Sarah Jones 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
19 interactions (3,336 words)
Thu 25th June 2020 Fire Safety Bill (First sitting) (Public Bill Committees)
Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons
23 interactions (3,717 words)
Thu 25th June 2020 Fire Safety Bill (Second sitting) (Public Bill Committees)
Committee Debate: 2nd sitting: House of Commons
67 interactions (5,263 words)
Wed 29th April 2020 Fire Safety Bill (Commons Chamber)
2nd reading: House of Commons
3 interactions (1,565 words)

Fire Safety Bill

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

(1 week, 5 days ago)

Commons Chamber
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Home Office

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) (Lab) - Hansard

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

Dame Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton) - Hansard

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 2—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.

New clause 3—Inspectors: prioritisation—

‘In discharging their duties under article 27 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (powers of inspectors) in relation to any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises, an inspector must prioritise the premises which they consider to be at most risk.’

This new clause would require the schedule for inspecting buildings to be based on a prioritisation of risk, not an arbitrary distinction of types of buildings.

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.”’

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.

New clause 5—Waking watch—

‘The relevant authority must by regulations amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) to specify when a waking watch must be in place for any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises and which has been found to have fire safety failings.’

This new clause would require the UK Government (for England) and the Welsh Government (for Wales) to specify when a waking watch must be in place for buildings with fire safety failures.

Amendment 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

‘(1C) Where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises, the things to which this order applies includes electrical appliances.

(1D) The reference to electrical appliances means any appliances specified by Order made by the relevant authority.

(1E) Schedule 1 of the Fire Safety Act 2020 shall apply to paragraphs (1C) and (1D).’

This amendment would clarify that the Fire Safety Order applies to electrical appliances.

New schedule 1—

‘1 The relevant authority must, no later than 12 months after the date on which this Act is passed, make regulations specifying the electrical appliances covered by paragraph (1D) of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

2 The relevant authority must, no later than 12 months after the date on which this Act is passed, make regulations to amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (“the Order”) as follows—

(a) to require the responsible person for premises to which the Order applies to—

(i) carry out electrical safety checks of such type as may be prescribed by the Order at such frequency as may be so prescribed (being no less frequently than every 5 years) at each set of domestic premises, regardless of whether the occupier is a tenant of the responsible person;

(ii) keep records of the checks for such period as may be prescribed by the Order and make them available upon request to such persons as may be so prescribed;

(iii) keep a register of such kinds of electrical appliances as may be prescribed by the Order that are kept in each set of domestic premises, regardless of whether the occupier is a tenant of the responsible person;

(iv) check whether those electrical appliances are the subject of a recall notice under paragraph 12 of the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 2016.

(b) to require occupiers of such premises to—

(i) provide access to premises and allow action to remedy any failure to meet safety standards identified in a safety check carried out in accordance with sub-paragraph (a)(i);

(ii) provide the relevant responsible person with information about electrical appliances prescribed in accordance with sub-paragraph (a)(iii) and kept in the premises;

(iii) comply with any reasonable requirement made by the responsible person in relation to electrical appliances which the responsible person has reason to believe are the subject of a recall notice under paragraph 12 of the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 2016.

3 Regulations made under paragraph 2 may—

(a) confer a power to enter premises on such persons as may be prescribed in the Order for such purposes connected with the requirements imposed under the regulations as may be so prescribed.

(b) create offences;

(c) amend the definition of “responsible person” in article 6 of the Order;

(d) make such consequential, supplementary or incidental provision by way of amendments to the Order as the relevant authority considers appropriate.

4 Regulations made under paragraph 2 must provide that any power to enter domestic premises is not to be exercisable unless—

(a) at a reasonable time and with the consent of the occupier of the premises; or

(b) under the authority of a warrant issued by a justice of the peace.”

5 In this schedule the term “relevant authority” has the same meaning as in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.’

This new schedule would require the Government to make regulations specifying the electrical appliances to which the Fire Safety Order applies. It would also require the Government to amend the Order to impose additional duties on the responsible person and on occupiers. It is consequential on Amendment 1.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
7 Sep 2020, 12:04 a.m.

Let me begin, as I have at every stage of this Bill, by saying that we on the Opposition Benches support the Bill. The Minister knows that. We are keen to be as supportive as possible, but let me reiterate the point that I have also made at every stage, which is that this Bill is a shamefully inadequate response to the multiple problems for fire safety, which were so tragically brought to the fore when 72 lives were lost in the Grenfell Tower fire. The Bill—all three clauses of it—goes nowhere near far enough to prevent a tragedy like Grenfell from happening again.

The Government said that the introduction of the Fire Safety Bill would take them a step further in delivering the inquiry’s recommendations and recently cited the Bill as one of their key priorities in response to a deeply frustrated letter from Grenfell survivors. Yet the Bill does not even include provisions for any of the measures called for by the first phase of the inquiry.

The Grenfell community were failed by a system that did not listen to them. We must never forget that failure. I pay tribute to Grenfell United, the families and the whole community for continuing to tirelessly fight for justice. They should not have had to fight so hard, and hundreds of thousands of people across the country are now being failed by a system that does not listen to them—those stuck in buildings with flammable cladding, those using their income to fund waking watch and other safety measures, and those who cannot buy or sell their flats because the mortgage market has been ground to a halt by confusion and lack of Government leadership.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard

My hon. Friend starts absolutely with the crux of the matter. She will be aware that, in my own constituency of Cardiff South and Penarth, we have thousands of residents in apartment blocks who are affected by these issues. The failure of companies such as Redrow, Laing O’Rourke and Taylor Wimpey to hold to their responsibilities for fire safety and other building defects is a huge problem. Does she agree that they need to take responsibility for mistakes that they may have made in construction?

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
7 Sep 2020, 12:06 a.m.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The system as a whole is fundamentally broken, and it is the developers as well as the Government who need to look to their own actions and correct them.

The Government have made many promises to bring justice to the survivors and their families, to change building and fire safety regulations and to do this quickly, but the Government are yet to make their promises a reality. At every stage, we have had to drag them into action. During the passage of this Bill, we have sought constructively to improve it, so that it goes further as a piece of primary legislation towards improving fire safety.

New clause 1 would do what the Government say must come later. It would place robust requirements on building owners or managers and implement the recommendations—the key recommendations—from phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. The Government said that they would implement the Grenfell phase 1 inquiry in full and without delay. This new clause, which we are moving tonight, would fulfil that promise. In what is a very complex world of building and fire safety, the new clause is relatively simple. It seeks to do four things: the owners of buildings that contain two or more sets of domestic premises would share information with their local fire and rescue service about the design and make-up of the external walls; they would complete regular inspections of fire entrance doors; they would complete regular inspections of lifts; and they would share evacuation and fire safety instructions with residents. These measures are straightforward and are supported by key stakeholders. Frankly, it is pretty extraordinary that they are not already enshrined in law.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind) - Hansard

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way at this point. She is making a very powerful case. I will be supporting new clause 1, as it is worthy of support. Will she put some pressure on her Labour colleagues in the Welsh Government in Cardiff to bring forward similar proposals for consideration by the Senedd in Cardiff before the elections in May?

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard

The Welsh Government have a proud record on fire safety, and I point the hon. Gentleman in the direction of the many actions that have been taken. In this case today, we are looking at the actions of the Government and their failure to act since the Grenfell Tower fire three years ago.

Time and again in Committee, the Minister supported what we were saying in principle but told us that we must wait for a consultation to finish, a taskforce to report, or the experts to tell us what to do. That is not good enough. We have seen with covid what can be done with political will: hospitals built in days, and whole systems restructured to respond where there is a need. If the political will was there, the Government would support this new clause and we could take one step in the direction of keeping the promises that we all made in those days and weeks after the Grenfell fire. The Government have given no timetable for when they will deliver the inquiry’s recommendations through secondary legislation. The Government have continuously pushed back on their promises while thousands of people across the country are stuck still in unsafe flats.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab) - Hansard

My hon. Friend will know, and the Minister will recognise, that there are thousands of leaseholders living in flats—I support all steps being taken to improve fire safety—where, as each day passes, more bills are coming in for increased insurance and waking watches. They live in dread of the final bill for the cost of replacing the cladding, which will be completely unaffordable. It is not fair to our constituents to make them live with this nightmare that they did not cause, and I hope she will continue to urge the Government to play their part, because only the Government can solve this.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
7 Sep 2020, 12:05 a.m.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: only the Government can fix this problem. The lack of action and the lack of clarity about which buildings are safe, apart from anything else, and about what needs to be done has led to huge disruption for thousands of people, huge cost, mental health issues, weddings put off, jobs and opportunities not being able to be taken and all manner of problems that the Government need to fix.

The Government have constantly pushed back on their promises, while many people are still in unsafe flats. The fire safety measures recommended by phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower inquiry are urgently needed. Why would we wait for secondary legislation at an undetermined point in the future to ensure that building owners and managers share information about the design of external walls with their local fire services? Why would we delay the requirement to have inspections of individual flat doors and lifts? Why would we wait to make building owners or managers share evacuation and fire safety instructions with residents?

