Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
Duties of owner or manager
‘The relevant authority must by regulations amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) to require an owner or a manager of any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises to—
(a) share information with their local Fire and Rescue Service in respect of each building for which an owner or manager is responsible about the design of its external walls and details of the materials of which those external walls are constructed;
(b) in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake regular inspections of individual flat entrance doors;
(c) in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake regular inspections of lifts and report the results to their local Fire and Rescue Service; and
(d) share evacuation and fire safety instructions with residents of the building.’—(Sarah Jones.)
This new clause would place various requirements on building owners or managers, and would implement the recommendations made in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase One Report.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Accreditation of fire risk assessors—
‘The relevant authority must by regulations amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) to require fire risk assessors for any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises to be accredited.’
This new clause would require fire risk assessors to be accredited.
New clause 3—Inspectors: prioritisation—
‘In discharging their duties under article 27 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (powers of inspectors) in relation to any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises, an inspector must prioritise the premises which they consider to be at most risk.’
This new clause would require the schedule for inspecting buildings to be based on a prioritisation of risk, not an arbitrary distinction of types of buildings.
New clause 4—Meaning of responsible person—
‘In article 3 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (“meaning of responsible person”), at the end of paragraph (b)(ii) insert—
“(2) Where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises, a leaseholder shall not be considered a responsible person unless they are also the owner or part owner of the freehold.”’
This new clause aims to clarify the definition of ‘responsible person’ to ensure leaseholders are not considered a responsible person unless they are also the owner or part owner of the freehold.
New clause 5—Waking watch—
‘The relevant authority must by regulations amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) to specify when a waking watch must be in place for any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises and which has been found to have fire safety failings.’
This new clause would require the UK Government (for England) and the Welsh Government (for Wales) to specify when a waking watch must be in place for buildings with fire safety failures.
Amendment 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—
‘(1C) Where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises, the things to which this order applies includes electrical appliances.
(1D) The reference to electrical appliances means any appliances specified by Order made by the relevant authority.
(1E) Schedule 1 of the Fire Safety Act 2020 shall apply to paragraphs (1C) and (1D).’
This amendment would clarify that the Fire Safety Order applies to electrical appliances.
New schedule 1—
‘1 The relevant authority must, no later than 12 months after the date on which this Act is passed, make regulations specifying the electrical appliances covered by paragraph (1D) of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.
2 The relevant authority must, no later than 12 months after the date on which this Act is passed, make regulations to amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (“the Order”) as follows—
(a) to require the responsible person for premises to which the Order applies to—
(i) carry out electrical safety checks of such type as may be prescribed by the Order at such frequency as may be so prescribed (being no less frequently than every 5 years) at each set of domestic premises, regardless of whether the occupier is a tenant of the responsible person;
(ii) keep records of the checks for such period as may be prescribed by the Order and make them available upon request to such persons as may be so prescribed;
(iii) keep a register of such kinds of electrical appliances as may be prescribed by the Order that are kept in each set of domestic premises, regardless of whether the occupier is a tenant of the responsible person;
(iv) check whether those electrical appliances are the subject of a recall notice under paragraph 12 of the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 2016.
(b) to require occupiers of such premises to—
(i) provide access to premises and allow action to remedy any failure to meet safety standards identified in a safety check carried out in accordance with sub-paragraph (a)(i);
(ii) provide the relevant responsible person with information about electrical appliances prescribed in accordance with sub-paragraph (a)(iii) and kept in the premises;
(iii) comply with any reasonable requirement made by the responsible person in relation to electrical appliances which the responsible person has reason to believe are the subject of a recall notice under paragraph 12 of the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 2016.
3 Regulations made under paragraph 2 may—
(a) confer a power to enter premises on such persons as may be prescribed in the Order for such purposes connected with the requirements imposed under the regulations as may be so prescribed.
(b) create offences;
(c) amend the definition of “responsible person” in article 6 of the Order;
(d) make such consequential, supplementary or incidental provision by way of amendments to the Order as the relevant authority considers appropriate.
4 Regulations made under paragraph 2 must provide that any power to enter domestic premises is not to be exercisable unless—
(a) at a reasonable time and with the consent of the occupier of the premises; or
(b) under the authority of a warrant issued by a justice of the peace.”
5 In this schedule the term “relevant authority” has the same meaning as in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.’
This new schedule would require the Government to make regulations specifying the electrical appliances to which the Fire Safety Order applies. It would also require the Government to amend the Order to impose additional duties on the responsible person and on occupiers. It is consequential on Amendment 1.
Let me begin, as I have at every stage of this Bill, by saying that we on the Opposition Benches support the Bill. The Minister knows that. We are keen to be as supportive as possible, but let me reiterate the point that I have also made at every stage, which is that this Bill is a shamefully inadequate response to the multiple problems for fire safety, which were so tragically brought to the fore when 72 lives were lost in the Grenfell Tower fire. The Bill—all three clauses of it—goes nowhere near far enough to prevent a tragedy like Grenfell from happening again.
The Government said that the introduction of the Fire Safety Bill would take them a step further in delivering the inquiry’s recommendations and recently cited the Bill as one of their key priorities in response to a deeply frustrated letter from Grenfell survivors. Yet the Bill does not even include provisions for any of the measures called for by the first phase of the inquiry.
The Grenfell community were failed by a system that did not listen to them. We must never forget that failure. I pay tribute to Grenfell United, the families and the whole community for continuing to tirelessly fight for justice. They should not have had to fight so hard, and hundreds of thousands of people across the country are now being failed by a system that does not listen to them—those stuck in buildings with flammable cladding, those using their income to fund waking watch and other safety measures, and those who cannot buy or sell their flats because the mortgage market has been ground to a halt by confusion and lack of Government leadership.
My hon. Friend starts absolutely with the crux of the matter. She will be aware that, in my own constituency of Cardiff South and Penarth, we have thousands of residents in apartment blocks who are affected by these issues. The failure of companies such as Redrow, Laing O’Rourke and Taylor Wimpey to hold to their responsibilities for fire safety and other building defects is a huge problem. Does she agree that they need to take responsibility for mistakes that they may have made in construction?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The system as a whole is fundamentally broken, and it is the developers as well as the Government who need to look to their own actions and correct them.
The Government have made many promises to bring justice to the survivors and their families, to change building and fire safety regulations and to do this quickly, but the Government are yet to make their promises a reality. At every stage, we have had to drag them into action. During the passage of this Bill, we have sought constructively to improve it, so that it goes further as a piece of primary legislation towards improving fire safety.
New clause 1 would do what the Government say must come later. It would place robust requirements on building owners or managers and implement the recommendations—the key recommendations—from phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. The Government said that they would implement the Grenfell phase 1 inquiry in full and without delay. This new clause, which we are moving tonight, would fulfil that promise. In what is a very complex world of building and fire safety, the new clause is relatively simple. It seeks to do four things: the owners of buildings that contain two or more sets of domestic premises would share information with their local fire and rescue service about the design and make-up of the external walls; they would complete regular inspections of fire entrance doors; they would complete regular inspections of lifts; and they would share evacuation and fire safety instructions with residents. These measures are straightforward and are supported by key stakeholders. Frankly, it is pretty extraordinary that they are not already enshrined in law.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way at this point. She is making a very powerful case. I will be supporting new clause 1, as it is worthy of support. Will she put some pressure on her Labour colleagues in the Welsh Government in Cardiff to bring forward similar proposals for consideration by the Senedd in Cardiff before the elections in May?
The Welsh Government have a proud record on fire safety, and I point the hon. Gentleman in the direction of the many actions that have been taken. In this case today, we are looking at the actions of the Government and their failure to act since the Grenfell Tower fire three years ago.
Time and again in Committee, the Minister supported what we were saying in principle but told us that we must wait for a consultation to finish, a taskforce to report, or the experts to tell us what to do. That is not good enough. We have seen with covid what can be done with political will: hospitals built in days, and whole systems restructured to respond where there is a need. If the political will was there, the Government would support this new clause and we could take one step in the direction of keeping the promises that we all made in those days and weeks after the Grenfell fire. The Government have given no timetable for when they will deliver the inquiry’s recommendations through secondary legislation. The Government have continuously pushed back on their promises while thousands of people across the country are stuck still in unsafe flats.
My hon. Friend will know, and the Minister will recognise, that there are thousands of leaseholders living in flats—I support all steps being taken to improve fire safety—where, as each day passes, more bills are coming in for increased insurance and waking watches. They live in dread of the final bill for the cost of replacing the cladding, which will be completely unaffordable. It is not fair to our constituents to make them live with this nightmare that they did not cause, and I hope she will continue to urge the Government to play their part, because only the Government can solve this.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: only the Government can fix this problem. The lack of action and the lack of clarity about which buildings are safe, apart from anything else, and about what needs to be done has led to huge disruption for thousands of people, huge cost, mental health issues, weddings put off, jobs and opportunities not being able to be taken and all manner of problems that the Government need to fix.
The Government have constantly pushed back on their promises, while many people are still in unsafe flats. The fire safety measures recommended by phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower inquiry are urgently needed. Why would we wait for secondary legislation at an undetermined point in the future to ensure that building owners and managers share information about the design of external walls with their local fire services? Why would we delay the requirement to have inspections of individual flat doors and lifts? Why would we wait to make building owners or managers share evacuation and fire safety instructions with residents?
In Committee, the Minister responding—the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse)—said that the Government intend to legislate further, but we need more than vague commitments about secondary legislation. At the very least, we need a clear timetable from Government that sets out when further changes to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 will be delivered.
The fire safety order requires regular fire risk assessments in buildings, but it includes no legal requirement for those conducting the assessment to have any form of training or accreditation. I could call myself a fire risk assessor, set myself up with a logo and be responsible for one of the most important safety measures we have. No other sector would accept that. No one would accept electricians with no qualifications or gas engineers making it up as they go along. It is absurd. Any one of us could carry out fire risk assessments on schools, hospitals or care homes with no test or accreditation needed. The lack of training and accreditation in such an important area is completely unacceptable.
The Bill’s changes to the fire safety order clarify the inclusion of external wall systems such as cladding and insulation, which makes the competence of fire risk assessors even more important, as they will need to understand the more complex elements and materials found in cladding systems. That hugely important issue has been raised by Members from all parts of the House on Second Reading and in Committee.
The Government should be using the Bill to legislate for higher standards and greater public accountability in fire inspections. New clause 2, tabled by the Opposition, would bring into force an accreditation system for fire risk assessors, rather than waiting for more secondary legislation. In Committee, the Minister responding referred to the “industry-led competency steering group” in relation to fire risk assessors. I hope that the Minister today can provide an update on when the Government plan to bring forward changes to address the issue of unqualified fire risk assessors.
Turning to new clause 3, we have talked to many experts and stakeholders who have significant concerns, which the Minister will be aware of, about how the Bill will be implemented. The Minister responding in Committee referred to the building risk review programme, which looks
“to ensure that local resources are targeted at those buildings most at risk.”––[Official Report, Fire Safety Public Bill Committee, 25 June 2020; c. 62.]
