Good morning. I am Penny Pender. I work at the National Fire Chiefs Council, where I am the deputy team leader for the building safety programme. I have been there for the past two or three years.
We welcome the Bill and the clarifications that it seeks to provide. We are very keen that those clarifications should work not just for us as regulators and enforcers but for the people who have day-to-day responsibility for building safety, and for those people who live in, work in and visit those buildings, so that they understand what is required to keep them safe and their duties.
I should explain that you have Members of Parliament in front of you and behind you, because we are socially distanced and the room is not quite big enough to allow us all to sit around the horseshoe table. We will start the questioning with Sarah Jones, who leads on this issue for the Labour party.
Thank you for coming today, and thank you for your written evidence. I think that our amendments cover a lot of the points that you are concerned about. I want to jump straight to enforcement. How are we going to do this, because there are a lot of new responsibilities and not that many qualified people to do the work? It will take us a while to get all these risk assessments, given the increasing number of buildings. How do you think we should implement this? What comes first and what should we prioritise? How do we make it work?Q
We have had a debate on whether these are clarifications or new aspects, and we have settled on them being clarifications. I am fine with that, but it suggests to us that the buildings to which they apply are those buildings that are currently there. I do not think that the Bill is attempting to grow the range of buildings that come within scope. We are seeking some clarification on certain definitions, to ensure that there is no creep in the scope of what the Bill is intended to do.
With regard to the pressures on fire and rescue services, the onus is on us to maintain skills and competencies in the sector, and we have a body of work to do in order to move forward and deliver that. Where we have a preference for the service, it is that we bring the legislation forward as it is, all together at one time, rather than putting in arbitrary height restrictions and things like that. I know that you will hear from industry that there will be pressures on competent persons to provide extendable assessments, and things like that.
I think that what we can offer is a risk-based approach to help the people with those responsibilities manage the ask in a way that targets the highest risk buildings first. There was a model that we used—in the London fire brigade we termed it the Croydon model, as you may be aware—which was to help those large portfolio holders understand where we expect them to apply their initial assessments with the new legislation. I think we can adopt a similar approach here. I think that will help to ease the pressure across the board. Certainly, as they are clarifications, it would imply that the legislation applies to those buildings already, so it does not appear that now is the time to bring in arbitrary height allocations.
Q You mentioned maintaining skills and competencies. Who do we need? What is your view of fire risk assessors, and should we have a system whereby they are accredited in some way?
I would certainly welcome a register for fire risk assessors and third-party accreditation for that. In a similar way, we are working towards a competency standard for fire inspection officers within the fire service. That is a bit of the work that the building safety team is doing at the moment. Certainly, the service will be working with them over the coming years to develop the skills within their own workforce to achieve that. Again, with the new building regulator, we are looking to bring in a level of competence to interact with more complex buildings.
Q How do you think the other pieces of legislation that are coming forward sit together? We have the building safety Bill, for example. One of the concerns that have been raised with us is that we might have all these pieces of legislation that do not necessarily speak to each other in the same language and do not tie up. It has been suggested that at the end of all this we need to bring it all together into one Bill. What is your view on whether that is a risk and whether we can try to overcome that?
That certainly picks up on some of the points we have made in our submission about ensuring that the different pieces of legislation speak clearly to each other. The first example is the term “building”: one concern we had was that if it was not clearly defined, the default setting would be to refer to the definition in the Building Act 1984, which is referred to in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.
Picking up on Dan’s point from earlier, that would be a much wider definition than the scope of the fire safety order currently covers, so that is the type of thing we are hoping to iron out. We just want to ensure that there are opportunities, maybe through secondary legislation or in guidance, for those types of thing to be spelled out clearly, to ensure that all the different pieces are interpreted clearly when they all come together in the future.
Apologies to the witnesses for dancing around behind you in this way. Picking up on the point about qualified persons and the inspection process, one issue that has been raised a good deal in my experience as a Q local authority councillor is how those inspections can be undertaken to satisfy the responsible person that the fire risk is being appropriately managed.
For example, if you have leaseholders in a block of flats owned by a local authority that is responsible, what the leaseholder does within the property that may create risk to others may not be something to which the local authority can readily gain access. I am interested in this point about how the different pieces of legislation interact. Do you have a view on how we might collectively move towards a resolution of that problem?
We talked earlier about how the clarifications in this Bill are really useful in terms of ironing out some of the overlaps we have seen that have caused us difficulties before, both in holding people to account, and in people’s understanding of their duties.
