Houses of Parliament

WHILE THE bill passed the first stage before becoming law, Labour saw an amendment - to ensure that the Grenfell inquiry’s first phase recommendations are implemented - defeated.

In December last year, the government’s Queen’s Speech saw building safety and fire safety bills introduced, with both setting out to ‘learn the lessons’ from Grenfell. While the building safety bill would ‘place new and enhanced regulatory regimes for building safety and construction products’, both bills aimed strengthen the ‘whole regulatory system’ for both building and fire safety.

The fire safety bill was said to ‘hint’ at supporting the findings from the Grenfell inquiry’s first phase, including ‘main benefits’ such as providing residents with ‘reassurance’ on fire safety and making it clear that building owners and managers know they are ‘responsible for assessing the risks of external walls and fire doors’.

Main elements were to include a clarification that the scope of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 [FSO] ‘includes the external walls of the building, including cladding’ as well as ‘fire doors for domestic premises of multiple occupancy’. ‘Relevant enforcement powers’ to hold owners and managers ‘to account’ would be strengthened, while a ‘transitional periods’ for these roles, the responsible person and the fire and rescue services (FRSs) would ‘assist’ in placing infrastructure.

In January, more details were released including the requirement for building owners to ‘fully consider and mitigate’ the risks of external wall systems and individual flat doors, as these changes would ‘make it easier to enforce’ where owners have not remediated combustible cladding ‘by complementing the powers under the Housing Act’.

The government is also set to work alongside local authorities and support ‘enforcement options’ where ‘there is no clear plan for remediation’, as building owners are ‘responsible for ensuring their buildings are safe’. In late March, the bill was officially introduced, with the government stating it would ‘improve fire safety in buildings in England and Wales’, and that it ‘builds on action already taken to ensure that people feel safe in their homes’.

The bill will amend the FSO to ‘clarify’ that the responsible person or dutyholder for multi occupant residential buildings ‘must manage and reduce’ the risk of a series of elements. These include the structure and external walls of a building, including cladding, balconies and windows, and entrance doors to individual flats ‘that open into common parts’, with this clarification to ‘empower’ FRSs to take action ‘and hold building owners to account if they are not compliant’.

It will also provide a ‘foundation’ for secondary legislation to ‘take forward’ the inquiry’s recommendations, and outlined these. Recommendations cover responsibilities of building owners and managers of high rise and multi occupant residential buildings, including ‘regular’ lift inspections and reporting results to FRSs; and ensuring evacuation plans ‘are reviewed and regularly updated’, as well as personal evacuation plans for residents ‘whose ability to evacuate may be compromised’.

Others include ensuring that fire safety instructions ‘are provided to residents in a form that they can reasonably be expected to understand’, and ensuring that individual flat entrance doors ‘where the external walls of the building have unsafe cladding’ comply with current standards. The bill will also give Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick the power to amend lists of qualifying premises that fall within the scope of the FSO ‘by way of secondary legislation’.

In May, the bill received its second reading in parliament, with Security Minister James Brokenshire stating that the government was ‘resolute’ in its ‘commitment to ensure’ that Grenfell is ‘never repeated’. Mr Brokenshire added that ‘specialist knowledge and the expertise of the fire risk assessor’ would be required to comply with the bill’, and noted that the bill ‘is a clarification’ of the FSO, and will ‘apply to all multi-occupied residential buildings regulated by the order.

‘The current ambiguity is leading to inconsistency in operational practice. That is unhelpful at best and, at worst, it means that the full identification and management of fire safety risks is compromised, which can put the lives of people at risk’. St Albans MP Daisy Cooper later tabled amendments to the bill in July ‘to help protect leaseholders living in homes with dangerous cladding’.

Belfast Telegraph reported on the comments from Mr Brokenshire after the fire safety bill ‘cleared the Commons’ earlier this week, with his comment that reforms will be introduced in the ‘fastest possible time’ coming after Labour expressed its concerns over progress made since Grenfell and the failure of its amendment to ‘ensure the government implements recommendations made by the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry’.

Mr Brokenshire stated that the bill ‘must be brought into law first before other changes can be made’, with the bill amending regulations ‘in a bid to offer greater clarity over who is responsible for fire safety in blocks of flats’. However, Labour’s amendment, and specifically its first clause, would ‘have required owners or managers of flats to share information with their local fire service about the design and materials of the external walls’.

In turn, they would have been ‘required to carry out regular inspections of lifts and individual flat entrance doors’, while evacuation and fire safety instructions ‘must be shared with residents’. The amendment was defeated by 118 votes to 318, and while Mr Brokenshire ‘recognised’ the intent by the amendment to ‘implement recommendations made by the first phase’, but ‘insisted the government is taking action’.

He also referred to the current consultation on fire safety that concludes on 12 October, stating that Labour’s proposed amendment would ‘not hasten any more than what the government is intending and proposing’, with the bill providing a ‘framework for the changes to be introduced’. The government is consulting ‘on the detail’, he also pointed out, and the bill would receive an ‘unopposed’ third reading before undergoing ‘further scrutiny’ int eh House of Lords ‘at a later date’.

In response to shadow home office minister Sarah Jones, Mr Brokenshire stated: ‘I do understand the timing issue and she certainly has my assurance that when we have the Bill on the statute book, and that has to come first, we will move with all pace and all expedition to see that the regulations are put in place at the fastest possible time.

‘Together, the Fire Safety Bill, the draft Building Safety Bill and the fire safety consultation will create fundamental improvements to building safety standards and ensure residents are safe and feel safe in their homes.’

Ms Jones said it was ‘disappointing’ that the amendment was not accepted, adding: ‘I want to say to all those stuck living in unsafe blocks, but in particular to the Grenfell survivors and the victims and families, that we on this side of the House will not rest until every measure necessary is in place to prevent a fire like Grenfell from ever happening again.’

Tory MP Sir David Amess also warned that electrical safety must be ‘enshrined in legislation’, stating: ‘We cannot and we must not waste any more time by pushing the issue of electrical safety around between different government departments. We owe it to those who lost their lives in Grenfell and other fires to find the parliamentary time and the right vehicle to enshrine electrical safety in legislation.’

Mr Brokenshire ‘committed to work’ with Sir David on ‘whether there are any gaps in the safety regime for electrical goods’, in response to his comments.