Building Safety and Social Housing

– in the House of Commons at 11:55 am on 6 July 2023.

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Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

I beg to move,

That this House has considered building safety and social housing.

Six years on from the night of 14 June 2017, we remember all those affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower. Six years on, 72 months on, 72 lives lost, and thousands more—bereaved families and residents in the north Kensington community—whose grief endures. I know that I speak for not just me, but right hon. and hon. Members across this House, when I say that those most affected by the fire are never far from our thoughts and prayers. It is a particular honour to welcome survivors and bereaved family members to the Gallery for today’s debate, including representatives from Grenfell United and Grenfell Next of Kin.

It takes determination and courage to come and be counted, and to remain so resolute. Like so many in this House, I have been humbled to meet Grenfell community members and know the power of their testimony. Each has their own compelling and moving story to tell, and their own harrowing and unforgettable perspective on events that night. They have been united in their fight to uncover the truth and bring about change, and I hope that we in Government and across this House have been able to listen and to learn from them. I want to take this opportunity, as I do at every opportunity, to apologise again for the role of the Government and others in failings that allowed the horrifying events of 14 June 2017 to unfold. As you will hear today, Madam Deputy Speaker, I share their determination to see the truth uncovered, make change happen, and have all those responsible held to account so that justice is delivered.

The need for all of us in Government to learn from—and never repeat—the scandalous mistakes of Grenfell could not be more profound. I was clear, I hope, when I first became Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, that discharging my responsibilities to those most affected by this tragedy by honouring their loved ones with a worthy legacy was my absolute priority. That meant putting right some of the many wrongs that the bereaved survivors and immediate community have had to face and endure. I am pleased to be joined in that mission by my ministerial colleagues: the Minister of State for Housing and Planning, my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean, and my noble Friend Baroness Scott of Bybrook, who was first appointed by my predecessor to the independent Grenfell recovery taskforce in the immediate aftermath of the fire. Her long experience of representing the needs of all residents as a former council leader has been invaluable, and I am deeply grateful to Jane for her work.

I am also pleased that today, the House has the opportunity to both honour the Grenfell community and continue to hold the Government to account. As I said last year, I want this debate to take place annually, so that there is no let-up in the opportunities for scrutiny of this Government’s actions and those of future Governments. It is vital that everyone across this House can satisfy themselves that the Government are meeting their commitments and lasting change is being made. Like all Governments, we should be judged on our actions, not just our words, and all actors—including this Government—must take on board some quite tough lessons to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.

It is clear that the past actions of many fell well short of the standards that the Grenfell community—the bereaved survivors and local residents—deserved. That is why, with my Department, I remain wholly committed to supporting the independent Grenfell Tower inquiry, through which we may understand the truth about the circumstances leading to the tragedy and see justice delivered for the Grenfell community. That community was unforgivably and inexcusably let down. Evidence given before the inquiry and reporting by distinguished journalists such as Peter Apps point out that in the months and years before the fire, people’s concerns went unheard and ignored, and in the days and weeks after the fire, the institutions that were supposed to help victims were found wanting. I hope that uncovering the circumstances that led to the fire will bring at least some relief and comfort. With the inquiry having concluded its oral hearings last year, Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his inquiry team are now preparing their final report and recommendations. Also importantly, the independent Metropolitan police investigation into potential criminality continues in parallel. It is of the utmost importance to community members that that investigation is able to operate as they seek the justice that they deserve.

The Government have accepted in principle all the recommendations in the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s phase 1 report. So far, we have implemented 10 of the 15 recommendations focused on central Government; a significant amount has been done, but there is more to do. The remaining five recommendations are in progress, and I continue to work closely with the Home Secretary to make sure that we deliver on all of them, particularly the recommendation to mandate personal emergency evacuation plans—PEEPs—for disabled residents. One feature of the Grenfell tragedy was the way in which those living with disabilities were particularly vulnerable.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Labour, Leeds East

As the Secretary of State has said, it is now six years since the Grenfell fire, but new data gathered by Inside Housing shows that only a fraction of high-rise social housing blocks—fewer than one in five—have been retrofitted with sprinklers or fire alarms. A lack of funding is a key reason for that, so can the Government really claim that they are doing everything possible to prevent another Grenfell when people are still living in high rises without those protections?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that. I know he has a lifelong interest in social housing and cares very deeply about the fates of tenants in those conditions. I would never say that we have done everything that we should. I do believe that significant progress has been made, not least in remediating high-rise buildings and making sure that everyone who should plays their part. I will say a little bit more about it in a moment, but he is right to focus on how, when it comes to fire safety, it is not just the external cladding, which was of course the principal cause of the fire at Grenfell, but internal safety measures that we need to look at. Has progress been fast enough? No. Does resource need to be allocated? Yes. So I do agree with him that more requires to be done.

I was reflecting, just before that very helpful intervention, on the particular fate that disabled residents faced at Grenfell, and the vital importance of making sure that we have personal emergency evacuation plans in place. I hope to be able to update the House with the Home Secretary in due course.

As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, a broad range of issues affect building safety overall. Of course, one finding of the Grenfell Tower inquiry will inevitably be a recognition of systemic failures in the way in which we dealt with building safety, because the public, residents and indeed the Government put their faith in the building and approving of high-rise blocks and in the construction products being supplied for those high-rise blocks. We believed that the law was being followed and that the right thing was being done, but this trust was misplaced and abused. Industry profits, as we now know, were prioritised over safety and the safeguards that should have been observed were flouted.

We are now, with the help of all parties in this House, fixing the broken building safety system and we are seeking redress. I have been clear that those responsible—those at the apex of the building industry—must take responsibility. As of today, a total of 49 developers, including the 10 largest house builders, have signed our developer remediation contract, and I am grateful to them for showing such leadership. All developers that have signed the contract now have a legal duty to get on with remediation.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

As I am sure the Secretary of State knows, one key recommendation of the Hackitt review was to set up the Building Safety Regulator. So he will understand the concern when amendments have been tabled to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill giving the Secretary of State powers to scrap the building safety regime via a statutory instrument. If the No. 1 thing that the state needs to do is to keep its citizen safe, can he explain why those amendments have been tabled, and under what circumstances he would use that power to get rid of that regulator without proper scrutiny in this House?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

I absolutely would never do anything to undermine the position of the Building Safety Regulator. Indeed, I have been working with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Health and Safety Executive to make sure that we have the right team in place, the right person as regulator and the right powers for the regulator. All the legislation that we are bringing forward—not just the previous building safety legislation, but the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill—is designed to strengthen the hand of the regulator. I would be delighted to talk to the hon. Lady in greater detail outside this House to provide reassurance.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Levelling Up)

The Secretary of State talks about the remediation of buildings. He knows the interest of a company in Glasgow South West that does great work in removing cladding and so on, but it has come across stumbling blocks with insurance companies and insurance premiums. Could he say a bit about the discussions he has had with the insurance industry to make sure that this work is done?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

Yes, the hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. In talking about the shared responsibility that so many have, I have stressed that the Government have a responsibility, as does the construction sector, and insurance companies certainly do. It is the case that insurance companies, unfortunately, are charging premiums that I believe are way above what they should be. That is impeding the capacity of individuals to get on with their lives and it is imposing costs that are unnecessary. The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend Lee Rowley, who is the Minister responsible for the implementation of the building safety regime, has been talking to the Association of British Insurers, individual insurance companies and insurance brokers to try to make progress. There has not been as much as I would like, but, again, I will update the House in due course, as I know my hon. Friend will as well.

