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Leaseholders and Cladding

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 12th February 2020.

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Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West 2:30 pm, 12th February 2020

Before I call Hilary Benn, may I simply say that 13 Back Benchers wish to contribute? In the event that Mr Benn speaks for 20 minutes, everyone will have three minutes; in the event that he speaks for 10, everyone will have four. He is free to take as much time as he likes, and I will divide the remaining time equally between Back Benchers. Obviously, interventions will take time, but they will not result in more time for Back Benchers. I call Hilary Benn to move the motion.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered leaseholders and cladding.

May I say what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies? I am grateful to all colleagues present. I know that a number will wish to intervene, but the more interventions there are, the longer I will take to complete my argument, which I am keen that the Minister should hear. I think the turnout shows her the strength of feeling on this issue.

It is not difficult to understand why there are strong feelings. Imagine that someone has saved up all their money and bought their first flat. It is the home of their dreams. They move in, the future beckons, and then one day a letter drops on the mat. It is from their managing agent, and it tells them: “Your home is in a building that has now been judged a fire risk because of unsafe cladding, and as a leaseholder you must immediately—this day—start paying for a waking watch. Otherwise, all of you will have to move out of your homes.” In one case in Leeds, such a waking watch is costing each flat-owner £670 a month plus VAT, on top of mortgage payments and the service charge.

The leaseholder is probably then asked to meet the cost of putting in a fire alarm system, which may or may not reduce the cost of the waking watch. Then, to their absolute horror, they are asked to pay for the cost of replacing the dangerous cladding to make their building—their home—safe. The problem is pretty obvious to us all: they simply do not have that kind of money. Their home has been rendered completely worthless, therefore they cannot remortgage. Their insurance premium is, in all likelihood, going up, and they worry about possibly being made bankrupt because of all the costs. That could result, depending on what job they do, in the loss of their job as well as their home. Yet none of that is in any way the fault, responsibility or doing of the leaseholders.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham

I have a building in the Tottenham Hale village with 432 people who cannot get a mortgage or remortgage. Is it the view of my right hon. Friend that that is entirely unacceptable, because fire and building regulations are rightly the Government’s responsibility? The Government should step in to support those individuals.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union

That is absolutely my view. My right hon. Friend anticipates what I will come on to say.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Labour, Slough

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this immensely important debate. Does he agree that, although the Government’s recent announcement of the aluminium composite material cladding fund is welcome, it does nothing to help blocks, such as the Lexington and Rivington apartment blocks in my constituency, that have non-ACM dangerous cladding or are plagued by other fire safety defects, such as a lack of effective firebreaks? It is distressing to see those residents, who are worried about their finances and security, now suffering sleepless nights and fearing bankruptcy and homelessness. The Government need to help them out.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union

My hon. Friend is correct: there is a fundamental unfairness in the treatment of different types of leaseholders. That is the argument that I will make.

As we have just heard from two colleagues, a growing number of our constituents face this problem—in my case, leaseholders from St George’s building and a number of blocks in Leeds Dock and Timble Beck, who have other types of dangerous cladding. I pay tribute to the Leeds Cladding Scandal group, to all the other groups that have been organised up and down the country, and to the very aptly named Manchester Cladiators, who have really got organised. That name tells us how determined they are to win.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Labour/Co-operative, Manchester Central

I thank my right hon. Friend for securing the debate, and for mentioning the Manchester Cladiators: a network of dozens of blocks in my constituency that are affected by such issues. What the Manchester Cladiators really want is to be at the heart of an ongoing dialogue with the Government to resolve the issues. The period of passing the buck between freeholders, insurers and the Government has to stop.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union

I agree completely, and I hope that today’s debate is part of the dialogue that has already begun. Leaseholders want to feel that they are being listened to, and they want to be able to meet Ministers. I hope that this debate will ensure that more of that happens.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

It is powerful to hear how the issue is affecting people across the country, including residents of Radnor House in my constituency of Croydon North, which is in south London. Leaseholders are living in a block, converted from offices, that has wooden cladding, so they do not come under the ACM fund that the Government have opened. Yet they, too, face massive bills that they cannot afford, in homes that they cannot sell. It feels to them as if the Government are penalising innocent leaseholders instead of stepping in with real help, which is what they need.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union

My hon. Friend has painted a picture, as we all can, of the strain, the heartache and the worry, which are not difficult to understand. If we had received one of those letters and it was happening to us in our home, we too would be worried sick. Our constituents who are caught up in that nightmare want our help, and they need it now.

The Minister knows only too well how we got here, following the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower, so I do not propose to go over any of that again. The Government had to act in the wake of that tragedy to change what was clearly a wholly defective system. However, having done so, Ministers have put leaseholders in a manifestly unjust position. Were that not bad enough, as more and more building surveys have been done, other problems have come to light, such as missing firebreaks—which mean that the buildings were never built according to building regulations in the first place—or wooden balconies, which the new guidance says have to be replaced.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I have 1,087 developments in the Pulse development in Colindale. A lot of people bought those properties after the building regulations were signed off by the local authority, as recently as 2017. Those people have not been protected by building regulations and now, as the right hon. Member says, simply cannot afford to either remortgage or sell their property. They are in redundant properties. The concern is that the assurances from building regulations were simply not worth the paper on which they were printed.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union

The hon. Member makes a really important point. Lots of my constituents say to me, “But it was signed off under building regs. Surely that means it’s safe.” Well, it does not quite mean that, for reasons that we can go into on another occasion. It is part of the system that has still to be fixed.

Other leaseholders are drawn in because, even though their blocks have not been identified as having a problem, when they try to sell the flat the mortgage company says, “Okay—but, by the way, where’s the certificate that says that this building complies with the new regulations that the Government have, quite properly, put in place?” If they cannot produce it, the property is worthless and becomes unsellable. If that was not complicated enough, just to complete the story, the ownership structure of blocks and the history varies. The developers may have gone bust, the builders may no longer be trading, and some freeholders say, “I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t have the money to replace the cladding on this building.”

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton

I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is not simply that freeholders say, “I don’t have the money.” They do not have the obligation. Most freeholders do not have an obligation to mitigate any such problems. Perhaps the only people who do are the original developers—who, as the right hon. Member says, may not be there—or the leaseholders. Is that not the problem? As he rightly says, leaseholders in many cases have no means to pay for that remedial work.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union

The hon. Gentleman, who has great expertise in this matter, is correct. I will come to what the Government have said about the responsibility of freeholders, but I think the point we are all making is that this is not the fault of the leaseholders, who never expected when they bought that first dream home that this burden might fall upon them.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

My constituency, like my right hon. Friend’s, has a lot of high-rise blocks—among the highest number in the country. One of the major issues is getting the Government to finance the work that needs to be done ahead of any further tragedies and fatalities, and ahead of the Budget statement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that two years after the appalling, horrific tragedy of Grenfell, the Government need to step up and create a fund so that those works can be done, and should then go after the freeholders to make them—rather than our constituents—pay when they are able to do so? That should be our focus and priority, as we said time and again in the last Parliament. I hope that we do not have to keep saying this. I hope that the Government heed our advice and make sure that the Chancellor puts some money into those works in the March Budget.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union

I agree with my hon. Friend. When the problem of ACM cladding was first identified, the Government quite properly said that it all has to come off and be replaced. Importantly, they also said that however it was done, leaseholders should not have to pay. On 29 November 2018, the then Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said:

“Everyone has a right to feel safe in their homes and I have repeatedly made clear that building owners and developers must replace dangerous ACM cladding. And the costs must not be passed on to leaseholders.”

