Sir Mike Penning MP speaks in debate on Fire Safety Bill

29th April 2020
Sir Mike Penning speaks in the Fire Safety Bill and raises concerns about unsafe cladding, not just ACM, that remains on high rise buildings and the shortage of qualified engineers.
 
Sir Mike Penning MP speaking in the House of Commons, Fire Safety Bill

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which has already been published. I also declare an interest in that I used to be a fireman. I look across the Chamber trying to see Jim Fitzpatrick, but he has retired. His expertise, knowledge and balanced attitude in these debates over the years is something that we will miss a lot.

I am also almost fully responsible for it being the shadow Home Secretary who is representing the Opposition in this debate and it being my good friend the Security Minister, sunning himself in Kent, who is representing the Government. I convinced the then Prime Minister and then Home Secretary that the fire service should be part, along with the police, of the Home Office emergency provision. Sadly we have not yet gone as far as I would like, with the blue-light services coming under one ministerial umbrella. The regulations should have come across with the fire service responsibility. It should not two different Departments vying over it with the Cabinet Office being involved; it should be one Minister who is responsible for safety in our fire service.

I welcome this very short Bill, but I share some of the concerns about what is not in it—those will be talked about in the House today—and that the shadow Home Secretary has expressed.

It would be wrong for me not to praise and have deep-felt thoughts for those who lost loved ones and have been affected so much by Grenfell, including my former colleagues, the ambulance service and the police who saw things that night and in the following days that they never thought they would ever see in their careers. I was trained in high-rise, and I never thought I would see what I saw on television and subsequently when I drove past on my way into Westminster the following morning. I never dreamed that we would see double-glazing units fully alight falling out and coming down the side of a building, or that the cladding itself would be the perpetrator. However, the cladding is not the perpetrator of what happened at Grenfell; the perpetrator is who allowed it to be installed. Who did not do the checks? The inquiry will go into that. In the five minutes I have, I am not going to be able to go into that in depth, but what needs to come out is how this happened. I am sure that that is exactly what will come out in the inquiry.

It is not only ACM. Other fundamentally unsafe claddings are being put around buildings. I will come on to those in a second. I looked very carefully at the Local Government Association’s brief and I share some of its concerns. One of my biggest concerns is the shortage of engineers, to which the shadow Home Secretary alluded. When I was in the job, the firemen did that. We had guys who went away on specialist courses and they were responsible for the topography of their patch. They did those sorts of checks. It was not just the guys on appliances, but officers who had gone away and were trained to do so.

There is an anomaly that can be resolved in the Bill, or the subsequent Bill, to prevent that from happening. One thing that shocked me when I was first made the fire service Minister was that it is not possible for a local fire service to charge the local authority to do such inspections because it is not allowed to make a profit. That is against regulations when there is a shortage of engineers around the country. The other day, I was in a warden accommodation where the lovely folk said, “The firemen came around and said I couldn’t have a mat outside my front door.” The firemen did not come around and say that; that was a private contractor. Frankly, it is lunacy if you cannot have a mat outside your front door. What sort of problem that is going to be in a fire, I do not know. Perhaps they thought that people would throw them away. The point is that often it is the fire service that does a lot of those inspections, but very often it is not.

We could change the regulations tomorrow to allow the fire service to do what it wants to do, which is to be responsible for their ground on their patches, in a way that it is unable to do at the moment. Perhaps we could do that through an amendment in the short Committee stage, or perhaps we could do that in the future Bill as it comes forward, because it will be published in draft and we can do a lot of work on it. I will work across the House to help to get this right. The Security Minister has now disappeared from our screens, but I know he would be similarly encouraged to do so.

There is another major anomaly. The LGA’s brief says that it should not be responsible for properties owned by leaseholders. The leaseholder does not own the property—that is the freeholder—and they should not have the burden, which is currently on them all the time, day in, day out, in the Bill.

Hansard

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