Schedule 7 - Building safety charges

Building Safety Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 19 January 2022.

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Amendment made: 70, page 194, line 39, leave out “Part 4 of” and insert “Schedule (Special measures) to”.—(Christopher Pincher.)

This amendment is consequential on amendment NS1.

Third Reading

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 5:29, 19 January 2022

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This Bill represents the biggest overhaul of building and fire safety legislation in a generation, and today’s proceedings represent a significant staging post on our shared journey towards a regime that is more robust and more proportionate. In a modern liberal democracy, living in a home where you feel safe should be a basic human right, but sadly, for thousands of people up and down our country, this most reasonable of expectations does not tally with their current experience. This Bill is going to right that wrong by replacing an outdated building system with one that is attuned not just to where we are in 2021 but to how we protect people in 2031, 2041 and for many years beyond. We recognise from the outset the need for new legislation to be based on the solid foundations of independent and objective expertise, which is why, as Members across the House will know, we are delivering on the recommendations set out by Dame Judith Hackitt in her independent review of building regulations and fire safety.

It will not have escaped the House’s attention that while we have been scrutinising the Bill line by line in Committee and on Report, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been pressing ahead with wider reforms on issues that have plagued this sector for years. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have set about restoring much-needed common sense to our building safety regime, through the Secretary of State’s statement on 10 January and the Prime Minister’s remarks earlier during Question Time.

There has been progress since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, but our view in Government is that the pace of rectifying high-rise buildings with dangerous and unsafe cladding has not married up to the gravity of the situation, so we must move more effectively and more quickly. That is why we have brought the Bill to the House today to complete its remaining stages, so that it can progress smoothly and quickly to the other place where the robust legislative protections that we have outlined in previous statements can be properly and sensibly made. The Bill can then come back to this House for proper scrutiny, and I am sure that the business managers—the usual channels—will ensure that appropriate time is made available for it to conclude. We must complete this Bill. It has been on the stocks for far too long. Too many people have suffered too much, and we must, through this legislation and through the suite of measures the Secretary of State announced in his statement on 10 January, right the wrong that has been done to too many people. I commend the Bill to the House, not as the end but as the end of the beginning.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:33, 19 January 2022

I would like to start by thanking the Bill team, the Clerks, the House staff and the Library specialists for facilitating the debates in the House on this important piece of legislation, as well as all those hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed to the proceedings, particularly those on both sides who took it through Committee over a great many weeks last year.

The impetus for this Bill, and what I am sure has been at the forefront of our minds throughout its passage to date, is the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower four and a half years ago. As I suggested on Report, it is not pre-empting the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s conclusions to state that the horror of that dreadful June night in 2017 was the product not only of pernicious industry practice but of state failure: a failure that involved successive Governments presiding over a deficient regulatory regime, and a failure to act on repeated and clear warnings about the potentially lethal consequences of that fact. That is why the Government and industry have a shared responsibility to make all buildings safe and to resolve the building safety crisis fully and finally, in a way that protects all those living in dangerous buildings who bear no responsibility for it whatsoever.

To the extent that the Bill implements the recommendations of the Hackitt review, provides for a stronger regulatory framework for building safety and ensures clearer accountability on the management of risk in buildings over their lifecycle, we support it. We welcome the improvements made on Report, and we want to see a version of the Bill given Royal Assent as soon as possible,

However, this Bill leaves a range of fire safety issues unresolved, from the lack of a national strategy on how to evacuate high-rise buildings to the absence of a requirement to plan for the escape of disabled residents. The Bill is not in itself a panacea for the building safety crisis. Even on its own terms, we have argued that it could and should have gone further in several important respects, whether in relation to the arbitrary definition of height or the issue of product testing.

We have concerns about the Bill’s implementation, specifically whether the new building safety regime will be able to function as intended and whether the new building safety regulator within the Health and Safety Executive, which the Bill makes responsible for all aspects of the new framework, has the resource and capacity to perform all the complex tasks assigned to it.

Hoping that the hard deadline will conjure the necessary outcomes, whether in relation to building control, skills shortages or ongoing concerns about indemnity insurance, is not good enough and we intend to monitor closely whether the new regime operates effectively in practice. We are disappointed that, despite the clear strength of feeling across the House and following our extensive debates, we are being asked to send this Bill to the other place without changes having been made to provide robust legal protection for leaseholders who are facing ruinous costs for remediating historical cladding and non-cladding defects. The Opposition have been clear throughout the Bill’s passage that, without changes to provide for such robust protection from all costs, it will fail what Dame Judith described as the “ultimate test” of any new framework, namely the rebuilding of public confidence in the system.

The House will have noted the extremely legalistic language that the Minister used on Report in response to several questions on whether the Government will table amendments in the other place on leaseholder protection, on when they plan to do so, on what those amendments will look like and on whether this place will have sufficient time to debate them. Do not underestimate the degree to which expectations have been raised by the repeated and unambiguous commitments the Secretary of State made last week to amend this Bill in pursuit of protection for leaseholders in relation to all the work required to make buildings safe.

