Amendment 8

Fire Safety Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 29th October 2020.

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Lord Kennedy of Southwark:

Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark

8: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—“Meaning of responsible personThe relevant authority must by regulations amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) so that in article 3 of that Order (meaning of responsible person) it is specified that where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises, a leaseholder shall not be considered a responsible person unless they are also the owner or part owner of the freehold.” Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause aims to clarify the definition of “responsible person” to ensure that, where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises, leaseholders are not considered a responsible person unless they are also the owner or part owner of the freehold.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing)

My Lords, Amendment 8 in my name seeks to clarify the definition of a “responsible person” to ensure that, where a building pertains more to a set of domestic premises, leaseholders are not considered a responsible person unless they are also the owner or part owner of the freehold.

The fire safety order requires building owners and other responsible persons to undertake regular fire risk assessments. These changes mean that the safety of elements such as cladding will need to be considered in any fire risk assessment. As I said, my amendment aims to clarify “responsible person” to ensure that leaseholders are not considered a responsible person unless they are also the owner or part owner of the freehold.

We need absolute clarity on this point. That is what the amendment is about: having an effect. I am sure that the Government, and other Members, want to achieve that. This is not a Bill for fuzzy, unclear opaqueness. What we need is crystal-clear clarity, with no room for any doubt about who is responsible for what.

My noble friend Lord Berkeley, in his Amendment 18, seeks to update the definition of firefighting equipment in premises where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises to include fire sprinklers and water mists, in order to draw attention to their effectiveness.

The National Fire Chiefs Council has reported that people are 22% less likely to require hospital treatment if they are in a fire in a building that is controlled by a sprinkler system. As was said in the previous debate, in Wales, since 2011 many new-build properties have had to have fire sprinklers installed. I think the case for those is made, and I look forward to the Minister responding at the end of the debate.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 5:15 pm, 29th October 2020

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for introducing this group of amendments. I have listened carefully to the debate so far; some excellent arguments have been made in favour of going even faster than the Bill does. I support it, but, as I shall try to outline, there is an argument for going faster.

My interest in the Bill is in fire detection and suppression. I worked on the Channel Tunnel, and after the Notre Dame fire we had some interesting debates in your Lordships’ House about how to detect fires in the roofs of old buildings and how to extinguish them. I was disappointed to be told, “Well, we’re putting fire detectors in the roof, but there’s no access to extinguish a fire.” I still worry about that because, as we all know, the biggest risk to old buildings from fire is when the contractors are in.

The Bill is about the domestic environment; I welcome it. My amendment is a probing amendment about including sprinklers and mists in the definition of firefighting equipment. Mists are very effective and useful, and would be a comparatively low-cost installation for anything between the Houses of Parliament and the buildings that the Bill covers.

I am impressed by mists, even compared with sprinklers. I am aware that many experts on old buildings say that they should not have sprinklers in them because they destroy the contents of the building. That is true—but at least they enable the building to survive. Mists do not destroy the contents, but preserve them to a much greater degree. They are good with electrical fires—which is what we are talking about here—and also with fuel and chip pan fires. I am told that one nozzle, with a small pipe, will cover 16 square metres of building.

I look at a building, whether it is a big one or someone’s property, and I think, “If you can put in a water mist system using a small pipe, it is not that different from installing a ring main for electricity.” Perhaps we should look at making water mist installations a requirement in all habitable buildings in the same way as we require electricity to be put in them—most of the time, anyway.

I know that there is a downside and that it will not happen through this Bill or indeed for many years, but the costs are low and the damage caused is much less than that caused by a fire or by sprinklers. In his response, I would like the Minister at least to say that he will look at this, particularly for domestic rented, leased and privately owned properties, as well as considering the options for new build along with existing ones. I think that we should start the process now because, as we heard at the beginning of this debate, some 14,000 electrical fires are started every year. Many of them could have been and could be avoided if a water mist system were installed.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I call the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. He is not responding, so we will come back to him. I call the noble Lord, Lord Whitty.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour

My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in relation to the responsibilities of leaseholders. It is important that this is reflected in the terms of the Bill. Leaseholders are not the responsible person unless they happen to be co-owners or co-freeholders, and as we heard in the debates on earlier amendments, leaseholders are being faced with quite substantial costs. It would be wrong if the legislation allowed an interpretation whereby in certain circumstances they were the responsible person. They are not. The owners or their agents are the responsible person and we should make that quite clear.

I also strongly support the principles of the amendment tabled in the name of my noble friend Lord Berkeley. Like him, I am astonished that at the moment, the regulations relating to domestic dwellings and indeed other buildings do not include a requirement on new build and major refurbishments for the installation of sprinklers.

