House of Lords
Tuesday 17 November 2020
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury.
Introduction: Lord Woodley
Anthony Jonathan Woodley, having been created Baron Woodley, of Wallasey in the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral, was introduced and made the solemn affirmation, supported by Lord Collins of Highbury and Baroness Blower, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them to no longer than 30 seconds and confined to two points. I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Children in Care: Unregulated Accommodation
My Lords, we are clear that unregulated provision for children in care and care leavers needs to be reformed. We have consulted on new measures, including banning the placement of children under the age of 16 in unregulated accommodation and introducing national standards to drive up the quality of provision for older children. We will set out our plans for reform in the Government’s response to the consultation in due course.
My Lords, the commissioner’s report is a harrowing catalogue of information from police about providers of unregulated accommodation who are affiliated with major organised crime organisations and are using staff members with criminal records to work with children. What action have the Government taken to deal with these very serious issues since they came to light?
My Lords, obviously, if criminal activity is taking place, that is a matter for the police. Unfortunately, due to Covid, the response to the consultation has been delayed, but we see that there is a need to reform this area. There are circumstances in which, according to their needs, it is best for a young person of 16 or 17 to be in this type of semi-independent or independent living accommodation. However, we recognise that it needs to be regulated, and I will take back the noble Baroness’s concerns, looking in particular at where DBS and those kinds of barring checks will sit with any response to the consultation on regulation.
My Lords, it is sad to hear that the situation is getting worse for vulnerable children placed in homes. Does the Minister agree that all forms of care should be monitored for quality standards and that all young people under the age of 18 should be classified as children under international agreements without any differentiation in being guaranteed a placement?
My Lords, the local authority has the primary statutory duty to safeguard all young people in their area up until the age of 18, or beyond under certain initiatives. I pay tribute to the enormous amount of work that goes on in our children’s homes and by many foster carers, who work to improve the outcomes for these young people. We are clear that those under the age of 16 who need care, not just accommodation, should not be placed in these kinds of settings.
My Lords, last year we published the higher education principles for care leavers. We are delighted that 60 higher education institutions have signed the care leaver covenant and published their offer to care leavers. Local authorities give a £2,000 bursary to care leavers who go on to university. We are supporting the Fostering Network’s Tick the Box campaign so that any care leaver who applies through UCAS will be identified as such and the support they are entitled to will be signposted by that service. However, we agree with my noble friend: we want to see many more care leavers going into higher education.
My Lords, the Children’s Commissioner report outlines cases where young people are being housed in barges, caravans and even tents. One reported accommodation had one shower between 14 residents. Does the Minister think that that is acceptable in this day and age? What steps will the Government take to work with local authorities to make sure that this does not happen?
My Lords, the circumstances that the noble Baroness has outlined are precisely why we recognise that this sector needs regulation. However, that does not bypass local authorities’ other duties in relation to the fitness of housing in their area. We want to see good-quality accommodation, which is offered by many providers—it is not a case of one approach across the entire sector—and we want to regulate the sector so that these young people can transition into adult life with the support that they need.
My Lords, I am happy to tell my noble friend that the Minister for Children and Families meets regularly with the President of the Family Division. Secure schools, which provide education for those within the criminal justice system, have recently been introduced into the criminal justice estate. We have also just put £40 million of capital investment into secure children’s homes, where, as well as accommodating those in the criminal justice system, children are placed for welfare reasons. Therefore, there is a close working relationship where institutions serve both education and the criminal justice system.
My Lords, I declare my interests. The report highlights that, in 2018-19, 651 vulnerable children were put in unregulated placements before they were aged 16. Most were placed there at 14 or 15 years of age. Can the Minister explain what urgent changes the Government plan to ensure that this situation is discontinued immediately?
My Lords, all these placements are for children looked after by local authorities, which, when they commission any placement, also have a duty to look at the safeguarding and at the provision in general. We have been clear that for under-16s this is not appropriate, because they need care and not only support. We will act to ban that practice so that it will no longer be able to take place. However, we need to recognise that we have more older children coming into the care system with complex needs. For certain children and young people over the age of 16, that is the appropriate placement to meet their needs, which should be paramount in any decision to place them.
My Lords, the report by the Children’s Commissioner—a government appointee, it should be remembered—is a shocking indictment of the neglect found in the unregulated sector. Last year, the Office for National Statistics reported that 88% of 18 year-olds live with their parents, yet in February the Government issued a consultation on reforms to unregulated provision for children in care and care leavers, which, astonishingly, proposed that only children aged 15 and under should be offered placements that provide them with care. Why do the Government alone assume that 16 to 18 year-olds without parents are better able to look after themselves than their peers who have parents?
My Lords, the Government do not make such an assumption, and the placement of looked-after children is primarily and statutorily the responsibility of the local authority. The Government recognise that children should be placed where their needs are met, and some young people after the age of 18 want to stay with their former foster parents. That is why we have the Staying Put scheme, with £33 million available to local authorities, enabling young people who want to stay with their foster carers to stay until they are 21 years old. However, there are young people who wish to transition at age 16—that is the point when you can choose to become a care leaver. We are trying to have a system that puts the needs of children first and has placements that suit them.
My Lords, would the Minister tell us what support there actually is for children choosing what education and training they should do at about age 16 if they are in this sort of environment? It is very apparent that parents or carers usually provide a lot of guidance and support here. How is this being provided to people in this situation?
My Lords, every child or young person looked after by the local authority should have an education plan which outlines their future education. If they are in 16 to 19 provision, they are a priority for bursary support, and there is now a £1,000 grant as well for care leavers who take on apprenticeships. I welcome the noble Lord’s comments; there will be a care review in relation to children’s social care, and I would welcome his input into that review, particularly on children with special educational needs.
My Lords, obviously, avoiding the criminal justice system is a priority for these young people. Over the past decade, it is astonishing that the youth justice population has actually fallen by 73%. The Government are clear that the criminal justice system is a last resort. We are going to regulate this sector precisely to provide the protection for these young people so that they can go into education or training and not end up—even though it is welcome we now have secure schools—in that kind of provision.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.
Integrated Communities Strategy
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards their commitment in the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper, published on 14 March 2018, to “explore the legal and practical challenges of limited reform relating to the law on marriage and religious weddings”.
[Inaudible]—difficulties in addressing this issue that mean we are doing so with the greatest care. The Law Commission separately is looking at aspects of the problem and has consulted with a wide range of groups with an interest. The Government continue the exploration both of limited reform and of non-legislative options. Any proposals affecting how religious groups are permitted to conduct marriages must be thoroughly assessed for fairness.
My Lords, I remain deeply concerned, because there is no evidence of any significant progress since the publication of the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper over two years ago. Given the strong recommendations of the Casey review, the sharia law review, the new Civitas report and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the Private Members’ Bills I have submitted since 2011, with cross-party support and the support of Muslim women’s groups, will the Minister give an assurance at last that government legislation will be introduced as a matter of urgency? So many Muslim women in this country are suffering in ways which are totally unacceptable and, as I always say, would make our suffragettes turn in their graves.
My Lords, my noble friend’s concern about this matter is indeed a matter of record. The Government are aware that the Law Commission is tasked with investigating the matter and reporting. Its report is anticipated by the middle of next year. The Government’s manifesto commitment was to explore the matters; that exploration will be based upon the thorough and meticulous research which is being carried out.
The Government previously assured the House that there is no need for a change in the law because all citizens can access their rights according to law. Yet the chasm between the de jure situation and the de facto reality is an abyss into which countless women are falling and suffering as a result. Is the Minister able to assure the House that repeated commitments to “continue the exploration” of reform are not used to kick these issues into the long grass?
My Lords, the Government have no intention of kicking the matter into the long grass. The Law Commission’s report is anticipated in the second part of next year. In the mean- time, the Government are contemplating also the introduction of interim measures and continue to explore the matter themselves, alongside the work being carried out by the Law Commission.
My Lords, the Government have a clear responsibility to protect the legal rights of vulnerable girls entering into that religious marriage. Simply saying all citizens can access their legal rights is like saying that all citizens have a right to dine in the Dorchester. Will the Minister agree that, while religious ceremonies should be respected, both marriage partners should be made aware of the law of the land on gender equality and women’s rights?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord’s point. As my predecessor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, has remarked in your Lordships’ House in the past, the matter is a social and educational question as much as it is a legal one. It is in order to establish the extent of the problem that the Government are continuing to await the findings of the Law Commission and to look in detail at the meticulous research being carried out.
My Lords, does the Minister understand that it is relatively common for couples to come to family courts in England and Wales saying that they are married under sharia law, only to be told that the court does not recognise this status of marriage? The Government plan to support awareness programmes arising out of Dame Louise Casey’s review of marriage published in 2015. Can the Minister tell us what steps have been taken to provide such educational material in the citizens advice bureaux and in the family courts across the country?
My Lords, sharia law is not part of the legal system of England and Wales, and that has been made clear in the past. In relation to the provision of material via the citizens advice bureaux, to which the noble Lord refers, I will write to him about the availability of that material and how it is being promulgated through these bodies.
Last month, I attended a nikah ceremony at the impressive Cambridge eco mosque, and I was impressed by the young imam there, who made it perfectly clear that he would refuse to perform a nikah for non-British couples and those who had not already taken part in a legal marriage in this country. Are the Government satisfied that this good practice is happening in all religious ceremonies across the country?
My Lords, for the record, may I set straight that it is not sharia marriages but sharia-compliant marriages, or religious ceremonies? My generation of women understood implicitly that a valid marriage is a registered one. This appears not to be the case for a significant proportion of my daughter’s generation, because the law has allowed this ambiguous anomaly to continue. The Government are fully cognisant that up to 100,000 religious ceremonies do not proceed to civil register. Will the Minister undertake to address this at the Government’s earliest convenience, through a small amendment to the Marriage Act, which has been called for for some time by leading organisations? That would not only safeguard women but empower women with their full rights.
My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Baroness for her correction. With regard to a change in the law, it is precisely to avoid the creation of inconsistency and anomaly that the Government are waiting for the conclusion of the Law Commission’s investigations and their own work before considering whether legislation is appropriate.
Some couples have a legally binding religious marriage, while others do not, whether by choice or because they did not know that they could. We need a much better understanding of the factors behind this because, without such real insight into these matters, no solution can change what is happening or be sensitive to the issues facing individuals and the differing voices within communities. That is the Government’s approach.
My Lords, the honourable Member for the Medway area recently introduced the Marriage (Authorised Belief Organisations) Bill in the other place. It would mean that people who wished to be wedded at a humanist ceremony would not to have to attend a registry office afterwards to make the marriage legally binding. Will the Government support this Bill? Secondly, nearly a decade after the issue of unregistered Muslim marriages was first discussed by a Conservative-led Government, how do the Government reconcile their stated support for the rights and protection of women with their failure to act on this issue for over 10 years?
My Lords, the Government invited the Law Commission to make recommendations about how marriage by humanist and other non-religious belief organisations could be incorporated into a revised or new scheme for all marriages that is simple, fair and consistent. The Government will decide on provision on the basis of those recommendations. The Law Commission published a consultation paper on 3 September as part of its review, and welcomes responses from all.
My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that the right to a legally recognised marriage in their own place of worship was secured after a long struggle by non-conformists in England and Wales, and that nothing should be done to diminish that right or, indeed, to prevent us extending it to other groups? But what constitutes a legally valid religious wedding, and what rights, protections and obligations in law it confers, also needs to be clear. Nobody should be tricked, misled or pressured into a form of marriage that is not valid in law.
My Lords, I wholeheartedly endorse the noble Lord’s observation that nobody should be tricked or compelled into a marriage that is not recognised by law. To continue the theme of my earlier answers, the Government are very concerned that, as well as being an opportunity for legal reform, these matters are socially and educationally important, and the Government continue to investigate the social and educational reasons why people enter into marriages that are not valid.
Railways: Fare Structures
My Lords, the Government are considering how we can modernise our fares and ticketing offer to develop more convenient and better-value options for everyone. However, our immediate focus must be on ensuring that we keep the railway available and safe for those who rely on it.
The noble Lord is quite right. Indeed, the Government proactively approached the train-operating companies for proposals on how we can make our fares and ticketing system better for consumers. We have received a number of proposals over the summer and are considering them.
My Lords, it is apparent that the Treasury will insist on an inflation-plus increase in rail fares next year. Does the Minister feel that such a policy will attract passengers back to the rail system following the pandemic? Is it not more likely that, given the continuation of the 11-year freeze on fuel duty, more motorists will take to the roads, causing even more congestion and pollution in future?
The Government are considering plans for any increase in regulated rail fares. The taxpayer has provided huge support to train services during the pandemic; passengers must also contribute to maintaining and improving the service, and any fare rises will fund crucial investment.
My Lords, will the Minister tell us whether the rumours are true that next year’s fare increase will not just be RPI, at 1.6%, but RPI plus 1%, so a 2.6% increase? Is that being considered by the Government, and does the Minister accept that rail passengers in Britain already pay fares that are very much higher than in the rest of Europe and really should not be expected, at this difficult time, to carry an extra burden?
I am sure that the noble Baroness will understand that I could not possibly comment on rumours, but I refer her to the answer that I just gave to the noble Lord, Lord Snape, about the Government’s plans for any increase in regulated rail fares.
My Lords, public transport must provide sufficient capacity to meet demand in peak periods and so has excess capacity at other times of the day. If public transport is to maximise its own fares revenue and avoid dependency on the taxpayer, does my noble friend the Minister agree that operators should be allowed to offer a broad and flexible range of non-regulated fares so as to recognise variations in demand, and that a move to a rigid and simple fares regime is likely to force unnecessary increases in many fares?
My Lords, fares revenue remains a core component of funding for the railways, and I agree that it is important that train operators manage their businesses in line with taxpayers’ interests. Any proposals for changes to fare structures will, of course, be discussed with train-operating companies to ensure that they deliver for both passengers and taxpayers.
My Lords, now is the opportunity to reset the balance and give rail passengers better value for money. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will look into the pricing of unregulated short journey tickets that increase yearly at a higher rate than longer journeys, leaving passengers paying more over time than they should?
I refer the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, to my previous response to my noble friend Lord Moylan. However, the Government are very clear that we want punctual and reliable train services, and at a price that is fair to the taxpayer and to the passenger.
In August, the Government provided the money to enable people to have cut-price meals, to help restaurants and similar establishments recover from the loss of business as a result of Covid-19 by getting people to eat out again. Do the Government have any similar plans for enabling people to travel at half price, or a significant discount, on our railways for a period of time, as a means of encouraging people to travel by train again after the end of the current lockdown?
The noble Lord must be reading our minds. Of course, there will be man things that we might want to consider doing once the course of the pandemic is clear and we have come out the other side, and once there are no restrictions on people’s travel. It may be that we introduce certain incentives, because we all know that the best way to travel is on public transport.
My Lords, the Minister is being uncharacteristically coy in her answer to all these questions and saying nothing at all. She did say that the railways at the moment must be available and safe. They are available and are extremely safe, but the danger is that when the Covid emergency comes to an end, people will not go back to them. Can she tell us what the Government’s plans are and what they are thinking about in order to get people back on trains once it is possible for everyone to go on them?
I am not sure I have been called “uncharacteristically coy” before. However, the noble Lord is absolutely right: we are in a situation at the moment where people’s habits may change, which means they may form the habit of not using public transport. This is the same for trains, light rail and buses, across our public transport system. Of course, the Government are thinking very clearly and hard about the sorts of mechanisms that we can use, whether that be marketing campaigns or incentives, as I outlined to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. We will consider all of these things. However, now is not the right time for that; now is the time to follow the November restrictions to make sure that we keep the virus under control.
This is an area where I can help the Government. At the moment, rail fares have been going up, year on year, often above normal increases, but at the same time, since 2011, people driving have paid less and less. So the cost of driving on our roads falls because there is no more fuel duty, yet the cost of rail travel keeps rising. One way to make the railways competitive with driving again would be to reinstate fuel duty at a realistic level.
I thank the noble Baroness for her advice; I am sure the Treasury is listening. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Snape, earlier, we are considering plans for rail fares in the future, but we are working very hard on how to modernise our ticketing offer such that rail travel is as affordable as we can possibly make it.
My Lords, one of the challenges facing the railways is to spread the morning peak; reduced fares kick in after about 9 am. Would my noble friend consider reductions for journeys that begin before, say, 7 am, to spread the peak earlier as well as later?
I thank my noble friend for that suggestion and I will make sure that the department looks at it. However, one thing that I discovered in my work with TfL is that the morning peak is now shockingly early and seems to start at about 5.30 am.
Lord Berkeley. No? We will move on to the next speaker. I call the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton.
My Lords, commuters on the west coast main line have been jammed in like sardines for years—never an appealing prospect, and even less so in the time of Covid. As well as flexibility on pricing, do we not also need to look at increasing capacity on our railways if we are to tempt people back to rail use?
