Kit Malthouse contributions to the Fire Safety Bill 2019-21


Thu 25th June 2020 Fire Safety Bill (First sitting) (Public Bill Committees)
Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons
3 interactions (118 words)
Thu 25th June 2020 Fire Safety Bill (Second sitting) (Public Bill Committees)
Committee Debate: 2nd sitting: House of Commons
54 interactions (5,568 words)

Fire Safety Bill (First sitting) Debate

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

Fire Safety Bill (First sitting)

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

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
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Home Office

I believe we are not allowed to go beyond 12.30 pm by the programme motion, but the Minister has a quick point to make.

Kit Malthouse Portrait The Minister for Crime and Policing (Kit Malthouse) - Hansard

I was just going to try to draw out some of the complexities of access, not just for fitting, but for maintenance. Just to clarify, the way the Bill is commenced will have significant effects. I draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that one thing we have done is to convene this task and finish group, which Mr Davis referred to, with the various bodies, not least the NFCC and the Fire Sector Federation on it, to devise a recommendation to the Home Office as to how the Bill should be commenced. I know we have an amendment on commencement this afternoon, but that is going to be our method of making sure we get it right.

Thank you, that is very helpful.

Gentlemen, thank you very much indeed. We have now run out of time. Thank you, Mr Carpenter and Mr Davis for excellent answers. The Committee is very grateful. We must move on to our last set of witnesses.

Examination of Witnesses

Adrian Dobson and Matt Wrack gave evidence.

Fire Safety Bill (Second sitting) Debate

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

Fire Safety Bill (Second sitting)

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

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
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Home Office
David Simmonds Portrait David Simmonds (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) (Con) - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:25 p.m.

I very much sympathise with the motivation behind the amendments, but I am unpersuaded by the argument. There is sometimes a risk of seeking to make very precise what in reality is not at all precise.

Following the Grenfell Tower disaster and the Lakanal House fire, the Local Government Association, working with local authorities across the country, commissioned a huge piece of work to try to understand the inherent risks in tall buildings, but also in other types of building in the public estate, and to learn lessons that might be relevant to the private sector.

I want to refer to a particular type of structure known as a Bison block, which is common in west London and found across my constituency, and which my local authority has spent a good amount of time examining. It is particularly relevant to amendment 2, which is seeking a very tight definition. The blocks were large panel system builds. They are quite common across the capital and in other parts of the country.

A great many of these blocks were extensively refurbished, particularly in the 1980s, because they are not especially attractive buildings and in the past there have been concerns about their structural integrity and safety. The refurbishment was undertaken by a process that we might understand as cladding. In this case, a brick skin was erected around the entire outside of the building. New windows were installed, and the structure now looks considerably more attractive than when it was first constructed.

To manage the risk of fire spreading in the cavity between the floor where a fire occurs and another floor, a steel band needs to be installed between each storey’s-worth of brick structure. It ensures that a fire that gets into that cavity cannot spread up or down. On examination following the Grenfell disaster, it was discovered that some of the window installations, for example, had been changed, which had had an impact on the integrity of the fire safety system. The banding had been constructed many years ago. The challenges of inspecting something that is inside a sealed brick structure, the natural dilapidations of time and the consequences of a small amount of heave or subsidence around the site would all have had an impact on it. That is a significant issue for those of us who are concerned about the safety of those high-rise towers.

I am concerned that the amendment, by seeking to be very precise, could open the door to our not including a number of the elements that we would see in a variety of structures around the country. I have heard the Minister speak about this before when questions have been asked of him. I am satisfied that one of the motivations behind the Government’s choice of wording was to make the definition sufficiently broad that all the issues were captured. To ensure that the definition relates to all the different, unique types of structure out there, many of which there may be little evidence of on the public record today, it may be wise not to narrow our definitions too much. We could end up with a lawyers’ bonanza of arguments about whether, for example, the provision covers the steel band structure for fire safety in a Bison block. For that reason, I am unpersuaded of the merits of the amendment.

Kit Malthouse Portrait The Minister for Crime and Policing (Kit Malthouse) - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:27 p.m.

I am very conscious, not least as the former London Assembly member for the area, that it is less than two weeks since we marked the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, which saw the worst loss of life in a residential fire since the second world war. I am sure that all those who died, the bereaved and the survivors will be in our minds as we do our work this afternoon and into the future.

On the day of the publication of the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase 1 report, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister accepted in principle all 12 recommendations addressed to the Government directly. Eleven of the recommendations will require implementation in law. The Fire Safety Bill, which will amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, is an important first step toward enacting those recommendations. As has been mentioned, the Bill is short and technical; it clarifies the scope of the order. We appreciate that this is the first Bill on fire safety since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and we intend to legislate further.

It is vital that regulatory standards and public confidence be increased across the whole system of building and fire safety. Next month we will publish a consultation on the implementation of the phase 1 recommendations that call for changes in the law, alongside proposals to strengthen other aspects of the fire safety order. I assure the Committee that the Bill is the start, not the finish, of a process through which we intend to improve the fire safety order.

