Fire Safety Regulations and Guidance - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:13 pm on 14 December 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Liberal Democrat 1:13, 14 December 2023

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Goddard for initiating this debate and for his powerful opening speech, which is a reminder to us all of the devastation that fire can cause. None of us will ever forget the appalling loss of life in the Grenfell fire, which has already been referred to extensively. Out of that has come a recognition that much more needs to be done to ensure that all our built infrastructure is compliant with fire safety requirements. Would that our hard-pressed fire and rescue services had the financial support they need to undertake that enormous task.

I will speak rather more locally on this matter. I live in a beautiful part of the country, North Yorkshire, and I think we were the first rural local authority to merge the police and fire services. Looking at the latest draft Fire and Rescue Plan 2022-25 for North Yorkshire, I quote from the joint commissioner’s objectives:

“The Fire Service should be at the centre of partnership efforts to protect public safety as a trusted and very local public service”.

Amen to all that. It works in conjunction with other significant partners—the health service, local government and of course the police—in a much more co-ordinated, joined-up way now than it ever did when I was a member of both the police authority and the fire authority many years ago, and I very much welcome those steps.

Here I must deviate for a moment and express my deep concern about police and crime commissioners taking on the responsibility for overseeing the work of the fire and rescue service alongside that of the police. I am even more concerned to see proposals for police chiefs to add on to their roles the job of being chief fire officer. That is a ludicrous idea and is opposed by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and, I imagine, the chiefs of the fire services. The two roles are entirely different—in law, apart from anything else—and in my opinion should never be merged. We are not America yet.

To return to the theme of today’s debate, it is right that a new integrated review to update fire safety guidance now takes place in all parts of the country, especially in areas that have high-rise buildings but also in schools and hospitals, about which we have heard so much today. A recent example of that is the school built just four years ago in Essex that had to be demolished because of its modular construction—again, we have heard about that today—which many new buildings now seem to prefer but which can be a definite fire hazard.

Then there is the recent finding of RAAC, which is posing massive concerns throughout the country in our schools, hospitals and other public buildings. Can the Minister tell us how far we have got with checking on all these buildings? Do the Government check the use of construction materials coming into the country? Is there a particular safety compliance for buildings with these materials? Is their fire performance a prerequisite for obtaining planning permission?

Modern buildings consist of large quantities of plastic and vinyl-based materials that have a high combustion toxicity and pose a risk to life. Fire suppression systems should be fitted to all new high-rise buildings and, as we have heard, most of our schools, while illuminating paint, additional signs and marked pathways should be indicated as a matter of course. All new buildings should have automated fire sensors installed. Between 2012 and 2016, smoke alarms failed to operate in an average of 25,700 home fires per year, causing 440 deaths and 1,440 injuries annually. That is an appalling number.

Coming back to North Yorkshire, when the transfer of governance to the police and crime commissioner for the overseeing of the fire authority took place three years ago, there was already a deficit of £2.5 million, so the service has had to make savings equivalent to 10% of its budget over those three years. As I mentioned previously, the draft plan for the fire service has many ambitions, which of course I endorse, but enabling the fire service to fulfil those ambitions and objectives on such a reduced budget will be nigh on impossible.

North Yorkshire and the city of York combined unitary authorities cover an area of 3,209 square miles with a population of around 830,000—an area that stretches almost from coast to coast across the top of the north of England. It can take well over two hours to drive across it in good weather. It is incredibly challenging for all our emergency services, in particular our fire service. We have only five whole-time shift fire stations, seven whole-time day-crewed stations, 24 retained stations and two volunteer-crewed stations. The firefighters may not have to deal with significant numbers of high-rise buildings, being in a predominantly rural area, but they have vast areas of land to cover, with significant risk of moorland fires and the concomitant problems of climate change and danger to protected habitats, wildlife and livestock. The Vale of York suffers badly from flooding, as do parts of the Yorkshire Dales. These are all difficulties our fire service must deal with and overcome. The public expect it to do so.

Here, I too extend my thanks for the many lives and buildings that our firefighters have saved, often in dangerous and highly toxic conditions. The North Yorkshire brigade attended 8,256 incidents in the year ending June 2023—13% more than in the previous year. There were 3,252 false alarms; we have not heard much about those today. There were 2,055 fires and 2,949 non-fire incidents, almost certainly road traffic accidents. That is quite a workload for only 592 firefighting personnel.

The fire and rescue national framework requires each fire authority to produce an integrated risk management plan. The public must be able to see this. The plan must reflect all foreseeable fire and rescue-related risks and set out its management strategy, as well as showing that effective consultation with communities has taken place. It must also consult its workforce and other partners, and cover a three-year time span. Those are all important requirements, which presupposes that there will be money for the service to undertake these duties—duties that require the very highest calibre of personnel, who will all require extensive training and first-class equipment.

My next concern is how all this will be paid for. The Fire Standards Board produced national professional standards but recruiting firefighters is becoming more difficult, especially for hard-pressed local government, precisely because the private sector can poach the brightest and best as it pays better money; that was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy. Indeed, privatisation of the service is looking increasingly likely. From buying expensive safety equipment to high-vis jackets, you can see adverts all over the internet for essential firefighting use.

Surely it is time we had an integrated review to look at updating fire safety guidance and ensuring that all areas of our country are protected as much as possible from the ravages of fire—from our high-rise buildings to our vast areas of underpopulated but important habitats, from our schools and our hospitals to other public buildings where people should be able to feel safe. All are important and need the assurance that they have been inspected by well-trained, professional people with the right skills to undertake such a specialist task. An integrated review looking at all these issues would be the right way forward; I urge the Minister to support this.