Motion to Approve
That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16 March be approved.
Relevant documents: 1st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, 2nd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (Special attention drawn to the instrument)
My Lords, the draft regulations will require private sector landlords, from 1 October 2015, to have at least one smoke alarm installed on every storey of their rental property which is used as living accommodation, and a carbon monoxide alarm in any room used as living accommodation where solid fuel is used. After that, the landlord must make sure that the alarms are in working order at the start of each new tenancy. The regulations have been brought before this House because the Government want to increase the safety of private sector tenants. Setting a minimum standard for the testing and installation of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms will reduce the risks that tenants face from fire and carbon monoxide poisoning in the home. We estimate that the new regulations will save 26 lives and nearly 700 injuries per year.
Local authorities will be responsible for enforcing the regulations. An authority will be required to issue a remedial notice to a landlord if they have reasonable grounds to believe that they are in breach. If the landlord fails to comply with the notice the local housing authority must, if the occupier consents, arrange the necessary action to ensure that the property is compliant. The local authority can also levy a civil penalty charge of up to £5,000 on the landlord. The levying of a penalty by a local authority is a last resort in the enforcement process. The landlord will have 28 days to achieve compliance where a remedial notice is served. If they comply within that period, no fine can be levied. The regulations aim to save lives and not catch landlords out.
I want to respond to concerns about a lack of publicity to make landlords aware of the regulations coming into force. The report by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee asked the department to raise awareness of the new draft regulations in good time for the planned commencement date of 1 October 2015. We have done this. The regulations were announced in two departmental press releases in March, giving more than six months’ notice before the planned commencement date. A comprehensive awareness campaign about the regulations, co-ordinated by the Chief Fire Officers Association, also ran from May to July and is estimated to have reached more than 8 million people. All 46 fire and rescue authorities raised awareness of free alarms available for distribution to landlords through various methods such as press releases, information on their websites and social media.
The department also published two explanatory booklets, one for landlords and one for local authorities, on the GOV.UK website on 4 September to provide helpful information to landlords in understanding and complying with the regulations. Nothing new is introduced; the requirements of the draft regulations are simply explained. I acknowledge that the timing of the parliamentary debates means that there is a short period between scrutiny and the regulations coming into force but the debates as scheduled are the earliest allowed by the parliamentary timetable.
Successive Governments and local fire and rescue authorities have made extensive use of non-regulatory approaches to increase the uptake of smoke alarms, including a series of highly effective public campaigns, such as “Fire Kills”, and home fire safety checks. I would add here that the “Alarms4Life” campaign stated the date as being in October. However, private rented sector tenants remain less likely to be protected by a working smoke alarm than any other tenants. The department has also piloted alternatives to regulative approaches to increase the installation of carbon monoxide alarms. However, there are still high-risk properties without these alarms installed.
The majority of landlords act responsibly and protect their tenants with working alarms. However, a minority of private sector landlords have proved resistant to safety advice and recommended best practice. That is why the Government decided that it was necessary to introduce the draft regulations to protect the tenants of these landlords. A regulatory approach to the installation of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms was discussed as part of the Government’s discussion paper, Review of Property Conditions in the Private Rented Sector, and the majority of responses were in favour. The regulations aim to increase the safety of tenants by ensuring that they are not subject to death, poisoning or injury by a lack of smoke or carbon monoxide warning alarms. The Government have funded local fire and rescue authorities to purchase a number of alarms for free distribution to landlords, encouraging all landlords to act responsibly towards their tenants as well as helping them comply with the regulations.
At this point, perhaps I might correct a comment that I made in the previous debate on a question about Airbnb from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. I said that the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 did not apply to Airbnb accommodation. The order applies to houses or flats where the premises are not occupied as a private dwelling; therefore, in the case of Airbnb, we consider that the order would apply during the period when paying guests are staying. I therefore apologise that that comment was misleading. I spoke to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, earlier and I will be writing to him to clarify this in more detail. I will make arrangements to place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House, which will ensure that this correction is recorded.
The Government are committed to creating a bigger and better private rented sector. The regulations will set a new benchmark for alarm installation in private sector properties, making tenants safer and increasing property standards while still supporting good landlords by not overregulating and stifling the sector with unnecessary red tape. The regulations prove the Government’s commitment to continue improvement and create a private rented sector that works for everyone, and I commend them to the House.
My Lords, in speaking to this statutory instrument, I first declare an interest in that I have residential properties which are let in the village that I live in in Suffolk, and the regulations will apply to them. That is in the Register of Lords’ Interests.
I got involved in this last Monday, when I suddenly realised, because I was told, that this statutory instrument was to be brought into full force on 1 October this year. I heard about it because the Government had issued a guidance note on how it would all work on 4 September, the Friday before, which was three weeks before the regulations were due to come into force. In a question and answer section, the guidance note states:
“Is there a ‘grace’ period for landlords?”
