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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 16 December 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Burntisland Fabrications, Supporting EU, EEA and Swiss Citizens to Stay in Scotland, Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill: Stage 1, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Interlinked Fire and Smoke Alarm Systems


Contents


Interlinked Fire and Smoke Alarm Systems

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-23592, in the name of Sarah Boyack, on interlinked fire and smoke alarm systems. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the Scottish Government requirement on all homeowners in Lothian and across Scotland to install an interlinked fire and smoke alarm system alongside carbon monoxide protection; notes the view that there needs to be a substantial delay of two years to the requirement being implemented as a result of the impact of COVID-19 and the reported lack of public awareness and understanding since it was first announced in February 2018; further notes concerns that there is a need for a high-profile public awareness campaign to improve understanding of what homeowners need to do to and where they can seek further information and support; acknowledges calls for a significant package of financial support for people who cannot afford to meet the requirements and there is a need for advice on the costs of buying and fitting an interlinked system so that consumers have a more realistic price guide to enable them whether to install the alarms themselves or to hire a tradesperson, and notes the calls for the provision of clearer guidance on approved devices and where they can be bought.

16:59  

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

I am disappointed that I have to bring this members’ business debate to the chamber. Fire and smoke alarms are vital to keep people safe, and the impetus to put together a change in legislation came in response to Grenfell. However, following the passing of the relevant Scottish statutory instrument, we have not seen the leadership and drive that are needed to ensure that people are aware of what they need to do now.

People across the country found out about the legislation after an advertising leaflet for new smoke and fire alarms, which bore the Scottish Government’s logo, was issued and put through their letterbox. More people subsequently found out about it through the newspapers, given the discussions that followed. In a survey of its members, Age Scotland found that 34 per cent of respondents had heard about the planned changes only through the survey itself. I think that, if we asked people more generally, we would find out that many people are still not aware of what they are meant to do in their homes.

At today’s meeting of the Local Government and Communities Committee, we discussed the proposal by the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning to delay the implementation of the regulations by a year. However, I am seriously concerned that one year simply does not give us enough time to ensure that home owners are informed of the changes that they need to make. In addition, we need the Scottish Government to work harder to put in place a financial package for those who cannot afford the changes and a better set of guidance to ensure that consumers are not ripped off.

I am also concerned that we are still in the middle of the pandemic. People have concerns about their safety, many are suffering as a result of the economic consequences of the pandemic and money is tight. One of the respondents to Age Scotland’s survey put it very well, stating:

“Everyone will be wanting to get this done and you will not be able to get this completed in time for the deadline and some people will not have the money to do it in such a short time.”

The minister, in his letter to the Local Government and Communities Committee last week, said that the legislation does not place a direct obligation on home owners, although it will be up to home owners to ensure that the standard is met, and that the obligation lies with local authorities. He said:

“As local authorities are required to have a strategy for ensuring compliance with the tolerable standard within a reasonable period, they have a wide range of discretionary powers to assist home owners and, where necessary and appropriate, to require owners to carry out work to improve substandard homes.”

As we emerge from the pandemic, our councils will be dealing with a range of urgent challenges. I firmly believe that we need a commitment from the Scottish Government that any financial or staffing support that councils provide needs to be supported by the Government, as there are on-going issues with local government funding. In discussing the post-Grenfell era, we need to ensure that we have a comprehensive Government-led response, and that is the case here.

The issue of insurance is also important. In written evidence to the LGC Committee in 2018, the minister said:

“In general it will be for individual insurers to decide how they respond to the new standard. Insurers tend to ask whether the property is fitted with working smoke alarms, rather than questions about specific standards.”

However, at the Local Government and Communities Committee today, we reviewed written evidence from a home owner who is concerned about the roll-out of the changes. He highlighted that it is extremely difficult to find

“information in the public domain about how the insurance industry currently handles the Tolerable Standard”,

especially now that the legislation is in place.