We would like to see a similar provision in the Bill. New clause 3 would require the schedule for inspecting buildings to be based on a prioritisation of risk, not an arbitrary distinction of types of buildings. Local fire and rescue services know their areas and the buildings where there is greatest risk. Let them decide what to prioritise first. They know better than Whitehall.
Many Members from all parts of the House have been contacted by desperate leaseholders who have been left to foot the bill for urgent fire safety works, despite not being the building owner. That is a huge challenge, as we have already discussed. The definition of the responsible person in this legislation needs to be made clear.
The Fire Safety Bill is intended to be a foundational Bill. Its purpose is to provide clarity on what is covered under the fire safety order, which will inform other related and secondary legislation. New clause 4 would be an important example of that kind of clarification. Its purpose is to clarify the definition of “responsible person” to ensure that a leaseholder is not considered a responsible person unless they are also the owner or part-owner of the freehold. The draft Building Safety Bill places various requirements on the responsible person, and refers to the fire safety order for the definition. It is vital that the fire safety order makes it clear that there is no ambiguity around the definition of “responsible person”; otherwise, there is a risk of confusion and misalignment between the two pieces of legislation, and a danger that the responsible person might seek to use that ambiguity to avoid their responsibilities under the Bill.
The definition of the responsible person has been raised by many Members from across the House at each stage of the Bill’s progress. Without clear definitions, there will be new questions of interpretation, and we will not achieve what we are setting out to achieve. The Opposition do not understand why that is controversial. Perhaps the Minister could help by explaining why he is comfortable leaving such dangerous ambiguity.
New clause 5 refers to another important issue, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) raised. Struggling leaseholders across the country have been forced to pay extortionate fees for interim fire safety measures—most commonly, waking watch—while progress on remediation work has been too slow. New clause 5 aims to clarify when waking watch should and should not be in place. The Government still have not published the findings of their audit of external wall systems of high-rise buildings, and are therefore unable to say how many buildings are covered in dangerous non-ACM cladding. However, we know from their latest figures on aluminium composite material cladding that more than 80% of private sector residential buildings, and nearly half of social sector residential buildings, wrapped in Grenfell-style ACM cladding have not had it removed and replaced. The Government deadlines of 2019 for social sector blocks to be made safe, and June 2020 for private sector blocks, were both missed. Progress has been painfully slow, and the coronavirus pandemic has hindered it even more. The impact on residents is terrible. Tens of thousands of people have been locked down in unsafe buildings for months on end.
The National Fire Chiefs Council says that waking watch should be a temporary measure, but some blocks have been paying for it for three years, which has cost residents thousands of pounds and ruined lives. Given that the safety status of many buildings across the country remains uncertain and the timelines for cladding removal keep getting extended, clarity on when and for how long waking watch should be used would bring much-needed consistency on how the measure should be applied.
I will speak very briefly about amendment 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who has persistently campaigned on fire safety for many years. I pay tribute to him and Jim Fitzpatrick, who is no longer in this House, for their campaigning work and for writing to Ministers time after time, including only weeks before the Grenfell fire, to implore them to act on fire safety. The issue of electrical safety, which amendment 1 raises, is hugely important, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing it to the House. The additional requirements on the fire and rescue service to provide a higher level of inspection and enforcement on the communal parts of buildings with two or more domestic premises, which this Bill introduces, should be accompanied by a rigorous approach to safety checks of electric appliances inside the premises. It is vital to ensure that the risk of faulty electrical appliances in multiply occupied residential buildings is minimised.
Last month, I wrote to the Minister seeking urgent action on the rising number of fires caused by faulty appliances in high-rise blocks. The number of electrical fires caused by faulty appliances has risen in England. Based on analysis of Government figures by Electrical Safety First, The Times has reported a rise in the number of electrical fires caused by faulty tumble dryers and fridges. The number of accidental electrical fires in tower blocks has risen in each of the past three years. If these measures cannot be included in the Bill, we will scrutinise any proposals that the Government bring forward to ensure the best possible standards of electrical safety. Will they set out a timetable to deliver that?
In conclusion, there are many issues around improving fire safety that we would have liked to see included in the Bill. However, due to its limited scope, many will have to be addressed through the draft Building Safety Bill and secondary legislation. The amendments we have tabled are straightforward; most of them are on issues that the Government have stated their intention to address but have not shown the political will to move faster on. For those living in unsafe buildings, the risk of fire will not wait for the Government to choose an appropriate date for the Bill’s commencement. After Grenfell, the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), said that her Government will do “whatever it takes” to keep our people safe. Three years on, we urge the Government to honour the commitment to keep people safe, and to act as quickly as they can to do that.
I rise to speak to amendment 1, and I welcome, to a greater extent, the remarks of the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones). I thank her for her generous remarks about myself, of which I am not worthy; I have simply been the mouthpiece for others who have been doing the work behind the scenes.
My right hon. Friend the Minister and I have known one another for a very long time; in fact, when I was an MP for another place, he and his dear wife were there knocking on doors for me, yet now I have tabled an amendment which is not exactly what he wants. I have something to say to him, to which he must not take offence: I am a loyal Conservative through and through, but there comes a point when that loyalty begins to wane a bit. I say to my hon. Friends on the Government Benches that the Government are in choppy waters at the moment. I do not want to tip the boat over, but I am beginning to tire of the responses we have been getting from the Front Bench, and I will come to that in a moment.
I am delighted to see present my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), who was once a fire Minister—I hope he is not here to pick holes in my argument; he had better not—and my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), who has far more expertise in electrical matters than I could ever hope to have, and also of course the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who has campaigned on this issue for many years. That shows that there is broad all-party parliamentary support on this matter, and it is not party political.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I hope my hon. Friend is not going to disagree.
I assure my right hon. Friend that I very much sympathise with the points he was making, and I am certainly not here to pick holes. As a fellow West Ham supporter, I would never dream of picking holes in my right hon. Friend’s arguments, and I hope that the Minister, as another West Ham supporter—like Jim Fitzpatrick—would not either. Perhaps we can get some unanimity as to the objective, even if we need a bit of clarity on the way forward; does my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) agree that that is what we need from this debate?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words, but the three of us have got one or two worries about West Ham at the moment because we lost 5-3 in the friendly; we hope to do a little better when the serious matches start.
Let me say at the outset that, as I said on Second Reading to my right hon. Friend the Minister, I very much support this Bill, and the hon. Member for Croydon Central said that as well. It is, understandably, short and is clear in its purpose of making provision about the application of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises, and it also confers power to amend the order in future for the purposes of changing the premises to which it applies. That being noted, I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that I believe that if the Government were minded to accept my amendments, that would improve the Bill even further. And what is wrong with that—that is something that we should embrace?
However, I do accept that when my right hon. Friend comes to reply, he will draw out of his folder a bit of paper telling him to resist the amendments, and to do so because they are “not in order”, or because “It’s the wrong Department” or “It’s the wrong time.” It is never the right time, however, and I say to my right hon. Friend that we owe it to the people who died in Grenfell, and their relatives and friends, to act as quickly as possible. And I say to those on the Treasury Bench that there is more than enough time to legislate; my goodness, we packed up on Thursday at 1.35 pm. I could have filled the Chamber’s time with endless issues. I say to my right hon. Friend that we should find time in the legislative programme for this.
While taking account of phase 1 findings from the Grenfell Tower public inquiry, the Bill requires owners and managers of multi-occupancy residential buildings in England and Wales to reduce the risk of fire by removing unsafe materials on the external walls of buildings and the individual flat entrance doors. As the hon. Member for Croydon Central has said, the responsible person or duty holder for a multi-occupied residential building must manage risk for the structure, external walls, cladding, balconies and windows, but this legislation should also consider the source of fires in the first place. Surely, for goodness’ sake, that is what this legislation should be all about. The purpose of my amendments is to be proactive, and to help prevent fires caused by electrical sources of ignition and ensure that consideration of the safety of electrical appliances is given in this Bill, as they are a key cause of fires in people’s homes.
These amendments further build on the Government’s new regulation for the private rented sector, The Electrical Safety Standards in the Private Rented Sector (England) Regulations 2020, which will give electrical safety checks every five years to tenants in the private rented sector—I certainly welcome that. I commend the Government on introducing those regulations, which had cross-party support, but I believe this Bill can be amended further to include electrical checks for all people in buildings of multiple occupancy. I know that the Minister will tell us at the end why it cannot.
I wish to thank the wonderful charity Electrical Safety First, which has worked with me, as chairman of the all-party group on fire safety and rescue, on its long-standing campaigning to prevent fires caused by electricity in domestic homes. I agree with ESF’s assessment that this Bill should do something more to prevent fires from occurring in the first place, so my amendments seek a solution that will strengthen the protection that people living in high-rise residential buildings require. I accept that the Government are giving some consideration of electrical appliance safety through their Draft Building Safety Bill, but my amendments are designed to ensure that electrical appliances are registered with the responsible person for high-rise domestic dwellings and to introduce mandatory checks for all residents, whatever the tenure of their home. It is truly shocking that electricity causes more than 14,000 fires a year, which is almost half of all accidental house fires. In England, 53% of dwelling fires are caused by an electrical source of ignition, but what does this House do about it? It does nothing, and there is time now to do something. Let us, in this unusual Parliament, where we are trying to fight the invisible enemy, do some good—my amendment would do that.
There are about 4,000 tower blocks in the United Kingdom, and the English housing survey estimates that they contain more than 480,000 individual flats in England alone—that is a huge number. Unless every unit in a high-rise building is subject to the same safety regime, everyone in the building can be placed at risk from one single flat—my goodness, how we found that out not so very long ago. Therefore any measure to improve electrical safety in multi-occupied buildings can help to protect more than 1 million people. New analysis of Government data reveals that nearly a quarter of the accidental electrical fires that occurred in high-rise buildings in the past five years in England were the result of faulty appliances, leads and fuel supplies, which can include electrical wiring in a property. My amendments would see a responsible person record the presence of white goods, in order to minimise the risks that faulty goods can pose in densely populated buildings—I know that that is a challenge, and I say to my right hon. Friend that I accept the practicalities about it. Keeping a record of the appliances in use would mean that faulty recalled appliances could be removed or repaired—if only that had happened with the Whirlpool appliances. Mandatory five-yearly electrical safety checks in tower blocks, regardless of tenure, are also included in the amendment. Current regulations mean that privately rented flats are required to have electrical safety checks, but other tenures are not, which has created what I would describe as a tenure lottery of buildings, which often include owner-occupier, privately rented and social housing property.
The tasks to check tenants’ electrical safety would be undertaken by competent, registered electricians, and I know my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) will have something to say about that. I am aware of the concerns of the Fire Brigades Union, who have written to me. I fully accept that their members have more than enough to do without bearing the responsibility for this work, and there is absolutely no intention in the amendments that fire officers would actually undertake it. Let me provide that assurance, and I would be very happy to talk to the Fire Brigades Union about the situation.
More worryingly, analysis shows that over the past three years, accidental electrical fires in high-rise buildings have risen consistently year on year, and it is absolutely ridiculous that that is happening. High-profile tower block fires have been previously linked to electrical sources, including Lakanal House, where an electrical fault with a television claimed the lives of six people, and Shepherd’s Court of course where, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith has told us in detail on other occasions, a faulty tumble dryer led to extensive damage to an 18-storey building. While other factors accelerated that fire, it must be highlighted that the primary cause of the Grenfell Tower fire was an electrical source of ignition, as subsequently confirmed by the Grenfell inquiry—that source is in phase one documentation.
