Daisy Cooper contributions to the Fire Safety Bill 2019-21


Mon 7th September 2020 Fire Safety Bill (Commons Chamber)
3rd reading: House of Commons
Report stage: House of Commons
3 interactions (582 words)
Thu 25th June 2020 Fire Safety Bill (First sitting) (Public Bill Committees)
Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons
11 interactions (1,416 words)
Thu 25th June 2020 Fire Safety Bill (Second sitting) (Public Bill Committees)
Committee Debate: 2nd sitting: House of Commons
17 interactions (1,185 words)
Wed 29th April 2020 Fire Safety Bill (Commons Chamber)
2nd reading: House of Commons
3 interactions (634 words)

Fire Safety Bill

(3rd reading: House of Commons)
(Report stage: House of Commons)
Daisy Cooper Excerpts
Monday 7th September 2020

(1 week, 5 days ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Home Office
Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard
7 Sep 2020, 12:06 a.m.

I am pleased that the remaining stages of the Fire Safety Bill are being debated in the House today. Some hon. Members will know that, as an electrical engineer, fire safety is an issue that is of great interest to me. Having spoken on Second Reading, I was reassured that fellow Members felt as strongly as I do about this issue, and that has been demonstrated yet again in today’s debate.

Having managed my own electrical company for many years before being elected to this place, I know how vital it is for residents to know that their accommodation is safe and secure. It is for that reason that I spoke on Second Reading and have closely followed developments on this Bill since then.

That said, hon. Members noted possible issues regarding the responsibilities of leaseholders and freeholders under this legislation, which leads me on to why I shall be speaking in favour of the amendment tabled my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) today. The amendment is of significant importance to building safety. We have all heard of portable appliance testing and we have all seen the green labels on our appliances, yet, although the appliance may be of good order, it is vital that the socket into which we plug these items is also of good order. Furthermore, all the wiring that provides our lighting and heating should also be inspected and tested. That is already law in rented properties, but it is only advised for privately owned premises. The fact that the tenure of an individual flat within the same block decides whether or not it is tested for safety is far from ideal, and it fails sufficiently to guarantee the safety of all residents.

As we have seen, fire spreads very quickly, and although buildings are constructed to stop this spread, this is not always successful. The reasons for that are numerous and can be down to deterioration of the fabric, poor management of fire prevention, or even poor building maintenance work when work is carried out on the fabric of the building by unskilled or unsupervised personnel. Fixed-wire testing of all wiring within the building is therefore of paramount importance.

Secondly, it is my belief that an appliance register is a must as we have all seen the effects that a faulty appliance can cause. A register by a responsible management company is not an onerous task and would substantially help towards reducing fires owing to a faulty appliance that has been part of a recall, but not actually recalled. I would hate to think, after all the time spent on the Bill, that it falls short and that another incident such as Grenfell then happens due to a faulty appliance or an electrical system that has failed because of a lack of maintenance. It is therefore crucial that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government looks into this, as reducing the source of fires is far better than preventing their spread. This amendment does exactly that, and if it cannot be addressed today, the Minister may want to further investigate the merits of what is being proposed in the upcoming fire safety consultation and the draft Building Safety Bill.

It is vital that the Government do not allow anomalies in this area if they are to truly demonstrate their commitment to ensuring that everyone has a safe place to live. I believe that the amendment would strengthen the Bill. That said, while it may not go through the House today, it will be a great shame if right hon. and hon. Members do not press for what it is asking for in future.

This Bill is very welcome and it has my support. Three years on from Grenfell, it is high time that the wrongs of the past are put right. I also add that if the Minister would like my help with the Fire Safety Bill, please do ask.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper (St Albans) (LD) - Parliament Live - Hansard
7 Sep 2020, 12:01 a.m.

The Liberal Democrats support and welcome the Fire Safety Bill, but it is a first and only very small step in the right direction. As many hon. Members have said, we are three years on from the tragedy of Grenfell and this Bill is woefully inadequate. We support it and all the amendments that have been tabled. I would like to speak to new clauses 2 and 4 and ask the Minister for various assurances.

On new clause 2, on the accreditation of fire risk assessors, it is crucial that those conducting a fire risk assessment are accredited. Those of us on the Bill Committee heard shocking evidence of unqualified fire risk assessors declaring unsafe properties safe, and the Fire Brigades Union told us of one case that resulted in the death of one of their own. In Committee, the Minister for Crime and Policing shared our alarm at the existence of unqualified fire risk assessors and he posed the question of how many decades this situation had been allowed to persist unnoticed by anybody in the House or by any Government. Surely now is the time to ensure that this practice is brought to an end.

There must be a nationally recognised qualification and certification for those charged with assessing the safety of people’s homes. There also needs to be a freely accessible register of those holding such a qualification, held and maintained centrally by a public body, such as a Government-appointed regulator. However, I would go even further: the Hackitt review suggested that with something as vital as fire safety, the fire risk assessments should also be freely available in a publicly available register. That is vital for existing and prospective residents and for inspection and enforcement, so will the Minister provide a firm commitment, on the parliamentary record this evening, that a fire risk assessments register will be provided for in future legislation?

