Committee

Building Regulations (Review) Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 12:45 pm on 4th March 2011.

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Clause 1 : Review of the Building Regulations 2000

Amendment 1

Moved by Lord Harrison

1: Clause 2, page 1, line 12, leave out "No person shall" and insert "It is an offence to"

Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Chair, EU Sub-Committee A - Economic and Financial Affairs, and International Trade 12:54 pm, 4th March 2011

My Lords, I apologise to the Chair for taking my glasses off in order better to read my speech. I hope that the Bill and its amendment also will be live music to the Government's ears, although I fear not.

The Government's first duty is the safety and protection of its citizens. The Bill and its amendment today are a simple, good and effective measure. The title "Building Regulations" conceals the ambition for sprinklers to be inserted into new-build residences under 30 metres in height. I emphasise, though, that we are asking for better research to be produced so that we can make that claim and implement the hope and ambition of introducing sprinklers in this way.

This is not new legislation but an extension of existing legislation, as the measure is already in place for new buildings over 30 metres in height. What are the Minister's concerns about the current legislation that is in full operation?

I believe that the Bill will save lives. We have computed that something like £7 billion is lost every year to fire, and of course lives are tragically lost. With regard to firefighters, and I think that all of us in this House have unstinting admiration for those who fight fires on the public's behalf, the Bill would cut injuries not only to them but to the public, who can be maimed as a result of unexpected fire. It would save property; of the £7 billion that I said would be saved if the Bill were implemented, we may compute that one-third of that, £2.5 billion, is from the saving of property. This measure would also save the environment, since there is concern about excessive run-off water from appliances putting out fires that pollutes the drainage system and causes other environmental degradation.

It is right to give a bit of the narrative of the progress of the Bill. Some 15 months ago I had the pleasure of introducing a Bill that asked the Government to implement forthwith the application of sprinklers in new residences under 30 metres high. In the course of time and conversations, this changed and the emphasis moved to having secure and better research in this area. I am grateful to the former Minister, my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton, who responded to our desire to have a meeting with all those who had contributed to Second Reading. We got around the table; the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, was there from the Conservative side, while the noble Lord, Lord Best, who I see in his seat, contributed with his experience, and we had representation from the Liberal Democrats. We resolved to go forward with the idea of improving our knowledge and the research associated with the ambition to change, develop or extend the Bill in the way that we have accepted. It is this Bill that I have now brought back as a result of the change of Government, and it comes before us today with an amendment.

I repeat the point that the last Bill to pass through the House of Lords had the support of the Liberal Democrats, the Cross Benchers, the Labour Party and the Conservatives, so I wonder what has changed in the interim. In this Session I have brought back the Bill that was passed, which in subsection (1) outlines those areas that might be better scrutinised, researched and understood, or to address any anxieties that were expressed during the first Second Reading. Again, I ask the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, which of the items listed in paragraphs (a) to (i) cause anxiety. I ask this because research by the Chief Fire Officers Association was already under way. Indeed, others with a strong interest in the area were doing research-independently, and paying for it themselves. Given that, what does the noble Earl think would be a burden on the Government if this Bill was accepted? It would be helpful if he could respond to that.

As I said, we have had the Second Reading and we now have Committee. We understand from the Minister that he is now less happy than he had been before, so I am moving the amendment that is before the Committee today. Originally I asked that the research should be started-not finished but started-within a compass of 12 months. The amendment moves that out to 30 months. I have done that in an effort to ensure that no imposition is made on the Government, thus reflecting some of the anxieties they have at the moment and which I hope they will elaborate on shortly.

I shall repeat what I have said before. The very fact that we commuted the original Bill and set its focus more on research demonstrates that we want to work positively with the Government. This further amendment, which moves the review from 12 months to 30 months, is again a demonstration of our desire to work with the Government and try to arrive at something that is satisfactory. However, it would be helpful if the Minister could say why the Conservatives are now against the Bill when they voted for it in the dying days of the last Administration. It would be interesting to learn from our Liberal Democrat colleagues why they supported the Bill. What has materially changed that now inspires concern in the Government in the form of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat party?

