Fire Safety Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:35 pm on 24th February 2021.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendment 2, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 3, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 4, amendment (e) thereto, Government motion to disagree, and amendments (a) to (c) in lieu, amendments (f) and (g) in lieu, amendment (d) in lieu and amendment (i) in lieu.
Lords amendment 5, and Government motion to agree.
It seems a long time since I spoke on this Bill in Committee in June last year. I am playing a small part in the Bill’s passage through both Houses, and I stand in today for the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend James Brokenshire, who led on the Bill at Second Reading and on Report last year. I am sure everyone in this House wishes him a full recovery.
Lords amendments 1 and 5 were moved by the Government on Report following advice that the Home Office received from fire safety operational experts on how to commence the Fire Safety Bill. In Committee, I announced that the Home Office had established an independent task and finish group whose role was to provide a recommendation on the optimal way to commence this Bill. The group was chaired jointly by the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Sector Federation, and it brought together experts from across the fire and housing sectors.
The group also recommended that responsible persons under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 should use a risk-based approach to carry out or review fire risk assessments, upon commencement, using a building prioritisation tool, and that the Government should issue statutory guidance to support this approach. The Government accepted this recommendation, which will support responsible persons. The Home Office, with support from the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Sector Federation, will host the model once it has been finalised.
Lords amendment 1 will allow us to take forward the provision of statutory guidance to support that approach. The amendment ensures that the risk-based guidance, which will be issued by the Secretary of State to support commencement of the Bill for all relevant buildings, will have the appropriate status to incentivise compliance. It does this by stating explicitly that a court can consider whether a responsible person has complied with their duties under the fire safety order by complying with the risk-based guidance. Equally, if a responsible person fails to provide evidence that they have complied, it may be relied upon by a court as tending to support non-compliance with their duties under the order.
The amendment also creates a provision to allow the Secretary of State to withdraw the risk-based guidance, but this can be done only after consultation with relevant stakeholders. Our rationale for inserting this provision is that we believe a point will eventually be reached where, having followed a risk-based approach to prioritisation, responsible persons will have assessed all the fire safety risks for the external walls of their buildings. At that stage, there may no longer be a need for the guidance to remain in place.
I assure Members that the Government will commence the Bill at the same time as issuing the guidance, and Lords amendment 5 ensures that will happen. This amendment gained the support of the Opposition in the other place when put to a vote on Report. I also recall the comments of Sarah Jones in Committee, when she said this Bill should be commenced at once for all buildings in scope and that a risk-based approach, like the one modelled in her home town of Croydon, should be adopted.
One of the recurring themes during the passage of this Bill has been concern over the number of fire risk assessors with the skills to undertake work on external wall systems. The task and finish group considered this issue as it looked at how responsible persons will be able to update their fire risk assessments, given there is limited capacity in the fire risk assessment sector—primarily of fire engineers working on complex buildings.
The group’s recommendation for a risk-based approach to an all-at-once commencement, on which we are acting, is the most practical way to deal with what is a complex issue. Our approach sends a signal to the fire risk assessor sector—mainly fire engineers—that their expertise should be directed where it is needed most, to the highest-risk buildings.
I thank all members of the task and finish group for their work in developing advice to the Home Office. The group has provided an optimal solution for commencing the Fire Safety Bill, allowing the Government to introduce the provisions at the earliest opportunity. It is important that we continue the good work undertaken with those relevant stakeholders on the task and finish group to regularly monitor the effectiveness of the risk-based guidance and the building prioritisation tool. These provisions will allow us to take forward the recommendations from operational experts in the field of fire safety. I hope that hon. Members will support Lords amendments 1 and 5, as agreed in the other place.
Lords amendment 3 seeks to introduce a power that the Secretary of State must use to make regulations to establish and keep up to date a public register of fire risk assessments. As you have confirmed, Madam Deputy Speaker, this amendment engages financial privilege and will not be debated. The amendment invokes significant financial concerns. To provide a sense of the scale of costs, we can point to two things. First, based on the number of buildings requiring a fire risk assessment, our initial estimate is that the cost to the public purse of a public register of fire risk assessment is above £2 million per annum.
Secondly, these costs would likely be broadly commensurate with the expenditure of maintaining a database of energy performance certificates. That system was mentioned by Opposition colleagues in the other place, who stated that something similar should be introduced for fire risk assessments. The current database of energy performance certificates is housed centrally in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The current costs for this are around £2 million per year, but under private contractual arrangements used previously, they were approximately £4 million a year. Notwithstanding the issue of financial privilege, I sympathise with the intent behind the amendment, and we will not rule out doing this in the future. However, there is a need for detailed policy consideration prior to implementation of such a database, which makes this the wrong time to impose this measure in primary legislation.
I raise just a couple of points to underline our view that the amendment is not appropriate. The amendment would, in effect, create a legal duty on responsible persons to make publicly available the full fire risk assessment for all buildings falling within the scope of regulation owing to the fire safety order. In its current form, the amendment would potentially mean that anyone would be able to access the fire risk assessments for a wide range of premises, including schools, hospitals, care homes and Government buildings. We would have concerns over the risk that posed to security, particularly if the information was accessed by somebody with malicious intent.
Linked to the security issue is the level of information that could and should be made available if a system of recording fire risk assessments is created. For example, a fire risk assessment can often be technical and is very different from an energy performance certificate. It may, for example, prove more effective and transparent to publish a summary of a fire risk assessment, rather than the full document. However, the Government agree with the principle of residents being able to access vital fire safety information for the building in which they live, and we propose introducing legislative provision to allow them to do so in our fire safety consultation. It is important to take a proportionate and appropriate approach to sharing information with residents. However, I hope that hon. Members will understand my concerns and the reason why the Government will resist the amendment.
Lords amendment 2 would place in primary legislation several specific requirements on the owner or manager of a building that contained two or more domestic premises. I recognise that many in this House and the other place wish to see legislative change on this as soon as possible. The Government share that objective, which is why we committed to implementing and legislating for the Grenfell inquiry’s recommendations in our manifesto. The Fire Safety Bill is the first step towards this. It was always intended to be a short, technical piece of legislation designed to clarify that structure, external walls and flat entrance doors should be included within the fire safety order. We need to deliver on that as soon as possible, to ensure that fire risk assessments are updated to take account of the risks in those areas. We intend to implement the areas specified in Lords amendment 2 through regulations, and as such the amendment is unnecessary.
It is not helpful, I have to say, for the House to keep returning to this issue. It risks causing confusion, as we saw through misleading media coverage of Commons Report stage. It also raises doubts in relation to the Government’s commitment to implementation, when all along we have been crystal clear about our intentions. I reassure the Grenfell community, who I know were distressed by the publicity at Committee stage, and those in the House and the wider public that the Government remain absolutely steadfast in our commitment to implement the inquiry’s recommendations.
I am sure everyone across the House accepts the importance of consulting when proposing significant changes to legislation. The importance of that was underlined by the Grenfell inquiry chair, who said that it was important that his recommendations
“command the support of those who have experience of the matters to which they relate.”
Furthermore, the National Fire Chiefs Council’s published response to our fire safety consultation states:
“NFCC supports the Government’s approach to publicly consulting on how to implement the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 recommendations. This consultation provides an opportunity to gather wider views on how to practically deliver the recommendations in a way that brings the maximum benefits to public safety.”
We consulted on our proposals to deliver on the inquiry’s recommendations and to strengthen the fire safety order. This consultation closed in October 2020 and we intend to publish our response this spring. We also intend to bring forward legislation as soon as practicable after the Bill is commenced. Our consultation gave all those affected the opportunity to make their voices heard. This Lords amendment, however, does not do that. It disregards the intent of the statutory duty to consult and seeks to implement changes that do not take account of the responses to the fire safety consultation.
I should restate to the House that we intend to use article 24(1) of the fire safety order, which provides a regulation-making power and a statutory duty to consult, to deliver the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s recommendations. Our proposals will include creating new legal duties for the responsible person in the most practical and effective manner. This includes a proposal for the responsible person to provide information to their local fire and rescue authority about the design of their building’s external walls and the materials they are constructed from, and provide it with up-to-date building floor plans in a standard format, highlighting the location of key firefighting systems within their building. Responsible persons will be required to undertake checks of flat entrance doors, fire doors in the common parts and self-closing devices. Regular inspections of all lifts and other key firefighting equipment in their building will be mandatory, reporting any faults to their local fire and rescue authorities alongside this. There will be an obligation to produce and regularly review evacuation plans for their buildings, and we will look to impose requirements on premises’ information boxes, which will include up-to-date floor plans and other documents as recommended by the inquiry. We will also require the installation of way-finding signage in all multi-occupational residential buildings of 11 metres and over. We are also committed to seek further views on the complex issue of personal emergency evacuation plans. A further consultation will open in the spring and details will soon be available on the Government website.
Some of our proposals from the consultation will require primary legislation. These include strengthening the effect of guidance relating to the discharge of duties under the fire safety order; providing for responsible persons in all regulated premises to record who they are and to provide a UK-based address; the placement of a new requirement on responsible persons for all regulated premises to take reasonable steps to identify themselves to all other responsible persons—this could apply, for example, to a building that houses both commercial and residential units; a requirement that those completing a fire risk assessment must be competent; an obligation on all responsible persons to record their completed fire risk assessments; and for responsible persons to record the name and organisation of those they have engaged to complete the fire risk assessments. There will also be the obligation that any outgoing responsible person be required to pass on all relevant fire safety information to those taking over such responsibilities under the fire safety order. And there are potential measures to increase fines, particularly with regard to the impersonation of an inspector. We intend to include those measures, and possibly others, in the Building Safety Bill, which will be introduced after the Government have considered the recommendations made by the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government and when parliamentary time allows.
I also wish to place on record the Government’s view that there are fundamental flaws with this Lords amendment. First, on the issue of lift checks, the Grenfell inquiry’s recommendation was specific in that it called for checks of lifts to be carried out on high-rise buildings at monthly intervals. The Lords amendment goes a lot further and applies to all multi-occupied residential buildings. That means that even if such a building was only two storeys high but happened to have a lift, it would require the same approach as a high-rise block. This is not a proportionate solution.
I am also concerned about how inflexible this amendment is. In respect of both lifts and fire doors, it offers no ability to change the frequency of checks without further primary legislation. For example, it may be the case in future that the most appropriate course of action to respond to an evolving situation would be to have a bespoke checks regime for certain types of building that is different from that for other properties. This is but one example of how this amendment could constrain the Government’s ability to keep residents safe, and it is right that we maintain the flexibility to react responsibly to future changes in circumstances.
We have talked about the financial privilege grounds in relation to this amendment, and the reason for this is that we already intend to cover the areas of the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s recommendations mentioned in the Opposition amendment through regulations. We have provided an estimate of the impact of our consultation proposals, which has also been published on the Fire Safety Bill pages of the parliamentary website. It is important to mention in respect of undertaking monthly checks on lifts in all buildings, for example, rather than just in high-rise residential premises, that the costs would be significantly higher than we have accounted for.
I am also concerned about the territorial scope of this amendment. The Bill applies to England and Wales, with the exception of the Government’s amendment on risk-based guidance, which will be for England only. The Opposition want this amendment to apply to Wales, but it does not have the explicit consent of the Senedd. The Welsh Government have expressed the view that this would be a breach of the Sewel convention.
I reiterate the Government’s view that this amendment is unnecessary. It seeks to create delegated powers to lay regulations on these specific areas, despite the fact that this power already exists under article 24(1) of the fire safety order. However, I recognise that those on both sides of this House, those in the other place and the public want greater reassurance that we will deliver on our commitment to implement the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s phase 1 recommendations. It is important that we reach a conclusion on this issue, not least because we owe that to the Grenfell community, and I want to underline the Government’s commitment to delivering on the inquiry’s recommendations.
The Fire Safety Bill is an important first step in the process, which must come first in terms of sequencing. Our intention is to commence this as soon as possible, with supporting risk-based guidance to be ready to support commencement. This will ensure the highest-risk buildings are assessed first. We intend to respond formally to the fire safety consultation shortly. Following on from that, we intend to bring forward regulations as soon as possible. In addition, we have brought forward the Building Safety Bill, which was recently subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. We aim to introduce this after we have considered the recommendations from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee report. To underline the Government’s firm commitment to deliver on the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s recommendations, we have published our first quarterly updates on the progress being made to implement the recommendations. These updates are broken down by the themes set out in the inquiry’s phase 1 report on the Government website.
In the interests of getting the Bill finalised and to deliver on important building safety reforms, we were prepared to offer a legislative amendment that would require the Government to report back to Parliament on the specific areas highlighted in the Opposition amendment within 12 months of commencement of the Bill. That would have resolved this issue, and I am disappointed that my offer of this amendment was not accepted by the Opposition. For the extensive reasons I have provided, I hope the House will agree that we are right to reject Lords amendment 2.
Lords amendment 4 seeks to protect leaseholders and tenants from paying for the remediation of unsafe cladding from their buildings. I recognise that a number of alternative amendments have been tabled. I expect we will hear a number of views on this issue today, and I intend to respond to them at the end of the debate, given that many of those interventions will be virtual. First, I should state that we agree with the intent to give leaseholders peace of mind and financial certainty. That is why the Government have recently announced that we will be providing an additional £3.5 billion to fund the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding, targeted at the highest-risk buildings. That brings the total investment in building safety to an unprecedented £5 billion.
I am glad that the Minister has confirmed that extra £3.5 billion, bringing the total to £5 billion. Will he confirm that this will fully cost the removal of the cladding, and that those leaseholders who live in high-rise buildings will not have to foot the bill?
That is the case. I know that my MHCLG ministerial colleagues have been in this place and debated this extensively and, having made the case to the Treasury, it was gratifying to see this money come forward. It will assist those who are living in fear in high-rise buildings in particular, but also those in mid-rise buildings, who, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, will benefit from a financing scheme.
Unfortunately, leaseholders in my constituency have been left in the dark after the announcement the other day because, despite the co-operation between the Welsh Government and the UK Government on the details of this Bill, they have been unable to get answers on the crucial issues of the building development levy and the new tax and on whether there will be any new money for Wales in the proposals laid out by the Secretary of State. Will the Minister urgently respond to the letter from the Welsh Housing Minister, Julie James, which asks reasonable questions and sets out constructive solutions, and will he and his MHCLG colleagues meet me to discuss these issues and find a solution for leaseholders across the United Kingdom?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s impatience, and it is shared by us all across the House. The scheme is in development, as I understand from MHCLG, and I know that Ministers are working hard to get the basis, the foundations and the system in place so that the money can be distributed as quickly as possible. Happily, in terms of high-rise buildings, I think we are well over 90% that are either remediated or in the process of being remediated, but I completely agree with him that we need to work with all urgency to bring as much possible relief from the stress of living with this cladding in the future. I will certainly ask my colleagues at MHCLG to consider his offer of a useful meeting. I know they will be responding to correspondence from the Welsh Government as quickly as possible.
