PROPOSED SELECT COMMITTEE ON FIRE SAFETY
Suspension of standing and sessional orders agreed to.
The Hon. J. F. RYAN [5.27]: I move:
1. That a select committee be appointed to inquire into and report on fire safety issues in residential properties of the Department of Housing, having regard to:
(a) the comparative proportion of fires occurring in public and private properties;
(b) design features and construction materials used in existing properties and future public housing projects which may minimise the risk of fire, limit the spread of a fire or facilitate escape after a fire has broken out;
(c) maintenance programs by the Department of Housing which contribute to fire safety;
(d) installation and maintenance of smoke detectors;
(e) fire safety education programs;
(f) deliberately lit fires;
(g) social factors which may contribute to fire safety;
(h) other relevant issues raised by submissions to the Committee.
2. That the Committee consist of 5 members of the Legislative Council, comprising:
(a) 2 Government members nominated in writing to the Clerk of the House by the Leader of the Government;
(b) 2 Opposition members nominated in writing to the Clerk of the House by the Leader of the Opposition; and
(c) 1 crossbench member, nominated by the crossbench members.
3. That the Committee have leave to sit during any adjournment of the House; to adjourn from place to place; to make visits of inspection within New South Wales and Australia; and have power to take evidence and to send for persons, papers, records and things; and to report from time to time.
4. That should the House stand adjourned and the Committee agree to any report before the House resumes sitting:
(a) the Committee have leave to send any such report, minutes of proceedings and evidence taken before it to the Clerk of the Parliaments;
(b) the documents be printed and published and the Clerk forthwith take such action as is necessary to give effect to the order of the House; and
(c) the documents be laid on the Table of the House at its next sitting.
The purpose of this motion is to establish a five-member, all-party committee of this House to investigate a number of concerns that have arisen recently as a result of a spate of fires and fire fatalities in Department of Housing residential properties. I sincerely thank the House for this opportunity and the many members of the House who have personally expressed their support for and concern about this issue. I am sure that honourable members will be aware that I have been raising these concerns in the House for well over a year. I first began to do so after there had been a spate of fires in Department of Housing houses in which many people had lost their lives. It is worth noting that many of the people who live in public housing represent some of the most disadvantaged people in the State. In the last six months of 1995 New South Wales fire brigades attended more than 300 fires at Department of Housing properties, which resulted in 11 fatalities and more than 60 injuries. The worst incident was the fire in November in Proctor Road, Claymore, which killed five people, including three children. But there have been many other fires and many of the victims have been children.
I realise that all fatal fires are the subject of coronial inquests and in many instances recommendations are made to various State government agencies for action. However, in view of certain statistical evidence, anecdotal evidence and what appears to have been a very slow response from the Department of Housing, the Opposition believes that it is time that these fires - fatal and non-fatal - are examined as a group by an agency independent of the department to allow common causes of the fires and common safety issues to be identified and addressed. There would appear to
have been a disproportionate number of fires in Department of Housing properties and it is about time that we identified why.
The most recently released annual statistical report of New South Wales Fire Brigades shows that fire brigades attended 4,489 residential property fires during the 1994-95 financial year. Of those fires, 587 were in Department of Housing accommodation. That means that one in seven residential fires occurred in Department of Housing accommodation. The figure appears to be out of all proportion to the number of public houses in this State. When the figures are crudely crossmatched against Australian Bureau of Statistics records for all residential dwellings in the State, it would appear that public houses are 2½ times more likely to catch fire than all houses, public and private, together.
I have lived in the Campbelltown area for more than 10 years and I was appointed as a schoolteacher to a high school in that area in 1981. Over that time I have heard and read many reports about fire incidents in Department of Housing dwellings. It was my impression not only that Department of Housing houses, particularly townhouses, caught fire very quickly but that many of the fires appeared to arise out of fairly trivial smaller fires that quickly got out of control. I am speaking of situations in which kids play with matches, cigarette lighters and the like and small fires quickly develop into serious fires that destroy an entire building. These impressions are best illustrated by the comments of Campbelltown Fire Commander Wally Hemmings at the recent inquest into the fatal Claymore fire. Commander Hemmings is reported to have said:
5. That on receipt of a request from the Committee for funding, the Government immediately provide the Legislative Council with such additional funds that the Committee considers necessary for the conduct of its inquiry.
I have heard exactly the same description applied to many other Department of Housing fires in the western suburbs. I am able to present to the House today additional evidence that provides some objective support for these observations. One of the parties represented at the recent inquest into the fatal fire at Claymore asked an architect to prepare a report examining fire safety issues in relation to the house in which the fire occurred and other places in close proximity. I should like to read to the House a few lines from the report of Mr John Dale, the architect. I am sure honourable members will agree that there is a great deal to be concerned about. Should honourable members be interested in obtaining a copy of this report, I will provide one. With regard to construction of the houses, Mr Dale observed:
The design of the narrow townhouse created a fire draft so it burned like a chimney. It was a very swift fire, free burning which is typical of those types of structures.
