Examination of Witness

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:44 pm on 14th September 2021.

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Mr Matt Wrack gave evidence.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 3:08 pm, 14th September 2021

We will now hear from Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. We have until 4 pm for this session. Could the witness please introduce himself for the record?

Mr Wrack:

Hi, I am Matt Wrack. I am the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Thanks, Matt, for coming before us today. I have a couple of questions. The first is a wide one; then I will ask more about the regulator. Will the Building Safety Bill significantly improve the building safety regime in this country?Q

Mr Wrack:

I think it will improve the building safety regime, and we welcome elements of it. Our assessment is that it does not go far enough. It is a welcome turn after decades of deregulation in public safety and building safety. Our union, which represents frontline firefighters, and our members who work in fire safety specialist teams have often felt like a voice crying in the wilderness on many of these issues for decades. We have objected to the growth of commercial interests in setting standards in the testing regime, and the approach to enforcement—often, regrettably, led by Ministers of different parties. We welcome the turning point in the Bill; it will help to clarify roles and responsibilities. We certainly welcome those elements.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South

Q A key aspect of the Bill is the establishment of the new regulator in the Health and Safety Executive. Are the functions and objectives of this new regulator appropriate? Does it have the right expertise and resources?

Mr Wrack:

We have questions about the resources for the HSE. Whether it has the appropriate skills and expertise is a matter for it to discuss with the Government, and if it does not, it needs to be supported in delivering that. We have concerns about the scale of reductions in, for example, HSE inspectors; they have been reduced by something like a quarter over the past decade. The whole issue of resources runs through this debate on building safety. While we welcome the move towards regulation, that regulation has to be resourced adequately, including in the HSE. That is a key issue the Government will have to address.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South

Q The new regulator will have to co-operate with fire and rescue authorities and local authorities or the private sector. Do you have any comments on those relationships?

Mr Wrack:

I think this will become clearer as the Bill is implemented. There is an obvious point for fire and rescue services around what is meant by the obligation to co-operate with the regulator. Again, fire and rescue services have been subject to unprecedented reductions in staffing numbers over the past decade. That will raise questions about resources when it comes to their ability to co-operate with the requests of the regulator. In the impact assessment, there are suggestions of additional funding for fire and rescue services for that function; we would question how those figures have been drawn up and whether they are adequate.

Under the proposals, if, because of resource implications, a fire and rescue service could not provide assistance, the regulator has the ability to go to another fire and rescue service—or, failing that, to the private sector. We object to the role of private sector providers in that. If we have a problem with resources in the appropriate public service, then those resources should be provided.

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

Q It is good to see you, Matt. Is height the best measure of risk and, if so, is the threshold in the Bill appropriate?

Mr Wrack:

Picking up on a point made in the previous session, we find the idea of a differential regime based on height somewhat illogical. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it would make sense to have a single system that is understandable to everyone, a single set of accountable people, and a single mechanism for making complaints and addressing problems.

There clearly is an issue around height in relation to building safety. As we put in our written submission, we do not agree with the 18-metre cut-off. We and others have said that if there is to be a height measure, a more logical one would be 11 metres. There are clearly differences between the fire risks in a traditional two-storey house and those in a purpose-built block of flats, where there are specific challenges. Some challenges are general across all forms of purpose-built blocks of flats; some of them apply at particular heights.

Clearly, there are additional challenges once you get to very tall buildings. They range from the ability of firefighters to fight a fire and rescue people to the importance of the internal building safety measures, such as the provision of dry rising mains, fire lifts and so on. All those things will be affected by issues such as the height of the building. As I think the National Fire Chiefs Council has said, it is a complicated issue because there are other factors, such as what has been done to the building and whether the building has been altered from its original design and construction. Lots of things need to be considered. Height in itself can be a bit arbitrary, and in our view the wrong height measure has been chosen.

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

Q We have heard a lot in the evidence sessions about culture and the prioritising of profit over safety and quality. Are you concerned that the poor state of buildings and the current culture put your officers at greater risk and in greater danger when there is a fire?

