(pt 1)

25 Jan 2006 : Column 421WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 25 January 2006

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Fire Safety Regulations

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

9.30 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. First, I welcome you to the Chair. Secondly, may I raise with you the problem that we have this morning and the reasons why my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow), whose debate this is, is not present? The change of venue from Westminster Hall to this room has somewhat confused hon. Members—indeed, several of us went to Westminster Hall this morning and arrived here out of breath because we had been trying to find the alternative venue. May I suggest through you that hon. Members are again given notice of the change of venue so that we do not have a problem with misunderstandings and with hon. Members going to Westminster Hall, which is no longer available?

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. It is a matter of fact and record, and has been for a considerable time, that sittings are being held in Committee Room 10, not Westminster Hall. That information appears regularly on the Order Paper, and it is up to hon. Members to make sure that they are present and correct when required.

9.31 am

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Gale. I am here to ask for consideration to be given to the regulations that were put in place after the inquiry into the King's Cross fire. As we know, 31 people were killed in that tragic event. Following the investigation, the regulations were amended. The changes were not completely implemented until after 1991, but during that period action was taken to make the railways far safer.

The rail network is not my favourite organisation at the moment, given that I spent some considerable time on the Brighton to London train this morning. That explains my somewhat dishevelled appearance, for which I apologise to    hon. Members. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue on behalf of hon. Members who have expressed concern about proposals to remove essential fire safety regulations.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. To enable her to get her breath back, may I draw her attention and yours, Mr. Gale, to the debate that took place in this very room yesterday? It was about rail services in the south-east and probably highlighted some of the experiences that she suffered this morning?

Ms Barlow : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I hope that there will be many more in the early part of my speech.
25 Jan 2006 : Column 422WH

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. There will not be. I appreciate the courtesy that the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) has shown in seeking to assist the hon. Lady, but I have made it abundantly plain that it is up to hon. Members to be here on time. Although I understand that the hon. Lady needs to get her breath back, and I am sure that everybody will have some sympathy with her, given her experience of the public transport system, I do not propose to entertain any more interventions on the subject.

Ms Barlow : Thank you, Mr. Gale. I stand corrected.

My concerns are shared by many constituents—not my concerns about the slight slowness, on occasion, of trains between Brighton and Hove and London, but the concerns of those who travel through the underground system every day. The concerns raised by my constituents have also been raised by the TUC, the rail unions and the Fire Brigades Union.

As a former firefighter and member of the FBU, the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), has a strong interest in and knowledge of these topics. He takes them very seriously and perhaps he will be able to provide reassurances today about the future of fire safety on the underground and on our railways.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister has a distinguished record in the fire service, but will he not argue that the 1989 regulations are too prescriptive and bureaucratic for the modern world? Is not the key problem the fact that the proposed guidance, which will accompany the fire safety order, will have no legal force? Will that not worry my hon. Friend's constituents in Hove, as well as other travellers in the underground system, particularly those who pass through King's Cross, where the disaster took place and through which I travel several times a week?

Ms Barlow : I agree that there are concerns, although I would not say that they are as desperate as my hon. Friend suggests. In the present climate, however, every rail and underground safety issue is of desperate interest.

Perhaps it would be useful at this point to remind ourselves of the history of the debate. The Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989, to which I shall simply refer as "the regulations" for the purposes of this debate, were introduced under section 12 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971. The regulations were added on the recommendation of the Fennell report into the 1987 King's Cross fire, which claimed 31 lives.

I was on the BBC TV news desk that day, watching the terrible video rushes as they were fed in by satellite, and assessing the risks to camera crews and reporters at the scene. It is believed that the blaze began when a match was dropped through a wooden escalator—such escalators have, of course, now been banned—in a non-smoking area during the evening rush hour. An accumulation of grease and other debris under the tracks led to a fireball, which scorched up the escalator, trapping many people underground. Years later, one survivor, who ran from the upper concourse, said:

25 Jan 2006 : Column 423WH

Following the fire, the Fennell report called for changes, including minimum staffing standards and means of detecting, warning of and fighting fires. It also called for standards of fire-resistant construction, training and other precautions. There was a scandal in 1991, when a report found that only eight of the 26 safety recommendations made after the inquiry had been fully implemented. They were later complied with and provided a cushion of safety around staff, firefighters and customers.

It is important to remember that the regulations apply not only to London underground stations, but to sub-surface stations throughout Britain, including underground systems in Tyne and Wear and several national rail stations with sub-surface stations, such as New Street station in Birmingham.

The regulations were introduced to help to prevent a repeat of the terrible events at King's Cross, and I think that all hon. Members would agree that they have stood the test of time. They set down essential minimum statutory requirements for safety, covering issues such as means of escape, means of fighting fire, means of      detection and giving warning, fire-resistant construction, instruction and training, and the keeping of records. Additional precautions covered in the regulations include practicable steps to prevent smoking and minimum staffing requirements, which are almost invariably exceeded in the railway network.

No one doubts the Minister's strong commitment to fire safety. I hope that he will agree that the Government must not replace the current regulations lightly, and that they should do so only if they can guarantee at least the same statutory—I stress, statutory—level of safety for the public, rail staff and emergency services. As I understand it—he will correct me if I am wrong—the Government's view is that the current regulations and the protection that they provide will be adequately replaced by the provisions of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, associated guidance and the proposed Railways and Other Guided Transport Systems (Safety) Regulations. For the purposes of this debate and for my hon. Friends' sake, I shall refer to the legislation simply as "the order".

When the order comes into force, it will cover general fire precautions in different categories of workplace and public place and abolish the use of fire certificates. It will signal a move to a risk assessment-based approach to fire safety—that is one of the key issues. In addition, a series of guides will be produced to assist those preparing risk assessments. Although my hon. Friends, the trade unions and I do not necessarily have difficulty with the principles of the order, we are concerned about the proposition that it will remove the regulations for sub-surface stations. That is a really important point. We feel that sub-surface rail stations are a special case and require an assured minimum standard of protection, which cannot be afforded by risk assessment and guidance alone.

Mr. Hollobone : I have the privilege of being a member of the all-party group on lighting, which discussed that very issue at a meeting earlier this week. Making third-party approval for personal safety equipment
25 Jan 2006 : Column 424WH
mandatory is an important issue for the lighting and security industry, which favours a proper system of accreditation for those conducting the inspections.