Given the challenges around post-Grenfell-style cladding and the EWS1—external wall system 1—form, we need a stronger assurance from the Government that it is working with home owners not just to enable them to install the kit but to ensure that they are not left with compromised buildings insurance if their building does not meet the tolerable standard for the purpose of fire alarms.

I will briefly raise the issue of cost. The quotes that Age Scotland members have received for the work that is required range between £152 and £400. Age Scotland points out that, for someone who is on the state pension, £200 is a lot of money to access. The same will undoubtedly apply to those whose work situation has been negatively impacted by the pandemic. I am very keen for the minister to use his summing-up speech to talk about the work that he has done with local authorities to look into the average cost of £200 for installation that we have been told about. We need to ensure that vulnerable home owners are not being charged excessive amounts.

For many, installation will not be the simple do-it-yourself process that it may look like. Accessing ceilings will not be possible or straightforward for older people, people with disabilities or folk in tenements, so we need to ensure that support is in place. I am very keen to hear the Government’s full proposals—albeit not today, but the minister gave us a promise on that this morning. We need a full awareness-raising campaign. My motion calls for a delay of at least two years, as I am concerned about the implications of the pandemic and the fact that we have not really started yet. We need not just a publicity campaign but a co-ordinated strategy, with political leadership, to ensure that we get the focus and action that we have not had to date.

I hope that we will get agreement from across the chamber that we need to radically step up implementation. The minister did not answer my question this morning at committee, when I asked how many houses still have to get the right alarms installed. It is not having an alarm that is critical; it is having the right, interlinked alarms—the fire and smoke alarms and, possibly, the CO alarms. Their interlinking is crucial.

I decided that, before making this speech, I would have my own house sorted. I read the Government’s guidance, I read the material on the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service website and I made notes, as you would expect somebody like me to do. I went to a major store and, armed with all the information that I had, I asked for help. I had checked it out, and I asked for the fire alarm expert in the store. That person came and talked to me, and, after about 20 minutes, I went home empty handed, as they could not tell me which of the alarms were compliant with the Scottish Government’s advice. There is Government action, but there is a big issue with retailers, installers and people’s general awareness.

In addition to supporting local authorities with their work, groups such as Citizens Advice Scotland, Age Concern and all other groups that can give people advice need to be able to give the right advice about what people need to install. Work needs to be done with suppliers and retailers, because it is not currently clear what is compliant. That needs to be done both in stores and online. I checked out the guidance online—although it was not my first option, as I wanted to go to my local store—and it was not clear online either.

I hope that we are not here, debating this subject, at the same time next year. I hope that we get a big push on it, because, with six months until the elections and a long way to go before we come out of the pandemic, real urgency is required from the Government. We need a clear plan. Our constituents need that leadership, and they need effective guidance and support. I hope that today’s debate helps to build awareness and the case for action, so that we are not here in a year’s time, saying, “Please can we extend this by another year?” The matter needs to be sorted, and it needs leadership and action.

17:07  

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I congratulate Sarah Boyack on lodging the motion and securing this debate on a topic that concerns many of my constituents. I also thank Age Scotland for providing such an excellent briefing.

We remember the shock that was felt in June 2017, when a severe fire tragically killed 72 people inside London’s Grenfell tower. The establishment of a ministerial working group on building and fire safety, in response, was therefore very welcome. Its aim was

“to oversee reviews of building and fire safety frameworks, regulations and guidance, and any other relevant matters, to help ensure that people are safe in Scotland's buildings.”

As a direct result of that, the Parliament agreed in January 2019 that, from February 2021, new standards in line with those for the private rented sector should be in place to better protect people in Scotland’s 1.5 million owner-occupied homes from the potentially devastating impact of fire. We agreed that all home owners should install an interlinked fire and smoke alarm system, alongside carbon monoxide protection.

Of course, nobody anticipated the global pandemic that has completely dominated our lives since then. It is therefore unsurprising that many people felt anxious and confused when, last October, they received a commercial fire safety firm’s leaflet that wrongly used the Scottish Government’s logo to urge them to make the necessary changes before the February deadline. Like other members, I was contacted by numerous constituents, including residents from a large retirement housing complex, who were rightly worried about the prospect of having tradespeople enter their homes during the pandemic.

