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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament 19 January 2022

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Fire Alarm Standards, Local Government Funding, Education and the 2022 Examination Diet, Standards Commission for Scotland (Appointment of Member), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Asda Foundation


Contents


Fire Alarm Standards

The next item of business is a statement by Shona Robison on strengthened fire alarm standards. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement. There should be no interventions or interruptions.

14:58  

The law on fire alarms is changing from 1 February in Scotland. There have been calls for a further delay to the legislation but, having considered the balance of risks, I am clear that it is not right to delay legislation that is designed to protect and save lives.

Ensuring that people are safe from the risk of fire in their homes is a key priority for the Scottish Government. The improved standards will reduce the risk of injury and death from house fires. One death from fire in Scotland’s homes is one death too many.

Following the tragedy at Grenfell, the Scottish Government carried out a public consultation in 2017, which showed strong support for a new minimum standard for fire and smoke detectors across all housing, regardless of tenure. The legislation brings all homes to the same standard. For example, it ensures that social rented homes have the same fire safety standards as those that have already been in law for nearly a decade for the private rented sector. It also ensures that owner-occupied homes have the same safety standards as those that new-build homes have had for nearly 15 years.

The standard means that, from 1 February, all houses should have interlinked alarms, with one smoke alarm in the living room, one in each hallway and on each landing, a heat alarm in the kitchen and a carbon monoxide detector in each room that has a carbon-fuelled appliance, such as a gas boiler or fire. The alarms will support greater fire safety and prevent avoidable death.

Having interlinked alarms means that, when an alarm goes off in one part of the house, the rest also go off. For example, if someone is sleeping in a bedroom away from the kitchen where a fire starts, they will be alerted to the danger because all the alarms will go off. Interlinked alarms are very similar to the fire alarms that people already have, but the important interlinking provides extra safety. Although they can be wired into homes, most are battery operated, like the fire alarms that people have now, and they can communicate with one another.

Figures from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service show that, from 2020 to 2021, there were 44 deaths due to house fires in Scotland. In the four years from 2014 to 2018, for situations where fatalities were recorded, on average, 30 per cent of fires started in the living room and 15 per cent started in the kitchen. In 52 per cent of domestic fire incidents, a smoke alarm alerted occupants to the fact that there was a fire, which gave people a greater chance of escape. Interlinked fire and smoke alarms increase the chance of people being alerted more quickly, because they all go off simultaneously, regardless of where the fire starts. That is why we have introduced the same standards for all properties.

We are asking the social rented sector to make the change for its tenants and we know that that work is well progressed. We are also asking people who own their homes to take the step. The Scottish Government has already made more than £15 million of loan funding available for social landlords to procure and install the necessary alarms, which should help to ensure that social tenants are safe in their homes.

At an expected average cost of around £220, and sometimes less, I hope that the new fire alarm standard will be viewed as part of on-going improvements for people who own their homes. The improvement will protect their property and, importantly, can save lives. However, I know that people are feeling the cost-of-living squeeze right now and might feel that they do not have the money available, so I will make two points.

First, for those who own their home and are at high risk of fire or are elderly or disabled, we have provided £1.5 million, through the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Care and Repair Scotland, to support home owners to have appropriate alarms fitted.

Secondly, local authorities have the duty to ensure compliance with the standards in their area, and they will be taking a proportionate and measured approach to compliance. They will take individual circumstances into account and reflect the evolving situation with the Covid-19 pandemic. I can be absolutely clear that there are no penalties for non-compliance and that no one will be penalised if they need more time, although I strongly encourage all home owners to make the changes and benefit from the improved protection against loss of life and property in the event of a fire. We progressed a full awareness-raising campaign through 2021, and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has confirmed that there will be a measured and proportionate approach to compliance.

The changes, including the change to the timing of implementation, have been carefully considered and consulted on over a number of years. Following the Grenfell tower fire, the Scottish Government undertook a review of Scotland’s building and fire safety regulatory frameworks. As part of that work, we prioritised a consultation on fire and smoke alarms. The consultation went ahead in 2017, with a wide range of respondents. There was very strong support for a new common minimum standard for fire and smoke detectors across all housing. People told us that they were in favour of swift action, with a proposed one-year period for the introduction of regulations but, in response to specific concerns from some stakeholders about the time that was needed to carry out the work, ministers agreed that the regulations should allow a period of two years for compliance.

