Amendment 14

Fire Safety Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 29th October 2020.

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Lord Kennedy of Southwark:

Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark

14: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—“Fire Safety Code of Practice(1) The relevant authority must by regulations amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) as follows.(2) In Article 26(2) (Enforcement of Order), at the end insert “and any Code of Practice made pursuant to Article 50”.(3) In Article 50 (Guidance)—(a) in the title, at the beginning insert “Code of Practice and”;(b) after Article 50(3) insert—“(4) The Secretary of State must issue a Code of Practice with the aim of securing that—(a) all fire risk assessments of higher-risk residential buildings necessary to comply with this Order are carried out as soon as practicable and before those which are lower-risk, and(b) privately-owned and publicly-owned buildings are equally able to access the resources available to carry out such work.(5) Before issuing a code under this Article the Secretary of State shall—(a) publish proposals, and(b) consult such persons as he or she thinks appropriate.(6) Before issuing a code under this Article the Secretary of State shall lay a draft of the code before Parliament.(7) Where a draft is laid before Parliament under Article 50(6), if it is approved by both Houses of Parliament—(a) the Secretary of State may issue the code in the form of the draft, and(b) it shall come into force in accordance with provision made by the Secretary of State by order.(8) A failure to comply with a provision of a code shall not of itself make a person liable to criminal or civil proceedings; but a code—(a) shall be admissible in evidence in criminal or civil proceedings, and(b) shall be taken into account by a court or tribunal in any case in which it appears to the court or tribunal to be relevant.(9) The Secretary of State may amend any code of practice issued pursuant to this Article by publishing proposals for the amendment of the code and consulting on those proposals and seeking the approval of Parliament in the same way as for the first code, but a code issued under this Article shall continue in force until it is amended.”” Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment, and the others in Lord Porter's name, would require the Government to introduce guidance in the form of an approved code of practice, before commencing the Bill. The approved code of practice must seek to ensure that the limited resources available to carry out the reviews of fire risk assessments required by the Bill are allocated between buildings on the basis of risk.

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 am very happy to move this amendment on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Porter of Spalding. I shall speak to Amendments 14, 19 and 23, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Porter, and also to Amendment 22, in my name, in this group.

For many years, the Local Government Association has been calling for councils and fire services to be given effective powers and meaningful sanctions to ensure that residents are safe, and feel safe, in their homes. This is an absolute priority for councils. The introduction of the Fire Safety Bill is welcome, and I hope it is an important step in the right direction. But there is concern about some of the practicalities of the Bill, which has led to the noble Lord, Lord Porter, tabling Amendments 14, 19 and 23.

Many building owners, including councils, will need to review the fire risk assessments on their properties as a result of this Bill. It is right that they do so, because where cladding systems are on residential buildings, we must be sure that they are safe and that appropriate measures are in place if they pose a risk. It also takes forward one of the recommendations of the review of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. To make sure that this new duty can be delivered, we need to ensure that there are enough specialists to review the cladding systems. It has become clear that there is likely to be a significant shortage of assessors to carry out these reviews. Indeed, many of those qualified to conduct normal fire risk assessments do not have the specialist skills necessary to include external wall systems in a risk assessment. Insurers are also reluctant to provide professional indemnity cover for this sort of work. This leads to several potential problems. First, responsible persons, including the councils, may be unable to fulfil their obligations under the Bill. Secondly, there is a risk that a demand/supply imbalance drives up the cost of assessments, adding to the burdens on the housing revenue account or the taxpayer. Thirdly, if owners with sufficient resources pay the higher cost to get all their buildings assessed, irrespective of the risk to residents, high-risk buildings with less well-off owners will be left at the back of the queue—and that queue could last for some years. Finally, delays in some buildings obtaining fire risk assessments could compound the problems caused by the inability of residents to obtain EWS1 forms and the consequent effects of this on mortgage applications, even in buildings that have safe cladding systems.

The amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Porter, seek to ensure two outcomes: that responsible persons are protected in law, where they are genuinely unable to review their fire risk assessments, and that higher-risk premises are assessed before lower-risk premises. The precise method of doing this will be set out in the code of practice. It will rely on risk assessment tools which take account of the various factors that increase the risks fire poses in a block of flats—for example the height, if they have sprinklers, and the number of escape routes. This is being developed, as we know, by the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Industry Association.

