New Clause 15 - Waking watch

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 26th October 2021.

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“(1) Within one year of the day on which this Act is passed the Secretary of State must carry out and publish a review of the impact of the advice of his department since June 2017 on—

(a) the implementation of 24 hour ‘waking watch’ fire patrols and other interim fire safety measures in residential buildings in England awaiting fire safety works;

(b) costs arising from waking watches and other fire safety measures on leaseholders; and

(c) building insurance premiums and safety requirements of building insurance;

(2) The review must include an assessment of the effectiveness of waking watch as an interim fire safety measures, and a comparison with other measures must be included.

(3) The review must recommend industry changes and Government action necessary to reduce reliance on waking watch and interim fire safety costs for leaseholders.”

This new clause would ensure the Government undertake a review of waking watch policies.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Planning)

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller. New clause 15, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale and others, addresses waking watch. It says that within a year, the Secretary of State must

“carry out and publish a review of the impact of the advice of his department since” the Grenfell fire on

“the implementation of 24 hour ‘waking watch’ fire patrols and other interim fire safety measures in residential buildings in England…costs arising from waking watches…building insurance premiums and safety requirements of building insurance”,

and the cost of other interim fire safety measures. Subsection (2) would require

“an assessment of the effectiveness of waking watch as an interim fire safety measures, and a comparison with other measures”.

Subsection (3) would require the review to

“recommend industry changes and Government action necessary to reduce reliance on waking watch and interim fire safety costs” that leaseholders face.

After the Grenfell Tower fire, waking watches were one of the solutions—one then thought of as temporary—to the cladding and fire safety crisis in residential buildings. All involved assumed that the crisis would pass as either buildings were deemed safe or remediation works rendered them safe before too long. Sadly, more than four years on, too many residential buildings constructed in the last 20 years and awaiting remediation are still deemed by fire safety experts to be so unsafe that they require waking watch services—a 24-hour building patrol of at least two people, and more for larger buildings.

I will deal first with the other fire safety measures implied in the new clause. Subsection (1)(b) and (c) crucially focus on the costs that many leaseholders have faced because of waking watch programmes and others, along with the impact of insurance premiums, while awaiting a permanent solution to a building’s fire safety risk. As we have heard many times before, insurance is one among a mounting series of costs hitting leaseholders. Research in The Sunday Telegraph recently showed that insurance premiums have increased by up to 1,200%. For one of my constituents, the cost has risen from £234 a year to £1,734.

I will now address waking watches. One of my constituents, a leaseholder in a flat in Hounslow, wrote to me about their experience and that of their neighbours. They live in a small block of 25 flats, half of which are for social rent. The block is being charged £48,000 per calendar month plus VAT. My constituent described the £48,000-a-month service as “three men” who

“sit in a cleaning cupboard in the lobby and periodically patrol the small corridors connecting the flats and the stairwell to check for fires.”

We have heard many serious concerns raised about the quality and standards of waking watches in our postbags. A report in The Times found that staff had joked about running out of Netflix programmes to watch, and a report by Which? in 2020 found similar concerns about staff even sleeping when they were on site. In my constituency, when flammable cladding went up—cladding that was awaiting removal—the waking watch in the adjacent block did nothing. Residents called the emergency services, not the waking watch service being paid to do so.

However, this is not about individual staff members; rather, it is about the wider system. Are there basic standards for waking watch contracts in residential buildings, or numbers of personnel per floor or per 10 flats? Are there stated skill levels, a job description or on-the-job reporting? For instance, anyone using a toilet in a restaurant, or even in the Palace of Westminster, will know when it was last cleaned and what to do if they feel that it does not reach a specific health and safety standard. Do leaseholders have an equivalent assurance as to the safe operation of the waking watch in their blocks, which is somewhat more serious than the cleanliness of a toilet? Certainly, they do not feel safe, based on our postbags.

Is waking watch really an interim measure? For my constituents in one block, a new management company came in and slightly reduced the price of the waking watch. A new fire alarm was fitted, which they were told would get rid of the requirement for waking watch, but—such luck—new guidance issued by the Government meant that the waking watch had to remain, so they continue to pay for it. There is nothing to help people in this situation. It is a rather fitting epitaph for the Government’s approach not only to the cost of waking watch but to the fire and building safety crisis. As my constituent said,

“nothing has changed in terms of leaseholders incurring a monthly expense. The announcement last year of a £30 million Waking Watch Fund (which has yet to pay any money out) will do nothing to help people in this situation.”

Some buildings with a waking watch will soon be re-clad or their fire safety defects otherwise remediated; the owners will have done the right thing, or their building safety fund application will have been successful. However, sadly, too many buildings will continue to require a waking watch for the foreseeable future for a number of reasons, which in my constituency alone include: ineligibility for the building safety fund, as the fire risk is not one of inflammable cladding; the building being below 18 metres; or the owner or head lessee being in dispute with the builder over where the responsibility lies. If the owner or the head lessee is a housing association and some flats are for social rent, for which the building safety fund is not to be used, the housing association will have to fund the remediation from its precious capital fund, which is allocated to build new social rent housing, not to make good faults for which that housing association is not responsible, particularly when the block was built by a volume housebuilder and the housing association took over as part of a section 106 agreement. Finally, the other reason why waking watch may continue and safety defects go unrectified is if there is a disagreement between safety professionals as to the actual level of fire risk.

