Thursday 6 February 2014
[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Communities and Local Government Committee, HC 163, and the Government response Cm 8794.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Foster.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and to introduce this debate on the third report this Session by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, on community budgets, an important subject. To set the context, the Committee supports the concept of community budgets and how they work in practice where pilots have been established. It is fair to say that, as well as supporting what has been done on community budgets, the Government were generally supportive of the Committee’s recommendations. We all saw the potential, in this economically difficult climate, both to save money and to improve services. Not many initiatives have the opportunity or potential to do both.
I will briefly sketch the Committee’s overall view and then put some specific questions about remaining issues of concern, some of which were raised in the report and some of which the Government might not have answered as fully as we would have liked. I appreciate that I might ask a lot of specific questions; if the Minister feels that some of them are more appropriately responded to in writing after the debate, I understand.
Community budgets are not matters of great political contention. It is merely a matter of exploring how we can make the ideas work in practice, considering the obstacles to the successful further development of the community budget approach, learning lessons from what has happened on the pilots, and seeing how community budgets can relate to and work more widely with local growth funds and city deals. I flag up the fact that the Committee is now considering the London Finance Commission and its recommendations for financial devolution to cities. Maybe that is another element that will come into the devolutionary equation in due course.
To summarise the Committee’s findings, we felt that the pilots demonstrated a clear potential for delivering cheaper yet more integrated services that are better related to the specific needs of both areas and individuals living in those areas. We recognised that to be successful, they need strong leadership at the local level and from central Government. We had one little worry: pilots tend to be in areas where individuals are committed to making something happen, and strong leadership tends to go with that. Will the leadership naturally be as strong, and will it be the right sort of leadership, in other areas as the scheme is rolled out across the country?
We acknowledge that there are barriers, often cultural barriers, particularly in Whitehall, and the important role that secondees from Departments have played in helping to break them down. We recognise the need for a clear framework, so that the costs incurred and the benefits, which do not always come to the same organisations, are clearly identified and systems for accountability are in place.
On the troubled families programme, about which I will say a few more words at the end of my comments, we recognise generally that progress has been made. The Minister might like to update us further on the present position and how many families the programme is now dealing with. We had a few concerns about the future—the additional families coming on stream in 2016 and what will happen thereafter.
Generally, the Government response was positive and recognised the need for a wider roll-out of the principles behind community budgets—strong leadership, support systems and accountability mechanisms—but it used some new vocabulary that we had to deal with. Something called the transformation network was referred to many times, and we are interested to find out more about that organisation, body or network, as it seems key to how the Government intend to take the scheme forward. Another interesting organisation was the Treasury technical advisory group, undoubtedly lurking somewhere in the Treasury across the road, which will be important in helping move the scheme forward.
On specific matters, the Committee could see merit in having more pilots, but ultimately we wanted a nationwide roll-out of community budgets. We thought that that was important and that they have that much potential. We want them to happen everywhere. The Government response supported increased integrated delivery and gave a lot of examples of initiatives and freedoms given to local authorities, such as the reforms of the housing revenue account, which are not directly linked to community budgets but illustrated the resulting freedoms that authorities could have—particularly if the cap were taken off borrowing, but I make that point in passing before moving on to issues more relevant to the report—and other forms of assistance that the Government will give to help the principal approach of community budgets spread more widely.
Essentially, it is about encouraging service transformation, if not through formal roll-out of more measures that we would immediately recognise as whole-place community budgets. What does a successful roll-out of the principles actually look like in practice? How will they be embodied in the delivery of services in our communities throughout the country? Central Government support for the process is clearly key, because much of what we want is about central Government services delivered locally, in a more joined-up way, and by working in conjunction with local authorities, police and other local services.
We recognise that secondments have been important in the pilots to breaking down the barriers that had often existed in Departments and finding a way in to those Departments to make them respond more positively. We accepted in our report that the idea of secondments could not be rolled out to every part of the country—that probably is not feasible—but we asked for at least a named official in each Department to whom local authorities could go if they were experiencing problems, delays or barriers, for help finding a way through those obstacles.
The Government response discussed the public service transformation network established as a way to deal with that issue: its role in disseminating lessons learned from the pilots, its help with plans to transform services in different parts of the country, and the appointment within it of account managers. I presume that those account managers are very much the sort of named officer or official that the Committee asked for—someone in a Department with the responsibility to help make the scheme work and to whom local authorities could go if they found barriers being put up.
I have a few questions about the transformation network, because it appears in many of the Government’s responses. What precisely is it? What staff are involved in it, and how many? What is its budget, and to whom is it accountable? Those are important questions to answer if we are to understand how it works. There is also a reference to its dealing with 22% of service provision across the country; what happens to the other 78%? How will it be dealt with? That seems fairly fundamental if we are looking for a national roll-out. Will we have any more pilots like the whole-place pilots or the neighbourhood pilots, or will there just be a more diffuse dissemination of the principles of community budgets?
Co-production is important. Community budgets clearly have financial incentives to make savings and deliver better services for the same money. It is an important catalyst for pushing service providers to better and more integrated working relationships, but if that is to happen, central Government Departments must let go and give their officials at local level the freedom to engage properly with local authorities and deliver things in different ways in different parts of the country. I cannot help but throw in a little one by saying that the Department for Communities and Local Government should be taking the lead, but when the Secretary of State starts to direct authorities on how often they should empty their bins—he will say that he does not direct, so let us say encourage or persuade them, or comment on how they should do it—or tell them how they should deal with their parking arrangements, that does not create the best of atmospheres and is not the best way to promote letting go and allowing local officials to engage at local level with local authorities and to respond to local needs. Is not it really the job of the Department for Communities and Local Government to take the lead in a very positive, localist way and to help other Departments to roll out best practice?
Economic growth is a key issue in relation to community budgets. We can see community budgets, together with the city deal arrangements and the local growth fund, unlocking the potential for real, clear public service transformation to promote economic growth at local level. A key element, in addition to improved public services, is the idea of being able to work positively at local level to deliver higher economic growth. The Select Committee will look at that when we look at the work of the London Finance Commission and its recommendations.
Very clearly in our report, we drew attention to the comments that Essex county council made to the effect that in trying to work with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, it had simply hit a brick wall: BIS was not willing to co-operate. We raised that issue with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government when he gave evidence and, to be fair, he said, “I’m not aware of this, but I will go back and look into it,” and we had a very long response from the Government on this point. What they did not do was answer the following questions. Has BIS reformed? Has the brick wall been knocked down? Is BIS now co-operating properly? That is what we want it to do. It is one thing to list a load of initiatives; it is another thing to say, “Is that Department really signed up to the process, or is it going through the motions?” Community budgets will not work in the end unless there is real enthusiasm, and not merely within the Department for Communities and Local Government. Despite my little aside about the Secretary of State a few minutes ago, I accept that Ministers in that Department want this to work, but I am not always sure that all their colleagues or, indeed, all the civil servants in other Departments necessarily want it to work.
Joining up social care and health offers a way forward to better, more integrated services. That will not necessarily involve the full whole-place approach, but it is a very important area. The Government mentioned in their response the better care fund and the important role that health and wellbeing boards will have to play in trying to join up and integrate services. Do we see any evidence in delivery on the ground that the health and wellbeing boards and the new public health role of local government are starting to shift the approach from reactive to proactive? On the better care fund, do we have evidence that the NHS trusts really mean to co-operate to make things happen, or will they sit there and say, “This is health money. We want to spend it in a way that we direct”?
That leads me on to data and information sharing. I remember when the Select Committee did our inquiry into the transfer of public health to local government. We were very supportive, considering it to be one of the very positive localist things that the Government had done. When Baroness Hanham gave evidence to the Committee, we noted the honesty with which she said, “These two Departments”—CLG and Health—“have different cultures and information systems, and there are real challenges and problems in breaking those barriers down and getting proper and full co-operation.” In their response, the Government pointed out that to access the money available through the better care fund, there had to be clear indications at local level that data and information sharing had been properly addressed. As we approach the beginning of the next financial year, does the Minister have any information on whether progress has been made?
I was pleased that the Government seemed to recognise that data and information sharing is a potential problem. The Secretary of State was quite open in saying to the Committee that he thought that, very often, there were no real legal obstacles to data and information sharing; there was just a presumption that people could not do it. It was more a matter of culture and belief than a real obstacle, so the development of the network of What Works centres, the work of the transformation network and the efforts to get local authorities and central Government Departments to set up a centre of excellence for information and data sharing are all very welcome, because they do seem to show the Government taking this matter very seriously. There is also the Treasury technical advisory group and its role in exerting pressure to ensure that those barriers are removed where they exist.
There is a brief reference to the Cabinet Office exploring whether legislation might be needed, whether the problems of data sharing are not just about cultural barriers and perceptions about what the position might be, and whether there could be some real legal obstacles to data sharing. If that is the case, can the Minister update us on what progress the Cabinet Office has made with regard to data sharing?
Financial accountability is also very important. The Government response was very much that, as we integrate services in a more specific way across a number of different initiatives, the existing system of accountability will be satisfactory. However, there was recognition, I think, that if we move to pooled budgets, which I think the Government were saying was still a little way away, we would need to have a fresh look at the whole question of accountability, given that pooling local authority resources with local police resources and Department of Health resources will involve dealing with all the different systems of accountability for that spending. We have asked the Public Accounts Committee to have a look at this. Given that the Government have recognised that a fresh look will be needed at some point, can the Minister enlighten us on his vision of how a new system of accountability would work?
Finally on community budgets, there is the issue of wider financial concerns. We drew attention to the fact that if the budgets were to work in the long term, a different approach to long-term funding would be needed. We had a response from the Government on that in two different places. They said that
“the Treasury will work with departments to give local public services the same long-term indicative budgets as departments from the next Spending Review”.
That is a fundamentally important statement and one that the Minister might like to say a little more about. If the Government are serious about that, it could fundamentally change the financial relationship between central and local government, and we would like to hear more.
We identified the problem that the body that makes the savings under community budgets may not be the body that spends the money. Local authorities can put a lot of work into youth services, but the costs are saved in the justice system. Very often, of course, central Government make the savings and local government spends the money. The Government talked about the transformation network working to develop locally based investment agreements, but the Committee said—the Government did not really respond to this—that we thought that Departments would have to provide some money up front if they were to benefit down the line. There was not really a clear indication that that message had got across and that the Government recognised that if community budgets were to work—if we were to roll them out—they would have to do some pump-priming. Indeed, we talked about all Departments, not just the Department for Communities and Local Government, recognising that and about having a cross-Whitehall system for incentivising that process—perhaps a top-slice of departmental budgets. I think that Lord Heseltine suggested that in his “No Stone Unturned” report when he talked about nearly £50 billion being put into local growth funds. In the end, we got £2 billion from Government —slightly less than Lord Heseltine had mentioned.
One of the rumours that went round—I do not always believe rumours, but my sense is that there might be some truth in this one—was that Departments were simply pulling up the drawbridge and saying, “We’re not going to give any of our budgets up to this process. These are our budgets and we’re going to spend them as we want.” Despite the helpful responses to a number of the recommendations in our report, not much was said about the need for pump-priming and whether there needed to be a systematic cross-Whitehall basis for incentivising this process.
I shall say a few words about the troubled families programme. The Select Committee was supportive of that and we could see what the Government were achieving. It might be helpful, as I have said previously, to have an update on what progress has been made. We welcomed the expansion of the programme, with 400,000 extra families being brought into it, but questioned whether the increase in the number of families being dealt with was being matched by a proportionate increase in the resources made available. I am not sure that we got a full answer to that question.
What happens to the programme in 2016? Is the intention to roll it on? If so, what will happen to families who have been successfully dealt with by the programme and ticked off, for whom the payments have been made? Will there be any sort of follow-up system to monitor those families and ensure that they do not slip back into difficulty? The Select Committee also asked about sanctions via the payment-by-results system for authorities that had not delivered. The Government response stated that there had not yet been any sanctions. Will the Minister update us on that?
I will probably not be able to tempt the Minister too far down this road, but does he believe that in the longer term, initiatives such as community budgets, city deals—the Committee has been very supportive of those—the local growth fund and proposals from the London Finance Commission might together become a springboard for widespread localism and the decentralisation and devolution of powers and responsibilities to local government and local communities? Might those initiatives, of which community budgets are a key part, come together to form a brave new world—a rebirth of truly independent local government—and does he see himself as the midwife of that process?
You have caught me by surprise, Mr Sheridan. I thought we might first hear from some of my hon. Friends who have a great deal of expertise in this area, but perhaps they will intervene in a moment.
