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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 15 November 2017

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Building and Fire Safety (Ministerial Working Group), Prejudice-based Bullying and Harassment in Schools, and Personal and Social Education, Business Motion, Decision Time, Point of Order, Sport and Leisure Sector (Barclay Review Recommendations)


Building and Fire Safety (Ministerial Working Group)

The next item of business is a statement by Angela Constance, who will provide an update on the ministerial working group on building and fire safety. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


I am sure that I speak for everyone in this chamber when I say that our thoughts and deepest sympathies remain with all those affected by the tragic events at Grenfell tower. Since those events in June, we have taken steps to strengthen building regulations and fire safety in Scotland.

The ministerial group has been focused on three key areas: reassuring the public of the steps that we have taken to ensure such a tragedy will not happen in Scotland, establishing the fire safety of high-rise domestic buildings and improving the fire safety and compliance of building standards.

Following the Grenfell fire, it was of paramount importance to reassure the public that our high-rise buildings are safe from fire. I thank the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service for the immense work that it has undertaken in that endeavour, which I will highlight. The service has distributed more than 60,000 comprehensive fire safety leaflets, carried out about 890 operational assurance visits to high-rise domestic properties and made more than 1,200 individual home fire safety visits. Those activities gave the public visible and tangible reassurance at a time when the tragic events of Grenfell were understandably causing great anxiety.

The ministerial working group asked the fire service to extend and refresh its multistorey fire safety campaign. The campaign, which was launched on 18 October, gives information and advice on what to do if there is a fire in a high-rise building, and it promotes fire safety advice about living in high-rise buildings. It will run for the remainder of this year.

Following the tragic events at Grenfell, it became clear that the aluminium composite material—ACM—used on the tower’s cladding system contributed to the rapid spread of fire. That product, which was first certified for use in 2008, became the focus of checks across the United Kingdom.

In Scotland, applications for building warrants for high-rise domestic buildings and building regulations in force from May 2005 do not permit use of the same type of ACM as that found on Grenfell tower. The ministerial group nonetheless sought to verify whether any high-rise domestic buildings in Scotland were completely clad in the same ACM.

I want to be clear about ACM: its presence does not necessarily mean that a building is defective or dangerous. As the UK Government’s full-scale fire tests have demonstrated, some grades of ACM used with the right insulation can mean that an overall cladding system is fire resistant enough to be used on high-rise buildings. It is the type of ACM and the extent of its use that are key in determining fire risk.

The ministerial working group took a risk-based approach that focused on establishing the presence of ACM cladding on domestic buildings over 18m, as well as on non-domestic buildings where people might sleep, such as hospitals and care homes. Schools were also prioritised. The nature and scale of that work are such that it is resource intensive, and I want to express my gratitude to local authorities and others for their responsiveness to our requests, which helped to establish the extent of the use of ACM.

Thirty-one local authorities reported that no public or private domestic high-rise block was completely clad in ACM. As members know, Glasgow City Council reported that ACM had been found on private high-rise buildings that were granted building warrants before 2005. Two of those have extensive ACM. The council is working closely with the owners to ensure that fire safety measures are upgraded and that a long-term solution is agreed.

Our request for information from local authorities showed that having a clear nationwide picture of our high-rise building stock would be helpful in informing our future work, so the group has commissioned the compilation of a comprehensive inventory of domestic high-rise buildings over 18m, which will include reference to construction type and fire safety features. That work is expected to be complete by spring 2018, at which point we will consider how it can be maintained in the future.

The ministerial working group is determined to do all that it can to ensure that the fire safety and building standards that are expected in the buildings that we live in are as strong and effective as they can be, so I want to outline to the chamber the other steps that we have taken.

