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Lord Henley: My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, that the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Henley.)

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I am sorry—I am being told by the Leader of my party to "come on". Indeed, I shall, and very quickly. I had meant to say these few words at Third Reading but I was beaten to the punch by the Chairman of Committees.

This has been a worthwhile debate. We have heard excellent speeches and an excellent maiden speech. I should like to thank the Government and the usual channels for making it possible for us to have this debate. I should also like to thank all those who have taken part for their courtesy and the way that they dealt with the debate. In particular, I should like to thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for their courtesy and for the genuine attempt that they made to answer the points which were raised.

I believe that this has been a worthwhile couple of days, and I hope that most of the Members of the House who have taken part, if not all, agree that that was so.

On Question, Bill passed.

Fire Safety

7.35 p.m.

Lord Howie of Troon rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether the consequences of putting into effect the report of the Fire Safety Legislation and Enforcement review will place greater cost burdens on business and upon local and national taxpayers; why a cost-benefit analysis of the proposals was not provided in the report; and whether they can guarantee that there will be no reduction in the existing inspection role of the fire authorities after the report's recommendations are in place.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I begin my remarks on a solemn note. I wish to pay a brief but no less heartfelt tribute to my old friend Lord Pitt of Hampstead who died just before Christmas and who, as noble Lords will remember, sat beside me in this corner of the Chamber for the past 15 years since we moved across from the other side of the House, however unwillingly. David was a marvellous man. He was a loyal party man, but he was never a party hack. He always knew his own mind and he always behaved accordingly. When his party was correct, Lord Pitt supported it. When his party was mistaken, which was infrequently, Lord Pitt opposed it. I am happy to say that he and I went through the Opposition Lobby together hand in hand despite the blandishments of the Chief Whip on many occasions. I am very sad that I shall no longer be able to do that.

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Turning to the Question in my name on the Order Paper, noble Lords will notice that it is in three parts. It deals with cost burdens, with cost-benefit analysis—although that is somewhat in parentheses—and with the inspection role of the fire authorities. First, I should like to talk about cost. In its response to the interdepartmental review, the Fire Brigades Union, which has asked me to raise these matters (and I happily do so), identified cost implications in the following areas. It says that the:


    "Department of Environment will have to provide substantial ongoing financial support and secretariat provisions for the proposed National Advisory Panel.


    "The Department of Employment and HSC will have to provide substantial financial support for the legal implications of carrying through the proposals to make the Fire Precautions Act 1971 a relevant statutory provision of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 plus the long-term and ongoing costs of becoming the policy maker for all fire safety legislation.


    "Business will pick up substantial costs of the move from the existing fire certification procedures to one of producing their own and self compliance with regulations".

The union considers that those recommendations in those areas are nothing less than a consultants' charter. As a consultant myself, I may waver in my support of the union, but I know what it means. It means that the authorities will have to pay someone to do the work previously done by the fire brigade and its associates.

The union also states:


    "Local and the new unitary authorities will pick up significant costs from the proposals relating to building control procedures supplanting the role of the fire authority, costs will escalate and must either be borne or passed on to clients in increased building regulation fees".

It ends by stating:


    "Central government must be prepared to inject substantial amounts of public money into two Government Departments".

That is the union's considered view of the interdepartmental scrutiny review.

The report of the review claims that its proposals for building control authorities should not increase overall costs because the increases in costs will be balanced by savings elsewhere. It may well be right. On the other hand, as the union states:


    "Recommendation 21 proposes that building control authorities should have statutory responsibility for the entire building control process up to the occupation of the building, including the additional physical fire precautions currently catered for through fire certification under the Fire Precautions Act".

It points out that at the moment such certification is free.

The union refers to recommendations 24 and 25 of the report which state that building control authorities should issue occupational certificates in respect of all buildings at the end of the building control process in so far as their use is known. The union continues:


    "These proposed measures, and the extension of the role of the Building Control Authority into the role of the Fire Authority will have to be paid for. Building Control Departments have to be self-financing and when their role or ... the building control approval process is extended as the Report recommends then the customer"—

that is business—


    "must pay. It cannot be financed in any other way".

