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Examination of Witnesses

Fire Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:58 am on 25th June 2020.

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Adrian Dobson and Matt Wrack gave evidence.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon 12:29 pm, 25th June 2020

This session can last until 1 pm. Beginning with you, Mr Dobson, would our witnesses kindly introduce themselves for the record? If you would like to say a few words up front, now is the time to do so.

Adrian Dobson:

Thank you very much, Chair. My name is Adrian Dobson and I am the executive director for professional services at the Royal Institute of British Architects where, broadly, I look after educational and practice standards. I also support the work of RIBA’s expert advisory group on fire safety.

Matt Wrack:

I am Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, which represents the vast majority of serving fire officers across the UK. I signed up as a firefighter in the London Fire Brigade in 1983 and have served as general secretary since 2005. Our approach to the Bill is that we broadly support it. However, we have some concerns about the need for a more joined-up approach on the whole question of the fire safety regime.

In that regard, I represent particularly fire inspecting officers, a specialist group within the fire and rescue service. I thank them for their feedback on their views on the Bill. The concerns come down to issues about implementation, and therefore about investment. For example, the impact assessment is based in our view on a very rough and ready calculation based on the current regime. However, in our view and that of our members, that regime is not fit for purpose. That is demonstrated very clearly by some major failings, most notably the Grenfell Tower fire.

Look, for example, at the specialist roles within the fire and rescue service. Between 2011 and 2020, we have seen a 19% reduction in the number of watch managers, a 23% reduction in the number of station managers, and a 20% reduction in the number of fire and rescue service staff overall. If we take the number of inspectors, we see inadequate record keeping by the relevant Department, which is currently the Home Office. Most recently, it reported that in England some 951 fire and rescue staff are eligible to carry out fire safety audits. If we look back 20 years for England and Wales, the figure was some 1,724, so in terms of competent staff with rather technical expertise there have been very significant reductions.

The impact assessment that has been produced in relation to the Bill does not, in our view, adequately take account of the demands that will be placed upon the fire and rescue service as a result of the Bill. We therefore urge the Government and parliamentarians to seek a more joined-up approach to the whole question of the fire safety regime, in this case across England.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Thank you, Mr Wrack. You will now be asked questions by a number of Members of Parliament. We will start with Sarah Jones on behalf of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Q Mr Dobson, in my former brief as the shadow housing Minister, I worked a lot with RIBA regarding the excellent work that you have done looking at all these issues post Grenfell. Can you set out whether there is anything in the Bill and in the amendments that we have tabled that you would disagree with, and what you think “good” would look like in taking the Bill, and whatever else needs to be done, to create a fire safety system that works?

Mr Wrack, you have already set out for us quite a lot of the concerns about funding. We know that the fire service has had significant cuts over the past 10 years. Can you, again, tell us what “good” looks like in terms of how we implement the Bill? What do we need in terms of resourcing and the joined-up approach that you talked about?

Adrian Dobson:

We certainly recognise that the Bill is important legislation. I will pick up on the point that Mr Wrack made on joined-up thinking. It is a piece in the jigsaw. We are still concerned about having strong and clear functioning building regulations and a proper enforcement regime. Obviously, our main expertise is in the design and construction of buildings to the point at which they are handed over to the owner or occupier, or where there is major refurbishment.

Our essential concern is the relationship between this Bill and the Building Safety Bill. The two must join together. We would support most of the provisions in this Bill, particularly giving enforcement powers to local fire services in relation to the structure and external walls of buildings, fire doors and so on. I note Mr Wrack’s point, however, that the resources must be in place to do that.

On joining the Fire Safety Bill and the Building Safety Bill, I can highlight a danger whereby gaps might exist. For example, the fire safety order talks about a “responsible person”, but the Building Safety Bill talks about an “accountable person” and a “building safety manager”. What would be the lines of communication between those roles? Are they fulfilled by the same person? There is a risk there.

Dame Judith Hackitt has been a prime driver of the content of the Building Safety Bill. She talks a lot about “the golden thread”. We are aware that the quality of information handed over at the end of construction work is often poor. If the fire service is looking at evacuation plans and wants to know what materials have been used in the building, that information is not as readily available as it should be. We would like an amendment that says that the fire service and the occupier should be entitled to accurate, as-built information. Members of the Committee are probably aware of some of the dangers in procurement when materials get changed during the design and construction process.

