Skip to main content

Cable Standards: Fire Safety

Volume 638: debated on Monday 26 March 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mims Davies.)

I am about to call the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth). It seems to me quite inexplicable that significant numbers of Members are leaving the Chamber, but if they feel inclined to do so—[Interruption.] It is no good the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) chuntering that he has been here for several hours; he could stay here another half an hour and indulge the right hon. Member for Knowsley. If people wish to leave the Chamber, they should do so quickly and quietly, so that the rest of us can attend to the intellectual oratory of the right hon. Member for Knowsley.

I will try to live up to your splendid introduction, Mr Speaker.

Last year’s Grenfell Tower tragedy was, without doubt, one of the most shocking and disturbing building safety failures in living memory. As we know, the likely cause was a shocking failure of our building control regulations, and as a result, the Government established an independent review of building regulations led by Dame Judith Hackitt. A long-overdue national debate about buildings and safety has been taking place alongside the review. In her interim report, Dame Judith rightly stated that Britain’s building regulations are “not fit for purpose”.

I would like to place on record my thanks to the Safer Structures campaign, Electrical Safety First, the Association of British Insurers, the Fire Brigades Union and the Merseyside fire and rescue service for providing me with a briefing for the debate.

The focus for Grenfell Tower is on the specification and installation of the cladding used on the building. This debate concerns the need to eradicate substandard cabling from the market, because there is an overwhelming argument that our existing regulation is too weak and, as a consequence, exposes structures and those who live and work in them to unacceptable levels of risk.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this salient debate. Does he agree that, with electrical fires being the cause of 20,000 fires in United Kingdom homes per year, we have a duty to ensure that people are able to check their cabling and understand how to do so to ensure that it is safe, for not only the people themselves but the councils, which have responsibility?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I will be giving some statistics that exemplify what he just said.

According to the Approved Cables Initiative, more than 27% of all electrical fires are attributable to faulty wire and cables, and there are serious concerns about the risks in our built environment that need to be urgently addressed.

A related concern is that current regulation is not being sufficiently well enforced. For example, in October 2017 the BBC published evidence from an investigation it carried out which exposed the fact that a now-defunct Turkish cable manufacturer, Atlas Kablo, has sold 11 million metres of cable to the UK that pose a deeply concerning fire risk. The Health and Safety Executive, which labours under severe resource restrictions, decided against a compulsory recall of all 11 million metres of that cable. Consequently, as far as I am able to ascertain, so far only 7 million metres has actually been recovered. That poses a real fire safety threat in cases where that cable is still being used.

Interviewed by the BBC, Sam Gluck, the technical manager at the electrical fire consultants Tower Electrical Fire & Safety, said that this approach had

“planted a bomb in the system”.

Mr Gluck added that

“if it overheats, it will ignite anything that touches it. If it’s against a plasterboard wall that will ignite”.

Dr Maurizio Bragagni, chief executive of Tratos—it has a factory in my constituency—and a founder of the Safer Structures campaign, added that

“it could be in any shopping centre, any venue, any building”.

Even where cable regulation is properly enforced, the standards are too weak. By way of background—the Minister will be aware of this—on 1 July 2017, the European Union introduced the construction products regulation. As a result, all cables sold in the EU now have to adhere to common standards, which should result in safer, more consistent building regulations and much improved public safety. The EU, however, has not been prescriptive in specifying which classification of cable performance should be used for buildings and infrastructure in each country. Instead, it is the responsibility of each EU member state’s regulator to decide this, and in the UK, this is the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

At present, the Department has not specified which class of cable should be used for buildings, and instead requires all electrical installations in buildings to comply with British standard 7671—a minimum requirement equivalent to European class E. This means that flames can spread through a cable to 3 to 4 metres in under five minutes, and the fire will continue to propagate at the same rate, while at Euro class C, for example, the fire growth rate is limited to below 2 metres. On the range of Euro classes A to F, the A standard is virtually fireproof. Adoption of a higher standard at Euro class A, B1, B2 or C would lead to much greater resistance for permitted cables. In short, it would mean much improved levels of fire safety.

The official statistics on domestic fires make for sober reading. In 2016-17, 14,821 primary fires were caused by electrical distribution, space heating appliances and other electrical appliances. These three categories resulted in 44 fatalities and 1,353 non-fatal casualties. Another cause for concern is the electrical safety of white goods such as dishwashers, tumble dryers and fridge freezers, which are a major cause of electrical fires. In 2016, 1,873 fires were caused by domestic electrical white goods.