I agree with that. The Secretary of State repeated that point on 9 May 2019, when he said:

“Leaseholders find themselves in this position through no fault of their own, and this is not morally defensible.”—[Official Report, 9 May 2019;
Vol. 659, c. 688.]

Again, I agree. It would be monstrous to expect people who are entirely blameless to pay for the mistakes and errors of others. It has been pointed out that if our constituents had bought cars or washing machines that were a fire risk, no one would dream of saying to them, “Sorry, you are going to have to pay for the cost of replacement.” Their problem is that they bought the home of their dreams.

I acknowledge the responsible way in which some freeholders, including in Leeds, have accepted that they need to foot the bill to replace the cladding. That work has either been done, is in progress, or we are told it is timetabled. However, despite the Government’s policy, there are freeholders who have not lived up to their responsibilities. That is why the Government eventually realised they could not carry on, because otherwise ACM cladding would not be removed.

On 9 May last year, the Government announced the £200 million fund to support the removal of ACM, to protect those leaseholders from bearing the cost. There have been problems with that fund—slow disbursement, bureaucracy and the like—that are for another debate, but I welcome that decision. It showed unreservedly that the Government were determined to uphold the principle they had established: leaseholders should not have to pay. However, what is now happening in respect of buildings with other types of unsafe cladding completely contradicts the principled position that the Government have taken until this point.

Why is this happening? First, the Secretary of State said on 20 January that he had received advice that ACM cladding was much more dangerous than other types of cladding. Anyone who has seen the film of student accommodation in Bolton going up, convulsed in flames, might wonder whether that is the case, since that building was covered in high pressure laminate. It was the Government’s review that brought in the new advice, and that advice toughened the standards, leading to other buildings being peered at, prodded and having bits taken off them when people discovered the problems with HPL and other systems. Nobody knows how many such buildings there may be, but the point is that leaseholders in buildings with other types of cladding find themselves in exactly the same position as people who are living in buildings with ACM cladding, except for one thing: the Government’s fund does not cover the removal of their cladding.

Secondly, the idea of differential risk is not applied by the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service. It does not distinguish between different types of cladding when it issues notices that say, “This building is unsafe. Start a waking watch now, or you are going to have to move out. Give us a plan for how you are going to replace this cladding.” The chief fire officer of West Yorkshire fire service put it to me this Monday that

“it is our view that there is no difference between unsafe ACM cladding and unsafe HPL cladding.”

Why, then, are the Government seeking to distinguish between the two when it comes to the position of leaseholders? I say to the Minister that that position is completely unsustainable.

Thirdly, Ministers have rightly been adamant that unsafe cladding has to be removed. They have set up the fund and said that they are going to name and shame freeholders who do not get on and do it. The latest building safety data says that 174 ACM-clad private-sector residential buildings are still yet to be remediated. What is those Ministers’ position on other types of dangerously clad buildings? Are the owners of those blocks going to be named and shamed—and if not, why not?

When the Secretary of State was pressed on that point in the House on 20 January, he indicated that the Government were considering further help. In answer to my hon. Friend Meg Hillier, he talked about the possibility of loans. If those loans went to the freeholders, that might possibly be a way forward, but only if the Government could guarantee that none of the costs would be passed on to the leaseholders; if they just got a bill for it through their service charge, that would breach the principle that the Government set out. However, it was clear from the Secretary of State’s reply to my hon. Friend that he was talking about loans to leaseholders, because he referred to existing examples of building owners who have provided low-interest or zero-interest loans on a hardship basis. He went on to say:

“There may be a role for the Government in ensuring that that works, that the loans are affordable, and that it is done as quickly as possible.”—[Official Report, 20 January 2020;
Vol. 670, c. 33.]

However, that would be another change of policy, because on 9 May last year, when the then Secretary of State announced the grant fund, he was specifically asked about loans. He said:

“We looked at questions such as whether a loan arrangement could work but ultimately, given the complexity, the time that would have been involved and the need for all sorts of different consents, and given that my priority is providing a sense of assurance for leaseholders and getting on with this, we decided to adopt this structure.”—[Official Report, 9 May 2019;
Vol. 659, c. 695.]

By “this structure”, he meant grants. If that was the view then, what has changed? Perhaps the Minister can explain in her response. When the Secretary of State talked about hardship, when leaseholders are on low incomes or do not have any savings, the implication was clearly that if a person does not fall into one of those two categories, they will bear the total cost themselves.

The problem with the idea of loans is that it completely breaches the principle that the Government set out at the start of this crisis—and believe me, it is a crisis. That principle was that leaseholders living in buildings with unsafe cladding should not have to pay for the cost of its removal, because that would create two classes of leaseholder: one whom the Government would seek to protect from the cost of replacing cladding, and another to whom the Government would say, “I’m terribly sorry, you’ve got to pay.” That would be completely unfair, which is why many of us are calling on Ministers to extend the coverage and size of the fund to all buildings with unsafe cladding of whatever type. We have already heard those calls today, and I am calling for that as well, because it is the only fair way forward and the only way in which the objective of removing all dangerous cladding, with which we all agree, can be achieved.

Unless that happens, in situations where freeholders cannot or do not find the money and leaseholders clearly do not have the money, the nightmare will continue. They will go on living in an unsafe building; the only way they will be able to stay in it will be to go on and on paying for a waking watch, as the cladding will never be removed because there is no one to pay for it. Eventually, that will bankrupt them.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I thank my right hon. Friend for the case he has set out. Residents of the Lumiere building, in Manor Park in my constituency, tell me that there is ACM cladding on the front side of the building and other kinds of dangerous cladding on the other three sides. Does it not seem particularly absurd that Government funding can help with one part of the building, but not the rest?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union

My right hon. Friend makes an overwhelmingly powerful case for treating all unsafe cladding as unsafe and needing to be replaced.

The Minister has a tough job, because negotiations with the Treasury are difficult and there are complications. Was building control at fault originally? Can freeholders claim on insurance or building warranties? Can they sue the architects or developers for defects in the original design or construction, assuming there is still someone to sue? Perhaps, but that will take years, and it is not an answer.

I say readily, however, that if a claim is successful and the Government have paid to remove the cladding, the money ought to go back to the Government. I also have no problem with the Government taking equity in the freehold of buildings if they have coughed up for the removal of cladding. What more can the Government do about buildings that have not yet been identified as unsafe but where mortgage companies are asking for a certificate? The EWS1 form has not solved all the problems, so it would be good to hear from the Minister what more can be done.

I will bring my remarks to a close, because many hon. Members want to speak. I see no case for Ministers to move away from the principle they established at the start of the crisis: that leaseholders should not have to pay. I see no case for treating one group of leaseholders differently from another. I see no way for all the dangerous cladding to be replaced other than for the Government to step in and extend the coverage of their fund to all types of blocks that the fire service has identified as unsafe. That is what is needed and it is needed urgently.

All leaseholders on whose behalf we speak today, whose lives are in turmoil, will be watching very carefully to see how the Minister responds. They are not going anywhere—indeed they cannot, because they are trapped in their homes. All they are asking for is to be able to put this nightmare behind them, to go back to living in a safe home and to get on with their lives. Every single hon. Member in this Chamber has a responsibility to ensure that that is what happens, and happens soon.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

That will be addressed in three minutes by Sir Robert Neill.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee 2:51 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Hilary Benn on securing the debate. I agree with the thrust of what he said.

