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Exiting the European Union (Building and Buildings)

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 18 November 2020

I beg to move,

That the draft Construction Products (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, which were laid before this House on 15 October, be approved.

The draft regulations were laid before the House on 15 October this year. They were debated and supported in the other place on 10 November. They are part of the Government’s programme to update European Union exit legislation to reflect the fact that we are now leaving the transition period under the withdrawal agreement and the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol.

The regulations will amend existing construction products regulations in the United Kingdom using the powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. They will ensure that EU construction products legislation continues to apply in Northern Ireland, in accordance with the Northern Ireland protocol. They will also amend the remainder of the United Kingdom regime so that it applies to Great Britain only.

It is probably worth my taking a few moments to remind the House of some of the background. The EU construction products regulation, or CPR, is directly applicable in all EU member states and has applied across the United Kingdom since 2011. It seeks to remove technical barriers to the trade in construction products in the European single market.

The CPR harmonises the methods of assessment and testing, the means of declaration of poor performance, and the system of conformity assessment of construction products. It does not harmonise national building regulations. Individual member states remain responsible for safety, environmental, energy and other requirements applicable to construction works. Where an EU harmonised standard exists for a product, the CPR places an obligation on manufacturers, distributors and importers of that product when it is placed on the market. That includes a stipulation that the product must have been accompanied by a declaration of performance and affixed with a CE mark. This helps provide reliable information to industry and consumers about the performance of the product.

One of the concerns I have in relation to this statutory instrument is the north-south movement of products for the construction sector, such as cement moving from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, and vice versa. There is also the movement of wood from the Republic of Ireland and across from Scotland and the mainland. Can the Minister confirm that a full consultation process has taken place with all those in the sector, and that they fully believe this will enable the construction sector to continue as it is? I say that because I believe the construction sector is able to lift the economy come 1 January next year, and the opportunity must be there. It should not be inhibited in any way.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is a doughty campaigner for his constituents in Strangford and across Northern Ireland.

The amendments we are debating today are of a technical nature, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not the objective of these measures to inhibit in any way the transfer of goods between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland or the transfer of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We want unfettered access to our mainland markets to continue, of course, for businesses and services in Northern Ireland. I will address those points in more detail in my remarks.

At the end of the transition period, the CPR becomes retained EU law and will form part of the United Kingdom’s legal system. We made the Construction Products (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations in March 2019 to ensure its provisions will have practical application in the United Kingdom. That was, of course, before we had a withdrawal agreement or a Northern Ireland protocol.

Those 2019 regulations include the introduction of United Kingdom-wide provisions, such as the UKCA mark and UK-designated standards, in preparation for a no-deal Brexit but, of course, we have now left the European Union with a withdrawal agreement and a Northern Ireland protocol.

Without the amendments made by this instrument, the 2019 regulations would not be compliant with the Northern Ireland protocol, as they would have application to the whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. Regulators would lack powers to enforce EU regulations in Northern Ireland, and manufacturers would not be able to test their products in the United Kingdom and affix the UKNI indication to place the product in the market.

The policy intent of these regulations is to keep the same requirements set out in the 2019 regulations in Great Britain but to introduce a Northern Ireland regime that complies with the Northern Ireland protocol. They do not change the key CPR requirements currently in place. The same standards will apply in Great Britain and Northern Ireland immediately after 31 December, as they did before the transition period, and products that meet Northern Ireland CPR requirements will have unfettered access to the market of Great Britain.

The effect of these regulations can be considered in three parts. First, they will amend the 2019 regulations so that current United Kingdom-wide provisions, such as UKCA marking and UK-designated standards, will become Great Britain-only provisions at the end of the transition period. A further effect of this territorial amendment is that it will ensure that EU construction products law will continue to apply in Northern Ireland, in line with the Northern Ireland protocol. As United Kingdom-designated standards will be identical to EU harmonised standards at the end of the transition period, there will be no change for businesses placing goods on the market in terms of the standards that must be met.

I understand what the Minister is saying about standards still being the same when we leave the EU, but if we leave without a deal the UK will be a third country. What will that mean for the export to the EU of construction goods manufactured in the UK? Will a reciprocal arrangement have to be put in place to recognise those goods, so that they will not have to undergo additional checks and certification in the EU?

We want unfettered access to the EU markets, and we want the same for them. That is why we are attempting to implement a trade deal. The standards between the United Kingdom and the European Union will remain harmonised, unless or until we introduce further regulations. Such regulations or changes will be available to debate, and I look forward to that opportunity.

