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Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Volume 822: debated on Monday 13 June 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (Amendment) Regulations 2022.

Relevant document: 2nd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, this statutory instrument was laid before the House on Wednesday 11 May 2022 under Section 150(9) of the Energy Act 2013 and Section 250(6)(f) of the Housing Act 2004, for approval by resolution of each House of Parliament.

In the social housing White Paper, we committed to ensuring that all homes are safe to live in. We are determined to ensure that the reforms set out in the White Paper will drive up standards, making sure people up and down the country have a safe and decent home to live in. The Government are committed to ensuring residents are protected from the risks of fire and carbon monoxide in their homes. After Grenfell, the social housing Green Paper asked whether there should be parity between the private and social rented sectors on safety standards, and an overwhelming majority were in favour.

At the moment, social tenants have less protection than private tenants. That is why, subject to parliamentary approval, we are amending the regulations to bring requirements for social homes in line with private rented homes. Currently, the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015 make it mandatory for private landlords to install smoke alarms on every storey of every home they let, and carbon monoxide alarms in every room with a solid-fuel burning appliance, such as a log-burning stove or coal fire. There are no such requirements for social landlords.

The Home Office estimates you are around eight times more likely to die in a fire if you do not have a working smoke alarm in your home, and there are on average 20 recorded deaths from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning each year in England and Wales. Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms save lives and provide reassurance for residents that their homes are safe.

These changes will mean that, for the first time, all social rented homes in England will be required by law to have smoke alarms installed. They will also mean that millions more households are protected from the risks of carbon monoxide, which is undetectable and can cause serious illness or death. The Government’s ongoing reforms regarding social housing quality aim to make sure everyone’s home is a place of safety, and these changes will give thousands of families and households reassurance that they are receiving the best possible protection.

In November 2020, alongside the White Paper, we launched our consultation on requiring smoke alarms in social housing and introducing new expectations for all landlords for carbon monoxide alarms. The proposals in the consultation to make the legislative changes I am bringing to noble Lords today were supported by a clear majority of respondents to the consultation.

Through this statutory instrument, we will amend the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015 to replicate the private rented sector provisions to require social landlords to ensure at least one smoke alarm is installed on each storey of their homes where there is a room used as living accommodation. We will amend the regulations to make it mandatory for all landlords, regardless of tenure, to install a carbon monoxide alarm in any room of their properties used as living accommodation where a fixed combustion appliance of any fuel type is present. This does not include gas cookers, which are responsible for fewer incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning than gas boilers.

We will also require all landlords to repair or replace, as soon as they reasonably and practically can, any alarm which is found to be faulty during the period of a tenancy. We will update government guidance documents to make clear requirements on the placement of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, and the types of alarms landlords will need to install to meet relevant standards.

The instrument will also make changes to the enforcement process by restructuring the process for making and considering representations from landlords when a local housing authority serves a remedial notice. A lengthy delay between regulations being made and taking effect could put lives at risk, and that is why we have decided that 1 October 2022 is an appropriate date for regulations to come into force: landlords have had, and continue to have, time to prepare, and bringing regulations into force in October means tenants can benefit from the security of the changes as soon as possible.

To conclude, these regulations will save lives and make sure everyone’s home can be a place of safety, and these changes will give thousands of households reassurance that they are receiving the best possible protection from the risks of fire and carbon monoxide in their home. We are determined to ensure that the reforms set out in the social housing White Paper, like these changes, will drive up standards, making sure people up and down the country have a safe and decent home to live in. I hope noble Lords will join me in supporting the draft regulations and I commend them to the Committee.

My Lords, I thank the Government for bringing these regulations forward—they are absolutely crucial. As the Minister said, most—57%—of the exposure to carbon monoxide occurs in the home. We know that one in eight homes in London has levels of carbon monoxide that exceed the WHO limits, and we know that one in five has at least one faulty gas appliance. With financial stringencies, this will probably get worse because people will not have their appliances serviced. Some 54% of homes in England do not have a carbon monoxide alarm. With that background, and welcoming these regulations, I have a few questions for the Minister—I hope that he will be able to answer them satisfactorily.

First, why are gas cookers excluded? The issue here is the coroner’s report that followed 18 deaths that were linked to the Beko cooker scandal, where carbon monoxide was pouring into homes due to a fault with the cookers. The 2017 report Understanding Carbon Monoxide Risk in Households Vulnerable to Fuel Poverty found that, while 59% of homes had a gas cooker, only 25% had that cooker serviced annually. In homes in poverty in particular, the gas from the cooker is often incompletely burned. Some ethnic minority groups in our population cook by putting tin foil over the surface of the burners, which promotes incomplete burning.