While we welcome the Bill, we await an improved enforcement regime in relation to building regulations and changes to the approved documents. To illustrate the importance of that, for example, the Bill talks about the need to review evacuation plans, but we know that some of the legislation around escape routes is ambiguous. We need to ensure that the two tie together.

Matt Wrack:

On the question of what “good” would look like, I am approaching this from the point of view of firefighters and the fire and rescue service. For us, there must be a joined-up approach between the specialist fire safety teams and firefighters on stations.

If you look at the question of resources—unfortunately, a lot of this does come down to resources—we need a greater understanding of fire safety in the operational workforce. Unfortunately, over the past 15 or 20 years, we have seen a reduction in initial training courses to cut costs. Courses that might have been 16 weeks 20 years ago are now reduced to 13 or 12 weeks, or less than 10 weeks in some cases. There needs to be a greater understanding at the station level of fire safety risks.

There needs to be an end to the reduction in fire safety teams. Fire services that have been financially squeezed have found it easier to cut specialist fire safety teams than fire stations. I am not in favour of cutting either, but they have cut fire safety teams. We have reports of fire safety teams being cut by 25%, 50% or more over the past decade.

We need a joined-up approach between the two wings of the fire service in that respect. We need to prevent fires from happening, if we can. We need to mitigate the spread of fire where it does occur. We need to know how to fight fires when they occur—we know that they will occur. That is what we mean by a joined-up approach.

There are concerns among fire safety specialist officers about the levels of training, both at the stations and among their peers. There are concerns about refresher training. If new materials come on to the market, such as cladding, there needs to be adequate resources to enable people to be updated with the latest developments.

The final point I would make about what “good” would look like is that we need a much more joined-up approach nationally to the whole question of fire, fire policy and how we deal with fires. That means proper research. It is alarming that many firefighters and many fire services apparently did not know what was being put on to buildings. They therefore had not researched how they would inspect such buildings to be aware of the risks, for example, at Grenfell. They were also, therefore, not aware of how such fires might be tackled if necessary.

We used to have a body in the British fire service called the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, which would have addressed such matters. Sadly, it was abolished in 2004, and nothing similar has been put in place to replace it. That is what we mean by a lack of a joined-up approach, and that is what is desperately missing in the fire safety regime in Britain today.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q Mr Wrack, in your written evidence, you say that

“the impact assessment ‘does not include any additional enforcement costs’”,

and you suggest that fire inspectors would need to spend

“a great deal of time and effort” to focus on getting cases through the courts and so on. I suspect this question might be like, “How long is a piece of string?”, but in the absence of an impact assessment, can you give an estimate of your own assessment of what those additional enforcement costs might be?

Matt Wrack:

I am afraid I am not able to give that. I do think that, on the question of enforcement, there have been cases of ministerial pressure to reduce the enforcement role of the fire and rescue service, which is something that Ministers need to think carefully about. Fire services have been criticised subsequently for being slow to act on their enforcement role.

The whole question of fire services’ enforcement role ties in with the more general points I have made, in that they need adequate specialist fire safety teams, and that is possibly the area, or certainly one of the areas, where we have seen the largest reductions in staffing levels, with all the knock-on concerns about training and refresher training. I am not able to answer that question directly, but I think it is very much a resource question.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Q Good afternoon to you both. We have heard that this Bill is a clarifying Bill rather than one that introduces new powers. Do you agree that that is its purpose, and do you think it achieves that?

The specific point that I would like you both to address is that it appears, as there is a specific mention of “external walls” in clause 1, that the Bill is directed at what we have already seen coming out of the Grenfell inquiry in relation to external cladding and cladding systems. But lots more issues have emerged from that, such as the way that buildings are constructed or modified, means of escape, alarm systems and the processes for evacuation in that way. Do you think that they are also adequately covered in the Bill or do we need other legislation? Do you think we have the means to carry out all those matters?

Adrian Dobson:

There is quite a range of questions there. Essentially, in my view, the Bill is just clarifying and pointing to some key facts, as it is not fundamentally changing the nature of the approach. I could not agree more that, although it is useful to highlight the issue of external wall construction and cladding, there are lots of other known issues in relation to fire safety. For example, the Scottish schools report talks a lot about fire compartmentation and lack of proper fire barriers. You have pointed out the issue around means of escape and evacuation strategies. To return to my earlier point, I see this as only part of the jigsaw. What we desperately need is clarification of the building regulations themselves and a stronger enforcement or competency regime around that, so that the two work together.

