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Fire Safety Regulations and Guidance

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 14 December 2023

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That this House takes note of the current state of fire safety regulations in England and the case for a new integrated review to update fire safety guidance.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, one of the most active groups in Westminster. It is chaired by Bob Blackman CBE MP, following the late Sir David Amess MP, who noble Lords will remember was horrifically murdered two years ago while undertaking his constituency work. He was the chair of the APPG for more than 20 years.

I was elected as a local councillor in Stockport in 1990. From 1992 onwards, I was a member of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Authority for more than 20 years, off and on. I was inspired by officers in that authority, including people such as Barry Dixon and Steve McGuirk, who have been excellent officers dedicated to fire prevention and safety. I am both honoured yet frustrated to lead this debate.

To understand the fears and concerns of the APPG and the fire industry, the House needs to understand the problems. I will try to encapsulate them in the next 10 minutes or so. The two government departments principally involved in fire are the Home Office, essentially for the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) order and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for building safety, building regulations and housing, which have been moved to the Building Safety Regulator and the Health and Safety Executive. Initially, fire was the responsibility of the Home Office, but it was transferred to the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. It was then transferred to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, followed by the Department for Communities and Local Government and then the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The latter has majority oversight of building and fire safety, including building regulations. As noble Lords can see, the number of departments grows as we progress over time.

I can think of no better place to start this debate than with the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster and the opening statement of the second stage by Jason Beer KC, who was representing the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. He said that the Government apologise for failures in the lead-up to the Grenfell Tower fire, admitting to errors and missed opportunities that helped to create

“an environment in which such a tragedy was possible”.

He told the public inquiry into the disaster that the department was “deeply sorry” and conceded that they did not know how building regulations had failed to be applied on the ground. He said that the system failed. Those admissions were made in his opening statement to the final stage of the public inquiry that investigated the role of dozens of government figures from junior officers to former Ministers. The department also admitted that it failed properly to learn lessons from previous fires in high-rise blocks, including the 2009 cladding blaze at Lakanal House in Southwark, where six people died.

Ironically, the then chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group, the late Sir David Amess MP, wrote 21 letters to successive Ministers pleading with them to bring forward a few of the life-changing, critical safety matters outlined by the coroner before the planned three-year or four-year review into regulations; they were all refused. Following the tragic loss of 72 lives in the Grenfell Tower, Sir David made the public statement that, had Ministers listened to him, that

“fire … would not have happened”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/7/17; col. 334.]

It was not just one Minister; it was a succession of Ministers.

The APPG’s fire adviser and administrative secretary, Ronnie King OBE, provided a 34,000-word statement and approaching 100 exhibits to the Grenfell public inquiry following a four-hour interview and follow-up meetings with the legal team, which was extensively quoted in the evidence. That was after a four-hour interview under caution with the Metropolitan Police.

As noble Lords are aware, stage two of the Grenfell inquiry finished in October 2022. In his closing statement, the lead counsel to the inquiry, Richard Millett KC, said that many firms giving evidence at the Grenfell inquiry indulged in a

“merry-go-round of buck-passing”

to protect their legal positions. He said that it was regrettable that many of,

“those responsible for the buildings and the building environment as it was on the night of the fire sought to exculpate themselves and to pin the blame on others”.

He said, however, that the firms then blamed

“the professionals in the design team for not reading the marketing leaflets”

which required a full system fitting test before the block of flats was built.

The brief from the Home Office to Dame Judith Hackitt was clear that she should undertake an independent review of building and, in particular, fire safety regulations. Dame Judith’s recommendations included a new regulatory framework to address those weaknesses. The overriding theme was to move towards an outcome-based approach to building safety, where industries take responsibility for their own actions. The key proposals included a new joint competent authority, comprised of local authority building standards, fire and rescue authorities and the Health and Safety Executive, to oversee the management and risk of high-rise residential buildings.

A set of rigorous, demanding roles and responsibilities for duty holders was introduced to give stronger focus on building safety and a single, more streamlined regulatory route to oversee standards across the board and to determine where enforcement can and should take place. Dame Judith established six work groups to consider those elements, including how to build effect regulations to make homes safer for people. Some of those groups had 10 people. Significantly, not one All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group adviser was selected for to serve on any of those groups, despite their enormous wealth of experience in the fire industry.

I now turn to the overlap of grey areas in government departments and will explain why we think this needs to be looked at. I will give a couple of examples of the fragmentation across departments and the need for greater integration, beginning with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The All-Party Parliamentary Group had a second meeting with the Minister only yesterday—quite surprisingly, as the debate is today. That was because of frequent changes in the secretarial staff in the department, but I suspect that it was not helped by the number of government reshuffles. It must be said that the Minister was very amiable and helpful; he attended the meeting. He assured me that he was taking a horizon-scanning approach to fire safety, and I wait to see what that means.

I point out that since Grenfell the department has taken numerous policy decisions relating to tall blocks of flats, such as setting a height threshold of 11 metres, at which new-build blocks must have automatic fire sprinklers and protection, removing the dangerous Class O certification from Building Regulations Approved Document B. It also took the immediate decision to remove ACM combustible cladding from all existing tower blocks taller than 18 metres and broadened that out for combustible cladding on less tall buildings. It is now working hard to sort out leaseholder issues, but clearly that is more complicated and a debate for another meeting.

The recent Luton Airport multi-storey car park fire followed an earlier fire at Liverpool Arena. A report commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government in 2006, published in 2010, showed the impact that having automatic fire sprinklers would have had on that fire and the earlier fire at the Liverpool Arena in 2017. The report said that tests found that sprinkler systems were effective in controlling developing fires and equally effective at controlling fully developed fires. In addition, without sprinklers, fires are likely to spread from car to car. With sprinklers that is very unlikely. The report found that structural steelwork was not affected by less than 30 minutes’ fire exposure. With sprinklers, the steelwork would have remained unaffected. So why was that not implemented and why did that fire at Luton Airport happen?

The second issue relates to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the charging of lithium-ion batteries in e-bikes inside blocks of flats, where there have been several deaths due to the ferocity of the explosion when a fire takes hold. Most of these e-bikes are being charged in communal areas that are the only exits for the people living in those flats. This matter should be addressed. The Department for Business and Trade and the Home Office are responsible for fighting fires, as well as the Department for Transport which is now involved because of e-bikes. We need clarity about which department has overall responsibility for fire safety.

The third issue is a second staircase in new blocks of flats taller than 18 metres, which was agreed. Second staircases must be built. The Minister has now deferred that decision for further consultation. Why?

The Department for Education produced a revised fire safety design guide for new schools Design for Fire Safety in Schools: Building Bulletin 100 for a public consultation. Two years ago, it received a resounding rejection by the whole of the fire sector including the National Fire Chiefs Council, which still has not had a response. The current BB100, which was prepared with the oversight of the then Schools Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, concluded that all new schools, apart from a few low-risk schools, to be determined by a risk toolkit, would be expected to have automatic fire sprinklers installed. So, every new school should get a sprinkler system. However, the recent Department for Education draft provision reversed that decision and concluded that all schools, apart from a few high-risk schools, will not now get a sprinkler system. The risk toolkit will be scrapped and high-risk schools will be determined by the Department for Education. They include those taller than 11 meters, which are very few; special needs schools, which are now integrated into mainstream schools, and so there are very few such schools; and the sleeping parts of boarding schools—not the whole boarding school, just the sleeping part—and again there are very few.

The department did not do an impact assessment that fire damage to the school has on its children’s attainment levels, until we told it and it had to address it. The department did not provide a compartment size for large single-storey schools before it need fire suppression, and we had to tell it that. In the original guidelines, a school could be half a square mile before any regulations were needed. It has now set the size at 4,000 square meters. The DfE confessed it did not have professional fire safety adviser when we asked to meet the advisers. It is now recruiting a fire service engineer and will meet the group before seeing politicians.

The APPG has had one meeting with the Department for Education in four years, at a time when fire has been high on the agenda with school fires, Covid and the impact on children’s mental health and development. Our children should be in schools interacting and developing. Will the Minister tell us how the DfE can continue to be permitted to manage fire safety, post-Grenfell Tower, with such a poor risk attitude? Following the evidence of asbestos and RAAC concrete in school buildings, it gives me no confidence.

In summary, the APPG and the entire fire industry feel we cannot accept such poor standards. History tells us that with fire, legislation normally follows disasters and subsequent inquiries bring recommendations from the Woolworths fire in Manchester, the King’s Cross disaster, Grenfell Tower and numerous train accidents. This cannot be a coherent way to determine fire safety policy. We must integrate fire in one place, where all the standards and policies will be made and where one person will be held accountable. It needs specialist advisers who will not necessarily tell the Minister what he wants to hear, but what he needs to hear. Will the Minister comment on why ex-police chief constables seem to arrive in this House like London buses, but not one ex-fire chief has ever be ennobled in its history? The experience of 30 or 40 years in that industry, understanding the issues, is to me unfathomable. Sometimes, it is that simple.