I mentioned developers, and it is the case that developers are taking responsibility for all the necessary work to address life-critical fire safety defects in buildings of over 11 metres high that they either developed or refurbished in England during the 30 years to 5 April 2022. There are more than 1,100 buildings in scope that are unsafe, and the cost will be £2 billion. Again, I am grateful to developers for shouldering that responsibility. Developers must also keep residents informed about the progress of these works. As I know from my own constituency, it is absolutely vital that residents are involved in that process.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

I recognise that the Government have started to do some work, particularly on ACM cladding on buildings over 18 metres high, but it has been very slow. Some of the work on 11 to 18 high metre buildings is some distance away. That is really worrying for homeowners who are trapped in those properties. Can the Minister look at how that could be speeded up? Has work been done to look at different types of cladding, because different types of cladding other than ACM are also unsafe?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

The hon. Lady raises two important points. Yes, absolutely, we are now moving to accelerate support for those living in buildings between 11 and 18 metres high. The cladding scheme we are bringing forward has all the energy that Homes England, the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), and the Department can deploy behind it. On her second point, of course it is the case that, while ACM was responsible for this particularly horrific tragedy, and also previously responsible for fires in the Gulf and elsewhere, there are other forms of cladding that are also a risk and that we need to remove and have been removing.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

I also pay tribute to the families and the survivors who have come here today. While the Secretary of State is rightly focusing on the systemic failures that led to this disaster and on the responsibility of the big players, the agencies and indeed the Government themselves in the lead-up to the disaster and in the immediate aftermath, will he pay tribute to the community groups that stepped forward so impressively on the ground, including some council workers—I am thinking of councillors such as David Lindsay and others? Does he recognise that they were not given a proper voice in the period preceding the fire and that we should do more to engage community groups?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

Yes, and I am so grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. One of the things that struck me about the North Kensington community and all those affected is the way in which community groups have played such an important part. There are faith groups, including the local Roman Catholic, the local Anglican and the local Methodist churches, and the Al-Manaar mosque. Pre-existing charities such as the Rugby Portobello Trust have been very energetic in providing support, but there is a wealth of other groups, such as the Lancaster West residents association. Of course, those formed in the shadow of the tragedy, such as Grenfell United and Grenfell Next of Kin, all testify to a rich social fabric and to community activism of the best kind. I know he has championed that; he knows—even though he now represents a seat in the west of England—that the work he did with the West London Zone, which is committed to improving social mobility in that area, was an exemplar.

On building safety, I must make it clear that the developers will be held to account for their actions. Those who have made these commitments—again, I am grateful to them—are now eligible to join our new responsible actors scheme. Subject to the will of Parliament, the scheme will come into being this summer.

We are using other levers to hold the worst actors to account over building safety, because it is not just developers who share in the responsibility for putting things right. We are pursuing the most egregious cases of people who have a responsibility—freeholders and others—through our new Recovery Strategy Unit, and other means have yielded or are beginning to yield results. To date, the RSU has started legal activity against three significant freeholders that have responsibility for 19 buildings to protect residents and to ensure safety. These include Wallis Partnership Group Ltd and Grey GR Ltd Partnership, a company ultimately owned by Railpen Ltd. It is vital that all of us recognise that, when it comes to the responsibilities of pension fund trustees, which are the freehold owners in this case, they have a responsibility not just to the beneficiaries of the pension fund, but to those who are living in the homes whose freeholds they own.

Critically, we are also bringing pressure to bear on those involved in the manufacture of the construction products that were there, and were used and abused, in the run-up to the Grenfell tragedy. Three construction project giants—Kingspan, Arconic and Saint-Gobain, the parent company of Celotex—are all coming under pressure. In the last few months, I have written to these companies and invited them to meet me to explain their plans to contribute financially to remediation works on unsafe buildings. I have also written to their investors and assured them that the sights of my Department are trained on these manufacturers, and that there will be legal and commercial consequences should they fail to make satisfactory arrangements. I believe that responsible investors can join all of us in this House in bringing pressure to bear, because their wider obligations to society and their commercial interests are one and the same.

As Abena Oppong-Asare mentioned, we need to work together to ensure not just that the most serious safety problems are dealt with, but that all safety problems are dealt with. However, it is the case that people living in high-rise buildings with the most dangerous cladding, ACM cladding—like that on Grenfell Tower—have received the support and the change needed. Some 96% of the buildings with ACM cladding have now been made safe, or have work under way, and all buildings in the social housing sector with ACM cladding have been addressed.

The Building Safety Act, as Layla Moran, speaking for the Liberal Democrats pointed out, has given us additional regulatory powers, which we shall not hesitate to use. The new building safety regulator will be responsible for overseeing building safety in residential buildings above 18 metres, and it will take enforcement action where necessary.

Building safety, of course, is at the heart of the Grenfell tragedy, but I want to make two other brief points before yielding the floor to others. One is the vital importance of making sure that all of us recall how important it is to listen to the voices of those in social housing. For too long, the voices of too many social housing tenants were ignored. People living in substandard homes told us what was wrong. They described appalling conditions. They enumerated with distressing accuracy the dangerous oversights that led them to feel unsafe in the place that they should have felt most secure. We must never let those voices go unheeded again. We—all of us—must be guided by them as we improve the living conditions and rights of social housing tenants across the United Kingdom.

At last year’s debate, I had just announced that the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill in the Queen’s Speech was due to be debated in both our Houses. I am pleased that we are now on the verge of Royal Assent. The Bill codifies our commitment to transform the experience of social housing residents, ensuring that landlords deliver the safe and decent homes that all residents should expect. The legislation was brought forward, of course, as a direct response to concerns raised by members of the Grenfell community, but as that legislation passed through both Houses, we have been forcibly reminded about the need to strengthen it further.

The tragic death of Awaab Ishak in 2020, aged just two, as a result of respiratory conditions generated by the grotesque circumstances in which he was being brought up by the housing association that should have attacked damp and mould far earlier has also led to changes to that legislation. Awaab’s law now requires social landlords to deal with damp and mould complaints to a strict timetable and will ensure that all tenants have the protection that they deserve.

