Fire Safety and Cladding

Delegated Legislation – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 23rd January 2019.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Quin.)

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society) 3:23 pm, 23rd January 2019

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of fire safety, which is of great concern to many people in my constituency and throughout the country, particularly since the Grenfell Tower fire 19 months ago. The debate is happening somewhat earlier than we envisaged. I hope that means that there will be more opportunities for other Members to participate, because I know that the issue affects many constituencies.

I want to cover two areas: first, the major fire that happened at the Shurgard self-storage centre in my constituency on new year’s eve; and secondly, fire safety and the use of flammable cladding in residential and other buildings throughout the country, about which there has been great disquiet since the Grenfell Tower fire.

The fire at the Shurgard self-storage centre was massive. More than 1,200 people had stored their goods and possessions in that facility, which was one of the largest in London. When I was first alerted to what had happened, my first thought was, “I hope everybody is safe,” and it was reassuring to hear that there had been no loss of life. However, a couple of weeks later I had the opportunity to meet a group of Shurgard customers who had lost everything they had put in storage at that facility. The scale of loss, devastation and harm that that caused cannot be overstated. The losses were enormous.

As with all self-storage centres, the Shurgard facility was marketed as a safe place to store goods. It was even advertised as a place for those who had suffered a bereavement to store the belongings of a loved one.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this important debate to the House. Constituents of mine had their goods burnt in the Shurgard fire. I am sure that hon. Members will be interested to know that, having advertised as “safe and secure”, since the fire the Shurgard website has removed 35 mentions of that phrase. Its use is nothing short of mis-selling.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for her intervention. It is telling that Shurgard saw fit to remove all the language about safety from its website after the fire. I hope that, during the debate, we will expose the fact that the facility was far from being as safe as it was marketed to its customers.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue in the Chamber. Like the constituents of my other neighbour, Sarah Jones, many of my constituents had possessions at the facility. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential that the London fire brigade carries out a full investigation to establish whether the operators of Shurgard had implemented all the relevant fire safety measures? It seems that the fire spread so quickly and so extensively that it requires a thorough investigation.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I completely agree and am grateful for that intervention. Everybody who uses self-storage facilities needs to know that their possessions are safe when they put them in storage. We need to know that Shurgard and other providers of such services abide by the regulations, and that the regulations are sufficiently robust to provide the reassurances that customers deserve and need.

When I spoke to the group of customers, I found that the single biggest reason for storing possessions at the facility was being between homes. People were not just putting some spare goods into self-storage; they had left the place where they were living and had not yet moved into their new home, so everything they owned was stored at the facility. As a result, everything was lost; everything was destroyed in the fire. As one of them said to me, “It’s bad enough to lose a sofa, a bed or a sideboard, but at least you can replace those things. What about your keepsakes from loved ones who have passed away?” The company advertised its facility as a safe space to leave keepsakes for those who had suffered a bereavement. What about someone who has lost a lifetime of family photographs—all their memories of their family experiences and of the people they most love? A price cannot be put on that. It cannot be insured. If it is gone in a fire, it is gone forever and it is irreplaceable. The devastation, pain and stress of losing such things can be incalculable.

I met one family—a husband, his wife and their three children—who, because of benefit-system failings, had been evicted from the home that they rented just before Christmas. They had put everything they had into this Shurgard self-storage facility, and they were penniless because of the problems with universal credit, so they could not afford insurance. They have now lost absolutely everything that they owned. They have been left absolutely devastated, without any possessions at all, and they are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That family need help, and they need it urgently, because they are facing critical hardship as a result of what happened.

Photo of Marsha de Cordova Marsha de Cordova Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Disabled People)

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. He has picked up on a crucial point—that the storage centre claimed that it was safe, and so on. Does he agree that when the Minister responds he should refer to the specific case of those individuals, who have lost everything because of the social system and are now living in a bed and breakfast? These must be considered special cases, in which the Government need to step in and act.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention and completely agree with her. I hope that when the time comes the Minister is able to respond to that point. People who have been left in severe hardship as a result of what happened have had nowhere to go for the help that they deserve.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue to the House. It is important that evaluations are made of properties where the same thing might occur. Does he agree that there has been ample time to assess the number of buildings that are in danger? My local authority in Northern Ireland, Ards and North Down Borough Council, carried out evaluations and provided reports within six weeks of the disaster. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that additional funding must be put in place to help local councils to make evaluations and to help those people who need compensation, and that that needs to be done as a matter of urgency? Furthermore, on the changes to fire safety regulations, does he agree that the real, live testing of materials in the construction sector is urgently required?

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, with which I have great sympathy. I believe that in this particular case the investigation is also in the hands of the police, because we do not yet know whether arson lay behind the tragedy at the Shurgard facility on Purley Way in Croydon.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

My hon. Friend is making a strong point that—I am sure he will come on to this—applies as much to residential fires as to the case he is talking about. First, there is the issue of insurance, with people in these situations often underinsured or not insured. There is also the issue of who is liable. As he says, the case he is describing may be a criminal matter. At Shepherd’s Court in my constituency, there was an obvious cause—it was a tumble-drier fire—but the manufacturer denies liability and will not pay out. As a consequence of cases like that, people can lose everything and go for years and years without being able to replace their belongings.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

My hon. Friend makes an important point indeed. I am also interested in the insurance aspects of this case, including whether people were wrongly advised by the self-storage company about the level of insurance that they should have taken out and, indeed, whether there was mis-selling of insurance. I have contacted the relevant authorities—the Financial Conduct Authority and others—to seek their advice. I hope we can bring that issue back to the Chamber at the appropriate time, and I would be delighted to work with my hon. Friend on that, because he has an interest in it.

I return to my attempt to establish the extent of the harm that has been caused to people’s lives by the fire. I met another woman—a customer—who had stored in the facility her mother’s and her grandmother’s ashes. One simply cannot imagine what it would feel like for an individual to lose something of such enormous human value to them.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

My hon. Friend is giving way generously. On that terrible point, last weekend I met some people who were affected, and I have a constituent whose pictures of her deceased children were burned. These things are so irreplaceable and so sad. People really did believe that their things would be kept safe, and that everything would be okay. We cannot emphasise enough what a horror they have been going through.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I am grateful again to my hon. Friend for her intervention. One really cannot exaggerate the pain that has been caused. When anybody puts their most beloved and treasured possessions in a facility and is assured that it is safe, they deserve to know that it actually is safe. I met an artist who had lost a lifetime’s artworks, which she had created. I met a DJ who collects first-edition reggae albums on vinyl. All of that is gone in the fire, all of it irreplaceable. No money can replace that.

Of course, many businesses today keep their stock in facilities like these, and many businesspeople have lost their stock. Even if it was properly insured, the short-term loss of that stock means that they have lost a whole quarter’s trading, which is enough to put many small businesses under. I really do think that the Minister needs to consider what emergency support is available for the people facing real hardship and crisis as a result of the fire.

Many colleagues have raised concerns about fire safety at the Shurgard facility, and I share those concerns. When I met a group of customers, that was one of the biggest areas giving them cause for concern that they raised with me. A customer putting their possessions in a self-storage facility would assume that there had been some effort, when designing it, to prevent the spread of fire, should a fire take hold. In fact, the walls in the individual units in this facility did not go right up to the ceiling—there was a gap between the top of the unit and the ceiling—so a fire that started in one unit could quickly and easily move into the next, and then the next and beyond. It seems to me shocking that these facilities are built without designing in measures to prevent the rapid spread of fire.

