On 14 December 2023, the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion:

Lord Goddard of Stockport (Liberal Democrat) to move that this House takes note of the current state of fire safety regulations in England and the case for a new integrated review to update fire safety guidance.

1. How many fires in homes are attended by fire and rescue services each year in England?

There has been a downward trend in the absolute number of fires both in houses and flats (dwellings) attended by fire and rescue services (FRS) since the turn of the millennium. In 1990/00, FRS attended 58,280 fires in dwellings. In 2022/23, this had fallen to 26,816 attendances. This downward trend is shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Number of fires in dwellings attended in England

Number of fires in dwellings attended in England between 1999/2000 and 2021/22
Source: Home Office, ‘Fire statistics data tables’, accessed 30 November 2023

Figure 2 illustrates the number of dwelling fires per one million of population. Numbers have dropped from 1,189 in 1990/00 to 481 in 2021/22 (the most recent available figures).

Figure 2. Number of fires in dwellings in England per one million of population

Graph showing the number of fires in dwellings in England per one million of population between 1999/2000 and 2021/2022
Source: Home Office, ‘Fire statistics data tables’, accessed 30 November 2023

Home Office research has previously listed factors that may be contributing to the decrease, including more households having smoke alarms, fewer people smoking, and a decline of certain cooking methods, for example the use of chip pans.[1] However, the research also cited an ageing population and increased overcrowding as risk factors for future fires and fatalities.

2. Fire safety in furniture and furnishings

2.1 Current regulations and use of flame retardants

Fire safety standards in furniture and furnishings are currently set out in the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988. These require furniture and furnishings to pass an “open flame ignition test” before they can be put on sale. They were introduced because foam fillings had begun to replace more naturally fire-resistant materials like horsehair. There are four main flammability tests required by the regulations. The ‘match’ and ‘cigarette’ tests evaluate fabrics while two further tests assess foam and non-foam materials.

Flame retardants are a range of organic and inorganic chemicals used in products and building materials to prevent or inhibit a product catching fire. A group of scientists convened by a UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) initiative has observed the UK has some of the highest usage of flame retardants in the world, in large part because such chemicals are commonly added to products to pass the open flame ignition tests. The regulations do not specify the use of flame retardants, but the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has noted that they are generally accepted to be the most cost-effective.[2]

Flame retardants are designed to extend the time an object takes to catch fire; however, there is evidence that during a fire some flame retardants exacerbate toxic gases released and smoke formed during fires. The UKRI initiative scientists explained that “a significant proportion of fire deaths are caused by inhalation of toxic fumes, including cyanide gas and carbon monoxide”.[3]

Another concern about flame retardants is the long-term impacts of the chemicals on people and the environment. Flame retardants migrate out of the products and materials they are included in through wear, abrasion and disposal or recycling.[4] They are bioaccumulative and persistent, meaning they collect and stay in the human body, air, food, and drinking water, as well as on surfaces, and enter natural environments like rivers and lakes.

2.2 Government consultations and proposals for change

In 2014 the then Department of Business, Innovation and Skills consulted on proposed amendments to the 1988 regulations. The intention of the proposed changes was to reduce the use of flame retardant chemicals. The government decided not to go ahead with the proposed amendments at that time and instead said it would consider testing as part of a “full review of regulations”.[5]

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published a second consultation in 2016. In the consultation description, it expressed an intention to reform the regulations:

We think the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988 are out of date, and in some cases represent an unreasonable burden for furniture manufacturers. We’re proposing to bring the regulations in line with changing furniture making practices and consumer preferences.[6]

In its response to the consultation feedback, the government later said it would work on a “new approach” focused on reduced risk of ignition and fire spread. This would be “underpinned by a set of essential safety requirements which all upholstered furniture placed on the market must meet”.[7]

In 2021 the Office for Product Safety and Standards ran a call for evidence on a UK product safety review, in parallel with the review of the furniture regulations, and in 2023 published research on fire risks of upholstered products.[8]

The government is proposing to introduce new fire safety regulations for upholstered products. It ran a consultation on these draft regulations from 2 August 2023 to 24 October 2023.[9] At the time of writing responses were being analysed. This consultation forms part of the ‘Smarter regulation’ programme of regulatory reform announcements that began in May 2023 with the publication of the ‘Smarter regulation to grow the economy’ policy paper.

