Fire Safety Bill

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Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 29th October 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Fire Safety Bill 2019-21 View all Fire Safety Bill 2019-21 Debates Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: HL Bill 132-I Marshalled list for Committee - (26 Oct 2020)
Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, chair of the Heart of Medway Housing Association and a non-executive director of mhs homes. Amendment 1, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, with cross-party support, and Amendment 24, also in the name of the noble Lord, seeks to put improvements and protections for people living in high-rise residential buildings in the Bill.

As we have heard in this short debate, electricity causes more than 14,000 fires each year—almost half all accidental house fires. The amendments seek to provide practical protection for residents living in high-rise buildings, which total more than 1 million people. We are all sadly aware of the tragic and sometimes fatal consequences of people caught in fires in their own homes. As we have heard, these amendments would build on the regulations that the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, worked so hard to introduce. It took some time for them to come into effect; the noble Lord was always committed to them and I always pushed him to bring them in sooner, but we are grateful to him for this work. I also join him in paying tribute to Electrical Safety First, which is a great charity that highlights the problems we have with electrical fires and how we need to ensure that electricity is made as safe as possible for us all.

These regulations go further and extend the protections in the regulations introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, so that tenants living in high-rise buildings will benefit from mandatory electrical safety checks every five years, with records kept by the responsible person and made available to the fire services, local authorities and, importantly, the residents association if one is in place.

In introducing the amendment, the noble Lord made a powerful point, in that those who live in a high-rise block of flats include social tenants and owner-occupiers, neither of whom need electrical safety tenants, but private tenants would now need checks. If you are not checking the whole building, it is not safe at all. That is an important and powerful point, so I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, addresses it in his response.

Secondly, these amendments would require the responsible person to keep a register of white goods in the high-rise buildings for which they are responsible. I am supportive of these proposals, as we need high standards to keep people safe from the risk of fire started by electrical ignition. We have already mentioned the tragic incidents in recent years—not only Grenfell but Lakanal House and Shepherd’s Court—but equally I accept that there can be issues with getting access to flats and keeping the register of these goods up to date, which can provide a logistical challenge for people. There is also the question of new and second-hand goods.

I entirely accept that the product recall system is not working well. The London Fire Brigade had its Total Recalls campaign, which highlighted the problems with the recall system. We need something better than we have now because, as I said, keeping track of white goods is a huge challenge. Whether we accept these amendments or not, what we have at present cannot continue. We have to do something else.

I hope that, when the Minister responds to the debate, he sets us on that path. I suggest that he facilitates a meeting between Electrical Safety First, his officials and Members of this House who want to discuss how we can find a practical solution to the serious point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. I also suggest that the London Fire Brigade in particular is involved in those discussions because of its campaigning work. I look forward to the Minister’s response to this debate and his delivery of that meeting.

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Lord Greenhalgh) (Con)
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My Lords, I would say first that we do need to look at the effective Berlin Wall between social housing and private housing, and in mixed sustainable communities where there are different tenures, we need to look at how we can ensure consistency and thus the safety of all residents. I am of course prepared to meet the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, Electrical Safety First and other groups as soon as possible.

I thank my noble friends Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth and Lord Randall of Uxbridge and the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Whitty, for the amendment. This is clearly an important issue. Faulty electrical appliances are often the causes of fires in high-rise residential buildings, a point that has been made clear. However, before turning to the amendment, I would like to explain the work being done across government to improve electrical safety in residential buildings.

As my noble friend Lady Eaton pointed out, in 2018 a new national regulator, the Office for Product Safety and Standards, was created to lead and co-ordinate the product safety system including responding to safety incidents and recalls. The Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 2016 place strict legal obligations on manufacturers to ensure that electrical equipment is safe before it is placed on the market and to ensure that manufacturers monitor products already on the market where appropriate and undertake sample testing of equipment. There are criminal sanctions for those who do not comply. Importantly, the draft building safety Bill proposes an obligation on residents to keep electrical installations and appliances that they are responsible for in their property in working order. There is also a provision for the accountable person for a building to take action where they or a competent person have reasonable grounds for believing that a resident or their landlord is failing to meet this obligation. In addition to this, the Home Office’s “Fire Kills” campaign plays an incredibly important part in promoting electrical fire safety messages, as pointed out by my noble friend Lord Bourne.

The new Electrical Safety Standards in the Private Rented Sector (England) Regulations 2020 are now in force for new tenancies and will apply to existing tenancies from 1April 2021. These regulations require that electrical installations must be inspected and tested by a qualified and competent person at least every five years, as highlighted by noble Lords, and that an electrical installation condition report be provided to tenants and local housing authorities on request.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on why mandatory checks apply only to private housing and not to public housing, the situation is that social landlords are expected to comply with the Decent Homes standard from the Regulator of Social Housing. This includes homes being free of hazards, including electrical hazards, as set out under the housing health and safety rating system. In the social housing Green Paper, we asked if new safety measures in the private rented sector should be extended to the social sector, including electrical safety checks. We will bring forward a social housing White Paper soon. I will however take the issue away for further consideration, I have already offered to hold a meeting, and I will provide an update on Report.