The reply is:
“If the regulations are approved, landlords are expected to be compliant from 1 October 2015 when the regulations will come into force. There will be no grace period after this date to install the required alarms”.
That is a pretty extraordinary statement considering that it was made such a short time before the regulations come into force.
My noble friend has made a lot of how everybody knew about the regulations, saying that there has been a great deal of publicity. My humble queries last Monday have produced a huge response. The British Property Federation points out that the regulations cover 4.4 million properties, but landlords are being asked to implement them in three weeks. Quite out of the blue, I received an email dated 9 September from British Gas in response to the Minister’s point about the effectiveness of the Government’s consultation. It states that,
“these Regulations are intended to come into force on the 1st October, without a grace period and with immediate effect. At British Gas, we are concerned that levels of awareness of the new regulations are currently very low, and that landlords may continue to unwittingly put their tenants’ lives at risk by not being aware of the new legislation … We recently conducted research with nearly 1,000 landlords in England through our long-term partnership with the housing charity Shelter, and found that 59% of landlords are not aware that these Regulations are due to come into force on the 1st October”.
That is pretty good evidence. As a result, there have been many applications to delay not necessarily bringing the order into force, but when it has to be complied with.
I say straight away—probably no one in the House would disagree—that we all think that the regulations are very sensible. They are needed. They should apply to all let properties—and probably, eventually, all owner-occupied properties as well. The intention is perfectly sound. I am complaining about the astonishing level of bad government in the way in which this has been put forward. It is very bad administration: Whitehall at its worst.
After I had made my comments on Monday, my noble friend very kindly invited me to see her in her department. I went with interest and expectation, but it was very unclear what the invitation was for, because she had nothing to tell me except that the Government intended to bring the regulations into force. What she said, interestingly—this was on Wednesday last week—was that she was going to lay the order that night in the Chamber. Actually, when I got back here, I found that that was not true and that the usual channels had attempted to inform her of that, but the message had not got through. That is another example which raises pretty good questions about the administration of her department—no fault of hers; I acquit her completely of that.
Then the decision was made to lay the order today. Interestingly, there was suddenly an ad hoc committee in the House of Commons, which met at 4.30 this afternoon to consider the regulations—an ad hoc committee, not a standing committee. I went along. It was very interesting. It did not take very long; the whole thing was dealt with in seven minutes, four minutes of which was taken by my honourable friend Mr Brandon Lewis, the housing Minister. I should say that Mr Lewis was kind enough to ring me over the weekend to say that he understood that I had a problem with the regulations, so I explained in some detail what it was. He undertook to consider it, which I thought was rather encouraging. Perhaps one should never be encouraged by undertakings. Anyway, he put the order forward. The opposition spokesperson got up and said how important the regulations are, as I have just done, and how sad it was that so many people die from carbon monoxide poisoning. There was not a squeak from anyone else. Immediately, the question was put, up everybody jumped up and off they went. That was the procedure in the House of Commons.
One of our functions in this House is to see that government is properly carried out and that legislation is sound, properly thought through and brought through in such a way that it can be properly implemented. A number of questions have been raised about the regulations which I will not mention now, because it would take too long. All I say is that there is far from being happiness and agreement that the Government have run the thing properly.
I shall cite three different bodies. The British Property Federation states that the compliance date should be postponed until April 2016. The Association of Residential Letting Agents, responsible for 1.42 million properties, states:
“It is not possible to undertake this amount of work before the regulations come into force”,
“all existing tenancies should be allowed to have until 1st January 2016 to comply”.
It also raises the point, which seems to me sound, that to have to inspect on the day a new tenancy is formed is rather impractical. An organisation called Your Move said that the matter was so unclear that,
“We had mistakenly thought the legislation applied to new tenancies only”.
I may say that the CLA—of which I am a member, incidentally—thought the same, and has asked for it to apply to new tenancies from 1 October, but from 1 April 2016 for existing tenancies.
The way in which this has been handled is thoroughly unsatisfactory. It is not good government. This Government have a responsibility not just for working out the right policies but for doing so in a proper way. It is not being done in a proper way, and that is lamentable.
My Lords, I hate having to rise to criticise my Ministers on the Front Bench, particularly the noble Baroness who is to reply to this debate. She has a well-deserved reputation for being extremely knowledgeable, not least about local government, and for dealing very well with matters. However, she has not been at her best in handling this business.
My noble friend the Minister started very eloquently this time on the way that information had been given to the fire authorities and how apparently they have rushed round the country telling tenants what they should and should not do. In the last debate in Grand Committee, I took my brief from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and asked a number of very specific questions about the points that that committee made. The Minister did not answer one of those questions. Indeed, she did not even refer to the fact that I had made a speech at all. I had become a sort of non-person. I would gently say to her that it is usually a mistake when one of your colleagues makes a speech not to at least acknowledge he has done so, even if you are unable to give convincing answers to the questions. I was reminded earlier this evening that Lord Whitelaw always used to brief new Ministers and say, “Even if you haven’t a clue what the answer is, refer to the speech they made and then most Members will be reasonably satisfied”.