Mr Wrack:

I was previously a firefighter in the London Fire Brigade—I have been in this position since 2005—and I think there is a problem with culture. I have lived through a decade in which the endless mantra from senior civil servants and Government Ministers of both parties has been that fire is a declining risk, and we can therefore afford to reduce our emphasis on fire safety. That was very clearly a theme that we heard for more than a decade. I think it fed through into the fire service itself, and senior managers and chief officers accepted that mantra. As I say, we were often a lone voice opposing that approach. That has allowed corners to be cut, and for deregulatory approaches to be taken. It has allowed standards to be cut. Over two decades, we lost something like 40% of fire safety inspecting teams. Then, of course, along comes Grenfell Tower, and people wake up to the fact that we have not been properly addressing risk.

To pick up a point made earlier by a representative from the insurance industry, one of the big problems in relation to fire safety and building safety in the UK is a complete lack of horizon-scanning. A question was asked about fires in the UK and elsewhere. The truth is that there have been warning signs from fires elsewhere. Clearly, you cannot necessarily draw an immediate analogy between a building in Europe or the middle east and one in Britain because the regulations may be completely different, but there were warning signs about external cladding systems, including in the UK. Regrettably, we have not had structures in place that allowed various professional voices, whether of construction specialists, building control specialists or fire safety officers, to discuss emerging risks and identify how we address them. I think a deep complacency about fire safety has emerged, particularly over the past two decades. Grenfell, hopefully, is a major turning point on that.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Thank you, Matt, for everything that you and your members do. What is missing from the Bill? What would genuinely make buildings safer, and things a damn sight easier for your members?

Mr Wrack:

A single system of regulation would be better than what is proposed. I understand that there may be a need for a phased approach, but I am not sure that is what is in front of us. I think that the 18-metre cut-off point is incorrect, too. There should be a move towards an elimination of private-sector interests in building control. The idea that people can choose their own building control system is wrong, and appears wrong to many people. Finally—this relates more to the background to the Bill—resourcing is a huge issue for us in the fire service, for local authority building control, and for the HSE.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q That covered part of my question, which was: were the Government right to retain the duty holder’s power to choose a building control body? Will the reforms in the Bill fix the problems identified by Dame Judith Hackitt?

Mr Wrack:

We welcome the commitment in the Bill to driving up standards. Regrettably, we in the union attend inquests, sometimes on the deaths of members of the public and sometimes on deaths of our members. There have been incidents in which our members have died and it has emerged that the fire risk assessor in the building had no qualifications. That is quite shocking. It is a sign of a deregulated sector.

We welcome the drive to improve and professionalise standards operating in a whole number of areas; if you listen to the shocking evidence to the Grenfell Tower inquiry, you find it relates to fire safety awareness among architects, to fire risk assessors, and to building control. We have from day one opposed the privatisation of local authority building control. If you listen to the evidence from Grenfell, there have been unprecedented cuts in local authority building control teams. That was reflected in the harrowing evidence given to the inquiry by an individual who reported that his team had been slashed completely. He kept a notebook by his bed because he could not keep up with the scale of work.

If we are to take building safety seriously, we need to provide adequate resources to those organisations tasked with delivering it, and that needs to improve standards. In the fire and rescue services, cost-cutting has reduced fire safety specialist teams and the provision of training. In the fire and rescue service, over the past 15 or 16 years, there have been reductions in training across the board—from the initial training that firefighters receive on joining the service to the training they receive when they enter specialist teams, such as fire safety departments—and, in our view, reductions in standards. If we are talking about driving up standards, we need to invest in the provision of adequate training and support for people to adopt those standards.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q In the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, there is a duty to provide adequate training to anyone carrying out a role in their employment. It seems to me that the resources have not been there to enable that training to be given. Where does the duty lie to resource people to do the training that, in law, must be given to everybody carrying out their role? You must be adequately trained to carry out your duties.

