Lords amendment No. 3 is important. Lord Wade of Chorlton, to whom I pay tribute, received representations from the National House Building Council. I understand that the provisions of the Bill will be enforced by the person who is enforcing the building regulations of 1985, which relate to other aspects of the construction of the dwelling. Before 1984, that work was always carried out by the local authority. It was undertaken exclusively by local council building inspectors. In 1984, the Government decided to allow the private sector to take part by extending authority to inspect to the NHBC. That system has worked well and 35 per cent. of inspections are now carried out by the council.
It is apparent that the system must make sense. Although inspections are often carried out by building control officers who are employed by the local authority, part II of the Building Act 1984 enables building works to be supervised by approved inspectors from the private sector. That is the point of the 1984 Act. The NHBC has been approved as an inspector of the construction of most new dwellings and if it asks that the role of approved inspectors should be specifically recognised in the Bill, that must make sense. It would not be satisfactory if local authorities had to enforce the provisions of the Bill when an approved inspector was enforcing the requirements of building regulations. I am sure that that was not the intention of the Bill.
The new clause is modelled on the relative provisions of the Building Act 1984. When an approved inspector, rather than a local authority, is appointed for the purposes of building control, an initial notice must be served on the local authority. When the approved inspector is satisfied that the work has been completed in accordance with the regulations, he will issue a final certificate to that effect. When an initial notice is in force or a final certificate has been given, the local authority cannot take action to enforce the building regulations.
The new clause would operate in exactly the same way if an approved inspector had been appointed in respect of work consisting of the construction of a dwelling. That approved inspector would also be responsible for enforcing the provisions of the Bill. He must certify that he has done so when he issues his final certificate. The amendment may be complicated, but it is important, and I hope that I have explained it reasonably competently.
Questions have been raised about exemptions. If the NH BC believes that its staff are fully qualified—and in many ways they may be as well qualified or even better qualified than inspectors employed by local authorities —surely the NHBC should be allowed to make exemptions. There was a lengthy debate about that in the other place which I am sure will continue. At a time when central Government, arguably, are giving more and more work to local authorities in some areas, this may be one area where local authority expenditure could be saved. We will come back to this aspect of the Bill later. In some ways, it is a controversial aspect, which is why, under the Lords amendment, NHBC inspectors would not be allowed to make exemptions. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on that.
I apologise to my hon. Friend for missing the opening part of his speech. Surely the question whether NHBC staff should be allowed to issue exemptions does not relate merely to qualifications. We accept that its staff are just as good as those employed by local authorities. Perhaps it is a question of people being recognised as being in a position of authority, rather than of the qualifications of those who exercise that authority.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and that is probably why the other place decided not to give NHBC staff the power to make exemptions. The NH BC was first allowed into this area of work only in 1984, seven years ago, but it has done extremely well. Some 32 per cent. of all inspections are now done by NHBC staff. Perhaps the time will come when their reputation and standing will have risen to such a level that it will make sense to allow them to make exemptions. I hope that the House agrees to the amendment.
Lords amendment No. 4 is a purely technical amendment which does not require much explanation. It is about definitions. It must be read in conjunction with Lords amendment No. 1, which would delete clause 1(5) because its provisions are repeated in Lords amendment No. 4, which would insert new clause 6.
I am grateful to the hon. Members for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) and for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) for their clear explanations. What will be the precise effect of amendment No. 1, which will remove line 17 onwards of clause 1? Will it exclude reconstructed or converted dwellings, as opposed to those built from scratch? If so, I would regret it.
I freely admit that I come late to the general debate on smoke detectors, but, in common with some other hon. Members, I have been abruptly brought face to face with the importance of the issue. Last week in my constituency, a mother and five of her children died in a council house fire. I began this week by attending their funeral, and it was the saddest event that 1 have ever witnessed. The House must do whatever it can to make it less likely that such a terrible event will happen again.
I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's view. Smoke detectors can save many lives, and clearly it would have been desirable for the House involved in that tragic accident to be fitted with them. The purpose of the Bill is not to insist on the installation of smoke detectors in all old properties and new houses, but to persuade people to fit them in older properties and to legislate for their fitting in new houses.
I was certainly deeply impressed by my conversation in the aftermath of that tragic accident with the chief fire master of Strathclyde region, Mr. John Jameson. He was emphatic that, in the fire I have described, lives would have been saved if smoke detectors had been fitted to the property. He estimated that about half the lives lost in house fires would be saved if smoke detectors were always fitted. That is a striking statistic in the context of the Bill, and it should be taken account of.
