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Agrément Board

Volume 941: debated on Wednesday 14 December 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

6.5 a.m.

This short debate at this godless hour of the morning is basically about what we can do to prevent buildings from falling down. I want to raise the matter of the Agrément Board, which is contained in Class No. 8 (1) of the Supplementary Estimates on page 120, where we read that the present provision of £60,000 has been raised to £275,000 which is a

"revised estimate of the contribution required to meet the Board's expenditure for the year".
It is such an enormous under-provision—because the increased figure is about four and a half times bigger than the provision—that it should not go unexamined.

So remarkable an increase of such magnitude requires the House to look closely at the work of the Board as a whole. It is a slightly odd animal. It is a company limited by guarantee whose council members are appointed by the Minister. Its origin and intention have not been the slightest matter of party controversy because following a meeting held at the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1963, when discussion took place on the French system of agrément, my righ hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hex-ham (Mr. Rippon) set up the Gibson Committee in February 1974 to investigate the French procedures and to see whether we needed a similar arrangement. The committee reported in favour the following year to the Minister for Public Building and Works, Lord Pannell, and the Agrément Board was set up in January 1966 with general and widespread support.

Over the years its workload, fees and income have been expanding. At first the process of granting agrément certificates for materials and components was slow. By the end of March 1968 only eight certificates had been supplied, although the staff had then mounted to between 11 and 18 employees and the Board had already received a total of £112,000 in Government grants. I recall that the right hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), who was then Minister for Public Building and Works, was critical at the Dispatch Box of the Board for its progress. I add immediately that things have improved considerably since. The latest figure that I have for certificates issued is for this time year when it was 400.

As for grants-in-aid from the Government, these have increased steadily. For the year ending March 1976, for which the figure has been published, the grant-in-aid was £182,000, being 46 per cent. of the total of £397,500 that the Board had as total revenue, the balance coming from fees and so on. The Supplementary Estimate would raise the figure for the current year from £60,000 to £275,000 for the grant-in-aid. The Board has tended to negotiate with the Government on a three-year basis for its allocation, and the latest period is for the period 1976–79. Clearly the Board must have asked for a sum in excess of last year's £182,000 and obviously the £60,000 provided in the Estimates cannot have been intended as a serious offer by the Government, unless the Government envisaged dramatic policy changes, because that would have been the lowest figure since 1969 when the Board issued only 22 certificates. On the other hand, £275,000 is not particularly excessive, as I understand privately that the grant figure up to 31st March 1977 was about £265,000—although that has not been published.

The first questions to which we need answers are these: what did the Board receive in the financial year 1976–77 as grant from the Government? Was it £265,000 as I privately understand? Secondly, what bid did the Board make for 1977–78 and 1978–79 in grant-in-aid? Thirdly why was an obviously derisory figure of £60,000 included in the Estimates in the first place? Why is it being increased so dramatically now? I have my suspicions about this latter point and I shall air them in a moment.

I now turn to consider the question of grant-in-aid itself and how it could be controlled or eliminated. I have on several occasions inside the House and outside argued that our methods in this country for preventing building disasters and failures need more attention. As the House knows, I am a director of house-building company and another company in the group to which I belong holds an agrément certificate.

This issue of building failures must not be exaggerated because failures represent only a minute proportion of buildings and there will always be some degree of risk in anything in any walk of life. But let us mention a few of the problems which have taken place in the life of the Board. There was Ronan Point, with its inherent design failure and the inadequate building regulations and code of practice which the inquiry found—four people killed and millions of pounds of taxpayers' money necessary to put things right. There was the awful incident at Summerlands, with 50 deaths and further amendments to the building regulations becoming necessary. There was high alumina cement, which was controlled by the French Government as long ago as 1928 and 1935 and was banned in Bavaria in 1962, but on which no adequate action was taken here until two years ago.

There is the continuing controversy over calcium chloride, on which the Minister answered a Question yesterday, and polyurethane ceilings which the GLC actually took out of buildings at Thames-mead and several other places at a cost to the ratepayer of £850,000. There were the extremely unhappy incidents over the lowering of U-values in 1974–75 about which I shall say more briefly in a moment. There was the woodwool slabs affair at New Malden. There was the "Clasp" system's fire at Fairfield in Nottinghamshire and there have been other such dramatic incidents. It was because of all these deplorable cases that I argued in the House in 1975:
"the Department should strengthen its policy-making side by merging the Agrément Board and the BRE, and make the head of the BRE report directly to the Secretary of State. Furthermore, I should like to see the BRE with a proper 'doomwatch' section, whose job it is continually to evaluate new technologies before they are permitted or obtain 'deemed to satisfy' status."—[Official Report, 13th February 1975; Vol. 886, c. 763.]
I argued the same at greater length in an article in the magazine Building in August 1975, about which I had some very helpful correspondence with the Minister for Housing and Construction. I was naturally pleased when the Minister set up such a doomwatch section in June 1976, the Building Integrity Division of the BRE.

