Venue 'had no safety licence': Adequate precautions are dependent on the owners seeking approval. Rhys Williams reports on an easily broken area of the law

THE cinema club in which eight people died on Saturday night had last been inspected by the fire service four years ago after an anonymous complaint.

Roger Woodland, a divisional officer at the London Fire Brigade, said that the service had received information about the club four years ago and notified Islington council.

'We visited (the club) and gave some friendly advice, but we were satisfied that at the time the fire provisions were adequate. We told the local authority about the property because we had no statutory control,' he said.

The fire illustrates the apparent inadequacy of the fire precaution laws.

The latest indications from Islington Borough Council were that Dream City, the club destroyed in Saturday night's blaze, was operating without a licence.

The Fire Precautions Act places a statutory responsibility on the fire brigade to issue certificates for hotels, boarding houses, offices, shops and railway premises. But the task of licensing cinemas and other places of entertainment falls to local authorities.

Applications for a cinematographic or public entertainment licence are made to local authorities, as well as being posted on the building under review and advertised in local newspapers.

Council environmental health officers accompanied by the fire brigade will then inspect the property, checking there are enough escape routes, fire extinguishers and staff to cope in emergencies.

Before awarding a licence, they will also examine wiring, curtain material and the fabric of the building for asbestos. 'Clearly this hasn't happened here,' Rob Storey, a spokesman for Islington council, said.

Many owners avoid public entertainment licence regulations by declaring their premises a private club run exclusively for members. Procedures for joining are loose, consisting in many cases of no more than giving a name and address and paying a 'membership fee' to get in.

Nevertheless, Mr Storey explained, under the provisions of the London Buildings Act, the owners would still have to notify the council of a change in use for the property. In Islington, buildings control officers would then inspect the site. 'Initial examination of our files suggests that this did not happen and that these people were entirely unknown to us.'

The problem is that the system relies on people volunteering information. But given the nature of the material on show, many clubs are reluctant to attract any sort of attention, let alone the close scrutiny of the council or fire brigade. 'If we did have teams of roving inspectors who can knock on doors and check things out, then it's quite possible this kind of thing could be prevented. But you can't legislate for malice,' Mr Storey said.

David Young, the Labour MP for Bolton South-East, will today call on the Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to ensure that even 'the smallest and seediest clubs' are obliged to observe the rules and that all loopholes are plugged.

'There has got to be a review of fire regulations to see that there are inspections in all areas where people come together, even if in very small numbers and for whatever purpose,' Mr Young said.

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