The residents of Northpoint in Bromley find themselves caught in a similar position. They have ACM—aluminium composite material—cladding but, like many blocks, a combination of cladding is used in the system, so they have HPL—high pressure laminate—cladding as well. They need clarity that all the remediation and removal costs will be met.

Whatever the Government’s intentions, which I accept were good, the process is continues to prove costly and bureaucratic. There are still delays. It has been many months since the residents were told that they had the problem, but they have still not been able to access the funds. They are having to fork out for surveys, even though their flats are effectively valueless anyway. They cannot raise any further equity against them, because there is no equity any more; they cannot remortgage or raise any other kind of loan against them.

At the same time, the residents of the block of flats have been obliged to fork out for the costs of a waking watch. So far, by requirement of the fire brigade, they have had to fork out nearly £120,000 between them for the waking watch and fire alarm system, and they have had to find that from sources other than the equity of their properties. That is putting people under massive strain.

In consequence, people’s health is being affected, because they are paying £11,000 a month. There is no sign of that ending, because it is taking so long to get any clarity as to whether they qualify—I hope to God that they will. On the face of it, stone bonk, they should, but it is taking so long and every month is another £11,000. We need to speed up the process and make sure that the inevitable costs of the waking watch and alarms are met, because they flow directly from the unsafeness of the cladding. They would not have them otherwise.

It is essential for all systems that involve dangerous cladding, whether ACM or HPL, to be clearly and manifestly brought within the scope of scheme. I hope that the position around insurance will also be considered, because the residents’ premiums have increased massively. The solution must surely be a grant; a loan does not seem appropriate. In many cases, the freeholders would have a legal entitlement in their freehold agreements with the leaseholders to recover costs from the leaseholders, so we have to get the grant to the freeholders to be sure that they are not out of pocket. They are the innocent victims.

I know that the Minister understands the complexity of the issue and that the Government want to do the right thing. Previous Secretaries of State were clear, but there is a real risk that the good intentions that were set out at the beginning are getting lost in a mire of bureaucracy. I hope that the Minister can reassure me on those specific points and on how we could cut through and speed up the process.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich 2:54 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn on securing this important debate and on his comprehensive overview of the problem.

In my constituency alone, more than 20 privately owned buildings across seven developments were found to have ACM—aluminium composite material—cladding. Far from meeting the Government’s target of remediating them all by June this year, work has been completed on only one, Babbage Point. Although work is well under way at two other sites, New Capital Quay and Greenwich Square, it has not even begun on the remaining four, not least because of the difficulties with the application process for the private sector remediation fund.

When it comes to cost, in two cases—City Peninsula and the Greenwich Millennium Village—the developers have done the right thing and committed to covering the full cost of the remedial works and the required interim fire safety measures. In the case of New Capital Quay, leaseholders are being fully protected from those costs because the National House Building Council accepted a claim to pay the cost in full following an investigation.

Those in other blocks, however, have not been so fortunate. At Babbage Point, the original contractor and building owner, Durkan, has strenuously avoided committing to covering the cost of the completed remedial works should its application to the fund be unsuccessful. It has passed on the full cost of 23 months of waking watch, which has been in place for so long only because it dragged its feet.

As we have heard, the cladding crisis now extends far beyond ACM cladding. My local authority has identified at least 24 buildings, and counting, with a type of HPL—high pressure laminate—cladding where leaseholders are likely to find themselves in protracted legal disputes between building owners and the original contractor. There are an unknown number of buildings that have serious issues with defective fire stopping and compartmentalisation, as in the Barratt Homes-constructed Royal Artillery Quays development. Again, leaseholders there are at risk of being hit with significant costs.

There are also an untold number of leaseholders in scores of local developments unable to sell their homes or remortgage because of the unintended impact of the guidance from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The Minister should know that, although the EWS1 process has worked in some cases, in many others it has not. I have cases where large mortgage providers have rejected the form outright and others where forms cannot even be issued because of a lack of indemnity insurance coverage.

It is clear that the steps taken to date have not even begun to address that set of interconnected problems. It is perhaps understandable that Ministers and their officials might be overwhelmed by a crisis that continues to grow in scale and complexity, and baulk at the potentially colossal drain on the public purse, but this crisis is not going to disappear. As we have said time and again, the Government have a responsibility to act decisively to fix it. Ministers must start by going beyond moral suasion and compel developers to do the right thing. In cases where that does not work, they must step in to expand the scope and amount of funding to remediate where necessary, and oversee a nationally co-ordinated response, so that nearly three years after Grenfell, we can finally get a grip on the issue and protect leaseholders, as they were promised in the wake of that tragedy.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot 2:58 pm, 12th February 2020

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak in the debate. I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have individuals in my constituency who have apartments and houses with cladding problems, some of which is ACM—aluminium composite material—cladding and some of which is not; I live in one that has an ACM problem, so I am close to the issue. The problem has been well articulated, and I totally agree with the comments and the explanation of Hilary Benn, which were clear. In my three minutes, therefore, I will turn to some of the things that could and should be done differently. Clearly, it is about not just ACM cladding. The Government need to redefine what is covered, which must be everything that makes a building a fire risk.

The size of the pot is too small, as I can assure the Minister from personal experience. From personal experience, too, the portal is impossible to use, unless people have experts in IT and surveying in their leasehold community. The Government expect exhaustion of all other legal recourse, but that is expensive and timely, and most leaseholders have neither the pockets nor the ability. The Government ought to take over those claims so that, effectively, they give the money then take over the right to the claims against anyone they think they can make a claim against. The Government have appointed a regulator, which is brilliant, but we do not have the regulations. We are trying to comply with regulations, but we do not know what they are. They need to be expedited.

The timeline for the work to be done is far too short, which I know from personal experience. The block I am most familiar with has reached phase 2. We are required to give collateral warranties. While warranties are fairly standard, these are being given in favour of the Government, not of the leaseholders, which seems mad. Are the Government seeking to take a lien on the property? Such warranties are normally underpinned by insurance, but no insurance company will touch these with a bargepole. If the Government want this to work, they need to step in with an insurance solution. The state aid forms, which have already been referred to, are difficult and complex. That needs to be addressed. To expect every leasehold owner in every building to complete one is unrealistic.

The Government should step in with the banks, particularly for those with existing mortgages, where the banks are saying, “We will not allow you to borrow more, even at the same rate for this work”—even though it is my security that is being affected, which is the bank’s security. It makes no sense. At the very least, we should require the banks to lend the money to those who already have mortgages, for a start. Likewise, for insurers—insurers will not insure anything to do with cladding—the Government must step in and make it clear that it cannot be a valid exception or exclusion.

There is no point charging VAT, then the Government paying it out again. VAT should be taken off. We should also remember that suppliers in this market are growing in number and that is putting prices up, which needs to be fixed.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee 3:01 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, who summarised what we would all have said, had he not covered it so thoroughly. I want to focus on the costs to individuals and ultimately to the taxpayer—if the Government implement a bailout—and to highlight the impact on many of my constituents.

It is fair to say that after the Grenfell fire, Hackney was relatively unscathed, despite having a large number of tower blocks, because aluminium composite material cladding affected a few blocks, but not many. However, the new rules have affected so many of my constituents.

I declare an interest, as I am a leaseholder myself. All my cladding is being removed and, happily, my developer is footing the entire bill, although no doubt my property is worth nothing at the moment. I argue not for myself but for the many constituents who are not in as fortunate a position as I am.