I now believe that we need to link that firmly in with the Board. It is totally unsatisfactory that the Board's testing scope does not cover all new materials and components automatically before they appear on the market, let alone existing products used in a new combination, requiring different standards, or the assessment of new prototypes.

The magazine Building Design estimated in November 1976 that the scope of the Board's activities covered only about 20 per cent. of the potential market. The Board itself told me in 1974 that it thought it was covering about 50 per cent. of new products, but only just beginning with the assessment of prototypes. It is certain that the scope is nothing like 100 per cent. and that there is little prospect of its becoming so. I must say to the Minister that this will not do. The public has rightly been alarmed at building failures which it usually has to pay to sort out.

Indeed the Government have taken a rather unenthusiastic attitude in this regard. When I asked the Minister for Housing and Construction on 30th November last year what proportion he estimated by number and by market value of the new building components and products coming on to the market had received an agrément certificate and what action he proposed to widen the scope to nearer 100 per cent., the right hon. Gentleman replied:
"I doubt whether sufficient evidence is available to make a reliable estimate of this kind. Action to increase their market coverage is primarily a matter for the Agrément Board."—[Official Report, 30th November 1976: Vol. 921, c. 72.]
I regard that as a quite unsatisfactory reply. Imagine what the reaction of the House would have been if the same attitude had been taken by any Government to, say, private house building.

Since February 1966, when the late Mr. Richard Crossman brought it about, it has been axiomatic that private house building must be covered by the NHBC certificate in the interests of consumer protection. I believe that what goes for private housing should go for all forms of building.

Therefore, what I feel we need to do now is to move towards either voluntary agreement in the trade or, failing that, some legislation to widen the scope of the Board to 100 per cent. over, say, a two-year or three-year period. I believe that this matter should be a priority for consideration by the Minister's National Consultative Council or by the Construction Industry Liaison Group. One hundred per cent. coverage on the basis of a proper fee would undoubtedly give the Board the authority that it currently lacks and would help to eliminate the grant-in-aid and make it self-supporting, thus, of course, assisting the taxpayer.

While my suggestion is being processed, if it were to be processed—I appreciate that it would obviously take time and require proper discussion with the trade—I believe that the Department should put its weight properly behind the Board, which it has not done so far. I visited the Board some 12 months ago at the kind invitation of the director. I met many of the staff and saw the testing arrangements at Garston. Without breaking any confidences, I must say that the staff felt then that the Department of the Environment did not give them as much co-operation or support as it ought to give. I have already mentioned the Minister's rather unhelpful reply on the scope of the Board's activities, but I am sorry to say that there have been other examples.

Firstly, the Department produced, on 14th September 1976, a very controversial document, called BRA/668/68, dealing with the testing of building materials for the purpose of establishing U-values for insulation—something that was discussed in the previous debate. I was appalled to trnd that not only did the Agrément Board's experts publicly dispute the advice that the Department had put in the document, which they said contained serious shortcomings likely to lead to problems in the future, and which contained mathematical and other errors, but also that the Ministry had not even consulted the Board before issuing the document. Indeed, the Under-Secretary himself, in answer to a Question from me on 8th November 1976, said:
"It is not customary to consult the Agrément Board before issuing advice of this sort."—[Official Report, 8th November 1976; Vol. 919, c. 4.]
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it certainly should be customary, because not only has the Board very considerable knowledge and expertise—indeed, it caught the Department out on this occasion in errors which have still never been admitted since—but it is actually involved in testing materials for cavity fill, as I saw with my own eyes at Garston last September. Indeed, the Board's certificates for cavity fill have done a great deal to clear the cowboys out of that business. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will insist that the Board be automatically consulted in the future and will give instructions to the Department to that effect.