I immediately contacted the housing minister, Kevin Stewart. I commend Mr Stewart, a listening minister, for deciding swiftly to seek a one-year postponement of the February 2021 deadline. I also welcome the loan funding of more than £15 million, which has been made available for social landlords so that they can procure and install the necessary alarms, ensuring that social tenants are safe in their homes. I further welcome the provision of an additional £870,000 in each of the past two years to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to support home safety visits to vulnerable and high-risk people.

Nonetheless, several concerns remain about the proposed new February 2022 deadline, which we must address. I believe that, given the impact of the on-going pandemic, the deadline should be extended to 2023. Although the Covid vaccination programme gives us hope, we simply do not know when we will return to something like normality. A 2023 deadline would give home owners across Scotland clarity and the Scottish Government sufficient time to launch a high-profile awareness-raising campaign aimed at improving understanding of the new standards and providing concise advice on approved devices and where those can be purchased. Such a campaign is vital to ensuring that people are aware of the new guidelines on protecting their homes. In fact, as Sarah Boyack touched on, a recent Age Scotland survey showed that only a minority of people are aware of the rule change and that 73 per cent have not yet taken action.

I urge the Government to revisit the financial support that is currently available to homeowners and to provide a more significant package for those who cannot afford to meet the improved standards. I am sure that the Government will appreciate that the original estimated cost of £220 to make those changes in an average three-bedroom flat is a significant sum for most people in normal times, let alone during a global recession. Many people have different-sized houses, and it could cost them significantly more.

I also ask the Scottish Government to review the price of purchasing and fitting the required interlinked system so that people have a more realistic benchmark of the costs that the changes to their homes might incur. That would reduce the risk of people falling victim to scams and excessive prices from installers who may be approved but could overcharge. Allowing more time would also allow more installers to be trained. I doubt that there is a surfeit of them, and, if there is a shortage, there is no doubt that that will force prices up.

I remain fully supportive of the new standards. However, the current context of the global pandemic requires a further postponement of the deadline and the Government to deliver additional financial support to those who would otherwise struggle to afford the installation of a necessary interlinked alarm system.

17:11  

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I thank Sarah Boyack for bringing the debate to the chamber. We have probably got it the wrong way around: the debate should have happened before the Local Government and Communities Committee’s session this morning. Nevertheless, it was a delight to take part in that session and to briefly rejoin that committee. What a shame it was that my good friend Mr Gibson could not be there. However, it is always good to hear him speak in the chamber. Unfortunately, I have to apologise because I will be leaving after my contribution, so I will not get to hear Alexander Stewart speak. That is a shame.

Sarah Boyack touched on what, for me, is a vital issue for consumers, the people who are going to have to go out and buy the products. As she said, she tried to do that today, and I have attempted to buy the same products, with no success. It is really confusing. It appears that the products are not available—at least, not that I could find—in the shops. That needs to be sorted out.

In 2018, when the proposal was brought before the committee and I was a member of it, I raised a number of serious questions with the minister. I put them in writing and he responded. Those questions still remain. One is around insurance and what happens if a person’s house does not comply with the regulations. Insurers could use that as an excuse to wriggle out of paying insurance claims, which is a real danger, as people could unwittingly not be compliant with the law and suddenly find that they fall foul of their insurance policy. That is a serious matter that needs to be addressed by the Government and in regulations but, frankly, it has not been.

Earlier, there was confusion when I questioned the minister about who the regulations apply to—it is unclear. On the one hand, they are directed at home owners; on the other hand, the minister’s letter to the committee says that they apply to councils and that it is up to them to make sure that the regulations are complied with. There is a danger of people being scammed or ripped off.

I also question the actual units that are required by the regulations. If a person chooses to do work themselves or to buy a battery-operated system—which they could do—and not bring in an electrician to hardwire their house, that system has first to be interlinked and the units have to be sealed. The batteries cannot be replaced, so, when they go, the whole unit has to be chucked out. That does not seem to be particularly environmentally friendly, and it could also be extremely costly. Perhaps the whole system might have to be thrown out if it is all interlinked. I do not think that the minister has properly thought things through.