The regulations introducing the new standards were unanimously supported by members of the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party Local Government and Communities Committee on 19 December 2018. The regulations were set in law on 16 January 2019 and were intended to come into force on 1 February 2021.

However, in the light of the impact of Covid-19 during 2020, there were concerns about how the pandemic would affect home owners’ ability to make changes to their homes in time for the original deadline, so a delay of 12 months was sought by ministers and agreed at the Local Government and Communities Committee meeting on 16 December 2020.

As was stated at that time, a longer delay was not right, as any delay to the regulation would be a delay in a measure to protect lives. That is why we remain committed to bringing in the new standards from 1 February 2022.

I hope that I have already provided reassurance on the need for the measures to improve fire safety in all types of home and to protect lives. Let me address other issues that I have heard raised.

I am aware of concerns about the validity of home insurance policies if compliance with the new legislation is not met, but I assure people that that is not the case. Throughout the legislative process, we have engaged proactively with the Association of British Insurers, which has ensured that its members are aware of the changes. It has stated that, although insurers might ask customers questions about whether their property is fitted with working fire alarms, they are not likely to ask questions about specific standards. Anyone who is unclear on their policy terms and conditions in relation to the new law should speak to their insurer.

Public awareness of the changes to the regulations is now high. Over five weeks in the summer of 2021, the Scottish Government ran an intensive awareness-raising media campaign across television, radio and digital platforms. It reached 95 per cent of all adults across Scotland, with 85 per cent of them seeing the campaign and its vital public information message at least three times. In addition, more than 96,000 printed leaflets have been supplied to libraries across Scotland, we have regularly updated our dedicated website with information and advice, and we distributed an electronic toolkit of resources to key stakeholders.

The campaign was shown by independent researchers to have engaged the target audience, driven awareness of the new legislation and encouraged people to take action. Further research that was carried out in December 2021 showed that 88 per cent of home owners were aware of the new legislation.

We have also made materials available so that MSPs can inform their constituents about the important changes to fire alarms from February this year. Last autumn, I wrote to all MSPs with further information and frequently asked questions. Following this statement, I intend to write again to all MSPs to provide the most up-to-date information in order to support them in responding to questions from constituents.

The increased level of awareness has led to significant public interest in complying with the new standard, which is welcome, but I am aware that there have been challenges in meeting demand, exacerbated by global supply shortages of component parts, and in the supply of suitable tradespeople to carry out work in people’s homes.

My officials have confirmed that, as of this morning, fire alarms are currently available for purchase and delivery where the manufacturer has a United Kingdom supply chain. Some manufacturers of fire alarms continue to have supply chain issues with imported components, which limits the availability of their alarms for immediate purchase. However, as I have said before, the legislation makes allowance for the reasonable additional time that is needed in such a situation.

It is really important that I reiterate that, in setting a new standard for fire alarms for home owners and social landlords, bringing standards in line with those for other types of home, our foremost goal is to protect life and prevent avoidable deaths in the event of a fire.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. Any member wishing to ask a question should press their request-to-speak button or type R in the chat function.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement. However, there is nothing new in it, which will be of concern to many householders across Scotland.

The cabinet secretary spoke about the awareness campaign and claimed that public awareness of the regulations is now high. However, the Scottish Government’s own evaluation report, which was published this week, shows that one in 10 households—a significant number—is not aware of the new legislation. The regulations were postponed a year ago, which was a welcome step given the outcome of Covid-19 for home owners, particularly elderly and vulnerable home owners who did not want workmen coming into their homes.

Given that the Covid restrictions will not be lifted until Monday, why has the cabinet secretary not heard the call for a further delay? How many households in Scotland does the cabinet secretary believe still need to have the devices fitted? It is important to know, because the regulations come into force in just 13 days.

The important thing here is to get on with supporting and encouraging home owners to put in the devices that could potentially save lives. I hope that we all agree on the importance of doing so.

With regard to people’s awareness of the changes, as I said in my statement, the independent analysis shows that, at the end of last year, 88 per cent of home owners were aware of the new legislation. From my own mail bag, and from the number of people asking questions about the regulations, I know that awareness is high.