Customers using that facility reasonably assumed that a sprinkler system was installed in case of fire. In fact, there is no sprinkler system in that facility, and there is no requirement for self-storage units to have sprinkler systems. Another point is that Shurgard did not ask their customers to report or keep a record of what they were storing in that self-storage facility. Someone could put all their most treasured possessions in the unit they were renting, but the next-door unit could be filled up with barrels of oil or something equally flammable, and nobody would ever know.

If we put all this together, there were in effect no fire safety measures whatsoever in this facility. It was advertising a service as safe and secure for people to keep their goods in, but it simply was not. It was taking money from people, and then not providing the service that people expected. If things had gone wrong—and on new year’s eve in Croydon they went severely wrong—everything people owned would have gone: it would have been taken away, and they would have lost it.

Shurgard has been very clear with me—I have met it to discuss this—that it has complied with all UK fire safety regulations. I do not know whether that is true, but that is the point it has made to me. If what it says is true and it was fully compliant, those regulations need to be reviewed and tightened as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

At the meeting with customers last weekend, they made two really interesting points. One was that Shurgard in other European countries has to have sprinklers, because in other European countries there are regulations requiring a building of a certain size to have sprinklers, so the same company would have sprinklers in another country but not here. They also made the point—I do not 100% know whether this is accurate—that, looking at storage in general, about 40% of Europe’s storage is in this country. There is something about the nature of the cost of housing and the fact that people have to put so much stuff into storage, perhaps because of the value of land, that means our country has a particular problem in this area and needs to look at the regulations for the storage sector in particular.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I am sure many people who keep their possessions in such self-storage centres will be astonished to learn that the multinational companies, where they are multinational, operate safer and more secure facilities abroad than they operate in the United Kingdom. That seems to me entirely wrong. I hope the Minister, when he responds, will explain to the House what he intends to do about conducting a review of the levels of fire safety in these facilities, and whether he believes there is a case for tightening those regulations.

Many, many people use these facilities. They are very common all over London, and we all know about them and have them in our constituencies. The customers include people who are between homes—moving from one place to another—either as buyers or as renters. Many newly built flats are very small and are built without adequate storage, so people use self-storage centres instead. If people have suffered a bereavement and have lost a relative, they need somewhere to store their possessions; we do not all have the space in our home to store these things. All those people need to know that their possessions are safe, and if the regulations are not allowing that to happen right now, the regulations need to change.

My concern is that the fact that the regulations are inadequate has created a race to the bottom in fire safety standards, as self-storage companies compete with one another on price. The way in which they reduce price is to reduce staffing in the facility and reduce the level of security and fire safety measures that they put into the facility. They do so to minimise their costs, so that they may offer as low a price as possible. The only thing that will maintain minimum standards—and people need know what they are—is to ensure that there are adequate fire safety regulations for self-storage facilities. I am afraid that we do not have those at the moment.

Finally on this particular issue, does the Minister see the case, or the need for, providing specific help to people facing severe financial hardship—whether it be from the relevant public authorities, the Government, or even perhaps the company itself, which must bear some responsibility towards their customers for what has happened to them?

I will turn now, if I may, from the subject of self-storage towards wider issues of fire safety in residential blocks. The issue of cladding in particular has become very significant and of great concern throughout the House ever since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower 19 months ago.

In today’s Prime Minister’s questions, my hon. Friend Sarah Jones reminded us that, days after Grenfell went up, the Prime Minister promised to do everything in her power to keep people safe. Since that time—19 months have passed—the Government seem to have done precious little in concrete terms to reassure people that they are safer now than they were then.

Photo of Marsha de Cordova Marsha de Cordova Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Disabled People)

I thank my hon. Friend, who is being generous with his time, for giving way once again. He rightly points out that, 19 months on, we still have many blocks covered in this cladding. Residents in my own constituency are living in an unsafe block, and they might have to pay tens of thousands of pounds for fire safety remedial work. Does he agree that it should not be the leaseholders who foot the bill, and that the Government need to intervene to ensure that freeholders or the Government themselves can implement it? They must take the pressure and the burden off leaseholders.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I completely agree: the leaseholders seem to be the innocent party in all this. They certainly should not be forced to bear the cost, the stress or the worry of having flammable cladding on the place in which they live.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee

It very clear—the Government have made this clear—that leaseholders should not be left footing the bill. When the developer is also the freeholder, as was the case in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and is prepared, because of the potential reputational damage, to step up to the mark, the problem is resolved, but, as he will know from experience, a difficulty arises when the freehold is sold on, often to a trust company or a financial institution. Unlike a firm of developers, such a body will not be trying to sell houses to the public and is not subject to any reputational pressures, and will use very common clauses in their leases to pass back to their leaseholders any cost that, say, the local authority or Government push on to them. Do we not need a legal mechanism to override that, which is difficult to do with leases, or, in such cases, to compensate leaseholders directly so that they do not lose out? It has to one or the other.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know that he is fighting very hard on behalf of his residents who are living in these circumstances, and he makes a point with which I agree. That is at the heart of our problem with the Government’s response. The Government can say what they like in support of leaseholders, but if they do not act, they are not actually helping them and, unfortunately, a moral obligation is not enforceable in court. We need a legal means of redress for people who have been damaged.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful and moving speech. I am sure that his constituents are incredibly grateful to him for his tireless campaigning to support them. We are talking about residents, but I wish to draw the House’s attention to a different issue—schools. Hundreds of schools across the country are also covered in combustible material, and the Government have not included them in the building safety programme. [Interruption.] Well, that is the latest report. The Minister suggests that there are not hundreds, so I would be very happy to send him the report that I have read that gives that evidence. When he responds to the debate, will he also talk about how he can ensure that our children are safe when they attend school?

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I, too, look forward to hearing a response from the Minister. I have tried to find out whether a newly rebuilt school in my own constituency has flammable cladding, but it seems impossible to do so. If I, as the local Member of Parliament with the access that I have to the relevant authorities, cannot find out, I pity those poor parents who are trying to find out whether their children will be safe after they have taken them to school each morning. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on that point.

I came to this subject because a block in my constituency, Citiscape, has the same sort of cladding—aluminium composite material cladding—that was on Grenfell Tower. The cost of removing and replacing the cladding was £2 million. The managing agents wrote to leaseholders in the block, who received estimates of up to £30,000 each for the work to be carried out. Of course the vast majority could not afford that—not many people have £30,000 lying around in the bank, particularly not those who have just bought their first flat and are stretched on their mortgage—but they were told that unless everybody paid up, the work would not happen. In effect, nothing would be done to keep the people in the block safe. We approached the freeholder, but the freeholder is not legally liable to carry out the work and there was no way to compel the freeholder to do it. The builders also are not legally liable to carry out the work. They can rely on the fact that there are concerns about lack of clarity in the building regulations and guidance, and they had been following the guidance that they believed meant that the cladding was safe. It turned out at Grenfell that ACM cladding is absolutely not safe.

