Fire Safety Regulations and Guidance - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:38 pm on 14 December 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers 12:38, 14 December 2023

My Lords, I will be brief. I will start by thanking my noble friend Lord Goddard for his excellent introduction to this debate, and I support his call for an integrated review of fire services. I also add my name to the tributes to David Amess and to all the very brave firefighters; luckily for me I have never had to call on their services and I hope it never happens, but it is a great comfort to know that they are there for all of us.

With my interests in health and education, I have always been concerned about fire safety in schools, colleges and hospitals Like all noble Lords who have spoken, I am concerned that regulations about the installation of sprinklers have been weakened. We know they can extinguish, or minimise, fires early and enable evacuation and access for the fire services. The London Fire Brigade’s briefing for this debate recommends that all new schools and hospitals, and any new extensions to old ones, as well as care homes, are fitted with sprinklers. The noble Lord, Lord Hendy, has said how cost-effective retrofit is as well. This strikes me as common sense and cost-effective, given the major danger to pupils, staff and patients when there are major fires, in addition to the disruption to pupils’ education, to parents and to local communities. I agree with my noble friends Lord Goddard and Baroness Brinton in asking the Minister to assure us that all new schools and the so-called 40 new hospitals will all have sprinklers.

The other school safety issue is combustible cladding. In December 2018, the Government banned the use of combustible insulation and cladding on the facades of certain high-rise buildings, but many other types of high-rise buildings remain outside the scope of the ban, including non-residential school buildings. As a result, over 100 school building projects have used combustible facade insulation since December 2018. I am told that, in the past 10 years, 1,003 education building projects will have used combustible facade materials. Will the Government extend the scope of the ban to educational establishments?

Much of the briefing we have received reflects the difficulty for local fire and rescue services in keeping up with the increasing demands of current legislation on their professional advice, monitoring and inspection. Fire safety assessments of schools are done by school staff not trained to do so, with no requirement to provide evidence. FR services believe they should check this assessment but accept that this would put greater pressure on their resources. However, it should be done, and appropriately resourced.

Fire safety is, of course, not all that the fire brigades deal with. They rescue people from all kinds of situations, including the increased flooding events caused by climate change. It is very concerning therefore that they are finding difficulty in recruiting enough officers. Services are calling for more flexibility in the fire uplift grant, which pays for prevention services. In addition, in order to adequately meet fire safety requirements, all FRSs need greater council tax flexibility, a three-year government settlement and an allocation of the protection grant that reflects local circumstances. Can the Minister comment on this?

While many colleagues have focused on building safety, I would like to focus the main thrust of my remarks on issues of the fire standards for furnishings. According to UKRI research, the UK is one of the highest users of chemical flame retardants—the chemicals that extend the time it takes for a material to catch fire. This is partly because of our open-flame ignition test. However, there are both health and environmental concerns about these substances. The researchers also found that a significant proportion of fire deaths are caused by inhalation of toxic fumes from these chemicals, as was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Brinton, including cyanide gas and carbon monoxide. That is not all: even before fires occur there are risks to health, including increasing diabetes, obesity and cancer risks, as well as effects on hormones, DNA, and heart and kidney function. Particular concerns have been raised about potential effects on babies and young children, who may be more susceptible to health impacts while they are developing and are likely to frequently put their hands in their mouths. This is because flame retardants migrate out of the products through wear, abrasion and disposal or recycling. They collect and persist, staying in the body, air, food and drinking water, as well as on surfaces; they also enter rivers and lakes.

What is being done? Not enough. In 2014 and 2016, the Government consulted on ways and means of reducing the use of flame retardants because of these concerns, but nothing was done then. In 2019, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report, Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life, identified concerns regarding the use of flame retardants, including emphasising the potential health impacts for babies and children. It pointed out that the furniture and furnishings regulations have been under review by BEIS, as it was then, and by its predecessor department for 10 years.

In 2021, at last, the Office for Product Safety and Standards ran a call for evidence on a UK product safety review. It published research on fire risks of upholstered products this year. The Government now propose new fire safety regulations for upholstered products. The consultation ended in October. One of the intentions of the draft regulations is to:

“Enable and encourage a reduction in the use of chemical flame retardants.”

However, the draft regulations fall short of what is needed and would, for example, exclude from scope items such as small cushions and baby products, including playpens and carrycots. I hope that I can correctly assume that mattresses used in hospitals are included. Given that the smallest of items can cause a fire, can the Minister tell me why baby products are excluded from scope? There are also measures about better enforcement and compliance, all of which would require additional personnel and funding. Can the Minister tell me whether these measures would be adequately funded, given the concerns I expressed earlier about resources for the FRS?

I am not the only person expressing these concerns. In March 2023, scientists in the journal Environment International asked that

“a very high level of certainty about the human and environmental safety of flame retardants is demonstrated before they are approved for use”,

and to ensure that there are “monitoring systems” to rapidly flag issues and replace flame retardants. Dr Paul Whaley, from Lancaster University, said that

“there has to be a proper balancing of the harms and benefits of flame retardants, that includes a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of flame retardants as a fire safety measure”.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee followed up its earlier report this month, complaining that

“many of the Government’s proposals stop short of what the Committee had previously recommended”.

Like me, it wanted to know why baby products are being excluded from scope, whether best practice from other countries is being considered, and what measures the Government are considering that would give more information to consumers on the chemical flame retardants used in their furniture.

The Fire Brigades Union considers that the proposals are deregulatory and put profits before firefighter and public safety. The Chartered Trading Standards Institute also felt that more products should be in scope, including products labelled for use outdoors—because they are often stored indoors.

What does the Minister have to say to all that criticism of the proposals? We need materials in our homes which deter fire risk but do not damage our health. I would like to know what research the Government are funding to identify such products and disseminate their use.