Fire Safety Regulations and Guidance - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:23 pm on 14 December 2023.

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Photo of Lord Hendy Lord Hendy Labour 12:23, 14 December 2023

My Lords, it is a great pleasure and honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. Like her, I am a member of the APPG for Fire Safety and Rescue. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, on securing this important debate. Like him, I pay my respects to the secretary of our APPG, Ronnie King, as well as adding my respects to our former chair, Sir David Amess, and our present chair, Bob Blackman.

Although I spent most of my professional life engaged in matters concerning industrial relations and employment law, from time to time I have been involved in matters of fire—including, the presence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett, reminds me—my time three decades ago in the King’s Cross fire inquiry. Since then, I represented the bereaved at the Lakanal House fire inquest and I advised the fire brigade, although I did not represent it, in the Grenfell Tower inquiry.

I shall make only three points in support of all that the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, have said already. The first point is to do with risk assessment. The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, mentioned the extraordinary reversal of policy in relation to the fitting of sprinklers prospectively in schools, which is now confined to special cases only, as he spelled out. I simply cannot understand how any sensible risk assessment could have resulted in that reversal of policy. As a lawyer, it seems to me that the general principles of risk assessment are well established and simple. It is a computation based on three elements: first, the likelihood of the specific risk eventuating; secondly, an assessment of the magnitude of the damage if the risk eventuates; and, thirdly, set against that, the cost or inconvenience of taking the precaution necessary to avoid that risk. These are not scientific matters—some are, but the overall computation is not clearly scientific. There are many questions and many points of judgment and discretion to be taken into account. But the simplicity of the equation in general is straightforward.

When one applies that to the risk of fires in schools, the likelihood of the risk eventuating is well known to be far more frequent in schools—unfortunately, often because of arson—than in many other public buildings. On the magnitude of the damage if the risk eventuates, true, it will not often cause death or even injury, because evacuation is easy and schools often put on fire at night when nobody is present. But that magnitude incorporates the issues that the noble Baroness mentioned a moment ago. It is not simply the cost of replacing the building; it is the disruption to the lives of children and their families and to other educational establishments in setting up alternative education for those children while the building is replaced.

Against that, there is the cost of the precaution to avoid the risk. The fitting of sprinklers prospectively is relatively trivial in the cost of any building. Even retrospectively, it is a minor cost. With the APPG, about 18 months ago, with Sir David Amess in charge, we went on a visit to a block of flats in Stoke-on-Trent to see a multi-storey block which had been retrofitted with sprinklers. The cost was only something between £1,000 and £2,000 per flat, which I do not think is a lot of money. Even retrospectively, these things can be done at reasonable cost.

I ask the Minister whether the relevant department would disclose the methodology for risk assessment that led to this curious reversal in policy, and whether he would accept some kind of peer review by the experts—I do not include myself in this—who, as the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, mentioned, are present in the APPG on Fire Safety and Rescue.

Secondly, I will raise the question of compartmentation. This is what led to the “stay put” policy adopted by the fire brigades at the Lakanal House fire and the Grenfell Tower fire. I have no doubt that this policy and the issue of compartmentation will be dealt with in the Grenfell report when it emerges. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, about the need for that report to be produced as soon as possible, but I am sure he appreciates the magnitude of the task and the extent of the evidence and engineering and fire assessment reports that have been taken into account by that inquiry. It is understandable that it has taken a considerable amount of time to produce the report.

One of the most harrowing experiences of my professional life was in the Lakanal House inquest. Many pieces of horrific evidence were heard, but one of them was the transcript and recording of a phone call made by a young woman resident in one of the flats in Lakanal House to the control centre for the fire brigade, in which she reported smelling fire and seeing smoke and flames; it lasted for 40 minutes until the line went silent. The control operator on the other end was giving her what advice she could and telling her to stay put in accordance with the policy because she would be rescued; unfortunately, she was not.

I felt that tragedy personally; I also felt it was a tragedy for the poor woman who was the call operator dealing with that call—and there were many like it, and many similar calls at Grenfell Tower. The policy of “stay put” depends on the construction principle of compartmentation, which means that the building is so constructed that each housing unit will be able to withstand fire for long enough for the fire brigade to effect a rescue. The problem is that, although Lakanal House and Grenfell Tower were built with that principle in mind, and no doubt were effective when they were built, over years the compartmentation was breached. There were obvious breaches in both cases: the panel under the windows that caught fire in Lakanal House and the cladding that caught fire in Grenfell Tower, with the compartment breached by fire coming through the windows. At Lakanal House, the compartments were defective in many other respects as well: pipes had been driven through the walls and not sealed up properly; and pipes had been boxed in with wooden shuttering, which of course was material for fire to catch hold of.

The whole issue of compartmentation, as a building principle, needs to be looked at again, because it is not good enough to simply have a guarantee that the compartment will withstand fire when it is built. Since the building will be standing for the next 50 or 100 years, there has got to be some guarantee, or some means adopted, to check that the compartment will still withstand fire over the intervening years. Otherwise, fire brigade control room staff are put in this awful position of assuring residents that they must stay put when, in fact, the principle on which that diktat is founded is defective. Can the Minister say something about the protection of compartmentation, or the inspection of compartments, and the assessment of risk when compartments are broken in any way in future?

Thirdly, I will raise the issue of staffing. Recent developments have required increasing numbers of experts in fire safety to make risk assessments and carry out inspections. One of the problems of the increasing inequality of income between the public and private sectors is that the private sector—not surprisingly—is luring away experts whose expertise is needed in the public sector. It is not just a question of salaries; it is also terms and conditions, training and promotion prospects. Can the Minister say something about how this will be addressed in the future? What overall increase in the number of suitably qualified experts will be required and how will they be retained in the public sector?

Finally, I will speak about the fire and rescue services. I share with the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, his respect for the heroic men and women who serve in our fire brigades—both the paid and the unpaid. The national salary increase that was awarded to firefighters this year is, of course, most welcome. Can the Minister say something about retention and recruitment, in consequence of that salary increase: whether it is satisfactory at the moment or whether we are losing firefighters? One essential aspect of that salary increase is that it was achieved by national collective bargaining in the fire service—I am sorry, just give me one moment, this is my last sentence. There have been suggestions of the ending of collective bargaining to determine pay, terms and conditions; I wonder whether the Minister is committed to maintaining it?