Mr Wrack:

One of my roles, unfortunately, is to attend, participate in and support inquests and other inquiries. In virtually every inquest on the death of a firefighter we have ever dealt with, certain common themes emerge: command and control, resources and training. There are clear requirements under the Health and Safety at Work Act, which relates primarily to the internal workforce, and a raft of other legislation for public bodies such as the fire and rescue service to provide adequate standards in their outward-facing responsibilities to the community.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q Do you think placing the Building Safety Regulator within the Health and Safety Executive might improve the situation or do anything to address it?

Mr Wrack:

It certainly will improve, because the current state of affairs is pretty abysmal. For us, one gap in fire safety and building safety policy is the lack of the broader structures that used to exist in the British fire service, from 1947 to 2004, whereby various stakeholders came together to look at legislation, changes in the built environment, training requirements and so on, and could develop best practice in the sector. We used to have the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. That no longer exists and, as a result, there is a big gap in fire safety policy development in the UK.

It may be that the building advisory committee can play some of that role—precisely how that will unfold is a bit unclear, but it might play that role to some extent. But yes, the Health and Safety Executive potentially will improve things. As I mentioned, the key issue is resources.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q Is there still the facility to conduct desktop emergency incidents like the one at Grenfell Tower?

Mr Wrack:

We would oppose the approach taken that enabled desktop sign-offs to be conducted. I am not clear whether that would be enabled under the Bill once it has been implemented, but it certainly should not be.

One of the problems highlighted by Grenfell is the weakness of the testing regime. The ability of manufacturers and developers, in effect, to design their own tests goes against the normal, everyday, common-sense approach to testing that people expect. You do not design your own MOT for your car; you go to a registered MOT provider and they test it for you. You do not choose your own driving test examiner; they are appointed for you. I would argue that in areas where a lot of money is involved as well as huge issues of public safety, you should have stricter systems of regulation, not more lax ones.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw

ThereQ was mention earlier about pressures on funding and capacity, and so on, and you were asked whether there was anything that you would add to the Bill or that is missing in terms of relieving pressure. Do you not feel that the Fire Safety Act 2021 adequately dealt with many things?

Mr Wrack:

I think we welcome both as steps forward. As I say, hopefully this is a turning point in the debate on public safety and building safety in Britain; however, I do not think there has been the relief on the financial pressure on fire and rescue services that I mentioned, and that runs as a theme throughout this.

I do not see how you can cut in the London Fire Brigade, for example, 25% of your fire safety inspectors and not think that that will have implications for public safety. Something like 20% to 25% of fire safety inspecting officers have gone over the past 11 years, and something like 40% over the past 20 years. That is a very significant reduction, and it clearly will have, and has had, an impact on the ability of fire and rescue services to conduct the level of inspections or audits that people would want them to undertake. We welcome that legislation and this Bill, but—you would not expect us to say any different—we think it should go further.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

Q I wanted to touch on accountable persons, because the Bill creates that role. One of the things that you have talked about throughout your evidence is the relationships that the fire service has to build with different stakeholders. What pressures do you think your members will have in terms of this new category of person? Notwithstanding what you said about resource, if tomorrow you had to build those relationships, operationally what would your members have to do? What pieces would they have to move around to ensure that they could adequately build those relationships with the accountable persons, who have this quite significant responsibility on their shoulders?

Mr Wrack:

First, I welcome the accountable person role. I think that is a step forward, as one of the problems that we have had in terms of building safety is identifying who the relevant party is. It will create big challenges for various bodies in local government, and certainly for the fire and rescue service because there clearly are large numbers of such buildings—although they are concentrated, particularly with the 18-metre limit, in particular parts of the country.

It will create a significant challenge for the London Fire Brigade, for example, to monitor and keep adequate records of who the relevant accountable person is, and the relevant building safety manager who sits underneath them once the building is occupied. There are lots of operational challenges. Those points have been made by the National Fire Chiefs Council and others. I will keep banging on that it does raise significant resource implications, inevitably, for us.

