Fire Safety Regulations and Guidance - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:49 pm on 14 December 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Gascoigne Lord Gascoigne Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 1:49, 14 December 2023

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Goddard of Stockport, for tabling this debate, and to all noble Lords who have contributed. I am grateful for all the work done in this area. I found it quite moving, listening to the experiences which noble Lords have shared. Along with other noble Lords, I also thank the APPG and the late Sir David Amess

The Grenfell Tower fire was a terrible tragedy which rightly shone a light on the need for reform. Fire safety is rigorously debated in this House. We owe it to every one of the victims and their families to ensure that we continue to give it the scrutiny it deserves. As many other noble Lords have done, I too express thanks and gratitude to the firefighters for all that they have done in putting their lives at risk in keeping us safe.

It might be helpful if I first talk about the work that we have undertaken to significantly strengthen the regulations that govern fire safety in the wake of the Grenfell fire. In the time since the fire, as has been noted, the Government have delivered the Fire Safety Act, the Building Safety Act and the fire safety regulations. Alongside the fire safety order, these changes deliver a comprehensive approach to the regulation of fire safety in England and improve existing legislation.

Since 2006, this order has been the main piece of fire safety legislation in England. As noble Lords will know, it places legal duties on responsible persons, including the need to undertake a fire risk assessment, put in place fire safety precautions and operate a suitable system of maintenance. It rightly places the onus on building owners to ensure that their properties are safe. While the Government publish guidance to help them do so, both the FSO and the guidance are purposely non-prescriptive. This is because no two buildings are the same and a case-specific approach must always be taken.

Although respondents to the 2019 call for evidence were clear that the FSO is widely regarded as a highly effective piece of legislation, they also highlighted some areas where they felt it could be strengthened. Section 156 of the Building Safety Act delivered our response by amending the FSO to make it easier for enforcement action to be taken in cases of non-compliance, compel the owners of multi-occupied residential premises to share fire safety information with their residents, and increase the need for different duty holders in the same building to co-ordinate their activities, thus ensuring a whole-building approach to fire safety.

The Fire Safety Act further strengthened the FSO by putting it beyond doubt that, for buildings containing two or more sets of domestic premises, the structure, external walls and flat entrance doors must be considered as part of the fire risk assessment. That was a crucial step in addressing the potential for fire to spread throughout a building in the way in which it did at Grenfell.

Alongside these amendments, the fire safety regulations created new legal requirements for the owners of multi-occupied residential buildings to share building plans and other important fire safety information with fire and rescue services, helping them to plan their response in the case of an emergency. They also placed new legal requirements on building owners to regularly check fire doors in their building to ensure that they remained in full working order.

Through the Building Safety Act, we created a new regulatory regime for higher-risk buildings or—more specifically—multi-occupied residential buildings that are 18 metres or more in height or more than seven storeys. The Act also established a new building safety regulator within the Health and Safety Executive and a new construction products regulator within the Office for Product Safety & Standards. The building safety regulator will work in partnership with local authorities and fire and rescue services to oversee compliance with the building regulations during design and construction. From October 2023, the building control body for higher-risk buildings was due to commence regulation of fire and structural safety once a building is occupied.It is already a legal requirement to register existing occupied higher-risk buildings with the regulator. As of 24 November 2023, more than 14,000 registrations had been completed or started.

As we all learned from the tragedy of Grenfell, fire safety in an occupied building relies heavily on a building being constructed correctly in the first place. So, alongside these changes, we have amended the building regulations that apply to new building work, including a ban on combustible materials for residential buildings, hotels, hospitals and student accommodation above 18 metres, with additional guidance for residential buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres, and a lower threshold for the provision of sprinklers—which I will come on to in more detail—in new blocks of flats from 30 metres to 11 metres.

I will now at least try to address some of the excellent points that have been made. As the noble Lord, Lord Tope said, if I cannot address everyone’s concerns, I will certainly write.

A number of people raised the issue of sprinklers and related issues. As I said, there have been some updates to the guidance on building regulations. I was asked about retrofitting. Retrofitting sprinklers is not always the right option, and other fire safety measures could be taken instead which may be more appropriate for an individual building. I was asked about school buildings. School building contractors must meet the requirements of the building regulations and are required to install sprinklers where there is a life-safety issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and I think the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised the issue of departmental clarity and cross-government work. The Home Office holds overall departmental responsibility for fire and safety. It is obviously very complex, as we have said, and there are many departments that work together, particularly the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. That is why we work in conjunction across all departments, but, as I say, the Home Office takes the lead.