Alongside the consultation, there is the building safety Bill, which will be presented in the House for pre-legislative scrutiny before the summer recess. That Bill will put in place new and enhanced regulatory regimes for building safety and construction products, and will ensure that residents have a stronger voice in the system. It will take forward the recommendations of Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building regulations and fire safety.

Our programme of work is not limited to legislation, of course. It includes establishing a remediation programme, supported by £1.6 billion of Government funding, through which we will remove unsafe cladding from high-rise residential buildings. We are undertaking, in conjunction with the fire service, a building risk review programme for all high-rise residential buildings in England by December 2021, supported by £10 million of new funding.

This Fire Safety Bill is also a move towards enhancing safety in all multi-occupied residential buildings by improving the identification, assessment and mitigation of fire risks in those buildings. It will resolve the differing interpretations of the scope of the fire safety order in such buildings and provide clarity for responsible persons and enforcing authorities under the order. It will make it clear that the order applies to the structure, external walls—including cladding—balconies and flat entrance doors in multi-occupied residential buildings.

As we heard this morning, for many, the Bill will result in operational changes that will present challenges. On Second Reading, we heard differing views from Members on how to commence the Bill, and there are also diverse stakeholder views. The Government are clear that we need to work with the industry and others to take account of the scale of the changes, and the capacity and expertise needed in the system given the volume of fire risk assessments that will need to be updated. That will have to be balanced against the need to take swift action to identify and address serious fire risks in multi-occupied residential buildings. As I said this morning, the Government have established a task and finish group to advise us on commencement.

Break in Debate

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:38 p.m.

I thank the Minister for his response. He was basically saying that amendment 2 is unnecessary, which I would challenge, because the fire service has asked for the definition and thinks that it would be an important part of the Bill. I agree with the fire service, but I take the same approach as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and hope that these matters will be looked at as we go forward.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:38 p.m.

Fundamentally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner says, we are concerned that the definitions in the amendments might have a narrowing effect. Detailed guidance offering definitions will come out as a consequence of the Bill, and obviously we will work with partners to ensure that we get that guidance right.

It is worth pointing out that this approach is consistent with that in the Housing Act 2004, which uses similarly broad definitions to ensure that the many and various varieties of housing in this country, some built over many hundreds of years, all fall within a generalised definition in guidance that is put in place later on.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:39 p.m.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:40 p.m.

As the Minister said, we recently passed the three-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. I just want to mention the letter that we will all have received from Grenfell United last night. It was not able to give evidence before us today, but it welcomes the Bill and is pushing for it to have the funding that it needs and for it to apply to all buildings. It reminded us of the fire in Canning Tower, in east London, only last week, when 100 people were evacuated. It used to be covered with Grenfell-style cladding, but that was removed last year, just in the nick of time. As the letter says, there were not any serious consequences.

The importance of the Bill is not to be underestimated. Small though it is, it is incredibly important. We support the Bill and we support clause 1. It provides clarification, although it is a shame that we could not take it a bit further with our amendments. There are many issues that we would want to bring into the Bill, but because it is too small in scale, we cannot. They include electrical safety—people are keen for us to talk about that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith mentioned it. We tried to have some of those issues included in the Bill, but they are not within its scope. There is a huge raft of issues beyond that of cladding—important as it is—that we must address, through the building safety Bill and subsequent measures.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:41 p.m.

The hon. Lady is right to raise with me whether there is a need to address the issue of cabling and ducting in buildings. That was raised with me when I was Housing Minister, and I hope that I have explained that there will be opportunities to look at that quite soon, in more comprehensive measures to follow. For the moment, the Bill is a small, tight, technical one, which creates the foundational stone on which we will build an entirely new regulatory and fire safety regime, which must be coherent. We must therefore proceed step by step. I fully appreciate the comments that Members have made, and they will be fed into the next stage of our work, and the consultation, which will be issued next month.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Power to change premises to which the Fire Safety Order applies

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:42 p.m.

I beg to move amendment 3, in clause 2, page 1, line 21, at end insert—

‘(aa) for the purpose of changing or clarifying any of articles 2 to 22 or 38 of the Order’.

This amendment aims to ensure that the key articles of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 can be amended to account for the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry Phase 1 and subsequently the Phase 2 recommendations and changes that may be brought about by the forthcoming Building Safety Bill.

Break in Debate

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:48 p.m.

Briefly, it is very important that there is the closest possible alignment between the Bill and what emerges from the Grenfell inquiry. We have had phase 1 of the inquiry, which dealt with what happened on the night. Phase 2 is coming, albeit not for some time. It relates to the wider issues of concern around building safety, and of course there is further legislation coming about building safety.

We heard evidence this morning from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Fire Brigades Union. Despite their very different perspectives and experiences, they were essentially saying the same thing: that Grenfell has exposed not just the really criminal action of putting highly combustible material on the outside of tower blocks, but the huge weaknesses and inadequacies in the system, causing us to look again at the whole way in which building safety works.

Just one example of that is the stay put policy. Most experts will say, “Well, the stay put policy is still in effect.” That may be literally true, in the sense that for most blocks that do not have combustible cladding and where compartmentalisation works, it may be the opinion of experts—whether they are from the fire service, are building experts, or others—that it is safer to stay in a flat than to leave it while the fire is contained within a single flat in a high-rise block, but try telling that to the occupants of that block post Grenfell.