When the case came to the housing tribunal, it ruled that the leaseholders were liable. We hear welcome words from Ministers at the Dispatch Box saying that leaseholders should not be made to pay, but in fact the housing tribunal—the legal body responsible for adjudicating on the matter—said the leaseholders were indeed responsible and would have to pay. In the case of Citiscape and others where not all the leaseholders can pay, the work will not be done. People are stuck living in blocks with Grenfell-style flammable cladding strapped on the outside; they are living with their families, their children and their parents in absolute terror.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech and the argument he is making. It has long been argued that there should be some reform of leasehold law. We have tinkered with it over the years, but it needs to be dealt with properly, and Governments have shied away from doing so. I thought that the Secretary of State had said that he would discuss leaseholds with the people involved, some of the companies and so on. About 12 months ago, I said to the previous Secretary of State that what the Government should have done after Grenfell was to take emergency powers. Had they done so, we would not have some of these problems now. They did not do it and the rest is history.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I am grateful for that helpful intervention and look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

I said that there were concerns about the state of the building regulations and the guidance, and it is worth exploring briefly how we got into a position where the regulations were so lax or could be interpreted in such a way. Back in 2009, there was a fire in Lakanal House in Camberwell, central London, that resulted in the death of six people, including a baby. An inquest conducted an inquiry, which took a number of years, and reported in 2013 in a very long document that contained some very clear recommendations. The inquiry said that the fire safety regulations—specifically, part B of the building regulations, which cover fire safety, and the associated guidance—were unclear, and that that was the reason why unsafe and combustible cladding was being strapped on buildings where people lived with their families. The coroner was absolutely clear that if that lack of clarity was not remedied, we would be running the risk of further fires and further deaths.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I mentioned Lakanal House, where six people died 10 years ago, yesterday. There was combustible material involved, but it was not ACM cladding. Is it not extraordinary that the Government’s building safety programme is only tracking identification and remediation of residential buildings over 18 metres with ACM cladding? Should not the programme apply to all potentially combustible cladding?

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is absolutely extraordinary that we are not looking, right now, at a ban on all forms of flammable cladding. It is now 10 years later.

What we see now is still evidence of a go-slow and foot-dragging approach by the Government that is highly inappropriate—I would almost say negligent—given the risk to life that we know exists from the deaths that happened at Lakanal House and those that happened in even greater numbers at Grenfell Tower. [Interruption.] It is no good the Minister shrugging his shoulders and grunting from the Front Bench. Grenfell happened after Lakanal because Ministers refused to act on the guidance—the instruction—that they were given by the coroner. Eric Pickles, who was the Secretary of State at the time, refused to act on the advice given by the inquest into Lakanal House in 2013. In 2016, because it had not been banned, ACM cladding was strapped to the outside of Grenfell Tower. In 2017, it went up in flames and 72 people lie dead as a result. It could not be more serious.

We need properly to understand how this came to be, why the Government did not act, and why the Government still have not acted to ban that type of cladding from buildings. They are talking about banning it, but all flammable cladding has not been banned from all buildings—[Interruption.] The Minister will have an opportunity to respond later in the debate, and we look forward to hearing him. [Interruption.] If he wants to intervene, I will take his intervention.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am quite happy to intervene, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It should be clear that in December last year, we banned flammable cladding of all types on buildings over 18 metres. This is an absolute and complete ban, and nobody should be under any illusion about that, or represent it as being anything other than that.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

As I will come on to say during what remains of this debate, a partial ban is not a ban. This kind of cladding is still permitted on far too many buildings, and too many people are not safe. There has been no action to take flammable cladding off buildings where it already exists. Those are the issues that I want to come on to. In fact—

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I will take an intervention in a moment, but I want to make this point, because it is linked to the issue that we are debating right now.

In fact, there are still thousands of terrified residents living in blocks with the same kind of cladding, or a very similar kind of cladding, as that which went up in flames at Grenfell Tower. There are still 56 private blocks of flats around the country—that is 56—that have no clear plan in place to remove and replace it. People are left living in fear. There is no point in the Minister standing up and telling me the Government banned it last December when right now, in 56 blocks around the country, people are living with flammable cladding strapped to the outside of their homes and no plan whatsoever to remove it.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

We went through this yesterday during the urgent question. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to make an issue of it. We have made it very clear that while he is correct that there are still a number of private sector residential buildings that do not have a clear plan for remediation, it is the case, as I said yesterday, that 100% of those buildings have temporary measures in place that have been agreed and certified by the local fire and rescue service as appropriate for the building. My primary concern, and the Department’s primary concern, has been to make sure that people are safe tonight. As I am sure he would acknowledge, it is not possible, by some feat of magic, to make this cladding disappear overnight. We must, however, make sure that everybody is safe overnight. That is where we have been focused.

The hon. Gentleman says that thousands of people are living in terror in blocks, but that should not be the case, on the basis that every local fire and rescue service has visited, inspected and agreed temporary measures with every residential building over 18 metres in height that has this cladding, and they are going back to check and monitor to make sure that they are in place. I really would urge him not to cause undue alarm among this residential population, because steps have been taken to keep them safe.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I have to say, with all due respect to the Minister, that I find that comment rather complacent. It is all well and good to say that this cladding cannot be taken down overnight, but it is 19 months since Grenfell Tower went up in flames, it is 10 years since Lakanal House went up in flames, and it is eight years since the coroner told the Government that there needed to be a ban on this kind of cladding—that is not overnight. The Government have not acted with anything like the requisite speed, given the scale of threat to human life. It is completely unacceptable.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Limehouse

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I apologise for missing the start of his speech, but I have been watching it from outside the Chamber. Notwithstanding the Minister’s defence of the position, he accepted yesterday during proceedings on the urgent question that there are 42 blocks whose freeholder is saying that leaseholders have to pay for remedial works, as my hon. Friend said. The dangers may be temporarily resolved—there are big question marks about that—but the financial distress that has been caused to leaseholders by the prospect of hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of pounds of debt has not been resolved.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I absolutely agree. The level of stress that this is causing is making some people so ill that they cannot continue to work. We cannot allow this to go on.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I am sorry to keep intervening—my hon. Friend is being incredibly generous—but I just want to make a point about waking watch. Having talked to the fire services, I know that it is not an ideal situation. The fire services are worried that companies have come out of the woodwork and started doing waking watch, but people are not always well-trained and there are not always enough of them on site. Waking watch is very much a temporary measure. To have 19 months of waking watch is expensive, but also not ideal, and we cannot be 100% sure that these people are trained and doing what they are supposed to be doing.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. As Robert Neill will know, residents in Northpoint Tower in Bromley face bills of up to £70,000 each. People simply cannot afford that, and the stress they suffer from receiving that bill and knowing that, unless they find a way to pay it, they will be left living in a block with potentially flammable cladding on, is simply unacceptable.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again and for mentioning the problem at Northpoint. There is a certain insecurity about the risk of human error at the very least with a waking watch, but the difficulty is compounded by the cash flow impact. Most of these leaseholder groups will have a sinking fund that has been set up over the years, but that is quickly dissipated by the cost of the waking watch. In the case of my constituents, there is an enforcement notice running out in April. They could have the waking watch until then, which will exhaust all the reserves and will mean further calls on funds from people who often have mortgages, because they are often first-time buyers, and who effectively cannot raise any more money because the flats are currently valueless. It is a Catch-22: the money is exhausted, and they have no means of raising any more.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he makes an important point well. The other course of action that would normally be open to a homeowner—selling their home—is not open, because their homes are unsellable. Nobody will buy a flat in a block that has flammable cladding strapped to the outside of it. Whatever the Minister tells us, if we speak to people living in these blocks, they say that they feel abandoned by a Government who told them in the aftermath of Grenfell that everything would be done to keep them safe. They do not feel that they have been kept safe, and they manifestly have not been.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being very generous and making an excellent speech. Does he agree that part of the problem is the lack of trust? When I met residents in my local tower blocks, they said, “You’re telling me that this cladding on my block of flats is okay, but how can I trust?” That is compounded by the fact that the Lakanal House fire report, published in 2013, was not fully acted on by the previous Government but one.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, and she is absolutely right. I have seen previous Secretaries of State stand at the Dispatch Box and say that those responsible need to take responsibility. It is the Government who are responsible because the Government failed to act on the instructions and advice of the coroner following the tragic and fatal Lakanal House fire in 2009. The Government are responsible for the situation that these people find themselves in, and the Government should take responsibility for giving those people a way out of this, without burdening them with unmanageable debt or pointing the finger at all sorts of other people who they say have a moral obligation to act, when that is unenforceable in any court.

