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May 5, 2011

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Charge dropped against hotel-fire consultant

The company that owned a Newquay hotel where three people lost their lives in a fire four years ago has been ordered to pay £142,000 in fines and costs, but a consultant embroiled in advising the hotel on certain safety matters has been exonerated.
The prosecution – which was brought by Cornwall Council and the Fire and Rescue Service after an investigation into the incident at Penhallow Hotel on 18 August 2007 – had originally charged Martin Tricker, of Hawthorne Safety Consultancy Ltd, with failing to make a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment between 1 October 2006 and 18 August 2007.
At a hearing yesterday (4 May) at Truro Crown Court, the prosecution chose to offer no evidence with regard to Mr Tricker, a chartered member of IOSH. According to local media, the charge was dropped owing to conflicting evidence over the precise role he played.
At an earlier hearing on 23 March, O&C Holdsworth plc admitted two breaches under the Regulatory Reform Order (Fire Safety) 2005, relating to a failure to provide proper fire detection and alarm systems, and failing to make a proper risk assessment. It pleaded not guilty to a further charge of failing to ensure the safety of relevant persons. Sentenced on 4 May, it was fined £40,000 on each of the admitted counts and ordered to pay costs of £62,000.
At the March hearing, John McMillan, a director O&C Holdsworth, and administration manager Nicola Burfitt, were formally found not guilty of the same three charges.
A council spokesperson told SHP’s sister site, info4fire, that it accepted not-guilty pleas on behalf of Mr McMillan and Ms Burfitt because the company “accepted responsibility by way of the failure of their systems rather than the failings of particular individuals”.
The fire, which ripped through and destroyed the 54-bedroom hotel, has been described by fire-fighters as the worst hotel fire in Britain for 40 years. Peter Hughes, 43, his mother, Monica, 86, and Joan Harper, 80, all from Staffordshire, were killed in the incident.
In 2009, a coroner’s inquest into their deaths returned an open verdict.

Following his not-guilty verdict, Mr Tricker told SHP that while his company provides health and safety, as well as food-safety services, to O&C Holdsworth Ltd, it was not engaged to provide fire risk-assessment services for the company prior to the fire. 

He said: “In offering no evidence against me, the prosecution made specific reference to the fact that my company’s then contract with O&C Holdsworth did not include fire risk-assessment services. O&C Holdsworth also accepted that the hotel’s fire risk-assessment document in place at the time of the fire was produced by one of their staff members and not by my company.

“As a result, while the Penhallow Hotel fire was a terrible tragedy, and my sympathies rest with the victims and their families, it was not an event in which I, or my company, played any significant part, and this is reflected in the not-guilty verdict issued by the court.”
Commenting after its sentencing, Cornwall Council said: “We hope that today’s sentence will send out a very clear message to the hotel and leisure industry, where sleeping accommodation is provided, of the importance of adhering to fire safety legislation, and ensuring the management of fire precautions is a high priority.”
In a statement, O&C Holdsworth expressed its “deepest sympathies” to all those affected by the fire, before adding: “It should, however, be noted that this case was not brought by the Fire Authority against the company for actually causing the fire, or the loss of any of those lives; it was brought for technical breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 to which the company pleaded guilty in March of this year.”
Following the fire, the company initiated a comprehensive review of health and safety and fire safety procedures at its other hotels, and reinforced its company guidelines and working practices to ensure compliance.
Over the last five years, there have been 18 fires in hotels in Newquay, equating to 28 per cent of all hotel fires in Cornwall.

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