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Clause 1

Volume 115: debated on Thursday 7 May 1987

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Power To Exempt From Requirement To Have Fire Certificate

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, leave out lines 39 to 41 and insert—

'( ) The fire authority shall not grant exemption under this section for any premises without causing an inspection to be carried out under subsection (4) above unless they have caused the premises to be inspected (under that or any other power) within the preceding twelve months.'.
This is quite an important amendment which was introduced in response to what the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) said in Committee. It is a credit to him that this issue was raised. To understand this amendment one must have an understanding of the statutory background to clause 1. The main statute with which we are concerned is the Fire Precautions Act 1971, which is aimed at protecting life from the risk of fire. The central feature of that Act is the requirement that occupiers of premises which are put to a use which is designated by order made by the Secretary of State should obtain a fire certificate from the local fire authority.

Before the local fire authority issues the relevant certificate, it is required to satisfy itself as to the adequacy of fire safety on the premises, including the means of escape, the means for fighting fire and the means for giving warning to people on the premises. When the measures are not found to be satisfactory, the fire authority has the statutory power to acquire appropriate improvements. In addition, the fire certificate can impose any requirements that the fire authority considers necessary, including maintenance conditions and the requirement for training staff and keeping records.

That is the statute on which the subsequent delegated legislation was founded and to which this Act refers. In 1972 the Secretary of State designated hotels and boarding houses providing sleeping accommodation for six or more persons or for any number of persons above the first floor or below the ground floor as being premises which required a fire certificate.

In 1976 the certification process was taken yet further in that under the fire certification requirements under the 1971 Act provision was made to extend the process to factories, offices, shops and railway premises which were previously subject to certification under the Factories Act 1961 and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963. Under the designation order such premises in which more than 20 persons are employed to work, or more than 10 persons are employed to work other than on the ground floor, are required to be certificated.

Further changes were made in that factories in which explosives or highly flammable substances are stored or used also need a certificate, regardless of the number of employees. Thus, in general terms, fire certificates are needed for all but the smallest hotels and boarding houses and for many places of work.

Naturally, since the certification provision of the 1971 Act came into force fire authorities have carried out extensive programmes to certificate premises in the categories which I have described. The 1971 Act, together with the delegated legislation which followed, has led to a substantial improvement in fire safety.

However, as you will be the first to appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, such legislation requires constant scrutiny and updating. That is precisely what has been happening. A process of review was undertaken which culminated in proposals produced within the framework of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council which includes representatives of fire authorities and the fire service. A consultative document based on these proposals was published in 1985. As a result of the comments received, a further consultative document was issued last year. The consultative process led to the substantial provisions that are to be found in part I of the Bill.

In substance, it has been thought right under the clause to enable the Secretary of Stale to specify in an order made under section 1 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 descriptions of premises which a fire authority may exempt from the requirement to have a fire certificate, even though they are being put to a designated use under section 1 of the 1971 Act and are not otherwise exempted. In other words, clause 1 says that the Secretary of State may by provision exempt certain classes of premises which are, on the face of it, designated premises, but he can do so only by giving to the local authority a discretion to make that exemption, the local authority being the fire authority for these purposes.

The point that exercised the minds of hon. Members in Committee was that it was right and proper that before an exemption order was made by the fire authority it should have carried out an inspection. That is precisely what the amendment is seeking to achieve. It provides:
"The fire authority shall not grant exemption under this section for any premises without causing an inspection to be carried out under subsection (4) above unless they have caused the premises to be inspected (under that or any other power) within the preceding twelve months."
It thus follows that an inspection within the relevant period is a condition precedent to the power of exemption arising.

The amendment has been introduced because of an undertaking that I gave in Committee to the hon. Member for Battersea. Because of that undertaking, he withdrew the amendment which he had moved in Committee. I hope that my amendment meets completely the undertaking that I gave and that it will satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

The amendment will allow fire authorities to avoid needless duplication of inspections so that they can exempt premises on the basis of knowledge gained on a recent inspection, but it sets a reasonable limit to that discretion and ensures that an inspection has taken place within the previous 12 months. Of course, even if the fire authority had inspected within the previous 12 months, it can, if it wishes, require a further inspection, if that is thought necessary, before issuing the certificate of exemption. We have given the fire authority a wide discretion but we have also fettered it in the way set out in the amendment.

I very much hope that this approach will commend itself to the hon. Member for Battersea and to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan), who played such a prominent part in the discussion in Committee.

I welcome the amendment. As the Minister said, it reflects precisely the amendment that I moved in Committee which the Minister said he would like to consider and get drafted to Home Office standards. I understand that the amendment will achieve what I intended: that if more than 12 months have gone by there will be an inspection by the fire authority. As the Bill was drafted originally, such an inspection was not necessary. This small improvement will add to the fire safety standards, and I welcome it.

Amendment agreed to.