It is important to note that fires are not all caused by appliances themselves, but by misuse of them. That is why, despite my amendments, education is obviously very important. Every year, there is a week of educational awareness raising with the public on the proper use of electricity and appliances through the “Fire Kills” campaign. Recent tragic events have demonstrated the fatal risks that electrical accidents and incidents pose to people in their own homes, particularly in high-density housing such as tower blocks. Electrical Safety First has worked to ensure that tenants living in the private rented sector are protected by mandatory five-yearly electrical safety checks in their properties, which was recently brought into law. Such measures are crucial in bringing down the number of electrical accidents and incidents, and I believe that now is the time to include individual dwellings in tower blocks in that regime, regardless of their tenure.
I appreciate that this is a short Bill that will amend the Fire Safety Order 2005, which focuses on non-domestic measures, but it will also amend the order in domestic homes. That means that homes in high-rise blocks will be affected by the proposed legislation, and this offers an excellent and straightforward opportunity to ensure that all who live in such buildings are brought under the same safety regime. Given this, I believe that the newly created role of the responsible person for each high building should include the task of compiling a register of every white good in the building. That ensures that when a recall occurs, anyone with an affected appliance can be quickly alerted and the safety risks resolved. Relying on consumers to register and respond to recalls in these buildings when the potential risk is so high must be considered wholly inadequate and unrealistic.
This Bill is something of a personal milestone for the all-party parliamentary fire safety and rescue group. I have been involved with the group for 20 years, and it has had a long history of correspondence and meetings with successive Ministers of every political party, but particularly over the last 10 years. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security say on moving the Bill’s Second Reading in April this year:
“There is considerable experience across the House, and we will continue to listen to views from all interested colleagues, as well as working with the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue.”—[Official Report, 29 April 2020; Vol. 675, c. 345.]
On the basis that he is listening to people like me, I believe that the Government can improve this Bill through a number of measures that seek to improve electrical safety in UK homes. Amending the Bill provides an opportunity to make immediate differences to the safety of people who live in multi-occupied buildings. Electricity does cause fires, and I believe that the Government need to consider seriously the electrical sources of ignition.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), who have set out amendments to the Bill that are reasonable, proportionate and non-partisan, and I cannot see any reason why the Government should not support them. I do not intend to repeat the arguments they have made cogently; I will just add a few comments of my own.
As the hon. Member for Southend West said, he has chaired or been part of the all-party group on fire safety and rescue for more than 20 years. I cannot claim to have been a member for that length of time, but I have learnt a huge amount in the time that I have been. It is one of the most effective groups within Parliament. The all-party parliamentary group on online and home electrical safety, which my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) chairs, has equally made a huge contribution on this issue, with the support of professional bodies. I urge the Minister to listen to the advice coming from those sources.
I do not know anybody who does not support this Bill. It is a very short Bill, and it aims to do two things. First, it clarifies what is meant by “common parts”, particularly in relation to external cladding and the responsibilities therein. Secondly, it is permissive, in terms of the introduction of secondary legislation to modify and add different classes of building in the future.
Had we been debating this two or three years ago, I think everyone would have said, “This is very sensible. Well done to the Government for getting on with it,” but we are not. We are three years post Grenfell. It seems like a piece of emergency legislation, when we should be on to discussing the nitty-gritty and more comprehensive measures. These amendments achieve that in various ways. I will not go through each one, but I would like to mention new clause 1.
We now have the results of part one of the Grenfell inquiry, and new clause 1 effectively asks the Government to take some of those recommendations on board. They include: that information on materials and construction is available to fire and rescue services; that plans of high-rise residential buildings are available; that inspection and testing of lifts is done properly; that evacuation procedures and information to residents are carried out properly; and that there is proper inspection of fire doors. A lot of us would have probably thought, pre Grenfell, that those things already happened, but they do not, and they did not. It is about time that they did. It is about time that the Government legislated and implemented these measures, rather than put out general, catch-all clauses.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point about new clause 1 and the responsibilities. Would he accept that there is a significant responsibility on the original developers, architects and those involved in construction—I mentioned Laing O’Rourke, Taylor Wimpey, Redrow and others—to make sure that they are providing and have available the original construction diagrams of buildings? We have had a huge problem in Cardiff South and Penarth of not being able to get hold of those and then very expensive testing having to be done. Of course, the cost is then passed on to leaseholders, on top of the bills they may face for rectifying these problems in the first place.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is my experience from dealing with blocks in my constituency, and I am sure it is many other Members’ experience, that nobody wants ownership of this, nobody wants to pick up the tab and nobody wants to take responsibility—whether it is those who designed the building, those who built the buildings, those who manage the buildings or those who modified the buildings in ways that were not conceived. Somebody has to do that, and if they will not do that, it is Government’s responsibility to ensure that they do, and I do not think this Bill goes far enough in doing that.
New clauses 2 to 5—I am not going to go through those in detail—are, as I say, sensible and proportionate measures, which are designed to ensure that this legislation the Government are properly bringing forward works more effectively. I wait with bated breath to hear what arguments the Minister can put forward for not adopting those.
Let me come on to the amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Southend West, because I think that that is an important amendment. I am glad that it was found to be in scope and is being taken because he is absolutely right to say that, whereas a great deal of the focus has properly gone on construction and modification, particularly in relation to external cladding, insulation and so forth, it is also important that we look at the source of fires. It is rather a truism to say that, if we can control that source, we are going to get a lot fewer fires, whether or not they spread.
There are many issues that are being pursued here. Tomorrow, there is a ten-minute rule Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on the registration of electrical appliances, so that where there is a need for recall, those matters can be in hand. What we are doing today is not comprehensive, but the two measures that have been proposed in the hon. Gentleman’s amendment and new schedule are entirely sensible. Yes, they are quite onerous because what we are looking for is both a register of white goods and that there are regular checks. Those have been found appropriate for the private rented sector, and I wonder why they are not appropriate for high-rise buildings where we know, as a consequence of fires such as Lakanal, Grenfell and Shepherd’s Court, that people are particularly at risk.
Let me say a brief word about that because it is in my constituency. It is just over four years since the very serious fire at Shepherd’s Court. A tumble dryer, which not just should have been recalled and had not been recalled, but was going to be repaired and was awaiting repair, was being used according to the manufacturer’s instructions—wrong instructions—and therefore did catch fire, destroyed somebody’s home, spread to several other flats and caused the evacuation of an 18-storey block. Had it not occurred in the middle of the afternoon on a summer’s day, the consequences of that would have been dire. As it happened, there were no serious injuries, but the trauma of being involved in a fire of that nature, I do not think can be imagined. If I were the Minister, this would give me sleepless nights every night until these matters are resolved.
What I fear is that the Government are continuing to take what I can politely describe as an incremental approach here. Yes, these are complicated matters and more issues come to light—every time an investigation takes place, we find more problems with more types of building—but that is the world we live in, and it does not excuse the Government from responsibility. We are looking at height, but we are also looking at the type of buildings, the type of users of buildings and the type of cladding that is used on buildings. They could be hospitals, hotels, care homes or schools; they could be low-rise as well as high-rise buildings. They all have risks attached to them.
It sometimes feels like getting blood out of a stone to get the Government to widen their ambit and look beyond the very narrow classifications they have already dealt with in terms of ACM cladding, possibly high-pressure laminate cladding and possibly buildings down to 11 metres. The Government are very good at giving advice to others, and we all know the problems that that has caused with the sale and remortgage of properties and the necessity for inspections when the professional staff are not there to deal with these matters. The Government should be better at directing those responsible and, where necessary, providing the means for those responsible to remedy the serious risks that are apparent.
That is the problem with the Bill, which the amendments go some way towards clarifying. Whether we are looking at the source, the construction or the modification, the consequences can be the most serious. They can be matters of life, of the destruction of people’s homes, or of people living daily in fear of the risks that apply to their homes. I cannot think of anything less reasonable than that, frankly, so more than three years on from Grenfell, will the Minister look seriously at what is proposed and either adopt the amendments or, at the very least, say that the Government will bring forward their own legislation soon?
It rather feels that we have been overtaken by events because we now have the draft Building Safety Bill. That is a much more detailed piece of work, but I already have some criticisms of it—I will not bore the House with those tonight—and I look forward to more discussions on that as we go forward. I know that the Minister takes these matters seriously, but I do not feel that the Government are addressing them with the rigour or the detail that they need to be. Let us make a start on that today by adopting the amendments that have been put forward.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter); he and I have been around debates on this issue for a number of years now. That is true also of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess).
I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security on the Treasury Bench. He is an old friend and a good man, and I know that he wants to do the right thing. I remember being the Minister responsible for the fire services, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West kindly observed. Whether to deal with these issues by primary legislation, by secondary legislation or by way of regulation is always problematic, particularly when it is often necessary to update the actions required in the light of changing scientific and technical knowledge, and emerging knowledge about the right types of processes and procedures that should be followed to ensure safety.
However, given that everybody wants to achieve the same objective here, I hope that my right hon. Friend will listen carefully to the points that are made, because all the amendments have merit behind them. Whether it is possible to achieve their objectives through the Bill is something that I am prepared to listen to the Minister’s arguments about, but, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith just said, if it cannot be done through this Bill, may we please at the very least have a commitment about how it will be achieved?
Having said that by way of preliminary, let me deal with some of the specific points. The whole question of responsible owner is an important one that we need to tackle somehow. My right hon. Friend will have known that I would mention Northpoint in my constituency. He will have known because I banged his door down more than once about it when he was Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. He will know that despite his endeavours then, and despite the endeavours of the current Secretary of State, who made a speech back in January about the need to move on this—despite the establishment of a fund and the enhancement of the amount available in the fund—the process none the less remains so complicated that, as yet, residents in Northpoint have not been able to progress their claim. Of course, the scope of the scheme at the moment does not enable them thus far to pick up the interim costs, including that of waking watches and so on, which I will come to in a moment. All manner of obstacles come along—for example, insurance for any potential disruption to the railway, because the block is right next to a railway line. That was eventually overcome because an uninsurable amount of indemnity insurance was initially being requested. Happily, the Minister’s colleague, the noble Lord Greenhalgh, the Minister responsible in the other place, assisted in that, but it indicates that although we have lots of initiatives, a number of the strands are not being joined together, a point to which I will briefly return in a moment.
Taking more action to nail down the responsibility, particularly of owners where the freehold has been sold on, is particularly important. As hon. Members have observed, there are some owners and developers who have acted responsibly towards their leaseholders. They are frequently people who still have skin in the game, if I can put it that way, because they either have retained the ownership or are still active, and sometimes well-known, developers in the retail housing field who have a reputation that they properly want to maintain. However, that does not help constituents such as mine, where the freehold has been sold on to what is simply an offshore investment trust. In my constituents’ case, the freehold is owned by a vehicle for the Tchenguiz family trust. One can imagine the degree of altruism likely to be found in that quarter without a greater legal means of holding their feet to the fire.
