Fire and Building Safety (Public Inquiry)

– in the House of Commons at 2:35 pm on 6th July 2021.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education) 2:36 pm, 6th July 2021

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish an independent public inquiry into the Government’s response to concerns about fire and building safety.

This Bill would not duplicate or undermine the ongoing and essential work of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, and nor would it repeat any of the Hackitt review into building and fire safety regulation. What the Bill seeks to do, however, is compel the Government to establish an independent inquiry into their handling of the fire safety crisis.

It is now more than four years since the horrific loss of life at Grenfell Tower, yet the Government’s handling of the fire safety crisis has become a national scandal of epic proportions. Tens of thousands of innocent people deserve to understand how and why, after four years, they are still trapped in homes that are not safe and that they cannot sell. They deserve to know why they are facing bankruptcy from bills they cannot afford, with their mental health left in tatters. They deserve to know the Government’s real motivations, because fire safety victims have had to battle the Government again and again for four years, and at every twist and turn, to get help to solve a problem that is not of their making and for which there is still no end in sight.

There are scores of questions that the Government must answer, but they relate to three broad areas. The first is the Government’s failures to date, the second is the faulty design of the building safety fund, and the third is the gaping hole between the Prime Minister’s promises and his Government’s actions. Let me start with the Government’s failures to date. It is incomprehensible that four years on from Grenfell, we still do not know the scale of the building safety scandal. That is because the Government have no complete data on how many mid-rise buildings below 18 metres have been built with dangerous materials and fire safety defects. It was revealed more than a year ago that the Government had been told by their own advisors that the most dangerous forms of aluminium composite material cladding and insulation are unsafe on buildings of any height, yet the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government admitted that it did not have the data on the number of buildings below 18 metres that have cladding systems, or on what proportion of the buildings that have such systems are likely to be clad in ACM. The Government could have taken immediate action, but they failed to do so. An inquiry is needed to find out why.

The second area of the inquiry would be to look at how the Government have designed the building safety fund. On the face of it, it appears as though the building safety fund has been deliberately designed by the Government to exclude a huge number of issues and a huge number of people. Housing associations with non-ACM cladding are excluded, properties below 18 metres are excluded, and non-cladding fire safety remediation works are also excluded. Anybody who really wanted to solve the crisis would not design a remediation fund that excluded all of that. The Secretary of State has ignored recommendations from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that social housing providers should have free and equal access to the fund. That is in the face of a national housing shortage, when social housing providers should be investing their funds in new, affordable homes.

On the 18-metre threshold, how did the Government reach the conclusion that buildings below 18 metres should be treated differently and not be eligible for the building safety fund? The Secretary of State described height as a “crude” factor in determining risk and we all saw the video in which a top civil servant working on the cladding scandal admitted that the crucial 18-metre rule had been picked simply because Ministers did not have time to come up with a better number. Why are the Government still using it? There has been no explanation of why that arbitrary figure has been applied.

The perverse nature of the 18-metre rule is demonstrated perfectly by the Decks in Liverpool. To the casual observer, it is a development of six identical blocks. Three of them are just over 18 metres and might qualify for help from the Government, but the other three are just short of 18 metres and left out in the cold. Why do the Government persist in using the 18-metre threshold when it is clearly unfair and, in some cases, outright absurd? An inquiry is needed to look into that.

There is also the size of the building safety fund. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee estimates that the cost to remediate cladding will be in the region of £15 billion, so how did the Secretary of State arrive at the precise initial figure of £1.6 billion and his revised position of £5.1 billion? Fire safety experts have repeatedly said that the fund is a mere drop in the ocean, so why are the Government refusing to budge? Why have the Government excluded all other fire safety issues not caused by cladding from the building safety fund? Flammable balconies, missing fire breaks, defective fire doors and dangerous insulation have all been identified as critical safety failings. Like cladding, none is the fault of leaseholders, yet they are still not being addressed by the Government’s schemes. That is before the huge cost of the waking watches that are needed to ensure that people’s homes do not go up in flames.

Finally, the third area relates to the gaping hole between the Prime Minister’s promises and his Government’s actions. Last autumn, the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign put forward a simple 10-step plan. In essence, it called on the Government: to stump up all the cash to remediate fire safety problems; to get rid of all the problems by the end of 2022; and to use their weight to recoup that money from those who are responsible. That plan would meet the Government’s own test of not letting the cost fall to the taxpayer or to innocent building safety victims.

On 3 February, leaseholders were given fresh hope that their nightmare was finally over when the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and told the House:

“We are determined that no leaseholder should have to pay for the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects that they did not cause and are no fault of their own.”—[Official Report, 3 February 2021; Vol. 688, c. 945.]

However, that fresh hope turned to false hope. The Prime Minister and his Government spent 10 months fighting Members of this House who were trying to protect leaseholders from these costs. We tried to amend the Fire Safety Bill, but the Government fought tooth and nail to stop us.

On Sunday, with much fanfare, the Secretary of State announced that he was bringing forward measures in the Building Safety Bill to give leaseholders 15 years to take action against those who are responsible.

Fire safety victims have already said that most of them will not benefit from this, either because the 15-year limit has expired or because the potential defendants no longer exist or are insolvent. Everyone else now has to add the prospect of years of litigation to their woes, but what is really disturbing is that the Secretary of State has announced this in the full knowledge—I quote from a National Audit Office report—that

“the legal costs of taking action are likely to outweigh the costs for remediation works in a significant number of cases” and that

“enforcing cost recovery from the outset could impact the pace of remediation.”

Do the Government really think that it is acceptable for leaseholders facing bankruptcy and mental ill health to have to start legal action against huge, powerful housing companies, builders and others when they know that the legal bills could cost more than the remediation work itself and then delay that remediation?

This is Alice in Wonderland stuff, and it is not just that the Prime Minister and his Government are falling short on this promise. They are doing exactly the opposite of what they promised, because the Government are actively legislating to effectively protect the guilty while letting innocent victims hang out to dry. A public inquiry is now needed to rigorously investigate why this Government have comprehensively failed to put any serious system in place to protect innocent building safety victims or to recoup the costs from developers, builders, suppliers and contractors. What precisely is the Government’s relationship with these potential defendants such that they are so determined time and again to put the interests of big developers and others ahead of innocent tenants and leaseholders?

This public inquiry is desperately needed, because when we said “never again” some of us actually meant it. Fire safety victims have faced four years of delays, obfuscation and broken promises. This has become a national scandal of epic proportions and we need an independent inquiry to tell us why.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Daisy Cooper, Ed Davey, Tim Farron, Munira Wilson, Sarah Olney, Layla Moran, Wera Hobhouse, Sarah Green, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Wendy Chamberlain, Christine Jardine and Jamie Stone present the Bill.

Daisy Cooper accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 10 September, and to be printed (Bill 142).