Slightly by chance later in the proceedings, partly as the result of questions from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, on the other Benches and someone else, we were told:
“We have decided to issue new guidance in the form of explanatory booklets, one for local authorities and one for landlords. We also want to update How to Rent”.—[Official Report, 7/9/15; col. GC 177.]
How to Rent was the first of four documents referred to by the Secondary Legislation Committee, all of which it said needed revision. The situation when we met last Monday on these regulations, which launched in March and which the department had the whole summer to deal with, was that the department was going to revise and issue guidance and all these things. We are now told that it has been informing the fire brigade, which has been rushing round telling everyone, although my noble friend Lord Marlesford suggested that that was less than entirely accurate. It does not seem that we are getting on quite as we should or that this is the way to proceed. In the course of my speech, when I was told that key stakeholders had been informed, my noble friend the Minister said:
“A key stakeholder is someone who has a stake or interest in the regulation or legislation at hand”.—[Official Report, 7/9/15; col. GC 176.]
I am not sure that that took us much further forward.
I came into the House earlier today and picked up a document I had not read before. I am not sure whether it was on the table in the Grand Committee when I came in last Monday. It is the second report of the 2015-16 Session of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. In her very brief introductory speech last time, my noble friend made a reference to one of the reports of that important committee. She said that the Government would follow the recommendation that a review clause should be added to the policy. A commitment was given that a review clause would be introduced in due course. However, that was only one of five committee reports outlined in paragraphs 6.1 to 6.11 of the Joint Committee document, covering nearly three pages, which identified,
“doubtful vires, defective drafting and unexpectedly limited use of powers”.
None of those points has been dealt with at all by the Government. We come here this evening and that very important Joint Committee has not even been mentioned by the Government, except on one point. That does not seem an acceptable way to do business.
My noble friend in her previous speech talked several times in terms of rogue and unscrupulous landlords, implying that anyone who did not have the right equipment in their flats and properties fitted that category. In the many years before I became a Cabinet Minister, I was a managing director of Lloyd’s insurance-broking firm, so I take a certain amount of interest in risk management. I have taken a good deal of care in the placing in three homes of the fire and other alarms in places that I think appropriate in the circumstances of those buildings. I know from having created smoke situations accidentally on at least two occasions that they work rather well. However, I have a feeling that none of them would meet the requirements of these regulations, which are very specific. Because you have not got things exactly right, that does not mean you are a rogue landlord. Rather, we are talking about someone who had not been necessarily informed of the regulations being introduced at very short notice.
My noble friend said today that the timetable was the earliest Parliament could have dealt with the matter. I cannot help observing that when the regulations were first tabled in March, no one knew that the House of Lords would be sitting in September. It is an unusual circumstance—I am glad to say, seeing the Chief Whip in his place. We do not normally sit in September; it is only because this is the beginning of a new Session and the Government want to get on with their urgent new business that we are.
Presumably what the Government would have done if we had not sat in September is to have brought forward these regulations when the House came back—probably about 11 October—and amended them to come into effect towards the end of the year. That is what they should do now in the face of a quite indefensible failure of administration by the department. It is not any good simply to say that the fire brigade has been telling everyone, when we now know that the promises given by the Government to Select Committees —important committees—have not been met or dealt with at all.
This is not the way to govern properly. I was eight years in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet and I can just imagine what she would have said had I been responsible in such a situation. She would have summoned me, and I can imagine the words that would have been uttered. It is no good saying that the Minister may have been badly briefed or that officials should have done this. Ministers are responsible for what goes on in their departments. It is the Government who are responsible if inadequate or inappropriate action is taken in bringing forward legislation.
I am well aware that—at this hour of the night and with a small House—if we divide, the very efficient and competent Chief Whip will summon from their offices and desks an army of Ministers and supporters of the Government. There are not many outside supporters of the Government left in the House, but they will be summoned to see the Government’s business through and therefore we will be defeated. If that is the way they get their business, they should not be satisfied in getting it that way. They should take this away and do what they would have had to do if we had not had a September sitting—bring the whole thing back and handle it properly in the autumn.
My Lords, I declare my housing and property interests as on the register. Like everyone else, I think this is an excellent measure. We need it, it is a good thing and we need to get on with it as fast as possible. It is an awful shame that the DCLG, the front-line department here, has messed up the public relations around this—something that is well worth while and well worth having—quite badly. I have had the various missives from the British Property Federation, the CLA and others, and people are extremely angry and upset. How you can make people angry and upset about a respectable, sensible thing rather escapes me.
