I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I wish to declare an interest as the part-owner of two properties, one of which is currently rented out. I want to thank many groups and individuals who have assisted in the creation of the Bill. Chief among them has been the sterling contribution of the Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service—both the officers and the chairman of the authority, Conservative Councillor Mark Healey. There have been contributions from fire officers around the country, landlord and tenant groups, the fire safety industry and many others. Also, I want to thank the hon. Members for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), both from Devon, who have given their support to the Bill.
Today, over 80% of homes have smoke alarms, compared with 9% in 1987, and between 1988 and 2008 fire deaths halved. There are, though, far too many deaths and injuries from fire. In the last year for which figures are available, 331 people died as a result of residential fires. Of these, 222—two thirds—occurred when there was no working smoke alarm. In 137 cases there was no detection system at all. Is it not possible to argue that a working smoke alarm could have saved one of those 222 lives or helped prevent one of the 9,066 non-fatal casualties from that year?
Although substantial progress has been made in recent years, we are in danger of retrenchment. The spending review has brought substantial cuts to the Government’s awareness campaigns, and fire authorities across the country are contemplating bringing an end to programmes such as providing free battery-operated smoke alarms, as budget cuts take hold. Many fire authorities have carried out sterling work, not only increasing public awareness of the need to have working alarms, but through a range of other fire safety measures. I pay tribute to the hard work of Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service on a range of prevention activities. Indeed, following a serious fire in my constituency, the authority installed more than 1,200 new smoke alarms in just two months.
Building regulations currently dictate that new build, extensions and alterations should be equipped with hard-wired smoke alarms. Furniture regulations also play their part in reducing avoidable domestic fires or lessening their impact. Figures show that as awareness of fire safety increases, deaths and injuries decrease. Yet casualties are preventable, and fires, sadly, continue. We have seen a number of tragic fire deaths in recent months, quite often involving rented properties. There are gaps in the regulations governing fire prevention. Outside of houses in multiple occupation it is only guidance or good practice that governs the provision of smoke and fire detection.
The majority of landlords in the private and social sectors ensure that smoke alarms are available. They not only provide safety and reassurance for tenants, but are in the interests of landlords. Many landlords to whom I have spoken have been under the false impression that fitting smoke alarms is already a statutory duty. However, a minority of rented homes do not have smoke alarms, and they may well hold some of the most vulnerable members of our society. There is a correlation between the propensity for fire and the lack of fire safety devices. In 2001, the Association of British Insurers highlighted the fact that 81% of homes in total had smoke alarms, but less than 60% of homes suffering fires had alarms.
Promoting voluntary good practice among landlords has been very positive. The number of landlords becoming accredited is increasing, which offers tenants reassurance not only that their property will be relatively safer, but that the landlord appreciates the duty of care they have towards tenants. However, in my constituency, only an estimated 5% of landlords have become accredited, and only an estimated 15% are members of the excellent and highly professional landlords association in south Devon, of which I am a member. Sadly, the majority of private sector landlords do not join landlords associations, where best practice can be shared and standards raised. The good landlords pay a heavy price in reputation for the actions of the bad.
Social housing providers also need to ensure that they are working to best practice. When a recent house fire in my constituency highlighted the issue of fire safety, it was found that about one quarter of the houses belonging to the largest social housing provider, Riviera Housing Trust, had no smoke alarm. Much to its credit, the trust has now pledged to ensure that all properties have working smoke alarms. However, if a housing association can provide a service to vulnerable people without needing to ensure safety from fire, Government guidelines are clearly lacking.
I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Will he tell the House exactly what conversations he has had with Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government, either on the housing or the fire side, about the nature of his Bill?
Since the Bill was published—four and a half months ago—I have made repeated attempts to arrange a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who has responsibility for fire, but I have met another junior Minister, who kindly allowed me to talk things through with civil servants. However, I was shocked this morning when the Under-Secretary said to me that if I withdrew my Bill, I could have a meeting with him. That was an insult to the people who have died in fires and their relatives.
The key word is “guidelines”. The housing health and safety rating system highlights 29 factors that may be taken into consideration by local authorities when assessing risk to all residential properties. If fire is seen as a category 1 hazard, enforcement action can be taken. Other guidance documents over recent years have stressed the importance of smoke alarms, but still local authorities are free to do as little about it as they wish. A number of cases have highlighted the need for better regulation. At an inquest into a fatal fire in Yarcombe near Honiton in Devon in May 2008, the coroner resolved to contact DCLG Ministers urging them to review whether smoke detection could be made mandatory in rented domestic dwellings. To date, DCLG has not responded positively.
