Amendment 10

Fire Safety Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 17 November 2020.

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Baroness Pinnock:

Moved by Baroness Pinnock

10: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—“Public register of fire risk assessments(1) The Secretary of State must, by regulations, make provision for a register of fire risk assessments made under article 9 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (risk assessment). (2) Those regulations must provide that the register is—(a) publicly available, and(b) kept up-to-date.(3) Regulations under this section are—(a) to be made by statutory instrument; and(b) subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would enable prospective and current renters, leaseholders and owners to check the fire safety status of their home, by accessing a public register similar to the EPC register.

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

My Lords, Amendment 10, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Shipley, seeks to establish the provision, in law, of a public register of fire risk assessments. I will speak also to Amendment 11 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Stunell, which seeks to establish a public register of fire risk assessors. Amendment 12 in this group, in the name of my noble friend Lord Stunell, is on permitted developments. My noble friend will be speaking about this in detail. I say at the outset that the Liberal Democrats support the Bill wholeheartedly but feel that there are opportunities for improvement, some of which are within the amendments in this group.

I thank the Minister very much for the opportunities that he has provided to discuss these and other amendments. They have been very useful, and we have been able to talk around some of the issues raised.

I turn to Amendment 10. Energy performance certificates are mandatory and open for potential home- owners to view. EPCs are now an accepted part of house buying and renting, and that requirement is having a significant impact on home energy improvements. Why, then, cannot the same process be used for an issue that can literally be one of life and death?

The Grenfell inquiry is slowly but surely unravelling multiple causes of that dreadful tragedy. It has revealed an almost complete lack of basic information about the building and its adaptations that contributed both to the fire and to the response by the emergency services. Amendment 10, if accepted, will address that lack of information by mandating a public register of fire risk assessments. Such a register will bring vital fire risk assessments to the forefront of considerations by homeowners and tenants. Once those who live in a property take more notice of fire risks, such as the importance of well-fitting fire doors—a subject raised in earlier debates—the consequence will be that any replacements will be made with fire hazards in mind.

The other obvious benefit is that construction and maintenance companies will be aware that their work is being measured against a public test of fire risk. This knowledge will inevitably lead to safety-first construction and improvements. A mandatory, publicly available fire risk assessment register will be another important step in preventing further major domestic fires, as accountability and transparency become the norm.

Of course, as we heard in Committee, a register of assessments is dependent on qualified and competent fire assessors being available in the numbers required. We know that there have been significant cuts in government funding of fire and rescue services over the last 10 years, and one area of work that has borne the brunt of those cuts has been that of fire risk assessors. The Government have stated that they will develop a plan to greatly increase the numbers. That will of course take several years, but it must not slow down or prevent the start of this vital area of fire safety, even in a phased way.

Homeowners, tenants and freeholders will want to ensure that risk assessments are undertaken by fully qualified professionals—hence Amendment 11, which would establish a mandatory public register of qualified assessors. Again, the openness that this would enable would help property owners to have confidence in assessments, and there would surely be a knock-on effect on property insurance.

There would be many positive benefits from having both registers and I hope that, when he responds, the Minister will accept these proposals. However, if he is, unfortunately, not able to do so, I have to give notice that on Amendment 10 in particular, in the interests of householders, I will seek to test the opinion of the House.

Photo of The Earl of Lytton The Earl of Lytton Crossbench 4:30, 17 November 2020

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and I thank her for moving her amendment.

On the question of registers, I certainly agree that some list of assessments should be held for regulatory compliance reasons. However, there are likely to be several assessment bodies. Although something like the register of energy performance certificates, referred to by the noble Baroness, might be appropriate, I hope that the basis of assessment does not change every few years, as has happened with EPCs. I also hope that the standard of those accredited will be based on those with a professional standing and a working knowledge of construction. That standard was not adopted with the accreditation of energy inspectors, and I am sure that the noble Baroness would agree with me on that.

Beyond the minimum for regulatory purposes, it would probably be necessary to avoid a register that contained sensitive information. It is fair to say that some of the information that could be in a fire risk assessment might be sensitive. Therefore, it should not just be an online, free-public-access provision—at least, not in its full form.

It is also worth bearing in mind that this will, to a degree, for ever be a work in progress, so the register will not necessarily be accurate and up to date—but of course that is the situation with EPCs. However, somebody would have to maintain it. I think that that could be done only by a central government body, and that would have resource implications.

