Phil Taylor is a Conservative activist in Ealing.
In the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy last year, it would be easy to come away with the impression that we have a fire safety problem in this country. We don’t – at least not at the systematic level. Of course, we have problems to fix. Some big ones. But what we do largely works. We should go further.
This chart from Channel 4 FactCheck (using Home Office data) shows that the long term trend of fire deaths is consistently down. Health and safety does have its place, and fire safety in particular is an area where we have made very worthwhile progress in recent times. Fire deaths are comfortably half of what they were in the nineties. Clearly we are doing something right. Building regulations and our wider fire safety culture are driving the progress being made. Of course, with relatively small numbers – down in the 100s – it is always dangerous to look at a single year, let alone one calendar quarter of data, in isolation. Like many data sets, we should be wary of single data points and even warier of people pointing to large rises or falls in small numbers from quarter to quarter.
It is always worth looking for international comparisons if only as a reality check. It is striking that many EU countries do not track these numbers, for instance, France, Germany, and Spain. CTIF, the international association of fire and rescue services, has a World Fire Statistics Center which tries to keep track of what numbers there are. They are a shoestring operation, and do not have the resources to do more than collate what is published elsewhere. So their work comes with a health warning that different countries do things differently, and the numbers may not be comparable. But, at first sight, the UK does extremely well on fire deaths being comparable with the Netherlands and Italy, and has half the death rate of the USA.
Of course, the Grenfell fire was an awful reminder that if you cut corners with fire, there will be consequences, and the most terrible of consequences too. This time last year, at Prime Minister’s Questions, Jeremy Corbyn effectively used one data point, the quarter ending June 2017 which included the Grenfell Tower fire, as a stick to beat the Prime Minister with. He said:
“Under this government, there are 11,000 fewer firefighters in England since 2010, and last year deaths in fires increased by 20 per cent.”
He was trying to link cuts in fire service numbers, which he got wrong, citing firefighters rather than overall staff numbers, with an annual figure for fire deaths that had just been pushed up by the then estimate of the Grenfell death toll of 80.
Three months later in February 2018, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) was using the next quarter’s numbers as the basis for this headline:
“Firefighters’ union ‘horrified’ at increase in people dying in fires.”
Go forward another six months and the FBU was trying this line:
“More fires and more fire deaths – yet Westminster continues to cut firefighter jobs.”
Both Corbyn and the FBU know better than this, and that they were being misleading.
On Thursday, the latest fire incident statistics, one year on from the numbers that Corbyn was using, were published by the Home Office. These show a 28 per cent drop in fire deaths in the year ending June 2018. A large factor in this is the Grenfell numbers dropping out of the year on year comparison, but the numbers are substantially down on 2016 and 2015 as well.
Just as Corbyn and the FBU were being actively misleading to talk about a 20 per cent leap in fire deaths, it is bogus to talk about a 28 per cent drop. What we can say is that the year to June 2018 was the second best year ever, with fire deaths down below 250 and back to where they were in 2014, which was our best ever year.
I hope that we have fewer fire deaths next year, and I also wish that our government, our fire services, and the FBU would collectively make it their aim to eliminate fire deaths from our society altogether. I would like to see planning and resourcing for zero fire deaths. Achieving this would not be about firefighters rushing after fires. It would be about the mundane work of raising construction standards, managing buildings well, and training us all how to minimise fire risks.
Maybe that is something that Nick Hurd, Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Service, who is responsible for national fire policy, and the FBU can agree on, rather than having an arid debate about cash and staff numbers which are only tenuously related to outcomes – like so much of life.