Fire Safety Regulations and Guidance - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:11 pm on 14 December 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat 12:11, 14 December 2023

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Goddard on securing this important and timely debate. I associate myself with his comments about the late Sir David Amess, who was an absolutely inspirational chair of the All-Party Fire Safety and Rescue Group, of which I am the vice-chair. I am also a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I want to thank the House of Lords Library, the London Fire Brigade, Chris Waterman and others for their very helpful briefings.

I thought it might be worth starting with a brief reflection of what it is like to be in a fire. In my misspent student days, I was president of the student theatre and on front-of- house duty—luckily, it was a matinee and, luckily, of a fairly esoteric play, so the theatre was not full—when the safety curtain failed after a fire started on stage. I was the person who had to evacuate the audience, as clouds of billowing toxic smoke ran from the stage into the auditorium. It was absolutely terrifying. I am not often pleased when a theatre is not full, but I am really pleased there were not many people there. In the front row, there was a very elderly, 85 year-old academic, who was there to see one of her students in the production. She had real trouble and I ended up having to carry her out of the building. By the time the audience were out, the fire brigade had arrived and everything then proceeded as you would like.

It is rare for a safety curtain to fail but, what hit me then, and has remained with me for the rest of my life, was how fire is not the only danger. Smoke is a real problem; as many people die from smoke inhalation as they do from the direct effects of the fire. I therefore acknowledge the extraordinary work of our firefighters—men and women who, day after day, run towards fire and many other dangerous situations. It is a hard calling and we have to thank them for their selflessness and care in a very testing work field.

I want to add another thing. It is well known that we have been training Ukrainian service men and women with our Ministry of Defence in the United Kingdom, since Putin invaded Ukraine 18 months ago. What is less known is that our fire services and firefighters have run convoys of fire safety vehicles and kit to Ukraine, which has helped its people to respond as their own needs for fire safety and rescue have monumentally increased. I would very much like to see the scheme that is used in the Ministry of Defence also operating for the five service, because we forget that the effect of bombing puts a very particular burden on fire safety and rescue.

Grenfell stands as a marker for failure and we need to remember the victims: 72 killed and many more injured. Many of the reviews and changes in legislation outlined by my noble friend since 14 June 2017 have identified the problems that need addressing. There is no doubt that some progress has been made, but, as we are already hearing in this debate, there are still some gaping holes. However, let us just note that progress. There is no doubt that the current fire safety regulations have played a vital role in reducing fires, fire deaths and injuries over the years.

We know that there is still much to do. One of the most urgent things that has not been discussed so far is the updating of Approved Document B, part of the building regulations guidance. It is very out of date. Not one of the government fire-risk assessment guides has been revised since its publication in 2006. Especially worrying is the lack of clear guidance on evacuation lifts and multiple staircases in high-rise buildings. At the All-Party Fire Safety and Rescue Group, we have been chasing this with Ministers since I joined it in 2011, but it is always just around the corner. I understand why, post-Grenfell, there had to be a pause, given the inquiry, Judith Hackitt’s report and government departments having to decide what their priorities are. However, 2017 is six years ago and the time must come for it to be published. I ask the Minister: when can we expect to see it?

There is a specific need for guidance for the disabled and the vulnerable. The Minister’s predecessors wavered on personal emergency evacuation plans, known as PEEPs, claiming they were too hard to do in a high-rise block. But 40% of the disabled residents in Grenfell died that night. That is shocking. Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House what progress there is on keeping disabled residents safe in high-rise flats?

PEEPs are also important for other reasons. We need them in every environment in which disabled and vulnerable people move around. I was in Portcullis House about five years ago when the fire alarm started going off. My PEEP is for the House of Lords; as an involved member of the public in Portcullis House, I have to know my own way round it. My problem was that nobody knew what to do once the refuge had been closed off. I was literally on my own; I had gone where I was told to and did not know how I could contact people. I am really grateful to the House authorities because, as a result of my experience, they have changed the arrangements in Portcullis House. They now ask people when they are organising their PEEPs where they are likely to travel in the building. However, this is unusual. I went to a conference held earlier this year—ironically, it was the fire conference—and four days beforehand, I was asked to fill in a PEEP before I had ever been to the building and to return it before I arrived. Training is absolutely vital, because disabled people and vulnerable people are the most vulnerable.

I turn briefly to sprinklers, already well covered by my noble friend Lord Goddard. It is well documented that sprinklers play a significant role, but I am appalled that the Government are not considering adding them automatically to new builds, or even new parts of buildings, particularly for the disabled and the vulnerable. This includes new care homes, hospitals and schools. Schools are a particularly sore point. As my noble friend outlined, we have had a real problem in our APPG when trying to get the Department for Education to engage. In 2003, when I was the chair of governors of a primary school that was built in the 1960s, a young arsonist set it afire. It had RAAC, as we now know. We did not also know, until it burned down, that the entire structure of the building was reliant on the windows, and when they caved in the entire building started to fall afterwards. In the new building that went up, we were not permitted to have sprinklers.

The change in the schools landscape in the past 10 years worries me. When our school burned down, we still had a local education authority that was responsible for ensuring that alternative provision was made as soon as possible. Local authorities no longer have the resources for that. Academy chains are finding it really difficult to find alternative provision when they are affected by fire. The other reason we need sprinklers is because children need continuity in their education. It can take far too long to replace what is lost.

I turn now to the emerging, life-threatening danger that is lithium batteries. I thank both my noble friend Lord Goddard and the noble Lord, Lord, Naseby, for their comments, and I say to the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, that there was a fire at Bristol Airport last week. Luckily, unlike the Luton fire, it was not in a multi-storey but in an open-plan area. Already, fire service people in the area are saying that the fire was made much worse by lithium battery cars which caught fire—not that they were the cause of the fire, but the fire is so intense that it is dangerous.

There are people dying regularly as a result of lithium fires. In July, in Cambridge a mother and her two small children died in a fire in a low block of flats. It is thought that an e-bike was being charged in the flat, but, as my noble friend Lord Goddard, said, in too many places, it is possible to use power points in common-part areas, and a number of fires have been caused like that. A firefighter described what happens when a lithium battery catches fire. It is not like any other fire you have seen. It is like a phosphorus fire, it is 1,000 degrees centigrade, it is a complete explosion of fire and it is devastating. To have anything able to be recharged in common parts is appalling.

We need registration for lithium batteries. Part of the problem is that we cannot get different departments to talk to each other. Officers of the all-party group met with Kevin Hollinrake, the Minister for Trade and Enterprise, who covers regulation of batteries, and he absolutely understands the issue. But until every government department looks at the use of batteries in whatever area of work it is covering, we will not start to solve this problem.

I want to end on the future. We have already heard about the plethora of government departments, with each having little bits of fire safety to look after. There must be co-ordination across all departments. I will not call for a Minister in Cabinet with overall responsibility for fire, but it is not beyond the wit of government to get people together to start to talk about this, because, at the end of the day, this is about life saving, ensuring the reduction of costs in destruction of buildings, and we need to make changes.

Let me end on a positive note. At the Fire Conference 2023, which I attended, I heard very encouraging dialogues between firefighters, those making provision in the construction industry and specialist fire services. All of them were saying that the Government’s approach at the moment is too complex and too slow. They are very willing, but they need more help from the Government to make the changes that both the Grenfell inquiry and the Judith Hackitt review demanded, if we are to keep people safe in future.