Clause 34 - Industry Competence

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 21st September 2021.

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

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

The Government want residents to have confidence that those working on their building are competent to do their job properly and in compliance with building regulations, in order to ensure safe and high-quality buildings. This is vital to underpinning our reforms of building safety. Building regulations currently have minimal provisions about how design and building work should be done. Our intention is to set out more specific requirements relating to the competence of persons doing any design or building work.

Clause 34 therefore amends the Building Act 1984—which, as we know, is 37 years old—creating powers to prescribe in building regulations the competence requirements relating to the principal designer and principal contractor, the appointed persons, and any other person. We intend to use this power to impose in building regulations a general duty on anyone doing design or building work to have the appropriate competence to do their job in a way that ensures compliance with building regulations. Building regulations may also impose duties on those appointing the principal designer, the principal contractor and any other person, to ensure that those whom they appoint meet the competence requirements.

Photo of Mark Logan Mark Logan Conservative, Bolton North East 3:15 pm, 21st September 2021

Will increasing confidence in the competence of duty holders be a vital part of restoring faith and confidence in the construction industry?

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

Yes, I think it will be. We have seen a significant decline in confidence in the sector, and we have certainly seen a decline in trust. We believe that imposing competency requirements will contribute to the golden thread not just of information, but of trust, which we need to re-engender among residents living in in-scope buildings, and in the wider building sector more broadly. I agree with my hon. Friend, because I believe that it will help to reinvigorate trust.

The requirements will apply to all design and building work that is subject to building regulations—not just for higher-risk buildings—and to both organisations and individuals. For individuals, the competence requirements will relate to their skills, knowledge, experience and behaviours.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

My right hon. Friend is being generous in taking interventions. He touched on the skills piece for individuals. The running theme within the Bill is about co-operation and communication with different stakeholders. How important does he think it will be for the BSR to be engaged, particularly with further education providers, in order to ensure that the benchmarks that are set as a result of the clause can be met in the training that it provides to future members of the industry?

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

I certainly think that trade bodies and professional organisations should develop suitable ways for their members to demonstrate their competence. I also want to ensure that the Building Safety Regulator has a broad reach within the understandable constraints of not losing or diluting its very important focus on high-rise and other in-scope residential buildings.

I will reflect on my hon. Friend’s point about reaching out to higher and further education providers, but if I may stretch the point a little, it is certainly the case that by working with our colleagues in BEIS and across other Government Departments, we are building a skill set in the construction industry—young people going into construction and becoming bricklayers or skill supervisors. We need to ensure that they have the wherewithal to build their careers, but we also need to ensure that their professional trade bodies are providing them with competence, and that that competence can be properly assessed by the Building Safety Regulator and its officials.

For organisations, the requirements will relate to the organisational capability—the ability of an organisation to carry out its functions properly under the building regulations. Where the principal designer or principal contractor is an organisation, subsection (3) enables building regulations to require the organisation to ensure that the individuals leading the work have the appropriate skills, knowledge, experience and behaviours to manage their functions. To provide more detail on how the competence requirements will apply, we have published draft regulations to sit alongside the Bill.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that this new regime for driving up competence levels will not have a negative impact on industry capacity, particularly in areas such as mine—this might be slightly outside the scope of the Bill—where the sector already has issues with recruitment?

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

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. We certainly do not want to see skills and capacity further stretched. I will give her one example of the stimulant action that the Government have taken to support the sector. Last November we announced funding just touching £700,000 to train up 2,000 external wall system 1 assessors. I believe that their training commenced in January this year, so they will be coming on stream to provide the sorts of services that are needed. We certainly want to ensure that, in that instance and others, we have appropriate capacity to do the work required.

In addition, the Government intend to provide statutory guidance in the form of an approved document to support duty holders in meeting these requirements. This is a short but important clause, and I commend it to the Committee.

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

It is incredible that this is not part of the status quo, because we are talking about competence in the construction sector. Of course, this is a changing landscape, with everyone, as the Minister says, having the appropriate knowledge, skills and competence to carry out the new requirements of the regime. There is a lot of onus on the client and the principal contractor. Who assesses whether the principal contractor is competent? What does competent look like? Again, it seems that this may be outlined in guidance and secondary legislation. How do people know whether somebody is genuinely competent to construct or refurbish a higher-risk building? I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I am mindful that just looking at this clause triggers a lot of thought processes. As the hon. Member for Weaver Vale has just said, we might have thought that this was already a given: that if we get someone to do a job, they should have the skills and qualifications needed to do it properly. It triggers some broader thought processes on how we embed these legislative and regulatory standards within the system more broadly.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for his response to the intervention on education. Clearly, as a result of this clause, we will have to embed this within the culture, which will require that stakeholder engagement. I was heartened to hear my right hon. Friend say that he would take that away and ponder it.