Ms Barlow : I thank the hon. Gentleman. The issue was also considered by the Regulatory Reform Committee in July 2004, following representations by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who had a strong interest as secretary of the FBU parliamentary group. The Committee also had strong reservations about the Government's proposals. It argued that given the nature of sub-surface railway stations and the substantial number of people who use them every day, there was a strong public interest in ensuring their safety from fire. I am sure that the Minister agrees with that. Importantly, the Committee did not accept the Government's view that the regulations placed a disproportionate burden on the management of sub-surface railway stations. It also argued that it had not been demonstrated that fire safety in such stations would be improved by the removal of the regulations in favour of the risk-based approach contemplated in the order.

David Taylor : Does my hon. Friend agree that the enforcement activity of fire authorities when the new approach is in place will be crucial to the success of the order? Does she hope that the Minister will announce that the Deputy Prime Minister will have powers to direct fire authorities in their enforcement activity to provide information and to report to him on particularly sensitive installations or networks?

Ms Barlow : That is certainly an interesting idea that I hope the Minister will take on board.

The Committee concluded that sub-surface railway stations were indeed a special case and that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister had not yet made a convincing case for removing the regulations. The Committee recommended that the regulations should remain, but that if they were removed, any guidance issued could include all elements of the protection prescribed in the regulations.

I understand that the Minister's predecessor considered the report following the recommendations, along with representations from other interested parties. Stakeholders were then informed that the Government accepted the need not only for protections to continue, but for them to be clearly seen to continue. The Department advised that it intended to retain the regulations until substantive guidance on fire precautions for sub-surface railway stations had been published. Stakeholders are now being consulted on the guidance. I welcome that move, but it remains my view and that of many others that the guidance and the order will not offer the same level of protection as the regulations. There are a number of compelling reasons for a rethink.

First, it is self-evident that the protections will be lessened, because nowhere does the order specify minimum standards that equate to the current regulations. Furthermore, unlike the regulations, the proposed guidance to accompany the order will have no legal force. There is also concern that the guidance being
25 Jan 2006 : Column 425WH
developed could be too general in respect of transport premises and not specific enough to take account of the unique needs and dangers of sub-surface stations.

Secondly, removing the regulations will change the burden of proof and might make it easier for unscrupulous rail operators to reduce the current standards below those specified in the regulations. Now, the fire authority must be satisfied with a specific requirement at a particular location, or unhappy that the standard is inappropriate, unnecessary or not reasonably practical. However, I believe that under the Government's proposal it will be for the fire authority to show that the rail industry has failed to carry out a sufficient risk assessment.

Thirdly, there is the question of whether the regulations are too prescriptive and bureaucratic. However, the current arrangements are flexible enough to allow rail operators to seek exemptions from the regulations if they can satisfy the fire authority that a    minimum standard at a particular location is inappropriate, unnecessary or not reasonably practical. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the fact that the regulations are not necessarily a blunt instrument, as they have been described, that imposes disproportionate requirements on the rail industry.

I note from an answer to a written question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington that the Department does not keep records of requests for exemptions to regulations and does not require fire and rescue authorities to supply them. Whatever the reasons for that—I will not go into whether it is the correct approach or not—I hope that the Minister will forgive my bluntness in saying that it is difficult to see how we can conclude that the regulations are too prescriptive and bureaucratic if the Department has no record of when requests for exemptions are made or even whether any ever have been made.

Fourthly, I hope that the Minister accepts that the need for minimum standards is arguably greater now than at the time of the King's Cross fire. One reason is that the number of passengers using the railways has increased significantly since then, in line with the Department's policy and for many other, ecological reasons. Also, management of the various systems has unfortunately been fragmented.

Finally, I know that the Minister will agree that the need for the public to have confidence in railway fire safety is greater than ever following the appalling terrorist attacks on London in July. The views of rail workers and those in the emergency services, who performed so honourably, professionally and bravely, need to be taken very seriously indeed. Anyone who was a passenger on the underground on the morning of 7 July, as I and many of my constituents were, must be grateful to the emergency services for their prompt and heroic response, and we must listen to their undoubted expertise. Owing to the implementation of the Fennell report, passengers travel with greater regulatory safety than ever before. I urge the Minister to retain the system.

The Minister has sought to address some of the concerns that I have raised by stating that when the order is introduced its provisions and associated guidance will run concurrently with those of the regulations for six to 12 months. It is argued that that will allow the Department to compare the effectiveness
25 Jan 2006 : Column 426WH
of the new arrangements with the regulations. At the end of that period the need to remove the regulations can be assessed. I welcome that as a sign that the Government take our representations seriously, but I am not sure how that process will be the most effective way of informing the Department's thinking, because it is not clear whether the regulations or the order will take priority during that six to 12-month period. In any event, will there not be a temptation for the rail operators not to act so as to test the new arrangements during that period, thereby leaving the Department none the wiser about the order's effectiveness?

The Government have stated that they will allow more time for business and fire safety experts to get ready for the order, which would probably not be implemented until later this year or even in 2007. I hope that the Minister will use that time to reflect on the arguments for retaining the regulations and positively consider the representations that he receives from hon. Members and stakeholders, as he has been doing.

I am hopeful that a solution can be found that will allay our concerns. Perhaps the basis of such a solution is an acceptance that the regulations should be modified to take into account the need for any changes that has arisen since their introduction, coupled with support for the principle that sub-surface stations are a special case and that that fact needs to be reflected in a statutory approach. I sincerely hope that, at a time when the threats have never been greater, we can all work together to find the right solution and ensure that the terrible events at King's Cross are never repeated.

9.49 am

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) on making it here today and commiserate with her on her rather rushed introduction; I was pleased that she got into her stride. Her presentation was excellent.

I must declare an interest as the chairman of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group. Perhaps more importantly, before coming to this place I was the FBU's solicitor for 17 years. I would like to bring that experience to today's debate, although not by a legal analysis; my hon. Friend gave a good analysis of the regulations, the order and the interrelationship between them, and gave a detailed argument regarding the problems that they cause.