We have a few minutes, so we will try the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, again. No, he is not there. In that case, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the fourth Oral Question.
Canada-UK Trade Deal
My Lords, both the UK and Canada remain committed to a seamless transition of our trading relationship at the end of the transition period, so that British and Canadian businesses and consumers can continue to benefit. Officials have been in regular contact to discuss this and the Government are hopeful of securing agreement by the end of this year.
My Lords, in August 2018, the Canadian Prime Minister said that the Canadians would be ready to start negotiations on what he thought would be a very easy roll-on agreement the day that Britain left the European Union—which was last January. He also offered to second Canadian officials to help us if that would improve matters. Here we are, six weeks before the end of the transition, and the agreement has not yet been fixed. Can the Minister explain why?
My Lords, I can explain exactly why. Agreement was almost reached with Canada in March 2019, but Canada did not like the temporary tariff reductions that we brought in and decided to walk away from the negotiating table, returning only in July this year.
My Lords, the UK is Canada’s fifth-largest trading partner, but Canada ranks only 18th in terms of importance for the UK. Will the Minister agree that, while rolling over the Canada free trade agreement is highly desirable for both countries’ interests, the Government were absolutely right to prioritise the excellent agreement with Japan, which is much more important to us in trade terms?
Securing continuity of the CETA deal before 1 January is absolutely crucial; in fact, UK exports to Canada increased by 14% in the first year of implementation. Will the Minister agree that, assuming we secure this and roll it over, we can then have a brand new, bespoke, super-duper new trade deal to strengthen both economies, in their best interests and best of class, including issues such as climate change? Would he also agree that we can see the CPTPP as a future opportunity for the UK’s trading future and to broaden investment ties between the UK and Canada?
The noble Lord is completely right. The focus of our present discussions with Canada has been on continuity of trade and I am very confident that an agreement will be continued. The next priority will be to use that as a launchpad from which we can then deepen and strengthen our very important relationship with Canada in the future.
My Lords, it is helpful that Prime Minister Trudeau is enthusiastic about starting and sharing a trade deal with us. However, it is deeply worrying that he doubts our capacity and expertise. It is hard to see why Liz Truss feels such grounds for optimism. Given the capacity issues, will the Minister set out the Government’s strategy in respect of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, concluded last weekend between China and 14 of its neighbours? This agreement covers 30% of global economic output. It makes no mention of the United Kingdom, despite the Government’s assertion that this region affords the greatest global opportunities for free trade deals and future growth.
I encourage the noble Lord to distinguish between comments of substance and those that are made purely as a negotiating tactic. We have closely observed the recent agreement in Asia. Our priority is negotiating to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership next year, which is a much deeper and richer agreement.
My Lords, it could be suggested that “walking away” from negotiations could be a government tactic, given that it was the no-deal temporary tariff published by the UK that prompted the Canadians to further consider our intentions. The UK has now published its permanent tariff regime. If we are hopeful of a deal, we may have to scrutinise this in short order. How many of these tariffs is Canada currently disputing?
My Lords, the Government promised that 40 rollover agreements would be in place by the end of the transition period. Only 20 have been considered so far under the CRaG procedure. We have fewer than 21 sitting days before 31 December, so it is not physically possible to ratify the remaining trade agreements under normal procedures. What advice can the Minister offer the country’s importers and exporters about what they should be doing if their trade engages with, for example, Canada, Singapore, Mexico or Vietnam?
My Lords, first, I must correct the noble Lord: 23 agreements have now been signed. This is a moving target. I encourage British businesses to watch this space. I assure the House that all agreements will be put through the CRaG process. Some may need to be provisionally applied, but they will all be ratified by our standard agreements in due course.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the new trade agreement signed with Japan and the continuity agreements reached with a number of other countries show that the department is well aware of the pressures and the desire of industry for these agreements, and is working flat out to ensure that they are brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible?
I thank my noble friend for his comments and for what he said about my department. My officials have worked extraordinarily hard in difficult circumstances during Covid. They are doing a marvellous job. I am sure we will see this progress continue.
My Lords, early this morning, I had breakfast on Zoom, hosted by my colleague the Bishop of Sherborne, along with people from the Dorset churches and community. A farmer and local businessman said that his greatest fear for the future was uncertainty. How will this uncertainty be ended so that he will not be left just watching this space but will know what opportunities there are? How will the House assess these both in relation to the economy and to the environment?
Following my noble friend Lord Stevenson’s question, why, if the Minister says we have no bandwidth issues, will all future continuity agreements fall outside the full, proper CRaG procedure and be dealt with through a partial cover? This will eliminate a lot of the parliamentary scrutiny we talked about in the Trade Bill.
My Lords, I can confirm that every single agreement will go through the comprehensive CRaG procedure. There may be issues of timing because these negotiations often go to the wire. But I assure the House that, even if they need to be provisionally implemented, every single agreement will be subject to appropriate parliamentary scrutiny.
My Lords, about an hour and a half ago, the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, tweeted that later today, at a conference of the trade body, TheCityUK, she would
“set out how the UK can become a global hub for services and tech trade … Services sits at the heart of my vision for values-driven and value-generating trade policy.”
We have heard hardly a squeak from the Brexit talks about services, which represent 80% of our economy, or about the quest for a data adequacy decision, which is essential to the tech trade. We are six weeks out from the end of the transition period. Can the Minister tell us where we are on services and data?
I congratulate the noble Baroness on monitoring the International Trade Secretary’s Twitter feed so carefully. I agree about the importance of services. I hope the noble Baroness will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on ongoing negotiations.
Department of Health and Social Care: Unpaid Advisers
Private Notice Question
My Lords, I welcome the challenge. Perhaps I may reassure the noble Baroness that all ministerial appointments were required to declare conflicts of interest and abide by well-established codes of practice, and that all procurement went through proper departmental governance. Perhaps I may also be clear that those who stepped forward to help this country at its time of need should be praised. We should all recognise the considerable contribution of those who brought skills, energy and networks when we needed them.
My Lords, I do not see this Question as a challenge at all. It would appear that George Pascoe-Watson, the chair of the lobbying company, Portland Communications, was until recently an adviser to the Minister and used the words,
“the decision makers have told me personally”,
with regard to the Government’s intended Covid restrictions, in an email to his clients before the proposed restrictions have been publicly announced. In some places, this kind of thing could be regarded as insider trading—profiting from private information for one’s own or a company’s gain. Does the Minister believe that the rules of confidentiality have been broken? Will he be pursuing the matter? It clearly should be investigated. What form will the investigation take? Will it be departmental, or is it a matter for the Cabinet Office or the head of the Civil Service?
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for giving me the opportunity to set the record straight. It is worth sharing with the House that the emails to which she referred were sent after George Pascoe-Watson left his role as an adviser to the department. With the greatest respect to Portland and its chairman, the emails contained nothing more than the kind of speculation that one might find in any national newspaper. Therefore, at this stage, I thank those who have served as advisers to me and the department.
My Lords, given the disclosures in the Sunday Times about the Minister’s three telephone calls with suppliers and lobbyists at the same time, I am surprised that he has not recused himself. Has he complained about the newspaper placing him—the Minister —at the centre of the web of the Covid chumocracy? Does he agree with the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the noble Lord, Lord Evans, that too many in public life are disregarding the norms, ethics and propriety that have led to Portland Communications being secretly involved in government and then going off to make money?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for highlighting three calls to suppliers. I should like to reassure him that those were absolutely exceptional times, when our supply chains had broken down and we were competing with other Governments for extremely scarce resources. I personally did not make three supplier calls; rather, I made 300. I put out literally hundreds of calls on behalf of the Government to try to find the medicines, supplies, diagnostics, PPE and all manner of medical requirements needed for this country. I could have done that only with the help of the networks, energy, skills and support of those who stepped forward to help us at our time of need. I repeat, I am extremely grateful for that support. It does not warrant a place on the front page of the Sunday Times but the lack of follow-up from that newspaper article speaks for itself.
My Lords, we all wish to live in a time of transparent government. On 6 April, I understand that a Minister in the department had a phone call with a former Conservative Party chairman and an adviser who had not been publicly declared, as well with as a businessman who had donated a significant five-figure sum to the party and who was later awarded PPE contracts of more than £150 million. Does the Minister know if the contract was open to tender? Given the donation and the nature of future PPE contracts, why was that not considered to be an inappropriate call?
I take this opportunity to thank the very large number of Members of this House who contacted me during that period. My inbox was filled with thousands of emails every day, including emails from Lib Dem, Labour, Cross-Bench and Tory Peers, all of them seeking to help us during our time of need. I sought to reply to as many as I could, but I fear that I did not reply to enough and I did not mean any discourtesy. I spoke to a large number of those people, as my transparency register makes very clear. The telephone call on 6 April to which the noble Baroness has referred was not in any way inappropriate. I am extremely grateful to all those who stepped forward to help us when we needed it.
My Lords, this is a huge crisis in unprecedented times. My noble friend the Minister has already thanked those who are trying to help the country at a very difficult time. Does he find it regrettable, as I do, that some are sniping at those who, for good reasons of public service, are giving their time, energy and expertise pro bono in service to this country and everyone in this Chamber?
My Lords, scrutiny of appointments, a commitment to transparency and declaration of interests are absolute values that we should all subscribe to. However, sneering at those who step forward to help, denigrating the intentions of volunteers who try to play their role and smearing the good name of people who have done the right thing does not have any role in this House.
My Lords, many years ago, the then political editor of the Sun, Mr Chris Potter, told me that the main qualification for his role was the ability to translate the musings of Ministers at the Dispatch Box for the benefit of his readers without using any words longer than “wheelbarrow”. Now that one of his successors, Mr George Pascoe-Watson, attends confidential departmental meetings, can the Minister tell the House whether the criteria for such a role has been enhanced or dumbed down these days?
I thank the noble Lord for his description of the role. I do not endorse it but am entertained by it. Let me be clear: the people who stepped forward and took ministerial appointments brought a wide range of skills, some of them quite soft in terms of networking, energy, the ability to negotiate and understanding the important skills of communication. Those are the kinds of skills that we value. They were provided for free in the instance to which the noble Lord has referred, and were limited in their timescale, scope and interactions with the department.
The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, has withdrawn.
My Lords, I deeply regret that some noble Lords are dragging this debate down to the issue of unpaid advisers. This is most inappropriate. No one could object to unpaid advisers; I have used them. I have even taken advice from people on the Benches opposite; that is how low I am prepared to sink. It is not about them being unpaid or giving advice; it is about the lack of transparency and accountability. Will the Minister agree that announcements should be made about unpaid advisers so we can know it is happening and guarantee there are no leaks—which there appear to have been so far.
The noble Baroness makes her points extremely well. She rightly points out that we take advice from a wide variety of people. The only reason that we are talking about this today is because a transparency register is made of my appointments, which is published on GOV.UK and I would be glad to share the website link with anyone who would like to look at it more closely. The appointments of unpaid advisers follow the guidance on direct appointments from the Cabinet Office. We are scrupulous in our adherence to that guidance, and we will continue to be so in any future appointments we make.
My Lords, in view of what has been said by the Minister, I am extremely sympathetic to him. Could he publish a full list of all those who have given of their time, talents and money at a time of great crisis? Could he place a copy of that in the Library of your Lordships’ House?
My Lords, I am not sure if I can make the commitment that my noble friend asks. It is a reasonable commitment and I take it in the spirit with which it is meant, but there have been literally hundreds of people—not all of them formal, not all of them documented—who have stepped forward in the spirit that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has spoken of to try and contribute to our thinking, our connections and our ability to respond to this pandemic. That is a long roll of honour, of which I am extremely proud. I will give some thought to the way in which we do it, but doing it in a formal fashion in the way my noble friend describes may not be feasible or approachable.
My Lords, yesterday former Conservative Attorney-General Dominic Grieve described the Johnson Government as presiding over
“the disappearance of any standards of conduct at the heart of government”,
and said that the cronyism of administrative decisions had communicated to young people in particular a sense of government as corrupt. Given that, can the Minister be surprised that there was concern over the conduct of Mr Pascoe-Watson after he had ceased to be an adviser?
My Lords, I understand why the Government need as much help as possible in securing PPE in a time of emergency, but I struggle to understand why there still seems to be such a demand for public relations help. We recently learned that Kate Bingham, who is in charge of the vaccine programme, spent £690,000 on external PR help. Is it not the case that the Department of Health and Social Care has extensive PR expertise on its team? Is the problem that this Government is still too involved in fighting an election campaign rather than fighting Covid?
It is a reasonable question and let me be clear. This year, we are seeing a massive change in the behaviours of our entire population—from the big macro challenges such as the rule of six, social distancing and adherence to infection control procedures, through to different uses of NHS and medtech. This morning, I spent my time looking at the marketing for “111 First”—the important new way of using 111 that will give people guidance on using the service before they get to A&E. This has been possible only because of the change in the use of medtech and the changing attitude to telephones and the internet brought about by the pandemic. The noble Baroness is right that there is a big focus on communications right now, but that is because things are changing so quickly and we need to get the message across to the population in clear, persuasive terms, to provide the guidance they need to protect and save themselves.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked.
Prevention of Trade Diversion (Key Medicines) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020
Common Rules for Exports (EU Exit) Regulations 2020
Motions to Approve
That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 2 and 21 September be approved.
Relevant documents: 26th and 29th Reports from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the second instrument). Considered in Grand Committee on 10 November.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, hybrid proceedings will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill
Report (and remaining stages)
Relevant document: 25th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Report received. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time.
My Lords, in moving this Motion, I would like to confirm how pleased I am to have introduced the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill into this House. I thank all noble Lords for their positive engagement and the feedback that they have provided thus far. I thank in particular the noble Lords, Lord Addington, Lord Randall and Lord Shipley¸ and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Janke, for their constructive contributions. I also thank the officials on the Bill team for their tireless work in helping all of us see the Bill proceed in a proper manner and to have the information needed.
The Bill reflects the Government’s commitment to maintaining the income of pensioners in these difficult times. It allows for the uprating of the safety net in pension credit and of widows’ and widowers’ benefits in industrial death benefit. I am grateful, too, to noble Lords for ensuring that the Bill will be passed in time to receive Royal Assent before the Work and Pensions Secretary must conclude her uprating review of benefits and pensions. In doing so, the state pension and pension credit standard minimum guarantee can and will be uprated next year. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her remarks. As I made clear at the outset, we support the Bill, while deeply regretting the economic circumstances that have made it necessary. During its brief passage, some important issues have been raised. I hope the Government have taken note of those issues and will apply themselves to them in the near future. During our consideration of the Bill many noble Lords raised the question of support for those of working age. I keep hoping that we will hear some good news on that—especially on universal credit and other working-age benefits—soon.
We have had some really interesting discussions about the difficult and growing issue of pensioner poverty. We now have 1.9 million pensioners living in relative poverty and the Government need to develop and implement a strategy for tackling pensioner poverty. That will require a proactive plan to boost take-up of pension credit. I regret that I was unable to attend the rearranged meeting with the Pensions Minister on this matter but I look forward to hearing what went on there. At the moment, four out of 10 eligible pensioners do not claim it, so they are missing out on that and on other benefits, including, increasingly, free TV licences for the over-75s.
Then there is the fact that the triple lock does not apply to pension credit. The Minister said in her opening remarks that there will be an uprating to the standard minimum guarantee in pension credit but I did not catch whether she said by how much. In Committee she told my noble friend Lady Drake that she would write to her to tell her whether the Government intend to pass through the triple-lock payment to pensioners on pension credit—which is of course crucial, because if they do not, the richest pensioners will get the full benefit of the triple lock but the poorest will not because it will be clawed back from pension credit. Can she clarify the position on that? If she has written to my noble friend Lady Drake, I apologise; I have missed the letter.
I am very glad that we were able to get the Bill through the House in good time. It was a pleasure to welcome two maiden speakers in Committee: the noble Lord, Lord Field of Birkenhead, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stuart of Edgbaston. I would like to express my thanks to the Minister and her officials who have met us and answered questions; it is a very co-operative department and I am very grateful. I thank colleagues across the House for their thoughtful contributions; Dan Stevens of our staff team for his support with the Bill; and the House officials and the broadcast team.
Pensioners deserve to spend their retirement in financial security. This Bill will enable the Government to fulfil their manifesto commitment to apply the triple lock to the state pension and we have been pleased to support it.
My Lords, I, too, thank noble Lords for their contributions to our deliberations on the Bill, and I thank the Minister and her team for providing us with advice and information to help us understand the issues raised by the Bill. We very much welcome the Government’s commitment to the triple lock and hope that it will not be abandoned as a short-term political fix in the face of the economic difficulties that are no doubt ahead of us. I am sure that the Government have listened to the issues raised in the debate, and I hope they will look again at the position of overseas pensioners whose pensions are worth so little despite how much they have contributed over the years. It seems that the Government have committed to consider the numbers of pensioners living in poverty. I draw attention particularly to the plight of many women who have received very unfair treatment and unfair settlements on their pensions.