Earlier this year, there were fire deaths in two incidents in Northumberland, at Ashington and Bedlington. Three people died in total and in neither fire were there any working alarms. In September, an elderly woman died in a fire in Porlock, Somerset. Again the fire authority found no smoke alarms. Indeed, fire officers have told me that they have never attended a fatal fire where working smoke alarms have been present, and the number of cases reported in the local press of smoke alarms saving families from death and/or injury is significant. There should be a straightforward solution to this problem.
In 2004, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee, of which I was a member, produced a report on the fire service with the following recommendation:
“We believe that functioning smoke alarms save lives and reduce injuries. The Committee congratulates those Fire Services which operate initiatives to fit free smoke alarms for the vulnerable. We welcome the requirement for alarms to be hard-wired in alterations, extensions and new buildings. We recommend this requirement be extended to include all existing tenanted properties, housing of multiple occupation and housing for vulnerable members of society. If the design of such buildings makes installation of hard-wired alarms impossible, we recommend use of alarms fitted with 10 year batteries.”
This Bill seeks to implement the Select Committee’s recommendations, which are still on the table, six years later. It will ensure that all landlords provide a working hard-wired fire detection system at the start of any tenancy agreement. That will be a legal requirement, in the same way that a landlord must have the gas system certified annually, an electrical safety check, and an energy performance certificate. From commencement of the tenancy, responsibility shifts to the tenant, who should refrain from causing damage to the system, and report any problems punctually, in the same way that the vast majority of tenants already do with all aspects of their home. As one of the Devon and Somerset fire officers said, when someone buys a car, it has to come with a seat belt. After that, it is the responsibility of the driver to use it properly. The same applies to smoke alarms. It seems eminently sensible that rented properties should be safe at the start of a tenancy, but it is equally sensible that the tenant should take responsibility for their safety after that.
I apologise for missing the start of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and commend him for bringing the Bill to the House. Is he aware that, before and subsequent to the Select Committee’s report, even when smoke detectors without extended-life batteries or hard wiring were given away by registered social landlords and fire brigades, that did not work because batteries were taken out or they were sold at the local pub? Hard-wired detectors and 10-year batteries have been proven to work, and have saved lives. I wish the hon. Gentleman every success with his Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Indeed, the figures are startling, both for failure rates and the number of properties where batteries were removed. That is why all building regulations today, and the Bill, require the hard-wired solution where it can be implemented.
My aim is to ensure that all rented properties, not just those covered by the latest regulations, have a good deal of fire safety. Tenants would not have only 20 seconds’ warning, and that could be the difference between life and death. It would save dozens of lives every year, and could prevent thousands of injuries. It would save millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money which is otherwise spent on preventable death and injury, health and social care costs, welfare and support. There are issues that need resolving in Committee, including the applicability to long-term tenants, a suitable process to allow landlords to hold their tenants to account without protracted civil court proceedings, and so on.
Making smoke detectors compulsory in all rented properties has broad support, including from the former Select Committee. Early-day motion 31 endorses mandatory detectors and has cross-party support. Indeed, immediately before the general election, the then shadow Home Secretary visited my constituency and was quoted in the local press as saying that he wholeheartedly supported the campaign. I only hope that his Front-Bench colleagues share that diligent attitude to saving lives.
Fire authorities have done a great deal in promoting fire safety, but there is a gap in protection that needs filling, and the fire service on the ground tells me that legislation is the only way to achieve that. I am aware of ideological objections that the Minister may have to regulation, but I hope that I can persuade him that not all regulation is pernicious and malevolent. In fact, much of it has been designed to protect and to save lives. The current regulations on fire protection in houses in multiple occupation, furniture regulations, and regulations on new build have all contributed to a decline in death and injury from fire.
Where there are market solutions, they need to be deployed, but it is clear from my discussions with the insurance industry that it does not accept that compulsory fire alarms are a priority. It simply adjusts its premiums and allows bad landlords to continue to put tenants at risk.
If the Minister is unable to set aside his ideological objections to regulation, there are many suitable candidates for removal that could serve the Administration’s one- in, one-out rule. One solution would be to consolidate or bundle the current safety regulations applying to landlords. They are already mandated to check gas and electrical equipment and to provide an energy performance certificate, so why not streamline all the relevant regulations that affect landlords?
