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Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:20 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Conservative 2:20 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend and to commend her on her moving maiden speech. Following the Grenfell tragedy, as we heard, my noble friend worked closely with the survivors of the fire and the families of those who lost their lives.

My noble friend has skills which we are going to need, because she was also involved in setting up the inquiries into child sex abuse and infected blood. The theme running through all three inquiries—one mentioned by the right reverend Prelate—is the loss of trust in authority on the part of those who felt let down. When we have such a breakdown in confidence in the governance of the country, my noble friend can help us build the bridges that we need to restore it. We welcome her warmly and look forward to her future contributions.

I endorse the sympathetic remarks made by my noble friend Lord Bourne and others for the survivors and the families of those who perished in this tragedy. We were all moved by the press conference that they held yesterday, at times dignified and at times understandably emotional. I also endorse the commendations for the individual firefighters who risked their lives to save others, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and others.

I too welcome this debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Bourne, who, when he was a Minister, handled our debates and questions on the Grenfell Tragedy with such sensitivity, as well as taking a close personal interest in the welfare of the survivors. He was a model of a Lords Minister and I hope that it will be possible, perhaps after the election, for him to return to the Front Bench.

I will focus on one aspect of the consequences of the fire that has not been mentioned so far—namely, its impact on the residents of high-rise blocks in private ownership. The Government successfully persuaded a number of freeholders to take responsibility for remediation, without passing the costs on to leaseholders. But they were a minority. Case law has established that freeholders can pass the costs on to leaseholders. The Government responded in July, with the document Private Sector ACM Cladding Remediation Fund. I welcome this and know that my noble friend Lord Bourne pressed hard for it.

As the freehold of a number of privately owned blocks is now owned by the leaseholders, there is, in effect, no freeholder for them to look to. My questions for the Minister are about the regime set out in that document to help leaseholders in private blocks that are vulnerable. The document mentions the figure of £200 million. Is that a cash limit, or will the figure be higher if it turns out that the costs are also higher? If it is exceeded, will the excess come from the Treasury or from the department’s budget?

Then there is the issue highlighted in the Times earlier this week, which pointed out that of the nearly half a million flats in high-rise buildings clad in combustible materials, only 30,000 are covered by the Government’s scheme. Those leaseholders are unable to sell or remortgage. The Select Committee in another place recommended support for all high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding. There is a risk of long-term erosion of the value of the housing stock and its impact on mobility. I understand the Government’s reluctance to take on more liabilities, but I hope they might be proactive in looking for effective solutions for those in the blocks.

In Answer to a Written Question on 22 October, the Minister for Housing, Esther McVey, stated that, to date, no buildings had been awarded a grant from the fund. The Answer also stated that, by 18 October, 55 applications for funding had been started. It went on to say:

“We expect first applications to be approved in October. Homes England and the Greater London Authority are our delivery partners for the fund and are working with eligible building owners to ensure remediation is completed”.

Can my noble friend update us on progress?

The document also says that “building owners”—and in the case I have in mind, leaseholders—should,

“actively identify and pursue all reasonable claims against those involved in the original cladding installations, and to pursue insurance and warranty claims where possible”.

I quite understand that, but are those costs covered by the fund, and how will the department judge that enough has been done to try?

The document states that state aid declarations are required from every leaseholder. Is that absolutely necessary? Many leaseholders may be overseas and some are offshore companies, and it is really difficult to track them down. Is it really the case that everyone else is denied help if one leaseholder does not sign the state aid form? Finally, will right-to-buy leaseholders in local authority tower blocks get the help outlined, or is it just for those in private blocks? If they are not covered, they will be uniquely disadvantaged?

I appreciate that these are complex questions and my noble friend the Minister may not have all the answers, in which case I would settle for a written reply. But I know he will understand that there are many anxious leaseholders out there hoping for reassurance. The cry that went up yesterday, “Never again”, was repeated by my noble friend this afternoon. It is one that they hope the Government can respond to.