I was a member of the Communities and Local Government Committee for part of the duration of the inquiry, and I found it extremely interesting; indeed, it was perhaps the most interesting of the Committee’s inquiries in which I participated. I congratulate its Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), and all its members on bringing the inquiry to its conclusion and following it through with the Government. My hon. Friend has continued that effective work today by pressing the Minister on the Government’s response. I have read the response, and I believe there is significant scope for the Government to give us further assurance on how far they will go to ensure that the potential of community budgets is realised.
It is worth putting the matter in context. I believe there is a broad political consensus around the community budget approach. The previous Labour Government introduced the Total Place initiative in 2009 with several pilots, and the Treasury produced a report in March 2010 that stated:
“We will work with consistently high performing places to develop a ‘single offer’ for those places. This offer will give places a range of freedoms (freedoms from central performance and financial control as well as freedoms and incentives for local collaboration) for working in partnership with central government to codesign services and arrangements to deliver greater transparency, efficiency and value for the citizen and the public purse.”
The previous Labour Government did some great things during their 13 years in power. In the later years, however, there was a growing realisation that although performance management had successfully improved performance standards across local government, we had begun to see its limits. A new approach was required in which local authorities could take on a community leadership role and more effectively bring public services together.
That is not merely a criticism of the limitations of performance management under the previous Government, but a reflection on how society has changed. When the welfare state was established, the Government of the day were building services from scratch for many people around the country, and they had to bring services together. There were lively arguments when the national health service was founded, and some argued that local authorities could provide those services, particularly in London, where the local authority already provided a substantial number of health beds. Central Government had to inject some real impetus behind Beveridge’s proposals for the founding of the welfare state, and they did so successfully, whether in health services, social care, transport infrastructure or, notably, the building of housing.
Times have changed, however, and local government is in a different position, not least as a result of 13 years of increased resources and support, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) was particularly responsible for. The capacity of local government grew over that period, so it was right to set out an ambitious plan for Total Place. It is clear, and disappointing, that the Government’s ambition for the community budgets programme does not match the previous Government’s ambition and enthusiasm for the Total Place ideas. There has been a particular focus on troubled families, and I will address that in a moment.
I was present at some of the Select Committee’s evidence sessions, and I have read the transcripts of others. The report demonstrates a clear consensus that community budgets offer a viable model for public service transformation, and that it is necessary to move beyond the testing phase and implement them more widely. The report considers the second phase of the community budget pilots the Government have announced, and it rightly warns—in the spirit of the remarks of the Select Committee Chair—that the second phase of testing must not be allowed to slow the momentum towards wider implementation. Many areas of the country are already developing integrated models of service delivery that do not have the badge of community budgeting. I fully endorse recommendation 3 from the report:
“The Government must continue to send the clear message to all local authorities that it will support every authority wishing to introduce Community Budgets”.
Although I am sure the Minister will tell us that the knowledge network and the secondments have been helpful in some areas of the country, every local authority faces incredibly tough financial challenges, together with the need to reform and improve public services to deal with other pressures that increase costs, such as demographic change. Local authorities should, therefore, be supported in taking forward community budgeting approaches. I hope the Minister will tell us how the Government intend to respond to recommendation 3 in order to send that strong signal to local government.
The report calls on central Government to facilitate local partnerships and enable local authorities to reshape how central resources are spent in their area. I have a mixed view about that. It is important to tell local authorities that we want them to take the lead in developing networks of support for each other and in knowledge sharing. Indeed, Labour local authorities have been doing just that. The excellent publication “50 Top Achievements by Labour Councils”, which I recommend to Members as good bedtime reading, shows how Labour councils are supporting one another to improve community budgets.
The Select Committee report makes a powerful point about the consequences of not rolling out community budgets nationally. There was broad agreement among witnesses that demands and costs will escalate and services will suffer if community budgets are not adopted around the country. The urgency of the situation is reflected in the Select Committee’s conclusion:
“Without quickly and fundamentally changing the way in which services are delivered by increasing local autonomy and integrating services so as to reduce demand and dependency, the reductions that are made to public spending on local services may simply result in more spending in the future on welfare, and judicial and emergency health interventions.”
Local authorities are already familiar with many of the issues raised in the report because they have experienced them directly. In addition, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have published useful reports on the matter, on which the Communities and Local Government Committee drew. The significance of its report lies in the clear message that community budgeting is the way forward for public services.
It is now widely accepted that the existing public sector architecture does not lend itself well to addressing the complex challenges currently faced by local and central agencies or to the kind of relationship we should seek to develop between local and central Government in the coming years. Indeed, the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), has led some excellent work in that area. Governments have experimented with integration in the past, but the urgency of the present financial situation necessitates the immediate transformation of services. Many authorities know that community budgeting approaches offer a viable solution.
We should acknowledge that in recent years most, if not all, councils have developed practice that we could identify as community budgeting—bringing services together—whether or not the Government recognise that from their more limited view of pilots. When I was a member of the Communities and Local Government Committee, we faced a challenge. We were trying to impress on advocates of community budgets, particularly those with direct experience of them, the urgent need to demonstrate very clear evidence that could persuade the Treasury and the current Government.
I also wanted those advocates to persuade my colleagues in the shadow Treasury team, who I very much hope will be moving into that building across Whitehall in 16 months’ time. Those with experience must persuade the right people that if money is moved within the system, we can both generate savings and significantly improve outcomes. We must also look at whether that can be done in-year, within a three-year period or a five-year period, and so on.
We should consider very seriously the call for a longer-term funding settlement from the Local Government Association in its document “Rewiring public services.” That would reflect a growing trend—for example, three-year spending statements and past experiments with public service agreements—and be a clear acceptance of the fact that local government needs more financial certainty. It has been given a kind of certainty by the current Government—principally, it has known that its funding is going to be massively reduced. Local authorities with the greatest need in the most deprived areas of England know that they will lose six times more a year than the 10 least deprived local authorities, compared with 2010-11.
The situation makes the challenges in places such as Liverpool, Birmingham and Middlesbrough even greater than in places such as West Oxfordshire, Wokingham or Dorset that have, in some cases, received an increase in Government funding at the same time as most local authorities have faced massive cuts. That is why it is particularly important for Opposition Members to show that we will embrace community budgeting approaches.
It is worth noting that the Government have made progress following the significant troubled families programme. That programme builds on the great practice of the last Labour Government. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) recently wrote a paper, which I would encourage all Members to read, that looks at not only the Government’s current troubled families programme but where it came from.
The previous Government invested hugely in Sure Start, for example. Schemes such as Think Family were forerunners of the Government’s family intervention programme. The Government inherited a well trained work force, and family intervention projects in certain areas of the country that would now be considered part of the Government’s programme were already up and running in the vast majority of councils, due to extensive investment to combat youth crime, as well as other initiatives.
The Government say that their programme has been a real success, based on early results and judged against their own criteria: 92,000 families have been identified, 62,000 families are attached to the scheme and 22,000 families are deemed to have been turned around. I note, however, the recent National Audit Office report that says that the right families are not being targeted. We should all be concerned about that, and I hope the Minister will have something to say about it. The NAO report said that
“there is a mismatch between the criteria the Department used to calculate the total number of families at which its programme is targeted, and the criteria for identifying the families in each local authority and then rewarding positive outcomes”.
The report showed that payment by results, which pays 80% on attachment and the rest on success, is being diverted by cash-strapped councils into other services as it is not ring-fenced. We should not criticise local authorities for that, or be too surprised, given the scale of the cuts they face, losing up to 40% of their central Government grant. However, the Government must acknowledge that, in practice, that is what is happening with its troubled families programme in many areas of the country.
The NAO report questions whether the achievement of the criteria for success really means that a family is turned around. The families in question have, by definition, complex and long-term problems. To claim that they have been turned around by fulfilling just one criterion in a six-month period is over-optimistic. It shows hubris on the part of the Government in their understanding the nature of the families, the experience of 30 years of very significant investment in some of these families around the country, and the difficulty of genuinely turning lives around. The single criterion could be having come off out-of-work benefits into a job in the past six months. Families obviously must have improved on a number of levels to make that a possibility, but what is still unknown is the families’ longer-term fate and whether they stay turned around if, for instance, that job is lost.
What happens once the council takes away the money for a turned around family? Some local authorities have good step-down support, but what happens after the intensive work is concluded? Does the truanting and antisocial behaviour continue at the reduced level, or does it go up? Is the job gained a job maintained, or does the family fail again? Is support withdrawn, meaning that it becomes impossible to sustain the effort needed to stay employed, given that some core problems in a family may remain unresolved? Can a family be called “turned around” if truanting and antisocial behaviour continue at any noticeable level?
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham has undertaken research that suggests that more than half of all councils are not tracking the families that have successfully—according to the Government’s own criteria—completed the programme. There is a clear need to evaluate the programme. Indeed, the Select Committee report does consider the troubled families programme, and there is a growing body of evidence—I have mentioned the NAO report—that throws up as many questions as answers about how confident we can be in its effectiveness.
I hope that the Minister will confirm that his Department will undertake further evaluation and start to answer some of the long-term questions about the programme. It is a relatively new programme, so we do not yet know what will happen if a family needs further intervention. We do not even know whether the Government, the local authority or other public sector partners will be aware of where further intervention is required.
I want to close by saying a little about what the next Labour Government will do if we are successful at the next general election. I hope to answer some of the questions asked of the current Government by my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee, but also to indicate what the future may hold. Indeed, my hon. Friend will be part of shaping that future because of his expertise and work such as the report we are discussing. I read his recent article in a Smith Institute pamphlet, which set out his ambitions for a future Government; I hope to give him some confidence. Of course, we will not be able to stop the clock or turn back the tide of cuts, but we can offer hope to local government that we both understand the depth of the financial challenge that councils face and are committed to finding a way forward.
We will start by putting fairness at the heart of the relationship between central and local government and into our approach to local government finance. We will acknowledge the difficulties that councils face, not try to sweep them under the carpet. We will respect the decisions that councils make at a local level about how to use resources, not criticise and carp from Whitehall. As my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee said, the current Secretary of State carps about everything from the levels of reserves to bin collections, while masquerading as a localist.
We will review the funding formula. I thank the LGA for its excellent briefing on this debate, and also for its report “Rewiring public services.” We have looked at that, and if local government can come up with a united position on a fair settlement, we would of course take that into very serious consideration. The proposals the LGA put forward for five-year settlements, which are designed to give councils stability, are particularly important in the context of making community budgets a reality. In principle, we want to work with the LGA to take those proposals forward.
The LGA has some other very interesting proposals, such as local treasuries—the idea of local public accounts committees—which could be very valuable in driving community budgeting approaches around the country. Again, we will look to work with the LGA to develop those proposals and see what we can usefully make of them, and how effective they could be.
Of course, the next Labour Government will want councils to meet the needs of communities, be they in adult social care or raising educational standards. However, we have no intention of returning to the tick-box approach of the past. Our approach will be based on partnership underpinned by fair funding, and we need to work with local government to develop the architecture for that relationship. That means there needs to be some accountability that works both ways. However, this Government’s approach has swung the pendulum so far that the positive aspects of the previous architecture have been lost.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), who is here today, and I recently served on the Committee considering the Local Audit and Accountability Bill. We were very disappointed that the Government’s proposals for the future of local audit fundamentally missed the point about the potential for transforming local public services. The Government failed to see how local value-for-money work, for example, could be a driver of local public services working together. They also failed to see that although we support combined authorities, city deals and other initiatives that bring local authorities together with local public service providers—initiatives that are at the forefront of the community budgeting approaches of authorities such as Greater Manchester—we need a system that follows value for money and that audits local authorities in such a way as to assure the public that money is being spent well, and which is that crucial driver, particularly given Whitehall’s resistance to the joining up of local services.
The English deal that we propose will support councils to deliver economic growth in all areas of the country. It will be about devolving powers over housing, planning, jobs and skills. However, we need councils to come together to decide how best to use those powers. Local economies differ, so we will not set down a model from Whitehall. Instead, we will ask local areas to develop their own local arrangements.
It would be helpful to hear from the Minister on some key points. For example, do the Government intend to reinstate the localism audit? That was a welcome and interesting initiative, even if it was a little charitable in its assessment of how localist some Departments were. I note, however, that it has been dropped. Instead we have other programmes, such as the major reform of probation that is now being pushed through, and the Work programme, which was commissioned across nine areas of the country. Also, following the abolition of regional development agencies, their powers—including their spending powers—were not placed with local government, despite the proposals involving local enterprise partnerships. Instead, those powers have been drawn to the centre. All of that activity has worked against the idea of community budgets.
That is why we will take forward our work on, for example, local authorities co-commissioning the Work programme, because we recognise the great potential of community budgets. It is also why our work to ensure that we genuinely reform the health and social care system, so that we have whole-person care, is absolutely vital, both for local authorities and central Government, to give the drive that is needed.
I congratulate the Communities and Local Government Committee on producing this report and securing this debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister answer the many questions that have been put.