For all the gaps raised by the Secretary of State’s statement and all the obvious gaps that remain in his new plan, leaseholders across the country who are caught up in this scandal drew comfort from his words, believing them to be a signal that the Government are finally prepared to honour the promises given by successive Secretaries of State and Ministers from the Dispatch Box that leaseholders will be fully protected.

That the blameless leaseholders at the centre of this crisis should be protected is, we believe, incontrovertible. The mental and financial toll this crisis has taken on them is incalculable. Lives have been put on hold, relationships have broken down, retirements have been ruined and countless hours have been forever lost as a result of spending evenings and weekends researching, lobbying and campaigning. In far too many cases, savings have vanished entirely and homes have been lost to bankruptcy.

The Secretary of State spoke last week of the injustice of asking leaseholders to pay money they do not have to fix a problem they did not cause. He was absolutely right, but if it is unjust that leaseholders pay in the future, it surely follows that it is unjust that so many have already paid or are being asked to pay now. The Government must look at financial redress and how it might be secured.

When it comes to protecting leaseholders in the future, we forcefully made the case throughout the Bill’s passage for the maximum legal protection for all those facing potential costs to fix historical defects, irrespective of circumstance. On Report we asked the Minister to give serious consideration to several issues of concern arising directly from the Secretary of State’s commitment to amend the Bill to achieve that.

We support the passage of the Bill tonight because we want the recommendations of the Hackitt review to be implemented and a stronger safety regime to be put in place as soon as possible, but we await the tabling in the other place of the promised amendments on leaseholder protection. We sincerely hope that when the Secretary of State says he intends to protect leaseholders from paying any costs, he truly means it, and that consequently the Bill will not be yet another false dawn, but will deliver justice finally for all the blameless victims of the building safety scandal.

Several hon. Members:


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

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I just want to say that we have a fair number of people who want to speak and not an enormous amount of time, so please bear that in mind. I call Sir Peter Bottomley.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons 5:40, 19 January 2022

To use the words of a former Prime Minister, I agree with Matthew. I thank Matthew Pennycook for his contribution to Third Reading, and thank the Minister, who over the months has moved progressively—if I may use that expression in relation to a Conservative—to do many of the things that, frankly, ought to have been done within months of Grenfell, if not before.

I have two major regrets. One is that the reaction to Grenfell was to make it party political, even though most of the 12,000 buildings affected were not built by Tory councils and have problems just as great as those at Grenfell. The second, which is a different point, is that when the sad crash in the tunnel in Paris, in which three people died and one survived, occurred, the media, instead of saying on the first day that the survivor had been wearing a seatbelt and the three who died had not and that the driver was twice over the legal limit, allowed that point to be lost behind the paparazzi story. If the truth had come out straight away, the number of deaths in Europe over the next year would have been halved.

In terms of fire safety and building safety, in my view it was wrong to say that 18 metres was the cut-off point. It may have been arbitrary that that was the highest level the fire could get to, but analysis of the risk to people in homes is that most deaths are at lower heights, not higher ones. We have also learned lessons on dealing with fires that will not be forgotten.

The Bill goes a long way to meeting some of the needs that were reasonably obvious at the beginning. The underlying problem is that Dame Judith Hackitt was not, I think, properly briefed on the law on residential leasehold, and that caused the mis-steps that are now beginning to be put right. I hope that as a result of the Secretary of State’s consultations with people such as Philip Rainey and other barristers and solicitors who are expert in this field, we will be able to modify the simple polluter pays principle into a practical measure.

We need to stop homes being lethal. We need to stop legalities getting in the way of justice and effective action. We want to take away the financial burden and nightmare from residential leaseholders. We want to make sure that social landlords are not left with the costs that, frankly, should not be theirs. We have a lot more progress to make. It is a matter of faith in the Government that, together with the amendments made today—I congratulate the parliamentary draftsmen and the officials in the Department on the progress they have made so far—we can hope to see further progress and better amendments and supplementary ones tabled in the House of Lords, which can come back here and be both successful and acceptable.

I have two further points for the Minister. Outside this Bill, we look forward to the Law Commission reforms being put to Parliament in an effective way. Last, on the question of forfeiture, which has come up occasionally in today’s debates, I want there to be no question that a leaseholder’s equity should be forfeited just because their home is sold to pay some debt. We must change the law to say that any remaining equity goes back to the leaseholder and is not put in the hands of the landlord. William the Conqueror was king over 950 years ago. His feudal memory should not be continued in our housing system. It is time to enact in practice provisions that the House of Commons passed in law—ineffectively—in 2002. Let us have justice for residential leaseholders.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central 5:44, 19 January 2022

I am pleased to have the opportunity at this point, before the Bill progresses to the other place, to speak about some of the issues that will need to be addressed in the amendments that have been promised by the Secretary of State on protection for leaseholders—issues about which, today and for quite some time, there has been cross-party concern. I pay tribute to Stephen McPartland for the work that he has done in this regard, and to the Father of the House, Sir Peter Bottomley, for his contribution over a long period.