Secondly, the regulations make provision for conformity assessment bodies established in the United Kingdom. They enable UK-approved bodies to continue testing against EU harmonised standards for the Northern Ireland market, and they introduce, as I have said, a new UK(NI) indication, as required under the protocol. Where the UK-approved body undertakes the conformity assessment activities required under an EU standard, the manufacturer must affix the CE marking together with the new UK(NI) indication. These regulations ensure that these CE plus UK(NI)-marked construction products will be recognised in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain. The details of the UK(NI) indication will be established under a separate instrument, led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and those regulations were debated in the House on 16 November.

Thirdly, these regulations amend existing UK-wide enforcement provisions so that they apply in Great Britain and restate EU CPR enforcement provisions in respect of Northern Ireland. For Great Britain, the regulations amend the enforcement rules to reflect that the CE marking on its own and the CE marking together with UK(NI) indicators will be recognised in Great Britain. For Northern Ireland, the regulations provide an enforcement regime in relation to the EU construction products law and the new UK(NI) indication.

Finally, the regulations make a small number of technical changes to correct deficiencies in the 2019 regulations arising from leaving the EU with the withdrawal agreement and the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol.

To conclude, these regulations serve a very specific purpose: to amend the 2019 regulations to ensure that there is a functioning legislative and regulatory regime in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is necessary in response to the withdrawal agreement and the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol that the United Kingdom and the EU agreed in January 2020. Our overall approach to these amendments is entirely concurrent with both the policy and the legal intent of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and enacts the policy that the Government set out in guidance to the industry in September.

I apologise for the detailed technicalities in these amendments, which are, effectively, amendments to amendments, but I hope that Members across the House will join me in supporting them. I commend the regulations to the House.

I thank the Minister for opening the debate, and I understand the technical nature of taking forward the regulations. As the Minister will know, I have a great deal of interest in ensuring that products used in the construction of our buildings reach the highest standards and are used in the appropriate way. The Minister is well versed in products such as aluminium composite material and high-pressure laminate insulation, and in the problems that we have in our high-rise buildings—not only those of 18-plus metres, but those of 11-plus metres—and those that certainly are risky that are cladded and have vulnerable people living in them, but this debate is not about that.

These regulations are important for ensuring that we prepare for the next phase of our relationship with the European Union. As someone who voted remain and campaigned for remain, I find it regrettable, but it is the reality, and now it is time to get on with it. It is not quite oven-ready, but that is another debate. As such, the Minister will be pleased to know that the Opposition will not be objecting to the regulations, but I want to raise with him a number of points that require clarification.

No impact assessment has been released with the legislation, so I would be interested to listen to the Minister’s reply in that regard. Immediately following the end of the transition period, UK designated standards will be identical to those under the European Union regime, but will that always be the case? If the Government are planning to make any changes, and should the regimes diverge, it is not hard to envisage real and material difficulties for UK manufacturers and distributors acting in Northern Ireland. Again, it would be interesting to hear the Minister’s reply on that matter. Will he give us such points of clarification, but also, very importantly, of reassurance? Does the Minister see any changes on the horizon, and what impacts could those changes have?

Before this debate, the Construction Products Association wrote to me, as I am sure it has written to the Minister and the Department. It raised some concerns about the types of testing that can be undertaken currently by UK notified bodies and therefore are currently done by a European Union notified body. It wants clarity about what the situation will be in January. I believe the CPA has already brought up these concerns, which bring into question whether some products made in the UK will be allowed for sale on the UK market post Brexit. We are at a very late stage of the process, so I would be grateful if the Minister gave some detail in responding to the House on those concerns.

I want to echo my colleagues in the other place—the Lords—in asking for the detail contained in the enforcement provisions. I understand this will work in a very similar way, and again I would be grateful if the Minister expanded on that. Echoing the comments from hon. Members in the Chamber today, what will the implications be for the construction industry and those involved in producing these products to high and world-class standards in the event of a no-deal Brexit, which is potentially a few weeks away. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

I will be brief, because to be honest I do not understand why this SI is being debated in the main Chamber and has not been tucked away in a Committee Room as it should have been.

In a former life I worked as a civil engineer, so I was familiar with working with British Standards and then the changeover to Eurocodes. The harmonisation of products was welcome: it gave a wider choice and helped to bring down the cost of construction projects and make them more efficient, in the UK and throughout the EU. That was a big advantage of that harmonisation. I suggest to the Minister that the UK should not be in a rush to diverge, because there are unintended consequences from diverging for no real reason. Will the Minister explain how any proposed changes in legislation will be handled? How will he judge the impact of the benefits of making changes versus the possible disadvantages of diverging from an EU-wide coding scheme?

