Consideration of Lords amendments
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendment 3. If Lords amendment 3 is agreed to, I will cause the customary entry waiving Commons financial privilege to be entered in the Journal.
It may be helpful for Members who wish to take part in today’s debate to know that there will be an initial four-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches. That gives people the opportunity to tailor their remarks accordingly.
After Clause 2
Risk based guidance about the discharge of duties under the Fire Safety Order
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendment 2, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 3, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 4, amendment (e) thereto, Government motion to disagree, and amendments (a) to (c) in lieu, amendments (f) and (g) in lieu, amendment (d) in lieu and amendment (i) in lieu.
Lords amendment 5, and Government motion to agree.
It seems a long time since I spoke on this Bill in Committee in June last year. I am playing a small part in the Bill’s passage through both Houses, and I stand in today for the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who led on the Bill at Second Reading and on Report last year. I am sure everyone in this House wishes him a full recovery.
Lords amendments 1 and 5 were moved by the Government on Report following advice that the Home Office received from fire safety operational experts on how to commence the Fire Safety Bill. In Committee, I announced that the Home Office had established an independent task and finish group whose role was to provide a recommendation on the optimal way to commence this Bill. The group was chaired jointly by the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Sector Federation, and it brought together experts from across the fire and housing sectors.
On 28 September, the task and finish group submitted its advice to the Home Office that the Bill should be commenced at once for all buildings in scope. The Government accepted this recommendation.
The group also recommended that responsible persons under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 should use a risk-based approach to carry out or review fire risk assessments, upon commencement, using a building prioritisation tool, and that the Government should issue statutory guidance to support this approach. The Government accepted this recommendation, which will support responsible persons. The Home Office, with support from the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Sector Federation, will host the model once it has been finalised.
Lords amendment 1 will allow us to take forward the provision of statutory guidance to support that approach. The amendment ensures that the risk-based guidance, which will be issued by the Secretary of State to support commencement of the Bill for all relevant buildings, will have the appropriate status to incentivise compliance. It does this by stating explicitly that a court can consider whether a responsible person has complied with their duties under the fire safety order by complying with the risk-based guidance. Equally, if a responsible person fails to provide evidence that they have complied, it may be relied upon by a court as tending to support non-compliance with their duties under the order.
The amendment also creates a provision to allow the Secretary of State to withdraw the risk-based guidance, but this can be done only after consultation with relevant stakeholders. Our rationale for inserting this provision is that we believe a point will eventually be reached where, having followed a risk-based approach to prioritisation, responsible persons will have assessed all the fire safety risks for the external walls of their buildings. At that stage, there may no longer be a need for the guidance to remain in place.
I assure Members that the Government will commence the Bill at the same time as issuing the guidance, and Lords amendment 5 ensures that will happen. This amendment gained the support of the Opposition in the other place when put to a vote on Report. I also recall the comments of the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) in Committee, when she said this Bill should be commenced at once for all buildings in scope and that a risk-based approach, like the one modelled in her home town of Croydon, should be adopted.
One of the recurring themes during the passage of this Bill has been concern over the number of fire risk assessors with the skills to undertake work on external wall systems. The task and finish group considered this issue as it looked at how responsible persons will be able to update their fire risk assessments, given there is limited capacity in the fire risk assessment sector—primarily of fire engineers working on complex buildings.
The group’s recommendation for a risk-based approach to an all-at-once commencement, on which we are acting, is the most practical way to deal with what is a complex issue. Our approach sends a signal to the fire risk assessor sector—mainly fire engineers—that their expertise should be directed where it is needed most, to the highest-risk buildings.
I thank all members of the task and finish group for their work in developing advice to the Home Office. The group has provided an optimal solution for commencing the Fire Safety Bill, allowing the Government to introduce the provisions at the earliest opportunity. It is important that we continue the good work undertaken with those relevant stakeholders on the task and finish group to regularly monitor the effectiveness of the risk-based guidance and the building prioritisation tool. These provisions will allow us to take forward the recommendations from operational experts in the field of fire safety. I hope that hon. Members will support Lords amendments 1 and 5, as agreed in the other place.
Lords amendment 3 seeks to introduce a power that the Secretary of State must use to make regulations to establish and keep up to date a public register of fire risk assessments. As you have confirmed, Madam Deputy Speaker, this amendment engages financial privilege and will not be debated. The amendment invokes significant financial concerns. To provide a sense of the scale of costs, we can point to two things. First, based on the number of buildings requiring a fire risk assessment, our initial estimate is that the cost to the public purse of a public register of fire risk assessment is above £2 million per annum.
Secondly, these costs would likely be broadly commensurate with the expenditure of maintaining a database of energy performance certificates. That system was mentioned by Opposition colleagues in the other place, who stated that something similar should be introduced for fire risk assessments. The current database of energy performance certificates is housed centrally in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The current costs for this are around £2 million per year, but under private contractual arrangements used previously, they were approximately £4 million a year. Notwithstanding the issue of financial privilege, I sympathise with the intent behind the amendment, and we will not rule out doing this in the future. However, there is a need for detailed policy consideration prior to implementation of such a database, which makes this the wrong time to impose this measure in primary legislation.
I raise just a couple of points to underline our view that the amendment is not appropriate. The amendment would, in effect, create a legal duty on responsible persons to make publicly available the full fire risk assessment for all buildings falling within the scope of regulation owing to the fire safety order. In its current form, the amendment would potentially mean that anyone would be able to access the fire risk assessments for a wide range of premises, including schools, hospitals, care homes and Government buildings. We would have concerns over the risk that posed to security, particularly if the information was accessed by somebody with malicious intent.
Linked to the security issue is the level of information that could and should be made available if a system of recording fire risk assessments is created. For example, a fire risk assessment can often be technical and is very different from an energy performance certificate. It may, for example, prove more effective and transparent to publish a summary of a fire risk assessment, rather than the full document. However, the Government agree with the principle of residents being able to access vital fire safety information for the building in which they live, and we propose introducing legislative provision to allow them to do so in our fire safety consultation. It is important to take a proportionate and appropriate approach to sharing information with residents. However, I hope that hon. Members will understand my concerns and the reason why the Government will resist the amendment.