Thank you, Mr Sheridan, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today.
First, I thank the Communities and Local Government Committee for securing this very important debate, which, ultimately, is on the way that public services can, and I would argue should, be delivered in the future. I particularly thank the Chairman, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), for the Committee’s delivering an excellent report on the community budget pilots. It highlighted the importance of ensuring that the pioneering work of those pilots is adopted across the country.
Before I turn to the Chairman’s well thought-out and strong speech, which touched on many issues that, as he rightly said, we agree on, I will just deal with a couple of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford). He said relatively little about the topic of the debate—community budgets—and went into asides on local government finance and other issues. I suspect that he had little to say about community budget pilots because he believes we are doing the right thing. I know that on many such issues there is cross-party agreement, but on some, there is not, and I will come back to all those later.
The hon. Gentleman raised an issue in respect of which I must put something on the record. I think he said that there had been increased resources for local government under the last Government. I will put to one side the question whether that indicates that he shares the shadow Chancellor’s view that more borrowing and more debt is the way forward for this country, even though that was what got the economy into difficulties in the first place; I would not tout that as a good approach. However, he was somewhat remiss in not reminding us that council tax basically doubled under the last Government, hitting hard-working people hardest.
The hon. Gentleman represents an area that has a couple of the most deprived wards in the country, and which received the highest top-up in the country from this Government after being left with a black hole because of the last Labour Government’s decision on the working neighbourhoods fund. It is important to remember that the councils that are in the toughest positions and that have the highest levels of need, which he outlined, are also those that have the highest spending power per household in the country.
However, I appreciated the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the report, “50 Top Achievements by Labour Councils”, which he recommended as bedtime reading. I would not be so churlish as to suggest that when I am struggling to get to sleep, it might well help. However, I will happily have a look at a copy and keep it under the coffee table for the future.
I come now to the serious and key point of the debate. There are some issues on which we disagree—I will come to those later—but on many we agree, as the Chairman of the Select Committee said himself. Crucially, we agree about what we want to achieve, which is a transformation of public services for, and better outcomes for, residents. Our constituents deserve better and more cost-effective services that are designed to meet their needs. As I think the Chairman of the Select Committee said, we should be able to get more for less. I agree, but at the moment not all organisations are delivering in that regard.
It cannot be right that our elderly residents should find themselves in hospital because of a lack of support to live independently at home. Not only would they rather be at home, but supporting them in the community and thereby reducing hospital admissions will save the taxpayer money—exactly fitting the point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee.
It is also not right that a family in need of support should be contacted by countless different public sector organisations, all acting independently of one another. This confused approach does not help family members to get work, stay in school or stay away from crime, and nor does it help them to achieve the right outcomes. It means that the costs of antisocial behaviour, crime and unemployment continue to fall on the taxpayer. The family, and taxpayers, would be far better served if those organisations could come together to provide integrated services designed around the needs of the people who use them.
As the Committee’s report highlighted, the pioneering work of the community budget pilots proved that that is possible and is already happening. Cheshire West and Chester’s early support team brings together social services, police, probation, health and other services. Let me give just one example. A young mother—let us call her Emma—visited a children’s centre to ask for help with benefits and some family support. Separately, she had called the police after her partner, following an all-day drinking session, had violently attacked her. Both these incidents were picked up by the early support team, and following a 360-degree profile of the family, they discovered that Emma’s partner had a history of domestic violence and that probation had previously judged him to be a risk to children. By working together, these agencies were able to identify quickly that Emma’s children might be at risk. Under the old way of working, the children’s centre would have known only what Emma had told them, and she had not told them about her violent partner. Under the old system, it might have been weeks, even months, before family workers realised how at risk Emma and her children were. That is not helpful and it is not right, and it is what none of us wants to see.
The Government wholeheartedly support change and that type of approach. We want to see that approach being adopted by every local area, so that everyone in our country can benefit. That is why we have put in place the support to ensure that others can build on what has already been achieved. Thanks to the hard work and evidence provided by the 12 neighbourhood community budget pilots, we have committed, for example, an additional £4.3 million “Our Place” fund for 2014-15, so that at least another 100 areas can design services with their communities.
The Select Committee called for the Government to provide pump-priming funding to ensure that the community budget approach was implemented more widely, and that is what we have done. Others have suggested that the Government have paused that work until after the next election. Clearly, that is not correct. We have already provided a £6.9 million transformation challenge award, which is helping partners in 18 councils work together to deliver better services.
I am encouraged by the Minister’s remarks on Departments working together. I shall just pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), about how successful the Minister’s Department has been in persuading other Departments to break down the silo mentality. Ever since I have been involved in, or had an interest in, local government, breaking down the silo mentality has been the holy grail. Will the Minister say how successful he has been in breaking down silos?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention, which gives me a chance to highlight how this is a whole-Government approach. If he will bear with me, I will, in a few moments, outline how Departments are coming together to ensure that these things are being delivered, as appropriate to the local area.
The funding from the transformation challenge award will, to name just a handful of projects involved, help to improve children’s services in south-west London, integrate emergency services and speed up response times in Surrey, and reduce crime in Cheshire. We have announced various measures further to support transformation, including a £100 million new collaboration and efficiency transformation fund and new flexibility to allow £200 million of capital receipts to be spent on the one-off costs of service reforms. In addition, in 2015-16, £30 million will be available for fire service transformation, £50 million for police transformation and £100 million for innovation in education.
The whole-place community budget pilots also highlighted non-financial barriers to partnership working, such as difficulties of data sharing, as the Select Committee Chairman rightly mentioned. I share his concerns about and frustration at the potential for real progress and change to be blocked in that way. I am determined that this Government will find a way through these myriad difficulties. Historic breakthroughs have been made in data sharing by the Troubled Families programme, for example, through which Department for Work and Pensions data have been safely shared with local authorities. Barriers to data sharing are as much to do with people’s perception of legislation as the legislation itself. For example, the “Data Sharing Act” might have been a better name for the Data Protection Act 1998. In working with fire and rescue authorities, which do great work in their communities, we often find that we need to weed out mythical understanding of something in that Act which somebody in a particular authority has found, to ensure that we get data sharing working correctly.
Might I share with the Minister my experience a week ago, when visiting staff at an early years centre in Greenwich? They spoke movingly about the difficulties they had in getting information that they desperately need about certain families from the mental health trust in the area. After talking to the mental health trust about that, to try to overcome this blockage, it became clear that the Minister’s point is exactly right: there are different understandings of what data protection requires, and there certainly is a long way to go to get different organisations to accept that sharing responsibly and within the ambit of the data protection rules is essential to getting good quality services, and to protecting people.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I have had experience of this. One really good example of data sharing involves Cheshire fire authority, which has put a lot of time and effort into breaking down barriers, getting to the root of what really can be done, and getting on with it. It is useful in a debate such as this for Members from all parties to spread the word—when people read Hansard as bedtime reading, or over the weekend—so that people appreciate that such things can be done if they want to do them. The Act needs to be read properly, so that it is not misunderstood or misinterpreted by anybody in an authority.
Little things, simple things, can make a difference. In Hertfordshire, a group of people consisting of representatives from the fire authority, the county council, the police and social services works together in the same room. That has broken down barriers and has got through to people, enabling them to understand things better and allowing for much better data sharing.
Whether barriers are real or imagined, we have committed to improve data sharing where it will improve services for residents. We are setting up a centre of excellence for information sharing and exploring options for legislative changes.
The pilots also told us that their attempts to work with partners were sometimes hindered, as Members have outlined, by uncertainty about future funding. As a result of these concerns, the Treasury is working with Departments to give local public services the same long-term indicative budgets as Departments, from the next spending review. One key characteristic of the whole-place community budget pilots—why they succeeded where past attempts did not succeed as well, or failed—was the close co-operation between central and local government. As the Select Committee’s report makes clear and as the hon. Member for Corby said, the pilot areas highlighted the importance of Whitehall secondees working alongside them, helping to change the way central and local government work together, and helping to bridge understanding of how both sides work.
I welcomed the Treasury’s looking at whether it can give local authorities more of an indication on medium-term budgeting than they currently have. As part of that process, will it also be the Treasury’s job to look at how far, during the spending review period, Departments will be expected to contribute a certain part of their budget to the community budget process?
The Committee Chairman tempts me to prejudge what the Chancellor may decide, but he will understand if I resist him for now. The Treasury is looking at the issue and understands the importance and benefits of long-term work and giving budgets in the way that I have outlined.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; this is my last intervention, I hope, subject to what he says. In relation to long-term certainty, working together and sharing budgets, does the Minister agree that there is a need for much greater investment in social care? Is thinking about that being done in Departments? Investing in that would save spending further down the track, by preventing people from going into much more expensive hospital care or long-term nursing care. To make savings in the future we need to invest in the present, and that means putting a lot more resources into social care. Does the Minister agree? Can we be confident that the thinking being done will deliver that?
I will not hold the hon. Gentleman to his promise about that being his last intervention; I would not want to curtail any further insights. He does not make an unreasonable point. I will mention the important issue of social care and where it may lead in a moment; it is linked in respect of the better care fund, for example. However, as I said in opening, it is true that if we can have a better service up front, people might not necessarily need emergency and hospital care. That would be better for them and mean lower costs for their areas. The Committee Chairman mentioned the potential for being a midwife; if my Department in its current format ends up being the midwife to public services working together in future, I will be proud of what we have achieved in our time in office.
The pilot areas highlighted the importance of the secondees. The Government are committed to the approach, which is why we created the public service transformation network, which has 30 officials and counting seconded from around Whitehall and local government. They are now working with the nine new areas, but they are not the be-all and end-all. It is a rolling programme. The secondees are helping the areas to learn from the pilots and quickly create a better outcome for service users; it is an evolution of what the pilots delivered.
Some areas are picking up themes similar to the ones the pilots picked up. Each area has its own focus, depending on its circumstances and the needs of its local residents: localism in its true sense. In Bournemouth, Poole and Dorset, the focus is on integrating and improving services for elderly residents and for those with mental health or learning problems. Better support for those seeking employment or training is the priority for partners in Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark, and for the six boroughs within the West London Alliance, which are working superbly well together to deliver there.
I have already mentioned Surrey’s plans to integrate local emergency services, as Northamptonshire has done, but it also wants young people in their area to receive better training and education. In Swindon, partners want to create safer communities and, in particular, give better and more co-ordinated support to victims of domestic abuse. Residents in Bath and north-east Somerset could benefit directly, with more money in their pocket, thanks to the work of local partners and the Department of Energy and Climate Change to improve energy efficiency in local homes.
I have barely begun to scratch the surface of the work going on in those places. I urge colleagues to take a close look at those projects when the network’s website is launched in just a few weeks’ time. People might see something that they think should be happening in their own constituency; that touches on the point raised by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) on sharing data and best practice. Better services are not the preserve of people living in pilot areas or in one of the nine areas that are working intensively with the network. Those areas are there to share best practice. We want to learn from them and to see other areas move, too.
I agree completely with members of the Select Committee that local areas should not be held back or discouraged from proceeding with service transformation. Much of that can be done without any assistance from central Government, because it simply requires local partners to sit down, forget their differences and focus on the outcomes for residents. Partners in Staffordshire, Leeds city region, Blackpool, Tyneside, Cornwall and Suffolk are getting on with plans to improve services for residents, and others can do the same. Much can be learned from the excellent work in Suffolk, where the county council is working with district councils to share management and services. If there are barriers, gather evidence and let us know. We have already shown that we are ready and willing to aid the process by changing the way government works.
I want specifically to address the idea that the work of the community budget pilots is somehow unconnected with other important areas of policy or that big Departments are not engaged. We must not get caught in the trap of thinking of community budgets and service transformation as an initiative cut off from other Government projects, work and reforms. The principle of neighbourhood and whole-place community budgets is simple; it is about partnership working across public services, local and central, to create not just cost-effective services but services designed around people rather than structures and organisations. The same principle is at the heart of the troubled families programme, the integration of health and social care budgets, the pooled local growth fund and many more areas of work; it is not a top-down exercise. We are working closely with local partners and others on the design of the expanded programme.
The troubled families programme, for example, is being extended, as the Select Committee noted, to an additional 400,000 families over five years, with £200 million already committed for the first year in 2015-16. The hon. Member for Corby asked about the assessment of the programme, which is subject to a three-year independent evaluation. Initial findings are due later this year.
On health, it was partly thanks to the hard work and the evidence provided by the four whole-place community budget pilots announced by the Government that we could develop the £3.8 billion better care fund in the spending round. Health and social care services are already working together to ensure that our elderly residents receive the support they need to stay at home and out of hospital. We have also established a network of 14 integrated care pioneers that will, like the community budget pilots before them, work closely with central Government to develop the solutions that others can then adopt. Locally led public service transformation also has the potential to promote economic growth.
