My Lords, I am very pleased to bring this Bill before the House today for its Second Reading. While short, it introduces important measures designed to keep people safe from the risk of fire.
None of us will ever forget the tragic events at Grenfell Tower in the early morning of 14 June, nor will we forget the 72 people who lost their lives in the most appalling circumstances. Our thoughts today are very much with the victims’ families, the survivors and fellow residents, who have had to rebuild their lives over the past three and a half years. Yesterday evening I was privileged to visit the Grenfell Tower site and tour the Lancaster West Estate at the invitation of the Lancaster West Residents’ Association. I thank its members for a constructive meeting thereafter.
A full independent inquiry was established in the aftermath of the fire, which is being led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, to understand what happened and make recommendations to ensure it can never happen again. The Government also commissioned an independent review of building regulations and safety, led by Dame Judith Hackitt. Her findings have underpinned our unprecedented programme of building and fire safety reform.
We are resolute in our commitment to delivering change, and significant steps have already been taken to address building safety and fire safety risks. The Bill is just one part of that wider programme. There is considerable experience across the House and, as we take forward the Bill, we will be listening, as well as working with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety and Rescue.
Before I go further, I take the opportunity to thank our fire and rescue services for their incredible response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Across the nation, around 4,000 firefighters and staff are now helping in the broader Covid-19 efforts. The National Fire Chiefs Council very quickly agreed a framework with unions and employers for firefighters to support the vulnerable and their emergency service partners. This has enabled firefighters to provide support to the NHS and ambulance trusts, the most vulnerable people, and coroners: at one stage, 300 firefighters were helping ambulance services in London alone. As the Minister with responsibility for fire, I am incredibly proud of the way they have responded to the crisis.
As soon as possible after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Government started working with relevant authorities and building owners to identify the risk and prevalence of buildings with unsafe aluminium composite material cladding and set up a comprehensive programme to remediate buildings of 18 metres and above with unsafe ACM.
We have since taken many other steps. These include setting up an independent expert panel on building safety, chaired by Sir Ken Knight, a former London Fire Commissioner and Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser, to provide advice to government and building owners, and making £600 million available to social and private sector landlords to fund the removal and replacement of unsafe ACM cladding on residential buildings over 18 metres. Progress by building owners has been far too slow. However, as of 31 August 2020, of the 458 high- rise residential buildings identified as having unsafe ACM cladding, 74% of them have either started or completed works to remove it.
My right honourable friend the Chancellor announced in this year’s Budget that the Government are providing a further £1 billion to fund the removal and replacement of unsafe non-ACM cladding systems for both the social and private residential sectors on buildings of 18 metres and above. Those who registered for the £1 billion fund are now able to submit their funding applications.
Every single person in this country, no matter where they live, has the right to feel safe in their own home. Alongside the risk it posed, ACM cladding placed an enormous psychological and emotional burden on residents of high-rise buildings, each wondering whether their home would be next. It is right that we act to remove this danger.
In addition to the removal of ACM cladding, the Home Office has also provided £30 million of additional funding for fire and rescue services. Some £20 million of this is to allow them to increase their capacity and capability, while £10 million has been allocated specifically to the National Fire Chiefs Council—to strengthen its protection activity—and to the building risk review programme, which will ensure that all high-rise residential buildings in England are inspected or reviewed by December 2021. A further £10 million has been made available via a protection uplift fund so that fire and rescue services can increase their focus on other high-risk categories of buildings, and £10 million has been provided to build the NFCC’s central capability and ensure that it can implement the lessons from the Grenfell tragedy in local services contained in the phase 1 inquiry.
The Queen’s Speech committed the Government to bringing forward two Bills on fire and building safety. The first is this short, technical Fire Safety Bill, which will amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. The second, the building safety Bill, will later be led by me in this House, and was published in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny on 20 July. The draft building safety Bill proposes to put in place an enhanced safety framework for high-rise residential buildings, taking forward the recommendations from Dame Judith’s review. It will bring about a fundamental change in both the regulatory framework and industry culture, creating a more accountable system.
The proposed Bill will put in place an enhanced safety framework for higher-risk buildings, taking forward the recommendations from Dame Judith’s review. This framework will include a new regulator, clearer accountability and duties for duty holders. The Bill will also ensure that the residents of high-rise buildings have a stronger voice, alongside giving them better access to safety information about their building, clarifying their rights and providing recourse to raise safety concerns directly to the building safety regulator. The pre-legislative scrutiny for that Bill is currently under way. I am determined that we will bring forward as soon as possible after that process concludes a Bill that reflects views and expertise from across this House and expert advice from beyond.
At present, there are differing interpretations of the existing fire safety order on whether the external walls and, to a lesser extent, the individual flat entrance doors fall within the scope of the order. This ambiguity is leading to inconsistency in operational practice. This is unhelpful at best; at worst, it means that the full identification and management of fire safety risks is compromised, which could put the lives of residents at risk.
This Fire Safety Bill clarifies that the fire safety order does apply to the structure, external walls—including cladding and balconies—and individual flat entrance doors in multi-occupied residential buildings. This clarification will also ensure that fire and rescue services can confidently take enforcement action and hold building owners or managers to account if they are not compliant with their duties under the FSO. Clarifying the scope of the fire safety order through this Bill will also pave the way for the Government to bring forward subsequent secondary legislation to deliver on the Grenfell recommendations. I will return to this later.
I wish to clarify a couple of detailed points about Clause 1 before I explain Clauses 2 and 3. First, Members in the other place and industry representatives have raised as an issue the express inclusion of “structure” in the Bill. The concern is that this term will mean that structural assessments should more routinely be carried out as part of fire-risk assessments. I assure noble Lords that that is not the case. The intention, as set out in guidance, is that this should be a visual inspection of the construction and layout of the building on the basis that it will have been built to resist early structural collapse in the event of a fire.
As such, although dependent on the circumstances in any particular case, intrusive surveys of buildings are likely to be required rarely and only on the basis that the fire risk assessor has serious concerns about the risks that the structure of the building could pose. Otherwise, non-intrusive surveys should normally be carried out. This will be set out in a fact sheet that we will publish and will be reflected in the industry-recognised guidance.
Secondly, some fire and rescue services have also asked for clarification on what is meant by “common parts” in the Fire Safety Bill. The fire safety order applies to all premises and to all parts of premises unless they are expressly excluded by Article 6. One such exclusion is for “domestic premises”, for which the definition includes parts of the domestic premises that are
“not used in common by the occupants of more than one such dwelling”.
This has led to some confusion about which parts of the overall building are covered by the order. I can clarify that walls and structure are expressly within the scope of the FSO, and that “common parts” applies whether they are “used” by residents or not. An example of a common part that could be routinely used by residents might be a communal area that is immediately outside flat entrance doors. An example of a common part not frequently accessed by residents could be a boiler room.
Clause 2 provides the Secretary of State with a regulation-making power to amend or clarify the premises that fall within the scope of the fire safety order. Through this, we will be able to respond quickly to any further developments in the design and construction of buildings and our understanding of the combustibility/fire risk of construction products.
The territorial extent of the Bill is set out in Clause 3. The fire safety order extends and applies to England and Wales. The order, and therefore the Bill, relates to matters within the legislative competence of the Senedd Cymru, or Welsh Assembly. This matter will be put before the Welsh Assembly for a legislative consent Motion in relation to these provisions on 6 October.
Finally, the Bill will provide a power to commence the provisions of the Bill on “different days for different purposes”. This acknowledges the operational implications of this Bill, in particular the potentially significant number of responsible persons who will need to review and update their fire risk assessments. For many, that will require specialist knowledge and expertise from competent professionals who can advise on the fire safety risks for external wall systems.
In recognising these operational implications, the Home Office established a task and finish group, which is chaired jointly by the Fire Sector Federation and the National Fire Chiefs Council. It includes representatives from local authorities, private sector housing developers, the fire sector and fire and rescue services. We are currently considering their advice, which we received earlier this week, and I intend to set out the Government’s position on how they will commence the Fire Safety Bill to this House in Committee.
As I just mentioned, we recognise that there are capacity issues relating to fire risk assessors and concerns around competence. It will be helpful to touch on the measures that we are taking to address them. Significant work has been undertaken within the MHCLG-led building safety programme by the industry-led competency steering group—in particular, its sub-working groups on fire risk assessors and fire engineers—to look at ways to increase competence and capacity in the industry, which proposes recommendations in relation to third-party accreditation and a competence framework for fire- risk assessors. The final report from the CSG will be published next week, and MHCLG, the HSE and the Home Office will consider the recommendations of the report in detail.
It is extremely welcome that there is a shared commitment across all parties to implement the recommendations of the inquiry and legislate where necessary. That commitment bears repeating: we will honour the memory of those who died in that appalling fire and implement the Grenfell inquiry recommendations in full.
On 20 July, the Government launched a consultation that included proposals to implement the recommendations and further strengthen the fire safety order. The consultation closes on 12 October 2020.
It is important to deliver the Fire Safety Bill first, then subsequently the secondary legislation taking forward the outcomes of the fire safety consultation. This is a matter of sequencing to ensure that we consult the relevant parties appropriately on the measures we propose, which in a number of areas go further than the inquiry’s recommendations. It will mean that the legislation will be informed and properly enacted. It is in everyone’s interest that we get this right. The Government will bring forward the necessary secondary legislation as early as practicable following commencement of the Fire Safety Bill.
Nothing can bring back those who lost their lives in the Grenfell tragedy. Nothing can undo the errors that led to their deaths. Yet, if anything is to come from this disaster, let it be the lessons we have learned from those errors and our solemn determination to ensure that they can never happen again.
I spoke earlier of how proud I was in taking this Bill forward. Legislation alone can never have all the answers, but this, the first Bill since the Grenfell fire, will, I believe, make a significant contribution to protecting residents in multi-occupancy buildings from the dangers of fire. I commend it to the House and I beg to move.
My Lords, I have direct personal experience of this area of local government responsibilities. Following the tragedy at Grenfell, not only was I the leader of Newport City Council at that time but Newport was the only council in Wales that had social tenants in high-rise buildings covered in ACM cladding, and one of those tower blocks was in my ward.
The tragedy at Grenfell has prompted extensive inquiries, research and debate about the steps that might be needed to minimise the risk of such a tragedy happening again. Much of that has concentrated on the fabric and construction of high-rise residential buildings because the materials and techniques used in constructing and renovating Grenfell Tower have been implicated in allowing the fire to spread so rapidly. That in turn will mean changes to the system of building control, which regulates how and with what materials buildings must be constructed.
I commend the actions in the Bill because I have first-hand experience of the benefits that can be secured when registered social landlords, such as Newport City Homes, act appropriately and respond to their responsibilities to manage and reduce the risk of fire in multi-occupied buildings. Within six months of the tragedy at Grenfell, the three tower blocks clad in ACM in Newport had sprinklers installed and, within a year, the work to remove and replace the ACM cladding had begun. This was achieved through pragmatic partnership working between the council, the housing association Newport City Homes, Senedd Cymru and South Wales Fire and Rescue Service.
Responsible landlords should already be conducting regular inspections of buildings with the local fire and rescue services, ensuring that evacuation plans are reviewed and regularly updated and personal evacuation plans are in place for residents, providing fire safety instructions to residents in a form that they can reasonably be expected to understand, and ensuring that the building complies with current standards. That is why I agree with the Fire Brigades Union that the Bill is the first—long overdue—piece of primary legislation that seeks to rectify the failures identified after the Grenfell Tower fire. The FBU has raised concerns with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 since it was imposed. It is clear that many “responsible persons” who own and manage residential premises have not assessed the fire risks in their buildings, nor introduced sufficient measures to keep people safe in their homes.
