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Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005

6.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Baroness Andrews) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 7 March be approved [14th and 16th Reports from the Regulatory Reform Committee, Session 2004–05].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this is the largest order brought forward under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 to have been considered by the House so far. Perhaps I may place on record my thanks to noble Lords who sat on the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and who were so helpful in their deliberations. I am pleased that among them was the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, who is on the Front Bench for the Liberals.

The order brings in major changes that have been in preparation for three years. They are welcome and necessary. They have the full support of partners in business and in the enforcement services. In essence, they will improve fire safety, because they clarify and consolidate existing fire legislation in a single regulatory regime; remove overlapping burdens and make it easier for everyone involved to know what they have to do to assess risk and prevent fires; they give a new priority to securing the safety of people by preventing fires, alongside the historic importance of securing safe escape when a fire occurs; and they set out a risk-based approach that will enable those responsible for enforcing fire safety to focus more on higher-risk situations.

I shall provide a little background on why the changes have been made. Noble Lords will know that fire safety law has developed over many years, usually in response to tragic fires in which a large number of people have lost their life. However, most legislation that links to safety or how places are used contains
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provisions that require fire precautions. Over time, those requirements have built up, layer on layer, into a maze through which businesses, large and small have had to find their way.

In addition, legislation has followed an overlapping path. At any one time, a set of premises may be covered by the Fire Precautions Act 1971, for which the fire and rescue authority assesses the adequacy of the fire precautions and which requires certain premises to have a fire certificate. They may also be covered by the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997, which implement the fire safety requirements of European directives and under which the employer is responsible for assessing the adequacy of the fire precautions.

In addition, according to use, the premises may be subject to public safety legislation—for example, the conditions of licence, which are over-ridden by a fire certificate, but not the fire regulations, which are enforced by another local authority. There can be local legislation involved, enforced by yet more enforcing authorities. Each type of legislation operates differently and consultation and enforcement varies alongside that.

Knowing what legislation applies, who is responsible, what they are responsible for, who must be consulted and who is entitled to enforce the requirements is confusing enough for the professionals in the business. For business, it is bewildering and burdensome. Business and government have agreed that that the law needed to be streamlined. This reform order achieves that by reducing the number of regimes that can apply and the number of enforcers who can make demands on the business or voluntary body.

The regulatory reform order seeks to reform most general fire safety legislation in England and Wales. Similar reforms are under way in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The reform repeals the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and the fire regulations. It will, for example, remove the requirement for some businesses to obtain a fire certificate from the local fire and rescue authority. It also replaces the fire safety requirements in around 70 other legislative regimes. I refer noble Lords to Schedule 2, for example, which lists those Acts, including, for example, the Pet Animals Act 1951. The schedule makes instructive reading. Those regimes will be replaced by one modelled on the fire regulations, but extended to cover the safety of all persons in or in the immediate vicinity of any premises.

Under the new regime, responsibility for ensuring fire safety will rest with the person responsible for the premises. The role of the enforcer is to check what the responsible person has done and, if it is not adequate in the circumstances of the case, to require action to be taken to bring the premises into compliance with the law.

The responsible person must assess the risks—identify the hazards and the people who are placed at risk by them—and remove or reduce the hazard and risks so far as they reasonably can and then put in place fire precautions to protect people from the risks that remain. The precautions need to be reasonable and necessary in the circumstances of the case. That requires that fire
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precautions are appropriate to the risks that actually exist and frees up the enforcement authorities to concentrate on where the risks might be the greatest. The flexibility of the new regime will enable fire safety solutions to be tailored to the circumstances of each business. That is a better development.

In practical terms, the order does not ask much of employers that is not covered by existing law or practice. For example, mitigation of the effects of fire is already implicit in the law. Protection of those in a place and those in the immediate vicinity already exists under the law. The RRO frees the responsible person to focus on risk assessment in response to one set of requirements and to know that it will be checked by one set of enforcing officers. It also means that inspection can now be linked to relevant levels of risk.

So, enforcers will target their resources at places where people are most at risk, not simply routinely inspecting premises because they have fire certificates. The enforcers have already begun the move to risk-based inspection. That is a better use of local resources.

In summary, the order will make fire safety legislation easier to understand for those responsible for keeping premises safe. It will remove the overlapping and conflicting legislation and for most premises replace it with a single regime and a single enforcer. Fire certification, fire safety conditions of licences and a myriad of other separate requirements contained in Acts and statutory instruments will cease. That means that those responsible for safety can act in the knowledge that by complying with this order they will not find themselves in conflict with other legislation or one, two or more other enforcing agencies. That removes a sizeable burden from business.

