Fire Safety Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) (FSB01)

This is the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) submission to the Public Bill Committee regarding the Fire Safety Bill. The FBU is the democratic, professional voice of firefighters and other workers within fire and rescue services across the UK. The union represents the vast majority of whole-time (full-time) and retained (part-time, on-call) operational firefighters and operational fire control staff.

The Fire Safety Bill is the first and long overdue piece of primary legislation that seeks to rectify the failures identified after the Grenfell Tower fire. The FBU has raised concerns with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 since it was imposed. It is clear that many ‘responsible persons’ who own and manage residential premises have not assessed the fire risks in their buildings nor introduced sufficient measures to keep people safe in their homes. The fire and rescue service has been starved of resources, with 12,000 firefighter jobs (20% or one-in-five) cut across the UK over the last decade. This has made enforcement far more difficult.

The FBU has given a cautious welcome to the Fire Safety Bill. However it is only a modest improvement to the fire safety regime. The voices of tenants must be heard in this process – for example with the removal of flammable cladding and the role of ‘waking watches’. The voice of firefighters – expressed through the FBU – also needs to be heard on a wide range of issues.

The FBU has particular concerns about how the Fire Safety Bill will be implemented:

· The proposed Bill extends the Fire Safety Order to the external walls and structures (including fire doors) of buildings with two or more domestic premises

· It would therefore expand the role of fire authorities and fire safety inspectors

· The Home Office’s impact assessment written for the Bill underestimates the amount and complexity of the work involved and therefore underestimates the amount of funding necessary to ensure the legislation is effective

· The FBU believes that to enforce the legislation requires investment in professional firefighters, to expand the numbers of fire inspectors

· The FBU wants central government to consult fully with fire and rescue services and make the necessary resources available.

Clause 1 Premises to which the Fire Safety Order applies

Clause 1 of the Fire Safety Bill amends article 6 of the Fire Safety Order 2005. It would mean that the Fire Safety Order applies, when the premises are a building containing two or more sets of domestic premises, to the building’s structure and external walls and any common parts; and doors between domestic premises and common parts. This removes the ambiguity in the current Fire Safety Order around whether such parts are covered by the Order. The FBU supports this extension.

Clause 1(b) also clarifies that external walls includes doors or windows in those walls and anything attached to the exterior of those walls and that these will be within scope of the Fire Safety Order. This category includes cladding, insulation, fixings and balconies. The FBU supports this clarification.

The Bill affirms that fire and rescue authorities can take enforcement action against responsible persons if they have failed to comply with their duties under the Fire Safety Order.

The FBU supports this role for professional fire inspectors. This is a role only local fire authority inspectors can do – there should be no private contractors.

Impact assessment

On 7 May 2020, the Home Office published an impact assessment on the Fire Safety Bill. The FBU believes the impact assessment is flawed in a number of respects, particularly regarding the fire and rescue service. The impact assessment states that "the scope of the consultation was extended to include the National Fire Chief’s Council (NFCC) as well as individual Fire and Rescue Services". The FBU was not consulted regarding the impact assessment and we are concerned that it does not reflect a diversity of views from the sector.

The evidence provided by fire and rescue services and the NFCC should be made available to the committee and published, so it is clear what advice was given regarding the costs of the changes.

Buildings affected

The impact assessment’s estimates for the buildings likely to be covered by the legislation are very imprecise. It states that the volume of flats in England is between 1,189,200 and 2,198,600. It estimates the number of private landlords at between 875,000 and 1.4 million, once double-counting has been considered. Social landlords are estimated at between 3,300 and 16,300 (Table 1, pages 6-7 of the impact assessment).

The committee needs to clarify how many premises the Fire Safety Order would apply to after the Bill is passed. It is important to know whether it includes all houses or other buildings converted into flats or bedsits and houses in multiple occupation. The process of identifying these additional premises will also require additional resources from central government to fire authorities.

Audits

The Home Office defines a fire safety audit as "a scheduled or planned visit by an appropriately skilled fire safety officer to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the level of compliance with the requirements of The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO) by a responsible person".