On both sides of the House there is clearly a consensus on what needs to be done, which has been reflected in the debates this afternoon, and it is right that there should be, because we are seeking to address a glaring injustice facing leaseholders who are victims not just of developers but, as was pointed out by the Chair of the Select Committee, myhon. Friend Mr Betts, of regulatory failure, for which we are responsible and over which successive Government have presided.

It is unfortunate that we have been debating the Bill so soon after the Government’s announcement last week, before the Secretary of State had the opportunity to table his amendments so that they could receive the scrutiny they deserved. However, his statement did constitute a step forward. Some of my constituents who have been affected met him before the statement, and they shared my view that while the narrative was good and the direction of travel felt right, there remained too many unanswered questions. I want to set out briefly the concerns that they have, which must be addressed in the Government’s amendments in the other place.

Residents of Mandale House, for instance, made an application to the building safety fund for cladding work, 80% of which was rejected because—my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn mentioned this earlier—the juxtaposition of zinc and timber failed to meet the current criteria. That left them facing bills for tens of thousands of pounds. In the Metis Building there is a problem with wooden balconies, while in Wicker Riverside the problem is compartmentation. Those problems clearly affect many other buildings as well, in my constituency and across the country. We therefore need an absolute assurance that the statutory protection will cover all non-cladding remediation.

Residents of Mandale House face a further problem, in that their developer is no longer in business. We know that is a problem in hundreds of buildings. Companies have failed, or have been deliberately collapsed to enable them to avoid responsibility. It needs to be made clear that those leaseholders will not be overlooked, and that the Government will give them full support in respect of all safety remediation costs.

One of my constituents in the Millsands building asked for reassurance that support should be provided for leaseholders not in occupation of their flats. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central pointed out, many have been forced to leave to raise the funds to try to pay the bills demanded of them. Others have left as their families have grown. They have done the sensible thing: they have moved on and used the rental income from their property to fund their new house. For some, the investment was the use of a lump sum to provide a retirement income in a solitary flat. As Sir Mike Penning argued earlier, those people are victims too, and they need to be fully supported. We also need a statement sending a clear message to freeholders and developers that they must not rush to carry out work in order to avoid their responsibilities by imposing costs on leaseholders now, before the protection becomes part of legislation.

There is another issue, faced by my constituents in Wicker Riverside, a building from which residents were evacuated just before Christmas 2020 because of fire safety concerns. They have a problem with insurance—not that of rising costs, on which other Members commented earlier and for which there should be compensation, but the fact that no insurance company will provide cover for their building. They have been uninsurable for more than a year. That is an untenable position that the Government must, and could, act to address. I have discussed the issue with Ministers.

Finally, there is overriding concern about how long the process proposed by the Government will take, as legal action drags on and there is resistance from developers and others whom the developers may hold accountable and endless litigation. There is a risk that the problem, rather than being solved, will be prolonged for a very long time indeed. If the Government are confident that money can be recovered from developers, they could and should simply act to fix all the faults now and then use the full resources of the state to recover the money from those responsible. That way, as Members on the Opposition and Government Benches have said throughout today’s debate, no costs will fall on those who have no responsibility for the predicament they are in.

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Conservative, Stevenage 5:50, 19 January 2022

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on Third Reading. I am hopeful this evening and, like many Members from all parties, I am grateful to my hon. Friend Royston Smith, to the Father of the House, my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley, and to colleagues across the House who have worked so hard to get us where we are today.

This is a huge Bill that tries to deal with some of the after-effects of the tragic events at Grenfell Tower. I have been to meet residents at New Providence Wharf, who have also had a very difficult time. Some of the issues they have had are heartbreaking and it is incredibly difficult to speak to them and hear what they have been through. We talk about fire safety in this place, but meeting people who were involved in fires and who were trapped in properties really brings it home.

I understand why the Government want to bring the Bill forward as quickly as they can. They have tabled 70 amendments and I understand their desire to work with Members across party lines to get to a much better place in respect of the bits we want. Although it is a very large Bill, a lot of us in the Chamber are focused on a small part of it: the provisions on leaseholders and leaseholder protections. That is the bit on which my colleagues and I mainly focus. It is important for me and for leaseholders up and down the country that they are not held responsible for historic fire safety defects and construction defects.

Let me remind the House where we have come from. When we started our campaign about 18 months ago, the Government’s original offer was around £20 million to deal with these issues. After the statement from the Secretary of State last week, we are now on course to have more than £9 billion of Government support, with probably another £100 million for waking watch, alarms and a variety of other issues. The Government have moved forward massively.