I also bring a more direct experience through my involvement with the inquiry into the King's Cross fire. At that time, I represented the family of the fire officer who was killed at the fire, who was later posthumously awarded the George medal for bravery, other firefighters who were physically and mentally injured by the fire, and railway workers. I sat through most of the 93 days of the public inquiry into the fire held by Sir Desmond Fennell, as I was representing those victims, the FBU, ASLEF and their members. Indeed, I gave evidence to the inquiry on various aspects of fire safety. I remember dealing with my hon. Friend the Minister at that time in his then capacity as an FBU official representing London, so I know that he has a lot of experience of the issues relating to King's Cross.

I visited King's Cross station on the Sunday after the fire, three days later. The sights that I saw then will haunt me for ever. The blackened debris and wreckage
25 Jan 2006 : Column 427WH
and the utter destruction caused by the flashover were indescribable. A flashover is terrible at any time, but particularly so in the circumstances at that station. It is not just the physical things that one sees; the horrible smell stays in one's nostrils for days afterwards and remains in the memory. The smells of fire are appalling, particularly when one knows what happened.

I still get a shiver when I use the Northern line escalator in King's Cross station, which I have to do from time to time as the Northern line serves my constituency, because I know that that is where the fire started; I know the point on the escalator where it started. I still get a shiver when I use the underpass toward St. Pancras, where many people died so tragically and horrifically, including Station Officer Townsley, who tried—in vain, unfortunately—to rescue members of the public who faced such a horrible death, and when I walk past the memorial to the 31 victims who died in one of the underpasses under Euston road.

The statements that I took from firefighters and railway workers after the fire were some of the easiest that I ever took. All I had to do, more or less, was to switch on my dictating machine and let them talk. The tales they told of what happened and what they saw and experienced were some of the most horrific I have heard. When those statements were presented at the inquiry, little cross-examination was necessary because it was all there. Everybody used those statements as the primary evidence of what happened. I never want such a thing to happen again.

That is the stage at which I became a lawyer who campaigned on issues such as fire safety and corporate manslaughter, on which I hope my Government will deliver in the not-too-distant future. The young, campaigning lawyer of 20 years ago has ended up being the now rather more cynical, but still campaigning, Member of Parliament for Hendon you see before you today, Mr. Gale. I never thought that I would see the day when my Government would consider watering down fire safety protection as the regulations will. The recommendations made by Sir Desmond Fennell in his report are still valid, if not more so given the current situation with London Underground.

David Taylor : The fire certification system that has been in place since 1972, I think, has widely been seen by travellers in London and elsewhere as a public safety net in which they broadly have confidence. The order that might replace it would mean that the safety net will have a rather wider mesh through which people might fall. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need more detail on how it will be enforced before there is a switchover? As my hon. Friend the Member for Hove said, running the changes in parallel for six or 12 months is fine, but let us have the detail on how the order will be enforced.

Mr. Dismore : My hon. Friend makes an important point. The difficulty with guidance notes is that they are not legally enforceable. They do not even have the force of a code of practice, which would be rather more useful than mere guidance notes. I have nothing particular against safety assessments, but they should go hand in hand with the underpinning of the detailed regulations that we are debating. It is not either/or; let us have both. I am concerned that there will be a watering down.
25 Jan 2006 : Column 428WH

There have been many improvements on the tube since the King's Cross fire. The fact that we now have steel escalators rather than the old wooden ones that caught fire is the most visible and obvious example, which everyone can see. However many other underpinnings are important. The tube is used so much; there are, on average, 3 million passengers a day—far more than at the time of the King's Cross fire—and use is growing. That puts greater pressure on the underground system and staff and means that there are greater safety risks.

A key element of the Fennell report was his criticism of the fragmentation of the management, which was then operating under one company, London Underground Ltd. He also criticised the inability of the management to communicate within itself and the lack of clear lines of responsibility. Through the public-private partnership, of which I was not a great advocate—although I recognise that it is bringing investment to the tube—there is fragmentation within London Underground. Although residual responsibilities lie ultimately, I suppose, with the Mayor of London, several companies are now involved.

For the Northern line, the infrastructure company responsible for the track, tunnels and signalling is Tube Lines; a separate company, Alstom, runs the train maintenance contract; and London Underground has overarching responsibilities. That fragmentation has the potential to create the sort of gaps that the Fennell inquiry identified, and the situation could be made worse if the proposed safety regime is introduced.

We must be sure that there is seamless management of safety. The recent problems on the Northern line in particular with the failure of brake systems that was identified in autumn, are an example of where such gaps arise—obviously not in the context of fire, but with train maintenance. That highlights some of the potential problems with gaps. It is a case not of "Mind the gap between the platform and the train", but of mind the gap within the management. That is one of the key criticisms in the Fennell report, and it is not answered by the proposals.

There was also some criticism of the lack of record keeping. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove identified that as a problem when she so ably opened the debate. We must recognise that one product of the PPP is the huge investment that there will be in the underground to modernise tracks, signalling and stations. Huge, large-scale engineering works will affect the network for years to come. They are welcome and long overdue, but engineering works are hazardous and might give rise to fire risks. That is an inevitable consequence of major engineering works, but, in those circumstances, now is not the time to start downgrading fire protection.

Those engineering works are necessary because of the long-term neglect of the underground over many years and under successive Governments. Until those works are complete, the underground will remain subject to various safety risks or problems, such as the problem with the signalling system that was identified at Camden Town last year. Therefore, until the underground is running properly and modernised, and until we deal with some of the core management problems, we should not start messing around with safety regulations.
25 Jan 2006 : Column 429WH

I end my remarks by reminding people of what happened on 7 July and the work that the emergency services did then. Their ability to function through the correct levels of staffing, skill and co-ordination enabled them to deal so effectively with the consequences of that day. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner warned us of the inevitability of further terrorist attacks; we must be prepared for the risk of further attacks on the underground. In those circumstances, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to think again.

Would my hon. Friend the Minister like to be responsible were there to be another terrorist attack and the London underground system was not able to cope because of the effect of the changes that he is proposing? I ask the Government to postpone their move to bring in the new arrangements, at least until the modernisation works to the tube are completed. We can then review safety in the round with a new modernised tube until we have seen some progress towards dealing with the appalling terrorist threat that bedevils our country in general, and our capital city in particular, which is served so well by our transport workers.

10 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Let me declare an interest as the chair of the National Union   of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group and the secretary of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, as noted in the Register of Members' Interests. I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) not only on securing the debate, but on her superb detailed exposition of the argument. I shall not go over the ground that she covered, but I just want to make a few comments.