I turn to new clause 4, on the definition of a responsible person. It is right that we are absolutely clear on the Bill’s definition of a responsible person and I welcome the clause, because it ensures that a leaseholder without a direct interest in the freehold cannot be considered to be the responsible person. However, outside the scope of the Bill is a massive question about who should pay for the remedial work, and the Government have so far failed to tackle that head-on. Some leaseholders have paid building insurance premiums for years and they may still have valid new-build warranties, but the financial burden of new Government regulations or failures by developers is being shifted to tenants and leaseholders through increasing service charges and demands for one-off contributions.

In my constituency of St Albans, one residents association has been advised that individual leaseholders will face extra charges of around £20,000 per home. This is unacceptable. Some service charges for those residents have already increased sixfold since the Grenfell disaster in 2017 in preparation for the necessary works. I hope the Government agree that while so many individual circumstances are incredibly financially challenging right now, to be hit by a further £20,000 bill is completely unacceptable. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee recommended in March that, given the urgency of these remediation works, it is necessary for the Government to provide the funding upfront. Will the Minister this evening commit to at least taking this up with the Chancellor and asking that the funding be provided for in the autumn statement to make sure all homes are safe?

Residents, including in my constituency of St Albans, are trapped. They are trapped in a Catch-22 between the excessive cost burden of remediation and being unable to explore any of the financial options to sell up or extend their mortgage. The Government must understand the difficulties that the current situation places on people, such as my pregnant constituent who needs to move home urgently so that she can have a home that is more suitable for her growing family, but cannot do so, or the pensioner in my constituency who is reliant on the sale of their property to support them and their care needs in their retirement.

Fire Safety Bill (First sitting) Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Home Office
Legislation Page: Fire Safety Bill 2019-21

Fire Safety Bill (First sitting)

(Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons)
Daisy Cooper Excerpts
Thursday 25th June 2020

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Home Office
David Simmonds Portrait David Simmonds (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) (Con) - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 11:40 a.m.

Q Apologies to the witnesses for dancing around behind you in this way. Picking up on the point about qualified persons and the inspection process, one issue that has been raised a good deal in my experience as a local authority councillor is how those inspections can be undertaken to satisfy the responsible person that the fire risk is being appropriately managed.

For example, if you have leaseholders in a block of flats owned by a local authority that is responsible, what the leaseholder does within the property that may create risk to others may not be something to which the local authority can readily gain access. I am interested in this point about how the different pieces of legislation interact. Do you have a view on how we might collectively move towards a resolution of that problem?

Dan Daly: We talked earlier about how the clarifications in this Bill are really useful in terms of ironing out some of the overlaps we have seen that have caused us difficulties before, both in holding people to account, and in people’s understanding of their duties.

This is a bit of legislation that underpins a self-regulatory regime, and we must ensure that at the end of this we have something that makes it very clear to those people what their responsibilities are. It must also help residents and leaseholders to understand what they can rightly expect from the people with day-to-day responsibility for the safety of their buildings. That is the sort of thing that we are working closely with Home Office colleagues on. The Bill has been presented as it is today, but I know we have taken some assurances in the background that we will work together on providing secondary legislation and guidance to pick up those areas where we might still seek further clarification, to ensure that it is absolutely clear to those people who it most directly affects day to day.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper (St Albans) (LD) - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 11:42 a.m.

Q I have two interlinked issues. One is about the number of assessors needed; we have received some evidence that suggests there are around 400 third-party registered fire risk assessors and potentially around 400 APQC independent assessors, but there is nobody putting a number on the assessors that might be needed.

The first question is whether you have any estimates, because we know roughly where we are at the moment and where we need to get to. I was pleased to hear you say that you would welcome a register of assessors, but the interlinked issue is how we train those people. We have had differing evidence. Some suggests there should be a fast-track training, or different levels of assessment, and other evidence suggests that we should not have fast-track training because it can lead to problems. I would welcome your views on both questions: how many people do we need overall, and does there need to be comprehensive training for everybody, or would you take a differentiated view?

Dan Daly: I do not think I can give you a number on how many we need overall, because there is a bit of work to be done before that. This speaks back to the risk-based approach. If we look at the work we are doing with the building safety regulator and the ideas going forward about the level of competency to interact with buildings of different complexity and risk, we could apply a similar staged approach to how we look at the buildings to which the legislation needs to be applied. Picking up those most at risk will allow time for training to come through, and development of people to support the wider piece of work, while ensuring that the effort is focused on the buildings that we would see as highest risk.

