HL Deb 23 May 1991 vol 529 cc402-8

4.2 p.m.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. Home Office fire statistics show that in recent years about 700 people have been killed in fires in the home every year and that another 10,000 have been injured. Fires involving textiles, upholstery and furnishings account for the majority of those deaths and injuries. Many of them might have been avoided if an early warning of fire had been given while there was still a chance of escaping from the premises. This is the purpose of smoke detectors.

The term refers to a device which sounds an alarm when the presence of smoke is detected. The simplest types are battery operated and cost as little as £6. Installation is very straightforward and the Home Office has produced a guidance leaflet for householders on their selection, installation and use. Recently mains power versions have also become available, some of which also have a battery back-up. There is some evidence that householders can overlook the need for the regular replacement of batteries in battery-operated detectors, particularly when they are not themselves responsible for the original installation. Mains power detectors may therefore prove more reliable. The additional cost of installing mains power smoke detectors in a new house or flat is estimated to be £30 to £40 per unit, although in an existing dwelling the cost would be higher. The purpose of this Bill is to ensure that all new dwellings have smoke detectors installed at the time of their construction. It does not attempt to cover existing dwellings.

s Quite apart from any argument about how far Parliament should go in requiring householders to take measures to protect themselves in their own home, it is very difficult to envisage how any legal requirement relating to existing dwellings could in practice be enforced. However, in the case of new dwellings, there are already requirements which are aimed primarily at the protection of health and safety in the building regulations. The Bill is intended to operate in parallel with those requirements.

I turn now to the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 provides that the person who in the course of his business constructs dwellings is guilty of an offence if such dwellings are not fitted with smoke detectors which make adequate provision for the early detection of the outbreak of a fire. Therefore, it is the builder who has to meet the requirements. The Bill does not place any obligation on the subsequent purchaser or on the owners or occupiers of existing houses. Clause 2 would enable that requirement to be relaxed if there were any particular reasons for doing so. For example, there might be problems in a case where an historic building was being converted for residential use.

Clause 3 provides for the Secretary of State to approve; and issue guidance as to the fitting of smoke detectors. There are similar provisions relating to guidance on building regulation requirements in Sections 6 and 7 of the Building Act 1984. It would clearly pot be appropriate to include all that material in this Bill. Experience of building control has shown that a better and more flexible system of control can be ach eyed through the use of short, functional requirements and approved guidance documents than by setting out lengthy and detailed requirements in regulations.

Under Clause 4, local authorities would have the duty to enforce the Act. They already have the duty to enforce building regulations. The other clauses are ancillary and similar to existing provisions relating to building regulations in the Building Act 1984. Like the 1984 Act, the requirements of this Bill will apply only in England and Wales. That is because Scotland and Northern Ireland have different legislation relating to building control.

It may be said that this is a modest measure because it applies only to new dwellings. However, it will demonstrate Parliament's concern on the subject in a practical way. Moreover, as the housing stock is being renewed at a rate of 1 per cent. or 2 per cent. per annum, the effects of a measure of this kind will soon mount up. It may also be suggested that we should leave the Government to deal with the matter. I am aware that proposals have been put forward for the revision of the relevant provisions in the building regulations. ut decisions on those proposals have not yet been taken.

The Bill provides us with the opportunity to register our views on the importance of installing smoke detectors in new dwellings without cutting across what the Government are doing. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Wade of Chorlton.)

4.8 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as is normally the case with Private Members' Bills, the Opposition as such do not express a view on the merits of the Bill. Therefore, any observations I make will be my own rather than those of the Labour Party. However, I have been consulted by, and have consulted with, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities which will be heavily concerned in the implementation of the Bill should it become enacted. It is only right to tell the House that the association is very much in favour of the Bill in its present form. I wish to say to the noble Lord, Lord Wade, in particular, that an advisory group has been set up consisting of building control, fire authority and housing officers in metropolitan authorities. If the noble Lord is in agreement, the group would be very glad to talk about the Bill with him and make suggestions for improvement. I, too, should be happy to participate in that process if he wishes me to do so.