I think we all recognise the frustration exhibited by Stephen Doughty, which is shared across the House. Perhaps the Minister could explain what steps the Government are taking to make sure that the construction industry pays its fair share in the remediation and the future prevention of risk.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As Members who have perhaps been in the House a little longer than he has will know, I was Housing Minister for a brief period of 12 months about 18 months ago, and the work started then of sitting alongside the construction industry to get it to stand up and fulfil its obligations to the people who were living in defective high-rise buildings in particular. A number of firms did and, from working with them through the Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and MHCLG, I know that there is a new atmosphere abroad. That is certainly part of the challenge that we face: it is not just about the regulation we are putting in place today, but a cultural change in the industry towards building safety so that it is now a full partner in facing the challenge for the future.
Government funding does not absolve building owners of their responsibility to ensure their buildings are safe. We have been clear that building owners and the industry, as my hon. Friend has just said, should make buildings safe without passing on costs to leaseholders. They should consider all routes to meet costs including, for example, through warranties and recovering costs from contractors for incorrect or poor work.
We have always been clear that all residents deserve to be and feel safe in their homes. We are working at pace to ensure remediation of unsafe cladding is completed, and we have an ambitious timescale to do so. As I said earlier, about 95% of high-rise buildings with Grenfell-type ACM cladding identified at the start of 2020 have completed remediation or had works on site by the end of last year. However, I am afraid the Bill is not the correct place for remediation costs to be addressed. It is a short but critical Bill to clarify that the fire safety order applies to the external walls, including cladding, and flat entrance doors in multi-occupied residential buildings. That means the responsible person must include those parts of the building in their fire risk assessment. That does not include the remediation of historical defects. It does not have the necessary legislative detail that would be needed to underpin such amendments in regulations. The Building Safety Bill is the appropriate legislative mechanism for addressing these issues, and it will be introduced in the spring. It will contain the detailed and complex legislation that is needed to address remediation costs.
Does my hon. Friend believe that incorporating these amendments might delay the Bill and mean that we cannot execute these measures now?
I am afraid that that is the fundamental risk we face at the moment. We want to get the Bill on the statute book as quickly as possible. It forms the starting block of a complex web of legislation and regulation that is required to bring about changes in building safety across the whole country. I hope that Members recognise that the potential delay that may be inserted by a back and forth between the Houses over this particular issue is not useful. As I say, this issue should be debated during consideration of the Building Safety Bill, which will be brought forward shortly, and I know that Members will embrace that particular piece of legislation.
I will make a little progress, if I may, just to outline why that is. These amendments, I am afraid, are not sufficiently clear or detailed to deliver on what Members say they wish to achieve. They would require extensive drafting in primary legislation, thereby, as we have just discussed, delaying the implementation of the Fire Safety Bill and the crucial measures it puts forward to improve the fire safety regulatory system.
The amendments would also be impractical—for example, in cases where it would be difficult to identify whether a risk has materialised from wear and tear or due to a building safety defect. Stating what the landlord can and cannot recover from leaseholders may well contradict the provisions set out in the contractual terms of the lease. It would be unclear where these costs should lie, rather than their being determined by the terms of the lease. This might result in delay to crucial interim measures to protect residents while remediation is being brought forward, meaning that fire rescue services would have no choice but to evacuate residents. Additionally, the amendments, though well-intentioned, would not always protect leaseholders from all remediation costs. They apply only to defects uncovered through a fire risk assessment, but not, for example, to defects discovered as a result of an incident, or indeed other works taking place.
Members will be aware that, as I have said, we will soon be bringing to Parliament the building safety Bill, which is a once-in-a-generation change to the building safety regime. It will bring about fundamental change in both the regulatory framework for building safety and the construction industry culture, creating a more accountable system to ensure that a tragedy such as Grenfell can never happen again.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all the work he did as Housing Minister to resolve this issue; we met on many occasions to discuss it. Does he agree that this amendment is self-defeating in that it puts the onus for any fire safety work back on the owner, who, given debts or the cost of that work, will simply walk away? These owners have probably paid a few thousand pounds per flat to collect, rightly, ground rent. If we put a debt on them for £40,000 per flat, they will simply walk away, and who will then carry the can for the work?
My hon. Friend speaks with some expertise in this area and has been a constant presence in debates on this matter over the past few years. He is right. The amendment is self-defeating given the number of, for example, freeholds that are held in limited liability vehicles, which could, in the position he points out, simply put themselves into some kind of insolvency procedure. That is why any measure along these lines would need to be scrutinised carefully and thought about in a little more detail before we brought it in.
Alongside all that, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has committed to taking decisive action to end the cladding scandal once and for all through the Government’s five-point plan to provide reassurance to homeowners and build confidence in the housing market. Funding will be targeted at the highest-risk buildings, in line with long-standing independent expert advice and evidence. Lower-rise buildings with a lower risk to safety will gain new protection from the costs of cladding removal through a long-term, low-interest Government-backed financing scheme. The Government are also committed to making sure that no leaseholder in these buildings will pay more than £50 per month towards this remediation. Let me be clear: it is unacceptable for leaseholders to have to worry about the cost of fixing historical safety defects in their buildings.
I ask hon. Members to recognise that while these amendments are based on good intentions, they are not the appropriate means to solve these complex problems. By providing unprecedented funding and a generous financing scheme, we are ensuring that money is available for remediation, accelerating the process, and making homes safer as quickly as possible. I give my assurance that the Government schemes to address these issues will be launched as a matter of priority and that we will provide an update on the underpinning details, as Members have urged us, as soon as we are in a position to do so. For the reasons set out, I hope that the House will see fit to support me in my aspirations with regard to these and other amendments.
It is a pleasure to follow the Policing Minister. I, too, put on record my best wishes to James Brokenshire, who cannot be here to lead for the Government today. We all wish him a speedy recovery
I thank our fire and rescue services, who are going above and beyond to keep us safe and have worked tirelessly to protect us throughout the covid pandemic. I am grateful to Ministers, to officials and to House staff who have worked with us on this Bill. I give particular thanks to Yohanna Sallberg and Kenneth Fox, who have supported me, in particular, throughout the Bill’s passage. I thank Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and all those Lords who have led this Bill through the House of Lords, and ensured that Labour’s key amendment on implementing the Grenfell phase 1 recommendations was accepted there.
Every time we debate and discuss the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, we hold the memory of those who died in our hands. We must be gentle and respectful, but we must also see the injustice, and honour those who died by taking action, and by not resting until justice has been done and everybody has a safe home that they can afford. I pay tribute to the campaigners—Grenfell United, the families, survivors, and the entire community—for their tireless fight for justice. I also pay tribute to those campaigners who are fighting every day for the hundreds of thousands of people who are trapped in unsafe buildings, and who face extortionate bills and are unable to move. The drumbeat of their lives is fear and anxiety. No Parliament can ignore that.
Thousands of people are working on this, but I particularly thank Ritu and Will from the UK Cladding Action Group, for their assiduous efforts. I thank the 200 people who joined our roundtable this morning, so that we could hear at first hand the horrors that this Government are wilfully enabling. As Ritu said, “we are fellow human beings in these buildings—your family, your friends, your colleagues.” To everyone who is affected, and who is living in fear and anxiety, I say sorry—we must do better.
As we have said throughout the passage of the Bill, we support it, but it is small and the only piece of concrete legislation we have had since Grenfell. That is not an adequate response to the biggest housing safety crisis in a generation. It does not even scratch the surface of the work that must be done to fix the wild west of building control and fire safety that we have seen played out with such horror over the past few weeks during phase 2 of the Grenfell inquiry. It has taken so long to get here, and at every stage we have had to drag the Government into action.
The Government promised to act swiftly after Grenfell, yet it took them almost three years to introduce this Bill. We waited 12 weeks just for them to bring the Bill back to consider Lords amendments. This is intended to be a foundational Bill. Its purpose is to provide clarity, and state what is covered by the fire safety order, which will inform other related and secondary legislation. In Committee the Minister said that the Government intend to legislate further, and he spoke many times of action still to come, as he did today. By this stage, however, we need more than vague commitments about secondary legislation. At the very least, we need a clear timetable from Government that sets out when further changes to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order will be delivered, when secondary legislation will be introduced, and when the Bill will be implemented.
In response to a deeply frustrated letter from Grenfell survivors in September, the Government said that the introduction of the Fire Safety Bill was a key priority, yet the Bill does not include provision for any of the measures called for by the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry. We would like many issues around improving fire safety to be included in the Bill, but many will now have to be introduced through the draft Building Safety Bill and by secondary legislation. We have no idea when any of those things will happen.
I have been asked to speak by my party leader, my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, and by other Members who have relatives who own such flats on the mainland. They have extreme concerns, and the fears that the hon. Lady has referred to about their properties, and what that means for the future. Although the Government have good intentions, I believe —as I think does she—that the Bill does not go far enough. Is she convinced by what the Minister has said, and if not, will she push the amendment to a vote?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I do not think the Government have gone far enough, and I do not accept the reasons why we are going at such a snail’s pace on something so important. I will come to what we think should be done about it.
The Government rejected many attempts to amend the Bill. The draft Building Safety Bill places various requirements on what is called the “responsible person” and refers to the fire safety order for the definition of that, but the fire safety order does not provide a definition of the responsible person. The draft Building Safety Bill even attempts to put into law a building safety charge. It is vital that the fire safety order makes it clear that there is no ambiguity around the definition of responsible person and that it does not mean leaseholders. However, the Government chose to reject that amendment.
The fire safety order requires regular fire risk assessments in buildings, but it includes no legal requirement for those conducting the assessment to have any form of training or accreditation. In Committee and on Report, we tabled amendments that would bring into force an accreditation system for fire risk assessors, rather than waiting for more secondary legislation. We also tabled an amendment to require the schedule for inspecting buildings to be based on a prioritisation of risk, not an arbitrary distinction of types and heights of building. On that point, I am glad that the Government have listened, having turned us down in the initial stages, and taken good practice from Croydon and other areas and introduced a risk-based approach to the Bill.
We tabled an amendment on waking watch to require the Government to specify when and for how long such measures should take place. Thanks to Lord Kennedy of Southwark, our amendment on implementing key measures from the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry passed in the Lords, despite the Government’s attempts to block it. The Government have made so many promises to address the fire safety crisis but failed to keep them. The families and survivors are still waiting for justice, and hundreds of thousands of leaseholders and tenants are still trapped.
As we debate the Lords amendments this afternoon, the Government face a choice on what they include in the Bill. They could do the right thing and fulfil their promises, or they could push the can down the road again—“We do care, just not quite enough, not quite yet.” There are two answers that thousands of people across the country are watching and waiting for today: will the Government change their mind and back the Lords amendment to implement recommendations from the Grenfell inquiry, and will the Government legislate to ensure that leaseholders—blameless victims of this crisis—do not have to foot the bill for measures to make their buildings safe?
Although I understand the point behind the hon. Member’s position—I assume she will vote for Lords amendment 4—can she answer the point I made to the Minister? What will she do when the building owners simply walk away? Where will the costs go? Does she have a solution for that? Does she not accept that this amendment is fundamentally flawed and is not the right way to achieve what she wants to achieve?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. He is an expert in this area, and I very much respect what he says. The answer is that it is for the Government to resolve this crisis. It is not for leaseholders to foot the bill. We suggested a national taskforce, whereby the Government could take responsibility for assessing the costs of the remediation work and then find out who is responsible, so that, as with the polluter pays principle, we could get to the point where the people who were responsible for the problem were paying the bill. That is fundamentally what we are trying to achieve, because in law at the moment, those who can least afford to pay are the only ones having to pay. The Minister says that there are flaws in the way the amendment is worded, but he could have amended it.
Lords amendment 2 would place robust requirements on building owners or managers and implement the key recommendations from phase 1 of the Grenfell inquiry. The Minister said that he had concerns with the way the amendment was worded. Again, the Government could have tried to amend it and to fix some of the problems along the way, but have chosen not to do so.
The Government said that they would implement the Grenfell phase 1 inquiry recommendations in full and without delay, and Lords amendment 2 would be a straightforward way for them to fulfil that promise. It seeks to require the owners of buildings that contain two or more sets of domestic premises to do four simple things: to share information with their local fire and rescue service about the design and make-up of the external walls; to complete regular inspections of fire entrance doors; to complete regular inspections of lifts; and to share evacuation and fire safety instructions with residents. Those measures are straightforward and supported by key stakeholders. Indeed, a common response is incredulity that these measures are not already in law.
The Government have even tried to water down proposals on the evacuation of disabled people, as has been reported today. They have proposed requiring personal evacuation plans for disabled people only in buildings with known safety issues and a waking watch. It is only after legal action by the families of those who died in the Grenfell Tower fire that the Government have relaunched a consultation on this.
The fire safety consultation included proposals to check flat entrance doors every six months, but Sir Martin Moore-Bick said that all fire doors should be checked every three months. Ahead of setting up the Grenfell Tower inquiry, the then Prime Minister, Mrs May, said that
“we cannot wait for ages to learn the immediate lessons.”—[Official Report,
Nearly four years after Grenfell, and over a year after the recommendations were published, we have waited ages. It is shameful that these things are not enshrined in law.
I wholeheartedly agree with the points that my hon. Friend is making. I want to emphasise the importance of paragraph (a) of Lords amendment 2, on sharing information about the materials that a building is constructed of, because my constituents in Cardiff South and Penarth have real difficulties getting hold of, for example, architectural drawings and original “as built” drawings. There is simply no consistency in this across the UK, which means that fire and rescue services, let alone anybody trying to undertake works, have a much harder job.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I have had many similar cases in my constituency, with people just trying to get to the bottom of what the issues are, and meanwhile they cannot sell their flat and are facing fire remediation and waking watch charges, their insurance is rocketing and their lives are on hold. We heard from many such people this morning, and it really was very sad.
It is hard to understand why the Government have put forward a motion to disagree with Lords amendment 2. I heard what the Minister said, but my challenge is that he could have tried to amend our amendments if he had a problem with them, to make them work. The answer, “We will do these things, but later” is simply inadequate.