The timing is not as catastrophic as it may appear. I have also heard from the Chief Fire Officers Association, which has been engaged in these things for some time, that it has given out 447,000 free smoke alarms and 53,000 carbon monoxide alarms to private landlords. The association has obviously been busy—each of those is worth about £20, so there have been some goodies out there. But, more importantly, on timing, the association says in its note to me that it knows there is concern about the late introduction of these regulations, which are due to commence on 1 October. But under the process described in the draft statutory instrument, if the enforcing authority, the fire officer, becomes aware that a landlord is in breach of their duties—they will not often become aware very rapidly, I suspect—the first step is to issue a remedial notice and allow 28 days for remedial action. However, in reality, when a tenant raises the issue with a landlord, usually the landlord will do something straightaway. If you can fix the problem for £20, not many landlords will wait around.
But if the landlord has done nothing and the 28-day period has followed the visit from a fire officer, if the fire officer finds the landlord is still in breach of the duty they can take action to ensure the alarms are fitted. Ultimately, they can impose a penalty charge, which is quite a long-winded process, I do not think it will be an emergency situation. I feel we can probably live with that one, even though it has clearly been incredibly badly handled.
I was more impressed by the British Property Federation raising the question of fire alarms in mansion blocks—blocks of flats where the regulations state that the landlord must test the alarm on the first day of a new tenancy. When someone moves in, in theory, the landlord—or more likely the agent—would test whether the alarm was working on that day. These alarms in the mansion blocks are communal alarms that ring throughout the building. If you have a block with tenants turning over quite regularly and the darn thing going off every time there is a new tenancy, bureaucracy is getting a little out of hand. Quite a lot of these alarms also ring at the fire station or the police station or both. This can all be overdone. I would like some reassurance that these regulations will not be imposed willy-nilly, across the piece, in exactly the same way for the lonely one-off house or the mansion block.
I chair the Property Ombudsman, which receives complaints from landlords as well as tenants about agents. I have talked to a couple of agents about their current experiences. Your Lordships may be interested to hear how people who are running these places feel about these matters. The agents I spoke to said that in most cases landlords are already fitting fire alarms, so this is not a big deal. They think that there will be cases where an alarm will have to be fitted on every floor in a three-bedroomed house, which the landlord might not have done. They will do it. They will take the screwdriver and put in the new alarm. An agent explained to me that you want to visit your properties every six months, not every year. Some landlords and agents will go on an annual basis, but every six months is better because batteries are always running out. If a battery starts bleeping because it is getting low, tenants tend to take the battery out because it is so irritating, but that disables the system, which is not clever. The agents I spoke to believe that they can cope. This is a good measure. If only the DCLG had got its act together and put it out in a sensible way, we would all have been very happy tonight.
My Lords, I fully support what these regulations are trying to achieve. These alarms save lives. From my point of view as a landlord, I am confident that I already comply with smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms where properties have gas. However, I am less confident with having carbon monoxide alarms in properties in Norfolk which have no gas, although they have open fireplaces and wood burners. I always thought that alarms were not necessary for fireplaces because when a fire is lit the air and smoke are drawn up the chimney and away. Obviously, following these regulations, I will need to fit carbon monoxide alarms there, too.
I am only too well aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide. A good friend of mine is now bringing up his nephews and nieces following the death of their parents because of carbon monoxide poisoning. They had no alarm. Also, last winter I was woken in the middle of the night in London by our carbon monoxide alarm. I jumped out of bed, turned off the gas and opened all the windows. Happily I am here to tell the tale, but it was quite scary at the time.
I support these measures, but I have three concerns about the practicalities of putting these measures in place. First, how will the Government make landlords aware of these regulations? I understand the Government have already informed local authorities, fire stations, letting agencies and various landlord associations but, disappointingly, as my noble friend Lord Marlesford said, 60% of landlords do not know of the existence of the regulations and yet they have to comply by 1 October this year.
It is a great pity that local authorities do not have a register of all landlords in their area as this would make this exercise so much easier. Last June, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked an Oral Question on the private rented sector. I suggested that as all new occupants are legally obliged to complete the council tax registration form, there should be a single change to that form requiring that they give the name, address and contact details of their landlord, if appropriate. In a few years a complete list of landlords would be compiled. I raise this point again as I fully expect that when I suggested it in June it fell on stony ground. I hope this time the Minister and her department will give this suggestion serious consideration.
I go back to the question of how the Government intend to inform landlords of these regulations. For my part, nobody, not the local authority, the fire station or anybody else, has contacted me about this. I know about it only as a Member of this House.
Secondly, even if a landlord knows about these regulations, I seriously doubt that logistically it is possible for him to fit them before l October. I can imagine a landlord going to a supplier saying he would like 100 smoke alarms and 200 carbon monoxide alarms only to be told that there are only half a dozen of each in stock and that other suppliers up and down the country are in the same boat. When eventually he gets the right number of alarms, he will then need to find a professional to fit them only to be told to join the queue, which may be weeks or months long.
Thirdly, the landlord may have problems with access to his properties. Although I have keys to all my properties, I certainly would not enter without contacting the tenant first. It could take larger landlords weeks before they have access to all their properties, just to see whether those properties have the requisite number of alarms. The landlord then has to acquire the alarms and arrange for them to be fitted before he is compliant with these regulations, all before 1 October, but that could take weeks if not months.