The energy performance certificate, for example, often proves of no practical use to tenants, and it certainly will not save any lives. Perhaps the Minister could look at exempting landlords from having to produce energy performance certificates, and give them the same status that life-saving alarms have under the current guidelines. The one in, one out principle: sorted; simple. The bottom line is that regulation saves lives and ideological objections take lives. This is an interesting test for the coalition, because that difference goes to the heart of what divides most Liberal Democrats from most Conservatives. Is the Minister big enough to bridge that divide?
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on introducing this important piece of legislation. I will not detain the House for long with my own comments, but I want to offer my party’s support for this measure. I am pleased to see two former firefighters in the Chamber today. The comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) were entirely apt. Sadly, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), is no longer in his place, but he is unable to contribute to the debate anyway as he now sits on the Front Bench. Otherwise, I am sure that he would have some very strong views on the Bill.
In yesterday’s debate in Westminster Hall initiated by the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), we heard about the tragic death of two people in a house in multiple occupation in the constituency of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) who, in an emotional speech, highlighted the figures that we have heard again today, which confirm the very high number of deaths in HMOs. We know that there is some protection for those living in HMOs, but it is clearly inadequate. The hon. Gentleman confirmed that the problem existed across the whole private sector. That sector has raised its standards and the quality of its accommodation in recent years, but I am afraid that there are still rogue landlords.
I have met representatives of Devon and Somerset fire service and had a very useful conversation with them. They flagged up the number of very serious incidents in their area, and it is quite frightening and wholly unacceptable that we should simply stand by and allow this to continue, particularly when the number of deaths caused by fires where there is no hard-wired smoke alarm exceeds the number caused by electrocution and gas malfunction by a ratio of more than 5:1.
Why are the Government not supporting this measure? How can the Minister justify rigidly sticking to the one- in, one-out regulation restriction, which I believe is the block on this wholly laudable attempt to improve fire safety, given that more than 200 lives have been lost as a direct result of the lack of a secure smoke alarm? I urge him to allow the Bill to progress into Committee, so that the hon. Member for Torbay can continue to explore options for some kind of joint safety certificate, perhaps bringing existing regulations into one simple duty, linking energy, gas, electricity and fire safety checks. Even on its own, the provision of hard-wired smoke alarms would not be an enormous burden for landlords, not least because I would expect insurance companies to view more kindly a property with such alarms with regard not only to buildings insurance but to tenants’ contents insurance. The hon. Gentleman has set out some of the costs involved. Why is it right that new build properties that are rented offer this safe standard, yet it is not appropriate for people in older properties? Apparently, it is okay for those people to live in unsafe conditions.
During a debate on delegated legislation this week, the Minister for Housing and Local Government seemed to dismiss the importance of fire deaths in HMOs. In response to a question from me, he said:
“I imagine that the hon. Lady is not suggesting that the change in legislation in October led to some of those terrible fires”.—[Official Report, Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee, 16 November 2010; c. 12.]
Well, actually, yes I am, in relation to the further deregulation of HMOs. We have the evidence, and we know that more than one third of the fires where there was no smoke alarm were in HMOs. That is why we continue to oppose the move further to deregulate that type of property and to oppose the increase in that type of property. If the Government want to put right that wrong, at least in part, they will not talk out the Bill today but allow it to go into Committee.
Let me touch on the anticipated growth in the private rented sector and houses in multiple occupation as a result of loosening HMO regulation and of changes to housing benefit. The figures from the Department for Work and Pensions suggest a requirement of at least an additional 88,000 bedsit accommodations. I fear that some landlords—admittedly, a minority—will subdivide homes with plywood to cram people in and fail in their duty to protect their tenants with a perfectly sensible and easy-to-install hard-wired fire alarm. When we have had the first fire death in such properties, will the Minister come back to the House to justify his position of talking out the Bill, or will he allow it to proceed? It is in his hands, and we will listen closely to his response.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on this Bill. My Totnes constituency shares half of Torbay—an area in which people know only too well what the consequences of tragic fire deaths mean both for families and for the wider community.
Thirty-one people died in the Paddington rail disaster; we quite rightly held a public inquiry and no expense was spared to make the railway safe. The fact is, however, that in the year running up to March of this year, 328 people died in fires, but they did not all die on the same day or even in the same week; otherwise we certainly would have held a public inquiry into those deaths.