In Committee, the Minister responding—the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse)—said that the Government intend to legislate further, but we need more than vague commitments about secondary legislation. At the very least, we need a clear timetable from Government that sets out when further changes to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 will be delivered.

The fire safety order requires regular fire risk assessments in buildings, but it includes no legal requirement for those conducting the assessment to have any form of training or accreditation. I could call myself a fire risk assessor, set myself up with a logo and be responsible for one of the most important safety measures we have. No other sector would accept that. No one would accept electricians with no qualifications or gas engineers making it up as they go along. It is absurd. Any one of us could carry out fire risk assessments on schools, hospitals or care homes with no test or accreditation needed. The lack of training and accreditation in such an important area is completely unacceptable.

The Bill’s changes to the fire safety order clarify the inclusion of external wall systems such as cladding and insulation, which makes the competence of fire risk assessors even more important, as they will need to understand the more complex elements and materials found in cladding systems. That hugely important issue has been raised by Members from all parts of the House on Second Reading and in Committee.

The Government should be using the Bill to legislate for higher standards and greater public accountability in fire inspections. New clause 2, tabled by the Opposition, would bring into force an accreditation system for fire risk assessors, rather than waiting for more secondary legislation. In Committee, the Minister responding referred to the “industry-led competency steering group” in relation to fire risk assessors. I hope that the Minister today can provide an update on when the Government plan to bring forward changes to address the issue of unqualified fire risk assessors.

Turning to new clause 3, we have talked to many experts and stakeholders who have significant concerns, which the Minister will be aware of, about how the Bill will be implemented. The Minister responding in Committee referred to the building risk review programme, which looks

“to ensure that local resources are targeted at those buildings most at risk.”––[Official Report, Fire Safety Public Bill Committee, 25 June 2020; c. 62.]

We would like to see a similar provision in the Bill. New clause 3 would require the schedule for inspecting buildings to be based on a prioritisation of risk, not an arbitrary distinction of types of buildings. Local fire and rescue services know their areas and the buildings where there is greatest risk. Let them decide what to prioritise first. They know better than Whitehall.

Many Members from all parts of the House have been contacted by desperate leaseholders who have been left to foot the bill for urgent fire safety works, despite not being the building owner. That is a huge challenge, as we have already discussed. The definition of the responsible person in this legislation needs to be made clear.

The Fire Safety Bill is intended to be a foundational Bill. Its purpose is to provide clarity on what is covered under the fire safety order, which will inform other related and secondary legislation. New clause 4 would be an important example of that kind of clarification. Its purpose is to clarify the definition of “responsible person” to ensure that a leaseholder is not considered a responsible person unless they are also the owner or part-owner of the freehold. The draft Building Safety Bill places various requirements on the responsible person, and refers to the fire safety order for the definition. It is vital that the fire safety order makes it clear that there is no ambiguity around the definition of “responsible person”; otherwise, there is a risk of confusion and misalignment between the two pieces of legislation, and a danger that the responsible person might seek to use that ambiguity to avoid their responsibilities under the Bill.

The definition of the responsible person has been raised by many Members from across the House at each stage of the Bill’s progress. Without clear definitions, there will be new questions of interpretation, and we will not achieve what we are setting out to achieve. The Opposition do not understand why that is controversial. Perhaps the Minister could help by explaining why he is comfortable leaving such dangerous ambiguity.

New clause 5 refers to another important issue, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) raised. Struggling leaseholders across the country have been forced to pay extortionate fees for interim fire safety measures—most commonly, waking watch—while progress on remediation work has been too slow. New clause 5 aims to clarify when waking watch should and should not be in place. The Government still have not published the findings of their audit of external wall systems of high-rise buildings, and are therefore unable to say how many buildings are covered in dangerous non-ACM cladding. However, we know from their latest figures on aluminium composite material cladding that more than 80% of private sector residential buildings, and nearly half of social sector residential buildings, wrapped in Grenfell-style ACM cladding have not had it removed and replaced. The Government deadlines of 2019 for social sector blocks to be made safe, and June 2020 for private sector blocks, were both missed. Progress has been painfully slow, and the coronavirus pandemic has hindered it even more. The impact on residents is terrible. Tens of thousands of people have been locked down in unsafe buildings for months on end.

The National Fire Chiefs Council says that waking watch should be a temporary measure, but some blocks have been paying for it for three years, which has cost residents thousands of pounds and ruined lives. Given that the safety status of many buildings across the country remains uncertain and the timelines for cladding removal keep getting extended, clarity on when and for how long waking watch should be used would bring much-needed consistency on how the measure should be applied.

I will speak very briefly about amendment 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who has persistently campaigned on fire safety for many years. I pay tribute to him and Jim Fitzpatrick, who is no longer in this House, for their campaigning work and for writing to Ministers time after time, including only weeks before the Grenfell fire, to implore them to act on fire safety. The issue of electrical safety, which amendment 1 raises, is hugely important, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing it to the House. The additional requirements on the fire and rescue service to provide a higher level of inspection and enforcement on the communal parts of buildings with two or more domestic premises, which this Bill introduces, should be accompanied by a rigorous approach to safety checks of electric appliances inside the premises. It is vital to ensure that the risk of faulty electrical appliances in multiply occupied residential buildings is minimised.

Last month, I wrote to the Minister seeking urgent action on the rising number of fires caused by faulty appliances in high-rise blocks. The number of electrical fires caused by faulty appliances has risen in England. Based on analysis of Government figures by Electrical Safety First, The Times has reported a rise in the number of electrical fires caused by faulty tumble dryers and fridges. The number of accidental electrical fires in tower blocks has risen in each of the past three years. If these measures cannot be included in the Bill, we will scrutinise any proposals that the Government bring forward to ensure the best possible standards of electrical safety. Will they set out a timetable to deliver that?

In conclusion, there are many issues around improving fire safety that we would have liked to see included in the Bill. However, due to its limited scope, many will have to be addressed through the draft Building Safety Bill and secondary legislation. The amendments we have tabled are straightforward; most of them are on issues that the Government have stated their intention to address but have not shown the political will to move faster on. For those living in unsafe buildings, the risk of fire will not wait for the Government to choose an appropriate date for the Bill’s commencement. After Grenfell, the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), said that her Government will do “whatever it takes” to keep our people safe. Three years on, we urge the Government to honour the commitment to keep people safe, and to act as quickly as they can to do that.

Sir David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard

I rise to speak to amendment 1, and I welcome, to a greater extent, the remarks of the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones). I thank her for her generous remarks about myself, of which I am not worthy; I have simply been the mouthpiece for others who have been doing the work behind the scenes.

My right hon. Friend the Minister and I have known one another for a very long time; in fact, when I was an MP for another place, he and his dear wife were there knocking on doors for me, yet now I have tabled an amendment which is not exactly what he wants. I have something to say to him, to which he must not take offence: I am a loyal Conservative through and through, but there comes a point when that loyalty begins to wane a bit. I say to my hon. Friends on the Government Benches that the Government are in choppy waters at the moment. I do not want to tip the boat over, but I am beginning to tire of the responses we have been getting from the Front Bench, and I will come to that in a moment.

I am delighted to see present my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), who was once a fire Minister—I hope he is not here to pick holes in my argument; he had better not—and my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), who has far more expertise in electrical matters than I could ever hope to have, and also of course the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who has campaigned on this issue for many years. That shows that there is broad all-party parliamentary support on this matter, and it is not party political.

Break in Debate

I say to the House that we have further opportunities with the Building Safety Bill, and I would encourage participation on the consultation on the fire safety order, but with the assurances and clarification that I have given, I hope that hon. Members will be minded not to press their new clauses and amendments.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
7 Sep 2020, 12:01 a.m.

Ahead of setting up the Grenfell Tower fire public inquiry, the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), said that she wanted

“to provide justice for the victims and their families who suffered so terribly”

and that

“we cannot wait for ages to learn the immediate lessons”.—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 168.]

However, despite being long delayed, the Grenfell Tower fire phase 1 inquiry’s recommendations are now nearly one year old, and they have not yet been implemented.

The Minister will have heard the frustration from across the House: it is not just on the Opposition Benches but coming loud and clear from the Government Benches, and the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) put it best. It is always never the right time for these things to be implemented with this Government—there is a consultation, a taskforce and the dreaded roundtable followed by another roundtable. It is simply not good enough.

New clause 1 attempts to press the Government to deliver on the first set of recommendations from the Grenfell Tower phase 1 inquiry. The Minister is a good man, but his response is not good enough. We must lead. That sense of momentum he talked about has to have meaning. We have to act to do what we can, three years on from the Grenfell Tower fire. The official Opposition therefore want to press new clause 1 to a Division.

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

The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.

Break in Debate

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire - Hansard
7 Sep 2020, 12:08 a.m.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Grenfell Tower fire was a national tragedy that shook confidence in the building safety system to the core. As a Government, we remain fully committed to fixing that system, to reforming fire and building safety and to ensuring that the events of 14 June 2017 are never repeated. People have a right to be safe and feel safe in their homes.