So I fully support what the Government are trying to achieve with these regulations but I have concerns about informing landlords and the unnecessarily hasty deadline of 1 October. Why not 1 January or 1 April, for example? Regulation with excellent intentions has been spoilt by not thinking through the detail.
My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, the Minister managed to refer to me at some length, although not too long a length, in the Grand Committee debate. Perhaps smoke got in her eyes, or maybe her ears, when the noble Lord was speaking.
While I welcome the Minister’s affirmation that Airbnb properties will be covered, I was a little puzzled by her reference to fire regulations some time before the legislation—some years before; I think she said 2005. Perhaps she could clarify that, because I do not understand how or why there should be a difference in approach under different forms of legislation for those kinds of properties. It seems sensible to have a single regime for all properties at risk that are rented out wholly or in part, but that does not seem to be the case. Airbnb properties are not within the definition of properties affected by these regulations; they may be covered, but I invite the Government to consider whether a single regime would make more sense.
The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, anticipated the points that I was going to make about the report of the joint delegated legislation committee. Both of us, and perhaps other noble Lords, will be interested in the Minister’s reply in that regard. She did not mention the first report of your Lordships’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which noted in paragraph 7:
“The Department has said that it is working with lettings agents, landlord representative bodies”,
and so on,
“to publicise the requirements over the six months from March 2015. It will be important that the Department secures effective publicity for the new requirements in good time for the date”.
In replying to the debate in Grand Committee, the Minister said that How to Rent, the document giving advice to tenants,
“may well be updated in terms of giving tenants more advice … We also want to update How to Rent, as I have just said … in time for 1 October 2015”.—[Official Report, 7/9/15; col. GC177.]
I take it that that has happened, but perhaps she would confirm that it has been updated. Could she also confirm that it has been distributed and, if so, to whom and by what means? It is unlikely that the department actually knows which properties are rented and where these matters are to be delivered, so what form has that publicity taken? What efforts are the Government making to test whether the methods of delivery have been efficacious? After all, we are only a couple of weeks away from the implementation date. There are clear issues there.
Issues have been raised by outside organisations, some of which we have already heard about. I had a letter—I do not know whether other noble Lords have had it—from the vice-president of the Association of Residential Letting Agents. She also serves as a board director on the National Federation of Property Professionals and has worked for a long time in this sector. She made a number of points. One concerned the timeframe for implementing the legislation, which others of your Lordships have mentioned. The second concerned a deadline for recording that detectors are in working order. At the moment the guidance from the department says that that check has to be made on the first day of the tenancy, irrespective of whether the tenant moves in on that date or later. That, she says, is very impractical, and I can understand why. She recommends that recording that the detectors are in working order should be carried out at a time leading up to the start date and preferably prior to that date so that any repairs or improvements can be made in good time.
She raises a third point about the need to check the detector to confirm that it is in working order. I confess to having no expertise at all in these matters— I am clearly guided by her. However, it appears that some of the units that have already been installed—sealed lithium units, I gather—are recommended to be used for 10 years. To comply with the new legislation, the agent or owner can record the time and date of the installation. That is certainly true, but who is to know whether the units have been installed before, what state they are in and whether they should be checked. Therefore, there seem to be practical difficulties.
She also makes the recommendation that further advice be provided by the fire service regarding methods of checking the working order of any smoke detector. That is another aspect of publicity that needs to be given to landlords, and, again, I invite the Minister to indicate whether such advice will be made available.
We are all anxious that the regulations are implemented and that safety for tenants or other occupiers should be enhanced. Given the admittedly restricted reach of these regulations, to which I referred in Grand Committee and which the noble Baroness acknowledged with the communication that there could be further regulation, can she say when such regulations might be prepared? She has undoubtedly been put in a difficult position by the department. In our former capacity as leaders of councils, frankly, she and I would have been outraged by the inadequacy of the service provided in this case by those responsible for drafting the regulations.
I refer again to the need for publicity not just for landlords but for tenants to ensure that they contact their landlords to carry out the check. Given that it is impossible for the department to contact tenants individually, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that such publicity is given through the media—the print media, the broadcast media and social media for that matter—urging tenants to ensure that their landlords are called upon to check, first, that there is actual provision and, secondly, that the provision is effective? I am sure that local authorities—I declare my interest as honorary vice-president of the LGA—would be very willing to promote publicity in that respect. However, we are now only a couple of weeks away from the proposed start date and a degree of urgency is required. Obviously it will take time for all the necessary work to be carried out but surely it is imperative that tenants are aware of the requirement and of the need for them, in turn, to chase up their landlords to provide the appropriate safety measures if they have not begun to take action.
My Lords, I start by declaring my interest as president of RoSPA. I caught up with these regulations only this afternoon but was moved to make a few comments on them because in times past I had some ministerial responsibility in this area. I do not propose to dwell on the process and timing or on some of the practicalities that have been raised. It seems to me that these have already been extensively covered by noble Lords.