My noble friend Lady Couttie raised the practicalities of the implementation of such a system by registered social landlords and local councils with a large amount of council stock. I want to reassure your Lordships that we will continue to work across government to identify any further gaps in the electrical safety regime.

I now want to explain some of my concerns with this amendment. In particular, it does not achieve its intended effect. For example, there is doubt that the amendment would result in electrical appliances in private dwellings being brought within scope of the fire safety order. I suspect that this was not the intention. In any case, my noble friend will be aware that domestic premises are specifically excluded under the fire safety order, so this amendment intends to significantly broaden the scope of the legislation. I am also concerned that it proposes to require occupiers to provide access to the responsible person to enter the private dwellings. This would result in a significant level of intrusion and the implications of this need to be carefully thought through before any decision is made to legislate on the issue.

The proposed new schedule also intends for the responsible person to keep a register of electrical appliances for their building. This proposed duty will have a significant impact on the responsible person. For local authorities, and indeed all responsible persons, I do not want to create this additional burden. It is unrealistic to expect responsible persons to have an up-to-date register of electrical appliances for their building. This will also have a significant impact on fire and rescue services, who will need to check whether the electrical appliances register is accurate, which could involve inspecting all homes in a block of flats.

Given the assurances that I have provided, coupled with my commitment to provide an update on the next steps with regard to the social housing White Paper, along with my commitment to the meeting requested by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, I would ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.

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I look forward to the Minister’s response to these amendments, as they both raise important issues which the Government must address.
Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, for their amendment on the consultation required when introducing any changes to premises to which the fire safety order applies. I agree that it is important that we get the implementation right when introducing any changes to the types of premises falling within the scope of the order. It is sensible that we make sure that there is capacity to assess any new premises type, and that the cost of any changes is identified before using the provision to introduce this.

The importance of costs was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark. Of the additional £30 million funding for fire and rescue services to implement the findings of the Grenfell inquiry, £20 million goes towards fire protection. We will look very carefully at the recommendations of the competence steering group on the level of competence required by fire safety officers to carry out fire risk assessments. However, I will also write to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, on this matter, before Report. There will be an opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of these matters as part of the passage of the secondary legislation that would be required to effect any changes to premises types within the scope of the order.

I agree with the principle of consulting relevant persons before enacting any changes or clarifications to the order in respect of the premises that it applies to. Clause 2 of the Fire Safety Bill provides a broad requirement to consult with appropriate persons. I agree about the importance of consulting with many of the organisations that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, has pointed out. It is important that we consult broadly with local authorities and trade unions, the National Housing Federation, representing social landlords, the NRLA, and the ORPM, which represents managing agents. The noble Lord raises an interesting point, and I accept that he is seeking reassurance on that wide-ranging consultation. We will take it on board as we move to Report.

As it stands, the wording of Clause 2(5) contains a broad consultation requirement. This will include the stakeholders that both I and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned, and others that are deemed appropriate. The specified list in the amendment identifies certain groups whose identities, or the way in which they are formally referred to, could change over time. This would risk rendering the legislation out of date, creating a need for future primary legislative changes. The current approach in the Bill is future-proof and will ensure that relevant groups are not omitted. If the need arises to use this clause, we will consider who is appropriate and whether a full public consultation would be the most suitable approach to make sure all interested and potentially affected groups have the opportunity to comment. We just need to find the right legislative way to ensure the objectives of noble Lords. With that, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall) (Lab)
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My Lords, I have received no requests to speak after the Minister, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Stunell.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, pointed to some potential deficiencies in our Amendment 17. Nevertheless, the basic issue is right. We cannot expect leaseholders to bear the enormous costs of remediation work, which is from no fault of their own; they did the right checks before they purchased, a mortgage was granted to them on that basis, and now they find themselves, potentially, in a bankruptcy situation. That cannot be right. There have been excellent contributions to this debate and many questions asked; I trust that the Minister will be able to answer them.
Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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First, I draw attention to my commercial and residential property interests as set out in the register. I should have done that some time ago, so I apologise to noble Lords.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his amendment on the duties of an owner. However, before turning to the points made, I want to put a few comments on the record. The Grenfell Tower fire was a national tragedy. For nearly six years, I was the leader of the neighbouring borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, so I was affected personally by it. In fact, our town hall served to help people in the community and give them shelter on the night of that event. I point out that it was the greatest loss of life in a residential fire since the Second World War. From the outset, I want to make it clear to this House, as I did in my all-Peers letter, that the Government are, and have always been, committed to implementing and, where appropriate, legislating for the inquiry’s recommendations. An unequivocal commitment to doing that was set out in our manifesto.

In some areas, we are going further than the inquiry’s recommendations, for instance on the information about cladding, building plans, lift checks and smoke control systems. In other areas, we are seeking to implement the recommendations in the most proportionate, pragmatic and effective way. The vote in the other place in no way signals that this Government have altered this commitment in any way. I will set out our approach on this issue.

