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15 Dec 2009 : Column 241WH—continued

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Legislation must be part of a solution to the problem of fire casualties. The financial incentive of cheaper insurance for more responsible behaviour, coupled with good education, can only go so far. Therefore I urge the Minister to find a swift solution to this problem. The figures that I have set out today show that the absence of a smoke alarm is at least a factor in more than 200 deaths and in thousands of injuries every year. We have legislated to make landlords ensure that gas appliances and flues are safe, so why can we not legislate to ensure that tenants have a good chance to survive any fire in their property?

There are a few realistic measures that we can consider taking. For example, will the Minister consider amending section 2 of the Housing Act 2004 to make the absence of appropriate fire detectors and alarms as well as the presence of defective fire detectors and alarms separate category 1 prescribed fire hazards? Will he look at other delegated legislation to ensure that the responsible person-in other words, the landlord-equips dwellings with appropriate fire detectors and alarms? Will he look at including questions in the home information pack's property information questionnaire that relate to the presence and standard of fire detectors and alarms?

Fire authorities across the country have done their part by raising awareness, giving advice and fitting alarms. Now it is the Government's turn to act and I urge the Minister to do what he can to help prevent future tragedies.

1.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Shahid Malik): Mr. Hood, I want to commence by saying what a pleasure it is to engage in this debate under your stewardship.

I also want to congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) on securing this debate. He has an obvious passion and commitment for this cause and for his constituency. That passion does not surprise me, because some 15 years ago he had equal passion on issues relating to the third sector and helping the poorest in society. I had the privilege of working with him then.

In England, we have a strong record on fire prevention, a record that we can be justifiably proud of. Any deaths or injuries in house fires are regrettable, but the latest statistics show that fire deaths in the home in England are at their lowest since 1980 and, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, 40 per cent. lower than in 1997.

Our key strategy to drive down preventable fire deaths across all housing sectors has been proactive community fire safety activities-education, information and publicity-as has been highlighted. Most fires in the home are preventable. Community fire safety is about providing basic fire safety information to householders, to help them to alter their behaviour and think more about how fire safety could affect them and their families. In particular, it is about reminding people of the importance of having working smoke alarms installed in their homes and testing them regularly.

The installation of properly maintained smoke alarms in every household has been the centrepiece of our efforts to reduce fire deaths in the home, as they provide the vital early warning of fire and consequently help people to escape. The Government have conducted high-profile national television campaigns that promote
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the use and maintenance of smoke alarms, which have proved very successful. We have recently launched a new national advertising campaign, "Don't Drown in Toxic Smoke".

We have targeted advice and guidance at more than 1 million social homes, by advertising in social housing newsletters through a partnership with the "Wise up to Fire" campaign. That work, conducted in collaboration with editors of tenants' newsletters, involved a fire safety advertorial that provided top fire safety tips, including highlighting the importance of having a working smoke alarm installed, and guidance on the responsibilities of social housing landlords.

Since 2004, the Government have invested £25 million in grants to fire and rescue authorities to enable them to purchase smoke alarms to install in domestic dwellings. I want to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to his local fire and rescue service-the Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service-for the work that it has done, which he described in his speech.

That initiative resulted in nearly 2 million home fire risk checks being carried out in England, with more than 2.4 million smoke alarms being installed, saving an estimated 53 lives per year. I know that the hon. Gentleman recognises the importance of that initiative and indeed applauds the initiative.

The increase in ownership of smoke alarms as a result of such campaigns and other actions is a major success story. As I think the hon. Gentleman himself mentioned, in 1987 only 9 per cent. of dwellings were fitted with smoke alarms. By 2007, that had risen to 85 per cent., an almost tenfold increase. Indeed, the English house condition survey suggested that in the social rented sector more than 88 per cent. of homes had smoke alarms by 2007. The social sector also leads the way in fitting hard-wired and mains-powered smoke alarms, with nearly 40 per cent. of dwellings in that sector having such alarms compared with less than 16 per cent. of dwellings in the private sector. The hon. Gentleman powerfully articulated the increased efficiency and effectiveness of mains-powered smoke alarms.

There is absolutely no room whatsoever for complacency about health and safety matters in our homes, which obviously includes fire safety matters. In the first instance, each of us must take responsibility for the safety of our own households. So, fire safety in individual domestic properties is generally a matter for the occupier of the premises.

Any new measures that we introduce through regulations must, of course, be proportionate and justified in terms of the lives that they save and the injuries that they prevent. For instance, it has been a requirement in building regulations since 1992 that new dwellings should be fitted with mains-powered smoke alarms. That requirement applies to the erection of new buildings, extensions and to certain alterations and changes of use.

Legislation also exists to govern fire safety in certain types of existing residential accommodation. As the hon. Gentleman indicated in response to an intervention, blocks of flats and houses in multiple occupation are covered by that legislation. The Housing Act 2004 introduced the housing health and safety rating system,
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which is the principal tool for assessing fire safety risk and for regulating standards in all types and tenures of residential accommodation, in both individual dwellings and housing blocks.

