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Power to change premises to which the Fire Safety Order applies

Fire Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:30 pm, 25th June 2020

I beg to move amendment 3, in clause 2, page 1, line 21, at end insert—

‘(aa) for the purpose of changing or clarifying any of articles 2 to 22 or 38 of the Order’.

This amendment aims to ensure that the key articles of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 can be amended to account for the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry Phase 1 and subsequently the Phase 2 recommendations and changes that may be brought about by the forthcoming Building Safety Bill.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 4, in clause 2, page 1, line 22, at end insert ‘or (aa)’.

See amendment 3.

Amendment 5, in clause 2, page 1, line 22, at end insert

‘(1A) The relevant authority may make regulations under subsection (1) for the purpose of aligning the Order with regulations which concern fire safety and which are made under any other power.’

This amendment seeks to ensure there is proper alignment between the Fire Safety Order and other regulations that relate to fire safety, including the upcoming Building Safety Bill.

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

Amendments 3 and 4 would ensure that the key articles of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 could be amended to account for the Grenfell Tower public inquiry phase 1 recommendations—and the phase 2 recommendations, although of course phase 2 has not happened yet—as well as any changes that may be brought about by the forthcoming building safety Bill. The issue was brought to our attention by the London Fire Brigade, and it makes a reasonable point.

Clause 2 provides for further changes to be made to the scope of the 2005 order, and clarification of its application. Our amendments would ensure that there was sufficient legal power, which could be relied on to respond to emerging evidence or events. It is important that we should not find that there are constraints in the future. The London Fire Brigade gave some examples of things that could be included. One was a legal mechanism for improvements to or replacement of the front doors of flats. Others were the installation of additional fire detection and warning systems, the retrospective fitting of fire safety measures in a building, and the adjustment or clarification of what an enforcing authority might need to be notified about.

As I have said and will keep saying, we welcome the Bill. We do not think it goes far enough, but want to make sure it does everything it sets out to do. We want to make sure that it is possible to make changes or additions to this cornerstone or foundation, as the Minister called it, including as a result of what comes from phase 2 of the Grenfell inquiry.

Amendment 5 would ensure that there was proper alignment between the 2005 order and other regulations on fire safety. The forthcoming building safety Bill, which we have talked about, will place requirements on accountable persons to ensure that buildings in occupation are safe.

This will include fire safety and will place enforcement responsibility with the new building safety regulator.

The fire safety order refers to a responsible person, but it is not clear whether this aligns precisely with the accountable person or the building safety manager referred to in the “Building a safer future” consultation. We have heard from local government that a lack of clarity about the boundary between the fire safety order and the Housing Act 2004 has been a complicating factor in resolving issues with dangerous cladding on buildings, so it would be useful to hear from the Minister; hopefully he can provide assurance that the concept of the responsible person aligns precisely with the accountable person or the building safety manager referred to in the consultation. If someone is deemed to be the responsible person for the purposes of the fire safety order, will they be considered the accountable person or building safety manager under the building safety Bill?

These are issues of quite complex semantics, but they are important, and we need to make sure that there is clarity about who is responsible for carrying out essential fire safety checks in all circumstances. Any confusion or ambivalence would lead to delays or attempts to shift responsibility, which could put lives at risk. The entire purpose of the Bill is to clarify fire safety rules in order to reduce any risk to life, so I urge the Minister to consider the merits of the amendment.

Concerns were raised about this issue on Second Reading. There is a risk of creating silo pieces of legislation that do not talk to each other; it would be good to understand from the Minister what could be done about that, what the Government are doing, and how we can make sure that we do not create silos. Again, Members from all parties raised this issue on Second Reading.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 2:45 pm, 25th June 2020

Briefly, it is very important that there is the closest possible alignment between the Bill and what emerges from the Grenfell inquiry. We have had phase 1 of the inquiry, which dealt with what happened on the night. Phase 2 is coming, albeit not for some time. It relates to the wider issues of concern around building safety, and of course there is further legislation coming about building safety.

We heard evidence this morning from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Fire Brigades Union. Despite their very different perspectives and experiences, they were essentially saying the same thing: that Grenfell has exposed not just the really criminal action of putting highly combustible material on the outside of tower blocks, but the huge weaknesses and inadequacies in the system, causing us to look again at the whole way in which building safety works.

Just one example of that is the stay put policy. Most experts will say, “Well, the stay put policy is still in effect.” That may be literally true, in the sense that for most blocks that do not have combustible cladding and where compartmentalisation works, it may be the opinion of experts—whether they are from the fire service, are building experts, or others—that it is safer to stay in a flat than to leave it while the fire is contained within a single flat in a high-rise block, but try telling that to the occupants of that block post Grenfell.

The Leader of the House made comments about the evacuation of Grenfell Tower that were not just unhelpful but disrespectful; he asked whether people were right to stay in Grenfell Tower in that way. A senior Member of this House has raised doubts about whether it is sensible to stay. If a fire is known to be occurring, people will try to exit the tower block.

Any review of the stay put policy will look at the way that evacuation procedures, alarm systems and sprinkler systems worked. Recommendations coming out of the Grenfell inquiry should be reflected in the Bill. That is my only point.