That is why it is essential that, even at this late stage—

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

Will the member take an intervention?

Graham Simpson

Yes, I certainly will.

Clare Adamson

I have listened carefully to the member’s concerns. Does he not recognise that, in the past, one of the problems with fire alarms was that people took the batteries out of them? Part of the reason for wanting to have sealed units is to prevent any interference with their operating as they were intended to, which will save lives in the event of a fire.

Graham Simpson

I take that point—people do take the batteries out. However, the danger is that people might just chuck out the whole unit and not replace it if they could not afford to do so. The approach needs to be properly thought through. If people go to the trouble of putting systems in their homes, I think that they will ensure that the batteries work. Speaking personally, I would much rather have a system in which I could replace the batteries rather than just get new ones and not have to fork out potentially more than £200 for a brand-new system.

It would have been better had the minister agreed to delay the requirement by another year. He could still do so, even at this late stage. We need to get our approach right. It is important that we have such an approach, but it needs to be got right and we need to bring the public with us.

17:17  

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in the debate, and I congratulate Sarah Boyack on securing it.

I put on record my condolences to the families and friends of all the victims of the tragic Grenfell tower disaster in 2017. That has undoubtedly been the catalyst for Governments across the United Kingdom to improve the law on building materials and fire alarm systems, to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again.

On 13 October, I was contacted by constituents and a local elected member, councillor Iain Howie, who had received leaflets stating that they must update their fire alarms by February 2021, as “time is running out” for home owners to make such changes in compliance with the new legislation. Given those representations, and in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, via a written question I immediately called on the Scottish Government to delay the implementation of the new regulations. I am sure that other members acted similarly.

Those who had contacted me were also, rightly, concerned about having to carry out such changes during the pandemic, especially because that would have required tradespeople to enter their properties, which might have led to exposure to infection. The new regulations, which took the form of an amendment to the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987, require all homeowners in Scotland to ensure that their properties have smoke alarms in living rooms and in circulation spaces such as hallways and landings, that there is a heat alarm in every kitchen, that all alarms are ceiling mounted and interlinked, and that carbon monoxide alarms are placed where there are fixed combustion appliances such as boilers and wood burners. The estimated average cost was £220 per home, and in her opening remarks Sarah Boyack mentioned a range of possible costs.

Although I welcome the Scottish Government’s agreement to delay the deadline for implementing the requirement until February 2022, which will provide time for my constituents to make arrangements to have the necessary changes carried out, I share the concerns of organisations such as Age Scotland over the costs of the scheme. I thank them for the information that they provided to members ahead of the debate.

The Scottish Government states that, as a general principle, home owners are responsible for the costs of on-going work that is needed to protect and preserve their own properties in line with legislation. Therefore, as with other housing standards, it will be their responsibility to meet the new standards on fire, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. I understand that local authorities have broad discretionary powers to provide advice and assistance to home owners on work that is needed to look after their homes. However, I join the calls for the Government to issue guidance and additional financial support to those who most need it, if they are to make changes to be compliant with the law.

As Kenneth Gibson mentioned, the Government has made more than £15 million of loan funding available to social landlords to ensure that social tenants are safe in their homes. It has also made available £875,000 of funding to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to support home safety visits that ensure that vulnerable and high-risk people can get the necessary alarms installed at no cost to them, so that they are safe in their homes

Sarah Boyack’s experience of attempting to purchase the right interlinked system sounded like quite a challenge, so it would be interesting to hear how that process could be made easier.

Kenneth Gibson also made a good point about helping to protect people against scams, which is something that we really must be aware of.

Constituents across Dumfries and Galloway have expressed concern about the communication of the changes. Indeed, the leaflet that came through their door was the first that they had ever heard of the issue. I ask the minister to comment on whether the method of communicating such changes could be improved to ensure wider public awareness of the process.