This is a bit of legislation that underpins a self-regulatory regime, and we must ensure that at the end of this we have something that makes it very clear to those people what their responsibilities are. It must also help residents and leaseholders to understand what they can rightly expect from the people with day-to-day responsibility for the safety of their buildings. That is the sort of thing that we are working closely with Home Office colleagues on. The Bill has been presented as it is today, but I know we have taken some assurances in the background that we will work together on providing secondary legislation and guidance to pick up those areas where we might still seek further clarification, to ensure that it is absolutely clear to those people who it most directly affects day to day.
I have two interlinked issues. One is about the number of assessors needed; we have received some evidence that suggests there are around 400 third-party registered fire risk assessors and potentially around 400 APQC independent assessors, but there is nobody putting a number on the assessors that might be needed.Q
The first question is whether you have any estimates, because we know roughly where we are at the moment and where we need to get to. I was pleased to hear you say that you would welcome a register of assessors, but the interlinked issue is how we train those people. We have had differing evidence. Some suggests there should be a fast-track training, or different levels of assessment, and other evidence suggests that we should not have fast-track training because it can lead to problems. I would welcome your views on both questions: how many people do we need overall, and does there need to be comprehensive training for everybody, or would you take a differentiated view?
I do not think I can give you a number on how many we need overall, because there is a bit of work to be done before that. This speaks back to the risk-based approach. If we look at the work we are doing with the building safety regulator and the ideas going forward about the level of competency to interact with buildings of different complexity and risk, we could apply a similar staged approach to how we look at the buildings to which the legislation needs to be applied. Picking up those most at risk will allow time for training to come through, and development of people to support the wider piece of work, while ensuring that the effort is focused on the buildings that we would see as highest risk.
There is further work that we need to do as a service overall on understanding what risk looks like. We have a historical risk matrix that informs the regularity with which we inspect buildings; that was based on good evidence at the time, but we have a richer understanding of risk now. We understand vulnerabilities, behaviours and lifestyles that have an equal impact on the likelihood of fire, and therefore the settings that those people may be living in. It helps us understand risk in a totally different way—understanding that this is not just our opportunity to fix high-rise living but is about the wider built environment. It is an opportunity to understand risk in a much more holistic way and ensure we are applying more rigorous inspections to those higher-risk premises, and an appropriate level of inspection to those lower down the risk register, so to speak.
I had a couple of questions, mainly for Mr Daly. Could I just clarify something from your opening statement? Is it your view that this Bill does not add in new types of premises or new responsibilities but is simply clarifying what should already be happening?Q
Q Therefore, do you think the attempt in clause 1 to specifically include building structure, external walls and common parts goes far enough? We will be debating amendments this afternoon, some of which have been supported by the fire brigade, which obviously you have had a distinguished career with. One is to say that when defining “common parts”, it would be better to include all parts of a building except private dwellings. Do you think that would be a helpful amendment?
Absolutely. The concerns we have and the clarifications we are seeking are shared in the submission from the National Fire Chiefs Council. There is no intent to apply this legislation inadvertently to buildings inappropriately, but we should be very clear that parts that are used in common between properties would be subject to the order. I do not think that creeps any further forward what buildings are in scope, but it makes very clear those areas to which it does apply.
Q So if we are engaged in a clarification exercise, it would be better that we do so properly. Because there are different definitions of what “common parts” means, we should ensure that they are defined as every part of a building that is not within the individual tenant or leaseholder’s domain.
Yes, absolutely. As I say, we are working very well with colleagues on those clarifications and on commitments to getting those definitions in. Our reason for repeating to you our concerns about those clarifications and commitments is not to suggest that work is not going forward; it is partly to place it on record that we think those issues are hugely important to the success of this Bill and its application.
Q It has been said that the purpose of this Bill is specifically directed against those parts of the structure that are liable to be dangerous, obviously with a view towards cladding. That itself covers a multitude of sins: different types of cladding, compositing—that is, a mixture of materials—the way in which the cladding is applied, and indeed the way it is modified: whether there are breaches and offences in that way. Do you agree that that is the purpose, and do you think that the Bill will enable that to happen?
Yes. This issue, particularly if we talk about external wall systems—which encompasses insulation and fixing everything, as you have suggested—has been debated for some time. In August 2016, I attended an incident in your constituency that you will be very familiar with. I was in my old role with the London Fire Brigade at the time, and we sent a letter to registered landlords to advise them to look at what was on the outside of their buildings. We debated for some time whether that letter could go further and suggest enforcement action, but it eventually became an advice note because we were unable to bottom out clearly what that legal advice should be. I think the clarifications we are seeking will make it much clearer that external wall systems are covered.