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow

Q Hi, Matt. Nice to see you. I was interested in the comments that you, and previous panellists, made on the mantra around fire risk. I was at one of the fire stations in my constituency within the last week, and one of the firefighters there was talking to me about how much more flammable both building materials and the furniture within are. Do you agree?

Mr Wrack:

There are loads of things that come out of that. Building construction is always changing. A long time ago, as recruit firefighters, we were taught about building construction, but that was the building construction of the time—of the 1970s and ’80s. Things have changed and as I say I do not think that enough horizon-scanning goes on about the emerging risks in how we build and alter buildings, and what we put in them.

On the question of furniture, again, my union has a very proud record. We led campaigns, including here, about foam-filled furniture and requirements to provide measures to address the impact that it was having in domestic fires. However, what is emerging today is a growing concern, across the world, around the contaminants that might be involved in fire-suppressing materials within foam-filled furniture—you solve one problem, but you may create another. There is a lot of work to be done.

On research, again, I think one problem that we have in the UK is a low level of public research into fire safety matters. Over the decades, we have worked with people at the BRE and so on, but much more needs to be done on that front. The fire risks are changing; the materials that we put into and on to buildings have changed, so they affect how buildings react in a fire.

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow

Q We talked about the height of buildings, but, once built, a higher-risk building only remains within the scope of the regime if it has at least two residential units. What are your thoughts on that? Should it be restricted only to buildings that people live in?

Mr Wrack:

There are other regulations covering office buildings. One big thing that has been highlighted by Grenfell is the difference in standards between high-rise residential blocks and an office block of an equivalent size.

In an office block, you would have far different fire safety measures, including two stairwells, regular fire safety drills and so on. Those do not exist in purpose-built blocks of flats, because those blocks were designed to deliver compartmentalisation—they were built to contain the fire within the flat of origin. What has happened in recent years is that that has broken down. I think that residential blocks are different from non-residential blocks. Whether two is the right number, I do not know.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

Q I could hear the frustration in your voice when you said that the Fire Brigades Union has, effectively, been a bit of a lonely voice in trying to raise awareness and concerns over the fact that, while there have perhaps been fewer fires, those fires have been spreading faster. Do you think that some kind of standing committee, or a mechanism where best practice and horizon scanning can take place on a regular basis, would be the answer or is there something else that could happen?

Mr Wrack:

That sort of structure is precisely what is needed. The post-war legislation effectively created the modern fire service. It introduced such a body, called the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. It included the Home Office, the inspectorate, chief fire officers and the trade unions. We had a very close relationship with researchers at what became the BRE, the fire service college. It was a joined-up way of thinking about the risks of fire, but was eventually criticised for supposedly being slow. Looking back, I think that criticism was very badly placed. I look at how they responded to a fire in 1958 where firefighters were killed; within weeks, guidance was issued.

I must say that it takes much longer today to get a change, and firefighters on the ground are hugely frustrated at the slow pace of change post-Grenfell. In the 1970s, we did have bodies that were looking at the emergence of high-rise blocks of flats, and their implications on fire safety and firefighting. We do not have those anymore.

Then Grenfell came along. We had warning signs. We had cladding fires in Melbourne and Europe. My own union came to the House after a fire in 1999 to warn about cladding systems, so as long ago as 1999 we were making warnings about the new systems that were being put on blocks of flats, which created the risk of the fire spreading up the outside of the building, yet in the intervening years very little has been done to address that risk; to improve the knowledge on the part of firefighters on the ground; or in any way to prepare for what that might mean for the people living in those blocks of flats.

There has been a complete lack of joined-up thinking for more than two decades on fire safety, and I appeal to people to think about how that could be put right.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

If there are no further questions, may I, on behalf of the Committee, thank the witness for his evidence? I am going to suspend the sitting for 10 minutes until we can fire up our next witness on Zoom. Thank you very much.

Sitting suspended.