On the day of publication of the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s phase 1 report, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister accepted in principle all 12 recommendations that were addressed to the Government directly, 11 of which will require implementation in law. The Fire Safety Bill, which will amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005—the fire safety order— is an important first step towards enacting these recommendations.

In that context, I thank the Minister for Crime and Policing, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), who led the Bill in Committee on 25 June, all the Members who served on that Committee and applied scrutiny to the Bill, and indeed all right hon. and hon. Members who participated in the debate earlier today.

As Members are aware, this is a short and technical Bill to clarify that the scope of the fire safety order applies to the structure, external walls and flat entrance doors of multi-occupied residential buildings. This provides a firm foundation to implement the Grenfell Tower phase 1 legislative recommendations that focus primarily on inspection of high-rise residential buildings by building owners and managers and information sharing with fire and rescue services.

I want to take a moment to underline that this is part of a bigger picture. The Government have published the draft Building Safety Bill, which will shortly be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. The Building Safety Bill takes forward the recommendations from Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building regulations and fire safety, and will put in place new and enhanced regulatory regimes for building safety and construction products, and ensure that residents have a stronger voice in the system. Alongside the Building Safety Bill, the Government published a fire safety consultation, which includes proposals to strengthen the fire safety order, improve compliance with the order, implement the Grenfell Tower phase one recommendations, and progress arrangements for consultation between building control bodies and fire and rescue authorities in relation to building work.

Our programme of work is not limited to legislation and includes having established a remediation programme, supported by £1.6 billion of Government funding, to remove unsafe cladding from high-rise residential buildings. For those who register for the fund, they are now able to submit their funding applications. We are also 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.

The Building Safety Bill is a very detailed piece of legislation that aims to create significant changes to improve building and fire safety. Moreover, our fire safety consultation contains proposals to strengthen a number of areas of the fire safety order. Together, the Fire Safety Bill, the draft Building Safety Bill and the fire safety consultation will create fundamental improvements to building safety standards and ensure that residents are safe and feel safe in their homes.

During the passage of the Fire Safety Bill, we have had good and robust debates in this House which have benefited the Bill in airing and showing the issues that are at stake. Hon. and right hon. Members have underlined why this matters to their constituents, why this matters for safety and why this matters for people feeling confident in their homes. That is a message and an objective that the Government absolutely will follow through on. It is why we believe the Bill is important in setting good and solid foundations upon which we can now proceed. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) (Lab) - Hansard
7 Sep 2020, 8:42 p.m.

On Third Reading, I reiterate that the Opposition support the Fire Safety Bill, but we are desperately disappointed that the Government have not gone much further and much faster on improving fire safety.

I regret that the Government did not choose to support Labour’s new clause 1, which would have implemented the key recommendations of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s Grenfell Tower inquiry phase one report, published in October. It is difficult to understand why the Government, who promised to implement the recommendations in full and without delay, have not chosen to make the concessions to include provision for them in the Bill. It is difficult to understand why responsible owners should not have to share evacuation plans with residents or undertake regular inspections of flat doors or lifts. It is difficult to understand why the Government are content with a situation where a fire risk assessor needs no qualifications whatever. It is difficult to understand why we cannot define the responsible owner in such a way to avoid leaseholders, who are already paying so much, footing the bill for things that are not their fault.

Endless promises of action, statements, consultations, taskforces and roundtables without any real change have tied the entire building safety world in knots, with hundreds of thousands of people paying the consequences, living in unsafe homes or unable to sell their flat because there is such confusion over which buildings are safe and what pieces of paper are needed to prove they are safe and who is liable. At every stage, the Opposition have sought to be constructive and to help the Government to improve the Bill. There is a lot more work to be done and we hope that as much of it as possible will be achieved now through secondary legislation.

Having debated our amendments on Report, I want to raise an important point about the implications of the Bill for our fire and rescue services. We welcome the high level of inspection and enforcement that the Bill requires, but we need clarity about the funding and resources provided to carry out such work. Over the past decade, we have seen devastating cuts to firefighter numbers, amounting to 20% of the service. Fire inspectors have seen some of the largest cuts, yet the Bill requires much more of them, and many more of them. I would like the Minister to set out what additional funding will be provided to the fire and rescue services to undertake this work.

I pay tribute to our fire and rescue services, as the Minister did, who go above and beyond to keep us safe and have worked tirelessly to protect us throughout the covid pandemic. I am grateful to the Ministers, the officials and the House staff who have worked with us on the Bill, and I give particular thanks to Yohanna Sallberg and Kenneth Fox, who have brilliantly supported me through the passage of the Bill. I also pay tribute to the hon. Members who have made such important contributions today and at previous stages of the Bill. There is much expertise in this House—either built over years of work in this place or personal experience in jobs that people have done before coming to this place—that the Government should listen to with more urgency.

In July 2017, I made my maiden speech during the first full debate in this Chamber on the Grenfell tragedy. I never would have thought that three years later, I would be facing a Government that are still yet to pass a single Act of Parliament to deliver on the clear promises made in the wake of that tragedy. The most important aim of the Bill is to clarify fire safety rules to prevent loss of life or damage to buildings from fire. It is to ensure that our constituents can live safely in their homes. I want to say to all those stuck living in unsafe blocks, but in particular to the Grenfell survivors and the victims’ families, that Opposition Members will not rest until every measure necessary is in place to prevent a fire like Grenfell from ever happening again.

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan (Kensington) (Con) - Hansard

Grenfell Tower is in my constituency of Kensington, so I start by paying tribute to the Grenfell community—to the bereaved and to the survivors, who have borne their loss with such dignity. This Bill is a small step in implementing the recommendations of the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry, and I commend it to the House, but I urge Government to move with a sense of urgency. I would also say that the Bill is just one small component. Clearly, the Building Safety Bill and the consultation on the fire safety order are also critically important. We owe it to the Grenfell community to never, ever allow a tragedy of this kind to happen again, so let us ensure that we implement state-of-the-art building and fire safety regulations with urgency.

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)
Sarah Jones Excerpts
Thursday 25th June 2020

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
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Home Office

I should explain that you have Members of Parliament in front of you and behind you, because we are socially distanced and the room is not quite big enough to allow us all to sit around the horseshoe table. We will start the questioning with Sarah Jones, who leads on this issue for the Labour party.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) (Lab) - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 11:40 a.m.

Q Thank you for coming today, and thank you for your written evidence. I think that our amendments cover a lot of the points that you are concerned about. I want to jump straight to enforcement. How are we going to do this, because there are a lot of new responsibilities and not that many qualified people to do the work? It will take us a while to get all these risk assessments, given the increasing number of buildings. How do you think we should implement this? What comes first and what should we prioritise? How do we make it work?

Dan Daly: We have had a debate on whether these are clarifications or new aspects, and we have settled on them being clarifications. I am fine with that, but it suggests to us that the buildings to which they apply are those buildings that are currently there. I do not think that the Bill is attempting to grow the range of buildings that come within scope. We are seeking some clarification on certain definitions, to ensure that there is no creep in the scope of what the Bill is intended to do.

With regard to the pressures on fire and rescue services, the onus is on us to maintain skills and competencies in the sector, and we have a body of work to do in order to move forward and deliver that. Where we have a preference for the service, it is that we bring the legislation forward as it is, all together at one time, rather than putting in arbitrary height restrictions and things like that. I know that you will hear from industry that there will be pressures on competent persons to provide extendable assessments, and things like that.

I think that what we can offer is a risk-based approach to help the people with those responsibilities manage the ask in a way that targets the highest risk buildings first. There was a model that we used—in the London fire brigade we termed it the Croydon model, as you may be aware—which was to help those large portfolio holders understand where we expect them to apply their initial assessments with the new legislation. I think we can adopt a similar approach here. I think that will help to ease the pressure across the board. Certainly, as they are clarifications, it would imply that the legislation applies to those buildings already, so it does not appear that now is the time to bring in arbitrary height allocations.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 11:40 a.m.

Q You mentioned maintaining skills and competencies. Who do we need? What is your view of fire risk assessors, and should we have a system whereby they are accredited in some way?

Dan Daly: I would certainly welcome a register for fire risk assessors and third-party accreditation for that. In a similar way, we are working towards a competency standard for fire inspection officers within the fire service. That is a bit of the work that the building safety team is doing at the moment. Certainly, the service will be working with them over the coming years to develop the skills within their own workforce to achieve that. Again, with the new building regulator, we are looking to bring in a level of competence to interact with more complex buildings.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 11:40 a.m.

Q How do you think the other pieces of legislation that are coming forward sit together? We have the building safety Bill, for example. One of the concerns that have been raised with us is that we might have all these pieces of legislation that do not necessarily speak to each other in the same language and do not tie up. It has been suggested that at the end of all this we need to bring it all together into one Bill. What is your view on whether that is a risk and whether we can try to overcome that?

Penny Pender: That certainly picks up on some of the points we have made in our submission about ensuring that the different pieces of legislation speak clearly to each other. The first example is the term “building”: one concern we had was that if it was not clearly defined, the default setting would be to refer to the definition in the Building Act 1984, which is referred to in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

Picking up on Dan’s point from earlier, that would be a much wider definition than the scope of the fire safety order currently covers, so that is the type of thing we are hoping to iron out. We just want to ensure that there are opportunities, maybe through secondary legislation or in guidance, for those types of thing to be spelled out clearly, to ensure that all the different pieces are interpreted clearly when they all come together in the future.

