Duties of owner or manager

Fire Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 25th June 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

“The relevant authority must by regulations amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) to require an owner or a manager of any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises to—

(a) share information with their local Fire and Rescue Service in respect of each building for which an owner or manager is responsible about the design of its external walls and details of the materials of which those external walls are constructed;

(b) in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake regular inspections of individual flat entrance doors;

(c) in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake regular inspections of lifts and report the results to their local Fire and Rescue Service; and

(d) share evacuation and fire safety instructions with residents of the building

This new clause would place various requirements on building owners or managers, and would implement the recommendations made in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase One Report.

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 9—Inspectors: prioritisation—

“In discharging their duties under article 27 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (powers of inspectors) in relation to any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises, an inspector must prioritise the premises which they consider to be at most risk.”

This new clause would require the schedule for inspecting buildings to be based on a prioritisation of risk, not an arbitrary distinction of types of buildings.

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

The new clause does what the Government say will come later: it puts on the face of the Bill the recommendations made in the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase 1 report. At the beginning of June, the MHCLG announced that it was preparing to open a public consultation on recommendations for new fire safety regulations emerging from the Grenfell Tower inquiry. In a letter to Martin Moore-Bick, the Prime Minister gave assurances that action on the findings of the inquiry’s first report “continues at pace”. However, the Government had already promised in October 2019 to implement the inquiry’s recommendations in full and without delay. Failing to include the simpler recommendations for the Bill, such as inspections of fire doors and testing of lifts, is a breach of their commitment to implement the recommendations without delay.

Only this week we saw alarming statistics that underline the urgency of implementing the recommendations. Of more than 100,000 doors in about 2,700 buildings across the UK inspected by the fire door inspection scheme in 2019, 76% did not comply with building regulations and about one in six, or 16%, were not even proper fire doors. Nearly two thirds, or 63%, of the buildings also had additional fire safety issues. Those are huge challenges. We need to move as quickly as possible to implement the recommendations.

Earlier this month, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said that the Bill

“provides a firm foundation upon which to bring forward secondary legislation”.—[Official Report, 2 June 2020; Vol. 676, c. 41WS.]

The Minister has taken the same approach, but there is no timetable for when everything else will happen. There are lots of committees, consultations and groups looking at these things, but it is not acceptable that after the promise of “without delay” in October 2019, we still have not moved on those issues by the middle of summer 2020.

I do not understand, and it would be good for Minister to explain, why we would not put such provisions in the Bill. They have the support of the organisations that we heard from this morning. It is just a case of putting things up front in the legislation, rather than waiting for an undefined time that may or may not come at some point in the future.

The new clause would require an owner or manager to

“share information with their local Fire and Rescue Service in respect of each building for which an owner or manager is responsible about the design of its external walls and details of the materials of which those external walls are constructed…in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake regular inspections of individual flat entrance doors…in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake regular inspections of lifts and report the results to their local Fire and Rescue Service; and…share evacuation and fire safety instructions with residents of the building.”

It just pushes faster and implements more quickly the action that the Government have committed to implementing. I press the Government to accept that that is possible, or to set out exactly when those things will become part of legislation.

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

I have similar feelings about new clause 6 as I had about amendment 1. There is a risk that by seeking to be precise, we may create additional gaps in the legislation. Looking at the list, it would be clear to anybody with experience of the issue in a wider context that many other issues would come into consideration in such circumstances.

For example, the London Borough of Hillingdon had to go to court on 16 occasions last year to gain access to tenants’ properties to undertake essential safety-critical work on gas installations. If we were to define the duties that we are placing on the responsible individuals, the list would be extremely long. I have heard the Minister talk on the issue and I know that, with his local government experience, he is well aware of the context.

The properties to which the legislation will apply are hugely diverse, as are the risks that they offer. I therefore strongly believe that the new clause is another example where we are better off having a broader-brush piece of legislation that provides the opportunity to catch every set of circumstances flexibly, rather than being unnecessarily specific and risking missing out things that might turn out to be safety-critical.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Thank you, Sir Gary. I apologise for referring to you as Mr Streeter throughout.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

You can call me whatever you like.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I will get it right before the end.

I have a brief comment about new clause 9, which goes to the heart of our discussion. It says that where there are

“two…sets of domestic premises, an inspector must prioritise the premises which they consider to be at most risk”.