The Leader of the House made comments about the evacuation of Grenfell Tower that were not just unhelpful but disrespectful; he asked whether people were right to stay in Grenfell Tower in that way. A senior Member of this House has raised doubts about whether it is sensible to stay. If a fire is known to be occurring, people will try to exit the tower block.

Any review of the stay put policy will look at the way that evacuation procedures, alarm systems and sprinkler systems worked. Recommendations coming out of the Grenfell inquiry should be reflected in the Bill. That is my only point.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:49 p.m.

The amendments seek broad delegated powers to amend key articles of the fire safety order: articles 2 to 22, in parts 1 and 2 of the order, which relate to the interpretation of the order and to fire safety duties; and article 38, a miscellaneous article relating to a further duty on the responsible person to concern themselves with the maintenance of measures for the protection of firefighters. The amendments also seek to enable changes to be made to the fire safety order by secondary legislation, rather than primary legislation, that are consequential to changes made by other regulations. The amendments build on the delegated power in clause 2 of the Bill, under which it is proposed that the order can be amended for the purpose of changing or clarifying the premises to which it applies, and can allow for consequential provision to be made. I have already set out the purpose and limitations of that power.

The fire safety order already has a delegated power under article 24, which enables the Secretary of State to make regulations on the precautions that are to be taken or observed in relation to the risk to relevant persons. That can be used to provide additional fire precaution requirements over and above those already required under the order.

Although powers that enable legislation to be expedited when needed, and with the appropriate scrutiny, have clear benefits, the Government’s view is that it would not be appropriate to ask Parliament to delegate legislative power in the manner proposed. I have made the point already that this is a short and technical Bill. We intend to legislate further. The Government will shortly publish the second of our fire and building safety Bills, the building safety Bill. Alongside this, there will be pre-legislative scrutiny: we will publish a fire safety consultation, which will set out our proposals for strengthening the fire safety order and improving compliance on all regulated premises, leading to greater competence and accountability.

We will also implement the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s phase 1 report, which calls for new requirements to be established in law to ensure the protection of residents in multi-occupied residential high-rise buildings, with some proposals applying to multi-occupied residential buildings of any height.

As the Committee has heard, the Government are taking further steps to ensure that the fire safety order continues to be fit for purpose, as part of our consideration of reform of the wider building safety landscape. The consultation will propose changes to strengthen the order in a number of areas to improve fire safety standards. It will also seek further evidence and implement further legislation if required.

Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report examining the events of the night of 14 June—the night of the Grenfell Tower fire—was exhaustive. Of the 46 recommendations made in the inquiry’s first report, 12 were addressed to the Government directly, with 11 requiring legislative changes. They relate primarily to a number of prescriptive safety measures and checks, to be undertaken by building owners and managers. The Prime Minister accepted the principle of these recommendations on publication of the report in October last year.

Subject to the outcome of the consultation, our intention is to deliver, where possible, the Grenfell inquiry recommendations through secondary legislation under the fire safety order. Where an amendment to the order is required through primary legislation, we intend to do that in the building safety Bill. That Bill will also cover the consequential amendments that will be required to the fire safety order to ensure that the Bill, when enacted, and the order align and interact with each other. We will ensure that the legal frameworks and supporting guidance provide clarity for those operating in this area, and bring about the outcomes sought across the fire and building safety landscape.

The hon. Member for Croydon Central mentioned having a single point of responsibility, and that is very much on our minds. Intensive work is going on between the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and with the wider sector, to ensure that there is no confusion as to who is the responsible individual.

One of the key principles that came out of Dame Carol’s review—I mean Dame Judith’s review; Dame Carol’s review is about drugs, which is also within my portfolio—was the need for the point of responsibility to be transparent and known to everybody. It is a key part of the proposals, and I have no doubt that it will form part of the consultation and, therefore, the legislation that will follow.

Sir Gary, I hope that explanation is enough to allow the Committee to be content for the amendment to be withdrawn.

We will see.

Break in Debate

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:57 p.m.

I will be brief. I want to make a point about finances and resources, and it seems fitting to mention that as we debate clause 2. We heard a lot of evidence this morning about the need for proper resourcing. We heard from L&Q about the extraordinary amount of money that it and its colleagues will have to spend in the housing association sector on removing cladding. Although the Government’s £1 billion fire safety fund is welcome, that will not be anywhere near enough.

As for enforcement of the legislation, the fire service has had significant cuts, as was outlined excellently in the Fire Brigades Union’s written evidence to the Committee, particularly around inspection, where we need to beef up the resources. We will need a lot more fire risk assessors. We will have to try to fund all that. There is a point to be made about what the Home Office has done about the cost, because the resources are not anywhere near enough. That is all I want to say, but it is a really important point that the Government will have to grapple with.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:57 p.m.

