Clause 26 - Cooperation and information sharing

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 21st September 2021.

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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 discuss that schedule 3 be the Third schedule to the Bill.

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

As the Committee will have heard me say earlier and, indeed, last week, the duty to co-operate is key to the approach that we are taking in the creation of the Building Safety Regulator and its powers.

At the centre of the Government’s strategy to implement our improvements to the building safety system is the setting up of the first national Building Safety Regulator. To deliver its functions effectively, it is vital that the Building Safety Regulator is empowered to work closely with other public bodies with responsibilities for building safety and standards and for dealing with residents’ concerns.

Clause 26 and schedule 3 will foster and enable that joined-up working in two ways. First, they will create statutory information-sharing gateways and duties to co-operate between the Building Safety Regulator and other public authorities that have statutory responsibilities for the safety and standard of buildings and for supporting residents. These powers will apply only to specific functions relevant to building safety and standards and supporting residents; they will never override data protection requirements.

To take a practical example, when regulating high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings, the Building Safety Regulator will typically set up a multidisciplinary team, including the local authority and the fire and rescue authority. The Bill creates legal information sharing gateways enabling the authorities expected to be represented in this multidisciplinary team to share intelligence about residents’ safety, and use it to co-ordinate their respective operational activity. It is entirely appropriate that this collaborative approach to regulation is supported by reciprocal duties to co-operate between the Building Safety Regulator and local authorities, and between the Building Safety Regulator and fire and rescue authorities. We are also taking this opportunity to provide legal clarity for local authorities and fire and rescue authorities so that they may share information about building safety and standards issues across all buildings.

Secondly, the Building Safety Regulator, certain ombudsmen and the Social Housing Regulator are all likely to receive numerous complaints and concerns from residents. The Government intend that these bodies should co-operate and work together to support residents.  For example, if a resident of a high-rise residential building sends an urgent safety concern to an ombudsman to be investigated, these provisions enable the concern to be passed to the Building Safety Regulator as the body able to take action.

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

The Minister mentions the duty to co-operate between the Building Safety Regulator and other regulators, and the information-sharing gateways. Will he tell us a little more about that, and why ombudsmen and the Building Safety Regulator will need to work together?

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

The reason is that it is entirely possible that a resident who has concerns will send them to an ombudsman, even though the Building Safety Regulator is the appropriate repository of that concern.

An example that we will all recognise is that often as Members of Parliament we receive our constituents’ concerns because we are the easiest people with whom to raise those concerns. The appropriate place to express the concern might be the local council and a local councillor, so we share information with our local councillors when constituents raise concerns. An ombudsman who receives a concern from a local resident in a high-rise, in-scope building should be able to share appropriate information with the Building Safety Regulator, and that is what these provisions do. The police share crucial intelligence. The fire and rescue service shares crucial intelligence. It is important that the Building Safety Regulator and other ombudsmen have the same opportunity. Schedule 3 enables the sharing of information between the Building Safety Regulator and two other bodies: the police, who may need to investigate more serious criminal matters; and the Secretary of State, who ultimately oversees the building regulatory system.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West 10:15 am, 21st September 2021

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being incredibly generous in taking interventions. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and the hon. Member for St Albans mentioned ensuring efficiency in the broader process. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that by enabling data sharing we can ensure that concerns and complaints are addressed by the appropriate person? More importantly, it brings expediency to the process so that, if necessary, intervention by the regulator can be timely and a resolution can be found.

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

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Underlying our approach is the need to ensure an efficient and expeditious method of information sharing, whereby resolution is achieved.

It is also possible that, with effective information sharing, it will be possible over time for the Building Safety Regulator to understand the data flows between concerned residents and itself. The regulator will understand why information goes to ombudsman A or ombudsman N rather than to the regulator, and that will enable it and its multidisciplinary agencies better to communicate to involved parties what the correct and therefore most expeditious route to data sharing should be. By sharing data, everything can occur more quickly and people can be better informed.

Schedule 3 contains regulation-making powers enabling the creation of limited further information sharing gateways and duties to co-operate. For example, if evidence necessitated a change to the scope of the higher-risk regime, such that it proved essential that the Building Safety Regulator co-operated and shared information with further regulators, it is appropriate that regulations enable this.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

I am grateful to the Minister for taking my intervention. Schedule 3 clarifies information-sharing powers on building safety and standards between local authorities and fire and rescue services. Will he provide further information on how personal and confidential data is to be managed appropriately?

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

We certainly do not want inappropriate data to be shared. As I said earlier, these powers and data-sharing rights relate specifically to the work in hand of the Building Safety Regulator. They do not override ordinary data privacy rules and requirements. We shall certainly—as this House will want to—monitor that that data is used appropriately.