I do not always support the Government but, in fairness to them, on this issue we have asked and they have negotiated. There is a new tone and a new willingness to work both across party lines and within the governing party to resolve this issue for leaseholders, so we have hope. Tonight, millions of leaseholders up and down the country, many with huge mental health issues and facing massive financial ruin, have hope. That hope encourages us to believe that we may finally come to a position where we can resolve things for those millions of leaseholders.

We are in the position we are in because, although a lot of people will not realise this, the Prime Minister has intervened directly on a number of occasions to get us to a state in which we can support each other, negotiate and get more than £9 billion-worth of support for leaseholders, which is an amazing achievement. I am delighted with the work we have done behind the scenes to get us to where we are. Because of that hope and the constructive way in which the Government have worked with us behind the scenes, we want to give them the room to work with us a bit further and to table amendments in the House of Lords to protect leaseholders in law. That is what we want—that is our first request.

The second request that I continue to make is that amendments are made to protect leaseholders in respect of internal fire safety defects and not just external ones. At Vista Tower in my constituency, which has more than £15 million-worth of remediation costs, the fire breaks are missing. They would have been in the plans and signed off by the developers and the building regulatory regime, but they are missing. We have to think about how we can support constituents like that.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

Will my hon. Friend allow me to add to what he is saying? The insurance companies are claiming premiums that are 10 or 20 times higher than before because there are additional fire risks. All this work should lead to reduced fire risks. Will he support me in asking the Government to get together with the technical sides of the insurance companies and the Competition and Markets Authority to get those insurance premiums back down to what they were before so that leaseholders may pay £300 a year to insure a building they do not own rather than £3,000 a year?

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Conservative, Stevenage

I completely support the Father of the House, as he knows, in all matters.

It is important that the Government have accepted the principles of everything that we have asked for throughout this 18-month campaign. I am very grateful for that. With all the technical details, that campaign has demonstrated how complicated this issue is and the many millions of people and tens of thousands of buildings it affects in many different ways. In fairness to the Minister and the Government, it is very difficult to put all that into a Bill, so they do need time. As long as they are prepared to work with us, we are prepared to give them that time so as to support leaseholders and ensure that they do not have to pay for these historical fire safety defects.

I have one final request for the Minister on behalf of those constituents of mine in Vista Tower who have been affected by the building being no doubt shoddily built and not to the plans of the time. Will the Government be prepared to provide support so that those leaseholders can take action against the original developers, or will the Government take the action on their behalf, because a lot of these leaseholders have been going through this for a number of years and no longer have the mental resilience or ability to take these fights on and take legal actions for the next five or 10 years in the courts? Will the Minister provide further support to those leaseholders? Will he agree to continue to meet and work with me so that we can ensure that leaseholders are not held responsible and they are the innocent parties throughout this crisis?

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion 5:56, 19 January 2022

It is a pleasure to follow Stephen McPartland. I pay tribute to all his work on this issue, and the work of Bob Blackman, the Select Committee and many others.

There is much to welcome in this Bill, but I want to return to the issue of leaseholders, which is still one of the most worrying outstanding issues. I welcome the fierce determination that I have heard from Members in all parts of the House to make sure that we will not rest until we ensure that that protection for leaseholders is absolutely written into the Bill. I welcome the spirit of the Secretary of State’s statement last week, including the recognition that leaseholders are blameless in the scandal. He said that

“it is morally wrong that they should be the ones asked to pay the price.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 283.]

I agree, but unfortunately there is still too much lacking in this Bill. Like the gaps and defects in my constituents’ homes, there are gaping holes that still need fixing, including the firm commitment that we need to ensure that the burden for repairs, including non-cladding remedial work, does not fall on leaseholders. I am disappointed that the Minister has been unable to offer us more reassurance on that point.

This is not just about determining who will pay for construction defects. We need to know when they are going to pay, what happens should they refuse, and exactly what costs will be covered when they do so. What will happen in March if there is deadlock and developers do not agree to the £4 billion suggested in the Secretary of State’s letter to the residential property developer industry? What assessment have the Government made of the need for housing associations to access funding collected from the industry to cover the costs of leaseholders and to ensure that the delivery of social housing is not impacted by the fall-out from this crisis? What measures will be put in place to end individual legal disputes about liability if developers or manufacturers of materials, for example, refuse to accept liability for defects of their making?

I want to focus on one particular issue, which comes down to the fact that many developments are owned by absent and faceless freeholders via asset management companies. That means that getting something that should be very simple, like the signature of a freeholder on an application form, is very far from being straightforward, especially when offshore companies appear determined to avoid paper trails that might lead back to them at a later date. Let me give an example. On Friday, leaseholders at Stepney Court in my constituency received legal papers from their managing agent, FirstPort Property Services Ltd. They were horrified to be told that FirstPort intends to recover the estimated £4,912,000 for repairs from the leaseholders if the application to the building safety fund is not successful. That will mean that constituents such as the single working mother who paid £60,000 for a 25% share of her property will be lumbered with a repair bill of £110,000. That is not fair and it should not be allowed to happen.