As has been explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), we all bring to the debate our personal experiences as does the Minister. In my earlier career, I was chief executive of the then Association of London Authorities and on the evening of the King's Cross fire I had a meeting at Camden town hall. Instead of travelling by tube as I usually would do to King's Cross, alighting and going to the town hall, I walked and missed the fire. I would have been on the train at the time. I was attending the social services committee at Camden town hall and that night we had to suspend the committee to enable officers and members to prepare emergency morgues for the bodies coming from King's Cross.

The debate is of personal concern to several hon. Members, especially those who represent London constituencies and had any experience of the King's Cross tragedy. That concern has now been replicated on several occasions by accidents on the tube, of which Chancery Lane is an example. We come to the debate as a result of the King's Cross fire on the basis of a strict precautionary principle: that we do not do anything that undermines or may undermine the safety of the travelling public; that we will not take any measure that may enhance the risk and that we will do everything we possibly can to reduce the risk.

The Fennell inquiry was a model of an inquiry. It took evidence in detail from front-line workers. It arrived at several conclusions, which, on a consensual basis, were accepted by those on all sides of industry—
25 Jan 2006 : Column 430WH
management, front-line workers on the London underground, firefighters and the Fire Brigades Union. On the basis of a precautionary principle and the combined consensual wisdom of the various authorities at the time, the inquiry behoves the Government to have a strong justification for moving forward or moving away from the Fennell recommendations.

Many arguments have been advanced this morning, but when the proposals were brought forward, they were reviewed by the Regulatory Reform Committee. Although I was not a member of that Committee, I spoke at the meeting. It is important to remind ourselves that a Select Committee said to the Government at the time—clearly it did not endorse the introduction of the order—that

The Minister responded by saying,

The Committee expressed its worries about any change and the Minister responded accordingly. At the time, I thought that we would have a more fundamental review of the order itself. Instead, all we have experienced is delay and the order's reintroduction with virtually no amendment to the original proposals. The debate is taking place today on that basis.

There is confusion about the Government's real intentions. As a result of the delays, some consultation has commenced on guidance but, as has already been said, it will have no legal basis or any firm use whereby it can be used to secure safety on the London underground. Instead of having more detailed consultation of the order and considering a fundamental amendment, all we have had is limited consultation on the guidance. That goes against the spirit of what the Regulatory Reform Committee was arguing for at the time.

The Committee had firm views. At paragraph 126 of its report, it said:

of the existing regulations.

Since then, the Government have not put forward a subsequent case. They have certainly not reported back to the Regulatory Reform Committee with a case that could change the Committee's mind. The first step that the Government should have undertaken—it is not too late to undertake it now—is to have gone back first to the Regulatory Reform Committee to see whether it could be convinced of the need for change. The Committee set out its arguments as to why the order should not go ahead in one of the strongest reports that it has produced. Such matters should be considered by the Government and there should be a proper debate.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Hove and for Hendon have said, time has moved on in respect of the practices of the London underground. More than 700   million people use the underground each year. There has been a 20 per cent. increase in passenger traffic. Management systems are now dramatically different, even within the past two years because of the
25 Jan 2006 : Column 431WH
fragmentation of London Underground's management. The proposals need to be reviewed in the light of the day-to-day practices of the London underground now as against two years ago. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hove said, the Government should go back to all the stakeholders about the detail of the order, not only the guidance.

People are becoming confused by the different orders that have been issued. The latest statement made by the Government on 12 January advised us that they had put back the date of the implementation of the order. I believe that there is an attempt to coincide that with regulations in Scotland, too. We are told that the change is to allow businesses and fire safety experts more time to get ready for the new regulations, not to consult on the detail of them or to secure amendments to them. We are now in a state of absolute confusion about when the regulations will come into effect.

A carry-over period between six and 12 months when both systems will run in tandem will cause even greater confusion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hove said, it will hardly be a realistic trial of the new order because companies will fail to act on it and will put off any changes until the 12 months are over to avoid the onus being placed on increased investment or any change of practice desired as a result of the new system.

The Government need to give us clarity on where we are going. What is the status of the order? What is the time scale for its introduction? What consultations will take place? In the light of discussions that have taken place so far, we need to step back again and have a more fundamental consultation with the stakeholders. We need to go back to the Regulatory Reform Committee and discuss matters to see whether it would be satisfied with any new proposals coming forward after that consultation. In addition, we must recognise that things have moved on within the industry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon mentioned the fact that, as a result of the Government's significant investment via the public-private partnership—although some of the investment has been diverted—we are now seeing major infrastructure projects on the system. I am not talking about the result of the PPP, as that is a waste of resources. Is now the time to confuse matters with the establishment of new orders, new systems and new regulatory principles in such a sensitive part of the system itself?

This is a special case. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove has it exactly right. As experts will tell us, underground fires and underground risks are so much more difficult and hazardous than they are on the surface, purely because of access and other arrangements. That is a key lesson of Fennell. If the access arrangements and the problems of underground working will be made worse as a result of the current significant investment and works, the last thing that we will want to do is to interfere with existing practices that have served us well over the past 20 years or so.

The Government have delayed again, so it is not too late to think again, to put the matter out to consultation again, to take on board the expert advice or to take into account changes. I dread us introducing such measures as a result of what is almost a stubborn belligerence
25 Jan 2006 : Column 432WH
about not taking other views into account. Sometimes there is almost a sense of bloody-mindedness, and a sense that Governments will not change their mind once the wheels of Government mechanisms start in motion. I just thank God for the Regulatory Reform Committee, which halted that process over a year ago.

I hope that this debate will contribute towards our telling the Government that just because an element of momentum has built up around the order, they do not inevitably have to proceed to make a mistake that we will live to regret, and that some people may not live to    regret. The key element is consultation and involvement.

The process involves a step change; there is a change in the onus of responsibility. At the moment, it is clear in law where responsibility lies; we rely on those providing the service to ensure that they meet the regulation requirements. The proposal will mean that the onus shifts to the fire authorities, who will have to prove that the providers are not meeting the requirements. That is a significant principle change and, in practice, will be a dramatic change to what went before. It would undermine the practices of the fire authorities, which will have to cope in that way. In addition, it would undermine the confidence of the travelling public and those who work on the system.

There is an element of trust involved in this issue, too. Why are the Government making the proposals at this point in time, and what pressures are on the Government to move in this way? What reason is there for the haste with which the Government tried to introduce the regulations previously, with, we believe, inadequate consultation? I am at a loss to see why that change in principle needs to take place at this moment.