Perhaps I may divert slightly from the question of high-rise domestic buildings. When I was at primary school in the 1950s, the school burned down. The fire actually started in my classroom. The report on that fire suggested that a simple sprinkler system would have quickly suppressed the fire and saved the building. As a result, when we returned to school, we were accommodated in temporary huts. Those temporary huts, in 1952, were required to have a rather crude sprinkler system. I was astounded to find out that in the year 2020, there is no such requirement for school buildings and no such requirement for high-rise buildings and premises in multiple occupation. That is something that should be addressed, if not in this Bill, at least in the batch of measures being brought forward by the Government in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy.

I am grateful to my noble friend for raising this issue because it needs to form part of the Government’s thinking in relation to the overall response to fire safety problems. I hope that at some point the Minister can indicate where that proposition will end up. I would strongly support such an addition.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I apologise that I could not participate at Second Reading. I had wanted to raise carbon monoxide detection—a silent killer production of combustion—with fire detection, but I understand it is outside the scope of this Bill. I would like to speak to Amendment 8, to which I have added my name. Let me explain why.

I remain haunted by seeing the blazing Grenfell Tower from my daughter’s window, and I have every sympathy with those whose flats all over the UK find their leasehold purchases are now valueless and are still paying out their mortgage and charges. Back in the 1970s, we financially squeezed ourselves to buy our first flat, only later to find it was built with high alumina cement and, until deemed safe, completely worthless. That is why I feel a commitment to others caught in this plight. This amendment would bring further clarity to the meaning of a “responsible person”, and ensure that leaseholders who are not also freeholders are not made liable or responsible for any remediation work needed as a result of poor building and development decisions on flats which they believed, and were told on checks, comply with building regulations. I want to read the Minister’s response to the previous amendment very carefully, as I hope that it allays some of my concerns, but I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, has raised some ongoing questions.

The huge costs of fire safety checks, materials testing, removal and replacement of dangerous materials, and the retrofitting of sprinklers and other fire safety equipment, all currently fall to leaseholders. Let me illustrate this with information from one such leaseholder. For residents of three blocks of flats in Baltic Avenue, Brentford—which probably should never have been signed off—fire safety checks have been quoted between £15,000 and £24,000, the mock testing of current cladding and insulation will cost £50,000, and rectifying all identified issues has been initially quoted to be at least £6 million. The previous group of amendments highlighted the huge burden on leaseholders, so who is responsible? This is surely the responsibility of developers and their team of architects, builders, et cetera, and the freeholders—and what about the banks that earn an income from the loans?

As the Minister has pointed out, he is well aware of the crippling costs, and he is clearly committed to doing something about the many leaseholders living in flats that are currently valueless, that cannot be sold or re-mortgaged. Many leaseholders are already financially stretched and bought their flats using the Help to Buy scheme, but if they cannot afford to pay for the fire safety checks they need to obtain an ESW1 form, Homes England will not value any properties bought under the scheme. Despite living in flats that are valued at zero, many leaseholders still find themselves having to cover interest payments on a loan that was given on the basis that if it fell in value you paid less. If the flats are worth zero, have all these loans been reset to zero, and are we sure that that has happened?

Even more seriously, these leaseholders are now suffering real mental health problems, not only from the financial burdens but because they know they are stuck in flats tonight that could go up in flames at any moment. The removal of cladding and other dangerous materials really is a matter of life and death. All this means that insurance costs will be sky high for buildings that are still considered to pose such a high risk. Can the Government give us some evidence of really speedy action?

In July, the housing Minister agreed that all costs should not have to be met by leaseholders and should be met by the developers or building owners. Many leaseholders believe the Government have changed their position, saying that leaseholders would still have to foot some of the bill, but they just do not have the money to do it. This amendment rectifies this by being absolutely clear about who is responsible for what, and that is why I support it.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I am going to try to call the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, again.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 5:30 pm, 29th October 2020

I am here. I apologise for not joining the Committee earlier but we had some kind of IT glitch.

I want to look at another important aspect of who the responsible person can or should be. The problem that I want to guard against is the absentee responsible person: the anonymous set of initials from a remote managing agency with a non-responding website and no phone lines, or the international property holder registered in the Cayman Islands or Bermuda. I want to press the Minister to commit to ensuring that every responsible person is a real person, not a company or a corporate body, and that that person has a functioning terrestrial address and a phone number based in the UK—in short, that they can always be held accountable, can be assessed and if necessary trained to deliver their statutory obligations, and has the skill and intention of communicating effectively with residents in the properties for which they take responsibility. We do not want to add absentee responsible persons to all the existing problems of absentee landlords. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, the “responsible person” definition has a key duty in this legislation, which is why I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, which seeks to clarify it. I apologise to the Committee that a lack-of-sound issue has meant that I was not able to hear the contributions by the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley or Lord Whitty, or the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, so my remarks are going to be quite basic as a consequence.

I agree with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that it is not just or practical to expect a tenant or leaseholder, unless they are owners or part-owners of the freehold, to fulfil the responsibility of being the so-called responsible person. I agree completely that it is important to have no room for uncertainty as to who is indeed the responsible person.

