Following the Inspectorate’s State of Fire report on Fire and Rescue Service performance, FIRE Correspondent Catherine Levin surveys the state of play for the wider fire sector
There is so much going on in fire right now that a quick recap is in order.
First, let us take a look at what is happening with the Building Safety Regulator. In January, the government announced that a new Building Safety Regulator will be established within the Health and Safety Executive, although initially in shadow form pending legislation. With Dame Judith Hackitt still in the frame, she will be chairing a new board to oversee the transition to a new regime; one of its key priorities will be to appoint a Chief Inspector of Buildings. The board is due to meet for the first time in late February.
This is the culmination of work to deal with problems identified in the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety. Dame Judith said that the current system of building regulations and fire safety was not fit for purpose and set out six broad areas where there were problems. She set out a new regulatory framework to deliver ‘genuine system transformation’. As part of this package of measures she recommended the creation of a Joint Competent Authority. That was in May 2018 but by January 2020 that morphed into a commitment to create a Building Safety Regulator.
The powers for the new Regulator will come from the Fire Safety Bill that was announced in the Queen’s Speech on December 19. The purpose of the legislation is to: ‘Put in place new and modernised regulatory regimes for building safety and construction products, ensuring residents have a stronger voice in the system’. The main benefits of the legislation are not only about making sure that residents are safe in their homes but that the regulatory framework for high-rise residential buildings is fundamentally changed along with: ‘The industry culture to ensure accountability and responsibility’.
Most of the provisions within the Bill will apply only to England but as oversight of construction products is a reserved matter that means anything related to those will apply UK-wide.
Government Response to Grenfell Inquiry Phase 1 Report
January was a busy month with the government publishing its response to the Grenfell Inquiry Phase 1 report. It is a short document summarising the responses of:
- London Fire Brigade
- All fire and rescue services.
There are eight areas of interest for the government. These relate to the use of combustible materials and allowed the government to restate its work with local authorities to identify properties with Aluminium Composite Material (ACM), the interim measures, the funding and the replacement works. On January 20, the government launched a consultation into the current ban on the use of combustible materials on new high-rise blocks of flats and whether the height threshold should be lowered from 18 metres to 11 metres. This consultation closes on April 13.
Some of the 46 recommendations arising from Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report require legislation. The government response confirms that the Fire Safety Bill: ‘Will aim to clarify the scope of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 to put beyond doubt that building owners or managers of multi-occupied residential buildings of any height are required to consider fully and mitigate the fire safety risks of any external wall systems and front doors to individual flats’.
The government’s response indicates how it is working with other organisations: with the NFCC to form a steering group looking at national guidance for evacuating high-rise buildings, with the Association of Composite Door Manufacturers to raise standards and with the Construction Products Standards Committee on testing and certification.
‘We did not wait for Sir Martin’s findings and are prioritising measures to improve fire safety in blocks of flats’. The response briefly describes the ongoing work relating to building regulations, sprinklers, signage and alarm systems to assist fire and rescue services to evacuate buildings.
In terms of next steps, the government’s response will be scrutinised by Members of Parliament. That is likely to be by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee. Clive Betts was re-elected Chair of the Committee in January 2020 and the programme of inquiries was not available at the time of writing.
The government response concludes: ‘We remain committed to working closely with other organisations to ensure the right changes are brought about to protect the public and will provide further updates on the steps taken to implement the Chairman’s recommendations in due course’.
“It is no surprise that the next round of inspections will look at how fire and rescue services are planning for an affordable way to manage risk in the future”
Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 2
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 2 hearings began on January 27 with opening statements from lawyers representing the suppliers, the tenant management organisation, the council, the Mayor of London, London Fire Brigade, the FBU and the bereaved, survivors and residents known as the BSRs. At this point, the Inquiry had received more than 750,000 documents, disclosing over 20,000 of them during Phase 1 and a further 93,000 as part of Phase 2.
It is well documented that the Inquiry did not get past the opening statements after its first week as proceedings ground to a halt over questions of whether witnesses would face prosecution down the line for things they might say during the Inquiry. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry Ruling on the application by ‘certain persons’ for the Panel to seek an undertaking from the Attorney General is well worth a read despite its challenging legalese.