The key thing, as with all of this, is how it will operate in practice. The sentiment of the clause is the right one: in order to ensure that people living in high-rise buildings are safe, those buildings must be constructed by individuals who know what they are doing, and the onus must be placed in statute on the organisations constructing these buildings to ensure that the competence and skills base is there.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon raised an important point in her intervention about getting the balance right. I think this does get the balance right, in that it ensures that we can still recruit to the industry, so that a flow of workforce still comes into it, but things clearly have changed since 1984. My right hon. Friend the Minister articulated that by highlighting that the existing regulations are 37 years old. Just to put that in perspective for the Committee, that is slightly before I was born. I was born in 1992—I do not know whether that horrifies some Members.

I am the grandson of a builder, and it is clear that building sites have changed in 40 years. The expectations and complexity of the jobs that firms are now undertaking require the ability to know that the competencies are there. We now have a raft of qualifications, and different levels of experience and needs, as I have said in previous contributions—I am sure everyone has noted that meticulously. None the less, it is important. Things have changed and moved on. We are operating and trying to regulate an ever-changing marketplace that has new technologies coming on board and new materials coming into play, and we need the individuals who operate in this space to have the skillsets and ability to react to that.

The one thing that I would say—perhaps this will be addressed in secondary legislation—is that in my profession, we always had to show continuous professional development. We had to show that we had not just sat there after qualifying perhaps 10 years ago, because things had moved on.

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

On the issue of competence, last week we touched on training—the funding of training and who is going to do it. We will need lots and lots of people, and that is a huge opportunity for this country, but who will monitor the competence? Will it be accredited? Will there be an agency to accredit it? Again, this all links back to the evidence that we have been listening to over the past two weeks about culture change. This can start right at the very beginning of somebody’s career, and it can be hard-wired in. It would be good to get an understanding of who will oversee the competence, and how the training will be delivered and—I am going to say the magical word again—funded.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. I am sure he and I are both passionate advocates of technical and vocational education, and this clause says that we have to treat the industry with some respect. That means having in place accreditation structures that are properly recognised. I get what he says about funding, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister has heard his plea. I say to the hon. Gentleman—if you will indulge me, Mr Efford—that he has a sympathiser in me, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will at some point have conversations with the Department for Education and the Treasury about how that looks. The hon. Gentleman is right. Ultimately, although this is a short clause, it leads to so many different things. That is the key thing. Ultimately, as he articulated well, if we are going to ask for this, we need to know what the accreditation models are and the FE providers need to know what the structures are for providing this training. All those conversations come out of clause 34.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

Of course, although I am not a member of the Privy Council just yet.

Photo of Mark Logan Mark Logan Conservative, Bolton North East

My hon. Friend’s exchange with the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby got me thinking. I am interested to hear from the Minister in his closing remarks on the clause about the financial implications of ensuring that we have competency in the industry. What assessments has his Department, or indeed the Department for Education or the Treasury, made? In the longer term, what benefits does he see the clause giving to UK plc on the long-standing issue that the UK has had with productivity, vis-à-vis some of our peer countries in the G7 and G20, for example?

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West 3:30 pm, 21st September 2021

I am not sure whether the question was to me or to the Minister, but I will give my opinion, as I am sure the Minister will give his.

From my perspective—you are being very indulgent, Mr Efford, so thank you—what clause 34 does for productivity is to push the point on accreditation and on being sure that people have qualifications, so that a young person thinking about where to go hears, “Come to this trade, because you will get skills, qualifications and accredited.” I know from my communities that a lot of the time it is about how something is pitched or framed. If we want to attract young people into jobs and skills, we have to say what they will get from it. If a young person can get accredited and feel, “You know what, I have a qualification, and can take this further. I can move forward and go different places with it”, that is one way to deal with the productivity issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East said in his intervention. There are many other ways as well.

I was trying to articulate a point on the role of the Building Safety Regulator in setting industry competence. We have said throughout our deliberations on the subject of safety that we cannot see the BSR only as the executioner who comes in at the end, when it has all gone wrong. It cannot do that; it has to be leading the way—that is the key bit. That comes back to the point that I made before—my hon. Friend doubled down on it for me with his intervention—which is about ensuring that the link-in with the different stakeholders allows us to implement what is going on in clause 34—to ensure that the training bars are there, the levels are in place and we know where we start. When we train up the next generation of people for the construction industry, they need a clear idea of the knowledge base that is necessary.

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his long and knowledgeable contribution. I was listening to what he was saying. What a wonderful opportunity for the trade unions to be involved in training right from the outset. Does he agree?