I think that we all share the same objective across the House. I certainly want the recommendations of the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry to be implemented as quickly and robustly as possible. I am afraid, however, that the hon. Lady is trying to make a political point, because my has made it very clear that we have a robust system in place. We have the Fire Safety Bill. We have already done the consultation on the fire safety orders, which will be coming out in the spring. Our methodology has been backed by the National Fire Chiefs Council, and the step-by-step process has also been backed by Dame Judith Hackitt.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I do not doubt her sincerity or the work that she has done on this since becoming a Member of Parliament, but I fundamentally disagree. The step-by-step process might be the right process, but it is so slow. It is almost four years since the Grenfell fire, and it is a year since the recommendations were made. The consultation finished in October, and the Government are still considering the responses. It is painfully slow. Have we not seen with covid what is possible when we put our minds to something? Look at how tremendously quickly we have achieved amazing things through this year of trauma. I think that, with commitment, the Government could work faster on this.
We all share the frustration and want this to be done quickly, but it has to be done right. If it comes down to a choice between quick and right, we owe it to the leaseholders to do it right.
I hear what the hon. Member says, but whether we should have a system in law whereby we check that a lift is safe is really not that complicated. Of course there are experts, but throughout all stages of the Bill the Government and the Minister have referred to steering groups, taskforces and consultations, rather than actually implementing the recommendations. We could have gone much faster. The Government published the consultation on fire safety in July and it closed in October, but four months later they are still analysing the feedback. They cannot keep promising to act later; they need to act now. There really are no more excuses. There is no reason why this amendment could not be made. The Lords were right.
I will now move on to Lords amendment 4, to which many amendments have been tabled in an attempt to improve it and build on it. This morning I heard from many leaseholders in this very situation. They told me of their desperation, how their lives have been put on hold, how they face mental health issues, how their insurance has rocketed, how their waking watch costs are exorbitant, how they cannot get EWS forms and so cannot sell their homes, how they face costs of other fire remediation way beyond cladding, and how they live in blocks not covered by the Government schemes. Many of them face bankruptcy. They simply cannot understand the injustice of having to pay for things that were never their fault. They cannot understand how the Government do not get this and will not put it right.
To echo the comment from my hon. Friend Ben Everitt, it is about getting this right, rather getting it done quickly. Does the hon. Lady not agree that a lot of these policies that we are bringing forward have been measured, have been accepted by experts and are tackling the issue? It is right that we tackle those at most concern of not being safe first, and then follow through afterwards, rather than trying to do all of them at the same time and getting it wrong.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I genuinely struggle to understand why the Government have not grasped the scale of this crisis and the quantity of people who cannot sell their flat, who cannot afford the costs that they are currently looking at, who cannot change jobs and who cannot get married or have children because their lives are on hold. Many are first-time buyers who have saved up, worked really hard and got their flat. If the Government would say today, “We will commit to legislate to say that lease- holders should not have to foot the bill”, we could accept that there was a commitment there, but there is not.
There is no commitment to say that leaseholders should not have to foot the bill. The words are said, but there is no action to put it into law. [Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that there is £5 billion, and that is true, but that does not cover the vast number of people who are still affected—the vast number of people whose lives are still on hold. One could say that some of them are perhaps traditional Conservative voters. We struggle on this side of the House to understand how the Treasury has not grasped the scale of this crisis and is not putting it right.
I know for a fact that some of those affected are traditional Conservative voters. I have spoken to people from all walks of life, and they are in absolute anguish about this. They are being left in the dark. We had the announcement the other day—it was typical to announce a big sum of money and then not be clear about how much would come to Wales, how the system would work or when the money would come through. These people have been living in the dark and in anguish for months and for years, and it is completely unacceptable.
My hon. Friend is completely right. There is the idea that someone would have a long-term loan where they pay £50 a month. If someone needs to pay off a £20,000 loan, and that loan stays with the building, they have no chance of selling their flat. Nobody is going to want to buy a flat with a bill that high.
What evidence does the hon. Lady have for that claim? This is a maximum charge per unit per month of £50. If she understands how property transactions work, that is a maximum of £600 a year, which capitalises to about £12,000. I am not saying it would not affect the value of that property, but it does not make them unsaleable. It makes them far more saleable—I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—than they are today and actually affects the value by a relatively small amount.
The hon. Member said, “I am not saying it would not affect the value of that property”, and that is the key. This issue should not be affecting the value of the property when people have saved up for many years, worked hard, bought their flat and then through no fault of their own suddenly finds that the value of their property goes down because of the Government failure to deal with the problem.
Through successive lockdowns, the people in these blocks have gone to bed at night with the added pressure of sleeping in a building at risk of fire or being themselves at risk of bankruptcy and deep financial trouble. It is taking a heavy toll on people’s mental health and putting millions of lives on hold. Leaseholders have been trapped in this impossible position for far too long.
I hate that we are still having this conversation. I hate that I have stood here at this Dispatch Box time after time for years saying the same thing to Ministers, and I hate that good people on both sides of this House are saying the same things and it is still falling on deaf ears. The problem is not going to go away. The Government could legislate today to ensure that leaseholders do not pay by supporting the Lords amendment, the McPartland-Smith amendment or the Labour amendments. At this point, I do not mind which one they pick; I just want the job done.
One of the items that has been brought to my attention is that 57% of flats requiring remediation were purchased for under £250,000, which means that many of those people are living in negative equity in their properties. Does the hon. Lady agree that this is not about cake tomorrow, but about what happens today, and unless the Government accept the amendments that have been tabled, those people will feel that they have no hope for the future?
The hon. Member is absolutely right. We heard from a lady this morning that the cost of insurance for her small block had gone up from £30,000 a year to £500,000 a year. We heard from a lady who lives in a block in Kent—I know one Government Member has stood up for her in this place many times—where the residents have already spent £500,000 on a waking watch. It is quite extraordinary.
I was alarmed to see reports this afternoon that the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, has said:
“Our problem with McPartland’s amendment is that, far from speeding things up for constituents across the country who are worried about finding themselves in these properties, it would actually slow things down.”
That mirrors the intervention that Jim Shannon has made, and it is an absolute cop-out. We are four years on, and leaseholders are struggling. We think that 11 million people are affected by this—not necessarily those living in dangerous blocks, but those living in blocks where they do not know, because they have not got the forms sorted and they are paying more insurance. That is a huge crisis.
Does the hon. Lady recall that in the Opposition day debate called by the Labour party just a few weeks ago, I asked the Minister, if our amendment is defective, why do the Government not take it, fix it, and make it work? They had the opportunity then. Does the hon. Lady think they should have done that?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: if there were any problems with these amendments, they could have been addressed by the Government through this process. They had 12 weeks between the Bill leaving the Lords and coming here to try to effect some of these things, but have chosen not to.
The amendments tabled by Stephen McPartland and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) are to prevent leaseholders from being billed for fire safety repairs. Labour’s amendments went further, because the McPartland-Smith amendments—supportive and good though they are—would not cover leaseholders in blocks where flammable cladding had been added at some stage following the building of the block. Labour’s amendments would have included, for example, Grenfell Tower, which was built in the ’70s but to which the flammable cladding was added later, in 2017.
In our amendments (f), (g), (h) and (i) to Lords amendment 4, we have sought to go even further, to make sure that the cost of fire safety problems from refurbishment jobs such as the cladding of Grenfell Tower cannot be passed on to leaseholders. Our amendments (f) and (g) would ensure that leaseholders cannot be passed on the cost of remediating problems issued under the fire safety order wherever the problem was created. Labour’s amendment (i) would ensure that the Bill protects leaseholders from the day it comes into law, instead of an unknown date in the future, and Labour’s amendment (h) would have ensured that if the fire safety order is extended in the future, the Secretary of State must publish an analysis of the financial implications for leaseholders—although that amendment was not selected today, as it was out of scope. [Interruption.] You are hurrying me along, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I am turning pages so that I can speed up, which I will of course do.
To conclude, Labour’s amendments in lieu are straight- forward. They are based on issues that the Government need to address and have pledged to do so, but have not acted on. The risk of fire and looming bankruptcy will not wait while the Government dither and delay, with inaction or failed proposals that keep many lease- holders in debt. Each amendment I have spoken to today corresponds to a broken promise from the Government.
Today is another chance for the Government to finally put public safety first, and bring forward a set of legally binding commitments to deliver on the promises they made to leaseholders and implement the recommendations of the Grenfell phase 1 inquiry. Blameless victims of this crisis, who are in dangerous homes and facing financial ruin, expect nothing less. As debates over the past four years have repeatedly shown, solving this issue fairly would command cross-party support, and today should be a day to deliver justice. It is not too late for the Government to put the British public first and do the right thing.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for concluding bang on time. As the House knows, this debate is limited to three hours, and one of those hours has now passed. I did say at the beginning of the debate that there would be a time limit of four minutes on Back-Bench speeches. I make no criticism of the Minister or the shadow Minister—if I were going to criticise, I would have stopped them long before now—and I appreciate that both hon. Members have taken a lot of interventions and dealt with a great many different matters, so it was necessary to spend the first hour in this way. But that does mean that, although there will be a limit of four minutes for the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), after that, the limit will be reduced to three minutes.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this debate. I would also like to send my best wishes to my right hon. Friend James Brokenshire.
It is a great pleasure to see the Minister in his place and responding to this debate. I listened to him very carefully and I detect a hint that there could be a compromise, for which I and my hon. Friend Royston Smith have been calling for many months now. We are very keen to work with the Government. We are very keen for the Government to table an amendment in lieu, to accept our amendment today or, if the Minister feels so inclined, even to move our amendment to a vote to test the will of the House, but I imagine that, sadly, we will not have the opportunity to vote on what is called the McPartland-Smith amendment today.
I would like to pick the Minister up on the point he made about this Bill not being the correct place for the amendment. I believe it is, which I will come on to in a moment. I would also like to put on record that I, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen, those who have supported our amendment and the leaseholders themselves are all very clear that we have never asked the Government to pay for the full costs of remediation, or the taxpayer to bail people out. We just want the taxpayer to provide a safety net for leaseholders to ensure the fire safety works are actually undertaken; it has been nearly four years.
We want to be in a position whereby the Government provide the cash flow up front, and then they can levy those who have been responsible within the industry to recoup those funds over the next 10 years. That is our plan and objective. We would love to work with the Minister and the Government to get this resolved in the Lords. I say to the Minister today that their lordships have already agreed to re-table the amendment if it is not accepted. It will be tabled in the Lords on Friday. I am sure we will be back to discuss this later on—in a few months. So I hope that we can work in the in-between time to come to some solution together.
I am very proud to be the Chairman of the Regulatory Reform Committee. The Fire Safety Bill does amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. The reason why the Bill is so important is that it creates a financial obligation on leaseholders to pay freeholders for the costs of remedying any fire safety defects on external walls and doors, such as cladding, but not limited to cladding, so it can include fire safety breaks and a whole variety of other issues. I assume that this is an unintended consequence. The Government do not want leaseholders to pay—that is very clear from what the Minister said earlier—but they are not sure how they can resolve the problem and get the works fixed without leaseholders actually paying.
From my point of view, we are very keen to ensure that leaseholders are not responsible. In terms of dealing with that order, we have to amend the Fire Safety Bill, because we cannot wait for the Building Safety Bill. The Fire Safety Bill creates this legal obligation. It creates the position whereby a fire authority, which is a competent authority, can order a freeholder to do the works. They have 21 days to agree to do the works and provide a timescale, or that is a criminal offence. Once they have had this direction from a competent authority, the leaseholders are then required to refund the freeholder for the works that are done. Up and down the country we already have thousands of leaseholders who are on the verge of bankruptcy—some have already gone bankrupt—just waiting and, before they actually get to the costs of remediation, paying £15,000 a week for waking watch in blocks of flats and excessive insurance premiums. The costs are huge.
I urge the Government to accept our amendment, to let us vote on it, or to work with us to ensure that we resolve this issue in the Lords and that leaseholders do not have to pay.
First, may I send my best wishes to James Brokenshire? When he was Secretary of State, he and I discussed our respective illnesses, and I really feel for him and his family at this very difficult time.
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has discussed the issue of cladding remediation and fire safety works on many occasions. In June, we made it clear that
“residents are in no way to blame” for defects from cladding
“and it is our view that they should bear none of the cost of remediation.”
We repeated those sentiments in our prelegislative scrutiny of the Building Safety Bill. Again, we said:
“The Government must recommit to the principle that leaseholders should not pay anything towards the cost of remediating historical building safety defects…for which they were not responsible.”
That is very clear.
The question is who should pay: the initial developer—the Government could help to co-ordinate action against them—the taxpayer, of course, or the industry as a whole? Unfortunately, the amendments tabled by Stephen McPartland—I very much agreed with the sentiments of his comments—and by the Labour Front Benchers seek to place responsibility on the freeholder.
For reasons that the Minister gave, those amendments cut across the contractual relationship between freeholder and leaseholder. Kevin Hollinrake, who raised this issue a number of times in the Select Committee when he was a member, showed that freeholders are often quite small companies that, where they were not responsible for the initial development, simply collect ground rent. If faced with the cost of remediation, they would simply walk away. Those amendments will not get the work done. That is the fundamental issue. We want to see it done without leaseholders having to pay for it.
Turning to who should pay, certainly, the Government have put on the table £3.5 billion in addition to the £1.6 billion, but that does not include anything other than cladding remediation. All the other works, which for many leaseholders are as substantial in cost as cladding remediation, are not covered, and of course that funding does not cover buildings below 18 metres.
The Government have come up with a loan scheme for buildings below 18 metres, but that places the loan charge on the freeholder. Surely, we are back to the same problems: if we cannot interfere with the contractual relationship between the freeholder and the leaseholder—according to the Minister, with respect to the amendments before us from the Opposition and the hon. Member for Stevenage, we cannot—then surely that is a problem for the Government’s loan scheme too, and if freeholders are going to walk away from a direct charge on properties, as the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton said, they will walk away from a loan too. That is a real problem that the Government have to address.
I welcome that the Government are going to introduce a levy and a financial contribution from the industry, but we appear to be in a position where they cannot tell us whether the money raised from the levy will be in addition to the £3.5 billion or whether it will be taken from the £3.5 billion—in other words, that the Treasury will get some of that money back. That, to my view, would be wrong. The Minister is going to come to the Select Committee on
Finally, we have talked a lot about leaseholders, but what about social housing tenants? The National Housing Federation says that there is £10 billion of remedial work to be done in the social housing sector, and more for council housing properties, yet the only automatic right that social housing landlords have to any funding is for help with the removal of ACM cladding; everything else they are likely to have to pay for. Tenants are going to have to pay through rent increases, cuts to future maintenance or cuts to the house building programme, none of which is acceptable. So we have a perverse situation where the social housing landlord, as a freeholder, could be ensuring that tenants have to pay for the remediation of properties next door that have been subject to the right to buy. That cannot be right.
