Weighing up the law - September 2018

Weighing up the law - September 2018

This month, Laura Page studies the Hackitt Review’s competency recommendations

LAST MONTH, I summarised key changes which Dame Judith Hackitt proposed in her review of building regulations and fire safety. I will now consider her recommendations on competence, and in the next issue will focus on the impact any changes may have on those in manufacturing who supply affected buildings. 
 
While her recommendations currently apply to existing and future residential high rises over ten storeys, Dame Judith has invited the government to consider extending them to other types of residential accommodation, such as university halls, care homes and prisons. The industry will be very aware that it’s not only construction companies or building owners who will need to consider any new competence requirements, but also those who carry out fire risk assessments or maintain those buildings, and the regulators themselves. 
 
So what is the current position on competence in fire safety? There is no overarching educational or certification requirement, so for example anyone can sell and install a fire alarm: there is nothing stopping them. I find this surprising, as when I have gas work done, I know I must make sure that person is Gas Safe registered. Similarly, no particular qualification is required to carry out a fire risk assessment, or indeed for fire safety consultants more generally. 
 
In the fire safety industry, the responsibility is firmly placed on the professional offering services to attain and maintain their own competence, and on the service user to satisfy themselves about that person’s competency. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 requires the responsible person to nominate a competent person to assist with meeting firefighting and fire detection obligations under Article 13(1), but has no guidance on what ‘competent’ looks like.
 
Therefore, it’s unsurprising that competence is a key theme of Dame Judith’s report. She observes that, while there are many competent people in the industry, there is no consistent way to assess or verify competence. She proposes a future system of professional and vocational competence, which needs to operate in an integrated manner, and with accreditation body codes of conduct encouraging members to only operate within their own competence. 
 
The industry has been called on to get together and resolve this issue with government assistance. Dame Judith believes future guidance needs to be improved to be more holistic and outcomes based. It should be owned by industry and facilitate innovation, so that new practices and technology can be harnessed where appropriate. Competence is an issue for all those involved in a building’s lifecycle whose work has any impact on fire safety. This specifically includes fire safety installers and maintainers of safety critical systems such as fire doors, sprinklers, fire detection systems and so on. But it goes much wider.
 
Her report talks about buildings as a system, and fire safety considerations being taken into account throughout the lifecycle from procurement. A minimum legal standard of competence for all professional disciplines involved in design, construction and safe use of buildings will have to be priced into contracts. Will such a competency requirement be a freestanding qualification or incorporated into existing professional competence schemes?
 
Having spoken to some in the industry, it is clear that a new competency system will take time to develop and embed, and will be hard to achieve. 
 
In the meantime, those who have the requisite skill sets will continue to be held in high demand. We await a government statement this autumn for an indication of timescales, along with all other report recommendations.
 
Laura Page is a solicitor in the health and safety team at Pinsent Masons