Finally, I ask the Minister to clarify where we are and where we are going. More importantly, I appeal to the Government to step back from this hazardous measure, which will put lives at risk and undermine the confidence of the travelling public.

10.12 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I appreciate this opportunity to make a brief contribution. First, I compliment the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) on securing the debate and thank the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) for rightly reminding us of the appalling tragedy of the King's Cross fire.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Hove made clear the wider relevance of this debate; I am one of many Members from the Greater Manchester and north-west area who have pressed for an extension to the Metrolink system. As a regular rail user myself, I share concerns about fire safety issues on the railway network.

Like others, I shall be interested to hear the Minister's views on whether the delay, announced a couple of weeks ago, in implementing the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 means that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will reconsider what many think is at best a discretionary approach to, and at worse a relaxation of, regulations on the facilities concerned. Of course, the proposals come at a time when Members do not need reminding of possible threats in the places concerned.
25 Jan 2006 : Column 433WH

The regulations made under section 12 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971, which were inspired by the Fennell report, have been a key part of safety on the underground for a number of years, so I would appreciate any assurances that can be given today on those regulations, and indeed on the wider issue of fire safety on the underground and on subterranean railway stations. Also, can we assume from the delay that the Government are in the mood to compromise on the wider issue of fire safety regulations? Will the Minister tell us this morning whether that mood extends to the specific regulations to which I, and others, have referred?

On the new fire safety order, I wholeheartedly agree with the Minister's statement of 12 January that we should not seek to impose new regulations on stakeholders without giving them the necessary time to implement them, so I suppose that the announcement is to be welcomed. However, I should be grateful if the Minister told us why the guidance documents are apparently not yet available.

As I said, I did not intend to make a long contribution. It is obvious that I am not alone in seeking assurances not just on the future of fire safety on the underground, but on the future of the wider regulations.

10.15 am

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) on securing this debate, which is a useful opportunity to air a number of issues and concerns felt by hon. Members. We have had a short but good debate.

It is important that we get this matter right. On occasions, I felt that I was more in sympathy with the Minister than some of his own Back-Benchers were; I do not get the impression that the Government are rushing the proposal. They have put the decision off and they seem to be consulting. We do not know exactly what the final package will be, but it seems to me that they have taken a very sensible approach to complex regulations.

Broadly speaking, Her Majesty's Opposition support the review of fire safety regulations. Moving a system to risk assessment is sensible. Clearly, one has to look at the guidance, and some sensible points were made about the force of that guidance in determining how successful the system will be when implemented. Earlier, the matter of the accreditation of inspectors was raised, and that, too, was a sensible point.

I know that the private sector, in particular, has raised the issue of cost. There have been some concerns on that point, so we have to keep an eye on whether there is to be a transfer of resources. The difficulty with such regulations, particularly on subjects such as fire, is that things can be very much set in stone, and there can always be arguments for no change. There is an argument for change, but it is a question of getting it right. This is a useful opportunity for the Minister to stand up and give some assurances.

I noticed earlier in the week that the Government have announced further fire prevention grants—another £11.4 million. Under the Housing Act 1996, we dealt with houses in multiple occupation and aspects of their rating to do with fire. Quite a lot has been happening across the piece in terms of fire prevention and fire reform.
25 Jan 2006 : Column 434WH

I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said and was interested to hear his comments about the King's Cross disaster. Clearly, if one had to encapsulate the matter and say which one area gave concern, it would be sub-surface regulations. I hope that the Minister can give reassurances on that subject today. When the hon. Gentleman was a young, thrusting, campaigning lawyer, I was perhaps not quite so young, but I was certainly on Wiltshire county council's public protection committee, which dealt with the fire brigade. Our concern, post-King's Cross, was that there were major underground workings underneath Corsham and Box in Wiltshire, where the Ministry of Defence has major stores. Although the principal people dealing with the fire would have been the MOD fire service, the Wiltshire fire brigade would have been asked to support it. The key problem that the chief fire officer found was the issue of command and control underground, because radio equipment does not work as effectively there. So there are certainly special issues to do with sub-surface working and disasters; I hope that the Minister can give some reassurances on that subject.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) asked some very challenging questions, in his customary way. He pointed out the Regulatory Reform Committee's concerns about that aspect of the regulations. I hope that, at the end of the debate, we will have a little bit more sketched in about Government proposals on this subject.

We need to know a little more about the time scale—that is one issue that has come out today—and when the order will be implemented. We have already heard that both systems will run in tandem. What will be the cost of that? One hon. Member asked whether it would be fair to run the new system with the old regulations still, effectively, in force. We need to hear a little bit more about time scales. Certainly, if the private sector and public corporations are going to have to take on a larger role, it is right and proper that we should at least give them a reasonable warning and a reasonable opportunity to adjust their working practices to carry out the new regulations. The key issue, which was raised by the hon. Member for Hendon, is management—including line management and joined-up management—particularly when it comes to major organisations, such as the tube.

We need a somewhat clearer view than we have had from the Government over recent weeks. I hope that the Minister is able to reassure us today about the time scale and the sub-surface regulations, about which there is general concern and that he will, perhaps, say a little bit more about the guidance, and the force of the guidance, and how it will effectively underpin the new system that the Government wish to implement.

10.20 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick) : Mr. Gale, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, sir.

We have had an interesting, useful debate and many points have been raised. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) on successfully securing this debate, and I congratulate all hon. Members on their contributions. I will try to address as many of the points raised as I can, but it is important to
25 Jan 2006 : Column 435WH
say clearly, from the outset, that we have a fundamental disagreement about the impact of the new orders. I hope to reassure hon. Members that we are not weakening the degree of public protection, but are doing the opposite and strengthening it.

My hon. Friend opened the debate by asking about   the use of guidance to demonstrate necessary protections for sub-surface railway stations. I particularly want to set the record straight on that, but if you will allow me, Mr. Gale, I should first like to place two important references on the record.

On the fire safety order, the Regulatory Reform Committee said in its 11th report of the 2003–04 Session:

That last point is particularly important in relation to what has been said today and to the comments that I am about to make.

Mr. Dismore : The key difference, of course, is that guidance is not in any way, shape, or form binding, as regulations are. If there were a code of practice, at least that could be taken into account, if that were necessary, before a court if the issue ever arose—I hope that it would not. Will my hon. Friend consider providing at least a code of practice instead of guidance? That would have greater force in supporting the new regime.