There is further work that we need to do as a service overall on understanding what risk looks like. We have a historical risk matrix that informs the regularity with which we inspect buildings; that was based on good evidence at the time, but we have a richer understanding of risk now. We understand vulnerabilities, behaviours and lifestyles that have an equal impact on the likelihood of fire, and therefore the settings that those people may be living in. It helps us understand risk in a totally different way—understanding that this is not just our opportunity to fix high-rise living but is about the wider built environment. It is an opportunity to understand risk in a much more holistic way and ensure we are applying more rigorous inspections to those higher-risk premises, and an appropriate level of inspection to those lower down the risk register, so to speak.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab) - Hansard

Q I had a couple of questions, mainly for Mr Daly. Could I just clarify something from your opening statement? Is it your view that this Bill does not add in new types of premises or new responsibilities but is simply clarifying what should already be happening?

Dan Daly: That is certainly my understanding.

Break in Debate

Thank you. We have time for two more questions, which will be asked by Daisy Cooper followed by Karen Buck, and then the Minister may want to come in quickly at the end.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 12:20 p.m.

Q This question is to Mr Davis. In your written evidence, you talked about the standard of risk assessor training being “infinitely variable” and said that only some people may be “competent”. Could you expand on that and explain what the lowest end of being competent is, compared with the highest end, in order that we can understand what you are saying? For people at the lowest end of being qualified or competent, are you saying that they need one day’s training or two years’ training? What is the gap? If you could explain it, that would be helpful.

I also have a quick question for Mr Carpenter, following up on your last point. What do you think is the fairest way of managing the costs? I say that as an MP with constituents who are being asked to pay 20 grand or more as an up-front, one-off cost, as well as having their service charges increased sixfold. Some of them are trapped financially because they cannot fight, and they have no mechanism to raise the money that is needed to pay for the remedial work. So that is a question for each of you, quickly.

Dennis Davis: It is difficult to give you a very quick answer. There could be 50,000 people who call themselves risk assessors. Some of them will be employed by a company specific to their premises and will help to maintain the integrity of that company’s building facility etc. They will be trained, maybe on a week’s course and maybe in particular areas, and that will be their skill base and they will do that.

The fire safety order, when it was brought in, was deliberately intended to be applied by individuals if they so wished. Part of the phrasing, I think, at the time was that it was not intended by the Government to be a consultants charter. The inference from that is that you should be able to apply a lot of common sense, and the Government published a very detailed series of guides to assist in that.

So at one level you need no qualification; you can do this yourself, provided that the premises are simple. At the other end of the spectrum, you certainly would need degree-level education—level 4 and above—to be able to apply the standards to complex buildings. In addition to that, you might need a high level of granularity, as I have said, in a particular system. That might be the installation—that is, the cladding system—or the fire alarm system.

This spectrum is very wide. The problem, as we foresee it, is that there are people going around who say that they are fire risk assessors, but they do not have a qualification. They have not attended any form of course, training and so on, yet they purport to offer this service. Our worry is that the public are then placed in a situation where they think that they have received good advice, but they may not have done. There is certainly anecdotal evidence of that sort of application.

James Carpenter: One of our asks is that we want to be able to reassure housing association residents that they will not need to foot the bill for these works. Obviously, there is the £1 billion building safety fund at the moment, but that is predicated on where the viability of the owners may be threatened by funding the works themselves, and it will involve submitting a business case and so on as to why they would be at risk without support.

We are currently assessing our position. However, it would be unlikely that large associations such as L&Q would be eligible under this particular scheme, and those that are would then have to notify the Regulator of Social Housing, which may in turn result in a downgrade of their viability. We are working jointly with the G15 on this. Neither our leaseholders nor tenants should pay the price for systemic issues in relation to building safety. We need to exhaust all possible options to claim the costs, or to get those that were responsible to pay for those things. Failing that, and in the absence of Government funding, we will have no choice but to consider those legal obligations that are set out in leases with residents. However, that is the last point. We have not done it with the buildings that we have remediated; we have not done it with leaseholders, but it is there as the last resort.

Ms Karen Buck Portrait Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab) - Hansard

Q I want to return to the issue of access, because I feel that the Government underestimated fairly consistently the complexities of access, be it in respect of fire doors or the issue of retrofitting sprinklers. There were local authorities that wanted to retrofit sprinklers, and even set aside money, but were unable to do so because of this issue of uncertainty of access. Could you two give us an idea of what you feel to be the scale of the problem?

It was widely believed that leaseholders would want to co-operate, for example, after the Lakanal fire, yet lawyers were saying that as many as one in three simply did not and would not. So can you give us an idea about the scale of the problem and the complexities? In London, there are particular issues with things such as the overseas ownership of property, which makes it difficult to track the true owners of properties. Can you also comment on why enforcement is difficult, for example, for housing associations and local government, in terms of the cost and the length of time it takes to take people to court?

Break in Debate

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 12:35 p.m.

Q Mr Dobson, in my former brief as the shadow housing Minister, I worked a lot with RIBA regarding the excellent work that you have done looking at all these issues post Grenfell. Can you set out whether there is anything in the Bill and in the amendments that we have tabled that you would disagree with, and what you think “good” would look like in taking the Bill, and whatever else needs to be done, to create a fire safety system that works?