The impact assessment states that the fire and rescue service in England carries out around 50,000 audits (inspections) every year. The figures come from Home Office statistics table 1204: Fire Safety Returns, by fire and rescue authority, FS1. The total for multi-occupied multi-storey residential buildings is given as 6,500 for the most recent year (Table 2, page 7). The figures show the immense amount of work already carried out by professional firefighters.

However Home Office statistics also show that inspectors carried out a far wider range of activities during the same year, around 150,000, including consultations with building control and other agencies such as OFSTED (see Home Office statistics table 1204, FS2). These activities and their importance do not seem to have been considered in the impact assessment.

The committee needs to consider:

· how to increase the number of audits annually – to ensure more homes are inspected than is currently the case

· how fire inspectors should prioritise audits, other visits, consultations and interactions with responsible persons and tenants.

The number of inspectors

In order to enforce responsible persons’ compliance with these fire safety duties, fire and rescue services will need significantly increased resources, particularly trained and experienced fire safety officers in their fire safety departments. The Bill will result in a substantial increase in workload for fire and rescue services. Local fire authorities will need increased staffing and training to enable them to carry out their new duties of inspection, audit and enforcement.

The impact assessment does not spell out how many inspectors currently carry out audits and enforcement action in England. However the Home Office spreadsheet, FIRE1204: Fire safety returns, by fire and rescue authority, has a tab – FS10 – with the number of staff employed for fire safety activities in England. In 2018-19, only 951 staff were competent to carry out audits, 597 to serve an enforcement notice and 407 to serve a prohibition notice. For many years, central government has not published statistics on the number of fire inspectors. However Home Office records estimated there were 1,724 fire safety inspectors in England and Wales two decades ago. Such cuts would need to be reversed to create extra capacity for the additional work.

The impact assessment takes no account of the staffing situation across the fire and rescue service in England. The impact assessment states the number of (full time equivalent) wholetime watch managers (3,635) and wholetime station managers (1,223), taken from Home Office Fire Statistics Table 1102, for 31 March 2019. The same source also shows that on 31 March 2011, the number of wholetime watch managers was 4,481 and wholetime station managers 1,569, indicating a 19% reduction in the former and a 23% reduction in the latter.

The committee must consider the need to recruit additional operational firefighters and fire safety officers to inspect premises, alongside other roles.

Increased complexity of inspections

The impact assessment fails to register the increased complexity of inspections that will now be required. Inspectors will need frequent upskilling as central government guidance – for example changes to Approved D ocument B – are implemented. The impact assessment also fails to appreciate that more intrusive inspections will be required, which were never previously carried out by fire inspectors. In the new regime, inspectors will have to thoroughly check all the walls, fire doors, windows and other fire safety matters brought under their brief. The impact assessment estimates the additional responsibilities will only take a few minutes. In reality, it may take many hours on site and off site (checking standards and processing test results) to ensure the fire safety measures are in place. Key issues need to be taken into account (including, but are not limited to):

· Retraining for existing inspectors to include the new areas of work

· Training of new inspectors to undertake the additional work

· Costs of familiarisation with the new legislation

· Pre-planning of inspections

· Estimated time spent on:

o inspecting buildings of various sizes

o checking the external walls

o checking fire doors, windows and other interior matters

o paperwork before, during and after the inspection

o liaison with local authority housing inspectors

o time spent in discussions with tenants and the persons responsible for the building

· Costs associated with enforcement actions of various kinds.

Additional costs to fire and rescue services

The impact assessment takes little or no account of time firefighters will need to familiarise themselves with the new responsibilities, saying this would come from "re-balancing of resources" (page 11). The impact assessment calculates the additional costs of staff time for fire and rescue services. It states the estimated additional cost "translate into per year costs ranging from £0.0 to £2.1 million, with a central estimate of £0.7 million (2019 prices)" (page 11).

From these figures, spending an additional £700,000 a year would amount to only 12 extra full time watch managers. If an additional £2.1m is spent, this would pay for around 35 more inspectors. That is still less than one inspector per brigade across England. Although it is a slight improvement, it is nowhere near sufficient to meet the expected workload.

