Extent, commencement and short title

Fire Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:45 pm, 25th June 2020

I beg to move amendment 6, in clause 3, page 2, line 25, after “may” insert “not”.

This amendment seeks to ensure that the Bill be brought into force at the same time for all buildings it will apply to, rather than adopting a staged approach that may make arbitrary distinctions between similar premises.

This amendment is slightly controversial, in that there are different ways to interpret it. It seeks to ensure that the Bill is brought into force at the same time for all the buildings that it will apply to, rather than us adopting a staged approach that may make arbitrary distinctions between similar premises. Some might have concerns about the amendment; the National Housing Federation—the only organisation that responded to all the amendments in writing, which is very impressive—is worried that if we bring everything into the scope of the Bill straight away, there will be a capacity issue. I understand that, but I will explain the thinking behind the amendment.

I have heard from several organisations that the Home Office was looking at perhaps bringing into scope buildings over 18 metres first, and then other types of buildings. The view put to me was that that is slightly arbitrary and not the best way to approach the issue. We heard this morning about the risk-based approach, which had its infancy and was undertaken excellently in my borough of Croydon, rather than people there saying, “We will do this set of buildings first and then this set of buildings.” People who knew what they were doing were trusted to look first at the areas that were most problematic.

I suspect that the Minister will say, “We have set up a task and finish group that will look at how all of this works,” but I think it important to make the point in Committee that we do not want an arbitrary approach or something that will take years. We potentially face the need to carry out risk assessments for hundreds of thousands of buildings, which will take time. The best approach is to look at it through the eyes of the experts who will decide how to manage that challenge, which is why we tabled the amendment.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse The Minister of State, Home Department 3:00 pm, 25th June 2020

We acknowledge that clarification of the scope of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 will represent operational change for many, particularly responsible persons, who, as the hon. Lady said, will need to update their fire risk assessments to include external walls and flat entrance doors. The Bill will also have an impact on the fire sector, fire risk assessors and other competent professionals, such as fire engineers, who are needed to assist the responsible person in complying with the order.

We acknowledge that there are capacity and capability issues, particularly in relation to assessing the risk for external walls. This is not just the Government speaking, but a number of organisations from the fire sector, local authorities and housing associations. The Government are committed to ensuring that we commence the Bill in a way that is workable across the system, while ensuring that swift action is taken to address the most significant fire safety risks.

That is why, as I mentioned this morning, we have established a task and finish group—co-chaired by the Fire Sector Federation and the National Fire Chiefs Council—that will be responsible for providing a recommendation on how the Bill should be commenced. The group will advise on the optimal way to meet the Bill’s objective of improving the identification assessment of fire risks in multi-occupied blocks and addressing them as soon as possible to ensure resident safety while also effectively managing any operational impact.

The task and finish group is made up of representatives from the early adopters group on building safety at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government; private sector developers; the fire sector; the NFCC; and a number of fire and rescue services. The group is expected to report no later than the end of September. It is tasked with providing a recommendation based on an assessment of the evidence and on their knowledge and expertise, which the hon. Member for Croydon Central said was preferable.

We expect that recommendation to address how the highest-risk buildings should be prioritised for assessment of the composition of, and risk associated with, their cladding systems. Ministers will consider the advice and make a final decision. The amendment would remove the ability to make regulations that enable the Bill’s provisions to be commenced on different days for different purposes. That is, it removes the possibility of using regulations to ensure a staged commencement. I make no comment on whether and how the commencement might be staged, but the Government will not prejudge the advice of the task and finish group, or support any restrictions on the ability of the Secretary of State and Welsh Ministers to make informed decisions about when and how regulations are made to commence the provisions in the Bill.

I am particularly conscious that this morning the hon. Lady raised the issue of individuals who might, because of a sudden commencement, find themselves in some kind of limbo, and be unable to undertake property transactions for many years, given the scale of what is required. Notwithstanding that risk is the primary concern, some of those issues will have to be taken into consideration. I hope that gives the Committee a suitable explanation as to why the amendment should be withdrawn.

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

I will withdraw the amendment on the basis that there will be a task and finish group, but I stress that we have had a lot of groups, conversations and consultations. In my previous role in housing, we had 60 consultations on leasehold reform, yet we still do not have leasehold reform. We need to push this forward. Having some sense of when the Bill will commence and how it will be implemented would be helpful. It would also be helpful to know the implementation date, because that is not set out in the Bill. There is a lot of uncertainty, and we are putting a lot of faith in the experts and in the Minister to get this done as quickly as possible, but 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)

Very briefly—although, we are now doing well for time—I want to reiterate the point about the Bill not having a date for when the new requirements will come into force, aside from what is implemented and when. The Bill allows the Secretary of State to choose a date that is considered appropriate, and that makes us uncomfortable. Again, we need to do this as quickly as possible, because these are literally matters of life and death. That is the biggest issue with the clause; other than that, I am happy.

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

Thank you, Mr Streeter—Sir Gary. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I apologise. Again, I acknowledge the impatience. It is worth remembering that the Bill is a technical clarification of a fire safety order that should be functioning well in the vast majority of circumstances. Although there are respectable views about disagreements on definition within the order, which is why we are seeking to clarify it, in the end there is still someone out there who has responsibility for safety in all these buildings. Although I recognise the impatience of the hon. Lady and other hon. Members to get it under way—we share their impatience—I would give that background.

The task and finish group should be reporting by the end of September. There will be more consultation legislation on the way. I realise that the hon. Lady is suffering a little from consultation fatigue. Nevertheless, these are complex issues dealing with effectively unravelling and reknitting a huge system of building safety regulation that has grown up over many decades and needs wholescale reform. It is therefore no surprise that if we want to get this right for the future and avoid any possibility of a future Grenfell, we need to ensure that we do the detailed work, which is what we are trying to do—hence this foundation stone today.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.