Housing minister Lee Rowley tells MPs the government will reveal its building product safety plans ‘soon’
The housing minister has promised that the government’s response to the Morrell report on construction product testing is to come soon but refused to say exactly when.
Paul Morrell and Anneliese Day’s landmark review, published last April, was ordered in the wake of shocking evidence from material manufacturers who testified at the Grenfell Inquiry.
The 174-page report sets out plans for sweeping reforms which would bring construction products under the scope of the new National Regulator for Construction Products, which currently oversees just a third of all construction products in manufacture.
As long ago as last July, industry bodies such as the Construction Products Association were asking for clarity from the government on when it would begin to action the recommendations of the review.
In a letter to a Labour MP last summer, Morrell himself raised concerns that the lack of a full government response to his report could “freeze the progress that might otherwise be made by the industry in improving the safety of products and their applications” and said he hoped Michael Gove would announce a date for a “substantive response”.
But appearing in front of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Lee Rowley refused to be drawn on a specific timeline.
He called the report a “very substantive document” and promised the department would begin laying out its plans “soon” but noted that this “might be multi-stage rather than a single document”.
Explaining the complexity of reforming the regulatory framework, he gave the example of a simple construction product like a screw or a nail.
Rowley said the system has to be built to effectively oversee the use of such products in complex and safety-critical contexts, while not becoming overburdensome to ordinary consumers.
“We have also got to make sure that when my Dad buys a pile of nails to knock into a fence, we are not creating a disproportionate requirement upon the product manufacturers to give a whole heap of information for something which is not safety critical,” he said.
“That is a very challenging balance to strike […] I’m hoping we are going to be able to come out with further information very soon”.
The minister also promised that “in the coming weeks” he would release research commissioned by the department in 2020 into more than 3,000 product standards associated with testing.
“We are going to release that, there is no reason not to, I’m not sure why it is not [public] already,” he said.
Asked by one committee member why the promised establishment of a Construction Products Standards Committee had been delayed, Rowley said the original purpose of the committee had been “superseded”.
Chandru Dissanayeke, director of regulatory reform at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, explained that its original purpose was to give advice on whether instances of EU product harmonisation should be adopted into UK law too, but that this role had ultimately been taken by the Office for Product Safety and Standards.
“The idea of an independent committee is not something we have necessarily parked,” said Dissanayeke.
“It is part of our ongoing thinking and reform, but we want to do that in conjunction with the national construction products regulator and make sure that sits well within an overall system of oversight”.
Asked whether the practice of product manufacturers “shopping around” for testing centres that will approve their products was widespread, Dissanayeke said there was “no evidence for this.
However, he admitted there was a “conflict of interest” where test houses are “unwilling to share information where they knew products were bad because they were subject to commercial confidentiality agreements” and said the department was looking at this issue.