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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:02 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:02 pm, 31st October 2019

There is a lot of detail in what I want to say; I will come on to cladding. I also point out to the noble Lord that much of what we are doing must be regarded as part of a holistic approach so, on timetables, there may not be one particular date by which everything is done. It is a very complex process.

Soon after the fire, in July 2017, the Government commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt to conduct a review of building and fire safety. Noble Lords will recall that we have already agreed to take forward the recommendations of Dame Judith’s report in full as the basis for regulatory reforms in building and fire safety. Our comprehensive building safety programme, announced in the recent Queen’s Speech in the form of a Bill, will bring about a radically new building and fire safety system by: establishing a new regulatory framework; creating greater accountability and responsibility; issuing sanctions to tackle irresponsible behaviour by those responsible for buildings; and giving residents a stronger voice.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham referred to social housing. It is important that we improve quality and quantity, with a beneficial knock-on effect on health. We have committed to taking forward the social housing White Paper at pace. It will set out proposals for the standards that we set for social homes. We remain committed to increasing the supply of social housing, committing more than £9 billion as part of our affordable homes programme and delivering more than 250,000 homes by 2022.

Of course, we have had to take urgent steps in the interim to ensure that people are safe today. Much of this work has been around cladding. First, we have banned the use of combustible materials on high-rise homes and identified all buildings over 18 metres with unsafe ACM cladding.

The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, asked whether gas should no longer be used in high-rise buildings. It is an interesting point. I cannot answer her question easily today, but I can say that the Government have signalled their intention to prohibit the use of fossil fuels such as gas in new homes by 2025 for reasons of environmental protection.

Secondly, we have established a comprehensive programme to oversee the remediation of unsafe ACM cladding, providing £600 million of funding to support this work. My noble friend Lord Young and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, asked about the funding; it is beyond the £200 million that the Government are putting forward for private residential high-rise remediation. Both noble Lords asked what would happen if the costs go beyond this. I can confirm that the money set aside is an estimate and that plans are in place, should it become necessary, to revisit that estimate.

I am pleased that all social sector residential buildings with ACM cladding either have had the cladding removed, are undergoing work to remove it or, at the very least, have had such work scheduled. We have pushed on every front to ensure that the work is completed quickly, and today only a handful of building owners have yet to confirm their intention to remediate the ACM cladding on their buildings.

We have now completed remediation work on 61 buildings in the social sector, have begun work on a further 81 buildings and are working hard to ensure that remediation is completed on the remaining 16 buildings as soon as possible. My noble friend Lord Young asked about progress on this. As of October, only 10 of the 89 private sector buildings in scope of the fund have yet to engage. We will continue to put pressure on developers and building owners to get on with remediation. In response to a number of questions he raised, I will shortly provide a letter detailing the take-up of the private sector remediation fund and set out a fuller picture of the remediation figures, as well as the responsibilities of leaseholders and freeholders. As the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government made clear yesterday in the other place, there will be consequences for any building owners not making clear progress, including naming and shaming and enforcement action.

Thirdly, interim measures are in place in high-rise buildings with ACM cladding to ensure that all residents remain safe. We are working at pace to review different parts of the building safety regime. We have now completed testing on non-ACM cladding panels and are analysing the results, which will be released in the coming months.

We have recently launched a consultation on the use of sprinklers in all new residential buildings over 18 metres—a point that was raised in the debate. It also seeks responses on evacuation alert systems and improved signage, which was raised by my noble friend Lord Bourne and others. The consultation will close in November. My noble friend Lord Bourne also asked about fire doors. On the advice of the independent expert panel, the Government conducted an investigation and testing programme of glass reinforced plastic composite fire doors, leading to their withdrawal from the market. Following this, the Association of Composite Door Manufacturers has committed to deliver an industry- led remediation plan, which has our full support.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked about product safety, which was part of my old brief when I worked in the former BIS, now BEIS. In May 2018, an independent investigation into the Whirlpool fridge-freezer involved in Grenfell Tower confirmed that there was no need for further action, and BEIS supports its conclusion that no product recall other than corrective action is required. People who own that particular model can continue to use it as normal. The noble Lord also raised a point about electrical safety checks. Existing legislation already requires landlords to keep electrical installations in safe working order. However, the Government have reviewed the issue and have now committed to introducing mandatory five-yearly electrical safety inspections. I am confident that these steps will help us boost safety and transform the way we build in the future.

We have also been working across government to co-ordinate action on fire safety. First, the newly established fire protection board provides a bridge across the Home Office, my department, MHCLG, local government authorities and the National Fire Chiefs Council. The board will provide greater assurance that fire safety risks in high-rise residential buildings with ACM cladding are being identified, managed and properly recorded. It will oversee an increase in inspections and audits of high-risk buildings, and we have already signalled our commitment to getting this right by pledging £10 million a year. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said in September in the other place, he expects,

“all high-rise buildings to have been inspected or assured by the time the new building safety regime is in place, or no later than 2021”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/9/19; col. 373.]

Secondly, the Home Office has run a call for evidence, alongside MHCLG’s Building a Safer Future consultation, on the fire safety order. This consultation seeks to ensure that the order remains effective and works as a whole with the new regulatory regime and other existing legislation. The call for evidence closed on 31 July and we are now analysing the responses.

Thirdly, the Home Office has established an independent Fire Standards Board, which should not be confused with the FPB, and has provided £1.5 million of funding to support its work. The board is supported by the National Fire Chiefs Council’s Central Programme Office to support continuous improvement of fire and rescue services. The board will be responsible for the development of a high-quality useable framework of professional standards, aligned to the work of the National Fire Chiefs Council and its national initiatives. It is clear from the report’s findings that this Government need to be playing an active role in supporting the sector through the fire reform programme.

In July 2017, the then Home Secretary expanded the remit of HMIC to establish Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services. This move sought to highlight areas for continuous improvement of good practice for fire and rescue services and to increase transparency for the communities they serve. The inspectorate has now completed inspections of all 45 FRSs in England and has published reports on 30 of them. We expect reports on the remaining 15 to be published shortly, alongside the inspectorate’s first “state of fire” reports.