One of the problems is that children’s heads are at the level of the cooker itself, so children standing near a mother who is cooking are probably inhaling higher levels of carbon monoxide than the mother. It may not be enough for them to fall on the floor unconscious, but they may be exposed to chronic low levels of carbon monoxide poisoning. As the Minister rightly said, sub-lethal doses cause pathologies including brain damage, sensory impairment, heart disease, Parkinsonism and low birth-weight babies, which becomes particularly important when the woman is pregnant. They also cause cognitive developmental delays in infants born to mothers exposed during pregnancy, as well as respiratory difficulties. That was my question on gas cookers.

Secondly, why are homeowners generally not protected by the regulations until a new appliance is installed? How will people become alert to the fact that an alarm is faulty? Whose responsibility will it be to chase this up, and what is the prosecution process for a landlord who is negligent in this?

Thirdly, why is the alarm type not mandated? This seems to be a lost opportunity, because rogue landlords will inevitably go for the cheapest alarm available. In Scotland, the type of alarm was determined and it was one that had sealed batteries in it. From experience over the years, we know that, in households where batteries can be removed from alarms, people remove them to use them in their television remote, or wherever. The alarm then fails because the batteries have been taken out and people are not aware of the problem.

Lastly, will the alarms be mandatory for bedrooms? There have been several cases where children have died because carbon monoxide has leaked through the brickwork into the bedroom where they were sleeping—their parents then found them dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. The problem is that, when you are asleep, carbon monoxide just makes you more sleepy, so you certainly would not be woken up by it. Of all the rooms in a house, it is bedrooms where people spend the most time all in one go; they do not go out and move around to get the air circulating. In modern housing, particularly in the winter, people sleep with the bedroom windows closed, so there is even less air circulation. So I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me that bedrooms count as living accommodation and, therefore, that alarms must be also in the bedrooms.

Having said that, I hope the Government will have a good public education campaign to roll out the importance of acting when the alarm goes off, of understanding what the alarm does and what people should do if a tenant feels that their landlord is in breach of the regulations. Understanding the health implications of carbon monoxide poisoning is also important, because, unfortunately, across the healthcare sector generally, until fairly recently—and I think even now—some people are somewhat ignorant of the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning and how the non-specific symptoms can present, suggesting sub-lethal exposure in an ongoing way.

So, with those questions and caveats, I welcome these regulations and would not intend to take any action to stop this proceeding–but I do hope that I will have satisfactory answers that will be on the record to all my questions.

My Lords, I will start by reminding everyone that I have a registered interest as a member of Kirklees council, which manages social housing that will be affected by these regulations. Much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has said is also in my notes—but there are one or two differences.

Broadly, this is an important step forward in making rental homes in both the private and social housing sector safer for tenants. It is a great surprise to me that social housing was omitted from the 2015 regulations, so I am pleased that these regulations are going to put that right. The Office for National Statistics, when I had a look this morning, records that over 100 lives are lost each year from carbon monoxide poisoning. It did not differentiate between domestic and non-domestic deaths; nevertheless, 100 lives are lost from a silent killer, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has explained. So, requiring the installation and, importantly, the maintenance of alarms will undoubtedly help to save lives.

It is also good to see that the regulations include a requirement for landlords in both rental sectors—private and social housing—to ensure maintenance and respond in a reasonably practicable time. I hate that phrase, because it means something and nothing. I wonder whether the Minister would be able to give us a broad definition of what “reasonably practicable” would look like. No doubt landlords who have a positive relationship with their tenant will respond promptly, but not all landlords are in that category.

Those are all positives, but I have some questions. The first one is about the type of smoke alarm. I am surprised that there is not more being said about the type of alarm that is going to fulfil the regulations. Nine-volt battery alarms, which are the cheapest and therefore most likely to be the ones that some landlords will use to fulfil their obligations, need a battery change every six months—I think it is the National Fire Protection Association that recommends that. There are lots of reasons why that will not happen.

Some homes will think that they are secure but are not. I find it surprising that that has not been more fully explored. The sealed lithium battery models last 10 years; that is a good length of time. I wonder whether there is anything the Minister can do to give us some comfort that the Government will be recommending or pushing for those to be used.