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It is now proposed that the present system of certification by fire authority should be replaced by the customer taking responsibility. To all intents and purposes, that is self certification. At present there is no charge for certification apart from a modest administration fee. However, at paragraph 148 the review now proposes that the owner or occupier of premises should carry out his own fire risk assessment and from that assessment he should then determine what measures are necessary to safeguard the persons in the premises and to address the risks of fire to them. In the union's view—I believe that it is correct —that must impose costs on business. An example is given. At present, for a business using the present fire certification system of a large fire brigade in the West Midlands area, and a sliding scale of charges based on the number of employees on the premises, or beds in a hotel as the case may be, the cost ranges between £87 and £223 for the production and issue of a fire certificate. Replacement certificates cost about half as much.

The union now estimates that for an owner or occupier to produce the fire certificate plans necessary to meet the review team's proposals would cost a minimum of £500. That is based on professional charges for architects, architectural technicians and other consultant advisers before the costs of the consultants surveying the premises, monitoring the works, liaising with the fire authority and other enforcers are taken into account. It estimates that the scale of charges would escalate to a minimum lower range figure of at least £2,000; and if the company decided to employ its own person to do that work, the average salary range might be in the nature of £18,000 a year, or possibly more.

It has been proposed to add a national advisory panel to the existing system. That is a new tier to be added to the existing arrangements. At present the fire safety standards for new buildings are drawn up by the British Standards Institution (BSI). It is a well known and respected body in the construction and engineering world. The BSI is partly supported by the taxpayers and partly by the sale of its various publications. If the recommendations of the review team are implemented, the additional new advisory panel will mean that taxpayers will be asked to subsidise another committee. In addition to paying for the BSI, which taxpayers already do in part, they will be asked to pay for the national advisory committee too. That would involve additional cost.

The review proposes transferring the role of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The cost implications are admitted by the review body. The review team states:


    "We recognise that our recommendations will inevitably generate a considerable new workload for both the Home Office and the Health and Safety Executive which will not be reflected in their current PES allocations. We consider, however, that this is an example of a need to spend in the short term to save in the long term. HSE believe that an outcome of our recommendations could be that they would need significant extra resources".

The review body indicates a number of areas in which those resources would be required. At all events, the review team admits that there are cost implications in its proposals if they are put into operation.

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The second part of my Question relates to the cost benefit analysis. There is little to say on that except that the review body merely admits that it did not conduct a cost benefit analysis. The reason was presumably that it did not have time to do so. I believe that such a cost benefit analysis ought to be done before any of the recommendations are implemented.

The last part of my Question relates to whether it can be guaranteed that the existing inspection role of the fire authorities will not be reduced if the recommendations of the review are adopted. The problem is that by subsuming the Fire Precautions Act into the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act there will be no direct policy-making line for the fire authorities as exists at present. That is because the new regulations under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 come under the Department of Employment and not the Home Office, which has the responsibility for the fire service. I do not wish to go into the detailed implications, but the Fire Brigades Union fears that the fire service role in fire safety would under those arrangements become no more than one of policing the work of other people. It would no longer be an integral part of fire safety.

I have little to add save that the Fire Brigades Union has asked me to make a statement on its behalf. There are several paragraphs and I shall not burden the House with the detail. At the end it states:


    "if the members of the fire service are good enough to fight fires in buildings and to rescue persons from buildings on fire and from time to time risk their lives in so doing, then they are equally good enough to have a voice in how those buildings are designed, constructed and legislated for".

I believe that the review suffered from a defect which is not uncommon among the various efficiency scrutiny reviews which the Government have undertaken. They have all been hurried and have produced their reports within a relatively short time. It is fair to say that none of the scrutiny efficiency reviews has gone into its subject in sufficient detail and this one is no exception.

7.52 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I confess to being an amateur in this subject and the consensus that I have identified from those whom I have consulted on the paper is that it is extremely complex. From my position of little knowledge I can see the confusion that the review team has sought to address, including who is responsible for what—in other words, who carries the can. I mention it because in the context of questions of cost addressed by my noble friend Lord Howie, costs must be balanced against accountability.

