Fire Safety Regulations and Guidance - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:52 am on 14 December 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Goddard of Stockport Lord Goddard of Stockport Liberal Democrat 11:52, 14 December 2023

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, one of the most active groups in Westminster. It is chaired by Bob Blackman CBE MP, following the late Sir David Amess MP, who noble Lords will remember was horrifically murdered two years ago while undertaking his constituency work. He was the chair of the APPG for more than 20 years.

I was elected as a local councillor in Stockport in 1990. From 1992 onwards, I was a member of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Authority for more than 20 years, off and on. I was inspired by officers in that authority, including people such as Barry Dixon and Steve McGuirk, who have been excellent officers dedicated to fire prevention and safety. I am both honoured yet frustrated to lead this debate.

To understand the fears and concerns of the APPG and the fire industry, the House needs to understand the problems. I will try to encapsulate them in the next 10 minutes or so. The two government departments principally involved in fire are the Home Office, essentially for the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) order and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for building safety, building regulations and housing, which have been moved to the Building Safety Regulator and the Health and Safety Executive. Initially, fire was the responsibility of the Home Office, but it was transferred to the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. It was then transferred to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, followed by the Department for Communities and Local Government and then the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The latter has majority oversight of building and fire safety, including building regulations. As noble Lords can see, the number of departments grows as we progress over time.

I can think of no better place to start this debate than with the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster and the opening statement of the second stage by Jason Beer KC, who was representing the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. He said that the Government apologise for failures in the lead-up to the Grenfell Tower fire, admitting to errors and missed opportunities that helped to create

“an environment in which such a tragedy was possible”.

He told the public inquiry into the disaster that the department was “deeply sorry” and conceded that they did not know how building regulations had failed to be applied on the ground. He said that the system failed. Those admissions were made in his opening statement to the final stage of the public inquiry that investigated the role of dozens of government figures from junior officers to former Ministers. The department also admitted that it failed properly to learn lessons from previous fires in high-rise blocks, including the 2009 cladding blaze at Lakanal House in Southwark, where six people died.

Ironically, the then chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group, the late Sir David Amess MP, wrote 21 letters to successive Ministers pleading with them to bring forward a few of the life-changing, critical safety matters outlined by the coroner before the planned three-year or four-year review into regulations; they were all refused. Following the tragic loss of 72 lives in the Grenfell Tower, Sir David made the public statement that, had Ministers listened to him, that

“fire … would not have happened”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/7/17; col. 334.]

It was not just one Minister; it was a succession of Ministers.

The APPG’s fire adviser and administrative secretary, Ronnie King OBE, provided a 34,000-word statement and approaching 100 exhibits to the Grenfell public inquiry following a four-hour interview and follow-up meetings with the legal team, which was extensively quoted in the evidence. That was after a four-hour interview under caution with the Metropolitan Police.

As noble Lords are aware, stage two of the Grenfell inquiry finished in October 2022. In his closing statement, the lead counsel to the inquiry, Richard Millett KC, said that many firms giving evidence at the Grenfell inquiry indulged in a

“merry-go-round of buck-passing” to protect their legal positions. He said that it was regrettable that many of,

“those responsible for the buildings and the building environment as it was on the night of the fire sought to exculpate themselves and to pin the blame on others”.

He said, however, that the firms then blamed

“the professionals in the design team for not reading the marketing leaflets” which required a full system fitting test before the block of flats was built.

The brief from the Home Office to Dame Judith Hackitt was clear that she should undertake an independent review of building and, in particular, fire safety regulations. Dame Judith’s recommendations included a new regulatory framework to address those weaknesses. The overriding theme was to move towards an outcome-based approach to building safety, where industries take responsibility for their own actions. The key proposals included a new joint competent authority, comprised of local authority building standards, fire and rescue authorities and the Health and Safety Executive, to oversee the management and risk of high-rise residential buildings.

A set of rigorous, demanding roles and responsibilities for duty holders was introduced to give stronger focus on building safety and a single, more streamlined regulatory route to oversee standards across the board and to determine where enforcement can and should take place. Dame Judith established six work groups to consider those elements, including how to build effect regulations to make homes safer for people. Some of those groups had 10 people. Significantly, not one All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group adviser was selected for to serve on any of those groups, despite their enormous wealth of experience in the fire industry.

