Inspecting the Crown

When it comes to inspecting Crown Premises, there are only a few people who can do the job. FIRE Correspondent Catherine Levin talks to Chief Inspector Peter Holland and finds out about the work of the Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate

The Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate is the lesser well-known branch of fire inspection. It is responsible for enforcing the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 in government buildings, parliament and other Crown Premises. CPFSI published its first annual report in May this year, shedding light on its activities and plans for the future.

Covering over 10,000 premises, the CPFSI has a wide reach and a great deal of work to do. From prisons in Bristol to the job centre in Luton; from Ascot racecourse to Sheffield City Airport. Unsurprisingly, the largest number of crown premises is in London, with over 1,600 spanning Whitehall and beyond.

Peter Holland is the Chief Inspector, having taken on this role from Sir Ken Knight in 2013. Peter has a long history in fire, having been Chief Fire Officer in Lancashire and Bedfordshire; he was President of CFOA and Chairman of the Institution of Fire Engineers. He is the fourth generation of his family to serve in the Fire and Rescue Service.

Chief Inspector Peter Holland, Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate

The Chief Inspector role used to be combined with the role of Chief Fire Adviser, but the latter role was abolished in 2017. Peter’s focus is now entirely on the work of the CPFSI. He is based in the Home Office and is assisted by 13 inspectors, a team that has grown in size in recent years.

Talking to Peter by phone during lockdown, he expresses his delight in being able to publish the first annual report about his team’s work. Originally the team that inspected Crown Premises was called the Crown Premises Inspection Group with the unfortunate acronym of CPIG. He is clearly happy for the change in name. “We are now called an inspectorate, because that is exactly what we are,” he says.

CPFSI is one of many inspectorates. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue concern themselves with inspecting fire and rescue services. Fire and rescue services inspect buildings in their area in accordance with their own risk-based inspection programmes, but they do not touch crown premises. Interestingly, HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) does not inspect fire safety in prisons, leaving that to CPFSI as all prisons are Crown Premises.

“I am pleased to say I have noticed a marked improvement in fire safety awareness particularly in government-occupied buildings”

High Risk Prison Fires

Prisons account for about two per cent of the Crown Premises that come under CPFSI’s jurisdiction, but they take up a substantial amount of the team’s time. Peter explains in his introduction to the 2018/19 CPFSI annual report: ‘Prisons and other custodial secure premises are, and continue to be, by far the highest risk from a fire safety perspective’.

To understand what this means, it is helpful to consider the rate of fire in prison versus other types of buildings. The rate of fire in prisons is substantially higher than any other building type. The average rate of fire (over a six-year period) per 1,000 buildings for prisons is an astonishing 5,021. Its nearest rival being hospitals at a mere 263. While that does not mean every prison has the same number of fires, it does speak to a considerable problem when the average rate is so much higher than other premises.

When it comes to average rates of fires involving a fatality or a casualty requiring hospital treatment, for the same per 1,000 buildings, the number is 210.44, with supported housing/sheltered housing a long way behind at 8.71.

With such a high fire risk in prisons, these premises could take all of the inspectors’ time: a single prison inspection takes four inspectors two days to complete. Prison inspections account for 72 out of the 178 inspections carried out in 2018/19.

The fire safety issues in prisons appear to be extensive and systemic, requiring long-term investment and a change in behaviour that will not happen overnight. Without automatic fire detection in individual prison cell, a rapid response is not practical; keeping those fire protection measures in good working order is a challenge in other parts of prisons, so having them in cells is likely to be even harder.

Peter writes in his forward to the annual report: ‘We have been working closely with HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) and the Ministry of Justice to drive down the fire risk where it is reasonably possible. Whilst it is clear that HMPPS have taken steps to improve fire safety, even more concerted action is necessary. This area of our work will continue to be a high priority in coming years’.

All of which begs the question: why does HMIP not inspect fire safety? Currently, HMIP has a Memorandum of Understanding with CPFSI. Peter explains: “We work closely with them; we share information as appropriate. If they pick up on something, they tell us and vice versa. We did look at doing joint inspections, in fact we did trial it, but it just didn’t work. Their focus is in quite different areas to ours.”

Fire Safety Concerns

Leaving prisons to one side, Peter says that overall, the risk from fire is generally low in the majority of Crown Premises. “I am pleased to say I have noticed a marked improvement in fire safety awareness particularly in government-occupied buildings.”

Peter explains: “Grenfell has changed the dynamic of where fire sits in terms of the public’s psyche.” He recalls attending the Bradford City stadium fire in 1985, where 56 people lost their lives. “I really do believe that a lot more people have survived as a result of those who died in Bradford. I can only hope that the same will happen as a result of Grenfell; that people’s awareness of fire will have kept people alive, so they haven’t died in vain. Everybody has to play their part in ensuring that such tragedies never happen again.”