Mr Wrack, you have already set out for us quite a lot of the concerns about funding. We know that the fire service has had significant cuts over the past 10 years. Can you, again, tell us what “good” looks like in terms of how we implement the Bill? What do we need in terms of resourcing and the joined-up approach that you talked about?

Adrian Dobson: We certainly recognise that the Bill is important legislation. I will pick up on the point that Mr Wrack made on joined-up thinking. It is a piece in the jigsaw. We are still concerned about having strong and clear functioning building regulations and a proper enforcement regime. Obviously, our main expertise is in the design and construction of buildings to the point at which they are handed over to the owner or occupier, or where there is major refurbishment.

Our essential concern is the relationship between this Bill and the Building Safety Bill. The two must join together. We would support most of the provisions in this Bill, particularly giving enforcement powers to local fire services in relation to the structure and external walls of buildings, fire doors and so on. I note Mr Wrack’s point, however, that the resources must be in place to do that.

On joining the Fire Safety Bill and the Building Safety Bill, I can highlight a danger whereby gaps might exist. For example, the fire safety order talks about a “responsible person”, but the Building Safety Bill talks about an “accountable person” and a “building safety manager”. What would be the lines of communication between those roles? Are they fulfilled by the same person? There is a risk there.

Dame Judith Hackitt has been a prime driver of the content of the Building Safety Bill. She talks a lot about “the golden thread”. We are aware that the quality of information handed over at the end of construction work is often poor. If the fire service is looking at evacuation plans and wants to know what materials have been used in the building, that information is not as readily available as it should be. We would like an amendment that says that the fire service and the occupier should be entitled to accurate, as-built information. Members of the Committee are probably aware of some of the dangers in procurement when materials get changed during the design and construction process.

While we welcome the Bill, we await an improved enforcement regime in relation to building regulations and changes to the approved documents. To illustrate the importance of that, for example, the Bill talks about the need to review evacuation plans, but we know that some of the legislation around escape routes is ambiguous. We need to ensure that the two tie together.

Matt Wrack: On the question of what “good” would look like, I am approaching this from the point of view of firefighters and the fire and rescue service. For us, there must be a joined-up approach between the specialist fire safety teams and firefighters on stations.

If you look at the question of resources—unfortunately, a lot of this does come down to resources—we need a greater understanding of fire safety in the operational workforce. Unfortunately, over the past 15 or 20 years, we have seen a reduction in initial training courses to cut costs. Courses that might have been 16 weeks 20 years ago are now reduced to 13 or 12 weeks, or less than 10 weeks in some cases. There needs to be a greater understanding at the station level of fire safety risks.

There needs to be an end to the reduction in fire safety teams. Fire services that have been financially squeezed have found it easier to cut specialist fire safety teams than fire stations. I am not in favour of cutting either, but they have cut fire safety teams. We have reports of fire safety teams being cut by 25%, 50% or more over the past decade.

We need a joined-up approach between the two wings of the fire service in that respect. We need to prevent fires from happening, if we can. We need to mitigate the spread of fire where it does occur. We need to know how to fight fires when they occur—we know that they will occur. That is what we mean by a joined-up approach.

There are concerns among fire safety specialist officers about the levels of training, both at the stations and among their peers. There are concerns about refresher training. If new materials come on to the market, such as cladding, there needs to be adequate resources to enable people to be updated with the latest developments.

The final point I would make about what “good” would look like is that we need a much more joined-up approach nationally to the whole question of fire, fire policy and how we deal with fires. That means proper research. It is alarming that many firefighters and many fire services apparently did not know what was being put on to buildings. They therefore had not researched how they would inspect such buildings to be aware of the risks, for example, at Grenfell. They were also, therefore, not aware of how such fires might be tackled if necessary.

We used to have a body in the British fire service called the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, which would have addressed such matters. Sadly, it was abolished in 2004, and nothing similar has been put in place to replace it. That is what we mean by a lack of a joined-up approach, and that is what is desperately missing in the fire safety regime in Britain today.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper - Hansard
26 Jun 2020, 12:01 a.m.

Q Mr Wrack, in your written evidence, you say that

“the impact assessment ‘does not include any additional enforcement costs’”,

and you suggest that fire inspectors would need to spend

“a great deal of time and effort”

to focus on getting cases through the courts and so on. I suspect this question might be like, “How long is a piece of string?”, but in the absence of an impact assessment, can you give an estimate of your own assessment of what those additional enforcement costs might be?

Matt Wrack: I am afraid I am not able to give that. I do think that, on the question of enforcement, there have been cases of ministerial pressure to reduce the enforcement role of the fire and rescue service, which is something that Ministers need to think carefully about. Fire services have been criticised subsequently for being slow to act on their enforcement role.