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I will make a probably revolutionary point: I might be a Conservative MP but, yes, trade unions have a part in this—110%. The discourse with the trade unions is beneficial. I, too, have benefited from positive relationships with my trade unions when necessary. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Again, part of that is the holistic approach. That is the whole point of how the clause has been constructed. It allows us to be flexible and to have those ongoing conversations, which will be important in the implementation of the legislation. My right hon. Friend the Minister is listening intently and absorbing this—I am grateful to him for doing so—and he will pass it on to his officials, because to make the Bill effective we will have to be as broad brush as possible with engagement.

To conclude—I am sure many hon. Members are disappointed—clause 34 as drafted, as I said about clause 33, does something that is basic, which is that people who undertake a job of work should have the ability to do it. I hope I have articulated that in some way in my contribution, but as I have said, that will trigger a lot of further conversations. We need this to work. We need to ensure that the people undertaking the work on these high-risk developments—which we still need, because we have a housing shortage and we need to build more houses and more places for people to live—have the relevant qualifications. To that end, the secondary legislation, the guidance note, the approved document referred to by my right hon. Friend the Minister, and the competence standards being developed by the British Standards Institution, will all be important. We need to ensure that they are translated into a workable approach that brings together all the different stakeholders —we have discussed trade unions, further education providers and the industry more broadly—so that when 16, 17 or 18-year-olds decide to follow this profession as a career, they know what is expected of them. Speaking from my own experience, it can be odd when people do not know what the benchmark is.

Photo of Mark Logan Mark Logan Conservative, Bolton North East

This might be a bit of a long shot, but if there is more competency among the young individuals going to firms, might that not lead to fewer cases of malpractice and, indeed, bankruptcy down the line? Some of my constituents in Bolton North East have had issues with builders who have gone out of business and then subsequently set up other companies. I would be interested to hear what my hon. Friend makes of that particular point.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I shall answer briefly. I am not entirely sure whether clause 34 would address those issues. Malpractice is a business competency issue. In terms of the ability to undertake the work, clause 34 sets the base expectations, but I do not think it will solve all of that. To sum it up, clause 34 sets the base, and will, I think, trigger further conversations, similar to those we have had today. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for being open to those conversations, which he has very much listened to. I certainly await the approved document and the BSI’s intervention with great interest. Thank you, Mr Efford, for indulging me today.

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

Having listened to the debate, I feel that both Whips on duty may be concerned by the outbreak of political amity that seems to have gripped the Committee, with Liverpool extending its hand across the Chamber to shake the hand of West Bromwich West. It is a sight to behold and is possibly not to be seen again any time soon. The debate on this clause has been a useful one. It demonstrates the importance of getting competency standards properly understood and properly driven up.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale said that it is amazing that we are talking about the issue of competency now. He is, of course, quite right. It is surprising that, with Governments of different stripes and colours over the last 37 years, none have acted in a comprehensive way to deliver the sorts of outcomes that Grenfell has taught us that we need.

1984 was a long time ago. None of us, I think, would want to now wear the clothes that we were wearing back then. Some of us could probably not even get into them. It is right, therefore, that we should revise the Building Act 1984 to meet the challenges of today and recognise that competency is something that we should address in this Bill. That is what we are doing.

We believe, with due respect to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, that industry must lead the way to improve the competency of those working on higher-risk buildings, and, with Government support, that is what industry has been doing. The competency steering group and its sub-working groups published a report in October of last year.

The Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West has suggested, is sponsoring BSI to create a suite of national competency standards for high-risk buildings. They include core criteria for building safety in competence frameworks and a code of practice, which sets out key principles to be used by different sectors to develop their sector-specific competence frameworks. It also includes the competence standards for the principal designer and principal contractor.

As we heard in evidence and in the line-by-line scrutiny we undertook last week, the Health and Safety Executive is setting up an interim industry competence committee. That will be followed by the statutory industry competence committee within the Building Safety Regulator, to ensure that once the Bill is in force we support the industry to raise competency and contribute a pipeline of people for the new regulatory regime.

To answer some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, he is right that unions have an important role to play. We had a conversation a week or so ago, and I pointed out to him that the National House Building Council has opened a bricklaying school in my constituency, supported by Redrow. It cuts in half the time it takes for bricklayers to learn their skills, become competent at their profession and receive an appropriate qualification. That is an example of industry working together with third-party organisations to provide the skills, supported by the Government, to ensure that buildings are built properly and effectively.

As I said in my earlier remarks, building regulations currently have minimal provisions about how design and building work should be done. That is wrong and we wish to address that. It is our intention to deal with that through this clause, and I therefore commend it to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 34 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.