My Lords, I say a sincere thank you to the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, for his timely debate today. Indeed, we were even reminded at COP that 10,000 wildfires throughout the world are causing total devastation. Coming back to the United Kingdom, before I do anything else I pay tribute to all the volunteer firemen who turn out in the middle of the night and then do a another job. They do it instantly. I live in Sandy, where we have a local brigade. I am amazed at the way it runs so smoothly and how volunteers, some of them very senior people in management, will turn up at 3 am and deal with a fire. Secondly, I pay tribute to the London Fire Brigade because it is a very professional organisation. We see in the recent statistics that, partially due to their performance and planning, the number of fires that have been attended to in the UK in the most recent year has dropped from the previous year from, I think, 7,000 to around 5,000. Five thousand is a huge number of fires.

I was particularly prompted to take part today because I live in Bedfordshire and we have a case history now: Luton Airport. I did a little research on that particular situation. Just two months ago, on 10 October, a fire broke out in the car park of Luton Airport’s Terminal 2. It is somewhere I have parked on a number of occasions. The net result of the fire was that the airport was shut down overnight while the emergency services attended the blaze. Hundreds of flights were subsequently cancelled and others severely delayed. What happened? It was not an old car park. It is a pretty new park at Terminal 2. Shortly before 9 pm on 10 October, somehow the fire quickly spread to other floors, and that continued until the early hours of 11 October. Witnesses heard car alarms going off and loud explosions. As a result of the fire, there was a partial structural collapse that has affected the safety of the building. More than 1,400 cars parked there were written off. Just think of the sheer insurance involved in paying off those cars.

As far as I can find out, Bedfordshire police have since confirmed that the initial vehicle involved in the fire was a diesel car—apparently not an electric car. A man in his 30s has been arrested in connection with the fire and was later released on bail, but the police investigation is on-going. As Mr Neil Thompson, the operations director at Luton Airport, said, the car park would need to be fully demolished due to the extent of structural damage. This is a tragedy all round and it raises and re-emphasises the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, in his speech

There are myriad parts of the Government involved in fire safety and we all know some of them: they run from the Home Office to the Building Safety Act 2022, which is really a local authority Act, and the Health and Safety Executive; the Department for Business and Trade has responsibility for lithium-ion batteries and the Department for Transport is apparently looking after scooters and e-bikes. I am not sure why we have to have quite so many departments involved. We certainly need some co-ordination.

We now have two classic case histories. One is the huge tragedy of Grenfell, where it has taken too long to bring the report out. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench can confirm that that report will now be published, in the next month or so, and will not be put off even further. Will he also make sure that we do a proper analysis of that second case history at Luton? These fires should not occur, and something is going wrong in the system when they do. I do not want to read in 2024 of a third major tragedy somewhere in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Goddard on securing this important and timely debate. I associate myself with his comments about the late Sir David Amess, who was an absolutely inspirational chair of the All-Party Fire Safety and Rescue Group, of which I am the vice-chair. I am also a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I want to thank the House of Lords Library, the London Fire Brigade, Chris Waterman and others for their very helpful briefings.

I thought it might be worth starting with a brief reflection of what it is like to be in a fire. In my misspent student days, I was president of the student theatre and on front-of- house duty—luckily, it was a matinee and, luckily, of a fairly esoteric play, so the theatre was not full—when the safety curtain failed after a fire started on stage. I was the person who had to evacuate the audience, as clouds of billowing toxic smoke ran from the stage into the auditorium. It was absolutely terrifying. I am not often pleased when a theatre is not full, but I am really pleased there were not many people there. In the front row, there was a very elderly, 85 year-old academic, who was there to see one of her students in the production. She had real trouble and I ended up having to carry her out of the building. By the time the audience were out, the fire brigade had arrived and everything then proceeded as you would like.

It is rare for a safety curtain to fail but, what hit me then, and has remained with me for the rest of my life, was how fire is not the only danger. Smoke is a real problem; as many people die from smoke inhalation as they do from the direct effects of the fire. I therefore acknowledge the extraordinary work of our firefighters—men and women who, day after day, run towards fire and many other dangerous situations. It is a hard calling and we have to thank them for their selflessness and care in a very testing work field.

I want to add another thing. It is well known that we have been training Ukrainian service men and women with our Ministry of Defence in the United Kingdom, since Putin invaded Ukraine 18 months ago. What is less known is that our fire services and firefighters have run convoys of fire safety vehicles and kit to Ukraine, which has helped its people to respond as their own needs for fire safety and rescue have monumentally increased. I would very much like to see the scheme that is used in the Ministry of Defence also operating for the five service, because we forget that the effect of bombing puts a very particular burden on fire safety and rescue.

Grenfell stands as a marker for failure and we need to remember the victims: 72 killed and many more injured. Many of the reviews and changes in legislation outlined by my noble friend since 14 June 2017 have identified the problems that need addressing. There is no doubt that some progress has been made, but, as we are already hearing in this debate, there are still some gaping holes. However, let us just note that progress. There is no doubt that the current fire safety regulations have played a vital role in reducing fires, fire deaths and injuries over the years.

We know that there is still much to do. One of the most urgent things that has not been discussed so far is the updating of Approved Document B, part of the building regulations guidance. It is very out of date. Not one of the government fire-risk assessment guides has been revised since its publication in 2006. Especially worrying is the lack of clear guidance on evacuation lifts and multiple staircases in high-rise buildings. At the All-Party Fire Safety and Rescue Group, we have been chasing this with Ministers since I joined it in 2011, but it is always just around the corner. I understand why, post-Grenfell, there had to be a pause, given the inquiry, Judith Hackitt’s report and government departments having to decide what their priorities are. However, 2017 is six years ago and the time must come for it to be published. I ask the Minister: when can we expect to see it?

There is a specific need for guidance for the disabled and the vulnerable. The Minister’s predecessors wavered on personal emergency evacuation plans, known as PEEPs, claiming they were too hard to do in a high-rise block. But 40% of the disabled residents in Grenfell died that night. That is shocking. Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House what progress there is on keeping disabled residents safe in high-rise flats?

PEEPs are also important for other reasons. We need them in every environment in which disabled and vulnerable people move around. I was in Portcullis House about five years ago when the fire alarm started going off. My PEEP is for the House of Lords; as an involved member of the public in Portcullis House, I have to know my own way round it. My problem was that nobody knew what to do once the refuge had been closed off. I was literally on my own; I had gone where I was told to and did not know how I could contact people. I am really grateful to the House authorities because, as a result of my experience, they have changed the arrangements in Portcullis House. They now ask people when they are organising their PEEPs where they are likely to travel in the building. However, this is unusual. I went to a conference held earlier this year—ironically, it was the fire conference—and four days beforehand, I was asked to fill in a PEEP before I had ever been to the building and to return it before I arrived. Training is absolutely vital, because disabled people and vulnerable people are the most vulnerable.

I turn briefly to sprinklers, already well covered by my noble friend Lord Goddard. It is well documented that sprinklers play a significant role, but I am appalled that the Government are not considering adding them automatically to new builds, or even new parts of buildings, particularly for the disabled and the vulnerable. This includes new care homes, hospitals and schools. Schools are a particularly sore point. As my noble friend outlined, we have had a real problem in our APPG when trying to get the Department for Education to engage. In 2003, when I was the chair of governors of a primary school that was built in the 1960s, a young arsonist set it afire. It had RAAC, as we now know. We did not also know, until it burned down, that the entire structure of the building was reliant on the windows, and when they caved in the entire building started to fall afterwards. In the new building that went up, we were not permitted to have sprinklers.

The change in the schools landscape in the past 10 years worries me. When our school burned down, we still had a local education authority that was responsible for ensuring that alternative provision was made as soon as possible. Local authorities no longer have the resources for that. Academy chains are finding it really difficult to find alternative provision when they are affected by fire. The other reason we need sprinklers is because children need continuity in their education. It can take far too long to replace what is lost.

I turn now to the emerging, life-threatening danger that is lithium batteries. I thank both my noble friend Lord Goddard and the noble Lord, Lord, Naseby, for their comments, and I say to the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, that there was a fire at Bristol Airport last week. Luckily, unlike the Luton fire, it was not in a multi-storey but in an open-plan area. Already, fire service people in the area are saying that the fire was made much worse by lithium battery cars which caught fire—not that they were the cause of the fire, but the fire is so intense that it is dangerous.

There are people dying regularly as a result of lithium fires. In July, in Cambridge a mother and her two small children died in a fire in a low block of flats. It is thought that an e-bike was being charged in the flat, but, as my noble friend Lord Goddard, said, in too many places, it is possible to use power points in common-part areas, and a number of fires have been caused like that. A firefighter described what happens when a lithium battery catches fire. It is not like any other fire you have seen. It is like a phosphorus fire, it is 1,000 degrees centigrade, it is a complete explosion of fire and it is devastating. To have anything able to be recharged in common parts is appalling.