It is right that we consult before we act with legislation on the Grenfell recommendations. This is not just because we have a statutory duty to do so. It reflects Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s own view on the need to ensure broad support for his recommendations and an understanding of the practical issues associated with implementing them. In his report, Sir Martin noted that it was important that his recommendations

“command the support of those who have experience of the matters to which they relate.”

Our 12-week consultation did just that. It gave all those affected—residents, responsible persons, including building owners and managers, the fire sector and enforcing authorities—the opportunity to make their voices heard. I am pleased to say that they responded, with more than 250 responses received.

This amendment is not necessary and will not speed up the legislative process; it would simply require us to make regulations on the specified areas in the amendment relating to the sharing of information, flat entrance doors, lifts and personal and emergency evacuation plans. We already plan to lay regulations on these areas; we do not need further primary legislation to do that. Subject to the outcomes of the consultation, we intend, where possible, to use secondary legislation under Article 24 of the fire safety order to implement the recommendations. Our intention is to introduce these regulations as soon as possible after the Bill has commenced.

I hope that this explanation of the Government’s plan to implement the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s phase 1 report has gone some way to satisfying honourable Members in the other place and noble Lords. I hope that, on that basis, the noble Lord will be content to withdraw his amendment.

On the other amendments in this group, I agree there is a clear need for reform in relation to fire risk assessors. Other amendments focus more on capacity issues, whereas these rightly shine a light on competence. As was set out in the other place, a lot of work is already in hand, and industry has largely been leading the way. The industry-led Competence Steering Group is looking at ways to increase competence and capacity in the sector. I am very pleased that the group recently published its final report, which includes proposals on creating a register of fire risk assessors, third-party accreditation and a competence framework for fire risk assessors. The Government are carefully considering the detail of this report and its recommendations.

The Government are also working with the National Fire Chiefs Council and the wider fire sector to take forward plans for addressing both the short-term and long-term capability issues within the sector.

I want to share the Government’s views on this amendment. First, it is important we establish a basic principle of competence so that everyone carrying out an assessment should be appropriately qualified. This is regardless of whether they are a fire risk assessor or other fire safety professional, such as an engineer. We put forward a proposal on this in the fire safety consultation, which closed on 12 October. Considering the merits of accreditation will be a more detailed process. For example, assessing external wall systems with cladding will sometimes require significantly greater expertise than is likely to be that of a specialist fire engineer. It is our view that we should implement a competence requirement first and then look at the best way to increase professionalism across the sector.

Secondly, this amendment, understandably, would have the effect of applying an accreditation requirement to individuals undertaking fire risk assessments only in buildings with

“two or more sets of domestic premises”—

for example, in multi-occupied residential buildings. It would not cover all other premises within scope of the fire safety order, including, for example, care homes and hospitals. The risk is that if this amendment is passed, it will create a two-tier system whereby such premises would require an assessment from an accredited fire risk assessor but all other premises covered under the fire safety order would not. This would mean we would have to legislate further to ensure parity. I do not believe that that was the noble Lord’s intention in tabling this amendment. I can assure the House that work is already in hand to address competency issues, and we will take forward our proposal in the consultation to strengthen the competence requirements within the fire safety order.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for raising the important issue of prioritising enforcement action in respect of the risk of buildings and targeting of resources, which I also covered earlier in the debate on amendments relating to commencement. The task and finish group has told us to start in one go and then use a risk-based system, so I hope that will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I note that this amendment was raised in the other place; our position on this, which I will set out in a moment, remains unchanged.

The amendment is unnecessary in the context of established operational practice, which ensures that enforcement authorities target their resources appropriately and according to risk. The fire and rescue national framework for England requires fire and rescue authorities to have

“a locally determined risk-based inspection programme in place for enforcing compliance with the”

fire safety order. The framework also sets out the expectation that fire and rescue authorities will target their resources on individuals or households who are at greatest risk from fire in the home and on non-domestic premises where the life safety risk is greatest. The national framework for Wales includes similar provisions.

Enforcers are obliged to have regard to similar requirements in the Regulators’ Code, which states that all regulators should base their regulatory activities on risk and use an evidence-based approach when determining the priority risks in their area of responsibility. In addition, the building risk review programme, which will see all high-rise residential buildings reviewed or inspected by fire and rescue authorities by the end of 2021, is a key part of this work. The programme will enable building fire risks to be reviewed and data to be collected to ensure that local resources are targeted at buildings most at risk.

The Government have provided £10 million in funding to support fire and rescue services to deliver the Government’s commitment to review all high-rise residential buildings over 18 metres—or six floors and above—by the end of December 2021. This funding will also strengthen the NFCC’s central strategic function to drive improvements in fire protection and is in addition to a further £10 million grant to bolster fire protection capacity and capability within local fire and rescue services.

I reiterate that we are aware of the capacity issues. Our approach to commencement has been informed, as I said, by the recommendations of the task and finish group, co-chaired by the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Sector Federation, which brought together fire safety experts, building managers and representatives of the wider fire sector, who considered capacity and risk in the context of commencement of the Bill.

