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Public register of fire risk assessments

Fire Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 25th June 2020.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must, by regulations, make provision for a register of fire risk assessments made under article 9 (risk assessment) of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541).

(2) Those regulations must provide that the register is—

(a) publicly available; and

(b) kept up-to-date.

(3) Regulations under this section are—

(a) to be made by statutory instrument; and

(b) subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”—

This new clause would enable would-be renters and owners to check the fire safety status of their potential home, like the EPC register.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 2—Public register of fire risk assessors—

“(1) The Secretary of State must, by regulations, make provision for a register of individuals who are qualified to make fire risk assessments under article 9 (risk assessment) of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541).

(2) Those regulations must provide that only persons on the register may make such assessments.

(3) Those regulations must provide that the register is—

(a) publicly available; and

(b) kept up-to-date.

(4) Regulations under this section are—

(a) to be made by statutory instrument; and

(b) subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”

This new clause would enable home owners to verify fire assessors qualified to conduct compulsory checks such as completing the EWS1 form, and would enable government and industry to assess the numbers of assessors to be trained.

New clause 7—Accreditation of fire risk assessors—

“The relevant authority must by regulations amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) to require fire risk assessors for any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises to be accredited.”

This new clause would require fire risk assessors to be accredited.

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

New clauses 1 and 2, which stand in my name, are fairly self-explanatory. They both call for a public register: one for assessments, and the other for assessors. The Hackitt review said that risk assessments should not only be held by building owners, but be kept centrally with a public body such as a Government-appointed regulator. Chapter 4 of the Hackitt review refers to

“the need to rebuild public trust by creating a system where residents feel informed and included in discussions on safety, rather than a system where they are ‘done to’ by others… The interim report recommended that fire risk assessments should be carried out annually and shared in an accessible way with residents.”

For something as vital as fire safety, that information should be readily accessible to current and prospective residents of the building, both for public trust and for the sake of enforcement. Of course, the most accessible way to present such assessments is on a public register. If the Government are not minded to support new clause 1, I would welcome assurances that they intend to introduce such a public register at some point.

New clause 2 would create a public register for fire risk assessors. Of the two clauses that I have tabled, this is by far the more urgent. We heard shocking evidence this morning from the FBU that there are still people calling themselves fire assessors who are going out and conducting fire assessments without being qualified to do so. The witness gave the example of a member of the union who died in a building that had reportedly been assessed by one of these non-qualified fire assessors. We cannot wait for the public register of fire risk assessors; we need it now. The practice by those who are not qualified must stop.

In 2018 the London Fire Brigade raised the issue of assessor numbers. The Fire Safety Federation talked about fears that there were overwhelming demands for ESW1 surveys. It is clear that most mortgage companies now require the ESW1 certificate before lending. Feedback from my constituents, from management agencies and from local government indicates that there is a severe shortage of professionals across the country who are insured to sign off the new survey. A new public register would not only help to build trust, but show Government and industry how many fire assessors we need to train. From the questions we asked this morning, it was clear that the current number of assessors is between 400 and 50,000. Those were the numbers we were given, which is why it is so important that we have a public register and that we have it now.

My constituents have told me about delays of between 12 and 18 months in getting ESW1 surveys, putting their lives on hold and leaving them in constant fear of living in a dangerous home. That is made all the worse for my female constituents who are pregnant and living in such homes, as well as those who fear a loss of income as we head into a pandemic recession.

My final point is that there is a precedent for both these public registers. We have a register for homes, in the form of the energy performance certificate, which operates in the same way. EPC certificates are publicly available on a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government website. There is a register for domestic energy assessors and for energy performance certificates, so there is a precedent for such registers to exist. It is a simple proposal that could be adopted in exactly the same way, but for fire safety, which, from a safety perspective, is far more vital.

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

Thank you, Sir Gary—I did wonder whether that was the correct way to address you when you are in the Chair. I also forgot to say, “It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.”

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

It is good to get these things right.

I welcome the two new clauses proposed by the hon. Member for St Albans, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats. We are coming from the same place and we all accept that having fire risk assessors who are not necessarily qualified in any way is completely unacceptable. We need to get to grips with that for many reasons, including those that she mentioned.

