Clause 21 - Authorised Officers

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 21st September 2021.

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Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham 9:25 am, 21st September 2021

Before we begin, I have a few preliminary reminders for the Committee. Please switch electronic devices to silent. No food or drink is permitted, except for the water that is provided. I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please give one another, and members of staff, space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Hansard colleagues will be grateful if Members email their speaking notes to hansardnotes@parliament.uk.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

That schedule 2 be the Second schedule to the Bill.

Clause 22 stand part.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I welcome the Committee back to its deliberations.

Clause 21 allows the Building Safety Regulator to authorise individuals to exercise powers on the regulator’s behalf. However, before making an authorisation, the regulator must be satisfied that the individual being authorised is suitably qualified to exercise that role. This power is designed to enable the effective functioning of the Building Safety Regulator’s functions in respect of higher-risk buildings.

Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review found that the regulation of higher-risk buildings could be improved by bringing together Health and Safety Executive expertise, local authority building control expertise and fire safety expertise from fire and rescue services. As we have already discussed, clause 13 enables the Building Safety Regulator to secure the assistance of staff from local authorities and fire and rescue services in its work on higher-risk buildings.

This clause goes further and consolidates the independent review’s recommendation, allowing the regulator to authorise others, including officers of these bodies, to exercise powers on its behalf. Under its general powers, the Building Safety Regulator will also be able to secure expertise from the private sector to deliver building functions on higher-risk buildings. In certain circumstances, the regulator may want to authorise such individuals to exercise powers, and this clause enables that to be done. The regulator will be able to authorise such individuals only where they have been appropriately trained to exercise these powers.

As some individuals will have more competence and expertise than others, the Building Safety Regulator will have discretion to confer different sets of powers on different individuals. For example, one person might be authorised to make applications for search warrants because they have appropriate experience, whereas another might be authorised to do site visits and seize documents.

In practice, that could work as follows: the Building Safety Regulator may request assistance with building control matters from the local authority, which provides an appropriately trained building control expert to assist with the regulator. The building control expert could be given Building Safety Regulator powers to enter non-domestic premises with or without a warrant. However, the Building Safety Regulator may decide not to designate this individual with the power to enter domestic premises, on the grounds that they do not have the necessary experience and training to do so. Deciding to enter domestic premises requires a balance to be struck between a person’s right to privacy—the resident—and the public interest in making entry to obtain, for example, evidence of wrongdoing. Not all those working with the regulator will have the necessary experience and training to make such decisions.

The full list of powers available is set out in schedule 2, which I will now turn to in some further detail. With the introduction of new duties and new processes into the building control regime, authorised officers will play a significant role in ensuring compliance with the new regime. This schedule provides officers who have been authorised under clause 21 with a suite of powers to enable them to assist the regulator in carrying out its building functions. This includes powers of entry, inspection and collection of evidence that mirror existing powers used effectively under similar regulatory regimes, such as the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. These powers are designed to be flexible and to be useful in every situation that authorised officers may encounter.

To ensure proportionality, as with existing practice, warrants will be required to enter residential premises or any premises where it is expected to be necessary to use force to enter.  If an application is made to a magistrate for a warrant to enter domestic premises, additional powers may be requested, where required.  Those are powers, first, to use force to gain entry; secondly, to collect and take away evidence; or, thirdly, take other personnel—for example, experts—on to the premises.

Compliance with the requests of authorised officers will be integral in ensuring the effective functioning of the new regime and will avert potentially dangerous situations for residents. As such, authorised officers have been provided with the powers necessary to enforce compliance where required. Paragraph 8 of schedule 2 provides that failure to provide information upon request to authorised officers will be a criminal offence. Deliberately providing information to the regulator that is false or misleading, when required to provide information or in the other circumstances in the clause, is an offence under clause 23.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

Does my hon. Friend agree that establishing criminal offences of obstructing the regulator’s work solidifies the regulator’s position, which is vital in ensuring residents’ safety?

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My hon. Friend is quite right: we must ensure that every player in the design, development and construction of in-scope buildings recognises the importance and powers of the regulator and the penalties that may apply should any attempt be made to obstruct or impersonate it. The offences will carry a maximum custodial sentence of up to two years to provide an effective deterrent to non-compliance. I hope that my hon. Friend recognises the power and veracity of the penalty.

I hope that members of the Committee will agree that this clause is key in enabling the regulator to carry out its functions effectively, drawing on the expertise and involvement of local authorities and fire and rescue services.

Clause 22 makes it a criminal offence to obstruct or to impersonate an authorised officer of the Building Safety Regulator. Under clause 21 and schedule 2, authorised officers will play a significant role in exercising powers on behalf of the regulator. This clause is designed to protect authorised officers by ensuring that they are not impeded and that they—and, by extension, the Building Safety Regulator—can go about their business of keeping residents safe.

Clause 22 does that by deterring and, if necessary, enabling the punishment of those who seek to obstruct or impersonate authorised officers—behaviour that could severely disrupt or sabotage critical building functions. The difference in penalties for obstruction and impersonation are proportionate to the expected gravity of each offence, reflecting the greater intent required to impersonate an authorised officer. The penalties mirror existing penalties for obstructing or impersonating a police officer and reflect similar provisions protecting staff of other regulatory bodies such as the Food Standards Agency and the Financial Conduct Authority.

