Clause 38 - Breach of building regulations

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm 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)

A breach of building regulations can have serious consequences for residents in occupied buildings We saw that four years ago in the Grenfell Tower fire and we have seen it on other occasions. The independent review found that

“where enforcement is…pursued, the penalties are so small as to be an ineffective deterrent.”

That is why, to repeat some of the points I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, the Government are committed to ensuring that where building regulations are contravened, building control authorities have the necessary powers to enforce the rules and offenders receive a proportionate penalty for their non-compliance.

Clause 38, alongside clause 37, will provide a stronger deterrent to those doing building work and, where necessary, stronger sanctions for building control authorities to use. At the moment, offenders can only receive unlimited fines for their contravention of the law. Even where directors or managers are complicit in their company’s wrongdoing, they are sheltered from the consequences, a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw.

The new custodial sentence we are introducing serves to reflect the gravity of breaching building regulations and, alongside clause 39, which we will discuss shortly, brings the threat of imprisonment to any director or manager of a company who is found to be complicit or negligent in an act of non-compliance. We intend for the higher custodial sentence to operate as an effective deterrent against negligent, reckless or dangerous behaviour.

Where previously prosecution under section 35 of the Building Act 1984 had to be brought within two years, making the offence triable in a Crown court removes the time limit altogether, enabling building control authorities to prosecute breaches of building regulations even when they come to light much later. There is no longer a two-year limit to court action.

This clause goes further and makes clear that the section 35 offence applies not only to breaches of the building regulations themselves, but to requirements imposed under building regulations, such as conditions imposed as part of building regulation approvals. The increased coverage will send a signal that no requirement under building regulations can be ignored without consequences.

As with other changes we have already discussed, this provision aims to encourage those involved in building work to do the right thing and to disincentivise substandard building work. To return briefly to a previous debate, in order to make this absolutely clear, whatever planning route a building is subject to, all relevant building work must comply with building regulation, whether it is on a higher-risk building or otherwise, and whether it benefits from permitted development rights or not. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale made that point in our previous sitting and alluded to it in his previous contribution.

In addition, the extension of the enforcement period under section 36 of the Building Act from one year to 10 years will provide another effective route through which building control authorities can enforce building regulations. This clause responds to the review’s recommendation that the sanctions available under the Building Act be enhanced to enable building control authorities to act effectively but proportionately whenever they encounter non-compliance. They will now have stronger powers to ensure that all buildings are designed and constructed in line with regulations. I commend the clause to the Committee.

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

We welcome the stronger sanctions, given the gravity of the consequences and the context, which the Minister referred to, of the tragic events of Grenfell over four years ago.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I, too, welcome the clause. I wish to raise a couple of points with the Minister about the defences under proposed new section 35(2) of the Building Act, relating to instances where duty holders believe wrongly that another duty holder has reported an incident. It will be

“A defence to the offence of failure to report where the person being prosecuted was not aware of the occurrence which gave rise to the requirement to report”.

I want to ensure that the scope of the defences is as tight as it can be. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck. We are fully aware that incidents happen; human failure can happen and we cannot eliminate that, so we have to take account of that within the regulatory framework, but we need to tighten the circumstances where this defence can be used. I am conscious that there is a risk that developers will see this as an opportunity to do some finger-pointing and say, “It wasn’t me. It was him,” or, “No, he missed that and I missed that.” I know that is not the intention behind the defences under clause 38, but can my right hon. Friend the Minister assure me that there will be appropriate guidance on implementation and enforcement of the provisions of clause 38, which is really important?

We have an obligation to follow through on what Dame Judith Hackitt noted in her report, particularly about the regulatory landscape. Ultimately, we do not want people who have not done right by the people we are trying to protect to find some way of getting round things. I know my right hon. Friend has worked hard to ensure that does not happen, but given that the broader point of the clause is to send out a message, particularly through custodial sentences, that breach of building regulations is serious—we are dealing with human life, as we saw with Grenfell—I want to get some reassurance from him that he will tighten that up.

I welcome the enforcement period extension. I think that is right. My right hon. Friend touched on that in his comments, so I do not need to repeat that. If he can give me those reassurances, I will be immensely grateful.

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

I am obliged to you, Mr Efford, and my hon. Friend, who is quite within his rights to ask for reassurances.

I reiterate that clause 38 needs to be read in conjunction with clause 37. I made it clear that the current building safety enforcement regime is not fit for purpose; there are too many gaps and loopholes. With compliance notices and stop notices, clause 37 tightens the regime. Clause 38 is designed to ensure that in the event of contravention of such notices, the enforcement powers and penalties are that much greater. If my hon. Friend reads clause 37 in conjunction with clause 38, he will see that we are doing exactly that—tightening up the loopholes from compliance and imposing stronger and more effective penalties where there are contraventions.

As I said in my opening remarks, the clause responds to the independent review’s recommendation to enhance sanctions available under the Building Act 1984, which is now some years old. We are committed to doing that and ensuring that where building regulations are contravened, building control authorities—the Building Safety Regulator or local authorities on whom the hat fits—have the necessary powers to enforce the rules and offenders receive a proportionate penalty for non-compliance.

It will be for building control authorities to act effectively but proportionately whenever they encounter non-compliance. We will come to that in more detail in further clauses. We are giving those building control authorities stronger powers to ensure that all buildings are designed and constructed in accordance with regulations, and to sanction those who do not follow those regulations. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 38 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.