The current legislation has been described to me as being "mosaic-like". One of the parts of the mosaic is that the different geographical areas have different regulations. I am told that London has the best regulations. That comment was made by an architect and he may have a biased view.

It certainly cannot be to the public benefit that there are problems of accountability. In the recommendations in support of the current controls and the mention of simpler and less costly systems, one might be worried about the consequences of allowing people or organisations that are less publicly accountable to

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exercise regulatory control over premises. I appreciate that single-family dwellings may not come within that. If there is to be a new group of inspectors—perhaps the same people but under a new denomination—there must be appropriate criteria for their qualifications, experience and expertise.

I have been interested in the interface between the regulations and insurance which the review has thrown up. I am attracted by the notion that one might perhaps distinguish between hazard to life and potential damage to fabric and possibly look at new regulations and new assessments distinguishing between those two areas of hazard. After all, in the area of motor insurance there is mandatory cover for one area of potential damage but not for others. Perhaps that analogy can be extended to the building industry.

For the construction industry and for building owners—I appreciate that there are problems between those two groups —it might be a matter of insurance to deal with the fabric of the building. That would mean that insurance companies would begin to write the rules as to how fabric risks should be assessed. I do not necessarily advocate that as the way forward, but it throws up some interesting considerations. There should certainly be mandatory cover for potential personal injury, and in raising the question of insurance I do not suggest that inspection becomes unimportant. It is extremely important because it is no good discovering after the event that there has been a lapse. However, again applying the analogy of motor cars, cars are lethal weapons in the same way as dangerous buildings may be lethal weapons.

It must also be right that the construction industry has one or at least a limited number of points of contact in doing its work. It must be difficult enough in an industry where technologies are developing quite fast and there must be a natural wish—it is human nature—to shy away from responsibility. I have seen how tempting it is for professionals in different areas to suggest that a particular responsibility is that of someone else.

I can understand problems such as those that have been mentioned to me of Canary Wharf where new technology was applied. It had never been tried before in this country and therefore there had to be recourse to American standards for building many storeys of a building on top of a podium base which itself was particularly high. I mention that because I can understand the problems that professionals have in a changing world.

As regards the question of costs directly, the CBI has indicated that its member companies with the resources available have said that they will employ a surveyor specially trained to apply the law cost-effectively. However, that is not an option for small and medium-sized enterprises. They cannot simply go out and recruit new staff. The potential cost for them must be something of a worry. As the CBI comments, legislation should not become a consultant's charter which imposes extra costs on business under the banner of deregulation.

I turn now to specific points in the review document. First is the matter of high life-risk premises, as I believe they are termed; that is, premises where large numbers

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of members of the public gather. I agree with the comments about the need to retain a very high level of regulation for such premises. It is debatable how far simpler and less costly systems ought to apply, and there should be a cautious approach to modifying enforcement procedures for fire precautions in sports grounds, cinemas and other areas of public assembly. The comment which I have heard—and I repeat it because I believe that it is telling—is that those who have been involved in dealing with sports stadia in the aftermath of the Bradford fire will take some convincing that simpler and less costly control systems are worth investigating for such premises. Perhaps the main area on which the review should focus is low to normal risk buildings. If there is more concentration on the areas of public assembly, that in itself might damage the credibility of the work of the team.

Secondly, there is the matter of licensing in London, where conditions on fire safety and means of escape are included in licences and compliance with fire conditions is checked by local authority officers at the same time as compliance with other conditions. In other words, the local authority is the one-stop shop for licensing purposes. Under the review team's proposals the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority (LFCDA) would become responsible for fire safety and its officers would have to carry out checks in addition to checks by borough officers. So applicants would be faced with two enforcement agencies rather than the efficiency of the one inspection as at present. It has been estimated that the cost to the boroughs, which would have to be passed on to businesses, would be in the region of £2 million a year.

Thirdly, I turn to the matter of houses in multiple occupation, which are currently subject to the Housing Act 1985. In London the LFCDA is the fire authority; housing authorities consult with it on a regular basis but it carries out all the enforcement.