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

The amendments seek broad delegated powers to amend key articles of the fire safety order: articles 2 to 22, in parts 1 and 2 of the order, which relate to the interpretation of the order and to fire safety duties; and article 38, a miscellaneous article relating to a further duty on the responsible person to concern themselves with the maintenance of measures for the protection of firefighters. The amendments also seek to enable changes to be made to the fire safety order by secondary legislation, rather than primary legislation, that are consequential to changes made by other regulations. The amendments build on the delegated power in clause 2 of the Bill, under which it is proposed that the order can be amended for the purpose of changing or clarifying the premises to which it applies, and can allow for consequential provision to be made. I have already set out the purpose and limitations of that power.

The fire safety order already has a delegated power under article 24, which enables the Secretary of State to make regulations on the precautions that are to be taken or observed in relation to the risk to relevant persons. That can be used to provide additional fire precaution requirements over and above those already required under the order.

Although powers that enable legislation to be expedited when needed, and with the appropriate scrutiny, have clear benefits, the Government’s view is that it would not be appropriate to ask Parliament to delegate legislative power in the manner proposed. I have made the point already that this is a short and technical Bill. We intend to legislate further. The Government will shortly publish the second of our fire and building safety Bills, the building safety Bill. Alongside this, there will be pre-legislative scrutiny: we will publish a fire safety consultation, which will set out our proposals for strengthening the fire safety order and improving compliance on all regulated premises, leading to greater competence and accountability.

We will also implement the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s phase 1 report, which calls for new requirements to be established in law to ensure the protection of residents in multi-occupied residential high-rise buildings, with some proposals applying to multi-occupied residential buildings of any height.

As the Committee has heard, the Government are taking further steps to ensure that the fire safety order continues to be fit for purpose, as part of our consideration of reform of the wider building safety landscape. The consultation will propose changes to strengthen the order in a number of areas to improve fire safety standards. It will also seek further evidence and implement further legislation if required.

Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report examining the events of the night of 14 June—the night of the Grenfell Tower fire—was exhaustive. Of the 46 recommendations made in the inquiry’s first report, 12 were addressed to the Government directly, with 11 requiring legislative changes. They relate primarily to a number of prescriptive safety measures and checks, to be undertaken by building owners and managers. The Prime Minister accepted the principle of these recommendations on publication of the report in October last year.

Subject to the outcome of the consultation, our intention is to deliver, where possible, the Grenfell inquiry recommendations through secondary legislation under the fire safety order. Where an amendment to the order is required through primary legislation, we intend to do that in the building safety Bill. That Bill will also cover the consequential amendments that will be required to the fire safety order to ensure that the Bill, when enacted, and the order align and interact with each other. We will ensure that the legal frameworks and supporting guidance provide clarity for those operating in this area, and bring about the outcomes sought across the fire and building safety landscape.

The hon. Member for Croydon Central mentioned having a single point of responsibility, and that is very much on our minds. Intensive work is going on between the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and with the wider sector, to ensure that there is no confusion as to who is the responsible individual.

One of the key principles that came out of Dame Carol’s review—I mean Dame Judith’s review; Dame Carol’s review is about drugs, which is also within my portfolio—was the need for the point of responsibility to be transparent and known to everybody. It is a key part of the proposals, and I have no doubt that it will form part of the consultation and, therefore, the legislation that will follow.

Sir Gary, I hope that explanation is enough to allow the Committee to be content for the amendment to be withdrawn.

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

We say the same things on both sides of the Committee, but we on the Opposition side want speedy action, and we have been frustrated by the delays. It would be reassuring if we could have some kind of timetable before the summer recess for when the building safety Bill will be introduced. There is a whole raft of other activities, and we do not know when they will be coming forward—and covid is no reason for these things not to come forward.

This morning, Matt Wrack asked where responsibility for some of these issues rests in Government, and I wonder whether the split between MHCLG and the Home Office compounds some of the problems with how these things fit together and work. The more information we have about the timetable, the better. It would be good if the Minister could take these matters away; I know officials are looking at how they will sit together. On that basis, 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)

I will be brief. I want to make a point about finances and resources, and it seems fitting to mention that as we debate clause 2. We heard a lot of evidence this morning about the need for proper resourcing. We heard from L&Q about the extraordinary amount of money that it and its colleagues will have to spend in the housing association sector on removing cladding. Although the Government’s £1 billion fire safety fund is welcome, that will not be anywhere near enough.

As for enforcement of the legislation, the fire service has had significant cuts, as was outlined excellently in the Fire Brigades Union’s written evidence to the Committee, particularly around inspection, where we need to beef up the resources. We will need a lot more fire risk assessors. We will have to try to fund all that. There is a point to be made about what the Home Office has done about the cost, because the resources are not anywhere near enough. That is all I want to say, but it is a really important point that the Government will have to grapple with.

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

I recognise Members’ impatience for us to get the measure through as quickly as possible and to put the new regime in place, not least because it will take time to bed in. There will be not only structural change, but cultural change in various parts of the building safety world. The Bill is a start. There will be a consultation shortly. The Bill will be scrutinised before the summer recess. There will be a flurry of activity. On the point made by the hon. Member for Croydon Central about coherence between Departments, as Housing Minister I recognise that issue, and she will be pleased to know that the old sparring partner of the hon. Member for Hammersmith—I am not sure he will be pleased—and former leader of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham is now the joint Minister between the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. He has responsibility for fire, albeit in the Lords, which is why I am here today.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.