We need registration for lithium batteries. Part of the problem is that we cannot get different departments to talk to each other. Officers of the all-party group met with Kevin Hollinrake, the Minister for Trade and Enterprise, who covers regulation of batteries, and he absolutely understands the issue. But until every government department looks at the use of batteries in whatever area of work it is covering, we will not start to solve this problem.

I want to end on the future. We have already heard about the plethora of government departments, with each having little bits of fire safety to look after. There must be co-ordination across all departments. I will not call for a Minister in Cabinet with overall responsibility for fire, but it is not beyond the wit of government to get people together to start to talk about this, because, at the end of the day, this is about life saving, ensuring the reduction of costs in destruction of buildings, and we need to make changes.

Let me end on a positive note. At the Fire Conference 2023, which I attended, I heard very encouraging dialogues between firefighters, those making provision in the construction industry and specialist fire services. All of them were saying that the Government’s approach at the moment is too complex and too slow. They are very willing, but they need more help from the Government to make the changes that both the Grenfell inquiry and the Judith Hackitt review demanded, if we are to keep people safe in future.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure and honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. Like her, I am a member of the APPG for Fire Safety and Rescue. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, on securing this important debate. Like him, I pay my respects to the secretary of our APPG, Ronnie King, as well as adding my respects to our former chair, Sir David Amess, and our present chair, Bob Blackman.

Although I spent most of my professional life engaged in matters concerning industrial relations and employment law, from time to time I have been involved in matters of fire—including, the presence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett, reminds me—my time three decades ago in the King’s Cross fire inquiry. Since then, I represented the bereaved at the Lakanal House fire inquest and I advised the fire brigade, although I did not represent it, in the Grenfell Tower inquiry.

I shall make only three points in support of all that the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, have said already. The first point is to do with risk assessment. The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, mentioned the extraordinary reversal of policy in relation to the fitting of sprinklers prospectively in schools, which is now confined to special cases only, as he spelled out. I simply cannot understand how any sensible risk assessment could have resulted in that reversal of policy. As a lawyer, it seems to me that the general principles of risk assessment are well established and simple. It is a computation based on three elements: first, the likelihood of the specific risk eventuating; secondly, an assessment of the magnitude of the damage if the risk eventuates; and, thirdly, set against that, the cost or inconvenience of taking the precaution necessary to avoid that risk. These are not scientific matters—some are, but the overall computation is not clearly scientific. There are many questions and many points of judgment and discretion to be taken into account. But the simplicity of the equation in general is straightforward.

When one applies that to the risk of fires in schools, the likelihood of the risk eventuating is well known to be far more frequent in schools—unfortunately, often because of arson—than in many other public buildings. On the magnitude of the damage if the risk eventuates, true, it will not often cause death or even injury, because evacuation is easy and schools often put on fire at night when nobody is present. But that magnitude incorporates the issues that the noble Baroness mentioned a moment ago. It is not simply the cost of replacing the building; it is the disruption to the lives of children and their families and to other educational establishments in setting up alternative education for those children while the building is replaced.

Against that, there is the cost of the precaution to avoid the risk. The fitting of sprinklers prospectively is relatively trivial in the cost of any building. Even retrospectively, it is a minor cost. With the APPG, about 18 months ago, with Sir David Amess in charge, we went on a visit to a block of flats in Stoke-on-Trent to see a multi-storey block which had been retrofitted with sprinklers. The cost was only something between £1,000 and £2,000 per flat, which I do not think is a lot of money. Even retrospectively, these things can be done at reasonable cost.

I ask the Minister whether the relevant department would disclose the methodology for risk assessment that led to this curious reversal in policy, and whether he would accept some kind of peer review by the experts—I do not include myself in this—who, as the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, mentioned, are present in the APPG on Fire Safety and Rescue.

Secondly, I will raise the question of compartmentation. This is what led to the “stay put” policy adopted by the fire brigades at the Lakanal House fire and the Grenfell Tower fire. I have no doubt that this policy and the issue of compartmentation will be dealt with in the Grenfell report when it emerges. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, about the need for that report to be produced as soon as possible, but I am sure he appreciates the magnitude of the task and the extent of the evidence and engineering and fire assessment reports that have been taken into account by that inquiry. It is understandable that it has taken a considerable amount of time to produce the report.

One of the most harrowing experiences of my professional life was in the Lakanal House inquest. Many pieces of horrific evidence were heard, but one of them was the transcript and recording of a phone call made by a young woman resident in one of the flats in Lakanal House to the control centre for the fire brigade, in which she reported smelling fire and seeing smoke and flames; it lasted for 40 minutes until the line went silent. The control operator on the other end was giving her what advice she could and telling her to stay put in accordance with the policy because she would be rescued; unfortunately, she was not.

I felt that tragedy personally; I also felt it was a tragedy for the poor woman who was the call operator dealing with that call—and there were many like it, and many similar calls at Grenfell Tower. The policy of “stay put” depends on the construction principle of compartmentation, which means that the building is so constructed that each housing unit will be able to withstand fire for long enough for the fire brigade to effect a rescue. The problem is that, although Lakanal House and Grenfell Tower were built with that principle in mind, and no doubt were effective when they were built, over years the compartmentation was breached. There were obvious breaches in both cases: the panel under the windows that caught fire in Lakanal House and the cladding that caught fire in Grenfell Tower, with the compartment breached by fire coming through the windows. At Lakanal House, the compartments were defective in many other respects as well: pipes had been driven through the walls and not sealed up properly; and pipes had been boxed in with wooden shuttering, which of course was material for fire to catch hold of.

The whole issue of compartmentation, as a building principle, needs to be looked at again, because it is not good enough to simply have a guarantee that the compartment will withstand fire when it is built. Since the building will be standing for the next 50 or 100 years, there has got to be some guarantee, or some means adopted, to check that the compartment will still withstand fire over the intervening years. Otherwise, fire brigade control room staff are put in this awful position of assuring residents that they must stay put when, in fact, the principle on which that diktat is founded is defective. Can the Minister say something about the protection of compartmentation, or the inspection of compartments, and the assessment of risk when compartments are broken in any way in future?

Thirdly, I will raise the issue of staffing. Recent developments have required increasing numbers of experts in fire safety to make risk assessments and carry out inspections. One of the problems of the increasing inequality of income between the public and private sectors is that the private sector—not surprisingly—is luring away experts whose expertise is needed in the public sector. It is not just a question of salaries; it is also terms and conditions, training and promotion prospects. Can the Minister say something about how this will be addressed in the future? What overall increase in the number of suitably qualified experts will be required and how will they be retained in the public sector?

Finally, I will speak about the fire and rescue services. I share with the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, his respect for the heroic men and women who serve in our fire brigades—both the paid and the unpaid. The national salary increase that was awarded to firefighters this year is, of course, most welcome. Can the Minister say something about retention and recruitment, in consequence of that salary increase: whether it is satisfactory at the moment or whether we are losing firefighters? One essential aspect of that salary increase is that it was achieved by national collective bargaining in the fire service—I am sorry, just give me one moment, this is my last sentence. There have been suggestions of the ending of collective bargaining to determine pay, terms and conditions; I wonder whether the Minister is committed to maintaining it?

My Lords, I will be brief. I will start by thanking my noble friend Lord Goddard for his excellent introduction to this debate, and I support his call for an integrated review of fire services. I also add my name to the tributes to David Amess and to all the very brave firefighters; luckily for me I have never had to call on their services and I hope it never happens, but it is a great comfort to know that they are there for all of us.

With my interests in health and education, I have always been concerned about fire safety in schools, colleges and hospitals Like all noble Lords who have spoken, I am concerned that regulations about the installation of sprinklers have been weakened. We know they can extinguish, or minimise, fires early and enable evacuation and access for the fire services. The London Fire Brigade’s briefing for this debate recommends that all new schools and hospitals, and any new extensions to old ones, as well as care homes, are fitted with sprinklers. The noble Lord, Lord Hendy, has said how cost-effective retrofit is as well. This strikes me as common sense and cost-effective, given the major danger to pupils, staff and patients when there are major fires, in addition to the disruption to pupils’ education, to parents and to local communities. I agree with my noble friends Lord Goddard and Baroness Brinton in asking the Minister to assure us that all new schools and the so-called 40 new hospitals will all have sprinklers.

The other school safety issue is combustible cladding. In December 2018, the Government banned the use of combustible insulation and cladding on the facades of certain high-rise buildings, but many other types of high-rise buildings remain outside the scope of the ban, including non-residential school buildings. As a result, over 100 school building projects have used combustible facade insulation since December 2018. I am told that, in the past 10 years, 1,003 education building projects will have used combustible facade materials. Will the Government extend the scope of the ban to educational establishments?

Much of the briefing we have received reflects the difficulty for local fire and rescue services in keeping up with the increasing demands of current legislation on their professional advice, monitoring and inspection. Fire safety assessments of schools are done by school staff not trained to do so, with no requirement to provide evidence. FR services believe they should check this assessment but accept that this would put greater pressure on their resources. However, it should be done, and appropriately resourced.

