Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, in bringing forward this statutory instrument the Government are seeking to restore the long-established principle that responsibility for enforcing fire safety regulations across the whole of the Crown’s custodial and detention estate should lie with those who have been appointed or authorised as Crown inspectors by Ministers in England and in Wales. At present, Crown inspectors in England and Wales are not the enforcing authorities for fire safety in the small number—about 7%—of custodial and detention premises where the Government have contracted out the provision of services to private providers.
That this was a significant issue became apparent in 2016 when responsibility for Crown inspectors in England transferred to the Home Office. Crown inspectors, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice instigated an investigation into the contractual arrangements in place for the provision of custodial or detention operations. As a result of this detailed review of contracts and ownership arrangements, it became clear that a number of contractual arrangements had been put in place for the operation of these premises, which had had the effect of transferring ownership or occupation for the purposes of the fire safety order away from the relevant Crown departments to private companies. Where this has happened, the responsibility for enforcing compliance with fire safety regulation has similarly been transferred away from our dedicated teams of Crown inspectors, and lies instead with the individual local fire and rescue authorities in which the relevant premises are located. This is not what was intended when the fire safety order was enacted in October 2006.
At that time, the then Government were clear that, irrespective of any contractual arrangements that were in place with the private sector for the provision of services, they wanted Crown inspectors to be the sole enforcing authorities in these types of premises. Indeed, they went so far as to spell this out in the guidance on enforcement that they published, to which all those with enforcement responsibilities under the fire safety order are required to have regard.
Now we are aware that the policy intent no longer aligns with the law, we want to rectify the position and ensure that the original policy of Crown inspectors inspecting, and where necessary enforcing, fire safety regulation across the whole of the Government’s custodial estate is re-established. We want to ensure that there is absolute clarity, both now and in the future, about the scope of enforcement responsibilities for the fire and rescue authorities and the Crown inspectors. This order therefore amends article 25 of the fire safety order to set out specific legal definitions of the full range of custodial premises for which the Crown inspectors are to be responsible. These will be established beyond doubt and will not, as is currently the case, be contingent on the often complex contractual leasing or ownership arrangements that may now be in place. Essentially, this order delivers through legislation the clarity that was intended by the 2007 policy guidance on enforcement.
It is the Government’s intention, shared by our counterparts in Wales, for there to be a single national organisation in each of our areas of jurisdiction: an organisation charged with the responsibility and invested with the specific skills and expertise necessary to provide three key things.
First, we want Ministers and relevant departments—which of course have the ultimate responsibility for fire safety in these types of custodial and detention premises—to benefit from the strategic oversight of fire safety compliance across the whole of the Crown’s custodial estate that is available where a single national body is in place. Secondly, we want there to be a clear and easily accessible route established for ensuring that any concerns relating to fire safety in our custodial estate can be raised immediately and addressed promptly by those with day-to-day responsibilities for fire safety management. Where reluctance or poor communication militates against appropriate action, we want an immediate escalation mechanism—direct to Ministers, if necessary—to be in place and delivered through our national fire and rescue advisers. In England, this means the Chief Inspector of the Crown Premises Fire Inspection Group. In Wales, as in Scotland, it means the Welsh Government’s Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser. Thirdly, we want a dedicated cadre of fire safety inspecting officers, each with the necessary training, maintained and regularly updated, to operate safely and effectively in this unique type of premises, where the risk to life in the event of a fire is generally high.
The order will re-establish robust national arrangements across all of the Government’s custodial estate. As such, it will specify the full range of custodial premises for which the Government are responsible, providing absolute clarity on the scope of the Crown’s responsibility for inspection and enforcement. This will ensure that our dedicated team of experienced Crown inspectors are clear that they have the powers to ensure that appropriate fire safety standards are in place to protect the lives of those living in, working on or visiting the Government’s custodial or detention estate. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing the order. I heard from what she said that this anomaly, whereby privately run prisons and custodial premises were not being inspected by national inspectors, was stumbled across when responsibility for Crown inspectors was transferred from the Ministry of Justice to the Home Office. Will she confirm that that is the case, and is it not a little worrying? How long might it have continued if that transfer had not taken place? Clearly, it is very important to have consistency across all privately run prisons and other places of detention, rather than to have the potential for different standards being applied by local fire and rescue services. On that basis, we support the order.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I am very happy to support the order before the Grand Committee. It is certainly very sensible to have the experts in fire safety and security to be looking after the whole of the estate. I am very happy to support it.
I have one query; it is a little disappointing—I refer to page 5 of the impact assessment at paragraph 1.9. I am surprised that we still have this ridiculous “one in, three out” rule. It does not apply here because the Government have clearly tested it against that ridiculous rule. It is an example of the worst kind of ideological, political dogma. You would have thought, in the aftermath of a tragedy such as Grenfell, we would not be using it, but clearly the Government still are. I hope that any regulation is in force at any time because it is necessary and proper. I cannot believe we still have this arbitrary rule. It is a matter of much regret, which I will probably take up elsewhere. Other than that, I am very happy to support the order, but I was surprised to see this when I read through the papers this morning.
I acknowledge the frustration of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, but first the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said that we “stumbled across” this issue. Fire and rescue services were inspecting private prisons during the said period. Responsibility for Crown inspectors transferred from MHCLG in January 2016, but, going back, when the regulatory reform order was implemented in October 2006 the then Government issued statutory guidance to all those bodies that had a duty to enforce its provisions in the range of premises to which it applies. The guidance, to which all enforcing authorities are required to have regard, specifically addressed the issue of enforcement in the custodial estate. As it made clear:
“For the avoidance of doubt all civilian prisons, young offender institutions, immigration detention, holding or removal centres, court custody suites, customs and excise detention areas are the responsibility of the Fire Inspectors of the Crown Premises Inspections Group regardless of whether they are operated by the relevant Government department or contracted out”.
But as we know, what the law actually says does not always align with the policy intent, no matter how sound the principles are on which it is based. The principles are sound, as they were in 2007 when the guidance was issued, and they remain so. I hope that the statutory instrument before the Committee clarifies the situation and I beg to move.