Provisional Legislative Council

PLC Paper No. CB(2) 1290
(These minutes have been
seen by the Administration)

Ref. : CB2/BC/6/97

Bills Committee on
Fire Safety (Commercial Premises)
(Amendment) Bill 1998

Minutes of the held on Tuesday, 10 February 1998 at 10:45 am in Conference Room A of the Legislative Council Building

Members present :

Hon Mrs Selina CHOW, JP (Chairman)
Hon WONG Siu-yee
Hon Edward S T HO, JP
Hon Mrs Elsie TU, GBM
Hon Henry WU
Hon Ronald ARCULLI, JP
Hon CHEUNG Hon-chung
Hon CHAN Choi-hi
Hon CHAN Wing-chan
Hon Kennedy WONG Ying-ho

Member absent:

Hon HO Sai-chu, JP]
Dr Hon Raymond HO Chung-tai, JP ]
Hon Mrs Peggy LAM, JP]
Hon CHENG Kai-nam] other commitments
Hon LAU Kong-wah ]
Dr Hon LAW Cheung-kwok]
Hon TAM Yiu-chung, JP]

Public Officers attending :

Mrs Sarah KWOK
Principal Assistant Secretary for Security

Mr Edward TO
Assistant Secretary for Security

Assistant Director of Buildings

Chief Building Surveyor
Buildings Department

Mr Charles CHU
Acting Chief Fire Officer
Fire Services Department

Mr John WONG
Senior Government Counsel
Department of Justice

Clerk in attendance :

Mrs Sharon TONG
Chief Assistant Secretary (2) 1

Staff in attendance :

Mr Stephen LAM
Assistant Legal Adviser 4

Mr Paul WOO
Senior Assistant Secretary (2) 5

I.Election of Chairman

1. Mrs Selina CHOW was elected Chairman of the Bills Committee.

II.Meeting with the Administration

(PLC Brief - Ref: SBCR 1/1866/96 (97)
PLC Paper No. LS 81
The Bill)

Briefing by the Administration

2. Principal Assistant Secretary for Security (PAS(S)) advised that the Fire Safety (Commercial Premises) (Amendment) Bill 1998 (the Bill) sought to extend the application of the Fire Safety (Commercial Premises) Ordinance (the Ordinance), which came into operation in May 1997, to cover pre-1987 old commercial buildings. The proposed legislation would empower the enforcement authorities (i.e. the Director of Buildings and the Director of Fire Services) to require the owners or occupiers of specified commercial buildings to comply with certain fire safety measures. These measures included the provision and upgrading of fire service installations and equipment, means of escape, means of access for fire fighting and rescue and fire resisting construction. Details of the requirements were set out in Schedules 5 and 6 of the Bill.

3. PAS(S) pointed out that the legislation would be implemented by phases. The first priority was to deal with the some 400 commercial buildings with their building plans first submitted to the Building Authority on or before 23 March 1973, on which the installation of sprinkler systems was not a mandatory requirement at that time. The Administration intended to complete the first phase within three years after the commencement of the legislation, and in the light of experience gained in the first phase proceed to deal with the 1 000 or so commercial buildings whose building plans were first submitted before a substantially revised edition of the Code of Practice on Minimum Fire Service Installations and Equipment took effect on 1 March 1987. Such buildings were not constructed or designed to the fire safety standards laid down in the 1987 Code of Practice which required modern fire service installations of standards that were very close to current ones.

4. PAS(S) said that in enforcing the legislation, the emphasis would be put on encouraging owners and occupiers to comply with the requirements. The authorities might issue directions to require improvement of fire safety measures with reference to their Codes of Practice and specify a reasonable time period during which the requirement must be met. If the owner or occupier failed to comply without a reasonable excuse, the authorities might apply to a magistrate for a fire safety improvement compliance order. In the event of non-compliance with the direction of the compliance order, the authorities could apply to the District Court for a Prohibition Order to prohibit the occupation of the commercial building.