Fire safety is, of course, not all that the fire brigades deal with. They rescue people from all kinds of situations, including the increased flooding events caused by climate change. It is very concerning therefore that they are finding difficulty in recruiting enough officers. Services are calling for more flexibility in the fire uplift grant, which pays for prevention services. In addition, in order to adequately meet fire safety requirements, all FRSs need greater council tax flexibility, a three-year government settlement and an allocation of the protection grant that reflects local circumstances. Can the Minister comment on this?

While many colleagues have focused on building safety, I would like to focus the main thrust of my remarks on issues of the fire standards for furnishings. According to UKRI research, the UK is one of the highest users of chemical flame retardants—the chemicals that extend the time it takes for a material to catch fire. This is partly because of our open-flame ignition test. However, there are both health and environmental concerns about these substances. The researchers also found that a significant proportion of fire deaths are caused by inhalation of toxic fumes from these chemicals, as was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Brinton, including cyanide gas and carbon monoxide. That is not all: even before fires occur there are risks to health, including increasing diabetes, obesity and cancer risks, as well as effects on hormones, DNA, and heart and kidney function. Particular concerns have been raised about potential effects on babies and young children, who may be more susceptible to health impacts while they are developing and are likely to frequently put their hands in their mouths. This is because flame retardants migrate out of the products through wear, abrasion and disposal or recycling. They collect and persist, staying in the body, air, food and drinking water, as well as on surfaces; they also enter rivers and lakes.

What is being done? Not enough. In 2014 and 2016, the Government consulted on ways and means of reducing the use of flame retardants because of these concerns, but nothing was done then. In 2019, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report, Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life, identified concerns regarding the use of flame retardants, including emphasising the potential health impacts for babies and children. It pointed out that the furniture and furnishings regulations have been under review by BEIS, as it was then, and by its predecessor department for 10 years.

In 2021, at last, the Office for Product Safety and Standards ran a call for evidence on a UK product safety review. It published research on fire risks of upholstered products this year. The Government now propose new fire safety regulations for upholstered products. The consultation ended in October. One of the intentions of the draft regulations is to:

“Enable and encourage a reduction in the use of chemical flame retardants.”

However, the draft regulations fall short of what is needed and would, for example, exclude from scope items such as small cushions and baby products, including playpens and carrycots. I hope that I can correctly assume that mattresses used in hospitals are included. Given that the smallest of items can cause a fire, can the Minister tell me why baby products are excluded from scope? There are also measures about better enforcement and compliance, all of which would require additional personnel and funding. Can the Minister tell me whether these measures would be adequately funded, given the concerns I expressed earlier about resources for the FRS?

I am not the only person expressing these concerns. In March 2023, scientists in the journal Environment International asked that

“a very high level of certainty about the human and environmental safety of flame retardants is demonstrated before they are approved for use”,

and to ensure that there are “monitoring systems” to rapidly flag issues and replace flame retardants. Dr Paul Whaley, from Lancaster University, said that

“there has to be a proper balancing of the harms and benefits of flame retardants, that includes a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of flame retardants as a fire safety measure”.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee followed up its earlier report this month, complaining that

“many of the Government’s proposals stop short of what the Committee had previously recommended”.

Like me, it wanted to know why baby products are being excluded from scope, whether best practice from other countries is being considered, and what measures the Government are considering that would give more information to consumers on the chemical flame retardants used in their furniture.

The Fire Brigades Union considers that the proposals are deregulatory and put profits before firefighter and public safety. The Chartered Trading Standards Institute also felt that more products should be in scope, including products labelled for use outdoors—because they are often stored indoors.

What does the Minister have to say to all that criticism of the proposals? We need materials in our homes which deter fire risk but do not damage our health. I would like to know what research the Government are funding to identify such products and disseminate their use.

My Lords, I too am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Goddard for bringing this important and timely debate today. I am particularly looking forward to the Minister’s reply—I wish him the very best of luck.

I must first declare my interests as co-president of London Councils, the membership body that represents all 32 London boroughs and the City of London, and as patron of the charity Electrical Safety First. Both of these organisations have given me very helpful briefings on which I shall rely today. I also declare that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Today I will refer mainly to London—because that is what I know about and where my experience lies—but I am sure my comments will apply to all local authorities throughout England with similar responsibilities to London boroughs.

I was prompted to take part in this debate after I attended the London Fire Brigade’s drop-in event in Portcullis House two weeks ago about e-bike and e-scooter fires. The London Fire Brigade has given me much useful and important information, as has my Liberal Democrat colleague on the London Assembly, Hina Bokhari, who has been very active on this subject—it is a particularly important one in London.

As demand for e-bikes and e-scooters has expanded, there has inevitably been a corresponding growth in fires from the lithium-ion batteries that power them. When overheating through damage or flawed design, or using a substandard charger, lithium-ion batteries can create fierce, toxic fires, which heat up very rapidly and can reach temperatures of over 600 degrees centigrade.

Fires in e-bikes and e-scooters are London’s fastest-growing fire trend. So far this year, the London Fire Brigade has attended 142 e-bike fires, along with 28 blazes involving e-scooters. This is 47% more than in the previous year, 2022, which was itself a record-breaking year. Sadly, this year has also seen three deaths and around 60 injuries caused by such fires.

Many of these fires are caused by faulty, non-compliant or counterfeit products purchased from online marketplaces, or by wrong chargers being used with batteries. Electrical Safety First has found concerning trends in London-based e-bike and e-scooter users. For instance, it found that 71% of Greater London-based delivery riders using a converted e-bike did the conversion themselves; and 48% of those delivery riders who had a converted e-bike sourced the conversion kit and/or batteries from online marketplaces, which are not regulated in the same way as high street shops.

In a separate survey of e-bike and e-scooter owners, Electrical Safety First found that 40% of e-bike and e-scooter owners charged their batteries in the communal area of the property they live in, such as a hallway or stairwell; 52% of e-bike and e-scooter owners in Greater London charged their batteries overnight while sleeping; and 39% of them in Greater London did not have working smoke alarms in their properties.

Addressing the dangers posed by e-bike and e-scooter batteries requires new UK-wide fire regulations. Electrical Safety First proposes that new regulatory measures should include third-party approval for e-bikes and e-scooters and their batteries, mirroring regulations for fireworks.

In Committee, considering the Pedicabs (London) Bill on Monday, the Minister said:

“The Government recognise that there are issues with e-scooters that we need to address, but this Bill is not the appropriate place to do so. As has been mentioned, we recently extended the e-scooter trials until 31 May 2026 to continue to gather evidence on how best to legislate for micromobility, including e-scooters, in future. Given the pressure on legislative time, that legislation will not come forward in this Session, unfortunately. Ahead of that, the Government intend to consult on the detailed approach for regulating e-scooters”.—[Official Report, 11/12/23; col. GC 232.]

Given the obviously urgent need to deal with this rapidly increasing problem, will the Minister, when he replies today, tell us when this consultation will start and, particularly, when it will end? Most importantly, will he confirm that it will not wait until after the trials referred to have ended in 2026?

I turn now to another fire safety issue of particular importance and concern in London—that of high-rise buildings. In July this year, the Government defined 18 metres, or seven floors, as the height at which buildings are at higher risk and the threshold at which new buildings should have a second staircase. Some 67%—two-thirds—of all such high-rise residential buildings in the UK are situated in London.

None of the Government’s fire risk assessment guides have been revised since their publication in 2006. Two examples of issues where current guidance is not clear are evacuation lifts and multiple staircases. The timing for a revision is uncertain, so can the Minister tell us today when it will take place? The London Fire Brigade is also urging the Government to provide further guidance and revised building regulations, including those relating to access and use of buildings, particularly for those with accessibility needs. Further detail is also needed on the transitional arrangements for second staircases, to give developers, local authorities, fire services and communities clarity.

London local authority-managed housing stock is more likely to be older, densified, and found in flatted blocks rather than houses. London boroughs face multiple pressures beyond building safety, such as the need to raise standards, meet net-zero targets and supply new affordable homes. Housing revenue accounts in London are under significant strain, as they are everywhere. The Government’s 7% ceiling on social rent increases in 2023-24 is estimated to have a £590 million impact on London boroughs’ housing revenue account finances over the next five financial years. This exacerbated the impact of the four-year 1% rent reduction policy in place from 2016-17, which, by 2021-22, left London rents an estimated £459 million lower than expected.

Local authorities are facing an increasingly complex regulatory environment, with a multitude of changes and different regulators. Alignment between regulatory bodies must be central to developing new regulatory practice and requirements. The new fire and building safety requirements are stretching London borough resources—and I am sure those of every other local authority, too—and their capacity. The building safety regulator charging regime will put significant additional financial pressure on local authorities, particularly those with a high number of complex buildings.

Lastly, I turn to building control. Local authority building control teams are at the forefront of new responsibilities relating to high-rise residential buildings, especially with the formation of the building safety regulator’s multidisciplinary teams that will come into force imminently. The Government must work with local authorities to ensure that building control teams are sufficiently resourced and enabled to meet new obligations to ensure residents’ safety. London borough building control teams urgently require clarity and guidance on their roles within the multidisciplinary hub, to ensure that it is implemented effectively. When will that clarity be given?