It is the Welsh Government’s intention to bring forward a White Paper for consultation by the end of this current term and the analysis of this consultation will be available to inform any new Government bringing forward primary legislation in this vital area. These reforms build on the work set out by the Welsh Government’s Building Safety Expert Group in its report, A Road Map to Safer Buildings in Wales. The remit of the group was to identify the parameters of a Welsh response to the issues raised by Dame Judith Hackitt’s report, Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety.
In the immediate aftermath of Grenfell, the primary focus was on aluminium composite material—ACM—cladding systems, which had been implicated in the propagation of the fire. In Wales, we have made good progress in relation to remediation of buildings with ACM cladding. There were 15 buildings with non-compliant cladding, all of which have been remediated or have plans in place. We have been able to develop and maintain relationships with building owners and managing agents to ensure an open and honest dialogue about progress. No leaseholders will have to pay for remediation works in relation to ACM cladding. In addition, the Building Regulations 2010 have been amended to ban the use of all combustible cladding on residential buildings over 18 metres in height. The ban applies to combustible cladding on all new residential buildings and where renovation works take place, including flats, student accommodation, care homes and hospitals over 18 metres high. The ban ensures that ACM and other potentially dangerous cladding cannot be used on tall buildings in the future.
The Welsh Government have worked closely with the Home Office on this Bill. It significantly expands the fire safety order’s coverage of blocks of flats, in particular to include the external walls and internal doors that were so clearly implicated in the spread of the Grenfell Tower fire. They have also been working with the social landlord sector through Community Housing Cymru to develop and trial work in relation to resident engagement and sharing of building safety information. Safety First in Housing intends to support those managing buildings to put in place helpful measures ahead of legislation that will allow genuine engagement with residents, and I urge the UK Government to follow this lead in resident engagement.
Newport City Homes had to take the original contractors of the cladding to adjudication to recover its costs to make the building safe. The reality is that flammable material should never have been put on the outside of buildings, and the contractors and developers who allowed this to happen should rectify matters.
The Welsh Government intend to take the opportunity to establish two new regulatory regimes for Wales. The proposed fire safety regime will build on the existing fire safety legislation and will cover all residential buildings containing more than one dwelling. That goes significantly further than the Home Office proposals for England. It intends to establish a new regime focused solely on fire safety in domestic dwellings, unlike the current fire legislation that blurs the focus of workplaces and residential buildings. The Welsh Government also intend to establish a building safety regime for purpose-built high-rise blocks of flats. This will incorporate the fire safety regime but will look across the whole life cycle of buildings, putting in place additional requirements on those designing and constructing high-rise residential buildings, all the way through to the way in which they are managed and maintained during occupation.
Dame Judith Hackitt’s review identified competence issues throughout the system. It found that there was no clear set of competence standards or expectations for many of the professionals involved in the design and construction of fire-safe buildings or the maintenance of fire safety in occupied buildings. Her recommendations apply across the UK. Building industry action to develop more robust approaches is welcome, in order to make the improvements necessary to ensure that competence is clearly embedded within the professions that make up the construction industry.
Dame Judith was clear that information, from inception to occupation, is key to overseeing the ongoing safety of buildings. It allows buildings to be constructed safely and managed appropriately when occupied. Her proposals for a “golden thread” of building information not only are the basis of the information and data required during the gateway process as buildings are designed and constructed but flow through to the occupation stage. The golden thread will be comprehensive and include full as-built plans, a construction control plan and a fire and emergency file, and culminate in the safety case, which articulates how structural and fire risks will be managed and mitigated against. The safety case identifies the potential hazards in the building and considers how these might be reduced and mitigated against. The findings of these considerations should be recorded and acted upon. Evaluating and reviewing the success of mitigating actions should be monitored, and the processes of reviewing and assessing hazards undertaken on an ongoing basis. The golden thread is a live document—in effect, the user’s manual for the building.
Buildings must be designed and constructed in a way that ensures they are as safe as they can be. This is more than health and safety on a building site, and more than ensuring that there is fire-fighting equipment in an emergency. It is not only about ensuring that the design complies with building regulations safety requirements but that the intention is delivered in the finished product. This means making sure that safety features are properly installed in the right places, using the right materials and standards, by persons who are competent.
In conclusion, the Bill goes a good way to redressing the gaps in controls and provisions that led to the tragic loss of life at Grenfell Tower but I ask the Minister to ensure that no positive opportunity is overlooked when reviewing the steps available to get the Bill absolutely right for the future safety of our citizens, wherever they live in the UK, and to acknowledge and learn from the stronger steps that other Governments are putting in place for public safety.
My Lords, it is right that we should remember the 72 victims of the Grenfell fire, their families and neighbours. It is right that we should remember the first responders, the emergency services, the public servants and volunteers, who came forward to help and have been helping in the weeks, months and now years since. We also need to remember the righteous anger and deep frustration of that community as more time has passed and more compelling evidence has come to light about the institutional and corporate failures that caused this fire. We must make sure that it never happens again.
I know the Minister takes this issue deeply seriously and I very much welcome his remarks in introducing this Bill. I know that his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, did so as well and I look forward to hearing his words in a few minutes’ time. I thank the Minister for reaching out to those on the other side of the House to gain a broad consensus for this Bill and to make sure that the foundations are firmly laid and progress made briskly. We support the Bill, but it is a matter of regret that it has taken 38 months since the fire to bring it to your Lordships’ House. It will be another four months at least before the building safety Bill reaches us.
Meanwhile, that compelling evidence of failure mounts up. I give just two illustrations from the last couple of weeks of Grenfell inquiry evidence. Last week, the project manager of the cladding subcontractor told the inquiry that he had no knowledge of the existence of key product safety regulations relating to the cladding he was installing. Yesterday, the senior building control officer at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea told the inquiry that he had received no training in technical industry guidance and had not considered at all the lessons about the fire risks of cladding systems. The brutal reality is that the only people who noticed what was going on were the residents of Grenfell Tower and they were dismissed as malcontents and trouble- makers. That must never be the case again.
That is the context in which the Minister has brought forward the Fire Safety Bill today. I thank him for setting out so clearly what it is intended to do when it comes into force and for making the point very clearly that it is a start, not the finished product. I thank him too for the letter that he circulated to your Lordships today that sets out other measures that the Government have taken and plan to take.
The Liberal Democrats certainly support the Bill’s intention and will be supporting it in its passage through your Lordships’ House. It plugs some gaps and removes ambiguities and, crucially, it makes a named individual responsible for fire safety reports in every building in England and Wales, regardless of its height. There will be a formal assessment.
This Bill has thoroughly good intentions, which we support, but we should also be quite clear that it would not have stopped the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. That would require not only this Bill but also the building safety Bill to come into force urgently. It will require a complete change in the culture of building safety from the construction industry, clients and building owners, designers and contractors, national and local regulators and building users too. It is going to require a massive investment in the training of fire engineers and fire assessors and of all those in the industry who, up to the night of the Grenfell fire, had just been winging it and keeping their fingers crossed. At every step of design and procurement and every level of contracting and subcontracting, there have turned out to be fatal gaps in knowledge and skills that must be plugged. The Government have a serious responsibility to enable, facilitate and drive that process relentlessly.
In considering this Bill, I and my colleagues will be urging the Minister not to confine himself simply to the routine task of steering an uncontroversial Bill on to the statute book, but to undertake to put a rocket booster under the process of delivering a complete package of reform. I hope that he will take back to the Government the intense concern from right across your Lordships’ House on all the progress needed to make sure that things happen “at pace”. That catchphrase has been used repeatedly over the last three years from the Dispatch Box and we need to see it happening, not just in the Home Office, where this Bill sits, but also in MHCLG in relation to regulations, in BEIS in relation to the Construction Leadership Council and the work it is doing, and, indeed, in the Department for Education on apprentice training and graduate training to fill some of the gaps in knowledge and manpower.
The reform the whole building regulatory system, the proper staffing and training of qualified personnel to operate that system and the restoration of confidence of local communities caught in the eye of the storm all remain to be done three years after the fire. We take this Bill as some evidence of progress but it is also, to some extent, evidence of delay so I hope the Minister will convey the sense of concern in this House and the anger of local communities right to the very highest level of government, to which, I know, he has good personal access.
I have some questions. Will the Minister undertake to provide your Lordships with a detailed report on the number of fire engineers the Government estimate will be needed to properly deliver the regulatory system set out in the Bill? Can he tell us what estimate he has of the current shortfall and the steps he is putting in place to overcome it? Does the Minister share my fear that the implementation of the Bill will have to be delayed because of that shortfall? Has he taken note of the fall in the number of fire safety officers employed by fire and rescue services in the last 20 years? Does he believe that the current number is sufficient to take on the new duties that the Bill sets out? Perhaps he can say a little more about that. Can he confirm that there is to be a publicly accessible register of all fire assessments?
I know that the Minister will want to honour the often-repeated promise that tenants and residents would be at the heart of the new post-Grenfell regulatory system, with their concerns and their practical experience of day-to-day life in their own home being taken seriously. Does he agree that every one of them should be able to read a copy of the assessment for their block and be told exactly who is responsible for monitoring the risks and delivering the necessary changes? That needs to be a person with actual responsibility, not a distant corporate body registered in the Cayman Islands or an anonymous helpline. We must never again have residents’ legitimate concerns ignored or simply dismissed as troublemaking. We shall certainly want to return to this in Committee.
I am sure the Minister will have read the useful briefing prepared by the LGA, setting out its concerns about some of the practical matters of implementation. It is not at all surprising that, in view of the cuts local authorities have suffered to their income because of Covid-19, they have also raised serious concerns about where the cost of inspection and enforcement is planned to fall. No doubt other noble Lords will expand on that point in the debate.
The Bill is wholly silent on the question of costs and the impact assessment is vague too. The struggle to safeguard leaseholders and tenants who face huge bills directly arising from the replacement of ACM shows just how easily the individuals with no prior knowledge or professional background get left carrying the can, while the contractors and the paid professionals just move on to the next job.
What are the Government’s intentions when it comes to meeting the costs of any remediation that the Bill shows is necessary? Has the Minister any assessment of what those costs are likely to be? How does he intend to safeguard leaseholders against being saddled with yet another huge bill caused, as they might see it, not by them doing something wrong but by a new piece of well-meaning legislation dumped on their heads?
The Minister may feel that these are small details and that we should focus instead on the bigger picture, but I say, as a former Minister, that it is often the small details that trip up and spoil the big picture. Even more to the point, if we look at the big picture, this Bill is not the big picture; it is a small part of a much bigger picture, where reform and challenge is urgently needed to put right past wrongs and prevent future tragedies.
So we do welcome this Bill, but it has to be seen as only a small step in a long journey, one that has taken a long time to get started, where the pace is still too slow and the urgency to bring forward legislation seems to have been somewhat lacking. Those 72 Grenfell residents and their families and neighbours have waited far too long to see justice and to see meaningful change and action. I very much hope that the debate today can put some extra energy back into the campaign to achieve that change.
My Lords, it is the very greatest honour to have been appointed to your Lordships’ House and to be speaking here for the first time. I express my thanks to the Prime Minister for nominating me and to the doorkeepers, the staff and all those who have made me feel so welcome over the last two weeks. They are very special people who are working here for us, especially given the circumstances and the current risks that everybody faces, and we should be very grateful to them.
I am very proud that three of the last four Members of Parliament for Arundel are, or have recently been, Members of this House. I am proud to be joining my predecessor but one as the Member of Parliament for Arundel and South Downs, my noble friend Lord Flight, and sad that my predecessor but two, Lord Luce, retired from this House just before I joined it. I was hoping that the three of us might be able to be photographed together: how many other parliamentary constituencies can claim such a record?