I have set out the Government’s position on this issue and why we consider this amendment unnecessary. For the reasons set out above, I ask that the amendments in this group not be pressed.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for raising the issue of waking watches, which has a profound impact on the lives of many people. The amendment places a duty on the relevant authority to specify whether a waking watch is necessary in event of “fire safety failings”. It is unclear how this would work or what it would mean. One interpretation is that the relevant authority would have to try to specify a list in regulations of all the potential circumstances where there had been a fire safety failing and then establish whether each of those individual failings would require a waking watch to be put in place.

Such a duty on the relevant authority would be disproportionate and onerous without necessarily being effective. It would largely remove or reduce the ability of a responsible person to consider the specific circumstances of the premises and other fire protection measures in place, all of which can vary considerably from building to building. The other risk of this wording is that such a list could be prescriptive. What if there are specific individual circumstances, or a combination of various failings, that do not fall within the list? The common-sense view may be that a waking watch should be put in place but such a decision could be inhibited by legislation. Restricting the responsible person’s discretion to assess exactly what is required in each situation would not be right. A decision on the use of waking watch should be taken on the basis of the individual circumstances of each case.

I can provide reassurance that we are taking forward work on waking watches in conjunction with the National Fire Chiefs Council, which I will briefly outline. The National Fire Chiefs Council revised its guidance relating to waking watches, a copy of which I have here, on 1 October. It now provides very clear advice which supports the fire and rescue services and its implementation on the ground by the responsible persons. The updated guidance now advises responsible persons to explore cost-benefit options with leaseholders and residents. It also encourages the installation of common fire alarm systems, which means reducing the dependency on waking watch wherever possible. The guidance also emphasises that residents can carry out waking watch activities when fully trained, if necessary. However, we assume that in many cases a common fire alarm system will suffice.

On 16 October, we published data on the costs of waking watches which provides transparency on the range of costs, allowing comparisons to be clearly made. It also highlights the importance of identifying at what point waking watch costs exceed the cost of an alarm system, in an attempt to help reduce interim costs for leaseholders and residents. The calculations show that having a common alarm system pays back within seven weeks, compared with paying for the average cost of a waking watch.

Our aim must ultimately be to reduce the need for waking watches and the costs that they bring. A key plank of this is to progress remediation. It is the pace of remediation that matters, and despite having a global pandemic, I am pleased that, with the help of the mayors of our city regions and local authorities, we have seen the pace of remediation increase in removing the most dangerous type of cladding—aluminium composite material. The projection is that over 90% of buildings will be on site or will have remediated the cladding in question, which is great progress, with over 100 starts over the course of this year so far. As a Minister with joint responsibility for fire and building safety, obviously, I attach the highest priority to ensuring that all buildings with unsafe cladding are remediated.

On Amendments 15 and 16, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, for raising important issues regarding establishing public registers of fire risk assessments and fire risk assessors. I will address fire risk assessments first. The fire safety order sets a self-compliance regime. There is currently no requirement for responsible persons to record their completed fire risk assessments, save for limited provision in respect of employers. If they fall within that category, they are required to record the significant findings of the assessment and any group of persons identified by the assessment as being especially at risk.

The creation of a fire risk assessment register will place upon responsible persons a new level of regulation that could be seen as going against the core principles of the order, notably its self-regulatory and non-prescriptive approach. There is also the question of ownership, maintenance and where the cost of a register such as this would lie. A delicate balance needs to be struck. There are improvements to be made here but we need to ensure that they are proportionate.

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Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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My Lords, I do not disagree that the amendment should be withdrawn. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, my noble friend Lady Eaton and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, have drawn attention to the problem that I raised earlier about leaseholders caught by the Government’s Grenfell-related changes being unable to afford repairs or waking watches and/or unable to sell their properties. In some cases, the leaseholders are joint owners, as my noble friend Minister has just said.

Will my noble friend agree to a meeting to map the way forward before Report? This could look at the options to see whether primary legislation—which I think he is reluctant to pursue—secondary legislation, fire brigade or health and safety guidance or changes to the regulatory codes would work. There has to be a risk assessment and we need to make sure that this is possible.

I have some experience of dealing with these fire difficulties. As noble Lords will recall, this used to be the responsibility of the fire brigade and then it was all changed. I oversaw that transition. I also know from experience in China how wrong you can get things, particularly if you do not consult. I remember that China did not consult on changes to fire safety laws. They were not aware that most modern premises had sprinklers. As someone has already said, sprinklers limit what you have to do with fire safety measures. It is a modern approach.

I should find a meeting helpful, perhaps to limit the number of amendments that it might otherwise be necessary for us to put forward on Report.

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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I thank my noble friend for making those points and representing the deep issues faced by consumers. Essentially, there are three. Thousands of leaseholders are facing the terrible situation that their property is valued at nothing. They have put in their life’s savings to buy a property, and they cannot remortgage or move. The pace of remediation has now slowed because of an inability to get assessments carried out by the relevant person or because they do not feel that they have insurance cover to do it. That is another issue. At the same time, because the pace of remediation has been affected, they face interim costs. I pointed out that they could be dramatically reduced, in most instances, by putting in an alarm system.