Although I understand that the Select Committee and the Essex pilot are disappointed that not all of Essex’s whole-place proposals were adopted—the Essex pilot was particularly commented on—it is possible that such areas can do far more within existing Government policy. Essex has done great work in establishing an employment and skills board that involves local employers and skills providers, and the board’s labour market intelligence has already influenced millions of pounds of capital investment by further education colleges.
A number of the nine new places are reviewing how skills and employment support is provided, and the network is working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Jobcentre Plus, the Skills Funding Agency and the Department for Work and Pensions. Again, the support is not just for the select few.
The Minister is right to say that the Select Committee drew particular attention to the Essex problem—or the BIS problem, as it should probably be called. He has given a long list of things that Essex has been able to do, but the people from the Essex pilot were clearly concerned when they came to give evidence to the Committee. Will he take the Committee into his confidence and indicate precisely what BIS did when those points were put to it? How did BIS respond? What commitments has BIS given to change?
There is still a lot that Essex can do within the abilities and powers that it has been given. We arranged a meeting with BIS directly, which I think has now happened, but I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s message and ask BIS to respond directly to him on where it is at.
The Government have invited local areas to make public service reform proposals as part of the local growth deals, which are currently being negotiated with the cross-Government local growth team. We have also provided an extra £10 million a year for Jobcentre Plus, working in partnership with local authorities, to help young people find apprenticeships and traineeships. I hope that we can all agree that the focus on better outcomes, which is at the heart of the community budget pilots, is evident across all Departments and all parts of the public sector.
Members asked, “What exactly is there?” The network has 30 staff and a budget of £2 million. The network is accountable to Sir Bob Kerslake, but it reports to Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.
The Chairman of the Select Committee made a point about localism. The community budget pilots, the transformation network and some of the great work being done by councils across the country to bring public services together and to get on with changing how we deliver services for the better—this is what really matters—proves that the power the Government have devolved to local communities and local councils goes way beyond the central process that we had in the past. That is a revolutionary change that, hopefully, local government will grasp and take forward. It would be wrong for us in central Government ever to pretend that we have taken a vow of silence on what we think of certain decisions or on pointing out good examples of best practice for providing residents with the great services that all taxpayers deserve.
Whether for weekly bin collections or any other service that the council provides. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that most council tax payers would expect, at the very least, to have their waste collected in a good and weekly manner.
I welcome today’s thoughtful debate. We can all agree on the critical need for public services to work together in the interest of residents, service users and taxpayers. The community budget pilots showed how local services can be transformed. Continued commitment and strong leadership, both locally and centrally, means that everyone can benefit. There is an opportunity to see something different and something better for our country. I hope that local councils will take a grip, make the most of it and deliver for all our residents.
I thank the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford), for their responses to the report. We have had a good, positive debate with a lot of agreement. I said at the beginning that the Minister would probably not have time to respond to all the questions that I raised. I am sure he will write to me afterwards so that I can share his responses with the Committee.
The report was supported by the whole Committee, as our reports generally are. There is clear agreement that, through the community budget process, the available money can be spent better. Perhaps more importantly, the individuals who receive services will get a better deal. They will get more joined-up and integrated services and less waste and confusion.
To develop the approach across the country, we welcome the development of more pilots, but we want to see a clear plan for how the community budget approach could be rolled out across the country. I am not sure that I heard that from the Minister. Where does he think we will be in five years’ time? How will we get to a situation in which the approach can be rolled out across the country in that period of time? I do not think that five years is too optimistic a target.
I re-emphasise the point that local government is up for and wants community budgets. The Minister and his colleagues in the Department are entirely supportive of community budgets, but if they are to work the whole Government and all Departments need to be involved. There are still one or two question marks about that.
I will finish with a quote that my hon. Friend the Member for Corby has already partly pre-empted. This is the final comment of our report:
“Without quickly and fundamentally changing the way in which services are delivered by increasing local autonomy and integrating services so as to reduce demand and dependency, the reductions that are made to public spending on local services may simply result in more spending in the future on welfare, and judicial and emergency health interventions.”
That says it all. It is why the community budget process is so important and why we need it to be rolled out across the country as soon as possible.
Fire Sprinklers Week
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Sheridan. It is also good to see the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), in their places for this short debate to help promote fire sprinkler week. I place on record our appreciation to the Backbench Business Committee for providing the time for it.
Fire sprinklers have a role to play in our economy, our environment and our social policy. I am secretary of the all-party group on fire safety and rescue. Our chair, the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) is here, as is our treasurer, the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). Other distinguished members of the all-party group are here too, as are others. I place on record our appreciation for the Business Sprinkler Alliance, which sponsored an event in Westminster last week to launch the latest evidence on the value of sprinklers from the Building Research Establishment and the Centre for Economic and Business Research. I give special mention to Iain Cox, the chair of the BSA, Andrew Turner, who is a great advocate for the BSA, Ben Ansell, who is the Chief Fire Officers Association’s lead on sprinklers, Celestine Cheong of Ogilvy and Ronnie King, who is a founding member of the BSA and is the admin secretary of the all-party group.
I will start by debunking some of the myths on sprinklers that are perpetrated mostly by television, film and other media. Anyone watching a television drama, an advert or a movie will recognise the comedy value of all the fire sprinklers in a building going off and everyone getting drenched. That is good slapstick fun, but it is just not true. People have a misapprehension that that is what sprinklers do, when, as most of us in the Chamber know, the heads of sprinklers all work independently and will only actuate above a fire when the temperature is above 68°. In the media, people just do not get to see the value of sprinklers.
The second myth is that water damage from sprinklers is as bad as that from hoses. Sprinklers use about 5% of the water used by firefighters’ hose lines. As an ex-firefighter, I have seen the water damage that firefighting operations can cause. Sprinklers totally minimise that damage. There is a famous quote from a senior Minister who, on visiting the scene of the Windsor castle fire, remarked, “Thank goodness the building was not sprinklered,” indicating the level of misunderstanding about sprinklers at the highest levels of Government. In fact, as a result of that building not being sprinklered, perhaps because of its historic value, we lost £6 million-worth of national treasures. The third myth is of the potential for accidental actuation, which could cause damage, but it is calculated that the chances of accidental actuation are something like 16 million to one. The final myth is that sprinklers are expensive, but anyone who has examined the cost-benefit analysis can quickly conclude that that is simply not the case.
Government have been nudging towards sprinklers for years. Wales has introduced new legislation, Scotland has different measuring perspectives in policy, and Governments have issued clearer guidance and stronger advice, particularly in relation to schools—but all have stopped short of fully embracing sprinklers. Last week’s evidence, which only relates to warehouses, made the case clearer and stronger. The Centre for Economic and Business Research launched a report last week that shows avoidable losses from fire running at £1 billion every five years and 1,000 jobs lost every year because of fire, most of which could be avoided. The research from the CEBR and the Building Research Establishment shows that 135,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide are released into the air annually from major fires—equivalent to the emissions from the annual domestic electricity supply for a city the size of Portsmouth.
There are economic and environmental reasons for supporting sprinklers, but there are also social reasons. Sprinklers minimise the risks to firefighters. We have seen firefighters killed in buildings, particularly big warehouses. Sprinklers protect the staff within buildings and provide business resilience and continuity against buildings shutting down because of a major fire. I know that colleagues here have experienced in their local economies the trauma and difficulty fire causes. Sprinklers minimise the transport disruption and local closures that major fires cause. The protection they offer enables larger compartments, higher occupancy and higher packing density in buildings. They can lower fire insurance premiums for warehouses by up to 50%.
It is worth comparing the regulations on sprinkler coverage in the UK with those of other countries. In the UK, business premises and warehouses of more than 20,000 square metres are required to be sprinklered. In many European Union competitor countries, such as Germany, that figure is 2,000 square metres, and in Scotland it is 14,000 square metres. Big questions have been asked about fires in schools, care homes and tower blocks, as well as the height of tower blocks. We saw the awful fire in a nursing home in Canada last week, where I understand 35 senior citizens died. Anyone involved in fire knows that the majority of people who die in fires are the old, the ill, the disabled, those with dependency problems and the poor. Those people deserve greater protection. The fascinating thing about the Canada care home fire was that part of the building was sprinklered and part was not, and the part that was sprinklered is still standing, whereas the part that was not is not. Most deaths from fire occur in ordinary homes, so it is good to see some local authorities and housing associations taking action. In my constituency, Tower Hamlets Community Housing is looking to install sprinkler systems, in one form or another, to protect vulnerable residents.
All eyes are on Government and I have a number of points to put to the Minister. I would be grateful if he responded to them, and surprised if he were unable to, because most of them have been around for some time and are predictable, so he probably has the answers in the notes in front of him.
First, we should remove sprinklers from being classified as plant and machinery for the purposes of business rates. If there is one thing that the present Government want to be famous for, it is deregulation, and as this is a deregulatory issue, it should be attractive to them. It is anomalous that companies that invest in protection for their businesses and employees are charged higher business rates than those that do not. A fair comparison would be a local authority penalising someone for putting in a burglar alarm. Removing sprinklers from that classification and equalising business rates would be a good start. I am sure the Minister is looking at that, because for every new regulation that he proposes, there is pressure on him to demonstrate that there is one he can repeal. This one is a freebie: he can take it and use it to argue for whatever favourite piece of legislation he wants to introduce.
We recommend that the Government review approved document B on fire safety in the building regulations and that its locus should be expanded so that the cost-benefit analysis considers the economic, societal and environmental costs of fire, alongside current life-safety considerations. That would move the goalposts considerably and would ensure that the onus was on building occupiers and owners to invest in sprinklers.
The Department for Communities and Local Government should partner with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills with the Business Sprinkler Alliance to create an open dialogue with the business community to promote sprinklers through enhanced understanding of the benefits and acceptance of the technology. This is a matter not of regulation but culture, and such a move would create the mood music. The Association of British Insurers calculates that £639 million in fire losses was paid out in the first half of 2009 and £1.36 billion in 2008. The change would save money for the UK economy, promote business and promote best practice. If DCLG and BIS were to engage more effectively with BSA, they could create an atmosphere in which sprinklers are more likely to be understood and accepted.
We also want the Government to amend the Water Bill, which is in the House of Lords. Members of the all-party group, including me, the hon. Member for Waveney and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), another of our joint chairs, recently visited the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), who is the Minister with responsibility for water, at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs after the Water Bill moved to the House of Lords. One obstacle to the wider use of sprinklers, particularly in domestic property, is that water legislation classifies the supply of water for sprinklers as non-domestic, so water companies can attach conditions that can increase the cost of connection to a prohibitive extent. The water liaison group, which is a voluntary body composed of representatives of water companies and from the sprinkler sector, reached a voluntary protocol agreement in 2004 on dealing with issues surrounding installations. The agreement was recently revised, and implicit in it is that a small change is needed to section 57 of the Water Industry Act 1991 to make water supplied for sprinklers and other firefighting equipment connected to the mains a legitimate use of water. That change can be made during the passage of the Water Bill. I am pleased to say that the Minister with responsibility for water accepted the logic of the argument and agreed to examine the matter. I hope that the Minister here, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), will reinforce the view of the all-party fire safety and rescue group that the amendment ought to be supported.
More and more evidence is emerging of the value of sprinklers. Fires that have been prevented from becoming major blazes include incidents at a Northamptonshire primary school, Bluewater shopping centre, a plastics factory in Lancashire, a greeting card shop in a Stockport shopping centre, a restaurant in Spitalfields and a superstore in Poole. I have 10 pages of similar examples from the BSA of businesses that had the common sense to invest in sprinkler systems and therefore ensured that their buildings survived either an arson attack, accident or failure in the electrics, and were able to carry on trading because the fire was dealt with and the fire service only had to mop up the situation and ensure that the premises were safe.
I am unsure whether the Minister has had the chance to visit Scottsdale, Arizona, but it is a trip well worth making—perhaps he and the shadow Minister could arrange one. When I first joined the House, Scottsdale was the sprinkler capital of the world. It was the first local authority to create a city ordinance that every building must have sprinklers. The last time that I checked, only one person had died in a fire in Scottsdale in over 30 years. Scottsdale is a community of more than 200,000 people and is one of Phoenix’s five districts. It is a big community where people smoke, cook and use candles; they drink, and do all manner of other things—I am unsure whether Arizona is one of the states that has legalised cannabis—and fires do take place. Sprinklers have protected that community for decades. If the Minister wants to see sprinklers in action for residential purposes—the BSA’s big push this year is on warehouses—Scottsdale provides overwhelming evidence for sprinkler use in both residential and business premises.