A number of noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, and my noble friend Lord Naseby raised the fire at Luton Airport. As I may have said in my previous remarks, we are committed to carrying out a comprehensive review of Approved Document B. I understand that regulators are overseeing this review, including the fire resistance of car parks, and we are looking at this and committed to change. We will communicate that in due course.

On the response to the report of the second part of the inquiry, I understand that it is still ongoing. As the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, said, there is a huge amount of work, which is ongoing, and we continue to await what is said.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about baby products. There are several proposed changes in the new approach, and the consultation sets out a list of products not in scope in this new approach. All products removed must still meet the requirements of the General Product Safety Regulations. I hope that provides a bit of clarity.

Something that was raised by a number of noble Lords in the debate was lithium-ion batteries and the fires that come from them. I shall touch briefly on e-scooters after this. There is a lot of activity going on currently across government to gather evidence and develop mitigations. Part of the work that is taking place is about awareness, safe usage and, crucially, storage and charging. Some of this work is being done through our existing Fire Kills campaign, I believe. Product safety laws require products to be safe and manufacturers must ensure safety before placing a product on the market.

On the related issue concerning e-scooters, as I say, it is all being looked at while evidence is being gathered and it is something we are absolutely looking at to see what more can be done.

The noble Lord, Lord Hendy, asked about staffing and salaries. The Government remain committed to ensuring that the fire and rescue services have the resources they need to keep us safe. Overall, fire and rescue authorities will receive around £2.6 billion in 2023-24. Decisions on how resources are best deployed to meet their core function, including recruitment and retention, are a matter for the authorities, based on local needs. I am afraid the Home Office does not have a role in negotiations on funding of the firefighters or their pay.

On a related note, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked about general pressures on local authorities, and other pressures. It goes without saying that we all know that social housing providers have several priorities and obligations that they must consider when balancing all this out, and we want to balance the imperative to move quickly to drive up standards with the need to take into account the challenging environment that they will be in. We will be asking about this in our upcoming consultation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and a number of others raised the very important issue of mobility-impaired persons and PEEPs. As has been said, it is worth remembering those disabled people who lost their lives in the fire. We are committed to supporting the fire safety of disabled and vulnerable residents, and we are acutely aware of the need to ensure the safety of residents with mobility concerns. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has raised this issue previously with ministerial colleagues of mine, as have a number of other noble Lords. Indeed, I know it has rightly been scrutinised in this House, as well as some of the challenges which are required to be overcome. It is something which I too have discussed with the department, in advance of this debate, and the noble Baroness is right to raise this very important issue. I know the department and others are working on it, and a response will come in due course.

I turn now to some of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. Before I do so, I thank him for his very kind remarks. It was not that long ago I gave my maiden speech, before joining the Front Bench, in which I talked about the kindness and warmth I have felt from everyone across this House, on all sides of the Chamber, since I was introduced. I have engaged closely with the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Ponsonby, on a variety of issues of late in relation to my ministerial responsibilities. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for the candid, often frank but cordial, and—crucially—warm way in which he has dealt with me, and I am extremely grateful, given that I am the new kid on the block.

Turning to some of the remaining points, on the regulator, which I think the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, also raised, we expect the regulator to carry out its work in a proportionate yet pragmatic way. Obviously, it is still very early days to see how it works, but this is something that will be taken forward, given it has not yet come into force.

The noble Lord asked about statistics and enforcement, and I am afraid I will have to write to him about that—I assure him I will do so.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about the issue of second staircases. As I am sure noble Lords will be aware, it was designed with the engagement of the sector but also fire safety services and local authorities, as well as the insurance industry. This approach seeks to provide an evolution of safety standards which, taken with our other measures and reforms, ensures the safety of people in tall buildings, both new and existing. The Government are clear that existing and upcoming single-staircase buildings are not inherently unsafe. There is no evidence to suggest single-staircase buildings require remediation or mitigation when built in accordance with the relevant standards, are well maintained and properly managed.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, asked why there are no Peers from the fire services. It is a very good question. I am afraid that is not currently within my remit—as I say, currently—but it is a point well made.

There have been lots of great points raised, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said. There are far too many—I have tried to listen and address them at the same time. Noble Lords must forgive me that I will have to follow up, where I can. I am also aware that not everyone will be entirely satisfied with everything I say. I will try and respond, if I can, on the other issues.

In closing, I genuinely thank noble Lords for their contributions in the debate. The reforms we have delivered will take time to fully implement and take hold. We will reflect on the many points raised today, as we continue to monitor the impact of our reforms, which is something noble Lords asked about. I assure the House of the Government’s enduring commitment to improved fire safety, as we seek to ensure everyone is safe, and feels safe, in the buildings in which they live and work.