Thanks to the work of Grenfell United and others, that Bill includes provisions to ensure the professionalisation of the housing sector—a consistent demand of the bereaved residents and survivors, and a demand consistent with making sure that those who work in housing get the recognition and, indeed, the respect they deserve as they acquire that additional qualification.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

A lot of us MPs get a lot of housing cases, and I still get cases in which constituents are being blamed for the type of accommodation that they live in. I have cases right now where constituents are being blamed for their lifestyle. This is not filtering through, Minister. This is a real problem, and it is important that, while you are talking about all the things that you are achieving, there is still a lot of work to be done—

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

Order. It is important to address the Minister not directly, but through me.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Issues of damp and mould are not a consequence of lifestyle. In fact, when that allegation is made, there is sometimes behind it an unhappy and prejudiced attitude towards some communities and some individuals. We need to call that out, and the housing ombudsman has been clear.

I should also say that I do not believe that I should take credit for these steps; it is about this House and everyone here who has worked together with people outside this House, including Grenfell United, Awaab Ishak’s family, campaigning journalists such as Daniel Hewitt and Vicky Spratt and, above all, the campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa. I think he has done far more than any Minister has to ensure that we get the message on social housing.

The final thing that I want to cover are the particular needs of the community itself. The Grenfell tragedy encapsulated what had gone wrong with our building safety system and what had gone wrong with the way we treat people in social housing. But there are real needs that the community continues to feel. I want to reaffirm the commitment made by my right hon. Friend Mrs May, the former Prime Minister, in the terrible aftermath of the fire. She said that the Government would be there in that community long after the cameras stopped rolling. She has taken a close personal interest in ensuring that we continue to support the community. Baroness Scott and I will continue to work with other arms of Government, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the NHS, and the independent Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission to ensure that the community has the ongoing support that it needs through the conclusion of the inquiry and beyond.

The tragedy at Grenfell Tower was one of the worst civilian tragedies in our history, and the bereaved survivors and immediate community will never forget, nor should they, and nor should we. We seek in this debate and in the work of Government and Parliament not only to honour the memory of those who died, but to build a legacy in their name: safer and greener homes, better social housing, and a lasting commitment to those affected by these terrible events. This Government, this House and, indeed, our whole country have a responsibility and a stake in the future of Grenfell and the community. Across this House, we have pledged to remember the lives lost and to seek truth in their names, and we will honour them by the legacy they inspire.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 1:26, 6 July 2023

The fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017 killed 72 people—18 were children and many, as the Secretary of State said, were disabled. The inferno wiped out entire families, ripped others apart and traumatised a community. The fear that Grenfell residents must have felt on that night is truly unimaginable, and those who survived will be forever scarred by what they experienced.

In the days after the fire, as pictures of the smouldering and charred building were broadcast across the country and the world, there was a collective feeling across Britain that not only did we now have no choice but to confront issues that had been disregarded for far too long, but that the sheer horror of what happened would not allow us to forget. But the truth is that even events as traumatic as Grenfell will fade from our collective consciousness unless we work to ensure they are remembered. For that reason alone, this debate is essential. While we lament the fact that the Government did not ensure that it took place on or around the anniversary date, we nevertheless welcome the fact that we have the opportunity today to commemorate the fire and its victims, to consider again the circumstances leading up to and surrounding it, and to debate its wider ramifications.

On 14 June this year, I took part in the Grenfell silent walk, as did several other hon. Members present. As it always is, it was a profoundly moving experience. At the end of the walk, the magnitude of the human loss is brought painfully home as the names of each and every one of the 72 men, women and children who perished in the fire are slowly and methodically called out to those assembled in stillness. But this year’s walk felt different, because alongside the usual grief and loss, one could sense a palpable anger among the crowd of an intensity that I have not witnessed before. Listening to those who spoke at the rally near the base of the tower at the end of the walk, it was clear that that anger is borne not only from the ever-present knowledge that what happened could have been avoided if shortcuts were not taken, reckless and unforgivable decisions were not made, and repeated warnings were not ignored, but from the fact that, six years on, the prospect of justice appears so distant.

On these Benches, we recognise, as we always have, the need to await the final report of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, but we understand the frustration and outrage that the community evidently feels as the years pass by without justice having been secured for their loved ones. The pursuit of justice will go on, as it must, yet the survivors, the bereaved and the wider Grenfell community, to whom the Opposition again pay tribute today, have always been clear that securing wider change and a lasting legacy is equally important to them. Amid all the setbacks and frustrations that they have experienced, it is important that we recognise that they have already helped to change things for the better. But when it comes to decisively and markedly improving standards in social housing and making sure that all buildings across the country are safe, there is still so much more to be done.

When it comes to improving the quality of social housing, tangible progress has been made over the course of the past 12 months. We pressed for it to be strengthened further, but we have worked with the Government to ensure the rapid passage of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill through this place. Improved as it was by a number of Government concessions, we very much look forward to it receiving Royal Assent in the near future.

As the Secretary of State will know, operationalising that Bill will require a number of further measures, including determining the specific requirements that will flow from Awaab’s law; reviewing existing guidance on the health impacts of damp and mould in homes; and putting in place the new consumer regulation regime and updated regulatory standards. We would be grateful if the Government updated the House during the debate on progress on all those fronts.

While overhauling the regulation of social housing is a necessary step to improving its quality across England, legislation alone is unlikely to be enough. We recognise that many social landlords provide good-quality, safe and secure homes in which individuals and families can and do thrive. We also appreciate fully the challenging context in which social landlords have had to operate over recent years, including the significant costs of building safety remediation works, but we are convinced that many social landlords need to ask themselves difficult, but essential questions about the quality of some of the homes they provide and the service their tenants receive, as well as examining afresh their culture and processes. The recently published “Better Social Housing Review”, overseen by the National Housing Federation and the Chartered Institute of Housing, is a welcome development in that regard, and we look forward to seeing how individual providers implement its recommendations over the coming months and years.

We also recognise that progress has been made over the past year when it comes to addressing the building safety crisis. I particularly welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on product manufacturers. We encourage him to explore and exhaust all possible options that the Government have to hold them to account. In the course of the past year, some leaseholders have been given legal protection; some developers have entered into a legal agreement to remediate unsafe buildings that they have either constructed or refurbished; and some lenders have agreed to offer mortgages on blocks of flats with safety issues, but if we ask the hundreds of thousands of people still living in unsafe buildings across the country whether they expect the building safety crisis as it affects them to be resolved fully by this time next year or even this time two years hence, the answer we will receive from the vast majority is a resounding no.

The Secretary of State is right that all ACM issues on social housing blocks have been resolved, but we still do not know the full extent of the crisis as it affects social homes, because providers are ineligible to apply for support unless their financial viability is threatened. The overall pace of remediation across the country remains glacial. Shamefully, Grenfell-style ACM cladding, which should not be on any building in this country or any other country, is still present on 40 high-rise buildings in England six years on, and just 37 non-ACM buildings have been fully remediated out of the 1,225 that made applications to the building safety fund.