On the question about how many households require to have devices fitted, as I said in my response to Sarah Boyack’s portfolio question, we will not know the answer until we have the Scottish household survey, which will ask that question. As I said in my statement, the recommendation had huge backing from the public. The duty is on us to do what we can, because one death from a preventable fire in a home is one too many. If those devices can help to save lives, we should surely all support their installation.

I reiterate that it is an important measure for home owners to take, and we are talking only about home owners here. Private and social tenants will have had the device provided already or will have it provided by their landlord. It is important that home owners prioritise getting a device installed, because it could literally save lives.

We support this vital fire safety improvement, but, if home owners cannot comply, the measure will not save the lives that we hope it will. A pensioner who called me yesterday, panicking that their insurance will be invalidated, was the latest person I have spoken to who wants to comply but cannot get the kit until March. The Association of British Insurers said that

“Insurers will expect that households and businesses are compliant with any legislation”

but that they are

“not likely to ask questions about specific standards. It will be for individual insurers to decide how they respond to the new standard”.

Does the cabinet secretary accept that insurers will have every right to interpret the legal enforcement date and the standards as those that are in law and that relying on their not being likely to ask questions does not give home owners the assurance that they deserve? Letting that happen when many home owners cannot get access to the alarms is bad policy, so will the cabinet secretary instruct a formal delay and give home owners more time to source the alarms and comply?

No, that would not be the right thing to do, because there has already been a delay. We are talking about devices that have the potential to save lives. If I delayed further, questions would rightly be asked of me. Given that they are potentially life-saving devices, it would not be right to delay the regulations coming in, but I recognise the issues that the member rightly raises.

I reiterate the work that we have done with the Association of British Insurers, which understands those issues very well. It has discussed those issues with its members and is ensuring that they are aware of the changes. It has stated clearly that, although insurers may ask customers whether a property is fitted with working fire alarms, it is not likely that they would ask about specific standards. That is the practice in the insurance industry. As I said in my statement, anyone who is unsure or unclear about their policy’s terms and conditions in relation to the new law should, in the first instance, speak to their insurer.

In relation to access to alarms, I recognise that there have been issues over the past few months, but I have asked my officials on a regular basis to check availability in Scotland online through United Kingdom suppliers and through well-known do-it-yourself retailers, and they have told me that the availability of devices has improved and that the cost is around £200 if the home owner fits the alarms.

I also understand that some people might struggle, which is why Care and Repair Scotland has dealt with just short of 2,500 inquiries about fire alarms since September last year and has supported people by installing the devices and through the provision of subsidised alarms to make sure that people who might be struggling can get them.

I will make a final point. Through the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, local authorities have said they will take a light-touch approach to the enforcement of regulations. Local authorities will not be knocking on people’s doors to check whether they have newly installed fire alarms, because we recognise that some people will take a bit longer, and they will have a reasonable period of time to comply. We have a duty, as elected members, to reiterate the importance of home owners fitting the alarms as quickly as they can.

I remind all members who wish to ask a question to check that their cards are inserted and that their request-to-speak buttons are pressed.

As the cabinet secretary said in her statement, the law has come about because of the tragic disaster at Grenfell, which led to the deaths of 72 people. Can the cabinet secretary outline what evidence the Scottish Government used to determine that the regulations will protect lives?

We have considered the expert advice that has been provided to us. Interconnected alarms were recommended on the back of work that was done post-Grenfell by the expert group on improving fire safety.

Age Scotland has highlighted for much of the past year the continued anxiety among the public—particularly among older people—regarding letting trades people into their homes, due to the spread of the new strains of Covid.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the prevalence of the virus for much of the past year means that it is simply not reasonable to expect people to meet the February deadline?

I appreciate the concerns that Alexander Stewart has expressed. In some circumstances—when someone does not feel comfortable, as the member has cited, or when someone has been shielding—it is reasonable that people would not be able to meet the deadlines. We understand that point, and I have said throughout that local authorities—which, at the end of the day, are the enforcement agency—understand it too. They will therefore take a light-touch approach to ensure that it is accepted that people might need a bit more time to get the alarms installed, for those reasons or any other reasonable ones.

I hope that the Q and A that MSPs will get, with information that I will provide, will help to answer some of those constituent inquiries.

How many lives is a full implementation of this specific measure expected to save in a year?