The whole question of fire services’ enforcement role ties in with the more general points I have made, in that they need adequate specialist fire safety teams, and that is possibly the area, or certainly one of the areas, where we have seen the largest reductions in staffing levels, with all the knock-on concerns about training and refresher training. I am not able to answer that question directly, but I think it is very much a resource question.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter - Hansard
26 Jun 2020, 12:03 a.m.

Q Good afternoon to you both. We have heard that this Bill is a clarifying Bill rather than one that introduces new powers. Do you agree that that is its purpose, and do you think it achieves that?

The specific point that I would like you both to address is that it appears, as there is a specific mention of “external walls” in clause 1, that the Bill is directed at what we have already seen coming out of the Grenfell inquiry in relation to external cladding and cladding systems. But lots more issues have emerged from that, such as the way that buildings are constructed or modified, means of escape, alarm systems and the processes for evacuation in that way. Do you think that they are also adequately covered in the Bill or do we need other legislation? Do you think we have the means to carry out all those matters?

Adrian Dobson: There is quite a range of questions there. Essentially, in my view, the Bill is just clarifying and pointing to some key facts, as it is not fundamentally changing the nature of the approach. I could not agree more that, although it is useful to highlight the issue of external wall construction and cladding, there are lots of other known issues in relation to fire safety. For example, the Scottish schools report talks a lot about fire compartmentation and lack of proper fire barriers. You have pointed out the issue around means of escape and evacuation strategies. To return to my earlier point, I see this as only part of the jigsaw. What we desperately need is clarification of the building regulations themselves and a stronger enforcement or competency regime around that, so that the two work together.

Matt Wrack: I see the Bill as a clarifying Bill, as has been suggested. On that level, we welcome it, with some of the amendments in particular. You highlight an important point—much of the national focus is on cladding.

There is clearly a national scandal about flammable cladding being put on to buildings, but we are aware from Grenfell and other fires that there are many other failings in fire safety in buildings, particularly with the risk of the breakdown of compartmentation. Cladding is clearly one mechanism by which that happened at Grenfell, but issues around other materials used in renovations and modifications of buildings are also relevant. If people have fire resistant walls and drill holes through them, that will clearly alter the fire resistance of the compartment. All those things need to be built into a proper fire safety regime.

I do not think the Bill addresses the question of evacuation. That is obviously a huge concern to people living in high-rise residential buildings; it is also a huge concern to firefighters, who have been trained for decades in ways to fight fires in high-rise residential buildings that are based on the construction and design of those buildings. Over the past 20 years or so, those buildings have been modified in a way that was never intended, which has altered the whole structure and fire behaviour in those buildings.

In our view, there is no simple answer to the question of evacuation. Again, we raised the question of a review of evacuation at the close of stage 1 of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. We now have Government bodies looking at reviewing the evacuation policy and saying that it might take two or three years. Firefighters were apparently supposed to decide on new strategies on the night, even though the people reviewing the policy have told us that it will take them two years or more to reach such a conclusion.

I come back to my point about a joined-up approach. We should have bodies in the British fire service that take account of the views of all professionals, take account of research and develop answers to these questions as we go along. We should be horizon-scanning. There had been fires in clad buildings elsewhere in the world. It is staggering that no one in leadership positions in the British fire service or at Government level was monitoring those and seeing what should happen to alter policy in Britain.

Fire Safety Bill (Second sitting) Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Home Office
Legislation Page: Fire Safety Bill 2019-21

Fire Safety Bill (Second sitting)

(Committee Debate: 2nd sitting: House of Commons)
Daisy Cooper Excerpts
Thursday 25th June 2020

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Home Office
Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard

Thank you, Mr Streeter—Sir Gary. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I apologise. Again, I acknowledge the impatience. It is worth remembering that the Bill is a technical clarification of a fire safety order that should be functioning well in the vast majority of circumstances. Although there are respectable views about disagreements on definition within the order, which is why we are seeking to clarify it, in the end there is still someone out there who has responsibility for safety in all these buildings. Although I recognise the impatience of the hon. Lady and other hon. Members to get it under way—we share their impatience—I would give that background.

The task and finish group should be reporting by the end of September. There will be more consultation legislation on the way. I realise that the hon. Lady is suffering a little from consultation fatigue. Nevertheless, these are complex issues dealing with effectively unravelling and reknitting a huge system of building safety regulation that has grown up over many decades and needs wholescale reform. It is therefore no surprise that if we want to get this right for the future and avoid any possibility of a future Grenfell, we need to ensure that we do the detailed work, which is what we are trying to do—hence this foundation stone today.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 1

Public register of fire risk assessments

“(1) The Secretary of State must, by regulations, make provision for a register of fire risk assessments made under article 9 (risk assessment) of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541).

(2) Those regulations must provide that the register is—

(a) publicly available; and

(b) kept up-to-date.

(3) Regulations under this section are—

(a) to be made by statutory instrument; and

(b) subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”—(Daisy Cooper.)