The costs mount up. There are the survey costs. Hackney Council has been given £88,000 for data collection, which has got to cover more than 200 council blocks. It is inadequate. There are survey costs for all building owners, which fall on the leaseholders. There is the cost of remedial work, some of which needs to happen immediately—for example, new fire alarms in individual flats and in corridors. That work has to happen before removing waking watch can even be considered, and we have heard about the costs of waking watch.

There are the hugely increased mortgage costs. One constituent tells me:

“I can neither re-mortgage or sell my flat. I am currently stuck paying a variable rate mortgage, and am paying £800 more a month than necessary.”

That is on top of the other costs around waking watch and so on.

Insurance costs have gone up for blocks around the country, which the excellent all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform heard about only a few weeks ago. That does not look like it is going away, and the Minister needs to look at that. Insurance companies should not just get away with this. The reality of the risk is probably not as high as their algorithm throws up, but it is punitive for residents. Shared owners are paying the whole cost, not just for the bit that they own, so there is a problem with the shared ownership model.

There are challenges in tracking down owners, and a shortage of skills for surveys and remedial work. Has the Migration Advisory Committee looked at the skills that are needed and whether they could be urgently rushed through, so that more people could be available to speed up the work, which is being done on a riskier buildings first basis?

Then there is the inability to get the paperwork. Some of the properties could get mortgages, but without the right certificate, they cannot, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central highlighted. There are too many mortgage prisoners.

The previous Secretary of State made a bold decision with the ministerial direction to set up the fund to deal with ACM cladding. This Government need to be equally bold. They must make sure that bad developers do not get away with it and, if they are considering loans, that loans are to the developer rather than the owner, because a loan increases the lack of mortgageability.

The certificate of safety would help a lot of my constituents, right here, right now. If the Minister could reassure us on that one issue alone today, that would help a lot of people right now, while we recognise that there are bigger challenges ahead.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich 3:04 pm, 12th February 2020

Hilary Benn has been a powerful advocate today for many of my constituents. He said exactly what they and I feel. One of the first surgeries I held as a newly elected Member of Parliament was with some individuals who have been impacted by this issue, who feel that their lives have been destroyed. The Government need to be aware that I will not hold back in doing absolutely everything I can to fight for them. I will be a lion in fighting for their interests and I will not stop until their interests are looked after.

I echo some of the earlier points. Most of us can agree on two key points. The first is to go after the freeholders, not the leaseholders. In the block in Ipswich, St Francis Tower, with 116 flats over 17 storeys, the freeholder who put in the cladding is not the same as the current freeholder. The cladding is high pressure laminate, not aluminium composite material, but my constituents cannot understand why a type of cladding that was said to impose an intolerable risk to life after an inquiry is being treated in a different way to ACM cladding.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his passion for his constituents. Some constituents of mine own a leasehold property in that block in Ipswich. Is it not incredible that the cladding that my hon. Friend refers to is far more dangerous than the cladding used on Grenfell Tower?

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

Absolutely. I completely agree.

Communication from the block management company has been pretty poor, and has inflamed the anxiety and tension. Residents have received letters saying that they are required to pay between £21,000 and £24,000. The value of their properties has collapsed, and it is now at the stage where the amount they are being asked to pay is about one third of the value of the properties. The issue is hanging over them. As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central said, they feel trapped.

I ask the Government to appreciate the position of my constituents. More than 100 constituents are affected in that block, and perhaps there are others. I ask the Government to take steps to make sure that the £200 million fund that was set up to support those who live in flats with ACM cladding is extended to provide support for my constituents. The cladding has exactly the same impact, and there is no logical reason why they should be treated any differently to those who live in properties with ACM cladding.

I repeat the key principles: we must go after the freeholders, not the leaseholders, and we must have fairness in the way that individuals are treated. I beg the Government to stand up for my constituents in the way that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central has—and that I hope I have—today.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury) 3:07 pm, 12th February 2020

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. This is an extraordinary issue that is causing terrible problems to many constituents and I am sorry that I will not have the time in this debate to do their cases justice.

I am currently dealing with 31 separate cases, and counting. One of those cases involves representing 57 different constituents in a single block. One local housing provider has told residents they will fund just 20 fire risk assessments a year, in an area where it has more than 100 properties. When I say 100 properties, I do not mean 100 flats—I mean 100 blocks.

In so many cases, my constituents have been left trapped and powerless. Many do not know if their homes are safe. Many have been unable to sell or re-mortgage. Massively expensive retrofitting is often necessary but is not being carried out.

One constituent is living with his young daughter in a one-bed flat. He cannot sell or move somewhere more suitable because his block does not yet have a cladding report. Another constituent split with his partner and cannot re-mortgage to make good that separation. The current mortgage has expired, trapping the couple on a higher rate, and costing an exorbitant extra £450 a month. It is causing severe financial and emotional strain. Another constituent was told it could take five years to provide the cladding report.

Something is desperately and fundamentally wrong with the whole legal structure around the issue, and it is our job in this place to put it right. My speech today has not allowed me long enough to do justice to constituents’ cases; I hope they will forgive me. The Minister can see how many of us there are in this room. She knows the issues. Can she not make some time available for us to be able to debate this in a full-length debate on the Floor of the House?

I have talked about the problems with the practicalities, but my constituents live with the knowledge that the place they are trapped in, which costs them a fortune, might be a death trap. As a child who grew up in a flat in the shadow of Ronan Point, I know the impact of such fear on families. So I want to hear from the Minister today that the Government will intervene strongly to exorcise the spectre of the tragedy of Grenfell that constantly hangs over my constituents’ lives.

Photo of Shabana Mahmood Shabana Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Ladywood 3:10 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn on securing this debate. I associate myself with all the powerful arguments that he has made on behalf of his and indeed all of our constituents this afternoon.

I represent hundreds of people affected by the cladding issues, including in the Islington Gates development in the Jewellery Quarter area of my constituency. The 144-unit development has already had remedial work carried out. Residents pay for a waking watch and lighting upgrades, and at the moment structural fire resilience work is being carried out, including around fire compartmentalisation. The work is estimated to come in at a total of £1.5 million—about £5,000 per leaseholder—and that is before they get to the cladding removal. They are trapped by the same problem that many of our constituents have. They have non-ACM cladding, but it is just as dangerous, if not more so, than the ACM cladding that qualifies for Government relief. The bill for the removal of ACM cladding looks as though it will come in at about £5 million to £6 million, so each leaseholder faces a bill of about £40,000 to £50,000.

On the point about insurance, the premium for the building in the previous year was £36,000, but when residents came to renew they found their insurer would not renew the building on its own, so the residents had to go through a broker and a huge amount of stress, trouble and difficulty to find a consortium of five insurers willing to share the risk of insuring the building, and the premium has now come in at £190,000, a fivefold increase. It seems residents have received no credit for the fact that they have carried out a huge amount of remedial work already. No matter what people trapped in such buildings do, the insurance companies are running scared.

The Government could take action, as they have in areas affected by flooding, for example. We already have the good example of the Flood Re scheme. The Government should stand behind our leasehold constituents and force the insurance companies to act. It is unconscionable that such buildings might in the end be uninsurable without Government action. Our constituents are hit with a multiple whammy, where tens of thousands of flat dwellers are uninsured, unable to sell or re-mortgage, and unable to find the money to put their unsafe buildings right, and that has a huge impact on people. I will quote from a constituent’s email:

“Estimates are very loose at the moment but it is likely I will have to pay in the region of...£80,000 to £100,000. I can’t sleep, function or work. I try to be normal with my son but I can’t. I have a constant gut wrenching dread coursing through my blood stream each and every second. I want to cry.”