Similarly, the impact assessment "does not include any additional enforcement costs" (page 12). Tenants’ organisations and housing campaigners have made it clear that fire inspectors are likely to find breaches of the Fire Safety Order when they carry out the audits. Fire inspectors explain that a great deal of time and effort is required for enforcement action, from preparing the cases to seeing them through the courts. Enforcement has to be included in any calculation of the Bill.

The committee must quantify the full range of additional costs fire authorities will incur from this Bill and demand a guarantee from ministers to fund the service accordingly.

Clause 2 Power to change premises to which the Fire Safety Order applies

Clause 2(1) provides a delegated power to ensure that the relevant authority can amend the Fire Safety Order, by regulations, to change or clarify the types of premises falling within its scope and also allow for amendments consequential to those changes or clarification to be made. Clause 2(5) ensures that a consultation must be held with anyone who the relevant authority considers appropriate before such changes to premises can be enacted. The FBU is concerned that this may allow changes to be rushed through without full scrutiny.

The committee should obtain an undertaking from ministers to consult with fire professionals and not impose unworkable changes.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry (GTI) continues with its investigation into the fire on 14 June 2017. The FBU is a core participant in the inquiry and has played a full part in the proceedings. The GTI made recommendations for change in its phase 1 report, published on 30 October 2019.

Implementing the GTI’s recommendations will require consultation on a range of resourcing and technical matters. Ideally these changes should be made through primary legislation. All consultation must fully involve the trade union representatives of those on the frontline. It must also involve representatives of tenants and residents.

The FBU wants the Westminster government to establish a permanent statutory advisory body with representation from across the sector (especially the workforce, represented by the FBU).

The committee should seek views from across the fire and rescue service – the NFCC cannot represent the full range of opinion within the sector.

Clause 3 Extent, commencement and short title

Clause 3 extends this Act to England and Wales only. Fire is a devolved matter and this legislation will first apply in England. The Senedd will discuss this Bill. Clarification is needed on whether the Northern Ireland Assembly will follow. The FBU understands the Scottish government will come forward with its own proposals and may go further than Westminster.

The FBU believes consistency on fire safety standards is important for firefighters, who often work across borders and who do not want a postcode lottery across the UK.

Wider matters

Grenfell Tower fire

The FBU has worked closely with the bereaved, survivors and residents of the Grenfell community in the aftermath of the fire. The union believes that listening to the views and concerns of the people who live and work in high risk buildings should be at the heart of the new system of fire safety across the UK.

The FBU is a core participant in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry (GTI). On 14 December 2018, the FBU submitted proposals for the GTI’s interim recommendations. A key point made:

"12. Central government should provide the funding required to implement these urgent recommendations so that existing FRS budgets are not depleted thereby and proper allowances can be made in the future cycle of strategic planning and funding."

The FBU welcomed the GTI’s phase 1 report recommendations, although we expressed concerns about some of the judgments made in the report’s narrative and conclusions. In our detailed response to the phase 1 report in January 2020, we stated:

"The union believes the recommendations will require substantial additional resources for the fire and rescue service, which should be provided from Westminster and the devolved administrations."

The FBU draws these statements to the attention of the committee to underline the vital importance of additional funding for the enforcement of the Fire Safety Order. The union has made this point repeatedly before this Bill.

Cladding on existing buildings

The FBU is deeply unhappy with the NFCC’s Guidance to support a temporary change to a simultaneous evacuation strategy in purpose-built block of flats. Three years after the Grenfell Tower fire, misnamed ‘temporary’ measures are still in place, and are proposed to continue to be in place, in respect of buildings that are still not safe from fire risks. The union believes too little has been done and too slowly to remedy the situation for thousands of residents who are still living in buildings where fire safety has been compromised.

The FBU cannot endorse the NFCC’s guidance. The waking watch system is not a substitute for the full range of fire safety measures designed and built into high rise residential buildings and there is every likelihood that the approach proposed in the NFCC consultation will lead this to become a de facto permanent state of affairs . The NFCC guidance does not provide a solution to the problems of compromised fire safety in blocks of residential flats.

10 June 2020

 

Prepared 26th June 2020