Allowing fire safety checks to be done by local authority officers, again as part of a package of overall checks, is a cost-effective approach—again a one-stop shop, in this case for the landlord. London boroughs are concerned about possible duplication, with the housing authority having to carry out its inspections in relation to its wider housing responsibilities and the fire authority having to carry out separate safety checks, again with the likelihood of greater costs both on the landlords and on local authorities.

I would be interested to hear from the Minister, if she is able to tell us tonight, about the response to the consultation document. I said a few minutes ago that the consensus seemed to be that this is a complex subject. No doubt consultees, with their particular experience, will have been able to be clearer than I confess I have been able to be on the subject matter. I cannot resist sharing with the House the bafflement that I experienced in response to an item early on (this is to show that I read as far as page xvi) which stated:


    "We recommend ... that fire authorities should be given a statutory responsibility to promote public fire to the public"!

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I can only think that that must be a typing error. I delved into the report and I think the intention must have been to refer to "fire safety". The serious point is that if such an error can creep in, what does that indicate about the confusion of all of those who are involved in the process?

8.2 p.m.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, this report of the interdepartmental review team on fire safety legislation and enforcement came about because of the need to comply with a European directive. At the same time as the compliance cost for this directive was being calculated, the DTI's deregulation task forces were at work and this triggered a further review of fire regulation legislation and enforcement. That is the review that we are discussing.

Therefore there are two justifications for this review: cost and deregulation. My noble friend Lord Howie put the unions' view. I would like to put the commonsense view. Needless to say, our views coincide. First, let us look at cost.

No cost-benefit analysis has been done on this review—apparently because the committee was asked to report within 90 days and did not have sufficient time to prepare one. However, the report states:


    "The costs involved should be marginal and recoverable from the fees charged".

The report goes on to say that the increase in fees at the building control stage should be balanced by the simpler and cheaper certification procedure when the building is ready for occupation. However, at present safety inspection certification is virtually free and is done by fire officers who double as fire-fighters. That seems sensible to me. The fire-fighters have every incentive to make sure that the safety regulations are enforced, because it is they who risk their lives if the regulations are not properly carried out.

The review team, however, proposes (in paragraph 146, which my noble friend Lord Howie quoted) that owners or occupiers of premises should carry out their own fire risk assessment and determine the measures necessary to address the risk of fire. However, as there is no stated recommendation to reduce the number of fire-fighters as a result of reducing their inspection duties, perhaps the Minister can tell us where the savings will come from.

Therefore, the whole question of cost savings from these recommendations is very unclear. It appears to me that, if there are any, they will be achieved by charging owners and occupiers of buildings for the services which at present they receive virtually free. But owners and occupiers of buildings do not consider them to be free. They consider them to be services which they receive in return for their business rates. This is hardly an encouragement to the business community. Perhaps the real intention is to keep fees down by creating some sort of internal market wherein the fire service competes with self-certification or outside consultants.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised the question of insurance. That must be a further concern for business owners and occupiers. Will insurance companies charge the same premium on a building that

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is certified after inspection by the fire service as on one that is certified after self-compliance by the owner? I very much doubt it. Indeed, the review team seems to have ignored this matter entirely. Yet if the insurance companies insist on inspection by the fire service instead of self-compliance, the whole review will have been pointless.

I now turn to the matter of deregulation. Deregulation is to be achieved by self-compliance, as with other health and safety regulations. Is the Minister sure that the enforcement of the normal health and safety regulations can be compared with the enforcement of the fire regulations? Usually a failure in enforcement in health and safety only affects the people in the factory or office concerned, whereas a failure in fire regulations can affect the whole community. Premises with poorly enforced fire regulations can burn down adjoining premises which have excellently enforced fire regulations. Failure to comply can do a lot of damage to others. Perhaps these regulations are more comparable to the MoT test rather than the normal health and safety regulations: a car in poor mechanical condition can be a danger to the public. With motor cars there is no self-compliance. The owner has to take the car to a garage, where it is properly inspected and tested. I am not therefore convinced that fire is a suitable matter for deregulation by self-compliance.