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.

Break in Debate

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi (Dudley North) (Con) - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 11:51 a.m.

My question comes from somebody who was a local government elected member for some 21 years, who has sat on planning committees and dealt with building regulations, and someone who has built properties and who is currently a landlord. I would like to ask a more specific question when we are considering risk. Much of what you talk about is about taking a risk-based approach. In your written submissions, you talk about how you would like greater resources and investment to be put into the enforcement side of things. Clearly, that is something for the Government to respond to.

Do you agree that construction and sign-off are potentially the points at which there could be the greatest risk of errors or non-compliance, either wittingly or unwittingly? Do you also agree that even after a structure has been signed off—whether it is by building control or by the local council—the time soon afterwards is still a point of high risk, because that is when door furniture can be changed, carpets can be fitted and all sorts of other things can happen that might have meant that the structure did not pass the certification in the first instance? Do you agree that perhaps a more dynamic monitoring role is required over how new buildings are being addressed from within existing structures—therefore, no extra body is particularly needed because we are approving buildings as we speak—but that looking at the timeframes might be a useful thing to do?

Dan Daly: I suppose that speaks more to the work that is being done around building safety—the Bill that is coming forward and the work on designing a new building safety regime. We cannot escape the findings of the Dame Judith Hackitt review. They were very damning about the existing system, and they speak to why we find ourselves with the built environment that we do and the challenges that that poses—not just for RPs in managing it, but for residents who have to live in the buildings, for us as enforcers and for firefighters in terms of their safety when they attend the buildings. We are fully engaged in that process.

It is equally important that we get this legislation absolutely right so that during occupation, the duties of whoever is responsible, day to day, for the fire safety in those buildings is very, very clear and it does not allow people to pass the buck—so that it is absolutely clear who is responsible, and they will be held accountable. That is what we are seeking.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard

Q First, we suggested putting the recommendations from the Grenfell phase 1 inquiry into the Bill, and I am interested in your view on that. Secondly, this is not really covered by any of the amendments, but a concern raised by several people is that with the EWS1 form, we have seen a huge complication of people not being not being able to sell their flat and being stuck because they do not have the right piece of paper. If we implement this legislation and take a risk-based approach, it will be a long time before everybody has their piece of paper that says that they have had a fire risk assessment. How do we prevent that from creating a massive insurance problem, with people stuck because they do not have the right piece of paper, while the piece of paper that they had before is out of date because there is new legislation?

Dan Daly: On the first point, we suggest that the Bill should be amended to make sure that it has the flexibility to encompass the Grenfell phase 1 and phase 2 inquiry recommendations. I think that is entirely appropriate, because I think people expect the Bill to pick up the lessons and the learning from that, so we absolutely support that. Can you remind me of the second point?

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 11:56 a.m.

The insurance issue—if you take a risk-based approach, what about all the people who do not have the right pieces of paper?

Dan Daly: Our role is to be fully engaged with insurers and those who support people to invest in and take out mortgages on properties, to give them an understanding of what that risk-based approach means. If we are able to convince those partners that the lower-risk buildings present a lesser risk, that should, hopefully, help with some of those challenges.

At the moment, when we have a slightly less finessed version of what risk looks like in these buildings, it is very hard for people in those circumstances to make accurate judgments and assessments. Part of our role is to support that, and I think the risk-based approach that we propose will help with some of that, because we will absolutely identify those more high-risk buildings, put resources towards them and focus the remediation efforts on them. By design, that would allocate other buildings to a lower threshold of risk.

Penny, did you want to come in at all on that question?

Penny Pender: No, thank you.

Break in Debate

Thank you. We have a number of questions for you from Members of Parliament on the Committee. We will start with Sarah Jones, who leads for the Labour party on this matter.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 12:03 p.m.

Q Mr Davis, you are a fire engineer and have a master’s degree, so you are enormously well qualified. Can you talk us through your model of what good looks like in fire risk assessors, fire engineers and the whole landscape of how we ensure we have enough competent fire risk assessors and a proper system to implement the Bill?

Mr Carpenter, one of our amendments is about how the definition of responsible persons should not include leaseholders. One issue that has been raised with us is how you implement a Bill when you are looking at a building in its totality and, as a freeholder, you have a responsibility to look, for example, at doors that might belong to the flat owner rather than you. How on earth can you do that? How do you know if changes are made or things happen when parts of the building are not in your control? How does that work?

Dennis Davis: The first thing to say is that the built environment—the part we are concerned with—is very complex. Buildings, of course, are infinitely variable, from a small single-storey dwelling to a block of flats on top of a commercial development that has got car parking, leisure activities and so on. So the environment you are looking at is complex, but fire risk in particular is holistic. By that, I mean it is about the way people interact with the building, the building itself, the structures and the way the whole process is put together. One big issue that often arises is that when the way you design, construct and build—the professional leadership in the process—is transferred on to the ground, and more importantly into the life of the building, you find that things you thought had been constructed, developed and managed in a certain way are not.

The first point I would like to make, therefore, is that in trying to look at the competence of individuals, you are first trying to ensure that there is a common platform of understanding about fire and its behaviour, and about people and how they behave, before going into the complexities and granularity of buildings themselves. You could have a fire engineer—I am a qualified fire engineer—who specialises in a particular area. You might have someone working offshore, in the radiation industry or on high-rise buildings. You cannot take one simple snapshot and say, “Oh, he or she is qualified as such and therefore is able to develop himself or herself into all these areas.”

Secondly, many of these things are not mandated, in terms of qualification. You can become qualified, but when it comes to applications in the real world, often there is no specific legislation that says, “You must use one of these people.” Because of the need for flexibility, the legislation has to ensure that it asks for competent people and, on that basis, you become reliant on a definition of what is competent. If we can pass through that, we can start to understand how difficult these issues can become.

Most of what we do in more complex environments involves a team-based assessment, rather than an individual one. We are talking about fire risk assessment or fire engineering. An individual may be capable of handling a project, but if that project evolves and becomes bigger and more complex, you add more skills and colleagues, and there is more team-based working. That has to be applied through the life of the building. The built stock is the difficult bit. New buildings should be well regulated, but once a building is occupied and used, it becomes a different environment again.

Mr Davis, thank you for that. We have a lot of questions to get through in the next 25 minutes. That was an excellent and comprehensive answer, but I would be grateful if we could have slightly more concise answers.

James Carpenter: I think the key point is around access and, as you mentioned, doors. With residential housing, a lot of buildings might be fairly straightforward in their basic design. The complexities come with the various management arrangements, lease agreements and so on.

The biggest question and challenge for housing providers is one of access. We cannot have it, we do not have it—there is no right of access. With tenants, we might be able to go to court and get injunctions to gain access to a home, but with leases, that challenge becomes even more difficult. It is their private space and we cannot touch it. When it comes to self-closers and checking inside doors, it is optional and voluntary for the leaseholder to listen or to comply with what we are asking. That is a big concern.

As we submitted in the evidence, in my view and in that of others, it would be useful if the law would allow leaseholders to be held responsible for their actions. That could allow building owners some leverage in getting leaseholders to co-operate. Also, if we got to that final point, action could be taken directly against them by enforcing authorities, which would solve the challenge that there has been in housing for the last 13 years or so.

Break in Debate

Thank you, Mr Wrack. You will now be asked questions by a number of Members of Parliament. We will start with Sarah Jones on behalf of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition.

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.

Break in Debate

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 12:48 p.m.

Q I think we understand from what you have said that there is a lot to do, and that there are limited resources at the moment. Where work has been going on, do you think the best practice is being followed? Is that being done in both the maintenance and the construction of buildings? We had a story in the press last week about Berkeley Homes rowing back on whether all types of cladding, including ACM cladding, should be removed from buildings. Do you think this is being taken seriously? When buildings are being given planning permission, being constructed or being modified, are best practice and best standards being adhered to?

Adrian Dobson: I think I would answer broadly yes, in those aspects that have now effectively been covered by prescriptive regulations. In relation to combustible external wall materials on high-rise residential buildings, we have at the moment a fairly prescriptive piece of legislation that makes best practice pretty clear. As you say, however, there is a certain element of lobbying to say that we need a more flexible approach, so you can already see attempts to row back on that. In terms of what has actually been regulated, fairly good practice is in place. We know there is quite a lot of good retrofitting work happening on buildings above 18 metres, even if it is very slow, but we do not really have much idea in terms of combustible materials below 18 metres.

Matt Wrack: I would like to comment on the lobbying that was mentioned by a building developer recently and in some earlier comments in your session. One of the voices we are keen to hear are those of tenants. The lesson of Grenfell is that the voices of tenants were ignored. The voices of tenants are often ignored in relation to building and modifications to the places where they live. The vast majority of tenants are respectable, sensible people and their views should be heard. They were not heard at Grenfell. I think they, us and firefighters would have greater respect for a risk-based approach if we could have the confidence in such a risk-based approach. Unfortunately, experience shows that risk-based approaches are often driven by commercial and financial interests, and that is why people have scepticism about them.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
26 Jun 2020, 12:02 a.m.