The government outlined the key measures and intended effects in the impact assessment accompanying the draft regulations:

  • Maintain and improve the fire safety outcomes for UK domestic upholstered furniture, such that there is a measurable reduction in domestic fire incidents, including those that result in death or injury, where domestic upholstered furniture is the first item to ignite.
  • Remove the mandated flammability testing regime and replace it with essential safety requirements that set desired outcomes, supported by new British Standards developed independently by the British Standards Institution.
  • Reduce non-compliance by giving greater certainty to businesses and enforcement officers on the scope of the regulations.
  • Support better enforcement of the regulations by improving traceability and increasing the time available to take legal action in the case of non-compliance.
  • Enable and encourage a reduction in the use of chemical flame retardants.
  • Reduce the regulatory barriers to bringing innovative products to market.[10]

The proposed regulations would exclude from scope items like small cushions, and baby products like playpens and carry-cots. The list would also exclude outdoor furniture explicitly labelled for outdoor use only.[11]

The proposals retain ignition testing but would require that complete products be tested rather than component materials.[12] Manufacturers would also be required to provide evidence that they had considered using inherently flame-retardant material or adapting the design of a product before using chemical flame retardants. This is described as the ‘flame retardant technology hierarchy’.[13]

The government proposes for the new approach to take effect from 1 October 2024, followed by an 18-month transition period where manufacturers would still be able to put products compliant with the 1988 regulations on the market.

2.3 Responses to the government’s most recent proposals and other calls for change

Earlier calls for change

There have been calls for reform of the regulations related to fire retardant materials. For example, the 2019 House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) report ‘Toxic chemicals in everyday life’ also identified concerns regarding the use of flame retardants, including emphasising the potential health impacts for babies and children. The report said:

The furniture and furnishings regulations have been under review by BEIS and its predecessor department for ten years. In that time, a growing body of research has linked some flame retardants to adverse human and environmental health outcomes. Some of the most commonly used flame retardants in consumer products, such as deca-BDE, have been classed as persistent organic pollutants and substances of very high concern. Some have been banned and regrettable substitutions have occurred. Internationally, restrictions are increasingly being placed on their use in furniture, mattresses, children’s products and electronics. In addition, evidence has emerged that flame-retardant chemicals increase the toxicity of smoke in domestic fires, which calls into question their overall benefit.[14]

Writing in the journal Environment International in March 2023, a group of 13 scientists published a consensus statement describing their concerns about the UK’s continued high usage of flame retardants.[15] The scientists had been convened by the UK Research and Innovation Clean Air Strategic Priorities Fund programme to make strategic recommendations for reform of UK fire safety policy.

The scientists’ paper listed numerous studies which have found evidence of health impacts linked to flame retardants, including increasing diabetes and obesity and cancer risks, as well as effects on hormones, DNA, heart and kidney function. Particular concerns have been raised about potential effects on babies and young children who may be more susceptible to health impacts while they are developing and are likely to frequently put their hands in their mouths.

The authors called on the government to:

  • minimise the need for chemical flame retardants by incentivising ‘benign-by-design’ furniture, materials and other goods, made from inherently less-flammable materials and less likely to produce toxic smoke
  • re-evaluate the use of ignition tests
  • improve the governance of standards, regulation and testing
  • ensure that a very high level of certainty about the human and environmental safety of flame retardants is demonstrated before they are approved for use, and ensure there is a monitoring system to rapidly flag issues and replace flame retardants
  • develop a labelling system for tracking the use of chemicals in products

Speaking to Fire Safety Matters, a sector magazine, one of the scientists, Dr Paul Whaley from Lancaster University, said:

There are long-standing concerns about the effectiveness of flame retardants and the health risks associated with them, which the UK government has never adequately reconciled. This situation needs to change. There has to be a proper balancing of the harms and benefits of flame retardants that includes a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of flame retardants as a fire safety measure, with serious attention paid to the unintended harms of UK fire safety policy.[16]

Consultation responses

On 1 December 2023, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee wrote to the minister for enterprise, markets and small business to follow up on recommendations by its predecessor committee. The committee welcomed the government’s most recent consultation on upholstered furniture regulations, but the chair, Philip Dunne (Conservative MP for Ludlow), commented:

Many of the government’s proposals stop short of what the committee had previously recommended. The government must not waste this opportunity to get regulations in this area right.[17]

The committee requested responses to a range of questions. It asked:

  • how the British Standards Institution will develop safety standards for upholstered furniture, in light of previous EAC concerns that any testing by the institution could be used by industry to frustrate change and delay reform
  • in light of concerns about the effectiveness of the UK’s current flammability tests, why the government seeks to retain the requirement for products to be assessed against this rather than creating a new flammability test learning from best practice from other countries
  • why only certain baby and children’s products are removed from scope of the 1988 regulations on furniture and fire safety, which led to products using potentially harmful flame retardant chemicals
  • what measures the government is considering to direct consumers to more information on the chemical flame retardants used in their furniture
  • how the government’s ‘flame retardant technology hierarchy’ is likely to be effective in reducing the use of substances of very high concern

Responding to the consultation, the National Fire Chiefs Council welcomed the proposals:

We are supportive of the draft essential safety requirements as they seek to maintain and improve fire safety. This is demonstrated through the focus on stopping and delaying ignition to aid escape in the event of a fire.[18]

However, the Fire Brigade’s Union (FBU) opposed the plans on the basis that it considered them deregulatory:

If ministers wanted to tackle flame retardants, they could either ban them or introduce testing for toxicity. In fact, their draft regulations will still allow flame retardants if manufacturers decide they are the most “practicable” solution.

The FBU regards these plans as more deregulation. It puts profits before firefighter and public safety.[19]

Policy Chair of the Federation of Small Businesses Tina McKenzie provided a statement in favour of the plans:

We welcome measures to ease the burden on small businesses while ensuring high safety standards. Regulatory requirements should be designed to be as consistent and straightforward as possible to reduce the costs of compliance for small firms.[20]

The Chartered Trading Standards Institute responded broadly positively, but said that more products should be in scope of the updated regulations.[21] It also raised concerns that manufacturers could use the ‘for outdoor use’ labelling to avoid regulation when in reality the item would be used or stored indoors.

3. Fire safety in buildings

3.1 Building safety regulations

All building work in England must adhere to building regulations, under the Building Act 1984 and the Building Regulations 2010. Schedule one part B of the Building Regulations 2010 sets requirements for fire safety. Requirements include:

  • ensuring the building is designed and constructed so that there is early warning of fire and means of escape
  • using materials and design that inhibit the spread of fire and maintain the stability of the building for a reasonable time in the event of a fire
  • designing facilities (for example placement of fire extinguishers) and access so that fire fighters can attend and fight fire if necessary

Building control bodies approve new buildings and refurbishments to existing buildings. The government produces statutory guidance to give practical advice on how to meet fire safety standards.[22]

A local authority can take enforcement action when building work does not meet the requirements of the Building Regulations 2010 or does not obtain building control approval. Under the Building Act 1984, the local authority can prosecute the person who carried out the work or serve a notice to the owner requiring them to remove or remedy non-compliant work. If the owner does not fix the work, the local authority can do so and then recover costs from the owner.[23]

Following the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people and injured many more, the government introduced new legislation on fire safety. This followed recommendations from the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s phase one report[24] and the Hackitt review, an independent review of building regulations and fire safety.[25] The Grenfell Tower inquiry’s phase two report is expected in 2024.

The Building Safety Act 2022 removed time limits on pursuing prosecution and since October 2023 local authorities can serve an enforcement notice requiring remedial work up to ten years after work is completed. The changes do not apply retrospectively to building work carried out before October 2023

The act gave local authorities powers to require on-going building work to stop until non-compliance has been addressed. Authorities can also serve ‘compliance notices’ which require work to be fixed by a set date. The act also provides for managers or directors of corporate bodies to be liable where they have consented to non-compliance or been responsible for neglect in safety standards.[26]

The Building Safety Act 2022 also provided for the creation of a new regulator, the Building Safety Regulator, which sits within the Health and Safety Executive. The regulator is the building control body for high-rise buildings, and will be the regulatory body for building control professionals from April 2024.[27]

3.2 Occupied building regulations

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 governs fire safety for all non-domestic premises, including common areas of shared blocks of flats. It puts a duty on a ‘responsible person’, usually the owner or building manager, to regularly carry out fire safety risk assessments and to put in place and maintain fire safety measures.[28]

The Fire Safety Act 2021 specified that the 2005 order applies to any common parts of a building, including its structure, external walls, doors between dwellings and common areas, windows and balconies.[29]

Local FRS are responsible for enforcing the order by carrying out inspections in line with the ‘Fire and rescue national framework for England’.

Local authorities also have powers concerning fire safety under the Housing Act 2004. The act introduced a system for assessing housing standards, including fire safety. Local authorities have a duty to take action for any ‘category 1’ hazard and have the power to act on ‘category 2’ hazards. Hazard categorisation is determined by the Housing health and safety rating system.[30] Actions can include sending enforcement notices to landlords requiring improvements to their properties.

