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Power to change premises to which the Fire Safety Order applies

Fire Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 2:00 pm, 25th June 2020

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 6, leave out lines 7 to 14 and insert—

“(1A) Where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises, the things to which this order applies include—

(a) the building’s structure and external walls and floors, and any common parts;

(b) all doors between the domestic premises and common parts (so far as not falling within sub-paragraph (a)).

(1B) The reference to external walls and floors includes—

(a) doors, windows or penetrations in those walls and floors, and”

This amendment would apply the Fire Safety Bill specifically to penetrations that pass from a dwelling, through a fire-rated wall or floor into a common space.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 8, after “include” insert

“all other parts of that building including—”

This amendment aims to clarify that the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies to all parts of a building that contains two or more dwellings, other than those dwellings themselves, and is not limited to parts that come within the meaning of structure, external walls or common parts.

Will the hon. Gentleman move one chair to his left? That would be better from a social distancing point of view.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Thank you, Sir Gary, for looking after my and everybody else’s health. I rise to speak to amendment 1, tabled in my name. It is grouped with amendment 2, tabled in the name of the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central. The two matters are linked. My amendment, as is the custom in my case, is more pedantic and finickity than the broader amendment 2. If I may, I will speak to my own amendment.

As I mentioned a few moments ago, we had a very useful evidence session this morning. It was short—only an hour and a half—but there was a lot of information there. What came through from all the witnesses was that this Bill clarifies existing law. It is a matter of constitutional debate whether the function of legislation is to clarify existing law. Governments have a habit of doing that to fill in time or to make an emphatic point, although it is perhaps not a good use of legislation. It is clear, however, that there are problems that need to be resolved in relation to fire safety, which has troubled us hugely since the Grenfell Tower disaster three years ago and should have been troubling us for many years previously in the light of other disasters.

I guess, therefore, that the Bill is intended not so much to change the law, but to say, “This is the law, and this is what should have been happening.” That begs others questions. Are the resources there now to make this happen? Is the focus of the Bill in the right area? In questions this morning, I made the point—and I do not think the experts dissented—that the phrase, “the building’s structure and external walls and any common parts”, in clause 1, line 8, is rather tendentious. The “building’s structure” could mean anything in relation to the building, but it is then qualified by the reference to “external walls” and “common parts”.

My amendment addresses the issue of whether there is a clear definition of common parts, but I think we all know why the phrase “external walls” is in the Bill. As has already come out of the Grenfell inquiry—indeed, the recommendation from the inquiry was perhaps not needed—a substantial cause of the Grenfell disaster, as well as a contributory factor in many other major fires, including in high-rise buildings, has been the type of material that adheres to or forms part of the external structure of the building. That could be cladding—certain types of which have been found to be more combustible than others—insulation, or the way in which the materials combine. We are only scratching the surface—excuse the pun—of the types of cladding and systems that are appropriate to be used, or to remain in use, on such buildings.

It is pretty clear, however, that such material is a major focus of the Bill. The money, time and resources the Government have spent so far—many of us believe they have not gone far enough—have gone on looking at aluminium composite material cladding and then perhaps at high pressure laminate and other types of cladding. No doubt, as we consider the Bill, there will be some focus on that. My amendment, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central, go slightly beyond that. As Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, pointed out this morning, Grenfell has exposed not only that there are issues with cladding, but that there are fire safety issues in the construction, management and operation of tall buildings, in particular, that go far beyond that.

My amendment addresses a specific point by dealing with opportunities for fire to penetrate into a building other than through doors and windows. Doors and windows are a major way in which fire can enter a dwelling. If a window is open or a fire door is not—as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central explained this morning—sufficient, sufficiently well fitted or has other defects that do not maintain a 30 or 60-minute barrier, there is that opportunity. It is perhaps stating the obvious to say that the reason that flammable cladding is such a danger is that it allows fire to spread across the face of the building in a very short space of time, as we saw at Grenfell. That in itself is not what is causing the problem; it is the ingress of that fire into the building itself. That could be through a window that is open or through a door that is insecure, but it could be through any other means of entry. There are other ways for fire to spread that are perhaps more serious than doors and windows. That is why I used the word “penetrations”. They could be ducting, pipework or openings that have been created for good or bad purposes: it could be shoddy workmanship, but equally it could be something necessary to do with the supply of services through the building.