In conclusion, London borough resources and capacity are stretched to the limit—I am sure all local authorities are in the same position—as a result of financial pressures on the housing revenue account and a lack of sufficiently qualified staff to deliver these functions. Local authorities urgently need more funding and greater financial flexibility in order to meet fire and building safety requirements, at the same time as raising the standards of tenants’ homes, meeting new consumer standards and delivering new affordable housing. This should include allowing a rent catch-up so that social housing providers can gradually recover some of the reduced financial investment available as a result of the 7% rent ceiling.

A post-2025 rent settlement that provides sufficient funding and certainty is also needed, and London Councils encourages the Government to launch a consultation at the earliest opportunity. Specifically, the Government should recognise and unlock barriers faced by boroughs attempting to access, and make best use of, remedial funding to realise intended outcomes for residents. For example, local authorities receive remedial funding only for external cladding, not for other corrective fire and building safety works.

I recognise that the Minister may not have been briefed on all these points and may not anyway have time, even in his 20 minutes, to answer all the questions he has been asked today, so I would be grateful if he would write to me, and indeed to other noble Lords, answering the many questions that so far remain unanswered.

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, on his excellent introduction; I certainly cannot match his expertise in this field. I remind your Lordships of my professional involvement with buildings and construction as a chartered surveyor and as a patron of the Chartered Association of Building Engineers, to which body I am very grateful for some background information. I am also grateful to the Library staff for digging out a lot of information and to Chris Waterman for his very pertinent comments.

Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which came into effect in 2006, we had a regime of responsibility on individuals within organisations for risk assessments to identify, manage and reduce fire risks. However, prior to this order, all public and commercial buildings and all non-single household domestic buildings, save for houses in multiple occupation, needed a fire certificate issued annually following inspection. Post 2006, that was replaced with a system of third-party assessors but with no mandated timeframe for checks nor any professional competence set out. Furthermore, it did not normally apply to domestic premises.

I believe these changes were significant. In 2013, I am told the fire service found that 14% of risk assessments were non-compliant. In 2018, it was found that 500 out of a total of 800 assessors—a small enough number in itself—were not registered with any accredited body, so their credentials were not monitored. In between, there was a transfer of responsibility in 2016 from DCLG to the Home Office. As the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, said, there are split departmental responsibilities, gaps and all sorts of other problems. The past history has been one of little regulatory enforcement since 2006; in the case of much residential property, I would go as far as saying there is a significant lacuna.

Moving on to the current situation, there remain inconsistencies. While those occupying business premises are obliged to carry out reasonably thorough risk assessments just to get insurance and are driven by that aspect, for the freeholder it may be a matter mainly of common parts. The responsible person in any given instance may be several people. They are supposed to liaise but very likely have an imperfect understanding of each other’s risk profile. There is some guidance about risk assessments, but I see no requirement for accreditation or need for any construction knowledge.

That may be fine for straightforward, simple cases where there is evidently low risk, but I do not think it is generally true. As of now, for low and medium-rise residential property, there is seemingly no obligation on occupiers at all, despite the concerns around batteries and the use of certain types of equipment, identified by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. The obligation of the block manager seemingly is for common parts only, with no further obligation to investigate in additional detail.

Yet the incidence of fires is, I am told, far greater for domestic premises than for other types of use. I wonder how many residents in Victorian terraced houses divided into say two, three or four self-contained units are aware that they may now have collective responsibilities? If we are not enforcing regulatory compliance—and I hear the words of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, about inadequacy of resources, a point also made by others—one has to question the purpose and direction of policy in this whole area.

I believe that it is not necessarily generally the failure of equipment itself. The inherent safety in many cases is really quite good, but it depends on the use and occupation and the category of that occupation—for instance, as other noble Lords mentioned, trying to charge lithium-ion batteries with unsuitable chargers or inadequate storage space, with items packed into areas that lack ventilation or a way to allow heat to escape.

While I am fine with a light touch for low-rise blocks of flats, there needs to be a minimum standard of efficacy and the regime has to be proportionate to the actual risks. In July 2021, the independent experts advising the Government produced a statement determining that low-rise buildings were at materially lower risk from a life-critical fire safety standpoint. This fed into the legislation, despite noble Lords, including me, contending in this House that low rise did not equate to acceptably low risk. Moreover, the independent experts did not consider other structural issues of which fire safety surely forms part and parcel in any holistic approach.

The position of the responsible person or persons seems precarious if fire safety deficiencies are suspected but not actually known, where they have simply never been looked into at all, or where they are known but the original developer—as I am told in one case—declined to step in to remediate because, as it apparently put it, “the level of risk has not been established”, or words to that effect. Residents are inevitably put at a degree of unquantified risk.

But the statement from the independent experts did not cover economic security or the effects on those in buildings requiring remediation but with no clear recourse or defence against huge costs, financial ruin, disruption to lives, lifestyles and life chances because under the Building Safety Act they might not in any way be protected against such eventualities. I also did not detect that the structural integrity of buildings—which cannot be considered in isolation from fire safety itself—was part of their remit.

Turning to the points made earlier by noble Lords, I entirely take the point about the calculation of risk assessment, but it seems that at various points things are stopped part way for policy reasons. I think this is fundamentally a dangerous approach. There is a particular lesson that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, will be familiar with: the year before the independent experts’ statement came out, there was a major fire in one of several similar blocks. This was not mentioned by the independent experts, but it could have been. It clearly indicated that fire risk in some low-rise buildings is a critical matter and very much depends on the characteristics of the buildings in question, especially construction quality and use of materials internally. The noble Lord, Lord Hendy, made exactly that point, and I can verify it from my own direct experience.

The reason for half-hour or one-hour fire resistant compartmentation is primarily to enable safe escape and, where escape is not possible, to enable fire and rescue services to control the outbreak. In a higher-rise building, it is clearly a question of staying put, or at least staying put in certain parts of the building, because of the sheer impossibility of people getting down 20 floors to safety, so stay put has to be in place. However, the fire that I am referring to that the independent experts seem to have ignored was in fact in a low-rise building. Were it not for the fact that the occupants decided they were going to ignore to a man the stay-put advice and get out, several of them would have been killed or injured because the building was effectively completely ablaze after 11 minutes from the time of the 999 call. It clearly was not going to maintain any structural integrity, but buildings need to retain structural integrity in terms of modern usage. For vulnerable occupants, things are much worse still.

Yet there seems to be little appetite for a regime of professional or other curiosity that might foresee and counter risk that may be self-evident, or for a regulatory regime to encourage that. It might be too much to insist on individual owners and occupiers of residential flats carrying out assessments or immediately ceasing the habits of a lifetime, but I venture to suggest that a programme of public awareness, like the ones with graphic images that I remember in relation to drink-driving and the failure to buckle up your seat belt, would be beneficial. We did that effectively with Covid. I invite the Minister to agree that more needs to be done to tidy up, update and clarify the regulation as to who is responsible and to create a more holistic approach, leaving fewer things to differential interpretation and avoiding the risk of matters being left to happenstance or falling between the jurisdictions of different government departments.

The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, referred to the situation in which the standards of fire suppression that we now know are necessary have been abandoned. That is lamentable. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, referred in detail to the Luton Airport car park fire. I am told, I think on reasonable authority, that the structure of that car park was lightweight. I am tempted to wonder what the wider safety issues and possible fire consequences would have been if all the cars had been electric, with the weight considerations in such a structure.

There is a great deal that needs to be brought together here in this Motion. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to non-ACM combustible materials. I simply refer to the widespread use within buildings of expanded polystyrene, a product that was researched under commission from the Victorian Building Authority in Australia and considered to be as bad as ACM or worse.

It is not acceptable to conduct public administration by expecting safe outcomes from underspecifying assessments and regulatory adherence. I wish not to add to regulation but to design it to be efficient and likely to be observed. I am therefore entirely supportive of the Motion from the noble Lord, Lord Goddard.

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Goddard for initiating this debate and for his powerful opening speech, which is a reminder to us all of the devastation that fire can cause. None of us will ever forget the appalling loss of life in the Grenfell fire, which has already been referred to extensively. Out of that has come a recognition that much more needs to be done to ensure that all our built infrastructure is compliant with fire safety requirements. Would that our hard-pressed fire and rescue services had the financial support they need to undertake that enormous task.

I will speak rather more locally on this matter. I live in a beautiful part of the country, North Yorkshire, and I think we were the first rural local authority to merge the police and fire services. Looking at the latest draft Fire and Rescue Plan 2022-25 for North Yorkshire, I quote from the joint commissioner’s objectives:

“The Fire Service should be at the centre of partnership efforts to protect public safety as a trusted and very local public service”.

Amen to all that. It works in conjunction with other significant partners—the health service, local government and of course the police—in a much more co-ordinated, joined-up way now than it ever did when I was a member of both the police authority and the fire authority many years ago, and I very much welcome those steps.