Once again, I thank Sarah Boyack. I welcome the debate and the Government’s actions to delay the implementation of the changes to fire systems.

17:21  

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

I, too, thank Sarah Boyack for securing this important debate. We have all been contacted by our constituents on the issue, and there is no doubt that it causes them stress and worry. It is probably one of the biggest consumer issues that there has been in recent times.

I agree that what happened at Grenfell was a horrific tragedy, and I am sad to say that it was one that could have been avoided. Therefore, it is absolutely right that the Scottish Government introduced legislation to make people safer. That said, there are a number of issues with the new regulations that need to be sorted out urgently, particularly surrounding public awareness of the regulations and costs.

Scotland has around 1.5 million owner-occupied homes that are impacted by the new rules, as well as just under a million homes in the social rented sector that are impacted. The legislation brings those properties into line with the existing regulations in the private rented sector.

As has been mentioned, the alarms can be either mains or battery powered. In a Government impact assessment, it was assumed that the cost would be around £330, but it could be much more than that if the system needs to be installed by a tradesperson. Furthermore, the Government had initially estimated that it would be around £220 per household.

I wonder how much thought the Government gave to the implications for some families and the many individuals who will be unable to afford to spend that amount of money. There needs to be urgent clarity about the costs, so that people have a more realistic guide to the price should they choose to install the alarms themselves or decide that they need to hire a tradesperson for the job.

I tend to agree with Emma Harper and Kenny Gibson that, although there is a pressing need to keep people safe, given that we are in the middle of a pandemic, 2023 sounds like a more realistic target year.

The initial estimated cost of £220 is a significant expense for most households, and many people will struggle to afford that, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, in which people have been furloughed or have lost their jobs. Currently, 150,000 pensioners live in relative poverty, and one in four households live in fuel poverty. Those households will simply be unable to comply with the new regulations without financial support.

Kenny Gibson talked about scams and mentioned a leaflet that gives the impression that the business was endorsed by the Government. It is extremely worrying that that could happen. The Government needs to provide clearer advice on approved devices and where they can be bought. That would help people to avoid scams and inflated pricing from rogue traders, which has been an issue in the past. Research that was done for Age Scotland and Age UK found that more than two fifths of older people—more than 400,000 people—believe that they have been targeted by scammers. That is a big issue for this Parliament in relation to the installation of linked fire and smoke alarms.

Concerns have been raised of an upsurge in people being targeted in their homes during the coronavirus restrictions. Brian Sloan, the chief executive of Age Scotland, said:

“It’s disgusting that anyone would try to take advantage of older people at this time, but sadly there will always be heartless scammers who prey on the most vulnerable in our society. Older people are already the most targeted group for fraud and scams, and this can have a devastating impact on victims. Not only can they lose a lot of money, but they may also lose their confidence and feel too embarrassed to confide in family and friends.”

The Scottish Government must be alert to the fact that scammers are likely to take advantage of the new nationwide regulations and must put robust measures in place to protect people from scams and rogue traders. Age Scotland says that the one-year delay to the implementation of the regulations is not enough, and the Local Government and Communities Committee voted against the delay for the same reason.

It is clear that much greater practical and financial support needs to be put in place to enable older, disabled and low-income home owners to comply with the new regulations. There are also other families who may need some financial assistance.

Although it is laudable that the Scottish Government has sought to improve safety standards—we all agree on that—more should be done to enable us to achieve the objective of keeping people safe in their own homes as well as ensuring that people can meet the costs of purchasing the alarms and installing them safely or having them put in by a tradesperson they feel confident about inviting into their homes. We must ensure that an event such as the Grenfell tragedy never happens again.

17:26  

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I thank Sarah Boyack and congratulate her on securing such an important debate. I am not a member of the Local Government and Communities Committee, but I have attended several of the meetings, particularly those following the Grenfell tragedy. We know that the new regulations have come about as a result of that tragedy, as has the new legislation on cladding. Cladding is an issue that still needs to be addressed in certain blocks of houses.