I recognise Members’ impatience for us to get the measure through as quickly as possible and to put the new regime in place, not least because it will take time to bed in. There will be not only structural change, but cultural change in various parts of the building safety world. The Bill is a start. There will be a consultation shortly. The Bill will be scrutinised before the summer recess. There will be a flurry of activity. On the point made by the hon. Member for Croydon Central about coherence between Departments, as Housing Minister I recognise that issue, and she will be pleased to know that the old sparring partner of the hon. Member for Hammersmith—I am not sure he will be pleased—and former leader of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham is now the joint Minister between the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. He has responsibility for fire, albeit in the Lords, which is why I am here today.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Extent, commencement and short title

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:58 p.m.

I beg to move amendment 6, in clause 3, page 2, line 25, after “may” insert “not”.

This amendment seeks to ensure that the Bill be brought into force at the same time for all buildings it will apply to, rather than adopting a staged approach that may make arbitrary distinctions between similar premises.

This amendment is slightly controversial, in that there are different ways to interpret it. It seeks to ensure that the Bill is brought into force at the same time for all the buildings that it will apply to, rather than us adopting a staged approach that may make arbitrary distinctions between similar premises. Some might have concerns about the amendment; the National Housing Federation—the only organisation that responded to all the amendments in writing, which is very impressive—is worried that if we bring everything into the scope of the Bill straight away, there will be a capacity issue. I understand that, but I will explain the thinking behind the amendment.

I have heard from several organisations that the Home Office was looking at perhaps bringing into scope buildings over 18 metres first, and then other types of buildings. The view put to me was that that is slightly arbitrary and not the best way to approach the issue. We heard this morning about the risk-based approach, which had its infancy and was undertaken excellently in my borough of Croydon, rather than people there saying, “We will do this set of buildings first and then this set of buildings.” People who knew what they were doing were trusted to look first at the areas that were most problematic.

I suspect that the Minister will say, “We have set up a task and finish group that will look at how all of this works,” but I think it important to make the point in Committee that we do not want an arbitrary approach or something that will take years. We potentially face the need to carry out risk assessments for hundreds of thousands of buildings, which will take time. The best approach is to look at it through the eyes of the experts who will decide how to manage that challenge, which is why we tabled the amendment.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:04 p.m.

We acknowledge that clarification of the scope of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 will represent operational change for many, particularly responsible persons, who, as the hon. Lady said, will need to update their fire risk assessments to include external walls and flat entrance doors. The Bill will also have an impact on the fire sector, fire risk assessors and other competent professionals, such as fire engineers, who are needed to assist the responsible person in complying with the order.

We acknowledge that there are capacity and capability issues, particularly in relation to assessing the risk for external walls. This is not just the Government speaking, but a number of organisations from the fire sector, local authorities and housing associations. The Government are committed to ensuring that we commence the Bill in a way that is workable across the system, while ensuring that swift action is taken to address the most significant fire safety risks.

That is why, as I mentioned this morning, we have established a task and finish group—co-chaired by the Fire Sector Federation and the National Fire Chiefs Council—that will be responsible for providing a recommendation on how the Bill should be commenced. The group will advise on the optimal way to meet the Bill’s objective of improving the identification assessment of fire risks in multi-occupied blocks and addressing them as soon as possible to ensure resident safety while also effectively managing any operational impact.

The task and finish group is made up of representatives from the early adopters group on building safety at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government; private sector developers; the fire sector; the NFCC; and a number of fire and rescue services. The group is expected to report no later than the end of September. It is tasked with providing a recommendation based on an assessment of the evidence and on their knowledge and expertise, which the hon. Member for Croydon Central said was preferable.

We expect that recommendation to address how the highest-risk buildings should be prioritised for assessment of the composition of, and risk associated with, their cladding systems. Ministers will consider the advice and make a final decision. The amendment would remove the ability to make regulations that enable the Bill’s provisions to be commenced on different days for different purposes. That is, it removes the possibility of using regulations to ensure a staged commencement. I make no comment on whether and how the commencement might be staged, but the Government will not prejudge the advice of the task and finish group, or support any restrictions on the ability of the Secretary of State and Welsh Ministers to make informed decisions about when and how regulations are made to commence the provisions in the Bill.

I am particularly conscious that this morning the hon. Lady raised the issue of individuals who might, because of a sudden commencement, find themselves in some kind of limbo, and be unable to undertake property transactions for many years, given the scale of what is required. Notwithstanding that risk is the primary concern, some of those issues will have to be taken into consideration. I hope that gives the Committee a suitable explanation as to why the amendment should be withdrawn.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:05 p.m.

I will withdraw the amendment on the basis that there will be a task and finish group, but I stress that we have had a lot of groups, conversations and consultations. In my previous role in housing, we had 60 consultations on leasehold reform, yet we still do not have leasehold reform. We need to push this forward. Having some sense of when the Bill will commence and how it will be implemented would be helpful. It would also be helpful to know the implementation date, because that is not set out in the Bill. There is a lot of uncertainty, and we are putting a lot of faith in the experts and in the Minister to get this done as quickly as possible, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:06 p.m.

Very briefly—although, we are now doing well for time—I want to reiterate the point about the Bill not having a date for when the new requirements will come into force, aside from what is implemented and when. The Bill allows the Secretary of State to choose a date that is considered appropriate, and that makes us uncomfortable. Again, we need to do this as quickly as possible, because these are literally matters of life and death. That is the biggest issue with the clause; other than that, I am happy.

