I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend Helen Hayes and her typically thoughtful contribution in this important debate. I am also pleased to have had the chance to listen to maiden speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Leigh (Jo Platt), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves). I was trying to think what the collective noun must be for maiden speeches and I decided on this occasion that it is a feast—we had a feast of maiden speeches. Their constituents must be proud of them already, and I know that they will work very hard in the months and years ahead to repay the confidence that they showed in my hon. Friends.
The First Secretary, in opening the debate, referred to the fire guidance and Approved Document B, which is an essential element of the building regulations. He said that the expert panel will be advising the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and it is that issue that I wish to ask about. My right hon. Friend John Healey, speaking for Her Majesty’s Opposition, also commented on that aspect of matters relevant to Grenfell, saying that the Government can start the overhaul of building regulations now and feed into the public inquiry recommendations afterwards. In my view, that is the right approach to take.
I raised the issue of the terms of reference for the public inquiry in my Adjournment debate two weeks ago, when I said:
“It would be very helpful if the Minister gave the House any details of when more might be known about the inquiry, which will face many questions on many issues. They include: the source of the fire;
the rapidity of the spread of the fire;
the catastrophic failure of all the fire protection features that the building should have contained;
the building’s refurbishment, including the original specifications and the materials actually used, as well as the quality of the work and the finish;
the monitoring of building control;
the inspection of the completed job by the council, the designated responsible person and the fire service”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 430, c. 430.]
I went on to raise the question of the outstanding review of the building regulations guidance on fire, as contained in Approved Document B, and the recommendation of for urgent review by the Lakanal House coroner in 2013. There is no statutory timetable laid down for a periodic review of the guidance, as I said at the time and as I mentioned in my earlier to question to the First Secretary when he was opening this debate. In my Adjournment debate, I asked about the building regulations, and in response the Minister said that after Lakanal House:
“The Government took action in a number of areas following that fire. In particular, DCLG provided funding to enable the Local Government Association, in partnership with the housing sector and enforcement authorities, to publish new fire safety guidance for purpose-built flat blocks in 2011. That guidance is still current”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 626, c. 436.]
That raises the key issue. If the guidance is still current and it failed at Grenfell, one of two things must be true: either the guidance is not up to the job and needs reviewing; or the guidance is adequate but was ignored. That is the fundamental question that should be addressed by the independent expert advisory panel, which was announced by the Secretary of State and which contains a number of distinguished members. As I understand it, it can also second additional members for specific tasks. When he responds, will the Minister tell us whether the panel has identified the guidance in Approved Document B of the fire regulations as a priority piece of work that needs addressing? As has been mentioned several times today, it was last revised in 2006, so its review is overdue.
If the Government await the outcome of the public inquiry and then start the review—given that it will then take time for any working party to do its job properly—the gap between the last revision and an updated Approved Document B will be at least 14 years and probably a lot longer. Historically, the reviews in the UK are usually about 10 years apart—in some other countries it is less. Does the Minister agree that that is too long a gap and that there should be a statutory responsibility to review the guidelines in a set period of time rather than having a periodic review? Has the expert panel commented on that? If it has not, will the Minister ask them that question?
“The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about building regulations and the guidance on them. It is already clear to us that there will need to changes, and that we need to look carefully at the causes and at the fact that so many buildings are failing the guidance test. The expert panel has a wide remit, which is broadly to recommend to the Government immediately any action it thinks we should take that will improve public safety.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 626, c. 920.]
That validates my question about whether the expert panel has recommended an immediate urgent review. If the answer is no, will the Minister ask it why it has arrived at that conclusion?
It is not just me who is asking these questions. The all-party fire safety and rescue group has been pressing them for some time. The Royal Institute of British Architects wrote to colleagues yesterday, saying:
“Ahead of any inquiry conclusions, the RIBA has called on the Government to carry out the following:
Commence immediately the delayed formal review of Approved Document B, which was first proposed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in 2013 in response to the Coroner’s rule 43 letter following the inquest into the deaths resulting from the 2009 fire at Lakanal House.
The RIBA believes that the review of Approved Document B must be a comprehensive, transparent and fundamental reappraisal, rather than an amendment or clarification, and should begin without delay to remove uncertainty, provide clarity and protect public safety.”
It also goes on to raise the issues of Building Bulletin 100 and school sprinkler systems, which I also highlighted in my debate and which has been mentioned by several colleagues today.
The Fire Sector Federation president, former London Fire Commissioner Mr Brian Robinson, writes a more qualified view of Approved Document B, which none the less supports the idea of a review. He said:
“We would also part recommend and suggest increased provisions for protection, including sprinklers, in line with the latest thinking in fire safety. But an update of AD B is only one part of the greater whole. That isn’t, by any means, the complete solution to the weaknesses exposed by the Grenfell fire.”
In support of that key point, the Association of British Insurers was even more direct. It said:
“A comprehensive review is urgently needed of ‘Approved Document B’, the regulations in England covering fire safety matters within and around buildings. The ABI has been calling for a comprehensive review of Approved Document B since 2009, and most recently in May 2017 in our response to the Government’s Housing White Paper.”
My final source is the London Fire Brigade itself. In the briefing for this debate supplied by Helen Newton on behalf of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, it says of Approved Document B:
“This document has not been reviewed for some time, which means that it has not kept up with British standards and new and innovative methods of construction or allowed debate of the sprinklers and other suppression systems especially around specialised housing.
We have been calling for Approved Document B to be reviewed and renew that call now as a matter of urgency.”
The Lakanal coroner, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Association of British Insurers, the Fire Sector Federation, fire authorities, the all-party group and others, including the Fire Protection Association, which I have not had time to quote, all agree on the urgency of reviewing Approved Document B. It is not the full solution, but it needs to be done, and it needs to be done now—not in three or five years’ time. If the work does not start until after the public inquiry, it could be as long as five years before Approved Document B is renewed. The “Government building safety programme—explanatory note”, in response to a parliamentary question, mentioned by the First Secretary earlier, says:
“We have set up an expert panel to advise us on other urgent steps we should take to improve fire safety”.
I would be grateful if the Minister addressed my specific points about the review of Approved Document B. For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that there are three questions. Has the expert panel advised on an immediate review of Approved Document B? If not, will the Secretary of State ask the panel whether it considers such an immediate review to be appropriate? Will the Secretary of State deposit the answer to those two questions in the Library?
It has been said many times today that the majority of those who die in fires are the poor, the old, the young and the sick, as well as people with substance abuse issues and the rest of it. The Grenfell Tower fire demonstrated that—writ large. We need regulations to protect people in our buildings. Approved Document B is the foundation stone on which all buildings safety is constructed. If it is not operating as it should, we are exposing people to more danger.