The Fire Safety Bill currently making its way through parliament – established in the wake of the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire – seeks to ensure that people feel safe in their homes and “help bring about meaningful change” to building safety. Here, Lesley Rudd, Electrical Safety First’s chief executive, explains why the bill doesn’t yet go far enough to achieve its aim – and how the charity is working to change this.
Electricity is so integral to our lives, people can easily forget the damage it can cause. It’s responsible for over 50% of domestic fires (more than 14,000) in England annually. That’s almost half of all accidental fires in the home. A domestic fire can not only cause hundreds of thousands of pounds of property damage, the human cost can be incalculable. And it can be particularly traumatic – and fatal – for those in higher-risk, vulnerable groups, such as older people, or those with a disability.
As it stands, the Fire Safety Bill now being introduced by Government focuses primarily on external walls, cladding, balconies, windows and doors. While we consider these are all fundamental to improving fire safety, the bill fails to tackle a vital element – the source of the ignition.
Electrical Safety First is calling for two amendments to the bill to help address this missing link. These focus on the safety of tower blocks or multi-occupancy buildings, and the safety of electrical products. The first amendment would make tower blocks subject to electrical safety checks every five years – regardless of tenure. Records of the inspection would be kept by the building’s responsible person or dutyholder, and made available to Fire and Rescue Services, Local Authorities and resident’s associations when required. Transparency and collaboration are key to the integrated approach to housing safety required by the Hackitt report.
The other amendment, if accepted, would require the responsible person or dutyholder to keep a register of white goods in the building and ensure they are registered with the manufacturer. In this way, they can be easily traced, should they be found to be faulty and therefore recalled. We strongly believe these amendments will not only reduce the risk of catastrophic high-rise fires should one occur, but also help prevent fires in the first place.
There are approximately 4,000 tower blocks in England, thought to contain over 480,000 individual flats. All tenants living in a multi-occupancy block can be at risk from a single incident, so it is important that they are all subject to the highest safety standards – the level of protection should not depend on tenure. Improving electrical safety in these buildings will protect hundreds of thousands of people. And, we have no doubt, significantly help in their peace of mind.
In recent years, a number of serious fires in tower blocks have been caused by white goods. The fire at Shepherds Court involved a recalled tumble dryer, while the one at Lakanal House was caused by an electrical fault in a TV. And the initial source of ignition at Grenfell has also been identified as electrical – a faulty fridge-freezer. Last year in England, there were 355 accidental electrical fires in purpose-built high-rise buildings. This figure has increased over the past three years, with 301 fires recorded in 2016/17 and 309 during 2017/18.
While we believe that the Government needs to introduce a range of measures to improve electrical safety in our homes – including establishing a fire prevention strategy and support for the most vulnerable – we consider the amendments I have outlined here as essential. And by including them in the forthcoming bill, the Government has the opportunity to make an immediate difference to the lives of all those who live in high-rise accommodation.
Following the Grenfell fire in 2017, Electrical Safety First urged the Government to improve electrical safety checks in tower blocks – and require building management companies to hold a register of the white goods in such properties. We have been calling for legislation to address these issues for some time now, in collaboration with the industry, the FRS and the Office for Product Safety and Standards. The Fire Safety Bill offers an excellent opportunity to improve tenant safety, by pro-actively identifying unsafe electricals in tower blocks. Our research has indicated that there could be millions of faulty recalled items in our homes, given the low level of registration. And it only takes one unsafe item to place everyone in the building at risk.
One objective of the bill is to clarify the role of a dutyholder, or responsible person for the fire safety of the building. Given the evidence, it seems clear that this should encompass essential product safety – through compiling and maintaining a register of every white good in the building. Relying on consumers to register and respond to recalls is ineffectual. And when the probability of fire spread and risk to people and property is exacerbated by high density housing, such as multi-storey apartments or blocks of flats, it simply isn’t enough.
Electrical Safety First led the campaign for regular electrical checks in England’s Private Rented Sector, as we did in Scotland, where they were launched in 2015. And we continue our engagement on this issue with the Devolved Governments in Wales and Northern Ireland – both of which have committed to implementing regular checks in the sector. But the charity has always fought to ensure that electrical safety is not a ‘tenure lottery’. So, we will continue to campaign for all people in tower blocks to have the highest standards of protection, regardless of who owns their property. Be assured, we are working on it.