This new clause would enable would-be renters and owners to check the fire safety status of their potential home, like the EPC register.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper (St Albans) (LD) - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:07 p.m.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 2—Public register of fire risk assessors—

“(1) The Secretary of State must, by regulations, make provision for a register of individuals who are qualified to make fire risk assessments under article 9 (risk assessment) of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541).

(2) Those regulations must provide that only persons on the register may make such assessments.

(3) Those regulations must provide that the register is—

(a) publicly available; and

(b) kept up-to-date.

(4) Regulations under this section are—

(a) to be made by statutory instrument; and

(b) subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”

This new clause would enable home owners to verify fire assessors qualified to conduct compulsory checks such as completing the EWS1 form, and would enable government and industry to assess the numbers of assessors to be trained.

New clause 7—Accreditation of fire risk assessors—

“The relevant authority must by regulations amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) to require fire risk assessors for any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises to be accredited.”

This new clause would require fire risk assessors to be accredited.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:12 p.m.

New clauses 1 and 2, which stand in my name, are fairly self-explanatory. They both call for a public register: one for assessments, and the other for assessors. The Hackitt review said that risk assessments should not only be held by building owners, but be kept centrally with a public body such as a Government-appointed regulator. Chapter 4 of the Hackitt review refers to

“the need to rebuild public trust by creating a system where residents feel informed and included in discussions on safety, rather than a system where they are ‘done to’ by others… The interim report recommended that fire risk assessments should be carried out annually and shared in an accessible way with residents.”

For something as vital as fire safety, that information should be readily accessible to current and prospective residents of the building, both for public trust and for the sake of enforcement. Of course, the most accessible way to present such assessments is on a public register. If the Government are not minded to support new clause 1, I would welcome assurances that they intend to introduce such a public register at some point.

New clause 2 would create a public register for fire risk assessors. Of the two clauses that I have tabled, this is by far the more urgent. We heard shocking evidence this morning from the FBU that there are still people calling themselves fire assessors who are going out and conducting fire assessments without being qualified to do so. The witness gave the example of a member of the union who died in a building that had reportedly been assessed by one of these non-qualified fire assessors. We cannot wait for the public register of fire risk assessors; we need it now. The practice by those who are not qualified must stop.

In 2018 the London Fire Brigade raised the issue of assessor numbers. The Fire Safety Federation talked about fears that there were overwhelming demands for ESW1 surveys. It is clear that most mortgage companies now require the ESW1 certificate before lending. Feedback from my constituents, from management agencies and from local government indicates that there is a severe shortage of professionals across the country who are insured to sign off the new survey. A new public register would not only help to build trust, but show Government and industry how many fire assessors we need to train. From the questions we asked this morning, it was clear that the current number of assessors is between 400 and 50,000. Those were the numbers we were given, which is why it is so important that we have a public register and that we have it now.

My constituents have told me about delays of between 12 and 18 months in getting ESW1 surveys, putting their lives on hold and leaving them in constant fear of living in a dangerous home. That is made all the worse for my female constituents who are pregnant and living in such homes, as well as those who fear a loss of income as we head into a pandemic recession.

My final point is that there is a precedent for both these public registers. We have a register for homes, in the form of the energy performance certificate, which operates in the same way. EPC certificates are publicly available on a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government website. There is a register for domestic energy assessors and for energy performance certificates, so there is a precedent for such registers to exist. It is a simple proposal that could be adopted in exactly the same way, but for fire safety, which, from a safety perspective, is far more vital.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard

Thank you, Sir Gary—I did wonder whether that was the correct way to address you when you are in the Chair. I also forgot to say, “It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.”

Break in Debate

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:22 p.m.

My role on this Committee is obviously becoming clear: it is to manage Members’ legitimate desire for urgent action and change, and to indicate that there is a process we need to go through in order to get this matter exactly right. I find myself in that position once again.

The fire safety order establishes a self-compliance regime. There is currently no requirement for responsible persons to record their completed fire risk assessments, save for limited provisions in respect of employers. They are simply 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 a new level of regulation upon responsible persons that could be seen as going against the core principles of the order, notably its self-regulatory and non-prescriptive approach.

There is also a question of ownership and maintenance, and where the costs of such a register would lie. A delicate balance needs to be struck. There are certainly improvements to be made, but we also need to ensure that such improvements are proportionate.

The Government acknowledge that there is work to be done to ensure that residents have access to the vital fire safety information they need in order to be safe and feel safe in their homes. People need to be assured that a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment has been completed, and that all appropriate general precautions have been taken or will be taken.

I also say to potential buyers of leasehold flats that any good conveyancing solicitor would ask for sight of the fire risk assessment from the responsible person—the freeholder—as part of their pre-contract inquiries. If the assessment was not forthcoming, one would expect that the solicitor would advise their clients accordingly and that all due inferences would be made. I can assure the Committee that the fire safety consultation will bring forward proposals for the recording of the fire risk assessment and the provision of vital fire safety information to residents.