All these matters need resolving. We hope that the Minister does so on his visit to the Select Committee.
We now move to a three-minute limit. I call Royston Smith.
I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have no axe to grind with the Government. They are my friends and colleagues. I like them and I get on with them, but I am not going to blindly follow them when I can see that the treatment of leaseholders is wrong.
First, in tabling our amendment, we have never said that we would ask for taxpayers’ money. We made that fundamentally clear right at the beginning, and it is worth repeating that. I know that many of my colleagues would have supported our amendment, but they were told that it would be an open cheque book and therefore they chose not to. Secondly, our amendment will not wreck the Bill. It will make it fair for the innocent lease- holders caught up in this crisis.
There are three parts to this, in my opinion. There is the moral issue. Who, in good conscience, could leave these people to pay huge insurance premiums, sometimes increased by over 1,000%, huge waking watch charges and crippling costs of remediation if we could do something to help? Who would do that?
Then there is the economic issue. When someone owns just 10% of their home, but they are responsible for 100% of the remediation cost, what do we think people are going to do? They will be saddled with tens of thousands of pounds-worth of debt while their home is valued at nothing. This part of the housing market is heading for collapse and thousands of leaseholders are heading for bankruptcy. The Government could and should prevent this from happening.
Finally, there is a political dimension. Successive Governments have put home ownership at the centre of Government policy. They have encouraged people to get on the property ladder. We have incentivised them through schemes such as Help to Buy and shared ownership. Imagine the howls of derision when the first Government Minister stands up and claims that we are the party of home ownership.
The recent Government announcement is very welcome, and I know that many people are grateful, but what sort of solution says, “We concede that it is not your fault, but we are only going to help half of you?” For those buildings over 18 metres, cladding will be removed for free, but not in buildings below that height. Worse than that, those people living in buildings below 18 metres will be saddled with unaffordable debt to pay for cladding remediation. Even worse, they will know that their taxes will be paying for their neighbours’ remediation.
I absolutely understand the spirit behind my hon. Friend’s amendment. Will he answer the point that I made earlier? How would his amendment operate if the building owner walks away? Also, does he accept that his amendment would put somebody else on the hook for the costs of remediation, not just for historical defects, but for any defects in future?
What I will do is refer my hon. Friend to two things that he has said. First, he said, “We will carry the can”, and he has now said, “Who is going to be on the hook?” It sounds to me like he is very happy for leaseholders to carry the can and be on the hook, but not to find a solution. The Government’s problem is to find the solution. Our problem is to say that leaseholders should never have to pay. That is not an unreasonable position for us to take.
In trying to help, the Government have satisfied no one and they have upset just about everyone. The leaseholders are not responsible for this. They know they are not. We know they are not. The Government know they are not and, therefore, the Government’s position is now untenable.
In conclusion, I appeal to the Government and to all my colleagues to think very carefully before they abandon thousands of their constituents, because I know this: they will not forget and they will not forgive.
I am speaking in support of all the amendments before us that seek to protect leaseholders from having to pay. First, on the Minister’s argument that this will delay matters, I think that leaseholders are left perplexed by the Government’s position. One day Ministers say that the cost of fixing historical defects should not fall on leaseholders—the Minister said it again today—but on another day, they say that it should. The £50 a month towards the loans that the Government propose to give to buildings below 18 metres shows that that is their policy. I do not think that Ministers can criticise others who are trying to address the problem—I support the speeches we have heard from supporters of the amendment tabled by Stephen McPartland—because the Government are completely unclear about what their policy is on who should bear the cost. It is clear to me that it should be the people who built the blocks.
On the argument that leaseholders who are also part-owners of the freehold may walk away from their flats, that is a very fair point, but exactly the same argument applies to loads of leaseholders who will not be able to afford to meet these costs. What this tells us is that if we are to solve this we must deal with the whole problem, not just part of it.
Secondly, to argue that this is the wrong Bill misses the urgency of the situation. Leaseholders are facing bills that they cannot afford now—waking watch bills now, insurance bills now—and they still face the prospect of being asked to pay to make safe homes that they bought in good faith. That is why we should take the first available opportunity to protect them from this great injustice.
Thirdly, although the Secretary of State’s recent announcement represented progress, it has not solved the problem. Ministers have not addressed the question of how other defects that many buildings have—missing firebreaks, flammable insulation not connected to cladding, wooden balconies and walkways—will be fixed, because leaseholders do not have the money to meet the cost of repairing these defects. Even if the dangerous cladding is removed, either under the grant or the loan scheme, their blocks will still be regarded as a fire risk, because the other problems will not have been remedied. We cannot make a building half-safe, as that will mean that they will still need waking watches, there will be high insurance bills, and EWS1 certificates will not be issued—people’s homes will still be worthless, and they will not be able to be sold. An important part of the housing market will remain stuck.
The question for the Minister in replying to this debate today is very simple: what will he do about this? If we together do not find an answer, the suffering of hundreds of thousands of leaseholders in Leeds, in my constituency, and up and down the land will carry on.
This Bill is very important to me and my constituents, and I want to pay tribute to the Grenfell community—the bereaved and the survivors. I want the Bill to be implemented as quickly and as robustly as possible so that it is not subject to any future uncertainty or challenge.
We need to get on with this. We need to stop all the ping-ponging between this place and the other place. It is very clear that there is a systematic scheme here. There is this Bill, which is very simple. We have had the consultation on the fire safety orders and the regulation. We need to get on with that. We need to implement that work and then get on with it. We then need the Building Safety Bill. That needs to come to this House and, again, we need to get on with it. We owe that to my constituents.
The first phase of the Grenfell inquiry report came out in October 2019, 16 months ago. We, collectively—both in this place and the other place—need to get this legislation implemented and make sure that these dangerous buildings are remediated. The more we talk, the more we argue, nothing gets done—and there are dangerous buildings out there.
We have a simple piece of legislation that we can get enacted. We have a big pot of money. The totality of the pot could be as high as £10 billion. Let us implement this legislation, let us start assessing and prioritising the buildings, and let us start spending this Government money. We have time to review the details of the financing scheme. I just want to make the point that, yes, the Government are taking responsibility for buildings over 18 metres, but there is a reason for that: buildings over 18 metres, according to all the independent risk assessors, are way more dangerous. They are four times more likely to have fatalities.
I empathise hugely with leaseholders, but there is still a subsidy in there for leaseholders of buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres. So let us just get on with this today. After that, we can review the details of the financing package and amend the Building Safety Bill, but this Bill is the first step and we need to get on with it.
It is shameful that this modest Bill is the Government’s legislative response thus far to Grenfell, almost four years after that tragedy took place. We might expect, therefore, that it would at least address the most significant and urgent wrongs that the Grenfell fire brought to the Government’s attention. The purpose of the Bill is to update the fire safety order and better manage and reduce the risk of fire. What better and more straightforward way of achieving that than to implement the recommendations of part 1 of the Grenfell inquiry, which deals with issues such as the inspection and maintenance of lifts and doors, and having proper systems of evacuation in place and communicated to residents? It is impossible to imagine those steps, backed by the moral and legal authority of the inquiry, not becoming law. That is the purpose of Lords amendment 2.
Although safety is the paramount concern, the treatment of leaseholders and tenants living in unsafe blocks is a wholly new scandal that this Bill will fail to address unless Lords amendment 4 is agreed today. Those tenants should not bear the cost of remedial work to their flats where they did not and could not have known the risks posed by their construction. The Government do not seek to deny that, but instead make a series of partial concessions. That is the wrong approach. We should start, as amendment 4 does, with the presumption that remedial costs attributable to the Bill should not be borne by leaseholders. They should not be borne by tenants or social landlords either, or by the rents of the least well off or the limited funds set aside for the provision and repairing of social homes.
The cynical disregard for the lives of our fellow citizens that Grenfell exposed will take years, billions of pounds and the concentrated efforts of the Government and industry to address. Building design, materials, construction, maintenance and inspection are all in the dock. Height is a factor, but so is who the occupants and users are and how they are taught to behave, especially in an emergency.
For the Government constantly to adopt a reductive approach to the crisis is irresponsible. This is not just about one or two types of cladding, buildings over 18 metres or residential buildings. Today is an opportunity not to address all those issues, important as they are, but to show a serious intent to act now on the most obvious faults and injustices. The Government should take it by accepting all the amendments before the House.
It is a pleasure to follow Andy Slaughter. This is a horrendously complicated issue involving cladding—ACM, high-pressure laminate and other forms of inflammable cladding—fire safety measures and the height of buildings. I warmly welcome the fact that the Government have come up with the money to remedy the most unsafe buildings—tall buildings—and the cladding that was put on them, which fails to provide safe accommodation to residents.
The reality is that the £5.1 billion will remediate only the unsafe cladding and will not do the comprehensive work. The issue then becomes one of the fire safety work that has to be carried out as well. There is no funding to provide for that, so it has to be paid for by someone.
I have a series of suggested tests that could apply. The first is that, emerging from the Grenfell inquiry, it is quite clear that the ACM cladding was illegal, so those responsible for developing the cladding and putting it on the building must pay for the remediation in all other buildings where that is the case. Similarly, for other forms of unsafe cladding, if those people fail to accord with the building regulations that exist at the time, they should pay the cost of removing and correcting it.
Leaseholders could not reasonably have been expected to foresee the fire safety issues when they bought the leases on their flats, so the fundamental issue is that they should not have to pay the cost of remediation, either of cladding or of fire safety defects. My hon. Friend the Minister said that he finds the amendments defective. My challenge to him, when he responds to this debate, is to make it clear from the Dispatch Box that the Government will bring forward proposals in the Lords to amend the Bill to make sure leaseholders do not pay.
The defence seems to be that the Building Safety Bill will eventually come through and be implemented. The problem is that we have sat through the pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill and recommended at least 40 changes to it. It will take probably 18 months for it to reach the statute book, and then we have the secondary legislation. Leaseholders do not have the time: this work needs to be carried out now. The industry estimates that it will take some four years to implement all the safety works required. It must be made clear that the leaseholders are not the ones to pay.
Currently, leaseholders cannot insure or sell their properties and no one wants to buy them. We are in danger of freezing the housing market because of this problem. I urge the Minister, when he responds, to—
Order. We will have to leave it there.
I, too, send my best wishes to James Brokenshire and wish him a speedy recovery.
I have been listening to the debate and the various interventions. A question asked consistently in interventions from Conservative Members has been whether it is not best to put things right rather than act quickly. I remind those Members, as others have, that it is now four years on from Grenfell. Four years is a timescale in which we should have been able to address this issue and given people security and some form of confidence.
Confidence has been shattered by the failure to include in the legislation the recommendations from the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry. I share the view of the Fire Brigades Union that the Government seem to be doing the bare minimum to fend off bad headlines. I have not the eloquence to speak on behalf of my constituents and portray just how strongly they feel about this matter. They are really very angry—and, I have to say, distressed. They feel not only at risk but that their lives have been put on hold by their inability to sell their properties and move from them.
We have heard today about the £5 billion that the Government have allocated; my constituents, like those of other Members, are asking what happens if the money runs out—the costs so far have been estimated to be nearer £15 billion. In addition to that, just as Bob Blackman said, the money will not cover many of the defects that have now been found and the additional measures that have been demanded and required. My constituents are now being hit with potential bills from the developers—including the worst, Ballymore—for things such as rectifying wooden balconies and other defects that were not of their making. The idea of waiting for the Building Safety Bill is like “Waiting for Godot”, what with the time it takes to get the right type of Bill and then get the legislation through and implemented.
My constituents in lower-rise blocks do not see why they are being discriminated against. My constituents were blameless. They were failed by developers, regulators, suppliers of materials, inspectors—all of them. Many of those developers made fortunes out of developments in my constituency; it is they who should pay the cost of their own failures. I urge urgency, which is why I will support all the amendments that would protect leaseholders from being burdened with the debt caused by others who have failed us all.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to correct the historic wrongs, and I especially welcome my hon. Friend the Minister’s commitment to fundamentally change the culture in the building sector and to take a more robust, risk-based approach. Leaseholders are the innocent parties in this matter and rightly expect that the developers, builders and current landlords—some of whom were developers—along with the local building controllers, national regulators and component manufacturers, should be the ones to bear the costs.
My constituents have raised a range of their outstanding concerns that they feel still need to be addressed. They are concerned, first, that those responsible should take far more of the financial burden; secondly, that they have the unfair burden of massively increased insurance costs and waking watches; and thirdly, about the distinction between buildings above and below 18 metres and why they should be treated so differently.
To many people, a monthly cost of £50 may not be a great deal, but for many others who are already at their financial limit, the equivalent of a 13th month of mortgage payments is a huge burden that they can barely afford—if they can afford it. They want to be able to move on with their life—they may want to have a family, or move for work or for a whole range of other reasons—but they cannot. They feel trapped.
I am particularly concerned about the 18-metre distinction, especially because of the Cube fire in Bolton about 16 months ago. As it was 16 cm below the threshold, there were lower safety expectations for the cube, including regarding the requirement to have fire-resistant cladding. The Cube turned into an inferno in a matter of minutes, and if the carelessly discarded cigarette had been thrown at four o’clock in the morning rather than eight o’clock in the evening, we can only imagine the toll on the 217 residents. I urge the Minister to change the focus from 18 metres-plus, as with Grenfell, or 18 yards-plus, which would apply to the Cube, and to move towards taking a fully risk-based approach to dealing with this crisis, because ultimately this is about protecting lease- holders, who have done no wrong.
I too send my best wishes to James Brokenshire. I have told the Government repeatedly that many residents in Salford face exorbitant fire and safety remediation costs—up to £100,000 per flat in some cases. I told them that even buildings under 18 metres were failing EWS1, and that many residents were being forced to pay thousands for measures such as waking watch, and increased insurance premiums.
My constituents are devastated. Every day, bills for interim fire safety measures and increased insurance premiums rack up. They cannot move or sell; they struggle to get credit; and, worse, some may face bankruptcy or homelessness. It is so bad that the UK Cladding Action Group reports suicides nationally, and 23% of those surveyed by the group had considered suicide or self-harm. My constituents are victims of systemic regulatory failure or, worse, corporate malfeasance, but the Government are making the victims take responsibility. This has to end today. I say to the Minister that his Government have a moral duty to agree to legislate for the principle that residents and leaseholders should not pay for historical fire safety defects. I urge him to support amendments to that effect today; to ensure that the Government lead an urgent national effort to carry out fire safety remediation by June 2022; to forward-fund that work; and to reclaim the costs from those responsible and via a levy on new development.