One of the long-standing issues with fire safety in Crown Premises is a lack of preparedness and good fire risk assessment. The CPFSI has been able to see how those responsible for fire safety in Crown Premises are managing their assessments through a new desktop audit approach put in place in response to Covid-19. “It is becoming a new way of working for us because of the risk of sending inspectors out at this time. It’s a bit of good news coming out bad news: it’s an efficient way of measuring and monitoring risk within the buildings we inspect.”

Considering the responses to the audits, he says: “The quality of risk assessments is variable. It’s a mixed bag, really”. He applauds the government for moving ahead with accreditation of fire risk assessors as it will improve the quality of assessment and drive up preparedness as a result.

Where Crown Premises are found wanting in terms of fire safety, the CPFSI has a range of tools to encourage improvements, but the legal sanctions used by fire and rescue services are not available to Crown Premises inspectors. ‘Crown bodies must comply with the provisions of the Order, but they are not subject to statutory enforcement or prosecution’. (Enforcement Policy Statement.)

Risk-based Inspection

So how does the CPFSI work out where to put its finite resources? It uses a risk-based inspection approach and about a year ago the CPFSI started using different software to support their planning. The new Crown Premises management information system is called Themis. It is a quantitative dynamic risk assessment tool that can take data from a variety of sources to update risk over time.

Of course, management information systems are only as good as the data that is provided. Looking at prisons as an example, there are 266 prison buildings on CPFSI’s lists but only 72 inspections took place in one year. This leaves the rest of the buildings with static risk profiles. Peter says that as well as inspection data, they can input data from incidents, complaints and other fire related information at any point, so the reliance on inspections is not as critical.

Over time, the expectation is that the data in Themis will provide a rich profile of risk that allows for a more efficient and effective inspection regime.

Peter says that fire and rescue services have shown an interest in this system. This may reflect a broader interest in improving risk-based inspections of non-domestic buildings and investing in expertise to do this, as HMICFRS was unimpressed by many fire and rescue services work in this area.

Fire and Rescue Services Link

Crown inspectors do not work in isolation from fire and rescue services. Peter explains: “We do have a very good working relationship with fire and rescue services. All my team are allocated to local services. My inspectors are interested in the interaction that is taking place between the responsible person in Crown Premises and the relevant fire and rescue service. That includes ‘7 (2) (d)’ risk inspection visits, particularly on prisons because of the high risk they represent.”

Linking the risk-based information held by local fire and rescue services with that held by the Crown Premises inspectors seems like a logical step to validate the risk data. With Themis now in operation, it seems like a good time to consider the data sharing potential here.

And on that data sharing point, the annual report may provide a way forward. It includes plans for clearer governance and accountability. One product of this is the recently signed working protocol between the Chief Inspector, the Home Office Crime, Policing and Fire Group Director General and the Director of Fire and Resilience to ensure that the Inspectorate’s independence as a Regulator is made transparent.

Part of that independence and transparency must also include the publication of the outputs of the CPFSI. Publishing an annual report is a major step forward for transparency in terms of how public money is being spent in this area, but CPFSI inspection reports are only available via a Freedom of Information request. If inspection of fire safety was the responsibility of HM Inspectorate of Prisons, it would be published as part of prison inspection reports. Why can the CPFSI not do the same for all of its inspections?


Mark Leech is the Editor of the Prisons Handbook and he shared his experience of trying to get prison fire safety inspection reports from the Home Office via the ‘What do they know’ online service.

In a story of Kafkaesque complexity, it takes five months for the zip file of inspection reports to be made available and even then, they are heavily redacted. Mark’s frustration rises throughout the exchange with the Home Office FOI team until he is told that in response to his request for a review on how it has been handled: “We cannot carry out an internal review of an internal review.”

Does it matter if the inspection reports are not in the public domain? Well, yes it does because the public has a right to know what state its prisons are in when it comes to keeping people safe from fire. Getting the public interested in fire safety inspections in non-prison Crown Premises may be harder, but it should not take an FOI request to find out.

Reading the CPFSI annual report and talking to Peter highlights an area of fire safety that does not get much attention and reveals the problems that many prisons face. The government recognised the need to invest in prison infrastructure, including fire safety measures, when it announced in October 2019 an additional £156 million ‘for pressing maintenance’. Perhaps in future inspection reports, the impact of that investment might be seen in improved fire safety all round.

Tall Order

It is a tall order to inspect 10,000 Crown Premises with 13 staff, even with a risk-based inspection programme underpinned by a new management information system. While Peter commends the commitment and experience of his team, the numbers just do not stack up. Removing prisons from their portfolio would be a logical first step.

Going one step further, why not let the local fire and rescue service add non-controversial Crown Premises to its own building portfolio? Scanning through the list of Crown Premises shows that many of them are just offices with civil servants in them; they are no different to any other public sector workplace. Cutting down the list to the more sensitive areas of the Crown estate would then let the inspectors focus their work on these buildings. Any such changes would require legislation and it is unlikely the political will or parliamentary timetable is there to support either change any time soon.

For anyone interested in becoming a Crown Premises Inspector, the CPFSI will be recruiting over the summer. Details can be found on the civil service jobs website.

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