New clause 2 would create a public register of fire risk assessors and require the fire risk assessors to be accredited. I agree that there is a clear need for reform concerning fire risk assessors, to improve capacity and standards. I understand the probing nature of the new clause, so it may be helpful to outline work that is ongoing in the area of fire risk assessor capacity and capability.

Some hon. Members will be aware of the industry-led competency steering group and its working group on fire risk assessors. The group will soon publish a report, including proposals for creating a register, third-party accreditation and a competency framework for fire risk assessors. The Government will consider the report’s recommendations in detail.

We are working with the NFCC and the fire risk assessor sector to take forward plans for addressing the short-term and long-term capability and capacity issues within the sector. I share hon. Members’ alarm at the existence of unqualified fire risk assessors; one wonders how many decades this situation has been allowed to persist unnoticed by anybody in this House or by any Government of any hue. The fire safety consultation, which will be issued shortly—I have already committed to that—will bring forward proposals on competence issues.

To summarise, the right approach is for the Government first to consider the proposals of the competency steering group and its sub-groups in relation to a register of fire risk assessors and accreditation. The Government’s position is that that work should continue to be led and progressed by the industry. I am happy to state on the record that we will work with the industry to develop it. Any future statutory requirements on fire risk assessors might be achieved through secondary legislation, which will offer us greater flexibility to add to it or amend it in the future. For those reasons, I intend to resist these new clauses.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:26 p.m.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 2

Public register of fire risk assessors

“(1) The Secretary of State must, by regulations, make provision for a register of individuals who are qualified to make fire risk assessments under article 9 (risk assessment) of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541).

(2) Those regulations must provide that only persons on the register may make such assessments.

(3) Those regulations must provide that the register is—

(a) publicly available; and

(b) kept up-to-date.

(4) Regulations under this section are—

(a) to be made by statutory instrument; and

(b) subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”—(Daisy Cooper.)

This new clause would enable home owners to verify fire assessors qualified to conduct compulsory checks such as completing the EWS1 form, and would enable government and industry to assess the numbers of assessors to be trained.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

New Clause 3

Break in Debate

Brought up, and read the First time.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:31 p.m.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 3, by my own admission, is a rather blunt instrument—I put that down to the fact that I joined the Committee at rather short notice last week. I would not want to invite the law of unintended consequences, which the new clause does slightly, and prohibit people from paying towards something that might actually help them to move house if they wanted to do so. The purpose of the new clause is to seek to draw the Government’s attention to the question of who has financial responsibility. It is one that we discussed this morning, and to which there were no clear recommendations or answers from those who gave evidence.

The Bill puts the onus for fire safety on the building owner, but not enough has been said about who should take the financial burden of the measures that follow. The fact is that, despite the responsibility of the freeholder, building insurance premiums that residents may have paid for years, valid nuclear new build warranties, financial burden—all those things—it has been shifted and shirked, and ultimately the financial burden seems to land upon their tenants and leaseholders.

In my constituency of St Albans, one residents’ association has been told that every individual leaseholder will probably face extra charges of around at least £20,000 each per flat. Some of their service charges have already increased sixfold since the tragedy of 2017. Those service charges have increased in preparation for the necessary works, and I hope that the Government will agree that in a property market that is already so financially challenging, with the pandemic recession just ahead of us, to be hit by a further bill of £20,000 is completely unacceptable and, for some, completely impossible.

More needs to be done to protect those leaseholders, and others like them around the country, from being totally and utterly financially crippled. We heard from the National Fire Chiefs Council that disputes over the liability for remediation costs are very likely without access to funding. We heard from the L&Q Group this morning that the Government should exhaust all options before passing the costs on to leaseholders, and that that needs to be done ideally through Government support. There seemed to be a lot of consensus that without Government support we will end up with very complicated lease arrangements.

Break in Debate

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:36 p.m.

Notwithstanding the fact that the hon. Member for St Albans obviously recognises that this blunt instrument, as she put it, might result in unintended consequences, not least driving a coach and horses through the notion of privacy of contract, which is a fundamental part of our economy and legal system, I recognise her aspiration and the obvious concern and distress that there has been across the country among people who have been caught in the nightmare. As the hon. Member for Croydon Central knows, as Housing Minister for 12 months I wrestled with that issue and lobbied the then Chancellor of the Exchequer with increasing ferocity that the Government should step in to assist, which we have now done. My efforts, along with those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who was then the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, managed to secure the first £600 million of the £1.6 billion now pledged for remediation of various types of cladding.