I have taken the title Lord Herbert of South Downs because my constituency, which I was proud to represent for 15 years, is called Arundel and South Downs. I still live in Arundel and still enjoy, every week, the beauty of the South Downs, one of the finest parts of this country and the most beautiful landscapes. It expresses the great love I have always had for the countryside, a passion that I will continue to have, and I hope to promote its interests while a Member of your Lordships’ House.
I have the honour to be the chairman of the Countryside Alliance, a position that I have noted in the register. It was there, or at least in its precursor organisation, that, a very long time ago, I met my noble friend Lord Mancroft, who was my lead supporter when I was introduced in this place. It was he who insisted that I should wear robes, pointing out that that was provided for under the Standing Orders of the House. It is a practice that I understand has taken place since 1621, and I was very proud to do so.
I met my other supporter, my noble friend Lord Hill, in my first job, when I became a member of the Conservative Research Department just after leaving university. I was given the job by my noble friend Lord Lexden. I think he was and remains surprised that he gave me the job, and he seemed similarly surprised that I had arrived in your Lordships’ House, but I owe him a very great debt in that, 35 years ago, he had the confidence in me to launch me on my political career.
I arrive in your Lordships’ House to discover that, of course, it is very different to the other place; but it is also very different to the place it was just a few months ago, because of the way proceedings are conducted. I am full of admiration for the way your Lordships are grappling with new technology so as to speak remotely and vote electronically. Indeed, I remarked to a friend in the United States, a former ambassador, that he might see it as a double constitutional outrage that I had been appointed a legislator for life and that I was now voting remotely, not even present in the Chamber. He nodded and smiled and said, “Yes, that is what we fought the War of Independence about.” I hope that it will not be long before we are able to return to the previous practice of being present in this House.
Of course, one should not believe that age is any impediment to using new technology. My elderly parents, in common with many others of their generation, have become fiends in the use of personal phones and iPads. We encouraged my mother to begin texting and she started to do so voraciously. I recall sitting on the Front Bench in the other place when I received a message from my mother to say that I should call her urgently. I texted back to say that I was sitting on the Front Bench and therefore unable to do so. “Yes”, she replied by text, “I can see that you are on the Front Bench. I am your mother. I would like you to call me now.” I made my excuses and went out of the Chamber, expecting that something terrible or dramatic had happened. I called, only for my mother to ask if I would be there for lunch on Sunday. These are the imperatives of life.
It is a very great pleasure to be able to rejoin the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT Rights, which I founded, along with many Members here and in the other place, and had the honour to chair. I will be chairing the Government’s international LGBT+ conference, which has unfortunately been postponed because of Covid but will, I hope, be held in some form next year. I continue to chair the Global Equality Caucus of parliamentarians around the world who are united in the belief in the importance of equality and ensuring that everybody is treated with dignity and respect according to their fundamental human rights.
I have also rejoined the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Tuberculosis and will now be resuming my co-chairmanship of that group. I also founded that group when, 15 years ago, I visited Kenya and learned about a disease called tuberculosis, the orphan of diseases, in that it is so little talked about, yet it is still, despite Covid, the world’s deadliest infectious disease. Tragically, Covid has now killed 1 million people worldwide, but tuberculosis still kills 1.5 million people every single year and will do for many years to come unless we find a vaccine, unless we find new tools and unless we renew our determination to beat it. We do not face a choice between tackling these infectious diseases; we must learn the importance of global health security. I will also continue to chair the Global TB Caucus, trying to mobilise parliamentarians from around the world to take action to ensure that people can beat this terrible disease.
I was appointed a Minister in the Home Office and in the Ministry of Justice. It is not always easy to be a Minister in two departments, as I am sure my noble friend the Minister is discovering. I soon realised that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are very different places. One notable difference was the lifts. Ministry of Justice lifts are much smarter than Home Office lifts; I will make no comment about them. But I was shown a button by my private secretary and given a code to key in. If I did so, the lift would immediately come down or up to me to ensure that I could get in it very quickly and rush off to vote.
I thought that I would try out this process when no one else was around. I keyed in the code and the lift hurtled down to my floor. The doors opened and out stepped the then Lord Chancellor—now my noble and learned friend Lord Clarke of Nottingham—my boss, who said that a sign had come up in the lift saying, “This lift is now under ministerial control”. However, it was not under his control, and indeed we discovered that very little was when we were in the department. He asked me what on earth could have happened and I suggested that he took the matter up with the Permanent Secretary. I did not own up that I had seized command of his lift.
I will continue to take the closest interest in matters to do with policing and criminal justice. I have recently set up a Commission for Smart Government, whose members include noble Lords from all sides of this House. It is focused on how we can make government more effective. One thing that we want to do is to look at how any Government can ensure that they are able to deliver. In the end, that is the imperative for Governments. I am reminded of one thing that a previous Lord Herbert—Lord Herbert of Cherbury, a poet, soldier, Member of Parliament and brother of the poet George Herbert—said in the 16th century:
“The shortest answer is doing.”
That is a motto that any politician, and certainly any Government, would do very well to remember. In the end, people will judge us not by what we say or promise but by what we do and are able to deliver. There can surely be no more important task for any Government than to make their people safe, and that is why this Bill is so important and why I am so pleased to be able to speak at Second Reading today on this short but important piece of legislation.
In conclusion, perhaps I may say something about the Bill and the Grenfell disaster. The tower was built in 1974—it is, or was, younger than almost every Member of your Lordships’ House. It was not an old building but a relatively new one. The truth is that many wealthy people around the world live in tower blocks, but it would be surprising if they had faced the same situation or the same risk, because the towers in which they live would have been equipped in a very different way. That is the truth of the matter. It is right that we now take every step to ensure that no tragedy of the kind that we saw at Grenfell, in which 72 people lost their lives, could ever happen again.
At the root of what happened, an injustice was revealed—a social injustice about the conditions in which some people were living and in which others would never have considered living. That, in the end, is why there is a wider agenda to level up in this country. It is an agenda that the Prime Minister has fully committed himself to, and it is one that I will proudly support.
My Lords, we have been treated to a maiden speech from my noble friend Lord Herbert of South Downs of great weight and great good humour. It had valuable insights on many issues—for example, on the countryside, on new technology and, indeed, on my noble friend Lord Mancroft.
My noble friend comes to us with a distinguished and formidable record in the other place, particularly on rural issues, on policing and on criminal justice. Indeed, he was a Minister for policing and for criminal justice in the other place. I am sure that we all look forward to him participating fully in the activities of the House. I know that he will take a particular interest in issues involving the countryside, equality, the operation of democracy and combating tuberculosis. We all wish him well in his future here. I am sure that it will be a long and distinguished one. On a personal note, I also wish him well with my noble and learned friend Lord Clarke of Nottingham when he catches up with the debate.
Turning to the Fire Safety Bill, first, I thank the Minister for his introduction. I know that he takes matters concerning Grenfell and fire safety more widely very seriously. I also know that he was the leader of an adjoining council, so he knows the local situation very well.
We all recall the early morning of 14 June 2017 very well. It is seared on our memories. It represented, in human terms, the greatest loss of life in a residential fire since World War Two, with the loss of 72 lives— 72 lives that should not have been lost. Our thoughts are always with the families and survivors, and with the people who, since the fire, have consistently offered, in human terms, their all. I refer to the public services, particularly the fire service, people in the local community and in faith communities, and officials from government, particularly from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. I was a Minister in the department at the time, so I have awful, but very clear, recollections of that night, as, I know, do many noble Lords who are participating in this debate.
It is right that we say that there will be a memorial on the site of the Grenfell Tower in due course and that the local community—Grenfell United and others—will be leading on that. It is also right that the greatest memorial that we can offer the people of Grenfell and those who have fought since the fire to right that wrong is a legacy that ensures that this can never happen again. The Government have, quite rightly, moved in many ways—with the independent inquiry under judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick and with the regulations review of building safety led by Dame Judith Hackitt. We still await news on criminal prosecutions. Although I recognise that this is, in a sense, quite separate from government, we have given—and I was able to give—information and publish how many people had been interviewed under caution in relation to this matter. The Minister might not have details of that to hand. If he does not, I would appreciate it if he were able to write to me saying something on this matter, with a copy being sent to other participants in this debate and placed in the Library. Understandably, responsibility for what happened that night remains a very real concern.
The Government have also moved to put in place fire protection measures, and the use of combustible ACM has, quite rightly, been banned. The remediation of unsafe buildings is happening, but herein lies the rub. I suspect that we all agree on what needs to happen —I cannot imagine that there is any great difference on that—but the issue is the speed with which it is happening and needs to happen.
Understandably, there was a time when interim safety measures needed to be put in place—but that surely was only for the interim. The very use of the word “interim”, which we continue to use as a Government and as a country, indicates that we are not there yet, so I shall press the Minister on this. The key issue here is speed in remedying what needs to be remedied. I think that he mentioned that 74% of building remediation had been started or completed in relation to the removal of ACM. Is he able to give the percentage for the amount that has been completed, rather than started or completed? That would be a very useful statistic for us look at.
The Queen’s speech quite rightly committed the Government to two Bills. We have heard quite a lot from the Minister about the draft building safety Bill, and we have also heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport, about remediation measures in Wales put in place by Senedd Cymru. I again emphasise to the Minister that it is useful to work alongside the devolved Administrations, particularly in this instance with Wales. I am sure that is happening, but it would be useful to know what lessons and partnership work are going on with Wales, so that we can tackle these scourges together—because I am sure that the aim is one of unity in terms of what we need to do.
Unsurprisingly, I am a strong supporter of the Bill. I am pleased that we are dealing with the ambiguity of what is covered by the term “building” and that it will cover external walls, and therefore cladding, flat entrance doors, balconies and so on. It is obviously right that we have that clarity. I also very much support there being a responsible person for each building to take forward responsibility for this and to make sure that we act in the right way. These are aims that I am sure we can all support. But I come back to the issue of speed. We keep saying “at pace”, but it needs now to be not a moderate pace but a fast pace. I am sure that we all have that haunting thought that we do not want to see anything like Grenfell ever again. The way that we can prevent that is by moving at a fast pace in terms of removal of cladding, and in the admirable array of things that the Government are doing. The only thing they need do now is accelerate that.
One issue that has not been touched on yet was discussed in the other place when my honourable friend Sir David Amess moved an amendment on electrical safety. I thank Electrical Safety First, which has provided me with a valuable briefing on this. It is important to note on this issue that, although our focus is quite rightly on ACM cladding, which certainly led to the spread of the fire—there is no doubt about that—nevertheless the trigger for the fire, as it has been in many other fires, was an electrical fault, as it was at Lakanal House and Shepherd’s Court, where there was another serious fire, although thankfully not one that led to fatalities. Over 14,000 fires a year are caused by electrical faults, so I will be pressing the Minister on what we are doing with regard to checking the safety of flats in tower blocks, of which there are hundreds of thousands, to ensure that electrical appliances are periodically checked for safety. That will minimise the risk of electrical fires, and it is something we could usefully do. I look forward to looking at this in more detail perhaps in Committee. In the meantime, I would be interested in what the Minister has to say.
In short, I strongly support the Bill, as I am sure I will the building safety Bill. My one real concern is pace. It needs to be fast, and we need to accelerate now. As the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, said, it is now some 34 months since the fire, and we must move quickly. Otherwise, I will be pressing the issue of electrical safety. But I know that the Minister is totally committed to this, as is my right honourable friend in the other place James Brokenshire. I look forward to working with them and others to make sure that we have a piece of legislation of which we can all be proud and which I am sure we will improve in your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Herbert, and welcome him to this House. I look forward to his future contributions. It is also an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. When he was a Minister he took very seriously the responsibilities which arose following the Grenfell fire, some of which we are debating today.