Lords amendment 2 would place in primary legislation several specific requirements on the owner or manager of a building that contained two or more domestic premises. I recognise that many in this House and the other place wish to see legislative change on this as soon as possible. The Government share that objective, which is why we committed to implementing and legislating for the Grenfell inquiry’s recommendations in our manifesto. The Fire Safety Bill is the first step towards this. It was always intended to be a short, technical piece of legislation designed to clarify that structure, external walls and flat entrance doors should be included within the fire safety order. We need to deliver on that as soon as possible, to ensure that fire risk assessments are updated to take account of the risks in those areas. We intend to implement the areas specified in Lords amendment 2 through regulations, and as such the amendment is unnecessary.
It is not helpful, I have to say, for the House to keep returning to this issue. It risks causing confusion, as we saw through misleading media coverage of Commons Report stage. It also raises doubts in relation to the Government’s commitment to implementation, when all along we have been crystal clear about our intentions. I reassure the Grenfell community, who I know were distressed by the publicity at Committee stage, and those in the House and the wider public that the Government remain absolutely steadfast in our commitment to implement the inquiry’s recommendations.
I am sure everyone across the House accepts the importance of consulting when proposing significant changes to legislation. The importance of that was underlined by the Grenfell inquiry chair, who said that it was important that his recommendations
“command the support of those who have experience of the matters to which they relate.”
Furthermore, the National Fire Chiefs Council’s published response to our fire safety consultation states:
“NFCC supports the Government’s approach to publicly consulting on how to implement the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 recommendations. This consultation provides an opportunity to gather wider views on how to practically deliver the recommendations in a way that brings the maximum benefits to public safety.”
We consulted on our proposals to deliver on the inquiry’s recommendations and to strengthen the fire safety order. This consultation closed in October 2020 and we intend to publish our response this spring. We also intend to bring forward legislation as soon as practicable after the Bill is commenced. Our consultation gave all those affected the opportunity to make their voices heard. This Lords amendment, however, does not do that. It disregards the intent of the statutory duty to consult and seeks to implement changes that do not take account of the responses to the fire safety consultation.
I should restate to the House that we intend to use article 24(1) of the fire safety order, which provides a regulation-making power and a statutory duty to consult, to deliver the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s recommendations. Our proposals will include creating new legal duties for the responsible person in the most practical and effective manner. This includes a proposal for the responsible person to provide information to their local fire and rescue authority about the design of their building’s external walls and the materials they are constructed from, and provide it with up-to-date building floor plans in a standard format, highlighting the location of key firefighting systems within their building. Responsible persons will be required to undertake checks of flat entrance doors, fire doors in the common parts and self-closing devices. Regular inspections of all lifts and other key firefighting equipment in their building will be mandatory, reporting any faults to their local fire and rescue authorities alongside this. There will be an obligation to produce and regularly review evacuation plans for their buildings, and we will look to impose requirements on premises’ information boxes, which will include up-to-date floor plans and other documents as recommended by the inquiry. We will also require the installation of way-finding signage in all multi-occupational residential buildings of 11 metres and over. We are also committed to seek further views on the complex issue of personal emergency evacuation plans. A further consultation will open in the spring and details will soon be available on the Government website.
Some of our proposals from the consultation will require primary legislation. These include strengthening the effect of guidance relating to the discharge of duties under the fire safety order; providing for responsible persons in all regulated premises to record who they are and to provide a UK-based address; the placement of a new requirement on responsible persons for all regulated premises to take reasonable steps to identify themselves to all other responsible persons—this could apply, for example, to a building that houses both commercial and residential units; a requirement that those completing a fire risk assessment must be competent; an obligation on all responsible persons to record their completed fire risk assessments; and for responsible persons to record the name and organisation of those they have engaged to complete the fire risk assessments. There will also be the obligation that any outgoing responsible person be required to pass on all relevant fire safety information to those taking over such responsibilities under the fire safety order. And there are potential measures to increase fines, particularly with regard to the impersonation of an inspector. We intend to include those measures, and possibly others, in the Building Safety Bill, which will be introduced after the Government have considered the recommendations made by the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government and when parliamentary time allows.
I also wish to place on record the Government’s view that there are fundamental flaws with this Lords amendment. First, on the issue of lift checks, the Grenfell inquiry’s recommendation was specific in that it called for checks of lifts to be carried out on high-rise buildings at monthly intervals. The Lords amendment goes a lot further and applies to all multi-occupied residential buildings. That means that even if such a building was only two storeys high but happened to have a lift, it would require the same approach as a high-rise block. This is not a proportionate solution.
I am also concerned about how inflexible this amendment is. In respect of both lifts and fire doors, it offers no ability to change the frequency of checks without further primary legislation. For example, it may be the case in future that the most appropriate course of action to respond to an evolving situation would be to have a bespoke checks regime for certain types of building that is different from that for other properties. This is but one example of how this amendment could constrain the Government’s ability to keep residents safe, and it is right that we maintain the flexibility to react responsibly to future changes in circumstances.
We have talked about the financial privilege grounds in relation to this amendment, and the reason for this is that we already intend to cover the areas of the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s recommendations mentioned in the Opposition amendment through regulations. We have provided an estimate of the impact of our consultation proposals, which has also been published on the Fire Safety Bill pages of the parliamentary website. It is important to mention in respect of undertaking monthly checks on lifts in all buildings, for example, rather than just in high-rise residential premises, that the costs would be significantly higher than we have accounted for.
I am also concerned about the territorial scope of this amendment. The Bill applies to England and Wales, with the exception of the Government’s amendment on risk-based guidance, which will be for England only. The Opposition want this amendment to apply to Wales, but it does not have the explicit consent of the Senedd. The Welsh Government have expressed the view that this would be a breach of the Sewel convention.
I reiterate the Government’s view that this amendment is unnecessary. It seeks to create delegated powers to lay regulations on these specific areas, despite the fact that this power already exists under article 24(1) of the fire safety order. However, I recognise that those on both sides of this House, those in the other place and the public want greater reassurance that we will deliver on our commitment to implement the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s phase 1 recommendations. It is important that we reach a conclusion on this issue, not least because we owe that to the Grenfell community, and I want to underline the Government’s commitment to delivering on the inquiry’s recommendations.
The Fire Safety Bill is an important first step in the process, which must come first in terms of sequencing. Our intention is to commence this as soon as possible, with supporting risk-based guidance to be ready to support commencement. This will ensure the highest-risk buildings are assessed first. We intend to respond formally to the fire safety consultation shortly. Following on from that, we intend to bring forward regulations as soon as possible. In addition, we have brought forward the Building Safety Bill, which was recently subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. We aim to introduce this after we have considered the recommendations from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee report. To underline the Government’s firm commitment to deliver on the Grenfell Tower inquiry’s recommendations, we have published our first quarterly updates on the progress being made to implement the recommendations. These updates are broken down by the themes set out in the inquiry’s phase 1 report on the Government website.
