New Clause 9 - Devolved Building Safety Standards Co-operation Review

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 26th October 2021.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must conduct a review exploring how a formal mechanism of co-operation and information sharing on building safety standards across the United Kingdom could operate.

(2) The review as set out in subsection (1) must include reviewing—

(a) the feasibility of establishing a duty to consult with the government of Northern Ireland and Scotland on the best practices for building safety, including on—

(i) funding;

(ii) grants;

(b) the provision of funding of fire safety remediation work, and

(c) the provision of funding in place to prevent costs being passed to leaseholders.

(3) A report setting out the conclusions of the review as set out in subsections (1) must be laid before each House of Parliament no later than 3 months after the day on which this Act is passed.” —

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to conduct a review of formal co-operation on building safety standards across the United Kingdom, in recognition that sharing best practice could promote improved building safety standards in all four nations.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 9 would require the Secretary of State to conduct a review of formal co-operation on building safety standards across the United Kingdom, in recognition that sharing best practice could promote improved building safety standards in all four nations.

There are two reasons behind new clause 9. First, the UK Government could learn from our neighbours, particularly in Scotland. Although only one high-rise building in Scotland—in Glasgow—has been found to have the ACM cladding that was responsible for the Grenfell tragedy, all owners of flats who have cladding have been offered free safety assessments to see if other types of cladding need to be removed.

In addition, the Scottish Government have established a ministerial working group on mortgage lending and cladding; this includes homeowners, insurers, legal professionals, housing associations and the fire service. When we were discussing a previous new clause, the Minister made it clear that he wanted to look at these issues. New clause 9 would provide the forum within which the UK Government could look at this model, and see what could be learned from the ministerial group on mortgage lending and cladding.

The Scottish Government made swift moves to ensure that the unnecessary EWS1 form certification was no longer needed. Arguably, there is also the case that through a forum like this the UK Government could reflect on whether Scottish building regulations, which have diverged from UK-wide fire safety standards since 2005, were able to prevent a widespread crisis like the one we have had here in England.

There is a second, less obvious reason why the clause could establish improvements in building safety standards. During the course of the evidence sessions, we heard from the Fire Brigades Union, who described the current state of affairs as “pretty abysmal”. They gave as an example the fact that fire officers had, for many years, noticed that fires were starting to spread faster and there was no way of getting that information to those in power. They cited as the problem that the Central Fire Brigade Advisory Council, which was established by the Fire Services Act 1947, had been abolished by the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004.

This new clause, which looks at best practices across all four nations, could perhaps be part of a new tapestry, where any new problems that arise in the future as a result of new materials or new modes of construction could quickly be discussed across all four nations and be brought to the attention of Government.

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

The hon. Lady may find that a theme is developing here and it is one of collegiality—I trust she will agree. I thank her for raising this important matter. Given that it is a Union matter, it is sometimes rather more complicated and, shall we say, delicate. I applaud the intent of the new clause, but I again ask her to withdraw it rather than asking us to accept it, because I do not think that it would achieve its intended effect. It could also, we believe, impede already existing and pretty effective relationships with the devolved Administrations.

However, I assure the hon. Lady that the Government have already established very close official-level working relationships on building safety with the devolved Administrations, as part of the BSP—the building safety programme. In fact, meetings with representatives of all three devolved Administrations take place at least fortnightly, enabling the sharing of information and latest policy developments and intentions. I will give the Committee an example. We have been working closely with the Welsh Government, including in relation to applying part 3 of the Bill to Wales. We are also liaising closely with both Scotland and Northern Ireland.

As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Bill will create a stronger and clearer construction products regulatory regime, which will apply to the whole United Kingdom. Building safety is a devolved matter, but the products regime will apply to the whole UK, and that will pave the way for a national regulator for construction products with a UK-wide remit to lead and co-ordinate enforcement of the new rules.

In January this year, we announced that that national regulator will be established within the Office for Product Safety and Standards, which gave evidence to this Committee in the witness sessions and which will receive up to £10 million this financial year to set up the new function. There is in the Bill a range of other provisions that apply to one or all of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and which we have debated previously.

As the hon. Lady will appreciate and as I have said already, unlike the regulation of construction products, building safety is a devolved matter and rightly, therefore, decisions on policy in that area ultimately rest with the devolved Administrations themselves. It is therefore important that we maintain the existing, well established relationships rather than perhaps foisting new and unexpected ones on those Administrations.

Taking all those factors into account and entirely understanding what the hon. Lady is trying to achieve, I hope that she will accept our assessment that formalising information-sharing and consultation mechanisms as she is suggesting could impede and slow down our existing mechanisms to ensure building safety standards in each of our four nations. I respectfully invite her to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to the Minister for his reassurances about the close working relationship with the devolved nations, and interested to hear about the fortnightly meetings. If those meetings are happening every fortnight, that does, I say respectfully, beg the question as to why the Scottish Government have set up the ministerial working group on mortgage lending and cladding, and dealt with the EWS1 form, yet the UK Government are still battling with both.

The Minister mentioned that it is important not to step on the toes of the powers of the devolved nations. I absolutely, wholeheartedly agree with that, but my suggestion was that the UK Government could in fact learn from the devolved nations rather than imposing anything on them. None the less, I am grateful to have those reassurances and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.