The fact remains that it is three years since Grenfell and 11 years since Lakanal House, and this is the first piece of substantive legislation that has been before Parliament. It is needed. We need to resolve the ambiguities in the fire safety order and clearly define responsible officers, their work and the parts of the building which will be subject to their responsibilities and to professional inspection.
I know that the Minister tried to do this to some extent in his opening remarks and in the letter that we received today, but we needed a report on the totality of progress on all of these issues post Grenfell, so that we could see where this Bill fits in with other initiatives. We have referred to the building safety Bill, which is still in very early draft form. Some people are saying that there is a clash of definitions of “responsible person” between that draft Bill and the Bill before us today. We must be clearer about how this all fits in with the Government’s consultation Building a Safer Future, the related safety strategy proposed by the Minister’s department, the implementation of the inquiry’s first stage and of the Hackitt report, and the progress on the proposed new regulator.
Specifically in the Grenfell case, we also need an indication of progress on potential prosecutions of the managers of the building and the suppliers. The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, referred to the evidence reported in the press today about the person who would be deemed to be something like the responsible officer in Kensington and Chelsea, who clearly did not have a clue about their responsibilities and the regulations. The same applied to the representative of the major supplier. This is not an overregulated industry but a seriously underregulated industry, and those regulations that exist are not properly enforced. We need to look at all these aspects together, and some others as well.
My noble friend Lady Wilcox referred to sprinklers and the progress there. The case is not the same in Wales as it is in many authorities around England. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, referred to electrical safety, and rightly said that the majority of domestic fires are caused by electrical faults. Inspection and enforcement of regulations in that area are also necessary. Whereas with gas there is a mandatory responsibility on landlords to inspect the gas installations, there is not one for white goods and other electrical installations within multi-occupied buildings more generally.
There is also some obscurity as to which pieces of legislation apply to which buildings. This Bill apparently applies to all multi-occupied buildings, whereas some of the other proposed legislation and regulation applies to buildings over 18 metres high, and that limit has been queried. We are also unclear as to how many buildings and landlords we are referring to. In the impact assessment for this Bill there is a pretty wide range of figures for buildings—2.2 to 3.2 million individual flats—and for the number of landlords, both private and social. So the House deserves a much more strategic report from Ministers on this whole area.
There are also wider issues. At the end of the day, whatever regulations come forward must be professionally enforced, and we must have adequate numbers of professionally trained inspectors. Regrettably, in the fire service there has been a cut of over 20% in recent years. That cut needs to be reversed. In particular, there is nowhere near a sufficient number of qualified and experienced fire inspectors to fulfil the clearer responsibilities in this and the other Bill. The Fire Brigades Union has indicated that there are fewer than 1,000 people who are even remotely qualified to carry out such inspections, which is about half the number there were a decade ago. We need a training programme and a recruitment programme to train up firefighters and others to fulfil these professional roles.
Of course, this may grow, because while in the Bill we are talking about tightening restrictions, the proposed new planning changes will allow, for example, conversion of office blocks to residential use, and adding storeys to existing buildings. If we are not careful, and do not have a robust and effective system of enforcing the use of safe materials and the safe design of the structure of the buildings, that will increase the potential danger of unsafe buildings.
The problem is not only with the fire service and fire inspectors. One of the other areas most drastically cut by many local authorities in the past decade has been building regulations enforcement, and the numbers employed there. The enforcement of standards of materials and the application of materials, as well as of the design of buildings, is clearly inadequate in almost every local authority.
With regard to materials and equipment, it is not just cladding that we should be worried about. There is also, for example, the issue of fire doors. In its briefing for the Bill, the LGA—I declare my interest as one of its vice-chairs—claims that thousands of non-compliant doors have been delivered to local authorities and housing associations in recent years. It estimates the replacement cost at £700 million. That is an absolute scandal. I know of nobody who has been prosecuted for failure to supply compliant doors.
The impact assessment on the Bill makes no mention of the significantly increased resources for both personnel and training that will be required to make it, and related measures, effective in carrying out their job. So there is a significant number of wider questions that we need to address in this context. I will support the Bill; I think it is necessary. But we need a clearer indication of how it fits in with other such measures.
Even in this limited Bill there is a serious omission. We need to mention the role of residents—tenants and leaseholders—and the need for them to be informed, and to have their concerns taken seriously by building owners, managers and suppliers. Let us remember that Grenfell residents were warning of the dangers of the refurbishment years before the tragedy happened—in terms of the cladding, the loss of firewalls and the increasing space for a fire to spread, and also of the potential dangers of the “stay put” evacuation advice. All were pointed to by the residents, and all were ignored.
More widely, the effects of the uncertainty about the safety of the buildings in which they live is causing widespread anxiety among all residents. Leaseholders also face potential substantial economic loss, as the value of their property falls and the availability of affordable insurance recedes because of safety fears. Tenants and leaseholders need to be listened to, and their role needs to be reflected in this Bill and in related legislation.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. He said that we needed to see the totality of what the Government are proposing, and also to listen to residents. In both respects, I entirely agree with him. I should declare that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. May I also add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Herbert of South Downs, on his excellent maiden speech? We look forward to hearing more of his contributions in the months ahead.
I support this Bill. It brings extra clarity to defining who is responsible for managing the reduction of fire risk for residential buildings in multi-occupation. The proposed clarification of the scope of the 2005 fire safety order is to be welcomed, as it will clearly include building structures, external walls and common areas. I strongly welcome, too, the wish to address problems caused by less resistant entrance doors on some residents’ flats. The proposals in the Bill are measured and proportionate, and while we may wish to examine in Committee issues debated in the House of Commons that were not progressed, it is my view that the Bill should pass.
My noble friend Lord Stunell raised a number of important issues, particularly in relation to the rights of tenants and occupiers of flats in high-rise blocks to be listened to. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, made the same point a moment ago. My noble friend also talked about the financial burden faced by many leaseholders through no fault of their own.
As my noble friend also said, this Bill has to be seen in the context of the forthcoming building safety Bill. And may I say that I think it will prove beneficial to have placed that draft Bill into pre-legislative scrutiny? These two Bills are related. Both seek to address systemic deficiencies identified after the appalling Grenfell Tower fire, and to prevent such a tragic ever happening again.
The revelations that we have heard from the inquiry hearings are worrying. They have shown that cost cutting has been too dominant a consideration in building construction of high-rise blocks, and that there have been major failures in the testing of materials and in the enforcement of fire regulations. This Bill is a start in addressing that deficiency. In all respects, public safety and the minimisation of risk must come first.
So the aims of the Bill are very important. But is the Minister confident about delivery? Once this Bill and the building safety Bill are in place, will local government and the fire services have sufficient powers to make this Bill effective? Has there been confirmation of this from organisations affected? I am concerned about, for example, entrance doors in tower blocks. How will responsible persons have enough power to ensure that individual flats owned by leaseholders have adequate fire safety protections, given that their doors join common areas?
Responsible persons are rightly required to review their fire risk assessments, and in buildings with no cladding there is likely to be sufficient professional capacity to assist in undertaking those reviews. But how are responsible persons to get the expert resource necessary to update the fire risk assessments of all buildings that do have external wall cladding systems? Are there enough qualified people to do the job? If not, what are the plans to increase training and, following that, numbers of staff?
I hope that the building safety Bill will be properly integrated with the amended fire safety order, to establish a building safety system that is easy to understand and easy to implement. Doubt about responsibilities must be avoided. For example, it has been suggested that there are differences between the fire safety order’s concept of a responsible person and the proposals for an accountable person and a building safety manager contained in the Government’s response to the Building a Safer Future consultation response. Will the Minister confirm that such differences in interpretation will be avoided, and that clarity will be paramount in the Bill and in regulations?
Since the Grenfell fire, the Government have allocated money to alleviate some of the critical problems related to ACM and other cladding, and they created a building safety fund worth £1 billion in June this year. Despite this, overall spending is low and there is confusion over entitlements. In addition, many owners of flats can face a lengthy wait to sell properties, because surveyors need to get evidence required by mortgage lenders on the construction of their flats, on whether there is external cladding, and on whether there is an external wall survey—which often may not exist.
The situation is not helped by the sheer amount of work to be done, and by the complexity of the responsibility chain, with so many different organisations and tenures involved across the public, voluntary and private sectors. I hope that the Minister understands the urgency of resolving this problem.
I have one final point, which my noble friend Lord Stunell also talked about. I have raised before the issue of whether there should be a public register of fire risk assessments. There is a very strong case for having one, and I raise the issue again, in the hope that the Minister might take a further look at it.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register, and I welcome my noble friend Lord Herbert to this House.
On the face of it, this is a straightforward Bill that will clarify the scope of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 to better identify and enforce against fire risk in multi-occupied residential buildings. In reality, of course, the situation is far more complicated, for lying behind this piece of legislation is the devastation of the Grenfell Tower fire and the knowledge that 72 people lost their lives simply by virtue of the fact that they were at home at the time. By definition, a home is somewhere that should provide protection, not sow the seeds of a person’s death.
I welcome the Bill, as it will significantly improve the safety of millions of people around the country. It is, however, only one part of a raft of measures to improve standards. There is the building safety Bill, and another key element in this process is the fire safety consultation, which closes in less than a fortnight and includes proposals to implement all the recommendations made by Sir Martin Moore-Bick in his excellent phase 1 report.
I am afraid I do not agree with the argument put forward in the other place that a number of those recommendations should be included in the Bill. As they should, the recommendations incorporate significant change. Sir Martin himself said that it was
“important that they command the support of those who have experience of the matters to which they relate.”
It was therefore essential to consult, not least because the Government are legally obliged to do so, given that the vast majority of the recommendations will require implementation in law.
However, I completely understand the anger and frustration at the lack of pace. As has been mentioned today, it is more than three years since the fire and nearly 12 months since the recommendations were first made. I ask my noble friend the Minister to give a clear timeframe for when and how the recommendations will be implemented. When will the Government respond to the consultation, and when can we expect the regulations that will enable many of the recommendations to be put in place? When does he expect the building safety Bill to be introduced?
Together, these measures will significantly improve fire safety standards. I pay tribute to all those from the Grenfell community, particularly Grenfell United, whose members spend their time campaigning on this issue solely so that what happened to them does not happen to anyone else. At the very least, we owe them some reassurance as to when these much-needed changes will be brought about.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, has withdrawn so the next speaker is the noble Lord, Lord Storey.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Herbert, on his excellent speech. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
We all know the frightening power and effect of fire. It can cut through the natural and physical environment like a knife through butter, leaving a trail of destruction and devastation, whether in the bushfires of Australia, the forests of California or the ruthless way that it burnt through Grenfell Tower, leaving families mourning loved ones. As the Minister said, we still remember those individuals who so tragically lost their lives.
It is important that we all know the value of fire safety and take necessary precautions to prevent fires. As a head teacher, I would educate the children about the danger of fire and carry out regular fire inspections, even unannounced. The Merseyside fire service was invaluable in coming to talk to children and carrying out fire safety inspections. I fear that reductions in local government finances meant that this was drastically scaled back. Could the Minister inform the House whether it is a statutory responsibility to carry out fire safety checks at schools and colleges, and does that still take place annually?
I welcome the Bill, as I am sure we all do; each and every measure that improves the safety of people who live in high-rise blocks has to be welcomed. However, with its narrow focus on cladding and fire doors, it must be obvious that there are a series of other fire safety issues. Those of us who have followed the painfully slow response to the Grenfell tragedy will have been shocked at the state of a block that had been refurbished and the finger-pointing that is now going on as the inquiry continues.
The excellent Library briefing sets out the exact scope of the Bill. It will
“amend the Fire Safety Order 2005 to clarify that the responsible person or duty-holder for multi-occupied, residential buildings must manage and reduce the risk of fire for … the structure and external walls of the building, including cladding, balconies and windows … entrance doors to individual flats that open into common parts”.