Q Mr Wrack, could you just give us your view on the current system of fire risk assessors and how that needs to be changed? Labour and the Liberal Democrats have tabled amendments on having a more qualified regime. It would be good to hear your thoughts on that. Mr Dobson, it would be helpful to get your sense, which we have sort of touched on, of the issue that there is so much to be done: the point about just the G15 having to spend £6.8 billion and the time all that will take. How do we prioritise? How do we fund that? What does that process look like going forward?

Matt Wrack: We oppose a deregulated system of fire risk assessors. Sadly, much of the work we end up doing arises out of tragedies. One of our experiences in that regard relates to the death of one of our own members. It emerged that the fire risk assessor in the case concerned had few or no qualifications in that field and had simply set up in business as a fire risk assessor. That highlighted to us a disgraceful state of affairs, so we would support the better regulation of fire risk assessors. However, the best protection we have, in terms of the delivery of advice to occupiers and building owners, and the best mechanism for inspection and enforcement, is a well-resourced and highly skilled workforce in a publicly accountable fire and rescue service.

Adrian Dobson: Clearly, on the specific issue of cladding and insulation, retrofitting is possible. The very reason those materials were used for cladding is because they are lightweight and external—they do not form part of the structure of the building—so the practicality of making buildings safer is definitely there. We have seen some, albeit slow, progress.

As I think one of the witnesses in your earlier session said, the cost can be very significant indeed. While steady progress is being made in the social sector, I think your Committee has today discussed some of the issues when it comes to private leaseholders in privately owned blocks and the ultimate issue of where the funding will come from. That, of course, is what set off secondary problems within the insurance and mortgage markets. One of the problems we face is professional indemnity insurance. Although the cladding can be identified through testing and so on, it tends to require intrusive testing. It requires specialists to look at it and that requires insurance for them, so there is a potential blockage.

The bigger concern is that following the fires we had in Barking and Bolton, attention has naturally turned to whether these sorts of materials pose a very significant risk on lower-rise buildings. There has been discussion about what height threshold might apply. Some people have suggested 11 metres—indeed, 11 metres is the height chosen by the Government for sprinklers—but one of the problems there is that you have got a whole different order of magnitude, potentially, of properties that could be affected. That may also be a factor that is driving some of the movement in the insurance sector, because there is probably a realisation that this is potentially a much larger problem than was first thought.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 1:01 p.m.

Q Mr Wrack, do you think that we understand the scale of the problem that we face? According to the figures that came out this week, an extraordinarily high proportion—I think it was something like 65%—of inspected fire doors were wrong in some way or other. Do you think we even know quite what we are dealing with in terms of the scale of that problem?

Mr Dobson, do you agree with Mr Wrack’s frustration about the time that it has taken to do all of that? Grenfell was three years ago. What should we be doing? Clearly, there is huge complexity and hundreds of working groups at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are working through all this. Equally, there is a real hunger for going faster. Is there any way in which you think we could and should be going faster?

Matt Wrack: No, I do not think that we grasp the scale of the problem at all. If I can refer back to Grenfell, the focus of the country has been on ACM cladding, but what we found at Grenfell was that virtually every single element of fire protection in the building failed. So if that has happened in one building, what is the scale in every building in the country? It is immense. There has been a lot of renovation, refurbishment and modification of buildings over the past 20 or 30 years, which has altered the building as it was originally designed and constructed, so we will therefore have altered fire behaviour in such buildings, particularly for compartmentation, in relation to the response of firefighters.

That brings me back to our frustration with the Bill’s impact assessment, because it is based on the current way that buildings are looked at. In our view, we need a much better way of looking at buildings. That would require time for an upskilling of firefighters in fire stations so that they recognise risks and can then refer them to specialist teams within the fire service. That would require training for both groups of staff and adequate powers to undertake the necessary inspections on a scale that, at the moment, we do not currently grasp in full detail.

Thank you. Mr Dobson, we will finish the sitting at two o’clock, so you have two minutes to answer.

Adrian Dobson: I will try to rise to that challenge. I think that we see the problems as threefold. There is an issue around how we procure buildings in the first place and procure alterations to buildings. I imagine that when the final report of the Grenfell Tower inquiry is written, it will have much to say about that. Then, there is an issue of competence and expertise, which you have already touched on. Of course, the UK construction industry is a relatively deregulated industry with very few regulatory competence requirements—they are mainly voluntary systems—so the industry will really have to put its house in order if it is going to regain public confidence.

There is also a regulatory problem. We have seen movement on the introduction of requirements for sprinklers being extended, and on combustible materials—from the consultation, that is likely to be extended. However, although we have good movement on the building safety Bill and on the Fire Safety Bill, we have not seen a comprehensive review of the actual guidance that people work to, so we are essentially working to the same approved documents that we worked to previously. That is disappointing because, although people recognise the need for research on some of those issues, we seem reluctant to get on and commission it and, as Mr Wrack said, reluctant to learn from colleagues in other countries who have experienced similar problems.

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)
Sarah Jones Excerpts
Thursday 25th June 2020

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
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Home Office

The strategy behind fire safety in this country—the stay put policy for tall buildings, which is now itself coming into question—depends on compartmentalisation and on fire being contained within a small area of a block. If there is the opportunity for it to spread, because fire doors do not work, windows have combustible surrounds, or the fire can penetrate elsewhere, we immediately undermine the whole principle. That is the reason for amendment 2.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) (Lab) - Hansard
26 Jun 2020, 12:02 a.m.

Let me start by saying that the Opposition support the Bill. We are here to be constructive. Although clearly we wish that things had gone faster and that we had been able to do more, we support the Bill and want to make it the best that it can be. On Second Reading there was agreement across the House on what needs to be done to fix some of the problems with the legislation. Amendment 2 relates to one of those problems, which has been raised by many of the organisations that have submitted written evidence.

I associate myself with everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, who is an expert in this area. He is absolutely right that we need to ensure right at the outset that we include parts of the building not currently listed in the Bill.

Amendment 2 would do what amendment 1 would do, but in a slightly different way. As the explanatory statement states, the amendment would make the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 apply

“to all parts of a building that contains two or more dwellings, other than those dwellings themselves,”

Not just the

“parts that come within the meaning of structure, external walls or common parts.”

I had a long conversation with the London Fire Brigade about how we define “common parts”. Introducing that term without a definition alongside the definition of “domestic premises” in article 2 of the fire safety order could lead to confusion about what it means and could add an additional layer of complexity to what is already quite a difficult landscape.

In the past, “common parts” has been used to refer to entrance halls, corridors or stairways in a block of flats, but it does not necessarily cover areas such as lift motor rooms, service risers, roof voids and other potentially high-risk areas, as well as fire safety facilities that are inside individual dwellings but used in common for the protection of the entire premises, such as sprinklers and detection systems.

This is not a new issue. Following the Lakanal House fire, the coroner recommended that there be clear guidance on the definition of “common parts” in buildings containing multiple domestic premises. Dame Judith Hackitt has also recommended that the assignment of responsibilities in blocks of flats be clarified.

The purpose of the Bill, as we discussed this morning and as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith has already mentioned, is to provide clarity on what is covered under the law. Without really clear definitions, there will be new questions of interpretation, and we will not achieve what we are setting out to achieve. There will be the potential for confusion and conflict.

Simply put, the absence of a clear definition creates opportunities for those who might try to game the system. We know that the system has not worked in the past, because people have been able to do things that nobody intended them to do. We want to make it crystal clear that the provisions cover all common parts of the building, and want to make it clear that “common parts” includes all the other spaces, such as lift motor rooms, that are not set out in the Bill.

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.

Break in Debate

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:35 p.m.

I will reply to two points. The first was made by the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, who has huge experience in this sphere, not least from his role in local government over the years. I disagree with his point because the example that he gave of modifications to the exterior of a building should be included in the Bill under that part of clause 1 that talks about external walls. I think that that is specifically envisaged to include not just external cladding but the whole external structure; it would therefore include voids and attempts that have been made through banding to restrict those voids.

Equally, I do not agree with what the Minister said. We all understand the point about private homes. It cannot be dismissed. We mentioned this morning the issue of leaseholders who provide their own front doors and how far that is considered, but there are other issues. There are issues to do with sprinkler systems and their installation in the homes of either leaseholders or tenants—assured or secure. This is not a black-and-white issue in terms of what goes into individual homes.

The amendment is a necessary or at least helpful addition to the Bill. Over a period of 30 or 40 years, a huge number of modifications will be made to buildings, even if, when a building was originally constructed, it was done in a secure way that would prevent the spread of fire and smoke. We know that this issue has been neglected, but it is so important that it should be reflected. However, given that the Minister has put it on the record that he believes that these matters will be dealt with, through the Bill and other measures that the Government are taking, I do not propose to press the amendment to a vote.

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.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 4, in clause 2, page 1, line 22, at end insert ‘or (aa)’.

