New Clause 27 - Compliance with building regulations

Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 28 February 2006.

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‘(1)Notwithstanding any provisions to the contrary a prosecution for an offence under Part L of the Building Regulations 2000 may be brought at any time within one year of the date of the discovery of that offence, except that no such prosecution shall be commenced after the expiration of three years from the commission of that offence.

(2)The Secretary of State must by 1st January 2007 and thereafter at such other times as he deems appropriate lay before Parliament a report on what, if any, steps he has taken and proposes to take to secure greater compliance with Part L of the Building Regulations 2000.’.—[Mark Lazarowicz.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause deals with compliance with building regulations. I believe that Members across the House are aware that building regulations, in particular part L, play a key role in the promotion of energy conservation and measures to reduce carbon emissions. This issue was specifically acknowledged in the 2003 White Paper. Recent revisions to part L have included the introduction of tighter glazing standards and a requirement from April last year for all new and replacement boilers to be A or B rated. From April this year, further changes to part L will be introduced, including mandatory testing for air pressure leakage.

All those things can make a major contribution to energy conservation, but for many years there has been widespread concern about whether the welcome part L provisions were being complied with. I believe that that concern is shared throughout the industry, among building control practitioners and in the ODPM at the highest level. Indeed, a recent study of new homes conducted by the Building Research Establishment and National Energy Services suggested that almost half of all new houses did not comply with part L, even though they had been formally signed off by building control officers as compliant.

Obviously, that issue is of extreme concern in ensuring that building regulations are to be relied on to deliver carbon savings. The ODPM expects nearly  1 megatonne of carbon savings every year as a result of the latest changes to part L, but it is clear that that figure will be reduced if measures are not taken to ensure compliance. DEFRA has estimated that better enforcement of building regulations could yield up to 0.1 megatonnes of extra carbon saving every year. In a more popular form, that is the equivalent of installing 20 million energy-saving lights or insulating 375,000 cavity walls every year. That is what we will lose if we do not have proper compliance.

For that reason, the new clause contains two principal provisions. First, the purpose of proposed subsection (1) is to solve the problem of the short time limit for launching enforcement proceedings for offences under part L of the building regulations. Under the proposal, the time limit would run from the time when the offence was discovered rather than from when it was committed. That could be extremely important.

Proposed subsection (2) is intended to act as a launch pad for a more comprehensive Government assessment of non-compliance and the reasons for it. It would impose a statutory requirement on the Government to undertake a full analysis of a problem and to provide a comprehensive range of measures to address it. Measures along the lines of those set out in the new clause have widespread support throughout the industry. I commend the new clause to the Committee.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:45, 28 February 2006

I do not intend to detain the Committee for long on the new clause, which would be an eminently sensible addition to the Bill. It is essential not only that we legislate effectively to meet the challenges of climate change, but that all the measures that we put in place are subsequently properly and effectively enforced. I heard what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith said. I believe that the new clause would be a sensible addition to the Bill and I hope that the Minister will accept it.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip

When I was preparing my Sustainable and Secure Buildings Bill, officials in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister asked me to include a provision to allow for better enforcement of building regulations. As the administrators of the regulations, they fully understand that there are serious shortfalls in the way in which the current system is administered. I included such a provision in that Bill, the House approved it and it is now part of the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004. However, in the 17 months since, nothing has been done by the ODPM to bring that provision effectively into force.

New clause 27 is important and valuable, and I support it. However, it would be useful to hear from the Minister what the Government’s official view is now on the effective enforcement of building regulations. Some 18 months ago, they were apparently enthusiastically in favour to the point of urging me to include such a provision in my Bill, but we seem to have moved to a position in which they are no longer in favour of implementation or at least  appear to have drawn stumps on that game. It will be interesting to hear what the Government’s attitude is to new clause 27 and, more generally, about their attitude to the principles behind it. It is one thing to have slogans and speeches and another to pass legislation, but it is a third thing to see that legislation enforced and the slogans come to pass in real policy terms.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry

I am glad to be able to support the intentions of the new clause, which seeks to extend the time limit within which local authorities may bring prosecutions for breaches of part L of the building regulations. It would also require Ministers to report to Parliament on the steps being taken to secure greater compliance with part L. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning takes this issue very seriously, and such a report should provide a useful opportunity to demonstrate the extent of the Government’s action to achieve that.

Extending the time limit within which councils may bring prosecutions for breaches of part L should make it more difficult for those who fail to comply with the regulations to escape the rigours of the law. A key change is for the time limit to be triggered by discovery of the breach. It is all too easy for latent and other defects to come to the attention of the authority only a while after the six-month time limit has started to run. That can sometimes make it difficult to pursue a case. In making such changes, it is important to ensure that they are reasonable and in line with the accepted approach to prosecutions for summary offences.

Officials in the Department of the Minister for Housing and Planning have been considering the matter and taking detailed cross-governmental advice. They are considering a formula that is similar in nature but has different provisions, which I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith will be prepared to accept as one that would command support throughout Parliament. Under that formula, the limit for taking proceedings would remain at six months, not 12, but with one fundamental change, as requested by representatives of local authority building control bodies, whereby the period would be triggered when the local authority had sufficient evidence of the offence.

The overall period in which proceedings for an offence could be brought would be capped at two years, not three, and the proposal would seek to set out in more detail the process that would apply. In essence, discovery of the offence would mean when there was in the opinion of the prosecuting authorities sufficient evidence to justify prosecution, not when the offence is committed, as is currently the case.

Once prosecuting authorities were at the point of having sufficient evidence, a six-month period to launch proceedings would give them reasonable time to launch the investigation. It is in keeping with the need to expedite justice. The six-month period is also consistent with a general default period for bringing prosecutions that apply to the vast majority of summary offences, as section 127(1) of the Magistrates Courts Act 1980 makes clear.

Additionally, in relation to summary offences, where provisions have differed from the general default period, there are examples of a six-month period from the date when the authorities have sufficient evidence. I am advised that we should refer to sections 12(4A)(b) and (4B)(a) of the Theft Act 1968 and section 71(a) of the Animal Health Act 1981. An overall time limit of two years is consistent with the Government’s drive to get summary cases heard more quickly and to ensure that such prosecutions are given the priority that they deserve.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith can endorse that approach, which has been discussed with and, more importantly, agreed to by representatives of local authority building control bodies, we hope to bring forward, subject to finalising cross-Government support, a suitably drafted replacement clause for consideration on Report.

Finally, I should acknowledge to the Committee that changing enforcement provision in relation to one part of the regulations is a somewhat novel proposal. The Bill, however, gives us an important opportunity to send a clear signal about how seriously we take compliance with part L. It is the intention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning to seek colleagues’ agreement to extend the provisions across the regulations at the earliest opportunity. It is on that basis that we are making the change.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

The Minister’s comments have been generally helpful, and I am prepared to withdraw the motion in the light of what he said. I recognise that it is important to get a form of words that will meet the purpose. However, the six-month period from the discovery of the offence is still short, and I ask him at least to think about sticking to the 12-month period when he discusses the matter at a later stage.

I should much prefer to see a change going forward with the Government’s support, because such provision needs to be not only in the Bill, but actively taken up by the Department. Progress has been made, and I am grateful to the Minister for what has been produced in response to the issue raised by the new clause. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.