One other point on amending clause 1 was to add the words “external walls and floors”. It is clear why clause 1 mentions doors and windows—generally we have doors and windows; I understand that point—but other openings or apertures created in a building may well be through floors. The danger is that anything of that kind will allow the spread of fire—but not only fire, as I will come on to explain in a moment—throughout a building very quickly, particularly if there are pipes and ducts. If the opportunity arises for fire to spread, it can go through them very quickly. As I say, it is not just fire, but smoke and other gases. A major factor at Grenfell was the spread of smoke through the building. That can make escape difficult and, particularly if it is created by the burning of toxic materials, can create a toxic atmosphere, which has an effect on the respiratory system of those trying to escape the fire.

To explain my point, I will provide an example from my constituency. It did not end in disaster, I am pleased to say, but it easily could have done. In January this year, a resident of a block of flats with over 20 storeys was returning home late at night when she noticed a strong smell of gas. She checked her flat but could not find anything that was causing the smell. Fortunately, there was a member of staff, a concierge, on site even at that late time. They investigated, and the National Grid was called out, but it could not find anything. Neighbours’ doors were knocked on, and the emergency services were called out. By this time, it was the early hours of the morning and neighbours on several floors were being woken up. Eventually, the source of the gas leak was found four floors below. An elderly resident—over 80, I think—with an elderly gas stove had turned on the gas and left it on. The gas had effectively filled the whole block, from the ground floor reception up to at least the eighth or ninth floors of the block.

This matter ramifies endlessly. Why should an unsafe gas appliance be allowed in a block anyway? Modern gas appliances have failsafe mechanisms—if the gas is left on, they will shut off after a while—but unfortunately the reality is that some people, particularly poorer people perhaps, will have very old gas appliances that do not work in that way, and therefore the gas, after being turned on, will fill the whole flat. In this case, the occupant, who had obviously made a genuine mistake, needed oxygen. Many people had either opened their windows or were confused about what was happening. It was only because of the excellent action by one concerned resident—this was the opinion of the emergency services—that the matter did not end up in disaster. What happened late at night in January was that the gas did not pass through doors or windows but up through the building, potentially causing great stress.

My point is that, with fire, smoke and other noxious fumes passing through a building, it is complacent to say that simply ensuring that fire doors work and that windows are properly sealed and do not have combustible material around them means that a building is entirely safe and the fire will not spread internally. I hope the Government will accept my amendment. It is a relatively technical addition, which improves the Bill rather than changes it materially. I will wait to see what the Minister says in response; he might want to break the habit of a lifetime and say that we can allow an Opposition amendment to get the Bill Committee off to a flying start.

Amendment 2 is more comprehensive and very sensible. It would clarify that, as well as the occupied residence itself—the hereditament, the domicile, or however we want to define it—everything in the building should be covered by the Bill. I am not sure that the Bill’s wording adequately does that at the moment, but the belt and braces suggested in amendment 2 would do so.

I am vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary fire safety and rescue group, which is an excellent group, chaired for many years by Sir David Amess. Its honorary secretary, Ronnie King, was a very senior chief fire officer, and the group does a lot of extra work. Yesterday we had a presentation from the Fire Protection Association, which dealt with exactly the points I am making. One thing that struck me about that presentation was that the test platform for fire safety had become the development platform. That means that the planning and testing for tall buildings has been based on a model that is not reproduced in real life, and that developers therefore build without regard to the matters we are talking about in the Bill—without regard to the effect of windows, doors and other apertures. That is a serious contributory factor to the spread of fire.

I am sure we are going to focus on cladding this afternoon, but we should be aware that, yes, it is the accelerant, but there are other causes of spread. I have dealt with gas, but we might also look at electrical appliances, which appear to have caused the fire at Grenfell Tower and a serious one at Shepherd’s Court in my constituency the year before Grenfell. All these matters need to be addressed. In so far as we cannot be certain about whether human error is involved or about the role that the complexity of different types of tenure plays, as we discussed this morning, we have to be as certain as we can that if a fire starts it will be controlled.

The strategy behind fire safety in this country—the stay put policy for tall buildings, which is now itself coming into question—depends on compartmentalisation and on fire being contained within a small area of a block. If there is the opportunity for it to spread, because fire doors do not work, windows have combustible surrounds, or the fire can penetrate elsewhere, we immediately undermine the whole principle. That is the reason for amendment 2.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:15 pm, 25th June 2020

Let me start by saying that the Opposition support the Bill. We are here to be constructive. Although clearly we wish that things had gone faster and that we had been able to do more, we support the Bill and want to make it the best that it can be. On Second Reading there was agreement across the House on what needs to be done to fix some of the problems with the legislation. Amendment 2 relates to one of those problems, which has been raised by many of the organisations that have submitted written evidence.