This tool should allow buildings to be placed in various categories of risk, with each category to be given a different level of priority and a different deadline to complete its assessment. In order to get these effective deadlines, the Government need to undertake research to establish a clearer picture of the number of buildings likely to be affected in different categories and the number of assessors available. This is unlikely to happen before the Bill commences, so either the Bill needs to be delayed or deadlines need to be capable of being changed relatively quickly.

A balance will have to be struck between commencing the Bill as soon as possible, so that the fire service can use its powers, and assessing the disparity between the number of fire risk assessments that will need be reviewed and the capacity of the fire risk assessment industry to do so. Parliament needs to make this judgment, and the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Porter, includes a requirement for the approved code of practice to be laid before both Houses for scrutiny.

The tragedy that unfolded at Grenfell Tower must never be allowed to happen again. We need a building safety system that works. The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Porter, seek to ensure that, on the issue of fire risk assessments, we have a practical set of proposals agreed by this House. I hope that the Minister will respond positively and I am very happy to move the amendment on behalf of the noble Lord. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I support the amendments in this group and I acknowledge the sterling work done by the noble Lord, Lord Porter, over the past three and a half years to improve building safety following the Grenfell fire. The central aim of the amendments is to ensure that resources are used to best effect in reviewing the fire risk assessments required by the Bill. The criteria for prioritisation must be based on anticipated levels of risk, so the process and the code of practice outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Porter, seem appropriate to meet this objective. That said, I hope the Minister has understood the concern of many speaking today that improving fire safety needs faster outcomes, and that nothing in this group should mean longer delays for assessments that are felt to be less urgent.

Finally, Amendment 22 is obviously key to the delivery of the intentions behind this group, because it requires sufficient fire safety inspectors to be available, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has emphasised. It is a clear duty of government to ensure that enough qualified inspectors are available, and I very much hope the Minister will shortly confirm that this is indeed the Government’s intention.

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

My Lords, it is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Porter, is not able to move his amendment today, as his is a good idea. A fire safety code of practice would draw together many of the issues raised elsewhere in the debate into one place. I am confident that there will be, of course, prioritisation of buildings at risk, but this amendment would ensure that this is set out and therefore legitimised. Sharing the costs of fire risk assessments according to assessed risks is another important element of fairness that has to be acknowledged, and putting it in the Bill, as this amendment does, is wholly positive.

Throughout today’s debate, it is clear that there is full support for the Bill and its purposes. All the amendments seek to do is to improve it for the benefit both of fire safety and for residents’ peace of mind. I look forward, therefore, 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

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Porter for his sterling efforts regarding building and fire safety, and for his leadership over many years in local government and as a former chairman of the Local Government Association. I thank him for tabling amendments on a proposed improved code of practice to support the commencement of the Bill. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for stepping up in his stead, and for his amendment, which would ensure that the Bill is not commenced until the Government have completed a full review of the capacity of fire safety inspectors to undertake the duties set out in the Bill.

I will respond to the amendments relating to commencement guidance. As noble Lords are aware, the Home Office established a task and finish group, chaired jointly by the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Sector Federation, whose role was to recommend the optimal way to commence the Bill. Members of the group were drawn from local authorities, housing associations, private sector developers, the fire sector and selected fire and rescue services. My noble friend is aware that the Local Government Association was represented—as I said, he served as chairman until July last year.

The Home Office received the group’s recommendations on 28 September. It advised that the Bill should be commenced at once for all buildings in scope on a single date, subject to prior conditions being met: first, that responsible persons should use a risk-based tool to develop an effective strategy to prioritise their buildings for an updated fire risk assessment—a tool is currently being developed by a sub-group of the task and finish group; and, secondly, that the Government issue statutory guidance to ensure that this tool is used by responsible persons.

I thank the task and finish group for providing its expert views to the Home Office. I understand the intention behind this amendment: that guidance—whether or not it is defined as a code of practice—needs to have the appropriate legal status to ensure effective use of the risk-based tool by responsible persons. I am aware my noble friend also has concerns that fire engineers and competent professionals might increase their fees, making it difficult for social sector landlords to get expert advice on buildings that may be high-risk.