Of course, the Bill is very different from the one which first appeared before another place. It has been greatly modified in that the original Bill covered all dwellings, not just new ones. I understand that the Bill went through another place without debate. It was tagged on to the end of a number of Private Members' Bills. It deserves a little more attention because there should be additional protection against smoke and fires. That should start in respect of new buildings.

I have a number of specific points, some of which are for the noble Lord, Lord Wade, and some of which seek information from the Government as to their attitude towards certain aspects of the Bill, although I appreciate that they will be officially neutral on the Bill as a whole. Clause 1(1) provides: A person who, in the course of a business carried on by him, constructs or arranges for the construction of a dwelling". That appears to exclude self-build. I am puzzled as to why that is the case. Given that the standards of self-build housing might not be as high as those of professionally built houses, there might be even greater necessity for smoke detectors to be installed in self-build houses. I should be interested to know why that exemption has been put in and whether it would be insisted upon if it were challenged.

Clause 1(3) suggests that the fine should not exceed level 3 on the standard scale. That is £400. People employed in the local authorities think that that is low and that the figure should be more like £2,000 which is the level 5 fine. These days £400 is a minimal amount.

Clause 2(1) provides that an authority—presumably the building control inspectors—may give a direction dispensing with or relaxing the requirement for smoke detectors. It might be as well to involve the fire authorities as well as the local authority in that aspect of the matter. Local authority building inspectors are capable of covering the point made by the noble Lord about historic buildings being converted for residential use. The building is one thing: the likelihood of that building being subject to fire is another. That is an area in which the fire authorities are expert and where consultation with them could be valuable.

In their other functions, building inspectors have rights of entry to enforce their powers. There is no provision for rights of entry for building control inspectors under the Bill. I wonder whether the noble Lord will consider whether it might be appropriate to bring this part of their new duties into line with their existing powers.

My next question on Clause 3 is for the Government. The clause starts by saying that the Secretary of State may issue guidance. My question is: will he? It is no good saying "may" unless the Government say that while they do not oppose the Bill they are prepared to issue guidance. Similarly on Clause 3, there are precedents, especially in relation to gas boilers, for there being not merely guidance in respect of installation, but also instructions for users. Gas boilers can still be dangerous. If one is installed, instructions for users are mandatory. That may well apply to smoke detectors. I am thinking about battery-operated smoke detectors where the replacement of the battery from time to time may be important.

Again on Clause 3, it may be appropriate for there to be reference to standards covering for instance the definition of smoke detector. We need to consider whether the standards to be applied shall accord with a recognised British standard and if not, the advisability of including a recognised British standard within the Bill.

My final question to the Government concerns Clause 6(3) at the end of the Bill which provides: This Act shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint". Can the Government give any guidance as to when they are likely to bring the Bill into effect, if it is passed by this House? From a personal point of view and that of those involved in such matters in local authorities, the Bill is welcome. It does not seem to us to be perfect, but it is certainly a move in the right direction.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, as we discuss this Bill the death of four young children in a fire today is very much in our minds. I repeat, as did the noble Lord. Lord McIntosh, that by convention the Government remain neutral on Private Members' Bills. This Bill is no exception to the convention. However, on behalf of the Government I make the following comments.

The Government fully endorse the use of smoke detectors in dwellings. While we recognise that they are no substitute for the normal personal vigilance which is needed to prevent fires from starting, they can provide an early warning in the event of a fire breaking out. Such a warning can save lives by giving those inside the home a better chance of escaping. To promote the voluntary installation of smoke detectors in dwellings, the Home Office have devoted substantial resources to educational and publicity programmes aimed at bringing the life-saving potential of these devices to the attention of the public. These programmes have achieved considerable success and we have seen the proportion of dwellings where alarms are installed increase from 9 per cent. to 40 per cent. over the past four years.

