Kit Malthouse – 2021 Speech on the Fire Safety Bill

The speech made by Kit Malthouse, the Minister for Crime and Policing, in the House of Commons on 24 February 2021.

We consulted on our proposals to deliver on the inquiry’s recommendations and to strengthen the fire safety order. This consultation closed in October 2020 and we intend to publish our response this spring. We also intend to bring forward legislation as soon as practicable after the Bill is commenced. Our consultation gave all those affected the opportunity to make their voices heard. This Lords amendment, however, does not do that. It disregards the intent of the statutory duty to consult and seeks to implement changes that do not take account of the responses to the fire safety consultation.

I should restate to the House that we intend to use article 24(1) of the fire safety order, which provides a regulation-making power and a statutory duty to consult, to deliver the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s recommendations. Our proposals will include creating new legal duties for the responsible person in the most practical and effective manner. This includes a proposal for the responsible person to provide information to their local fire and rescue authority about the design of their building’s external walls and the materials they are constructed from, and provide it with up-to-date building floor plans in a standard format, highlighting the location of key firefighting systems within their building. Responsible persons will be required to undertake checks of flat entrance doors, fire doors in the common parts and self-closing devices. Regular inspections of all lifts and other key firefighting equipment in their building will be mandatory, reporting any faults to their local fire and rescue authorities alongside this. There will be an obligation to produce and regularly review evacuation plans for their buildings, and we will look to impose requirements on premises’ information boxes, which will include up-to-date floor plans and other documents as recommended by the inquiry. We will also require the installation of way-finding signage in all multi-occupational residential buildings of 11 metres and over. We are also committed to seek further views on the complex issue of personal emergency evacuation plans. A further consultation will open in the spring and details will soon be available on the Government website.

Some of our proposals from the consultation will require primary legislation. These include strengthening the effect of guidance relating to the discharge of duties under the fire safety order; providing for responsible persons in all regulated premises to record who they are and to provide a UK-based address; the placement of a new requirement on responsible persons for all regulated premises to take reasonable steps to identify themselves to all other responsible persons—this could apply, for example, to a building that houses both commercial and residential units; a requirement that those completing a fire risk assessment must be competent; an obligation on all responsible persons to record their completed fire risk assessments; and for responsible persons to record the name and organisation of those they have engaged to complete the fire risk assessments. There will also be the obligation that any outgoing responsible person be required to pass on all relevant fire safety information to those taking over such responsibilities under the fire safety order. And there are potential measures to increase fines, particularly with regard to the impersonation of an inspector. We intend to include those measures, and possibly others, in the Building Safety Bill, which will be introduced after the Government have considered the recommendations made by the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government and when parliamentary time allows.

I also wish to place on record the Government’s view that there are fundamental flaws with this Lords amendment. First, on the issue of lift checks, the Grenfell inquiry’s recommendation was specific in that it called for checks of lifts to be carried out on high-rise buildings at monthly intervals. The Lords amendment goes a lot further and applies to all multi-occupied residential buildings. That means that even if such a building was only two storeys high but happened to have a lift, it would require the same approach as a high-rise block. This is not a proportionate solution.

I am also concerned about how inflexible this amendment is. In respect of both lifts and fire doors, it offers no ability to change the frequency of checks without further primary legislation. For example, it may be the case in future that the most appropriate course of action to respond to an evolving situation would be to have a bespoke checks regime for certain types of building that is different from that for other properties. This is but one example of how this amendment could constrain the Government’s ability to keep residents safe, and it is right that we maintain the flexibility to react responsibly to future changes in circumstances.

We have talked about the financial privilege grounds in relation to this amendment, and the reason for this is that we already intend to cover the areas of the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s recommendations mentioned in the Opposition amendment through regulations. We have provided an estimate of the impact of our consultation proposals, which has also been published on the Fire Safety Bill pages of the parliamentary website. It is important to mention in respect of undertaking monthly checks on lifts in all buildings, for example, rather than just in high-rise residential premises, that the costs would be significantly higher than we have accounted for.

I am also concerned about the territorial scope of this amendment. The Bill applies to England and Wales, with the exception of the Government’s amendment on risk-based guidance, which will be for England only. The Opposition want this amendment to apply to Wales, but it does not have the explicit consent of the Senedd. The Welsh Government have expressed the view that this would be a breach of the Sewel convention.

I reiterate the Government’s view that this amendment is unnecessary. It seeks to create delegated powers to lay regulations on these specific areas, despite the fact that this power already exists under article 24(1) of the fire safety order. However, I recognise that those on both sides of this House, those in the other place and the public want greater reassurance that we will deliver on our commitment to implement the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s phase 1 recommendations. It is important that we reach a conclusion on this issue, not least because we owe that to the Grenfell community, and I want to underline the Government’s commitment to delivering on the inquiry’s recommendations.

The Fire Safety Bill is an important first step in the process, which must come first in terms of sequencing. Our intention is to commence this as soon as possible, with supporting risk-based guidance to be ready to support commencement. This will ensure the highest-risk buildings are assessed first. We intend to respond formally to the fire safety consultation shortly. Following on from that, we intend to bring forward regulations as soon as possible. In addition, we have brought forward the Building Safety Bill, which was recently subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. We aim to introduce this after we have considered the recommendations from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee report. To underline the Government’s firm commitment to deliver on the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s recommendations, we have published our first quarterly updates on the progress being made to implement the recommendations. These updates are broken down by the themes set out in the inquiry’s phase 1 report on the Government website.

In the interests of getting the Bill finalised and to deliver on important building safety reforms, we were prepared to offer a legislative amendment that would require the Government to report back to Parliament on the specific areas highlighted in the Opposition amendment within 12 months of commencement of the Bill. That would have resolved this issue, and I am disappointed that my offer of this amendment was not accepted by the Opposition. For the extensive reasons I have provided, I hope the House will agree that we are right to reject Lords amendment 2.

Lords amendment 4 seeks to protect leaseholders and tenants from paying for the remediation of unsafe cladding from their buildings. I recognise that a number of alternative amendments have been tabled. I expect we will hear a number of views on this issue today, and I intend to respond to them at the end of the debate, given that many of those interventions will be virtual. First, I should state that we agree with the intent to give leaseholders peace of mind and financial certainty. That is why the Government have recently announced that we will be providing an additional £3.5 billion to fund the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding, targeted at the highest-risk buildings. That brings the total investment in building safety to an unprecedented £5 billion.

The amendments would also be impractical—for example, in cases where it would be difficult to identify whether a risk has materialised from wear and tear or due to a building safety defect. Stating what the landlord can and cannot recover from leaseholders may well contradict the provisions set out in the contractual terms of the lease. It would be unclear where these costs should lie, rather than their being determined by the terms of the lease. This might result in delay to crucial interim measures to protect residents while remediation is being brought forward, meaning that fire rescue services would have no choice but to evacuate residents. Additionally, the amendments, though well-intentioned, would not always protect leaseholders from all remediation costs. They apply only to defects uncovered through a fire risk assessment, but not, for example, to defects discovered as a result of an incident, or indeed other works taking place.

Members will be aware that, as I have said, we will soon be bringing to Parliament the building safety Bill, which is a once-in-a-generation change to the building safety regime. It will bring about fundamental change in both the regulatory framework for building safety and the construction industry culture, creating a more accountable system to ensure that a tragedy such as Grenfell can never happen again.