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.

Break in Debate

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:13 p.m.

It is good to get these things right.

I welcome the two new clauses proposed by the hon. Member for St Albans, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats. We are coming from the same place and we all accept that having fire risk assessors who are not necessarily qualified in any way is completely unacceptable. We need to get to grips with that for many reasons, including those that she mentioned.

The register of fire risk assessments is slightly challenging because it would take a long time to get the assessments, to get it up and running and to get it done. That may be something for the future, but not now. Having a public register of fire risk assessors is a way of dealing with the problem. It is similar to our new clause 7, which is about having an accreditation system for fire risk assessors. That is probably one of the most important elements of our concern, and it was raised by Members on both sides of the House on Second Reading. I raised that concern in a conversation with the Minister and Lord Greenhalgh when I was first appointed, and I know that the Government are looking at it.

It is remarkable that there is currently no legal duty to have any kind of qualification before becoming a fire risk assessor. It could be argued that some parts of the role are relatively straightforward, such as checking whether there are obstructions in the way of fire exits. The Bill introduces the need for an understanding of the nature of cladding; what it is made of and how it works. There is absolutely no way someone could assess that without being qualified.

Concerns have been raised for many years about private sector involvement, lack of qualification and a “race to the bottom” mentality. The fact that anyone can set up as a fire risk assessor to assess schools or care homes cannot be defended.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard

It is shocking.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard

I agree; it is shocking.

We have all seen examples, and one was given to us this morning. In 2017 an independent fire risk assessor was given a four-month jail sentence when a court described his assessment of a Cheshire care home as “woefully inadequate”. In the same year, a private hire safety consultant was found to have given valueless risk assessments to several businesses in south Wales, putting people at serious risk of death because of poor escape routes, a lack of fire alarms and insufficient precautions to reduce fire and the spread of fire. In 2012 a fire risk assessor in Nottingham was fined £15,000 after it was found that fire precautions in two hotels he assessed were inadequate, potentially putting hundreds of lives at risk. I suspect there is much inadequacy that we do not know about because it has not come to light.

Therefore, what do we do about this? We propose a fire risk assessor accreditation system. There are ways of easily mapping skill levels and the competence of individuals that are used across many sectors. We could look at those and work with the experts to find the right balance. For many years, the further education sector has used regulated qualifications to train the workforce. Vocational qualifications, which have been around for many years, have been the main way of demonstrating that an individual has met a certain standard. I spoke at length to the chief executive of the British Woodworking Federation, who sits on the Build UK WG2 competence of installers working group in Government, which is looking at some of these issues and mapping the competence of an installer following the Hackitt review. It is looking at third-party certification routes, continuous professional development and different things that would be possible. There are relatively straightforward options through the Health and Safety Executive, Ofqual—there are all sorts of ways to do this.

In anticipation that the Minister might not accept the new clause, I ask him to take this matter seriously and accept that there is a problem that we must do something about. I also ask him to see it in the round with what on earth happens if it takes a long period of time to try to build up workforce expertise, with people potentially living in buildings without the piece of paper that tells them they can get insurance and mortgages, as the hon. Member for St Albans said. This job must be done—whether it is done now is for the Minister to decide—and it must be done sooner rather than later, to avoid deaths in the future.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:20 p.m.

I agree with these sensible new clauses, because they would remedy the defects identified by the FBU and others in how the system currently works, by professionalising it and taking it seriously. Having said that, they would create another requirement to be actioned by the Government. Whether the Government accept the new clauses or not, I am sure that they wish to see fire risk assessments and mediation carried out properly and efficiently.

We heard evidence this morning from the Fire Safety Federation and the head of fire safety at the L&Q Group about how the system is working—or not working—in practice. Whether the Minister accepts the requirements, we seriously need to address the current investigation process. I say this with no disrespect to the witnesses, but I was not filled with confidence by them saying that the processes of assessment must be looked at, with is done either through the enforcers, the owners and the Government coming together, or through everyone doing their own bit, because it is simply not working at the moment.

I gave the example, which I will briefly amplify, of a block of some 400-plus flats owned by Notting Hill Genesis, a big housing association in London, with which some issues to be resolved have been found. Those issues are not the most serious issues; there is some timber construction and some cladding on the building. Most of the building is constructed of brick. The effect was that the building perhaps did not have as high a priority as more dangerous structures. The effect of that has been to set out for all residents, including those leaseholders who have sold or are trying to sell their properties, a process that goes through six separate stages: initial survey, survey review, developer engagement, project planning, specification and tender, and remedial works. That process could take as little as 16 months or up to 42 months, and only at the end of it would an EWS1 form be issued. I thought that was bad enough, but we heard from the head of fire safety at L&Q that they expect it to be 10 years before all the buildings in London are dealt with.