As I said, building regulations relating to the fire safety of cladding systems were strengthened in 2005 to ensure that cladding on domestic high-rise buildings was non-combustible and met the most stringent fire test at the time. We are not complacent. Further to our original request for and receipt of information on all high-rise buildings over 18m, the group has decided to seek additional reassurance from local authorities with respect to pre-2005 high-rise domestic properties and high-rise non-domestic buildings with sleeping accommodation. We are doing so to ensure that we have captured information on all relevant building types and that nothing has been missed.

In addition, the ministerial working group has commissioned three reviews. The first is a review of building standards relating to fire safety, the purpose of which is to ensure that our regulations are robust and clear. That review, which is being chaired by Dr Paul Stollard, is already under way. Its scope covers high-rise domestic buildings, including student accommodation, and high-rise non-domestic buildings with sleeping accommodation, such as hotels and hospitals. It will focus on standards that cover fire spread on external walls and in cavities, spread to and from neighbouring buildings, and escape and automatic fire suppression systems.

The review will draw on the expertise of fire and building design specialists from academia and industry, and it will look beyond Scotland to learn from international best practice. Recommendations for improvement will be shared with a global group of experienced building fire safety regulators from the USA, Australia, the Netherlands and Austria, thereby ensuring that any required changes reflect the latest expertise from across the world.

The second review is a review of enforcement of and compliance with building standards. Earlier this year, the Scottish ministers undertook to consider the findings of the independent inquiry into the construction of Edinburgh schools. That comprehensive review, which will be chaired by Professor John Cole, will examine the roles and responsibilities of everyone who is involved in all elements of construction, from start to finish. It will consider the actions that need to be taken before a building warrant is granted and a completion certificate is accepted. It will also consider the risk-based approach to reasonable inquiry by local authority verifiers before they accept a completion certificate, and the role of certification in the construction journey. In addition, it will reflect on any issues that are identified regarding wind calculation and the installation of external wall insulation that may require further action.

The fact that people of such high calibre are leading those reviews, along with the wealth of expertise of the members of each of the review groups, demonstrates the support that we have to get this right. The recommendations of those reviews will lead to a consultation that will start next spring.

The third review is of Scotland’s fire safety regime for high-rise domestic properties, to ensure that it is fit for purpose and provides comprehensive protection for residents. The review, which will be led by the Scottish Government, will begin this month and will identify changes required to legislation or practice, including whether the roles and responsibilities of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service should be expanded. Together, the three reviews will ensure that we improve our practices and have robust building standards and fire safety regulations.

The ministerial working group has also developed a comprehensive strategic plan of activity, including consulting on consolidated and strengthened fire safety guidance for buildings where people sleep and on a minimum safe standard for fire and smoke alarms in Scottish homes. Our work will be closely involved with the on-going United Kingdom review of building standards, ensuring that any key lessons are applied here in Scotland, too.

I hope that that overview of the current work of the ministerial working group reassures Parliament that the Scottish Government is committed to learning lessons and taking action to make our buildings safe. As part of that, we will continue to keep a watching brief on the UK Grenfell public inquiry and will be ready to respond to any new evidence that comes to light.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on issues that were raised in her statement. I intend to allow 20 minutes for questioning. It will be helpful if members who wish to ask a question press their request-to-speak buttons. Members should also bear it in mind that we will be able to get in everyone who wishes to ask a question only if we have quite short questions and answers.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement. We welcome the reviews of building standards, and we welcome enforcement of and compliance with the standards and the fire safety regime. However, the Local Government and Communities Committee has already looked at those things and come up with comprehensive recommendations for improving building regulations and standards. In other words, the reviews that have been announced today will duplicate work that has already been done.

First, in that case, can the cabinet secretary confirm whether she is minded to accept any of the committee’s recommendations?

Secondly, the cabinet secretary mentioned cladding. On 21 September, she told Parliament that the Government was informed on 5 September that some flats in Glasgow might have ACM cladding, but we have email evidence that suggests that the Government knew three weeks earlier than that. Can Angela Constance confirm exactly when Government officials and ministers were told about that cladding?