The other thing is that some landlords will say to the tenant, “Here are your smoke alarm and your carbon monoxide alarm”—although you can get the two together—and give them the box, and that is it. I tell you, if they are in a box and that is it, they will go in a cupboard and that will be it. I have some experience of this. As part of the Kirklees warm zone scheme, there was free insulation—which I have mentioned several times—and we also gave to everybody who needed one a free smoke alarm and a free carbon monoxide alarm. From questioning not long afterwards, we discovered that a lot of them were never used—they were put in a cupboard or a drawer in the kitchen and that was it. So the Minister should perhaps think about a requirement that the landlord has to see that they are properly installed; that would be helpful.

I had the same question as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, about gas cookers and why they were excluded. But it has been asked and I hope that the Minister will be able to answer it.

Then there is the question of getting access to properties. As with nearly all fire safety issues—gas checks, electrical appliance tests and now this—if a tenant refuses, it is difficult to get access. If you do not get access, you have faulty appliances and faulty fire and smoke alarms and all the good of this regulation is undone. So, again, it would be good to hear from the Minister how that may be overcome.

In 2008, a 10 year-old boy in Huddersfield died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. The deadly gas was not in his home—it was seeping through the walls from the terraced house next door. He was asleep and, when his mum went to get him up in the morning, he was dead. There was a faulty boiler in the next-door house, which was a private property. The question that was asked was, “Why are not all properties—especially terraced or semi-detached—required to have alarms?” Failures in one house can affect those living in the adjacent property.

Finally, I have not checked the regulations, but can the Minister tell us whether all new builds are required to have both carbon monoxide and smoke alarms wired in? If not, we are missing a trick.

With those questions, I must say that I totally support the progress that is being made and I look forward to the questions being answered.

My Lords, like other noble Lords who have already spoken, we very much welcome these regulations to make smoke and carbon monoxide alarms mandatory in social housing from 1 October this year. As we near the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, we believe that any measures that help resolve the building safety crisis are very welcome.

But we also think that this instrument should form only a small part of a much wider package of measures that we hope to see coming forward from the Government. I will come to the exact provisions of these regulations in a moment—although noble Lords who have already spoken have covered a lot of the points that we had concerns about. But I would like to first ask the Minister: following the publication of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, is he able to provide further information about the timetable of this Bill and when the Government are likely to be aiming for Royal Assent, so that those regulations come into force and we can discuss wider provisions to make social housing safer?

Turning to the specific regulations before us today, one of the things that will result will be a new responsibility to install alarms on each floor of a premise, which is really important. The Government are right to include this. It specifically helps larger properties. There is a lot more development of warehouse-type apartments, within which there is an increasing use of mezzanine floors—so I am not sure what constitutes a floor within this regulation. Would it include mezzanines, for example? Would they require an alarm? It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm what the guidance on that would be. I would be interested to hear his response to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, about whether it will be compulsory to have alarms in bedrooms, because that is also a very important part of ensuring safety, particularly at night.

I would like to take a quick look at penalties for non-compliance. The regulations allow for a charge of up to £5,000 per breach. I would like to ask the Minister about the fact that, under the Housing Act 2004, civil penalties for landlords go up to £30,000 for breaches. So how did the Government choose an upper limit of £5,000, despite the fact that an absence of these alarms, as we have heard, could lead to somebody dying. In fact, the Minister mentioned in his introduction that these alarms do save lives, so it would be interesting to understand the Government’s thinking and how that top level of fine came about. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, also asked about the prosecution of rogue landlords, and it would be interesting to know a bit more about that side of things—prosecution, fines, how they will operate and how the Government got to their decisions on that.

I would also like to look very briefly at the process of repairs and replacements of the alarms. This has been raised by other noble Baronesses. In particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, referred to the fact that the regulations state that the landlord must act as soon as is “reasonably practicable” when notified that an alarm is not in working order. She said it would be incredibly helpful to know what the definition of “reasonably practicable” is. We know that, in other legislation requiring swift action by landlords, this has not always happened. So what will be that definition and how will it be enforced? Will the Government be offering guidance alongside this to landlords on exactly what the timeframes are? Will there be any circumstances that can excuse meeting those deadlines? What is going to be the structure of managing repairs and doing replacements in good time?

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, also asked some very important questions about batteries and about ensuring alarms are properly installed. This is really good, important legislation, but it has to be practical, and it has to work and operate in the way that it is being laid out. If the issues that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, raised are not covered, we could find that good intentions are not always being met.

To conclude: these regulations are very much welcomed. I am looking forward to working with the Minister on the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, which is, hopefully, going to be with us shortly, in order that we can consider other measures to make social housing safer for all occupants. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the questions today and to working with him in the future on further safety measures.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this important debate on the draft regulations. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in saying that every single measure that can ensure that a tragedy such as Grenfell—the largest structural fire since Piper Alpha and the largest loss of life in a residential fire since the Second World War—never happens again must be welcomed. I thank noble Lords for their support.

