Fire safety in prisons: When theory and practice slip their handcuffs

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Editor, Prisons.ORG.UK

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Mark Leech is editor of the Prisons Handbook, the definitive guide to Prisons in England and Wales for well over 20 years. It has always won outstanding reviews for its scale, clarity and dependability. The 2017 edition, with with a foreword by the Secretary of State for Justice, is the ‘bible’ for anyone with a personal, professional or academic interest in prisons.
September 8, 2017

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Just weeks after the Grenfell Tower disaster in June the newly elected Kensington and Chelsea Deputy Council leader, Kim Taylor-Smith, told the BBC that despite being a member of the council’s Housing Scrutiny Committee for over a year, he was unaware of residents’ repeated warnings about fire safety in the building.

It seemed utterly unbelievable, but if my further investigations into fire safety in prisons is anything to go by, it could well have been true.

The councillor said: “I was on a committee that was responsible for safety, we take steps in order to ensure safety, sometimes that doesn’t work… the whole issue of how we scrutinised is obviously the issue we are having to look at… we will have to change.”

Since 1982 HM Prisons Inspectorate (HMIP) has had the task of inspecting our prisons and in 35 years they have come a long way. Most people involved in prisons today can name Peter Clarke as the current Chief Inspector of Prisons, probably Nick Hardwick before him, maybe Anne Owers, David Ramsbotham and perhaps even Stephen Tumim before that – but who can name the first two Chief Inspectors’ of Prisons?

While HMIP was slow to get off the ground it has gathered pace, focus and professionalism since its creation – but it remains seriously defective in major areas.

Today, when HMIP inspects ‘prisons’ it does not inspect them for fire safety – that is the task of the Crown Premises Fire Inspection Group, (CPFIG) a little-known statutory inspectorate sitting quietly inside the Home Office.

 CPFIG did not copy a single one of the 19 cases of statutory fire safety notices issued across a 12-month period to the Prisons Inspectorate  

CPFIG, unlike HMIP, does not publish a single one of its prison fire safety reports online and, despite inspecting fire safety conditions in all prison establishments, premises which are totally immune from prosecution [see page 3], it is not a member of the 21-strong National Preventive Mechanism, a body owing obligations to the United Nations (led by HMIP in the UK) that exists to monitor conditions in places of detention.

No doubt it was as a result of recognising this dangerous gap between HMIP and CPFIG that the last Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, now chairman of the Parole Board, in January 2016 signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two inspectorates.

It set out clearly how the two inspectorates will work together and communicate with each other, so vitally important was this deemed to be that section seven of the MOU was devoted to it in detail.

The MOU makes clear both HMI Prisons and CPFIG are committed to sharing information relevant to the safety of staff members or prisoners with each other.

‘Trigger questions’

It accepts that both inspectorates may receive information during their own inspections which can be relevant to the statutory responsibility of the other, and they agreed a system supporting what they called the ‘meaningful exchange of risk information’ to share that information – and not just information but training too.

It was agreed that CPFIG would provide the Prisons Inspectorate with what it called ‘trigger questions’, which could assist HMI Prisons inspectors to identify potential fire safety concerns during their own inspections.

Moreover CPFIG would provide the necessary fire-related awareness training for HMI Prisons inspectors, so they could interpret the answers to their fire-safety trigger questions so enabling them to identify matters that potentially affect the safety of prisoners and staff.

HMIP agreed that if they found reason during one of its own inspections to suspect that there is unnecessary risk to people from fire within an establishment, HMIP would notify CPFIG of their concerns – and in return CPFIG agreed that if it found poor management of safety or apparent concerns about the conditions for prisoners at custodial premises, they would advise HMIP of their concerns.

Both accepted that the ongoing safety of persons in prisons was, said the MOU, “paramount”.

In the year to June 2017 CPFIG conducted 19 fire safety inspections in prisons in England and Wales.

My previous investigation into fire safety in prisons found that, in 100% of those inspections, CPFIG found fire safety failing so serious that they placed the lives of prisoners, staff, contractors and visitors at risk and resulted, in all 19 prisons, in the issuance of statutory Non-Compliance Notices (NCN) and, in four cases, Crown Enforcement Notices (CEN) too.

These are clearly serious matters of substance, that had the MOU been followed, either in letter or even simply in spirit, would have immediately resulted in CPFIG informing HMIP of each of these failures – right?


Freedom of Information Act response from CPFIG, dated 4 September 2017, reveals that CPFIG did not copy a single one of the 19 cases of statutory fire safety notices issued across a 12-month period to the Prisons Inspectorate.

The MOU failure to comply with the MOU started just months after it was signed.

CPFIG found fire safety failings so serious they served the prison with an NCN, giving it just 28 days to correct numerous fire safety defects

What is equally worrying is that no-one in the Prisons Inspectorate ever asked questions either.

The right hand of the Prisons Inspectorate was blind to what the left hand across at CPFIG was doing – despite their written agreement underpinned by their dual belief that safety was ‘paramount’.

In the middle of this ignorance were the lives and safety of tens of thousands of people living, working and visiting these 19 prison establishments amid dangers to which the Prisons Inspectorate, like the Housing Scrutiny Committee that covered Grenfell Tower, were completely oblivious.