As you will recall, Mr Speaker, on 1 November 2017 there was an excellent Westminster Hall debate on the subject of product safety and fire risk in residential premises, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). I will not go over that ground again, other than to say that this is a serious problem and it needs to be addressed urgently.

Analysis by the Fire Brigades Union indicates that the number of fires and fire deaths is increasing. In the year ending September 2017, there were 346 fire-related fatalities compared with 253 in the previous year, which is a 37% increase—and it was even up by 9% if the tragic deaths at Grenfell Tower are not included. An improvement in standards must, by definition, lead to reduced fire deaths, less property damage and lower demands on already overstretched fire and rescue services. We should bear in mind that, since 2010, more than 11,000 firefighter jobs have been cut across the UK, and that represents one in five frontline firefighter jobs.

There are, as I have highlighted, genuine concerns about buildings such as Grenfell Tower and fire safety. I also have serious concerns about the growing private rented sector, which is far too lightly regulated. Electrical Safety First recommended that properties in the private rented sector should be subject to mandatory five-year checks and the fitting of residual current devices. This would enable substandard cabling to be identified, rather than, as at present, leaving it undetected until it causes serious property damage, injury or even death.

The post-Brexit landscape for regulation and compliance must, at the minimum, maintain the current protections afforded to consumers. There should be no deregulation of the product safety standards currently implemented. Following our exit, the UK should continue working closely with European friends to ensure that products entering the UK market are safe, and dangerous products are intercepted and reported.

One further point I want to make before I move to a conclusion concerns regional variations. Merseyside had 53% of its fires recorded as being electrical in origin, which is below the national average. During the same time, Manchester had 61%, and Norfolk, the Isle of Wight and Cornwall had in excess of 70%, of dwelling fires recorded as electrical. Of the 628 incidents defined as electrical fires on Merseyside, 133 were deemed to be “structural/fixtures/fittings”, and cables would fall into that category.

To conclude, I ask the Minister to consider the following questions. First, Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of building regulations must inevitably go through all the evidence thoroughly, and I accept that that will take time. However, in the case of cabling, would the Minister consider introducing immediate measures to properly regulate cable standards along the lines I referred to? The evidence is already there.

Secondly, will the Minister consider providing the resources to enable the Health and Safety Executive to identify the remaining 4 million metres of Atlas Kablo cable so that it can be recalled? Thirdly, will she undertake to see what further action can be taken on white goods to more fully identify the risks and any action that could be taken to eradicate those risks?

Fourthly, will the Minister carry out a review of the regions most prone to electrical fires to identify the common characteristics and what more can be done to deal with the problem? Finally, following our exit from the EU, will she commit to ensuring that there is no deregulation of cable standards in the UK?

I hope the Minister will accept that this is a very serious issue and that it is in need of urgent attention from her Department. I hope she will inject some energy into the work the Government need to do to combat it.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) for raising the important issue of cable standards and fire safety. He has spoken about the Safer Structures campaign. Ministerial officials met representatives from the campaign last week to discuss issues around cable fire safety, and I hope that dialogue can continue.

Any debate about fire safety is of course overshadowed by the terrible events at Grenfell Tower last June. We must ensure that an event such as that cannot happen again. The public inquiry is looking at the circumstances of the fire, and we have commissioned an independent review of building regulations and fire safety to ensure that we have a regulatory system that is fit for purpose to deliver safe buildings.

When considering the fire safety of cables, there are three main aspects. The first is cables continuing to provide power to life safety systems in the event of fire. This is known as fire resistance of cables. Secondly, is the way in which cables burn, including how much smoke they produce. This is different to fire resistance and is known as reaction to fire. The third aspect is cables collapsing in a fire and preventing people from evacuating the building or hampering emergency services. I will set out how each of these aspects is controlled within the current system.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to European legislation. He was referring to the construction products regulation, which governs how construction products are placed on the European market, including those in the UK. The regulation works by requiring that products covered by a European harmonised standard must have a declaration of performance against key characteristics and must be CE marked. The European standard for cables, EN 50575, came into effect, as he said, in July 2017. This means that all electrical cabling should be tested for their reaction to fire and assigned to a performance class, which should be set out in the declaration of performance. It is up to member states, exactly as the right hon. Gentleman said, to determine whether they wish to set a minimum performance class through, for example, their building regulations. I would like to set out the ways in which our current regulatory system controls the safety of electrical cables in buildings.