5. PAS(S) informed members that in view of the feedback received during a three-month consultation exercise conducted from May to July 1997, the Administration intended to set up a $200 million Fire Safety Improvement Fund to provide loans to the needy parties affected by the legislation. Finance Committee ' s approval would be sought for the establishment of the Fund in March 1998. As regards the legislative timetable, the Administration wished that the Bill could be enacted before the end of the current legislative session.

Discussion with the Administration

Application of the Bill

6. In response to members’ enquiries, PAS(S) explained that the enforcement provisions in the Bill were similar to the provisions in the Ordinance in respect of prescribed commercial premises. The term "commercial building" was defined in clause 4 of the Bill to mean the whole of a non-domestic building being a building constructed on or before 1 March 1987 or the building plans of which were first submitted to the Building Authority for approval on or before 1 March 1987, and which was constructed or intended to be used for the purposes set out under that clause. Prescribed commercial premises under the Ordinance referred to those premises used for a prescribed commercial activity with a total floor area exceeding 230 m}. Prescribed commercial activities included banking, conduct of off-course betting, conduct of a jewellery or goldsmith ' s business, use as a supermarket or department store, or use as a shopping arcade. Premises which fell within the scope of prescribed commercial premises as defined under the Ordinance and situated in a building which was partly constructed or intended to be used for domestic purposes were covered under the existing Ordinance. A building which was partly for human habitation and partly for commercial purposes (composite building) would not be covered by the Bill. However, prescribed commercial premises operated in a composite building would be covered by the existing Ordinance.

7. Members asked whether the scope of the Bill could be extended to cover other commercial premises in old buildings and composite buildings. PAS(S) advised that old commercial buildings and prescribed commercial premises were the first priority to deal with because of the high turnover of visitors and the high risks involved in the event of a fire. Early enactment of this Bill was essential for the authorities to take action to improve fire safety standards of old commercial buildings in the territory. PAS(S) added that the requirements on improvements to fire safety measures prescribed in the Bill for old commercial buildings might not be equally applicable to other types of buildings. To deal with buildings which fell outside the scope of the Bill, the Administration was currently conducting a general survey on some 60 000 private buildings in the territory, which also covered domestic buildings and industrial buildings. This general survey was expected to be completed by May 1998. The result of the survey would shed light on areas for improvement and the appropriate measures to be taken to improve fire safety of those buildings. In parallel with the general survey, the Buildings Department (BD) and the Fire Services Department (FSD) were stepping up enforcement actions. At the district level, the Home Affairs Department was promoting safety awareness and better building management in fire safety matters. A new Home Affairs Department Building Management Resource Centre would be set up in mid-1998 to provide information and advice to building management bodies on ways to improve the fire safety facilities of their buildings. Such information included, among other things, information on registered contractors, the legislative requirements and practical advice on the installations and works that were necessary to comply with those requirements.

Specified commercial building

8. In reply to Mr Edward HO ' s question on the definition of "specified commercial building", PAS(S) said that the definition in Schedule 4 applied to those pre-1973 buildings which were the target for the first phase of implementation after commencement of the legislation. After completing the first phase in three years, Schedule 4 would be amended to cover the remaining pre-1987 commercial buildings.

Reasonable requirements

9. Referring to the pragmatic and flexible approach which the Administration indicated that it would adopt in enforcing the safety requirements, Mr Edward HO expressed the view that the extent of flexibility and the test of reasonableness should be more clearly spelt out to ensure that there would be consistency in application and clear guidelines for the affected parties to follow. He said that leaving too much discretionary power to the authorities might have the adverse effect of creating difficulties and uncertainties in complying with the legislation.