It steps through the arguments on both sides as to whether the Inquiry can fulfil its terms of reference if witnesses withhold information because they are not assured that their answers could be used in future criminal proceedings against them. One paragraph is particularly salient: ‘I should make it clear for the benefit of anyone reading this ruling that the undertaking that we are seeking is limited in its effect. Contrary to reports in the press, it does not grant anyone immunity from prosecution. It does not apply to any statements or documents already in the possession of the Inquiry and it does not prevent the prosecuting authorities from making use of answers given by one witness in furtherance of proceedings against another’.
Early in February, Sir Martin and Thouria Istephan, who has now joined him on the Panel overseeing Phase 2 of the Inquiry, wrote to the Attorney-General for an undertaking for those giving oral evidence for modules 1, 2 and 3 that it would not be used in criminal proceedings. They ask the Attorney General to treat the request as a matter of urgency so that the Inquiry can continue its work.
Of course, the Panel may not have predicted a Cabinet reshuffle and a change in Attorney General just a week after sending this letter. Helpfully the previous Attorney General wrote to the Core Participants to invite representations from them by February 17. New Attorney General Suella Braverman indicated that she would make a decision regarding the undertaking in the last week of February. By the time this edition of FIRE is published, hopefully it will all be resolved.
“The main benefits of the legislation are not only about making sure that residents are safe in their homes but that the regulatory framework for high-rise residential buildings is fundamentally changed”
Before Christmas, HMICFRS concluded its work on the first inspections and published the last 15 reports prior to the State of Fire turning up slightly later than scheduled (due to the election) in January. See February FIRE for more detail on that.
Since then, HMICFRS has published the inspection programme and framework, confirming the second round of inspections will start in 2020 but there is no schedule or detail. The process looks to be broadly along the same lines as before, with three areas of focus: efficiency, effectiveness and people and 11 sub-categories.
In terms of effectiveness, the framework confirms that the second round of inspections will go into more detail on how well fire and rescue services are prepared to respond to major incidents. They will look at that in terms of cross border working with other services and broader working with other agencies. Given the number of major incidents around flooding and other weather-related events, this will be a timely review of capabilities and response.
One of the major findings under the efficiency pillar was the high levels of financial reserves held by many fire and rescue services. It is no surprise that the next round of inspections will look at how fire and rescue services are planning for an affordable way to manage risk in the future. Balancing policies relating to reserves with policies that lead to savings and impact on service delivery is hard to do, so having the inspectors look at this in more detail will be revealing and provide evidence of what works and, more tellingly, what does not.
‘Our assessment of how each fire and rescue service looks after its people will remain focused on the leadership at all levels in the organisation, including training, diversity, values and culture’. In addition, the framework confirms that there will be some new emphasis on behaviours, which surely underpins all of this anyway. A look at individual career pathways is welcome; particularly if it considers how succession planning for principal officers is managed and how new recruits are retained and mentored to allow them to move up the ranks in a more effective way. Again, sharing what works will be incredibly useful.
Fire Brigades Union
In late January, Matt Wrack was re-elected for a fourth term as General Secretary of the FBU. The State of Fire was published during his re-election campaign. Sir Tom Winsor was highly critical of the influence of the FBU in some services: ‘I believe it goes too far and is sometimes contrary to the public interest. This is not acceptable: the FBU should not unduly dictate how fire services are provided to the public’.
Thanking FBU members for re-electing him, Matt took the opportunity in a blog post on the FBU website to remind his members about HMICFRS’s views. ‘The recently published HMICFRS annual report is not shy about attacking our union and is undoubtedly a starting pistol for the fight ahead. Our union will need to remain strong and united to see off those attacks, on collective bargaining, work extra to contract and changes in law and industrial action’.
He is newly emboldened and in the face of a Conservative majority government reasserts his position: ‘I’m ready for the fight ahead’.
All this and it is only two months into a new year and a new decade. The world of fire is definitely one to watch.