The really important thing is that occupiers and managers of buildings know that an assessment has been carried out, that it is in date and that occupiers in particular have the right to see it, and that any competent authority may do so as well.

Turning to Amendment 11, on the question of a public register of assessors, it is likely that many bodies will offer accreditation. Again, a central register would have to be held by some public agency if convenient public access was to be a reality. In practice, certifying bodies will themselves hold records of those accredited. I am not entirely convinced that others beyond occupiers, prospective purchasers and relevant public authorities need to have access to the register, and the public knowing that this matter is in hand, with enforcement of the need to carry out assessments, starting with those at greatest risk and progressing through the housing stock, would seem a fair balance.

The issue immediately before us, which has already been touched on, is the assessment of competence and, more particularly, capacity. This cannot be dealt with immediately. Not only does trainer capacity need to be built but issues to do with professional indemnity cover need to be resolved. I have already flagged up a number of these issues with the Minister, particularly the question of accrediting already competent professionals with a knowledge of construction. Therefore, the point was well made by the noble Baroness but there are issues that need to be taken into account.

On Amendment 12, in this group, I would much have preferred the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, in whose name it stands, to speak before me. This concerns one of the shortcoming issues that seem to be common in permitted development rights developments. Shortcomings in terms of living space, amenities, local environment, open green space standards and so on are all too frequent, and the health outcomes for occupants are also often very poor. Some of the buildings subject to conversion to residential have been quite unfit for that purpose. I have inspected some, so I can say that from professional experience. None the less, these projects have been signed off, although I suggest that that does not get owners off the hook on compliance more generally and that all developers who think themselves protected by completion certificates should think carefully about that. There is certainly an issue here.

In the meantime, ensuring fire safety in these permitted development conversions is a matter of top priority, particularly because they happen to house some of the most vulnerable people in society. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 10 and 11, but will speak more fully on Amendment 12, as prefigured by my noble friend Lady Pinnock and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton.

Amendment 10 requires there to be a national published risk register, of which the two key requirements we have set out are that it should be publicly available and up to date. I understand the noble Earl’s concerns that this would always be a work in progress, but fire safety is always a work in progress. If we are talking about annual inspections, keeping a fire risk assessment up to date should come with the job.

If every landlord, designer, building contractor and construction operative always acted in strict compliance with the spirit and letter of every part of the existing regulations, this amendment would be superfluous. In my former professional life, I spent some years supervising building construction work; in case every anecdote about shoddy builders has bypassed your Lordships, I can confirm that such strict compliance is rare. However, one thing I thought sacrosanct was compliance with fire regulations. Even if the brickwork was shoddy and the plumbing a nightmare, at least the fire doors would fit. I now know I was wrong.

The picture emerging with devastating force from the evidence given to the Grenfell Tower inquiry is that at every level, from client and specifier to designer, contractor, subcontractor, and, as it now seems from the evidence this week, even specialist suppliers of critical components, it was not just a case of a few unfortunate errors because of lack of skill or experience but in some cases deliberate efforts to defeat the rules—even safety-critical rules on which many lives depended.

In the months and years since that terrible fire, evidence has been accumulating that this was not a one-off event in a particular building that happened to have a terrible outcome. There now seem to be, right across the country, many hundreds of buildings containing thousands of homes that are not just non-compliant, but pose a real and significant risk of harm to the people who live in them.

None of this would have emerged had the horrific events of that night not brought it very starkly to light. There was no transparency or openness to inquiry but a dismissive casualness in handling the legitimate concerns of those who had worries. In the case of the residents of Grenfell, those who had practical observations of non-compliant building work were completely swept aside. There was certainly no register you could check to show that your home was not a death-trap.

That underlines a significant truth: when those with power and authority find out about bad things and high risks that do not affect them but have a great or even fatal impact on the vulnerable and the weak, their natural reaction is to keep the news to themselves in order to avoid trouble and expense and to hope for the best. We must decisively end the hoarding of bad news on fire safety by the informed and powerful and empower the vulnerable who carry the risks and sometimes pay the ultimate price of life itself.

From now on there will be fire safety assessments. That is a very good thing, but it is essential that those assessments are in the public domain. I take the caveats that the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has rightly made about privacy, security and so on, but the essentials of a fire safety certificate should be available for public inspection. They should be at least as public and accessible as an energy performance certificate from which you can discover how much insulation I have in my loft and I can discover how much the noble Earl has in his. We put up with that because of the greater good; we ought to be ready to put up with the same sort of thing for the far greater good of saving life post Grenfell.