I repeat again that the Bill that has been tabled is the one we had before. It encourages research, but it has no financial implications because, once the research has been done, it asks the Government to take into account that updated research in any decision to bring forward or support legislation that might be made. I understand from our conversations that the Minister objects to some of the cost implications. Perhaps he could spell out those cost implications, and perhaps also set that against the fact that some £350 million might have to be spent if 150,000 houses were provided with sprinklers in new build. Perhaps he could set that 4 per cent of cost against the £7 billion that is lost, along with the deaths and maiming of people, loss of property and so forth. It really is a small percentage set against the annual loss experienced.

Perhaps the Minister could also say which priorities he feels the Government must put before the Bill, which are of such importance and reach, and help to save the lives of people who would otherwise die needlessly. Could he list the priorities that he mentioned in his conversations with us that are relevant to his department, the DCLG? Does he agree that, while the Government have said in their document that they wish to cut red tape and reduce regulation, there are examples of better regulation that improve matters? If we are suggesting at the end of the day that this regulation be brought in, does he think that it should not be?

One of our arguments has been that the Building Research Establishment's report is outdated and needs to be updated so that it draws upon international research and later information that improves the situation. Most of the research is being done by the Chief Fire Officers Association. The Government are looking a gift horse in the mouth if they do not take advantage of that information, which broadens the knowledge that is in the BRE report. Again, I ask the Minister to go back and look at his own report that, albeit outdated, still recognises that sprinkler systems work and have been effective in reducing the death rate associated with these fires.

At Second Reading, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, acknowledged that there had been a downward trend in the number of deaths associated with these kinds of fire, but said that it had reached a plateau. He himself said that the Government cannot allow the status quo: the plateau could not prevail and we had to do something about it. I wonder what he feels is being done. What are the new initiatives? This is an initiative: a development of existing legislation that he could readily grab. I would be very interested to know what he thinks those new initiatives might be. He supports the Fire Kills campaign, which has been successful, but it would be useful to hear of further developments.

I hope that the Minister will test all the information that is provided to him by his civil servants. I hope that the DCLG has no reservations about sprinklers and will look very hard at their effectiveness. It is disturbing to know that the low-cost sprinkler project seems to have had very tepid support from DCLG. There is no additional funding for fire and rescue services to sign up to it. Why not? To give an example, there has been a failure of the DCLG to involve itself with the Sheffield tower block refit; it has just asked to be kept informed. That is not good enough.

Since I spoke 15 months ago, and even more recently, things have changed and keep changing. I have mentioned the demographic and protecting the citizen before. Those who are more vulnerable to these kinds of fires are young men and women, often in single rooms, but I highlight again that it is particularly the old who are more vulnerable. We have greater knowledge of the vulnerability of older people, who now often confine themselves to a single room and cause what those in fire circles often call "the room of origin" fire. It is known and demonstrable that sprinklers sometimes have the wonderful effect of dousing fires quicker than the fire authorities can arrive, thereby saving lives because of the increasing immobility of people and their lack of opportunity to move when a fire begins and smoke fumes overwhelm them.

Ann Jones' Bill has gone through the Welsh Assembly recently. Interestingly, the introduction of sprinklers does not apply just to buildings over 30 metres but to all new build. I understand that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly voted for the Bill and that there was a consensus. I live in Chester in the north-west, which borders on Wales. I used to work in Wrexham and I do not understand why we might have to apply a different law to people who live in Chester compared with people who live in Wrexham. I invite the Minister to comment on that. I believe that the Welsh Assembly Bill will improve our knowledge in this area.