The only way this can be dealt with is if the Government take direct action. As my hon. Friend said, the Government failed to clarify the regulations and guidance after the fire at Lakanal House. It is not about an individual Minister or Secretary of State—there has been a whole string of them ever since that time: Eric Pickles initially, but subsequently Greg Clark, Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, I cannot remember their constituencies. A string of Secretaries of State have failed to take appropriate action in line with the guidance that they were given. A previous Housing Minister, who is now the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, failed to act in this circumstance. I am afraid that collectively the Government are culpable for what has happened, and failed to act when they were told that action was necessary to prevent a repeat of Lakanal House. Of course, it was repeated horrifically in the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

I thought long and hard about why the Government would not act on that advice, and I have come to the conclusion that what is going on in this sector is nothing short of a national scandal. There is a tangled web of conflicts of interest that have led to the framework for fire safety regulations being wholly inadequate. The Building Research Establishment is a privatised organisation that helps to write fire safety regulations and drafts fire safety guidance. Its chief executive sits on the Government’s expert panel on fire safety, and one of its trustees, Sir Ken Knight, was until recently the Government’s chief fire safety adviser.

The BRE has a direct financial interest in the sector. It makes money by allowing cladding manufacturers to run fire safety tests on rigs that it sets up. The manufacturers are allowed to rerun those tests multiple times, with various adjustments, until they get the result that they want. There is no requirement on them ever to disclose the outcome of the final successful fire safety test—it is considered commercially confidential—nor is there any requirement on them to report publicly how many times their product failed a fire safety test before finally passing it.

The BRE makes money every single time a different rig is put up and a product is tested for combustibility. It has a direct financial interest in permitting the use of flammable cladding, because testing it is how it makes its money, and it was people with a direct interest in the BRE who advised Ministers not to ban combustible cladding. It is an absolutely shocking and scandalous network of conflicts of interest that the Government should never have allowed to happen.

Photo of Jon Cruddas Jon Cruddas Labour, Dagenham and Rainham

My hon. Friend is getting to the fundamentals of the issues. Let me give an example. I met a bunch of laggers, who handed me a document about the combustible compounds contained in phenolic foam insulation, which is used in multiple buildings. That document was 15 years old, and it detailed the combustible properties of that foam, which is still used and passes Government tests. The whole industry has to put up its hands on its historic culpability and the way it has dodged the inspection regime. These are life and death issues for our constituents.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the important point that he has made. He has emphasised that this is not just about ACM cladding—there is a problem with wider fire safety regulations in the entire building sector—which we cannot allow, not just on residential blocks but on many different kinds of buildings. We need to understand properly those conflicts of financial interest if we are to understand what led Ministers to reject advice that they should have followed all that time ago.

I hope the Minister will put me right on this point, but I fear that subsequent Secretaries of State and Housing Ministers did not correct the mistakes made in the decision to ignore the Lakanal House findings because, if they recognised it as political failure, they would have to take political responsibility for the 72 deaths at Grenfell Tower after it went up, which they did not want to do. That is an extraordinary thing to have to say, but I believe it is true because I can think of no other reason why Minister after Minister failed to correct regulations and guidance that were so manifestly unacceptable, and that posed such a threat to life. That is not just supposition—we saw that it was a threat to life in the scale of the tragedy and the deaths that happened at Grenfell Tower. I would go so far as to say that, if the Government were a private company and acted as they have, Ministers could be in the dock for corporate manslaughter.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend makes incredibly powerful points that must be taken seriously. Does he agree that the Government need to trace it back to the source and say which local government Ministers did or did not take seriously the Lakanal House report recommendations?

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is critical that that happens so that we can understand what went wrong in the process. If we do not understand it, we cannot stop it from ever happening again.

The Minister mentioned the partial ban on flammable cladding that the Government have announced, which is welcome. Industry bodies have said on the record that they welcome it, but have also said that it is not enough and that we need to go further. The Government have proposed a ban on ACM cladding on new buildings that are over 18 metres high—that is roughly six storeys—but have excluded hotels and office blocks. I simply do not understand why. What evidence is there that a hotel or an office block is any safer than a block of flats? Surely if someone is in a hotel where they have never stayed, they are less likely to know the fire safety escape routes than if they are living in a block of flats, where they may have lived for some considerable time.

Many people at work have disabilities and are immobile. Why do we assume that somebody on the 18th floor of a tall office block will be able to get out, but that somebody living on the 18th floor of a residential block needs protection from flammable cladding? It makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever, and I would like the Minister to explain to the House today what evidence there is that hotels and office blocks of more than six storeys or 18 metres are any safer than blocks of flats of the same height.

As my hon. Friend Emma Hardy said, after the new partial ban, the Government will still permit the use of flammable cladding on schools, care homes and hospitals under six storeys high, which of course most of them are. I wonder whether the Minister would feel comfortable telling a group of parents that he is allowing flammable cladding to go up on the building where they take their children every morning for an education. I certainly would not.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

One justification for not having sprinklers in schools is that it is easy to vacate a building. Having been a teacher for 11 years, I know that it would need only a couple of young children to go a-wander, as they can sometimes do, to create a risky situation. If I can dare to use this opportunity to put another point to the Minister, I would ask him not only to look at banning combustible materials, but to look again at putting sprinklers into schools.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I look forward to the Minister’s response, but I agree completely agree with my hon. Friend.

I will draw to a close soon and I look forward to the Minister’s response to hon. Members, but we need to recognise the scale of Government failure to put things right in any acceptable way, given that it has been 10 years since Lakanal House and 19 months since Grenfell Tower. The best way to meet the Lakanal House coroner’s demand for clarity is to implement a complete ban on the use of flammable cladding on all buildings where people live or work. It is crystal clear; it is understandable to the building industry and everybody else; and it could be implemented if the Government had the will. In addition, we cannot look only at new builds. We need to look at all buildings where flammable cladding exists and continues to pose an unacceptable danger to people’s safety and even to their lives. We need an action plan from the Government, for which they take responsibility, to strip flammable cladding from every single building where it exists. Many European countries have such a ban. Scotland is introducing a ban. We need that ban here, too.

There is one fire a month on average in buildings with flammable cladding. It is only a matter of time before one of those fires is not put out. The Government simply cannot risk the horror of another Grenfell. This is a time for action, not for words.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Before I call the next speaker, I must inform the House of an error in calculating the number of votes of Members for English constituencies in the Division on Lords amendment 36. The figures for the England-only vote should not have been announced as Ayes 265 and Noes 193; they should have been announced as Ayes 261 and Noes 194. The result is unaffected.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 4:11 pm, 23rd January 2019

I am grateful for the time that has become available to make some brief remarks, although my hon. Friend Mr Reed set the case out fully and persuasively, covering many of the points.

We all wait keenly to hear what the Minister has to say in his response. Notwithstanding his comment that we went through all this yesterday, rather than being bored by the subject or not interested in responding, he should seize the opportunity to give a fuller account of where the Government stand. As my hon. Friend set out, the Government’s inactivity and partial solutions mean that we are in a state of some confusion—certainly our constituents are—and severely worried about the risks that remain. That is not scaremongering; those are real concerns felt by our constituents.