As I said earlier, Westminster Government, the devolved Assemblies, competitor countries in Europe and others around the world are starting to endorse, embrace and legislate for sprinklers. The evidence is getting clearer, stronger and more compelling, but we need leadership. I hope that both Front Benchers make positive responses and will engage the business community to ensure that the spread of sprinklers, which is beneficial to UK plc, gathers pace.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on requesting this debate and the Backbench Business Committee, of which I am a member, on having the good sense to approve it. I also pay tribute to all those who have organised the first fire sprinkler week. I absolutely agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said, including the fact that nothing we are calling for today is original. We want not only 90 minutes to exchange a few words, but also a positive outcome at the end.
[Mr Graham Brady took the Chair]
The importance of installing fire sprinklers was made apparent just last week, on 29 January, in a small warehouse fire in Earby, Lancashire. The four-storey plastics factory was set ablaze and eight firefighters were called to the scene. Thanks to the factory’s sprinkler system, however, most of the worst damage was mitigated and the fire was stopped from spreading, even though the system was installed over 40 years ago and the sprinkler heads were 20 metres above the fire. The company was credited by a fire service spokesman for having sprinklers:
“Because the building was fitted with sprinklers, the fire was able to be put out quicker. This allowed the firefighters to deal with it before it spread.”
That example is so typical among many similar stories up and down the country. A single fire death in a building fitted with a working sprinkler system that has been installed to the correct standard is an extremely rare occurrence and multiple deaths in such circumstances are virtually unheard of anywhere in the world. There is now such clear evidence of the benefits of sprinklers that we should seriously consider how we can encourage greater use of them in England. I want specifically to deal with care homes, schools and tower blocks, which I hope will not spoil colleagues’ speeches.
It is of course important that we ensure that all buildings are fire safe, but it is especially important that care homes are adequately equipped as they are home to some of the most vulnerable members of our society, and it is paramount that they are protected. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned a recent devastating blaze, but Sydney witnessed the loss of 11 people at a residential home in Quakers in 2011. Such events are shocking and show the importance of fire safety.
I remember as though it were yesterday an incident from when I was the Member of Parliament for Basildon in which four children tragically died in a fire at a school. As a result of the fire in Sydney, the New South Wales Government said that they would make plans for all care homes to have an automatic sprinkler system installed. In England, sprinklers are currently required only in new care homes with double bedrooms under the 2006 building regulations guidance, but double bedrooms are no longer built in care homes under social care legislation.
I am not going to go into a detailed comparison of the situations in England and under the devolved Governments in Wales and Scotland, but the Minister might reflect on the differences.
I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate. I was in the main Chamber speaking in another debate, so I will need to get back for the wind-ups. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the difference between England and the rest of the UK—in particular Scotland, but also Wales and presumably Northern Ireland. Is he aware that the standards in Scotland, where I come from, are much higher than those in England? Should the UK Government not be looking at least to raise the standards in England up to the level in Scotland?
I absolutely recognise that, but as a Conservative I do not especially want to fall down that particular hole. I am aware, however, of the difference of the situations in Scotland and England.
Single bedrooms are not included in the guidance, so in effect no care homes in England are required to have a sprinkler system installed. If we want to avoid disasters such as in Quebec and Sydney, sprinklers are needed in care homes.
The second of the three areas is schools; I have already touched on the tragedy in a particular local school when I was the MP for Basildon. There has been some progress with sprinklers in schools, but we need to be cautious about losing momentum and retreating from the progress already made.
In an Adjournment debate in the House on 1 March 2007, my right hon. Friend Michael Howard, now Lord Howard of Lympne—I hope that is how it is pronounced—gave the example of a fire in his constituency in Lympne primary school. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, but the fire gutted the whole school, causing great disruption and upset. At the time, the chief fire officer said that a properly designed and installed fire sprinkler system could have stopped the fire much earlier, avoiding the ultimate destruction of the building. In response to that fire, the then Minister of State for Education, now Lord Knight of Weymouth, announced that all new schools built under the Building Schools for the Future programme would be expected to have automatic fire sprinklers installed, apart from a handful of some low-risk schools to be determined by a cost-benefit analysis.
Again, as a Conservative I do not want to fall down that particular hole, but since the programme of introducing sprinklers into new school buildings, there has been a marked reduction in school fire losses—something I am sure we all welcome and wish to continue. Recently, however, there has been a decrease in the number of new schools built with sprinkler protection, and that is not good enough. It gives the impression that protecting our children’s education from fire damage is no longer a top priority. I am absolutely certain that the Government whom I support would not want to give that impression. Alternatives are being sought, because sprinklers are no longer considered to be mandatory, and developers are avoiding them to save money in the short term. That, however, is foolish in the longer term, and playing with our children’s future is simply not acceptable.
I have a local example from Essex, in which county my hon. Friend the Minister was the leader of Brentwood council. I have been in communication with a fire officer who has informed me that the Essex county fire and rescue service has been consulted on 422 schools since May 2010. Of those schools, to his knowledge, only four had sprinklers fitted. That is not acceptable. He went on to inform me that when a project runs into overspend, or when other requirements are highlighted, the sprinkler installation is most often one of the first things to be cut in order to free up funds. I am sure that the Minister agrees that ensuring the fire safety of our schools is a top priority of the Government.
Finally, I turn to fire sprinklers in tower blocks. Sprinklers are required in new tower blocks of more than 30 metres; in Scotland, it is blocks of more than 18 metres. In England, 4,000 existing tower blocks are not sprinkler protected. Following the fire tragedies at Lakanal House in Southwark and Shirley Towers in Southampton, the coroners issued rule 43 letters asking the Government to encourage the installation of retrofitted sprinklers in tower blocks. Blocks with complicated designs, or problems such as those in the town centre of Southend, could well benefit from them.
As with warehouses research, there is clear proof of the financial and economic benefits of installing sprinklers in tower blocks. The BRE cost-benefit analysis of residential sprinklers commissioned by the Chief Fire Officers Association found that, for most blocks of flats, sprinklers were cost-effective. This research, however, has often not been reflected in guidance to the building regulations.
Residential fire sprinklers are not expensive. They cost about £1 per square foot in a new home—the same amount as for carpeting a similar area—and most rooms would require only two sprinkler heads for complete protection. The vast majority of fires and resulting fatalities and injuries take place in residential properties. Even a small fire can cause a huge amount of damage to a property. Smoke alarms can give warning of a fire, but they cannot control the fire itself. That is where a residential sprinkler system comes into play.
I am not asking for more regulation, but I am asking my hon. Friend the Minister to reflect carefully on the advantages and benefits of fire sprinklers in domestic dwellings and saying that he should be seen to encourage housing providers as to those benefits. We certainly need to incentivise care home providers, education authorities, academies and those housing providers to invest in sprinklers. We all appreciate the burden of additional regulation on businesses and on those building our care facilities, schools and housing, so we are not asking for more regulation. I encourage my hon. Friend, however, to take the lead by giving a clear signal that automatic fire-sprinkler protection of our buildings will save lives, reduce burn injuries, and protect property, businesses, jobs and the environment. I encourage the Minister to commend sprinklers to all involved in the built environment.
I apologise in advance, Mr Brady, if I am absent for a time during the debate; I am hoping to make a contribution in the animal welfare debate due to take place later in the main Chamber. Meanwhile, I hope that the Government whom I support will listen to the professional voice of the fire and rescue service.
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for securing this important debate during fire sprinkler week.
I want to illustrate the importance of fire sprinkler systems with a sad story about a factory in my constituency. The Findus food factory in Longbenton, North Tyneside, was officially opened by the late Princess of Wales in the 1980s. By 1995 it was providing jobs for 1,500 local people. Over subsequent years, the business changed hands several times and, sadly, the number of workers reduced by two thirds. None the less, it remained an important employer in the constituency.
By 2009, the factory had become Longbenton Foods, and the owners were providing much-needed employment for 420 local people. The factory remained busy, still producing frozen meals under the Findus label—in particular, the famous Findus crispy pancakes. It was one of the few businesses to continue to have a licence to produce them. I can see that I have brought some memories back for a number of people in the Chamber.
Work in the factory came to a sudden halt on 6 January 2009, when a huge fire broke out in the main food production area. It took six fire engines and 34 firefighters more than three hours to bring it under control. Fortunately, all the staff were safely evacuated, because of the fire alarm system, and no one was hurt in the blaze. In fact, Dave Brown, who was the group manager at Tyne and Wear fire service, praised the fire crews for an excellent job in tackling what he described as a difficult fire. Although there were several production halls at the factory, they were all smoke damaged and put out of production. The fire caused an estimated £20 million of damage and left almost all the workers redundant.
At the time, my predecessor in the seat, the right hon. Stephen Byers, and the then Minister for the North East, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown), worked with the council and others to minimise the social and economic consequences for the local community. Longbenton Foods secured a grant of £3.4 million from the regional development agency One North East to rebuild and reopen the business. The factory reopened in 2010, and in June that year, confident in its future, I paid tribute in my maiden speech to the efforts of all involved in saving the business. However, by December the business was in trouble. I worked with the owner to try to save Longbenton Foods, but despite valiant efforts by the administrator, the business could not be sold as a viable enterprise, and this time the job losses were final.
Although the ultimate failure of the business could not be directly attributed to the fire, it could be said that its negative influence in disrupting business at a crucial time meant that the business could never fully recover its former success. Had the fire not happened, the business would have continued to meet the demands of a healthy order book and would have provided continuous employment for all the staff.
I know the experience in North Tyneside is not unique, as has been shown today, and that businesses across the country are hit by fire all the time. At its worst, the upset can lead to loss of life; at the very least it can lead to loss of jobs and businesses, and can have an environmental impact. Only 100,000 litres of water were used to fight the Longbenton Foods fire, although often many millions of litres are used to douse a single fire, according to a study carried out by Bureau Veritas on behalf of the Business Sprinkler Alliance. That report showed that the impact of a fire in a commercial building is always felt long after the fire has been put out, as was the case with the Longbenton Foods factory.
The worst thing is that had the Longbenton Foods factory been fitted with sprinklers, the fire would have been doused or controlled before the fire brigade arrived. The factory would most likely have remained open for business, millions of pounds of public money would have been saved and, most importantly, 420 people would still be in work. No lives were lost, thank goodness, but hundreds of livelihoods were ruined. Another company now owns the factory, but massive investment is needed to get the place back into production. That is of little comfort to those who lost their jobs several years ago.
I commend the work of the BSA and would like to reiterate the following specific actions that are required from the Government. I ask for non-regulatory measures to promote the benefits of fire sprinklers to businesses and deregulatory measures so that sprinklers are no longer classified as plant and machinery for the purposes of business rates, as well as a review of approved document B on fire safety in the building regulations, so that the cost-benefit analysis considers the economic, societal and environmental costs of fire alongside the current life safety considerations.
I hope the Minister will reply favourably to those requests for action. I do not want to see a repeat of what has happened at Longbenton Foods. A positive response would be fitting and timely in fire sprinkler week.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing it and on his work both in raising the awareness of the needs of the fire service generally and in campaigning specifically for an increased use of sprinklers.
This debate is taking place in the first ever fire sprinkler week. The simple message important to get across is that controlling a fire when it starts is better than repairing the damage that occurs if it is allowed to spread. It is important to pay tribute to our firefighters, who do such a great job in hazardous and dangerous circumstances. We owe it to them to reduce the risks associated with the work that they do in the communities they serve. With fire authority budgets and resources coming under increasing pressure, it is important to focus on preventing and restricting fires, and making firefighters’ jobs safer and easier. Fire chiefs and fire authorities up and down the country, including those in Suffolk, strongly advocate more widespread use of sprinklers. They are the people with first-hand knowledge and experience, and it is important that the Government listen carefully to their views.
Wessex Foods, on the south Lowestoft industrial estate in my constituency, was a large food factory that processed raw meat into burgers. On 14 July 2010, firefighters from Lowestoft fire station were called to a fire at the factory and arrived in just a few minutes. Unfortunately, the fire had already developed to such a degree that they were unable to enter the building safely to tackle the blaze. The building was completely destroyed by the fire, which took a total of 10 days to be extinguished fully. At its height, 14 fire engines and 80 firefighters were on site, and over the time it took to put out the fire, almost every firefighter in Suffolk attended the scene.
The impact on the local community was far-reaching. A factory that had been in operation for 30 years was closed permanently with the loss of 150 jobs, and there was a significant knock-on impact on the local economy. Other consequences included local road disruptions, evacuation of some nearby residents, environmental impacts, problems with pest control and odour due to rotting meat and the impact of using 50 million litres of water to tackle the fire.
Despite its size and use, the Wessex Foods building was not fitted with sprinklers. Had it been, the outcome would have been completely different. The fire would have started in much the same way, but a short time later the sprinkler head closest to the fire would have operated and suppressed or extinguished the flame. At the same time, the operation of the sprinkler would have set off the fire alarm and led to a call to the fire service. Firefighters would have arrived at the scene within a few minutes, and would have entered the building either to extinguish the small fire fully or to confirm that it had been extinguished by the sprinklers. They would have been back at their fire station within an hour. The fire at Wessex Foods is just one of many examples that reinforce the case for sprinklers to be fitted more widely.