I congratulate also the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) on his efforts. The original Bill covered wider ground, but the Government and the House should welcome the coverage given by the Bill to new properties, which is welcome and desirable. I hope that the amendment will extend its provisions to reconstructed or renovated dwellings. However, it still does not go far enough and we must set our sights on something much better. It should be mandatory to fit smoke detectors in all houses and flats—whether they are owner-occupied or private or public sector rented accommodation. If the House shares that view, I am sure that legislation could be easily introduced and with virtually no public expenditure implications.
I do not advocate the armies of inspectors should be established to enforce such legislation. When seat belts became mandatory the law was respected; if we legislated to make smoke detectors compulsory in all homes, I believe that most people would observe the law without weighty enforcement measures.
In the aftermath of the fire in my constituency, in the town of Kilbirnie, there has been massive media interest in smoke detectors. I commend the Glasgow Daily Record for the campaign that it has led, which has had a huge impact on public opinion. I am told that, all over the west of Scotland, the shops that sell smoke detectors, at modest prices, are sold out of them. People have been brought face to face with the fact that, for a few pounds, little lives and big lives can be saved.
Within a few weeks of this tragedy, interest will have moved on to some other subject and the impetus towards installing devices will be lost. The House has a role to play in maintaining that impetus by legislating accordingly.
I have tabled an early-day motion, with the support of the hon. Members for York and for Norfolk, North-West, and with all-party support. As of this morning, 117 signatures have been appended to it and I hope that a great many more will be added in the next few days. I hope that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members will sign the motion, since that will bring home to the Government, on a non-party political basis, the impression that the dominant school of thought in the House believes that something can be done, which does not involve significant public expenditure.
This idea commands the wholehearted support of the fire service whose members have to deal with these tragedies—the most emotional and desperate experiences in most people's lives. They have repeatedly asked why cheap smoke detectors cannot be fitted to save lives. I hope that the Government will listen. The idea involves little public expenditure—possibly none. If we legislate accordingly, no one involved has the slightest doubt that lives will be saved—and there are few pieces of legislation of which that could be said with such utter certainty.
I hope that many hon. Members will have listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), because what he said about the potential for saving life and avoiding tragedy was correct.
I wish to explain my part in this Bill as it is a rather curious one. Early in the year I objected to it, mainly on the ground that it insisted on introducing smoke detectors for old buildings as well as new. Later when the Bill reappeared I did not realise, perhaps because I had not been told, that my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) had removed old buildings from the Bill. The Lords amendments do not reintroduce them. If they did, I would have serious reservations, for reasons that I will make clear—
Since fires undoubtedly happen more often in old houses than in new and lives are lost more often in the former than in the latter, what is the logic of opposing the installation of these devices in older properties while supporting it for new ones?
I am not opposed to the installation of smoke alarms in old buildings—far from it. They should be introduced into every single building in the country. Their value is without question. However, what I oppose is legislation that would be ineffective or unenforceable. We should not insist on smoke alarms being introduced into old buildings if the legislation would place a burden on local authorities that they were unable to fulfil. If legislation cannot be enforced, it brings all our legislation slightly into disrepute. Unenforceable legislation is always bad legislation. I shall give the reasons why I believe that this is unenforceable legislation by mentioning the tragedy that the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North raised.
Many people have suggested that there should not be an army of inspectors going round all old buildings as well as all new buildings to discover whether smoke alarms have been fitted and whether they are working. The hon. Gentleman made that point. The only alternative is to ask a person who has suffered a fire in their home whether a smoke alarm had been fitted. That is the only moment at which one can discover whether someone had fitted a smoke alarm. In the tragedy to which the hon. Gentleman referred, if the mother had survived that fire but all her children had been killed, she would have been asked at the worst possible time in her life whether she had fitted a smoke alarm. She would have been asked whether she had broken the law, at just the moment when she had lost her children and was experiencing a tragedy that very few of us can begin to comprehend. To hit someone at that stage with the potential of a criminal case would be inhumane.
I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's point about the value of introducing smoke detectors. I have four of them in my house. Occasionally they go off when my cooker goes wrong and I am delighted that they do. However, to insist that they should be introduced into my house, with the sanction of a criminal penalty, seems to me to be wrong.
I acknowledge the validity of the hon. Gentleman's point, but does he accept that his argument is not absolute—that a balance of arguments is involved? While the danger exists of criminalising people who have already suffered a great deal, by definition that is likely to arise in only a tiny number of cases. That has to be weighed against the other certainty that many such fires would be pre-empted if such legislation were on the statute book. There is a balance, regarding which a mature judgment has to be made.