I, too, thank the Government for the £5 billion that they have committed to targeting and helping to make safe these high-risk buildings. May we remember the lives lost in the Grenfell Tower tragedy. I thank my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan for all she has done to fight for justice for the Grenfell Tower survivors. I volunteered to help; I first went there two days after the fire. The tales of the fires that consumed the outward escape mechanisms because of the cladding, and of the way the building was encased with flames, are not something I have wanted to speak about, but I feel that it is appropriate to do so today, because I see that the Government are trying to bring some justice to the victims and to future-proof the safety of social tenants in tower blocks, and I thank them for that.
My concern is the long-term unintended consequences of the high levels of fire safety regulations for private leaseholders. They are often young men and women who have saved their whole life to buy their first home. Oftentimes the flat is in London, and as leaseholders, they are now unable to leave that flat. Many of my constituents have written to me about their children in London who have purchased a flat and are now trapped. They can no longer afford the soaring costs of their debts, and some have even moved home to their parents in Beaconsfield because they cannot afford the financial burdens they are now under as leaseholders. I hope that we can continue to address this issue long term, but I want to see this legislation passed and this first stage accomplished. I appreciate and sympathise with many of the amendments, but I would ask that we just move forward and support the Government to ensure that this first level of safety is on offer for residents across the UK.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. We are in the middle of a building safety crisis, and post Grenfell, we must all play our part in ensuring that no one is ever unsafe in their home again. The amendments we are discussing are a step in the right direction, and I urge my colleagues to support those that enhance protections for leaseholders, but the Bill is a missed opportunity to enshrine in law further amendments to protect leaseholders.
The issue I want to draw the House’s attention to is interim costs of temporary fire safety measures that leaseholders have to put in place while they wait for the start of long-term remedial work, such as the replacement of dangerous cladding. They have to put those measures in place, because they have been told by the fire authorities that their buildings are too unsafe to live in without them. The vast majority of these interim costs are not covered by any Government assistance, and hundreds of my leaseholder constituents in Vauxhall are already paying out, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
The amendment that I tabled to the Bill would have ensured that building owners could not pass these interim safety costs on to leaseholders. These costs are extortionate, involving eye-watering sums of money. Thousands of pounds are being paid by ordinary, working people, and it is money that they just do not have. How can that be right or fair? I am sure that my honourable colleagues do not need reminding that this building safety crisis was not caused by leaseholders. They are the innocent victims, caught between an industry that has failed them and a Government who are unwilling to go the full distance. Ensuring that leaseholders do not pay these interim costs is not only morally right, but essential if they are not to face financial hardship or ruin. The building industry and the Government must take full responsibility for protecting leaseholders from these interim costs. No leaseholder should have to pay a penny for making their home safe.
It is with deep sadness, but also with optimism, that I speak today—sadness because I recall only too clearly the shock of hearing about Grenfell Tower. That shock turned to horror when I went to pay my respects in person. I stood by those charred remains, the dense and acrid smoke heavy in the air, with an inescapable horror at the awareness of what was mingled in the smoke and the dust, at the horrendous loss of life, and at the harm to so many who still carry the terror and fear of that night.
Housing has been my lifelong passion and was my career before I came into Parliament. My interest in and deep commitment to it continues, as shown in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I chair the New Homes Quality Board, which is bringing in a new code of practice and a new homes ombudsman. It complements the serious and vital work of Dame Judith Hackitt on the building safety regulator, as well as the essential remit of the Fire Safety Bill.
This Bill is not the whole solution to the Grenfell tragedy, but it is an essential and important technical Bill that needs to be brought in as a matter of urgency. That is why today we must not confuse the purpose of this Bill and the immediate necessity of bringing in laws to protect every person in every constituency, whether they live in a terraced home, a bungalow, or a low, medium or high-rise building. Back in 2017, I called for leaseholders to be protected against remediation costs in high-rise buildings where cladding such as Grenfell’s had to be removed. I therefore welcome the Government making that happen through a £5 billion investment for that activity and for building safety; it is the right thing to do.
I called for changes in obligations, and for the ability of fire services, councils and Government to intervene in fire safety matters, so that where there were known problems—for example, with doors or common areas—they could be corrected. The Bill will put that right, and it will give authorities the power to intervene and protect lives. That is what the Bill is all about. I commend the actions of the Housing Secretary and the Government in recent months, and encourage them to look at a broader review of the rights of leaseholders and renters alike, but I welcome the Bill. It is the right thing to do, and it needs to be urgently concluded.
I have spoken previously on the nightmare facing residents in the Wicker Riverside complex in my constituency, who were evacuated before Christmas with no notice because of multiple fire safety failings. We got them back, and I thank Lord Greenhalgh for his assistance with that, but their problems remain. They face waking watch costs of up to £600 a month, which for some is almost twice their mortgage payments, and they are still waiting for huge bills for works that they anticipate will be needed to make their homes safe. Nearby leaseholders in Daisy Spring Works received a bill this week for £7,000 to cover compartmentation works, to be paid within 28 days, on top of £10,000 of previous costs, with bigger bills yet to come. In the Metis building, the removal of ACM cladding will be covered by Government funding, but leaseholders still face bills of up to £50,000 to make good other faults.
Of course, there are others across my constituency and the country who are in the same situation. In all these cases, they are expected to pay simply to make their homes safe by putting right the mistakes of others. That is the central wrong that we have an opportunity to remedy today by supporting the amendment of Stephen McPartland and the amendments tabled by those on the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that the Government will not try to prevent a vote, because Ministers know that there is a grave injustice here that must be remedied. They must know, too, in their hearts that the action they have taken so far falls well short of what is needed.
This is a huge problem. We should start from the basic principle that those who are responsible for the failings should be responsible for putting them right. In any other consumer purchase, a dangerous item would be recalled by the company that made it and repaired or replaced at no cost to the person who bought it. The same principle should apply here. Leaseholders in these buildings have not just been let down by developers; they were people who exercised due diligence, undertaking all the checks that were needed before they bought their flats, but they were let down by comprehensive regulatory failure, which was the responsibility of successive Governments. That is why we must step in and ensure that their homes are made safe as a matter of urgency. Of course we should seek to recover as much of the cost as possible from the developers and others responsible, but the principle must be that leaseholders pay nothing, either now or in the future, through any loan scheme. Many leaseholders have stretched their finances to the limits to buy these homes. Some have become bankrupt already, and others are facing ruin and unimaginable mental strain. This is wrong and we can begin to put it right today.
The cladding issue is of great importance to many of my constituents, particularly in Portishead. They understand that a balance must be struck between the problems of leaseholders caught in the cladding trap and the interests of taxpayers at a difficult time for the public finances. We know that the Government will publish more details of the financing scheme when further discussions with the Treasury are completed, so we still have time to make changes. Although it would be completely improper to ask the taxpayer to, in effect, sign a blank cheque, it has to be a basic principle that those who have to undertake changes purely as a result of change in government regulation should have any remediation underwritten. As these changes will affect dwellings irrespective of their height, such support should be available to all. Where changes are required not as a result of change in government regulation but because of faulty workmanship or frank dishonesty in the declaration of materials used, all costs should fall directly on developers, builders and insurers—indeed, there may be occasions when criminal sanctions are required. Although it is generally unacceptable for taxpayers to pay in these circumstances, there will have to be exceptions, particularly when the developers in question have gone out of business and leaseholders have no other options from which to seek redress.
We must also see a number of practical issues resolved, including through urgent Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors guidance on EWS1 certification and the speeding up of the training of qualified staff able to conduct EWS1 assessments. We need building societies and banks to take a realistic and constructive attitude to the buying and selling of these properties, especially when a taxpayer safety net is being deployed to provide greater certainty. We also need the Association of British Insurers to provide realistic guidance to its members, so that on top of the financial worries they already have leaseholders are not subjected to the added anxiety about the failure to insure their properties. As I have said in the House before, we have to ensure that surveys are factually accurate, as we have seen too many examples of shoddy practice that adds both financial cost and unnecessary worry for w the leaseholders concerned.
We all understand the problems facing the public finances and we all welcome the £5 billion of taxpayers’ money that the Government have already put forward. What we need to see as soon as possible are fair and equitable solutions for all those caught in a trap not of their own making.
Lords amendment 4 is about protecting blameless leaseholders from the extortionate costs of fire safety remediation. I tabled it initially in Committee and it has been re-tabled by Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Pinnock in the other place. I thank Stephen McPartland, Keir Starmer and their colleagues, who have improved upon it, and I support all these amendments. Hundreds of thousands of people affected by this fire safety scandal are counting on us to put our party political differences to one side and work across party lines to protect them. The Government have made three claims today. They say that this Lords amendment should not be dealt with now, that it is defective and that it will delay this Bill. Let us address those in turn.
First, the Government say this Bill is not the time and place to protect leaseholders, and that they should wait until the Building Safety Bill. The Government are wrong. From the date this Bill comes into force, leaseholders will be required to pay for any costs incurred consequent to a notice by a competent authority. If they receive a notice from a fire service or a local council in relation to the external wall of a building of two or more dwellings, those leaseholders will be liable to pay from day one of the Bill taking effect. Leaseholders cannot afford to be hit with huge costs, and that is why this Bill is exactly the right Bill to address the issue, and it is why leaseholders cannot wait any longer.
Secondly, the Government say that the various amendments under consideration today are defective. Well, why have they not proposed their own amendments to solve any defects? I first tabled this amendment on
Thirdly, the Government say this amendment could delay the Bill. With respect, that is a bit flippin’ rich, given that it has taken three and a half years to bring forward a Bill that extends to a whole two pages.
We cannot end the whole fire safety scandal today, but we can protect leaseholders from having to pay for it. I call on the Government to put all the amendments to a vote, and I call on all Members of this House to put our party differences to one side and to vote for them all.
I start by sending my very best wishes to my right hon. Friend James Brokenshire. We want to see him back soon, but it is good to see this Minister, my Hampshire neighbour, leading the debate today.
Owning your own home is a very British dream, but it has turned into a nightmare for thousands in the aftermath of Grenfell. That is why there is such strength of feeling across the House today. Our thoughts will always be with those lost in the Grenfell tragedy, with those who are grieving and with those who survived, but there are now thousands more who are dealing with the building safety consequences of those events.
In the UK it should not be high risk to buy a home in a block of flats built and marketed by a reputable house builder under strict building control regimes, only to find that the professional and regulatory checks have been a fiction. That is a situation in which hundreds of my constituents find themselves.
It is clear from today’s debate that no one wants residents to pay for this disgraceful behaviour, that there cannot be a blank cheque from Government, and that those who caused the problem have to pay for the works that are needed. The only question is how we achieve all that, so I warmly welcome the Government’s announcement of an additional £3.5 billion to fund remedial work, a grant scheme for low-rise buildings, a builders levy and a property developer tax. This will be of some reassurance to leaseholders, and a start to making sure that those responsible for the failings are made to pay for what they did wrong.
I accept the argument of my hon. Friend the Minister that this may not be the right place for further assurances on remediation costs and, given his undertaking to look at this further in the Building Safety Bill, I will pause my support for the amendments today. He has been constructive and helpful in his contribution.
In the meantime, the Government have to show how funding promises will work in practice. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for working with me to identify how funds will flow for the waking watch relief fund and remedial works. Making this work in practice has to be a ministerial priority in the coming weeks.
There also needs to be complete transparency from Homes England on which buildings have been accepted into the scheme, and that if eligible costs legitimately increase from the initial assessment, applicants can claim from the fund for a cost variation. Above all, these plans need to be in place as quickly as possible, and the Government need to tackle the insurance problems that many leaseholders now face.
Remediation works will not happen overnight, but it is in no one’s interest to delay this Bill, which includes provisions from my 2018 fire safety ten-minute rule Bill. If there is not clear progress, more action will be needed in the Building Safety Bill when it is considered later this year.
I rise to speak in support of Lords amendment 4 and the amendments tabled by those on the Labour Front Bench. I also express my support for what is colloquially coined the McPartland-Smith amendment. The common thread is to urge the Government to ensure that freeholders do not unjustly pass fire safety remediation costs on to leaseholders and residents. Too many of my constituents are living in dangerous homes, facing huge financial and legal liabilities for remediation of building safety defects not of their making. Too many are suffering anxiety and stress from living in blocks with ACM and other types of cladding, whether in New Providence Wharf, New Festival Quarter or Indescon Square, to name just a few. Residents have contacted me in despair, devastated that they have been hit with huge bills for work to make their buildings fire safe. They have described the nightmarish situation they are in, living in unsafe homes that they cannot sell, with no idea when they will be made safe. Meanwhile, developers such as Bellway and Ballymore have continued to make huge profits, thanks to Government inaction, privatisation, and deregulation of the housing sector.
The cladding scandal must end. How is it possible that so many residents are still living in blocks that are unsafe? This is the reality of what so many people are enduring on a day-to-day basis, trapped in a never-ending game of buck-passing between the Government and the developers. No one wants to take responsibility; no one wants to pay to resolve the situation; and each looks to the other to step up. However, what is clear and indisputable is that people in my constituency and all over the country bought homes in good faith to build their lives in. I urge the Government today to rethink their approach and finally do the right thing by people who are having a really difficult time, and support amendments to the Bill.
I also express support for Lords amendment 2, which would place robust requirements on building owners or managers, and implement recommendations from phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. We need to be sure that the Grenfell Tower fire never, ever happens again. Years have passed since the catastrophe, and still no one has been called to account. When will we ever get answers? When will victims ever get justice? The truth is that decisions stretching back years have led to the gutting of the UK’s fire safety regime, and the failure to regulate high-rise residential buildings properly for fire safety.
I conclude with this: our constituents and our communities need much more decisive action than we are getting from this Government. It is absolutely not fair that leaseholders or residents are left to pay for building safety works that have not arisen because of any fault on their part, and it is unacceptable that people continue to live in their current state of limbo in unsafe buildings. I plead with the Minister today to end this impasse, and finally do the right thing.
I am pleased to make a small, short contribution to this afternoon’s debate and, like so many others, wish my right hon. Friend James Brokenshire all the best.
For many in Wimbledon, the dream of home ownership —the aspiration to have a home—has gone from a dream to a nightmare because of these cladding and safety problems. I listened carefully to the Minister, and he is right: it is our duty to protect and provide legal certainty to leaseholders who are facing these issues through no fault of their own. As such, I warmly recognise and welcome the efforts of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Housing Minister, who have provided an extra £3.5 billion to make a total of £5 billion. I also recognise that this is for cladding, and that a number of other remedies will be required. On that basis, the principle must be that the defector must pay.