The Government set standards for fire safety in buildings through part B of the regulations and approved document B. Approved document B contains guidance for the minimum fire resistance of electrical cables to ensure that life safety systems, such as fire alarms and emergency lighting, can operate during a fire. Also in approved document B are standards that attempt to prevent the spread of fire within a building—for example, in concealed voids where there may be large concentrations of electrical cables. Guidance states that physical barriers should be present to prevent fire and smoke spread within the void and throughout the building.

There are further standards for cables in electrical safety standards. The building regulation part P and the electricity at work regulations set requirements for electrical safety of work in homes and workplaces respectively. In both cases, the approved way to comply is to follow the British standard BS 7671, commonly known as the IET wiring regulations. BS 7671 is a long-standing and well-respected document, which sets a high standard for the electrical safety of installations, as the right hon. Gentleman said. Providing good-quality electrical work, in compliance with BS 7671, is the best way to reduce the risk of electrical fires starting in the first place. An example of BS 7671 improving standards is in requiring fire resistant supports for cables to prevent the cables collapsing in the event of a fire. This has been in the standard since 2015.

The BS 7671 standard also sets requirements for the reaction to fire from cables, equivalent to class E in EN 50575 under the construction products regulation. I am aware that BS 7671 is due to be revised in July 2018 and my officials have been working closely with the technical committees responsible for its contents. It is my understanding that the approach to reaction to fire is not due to change in the new edition, although there will be some further clarification on fire resistance supports for cables and a new reference to the requirements of the construction products regulation. I will be asking my officials to review the 18th edition of BS 7671 when it is published in July, and considering how we might reference the updated standard in our approved documents in future.

I understand that parts of the electrical cable industry think that the standard for fire reaction of cables should be higher. I am aware that there are differences of opinion on this matter within the industry technical committees and between different cable manufacturers in the UK. Some parts of the industry favour setting cable performance in response to the risk, which is how the existing system works, while others are asking the Government to set a blanket standard for all cables. I mentioned earlier that we have commissioned an independent review of building regulations and fire safety, as the right hon. Gentleman said, which is being led by Dame Judith Hackitt. Dame Judith’s interim report was published in December. In it, she identified product testing and quality assurance as one of the key areas she will focus on as she drafts her final report.

How can the Minister encourage electrical contractors to adhere to the new conditions to ensure that cables are sound and homes are safe?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his second contribution tonight—the usual high standards for Strangford. The important thing is that BS 7671 in its 18th iteration will have that at its heart, because what we all want is safe cabling for the future for all our sakes.

I mentioned the independent review of building regulations. Dame Judith’s interim report was published in December. She is looking at identifying product testing and quality assurance as one of the key areas that she will focus on as she drafts her final report. I believe that that will answer the fifth question—I think—from the right hon. Member for Knowsley.

Dame Judith is due to produce a final report in the spring, after which the Government will consider her recommendations, including any specific recommendations concerning product testing and safety. I am happy to tell the right hon. Gentleman that as part of our consideration of Dame Judith’s recommendations, we will review the evidence of risk associated with electrical cabling to consider how we should respond. If he or other hon. Members have evidence that it would be useful for us to consider, please send it in to the Ministry.

In conclusion, a system of regulation is in place that controls the fire safety of cables. We do this through a number of regulations that work together to consider the fire performance of cables in the context of the building and to manage the risk appropriately. However, we recognise the importance of the issues that were raised by the right hon. Gentleman and the Safer Structures campaign. We await the recommendations of Dame Judith Hackitt’s review.

I am trying to reconcile a couple of statements that the Minister has made. On the one hand, she recognises that there is room for improvement, but on the other hand, she seems to be saying that everything is okay. They cannot both be right. Does she accept the point that I made in one of my questions, which was that this really does need some energy behind it if we are going to reach a constructive and better system?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for repeating his question. The difficulty is that there is not agreement in the market. He has one producer in his constituency and he is doing a grand job of standing up for them, but the market is not in agreement on this matter, which is why we have to look at all the evidence and take it forward from there.

No, if the right hon. Gentleman does not mind, I am just going to conclude. We await the recommendations of Dame Judith Hackitt’s review. In the light of those, I am happy to confirm that we will work with the industry to review the evidence base for enhanced cable fire safety performance. Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to our attention.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.