I thank Mr Simpson for his question and, indeed, his welcome for the various reviews and the work that the ministerial working group has either commenced or is taking forward.

I dispute his suggestion that our work will duplicate the Local Government and Communities Committee’s review. It is fair to say that there will, at times, be overlaps, but we very much welcome the committee’s diligent hard work and will give a full response to it, in due course. Of course, there will be a debate on the committee’s work in the very near future. Without pre-empting that, I say that I am sure that we will be mindful and accepting of some of the committee’s recommendations. However, we must give all matters careful consideration, so it would be wrong of me to pre-empt our close scrutiny of the committee’s work in the few minutes that I have today.

With regard to cladding, Graham Simpson raised the issue of verification. We have been transparent about the work that we are leading in the ministerial working group, and we are always happy to provide more detail. It is important to stress that we have received over the past few months—and continue to receive—information from concerned people, whether they be building owners or local authorities, and that at times we have had to dig deeper to clarify what that information is saying.

Graham Simpson

What about Glasgow City Council?

I do not accept Mr Simpson’s characterisation and presentation of the facts in respect of Glasgow. As I have said in the chamber previously, there has been intensive engagement between Scottish Government officials and Glasgow City Council officials to clarify what the issues are and their nature, and to get specific information. It is imperative, when we get to our feet with information, that our information is accurate.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is the Scottish Government’s duty to give confidence to the public that all our buildings have, or will achieve, the correct standard of fire safety, regardless of whether they are in the public sector or the private sector, so that all residents and tenants have equal protection?

Is the cabinet secretary fully aware that aluminium composite material cladding is present in both towers at Glasgow harbour, and that that was signed off in 2005-06? I hope that she agrees that that in itself warrants questions. Is it fair that residents at Glasgow harbour are being charged for fire-warden patrols? Surely residents should not pay the price of that poor decision.

Finally, I thank the expert working group for all the work that it has done so far. Will the cabinet secretary consider the inclusion of the Fire Brigades Union in that group as an added voice at the table of experts?

The Government does, indeed, have a duty to ensure that we have the very best standards and that they are put into practice. Parliament is aware of many issues that relate to the buildings in Glasgow that Pauline McNeill cited, and to the Edinburgh schools inquiry, and which have raised a number of detailed questions about building standards, and about regulations stating things when perhaps other things are happening in practice. That is why we have taken the move to commission a review into enforcement and compliance. That is not just in response to Grenfell; it is also in response to the Edinburgh schools inquiry.

We do not demur from the Government’s responsibilities, but it is important to stress that others apart from the Government—including local government, building owners and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service—have very clear roles and responsibilities. The work on fire-related building standards and the regulatory framework for high-rise domestic buildings, and the broader work relating to enforcement and compliance, are to ensure that everybody has the correct roles and responsibilities.

On the point about the FBU, the group that I chair is an internal ministerial working group, on which I am ably assisted by Annabelle Ewing and Kevin Stewart. We are working very hard to be informative, transparent and helpful so that people are informed and can access the work that we do. We are, of course, outward looking and, as ministers, we are always happy to engage separately with the FBU, industry experts or anyone else who has an interest in engaging and helping us on the important journey that we are on.

On the Glasgow situation, I accept that residents and building owners have found themselves in a very difficult situation that is not of their making. It is, of course, not the norm for the Government to provide, direct to home owners, financial assistance of the nature that I think Ms McNeill touched on. It is important that Glasgow City Council, in its work with factors and residents, comes quickly to a clear understanding, in order that it can scope out what work is required for a longer-term solution. It has asked City Building to do some work on that. Obviously, that will give a view on overall costs. However, in dealing with the here and now, it was imperative that interim safety measures be put in place to keep residents safe in their homes.

I know that the cabinet secretary wants to be thorough on such an important subject, but I ask her to give shorter answers. That will allow everyone to get in. Questioners should also bear that in mind.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her statement and welcome the three review streams that she detailed in it. However, I seek an assurance that the Scottish Government will be able to respond timeously and effectively to any matters that might arise as a consequence of its review streams, or the public enquiry into the Grenfell tower fire.