The Government have rightly said on a number of occasions that the costs must not fall on the leaseholder, and, in making the extra contribution to the fund, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that he was taking a risk-based approach. The approach for people living in buildings under 18 metres is supposedly similar. We are told there is going to be new guidance that will ensure that risk-based approach will happen, so that many buildings under 18 metres will not necessarily be within the scope of remediation, and that no one will pay more than £50 even if they are. However, we have no details. We have no guarantees that the banks and the insurers will respect these new assessments, and provide mortgages and decrease insurance costs. We have no guarantee that when the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors produces this guidance it will take precedence, and that the EWS1 forms will be produced.
The Government have said that the details of these schemes will be available shortly. However, until they are available, there is no certainty for leaseholders in blocks under 18 metres, and, as has already been said, they may become liable for costs earlier than that. My hon. Friend Royston Smith has already pointed out that this is not an unlimited ask of the Government; it is a specific ask, saying that those who caused the defects should pay.
I listened carefully to the Minister, and I will listen again, but I say to him that the Government could have provided some certainty today by agreeing to bring forward an amendment in the Building Safety Bill, or indeed an amendment that would have given a clear hint in this Bill. Until that happens, unfortunately, lease- holders in buildings under 18 metres will have no certainty, and they deserve it.
May I add my warm words to those of other Members in wishing the Minister for Security, James Brokenshire, a full and swift recovery?
I think that many constituents, from constituencies across the country, will struggle to understand some of the arguments and excuses that the Government have put forward today. I support the amendments tabled by hon. Friends on the Opposition side, and also those tabled by the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith), who made powerful speeches. To emphasise that, I have received an email during the course of the debate, from a leaseholder from a Conservative English constituency, in support of those amendments. He says, “I am a Conservative, and the Housing Department is a disaster in this regard.” That is the message that I am getting from people. Regardless of their political affiliation or where they live in the country, they want this resolved. They are living in anguish and uncertainty, and it is affecting their mental health. It is affecting key workers in our covid response. It is affecting people who are trying to support young families. It is just a completely untenable situation for them to find themselves in. I think they will find some of the excuses we have heard today very difficult to hear.
This is a national scandal that has been brewing for decades, and it needs urgent action to resolve it. It needs action across the United Kingdom, so it needs the UK Government to work constructively with the Welsh Government. They have worked constructively in preparing this Fire Safety Bill, so it was really disappointing the other day when the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government brushed off any questions about Wales, saying, “I don’t know what’s going on there”—or something to that effect—at the end of the debate. He simply has not answered any of the questions, or responded to a very reasonable letter from our Housing Minister in Wales, Julie James.
I have submitted a series of parliamentary questions over the past few weeks to try to get some clarity on the gateway 2 builder levy, the proposed new tax, and on related matters, and I have received completely opaque answers. That is simply not good enough for leaseholders who want those answers and want to know what support is coming from the UK Government to ensure that their concerns are dealt with, not least because many of these pre-date devolution. I hope that the Minister will be able to look constructively on my request for those meetings, and will be able to arrange urgent briefings on these matters between officials in the Welsh Government and the UK Government.
I must go back to one of the biggest problems, which is the developers. I have called them out before and will do it again. Companies such as Redrow, Laing O’Rourke and Taylor Whimpey need to be held accountable for this. They have been raking in billions in profits while building shoddy buildings, in relation to fire safety and building safety, and it is simply unacceptable that leaseholders might then be expected to pick up part of the cost. I am very pleased that the Welsh Government have confirmed unequivocally that they should not have to do that, but that requires working together across the UK—across the Union that the Minister and I support—to ensure that we deliver for them.
Lastly, we urgently need clarity on the EWSI issue, because it is still affecting lots of people and it is not getting through to the ground, and on insurance, working with the Association of British Insurers and others.
The comms with Tom Randall are a bit unstable, and we want to be absolutely certain that they are perfect, so we will go to Meg Hillier next.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; I was tempted for a moment to think that you were saying that I am just perfect.
I must first declare an interest, as I am a leaseholder in a building with dangerous cladding, but happily for me and my neighbours, our developer stood up and is paying for every aspect of the costs, which is what every developer should do, although clearly that is not the case. I, too, pay tribute to the Minister for Security, James Brokenshire, and commend him for his decisive action at the early stages of this challenge, when he issued a ministerial direction to ensure that ACM cladding was removed from blocks. He recognised that it would take too long legally to chase down who should pay, and in the meantime the urgency of the issue was so great that it needed to be done. I feel that sets the tone for what the Government should be doing.
I commend the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) for their work to try to maintain the profile of this issue, which is particularly difficult to do as a Back Bencher. I also align myself completely with my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty and my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn on the impact on residents. I am are not going to go into that, because I have repeated that many times and my constituents know that I understand their challenges.
This is the biggest consumer and fire safety failure in a generation. Both the Public Accounts Committee, which I chair, and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee have said that we need to make sure this is dealt with, and that we need to deal with the many challenges. I refer hon. Members to those reports. The housing association sector alone estimates £10 billion costs, so although I welcome the Government’s recent £3.6 billion injection, we know it is not going to be enough, and we are concerned about the £50 a month loan fee, on which I hope the Minister will come back to us at the end with a bit more information.
While ideally the taxpayer should not pay, the fact that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup recognised that that direction had to be made and that the Government needed to step in with taxpayers’ money sends, to me, a very clear signal that that is the very best way of approaching this. Yes, we should be recovering money from the developers, ultimately, but we need to get the Government to do that. The Government are not always very good at getting money back from the private sector, but I am sure we can work together, across parties, to support the Government in that endeavour.
I do welcome the Bill. It is right that it should be introduced, and I hear the heartfelt plea from Felicity Buchan. It is the right thing to do, but it contains an inherent contradiction: to implement it, work needs to be funded, because without that funding the Bill cannot be implemented. That is the problem, and that is why I support the amendments. I hope the Minister will come back, in his closing remarks, to explain what evaluation will be made about the £50 a month loan scheme. I refer him to the not great success of the green deal, which also put a charge on homes and failed badly. I would also like more detail and clarity on the timing of the building safety Bill, because all our constituents need that clarity.
The video link appears to be working. I call Tom Randall.
The Fire Safety Bill is a short Bill of seven clauses that amends the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. That order consolidated different pieces of fire safety legislation, and this Bill clarifies that the order applies to a building’s structure, external walls and any common parts. I am sympathetic to the aims of Lords amendment 4, but I am concerned that the fire safety order, or any Bill concerned with amendments to it, is not the appropriate legislative device to resolve the problem of remediation costs. The fire safety order is designed to place duties on the person who has some level of control in a premises to ensure that they identify the fire safety risks for the building for which they are responsible and, if necessary, put the relevant precautions in place.
I understand the Government are looking to the building safety Bill to address the issues raised in this amendment, and I agree that that would be a more relevant place to consider them. I also understand that the clauses, as drafted, would stop all remediation costs being passed on to leaseholders, including those that one might expect to be covered by service and maintenance charges, such as safety work required as a result of routine wear and tear. There is a further concern that the amendment, as drafted, could delay the implementation of the Bill itself and crucial measures to improve the fire safety regulatory system, including delaying recommendations from the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry.
I am, however, pleased that the Government are paying for the removal of unsafe cladding for leaseholders in all residential buildings of over 18 metres in England. As Dame Judith Hackitt, the independent adviser to the Government on building safety, has said:
“Statistics show…that buildings above 18 metres have a four times greater risk of fatality in the event of a serious fire than lower rise buildings”,
and these buildings are rightly being prioritised for funding. For lower-rise buildings of between four to six storeys, there is a lower risk to safety, and leaseholders will gain the new protection of having cladding removed with a generous scheme to pay for it through a long-term, low-interest, Government-backed finance arrangement, where leaseholders never pay more than £50 a month for cladding removal.
I appreciate that nothing can compensate for the horror of the prospect of being liable for the costs of remedial work following the joy of moving into one’s home, bought on the entirely reasonable assumption that the block it is in would have been built correctly. However, given the complexity of this issue and the fact that leaseholders face paralysis, this does offer a route forward. I believe that these measures will help provide some certainty and confidence in this part of the housing market so that the affected flats can be bought and sold again, which would be a significant step forward from where we are at the moment.
For these reasons, I hope that the Fire Safety Bill can reach the statute book quickly, together with the building safety Bill, so that we will have a comprehensive set of measures in place to correct past wrongs and also to move forward safely.
I welcome the steps the Government are taking to improve fire safety, including through this important Bill, which is critical in clarifying that fire risk assessments are updated to take account of external walls and flat entrance doors. The Bill provides clarity as to what needs to be covered in fire risk assessments and empowers fire and rescue services to confidently take enforcement action and hold building owners or managers to account if they have not complied with their duties in respect of these parts of the building.
The Bill is an important first legislative step in implementing the Grenfell inquiry phase 1 recommendations and one part of the Government’s major building and fire safety reform programme, which I warmly welcome. Building safety is the Government’s priority, and I am pleased that there is now an independent expert panel convened after Grenfell to consult on fire safety issues.
My concern over the amendments is that they would not be cost-free and would render the Bill legally unsound, so the Government would be unable to proceed. We would not be able to give fire and rescue services the powers they need to keep people safe. These powers have been needed for some time, as Grenfell has shown us, without any doubt. We would also not be able to proceed to implement the Grenfell inquiry phase 1 recommendations, and that would be a travesty. For the bereaved or for those who have worked closely with the survivors, to say that delaying this Bill would not be a welcome move is an understatement. There is clearly a lot at stake in not implementing this Bill. The Grenfell enquiry reinforced the fact that the Government needed to do more, and so to stall on this Bill would not reflect the Government’s own commitment to never see such a tragedy again.
On whether leaseholders should have to pay for defects, it is clear that there has been a lot of substandard work that should never have been passed and had circumnavigated fire safety standards. We need to recognise this by holding those responsible to account. None of us wants to see leaseholders foot the bill. We need to see the sector step up and foot the cost of the remediation. We should not forget that the Government stepped in and put £5 billion against these issues, not forgetting the extra £3.5 billion. This is £8.5 billion to support leaseholders in a very difficult situation. Leaseholders in buildings over 18 metres will not have to pay for the cost of remediation, and those in buildings between 11 and 18 metres no more than £50 per month, compared with what could have been thousands of pounds.
I wanted to speak in this debate as I strongly echo the words of my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan, who spoke so passionately earlier. We need to just get on with this Bill; surely we owe that to her constituents.
Any debate about fire safety should not just be about cladding, nor just about buildings over 18 metres high, as residents of the four-storey block, Richmond House, which burned down in just 11 minutes in 2019, would testify. Nor is just about leaseholders, as the students and tenants, as well as leaseholders, in the Paragon building in my constituency found when they were evicted last October with one week’s notice as their blocks were found to be too dangerous to live in. Both blocks were built by Berkeley Homes. Nor is it just about residential housing, as those in student flats in Bolton found when fire crawled up the sides of their building.
The fire safety crisis did not just start with the tragedy at Grenfell Tower; it has been growing for years. As a result, hundreds of thousands of residents and users of thousands of buildings live in fear of being caught in a fire, and leaseholders face bankruptcy in having to fund the costs. In her report on building regulations, Judith Hackitt summed up a
“mindset of doing things as cheaply as possible and passing on responsibility for problems and shortcomings”.
One could start with the deregulation of the building and fire safety standards that began in the ’80s, when building control services were opened up to the private sector so that building inspectors now price for work on the number of visits, so fewer visits mean a cheaper bid. Developers have been cutting costs for years, going for the cheapest materials and corner-cutting again and again on site. Then we have had the growing skills crisis in the construction industry. The Government ignored the recommendations of the inquiries into the Lakanal House and Shirley Towers fatal fires almost 10 years ago. Even now, there is the inability to train and accredit qualified fire safety inspectors who are needed to inspect the properties that in fact should never have been signed off as safe to occupy in the first place.
As I said, the scope of this Bill is far too limited. It is fiddling while too many of our constituents and their homes are at risk of burning, and leaseholders face unaffordable costs. Responsibility for sorting this should lie with those who are responsible—the Government and their friends in the construction sector. As other speakers have said, the Bill hardly scratches the surface of the crisis. It does not even implement the recommendations of phase 1 of the Grenfell inquiry.
Despite its limitations, I support the Bill, as well as the amendments tabled in the names of my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer, my right hon. Friend Nick Thomas-Symonds, my hon. Friend Sarah Jones, and Stephen McPartland.
The tragedy of Grenfell should never have happened, and the lessons we have learned are not ones we can ignore. I am glad that, today and over the past few years, we have found consensus in the House that fire safety and the regulatory system should be improved, even if not about the pace of implementing those reforms. I welcome the clear commitment from my Treasury colleagues in putting together a comprehensive solution to make homes safe, while protecting leaseholders from unaffordable costs.
As has been highlighted, more than £5 billion has been put into remediation. Does my hon. Friend agree that taxpayer contributions are finite, and that we cannot at this time be giving a tax bombshell to everyone across the country?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. He is right. We are operating within a financial envelope, and one of the most pleasing things about the intervention from the Treasury announced last week is that it is what we would probably call an “elegant” financial solution. The transfer of risk away from the leaseholder to the building, combined with capping repayments at £50 a month, is possibly the most generous and neatest way that the Treasury could do that, and in effect it has gone a long way to protecting leaseholders from those unaffordable costs.
We have all been working towards a comprehensive solution for redressing those defects and reforming safety practices in the industry, in order to ensure that the heart-breaking events of Grenfell never happen again. The Bill is a key part of that, and significant progress has been made across the board, with ACM cladding either removed or in the process of being removed from every building in the social sector, and work on private sector buildings taking place at pace.
I also welcome the agreement on EWS1 forms, which will provide much-needed reassurance to leaseholders. We need such reassurance so that leaseholders face fewer burdens when they are trying to get on with their lives. We sometimes forget that we are here for people who have lives and worries, and we need to get out of their way and let them get on with their lives. These measures go a long way to addressing leaseholders’ largest concerns. This Bill and the draft Building Safety Bill are big bits of government, and more bits of government will be added. However, it is all necessary. Reference has already been made to the pre-legislative scrutiny carried out by the Select Committee, of which I was part. It was a big bit of government, but it is all necessary.
This scandal has highlighted the security of everyone living in buildings, and that must be the principal concern of this Bill and the draft Building Safety Bill. We must protect people’s lives where they are most at risk. There are some well-meaning amendments to the Bill but, as my hon. Friend Gareth Davies noted, they would slow down the pace of the Bill’s implementation. I do not want to see the Bill frustrated. It is crucial to building safety that we get it up and running. We have heard in this debate about the difference between pace and speed, and about getting it right. We need to get this right.