All the evidence suggests that only a small proportion of leaseholders in unsafe buildings have seen remediation works begin and a far larger proportion has no identified date for the commencement of works and no estimated timescale for completion, including many in buildings covered by the developer remediation contract. As a result, despite some lenders being willing in principle to offer mortgages, six years on from Grenfell the majority of leaseholders in privately-owned buildings are still trapped. Within their captivity, many are being bled dry by service charges that more often than not have escalated sharply as a result of soaring buildings insurance premiums. That is a scandal that the Government have singularly failed to step in and decisively resolve over multiple years, despite continuous pleading from Members from across the House.

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

I apologise for not being here for the first words of the debate. Can I confirm that the hon. Gentleman is saying that what leaseholders need is what social tenants have got: the problem needs to be identified and it needs to be fixed, and then the funding should happen? To wait for the funding is the wrong way round.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I hope the Father of the House will accept that we have argued consistently since the start of this crisis that the Government should step in and fund and then use their power to recover as we go forward, because too many leaseholders are trapped. That is not just in the context of this problem, but due to the wider inequities of the leasehold system, and we need to tackle that problem in due course.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Labour, Leeds East

I thank the shadow Minister for his thoughtful and detailed remarks. Taking him back to a point he made about ACM cladding, survivors of the Grenfell fire and the bereaved are keen to see ACM cladding banned globally. As he mentioned, it is on 40 blocks in the UK as it stands. Would he like to see it effectively banned globally and removed from those 40 blocks in this country?

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

ACM should not be on any building in England six years after the fire, and it is shameful that it is, but my hon. Friend is right. The Government should use their authority and the experience they have gleaned over the past six years to make the case worldwide, because this material should not be on any building. It is dangerous, and it should never have been put up in the first place.

While all trapped leaseholders are feeling the strain, in relative terms some are better off than others, because the Government made the political choice to provide some with legal protection from the costs of historic non-cladding defects, while leaving others exposed to bills that will not only lead to financial ruin in many instances, but will have a material impact on the progress of remediation in buildings where such non-qualifying leaseholders are large in number. Even at this late stage, I urge the Secretary of State to reconsider the arbitrary division of blameless leaseholders into those who qualify for protection under the law and those who do not, as well as beseeching him to ensure that the Government finally grip and drive from the centre an accelerated programme of remediation across the country.

To conclude, six years on from the horror of Grenfell, things have changed, but they have not changed anywhere near enough. If we are to ensure that everyone has a secure, decent, affordable and safe home in which to live, far more still needs to be done, and done quickly. If it is not, we will be back here again next year, marking the seventh anniversary of the fire, still bemoaning the fact that too many social tenants are being let down and too many buildings are not being made safe, with the lives of too many blameless leaseholders destroyed. We owe it to the survivors, the bereaved, the wider Grenfell community and the legacy they want to see established to ensure that that is not the case.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Levelling Up) 1:36, 6 July 2023

Like others, our thoughts and prayers go to the Grenfell community as we remember them in this debate. It is worth remembering that the Grenfell fire killed 72 people due to flammable cladding, and this House remembers the lives that were lost. It is also worth remembering that during the platinum jubilee celebrations, 72 seats were left unfilled at a street party to remind the community of the lives lost. Each place at the table was set with a name card, napkin, plate, cup and flag. Yvette Williams, a Justice4Grenfell campaigner, said:

“Five years on, a toothless public inquiry and millions still trapped in their homes by flammable cladding—and still no justice. There have been no lessons learned and little action taken. As people up and down the country enjoy street parties, as they quite rightly should, we want to let the powers that be know that our community will always remember the 72 who died needlessly here that night.”

A total of 6,247 people were referred to the dedicated NHS Grenfell health and wellbeing service. Of those, 1,476 were children. Dr Sara Northey, who runs therapy for children and young people at the dedicated NHS Grenfell health and wellbeing service, has described the scale of the trauma as “unprecedented”. She said:

“This is an unusual trauma as it affected a whole community and is definitely ongoing. Grief doesn’t just go away. But what is striking is also the strength people have in the relationships here and the connection people have. At the heart of the trauma is a shattering of safety. We have seen a lot of avoidance of things that remind children of fire. A bonfire or candles on a birthday cake can be quite triggering. Some are worried about electronics in the home and need to check things are switched off. Children are being, kind of, hyperaware of safety in a way that most children don’t have to be.”

I hope that Ministers will tell the House that, while it is important that we concentrate on building safety, they are committed to ensuring that these health and wellbeing services will still be there and maintained to help the people of Grenfell. As the Secretary of State rightly said, there should be an annual debate not just to discuss building health and safety, but it should also ensure that the health and wellbeing of that community is maintained.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Levelling Up)

I see that the Secretary of State agrees; I thank him for that.

The Scottish Government are spending every penny of consequential funding they receive on this programme of work, with committed spend of £1.3 million. The Scottish cladding remediation programme is designed to ensure that there is no cost to property owners and residents for the procurement and production of a single building assessment for each building. The Scottish Government first have to carry out comprehensive and technical assessments to understand the extent of the problem. The vast majority of buildings in the initial phase of the Scottish Government’s programme have secured fire engineers, and a new streamlined process for commissioning the assessments will help to identify at-risk buildings more quickly.

The safety of residents and homeowners in Scotland is of the utmost priority as the Scottish Government work to tackle cladding safety issues through our single building assessment, which has been expanded to more than 100 buildings. We will create a register of buildings that will provide assurance to the public following the completion of any necessary remediation works. If experts identify an issue that needs immediate action to safeguard residents, the Scottish Government will take action and expect developers to do likewise on their buildings.

This can be a complex and time-consuming programme. A number of assessments are either at final or pre-final reporting stage, with discussions on remediation under way. I hope that, at the conclusion of the debate, the Minister will update the House about the discussions that Ministers are having with the devolved Administrations. It is about funding and the Barnett consequentials that kick in when the UK Government spend money.

The Scottish Government have strengthened and will continue to strengthen the building standards system in Scotland, with the building standards futures board established to undertake a programme of work to strengthen the system. The Scottish Government have legislated to improve fire safety by banning developers from using combustible cladding on residential and other high-risk buildings above 11 metres. Scotland was the first part of the UK to ban the highest-risk metal composite cladding material from any new building of any height.

Since 2005, new cladding systems on high rise blocks of flats have had either to use non-combustible materials or pass a large-scale fire test. The building standards legislation removes the option of a fire test, completely prohibiting such materials from use on domestic and other high risk buildings such as care homes and hospitals above 11 metres. In October 2019, the Scottish Government strengthened guidance in relation to combustible cladding, means of escape and measures to assist the fire service. The regulations were passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament to protect lives and property following the tragic Grenfell Tower fire.