See amendment 3.

Amendment 5, in clause 2, page 1, line 22, at end insert

‘(1A) The relevant authority may make regulations under subsection (1) for the purpose of aligning the Order with regulations which concern fire safety and which are made under any other power.’

This amendment seeks to ensure there is proper alignment between the Fire Safety Order and other regulations that relate to fire safety, including the upcoming Building Safety Bill.

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

Amendments 3 and 4 would ensure that the key articles of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 could be amended to account for the Grenfell Tower public inquiry phase 1 recommendations—and the phase 2 recommendations, although of course phase 2 has not happened yet—as well as any changes that may be brought about by the forthcoming building safety Bill. The issue was brought to our attention by the London Fire Brigade, and it makes a reasonable point.

Clause 2 provides for further changes to be made to the scope of the 2005 order, and clarification of its application. Our amendments would ensure that there was sufficient legal power, which could be relied on to respond to emerging evidence or events. It is important that we should not find that there are constraints in the future. The London Fire Brigade gave some examples of things that could be included. One was a legal mechanism for improvements to or replacement of the front doors of flats. Others were the installation of additional fire detection and warning systems, the retrospective fitting of fire safety measures in a building, and the adjustment or clarification of what an enforcing authority might need to be notified about.

As I have said and will keep saying, we welcome the Bill. We do not think it goes far enough, but want to make sure it does everything it sets out to do. We want to make sure that it is possible to make changes or additions to this cornerstone or foundation, as the Minister called it, including as a result of what comes from phase 2 of the Grenfell inquiry.

Amendment 5 would ensure that there was proper alignment between the 2005 order and other regulations on fire safety. The forthcoming building safety Bill, which we have talked about, will place requirements on accountable persons to ensure that buildings in occupation are safe.

This will include fire safety and will place enforcement responsibility with the new building safety regulator.

The fire safety order refers to a responsible person, but it is not clear whether this aligns precisely with the accountable person or the building safety manager referred to in the “Building a safer future” consultation. We have heard from local government that a lack of clarity about the boundary between the fire safety order and the Housing Act 2004 has been a complicating factor in resolving issues with dangerous cladding on buildings, so it would be useful to hear from the Minister; hopefully he can provide assurance that the concept of the responsible person aligns precisely with the accountable person or the building safety manager referred to in the consultation. If someone is deemed to be the responsible person for the purposes of the fire safety order, will they be considered the accountable person or building safety manager under the building safety Bill?

Break in Debate

We will see.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 2:55 p.m.

We say the same things on both sides of the Committee, but we on the Opposition side want speedy action, and we have been frustrated by the delays. It would be reassuring if we could have some kind of timetable before the summer recess for when the building safety Bill will be introduced. There is a whole raft of other activities, and we do not know when they will be coming forward—and covid is no reason for these things not to come forward.

This morning, Matt Wrack asked where responsibility for some of these issues rests in Government, and I wonder whether the split between MHCLG and the Home Office compounds some of the problems with how these things fit together and work. The more information we have about the timetable, the better. It would be good if the Minister could take these matters away; I know officials are looking at how they will sit together. On that basis, 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, 2:57 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.

Break in Debate

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.”

It never is. [Laughter.]

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.

Break in Debate

My constituents, and many others around the country, are in a completely impossible position. They are struggling to, or cannot, extend their mortgage to pay this large one-off fee. However, they also cannot sell their flat without the EWS1 certificate. They feel trapped in an unsafe building, while having to try to find the funds to pay the escalating service charges that they simply cannot afford. That simply cannot be right.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 3:32 p.m.

I want to put on record our support for the notion that leaseholders have been incredibly hard done by in recent years. They are championing their cause through incredibly powerful campaign groups, and we have heard over the past three years of the costs that have been put on them to remove cladding. It is extraordinary. In new clause 4, I try to ensure that they are not part of the definition of the responsible person in the legislation.

I agree with the premise of the new clause proposed by the hon. Member for St Albans, but having been the shadow housing Minister for three years, looking at the issues of leasehold and freehold and working with the Law Commission and with lawyers to try to unpick some of the legal issues, I think that it would be a challenging new clause to accept as it is, without significant compensation having to go to freeholders. I think the hon. Lady is probably right to describe it as being a blunt instrument, but I agree about the impossible position of leaseholders being faced with more costs when they are struggling so much.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter - Hansard
29 Jun 2020, 12:06 a.m.

I applaud the hon. Member for St Albans for bringing the matter to the Committee’s attention, although the new clause may not quite be the way to deal with the issue in law. I say that because although Government have made funds available in a drip by drip way—it is quite a substantial amount of money, so perhaps drip by drip is the wrong phrase—it is an inadequate sum to deal with the necessary remediation.

The way in which the funding relating to ACM and other types of cladding has been announced to social landlords and then private landlords has not only created some degree of confusion, but meant that there are huge gaps in terms of accessibility to funds to leaseholders and freeholders for carrying out remediation work. Therefore, landlords—not the worst landlords, necessarily; in some ways, it could be the better ones—are seeking to deal with remediation works in relation to blocks that do not fall within the fairly restrictive criteria that the Government have set. They are saying, “Yes, we will remove cladding, or do other works, but it isn’t covered by the Government’s building funds at the moment. We will therefore look, with section 20 notices or in other ways, for leaseholders to carry the costs.”

We are right to draw attention to this point, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it. He has been reading out his ministerial brief, which is all to the good because we need to put it on the record, but it would be quite good for him to respond to some of the points spontaneously made by Opposition Members.

Break in Debate

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.

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 5—Single assessment of risk—

“In article 9 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (risk assessment), after paragraph (3) insert—

‘(3A) Where a building contains two or more domestic premises, any person identified as a responsible person in relation to any part of the building must co-operate with other responsible persons to obtain a single assessment of risk relating to the building as a whole.’”

This new clause seeks to create a requirement that, where a building contains two or more domestic premises and there are multiple responsible persons, a fire risk assessment should be a single document in instances.

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.

Break in Debate

The fire safety consultation will set out specific proposals to address those and other issues raised in the 2019 call for evidence, and it is of the utmost importance that the fire risk assessments provide robust and accurate assessments of the fire safety of a premises as a whole, regulated by the order. That is why we want to ensure that the steps we take are informed by the people they will impact, and that they can have a say on how best we can address the issues raised from the call for evidence. I will, however, ask officials to reflect on the comments that have been made this afternoon, and to ensure that they and any additional issues that have been raised are incorporated in the consultation. On that basis, I hope the new clause will be withdrawn.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard

I feel like we are being beaten down with consultations, steering groups and promises of honey to come. I know it is complex and there a lot of questions to answer. The basic premise of new clause 4 is that, where there is a freeholder, the leaseholder should not be the responsible person. I know there are complexities with that: who is responsible for the front door, and how does it all work? That all needs to be ironed out, but there is a basic principle in the new clause. Given the Minister’s proposal to go back and talk to officials, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 6

Duties of owner or manager

“The relevant authority must by regulations amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) to require an owner or a manager of any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises to—

(a) share information with their local Fire and Rescue Service in respect of each building for which an owner or manager is responsible about the design of its external walls and details of the materials of which those external walls are constructed;

(b) in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake regular inspections of individual flat entrance doors;

(c) in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake regular inspections of lifts and report the results to their local Fire and Rescue Service; and

(d) share evacuation and fire safety instructions with residents of the building.”—(Sarah Jones.)

This new clause would place various requirements on building owners or managers, and would implement the recommendations made in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase One Report.

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.

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 9—Inspectors: prioritisation—

“In discharging their duties under article 27 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (powers of inspectors) in relation to any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises, an inspector must prioritise the premises which they consider to be at most risk.”

This new clause would require the schedule for inspecting buildings to be based on a prioritisation of risk, not an arbitrary distinction of types of buildings.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
29 Jun 2020, 12:01 a.m.

The new clause does what the Government say will come later: it puts on the face of the Bill the recommendations made in the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase 1 report. At the beginning of June, the MHCLG announced that it was preparing to open a public consultation on recommendations for new fire safety regulations emerging from the Grenfell Tower inquiry. In a letter to Martin Moore-Bick, the Prime Minister gave assurances that action on the findings of the inquiry’s first report “continues at pace”. However, the Government had already promised in October 2019 to implement the inquiry’s recommendations in full and without delay. Failing to include the simpler recommendations for the Bill, such as inspections of fire doors and testing of lifts, is a breach of their commitment to implement the recommendations without delay.

Only this week we saw alarming statistics that underline the urgency of implementing the recommendations. Of more than 100,000 doors in about 2,700 buildings across the UK inspected by the fire door inspection scheme in 2019, 76% did not comply with building regulations and about one in six, or 16%, were not even proper fire doors. Nearly two thirds, or 63%, of the buildings also had additional fire safety issues. Those are huge challenges. We need to move as quickly as possible to implement the recommendations.

Earlier this month, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said that the Bill

“provides a firm foundation upon which to bring forward secondary legislation”.—[Official Report, 2 June 2020; Vol. 676, c. 41WS.]