I recently attended a meeting of Staffordshire fire officers and politicians. We were presented with a booklet entitled, "Sprinklers: Your Personal Fire Fighter 24/7". The booklet contains many interesting points, given the lack of knowledge about sprinklers. It says that there have been no multiple fire deaths in the United Kingdom following a fire in a dwelling with a working sprinkler system. US experience shows that 98 per cent of all fires in dwellings with sprinklers are extinguished with only one sprinkler head. Only the sprinkler heads in the immediate vicinity of a fire actually operate. Sprinklers do not cause false alarms. They operate only if there is an actual fire. I hope that this updated information and the improved working of sprinklers will be examined and brought to the Minister's attention. I hope that the amendment will be accepted. I mentioned the gap between the 30-month and 12-month periods. At the end of the conference I was approached by a fire officer who told me that he had calculated how many firefighters and others would die because we were missing out on the opportunity to implement appropriate legislation. I hope that the Minister will give us a warmer reply than has hitherto been the case because we can act today in a beneficial way.

Photo of Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Liberal Democrat 1:00 pm, 4th March 2011

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing the Bill, particularly the amendment to which he has spoken. The Bill seeks a review. I note that the period that is sought is 30 months, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said. Thirty months for carrying out a review is much better than 12 months. I was not a Member of this House when the original Bill was produced. I would love to say a lot more about it but I will keep my remarks short.

A lot of work needs to be done as regards fire suppression systems. However, wired-in smoke alarms have been a great boon. Of course, water sprinkler systems do not stop oil fires happening in kitchens. As the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said, there is a Welsh dimension to the measure, as in the previous debate. On 16 February this year, the Welsh Assembly voted for it to become law in Wales that sprinklers be installed in all new residential buildings. In, say, 30 months-which is the period mentioned in the Bill-some worthwhile information will come from Wales on how effective sprinklers have been in dousing fires and saving lives, and on whether the cost of installation affected the level of new build in Wales; installing water systems does not mean just putting in a pipe and a sprinkler, it means putting in water tanks and providing a heavier structure in the buildings to carry them.

We have no objection to an increase from 12 months to 30 months, which is the point of the amendment, but I remain doubtful whether such a review is needed, at least until the results of what is happening in Wales is made known to us all. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for bringing this matter before us once more.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 1:15 pm, 4th March 2011

I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Harrison and wish to pick up on a couple of his points.

Sadly, this yet another story of UK buildings and accommodation that are of a somewhat lower standard than in the best continental countries. In many of those countries not only water sprinklers are used, but fine-spray systems that are set off by smoke. One of the extraordinary things about the 9/11 event was that huge numbers of sprinklers did not operate, because those of a classical nature operate on temperature, not smoke. It is perfectly possible to install a system that starts to spray a low level of water when there is smoke and then a higher level of water when there is a high temperature.

It can be demonstrated in a lab. I was so appalled by the situation that I went to Holland, carried out some experiments and then tried to get companies involved. However, the UK is the old UK and that did not work. The Building Research Establishment does not seem to have produced this kind of adaptive technology. Perhaps if there is now an initial programme in Wales, although we should watch it, we should also, as my noble friend Lord Harrison said, make use of international research and, I hope, develop the capability in this country to install flexible systems.

Huge amounts of water such as those needed for classical sprinklers may well be unnecessary if there are smoke alarms, as now, and water spray systems. It may well be a cheaper and faster method that should certainly be looked at. I endorse the amendment.

Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench

My Lords, I support the amendment and the Bill. I declare my interest in the building of new homes for older people as the chairman of the Hanover Housing Association, which is the country's largest builder of extra care apartments.

At previous stages of the Bill and in its previous incarnation, I congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on his interest and expertise in this subject and strongly supported the idea of a comprehensive review of this aspect of the building regulations. I know that some of my colleagues in the housing world are concerned at the potential cost of fitting sprinkler systems in residential premises, and a full cost-benefit analysis should reveal whether or not those worries are well placed. Some of those colleagues have had non-financial concerns.

One chief executive of a major provider of new apartments told me that the policy of his organisation was that in the event of a fire alarm being set off, residents should stay put in their flats, each of which is secure against fire, for long enough to await the fire being put out-or, very exceptionally, for them to be rescued. He felt that sprinkler systems in the whole building would lead to residents vacating their flats, perhaps in a panic, and placing themselves at greater risk in the corridors and stairways outside. I am not at all sure that these fears are justified, and if a fire is started within a flat, as it so often is, it can be extinguished only inside that flat, which is where the sprinklers would be so valuable.