I welcome the work that is being started on pension credit and I believe that the Government are committed to ensuring that those who need it most are, in fact, able and willing to claim it. I thank the Minister again for the meeting yesterday, which I thought was extremely positive, and I look forward to working with her on that project. I also thank my colleagues for supporting the Bill and Sarah Pughe in the Liberal Democrats office, who supported us so ably. So saying, I give my support to the Bill.
My Lords, it is a privilege to have been asked to make the Cross-Bench concluding contribution at the end of our consideration of the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill.
In Committee a number of noble Lords raised concerns about the level of pensioner poverty, most notably the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and I very much support their comments; but others of us wanted some reassurance that while working people are experiencing job losses on a massive scale and abject poverty—often facing homelessness—many pensioners, including me I suppose, are in a much more secure position and should not be given disproportionate support. Those sentiments certainly do not apply at all to people on pension credit. I was delighted to hear—the Minister might be able to give us some figures—about the increase in the take-up of pension credit. That is at least a start. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, I would certainly like to hear an assurance that pension credit will in fact be protected by the triple lock. I think that these pensioners and other subgroups mentioned by the Minister are in a very particular position and that any support that can be given should be given.
The other issue referred to by a number of noble Lords is the number of pensioners living in what I shall call unprotected countries abroad who have had their pensions frozen, often for many years, and find themselves in 2020 still living off something like £5 a week—serious, abject poverty. I hope the Government will give attention to that issue and also the other issues that noble Lords raised in Committee.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, as always, made a number of very powerful points. Importantly, she sought reports on current levels of pensioner poverty. I hope we will perhaps have a report on pensioner poverty shortly. She was also looking for an impact assessment of the Government’s policy options. I am not sure whether we have had a commitment on that or not.
In conclusion, there was general acceptance of the thrust of this Bill, and no amendments were pressed to a vote. I want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, for her cheerful and always courteous responses to our pleas and questions, which she always gives with a smile, which is quite disarming at times. Also, a big thank you to the Bill team, which, as always, makes sure our deliberations and debates are meaningful.
First, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, which were valid and important. On the working-age benefits, as raised by all contributors, as soon as the Secretary of State has completed the review, Parliament will be advised of the outcome. I am glad the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, was with us yesterday for our pension credit meeting and our robust and creative discussion about increasing take-up. It was probably one of the best meetings I have been in since becoming a Minister. I am sorry the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, could not be with us, but my office did advise me prior to coming to the Chamber that it is finalising the read-out; I think she will be pleased with the actions we have agreed.
In respect of the letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, I was sure that had been sent, but let me go back to my department, double-check and confirm that to the noble Baroness.
Regarding the potential for uprating the standard minimum guarantee, it is right that we protect the incomes of the poorest pensioner households in receipt of it. A decision on how to uprate it next April will be made in the review the Secretary of State is carrying out. It will be announced this month, and we will wait to see what the outcome is and report it to Parliament, as I have already said.
The Government are committed to action to alleviate levels of pensioner poverty. For current pensioners, this includes the contributions of the triple lock, the new state pension and pension credit.
As I have already said, the Bill reflects the Government’s commitment to maintaining the income of pensioners in these difficult times. I am grateful to noble Lords for ensuring that it will be passed in time to receive Royal Assent before the Work and Pensions Secretary must conclude her uprating review of benefits and pensions. In doing so, the state pension and pension credit standard minimum guarantee can and will be uprated next year.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, hybrid proceedings will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
I will call Members to speak in the order listed in the annexe to today’s list. Interventions during speeches or “before the noble Lord sits down” are not permitted, and uncalled speakers will not be heard. Other than the mover of an amendment or the Minister, Members may speak only once on each group. Short questions of elucidation after the Minister’s response are permitted but discouraged; a Member wishing to ask such a question, including Members in the Chamber, must email the clerk.
The groupings are binding and it will not be possible to degroup an amendment for separate debate. A Member intending to press an amendment already debated to a Division should have given notice in the debate. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the Question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely intends to trigger a Division, they should make this clear when speaking on the group.
Fire Safety Bill
Clause 1: Premises to which the Fire Safety Order applies
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, after “paragraph (1A)” insert “or paragraph (1C)”
My Lords, the Fire Safety Bill is important legislation that I strongly support, as I do the building safety Bill, which is in draft form and which I believe your Lordships’ House will receive early in the new year. The motivation behind the amendments I am proposing is that there should be a safer home environment—a motivation shared, I believe, by the whole House. Specifically, the amendments refer to high-rise blocks; that is the spur.
I thank my noble friend Lord Randall and the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Whitty, who are also signatories to the amendment and have given strong support. I also thank many others for their strong support and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Best, who, unfortunately, is unable to speak today. I thank the Minister for making time to discuss these issues; I know he is sincere in his desire to do something constructive to move matters forward on checks in tower blocks. I also thank Electrical Safety First, an excellent charity dedicated to reducing deaths from fires caused by electrical accidents. It has been magnificent, and I would like to thank Rob Jervis-Gibbons in particular but also Lesley Rudd, Ron Bailey and Martyn Allen for their help.
We need to translate the good intentions of the whole House into action, and there are some important facts to bear in mind. Approximately 7,000 domestic fires per annum are caused by faulty electrical goods; that is 53% of domestic fires. Many of these are in high-rise blocks and, in those circumstances, they are particularly treacherous. We can all recall Lakanal House in 2009, Shepherds Court in 2016 and, of course, tragically, Grenfell Tower in 2017—all confirmed to be caused by electrical ignition.
My amendments essentially focus on two proposals, as they did in Committee. First, mandatory five-year electrical system checks in high-rise blocks—just high-rise blocks. The model for this is what is being done currently in the private rented sector, just introduced by the Government this year: I endorse that move. It applies, of course, to all the private rented sector, essentially, not just high-rise blocks. My amendments would apply just to high-rise buildings—those over 11 metres high—but would apply to social tenants and owner-occupiers as well as private tenants. I ask myself why social tenants should be excluded: I am a strong believer in the levelling-up agenda, which the Government also are strongly behind. It should apply to owner-occupiers too, of course.
Social tenants are a large part of the residents of high-rise blocks. In Grenfell, they constituted the vast majority of residents, for example. I should say, and I congratulate the Government, that I am pleased to see, in the social housing White Paper issued today, moves not just in relation to smoke and carbon monoxide alarms—I see that consultation is opening on extending that into social housing, quite rightly—but also consulting separately on ways to ensure that social housing tenants are protected from harm caused by poor electrical safety. That is certainly welcome. The wording confirms the direction of travel. What is at issue, of course, is the pace, the speed: that is what we need to pick up. This is something that should be done expeditiously. The most sensible course of action in high-rise blocks would surely be to mirror the checks in the private rented sector for all residents of tower blocks, to provide for the safety of everybody in those tower blocks.
I should say in passing that I certainly endorse other actions that have been taken to help protect and guard against fire. The Home Office “Fire Kills” campaign is very welcome and is supported by the charitable sector. The building safety Bill that is coming down the tracks provides, in Clause 86 currently, that responsibility should be placed on residents for electrical goods and their safety. I welcome that but, of course, it is not sufficient in itself and will not protect, in the way that this would protect, against the fires that we are all too familiar with.
The second of the two main proposals in my amendment would require that a person responsible for fire safety, who is of course being designated in this legislation, should be responsible for a register of electrical goods. The majority of fires are caused by faulty electrical goods, and many of these are goods that have been subject to recall by the manufacturer. The fire at Shepherds Court, for example, was caused by a faulty tumble dryer that was subject to a recall. The purpose of the register would therefore be to identify these goods and ensure that they were recalled and either refitted or replaced. The person responsible for fire safety would be able to distribute information to residents, and there is a precedent for such a register in student accommodation throughout England.
I know that we all recall graphically the Grenfell Tower tragedy: it is forged on our individual memories, just as it is seared on the nation’s conscience. I look to my noble friend the Minister, who I know is sympathetic, to provide some clear way forward, indicating the seriousness of the Government’s intentions and the intention to move decisively on this agenda in the building safety Bill, possibly with a working party to move the agenda forward quickly. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am pleased to support my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth and I was delighted to put my name to his amendments, together with the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Whitty. My noble friend has expressed very clearly and eloquently what his amendments are about. I also welcome the very constructive discussions we had with the Minister. As my noble friend Lord Bourne said, I believe that he understands fully what we are trying to achieve.
It seems strange to me and, I am sure, to many others, that the rules for private tenants are stronger than they are for social tenants. This inequality of responsibility should be addressed. That applies also to owner-occupiers, of course. As my noble friend said, in high-rise buildings the majority of tenants are, indeed, social tenants, and I think they need as much help as they can get in ensuring the safety of their premises and, of course, the safety of their neighbours.
On the issue of a register, again, I think this is extremely important. We have heard that this is already in place for student accommodation. I feel that there is a real problem: perhaps we should consider, with both of these proposals, that there is a huge number of, presumably, second-hand electrical appliances in existence. People will be buying them not necessarily from retail outlets; they may be buying them on eBay or elsewhere, and they will not necessarily be having them tested appropriately. This is something that I think we have to look at. Having somebody responsible for maintaining that these items are safe is, I think, of paramount importance.
I welcome the social housing White Paper that was published today, particularly the provisions around these matters. Even if we cannot get exactly what we want today—and I understand that the Bill may not be the ideal vehicle for these amendments—I look forward, when the building safety Bill comes before your Lordships, to being in a position to implement these excellent ideas and proposals from my noble friend.
My Lords, I begin, as always, by declaring my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and co-president of London Councils, the body that represents all the London boroughs and the City of London. Particularly in respect of these amendments, I should declare my interest as patron of the charity Electrical Safety First.
I apologise that I was not able to be present in Committee when the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, moved and debated these amendments. We debated this issue fairly fully at Second Reading; we certainly covered amendments very similar to these in Committee—which I have read, even though I was unable to participate—and I have been very pleased to add my name to them again. I do not think I need to repeat today all the things that were said very ably by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. The key points have been made; I think that they are understood and I believe that they are generally accepted.
We have made reference a number of times, and again today, to the fires that happened not only at Grenfell Tower but at Lakanal House and at Shepherds Court. In all those buildings, a significant number of residents living there were owner-occupiers. They were not tenants in the private sector or the social sector; they were owner-occupiers.
In a way, this is key to these amendments. In a high-rise block—these amendments apply only to high-rise blocks—there is what has been described as a tenure lottery. There is a mixture of tenure, yet, by the nature of a tower block, every resident in it—regardless of their tenure—is equally at risk from these dangers. We owe it to all of them, not to any particular sector, to provide as best we can not only to deal with the risks after they have happened but, even more importantly, to prevent them happening in the first place. That is the object of all these amendments.
I again thank the Minister for meeting me and my Liberal Democrat colleagues to discuss this issue, among others that we will come to later. I am certain he understood exactly what we were trying to achieve. The issue before us is how and when.
Before I go on to that, I will deal with the other aspect of these amendments: the provision for a register of electrical appliances to be kept by the responsible person. The Local Government Association—I have declared my interest—is at least doubtful about that, suggesting it shifts the responsibility from the manufacturers. I do not agree at all. The responsibility to deal with recalls for their faulty goods rests fair and square, and will continue to rest, with manufacturers. I see this as a measure that helps the manufacturers do this more effectively than at present. It is very much a positive aid in that. I hope the Minister will be equally keen on accepting some form of mandatory register of all electrical appliances to be kept in high-rise buildings, not because the responsibility has shifted, other than to keep the register, but because it enables the residents in the block to be alerted to any recall and encouraged to take it up.
I will not divert into a discussion on the shortcomings of the present recall situation, but I think we all accept that it is by no means perfect and that most if not all manufacturers wish to see it improved. This is a significant way of being able to do that; it may not be perfect, but, as has been said, similar registers are voluntarily kept in student accommodation. It is a very long time since I have had any experience of student accommodation, but I suspect it is a lot harder to keep such a register there than it would be in any permanently residential high-rise block.
We come now to what exactly we will do, how we will do it and when. We will hear shortly that the Minister is sympathetic and certainly understands the issues. I would like to hear a clear commitment from him today on the action to be taken, whether through this Bill—perhaps not—the building safety Bill or any other course; what that action will be and, in particular, when it will be taken and subsequently implemented.
The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, mentioned the possibility of a working party. I think there was a similar working party before the introduction of the private rented sector provisions. It would be extremely helpful to all concerned, particularly the Minister, to have such a working party, comprised of Government and other interested parties in the sector, to make sure that such provisions can take effect as soon as they are put into practice. I would be interested to know what the Minister thinks about the possibility of that.
I support these amendments wholeheartedly. I look forward very much to hearing the Minister’s response and commitment.
My Lords, I fully support all the amendments put down by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. Many of the points have been made by my cosignatories already.
On the last point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, clearly this does nothing to undermine the essential responsibility of the manufacturer—and to some extent the retailer—in the safety of appliances. Indeed, some of the liability rests with the user or householder if they use them irresponsibly or unsafely or do not return them when a recall has been issued. However, it is also the case that the owner or manager of the building is responsible for all the tenants, leaseholders and owner-occupiers who occupy that building. If there is a fire, differential tenure is hardly relevant; the rules should be the same for all forms of tenure. An electrical fault could arise anywhere and could affect any neighbour in the block, as we have tragically seen all too often. It is important that a high-rise block is covered, with responsibilities to the owner or manager, regular clear inspections and a list of equipment. Electrical systems are presently dealt with differently from gas; there is a requirement for gas inspections for everybody. We need to require the owner to take account of the potential damage to others within his or her building.
Obviously, we hope the Government will take this up as rapidly as possible. There are issues around who bears the cost and whether this is the appropriate Bill for these clauses. The latter seems odd to argue; this is the Fire Safety Bill. We are arguing that it should include provisions about the single most frequent cause of fire and measures that have already been identified in the Grenfell inquiry. These are most relevant here. I understand the Minister might prefer to see them in the forthcoming building safety Bill, but they are not there; the fact that the provisions in these amendments are not in the pre-legislative version of the Bill at the moment, although some aspects of electrical safety are, makes us doubt the speed with which these clauses would be brought into operation. It would be much better if they were in this Bill.
On cost, I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Best, who wanted to speak in this debate but was somehow precluded. He calculated that, even if inspection costs for carrying out the regular inspection were £100, that would be £20 a year over five years, or 20p a week per premise, which would go on the service charge to leaseholders and tenants in one way or another. That is a minimal cost for a major contribution towards everybody’s safety. It would not be logical for the requirement on the owner for inspection to be postponed until the building safety Bill comes through, but it would be better than nothing. If we can be given an absolute assurance, I will accept it as second best, but it really should be in this Bill to prevent fires starting now. I support all these amendments.
My Lords, I first declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a chartered surveyor with some 45 years of experience in dealing with the management, maintenance and condition survey of properties, as well as matters of tenure. I apologise to the House for not having been able to participate directly on previous stages of the Bill. Many noble Lords will know that I have been following this extremely closely and have written to many of them, including the Minister.
Turning to the thrust of these amendments, I entirely agree with the purpose of the amendment on electrical systems: to make regular periodic tests and inspections of fixed electrical installations most desirable. However, with leases in long-leasehold tenure, the leaseholder is typically responsible for what is in the flat and is identifiably unit-specific to that bit of accommodation. Typically, that also applies to other conducting media and conduits such as drains, extraction ducts and water supplies. Some items are centrally operated, such as fire alarms and detection equipment, which may be within the flat and may be differently treated, but such provision does not always pertain to rack-rented letting. Straightaway, the legal obligations between different types of tenure, which are established in the case of long leasehold in their long leases, and therefore in their title, are not consistent across what I might call the flatted sector.
I also have concerns about the scrutiny and enforcement of the regulation, which in the past has sometimes been patchy. The issue is one of resources. The capacity, competence and finance are often insufficient or inadequate in the areas where the responsibility lies, or, in some circumstances, the responsibilities may be split. The Government must address these in the context of the Bill, because the subject matter is vital in terms of human safety, and too important to be left to chance, but I wonder how secondary legislation will deal with overriding established practices set out in the legal arrangements for tenure and occupation.
I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, is very enthusiastic about electrical appliances. I am a little less enthusiastic, not about the objective of greater safety, but about the practicality. There should be a clearer cut-off between what is “system” and what is “appliance”. For instance, a hardwired electrical hot towel rail is regarded as appliance, not system. There should be a clearer definition, so that anything with a square pin plug on the end of its lead falls under “appliance”. Again, there are issues to do with things such as cookers, which are also hardwired.