Jim Fitzpatrick : My hon. Friend effectively made that point in his contribution, and I shall try to respond to it in due course. I am about to develop my point about why we believe the provision that we have put in place is adequate.

John McDonnell : Just so that we have it clear for the record, and as the Regulatory Reform Committee did not address the difference between guidance and codes of practice in the existing regulations, or their potential use in law, can we clarify that?

Jim Fitzpatrick : I will certainly try to do so in my comments.
25 Jan 2006 : Column 436WH

We agreed with the Committees involved and made a statement on bringing the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 before the House for scrutiny the second time:

John McDonnell : Just to clarify the process, does that mean that at this point in time the Government's proposals will be going back to the Regulatory Reform Committee for consideration and report?

Jim Fitzpatrick : If my hon. Friends will allow me to develop my answer we will get to an explanation, at least partly, if not in full.

Some confusion seems to have arisen about what was meant by the statement that I have just quoted. It is our view that the fire safety order maintains all necessary protections, particularly when taken with other safety legislation, which will continue to apply. However, it is essential not only that these protections should exist, but that they can clearly be seen to exist. We are producing guidance to do that.

I want to make it absolutely clear that we have no intention of using guidance instead of legislation. We are using guidance to show how the law—the 2005 order—provides, and in our view enhances, the necessary protections currently provided by the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989. For example, the 1989 regulations do not cover the protection of firefighters, contractors or modern suppression systems. The new regulations enhance the old regulations. We think that doing that is more straightforward, simpler and more in keeping with all the legislation that we have passed recently than having a choice between the new regulations or upgrading the old ones. I will try to emphasise that later. The law, not the guidance, provides the protections. The guidance will just explain the protections, so that they can be clearly seen.

Mr. Dismore : I am sorry to keep badgering the Minister on this point, but there is a significant difference in law between the effect of guidance as opposed to a code of practice. Whatever he may say about the guidance referring to how the law will be enforced or taken into account, guidance notes do not have legal force. Codes of practice have some legal force. Will he consider ensuring that guidance notes are issued in the form of a code of practice, to give effect  to what he has said he wants to achieve?

Jim Fitzpatrick : My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) also raised the point about the guidance not being statutory. We consulted on making the guidance statutory, but there was no clear majority in favour of that. We consider that statutory guidance that could effectively impose a list of requirements does not fit with the risk-based regime that we are trying to introduce.
25 Jan 2006 : Column 437WH

John McDonnell : It would be useful if the Minister could comment today, at least in a note, on the views expressed by the individual parties consulted on whether there should be guidance.

Jim Fitzpatrick : I shall be happy to write to my hon. Friend, if I do not cover the point in due course. I shall deal with his question on consultation a few pages further on in my speech.

The secondary point about the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 is that it requires a fire and rescue service to have due regard to the national framework that we have set up, which includes producing integrated risk management plans for the protection of the community and encompasses enforcement of fire safety. The 2004 Act also provides powers for the Secretary of      State to intervene, where the integrated risk management plan that has been prepared does not come up to scratch.

As I was explaining, we are using the guidance to show how the law and the fire safety order provides, and in our view enhances, the existing provisions. I have said before, and I am happy to repeat now, that we will not remove the 1989 regulations until and unless it can be clearly shown that all necessary protections are continued under the new regime. I will come in a few moments to the points about the timing and how we will demonstrate why running the two systems in tandem will improve on safety.

John McDonnell : I just want to put this matter on the record so we are not confused in any future debates, because this one might run and run. The Minister talked about areas where the existing orders did not apply, or where the Government thought that they did not cover things adequately in terms of the consultation that has taken place. That is why the consultation with the Fire Brigades Union and others has been on the basis of strengthening the existing orders rather than relating things to guidance. The issues could be addressed under the existing system without that being transformed into something based simply on guidance that has no statutory effect.

Jim Fitzpatrick : I hear what my hon. Friend says, but the guidance being drafted will cover other transport premises and facilities as well as sub-surface stations. The stakeholders working with us on that include representatives of the operators, through London Underground, of the enforcers, through the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, and—most importantly for my hon. Friends—of the trade unions, through the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. The guidance needs to be, and will be, clear about the protections and how they apply.

In response to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about the thoroughness of the consultation in the previous instance, I should say that the regulatory reform order was developed with stakeholders after a lengthy period. Subsequently, we consulted formally for four months, sending out more than 10,000 consultation documents. We received 257 responses, and the final
25 Jan 2006 : Column 438WH
order was developed on the basis of that consultation. On the guidance, a working party including London Underground, the RMT—

John McDonnell : I should like to be clear for the sake of the record. There is consultation, and there is consultation and listening. The RMT position was set out clearly yet again on 20 January. It clearly stated:

I would not want the Minister's statement about consultation with the RMT to be construed in any way as meaning that the RMT had supported the Government's approach on this matter.

Jim Fitzpatrick : I was not trying to mislead the Committee in any way. During my last meeting with the RMT only a couple of months ago, we discussed and decided to run the new reform order in tandem with the 1989 sub-surface regulations. The RMT put its points clearly across the table and we responded clearly with the details of why there will be enhanced protection for subcontractors on the underground and for firefighters, who may have to attend emergency incidents; neither group is covered at the moment. We also gave details on the two other issues that I mentioned and several others that we put across the table at the same time.

Mr. Dismore : Nobody is suggesting that the groups to which the Minister has referred—firefighters and others—should not be protected. Personally, I would have no problem if the two regulations ran in parallel and indefinitely. My concern is that once the regime is set up, the original regulations will quickly fall by the wayside and we will be left with the subsequent regime, which in our view will weaken protection for people who work and travel on the underground.

Jim Fitzpatrick : If I make some progress, I shall be able to answer some of the other points made. Looking at the clock, I am sure that we shall have time towards the end of my contribution for colleagues to make further interventions.

On the point about the burden of proof, I believe, with the greatest respect, that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington has the position wrong. Under the fire safety order, it is not for the enforcer to prove that the requirements have not been met, but for the person responsible to prove that they have been met. Article 34 of the fire safety order is clear on that; it is what is known as the reversal of the burden of proof, and changes the position established under the Fire Precautions Act 1971.