A positive reason for the installation of sprinkler systems in older people's housing, one that appeals to me, is the possibilities that this opens up, apart from the potential for saving lives, of increased flexibility in the design of new buildings-the internal design. In other countries it has been possible to do without a lot of clumsy lobbies and internal walls which are required for fire protection but which can waste space and give a boxed-in feel to the environment. Sprinklers can liberate an open-plan design, sometimes with dividers to separate living, sleeping, cooking and eating areas, without enclosing and confining the whole space of the apartment. I think that sprinklers may have some spin-offs in terms of the design of apartments, some of which are in themselves a saving of the capital cost of those new homes.

Incidentally, I was pleased to note that fires started by cigarettes left burning, perhaps because a smoker falls asleep, are less likely in the future not only because fewer people smoke but because cigarettes will be required to no longer smoulder but to go out if left to their own devices.

All those considerations can be brought together in a review, and it seems entirely sensible for that to proceed now in the hope that it will shed light, and perhaps lead to important changes to the building regulations. On the basis that a review is more likely to be acceptable to government if the timescale is not too constrained, I support the noble Lord's amendment and hope that the Government will accept that a review should proceed.

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I want, briefly, to reinforce the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Best. I do so as a former patron of the national fire sprinkler campaign and former chair of the Fire Safety Council. That was some years ago now and I do not currently have any interest in that area. When I was Schools Minister I ensured that the attitude towards sprinklers in schools was shifted significantly so that only the very lowest-risk schools in terms of fire would be exempt from installing sprinklers. That took a lot of ministerial heavy lifting when officials were giving contrary advice, so I urge the Minister to adopt such a policy if he is hearing all the reasons why not to do something when the case made by my noble friend Lord Harrison has been so strong in respect of the views of fire officers.

In the work that I have done over the years with fire officers-I pay tribute, in particular, to Peter Holland the chief fire officer at Lancashire-they have consistently said, "This is about saving lives for probably the cost of installing carpets in a building". For that cost a huge amount is to be gained. Once you get into residential installations you are starting to achieve the sort of scale that can drive innovation. The noble Lord speaking from the Liberal Democrat Benches talked about the cost of tanking. Tanking systems are often but not necessarily used. If there is good enough water pressure-negotiation needs to be had with the water companies there-it is possible to go ahead with a small sprinkler system without using a tanking system.

Similarly, there may be other ways of scoring innovations. There has been some discussion about using the piping within a central heating system in a residential dwelling, and indeed using the water pump from the central heating system to supply a sprinkler system. Such innovations can be tested better, as they are in Wales, when we start to do residential systems. The comments of the noble Lord, Lord Best, about design freedom should be taken into account by the Department for Communities and Local Government-and not just design freedom within properties where some of the passive protections that can be quite frustrating to homeowners can be removed. Indeed, many of us have seen fire doors propped open which means that all the effectiveness of those passive measures is lost. There is also potential design freedom within new estates where the risk assessment from the fire authority is such that you might not need quite the same turning circles for large fire vehicles because the risk around fatalities in fires is so much reduced by having a sprinklered estate.

I urge the Minister to be sympathetic to my noble friend's very modest proposal. I draw his attention to the first word of Clause 1-"Within"-and I hope that if he accepts the 30-month proposal, the drive is still on to get it as soon as possible. We should have in mind the story of the fire officer related by my noble friend Lord Harrison. As you wait an additional 18 months the lives of yet more fire officers and residents will be at risk.

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

Briefly, I support my noble friend's Bill and the amendment and pay tribute to his persistence and dedication on the issue of fire safety. I support the amendment with reluctance, because the Bill is perfectly adequate as it stands, but my noble friend has gone the extra mile by extending the time.