Whether through these measures or otherwise, greater codification of the responsibilities of owners, and in a way that does not enable them to pass off responsibility on to the leaseholders, will be important. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we can best achieve that, if not through an amendment to this legislation.
New clause 2 concerns fire risk assessors, which was another issue we debated on Second Reading. I appreciate the objective being sought here. All of us would want to ensure that the necessary assessments, including completion of the external wall survey forms—the EWS1 forms, more on which in a moment—are done to the highest quality and by reputable people. The problem is that, even at the moment, there are a number of obstacles to that being achieved. That is partly because of the current lack of qualified people and also because of a lack of cohesion in the process, which means that a number of other players, who need to be onside for the EWS system to work, are not fully taken on board. I am open to hearing how that should be achieved, but it is not just a question of having the register, by one means or another, and accreditation, important though they are. We also need to remove the obstacles to people undertaking this work.
That is where—as the Minister will not be surprised to know, because I have raised it with him and colleagues—I rely on the compelling evidence supplied by a firm of consultants, Frankham, which is based in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, but whose managing director is a constituent of mine, with whom I have discussed this matter on a number of occasions. This is a significant firm that carries out work in both the private and public rented sectors, as well as in the non-domestic sector. Its director of risk wrote a useful article in Inside Housing back in June, which I commend to the Minister and hon. Members, about the difficulties that fire risk assessment is running into and the operation of the EWS system.
In a nutshell, it comes to this. Although the scheme involved the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, local authorities, the housing sector and UK Finance, often on behalf of the mortgage lenders, in drawing it up, it did not involve the insurers. The difficulty is that many firms, such as Frankham and many other reputable firms, are being advised by their insurers not to complete, carry out and sign off the EWS forms because if they do, they will be accepting liability for the safety of a cladding system that they did not have a part in the original design and installation of. In other words, they are being asked to take responsibility for what was ultimately somebody else’s work. Hopefully, if one finds a defect, one reports it and action is taken, but there is always the possibility that there may be a defect and a problem comes along. In effect, their insurers are advising them in these terms:
“We are aware that the market does not look favourably upon insureds signing documents of this kind. Indeed, having had some preliminary discussions regarding the renewal with underwriters they specifically mentioned documents such as this as being of concern to insurers across the market. There are potential pitfalls in signing them, including that…Frankham would be providing professional advice on the fire safety of a building where it was not necessarily involved in the original design. Additionally, the language on the declaration is clear in attempting to shift responsibility directly onto the party conducting the review.”
Was that the intention? Of itself, it is probably right to expect them to do their job properly, but here is the rub:
“Taking the most extreme example, if Frankham concluded and explicitly stated that an external wall was unlikely to support combustion, but the system actually turned out to be combustible resulting in third party loss, on the basis of this declaration Frankham would more than likely be found to have been negligent in the conduct of its professional services, and therefore liable for the ensuing damages.”
The advice, therefore, is
“to continue to resist signing forms such as this.”
This is made more difficult because, as was observed in an intervention, the people doing this are often unable to get access to the original documentation—the plans and drawings and so on—from those who did the installation in the first place. The result of that is that the work that is needed to do EWS1 forms is being clogged up. The number of accredited and reliable surveyors who are in a position safely to undertake this work—and commercially able to undertake it without exposing themselves to an impossible risk—is limited. New entrants into the market are therefore limited as well. Ministers really need to get the insurers round the table on this and bang heads together. We all have the same objective, but because not all the parties have been sufficiently brought together and their objectives aligned, we do not have an overarching forum to deal with this and we have not yet resolved the stand-off between the professional fire risk assessors who want to do their job and the insurers who are having to warn them of legal risks unless there is a means whereby we can get an agreed, acceptable form of declaration and wording that all people will understand. I do hope that the Minister will take this away, because it is a really pressing matter if we are going to make EWS1 system, which is in theory a good system, work properly.
That leads me to the remaining issues with the amendments. Much has been said about them, and I will not repeat that in great detail, but I want to mention new clause 5, which deals with the waking watch. This remains a profound issue, and there is inconsistency in the application of the guidance in this regard. For example, in London—in the case of my constituents—the requirement for an on-site permanent waking watch is insisted on by the London Fire Brigade, whereas West Yorkshire and certain other fire brigades are not insisting on the same approach. The rigidity that has been adopted—maybe for good professional reasons—in London has led to my constituents being advised that, even though they are prepared to pay to be trained themselves in fire safety matters so that they can provide their own in-house waking watch on a rota, thereby saving themselves many tens of thousands of pounds, that is apparently not acceptable, although that approach might be acceptable elsewhere. We need some standardisation, particularly as at the moment the compensation schemes are not picking up the costs of the waking watch. Whether it is by way of this new clause or otherwise, I hope that we can have some clarity from the Minister as to how are we going to deal with this issue. There must be standardisation of approach. People need to have certainty, and all the more so because their flats are now unsellable and unmortgageable. They are also concerned that they will become uninsurable. All those reasons make the need for action particularly pressing.
I turn to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West on electrical matters. I am open again to hearing from the Minister about whether there is a different way to achieve the objective. When I was Fire Minister, we dealt with, for example, the Fire Kills campaign—I was pleased that I managed to keep funding for that going during a time of financial pressure—and we all know that electrical goods a principal or very significant cause of fire. That has been around for a long time. I understand that, with respect to my hon. Friend, there might be some difficulty with the way in which the amendments are formulated, with the obligation, for example, to enforce a register when, in effect, the manager of the building is acting on behalf of a freeholder or a management company and there may be leaseholders whose leases do not automatically permit entry for the purpose of compiling and updating a register—it may be more tightly drawn in terms of what inspections are for. That may be an issue that needs to be resolved, but let us have a plan of action to deal with that.
I am told that, for example, we have the fire safety consultation as well as the Bill. What is the timeframe for the fire safety consultation to be concluded and acted on? These are matters on which there is a great deal of expertise; it is about giving a sense of urgency.
I will conclude on the point of how things do move on. When I was a Minister in the first half of the coalition Government, one of the things I did without hesitation was to authorise the Department to expend moneys and make available the services of our chief adviser on fire services to assist, as far as was required and necessary, the inquest into Lakanal House and to follow up thereafter the work to attempt to learn lessons from that. Nobody had any qualms about doing that because we wanted to see that the lessons from Lakanal House were learned—they have been alluded to today. Since then, we have found out more about the technology and type of materials used, and further lessons have had to be learned and added on. But I would gently observe that it is almost eight years to the day since the then Prime Minister asked me to go and see him in his room behind the Speaker’s Chair, rather than Downing Street and, in most generous, warm and courteous terms, thank me very much for my services as a member of the Government. He then said that, notwithstanding all of those warm matters, he needed, I think the phrase was, to “make space”—I thought I was a fairly small package—and I returned to the Back Benches. Eight years is a long time under these circumstances. We have learned a lot more since, but it does show that, unless we make haste on these matters, time flies.
Of course, these are technical issues and many players have to be brought into the game together and aligned, but I do not want it to be another eight years before we get to a final resolution on these matters. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to do that during his tenure of office. I will be very happy if that is a long time, but not as long as that. I urge him to give us some alternatives to the formulations brought forward in the debate and a sense of a real and pressing timeframe to have these matters resolved.
Of course, those of us on the Opposition side welcome the Bill and support the clarification to fire safety law that it brings. In the wake of the terrible Grenfell Tower tragedy, which will stay etched in our minds despite the passing of time, it is so important that building owners take responsibility for managing and reducing the risk of fire. A key element of that is to seek to clarify which parts of the burden are covered by those requirements and what the responsibilities are. So why does the Bill feel like such a missed opportunity? It is partly about the amount of time it has taken for us to get this point, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) outlined.
Back in October 2019, the Government pledged to implement the Grenfell inquiry’s recommendations in full and without delay, yet here we are with the thinnest of bills amounting to three clauses, ducking the main issues and failing to include even the simplest of recommendations such as inspections of fire doors and the testing of lifts. But it is also a bigger missed opportunity, precisely because the Government have failed to learn the lessons. Of those there are many, but I want to briefly focus on one.
It is clear that this Bill will require a massively increased level of inspection and enforcement. That is all good, and necessary, but it will inevitably increase the workload of the fire and rescue services, with a subsequent need for training considering the more complex inspections required. Has any serious thought been given to the additional resources that will be needed for fire services to inspect and enforce these new measures and the additional funding that will be needed? In its briefing back in April, the Fire Brigades Union estimated that potentially hundreds of thousands of premises would require additional activity by inspectors, and concluded that fire and rescue services
“will need increased staffing and training to enable them to carry out their new duties of inspection, audit and enforcement.”
We have not seen any guarantees that this is on the cards. In fact, there seems to have been very little discussion with the FBU, whose members, lest we forget, are on the frontline of these changes.
To put this in context, the fire service has seen a decade of the most damaging cuts. A fifth of our firefighters have gone, and here is the real, terrible irony: even more fire safety inspectors—a quarter—have lost their jobs. The £20 million the Government have promised to fund fire safety pales into insignificance compared with the £141.5 million of cuts since 2013 in England. Government cuts mean that we now have fewer firefighters, fewer fire appliances and fewer inspectors—all the elements we need to make sure that another Grenfell does not happen again.
I pay tribute to the firefighters, support staff and all those across the service who have gone above and beyond during the pandemic, but this response lets them down, as well as the public they serve. This Bill was an opportunity to address more fundamental issues. By tabling these amendments and five new clauses, my party has attempted to speak to those communities in Grenfell and beyond who desperately want to see real action on fire safety. They should not have to wait any longer. They deserve that, at least.
Earlier this year, during the Second Reading debate on this Bill, I and many others expressed concern that it was clear that it will not solve the problems that my constituents are facing. Having spoken to residents and leaseholders in my constituency and beyond who are suffering from anxiety and stress, I outlined how leaseholders in blocks with ACM and other types of cladding are experiencing problems in selling or remortgaging their homes. I raised the alarm that up to 60,000 worried residents are still living in buildings wrapped in lethal Grenfell-style cladding over three years after the fire. This is despite the Government setting a deadline of the end of 2019 for all social sector blocks to be made safe and a deadline of June 2020 for all private sector blocks to be made safe, both of which have now been missed. Instead, over 80% of private sector buildings and nearly half of social sector buildings affected have still not had this dangerous cladding removed and replaced. In fact, in June it was reported that the Government are now not expected to remove the same cladding that was on Grenfell from high-rise homes until a full two years after their own deadline and five years since the tragedy itself. How can this still be the case and how can this be right?
Yet the Bill before Parliament today is only a modest improvement, at best, to the fire safety regime. It does not do enough to break the tortuous pattern of buck-passing leaving residents trapped in between authorities and the building owners. It does not do enough to address the fact that many residents are suffering from anxiety and stress. It does not do enough to resolve the fact that leaseholders in blocks are experiencing problems in selling or remortgaging their homes. Most fundamentally, it is inadequate in protecting people who are being forced to continue to live in an unsafe building.