Here I must deviate for a moment and express my deep concern about police and crime commissioners taking on the responsibility for overseeing the work of the fire and rescue service alongside that of the police. I am even more concerned to see proposals for police chiefs to add on to their roles the job of being chief fire officer. That is a ludicrous idea and is opposed by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and, I imagine, the chiefs of the fire services. The two roles are entirely different—in law, apart from anything else—and in my opinion should never be merged. We are not America yet.

To return to the theme of today’s debate, it is right that a new integrated review to update fire safety guidance now takes place in all parts of the country, especially in areas that have high-rise buildings but also in schools and hospitals, about which we have heard so much today. A recent example of that is the school built just four years ago in Essex that had to be demolished because of its modular construction—again, we have heard about that today—which many new buildings now seem to prefer but which can be a definite fire hazard.

Then there is the recent finding of RAAC, which is posing massive concerns throughout the country in our schools, hospitals and other public buildings. Can the Minister tell us how far we have got with checking on all these buildings? Do the Government check the use of construction materials coming into the country? Is there a particular safety compliance for buildings with these materials? Is their fire performance a prerequisite for obtaining planning permission?

Modern buildings consist of large quantities of plastic and vinyl-based materials that have a high combustion toxicity and pose a risk to life. Fire suppression systems should be fitted to all new high-rise buildings and, as we have heard, most of our schools, while illuminating paint, additional signs and marked pathways should be indicated as a matter of course. All new buildings should have automated fire sensors installed. Between 2012 and 2016, smoke alarms failed to operate in an average of 25,700 home fires per year, causing 440 deaths and 1,440 injuries annually. That is an appalling number.

Coming back to North Yorkshire, when the transfer of governance to the police and crime commissioner for the overseeing of the fire authority took place three years ago, there was already a deficit of £2.5 million, so the service has had to make savings equivalent to 10% of its budget over those three years. As I mentioned previously, the draft plan for the fire service has many ambitions, which of course I endorse, but enabling the fire service to fulfil those ambitions and objectives on such a reduced budget will be nigh on impossible.

North Yorkshire and the city of York combined unitary authorities cover an area of 3,209 square miles with a population of around 830,000—an area that stretches almost from coast to coast across the top of the north of England. It can take well over two hours to drive across it in good weather. It is incredibly challenging for all our emergency services, in particular our fire service. We have only five whole-time shift fire stations, seven whole-time day-crewed stations, 24 retained stations and two volunteer-crewed stations. The firefighters may not have to deal with significant numbers of high-rise buildings, being in a predominantly rural area, but they have vast areas of land to cover, with significant risk of moorland fires and the concomitant problems of climate change and danger to protected habitats, wildlife and livestock. The Vale of York suffers badly from flooding, as do parts of the Yorkshire Dales. These are all difficulties our fire service must deal with and overcome. The public expect it to do so.

Here, I too extend my thanks for the many lives and buildings that our firefighters have saved, often in dangerous and highly toxic conditions. The North Yorkshire brigade attended 8,256 incidents in the year ending June 2023—13% more than in the previous year. There were 3,252 false alarms; we have not heard much about those today. There were 2,055 fires and 2,949 non-fire incidents, almost certainly road traffic accidents. That is quite a workload for only 592 firefighting personnel.

The fire and rescue national framework requires each fire authority to produce an integrated risk management plan. The public must be able to see this. The plan must reflect all foreseeable fire and rescue-related risks and set out its management strategy, as well as showing that effective consultation with communities has taken place. It must also consult its workforce and other partners, and cover a three-year time span. Those are all important requirements, which presupposes that there will be money for the service to undertake these duties—duties that require the very highest calibre of personnel, who will all require extensive training and first-class equipment.

My next concern is how all this will be paid for. The Fire Standards Board produced national professional standards but recruiting firefighters is becoming more difficult, especially for hard-pressed local government, precisely because the private sector can poach the brightest and best as it pays better money; that was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy. Indeed, privatisation of the service is looking increasingly likely. From buying expensive safety equipment to high-vis jackets, you can see adverts all over the internet for essential firefighting use.

Surely it is time we had an integrated review to look at updating fire safety guidance and ensuring that all areas of our country are protected as much as possible from the ravages of fire—from our high-rise buildings to our vast areas of underpopulated but important habitats, from our schools and our hospitals to other public buildings where people should be able to feel safe. All are important and need the assurance that they have been inspected by well-trained, professional people with the right skills to undertake such a specialist task. An integrated review looking at all these issues would be the right way forward; I urge the Minister to support this.

My Lords, I remind the House of my relevant interests as a councillor in Kirklees in West Yorkshire and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

My noble friend Lord Goddard has inspired a well-informed debate on a matter of life and death—literally. He started his introduction to this debate by exposing the incoherence in the management of fire risk in buildings across various government departments. My noble friend Lady Harris pointed to a more local incoherence and the difficulty of merging the police and crime commissioner’s responsibilities with the fire and rescue responsibilities in her county of North Yorkshire, but it is a growing trend across the country. It seems to me that incoherence, both local and national, is at the very heart of today’s debate. The fact that we are not able to have an overall fire safety strategy, agreed and implemented in a coherent way across all government departments, seems to be at the heart of what we are debating today.

I am unashamedly going to start by talking about the fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017 because that tragedy powerfully reminded us of the vulnerabilities that we all face when fire comes: 72 people lost their lives. The Fire Safety Act and the Building Safety Act, which the Government implemented as a consequence of the Grenfell fire, have made substantial improvements to fire prevention in buildings, particularly domestic ones—but, as all speakers have referenced, there is still much to do.

Although fire and rescue services have enabled a steady decline in fires in homes, and deaths from such fires, each year more than 300 people still die from fires and just under 30,000 fires occur in dwellings. Grenfell exposed the callous decisions made by manufacturers of cladding, who knew that the products they were promoting were flammable. Action has been taken by government to remove dangerous cladding from high-rise blocks, but the Government have turned their back on those who live in blocks under 11 metres; they are getting no help at all in removing this dangerous cladding. I have raised this issue many times in your Lordships’ House and will continue to do so in order to raise the concerns and anxieties of leaseholders who continue to live in flats covered with dangerous cladding.

Many areas of reform and improvement in fire safety have been raised during this debate. Taking buildings as a whole, several noble Lords have referred to the use of automatic fire suppression systems, such as sprinklers. My noble friends Lady Walmsley, Lord Goddard and Lady Brinton—and others—raised the importance of including sprinklers in buildings, particularly residential and nursing homes, schools and hospitals. It would be good to hear what the Minister makes of the strong arguments that they have made on this issue.

My noble friend Lady Brinton again made the powerful case for making sure that people with disabilities are able to evacuate buildings when needed. I suggest that people might like to read Show Me the Bodies, the book on the Grenfell fire by Peter Apps. It is not a joyful read; it details the awful fact that 41% of the 72 who died were people with disabilities, who were simply and tragically unable to get out. A second staircase in Grenfell Tower may have helped many more people to evacuate safely. This year, the Government have mandated that new buildings over 18 metres must have a second staircase. However, as my noble friend Lord Goddard pointed out, the implementation of this has been deferred. It is important in high-rise blocks for there to be an alternative escape route. My noble friend Lord Tope also pointed to the importance of improvements in building regulations in improving fire safety.

As many noble Lords will know, the Grenfell Tower fire was started by a fault in a fridge. Nearly one fire a day in London is caused by faulty white goods. Improving the safety of electrical goods in the home will lead to a reduction in domestic fires. My noble friend Lord Tope has long been an advocate of improving electrical fire safety and he spoke powerfully on this issue.

Another issue exposed by the Grenfell Tower fire was compartmentation. As pointed to by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, it was very clear that structural integrity had been compromised by poor fire safety doors and the installation of new windows which were shabbily put in—they did not fit and were made to fit using filler. That increased the intensity and rapidity of the fire in Grenfell. It is very important to have building inspectors and building control who have the power to be able to put those matters right. The Hackitt report made it very clear that that was at the heart of what had to happen. We are still waiting for the Government to implement that element of her report. Maybe we will see it when the second phase of the Grenfell Tower report is published next year.

I will move on to other areas noble Lords referred to. Other electrical fires come from small batteries, and we are increasingly using small batteries in all our lives. We all have phones, chargers, e-bikes and e-scooters. My noble friend Lord Tope has drawn attention to the dreadful fires resulting from these. We have probably all had a briefing from the London Fire Brigade, which said that the fire service has attended 142 e-bike fires and 28 e-scooter fires this year. As we have also heard, three people have sadly died from these fires. Many noble Lords who raised this issue have urged the Government to regulate battery charging and for greater control of the battery chargers you can get online, which may not be adequate when it comes to safety. I look forward to the Minister’s response on this.