While those two aspects are welcome, they are just two of the many aspects of building safety that need urgent attention.
As I am sure we will hear, the Bill will also enable the Government to introduce secondary legislation. We will also be told of a task and finish group that has been be established to provide a recommendation on how the Bill will be commenced. That the Government are taking advice is welcome, but I urge them to act more quickly than they have in implementing those recommendations in the Hackitt report that do not lead to lengthy consultation. How many of the recommendations have already been implemented? When do the Government plan to implement the Bill once Royal Assent has been granted? What is the timeline for publication of the secondary legislation that will flow from the Bill once it is on the statute book?
During the debate in the other place, the Government referred to the draft building safety Bill, which is partly through the pre-legislative scrutiny stage by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee. That Bill, with many clauses and nearly 200 pages of Explanatory Notes, proposes a major reform of building safety, which is welcome, but it will take many months to reach the statute book and many years to fully implement. The residents of high-rise buildings cannot be expected to wait for years before they are able to go to bed confident that they are safe and sound. When might we expect to be debating that Bill? What is the Government’s schedule?
Fire safety is not restricted to tower blocks, of course. This building, although only three storeys high, represents a particular challenge to the excellent fire safety team that we have. I am aware of the comprehensive work that they are doing to keep us safe. The House of Lords must be unique, not only for the quality of the debates that we have but because of the age of the building with its national treasure status, its amount of wood and the rabbit-warren nature of its many passageways. It demands a high level of planning to prevent a fire or emergency but also to deal with one should such a situation occur.
The Members along my corridor include those who use wheelchairs and guide dogs. Other Members would require varying degrees of assistance to evacuate the building. This Bill, with such a narrow focus, will have no direct impact on us: there is no external cladding other than the scaffolding—which seems to be a permanent feature—and there is no problem with our fire doors, but these are just two elements of a safer building. However, we are all working in a building that requires many safety measures, not simply in order to comply with the law but to keep us safe in the event of fire or emergency.
In concluding, I will make a point about the safety of electrical appliances. The Minister is on record as stating:
“The Government are committed to ensuring that the electrical products that people buy are safe”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/9/20; col. 442.]
More than 500,000 Hotpoint and Indesit appliances have been recalled, with more machines added as recently as April 2020. As Lesley Rudd, the chief executive of the charity Electrical Safety First, said,
“It is alarming that five months into this recall, we are only now hearing of these extra models which pose a threat to owners.”
This new discovery throws into question the robustness of the original investigation.
Finally, I endorse what the Minister said in his opening remarks. Clearly, he takes this matter seriously. As he says, it is in everybody’s interests to get this right.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Herbert of South Downs on his excellent maiden speech. We will greatly benefit from his expertise in so many areas. I should also congratulate him on his good fortune in choosing a debate where there is such a relatively generous time limit. I remember well showing him around the other place when he first arrived there in my capacity as a senior Whip. If I were still in that capacity, I might have gently pointed out that he pushed that time limit to the boundaries. However, I am sure that he will be delighted not only to know that your Lordships’ House is a far gentler place but to discover that I am more likely to be a member of the awkward squad these days than an enforcer. I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Sanderson of Welton on such a thoughtful and knowledgeable speech.
I welcome this Bill, and although I am aware that it is not strictly the vehicle to address the very serious issue of electrical safety, I would like to highlight my concerns and those of many others whom we have already heard from—including my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth in an eloquent speech and the noble Lord, Lord Storey—about the fires caused by electricity. Of course, this Bill addresses what happens if a structure is on fire, but we must look at what causes the fire in the first place. Some 57% of house fires are caused by electrical faults. As we have already heard, my esteemed colleague Sir David Amess brought forward an amendment in the other place that seems to me to be eminently sensible.
Over the past three years, accidental electrical fires in high-rise buildings have risen consistently year on year, which is frankly shocking. It is important to state that these fires are not all caused by the appliances themselves but by misuse. In a previous life, I ran my family retail business, including an upholstery department. Noble Lords might well remember that there was rightly a lot of concern about the smoke and danger of certain foam within upholstery. The fires were not caused by the sofas or the chairs themselves; they occurred for other reasons, such as people falling asleep with a lighted cigarette or faulty electrical equipment. Educating people about the dangers is paramount.
We must do whatever we can to avoid the chance of another Grenfell tragedy reoccurring. With the newly created role of responsible person for any high building, that person should also be given the task of compiling a register for all white goods in the building. This would ensure that when a recall occurs—and sometimes they occur a little late, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, has just said—anyone with a defective appliance could be quickly alerted and the safety risk resolved. My noble friend told us that he would be bringing forward more measures in the draft building safety Bill. I earnestly hope that this issue will not be ignored there. I cannot think of a better person than my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh to be taking this through your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I declare my interest in that, in my long stint at the TUC, I worked closely with the Fire Brigades Union on many issues, including fire safety. I commend to the House today the notes of evidence that have been widely circulated by that union. Some of the points that I will make—and many others have already made them—will reflect some of those made in the FBU’s evidence.
Grenfell, of course, exposed many failings about the fire risks in buildings. Very worryingly, we know that there are plenty of other potential Grenfells still around. The noble Lord, Lord Herbert, in his excellent address, got it dead right when he hit upon the issue of inequality: there are plenty of apartment blocks around the world that house the better off in which these problems have never existed. The inequality of the two types of provision is rather stark. This Bill is a welcome step to improve matters, and I am among all those who have spoken so far in support of it.
I want to touch on a number of issues with a view towards improving the Bill. I hope that the Minister will have an open mind to the constructive suggestions that are being made in this debate and will no doubt come up again in Committee. The first concerns resources, as a number of speakers have already said. The number of firefighters has fallen in a decade by 20%. When the Bill’s measures come into force, I pose the question: will there be enough staff and other resources available to cover the new amount of extra work? There are around 4,000 tower blocks for the inspectors and advisers to cover. Looking at the landscapes of many of our cities at the moment, I suggest that there are many more going up, even despite the recessionary period we are in at present. Will there be enough people around with the necessary expertise to handle this increased workload? The FBU is obviously worried about that, and I am interested to learn what the Government think about it.
My second point concerns the impact assessment. It took into account the views of the National Fire Chiefs Council and individual brigades, as I still call them. However, it missed out the FBU, and I would like to know why that was the case. It is in the front line when these fires occur. Like the tenants, its voice needs to be heard and respected. Related to that, can the evidence submitted by the fire and rescue services be published?
Does this Bill cover all houses and other buildings converted into flats, and how will the inspectors prioritise their visits? Will they visit the high rises first? There will also be some conversions around that are in need of some regulation if things are to go well. At the moment, as the Local Government Association has pointed out, there are relatively few fire experts to take on what could be an enormously complex and highly skilled task. What are the plans to recruit and train on a bigger scale?
The impact assessment seems to estimate that the additional cost of the Bill could be up to £2.1 million. Really? Is that the cost of the additional fire safety regime proposed in this Bill? Have I got it right? Do I understand the figures correctly? It certainly seems to be very low, given the enormity of the challenge that people inspecting buildings are likely to have. What are the fire and rescue authorities saying about costs and how they will be apportioned?
Finally, I hope that the Government and the other fire authorities will learn quickly from Grenfell the need to talk to tenants about problems. Residents are as likely as anybody else—and more likely than most—to uncover problems and hazards. They live with them and, unfortunately in the case of Grenfell, they die with them.
My Lords, there have been some excellent speeches this afternoon; I will keep my remarks brief and try not to duplicate too much what has been said. First, I join others in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Herbert, to the House. His was an entertaining and erudite speech and I know that we all enjoyed it.
Poor building regulations and a hopeless inspection regime led to the awful Grenfell tragedy. It is now clear that so many buildings could have suffered a similar fate, with a dreadful loss of human life. Nine out of 10 blocks are failing cladding checks. Here I declare an interest as part owner of one flat in a block still awaiting a test. But how many blocks have been inspected? Today the Minister repeated that all high-rise residential buildings will be inspected or reviewed by the end of next year; that is many months away, and much could happen between now and then. This is not a speedy enough response to an issue that is putting lives at risk. Can the Minister explain why there is such a lack of urgency on this? Also, can he clarify the distinction between inspections and reviews?
There are, as others have said, just 1,100 fire safety inspectors. The number of firefighters has fallen hugely—by 12,000 in just a few years. With the Covid situation meaning that many people’s jobs are in jeopardy, surely this is an opportunity to invest in reskilling people to take on those valuable roles.
Many of the people in these high-rise buildings wish to move, not just because they are fearful for their safety. Growing families needing more space and the pressures created by working from home, meaning that another bedroom-cum-study is required, are just two of the reasons why people living in high-rise flats may wish to move. But they are finding it impossible to sell. As others have remarked, those who normally lend on such properties are refusing—mortgages are simply not available. People could be trapped in their unhappy situation for years if there is not more action to get these buildings cleared or dealt with.
The Government have provided funds to help put right these faulty buildings, but is £1.6 billion ever going to be enough? We know that it will not be. Will the Minister consider how the Australian state of Victoria is dealing with this issue? There have been significant state loans and a new fund, backed by developer levies, to enable owners to put their blocks right. The state government is determined, in pursuing the developers and builders responsible for these faulty buildings through the courts, to get them to pay for their bad work. The state is also making sure that every high-rise building has been inspected. It is then able to prioritise the way in which putting things right is done. Perhaps we in this country could, through local authorities, train up a new battalion of inspectors so that these buildings could be examined quickly, work prioritised and a new fund set up to fund that work, with the Government chasing the guilty through the courts to get them to pay the bills.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, and also as co-president of London Councils, the body that represents all 32 London borough councils and the City of London.
I join with other speakers in welcoming the Bill, which is long overdue, and I share their questions and interests. For the sake of brevity, I will not repeat them, but I am looking forward very much to the Minister’s response and to learning a little more about the future proceeding of this Bill and, more particularly, the timetable and consideration for the Bill that will follow it in due course.
I declare another interest today, as a patron of Electrical Safety First, the charity that takes a particular interest in this area. In that context, I welcome very much the points that have already been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, my noble friend Lord Storey, and, in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. It is a subject that I am sure we will return to at a later stage, quite probably when we consider the building safety Bill.
I want to say a little more about the subject because it is important here. As others have said, electricity causes more than 14,000 house fires a year. The Grenfell Tower fire was caused by faulty wiring to a fridge-freezer. In 2016, a flaw in a tumble dryer led to a fire at Shepherd’s Court in west London, which ripped through five storeys. The fire at Lakanal House has already been referred to—it was also caused by electricity. There are around 4,000 tower blocks in the UK with nearly half a million flats, so probably more than a million residents live in those tower blocks throughout the United Kingdom.
Electrical Safety First’s analysis of government data shows that accidental electrical fires in high-rise blocks have been steadily increasing between 2006 and 2019. In an excellent article in the Times this morning, the chief executive of Electrical Safety First referred to what she described as
“tenure lottery on safety in tower blocks”,
“a mixture of tenure types from privately rented homes, owner occupied and social housing that leaves individual flats bound by different regulations.”
She went on to point out:
“Unless every unit is subject to the same safety regime, the entire block and all those living in it can be put at risk from a single flat.”
Tenants living in the private rented sector are now protected—or soon will be—by mandatory five-yearly electrical safety checks. Indeed, I recall that that provision —the ability to make those regulations—was introduced by amendments from the Government during the Lords stages of the Housing and Planning Bill. I mention that as a hint to the Minister that these opportunities arise and should perhaps be seriously considered and sometimes taken. Surely now is the time, and this Bill the opportunity, to introduce five-yearly mandatory safety checks in tower blocks, regardless of tenure.
