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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 20 June 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motions, Oaths, Topical Question Time, Policing 2026, Crofting Commission, Air Departure Tax (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Air Departure Tax (Scotland) Bill, Seat Belts on School Transport (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time, Scottish Civic Trust (50th Anniversary)


Topical Question Time

Residential Tower Blocks and Public Buildings (Fire Safety Checks)

1. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what checks have been undertaken on residential tower blocks and new public buildings, including schools, in light of the recent tragic event at Grenfell tower. (S5T-00595)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities (Angela Constance)

The Scottish Government took immediate action following the tragic fire at Grenfell tower to ensure the safety of residents who live in tower blocks. The Minister for Housing and Local Government raised the issue with local authorities on Thursday last week and wrote to them later the same day to seek information on high-rise domestic buildings in their areas, whether any remedial works—including overcladding—had been undertaken on them and, if so, the material and construction techniques that were used. I expect to have that information collated today, and indeed I have some of the information. If the cladding system is of the type that is understood to have been used at Grenfell, it is unlikely to meet current Scottish building regulations guidance.

Furthermore, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is working with local authorities and housing associations to ensure the safety of residents in high-rises. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has already prioritised requests for home fire safety visits from residents of high-rise flats. The service has also confirmed that its quarterly visits of all high-rise domestic buildings are up to date. Those visits are conducted to help familiarise local fire crews with the firefighting facilities, access and layout of such buildings.

New buildings are covered by the Scottish building regulations, which include the requirement from 2005 to fit automatic fire suppression systems—otherwise known as sprinklers—to residential care facilities, enclosed shopping centres and high-risk areas within hospitals. From 2010 they are in new schools.

The ministerial working group has just completed its first meeting, and we have undertaken to examine what proactive preventative measures we can take to ensure that our buildings are as safe as possible and as practical. The initial focus of the working group will be on high-rise domestic buildings. The group will also consider other buildings, such as schools and hospitals, using a risk-based approach that is informed by emerging evidence and intelligence from the United Kingdom Government and our local authorities.

Jackie Baillie

I very much welcome the Government’s announcement of a review and the action that it has taken so far. In particular, I welcome the fact that it is looking at widening the scope of the review to include schools and other public buildings.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that West Dunbartonshire Council has not carried out a full fire risk inspection of its high-rise blocks for seven years, whereas other local authorities carry out such inspections annually. Given that there is an inconsistent approach across Scotland, what is the frequency with which the cabinet secretary would expect local authorities to undertake such inspections? Will she issue national guidance to that effect?

Angela Constance

I appreciate the question. Although fire regulations and building standards are matters for local authorities, one of the reasons for the establishment of the ministerial working group is to enable us to cast a fair and critical eye over not just fire safety regulations and building standards but all regulations or regulatory frameworks as appropriate.

When it comes to fire safety standards and building regulations, Scotland compares well with other countries, but we do not for a minute want to be complacent. We want to take a fresh look at all this and be led by the evidence. We will, of course, keep Parliament duly informed at each and every step of the way. I will not rush to immediate conclusions, and we will certainly take on the specific concerns that Jackie Baillie has raised. However, we are determined to give the work of the ministerial short-life working group a bit of momentum and to progress it at pace, and I undertake to keep Parliament fully informed.

Jackie Baillie

It was helpful to hear that the cabinet secretary’s mind is not closed to members’ suggestions.

I understand that the Scottish Government issued a letter to all local authorities in November 2013 in which it recategorised certain systems as fire compliant in the building standards regulations. That may have been entirely appropriate but, in this case, the council contractor in West Dunbartonshire had apparently halted work over an issue relating to the external wall insulation systems that prompted the change in question. Will the cabinet secretary publish all the information on the matter to provide reassurance to my constituents? How often are the technical aspects of building standards regulations changed in that way?

Angela Constance

I want to reassure Jackie Baillie by saying that we will indeed publish information that Parliament and members request. We want to be in the business of providing transparency and reassurance.

Building standards regulations are reviewed regularly. In my discussions with building standards professionals in the Scottish Government, they were able to recount to me the responses that they have made over a number of years to specific events and specific fires. For example, when there was a tragic fire in Irvine in 1999, that led to a revisiting of regulations, which meant that all cladding that was used in high-rise dwellings had to be non-combustible.