Most people in the outside world would assume that smoke detectors are already compulsory, but they are not. They would also assume that for the most vulnerable households in our country—houses in multiple occupation or homes where vulnerable children are living with adults who are not in a position to care for them properly—protection already exists. After the incident in Torbay, to which my hon. Friend referred, people assumed that corporate manslaughter charges would be brought; in fact, there was no possibility of that because there was no compulsion in the law for smoke detectors to be fitted, even though this was a vulnerable household.
Smoke detectors save lives, and nobody disputes that. Nor does anyone dispute that hard-wired smoke detectors are far preferable to battery-operated smoke detectors. This amounts to a law of diminishing returns. If the Minister will not accept the expense of installing hard-wired systems, there must surely be a case for insisting at least on extended-life batteries that provide 10-year protection. Again, that really would save lives, so I put the same question to the Minister as was put previously: if there is another fire death, or particularly if there are large-scale fire deaths, will he come back to the House to explain why this very simple measure, which would save so many lives and be so simple to introduce, was not introduced?
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay: if we have annual gas safety checks and if it is possible to insist at the beginning of an occupancy on an energy-saving certificate and an electrical safety certificate, why is it not possible to insist on a system that, as a bare minimum, will have a 10-year battery life? My preference is for hard-wired systems, but if that is not possible, what is wrong with simply requiring a technician at the beginning of a tenancy to press a test meter, especially if it could save lives? I urge the Minister to consider those issues; I will not detain the House further.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who made a robust case in support of her hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), the proposer of the Bill. I shall not speak for long, mainly because running down the clock will make a trifle easier the Minister’s opportunity to talk this Bill out. I have a high regard for him, but I understand that the Government will not support the Bill, which I find very disappointing.
I support the Bill because, as the hon. Members for Totnes and for Torbay and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) have said, everyone knows that smoke detectors save lives.
When I was fire Minister in 2005, I used to travel around the country. One chief fire officer introduced me to a fire crew who had only recently started installing smoke detectors on a council estate on their fireground. He took some pleasure in introducing me to the officer in charge of the crew. Asked by the chief fire officer to explain their experience the previous week, the crew told me rather sheepishly that they had fitted a smoke detector in a home and had been called out some six hours later to find the mum and three children on the pavement. They had been alerted to the fact that there was a fire in the dwelling by the smoke detector. Although that was not an exciting incident for the crew to attend, because they did not have to carry out any live rescues, the people in the building could easily have died had it not been for the smoke detector. The installation of the detector had been far more effective in saving lives than a fire engine a mile down the road responding to a 999 call would have been.
Everyone knows that smoke detectors save lives, and hard-wired detectors are the most effective. The Bill gives the Government an opportunity to proceed with social legislation that I fully support.
Let me start by declaring an interest, which can be found in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as the owner of a residential property from which rental income is received.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on his Bill, which raises important issues. I am the last person to denigrate or minimise the risks involved or the importance of fire prevention, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not intend to suggest otherwise by anything that he said. The Government are committed to recognising the importance of fire prevention, and continuing prevention work. We could debate the ways and means of achieving our aim and whether primary legislation is ideal for the purpose, but I trust that Members in all parts of the House are committed to protecting people from the risk of fire.
Let me give some background to the debate and, in doing so, refer to Members’ helpful contributions. I have listened carefully to what has been said, but let me say something about the work that has been done so far, some of which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). I am delighted to see him in the House today, and I welcome him to the debate. He has a high reputation in the fire community as someone who served bravely as a firefighter and was also an excellent fire Minister. I weigh his words with considerable respect, and take note of them. On his watch and that of other Ministers, real progress has been made in improving fire safety.
Beside me on the Front Bench is the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning). When he was in a position to speak on these matters, he was himself a doughty campaigner for fire safety, and, like the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, he has served as a firefighter on the front line. I pay due heed to those who really understand these matters.
Co-ordinated fire safety strategies have been in place for some years, and they have been very successful. The number of fire deaths in the home in England has halved since the 1980s, and the long-term trend is downwards. In 2008—the last year for which we have fully published figures—213 people sadly perished in accidental fires in the home, compared with 363 in 1995. That is a reduction of some 40%, which is clearly welcome. The long-term trend for non-fatal fire casualties is also downwards: in 2008 there were 9,200 such casualties, compared with 13,844 in 1995. Those are significant and worthwhile reductions. I hope it goes without saying that one fire death is one too many, but that is worth restating none the less. The tragic events at the fatal house fire in Bridlington last week, where three children died, brings into sharp relief the importance of fire safety and fire prevention. I am sure the thoughts of all Members go out to the relatives and friends of the family.