As I have already said, the fires at Grenfell Tower, Lakanal House and Shepherd’s Court, all in London, were caused by faulty white goods. Despite the efforts of manufacturers and retailers, consumers are reluctant to register their white goods and to respond to any recalls. This poses an obviously high risk in tower blocks and needs to be addressed. Electrical Safety First has therefore proposed that the newly created role of responsible persons for any high building should be given the task of compiling and maintaining a register of every white good in the building. This would ensure that when a recall occurs, anyone with an affected appliance could be quickly alerted to the recall and encouraged to act on it. This Bill, although intentionally limited in its purpose, provides an appropriate opportunity to do that.
On 7 September, during the Report stage of the Bill in the other place, amendments to give effect to these proposals were moved by the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, David Amess, to whom reference has already been made. Those amendments received warm support from Members of all parties taking part in that debate. In his reply, the Minister referred to the provisions of the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 2016 and to the Electrical Safety Standards in the Private Rented Sector (England) Regulations 2020, to which several noble Lords, including me, have already referred. However, he clearly recognised that this did not fully meet the concerns expressed in the debate and went on to say that
“we will look across Government at whether there are any gaps in the current regime and proposals to strengthen accountability in this area … if there are still gaps, we, like so many Members, want to see those filled effectively”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/9/20; col. 442.]
I and other speakers today have highlighted at least two such gaps and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. The comments in the other place were made over three weeks ago. Can the Minister today give us an update and tell us what gaps the Government have identified so far? When will the Government take the opportunity offered by this Bill and the building safety Bill that will follow to bring amendments to fill those gaps?
May I first join with others in congratulating my noble friend Lord Herbert of South Downs? He is someone I did not have the pleasure of being contemporaneous with in the other place, but who I did have many connections with when he was operating as the public affairs officer for the British Field Sports Society and when he was setting up Countryside Alliance. I am sure that background will be useful in the work he will be doing in our House. His speech was excellent, and I congratulate and welcome him.
I am sure this Bill—though short—is necessary. It follows the terrible events of Grenfell Tower, which other Members have spoken about. It is also a response to the still unacceptable number of fires that occur disproportionately in buildings of over two floors in height—about twice as many as in ordinary homes. Interestingly, where there is the permanent presence of a caretaker or the installation of fire prevention equipment such as sprinklers, as is the case in sheltered housing, the incidence is fortunately much less. This is particularly significant because of the preponderance of more vulnerable and accident-prone residents in such accommodation. I am therefore pleased the Bill places an emphasis not only on the structure and fire resistance of buildings but on the responsibility of individuals.
Whatever such responsibilities are placed on individuals, it becomes necessary for them to be as focused and precise as possible. For instance, identifying and recording accurately and continually who is a building owner or manager is something which will prove a test. How will this be achieved and established, and by whom? This legal liability emanates from the Building (Amendment) Regulations 2018. However, I am not sure it has been shown to be sufficiently robust and reliable. Local fire and rescue services are under pressure at the best of times, especially with the levels of paperwork and administration now required, so the obligation to share information about the design of external premises— walls, for instance—is open to misunderstanding and misapplication if the resources are inadequate.
The responsibility of building owners or managers to undertake regular inspections of flat entrance doors must be rigorously followed up to be of real effect. Deciding who exactly is responsible is critical at all times. I appreciate that leaseholders are excluded from liability, but that simply places a greater priority on being certain of the identity at all times of those who are liable. Again, we come back to proper, easily accessible records being available so that, if it is necessary to pursue matters, this can be done quickly and effectively to ensure something is done to put things right.
I know of the concerns that have already been touched on, from the Fire Brigades Union among others, about the enforceability of these new provisions and how we obtain accurate knowledge of the number and location of premises affected. Sometimes establishing responsibility is tricky, because records are not always clear as to how many landlords there are who should be accountable. Even with the new powers, we will need to train and retain sufficient fire safety officers to carry out the important inspections that are necessary.
In 2018, combustible materials were banned from the construction of high-rise homes. However, as we know, there are many buildings constructed before then where tenants are presently very concerned about when the necessary safety work to restore them will take place. In the meantime, some problems have been identified in refinancing or marketing those properties. I hope that those concerns can be alleviated before too long. While we are discussing the building safety Bill today, it is worth saying that, once that is law, we will have a more substantial and joined-up approach to safety in high-rise residential buildings.
I also appreciate that, as the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower inquiry are pursued, we will need a number of pieces of secondary legislation in place. The Minister has already indicated that. I hope that they will deal in particular with matters that have come from the first part of the inquiry. These include: more regular inspections of lifts and lift mechanisms; regular reviews of evacuation plans for buildings and policies in place; educating and informing residents in a clear and understandable fashion, because misunderstandings for residents have led to them being put in extra danger; and of course enforcement of standards of internal flat entrance doors.
At the start of the Second World War, my late father was, for a while, a proud member of the National Fire Service. I have always admired firemen and firewomen and I am still very proud of them in the duties they pursue, which are so much more complicated today. They save lives, sometimes placing themselves in great danger. I know the Minister shares my view and his opening remarks demonstrated his admiration for the fire services. We must in this Bill, and in other attached legislation, do our very best to give those people the appreciation and support that they truly deserve.
My Lords, fire safety has become a serious subject in recent times. The Grenfell Tower disaster has shone a light on the subject. The LGA has been calling for councils and fire services to be given effective powers and meaningful sanctions to ensure residents are safe, and feel safe, in their homes. This Bill will be an important step in the right direction. However, there are concerns about the practicalities of the Bill: for example, how it will align with building safety proposals from the MHCLG and the costs imposed on councils and other building owners.
The most important part of the Bill is whether it will protect lives. Local Government must be reimbursed for any additional costs arising out of the changes mandated by this Bill. The Bill is created by the Government and local government and their tenants must not be made to pay for the changes. If the Government do not provide funding, local government will have to raise local taxes.
It is important to state that members of the fire service do heroic work, often putting their own lives in danger. We must not forget the builders who do not follow the rules and use unreliable material which causes fires. Every building must follow the fire officer’s advice and the building rules provided by the local authorities. There must be a close relationship between the fire department and the local authority before planning permission to build is given.
I too welcome the Fire Safety Bill and thank the Minister and the Government for bringing it forward. At this stage, I have more questions than answers after reading it. Perhaps the Minister will bear with me as I go through them: I have five.
The first is on scope and the definition of premises. Clause 1 refers to when
“a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises … the building’s structure and external walls and any common parts”
“doors between the domestic premises and common parts”.
In reality, does that apply to an HMO? Many of us who are politically active will now be used to knocking on the doors of terraced houses which housed one family but now house a family in each room, so that there are five or six families. We are all very worried about the safety of these premises. A second HMO-style point is about the growing numbers of houses in multiple occupation through the changes to “Supporting People”. When cuts came to the housing benefits of people with severe physical and learning disabilities in 2011-12, we saw more private landlords housing people with those disabilities in HMO-style properties. They would be vulnerable, so will the scope of the Bill apply to them?
My second question is about impact assessments. My noble friend Lord Monks also asked about this. All legislation is framed and depends on the research put together and the impact assessments. I have found it difficult to find the external impact assessments that went into writing this legislation. It might be that I have not looked in the right places. Can the Minister point me to them and, if they have not yet been published, whether they can be?
My third question is about the number of properties this legislation will apply to. The two assessments I have seen from government are that there could be 1 million properties, or 2 million. I have a bit of an issue with that if we are building capacity for a service. I understand a fluctuation of 5% but not one that can fluctuate by 50%.
My next question, the fourth, is about scaling the number of fire inspectors. The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and my noble friend Lord Whitty both asked questions relating to this area. How are these numbers of fire inspectors to be trained and scaled? Can the Minister tell us whether his department envisages that this training will take place via the fire service? Will it be done in large part by firefighters or by the private sector? This matters because it would require us to put standards and training into the Bill if a private-sector supplier, with little experience in this area, was to take on such a responsibility for all our costs. I am not being an ideologue about these matters but we understand that if we get these things wrong, they can go very badly wrong. I know that the Minister will understand the problems there were when the Government privatised the probation service; that service had to be brought back in-house.
We know, too, in this country that outside the public sector few private sector organisations have trained people over time. This is why we have a skills problem in many areas. For example, if I looked for qualified electricians who could work underwater, there are very few left in this country—and they will all be in their late 50s and early 60s, because virtually none have been trained since the Coal Board was disbanded in the 1980s. How we train and supply people will matter.
My last and fifth question is around Grenfell. I too welcome the noble Lord, Lord Herbert, and congratulate him on his maiden speech. I very much agree with the sentiment he expressed due to the tragedy at Grenfell. However, the Bill will not change now the temporary nature of properties that have such inflammable cladding. I absolutely concur with all the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft. Three years on, I do not understand how this matter has not been dealt with or how these premises still have a waking watch. That is a medieval term, from a time when buildings were much more flammable. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the City of London did away with flammable materials such as thatched roofing. It feels incredibly difficult to understand how this has not been addressed after three years. When the Minister comes to address the points that many of us are raising, can he give us a little more detail about the landlords who have not removed the cladding? What type of landlords are they—social, local authority or private sector landlords? Please can we have some more information?
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I too extend my warm welcome to my noble friend Lord Herbert and thank him for his excellent maiden speech. I acknowledge, as others who spoke earlier in the debate did, that along with other major proposals by the Government the Bill is a major step, aimed at preventing disasters such as the horrors of the Grenfell Tower fire. I welcome the Bill’s introduction and its aims.
However, I have some concerns, which I know others share, regarding the practicalities surrounding it—in particular, how it aligns with the MHCLG safety proposals that are being prepared. I also have concerns, as many others have, at the cost that it may impose on councils and other owners of residential buildings. It would be helpful if my noble friend could provide some comments or thoughts on the possible cost of all the proposed works. The Government should not make councils and other freeholders responsible for issues which are beyond their control. To ensure that the aim of the Bill—to protect lives—is successful, national government must reimburse local government for additional costs arising from operational changes mandated by the Bill.
The Bill makes duty holders responsible for fire doors, even if they are owned by leaseholders. Requiring councils to inspect fire doors is likely to prove unworkable in some cases and extremely costly. Duty holders, as referred to in the Bill, are required to review their risk assessments. This task is unlikely to be onerous where buildings do not have external cladding but there is a worry, which my noble friend has acknowledged, that there is insufficient expertise and expert resource to update fire risk assessments for all buildings that have external cladding.
As my noble friend the Minister also mentioned, the Government have set up a task and finish group to look at this issue specifically. We look forward to seeing the results of its deliberations. I believe that there is a severe national shortage of fire engineering expertise. What plans do the Government have to alleviate this problem?
The Government are holding a consultation, which will conclude in October this year, before amending the 2005 fire safety order. MHCLG is preparing the building safety Bill. The Government must provide assurance that that Bill will be fully aligned with the amended 2005 order to create a workable building safety system. There is concern that the effectiveness of the Fire Safety Bill could be undermined by subsequent reforms in the building safety Bill.
There is uncertainty surrounding the relationship between the fire service and the new building regulator to be established under the building safety Bill. The establishment of a national regulator may take staff away from the fire and rescue service. The building safety Bill and the Fire Safety Bill may become overly bureaucratic. Can my noble friend the Minister give an assurance that any new arrangements will not hamper the fire service’s role in ensuring safety in residential buildings?
Earlier in the debate, I was very pleased to hear my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth and others raise the issue of the safety of electrical appliances and white goods. I share these concerns and hope that my noble friend the Minister can tell the House whether the checking of appliances is being considered for inclusion in legislation.
Other noble Lords have mentioned an important omission in the Fire Safety Bill: the rights of residents. Nothing in the Bill supports the rights of residents to make complaints or receive a copy, in layman’s language, of the fire risk assessment for their building. Can this important point be addressed?