10. In response, the Administration said that in the light of the comments received during the public consultation and discussions between BD and building professionals, it was felt that the enforcement authorities should apply the safety provisions in a flexible manner when there were genuine and practical difficulties in meeting the current standards. The authorities should assess the fire safety of a building according to the overall provision of facilities, the layout of the building and its fire resisting construction etc. Depending on the merits of the case, the enforcement authority was prepared to consider and accept alternative compensatory measures for improving fire safety in place of the prescribed requirements in the BD ' s Code of Practice which would equally achieve the primary objective of the legislation. Assistant Director of Buildings added that a Practice Note for Authorized Persons and Registered Structural Engineers published by BD in August 1997 provided general guidelines on implementation issues relating to the Ordinance. He said that the Department would set up a Fire Safety Committee comprising representatives of BD, FSD and including non-official experts to examine and advise on alternative compensatory proposals such as fire engineering proposals. The BD would conduct regular reviews with a view to formulating further guidelines in the light of experience. At members’ request, the Administration undertook to provide a copy of the Practice Note for members‘ reference. Adm

Fire Safety Improvement Fund (FSIF)

11. Mr Henry WU referred to the meeting of the Security Panel held on 16 October 1997 at which the Administration informed Panel members of its plan to set up a $500 million Urban Rehabilitation Fund (URF) to provide loans to owners of old buildings in targeted areas for rehabilitation, and that the Administration would look into the possibility of covering fire safety installations under the URF. Mr WU doubted that the proposed FSIF, which would be of a smaller size of $200 million, was sufficient to meet the needs of those affected by the legislation, in view of the high costs in financing some of the fire safety works items.

12. PAS(S) replied that there were some differences in the scopes of the URF and FSIF. The costs of the improvement works involved in the respective funds also differed. As regards the FSIF, the proposed amount of the Fund was assessed on the basis of the findings of a sample survey on fire safety conditions in old commercial buildings conducted in early 1997. She said that as the number of buildings to be covered in FSIF was smaller, and given the assumption that only a portion of those eligible owners and occupiers of prescribed commercial premises and specified commercial buildings would apply for the loan and not all of them would apply at the same time, the Administration was of the opinion that $200 million was a reasonable size of the Fund to cater for the immediate needs. PAS(S) further explained that the FSIF would operate on a revolving basis, i.e. while the Fund would be making loans to successful applicants on the one hand, it would start receiving repayments for the loans before the improvement works were completed on the other. She said that subject to implementation of the new legislation, the amount of the FSIF would be reviewed having regard to practical experience.

13. In view of members’ concerns and at the request of the Chairman, the Administration agreed to provide supplementary information on details of computation on the amount of the FSIF and how the Fund would operate to facilitate further discussion by members at the next meeting. Adm

Time-frame for implementation

14. Mr CHAN Choi-hi enquired whether the implementation plan of the legislation could be expedited. He suggested that in urgent and deserving cases, the Government might carry out the necessary improvement measures on buildings with serious problems. PAS(S) replied that the time-frame for implementation was formulated on practical enforcement experience and public consultation on the legislative proposals. Improvement of fire safety of old commercial buildings was a lengthy process involving thorough examination of the buildings, making directions for improvements and the necessary follow-up action on the progress. Adequate time should be provided for owners and occupiers of old commercial buildings which fell short of the required standards to undertake appropriate remedial measures. She added that the policy intent of the Administration was that the responsibility should be upon the owners or occupiers to upgrade fire safety standards, while the role of the Government was to provide practical assistance where necessary, such as the provision of loans under the FSIF.

15. The Administration agreed to consider members’ view of speeding up the implementation plan of the Bill. Adm


16. Members agreed that a press release should be issued to invite members of the public and concerned groups to express their views on the Bill by sending in submissions and/or meeting the Bills Committee at its coming meetings. Clerk

III.Date of Next Meetings

17. The next two meetings were scheduled as follows :

  1. 17 February 1998 at 2:30 pm; and

  2. 18 February 1998 at 8:30 am.

(Post-meeting note: The meeting on 18 February 1998 at 8:30 am was subsequently cancelled.)

IV.Close of meeting

18. The meeting ended at 12:05 pm.

Provisional Legislative Council Secretariat
12 March 1998