In the final part of his Question, my noble friend Lord Howie asks whether the Government,


    "can guarantee that there will be no reduction in the existing inspection role of the Fire Authorities after the report's recommendations are in place".

I await the answer with interest. There must be an impact on the fire service. Large firms will comply because they will have the resources to carry out the work and pay the fire service for the consultation. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, pointed out, that will not necessarily be the case with small and medium-sized enterprises. Many will comply, but others may use consultants or do nothing.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, talked about a "consultant's charter". There are two kinds of consultant. I am concerned about the increasing pandering to vested interests of the wrong kind. In no way do I criticise consultants such as my noble friend Lord Howie, who has the special knowledge and skills that companies need from time to time. Rather I am concerned about consultants who advise companies how to operate the system to their best advantage and get round rules and regulations. Self-appraisal and self-regulation are spawning a great deal of this kind of consultancy. I think I detect a growing suspicion of it. Why create new opportunities for this type of consultancy when the job is being well done by the fire service? Is there a lack of trust and confidence in the fire service? There may be anecdotal evidence provided by bodies with a vested interest in deposing the fire service, but the review team was unable to find any general dissatisfaction. On the contrary, most people have trust and confidence in the fire service, where men and women put their lives at risk.

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This is not a case of nostalgia and sentimentality. It is a matter of the public being realistic. I, and I am certain most other people, would prefer to walk into a building and be reassured by seeing a fire certificate issued by the local fire brigade, which is known to be professional and long-standing, rather than a certificate issued by a consultancy of which perhaps no one has ever heard and which may no longer be in existence or may disappear as soon as there is trouble—perhaps advised by an insolvency consultant.

There is one final matter that I urge the Minister to consider. It is a cost which accountants cannot measure but about which managers feel very strongly; namely, the cost of demoralisation. That demoralisation will occur in the fire service if the recommendations of the interdepartmental review team are implemented, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Howie, told the House, the role of the fire service will be reduced to one of merely policing the fire safety laws and regulations. It is their contact with the public in enforcing the fire regulations and fighting fires that maintains their pride and high standards of service. Unless there are strong complaints about the fire service which this report does not reveal, it would be most unwise to risk demoralising the service for the sake of questionable deregulation and unknown financial savings. I hope that the Minister will take that into consideration. Certainly the public will feel its effect as they have done in the health, police and education services.

The question that I strongly recommend the Minister to ask the review team is: "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" These recommendations will only add to the extra costs of businesses by charging them for a service for which they think they are already paying. It will probably put up their insurance premiums. The enforcement of the fire regulations is too important to be left to the "market" of self-regulation.

8.12 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, for giving us the opportunity this evening to debate the important subject of fire safety.

But perhaps I could say at the outset that I should like to associate myself—and, if it were a more exciting time, those colleagues who would be behind me—with the comments that the noble Lord made about our beloved and much missed Lord Pitt of Hampstead. I cannot think of anybody more loved and more respected in this House. We shall miss him greatly.

As all noble Lords know, fire is a special risk. It is unlike any other in its scope and potential to cause damage and take lives. It can strike at home, in the workplace, or in places of entertainment or leisure. It is no respecter of place, circumstance, rank or title. A careless action by one individual—for example, propping open a fire door—can so easily endanger the lives of many others, even those quite remote from the source of the fire.

The promotion of fire safety, effective fire prevention measures and the enforcement of fire safety requirements, should therefore be matters of the highest

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importance to us all. Rightly, they are matters to which the fire service is devoting increasing attention. Up and down the land, firefighters of great courage are saving many lives each year, not just by tackling fires at whatever hour of the day or night that they occur but also by providing invaluable fire safety advice to businesses and the public on the best ways to prevent fire and how to make buildings as safe as possible for those who use them. That advice is based on first-hand experience in fighting fires and observing human behaviour in those conditions, together with specialised fire safety training. No other group of professionals can bring that unique blend of expertise to bear on fire safety issues.