Yes, is the short answer. We established the ministerial working group very quickly after the tragic events at Grenfell; it has met seven times. We are working hard to engage with colleagues in the UK Government and the other devolved Administrations. We are also keeping a close eye on the Hackitt review of building standards south of the border—Kevin Stewart and I have engaged with Judith Hackitt on that. We will continue to monitor the public inquiry on Grenfell. The working group’s remit allows it to deal with any other matters that are pertinent or desired.

I note from the cabinet secretary’s statement that she wishes to seek additional reassurances from local authorities with respect to pre-2005 high-rise domestic properties and non-domestic high-rise buildings with sleeping accommodation. What measures are being taken to achieve those reassurances, and what are they?

In essence, we want to go back to the local authorities, and we are currently in the middle of drafting correspondence. We want to take a belt-and-braces approach and to dig deep. We are conscious that the area is somewhat complex and that buildings that were intended to be, for example, student accommodation are perhaps now occupied as more traditional residential homes. I want to be assured, as, I am sure, members do, that we are capturing all the necessary and relevant information.

In terms of our risk-based approach, it is entirely appropriate that we also take a look at high-rise buildings that are not considered to be domestic but in which people sleep at night. We will keep Alexander Stewart and others informed about the nature of those inquiries and the detail of the requests that we make to our partners in local government.

The Local Government and Communities Committee did, indeed, conduct an inquiry into buildings and fire safety. I hope that the Scottish Government will be in a position to respond formally to the committee’s inquiry report ahead of next week’s debate. One conclusion in our report is that there should be a national high-rise inventory with regard to fire safety and that it should be regularly updated, be speedily accessible and potentially carry additional information. Does the fact that the Scottish Government is now seeking additional information and reassurances from councils not strengthen the view that it should accept that very specific recommendation regarding an inventory?

There is a good prospect of that specific committee recommendation being accepted and endorsed by the Government. As I said, though, I do not think that it is appropriate—prior to the debate or, indeed, to Mr Stewart’s formal response to the Local Government and Communities Committee—for me to speak too much about the matter, particularly given that the focus today is on the work of the ministerial working group. The important point is that the buildings inventory will give us an overview of the types of domestic high-rise buildings, their construction and their existing fire safety measures, which will help us to understand how improvements, including retrofitted sprinklers, could be made. Once we have gathered that information, the crucial issue will be how we keep it up to date, relevant and pertinent. I have heard Mr Doris speak about that previously.

The cabinet secretary will be well aware that, in Scotland, there have been no multi-fire deaths where working sprinklers have been in operation. Will the Stollard review address the issue of retrofitting sprinklers in high-rise domestic properties?

We are watching very closely Mr Stewart’s proposals for his planned member’s bill. I have had the opportunity to meet Mr Stewart to discuss those matters. As I said in my earlier reply, the work that we are doing on the inventory of high-rise buildings will give us a clear picture of the condition of the buildings and what it is physically and technically possible to do within them.

I know that Mr Stewart has a keen interest in that area, but it is not just work around the inventory that will be helpful in our future decisions. Work on the fire-related building standards is also important in that regard, as is our consultation on smoke and fire alarms, as there are a number of questions that touch on wider fire safety issues. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has also commissioned some joint research by the BRE Group and the Fire Industry Association, which we will look at in due course.

I thank the cabinet secretary for sending me an advance copy of her statement. On 27 September, the Minister for Local Government and Housing, Kevin Stewart, told the Local Government and Communities Committee that the remits of the Paul Stollard and John Cole reviews had not yet been agreed. I am not aware that they have been published yet. Can the cabinet secretary confirm whether they have been published and, if they have not, when they will be published?

We will attend to that matter imminently if it has not been addressed. We want to share that information with the committee and with all members who have an interest, so we will give an undertaking to do that as soon as possible.