That situation cannot be allowed to continue, so I ask the Minister to ensure, when he looks at the issues raised by the new clauses, that we have competent and professional assessment of risk, and proper processes to carry out those assessments. We must also look at the speed at which that work is done, because the Government have found it necessary during the covid crisis, and previously during the housing crisis, which we see particularly in London but which exists generally across the country, to intervene with measures that help people either to get on the housing ladder, to upscale or to move; there need to be different types of packages in that regard.

That is needed here and now. This matter cannot be left to the relationship between leaseholders or tenants and their landlords or owners at the end of the building process; it must be for the Government to address. Otherwise, in what is already an extremely depressed and fractured housing market, this situation will cause further delay and misery. It is not just a case of people being forced to stay in properties that they do not want to stay in—they want to move, perhaps because their family is growing, or because they want to take up a job in another part of the country. This situation is causing real financial and social distress. That may be an unintended consequence of what is designed to be an efficient process, but the process is simply not working at the moment.

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.

Break in Debate

I call on the Minister to read out his brief. [Laughter.]

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:35 p.m.

Sir Gary, the hon. Member for Hammersmith knows the impositions put on Ministers of the Crown as to what they can and cannot say in public. Legal interpretations emanate from their words, such is the importance of the things that we say in this place, and many legal cases have been decided on the words, imprecise or otherwise, of a Government Minister in a Committee such as this, so we try very hard to be precise. I should point out that, although I previously had responsibility for this portfolio when I was Housing Minister, I am covering for a Minister who is shielding at the moment. Hence I have to make sure that the words I use are broadly those that he would use as well.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter - Hansard

rose—

Break in Debate

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:34 p.m.

I was seeking to flatter the Minister. We not only want to hear from the civil servants; we also want to hear from him.

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.

Break in Debate

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard

New clause 4 also relates to leaseholders, and I think what it proposes is quite straightforward, easy to do and something that the Government could put on the face of the Bill relatively easily.

On Second Reading, the definition of a responsible person was raised again by Members from across the House. There were worries about the ambiguity of that definition, and about the risk that the responsible person might seek to use any such confusion or ambiguity to avoid their responsibilities under the Bill. There is a worry that leaseholders might be defined as the responsible person, which they are not unless leaseholders have collectively bought the freehold; that model is not used much, but it does exist. The point of this new clause is simply to ensure that unless that model exists—unless leaseholders have bought the freehold—leaseholders are not the responsible person. It is a relatively straightforward clause, and I cannot see that it would cause any problems.

I suspect that new clause 5 is a probing one, because there are many complex types of buildings, with different types of ownership within them. A block may well contain council housing, housing associations, leaseholders, and—although not part of the Bill—commercial premises within residential premises. All those different types of ownership within a block creates a complex situation when it comes to making the “responsible person” responsible for ensuring the safety assessment is done for the entire building. This clause is a question and challenge to the Government: how will the Bill work when we have all these levels of complexity, including commercial premises, different types of residential premises and different problems with access? This relates in part to some of the issues we were talking about this morning, such as getting access to domestic properties, but there are blocks in my constituency where half of the block is housing association, and half is a mix of all kinds of other private housing. We are worried about how that is going to work in real life when this legislation is introduced, so that is the point of new clause 5.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard

The fire safety order places the onus on the responsible person to identify and mitigate fire risks. For the most part, it engages responsibility for fire safety in line with the extent of control over a premises or part of a premises. That is the underlying principle.

In multi-occupied residential buildings, the leaseholder of a flat is unlikely to be a responsible person for the non-domestic premises. The exceptions to this would be where they own or share ownership of the freehold, as is acknowledged in new clause 4. However, the leaseholder can be a duty holder under article 5 of the order. This will be determined according to the circumstances in any particular case. This Bill does not change that arrangement; it does, of course, clarify that the order applies to the flat entrance doors. Depending on the terms of a lease or tenancy agreement, responsibility to ensure the door complies with the requirements of the order could therefore fall to the responsible person for the building, having retained ownership of the doors, or the tenant or leaseholder as a duty holder. The lease can also be silent.

Legislating for the removal of the leaseholder as a responsible person, or indeed duty holder, would undermine the principles of the order. It could leave a vacuum when it comes to responsibilities under the order, and therefore compromise fire safety. However, as part of our intention to strengthen the fire safety order, we will test further some of the relevant current provisions of the order with regards to flat entrance doors in order to support compliance, co-operation and, if necessary, enforcement actions. The NFCC has offered to support these considerations; again, the fire safety consultation is the right place for us to take such matters further. The Government are committed to ensuring that sufficient guidance and support is given to those regulated by the order. That is why the Home Office, working alongside our stakeholders, has established a guidance steering group that will be responsible for recommending, co-ordinating and delivering a robust and effective review of all the guidance provided under the order.

Article 9 of the fire safety order currently requires all responsible persons or duty holders to complete a “suitable and sufficient” fire risk assessment to ensure the fire safety of the premises for which they are responsible. Where there are multiple responsible persons in one premises, the order requires them to co-operate and co-ordinate with all other persons in order to enable compliance

Break in Debate

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter - Hansard
29 Jun 2020, 12:05 a.m.

I will get it right before the end.

I have a brief comment about new clause 9, which goes to the heart of our discussion. It says that where there are

“two…sets of domestic premises, an inspector must prioritise the premises which they consider to be at most risk”.