This Government want to ensure that the resources of fire engineers and other competent professionals are targeted to buildings based on risk. Equally, this Government want to ensure that there are no delays to commencing the Bill. I am sure this is a view we all share. The Government are concerned that this amendment will delay the commencement of the Bill; for example, it would place a statutory duty on the Government to undertake a public consultation on a draft code of practice and to lay the final code before Parliament before the Bill and the code come into effect by order. This process will delay the Bill’s commencement until at least summer 2021.

I do not consider that guidance alone will resolve my noble friend’s concerns about how fire engineers and other competent professionals prioritise their resources. The right building blocks need to be put in place to create system change. That is why we are working with the fire risk assessor sector to develop a clear plan to increase its capacity and capability. The Home Office and 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 increase the quality and consistency of these assessments.

We continue to work closely with the joint chairs of the task and finish group, as well as the LGA, to ensure that the Government provide a proportionate response to their advice.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, aims to ensure that the Bill is not commenced until the Government have completed a full review of the capacity of fire safety inspectors to undertake the duties set out by the Bill. The Bill clarifies the role of fire and rescue services in enforcement against responsible persons who have not adequately assessed the fire safety risks of a building’s structure, external walls or flat entrance doors in multi- occupied residential buildings and, where appropriate, put in place general fire precautions. The amendment aims to ensure that before the Bill is commenced the Government undertake a review of the fire and rescue services’ capacity to carry out inspections and, where appropriate, take enforcement action in line with the clarification the Bill provides.

Fire and rescue services have the resources they need to do their important work. Decisions on how resources are best deployed to meet their core functions are a matter for each fire and rescue authority. This includes deciding on the number of fire safety officers needed to deliver their fire safety enforcement duties under the fire safety order.

The amendment is unnecessary as the Government issued an impact assessment for the Bill, which considered the impact on fire and rescue services. The impact assessment sets out that additional work for fire safety inspectors arising from the Bill will cover reading and reviewing of relevant parts of the updated fire risk assessment and, where appropriate, undertake a visual inspection of the external walls and flat entrance doors. Our central estimate of the additional cost to fire and rescue services is £5.9 million over the 10-year period assessed.

Overall, fire and rescue authorities will receive around £2.3 billion in 2020-21. Stand-alone fire and rescue authorities will see an increase in core spending power of 3.2% in cash terms in 2020-21 compared with 2019-20. The Government have invested a further £30 million of funding in fire and rescue services and the National Fire Chiefs Council this year. This includes: £10 million allocated to fire and rescue authorities to improve protection capability and undertake more audits of high-risk premises; £7 million to allow fire and rescue authorities to respond effectively to the findings of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry; £3 million to bolster the NFCC’s Grenfell improvement capacity and capability and to drive strategic change from the centre; and £10 million to deliver the Government’s building risk review programme and to form a central protection hub within the NFCC.

The National Fire Chiefs Council published a revised competence framework document earlier this year for business fire safety regulators to assist fire and rescue services in assuring the competence of their fire safety staff. This work will support common competence standards across fire and rescue services’ protection staff.

I also remind the noble Lord about the comments made in the other place by his Front Bench in wanting the Bill to be commenced as early as possible. That is exactly what this Government want; this amendment has the potential to delay the commencement of the Bill.

I would be happy to meet my noble friend Lord Porter between now and Report regarding Amendments 14, 19 and 23, but I hope that he is reassured that the Government are listening to his concerns. In the meantime, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the 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 was very happy to move this amendment on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Porter of Spalding. He is highly regarded in this House and in local government, where he led the LGA for many years with distinction and was respected by councillors of all parties and none.

There have been constant themes this afternoon: the effectiveness of this order; the need to make sure that it works properly; the competence of the people who will have responsibilities under the order and who they are; and the resources available to local authorities and others to ensure that they can deliver what they are responsible for. I am sure that we will come back to these issues on Report. However, I am pleased to hear that the Minister is prepared to talk to the noble Lord, Lord Porter, on the issues he raised in this amendment; I know that the noble Lord will take these matters up with him between now and Report.

At this stage, however, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Porter, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 14 withdrawn.

Amendments 15 to 18 not moved.

Clause 3: Extent, commencement and short title

Amendments 19 to 23 not moved.

Clause 3 agreed.

Amendment 24 not moved.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.

House adjourned at 6.32 pm.