Amendment 10

Fire Safety Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 29th October 2020.

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Lord Kennedy of Southwark:

Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark

10: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—“Review of Scottish and Northern Irish legislation covering similar mattersWithin 24 months of the day on which this Act is passed, but no less than 12 months after the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a review of legislation covering similar matters to this Act enacted by the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would ensure that the Government considers legislation covering similar matters to this Act enacted by the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.

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, Amendments 10, 11 and 12 in this group are in my name. Amendment 10 requires the Government to consider legislation covering similar matters to those in the Bill that has been enacted by the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. The Bill covers England and Wales only, since Scotland and Northern Ireland both have separate legislation in place under their legislative competences. The Government should work with the devolved Governments to share best practice and consider which legislation works best, and what should be in place where they alone have legislative competence.

Amendment 11 requires the Government to consider the Bill’s impact on local authority finances. The LGA and local authorities are concerned about the impact of the Bill on their finances, as we have raised in previous debates. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, commissioned by the LGA, found that councils in England are facing a funding gap of more than £5 billion by 2024 to maintain services at current levels. This figure could double amid the huge economic and societal uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. This is a serious situation. It is therefore vital that councils are fully compensated for new requirements and burdens resulting from the Bill. As I have said before, the Government too often place extra burdens on local government, without a commensurate level of resources to deliver them. That is certainly not acceptable when looking at something as important as the Fire Safety Bill. It needs to be properly addressed when we consider matters of such importance.

Amendment 13 requires the Government to consider whether there is a skills shortage in the United Kingdom, in relation to the requirements of the Bill. Skills have been discussed in relation to many amendments. The lack of qualified professionals has already been raised today, along with the fear that, to get around it, we will have a race to the bottom, allowing unskilled people, who are not professionals, to undertake the work required of the Bill.

Britain has a skills shortage, particularly in higher technical skills, due to a number of reasons, including cuts to further education. The CBI said that two-thirds of businesses worry that they will not have the skilled posts to fill the work that needs to be done. The Government should make it clear whether they believe there is a sufficient skills base in the UK for the purposes of fire safety. If they do not believe that there is—and that may well be the logical conclusion—they need to set out what they will do to ensure we have the right skills base. I look forward to the Minister answering those points in his response. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I offer my support to Amendment 12, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, which looks to have a UK-wide, or at least England-wide, skills audit. There is clear evidence, particularly for matters relating to infrastructure, construction and this topic specifically, that there is a serious deficit in skills and training, and in the attractiveness of the industry to new entrants. There are many reasons for that but discussing them would be a different debate.

Clearly, if the Bill is to be a success, not just in its initial moments but in the ensuing years, there needs to be a steady stream of well-trained and fully experienced professionals—not just in the white-collar sense, but professionals who can deliver and install changes to buildings on a very big scale. It matches the parallel demands being placed on the construction industry from the move to improve the energy performance of homes and buildings in general. Again, a massive programme of investment is in train and planned by the Government.

This skills audit is urgently needed. I dare say the Minister will talk about the Construction Leadership Council and the various work being done on that front, but it needs a level of intensity and urgency that cannot be held by just one trade association or government advisory body. It must be a central driving initiative of the Government themselves. Although we all sincerely hope the current economic circumstances will turn and improve dramatically next year, they strongly suggest that there will be opportunities to recruit and upskill people who have to make career changes. The Government can and should seize this moment to make sure upgrading skills and recruiting new entrants is taken as a serious opportunity, consequent upon the passage of the Bill. I strongly support what is set out in Amendment 12.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 5:45 pm, 29th October 2020

My Lords, mindful of my interests as declared at the opening of Committee, I support Amendment 11 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, although an additional cost must not be imposed on local authorities as a consequence of the requirements of the Bill. It is well documented that many local authorities are already facing very challenging circumstances as a result of the costs of dealing with the local impact of the pandemic. This is on top of years of deep cuts in government funding.

The new burdens agreement between central and local government is supposed to ensure that the costs of new duties required by the Government are met by the equivalence of the costs. This amendment seeks to underline this commitment and to ensure that sufficient additional finances are made available. The consequence of failing to do so would undermine the purposes of the Bill, for which there is unanimous support.

There has already been an extensive debate on skills shortages and the definition of competences during consideration of other amendments. Many noble Lords have expressed their concerns. I wish to underline the importance of this issue, which has been expressed throughout Committee.

Amendment 10 seeks to ensure that the Scottish Government consider similar legislation. It highlights how Governments across the UK are slowly beginning to mirror a federal system. I find this fascinating. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

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

My Lords, Amendment 10 seeks to introduce a review of Scotland and Northern Ireland, to take place no later than 24 months after Royal Assent on the Fire Safety Bill, which would subsequently be laid before Parliament.

From the outset, I remind the Committee that the Fire Safety Bill applies only to England and Wales. Fire safety is a devolved matter. The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, does not consider the vastly different fire safety regimes in place in Northern Ireland and Scotland. It is unlikely that the Scottish Parliament or Northern Ireland Assembly could make an equivalent legislative provision to reflect the fire safety legislation in England and Wales. In any event, the review proposed would not have any legal effect in either Scotland or Northern Ireland as the Bill extends and applies to England and Wales only. Such a review would be to no purpose.

I accept that noble Lords have an interest in fire safety in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. However, these matters are the responsibility of the respective devolved Governments, who are best placed to provide an update.