The Minister has taken the same approach, but there is no timetable for when everything else will happen. There are lots of committees, consultations and groups looking at these things, but it is not acceptable that after the promise of “without delay” in October 2019, we still have not moved on those issues by the middle of summer 2020.

I do not understand, and it would be good for Minister to explain, why we would not put such provisions in the Bill. They have the support of the organisations that we heard from this morning. It is just a case of putting things up front in the legislation, rather than waiting for an undefined time that may or may not come at some point in the future.

The new clause would require an owner or manager to

“share information with their local Fire and Rescue Service in respect of each building for which an owner or manager is responsible about the design of its external walls and details of the materials of which those external walls are constructed…in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake regular inspections of individual flat entrance doors…in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake regular inspections of lifts and report the results to their local Fire and Rescue Service; and…share evacuation and fire safety instructions with residents of the building.”

It just pushes faster and implements more quickly the action that the Government have committed to implementing. I press the Government to accept that that is possible, or to set out exactly when those things will become part of legislation.

David Simmonds Portrait David Simmonds - Hansard
29 Jun 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I have similar feelings about new clause 6 as I had about amendment 1. There is a risk that by seeking to be precise, we may create additional gaps in the legislation. Looking at the list, it would be clear to anybody with experience of the issue in a wider context that many other issues would come into consideration in such circumstances.

For example, the London Borough of Hillingdon had to go to court on 16 occasions last year to gain access to tenants’ properties to undertake essential safety-critical work on gas installations. If we were to define the duties that we are placing on the responsible individuals, the list would be extremely long. I have heard the Minister talk on the issue and I know that, with his local government experience, he is well aware of the context.

The properties to which the legislation will apply are hugely diverse, as are the risks that they offer. I therefore strongly believe that the new clause is another example where we are better off having a broader-brush piece of legislation that provides the opportunity to catch every set of circumstances flexibly, rather than being unnecessarily specific and risking missing out things that might turn out to be safety-critical.

Break in Debate

In summary, the Government’s position is that adequate arrangements are in place to ensure that enforcement authorities target their resources appropriately and are accountable for their decisions without the need to make it a statutory requirement. I ask that the new clause be withdrawn.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard

I hear what the Minister says—there are stages that we need to go through to get this right—but the Bill has no date for its commencement, so we could put this provision in the Bill and then do the things that need to be done in order to bring it into force at the time that the Secretary of State deems right. Therefore I would, on this new clause, like to test the will of the Committee.

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

New Clause 7

Break in Debate

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 4:02 p.m.

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

New clause 7 is about fire assessors being accredited. Again, I heard what the Minister said: there is the competency steering group; we are going to bring forward these kinds of changes. I think that we could be doing that sooner rather than later, so I would like to test the will of the Committee on this new clause, too.

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

New Clause 8

Break in Debate

Brought up, and read the First time.

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.

Thank you very much. I know the whole Committee will endorse those remarks. I also thank Yohanna for her excellent clerking of the proceedings.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly to be reported, without amendment.

Fire Safety Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Sarah Jones Excerpts
Wednesday 29th April 2020

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Home Office
Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab) [V] - Hansard
1 Jan 2000, midnight

I fully support the broad purposes of this Bill. Any Bill that takes us a step closer to righting the wrongs of Grenfell tower gets my full support, and my thoughts are also with those who died in Grenfell and with those injured and all the families, friends, survivors and firefighters.

Greater powers and meaningful sanctions to ensure that residents are safe in their homes are welcome. However, this Bill is a huge missed opportunity to address a big issue in my constituency and around the country: that of leaseholders being made to pay for the cost of the unsafe cladding still on their buildings. It is too long to wait for the building safety Bill, and the deadline for the removal of all unsafe cladding in private blocks by June 2020, set by the Government, will clearly not be met. In the meantime, thousands of people are left in limbo because of the cladding crisis.

The Swish building and Riverside Quarter in Putney are two examples. They have 66 and 200 flats respectively, and their cladding is a mixture of the Grenfell-type ACM and HPL. Leaseholders have been told by their freeholder that the cladding and other fire safety measures in their building do not meet the standard now regarded by the Government as adequate to obtain a fire safety certificate. For a fire safety certificate to be issued, the building will need to be re-clad. Without the certificate, leaseholders cannot sell, and they have to pay for an expensive nightly waking watch, which costs about £100,000 a year. They are being told they need to foot the bill for the re-cladding, which they are told could be between £50,000 and £80,000 per flat.

It is simply unfair to make leaseholders foot the bill. They are not multimillionaire landlords, but normal people—many of them retired—trying to live their lives, which have been made even more difficult by the current crisis. They do not have a spare £50,000 lying around or the means to get it. The emotional toll is enormous, which is why the matter needs to be addressed urgently, so it is disappointing not to see that in this Bill. The situation has left leaseholders in complete limbo, as has been mentioned by other Members, and facing an uncertain future. Mortgage lenders will not issue mortgages for homes without a fire safety certificate, so people are stuck. One resident, who has been unemployed for over a year, told me:

“The net result for me is that I will lose my home”.

Another said:

“We now face financial ruin as a direct result of the Government’s retrospective change to fire safety regulation.”

Another resident said that their flat is

“unsaleable and therefore effectively worthless… We cannot afford to pay a sum of this size.”

The Bill offers nothing for leaseholders at the Riverside, Swish or in other similar tower blocks. While I appreciate that the building safety Bill is coming, this Bill could provide the measures that the cladding crisis victims need. In particular, I would like a commitment to adequate Government funding for cladding remediation work or to ensure that freeholders foot the Bill, as they, not the leaseholders, will be the ones who benefit from building improvements. The additional funding announced in the Budget is welcome, but it is also too hard to claim. Only two buildings have made claims from the existing £200 million private property fund. Ministers must take more responsibility.

I would also like local government reimbursement. To ensure that the legislation is successful in protecting lives, national Government must make sure that local government and other fire authorities are reimbursed for any additional costs arising out of the operational changes mandated by this Bill. Our already underfunded local authorities must be given extra capacity to make homes safe.

We also need greater clarity on the non-ACM cladding that is deemed unsafe. There is huge confusion about which cladding is safe or unsafe. Are people living in really dangerous buildings or not? Confusion reigns, and the Bill needs to address that.

In conclusion, we are approaching the third anniversary of the Grenfell tower disaster, and so many questions remain unanswered. This Bill fails to address them and will disappoint thousands. I welcome the Government’s work on cladding so far, but so much more needs to be done.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) (Lab) - Hansard
29 Apr 2020, 11:30 a.m.

The House is sitting in unique times, in a unique way. Every Zoom picture we have seen today has told a story of hon. Members safe at home with their loved ones. That is what home should be: a place of safety. During this lockdown, for all its stresses, we have come to understand even more urgently that sense of a place of safety.

Yesterday, we heard harrowing tales of people whose homes are not safe because of abuse. Today, we are talking about another group of people for whom home is not safe—people who are not as lucky as us; people who live every day with the fear that what happened at Grenfell may happen to them. They suffer this amid the economic shock of covid-19, which has further reduced their incomes and their choices, and stopped the remediation work that they have long needed. They are forced to stay in a place of unsafety; a place of fear. They cannot forget what happened on 14 June 2017, and neither should we.

I pay tribute to the Minister, officials and House staff who have worked hard to get us here today, and I thank the fire Ministers—the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) and Lord Greenhalgh —for their detailed briefing over the phone to me on Monday. We all agreed that our fire and rescue services deserve huge credit for going above and beyond the call of duty against covid-19. They deserve our full support.

I am also grateful to all the hon. Members who spoke with such passion and expertise today. As ever on this topic, there is agreement on both sides of the House. Members and former members of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee have done so much to highlight these issues. We heard from the ever-wise Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts); the hon. Members for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake); and my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare), for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), who have sat or sit on the Committee.

Members of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue, who were warning Ministers to act many years before the Grenfell Tower tragedy, also brought us their expertise. Its chair, the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), has been dogged in his campaigning for fire safety, and the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning)—he brings his own unique experience—and the hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), for Thirsk and Malton and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) all brought great experience to the debate.

We welcome the Bill, but it goes nowhere near far enough to prevent another Grenfell tragedy, nor to undo a decade of cuts to our fire and rescue service. The Grenfell community were failed by a system that did not listen to them. We must never forget that failure. I pay tribute, as others have, to Grenfell United, the families and the whole community for continuing to fight for justice, but why has it taken three years to get to this? The Bill is the first and only piece of primary legislation on fire safety introduced by the Government in those three years. It is just three clauses long, and it fails to implement any of the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase 1. At every stage, we have had to drag the Government into action. Coronavirus is an unprecedented crisis, but it cannot be an excuse for failure to act on fire safety. We need to be much stronger and go much further.

I shall mention four key problems with the Bill, which we will explore in Committee. The first is the competence of fire risk assessors, which the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead mentioned. It is frankly outrageous that it is perfectly legal for someone with no expertise and no qualifications to set up as a fire risk assessor and complete fire risk assessments for schools, hospitals or tower blocks. The Bill makes the issue of competence even more pressing, because it will make fire risk assessments more complex by including elements such as the nature of cladding materials.