It is unacceptable for landlords and building owners to hoard that assessment to the detriment of those to whom they rent and lease their properties and whose lives are in their hands. Grenfell Tower residents’ legitimate and specific fears about weaknesses they could see with their own eyes were swept away by those in authority. No one knew if any assessment had been made, what it said or what should be done about it, and who should rectify the faults disclosed.

In Committee, I said that only an open public register can safeguard residents and that I hoped to hear the Minister fully accept that case. He readily conceded that it was important that residents should have safe homes, but I missed his agreement that an open public register was a vital safeguard and essential step in securing their safety. I and my noble friends are back again, asking him to endorse this straightforward provision.

Amendment 11 mandates an open register of fire risk assessors, the people who draw up the assessments, and every building owner will be looking for a competent assessor. Let us stop there for a moment. Not every builder owner will do so; an unscrupulous or impoverished landlord—one perhaps is more common than the other—may want not so much a competent assessor as a compliant one. Here the risk is linked to the likely shortage of fully competent professional assessors and the very big risk of people who would be attracted to passing themselves off as suitable and qualified when they are not.

More positively, when diligent and caring landlords want to recruit an assessor, a public register of qualified persons makes that a much simpler prospect. That list might be produced, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has hinted, by deeming certain professional qualifications achieved in one of the chartered institutes as evidence for entry on to the register. It might be by a separate professional route as well or instead. In either case, we must look carefully at making sure the number of assessments required reasonably matches the number of qualified assessors in place. We need to make absolutely sure that there are no unqualified assessors making compliant assessments.

We should remember that there are many semi-professional landlords with a modest property portfolio of perhaps only one or two properties and no great professional competence themselves. However well-intentioned they are, they will often not have the capacity to do meaningful due diligence on an assessor. Making sure they have a safe route to the recruitment of a qualified and competent assessor is vital to the integrity of the new regime. In Committee, the Minister said that there were plans coming that would cover all this and, indeed, all our other concerns, but he failed to explain what they would be or when they would come, and he did not commit to an open register of fire risk assessors. I hope his thinking has developed some more in the meantime and I look forward to hearing from him.

Amendment 12 in my name is rather different and does not quite fit into the group, but here it is. It arises from a specific, recent, worrying case in my own borough of Stockport. I am indebted to the chief fire officer of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service for providing me with support and paperwork in connection with it. I shall refer to some of that in a minute. The amendment requires that any building being converted to two or more residential units under the permitted development rules must have a fire risk assessment before any of the premises are occupied.

This brings me to a building called Regal House in the centre of Stockport. It is a multi-storey office block, recently converted to residential accommodation under the expanded permitted development right extension. After occupation, the fire service carried out an inspection, resulting in an immediate enforcement order requiring a waking watch to be put in place pending remediation. The alternative, they made clear, would have been to evacuate the block.

Under permitted development rights, no application for planning was required, and although building regulations would have been required, there is no requirement for fire inspection before occupation.

In fact, my concern about Regal House turns out to have been justified not so much by that incident, where a prosecution may follow—I do not think it right to expand on that—but by the matter that it has brought to light; namely that under the terms of the draft building safety Bill, which is currently before the House of Commons Select Committee, there is no requirement for such a fire safety inspection at all for permitted development property.

The Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service copied me into the evidence that the Greater Manchester High Rise Task Force submitted to the House of Commons Select Committee, in which it raised precisely that point. The evidence stated that

“the key findings of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety which the Government accepted in principle are already being watered down. The principles of Gateways was welcomed by the Task Force”— that is, the Greater Manchester task force—

“and in particular Gateway 1 as a means of embedding safety into the lifecycle of the building from the initial design stage. It is astonishing therefore, that there is no legislative provision within the Bill”— the building safety Bill—

“for this and the Government plans to exempt buildings developed under Permitted Development Rights from this vital stage. It cannot be right that consideration of key safety features should not be required for all buildings at the outset and there are numerous examples in Greater Manchester of conversions undertaken without planning approval under permitted development posing a risk to residents”.

In other words, far from the situation being set to improve, the Government propose to entrench the permitted development right to bypass fire safety at what is known as gateway 1—the all-important design stage when critical decisions are made about layout and structure. This amendment quite simply says that that is the wrong approach.

What I am looking for today is for the Minister to say that he accepts the view of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service that the fire service should be fully engaged from the start of the design process; that this should apply not just to new builds but also to conversions under the permitted development right regime; and that under no circumstances should the use of permitted development rights be used to circumvent the early and proper application of fire safety policies. I look forward to the Minister’s answers on all of those points.

