James Sunderland backs the Fire Safety Bill

Speaking in the House of Commons, James Sunderland backs the Fire Safety Bill and calls for further legislation to make electrical safety checks obligatory for all tower blocks and for extra funding to be made available to Fire and Rescue Services to enable them to carry out the new powers invested in them in this Bill.

James Sunderland backs the Fire Safety Bill

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

In January of this year, I attended the graduation ceremony for on-call firefighters at the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service. This prestigious event was held at Easthampstead Park in Bracknell and involved 24 impressive young men and women rightly celebrating their hard work and success. As anybody in this place will know, we depend on our emergency services to keep us safe, so I wish to pay tribute to everybody in uniform, particularly at this time, for the outstanding work that they do on the frontline. One can only imagine the challenging experiences they face on a daily basis and I know that we should never take this for granted.

The graduation ceremony got me thinking: our fantastic fire services across the UK are ultimately employed as an insurance policy. Although they play a vital role to advise, plan and prevent, they also serve as a last resort to deploy to incidents when something has gone wrong, to protect life and property and to pick up the pieces when the human cost of not doing so becomes unacceptable.

We as policymakers have not just a moral obligation to protect those members of the public, who rightly expect the best possible regulatory framework, but a responsibility to those whom we always call on in unforeseen circumstances to perform their selfless duty and to ensure that they do not fall victim themselves to tragic circumstances. No one here needs any reminder that fire is a killer. I can vividly recall watching those awful pictures of Grenfell Tower on the news and subsequently seeing its charred shell while driving into London for work. One can only shudder at the unimaginable horror of those so gravely affected, not least the 72 men, women and children who lost their lives.

As a young teenager in 1985, I can also recall those terrible scenes of the Bradford City fire disaster playing out on television, with another 56 lives lost. As a regular football fan, it is clear to me that no one at any ​significant sporting, recreational or social event should unwittingly place themselves in harm’s way, and nor indeed should anyone in any public or private building—at their place of work or simply residing at home—feel vulnerable.

That is why I welcome the Bill. It is a much-needed piece of legislation and fulfils many objective purposes. As we know, it will amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 to clarify that the responsible person or duty holder for multi-occupied residential buildings must manage and reduce the risk of fire in respect of both the structure and external walls of the building, including cladding, balconies and windows, and in respect of entrance doors to individual flats that open on to common parts.

I can confirm, having informally consulted this week with the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service, that my local authority welcomes the fact that all services across England and Wales will be empowered to take enforcement action and hold building owners to account if they are not compliant. This will enable the authority to build on the proactive work it has already undertaken on high-rise residential buildings with unsafe cladding and to ensure that Berkshire residents are safe. It is also prudent that the Secretary of State will be given the power to amend the list of qualifying premises, that the Bill will enable rapid developments in the design of buildings, and that provisions will allow these requirements to be brought in over time, thereby allowing a pragmatic clause 2.

What of the future beyond the Bill? While I look forward to seeing the detail of the secondary legislation to ensure that the recommendations from the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase 1 report are implemented, there are two points in particular that I hope the Secretary of State will take away. First, the organisation Electrical Safety First has long advocated that electrical safety checks be obligatory in all tower blocks and that building management companies hold a register of white goods operating in those properties. Electricity causes more than 14,000 domestic fires a year, resulting in many deaths and injuries, so it is reasonable to suggest that electrical safety be included in any subsequent legislation.

Secondly, if we are to enable authorities such as the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service to deliver for their residents using the new powers, it is imperative that fair and sustainable funding be provided. Aside from the additional resources needed to identify who owns specific buildings, reasonable initiatives for council tax could be considered. Berkshire has been a historically prudent authority. The average householder in any constituency pays just £67 per year for their fire service. This is in the lower quartile of all fire authorities in the UK, yet the authority delivers an upper-quartile-quality fire service, as awarded by its 2019 inspection report. I therefore recommend the “fiver for fire” initiative to the Secretary of State, which would provide fire authorities with the flexibility to ensure that the right resources are in place. A few years ago, this was an additional allowance for fire services that could be put on to council tax—