In the interests of getting the Bill finalised and to deliver on important building safety reforms, we were prepared to offer a legislative amendment that would require the Government to report back to Parliament on the specific areas highlighted in the Opposition amendment within 12 months of commencement of the Bill. That would have resolved this issue, and I am disappointed that my offer of this amendment was not accepted by the Opposition. For the extensive reasons I have provided, I hope the House will agree that we are right to reject Lords amendment 2.
Lords amendment 4 seeks to protect leaseholders and tenants from paying for the remediation of unsafe cladding from their buildings. I recognise that a number of alternative amendments have been tabled. I expect we will hear a number of views on this issue today, and I intend to respond to them at the end of the debate, given that many of those interventions will be virtual. First, I should state that we agree with the intent to give leaseholders peace of mind and financial certainty. That is why the Government have recently announced that we will be providing an additional £3.5 billion to fund the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding, targeted at the highest-risk buildings. That brings the total investment in building safety to an unprecedented £5 billion.
I am glad that the Minister has confirmed that extra £3.5 billion, bringing the total to £5 billion. Will he confirm that this will fully cost the removal of the cladding, and that those leaseholders who live in high-rise buildings will not have to foot the bill?
That is the case. I know that my MHCLG ministerial colleagues have been in this place and debated this extensively and, having made the case to the Treasury, it was gratifying to see this money come forward. It will assist those who are living in fear in high-rise buildings in particular, but also those in mid-rise buildings, who, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, will benefit from a financing scheme.
Unfortunately, leaseholders in my constituency have been left in the dark after the announcement the other day because, despite the co-operation between the Welsh Government and the UK Government on the details of this Bill, they have been unable to get answers on the crucial issues of the building development levy and the new tax and on whether there will be any new money for Wales in the proposals laid out by the Secretary of State. Will the Minister urgently respond to the letter from the Welsh Housing Minister, Julie James, which asks reasonable questions and sets out constructive solutions, and will he and his MHCLG colleagues meet me to discuss these issues and find a solution for leaseholders across the United Kingdom?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s impatience, and it is shared by us all across the House. The scheme is in development, as I understand from MHCLG, and I know that Ministers are working hard to get the basis, the foundations and the system in place so that the money can be distributed as quickly as possible. Happily, in terms of high-rise buildings, I think we are well over 90% that are either remediated or in the process of being remediated, but I completely agree with him that we need to work with all urgency to bring as much possible relief from the stress of living with this cladding in the future. I will certainly ask my colleagues at MHCLG to consider his offer of a useful meeting. I know they will be responding to correspondence from the Welsh Government as quickly as possible.
I think we all recognise the frustration exhibited by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), which is shared across the House. Perhaps the Minister could explain what steps the Government are taking to make sure that the construction industry pays its fair share in the remediation and the future prevention of risk.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As Members who have perhaps been in the House a little longer than he has will know, I was Housing Minister for a brief period of 12 months about 18 months ago, and the work started then of sitting alongside the construction industry to get it to stand up and fulfil its obligations to the people who were living in defective high-rise buildings in particular. A number of firms did and, from working with them through the Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and MHCLG, I know that there is a new atmosphere abroad. That is certainly part of the challenge that we face: it is not just about the regulation we are putting in place today, but a cultural change in the industry towards building safety so that it is now a full partner in facing the challenge for the future.
Government funding does not absolve building owners of their responsibility to ensure their buildings are safe. We have been clear that building owners and the industry, as my hon. Friend has just said, should make buildings safe without passing on costs to leaseholders. They should consider all routes to meet costs including, for example, through warranties and recovering costs from contractors for incorrect or poor work.
We have always been clear that all residents deserve to be and feel safe in their homes. We are working at pace to ensure remediation of unsafe cladding is completed, and we have an ambitious timescale to do so. As I said earlier, about 95% of high-rise buildings with Grenfell-type ACM cladding identified at the start of 2020 have completed remediation or had works on site by the end of last year. However, I am afraid the Bill is not the correct place for remediation costs to be addressed. It is a short but critical Bill to clarify that the fire safety order applies to the external walls, including cladding, and flat entrance doors in multi-occupied residential buildings. That means the responsible person must include those parts of the building in their fire risk assessment. That does not include the remediation of historical defects. It does not have the necessary legislative detail that would be needed to underpin such amendments in regulations. The Building Safety Bill is the appropriate legislative mechanism for addressing these issues, and it will be introduced in the spring. It will contain the detailed and complex legislation that is needed to address remediation costs.
I am afraid that that is the fundamental risk we face at the moment. We want to get the Bill on the statute book as quickly as possible. It forms the starting block of a complex web of legislation and regulation that is required to bring about changes in building safety across the whole country. I hope that Members recognise that the potential delay that may be inserted by a back and forth between the Houses over this particular issue is not useful. As I say, this issue should be debated during consideration of the Building Safety Bill, which will be brought forward shortly, and I know that Members will embrace that particular piece of legislation.
I will make a little progress, if I may, just to outline why that is. These amendments, I am afraid, are not sufficiently clear or detailed to deliver on what Members say they wish to achieve. They would require extensive drafting in primary legislation, thereby, as we have just discussed, delaying the implementation of the Fire Safety Bill and the crucial measures it puts forward to improve the fire safety regulatory system.
The amendments would also be impractical—for example, in cases where it would be difficult to identify whether a risk has materialised from wear and tear or due to a building safety defect. Stating what the landlord can and cannot recover from leaseholders may well contradict the provisions set out in the contractual terms of the lease. It would be unclear where these costs should lie, rather than their being determined by the terms of the lease. This might result in delay to crucial interim measures to protect residents while remediation is being brought forward, meaning that fire rescue services would have no choice but to evacuate residents. Additionally, the amendments, though well-intentioned, would not always protect leaseholders from all remediation costs. They apply only to defects uncovered through a fire risk assessment, but not, for example, to defects discovered as a result of an incident, or indeed other works taking place.