That echoes what Mr Carpenter, the head of fire safety at L&Q, said in evidence this morning, and it must be right. It also mirrors the debate that we are having about covid-19 and the balance between the health implications and the economic implications. If all our eggs are put into the basket of buildings where there is believed to be a singular risk or multiple risks, there will be all the consequences we have already discussed relating to delays to sale and so on for buildings with a more marginal risk that nevertheless need remedial work. The Government have to grasp that dichotomy and say how they propose to deal with it.

At the moment individual landlords are dealing with it in their own way. My local authority, for example, has gone far beyond what are considered to be minimum standards. It has something called a fire safety plus programme, which means that fire safety experts visit tenants to check electrical and fire detection appliances. They replace white goods for free if they are faulty. I referred earlier to problems with flame failure devices, where gas leaks can occur, and the authority has now incorporated checks of all gas devices into annual boiler checks.

Some responsible landlords, and particularly social landlords such as Hammersmith and Fulham Council, take those responsibilities seriously and prioritise those matters. However, that has to happen across the board and not be left to landlords’ good will, as it were, or their responsible action. It has to be something that the Government enforce. It would be useful to include that with new clause 9 and provide for such prioritisation in the relevant circumstances. However—and yes, this is cake-and-eat-it, but this is a cake-and-eat-it Government, so I am sure they can incorporate it—we cannot forget those tenants or leaseholders who are at the back of the queue and who, as Mr Carpenter said at column 14 in the first sitting of the Committee, may be waiting 10 years for remedial work to take place. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that—both whether he agrees with the content of new clause 9 with respect to prioritisation, and what he would do as a consequence.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:57 p.m.

As the hon. Member for Croydon Central has pointed out, the Prime Minister has accepted the outcome of the Grenfell inquiry. However, Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report stated that his recommendation should command the support of those with experience of the matters to which they relate. That means that we need to make sure that everyone is on board with the proposals as we take them forward.

Our intention is to enact the proposals, subject to the views of the consultation, under article 24, which specifically requires the Secretary of State to

“consult with such persons or bodies of persons as appear to him to be appropriate.”

Once again I acknowledge the impatience of the hon. Lady and everyone else in the Committee to get on with it, and get the Grenfell inquiry measures in place, but there are stages that we need to go through to make sure that we get the measures right and to ensure that the changes made to building safety will be cultural as well as legislative and structural. That is an issue that became clear during my time as Housing Minister. The entire sector has to acknowledge its moral and legal duties for the safety of those in its care, whether that is in the design, building, management or maintenance of properties. That means we need to make sure everyone is bought in.

On new clause 9, I do not dispute the need to ensure that resources and enforcement activity are targeted, but I dispute the need for legislation to do so. Fire and rescue authorities are in the business of managing risk and are accountable for how they do so. 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 order. It sets out the expectation that FRAs will target their resources on those individuals or households at greatest risk from fire in the home and on those non-domestic premises where the life safety risk is greatest. In parallel, the regulators’ code states that all regulators should base their regulatory activities on risk, take an evidence-based approach to determine the priority risks in their area of responsibility, and allocate resources where they would be most effective in addressing those priority risks.

We acknowledge the vital work that local FRAs do and the NFCC has done, and will continue to do, to ensure that building owners are taking all necessary steps to make sure that those living in high-rise buildings are safe and feel safe to remain in their homes.

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 those buildings most at risk. It will also provide reassurance to residents that the risks in their buildings have been assessed and appropriate action has been taken.

Break in Debate

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 4:04 p.m.

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

New clause 8 refers to an issue about waking watch that has been raised with us many times by struggling leaseholders. The aim of the new clause is to clarify exactly when a waking watch must be in place and when one should not be. We have seen since Grenfell that this involves a huge number of buildings; tens of thousands of people are living in blocks where some kind of remediation work is necessary and so a waking watch has been put in place. There are lots of concerns about waking watch in general. How qualified are the people doing the job, and are there enough of them? Is it a suitable alternative to the work that needs to be done?

Many leaseholders have told us that there are conflicting instructions on whether people should have waking watch, depending on where you are and which block you live in. The National Fire Chiefs Council says that waking watch should be temporary, but there are residents living in blocks that have had a waking watch for nearly three years, at huge cost. I have spoken to leaseholders who are paying £14,000 a year for the waking watch. In one galling case, residents on the block spent £700,000 on waking watch, but when the building was tested, it was found to be safe, so they spent a lot of money collectively for something that they never actually needed in the first place.

We will clearly not remove all the cladding that needs to be removed for some time, given that the issue it is not just ACM cladding, but HPL and other forms, too. Those things take time and we do not have enough people to do the work. What will happen in that time? Do people really have to pay that much money for that long when, in some areas, people are told they need a waking watch, and in others, they are not? Other questions remain about whether people can have other alarm systems that would mean not paying as much. People are going bankrupt paying for something that is supposed to be temporary but is not needed or the best thing for them to do.