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) 4:45, 17 November 2020

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to support the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, on their amendments in this group. Both have comprehensively explained the intent of their amendments and, as I said, I fully support them. If the noble Baroness decides to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 10, I can assure her that the noble Lords on these Benches will support her in that endeavour.

Amendment 10 is particularly important as it talks about the public register of fire risk assessments, and I fully support it. As we heard from the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry and from elsewhere, the complete lack of important information about buildings is a huge issue. This amendment requires the Secretary of State to make provision for a register of fire risk assessments that is publicly available so that tenants and residents can see it. Importantly, the amendment also requires the register to be kept up to date. The relevant regulations would be brought before Parliament and subject to parliamentary procedure. I very much agree that there must be a safety-first approach to fire risk, and that is why I fully support these amendments.

Amendment 11 provides for a public register of fire risk assessors, which we have talked about. This amendment again raises an important issue that has arisen in a number of amendments throughout our consideration of the Bill; namely whether people are sufficiently qualified to do the assessments. Like many other noble Lords, I am concerned that we must never have fire risk assessment on the cheap. We need to have properly qualified people who know what they are doing and who can spot and correct the problems. A publicly available and up-to-date register of such people will make the difference.

The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, in speaking to Amendment 12, again made the point about permitted developments. It is absolutely right that fire safety and the work of the fire authorities is paramount when we are building buildings.

I fully support all the amendments in this group. As I said, if the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, tests the opinion of the House on Amendment 10, these Benches will support her.

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

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord for raising this important issue on establishing a public register of fire risk assessments. The fire safety order currently places no requirement for responsible persons to record their completed fire risk assessments, save for in limited and specified circumstances. The self-regulatory and non-prescriptive nature of the fire safety order is the cornerstone of the legislation. It provides for a proportionate approach to effective regulation of fire-related risks across the wide range of buildings that fall within its scope.

I do, though, agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, that it is of paramount importance that residents have access to the information they need to feel safe and be safe in their homes. However, the creation of a fire risk assessment register would place a new level of regulation upon responsible persons that could be seen as disproportionate. There are also questions in relation to the ownership and maintenance of such a register and where the costs would lie. There is a delicate balance to be struck.

The Government do, however, acknowledge that there is work to be done and that improvements can be made in respect of the sharing of important information with residents and other relevant persons. That is why the fire safety consultation set out a range of proposals to ensure that those persons are provided with vital fire safety information.

First, the fire safety consultation proposed to change the current position that a responsible person does not have to record their fire risk assessment by including a proposed new requirement on all responsible persons to record their full fire risk assessments. This would provide a level of assurance that their duty to complete a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment has been fulfilled. In addition, the consultation also included proposals for responsible persons to take steps to provide vital fire safety information to residents, including the fire risk assessments on request. We are considering responses to the consultation to ensure that we take the needs of residents into account when establishing the final policy approach. The full consultation can be found online at GOV.UK and we will publish a response at the earliest opportunity.

I turn now to the related amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, which seeks to create a public register of fire risk assessors. I agree with the noble Lord and the noble Baroness that there is a clear need for reform in relation to fire risk assessors to improve standards. That is why the Government included a proposal for a competence requirement for fire risk assessors and other fire safety professionals in the recent fire safety order consultation.

Noble Lords will recall that, in Committee, I mentioned the work of the industry-led competency steering group and its subgroup on fire risk assessors. The group published a report on 5 October, which included proposals in relation to third-party accreditation, a competence framework for fire risk assessors and the creation of a register of fire risk assessors. The working group recommend that the register should be compiled from the existing registers and should be easy to use, with open public access to records of individuals and organisations. It is right that industry leads this work and continues to develop the competence and capacity of these professions.

I wish to assure your Lordships’ House that the Government are committed to working with the fire risk assessor sector to develop a clear plan to increase its capacity and capability. However, it is necessary to establish this basic principle of competence before we consider how the sector can be further professionalised. Again, the responses to the fire safety consultation proposals will inform the approach on issues relating to competence.

The right approach is for the Government to first establish a basic principle of competence and consider the competency steering group’s and subgroup’s proposals in relation to a register of fire risk assessors. The Government’s position is that this work should continue to be led and progressed by industry. We will support industry in taking forward this vital work.