My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as recorded in the register: I am a councillor in Kirklees and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I thank the Minister for our meeting earlier today to discuss the Bill, which is an important step forward in righting the cavalier practices of some of those involved with the construction industry. It is a step in the direction of putting people’s safety first and foremost. We on these Benches welcome it. We welcome the fact that some of the bitter lessons of the Grenfell tragedy, as exposed in the estimable Hackitt report and phase 1 of the Grenfell inquiry, are being learned and acted on, albeit that it has taken far too long to get this far.
It is a pity that the Bill is not as detailed in its response as I would have hoped. I appreciate that further secondary legislation is expected, but people who live in potentially high-risk buildings need action now, as many noble Lords have said. As my noble friend Lord Stunnell so rightly said, residents need to be at the heart of these changes. While the construction industry builds and moves on, it is the residents who are left carrying the can—and the significant costs of the errors, as my noble friend Lord Shipley pointed out. That is not right and must be put right.
As we have heard, this short Bill seeks to extend the powers of the fire safety order 2005 to include outside walls, including cladding, windows and balconies. This therefore gives a clear duty to responsible persons to assess and manage the fire risk. It provides for powers of enforcement to be given to the fire and rescue authorities. All that is positive. However, as my noble friend Lord Stunell explained, this lack of detail leaves many questions unanswered.
Who will do the fire risk assessments, given that there are so few trained personnel currently? The Fire Brigades Union estimates there are fewer than 1,000 fire safety officers. How will standards be regulated? Will there be a register of fully trained and certified fire assessors? Third-party accreditation of assessors is a vital part of this new regime, and the rapid development of skills courses in colleges and universities is urgently needed to fill the gaps. What do the Government intend to do about that? As many noble Lords across the House have pointed out, this is a deficiency in the Bill. Lives literally depend on accurate and informed fire assessments. I am sure that the Minister will want to demonstrate how this requirement is to be met.
Then there is the question of the building materials used and construction techniques employed. The Hackitt report exposed the lamentable standards that applied prior to Grenfell. How can residents in flats be assured that materials do not breach combustible standards and are thoroughly and completely tested before being deemed fire safe for use? Who will make sure that gaps in ill-fitting window replacements are not filled with inflammable filler? Who is going to make sure that doors opening on to communal areas are fitted properly and not altered?
This Bill gives us the answer as to who will be responsible and accountable but it does not give us the answer as to how this will be achieved, with so few fire assessors and with fire and rescue authorities that have faced budget cuts of 28% in the past 10 years. There is a cost to fire safety. Grenfell brutally and tragically exposed the consequences of cutting safety corners. Can the Minister give us a categorical assurance that the costs of fire safety enforcement will be fully covered?
My noble friend Lord Tope and other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, raised concerns about electrical safety, which surely must be considered closely and could have been included in this Bill. Why have the Government failed to respond to the cause of the Grenfell tragedy at the same time as responding to its building failures? I say this to the Minister: if not now, when?
There is a huge task facing fire assessors. Many millions of buildings need to be reassessed. The question then has to be: what guidance will the Government provide to help with prioritisation? Official government guidance will surely be of help to those residents who are trapped in buildings with cladding that does not meet fire standards. Their fear is that they will be unable to sell until they are able to produce a fire safety certificate. I suspect that mortgage providers will similarly be reluctant to provide a loan until the essential work is done.
The building safety Bill, currently in draft form only, refers to buildings over 18 metres high. This Fire Safety Bill includes all dwellings. This is a recipe for confusion when clarity must be at the heart of all safety legislation. Will the Minister ask his colleagues to consider reducing this confusion before that Bill is considered?
I hope the Minister is able to provide answers to satisfy those of us who think that this may well be a lost opportunity to deal with the implications of improving fire safety requirements in all buildings. There is consensus across this House that the Bill will be supported. Unfortunately, there is also consensus that there are omissions and that there is a lack of detail.
The direction of travel is supported, but the route being taken is too slow. Many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, and my noble friend Lord Stunell, raised the importance of accelerating change to show that lessons have been learned, and implemented, from the tragedy of Grenfell. Let us put Grenfell residents at the heart of our thoughts as first steps towards greater safety are taken.
My Lords, first, we remember the 72 people who lost their lives in Grenfell Tower in the fire on the night of 14 June 2017. I pay tribute to the firefighters, and to other emergency services, who acted so bravely on the night of the fire, as well as other contractors, civil servants, local government officials and the wider civil society, including the faith communities who came together with the local community after that terrible night. I join the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, in paying tribute to the work that firefighters and other emergency services have done in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as follows. I am vice-president of the Local Government Association, chair of the Heart of Medway Housing Association and non-executive director of MHS Homes.
At the start of my contribution this afternoon, I want to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Herbert of South Downs, on his excellent maiden speech. I never served in the other place, but I was able to get a photograph taken here, with the instruction of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, including myself as Lord Kennedy of Southwark from the Labour Benches, the noble Baroness, Lady Perry of Southwark, from the Conservative Benches, and the noble Lord, Lord Palumbo of Southwark, from the Lib Dem benches. The local paper reported, “Southwark’s got all benches covered”.
The noble Lord brings a wealth of experience to the House with his time as a Home Office Minister in the other place and his career outside Parliament, which will prove to be invaluable in our deliberations on this Bill and many other measures. I agree with the noble Lord’s comments about the conditions some people have to live in and the need to tackle that social injustice. I welcome the noble Lord to the House, and I look forward to getting to know him in the coming weeks and months and to his further contributions to our debates.
I want to place on record my thanks to several organisations for their briefings, which have proved so helpful to me in preparing for this Second Reading debate. These include the Fire Brigades Union, the Local Government Association, the National Housing Federation, Electrical Safety First, the Association of British Insurers and the House of Lords Library.
I also want to make clear, at the start, that the Official Opposition are supportive of this Bill. Our only issues are that we should be going further with greater speed, as the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, made reference to, and that since the fire at Grenfell Tower over three years ago this is the only legislative action that has been taken so far, as my noble friend Lord Whitty pointed out in his contribution. The pace of change in relation to the enormity of the challenge is disappointing. As we seek to make changes to the procedures and the mechanisms in place, a quicker pace is needed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson of Welton, asked important questions about the timing of much-needed changes. When are they going to be introduced? She also recognised the frustration of many with the pace of change. Professionalism and being properly qualified, certified and accredited to the job have to be themes running through the new regime being put in place. These are not matters that can be done on the cheap or by unqualified or inexperienced people. Those are points I have been making consistently since that terrible night, and I will continue to do so.
We also need a complete change to the attention given by the authorities when residents, tenants and leaseholders raise concerns about safety, so that they are not ignored, as they often are, and as they were by Kensington and Chelsea Council when Grenfell residents raised many times their safety fears. When we get to Committee, I, and other colleagues on these Benches, will propose amendments that we think will make improvements and strengthen the good intention of the Bill.
When the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, responds to the debate, can he please tell me how he sees the Bill, the fire safety order and the building safety Bill all working together effectively to improve building safety when both Bills are Acts of Parliament? We want clarity with respect to roles, responsibilities, duties, liabilities and enforcement, because without that we have the risk of further problems and complications undermining the good intentions of the Government.
One example I would give the noble Lord is that there must be no confusion between the roles and responsibilities of the fire safety order’s responsible person, the new accountable person and the building safety manager, which the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, spoke about. Where we have confusion and a lack of clarity, we run the risk of buck-passing, a failure of process and procedure and a risk to people’s safety and their lives. The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, is right about the need for a complete change of culture, to plug gaps and to be relentless in the pursuit of delivering a complete package of reforms, which are urgently needed.
Turning to the specifics of the Bill, Clause 1, as we have heard, amends article 6 of the fire safety order, and it will apply to premises where the building contains two or more domestic flats. This extension covers the structure and external walls, including doors and windows in those walls and anything attached to those walls, along the common parts of the building, and to the front doors of people’s properties. This is an important clarification, which I welcome.
Some concerns have been raised about when access is needed to inspect the front doors of residents’ properties, along with the windows or possibly balconies, and, when access is not given willingly, the power for the building owner to get access to the property. Will the only process to seek an order from the court? That can be lengthy. I am not convinced it gives the urgency needed for the inspection to take place. For example, you could have access to 50 flats in a block with no problem whatsoever. All the external walls and communal areas are inspected, but there are two flats where access is refused despite repeated requests, so the building cannot be regarded as compliant until a court-granted order is executed, the inspection takes place and everything passes. There must be a better, quicker way to deal with that problem.
This is also a problem for social landlords any type of landlord or building owner. The issue was raised in the other place by the honourable Members for Orpington and Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner. The Bill also provides for fire and rescue authorities to take enforcement action against responsible persons if they have failed to comply with their duties under the fire safety order, which risks getting bogged down if occupants in one or two properties are not being co-operative.
That also brings me back to a point that I mentioned at the start of my contribution today. Fire inspectors must be professional and properly qualified; there is no doing this role on the cheap. This is a key role in the compliance and enforcement of legal obligations for fire safety duties on responsible persons.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate, is right about the need to keep records, so that liabilities are clearly established and it can be demonstrated who has and who has not done their job, and action can be taken to ensure that they do it. We want proper processes and procedures to ensure that residents, tenants and owners are properly aware of all matters with regard to their safety in their home.
The Bill will increase the workload of fire and rescue services. The impact assessment does not specify how many inspectors carry out fire audits and enforcement action in England, but in 2019-20 only 963 staff were competent to carry out full inspections, 706 to serve an enforcement notice and 546 to serve a prohibition notice contract—but we had 1,724 fire safety inspectors two decades ago, as my noble friend Lord Whitty referred to. Clearly, that is a great diminution in the number of people who are able to do this work.
My concern here is that, to bridge the gap between the resource we have at present and the resource we need to deliver the compliance and enforcement orders, corners will be cut and less-qualified or unqualified persons will be given roles that they are not competent to do, instead of proper investment and training to deliver competent officers. If would be good if the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, could assure me that that is not the intention, that only properly qualified people will be used, and that action will be taken to increase the number of qualified inspectors. Can he also assure me that he and his colleagues have a clear understanding of the complexity of the inspections that need to be undertaken?
I suggest that there should be a recruitment programme to increase the number of operational firefighters and fire safety officers in respect of premises covered by this order. There will be an additional cost for these additional inspections and these enforcement actions. Can the noble Lord in his reply to the debate confirm that these costs will be fully funded by the Government and there will not be any fudging on this? It would be wrong to place extra burdens but not fund them or expect the council taxpayer to pick up the costs through a precept levied on them.
Clause 2 provides for a delegated power whereby the Secretary of State in England and the relevant Welsh Minister can change or clarify the types of premises falling within the scope of the order. I am fine with that, and it is good to see that we will be using the affirmative resolution procedure to approve the regulations.
My one area of concern is Clause 2(5), which states that
“the relevant authority must consult anyone that appears to the relevant authority to be appropriate.”
Can the noble Lord give me an assurance that that will include all the fire authorities in England, bodies such as the National Housing Federation, the Local Government Association and relevant local authorities, and not just the National Fire Chiefs Council? I would also want the relevant Welsh Minister to consult with the fire authorities in Wales and bodies such as the Welsh Local Government Association.
My noble friend Lord Monks rightly raised the question of the consultation process and how the view of the Fire Brigades Union will be taken into account. They are the hero firefighters we all praise, so we should be asking them what they think. They are the people who run into Grenfell Tower and other burning buildings when everybody else is trying to get out. Can the noble Lord confirm when he responds to the debate that the FBU will be fully consulted by the Home Office when drafting the appropriate regulations?
My noble friend Lady McDonagh raised important questions about the scope, impact assessments, training and who will do the important work of these inspections, and, like other noble Lords, she raised the speed of the reforms which are needed. I also concur very much with the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, in that regard.
