Fire Safety Bill: Committee Stage, House of Lords, 29 October 2020

We welcome the introduction of the Fire Safety Bill (FSB) and hope it will be an important step in the right direction. We are concerned about some of the practicalities of the Bill, how it aligns with the building safety proposals the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is preparing, and the costs it may impose on councils and other building owners.


Key messages

  • The LGA has been calling for councils and fire services to be given effective powers and meaningful sanctions to ensure residents are safe – and feel safe – in their homes.
  • We welcome the introduction of the Fire Safety Bill (FSB) and hope it will be an important step in the right direction. We are concerned about some of the practicalities of the Bill, how it aligns with the building safety proposals the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is preparing, and the costs it may impose on councils and other building owners.
  • To ensure the legislation is successful in protecting lives, national government must ensure that local government is reimbursed for any additional costs arising out of the operational changes mandated by this Bill.
  • The Bill will require duty-holders to review their fire risk assessments. While this should not be too onerous for buildings with no cladding system, there is likely to be insufficient expert resource to update the fire risk assessments of all buildings that have external wall cladding systems.
  • The Government has set up a task and finish group to look at this issue in detail, and the LGA is a member of this group. It is welcome that Government has recognised this issue and is addressing it.
  • Councils should not be left in a position where they are required to update fire risk assessments but cannot do so due to a shortage of resource. We therefore support amendments 14, 19 and 23, tabled by Lord Porter of Spalding, which would address this issue.
  • This problem highlights the chronic shortage of fire engineering and similar expertise in the UK at present. The Government needs to act now to set up degree, conversion and apprenticeship schemes to address this shortfall, as without greater expert capacity the FSB may fail.
  • The Government needs to provide an assurance that the Building Safety Bill (BSB) will be fully aligned with the amended Fire Safety Order to create a workable building safety system. At present we are concerned that disparities between the Fire Safety Order’s concept of a Responsible Person and the proposals for an Accountable Person and a Building Safety Manager contained in the Government’s response to the Building A Safer Future consultation response could confuse duty holders.
  • The Government should not make councils and other freeholders responsible for issues beyond their control. The FSB makes duty-holders responsible for fire doors, even if they are owned by leaseholders. Requiring councils to inspect fire doors is likely to prove difficult in practice and extremely costly.
  • We have various concerns about the practicalities of some of the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that are to be added to the FSB via secondary legislation.

Assessors

  • Amendments 14, 19 and 23, tabled by Lord Porter of Spalding, which would require the Government to introduce guidance in the form of an approved code of practice, before commencing the Bill. The approved code of practice would seek to ensure that the limited resources available to carry out the reviews of fire risk assessments required by the Bill were allocated between buildings as far as possible on the basis of risk.

LGA view

This LGA fully supports this amendment. It reflects our concern that there are too few fire risk assessors who are both competent and insured to review the fire risk assessments of buildings with external wall cladding systems, as will be required when the Fire Safety Bill becomes law. This issue has been acknowledged by the Government.

One consequence of this could be that responsible persons find themselves required to review their fire risk assessments by law but are unable to do so, due to a lack of assessors. Another possible consequence is that competition for the services of the small number of assessors drives up the cost of assessment, with negative implications for council finances. This competition could also leave higher risk premises at the back of a long queue for updated fire risk assessments, while lower-risk properties with wealthier owners are assessed first.

The amendment seeks to ensure two outcomes. First, to protect responsible persons in law, where they are genuinely unable to review their fire risk assessments. Second, to – as far as is possible – ensure that higher risk premises are assessed before lower risk premises.

In relation to the second objective, the task and finish group set up by the Government is devising a risk prioritisation tool, to be contained in the approved code of practice. This would enable judgements to be made based on the various factors that determine the risk a building poses, such as height, number of staircases, vulnerability of residents and provision of sprinklers. The LGA has not been involved in devising this tool as it does not have the expertise to do so. Instead, the work has been carried out by a group including the National Fire Chiefs Council and Fire Sector Federation experts. The tool will enable buildings to be placed into one of a number of risk-prioritised categories.