Members will be aware that, as I have said, we will soon be bringing to Parliament the building safety Bill, which is a once-in-a-generation change to the building safety regime. It will bring about fundamental change in both the regulatory framework for building safety and the construction industry culture, creating a more accountable system to ensure that a tragedy such as Grenfell can never happen again.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all the work he did as Housing Minister to resolve this issue; we met on many occasions to discuss it. Does he agree that this amendment is self-defeating in that it puts the onus for any fire safety work back on the owner, who, given debts or the cost of that work, will simply walk away? These owners have probably paid a few thousand pounds per flat to collect, rightly, ground rent. If we put a debt on them for £40,000 per flat, they will simply walk away, and who will then carry the can for the work?
My hon. Friend speaks with some expertise in this area and has been a constant presence in debates on this matter over the past few years. He is right. The amendment is self-defeating given the number of, for example, freeholds that are held in limited liability vehicles, which could, in the position he points out, simply put themselves into some kind of insolvency procedure. That is why any measure along these lines would need to be scrutinised carefully and thought about in a little more detail before we brought it in.
Alongside all that, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has committed to taking decisive action to end the cladding scandal once and for all through the Government’s five-point plan to provide reassurance to homeowners and build confidence in the housing market. Funding will be targeted at the highest-risk buildings, in line with long-standing independent expert advice and evidence. Lower-rise buildings with a lower risk to safety will gain new protection from the costs of cladding removal through a long-term, low-interest Government-backed financing scheme. The Government are also committed to making sure that no leaseholder in these buildings will pay more than £50 per month towards this remediation. Let me be clear: it is unacceptable for leaseholders to have to worry about the cost of fixing historical safety defects in their buildings.
I ask hon. Members to recognise that while these amendments are based on good intentions, they are not the appropriate means to solve these complex problems. By providing unprecedented funding and a generous financing scheme, we are ensuring that money is available for remediation, accelerating the process, and making homes safer as quickly as possible. I give my assurance that the Government schemes to address these issues will be launched as a matter of priority and that we will provide an update on the underpinning details, as Members have urged us, as soon as we are in a position to do so. For the reasons set out, I hope that the House will see fit to support me in my aspirations with regard to these and other amendments.
It is a pleasure to follow the Policing Minister. I, too, put on record my best wishes to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who cannot be here to lead for the Government today. We all wish him a speedy recovery
I thank our fire and rescue services, who are going above and beyond to keep us safe and have worked tirelessly to protect us throughout the covid pandemic. I am grateful to Ministers, to officials and to House staff who have worked with us on this Bill. I give particular thanks to Yohanna Sallberg and Kenneth Fox, who have supported me, in particular, throughout the Bill’s passage. I thank Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and all those Lords who have led this Bill through the House of Lords, and ensured that Labour’s key amendment on implementing the Grenfell phase 1 recommendations was accepted there.
Every time we debate and discuss the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, we hold the memory of those who died in our hands. We must be gentle and respectful, but we must also see the injustice, and honour those who died by taking action, and by not resting until justice has been done and everybody has a safe home that they can afford. I pay tribute to the campaigners—Grenfell United, the families, survivors, and the entire community—for their tireless fight for justice. I also pay tribute to those campaigners who are fighting every day for the hundreds of thousands of people who are trapped in unsafe buildings, and who face extortionate bills and are unable to move. The drumbeat of their lives is fear and anxiety. No Parliament can ignore that.
Thousands of people are working on this, but I particularly thank Ritu and Will from the UK Cladding Action Group, for their assiduous efforts. I thank the 200 people who joined our roundtable this morning, so that we could hear at first hand the horrors that this Government are wilfully enabling. As Ritu said, “we are fellow human beings in these buildings—your family, your friends, your colleagues.” To everyone who is affected, and who is living in fear and anxiety, I say sorry—we must do better.
As we have said throughout the passage of the Bill, we support it, but it is small and the only piece of concrete legislation we have had since Grenfell. That is not an adequate response to the biggest housing safety crisis in a generation. It does not even scratch the surface of the work that must be done to fix the wild west of building control and fire safety that we have seen played out with such horror over the past few weeks during phase 2 of the Grenfell inquiry. It has taken so long to get here, and at every stage we have had to drag the Government into action.
The Government promised to act swiftly after Grenfell, yet it took them almost three years to introduce this Bill. We waited 12 weeks just for them to bring the Bill back to consider Lords amendments. This is intended to be a foundational Bill. Its purpose is to provide clarity, and state what is covered by the fire safety order, which will inform other related and secondary legislation. In Committee the Minister said that the Government intend to legislate further, and he spoke many times of action still to come, as he did today. By this stage, however, we need more than vague commitments about secondary legislation. At the very least, we need a clear timetable from Government that sets out when further changes to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order will be delivered, when secondary legislation will be introduced, and when the Bill will be implemented.
In response to a deeply frustrated letter from Grenfell survivors in September, the Government said that the introduction of the Fire Safety Bill was a key priority, yet the Bill does not include provision for any of the measures called for by the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry. We would like many issues around improving fire safety to be included in the Bill, but many will now have to be introduced through the draft Building Safety Bill and by secondary legislation. We have no idea when any of those things will happen.
I have been asked to speak by my party leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), and by other Members who have relatives who own such flats on the mainland. They have extreme concerns, and the fears that the hon. Lady has referred to about their properties, and what that means for the future. Although the Government have good intentions, I believe —as I think does she—that the Bill does not go far enough. Is she convinced by what the Minister has said, and if not, will she push the amendment to a vote?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I do not think the Government have gone far enough, and I do not accept the reasons why we are going at such a snail’s pace on something so important. I will come to what we think should be done about it.
The Government rejected many attempts to amend the Bill. The draft Building Safety Bill places various requirements on what is called the “responsible person” and refers to the fire safety order for the definition of that, but the fire safety order does not provide a definition of the responsible person. The draft Building Safety Bill even attempts to put into law a building safety charge. It is vital that the fire safety order makes it clear that there is no ambiguity around the definition of responsible person and that it does not mean leaseholders. However, the Government chose to reject that amendment.
The fire safety order requires regular fire risk assessments in buildings, but it includes no legal requirement for those conducting the assessment to have any form of training or accreditation. In Committee and on Report, we tabled amendments that would bring into force an accreditation system for fire risk assessors, rather than waiting for more secondary legislation. We also tabled an amendment to require the schedule for inspecting buildings to be based on a prioritisation of risk, not an arbitrary distinction of types and heights of building. On that point, I am glad that the Government have listened, having turned us down in the initial stages, and taken good practice from Croydon and other areas and introduced a risk-based approach to the Bill.