The RRO will apply to non-domestic premises and the common parts of houses in multiple occupation and blocks of flats. Private areas of domestic premises and single private dwellings are not covered, as they are dealt with through the Housing Act. Other exceptions include ships, mines, boreholes, fields, woods, agricultural land and offshore installations. They are excluded as specific legislation applies to them on the ground of practicality of application.

I turn to some specific details. Under Article 5, responsibility for fire safety in premises to which the RRO will apply will rest with the person responsible for the premises—the employer, where there is one, the occupier or the owner according to the circumstances of the premises. We believe that the responsible person is best placed to consider how the premises operate and the risks that arise for the use of the place, the people who go there and other factors such as the locality and how the premises are managed. The responsible person may be the employer or other occupiers, including self-employed people, or the owner of the premises.

Under Article 9, the responsible person will be required to assess the risk in respect of both the place and its activities. Under Article 10, they must implement such general fire safety measures as are reasonable and necessary to reduce risks that are found
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and, by virtue of Articles 11 to 22, must then protect all persons using the premises and the immediate vicinity from fire risks that remain.

Enforcement will principally be by fire and rescue authorities, although other authorities may enforce the requirements in certain specified situations—for example, the Health and Safety Executive in relation to the nuclear industry. Therefore, the RRO complements the change in emphasis of the role of fire and rescue authorities to one of prevention, where they are responsible for ensuring public safety by monitoring compliance with the law and, where necessary, enforcing the requirements of the new legislation.

We have developed the reform order though consultation with stakeholders and enforcers to achieve a reform that maximises public protection and removes unnecessary burdens from business, the self-employed, the voluntary sector and the enforcers. With our partners we are agreed that there will be a need for guidance to assist businesses in meeting the legal requirements of the order. That must be in place before the order comes into force in April 2006. We are working with stakeholders to achieve that by producing a suite of guidance documents that will be available early in 2006. Those guides are already being discussed by our contractors and those who represent the various sectors to which the guides will apply. As the guides are drafted by our contractors, our stakeholders will be consulted on the detailed content. We want to get them right.

In addition, we are preparing, again in conjunction with stakeholders in the sector to which the RRO will apply, entry level guidance for small and medium-sized businesses, as recommended by the committees. It is important that we produce guidance that sets out the information in clear language and in a form that is accessible and easily applied. The guidance, which will take the form of basic information and a poster about fire risk assessment that could even be put up on a notice board, will be sent to every employer, self-employed person and voluntary sector organisation that we can identify. All the guides will also be available on the Internet and in printed form.

We have worked with representatives from business, trade unions and fire trade bodies in bringing forward this reform, from preparing the consultation document to the guidance now being prepared. We aim to involve all partners throughout the process, and we are preparing with them a publicity campaign to highlight the new regime. That will include seminars for businesses to attend in order to be properly informed and thus to assist in their preparations for the order to come into force.

I pay tribute to the stakeholders we are working with. They have been with us since the start of this long and exhaustive reform process, and I thank them for their invaluable help.

Before I close, there is one matter arising from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee's 16th report of 24 March about the reform order that I should like particularly to address. The committee noted that the House might wish to seek an explanation why
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the order had been relaid before it, despite the fact that it had already reported to this House. I may be anticipating a question that might be forthcoming. The answer is straightforward. At around the time that members of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee were discussing the order, it was also being discussed by the committee of another place. It had some concerns about the implementation of a recommendation that they and our committee had both made on the nature of the guidance. We agreed to withdraw the order so that we could address the concern that had been raised with us, and an amendment has now been made in Article 50. It was unfortunate that the order had to be withdrawn after our own committee's report to this House, but it was unavoidable in the circumstances.

I close by summarising the position. This regulatory reform order contains the biggest reform of fire safety legislation in over 30 years. It will simplify the process for thousands of businesses. It is an enhancement of public safety and removes a substantial burden from business. It allows those responsible for premises to make the best use of their limited resources, and it allows enforcers to make the best use of their resources. It retains the necessary protections by establishing a regime under which local knowledge and prevention of fire will lead the way. At the same time, it unfetters business by removing overlap of law and enforcement. It has been developed over several years in conjunction with those to whom it will apply and those who enforce it. We believe that it will be effective and welcome. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulatory reform order laid before the House on 7 March be approved [14th and 16th Reports from the Regulatory Reform Committee, Session 2004–05].—(Baroness Andrews.)

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