I note and largely agree with the views of the LGA regarding the enforceability in real life, and the shifting of responsibility, in my definition, from the primary leaseholder or occupier of the unit, who is in charge of the items in the building, unless they have been supplied by the lessor or manager from inception. There is an assumption that there will be some degree of occupier co-operation. Logging the appliances on a register may capture the inventory at a moment in time, but that does not procure accuracy without continuous updating, so there are issues there as to how much time and energy are to be taken up with doing this. Some modern service lettings include white goods, and possibly many other smaller items, and, to give the example of holiday accommodation, typically the owner of the accommodation provides all the white goods and appliances, but even that does not stop someone coming along with their own appliance, which may not be tested. The same thing applies for normal rentals.
Therefore, accuracy is an issue. Retrofitting the sort of standard that might apply in circumstances where all the white goods and appliances are pre-provided by the lessor would be extremely difficult. If the intention is to include everything that might be caught under a normal PAT test, that will be extremely detailed, with a high turnover of items within any five-year period. If occupiers of flats are not obliged to declare all relevant items whenever exchanged for another, or whenever a new item is brought in, this could create an impossible task for managers. Therefore, if the Minister agrees to this amendment, in detail or in principle, some of these issues must be addressed.
I suggest a phased approach, to allow for the most at risk and the most dangerous situations to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. Here, I am with the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, but for the rest, one must ensure that the arrangements are put in place in a workmanlike manner, that they are practical and, particularly, that manufacturers and retailers be locked into the chain of compliance. Also, there has to be a cultural change, so that every occupier of a high-rise block realises that they have a responsibility and an input, and that they are pivotal in procuring safety and ensuring that they do not misuse—or fail to maintain and clean—their appliances or operate them in unsuitable locations. I recognise, approve and agree with the thrust of these amendments, but I remain concerned about some of the detail.
My Lords, I declare an interest, having lived for nearly 20 years as a private tenant in—under the definition in this amendment—a high-rise block in London. I am trying to work through how a register would apply, because I have never solely rented. It has always been part of a multiple-occupancy residency within a council-owned block where a private owner has bought a property and then leased it out to the likes of me.
The amendment seems to be approaching this the wrong way around. The poorer one is, the more one will be buying second-hand goods and not buying direct from manufacturers, particularly with white goods. Systems of registration can never easily apply with that. The Government should be looking at the opportunity—although it cannot be fitted into this Bill at this moment—whereby there is an incentive at local authority level for there to be certificates of competence in relation to properties that are being let out, in relation to electrics and gas, so that one can see that the standard has been met. Such a system would quickly isolate those who were not prepared to have the relevant certificates in place, who would then become the primary targets for enforcement investigation. It seems that the market could assist in a significant part of the solution if it was required to parade its worthiness in an effective public way in terms of the safety of a property.
Under this definition, this building would be a high-rise building. In planning terms this is one building, with at least two occupied residences; there may be more that I am unaware of. That is not necessarily an argument against this amendment, and might even be one in favour of it, to fast-forward some of the building changes that are needed in here. However, rightly, the focus has been the Government’s focus. I make no criticism whatever of this or of contributors in this debate, in terms of traditional high-rise. However, while I am in favour of the Government’s approach in wanting more office-style or above-shop conversions over the last 20 years, often these buildings were not designed as accommodation, and, having seen first-hand some of those which have been done over the last 20 years, if they are badly designed, the fire risk seem disproportionately high. That aspect of “above-shop”, which could be two, three, four or storeys in some cases, in terms of accommodation, needs more attention from the Government, and potentially, more powers for local authorities.
Finally, in the context of Clause 1—I hope that the building safety Bill is the appropriate place for this—the fire risk in fixed Traveller sites and park home sites is a different kind of problem. The problem could be immediately outside the property. Park home sites in particular may be constrained by a perimeter wall, and the fire risk comes from the lack of space therein. I have direct experience of challenging that, and it has been fiendishly difficult to do anything about it in law. I hope, as the Government move the building safety Bill forward, that the question of properties on fixed Traveller sites and park home sites will be looked at, including in the context of fire safety. More can and should be done there.
My Lords, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I strongly support this group of amendments, and it is good to see cross-party support for them.
At previous stages of the Bill, I spoke on the importance of increased electrical safety checks. In view of what we are now hearing from the Grenfell inquiry, such checks of electrical systems and appliances in high-rise blocks are vital. As the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said, there should be a safer home environment and we should be translating good intention to action. I strongly agree. He reminded us that almost half of domestic fires relate to an electrical fault, and also of the precedent of a register of electrical equipment in student housing blocks.
The noble Lord, Lord Randall, made a number of points on second-hand electrical equipment, which I hope the Minister will note. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, explained that the cost is minimal. This derives, in part, from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Best, in Committee, where he identified how the cost could be much lower than people had thought. My noble friend Lord Tope called for a clear commitment from the Minister on what action the Government are proposing and when they are proposing to implement it.
It has been said that the legislation will be complicated to enforce. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, made a number of detailed points about the responsibilities of leaseholders and those with other kinds of tenure. I hope the Minister responds to those points, particularly in view of the distinction that may have to be drawn between systems and appliances. The points made by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, will be very helpful in drafting regulations. He said that we need a cultural change; that has to be right.
The noble Lord, Lord Mann, has personal knowledge of living in a residential block as a private tenant. That experience will clearly be helpful to the proceedings of the House. He raised a number of important issues on design, which I hope the Minister will note.
It is important to understand the issue properly. It is surely the right of tenants and leaseholders of high-rise blocks to feel more secure. This is a public safety issue. I cannot understand why checks are required in the private rented sector but not for high-rise blocks, except where the property in that block is privately rented. I hope that we hear something helpful on this from the Minister in a moment.
Finally, there is going to be a responsible person. I am fully in support of that, but such a person needs responsibilities to undertake. This group of amendments presents some responsibilities that seem central and core to the duties and obligations of a responsible person. For that reason, I fully support this group of amendments.
My Lords, as this is the first time I am speaking on Report today, I refer the House to my relevant registered interests—namely, as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, chair of the Heart of Medway housing association and a non-executive director of MHS Homes Ltd. I support the Fire Safety Bill. My main concern across the whole Bill is the speed with which we are moving forward. That is the main issue for me with this and other amendments.
I fully support the amendments before us today in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, and other noble Lords. I tried to sign up to these amendments, but I was too late; all the spaces had already gone when I contacted the Public Bill Office. I have made it clear to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, that he has my full support, and I pay tribute to him for raising these issues, as he did on 29 October during the consideration of the Bill in Committee. I also put on record my admiration for the charity Electrical Safety First, and Robert Jervis-Gibbons and his colleagues, for all the work they do to highlight the danger of electrical fires to both property and people. Through their campaigning work, we have managed to make progress in recent years in the area of fires started by electrical ignition.
In speaking in this debate, noble Lords mentioned the fires at Lakanal House in Southwark, Shepherds Court in Shepherd’s Bush and Grenfell Tower—all examples of the tragedies that electrical fires can cause. We need to ensure that action is taken. As has been clearly set out to the House, these amendments are intended to build on the Electrical Safety Standards in the Private Rented Sector (England) Regulations 2020, which provide for mandatory checks in the private sector every five years. Those regulations were good news, and the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, deserves credit for all his work in bringing them into force.
What now needs to be addressed is the tenure lottery that has been created, as private tenants in a building will be covered by the regulations but social tenants and owner-occupiers will not. There are three types of tenure, but only one would be required to have electrical safety checks. You can see the problem: if you have a block of flats but only some of the properties are tested, covered and confirmed as safe, or have remedial work that is needed and undertaken, but others are not checked, the building is then not safe. How can some properties be required by law to be checked, when others are not? That has to change. I suggest that, to be certain the building is safe for all dwellings, it would need to be checked by a competent person. If it is for only some of the dwelling, you cannot deem the building to be safe.
The amendments before us also provide for a responsible person, which is a new role that I fully support, to be brought into being to compile a register of every white good in a building. This would ensure that, when a recall of a product occurs, we can quickly identify all the affected appliances and the safety issue can quickly be resolved. This does not take away responsibility from the people who sell the appliance or the manufacturers, but it is another important safety measure.
The Government may take the view that they cannot commit to this, at this stage. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, has not indicated that he wishes to test the opinion of the House, but I hope to have a considered opinion from the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, on these important amendments. I also hope that the noble Lord and his team will look at what goes on in other parts of the world—certainly in Australia—where there are much stricter regimes about electrical white goods than elsewhere. They need to be looked at because, clearly, if this can work in other parts of the world, it can work here. All these amendments are about keeping people safe, and I fully support them.
My Lords, I refer to my relevant commercial and residential property interests as set out in the register. I thank my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth for his amendment, which shines a light on the important issue of electrical safety. Indeed, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for his clear focus and mission to prevent fires happening in the first place as a result of electrical faults as absolutely the key. I also thank my noble friend for the constructive meeting that we had on this issue last week, involving my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge. I recognise the covering fire received from the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Whitty, for this amendment, and in particular, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, mentioned, the work of the Electrical Safety First organisation. I commend the latter for the work that it is doing to raise awareness of the risks of electrical fires. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Mann, for pointing out the issues around second-hand electrical goods; this is a particularly difficult area to regulate and something that we need to look into.
I will not reiterate all the points that I raised in Committee, but I will mention two concerns that I have in relation to this amendment. First, I note that the wording has changed to focus on high-rise buildings, but I am still concerned that it would not have the effect that my noble friend seeks to achieve. In particular, it is doubtful that the amendment would result in electrical appliances in private dwellings being brought within the scope of the fire safety order. This in turn will thwart the amendment’s underlying objectives for systematic checks on electrical appliances and for the responsible person to keep a register of appliances, as required by the additional schedule proposed in this amendment.
My other concern is that the amendment risks delaying the implementation of necessary reforms to fire safety regulation. A number of concerns have been raised in both your Lordships’ House and the other place about the pace of reform to fire and building safety legislation. We now have a package of reforms: this Bill, the upcoming fire safety order regulations, and the building safety Bill. The amendment would impact on the delivery of this package of legislation, and in particular on the fire safety order regulations.
A lot of the detail of this amendment is left to be implemented through regulations, and the work that this would require would lead to significant delays in our being able to deliver other key recommendations from the Grenfell inquiry. The answer to addressing the concern about electrical safety lies in the work that is being undertaken across government, which includes a number of strands. I will not repeat all of the work that I referenced in Committee but will pick out some key aspects.
A regulatory regime is in place on product safety, underpinned by legislation and overseen by a national regulator, the Office for Product Safety and Standards, which was created in 2018. This regime places responsibility for the safety of products on those actors best placed to ensure this before products are placed on the market. The draft building safety Bill reflects the role that all parties have to play in ensuring the safety of high-rise dwellings, from the developer to the accountable person to the residents themselves, and electrical safety is an important part of this. As mentioned by a number of noble Lords, there are standards for electrical checks in private rented accommodation, which require that electrical equipment is checked at least every five years. This is already in place for new tenancies and will apply to existing tenancies from 1 April 2021.
I recognise the concerns expressed by a number of noble Lords with respect to there being no mandatory checks on social housing. The inequality between social and private housing was raised by my noble friend Lord Randall and the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Kennedy. I am pleased to say that today we have published a social housing White Paper, which sets out our charter for social housing residents. It includes a commitment to undertake a consultation on keeping social housing residents safe from electrical harm. Among a range of issues, this will consider extending the safety measures already in the private rented sector to social housing.
I assure my noble friend that the Government take the issues raised in his amendment very seriously indeed. In that regard I am happy to give him a firm commitment that, outside the Bill process, my officials will engage Electrical Safety First and other key stakeholders in an official-led working group to inform the content of our consultation. Given the assurances that I have provided, I ask my noble friend to agree to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I first thank everybody who has participated in the debate on the amendments in this group. It has been a very worthwhile discussion, and every noble Lord who participated added something valuable. It is clear that there is broad support within the House for action, and a recognition of the inequality that exists between private tenants on the one hand and social tenants—and indeed owner-occupiers—on the other hand.
I note what my noble friend the Minister said in relation to some of the detailed points in the consideration of the amendments that may cause concern; clearly they are matters that could be looked at. I agree with my noble friend the Minister on the importance of what has happened today in relation to the White Paper, although I note that there is no timescale attached to that. Before I withdraw my amendment, which I am minded to do, I will press my noble friend a little on two matters. First, would he be willing to meet with me and the other signatories to the amendment ahead of the building safety Bill to see how we can dovetail what we are seeking to do here with that Bill? I know from discussions with him that he felt that that Bill was a more appropriate medium to use, so I seek that from him.
Secondly, I thank him very much for the undertaking that he has given to meet with Electrical Safety First, along with officials, to consider the proposals in the social housing White Paper as to possible timescales. He will understand that we are now three and a half years after the dreadful events of Grenfell. The social housing White Paper has been a long time forthcoming, for reasons that I do understand, and we are now looking at a future consultation; we do not—and I am sure he does not—want this stretching out a long time into the future. So I will just press him a little bit on those two matters before I withdraw my amendment.
My Lords, I am very happy to give my noble friend the assurance that we can meet together before the introduction of the building safety Bill. Indeed, as soon as I have more information about the timescales in relation to the social housing White Paper being turned into legislation, I will be able to provide that to my noble friend. I am happy also to agree to meet with the Electrical Safety First organisation; I would find that very constructive indeed.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendments 2 to 4 not moved.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 5. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or any other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in debate.
Clause 2: Power to change premises to which the Fire Safety Order applies
5: Clause 2, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
“( ) The consultation under subsection (5) must involve—(a) local authorities;(b) relevant trade unions including but not limited to those representing firefighters;(c) relevant organisations representing firefighters;(d) bodies representing tenants and residents of impacted properties; and(e) any other bodies deemed relevant by the Secretary of State.( ) A report detailing the findings of the consultation under subsection (5) must be laid before Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would ensure that any consultation must include local authorities, trade unions, and representatives of tenants and residents.
My Lords, this is an issue that I raised in Committee, and I confirm that I have no intention of dividing the House on it this afternoon. I have tabled it again to give the Minister the opportunity to put beyond any doubt that the organisations that I have listed will be consulted, without question, because they are important in their different ways. I accept the point that has been made before that things change over time, but I think it is a reasonable assumption that we will have local authorities, trade unions representing firefighters and other workers in the sector more generally, and associations representing tenants and residents, for the foreseeable future, and that consultation must go much wider than the National Fire Chiefs Council.
Amendment 6 from the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, is a probing amendment, as the noble Baroness makes clear in her explanatory statement, allowing the Minister to offer clarity to the House. Again, I welcome the amendment made in that spirit by the noble Baroness and I beg to move.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I think that he and I agree on the value of consultation in many different arenas.
My probing amendment relates to an appalling situation arising as an indirect consequence of the Grenfell tragedy. As a direct result of that fire, vast amounts of cladding, especially on high-rise blocks, will have to be removed. The requirements for improvement consequently imposed on those concerned—freeholders, leaseholders and so on—affect a very large number of multiple-occupation dwellings, unnecessarily, some might say, whatever their height. As a consequence, surveyors, insurers and mortgage lenders, all financially involved, have become very concerned by their clients’ potential unquantified exposure to risk and are taking steps to minimise it. Inevitably, they are taking a cautious view. Wooden features such as staircases and partitions—used since the dawn of time and much more sustainable than steel or plastic derivatives—are often viewed with suspicion.
A particular uncertainty is what the remedial action will cost and who will bear that cost. There is currently no good answer to that concern and, as a consequence, much of the market is effectively frozen. Thus, many properties are in practice unsaleable, with knock-on effects on people’s financial viability and the mobility of workers. As I emphasised in Committee, this is a nightmare for the young who want to move when they have a baby, for the old who want to trade down to something smaller and release capital for their care, and for the unemployed who need to move to get a new job.
I explained all that in Committee, and I think it would be fair to say that, although the Minister, in responding, accepted that there was a problem, he said nothing about how it might be solved. I hope that we can move a step forward today and that the Minister will be able to say something that will ease up the market in respect of at least some of the dwellings where the fire risk is small. Standing back, it is apparent that the Bill takes us in the wrong direction on this issue, because it provides for an increase in the number of requirements and regulations without providing a way forward on the threat to the housing market and our reputation as supporters of home ownership, which many people aspire to.
To be more specific, first, can the Minister provide a clear trajectory for the implementation of the Bill, the revisions to the fire safety order and the building safety Bill to reassure us on consistency and show how the uncertainty and unintended consequences for leaseholders arising as a result of these changes will be kept to a minimum?
Secondly, what assessment have the Government made of the availability of qualified assessors and fire safety engineers to account for the increased demand that will arise from the Bill? How can they help in this regard?