Secondly, there was confusion over the Department of Energy's Press advertisement in March 1976 about cavity wall insulation, which was specifically intended to help the public. This made no effective mention of the agrément certificates, despite the request by the Board that it should do so. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, the hon. Member for Whitehaven (Dr. Cunningham), told me on 30th November last year that it was on the advice of the Department of the Environment that positive recommendations to stick to products with an agrément certificate had been specifically left out of the advertisement, because he said, to put them in would be
"less than fair to installers who did not hold Agrément certificates but who might, nevertheless, be competent."—[Official Report, 30th November 1976; Vol. 921, c. 119.]
I find that very hard to accept, given that the Board is a body which is publicly financed and its members are appointed by the Minister. Either the Government should back it or they should pull out. But to be neutral in such circumstances, when there is a big push on energy conservation, is very odd and simply devalues the work of the Board on this important issue.

There was another example—namely, the very unsatisfactory affair of the Department and the proposed type-approval system. I very much suspect that that is the real reason behind the peculiar Estimate tonight. At present the Board is not able to do properly that which the Gibson Committee intended—namely, that certified products should be given "deemed to satisfy" status for the purposes of the building regulations. For various reasons—all perfectly good—that has not proved possible. Instead, powers were taken under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974—I was a member of the Committee that considered the Bill and I remember it well—to allow for a type-approval system. After a great deal of trouble a type relaxation appeared for cavity wall insulation in 1975, but only because of the cowboys who had caused so much trouble during the insulation boom.

Ministers have been stone-walling detailed questions from me on departmental progress in setting up a type-approval scheme in answers on 30th November 1976, 3rd February 1977, 19th April, 15th June and 5th July. On the last occasion, in July, the Minister for Housing and Construction talked about making
"a statement as soon as possible, I hope before the recess."—[Official Report, 5th July 1977; Vol. 934, c. 491.]
Alas, a statement was not made before the Summer Recess, and a statement will not be made before the Christmas Recess unless the Under-Secretary of State makes one when he replies.

It is my suspicion that it had originally been intended to fix a new three-year agreement that assumed the introduction of a type-approval system, which would have involved direct Department of Environment financing, leading to the phasing out of the concept of grant-in-aid. However, that idea has run into financial and administrative snags and the Department is going cold on it anyway. Indeed, there are rumours that the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act is poorly drafted and would allow too many applications to come before the Department for approval, and that it requires a fixed fee scale to be devised that has been impossible to implement and that may well prove difficult to work out fairly. It is also suggested that there is departmental concern about the liability of the Secretary of State personally in the event of failure of a system that had been approved by his Department under a type-approval system.

If I am right in my suspicions, or anything like right, the nettle must be grasped at once. If the 1974 Act needs amending, let us get on with it. I hope that we can come to an agreement that the public need proper protection from failures, that the present arrangements are far from satisfactory and that this is an urgent matter.

I do not normally criticise public officials even obliquely, but I am far from satisfied that the Department has handled this whole issue with sufficient competence or imagination for many years under Governments of both parties. If the fact that we are having this little debate at half-past six in the morning has required the Department to produce a comprehensive brief for the Minister and thereby pushed this crucial matter involving the safety of buildings up the political agenda, it will not have been in vain. I have too much liking and respect for the Minister to believe that he will be fobbed off with vague and inadequate information from the Department, and I look forward to his reply.

6.28 a.m.

The hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) has shown, not for the first time, his interest in the work of the Agrément Board and in the part it can play to the benefit of the construction industry and construction product manufacturers. I welcome the attention the hon. Gentleman has given to this subject, both tonight and from time to time at Question Time. I assure him that I shall read carefully tomorrow in Hansard what he has said and that I shall be in touch with him. I shall consider carefully what steps should be taken, apart from what I have to say in reply to the debate. I assure him that I take the matter very seriously.

The Board was set up in 1966, by the then Minister of Public Building and Works, to assess and certify new building products. The decision to set up the Board followed an investigation of the French agrément system made by the Gibson Committee. At the time, hon. Members will recall, there was great pressure for innovation in construction, and a legitimate fear that such innovation could prove very dangerous if new products were not thoroughly tested and appraised by an independent body of recognised competence.

Over the past 10 years or more of its existence the Agrément Board has appraised many products. By the end of last March, the end of its last financial year, 462 certificates had been issued. I think it only fair to say that there have been few complaints of failure of products certified by the Board, at least when used in conformity with the terms of their certificates.

I readily recognise and pay tribute to the value of the Board's certification work. The existence of a means of assessment of new products goes a long way to encouraging innovation by assuring users of the acceptability of such products; it extends the means available for providing necessary safeguards against faulty building and it is a help to our exporters of building materials in the seal of approval provided by an Agrément Board certificate, and through the Board's links with the European Union of Agrément.