The Government promised in October to implement the full recommendations of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, yet nearly a year later the Bill does not contain a single measure recommended by the inquiry. For many, Grenfell showed how little black lives matter to the British establishment because of the unavoidable and clear fact that so many of the affected residents were of BAME and working-class backgrounds. Why is it that 72 people are killed in their homes and no one is deemed to be responsible? When will we ever get answers? When will the victims ever get justice?
We need to be sure that a Grenfell Tower fire never ever happens again. The truth is that decisions stretching back years have led to the gutting of the UK’s fire safety regime and the failure to regulate high-rise residential buildings properly for fire safety. Policies relating to fire and rescue services have too long been driven by an agenda of cuts, deregulation and privatisation fostered by the direct lobbying of private interests.
The Fire Brigades Union has raised concerns about the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 since it was first imposed, pointing out that many responsible persons who own and manage residential premises have not been assessed for the fire risks in their buildings and have not introduced sufficient measures to keep people safe in their homes. The Fire Safety Bill will require substantial investment to ensure adequate staffing levels and appropriate levels of training. Yet, according to the Fire Brigades Union, the Home Office’s impact assessment written for the Bill underestimates the amount and complexity of the work involved, and therefore underestimates the amount of funding necessary to ensure that the legislation is effective. In the meantime, firefighters have been taking on new areas of work to keep our communities safe. More than four fifths of fire and rescue services have delivered packages of food, medicines and other essentials to vulnerable persons, which is the most frequent activity carried out by firefighters.
We need more decisive action from the Government. Too many of my constituents are living in dangerous homes and facing huge financial and legal liabilities for remediation of building safety defects that are not of their making. Our firefighters, our constituents and our communities have the right to expect so much more.
I am pleased that the remaining stages of the Fire Safety Bill are being debated in the House today. Some hon. Members will know that, as an electrical engineer, fire safety is an issue that is of great interest to me. Having spoken on Second Reading, I was reassured that fellow Members felt as strongly as I do about this issue, and that has been demonstrated yet again in today’s debate.
Having managed my own electrical company for many years before being elected to this place, I know how vital it is for residents to know that their accommodation is safe and secure. It is for that reason that I spoke on Second Reading and have closely followed developments on this Bill since then.
That said, hon. Members noted possible issues regarding the responsibilities of leaseholders and freeholders under this legislation, which leads me on to why I shall be speaking in favour of the amendment tabled my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) today. The amendment is of significant importance to building safety. We have all heard of portable appliance testing and we have all seen the green labels on our appliances, yet, although the appliance may be of good order, it is vital that the socket into which we plug these items is also of good order. Furthermore, all the wiring that provides our lighting and heating should also be inspected and tested. That is already law in rented properties, but it is only advised for privately owned premises. The fact that the tenure of an individual flat within the same block decides whether or not it is tested for safety is far from ideal, and it fails sufficiently to guarantee the safety of all residents.
As we have seen, fire spreads very quickly, and although buildings are constructed to stop this spread, this is not always successful. The reasons for that are numerous and can be down to deterioration of the fabric, poor management of fire prevention, or even poor building maintenance work when work is carried out on the fabric of the building by unskilled or unsupervised personnel. Fixed-wire testing of all wiring within the building is therefore of paramount importance.
Secondly, it is my belief that an appliance register is a must as we have all seen the effects that a faulty appliance can cause. A register by a responsible management company is not an onerous task and would substantially help towards reducing fires owing to a faulty appliance that has been part of a recall, but not actually recalled. I would hate to think, after all the time spent on the Bill, that it falls short and that another incident such as Grenfell then happens due to a faulty appliance or an electrical system that has failed because of a lack of maintenance. It is therefore crucial that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government looks into this, as reducing the source of fires is far better than preventing their spread. This amendment does exactly that, and if it cannot be addressed today, the Minister may want to further investigate the merits of what is being proposed in the upcoming fire safety consultation and the draft Building Safety Bill.
It is vital that the Government do not allow anomalies in this area if they are to truly demonstrate their commitment to ensuring that everyone has a safe place to live. I believe that the amendment would strengthen the Bill. That said, while it may not go through the House today, it will be a great shame if right hon. and hon. Members do not press for what it is asking for in future.
This Bill is very welcome and it has my support. Three years on from Grenfell, it is high time that the wrongs of the past are put right. I also add that if the Minister would like my help with the Fire Safety Bill, please do ask.
The Liberal Democrats support and welcome the Fire Safety Bill, but it is a first and only very small step in the right direction. As many hon. Members have said, we are three years on from the tragedy of Grenfell and this Bill is woefully inadequate. We support it and all the amendments that have been tabled. I would like to speak to new clauses 2 and 4 and ask the Minister for various assurances.
On new clause 2, on the accreditation of fire risk assessors, it is crucial that those conducting a fire risk assessment are accredited. Those of us on the Bill Committee heard shocking evidence of unqualified fire risk assessors declaring unsafe properties safe, and the Fire Brigades Union told us of one case that resulted in the death of one of their own. In Committee, the Minister for Crime and Policing shared our alarm at the existence of unqualified fire risk assessors and he posed the question of how many decades this situation had been allowed to persist unnoticed by anybody in the House or by any Government. Surely now is the time to ensure that this practice is brought to an end.
There must be a nationally recognised qualification and certification for those charged with assessing the safety of people’s homes. There also needs to be a freely accessible register of those holding such a qualification, held and maintained centrally by a public body, such as a Government-appointed regulator. However, I would go even further: the Hackitt review suggested that with something as vital as fire safety, the fire risk assessments should also be freely available in a publicly available register. That is vital for existing and prospective residents and for inspection and enforcement, so will the Minister provide a firm commitment, on the parliamentary record this evening, that a fire risk assessments register will be provided for in future legislation?
I turn to new clause 4, on the definition of a responsible person. It is right that we are absolutely clear on the Bill’s definition of a responsible person and I welcome the clause, because it ensures that a leaseholder without a direct interest in the freehold cannot be considered to be the responsible person. However, outside the scope of the Bill is a massive question about who should pay for the remedial work, and the Government have so far failed to tackle that head-on. Some leaseholders have paid building insurance premiums for years and they may still have valid new-build warranties, but the financial burden of new Government regulations or failures by developers is being shifted to tenants and leaseholders through increasing service charges and demands for one-off contributions.
In my constituency of St Albans, one residents association has been advised that individual leaseholders will face extra charges of around £20,000 per home. This is unacceptable. Some service charges for those residents have already increased sixfold since the Grenfell disaster in 2017 in preparation for the necessary works. I hope the Government agree that while so many individual circumstances are incredibly financially challenging right now, to be hit by a further £20,000 bill is completely unacceptable. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee recommended in March that, given the urgency of these remediation works, it is necessary for the Government to provide the funding upfront. Will the Minister this evening commit to at least taking this up with the Chancellor and asking that the funding be provided for in the autumn statement to make sure all homes are safe?
Residents, including in my constituency of St Albans, are trapped. They are trapped in a Catch-22 between the excessive cost burden of remediation and being unable to explore any of the financial options to sell up or extend their mortgage. The Government must understand the difficulties that the current situation places on people, such as my pregnant constituent who needs to move home urgently so that she can have a home that is more suitable for her growing family, but cannot do so, or the pensioner in my constituency who is reliant on the sale of their property to support them and their care needs in their retirement.
I will state once again that the Bill needs to be followed with much, much more—and quickly. The two new clauses I mentioned are particularly important to me, but I support all the amendments. They are important first steps and I thank colleagues for tabling them. However, we now need the Government to turbocharge the legislative agenda and to provide the funding upfront for remedial work. Without it, too many people will be held hostage by the inadequate safety standards of their own homes. When we say that an event like Grenfell must never be allowed to happen again, we must mean it. We cannot just have words; we need real action.
I welcome the Bill, and the measures it seeks to put in place to make buildings safer and prevent tragedies such as the one we witnessed with Grenfell Tower. I note, too, that other measures announced by the Government will further complement the Bill.
I have worked in construction over several years, during which time I was involved in the construction of fuel retail stations. I have also worked on oil rigs. I should also note that I am a landlord and thus declare an interest. Ensuring that homes and other buildings are safe is of the utmost importance. My experience has given me some insight into fire safety and how sometimes I see a disconnect between policymakers and those who deliver a service on the ground. The practicalities of day-to-day delivery can sometimes show a well-meaning policy to be out of touch with what actually happens on site. Let me give an example of what I mean.
I have known site managers ask for fire doors to be installed before a building had been made waterproof—dozens of doors. As to be expected with our British climate, it rained, and those fire doors and frames swelled. When they would not open and close properly, carpenters were asked, under time pressure, to plane doors down so that they would pass inspection. Of course, eventually these doors dried out and shrank. That meant they were again the wrong size, but this time with gaps so large that they were no longer fit to be fire doors. However, by that point, the doors had been signed off by inspectors, despite the fact that modifications had now made them no longer fit for purpose.
My plea is to ensure that when the Bill is finally delivered, people who are ultimately accountable for fire safety are not only competent by the certifications they may have, but that they are present on site and understand construction, not just fire safety alone. Furthermore, I make a plea for an ever-evolving and updating follow-up process that identifies any and all changes that new tenants can often make, often innocently for aesthetic purposes, which alter the fire rating of the system, such as the changing of door furniture and other material modifications. We need a dynamic model of fire safety that ensures it is delivered over time during construction and for the entire lifetime of a building. This Bill is a very positive step in the right direction, but it is a step because fire safety and any safety is always evolving.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate.
Over three years after the Grenfell Tower fire, any improvements to fire safety legislation are of course welcome; however, the Bill in its current form is only a modest improvement on the current fire safety regime. I do not have the experiences of so many hon. Members speaking in this debate today, but as the daughter of an ex-firefighter I certainly understand the importance of these issues, and I share the concerns highlighted by the Fire Brigades Union that the views and concerns of the people who live and work in high-risk buildings should be at the heart of the new system of fire safety across the UK.
That means that the voices of tenants must be heard in this process. Residents have raised concerns about the removal of flammable cladding and the role of waking watches. It is disturbing that three years on from Grenfell, there are still issues around the removal of flammable ACM cladding from both social and private-sector tower blocks. Coronavirus has caused many contractors to stop work on cladding sites, while others have not even begun due to complex legal disputes. These delays mean that residents of buildings continue to face extortionate fees for interim safety measures, most commonly waking watch. The National Fire Chiefs Council’s advice on waking watch has become outdated. Its guidance suggests that waking watch should be a temporary measure, yet some residents have been forced to pay for waking watches for a number of years. This is not a sustainable solution. New clause 5 would require both this Government and the Welsh Government to specify when a waking watch must be in place for buildings with fire safety failures.
The voice of firefighters also needs to be heard with regard to the Bill. The FBU believes that this legislation requires investment in professional firefighters and an expansion in the number of fire inspectors. Therefore, I have great concern that the Bill gives little consideration to the additional costs to the fire and rescue services in implementing these additional inspections. That comes on top of Government cuts to central funding to fire and rescue services by 28% in real terms between 2010 and 2016, followed by a further cut of 15% by 2020. These cuts have led to 11,000 fewer fire service personnel—that is 20% of the service. On Boris Johnson’s watch as Mayor of London, in eight years the London Fire Brigade was required to make—
Order. The hon. Lady must refer to the Prime Minister as “the Prime Minister” here in the Chamber, please.