We tabled an amendment on waking watch to require the Government to specify when and for how long such measures should take place. Thanks to Lord Kennedy of Southwark, our amendment on implementing key measures from the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry passed in the Lords, despite the Government’s attempts to block it. The Government have made so many promises to address the fire safety crisis but failed to keep them. The families and survivors are still waiting for justice, and hundreds of thousands of leaseholders and tenants are still trapped.
As we debate the Lords amendments this afternoon, the Government face a choice on what they include in the Bill. They could do the right thing and fulfil their promises, or they could push the can down the road again—“We do care, just not quite enough, not quite yet.” There are two answers that thousands of people across the country are watching and waiting for today: will the Government change their mind and back the Lords amendment to implement recommendations from the Grenfell inquiry, and will the Government legislate to ensure that leaseholders—blameless victims of this crisis—do not have to foot the bill for measures to make their buildings safe?
Although I understand the point behind the hon. Member’s position—I assume she will vote for Lords amendment 4—can she answer the point I made to the Minister? What will she do when the building owners simply walk away? Where will the costs go? Does she have a solution for that? Does she not accept that this amendment is fundamentally flawed and is not the right way to achieve what she wants to achieve?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. He is an expert in this area, and I very much respect what he says. The answer is that it is for the Government to resolve this crisis. It is not for leaseholders to foot the bill. We suggested a national taskforce, whereby the Government could take responsibility for assessing the costs of the remediation work and then find out who is responsible, so that, as with the polluter pays principle, we could get to the point where the people who were responsible for the problem were paying the bill. That is fundamentally what we are trying to achieve, because in law at the moment, those who can least afford to pay are the only ones having to pay. The Minister says that there are flaws in the way the amendment is worded, but he could have amended it.
Lords amendment 2 would place robust requirements on building owners or managers and implement the key recommendations from phase 1 of the Grenfell inquiry. The Minister said that he had concerns with the way the amendment was worded. Again, the Government could have tried to amend it and to fix some of the problems along the way, but have chosen not to do so.
The Government said that they would implement the Grenfell phase 1 inquiry recommendations in full and without delay, and Lords amendment 2 would be a straightforward way for them to fulfil that promise. It seeks to require the owners of buildings that contain two or more sets of domestic premises to do four simple things: to share information with their local fire and rescue service about the design and make-up of the external walls; to complete regular inspections of fire entrance doors; to complete regular inspections of lifts; and to share evacuation and fire safety instructions with residents. Those measures are straightforward and supported by key stakeholders. Indeed, a common response is incredulity that these measures are not already in law.
The Government have even tried to water down proposals on the evacuation of disabled people, as has been reported today. They have proposed requiring personal evacuation plans for disabled people only in buildings with known safety issues and a waking watch. It is only after legal action by the families of those who died in the Grenfell Tower fire that the Government have relaunched a consultation on this.
The fire safety consultation included proposals to check flat entrance doors every six months, but Sir Martin Moore-Bick said that all fire doors should be checked every three months. Ahead of setting up the Grenfell Tower inquiry, the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), said that
“we cannot wait for ages to learn the immediate lessons.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 168.]
Nearly four years after Grenfell, and over a year after the recommendations were published, we have waited ages. It is shameful that these things are not enshrined in law.
I wholeheartedly agree with the points that my hon. Friend is making. I want to emphasise the importance of paragraph (a) of Lords amendment 2, on sharing information about the materials that a building is constructed of, because my constituents in Cardiff South and Penarth have real difficulties getting hold of, for example, architectural drawings and original “as built” drawings. There is simply no consistency in this across the UK, which means that fire and rescue services, let alone anybody trying to undertake works, have a much harder job.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I have had many similar cases in my constituency, with people just trying to get to the bottom of what the issues are, and meanwhile they cannot sell their flat and are facing fire remediation and waking watch charges, their insurance is rocketing and their lives are on hold. We heard from many such people this morning, and it really was very sad.
It is hard to understand why the Government have put forward a motion to disagree with Lords amendment 2. I heard what the Minister said, but my challenge is that he could have tried to amend our amendments if he had a problem with them, to make them work. The answer, “We will do these things, but later” is simply inadequate.
I think that we all share the same objective across the House. I certainly want the recommendations of the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry to be implemented as quickly and robustly as possible. I am afraid, however, that the hon. Lady is trying to make a political point, because my has made it very clear that we have a robust system in place. We have the Fire Safety Bill. We have already done the consultation on the fire safety orders, which will be coming out in the spring. Our methodology has been backed by the National Fire Chiefs Council, and the step-by-step process has also been backed by Dame Judith Hackitt.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I do not doubt her sincerity or the work that she has done on this since becoming a Member of Parliament, but I fundamentally disagree. The step-by-step process might be the right process, but it is so slow. It is almost four years since the Grenfell fire, and it is a year since the recommendations were made. The consultation finished in October, and the Government are still considering the responses. It is painfully slow. Have we not seen with covid what is possible when we put our minds to something? Look at how tremendously quickly we have achieved amazing things through this year of trauma. I think that, with commitment, the Government could work faster on this.
I hear what the hon. Member says, but whether we should have a system in law whereby we check that a lift is safe is really not that complicated. Of course there are experts, but throughout all stages of the Bill the Government and the Minister have referred to steering groups, taskforces and consultations, rather than actually implementing the recommendations. We could have gone much faster. The Government published the consultation on fire safety in July and it closed in October, but four months later they are still analysing the feedback. They cannot keep promising to act later; they need to act now. There really are no more excuses. There is no reason why this amendment could not be made. The Lords were right.
I will now move on to Lords amendment 4, to which many amendments have been tabled in an attempt to improve it and build on it. This morning I heard from many leaseholders in this very situation. They told me of their desperation, how their lives have been put on hold, how they face mental health issues, how their insurance has rocketed, how their waking watch costs are exorbitant, how they cannot get EWS forms and so cannot sell their homes, how they face costs of other fire remediation way beyond cladding, and how they live in blocks not covered by the Government schemes. Many of them face bankruptcy. They simply cannot understand the injustice of having to pay for things that were never their fault. They cannot understand how the Government do not get this and will not put it right.