When I was leader of the London fire and civil defence authority, as part of my duties I met people who had lost relatives in fires. One fire death is a tragedy and a disaster for everybody involved. Although we should recognise that some good work has been done, recent statistics suggest that the long-term downward trend, to which I referred, may be beginning to plateau, and therefore it is right that the hon. Member for Torbay raises this subject. We are all interested to see whether those statistics are correct, and if so, how we can find steps to drive down the number of fire deaths still further. The question is the means by which we do so.
I have had a raft of meetings with organisations across the fire sector. I will not pretend off the top of my head that I recall those particular ones, but I regularly meet representatives of, for example, the Chief Fire Officers Association, the fire prevention industries and the Fire Brigades Union, and I continue to keep in touch with them. I am aware that these issues are often discussed with Housing Ministers as responsibilities overlap here. Under this Administration, the door of our Department is always open to professional and voluntary organisations that want to raise issues with us.
I have in fact met the Local Government Association’s fire forum on more than one occasion. I have attended its meetings and have had meetings with its chairman, Councillor Brian Coleman, and other leading members. I have already made it clear that I have a regular series of debates, but I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. I am sure that if the fire commission wishes to raise a specific issue, it will ask for a further meeting and I will happily oblige, as I hope I have always tried to do.
Although there has been success, we can never be complacent; we wish to drive the number of deaths down further. The Government’s key strategy is to drive down the number of preventable fire deaths through community fire safety activity. I say “drive down” the number because, tragically, there will be some instances where, despite everything being done, it is not possible to save someone. We want to get the numbers down to the irreducible minimum, of course. The strategy is to drive down the number of preventable fire deaths through community fire safety activities, in which the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse took a leading part when he was a Minister. The strategy involves efforts to reduce the number of fires through education, information and publicity. The installation of properly maintained smoke alarms in every household is at the centre of efforts to reduce fire death in the home, as they provide important and vital early warning of fire and can help people to escape. The Fire Kills campaign has for some time conducted high profile campaigns promoting smoke alarms and maintenance messages, which have proved very successful.
The English housing survey 2008, published last month, shows ownership of smoke alarms in all dwellings in England standing at 91%. It is a significant achievement for the Department for Communities and Local Government and the fire and rescue service that nine out of every 10 homes have a smoke alarm installed. I am grateful that the hon. Member for Torbay mentioned the excellent work of Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service, its firefighters and chief officers and the chairman of the authority. He is absolutely right: all of them do fine work. There has been great consistency of application by fire and rescue authorities. Circumstances vary, but much work is being done and Devon and Somerset is a good example.
Although that is a significant achievement, we aim to raise that percentage even further because, as the hon. Gentleman said and I accept, there is evidence that those without fire alarms—the remaining 10%—are often in the groups who are at the most risk from fire. Furthermore, there is concern arising from some statistics that show the importance of not only fitting alarms, but making sure that they are properly maintained. In some cases, sadly, there is evidence that a smoke alarm failed to operate—the battery had gone flat or had even been removed. There are also instances—one of the recent fires reported to this House among them—showing that even the provision of a properly working smoke alarm cannot guarantee that lives will be saved. In one of the fires I mentioned, the smoke alarm operated properly, waking and alerting those in the neighbouring house, but, for reasons that are not yet apparent, not enabling the occupants of the house to make their escape.
When we look at changes in technology—we have heard about 10-year life batteries or hardwired alarms, which I am happy to discuss further with hon. Members on both sides of the House—it is also worth considering the fact that, in many cases, death is caused not by smoke inhalation, but by carbon monoxide poisoning. We should consider seriously whether dual-sensor arrangements should be brought much more to the fore, moving the position on yet further. I hope that we can discuss that. By no means am I closing the door to potentially better ways of improving safety.
The Minister is held in high regard by the fire community because of his leadership of the London fire and civil defence authority, and he speaks with considerable authority on these matters, but the key question to which Members are keen to learn the answer is: do the Government support the Bill? If not, why not? If the reason is the one to which the Bill’s sponsor and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) alluded—regulation—will the Minister not take the opportunity to consolidate existing regulations to accommodate the one-in, one-out rule, as the coalition wishes?