Thirdly, can the Government develop a system, such as you might see in the health and safety area, referenced earlier, that allows non-professionals involved in managing multiple-occupation properties to do the necessary risk assessments and give the assurances needed for the market to move? The EWS1 system—designed, I believe, to help with the mortgage problem—has, unfortunately, had a perverse effect.
Fourthly, can the Minister say anything to unfreeze properties—for example, those of a low height where the risk is much less?
This is a very difficult issue and I know that my noble friend the Minister, with his experience of local government, understands the issues and has been trying very hard. I welcome the considerable funds made available to deal with the most serious high-rise cladding issue and the progress that is therefore being made. He should also be thanked for his wider efforts to improve the housing sector and build more homes. However, the problem that I have described, with support from my noble friend Lord Shinkwin in Committee, is a very serious one and we need action now. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will be winding up on this group, I should like to say that I, like my noble friend Lord Bourne, would appreciate a further meeting on how we tackle this matter before the new order and the building safety Bill proceed.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, has made a number of helpful and very important points. Amendment 6 seeks clarification from the Minister on a number of problems in relation to leaseholders and the impact on the housing market of the current problems with selling properties. I, too, look forward to the Minister’s response, as it would be helpful to us all to have an up-to-date understanding of his thinking.
We shall, of course, address this matter on Amendment 13 as well, as it is central to the future management of high-rise accommodation, or the less high-rise accommodation that nevertheless still suffers from some of the problems of the high-rise blocks. As the noble Baroness said, we need a way forward for the housing market in solving the problems of some leaseholders. I entirely agree with that, and I hope that forthcoming meetings will be able to address those issues.
Amendment 5, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, is entirely sensible. Of course it is right to consult properly and fully in developing legislation, so I assume that the Minister will be able to confirm this afternoon his entire agreement to this amendment because it is so eminently sensible.
My Lords, although I certainly agree with the thrust of Amendment 5, it is Amendment 6, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, that I really wish to address.
Many of my years in the property profession have been spent in survey inspections, with a spell in estate agency and mortgage valuations and brief periods in block management, and I have spent a good deal of time on the forensic identification of defects. Therefore, I feel reasonably well qualified to support the noble Baroness, and I thank her for raising this important issue, which affects the residential sector. Rightly, she referred to the indirect effect of the Grenfell tragedy. That is a matter on which I have been in constant contact with the Chartered Association of Building Engineers, of which I am a patron and which has been very helpful in identifying various matters in respect of the Bill.
As the noble Baroness said, the effect on the residential market for flats in particular, and over a very broad spectrum by age and type, is now apparent. This has affected security for mortgage lending, exacerbated by the prospect of large and, as the noble Baroness said, unquantified remediation bills. Some sort of game of pass the parcel seems to be in train as to who will end up picking up those bills. It affects buildings insurance cover and premiums, and interim measures such as “waking watch” are racking up huge costs. These and the likely shortfall, as I see it, in the provision for remediation made by the Government—welcome though that is, but nevertheless there is a shortfall as against the widening scope of the buildings that might ultimately be affected—have seriously affected the ability to sell flats. It is not clear that this is in any way confined to high rise, as I am increasingly aware, as one of my children attempts to sell a flat in a four-storey modern and, I believe, conventionally constructed block.
A few days ago, a lady emailed me to say that she is a resident of a sister block to the one in Worcester Park which burned down last year. She is completely stuck with a currently worthless asset and no apparent movement on remediation. The latest Sunday Times carried an article about this, graphically illustrating the issues and defects that have been found to be present in a number of remaining identical buildings that are still standing.
Before this gets yet more problematic and starts affecting potentially a far wider range of properties than at present, the Government need to use their powers and influence to get all the interested parties round a table—constructers, lenders, insurers—and point out, as the noble Baroness said, the reputational as well as economic and social damage that needs to be contained beyond the issue of direct liability and who shoulders that, and require their active co-operation to resolve this in a constructive manner and not leave vulnerable homeowners, to put it bluntly, hung out to dry.
I appreciate the criticism of the EWS1 form, but it came about because of a particular need to do with mortgage lending. It is now being required for a much wider range of purposes, for which it was never intended. Why? Because it was the only tool available. The Government could step into this obvious void and make sure that some other form of certification solution was provided. But they, or somebody else, would have to take responsibility for that, and I realise that that is an issue. Meanwhile, the potential liabilities make it ever less likely that those without specific accreditation to do the necessary inspections will be willing to undertake such work and, indeed, they may not be able to get professional indemnity insurance either.
The Government need to get ahead of the curve here. If these measures are rushed into effect with full force immediately and without additional steps, there will be more serious disruption and collateral damage to come. I suggest there be a phased and managed approach aimed at containing the ill effects, restoring trust and confidence, above all, in the measures being put in place and limiting financial loss while dealing, most importantly, with the most pressing issues where residents’ safety is at the greatest peril. None of this is without risk; nor is the normal “Not my responsibility, guvnor” liability-passing response appropriate in these abnormal times, given the number of national issues we face and the effect on the wider economy.
This means temporary but probably arbitrary cut-offs, probably in height terms—11 metres may be the right figure for blocks of flats—perhaps with certain other definitions, then dealing with those and drawing the net more widely later on and inevitably, as one will, picking up legacy issues from older regulatory sign-offs on the way. Some sort of lower-tier interim certification, which the noble Baroness referred to, perhaps by a non-specialist, would enable low-risk properties to escape the contagion that might otherwise engulf the sector. I wonder if this is what the Minister will propose in Amendment 7. I will listen with great interest to his response.
My Lords, I remind the House of my interests, as recorded in the register, as a councillor in Kirklees and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I turn first to Amendment 6, through which the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, has raised concerns about the inclusion of all multi-occupied domestic premises within the scope of the Bill. The issues raised relate to leaseholders who find that they are, in effect, unable to move as their property is within the scope of the Bill and, therefore, that the fire risk exists but is not quantified. The later amendment in my name explores these issues in more detail.
In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, spoke on behalf of the Minister and confirmed that the Government intend that all multi-occupational buildings are within the scope of the Bill and the fire safety order 2005. He also argued in Committee that the height of a building is only one factor in assessing fire risk, and others have given recent examples of fires in such buildings that support that argument. The issue, then, is about prioritisation, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has so expertly explained, and what actions the Government are able to take to minimise the impact on properties deemed low priority and, therefore, presumably of lower risk. It is that issue that the Minister needs to clarify. Will the Government bring forward regulations or guidance to demonstrate the criteria to be used to fire assess properties? Can these be used by leaseholders to demonstrate low risk, and thus release their property from being frozen out of the housing market? I look forward to the Minister’s response to these concerns.
The other amendment in this group, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, raises issues about consultation. It lists consultees, as a very similar amendment did in Committee. My colleagues and I are always in favour of the widest possible consultation on any issue. However, there is an inherent risk in a list that becomes exclusive while intending to be inclusive. The list of consultees is one which we would expect, however, to be involved in all relevant consultations. As my noble friend Lord Shipley said, the list is inherently sensible, so I hope the Minister will be able to accept such a list. Again, I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for raising the issue of engagement to make sure the right groups and organisations are consulted on any changes or clarifications to the types of premises that fall within the scope of the fire safety order. The Government have given this matter further consideration since Committee stage. I support the noble Lord’s aim of ensuring that the widest range of groups are given an opportunity to comment. It is sensible to seek views from all groups impacted by any future changes, which is why Clause 2 of the Fire Safety Bill provides a requirement to consult anyone appropriate, which is likely to include all the parties highlighted in the amendment.
Robust policy-making can be achieved only by reaching out to all sections of the fire sector and other interested parties, such as responsible persons and residents, not by relying solely on the expertise of certain groups. To be clear, of course we will consult with the National Fire Chiefs Council but equally, we will consult with the Fire Brigades Union and with tenants’ and residents’ associations.
The Government are committed to considering the most appropriate means of conducting any future consultation before making any regulations—regulations which Parliament would have an opportunity to scrutinise, should it so wish. It remains the case that the specified list as presented identifies groups whose role, name or function may change over time, potentially creating the need for future primary legislative changes or making such provision ineffective. However, the Bill as drafted safeguards against this while ensuring that relevant groups are not excluded. I want to assure your Lordships’ House that we recognise the importance of consulting relevant stakeholders, but the wording of Clause 2 already allows us to do just that, without the need to be prescriptive in the way the noble Lord’s amendment suggests.
I turn now to the very important consumer issues raised by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe. I had a meeting with my noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lord Shinkwin, and I am very happy to commit to a further meeting before the introduction of the building safety Bill. These are huge consumer issues, and I praise my noble friend for being a champion of the consumer. We recognise that many leaseholders’ properties have been valued at zero, they are waiting for remediation of their properties and they are unable to remortgage or to move. They are effectively trapped, and the Government recognise that that is a considerable issue for them. We also recognise that the costs of historic building safety and fire safety remediation will be considerably more than the £1.6 billion already committed. It is important to address that in a way that is affordable to leaseholders, and there are only certain ways of doing that. We will make announcements on that in due course.
Equally, we recognise that the pace of remediation is important. I have talked to many people in the social housing sector about the fact that they have probably overspent on waking watch. I am very pleased that we provided guidance on waking watch, the cost of which is exorbitantly high; it can be replaced by a fire alarm system within six or seven weeks, which reduces some of the costs of interim measures. I draw the attention of those using waking watch for extended periods to the most recent guidance from the National Fire Chiefs Council and the work on waking watch costs. I am very happy to commit to a further meeting.
Turning to the amendment, I thank the noble Lord for his continued input on the Fire Safety Bill and for his amendment seeking clarity on how the Government intend to use the power to change the types of premises to which the fire safety order applies. I remind noble Lords that the purpose of the Bill is to improve fire safety in all the buildings to which it applies to make sure that residents feel safe in their homes. I know this objective is shared by all in your Lordships’ House and the other place. The Government believe we have the right buildings within the scope of the order at present, but it is important that we create the right legislative framework to provide the flexibility to make future changes to the types of buildings which may pose a risk. The Bill may be on the statute book for a long time, and this clause allows us to keep it agile and relevant to emerging changes. If, for example, a new design of building emerges in future, we will want to make sure that it can be captured without the need for further primary legislation.
The clause is not intended to be a blunt instrument. We have introduced a robust set of safeguards to ensure that relevant parties can comment on any future changes. However, I understand the concerns about the current mortgage and insurance situation that my noble friend is looking to address, and which I have already discussed. We are working with lenders on a more proportionate approach to the assessment of fire safety risks for valuation purposes, which will benefit residents. The updated fire risk assessments following this Bill should provide the further reassurance that lenders are looking for in the EWS1. I hope this gives my noble friend confidence that our aim is to ensure flexibility, and not a form of mission creep to bring more premises under the order. Given the assurances I have provided, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, to withdraw his amendment and my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe not to move hers.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response to this short debate and for putting clearly on the record his views on consultation, which I fully support. As he said, it is important to have a wide range of appropriate consultees.
I also fully support the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe. We cannot allow people to continue to live in properties that are, effectively, worth nothing. I hope that the meeting referred to will take place, but it is also important that when builders construct these buildings and give warranties and guarantees, they are upheld. It cannot be right to allow builders to walk away from their obligations under warranties and guarantees have given; they need to be held accountable. I hope that the Minister will take back that very important point. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
Amendment 6 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 7. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division should make that clear in the debate.
7: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Risk based guidance about the discharge of duties under the Fire Safety Order
(1) Article 50 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (S.I. 2005/1541) (guidance) is amended as follows.(2) After paragraph (1) insert—“(1A) Where in any proceedings it is alleged that a person has contravened a provision of articles 8 to 22 or of regulations made under article 24 in relation to a relevant building (or part of the building)—(a) proof of a failure to comply with any applicable risk based guidance may be relied on as tending to establish that there was such a contravention, and(b) proof of compliance with any applicable risk based guidance may be relied on as tending to establish that there was no such contravention.”(3) After paragraph (2) insert—“(2A) Before revising or withdrawing any risk based guidance in relation to relevant buildings the Secretary of State must consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”(4) After paragraph (3) insert—“(4) In this article—“relevant building” means a building in England containing two or more sets of domestic premises;“risk based guidance” means guidance under paragraph (1) about how a person who is subject to the duties mentioned there in relation to more than one set of premises is to prioritise the discharge of those duties in respect of the different premises by reference to risk.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that, where the Secretary of State issues risk based guidance under the existing duty to ensure the availability of appropriate guidance, proof of compliance or a lack of compliance with that guidance can be used in legal proceedings. It also requires the Secretary of State to consult before revising or withdrawing risk based guidance.
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 14. In Committee I made a commitment to set out during today’s debate the Government’s position on how the Fire Safety Bill will be commenced. Your Lordships’ House is aware that the Home Office established an independent task and finish group, chaired jointly by the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Sector Federation, which brought together interested parties from across the fire and housing sectors. Its role was to provide a recommendation on the optimal way to commence the Bill. The group advised that the Bill should be commenced at once for all buildings in scope. I have accepted this recommendation to commence the Fire Safety Bill at once for all buildings in scope on a single date.
The group also recommended that responsible persons under the fire safety order should use a risk-based approach to carrying out or reviewing fire risk assessments upon commencement by way of using a risk operating model, and that the Government issue statutory guidance to support this approach. I also agreed to this recommendation, which will support responsible persons to develop an effective prioritisation strategy for such assessments, which will be supported by a risk operating model currently being developed. The Home Office, with support from the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Sector Federation, will also host this model once it has been finalised.
The government amendments tabled today intend to take forward the provision of statutory guidance to support this approach. These amendments ensure that the risk-based guidance which will be issued by the Secretary of State to support commencement of the Bill for all relevant buildings will have the legal status to incentivise compliance with it. It does this by stating explicitly that a court can consider whether a responsible person has complied with their duties under the fire safety order by compliance with the risk-based guidance. Equally, if a responsible person has failed to provide evidence that they have complied, it may be relied on by a court as tending to support non-compliance with the duties under the order.
The government amendment also creates a provision to allow the Secretary of State to withdraw the risk-based guidance, but this can be done only after consultation with relevant stakeholders and appropriate persons. Our rationale for inserting this provision is that we believe that a point will eventually be reached where, having followed a risk-based approach to prioritisation, responsible persons will have assessed all the fire safety risks for the external walls of their buildings in direct consequence of the commencement of the Bill. At that stage there may no longer be a need for the guidance to remain in place. I assure your Lordships’ House that the Government will commence the Bill at the same time as issuing the guidance. Amendment 14 achieves this effect.
I thank my noble friend Lord Porter of Spalding for his amendment in Committee, which would have placed a duty on the Secretary of State to issue an approved code of practice to support the commencement of the Bill. I had a very constructive discussion with my noble friend and officials from the Local Government Association last week, and I am pleased that he supports our approach and agrees that there should be no delay in commencing the Bill.
One of the issues that the task and finish group considered was how responsible persons will be able to update their fire risk assessment where there is limited capacity in the fire risk assessor sector, primarily fire engineers, to advise on external wall systems. This underlines the recommendation for a risk-based approach to an all-at-once commencement, on which we are acting. Our approach sends a signal to the fire risk assessor sector, mainly fire engineers, that their expertise should first be directed to where it is needed most: to the highest risk buildings.
I draw attention the statement of the Fire Sector Federation, which supports our approach to commencement. It said that
“the introduction of further new measures … using systematic risk- based guidance, will lead a prioritisation approach towards helping to identify the fire risk status for a … building such that those presenting the highest threat to life are afforded the highest priority”
for “remedial action.”
I thank all members of the task and finish group for their work in developing advice to the Home Office and my officials. I consider that the group has provided an optimal solution to commencing the Fire Safety Bill, allowing the Government to introduce the provisions at the earliest opportunity. It is important that we continue the good work undertaken with relevant stakeholders on the task and finish group, with a view regularly to monitoring the effectiveness of the risk-based guidance and risk-operating model. My amendments seek to take forward the recommendations from operational experts in the field of fire safety. I beg to move.
My Lords, the proposed risk-based guidance set out in the amendment is extremely welcome, particularly if it means what I think it means: assessment not only by building type but in relation to the specifics. The risk-operating model is especially welcome in this respect, and I thank the Minister for tabling the amendment. When is the guidance likely to be finalised? It is linked to the Bill coming into force and it is important that it be done as soon as possible, subject to reasonable scrutiny. We need reasonable certainty and to calm financial, insurance and property market fears.
Knowing the limited scrutiny that secondary legislation receives, can the Minister give an assurance that the guidance will be unequivocal—in clear, jargon-free and plain English, capable of consistent application and not liable to misleading or alternative interpretations? I say that with some feeling, having had to deal with matters of regulation over many years. Can the Minister also say whether there will be consultation on the details —in the knowledge that, within reason, the sooner this measure is brought in, the better—and whether there will be parliamentary scrutiny of it?