All the while, the head lessee of those residential properties, Abacus Land 4 Ltd lurks in the background. Its role in the saga remains unclear, but what we do know about the elusive Abacus is that it is registered in Guernsey. It is administered by the asset management company, Long Harbour. Although I recognise that Abacus is not the developer, the mystery surrounding it and the confusing chain of accountability suggests that it is an example of what is at the very heart of the scandal: faceless investors making money out of shoddy, substandard and often downright unsafe housing.

It is not okay for freeholders to hold leaseholders to ransom. It is not okay for freeholders to hold up building safety fund applications by refusing to sign paperwork while, in the meantime, tightening up their legal positions before doing so. It is not okay for the Government to allow that to happen.

Last week, the Secretary of State said that he was “clear about who should” be “remedying failures”. He said:

“It should be the industries that profited, as they caused the problem, and those who have continued to profit, as they make it worse.”

He went on to say:

“I have established a dedicated team in my Department to expose and pursue those responsible.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 283-284.]

Let us see that come to fruition and see what that really means on the face of the Bill.

Stepney Court is just one of multiple blocks in the New England quarter of my constituency where defects have been identified and residents are battling with those responsible. Will the Minister ensure that his team looks into the problems facing residents in the area, where unpicking the responsibility for where remedial work lies has led to unacceptable delays in accessing support from the building safety fund? It is not just Stepney Court; residents in Embankment House and Temple House are still waiting for a decision on their application, too.

To be clear, on who should pay, we need guarantees that the buck will not be passed to those who, frankly, cannot pay. I have scores of constituents who are trapped in properties that they cannot sell—mortgage prisoners who cannot move on. I have more than 1,000 constituents living in dangerous homes. They need guarantees that issues other than cladding will be covered in the Building Safety Bill, whether that means missing fire breaks, compartmentation, defective fire doors, wooden balconies or other construction defects. They need to know that they will not have to wait years for that to happen. They need certainty that the Bill, along with the commitments in the Secretary of State’s statement last week, will ensure that the wait for work to make their homes safe finally ends. Allowing people to remain living in unsafe homes is highly dangerous. It needs to end, and the Bill is the opportunity for the Government to address past failings as well as to look ahead. I hope that they will act with the speed and certainty that our constituents all need.

Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Labour, Salford and Eccles 6:02, 19 January 2022

It is nearly five years since the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, yet thousands of my constituents in Salford and Eccles still live in fear. Some live in cold, draughty flats, having waited years for already removed cladding to be replaced, and for so many leaseholders every day, the bills for interim fire safety and increased insurance premiums rack up. They cannot move, they cannot sell, they struggle to get credit and the mental toll increasingly becomes unmanageable.

When the Secretary of State informed Parliament last week that he

“will pursue statutory protection for leaseholders and nothing will be off the table”—[Official Report, 10 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 285.]

it was welcome news, but we have been here before, have we not? All his predecessors have conveyed warm, fluffy, non-binding statements to the House about protecting leaseholders, but we have seen very little action. The Minister must understand why my constituents have asked me why we are not legislating to protect them today in the Bill. There have been no clear assurances from him today, sadly, that the amendments that will be tabled in the other place will comprehensively include all leaseholders and indemnify them against all fire safety defect costs and ancillary costs that they may have incurred over the past few years.

The absence of that protection raises many more unanswered questions, which I hope the Minister will address. For example, what about my residents who have already received financially devastating demands for payment? Will he confirm what they should do? Should they ignore those demands in the hope that the Government legislate? How will he protect them when they face forfeiture and losing their home, or worse, bankruptcy?

Furthermore, there is ambiguity once again about the non-cladding fire safety defects in the majority of the affected buildings in my constituency, so will he confirm what specific actions he will take to ensure that residents and leaseholders are protected from the costs of non-cladding fire safety defects in buildings of all heights?

What about the sums spent so far? I am informed that many sinking funds in my constituency have already been wiped out by virtue of fire safety investigations and other interim fire safety costs. In addition, residents have already been paying directly for interim costs and increased insurance premiums. Will they be able to claim a refund, and will that be legislated for in the other place?

Finally, I must highlight the significant and unacceptable delays both in the completion of the fire safety works themselves and in processing building safety fund applications. A number of housing association blocks in my constituency have been without cladding for some years now, leaving many residents living in freezing conditions, and numerous other private residential buildings are reporting significant delays at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in signing off funding agreements within the building safety fund.

If the Secretary of State cannot get the limited amount of money the Government have already committed out the door, how can he assure us that any wider package he announces will be more expedient in the future? What action are the Minister and the Secretary of State taking to fast-track, expand and train up new specialists in the supply chain to carry out the urgent work required at pace?

