Meaning of responsible person

Fire Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 25th June 2020.

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“In article 3 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (meaning of responsible person”), at the end of paragraph (b)(ii) insert—

‘(2) Where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises, a leaseholder shall not be considered a responsible person unless they are also the owner or part owner of the freehold.’”—

This new clause aims to clarify the definition of ‘responsible person’ to ensure leaseholders are not considered a responsible person unless they are also the owner or part owner of the freehold.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 5—Single assessment of risk—

“In article 9 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (risk assessment), after paragraph (3) insert—

‘(3A) Where a building contains two or more domestic premises, any person identified as a responsible person in relation to any part of the building must co-operate with other responsible persons to obtain a single assessment of risk relating to the building as a whole.’”

This new clause seeks to create a requirement that, where a building contains two or more domestic premises and there are multiple responsible persons, a fire risk assessment should be a single document in instances.

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

New clause 4 also relates to leaseholders, and I think what it proposes is quite straightforward, easy to do and something that the Government could put on the face of the Bill relatively easily.

On Second Reading, the definition of a responsible person was raised again by Members from across the House. There were worries about the ambiguity of that definition, and about the risk that the responsible person might seek to use any such confusion or ambiguity to avoid their responsibilities under the Bill. There is a worry that leaseholders might be defined as the responsible person, which they are not unless leaseholders have collectively bought the freehold; that model is not used much, but it does exist. The point of this new clause is simply to ensure that unless that model exists—unless leaseholders have bought the freehold—leaseholders are not the responsible person. It is a relatively straightforward clause, and I cannot see that it would cause any problems.

I suspect that new clause 5 is a probing one, because there are many complex types of buildings, with different types of ownership within them. A block may well contain council housing, housing associations, leaseholders, and—although not part of the Bill—commercial premises within residential premises. All those different types of ownership within a block creates a complex situation when it comes to making the “responsible person” responsible for ensuring the safety assessment is done for the entire building. This clause is a question and challenge to the Government: how will the Bill work when we have all these levels of complexity, including commercial premises, different types of residential premises and different problems with access? This relates in part to some of the issues we were talking about this morning, such as getting access to domestic properties, but there are blocks in my constituency where half of the block is housing association, and half is a mix of all kinds of other private housing. We are worried about how that is going to work in real life when this legislation is introduced, so that is the point of new clause 5.

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

The fire safety order places the onus on the responsible person to identify and mitigate fire risks. For the most part, it engages responsibility for fire safety in line with the extent of control over a premises or part of a premises. That is the underlying principle.

In multi-occupied residential buildings, the leaseholder of a flat is unlikely to be a responsible person for the non-domestic premises. The exceptions to this would be where they own or share ownership of the freehold, as is acknowledged in new clause 4. However, the leaseholder can be a duty holder under article 5 of the order. This will be determined according to the circumstances in any particular case. This Bill does not change that arrangement; it does, of course, clarify that the order applies to the flat entrance doors. Depending on the terms of a lease or tenancy agreement, responsibility to ensure the door complies with the requirements of the order could therefore fall to the responsible person for the building, having retained ownership of the doors, or the tenant or leaseholder as a duty holder. The lease can also be silent.

Legislating for the removal of the leaseholder as a responsible person, or indeed duty holder, would undermine the principles of the order. It could leave a vacuum when it comes to responsibilities under the order, and therefore compromise fire safety. However, as part of our intention to strengthen the fire safety order, we will test further some of the relevant current provisions of the order with regards to flat entrance doors in order to support compliance, co-operation and, if necessary, enforcement actions. The NFCC has offered to support these considerations; again, the fire safety consultation is the right place for us to take such matters further. The Government are committed to ensuring that sufficient guidance and support is given to those regulated by the order. That is why the Home Office, working alongside our stakeholders, has established a guidance steering group that will be responsible for recommending, co-ordinating and delivering a robust and effective review of all the guidance provided under the order.

Article 9 of the fire safety order currently requires all responsible persons or duty holders to complete a “suitable and sufficient” fire risk assessment to ensure the fire safety of the premises for which they are responsible. Where there are multiple responsible persons in one premises, the order requires them to co-operate and co-ordinate with all other persons in order to enable compliance

“with the requirements and prohibitions imposed on them by or under” the fire safety order. A responsible person is also required to

“take all reasonable steps to inform the other responsible persons concerned of the risks to relevant persons arising out of or in connection with the conduct by him of his undertaking.”

I wish I could extemporise the technical detail for the hon. Member for Hammersmith; sadly, even that is beyond me. The intention of the articles is to ensure a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment is completed that considers and accounts for the impact that other parts of the premises may have on the fire safety of the building as a whole. From the responses to the 2019 call for evidence, we acknowledge the difficulties faced by responsible persons in complying with the duty to co-operate. We have considered in much detail the responses provided in the call for evidence on co-operation, and we have developed proposals to address these issues.

The fire safety consultation will set out specific proposals to address those and other issues raised in the 2019 call for evidence, and it is of the utmost importance that the fire risk assessments provide robust and accurate assessments of the fire safety of a premises as a whole, regulated by the order. That is why we want to ensure that the steps we take are informed by the people they will impact, and that they can have a say on how best we can address the issues raised from the call for evidence. I will, however, ask officials to reflect on the comments that have been made this afternoon, and to ensure that they and any additional issues that have been raised are incorporated in the consultation. On that basis, I hope the new clause will be withdrawn.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office) 3:45 pm, 25th June 2020

I feel like we are being beaten down with consultations, steering groups and promises of honey to come. I know it is complex and there a lot of questions to answer. The basic premise of new clause 4 is that, where there is a freeholder, the leaseholder should not be the responsible person. I know there are complexities with that: who is responsible for the front door, and how does it all work? That all needs to be ironed out, but there is a basic principle in the new clause. Given the Minister’s proposal to go back and talk to officials, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.