Fire Safety Regulations and Guidance - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:25 pm on 14 December 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government) 1:25, 14 December 2023

My Lords, I remind the House of my relevant interests as a councillor in Kirklees in West Yorkshire and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

My noble friend Lord Goddard has inspired a well-informed debate on a matter of life and death—literally. He started his introduction to this debate by exposing the incoherence in the management of fire risk in buildings across various government departments. My noble friend Lady Harris pointed to a more local incoherence and the difficulty of merging the police and crime commissioner’s responsibilities with the fire and rescue responsibilities in her county of North Yorkshire, but it is a growing trend across the country. It seems to me that incoherence, both local and national, is at the very heart of today’s debate. The fact that we are not able to have an overall fire safety strategy, agreed and implemented in a coherent way across all government departments, seems to be at the heart of what we are debating today.

I am unashamedly going to start by talking about the fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017 because that tragedy powerfully reminded us of the vulnerabilities that we all face when fire comes: 72 people lost their lives. The Fire Safety Act and the Building Safety Act, which the Government implemented as a consequence of the Grenfell fire, have made substantial improvements to fire prevention in buildings, particularly domestic ones—but, as all speakers have referenced, there is still much to do.

Although fire and rescue services have enabled a steady decline in fires in homes, and deaths from such fires, each year more than 300 people still die from fires and just under 30,000 fires occur in dwellings. Grenfell exposed the callous decisions made by manufacturers of cladding, who knew that the products they were promoting were flammable. Action has been taken by government to remove dangerous cladding from high-rise blocks, but the Government have turned their back on those who live in blocks under 11 metres; they are getting no help at all in removing this dangerous cladding. I have raised this issue many times in your Lordships’ House and will continue to do so in order to raise the concerns and anxieties of leaseholders who continue to live in flats covered with dangerous cladding.

Many areas of reform and improvement in fire safety have been raised during this debate. Taking buildings as a whole, several noble Lords have referred to the use of automatic fire suppression systems, such as sprinklers. My noble friends Lady Walmsley, Lord Goddard and Lady Brinton—and others—raised the importance of including sprinklers in buildings, particularly residential and nursing homes, schools and hospitals. It would be good to hear what the Minister makes of the strong arguments that they have made on this issue.

My noble friend Lady Brinton again made the powerful case for making sure that people with disabilities are able to evacuate buildings when needed. I suggest that people might like to read Show Me the Bodies, the book on the Grenfell fire by Peter Apps. It is not a joyful read; it details the awful fact that 41% of the 72 who died were people with disabilities, who were simply and tragically unable to get out. A second staircase in Grenfell Tower may have helped many more people to evacuate safely. This year, the Government have mandated that new buildings over 18 metres must have a second staircase. However, as my noble friend Lord Goddard pointed out, the implementation of this has been deferred. It is important in high-rise blocks for there to be an alternative escape route. My noble friend Lord Tope also pointed to the importance of improvements in building regulations in improving fire safety.

As many noble Lords will know, the Grenfell Tower fire was started by a fault in a fridge. Nearly one fire a day in London is caused by faulty white goods. Improving the safety of electrical goods in the home will lead to a reduction in domestic fires. My noble friend Lord Tope has long been an advocate of improving electrical fire safety and he spoke powerfully on this issue.

Another issue exposed by the Grenfell Tower fire was compartmentation. As pointed to by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, it was very clear that structural integrity had been compromised by poor fire safety doors and the installation of new windows which were shabbily put in—they did not fit and were made to fit using filler. That increased the intensity and rapidity of the fire in Grenfell. It is very important to have building inspectors and building control who have the power to be able to put those matters right. The Hackitt report made it very clear that that was at the heart of what had to happen. We are still waiting for the Government to implement that element of her report. Maybe we will see it when the second phase of the Grenfell Tower report is published next year.

I will move on to other areas noble Lords referred to. Other electrical fires come from small batteries, and we are increasingly using small batteries in all our lives. We all have phones, chargers, e-bikes and e-scooters. My noble friend Lord Tope has drawn attention to the dreadful fires resulting from these. We have probably all had a briefing from the London Fire Brigade, which said that the fire service has attended 142 e-bike fires and 28 e-scooter fires this year. As we have also heard, three people have sadly died from these fires. Many noble Lords who raised this issue have urged the Government to regulate battery charging and for greater control of the battery chargers you can get online, which may not be adequate when it comes to safety. I look forward to the Minister’s response on this.

It is not just electrical fires inside the home that can be a problem. As my noble friend Lady Walmsley said, furniture and furnishings can also create a hazard—though not so much a fire hazard, because of the regulations of 1988 that ensured that soft furnishings were treated with fire retardants. The excellent Library briefing has drawn our attention to the fact that fire retardants have succeeded in reducing household fires but that these are not without their own problems. There is evidence that, during a fire, some flame retardants release toxic gases and smoke, as raised by my noble friend Lady Brinton. The UK Research and Innovation study explained that a

“significant proportion of … deaths are caused by inhalation of toxic fumes, including cyanide gas and carbon monoxide”.

My noble friend Lady Walmsley has drawn our attention to the seeping toxicity of some of these flame retardants, which over the years can have an adverse effect, especially on children, as they are bio-accumulative.

There have been several attempts by Governments to address these findings and, finally, change is coming—but next year, and perhaps not in as comprehensive a way as those who are concerned about fire safety would wish. For example, the Fire Brigades Union has stated that Ministers should ban flame retardants which cause toxic fumes to result or introduce testing for toxicity before enabling them to be used. Draft regulations will enable manufacturers to continue using flame retardants if manufacturers decide they are the most “practicable” solution. There is a huge gap there in improving fire safety in the home.

This has been a very good debate on a vitally important subject. Firefighters across the country bravely save lives. While the Government have an incoherent approach to fire safety, they will continue to have to go out and put their lives at risk to save the lives of others. This Motion is to take note; I hope the Minister will urge the Government to take action.