Central to the Bill is the issue of the responsible person, but since the 2005 fire safety order was introduced, the identity of the responsible person has become more complex than at first sight it perhaps should be. It could be the owner of a building, a tenant management organisation, or an individual. I know from my previous involvement with the London Fire Brigade that that can actually be quite a problem for any fire and rescue service. Do you think there are ways in which that could be clarified—if not now, perhaps in secondary legislation or in the Bill that is likely to come through from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government later? Would it be helpful for that to be clarified?Q
A secondary question relates to the skills, qualification and training of responsible people—this is very like Ms Cooper’s question from earlier—and how they can carry out fire risk assessments. Do you think that there is sufficient detail at present to satisfy the requirements?
In terms of the training, there is work to do. The industry will point to some difficulties with capacity and volume. That is why I would urge a risk-based approach, and that we manage that here and now. The clarification of where responsibilities lie and what those responsibilities are is hugely important in this legislation to aid some of that training, so that it is very clear what the requirements are on individuals and on the competent persons who will be providing advice. Again, it is hugely important that this speaks to those people.
Our experience in enforcement terms is that there are those who seek to comply; there are those who seek to comply, but who fail to understand what is required of them; and then there are those who actively seek to dodge the legislation and work their way around it. What we want to do is close the loopholes for that secondary group, and to make it absolutely clear for the others who are doing their best to understand that the guidance and legislation support their understanding of their duties.
My question comes from somebody who was a local government elected member for some 21 years, who has sat on planning committees and dealt with building regulations, and someone who has built properties and who is currently a landlord. I would like to ask a more specific question when we are considering risk. Much of what you talk about is about taking a risk-based approach. In your written submissions, you talk about how you would like greater resources and investment to be put into the enforcement side of things. Clearly, that is something for the Government to respond to.
Do you agree that construction and sign-off are potentially the points at which there could be the greatest risk of errors or non-compliance, either wittingly or unwittingly? Do you also agree that even after a structure has been signed off—whether it is by building control or by the local council—the time soon afterwards is still a point of high risk, because that is when door furniture can be changed, carpets can be fitted and all sorts of other things can happen that might have meant that the structure did not pass the certification in the first instance? Do you agree that perhaps a more dynamic monitoring role is required over how new buildings are being addressed from within existing structures—therefore, no extra body is particularly needed because we are approving buildings as we speak—but that looking at the timeframes might be a useful thing to do?
I suppose that speaks more to the work that is being done around building safety—the Bill that is coming forward and the work on designing a new building safety regime. We cannot escape the findings of the Dame Judith Hackitt review. They were very damning about the existing system, and they speak to why we find ourselves with the built environment that we do and the challenges that that poses—not just for RPs in managing it, but for residents who have to live in the buildings, for us as enforcers and for firefighters in terms of their safety when they attend the buildings. We are fully engaged in that process.
It is equally important that we get this legislation absolutely right so that during occupation, the duties of whoever is responsible, day to day, for the fire safety in those buildings is very, very clear and it does not allow people to pass the buck—so that it is absolutely clear who is responsible, and they will be held accountable. That is what we are seeking.
Q First, we suggested putting the recommendations from the Grenfell phase 1 inquiry into the Bill, and I am interested in your view on that. Secondly, this is not really covered by any of the amendments, but a concern raised by several people is that with the EWS1 form, we have seen a huge complication of people not being not being able to sell their flat and being stuck because they do not have the right piece of paper. If we implement this legislation and take a risk-based approach, it will be a long time before everybody has their piece of paper that says that they have had a fire risk assessment. How do we prevent that from creating a massive insurance problem, with people stuck because they do not have the right piece of paper, while the piece of paper that they had before is out of date because there is new legislation?
On the first point, we suggest that the Bill should be amended to make sure that it has the flexibility to encompass the Grenfell phase 1 and phase 2 inquiry recommendations. I think that is entirely appropriate, because I think people expect the Bill to pick up the lessons and the learning from that, so we absolutely support that. Can you remind me of the second point?
Our role is to be fully engaged with insurers and those who support people to invest in and take out mortgages on properties, to give them an understanding of what that risk-based approach means. If we are able to convince those partners that the lower-risk buildings present a lesser risk, that should, hopefully, help with some of those challenges.
At the moment, when we have a slightly less finessed version of what risk looks like in these buildings, it is very hard for people in those circumstances to make accurate judgments and assessments. Part of our role is to support that, and I think the risk-based approach that we propose will help with some of that, because we will absolutely identify those more high-risk buildings, put resources towards them and focus the remediation efforts on them. By design, that would allocate other buildings to a lower threshold of risk.
Thank you. That brings us to the end of this panel. We have only three minutes left before 12 o’clock. Thank you so much to both of you for answering our questions this morning; it has been extremely helpful. We will now conclude this part of the sitting and move on to the next. Thank you for being with us.