The relevance of this point to the Lords amendment is the question that the hon. Gentleman raised whether the Lords amendment covers old buildings, or whether it refers merely to new buildings. That is a central issue in the debate and it needs to be cleared up before we decide whether to support the amendments. I hope, therefore, that we shall be allowed to debate it.
I accept entirely the hon. Gentleman's point that it is a matter of balance. I have made my own judgment about the balance, which is partly affected by the question whether local authorities are already inspecting houses. Because of the difficulties that local authorities have in inspecting houses in multiple occupation for normal fire requirements, I believe that they would be burdened with a task that they would be unable to fulfil. For example, they would be burdened with the task of checking whether the batteries of smoke alarms that had been fitted were up to strength. We would create the criminal offence of merely allowing a battery in a smoke detector to run down. We should hesitate long and hard before doing that.
There is an alternative that involves persuasion and as many people as possible listening to the good, persuasive and effective speech that the hon. Member for Cunningham, North made in favour of smoke alarms.
Before my hon. Friend leaves the valid point that he is making, may I ask whether he agrees that in trying not to place a heavy burden on local authorities, we must consider changed construction techniques such as system building? A builder can construct a dwelling at a certain cost only within a certain time scale. If he must wait for a local authority to check smoke detectors, his time scale, work programme and costings will be thrown out.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive my saying that I do not agree with him. The Bill is intended to insist on the installation of smoke detectors and alarms in new buildings, and rightly so, because local authorities must inspect new buildings in any event. They could combine the inspection of smoke detectors with their other inspections of fire doors and foundations. They must he fairly assiduous in inspecting new buildings. The possible application of the Bill to old buildings would place a burden on local authorities.
This is the last time that I shall intervene as I do not wish to prolong the debate. The hon. Gentleman mentioned multiple occupancy houses. The Strathclyde fire master expressed concern to me about the private rented sector, which is particularly vulnerable to fire. I do not underestimate the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but a balance must be struck, because for the first time the onus to take fire precautions would be placed on the private landlord. Does he agree that the difficulties are outweighed by such an onus being imposed?
I agree that it is a matter of balance. Further provision could be introduced to deal with the landlords of multiple occupation buildings. I accept that such dwellings are a high risk.
My hon. Friend made an important point about old buildings and the maintenance of smoke detectors. Should not responsiblity be devolved to insurance companies, which would require the policyholder to maintain the smoke detector because if he did not do so his claim would be invalidated?
You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be relieved to hear that I am drawing my remarks to a close.
A case could be made for placing the onus on insurance companies, but it would be difficult to assess whether a battery was in good condition after a fire had occurred.
I hope that the Bill will not apply to old buildings. Hon. Members can try to raise people's awareness of smoke detectors and try to persuade the owners of old houses, rather than to legislate to install smoke detectors, which are extremely valuable.
I have listened carefully to the debate—not without some emotion, as I would undoubtedly have lost my family, or at least my two oldest children, if smoke detectors had not been fitted to my house.
About five or six years ago, the House sat very late one night and I did not go home. It was the first and, I believe, the only time that I have done that without letting my wife know that I should have to stay in London. I had expected to get away, but, as sometimes happens in the House, I was detained much longer than I had expected and was unable to get home. I rang home in the morning at about 8 o'clock and cheerily said that I supposed everything was all right. The reply was almost unprintable because everything was not all right. My daughter, who was then about eight years old, had been asleep in her room and had inadvertently knocked over an electric fire which was allegedly safe for children but was obviously not. The curtains, carpet and furniture in her room had caught fire. She was asleep but the smoke detector went off and, luckily, woke my wife who was in the next room. She went into my daughter's room and turned on the light, but the smoke was so thick that it made no difference and she was unable to see anything. There is no doubt that my children would have perished in the fire if smoke detectors had not been fitted in that room. I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in allowing me to say that, and it is the background of what I have to say about the amendments.
It is important that the Government should make a commitment to ensure that smoke detectors are fitted in new buildings. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) that it would be impractical, though desirable, to insist that they be fitted to all old houses. My house was built in 1570 and I have had many smoke detectors fitted in it, but I do not believe in the concept of the nanny state. Individuals must be expected and allowed to look after their own interests. There is a limit to what the Government can do to interfere by ordering people to take steps in the interests of their own safety, however necessary and desirable those steps might be.