I will turn to some of the points raised by noble Baronesses in this debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, wanted to know whether alarms are mandatory for bedrooms. Yes, there must be a smoke alarm on each storey. Also, I am happy to clarify that the definition of “living accommodation” includes bedrooms.

Sorry—perhaps I may intervene briefly. I should have declared my interest as chair of CORT, the Carbon Monoxide Research Trust, and of the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group. I was asking about carbon monoxide alarms; the Minister has addressed smoke alarms. We were seeking clarification on whether carbon monoxide alarms are also mandatory in bedrooms.

For carbon monoxide, if there is a fixed combustion appliance in the room, which would not include a bedroom if there was no—

I will clarify when it is smoke alarms and when it is carbon monoxide alarms; as I understand it, effectively, there has to be a gas boiler present, which would rule out many bedrooms. However, I will write to the noble Baroness on that point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, following the lead of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, wanted to know what “reasonably practicable” looks like. My answer is that, essentially, we will recommend that landlords carry out repairs as soon as they are able to. This will depend on such factors as access to the property, which will be set out in guidance.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, on her question about mandation of carbon monoxide alarms in rooms with gas cookers, data shows that gas cookers are responsible for fewer incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning than gas boilers. This may be because domestic gas cookers do not tend to be used continuously for long periods, unlike boilers. For this reason, the Government believe it would not be proportionate to require alarms in rooms with gas cookers as well as rooms with gas boilers.

On the point about public information, we are developing communication to target tenants to make sure that they understand the regulations and the importance of protection from carbon monoxide poisoning. There is some movement on the call for a public information campaign.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, wanted to know how we reached the implementation period for these new requirements. This relates to the fact that the majority of respondents to the consultation agreed that we should not delay the introduction of new requirements once the regulations are made. A significant delay between the regulations being made and taking effect would put lives at risk. It is a question of getting the right balance between the two. That is why we alighted on 1 October 2022 as the most achievable date.

Both the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady Pinnock, wanted to know why we were not specifying the type of alarm. The draft regulations do not stipulate the type of alarm—such as hardwired or battery powered—to be installed. In the case of smoke alarms, we advise landlords to choose ones that are compliant with British Standards, and I am sure that there must be British Standards that have to be complied with for carbon monoxide alarms. We encourage landlords to make an informed decision and choose the best alarms for their properties and tenants, with due regard for their residents’ circumstances.

The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, wanted to know why we are not mandating for owner occupiers as we are now covering the private rented sector. The intention of extending the regulations is to protect residents in rented homes. Changes to building regulations will extend alarm requirements upon the installation of new and replacement combustion appliances of all fuel types, and this will apply to all tenures, including owner occupiers. It is in the best interests of any owner occupier to keep themselves safe from fire and carbon monoxide poisoning, and we would strongly advise them to install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms. It is important for people to recognise that point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, raised the issue of how we set the penalty level. That was not a matter for this regulation. The penalty level for non-compliance was set as part of the private rented sector regulations that were passed in 2015, and we consider this limit proportionate and appropriate to match the PRS requirements for parity of standards. So it goes back to the 2015 regulations, if you like.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised the issue of how landlords can gain access to their properties. The regulations are clear that landlords must take all reasonable steps to access properties, including attempting access on multiple occasions. It is not proportionate to mandate that landlords take legal action for access, as alarms have a long life span of six or seven to 10 years.

Unfortunately, that last bit is not accurate. If the landlord provides a nine-volt battery smoke alarm, that will last only six months. That is at the heart of what I am asking. Some landlords will not make lots of attempts to get in to make sure that the smoke alarms are there and will not see that they are properly fitted, so all this will unravel. If we are having regulations, and I am glad we are, surely there has to be something about a long-lasting solution.

The noble Baroness is of course right that that would make sense—I should declare my interest as a private landlord, although these regulations affect social housing. It would make sense to put into guidance something that would enable the quality threshold to be met so that we would not have that eventuality of smoke alarms with a very short battery shelf life becoming the de facto norm when you could come up with solutions such as alarms that are either hardwired or have a long battery life. That point has now been made by several noble Baronesses and I will take it away for my officials who will be drafting these regulations to take on board.

With that, I have done my best to answer noble Lords’ questions—and if I have not, I will follow up in writing, as I have already undertaken to do.

Motion agreed.