I do not disagree with the idea of a professional register of fire risk assessors, but establishing a register for inclusion within the Fire Safety Bill is not the appropriate way forward, given that we are looking to deliver the fire safety consultation outcomes and the recommendations of the competence steering group. It would also significantly delay commencement of the Bill and place significant pressure on capacity in the sector. I also need to consider any regulatory impact of the recommendation on a professional register, as a result of the non-regulated principles of the fire safety order.

I turn to Amendment 12, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. I will explain how the fire safety order and building regulations already cover the issues that they are concerned about. Article 9 of the fire safety order already places a duty on the responsible person to update the fire risk assessment if there has been any significant change to the premises in scope. This includes when premises have undergone significant changes, extensions or conversions. As a result, the fire safety order already covers the scenario that the noble Lord and the noble Baroness have set out in their amendment. I thank them for raising the issue, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to clarify this point in your Lordships’ House.

I assure noble Lords that all homes must meet building regulations, irrespective of the route to planning permission. Noble Lords will know that national permitted development rights play an important role in the planning system. They provide a national grant of permission for specific types of development set out in legislation to have the right to provide a more streamlined planning process with greater planning certainty, while at the same time allowing for local consideration of key planning matters through prior approval. However, permitted development rights do not exempt work from building regulations requirements, or exempt the responsible person from their duties under the fire safety order.

When the use of a building is altered such that it comes to contain two or more sets of domestic premises, the requirements for material change of use in building regulations will apply. Regulation 5 of the Building Regulations 2010 defines a “material change of use”. It includes situations where

“the building contains a flat, where previously it did not” and where

“the building, which contains at least one dwelling, contains a greater or lesser number of dwellings than it did previously”.

Regulation 6 then sets out the requirements applicable where such a change takes place, requiring that work

“shall be carried out as is necessary to ensure that the building complies” with a list of technical requirements set out in Schedule 1. This includes all five of the fire safety provisions known as part B. Regulation 6 was amended by the Building (Amendment) Regulations 2018, such that, in addition to the five requirements of part B, work must also be carried out as is necessary to ensure that any external wall or specified attachment to the building contains only non-combustible materials.

In the light of that explanation, and the assurance that I have given, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment. Finally, I point out that on the draft building safety Bill, we are working with experts to explore, with stakeholders, the best way forward to ensure that the key elements of gateway 1 can be considered for in-scope building with permitted development rights. I hope, therefore, that the amendment can be withdrawn.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Deputy Chairman of Committees 5:00, 17 November 2020

I have had no requests to speak after the Minister, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. No? It will be slightly unfortunate if we cannot get the noble Baroness on the line—perhaps not for the Government but for others. Lady Pinnock, are you with us?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, also has his name to Amendment 10. With the leave of the House we could perhaps hear from the noble Lord, if he can be reached. No? It seems that we have a technical problem. I beg to move that the House do now adjourn for 10 minutes until 5.15 pm.

Sitting suspended.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Deputy Chairman of Committees 5:20, 17 November 2020

My Lords, perhaps I may recapitulate. We return to Amendment 10. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, is now on the line and very much in presence. I call on her to make her remarks and to indicate whether she intends to press her amendment.

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

I thank noble Lords for that brief wait while technical glitches were sorted out, and I thank everyone who has contributed to our debate on these important issues of public transparency and accountability in terms of fire safety. I especially thank my noble friend Lord Stunell for his knowledgeable and powerful argument, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for his expert input. I assure him that I totally accept the detailed points that he raised and, if we have an opportunity for this amendment regarding public registers for assessments, I am sure that they will be properly considered, and in detail.

I listened carefully to the Minister and I thank him for being so clear in his response to these amendments. I heard him accept the need for, and principle of, transparency in supporting fire safety. Unfortunately, he was unable to go on to say that the Government would accept a register of fire safety assessments so that people can see the issues relating to the properties they live in. He said that householders could ask for fire assessments, but they would have to be on request. I reflected that that would not work well for the residents of Grenfell, who repeatedly raised issues of fire safety and were unable to be heard. A public register would have given huge strength to the concerns that they raised.

Given that the Minister has, unfortunately, been unable to give me an assurance that the Government will provide for a public register for fire safety assessments, I should like to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 284, Noes 267.

Division number 2 Fire Safety Bill - Report — Amendment 10

Aye: 284 Members of the House of Lords

No: 267 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Amendment 10 agreed.

Amendments 11 and 12 not moved.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Deputy Chairman of Committees 5:35, 17 November 2020

We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 13. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press the amendment to a Division should make that clear in the debate.