It would be hopelessly impractical for all old houses to be inspected to ascertain whether smoke alarms had been fitted. Would they be inspected every time there was a change of ownership, every time there was a change in the circumstances, or would such an inspection be a one-off operation? It would not be right for the Government to put that burden on local authorities and to force them to inspect every house in their area to check whether alarms had been fitted.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford was also right to say that there is no earthly use in fitting alarms unless people are prepared to look after them properly. Human nature being what it is, I am afraid that if alarms were fitted in houses where people did not care whether they worked or not, they would not be properly maintained. It is quite a chore to ensure that batteries arc replaced when they run out and to ensure that the machine is working properly. I do not believe that many people, in practice, would maintain smoke alarms in those circumstances.
Therefore, I query whether the Bill would have the effect that we hope. It is one thing to place a duty on constructors to fit smoke alarms in the houses that they build, as I believe that the Bill as amended would do, but it is another to ensure that they are working when they are needed.
The part of the amendment with which I shall deal in detail is that which covers inspection. The purpose of the amendment is to bring the Bill into line with the Building Act 1984. It is in that context that we are considering the extent to which it is feasible for those inspections to be carried out, and to be carried out properly.
What I am about to say may to an extent argue against what I said earlier. Smoke detectors are now made with a clever device which means that when the battery is running flat it makes an appallingly nasty squeak. The incentive to change it becomes greater the flatter the battery gets.
My hon. Friend is right up to a point, but in the end the squeak also dies. There have been occasions on which, the squeak having died, I forgot about the need to replace the battery and it was a little while before the battery was duly replaced. Although I do not claim to be less fallible than anyone else, I do not think that I am more fallible. I suspect that that would be reasonably common practice in houses in which smoke alarms are fitted, especially when they are fitted without the agreement of the occupier of the house. There is nothing in the Bill, even as amended, which puts a duty on the occupier of a house either to have a smoke alarm fitted or to maintain it.
I am. The question is whether the inspection of the house can be properly carried out, in the context of the amendment and whether only new houses will be fitted with smoke alarms. I question whether the local authorities which will have the duty to inspect the houses will welcome that duty. It is unlikely that local government, which has already rightly complained that central Government continue to give it added responsibilities without enough funds, will welcome an additional duty on its building inspectors or be able to enforce its being carried out. That is the crux of my worry.
I do not believe that the way in which the inspections will be carried out will safeguard the lives of the people in the buildings concerned. The amendment, which beings the matter within the Building Act 1984, is not helpful. It excludes a course that easily could have been taken, which would have enormously strengthened the working of the Act. I refer to the way that outside the context of the 1984 Act, there are many instances in which the National House Building Council inspectors are authorised to make inspections and to do work on behalf of the local authorities.
To be fair to my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham), this is not his Bill, so he may not be able to answer me. I am reasonably confident that, under the terms of the amendment, the NHBC inspectors will not be able to carry out inspection of the properties. If I am right, we are missing a great opportunity to facilitate the inspection of such properties. I would go further. The question of ensuring that the house is a fit and proper dwelling is complicated. It is something which only a qualified building inspector, architect or surveyor can determine. However, the duties imposed by the Bill and the people who are authorised by the amendment to carry them out are not compatible. Anyone can easily check whether smoke alarms have been, or are to be, fitted to houses. It would not take anyone with a great professional qualification to ensure that the smoke detectors are put in places so that the house was safe.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. If, like me, he has fitted smoke detectors, he will know that the inspection requirements of a building inspector can be different from the inspection requirements for smoke detectors. One must envisage the use to which a particular house, or a room in the house, will be put. For example, there could be no point in putting a smoke detector in a hall if it was the occupant's intention to place a small stove in the hall, directly under the detector because it would be set of by such things as a deep chip frier. We are extending the requirements of inspection beyond those already in place.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is right. Buildings can be changed. A room that is not designed as a kitchen may subsequently be used as one. If the person charged with the duty to inspect were charged to do that once, and once only, at completion of the work, there would be a great loophole. It would be much more satisfactory—it may not be too late for the Government to do this—to ensure that many more people are qualified to inspect than is provided for under the new clause.
I strongly believe that the criterion for the inspectorate is far too narrow. If many more people were allowed to inspect, the Bill would be greatly strengthened.
Lords amendment No. 4 refers to construction
by reconstructing or converting a building or any part of a building".
This is where we come to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford. It is difficult to know where that measure begins and ends. The shell of a house may be reconstituted. Flats in my constituency are vacated for a period and then reconstituted by the local authority. Will such buildings be within the ambit of the Bill? What does "reconstruction" mean? I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can enlighten me.
If the Bill is to be effective, all substantial building work on houses should be brought within its ambit. It is no use imposing a limited duty on those who construct new houses if the proportion of new houses to the 22·7 million houses in the housing stock—I have not checked the figure—means that the Bill has a limited effect.