Since 1971, when the Fire Precautions Act was brought into effect, we have seen a steady decline in the number of fire deaths, particularly in premises covered by the Act. It is widely agreed that it has been a success story. But the Government have been concerned for some time that the 1971 Act may not provide the most suitable legislative framework for a fire safety regime for the 1990s and beyond. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, reminded us of the changing nature of firefighting and the advent of technology, with all that it represents to the building and construction industry as well as to firefighting. That is why my right honourable friend the Home Secretary commissioned a review of the Act in 1993. The report was published last February. It recommended new fire safety legislation with a risk-based self-compliant approach. That report, together with the work of the Construction Industry Deregulation Task Force, paved the way for the interdepartmental review of fire safety legislation and enforcement to which the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, referred.

The recommendations of the interdepartmental fire safety scrutiny drew heavily on those of the earlier Home Office review of the Fire Precautions Act 1971. When its report was published in June last year, the Government gave it a general welcome and invited comments from those interested in and affected by its recommendations. The consultation period ended on 31st October. Over 450 separate responses were received. Given the importance of fire safety, the Government want to consider them very carefully and take into account the views of all those who have taken the time and trouble to respond.

In considering how to structure any new fire safety regime, the Government are committed to maintaining fire safety standards at the same time as minimising the overall burdens on those involved. In its report, the scrutiny team argued that those twin objectives could be secured by following its recommendations. I believe that it can take some encouragement from the fact that most respondents have given the report a broad welcome. There is strong and widespread agreement that the present arrangements can be improved and should be changed.

In addition to providing their written responses, there have been opportunities for interested parties to discuss the findings and recommendations of the scrutiny. I myself chaired a meeting of the Central Fire Brigades

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Advisory Council at which representatives from different parts of the fire service community told me of their reactions to the recommendations. I know that throughout the country seminars have been hosted by various professional bodies to provide a forum for discussion.

The Government welcome the widespread debate and believe that it will contribute towards finding a fire safety regime which will maintain the high standards of fire safety to which the public are entitled, while at the same time reducing the burden on business and enforcing authorities.

The Government plan to announce their preliminary views on a possible way forward within the next few months. We shall then want to discuss those preliminary conclusions with interested parties, particularly since we recognise that it will not be possible to assess any new scheme properly until some flesh is put on the bones of the framework provided by the scrutiny and the details are worked out.

The Government will be looking to members of the fire community, building control officers and other interested parties to participate fully in that process, to ensure that the dual objectives of maintaining standards and minimising burdens are achieved.

When the Government consider whether to implement the scrutiny recommendations, and if so in what way, we shall place particular emphasis on looking at both the costs and benefits of the propositions before us. That aspect of our consideration of the most appropriate way forward will be particularly important, because no cost-benefit analysis of its proposals was put forward in the report of the interdepartmental scrutiny. That, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, was because there had been insufficient time. The scrutiny had to be completed within the normal 90 working days allowed for it.

The noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, specifically asked whether the Government could guarantee that the inspection and role of the fire authorities would not be reduced in any fire safety scheme. As I made clear, the Government have not yet taken any decisions on the recommendations. For that reason I am not in a position to offer a guarantee as such. However, it is quite clear from the scrutiny report —and indeed from the reports of other scrutineers which have touched on the enforcement role of fire authorities—that there is no evidence of any widespread dissatisfaction with the job that the fire service is now doing in this area. Quite the contrary, the fire service is one of the most respected and well loved services in the country. Many respondents have gone out of their way to plead that its enforcement role should be left untouched. That was also broadly the conclusion of the interdepartmental scrutiny.

When we consider the possible future role of the fire service, we must never lose sight of its very special fire safety expertise. The three strands of the fire brigades' work—fire fighting, fire investigation and fire safety—are closely linked, each one feeding into and informing responses to others. The Government would need to be

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convinced that the benefits outweighed the advantages before doing anything which might disturb that complex interplay of functions.

