Amendment 15

Building Safety Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 1:35 pm on 29th March 2022.

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock:

Moved by Baroness Hayman of Ullock

15: After Clause 31, insert the following new Clause—“Building safety and local authoritiesThe Secretary of State may amend the Building Act 1984 so that the duties imposed on the regulator by virtue of section 31 in respect of higher-risk buildings are imposed on local authorities that exercise building control functions in the area in which the building is located, in respect of buildings which are—(a) under 18 metres in height, and(b) comprise more than one dwelling.”

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, Amendment 15 is about building regulations and safety measures. It would insert a new clause that states:

“The Secretary of State may amend the Building Act 1984 so that the duties imposed on the regulator by virtue of section 31 in respect of higher-risk buildings are imposed on local authorities that exercise building control functions in the area in which the building is located, in respect of buildings which are …under 18 metres in height, and … comprise more than one dwelling.”

I will give an overview of the amendment; we discussed this issue in detail in Committee so I will be fairly brief.

These two points will ensure that the more stringent building safety framework applies not just to buildings over 18 metres but to buildings under 18 metres where they are multi-occupancy dwellings. We believe that the Bill, in its original draft and as amended in Committee, fails to confirm robustly whether the gateway system will apply to buildings under 18 metres where they are multi-occupancy dwellings. The purpose of this amendment is to get that covered. If it is already covered, I would appreciate clarification from the Minister because we do not want to see a two-tier system where buildings under 18 metres have less rigorous safety regulations than those over 18 metres.

If the Government accepted this amendment then, to avoid issues with capacity that could arise for the building safety regulator—the Minister has discussed his concerns about this in previous debates—it would make the local authority the building control authority, not the building safety regulator. Local authority building control would then cover the operation of the gateway system at all heights below 18 metres.

The amendment also, importantly, removes developers’ ability to pick their own regulator for multi-occupancy buildings under 18 metres, because the local authority building control will then be the sole regulator, again preventing a two-tier system developing. It would also remove concerns raised by local authorities and others that the Government may fail, or take a long time, to expand the high-risk regime to include more buildings.

To sum up, the Hackitt report identified the ability of duty-holders to choose their building control body as a major weakness of the current regulatory regime. The Bill restricts the building control duties to the regulator for buildings within scope. The Local Government Association supports this amendment, which would address these issues. Prohibiting duty-holders of any residential building choosing their building control body would help to ensure a consistent standard, right across the board, and prevent conflicts of interest and a two-tier system. I urge the Minister seriously to consider the proposals in this amendment. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is taking part remotely, I invite her to speak.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 254, laid by my noble friend Lord Foster, but shall do so very briefly to say that there needs to be consistency in preventing the sale of faulty electrical goods online, or those that do not meet the appropriate safety standards and may therefore be defective. My noble friend’s amendment would by regulation ensure that operators of online marketplaces take the appropriate steps to remove items that do not comply with safety legislation.

I remember some years ago discussing with an independent retailer of baby goods, including electrical goods, how vigilant he had to be when goods arrived that they met the safety standards needed. He and his staff knew what to look for: sometimes a fake EU safety logo had printing faults, but there were other warning signs too. He felt he had a particular responsibility to ensure that his customers always bought safe and regulated items.

The difficulty is that online marketplace operators do not feel that responsibility to check that items meet safety regulations. Many of the fires in high-rise blocks that have been referred to during the passage of the Bill and other debates in Parliament over the years were started by faulty or defective electrical goods. There is a particular worry with an ever-increasing percentage of electrical goods now being bought online. My noble friend’s amendment attempts to level the playing field to make sure that customers and consumers can rely on the safety of their products when they buy them.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Rural Economy Committee, Chair, Rural Economy Committee

I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Brinton for summarising Amendment 254, which is in my name and supported by her. I shall speak to that and to Amendment 261. As my noble friend just said, there is a real concern about fires, particularly in high-rise buildings. Sadly, the statistics show that the number of fires in such buildings is rising year on year, with more than 350 having taken place in the last year for which figures are available.

