Waking watch

Fire Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 25th June 2020.

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“The relevant authority must by regulations amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) to specify when a waking watch must be in place for any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises and which has been found to have fire safety failings.”—

This new clause would require the UK Government (for England) and the Welsh Government (for Wales) to specify when a waking watch must be in place for buildings with fire safety failures.

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.

New clause 8 refers to an issue about waking watch that has been raised with us many times by struggling leaseholders. The aim of the new clause is to clarify exactly when a waking watch must be in place and when one should not be. We have seen since Grenfell that this involves a huge number of buildings; tens of thousands of people are living in blocks where some kind of remediation work is necessary and so a waking watch has been put in place. There are lots of concerns about waking watch in general. How qualified are the people doing the job, and are there enough of them? Is it a suitable alternative to the work that needs to be done?

Many leaseholders have told us that there are conflicting instructions on whether people should have waking watch, depending on where you are and which block you live in. The National Fire Chiefs Council says that waking watch should be temporary, but there are residents living in blocks that have had a waking watch for nearly three years, at huge cost. I have spoken to leaseholders who are paying £14,000 a year for the waking watch. In one galling case, residents on the block spent £700,000 on waking watch, but when the building was tested, it was found to be safe, so they spent a lot of money collectively for something that they never actually needed in the first place.

We will clearly not remove all the cladding that needs to be removed for some time, given that the issue it is not just ACM cladding, but HPL and other forms, too. Those things take time and we do not have enough people to do the work. What will happen in that time? Do people really have to pay that much money for that long when, in some areas, people are told they need a waking watch, and in others, they are not? Other questions remain about whether people can have other alarm systems that would mean not paying as much. People are going bankrupt paying for something that is supposed to be temporary but is not needed or the best thing for them to do.

Through the new clause, we are saying to the Government that this issue has been raised many times. There is inconsistency about the waking watch and how it is applied. In any case, it is not supposed to be in place for only a short period, not three years. The issue was raised by Government Members on Second Reading and has been raised in housing questions for some time. We want a system where it is clear what waking watch is for and what it is not for, to resolve inconsistencies.

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

I should start by acknowledging the issue of waking watch. It is obviously very serious. In my previous position as Housing Minister, I met a number of groups that were struggling to pay for waking watch. I will speak later about what the Government are doing to support its proper use. I acknowledge the issue the hon. Member for Croydon Central raised, and I am sorry for the particular story she pointed to. However, expanding the scope of the Bill with this new clause is not the best way to achieve what she seeks.

There are significant issues with the wording of the new clause. First, it would introduce a regulation-making power that “must” be exercised to amend the fire safety order. Further, the term “fire safety failings” is very broad and subject to interpretation. There could be several circumstances where there is a fire safety failure that would not warrant the imposition of a waking watch—for example, cases where only a faulty fire door or smoke detector needed replacing. In such circumstances, swift remedial action can be undertaken, but the wording makes no distinction between fire safety failures.

Aside from the wording, we oppose putting this provision in primary legislation in any event. A decision on the use of waking watch is a matter for the responsible person when considering how to achieve compliance in particular premises. That decision must factor in the circumstances of the premises and other fire protection measures in place. Auditing for compliance is ultimately an operational issue, best dealt with by the relevant enforcing authority on a case-by-case basis. Specific circumstances will dictate what form of remedial action is necessary. The fire safety order already provides for an appropriate enforcement action to be taken. To impose a prescriptive legislative requirement of this type would be unhelpful and, worse, potentially inhibit an enforcing authority from taking the most appropriate action.

We are, however, taking forward work in conjunction with the NFCC on waking watches; it might reassure Members if I outlined it briefly. First, the NFCC is updating its guidance on waking watches. Once that guidance is available, we will ask fire protection boards to advise fire and rescue services on how best to ensure the guidance is implemented on the ground by responsible persons. That will include looking into other measures, such as installing building-wide fire alarm systems to reduce the dependency on waking watches wherever possible.

We are also looking to publish data on the costs of waking watches. That will ensure transparency on the range of costs, so that comparisons can be clearly made. Our aim is to help reduce the over-reliance on waking watch and, where it is necessary, reduce costs.

Furthermore, as Committee members may be aware, we are already working with the NFCC and fire and rescue services to undertake a building risk review programme on all high-rise residential buildings of 18 metres and above in England, which will ensure that all such buildings are inspected or reviewed by the fire service by the end of next year. It should give residents in high-rise blocks greater assurance that fire risks have been identified and action taken to address them, reducing the need for waking watches and other interim measures.

Essentially, we find ourselves in the same argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner has raised on a number of occasions: by being prescriptive, we create a situation where anomalies may occur and lacunae open up in the fire safety framework, of which this foundational Bill is meant to be the keystone—or whatever firm word we want to use—for the future. For that reason, we hope that this new clause will also be withdrawn.

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

Heaven forbid that lacunae should open up! I immediately withdraw the new clause. I completely understand the point about this being a matter for the responsible person. The issue is that the freeholder is the responsible person, and the leaseholder is the one who has to pay, so there is a problem there.

I welcome the work that the Government are doing in trying to shine a light on some of the issues about costs; we have heard all kinds of accounts of different costs for the same job, so shining some light on that would be helpful. I think this is an issue that needs to be pushed, but I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chair do report the Bill to the House.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Colleagues, we have done well. If anyone wishes to say anything pleasant about officials at this stage, that is the usual course of events.

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

Strangely, the officials have not provided me with a script of nice things to say about them. First, I am obviously grateful to all Members of the Committee for the constructive way in which our proceedings have taken place and to you, Sir Gary, for your benign chairmanship.

This is obviously a difficult and complex piece of work, and while we see the emanation of it in the clauses and the various bits of legislation that come before us, a whole team of officials at both the Home Office and MHCLG has been beavering away on this for some time, engaging with various industry groups and often with affected residents who are in distress, in as sensitive and proportionate a way as possible. I know the Committee express their appreciation for all that work as well.

I hope, as we move into the next phase of this very important journey and this enormous reform to the system, we can continue with not only that very forensic work that officials have done to put us in this position, but the collegiate and co-operative political atmosphere. As I say, this is a situation that, unfortunately, has arisen over a number of decades, under Governments of all colours, and it behoves us all as a political class to put it right.

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

I will be brief; my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has put her jacket on, so I know it is time. I thank the officials who have helped me to find my way through this, not least when the House adjourned at 5.30 pm on Monday instead of 10.30 pm as normal, since that was the deadline by which we had to table amendments. There was a particular pickle at that moment, but the officials were incredibly helpful. Thank you, Sir Gary, for your chairmanship.

I will finish by saying again that we welcome this piece of legislation. We wish things had gone a lot further and faster. There is a lot more to be done, and we are very hungry to see it done and happy to help the Government in any way we can to get it done. We all keep top of mind the people who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire. That is what we are here for, and we must therefore act as quickly and as well as we can.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Thank you very much. I know the whole Committee will endorse those remarks. I also thank Yohanna for her excellent clerking of the proceedings.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.

Written evidence reported to the House

FSB01 Fire Brigades Union

FSB02 Institution of Engineering and Technology (‘IET’)

FSB03 Fire Sector Federation

FSB04 National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC)

FSB05 British Property Federation

FSB06 Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service

FSB07 National Housing Federation