My noble friend Lord Stunell has just raised the very important issue that the responsible person has to actually be a person, not an entity—someone with an address and a telephone contact within the UK. I cannot imagine how awful it would be if the responsible person were some distant corporation based in the Cayman Islands, a fire arose and there was no obvious route to seeking a practical or legislative remedy for that disaster.

I have heard a little about the importance of water sprinklers and water misting in high-rise blocks, and of course I know that in 2009, Wales introduced a requirement for that. I look forward to learning what others have said about this important issue when I read Hansard, because I understand that it has been a priority of the fire and rescue services for a long time. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord Greenhalgh Lord Greenhalgh Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), The Minister of State, Home Department

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for this amendment, which seeks to amend Article 3 of the fire safety order. It seeks to remove leaseholders from being a responsible person unless they are also owner or part-owner of the freehold for the premises in question. It is important to remember that the fire safety order places the onus on the responsible person to identify and mitigate fire risks. In multi-occupied residential buildings, the leaseholder of a flat is unlikely to be the responsible person for the non-domestic premises. The exceptions to that would be where they own or share ownership of the freehold, which is acknowledged in the amendment. However, a leaseholder can be a duty holder under Article 5 of the fire safety order, which provides that the responsible person can be determined by the circumstances in any particular case.

Depending on the terms of a lease or tenancy agreement, the responsibility for flat entrance doors could rest with the building owner, having retained ownership of the doors, or the tenant/leaseholder as a duty holder. The lease can also be silent. Accepting this amendment would undermine the principles of the order and could have the unintended consequence of leaving a vacuum in terms of responsibilities under it. That, in turn, could compromise fire safety.

We will look at the responses to our fire safety consultation, which contained specific proposals to support the identification of responsible persons, with a view to ensuring that they are not the entities described by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. It also contained proposals to support greater co-operation and co-ordination between multiple responsible persons within a single premise. The Government are also committed to providing guidance on this issue. That, alongside our legislative proposals in the consultation, will support all those with responsibilities under the order in understanding and complying with their duties.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for tabling Amendment 18. Water-based systems can be an effective and appropriate fire-fighting tool in the event of a fire, and they command broad support across the fire and rescue service and the broader fire sector. However, a water-based system is just one of many measures that can be adopted to counter the spread of fire within a building.

The amendment seeks to ensure that responsible persons for multi-occupied residential buildings consider the installation of sprinklers or water-mist systems as “appropriate fire-fighting equipment” options. On the retro-fitting of sprinklers or water-mist systems, it is up to the responsible person to decide whether those are appropriate mitigating measures.

Noble Lords may be aware that earlier this year the Government amended approved document B to require the provision of sprinkler systems in new blocks of flats over 11 metres in height. This amendment will come into effect next month to ensure that this is the new standard for buildings of that height in the future.

For existing buildings, the fire safety order requires the responsible person to maintain and keep in an efficient state and working order fire-fighting equipment, which may include water-based systems. In blocks of flats where these are not present, retro-fitting water-based systems may not always be a cost-effective solution, if they are desired at all by residents. Existing guidance suggests considering alternative fire safety measures, taking into account the absence of sprinklers.

The Government do not support using the fire safety order to promote one form of equipment over other measures which, depending on the building, might be more effective. The fire safety order rightly places the onus on the responsible person to have regard to the specific characteristics of their building in determining which fire-fighting equipment and mitigating measures are appropriate to ensure the safety of relevant persons.

It is important that the legislation leave open the range of options available to responsible persons, who, with the support of competent professionals and government guidance, which we are reviewing, are best placed to make those decisions based on local need. Some building owners may decide to install sprinklers as part of their overall fire strategy, while others might choose alternative measures, provided that they are effective. Nevertheless, the Government will review our fire safety order guidance for responsible persons, including references to fire-fighting equipment and other fire safety measures available to them.

I hope that I have provided sufficient reassurance and that the noble Lord is content to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing)

My Lords, I thank everybody who has spoken in this debate, which has been very useful. In particular, I thank the noble Lord for his response.

I agree very much with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, about the need for swift action. As we have discussed on previous amendments, there is the whole issue of building owners, insurance, guarantees and warranties, and we need to get to the bottom of that. I know that in the weeks ahead the noble Lord will be meeting people who are concerned about that, and that is very good.

I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, that the responsible person must actually be a person. It cannot be a company or some entity, particularly one based on the other side of the world. It must be a real person in the UK, and we must have their name, address, phone number and email address so that we know exactly how to get hold of them. That is really important.

My noble friend Lord Berkeley spoke about the importance of sprinklers. The Government have made some progress on that, which is good, but they should look carefully at what has happened in Wales. Since 2011, no new home has been built without sprinklers. That measure was brought forward by the Labour Member, Ann Jones, following a Private Members’ ballot and it has been a really good thing. The Government should look at the initiatives of other institutions in the United Kingdom to see how these things work; that is one they could learn from.

With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 8 withdrawn.

Amendment 9 not moved.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 10. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division should make that clear in the debate.