The Minister stated earlier that he hopes to get a trade deal; how detailed are the trade deal discussions on matters such as this? It is really important that after we leave the EU, EU products can still come into the UK to keep building projects going and that UK manufacturers are able to export their goods to the EU uninterrupted and uninhibited. Otherwise, there will obviously be an economic cost to the UK. How detailed are the proposals in the current trade deal discussions?

We need to face reality, because the Minister’s Prime Minister says that we can leave the EU without a deal and that that will not cause any problem. If we leave the EU without a deal, what will that mean for construction products that are either exported from the UK into the EU or, vice versa, imported into the UK from the EU? As I say, those imports are vital to keep our construction projects going—to keep houses being built and infra- structure upgrades going. The UK Government are planning a big infrastructure investment, which in itself is to be welcomed—if we get a cleaner, greener UK, that is to be welcomed—but it will rely on construction products coming from the EU. What will be the real impact if there is no deal and the UK is operating as a third country? I would be interested to hear the Minister clear that up. With those brief remarks, I conclude.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown).

I rise to speak in this debate because of the importance of building safety in my constituency—as in many parts of the country—following the dreadful disaster at Grenfell. We have a number of tall blocks, many of which are unfortunately still covered in dangerous cladding, including ACM cladding, cladding made from other materials and, indeed, dangerous wooden cladding. Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service has uncovered a series of problems in Reading and other Berkshire towns, and there is a great deal of concern from local residents about these matters. I appreciate the Minister’s reassurance on the nature of the UK standards and the fact that they are separate, although they interconnect with the European ones. I wish to reiterate residents’ concerns and ask some questions, in a helpful way, to try to elicit a response that might reassure local people.

First, let me outline the scale of the issue in our community, because at first sight it might not be obvious that in a medium-sized town thousands and thousands of people are affected by this building-safety scandal. It affects not only the people who live in taller blocks, nearly 10 of which are affected in Reading. They are all either privately owned or have a mixture of different forms of ownership, but they are not council-owned—the council blocks are safe. These privately owned blocks have been clad dangerously and are affected by a series of other matters, such as a dangerous car park ventilation that could lead to fires on the side of buildings.

There is a range of issues and a great deal of concern among thousands and thousands of residents. In fact, that is something of an understatement, because another group of residents might also be affected, and the level of risk in their buildings is unclear. I am talking about people who live in lower-rise blocks of flats and houses of multiple occupation. The issues are similar: many have issues with potentially dangerous cladding; others have issues with fire safety doors or just the very fact that a block has multiple occupation and requires greater scrutiny of the fire safety messages, briefing and information provided to residents.

In a town the size of the one I represent—and its suburbs—a substantial number of people live in medium-sized accommodation of three to six storeys, and however technical these matters may be, all those people are affected deeply by changes to building safety.

I was hesitant to interrupt the hon. Member’s flow because this matter is obviously important for him and his constituents. Is the real issue the products that are on the market or governance in terms of building control, inspection and regulation?

I am grateful to the hon. Member. I believe it may be both of those as well as the lack of resource for the fire service, which sadly has been cut significantly since 2010. There are, therefore, a number of significant issues for us as parliamentarians. I seek the Minister’s reassurance in particular on, as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and my hon. (Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) mentioned, what happens as we move out of the scope of EU regulations and into a UK-based regime covering Great Britain while there will be continuation of EU measures in Northern Ireland. There is a great deal of scope for confusion.

Of course, many of the products, whether ACM, HPL or insulation, have been tested, though some of those tests have been questionable. As my hon. Friend rightly says, any divergence beyond the arrangements that we have now for transition out of the EU—of course, we do not have a trade deal—may have a further impact, and building safety issues go much broader than cladding, whether ACM or HPL, affecting thousands of buildings and hundreds of thousands of people.

Of course, 1.5 million people are now trapped in flats that largely have a zero rating for a mortgage. They also have to pay additional costs for waking watch, which in some cases can be thousands of pounds a month. Going forward, measures in the building safety Bill have the potential to put even more charges on leaseholders. Does my hon. Friend concur that, beyond Reading, this is a national scandal—

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I thank my hon. Friend on the Front Bench. He is right that this is a national scandal. I seek to give one example of one constituency and to represent local people. It is utterly abhorrent that millions of people in the United Kingdom face these dreadful problems and are living with the nightmare of an unsafe flat that they cannot sell or leave. It is dreadful that they are living through this utter nightmare. I call on the Government to step up their action and address this with far greater urgency. I find it staggering that, three years after Grenfell, it is still an issue on the scale that it is and that the Government are only now beginning to address it. I ask the Minister respectfully to explain—perhaps in front of the House, or he could write to me—how the Government will deal with the risk of confusion about regulation and the potential watering down of the current standards once we are no longer in the EU regime.

