Fire Safety Bill: Report Stage, House of Lords, 17 November 2020


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 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. 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.
  • It is welcome that the Government’s amendments 7 and 14, tabled in the name of Lord Greenhalgh, recognise and address this. Provided the Bill is not commenced before the appropriate guidance is issued, the LGA supports this amendment.
  • The chronic shortage of fire engineering and similar expertise in the UK needs to be addressed. The Government should set up degree, conversion and apprenticeship schemes to address this shortfall, as without greater expert capacity the Fire Safety Bill 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 duty holders could be confused by the 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
  • The Government should not make councils and other freeholders responsible for issues beyond their control. The Fire Safety Bill 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.

Assessors

  • Amendments 7 and 14, tabled by Lord Greenhalgh, which provides that where the Secretary of State issues risk based guidance under the existing duty to ensure the availability of appropriate guidance, proof of compliance or a lack of compliance with that guidance can be used in legal proceedings. It also requires the Secretary of State to consult before revising or withdrawing risk-based guidance.

LGA view

We support 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.

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 LGA wants 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.

We have accepted the Government’s approach because we recognise the need to get these powers on the statute book and not delay. Nevertheless, without a more detailed awareness of the number of buildings likely to be affected or the number of assessors available to do the work, it will be difficult to frame guidance that will guarantee an effective outcome. The Government will need to liaise closely with all stakeholders to see how the Bill and guidance on it work in practice and to adapt the guidance if necessary.

Electrical safety

  • Amendments 1, 2 and 3, tabled by Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, which would clarify that the Fire Safety Order applies to electrical appliances where a building is a high-rise residential building and apply the new Schedule (Electrical Safety Checks).
  • Amendment 4, tabled by Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, which would require that the Fire Safety Order applies to electrical appliances where a building is a high-rise residential building and apply the new Schedule (Electrical Appliance Registers).
  • Amendment 15, 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 high-rise residential buildings. It would also require the Government to amend the Order to impose additional duties on the responsible person and on the occupiers.
  • Amendment 16, tabled by Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, which would require the relevant authority to make regulations for the registration of electrical appliances in high-rise residential buildings.

LGA view

The LGA shares the concern behind these amendments regarding the fire hazard posed by faulty electrical appliances. Unfortunately, we believe that these amendments 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.

Contact

Jade Hall, Public Affairs and Campaigns Adviser

jade.hall@local.gov.uk