Given that extension, what assurance can the Minister give us on funding for ongoing community fire safety activity, which has been at the heart of driving down the number of deaths from fires in this country? Since we last debated this at Second Reading, we have had the CLG publication, Future Changes to the Buildings Regulations-Next Steps. In Part B, on fire safety, it states about the consultation:

"However, this exercise has not produced any significant new evidence on the health and safety benefits of greater sprinkler provision that would alter the cost/benefit analysis and the basis of the current approach. The Department will not, therefore, be considering this as part of next year's programme of work".

It seems an odd position to take that the Government do not want to engage in or encourage new research but are happy to rely on current research, which has been a bone of contention-we debated the BRE research previously under the Bill-as the benchmark to say that there is no new evidence. That is a rather perverse way to proceed.

On the summary of work to be taken forward from the consultation exercise, I am certainly pleased to see that Part P, to do with electrical safety, will be in next year's work programme, because there is interrelation with issues of fire safety. About 8,000 deaths in the home are caused by inadequate electrical work. I would hope that that will focus on greater use of competent person's schemes. Paragraph 3.4 states:

"Finally, there is also a third group of issues that we believe currently lack clear evidence to support regulation in 2013, but which we would not wish to definitively rule out. This includes whether to expand the provisions for radon gas protection and whether flood resilience/resistance should be incorporated into regulations".

My second question for the Minister is: where does that leave the review of Part B? What is the programme for review in Part B, or will the Government continue to oppose the Bill and the research that it seeks and rely on the status quo of research, therefore closing their minds to further review of that important part of the building regulations to deal with fire safety?

I support my noble friend and his amendment, although I think that the Government should have been more encouraging and not have required him to seek this extension.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I support my noble friend Lord Harrison's amendment and his Bill. At the Dispatch Box in our previous debate, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred to "Groundhog Day". A number of us in the Chamber today feel the same sense that we have been here before. I pay enormous tribute to the tenacity and commitment of my noble friend Lord Harrison for the work that he has undertaken to drive this forward. He has not been prepared to let the issue drop. He wants to continue purely in the interests of public safety. The same goes for my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton, given his former role at the Dispatch Box and his commitment. My noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth will remember many discussions on the way forward on this when I was the fire Minister and he was an education Minister. As he said, I am pleased that we were able to make such progress.

I support the amendment-with some reservations, like my noble friend, Lord McKenzie; but it will get my support. I am not sure that it is necessary, but if the Minister thinks that it helps and if that is what it takes to move the issue forward, get the research and assessment we need, I am happy to support that. I am grateful to the Minister for the meeting between his officials and my noble friend Lord Harrison, because that is what led to him proposing the amendment.

Before speaking today, I looked at the report of our previous debate in the autumn. In reading it, I wondered what had changed since them and what had not. What has not changed is the argument for examining the case for residential sprinklers. All the Bill before us today seeks to do is properly and effectively to examine the case for residential sprinklers in line with forthcoming building regulations. An excellent case has been made which does not need repeating today save to say that their effectiveness is further underlined by the fact that fire deaths have been almost eliminated in those areas which have fire sprinklers, and fire injuries have been reduced by 85 per cent. Unless you have seen, spoken to and engaged with people who have suffered horrific injuries from fire, it is very hard to understand the impact that it can have on people's lives. Significant improvements in the safety of firefighters have been seen in places where sprinklers are in place. We have seen in this country some tragic cases where firefighters have been killed or seriously injured. As the Minister no doubt knows, that affects not just those firefighters and their families but the wider firefighter community and the country as a whole, so deep is the appreciation and affection that we hold for our firefighters. With the use of sprinklers, we see less property damage because less water is stored in properties affected by fire. Less water is used than in fighting fires with hoses, which is important environmentally.

Also unchanged are those who are most vulnerable to fire-the young, the elderly, those with disabilities and people in houses in multiple occupation. In all those cases, nothing has changed that makes the Bill any less valid today than when we debated it last year.

The noble Lord, Lord Best, in thoughtful speeches today and in the previous debate, outlined some of the concerns that need to be addressed. They are exactly the issues that a review can examine. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, also made the case for a review. I think that the noble Lord can be reassured on the issue of tanks, but a review of the effectiveness of sprinklers would allow us to reassure people on other issues.