In a block in my constituency—I am going to a residents’ meeting tomorrow night, the fourth on the removal of flammable cladding that I will have attended—the residents are fortunate in the sense that they have a housing association as a landlord, it has accepted liability and is removing the cladding at its own expense, and it is prepared to put up non-flammable cladding instead. The situation is still incredibly worrying: fire marshals have been in for periods, and there are concerns about the structure and other potential damage to the building, causing a huge amount of anxiety and of time taken up in negotiation.

I feel very much for my constituents and those of other Members who do not have similar advantages, but that introductory point allows me to say that the problem is widespread and hugely complicated. The Government seem to rely, as if on a crutch, on the Dame Judith Hackitt report. It is a good report, but it approaches the matter in a certain way—she would like to see a “golden thread of information” through UK projects from “design and construction” to “operation”—and at the moment we do not have a clear picture of which buildings are at risk.

Dame Judith can set out a preferred method of operation, but that does not resolve any of the many problems, or the conflicts of interest over time, set out by my hon. Friend, and nor does the report actually implement anything. Those are both matters for Government, and in those respects they are singularly failing. In clarification from the Minister, I want to hear in respect of existing buildings with all types of flammable claddinga what the Government’s policy is likely to be. My understanding, from responses to questions I asked before Christmas, is that the policy is likely to cover residential buildings, buildings over 18 metres and buildings with aluminium composite material cladding systems. That excludes a very large number of buildings that we know could have flammable cladding. I cannot understand the logic of the policy not being comprehensive, other than that the Government might not want to put in the resources or are phasing it in over a very long time.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

In all the assessments we make or have made around the ban on combustible cladding, we are guided by the expert panel. It is effectively the expert advisory panel that is setting the 18-metre limit, deciding which buildings are within scope and where there is most risk to life. This decision has not been made by politicians in the absence of expert advice. As I said yesterday, I cannot pretend to be a fire safety expert. Both I and the Secretary of State take into account the advice of a group of people that includes Dame Judith Hackitt, and it advises us regularly on these measures.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

With respect to the Minister, he may be listening to what he wants to hear. He should listen to a wider range of voices. I will give an example. In yesterday’s urgent question, several Members—I was not one of them—mentioned the Rockwool company. I have quite a knowledge of this, because I have three very tall buildings—over 23 stories—in my constituency that are just a few hundred metres from Grenfell Tower and which were fully clad by Rockwool. Following testing, the local authority was able to assure tenants that it was non-flammable cladding and that it met some of the highest standards.

The Minister, with almost wilful misunderstanding, said yesterday that he was not there to listen to people promoting individual companies. That is not the point. No one is promoting the commercial interests of Rockwool—in my dealings with it, it has been perfectly clear about that. We are pointing out that its standards are higher than many others in terms of the combustibility of the cladding, the insulation and the combination of materials. That is the point. No Member on either side of the Chamber is standing up and saying, “Please buy this particular product”; we are asking the Government to listen to the voices saying that their limitations and expectations do not go far enough.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I want to reiterate what I said yesterday. I agreed with whoever it was who questioned me that it was not appropriate for us to promote a particular product from a particular company. As the hon. Gentleman says, the job of the Government is to set the standards, through building regulations, to which products must adhere and to make sure that the regulatory inspection regime works so that people can have confidence that the right product is being used in the right place. To reach those assessments, the Government require the advice of non-commercially interested expert opinion. The British people would not think it unreasonable for us to assemble a group of fire safety experts to advise on those standards and the circumstances in which they should pertain. That is all I am saying. As far as I can see, the Government are acting perfectly reasonably in taking this kind of advice. He may well dispute that advice, and he might think he can go further, but he needs to find evidence of where his expertise is coming from, and if it can be demonstrated that the independent expert advisory panel—the great and the good of fire safety—is incorrect, of course we will listen.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I find the Minister’s attitude astonishingly complacent. I am a member of the all-party group on fire safety rescue, which has done a lot of work on this, but it cannot possibly compete with the resources of the Government, so let us not be ridiculous about who should do the groundwork. I have taken part in a number of seminars with a number of experts. On those occasions I have heard a variety of views, but even now I still hear, from experts, manufacturers and others, special pleading for the acceptability of either leaving combustible materials—some of them more combustible than the materials used on Grenfell Tower—on blocks, or continuing to install them. That terrifies me, and I think that it ought to worry the Minister.

Photo of Jon Cruddas Jon Cruddas Labour, Dagenham and Rainham

When it comes to the question of complacency and how much confidence we have in the system, I should repeat what I said earlier today about the laggers who put in the insulation, and who are aware of health and safety reports that undermine confidence in the materials that the Government are standing by on behalf of their regulatory bodies. Something must be systemically wrong if the guys who put the stuff on these buildings—and they are guys—are aware of that, and have commissioned reports because they are being damaged by those materials. If they are aware of it, it should not be beyond our collective wit for the Government to be aware of it.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

My hon. Friend has made a telling point. We will not find things that are wrong unless we go and look for them, and I do not feel that the Government are going to go and look for them.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s point about the cladding manufacturers seeking better reassurance for themselves. Of course, it is not just the cladding that is flammable; it is the combination of the cladding with the insulation. Because the Government permit what are called desktop studies—

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

—which have allowed a particular cladding to be enriched with a particular form of insulation, they do not always know what is being put together and how dangerous that will be, and the cladding manufacturers do not want to know that their products are being used in ways that threaten life.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I think that the Minister was trying to intervene on an intervention. I am glad to see that he at least has some interest in the subject. I shall make a little progress, and then I will take an intervention from him.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not think we are being paranoid about this. What concerns us is that a whole industry has developed on a defective basis over time, and has not been corrected: it continues to function as an industry and to make profits. No one is saying that we are going to wipe the slate clean overnight, but a lot of people have a lot to hide, and I therefore think it particularly important for the Government—who, as my hon. Friend Jon Cruddas said, may have something to hide as well—to be rigorous in shaking this out. They should look at the history—at the defects and malpractices that have grown up over the last 10 years or more—but they should also be very sceptical in future about some of the advice that they are getting. They should obtain the broadest possible range of advice.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Let me again correct the record. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was absent in December, but he should know that we have banned desktop studies, and restricted them in other circumstances, to try to discourage their use. We did that before Christmas.

The hon. Gentleman made a good point about the effect of insulation combined with cladding. Our ban on the use of combustible materials on buildings more than 18 metres high applies to everything that makes up the skin of a building, and that includes the insulation, not just the cladding. The 18-metre rule was of course introduced on the basis of advice from the expert panel. As I have said, if there is evidence to show that there are significant dangers to buildings that are less than 18 metres high, we will of course be happy to look into it.

I realise that Labour Members are trying to make this point, but I want to dispel the idea that we are complacent, because that is absolutely not the case. An enormous amount of effort, time and energy has been put into getting this right, and a large number of voices have been prayed in aid.