The register of fire risk assessments is slightly challenging because it would take a long time to get the assessments, to get it up and running and to get it done. That may be something for the future, but not now. Having a public register of fire risk assessors is a way of dealing with the problem. It is similar to our new clause 7, which is about having an accreditation system for fire risk assessors. That is probably one of the most important elements of our concern, and it was raised by Members on both sides of the House on Second Reading. I raised that concern in a conversation with the Minister and Lord Greenhalgh when I was first appointed, and I know that the Government are looking at it.

It is remarkable that there is currently no legal duty to have any kind of qualification before becoming a fire risk assessor. It could be argued that some parts of the role are relatively straightforward, such as checking whether there are obstructions in the way of fire exits. The Bill introduces the need for an understanding of the nature of cladding; what it is made of and how it works. There is absolutely no way someone could assess that without being qualified.

Concerns have been raised for many years about private sector involvement, lack of qualification and a “race to the bottom” mentality. The fact that anyone can set up as a fire risk assessor to assess schools or care homes cannot be defended.

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

I agree; it is shocking.

We have all seen examples, and one was given to us this morning. In 2017 an independent fire risk assessor was given a four-month jail sentence when a court described his assessment of a Cheshire care home as “woefully inadequate”. In the same year, a private hire safety consultant was found to have given valueless risk assessments to several businesses in south Wales, putting people at serious risk of death because of poor escape routes, a lack of fire alarms and insufficient precautions to reduce fire and the spread of fire. In 2012 a fire risk assessor in Nottingham was fined £15,000 after it was found that fire precautions in two hotels he assessed were inadequate, potentially putting hundreds of lives at risk. I suspect there is much inadequacy that we do not know about because it has not come to light.

Therefore, what do we do about this? We propose a fire risk assessor accreditation system. There are ways of easily mapping skill levels and the competence of individuals that are used across many sectors. We could look at those and work with the experts to find the right balance. For many years, the further education sector has used regulated qualifications to train the workforce. Vocational qualifications, which have been around for many years, have been the main way of demonstrating that an individual has met a certain standard. I spoke at length to the chief executive of the British Woodworking Federation, who sits on the Build UK WG2 competence of installers working group in Government, which is looking at some of these issues and mapping the competence of an installer following the Hackitt review. It is looking at third-party certification routes, continuous professional development and different things that would be possible. There are relatively straightforward options through the Health and Safety Executive, Ofqual—there are all sorts of ways to do this.

In anticipation that the Minister might not accept the new clause, I ask him to take this matter seriously and accept that there is a problem that we must do something about. I also ask him to see it in the round with what on earth happens if it takes a long period of time to try to build up workforce expertise, with people potentially living in buildings without the piece of paper that tells them they can get insurance and mortgages, as the hon. Member for St Albans said. This job must be done—whether it is done now is for the Minister to decide—and it must be done sooner rather than later, to avoid deaths in the future.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I agree with these sensible new clauses, because they would remedy the defects identified by the FBU and others in how the system currently works, by professionalising it and taking it seriously. Having said that, they would create another requirement to be actioned by the Government. Whether the Government accept the new clauses or not, I am sure that they wish to see fire risk assessments and mediation carried out properly and efficiently.

We heard evidence this morning from the Fire Safety Federation and the head of fire safety at the L&Q Group about how the system is working—or not working—in practice. Whether the Minister accepts the requirements, we seriously need to address the current investigation process. I say this with no disrespect to the witnesses, but I was not filled with confidence by them saying that the processes of assessment must be looked at, with is done either through the enforcers, the owners and the Government coming together, or through everyone doing their own bit, because it is simply not working at the moment.

I gave the example, which I will briefly amplify, of a block of some 400-plus flats owned by Notting Hill Genesis, a big housing association in London, with which some issues to be resolved have been found. Those issues are not the most serious issues; there is some timber construction and some cladding on the building. Most of the building is constructed of brick. The effect was that the building perhaps did not have as high a priority as more dangerous structures. The effect of that has been to set out for all residents, including those leaseholders who have sold or are trying to sell their properties, a process that goes through six separate stages: initial survey, survey review, developer engagement, project planning, specification and tender, and remedial works. That process could take as little as 16 months or up to 42 months, and only at the end of it would an EWS1 form be issued. I thought that was bad enough, but we heard from the head of fire safety at L&Q that they expect it to be 10 years before all the buildings in London are dealt with.