My noble friend is quite right—I have had these discussions with the insurance industry—that there are great measures, such as sprinklers, that reduce risk and ensure that a building is safer. That is why the Government legislated to put in sprinklers in all new builds above 11 metres. I am happy to meet my noble friend and any other noble Lords on these important issues, because we all share the objective of finding the right approach to deal with these great issues that face many hundreds of thousands of leaseholders in high-rise residential buildings up and down the country.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, it was good to hear the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, in responding to this debate. I have no doubt of his sincerity in wanting to address the issues raised by the first phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, but my view, held with equal sincerity, is that we have not moved as quickly as we should have. The Government have moved too slowly. They need more urgency in dealing with the issues that arose from the fire at Grenfell Tower, which took place on 14 June 2017—some 40 months ago.

Capacity to deliver the requirements is an issue, which has been raised in a number of groups of amendments, as is the qualification level of the people undertaking this work. We must have professionally qualified experts undertaking such important work. If unqualified people are approved to do work arising from the Bill, it would show me that the Government have not learned the lessons. This is a slippery slope to further failures in the future. If one more life is lost, it will be one life too many. It is really important to get this right.

The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, mentioned sprinklers; she is absolutely right. Sprinklers have been in new homes, flats and halls of residence in Wales since 2011. It was the Labour Member Ann Jones who passed the legislation through the Welsh Assembly, some nine years ago. That is one case where the Government could learn from what has happened in another institution in our United Kingdom.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. As in other debates, we have highlighted significant outstanding issues. The Government should take this opportunity to reflect on the issues that have been raised in Committee; I hope that they will agree to come back on Report and actually move on some of them. Although we all want to make progress, speed is the issue for us and we want to move forward where we can. As I said before, it is 40 months since the tragedy of Grenfell Tower.

I will come back to this and many other issues on Report. I will make it clear to the noble Lord now: if we do not see some progress, we will divide the House many times on Report. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

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Baroness Pinnock Portrait Baroness Pinnock (LD) [V]
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My Lords, the “responsible person” definition has a key duty in this legislation, which is why I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, which seeks to clarify it. I apologise to the Committee that a lack-of-sound issue has meant that I was not able to hear the contributions by the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley or Lord Whitty, or the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, so my remarks are going to be quite basic as a consequence.

I agree with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that it is not just or practical to expect a tenant or leaseholder, unless they are owners or part-owners of the freehold, to fulfil the responsibility of being the so-called responsible person. I agree completely that it is important to have no room for uncertainty as to who is indeed the responsible person.

My noble friend Lord Stunell has just raised the very important issue that the responsible person has to actually be a person, not an entity—someone with an address and a telephone contact within the UK. I cannot imagine how awful it would be if the responsible person were some distant corporation based in the Cayman Islands, a fire arose and there was no obvious route to seeking a practical or legislative remedy for that disaster.

I have heard a little about the importance of water sprinklers and water misting in high-rise blocks, and of course I know that in 2009, Wales introduced a requirement for that. I look forward to learning what others have said about this important issue when I read Hansard, because I understand that it has been a priority of the fire and rescue services for a long time. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for this amendment, which seeks to amend Article 3 of the fire safety order. It seeks to remove leaseholders from being a responsible person unless they are also owner or part-owner of the freehold for the premises in question. It is important to remember that the fire safety order places the onus on the responsible person to identify and mitigate fire risks. In multi-occupied residential buildings, the leaseholder of a flat is unlikely to be the responsible person for the non-domestic premises. The exceptions to that would be where they own or share ownership of the freehold, which is acknowledged in the amendment. However, a leaseholder can be a duty holder under Article 5 of the fire safety order, which provides that the responsible person can be determined by the circumstances in any particular case.

Depending on the terms of a lease or tenancy agreement, the responsibility for flat entrance doors could rest with the building owner, having retained ownership of the doors, or the tenant/leaseholder as a duty holder. The lease can also be silent. Accepting this amendment would undermine the principles of the order and could have the unintended consequence of leaving a vacuum in terms of responsibilities under it. That, in turn, could compromise fire safety.

We will look at the responses to our fire safety consultation, which contained specific proposals to support the identification of responsible persons, with a view to ensuring that they are not the entities described by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. It also contained proposals to support greater co-operation and co-ordination between multiple responsible persons within a single premise. The Government are also committed to providing guidance on this issue. That, alongside our legislative proposals in the consultation, will support all those with responsibilities under the order in understanding and complying with their duties.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for tabling Amendment 18. Water-based systems can be an effective and appropriate fire-fighting tool in the event of a fire, and they command broad support across the fire and rescue service and the broader fire sector. However, a water-based system is just one of many measures that can be adopted to counter the spread of fire within a building.

The amendment seeks to ensure that responsible persons for multi-occupied residential buildings consider the installation of sprinklers or water-mist systems as “appropriate fire-fighting equipment” options. On the retro-fitting of sprinklers or water-mist systems, it is up to the responsible person to decide whether those are appropriate mitigating measures.

Noble Lords may be aware that earlier this year the Government amended approved document B to require the provision of sprinkler systems in new blocks of flats over 11 metres in height. This amendment will come into effect next month to ensure that this is the new standard for buildings of that height in the future.