A number of points were raised. I shall not be able to cover them all, but I shall do my best to cover the main ones. First, an accusation, given voice by the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, but from the FBU, said that the guidance was something of a consultant's charter. I do not agree. I believe the fears that it is something of a charter for consultants is unfounded. Owners and occupiers of most premises will be able to do the required risk assessment and decide on the appropriate fire safety arrangements without any need for professional advice. The guidance that we produced in connection with places of work regulations was warmly welcomed as user friendly and easy to understand.

During our compliance cost exercise we asked over 80 small firms for their views on whether they would be able to undertake the requirements without resorting to consultants. The majority of them were confident that they could do that. Naturally, there will be some complex buildings, usually owned by big businesses or organisations, which will require professional expertise. But in many instances companies already have well-trained fire safety officers who are able to undertake the work for them. The Government do not believe that the proposals are a consultant's El Dorado.

Reference was made to small businesses. We shall in particular look closely at the effects of any proposed changes on small businesses. For example, we shall be concerned that if a new system were to be based on self-compliance, small businesses should not be forced to seek the advice of consultants to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations. We shall be concerned also if new arrangements were to make it more difficult for occupiers to obtain advice from fire brigades. I know that many businesses value highly that source of information.

Quite a lot of reference was made to the transfer of enforcement responsibilities to building control. Apart from the issue of fire risk, which is the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive, a transfer of that kind would mean that there would be one enforcing authority for fire precaution matters from the construction of a building and throughout its occupation. However, a number of significant obstacles would need to be overcome. There would be considerable cost implications. For example, there would be a need for a wide-ranging programme of training for building control officers in general fire precaution matters were building control authorities to take over the enforcement role from fire authorities. By way of comparison, at present a fully trained fire prevention officer will have received 20 weeks of specialised fire training in addition to any basic training in fire safety that he received in his brigade.

There would be considerable resource implications for building control authorities in inspecting general fire precautions in occupied buildings. Each year fire authorities in England and Wales carry out over 800,000 inspections of premises. Many fire authority personnel who carry out those inspections, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, pointed out, also have operational fire-fighting

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responsibilities. One could not simply transfer to building control authorities from fire authorities the necessary resources were building control authorities to take over the inspection function. The alternative would be to accept lower levels of inspection. It is inevitable that that would lead to a lowering of existing levels of fire safety which we, as a government, would find unacceptable. There would be other disadvantages in removing responsibility for enforcement from fire authorities. There is important cross-fertilisation between fire authorities' operational work, fire investigation work and fire safety and enforcement responsibilities. Each strand feeds into and informs the others. We would therefore need to give serious consideration to that aspect of the report.

As with the burdens on other agencies, we seek to minimise the burdens placed on local authorities, for example. That is one consideration we shall wish to take into account in considering any proposals for changes in fire safety regulations. We shall wish to examine carefully the likely cost of any proposed new fire safety regime before deciding what, if any, changes should be made. Against the background of the Government's commitment to reduce burdens, it would clearly be a nonsense to introduce changes which would have the effect of increasing them. We shall look carefully at the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Howie and Lord Haskel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, regarding what they said on costs that may be incurred by central government, local authorities and businesses. As I said, we have no wish to create a consultant's charter.

The extra bureaucracy created by adding the fire advisory panel was mentioned. We have no wish to create extra layers of bureaucracy or unnecessary new advisory committees. But there is a clear need for one consistent set of fire safety standards. That must be our goal and we shall consider carefully how that can best be achieved and whether it needs the creation of a new advisory body.

Another point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, concerned fire safety policy moving to the Health and Safety Executive. The scrutiny team did not recommend that fire safety policy should rest with the Health and Safety Commission. However, I understand why some noble Lords may think that that may happen if fire safety legislation was in future subsumed under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, and I can assure the House that the Government have not taken any decisions at all in that regard. Even if we decide to take forward the recommendations of the scrutiny report about subsuming fire safety legislation into the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, that does not mean that the policy responsibilities would move from my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

As I made clear earlier, fire safety is one of the three key tasks of the fire brigade, linking closely with fire fighting and fire investigation. But the Home Office is responsible for all the fire brigades' activities and it would therefore be difficult to contemplate fire safety policy being filleted out of the Home Office's responsibility. That is all the more important if the fire service is to have a coherent policy for tackling fire

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which emphasises prevention as well as fire fighting. I am assured that the fire service will always be fully consulted whatever government department holds responsibility for fire safety policy. But the point is well noted.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised an important point in relation to houses in multiple occupation. I remind the House that, in addition to the scrutiny recommendations in regard to houses in multiple occupation, the Government issued a consultation paper concerning the feasibility of introducing a licensing scheme for houses in such occupation and that document is out for consultation until the middle of February.