It is not just electrical fires inside the home that can be a problem. As my noble friend Lady Walmsley said, furniture and furnishings can also create a hazard—though not so much a fire hazard, because of the regulations of 1988 that ensured that soft furnishings were treated with fire retardants. The excellent Library briefing has drawn our attention to the fact that fire retardants have succeeded in reducing household fires but that these are not without their own problems. There is evidence that, during a fire, some flame retardants release toxic gases and smoke, as raised by my noble friend Lady Brinton. The UK Research and Innovation study explained that a

“significant proportion of … deaths are caused by inhalation of toxic fumes, including cyanide gas and carbon monoxide”.

My noble friend Lady Walmsley has drawn our attention to the seeping toxicity of some of these flame retardants, which over the years can have an adverse effect, especially on children, as they are bio-accumulative.

There have been several attempts by Governments to address these findings and, finally, change is coming—but next year, and perhaps not in as comprehensive a way as those who are concerned about fire safety would wish. For example, the Fire Brigades Union has stated that Ministers should ban flame retardants which cause toxic fumes to result or introduce testing for toxicity before enabling them to be used. Draft regulations will enable manufacturers to continue using flame retardants if manufacturers decide they are the most “practicable” solution. There is a huge gap there in improving fire safety in the home.

This has been a very good debate on a vitally important subject. Firefighters across the country bravely save lives. While the Government have an incoherent approach to fire safety, they will continue to have to go out and put their lives at risk to save the lives of others. This Motion is to take note; I hope the Minister will urge the Government to take action.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Gascoigne. I know he has done Questions before, but I think this is his first debate, so I welcome him to the Dispatch Box to speak for the Government. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Goddard. I noticed the changes being proposed and consulted on by the Government with respect to fire regulations. Given their importance, the noble Lord has done us all a service by bringing them before this Chamber to be discussed in this important debate.

Fire is an ever-present danger, and something we must all consider and take into account in our personal and professional lives. Noble Lords will remember that, just a couple of days ago, we had a fire drill in this place—the marshals went out and procedures were looked at. That is very important and shows that, here and everywhere, you have to take account of the threat that fire can pose to us.

The figures show a drop in the number of fires and related deaths and injuries. This is to be welcomed. It would be ridiculous for us not to say that it is really good news to see that the number of fires and fire-related incidents across our country has declined. But one of the things that has come from this debate, as the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, and others have said, is that you cannot be complacent: you cannot believe that the job is done and not worry or be concerned about where we are. Our efforts must continue.

Many noble Lords have recognised the efforts of our firefighters and fire services, and all of those who are working on that. I will not make the political point that it is a shame we have seen such a reduction in their numbers—but I thought I might drop it in there. The work of firefighters has been quite brilliant.

Barely a day goes by without reference to a serious fire somewhere, sometimes tragically involving the loss of life. None of us will forget the horrors of the Grenfell Tower fire. It is worth repeating that that was a tower block of some 24 storeys. We saw the television pictures, with flames and smoke billowing out: 72 people died, 223 managed to escape and 70 were injured. You can only imagine the consequences for people living with that horror for the rest of their lives. It was a horrific wake-up call to us.

The inquiry and reports are asking why and how it happened. What could have been done? That is why the reports coming out are so important. I know the second phase of the report is supposed to be next year, but it would be helpful if the Minister could tell us when that might be, because we all want that report to come out as soon as possible. As many noble Lords have said, it will make some quite significant points and, from that horror, we must do all we can to make sure we minimise risks.

That is why these regulations are so important. Noble Lords raised Luton Airport and what happened in the car park there. Are there lessons to learn from that? All of us have to use regulations to try to minimise risk and bring about overall improvement.

What is the state of the current fire safety regulations? Can the Minister update us on that? There are reviews, consultations and refreshes, and the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, talked about updating them. All of that is apparently going on, but there is a plethora of it. The landscape is very cluttered, and it is very difficult to understand who is doing what and where we have got to with these different regulations. Given the importance of all that, some clarity from the Minister would be welcome.

We heard that the Government have been consulting on new regulations on the fire safety of various products. The consultation on upholstered products ended on 24 October. When do the Government expect to publish the results? What is their view on some of the criticisms that we have heard about small items not being included? Many fires start from small items: this may be the right thing to do, but it would be helpful to understand the rationale. I read the regulations and some of the small items included babies’ cots and cushions. There must be a rationale for that—somebody has not just made it up—but what is it and why?

Do the Government accept concerns about the use of flame retardants? Dr Paul Whaley, an expert from Lancaster University, said:

“There are longstanding concerns about the effectiveness of flame retardants and the health risks associated with them”.

We heard about some of those—smoke inhalation and so on—and those criticisms were echoed by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, which said that the Government’s proposed new regulations do not go far enough and are a wasted opportunity to further improve fire safety.

The FBU has also criticised the new proposed regulations, saying that they are, in fact, “deregulation” that puts firefighters and public safety at risk. I suppose it is asking why the Government would deregulate small cushions and babies’ cots from the regulations when, as even somebody who is not an expert on fire knows, those things do catch fire. I am trying to understand that.

As we have just heard, there is a more general issue with enforcement. Whatever regulations we have, they need to be robustly enforced and all the buildings checked. Fire inspections and the work of the fire service must be robustly supported. Can the noble Lord explain how the Government seek to support the enforcement of fire regulations? Does he have any figures on the numbers of inspections and any consequential action that has followed them, including the number of prosecutions following enforcement notices that have been issued? I had a look, although not for hours on end, and I could not find those figures. They would be useful to understand what is happening with enforcement.

The Building Safety Act 2022 set up the new building safety regulator to regulate high-risk buildings, raise safety standards and help professionals improve their competence. High-risk buildings were defined, and there is a duty to regulate care homes and hospitals through their design and construction phases. That is a really good and important change. If you are regulating care homes and hospitals through their design and construction phases, you are clearly trying to minimise the risk of fire, which is a good thing. Local authorities are now involved in this important work, as well, but how will all that be monitored? Will there be an annual report to Parliament, so that we can see how the work of the building safety regulator is going?

The London Fire Brigade has called for a number of changes to fire regulations and for a number of things to be done more broadly. As we have heard in the debate, these include the provision of second staircases in tall buildings. The Government accepted this for new buildings over a certain threshold, but what about older buildings and other buildings? Why are second staircases appropriate in some buildings but not others?

Sprinklers in buildings are another demand. Again, they are required in certain buildings, but many of us find it very difficult to understand why you would not put sprinklers in new care homes, hospitals or schools. I understand the difficulty with old buildings, but if they are part of the design, that will minimise the cost. What is the Government’s rationale for their policy on sprinklers in both new and old buildings? Knowing that would help us understand, particularly when it comes to care homes. Given the number of people who were trapped in Grenfell and could be trapped in other buildings, that is one of the things that sprinklers are designed to overcome.

We have also heard about the increasing risk with lithium ion batteries in e-bikes and e-scooters. I do not know if other noble Lords were aware of this, but I did not know how prevalent fires caused by e-scooters parked in communal areas are. I had no idea that this was now the newest threat and the cause of fires in various buildings. The figures are worth repeating. The London Fire Brigade has attended 142 e-bike fires and 28 blazes caused by e-scooters. I was quite surprised by this. Does the Minister have any figures for the rest of the country? What are the Government proposing to do about what appears to be a new threat of fires stemming from the increased use of e-scooters?

We all welcome the reduction in fires and in fire-related deaths to which I referred earlier. This remains a work in progress. It requires us to keep demanding more. Tragedies, large or small, cannot just be the spur to action. It cannot be that, when a tragedy occurs, we debate why on earth we did not do anything about it; why the regulations to stop it were not in place, or how on earth we allowed this to happen. This cannot be how public policy is determined. It needs rational and calm debate where people like us demand that the Government respond. We want to know that as much as possible has been done to prevent fires in future. I do not want a situation where a tragedy is the spur to action. This is not a good enough way to make public policy.

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Goddard of Stockport, for tabling this debate, and to all noble Lords who have contributed. I am grateful for all the work done in this area. I found it quite moving, listening to the experiences which noble Lords have shared. Along with other noble Lords, I also thank the APPG and the late Sir David Amess

The Grenfell Tower fire was a terrible tragedy which rightly shone a light on the need for reform. Fire safety is rigorously debated in this House. We owe it to every one of the victims and their families to ensure that we continue to give it the scrutiny it deserves. As many other noble Lords have done, I too express thanks and gratitude to the firefighters for all that they have done in putting their lives at risk in keeping us safe.

It might be helpful if I first talk about the work that we have undertaken to significantly strengthen the regulations that govern fire safety in the wake of the Grenfell fire. In the time since the fire, as has been noted, the Government have delivered the Fire Safety Act, the Building Safety Act and the fire safety regulations. Alongside the fire safety order, these changes deliver a comprehensive approach to the regulation of fire safety in England and improve existing legislation.

Since 2006, this order has been the main piece of fire safety legislation in England. As noble Lords will know, it places legal duties on responsible persons, including the need to undertake a fire risk assessment, put in place fire safety precautions and operate a suitable system of maintenance. It rightly places the onus on building owners to ensure that their properties are safe. While the Government publish guidance to help them do so, both the FSO and the guidance are purposely non-prescriptive. This is because no two buildings are the same and a case-specific approach must always be taken.