The two buildings in Glasgow that have been mentioned are on the Glasgow harbour site in my constituency. Indeed, evidence received from constituents states that completion certificates were received after May 2005. What evidence has the working group received from Glasgow City Council that it is doing everything in its power to ensure that residents are kept informed of everything that is going on, including the on-going work, and that they are told where they can access further advice?

The issue around completion certificates is one of the many issues that the review panel on building standards compliance and enforcement will look at in further detail. Glasgow City Council has been keeping the ministerial working group updated regularly on the work that is going on at a local level and it remains proactive in addressing the situation of the two towers that Ms White has referred to. The council has written to property owners, detailing the actions that it has taken to date, including interim measures to improve the fire safety of the buildings that will allow residents to continue to live at home, and the work that will need to be done to remove and replace the cladding. If that does not capture everything that the constituency member requires, we will endeavour to write to her in the fullest detail.

I thank the cabinet secretary for giving me early sight of her statement—and, indeed, sight of the details of the three reviews. Given the on-going review that is taking place within the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the service’s existing well-publicised resource pressures, can the cabinet secretary give the chamber any indication of what expanded roles and responsibilities are being considered for the service as part of the review of the fire safety regime? Can she also assure Parliament that any expanded roles will be properly funded?

I do not want to pre-empt work where international experts are paying close attention to all those matters. Members will be aware that the fire safety legislation in Scotland is different from the legislation in England, which has sparked off a bit of a debate around the expansion—or not—of particular roles and responsibilities.

We must be fully cognisant of the resource implications of any decisions. I remind members that this year’s operational budget for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has increased by more than £21 million. It is also important to stress that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has stepped up to the plate and, since Grenfell, has undertaken more than 1,200 home visits including nearly 500 in Glasgow. It has also undertaken nearly 900 operational and intelligence visits to ensure that firefighters know the layout of buildings and to offer a visible reassurance to residents.

Can the cabinet secretary confirm the full extent, remit and scope of the review of high-rise domestic properties?

I am not sure that I understand which specific review Mr Corry is referring to. As I said, we have three reviews on-going. There is the building standards review of compliance and enforcement and the building standards review of fire-related safety standards—as I said to Mr Wightman, we will ensure that the remit of that review is published. There will also be a look at the regulatory framework, which will be far more about the day-to-day operations of domestic high-rise buildings.

We have set out a broad definition of what a high-rise building is that includes all buildings over two storeys, as we want to capture tenement buildings, for example. We have taken a broad-brush approach in order to capture different types of buildings that, using common sense, we would understand to be high rise although they are perhaps not 18m high or more. The review of the regulatory framework is also important for the work that we do around the roles and responsibilities of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and other major players in fire safety.

Will the comprehensive inventory of domestic high-rise buildings to which the cabinet secretary referred in her statement just pull together figures that councils already have, or will somebody else go out to Glasgow, Edinburgh and elsewhere and carry out an assessment from scratch?

We have procured the work for the inventory, and people will be able to tender for that work. We hope that it will be completed by next spring. There will be a fresh pair of eyes looking at the condition of domestic high-rise buildings in Scotland. In that regard, it is about cross-checking information and ensuring that we have no gaps, so that we have detailed knowledge of the conditions in and around fire safety and other matters relating to domestic high-rise buildings in Scotland.

If there is to be an expansion of the roles and responsibilities of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, how will they be fulfilled on a reduced budget and with fewer personnel?

I think that I answered that question earlier. Dealing with the here and now, the operational budget of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has increased this year. We are not prejudging any of the outcomes of the reviews that are being led by eminent international experts. There may or may not be an expansion of roles, but we will keep members fully informed of all deliberations that are carried out in the interests of building safety and the residents of Scotland.

That concludes questions on the cabinet secretary’s statement. I will allow a couple of moments before we move on to the next item of business. I apologise to Mr Lyle for not having been able to call him.