Given the current number of installers and their uneven spread across Scotland, and given the number of people who are unable to install the alarms themselves, how long does the Government anticipate that it will take to install alarms in every owner-occupied house in the country?

As I said earlier, in 52 per cent of domestic fire incidents, a smoke alarm had alerted occupants to the fact that there was a fire, which gave people a greater chance of escape. Interlinked fire and smoke alarms increase the chance of being alerted more quickly by going off simultaneously regardless of where the fire starts, which undoubtedly will mean that more people are alerted earlier and more lives will be saved in Scotland each year, but it is hard to put a figure on that. That is the advice that experts have given.

With regard to the number of people who will comply and how quickly people will get those alarms fitted, I suspect that the vast majority of people will have alarms fitted before the 1 February deadline. We will know that number as we get the results of the household survey, which will be carried out over the next period. We recognise that a small number of people will require longer. As I said in a previous answer, it is important that people are given a reasonable period of time in which to comply. We will, of course, monitor the situation.

The Scottish Labour freedom of information request revealed that funding of £500,000 for care and repair services to provide the installation has helped barely 800 people. How many people have been supported so far—not at the end of the financial year—in Edinburgh, and can the cabinet secretary give an estimate of the number of households in Edinburgh who are still to comply with the regulations? Can the cabinet secretary ensure that funding will be given so that all low-income, disabled and pensioner households can comply?

In my previous answer, I said that care and repair services across Scotland have supported around 2,500 people in one way or another. I do not have the specific figures for Edinburgh, but, if that would be helpful, I am happy to write to the member if that information exists at that level of detail.

As was previously mentioned, the standards for those interlinked alarms were set nearly 15 years ago for new builds and nearly a decade ago for the private sector. I agree that all houses should have the same standards. Why did the regulations take longer to introduce?

In 2013, the Scottish Government published a sustainable housing strategy with a commitment to developing a new cross-tenure standard for housing. Since then, we have engaged with stakeholders to develop our proposal for a new housing standard for Scotland, based on housing as a human right, and we will seek views on that in a public consultation later this year.

Following the tragic fire at Grenfell in 2016, the Scottish Government made a commitment to accelerating the fire alarm elements of that new standard. The regulations, which were introduced to Parliament in 2018, will achieve that aim.

The minister really must stop saying that the alarms can be installed for £220 or less, because the figures are often far higher, and she knows that all too well.

Is this not a prime example of the Government’s ability to talk a good game but inability to deliver? The Opposition even gave the Government an extra year to get this done, but it was still not possible. Lives could be at risk, so what has the Government got so badly wrong with this installation programme?

I do not accept that characterisation of the situation at all. There was a delay because of Covid, and that was a good reason—it was supported by members across the chamber.

I have made it clear that the £220 is for the purchase of the alarm system and that the installation costs will be on top of that. However, most households will be able to install the alarms themselves. However, given that disability or age or whatever other issues might mean that people require support, we gave £1.5 million to Care and Repair and to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service so that they can help more vulnerable people to get their alarms installed. I would have thought that Willie Rennie would support that.

A number of constituents have raised concerns about understanding the alarm requirements, and their availability and cost. Although I welcome the assurance that council enforcement will be light touch, how will the Scottish Government track progress on meeting the standard?

As I said earlier, the Scottish house condition survey collects information on homes and minimum standards for housing. The legislation will add adequate provision of fire alarms to that minimum standard, so that future iterations of the survey will collect data on compliance with that element of housing standards.

I do not know where the cabinet secretary’s officials shop, but I have just checked and every B&Q in Edinburgh has no availability until after the relevant date. Perhaps the cabinet secretary could ask officials where they shop.

I am interested in the cabinet secretary’s definition of “a bit more time” and “reasonable time”. What do they mean in practice? Is it days, weeks or months?

In a previous answer, I was clear about online retailers with UK supply chains and DIY retailers. I take Jeremy Balfour’s point about Edinburgh, but there are online retailers available with UK supply chains that can supply these devices. My officials check that regularly—they checked it this morning.

I would have thought that Jeremy Balfour and other members would want to focus on supporting people to comply when they can, and to make sure that, in our dialogue with constituents, we reassure people that, if they need more time and if they are struggling to get a device because of availability issues in their area, that is a reasonable reason for having more time.