Real people with real lives are affected by a national calamity. It is morally imperative that the Government finally step up to the plate and act.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton 3:13 pm, 12th February 2020

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. I do not intend to go over the points he made, but I want to bring some details to the attention of the Minister and describe how the issue affects my constituents, because not only cities are affected; towns such as Runcorn in my constituency are also affected. I want to talk about the Decks development, which consists of six individual blocks of flats.

The Decks was built in 2007. Three blocks are seven-storey and three are six-storey, so they do not meet the definition of high-rise premises. They are clad in high-pressure laminate—HPL. I want the Minister to understand how that has affected my constituents. A building survey identified the following: sections of the external walls of each building are fitted with cladding that will support fire spread; there are cavities behind the cladding systems that do not have the required cavity barriers or fire stopping to prevent vertical and horizontal fire spread; the structural timber frame is exposed within the external wall cavities; the external wall cavity is open to the ground floor car park, permitting fire spread into it in the case of a car fire.

Specific fire safety concerns were raised: there is a risk of rapid fire spread over the external cladding of each building; a risk of rapid fire spread through the cavities behind the cladding; and a risk of fire spread from the car parks to the cladding systems and cavities. The car park cannot be used, so people cannot park their cars. There is also a risk of early structural collapse if the supporting timber frame, which I just referred to, is affected by fire, and a risk that the escape route could be compromised. There is a massive human cost. It is a nightmare and causes stress to the people living there.

Many of my constituents are in negative equity. The 266 homes are unsellable and not rentable. Constituents have been advised it will cost them around £30,000 per household to remedy the issue. They do not have that sort of money. They are worried they will be bankrupted and lose their homes and become homeless. It is through no fault of their own as they bought their homes in good faith according to the regulations that applied at the time.

It is important that the Government really tackle the issue, and they can do that only by setting up a fund to make the buildings safe and comply with the regulations now. Leaseholders are not to blame and should not bear the cost. My constituents should not be treated differently simply because the cladding is HPL.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Labour/Co-operative, Vauxhall 3:16 pm, 12th February 2020

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn for securing this really important debate, which affects our constituents across the country.

In my short time as the MP for Vauxhall, I have been made acutely aware of how big a problem the issue is for leaseholders in privately rented and owned buildings. In just a couple of months I have had many cases brought to my attention by constituents who have been unable to sell or re-mortgage. Some have been unable to get the safety certificates that they need from their freeholders, and they pay really expensive service charges. The leaseholders feel trapped in their homes, unable to move, while facing the constant fear that the home where they live might catch fire. How can anybody sleep at night knowing that such a risk lies over their head? None of us could.

It is nearly three years since the Grenfell disaster alerted the whole country to the dangers of combustible cladding, and almost a year and a half since the Government banned ACM cladding on new high rises, so there has been plenty of time for remediation and to see plans put in place and the combustible cladding removed.

It is right that the Government have opened a £200 million fund for private sector blocks to remove cladding. To date, of the 56 tower blocks in London that fall within the scope of the funding, only 10 have submitted plans to get the initial costs covered, and none has submitted full cost plans. The fund is therefore not working. As a result, no money has been distributed to any of the buildings in scope in London nearly a year after the scheme started. We really need the Government to take urgent action to fix the funding system.

The Government can and should do things to help make the system fairer. They could provide technical support to block owners who are not used to dealing with large remediation projects. They are not building technicians or surveyors; they are residents living in their homes. Why do they have to deal with this? We could look at helping the people who struggle to get complex applications off the ground. Ultimately, if the Government have no trust in the private sector to make the leaseholders feel safe in their properties, they need to give local authorities the powers to confiscate the blocks and carry out the works themselves. I hope the Minister agrees that the matter is not one of ideology and us making complaints on behalf of our leaseholders. It is a matter of life and death for many of our leaseholders, so I urge the Government to fund the work properly.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston 3:19 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn on securing the debate, and pay tribute to the work that he has done so far. I want to put on the record my co-chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform, and the fact that I am a patron of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, which brings its expertise to the all-party group and to the many people left high and dry as a result of the scandal.

Indeed, I wonder who people would have turned to if the LKP had not been there. It has heard, as we have, from many leaseholders up and down the country who have been placed in an impossible position—unable to pay for remedial work or obtain finance for it, and unable to sell their home until the work is done. They have been left stranded and effectively abandoned.

The debate may be technical and at times slightly legalistic, but at the heart of it are people such as those we have heard about today, who are looking for a bit of leadership and hope. There is clearly a tension between what the Government consider to be the moral case for not passing remediation costs on to leaseholders, and the legal position, by which freeholders may be entitled to recover costs from the leaseholder.

Although the Government’s pledges so far have to a significant extent removed the potential liability for some, there are still costs that can be visited on the leaseholder—and not just in relation to ACM cladding. There is a lack of clarity about other types of cladding and about who is responsible for the many waking watches that have now become necessary. At the moment there are serious doubts about whether the private fund is being utilised properly, or at all. Applications continue to be processed, but we do not know how much, if any, of the fund has been spent. Crucially, we do not know what will happen to those sites where no application has been made at all.

It should be clear that the longer it takes to resolve the issues, the more innocent leaseholders will have to pay out to fund the waking watches. That means thousands of pounds, needlessly spent, that they will probably never get back. Statements from Ministers are not enough. Talk about morality is not enough. Saying that there is a strong expectation on freeholders to put matters right is not enough. There is a lottery at the moment. Depending on the insurance company, the freeholder, the developer, the terms of the lease and the type of cladding involved, any outcome is possible. It seems to me, and probably to most people in the Chamber, that in the absence of someone stepping forward to put matters right, if a property was built in accordance with the regulations at the time, but is now considered unsafe, that must ultimately be the responsibility of the Government.

My all-party parliamentary group co-chair is the Father of the House, Sir Peter Bottomley, who unfortunately cannot be with us today. He joins me in that analysis and says:

“We have been grateful for the initiative of the Select Committee and we ask them to hold hearings—leaseholders’
voices must be heard. Government and parliament have imminent work to do. That is the way to justice. See the evil. Do good. Recognise the people speaking through the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership.”

We need to hear those leaseholders’ voices. The LKP recently did a survey of 117 different sites where people are affected by the issues, and the findings are stark: 90% of people surveyed said that the Government had provided “No help at all”. That has to change, and very soon.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth 3:22 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Time is short, and other hon. Members have covered many of the issues that I wanted to raise—particularly my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, who dealt with the overall issues so well. I just want to say a little about some examples I have encountered.

A man who came to my surgery lives in a relatively new block. He has got a job in Scotland and therefore needed to move from west London, and wanted to sell his flat. He discovered that the people he was going to sell to could not get a mortgage. He has been waiting for months, to-ing and fro-ing between the builders, solicitors and mortgage company to try to find out why there is a delay, because until he gets things sorted out his life is on hold. It appears that the block does not have ACM, but possibly HPL—he is not getting straight answers.

Secondly, the Paragon development jointly built by Berkeley First and Notting Hill housing association some years ago was featured in Private Eye. After many years in which the residents faced damp, Notting Hill Genesis opened up the cavities behind the walls and found a range of problems, including lack of horizontal and vertical barriers—something that other hon. Members have mentioned—and cladding problems in particular. What is worse is that the scaffolding went up over a year ago, and work stopped not long afterwards. Two building companies have gone bust. The residents—the leaseholders; they are shared owners—have been living with their flats exposed to the elements, apart from a sheet of wood, for months. There are also the security issues of having scaffolding outside the windows. There are 700 students living in the other blocks on that estate, who, given the fire in the student block in Bolton, face the same fear.