  • Amendment 7, tabled by Lord Kennedy of Southwark and Lord Whitty, which would require the schedule for inspecting buildings in relation to buildings which contain two or more sets of domestic premises to be based on a prioritisation of risk, not an arbitrary distinction of types of buildings.

LGA view

The LGA does not object to this amendment. However, we believe that inspectors are already required to take account of risk when enforcing the Fire Safety Order. This amendment could, therefore, only require enforcing authorities to prioritise buildings on the basis of risk for the purposes of inspection. In contrast, Lord Porter’s amendment is aimed at insuring that this prioritisation informs the order in which fire risk assessments are reviewed. This amendment on its own would not prevent high risk buildings from being forced to the back of the queue for review due to the increased cost of assessments resulting from a shortage of assessors.

  • Amendment 12, tabled by Lord Kennedy of Southwark, which would ensure that the Government must consider whether there is a skills shortage in the United Kingdom in relation to the requirements of the Act.
  • Amendment 22, tabled by Lord Kennedy of Southwark, which would ensure a review takes place to consider whether enough fire safety inspectors are employed in England or Wales to carry out the duties arising from the Act.

LGA view

The above amendments compliment Lord Porter’s amendment. The latter refers to a study which we think Lord Porter’s amendment would necessitate in order for the guidance it requires to be produced. While the LGA does not object to requiring this review in statute, to do so might delay the commencement of the Bill. Equally, to commence the Bill without such a review could render the Bill unworkable even with the guidance Lord Porter’s amendment would require. A balance must be struck between commencing the Bill as soon as possible so that the fire service can use the powers it confers and assessing the size of disparity between the number of fire risk assessments that will need review and the capacity of the fire risk assessment industry.

The former amendment suggests a wider review which need not delay the Bill’s commencement and would be welcome but would not necessarily remove the need for the more specific inquiry in New Clause 3.

Electrical safety

  • Amendment 1, tabled by Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, Lord Tope and Lord Whitty, which aims to clarify that the Fire Safety Order applies to electrical appliances where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises.
  • Amendment 24, new schedule, tabled by Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, which would require the Government to make regulations specifying the electrical appliances to which the Fire Safety Order applies in buildings which contain two or more sets of domestic premises. It would also require the Government to amend the Order to impose additional duties on the responsible person and on occupiers in those buildings

LGA view

The LGA shares the concern behind these amendments regarding the fire hazard posed by faulty electrical appliances. Unfortunately, we believe that this amendment would have the effect of transferring responsibility for this issue from the manufacturers and owners of appliances to the responsible person and the Fire and Rescue Service. In particular, the proposed Schedule requires the responsible person to keep a register of electrical appliances and to check whether they are subject to a recall notice. This would be impractical for councils and would present a significant enforcement challenge. We would prefer to see action to require manufacturers to take more responsibility for the safety of their product and the effectiveness of product recalls.

Clause 86 of the Building Safety Bill imposes duties on residents regarding the maintenance of electrical equipment, which may meet some of our concerns around this issue. Additionally, we would like to see the amendment’s aims in relation to general electrical safety checks discussed in the context of the Building Safety Bill’s safety case provisions.

Waking watch

  • Amendment 9, tabled by Lord Kennedy of Southwark, which would require the UK Government (for England) and the Welsh Government (for Wales) to specify when a waking watch must be in place for buildings which contain two or more sets of domestic premises and have fire safety failures.

LGA view

The conditions under which interim measures, such as a waking watch, are best determined by the fire risk assessment and need to be considered in the context of specific buildings. The NFCC has produced guidance on simultaneous evacuation which we consider sufficient.

Finance

  • Amendment 11, tabled by Lord Kennedy of Southwark, which would require the Government to consider the Act’s impact on local authority finances.

LGA view

We strongly support this amendment. Whilst we support the Fire Safety Bill, we are concerned about its impact on local authority finances. Analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, commissioned by the LGA, found that councils in England will face a funding gap of more than £5 billion by 2024 to maintain services at current levels, and that this figure could double amid the huge economic and societal uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is therefore vital that councils are fully compensated for new burdens arising from this Bill. 

Contact

Jade Hall, Public Affairs and Campaigns Adviser

jade.hall@local.gov.uk