A “reasonable period” in legislation is never defined, as Jeremy Balfour will know. It is a reasonable period in the individual’s circumstances. I would, however, hope that Jeremy Balfour and other members will reassure people that they will not be criminalised and hounded by local authority enforcement but we expect that, when they can, at the earliest opportunity, they will prioritise putting in these potentially life-saving alarms.

I thank the cabinet secretary for providing advance sight of her statement, and I welcome the introduction of the regulations next month. Everyone should have at least that level of protection in their home, regardless of tenure.

Could the cabinet secretary say a little more about the implications of non-compliance, as there are no penalties for non-compliance, other than missing out on potentially life-saving measures? What are the key issues that people need to be aware of if they do not follow the regulations?

The key issue is that the safety of such people will not be as enhanced as that of those who have interlinked fire safety devices. We know, because the experts have told us, that having such devices could save lives. Therefore, I would have thought that the message from all of us, first and foremost, would be that people should comply as quickly as they can.

However, the member is right—there are no penalties, as such, for non-compliance. Local authorities have a duty to ensure compliance, but they will not do that by knocking on people’s doors. That said, we are expecting people, as home owners, to make this a priority and to put the installation of such fire alarms above other things.

We understand that there are issues that will mean that people will require to have more time to have such devices installed. In response to a number of questions, I have explained what reasonable excuses, or reasonable reasons for needing more time, would be. The message to people is that they should do it as quickly as they can, because it could be life saving for them and their families.

Many local authorities, including West Lothian Council, have removed care and repair services. Some constituents tell me that installers are scarce and that component shortages are delaying delivery of alarms that they had already ordered. In addition, cost-of-living pressures are causing practical and financial challenges.

Are there any other proactive actions that could be taken to help to resolve the real challenges that are being faced by some but by no means all home owners in getting private sector dwellings up to the same, important safety standards as other sectors? An example of such an action would be a public statement of assurance by the Association of British Insurers about where delays in the installation of such devices will leave people in the coming weeks.

All local authorities have broad discretionary powers to provide assistance to home owners where work is needed to look after homes or to meet statutory standards. Local authorities are best placed to decide what assistance is provided to meet local priorities using local resources.

The additional support that we have provided to Care and Repair is targeted at assisting owners who are least able to fit alarms themselves. It is not intended to be a substitute for local initiatives by local authorities.

As regards any statements by the ABI, I understand that it has been communicating actively with its members to make them aware of the situation. I am happy to have regular dialogue with the ABI as to whether there is anything more that it can do in providing public-facing messages in the lead-up to the requirements coming into force on 1 February.

After Christine Grahame, Graham Simpson will be the last MSP I am able to call. I ask for succinct questions and answers, so that I can get both members in.

As the cabinet secretary is aware, I wrote to her last year to raise many of the concerns that have been iterated today, so I welcome her statement. However, £200 is an optimistic figure, even for just the kit. Some people are paying £500 for supply and fit for a two-up, two-down property.

How can vulnerable and elderly people access the financial support from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service that the cabinet secretary mentioned? I was not aware that it was providing such support.

I will make sure that that information is included in the circular that goes out to members. Care and Repair and the Fire and Rescue Service are providing practical advice and support to vulnerable people. We have had very good feedback on that support.

For brevity, as I said, I will make sure that the relevant information is included in the circular that is provided to members.

The penalty for non-compliance will come if people have insurance claims turned down because they do not have such alarms. Is the cabinet secretary seriously saying that that will not happen?

I ask the member to remember what we are talking about here. We are talking about the installation of devices that the experts have told us could potentially save lives. I would have thought that that would have been the overriding concern and priority for every member of the Parliament.

On insurance, I could not have been clearer about what the ABI has said. It is a requirement to have working fire alarms. However, it does not specify the standards for those. It has been clear—that is what industry has told us. However, at the end of the day, everybody should make sure that they get in touch with their own insurance company if they have concerns.

I would have thought that some members—whether Graham Simpson or anyone else—would at least have welcomed the fact that this measure could potentially save lives. I find it extraordinary that members seem to be against these measures being brought in. I would hope that, in their communication with constituents, the first part of their communication is to reiterate the importance of complying, because this could be a lifesaving measure. That is what I would ask them all to do. The information that I will provide after the statement will help them to ensure that they provide that accurate information to their constituents.

That concludes the statement. There will be a very short pause before we move on to the next item of business.