As far as the specific issue in West Dunbartonshire and the events that were reported in the press at the weekend are concerned, I categorically state that it is absolutely wrong to suggest that there was any watering down of regulations. The report in the Sunday press relates to a clarification of building regulations that was made in 2013 in relation to the classification of external wall cladding on houses where the wall is not more than 1m from the boundary. We are talking about an extremely robust standard for low-rise houses that does not apply to flats of any type at any height. Therefore, there is no comparison to be made between the events at Grenfell tower and the minor change in guidance on houses that was made in 2013.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Understandably, there is a lot of interest from members in this issue. I am not sure that I will get everyone in, but we will start with Clare Adamson.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

As convener of the cross-party group on accident prevention and safety awareness, I have seen a number of demonstrations of new technologies that help with fire prevention and fire suppression. How will the ministerial working group ensure that the most up-to-date emerging technologies are included in order to future proof any recommendations as we move towards smart cities?

Angela Constance

I will make two quick points on Ms Adamson’s question. First and foremost, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is in the concluding stages of commissioning joint research with the Building Research Establishment, which is based in Watford, and the Fire Industry Association to investigate the use of new technologies to prevent fire fatalities and injuries or, indeed, information about new technologies that would reduce harm. That academic research will include investigation of new technologies, such as fire suppression systems and sprinkler systems.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service headquarters and firefighting training camp at Cambuslang is home to the safety house facility. That state-of-the-art house demonstrates and showcases various aspects of fire safety in the home, including the use of technologies such as smoke detectors and fire suppression devices.

I know that the member has a long-standing history of concern about fire safety issues and that she has campaigned on those matters. I am aware that, later this week, she will meet the Minister for Local Government and Housing.

On the other aspect of Ms Adamson’s question, the ministerial working group will use all available information to make informed considerations.

It is appropriate for me to inform the chamber about the follow-up request to local authorities that had intimated that they have high-rise blocks of more than 18m high. Yesterday, the housing minister asked them specific questions on cladding and whether they had cladding made from aluminium composite material. I am pleased to report that all 18 local authorities that had initially replied that they have such high-rise dwellings have come back and said that none of their cladding is made from that material.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

The Local Government and Communities Committee is doing an inquiry into building regulations. We have heard that, across the country, only cursory checks are carried out on whether building work is done to standard. That applies to new-build homes, as well as to public buildings, including schools. We will come up with recommendations, and we hope to hold a parliamentary debate, but does the minister agree with me that, in light of the Grenfell disaster, the regime needs to be improved quickly?

Angela Constance

I reiterate my earlier point that our building standards regulatory framework compares well with those elsewhere in the UK, but not for a minute will the Government be complacent. We have a system of building standards in which building officers have specific duties; there is also the building warrants process. One of the Minister for Local Government and Housing’s initiatives is to introduce fees on building standards so that we can invest in our building standards system, ensuring that it remains fit for purpose and that we do not for a minute rest on our laurels.

I appreciate the member’s interest, and I appreciate that the Local Government and Communities Committee will want to pursue this and other related matters thoroughly. On behalf of the Government, I welcome that interest.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I thank the Government for its action, and I look forward to hearing back from the ministerial working group about what action has been taken.

Edinburgh residents who do not have sprinkler systems in older homes, of which there are many in the city and across Scotland, have raised those concerns with me. I know that they are also raising their concerns directly with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. What is the Government doing to ensure that the fire service has the capacity and the resources to answer and to deal with the greater number of queries that it is receiving at the moment?

Angela Constance

Ms Johnstone’s question is very apposite; that is one of the matters that we discussed at the ministerial working group less than an hour ago.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is currently doing great, proactive work to provide reassurance to people who live in high-rise dwellings. We are looking carefully at how we can support the service to maintain its work. Given the tragic event at Grenfell tower, and given that it will take some time to understand its causes and work through the action that we must take, we must ensure that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is able to continue its proactive work. I am pleased to advise members that, in the past week, the service has undertaken 200 visits to people who live in high-rise flats, to reassure them and to issue good, sound fire safety advice.

