At a high level, everyone agrees that arson is a multi-faceted, complex societal problem. However, with insurers looking towards Government to do more and vice versa, a lack of ownership and leadership can start to emerge. Arson is difficult to prove for some obvious reasons. Firstly, the fire scene needs to be investigated effectively, not only to identify positive evidence of arson, but also to ensure that accidental causes are ruled out. This requires a high level of training and awareness for initial responders, usually firefighters, to ensure appropriate evidence preservation, gathering and analysis. Secondly, both circumstantial and ideally forensic evidence is required to place a suspect at the scene and to link them to the crime. Finally, the standard of the proof of all the evidence is high in order to meet the test of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ in a criminal prosecution. If convicted, the prison sentence can be one of life. Having regard to civil legal proceedings, where for example an insurer may refuse to indemnify an insured for a loss on the basis that the claim is allegedly fraudulent, the standard of proof lies somewhere between the ‘balance of probability’ and ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Insurers make a substantial investment in the forensic investigation of fire scenes in order to be apprised of the likely cause of a fire, whether this be accidental or deliberate.
The Government previously funded joint Arson Task Forces which saw additional fire and Police officers co-located, sharing information and resources to identify and then prosecute offenders in an attempt to reduce arson. As arson tailed off, so did the Government funding. Given the emphasis on increased collaboration and the benefits to Police and Fire Services as a result of working better together to reduce demand, extension of funding Arson task forces at a local level may be worth reconsidering.
Discussions with the Police at a local (Police Constable level), confirmed that they always place a high priority of effort on cases of ‘arson with the intent to endanger life’ but as they have to prioritise calls, lower level arson where there is no risk to life and/or lower levels of damage, result in a lower priority of effort. The number of ‘arson with intent to endanger life’ calls is relatively low compared with total cases of arson which has reduced significantly over recent years.
In addition, this reducing trend means that Police resources (which have reduced in recent years through Government reductions in grant) are focused on areas where crime is increasing such as cyber and child sexual exploitation. This would explain in part why the Police do not appear to see arson as a top priority. As activity levels are reducing, the costs in responding to arson calls have also reduced for the Police.
At the same time, the Fire Service have also seen a significant reduction in calls to arson. This coupled with Government grant reductions, may have contributed to a lower level priority of time, effort and resources placed on arson reduction than was the case in the mid 1990’s. Savings are being made as the vast majority of fire services have significant numbers of ‘on call’ staff who are paid when they are called. With a reducing level of activity, the costs in responding to arson calls has therefore reduced for the Fire Service.
Contrast this with the impact that insurers are experiencing. Stubbornly high level of fire claims and an increasing cost per fire shows that there is a significant impact on insurers.
It is recognised that approaches by individual insurers sometimes are commercially confidential but greater visibility as to efforts being undertaken will assist a pan industry approach to reducing arson. Whilst there are some notable examples of effective practice by individual insurers, these tend to be focused on policy wording, claim and cost management.
Increases in innovation of approaches to reduce arson as well as an increased level of arson reduction activity across the board is felt to be required.
The APF continues to be the only cross organisation strategic body which aims to reduce the costs and consequences of arson and it does this through the collective efforts of its members.
Arson is increasing as are the costs. As such, what is needed is a strong commitment by all parties to work better together to address what is a complex and multi-faceted problem. A reduction in arson can only benefit society as a whole and with an increase in arson in 2016/17, the long term reduction in arson appears to have come to an end.