The fire safety regimes in Scotland and Northern Ireland are significantly different from that of England and Wales. There is no direct equivalent of the fire safety order in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Existing fire safety legislation does not have the same features as in England and Wales. This includes a review of the fire safety regime for high-rise domestic buildings in Scotland and delivery of the recommendations from that review. A single source of fire safety guidance for those responsible for these buildings is now available online and fire safety information has been delivered to residents in all high-rise buildings in Scotland. I have been in close dialogue with Kevin Stewart, my opposite number in the Scottish Parliament, about the issues we have been debating in Committee.

I am pleased to inform the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that the Scottish Government have today published a formal response to the Grenfell phase 1 report. I look forward to reading it. It is an important step in advancing fire safety in Scotland.

In Northern Ireland, a cross-body building safety programme group has been established and is sponsored by the Department of Finance. The group will consider what actions are necessary in Northern Ireland to improve and develop building safety and how best to incorporate relevant recommendations arising from the Grenfell public inquiry phase 1 report. The group is in the earliest stage of development, identifying relevant representative group nominations to centrally co-ordinate the Northern Ireland response from an operational, regulatory and legislative perspective.

I turn to Amendment 11 and thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for raising the issue of the Bill’s potential impact on local authorities. Obviously, we should mention not just local authorities but fire and rescue services. On a point of principle, we are very clear on the purpose of the Fire Safety Bill, which is to clarify that the structure, external walls and flat entrance doors in multi-occupied residential buildings are within scope of the fire safety order. However, this should not prevent local authorities from acting under their existing powers to address safety risks in multi-occupied residential buildings. They have a duty under the Housing Act 2004 to review areas of risk relating to social housing for which they are responsible, which we would expect to include issues relating to both fire and building safety. With regard to the private rented sector, local authorities also have a duty to take enforcement action if they consider that a serious category 1 hazard, including fire, exists on any residential premises.

We expect that the initial impact on local authorities and fire and rescue services under the Bill to be limited, with the focus being on responsible persons updating fire risk assessments on high-risk buildings, as considered under the risk operating model. I will address this in more detail when responding to amendments on commencement. The costs of the Bill have been set out in the published economic impact assessment. This shows that the costs are shared across all responsible persons for high-rise residential buildings, the majority of which are privately owned rather than social housing. We will keep the impact on local authorities under consideration in future spending reviews as work progresses on fire and building safety in their capacity as both landlords and enforcing authorities. I will also give an undertaking that we will consider the impact on local authorities of the Bill and consultation in line with the new-burdens principles. I should also inform noble Lords of the additional funding support being provided. We have invested £20 million in funding fire safety protection and a further £10 million for the fire risk review programme.

As regards the draft Building Safety Bill, we are planning measures to strengthen the fire safety order, and the impact of these on fire and rescue services and local authorities will be considered. I should warn noble Lords that the Bill will have about 140 clauses, whereas this Bill has three clauses, which we seem to have spent several hours debating in some detail.

Amendment 12 calls for a review of fire skills 12 months after the passing of the Bill. Significant work has been undertaken by the industry-led Competence Steering Group and its subgroup on fire risk assessors and fire engineers, to look at ways in which to increase competence and capacity in these professions. This includes proposing recommendations in relation to introducing a register of fire risk assessors, a competence framework and a system of third-party accreditation for fire risk assessors. The final report from the CSG was published on the Construction Industry Council’s website on 5 October and the MHCLG, the HSE and the Home Office are considering the recommendations of the report in detail.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will be aware that we recognise the concerns raised by the fire risk assessor sector on its capacity and competency to undertake and update fire risk assessments for the buildings in scope of this Bill. We want to ensure that we will take a proportionate approach to commencing the Bill that limits any potential impact on the fire risk assessor sector. The noble Lord has raised a very important issue with this amendment. The Government have been working with the fire risk assessor sector to develop a clear plan to increase its capacity and capability. The Home Office and the MHCLG are jointly funding the British Standards Institution to develop technical guidance to support professionals to assess the fire risk posed by external wall systems. This guidance will support industry to upskill more professionals to take on this work and will increase the quality and consistency of these assessments.

Although this amendment is in line with our plans to develop the capacity and capability of the sector, I do not think that this work needs to be enshrined in legislation. I also think that a slightly longer timeframe for such a review of 18 to 24 months would be more appropriate, as such a period would allow for more meaningful change, given the need to recruit against the background of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Finally, I emphasise that understanding the skills shortage and having a plan to address that, as raised by the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Stunell, must be a driving mission of this Government. Therefore, I would be happy to meet with the noble Lords in relation to Amendment 12 before Report to discuss the ongoing work that I have outlined. In the meantime, I ask noble Lords not to press their amendments.

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 short debate and thank the Minister for his response. All the issues that have been highlighted here are important; I will look carefully at what the noble Lord has said, particularly on skills. We need to ensure that in this new regime we have properly skilled, competent professionals doing this work. As many of us have said before, there should be no race to the bottom, and it is really important that we do not have unqualified people doing this work. On the issue of funding the fire service and local government, there are issues about the capacity of local authorities and the fire and rescue services to do the work, so funding is important. We need to see that done well.

On the noble Lord’s comments in respect of learning from institutions in other parts of the United Kingdom, there are many examples where one particular part of the United Kingdom might do something a different way, and that sometimes might be better than the way we do it here. It is good that we learn from those, whether it is sprinklers in Wales or what they do on modern slavery in Northern Ireland or in Scotland, or the way we do things here in England. We need to ensure that we all learn from each other. If the Minister is meeting ministerial colleagues in other institutions, that is a very welcome and a good thing to know. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 10 withdrawn.

Amendments 11 and 12 not moved.

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

We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 13. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division should make that clear in the debate.