I particularly welcome the Minister’s reference to the signal that will be given to the accreditation sector and the insistence on indicating priorities. Getting capacity will clearly be an issue and the person responsible for a building—as happens in some employment situations—does not necessarily need to be an externally trained professional.
I will raise one further issue. A member of my family, as I mentioned earlier, has a flat in a relatively low-rise block in a London borough. I spent a bit of time on the borough’s website looking for details of the 2006 planning consent that governed its construction. Unfortunately, all the information—bar the notice—was missing from the website. I was told that I could make an application; it is not clear whether or not I would have to pay for that.
The other aspect of this is the information that goes into building control, which should be the details of how the building is to be constructed. If people are to be able to make a reasoned assessment of the safety or otherwise of their building, having that constructional information is rather important. The standard approach, however, is that building regulation information is not readily accessible on demand and may involve copyright issues where plans are provided. This may be fair enough, but there is an overriding need to know. If the architect, or the approved inspector—or whoever might have this information, since it might not be in the local authority records—cannot be traced, the only solution, which may have to happen anyway to some extent, would be for someone to take intrusive steps to open up parts of the building for inspection.
That basic information, which at some stage must have gone into the public domain or been used for an approved building regulation inspection, needs to be rounded up. Can the Minister offer any comfort or reassurance that steps will be taken to make sure that this essential information is recovered and available to those who need it?
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, has withdrawn from speaking to this group of amendments so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock.
My Lords, these government amendments, as described, seek to clarify what evidence of culpability, in relation to compliance with the regulations, is required. The very fact that government amendments have been tabled to the Bill at this late stage shows the importance and value of the scrutiny work of this House.
As the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has just said, a risk-based approach is essential to ensuring that high-risk buildings are prioritised and to calming financial sector fears. The timing of the publication of the guidance to which the Minister has referred is vital if the implementation of the changes in the Bill, and the guidance, are to take effect as soon as possible. These are important additions to the Bill, and we support them.
My Lords, I am very happy to support government Amendments 7 and 14 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh. These amendments respond to the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Porter of Spalding, whose amendments I moved in Committee because he was having connectivity issues.
I have read the briefing from the Local Government Association, which confirms its support for the government amendments but reflects the concerns it raised about the fact that there were far too few fire risk assessors competent and insured to carry out the fire risk assessments of buildings with external wall cladding systems required under the Fire Safety Bill. We need to implement these powers quickly, and this is a reasonable way forward. The LGA is happy and I, too, am happy to support what the Minister is proposing today.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this short debate. I will address a couple of points. I assure the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, that I will endeavour to see that the regulation is written in plain English that even I can understand. In response to the noble Earl and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, I agree that the timing is important, and guidance will be available at commencement.
These government amendments ensure that the risk-based guidance issued by the Secretary of State to support commencement of the provisions in the Bill that apply to all relevant buildings has the right legal status to incentivise compliance. These amendments also ensure that the Government can commence the Bill for all relevant buildings as early as possible after Royal Assent and at the same time as the risk-based guidance is issued.
I am sure that noble Lords will agree that there should be no delays in bringing this Bill into force. I thank the task and finish group for all its hard work in developing the advice to the Home Office, which I consider the optimal solution for commencing the Bill. It is important that we get this right, which is why we have listened to the views of the experts who will have to implement the Bill. I beg to move.
Amendment 7 agreed.
We now come to Amendment 8. I remind noble Lords that Members, other than the mover and the Minister, may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division should make that clear in debate.
8: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Duties of owner or manager
The relevant authority must by regulations amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) to require an owner or a manager of any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises to—(a) share information with their local Fire and Rescue Service in respect of each building for which an owner or manager is responsible about the design of its external walls and details of the materials of which those external walls are constructed; (b) in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake annual inspections of individual flat entrance doors; (c) in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake monthly inspections of lifts and report the results to their local Fire and Rescue Service if the results include a fault; and(d) share evacuation and fire safety instructions with residents of the building.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would place various requirements on building owners or managers of buildings containing two or more sets of domestic premises, and would implement recommendations made in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 Report.
My Lords, Amendment 8 in my name seeks to make progress in respect of the recommendations of the first phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. I intend to test the opinion of the House on this amendment.
It is disappointing that progress has been so slow, in all matters, following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017. That is a matter of huge regret and, quite frankly, unacceptable. I have stood at this Dispatch Box for years urging the Government to move forward on all aspects of the tragedy with greater speed and urgency, but that plea has so far not been answered. We have on record pledges from Ministers to implement the full recommendations in the report of the first phase of the inquiry, but this Bill does not include provision for any of those recommendations to be implemented. That is most regrettable.
When this Bill was before the other place the Government did not take the opportunity to correct this, and opposed bringing it forward. Instead, they said that they would launch a consultation. The consultation was launched in July and ended last month—a full year after they pledged to implement the first phase recommendations. That highlights the problem: we are not moving quickly enough. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, will explain to the House why the timescale that the Government are working to is so slow. People have waited far too long for legislative action.
I do not understand why the Government are not even prepared to include in the Bill the simplest of the inquiry’s recommendations, such as the inspection of fire doors and the testing of lifts. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why when he responds to the debate. These recommendations need to be implemented urgently. The Government need to do more and act with greater speed.
We remember that terrible night of 14 June 2017, with its dreadful loss of life and the ruin and devastation caused to the lives of those left behind. The physical scars may have healed, but the mental scars remain. It is beyond belief that, more than three years later, we have seen so little action.
This is the third piece of legislation from the Government. Today, people are still living in blocks of flats covered with ACM cladding; there are schools, hospitals and other buildings covered in it as well. Three years after the Grenfell Tower disaster, people will go to bed tonight having to rely on a waking watch. The cladding scandal has people trapped in their homes, unable to sell them and with the unimaginable worry that they are living in buildings which are potential death traps.
We ask the Government to take the long-overdue action to which they have committed themselves. It is urgent, necessary and right. Everyone concerned demands that these safety changes are put into effect. There is no justification for delay. The Government have given no reason for not acting immediately. They say that they want to do it not in this Bill but in the building safety Bill. That is just not acceptable, and I hope that the House will reject it. I beg to move.
My Lords, I strongly support the eloquent plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, that we should get on with what everybody knows needs to be done. No one is apparently objecting to it, but the Government have not yet acted. The sense of impatience in your Lordships’ House is much more strongly felt by those who live in blocks affected by ACM and by all the terrible flaws in building construction revealed during the Grenfell inquiry and in Dame Judith Hackitt’s responses.
Amendment 8 systematically lists some of the key requirements that Dame Judith’s report strongly commended and recommended be done. The Government came to your Lordships’ House—not once, not twice, but at three-monthly intervals, for two years—promising that everything would be implemented and that this was a high priority. I am afraid to say that opportunities have been missed. The draft building safety Bill is silent on these issues, so it is not simply a case of saying that it will come up there: it does not. The opportunity has also been missed to include it in this Bill.
Among the recommendations is the inspection of individual flat entrance doors. We all know that tenants and leaseholders have individual views about personalising their accommodation. Not surprisingly, many flat doors do not comply. A survey in July showed that, of the roughly 750,000 fire doors in buildings of this type, perhaps as many as three-quarters needed some action to make them compliant. There is a potential risk to the residents in block after block after block. The Government are now resisting Amendment 8, which sensibly includes the core requirements of Dame Judith’s report for making our buildings safe. We have to wonder exactly how sincere the Government are in their frequent, powerfully expressed commitments, which, unfortunately, they do not seem willing to implement.
Just this last week, I have been looking with members of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service at what needs to be done to satisfy the requirements emerging from the Grenfell inquiry. They told me that they have been inspecting high-rise buildings in Greater Manchester—as you would expect—with considerable diligence. Having reassessed the situation based on their professional knowledge, they have already required a number of those blocks to completely change their evacuation procedures. Surely it is time that these sensible requirements were included in legislation. It should not just be up to particularly diligent fire authorities to make residents safe, but to owners, leaseholders and the building industry.
Here is the opportunity for the Minister to accept the strength of the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. Will he come back at Third Reading and include provisions along these lines? If not, I shall certainly be joining the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in the Lobby at the end of this debate.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, has withdrawn, so I now call the noble Lord, Lord Shipley.
My Lords, I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Stunell. There have been—and still are—legislative opportunities for the Government to act. When the Minister sums up, I hope that he will urgently clarify the Government’s plans.
As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, said in introducing this group, progress has been disappointingly slow. He went on to say that it is “beyond belief” that, three years after the Grenfell fire, action is so slow. He is absolutely right. The general public will become increasingly worried by the deeply disturbing revelations of the Grenfell inquiry.
This amendment seeks to implement recommendations made in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase 1 report. Surely that is the right thing to do as a matter of urgency. This new clause would clarify the duties of an owner or manager in relation to a building with two or more sets of accommodation to provide information on its construction to a local fire and rescue service. Secondly, it would introduce annual inspections of individual flat doors. This is an essential change, given recent experience and the growth of our knowledge about the state of so many entrance doors. This clause would also require monthly inspections, and for evacuation and fire safety instructions to be shared with the building’s residents. What on earth can be wrong with these proposals?
There is nothing in this amendment which should be surprising or problematic. Frankly, the general public would expect nothing else. If the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, decides to press this matter to a vote, I shall certainly support him.
My Lords, this amendment, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is fundamental to the effective implementation of the principles of this Bill. The role of the responsible person is one of the recommendations of the Grenfell inquiry phase 1 report which was published more than a year ago. I quote from the recommendations in the report:
“No plans of the internal layout of the building were available to”
the London Fire Brigade
“until the later stages of the fire … It should be a simple matter for the owners or managers of high-rise buildings to provide their local fire and rescue services with current versions of such plans. I therefore recommend that the owner and manager of every high-rise residential building”—[Inaudible.]
The report continued:
“I therefore recommend that the owner and manager of every high-rise residential building be required by law:
a. to provide their local fire and rescue services with up-to-date plans in both paper and electronic form of every floor of the building identifying the location of key fire safety systems;
b. to ensure that the building contains a premises information box, the contents of which must include a copy of the up-to-date floor plans and information about the nature of any lift intended for use by the fire and rescue services.”
So last year, the Grenfell inquiry report asked for the speedy introduction of these recommendations. A year later, we are waiting.
I know that the Government have stated a firm commitment to implementing the recommendations of the inquiry, and the amendment seeks to rectify this absence of government legislative action. As my noble friend Lord Stunell so wisely said, we all agree that this action needs to be taken and we are all impatient for it to be put in place.
The Government said that this was a high priority. However, even the building safety Bill is silent on the matter. How then can we be assured that it is a high priority for them? Here we have an opportunity to show intent, as a consequence of that tragic fire at Grenfell, to ensure that others do not endure what Grenfell residents endured. If the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, pushes this amendment to a vote, we on this side will vote in support of this vital change.
My Lords, the Grenfell Tower fire was a tragedy of epic proportions. It was the largest loss of life in a residential fire since the Second World War. We have to recognise that a lot has happened and that a lot of actions have been taken by the Government since that event over three years ago.
The Government took early and decisive action to announce an independent Grenfell Tower inquiry. They took decisive action to start the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, led by Dame Judith Hackitt, and they took decisive action to establish the building safety programme. The Government took decisive action in setting up a comprehensive aluminium composite material—ACM—remediation programme. They took decisive action in setting up an independent expert panel to provide advice to government and building owners. They took decisive action in providing £600 million to help with the remediation of ACM high-rises. They took decisive action in providing a further £1 billion to remediate high-rises with other forms of flammable cladding. They took decisive action to ban combustible cladding on buildings within the scope of the ban. The Government took decisive action in introducing a protection board.
I accept that the pace of remediation has been slow, but I point to the progress that has been made this year in particular. This was a year when we had a global pandemic with two national lockdowns, and nevertheless we have seen a considerably greater number of on-site starts in those buildings—high-rises with the same cladding as Grenfell—and we are on track to see that around 90% of buildings will either have had the cladding removed or people will be on-site to complete that in a matter of months. That is real progress. This is cross-party; I thank Mayor Burnham, and Mayor Khan in London, but also the local authority leaders for their work to make sure that there has been real pace in the remediation this year. It is not easy to continue these construction programmes in that sort of environment.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for the amendment on the duties of an owner or manager. It is important that we discuss this amendment given the attention it has already received in the other place and in Committee in your Lordships’ House. I know that the noble Lord and other noble Lords have strong views on this issue and wish to see the Grenfell inquiry’s recommendations implemented as soon as possible. I share that intention. However, the Government do not consider that this amendment provides the most effective means of giving effect to the inquiry’s recommendations.
I hope to reassure the noble Lord that our shared objective can be achieved without the need for his amendments, which may in fact work against the swiftest possible implementation of the recommendations. I reiterate, as I said in my all-Peers letter and in Committee in your Lordships’ House, that the Government are, and always have been, committed to implementing and, where appropriate, legislating for the inquiry’s recommendations. This was a manifesto commitment and I am determined to ensure that we deliver on it.
I will set out our approach on this issue. It is right that we consulted before making regulations to deliver the Grenfell recommendations. As I set out in Committee, this was not solely because we have a statutory duty to do so—but we do, and this amendment is not in keeping with that duty. It also reflects Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s own view on the need to ensure broad support for recommendations and an understanding of the practical issues associated with implementing them. Our 12-week public consultation, which closed on 12 October, is allowing us to do just that. I am pleased to say that over 200 responses were received. It is important that we consider carefully those responses before finalising the precise policy detail to implement these new duties. Due consideration has to be given to the views of those who have submitted a response to the consultation.
I will highlight an example of that. The amendment tabled by the noble Lord prescribes a minimum set period for checks of both fire doors and lifts. As we consider our responses to the consultation, other approaches may be suggested that may provide more practical and proportionate options which are no less effective. The amendment may hinder our ability to deliver what may be a better solution for the safety of residents. I hope that is not the noble Lord’s intention, but I ask him to reflect on that fact. Understanding and acting on the consultation responses will ultimately help us to produce better, informed legislation, which we will deliver through regulations under the fire safety order as soon as possible after the Bill is commenced.
I reiterate that this amendment is not necessary and will not speed up the legislative process. It requires us to make regulations to amend the fire safety order to introduce new duties on the face of the order, but we consider that we already have the ability to implement such new duties through the power in Article 24 to make regulations, which we plan to use to implement a number of the Grenfell inquiry recommendations. Our intention is to introduce these regulations as soon as possible after the Bill is commenced.
I am also concerned about the impact of the misleading media coverage—even in recent media coverage written by Pippa Crerar that quotes the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark—after this amendment was voted on in the Commons on the Grenfell community’s faith in our commitment to deliver the Grenfell recommendations. I reassure the Grenfell community that the Government remain absolutely steadfast to their manifesto commitment to implement the inquiry’s recommendations.
I think that all noble Lords are seeking the same thing—the swift implementation of the Grenfell inquiry’s recommendations—and that is what the Government are committed to. While I understand the spirit of the amendment, it will not do that and may risk undermining our efforts. As such, I hope that the noble Lord will be content to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I have received no requests to speak after the Minister, so I now call the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions in this important debate. While I have no doubt of the sincerity of the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, on all these matters, it is most disappointing that again the Government have failed to take up the opportunity afforded to them to implement the recommendations of the first phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. They have said, and repeated today, that they are fully committed to implement those recommendations. What is the problem preventing that? The Government have repeatedly said that they are fully committed to doing so, but for some reason they will not do it. It is not good enough.
One goes home and reads or sees on the television the shocking revelations in the second phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, and, sadly, nothing that the noble Lord has said reassures me on these matters. The Government are not taking the decisive action that has again been referred to. It is three years and five months since the fire. I hope that the House will take decisive action and agree with my amendment. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, we now come to the group consisting of Amendment 9. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division should make that clear in debate.
9: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Application of the Fire Safety Order to short-term lettings premises
(1) The relevant authority must, by regulations under section 2, amend article 2 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (interpretation) as follows.(2) In the definition of “domestic premises”, after “one such dwelling);” insert—“but does not include any premises let to persons for gain as holiday or short-term accommodation during the occupancy of the premises by such persons.””Member’s explanatory statement
The new Clause will clarify that the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies to holiday lets.
My Lords, Amendment 9 tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn, seeks to insert a new clause into the Bill. This is the same new clause I proposed on 29 October in Committee on the Bill. The clause seeks to plug what is in effect a gap in the legislation: the protection afforded by the order. I am sure that this will be of concern to all.
The fire safety order applies to the common parts of buildings and to the planning and arrangements for escape through those common parts. The position of the Government on these matters when we last considered this new clause was that, where someone lets a property for a period, at that point it is covered by the fire safety order. When it reverts to a normal dwelling house, it is not covered and does not need to be covered. The guidance from the Government is confusing to say the least. Last time we discussed this, I referred to the guidance from the Government in the document called Letting Rooms in your Home: a Guide for Resident Landlords.
