The Democrat’s Bill Heaney with Sarah Boyack and Housing Minister Shona Robison.
By Bill Heaney
Shona Robison, the SNP Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government, told MSPs: “The regulations were introduced to protect lives and property, and to bring owner-occupied and social rented properties into line with the private rented sector and with new-build homes. We encourage everyone to install the alarms.
“As the regulations are not yet in force, information will be collected in the next Scottish house condition survey. As we have consistently said, the legislation says that work should be done within a reasonable period that takes into account individual circumstances, and no home owner will be penalised if they are unable to do the work.”
However, a spokesman for the insurance industry said on television news this week that householders could find them selves in a situation where, if the alarms were not installed, they could find they were not covered by their current policies for fire at their homes.
Minister Shona Robison said: “We have put £1.5 million into care and repair and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to support homeowners who might have struggled to put those appliances in place. From the most recent figures, I think that around 2,000 people have been supported in one way or another through the care and repair service.
“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.
Fires don’t just happen to other people. The fires here happened in Kirktonhill, Westcliff and Silverton in Dumbarton.
“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.”
Ms Robison revealed that 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.”
She was challenged on this by former LibDem leader Willie Rennie who said: “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?”
Ms Robison responded: “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 MInister failed to mention the fact that people could be penalised for non compliance, not by the Government, but by the insurance companies who could refuse to pay out on claims for fire damage in their homes.
She did respond however to points that were made later in the day that there would not be enough alarms to meet the demand for them and that tradesmen to install them would be thin on the ground.
One installer said householders would have to be alert to the fact that some of the installers coming into the market would not be trained for the work.
He said: “Every Tom, Dick and Harry will be looking to cash in on the fact that there is so much of this work coming on to the market.”
But Ms Robison maintains: “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.”