What has changed since our previous debate? The first change is the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. The Minister referred on the previous occasion to the time taken by review, an issue which he and his officials have discussed with the noble Lord. By proposing a longer time for the review if it is needed and allowing us to look at his Bill in a slightly different light, the noble Lord has done the House a great service. It is not the first time that he has sought to make amendments in line with discussions in this House, and he should be congratulated on it.

A further change, one of huge significance, has been in budgets for the fire service. When we last met, it was only two days after those budgets had been announced, so we were unable fully to examine their implications. I hope that the Minister has had the opportunity to read a report on that topic in today's Independent which gives me enormous cause for concern. Many of us who have an interest in these issues will already have been in contact with people from our local areas and seen the implications of the Government's cuts for the level of fire cover. The survey reported in the Independent shows that, in Greater Manchester, the fire service is facing cuts of £23 million over four years. Up to 200 firefighter posts are to go with 140 civilian jobs. In West Yorkshire, recruitment of firefighters has been suspended and 150 support posts have been axed. In Merseyside, 92 firefighters will lose their jobs. In Humberside, 170 jobs in all will go, with the number of fire crews cut from five to four.

In Tyne and Wear, we are told that 170 posts are being lost. In Darlington, County Durham, 40 jobs are to go. In Essex, my own county, we have seen one fire station close in Hadleigh. It used to be that when you moved to Canvey Island you were given an escape route because of the installations on the island. It now has a part-time retained fire station. Cambridgeshire must find £4 million in savings and fire stations could be merged or downgraded. In Shropshire, up to 60 jobs are being lost. This has a huge impact on fire safety. I understand-although I do not accept-what the Government say on this. They want to make these cuts. However, if there are to be fewer firefighters, fire engines and fire stations, is there not a duty, at the very least, to examine properly and effectively all evidence of other ways of reducing fires in the home?

In our previous debate on this, I referred the noble Lord to the Thames Gateway study, which looked at the issue of residential sprinklers being installed in all new homes being built. It concluded that, although there were merits, it was not needed. One of the reasons for this was the resources that were available to the fire service. That level of resources is no longer there. I have sat in the Minister's place in the other place with the same folder that says "Resist" and "Do not accept" and gives the arguments-probably from the same officials in some cases. However, I say to him that this is very important.

The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, would not bring this measure forward, with support across the House, if it were not regarded as something that could so positively contribute to reducing cases of fire, injuries to people and fire deaths. All that is being sought today is the opportunity to look at the issues, and to examine and use the evidence that is available. There is no new policy involved. Let us just look at the evidence so that when fire regulations are upgraded and building regulations are looked at again, that evidence can be used. The Minister has an opportunity here today to make a difference; I urge him to take it.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 1:30 pm, 4th March 2011

My Lords, the Government recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has in his amendment extended the period for commencement of a review, as prescribed in his Bill, from 12 to 30 months. However, our reservations remain the same as those I set out at Second Reading. We must focus on the priorities at hand, and it would be difficult to find any Government who would be willing to support a statutory commitment of their resources in the way that the Bill proposes. I must gently remind the Committee that the question it must consider is: for how long do the Government need to consider this review?

Therefore, I will not be drawn into some of the technical issues that I have recently studied. The noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, raised some of the plumbing issues, which I have discussed with the House Builders Federation. I did sanity-check some of the advice that I received. I asked, "Can you plumb sprinklers into the central heating system?". I was advised that it was much more complicated than that. If you want a sprinkler system, you need a separate pressure supply that bypasses the house's water meter. I also challenged why it costs £3,000 to £5,000 to install a sprinkler system.

We recognise that work is in hand, sponsored by industry, to refine and update the available evidence base that exists on the costs and benefits of sprinkler protection in residential premises. Clearly, we would need to consider any new information as and when it becomes available. Indeed, I have personally undertaken to read and understand the report currently being prepared by the Building Research Establishment for the Chief Fire Officers Association. I do not know how big that report will be.