For existing buildings, the fire safety order requires the responsible person to maintain and keep in an efficient state and working order fire-fighting equipment, which may include water-based systems. In blocks of flats where these are not present, retro-fitting water-based systems may not always be a cost-effective solution, if they are desired at all by residents. Existing guidance suggests considering alternative fire safety measures, taking into account the absence of sprinklers.

The Government do not support using the fire safety order to promote one form of equipment over other measures which, depending on the building, might be more effective. The fire safety order rightly places the onus on the responsible person to have regard to the specific characteristics of their building in determining which fire-fighting equipment and mitigating measures are appropriate to ensure the safety of relevant persons.

It is important that the legislation leave open the range of options available to responsible persons, who, with the support of competent professionals and government guidance, which we are reviewing, are best placed to make those decisions based on local need. Some building owners may decide to install sprinklers as part of their overall fire strategy, while others might choose alternative measures, provided that they are effective. Nevertheless, the Government will review our fire safety order guidance for responsible persons, including references to fire-fighting equipment and other fire safety measures available to them.

I hope that I have provided sufficient reassurance and that the noble Lord is content to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, I thank everybody who has spoken in this debate, which has been very useful. In particular, I thank the noble Lord for his response.

I agree very much with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, about the need for swift action. As we have discussed on previous amendments, there is the whole issue of building owners, insurance, guarantees and warranties, and we need to get to the bottom of that. I know that in the weeks ahead the noble Lord will be meeting people who are concerned about that, and that is very good.

I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, that the responsible person must actually be a person. It cannot be a company or some entity, particularly one based on the other side of the world. It must be a real person in the UK, and we must have their name, address, phone number and email address so that we know exactly how to get hold of them. That is really important.

My noble friend Lord Berkeley spoke about the importance of sprinklers. The Government have made some progress on that, which is good, but they should look carefully at what has happened in Wales. Since 2011, no new home has been built without sprinklers. That measure was brought forward by the Labour Member, Ann Jones, following a Private Members’ ballot and it has been a really good thing. The Government should look at the initiatives of other institutions in the United Kingdom to see how these things work; that is one they could learn from.

With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Baroness Pinnock Portrait Baroness Pinnock (LD) [V]
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My Lords, mindful of my interests as declared at the opening of Committee, I support Amendment 11 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, although an additional cost must not be imposed on local authorities as a consequence of the requirements of the Bill. It is well documented that many local authorities are already facing very challenging circumstances as a result of the costs of dealing with the local impact of the pandemic. This is on top of years of deep cuts in government funding.

The new burdens agreement between central and local government is supposed to ensure that the costs of new duties required by the Government are met by the equivalence of the costs. This amendment seeks to underline this commitment and to ensure that sufficient additional finances are made available. The consequence of failing to do so would undermine the purposes of the Bill, for which there is unanimous support.

There has already been an extensive debate on skills shortages and the definition of competences during consideration of other amendments. Many noble Lords have expressed their concerns. I wish to underline the importance of this issue, which has been expressed throughout Committee.

Amendment 10 seeks to ensure that the Scottish Government consider similar legislation. It highlights how Governments across the UK are slowly beginning to mirror a federal system. I find this fascinating. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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My Lords, Amendment 10 seeks to introduce a review of Scotland and Northern Ireland, to take place no later than 24 months after Royal Assent on the Fire Safety Bill, which would subsequently be laid before Parliament.

From the outset, I remind the Committee that the Fire Safety Bill applies only to England and Wales. Fire safety is a devolved matter. The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, does not consider the vastly different fire safety regimes in place in Northern Ireland and Scotland. It is unlikely that the Scottish Parliament or Northern Ireland Assembly could make an equivalent legislative provision to reflect the fire safety legislation in England and Wales. In any event, the review proposed would not have any legal effect in either Scotland or Northern Ireland as the Bill extends and applies to England and Wales only. Such a review would be to no purpose.

I accept that noble Lords have an interest in fire safety in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. However, these matters are the responsibility of the respective devolved Governments, who are best placed to provide an update.

The fire safety regimes in Scotland and Northern Ireland are significantly different from that of England and Wales. There is no direct equivalent of the fire safety order in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Existing fire safety legislation does not have the same features as in England and Wales. This includes a review of the fire safety regime for high-rise domestic buildings in Scotland and delivery of the recommendations from that review. A single source of fire safety guidance for those responsible for these buildings is now available online and fire safety information has been delivered to residents in all high-rise buildings in Scotland. I have been in close dialogue with Kevin Stewart, my opposite number in the Scottish Parliament, about the issues we have been debating in Committee.

I am pleased to inform the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that the Scottish Government have today published a formal response to the Grenfell phase 1 report. I look forward to reading it. It is an important step in advancing fire safety in Scotland.

In Northern Ireland, a cross-body building safety programme group has been established and is sponsored by the Department of Finance. The group will consider what actions are necessary in Northern Ireland to improve and develop building safety and how best to incorporate relevant recommendations arising from the Grenfell public inquiry phase 1 report. The group is in the earliest stage of development, identifying relevant representative group nominations to centrally co-ordinate the Northern Ireland response from an operational, regulatory and legislative perspective.

