“Here he is – Keith Lard!”

Despite being a big Peter Kay fan I had never heard of the character Keith Lard until approximately 2007, when I became more involved in fire safety prosecutions. I had watched Phoenix Nights, but for some reason this particular character had not entered my consciousness. It is now a name that I am very familiar with, as it is mentioned frequently when I tell people which area of law I work in.

Is that a dog?

In fact, Keith Lard was first seen on television on 19 January, 2000 in “That Peter Kay Thing.” He later appeared in episode 3 of the first series of Phoenix Nights (screened 28 January, 2001). For the uninitiated, Keith Lard is described on Wikipedia as “an overzealous jobsworth who takes immense pride in his work raising awareness of fire safety through training seminars and safety inspections. He despises people’s apathy and seemingly ignorant attitude toward fire safety, often scaring his bored audience with an air horn. He was accused numerous times of interfering with dogs, but was acquitted due to lack of evidence.”

“Laugh or burn - take your pick.”

What is incredible to me is that this minor character, whose total screen time from both series totals about 10 minutes, in a late-night, low-budget (albeit, in my opinion, high-quality) TV series, which has rarely been repeated, is remembered and quoted by so many, even now, 20 years on. Is it because the Keith Lard character reflected the industry and public view that the existing regulatory framework caused excessive burdens upon industry and business, such that it required reform?
I’m sure that it is pure coincidence that just over a year later, in July 2002, the government published “A Consultation Paper on Reform of Fire Safety Legislation” and on 19 April, 2004 the office of the Deputy Prime Minister laid a statement before Parliament, together with a draft of the (then) Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2004. The aim of the new legislation described as being

“to reduce burdens on business that are caused by the existence of multiple, overlapping general fire safety regimes – and consequently overlap of the responsibilities of enforcing authorities. The proposed order would consolidate and rationalise much existing fire safety legislation (currently scattered across a large number of statutes and secondary legislation) into one order. In doing so it would reduce the number of enforcing authorities dealing with general fire safety matters.”

Now, I’m sure that Mr Kay’s genius writing did not prompt a review of the Fire Protection Act 1971, but it is clear from the consultation paper that fire regulations at that time were considered to be “burdens on business”.
And reform is what we got, in the guise of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, – the FSO.
The question is, did it succeed? Has it reduced burdens on business or has enforcement of the FSO perpetuated the Keith Lard myth that those responsible for keeping people safe from fire are “overzealous jobsworths”?
Did it rationalise the existing fire safety legislation or, in terms of responsible persons and persons in control of premises did it create further complexity? Interestingly, the aim was to reduce the number of enforcing authorities dealing with general fire safety matters. This seems somewhat ironic today, following the recent HMICFRS audits of fire authorities in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, and in particular in relation to enforcement of the regulations.

“Smoke kills in seconds, fire kills in minutes, and there’s no smoke without fire.”

It seems to me that the fact that those involved in the fire safety industry are still subject to the regular light-hearted taunting by way of comparison to Keith Lard suggests that anybody whose job it is to ensure the safety of others is still to considered to be an “overzealous jobsworth” and just as disappointingly, a figure of fun.
I know, because I read a lot of PACE transcripts of interviews, with suspects being questioned about potential fire safety breaches, that it is still the view of a lot of business owners and people responsible for the safety of premises. In the very first case that I dealt with under the FSO a witness actually said in court that “fires don’t occur anywhere near as often as fire officers will have you believe, they mainly happen in fire safety training videos”. (I won that one.)
Take, for example the now highly topical guidance put forward in the Fire Safety in Purpose-Built Blocks of Flats (paras 19.6 and 19.7) which states:

“Some enforcing authorities and fire risk assessors have been adopting a precautionary approach whereby, unless it can be proven that the standard of construction is adequate for ‘stay put’, the assumption should be that it is not.
This is considered unduly pessimistic. Indeed, such an approach is not justified by experience or statistical evidence from fires in blocks of flats…”

Is this not a polite way of saying that fire enforcement officers are overzealous?

“Ignorance kills – fire doesn’t kill, ignorance kills.
-and smoke, and no…fire does kill.”

I have been involved in numerous cases where the legitimate concerns of fire safety officers have been described as “unreasonable”, “disproportionate” and ‘unjustified’ by opposing lawyers and their experts. I also read experts reports who use slightly more constructive (or patronising) words, but the intimation is the same, enforcing officers are regarded as pedantic, unrealistic and unsympathetic- jobsworths.

I have to concede that the character Keith Lard was pretty funny, and not only because of his over fondness and inappropriate relationship with dogs. So funny, that he is clearly remembered and associated with the enforcement of fire regulations.

” The thing that keeps me awake at night is ignorance. The ignorance of the younger generation towards fire safety. … But society is failing to educate them and that’s what I do.”

What should also be remembered, though, is that at the end of the Phoenix Nights episode starring Keith Lard, Channel 4 and Mr Kay issued an apology to Mr Keith Laird, a fire safety officer for Bolton Council for any distress caused by the Lard character leading people to believe that it was based upon Mr Laird. Further, Channel 4 recognised Mr Laird’s contribution to fire safety in Bolton and confirmed that his professionalism and integrity were not in doubt. According to the Telegraph, Mr Laird had pointed out that as well as sharing a similar name, the character had a bushy moustache much like his own, wore the same luminous yellow safety jacket and had a penchant for quoting one of Mr Laird’s favourite sayings. Mr Laird was paid £10,000 compensation, half of which he paid to a charity. (Not sure who was advising him there).

BBC report on Keith Laird

Or maybe I am the only one who gets the Keith Lard comments?

What I would say to Mr Keith Laird, is this – we salute you, you professional, generous and good-humoured man.

And as for the rest of us, the next time you hear “Here he is – Keith Lard!” when you enter a conversation, point out what happened to the Phoenix Club at the end of series one.

It burned down.

Warren Spencer – Fire Safety Solicitor/Advocate

James Aird – Fire Safety Lawyer