The hon. Member has raised a number of questions. He asked about the Board's financial position, and I must admit that the Government are not happy about that. When the Board was set up it was hoped—indeed, it was expected—that it would become self-financing in due course. There was never any doubt, of course, that Government assistance would be needed initially, because the outgoings, particularly on the development of new methods of testing products, would clearly be more than could be recovered in the fees which manufacturers would pay for certificates.

The intention was, however, that the Government grant to cover the Board's deficit would be needed only for a limited period as an interim measure. This interim has now gone on for over 10 years and the deficit in the last complete year amounted to £265,000, nearly half the cost of the Board's operations. The reason why the grant appears to have increased five-fold in a single year is simply that, because we were in intensive discustion with the Board about its financial prospects, at Estimates time we were able to make provision only for the £60,000 that was definitely required at that time. Discussions about the future financing of the Board, and in particular its progress to self-sefficiency, were taking place. The Supplementary Estimate that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is to cover the additional drawings from the Contingencies Fund which have been authorised to pay grant to cover the Board's unavoidable expenditure over and above that level.

The main direct beneficiary of an Agrément certificate is the manufacturer of the product to which it relates, and he judges its value by the extent to which it helps him to sell his product. If industry as a whole does not judge agrément certificates to be worth the full cost of providing them, there need be no good grounds to justify the Government in subsidising them.

Clearly, there are arguments which can be advanced in favour of continued Government support on a permanent basis in recognition of the benefit which the country as a whole derives from the testing of new products. But the House would expect us to look very carefully at the extent to which we put public money in, and over the last year we have had many and full discussions with the Board about ways in which its reliance on grant-in-aid might be reduced and the Board become self-financing.

It was originally envisaged that agrément certificated products should be given "deemed-to-satisfy" status under the building regulations. This, while it would not have absolutely precluded the use of uncertificated new products, would have provided a considerable incentive towards a wider adoption of agrément certification by manufacturers seeking to market new products. In the event, legal problems prevented this solution, and so the original concept of agrément was falsified by events.

The hon. Member asked what more could be done to improve the status and thus the attractiveness of agrément certificates. This brings me, of course, to the question of type approvals. Under the powers conferred in Section 67 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may himself approve—or delegate the power to approve—any particular type of building matter as complying with the requirements of the building regulations.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction has said, we are considering the possibility of using this power and setting up a system of type approvals for new building products. Its benefits are clear: quicker consideration of applications; uniformity of assessment; an easier task for control authorities; certainty for designers that products would meet no difficulty at the control stage; commercial advantages for the manufacturers of approved products; the identification of unsatisfactory products through careful testing.

But there are considerable problems which require detailed consideration and consultation—resources, for example. A scheme of type approvals could make very heavy demands in terms of skilled scientific and technically trained manpower and in terms of investment in buildings and equipment. This could be so despite the existence of the Agrément Board and the test houses, with their skilled and experienced staff.

Of course, the manufacturers and others who would benefit from approvals would be expected to pay a considerable part of the cost of carrying out the work, but setting up a type-approvals scheme would still be costly. That follows from the nature of the task. To do the job thoroughly we would have to create an organisation to assess virtually everything that goes to make up a building in terms of whichever of the building regulations applied. We would have to include a system of quality control that would ensure as far as possible that all the subsequent examples of an approved type were of the same standard.

These are some of the formidable problems, and it would be foolish to offer even a limited start to type approvals before they had been very carefully investigated, but my right hon. Friend hopes to make an announcement on this soon, and I shall draw my hon. Friend's attention to the very proper reminders that the hon. Member gave me tonight.

The hon. Member also raised the question of consultation between the Department and the Agrément Board in matters where the latter's interests are affected. I have, of course, told him that we will do so in appropriate cases, and officials of the Department and the Board have met to review the arrangements.

On the particular issue that prompted his question, there was a need for the Department to issue urgent interim advice to building control authorities about procedures to assess the thermal insulation performance of certain types of concrete block. No substantive advice on the subject was available in the current guides issued by the professional bodies concerned. The Department and the Board disagreed on the nature of the advice to be given. In such circumstances the Department, which is responsible for making the Building Regulations, must have the deciding word. The hon. Member may know that the British Standards Institution is now revising its recommended procedures to take account of the new blocks. Both the Department and the Board are or will be associated with this work.

I have tried to deal with the hon. Member's concern on this subject. Certainly I can assure him that we do not underestimate the importance of ensuring that while new products are encouraged wherever they seem likely to produce economic or other benefits, they are not used in buildings unless they satisfy the stringent requirements of building regulations, which are there to protect the health and safety of the user and, indeed society at large. The Agrément Board has played an important rôle in this and I hope that it will continue to do so.