In the fire safety order, Article 26 states:
“Every enforcing authority must enforce the provisions of this Order … in relation to premises for which it is the enforcing authority”.
But just look at large cities such as London. It surely must be of considerable doubt that the proper authorities have anywhere near the capacity to carry out the required inspections. How will they even know which properties come under the order, and at which time? In even greater doubt would be whether the owner of such a property has read the guidance and has any idea of their responsibilities under the order if their property is being used on sites such as Airbnb.
As I mentioned when this amendment was last debated, using freedom of information requests has revealed that no fire authority—not a single authority—has ever done an inspection of an Airbnb property, and the relevant authorities have no idea how many properties would come under the order. People renting property on a temporary basis should be properly protected. That means the owners or hosts understanding their obligations and demonstrating that to the people renting the property from them on a temporary basis.
My final point is that we are talking about people’s homes. There will be no fire escape: none of the fire safety measures you would find in a hotel, for example. The law is deficient in this regard. I hope the Minister will reassure us that he accepts there is an issue here and that the Government will work to sort out the matter. I beg to move.
My Lords, I first associate myself with the excellent speech of my noble friend Lord Kennedy, who put the case extremely well. Perhaps it would be helpful if I provided some of the legal underpinnings of why this is an issue that requires plugging. In that regard, I would also like to offer my deepest thanks to the distinguished leading counsel, Richard Matthews, who has provided us with a lot of excellent legal advice on the underpinnings of this. When I spoke about him in the last session, I may well have done him a disservice by talking only about his skills in fire and health and safety matters and underplaying his overall exceptional status as a well-regarded QC in all matters of regulation and criminal defence relating to businesses. His advice has been extremely helpful and I hope that the Government have had time to reflect on what it means and the implications of it.
Case law, frankly, is clear about the Government’s assumption that a private dwelling ceases to be one under a short-term let and that, therefore, this is covered by the fire safety order. The Government have made a number of statements on this in the House and have published guidance, Do You Have Paying Guests?, in this regard. In Do You Have Paying Guests? the Government’s position is expressed: when anyone pays to stay in your property, other than to live there as a permanent home, the property is not a premises occupied as a private dwelling.
Such guidance is not capable of establishing, as a matter of law, that whenever anyone pays to stay in a property, other than to live there as a permanent home, the property is not a premises occupied by someone as a private dwelling. Furthermore, such guidance is not capable of creating a duty in law extending the operation of the articles of the fire safety order to all such premises where anyone pays to stay in this way; nor is it capable of amending the definition of “domestic premises” in the fire safety order to incorporate the definition of what apparently makes premises temporarily no longer domestic premises.
This point is strongly embedded in existing case law. Looking at, in particular, the elements related to definitions of “private dwelling”, “occupation” and “occupier”, it would be worth making noble Lords aware that case law, in the case of private dwelling, is recent and relevant. There have been a number of landmark cases, including Caradon District Council v Paton, which had some very emphatic judgments expressed by Lord Justice Latham and Lord Justice Clarke. In relation to the occupation and occupier elements, the Court of Appeal judgment by Lord Justice Lewison in Cornerstone Telecommunications Infra- structure Ltd v Compton Beauchamp Estates Ltd in 2019 is of course highly relevant.
What these case law examples identify is that the following considerations come from those points. First, particularly in regard to land and property, occupation can be simultaneous with another occupier and does not require either a continuing or exclusive physical presence. While a contract is not wholly determinative, the fact that a licence to occupy is limited and preserves extensive power of re-entry for the host, coupled with the temporary limitations of the licence, means that the host, particularly if, at other times, they are in occupation of the premises as a private residence, continues to be in legal occupation of the premises as a private dwelling during the period of the limited licence of the guest.
Therefore, of course, this, along with other considerations that come from those case law examples, demonstrates that there is a clear gap in the law. Whatever the intention of the Government to ensure that such short-term lets come under the fire safety order, in law, specifically definitionally and under case law, they do not; that obligation is simply not there. So this amendment plugs that gap, and I hope that the Government are highly sympathetic to it and more than willing to consider how they may integrate this into the Bill.
Finally, another matter raised previously, which is not part of this amendment but does not fit neatly into this Bill, is that there should be some consideration of other elements that are missing in law, which again seem to be omissions due to the nature of the short-term letting business. One of those relates to smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, which fall under the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015. These specifically talk about the objective that landlords in the private rented sector in England should ensure that a smoke alarm is installed on every storey of a rented dwelling when it is occupied under a tenancy and that a carbon monoxide alarm is equipped in any room that contains a solid, fuel-burning combustion appliance. They also require landlords to ensure that such alarms are in proper working order at the start of a new tenancy.
Because short-term lets fall outside this definition, there is no obligation to ensure either that there are such smoke and carbon monoxide alarms or that they are working. To verify this, during the course of the week I went on to a site and found adverts for short-term lets of a number of properties that ordinarily should, even for building regulations or insurance purposes, have such things, which were explicit in saying that they did not have these devices. Therefore, it is very clear that in operating the law this is a clear error. This is not what the intention was, but this is another definitional problem. I do hope that the Government will be forthcoming in looking to clear up these clear gaps.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for raising this issue today, and to the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, for explaining it so fully and clearly. We have come a very long way in a fairly short time from the days when it was thought to be a good idea for people going on holiday for, say, a month to let out their home for a month to help cover the costs of the holiday, and everybody was happy. I recall lively debates in your Lordships’ House during the Deregulation Bill, as it then was, when we did away with the requirement for planning permission to be granted if a home in London was to be let for more than 90 days. That was thought to be one of the regulations that should be done away with, and so it was.
Although this may have happened anyway and is not a consequence of that, there has been an explosion—perhaps I should not use that word, but that is the way it has been—in the number of properties being let, initially primarily in central London, then increasingly spreading to the suburbs of London and now, for some time, throughout the United Kingdom, particularly in areas of high visitor attraction. Properties that are no longer, frankly, people’s homes, are let; probably most of these properties are not lived in by anybody who could conceivably be called an owner-occupier, as the people living in them change, often quite literally night by night.
If you talk to the Covent Garden Community Association, for instance, they will give you some considerable horror stories of the sorts of things that go on in that particular part of central London. We see whole blocks of flats where there is not a single resident—or, worse, there is a single resident surrounded by people who change on an almost nightly, and certainly weekly, basis. So it is a considerable issue, far wider than the very important one raised by the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Mendelsohn, and I am grateful to them for spotting this particular loophole, if it is a loophole—this gap in the legislation.
We need to recognise that, for better or for worse—probably for better and for worse—it is no longer simply a question of people letting their home while they are away for a temporary period. This is now big business, and there seems to be a significant and important gap in the legislation. I hope the Government will, if not agreeing to this particular amendment, certainly recognise that this is a very important issue throughout the country, that it needs to be dealt with very urgently, and that this is an opportunity to do so.
My Lords, I declare an interest here, as a co-owner of holiday cottages. I reassure noble Lords that for many years now these have been subject to precisely the type of matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, such as electrical system and appliance safety and smoke and carbon monoxide detection, which lie behind the amendment. To be honest, this is no more nor less than good practice; however, success depends on how intrusive the measures might be under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order. There are, as I mentioned earlier, some good precedents for a degree of self-assessment.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in ably moving this amendment, referred, I think, to hotel standards in comparison with Airbnb. I suggest that trying to apply hotel standards for something that is purpose-built for that type of operation, and with the numbers involved, is probably a different situation. However, some of the principles undoubtedly apply. One of the most important factors is that, unlike the homeowner in their own flat, the visitor is not necessarily familiar, at any rate initially, with the layout of the building. It so happens that every time I have to rent a property such as an apartment, or take a hotel somewhere, I usually make it my business to work out where the fire escape is, because one hears so many horror stories about these things. Generally, it is fine, but I make that point.
The point has already been made [Inaudible.] flip in and out of principal or second home status largely undetected. A point arises as to whether, in every case, the mode and category of occupation by somebody who is paying to stay is actually different, whether they are a tenant on a short-term holiday or something even shorter than that, such as Airbnb. The important thing is that the amendment does not need to capture premises that are outside the intentions of noble Lords or, for that matter, fail to capture those that should properly be brought into it.
If I may digress, I make a plea for consistency in the way some of these regulations are applied. I shall use electrical systems as an example. Recently, I was alerted to the need for a certain type of electrician qualification because of a query from building insurers. It transpired that accreditation for an electrician to self-certify their own installation work does not automatically permit them to inspect and certify somebody else’s. Even electricians do not understand this, let alone householders, so knowing what to ask for is a science in itself, and I think that sort of thing needs to be resolved. To stay on that subject, just about every electrician I know is already tied up doing landlord testing, so getting anything in addition done is not at all easy, because there is not the manpower capacity in the system. Personally, I would not want some quick-fix form of training and accreditation on electrical matters, other than by somebody who had a background and a proper qualification in electrical installation.
Finally, however safe the system may be, occupiers bring in equipment of their own, or may do things that are unsafe. There should be a certain amount of saving provisions for that sort of eventuality. I think of a typical example: you go and do your regular inspection of a holiday home and you find that the cover of the smoke alarm is dangling, with the battery missing. It may be that somebody removed the battery because it was bleeping—although, because you put the battery in only three months ago, that is not a terribly likely situation. Then it occurs to you that perhaps the battery was needed for some child’s toy and it was removed for that reason. Occupiers can do silly things, particularly when their minds are on holiday. If the noble Lord were to press the amendment, I am not sure at the moment which way I would vote, but I do think there is an issue about compliance in this case that needs to be addressed.
My Lords, between them my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, have shown how complex this situation is and why we need much greater clarity to ensure that such premises as are referred to in this amendment are covered by the fire safety order and everything that flows from it.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Tope, I have considerable anxiety at the way in which the Airbnb model has mushroomed—Airbnb itself and other less identifiable organisations and individuals. Flats in both private and social housing have effectively become short-term let premises, with a continuous rotation of people moving in and out. I have, in other contexts, frequently in support of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, who raises this frequently, been concerned for wider reasons, such as the effects on the housing market, environmental concerns. But in this context, there is also a safety concern.
The leaseholders, who are normally the owners of these flats, have quite frequently decided to make a business out of them. In terms of social housing, it has quite often been the people who have inherited what were once right-to-buy flats, or have bought them and turned them into a business. I have queried on previous occasions whether that is strictly legitimate, and quite what the role of the tax authorities is in this area, but in this context we are talking about safety. I am aware that in some of those flats, the leaseholders, sometimes in conjunction with the organisers of short-term lets, have changed the format of those flats—in effect dividing them up, increasing the number of bedrooms and, in some cases, knocking down walls and changing layouts, thereby compromising firewalls. More frequently, to allow for multi-occupancy, and in some cases for such things as disco equipment—because some of these flats are used not so much for tourist families but for parties and worse—the electrical systems are altered to cater for that clientele.
The requirements that would normally be on the owners to inform the occupants of the safety provisions and evacuation procedures, and to provide for detection instruments—smoke alarms, et cetera—are not observed in the often radical conversion to a different purpose than that of being a family home. If such premises can be seriously and dangerously subdivided, then there is a real risk here.
We have to be clear whose responsibility it is. In most cases, the responsibility is on the leaseholder, or it may be on whoever is supposed to inform the occupants of the safety provisions. Either way, if, for example, you are in a large block and a few of the flats in it are let by Airbnb or similar, you are a danger to the rest of the occupants. It is once again necessary, irrespective of the form of tenure, to ensure that all temporary as well as permanent inhabitants are made safe and do not impact on the safety of other families and occupants in neighbouring flats. It may be complex, but the outcome and intention are clear. We need clarity, consistency and to make sure that such premises are safe and covered by the legislation.
My Lords, in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, raised important concerns about the application of fire safety legislation to properties that are, in part or in whole, let as holiday lets. It was unfortunate that the Government were not able to return on Report with a comprehensive response in the form of a government amendment, which would have accepted that there is confusion about the applicability of the legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has rightly raised these concerns again. What must not happen is that the growing sector of short-term lets falls into a grey area of the legislation, and that the Government wait for a serious fire incident to accept that omissions need to be closed.
The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, has provided expert legal advice on this matter, which demonstrates that there is a gap in the legislation. It is complicated, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, explained. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, raised further concerns about potential subdivisions of dwellings. However, the amendment proposes a way forward to close a gap that all noble Lords agree exists in the fire safety extent of the current and proposed legislation. I will listen carefully to what the Minister says in reply and I hope that he seizes the opportunity to put this matter right. I look forward to his response.
I thank the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy of Southwark and Lord Mendelsohn, for raising again this important issue—the treatment of short-term accommodation and holiday lettings under the fire safety order—just as they did in Committee. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. Like them, I want to ensure that anybody staying in short-term or holiday accommodation is assured that their premises fall within the scope of fire safety legislation, and that there is a requirement on the owner to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, that they are safe from the risk of fire during their stay.
The noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Mendelsohn, mentioned the Do You Have Paying Guests? guidance that the Government issued. That was published in 2008 and is being updated, not least—as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said—because of the growth of this type of short-term letting that we have seen since then. As part of that update, we have consulted many in the tourism sector, including Airbnb and similar platforms. It might reassure noble Lords to know that Airbnb has provided advice to its hosts in the past, including a leaflet that was drafted in partnership with the National Fire Chiefs Council, giving tips for those who use that platform on how to comply.
Turning to the law, the fire safety order applies to non-domestic premises. The responsible person for each premises is required to undertake a fire risk assessment and put in place adequate and appropriate precautions to manage the risk of fire to those lawfully on the premises. The question here is whether domestic premises, when let through peer-to-peer online platforms or similar means, continue to be domestic premises. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, for sharing the legal advice that he cited in Committee and again today on this point.
Richard Matthews QC submits that, if they are let as holiday accommodation, domestic premises do not necessarily cease to be domestic premises. A fire safety order would therefore not apply. As I explained in Committee, we had a different interpretation of the definition of domestic premises in Article 2 of the fire safety order but, as we said we would, we have taken the points raised by noble Lords and Mr Matthews on board and carefully considered them. To that end, the Home Office sought further legal advice, which acknowledges the points made by Mr Matthews and noble Lords that this is a complex issue with some legal ambiguity. That we are having this debate makes that point forcefully.
I hope I reassure noble Lords by setting out that the ambiguity is not a matter of arguing that either all or none of the premises are within the scope of the fire safety order, but that they must be considered case by case. I agree that ambiguity on such an important issue as this is not helpful. We want to ensure that fire safety legislation is clear, robust and properly protects the public. It is clear that further consideration of the points that noble Lords have raised is needed to ensure that the fire safety order captures the various types of premises let through peer-to-peer or similar platforms in a workable, practical and fair way.
Given the complexity of that undertaking, we do not believe that this Bill is the right vehicle through which to resolve it. It will, quite rightly, require consultation with interested parties, in both the fire safety and the tourism sectors. Doing that would delay the passage of the Bill, but we agree with noble Lords that that work needs to be done and I am happy to commit to undertaking it. I hope that noble Lords who have spoken today will continue to work with us as we do that, and that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, feels able to withdraw his amendment as a result of that reassurance.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. As my noble friend Lord Whitty said, clarity and consistency are important here. In particular, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn for first bringing this matter to my attention and enabling us to table the amendments in Committee. There has been good engagement from the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, and I am genuinely grateful for that. I am also grateful for the meeting we had a couple of days ago and the response that the noble Lord gave to the issue we raised today.
We all accept that there is a problem. I am pleased that we acknowledge that and that the Government are going to look at it in detail. That is a good outcome, so I thank the noble Lord for that. At this stage, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 9 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 10. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in the group to a Division should make that clear in the debate.
10: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Public register of fire risk assessments
(1) The Secretary of State must, by regulations, make provision for a register of fire risk assessments made under article 9 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (risk assessment). (2) Those regulations must provide that the register is—(a) publicly available, and(b) kept up-to-date.(3) Regulations under this section are—(a) to be made by statutory instrument; and(b) subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would enable prospective and current renters, leaseholders and owners to check the fire safety status of their home, by accessing a public register similar to the EPC register.
My Lords, Amendment 10, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Shipley, seeks to establish the provision, in law, of a public register of fire risk assessments. I will speak also to Amendment 11 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Stunell, which seeks to establish a public register of fire risk assessors. Amendment 12 in this group, in the name of my noble friend Lord Stunell, is on permitted developments. My noble friend will be speaking about this in detail. I say at the outset that the Liberal Democrats support the Bill wholeheartedly but feel that there are opportunities for improvement, some of which are within the amendments in this group.
I thank the Minister very much for the opportunities that he has provided to discuss these and other amendments. They have been very useful, and we have been able to talk around some of the issues raised.