The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that a defective industry has grown up over the last 20-odd or 30 years, under Governments of all stripes. As I said yesterday, the Grenfell disaster lifted a big flat rock from the building regulation system, which has not been functioning well for some time. It falls to me, and to the Secretary of State, to play our part in correcting that, and we are trying to do so with all speed.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I am grateful for that “intervention”. I think that the Minister was using me as a kind of Ouija board to communicate with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North, but that is fine.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Returning to the central point, what we all want is the Government to take a comprehensive view of these matters in respect of both existing and new buildings. My understanding is that only a selective number of existing buildings are covered, based on height, use and the type of material used. I ask the Minister to confirm how far their scrutiny goes at the moment, and explain why he thinks it should not go further. The Government did make announcements on new buildings back in October; they talked about high-rise residential buildings, including schools, hospitals, student accommodation and care homes. That excludes certain types of building—such as office buildings, as has been said—and we cannot see why that is the case.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

The announcements fail to recognise that most schools are not particularly high. I do not understand why the Government do not include all schools in this list, or else they are pretty much ruling out every school in the country.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Absolutely; and if the Minister did not like us quoting commercial companies in this way, perhaps he will listen to the Local Government Association. It continues to strongly urge the Government to ban the use of any combustible materials, including cladding panels, insulation and other materials, on the external walls of high-rise and high-risk buildings—including all hospitals, care homes, schools both residential and non-residential, and offices—of below, as well as above, 18 metres in height. That reinforces my hon. Friend’s point. I understand that the Government are considering height again, but hopefully they will do that quite quickly and come to the conclusion that it is a somewhat arbitrary determinant, because there are other factors, such as means of escape, that can control how easily buildings can be evacuated. That is why I say this is a very partial solution.

If the Government do not like the LGA, perhaps they should listen to the Association of British Insurers. In all my experience in the time that I have been here, the Government have been the greatest friends of the insurance industry, and that has been mutual, but in the briefing for this debate the ABI says that it

“remains concerned over the limitations of the MHCLG ban, including the exclusion of buildings lower than 18m and limiting the ban to only care homes, hospitals and student accommodation. It makes no sense that someone can live in a high-rise residential building to which the ban applied but commute to work every day in an office block covered in combustible material.”

That is just common sense, but it comes from an industry body. I will wait to hear the Minister’s response on that.

There are other issues that go beyond fire safety. Some Members took the opportunity to raise them on yesterday’s urgent question, and the Minister commented yesterday that he was quite in favour of ’60s and ’70s buildings coming down per se—a radical solution, which was picked up by Inside Housing. I would give a qualified welcome to that: yes, if they are unsafe, unsuitable or not performing their function, but given the extraordinary housing shortage that this Government have presided over, perhaps the Minister should insist that we get rather more going up than coming down.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

What I said yesterday was that it was very often the case with buildings of the ’60s and ’70s that it was more efficient, and financially easier, to demolish and replace than to refurbish, and that many of these buildings, particularly LPC buildings, present technical difficulties that make them very expensive to deal with. I would add, frankly, that given the lessons over the years of high-rise living, councils should consider whether people would prefer to live in lower-rise, more gentle-density housing that could be provided on the same space.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I will not be tempted into a wider debate, except to say to the Minister that it depends very much on the circumstances. Sometimes it is a matter of choice, and many high-rise buildings offer very good-quality accommodation and have good space standards. The space standards of the 1960s and 1970s often gave people very good, large accommodation, so I think he needs to be careful before wishing to be an iconoclast in quite the way that he does.

I find it deeply troubling that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North has said, there are still probably hundreds of thousands of people around the country living with insecurity. Nobody wants to exacerbate that unnecessarily. The Government must be clear and authoritative in the way that they present their plans to deal with the risks that Grenfell so tragically exposed. I will quote one more thing that the Minister said yesterday. He said in response to Greg Hands:

“It can be extremely debilitating, concerning and worrying for any resident to have the future of their home mired in uncertainty. I hope that he gets the clarity that his residents need.”—[Official Report, 22 January 2019;
Vol. 653, c. 137.]

He was responding to the right hon. Gentleman about a separate issue, which is being dealt with by the same local authority, Hammersmith and Fulham. I understand that that authority is being extremely responsible in relation to fire safety generally and also in relation to the specific blocks that were mentioned there. Indeed, there is a council meeting tonight to discuss that. It is about dealing with the system-built blocks of which Ronan Point was an example. Some local authorities, including my own, are dealing with these matters very responsibly. I absolutely agree that residents need to be given certainty, so it is ironic that within a few minutes’ walk of those blocks that were being discussed yesterday there are two estates—the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates—that have been under threat of demolition because of the actions taken by the previous Conservative council, in collusion with the regime at City Hall when the Minister was there. So we can all learn lessons from this.

On fire safety, the Government have a lot more to say and a lot more action to take, and I hope that the Minister will go some way towards doing that this afternoon by telling us what the Government’s intentions are now in relation to existing cladding systems and any future new buildings, of whatever type.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. This is an important debate, and it is true that we are not short of time, but before I call the next speaker, I want to stress that the principle that interventions from both sides of the House should be short and to the point still remains.

Photo of Jon Cruddas Jon Cruddas Labour, Dagenham and Rainham 4:33 pm, 23rd January 2019

I was not going to speak, but given that we have more time than we anticipated, I shall make a few comments on the basis of the meeting—which I mentioned earlier—with members of the GMB heat and frost laggers’ branch in Dagenham. They are legendary in the sector for their knowledge of building materials and their compounds and properties, not least because they are the people who handle them. They also have a long-term legacy of dealing with the consequences—namely, an extraordinary profile of asbestos-related deaths and injuries—so it is in their interest to be acutely aware of the properties of the materials they are dealing with.

I am not a chemist, but given the nature of the debate and the brilliant speech by my hon. Friend Mr Reed, I think it is worth adding the contribution of those who deal with some these materials at the front end, including their introduction in high-rise properties such as Grenfell. Over the years, those people have briefed me on a number of the health and safety tests applied to installations and foams, and I want to address the question of foams specifically this afternoon. I will come to what they have told me in a minute, but it is worth reminding ourselves first of the consequences of Grenfell and what the Government are doing about them. They sought to commission an audit of buildings across England to establish what types of aluminium cladding were in use on which buildings. They also audited the types of insulation that lay underneath the cladding. They found, as I understand it, that three broad types of aluminium cladding are in use. The first is PE cladding—the type used at Grenfell—which is the least fire-resistant type of panelling. The second is the so-called FR or fire-resistant cladding, which is a bit better in a fire. The third is A2 cladding, which has a mineral core of limited combustibility.

The Government subsequently commissioned six large-scale tests that sought to establish which types of insulation could be used with each type of cladding, which relates back to the combination issues mentioned earlier. One type of combustible insulation identified was polyisocyanurate or PIR foam—the type of insulation used at Grenfell—and the other was traditional mineral wool insulation. However, I was informed this morning that the Government also commissioned a seventh test, the rationale being that not all plastic foams are alike. The original tests used only PIR foam insulation, but there is another popular type of combustible plastic foam known as phenolic foam, which is held to have quite different fire performance.

I want to focus on the consequences of that seventh test, because phenolic foam did indeed perform a little better than PIR foam, but it still failed the test. Phenolic foam was deemed to have failed the test after 28 minutes, compared with PIR’s 25 minutes. Altogether, that test means that the Government know of over 200 buildings with cladding that is of a configuration that failed the test post-Grenfell. However, it is my understanding, following this morning’s meeting, that the National House Building Council, which has the authority to sign off buildings, still appears prepared to sign off a variety of combustible insulation boards combined with cladding with a combustible core, having stated in 2017 that

“this is on the basis of...having reviewed a significant quantity of data”.

Therefore, as far as I am aware—this relates back to a point made by my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter—building inspectors still appear to believe that phenolic insulation could be used safely with FR-grade aluminium panels.