Over the years, many myths have grown up about sprinklers, and it is important to dispel them. Myth No. 1 is that sprinklers are always going off accidentally. That is untrue. There is a one in 500,000 chance of accidental operation through damage, and the chance of accidental discharge of water due to manufacturing defects is one in 14 million. Myth No. 2 is that sprinklers operate when a smoke detector goes off—again, that is untrue. Sprinklers are not triggered by smoke; they operate as a result of high temperatures that can be produced only by a genuine fire. Myth No. 3, that all sprinkler heads operate together, is untrue. Most fires cause only one sprinkler head to operate. If more than one operates, that is due to the size of the fire and the need for more heads to operate to suppress and control it.
Myth No. 4 is that sprinkler systems use more water than firefighters. Once more, that is untrue. A fire in a building protected by a sprinkler system will be extinguished at an earlier stage due to the automatic operation of the sprinklers, which will suppress and control the fire; in some cases, the fire may even be extinguished before the firefighters arrive. A single sprinkler head uses approximately 60 litres of water per minute, whereas fires that develop and require the fire service to respond will often result in 10,000 times more water being used.
Myth No. 5, that sprinklers cause more damage than the fire, is also untrue. Not only is less water used, but the early operation of an automatic fire sprinkler system dramatically reduces fire, heat and smoke damage. Myth No. 6 is that once a sprinkler system has operated, the occupants of the home or business will need to leave for an extended period for repairs to take place. Again, that is untrue. A building protected by sprinklers will likely be returned to normal use far sooner, because the fire will be smaller and less water will be used to extinguish it; businesses are often up and running the following day.
Myth No. 7 is that sprinklers are unsightly. Again, that is untrue. Modern domestic and non-industrial sprinkler heads are fitted so that only a small disc is visible on the ceiling, and plastic pipe work is concealed in ceiling voids. Myth No. 8, that sprinklers are expensive, is untrue. A full British standard-compliant system can be supplied and installed in a new home for between 1% and 2% of the cost of the building; that is less than the cost of fitting carpets.
Myth No. 9 is that sprinklers cannot be retrofitted. That is untrue. Modern sprinkler systems can be cost-effectively retrofitted, and that has happened many times. Myth No. 10, that they are difficult and expensive to maintain, is untrue. They are relatively simple automatic systems, and have few moving parts. They require little maintenance. Finally—I am grateful to hon. Members for bearing with me—I come to myth No. 11. [Interruption.] There is a whole football or cricket team of myths. It is untrue that sprinkler systems are often subject to vandalism. Far more damage is caused by starting a fire or by flooding a building through leaving taps running and drains blocked.
I should add that there has never been a multiple fire death incident anywhere in the world in a building fitted with a sprinkler system designed to the appropriate standard for the intended purpose. The likelihood of a sprinkler going off accidentally is estimated to be about 16 million to 1, and 85% of small and medium-sized businesses that suffer a serious fire either never recover or cease trading within 18 months. The case for sprinklers is compelling.
Perhaps the myths that have grown up about fire sprinklers can be attributed to Hollywood. Sprinklers all going off at once, and dramatic fires, make good box office. “Die Hard” is the movie that gives the worst false impressions. Surprise, surprise—it grossed more than $140 million while “Backdraft” grossed more than $152 million. Yes, the characters played by Kurt Russell and William Baldwin in the latter film were real heroes, but we need a system that would remove the need to send such men into dangerous buildings.
The main benefit of sprinklers is that they are the most effective way to get further reductions in fire deaths. Research shows that 80% of fire deaths happen in the home, and that an automatic fire sprinkler system in the home, along with fire detection, reduces the risk of death or serious injury by more than 80%. Other benefits include protecting buildings—fire suppression by sprinklers reduces fire, heat and smoke damage; improving the safety of firefighters, through the containment, suppression and, often, extinguishing of a fire, without the need for them to go into the building; and an increased chance of keeping a business in production after a fire has started.
Sprinklers can also give flexibility to developers, architects and builders, by making it possible to comply with building regulations in a cost-effective way, and they reduce the environmental impact of fire; if there is less heat and smoke, less water will be used to extinguish a fire, and there will be less potential for contaminated water run-off to get into a water course.
I am very sympathetic to the case that the hon. Gentleman makes, but will he reflect on why, given all the benefits of sprinklers—reducing unnecessary fires and costs, and saving lives—businesses are so reluctant to install them without being required to do so by regulation? What does that tell us about the importance of a regulatory regime to back up the common-sense case we all accept for extending their use?
The right hon. Gentleman is of course right; often people think only about the start-up costs. They do not think about the overall picture of the cost if there should be a fire. There is a need for education and for some regulatory change.
If sprinklers are fitted, a business will usually be fully functioning again within hours of a fire starting, and a sequence of undesirable events will be prevented: business closure, with the consequent loss of jobs, and the knock-on impact to the firm’s supply chain and local businesses. Other businesses are often affected when there is a fire—surrounding businesses must stop work during a major fire, and businesses that supply the affected company or rely on its goods for their operation may temporarily or permanently lose custom or supply, which can put their future at risk.
Nearly all fires in industrial or commercial buildings cause disruption to the transport system, nearby roads, footpaths and cycleways. They may also lead to residential evacuations and school closures. They also waste water. Fire and rescue services use more than 9 billion litres of water a year—the equivalent to five times the UK’s bottled water usage—to put out fires in industrial and commercial buildings.
To coincide with the debate, the Business Sprinkler Alliance has commissioned two important items of research, to assess the impact of fires in warehouse buildings. I will not go through them in detail, because the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse has already done so, but the Centre for Economics and Business Research and BRE research have carried out compelling research.
The main focus of the first fire sprinkler week is on industrial buildings and warehouses, but I want to comment on care homes and homes for the elderly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) did. We need to keep demographic change in mind. People live longer, and older people are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of fire. They cannot get out of buildings as quickly as young people, and those who suffer from dementia face added challenges. The nation is encouraging older people to continue living in their own homes, and that is right; but we need to ensure that elderly people, and especially those who live alone, have appropriate support and protection.
We should keep in mind the devastating fire earlier in the year at the Résidence du Havre care home at L’Isle-Verte in Quebec, where at least 35 people lost their lives. In 2011, as we have heard, 11 people were murdered when a fire was started deliberately at the Quakers Hill nursing home in Sydney in New South Wales. The New South Wales Government subsequently stated that their objective is for all care homes for the elderly to be fitted with sprinklers by March 2016. I fear that often we change the law reactively, responding to such tragic events rather than being proactive and preventing them in the first place. We must take that into account and become proactive.
Last year, Suffolk county council, in what was in many respects a controversial decision, transferred the running of its care homes to a private sector operator. Part of the agreement was that the new care homes that are to be built must include fire sprinklers. The county council is to be commended for insisting on that, and I urge other councils and care operators to do likewise.
What do we want to come out of the debate, and what do we want the Minister to say and the Government to think about? As we have heard, there are three requests. First, the Government should generate a dialogue with the business community, to promote increased acceptance of wider sprinkler use. Secondly, fire sprinklers should be removed from the classification of plant and machinery fixtures for rating purposes. I understand that including them generates very little revenue, and it creates a disincentive to protect commercial building stock, the environment and society from fire.
Finally, building regulations should be reviewed, with respect to the size above which sprinklers must be fitted in warehouses. The present threshold in England is 20,000 square metres. In the Netherlands it is 1,000 square metres; in Germany it is 1,200 square metres; and in France it is 3,000 square metres. Insured business losses in those competing countries are far lower than they are in the UK, where they were £865 million in 2008. In Germany in the same year, the figure in relation to damage as a result of fire was less than half that, at £400 million.
Sprinklers can bring significant benefits in preventing death and personal tragedy, providing firefighters with the protection that they deserve, making the economy more resilient, and preventing unnecessary damage to the environment. We need to promote their wider use in the context of protecting and making better use of resources that are becoming scarcer and more expensive to replace. The television presenter Nick Ross, a champion of fire sprinklers, has commented that each new fire regulation is prompted by a tragedy such as the King’s Cross fire.
We must move away from a reactive approach to a proactive and preventive one. Just over 200 years ago, in 1813, the first fire sprinkler system was installed in the Theatre Royal, Drury lane. We have not made sufficient progress in the last two centuries in promoting their wider use. Now is the time to redouble our efforts, to save lives, protect the vulnerable and safeguard jobs.
It is a pleasure, Mr Brady, to serve under your chairmanship. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for securing this debate.
I pay particular tribute to my friend and colleague back in Wales, the Welsh Assembly Member for Vale of Clwyd, Ann Jones, who has led the way on sprinklers. She steered through the Assembly the Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Measure 2011, which requires all new and converted homes to be fitted with fire sprinkler systems. That is a tremendous achievement not just for fire safety, but in legislative terms. Ann is the only Assembly Member to have steered a private Member’s Bill through the burdensome, legislative competence order process and to have her Bill passed by the Assembly. Mercifully, that provision of the Government of Wales Act 2006 was removed as a result of the 2011 devolution referendum. It was a long and arduous process, and I am pleased that Ann was able to do something bold with it.
That achievement was remarkable, but it is right to focus on the forthcoming advances in fire safety policy. I was amazed at the comments of the Secretary of State for Wales about the legislation—“bizarre” is not a word I would associate with that particular achievement. Fire sprinklers are 24/7 firefighters. The tenacity shown by Ann Jones and the Welsh Government’s Housing Minister, Carl Sargeant, means that Wales has taken the bold step to require all new homes to have those 24/7 firefighters by 2016.
Absolutely. I agree with my hon. Friend and I will relay my hon. Friend’s comment to Ann when I see her tonight.
I want to examine the comments made by the Secretary of State for Wales. In a parliamentary question, I asked what estimate his Department had made of the cost of installing fire sprinklers. The response was:
“Wales’s largest independent house builder Redrow has estimated that Welsh specific building regulations, including the requirement for all new homes to be fitted with a sprinkler, is estimated to impose an additional £13,000 to the unit building cost in Wales. I have written to the Welsh Government urging them to give further consideration”.—[Official Report, 20 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 451W.]
That is deliberate obfuscation and muddying of the water. The cost is not £13,000. The commercial director Redrow Homes in Wales said yesterday that the Home Builders Federation
“and indeed the whole industry agrees the cost of building a standard three-bedroom home in Wales will be circa £11,000 more than building the same home in England if the Welsh Government makes sprinklers compulsory… Both the HBF and independent studies have concluded that the sprinklers alone would add around £5,000”
to the unit cost. I do not know why the Secretary of State bandied around the figure of £13,000, or perhaps I do know. The true cost is nowhere near £13,000. The company said it is only £11,000, and £5,000 for the sprinklers. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) suggested that the cost would be 1% or 2%, which would be around £5,000. The matter should be looked at.
The Secretary of State for Wales was not the only person to criticise Ann Jones. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government also criticised her strongly. She responded by saying:
“Mr Pickles has repeatedly cited fire sprinklers as excessive ‘red tape’ which is holding back the construction industry in Wales. However”
the Secretary of State has previously
“backed sprinklers in his home constituency of Brentwood and Ongar, saying: ‘The facts show that here in Essex people are most likely to lose their lives in a fire in their own home or in their car than at work and that many of the deaths that occur in residential fires could be prevented if a domestic sprinkler system was in operation.’”
The Secretary of State also said:
“The cost of these units is relatively low but time after time it has been proved that domestic sprinkler systems can save lives and that is a price worth paying.”
I hope it is not unparliamentary, Mr Brady, to say that I think he speaks with forked tongue. He says one thing in his constituency and another in Westminster.
There is criticism within the Government of Ann Jones’s bold move, but others have supported her. Frances Kirkham, CBE, assistant deputy coroner, wrote to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government with her findings in the inquest into the fire at Lakanal house in July 2009. One of her six recommendations was the retrofitting of sprinklers, thought to have become cost-effective with the development of new technology.
There is cross-party support in this Chamber, and coroners have called for the fitting of sprinklers, as has the fire service—the true professionals. The Government must take their views on board. The professionals are the people who go into the houses where there are fires and rescue people. Ronnie King, former chief fire officer of Mid and West Wales fire and rescue service said:
“The first duty of a Government is surely to protect its citizens and we can only look on in envy at what the Welsh Government has achieved, after some 4 years of extensive scrutiny and intense interrogation of such a wide ranging cross section of organisations”.