I turn to Amendment 11 and thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for raising the issue of the Bill’s potential impact on local authorities. Obviously, we should mention not just local authorities but fire and rescue services. On a point of principle, we are very clear on the purpose of the Fire Safety Bill, which is to clarify that the structure, external walls and flat entrance doors in multi-occupied residential buildings are within scope of the fire safety order. However, this should not prevent local authorities from acting under their existing powers to address safety risks in multi-occupied residential buildings. They have a duty under the Housing Act 2004 to review areas of risk relating to social housing for which they are responsible, which we would expect to include issues relating to both fire and building safety. With regard to the private rented sector, local authorities also have a duty to take enforcement action if they consider that a serious category 1 hazard, including fire, exists on any residential premises.

We expect that the initial impact on local authorities and fire and rescue services under the Bill to be limited, with the focus being on responsible persons updating fire risk assessments on high-risk buildings, as considered under the risk operating model. I will address this in more detail when responding to amendments on commencement. The costs of the Bill have been set out in the published economic impact assessment. This shows that the costs are shared across all responsible persons for high-rise residential buildings, the majority of which are privately owned rather than social housing. We will keep the impact on local authorities under consideration in future spending reviews as work progresses on fire and building safety in their capacity as both landlords and enforcing authorities. I will also give an undertaking that we will consider the impact on local authorities of the Bill and consultation in line with the new-burdens principles. I should also inform noble Lords of the additional funding support being provided. We have invested £20 million in funding fire safety protection and a further £10 million for the fire risk review programme.

As regards the draft Building Safety Bill, we are planning measures to strengthen the fire safety order, and the impact of these on fire and rescue services and local authorities will be considered. I should warn noble Lords that the Bill will have about 140 clauses, whereas this Bill has three clauses, which we seem to have spent several hours debating in some detail.

Amendment 12 calls for a review of fire skills 12 months after the passing of the Bill. Significant work has been undertaken by the industry-led Competence Steering Group and its subgroup on fire risk assessors and fire engineers, to look at ways in which to increase competence and capacity in these professions. This includes proposing recommendations in relation to introducing a register of fire risk assessors, a competence framework and a system of third-party accreditation for fire risk assessors. The final report from the CSG was published on the Construction Industry Council’s website on 5 October and the MHCLG, the HSE and the Home Office are considering the recommendations of the report in detail.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will be aware that we recognise the concerns raised by the fire risk assessor sector on its capacity and competency to undertake and update fire risk assessments for the buildings in scope of this Bill. We want to ensure that we will take a proportionate approach to commencing the Bill that limits any potential impact on the fire risk assessor sector. The noble Lord has raised a very important issue with this amendment. The Government have been working with the fire risk assessor sector to develop a clear plan to increase its capacity and capability. The Home Office and the MHCLG are jointly funding the British Standards Institution to develop technical guidance to support professionals to assess the fire risk posed by external wall systems. This guidance will support industry to upskill more professionals to take on this work and will increase the quality and consistency of these assessments.

Although this amendment is in line with our plans to develop the capacity and capability of the sector, I do not think that this work needs to be enshrined in legislation. I also think that a slightly longer timeframe for such a review of 18 to 24 months would be more appropriate, as such a period would allow for more meaningful change, given the need to recruit against the background of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Finally, I emphasise that understanding the skills shortage and having a plan to address that, as raised by the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Stunell, must be a driving mission of this Government. Therefore, I would be happy to meet with the noble Lords in relation to Amendment 12 before Report to discuss the ongoing work that I have outlined. In the meantime, I ask noble Lords not to press their amendments.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, I thank everybody who has spoken in this short debate and thank the Minister for his response. All the issues that have been highlighted here are important; I will look carefully at what the noble Lord has said, particularly on skills. We need to ensure that in this new regime we have properly skilled, competent professionals doing this work. As many of us have said before, there should be no race to the bottom, and it is really important that we do not have unqualified people doing this work. On the issue of funding the fire service and local government, there are issues about the capacity of local authorities and the fire and rescue services to do the work, so funding is important. We need to see that done well.

On the noble Lord’s comments in respect of learning from institutions in other parts of the United Kingdom, there are many examples where one particular part of the United Kingdom might do something a different way, and that sometimes might be better than the way we do it here. It is good that we learn from those, whether it is sprinklers in Wales or what they do on modern slavery in Northern Ireland or in Scotland, or the way we do things here in England. We need to ensure that we all learn from each other. If the Minister is meeting ministerial colleagues in other institutions, that is a very welcome and a good thing to know. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Baroness Pinnock Portrait Baroness Pinnock (LD) [V]
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My Lords, it is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Porter, is not able to move his amendment today, as his is a good idea. A fire safety code of practice would draw together many of the issues raised elsewhere in the debate into one place. I am confident that there will be, of course, prioritisation of buildings at risk, but this amendment would ensure that this is set out and therefore legitimised. Sharing the costs of fire risk assessments according to assessed risks is another important element of fairness that has to be acknowledged, and putting it in the Bill, as this amendment does, is wholly positive.