We have had an interesting debate on what otherwise might be described as dry and technical matters, though in saying that I do not wish in any way to diminish or undermine the seriousness of the issues at hand, some of which I will address in my remarks. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for their contributions.

We are seeking a positive future trading relationship with the European Union that we hope will include a mutual recognition agreement on conformity assessment, supporting United Kingdom approved bodies and construction manufacturers alike. These regulations will come into force at the end of the transition period—in either scenario—and further legislation will be laid to implement such a trade agreement. The reason for these amendments is not a deal on free trade with the European Union, nor because we are attempting to diverge from the present harmonised rules on construction standards. It is simply that the present provisions, which will come into force at the end of the transition period, were made before the withdrawal agreement was agreed and before the Northern Ireland protocol was signed, and we need to amend them in the light of those—I think we would all agree—welcome advances.

I will address some of the points raised by hon. Members across the Chamber. With respect to building safety, I will not attempt to drain the debates that we have had across the Dispatch Box and around the Chamber over several weeks about the importance of dealing quickly with ACM and non-ACM clad buildings. As the House knows, the Government have put aside £1.6 billion for that purpose, and we keep the situation under review. We remain committed to maintaining the highest standards for construction products that are put on the market. Let me say to the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) and to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), that the Building Safety Bill, which has been published in draft and will be brought forward as soon as possible, will implement the recommendations of the Hackitt review. We want to use that further to strengthen the regulatory oversight of construction products at a national level. This is not a race to the bottom; it is very much a race to the top in terms of standards.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) also raised the question of where the CE designation will apply. The reason that we are transposing it into British law—Great Britain—is to ensure that businesses have an opportunity to prepare for any future changes in order to minimise business disruption. We are introducing the UK(NI) designation to ensure that any goods sold into Northern Ireland meet European Union CPR designated standards. Again, we want to ensure that the CE designation continues for a period of time. Will future regulations diverge? Well, that is a matter for the Government of the day. Any changes to our regulations will be debated in this place and the other place in the usual way, and the House will come to a conclusion. Should the European Union wish to change its designations, that is a matter for it. In those circumstances, the European Union would certainly have to comply with UK-wide designations, with the exception of the UK(NI) designation, which of course applies to Northern Ireland qualifying goods.

What assurance can the Minister give the House that this divergence will not see a race to the bottom? We have talked about current standards, and it has been mentioned that there have been some major issues, including products that have been tested, and which have then been used either as fire breaks or to encase buildings. It has got to be a race to the top, rather than to the bottom. What assurances can the Minister provide?

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We have always been at the forefront of good design and product safety, and I hope that nobody in the House will assume that somehow, because they are EU regulations, those regulations must ineluctably be better than our own. We will make sure that we have regulations that are suitable for our markets. We will make sure that we have really good regulations and that, as we leave the transition period, we maintain EU regulations, which are being incorporated, as I have said, into British law.

The hon. Gentleman asked a question about enforcement. One reason why we need to introduce the amendments to amendments is to make sure that local authorities, which are usually responsible for the enforcement of such regulations, have the wherewithal in England, Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland to enforce the necessary regulations, whether they are the CE regulations that we are transposing in Great Britain, future regulations that we might apply or the construction products regulations that will continue to pertain in Northern Ireland. The enforcement regulations —I think Lord Blunkett asked about this in the other place, and my noble Friend Lord Greenhalgh replied—will be maintained as a result of these amendments.

What will happen in future? It is for my noble Friend Lord Frost and his negotiating team to win a great trade deal for the United Kingdom, and that is what he is endeavouring to do. I hope, given that the amount of trade in construction products is definitely in the European Union’s favour—something like £10.8 billion-worth of trade, compared with £4 billion and a bit the other way—it is in its interest to reach a good trade deal with the United Kingdom, to ensure that that trade continues to flow.

The Government believe that the regulations that we have laid before the House are needed to ensure that there continues to be a functioning legislative and regulatory regime for construction products at the end of the transition period and that it is, as I have said, in line with commitments set out in the all-important Northern Ireland protocol. I trust that I have answered all—or nearly all—the questions that have been put to me by Members in all parts of the House. If not, I am happy to write to them. With that, I conclude and commend the draft amendments to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft Construction Products (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, which were laid before this House on 15 October, be approved.

Sitting suspended.