I associate myself with everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, who is an expert in this area. He is absolutely right that we need to ensure right at the outset that we include parts of the building not currently listed in the Bill.

Amendment 2 would do what amendment 1 would do, but in a slightly different way. As the explanatory statement states, the amendment would make the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 apply

“to all parts of a building that contains two or more dwellings, other than those dwellings themselves,”

Not just the

“parts that come within the meaning of structure, external walls or common parts.”

I had a long conversation with the London Fire Brigade about how we define “common parts”. Introducing that term without a definition alongside the definition of “domestic premises” in article 2 of the fire safety order could lead to confusion about what it means and could add an additional layer of complexity to what is already quite a difficult landscape.

In the past, “common parts” has been used to refer to entrance halls, corridors or stairways in a block of flats, but it does not necessarily cover areas such as lift motor rooms, service risers, roof voids and other potentially high-risk areas, as well as fire safety facilities that are inside individual dwellings but used in common for the protection of the entire premises, such as sprinklers and detection systems.

This is not a new issue. Following the Lakanal House fire, the coroner recommended that there be clear guidance on the definition of “common parts” in buildings containing multiple domestic premises. Dame Judith Hackitt has also recommended that the assignment of responsibilities in blocks of flats be clarified.

The purpose of the Bill, as we discussed this morning and as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith has already mentioned, is to provide clarity on what is covered under the law. Without really clear definitions, there will be new questions of interpretation, and we will not achieve what we are setting out to achieve. There will be the potential for confusion and conflict.

Simply put, the absence of a clear definition creates opportunities for those who might try to game the system. We know that the system has not worked in the past, because people have been able to do things that nobody intended them to do. We want to make it crystal clear that the provisions cover all common parts of the building, and want to make it clear that “common parts” includes all the other spaces, such as lift motor rooms, that are not set out in the Bill.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

I very much sympathise with the motivation behind the amendments, but I am unpersuaded by the argument. There is sometimes a risk of seeking to make very precise what in reality is not at all precise.

Following the Grenfell Tower disaster and the Lakanal House fire, the Local Government Association, working with local authorities across the country, commissioned a huge piece of work to try to understand the inherent risks in tall buildings, but also in other types of building in the public estate, and to learn lessons that might be relevant to the private sector.

I want to refer to a particular type of structure known as a Bison block, which is common in west London and found across my constituency, and which my local authority has spent a good amount of time examining. It is particularly relevant to amendment 2, which is seeking a very tight definition. The blocks were large panel system builds. They are quite common across the capital and in other parts of the country.

A great many of these blocks were extensively refurbished, particularly in the 1980s, because they are not especially attractive buildings and in the past there have been concerns about their structural integrity and safety. The refurbishment was undertaken by a process that we might understand as cladding. In this case, a brick skin was erected around the entire outside of the building. New windows were installed, and the structure now looks considerably more attractive than when it was first constructed.

To manage the risk of fire spreading in the cavity between the floor where a fire occurs and another floor, a steel band needs to be installed between each storey’s-worth of brick structure. It ensures that a fire that gets into that cavity cannot spread up or down. On examination following the Grenfell disaster, it was discovered that some of the window installations, for example, had been changed, which had had an impact on the integrity of the fire safety system. The banding had been constructed many years ago. The challenges of inspecting something that is inside a sealed brick structure, the natural dilapidations of time and the consequences of a small amount of heave or subsidence around the site would all have had an impact on it. That is a significant issue for those of us who are concerned about the safety of those high-rise towers.

I am concerned that the amendment, by seeking to be very precise, could open the door to our not including a number of the elements that we would see in a variety of structures around the country. I have heard the Minister speak about this before when questions have been asked of him. I am satisfied that one of the motivations behind the Government’s choice of wording was to make the definition sufficiently broad that all the issues were captured. To ensure that the definition relates to all the different, unique types of structure out there, many of which there may be little evidence of on the public record today, it may be wise not to narrow our definitions too much. We could end up with a lawyers’ bonanza of arguments about whether, for example, the provision covers the steel band structure for fire safety in a Bison block. For that reason, I am unpersuaded of the merits of the amendment.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse The Minister of State, Home Department

I am very conscious, not least as the former London Assembly member for the area, that it is less than two weeks since we marked the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, which saw the worst loss of life in a residential fire since the second world war. I am sure that all those who died, the bereaved and the survivors will be in our minds as we do our work this afternoon and into the future.