On the Prime Minister’s watch as Mayor of London, in eight years the London Fire Brigade was required to make gross savings of over £100 million, leading to the cutting of 27 fire appliances, 552 firefighters, 324 support staff, two fire rescue units and three training appliances, the closure of 10 fire stations and a reduction in fire rescue unit crewing levels. Ministers must commit to funding fire and rescue services sufficiently to ensure that fire authorities are able to inspect and enforce these new measures.
In conclusion, last October the Government promised to implement the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower review in full and without delay. Nearly a year later, this Bill does not contain a single measure recommended by the inquiry. Therefore, I will be supporting new clause 1 as it places robust requirements on building owners or managers to implement the recommendations from phase one of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. I will also be supporting new clauses 2 to 5. I urge the Government to make true on their promises: back the amendments and put everyone’s safety first.
I would like to add my voice to those of many colleagues across the Chamber who have expressed the frustration of many of our residents that, following the terrible incident at Grenfell, we have not yet brought to a conclusion many of the issues that the incident highlighted. We have followed the progress of the inquiry, with many views expressed by stakeholders—those personally affected because they had relatives in the building, and different parts of the industry and professional bodies. At the heart of much of the frustration is the question of liability. Who, ultimately, will meet the costs faced by our residents—whether they are landlords or occupiers of the property, freeholders or leaseholders—for the cost of remediation, which we know is substantial?
That issue plays out in many different parts of our lives. In my former role, I was responsible for the construction of a significant number of new schools. Inspections of those new buildings subsequently identified that some of the fire safety work, signed off and done in recent times, did not meet the standards that we would expect. We need to ensure that the question of liability is brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible. Those on the Front Bench know that there are many different ways in which that might be achieved, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will have something to say about that.
I turn to two specific points on which it would be helpful to hear a little more from my right hon. Friend. The first is the role of the responsible person. Across Government, where we are concerned about the degree of accountability for a life-and-limb, critical activity or service, it has been common practice to identify an individual post holder who is accountable for ensuring that work is done to the relevant standard. In children’s social care, we have the director of children’s services. In public health, we have the director of public health. In businesses, we have chief accountable officers.
We also know from long experience, with all sorts of things having gone wrong across different parts of those services, that having someone identified as accountable will only bring about the improvement that the House wishes to see if we can be confident that that person has the necessary qualities to do the work required and the ability to carry out the duties we are imposing on them. A number of Members have expressed views about whether there will be sufficient people with the knowledge of fire safety to undertake this role. It is crucial to ensure that whoever is responsible in individual buildings, on estates, on local authority estates or on school estates, we can rely on them to carry out that duty effectively. It will be critical to ensure that training, qualifications and all the rest of it sit behind that.
Secondly, ensuring that that person has the ability to do what sometimes may be intrusive and expensive work that may not always attract the consent of the householder will be a major issue. Earlier on in my political career, I spent a bit of time as chairman of a housing management and maintenance sub-committee at a local authority responsible, as a landlord, for over 12,000 properties. I am conscious that the local authority sometimes had to take several dozen tenants to court every year to get access to properties to do—at no cost to the tenant—essential safety checks and safety-critical work. We should not assume in this House that, by saying that we are going to designate a responsible person, we can be confident that they will be able to do what they need to do. I look forward to my right hon Friend fleshing out the further measures that we might need to take to ensure that responsible people are able to undertake the work to the relevant standard, to provide the assurance that we all want on behalf of our residents.
Finally, on electrical safety, many experts—my hon. Friends the Members for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) and for Southend West (Sir David Amess)—spoke very passionately, with knowledge and based on research, about the issues that that highlights. Certainly in my own conversations with those with an interest in fire, one of the points they have highlighted is that, in their view, white goods in particular are becoming safer and safer as time goes by. But there are new fire risks emerging, particularly with small appliances, chargers and things like that, which are causing significant risks and are the cause of a large number of thus far, thankfully, quite small fires that, if they got out of control, would create additional risk. Those things would not necessarily be subject to or caught within the safety regime that has been debated. Given that those are new and emerging risks, I have concerns about relying upon assumptions at this stage that may not capture the full extent of the risks that our residents are facing. I know the Minister has been giving some thought to this, and I look forward to him explaining how we might address those wider risks in legislation that will come before the House.
Before I call the next hon. Member, might I remind everyone in the Chamber, but especially new Members who have possibly not quite got into their stride on the matter as we have not had normal times—I took the matter up with the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne)—that it is obligatory to refer to hon. Members not by name, but by their constituency? I call Matt Rodda—I can call Members by their names.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate tonight.
Thank you for reminding me of that very important point as well. I would like to speak in support of new clauses 1 and 2 and the other new clauses tabled by the Opposition on the duties of building owners and accreditation of fire risk assessors. However, before I address those important points, I would first like to reflect on the scale of the challenge facing our country following the Grenfell disaster and, indeed, the issues in my own constituency of Reading East. I would like to briefly pay tribute to the Grenfell families, and I am sure we can all agree that our thoughts are with them continually after what happened in the disaster. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) earlier, I wish to show my support for our firefighters, both for their bravery and their professionalism.
Three years after Grenfell, the issue of dangerous cladding is still a daily reality for thousands of residents, including many in my constituency, and for many more, there are a whole series of other issues, such as fire safety concerns about their own properties or concerns on behalf of friends or relatives living in accommodation that is subject to those risks. One resident put it to me so poignantly when she contacted me, when she said:
“Imagine coming home every night to a flat which you fear is unsafe to live in, and yet you are unable to sell the flat or to move out of it.”
That is the reality that thousands of people in our country continue to face. That story is repeated time and again in towns the size of Reading or much smaller, and in great cities around the country. Indeed, it extends way beyond the issue of ACM cladding, although that in itself is a huge issue for the country.
To give an example, in Reading and Woodley there are several blocks containing Grenfell-style cladding, and others with other forms of composite materials on them, as well as wooden cladding, all of which have been found to be highly dangerous and flammable. Indeed, since Grenfell there have been fires in Bolton and in Barking with the materials that I have mentioned, similar to those found in my constituency.
In addition to tall buildings and the issues that we have talked about tonight, there are also fire safety concerns about lower-rise buildings. In my constituency, there are huge numbers—possibly into the thousands—of lower-rise flats below the 9-metre limit, many of which have what I believe may be serious fire safety issues. That affects tens of thousands of people around the country.
My hon. Friend makes an important point when he talks about the impact that this is having on many families. He may have instances in his constituency, as I do in mine, where couples have divorced but are unable to separate properly because they cannot sell their flat. The mental strain, illness and stress that that imposes on many residents is absolutely phenomenal.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution, because it points out just how dire this problem is, on so many fronts. The point I was about to make relates not just to the taller buildings or even the 9-metre ones, but to houses in multiple occupation. There has been a huge growth in the number of houses that have been divided up into bedsits or small flats in my constituency, as there probably has in his north London seat. I have concerns about those, as do other Members, although they are not addressed by this Bill, and I urge the Government to consider that matter as well.
This Bill is long overdue. I hope it will help, but I fear that it does not go far enough, and I urge Ministers to look again at the issue in much more detail and tighten their grip on it. A much more substantial response is needed, both in legislation and in the level of resources available to fire services, as has been mentioned, and to local authorities. Strengthening this response, both in legislation and resources, will be particularly helpful in respect of buildings that have multiple owners, such as blocks with leaseholders, tenants and freeholders, where the fire services, local authorities or contractors face a deeply confusing jigsaw puzzle of ownership. In many cases, it is hard to track people down. In some cases, the owners may be corporations based overseas or there may be other forms of ownership that are difficult to piece together. A more robust approach combining legislation and the funds to support local authorities and fire services would help residents in lower-rise accommodation. Berkshire’s fire service has urged me and MPs from across our county to speak up about the issues found in many towns mainly in lower-rise accommodation, not in the high-rise blocks discussed in the Bill, because of the huge number of those sorts of flats in towns such as Reading, Bracknell and Slough.
I am conscious of time, so I shall turn to new clauses 1 and 2. New clause 1 is particularly important, because, as many people involved in this issue recognise, we face real problems in improving safety in some private blocks. The new clause would speed up what can be a very lengthy process by requiring a manager or a lead figure to share information with the fire service about both fire safety and evacuation plans, which are important matters.
New clause 2 also raises a significant but simple point: fire inspectors should be accredited. I hope the new clause would address a long-standing loophole that I understand was first introduced unwittingly in legislation in the 1980s. It takes years for a fire safety inspector to complete their training, so it seems obvious that they would need accreditation. As has been mentioned by Members from across the House this evening, a common feature of any regulatory system is having people who have a known role of this type accredited.
I hope that tonight’s debate has allowed a further discussion of these issues and allowed us address these points in some detail. I urge the Minister to look at the matters in hand, and I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak tonight.
Thank you for calling me to speak on this matter, Madam Deputy Speaker. There is a little more frightening than a raging fire, as it is then that we truly understand the little we are able to do in our human state. We are so thankful for those in the fire service, who use their expertise and training, yet, ultimately, lay their lives on the line every time they answer the call. Others have said it, but I want to put on record my thanks to them for all they do and have done.
The Grenfell tragedy had repercussions for all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so although it happened on the mainland, and although this legislation is for England and Wales, I wanted to make a brief contribution to ask that the lessons learned are shared with Northern Ireland. When the Grenfell tragedy took place, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the bodies with responsibility for this area right away checked all their high-rise flats to see whether the danger that there was on the mainland was or was not apparent in Northern Ireland. Some steps were taken right away. I know it is a devolved matter, but I wish to mention something at the end that the Minister might take on board, and it relates to what we have learned in Northern Ireland.
This Bill is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland, so my comments will be brief. It is clear that the improvements in this Bill to create greater fire safety must be considered UK-wide. My colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly have taken seriously the lessons that we have learned from the absolute tragedy at Grenfell. I take this opportunity once again to remind all the families involved that our thoughts remain with them as they try to rebuild their lives. I do not think there is anybody anywhere in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or further afield who was not touched by what happened, as we watched the tragedy unfold.
I echo other hon. Members’ comments about the danger of electric goods, and in particular about the need to have them checked so that they meet the standards that we have in the United Kingdom, which are some of the highest in the world. The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who represents that great city of Southend, has been an excellent, outstanding spokesperson on this matter, along with our former colleague and friend, Jim Fitzpatrick. I remember him fondly; he, I and the hon. Member for Southend West shared many debates in that other great place, Westminster Hall, on electrical safety and other things. We had some very good and enjoyable times. One thing that was outlined was the opportunity for people to buy online goods that may not meet the standards. I am sure the Minister will say how the Government are addressing those issues for online purchases, which I believe need to be checked.
I welcome the remediation programme, supported by £1.6 billion of Government funding, to remove unsafe cladding from high-rise residential buildings, and the commitment of £20 million of funding to enable fire and rescue services to review or inspect all high-rise multi-occupied residential buildings by the end of 2021, but it is clear that more needs to be done. Right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House have said that, and hopefully the Minister will be able to say what other steps the Government are looking at to try to make improvements.
