New Clause 10 - Assessment of building safety and emergency status

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 26th October 2021.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must, as soon as reasonably practicable, conduct an assessment of the overall state of building safety and building fire safety defect remediation in England and lay before Parliament a report of that assessment.

(2) The report must include an assessment of whether the matters in subsection (1) constitute an emergency for the purposes of Section 1(1)(a) of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in the United Kingdom).

(3) In conducting the assessment, the Secretary of State must consult—

(a) fire safety experts,

(b) leaseholders and their representatives,

(c) social housing tenants,

(d) local authorities,

(e) trade unions, and

(f) safety and construction industry bodies.”—

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to conduct an assessment of the state of building safety and fire safety defect remediation in England.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Colleagues will be pleased to hear that this is the last new clause from me. It would require the Secretary of State to conduct an assessment of the state of building safety and fire safety defect remediation in England, and to specifically assess whether it constitutes an emergency, as defined in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.

We are now four years on since the Grenfell tragedy. We have heard that so many times in the Chamber and here in Committee. Not only are we more than four years on from the tragedy, but there are suggestions that, at the current rate of reform, it could potentially take up to 10 years to sort out all of the existing fire safety issues faced by existing leaseholders. That is simply not good enough.

It is clear that the fire safety scandal is an emergency. In Victoria, Australia, they treated it as a public health emergency. When we took evidence, everybody that we asked, “Do you consider this to be an emergency?” said, “Yes”. It is clear that the overall building and fire safety scandal

“threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in the United Kingdom”.

That is part of the definition of what constitutes an emergency under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.

We have seen, over the past 18 months, what can be done by Government when there is a crisis. We can see the scale and pace of change and reform when something is treated as an emergency. Waiting for two years, five years or 10 years is far too long, so I respectfully request the Government to reflect on whether four years so far, and potentially several years to come, is good enough; whether they could usefully use the Civil Contingencies Act; and whether the new clause—which would require the Secretary of State to conduct an assessment of whether the state of building safety and fire safety constitutes an emergency under the 2004 Act—would be a useful mechanism to ensure that we can move much faster and make all homes fire-safe within at least the next 12 months.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank the hon. Member for St Albans for powerfully arguing the case for the new clause. As she stated, it is now nearly five years since Grenfell, when 72 people tragically lost their lives. A broad-scoped, urgent assessment is now needed, so the official Opposition support the new clause.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

If you will indulge me for a moment, Mr Dowd, I will briefly respond to a point that the hon. Member for St Albans made previously about the reasons behind the Scottish Government setting up a particular committee. Scotland has a different legal infrastructure and different financial mechanisms; that may well be one of the reasons why they have chosen to set up that committee, but that is, as I am sure she will appreciate, a matter for them.

I appreciate the hon. Lady raising this important point, in a similar vein to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale and new clause 8. However, in a similar vein, I trust that she will feel able to withdraw the new clause once I have concluded my remarks. The Bill already provides for a widely framed review of the whole building safety system. That will cover in-scope high-rise and higher risk buildings, and out-of-scope buildings through clause 139, which we debated and agreed to last week. By comparison, it is also rather akin to new clause 8. This new clause covers a more narrow subject matter, giving—entirely unintentionally, I am sure—no consideration to the independence of the review. When included alongside clause 139, which already stands part of the Bill, it would cause duplication and confusion.

As I said previously, I want to assure the hon. Lady that we recognise the intention behind her new clause, but we submit that it has been met in clause 139, which creates a non-prescriptive framework for the appointment of an independent person to review the work and the effectiveness of the Building Safety Regulator, the regulatory system for building safety, the national regulator for construction products, and the regulatory system for construction products. We therefore believe that the topics specified in new clause 10 are already covered by clause 139.

We believe it is important to protect the independence of the review. As a result, we have not specified whom the reviewer should consult when they are conducting the review. They should be allowed to conduct it as widely as they see fit, and they may choose to accept evidence from any interested party. We would not want that wide-ranging opportunity, as exhibited in clause 139, to be duplicated or confused in any way as a result of other new clauses. Unlike new clauses 10 and 8, which would entail one-off assessments, clause 139 provides an ongoing check on building safety and construction products throughout their lifespans.

I hope the hon. Member for St Albans will withdraw her new clause. She talked about an emergency, and we recognise that this is a very real emergency for individuals living in properties that they feel are unsafe or that they cannot sell because of the unfolding terrain that we have come to understand following the Grenfell tragedy. We believe that we are addressing the evolving challenges through the funding for the removal of aluminium composite material cladding, the building safety fund and all the other fiscal measures that we will put in place, as well as through the regulatory changes that we have introduced and are introducing through the Bill.

Of course there is more to do, and I can assure the hon. Member for St Albans and the Committee that we will do what is necessary to ensure that we protect leaseholders from unfair charges and that those who ought to pay do pay. We will ensure that the risk and lending sectors, the risk appetite of which has gone out of all proportion to real risk, are brought back into kilter, so that risk and value are properly ascribed to homes and people can get on living in them and selling them as they see fit. Again, I hope that she will withdraw her new clause.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care) 10:30 am, 26th October 2021

I am grateful to the Minister for responding. I would highlight two points. The first is that the Minister suggested that new clause 10 was not necessary because of clause 139, but I respectfully highlight the fact that clause 139 relates to an independent review of the building regulatory regime and the regulation for construction products, so this is a process. Clause 139 relates to future regulation; it does not apply to the remediation of historical fire safety defects.

Secondly, although the Minister was at pains to highlight that he appreciates the urgency, I would highlight that clause 139, on the future review, requires only that the Secretary of State appoints a reviewer within five years of the Act passing. We have tens of thousands of innocent leaseholders who cannot wait another five years for their houses to be made safe so that they can get on with their lives. I said before that the purpose behind the new clause was to highlight the emergency and the urgency with which we would like the Government to act. Many of us feel as though the Government are not acting with the necessary urgency, but I hope the Minister hears that point. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.