Although respondents to the 2019 call for evidence were clear that the FSO is widely regarded as a highly effective piece of legislation, they also highlighted some areas where they felt it could be strengthened. Section 156 of the Building Safety Act delivered our response by amending the FSO to make it easier for enforcement action to be taken in cases of non-compliance, compel the owners of multi-occupied residential premises to share fire safety information with their residents, and increase the need for different duty holders in the same building to co-ordinate their activities, thus ensuring a whole-building approach to fire safety.

The Fire Safety Act further strengthened the FSO by putting it beyond doubt that, for buildings containing two or more sets of domestic premises, the structure, external walls and flat entrance doors must be considered as part of the fire risk assessment. That was a crucial step in addressing the potential for fire to spread throughout a building in the way in which it did at Grenfell.

Alongside these amendments, the fire safety regulations created new legal requirements for the owners of multi-occupied residential buildings to share building plans and other important fire safety information with fire and rescue services, helping them to plan their response in the case of an emergency. They also placed new legal requirements on building owners to regularly check fire doors in their building to ensure that they remained in full working order.

Through the Building Safety Act, we created a new regulatory regime for higher-risk buildings or—more specifically—multi-occupied residential buildings that are 18 metres or more in height or more than seven storeys. The Act also established a new building safety regulator within the Health and Safety Executive and a new construction products regulator within the Office for Product Safety & Standards. The building safety regulator will work in partnership with local authorities and fire and rescue services to oversee compliance with the building regulations during design and construction. From October 2023, the building control body for higher-risk buildings was due to commence regulation of fire and structural safety once a building is occupied.It is already a legal requirement to register existing occupied higher-risk buildings with the regulator. As of 24 November 2023, more than 14,000 registrations had been completed or started.

As we all learned from the tragedy of Grenfell, fire safety in an occupied building relies heavily on a building being constructed correctly in the first place. So, alongside these changes, we have amended the building regulations that apply to new building work, including a ban on combustible materials for residential buildings, hotels, hospitals and student accommodation above 18 metres, with additional guidance for residential buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres, and a lower threshold for the provision of sprinklers—which I will come on to in more detail—in new blocks of flats from 30 metres to 11 metres.

I will now at least try to address some of the excellent points that have been made. As the noble Lord, Lord Tope said, if I cannot address everyone’s concerns, I will certainly write.

A number of people raised the issue of sprinklers and related issues. As I said, there have been some updates to the guidance on building regulations. I was asked about retrofitting. Retrofitting sprinklers is not always the right option, and other fire safety measures could be taken instead which may be more appropriate for an individual building. I was asked about school buildings. School building contractors must meet the requirements of the building regulations and are required to install sprinklers where there is a life-safety issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and I think the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised the issue of departmental clarity and cross-government work. The Home Office holds overall departmental responsibility for fire and safety. It is obviously very complex, as we have said, and there are many departments that work together, particularly the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. That is why we work in conjunction across all departments, but, as I say, the Home Office takes the lead.

A number of noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, and my noble friend Lord Naseby raised the fire at Luton Airport. As I may have said in my previous remarks, we are committed to carrying out a comprehensive review of Approved Document B. I understand that regulators are overseeing this review, including the fire resistance of car parks, and we are looking at this and committed to change. We will communicate that in due course.

On the response to the report of the second part of the inquiry, I understand that it is still ongoing. As the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, said, there is a huge amount of work, which is ongoing, and we continue to await what is said.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about baby products. There are several proposed changes in the new approach, and the consultation sets out a list of products not in scope in this new approach. All products removed must still meet the requirements of the General Product Safety Regulations. I hope that provides a bit of clarity.

Something that was raised by a number of noble Lords in the debate was lithium-ion batteries and the fires that come from them. I shall touch briefly on e-scooters after this. There is a lot of activity going on currently across government to gather evidence and develop mitigations. Part of the work that is taking place is about awareness, safe usage and, crucially, storage and charging. Some of this work is being done through our existing Fire Kills campaign, I believe. Product safety laws require products to be safe and manufacturers must ensure safety before placing a product on the market.

On the related issue concerning e-scooters, as I say, it is all being looked at while evidence is being gathered and it is something we are absolutely looking at to see what more can be done.

The noble Lord, Lord Hendy, asked about staffing and salaries. The Government remain committed to ensuring that the fire and rescue services have the resources they need to keep us safe. Overall, fire and rescue authorities will receive around £2.6 billion in 2023-24. Decisions on how resources are best deployed to meet their core function, including recruitment and retention, are a matter for the authorities, based on local needs. I am afraid the Home Office does not have a role in negotiations on funding of the firefighters or their pay.

On a related note, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked about general pressures on local authorities, and other pressures. It goes without saying that we all know that social housing providers have several priorities and obligations that they must consider when balancing all this out, and we want to balance the imperative to move quickly to drive up standards with the need to take into account the challenging environment that they will be in. We will be asking about this in our upcoming consultation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and a number of others raised the very important issue of mobility-impaired persons and PEEPs. As has been said, it is worth remembering those disabled people who lost their lives in the fire. We are committed to supporting the fire safety of disabled and vulnerable residents, and we are acutely aware of the need to ensure the safety of residents with mobility concerns. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has raised this issue previously with ministerial colleagues of mine, as have a number of other noble Lords. Indeed, I know it has rightly been scrutinised in this House, as well as some of the challenges which are required to be overcome. It is something which I too have discussed with the department, in advance of this debate, and the noble Baroness is right to raise this very important issue. I know the department and others are working on it, and a response will come in due course.

I turn now to some of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. Before I do so, I thank him for his very kind remarks. It was not that long ago I gave my maiden speech, before joining the Front Bench, in which I talked about the kindness and warmth I have felt from everyone across this House, on all sides of the Chamber, since I was introduced. I have engaged closely with the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Ponsonby, on a variety of issues of late in relation to my ministerial responsibilities. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for the candid, often frank but cordial, and—crucially—warm way in which he has dealt with me, and I am extremely grateful, given that I am the new kid on the block.

Turning to some of the remaining points, on the regulator, which I think the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, also raised, we expect the regulator to carry out its work in a proportionate yet pragmatic way. Obviously, it is still very early days to see how it works, but this is something that will be taken forward, given it has not yet come into force.

The noble Lord asked about statistics and enforcement, and I am afraid I will have to write to him about that—I assure him I will do so.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about the issue of second staircases. As I am sure noble Lords will be aware, it was designed with the engagement of the sector but also fire safety services and local authorities, as well as the insurance industry. This approach seeks to provide an evolution of safety standards which, taken with our other measures and reforms, ensures the safety of people in tall buildings, both new and existing. The Government are clear that existing and upcoming single-staircase buildings are not inherently unsafe. There is no evidence to suggest single-staircase buildings require remediation or mitigation when built in accordance with the relevant standards, are well maintained and properly managed.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, asked why there are no Peers from the fire services. It is a very good question. I am afraid that is not currently within my remit—as I say, currently—but it is a point well made.

There have been lots of great points raised, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said. There are far too many—I have tried to listen and address them at the same time. Noble Lords must forgive me that I will have to follow up, where I can. I am also aware that not everyone will be entirely satisfied with everything I say. I will try and respond, if I can, on the other issues.

In closing, I genuinely thank noble Lords for their contributions in the debate. The reforms we have delivered will take time to fully implement and take hold. We will reflect on the many points raised today, as we continue to monitor the impact of our reforms, which is something noble Lords asked about. I assure the House of the Government’s enduring commitment to improved fire safety, as we seek to ensure everyone is safe, and feels safe, in the buildings in which they live and work.

I thank all Members who took part in this debate, which I put down in some trepidation because it seemed a little bit dry and technical. The expertise in the House has shown itself again, from all four corners. It would be wrong for me to name individual Peers, but the knowledge is in the Members. These are life-changing decisions that we make on behalf of the public out there.

One noble Lord talked about Ukraine. On the last sitting day before the Summer Recess, I was fortunate enough to go with Ronnie King to see the Ukrainian Minister at his embassy. He commented on the support of the British fire service in delivering things to Ukraine in their darkest hour, when they needed ladders and equipment. The fire service took the kit out there and dropped it off. This is the first opportunity I have had a chance to thank, on behalf of Ronnie and the APPG, the Ukrainian Minister for bringing that up with us.

The noble Lord is a new Minister, and this is probably a—dare I say it—baptism of fire. However, there are questions that need clarifying and answering, because some of this seems unfathomable to right-minded, simple people like myself. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, has asked those questions on my behalf, because of the time. People might think that we do not care, but a number of speakers today went over their time, which was 12 minutes—a long time to speak. That is because of the passion and the knowledge that they are trying to impart to the Minister to take back to people in the other place to make things safer. On behalf of everybody, I thank the Minister for listening and for his replies.

Motion agreed.