That situation cannot be allowed to continue, so I ask the Minister to ensure, when he looks at the issues raised by the new clauses, that we have competent and professional assessment of risk, and proper processes to carry out those assessments. We must also look at the speed at which that work is done, because the Government have found it necessary during the covid crisis, and previously during the housing crisis, which we see particularly in London but which exists generally across the country, to intervene with measures that help people either to get on the housing ladder, to upscale or to move; there need to be different types of packages in that regard.

That is needed here and now. This matter cannot be left to the relationship between leaseholders or tenants and their landlords or owners at the end of the building process; it must be for the Government to address. Otherwise, in what is already an extremely depressed and fractured housing market, this situation will cause further delay and misery. It is not just a case of people being forced to stay in properties that they do not want to stay in—they want to move, perhaps because their family is growing, or because they want to take up a job in another part of the country. This situation is causing real financial and social distress. That may be an unintended consequence of what is designed to be an efficient process, but the process is simply not working at the moment.

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

My role on this Committee is obviously becoming clear: it is to manage Members’ legitimate desire for urgent action and change, and to indicate that there is a process we need to go through in order to get this matter exactly right. I find myself in that position once again.

The fire safety order establishes a self-compliance regime. There is currently no requirement for responsible persons to record their completed fire risk assessments, save for limited provisions in respect of employers. They are simply required to record the significant findings of the assessment and any group of persons identified by the assessment as being especially at risk. The creation of a fire risk assessment register will place a new level of regulation upon responsible persons that could be seen as going against the core principles of the order, notably its self-regulatory and non-prescriptive approach.

There is also a question of ownership and maintenance, and where the costs of such a register would lie. A delicate balance needs to be struck. There are certainly improvements to be made, but we also need to ensure that such improvements are proportionate.

The Government acknowledge that there is work to be done to ensure that residents have access to the vital fire safety information they need in order to be safe and feel safe in their homes. People need to be assured that a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment has been completed, and that all appropriate general precautions have been taken or will be taken.

I also say to potential buyers of leasehold flats that any good conveyancing solicitor would ask for sight of the fire risk assessment from the responsible person—the freeholder—as part of their pre-contract inquiries. If the assessment was not forthcoming, one would expect that the solicitor would advise their clients accordingly and that all due inferences would be made. I can assure the Committee that the fire safety consultation will bring forward proposals for the recording of the fire risk assessment and the provision of vital fire safety information to residents.

New clause 2 would create a public register of fire risk assessors and require the fire risk assessors to be accredited. I agree that there is a clear need for reform concerning fire risk assessors, to improve capacity and standards. I understand the probing nature of the new clause, so it may be helpful to outline work that is ongoing in the area of fire risk assessor capacity and capability.

Some hon. Members will be aware of the industry-led competency steering group and its working group on fire risk assessors. The group will soon publish a report, including proposals for creating a register, third-party accreditation and a competency framework for fire risk assessors. The Government will consider the report’s recommendations in detail.

We are working with the NFCC and the fire risk assessor sector to take forward plans for addressing the short-term and long-term capability and capacity issues within the sector. I share hon. Members’ alarm at the existence of unqualified fire risk assessors; one wonders how many decades this situation has been allowed to persist unnoticed by anybody in this House or by any Government of any hue. The fire safety consultation, which will be issued shortly—I have already committed to that—will bring forward proposals on competence issues.

To summarise, the right approach is for the Government first to consider the proposals of the competency steering group and its sub-groups in relation to a register of fire risk assessors and accreditation. The Government’s position is that that work should continue to be led and progressed by the industry. I am happy to state on the record that we will work with the industry to develop it. Any future statutory requirements on fire risk assessors might be achieved through secondary legislation, which will offer us greater flexibility to add to it or amend it in the future. For those reasons, I intend to resist these new clauses.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.