My constituents simply deserve two urgent things from the Government: first, to have their buildings made safe as part of an urgent national building safety mission; and, secondly, to be protected from the costs of a fire safety crisis they did not cause. Sadly, as drafted so far, this Bill delivers neither. I hope the Minister reflects on the amendments that will be required in the other place and delivers the safety and protection that my constituents deserve.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Labour/Co-operative, Vauxhall 6:06, 19 January 2022

I start by paying tribute to the many hundreds of Vauxhall residents who have contacted me in my short two years as Member of Parliament for Vauxhall. They have been contacting me even though they are suffering sheer mental stress, contacting me even though at times they feel that there is no end to this nightmare, contacting me because they have been trapped in homes they are unable to sell and contacting me, frankly, because some of their properties are unsafe. At every stage of my continued efforts on behalf of Vauxhall leaseholders going through that anguish and uncertainty over the last two years, the Bill has been held up by the Government as the solution that would finally bring an end to this crisis. Regrettably, it does not.

The Bill is a step in the right direction in the fight to ensure that nobody has to live in a death trap and a fire trap like Grenfell Tower, and as a legislator I support the measures to keep my constituents safe. I therefore welcome the essential changes that will bring an end to the shambolic safety regime that led to the Grenfell tragedy, and the introduction of a regulator to oversee that. I also welcome the new Secretary of State’s change of approach to the question of leaseholder liability, which has clearly become one of the most clear injustices I have seen in politics. It is clear that the Bill will give leaseholders important new rights to challenge freeholders and developers when negligence has occurred. I am pleased, too, that the Government finally agree that no leaseholder living in a building of under 11 metres will pay for the cost of cladding remediation in the future, for which my Opposition colleagues have been calling for many months.

However, we must not pretend that the Bill achieves what it should have done. Millions of leaseholders who have been in a position of deep uncertainty for years will still be there after today, reliant yet again on warm words from the Government and the good will of profit-making companies that have done their best to evade that at every turn. I understand why so many Vauxhall constituents simply do not trust that promises will be delivered on, which is why it is so disappointing, frankly, that much of what was in the Secretary of State’s statement last week is not included in the Bill.

A lot has been said about the inconsistency of saying that leaseholders should be protected from cladding costs while leaving them on the hook to pay for the extortionate cost of other defects, and I add my full support to Members from across the House who have spoken out against that. There are several ongoing issues that the Bill does nothing to address, such as the extortionate insurance premiums and other secondary costs before remediation is completed. Let us be clear that leaseholders will be meeting those unjust costs for years until decisive action is taken.

Most importantly, both the Bill’s provisions and the Secretary of State’s announcement last week appear to apply only to future contexts. Where does that leave the millions of leaseholders caught up at various points along the way of that lengthy scandal? What does the Bill do to empower leaseholders who had their assessment before the recent changes in Government policy and believe that unnecessary work has been recommended for their building? Where is the help for leaseholders whose flats are unsellable until that remediation work is complete but who have been told that they will have to wait many years? They are trapped. The Government have known about all those issues for far too long and have done nothing while leaseholders have suffered. Today, they had the opportunity to accept amendments that would have fixed them, but yet again they chose to turn a blind eye.

With a heavy heart, I welcome the Bill, because it will make my constituents living in high-rise buildings safer. The Minister, in his opening statement, said that living in a home where you feel safe is a basic human right, but many of my leaseholders in Vauxhall still do not feel that they have that right. I lament another missed opportunity to rescue leaseholders from the scandal.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 6:11, 19 January 2022

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As a member of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee and having set on the Bill Committee, I welcome many of the Bill’s provisions. However, as a point of principle, no innocent leaseholder should have to remediate any historical cladding and non-cladding defects. We have heard that point made so well across the Chamber all afternoon.

Key now is what the Bill does not include, rather than what it does. We have heard much about the amendments that the Government propose will be considered in the other place, and I reiterate the call that we must have a full debate on the Bill’s return to the House to ensure those statutory protections for leaseholders. The proposal to make developers pay £4 billion for cladding removal in buildings under 18 metres is unclear on how quickly developers will be asked to pay and what measures the Government will take if they refuse. Without immediate compulsion, the process threatens to continue to be drawn out, with innocent leaseholders trapped in properties that they cannot sell and paying bills that they cannot afford. Does the Minister think it is right that social landlords have paid millions more than developers to fix the building safety scandal at the cost of delivering new social homes? I hope that we will see urgent action to appease concerns raised by leaseholders and Members across the House and to allay genuine concerns that it is one rule for council and social landlords and another for the Government’s developer friends.

We have yet to see the clarity that we expect on specific parts of the Bill for the significant numbers of leaseholders who face huge bills to fix non-cladding defects. If the Secretary of State is serious about ending that injustice, leaseholders must be protected from the cost of covering all historical defects. I reiterate the point made by many that those who created the crisis must be made to fix it.