I have outlined some of the work being done in Scotland. On behalf of the Scottish National party, I want to emphasise that our thoughts, prayers and love go out to the Grenfell community.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Solicitor General 1:43, 6 July 2023

I agree with the Secretary of State that we should have an annual Grenfell debate. It would be better to have it on, or as near as possible to, the anniversary date; it is somewhat disrespectful that we have waited nearly a month to have it this year. I am sure that the silent walks will continue. I have tried to attend them, at least on the anniversary, and I have noticed how, over the six years, the mood has changed from grief to frustration about the lack of progress from all sides—whether the Government or the inquiry—and now to real anger. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Matthew Pennycook, was also there, and I am sure that he agrees on that point. I therefore do not recognise much of what the Secretary of State said about what is happening.

What seems to be happening is that, every year, there are more complex issues and while there has been some degree of resolution, more questions are raised and there are more problems to resolve about the causes and spread of fires. That, to a large extent, is to do with cladding, and not just ACM cladding. There are many other reasons why fire spreads through high rise buildings in particular. The families want to see a complete ban on ACM cladding on all buildings not only in this country but internationally. I hope that the Government will campaign for that to happen, because it is not only in the UK that tragic fires such as Grenfell have happened.

There are huge issues with the design of new buildings. That is evolving all the time, as we see in the two-staircase issue, as well as in remediation. It is to some extent easy to set new building standards for new buildings—well, it can be done—but we are lagging behind substantially in doing remedial work on existing buildings. Much of this comes down to finance. That is not just for individual leaseholders, who in certain circumstances will still have to pay out large sums of money, or where money is not forthcoming up front; it is also for social tenants, because social landlords are not getting the same degree of financial support as leaseholders, and social landlords have competing priorities as to what they spend their money on. Although I would like to, I will not take the time to deal with all those issues. I will deal with just three issues in detail.

First, there is the causes of fires. The cause of the Grenfell fire was what I am holding in my hand: a crimp, which is a small piece of wiring that costs a few pence. As I am sure people will guess, I am not an expert in these matters, so I am grateful to Richard Farthing, chairman of the Hammersmith Society, who has a background in electrical and electronic manufacturing. He sent me the expert report on the cause of the Grenfell fire. I will not go through all the technical details, but its short conclusion is:

“A probable cause of the fire is a poor crimp connection…an overheated wire connector within the compressor relay compartment for the fridge freezer (Hotpoint Model FF175BP) from Flat 16.”

It is as simple as that: a little component, costing a matter of pennies, which was either not fitted properly or not manufactured properly, caused a fire that led to the deaths of 72 people. Of course, there were many other issues of causation in Grenfell and elsewhere, but that draws attention to the lack of quality control in manufacturing processes.

The second issue on cause, which I encounter every month—not a month goes by when I do not hear about this, usually in a social housing block of flats in my constituency—is fires caused by lithium batteries. I say fires, but they are usually explosions. This is an extraordinary problem that the London Fire Brigade and, I am sure, fire brigades across the country are very much aware of.

A couple of weeks ago, three people were taken to hospital after a fire broke out in a flat in West Kensington due to a converted e-bike catching fire. What happens is that people buy a bike and want to convert it into an e-bike, so they buy a kit and a battery. Many of these things are bought second hand and are cheap, with faults in manufacture, so they overheat and literally explode. Anyone who does not believe me should look at the London Fire Brigade’s Twitter feed, where they will see explosions that completely engulf a room of a flat—sometimes the whole flat—within seconds. If compartmentalisation works—the fire is kept in that flat because of the construction of the doors and walls—and the occupants of the flat escape, there may be no serious injuries, but if that does not happen and the fire spreads, as it quite easily can, it is almost impossible to contain. That is about a lack of regulation. Why are we allowing such kits to be sold? Why are we allowing people to use them in high-rise buildings in that way? As I said, probably once a month I go and view the site of a fire caused by exactly that somewhere in my constituency, and it is only a matter of time before there are more fatalities. There have been fatalities through lithium batteries in that way.

The third issue on cause again comes from personal experience. The year before Grenfell, in a high-rise block of flats, Shepherd’s Court, on Shepherd’s Bush Green, a faulty tumble dryer caught fire and destroyed the flat. Hundreds of thousands of them were manufactured, mainly by a large company called Whirlpool under names such as Hotpoint and Indesit. They were cheaply made, cheap to buy and often sold second hand, and they are causing hundreds if not thousands of fires across the country. There is a lack of design prowess. Whether it is the crimp, quality control, the batteries, lack of regulation or lack of design, there is a crisis across the manufacturing and design sector.

I commend to the Secretary of State a newly published book by Professor Shane Ewen of Leeds Beckett University, “Before Grenfell: Fire, Safety and Deregulation in Twentieth-Century Britain”. It says:

“the Grenfell Tower fire was a disaster foretold—the culmination of successive decades of deregulation, corporate greed and institutional failure to learn from the lessons of past multiple-fatality fires.”

It is a very good read and I recommend it to the Secretary of State. It indicates that the crisis did not begin and certainly did not end with Grenfell, but has been going on a long time—the result of either deliberate Government policy or Government neglect to take care of the issues.

The second issue is design. As is often the case, I am grateful to the Royal Institute of British Architects, which has been pushing the issues of design and remedial work to high-rise buildings. Its particular ask is the trigger point for a second staircase. I think that people are familiar with the issue of having at least two staircases. Extraordinarily, hitherto, whereas non-residential buildings over 11 metres had to have a second staircase, a residential building can be as tall as you like. I know that because just overlooking my constituency in north Acton is a 50-plus-storey, newly constructed block that has one staircase in it. I am pleased to say that, due to the action of the Major of London, those seeking planning permission for blocks of flats over 30 metres are required to go back and put in a second staircase. A submission from RIBA, experts in this field, states that that should apply to any residential building over 18 metres. I would like the Government to adopt that.

When refurbishing, it may be difficult to put in a second staircase. There, the ask is that evacuation lifts, sprinklers and centrally addressable fire alarm systems be put in. Those do not have to be fire alarms that any resident can activate. In the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, the “stay put” policy increasingly does not work. I understand why it was maintained, and it works in many cases, but it does not work if residents—completely understandably—fear for their lives and evacuate the building. If a decision is made to evacuate a building, there has to be a way of telling people in that building. Alarm systems that are controllable at least by the fire service are an important part of that equation. I cannot for the life of me think why we are not retrofitting sprinklers into high-rise buildings. They will stop 99% of fires. Many, many tragedies could be avoided if that happened.

My final point is the consequence. This debate is partly about social housing more generally, but I am not sure we have time to go into all aspects of that. I would like to address the crossover between fire safety and social housing providers, and the pressures on their resources. I was prompted to do so after reading an extraordinary interview that the Housing Minister, Rachel Maclean, gave to Inside Housing a couple of days ago. It states:

“When asked what housing associations should prioritise without additional funding from government, and facing pressure to build, retrofit stock and meet building safety and historic disrepair costs, Ms Maclean replied: ‘It’s up to them.’”

That shows an absolute tin ear to the current pressures on social landlords. They want to develop new stock—again, completely contrary to what the Housing Minister said in that interview, the number of social rented homes that this Government have created is appalling low, standing at 7,644 last year. She said in the same interview:

“We’ve delivered more social rented homes in this government than under the last Labour government.”