I want to pick up on one or two points. Certainly, the substance of these regulations should be welcomed, as far as they go, although they do not go all that far. I hope that we all have common cause in supporting all measures that can reduce the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning, and the fatalities and illness that run from that. I am also sure that the Minister will have met, on more than one occasion, the campaigning groups that are very much focused on this area. The origin of their focus is almost inevitably that there has been some tragedy in their family or someone they know, which has motivated those groups to campaign. It is therefore important when we debate these issues that we are mindful of their position, too.
I have one or two points of detail. The regulations make reference to smoke alarms or carbon monoxide alarms being “equipped”. Perhaps the noble Baroness will say precisely what is meant by that. The building regulations for smoke alarms, as I understand them, require them to be hardwired. I am not sure that that flows in respect of these regulations. Clearly, if carbon monoxide detectors are not hardwired, they can readily go walkabout.
The capacity of local authorities to enforce is also an issue. The paperwork we have makes reference to discussion as to whether and how this fits with the doctrine of new burdens, and whether local authorities are going to be compensated, and to what extent, in respect of what is required of authorities in all this.
The regulations have a range of exclusions; I am thinking of paragraphs 2 to 7, which make exclusions for one reason or another because the provisions are covered in other ways. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that those exclusions are provided for in other regulations, such as the building regulations.
I wish to raise one point in particular. I refer to the impact assessment at the end of page 5, where it is stated:
“Therefore, any future homes built, or retrofitted with solid fuel installations, would be captured by existing building regulations … with regard to a Carbon monoxide alarm being installed. These regulations will not cover domestic gas appliances as the risk of Carbon monoxide poisoning is very low as a result of the safety features required to be incorporated into the appliance by Gas Appliances (Safety) Regulations … which first took effect on 6th April 1992. Additionally landlords are already required to carry out an annual gas safety check which should identify any unsafe gas appliances”.
I wonder how safe those assertions are. The substance of a lot of the campaigning is that carbon monoxide arising from gas appliances is very much at the heart of the issue that we are dealing with. Although there are mandatory annual checks, the problem is that those premises that are likely to have rogue landlords or landlords who do not care about compliance are more likely not to be subject to annual inspections. That is not a sufficient safeguard.
Finally, a number of points on the range of publicity and awareness-raising have been made, including by my noble friend Lord Beecham, and we have heard from the Chief Fire Officers Association about some of the work that has gone on. Can the Minister tell us about the efforts that the energy companies are making in all this? It was always a bone of contention as to whether they would help to fund campaigns and provide carbon monoxide detectors in particular. Can we have an update on the Gas Safe charities, which campaigned and raised awareness in all this? There used to be two; one arose from the old CORGI organisation, which was replaced by the Gas Safe Register. Way back, there was the intention that these organisations should be merged to create a better process. I am not sure whether that ever happened or what the current position is. It would be helpful to have an update on that in writing, if not this evening.
The noble Lord referred to energy companies. I wonder whether he agrees that they should be very much part of the publicity campaign. They are sending bills out after all, online or on paper, and it may well be useful to ask them—to demand of them, in fact—to incorporate some publicity in this respect.
My Lords, I very much agree with what my noble friend has said. He has prompted me on one other point. The paperwork we have refers to campaigns that have taken place in various areas. A very effective campaign was undertaken in Liverpool among students. It is often students who are subject to renting the grottiest property around because that is all that they can afford. Working through the students’ union and the university was an effective way of raising awareness.
My Lords, we come back to a very interesting debate about these regulations and the process used by the Minister’s department. I declare an interest as an adviser to Consumer Safety International and a patron of CO-Gas Safety.
I very much endorse the remarks of my noble friend Lord McKenzie, who speaks with great experience due to his presidency of RoSPA and as a distinguished Minister with responsibility for health and safety in the previous Labour Government.
Let me say at once that we on the opposition Benches support the regulations. Some practical, technical details have been raised tonight, to which I hope the Minister will be able to respond. However, as a matter of principle, we support the regulations. But they are, of course, confined to the private rented sector. I repeat again the point that I made last week: when it comes to carbon monoxide poisoning, we know that the work of CO-Gas Safety shows that far more deaths occur in owner-occupied homes than in the private rented sector.
We also know that there are issues about British tourists going to other parts of Europe, where the provisions are even worse than in this country. We need to recognise that these regulations deal only with a very small part of the sector.
The second issue is clearly the way in which the Minister’s department publicised the existence of the regulations for those who need to know. It is very hard to argue with noble Lords who feel that the department’s work has not been up to the standard that we should expect. I suspect some of that is due to the swingeing cuts that the Government have made in the number of civil servants. Indeed, the disparaging remarks that some Ministers made about civil servants clearly did not help morale in government departments. I am sure the Minister would agree that, if civil servants and the resources spent in relation to government departments are continually undermined, it will have an impact. I suggest that we see that impact here. It is quite clear that there was no budget for getting the message across to the sector and it instead relied on press releases. Face it: no one reads press releases anymore. It is such an old-fashioned approach to communication —certainly journalists never read them. Relying on press releases and fire officers is simply not good enough.
