EC fire rules will cost small businesses pounds 1.7bn: A new Brussels directive will make a big impact on even the smallest workplace. Nick Cohen reports

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The Independent Online
NEW European Community regulations will compel small businesses to spend pounds 1.7bn on fire precautions, the Home Office has estimated.

Despite protests that the rules will impose an unnecessary extra burden on the self-employed, ministers have accepted the decision by Brussels to tighten the law. The main impact of the EC directive will be on people working from home or from small shops and offices. From next year every workplace used by one or more persons will be required to make 'fire risk assessments', train staff in fire precautions and keep records to show inspectors that the law's requirements have been met. Brendan Burns, vice-chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said yesterday that he was very concerned about the costs of complying with directive. 'Since 1971 British law has adequately enforced fire safety measures in any building which could be at risk. There's been no demand from the public for the rules to be replaced; no outcry about avoidable deaths from fires.

'Nevertheless, the Government has decided that a man working from home could be required to fit fire doors or fire escapes. We just can't afford to do this in a middle of a recession,' he said. 'The price will go straight on to a business's overdrafts.'

A Home Office consultation document says that the new regulations will apply to all 'premises in which only self-employed persons work', provided that they are regularly visited by members of the public. 'Very few occupied premises will be outside the scope of the regulations,' it says.

Officials have estimated that the cost to businesses of enforcing the new rules will be pounds 1.7bn over 10 years. The price is 'so substantial' because the regulations will apply to small premises which were not covered by the 1971 Fire Precautions Act. The price of enforcing the rules for each firm or self-employed man or woman will vary between pounds 200 and pounds 2,000.

The Home Office said that the directive will also affect 60,000 shops, offices and factories which already have fire certificates issued under British law. From next year they will have to undertake 'structural work' - the installing of fire doors and fire escapes - at an average cost of pounds 1,500 per business to meet the standards the EC lays down.

In addition, 60,000 owners of small hotels and boarding houses, which do not require fire certificates at present, will have to pay about pounds 900 each to comply with the regulations, the Home Office said. Local fire authorities will have to spend an extra pounds 10m a year on employing more inspectors and administrative staff to enforce the EC's directive.

Mr Burns said that the Home Office could well have underestimated the cost of applying the rules. The regulations it issued said that the precautions each firm or self-employed man or woman will be required to institute will depend on the results of the fire-risk assessment.

'When it comes down to it, fire brigades and employers will err on the side of caution,' he said. 'We could be talking about installing fire escapes at a cost of thousands of pounds in one-room offices. It all depends on how the rules are interpreted on the ground.'

The federation denied that its members were trying to avoid spending money on safety, saying that until now the law had not imposed heavy duties on very small firms and the self-employed because the threat of deaths from fire was negligible. 'If you are in a one-room office or shop and a fire starts, you can either put it out or run away,' Mr Burns said. 'It's not like being trapped in a big hotel or factory.'