These facts are easily discoverable: the current Government have built less than half the number built by the previous Labour Government.

That is only one aspect of the crisis in social housing. We have heard about damp, mould and disrepair, which need to be dealt with. Retrofitting needs to be dealt with—at a cost of about £23 billion—as well as building safety, which is what we are talking about today. Why are social housing landlords in such a plight? The answer is that they lost 60% of the social housing grant under the austerity Government. Due to rent controls and other matters, they are unable to come up with the resources they need. It is so bad that the smaller associations are going under or are having to merge into much larger associations.

The whole sector is being distorted by the financial pressures. The big landlord group G15 says that out of the £6 billion it will need to pay for remedial work due to fire safety measures, it will have to find £4 billion itself. That means that its tenants and leaseholders will have to find that money, because there is no other readily available source. Shepherds Bush Housing Group, a formerly well-respected local medium-sized housing association, has just had to be taken over by Guinness, a much larger association, because it simply cannot financially survive with all the pressures on it.

There is an existential threat to the social housing market. Previous Conservative Governments decided to move from council housing to housing associations in a big way. The Government will have to rethink where they are on those issues because it is no longer sustainable for housing associations to go forward with the financial support that they have.

When the Housing Minister winds up the debate, perhaps she will correct some of the errors that she made in that interview, and perhaps she will address a more listening ear to social landlords. They perform an extremely important function. I heard everything the Secretary of State said about that; the rhetoric is all well and good, but the actuality is that tenants are living in poor conditions and people are in temporary accommodation —we have the highest levels ever—because no decent social housing is being built and maintained in this country. That is what tenants and leaseholders are looking for, not warm words and empty rhetoric.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Paymaster General 1:58, 6 July 2023

I welcome this debate, six years on from the Grenfell tragedy. No amount of words and speeches can remove the grief and pain inflicted on the families and friends of the 72 lives lost to the fire. We will never forget. The scars will be with the community and with our nation for generations to come. I pay tribute to the families, survivors, the community and Grenfell United for their voice and for campaigning so consistently—despite their own grief—for change, transparency and justice. Lessons have not been learned. Countless people still live in buildings with hazardous cladding. Although I welcome the Building Safety Act and its good intentions, progress has just been too painfully slow. During covid we saw how fast the Government can move when they need to, in stark contrast to their slowness in setting up the building safety fund, which did not even account for the number of people or blocks affected. Registration took so long and then had to be extended, still without providing huge amounts of money to developers. They were then so slow to bring developers to the table. It is their faults, their mistakes and their errors, but it is people who are paying the price.

For more than three years since I was elected, I have been supporting thousands of constituents in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields in 30 blocks with unsafe cladding. Only one—only one—has had its cladding fully removed. The scaffolding went up and was up for quite a long time. It has now been removed and the residents are now in a safe building, but in all the other blocks either the cladding is untouched and they do not know when it will be removed, or, for a couple of blocks, the scaffolding is up and the cladding is being removed. But why, six years on, has there been so little work? I speak to constituents constantly who are furious that their cladding has still not been removed, and that reflects the situation up and down the country.

Just this week I had a meeting with residents, developers and managing agents of one of those developments. The residents were asking, “Is our building safe?” All the developers could say was, “Well, it’s not, not safe.” That is not good enough if you are living in that building, worried about what will happen at night. So much money has been spent on waking watch—many residents call it sleeping watch—which really has not worked. Was it necessary? In the meeting this week, I heard from one person who said she could not renegotiate her mortgage because of lenders’ building safety concerns, so her mortgage costs were going up by £2,000 a month. Another has had to borrow from friends and family. He, too, was unable to renegotiate his mortgage because of those concerns. They could not be given a comfort letter by the developer, which is one of those that has signed the developer pledge, because it could not guarantee the work would be done to a high enough extent for mortgage lenders. People still have the mental distress of living in what could be unsafe homes; unable to let them, they cannot move on with their lives—have a normal life—despite spending so much money on a home. The big questions they have for the developers are, “When will they even start the work for my development?” and “When will it finish? When will this be over?” That is what they are asking.

I want to come on to talk about the actions the Government have taken, but the trouble is that every action they take and every question they eventually answer leaves about two more unanswered. It is not acceptable that after all these years, I must still—with many other Members, such as my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter, who has done so much to campaign on this issue—come back to the Chamber. What will happen to the vast majority of people living in social housing who have still not had sprinklers retrofitted in their blocks? As Inside Housing reported, fewer than 20% of high rise social housing blocks have been fitted with sprinklers and only 12% with fire alarms. Instead, there needs to be work, block by block, with the residents of those blocks on what needs to happen to keep them safe.

What will happen to the 140,000 leaseholders in England who are living in mid-rise buildings with “life safety” fire risks? There has been no update on the medium-rise remediation fund since the pilot scheme was launched for only 60 blocks. What will happen to the unknown numbers of people who live in buildings under 11 metres with lethal cladding still on them, which likely house disabled residents, not to mention the unresolved issues that leaseholders have had with EWS1 forms? What will happen to leaseholders who have non-cladding defects, but cannot afford the £15,000 spending cap in London or the £10,000 spending cap outside London? What will happen to people living in the almost 12,000 buildings with non-ACM flammable cladding? Why did the Government water down the personal emergency evacuation plans for disabled people, and go against the recommendations of the inquiry? I am glad that the personal emergency evacuation plans were mentioned by the Secretary of State, but there are so many more questions about when it will be actioned. Will the Minister enact the Financial Conduct Authority’s recommendations on spiralling insurance costs, which were also mentioned in the debate? That is a huge issue for many of my constituents. Many leaseholders are suffering and even going bankrupt. They face increases of over 500% on their insurance costs. What will happen to those people? Will they be forgotten, or do the Government have a plan?

Without robust and swift enforcement, the Building Safety Act 2022 is toothless. Will the Secretary of State say why a deadline was not put in place for when developers have to remove their cladding, rather than the vague ask of “as soon as reasonably practicable”? Is there any plan to have a deadline? Will the developers who signed the pledge, which is welcome, be given a final deadline? Will residents know when they are likely to be out of the nightmare they are facing? Developers just seem to be dragging their feet while costs are rising. The Secretary of State mentioned a legal duty on developers who signed the pledge to get on with remediation. It would be far better if that “getting on with it” was given an actual date, which would focus their minds, help release so much of the concern and worry, bring down insurance costs and provide the comfort that mortgage lenders say they need.

The Department has only shared details on threatening to take one developer to court if it does not agree to remediation works. I think the Secretary of State said there may be two more in process, but whether it is one or three that is such a small number. What serious consequences are there currently for the countless other developers who have refused to sign the remediation contract or have delayed works? Can the Minister state how often the building safety regulator will call in the accountable person and what the enforcement will be?

