison budget since 2010.

Speaking to the Independent in the wake of his disclosures, Leech said: “You’ve got criminals including arsonists, but also many people with mental health problems.

“In that atmosphere, governors have to prioritise staff and bluntly, when it comes to unlocking prisoners for medication, food or visits, or conducting fire safety checks, the latter doesn’t even come near the top of the list.”

Such shortcomings would not be tolerated “in any other place than in prisons,” he added.

“It is obvious from the shocking reports that I have uncovered that the theory and practice are light-years apart.

“Continuing Crown Immunity from prosecution for failures in places which have 50 fires a week and which, by necessity detain those with mental health problems and convictions for arson, must now surely end – it is simply inexplicable in this day and age.”

A Prison Services spokesperson said: “We take fire safety extremely seriously. All nineteen prisons have undertaken immediate action to address the recommendations made by the inspection group.

“Every single prison across the estate has a mandatory annual fire risk assessment, carried out by a fire safety specialist, and individual fire strategies in place which are closely monitored.”


The Ministry of Justice insists that none of its prisons have the type of cladding believed to have been used at Grenfell Tower.

In 2015, the National Offender Management Service published Fire Safety in Prison Establishments, which “outlines the requirements on the Responsible Person under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 with regards to providing a fire safety compliant environment in Public Sector Prisons.”

In July last year, Clive Webster, a senior fire consultant from BB7, wrote on IFSEC Global that the prison service would benefit from formalising its fire-risk-management system using PAS 7: 2013 – Fire Risk Management System Specification. Published in 2013, PAS 7: 2013 – Fire Risk Management System Specification emerged from a steering group that included representatives from CFOA, The Institution of Fire Engineers, The Fire Sector Federation and the Association of British Insurers.

Using PAS 7 2013 “it is possible to improve fire safety while achieving process improvements and reducing the cost of compliance overtime,” wrote Webster. “At a time when purse strings have never been tighter and the need to improve fire safety has never been so high on the agenda, PAS 7 could provide the solution to the problems highlighted by the media.”

PAS 7 “presents requirements for an organisational fire risk management system (FRMS), which can be applied in organizations operating across multiple sites, separate management divisions within an organization, or individual premises within a single entity, Ben Bradford, MD of BB7, wrote in 2014.

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The full report of my investigation can be found here – and there is more to come:

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