The situation is a little more complex than the hon. Gentleman puts it, although I acknowledge the sincerity with which he does so. Let me set out the difficulties. First, it is not only a question of regulation. When an obligation and a duty are imposed under any legislation, it is important to ensure that the obligation and the duty—especially if they are backed up by a criminal sanction, as is normal in these sorts of regulatory instances—are properly and practicably enforceable. For reasons that I shall explain, I have concerns about whether the measures in the Bill would be practicably enforceable.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about his and the Government’s concern for fire safety. Is he worried about how much it might cost to implement these measures, as opposed to alternative measures that the Government might be considering?
The cost to the sector of going entirely down the route of hard-wired alarms, which are probably the best systems—they can be disabled by a determined person, but are much less capable of being so disabled—would be very significant. Figures in the range of £540 million to £1.2 billion have been suggested, and “Fire Research News” has quoted some significant figures that I can make available to the House. I should therefore like to have further discussions about the appropriate and sensible way of taking this forward. There is a cost element, but there is also the element of practicality. If we are putting a burden on a sector, as inevitably we sometimes do, we must ensure that it will ultimately be enforceable in any event. That is one of my concerns, as I said to the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse.
The fact that we are committed to continuing the education campaign is important in this regard. Education about the use and maintenance of fire alarms is pretty key to ensuring that whatever system is installed is effective and useful. The Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group has recognised that the Fire Kills media campaign delivers measurable public safety benefits. The Fire Kills campaign is therefore exempt from the freeze that was otherwise imposed on Government advertising campaigns and will continue in the coming year. It is an important and effective programme, which this year will focus very much on helping fire and rescue services, and their partners, to deliver key messages locally within their communities. It will again be a national campaign, supported and developed by the Department for Communities and Local Government. It will be underpinned by a radio advertising campaign, and we will be working with commercial and voluntary sector partners on new opportunities to get across the messages about smoke alarm maintenance. The radio advertising campaign will commence on 27 September and run each weekend until the end of March 2011. A key message will be to promote the importance of regular smoke alarm testing.
My hon. Friend is setting out some sensible ideas on the way forward in terms of advertising and awareness campaigns. I am sure that everyone here empathises with those ideas and supports the expenditure. I am certain that he sympathises with the Bill, but does he acknowledge that it potentially embeds an older technology into legislation, which we are trying to get away from? Does he agree that legislating for a particular technology might not be wise when internet and wireless devices, and all sorts of similar things, are being developed?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I regard the Bill as being entirely well intentioned. However, apart from my concern about enforceability, I am worried that a piece of primary legislation that commits us to a particular technology may create a needless rigidity in the arrangements, because things change. As he says, there is already quite a bit of work coming through in the fire research community about the use of wireless devices. A good deal of work is also being done on dual sensor devices which combine a carbon monoxide alarm and a traditional smoke alarm. Ironically, the Bill could entrench one technology when a better one has come along. Certainly the hon. Member for Torbay never intended that, but it is another reason for taking steps, whether legislative or non-legislative, after significant discussion across the sector. I am more than happy to undertake to continue that discussion.
I have referred to our awareness campaigns, and it is important that I also mention the regulatory arrangements that are currently in place, particularly in relation to vulnerable properties. We must consider fire safety across the piece. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 defined landlords as responsible persons, which imposes obligations on them to risk-assess fire safety in the common parts of a building, to take adequate precautions and to manage any remaining risk. Although the order applies only to the common parts of premises, in many residential premises the responsible person will in practice need to take account of fire safety measures in place in individual dwellings.
I am intrigued about all these wonderful new technologies, which presumably must be cheaper given that one of the objections to the Bill is the cost of the old technology. Will the Minister now amend all the existing fire legislation relating to smoke alarms, so that alarms are upgraded to the new super-duper systems, which must be much cheaper if the objection is finance?
With every respect, I think my hon. Friend is being a little disingenuous in assuming that the sole objection is finance, but it is a significant matter to take on board. I have also mentioned the practicality of enforcing his proposals. I am sure he will agree that where there is an existing regulation based on a particular type of technology, we should not necessarily repeal it until a new one comes along, but nor should we necessarily introduce new legislation based on a premise that has been overtaken by events. I very much hope that, whatever the outcome today, he and I will be able to have significant discussions with officials and others in the sector about how to get a regime that can cope with the changes in technology.