On the day of the publication of the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase 1 report, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister accepted in principle all 12 recommendations addressed to the Government directly. Eleven of the recommendations will require implementation in law. The Fire Safety Bill, which will amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, is an important first step toward enacting those recommendations. As has been mentioned, the Bill is short and technical; it clarifies the scope of the order. We appreciate that this is the first Bill on fire safety since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and we intend to legislate further.

It is vital that regulatory standards and public confidence be increased across the whole system of building and fire safety. Next month we will publish a consultation on the implementation of the phase 1 recommendations that call for changes in the law, alongside proposals to strengthen other aspects of the fire safety order. I assure the Committee that the Bill is the start, not the finish, of a process through which we intend to improve the fire safety order.

Alongside the consultation, there is the building safety Bill, which will be presented in the House for pre-legislative scrutiny before the summer recess. That Bill will put in place new and enhanced regulatory regimes for building safety and construction products, and will ensure that residents have a stronger voice in the system. It will take forward the recommendations of Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building regulations and fire safety.

Our programme of work is not limited to legislation, of course. It includes establishing a remediation programme, supported by £1.6 billion of Government funding, through which we will remove unsafe cladding from high-rise residential buildings. We are undertaking, in conjunction with the fire service, a building risk review programme for all high-rise residential buildings in England by December 2021, supported by £10 million of new funding.

This Fire Safety Bill is also a move towards enhancing safety in all multi-occupied residential buildings by improving the identification, assessment and mitigation of fire risks in those buildings. It will resolve the differing interpretations of the scope of the fire safety order in such buildings and provide clarity for responsible persons and enforcing authorities under the order. It will make it clear that the order applies to the structure, external walls—including cladding—balconies and flat entrance doors in multi-occupied residential buildings.

As we heard this morning, for many, the Bill will result in operational changes that will present challenges. On Second Reading, we heard differing views from Members on how to commence the Bill, and there are also diverse stakeholder views. The Government are clear that we need to work with the industry and others to take account of the scale of the changes, and the capacity and expertise needed in the system given the volume of fire risk assessments that will need to be updated. That will have to be balanced against the need to take swift action to identify and address serious fire risks in multi-occupied residential buildings. As I said this morning, the Government have established a task and finish group to advise us on commencement.

The Government will fund the British Standards Institution to produce guidance for the assessment of external wall systems. That guidance will encourage competent and suitably qualified individuals to assess the fire risk of external wall systems and help support the implementation of the Bill.

I turn to the amendments. Amendment 1 would ensure that the fire safety order applied to penetrations from a dwelling—interpreted as domestic premises—through a fire-rated wall or floor into a common space. Our position is that the order applies to the whole building except what is excluded by article 6 of the order. That includes domestic premises. By seeking specifically to cover penetrations passing from domestic premises into non-domestic areas or common parts, the amendment could be interpreted as extending the order into domestic premises, which in turn could create a significant extension of the scope of the fire safety order—namely, into people’s private homes. The order has always excluded domestic premises except in very limited circumstances that are not relevant to the amendment, and we stand by the order’s original intention and effect.

I understand and sympathise with the concerns of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, whom I have known for many years. As he rightly said, effective compartmentation prevents a fire and its smoke from spreading from a flat and, importantly, protects the normal escape routes, allowing residents to evacuate to safety. Of course, walls and floors outside the domestic premises are covered by the order. As I have said, our position is that everything not specifically excluded is within scope. Any penetration into the common parts can be observed, assessed and taken into account as part of the responsible person’s fire risk assessment, and where necessary, general fire precautions can be put in place that protect the common parts, and particularly the route of escape.

I remind the Committee that if a local authority considers there to be a serious hazard in a residential building, including in an individual dwelling, it must take enforcement action under the Housing Act 2004. Such hazards are assessed using the housing health and safety rating system, the HHSRS. Structural collapse, failing elements and fire safety hazards are assessed using that tool. Under the proposed building safety regime, the safety case will cover the totality of the building safety information, including all supporting evidence identifying how fire and structural risks are being managed for all buildings within its scope.