To echo the comment from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt), it is about getting this right, rather getting it done quickly. Does the hon. Lady not agree that a lot of these policies that we are bringing forward have been measured, have been accepted by experts and are tackling the issue? It is right that we tackle those at most concern of not being safe first, and then follow through afterwards, rather than trying to do all of them at the same time and getting it wrong.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I genuinely struggle to understand why the Government have not grasped the scale of this crisis and the quantity of people who cannot sell their flat, who cannot afford the costs that they are currently looking at, who cannot change jobs and who cannot get married or have children because their lives are on hold. Many are first-time buyers who have saved up, worked really hard and got their flat. If the Government would say today, “We will commit to legislate to say that lease- holders should not have to foot the bill”, we could accept that there was a commitment there, but there is not.
There is no commitment to say that leaseholders should not have to foot the bill. The words are said, but there is no action to put it into law. [Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that there is £5 billion, and that is true, but that does not cover the vast number of people who are still affected—the vast number of people whose lives are still on hold. One could say that some of them are perhaps traditional Conservative voters. We struggle on this side of the House to understand how the Treasury has not grasped the scale of this crisis and is not putting it right.
I know for a fact that some of those affected are traditional Conservative voters. I have spoken to people from all walks of life, and they are in absolute anguish about this. They are being left in the dark. We had the announcement the other day—it was typical to announce a big sum of money and then not be clear about how much would come to Wales, how the system would work or when the money would come through. These people have been living in the dark and in anguish for months and for years, and it is completely unacceptable.
My hon. Friend is completely right. There is the idea that someone would have a long-term loan where they pay £50 a month. If someone needs to pay off a £20,000 loan, and that loan stays with the building, they have no chance of selling their flat. Nobody is going to want to buy a flat with a bill that high.
What evidence does the hon. Lady have for that claim? This is a maximum charge per unit per month of £50. If she understands how property transactions work, that is a maximum of £600 a year, which capitalises to about £12,000. I am not saying it would not affect the value of that property, but it does not make them unsaleable. It makes them far more saleable—I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—than they are today and actually affects the value by a relatively small amount.
The hon. Member said, “I am not saying it would not affect the value of that property”, and that is the key. This issue should not be affecting the value of the property when people have saved up for many years, worked hard, bought their flat and then through no fault of their own suddenly finds that the value of their property goes down because of the Government failure to deal with the problem.
Through successive lockdowns, the people in these blocks have gone to bed at night with the added pressure of sleeping in a building at risk of fire or being themselves at risk of bankruptcy and deep financial trouble. It is taking a heavy toll on people’s mental health and putting millions of lives on hold. Leaseholders have been trapped in this impossible position for far too long.
I hate that we are still having this conversation. I hate that I have stood here at this Dispatch Box time after time for years saying the same thing to Ministers, and I hate that good people on both sides of this House are saying the same things and it is still falling on deaf ears. The problem is not going to go away. The Government could legislate today to ensure that leaseholders do not pay by supporting the Lords amendment, the McPartland-Smith amendment or the Labour amendments. At this point, I do not mind which one they pick; I just want the job done.
One of the items that has been brought to my attention is that 57% of flats requiring remediation were purchased for under £250,000, which means that many of those people are living in negative equity in their properties. Does the hon. Lady agree that this is not about cake tomorrow, but about what happens today, and unless the Government accept the amendments that have been tabled, those people will feel that they have no hope for the future?
The hon. Member is absolutely right. We heard from a lady this morning that the cost of insurance for her small block had gone up from £30,000 a year to £500,000 a year. We heard from a lady who lives in a block in Kent—I know one Government Member has stood up for her in this place many times—where the residents have already spent £500,000 on a waking watch. It is quite extraordinary.
I was alarmed to see reports this afternoon that the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, has said:
“Our problem with McPartland’s amendment is that, far from speeding things up for constituents across the country who are worried about finding themselves in these properties, it would actually slow things down.”
That mirrors the intervention that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has made, and it is an absolute cop-out. We are four years on, and leaseholders are struggling. We think that 11 million people are affected by this—not necessarily those living in dangerous blocks, but those living in blocks where they do not know, because they have not got the forms sorted and they are paying more insurance. That is a huge crisis.
Does the hon. Lady recall that in the Opposition day debate called by the Labour party just a few weeks ago, I asked the Minister, if our amendment is defective, why do the Government not take it, fix it, and make it work? They had the opportunity then. Does the hon. Lady think they should have done that?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: if there were any problems with these amendments, they could have been addressed by the Government through this process. They had 12 weeks between the Bill leaving the Lords and coming here to try to effect some of these things, but have chosen not to.
The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) are to prevent leaseholders from being billed for fire safety repairs. Labour’s amendments went further, because the McPartland-Smith amendments—supportive and good though they are—would not cover leaseholders in blocks where flammable cladding had been added at some stage following the building of the block. Labour’s amendments would have included, for example, Grenfell Tower, which was built in the ’70s but to which the flammable cladding was added later, in 2017.
In our amendments (f), (g), (h) and (i) to Lords amendment 4, we have sought to go even further, to make sure that the cost of fire safety problems from refurbishment jobs such as the cladding of Grenfell Tower cannot be passed on to leaseholders. Our amendments (f) and (g) would ensure that leaseholders cannot be passed on the cost of remediating problems issued under the fire safety order wherever the problem was created. Labour’s amendment (i) would ensure that the Bill protects leaseholders from the day it comes into law, instead of an unknown date in the future, and Labour’s amendment (h) would have ensured that if the fire safety order is extended in the future, the Secretary of State must publish an analysis of the financial implications for leaseholders—although that amendment was not selected today, as it was out of scope. [Interruption.] You are hurrying me along, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I am turning pages so that I can speed up, which I will of course do.
To conclude, Labour’s amendments in lieu are straight- forward. They are based on issues that the Government need to address and have pledged to do so, but have not acted on. The risk of fire and looming bankruptcy will not wait while the Government dither and delay, with inaction or failed proposals that keep many lease- holders in debt. Each amendment I have spoken to today corresponds to a broken promise from the Government.
Today is another chance for the Government to finally put public safety first, and bring forward a set of legally binding commitments to deliver on the promises they made to leaseholders and implement the recommendations of the Grenfell phase 1 inquiry. Blameless victims of this crisis, who are in dangerous homes and facing financial ruin, expect nothing less. As debates over the past four years have repeatedly shown, solving this issue fairly would command cross-party support, and today should be a day to deliver justice. It is not too late for the Government to put the British public first and do the right thing.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for concluding bang on time. As the House knows, this debate is limited to three hours, and one of those hours has now passed. I did say at the beginning of the debate that there would be a time limit of four minutes on Back-Bench speeches. I make no criticism of the Minister or the shadow Minister—if I were going to criticise, I would have stopped them long before now—and I appreciate that both hon. Members have taken a lot of interventions and dealt with a great many different matters, so it was necessary to spend the first hour in this way. But that does mean that, although there will be a limit of four minutes for the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), after that, the limit will be reduced to three minutes.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this debate. I would also like to send my best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire).