Matt Wrack:

I see the Bill as a clarifying Bill, as has been suggested. On that level, we welcome it, with some of the amendments in particular. You highlight an important point—much of the national focus is on cladding.

There is clearly a national scandal about flammable cladding being put on to buildings, but we are aware from Grenfell and other fires that there are many other failings in fire safety in buildings, particularly with the risk of the breakdown of compartmentation. Cladding is clearly one mechanism by which that happened at Grenfell, but issues around other materials used in renovations and modifications of buildings are also relevant. If people have fire resistant walls and drill holes through them, that will clearly alter the fire resistance of the compartment. All those things need to be built into a proper fire safety regime.

I do not think the Bill addresses the question of evacuation. That is obviously a huge concern to people living in high-rise residential buildings; it is also a huge concern to firefighters, who have been trained for decades in ways to fight fires in high-rise residential buildings that are based on the construction and design of those buildings. Over the past 20 years or so, those buildings have been modified in a way that was never intended, which has altered the whole structure and fire behaviour in those buildings.

In our view, there is no simple answer to the question of evacuation. Again, we raised the question of a review of evacuation at the close of stage 1 of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. We now have Government bodies looking at reviewing the evacuation policy and saying that it might take two or three years. Firefighters were apparently supposed to decide on new strategies on the night, even though the people reviewing the policy have told us that it will take them two years or more to reach such a conclusion.

I come back to my point about a joined-up approach. We should have bodies in the British fire service that take account of the views of all professionals, take account of research and develop answers to these questions as we go along. We should be horizon-scanning. There had been fires in clad buildings elsewhere in the world. It is staggering that no one in leadership positions in the British fire service or at Government level was monitoring those and seeing what should happen to alter policy in Britain.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Q I think we understand from what you have said that there is a lot to do, and that there are limited resources at the moment. Where work has been going on, do you think the best practice is being followed? Is that being done in both the maintenance and the construction of buildings? We had a story in the press last week about Berkeley Homes rowing back on whether all types of cladding, including ACM cladding, should be removed from buildings. Do you think this is being taken seriously? When buildings are being given planning permission, being constructed or being modified, are best practice and best standards being adhered to?

Adrian Dobson:

I think I would answer broadly yes, in those aspects that have now effectively been covered by prescriptive regulations. In relation to combustible external wall materials on high-rise residential buildings, we have at the moment a fairly prescriptive piece of legislation that makes best practice pretty clear. As you say, however, there is a certain element of lobbying to say that we need a more flexible approach, so you can already see attempts to row back on that. In terms of what has actually been regulated, fairly good practice is in place. We know there is quite a lot of good retrofitting work happening on buildings above 18 metres, even if it is very slow, but we do not really have much idea in terms of combustible materials below 18 metres.

Matt Wrack:

I would like to comment on the lobbying that was mentioned by a building developer recently and in some earlier comments in your session. One of the voices we are keen to hear are those of tenants. The lesson of Grenfell is that the voices of tenants were ignored. The voices of tenants are often ignored in relation to building and modifications to the places where they live. The vast majority of tenants are respectable, sensible people and their views should be heard. They were not heard at Grenfell. I think they, us and firefighters would have greater respect for a risk-based approach if we could have the confidence in such a risk-based approach. Unfortunately, experience shows that risk-based approaches are often driven by commercial and financial interests, and that is why people have scepticism about them.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Q Mr Wrack, could you just give us your view on the current system of fire risk assessors and how that needs to be changed? Labour and the Liberal Democrats have tabled amendments on having a more qualified regime. It would be good to hear your thoughts on that. Mr Dobson, it would be helpful to get your sense, which we have sort of touched on, of the issue that there is so much to be done: the point about just the G15 having to spend £6.8 billion and the time all that will take. How do we prioritise? How do we fund that? What does that process look like going forward?

Matt Wrack:

We oppose a deregulated system of fire risk assessors. Sadly, much of the work we end up doing arises out of tragedies. One of our experiences in that regard relates to the death of one of our own members. It emerged that the fire risk assessor in the case concerned had few or no qualifications in that field and had simply set up in business as a fire risk assessor. That highlighted to us a disgraceful state of affairs, so we would support the better regulation of fire risk assessors. However, the best protection we have, in terms of the delivery of advice to occupiers and building owners, and the best mechanism for inspection and enforcement, is a well-resourced and highly skilled workforce in a publicly accountable fire and rescue service.