I assure the Committee that the Government intend to issue guidance to support those who will be operating under the Bill’s provisions. The guidance will be drawn up with the assistance of practitioners, and will provide a level of specification to operationalise the changes to the order and ensure that they are interpreted and applied consistently.

Amendment 2 seeks to clarify that the order applies to

“all parts of a building that contains two or more dwellings, other than those dwellings themselves”.

As I have said, the order specifically excludes domestic premises. The Bill does not change the definition of domestic premises, and we seek to state expressly that external walls and flat entrance doors, which it could be argued are parts of domestic premises and are therefore excluded, are indeed in scope. The Government have not included a proposition to the effect that the fire safety order applies to all other parts of the building, as we believe that to be unnecessary, and it could cast doubt on article 6(2). The Government therefore resist the amendment. I hope that I have given enough reassurance for both amendments to not be pressed.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 2:30 pm, 25th June 2020

I will reply to two points. The first was made by the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, who has huge experience in this sphere, not least from his role in local government over the years. I disagree with his point because the example that he gave of modifications to the exterior of a building should be included in the Bill under that part of clause 1 that talks about external walls. I think that that is specifically envisaged to include not just external cladding but the whole external structure; it would therefore include voids and attempts that have been made through banding to restrict those voids.

Equally, I do not agree with what the Minister said. We all understand the point about private homes. It cannot be dismissed. We mentioned this morning the issue of leaseholders who provide their own front doors and how far that is considered, but there are other issues. There are issues to do with sprinkler systems and their installation in the homes of either leaseholders or tenants—assured or secure. This is not a black-and-white issue in terms of what goes into individual homes.

The amendment is a necessary or at least helpful addition to the Bill. Over a period of 30 or 40 years, a huge number of modifications will be made to buildings, even if, when a building was originally constructed, it was done in a secure way that would prevent the spread of fire and smoke. We know that this issue has been neglected, but it is so important that it should be reflected. However, given that the Minister has put it on the record that he believes that these matters will be dealt with, through the Bill and other measures that the Government are taking, I do not propose to press the amendment to a vote.

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

I thank the Minister for his response. He was basically saying that amendment 2 is unnecessary, which I would challenge, because the fire service has asked for the definition and thinks that it would be an important part of the Bill. I agree with the fire service, but I take the same approach as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and hope that these matters will be looked at as we go forward.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse The Minister of State, Home Department

Fundamentally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner says, we are concerned that the definitions in the amendments might have a narrowing effect. Detailed guidance offering definitions will come out as a consequence of the Bill, and obviously we will work with partners to ensure that we get that guidance right.

It is worth pointing out that this approach is consistent with that in the Housing Act 2004, which uses similarly broad definitions to ensure that the many and various varieties of housing in this country, some built over many hundreds of years, all fall within a generalised definition in guidance that is put in place later on.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

As the Minister said, we recently passed the three-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. I just want to mention the letter that we will all have received from Grenfell United last night. It was not able to give evidence before us today, but it welcomes the Bill and is pushing for it to have the funding that it needs and for it to apply to all buildings. It reminded us of the fire in Canning Tower, in east London, only last week, when 100 people were evacuated. It used to be covered with Grenfell-style cladding, but that was removed last year, just in the nick of time. As the letter says, there were not any serious consequences.

The importance of the Bill is not to be underestimated. Small though it is, it is incredibly important. We support the Bill and we support clause 1. It provides clarification, although it is a shame that we could not take it a bit further with our amendments. There are many issues that we would want to bring into the Bill, but because it is too small in scale, we cannot. They include electrical safety—people are keen for us to talk about that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith mentioned it. We tried to have some of those issues included in the Bill, but they are not within its scope. There is a huge raft of issues beyond that of cladding—important as it is—that we must address, through the building safety Bill and subsequent measures.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse The Minister of State, Home Department

The hon. Lady is right to raise with me whether there is a need to address the issue of cabling and ducting in buildings. That was raised with me when I was Housing Minister, and I hope that I have explained that there will be opportunities to look at that quite soon, in more comprehensive measures to follow. For the moment, the Bill is a small, tight, technical one, which creates the foundational stone on which we will build an entirely new regulatory and fire safety regime, which must be coherent. We must therefore proceed step by step. I fully appreciate the comments that Members have made, and they will be fed into the next stage of our work, and the consultation, which will be issued next month.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.