Finally, there is a large development in my constituency, built by a volume house builder, and three or four of the blocks were transferred under a long lease, or a head lease, to a housing association. It now turns out that the cladding on those blocks is dubious, and possibly ACM. The shared owners and social rent tenants living in those blocks live in fear and uncertainty. The buck is continually passed between the housing association and the developer whose responsibility it is to pay for the problem.

I concur with many of my colleagues here today. The Government must take responsibility for the problem that existed in the first place—the building regulations and the fire regulations that were inadequate, despite warnings from previous fires. Think of the residents, who not only face the costs and cannot sell and move on, but who live in fear that they could be the victims of the next fire.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Labour, Putney 3:25 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn and all those from across the country who have spoken in the debate to show what strength of feeling there is. I want to join them, to represent my many constituents who feel just as strongly. Their lives are a misery because of the situation—surely an unforeseen result from a fund that is meant to save lives and to be a good thing for people across the country. Actually it has led to dreadful circumstances for residents.

To add to the stories we have heard, I will mention the leaseholders of 66 and 200 flats respectively at two buildings in my constituency—the Swish building and the Riverside Quarter. They have been told by their freeholder that the cladding and other fire safety measures in the building—the cladding is either not ACM, or it is a mixture between ACM and HPL—do not now meet the standard that the Government regard as adequate for the issue of a fire safety certificate, and that recladding is needed. To their horror, they have been told that they need to foot the bill for the work, which comes to tens of thousands of pounds. They have not been told exactly how much the cost is, but they believe it is between £50,000 and £80,000 per flat.

That raises a few issues, the first of which is safety. If the current cladding does not meet the safety requirements for a safety certificate, are the blocks safe? As we have heard today, different blocks are being treated differently. The fire regulations are not up to scratch. Another issue is fairness. To make leaseholders foot the bill is outrageous. They are not multi-million pound landlords, by any stretch. They are normal people trying to live their lives, and they do not have £50,000 lying around. The situation is taking a huge emotional toll.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee

My hon. Friend is right to raise the unfair cost to leaseholders, which we have all highlighted. Does she agree that, as the taxpayer could ultimately foot the bill, we should make sure that dodgy developers, or those who will not step up to the mark, do not get away with a situation where the taxpayer bails people out just because they will not pay?

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Labour, Putney

I absolutely agree. There has to be a way to make the fund easy to use and urgently accessible, so that it is not held up for a long time in red tape, and the right people have to foot the bill. I argue that the Government need to extend the cladding fund to all types of unsafe cladding. That is what it is there for.

As to the emotional toll, one person said:

“The net result for me is that I will lose my home, as I cannot sell it, or raise a mortgage to finance repairs because it is unsellable and I am unemployed, and therefore will lose my lease.”

He will become homeless as a result. Another resident told me that his flat is unsaleable and effectively worthless. It was bought in 2004 in good faith in the belief that it was a safe home. The fact that it is now considered to have the problems in question is not of his making:

“We cannot afford to pay a sum of this size on top of the existing service charge”.

In summary, I am as shocked as everyone else here. I hope that the Minister will urgently tell us some good news. Three years after Grenfell, my constituents are being asked to fork out huge sums of money for a building that ultimately they do not own—a point that relates back to the leaseholder crisis. No leaseholder should have to pay for the work in question, or experience such huge stress and uncertainty. An urgent response is needed. I join those who are asking for the cladding fund to be urgently extended to all forms of unsafe cladding.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

I thank Members for their collective discipline in time management, which has given us just over half an hour for the Front-Bench speakers.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 3:29 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I congratulate you on your expert chairing of the debate, which has allowed many Members to have their say. I will try to limit my comments so that Members can intervene on the Minister, if required.

I approach the debate from a slightly different angle, because we do not have the leaseholder/freeholder issue in Scotland, although we have continuing issues with cladding. We also have issues over which the UK Government have had an influence but have not had the best communication with the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government have ended up with a problem not of their making that they are struggling to put right. Finance and insurance are obviously reserved to Westminster, and the Scottish Government have limited influence on the actions of mortgage companies, banks and insurers.

I turn first to advice note 14, which pertains to fire safety in buildings post Grenfell. It was introduced following very limited consultation with the Scottish Government, which means mortgage lenders now insist that cladded properties over 18 metres high have specific documentation to evidence how well they comply with safety standards. Most properties built in Scotland in the past five years comply with the safety standards set out by the Scottish Government. Our fire standards and building regs are better and more comprehensive than those in England, so we do not have a problem of the scale that right hon. and hon. Members have identified. Without the requisite certification, however, people cannot meet the new standards now being imposed by lenders. As a result, surveyors who have been instructed to compile home reports—it is a routine exercise when properties are sold or remortgaged in Scotland—have found that they have been imposed with nil valuations.

Constituents across the country, including many in my constituency of Glasgow Central, have spoken in terms similar to those used by right hon. and hon. Members: about not being able to sell their properties or to remortgage. As right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned, in some cases house sales have fallen through, leaving residents out of pocket.

Ruth Cadbury described how somebody could not take up a job. I know of somebody who had arranged to move to Poland with his Polish wife, but their house sale fell through at the last minute. All the arrangements had been made to move to Poland, but they now cannot sell their home and are stuck. Despite the vast majority of properties being certified by council building control departments, many surveyors refuse to commit to a valuation without seeing specific certification on the cladding.

In response, the Scottish Government have written to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government four times: on 18 October, 8 November, 19 December and again on 27 January. As far as I am aware, that correspondence has not yet been formally responded to, which is completely unacceptable. I hope the Minister will address this issue, if she can. The correspondence from the Scottish Government underlined their willingness to work in collaboration to find a suitable solution that works for the particular set of circumstances in Scotland, but we do not seem to have got very far. The Scottish Government have highlighted that, although they appreciate that MHCLG has introduced the EWS1 form to bring about a resolution, it relies in some respects on a tenure system that does not exist in Scotland. That needs to be addressed.

My constituents have raised their concerns about a number of properties in Glasgow Central, including Lancefield Quay, which was built in phases and has different issues across those phases. Stephen Timms talked about having different types of cladding on a single building, which highlights that the whole building, rather than just one type of cladding, needs to be considered.

My constituent Lisa Jamie Murray has been working incredibly hard to highlight the situation at the Templeton Building next to Glasgow green, because there is non-compliant ACM on the top two floors alone. As far as I am aware, it was compliant at the time of construction and conformed to the regs in place when the building warrant was obtained, but it seems that some of these things have been missed over time. There has also been a change to the building, which means that there is essentially a line of cladding up its side that would act almost as a chimney. If there were a fire at the bottom of the building, it would scoot up the outside of the building and on to the top, which is terrifying.

It has been incredibly difficult for the residents of the building to ascertain who is responsible for the cladding. Is it the original developer, or somebody who made the changes in between times? Do the residents now have to take this up and face the costs that right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned? It is incredibly difficult to make sure that we can reach a solution. It is very important, particularly because this is based at Glasgow green and there are lots of events there; it is a very busy part Glasgow.