The two clauses are crucial components of building the regime of the Building Safety Regulator and I commend them to the Committee.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford.

As the Minister rightly said in his introduction, clause 21 ensures that appropriately trained individuals secure the involvement of local authorities, key stakeholders and fire and rescue teams in working with the Health and Safety Executive and the regulator.

The current definition of at-risk buildings is those of 18 metres and above. I have said throughout proceedings on the Bill that the scope of “at risk” should be broadened, and we will debate that under later clauses.

We welcome the recommendations, which draw on the findings of the independent review conducted by Dame Judith Hackitt.

How will the regulator ensure that individuals are appropriately trained and qualified under the framework? An example arose yesterday on social media of a resident living in a block in Bournemouth. The block was signed off by a previous employee of the council but it has been riddled with fire safety issues that we in this room and beyond are all familiar with. The individual has now set up as a private contractor, free to assess so-called fire safety issues in other at-risk buildings.

Clause 22 is straightforward, and we agree with it. Although it is beyond the Minister’s remit, a £1,000 fine for impersonation seems little deterrent, given the amount of money involved in building construction. As the Minister said, current levels of fines under the justice system for impersonating police officers will apply.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

It is a pleasure to be back on a Committee with you, Mr Efford, and to see you in the Chair. I shall keep my comments brief because my right hon. Friend the Minister articulated most of the relevant points in his customary clear manner. I do not want to be repetitious.

Clause 21 is positive. It reinforces the non-siloed approach that we need to take to building safety. The Building Safety Regulator has the ability to work with different agencies and ensure it can meet its goals. The ability to gain entry to buildings and ensure compliance is important. We discussed the issue last week and it was clear that safety has to be at the heart of this. We must ensure that the mechanism safeguards residents.

We also discussed last week the need to ensure that the regulator is not beholden to anyone—that it is independent. I was heartened by the comments made last week by my right hon. Friend the Minister about the regulator always being the independent voice, especially in its engagement with third parties to deliver the objectives in clause 21.

Clause 22 deals with the criminal offence element. As I said in my earlier intervention, it reinforces the role of the Building Safety Regulator. It says to the industry and to stakeholders, “You have to take this seriously. You cannot stop the regulator doing what it needs to do to keep people safe.”

The introduction of a level 3 fine seems proportionate, but I implore the Minister to use a degree of flexibility. As circumstances change, things might need to become a bit more severe. I hope not. I hope that the Bill will lead to a sea change in the environment we have seen hitherto. The fact that we have put obstruction of the regulator on a statutory footing will reinforce that.

I fully support the clauses and wish them well.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West and concur with his sentiment that we must ensure that the Building Safety Regulator has the flexibility to do its job properly and the enforcement powers to ensure that all players across the in-scope sector recognise the importance and veracity of those powers.

As we move through the Committee’s deliberations we may disagree on matters of scope, but I hope that as we build the Bill—clause by clause and schedule by schedule—the House, of which this Committee forms a part, and the sector will recognise the powers that we are creating for the Building Safety Regulator and the importance of the law.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale asked a couple of questions about clauses 21 and 22. He will know—he has heard me say it before in this Committee—that it is the responsibility of the Building Safety Regulator to build multidisciplinary teams that include local authority resources, fire and rescue service resources and those of others. We believe that the duty on them to co-operate will ensure the right level and that the right skills and expertise are available to the regulator.

We are working closely with the Health and Safety Executive to identify appropriate training arrangements for authorised officers. The powers available to authorised officers are very similar to existing powers available to local authority building control, the HSE and so on. We do not believe that new and further training and skills will be required, but I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point about training.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned enforcement and penalties. We believe we have struck the right balance in the penalties that apply to the obstruction or impersonation of an authorised officer of the Building Safety Regulator. If he rereads the explanatory notes, he will see that impersonation of an enforcement officer acting on behalf of the Building Safety Regulator is subject to a fine not of £1,000, but to an unlimited fine. If someone were to obstruct the regulator or an enforcement officer, the fine is £1,000. We have created that differentiation because we want to make it clear that impersonating an enforcement officer is a much more grave offence than obstructing an officer, even though that is an important offence in itself.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud 9:45 am, 21st September 2021

I am interested in the point that the Minister is making and in how the penalties for obstructing and impersonating compare with those for obstructing and impersonating other officials.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question. For example, if an authorised officer of the Building Safety Regulator is obstructed, a level 3 fine of £1,000 may be levied. That compares with a similar fine for obstructing a police officer. However, given the nature of policing, the warrants held by police officers and the threats and difficulties that police forces can sometimes encounter, it is also possible for one month’s imprisonment to be imposed on an obstructer of a police officer. We have tried to make sure that the penalties are proportionate, and I trust that the Committee will agree that they are.

Having said that, I trust the Committee will see that clause 21 and schedule 2 enable the Building Safety Regulator to carry out its functions effectively, drawing on the expertise and involvement of local authorities and fire and rescue services. Clause 22, which we have just debated, enables the punishment of those who seek to obstruct or impersonate authorised officers, and I hope that the Committee will agree that these are good and proportionate clauses. I commend them to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 21 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.