With regard to the point about flexibility, the enforcer currently has the power to allow a lesser standard if the case is made by the person running the sub-surface railway station concerned. The case that needs to be made is an assessment of the risk, and there is no reason
25 Jan 2006 : Column 439WH
to suppose that a case could be made under the fire safety order if it cannot be made under the 1989 regulations.

In any event, the body that has to be satisfied that the premises are safe under either regime is the local fire and rescue authority, and the lead enforcer for that sector—the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority—has already confirmed that the fire safety order provides it with adequate powers to ensure safety at least of the level provided now.

John McDonnell : With the greatest respect, there is a role for the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove pointed out clearly that even under the existing system, when there is potential for the use of discretion with exemptions so that the system can operate flexibly on the ground, there is a role for the Government in monitoring how that should operate.

When, to clarify the Government's role in monitoring the existing system, I asked the Minister how many exemptions had been applied for, I got the response that the Government did not know. How can we be confident that the Government will have a leading role in monitoring the new system when the new regulations come in? So far, they have not involved themselves even in the basic monitoring of the existing system.

Jim Fitzpatrick : My hon. Friend is anticipating a later section of my speech, when I shall talk about exemptions.

I was saying that the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority had already confirmed that it considered that the fire safety order provided it with adequate powers to ensure safety at least at the level provided now. I must add that the LFEPA view remains current following a review that it conducted after the appalling events of 7 July, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hove referred.

Hon. Members will have noticed that the underground station officer will have to convince the same enforcing authority—the fire and rescue authority—about the adequacy of the fire precautions, regardless of whether the 1989 regulations or the fire safety order are being used. In addition, the lead authority for the enforcement of fire safety in sub-surface stations has already informed us that it expects to serve alteration notices on all sub-surface stations under article 29 of the fire safety order. That means that the station operator will have to tell the enforcer if it proposes to make any changes to the premises or the use of them, or to the services, fixtures, fittings or dangerous substances used or stored. That extra protection will allow the enforcer to consider any changes proposed and the ongoing adequacy of the fire precautions, including the availability of staff to put into effect the emergency plan that the fire safety order requires in respect of action to be taken in the case of fire.

In common with the other requirements of the order, failure to comply with an alterations notice is an offence. The penalties are a fine up to the statutory maximum—currently, £5,000 on summary conviction—up to two years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine or both on conviction or indictment.
25 Jan 2006 : Column 440WH

John McDonnell : It would be useful if the Minister described the layers of management, the number of companies and the tiers of operation in which that line of communication will have to take effect. As my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon and for Hove have said, times have moved on. With the PPP system and the infraco management systems, we now have an immensely complicated structure and line of communication. Will the Minister describe what that line of communication would look like?

Jim Fitzpatrick : If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall write to him on that point as well, rather than go into the detail this morning. I should like to get through the rest of my contribution. I am sure that we can clarify that for him in due course.

I hope that what I have said clarifies the position, but we are always open to further discussions about safety and we are maintaining an open dialogue on the issue with the RMT and hon. Members. I shall take away with me the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove as well as other points made by hon. Members today.

The fire safety order is perhaps the last significant piece of the legislative jigsaw that makes up a much broader reform. When, as a new junior Minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, I was asked to sign the regulatory reform order that involved the technical withdrawal of the Fire Precautions Act 1971, which had been the fire services' bible for some decades, I assure hon. Members that I took—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington is being very flippant.

I took considerable time to make sure that the order would not in any way reduce public safety, but would enhance it, before being persuaded and convinced by the experts to whom I spoke. In the cut and thrust of debate, the suggestion that one is signing a reduction in public safety could be taken as mildly offensive.

John McDonnell : I just want to reassure the Minister that none of us taking part in the debate has in any way impugned his intent. We understand his commitment to safety, particularly bearing in mind his background as a firefighter. What we are concerned about is his judgment, which we believe is incorrect in this instance.

Jim Fitzpatrick : I am not sure whether that was a compliment or not, but I will accept the reassurance offered by my hon. Friend.

The fire safety order underpins the move of the fire and rescue services to prevention-based services, but, in turn, that move underpins the order. I can assure hon. Members that that is a solid foundation. The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 created a new statutory duty on fire and rescue authorities to promote fire safety, which places fire prevention at the heart of fire and rescue services activity. That is a cultural change for the service and we are working with the service to achieve it. It has been long in the arrival. In future, the fire and rescue service will be focused on prevention. The Government are committed to helping the fire and rescue service prevent fires: for example, we are introducing a new system of fire and rescue cover based on risk to life. Historically, the system was based on the
25 Jan 2006 : Column 441WH
density of buildings in an area. We are delegating responsibility to the local fire and rescue authority, its elected members, the communities and chief fire officers to ensure that things are decided in the most effective way at a local level.

The fire safety order is a key element in the move to a prevention-based service. It provides prevention-based tools for business and promotes prevention-based enforcement. In turn, the Fire and Rescue Services Act promotes and provides a prevention-based service to enforce the law.

Mr. Dismore : The Minister seems to be suggesting that there is an either/or situation, but that is not the case. If one considers recent developments in health and safety law more generally, one can see the trend, particularly in Europe, towards risk assessments and so forth. Risk assessments are more general and are aimed at prevention, but in certain key industries, such as construction, they are underpinned by basic regulations, which set out the detail. The case that we are putting to the Minister is quite simple: let us have both. Let us have the preventive approach and the more general duties, but, in this particular case, let us also have the underpinning of detailed regulations.

Jim Fitzpatrick : I have been trying to reassure my hon. Friends that we are trying to have the best of both worlds, that we have a solid basis of law and that the guidance is enhancing the protection. I will come on to the points made by Opposition Members about the guidance, its implementation and the delay.

The two regimes are part of one and the same thing and they will benefit our society whether taken together—as they should be—or separately. During the passage of the order, the House was concerned that business and enforcers should have adequate time to familiarise themselves with the new regime and the guidance that will accompany it and that the coming-into-force date should, as far as practicable, be timed to coincide as closely as possible with reform of the fire safety law in Scotland.

The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) asked why the guidance was not yet available. When we took the regulatory reform order through the House, we said that it might not be possible to get the guidance drafted for 1 April 2006—the coming-into-force date. It has turned out that the task of producing a suite of 11 sets of guidance documents could not be completed in that time. If we are to get the application right—and it will be right—we need to ensure that there is adequate time for business and organisations to gain that familiarity. Despite extensive work with stakeholders, it is clear that all the guidance documents will not be ready in time to have a full 12-week gap between publication and coming into force on 1 April 2006, as was hoped.