The new legislation is very important, but I agree with Sarah Boyack and others that the deadline needs to be extended for another year, particularly because of Covid. I acknowledge the fact that the working group that the minister set up after the Grenfell tragedy has considered various aspects, including smoke alarms and sprinklers. I also acknowledge the fact that there are scammers and people who send out leaflets. However, no one really knew anything about the new regulations. They seemed to come not just as a surprise but as a great shock not only to my constituents but to housing associations and local authorities, too.

Those issues have been well rehearsed, both in the committee and in today’s debate, so I want to consider where we go from here. As I have said, we need to delay the deadline for at least another year.

There must have been a rush on smoke alarms and sprinklers in the shops. I needed a new smoke alarm, so I got someone in to fit it, and they spoke about joining the sprinklers and smoke alarms together. However, as others have found, the tradesman I called in could not access the equipment he needed to join it all together. As others have said, we need clarification of that aspect.

We also need clarification of the costs of smoke alarms and sprinklers, which we know are for the benefit and safety not only of individual households but of tenement properties—of which there are a great many in my constituency, as there are in others. Recently, in some parts of Glasgow, there have been fires where the consequences may not have been tragic but that have led to people having to be moved out of their homes. There was also a fire in Yorkhill recently that did have tragic consequences and that led to some people having to be put up in hotels.

We know that the legislation is intended to improve people’s safety, but we need an advertising campaign to explain why it is desperately needed to protect people. Why is the Government not delaying the regulations for another year because of Covid? At the moment, as others have said, many people—particularly the elderly—would not even open their doors to allow anyone to come and fit the alarms. That might happen another year or two down the line, so an advertising campaign is paramount. We need to get the message across about why the legislation is so important.

The monetary aspect has been mentioned, as well as insurance. I know that the Government has provided funds towards implementation, but I have had meetings with local housing associations that are concerned about the proposals in relation to new-build housing that they have just begun to manage. In my constituency, it is very difficult to buy the land and start to build. Partick Housing Association has managed to do that in three areas, but it is concerned that it will not have enough time to fit the dual elements of smoke alarms and sprinklers. It has therefore asked for the implementation period to be extended for at least another year. The motion does not mention housing associations, but I hope that they would fit in alongside home owners.

I make a plea to the minister. I am aware of the amount of work that the working group has done, and it is doing a good job, but we need an extension of the implementation period. Implementation will cost a lot of money, which people may not have—Pauline McNeill mentioned those who are on furlough or who do not have a job. People are not necessarily able to put up that amount of money at this time.

I plead with the minister to confirm, in summing up, that the end date will be moved back by another year and that an advertising campaign will be brought to bear. I also ask him whether he knows how many people are able to fit the alarms, as there could be a job creation opportunity there, with an apprenticeship or whatever for electricians. People definitely need to know what is required. They need plenty of warning and advance notice so that they are able to afford it. We also need to ensure that housing associations and local authorities can afford it.

17:31  

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. I thank Sarah Boyack and congratulate her on bringing it to the chamber.

We, on the Conservative side of the chamber, fully support the measures that are being put in place. We completely understand the aims of the legislation, which are to protect home owners and tenants by increasing the level of fire safety in homes across Scotland and to ensure that everyone has the same level of protection, whether they are in their own home or in a rented home.

However, it has become increasingly evident that the Scottish Government has dropped the baton with regard to making people aware of the legislation. I acknowledge the fact that, earlier today, the minister accepted that it had caused anxiety and distress to many individuals. As other members have indicated in respect of their constituents, most of my constituents became aware of the requirements only when they received the warning leaflet from a private electrical contractor that dropped through their letterbox, which indicated that the deadline was February 2021.

From reading those leaflets, residents in homes all over Scotland found out that they had been given less than four months in which to install alarms at a cost of approximately £200. It also emerged that a failure to fall into line could have a massive impact in invalidating potential claims on insurance policies. The majority of people, especially the elderly, were extremely anxious, and their anxiety was understandably compounded by existing coronavirus worries. During the Covid-19 pandemic, additional questions around affordability and the tightening of restrictions on individuals entering other people’s homes have come to the fore.

