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New Home Building Programme

Volume 794: debated on Thursday 10 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to ensure that new properties built as part of their new home building programme are designed to avoid the occurrence of accidents in the home.

My Lords, we want to build homes that are safe and secure. The building regulations set requirements to ensure the safety of people using buildings. We are developing a programme to review the guidance that supports the building regulations as part of our response to Dame Judith Hackitt’s recent review of building regulations and fire safety.

I thank the Minister for his reply and declare an interest as deputy president of RoSPA. Is the Minister aware that almost 40% of accidental injuries treated in hospital and emergency departments result from home accidents? RoSPA estimates that every five days there is a fatal fall on the stairs of a newly built home. The national accident prevention strategy advocates the use of the current version of British Standard BS 5395—the voluntary code of practice for the design of stairs. The widespread adoption of this standard would significantly reduce stair-related injuries and fatalities. Given the Government’s intention to build 300,000 homes a year, will the Minister assure us that all new homes built as part of their programme will be required to adhere to the British safety standard for stairs?

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord for all he and RoSPA do on home safety. I am aware of the statistics he referred to. The most prevalent way of people losing their lives at home is, indeed, falls on the stairs. We have in the next year the opportunity to tighten up the guidance on this. Without prejudicing any discussions, one way would be providing two handrails, for example, or lighting that comes on automatically on stairs. RoSPA will be part of that process. We have worked very closely with it—on 20 December we attended a seminar it led—so I can give the reassurances that the noble Lord seeks.

My Lords, I hear from carers for the elderly that falls on stairs are fairly regular because some of the lifts in blocks are turned off at weekends and people have to be taken by carers—even by ambulance crews—down often many flights of stairs. It is very important that something is done to ensure that there is a way down and out—or in and up, because they return from hospital in the same way. A lot of accidents could be avoided if lifts were available in high-rise buildings. Also, can the Minister confirm that where a place is specially adapted for, say, a lack of mobility, and the person in question dies or goes into full-time care, that place will sensibly be offered to someone else with the same great needs?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. On her last point, which is certainly a point of common sense, I think that would happen through the disabled facilities grant in that, if something is required in the way the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, referred to, it will apply to all new premises. My noble friend raises an interesting point and it shows the importance of looking in the round at high-rise blocks. People are living longer. Most accidents in the home happen to people aged 65 or above and, as one would expect, that figure accelerates as people get older. Therefore, it is a particular concern and something we need to watch like hawks.

My Lords, it was reported over the Christmas Recess that large housebuilders declared dividends of over £2 billion in 2018. Does the Minister agree that this fact sits most uncomfortably with the facts produced by RoSPA? Given the low-space standards for new homes, too many defects in new homes and the rising number of accidents, might the Government heed the clear advice of the Royal Institute of British Architects, which is calling for building regulations to be strengthened rather than depending in part on the planning system for the regulation of space standards?

My Lords, the document produced by RoSPA on making homes safer through design was worked on with Berkeley Homes, so it is fair to give Berkeley a namecheck for what it does. However, the noble Lord is right that builders have a responsibility to adhere to the building regulations. We are looking at those regulations. As I said, it is clearly unacceptable that there are 6,000 deaths a year. I think that we can get that figure down and we are very keen to do so through appropriate guidance and regulations.

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the noble Lord’s replies, but I recall the efforts in this House to improve build quality, energy efficiency, sustainable drainage, electrical safety and other measures. The noble Lord and his party have opposed them all or, in the case of electrical safety, have finally been dragged in the right direction, but even there the measure is still not in place in the private rented sector—a measure that would save lives and reduce the number of serious injuries in the home. Why is that?

My Lords, the noble Lord is being uncharacteristically unfair. If he looks at the record of what we have been doing on, say, cladding—

It is a serious issue. He will know that we moved to ban combustible cladding very quickly when the evidence was there. We will bring forward regulations in relation to electrical safety. With regard to the Hackitt review, I have indicated that within the next year we will review all the documents relating to building safety with a view to ensuring that we minimise—and, I hope, eliminate—the number of accidents in the home.

Does the Minister accept that this is really a branch of preventive medicine? In respect of the Government’s review, will they talk to Sir Nicholas Wald, professor of preventive medicine at the Wolfson Institute, where there are lots of good ideas in this area? While they are doing so, they might well ask him his views on the preventive medicine aspect of fortifying flour with folic acid, as in 1990 he headed the UK’s Medical Research Council, which discovered the link with the nutrient deficiency. That recommendation has been adopted by 80 other countries as a preventive measure.

My Lords, it is obvious that the noble Lord has been going to the same seminars as the noble Lord, Lord West, with regard to framing Questions, but I am sure that that point will have been picked up. On his general point, of course we are very happy to hear about prevention, which is indeed better than cure. A public health budget is held by the Department of Health and Social Care and that is the other side of the coin. We have the building regulations but money also needs to be spent on promotion to make sure that people are aware of these issues.

Is the Minister aware that information on many of the standards developed by the BSI is available only on the payment of a fee, which can be quite high? Does he agree that it does not make a lot of sense to have something which on occasion has the force of secondary legislation but is accessible only if you pay for it? Surely, if something is designed for safety, it should be freely accessible.

I agree with the noble Baroness that the information should be freely accessible. Obviously, there is a cost to deploying it and you have to get the balance right, but I certainly agree that it is very important that we have access to the information so that people are aware of their rights in this regard.