On behalf of the Bill's sponsors, I can reassure my hon. Friend. New clause 6 in Lords amendment No. 4 makes it clear that the Bill applies only to dwellings. My understanding of the definition of "dwelling" is that it is something in which people live, as opposed to a place that they visit at Henley or Wimbledon, or the House of Commons. I do not believe that the obligation to install smoke detectors will be imposed on people who erect such places.
My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson) mentioned a loophole. The word "dwelling" is far too narrow a term. I do not necessarily think that smoke detectors should be fitted to every tent at every function, but many constructions that are not dwellings put people in them at great risk. The Bill should cover all places that should be fitted with smoke alarms—for example, restaurants and places that are permanent structures but not dwellings and where large numbers of people congregate.
The Lords amendments leave the provisions of the Bill far too narrow. Those who, under the Bill, have a duty to inspect are a much smaller group than those who are qualified to inspect and could do so. They will be charged with the duty only of inspecting new buildings, and will therefore look at only a tiny proportion of the dwelling houses in Britain. Moreover, as I understand the terms of the Bill as amended, the duty to install smoke detectors will be placed only upon those who construct dwellings and not upon those who live in them or on those subsequently involved in their sale or resale.
With all due respect to my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory), whose worthy aim I applaud, I feel that the achievements of the Bill will be minimal in terms of saving the lives that we all wish to be saved.
We have had a valuable little debate on a Bill which we did not have the opportunity to debate on Second or Third Reading. I shall respond as briefly as I can to the points that have been made.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory), who is responsible for the Bill. It is an indication of his deep concern about this important issue that he took the trouble to pilot the Bill, which has so far received a fairly smooth passage, through its earlier stages. It is characteristic of my hon. Friend's commitment to his constituency and to the interests of his constituents that he has had to give priority to an engagement in York. He told me this morning how much he had hoped to be here to take his one opportunity to speak to the Bill on the Floor of the House. My hon. Friend's constituents are extremely lucky to be represented by such a diligent Member of Parliament; long may he continue here. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) has proved to be an admirable replacement and gave an eloquent and concise summary of the amendments. I confess that I was not previously aware of my hon. Friend's interest in the subject, but he has mastered the detail remarkably quickly.
The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), who has apologised for having to leave the House before the end of the debate, and is now on his way to his constituency, spoke movingly of the recent appalling tragedy in Scotland. I entirely understand his views, but I must emphasise that there are very real problems of enforcement. The argument against extending the requirement to all existing dwellings was effectively put by my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot), who also apologised for having to leave before the end of the debate. The approach adopted in the Bill is that smoke detectors should be installed in all new dwellings and I hope that by that example, we shall persuade owners and tenants of older dwellings also to install detectors in their homes. The Government are strongly in favour of the installation of detectors in all dwellings—old and new. We do not, however, believe that it is appropriate to extend the criminal law for the purpose of enforcing the installation of detectors in older dwellings.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) spoke of his personal experience—of which I did not previously know—of the value of smoke alarms. I point out to him that one advantage of confining the Bill to new dwellings is that such buildings will be routinely inspected—whether by local authorities or by the National House Building Council, as the amendments provide. We can therefore ensure that, at that stage at least, scrutiny confirms that a smoke detector has been installed. That can be done without any additional bureaucratic imposition and without extra time being involved.
Will my hon. Friend consider the point that I raised with my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), which was that it is not sufficient simply to inspect to ensure that a smoke detector has been installed? It is also necessary to ensure, by reference to all conceivable uses of the building, that the detector has been installed in the correct place.
I intended to refer to that point, which draws attention to a difficulty. I do not think that it will ever be possible to make 100 per cent. certain that smoke detectors are always in precisely the place that they should be, for the reasons that my hon. Friend gave during his earlier intervention. The uses of particular rooms in a house will change from time to time. Unless attention is paid to the position of the smoke detector each time that occurs, there may be occasions when the existence of the smoke detector may not be sufficient to guarantee the prevention of a fire. Nevertheless, my hon. Friends will agree that the provisions make it at least likely that a number of fires that would have occurred will be prevented by virtue of the fact that new dwellings have smoke detectors.
Furthermore, the process of requiring detectors to be installed in new dwellings and the fact that this debate is taking place today will help to persuade others, particularly in older dwellings, of the importance of installing smoke detectors. We are helping a valuable measure through the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West explained the effect of the amendments very clearly. The most important point is that the crucial role that approved inspectors can already play in the building control system is now recognised by the amendments. They are clearly extremely sensible amendments and the Government fully support them. I commend them to the House.