I should point out that the funding does not absolve the industry from taking responsibility for any failings that led to unsafe cladding materials being put on buildings in the first place. We still expect developers, investors and building owners who have the means to pay to take responsibility and cover the cost of remediation themselves without passing on the cost to leaseholders. We committed in a recent Government response to the building safety consultation to extend the ability of local authorities and the new regulators to enforce against building work that does not comply with the building regulations from two years to 10 years. Further details will be set out in the draft building safety Bill when it is published next month. The new regime in that Bill is being introduced to prevent such safety defects from occurring in the first place in new builds and to address systematically the defects in existing buildings. Moreover, as part of any funding agreement with Government, we expect building owners to pursue warranty claims and appropriate action against those responsible for putting unsafe cladding on the buildings. In doing that we are not only ensuring that buildings are made safe and that residents feel safe, and are safe, we are ensuring that the taxpayer does not pay for the work that those responsible should fund or can afford.

I appreciate the intent of the new clause, particularly to protect leaseholders from the very high cost of removing and replacing cladding. That is why we have made £1.6 billion available to cover the costs, particularly where experts say that they represent the highest risk, and we are working with industry to identify what funding structures would be most appropriate to help cover the cost of further remediation work. Leaseholders should not have to face unmanageable costs. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will provide an update on the work when he presents the draft building safety Bill to Parliament before the recess. I ask that Members recognise the complexity of this policy area, which cannot be solved, I am afraid, through the new clause. Indeed, it would make owners who, in some cases, would include leaseholders, responsible for funding any and all remediation work. For example, service and maintenance charges would at present meet the costs of safety work required as a result of routine wear and tear, such as worn fire door closers. Under the new clause, those costs would fall to building owners. I hope that hon. Members will agree there are more effective ways of achieving the same aim, which we all share, and I therefore hope this clause can be withdrawn.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper - Hansard

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 4

Meaning of responsible person

“In article 3 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (meaning of responsible person”), at the end of paragraph (b)(ii) insert—

‘(2) Where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises, a leaseholder shall not be considered a responsible person unless they are also the owner or part owner of the freehold.’”—(Sarah Jones.)

This new clause aims to clarify the definition of ‘responsible person’ to ensure leaseholders are not considered a responsible person unless they are also the owner or part owner of the freehold.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Fire Safety Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Daisy Cooper Excerpts
Wednesday 29th April 2020

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Home Office
Mr Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans) - Hansard

The last speaker before our half-hour suspension is Daisy Cooper.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper (St Albans) (LD) [V] - Hansard

Nearly three years after the devastation of Grenfell Tower, I and the Liberal Democrats welcome the Fire Safety Bill as a first move in the right direction—but it is only a first move, because key aspects are not addressed. As currently drafted, tenants, leaseholders, local government and the fire service will take the weight of the new legislation. The recent building safety guidance for building owners, released by the Government in January, was foisted on the sector without any real regard for the expertise and training that would be required, and without any thought about how the changes were going to be paid for and by whom.

First, let us look at the scope of the Government’s cladding scheme. The Chancellor’s announcement in the March Budget of an additional £1 billion to replace dangerous cladding was welcome, but it does not cover a whole host of further measures that buildings need to take to ensure compliance. Fire safety assessments, the replacement of fire doors, installing smoke detector systems—these are just some of the major expenses that fall outside the Government’s scheme.

Secondly, there are the financial pressures on leaseholders. The Government’s Bill today has put the onus of fire safety on the building owner, but it does not say enough about who should be taking the financial burden. In my constituency of St Albans, one residents association has been told that it will be up to individual leaseholders to face the extra charges of about £20,000 per flat for this remedial work. Some service charges have increased sixfold since the tragedy of 2017 in preparation for the necessary works. I hope that the Government will agree that hitting individuals with a bill of £20,000 at any time, but particularly now, is completely unacceptable. More needs to be done to protect them from being financially crippled.

The third issue is about fire assessments, and specifically the EWS1 survey, which seems to have brought many flat purchases to a grinding halt. Most mortgage companies now seem to require an EWS1 certificate before lending, but feedback from my constituents, their management agencies and the local authority indicates that there is a very severe shortage of professionals around the country who are insured to sign off on this new survey.

My constituents have told me of 12 to 18-month delays, where they have to put their lives on hold and are left in constant fear of living in a dangerous home. Hon. Members will of course understand the impact that a 12 to 18-month delay will have on a pregnant constituent of mine who is looking for a suitable home for her growing family, or on the pensioner living in my constituency who is relying on the sale of their property to support them in retirement. Again, this is all the more urgent for those who find themselves and their jobs in a precarious situation as a result of coronavirus.

Finally, in line with the Hackitt review, these risk assessments should not only be held by building owners, but kept centrally with a public body, such as a Government-appointed regulator or a local council.

I am asking the Government to respond to these issues as a matter of urgency. We need to ensure that the EWS1 surveys are expedited. We need to have clarity for the industry about whether existing fire safety assessments may still be valid. We need to ensure that there are enough fire safety engineers— professionals—who can implement these changes and are insured to do so. Crucially, we need the Government to say what resources will be made available so that leaseholders are not faced with crippling fees. As a House, we have a responsibility to ensure that when we say an event like Grenfell will not happen again, they are not just words. We need to see far more action.

Sitting suspended (Order, this day).