Clearly, the regulations will go through, and so this will come into law on 1 October. I suggest that the Minister could give noble Lords a great deal of reassurance if she were to say that, on reflection, her department will now engage in a widespread publicity campaign. I think she owes it to your Lordships’ House for her department to make amends. The only way I think it can make amends is to do the job that it should have done in the first place.
I also take the point raised by my noble friend Lord Beecham that it is not just about publicity among landlords but about publicity among tenants. Surely there are ways in which tenants can be informed. His suggestion of using bills and the work of the energy companies is an excellent example. I think that we could leave your Lordships’ House tonight feeling that we have done the proper job of scrutiny—which does not seem to have taken place in the other place to judge by the noble Lord’s report of that this afternoon—if the Minister were to say that she recognised that the department did not do the right job but is now going to do it.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate this evening. Perhaps I may first thank my noble friend Lord Crickhowell, because if I do not thank him now I may well forget, but I will refer to his comments in due course. I apologise to him for what happened the other day. I never knowingly omit noble Lords; I try to answer everybody’s questions, but on that occasion I failed.
My noble friend Lord Marlesford talked about the date of 4 September—in fact, many noble Lords referred to it. In his area in the eastern region, I understand a newsletter went out at the end of August. I am not saying that he has seen it, but I know that landlords associations up and down the country were making their members aware. Of course, if you are not a member of the landlords association you may well not have seen it, but it was making landlords aware from the end of August.
My noble friend talked also about the lack of a grace period. There is no statutory requirement to include a grace period. It is government policy that regulatory measures affecting businesses are brought into force on a common commencement date, which is usually either 6 April or 1 October, to help businesses plan for new regulations. The Government believe that it is important to enforce the regulations as soon as possible to help to protect the lives of private sector tenants. A considerable period has been allowed for landlords to prepare for the new duties—as I said, the regulations were laid in draft back in March.
There is also in effect a grace period, because where a landlord is in breach—the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to this—they will have 28 days to comply with a remedial notice. If they do so, the local housing authority may not impose a penalty charge.
My Lords, to get this straight, is my noble friend the Minister saying, in effect, that landlords may ignore this regulation until such time as the health and safety officer or the housing officer gets round to feeling their collar because they have been reported by, let us say, their tenant and that, even then, they still have 28 days to comply? The noble Lords, Lord Beecham and Lord Hunt, talked about publicity for tenants because, without it, the possibility of a tenant knowing about this regulation is remote. Therefore, a landlord would be quite unlucky to have a tenant who knew about it, let alone reported non-compliance. It is just not going to happen in sufficient numbers to achieve what the regulation is seeking.
My Lords, the Minister said in respect of the 28 days that a local housing authority “may not” fine. Could that be changed to “will not”? Would a landlord have a period of grace of 28 days after receiving a notification that they were not complying?
My Lords, I hope that I can clarify that, in effect, the grace period means that the landlord has 28 days to comply after the local authority has been notified that the landlord is not compliant. The landlord has 28 days from the issuing of a remedial notice to comply. I hope that that clarifies things.
My noble friend Lord Marlesford asked about consultation, as did my noble friend Lord Crickhowell the other day. I do not think I answered him very well so I hope that I can give a fuller response now. The Government carried out a major consultation on this and 96% of the respondents agreed that the regulations were needed. Officials from the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Chief Fire Officers Association and local fire and rescue services have been in regular contact with industry bodies such as the British Property Federation, the National Landlords Association, the Residential Landlords Association and other stakeholder groups.
The Chief Fire Officers Association, as I explained in my opening speech, ran a national and regional advertising campaign. It included newspaper adverts in regional newspapers that stated that the timing would be October. It also ran ads in the trade press highlighting the forthcoming requirements for landlords to install both smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in the private rented sector. It estimates that the campaign reached more than 8 million people.
My noble friend Lord Crickhowell talked about the JCS I adverse report on the regulations. The department considered each of the committee’s concerns in great depth and acknowledged the error of not including a review clause. It committed to adding one at the earliest possible opportunity. We are grateful for the committee’s comments but believe that, with the addition of a review clause, the regulations should remain as drafted.
I am trying to reflect on what the Minister said. Is she seriously saying that the fire officers reckon that 8 million people somehow or other got notice that these regulations were going to come into force? I have great respect for the fire and rescue services, but that is frankly not believable.
My Lords, that is the information we have. I can ask them to clarify how they thought that 8 million people had received this information and write to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and other noble Lords who are taking part in the debate. I would not want information to be incorrect, but it is the information that I have.
If my noble friend believes that the British Property Federation is so happy, why on 11 September did it say that it is necessary to put back the compliance date—not necessarily the date of bringing this into force, but the compliance date—until April 2016? It is a big outfit and it is pointing out that 4.4 million properties are involved.
