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National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Housing) (Fire Safety) Order 2010

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 25 March 2010

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Housing) (Fire Safety) Order 2010.

Relevant document: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, this legislative competence order has already been approved by the other place and by the National Assembly for Wales. It has been brought forward by Ann Jones, the Assembly Member for the Vale of Clwyd. It is the second LCO to come before this House to have been brought forward by a Back-Bench Member of the National Assembly, and is supported by the Welsh Assembly Government.

The Government strongly support the ability of Assembly Members to propose LCOs. It demonstrates the flexibility and versatility of the system for conferring legislative competence on the National Assembly and allows individual Assembly Members to participate directly in enhancing that competence.

The order has benefited from pre-legislative scrutiny by the Constitution Committee of this House, the Welsh Affairs Committee in the other place and a committee of the National Assembly for Wales. The Government are grateful to the committees for the work they have undertaken, and I shall return to the minor changes that have been made following scrutiny in a moment.

I turn to the content of the draft LCO. The order inserts a single matter into Field 11, the housing field, in part of Schedule 5 to the Government of Wales Act 2006. It would enable the National Assembly to legislate in relation to the provision of automatic fire suppression systems, such as fire sprinklers, in new residential premises. The LCO also sets out that “new residential premises” means premises constructed for, or converted to, residential use. However, an Assembly measure could not require retrospective fitting of fire sprinklers in existing residential premises.

This is a narrowly defined order with a clear purpose. Ann Jones has said from the outset that the purpose of the LCO is to allow the Assembly to legislate to reduce the possibility of death and injury from fires in newbuild houses in Wales. She has argued that a requirement to fit such systems in all new residential premises would be a preventive measure so that people could get out of their homes safely in the event of a fire occurring. It would also reduce the risk to firefighters who are called to deal with domestic fires.

Noble Lords will be aware that Parliament has already agreed that the Welsh Ministers should assume responsibility for building regulations from the end of 2011. Provision to require the installation of fire sprinklers could be made under those regulations. It is therefore important to be clear that the issue in relation to this draft LCO is whether or not the Assembly, rather than the Welsh Ministers, should decide on the installation of fire sprinklers in new homes in Wales—not the merits or otherwise of fire sprinklers themselves. I firmly believe that the Assembly should be able to decide this significant issue, and so give that decision more democratic legitimacy and accountability.

I would like to reassure those who may have concerns about the possible effects of this LCO on the Welsh housebuilding industry in these difficult economic times. No one—not this Government, not the Assembly Government and certainly not Ann Jones herself—would want to place unnecessary, arbitrary burdens on Welsh housebuilders. Indeed, Ms Jones has written to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales acknowledging that there are concerns in some quarters, and committing to working with the CBI and the wider business community to ensure that any subsequent legislation is workable. I have made available copies of Ann Jones's letter for noble Lords to read.

The process of making Assembly measures has built-in safeguards to ensure that laws are made sensibly. Any proposed measure brought forward as a result of this LCO would be subject to extensive consultation and rigorous impact assessment taking full account of all the issues and concerns—including the potential additional costs to housebuilding, issues about water pressure and ongoing maintenance. Only minor and technical changes have been made to the LCO following pre-legislative scrutiny. One such change amended the name of the order to incorporate the words “fire safety”. This is in line with the views of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which commented that the name of the LCO should accurately “reflect and communicate” its contents.

Other minor technical drafting changes have been made purely to improve drafting. In particular, the opening words of Matter 11.1 now refer to the,

“provision of automatic fire suppression systems”,

rather than to,

“provision for and in connection with a requirement”

that such systems be installed. This slightly broader wording does not limit the Assembly to requiring that automatic fire suppression systems are provided, but remains consistent with the objectives identified by Ann Jones.

If this draft LCO is approved, an Assembly measure resulting from this competence could be brought forward by Ann Jones herself or the Assembly Government. The legislative competence that this LCO confers is clear and specific. Accordingly, I commend the order to the Committee and beg to move.

I thank the Minister for outlining the purpose of this order and I can assure him that around 30 seconds ago I received a copy of the letter from Ann Jones, which I have had time to skip through and understand.

As the Explanatory Memorandum makes clear, the purpose of the order is to give the Welsh Assembly legislative competence to pass a measure relating to the provision of automatic fire-suppression systems in new residential premises. In most cases, this would amount to the provision of water sprinklers, but these could be replaced by other systems as technology evolves. This is the second so-called Back-Bench legislative competence order to fall to be considered by the Committee, and the proposal is remarkable for the length of time it has taken to arrive at this point.

The Assembly Member in question, Ann Jones, won the ballot of Assembly Members as long ago as June 2007. It is extraordinary, therefore, that such a long time should have elapsed before the LCO was made. It perhaps begs the question of whether the LCO procedure is entirely appropriate in the case of Back-Bench proposals, which usually have a single and often narrow measure in mind. The Minister may wish to contemplate whether a more streamlined procedure could be adopted for such proposals, and I suspect that all in your Lordships’ House would agree with that. Dealing with things that are four or five years old in this way is ridiculous.