I am grateful for the comments of many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, who made a very useful contribution, and those of the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Best. The noble Lord, Lord Best, talked about design problems and design flexibility. The building regulations already include the facility to vary the design of buildings where sprinklers are provided.

The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, asked me what I was worried about with regard to extending sprinklers to all houses. We are not aware of any problems with this provision, and the recent review of building regulations concluded that the excellent provisions for fire safety did not need to be changed. I am advised that the cost of carrying out a detailed review, as set out in the Bill, would be in the order of £250,000 and that it would divert departmental resources away from other government priorities. If you keep spending £100,000 here and £100,000 there on every single problem, eventually you run out of money, and that is more or less what has happened.

The noble Lord asked me what items under paragraphs (a) to (i) of Clause 1(1) caused me anxiety. I cite as an example paragraph (f), which refers to,

"the evidence for and experience of automatic fire suppression systems already available both in the UK and internationally".

I am sure that my officials would enjoy going round the world looking at the international experience of fire suppression sprinkler systems, because that is what they would have to do.

Just before Christmas, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the department, Andrew Stunell, published his plans for taking forward the outcome of a recent review of building regulations. The review included looking at any changes that might be necessary to ensure that the regulations continued to operate effectively in the future. During the review, a number of respondents called for the introduction of regulation to increase the provision of sprinklers in buildings. However, the review did not produce any significant new evidence of the benefits of greater sprinkler provision.

Sprinkler protection is recognised as a highly effective measure, and provisions for its use have been in place in building regulations for many years for buildings where the fire risk is high. However, when you consider that all new homes are already provided with hard-wired smoke alarms, it is difficult to justify further increasing the regulatory burden with a measure that will impact only on new buildings.

The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and perhaps others asked about the recent vote in the Welsh Assembly. Parliament has given the Welsh Assembly the power to adopt such a measure if it chooses to do so. By the end of the year, it will also have the necessary powers to set its own building regulations. However, this debate is about England, and what the Welsh Assembly does is a matter for the Assembly.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about the review of Part B, relating to the fire safety building regulations. We have made no plans to review the fire safety aspects of building regulations. No doubt they will be reviewed at some point when it is considered to be necessary.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, mentioned reducing spending on the fire service, suggesting that sprinklers could help. However, if building regulations changed tomorrow, only homes built after that point would be affected, and it would take decades for this to have a meaningful effect on the building stock. If there was a real concern that the service was under-resourced, I think that a more rapid solution would need to be found.

The noble Lord, Lord Knight, made several interesting comments, some of them relating to technical matters. I should have liked to engage on them if I had known that he was going to ask those questions. He suggested that Ministers and policy are controlled by officials, but I assure the noble Lord that Ministers determine the policy with advice from officials, not the other way round.

Prevention is much better than cure and an example of a more effective and innovative approach is the introduction of fire-safer cigarettes, a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Best. We have actively supported the European Commission's efforts in developing a safety standard for reduced-ignition cigarettes. We estimate that this standard, once introduced, will save with almost immediate effect between 25 and 64 lives per year in England alone, not just in new buildings but across the board.

The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, asked why the Conservative Party has changed its policy now that it is in government. I gently remind the Committee that I answer for Her Majesty's Government, not for the previous Opposition. Where noble Lords have raised wider issues, I will write if I have something valuable to add to my comments.

In summary, while we agree with the desire to answer the questions set out in the Bill, we must express strong reservations about the provisions in it for a statutory commitment for the Government.

Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Chair, EU Sub-Committee A - Economic and Financial Affairs, and International Trade

My Lords, that was a lame reply to all the contributions that have been made to the debate this afternoon. I know that colleagues who have been here today to support the Bill have other urgent things to do so, in thanking them, I take the opportunity to say to the Minister that we will return to this issue; we will write to him and point out where we believe the deficiencies are in his reply. I still hope that we can make some changes but, in the interim, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed.

Clause 2 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.

House adjourned at 1.48 pm.