The Fire Safety (England) Regulations 2022 introduced a duty for a responsible person in a high-rise residential building (a building at least 18 metres above ground level or seven storeys) to install a secure box with a set of information accessible to FRS. Information includes the responsible person’s contact details, a record of the design and material of external walls, and a building plan which includes locations of fire-fighting equipment. The regulations set requirements for fire safety instructions for residents, wayfinding signage for stairways and lift lobbies, and labelling for fire doors.

The Building Safety Regulator also holds a register of all high-rise blocks of flats, including information about the fire and structural safety of the building.[31]

4. Read more

Cover image by Jon Pauling from Pixabay.


  1. Home Office, ‘Focus on trends in fires and fire-related fatalities’, 12 October 2017. Return to text
  2. House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, ‘Toxic chemicals in everyday life’, 10 July 2019, HC 1805 of session 2017–19, p 28. Return to text
  3. Jamie Page et al, ‘A new consensus on reconciling fire safety with environmental and health impacts of chemical flame retardants’, Environment International, March 2023, vol 173. Return to text
  4. As above. Return to text
  5. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, ‘Furniture fire safety regulations: Proposed amendments’, 12 November 2015. Return to text
  6. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, ‘Furniture and furnishings fire safety regulations: Proposed changes (2016)’, updated 18 July 2019. Return to text
  7. As above. Return to text
  8. Office for Product Safety and Standards, ‘UK product safety review: Call for evidence’, updated 25 November 2021; and ‘Fire risks of upholstered products’, April 2023. Return to text
  9. Department for Business and Trade, ‘Smarter regulation: Fire safety of domestic upholstered furniture’, 16 October 2023. Return to text
  10. Department for Business and Trade, ‘The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 20XX: Impact assessment’, 11 May 2023. Return to text
  11. Department for Business and Trade, ‘Smarter regulation: Fire safety of domestic upholstered furniture’, 16 October 2023, p 20. Return to text
  12. As above, p 27. Return to text
  13. As above, p 29. Return to text
  14. House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, ‘Toxic chemicals in everyday life’, 10 July 2019, HC 1805 of session 2017–19, p 37. Return to text
  15. Jamie Page et al, ‘A new consensus on reconciling fire safety with environmental and health impacts of chemical flame retardants’, Environment International, March 2023, vol 173. Return to text
  16. Fire Safety Matters, ‘Experts call for “comprehensive review” of UK’s fire safety regulations’, 14 March 2023. Return to text
  17. House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, ‘Home furnishings must be made less toxic: EAC writes to minister to seek clarity on government plans to ensure the fire safety of furniture’, 1 December 2023. Return to text
  18. Department for Business and Trade, ‘Government to modernise product safety laws to ensure they’re fit for the digital age’, 2 August 2023. Return to text
  19. Fire Brigades Union, ‘FBU submission: Consultation on domestic upholstered furniture’, 16 November 2023. Return to text
  20. Department for Business and Trade, ‘Government to modernise product safety laws to ensure they’re fit for the digital age’, 2 August 2023. Return to text
  21. Chartered Trading Standards Institute, ‘Chartered Trading Standards Institute response to DBT consultation ‘Smarter regulation: Consultation on the new approach to the fire safety of domestic upholstered furniture’’, accessed 1 December 2023. Return to text
  22. Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, ‘Fire safety: Approved document B’, 1 December 2022. Return to text
  23. House of Commons Library, ‘Fire safety in houses and flats’, 23 October 2023, pp 27–8. Return to text
  24. Grenfell Tower Inquiry, ‘Phase one report’, October 2019. Return to text
  25. Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, ‘Building a safer future: Independent review of building regulations and fire safety–Final report’, Cm 9607, 17 May 2018. Return to text
  26. House of Commons Library, ‘Fire safety in houses and flats’, 23 October 2023, p 28. Return to text
  27. Health and Safety Executive, ‘About the Building Safety Regulator’, accessed 1 December 2023. Return to text
  28. House of Commons Library, ‘Fire safety in houses and flats’, 23 October 2023, p 32. Return to text
  29. House of Commons Library, ‘Fire safety in houses and flats’, 23 October 2023, p 32. Return to text
  30. Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, ‘Housing health and safety rating system (HHSRS) operating guidance: Housing inspections and assessment of hazards’, 27 February 2006. Return to text
  31. House of Commons Library, ‘Fire safety in houses and flats’, 23 October 2023, p 46. Return to text