Given the potential significance of new duties to co-operate and of information-sharing gateways, any regulations creating them will be subject to the affirmative procedure. In a Committee of the House—if necessary, on the Floor of the House—therefore, there will be an opportunity to debate and vote on them.

Placing duties to co-operate and powers to share information on a statutory footing will encourage collaborative working to improve building standards and to ensure resident safety. That will all be done as expeditiously and transparently as possible. I commend the clause to the Committee.

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

We support the clause and the schedule. They are pragmatic, common sense and based on learned experience—the experience of those who were ringing alarm bells for a considerable number of months with regards to Grenfell and other tragedies before that. The evidence is crystal clear: people being passed from pillar to post and information being lost and in some cases hidden from key stakeholders. Strengthening the provisions and the regulatory regime is most welcome. In 2018, I noted, Kensington and Chelsea was again found wanting by the Information Commissioner—on withholding information about building safety in Grenfell. The Minister was right, as were others in all parts of the Committee, about building trust in the new regulatory regime. That is vital.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I feel that my contribution might be slightly repetitive, given the broad agreement on the clause in Committee.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale was right that the clause is pragmatic. He was spot on when he said it is about rebuilding trust in the processes. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, I trained as a lawyer and I know the frustration when bodies do not share information with one another. We have to remember—the hon. Member for St Albans picked up on this in her interventions—we are dealing with people who do not understand the systems, but will have to access them. After looking at the array of information, should someone send their concern or query to the wrong body—unaware that they had done so—we have to ensure that it is still actioned. We are dealing with situations and problems that impact on people’s lives: this is about the safety of individuals in their homes. Where that happens, we have to ensure that seamless sharing of information and co-operation between the agencies—the clause does that.

It is also right for those organisations to co-operate with one another. As we touched on last week in our deliberations, we cannot have a siloed approach. Organisations have to communicate and work together. We have to build a structure within the legislative framework that not just enables that, but to a degree ensures it happens and almost makes it the default that they have to share information, because that is the system in which they find themselves—so there is no way they can avoid doing so.

That being said, the proof of how this will work is in how it is delivered operationally. What will be vital for the regulator to do and for my right hon. Friend the Minister to work on is to ensure that the operational delivery works, that the systems are there to allow that to happen and that the communications are there, that agencies are talking to one another and we have computer systems that do not just fall down at the first moment, but can operate. Once the system becomes operational, I will be looking at how it functions.

I am heartened to see an emphasis on data privacy. We have to get the balance right. Ultimately, we are dealing with personal data. We still need to ensure the right of individuals to have their personal data safeguarded, and their right to remain anonymous, where necessary, is also important. We must ensure that data is dealt with appropriately.

It is right to handle the situation by putting a duty on the different stakeholders. The way we have had to deal with these horrendous issues has been through a multifaceted, multi-stakeholder approach, so we are going to have to build networks. As is often the case, when the networks are built, there is then pressure to ensure that operational delivery works.

I support the clause and am heartened to see what is in schedule 3. We have to ensure that the clause can deliver, and it will be for my right hon. Friend the Minister, his ministerial colleagues and the civil servants to ensure that can happen. If the clause delivers and we ensure that it works, we will have a seamless system that people trust, and people will know that if they have concerns, they will be addressed.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. For me, this is about funding, as it was last week. We go back to delivery. As the hon. Gentleman says, this is absolutely and intrinsically about the safety of the people we are talking about, but without the funding for the organisations he mentioned—the fire authorities and the councils—it will fall down. Will the Minister ensure that the correct funding is ring-fenced for the organisations to be able to ensure the safety that is required for the people in the buildings?

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

The hon. Gentleman touches on a really important point. I have a couple of points to address it. Last week, we heard from the Minister that there would be, broadly speaking, a new deal for funding. We also have to look at the procurement mechanisms that are used, in which I have a particular interest. They are really important and must be well scrutinised. We must use the procedures available in this place to ensure that that is done properly.

I was very heartened by what my right hon. Friend the Minister said last week on funding. As Members of this place, we have to ensure, in the ways we do as Back-Bench Members, that he follows through. I have found in the two years I have served as a Member of this place that funding is one thing, but making sure it is used effectively—not just properly—is another. One way to ensure that the organisations to which we say, “Right, build me a system,” can do that is to have the guidance in place, if, for example, we are talking about the systems that will have to be developed. The fire authorities’ primary function is to protect people. They are not whizz kids at building IT systems. We need to ensure that there is a method by which that could be done.

Equally, as I am sure the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby will agree, local authorities have many different duties. I think of my own local authority, Sandwell. It could have one department doing four things at the same time. They have to prioritise. They cannot be procuring systems at the same time as dealing with building safety. There has to be a way.