I have some observations which I should be grateful if the Minister would consider. First, what soundings have been taken in the Welsh construction industry, which is presently suffering as a result of the economic downturn? The same can be said of the rest of our construction industry. The Explanatory Memorandum indicates at paragraph 7.22 that the cost of installing such systems is estimated to be around 1 to 2 per cent of the total cost of construction. Those who are swift mathematicians will realise that that could be a significant sum. It will be difficult in the current climate for builders to add such costs to the selling price, and therefore they will probably be obliged to absorb the additional costs themselves, or perhaps offer these systems as an extra to the potential purchaser. What is the attitude of builders to this proposal? What have the Minister and his party discovered in their consultation?

As the Explanatory Memorandum makes clear, the current legislative framework for fire safety in new residential premises is provided by the building regulations. If I remember rightly, building regulations have just been devolved to the Welsh Assembly and, at the time, I wondered whether it had the competence and the resources to manage that load. Having been in the construction industry for 30 years, I know a little about building regulations.

Last November, an order was made transferring functions relating to building regulations to the Welsh Ministers. That is due to be effected next year. Given that such functions have been transferred to the Welsh Ministers, is it possible that the provisions of the proposed order have been overtaken by events and are now unnecessary? Subject to the above, I have no further observations to make.

I do not speak against the order, but it will have a significant impact on the construction and housebuilding industry in Wales—something, as I said, that I have been part of for most of my life, although not in Wales. The cost of putting sprinkler systems and automatic fire prevention into low-cost and medium-cost housing is bound to knock the profitability of the industry. The housebuilding industry, and the building industry generally, is a vital part of the Welsh economy, both from the point of view of money flow and of employment. I am not very happy about this LCO, but I support it.

I understand that, as I was unable to be here at the start, I have lost the right to speak to this Motion.

I am sorry about that loss, although, in responding to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, I may respond to issues which the noble Lord might well have raised on the order.

On the question of the length of time, I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, about the order, but I am not prepared to accept the generalisation. A number of LCOs have come through—some more rapidly than this one—and I agree that it would reflect badly on the system as a whole if they all took as long as this proposal. The explanation is fairly straightforward. It is somewhat more complex than many of the other orders, in part because of the relationship between devolved powers and the overall building regulations standards for England and Wales. I entirely accept the thrust of his point, which is that if we are to be satisfied with the LCO procedure, it must be a little snappier than it has been in this case. I do not think that this case is representative of the general process. Therefore, I am sure that we shall not have to entertain that criticism in the future.

On the question of costs, we are all mindful of the fact that the construction industry is facing obvious difficulties in times of economic recession. We all know of the limitations on the availability of finance for housebuilding, and of the limitations on demand. I emphasise that the most extensive efforts have been made to ensure that this order is a product of very thorough consultation with the House Builders Federation, which was engaged in the early stages of scrutiny by the Assembly committee. The CBI also has made a contribution to this.

I will add another obvious point, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, will appreciate. It is important that we are reassured about the necessary consultation, but there are further stages to go. The Assembly has to operate the competence and I have not the slightest doubt that it will be extremely thorough in its discussions before this goes ahead. It will be against the background to which the noble Lord was right to draw our attention. Anything that imposes additional costs presents an issue: 1 per cent to 2 per cent is not insignificant.

However, if one looks at the building industry and the issues with regard to demand, other, much greater factors relate to the level of housebuilding at the present time. This is a marginal additional cost, on which it will be for the Welsh Assembly eventually to take a view. It is likely to take the view that the enhanced security that it provides, and the reduction in public costs if we can reduce the impact on the fire authorities, will give obvious advantages. Those advantages would be not just to the private sector, the industry and the purchaser, but also to the public purse.

I do not think that the issue has been overtaken by events. Certainly, when the Welsh Assembly Government finally come to deliberate on these matters, they will take account of the current circumstances. I hope that those then obtaining will be somewhat more advantageous than they are at this particularly bleak time. As the noble Lord will already have appreciated, there are indications that the Welsh economy, like the British economy as a whole, is emerging out of recession, which will be a great stimulus to housebuilding.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that the upside of this LCO is that it will involve the saving of lives. In the notes, there is a graphic statement that 20 people lose their lives to fire each year in Wales, and that about 80 per cent of fire-related deaths and injuries occur in the home. This will save life and grief to families. For the fact that it is going through, Ann Jones deserves a lot of praise. We are very happy to support the LCO.

My Lords, I did not doubt that the deftness of the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, would enable him to contribute to our deliberations, and I am grateful that his contribution is positive. No doubt it was even more positive in the light of the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked, which I hope that I have answered satisfactorily. On that rising note, I beg to move.

Perhaps I may formally declare an interest and apologise for forgetting to do so earlier. I have been a member of the National House-Building Council for six years.

My Lords, I do not think that anyone doubted the noble Lord’s general interest, but it is good of him and appropriate that he should identify the particular interest.

Motion agreed.