Mr. Dismore : I am sorry to keep nipping at the Minister's ankles about this, but he is still talking about guidance. It is quite clear that the Government are talking about producing a suite of guidance notes. I return to the basic question about a code of practice. Will he give us a clear answer today? Will he say whether the Government will consider turning the guidance notes into a code of practice, which would have a much greater legal effect?
25 Jan 2006 : Column 442WH

Jim Fitzpatrick : I am not in a position today to give my hon. Friend that assurance, but I undertake to take his request away and write to him in due course about the point that he has just raised.

John McDonnell : I wonder whether the Minister will help us by enhancing that response. It would be invaluable if he would meet Members to discuss this point in more detail, and possibly meet an element of the stakeholders as well, to talk about the transference of the guidance into a code of practice.

Jim Fitzpatrick : I think that my hon. Friend knows that, when it comes to safety issues, my door is generally open. As I have indicated, I have accepted requests from the RMT for meetings and I have met with the Fire Brigades Union on a number occasions. I think that I have already written this week accepting a request to meet with officers of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group and that I have acceded to a request to meet members of the all-party fire safety and rescue group.

John McDonnell : Is that a yes?

Jim Fitzpatrick : I would be slightly hurt if my hon. Friend thought that my door was closed to any request from Members in respect of fire safety, given the changes that are being undertaken, which are fundamental to the fire service and to the way in which we try to protect the public. We want to ensure that we have given the best possible reassurances to ensure that people understand what we are trying to achieve.

In the light of the commitments that we have given to the House and our commitment to ensuring that the reform is properly backed, I announced on 12 January that the coming into force of the substantive provisions of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 should be put back, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Cheadle. Recently, as he also mentioned, the Scottish authorities announced that more time should be allowed for reform north of the border, and the new rules in Scotland are now expected to come into force in October 2006 at the earliest.

There will be further discussion with colleagues in Scotland and I hope, following that, to announce the revised coming-into-force date very shortly. However, as the point of delaying is to give more time, the publicity campaign to promote the regulatory reform order has started, with seminars taking place around England and Wales between January and March. They have been well attended so far and all sectors of business and the enforcing authorities have been well represented. The feedback from the seminars so far has been positive. Many share the general opinion that more time is needed for stakeholders to familiarise themselves with the new fire safety regime and accompanying guidance. We are agreed that it is important that the guidance is not rushed and that we must get it right.

John McDonnell : I can see that the Minister may be running out of notes. Before he concludes, I would like him to clarify the parliamentary process from here on in. Will the Regulatory Reform Committee be consulted again? Will there be some reference back to it and will there be any engagement with its members, given the
25 Jan 2006 : Column 443WH
significance that they have attached to this matter in the past and their recommendations? In addition, are there any elements that will require a parliamentary process to be employed—using either the affirmative or negative procedure—in relation to the order, which Members may be able to come to a view on? Are there any further elements in the parliamentary process?

Jim Fitzpatrick : I will have to research that and respond to my hon. Friend in due course. My understanding at this point is that we have concluded the parliamentary procedures, but that we have obviously not announced the date for the implementation of the guidance notes. I am advised that the order to change the coming-into-force date will go to the Regulatory Reform Committee, so there will be additional scope. I have given a commitment to my hon. Friend that we can certainly have a meeting. I have done exactly the same to representatives from the RMT. Hopefully, I have demonstrated to their satisfaction that by running the two procedures in tandem, we will be able to demonstrate that improvements and enhancements are being used under the new system that could not have been used under the old system. In that instance, they remain to be convinced. I understand that scepticism; I do not underestimate it or regard it as offensive. I take the point that my hon. Friend made earlier; I was not suggesting that he was being offensive. There is some way to go before we fully convince all partners. We may not get to that point, but I hope that we do.

John McDonnell : Now that the matter will be referred back to the Regulatory Reform Committee, it would be invaluable if the difference between the Government's approach to guidance and that recommended by a number of Members here today in relation to the construction and installation of a code of practice were pointed out to the Committee and addressed by it. A helpful note to the Committee on the Government's arguments would be invaluable.

Jim Fitzpatrick : I am sure that that will form part of the course. Given the nature of the business and the fact that this debate has taken place and even if we were not to produce such documentation, members of the Regulatory Reform Committee may well have done
25 Jan 2006 : Column 444WH
their own research and identified that issues have been raised which it would be appropriate for them to consider, prior to the order being laid before them.

John McDonnell : I apologise to the Minister for continuing to intervene. Will he clarify the timetable? It is an issue that we have all raised. Will he provide an indicative timetable for the process, including if and when matters will be referred back to the Regulatory Reform Committee; whether any further orders will lie before us; whether there will be any conclusion on the points about consultation on guidance and implementation; and when the contiguous six-month and 12-month periods will take place?

Jim Fitzpatrick : We are not in a position today to identify a definitive date. As I mentioned, the Scottish Executive expect the new regulations to come into force in Scotland from 1 October. We have undertaken to try to ensure that the timing is parallel. I cannot give a commitment to that now, but we will make an announcement shortly. The parallel running cannot take place until the guidance notes are produced. I have no problem with hon. Members intervening as they have, given that we have had the opportunity to respond to the serious points that have been made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hove asked that the necessary regulations be updated from 1989. I have said that we believe we have done more than that: we have not only updated but reinforced them. We are monitoring carefully and listening to representations.

I have given several commitments about taking further representations. I hope that when the new guidance notes are published and implemented, colleagues in the House and the wider community will be reassured that the changes that we are introducing not only in this narrow regard but generally, in respect of the fire community and the public's protection from fire and other risks, will be enhanced by the cultural changes being made through the modernisation process that the fire service is going through as a result of the Bain inquiry and the 2004 Act.

Those modernisation proposals go back to the 1960s and '70s, as hon. Friends on the Government Benches and, I am sure, hon. Members on the Opposition Benches know. I hope that we have offered some assurance this morning, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to put it on record.

10.53 am

Sitting suspended until Eleven o'clock.

25 Jan 2006 : Column 443WH

25 Jan 2006 : Column 445WH

Next Section IndexHome Page