Fire and rescue authorities have a legal duty to enforce the provisions of the 2005 order in the common areas of residential accommodation. It is well known that sometimes fire can spread up through the common parts of a building, including in blocks of flats and houses in multiple occupation.
The Housing Act 2004 introduced the housing health and safety rating system, which is the principal tool for assessing fire safety risk and regulating standards in all types and tenures of residential accommodation, both individual dwellings and housing blocks. There is no regulatory requirement for landlords to install smoke alarms, other than in higher-risk HMOs, which are subject to statutory licensing. There are enforcement abilities in respect of those properties. That system has been accepted by all parties, and was introduced by the previous Government not as a blanket regulatory requirement but as a proportionate, risk-based approach. They were right to do that, and the current Government are minded to continue the same approach.
The HHSRS is about the whole property, not just one feature. It involves an assessment of the likelihood of a fire starting, the chance of its detection, the speed of its spread and the ease and means of escape. That last part is important, because although a working smoke alarm is usually valuable in alerting occupants to a fire, it must go hand in glove with an effective means of escape from a dwelling.
There is a great virtue in the Bill, irrespective of whether it is tied to a particular technology or method of securing safety. As the former shadow Minister with responsibility for science and innovation, it is important to me that, before supporting any measure, we have not just anecdotal evidence, but clear, systematic studies to determine whether the cost per life saved, for example, would be better under the Bill or under existing methods. I urge the Minister to go back to his Department to look at ways of conducting research to determine the most cost-effective way that will save the maximum number of lives.
My hon. Friend makes an entirely fair and interesting point. Of course, we cannot put a price on saving life, and I would not like to think that anyone thought we could do that. Inevitably with a private Member’s Bill, we do not have an impact assessment, as we might with a Government proposal. However, if he is saying that we should keep the door open to considering the most effective technology, he is right. As I made clear to the hon. Member for Torbay, however, price is not the sole consideration. I also want something that is genuinely enforceable and will genuinely work on the ground. That is why it is important to look at up-to-date technology and not inadvertently to create a lack of flexibility.
One thing that concerns me about the Bill is the requirement that every tenant should have to test the smoke alarm once a month. There is no sanction, so I cannot understand how that provision would be enforced. Does my hon. Friend understand how it could be enforced?
With every respect to the hon. Member for Torbay, I am afraid that that is one of the most significant problems with the Bill. As I said, it is difficult in principle to create an obligation without some means of enforcing it.
Two specific difficulties arise in relation to the obligations in the Bill. First, it works on the premise that its requirements must be included in a written contract of tenancy. As a matter of practice, most contracts of tenancy are in writing, but there is no legal requirement for them to be. I would not want to create a perverse incentive for people not to have written contracts so that they could get around these provisions.
The second point, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) rightly said, is that there is an obligation not only on the landlord to ensure that the system is in place—that might be straightforward enough, subject to certain cost considerations and the right technology—but on the tenant to test all smoke alarms
“at least once a month”
“notify the landlord of any defect”.
I find it difficult to see how that could ever be policed in any proportionate or practical manner. If the provision is intended to raise the awareness of landlords and tenants of the desirability of such measures, that is well and good, and I would welcome it. However, primary legislation is not the right route to deal with that laudable objective.
When a criminal sanction attaches to the tenant who fails to test the fire alarm once a month—the Bill refers to tenants failing to do that—there are real risks involved. That aside, although the landlord faces a criminal sanction under clause 2(1), it is not clear what the sanction on the tenant is, so how do we enforce it? An obligation that is not enforceable will not actually help anyone. Furthermore, there is no means of coming back at the landlord, even if the tenant did notify him, and he did not act. If such a case ever came to proceedings, how would we prove whether it was the tenant who had not tested the system or, having tested it, had not notified the landlord of the problem—there could be two errors—or the landlord, who, having been notified, had failed to act? There are so many variables and possibilities that the Bill does not make for good primary legislation. That is why, with every respect to the hon. Member for Torbay, I do not believe that it is the right way forward, but I am more than happy to have discussions with him.
Officials have met the hon. Gentleman before today. He met the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), who has responsibility for housing, on 13 October, and he has had discussions with officials. We have not shut the hon. Gentleman out of the Department, and I greatly hope that he will take up the opportunity to meet me and discuss the matter further. He has a good reputation for campaigning on the subject, and I hope that he will act as an advocate for people, both as a Member of Parliament—
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 21 January 2011.