I press the Government again to listen to leaseholders about how the ordeal has affected their mental health. Leaseholders in Luton South have told me how their mental health has suffered severely because of their fear of debt and bankruptcy and the pressure of the situation. One constituent told me how the threat of bankruptcy threatened their professional title and, therefore, their career. The scandal has prevented people from moving on with their lives—it is a form of purgatory.

When we discussed mental health in Committee, the Minister suggested that leaseholders should refer to their GPs, but we know how many pressures they are under. The Guardian has reported that officials have told leaseholders to call Samaritans. Both suggestions are simply inadequate. I repeat the ask that I made of the Secretary of State during last week’s statement for specific mental health support for affected leaseholders. We have had much debate today and through the consideration of this Bill that has been very technical and about buildings, but I stress again that this is about people and how they are affected. We must ensure that the leaseholder and tenant voice is heard as the Bill continues through its process.

The point has been made more than once, both today and over the past four years, that a disaster such as Grenfell must never happen again. The insufficient action for nearly five years shows the need for an interventionist Government to make people safe, as the market alone is incapable of doing that. I support my party’s calls for the Government to set up a building works agency that would go block by block assessing risk, commissioning necessary fire safety work, certifying that work and pursuing those responsible for the costs. I look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State with regard to those issues.

Innocent leaseholders need action. Comprehensive measures must be implemented to prevent this disaster from ever happening again.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Solicitor General 6:15, 19 January 2022

There is not an issue before this House that causes me as much concern as the safety of residents living in high-rise blocks from the risk of fire. That has been the case since August 2016 when there was a very serious fire at Shepherd’s Court in my constituency, which I spoke about earlier today. Fortunately, there were no casualties, but a full evacuation of an 18-storey block was required. Then, 10 months later, we had the fire at Grenfell, the absolute horror of which stays with me every day. Grenfell is only about a mile from where I live, and for 72 people to lose their lives in those circumstances is just so appalling that we cannot spend enough time, or do enough, to ensure that that never happens again in the future. Yet we have had other serious fires since that time.

Grenfell led to the identifying of many faults, including external cladding, poor management, poor construction and maintenance, and the people who live in social housing in particular not being taken notice of. It also made us look at the whole issue of fire safety, which is what the Bill purports to do, and in that way Grenfell opened the door on many other issues as well. If the speech of the Minister who opened the Third Reading debate was reflected in the Bill, I would be delighted, because he announced it as a tour de force, or a tour de raison, and said that it would resolve all the issues, but it just does not. The Government’s approach has been piecemeal. It is the proverbial Swiss cheese, still full of holes, and there is a great lack of clarity. I say that with no pleasure at all. Let me give, in just a few minutes, a non-exhaustive list of the issues that I either still cannot comprehend or know are not properly covered in the Bill.

We started off with the building safety fund applying to buildings over 18 metres tall, and that was extended to one type of cladding, aluminium composite material cladding, and then to another, hydraulic power unit cladding. We have now had a recent announcement from the new Secretary of State—I hope I have understood this correctly—that there will be a request to private developers to provide £4 billion, with a veiled threat of enforcing that in some as yet unspecified way, in order to deal with buildings between 11 and 18 metres. I am not even sure whether this covers all types of cladding and external wall issues. Does it cover wooden balconies or wooden panelling, for example? I do not think that it does.

The issue has been raised several times, including today and in the statement, of non-cladding defects in buildings above 11 metres. I am not clear whether these will all be covered, yet all these things represent clear and present dangers of fire and fire spread. What about tall buildings that are not specifically residential, such as hospitals and hotels, but still pose risk to people, including vulnerable people, who sleep in them? What about buildings below 11 metres, which, either because they are of a particular construction or because of their use—for example, care homes and schools—also pose risk? We have heard nothing of that either.

This is an example from my own borough, and it is not a rare example. There are often developments where there are interlinked buildings above and below 18 metres. What has often happened is that, quite rightly, the landlord has got on with remedial works, probably because they have to do so in order to apply to the building safety fund within the time limit. They have obviously also done work on parts of the structure below 18 metres, but now they are told that leaseholders will not be able to recover the funds. That is a Catch-22 that has not been addressed in the Bill.

Earlier we touched on the issue of social landlords and tenants, and on the fact that they are both being made to pay through the nose. That money is coming out of those landlords’ other funds, which would otherwise be used for new home developments or the repair, maintenance and management of existing homes, and there has not been a clear response from the Government on that either.

My hon. Friend Apsana Begum and Bob Blackman spoke of the fact that, every day, planning applications are going forward that do not comply with best practice. We heard the extreme example of blocks over 50 storeys tall that have a single staircase. What about the issue of stay put evacuation policies? What about alarm systems? What about sprinkler systems? What about ensuring, as I mentioned in dealing with electrical safety matters earlier, that all dwellings in a high-rise block are dealt with equally? Those are all pregnant questions, which I do not see being answered in the Bill at all.