The member asked about sprinklers. The ministerial working group, with momentum and pace, will want to look thoroughly at all fire safety matters and all technology that has a role to play in reducing risk, as I said to Ms Adamson. We have to be in the business of preventing tragedy. That means that we will of course look at some of the broader issues to do with sprinkler systems.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I commend social housing providers for their swift work to engage, inform, update and reassure tenants and residents. However, following discussions that I have had with ng homes, which is a key housing provider in north Glasgow, it has agreed to go further and establish a tenant scrutiny panel on fire safety, with membership drawn from people who live in the many high-rises in the organisation’s housing stock. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the establishment of such a panel will help to empower concerned residents and provide for a longer-term and strategic local approach to fire safety? Does she think that other social housing providers would do well to consider similar models of tenant and resident engagement and empowerment?

Angela Constance

I agree. There are currently 460 registered tenant organisations in Scotland, which are an established and effective way of enabling landlords and tenants to work together on any issue of concern to tenants, including safety matters. I suggest that landlords and tenants use such organisations as a forum in which to discuss specific concerns about fire safety and that landlords use them to explain to tenants the proactive steps that they are taking to deal with concerns—I know that many local authorities and registered social landlords are taking proactive steps to reassure tenants. That is one of the reasons why the ministerial working group will consider all matters of relevance and not just matters that are strictly associated with fire safety regulations or building standards.

The Presiding Officer

I apologise to members whom I could not squeeze in.

Engagement with Muslim Community and Mosque Safety

2. James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what engagement it undertakes with Scotland’s Muslim community, and whether it will take steps to ensure the safety of mosques in the wake of the latest attack in London. (S5T-00605)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Michael Matheson)

I am sure that I speak for the whole Parliament when I say that our thoughts are with everyone who was caught up in the most recent attack in London. The First Minister chaired a meeting of the Scottish Government resilience committee yesterday, to ensure that we are closely monitoring the situation.

There is no intelligence of a specific threat in Scotland, but Police Scotland has actively reviewed all safety and security plans at Scotland’s mosques, which involves ensuring that our armed policing and specialist resources are appropriately deployed.

The Scottish Government has strong, well-established relationships with our Muslim communities and we have been in regular contact to provide reassurance and to understand where there might be tensions. We will not tolerate any attempt to target any community, by any misguided individual or group. Police Scotland continues to monitor hate crime closely and we encourage anyone who has been the victim of or a witness to hate crime to contact the police and report the incident.

James Dornan

During this holy month of Ramadan, Muslim families and communities across Scotland are meeting late in the evening to break their fast and join in worship. Has consideration been given to providing special protection around mosques at such times, to ensure that our friends in Scotland’s Muslim community feel safe and secure as they express their faith and go about their lives?

Michael Matheson

As I mentioned, Police Scotland has reviewed security and policing arrangements around all of Scotland’s mosques, and is applying resources in a way that it sees as proportionate and appropriate, given the nature of the threat that has been experienced following the incident in London.

I can assure the member that those arrangements also give consideration to the key times during the day when there are larger numbers of people at Scotland’s mosques, including at the time of breaking fast and of joining in prayer in the evening. Police Scotland will continue to keep that under review and will continue to engage with mosques directly to ensure that they are content with the additional security measures that have been put in place. The situation will continue to be monitored in the weeks and days ahead.

James Dornan

Last Thursday, I broke the fast when I chaired a constructive meeting in Cathcart old parish church in my constituency, with Sunni and Shia Muslims as well as representatives of Christian denominations. That gathering illustrated perfectly that people of a diversity of faiths across our nation share the ambition to build stronger communities and live peacefully together. What is the Scottish Government doing in schools, and more generally throughout Scotland, to foster tolerance and respect and to end prejudice, discrimination and hate?

Michael Matheson

The event that Mr Dornan hosted just last week demonstrates that what unites us is greater than what divides us as a society. As a Government, we recognise the importance of having strong, resilient, supportive communities. Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities made a statement in this Parliament setting out our ambitious plan to take action to effectively tackle hate crime and prejudice in Scottish society and, importantly, to create greater community cohesion. That includes steps to progress relationships and behaviours, working in schools, and establishing a refreshed anti-bullying guidance programme. It is all about making sure that we address attitudes at an early stage, and schools and our education system will have a key part to play in helping to support that work. The Government will continue to take forward that work with our partners in local authorities in the months ahead.