I now turn to the overlap of grey areas in government departments and will explain why we think this needs to be looked at. I will give a couple of examples of the fragmentation across departments and the need for greater integration, beginning with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The All-Party Parliamentary Group had a second meeting with the Minister only yesterday—quite surprisingly, as the debate is today. That was because of frequent changes in the secretarial staff in the department, but I suspect that it was not helped by the number of government reshuffles. It must be said that the Minister was very amiable and helpful; he attended the meeting. He assured me that he was taking a horizon-scanning approach to fire safety, and I wait to see what that means.

I point out that since Grenfell the department has taken numerous policy decisions relating to tall blocks of flats, such as setting a height threshold of 11 metres, at which new-build blocks must have automatic fire sprinklers and protection, removing the dangerous Class O certification from Building Regulations Approved Document B. It also took the immediate decision to remove ACM combustible cladding from all existing tower blocks taller than 18 metres and broadened that out for combustible cladding on less tall buildings. It is now working hard to sort out leaseholder issues, but clearly that is more complicated and a debate for another meeting.

The recent Luton Airport multi-storey car park fire followed an earlier fire at Liverpool Arena. A report commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government in 2006, published in 2010, showed the impact that having automatic fire sprinklers would have had on that fire and the earlier fire at the Liverpool Arena in 2017. The report said that tests found that sprinkler systems were effective in controlling developing fires and equally effective at controlling fully developed fires. In addition, without sprinklers, fires are likely to spread from car to car. With sprinklers that is very unlikely. The report found that structural steelwork was not affected by less than 30 minutes’ fire exposure. With sprinklers, the steelwork would have remained unaffected. So why was that not implemented and why did that fire at Luton Airport happen?

The second issue relates to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the charging of lithium-ion batteries in e-bikes inside blocks of flats, where there have been several deaths due to the ferocity of the explosion when a fire takes hold. Most of these e-bikes are being charged in communal areas that are the only exits for the people living in those flats. This matter should be addressed. The Department for Business and Trade and the Home Office are responsible for fighting fires, as well as the Department for Transport which is now involved because of e-bikes. We need clarity about which department has overall responsibility for fire safety.

The third issue is a second staircase in new blocks of flats taller than 18 metres, which was agreed. Second staircases must be built. The Minister has now deferred that decision for further consultation. Why?

The Department for Education produced a revised fire safety design guide for new schools Design for Fire Safety in Schools: Building Bulletin 100 for a public consultation. Two years ago, it received a resounding rejection by the whole of the fire sector including the National Fire Chiefs Council, which still has not had a response. The current BB100, which was prepared with the oversight of the then Schools Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, concluded that all new schools, apart from a few low-risk schools, to be determined by a risk toolkit, would be expected to have automatic fire sprinklers installed. So, every new school should get a sprinkler system. However, the recent Department for Education draft provision reversed that decision and concluded that all schools, apart from a few high-risk schools, will not now get a sprinkler system. The risk toolkit will be scrapped and high-risk schools will be determined by the Department for Education. They include those taller than 11 meters, which are very few; special needs schools, which are now integrated into mainstream schools, and so there are very few such schools; and the sleeping parts of boarding schools—not the whole boarding school, just the sleeping part—and again there are very few.

The department did not do an impact assessment that fire damage to the school has on its children’s attainment levels, until we told it and it had to address it. The department did not provide a compartment size for large single-storey schools before it need fire suppression, and we had to tell it that. In the original guidelines, a school could be half a square mile before any regulations were needed. It has now set the size at 4,000 square meters. The DfE confessed it did not have professional fire safety adviser when we asked to meet the advisers. It is now recruiting a fire service engineer and will meet the group before seeing politicians.

The APPG has had one meeting with the Department for Education in four years, at a time when fire has been high on the agenda with school fires, Covid and the impact on children’s mental health and development. Our children should be in schools interacting and developing. Will the Minister tell us how the DfE can continue to be permitted to manage fire safety, post-Grenfell Tower, with such a poor risk attitude? Following the evidence of asbestos and RAAC concrete in school buildings, it gives me no confidence.

In summary, the APPG and the entire fire industry feel we cannot accept such poor standards. History tells us that with fire, legislation normally follows disasters and subsequent inquiries bring recommendations from the Woolworths fire in Manchester, the King’s Cross disaster, Grenfell Tower and numerous train accidents. This cannot be a coherent way to determine fire safety policy. We must integrate fire in one place, where all the standards and policies will be made and where one person will be held accountable. It needs specialist advisers who will not necessarily tell the Minister what he wants to hear, but what he needs to hear. Will the Minister comment on why ex-police chief constables seem to arrive in this House like London buses, but not one ex-fire chief has ever be ennobled in its history? The experience of 30 or 40 years in that industry, understanding the issues, is to me unfathomable. Sometimes, it is that simple.