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High-rise Buildings: Evacuation of Disabled Residents

Volume 822: debated on Wednesday 25 May 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to provide for legally-binding evacuation plans for all disabled residents in high-rise buildings.

My Lords, the Government have launched a new consultation on proposals to support the fire safety of residents unable to self-evacuate in an emergency. These include a person-centred fire risk assessment for these residents, simultaneous evacuation of buildings and the provision of information to fire and rescue services to feed into their emergency response. The Government’s response to the PEEPs consultation was published on 18 May. It sets out the difficulties in mandating PEEPs in high-rise residential settings.

My Lords, the Government’s consultation says that PEEPs would not be proportionate, practical or safe. Instead, it proposes that they stay put. But staying put is what killed 40% of disabled residents in Grenfell Tower. Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s inquiry recommended PEEPs and a premises information box. The fire chiefs’ guidance makes it clear that PEEPs and an information box would help them to evacuate disabled people. Inside Housing has reported that the Government rejected PEEPs after a single meeting with building owners. So how will disabled people be able to get out of a burning high-rise building if fire and safety officers cannot get to them?

It is quite clear that, while we are not mandating PEEPs in high-rise residential buildings, we are consulting on these EEIS proposals. This does not remove the ability of responsible persons to implement PEEPs if they agree with residents that it is appropriate.

My Lords, would it be possible to have evacuation lifts in all high-rise buildings? This would benefit everybody.

Having evacuation lifts in high rises, as well as more than a single staircase, is the sort of thing we need to capture and make very clear in building regulations. This will become something of the purview of the new building safety regulator. It is a very good point.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a community adviser on Grenfell, so I really do understand the anger at the decision not to implement PEEPs. In this instance, it is important to acknowledge that this was done not just on a whim or after a single meeting. The truth is that a tremendous amount of work has been done on this behind the scenes, but we have not arrived at a satisfactory place. To that end, would my noble friend agree that it is hugely important that all the interested parties follow the lead of Andy Roe, the LFB commissioner, take part in the new consultation and make their concerns known so that we can make progress and get to a better place?

I thank my noble friend for her recognition of the hard work it has taken to get to this position. There were nearly 400 responses. All were carefully gone through and responded to as part of the previous consultation. I join her in encouraging all parties to come forward and respond to the EEIS+ consultation. The Government really are listening and it is important that we hear from as many diverse stakeholders as possible.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said, the Government’s position is that personal emergency evacuation plans for people who would struggle to get out of a burning building are not proportionate, practical or safe to implement. Can the noble Lord please explain the Government’s reasoning for coming to that conclusion? I am sure he can acknowledge that disabled people, their families and friends and campaigners are very worried about that. We need an explanation of why the Government have taken this position.

There are real concerns based on the previous consultation around practicality—the measures that get mobility-impaired residents out in advance of fire and rescue services, which on average respond in six to seven minutes—proportionality in a residential setting, where there are rarely 24-hour staff to carry out evacuations, and safety around evacuation of all residents that does not hinder the fire and rescue services fighting the fire. Those are the concerns we have outlined in the current consultation.

Does my noble friend agree that the need to evacuate disabled residents from high-rise flats would be greatly reduced if the remediation measures to reduce fire risks took place? Following the passage of the Building Safety Act, can my noble friend now say what progress is being made in eliminating those risks from high-rise buildings?

My noble friend is right that the concern is ultimately for those buildings where simultaneous evacuation is in place. We are making progress in ACM buildings and high-rises with other forms of flammable cladding. Most importantly, we now have a situation where we are getting the polluters to pay and the funding in place to get remediation done as quickly as is practical.

My Lords, the Prime Minister gave an undertaking that every recommendation of the Grenfell inquiry would be implemented in full. PEEPs were a clear recommendation of that inquiry. That commitment was underlined by the Secretary of State for what was then the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The Minister himself made similar comments during the passage of the Building Safety Act. Can he not understand the anger, fear and frustration of disabled people living in high-rise blocks about what, from an earlier question, appears to be what we might understand to be a delay but might be a U-turn on the Government’s commitment to implement PEEPs?

I genuinely understand the concerns and frustrations, but we have come forward with what we believe to be a sensible proposal. This is a genuine consultation with a call for evidence for examples of practical, proportionate and safe PEEPs and other fire safety initiatives. It also includes a working group with responsible persons, residents and disability groups to examine the role that neighbours and friends can play in supporting the evacuation of vulnerable residents. We are listening and it is important that we get a policy position that works.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on all the work being done and encourage him and his department to make sure that it is completed as soon as possible. May I ask for an assurance that the needs of frail elderly people, who might not be registered as disabled, are also taken into account, as they might be equally unable to self-evacuate in an emergency?

My noble friend is right that we need to capture those people who may not present themselves as disabled but who clearly have mobility impairments. That is the purpose of the EEIS proposal, which is around ensuring that we can identify those people, that we can organise person-centred fire risk assessments and have home safety visits to come up with measures that do the best to keep them safe. That applies to all mobility-impaired residents.

My Lords, behind all these fine words is a practical question: how do you evacuate someone in a wheelchair from an 11, 12 or 13-storey building? The Minister seems to be saying that there will not be any more fires in buildings because of the insulation that the noble Lord, Lord Young, mentioned, but there are practical problems in getting people out in a wheelchair down one staircase when the fire people are trying to come up and do other things. Is there a solution?

This is the real issue, which is why I think the noble Baroness raised the importance of evacuation lifts and having means of exiting a building in that very case. We need to recognise that fire and rescue services need to work as fast as possible to respond and contain the fire. Above all, we need to keep all residents in that building safe.

Did I understand the Minister to say in a previous answer, that in the absence of PEEPs, in the case of a fire, it could be up to family and friends to get a disabled person out?

No, I was saying that we have a working group looking at the role that friends, neighbours and other residents may play in supporting the evacuation. That is essentially what I was saying: it is a working group to bring together evidence and information as part of the consultation.

My Lords, is the fundamental question not why people with mobility issues are housed in these unsafe environments and conditions? Is it because there is simply not enough accommodation available to local authorities and housing associations? What are the Government doing to address mobility issues in their housing planning?

Obviously we need to provide more affordable housing, which I think is what under- pinned the question. We have invested £11.5 billion as part of the affordable homeless programme and plan to build around 32,000 socially rented homes, double the current amount.