How is it that 15 years after the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 was passed we still do not have a proper system to accredit those carrying out fire risk assessments? I am aware that a working group has been looking at this issue. Will the Government commit to legislating, through the Bill, for higher standards and greater public accountability in fire inspections?

The second problem is the slow pace of implementation. The powers in the Bill will not come into force until an undetermined date of the Secretary of State’s choosing. This is simply not good enough. We are calling for the implementation of those powers from day one. This call is supported by the London fire brigade, among others. The fire service has developed a model for a risk-based approach of inspection, modelled in my own town of Croydon, which could be reflected in the legislation. A vague commitment to bring the Bill into force over time, as the Minister wrote to MPs yesterday, is not good enough. As many Members have mentioned, the Government have also promised to make further changes to the fire safety order via secondary legislation to implement the Grenfell Tower inquiry recommendations, but again at an undetermined date in the future. Six months ago, the Housing Secretary promised to implement the findings of the inquiry in full and without delay. We have a Fire Safety Bill here in front of us, and we have a series of recommendations that could have been consulted on and placed into the Bill.

The third question relates to residents trapped in Grenfell-style buildings across the country. This issue was raised by many Members in the debate. It is the most immediate and pressing fire safety issue and it is being exacerbated by covid because of stalled work to remove flammable Grenfell-style cladding from buildings. Not only are these residents in danger; they are now facing ruinous costs for waking watch, building insurance and other interim safety measures at a time when many have lost income due to covid-19.

We have heard excellent speeches and experiences from my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), for Reading East (Matt Rodda) and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, as well as from my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who has just told us about constituents who are losing their homes. I spoke to leaseholder residents yesterday who are paying £14,000 a year for waking watch. Who can afford that? There is one block whose residents have spent £700,000 on waking watch because they were told that they had to, but the building has now been tested and found to be safe. This whole area is a total mess—or total chaos, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood said. If we do not fix the problem now, people will go bankrupt at the height of this crisis. I know that the Housing Secretary has launched a pledge to keep cladding removal work going, but we need more than a pledge. We need action. And will the Government please make good on our waking watch system? It is simply not fit for purpose, and it is ruining people’s lives.

My final point is that, as the Fire Brigades Union and many Members including my hon. Friends the Members for Newport West (Ruth Jones) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) have said very powerfully today, the Bill could have significant resource implications for fire and rescue services, but the reality of the past decade has been devastating cuts to firefighter numbers and fire appliances, leading inevitably to slower response times. Fire inspectors—those we need to audit and enforce these new powers—have seen some of the largest cuts. Their numbers have fallen by almost a third since 2010. Will the Minister agree today to publish an impact assessment of the resource implications of the Bill and commit to funding it properly?

In July 2017, I made my maiden speech during the first full debate in this Chamber on the Grenfell tragedy. I did not think that, three years later, I would be facing a Government that have still yet to pass a single Act of Parliament to deliver on the clear promises made in the wake of that tragedy. We welcome this legislation, but it cannot be enough. This piecemeal response to Grenfell cannot be enough, and this delay and dither cannot be enough. The tragedy of Grenfell and the scandal it exposed of unsafe housing across the country have been too slowly addressed by the Government and too quickly overshadowed by other events—first Brexit, now covid. The Government have a chance to put this right, and we will work hand in hand with them to do that. Everyone needs a place of safety. We in this virtual House all have one. Three long years after the Grenfell Tower fire, we must move faster.

Christopher Pincher Portrait The Minister for Housing (Christopher Pincher) - Hansard
29 Apr 2020, 12:01 a.m.

It is a pleasure and an honour to wind up the debate for Her Majesty’s Government. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security and other hon. Members for the insightful contributions that they have made. I will try to answer as many of the questions asked as I can, although I am conscious that something like 32 Members have spoken today. The fact that we do not have a huge amount of time before the moment of interruption, and that there were so many contributions, may well preclude me from providing substantive responses to all the questions raised, but as the Bill makes progress through the House, I am sure that there will be further opportunities for everybody to debate and test its provisions.

I shall begin by commenting on some particular contributions. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chairman of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, made it clear that his Committee will treat the pre-legislative scrutiny of the building safety Bill very seriously. A number of Members have mentioned that Bill. Let me confirm that we will bring it forward in draft form before the summer recess, which will give Members an opportunity to begin to consider it.

I should also like to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), who noted how the survivors of Grenfell have conducted themselves throughout with grace and dignity—she is right. She was also right to say that we need to work collectively and with purpose to address what happened that night.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) said that he had not received a letter from me in response to his, written on 26 February. I will certainly look into that, because I know that he has long campaigned for his constituents living in Northpoint.

Members across the House campaign for their constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), who is in the Chamber, campaigns for her constituents who lost their homes in the lace mill fire a little while ago. Homes were lost; thankfully, no lives were lost.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and others raised the question of fire risk assessors. The Government have been working with the fire risk assessment sector to develop a clear plan to increase its capacity and capability. We will work at pace to do that, and we will introduce a panel of expert fire engineers to ensure that there is expert assessment of more complex buildings. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), who raised the question of the inspection of lifts. He may wish to continue to raise it as the Bill proceeds through the House.

All Members who have taken part in the debate have rightly put the need to safeguard residents such as those who were involved in the Grenfell fire at the front and centre of their contributions because, ultimately, what matters is saving lives. We cannot bring back those who lost their lives on 14 June 2017, but we can keep moving forward, applying the lessons that we continue to learn, and taking the necessary actions to keep others safe so that a residential fire such as the one we saw at Grenfell Tower can never be repeated.

As we have said and demonstrated by our actions over the last three years, we are committed to a generational reform of building and fire safety. We have to get this right. This is a short, technical Bill—I make no apology for that. It clarifies the law and constitutes a further step towards ensuring that there is better identification and management of fire safety risks in all multi-occupied residential buildings. It will also give us the firm foundation needed to bring forward further legislation under the fire safety order to deliver the recommendations from the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase 1 report, issued on 29 October last year, which called for new obligations for building owners. The Bill will give certainty to all those working under the fire safety order, those who are regulated by it and those who enforce it.

There are challenges in respect of how we implement the Bill, particularly regarding the assessment of external wall systems. We will continue to work closely with our partners to deliver assessments on the ground in a way that is manageable and that takes account of the capacity and capability issues that hon. Members have raised. However, the direction of travel is clear, and I urge building owners and managers, in line with the independent expert panel’s recent consolidated advice note, to start taking account of fire risks arising from external walls and cladding as of now, if they have not done so already.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security mentioned in his opening speech, my Department will bring further legislation before Parliament for scrutiny in the course of this year. The building safety Bill, which I have mentioned, will deliver an enhanced safety framework for higher-risk residential buildings and provide wider and stronger oversight of safety and performance across all buildings. Residents’ safety is at the heart of all these reforms.

The Government have already taken forward a range of other legislative and non-legislative measures, including the provision of £1 billion to remove unsafe cladding, such as high-pressure laminate and wood on all blocks of flats over 18 metres; the provision of £600 million for the replacement of unsafe aluminium composite material cladding on high-rise social and private buildings over 18 metres; banning the use of combustible materials in cladding systems on high-rise blocks, as well as in hospitals, care premises and student accommodation; publishing a summary of responses to the call for evidence on the fire safety order; and setting up, in shadow, the building safety regulator.

I hope that hon. Members will acknowledge that we are taking forward a comprehensive response to the tragedy of that night in June 2017. The system failures in building and fire safety that have been identified by Dame Judith Hackitt in her report—the next phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry will consider them further—are at the heart of our agenda. The importance of the work on building and fire safety is underlined by the fact that Lord Greenhalgh has recently been appointed to work jointly across both Departments to deliver these important reforms. In that vein, I remind the House that my right hon. Friend the Security Minister has huge expertise in this area because of his previous service in my Department and his current service in the Home Office.

As I anticipated at the start of my speech, I have not been able to address everybody’s concerns, but there will be further and ample opportunity, during the Bill’s passage through the House and through the scrutiny of other legislation, to address Members’ concerns. This is not the only piece of legislation coming forward and it is not the last piece of legislation coming forward; it is the first piece of legislation to address the concerns that colleagues have raised.

This debate has shown the House at its best. Despite the restrictions—the very physical restrictions—that have been placed on us by covid-19, the Members of this House have operated in a new way of working to ensure that we have meaningful and, for the Government, challenging debate. I welcome the strong measure of cross-party, collaborative support mentioned by the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones); I will work with her to make sure that we get the best piece of legislation on to the statute book.

As the third anniversary of the Grenfell fire approaches, the Government are steadfast in their determination to see this Bill enacted as quickly as possible as a prelude to further legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Fire Safety bill (Programme)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Fire Safety Bill:

Committal

(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.

Proceedings in Public Bill Committee

(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 25 June 2020.

(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.

Proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading

(4) Proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.

(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.

(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading.

Other proceedings

(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

Question agreed to.

Fire Safety Bill (Money)

Queen’s recommendation signified.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Fire Safety Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

Question agreed to.