I turn to some of the issues raised by advice note 14. Right hon. and hon. Members have hinted at some of the issues with inspections needing to be carried out by a qualified certificated body, and there are capacity issues in the industry. As Meg Hillier mentioned, perhaps we need to consider bringing more experts into the country to address that. We could make adjustments to immigration as well, because the industry does not have the people to do this. Time is pressing and money is a factor, and we need to find a way to reach that point.

The new consulted advice note, issued in January, introduced a fundamental change because it applies to all multi-storey and multi-occupied buildings, including those under 18 metres, which brings a whole load of extra buildings into scope. Inside Housing highlights the increased burden, saying:

“Compliance with the advice note and recovering costs both require expert evidence from a limited pool of fire engineers and forensic architects, and place an additional administrative and financial burden on building owners.”

What is the Minister doing to meet the challenge? Without the adequate people to do that, we will be waiting for a long time.

Listening to residents is fundamentally important. Dame Judith Hackitt mentioned that the Scottish Government have listened well to residents in order to forge their response. The Scottish Government’s Fire Safety Committee is still meeting and taking on concerns. I ask the Minister to listen closely to MPs and residents right across the country, and to bring a response that meets those needs. It is clear that the fund being set up is far from adequate. It is far from being wide enough in what it encompasses, and the Minister needs to consider expanding it very soon so that people can get on with the work.

Lastly, I echo the words of Anne Marie Morris, who called for a VAT exemption. I have asked for a VAT exemption on multiple occasions in the Chamber. The Budget is coming up, and there is an opportunity to remove VAT from sprinkler systems, cladding and house repair systems. If the Government were to do that, it would be a huge help to people who want to get work done quickly.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

We now have the pleasure of listening to my old friend from Croydon Central, Sarah Jones.

3.37 pm

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn on securing what is clearly an incredibly important debate. We could spend many hours talking about leaseholders and cladding, which reflects the scale of the problem right across the country.

As right hon. and hon. Members would expect, I spend quite a lot of time talking to leaseholders, whether through the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold reform, the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership or the UK Cladding Action Group. I have had the privilege of talking to many of them about some of the issues they face. As has been articulated so well, these are lives that have been turned upside down completely due to issues for which they bear no fault. What they bear is the cost, anxiety and stress. Their lives are on hold, and it is incredibly upsetting for everyone who has been involved.

It has been nearly a thousand days since the Grenfell Tower fire, and since then we have had two Prime Ministers, three Secretaries of State and four Housing Ministers—everything but a partridge in a pear tree. We might have another reshuffle tomorrow. Hopefully we will not, because we want the Ministers and the Secretary of State to stay and fix some of the problems.

Most of the issues have been explained well in the debate, so I will focus on some particular questions to the Minister. If she does not have time to answer them all today, it would be great if she could write back to us. My first point is about the remediation of ACM cladding, which has been talked about a lot. We know that nine in 10 private blocks with Grenfell-style cladding are still covered with such cladding.

Photo of Marsha de Cordova Marsha de Cordova Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Disabled People)

There are still several blocks with flammable ACM cladding. My constituents at Sesame Apartments in Battersea are still living in a building that is wrapped in unsafe cladding. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister should give us some definitive deadlines for when those private blocks will be made safe?

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I completely agree.

We know that 75 private block owners do not even have a plan in place to remove this cladding. Will the Minister confirm that, as the Secretary of State promised on 20 January, the Government will name all block owners who fail to put a plan in place by the end of January? Will she publish those names in tomorrow’s building safety update?

The Government’s £200 million fund for ACM removal on private blocks is nine months old, yet just a single block has so far been accepted for funds, and none has been made safe as a result of the fund. Labour has for years called on the Government to legislate to ensure that building owners cannot pass costs on to innocent leaseholders. Even with the £200 million fund, leaseholders are still exposed to risk, because state aid rules mean that fund payments are capped at €200,000 per property.

As the Mayor of London and the National Housing Federation said, the fact that the fund covers only ACM cladding creates a two-tier system. Will the Minister explain what protections she is putting in place to ensure that leaseholders are not handed the bill in the event that remediation costs exceed the state aid cap? What is she doing to protect leaseholds in blocks with other forms of dangerous cladding from being unfairly passed those costs?

Research from Labour revealed last year that up to 600,000 people are now stuck in unsellable flats because of flawed Government guidance relating to advice note 14, which is compounded by the failure to publish the Government’s tests into suspect non-ACM cladding. In recent weeks, new advice has been issued, and a new form from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors—the EWS1 form—for buildings whose cladding status is uncertain. In spite of those changes, in the past few days I, like others, have dealt with constituents who have been able to complete their sale. One constituent is facing major delays and bills over the work that she has been told needs to be done. Will the Minister give some clarity on how many sales are still being held up, how many EWS1 forms have successfully been signed off, and what the Government are doing to ensure that leaseholders are not being ripped off for those forms?

Interim measures such as waking watch, which other hon. Members have mentioned, were put in place after Grenfell as a very temporary measure before remediation works were undertaken. However, nearly 1,000 days on, leaseholders are still paying exorbitant costs—thousands of pounds per year—as a direct consequence of the Government’s failure to hold building owners to account and make their blocks safe. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that leaseholders who cannot afford to continue paying the costs are supported?

On non-ACM and data collection, ACM is the tip of the iceberg. High-pressure laminate and other forms of cladding are just as dangerous and should be removed. However, two years on, Ministers have failed to audit residential blocks, so we still do not know how many blocks are covered in HPL or other types of potentially lethal cladding. Ministers promised that that work would be completed by March this year, but an Inside Housing investigation report revealed that 70% of blocks remain uninspected, meaning that it is virtually impossible to reach that deadline. It is ridiculous that the Government have often shifted their deadline on publication of the non-ACM test results. Will the Minister today commit to a date for the publication of the tests, or explain to us the reason for the delay?

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee

Does not the delay in getting the data in speak to the lack of expertise available? I spoke to one of my housing associations at the end of last week, and it is having to assess its buildings in risk order. Many people in not so risky buildings will never get the work done to get the necessary paperwork—the data—to get a mortgage, which is also important for the property owners.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

That is absolutely correct. There is a whole raft of areas in which different evidence is gathered and different work needs to be done. There are questions about all those things. We do not know whether the people doing waking watch are doing it properly and are properly trained. We are spending money on things that we are not sure about. The lack of people doing those jobs is an important issue.

The announcement on 20 December that the height limit for removing ACM had shifted from 18 metres to 11 metres means that there are potentially thousands more blocks implicated in the cladding scandal than originally thought. That means that tens of thousands more leaseholders, who previously thought their blocks were safe, have now discovered that work needs to be done and that the Government do not deem their building safe. Additional safety requirements are welcome, but when it comes to building safety, it is unclear why the Government took two and a half years to decide that buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres were equally unsafe. Will the Minister clarify why they took so long to determine that blocks of that height should also have their cladding removed? Does the Department know how many residential blocks of between 11 metres and 18 metres exist across the country? How many are covered in Grenfell-style cladding? If the Government do not know how many blocks are covered, is there a plan in place to collect and publish that information, as has been done with blocks of 18 metres and above?

For two and a half years, we have had a merry-go-round of buck passing, and hundreds of thousands of people across the country are suffering as a result. It is disappointing that the Secretary of State was not asked about this more when he was doing the media rounds at the weekend, and that we have not seen more action. It is also disappointing that the Government are not engaging with leaseholders. A meeting in London was recently organised by the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, and 100 leaseholders were there. They were asked whether they have had regular engagement with Ministers, and not a single hand went up. We need to talk to people so we can understand the issues that they are facing.