The clause has triggered a broader conversation. I want to stay within scope and I do not want to stray too far, but when we think about how we ensure co-operation, clause 26 highlights that there are broader discussions about ensuring that is done in the right way. I do not disagree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby on funding. The Minister touched on that last week. Let us see how that goes, and scrutinise it. Ultimately, it is about processes working.

This is the right clause. Sharing data and information will be important, but it is about ensuring that that can be done properly and that the systems are there. I am absolutely sure that my right hon. Friend will do his best to ensure that that happens in the best way possible.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 10:30 am, 21st September 2021

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West and other members of the Committee for their contributions. As a former IT professional, I spent 18 years implementing IT systems, so I will certainly not commit to this Committee or beyond that all the IT that the HSE and its associated bodies may use will work optimally all of the time. However, we certainly want the Building Safety Regulator to work optimally all of the time.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West mentioned the importance of the propriety of data and its use. We want to ensure that data and information can be shared effectively even if they are sometimes of a confidential nature where residents’ safety is concerned. The Bill allows certain public bodies to share information with the Building Safety Regulator, but it does not require them to do so. The ombudsman, of whichever source or nature, will be able to make decisions about what information to share based upon individual circumstances. When, for example, it appears that lives are at risk, we believe that it appropriate that the information could be shared with the Building Safety Regulator. That is why the shadow Building Safety Regulator in the Health and Safety Executive has already started to work with other public bodies to identify the sorts of detailed safeguards that will be required to ensure that personal information is appropriately protected, while issues that might pertain to risk to life are also fully understood so that data are properly and proportionately shared.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I am incredibly grateful to my right hon. Friend; he is being generous in allowing me to intervene. Given his expertise as an IT specialist, does he not agree that one of the key things that we must do across Government when we implement these systems is take a lessons-learned approach? Will he assure me that he has looked in detail at some of the previous occasions when we have tried to implement such systems and that he will ensure that his officials will take away the lessons so that we can support the agencies in the most effective way possible as we set up the system?

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

Once again, my hon. Friend flatters me in his description of my expertise. I have certainly had some experience of IT programmes in the context of Government that have gone awry. The national IT programme, Connecting for Health, is just one example. I certainly agree to keep a gimlet eye open on the way IT is deployed in this and other circumstances while still recognising the operational independence of the agency and the Building Safety Regulator.

My hon. Friend is right to ask for lessons learned. That segues nicely into the point made by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale when he talked about the importance of learned experience in the context of Grenfell. He is right. That is one of the reasons we want to make sure that the Building Safety Regulator and the associated multi-disciplinary teams have the flexibility to learn. Again, that is why we want to use effectively secondary legislation and regulations rather than primary legislation so that there is the flexibility to build the new authority.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the challenges of withholding information, and I refer him back to clauses 22 and 23 when we dealt with that issue and made it very clear that withholding information is a grave offence that can be punishable by a fine. He is right also to stress the importance of trust and flexibility. Again, that is a reason why we want to build the multi-disciplinary teams so that the BSR can co-operate with other expert parties. That will help to build the confidence of residents in high-rise blocks as well as that of developers, large and small, and those involved in the construction industry that there is the appropriate degree of co-operation and trust.

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

There are a number of live applications to the building safety fund, and this is a practical plea on behalf resident leaseholders that many in the Committee will be familiar with. The information on progress is not being shared, and that is a genuine building safety issue that causes considerable anxiety. It has been raised on the Floor of the House, and it is relevant to the discussion that we are having now. It is a practical plea that many residents and leaseholders up and down the country have raised.

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

I shall expand a little on the scope of this debate to answer the hon. Gentleman very briefly. He will know that we have put aside £1 billion of public money for the building safety fund, and a significant amount has now been disbursed. If there are specific examples of challenges around information being shared or the speed of delivery being effective, I will be happy to look at them.

In summary, clause 26 and schedule 3 will empower the Building Safety Regulator to work closely with other public bodies with responsibilities for building safety and standards. They will encourage collaborative working to improve building standards and ensure residents’ safety.

I am very grateful for the contributions that we have heard from across the Committee but, before I conclude, I should refer to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby who asked about resources. He will know from our deliberations last Thursday that I made it clear that we have increased the resources available to the Health and Safety Executive by 10% of its total budget during the covid emergency. We have also committed to make sure that the Building Safety Regulator is appropriately funded. That is a matter for the spending review, but we have also—he will have seen this as we have progressed through the Bill—put in place clauses that will allow the Building Safety Regulator to charge and levy fees on appropriate parties to ensure that cost can be recovered. I hope that will give him some assurance that we have at the forefront of our minds appropriate funding to ensure that the Building Safety Regulator can do its work.

I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 agreed to.