It is a great pleasure to see the Minister in his place and responding to this debate. I listened to him very carefully and I detect a hint that there could be a compromise, for which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) have been calling for many months now. We are very keen to work with the Government. We are very keen for the Government to table an amendment in lieu, to accept our amendment today or, if the Minister feels so inclined, even to move our amendment to a vote to test the will of the House, but I imagine that, sadly, we will not have the opportunity to vote on what is called the McPartland-Smith amendment today.
I would like to pick the Minister up on the point he made about this Bill not being the correct place for the amendment. I believe it is, which I will come on to in a moment. I would also like to put on record that I, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen, those who have supported our amendment and the leaseholders themselves are all very clear that we have never asked the Government to pay for the full costs of remediation, or the taxpayer to bail people out. We just want the taxpayer to provide a safety net for leaseholders to ensure the fire safety works are actually undertaken; it has been nearly four years.
We want to be in a position whereby the Government provide the cash flow up front, and then they can levy those who have been responsible within the industry to recoup those funds over the next 10 years. That is our plan and objective. We would love to work with the Minister and the Government to get this resolved in the Lords. I say to the Minister today that their lordships have already agreed to re-table the amendment if it is not accepted. It will be tabled in the Lords on Friday. I am sure we will be back to discuss this later on—in a few months. So I hope that we can work in the in-between time to come to some solution together.
I am very proud to be the Chairman of the Regulatory Reform Committee. The Fire Safety Bill does amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. The reason why the Bill is so important is that it creates a financial obligation on leaseholders to pay freeholders for the costs of remedying any fire safety defects on external walls and doors, such as cladding, but not limited to cladding, so it can include fire safety breaks and a whole variety of other issues. I assume that this is an unintended consequence. The Government do not want leaseholders to pay—that is very clear from what the Minister said earlier—but they are not sure how they can resolve the problem and get the works fixed without leaseholders actually paying.
From my point of view, we are very keen to ensure that leaseholders are not responsible. In terms of dealing with that order, we have to amend the Fire Safety Bill, because we cannot wait for the Building Safety Bill. The Fire Safety Bill creates this legal obligation. It creates the position whereby a fire authority, which is a competent authority, can order a freeholder to do the works. They have 21 days to agree to do the works and provide a timescale, or that is a criminal offence. Once they have had this direction from a competent authority, the leaseholders are then required to refund the freeholder for the works that are done. Up and down the country we already have thousands of leaseholders who are on the verge of bankruptcy—some have already gone bankrupt—just waiting and, before they actually get to the costs of remediation, paying £15,000 a week for waking watch in blocks of flats and excessive insurance premiums. The costs are huge.
I urge the Government to accept our amendment, to let us vote on it, or to work with us to ensure that we resolve this issue in the Lords and that leaseholders do not have to pay.
First, may I send my best wishes to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire)? When he was Secretary of State, he and I discussed our respective illnesses, and I really feel for him and his family at this very difficult time.
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has discussed the issue of cladding remediation and fire safety works on many occasions. In June, we made it clear that
“residents are in no way to blame”
for defects from cladding
“and it is our view that they should bear none of the cost of remediation.”
We repeated those sentiments in our prelegislative scrutiny of the Building Safety Bill. Again, we said:
“The Government must recommit to the principle that leaseholders should not pay anything towards the cost of remediating historical building safety defects…for which they were not responsible.”
That is very clear.
The question is who should pay: the initial developer—the Government could help to co-ordinate action against them—the taxpayer, of course, or the industry as a whole? Unfortunately, the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland)—I very much agreed with the sentiments of his comments—and by the Labour Front Benchers seek to place responsibility on the freeholder.
For reasons that the Minister gave, those amendments cut across the contractual relationship between freeholder and leaseholder. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who raised this issue a number of times in the Select Committee when he was a member, showed that freeholders are often quite small companies that, where they were not responsible for the initial development, simply collect ground rent. If faced with the cost of remediation, they would simply walk away. Those amendments will not get the work done. That is the fundamental issue. We want to see it done without leaseholders having to pay for it.
Turning to who should pay, certainly, the Government have put on the table £3.5 billion in addition to the £1.6 billion, but that does not include anything other than cladding remediation. All the other works, which for many leaseholders are as substantial in cost as cladding remediation, are not covered, and of course that funding does not cover buildings below 18 metres.
The Government have come up with a loan scheme for buildings below 18 metres, but that places the loan charge on the freeholder. Surely, we are back to the same problems: if we cannot interfere with the contractual relationship between the freeholder and the leaseholder—according to the Minister, with respect to the amendments before us from the Opposition and the hon. Member for Stevenage, we cannot—then surely that is a problem for the Government’s loan scheme too, and if freeholders are going to walk away from a direct charge on properties, as the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton said, they will walk away from a loan too. That is a real problem that the Government have to address.
I welcome that the Government are going to introduce a levy and a financial contribution from the industry, but we appear to be in a position where they cannot tell us whether the money raised from the levy will be in addition to the £3.5 billion or whether it will be taken from the £3.5 billion—in other words, that the Treasury will get some of that money back. That, to my view, would be wrong. The Minister is going to come to the Select Committee on 8 March; hopefully, we will be a bit wiser after that visit.
Finally, we have talked a lot about leaseholders, but what about social housing tenants? The National Housing Federation says that there is £10 billion of remedial work to be done in the social housing sector, and more for council housing properties, yet the only automatic right that social housing landlords have to any funding is for help with the removal of ACM cladding; everything else they are likely to have to pay for. Tenants are going to have to pay through rent increases, cuts to future maintenance or cuts to the house building programme, none of which is acceptable. So we have a perverse situation where the social housing landlord, as a freeholder, could be ensuring that tenants have to pay for the remediation of properties next door that have been subject to the right to buy. That cannot be right.
All these matters need resolving. We hope that the Minister does so on his visit to the Select Committee.
I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have no axe to grind with the Government. They are my friends and colleagues. I like them and I get on with them, but I am not going to blindly follow them when I can see that the treatment of leaseholders is wrong.