There were observed a number of features which collectively may have contributed to the tragic results of the fire that occurred.
. . . The separating walls were masonry but there was a predominance of timber framing to intermediate walls which would provide fuel for a rapid development of the fire once linings had failed.
This would be of critical consequence in the situation where persons who had retreated to the upper levels, where there was no escape except through the windows.
Mr Dale was concerned that the fire was easily able to spread from one townhouse to neighbouring houses by a process of spontaneous combustion. He commented on the stairs in the following way:
Party walls between the units were generally of double brick, except in the roof spaces where the brickwork appeared to be single brickwork which should be checked with other units. It is clear from the photographs that at the time the fire was put under control that the timber ceiling and roof framing in the adjoining unit were close to a stage of spontaneous combustion and that smoke was being forced into the upper levels of the adjoining units.
I understand that the architect conducted an experiment outside the court. He took a piece of the carpet and burned it under controlled conditions. He found that the flammability of the carpet was similar to that of tinder-dry grass. In relation to the windows Mr Dale said:
The stairs were carpeted and if the rubber underlay examined at landings was laid throughout, then there was a relatively high level of fuel for fire and burnt rubber fumes on the stair flights.
The windows were timber opening sashes fitted with winder chains restricting the extent to which the sashes would open.
The architect made other comments about the stairwells, smoke shafts and other areas. He found:
The size of the sashes were relatively small, sufficient to make it difficult for a person to get through the sash frame and broken glass once they had been successful in breaking the glass.
It is my belief that Mr Dale's report would be of great concern to all honourable members if they had the opportunity to read it for themselves. Last month, as a result of a request from me, the Deputy State Coroner recommended that the Parliament establish a committee to investigate this issue. The Minister has reported back to the House indicating that he has some sympathy for the views of the Deputy State Coroner. I have moved this motion to indicate what the Opposition expects from the Minister in relation to this issue. The motion has been necessary for a number of reasons.
The Minister has in the past consistently dismissed the need for an inquiry. I have no doubt that this is not because the Minister lacks concern or compassion in regard to this issue. After all, a number of the most serious fires have occurred in his own electorate. However, on advice from the department, the Minister has in the past scoffed at the request for an inquiry as being a waste of money, and only a week ago he spoke of it as being unnecessary. In fact, in the Minister's most recent remarks there is ample evidence of crass political comment to indicate that it is possible that the Minister is still trying to run from scrutiny on this matter. The Opposition has moved this motion to demonstrate that it is serious about the matter.
Whilst in the short term Opposition members will take the Minister at his word, I believe the Minister will get the message that if he does not set up an appropriate inquiry there is sufficient political support in the House to take the matter out of his hands. In addition, Opposition members are also concerned that the Department of Housing itself is in a state of denial on this issue. For the benefit of honourable members I shall read a statement made in the House by the Treasurer, on behalf of the Minister for Housing, in answer to a question asked last December, less than a month after the fatal fire at Claymore. On 12 December 1995 the Treasurer said:
The stair design and "inadequate" escape appear to be principal factors threatening the safety of occupants in the housing estate.
According to the Minister, there was nothing to be worried about. In the light of the evidence I have presented today that statement is clearly no longer true, but it represented the view of the Department of Housing only a year ago. That is the very reason that the House must insist on the inquiry being independent. Personally, I am flexible about whether the inquiry be conducted by a parliamentary committee or by an independent expert. However, whatever form the inquiry takes, it should allow for community input, it should be open and it should include some public sessions. When completed, the report of the inquiry should be tabled for discussion in the House.
The Opposition today seeks to set benchmarks for what it believes would be the minimum standard for an acceptable inquiry. The Minister could set up such an inquiry during the recess. Provided it meets these requirements and subject to it being completed within an acceptable time frame, I am sure that the House will be only too pleased to allow this motion to lapse. If the Minister does not act, the Opposition will seek the support of the House to proceed. In conclusion, I should like to express my sympathy - as I am sure all honourable members would - to the families and friends of the victims of the Claymore fire and other similar fires that have occurred recently. It is hoped that this action will be of some comfort to them, in that they will know that some good may arise out of those tragic events.
Debate adjourned on motion by the Hon. J. F. Ryan.
The Government does not have any information which might indicate whether anything in the nature or the structure or construction of Department of Housing townhouses [which] would make them vulnerable to fire or make escape from fire more difficult.