I know that sounds pretty complicated. I am not an expert on building regulations. Nevertheless, the devil really is in the detail. It appears that, with the Government test results and industry guidelines, phenolic insulation in combination with safer claddings is still deemed safe today; but that is not the point I really wished to raise this evening. My point is that tests are still coming to light that actually undermine some of the assumptions that were made, even post-Grenfell, as to the satisfactory status of some materials. That is why I had a meeting this morning with several laggers to hear about their concerns, because my lagger friends have known for many years of the problems with phenolic foam. I am simply using that as an example to demonstrate some of the systemic problems and the lack of confidence in the system and its regulation, and to point to the need for the industry to put its hands up about what it has known for years and years—even decades—predating Grenfell, predating earlier fires.

For example, this morning I was given confidential technical report 41772 into the volatiles of phenolic foam, dated 18 September 2003—some 16 years ago. The tests found

“a wide range of organic compounds varying in chemical nature and volatility” contained in the foam. It was found that such products could release a

“series of compounds toxic by inhalation, in contact with the skin and if swallowed, that can cause burns and have possible carcinogenic effects”.

That, of course, is bad enough, particularly for the laggers who administer such materials. However, the laggers came to see me and handed me that report because they are aware of details of some of these materials that have never come to light. If they are aware of them, that shows that they have no confidence in the system of regulation and the working knowledge in the Department of the properties of some of these materials.

The report goes on to state that compounds that are flammable, highly flammable or extremely flammable, such as acetaldehyde, can be released from the foam. I am not a chemist, but the compound that interested me most was methyl dioxolane, which “may form explosive peroxides”. A number of questions follow from that that have implications for our confidence in the system as whole. How long have we known about the possibility of extremely flammable and explosive properties in phenolic foam, which is widely used in signed-off cladding systems across the country? We should remember that these tests took place 14 years before the Grenfell fire. Given what we know, how is that foam still deemed safe, even after the post-Grenfell test results called that into question? Do the Government still assume that phenolic foam is safe? Is this foam still being administered? Given that—and I have had the report—will the Government investigate what we know, and what we have historically known, about this specific foam, as an example of the compounds administered in these buildings, and their explosive properties?

Generally, the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North demonstrate the need to know more—way more—about these cladding systems, including the foams. Unless we get satisfactory answers to some of the questions he has asked, and that have been raised by the discovery of confidential reports on the compounds released by materials such as phenolic foam, how can we expect our residents to feel reassured? I am more than prepared to hand the Minister this report as an example of some the combustible properties of the materials that are signed off in the present building regulations.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:40 pm, 23rd January 2019

I commend Mr Reed, notwithstanding his partial recitation of Government policy in this area, for recognising the importance of fire safety and cladding, and for securing this debate. I am always grateful for the chance to talk on a subject of such importance as fire safety and ensuring that residents are safe, and feel safe, in their homes.

I take this opportunity to express my sorrow at the obvious emotional distress caused to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others by the Shurgard fire. He spoke very movingly about the fire’s impact, particularly on families who are between homes, and I recognise the distress it may cause. Although I am sure he will recognise that building regulations are largely focused on preserving life, I nevertheless recognise the importance of what he says, and I will come back to that later.

A tragedy like Grenfell should never have happened in 2017, and this Government are determined to ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, we acted quickly to establish a comprehensive building safety programme, which has involved many people working tirelessly to identify and remediate buildings with unsafe cladding. We also established the independent expert panel to advise the Secretary of State on immediate measures, and we agreed to fund a comprehensive testing programme for all building owners to establish whether their units are cladded with unsafe ACM material. We have also worked with local authorities and with fire and rescue services, as I have explained, to implement interim safety measures in all buildings to ensure that people remain completely safe in their homes until remediation is completed.

Through the testing and the hard work of local authorities, we are confident that we have identified all social housing in England with unsafe ACM cladding systems. We have made good progress in making those buildings permanently safe. Of the 159 social sector buildings, 118 have either started or completed remediation. There are plans and commitments in place to remediate the remaining 41 buildings. To help to ensure swift progress, we have made £400 million-worth of funding available to social sector landlords to fund the removal and replacement of unsafe ACM cladding.

However, I regret that remediation in the private sector has been more challenging, with negotiations in some instances disappointingly slow. Since Grenfell, we have worked intensively with local authorities to identify and collect data on high-rise buildings with ACM cladding. We have also provided £1.3 million of funding to assist local authorities in that work. Local authorities across England have assessed around 6,000 private sector high-rise buildings. They have needed to take samples to test and, in some cases, take legal action to get owners to co-operate. We have taken strong action to give local authorities the support they need to enforce the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding, we have established a taskforce chaired by me and the Secretary of State to actively oversee the remediation of private sector buildings, and we have set up a joint inspection team to support local authorities and to give them the confidence to pursue enforcement action.

On 29 November 2018, the Government went further and announced that we will back local authorities to step in and take emergency remedial action where building owners are not co-operating in the remediation of cladding. This includes financial support, where necessary, to enable the local authority to carry out the emergency work. As a result of our interventions, we have made progress on securing commitments from owners to replace unsafe cladding. At the end of December, of the 268 privately-owned buildings, 212 have either started or completed remediation, or have commitments in place to remediate. There remain 56 private buildings where the owners’ plans are unclear. That number has fallen from over 200 buildings last June.

We remain concerned about and engaged with the many leaseholders who find themselves in this difficult situation through no fault of their own. We have made it clear that we expect building owners in the private sector to protect leaseholders from the costs of remediation, either by funding it themselves, or by looking to alternative routes such as insurance claims, warranties or legal action. A growing list of companies have done the right thing by protecting leaseholders, including Barratt Developments, which has agreed to fund remediation at Citiscape in the constituency of the hon. Member for Croydon North. I am pleased to say that I sought and received confirmation that Barratt has started on site this week and is on site today.

The Government have made the remediation of ACM cladding a priority. That is because our large-scale testing programme has conclusively shown the particularly high risk posed by that form of cladding. However, it would be wrong to say that that has been our only focus. The expert panel has regularly considered the risks of non-ACM material and the action we should take. As a result, in December 2018, we issued updated advice to building owners about how to investigate non-ACM cladding systems on their buildings, and how to remediate them. In addition, we have commissioned the Building Research Establishment to conduct a testing programme on non-ACM materials, and we expect the first test results by the summer. We have also issued specific advice on other fire safety risks, for example, spandrel panels and external wall insulation.

However, it is clear that, while we must do all we can to protect people now, we need a systemic overhaul, as several hon. Members have pointed out. With that in mind, we commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt to undertake an independent review of building regulations and fire safety. Her report concluded that the current system is not fit for purpose, and charted the direction for a radical new system.

There is no question but that such a change will take time. None the less, the Government have not hesitated, and will not hesitate, to act where we can make a difference now—today. That has been clear for all to see, as we have gone further than the review’s recommendations, including banning combustible cladding. Regulations were laid in November to give effect to the ban, ensuring that cladding of that nature is no longer allowed on the external walls of new buildings over 18 metres containing flats. We are also testing and trialling elements of the new system to ensure that they are effective before they are implemented at scale.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

The Minister talks about the ban for residential blocks over 18 metres high. What evidence does he have to show that hotels and office blocks over 18 metres are safer than residential blocks? Why has that led him to exclude them from the ban?

