Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)

TUESDAY 20 JULY 1999

MR PETER FIELD, MR TONY MORRIS, MS SARAH COLWELL AND MR MARTYN RICH

Mr Cummings

  60. How are you funded?
  (Mr Field) We are funded now by commissions coming from clients in Government and the private sector. The work we do for government is funded through one of three arrangements. One arrangement is part of the so-called "guarantee" following the privatisation of BRE, in which the Department is obliged to invite BRE to undertake a programme of work up to an annual minimum value. The second route is by the Department issuing multiple tenders for research and clearly whoever wins that research will take it forward. Thirdly, there is the Partners in Technology research competition which embodies partial funding from government, usually 50 per cent, and other members of the industry.

  61. Overall, what percentage comes from clients in Government and the private sector as compared with the Department?
  (Mr Field) In respect of the fire safety that we undertake, I would suggest something of the order of 15 to 20 per cent.[14]

Mr Donohoe

  62. If I can go back to one of the answers that you gave, in 1994/95, after you had completed what I understand was Department funded research into this problem, what was the conclusion and advice to the Department by you?
  (Mr Field) The conclusion of the initial research was that there needed to be a far more embracing programme of work in which we had the industry on board because there were significant issues here for the industry. That led to the research programme, again partly sponsored by government, which was the Partners in Technology programme, which concluded in 1997/98 and led to the development of the test method. There was no specific advice given at the time of the initial research that was undertaken.
  (Mr Rich) After the incident at Knowsley, as a manufacturer, we saw it as a very serious position.

Chairman

  63. Did you manufacture the material used at Knowsley?
  (Mr Rich) No. By October 1991, our company had commissioned three full scale fire tests in the FRS laboratory to reassure our customers, both past and future, of our products' performance. There was no test method available but it is very similar to the test method that has been developed today. Industry was much more reactive to that incident.

Mr Donohoe

  64. After the incident at Irvine, I do not know if your company particularly supplied any material for that?
  (Mr Rich) No.

  65. After that incident, did you not think that the manufacturer of that particular material should be asking for and perhaps paying for research to be undertaken?
  (Mr Rich) Certainly, if he has a responsibility.

Mrs Ellman

  66. Mr Field, you made a comment a few minutes ago about a disparity between the commercial interest and the public interest. Could you expand on what you were referring to there?
  (Mr Field) That is a difficult question. One has to recognise that the work of the Department—and I am speaking for them here—as I understand it, in respect of the approved document, is concerned with matters of life safety. There may well be a lot of issues relating to life safety in respect of fire which it is appropriate for the public purse to pay for. I would certainly wish to comment on the responsible attitude of the cladding industry following the Knowsley fire and here again today. There is no doubt that they have been very responsible in coming forward and working with us and with government in respect of developing an appropriate test method.

  67. You do not feel this is unsolvable?
  (Mr Field) I do not think so, no. The Department, at the end of the day, will have a certain responsibility to the public to ensure that essential life safety issues are dealt with and I believe they do that quite well. The responsible industry I think does take these issues very seriously indeed as well. I do not think commercial issues get in the way.

  68. Would the test method that has been devised be enough to stop fires in in-fill situations like Irvine?
  (Mr Field) The test method can be adapted to examine the fire performance of the systems we believe to have been involved in the Irvine situation and would have been able to predict whether or not the circumstances that did occur at Irvine would have occurred.

  69. What are your views on systems that were established before the current regulations were in place?
  (Mr Field) This is a difficult one because we do not have enough information on what systems are out there in the public domain.
  (Mr Morris) These problems are not new. The first possible problem with plastic on the outside of buildings goes back to the late 1950s. Full scale tests were done at the LCC before they introduced plastic clad high rise buildings in London. I do not know if they are still there but if you are round by Paddington Station there were many tower blocks near Paddington with GRP cladding. The situation has been constantly under review since then.

  70. Is anyone responsible for holding information about the condition of buildings and the set up before the regulations?
  (Mr Field) I do not think we know the answer to that.

Mr Brake

  71. You were in when the previous witnesses were giving evidence. Their view was not terribly favourable towards the tests for assessing the fire performance of external cladding systems. Why do you think that was?
  (Mr Field) There may have been a slight misunderstanding there. There was certainly a comment made about the current test methods that were in the approved document, which is basically that which is looking at the spread of flame in BS476 type testing, which would then provide Class O ratings. My own feeling was that they were relatively favourable towards the full scale test that we have developed. It was the small scale test that is currently in the guidance that they were concerned about.

  72. As far as you are aware, there have not been concerns raised by manufacturers about the costs, for instance, of the full scale test?
  (Mr Field) Not at all. Manufacturers have been working and supporting the initiative in this respect. At the end of the day, because this has now gone out for public comment through the British Standards Institution, any modifications in respect of criteria and costs and scale will come back before it becomes a fully fledged standard.

  73. Mr Rich, your company will not be putting in a submission expressing concerns about the costs of these tests?
  (Mr Rich) No, we will not.

  74. You would not expect any of your competitors to?
  (Mr Rich) They have been involved with it as well. We see it as an industry wide problem.

Chairman

  75. When you say you see it as an industry wide problem, does that mean that almost all manufacturers of cladding material want to see a solution to this or are there vested commercial interests in particular systems?
  (Mr Rich) I am only talking on behalf of the ventilated rain screen over cladding type of system. There are, as far as I know, three major producers in this country who were involved with the development of the test method.
  (Mr Field) I think it is worth noting that the Partners in Technology research programme, which basically has led to this particular test method, was responsible for bringing together three of the key manufacturers of these systems in the United Kingdom who commercially are clearly in competition with each other. It was a very high accolade for that particular programme of work for that to happen.

  76. On the whole question of fire safety, is the legislation really outdated? Ought there to be a new Fire Safety Act?
  (Mr Field) I am not sure I can actually comment on that.
  (Mr Morris) The legislation is very simple indeed. The Act of Parliament is a simple, functional requirement. What many people have been referring to as regulation is in fact advisory material in the approved documents which have exactly the same status as the Highway Code.

  77. So you do not think we need a new Fire Safety Act? I understand the Assistant Chief Fire Officers' Association has been pressing the government to allow parliamentary time for a new Fire Safety Act.
  (Mr Morris) We have at the moment a very, very flexible system.

  78. That is somewhat ambiguous.
  (Mr Field) On reflection, I think it is very important to recognise that, should there be any changes in respect of legislation, it is very difficult to detach the responsibility for the building regulations in particular from life safety in respect of fire.

  79. What has been suggested to us is that the building regulations perhaps are all right to start with but, because materials deteriorate, a problem develops over time.
  (Mr Field) This is the so-called ageing process?


14   Note by witness: There has been a significant reduction in funding of fire safety research in recent years as a result of changing government priorities. Back


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 17 August 1999