My Lords, I take my noble friend’s point. There have been other concerns about the timing, but as I laid out in my opening speech and as I will explain in my responses to noble Lords this evening, this is the right thing to do at this time.
My noble friend Lord Crickhowell talked about rogue landlords and my description of rogue landlords. These regulations are intended to target those very few landlords who do not have a concern for tenants’ safety or security.
I am sorry. I understand that, but I happen to have open in front of me a letter I received from one of the major letting organisations representing a vast range of people, which shows how widely misunderstood the regulations are by the professionals. Some advice may have got through, but clearly some has not. I cannot delay the House setting out all the detail, but there is a long account of all the difficulties that landlords will have, some of which were referred to in practical terms by my noble friend. It is not just the rogue landlords who are going to get this wrong. I did my best when I renewed my own tenancy last week. I took the trouble to inform my landlord and my son at the same time, so that he could let out my former principal home correctly. But this is not understood by a whole range of people. That is the difficulty here: there may be a great blanket declaration that something is being done, but it is the detail that counts.
I thank my noble friend and I will see what further publicity can be generated in the next few weeks.
On the timetable for the guidance, the booklet that we published on 4 September aims to aid landlords in understanding and complying with the regulations, and nothing new has been introduced. The requirements of the draft regulations are simply explained in that guidance and, as stated in the Explanatory Memorandum to the regulations, the Government did not intend to publish new guidance on this policy. Noble Lords referred to that last Monday. Instead we plan to use a variety of methods to publicise the instrument and the new duties to both local housing authorities and landlords. However, it was following a large volume of queries that we did decide to publish the explanatory booklet in order to help landlords.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, explained clearly the timeline of landlords being in breach and then issuing remedial notices. He also talked about testing on the first day of new tenancies for blocks of flats. In most cases a smoke alarm requires just a test button, but I appreciate that if new tenancies come in every day, it might be rather tiresome for the other tenants living in the block. If he does not mind, I will write to him in more detail about that.
My noble friend Lord Cathcart talked about the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. He relayed that story to me the other day, and it is absolutely tragic. He also mentioned the point about fireplaces. They are covered under the regulations for carbon monoxide alarms. If fireplaces are clearly not being used as working fireplaces and are blocked up, they are exempt from the requirement to have a carbon monoxide alarm. He also talked about awareness among landlords, and has discussed with me the idea of a register of landlords from the council tax forms that people receive. He has now pressed me on this three times, so I will go back to the department and discuss his suggestion. He also raised access issues. He is right to say that a request must be made to the tenant to access the property. The testing could be done on the first day of the tenancy when the inventory is being taken. Landlords or their agents tend to be busy on the first day.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, mentioned the How to Rent guide and asked whether it would be updated. It most certainly will be, and I referred to it last Monday. He talked about the practical difficulties around testing. Again, it can be done as part of the inventory on the first day of the tenancy, through either the landlord or the letting agents. He also asked whether we could expect further regulations. They will be brought forward in 2017. He then talked about publicity for tenants. I will write to him with any further information I have other than the How to Rent guide because I do not have that answer to hand. The date of 1 October is very significant because a lot of students will be moving into the private rented sector.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked whether the alarms would have to be hardwired. The answer is no. It is up to the landlord how he or she puts them in. He talked about new burdens on local authorities. We try to make them as light as possible. We spent the previous Parliament trying to undo new burdens. I referred to the nearly £4 million that fire authorities were given both for publicity and the purchase of new fire alarms and carbon monoxide alarms.
The point I was making is that we are trying to make the burden as light as possible. I will respond to the noble Lord on that.
The noble Lord asked about the exclusions and whether they would be covered in other legislation. Care homes, hospitals and hospices will be covered under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. Hostels, refuges and student halls will be treated exactly the same. The only sector that is not covered is social housing, but it is so good at its obligations to tenants that it was not an area that needed to be included in the regulations. He also asked what energy companies were doing. We could write to them and ask exactly how they are playing their part.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned that the regulations apply only to small parts of the sector. That is absolutely correct. They apply to parts of the sector that have shown the least duty of care historically to their tenants in terms of the installation of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. He talked about no budget. Of course, a £4 million budget was given to the fire authorities, but I do not know whether he was referring to other budgets such as that referred to by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, talked about a widespread publicity campaign that still needs to happen. I will certainly go back to the department to see what further work can be done, given some of the concerns expressed in the House.
Before the Minister sits down, she referred to Airbnb and indicated that those properties were covered not by these regulations but by others. Can she—if not tonight, then in correspondence—provide the details of that? I was left somewhat puzzled by that response.
I forgot to respond on that. The fire safety order of 2005 is largely aimed at non-domestic premises whereas these regulations are aimed at residential premises. I will explain this point further in my letter to the noble Lord which we will send shortly. I will clarify the Airbnb point in the letter. I hope that that satisfies the noble Lord.
House adjourned at 9.09 pm.