In addition, there was controversy surrounding the company that ran the leafleting campaign. It had used a Scottish Government logo, but it had not received ministerial approval to do so. The document that came through the letterbox gave individuals the impression that it was supported by the Scottish Government, but we now find that that was not the case. There are many questions that have to be asked.

We know that the implementation is a priority for local authorities, but it comes at a cost. Councils are on a knife edge with regard to the current funding situation, and the legislation asks them to implement some of the measures, so it is vital that we consider an extension of the implementation period.

I understand that a fire safety inspection must take place. At present, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has temporarily stopped most of its home fire visits as a result of pandemic issues, although it is still supporting people in high-risk accommodation. That has a knock-on effect on its ability to ensure that the safety procedures are moving forward, and the suspension of those visits also creates a backlog. That issue has to be considered as well.

Age Scotland has highlighted and has called for action on a number of areas in the process. It has identified the significant package of financial support that may be required, and it has talked about making sure that there is clear advice about devices—we have heard that some members have tried to purchase devices but found it difficult and challenging. Age Scotland has also highlighted the possibility of rogue traders and scammers inflating prices for vulnerable people. All those areas must be taken into account. In addition, as has been said, there is potentially a major issue with insurance.

As Sarah Boyack said in committee, a year is simply not enough time in which to take this programme forward. Unfortunately, she did not win the division on the motion—which I, too, voted against—but the minister gave assurances about the entire process and said that he would keep the committee and Parliament updated on developments and advise them of the publicity campaign that was, and is, required. As I said, we must ensure that people understand what they need to do, what kind of device is required and that it will come at a cost.

We will monitor the situation and hold the Scottish Government to account to ensure that those actions take place.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Kevin Stewart to respond to the debate. You have around seven minutes, minister.

17:36  

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning (Kevin Stewart)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. You said that I have seven minutes—my last response to a members’ business debate was 14 minutes long. That is what happens when you deliver a speech in the back bedroom, where there is no clock. I apologise for that—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I will interrupt you, minister, to say that I think we all enjoyed it very much.

Kevin Stewart

Thank you.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to Sarah Boyack’s motion and congratulate her on securing the debate, although, as Graham Simpson pointed out, it is maybe the wrong way round, given the debate that we had in committee this morning.

I do not want to go on about this morning’s debate too much. I draw people’s attention to the Official Report of the committee meeting and repeat that I apologise for the way in which some of this has been dealt with. That has been largely due to the pandemic, but there was also the leaflet, which Sandra White described as giving her constituents a great shock when it came through the door. I have to say that it came as a great shock to me as well. It is not the way in which the issue should have been handled at all.

I am grateful to members for their speeches. A lot of points have been raised, and I will probably not be able to cover them all, but I am more than willing to respond to members separately.

I wrote to all members on 20 October to highlight that, given the impacts of Covid-19, I intended to seek Parliament’s approval to postpone the change by a year, to allow people additional time. This morning, the Local Government and Communities Committee discussed and approved the necessary regulations to do that.

I was pleased to hear almost all members mention Grenfell. A lot of the work that we have been doing on fire and building safety is in response to that tragedy and the fact that so many lost their lives. The situation in relation to building standards is better in Scotland than it is elsewhere. However, none of us can be complacent, and we should all work together on the issue to get it right. I am very grateful to David Stewart for co-operating with the Government in ensuring other fire safety standards around suppression systems, which will come into play very soon, in the next session of Parliament.

The new standard is clear: one alarm in the principal living room, one in each circulation space and a heat alarm in the kitchen. Alarms must be interlinked and can be either all mains powered or sealed life-long battery operated. Mr Simpson mentioned that there could be a situation in which a person may have to get rid of a system because of batteries running out. However, that would not be a reason to replace an interlinked battery system. It is not about batteries expiring or wearing out; it is about the lifespan of the sensor unit. If folk drop me a note, I am willing to provide them with more information on that.