As the Secretary of State said, Kingspan, Arconic and Saint-Gobain are the manufacturers whose cladding was installed in Grenfell Tower. It is still going on many other buildings. I am glad action is being taken, but they still have not paid a single penny towards remediation costs. As their profits soar, taxpayers are footing the bill of their negligence to the tune of £5 billion. Enforcement needs to be more than just a letter asking them to pay. Where is the accountability? What is the hold up? Where is the justice?

I am glad that the voice of social housing tenants has been mentioned, because that is at the heart of the issue. That includes temporary accommodation tenants who often have very little voice They do not know how long they will be placed for. They do not know where to go to have their say. Often, additional work is not done by councils to enable them to have a voice, yet they may be raising the very issues, the equivalent of which were being raised by Grenfell residents before the tragedy. Their voice needs to be heard. Government support should be built into the system to reward councils that give their social housing tenants, including temporary accommodation tenants, a voice that leads to actual change. Additional work and support is needed to ensure those tenants know their voice can be heard, but they need to be listened to. If that lesson of Grenfell is not learned, we may see more tragedies that could have been stopped.

Grenfell was not an isolated incident, but the result of decades of unfettered deregulation of our safety. Our hospitals are crumbling. Our homes are riddled with toxic mould and lethal cladding. One-fifth of all firefighters have been axed. A year before Grenfell, the Conservatives voted against making homes fit for human habitation. The truth is that it took the tragedies of Grenfell and baby Awaab’s death from mould for the Government to even think about improving safety standards. Previously, I have called for a Minister for mould, because of so many cases I know of where families’ health has been put at risk from the mould they suffer in their homes. The pace and scope of action has been woefully inadequate and consequently there is very little to prevent another tragedy happening again. That terrifies me.

My constituents are exhausted. Campaigners on cladding are exhausted. I am exhausted. Grenfell United is continuing on bravely, but their justice needs to be seen. The legacy of Grenfell, the tragic deaths of 72 wonderful lives, must be justice and certainty that this will never happen again. How has this not been sorted out six years on? It will go down in history as one of the great failings of this Government. All my constituents want is to live in a home that is safe, to buy a home that they know is safe, to be able to sell that home if they need to, and not to have to pay for the mistakes of others. My final question to the Minister is this: is that too much to ask?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

Order. We are about to come to the winding-up speeches. Following the conclusion of this debate, there will be a statement on Iran from the Foreign Secretary. Any Members wishing to question the Foreign Secretary on his statement should make their way to the Chamber now.

Photo of Paula Barker Paula Barker Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:10, 6 July 2023

May I first associate myself with the comments of the Secretary of State in welcoming the families and friends of those involved in the Grenfell tragedy, and the survivors, who are in the Public Gallery today?

It is a privilege to respond to this debate on behalf of His Majesty’s Opposition. As has already been said, Opposition Members were disappointed that no time was afforded for a debate nearer to the time of the anniversary of the Grenfell tragedy back in June, but I thank all Members who have contributed to the important debate that we have had this afternoon. We have heard several excellent speeches dealing with both the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the Grenfell fire and its wider ramifications—those ramifications being the trauma that survivors live with each and every day, and also the trauma experienced by the families and friends of the victims and those who reside in the wider community.

In one of the richest boroughs of our capital, what the Grenfell fire shone a light on was rampant and unchecked inequality, and, alongside that, a housing crisis which to this day remains unaddressed, with too many of our people in homes that are uninhabitable and dangerous—and, lest we forget, with people still on social housing waiting lists, waiting for a place to call their own. In the aftermath of tragedy and the loss of human life, we can only begin to remedy the sense of loss and human suffering with accountability, truth and justice, and, most important, by vowing never to bear witness to a repetition of the events that unfolded on 14 June 2017, and vowing never again to lose a two-year-old boy like Awaab Ishak—who died because the social housing provider would not act on the complaints from his family—to the scourge of damp and mould.

Chris Stephens was right to say that the scale of the trauma from Grenfell was unprecedented. He was also right to speak of the need for health and wellbeing services to be maintained. My hon. Friend Andy Slaughter spoke movingly about the important issue of social landlords not receiving the same amount of support as leaseholders. In his usual knowledgeable fashion, he also spoke about the crisis across the design sector and the lack of regulation, the financial pressures on social landlords, and the existential threat posed by those factors.

I welcomed the contribution from my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson, especially when she compared the speed with which the Government had moved during the covid crisis with the slowness of progress in this area, and referred to the many unanswered questions. She spoke of the need to reduce insurance costs and the assurances required by mortgage lenders, and it was a poignant moment when she also spoke of the need for those in temporary accommodation to have a voice.

All those Members made earnest contributions to the debate, and I thank them for that, because, after all, these matters are too important, too central to human dignity, not to be afforded time in this place—or, indeed, the corridors of power in Whitehall. The community of Grenfell need answers, and they deserve answers. Unlike my hon. Friend Matthew Pennycook, I was unable to join in the recent Grenfell walk, but I echo his observation that there was a real sense of anger and frustration this year. As we know, at the end of the Grenfell walks the scale of human loss is painfully brought home as the name of each one of the 72 men, women and children who perished is called out to those who are present.

Of course we await the outcome of the Grenfell inquiry, as we must, but I hear those cries of vexation, those calls for justice. Opposition Members eagerly anticipate the contents of the inquiry’s final report, and look forward to our institutions acting on its recommendations and delivering the three key tenets that the community expects: accountability, truth and justice.

When it comes to decisively and markedly improving standards in social housing and ensuring that all buildings are safe, there is still much to be done, although, as has been said, progress has been made over the past 12 months in improving the quality of social housing. Opposition Members wanted the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill to be strengthened further, but we worked with the Government to ensure its rapid passage through this place. What happens next will be pivotal to cementing the difference that the legislation should make. The Government have that responsibility and the social housing sector bears its responsibility, too. The National Housing Federation and the Chartered Institute of Housing shone a spotlight on this issue in their report entitled “The Better Social Housing Review”. The sector must act swiftly on the report’s seven recommendations, not least the first, which states:

“Every housing association, and the sector…should refocus on their core purpose and deliver against it.”

The Opposition recognise that progress has been made in other areas, particularly building safety, but it remains too slow for far too many. As has been pointed out today, some leaseholders have been given legal protection, some developers have entered into a legal agreement to remediate unsafe buildings that they either constructed or refurbished, and a small number of lenders have agreed to offer mortgages on blocks with safety issues, but ultimately that is entirely inadequate. Remediation work has been painstaking and laborious, and has not even begun in too many instances. Those who have walked around any of our major cities containing high-rise blocks over the last few years will have seen shells of apartment blocks, which remain to this day. The cladding was quickly removed, but what now for the people and families at the heart of this story? Evidence suggests that only a small proportion of leaseholders in unsafe buildings have seen remediation works begin, while a far larger proportion have no identified date for the commencement of works and no estimated timescale for their completion. Our people deserve better.