I support Lords amendment 2, and I hope we will be able to vote on the amendments that Members have tabled. I also hope the Government will finally honour the promises to leaseholders that they have been making for the past three years, and this Bill is an opportunity to do that.
I want to draw the attention of the House to a problem facing hundreds of my constituents living in flats recently built by Barratt at Waterside Park alongside the Thames and Upton Gardens on the site of the Boleyn Ground, where West Ham used to play. Freeholds have since been bought from Barratt by Aviva. The landlord agent is Mainstay, and the property manager is FirstPort. The buildings in both developments have a B1 EWS1 certificate. There is combustible material in the walling, but the risk is not sufficient to warrant requiring its replacement. The combustible material is in a vapour layer within the structure. That material is still being used in buildings being built now, and there has been no suggestion that builders should stop using it. Leaseholders in the development have had no problems in obtaining a mortgage, given the B1 certification.
These buildings clearly do not meet the criteria for the Government’s cladding fund. Nevertheless, the property managers made an application for funding to replace this combustible vapour layer. In the case of Upton Gardens, the application has been refused. In the case of Waterside Park, the decision is still awaited, but presumably that will be refused as well. However, the property managers appear poised to embark on replacing this combustible material at an estimated cost of £30,000 per flat, which they will charge to the leaseholders. They have appointed contractors and paid for preliminary work already, although work has not yet begun in earnest. The material to be replaced is being used in buildings being built at the moment. There is no requirement to replace it, and the residents do not want to fund its replacement, so why is replacement poised to go ahead? The only motivation the leaseholders have been able to identify is to provide fee income for the managers.
Will the Minister state clearly today that buildings with B1 certification should not be remediated without agreement of the leaseholders? At the start of the debate, he said that 95% of high-rise buildings with unsafe ACM cladding have either been remediated or have workers on site doing the job. Can he tell us the actual figures? How many buildings have been remediated? How many buildings have workers on site? My constituents would be very interested to hear those numbers.
This is a short but critical Bill. The Lords amendments, while well-intended, are inappropriate for the Bill and would require the drafting of primary legislation to make them legally workable. To make things worse, if these amendments were added to the Bill, both the Government and the taxpayer could be exposed to action by the owners of these buildings. That must be avoided, and therefore the Bill must be watertight. It would be quite wrong if we had to withdraw the Bill because of this.
Those undertaking inspections and assessments need clarity, and the key to that is to keep the Bill short. It would also be wrong to delay the implementation of the judge’s recommendations from the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry, which the amendments would potentially cause. Legal advice must be accepted and forms the basis for making good on our promises, as does the input of independent experts.
Decisive action must be taken. The extra £3.5 billion committed by the Government, bringing total funding to £5 billion, is to be welcomed. This has culminated in a commitment to fully fund the replacement of unsafe cladding for all leaseholders in residential buildings of 18 metres and higher. While that is not the case for buildings between 11 and 18 metres, the new scheme will protect against unaffordable costs and limit them to £50 per month towards remediations. That also gives reassurance to banks and mortgage lenders. The new developer levy will ensure that developers make a contribution, and Gateway 2 should raise an extra £2 billion towards this.
As has been stated before, the Building Safety Bill will provide a new era of accountability for managing risk with the construction of these buildings. There will be tougher sanctions for those who fail to meet their obligations and a guarantee that it is they, not the taxpayer or leaseholders, who will remedy that. The Bill will also ensure that there is more transparency about the cost of maintaining a safe building, such as in the annual service charge. It is right that reasonable limits are placed on those charges and that leaseholders are protected from large-scale remediation costs. The Association of British Insurers has also backed the Government’s stance, as has Dame Judith Hackitt, the Government’s independent adviser on building safety.
The replacement of unsafe cladding and other remedial works must be taken seriously. The Fire Safety Bill alone cannot remedy that. Therefore, although these well-intentioned amendments are not appropriate, the wider approach must be considered and, indeed, welcomed.
Nearly four years after the terrible Grenfell disaster, it is shameful that people are still living in unsafe buildings. More than 50% of blocks identified as having unsafe cladding have either not started or not completed remediation. That is causing sleepless nights for many across the country and deep anxiety about the threat of huge financial costs. The Government have failed to step in to protect leaseholders. The Minister said that these issues should be dealt with in another piece of legislation, but that comes across to the public as simply an excuse to kick these issues further down the road. As other Members have said, they are affecting our constituents now and should be tackled now.
I speak in support of the amendments in the names of the Leader of the Opposition, my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi and the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith). Although the Government announced additional funding for cladding remediation on
Luton South constituents have told me that living with the threat to their safety and facing exorbitant remediation costs has severely impacted their mental health. Some are on the brink of bankruptcy as they are unable to cover the cost or sell their homes. That is an issue across the country. Seventeen per cent. of respondents to an Inside Housing survey said that they are exploring bankrupts.
Let us be clear who we are talking about. The people affected are social workers, teachers, nurses and other key workers in our communities. Many are first-time buyers. It is unjust to leave leaseholders to bear the costs. Leaseholders bought their properties in good faith, and were unaware of the failures of the regulatory system. The Government must deliver on their promise to keep the public safe by urgently remediating the remaining unsafe buildings, ensuring that leaseholders do not have to foot the bill and implementing the recommendations from phase 1 of the Grenfell tower inquiry.
All that many people seek is certainty, an assurance that they will not face unaffordable costs and the confidence that they are not trapped in a home they cannot sell. The Government have worked hard to deliver that. There has been clear action to make the most unsafe buildings secure, and they are fully funding the replacement of cladding from buildings deemed by independent expert assessment as the highest risk, ultimately with no cost to the leaseholders. That is what we are discussing today.
We have talked a lot about taxpayers’ money in this debate, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is also right that the Government work with the industry, the construction sector, financial services providers and the insurance industry to find ways of making sure those parts of the private sector can also contribute?
Before coming to this place, I worked as an insurance broker, so I do know a thing or two about the insurance industry. One of the things that came up for those properties most likely to flood was the Flood Re scheme. I urge Ministers in the Treasury and on the Front Bench today to see what they can do with the insurance sector to bring in a similar scheme for the affected properties.
It is right that public money has been committed to those buildings most at risk. As has been discussed many times already in this debate, those over 18 metres are at four times the risk of any other property, so it is right that we are tackling those to begin with. I know there are calls for more money to be made available, but there is a balance to be struck and accommodations to be made. As has been said already, public finances are finite and we cannot create a further tax bombshell at this time for those who are struggling across the country, who are not all leaseholders.
There is no such thing as Government money—it is taxpayers’ money—so we need to find the right balance, and so far we have found the middle ground. Yes, we can do more. The Building Safety Bill, which has been discussed previously, will be a good avenue to address some of those further concerns, as next week’s Budget may be. It is right to contemplate these things in a broader spectrum, rather than just making a knee-jerk reaction to this Bill today.
We all have a responsibility to strike a fair settlement, to balance concerns and to find a way to ensure for people affected by this scandal that safety and security are the No. 1 priority. We also have a duty to consider, particularly in a difficult economic environment, the spending of taxpayers’ money. We should consider that many taxpayers are not homeowners and ask whether it is fair to ask them to step in.
We must remember why the Government introduced the Bill in the first place, and why its scope is so focused and specific in what it is designed to achieve. The focus of this legislation is, as should be clear, safety—ensuring that those responsible for fire safety and the safety of those living in their buildings know their duties and are held to those duties. Leaseholders, building owners and the taxpayer deserve a solid legislative base with clarity.
I am listening carefully to what my hon. Friend is saying, and he has mentioned the taxpayer several times. I said in my opening remarks, as did my hon. Friend Stephen McPartland, that our amendment would not put any burden on the taxpayer. If my hon. Friend is worried about the taxpayer, as I am, and we are saying that the taxpayer will not be responsible, will he therefore say that we should protect all the leaseholders?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Unfortunately, I think there cannot be a guarantee. A lot of the developers may no longer exist and insurance schemes may no longer be applicable. There will be gaps, and we do have to be responsible. Although his amendment is very well intentioned, and I am incredibly sympathetic towards it, there are gaps in it, and that is why, unfortunately, I will not be able to join him in the Lobby today, although I very much applaud the sentiment of it and the work he has put into it.
Leaseholders, building owners and taxpayers deserve a solid legislative base. That is what we are trying to do today by making sure that our properties and our leaseholders are safe. That is why we need to focus on those who are most likely to be affected. I do not want to see the Bill’s implementation frustrated. It has already taken far too long to get to this point, and we need to ensure that we can proceed.
As has been said many times, including by my hon. Friend Ben Everitt and the Minister, we have a duty: do we get this right, or do we do it quick? From my perspective, we need to get it right. Far too many people have fallen through the gaps, are struggling and are unable to afford this, so it is right that we take a fully reasoned approach, speaking to experts and to all trade bodies to ensure that we get it right. That is what I urge Ministers, the Treasury and everyone else to continue to do. I finish by thanking all Members for bringing forward some of these amendments. They do not quite deal with the Bill at hand. That is why I will not be able to support them and will be backing the Government today.
I am speaking in utter frustration, having heard many of the comments so far in the debate today, I am speaking in support of the amendments tabled by the Opposition and by the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith), and I am speaking on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of leaseholders, including in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields, who are staring down the barrel of this scandal. And I thank the cladding action campaigners across the country.
I welcome the Bill, but it is too small and too slow. There is frustration across the House of Commons today. We can do this right and do it faster, and we must. Today, we had another statement of support for leaseholders from the Minister, who said that he agrees with the intent to give leaseholders peace of mind and financial certainty, yet the Government did not write that into the Bill and are not supporting the amendments. No leaseholders of buildings of any height should be made to foot a bill of thousands of pounds that they cannot afford.
At the sharp end of the failings of this Bill are millions of leaseholders trapped in unsafe homes who are suffering enormous stress, anxiety and emotional anguish, and who feel totally abandoned. I have met many of them in my constituency. Their lives are on pause and might be for years. This is what some have told me. One said:
“As every day, week or month goes by, our financial liability and stability become ever more disturbing and deeply troubling. When will it end?
Another resident, who bought her flat using money inherited from her mother’s passing, said to me:
“Despite my emotional attachment to my flat, current circumstances make me almost wish that I had never bought it. It is a burden and a hindrance to me moving forward with the next stage of my life, at a prime time when I want to start a family.”
Another resident, a victim of domestic violence, has been trying to sell her property to raise money for legal fees. She has had to receive food parcels due to lost income during the pandemic. Her insurance premiums have now increased by 500%. Under no circumstances should leaseholders, regardless of the height of their building, have to pay for cladding remediation costs that are the fault of developers and a failed regulatory system. Funding should be based on fire risk, not on height. It should include upfront costs—it should not be loans—for all leaseholders and it should include other fire safety issues. Some Putney leaseholders face up to £100,000 in charges.
At the current pace of spend, the building safety fund, which has only approved 12 applications, will only approve all the applications—the 532 applications—by 2031. The pace of change is far too slow, so I urge colleagues on both sides of the House: please do the right thing today, back the British people and make sure that lease- holders do not pay.
One of the lessons from the Grenfell tragedy was that a number of companies in the construction sector had been recklessly gaming the system, resulting in unsafe materials being used. But crucially, construction and post-occupancy inspections did not pick up those risks.
As someone who worked in oil and gas and then in construction over several years, I can see the very different approach taken by the two sectors. Many of our constituents who live in leasehold flats face significant costs, such as waking watch costs and several other fire risk liabilities not related to cladding. The new £30 million waking watch relief fund, the £1.6 billion remediation funding and the commitment to recruit hundreds of specialist risk assessors and specialist workers show that this Government are committed to resolving the problem and to supporting people stranded in their property through no fault of their own.
I wish to raise issues brought to me by a constituent. At present, buildings over 18 metres will have all cladding remedial work paid for by the Government. Those in buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres will be offered a loan, with residents in buildings lower than 11 metres receiving no financial support at all, the latter being the situation my constituent’s daughter finds herself in. Although it is right to target remediation first at highest-risk buildings, there is a question of fairness as to who pays if a person happens to have purchased a building that is not as tall.
In addition to the removal of cladding, inspections have highlighted further building faults, such as missing firebreaks, wooden balconies and combustible insulation. The repair costs alone could be in excess of £25,000 per flat. There is no provision for support with these repairs, which will be required before a fire safety certificate can be issued, allowing the resident to eventually sell their home. They would not have been privy to these liabilities as the conveyancing process would not have highlighted the possibility of these risks existing at point of purchase. Risk awareness at the conveyancing stage is something that I raised in my ten-minute rule Bill.
Fire safety officers should not only be competent by the certifications that they hold; they should be present and responsible for sign-off on site at all key stages. While the amendments before us were tabled with good intentions, we cannot delay the Bill any longer. I hope that Ministers will consider a post-construction and occupancy model for fire safety, much as gas and electrical checks are carried out, to pick up on changes to the fabric of a building that could be made over time.
Thank you, Marco. We lost your video early on, but we could hear you perfectly.
I welcome the Bill but, nearly four years after the Grenfell disaster and despite assurances by the Government, hundreds of thousands of people are still living with the fear that they could be next. It is a scandal that this is the first and only piece of primary legislation on fire safety that this Tory Government have brought forward to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again.
In Liverpool, 10% of buildings are still covered in highly flammable cladding, with a further 5% covered in fire-retardant cladding. Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service has suffered a 35% cut to its funding and lost one third of its firefighters since 2010. Austerity has combined with roll-backs and safety regulations to make a perfect storm.
Time and again, we have heard promise after promise that the recommendations of the first phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry will be fully implemented, yet the Bill does not include a single recommendation from the inquiry’s first phase. Does the Minister agree that his Government have fundamentally failed to take the necessary steps to keep people safe in their own homes?
Today, and for months now, we have heard from Members across the House about the nightmare situations faced by many leaseholders across the country who have been left physically, mentally and financially trapped in dangerous housing. Many of my constituents have contacted me for support. They are worried sick about being trapped in unsafe housing, crippled by costs they did not incur and with no end in sight.
One pensioner wrote to tell me that he had just been sent a bill for £20,000. He has no savings and no possibility of paying the bill. Two young NHS doctors want to sell up and take positions in hospitals in the north-east, but they cannot; they are trapped in a flat they cannot sell, faced with the possibility of mounting debts due to flammable cladding that they did not install.
I ask the Minister how he sleeps at night, knowing that his Government’s move to cut red tape has left hundreds of thousands at risk in their own homes, and how he can justify asking the leaseholders of those unsafe homes to foot the bill. It is the responsibility of this Government to identify the buildings covered in dangerous cladding and make them safe before another disaster occurs, and to bring the companies that profited from cutting corners and compromising the safety of residents to justice.
