Insurance Post online- Arson: a burning issue

Only a small portion of arson cases are prosecuted, so perhaps it’s time for the insurance industry to take ownership of this issue, as it has with fraud

This summer’s heatwave created a warm glow, but the rise in arson attacks will leave many feeling cold. July and August alone witnessed arson at a residential tower block in Birmingham, a block of flats in Wandsworth, a £2m damage attack on three targets in Gloucester, including the historic Fleece Hotel, and a Manchester mosque gutted by fire in the third arson attack in three years.

Critics have spoken for years about the difficulties of interesting police forces in investigating suspected arson, and figures published this year by the Ministry of Justice will add fuel to that fire. They reveal “large falls” in the number of people prosecuted for criminal damage and arson: down 10% to 3100 defendants prosecuted in 2016, which continue “the large falls seen in 2015”. So it is steadily getting worse, and the Ministry of Justice’s unhelpful lumping together of the two crimes makes smoking out specific arson conviction rates tricky.

Differing definitions: More heat than light is generated by the fact that the police and fire services collate data on a different basis, defining arson differently. This is the fault of legislators, not the emergency services themselves, but the end result is that only a proportion of deliberate fires attended by fire brigades are classified by the police as arson offences, as defined by the Criminal Damage Act 1971; and most don’t even go to trial. A BBC analysis of 18 million crimes over a five-year period, across 43 police forces in England and Wales, revealed that a massive two-thirds of criminal damage and arson cases were closed unsolved.

Although detecting criminality is a matter for the police, Mark Pierce, director of major complex loss at the Davies Group, says that investigations are now done more frequently by insurers and forensics than the police and the fire service. “Things that used to be done are not done in borderline cases. It is the job of the police to investigate but they are more geared to resourcing loss of life or injury to person arsons, but not property damage. It has to come from government to provide the police with resources because if police and fire service budgets are not enough, they have to prioritise.”

The frustration for investigators must be huge. Paul Burke, head of the special investigation unit at Questgates, observes: “Often the fire brigade, and then forensics, will comment that the fire was certainly caused by intentional or malicious ignition, but refer to the cause as ‘undetermined’.” He wonders whether a drop in convictions for arson might have changed the priority to investigate, adding: “There is certainly evidence that the police and fire brigade are often failing to even log some fires as crimes. With insurance in place, do the police and fire brigade have the appropriate appetite or resources to fully investigate these claims?”