The Government have not finished the job and we urge them to deliver the change that many are still crying out for. They must step up and look at this entire agenda in the round. The Fire Brigades Union is right to condemn them for the fact that in England there are currently fewer fire safety inspectors who are competent to carry out audits and serve enforcement notices than there were in the year after the Grenfell Tower fire. Why is that?

I also ask the Government to heed the calls of the Local Government Association, which is saying very clearly that councils and fire and rescue services need clarity on what is expected of them as regulators alongside the Building Safety Regulator. A significant amount of secondary legislation still needs to be approved by Parliament to implement the new building safety regime and, of course, effective delivery of that new regime depends on adequate resources for both councils and fire and rescue services. I would welcome updates on that from the Government.

Good-quality, safe homes are the bedrock of human dignity. Housing must never take life; rather, it should preserve the sanctity of life. Our people should be allowed to grow, flourish and experience a life well lived, but for too long, the opposite has been the case.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 2:18, 6 July 2023

It is a pleasure to conclude the debate on behalf of the Government.

Six years on—as the powerful and moving contributions to the debate have illustrated—the still unimaginable events of 14 June 2017 continue to demand searching answers from us as a country about who we are and who we aspire to be. They reaffirm the unshakeable commitment across this House to those most affected: the commitment to provide long-term support for recovery and the rebuilding of shattered lives, and to provide a legacy worthy of the 72 men, women and children who lost their lives. We honour their memory, and the courage and dignity of the bereaved and the survivors in the Grenfell community. I am pleased to see them represented here today; it was humbling and a privilege to have a conversation with a few of them before I came to the Chamber. Their quest for truth and justice and their campaigning, in the interests of others, to reform systems that so grievously failed them is humbling and inspiring in equal measure.

As we have heard, the issues raised by those in the Grenfell Tower community had been present for many years. Their calls for change went unanswered and their concerns were ignored. They were failed by the institutions and mechanisms developed to support and protect them. As the Secretary of State has said, we are determined to learn from the past so that no community ever again suffers as they have. More than anything, that must mean people being safe in their homes.

As the Minister responsible for housing, I am aware of the heavy debt we owe the Grenfell community. Over the past year, that has involved making homes with the most dangerous cladding safer, protecting leaseholders from unfair and punitive remediation costs, getting those responsible to face up to their financial and moral responsibilities, and fundamentally overhauling and strengthening the entire building safety system.

The Grenfell community has also rightly kept up the pressure on my Department to ensure that we never again ignore the voices of people living in social housing, and that it provides the safe, decent homes and respectful, good-quality services that they expect and deserve. Awaab Ishak’s tragic death underlined the urgency of that work, which we are taking forward through the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, amended to include Awaab’s law—new requirements for social landlords to address hazards such as damp and mould within a fixed timeframe.

There is, of course, much more to do, and I do not underestimate the toll that six long years of waiting for the truth and for justice to be done has taken on the people of North Kensington. Like them, we keenly await the publication of the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s final report—we have already begun implementing recommendations in the phase 1 report—and the outcome of the ongoing Met police investigation. We also look forward to seeing a fitting and lasting memorial delivered at the Grenfell Tower site through the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission, working in partnership with the community. I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the commission’s work. However, beyond truth and justice, the greatest legacy we can deliver is a continued commitment to listening, learning and acting to secure a better future for all—a profound commitment that I know is shared across the House.

Let me turn to some of the points raised by hon. Members in the debate. We heard from Andy Slaughter, from the SNP spokes- person, Chris Stephens, and from Fleur Anderson, as well as from the two Labour spokespeople, the hon. Members for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker). I thank them all for their contributions.

We recognised that sprinklers could play a greater role, so we lowered the threshold for the provision of sprinkler systems in new blocks of flats from 30 metres to 11 metres in 2020, following a consultation on sprinklers and fire safety measures, through changes to approved document B. Sprinklers are only one of a range of measures that can be provided in buildings, and building owners are already bound by a clear obligation to ensure that existing buildings have a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment in place. Retrofitting sprinklers is not always the right option; other fire safety measures, such as measures recommended by phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, may be more appropriate for an individual building.

I was asked how people living in buildings under 11 metres can be helped when they face expensive bills for remediation. It is the ultimate responsibility of building owners to ensure that residential buildings of all heights are safe, and the consensus is that the level of risk tallies with the height of the building. The risk to life is usually lower in buildings under 11 metres in height, which are very unlikely to need costly remediation to make them safe. Indeed, a fire risk appraisal of external walls conducted in accordance with the PAS 9980 principles will often find that lower-cost mitigations are more appropriate in low-rise buildings. Nevertheless, my Department has committed to looking at buildings under 11 metres where remediation costs are involved on a case-by-case basis. We think that is the right approach.

We have banned ACM cladding on all new builds. At the end of May 2023, 96% of all identified high-rise residential and publicly owned buildings in England had either completed or started work to remove and replace unsafe cladding, and 450 buildings—92%—no longer have unsafe ACM, with 84% having completed ACM remediation work. We continue to keep up the pressure to ensure that that job is finished.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Paymaster General

Is there a date by which the Minister would like to reach 100% removal of ACM cladding?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Of course, we would all like to see that happen much more quickly. That is why we are continuing with the legislative measures that we have set out, including the Building Safety Act and all the other work that goes behind that, as the Secretary of State said.

I was asked about social housing regulation. The direction of travel is clear: residents have spoken and reform is coming to the social housing sector. We are committed to implementing the new regulatory regime enabled by the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill. I thank Opposition Members for assisting us with passing the Bill. The new regime will be implemented in 2024. The Secretary of State will consult on any directions to the regulator, and the regulator will then need to consult on its proposed consumer standards. That is just part of a wider programme of work to drive up the quality of social housing and reduce the number of non-decent rented homes by 50% by 2030. That includes tougher regulation and a strengthened housing ombudsman service, a review of the decent homes standard, and providing residents with more performance information.

Mr Deputy Speaker, 72 months since the Grenfell community lost 72 family members, friends and neighbours, the enormity of what happened that night in June 2017 remains inescapable. Those who never made it out of the tower paid with their lives, in the homes where they should have been most safe, for collective failings, including on the part of the Government, for which we have apologised. Six years on, those left behind continue to wait for answers and for those responsible to be held to account, not just today but every day, as they count the cost of precious lives cut short—six years of missing seeing loved ones grow up or grow old; missed life milestones; meals unshared; ordinary, everyday memories unmade. No apologies—no words—are enough to right those wrongs.

As the Secretary of State said, we will be judged not on our words but on our actions—actions to make homes safer and greener; to improve social housing and amplify the voices of residents; to make sure that those responsible step up or face the consequences; to provide long-term support for the Grenfell community for as long as it takes; to learn from the past, get to the truth and see justice done; and to ensure that everyone in our society has a safe, secure place to live that they are truly proud to call home. Let that be Grenfell’s abiding legacy.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered building safety and social housing.