Houses in multiple occupation present a particular problem, not least with the question of definition. In the Housing Act the current definition is:


    "A house which is occupied by persons who do not form a single household".

That is a wide definition, as the scrutiny recognised. Though the wide definition of a house in multiple occupation makes it difficult to be precise in regard to the number of fires and fire deaths in such premises, it is generally accepted that they represent a greater risk than ordinary single, private domestic dwellings. However, houses in multiple occupation provide much needed accommodation for those who might otherwise have nowhere to live. Such premises are often at the lower end of the housing market. Over the years there have been a number of fires with tragic consequences in houses in multiple occupation. Your Lordships may remember the fire in Scarborough last year which resulted in two fatalities.

Fire safety in houses in multiple occupation is covered by provisions in housing legislation. As we know, it is enforced by local authorities, which are required not only to consider the fire safety of such premises but also other matters, including health and safety generally, as well as questions of hygiene. The scrutiny, in recommending that fire safety in houses in multiple occupation should be included in any new general fire legislation enforced by fire authorities acknowledged at the same time the need to ensure that local authorities would remain a party to any enforcement action which fire authorities might take, given the possible implications for the occupants. We shall wish to consider whether the advantages of local authorities retaining a holistic approach to houses in multiple occupation would be outweighed by those which would accrue from consolidating in general fire safety legislation fire safety in houses in multiple occupation.

The effectiveness of self-compliance was a point touched on in some detail by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. I am not sure that I share the view that self-compliance is non-compliance. The vast majority of the British public are well accustomed to the concept of

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self-compliance in every walk of life. They are well aware of the dangers of fire and the speed with which people can be trapped and lose their lives when fires break out. There is no reason to think that owners and occupiers of premises will neglect the fundamental fire safety requirements and there is every reason to think that, by encouraging people to take personal responsibility for fire safety, rather than wait for the fire brigade to come, often when it is too late, and tell them exactly what to do or what they should have done, we can achieve and maintain high safety standards. After all, we already have a measure of self-compliance in Section 9A of the Fire Precautions Act 1971, and very few lives have been lost in those premises.

We must also remember that self-compliance will only work if it is coupled with a sensible enforcement regime, which I am confident the fire authorities would provide. One of the reasons for proceeding with the proposed places of work regulations would be to assess just how well a self-compliance regime would work out in practice.

The points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Howie and Lord Haskel, about the prospect of additional costs being borne by businesses are clearly a matter at which the Government will need to look closely. We will certainly ensure that this debate informs that thinking and we will be considering the point carefully when we review businesses' response to the report and its recommendations.

This has been an important and interesting debate, although I am conscious that we have this evening been able to touch on only a few of the issues underlying this important subject of fire safety. The Government are aware of the importance of the decisions which we shall shortly be making as we consider how we might best adapt the legislative framework and enforcement arrangements which have already done much to reduce the loss of life and property in fires. But we think that it is a task that should now be faced. Many things have changed since 1971 and the law should take account of that.

We believe that it should be possible to introduce new arrangements which safeguard and, if possible, strengthen, existing standards while reducing the burdens on business and enforcers. I have taken careful note of the points which your Lordships have made this evening and I will ensure that those are properly taken into account when the Government decide on their response to the scrutiny report. After all, I am the Minister who has this matter on her portfolio and I will be vigilant and rigorous in my scrutiny of it.

Lord Howie of Troon: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may thank her for that full and careful reply to my Question. It will require further study. I especially thank her for her very warm and moving reference to my late noble friend.

        House adjourned at twenty-eight minutes before nine o'clock.

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