Deregulation: Public Services and Health and Safety - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:18 pm on 13th July 2017.

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Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 12:18 pm, 13th July 2017

My Lords, I start by declaring that I was a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government between 2010 and 2012, and had responsibility for building regulation policy during that time. I alert the Minister to the fact that a week ago today, I asked a Written Question which is somewhat relevant to my latter remarks, and he may want to prompt officials to brief him on that. I do not believe I have yet had a reply.

I very much welcome the debate and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews for her very well structured introduction. She painted a particularly bleak landscape, on which, to some extent, the noble Lord, Lord Patten, shone a light. I guess that my views are somewhere in between those two different perspectives. In respect of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, there is a good deal of agreement across parties about getting rid of red tape. All parties think that unnecessary red tape should be got rid of. The problem is the subsequent discussion about when red tape is making a safety net. That tension between red tape and safety net is at the heart of our discussion today.

I pick up another point from the noble Lord’s remarks. He said that he welcomed one in, one out—and so did I. I was one of the negotiators of the coalition agreement that included that precise wording. One in, two out and one in, three out is not based on any sound reasoning process at all, particularly when one considers how the Treasury interprets the in and the out. I had a particularly strange example in relation to the energy performance of buildings, which I was keen to upgrade during my time as a Minister. Savings in energy by commercial buildings was countable as a reduction in business costs. Savings in energy consumption in domestic buildings is not counted, because the beneficiary is the householder or renter, not the developer. That is an example of the Treasury applying a sensible rule in a completely foolhardy and stupid way, which actually slowed down the capacity of the Government to deliver better housing for people in tenures of all sorts being built at the present time.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, made a very important point about the opportunities that there are to put right anything that may be wrong, and the risks of making it a great deal worse with the great repeal Bill. My party leader has already made it clear what the Liberal Democrats feel about that.

The noble Lord, Lord Patten, with his remark about spads, needs to reflect on how many noble friends of the pair of us are former spads before he takes his purge too much further.

I want to focus on some of the interaction between the horrific and terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower and the issue of regulation. We need to recognise that it was the worst fire disaster since World War II, and when a fire like that evolves you can be pretty certain that it was not one thing but four or five things that went wrong at the same time. All those things will have contributed to the tragedy, and I hope that the inquiry will be diligent in assessing what they are and what remedies there might be.

My remarks will focus on building regulations, and the impact that they may be said to have had, or not. I want to keep in mind the fact that it is extremely unlikely to be the sole or even the main cause of the huge loss of life. Building regulations are issued under the Building Act 1984, which prescribes matters about which regulations can be made and by its silences limits the regulation-making powers to those topics alone. Fire prevention is certainly one of the areas where building regulations can be, and are, made.

As well as a ministerial background, I had 20 years’ work in the construction industry, and during that time I had many occasions on which to refer to the building regulations and satisfy myself that the drawings that I was making and the buildings and products I was supervising were compliant with those regulations. That brings me to my first main point. It was my job as a building designer and supervisor to comply with regulations and my job to get it right. It was not a question of seeing whether the building inspector catches us out and carrying on merrily until he does. I remember on one occasion taking it as far as testing a fire door of an unusual size and design. I learned plenty of things that day, including never to wear your best suit to a fire test.

The key obligation here is on the installer, applicant or client to comply with the relevant regulations. Some of the press and media comment may have missed that important point. I see a parallel between the Road Traffic Act and the Building Act. If you travel at 45 miles an hour where there is a speed limit of 30 miles an hour, you are committing an offence. If you kill somebody, you have certainly committed an offence. In mitigation, you may say that the signs were obscured or there were no signs, but one thing you cannot say is, “I was relying on the police to stop me”. We need to remember, in relation to what may or may not emerge as far as Grenfell Tower is concerned, that nobody should say, “I was relying on the police to stop me”. It is well established under the Road Traffic Act that the vehicle keeper gets the rap; it is no good saying, “I don’t remember who was driving the car on the day”. There are no excuses or evasions.

A decade or two after my last construction projects, I drew first place in the Private Members’ ballot at the other end of the building. My Sustainable and Secure Building Act 2004 was the first—and so far only—amendment to the original Building Act 1984. I thank my noble friend Lord Dholakia for steering it through at this end of the Palace. One provision in that Act amends the 1984 Act to empower the Secretary of State to require an applicant for building regulation approval to provide a named individual who would take responsibility for the building’s compliance with the regulation—in other words, the equivalent of the vehicle keeper under the Road Traffic Act. My Written Question last week asked what assessment has been made of the costs and benefit of introducing this provision in the light of the emerging findings from Grenfell Tower.

At Grenfell Tower, there was a client—the tenant management organisation, supervised at arm’s length by the Kensington and Chelsea council—and, underneath, there was the main contractor and a second, third and fourth, possibly even a fifth, tier of subcontractors. When we come to the crucial question of who was driving the car on that day and who ran away after the crash, it is quite likely that the inquiry will have to spend a disproportionate amount of time finding that out. If there had been a named building regulation compliance officer, which is thoroughly within the scope of the Building Act, as amended by my 2004 Act, several things would follow. First, the person appointed would have the skills and knowledge to do the job—they would be mad to accept it without. They would want indemnity and professional insurance, and the people providing the insurance would want to be satisfied that the person was doing that job in a diligent way and not going to cost them a packet of money. If that were the system applying to all buildings, there would be far fewer breaches of regulation and far better quality of buildings and homes. It is much less likely that there would be another Grenfell Tower incident. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response to my original Question.

I have another question for the Minister. In the House of Commons on 22 January 2015—in cols. 459-64 of Hansard—my honourable friend Stephen Williams, who was the then Under-Secretary of State at DCLG and responsible for building regulations, replied to a debate that I had initiated following a fire in my then constituency, which had destroyed three newly built homes. He told the House at the other end that the department was putting in hand work with BRE to look at fire-stopping—the technical stuff that goes in between floors to stop fire spreading through cavities from floor to floor. It had been defective fire-stopping in those three houses that had led to their destruction during a repair process, and this seems quite likely to have been a contributory factor at Grenfell Tower as well. Can the Minister say what progress has been made or what conclusions have been reached by that BRE study, which my honourable friend announced was to start back in January 2015? I hope that it did not fall through the cracks of the change of Government and Minister that happened five months later.

Nothing that we do or say today can undo the harm and grief of Grenfell Tower, nor can it lessen the anger and frustration of those who survived, but I hope that my contribution may point the Minister to a simple and ready-made measure that would make a catastrophe far less likely to occur.