Having an interlinked system means that a person will be alerted immediately, regardless of the room in which the alarm is triggered, thereby increasing the chance of escape. The standard also requires carbon monoxide alarms, but they do not need to be interlinked with the fire alarms.

In Clare Adamson’s intervention on Graham Simpson, she mentioned that there have been problems in the past with no interlinking and with folk taking out batteries. The regulations are a response to such issues, which, in themselves, have often led to tragedy, which none of us wants to see.

As we discussed at some length at the committee today, good information is important. Some of the information that has been provided thus far will need to be bumped up—there is no doubt about that. I assured the committee that we will continue to keep it informed about progress on marketing.

Officials have engaged with retailers and suppliers on these issues. Ms Boyack may wish to talk to me later about the company that she went to, as maybe we can do a bit of work with it to help it along the way. We want to ensure that we are helpful to retailers with regard to websites and point-of-sale marketing. I know that some retailers already have home packs or bundles, which simplify for home owners the purchase of alarms that meet the standard. One company is offering an interest-free instalment payment option to enable purchasers to spread the cost of alarms over four months. I do not want to mention the names of those companies, because I might be accused of advertising, but, if members want that information, I am more than happy to provide it.

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

I have a question about batteries, which Graham Simpson mentioned. We do not know how long long-life batteries last, as that tends to vary. Would it be possible for the technical specification to provide that the alarm batteries be rechargeable? In other words, there would be a mechanism to recharge the batteries, similar to how we recharge our mobile phones, rather than having to take the batteries out and replace them.

Kevin Stewart

I am sorry if I did not make myself clear about the replacement of units. It is not the batteries that are the problem; sensor wear-out is the problem. I will check to see whether it is possible to replace sensors at some point, but I do not have that information to hand. However, the battery is not the problem; the issue is the sensor, which is at the heart of how the system works.

Maurice Corry

Will the minister take an intervention on that point?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I can allow the time.

Maurice Corry

Aside from the sensor, it is important to have a battery recharging facility as well.

Kevin Stewart

I have heard what Mr Corry has said, and we can look at that issue, but the point is that the issue is the senor, not the battery. I have to be clear on that.

As I highlighted to the Local Government and Communities Committee this morning, we have also made sure that people can get advice on the type of alarms—although not specific brand recommendations—that will meet the standard from our website and through information provided by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. If folk have any suggestions about how to improve that advice and information, I am happy to listen to what they have to say, and I will act accordingly.

I recognise the SFRS’s crucial role in messaging around fire safety, and we will continue to work with the service to ensure that we are maximising opportunities to raise awareness, get good information out there and signpost to sources of help and advice. As was pointed out by Mr Gibson, Ms Harper and others, the Government has provided funding to the SFRS in that regard, and we are in discussion about how much further we can go. The SFRS deals with the most vulnerable people, so it is important that we get it all the right help.

Ms McNeill mentioned that some folk may not be able to pay for a system—specifically, people who are in fuel poverty. As part of our fuel poverty schemes, as well as upgrading heating systems, our contractor can supply fire and smoke alarms.

We will ensure that the correct marketing campaign is in place. I am always open to suggestions on that. The delay that we have agreed today will give people a further 12 months to install the required alarms, but I hope that most people will recognise the safety benefits and take action much sooner. I have instructed my officials to explore all avenues to ensure that installation is as easy as possible.

It is regrettable that the Scottish Government was not able to take forward its planned awareness-raising activity this year. Although we progressed some activity and there were plans to ramp up publicity and communications in the run-up to the original deadline, Covid-19 and the associated public health information restricted the opportunities for the Government to give out specific fire safety advice. I absolutely agree that there will be a need for a significant awareness-raising campaign, and I assure members that that is a clear priority for us. This morning, I pledged that I would continue to keep the committee up to speed with all that is going on, and I will do so.

My final point is an appeal to all members to use their good offices to continue to keep folk in their constituencies apprised of developments and to pass on what we have agreed in Parliament today.

Meeting closed at 17:46.