Adrian Dobson:

Clearly, on the specific issue of cladding and insulation, retrofitting is possible. The very reason those materials were used for cladding is because they are lightweight and external—they do not form part of the structure of the building—so the practicality of making buildings safer is definitely there. We have seen some, albeit slow, progress.

As I think one of the witnesses in your earlier session said, the cost can be very significant indeed. While steady progress is being made in the social sector, I think your Committee has today discussed some of the issues when it comes to private leaseholders in privately owned blocks and the ultimate issue of where the funding will come from. That, of course, is what set off secondary problems within the insurance and mortgage markets. One of the problems we face is professional indemnity insurance. Although the cladding can be identified through testing and so on, it tends to require intrusive testing. It requires specialists to look at it and that requires insurance for them, so there is a potential blockage.

The bigger concern is that following the fires we had in Barking and Bolton, attention has naturally turned to whether these sorts of materials pose a very significant risk on lower-rise buildings. There has been discussion about what height threshold might apply. Some people have suggested 11 metres—indeed, 11 metres is the height chosen by the Government for sprinklers—but one of the problems there is that you have got a whole different order of magnitude, potentially, of properties that could be affected. That may also be a factor that is driving some of the movement in the insurance sector, because there is probably a realisation that this is potentially a much larger problem than was first thought.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Q Mr Wrack, do you think that we understand the scale of the problem that we face? According to the figures that came out this week, an extraordinarily high proportion—I think it was something like 65%—of inspected fire doors were wrong in some way or other. Do you think we even know quite what we are dealing with in terms of the scale of that problem?

Mr Dobson, do you agree with Mr Wrack’s frustration about the time that it has taken to do all of that? Grenfell was three years ago. What should we be doing? Clearly, there is huge complexity and hundreds of working groups at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are working through all this. Equally, there is a real hunger for going faster. Is there any way in which you think we could and should be going faster?

Matt Wrack:

No, I do not think that we grasp the scale of the problem at all. If I can refer back to Grenfell, the focus of the country has been on ACM cladding, but what we found at Grenfell was that virtually every single element of fire protection in the building failed. So if that has happened in one building, what is the scale in every building in the country? It is immense. There has been a lot of renovation, refurbishment and modification of buildings over the past 20 or 30 years, which has altered the building as it was originally designed and constructed, so we will therefore have altered fire behaviour in such buildings, particularly for compartmentation, in relation to the response of firefighters.

That brings me back to our frustration with the Bill’s impact assessment, because it is based on the current way that buildings are looked at. In our view, we need a much better way of looking at buildings. That would require time for an upskilling of firefighters in fire stations so that they recognise risks and can then refer them to specialist teams within the fire service. That would require training for both groups of staff and adequate powers to undertake the necessary inspections on a scale that, at the moment, we do not currently grasp in full detail.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Thank you. Mr Dobson, we will finish the sitting at two o’clock, so you have two minutes to answer.

Adrian Dobson:

I will try to rise to that challenge. I think that we see the problems as threefold. There is an issue around how we procure buildings in the first place and procure alterations to buildings. I imagine that when the final report of the Grenfell Tower inquiry is written, it will have much to say about that. Then, there is an issue of competence and expertise, which you have already touched on. Of course, the UK construction industry is a relatively deregulated industry with very few regulatory competence requirements—they are mainly voluntary systems—so the industry will really have to put its house in order if it is going to regain public confidence.

There is also a regulatory problem. We have seen movement on the introduction of requirements for sprinklers being extended, and on combustible materials—from the consultation, that is likely to be extended. However, although we have good movement on the building safety Bill and on the Fire Safety Bill, we have not seen a comprehensive review of the actual guidance that people work to, so we are essentially working to the same approved documents that we worked to previously. That is disappointing because, although people recognise the need for research on some of those issues, we seem reluctant to get on and commission it and, as Mr Wrack said, reluctant to learn from colleagues in other countries who have experienced similar problems.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Thank you very much, Mr Dobson and Mr Wrack, for your excellent evidence—you have helped the Committee enormously. As you know, we will grapple with those issues this afternoon as we go through the Bill line by line.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.