I have a few other issues to raise which I hope the noble Lord can respond to shortly but, if not, I hope he will be able to respond to the points in a letter to me and copy it to other Members of the House.
In the weeks after the Grenfell Tower fire, the Government conducted industry fire safety tests known as BS 8414 tests on external wall systems using ACM cladding of different levels of combustibility, in conjunction with different types of insulation. The tests were also conducted on glass-reinforced plastic composite fire doors following the discovery that those used in Grenfell Tower were not fit for purpose. While some of the test information has been made public, the Government have not published the full test reports. If testing programmes are to continue, they need to be published so that everyone can see the full reports. In that way, the building owners will be able to see and quickly identify defective doors and take remedial action much more quickly and cost effectively. Can the noble Lord agree to look at that issue and come back to me?
In 2013, Wales was the first country in the world to require sprinklers in all new-build homes from October 2013, and in January 2016 it further upgraded that to include all new care homes, sheltered housing and other rooms for residential purposes. My noble friend Lady Wilcox of Newport set out how urgent action was taken in the aftermath of the Grenfell tower fire in Newport, whose council she led. The work done there was to the credit of the council, Newport City Homes, the Welsh Government and Senedd Cymru. The Government are making moves in the right direction in respect of sprinklers, which is to be very much welcomed, but they should seek to do what has been done in Wales and introduce sprinklers in all new buildings that are built in England.
It is a fact that very few people have ever died in a fully sprinklered building. When looking at fires, Home Office data confirm that almost half of the accidental fires in England are due to electrical accidents and incidents, and that those who lose their lives are disproportionally the elderly and the vulnerable. In Committee we should therefore spend some time looking at what can be done to improve the regulations in this respect, as the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, said in his contribution.
As the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, said, Sir David Amess, the Member for Southend West, raised this issue and proposed amendments in the other place. We should examine these issues in detail and see whether we can make sensible, proportionate improvements that improve the safety for residents in high-rise blocks. It would be very welcome, and I associate myself very much with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in that regard.
We should also consider whether it is appropriate to have gas into high-rise residential buildings. I remember that, when my noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley was a local councillor in Lewisham, there was a serious gas leak under a tower block in Brockley, which she represented. Thankfully, it was dealt with by the London Fire Brigade and British Gas, but the whole block had to be evacuated and urgent work done to remove the build-up of gas under the building. An explosion would have been devastating.
In conclusion, this has been a good debate, with lots of agreement and a genuine desire on the part of all noble Lords who spoke to improve safety, protect people and property and to get this right. I suspect that we will have a few differences of opinion, but I really want to improve the Bill, as do all other noble Lords in the House. I look forward to the noble Lord’s response.
My Lords, I thank everyone across the Chamber for contributing so constructively to this Second Reading debate. There have been a number of powerful contributions, but it is clear that all noble Lords who have spoken today have rightly focused on the safety of residents. Ultimately, what matters is saving lives from the terrible impact of fire. I will address many of the points raised, although time will likely preclude me from providing a substantive response to all of the questions raised by noble Lords. Prior to that I will make a few comments.
As Members know, I have only relatively recently started in this post, but it underlines the importance that the Government place on building and fire safety that we now have a Minister working across two departments with the aim of driving forward these important reforms. I commit today that the package of reforms that has been mentioned will be driven at the fastest possible pace.
There have been a number of criticisms today about the lack of action from the Government since the Grenfell fire. I have outlined in the all-Peers letter and in my opening speech the measures the Government have undertaken, which have been supported by an unprecedented level of funding that has been made available, not just to support remediation of cladding but to improve the fire safety capability of fire and rescue services.
We are driving forward a once-in-a-generation change. The Bill is the first legislative step in this process and, as noble Lords can already see, we are committed to delivering the Grenfell recommendations through regulations following on from the fire safety consultation. As I have said before, the building safety Bill, which is currently subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, will deliver extensive and much-needed building safety reforms.
I extend my personal and sincerest welcome to my noble friend Lord Herbert of South Downs and offer my congratulations on his fine maiden speech. He brings formidable intellect and a first-class record of delivery as a Minister. I look forward to his contributions and to working with him in future. He was very eloquent about the social injustice involved in the Grenfell fire tragedy.
My noble friend Lord Kirkhope asked how individuals or businesses can determine whether they are a responsible person under the fire safety order. The order clearly sets out who is a responsible person, and their duties. To make it easier for individuals to confirm whether they are a responsible person, we are looking at ensuring that easy-to-understand guidance is available to aid self-identification.
I thank my noble friend Lady Sanderson for highlighting the importance of implementing the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase 1 recommendations in full. We have made that commitment, as I said in the all-Peers letter. We have a statutory duty to consult on the proposals to deliver these recommendations, and the responses to this will help us get the legislation right. I reassure all noble Lords that this Government are and have always been committed to implementing, where appropriate, legislation for the inquiry’s recommendations, as was set out in our manifesto.
The noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, asked whether HMOs are in scope. They are clearly in scope, except for the domestic premises within that. The noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Whitty, also raised the issue of scope. This is for all multi-occupied residential buildings, not just buildings over 18 metres, which is a difference from the building safety Bill.
The noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, also asked about impact assessments. An impact assessment has been carried out for both this Bill and the fire safety order consultation. I can direct her to that if necessary.
My noble friend Lord Bourne wanted some statistics, and I am happy to give him some. So far, 50% of the 458 buildings have completed remediation or removed the unsafe ACM cladding.
My noble friends Lady Sanderson and Lord Bourne, the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, all raised the need to get the package of reforms right. I will provide information on the implementation of the fire safety consultation and the building safety Bill as far as I can, because that package of measures—together with the creation of a new regulator, which already exists in shadow form in the Health and Safety Executive—is how we will coherently reform the system needed to ensure we never see this tragedy happen again.
I reassure my noble friend Lady Sanderson that we are committed to delivering the reform and bringing the legislation forward to underpin this. The fire safety consultation, as she mentioned, will close on 12 October. Following on from this, we aim to publish a response in early 2021. Where these proposals require legislative changes, the intention is to deliver those through regulations in spring 2021 where appropriate, and, where amendment to the fire safety order is required, through primary legislation in the draft building safety Bill. That Bill is currently subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, which should conclude by the end of the year. We will look to finalise it for introduction to Parliament as soon as practical.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, raised the subject of access to information for residents. This is covered in our proposals in the fire safety order consultation: responsible persons have to provide comprehensive information to residents, including sharing fire risk assessments with new responsible persons. There is always a golden thread of continuity in providing that information.
The noble Lord, Lord Storey, wanted information on the timing for the commencement of the Fire Safety Bill. Recognising the operational implications that the Bill could have, we have established a task and finish group made up of operational experts in fire safety. Its role is to advise the Government on the most optimal way of commencing the Bill. The Home Office received the group’s advice earlier this week. Its broad recommendation is to implement the Bill’s provision all at once and to take a risk-based approach to do that. We are considering a number of more detailed policy and operational issues; I intend to set this out in more detail in Committee.
The noble Lords, Lord Stunell and Lord Shipley, my noble friend Lady Eaton and the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, all mentioned the burden that could fall on leaseholders in many cases. We recognise this issue and are working on measures to address these concerns as part of the process of finalising the building safety Bill as it passes through the other place and this House.
The noble Lords, Lord Stunell and Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, asked what funding had been provided to support the fire and building safety reforms. I mentioned in my opening speech that £30 million of additional funding will be provided to fire and rescue services and the National Fire Chiefs Council this year in response to the Grenfell Tower fire, and I have gone through the elements of that funding package.
The noble Lords, Lord Whitty, Lord Monks and Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport, all mentioned the concerns raised by the Fire Brigades Union on this Bill, particularly on capacity issues and funding. Fire and rescue services have the resources they need to do their important work. It is the responsibility of each fire and rescue authority to assess the risks in its area and determine how best to allocate its resources effectively across all its prevention, protection and response functions to mitigate the risks facing its community. This includes deciding the number of fire safety officers needed to deliver its fire safety enforcement duties under the fire safety order. As I have stated, the Government are investing £30 million of additional funding to help with this approach.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady McDonagh, and the noble Lords, Lord Stunell, Lord Whitty and Lord Shipley, and my noble friend Lord Kirkhope, mentioned issues around shortfalls of fire engineers and fire risk assessors. We are working with the sector to develop a plan and a clear approach. We are also funding the British Standards Institution to develop guidance and work with professional bodies on training.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, on the speed of carrying out these fire risk assessments, I say that we will take a risk-based approach. That is the advice we have received. I also point out to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, that there is no intention to have anything other than properly qualified fire safety officers carrying out the fire risk assessments. Indeed, we are also looking at plans to build the capacity to carry out the assessments needed for high-risk buildings, as we recognise that there is a shortage of fire engineers. There are plans afoot to work with professional bodies to do this.
My noble friends Lord Bourne and Lord Randall, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, raised electrical safety and the importance of thinking about the causes of these fires and how we respond to them once they have occurred. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked what the Government were doing with regard to electrical equipment and appliances. The Office for Product Safety and Standards was created in 2018 to lead and co-ordinate the product safety system, including responding to incidents and recalls. The Government have also provided £12 million a year of additional funding for product safety regulations since 2018.
The new Electrical Safety Standards in the Private Rented Sector (England) Regulations 2020 are now in force and will apply to new tenancies from 1 April 2021. These regulations require that electrical installations be inspected and tested by a qualified person at least every five years. Social landlords are expected to comply with the decent home standard by the Regulator of Social Housing. This includes homes being free of hazards, including electrical hazards, as set out under the housing health and safety rating system. In the social housing Green Paper, we asked whether new safety measures in the private rented sector should be extended to the social sector. We are considering responses to the consultation and will bring forward a social housing White Paper soon.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tope: let us work together and see whether there are specific gaps that we can address through appropriate legislation. The building safety Bill may be a vehicle in which to address some of the gaps that we may be able to plug. I look forward to working with him constructively on these matters. We are happy to meet Electrical Safety First at officer level and discuss further our approach.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, mentioned flat entrance doors. Regarding entrance doors to communal areas, under the fire safety order, the occupier of any private domestic premises should co-operate with responsible persons to enable them to carry out their duties, which include assessing the full fire safety risks for flat entrance doors. Our fire safety consultation seeks views on whether the provision under the fire safety order ensures the effective co-operation between the occupier of any domestic premises and the responsible person. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, also raised difficulty of access. Most of the powers in that area come under the Housing Act 2004.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport, gave a characteristically positive overview of what is happening in Wales. I make a commitment that we will work with all the devolved Administrations in ensuring that our approach takes in all the best practice that we can learn. I noted her point that a White Paper will be published. However, the context in Wales is different from that in England. There are only 147 high-rise residential buildings in Wales and well over 11,000 in England. The sheer scale and magnitude of the issue is much greater here. However, I make a genuine commitment to her and my noble friend Lord Bourne that we will learn lessons from the Welsh Assembly.
My noble friend Lord Bourne and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, raised the progress of the path to justice and asked about the number of people interviewed under caution in relation to the Grenfell Tower tragedy. I shall have to write to noble Lords on that matter. We all want to see justice done for the 72 people who lost their lives.
I have not been able to respond to all the substantive points raised by noble Lords. Where that is the case, I will make sure that I respond in writing. Noble Lords should feel free to contact me. Although I appreciate that some would wish us to go much further, I welcome the cross-party support for the provisions in the Bill. Where noble Lords wish to go further, in most instances it is not the case that we disagree but that we see it as something we are seeking to address either through the fire safety consultation or the draft building safety Bill, already published.
This Government are steadfast in their determination to see this Bill enacted and implemented as quickly as practicable. I commend it to the House and beg to move.
Bill read a second time.