Creating legislation to insist that all local authority and social housing landlords install smoke alarms is by no means straightforward. I do not think for a second that the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that creating such legislation would be straightforward; I think that his argument was that it is necessary. There are complex issues involving maintenance and liability. Also, of course, many residential buildings contain premises for other uses, such as commercial and retail, which complicates the picture further.

The HHSRS reflects our preference for proportionate and risk-based regulation supported by the encouragement of best practice rather than blanket requirements across the piece. That is also reflected in the advice issued in 2001 to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which emphasised the value of installing smoke alarms in social housing and clarified the legal implications for local authorities.

All good landlords will wish to ensure the health and safety of their tenants and the safety of their property, which is their asset. In the vast majority of cases, local authorities and housing associations, as responsible landlords, have taken the opportunity to install smoke alarms. Although the decent homes standard does not require that smoke alarms be installed, an assessment of fire risk is necessary to meet the statutory minimum standard for housing under the housing health and safety rating system. A fire assessment under the HHSRS considers the likelihood of a fire starting, the chances of its detection, its speed of spreading and the ease and means of escape.

The decent homes programme does not and could not cover all aspects of a building, but we will keep the matter under review as we maintain the standard in future. That does not prevent landlords from installing smoke alarms when undertaking other works, as local authorities and housing associations are encouraged to do, and the evidence suggests that many social landlords are doing so.

Of course, attention to fire safety is not confined to individual dwellings. Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, landlords, as "responsible persons", have a duty to risk-assess fire safety in the common parts of buildings, take adequate precautions and manage any remaining risk. Although the order applies only to the common parts of premises, in many residential premises the responsible person will in practice need to take account of fire safety measures in place in the individual dwellings. Fire and rescue authorities have a legal duty under the order to enforce its provisions in the common areas of residential accommodation such as blocks of flats and houses in multiple occupation. Local authorities have inspection and enforcement responsibilities under the Housing Act 2004.

In recognition of the complexities, we have worked closely with the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and the Chief Fire Officers Association to develop guidance to ensure that the risk of fire in multi-occupied buildings is actively and appropriately managed. That work continues.

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In our response to the consultation on reform of council housing finance, we proposed, in the context of local authority self-financing after 2011, the inclusion of ongoing maintenance of lifts and common parts in addition to the decent homes standard.

Mr. Sanders: I am grateful for the Minister's kind words at the start of his speech. I remember our time working together with much pleasure. Will he consider the fact that we require landlords to conduct a gas check when a tenancy begins? Why the reluctance to add a working fire alarm at the same time? They cannot do anything after that-it is then the tenant's responsibility-but the landlord could have that responsibility at the start of the tenancy.

Mr. Malik: That is a valid point worth considering. I will take it away, consider it and write to the hon. Gentleman. From a common-sense perspective, it seems like an appropriate opportunity to carry out a check for fire alarms if one is taking place for other potentially hazardous elements within the household.

The framework includes six standards for social housing providers, one of which is the home standard covering quality of accommodation and repairs and maintenance. The Tenant Services Authority's proposed quality standard means the decent homes standard or higher, and it is proposed that providers should give their tenants the opportunity to agree a local standard reflecting their concerns and priorities. If fire safety matters are a concern for tenants, the framework would enable tenants to shape their local standard to reflect that.

The hon. Gentleman has pressed for provision of smoke alarms to be made a statutory requirement on all landlords. As I have emphasised, the Government share his concern to ensure full take-up of smoke alarms in every dwelling. That is why we have focused so heavily on it in campaigns aimed at householders, tenants and landlords alike. I have already stated that the number of smoke alarms taken up has increased tenfold. There has been a step change in getting smoke alarms into dwellings; the latest campaign seeks to ensure another step change in terms of people checking them once a week. Our
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view is that checking is woefully inadequate at the moment, hence the campaign. Hopefully, it will have the same impact as previous campaigns.

I assure the House that we will continue to encourage social landlords to provide smoke alarms-particularly hard-wired systems, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman highlighted-when carrying out other works to their stock. We think that, rather than introducing another regulatory requirement, remains the right way forward, notwithstanding the point that I made earlier. As I indicated, we will keep the matter under review, not least as we maintain the decent homes standard in future.

It is still worth noting that householders can take some responsibility for their own safety, including fire safety, and the vast majority do. For as little as £8, anyone can buy and install a smoke alarm for their home to help protect themselves and their family from the dangers of fire. Anyone unable to do so themselves can contact their local fire and rescue service and ask it to undertake a home fire risk check. Depending on the person's circumstances, the fire and rescue service will consider supplying and fitting a smoke alarm free of charge.

We remain committed to reducing deaths from fire so that tragedies such as the ones that we heard about today will not be repeated. All the hon. Gentleman's requests and suggestions are undoubtedly sensible and reasonable, but he will understand that introducing new requirements in legislation sometimes has unintended consequences. If we can do things without going down a legislative route, that would be the preferred option. As he highlighted in his intervention, we have opportunities to increase fire safety in the home without being too onerous or complex about it, and I will consider some of them. I thank him again for raising an issue that is incredibly important not just to his constituents but to people throughout the country.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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