The specifics of each waking watch vary, but generally people are employed to monitor buildings, both internally and externally, for fire and to alert residents in the blocks should there be a fire—that is the theory anyway. A report by the National Fire Chiefs Council said that waking watches alone are

“impracticable for a long-term solution”,

yet they have become widespread and long-term. In London alone, nearly 600 buildings require a waking watch, and there are an estimated 1,000 buildings nationally. These waking watch services have to be funded somehow. The Minister will no doubt refer to the £30 million funding pot that is largely being spent on new alarms, but many reports have pointed out that that funding will not end the need for waking watches, as I pointed out.

I spoke this morning about the toll of the building safety crisis on the mental health of leaseholders. I know from listening to those in my constituency that widespread use of waking watch patrols only adds to their anxiety, on top of the rising bills. One constituent told me how hearing the footsteps is a constant reminder of the risk that so many leaseholders face. I urge the Government to consider the review that the new clause seeks and to provide real answers to the many thousands of leaseholders who hear those footsteps.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this important point. I am aware that the use of waking watches, especially those put in place by building owners since Grenfell, is causing concern to residents. It is vital that they are used appropriately and only in the most limited circumstances. I hope that the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw her amendment, although I understand the motivations behind it.

Waking watch is a rapidly deployed, short-term risk mitigation strategy to give time for those responsible to install alarms or take action to mitigate risk, such as the removal of unsafe cladding, which is fundamentally what the mitigation strategies that we have developed are about. It will allow residents to remain safe in their homes. The simultaneous evacuation guidance published by the National Fire Chiefs Council is clear: interim measures, including waking watch, should be used only in the short term. The responsible person should move quickly to install an alarm and then remediate, so that the risk that has necessitated the need for interim measures is addressed and the building can have a clear “stay put” evacuation strategy where appropriate.

The hon. Lady and other Members have highlighted some cases in which waking watch measures are being put in place without communication to residents and without a clear strategy for their removal. In too many cases, the costs of waking watch are being passed onto leaseholders, and the Government accept that these costs are the cause of huge concern.

Responsible persons are required to take a proportionate, risk-based approach to ensure the safety of all relevant persons under the fire safety order. Responsible persons are responsible for fire safety in their building. They should take measures to mitigate risk to relevant persons, including interim measures such as waking watch. We expect, as is set out in the simultaneous evacuation guidance, the responsible person to engage with affected leaseholders to explain the position. The responsible person should also engage with their local fire and rescue service when considering a change in a building’s evacuation strategy and before implementing a waking watch.

Action is already being undertaken to encourage the use of more appropriate long-term measures. I am not sure that the report the hon. Lady is asking the Committee to recommend to the House offers any material, practical value or assistance to leaseholders in difficult positions. What we are doing now is of more immediate practical use to both responsible persons and leaseholders. We are already working with the National Fire Chiefs Council to review and strengthen the sector-led guidance in order to re-emphasise the temporary nature of waking watches and the alternative proportionate fire safety interventions to be considered before implementing a waking watch—particularly in buildings below 18 metres. We expect the revised guidance to be published shortly.

The hon. Lady mentioned the waking watch relief fund, which provides £35 million to incentivise the installation of a common alarm system. By the end of August that fund had allocated over £22.5 million, covering around 264 of the highest-risk buildings. We estimate that that has benefited over 20,000 leasehold dwellings. I appreciate what the hon. Lady is trying to achieve, but I remind her that on 16 September we reopened the waking watch relief fund so funds can be made available to those in the greatest need. I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that the practical application of new clause 15 will not be to offer any material assistance to leaseholders. On that basis, I encourage her to consider withdrawing her new clause.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Planning) 2:45 pm, 26th October 2021

I thank the Minister for his considered response to new clause 15. He said that the review our amendment seeks provides no practical use to leaseholders. I would suggest that having a review and putting it on the public record would be very valuable, because it might expose some of the issues.

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

I sat down a little prematurely. What I might have said is that, as the hon. Lady will know, the House of Commons has many and varied methods to bring Ministers to the Dispatch Box to address questions or answer debates. I think she will find a way for her voice and the voice of leaseholders to be heard in this matter if she thinks it appropriate.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Planning)

I hear the Minister’s point. A review being incorporated into legislation would have a little bit more weight, particularly with a response being drafted by the Government, rather than through MPs bringing anecdotal evidence as part of their casework.

The Minister said that the waking watch mitigation is only there while the removal of unsafe cladding and the installation of fire alarms is awaited. As I have explained—he would know this if such a review was to take to place—the taking of those actions has not stopped waking watch being considered essential by the fire safety professionals employed by building owners and managers.

In the spirit of collaboration and collegiality, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.