He amplifies not just the monetary cost of deaths, but the emotional cost and said:
“I myself am a former Chief Fire Officer in Wales where I served as a Chief for twenty years…and during my tenure of office I failed to prevent 150 people from dying in fires in Mid & West Wales with another 6,000 from being burned or injured in fires. Some of those have been receiving continuous surgery for their injuries for over twenty five years, with a huge cost to the Health service. During my career myself and my fellow firefighters have brought out lifeless bodies of children (sometimes as many as five or six), who needn't have died in this horrific way, had sprinklers been installed.”
I visited a family in my constituency where there were multiple deaths, including children, and sat with the family, witnessing first hand what they had gone through. We are talking about people’s lives or, dare I say, people’s deaths, as well as the financial cost, which also needs to be weighed up. Actuaries have said that the cost of a fire death of a working person is £1.65 million: in 2011-12, there were 380 fire deaths, so there is a financial cost. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse said that the cost of damage to buildings over five years was £1 billion. The financial cost alone makes it sensible to install sprinklers, and if the emotional cost is added, it is definitely sensible.
Fire sprinklers are valuable for many reasons. They stop the spread of fire, limit the amount of damage, and often contain the fire to one room, instead of allowing it to rip through a house or engulf a room. They are good for the environment because they use far less water. On average, when a fire is put out by a fire brigade, 20 times more water is used than in a sprinkler system and there is no drenching of the house. A sprinkler system works at the source of the fire and is far more targeted, so that a fire is often put out by the activation of one sprinkler.
We have heard that the current regulations requiring smoke detectors should be sufficient. Many fire detection and alarm systems in both domestic and commercial premises produce many unwanted false alarms. That is usually because their design and installation do not comply with the requirements of the Chief Fire Officers Association’s policy on the reduction of false alarms. As a result, many fire brigades will not attend premises that have had many false alarms until a responsible person has confirmed that the premises are under threat from a real fire, but that cannot always be verified, and valuable time may be lost that could make the difference between premises and lives being saved or lost. By comparison, false alarms created by sprinkler systems are so rare that the CFOA has not even considered the need to implement a similar policy for the sprinkler industry.
Personally, I would introduce sprinklers tomorrow. I realise that Ministers and shadow Ministers have to be more cautious, but I ask them to keep an open mind. We have an ongoing experiment in Wales. We have to look at that and at the Welsh experience—perhaps we need a Welsh solution to a British problem.
I am aiming to call the Front Bench Members to wind up at about eight minutes past 4. They will be followed by brief comments from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) who secured the debate. Four Members still wish to speak, so if they take about seven minutes each, we will get everybody in. I shall not propose a formal time limit, but if hon. Members keep to that guideline, that will assist everybody else. I call Annette Brooke.
Thank you, Mr Brady; I will be fairly brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing the debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to it. I was extremely impressed when I attended last week’s event, where I learned a great deal. I should perhaps also mention that Ben Ansell, the Chief Fire Officers Association lead for fire sprinklers and a Dorset fire officer, is one of my constituents.
I had not really thought in great depth about warehouses, but to me, it was absolutely astounding that the cost to the United Kingdom economy—£1 billion over five years—and the emotional cost could all be saved, perhaps not with more regulation, but with better and more appropriate regulation. My constituent, Ben, points out that we have had a number of
“successful ‘sprinkler saves’ (where fires were controlled or extinguished by sprinklers)”,
such as at Makro—just a mile away from where I live actually—in October 2013. He says:
“Here the sprinklers did their job in the early hours of the night shift and the store was trading by 9am the same day.”
What an enormous difference those sprinklers made.
Ben is concerned because one council in the area I represent has had some local Acts repealed, including one from 1986, and he fears unintended consequences, because that Act required sprinklers in certain large buildings. That has been repealed and we now have similar-sized buildings where sprinklers are not a requirement. That seems to be another argument for looking at the issue on a national level to get some consistency.
I want to touch briefly on schools, where there have been some very bad fires in my constituency. I support the comments that have been made on care homes, but as time is limited, I shall concentrate on schools. About 13 years ago, there was a very large fire at a school in my constituency and we ended up with 40 temporary classrooms. It took a long time for replacements to be built and—would you believe it, Mr Brady?—sprinklers were not installed. There was another fire at the school in 2012. It was caused by lightning, so people could not say, “I told you so,” but even after that second fire, sprinklers were resisted for the new buildings. It is absolutely incredible.
There was a fire in another school 17 years ago. I was council chairman of education and was on hand to witness the trauma to the head teacher, the staff, and to the pupils, who lost coursework, and particularly such things as artwork, which cannot be replaced. That school was rebuilt, again without sprinklers. It has just had a massive investment and I found that council members were being presented with some of the myths that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) outlined, which is incredible. They were told that sprinklers could be set off and that having them could be more expensive. Those reasons were reported to council members to encourage them not to support the extra cost of sprinklers. I understand that the school was finally designated as low risk, so it does not have sprinklers.
Dorset fire service wants some consistency. It is absolutely delighted that a flagship school in my constituency has sprinklers—the school had about £50 million spent on it, and was a Building Schools for the Future project, so I am very pleased with Lord Knight’s recommendation—but this situation is not very helpful to the fire service. It is important that people listen to specialist advice from fire officers, and I make a plea to the Minister that we clearly need much more awareness-raising, because the myths we have discussed today are just being perpetuated. At the end of the day, that means an enormous cost in money and, at times, a cost in lives.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee and congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing the debate, which I want to take in a slightly different direction. I am proud to be an ambassador for the Derbyshire fire and rescue service. In that role, we proselytise about the great use and implementation of sprinklers. In pushing forward that brilliant plan and idea, I am delighted to tell everybody in today’s debate that my local council, South Derbyshire district council, led by the eminent councillor—apparently my husband—Mr Bob Wheeler, will be building new council housing because of the changes to housing funding, and because of that, it will be installing sprinklers in all the new council houses and council properties that it builds in future.
Along with that, part of my role as an ambassador for Derbyshire fire and rescue has involved encouraging the planning department at South Derbyshire district council to make it an informative in all new planning applications and planning permissions, both commercial and residential, that the council would encourage the developer to install sprinkler systems in new builds. At the moment, it is an informative, because it is not a matter of English building regulations. I am sure that the Minister will contemplate that point when he replies.
I again congratulate everybody involved in securing this important debate. Nobody wants people to die unnecessarily. We all know that in Derbyshire—if I can talk about that for a few more seconds—the number of fires has been reduced by 50% in the past six years or so. That is a fantastic story, but the vulnerable people and vulnerable areas where such problems persist can be identified. The fact that sprinkler systems would deal with that absolutely overnight is overwhelming, and I recommend that the Minister gives us some joyous news later in his contemplations about English building regulations.
I apologise for being late for the start of the debate, Mr Brady. I congratulate everybody who set up sprinkler week: there has been a huge amount of debate about and emphasis on the value of sprinklers and a huge amount of knowledge has been shared in the Chamber today.
I am particularly proud of the fire service in my area. It is almost entirely staffed by retained fireman—ours is a very rural area—and all the full-time firemen are not in the station but doing other work. That work, which is fire prevention, is most important, and it is some of the best work that fire brigades have done. No fires is the best solution of all, but, sadly, fires start. It has been proved conclusively that sprinklers have a part to play in fighting those fires. They prevent death and injury, and they save property and keep firemen out of harm’s way, because the fire is often under control or even extinguished before they get to the fire.
I shall focus my remarks on one aspect. The theme of fire sprinkler week is commercial property, and it has been shown that commercial property of more than 2,000 square metres is—in financial terms, if nothing else—better served by having a sprinkler system than by not having one. However, we have been told that one difficulty encountered by commercial property developers is that water companies have no duty to connect to a sprinkler system, which seems a bit strange. We have been told that some water companies are much happier to connect to sprinkler systems than others, and some put large financial obstacles in the way. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and I, and the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), went to see the Minister to discuss whether an amendment to the Water Bill could be made in the other place to introduce a duty to connect.
Whether that will take place, I know not, but I have talked since then to Welsh Water about its approach to the problem, and I was rather sad to find out that Welsh Water is against a duty to connect. Connecting through a meter leads to a reduction in water pressure, which makes the operation of sprinklers less effective, but Welsh Water has found—this is a sad comment on human nature—that connecting without a meter leads people to steal the water from that supply. That is one reason why Welsh Water was unhappy about going down that route. It suggested that anybody who wants to build a commercial property and install sprinklers could set up quite an expensive system involving a large water store, a pump and goodness knows what. However, I still believe that the safety of people and property would be best served by a duty on water companies to connect to sprinkler systems in commercial properties. I hope that that amendment will find some favour in the future legislative process.
I am proud of the work done by Ann Jones. I think that Wales is showing the way on the issue. A report by Carl Sargeant, the Minister for housing and regeneration in Wales, says:
“From April 2014, the regulations will apply to high-risk properties such as care homes, new and converted student halls of residence, boarding houses and certain hostels and from January 2016 to all new and converted houses and flats. This phasing will allow the house building industry to gain experience and skills, and gives the sector the opportunity to innovate and reduce the costs of installing sprinklers.”
That is key. The more sprinklers go into properties, the more reduction in the cost. Now is the time to press for more regulation to ensure that people’s lives are saved and sprinkler facilities are made available to more people.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and the hon. Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Southend West (Mr Amess) on securing this timely debate, and I commend the promoters of this, the first fire sprinkler week. I applaud the promoters’ aims of widening awareness and knowledge of sprinklers and, as the hon. Member for Waveney and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse have done so well, debunking the myths and misconceptions about sprinklers.
It is welcome that the trend in the incidence of fire fatalities has been downward and has now been stable for some time. I congratulate the current and previous Governments on that trend, as well as the fire and rescue authorities that provide vital services. It ought to go without saying, although I am pleased to say it, that it is the commitment and courage of firefighters on the front line that save lives, minimise harm, protect property and promote safety in our communities on a daily basis. As other Members have done, I pay sincere and grateful tribute to them for their work.
The facts about the incidence of fire deaths and injuries and damage to property resulting from fire are well documented and have been thoroughly referenced by hon. Members in this debate. I will touch briefly on some facts that I see as particularly relevant to fire sprinkler week. I thank the Chief Fire Officers Association and others for drawing them to my attention. In 2011-12, 380 people lost their lives in fire-related incidents in Great Britain, 287 of them in dwelling fires. It strikes me as apposite to remark that no lives were lost in the UK due to fire in homes fitted with domestic sprinklers, that fire injuries were 80% lower in sprinklered premises, and that there is a more than 90% chance that a sprinkler system that is correctly designed, installed, maintained and supplied with water will control or extinguish a fire.
How many of those 380 lives lost in 2011-12 could have been saved? How much of the trauma of bereavement and tragedy we have discussed today could have been avoided if sprinklers had been fitted? Without wanting to be mercenary when talking about people’s lives, I am conscious of the economic impact of lives lost, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) highlighted exceptionally well. The cost of each fatality in a road traffic accident is estimated at £1.65 million and each serious injury at £185,000. As the hon. Member for Waveney pointed out, the cost of fire-related deaths and injuries cannot be that dissimilar.
Further, sprinklers fitted in commercial and industrial premises can save British business, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) pointed out when she mentioned Findus Foods. I must admit that I remember those pancakes. I am not saying I ate many, but I remember them well. Sprinklers fitted in commercial and industrial premises can save British businesses and the British economy millions of pounds of losses from entirely preventable fires. Research undertaken by the Centre for Economics and Business Research states that fires cause a direct financial loss to businesses of £230 million per year. If that is combined with the job and tax losses that follow a fire, we must clearly look seriously at the business case for sprinklers.
The figures put a practical slant on any financial deliberations we make about introducing precautions such as sprinkler systems. As a relatively new holder of the shadow fire brief, I am still learning my way around the job, so I have been travelling the country meeting councillors, fire officers and firefighters, who have been universally keen to share their views and enthusiasms with me. I have seen more fire engines in the last couple of months than in my entire life previously. Sprinklers have been on almost every agenda prepared for me, regardless of whether I have visited a county, combined or metropolitan authority.
That there is a case for sprinklers is undeniable, given the evidence about reducing deaths and business losses from fire. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd said, there were strong objections and opposition to the regulations introduced by the Welsh Government requiring the installation of sprinklers in a wide range of dwellings. The Home Builders Federation, the Federation of Master Builders and the Residential Landlords Association have all expressed concerns about the cost of installation and the impact that it will have on development.
Clearly, we need a dialogue. My purpose today is to suggest that we take a considered and intelligent approach to that dialogue, seeking cross-party consensus and aiming to build a broad coalition of interested groups with the clear intent of reducing fire deaths and injuries while achieving sensible regulation and balancing cost and benefit.
I apologise, Mr Brady, for not being able to be present at the start of the debate. My hon. Friend is making a very constructive and helpful point. Does she agree that there will be practical difficulties—the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) referred to one—but with good will and through negotiation, they can be overcome, and will she join me in urging the Minister to take up that suggestion?