That echoes what Mr Carpenter, the head of fire safety at L&Q, said in evidence this morning, and it must be right. It also mirrors the debate that we are having about covid-19 and the balance between the health implications and the economic implications. If all our eggs are put into the basket of buildings where there is believed to be a singular risk or multiple risks, there will be all the consequences we have already discussed relating to delays to sale and so on for buildings with a more marginal risk that nevertheless need remedial work. The Government have to grasp that dichotomy and say how they propose to deal with it.

At the moment individual landlords are dealing with it in their own way. My local authority, for example, has gone far beyond what are considered to be minimum standards. It has something called a fire safety plus programme, which means that fire safety experts visit tenants to check electrical and fire detection appliances. They replace white goods for free if they are faulty. I referred earlier to problems with flame failure devices, where gas leaks can occur, and the authority has now incorporated checks of all gas devices into annual boiler checks.

Some responsible landlords, and particularly social landlords such as Hammersmith and Fulham Council, take those responsibilities seriously and prioritise those matters. However, that has to happen across the board and not be left to landlords’ good will, as it were, or their responsible action. It has to be something that the Government enforce. It would be useful to include that with new clause 9 and provide for such prioritisation in the relevant circumstances. However—and yes, this is cake-and-eat-it, but this is a cake-and-eat-it Government, so I am sure they can incorporate it—we cannot forget those tenants or leaseholders who are at the back of the queue and who, as Mr Carpenter said at column 14 in the first sitting of the Committee, may be waiting 10 years for remedial work to take place. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that—both whether he agrees with the content of new clause 9 with respect to prioritisation, and what he would do as a consequence.

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

As the hon. Member for Croydon Central has pointed out, the Prime Minister has accepted the outcome of the Grenfell inquiry. However, Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report stated that his recommendation should command the support of those with experience of the matters to which they relate. That means that we need to make sure that everyone is on board with the proposals as we take them forward.

Our intention is to enact the proposals, subject to the views of the consultation, under article 24, which specifically requires the Secretary of State to

“consult with such persons or bodies of persons as appear to him to be appropriate.”

Once again I acknowledge the impatience of the hon. Lady and everyone else in the Committee to get on with it, and get the Grenfell inquiry measures in place, but there are stages that we need to go through to make sure that we get the measures right and to ensure that the changes made to building safety will be cultural as well as legislative and structural. That is an issue that became clear during my time as Housing Minister. The entire sector has to acknowledge its moral and legal duties for the safety of those in its care, whether that is in the design, building, management or maintenance of properties. That means we need to make sure everyone is bought in.

On new clause 9, I do not dispute the need to ensure that resources and enforcement activity are targeted, but I dispute the need for legislation to do so. Fire and rescue authorities are in the business of managing risk and are accountable for how they do so. The fire and rescue national framework for England requires fire and rescue authorities to have a locally determined risk-based inspection programme in place, for enforcing compliance with the order. It sets out the expectation that FRAs will target their resources on those individuals or households at greatest risk from fire in the home and on those non-domestic premises where the life safety risk is greatest. In parallel, the regulators’ code states that all regulators should base their regulatory activities on risk, take an evidence-based approach to determine the priority risks in their area of responsibility, and allocate resources where they would be most effective in addressing those priority risks.

We acknowledge the vital work that local FRAs do and the NFCC has done, and will continue to do, to ensure that building owners are taking all necessary steps to make sure that those living in high-rise buildings are safe and feel safe to remain in their homes.

The building risk review programme, which will see all high-rise residential buildings reviewed or inspected by fire and rescue authorities by the end of 2021, is a key part of this work. The programme will enable building fire risks to be reviewed and data to be collected to ensure that local resources are targeted at those buildings most at risk. It will also provide reassurance to residents that the risks in their buildings have been assessed and appropriate action has been taken.

We have provided £10 million of funding to support the work—not only to facilitate the review of all buildings, but to support the strengthening of the NFCC central strategic function to drive improvements in fire protection. This is in addition to a further £10-million grant to support the bolstering of fire protection capacity and capability within local fire and rescue services. The funding has been allocated based on the proportion of higher-risk buildings, further demonstrating the need to target resources at the risk.

In summary, the Government’s position is that adequate arrangements are in place to ensure that enforcement authorities target their resources appropriately and are accountable for their decisions without the need to make it a statutory requirement. I ask that the new clause be withdrawn.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office) 4:00 pm, 25th June 2020

I hear what the Minister says—there are stages that we need to go through to get this right—but the Bill has no date for its commencement, so we could put this provision in the Bill and then do the things that need to be done in order to bring it into force at the time that the Secretary of State deems right. Therefore I would, on this new clause, like to test the will of the Committee.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 2 Fire Safety Bill — Duties of owner or manager

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.