If the Government are serious about the claims and pledges they made in the days and weeks following the Grenfell Tower fire, about their role in keeping people safe, about their commitment to homeowners, and about the principle that leaseholders should not be paying, it is time to act. I know this is difficult. It is a very big problem, and it will be very complicated to solve. If the Government act and do the right thing, the Opposition would thank them very much for doing so.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

I now invite the Minister to answer all those questions. She has about 12 minutes, and perhaps she can allow a minute or so for Hilary Benn at the end.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:46 pm, 12th February 2020

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank Hilary Benn for bringing this issue to Westminster Hall, and all the Members who have attended. This debate has shown MPs at their very best, bringing issues, cases, concerns and dilemmas to the Chamber and expressing what needs to be said here on behalf of their constituents. Members on both sides of the House want to be here to voice those concerns.

We all know that this issue causes much stress and anguish to residents. How do we support everybody? People can appreciate that issues are evolving as time goes on. We also understand that it is not the fault of the leaseholders who bought their homes that things have happened. We all understand that anybody could be one of those leaseholders; this is happening to so many. I praise what MPs are doing today in bringing this issue forward.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

Some of my constituents purchased properties under Help to Buy, so the Government certainly have a claim in this. How much of that responsibility will fall on the Treasury?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

That is a very well made point. In January, the Secretary of State said that we are currently considering options with the Treasury on the support that can go to leaseholders. Those are obviously ongoing conversations and negotiations, and I can go no further than that today.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee

I understand that, but the Minister will understand that people at Northpoint are forking out £11,000 for every month that the conversations go on. They have to be brought to an end, and something must happen soon.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. As I said, MPs from both side of the House are raising these issues. The fire risk of tall buildings with cladding was brought to everybody’s attention after the terrible tragedy of Grenfell Tower. It had not been brought to people’s attention before.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

With the deepest respect to the Minister, these issues were raised and recommendations made to the Government at the inquests into both the Lakanal House fire in south London, which took the lives of six residents, and the fire in Southampton, which took the lives of firefighters. Grenfell would not have happened had the recommended building standards been put place.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The Government took immediate action straight after the report. The actions that we took included a comprehensive independent review of building safety, chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt, and we have accepted all the recommendations of her independent review. We will continue to bring forward legislation to deliver an enhanced safety regime for high-rise residential buildings. As we announced last month, we will begin immediately to establish the new building safety regulator—initially in shadow form, pending legislation—which Dame Judith will chair, to oversee the transition to the new regime.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee

The Minister has paid tribute to MPs for doing their best and for showing the best of MPs. What we hoped for was the best of the Minister, doing the best by our constituents. Although we recognise the action that the Government took after the Grenfell fire, our residents need some assurance and action, so they know that they will not have to wait years for the issue to be resolved. Can she give our constituents any comfort today?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I started my speech with the Secretary of State’s remarks about what we are doing, the actions that we have taken, and how we will deliver going forward. I want to ensure that people understand the rigorous work of the expert panel and the advice that we are taking from it. That work is checked and verified, and we are taking it forward at the right pace. Of course, we are here to discuss those issues, which are being dealt with—negotiations are ongoing. What the issue absolutely impresses upon us is how important it is that things are done as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on students, I wrote to the Secretary of State about HPL cladding after the Bolton fire. After two months, I had received no response. I raised it with him on the Floor of the House and he promised me an early response on 20 January, which I still have not received. Will the Minister give us some assurance about when the work on the risks of HPL cladding will conclude? Do the Government recognise that ACM cladding, about which colleagues on both sides of the House have raised concerns, presents exactly the same issues as HPL?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I will take that message back to the Department and see what happened with the correspondence from the Secretary of State. I know that the Department replied to the letter from Alison Thewliss on 6 February, so if she has not already got it, it will be with her shortly.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

Can the Minister say when that work will be completed?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I will go through exactly what we have done and how we have done it, and note the significant steps that we have taken, including the provision of £600 million to support people and the further work led by an expert panel. We have accepted all the recommendations from the independent review, and are going forward at a rigorous pace, which we can do, obviously, once we have had all those negotiations with the Treasury.

In December 2018, we banned the use of combustible materials in external walls of new high-rise buildings and, after implementing the ban, we checked its effectiveness. In January, we launched a consultation on the ban, which went further and asked whether the limit should be lowered from 18 metres to 11 metres. The Government also announced the fire safety Bill, and the associated regulatory changes, to deliver the recommendations of the Grenfell inquiry phase 1 report.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I thank the Minister for the extensive detail that she is giving, but will she address the gentle point that I made? Even if the Minister had another five minutes, that would not be enough to address all the issues, many of which have not been raised simply because of a lack of time. Will the Government consider giving us a proper full-length debate in the main Chamber so that we can better express ourselves and hear more comprehensively from the Minister?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The hon. Lady makes a good point. We need more time to discuss the matter—this is only a 90-minute debate—and the number of hon. Members who are here shows that. Not only should we have that debate, but we should come together to raise those points and work in a constructive fashion. The hon. Lady is quite right; 90 minutes is not long enough. We also need to, and we will, write back to the hon. Members present, because I cannot give a comprehensive response to everybody in the time that I have.

Photo of Marsha de Cordova Marsha de Cordova Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Disabled People)

I take the Minister’s point about ensuring that we all get to express ourselves so she can hear our concerns. It is glaringly obvious from much of the engagement that leaseholders do not believe that they are being listened to or heard by Ministers. Will the Minister commit to meeting leaseholders and some of my constituents so that she can hear at first hand their concerns about their homes being wrapped in unsafe cladding?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The Department has met leaseholders, and we have received and replied to letters from leaseholders. The hon. Lady is right: we have to have a bigger consultation and ensure that we meet leaseholders. Yesterday, Lord Younger met a group, some of whom are in the Public Gallery. It is imperative that we hear from the people who are most affected, and I absolutely agree that we should.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Time is short—the right hon. Member for Leeds Central might like a minute or so at the end—but I will take any further interventions.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee

Will the Minister tell us whether she has spoken to—or will speak to—the Migration Advisory Committee about ensuring that we have the right skills to do the work properly and quickly?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It is absolutely imperative that we have people with the right skills who are able to do the job straight away.

Photo of Sam Tarry Sam Tarry Labour, Ilford South

Does the Minister agree that we need to hear more not just about how great it is that we have all come to discuss these things, but about concrete actions? Some of my constituents in Ilford South, including the 100 people in Raphael House, have mental health issues and problems planning their futures and getting their kids into schools, because freeholders essentially have them over a barrel. The time has come to stop the platitudes and take some action.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The Government took the unprecedented step of bringing forward £600 million to support the people whom the expert panel said were in the most dangerous buildings with ACM cladding. I started my speech with the words of the Secretary of State, who spoke about how we can ensure that we have the right support at the right place and at the right time. From the very start, we have taken the advice of experts in the field to ensure that we are supporting the leaseholders.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 3:59 pm, 12th February 2020

I thank all colleagues for the force and clarity of their arguments. It is no good pretending that the leaseholders listening to the debate will not be very disappointed by the response that they have heard. I hope that the Minister will go back to the conversations with the Treasury and say, “Blimey, we’re in a bit of a mess here—MPs on all sides of the House are not going to go away,” because we will be back. The Budget is coming up, and I hope that on that day, we will hear what the Government will do to ensure that leaseholders do not have to pay.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).