I turn to Amendment 10. Energy performance certificates are mandatory and open for potential home- owners to view. EPCs are now an accepted part of house buying and renting, and that requirement is having a significant impact on home energy improvements. Why, then, cannot the same process be used for an issue that can literally be one of life and death?
The Grenfell inquiry is slowly but surely unravelling multiple causes of that dreadful tragedy. It has revealed an almost complete lack of basic information about the building and its adaptations that contributed both to the fire and to the response by the emergency services. Amendment 10, if accepted, will address that lack of information by mandating a public register of fire risk assessments. Such a register will bring vital fire risk assessments to the forefront of considerations by homeowners and tenants. Once those who live in a property take more notice of fire risks, such as the importance of well-fitting fire doors—a subject raised in earlier debates—the consequence will be that any replacements will be made with fire hazards in mind.
The other obvious benefit is that construction and maintenance companies will be aware that their work is being measured against a public test of fire risk. This knowledge will inevitably lead to safety-first construction and improvements. A mandatory, publicly available fire risk assessment register will be another important step in preventing further major domestic fires, as accountability and transparency become the norm.
Of course, as we heard in Committee, a register of assessments is dependent on qualified and competent fire assessors being available in the numbers required. We know that there have been significant cuts in government funding of fire and rescue services over the last 10 years, and one area of work that has borne the brunt of those cuts has been that of fire risk assessors. The Government have stated that they will develop a plan to greatly increase the numbers. That will of course take several years, but it must not slow down or prevent the start of this vital area of fire safety, even in a phased way.
Homeowners, tenants and freeholders will want to ensure that risk assessments are undertaken by fully qualified professionals—hence Amendment 11, which would establish a mandatory public register of qualified assessors. Again, the openness that this would enable would help property owners to have confidence in assessments, and there would surely be a knock-on effect on property insurance.
There would be many positive benefits from having both registers and I hope that, when he responds, the Minister will accept these proposals. However, if he is, unfortunately, not able to do so, I have to give notice that on Amendment 10 in particular, in the interests of householders, I will seek to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and I thank her for moving her amendment.
On the question of registers, I certainly agree that some list of assessments should be held for regulatory compliance reasons. However, there are likely to be several assessment bodies. Although something like the register of energy performance certificates, referred to by the noble Baroness, might be appropriate, I hope that the basis of assessment does not change every few years, as has happened with EPCs. I also hope that the standard of those accredited will be based on those with a professional standing and a working knowledge of construction. That standard was not adopted with the accreditation of energy inspectors, and I am sure that the noble Baroness would agree with me on that.
Beyond the minimum for regulatory purposes, it would probably be necessary to avoid a register that contained sensitive information. It is fair to say that some of the information that could be in a fire risk assessment might be sensitive. Therefore, it should not just be an online, free-public-access provision—at least, not in its full form.
It is also worth bearing in mind that this will, to a degree, for ever be a work in progress, so the register will not necessarily be accurate and up to date—but of course that is the situation with EPCs. However, somebody would have to maintain it. I think that that could be done only by a central government body, and that would have resource implications.
The really important thing is that occupiers and managers of buildings know that an assessment has been carried out, that it is in date and that occupiers in particular have the right to see it, and that any competent authority may do so as well.
Turning to Amendment 11, on the question of a public register of assessors, it is likely that many bodies will offer accreditation. Again, a central register would have to be held by some public agency if convenient public access was to be a reality. In practice, certifying bodies will themselves hold records of those accredited. I am not entirely convinced that others beyond occupiers, prospective purchasers and relevant public authorities need to have access to the register, and the public knowing that this matter is in hand, with enforcement of the need to carry out assessments, starting with those at greatest risk and progressing through the housing stock, would seem a fair balance.
The issue immediately before us, which has already been touched on, is the assessment of competence and, more particularly, capacity. This cannot be dealt with immediately. Not only does trainer capacity need to be built but issues to do with professional indemnity cover need to be resolved. I have already flagged up a number of these issues with the Minister, particularly the question of accrediting already competent professionals with a knowledge of construction. Therefore, the point was well made by the noble Baroness but there are issues that need to be taken into account.
On Amendment 12, in this group, I would much have preferred the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, in whose name it stands, to speak before me. This concerns one of the shortcoming issues that seem to be common in permitted development rights developments. Shortcomings in terms of living space, amenities, local environment, open green space standards and so on are all too frequent, and the health outcomes for occupants are also often very poor. Some of the buildings subject to conversion to residential have been quite unfit for that purpose. I have inspected some, so I can say that from professional experience. None the less, these projects have been signed off, although I suggest that that does not get owners off the hook on compliance more generally and that all developers who think themselves protected by completion certificates should think carefully about that. There is certainly an issue here.
In the meantime, ensuring fire safety in these permitted development conversions is a matter of top priority, particularly because they happen to house some of the most vulnerable people in society. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 10 and 11, but will speak more fully on Amendment 12, as prefigured by my noble friend Lady Pinnock and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton.
Amendment 10 requires there to be a national published risk register, of which the two key requirements we have set out are that it should be publicly available and up to date. I understand the noble Earl’s concerns that this would always be a work in progress, but fire safety is always a work in progress. If we are talking about annual inspections, keeping a fire risk assessment up to date should come with the job.
If every landlord, designer, building contractor and construction operative always acted in strict compliance with the spirit and letter of every part of the existing regulations, this amendment would be superfluous. In my former professional life, I spent some years supervising building construction work; in case every anecdote about shoddy builders has bypassed your Lordships, I can confirm that such strict compliance is rare. However, one thing I thought sacrosanct was compliance with fire regulations. Even if the brickwork was shoddy and the plumbing a nightmare, at least the fire doors would fit. I now know I was wrong.
The picture emerging with devastating force from the evidence given to the Grenfell Tower inquiry is that at every level, from client and specifier to designer, contractor, subcontractor, and, as it now seems from the evidence this week, even specialist suppliers of critical components, it was not just a case of a few unfortunate errors because of lack of skill or experience but in some cases deliberate efforts to defeat the rules—even safety-critical rules on which many lives depended.
In the months and years since that terrible fire, evidence has been accumulating that this was not a one-off event in a particular building that happened to have a terrible outcome. There now seem to be, right across the country, many hundreds of buildings containing thousands of homes that are not just non-compliant, but pose a real and significant risk of harm to the people who live in them.
None of this would have emerged had the horrific events of that night not brought it very starkly to light. There was no transparency or openness to inquiry but a dismissive casualness in handling the legitimate concerns of those who had worries. In the case of the residents of Grenfell, those who had practical observations of non-compliant building work were completely swept aside. There was certainly no register you could check to show that your home was not a death-trap.
That underlines a significant truth: when those with power and authority find out about bad things and high risks that do not affect them but have a great or even fatal impact on the vulnerable and the weak, their natural reaction is to keep the news to themselves in order to avoid trouble and expense and to hope for the best. We must decisively end the hoarding of bad news on fire safety by the informed and powerful and empower the vulnerable who carry the risks and sometimes pay the ultimate price of life itself.
From now on there will be fire safety assessments. That is a very good thing, but it is essential that those assessments are in the public domain. I take the caveats that the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has rightly made about privacy, security and so on, but the essentials of a fire safety certificate should be available for public inspection. They should be at least as public and accessible as an energy performance certificate from which you can discover how much insulation I have in my loft and I can discover how much the noble Earl has in his. We put up with that because of the greater good; we ought to be ready to put up with the same sort of thing for the far greater good of saving life post Grenfell.
It is unacceptable for landlords and building owners to hoard that assessment to the detriment of those to whom they rent and lease their properties and whose lives are in their hands. Grenfell Tower residents’ legitimate and specific fears about weaknesses they could see with their own eyes were swept away by those in authority. No one knew if any assessment had been made, what it said or what should be done about it, and who should rectify the faults disclosed.
In Committee, I said that only an open public register can safeguard residents and that I hoped to hear the Minister fully accept that case. He readily conceded that it was important that residents should have safe homes, but I missed his agreement that an open public register was a vital safeguard and essential step in securing their safety. I and my noble friends are back again, asking him to endorse this straightforward provision.
Amendment 11 mandates an open register of fire risk assessors, the people who draw up the assessments, and every building owner will be looking for a competent assessor. Let us stop there for a moment. Not every builder owner will do so; an unscrupulous or impoverished landlord—one perhaps is more common than the other—may want not so much a competent assessor as a compliant one. Here the risk is linked to the likely shortage of fully competent professional assessors and the very big risk of people who would be attracted to passing themselves off as suitable and qualified when they are not.
More positively, when diligent and caring landlords want to recruit an assessor, a public register of qualified persons makes that a much simpler prospect. That list might be produced, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has hinted, by deeming certain professional qualifications achieved in one of the chartered institutes as evidence for entry on to the register. It might be by a separate professional route as well or instead. In either case, we must look carefully at making sure the number of assessments required reasonably matches the number of qualified assessors in place. We need to make absolutely sure that there are no unqualified assessors making compliant assessments.
We should remember that there are many semi-professional landlords with a modest property portfolio of perhaps only one or two properties and no great professional competence themselves. However well-intentioned they are, they will often not have the capacity to do meaningful due diligence on an assessor. Making sure they have a safe route to the recruitment of a qualified and competent assessor is vital to the integrity of the new regime. In Committee, the Minister said that there were plans coming that would cover all this and, indeed, all our other concerns, but he failed to explain what they would be or when they would come, and he did not commit to an open register of fire risk assessors. I hope his thinking has developed some more in the meantime and I look forward to hearing from him.
Amendment 12 in my name is rather different and does not quite fit into the group, but here it is. It arises from a specific, recent, worrying case in my own borough of Stockport. I am indebted to the chief fire officer of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service for providing me with support and paperwork in connection with it. I shall refer to some of that in a minute. The amendment requires that any building being converted to two or more residential units under the permitted development rules must have a fire risk assessment before any of the premises are occupied.
This brings me to a building called Regal House in the centre of Stockport. It is a multi-storey office block, recently converted to residential accommodation under the expanded permitted development right extension. After occupation, the fire service carried out an inspection, resulting in an immediate enforcement order requiring a waking watch to be put in place pending remediation. The alternative, they made clear, would have been to evacuate the block.
Under permitted development rights, no application for planning was required, and although building regulations would have been required, there is no requirement for fire inspection before occupation.
In fact, my concern about Regal House turns out to have been justified not so much by that incident, where a prosecution may follow—I do not think it right to expand on that—but by the matter that it has brought to light; namely that under the terms of the draft building safety Bill, which is currently before the House of Commons Select Committee, there is no requirement for such a fire safety inspection at all for permitted development property.
The Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service copied me into the evidence that the Greater Manchester High Rise Task Force submitted to the House of Commons Select Committee, in which it raised precisely that point. The evidence stated that
“the key findings of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety which the Government accepted in principle are already being watered down. The principles of Gateways was welcomed by the Task Force”—
that is, the Greater Manchester task force—
“and in particular Gateway 1 as a means of embedding safety into the lifecycle of the building from the initial design stage. It is astonishing therefore, that there is no legislative provision within the Bill”—
the building safety Bill—
“for this and the Government plans to exempt buildings developed under Permitted Development Rights from this vital stage. It cannot be right that consideration of key safety features should not be required for all buildings at the outset and there are numerous examples in Greater Manchester of conversions undertaken without planning approval under permitted development posing a risk to residents”.
In other words, far from the situation being set to improve, the Government propose to entrench the permitted development right to bypass fire safety at what is known as gateway 1—the all-important design stage when critical decisions are made about layout and structure. This amendment quite simply says that that is the wrong approach.
What I am looking for today is for the Minister to say that he accepts the view of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service that the fire service should be fully engaged from the start of the design process; that this should apply not just to new builds but also to conversions under the permitted development right regime; and that under no circumstances should the use of permitted development rights be used to circumvent the early and proper application of fire safety policies. I look forward to the Minister’s answers on all of those points.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to support the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, on their amendments in this group. Both have comprehensively explained the intent of their amendments and, as I said, I fully support them. If the noble Baroness decides to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 10, I can assure her that the noble Lords on these Benches will support her in that endeavour.
Amendment 10 is particularly important as it talks about the public register of fire risk assessments, and I fully support it. As we heard from the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry and from elsewhere, the complete lack of important information about buildings is a huge issue. This amendment requires the Secretary of State to make provision for a register of fire risk assessments that is publicly available so that tenants and residents can see it. Importantly, the amendment also requires the register to be kept up to date. The relevant regulations would be brought before Parliament and subject to parliamentary procedure. I very much agree that there must be a safety-first approach to fire risk, and that is why I fully support these amendments.
Amendment 11 provides for a public register of fire risk assessors, which we have talked about. This amendment again raises an important issue that has arisen in a number of amendments throughout our consideration of the Bill; namely whether people are sufficiently qualified to do the assessments. Like many other noble Lords, I am concerned that we must never have fire risk assessment on the cheap. We need to have properly qualified people who know what they are doing and who can spot and correct the problems. A publicly available and up-to-date register of such people will make the difference.
The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, in speaking to Amendment 12, again made the point about permitted developments. It is absolutely right that fire safety and the work of the fire authorities is paramount when we are building buildings.
I fully support all the amendments in this group. As I said, if the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, tests the opinion of the House on Amendment 10, these Benches will support her.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord for raising this important issue on establishing a public register of fire risk assessments. The fire safety order currently places no requirement for responsible persons to record their completed fire risk assessments, save for in limited and specified circumstances. The self-regulatory and non-prescriptive nature of the fire safety order is the cornerstone of the legislation. It provides for a proportionate approach to effective regulation of fire-related risks across the wide range of buildings that fall within its scope.
I do, though, agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, that it is of paramount importance that residents have access to the information they need to feel safe and be safe in their homes. However, the creation of a fire risk assessment register would place a new level of regulation upon responsible persons that could be seen as disproportionate. There are also questions in relation to the ownership and maintenance of such a register and where the costs would lie. There is a delicate balance to be struck.
The Government do, however, acknowledge that there is work to be done and that improvements can be made in respect of the sharing of important information with residents and other relevant persons. That is why the fire safety consultation set out a range of proposals to ensure that those persons are provided with vital fire safety information.
First, the fire safety consultation proposed to change the current position that a responsible person does not have to record their fire risk assessment by including a proposed new requirement on all responsible persons to record their full fire risk assessments. This would provide a level of assurance that their duty to complete a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment has been fulfilled. In addition, the consultation also included proposals for responsible persons to take steps to provide vital fire safety information to residents, including the fire risk assessments on request. We are considering responses to the consultation to ensure that we take the needs of residents into account when establishing the final policy approach. The full consultation can be found online at GOV.UK and we will publish a response at the earliest opportunity.
I turn now to the related amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, which seeks to create a public register of fire risk assessors. I agree with the noble Lord and the noble Baroness that there is a clear need for reform in relation to fire risk assessors to improve standards. That is why the Government included a proposal for a competence requirement for fire risk assessors and other fire safety professionals in the recent fire safety order consultation.
Noble Lords will recall that, in Committee, I mentioned the work of the industry-led competency steering group and its subgroup on fire risk assessors. The group published a report on 5 October, which included proposals in relation to third-party accreditation, a competence framework for fire risk assessors and the creation of a register of fire risk assessors. The working group recommend that the register should be compiled from the existing registers and should be easy to use, with open public access to records of individuals and organisations. It is right that industry leads this work and continues to develop the competence and capacity of these professions.
I wish to assure your Lordships’ House that the Government are committed to working with the fire risk assessor sector to develop a clear plan to increase its capacity and capability. However, it is necessary to establish this basic principle of competence before we consider how the sector can be further professionalised. Again, the responses to the fire safety consultation proposals will inform the approach on issues relating to competence.
The right approach is for the Government to first establish a basic principle of competence and consider the competency steering group’s and subgroup’s proposals in relation to a register of fire risk assessors. The Government’s position is that this work should continue to be led and progressed by industry. We will support industry in taking forward this vital work.
I do not disagree with the idea of a professional register of fire risk assessors, but establishing a register for inclusion within the Fire Safety Bill is not the appropriate way forward, given that we are looking to deliver the fire safety consultation outcomes and the recommendations of the competence steering group. It would also significantly delay commencement of the Bill and place significant pressure on capacity in the sector. I also need to consider any regulatory impact of the recommendation on a professional register, as a result of the non-regulated principles of the fire safety order.
I turn to Amendment 12, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. I will explain how the fire safety order and building regulations already cover the issues that they are concerned about. Article 9 of the fire safety order already places a duty on the responsible person to update the fire risk assessment if there has been any significant change to the premises in scope. This includes when premises have undergone significant changes, extensions or conversions. As a result, the fire safety order already covers the scenario that the noble Lord and the noble Baroness have set out in their amendment. I thank them for raising the issue, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to clarify this point in your Lordships’ House.