Throughout today’s debate, it is clear that there is full support for the Bill and its purposes. All the amendments seek to do is to improve it for the benefit both of fire safety and for residents’ peace of mind. I look forward, therefore, to the Minister’s response.

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Porter for his sterling efforts regarding building and fire safety, and for his leadership over many years in local government and as a former chairman of the Local Government Association. I thank him for tabling amendments on a proposed improved code of practice to support the commencement of the Bill. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for stepping up in his stead, and for his amendment, which would ensure that the Bill is not commenced until the Government have completed a full review of the capacity of fire safety inspectors to undertake the duties set out in the Bill.

I will respond to the amendments relating to commencement guidance. As noble Lords are aware, the Home Office established a task and finish group, chaired jointly by the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Sector Federation, whose role was to recommend the optimal way to commence the Bill. Members of the group were drawn from local authorities, housing associations, private sector developers, the fire sector and selected fire and rescue services. My noble friend is aware that the Local Government Association was represented—as I said, he served as chairman until July last year.

The Home Office received the group’s recommendations on 28 September. It advised that the Bill should be commenced at once for all buildings in scope on a single date, subject to prior conditions being met: first, that responsible persons should use a risk-based tool to develop an effective strategy to prioritise their buildings for an updated fire risk assessment—a tool is currently being developed by a sub-group of the task and finish group; and, secondly, that the Government issue statutory guidance to ensure that this tool is used by responsible persons.

I thank the task and finish group for providing its expert views to the Home Office. I understand the intention behind this amendment: that guidance—whether or not it is defined as a code of practice—needs to have the appropriate legal status to ensure effective use of the risk-based tool by responsible persons. I am aware my noble friend also has concerns that fire engineers and competent professionals might increase their fees, making it difficult for social sector landlords to get expert advice on buildings that may be high-risk.

This Government want to ensure that the resources of fire engineers and other competent professionals are targeted to buildings based on risk. Equally, this Government want to ensure that there are no delays to commencing the Bill. I am sure this is a view we all share. The Government are concerned that this amendment will delay the commencement of the Bill; for example, it would place a statutory duty on the Government to undertake a public consultation on a draft code of practice and to lay the final code before Parliament before the Bill and the code come into effect by order. This process will delay the Bill’s commencement until at least summer 2021.

I do not consider that guidance alone will resolve my noble friend’s concerns about how fire engineers and other competent professionals prioritise their resources. The right building blocks need to be put in place to create system change. That is why we are working with the fire risk assessor sector to develop a clear plan to increase its capacity and capability. The Home Office and MHCLG are jointly funding the British Standards Institution to develop technical guidance to support professionals to assess the fire risk posed by external wall systems. This guidance will support industry to upskill more professionals to take on this work and increase the quality and consistency of these assessments.

We continue to work closely with the joint chairs of the task and finish group, as well as the LGA, to ensure that the Government provide a proportionate response to their advice.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, aims to ensure that the Bill is not commenced until the Government have completed a full review of the capacity of fire safety inspectors to undertake the duties set out by the Bill. The Bill clarifies the role of fire and rescue services in enforcement against responsible persons who have not adequately assessed the fire safety risks of a building’s structure, external walls or flat entrance doors in multi- occupied residential buildings and, where appropriate, put in place general fire precautions. The amendment aims to ensure that before the Bill is commenced the Government undertake a review of the fire and rescue services’ capacity to carry out inspections and, where appropriate, take enforcement action in line with the clarification the Bill provides.

Fire and rescue services have the resources they need to do their important work. Decisions on how resources are best deployed to meet their core functions are a matter for each fire and rescue authority. This includes deciding on the number of fire safety officers needed to deliver their fire safety enforcement duties under the fire safety order.

The amendment is unnecessary as the Government issued an impact assessment for the Bill, which considered the impact on fire and rescue services. The impact assessment sets out that additional work for fire safety inspectors arising from the Bill will cover reading and reviewing of relevant parts of the updated fire risk assessment and, where appropriate, undertake a visual inspection of the external walls and flat entrance doors. Our central estimate of the additional cost to fire and rescue services is £5.9 million over the 10-year period assessed.

Overall, fire and rescue authorities will receive around £2.3 billion in 2020-21. Stand-alone fire and rescue authorities will see an increase in core spending power of 3.2% in cash terms in 2020-21 compared with 2019-20. The Government have invested a further £30 million of funding in fire and rescue services and the National Fire Chiefs Council this year. This includes: £10 million allocated to fire and rescue authorities to improve protection capability and undertake more audits of high-risk premises; £7 million to allow fire and rescue authorities to respond effectively to the findings of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry; £3 million to bolster the NFCC’s Grenfell improvement capacity and capability and to drive strategic change from the centre; and £10 million to deliver the Government’s building risk review programme and to form a central protection hub within the NFCC.

The National Fire Chiefs Council published a revised competence framework document earlier this year for business fire safety regulators to assist fire and rescue services in assuring the competence of their fire safety staff. This work will support common competence standards across fire and rescue services’ protection staff.