This failure to communicate resulted in the ludicrous situation in July this year when the Prisons Inspectorate published an inspection report of HM Prison Coldingley in which it concluded that, when judged against the Healthy Prisons ‘Safety’ test, Coldingley was a ‘reasonably safe’ prison – little knowing that it was anything but safe.

And they ought to have known – CPFIG certainly did.

Serious defects

Just 26 days after Peter Clarke marched his Prison Inspectorate team out of HMP Coldingley, on 3 March 2017 convinced it was safe, CPFIG came knocking on the Coldingley Gate and found fire safety failings so serious they served the prison with an NCN giving it just 28 days to correct the numerous fire safety defects it found.

Serious defects that included:

  • The procedure is not always followed for removing cigarette lighters and matches from prisoners in Segregation who appear to be at increased risk of self-harming through fire.
  • Normal and/or emergency lighting doesn’t provide sufficient illumination to implement the Cell Fire Response plan including the removal of a prisoner from the cell.
  • The measures to reduce the spread of fire and smoke were inadequate.
  • There was insufficient evidence available to demonstrate the effectiveness of the smoke control arrangements for E wing after it was confirmed to have extraction only.
  • The generic cell fire response plan was not suitable for the circumstances in which prisoners are not locked in their cells.
  • The training package delivered to staff does not provide sufficient practical instruction on the use of Inundation equipment.
  • An insufficient number of prison staff members working in residential wings were in date with their training in Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) wearing.
  • The number of trained prison response staff members available was not always sufficient to implement the cell fire response plan effectively.
  • The fire safety measures were not always being tested and maintained in good condition and effective working order.

It is clear now that CPFIG never copied HMIP into any of these fire safety defects – nor into any of the other 19 fire safety NCN and CEN’s it served in the year to June 2017 either.

But why didn’t the CPFIG training of HMIP Inspectors in fire safety, provided for in the MOU signed 14 months before the Coldingley inspection, allow HMIP inspectors to pick up on the serious fire safety defects at Coldingley themselves?

Sources tell me it is because no such ‘fire awareness’ training by CPFIG of HMIP has ever taken place.

The combined failure to train, and communicate the vital fire safety failings CPFIG found at Coldingley, allowed HMIP to publish, in July 2017, a wholly misleading report declaring HMP Coldingley to be safe, when CPFIG knew it was anything but safe.

What is the point of having a MOU if neither side takes a blind bit of notice about its terms?

Didn’t anyone in the Prisons Inspectorate even think to ask, after a year of silence, why they had neither been trained nor advised of any fire safety concerns, as the MOU provides for, by their CPFIG partners over at the Home Office?

Did no one at CPFIG pick up on the fact that by failing to train HMIP inspectors, and to disclose any of these 19 prison fire safety notices to the Prisons Inspectorate, they were consistently breaching the terms of the MOU?

And if not, why not?

These are serious issues, they are not some minor technical defect, but real life and death safety issues where, either through incompetence or complicity, the two organisations are not speaking to each other as they have both specifically agreed to do in a jointly signed document.

This month, September 2017, HMIP published a new edition of its ‘Expectations’ document, going forward it is the document on which future prison inspections will be grounded.

HMIP make clear on page six of this document that they employ a ‘clear and coordinated whole-prison approach [that] ensures prisoners feel and are safe – but that simply is not true.

HMIP, despite the contents of its MOU with CPFIG, routinely ignores fire safety.

This has to stop.

Systematic failure

The Prisons Inspectorate exist to inspect ‘prisons’ – that means all four corners of it and everything within it.

Inspecting a prison isn’t an al a carte menu where they can decide what parts of the prison they want to inspect, such as food or cleanliness, but ignore vitally important other areas such as fire safety.

The systemic failure of the MOU between HMIP and CPFIG reveals that a new system of working is urgently required if lives are not to be lost.

There were 2,580 fires in our prisons last year, that’s almost 50 blazes a week. Our prisons detain people with serious mental health issues, those who self-harm by starting fires, as well as those convicted of arson; the dangerous risk factors are as clear as they are gross. Yet those with specific statutory responsibilities for them and who have agreed to work together are ignoring them.

We need a Prisons Inspectorate that shoulders the full burden of responsibility for the entirety of prison inspections, not one where – when it comes to fire safety – it can conveniently slope that shoulder in the direction of CPFIG, claiming fire safety in prisons is their bag.

Prison Inspections is HMIP’s ‘bag’ and the sooner they realise it the better.

What we need is an urgent inquiry by the Justice Committee in Parliament into the whole subject of prison inspections.

One that demands answers as to:

  • Why so many HMIP recommendations are routinely ignored year after year – in today’s report on Bullingdon Prison, 70% of recommendations made two years ago have still not been implemented?
  • Why HMIP never concern themselves with fire safety?
  • Why HMIP never ask CPFIG why they have not had the training the MOU provides for?
  • Why CPFIG do not tell them of fire safety notices served on prisons – and why they never ask?

The lives of 86,000 prisoners, 32,000 staff and hundreds of thousands of visitors each year are being put at risk because HMIP are just not fit for purpose.

I want to hear Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, repeat the words of Kim Taylor-Smith: “We will have to change” – or are we to sit back and allow Grenfell Tower to become the lesson we all tragically failed to heed?

This article was originally published on

You can follow Mark Leech on @PrisonsorgUK on Twitter.

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