Building Safety Bill - Report (Continued)

– in the House of Lords at 3:24 pm on 29th March 2022.

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Debate on Amendment 15 resumed.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, again, I thank those who have participated in this interesting debate.

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

No, we stopped before the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and I had had a chance to speak. That is what comes of stopping mid-flight, but here we go—if anybody can remember what we were doing an hour ago. Before I go on, I remind the House of my relevant interests, as a member of Kirklees Council and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

First, I speak to Amendment 15, which is in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, and to which I put my name. I raised a number of concerns at Second Reading and in Committee about the consequences of the part-privatisation of building control inspectors some 20-odd years ago, whereby developers can and do appoint their own building control inspectors. As noble Lords will know who have been here throughout all these stages, I have referred before to my favourite: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who will call these folk to account? At the moment, nobody does, and the result is what we are trying to deal with today.

If we had a band of building control inspectors who were like terriers in pursuit of bad practice and cutting corners, we would not be here today trying to put things right. So this is absolutely key to what we are doing—and, of course, I support the creation of the building safety regulator, and all the other parts of the Bill that the Government have introduced, but I recognise that it affects only buildings of 18 metres and above. Dame Judith Hackitt brought to our attention in her report her grave concern about developers who can choose their own inspector. Two things need to be dealt with: they should no longer be able to do so, and we should not create a two-tier inspection system. This amendment tries to put those two things right, and I am sure that the Government will accept it. It is, dare I say it, common sense. Why would you have such a stringent regulatory system for 18 metres and above, which I totally support, and then say, “Oh well, for the others it’ll be okay.” It will not be okay, and it has not been, so let us put it right.

The amendment proposes that local authority building inspectors take on that role. I support that idea not because they are local authority, but because they are based in an area and are therefore attached to the council and know who the builders are in that area. They know the particular problems of building in the Pennines, for example, where there is not much ground before you hit solid stone, or of building in London clay, where the problems are different. If we have building control inspectors who recognise the different problems across the country, we are more likely to get regulations that are adhered to. This is an important amendment, and I hope that the Government will treat it in that light.

My noble friend has already introduced Amendment 264, which is also in my name. It is also fundamental to building safety, because unless you have a workforce imbued with the knowledge and experience of building in a safe way, we will have the current corrosive construction industry culture that we and the Minister have spoken about. This is one way, one route, one of the tools in the toolbox—another phrase he loves—to try and put that right. Both those amendments are key. I think the Minister will say: “Yeah, that was really good. Why did we not think of it?” But I am an optimist.

I am going to just mention the other amendments, in the names of my noble friends Lady Brinton, Lord Foster and Lady Jolly and others, because they raise important issues. Here are just two statistics. First, according to my noble friend Lord Foster, there were 355 fires in high-rise buildings last year, and over 50% had electrical causes. Why would we not try and put that right? Here is an amendment that does that. Secondly, regarding my noble friend Lady Jolly’s amendment, 700 lives are lost because of falls on stairs. Why would we not put that right? Why would we not? They are sensible. Let us do them—in the interests of co-operation and collaboration.

Finally, Amendment 261, in the name of my noble friend Lord Foster, is one he feels very strongly about and rightly so. I am just going to mention that, 15 years ago or a bit more, Kirklees Council, of which I was then leader, had a scheme we called the “warm zone scheme” that introduced free loft insulation and cavity wall insulation to all 200,000 houses in the borough, regardless of tenure. We just did it for the reasons that my noble friend Lord Foster brought to our attention—because people were dying of hypothermia. That is not acceptable. Why did we do it? We did it 15 years ago, and the benefits have shown: fewer deaths, warmer homes, lower bills. The challenge to the Minister is to take that cry to the Government and say, “Look, it has been done once: 200,000 homes were offered it, and nearly 100,000 homes in a cold part of West Yorkshire took it up, and it worked.” We are being constructive and positive. There is no denying the force of our argument. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 3:30 pm, 29th March 2022

I must again thank those noble Lords who have participated in this interesting debate. It is a shame it has become a group of two halves, but I will address the points raised in turn.

Turning first to Amendment 15, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman of Ullock and Lady Pinnock, for raising this important matter, but as they have surmised, I am afraid the Government will not be able to accept this amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, will know that local authorities are already the statutory provider of building control services to the public under the Building Act 1984. This includes the duty to enforce the Act in their jurisdiction and they retain ultimate responsibility with regard to enforcement action, except where the building safety regulator is the building control authority.

In response to the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, I can say we are introducing a system of oversight, registration and regulation, driving up standards across both public and private sector building control. The Bill introduces a new professional framework for which individual registration will be based on competence, subject to a code of conduct and sanctions where standards fall short. Registered building control approvers and building control authorities will need to obtain and consider the advice of a registered building inspector before carrying out certain building control functions and use a registered building inspector to undertake certain activities. This greater scrutiny and accountability will provide greater incentive to ensure all buildings, including non-higher-risk buildings, are safe. Our approach is proportionate to risk.

The new regulatory regime set out in the Bill and draft secondary legislation is proportionate to the level of risk potentially found in high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings. The Government have chosen to set the scope of the new more stringent regime at 18 metres or seven storeys, as we are committed to following this risk-based approach. Evidence from Dame Judith Hackitt has shown that, in general, the risk from fire increases with height. Through the Bill, the Fire Safety Act and further fire reform, we are working to protect all residents in buildings, regardless of height. Given these points, I hope your Lordships will agree that this amendment is not required.