There are requirements in fire precautions and health and safety at work legislation which ensure that smoke alarm systems are installed in many non-domestic premises. There are at present no equivalent requirements relating to dwellings. We are, however, already consulting on a proposal to include such a provision in the building regulations. There has been a considerable amount of support for this proposal, but it forms part of a wider review on which decisions are unlikely to be announced until the autumn.

The building regulations apply only to new building work, and it is sometimes suggested that there should be legislation to require the installation of smoke detectors in existing homes as well. The Government have a natural, and I believe proper, reluctance to legislate to require householders to take special measures to protect themselves in their own homes. But the overriding problem is that any such legal requirement would effectively be unenforceable. It would involve giving enforcement authorities the power of entry into private homes on an essentially random basis. Such powers would be unacceptably intrusive. Enforcement would also require a large and expensive army of inspectors, and all the supporting bureaucracy that goes with it. As I have said, however, the Government are fully in sympathy with what my noble friend said about the desirability of encouraging the use of smoke detectors in dwellings.

Turning to specific questions, I said on the timing of the main Bill that we should hear more in the autumn. On the issue of guidance, since this is a Private Member's Bill, it would be appropriate to wait for the Bill to progress to a further stage and see its shape as it goes through the processes of the House. If appropriate, the Government will consider guidance.

On the miscellany of points raised by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, we have sympathy with some of them. We shall discuss them fully with the promoters of the Bill before the Committee stage. We have already had discussions with the NHBC and the Bill's Promoters about reducing confusion concerning implementation of the measures. It seems to us important that as much as possible be worked out before the Bill passes its Committee stage.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, perhaps I may take advantage of what the Minister said to ask her and the noble Lord, Lord Wade, whether we can be given guidance as to when the Committee stage is likely:o be reached. Perhaps the noble Lord will respond when he winds up.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Wade of Chorlton, can answer that point, as I am afraid I cannot. The Government are fully in sympathy with the Bill and all that has been said about the appropriateness of smoke detectors in new buildings. The Bill represents a small but practical measure which is consistent with the measures that the Government are already considering. The Bill has our support.

4.20 p.m.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

My Lords, I wish first to thank the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for his support of the Bill. I also thank my noble friend the Minister for giving the Bill government support. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for offering to help in discussions with some of the outside bodies which are interested in this Bill. I shall take up that offer so that we can work together to make this a successful Bill that suits everyone concerned. As the noble Lord is aware, this is a Private Member's Bill which has been brought forward by a Member of another place. I know that it is his intention to get the Bill on to the statute book as quickly as possible.

I cannot answer the point about timing that the noble Lord raised, as I understand that that has not yet been settled through the usual channels. However, it is our understanding that the Bill will be enacted as soon as possible. As my noble friend said, it is hoped that the Bill will be on the statute book by the autumn to coincide with other building regulations which will be brought forward at that time.

The noble Lord raised one or two points which I shall try to respond to. As he said, at the moment the provisions of the Bill do not apply to self-built houses. However, all properties do of course come under the building regulations, whoever builds them. As the noble Lord suggested, this is a point that could be further considered. However, one also has to consider how far the law should protect from his own follies someone who wishes to build his own house.

The noble Lord referred to the fine. The Bill proposes a fine of about £400 to £500. The noble Lord suggested that it should be £2,000, but I believe the fine proposed in the Bill is correct. Perhaps that is something that we can review in the light of the noble Lord's comments. The noble Lord asked about the fire authorities. I can assure him that people would not be able to get around the regulations very easily. However, it is intended that the fire authorities will be consulted on this matter.

The noble Lord referred to the right of entry. The Bill is no different to other statutes in this respect. The provisions in the Bill come into force during the building of new dwellings. It will be the duty of the authorities concerned to ensure that all the requirements of the Bill are fulfilled. Once the building is completed and handed over to the purchaser, the purchaser has no legal responsibility for these requirements. The smoke detectors will be subject to the normal British standards. This matter is mentioned in a pamphlet which has already been issued by the Home Office. Further pamphlets will be issued to all the bodies concerned as guidance. I believe I have answered the points raised by the noble Lord. I am grateful for the support he gave to the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.