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue, which the expert panel has obviously considered. I would be happy to write to him with its considerations. In broad terms, it has focused on ensuring that purely residential buildings, where people sleep overnight, are inherently safe.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Exactly. Although the hon. Gentleman is right to say that people sleep overnight in hotels, staff members are present in hotels and office buildings. There is always an awake watch in a hotel and that is not necessarily the case in a residential block. However, those matters are obviously open to review, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to put forward evidence that contradicts the expert panel’s, I will be more than happy to consider it. On all the issues, I do not want to give hon. Members the impression that our mind is closed. If evidence is presented to show that measures should be taken because there is a significant safety concern in buildings other than high-rise residential buildings, we will be happy to look at it.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again and for saying that he is keeping an open mind on these issues. That is the right thing to do, and I commend him for it. He mentioned the independent expert panel again. I reiterate a point that I tried to make in my speech. An expert panel is not fully independent if some of its members have a financial interest in a particular outcome. Will he commit to reviewing the panel to ensure that there are no such conflicts of interest?

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am happy to review the panel, but I have confidence in its members and the advice that they are giving, not least because they are a plurality of voices. The panel does include Dame Judith Hackitt, along with several other people who have been involved in the fire and rescue service over the years, but I am happy to review its membership, as we would do generally, to make sure that we have the right range of expertise thereon.

As part of our plans, we also have our new joint regulators group and our early adopters group. They have come forward to help to drive culture change and demonstrate that the industry can put building safety first. I recognise, though, that there is much more to do. Our implementation plan, which we published before Christmas, sets out what the far-reaching overhaul of the system will involve over the coming years. The work spans four areas: first, a stronger, more effective regulatory and accountability framework; secondly, clearer standards and guidance to support better understanding by those carrying out building work of what is required to make buildings safe. This is an area in which we have already taken action, by consulting on a clarified approved document B to enable the guidance to be revised. We have also completed a consultation on restricting the use of desktop studies and published amended guidance on this matter. Thirdly and most crucially, a stronger voice for residents will be at the heart of the new system. Finally, the implementation plan sets out how we will work with industry to help it to prioritise public safety and lead the culture change—a change that we all agree is badly needed.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Will the Minister address one specific point? We have seen the conversion of a lot of office buildings for residential use, which the Government have been promoting for some time under the permitted development rules. A lot of these conversions are of poor quality and, frankly, the buildings are unsuitable for residential use, but they have been converted anyway. I understand that, if that happens in future, the building regulations will subject converted buildings to the same requirements as new builds, but what about those that have already been converted? Will the Minister look into that specific issue in relation to cladding?

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Buildings that have already been converted and are within scope should have been part of the local authority inspection regime to ensure that they are safe. All buildings obviously have to comply with fire safety regulations and the local fire and rescue service should be engaged. I am more than happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the details on how we are dealing retrospectively with buildings that were converted under permitted development rights.

Before I close my speech, let me turn to a couple of the specific points that were raised. On self-storage, as I said to the hon. Member for Croydon North, current regulations are focused on life safety and have been for many years. Pleasingly, the number of deaths and injuries in commercial fires is very low, but that does not mean to say that we should be complacent and should not consider the issue. We have called for evidence on the review of approved document B and therefore do not rule out any changes to commercial fire regulations in those circumstances as well.

Following Grenfell, all schools, colleges and universities have been contacted to tell them to carry out building checks. All schools have to follow a range of strict fire safety regulations, which are designed to ensure that schools are as safe as possible and extremely well prepared in the event of a fire. The Department for Education has conducted an exercise to review all its buildings and has taken action where necessary. We continue to work closely with the Department.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

May I ask the Minister again to look into reviewing whether to put schools on to the building safety list, because they are currently not on it? I would be grateful if he would take that away and look into it again.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am certainly happy to investigate that issue but, as I say, one of the delineations that the expert panel has made in its the consideration of safety is the notion of residence and people sleeping overnight in a building. As the hon. Lady will know, all schools have to conduct regular fire drills to make sure that they are prepared. It is also worth remembering that, sadly, fires happen in all sorts of buildings, many of which do not have cladding on them. There are all manner of buildings made from materials that are potentially flammable—wood, asphalt or whatever it might be—so we need to be proportionate in respect of the risk, while bearing in mind that we want to minimise it in all circumstances, when possible. A range of measures can be taken to ensure fire safety beyond the pure construction of the building, such as evacuation procedures, fire suppression techniques—sprinklers or whatever—heat sensors or smoke sensors. A number of things can be done to ensure that buildings are safe, but I am happy to take the hon. Lady’s request away and consider it.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Civil Society)

I take all the points the Minister makes in a generous spirit, but parents clearly would not want there to be flammable cladding on their children’s school, whatever other fire safety measures are in place. It is a simple thing to do, so why do not the Government just ban its use on new school buildings?

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

As I have said, the Department for Education has conducted an exercise in which buildings have been reviewed and measures have been taken to ensure that those buildings are safe. I speak as somebody who has two children at school, and I understand that schools go through their fire drill, have fire doors, know where all the children are and are very focused on the notion of fire safety. I am more than happy to have a think about the point the hon. Gentleman makes. As I say, we constantly keep these things under review, and the vehicle for that will be the review of approved document B in the building regulations in all circumstances.

I am not saying no, but the hon. Gentleman would expect us to have a proportionate response that minimises the threat of fire in all circumstances. If we were to extend his thinking, we might say that we do not actually want anybody in a wooden building. A single-storey wooden building—a mobile classroom or whatever it might be—is an issue that we need to think about. [Interruption.] I understand, but that is why height matters. The particular height of 18 metres has been selected by the expert panel.

As I have said, I am happy to keep that under review, and my mind remains open. The hon. Gentleman would expect me, I hope, to be constructive in such a way. None of us has an interest in there being fire casualties; we all have an interest in getting this right. My objection to the tone of some of his speech was that he should not infer that we do not care. Indeed, there is a huge amount of effort to get this right, both politically and on the part of the remarkably hard-working and dedicated civil servants in the Department. That is why we have a comprehensive work programme, with lots of calls for evidence. A number of groups are meeting to discuss the various issues and early adopters are moving towards a new building regulations system. As I have said, it is quite obvious that the Grenfell tragedy lifted a big flat rock on a system that has not been working for many years, and our commitment is absolutely to get that right.

My understanding is that phenolic foam is covered by the ban. However, I will commission a report from the Department to give me a quick review of the points raised by Jon Cruddas to satisfy myself about our approach on that particular issue. I recognise his point about the potential toxicity of fumes that may occur, whatever the height of the building. We ought to have a look at that, and I am more than happy to do so.

This is a major programme of work—now slightly more major, given the undertakings I have made to do some more work—but it is one that befits the challenge we face. It ensures that everyone with a stake in keeping people safe plays their part, and it is the programme we need to rebuild public trust and to deliver meaningful and lasting change. I believe that this is the best tribute we can offer to those who lost their lives at Grenfell Tower and those who are left behind.

Once again, let me thank the hon. Member for Croydon North for securing this valuable debate. I want to assure him and everybody in the House that this Government are determined to learn the lessons of Grenfell Tower and to ensure that nothing like it can ever happen again.

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish to correct today’s record. Earlier, when the motion on private Members’ Bills was being discussed in a point of order, the hon. Member for Chichester said that amendment (b) had been proposed by the Labour spokesperson for the environment, which is, of course, me. I was quite surprised to hear that, as it was not something that I had done. I just want to set the record straight to confirm that it was the Labour spokesperson for communities who had put forward amendment (b) to the motion on private Members’ Bills.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order and for giving me prior notice of it. I think that she did try to contact the hon. Member for—I think—Chichester. [Interruption.] Sorry, Christchurch. The hon. Lady has contacted Sir Christopher Chope and she has, obviously, put the record straight.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.