I am certainly hoping to be constructive in my contribution today and not to make party political points or to take an easy option. I, too, suggest that we work together to see whether we can overcome the obstacles and objections that are being placed in our way. We need to talk about whether we need to ensure that sprinklers are provided in all care homes, in children’s homes, in new schools, in new and purpose-built student accommodation and, perhaps, in all new social rented accommodation.
Let us talk about the role of sprinklers in the domestic setting—whether we should expect in the future that more homes will be built with sprinklers and they will become commonplace and expected. Let us talk about whether the costs to builders and developers could hold back the building of much-needed homes. Let us learn from the experiences of other countries in introducing new requirements. The starting point for that dialogue should be risk.
We know what the risk factors are and we have figures for fire fatalities that illustrate the impact of that risk most graphically. For example, those over the age of 65 accounted for 40% of fire fatalities in 2011-12—a period when that age group accounted for 16.6% of the population. The figure of 40% for 2011-12 is up from the 2005-06 figure of 35.6%, showing perhaps the impact of an ageing population, as well as being a side effect of more people being able to live longer in their own homes. We know who the vulnerable groups who are more at risk of death, injury and loss from fire are: they are in homes, in the lower income bands and in more deprived areas.
We can implement our response to risk differentially, which may be one way of achieving the balance between cost and benefit and getting the best outcomes for the money spent. Requiring sprinkler systems in some categories of new build may well be part of an answer, especially where the installation of sprinklers allows cost savings elsewhere—for example, through less costly conventional fire precautions and insurance.
I thought that it was important today to press this point, despite the fact that I could not easily find a place to put it in my speech. There are already very interesting and imaginative solutions to keep high-risk individuals safe. When I visited Lincolnshire fire and rescue service on Monday, I learnt how local partners are working together to provide vulnerable adults with appropriate fire suppression devices, such as portable misting devices. They told me about the success in Humberside, where misting devices had saved lives—more than once, a misting device had extinguished a fire for a vulnerable older person.
As a Parliament, we may not wish to make an assumption that the answer is sprinklers always and everywhere, but I cannot conceive of a holder of this brief, whether in opposition or in government, who would not advocate practices that would save lives, save businesses and protect economic capacity. In my closing remarks, I want to offer the Minister cross-party co-operation and, indeed, cross-party talks to try to get consensus on the way forward on sprinklers and to consider the Government action necessary for both domestic and business properties, because I think that lives can be saved, injuries minimised, damage to property avoided and money saved if we have the will to co-operate and the motivation to succeed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) on securing this general debate focusing on fire sprinkler week. I also congratulate all hon. Members who have spoken on the way in which the debate has been conducted. This has been a very thoughtful, well considered debate, with really strong contributions. I also appreciate the comments from the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). In these debates, it is often all too easy for us to get into making political points. I do not doubt that some of us will do so, but as I say this has been a thoughtful and well structured debate.
Fire safety is clearly of concern to us all. I know that the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse has always taken an interest in this subject, but he has a particular interest as a former Minister with responsibility for fire safety and building regulations in the previous Administration. I am very aware that I am speaking as the fire Minister in the presence of three previous fire Ministers—they have held that position at some stage in their careers—as well as the new shadow fire Minister.
I will declare at the beginning of my speech a personal interest in the comments from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse. He referred to Scottsdale, Arizona, and when he was speaking he may have noticed that a wry smile came across my face. I want to put him at ease as to why that was. A Mr Lewis and a Mrs Lewis, my mother and father, have a home in and spend a lot of their time living in Scottsdale, Arizona, so I can assure the hon. Gentleman that during the past 20 years I have got to know the area very well, although I have not been there as much in the past four years. I know the structures and the situation in Scottsdale, as well as the heat that is generally experienced there.
We have a lot to celebrate in the collective success that we have all had—across agencies, the fire service, local government and central Government—in making our communities safer from fire. The figures are clear. Accidental fire deaths in the home, which accounted for three fifths of all fire fatalities, have continued to fall. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney talked about the fire service, as have other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for West Ham. It does a phenomenal job in keeping people safe from fire across the country and, of course, in the rescue work that it undertakes. Its members put their lives at risk every day, never knowing quite what will happen in the course of their shift. We should do everything we can to ensure that they are as safe as possible in their work.
People have been talking for many years about new firefighting techniques, and it is great that we are now starting to see them really develop. The coldcut technique has been around for a while, and is now being used. Many services can learn from what is being done in areas such as Manchester and Hertfordshire, where the technique is being used to fight fires in a different, transformational way: not just to cut through building materials but to bring down the temperature quickly and deal with the fire before a firefighter has to go in. It is one of the things that can lead to the figures continuing to fall, and that can keep our firefighters safe.
Let us be clear: in 2012-13 we saw the lowest number of fire deaths ever. That is good, but we all want to see the number go down even further. The number of fire deaths is down by one third compared with 10 years ago. The latest figures, for April to September 2013, show that fire casualties are down by a further 7% compared with the same period in the previous year. They are now less than half the level of 10 years ago. The number of attendances at fires is also less than half what it was a decade ago. Building fires are down by 44%; fires in the home are down by 39%; and fires in commercial and other buildings are down by 52%. The attendance at incidents overall has fallen by 46%. That is in no small part because of the safer environments in which we are all now able to live and work. Put simply, in respect of fire and a range of other emergency incidents, we are a safer society than we were 10 years ago.
The number of incidents and casualties has continued to fall in the first two quarters of 2013-14. Many in the fire sector have at times argued for more regulation to require sprinklers in domestic properties and more commercial buildings. I note that many Members have stressed that today’s debate is not about that ongoing discussion across the sector. The Government’s position has been made clear a number of times. Since taking office in 2010, the coalition Government have been very clear about their policy on sprinklers, but I want to put it on the record again. Sprinklers work. We know that. No one can deny it. The myths around sprinklers have been well explained and debunked here today. They are an effective way of controlling fires and of protecting lives and property. That is why they are required, as hon. Members know, in certain higher-risk premises, under building regulations, and why all guidance that we make available to support compliance with the fire safety order highlights sprinklers as an effective risk-mitigation measure. It is right that it does so.
However, not all buildings carry the same level of risk. Those with responsibility for ensuring fire safety in their businesses, in their homes or as landlords should and must make informed decisions on how best to manage the risks in their own properties. More and more techniques are being developed in addition to sprinklers—the hon. Member for West Ham touched on some of them—which save lives. In speaking generically of “sprinklers”, other Members may have covered some of those.
In our commitment to be the first Government to reduce regulation, we have introduced the one in, two out rule for regulation, which the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned. I reassure him that I am coming to his point about business rates. Under that rule, when the Government introduce a regulation, we will identify two existing ones to be removed. The Department for Communities and Local Government has gone further and removed an even higher proportion of regulations. In that context, Members will understand why we want to exhaust all non-regulatory options before we introduce any new regulations.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned business rates for plant and machinery, and that the way in which sprinklers are assessed might act as a disincentive to installing them. Special rules to remove sprinklers from the rating system, outside the general principles relating to plant machinery, might raise issues of fairness and competition for all ratepayers concerning other building fire prevention measures, so it is difficult to see how we might take that idea forward. In addition, the Valuation Office Agency assesses rateable values independently of Ministers, and it is answerable to the courts. However, I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments about sprinklers and building protection mechanisms, and I will take that idea away and have a look at it. On cross-party working, which the hon. Member for West Ham mentioned, I am happy to discuss that and my response can be fed back to the all-party group.
There are always calls for Government to change building regulations, and that is often the default position of those who see regulation as an easy answer. As Members have noted today, however, it is not the only answer. We should intervene only if it is entirely necessary, and only as a last resort. As many Members have said, the core aim of today’s debate was not to call for regulation but to highlight fire sprinkler week. Although we have not carried out a fundamental review of building regulations for fire safety, we recognise that it is important to maintain and update standards. That is why we have commissioned the Building Research Establishment to look at a number of issues and to provide the evidence that we will need in future. No doubt, the use of sprinklers will form part of that work. We will ensure that experts from across industry and the wider fire sector, including organisations such as the Chief Fire Officers Association and the business sprinkler alliance, feed into those discussions.
Statistics tell us that someone is more likely to die in a fire if they do not have a working smoking alarm. That is why the Department continues to fund and support the “Fire Kills” campaign, which is designed and delivered in partnership with fire and rescue authorities. It is an excellent example of how awareness and education have influenced fire safety behaviour by providing basic fire safety information to households, in order to help them alter their behaviour and think more about fire safety as an important issue that may affect them and their families. I am pleased to see that the sector is adopting a similar approach to promoting fire safety benefits, with the creation of the first fire sprinkler week.
We all agree that a fire, whether small or large, can bring tragic devastation and loss to a business, affecting its employees, its contribution to the local economy and its ability to recover and to continue trading in the aftermath of such an incident. Members have given clear examples of that today. I welcome the recent publication of the two research reports sponsored by the business sprinkler alliance, which were undertaken by the Building Research Establishment and the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Those reports considered the environmental impact and carried out a cost-benefit analysis of fire sprinklers in warehouse buildings, which is the key focus of today’s debate. The principal conclusion of the research was that sprinklers are, on average, a cost-effective investment for warehouses that have a floor area greater than 2,000 square metres. Businesses must determine how best to comply with their statutory responsibilities in the knowledge of such information. Building owners, housing providers or home owners must be aware that other equally effective measures may be available, and such information may feed into their decisions.
We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation. It is clear that fire sprinklers work, and I am happy that the Government continue to emphasise that; I do not think there is any disagreement about that. Fire sprinkler week is an important part of the education process, which I hope will make industry, businesses and individuals more aware of what is possible.
I appreciate that there are differences of opinion about the costs of sprinkler systems. I spoke to Nick Ross, whose view is that a sprinkler system can be installed in a new-build house for as little as £600, and the industry will be keen to make a similar case to debunk some of the myths about cost. Research held by the Department shows that the cost per house is still in the thousands of pounds. I appreciate the argument that has been made about Wales, although no houses have yet been built under the new regulation. The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building—something we want to encourage—so we must wait to see what impact that regulation has.
I welcome the creation of fire sprinkler week, which is a good step by the industry, and I am sure it will help to raise awareness of the undeniable benefits of sprinklers. They enable householders, housing providers and building owners to make informed decisions about the fire safety measures that are appropriate for their circumstances. That extends beyond personal safety to property protection. The fire sector has a key role to play in helping building owners to make informed decisions about the fire safety measures that are appropriate for their circumstances. I urge the sector to continue to engage proactively with representative bodies for industry, commerce and housing providers, and to make the case for effective and proportionate fire protection. I encourage passive and active interventions in all areas of business and housing stock in England. I wish fire sprinkler week every success.
I appreciate the Minister’s comments, and I will return to them at the end. Although several colleagues have generously congratulated me on securing the debate, it was secured collectively. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) and I went to the Backbench Business Committee, on which we had an insider dealer—the chair of the all-party group on fire and fire safety, the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess), who is not with us at the moment—lobbying for us from the inside. My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) was a signatory to the request for the debate.
It is good to see two former fire Ministers here, my right hon. Friends the Members for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich has been here for the whole debate and takes a keen interest in the matter. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) has a powerful local ally, and it is good to hear that they are making such good progress. She is a former West Ham United supporter—I always try to get that into debates when we are in the Chamber together.
I am delighted that the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) was able to join us. Her comments about how valuable she found the event last week demonstrate how effective such events are at opening our eyes to outside interests. I point out to those who are not members of the all-party group that it is very active and it would be great if more Members joined us. Some all-party groups have had a bit of a bad press, but ours works hard and is effective.
I am grateful to the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for her positive comments, and to the Minister for his supportive comments. It is good that he picked up on the offer of cross-party talks that would include business. Many of us feel that there is a need for regulation. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said that she has been told of building regulations being repealed locally. I have heard stories such that, because of the repeal of the London building Acts, a number of establishments in the west end that previously were required to be sprinklered are now consulting their insurance companies about de-sprinklering because they say they would save money. There is pressure the other way on this issue—it is not all one-way traffic—so we would be grateful for whatever the Minister can do. We look forward to engaging with him in due course, and to him writing to us about business rates. I know he said that that was a difficult issue, but it might not be impossible.
As my friend, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) said, we will be pressing the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), about amendments to the Water Bill in the Lords. Some water companies are very positive, but, as was mentioned, others are very awkward. The situation is neither all good nor all bad. Evidence is emerging all the time to strengthen the case for sprinklers domestically, as well as in care establishments, nursing homes and commercial premises. The all-party group will continue to press on this issue, and we look forward to engaging with both my hon. Friend the shadow Minister and the Minister in the months and years ahead. Thank you, Mr Brady.
Question put and agreed to.