Until we start to deal with this issue comprehensively, the Bill will only begin to scratch at a real problem. Yes, it is a real problem. I do not say it is a party political problem; it has developed over many decades. I think we are all shocked to find out that building standards are so low in this country, but now we know that, we have to do something.

My final plea is this: can we have transparency from the Government? I have followed organisations such as openDemocracy. Ever since Grenfell, a whole series of freedom of information requests have been resisted and pushed back, first through the inquiries unit in the Cabinet Office, and secondly through the now notorious clearing house that used to be run by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up. Last Friday, I saw an article published by openDemocracy that showed that they are still doing this—they are still trying to withhold information that is being legitimately requested. The irony is that the person to whom they went for assistance on how to withhold that information was a lady called Sue Gray. I hope that the practice of advising colleagues on how not to be frank and full in displaying information on such a subject will not carry over into other aspects of her work, but that is one further illustration of how we are so far away from dealing with this problem. I cannot sleep easily at night knowing that my constituents cannot sleep easily at night because the risk to them of, at worst, a repetition of Grenfell, or of something less dramatic but still problematic, is still there and has not been addressed by the Government over the last five years.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee 6:23, 19 January 2022

As my hon. Friend Rachel Hopkins said, the Bill is a response to Grenfell, and the intention must be to make sure that such a tragedy never happens again. That is a clear objective that everyone can share.

The Bill before us is welcome. It does many good things, and I would like to think that the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee has helped in the process. We have had five inquiries and five reports, which I think have pushed the Government in the right direction, although probably not as far as we would want them to go in some respects. Certainly, the provision of funds for cladding removal, the initial move on the ACM cladding, the £1 billion and the extension of the building safety fund to £5 billion have all been welcome. That is something the Select Committee has recognised. Nevertheless, we are still in an imperfect position—we hope it is a position in progress, as the Minister has explained. I still want to see the objectives that I set out earlier to be met: that leaseholders, who are not responsible for these mistakes, should not have to pay; that tenants, who are not responsible, should not have to pay; and that there should not be cuts in the social house building programme to pay for this.

We welcome the Secretary of State’s recent announcement, and we are going to hold a short inquiry—it will be short in how quickly we are going to do it, but not short in the detail—to follow up on it. We join the Secretary of State and the Minister in wanting to ensure that those responsible for these defects are held to account and that the whole of the construction industry, in its widest sense, including product manufacturers, insurance providers and everyone else, ultimately has to pay for these costs. That is absolutely right.

To summarise, as the Minister rightly said, we are not, on Third Reading, at the end of the process, but at the end of the beginning. I welcome the Government’s and the Minister’s commitments to bring the issues back to this House for detailed consideration once they have been considered in the other place.

Two other issues need to be addressed in due course. We cannot legislate for one of them, as Dame Judith clearly identified: regulation is important, but there has to be a complete change of culture in the construction industry. The objective of that industry for too long has been to get around regulation; whatever regulations are in place, it has found ways to avoid them and to cut corners. That cannot continue, and that is a major challenge; we share the challenge but this is going to be very difficult to achieve. Parts of the industry have woken up and recognised this, but other parts hope that this will all go away and they can carry on as before. That cannot be allowed to happen.

Finally, let me return to the comments made by the Father of the House, who has done magnificent work in pushing the case for leaseholders and leasehold reform. After we have, as we hope to do, got this Bill and subsequently the Act into a form that we can all thoroughly support, we will then move on to dealing with the issue of leasehold reform in full. I offer again to the Government the Select Committee as a way to look at that proposed legislation in draft form. It is going to be complicated and detailed, but I think there will be cross-party support in principle for it. So I hope that the Government will look at bringing that forward in draft form. We will look at it and scrutinise it rapidly but thoroughly in the Select Committee. By doing that, we can make that also a better piece of legislation.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 6:28, 19 January 2022

Given all I said previously, I would not want to be accused of detaining the House and the swift passage of the Bill, beyond simply saying thank you to everyone at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, particularly my officials who are in the Box and several who are not, and Lord Greenhalgh, who have worked so assiduously to bring the Bill to its current stage, where we can all agree to it today. I also wish to thank the Chairman of the Select Committee, Mr Betts, for his help and support, and we look forward to further collaboration with the Committee.

I congratulate all Members from across the House for their campaigning zeal: the Father of the House, my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley; my hon. Friend Stephen McPartland; my hon. Friend Caroline Ansell; Hilary Benn; Florence Eshalomi; and many others who have worked so very hard to on behalf of their constituents to make sure that their concerns are addressed. I am glad that we are able to support the Bill tonight, and I wish it well on its swift passage to the statute book.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.