Turning to Amendment 254, on sale of goods online, I reassure noble Lords that the Government fully recognise the importance of ensuring product safety, not only in relation to fire risk but also for the wider prevention of harm. As I set out in Grand Committee, existing product safety legislation applies to all products, whether sold online or offline. However, the Government also recognise that the rapid growth of e-commerce, particularly of third-party sales via online marketplaces, presents a significant challenge.

While I sympathise with the intention of the amendment, it represents only a partial response to the wider issue of unsafe products sold online. This illustrates that the Bill is not the best means of addressing the issue. The ongoing product safety review, which is examining the full range of consumer products and the role of online sales, is the more appropriate vehicle for meeting the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Foster. He mentioned the letter I wrote after Committee to electrical safety firms. As I said, we are planning a consultation on proposals for reform, which will be published not later this year, as previously stated, but later this spring. Once it is published, I will be happy to update the noble Lord and this House to ensure that concerns raised in this debate are fully reflected. I hope I have reassured the noble Lord.

Turning to Amendment 261, again I thank the noble Lord for raising this important matter and recognise his concerns about poor-quality homes. However, I am afraid that the Government will not be able to accept this amendment, as it pre-empts and duplicates work already being undertaken across government. As the noble Lord reminded the House, in 2017, the Government committed in The Clean Growth Strategy to improve as many homes as possible to EPC band C by 2035. Where practical, affordable and cost-effective, we are seeking to bring as many private rental homes as possible in line with EPC band C by 2030. The Government have now consulted on raising the energy performance standard in the domestic private rented sector to EPC band C and will be publishing our response in due course. I hope the noble Lord will take some comfort from this.

In the energy White Paper, we announced our intention to seek primary powers to create a long-term regulatory framework to improve the energy performance of homes, alongside a package of incentives. We have consulted with a wide range of stakeholders and will undertake further consultation on specific policy design before making secondary legislation. In the social housing White Paper, we pledged to review the statutory decent homes standard by 2024, to consider how it can better support decarbonisation and improve the energy efficiency of social homes.

We shall publish a White Paper in the spring to reform the private rented sector. Some £800 million was committed through the 2021 spending review for a social housing decarbonisation fund and, as further evidence of our intent, we also committed in the levelling up White Paper to explore proposals for new minimum standards in the social and private rented sectors. In the Net Zero Strategy, we reiterated our commitment to consulting on phasing in higher minimum performance standards to ensure all homes meet EPC band C by 2035 where practical, cost-effective and affordable. I can assure the noble Lord that the Government will deliver on all our commitments in this space, but I ask that he does not press this amendment.

Turning to Amendment 262, on staircase regulations, I thank the noble Baronesses for raising this important matter and other noble Lords for contributing to this debate, but I am afraid that the Government will not be able to accept this amendment.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, mentioned, my noble friend the Minister convened a meeting of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee on 16 March to seek its advice on this matter. I have the response from its chairman here. The Building Regulations Advisory Committee has advised that the Government should carry out a review of the statutory guidance, approved document K, focusing on section K1, which covers staircases. It also advised that it was more appropriate to deal with this issue through the building regulations and associated statutory guidance than in primary legislation. In his letter, Hywel Davies says that BRAC agrees that it is more appropriate to seek to address this problem through building regulations and associated statutory guidance than in primary legislation and recommends a focused review of ADK section 1. Further detail on the potential scope of the review of ADK is set out in annexe 1 of the letter.

The Government have accepted the advice of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee and will now put in motion a review of approved document K, focusing primarily on section K1. This review will run in parallel with the review already under way of approved document M, which looks at accessibility. This review will consult on raising the safety of staircases to that achieved by meeting the British Standard on staircases, BS 5395-1. I reassure noble Lords that this will be done as expeditiously as possible and certainly within the year. I assure the noble Baroness that this review will fully address her intention to consult on improving standards of staircase safety in England. I thank her for raising this important matter and assure her that it is being addressed by government.

Turning to Amendment 264, laid by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, I thank noble Lords for raising this important matter. As I assured them in Grand Committee, their intentions have been met in the Bill. Clause 10 requires the building safety regulator to establish the industry competence committee, which will oversee and monitor industry’s development of competence frameworks and training, undertake analysis to understand areas for improvement, and work with industry to drive gap-filling. The committee will provide reports of its work to the regulator periodically. The Health and Safety Executive has established an interim industry competence committee, which is developing its plan for supporting industry’s work, including understanding the current competence landscape. Training and certification of competent individuals is not a function of government or the regulator under this Bill. The industry needs to lead the work to improve competence, identify skills and capacity gaps, and provide appropriate training for its members, and has already started this work. The Government continue to monitor industry’s progress and will provide support where necessary.

Clause 152 legislates for the appointment, at least once every five years, of an independent person to carry out a review of the system of regulation for building safety and standards and the system of regulation for construction products. Importantly, the reviewer is not limited and may choose to review connected matters, which could include the built environment industry workforce. When defining “independent”, we have excluded those with a clear conflict of interest, without overreaching and excluding everyone with relevant experience. Given this explanation, I trust that noble Lords will agree that Amendment 264 duplicates many of the existing provisions in the Bill. With those reassurances, I respectfully ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

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, I thank the Minister for her detailed response. I was very pleased to hear her response to the amendment on staircase safety from the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly. It is good that the Government are going to review this. I am sure noble Lords will keep the pressure on to make sure that that is done expeditiously.

Coming to my Amendment 15, again, I thank the Minister for her response. I am still concerned about the potential for a two-tier system and potential conflicts of interest, so I ask the Minister whether she could encourage the Government to monitor these issues once this becomes law to ensure that we do not end up with a system that does not work for all people. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 15 withdrawn.

Amendment 16 not moved.

Clause 41: Regulation of building control profession