Enough is enough. We are now at a crisis point. Instead of further delays and prevarication, I call on Members across the House to do the right thing today and back Lords amendments 2 and 4 so that we can get a grip of this crisis before it is too late.
The first surgery I ever had as a Member of Parliament was about the issue of cladding. It was with residents of St Francis Tower in Ipswich. They were being chased for bills of thousands of pounds for unsafe cladding that they had nothing to do with; it was not their fault. Since that first meeting, there has been case after case after case after case. It is a huge issue in Ipswich, a huge issue in my constituency, and it is destroying the lives of many of my constituents. That is why I am speaking here today.
There has been a significant move forward since that first meeting; since that first surgery appointment, we have moved forward. The £5 billion support has helped many of my constituents. The waking watch fund, although I do not think it will be enough, is a step in the right direction—we are getting there—and the Building Safety Bill is itself 100% necessary and welcome. However, I am still at a point right now where there are a significant number of my constituents who are leaseholders, often living in buildings over 18 metres, where there are significant issues to do with fire safety that will cost thousands of pounds to remedy, as my hon. Friend Marco Longhi has just touched on, and the support announced recently does not cover them. So they continue to have this uncertainty hanging over them, not just at a regular time but during a pandemic, when, more often than not, they have a million and one other concerns and anxieties influencing their lives. Ultimately, that is why I believe that we have moved significantly forward. I am very interested in the possibility that a Building Safety Bill will pick up on the issue and make sure that we address those leaseholders who are living in buildings that are unsafe and where there are significant issues and significant costs are currently being placed on them. It is not specifically about cladding; there are other issues and other factors that make these properties unsafe.
As the Member of Parliament for Ipswich, I realise that this is a huge issue. I need to have assurances that the Building Safety Bill will cover those constituents and give them certainty, because I made a promise to my constituents when I met them that I would leave no leaseholder behind, and I take my commitment as a Member of Parliament very seriously. I promised them—I looked them in the eye and I said, “I won’t leave any of you behind.” Sadly, there are still a significant number of those constituents who feel like they are left behind, because they are. It is our duty, I believe, to alleviate that and, for that reason, my name is on the amendment put forward by my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) and for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland).
The subject of the debate we are having today—worries about fire safety—has, I am afraid, blighted far too many lives for far too long. That is why this is a particularly important Bill. It is short, it has a very clear purpose, and we need to implement it as quickly as possible. Why? It is 16 months since the first report from the Grenfell Tower inquiry was published, and we need to get a robust piece of legislation on to the statute book to deal with the fire safety issues identified. We owe it to that community to address these issues in a way that will not be open to legal challenge and that brings to a halt the to-ing and fro-ing between this place and the other, which will delay the changes that are needed.
With this Fire Safety Bill, we have rightly had the consultation on fire safety orders, and that now needs to be enacted. At the same time, we have the Building Safety Bill. That needs to come to this House so that many of the issues that are understandably being debated today can be resolved in that legislation. This is about doing things in the right way, so that they are not able to be challenged in the courts in future.
I am not taking away anything at all from the many leaseholders who bought their homes in good faith, trusting developers to build a safe home and purchasing with what they believed to be confidence that all had been done in accordance with the law. My constituency does not have any buildings over the height of 18 metres that require remediation, and we are not hit by the same issues as, say, cities such as Manchester or Liverpool. However, I have constituents with families and friends who are desperately worried about their loved ones’ safety and the costs of potential remediation, because they have used some of their savings to invest in a property to give them a future income.
I welcome the £5 billion already put forward by the Government to begin to allow some of the issues to be addressed, with a commitment to funding all buildings over 18 metres high. I welcome the clear indication today from the Minister that Government will work with hon. Members to address the many concerns being raised through the forthcoming Building Safety Bill. We must also recognise the daily worries and distress among people who have been caught in this nightmare situation. The Government now have an opportunity to show how funding promises will work in practice. In fact, it should be a ministerial priority.
To conclude, I echo the words of my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan: this Bill is the first step, and we need to get on with it.
To follow on from Andy Carter, I cannot believe the Government think that this is the end of the matter, and I do not understand why they will not commit now to meeting the needs of all of those whose lives have been blighted through no fault of their own. This is a colossal injustice and a very simple one to solve: the Government just need to make sure that it is not those blameless people who bear the burden.
People bought their leasehold properties in good faith. They are in the situation that they are in—those properties are unsafe—through no fault of the owners and entirely through the fault of the developers, the regulatory framework and the Governments of various colours over the years who permitted unsafe buildings to be built. How outrageous would it be if the blameless and the poorest were left to pay the burden and the bill? The reality is that so many leaseholders in my constituency and elsewhere throughout the country are in no position to move and cannot sell. They are at their wits’ end and they are facing the end of their financial resources, too.
The Government say they will fund the making safe of blocks that are higher than 18 metres, but actually that funding relates only to the cladding of those buildings; it does not cover other things that may make those buildings unsafe. What about wooden balconies or cement particle board behind the cladding? That also needs to be covered. Those in buildings that are higher than 11 metres but lower than 18 metres will potentially have to take out colossal debts to pay privately for the work required to make their properties safe. Those who own flats in buildings that are smaller than 11 metres get no support whatsoever. The vast majority, if not all, of the relevant properties in constituencies like ours, Mr Deputy Speaker—I bet it is similar in your constituency—are much smaller than 11 metres. The provisions in the Bill ignore in particular those in rural communities who are in need.
It is a massive injustice that we should be forcing people to be fretting, worrying and facing bankruptcy and all sorts of other challenges to their lives because of a burden that is not their fault, that they cannot afford and for which the Government are refusing to pay. As things stand, the Government will meet the costs of the removal and making safe of cladding on properties that account for only 13% of those affected and less than a third of the costs, and leave the massive majority of the burden on people who are blameless and the poorest. That is unjust, and that is why the Bill needs amending.
It is a pleasure to follow Tim Farron. Like many other Members, I extend my best wishes to my right hon. Friend James Brokenshire. We all hope to see him back in his place as soon as possible.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. This is the first opportunity I have had to speak on this extremely important Bill, and naturally my thoughts turn to the unimaginable tragedy of Grenfell Tower, which none of us will forget—it shocked and horrified us all throughout the country. I know that the Government are gripped by a determination to right the wrongs of the past and to bring about the biggest improvement to building safety in a generation, to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.
While I am speaking about Grenfell, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan and her speech earlier. She is right that we need to get on with it rather than muck about with parliamentary procedure. That brings me to the reason why I support the Government’s positions today. The Queen’s Speech committed the Government to introducing two Bills on fire and building safety. This Bill, the first, is straightforward but is nevertheless an important step. I very much await the second Bill, the Building Safety Bill. We have to get things right in the right order, and we have to proceed as quickly as possible.
On the substance of this Bill, I certainly welcome the policy intention. It is a profoundly important step towards remedying the flaws in the building safety regime that were identified in the Hackitt report. It is a narrowly drafted Bill, but it enables legal certainty. When the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee did pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, we heard a lot of evidence suggesting that it was a compelling vision for the future of the industry. The Fire Action Safety Group called it “a positive first step”—I recognise that the group said “first step”—and the London Fire Brigade said it went
“a long way towards meeting the policy objective of a robust regime.”
On that, I think we can all agree.
There are, though, other issues in respect of the remediation of safety problems. I am sure I am not alone in having received emails from a number of leaseholders worried about the unaffordable costs of remediation. They are uncertain and worried, and some face negative equity. I agree with those who have said today that nobody should be in such a position. I can only imagine how I would have felt in my 20s or 30s if I had received a letter suggesting that I had a liability of tens of thousands of pounds. I do not minimise those concerns. However, I do take the Government at face value when they say that the Bill, as drafted, does not have the necessary legislative detail to underpin the amendments in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith)—a problem my hon. Friend the Minister referred to in his opening speech. Accepting these amendments would require extensive drafting of primary legislation to make them legally workable. That would significantly delay the implementation of the Bill, and I am concerned about the consequences of that.
It is clear that high-rise buildings in this country should never have been fitted with this dangerous, unsafe cladding. It is vital that we take the steps to make this right once and for all—making those buildings safer and protecting residents from crippling costs—and at a pace that the severity of the situation demands. We must ensure that Grenfell can never, ever happen again.
I thank the many Members who contributed to this at times impassioned debate about a matter that is of interest to all of us. I know that my fellow Ministers at the Home Office and, indeed, at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will take on board the many points raised. Given the time available to me, I apologise that I am not able to address all the questions put forward. However, I will turn to some of the main themes that have dominated the debate, not least the remediation issue, about which there has been such natural and understandable focus.
It might be worth restating at the beginning the broad task that lies ahead of us as a House and, indeed, as a Government. It falls in three areas. First, we have to deal with remediation as quickly as possible. We talked a lot about that today, and about how we can perhaps increase the pace. Obviously there have been significant steps recently, not least the money that has been put forward. Secondly, we have to restore a proper appreciation of risk and value to affected properties, so that the finance industry and insurance industry can do their work in enabling the transfer of those properties and their protection correctly, rather than the current “computer says no” system.
The Minister mentions the time that this will take. Whatever money is put forward, it will take five or 10 years to remediate many buildings. Insurance costs have quadrupled for many residents. There is a solution on the table, provided by the Association of Residential Managing Agents, in which the Government take a top-sliced risk, which would put those premiums back down. Will he look at that proposal and see whether that could be put in place to ease the burden on many leaseholders?
Secretary of State—sorry; Mr Deputy Speaker. You never know. My hon. Friend raises, as usual, a constructive point. I know that the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and, indeed, the Chancellor are meeting with banks and the insurance industry to see what solutions may come forward. The third strand of work is obviously to build a system of building safety and regulation for the future, so that the terrible tragedy of Grenfell can never happen again.
I turn to some of the questions asked. First, I was asked, not least by Sarah Jones, why we cannot give a firm timetable for the building safety legislation programme. I recognise that there is an intent and a desire for certainty, and we want to legislate at the earliest possible opportunity. However, Members should also be aware that making these fundamental reforms to building safety is incredibly complex, so it is important that we get this right, as a number of Members raised, by ensuring that our measures are properly scrutinised by experts and Parliament before we legislate.
The Building Safety Bill has more than 140 clauses, and I cannot prejudge the time that Parliament will need to properly scrutinise this important piece of legislation before it is put on the statute book. It is for that reason that I cannot provide specific dates for when legislation will come into force, but I emphasise again that the Government are as committed as ever to delivering the inquiry’s recommendations. We will bring the Fire Safety Bill into force as early as possible after Royal Assent. The regulations will follow as early as practicable, and we expect the Building Safety Bill to be introduced after the Government have considered the recommendations from the HCLG Committee, and when parliamentary time allows. We are therefore resisting the Labour amendment, for the extensive reasons that I mentioned in my opening speech. We think it is unnecessary and inflexible. I restated various points as to why we think that is the case earlier.
I turn to remediation, and particularly the amendments laid by my hon. Friend Stephen McPartland and my good and hon. friend Royston Smith. We recognise that they care deeply about this issue, as do many Members from across the House, and they have obviously worked hard to represent their constituencies with dedication and passion. Having sat with leaseholders, in my role as Housing Minister, and with the bereaved and survivors of the Grenfell community, I am aware, as of course we all are, of the terrible anguish and worry that this has caused to many. We agree with the intent to give leaseholders the peace of mind and financial certainty they crave.
The funding the Government have given to leaseholders is unprecedented. In total, we have supported them to the tune of £5 billion. That is a very significant commitment indeed. It means that the Government will pay for the removal of unsafe cladding where people are in a building of over 18 metres. It means that people who live in a building of between 11 metres and 18 metres in height and need to remove unsafe cladding will never have to pay more than £50 a month. That is certainty and clarity that leaseholders have asked for and we have provided. As my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake pointed out, this is a complex area, where we are more than happy to continue conversations with my hon. Friends and others as we move towards the Building Safety Bill.
A number of Members, not least my hon. Friend Chris Green, my right hon. Friend Dr Fox and my hon. Friend Marco Longhi, raised the issue of height, and there was a focus on 18-metre buildings. We have rightly focused on those above 18 metres with unsafe cladding for the most generous and comprehensive support package. The Department’s position on this has been set out on a range of guidance. It has not changed and remains clear: we are taking a proportionate approach to fire safety, based on long-standing expert advice. The importance of height alongside use as a risk factor is recognised around the globe. The number of people potentially exposed to a fire increases with the height of the building, and at greater heights firefighting and rescue becomes more challenging. In this country, 18 metres is the height at which building standards become more restrictive and presumptions about firefighting tactics change. The advice from the expert panel recognises that the risk from cladding fires reduces for lower-rise buildings.
Finally, let me turn to the broad issue of where the measure or debate should happen and whether this is the right Bill for that, which was raised by a number of Members, not least by my hon. Friend Mrs Elphicke and, in particular, my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan. I know that she has been working extremely hard on this issue, with some dedication, not surprisingly, given that Grenfell Tower lies in her constituency—it also lies in my former London Assembly constituency. I pay tribute to the work she has done alongside that community to push the Government and challenge us to do better and go faster all the time. Both those Members and others made the point that this Bill is not the correct vehicle to address the matter. As I said earlier, this is a short but crucial Bill to ensure that fire risk assessments are updated to take account of external walls and flat entrance doors. The Building Safety Bill is the appropriate legislative mechanism for addressing the other issue, and it will be addressed in the spring. That Bill will contain the detailed and complex provisions that are needed to address remediation costs.
It might be worth my rehearsing what will come in that Bill, just to outline its complexity. It will produce a new national building safety regulator to enforce a more stringent regime for high-risk buildings, to oversee safety and the standards of all buildings, and enhance industry and regulatory competence. It will introduce clearer accountability for and stronger duties on those responsible for the safety of buildings in scope of the new more stringent regulatory regime through design, construction and occupation. It will give residents a stronger voice in the system, ensuring that their concerns are never ignored. It will create a stronger enforcement and sanctions regime to deter non-compliance with the new regime, along with regulatory resources to use sanctions effectively. It will put in place a new stronger and clearer framework to provide national oversight of construction products to ensure that all products meet high performance standards. It will also introduce a requirement that developers of new build housing belong to a new homes ombudsman and removal the need for social housing residents to pass through the democratic filter in order to access the housing ombudsman. Members will recognise that this is an extremely complex piece of work and we think that for us to try to reproduce that in what is meant to be a short, technical Bill to kick off this process of work would be an incorrect way to go.
However, our programme of work outside this House is not limited just to legislation. As I said earlier, we have a £5 billion investment in building safety, including the £3.5 billion announced on
Three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (
Question agreed to.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (