Clause 37 - Compliance and stop notices

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 23rd 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)

Dame Judith’s review found that the existing building safety enforcement regime is not fit for purpose. That is partly explained by the absence of powers for building control authorities to immediately halt dangerous or non-compliant work. That is why the Government are committed to strengthening enforcement powers for regulators to act against non-compliant building work. Clause 37 takes forward the review’s recommendation and provides more effective powers for building control authorities to ensure compliance with building regulations.

Compliance and stop notices are designed to tackle all forms of non-compliance with building regulations during the design and build stage of all buildings, irrespective of their risk level or intended use. Compliance notices will be available where there is, or is likely to be, a contravention of building regulations. Stop notices are intended to be used where a compliance notice is contravened, or where building regulations are likely to be contravened in such a way as to cause serious harm to people in or around the building.

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

What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. It has to be welcome that we are strengthening the powers of the regulator and local authorities. As the Minister rightly says, these are vital tools for building control authorities, and there is currently no power available to stop non-compliant building work being continued or completed, which is clearly a concern. I am very keen that we do something about that. It is very important that it is tackled.

Will the Minister clarify, first, how the powers will change the bad behaviour that we have seen across the industry? We know that most people in the industry are responsible, but for those who are not, what will we do? How will this change that behaviour? Secondly, what enforcement powers will the Building Safety Regulator have for gateway 2 following on from this?

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

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. On the new powers changing bad behaviour, what we want through the entirety of the Bill is to effect culture change. The clause on its own will not achieve that, but it is part of the cumulative weight of the Bill, which will over time effect culture change. We envision that the additional tools that we are providing to the Building Safety Regulator, and the statutory powers that will be provided, will contribute significantly to that culture change. Safety cases, more regulation of the building control sector, and the gateway assessments and the hard stops involved in them will all play their part in driving that culture change.

We also envision an escalating set of powers for the Building Safety Regulator, and as we move through the late 30-something and early 40-something clauses, I think I will be able to provide further illumination to the Committee on what those enhanced powers will be. Additionally, it will be an offence to start certain building work in higher-risk buildings without building control approval, and stop notices could be used to stop work that is being carried out without approval. We believe—I think this goes some way towards addressing my hon. Friend’s point—that these are critical tools for building control authorities, because as he says, there is currently no power available to stop non-compliant building work from being continued or completed.

Compliance and stop notices will also provide a proportionate but effective way to require companies to rectify non-compliant work swiftly, without the need to bring a prosecution. Compliance notices will require non-compliant work to be rectified within a specified period. As the result of some work may be dangerous, stop notices will be able to halt that work. The stop will normally apply immediately, but a building control authority will have the option of setting a date from which the stop will take effect. Breach of either of these notices will be a criminal offence, punishable by an unlimited fine and/or up to two years’ imprisonment. To ensure that all individuals involved in contravening the law are held responsible for their actions, directors and managers of companies found to be complicit in such breaches can also be prosecuted for the offence, as will be further set out in future clauses. This sends a strong signal to those managing companies, as well as individuals, that they will be held responsible for their building safety duties.

The Government intend that these stronger powers will act as more effective deterrents for individuals and their corporate associates who wish to engage in non-compliant building work in the belief that they will not face any consequences for doing so. They will, and I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 11:45 am, 23rd September 2021

I should have said earlier, Mr Efford, that it is yet again a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

We welcome the increased regulation—the compliance and stop notices recommended by Dame Judith Hackitt in the independent review—but I have a couple of questions for the Minister. Will these powers given to the regulator apply to buildings that are 11 to 18 metres tall, and will compliant products be kitemarked for ease of inspection to ensure that they are compliant, or not?

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I should also have said in my previous contribution that it is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair today, Mr Efford, and I thank you for your indulgence during our previous deliberations. You are being very generous with your time in the Chair.

I have a few questions for my right hon. Friend the Minister as well, dovetailing with what the hon. Member for Weaver Vale just said. The one concern I have is about individuals who purchase their property pre-completion of construction—because that does happen in these settings too—and what protections we can devise for that. I have seen it happen before: people have put down a deposit or spent significant amounts of money on legal and transactional fees to get to a particular point. I heard what my right hon. Friend said, and I agree that we are talking about extreme cases of individuals who are flouting the rules or not following them, but my concern is that as we embed new sets of regulations, issues often become apparent quite commonly and quite quickly. I am sure that those of us who have been Members much longer than I have will have seen the array of issues that arise when new legislation comes into effect during its initial implementation.

My question to my right hon. Friend the Minister is whether he is open to a broader discussion about what we can do to avoid potential blockages in transactions as an unintended consequence of this. What we see is that people who are trying to let or purchase properties are left in limbo, with a back and forth for months on end, while stop notices are issued and remediation is done. Clause 37 seeks to ensure that remediation is taken, and, more importantly, that work in the initial process is compliant in the first place and we do not reach a situation where stop notices have to be issued.

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 agree with my hon. Friend that clause 37 takes forward the important recommendations in the review to ensure that building control authorities are issuing compliance and stop notices in relation to the contravention of building regulations. Does he agree that the clause will also strengthen the powers for the regulator and local authorities?

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

To answer my hon. Friend’s question, we need to go back to what Dame Judith Hackitt said. She found a fundamental flaw in the regulatory framework. Effectively, it was giving unscrupulous developers almost a free pass at times. It was not fit for purpose. I believe that clause 37 will achieve the aims that my hon. Friend has articulated.

I suppose this comes back to the point that the Bill is a balancing act. My central concern is about the vulnerable leaseholders at the heart of this—the people we expect to live in these developments. There are always two sides to the coin. We need to ensure that these leaseholders are not stung at the outset by developers who are not following the rules in the first place. I am trying to impress on my right hon. Friend the Minister that we need to ensure that those processes are in place and that they work with bodies. This comes back to what the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby articulated in our previous deliberations around resourcing and funding, and ensuring that our local authorities, building control authorities and the regulatory framework have the expertise. We are not just trying to pigeonhole things into one particular resource package.

I notice the reference to the appeals process in clause 37. I am sure colleagues have read it in as much depth as I have. It talks extensively about the appeals process. That requires our court system to be functioning in a way that allows the process to be as expedient as possible. I do apologise to my right hon. Friend the Minister; he has got a shopping list of asks from me on one clause. He probably thought it would be a little less demanding than this. I ask him to ensure that there are ongoing discussions between his Department and the Ministry of Justice about ensuring that this is implemented in an expedient way.

We need to ensure that there are stop notices for those that have put thousands of pounds into a development they are waiting for. I have constituents in similar situations who have written to me who are left out in the cold because a developer issued a stop notice that goes back and forth for months, because they have reserves of money where they can fight and fight, or it is backlogged in the courts for months. We know of the issues with backlogs in the courts in other areas. I will not test your indulgence, Mr Efford, by going down that route. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister continued that dialogue with his colleagues across Government to ensure that the clause does not have unintended consequences that I am sure he does not want to see.

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

As my hon. Friend has said, I think it is very important that when these rules are contravened action is taken and that that action is appropriate. I note from the clause that, as well as a criminal offence, there is a maximum penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment. One of my concerns has always been that there are other people in this chain—be that secretaries, directors, managers and so on. I notice that we will come to that when we consider clause 39. Does he agree that putting that criminal offence in there and being clear about what is happening when that is contravened strengthens the clause even further?

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. Dame Judith Hackitt’s review highlighted a shameful system. Putting in place a criminal offence shows that we will not and should not tolerate this shoddy behaviour any more, and nor should those individuals who have had to suffer the highest cost as a result of it. He is right in what he says in the spirit of his intervention. He listed the plethora of individuals who would be caught by this and I do not disagree that they should. People should not be able to hide behind the corporate veil and dodge liability. He is right that, in drafting the Bill, my right hon. Friend the Minister and his team have ensured that it is all-encapsulating. What we do not want to see—perhaps I am being optimistic, but I hope not—is individuals being able to dodge this.

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

On a point of order, Mr Efford. For clarity, are we talking to clause 37 or clause 38, which is about offences?

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

I am grateful for the point of order, but as far as I am concerned, the hon. Member for West Bromwich West is in order. He seems to be speaking to sections of the clause. I think you can take it as read, because I have not interrupted him, that he is in order.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I am talking to clause 37. To help the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, I am responding to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw. He asked a specific point about the categories of people caught by clause 37, so I am just expanding on that and explaining why it is right for those individuals. I am saying, just as my right hon. Friend the Minister pointed out in his opening comments—and I am sure that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale agrees with me—exactly why those individuals should be caught by the clause.

I was in the process of winding up my comments prior to that point of order. I fully support the clause, which brings out issues that my right hon. Friend the Minister needs to address. I do not want it to result in unintended consequences and I hope that he can give me a reassurance, to take back to leaseholders who have been caught out and, more broadly, to the industry, that there will be no delays. The clause is an important development in stop notices. It will enable our regulatory framework to act quickly to prevent serious situations from occurring and, I hope, prevent other scenarios from causing issues down the line. I want to be sure of that, so I press my right hon. Friend for a guarantee that he will do whatever he can to ensure that the process operates expediently and that it will have no unintended consequences.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud

It is a pleasure to be back before you so quickly this week, Mr Efford. I will be brief. I want to expand on the issue of the need for culture change. Hon. Members have already raised this and the Minister himself has said that the clause is part of the cumulative weight of the Bill to achieve a culture change. That is crucial. Not only is Dame Judith correct in her assessment and desire to see change, which has led to clause 37. The lay public would be genuinely shocked, if they had no experience of these worlds, to learn that there is currently no power available to prevent non-compliant building from creating these issues.

I welcome clause 37 and I am glad that the Government are addressing the issue. bringing matters forward. However, to really achieve culture change, there need to be prosecutions. We know that we are far off that at the moment. What discussions has the Minister had with stakeholders and others on the formulation of the regulator and the creation of clause 37? There is a real appetite not only to enforce the clause and the new, strengthened powers but to drive them through to prosecutions, which are the true deterrent and which will lead to change in the industry.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 12:00 pm, 23rd September 2021

I am obliged to the Committee for its deliberations on clause 37 and for the questions that have been asked of me. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale asked me two specific questions. First, will the measures in clause 37 also apply to buildings below 18 metres? The answer is yes. Perhaps I can explain further. I said that these powers are critical tools for building control authorities. The building control authority could be the Building Safety Regulator, for in-scope buildings, or local authorities, for other buildings. The Building Safety Regulator will use clause 37 for enforcement purposes on the buildings for which it is responsible, and local authorities can use the powers in the clause for buildings for which they may be responsible.

The hon. Gentleman asked me, secondly, about product compliance and kitemarking. In our witness sessions, we heard some evidence on the importance of having good product development and specification. There are clauses later in the Bill that address the question of product specifications, so we can have debates about those.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West made a passionate speech, calling for a proper recognition that in-flight work and development have to be properly understood and recognised. He said that it is important that we do not unintentionally create bad or poor effects for players across the sector, particularly the residents of in-scope buildings. We are working with representatives across the building control system to effectively benchmark the existing regulatory capacity and to ensure that all the actors in the regime have the capabilities to abide by it and an understanding of the consequences if they do not. That is one of the reasons why we are using secondary legislation—to ensure that we are able to properly understand what it is that we need to implement in granular detail, having consulted stakeholders and taken on board comments from members of the Committee.

As I have indicated, we are also working very closely with the shadow regulator, the Health and Safety Executive and others to ensure that we transition to the new regime in such a way that we mitigate the effects of in-flight development. We do not want to endanger people in and around buildings that have been built unsafely, but to ensure that those buildings can be properly, safely and expeditiously built within the constraints of the new regulatory regime. We need to make sure that the transition is effectively executed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud made the very important point that we need to ensure not only that the penalties in the Bill are understood but that prosecutions can effectively be brought. We have tried to ensure that through this and other clauses, and through discussions with officials and colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and in expert bodies, such as the HSE. That has helped us to build an approach that will ensure that there are sufficient and appropriate penalties, in an escalating manner, that the sector will understand and that can be applied successfully should they be necessary.

We want to give the Building Safety Regulator and local authorities the powers they need to do the jobs we are asking of them. With that, I commend clause 37 to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 37 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.