We also know more generally that more than 50% of fires in such buildings and others are caused by electricity. In some cases, it is as a result of faulty electrical installations—which is why, earlier this morning, I moved an amendment to ensure that all such installations should have a safety check every five years—but sometimes they are caused by faulty electrical appliances. The Grenfell Tower fire, the great tragedy which led so much to the Bill before us, was caused by a faulty fridge-freezer; the Shepherds Court fire was caused by a faulty tumble-dryer and the Lakanal House fire by a faulty TV. It is vital that when customers purchase an electrical appliance, they know that it is safe.

However, as my noble friend pointed out, when an electrical appliance is purchased in a shop, the shopkeeper has the responsibility to ensure its safety but, bizarrely, there is currently no similar requirement for online marketplaces to take responsibility for the safety of appliances sold on them. That is leading to a worrying situation. Research by Electrical Safety First and by the Office for Product Safety and Standards has found a worrying number of non-compliant electrical appliances available for purchase in online marketplaces. Electrical Safety First has repeatedly found available on such sites appliances, such as tumble dryers and washing machines, that have already been recalled by the manufacturer due to concerns about the risk of overheating and fire.

This is not a small problem—indeed, with the growth in online shopping, it is a growing one—so there is an urgent need to bring the protections that already apply to purchases of electrical appliances made in shops to those purchased online, and that is what Amendment 254 seeks to achieve. It echoes concerns pf the National Audit Office, which has talked of gaps in regulators’ power to regulate online marketplaces, and concerns by the Public Accounts Committee, which has pointed out that

“under current legislation, online marketplaces are not responsible for the safety of products sold by third parties on their platforms.”

The Government also appear to agree that action is needed. In an answer to a House of Commons Written Parliamentary Question, the Minister there said:

“The Government is committed to ensuring that only safe products can be sold in the UK.”

The Minister here wrote to me regarding this matter following the debate in Committee, and I thank him for his letter. He stated that it is

“the Government’s intention to bring forward proposals for consultation later this year”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, who I am pleased to see in her place, wrote to the chief executive of Electrical Safety First setting out a similar timetable and saying that the Government

“recognises that unsafe electrical appliances may have effects beyond their immediate location, including properties and inhabitants.”

That of course applies especially to high-rise buildings.

There lies the nub of the matter. Why are we delaying until a consultation later this year and then waiting for the responses to that consultation? A great deal of time will pass before any decision, and I fear that when we eventually get around to plugging the loophole the dangers may already have occurred.

I am not the only one who is pressing for more immediate action from the Government. Last November, numerous organisations wrote to the Secretary of State. They included the National Fire Chiefs Council, Which?, individual fire brigades, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, the Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances, Electrical Safety First, the British Toy and Hobby Association and the Child Accident Prevention Trust. All those organisations wrote to the Business Secretary saying:

“It is critical that reforms are delivered at pace to prevent further lives being put at risk from dangerous products sold online. Consumers deserve equal protections regardless of whether they are shopping on an online marketplace or on the high street.”

I hope the noble Baroness will tell us that not only are we going to have a consultation but we are going to do it as swiftly as possible—or, better still, that she is prepared to accept the amendment.

As the Minister knows, Amendment 261 is a hobby-horse of mine that I have been raising in your Lordships’ Chamber for the past five years. I believe passionately that there is an urgent need to improve the amount of home insulation in the country. On every occasion I have spoken, I have acknowledged that this and previous Governments have done a great deal in this area, so I hope the response to this debate from the Minister will not merely reiterate all the things that are currently taking place, because I acknowledge and welcome them. We know there is real benefit in doing this because, by improving home energy insulation, we will cut the demand for gas, reduce energy bills, slash emissions and so on. As the Government’s own document, the Heat and Buildings Strategy, says, low-carbon buildings are clearly beneficial to consumers. They are smarter and better-performing, with reduced energy bills in a healthier, more comfortable environment.

So a lot is being done, but more is needed. Interestingly, the Government have a set of targets to achieve more. The purpose of this amendment is merely to enshrine the Government’s targets in legislation, for reasons that I will come to.

Currently, 13 million households in this country do not achieve what is considered the acceptable standard of EPC band C. The Government have set themselves the clear target in their energy White Paper, and in many ministerial Answers, of getting all homes to EPC band C by 2035. That is vital.

The Government also recognise that, in some cases—the more than 3 million homes that are considered to be in fuel poverty—the work should be done even more quickly and have set themselves the target of achieving band C for those homes by 2030. That is important because, as we know from all the figures, too many people are dying in this country because they live in homes that are too cold and they have had to choose between heating and eating. We now know that that situation will get far worse because of the steep rise in energy bills. The latest estimates suggest that 8,500 lives were lost in one winter just because of homes being too cold.

I passionately believe that we will do everything we can to ensure the Government achieve their targets. The best way of doing that is by placing those targets in legislation, in exactly the same way the Government believe it is important to put their climate change targets in legislation: it will help ensure the work is carried out.

There are two other reasons why these targets are important: first, they will ensure that it is harder for a subsequent Government to kick those targets into the long grass; and secondly, we have to understand that it is not the Government that will be doing the work. It will be done by the energy-efficiency industry, which is desperately keen to have those targets put into the legislation. Over 100 businesses, including Mitsubishi, Vaillant, Worcester Bosch and many others have written to the Secretary of State saying that they want these statutory targets placed in the legislation. On previous occasions, warm home schemes of one sort of another have been ditched and the industry has been let down. They therefore need the confidence of these targets in legislation, so that they are prepared to invest in the equipment, training and skills uplift that are necessary to get the work done.

In responding, I hope the Minister does not just give us a list of all the wonderful things the Government are doing, but acknowledges that the industry wants this to happen, above all. I can see no earthly reason why the Government cannot put their own targets into legislation. It would be no difficulty for them whatsoever, because I assume they genuinely want to achieve these targets, so I hope they accept this Amendment 261.

I have two amendments in this group. The first relates to the safety of electrical appliances purchased online, where there is currently no security for the purchaser. The second is a simple amendment to put the Government’s own targets into legislation.

Photo of Baroness Jolly Baroness Jolly Liberal Democrat 1:45 pm, 29th March 2022

My Lords, I begin by declaring my interest as the president of RoSPA. I will speak to Amendment 262.

In Committee, I felt that the Minister understood the issue; I thank him for his co-operation and his time yesterday afternoon. He had received correspondence from the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, which confirmed that the appropriate route to achieve safe staircases in all new-build homes was through building regulations and associated statutory guidance rather than primary regulation.

Part K of the building regulations covers protection from falling, collision and impact. Requirement K1 specifically addresses the usability of stairs, ladders and ramps, including handrails. That last part is important because there is a need to have properly built stairs, but a considerable number of accidents are prevented by having handrails. British Standard 5395-1 was fully updated in 2010, is reviewed every five years and remains current.

Staircase injuries are an underestimated threat to the health and safety of people in this country, with 43,000 people admitted to hospital every year following an accident on the stairs. Many of these people will lose their mobility and, with that, their independence; tragically, about 700 people lose their lives every single year. The risk is so common that it gets taken for granted but it does not need to be this way.

The most up-to-date British Standard for stair design, BS 5395-1, is associated with a 60% reduction in falls on stairs. I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, agreed to bring forward a meeting of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee to discuss enshrining this standard in building regulations. I understand that it was a positive meeting, on which I feel sure he can give an update—I hope that he comes back soon.

Throughout the Safer Stairs campaign, we have prioritised the importance of making this proposal a reality as soon as possible. I want to ask the Minister for his assurances that any consultation on enshrining BS 5395-1 is completed promptly, at least within a year. The longer we delay, and the more time we spend getting this change through building regulations, the more homes will be built across the country with stairs that are simply not safe enough. The quicker we get this done, the larger the cumulative benefit to future generations will be.

In Committee, several others joined me in telling the House the facts. Enshrining stair safety into law is genuinely low-hanging fruit. It is cost effective and proven to save lives. I call on the Minister to give us his assurance that the process to make BS 5395-1 legally mandatory via building regulations will progress as quickly as possible and that, within 12 months at the very latest, it will be enshrined into law.

Given that the Government’s preferred route of directly updating the building regulations’ Approved Document K to enshrine British Standard 5395-1 achieves the same aim as our amendment to the Building Safety Bill, we should be in a position to withdraw our amendment. However, we can do so only if the Minister confirms on the Floor of the House that the consultation to enshrine BS 5395-1 in Approved Document K is under way and will be completed within a year.

The Government’s commitment to a 12-month period would provide reassurance that our issue will not be left at the bottom of the new building regulator’s priority list. I trust that the Minister will be able to reassure us. We will be watching and waiting.

Photo of Lord Jordan Lord Jordan Labour 2:00 pm, 29th March 2022

My Lords, in supporting the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, on Amendment 262, I have to tell the House that when RoSPA campaigned for the introduction of car seat belts, it said that would save lives—and it did, spectacularly. Now we are campaigning for safer stairs in new-build houses and saying again that it will save lives, which it will. More than that, it will significantly reduce the appalling number of serious, life-damaging injuries that result in needless pain and suffering. It will in turn lift some of the colossal burden on the NHS, a burden that absorbs so much of its money and resources in doctors’, technicians’ and nurses’ time.

The Minister has shown in his dialogue with RoSPA’s chief executive, and in the things he said in this Chamber, that he truly understands the enormous benefit that enshrining BS 5395-1 in building regulations will bring. I hope he is equally convinced of the urgency of this vital reform and that, today, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, said, he assures your Lordships that he will not let it be bogged down in the labyrinthine legislative process and that he gives us a timescale and a plan by which this reform will become a reality.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

My Lords, briefly, I too support Amendment 262 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, to which I have put my name. I will not go through all the reasons why it makes common sense but we have had the British Standard for well over 10 years and it is more observed in the omission than the commission. We really must make progress at this stage.

The Minister gave valuable assurances in Committee; the reason that we need to press him today is to get some clarity about the timetable for this. I feel that, if we cannot get a guarantee that it will be not only consulted upon but implemented within a 12-month period, we will have to regard that as unsatisfactory and press this amendment. Can he tell us whether he can meet that 12-month deadline for consultation and implementation and, if not, what the problem is and what the timetable will be? The standard has been around for a decade and it seems that this is a “just get the finger out” moment. I am sure that he is a “just get the finger out” sort of Minister.

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

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for meeting me and the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, yesterday, and for sharing the correspondence that he had had over the Building Regulations Advisory Committee. He explained why it would be easier to update a statutory approved document than primary legislation, and the need for such statutory regulation to be reviewed rapidly and changed as things go on.

I endorse what has been said by others who have spoken, in that there is an urgency to this. Around many parts of the UK at the moment, we see what is almost an explosion of housebuilding and of other building sites. It would be really tragic if the Bill went through but those buildings do not have staircases in them which are fit for the population who are going to use them, and if we do not see a real drop in accidents in these new buildings. The old housing stock is obviously really difficult and much of it has inappropriate staircases, but we are talking here about new build. Because of that, there is an urgency and I hope that, when the Minister responds, he gives us a really good and tight timetable.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, as a former retailer, I have a good deal of sympathy with Amendment 254 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Foster. I agree with him that there is a gap here with online material posing a risk to safety, which is not the case with normal retail sales. In summing up, can my noble friend the Minister give us a bit more confidence as to when that gap will be filled? The Government are often too slow.

In that vein, I very much welcome the progress made by my noble friend the Minister on staircases, which are the subject of Amendment 262. I agree that the approach outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, seems to make sense and allow us the opportunity to get on with this consumer issue as well.

I share the concerns underlying Amendment 264 from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. There is a real problem of shortages in the built environment workforce, as highlighted in the Built Environment Committee’s report on demand for housing—a committee on which several Members of this House sit and which I have the honour to chair. However, to be honest, the amendment is overcomplicated. The direction of travel is right but I am doubtful that we should accept an amendment in this form.

On Amendment 261, of course we need improved homes; cold homes are very bad for health, as has been shown by many studies. However, this is an uncosted proposal. It will have huge compliance costs for homeowners—admittedly, over a reasonably long period—and I really do not think that we are in a position to add it to this Bill today.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 264 in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Pinnock, which would require a report on the built environment industry workforce that takes into account various factors. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, that this is very much a probing amendment; we certainly do not intend to press it today.

However, we need to give this issue an airing. The whole pyramid on which this Bill is constructed depends on that bottom level: the workforce who will deliver it. We know that there is a grievous shortage of fire risk assessors, not least because the fire risk assessor who assessed Grenfell Tower was an unqualified, off-duty firefighter who made up the qualification letters that he put after his name when he applied for the job with the tenant management organisation. That evidence was given in phase 1 of the Grenfell inquiry.

We know that the Government have made strenuous efforts to get fire assessment training going but there is every indication that there is not enough and that, when this regime comes into force—we all want to see this as soon as possible—there will be a shortage of fire risk assessors. Earlier today, wearing his fire responsibilities hat via the Home Office, the Minister made the point that one of the jobs in the fire and rescue service is to upskill staff to gain the competences they need to fulfil their functions of realistically assessing risks and remedies in the duties they undertake. We think that there needs to be a clear plan for developing training for and upskilling the people taking on the new roles in this Bill. There is a whole series of new posts, including accountable persons and responsible persons—not to mention the safety regulator staffing itself—and we need some assurance that the Government are clear on all of them and have a laser-like focus on producing the answers that are needed. This is against the background of an industry that employs 2 million people, has 90,000 sole traders operating on the ground and in many ways, as we have discussed, has a dysfunctional contracting model. It certainly has low productivity and very poor standards of delivery of outcome.

The amendment may or may not be over-elaborate. I hope that it would be a work plan that someone is working on, even if it should not be in the Bill. I really want to hear the Minister give an account of how a work plan such as this is in fact going forward. If not, we will certainly be snapping at his heels over the coming months. Much more seriously than that, he will find that there will be the gravest difficulty in implementing the Bill, which is what we all want to see, on the shortest possible timescale.

I am the resident pointing at the hole in the road and saying to the contractor, “Please come and fill in this hole”. That is what this amendment is about.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I want briefly, having just had a signal on those lines, to offer Green support for all the amendments. I will speak only to Amendment 261 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath. I commend him on his long work in this area.

I am perhaps a little less charitable to the Government than him about where things are now. Just this afternoon, while we were debating the second group of amendments, the Green Alliance put out a new report, Cutting the Cost of Living with a Green Economy. It has some figures that are interesting and helpful for this debate. It points out that the cuts to energy efficiency subsidies and the scrapping of the zero-carbon homes policy over the past decade saw the installation rate of home insulation and energy measures go from 2.3 million in 2012 to 230,000 in 2013—a rate that has continued since.

This addresses the question that the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, just asked about what we can do and whether it is possible to step up again. We have done this in the past; we can do this in future. The noble Baroness expressed concern about a lack of costing for that. The Green Alliance report points out that, if we followed Amendment 261, through insulating 15.3 million homes, it would save them all £511 a year after the April price cap rise. For the country, that is £7.8 billion a year, mostly in fossil fuel.

Looking again at the costing, the Great Homes Upgrade plan, put together by the New Economics Foundation along with 28 organisations, shows that spending £11.7 billion over this Parliament could raise 7 million homes up to this standard by 2025. As the noble Lord, Lord Foster, said, this is very much a health and safety issue. We have set the standard of zero carbon by 2050. That is a target for the environment; this is a target for people’s health. Surely we can have both health and environment targets that so crucially fit together.

Photo of The Earl of Courtown The Earl of Courtown Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, taking the time into consideration, I beg to move that we adjourn the debate on this amendment and that consideration on Report be adjourned until after the Urgent Question.

Debate on Amendment 15 adjourned.

Consideration on Report adjourned.

Sitting suspended.