Through the new clause, we are saying to the Government that this issue has been raised many times. There is inconsistency about the waking watch and how it is applied. In any case, it is not supposed to be in place for only a short period, not three years. The issue was raised by Government Members on Second Reading and has been raised in housing questions for some time. We want a system where it is clear what waking watch is for and what it is not for, to resolve inconsistencies.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 4:08 p.m.

I should start by acknowledging the issue of waking watch. It is obviously very serious. In my previous position as Housing Minister, I met a number of groups that were struggling to pay for waking watch. I will speak later about what the Government are doing to support its proper use. I acknowledge the issue the hon. Member for Croydon Central raised, and I am sorry for the particular story she pointed to. However, expanding the scope of the Bill with this new clause is not the best way to achieve what she seeks.

There are significant issues with the wording of the new clause. First, it would introduce a regulation-making power that “must” be exercised to amend the fire safety order. Further, the term “fire safety failings” is very broad and subject to interpretation. There could be several circumstances where there is a fire safety failure that would not warrant the imposition of a waking watch—for example, cases where only a faulty fire door or smoke detector needed replacing. In such circumstances, swift remedial action can be undertaken, but the wording makes no distinction between fire safety failures.

Aside from the wording, we oppose putting this provision in primary legislation in any event. A decision on the use of waking watch is a matter for the responsible person when considering how to achieve compliance in particular premises. That decision must factor in the circumstances of the premises and other fire protection measures in place. Auditing for compliance is ultimately an operational issue, best dealt with by the relevant enforcing authority on a case-by-case basis. Specific circumstances will dictate what form of remedial action is necessary. The fire safety order already provides for an appropriate enforcement action to be taken. To impose a prescriptive legislative requirement of this type would be unhelpful and, worse, potentially inhibit an enforcing authority from taking the most appropriate action.

We are, however, taking forward work in conjunction with the NFCC on waking watches; it might reassure Members if I outlined it briefly. First, the NFCC is updating its guidance on waking watches. Once that guidance is available, we will ask fire protection boards to advise fire and rescue services on how best to ensure the guidance is implemented on the ground by responsible persons. That will include looking into other measures, such as installing building-wide fire alarm systems to reduce the dependency on waking watches wherever possible.

We are also looking to publish data on the costs of waking watches. That will ensure transparency on the range of costs, so that comparisons can be clearly made. Our aim is to help reduce the over-reliance on waking watch and, where it is necessary, reduce costs.

Furthermore, as Committee members may be aware, we are already working with the NFCC and fire and rescue services to undertake a building risk review programme on all high-rise residential buildings of 18 metres and above in England, which will ensure that all such buildings are inspected or reviewed by the fire service by the end of next year. It should give residents in high-rise blocks greater assurance that fire risks have been identified and action taken to address them, reducing the need for waking watches and other interim measures.

Essentially, we find ourselves in the same argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner has raised on a number of occasions: by being prescriptive, we create a situation where anomalies may occur and lacunae open up in the fire safety framework, of which this foundational Bill is meant to be the keystone—or whatever firm word we want to use—for the future. For that reason, we hope that this new clause will also be withdrawn.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard

Heaven forbid that lacunae should open up! I immediately withdraw the new clause. I completely understand the point about this being a matter for the responsible person. The issue is that the freeholder is the responsible person, and the leaseholder is the one who has to pay, so there is a problem there.

I welcome the work that the Government are doing in trying to shine a light on some of the issues about costs; we have heard all kinds of accounts of different costs for the same job, so shining some light on that would be helpful. I think this is an issue that needs to be pushed, but I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chair do report the Bill to the House.

Colleagues, we have done well. If anyone wishes to say anything pleasant about officials at this stage, that is the usual course of events.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse - Hansard

Strangely, the officials have not provided me with a script of nice things to say about them. First, I am obviously grateful to all Members of the Committee for the constructive way in which our proceedings have taken place and to you, Sir Gary, for your benign chairmanship.

This is obviously a difficult and complex piece of work, and while we see the emanation of it in the clauses and the various bits of legislation that come before us, a whole team of officials at both the Home Office and MHCLG has been beavering away on this for some time, engaging with various industry groups and often with affected residents who are in distress, in as sensitive and proportionate a way as possible. I know the Committee express their appreciation for all that work as well.

I hope, as we move into the next phase of this very important journey and this enormous reform to the system, we can continue with not only that very forensic work that officials have done to put us in this position, but the collegiate and co-operative political atmosphere. As I say, this is a situation that, unfortunately, has arisen over a number of decades, under Governments of all colours, and it behoves us all as a political class to put it right.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 4:15 p.m.

I will be brief; my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has put her jacket on, so I know it is time. I thank the officials who have helped me to find my way through this, not least when the House adjourned at 5.30 pm on Monday instead of 10.30 pm as normal, since that was the deadline by which we had to table amendments. There was a particular pickle at that moment, but the officials were incredibly helpful. Thank you, Sir Gary, for your chairmanship.

I will finish by saying again that we welcome this piece of legislation. We wish things had gone a lot further and faster. There is a lot more to be done, and we are very hungry to see it done and happy to help the Government in any way we can to get it done. We all keep top of mind the people who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire. That is what we are here for, and we must therefore act as quickly and as well as we can.