Fire Safety Regulations and Guidance - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:37 pm on 14 December 2023.

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Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords) 1:37, 14 December 2023

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Gascoigne. I know he has done Questions before, but I think this is his first debate, so I welcome him to the Dispatch Box to speak for the Government. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Goddard. I noticed the changes being proposed and consulted on by the Government with respect to fire regulations. Given their importance, the noble Lord has done us all a service by bringing them before this Chamber to be discussed in this important debate.

Fire is an ever-present danger, and something we must all consider and take into account in our personal and professional lives. Noble Lords will remember that, just a couple of days ago, we had a fire drill in this place—the marshals went out and procedures were looked at. That is very important and shows that, here and everywhere, you have to take account of the threat that fire can pose to us.

The figures show a drop in the number of fires and related deaths and injuries. This is to be welcomed. It would be ridiculous for us not to say that it is really good news to see that the number of fires and fire-related incidents across our country has declined. But one of the things that has come from this debate, as the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, and others have said, is that you cannot be complacent: you cannot believe that the job is done and not worry or be concerned about where we are. Our efforts must continue.

Many noble Lords have recognised the efforts of our firefighters and fire services, and all of those who are working on that. I will not make the political point that it is a shame we have seen such a reduction in their numbers—but I thought I might drop it in there. The work of firefighters has been quite brilliant.

Barely a day goes by without reference to a serious fire somewhere, sometimes tragically involving the loss of life. None of us will forget the horrors of the Grenfell Tower fire. It is worth repeating that that was a tower block of some 24 storeys. We saw the television pictures, with flames and smoke billowing out: 72 people died, 223 managed to escape and 70 were injured. You can only imagine the consequences for people living with that horror for the rest of their lives. It was a horrific wake-up call to us.

The inquiry and reports are asking why and how it happened. What could have been done? That is why the reports coming out are so important. I know the second phase of the report is supposed to be next year, but it would be helpful if the Minister could tell us when that might be, because we all want that report to come out as soon as possible. As many noble Lords have said, it will make some quite significant points and, from that horror, we must do all we can to make sure we minimise risks.

That is why these regulations are so important. Noble Lords raised Luton Airport and what happened in the car park there. Are there lessons to learn from that? All of us have to use regulations to try to minimise risk and bring about overall improvement.

What is the state of the current fire safety regulations? Can the Minister update us on that? There are reviews, consultations and refreshes, and the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, talked about updating them. All of that is apparently going on, but there is a plethora of it. The landscape is very cluttered, and it is very difficult to understand who is doing what and where we have got to with these different regulations. Given the importance of all that, some clarity from the Minister would be welcome.

We heard that the Government have been consulting on new regulations on the fire safety of various products. The consultation on upholstered products ended on 24 October. When do the Government expect to publish the results? What is their view on some of the criticisms that we have heard about small items not being included? Many fires start from small items: this may be the right thing to do, but it would be helpful to understand the rationale. I read the regulations and some of the small items included babies’ cots and cushions. There must be a rationale for that—somebody has not just made it up—but what is it and why?

Do the Government accept concerns about the use of flame retardants? Dr Paul Whaley, an expert from Lancaster University, said:

“There are longstanding concerns about the effectiveness of flame retardants and the health risks associated with them”.

We heard about some of those—smoke inhalation and so on—and those criticisms were echoed by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, which said that the Government’s proposed new regulations do not go far enough and are a wasted opportunity to further improve fire safety.

The FBU has also criticised the new proposed regulations, saying that they are, in fact, “deregulation” that puts firefighters and public safety at risk. I suppose it is asking why the Government would deregulate small cushions and babies’ cots from the regulations when, as even somebody who is not an expert on fire knows, those things do catch fire. I am trying to understand that.

As we have just heard, there is a more general issue with enforcement. Whatever regulations we have, they need to be robustly enforced and all the buildings checked. Fire inspections and the work of the fire service must be robustly supported. Can the noble Lord explain how the Government seek to support the enforcement of fire regulations? Does he have any figures on the numbers of inspections and any consequential action that has followed them, including the number of prosecutions following enforcement notices that have been issued? I had a look, although not for hours on end, and I could not find those figures. They would be useful to understand what is happening with enforcement.

The Building Safety Act 2022 set up the new building safety regulator to regulate high-risk buildings, raise safety standards and help professionals improve their competence. High-risk buildings were defined, and there is a duty to regulate care homes and hospitals through their design and construction phases. That is a really good and important change. If you are regulating care homes and hospitals through their design and construction phases, you are clearly trying to minimise the risk of fire, which is a good thing. Local authorities are now involved in this important work, as well, but how will all that be monitored? Will there be an annual report to Parliament, so that we can see how the work of the building safety regulator is going?

The London Fire Brigade has called for a number of changes to fire regulations and for a number of things to be done more broadly. As we have heard in the debate, these include the provision of second staircases in tall buildings. The Government accepted this for new buildings over a certain threshold, but what about older buildings and other buildings? Why are second staircases appropriate in some buildings but not others?

Sprinklers in buildings are another demand. Again, they are required in certain buildings, but many of us find it very difficult to understand why you would not put sprinklers in new care homes, hospitals or schools. I understand the difficulty with old buildings, but if they are part of the design, that will minimise the cost. What is the Government’s rationale for their policy on sprinklers in both new and old buildings? Knowing that would help us understand, particularly when it comes to care homes. Given the number of people who were trapped in Grenfell and could be trapped in other buildings, that is one of the things that sprinklers are designed to overcome.

We have also heard about the increasing risk with lithium ion batteries in e-bikes and e-scooters. I do not know if other noble Lords were aware of this, but I did not know how prevalent fires caused by e-scooters parked in communal areas are. I had no idea that this was now the newest threat and the cause of fires in various buildings. The figures are worth repeating. The London Fire Brigade has attended 142 e-bike fires and 28 blazes caused by e-scooters. I was quite surprised by this. Does the Minister have any figures for the rest of the country? What are the Government proposing to do about what appears to be a new threat of fires stemming from the increased use of e-scooters?

We all welcome the reduction in fires and in fire-related deaths to which I referred earlier. This remains a work in progress. It requires us to keep demanding more. Tragedies, large or small, cannot just be the spur to action. It cannot be that, when a tragedy occurs, we debate why on earth we did not do anything about it; why the regulations to stop it were not in place, or how on earth we allowed this to happen. This cannot be how public policy is determined. It needs rational and calm debate where people like us demand that the Government respond. We want to know that as much as possible has been done to prevent fires in future. I do not want a situation where a tragedy is the spur to action. This is not a good enough way to make public policy.