I do not want to be alarmist, but the Northern Ireland Assembly’s inquiries into safety standards raised not just the issue of cladding—the Northern Ireland Housing Executive carried out those risk assessments, because cladding is its responsibility—but concerns about reports that 63% of Northern Ireland Housing Executive wall cavity insulation may be defective. There was some concern that the cavity wall insulation could in some way lead to worse fires and could be a conduit, allowing fires to go through buildings. I do not expect an answer from the Minister today if he has not got one, but I know that he always follows up, and we thank him for that, so perhaps that could be looked at. We are awaiting more information, but that raises a pertinent issue. I believe that it must be absolutely clear in any legislation that it is the building owner’s responsibility to make safe not simply the outside of the walls but the inner cavities. I would appreciate it if the Minister could clarify how that is legislated for in this Bill.
Has the Minister had any discussions with other regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland about a UK-wide approach to this issue? I often say in this House that lessons learned in England and Wales can and must be shared with the devolved Administrations—the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. This debate is not about that, but none the less it is important that we share things. We can learn from each other in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If things are learned in Northern Ireland, they should be shared with the rest of the United Kingdom. If they are learned in England and Wales, they should be shared with us in Northern Ireland, and with Scotland. An improvement can be made UK-wide so that all the people of this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can benefit.
It is a privilege to respond to this debate. It is the first time I have had the chance to speak physically in this Chamber since March, so it is a great pleasure to be here tonight to respond to what has been a passionate, well-informed and very serious debate on issues that touch on concerns that we share across this Chamber. Like others, I very much underline our recognition of the context of the Bill: the Grenfell Tower fire and the need to ensure that people feel safe and are safe in their homes. I pay tribute to the community of Grenfell—Grenfell United and more broadly—on their determination to seek justice and change, and I recognise the responsibilities we hold to them in following through on that.
I also pay tribute to our fire service and the work they continue to do through the current pandemic crisis. They have done above and beyond what is expected of them to support our communities in different ways, which we should recognise equally along with their fire safety work that touches on the issues we are discussing tonight.
There is clearly a need to change culture. I have spoken about that in the past in the context of building safety, and it is something I firmly believe in relation to fire safety, too. Yes, this Bill is a narrow Bill that is about clarification, but it sets the foundations for us to amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 with certainty. I seek that legal certainty to ensure that the changes we propose are robust and effective.
I highlight that the fire safety order consultation is ongoing and concludes on 12 October. I look forward to seeing the results and to seeing us move quickly in response, as well as moving forward with the building safety Bill, which colleagues from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government are leading on. Indeed, I understand that the Select Committee will be commencing pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill this week. I absolutely understand the need for that sense of momentum, and I want to convey that from the Dispatch Box this evening.
Prior to responding to the amendments and new clauses, I wish to clarify a couple of very detailed points. First, the Government’s policy intention on the express inclusion of structure in the Bill has been raised before by Members and industry representatives. The Bill intends to reinforce existing operational practice, which is set out in the Government’s guidance, “Fire safety risk assessment: sleeping accommodation”, issued in 2006. The guidance sets out that fire risk assessors should consider structural fire protection as part of the fire risk assessment process. However, that is designed to be a visual inspection of the construction and layout of the building on the basis that it will have been built to resist early structural collapse in the event of a fire. As such, intrusive surveys of buildings are only required if the fire risk assessor has serious concerns about the structural fire protection of the building. Otherwise, non-intrusive surveys should normally be carried out. That advice is also reflected in the industry-recognised guidance, “Fire risk assessment: Guidance and a recommended methodology”, and will be reinforced in the revised version that is being prepared for publication.
My second point concerns how we propose to take forward the commencement of the Fire Safety Bill. We have established a task and finish group, co-chaired by the Fire Sector Federation and the National Fire Chiefs Council, that brings together a range of stakeholders with an interest in fire safety to provide a recommendation on how the Bill should be commenced. The group will advise on the optimal way to meet the Bill’s objectives of improving the identification and assessment of fire risks in multi-occupied blocks and addressing them as soon as possible to ensure residents’ safety while effectively managing any operational impact. The group is expected to report no later than the end of September.
Turning to the new clauses and amendments, I will start with the lead amendment, new clause 1. I say to the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) that I recognise her intent and desire behind new clause 1 to create that sense of certainty and of getting on with things at the earliest possible opportunity. I just observe that it obviously contemplates that the measures would be brought forward by subsequent changes to the fire safety order. That is precisely the approach that the Government are already taking, as reflected in the consultation that concludes on 12 October. Therefore, her proposal—and I appreciate that she seeks to hasten—actually does not hasten any more than what the Government are already intending and proposing in respect of the regulations that this Bill provides the framework and foundations for, and that is the sequencing we intended.
The hon. Lady will know that we are consulting on the detail. Indeed, under the regulations themselves, we are obliged to do that. I understand the timing issue, and I assure her that when the Bill is on the statute book—that has to come first—we will move with all pace and expedition to see that the regulations are put in place as fast as possible, because that is the sequencing.
On the new clause on the specifics—I agree that, as already stated, the Government’s principal intention is to follow through on the phase 1 recommendations, and we are not resiling from that one jot—I say to the hon. Lady that expressing it in that way might allow further legal challenge and create uncertainty. Therefore, I ask her to reflect carefully because we share her intent absolutely to proceed at pace.
I hope the hon. Lady will reflect further and, indeed, reflect on the words of Sir Martin Moore-Bick, who noted that it was important that his recommendations
“command the support of those who have experience of the matters to which they relate.”
That is precisely what we are seeking to do through the consultation, which extends, yes to the hon. and right hon. Members we have in this House, but also to residents, responsible persons, the fire sector and enforcing authorities to ensure that we get this right. That is what all Members across this House want to do, and that is what we want to do. I ask the hon. Lady to reflect on whether there is a need to divide the House when our approach is absolutely aligned and we want to get on with the matter.
As many in this House are already aware, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) has long been a champion of fire safety. I commend him, and indeed the all-party parliamentary group of which he has been such an active member over many years, for his work and for the essence behind the amendment that he has put forward on electrical products.
The electrical products intended for use by consumers are already regulated under the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 2016, which require manufacturers to ensure safeguards are in place to protect the health and safety of persons, domestic animals and property. The regulations place strict obligations on manufacturers and importers to ensure that products are safe. I recognise that there are—thankfully, rare—occasions when safety issues become apparent only after a product has been safely placed on the market. That is why the 2016 regulations also require, where it is appropriate, that manufacturers monitor products already placed on the market. Local trading standards authorities have a duty to enforce the regulations in their area, and in 2018 a new national regulator for product safety was created, the Office for Product Safety and Standards.
I also want to remind the House that the new Electrical Safety Standards in the Private Rented Sector (England) Regulations 2020 came into effect on 1 June. They apply to new tenancies from 1 July and to existing tenancies from 1 April 2021. These regulations require that electrical installations must be inspected and tested by a qualified and competent person at least every five years. Electrical safety standards must be met, and electrical installation condition reports must be provided to tenants and local housing authorities on request. In addition, the Government’s “How to let” guide already recommends that landlords regularly carry out portable appliance testing on any electrical appliance they provide and then supply the tenant with a record of any electrical inspections carried out, as good practice.
In Grenfell Tower, there will have been secure tenants,
leaseholders and private tenants. Why should regulations apply to some of those groups and not others just on the basis of tenure?
I was coming on to precisely that point. In her review, Dame Judith Hackitt recognised that residents themselves have a role to play and recommended clearer rights and obligations for residents to maintain the fire safety of individual dwellings, working in partnership with the duty holder. There are provisions on this within the draft Building Safety Bill, published in July, setting out a clear duty.
A number of different measures are in place, but I take the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West made very seriously. The Government are committed to ensuring that the electrical products that people buy are safe. I recognise the concerns, and we will look across Government at whether there are any gaps in the current regime and proposals to strengthen accountability in this area. I give that assurance to my hon. Friend to work with him. I would like to pay tribute, as he did, to Electrical Safety First for its important work in this arena. I hope to work with my hon. Friend and colleagues across the House to identify gaps, and if there are still gaps, we, like so many Members, want to see those filled effectively. With that assurance, I hope my hon. Friend will be willing to withdraw his amendment.
I turn to the new clauses, which were tabled in Committee, as the hon. Member for Croydon Central highlighted. On new clause 2, I agree that there is a clear need for reform in relation to fire risk assessors, to improve capacity and competency standards. That includes the role for the industry-led competency steering group under the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s building safety programme and its sub working group on fire risk assessors. That group is looking at ways to increase competence and capacity in the sector. The competency steering group will publish a final report shortly, including proposals in relation to creating a register of fire risk assessors, third party accreditation and a competence framework for fire risk assessors. The Government will give detailed consideration to the report’s recommendations.
The Government are also working with the National Fire Chiefs Council, the fire risk assessor sector and the wider fire sector to take forward plans for addressing both the short-term and long-term capability and capacity issues within the sector. The fire safety consultation will also bring forward proposals on issues relating to competence. Members are understandably keen for this work to be brought forward, but it is vital that we get this right and that the Government listen to the advice in order to frame this effectively and appropriately. Once the fire safety consultation responses have been considered—as I said, it closes on 12 October—the Government will be able to determine the most appropriate route to implement changes.
New clause 3 seeks to impose a new duty on inspectors to prioritise their inspections of multi-occupied residential buildings by risk. I would like to underline some of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime and Policing in Committee. As he said, the Government’s position is that adequate and established arrangements are in place to ensure that enforcement authorities target their resources appropriately and are accountable for their decisions without the need to make it a statutory requirement. The fire and rescue national framework for England requires fire and rescue authorities to have a locally determined risk-based inspection programme in place for enforcing compliance with the fire safety order. The framework sets out the expectation that fire and rescue authorities will target their resources on those individuals or households who are at greater risk from fire in the home and on those non-domestic premises where the life safety risk is greatest. The national framework for Wales includes similar provisions.
In parallel, the regulators’ code states that all regulators should base their regulatory activities on risk, take an evidence-based approach to determine the priority risks in their area of responsibility and allocate resources where they would be most effective in addressing those priority risks. The building risk review programme, which will see all high-rise residential buildings reviewed or inspected by fire and rescue authorities by the end of 2021, is a key part of this.
The programme will enable building fire risk to be reviewed and data to be collected to ensure that local resources are targeted at the buildings most at risk. The Government have provided £10 million of funding to support that work, not only to facilitate the review of all buildings, but to strengthen the National Fire Chiefs Council’s central strategic function to drive improvements in fire protection. That is in addition to a further £10 million grant to bolster fire protection capacity and capability within local fire and rescue services. The allocation of funding is based on the proportion of higher-risk buildings, further demonstrating the need to target resources at risk. I remind the House that we have also established the task and finish group that will be responsible for providing a recommendation on how the Bill should be commenced before the end of this month—obviously I have commented on that work and how the group is expected to report.
New clause 4 seeks to remove leaseholders from the definition of responsible person unless they are also the owner or part-owner of the freehold for the premises in question. In multi-occupied residential buildings, the leaseholder of a flat is unlikely to be a responsible person for the non-domestic premises. The exceptions to that would be where they own or share ownership of the freehold, which is acknowledged in the new clause. A leaseholder can be a duty holder under article 5 of the fire safety order, and it is important that the order provides that ability, which will be determined by the circumstances of a particular case.
The Bill does not change that arrangement. It does, of course, clarify that the order applies to the flat entrance doors, which obviously affects leaseholders more directly than other parts of the building where they may reside. Depending on the terms of a lease or a tenancy agreement, responsibility to ensure that the door complies with the requirements of the order could therefore fall to the responsible person, or the building owner, or the tenant/leaseholder, as a duty holder. As we conveyed previously, legislating to remove the leaseholder as responsible person would undermine the principles of the order and could have the unintended consequence of creating a vacuum of responsibilities under the order, which could in turn compromise fire safety. On that basis, and given our other proposals in relation to the fire safety order, I would ask that further consideration be given in terms of moving new clause 4.
On new clause 5 and waking watches, I am very conscious of a number of points made by hon. and right hon. Members across the House and the intent behind the proposal. I gently suggest to the hon. Member for Croydon Central that there are technical issues with this amendment—which my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) underlined and which do not seem to have been reflected—that mean that the approach taken could lead to greater uncertainty and more waking watches where they are not intended.
However, I understand the points made by hon. Members across the House, and I underline that we are taking forward the following on waking watches, in conjunction with the National Fire Chiefs Council. The NFCC is updating its guidance relating to waking watches, which I think responds to a number of points raised by hon. and right hon. Members. We anticipate that this will be published very shortly. Once the guidance is available, we will ask the fire protection board to advise fire and rescue services on how best to ensure that it is implemented on the ground by responsible persons. That will include looking into other measures, such as installing building-wide fire alarm systems, to reduce the dependency on waking watches wherever possible.
My colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are also looking to publish data on the costs of waking watches. This means that there will be transparency on the range of costs and will enable comparisons to be made. Our aim must ultimately be to reduce the use of waking watches and the costs that they bring, for all the reasons highlighted by hon. and right hon. Members in this debate. We are working with the NFCC and fire and rescue services to undertake a building risk review programme on all high-rise residential buildings of 18 metres and above, as I have already referenced.
Let me respond on the issue of EWS1 forms and some homeowners facing difficulties working with lenders. We do recognise the issue, and colleagues at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are working with lenders to support a proportionate approach and explore how other evidence might assist the valuation process. The Government do not support a blanket approach to the use of EWS1 forms on buildings and are encouraging mortgage lenders to accept other equivalent evidence from building owners for valuation purposes.
The Minister for fire and building safety held a roundtable with mortgage lenders, where lenders agreed that a nuanced, proportionate approach to risk was required. They are reflecting that in their policies and guidance to valuers. The Minister will hold a further roundtable with lenders shortly
I say to the House that we have further opportunities with the Building Safety Bill, and I would encourage participation on the consultation on the fire safety order, but with the assurances and clarification that I have given, I hope that hon. Members will be minded not to press their new clauses and amendments.
Ahead of setting up the Grenfell Tower fire public inquiry, the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), said that she wanted
“to provide justice for the victims and their families who suffered so terribly”
“we cannot wait for ages to learn the immediate lessons”.—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 168.]
However, despite being long delayed, the Grenfell Tower fire phase 1 inquiry’s recommendations are now nearly one year old, and they have not yet been implemented.
The Minister will have heard the frustration from across the House: it is not just on the Opposition Benches but coming loud and clear from the Government Benches, and the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) put it best. It is always never the right time for these things to be implemented with this Government—there is a consultation, a taskforce and the dreaded roundtable followed by another roundtable. It is simply not good enough.
New clause 1 attempts to press the Government to deliver on the first set of recommendations from the Grenfell Tower phase 1 inquiry. The Minister is a good man, but his response is not good enough. We must lead. That sense of momentum he talked about has to have meaning. We have to act to do what we can, three years on from the Grenfell Tower fire. The official Opposition therefore want to press new clause 1 to a Division.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
7 September 2020
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Queen’s consent signified.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Grenfell Tower fire was a national tragedy that shook confidence in the building safety system to the core. As a Government, we remain fully committed to fixing that system, to reforming fire and building safety and to ensuring that the events of 14 June 2017 are never repeated. People have a right to be safe and feel safe in their homes.
On the day of publication of the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s phase 1 report, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister accepted in principle all 12 recommendations that were addressed to the Government directly, 11 of which will require implementation in law. The Fire Safety Bill, which will amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005—the fire safety order— is an important first step towards enacting these recommendations.
In that context, I thank the Minister for Crime and Policing, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), who led the Bill in Committee on 25 June, all the Members who served on that Committee and applied scrutiny to the Bill, and indeed all right hon. and hon. Members who participated in the debate earlier today.
As Members are aware, this is a short and technical Bill to clarify that the scope of the fire safety order applies to the structure, external walls and flat entrance doors of multi-occupied residential buildings. This provides a firm foundation to implement the Grenfell Tower phase 1 legislative recommendations that focus primarily on inspection of high-rise residential buildings by building owners and managers and information sharing with fire and rescue services.
I want to take a moment to underline that this is part of a bigger picture. The Government have published the draft Building Safety Bill, which will shortly be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. The Building Safety Bill takes forward the recommendations from Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building regulations and fire safety, and will put in place new and enhanced regulatory regimes for building safety and construction products, and ensure that residents have a stronger voice in the system. Alongside the Building Safety Bill, the Government published a fire safety consultation, which includes proposals to strengthen the fire safety order, improve compliance with the order, implement the Grenfell Tower phase one recommendations, and progress arrangements for consultation between building control bodies and fire and rescue authorities in relation to building work.
Our programme of work is not limited to legislation and includes having established a remediation programme, supported by £1.6 billion of Government funding, to remove unsafe cladding from high-rise residential buildings. For those who register for the fund, they are now able to submit their funding applications. We are also undertaking, in conjunction with the fire service, a building risk review programme for all high-rise residential buildings in England by December 2021, supported by £10 million of new funding.
The Building Safety Bill is a very detailed piece of legislation that aims to create significant changes to improve building and fire safety. Moreover, our fire safety consultation contains proposals to strengthen a number of areas of the fire safety order. Together, the Fire Safety Bill, the draft Building Safety Bill and the fire safety consultation will create fundamental improvements to building safety standards and ensure that residents are safe and feel safe in their homes.
During the passage of the Fire Safety Bill, we have had good and robust debates in this House which have benefited the Bill in airing and showing the issues that are at stake. Hon. and right hon. Members have underlined why this matters to their constituents, why this matters for safety and why this matters for people feeling confident in their homes. That is a message and an objective that the Government absolutely will follow through on. It is why we believe the Bill is important in setting good and solid foundations upon which we can now proceed. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.
On Third Reading, I reiterate that the Opposition support the Fire Safety Bill, but we are desperately disappointed that the Government have not gone much further and much faster on improving fire safety.
I regret that the Government did not choose to support Labour’s new clause 1, which would have implemented the key recommendations of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s Grenfell Tower inquiry phase one report, published in October. It is difficult to understand why the Government, who promised to implement the recommendations in full and without delay, have not chosen to make the concessions to include provision for them in the Bill. It is difficult to understand why responsible owners should not have to share evacuation plans with residents or undertake regular inspections of flat doors or lifts. It is difficult to understand why the Government are content with a situation where a fire risk assessor needs no qualifications whatever. It is difficult to understand why we cannot define the responsible owner in such a way to avoid leaseholders, who are already paying so much, footing the bill for things that are not their fault.
Endless promises of action, statements, consultations, taskforces and roundtables without any real change have tied the entire building safety world in knots, with hundreds of thousands of people paying the consequences, living in unsafe homes or unable to sell their flat because there is such confusion over which buildings are safe and what pieces of paper are needed to prove they are safe and who is liable. At every stage, the Opposition have sought to be constructive and to help the Government to improve the Bill. There is a lot more work to be done and we hope that as much of it as possible will be achieved now through secondary legislation.
Having debated our amendments on Report, I want to raise an important point about the implications of the Bill for our fire and rescue services. We welcome the high level of inspection and enforcement that the Bill requires, but we need clarity about the funding and resources provided to carry out such work. Over the past decade, we have seen devastating cuts to firefighter numbers, amounting to 20% of the service. Fire inspectors have seen some of the largest cuts, yet the Bill requires much more of them, and many more of them. I would like the Minister to set out what additional funding will be provided to the fire and rescue services to undertake this work.
I pay tribute to our fire and rescue services, as the Minister did, who go above and beyond to keep us safe and have worked tirelessly to protect us throughout the covid pandemic. I am grateful to the Ministers, the officials and the House staff who have worked with us on the Bill, and I give particular thanks to Yohanna Sallberg and Kenneth Fox, who have brilliantly supported me through the passage of the Bill. I also pay tribute to the hon. Members who have made such important contributions today and at previous stages of the Bill. There is much expertise in this House—either built over years of work in this place or personal experience in jobs that people have done before coming to this place—that the Government should listen to with more urgency.
In July 2017, I made my maiden speech during the first full debate in this Chamber on the Grenfell tragedy. I never would have thought that three years later, I would be facing a Government that are still yet to pass a single Act of Parliament to deliver on the clear promises made in the wake of that tragedy. The most important aim of the Bill is to clarify fire safety rules to prevent loss of life or damage to buildings from fire. It is to ensure that our constituents can live safely in their homes. I want to say to all those stuck living in unsafe blocks, but in particular to the Grenfell survivors and the victims’ families, that Opposition Members will not rest until every measure necessary is in place to prevent a fire like Grenfell from ever happening again.
Grenfell Tower is in my constituency of Kensington, so I start by paying tribute to the Grenfell community—to the bereaved and to the survivors, who have borne their loss with such dignity. This Bill is a small step in implementing the recommendations of the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry, and I commend it to the House, but I urge Government to move with a sense of urgency. I would also say that the Bill is just one small component. Clearly, the Building Safety Bill and the consultation on the fire safety order are also critically important. We owe it to the Grenfell community to never, ever allow a tragedy of this kind to happen again, so let us ensure that we implement state-of-the-art building and fire safety regulations with urgency.
I rise to support the Third Reading of the Bill and wish it a swift passage in the other House. The Bill has been welcomed by public and industry bodies, noting the expected increase in the enforcement action by fire service authorities as a result of its clarifications, as well as an expectation that it will impose greater burdens on the responsible person in multi-occupancy residential buildings.
On 20 July, the Government also published the draft Building Safety Bill, which takes forward their fundamental reform of the building safety system, introducing new regulatory regimes for building safety and construction products. Unquestionably, the Bill would strengthen the whole regulatory system for building safety as well as ensuring that there is greater accountability and responsibility for fire and structural safety issues throughout the life cycle of buildings within the scope of the more stringent regime.
Having said all that, I very much hope that the Government will not ignore all the points that have been made by the Opposition and the arguments that I have tried to make this evening. We cannot, and must not, waste any more time by pushing the issue of electrical safety around between different Departments. We owe it to those who lost their lives in Grenfell and other fires to find the parliamentary time and the right vehicle to enshrine electrical safety in legislation.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.