First, in tabling our amendment, we have never said that we would ask for taxpayers’ money. We made that fundamentally clear right at the beginning, and it is worth repeating that. I know that many of my colleagues would have supported our amendment, but they were told that it would be an open cheque book and therefore they chose not to. Secondly, our amendment will not wreck the Bill. It will make it fair for the innocent lease- holders caught up in this crisis.
There are three parts to this, in my opinion. There is the moral issue. Who, in good conscience, could leave these people to pay huge insurance premiums, sometimes increased by over 1,000%, huge waking watch charges and crippling costs of remediation if we could do something to help? Who would do that?
Then there is the economic issue. When someone owns just 10% of their home, but they are responsible for 100% of the remediation cost, what do we think people are going to do? They will be saddled with tens of thousands of pounds-worth of debt while their home is valued at nothing. This part of the housing market is heading for collapse and thousands of leaseholders are heading for bankruptcy. The Government could and should prevent this from happening.
Finally, there is a political dimension. Successive Governments have put home ownership at the centre of Government policy. They have encouraged people to get on the property ladder. We have incentivised them through schemes such as Help to Buy and shared ownership. Imagine the howls of derision when the first Government Minister stands up and claims that we are the party of home ownership.
The recent Government announcement is very welcome, and I know that many people are grateful, but what sort of solution says, “We concede that it is not your fault, but we are only going to help half of you?” For those buildings over 18 metres, cladding will be removed for free, but not in buildings below that height. Worse than that, those people living in buildings below 18 metres will be saddled with unaffordable debt to pay for cladding remediation. Even worse, they will know that their taxes will be paying for their neighbours’ remediation.
I absolutely understand the spirit behind my hon. Friend’s amendment. Will he answer the point that I made earlier? How would his amendment operate if the building owner walks away? Also, does he accept that his amendment would put somebody else on the hook for the costs of remediation, not just for historical defects, but for any defects in future?
What I will do is refer my hon. Friend to two things that he has said. First, he said, “We will carry the can”, and he has now said, “Who is going to be on the hook?” It sounds to me like he is very happy for leaseholders to carry the can and be on the hook, but not to find a solution. The Government’s problem is to find the solution. Our problem is to say that leaseholders should never have to pay. That is not an unreasonable position for us to take.
In trying to help, the Government have satisfied no one and they have upset just about everyone. The leaseholders are not responsible for this. They know they are not. We know they are not. The Government know they are not and, therefore, the Government’s position is now untenable.
In conclusion, I appeal to the Government and to all my colleagues to think very carefully before they abandon thousands of their constituents, because I know this: they will not forget and they will not forgive.
I am speaking in support of all the amendments before us that seek to protect leaseholders from having to pay. First, on the Minister’s argument that this will delay matters, I think that leaseholders are left perplexed by the Government’s position. One day Ministers say that the cost of fixing historical defects should not fall on leaseholders—the Minister said it again today—but on another day, they say that it should. The £50 a month towards the loans that the Government propose to give to buildings below 18 metres shows that that is their policy. I do not think that Ministers can criticise others who are trying to address the problem—I support the speeches we have heard from supporters of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland)—because the Government are completely unclear about what their policy is on who should bear the cost. It is clear to me that it should be the people who built the blocks.
On the argument that leaseholders who are also part-owners of the freehold may walk away from their flats, that is a very fair point, but exactly the same argument applies to loads of leaseholders who will not be able to afford to meet these costs. What this tells us is that if we are to solve this we must deal with the whole problem, not just part of it.
Secondly, to argue that this is the wrong Bill misses the urgency of the situation. Leaseholders are facing bills that they cannot afford now—waking watch bills now, insurance bills now—and they still face the prospect of being asked to pay to make safe homes that they bought in good faith. That is why we should take the first available opportunity to protect them from this great injustice.
Thirdly, although the Secretary of State’s recent announcement represented progress, it has not solved the problem. Ministers have not addressed the question of how other defects that many buildings have—missing firebreaks, flammable insulation not connected to cladding, wooden balconies and walkways—will be fixed, because leaseholders do not have the money to meet the cost of repairing these defects. Even if the dangerous cladding is removed, either under the grant or the loan scheme, their blocks will still be regarded as a fire risk, because the other problems will not have been remedied. We cannot make a building half-safe, as that will mean that they will still need waking watches, there will be high insurance bills, and EWS1 certificates will not be issued—people’s homes will still be worthless, and they will not be able to be sold. An important part of the housing market will remain stuck.
The question for the Minister in replying to this debate today is very simple: what will he do about this? If we together do not find an answer, the suffering of hundreds of thousands of leaseholders in Leeds, in my constituency, and up and down the land will carry on.
This Bill is very important to me and my constituents, and I want to pay tribute to the Grenfell community—the bereaved and the survivors. I want the Bill to be implemented as quickly and as robustly as possible so that it is not subject to any future uncertainty or challenge.
We need to get on with this. We need to stop all the ping-ponging between this place and the other place. It is very clear that there is a systematic scheme here. There is this Bill, which is very simple. We have had the consultation on the fire safety orders and the regulation. We need to get on with that. We need to implement that work and then get on with it. We then need the Building Safety Bill. That needs to come to this House and, again, we need to get on with it. We owe that to my constituents.
The first phase of the Grenfell inquiry report came out in October 2019, 16 months ago. We, collectively—both in this place and the other place—need to get this legislation implemented and make sure that these dangerous buildings are remediated. The more we talk, the more we argue, nothing gets done—and there are dangerous buildings out there.
We have a simple piece of legislation that we can get enacted. We have a big pot of money. The totality of the pot could be as high as £10 billion. Let us implement this legislation, let us start assessing and prioritising the buildings, and let us start spending this Government money. We have time to review the details of the financing scheme. I just want to make the point that, yes, the Government are taking responsibility for buildings over 18 metres, but there is a reason for that: buildings over 18 metres, according to all the independent risk assessors, are way more dangerous. They are four times more likely to have fatalities.
I empathise hugely with leaseholders, but there is still a subsidy in there for leaseholders of buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres. So let us just get on with this today. After that, we can review the details of the financing package and amend the Building Safety Bill, but this Bill is the first step and we need to get on with it.
It is shameful that this modest Bill is the Government’s legislative response thus far to Grenfell, almost four years after that tragedy took place. We might expect, therefore, that it would at least address the most significant and urgent wrongs that the Grenfell fire brought to the Government’s attention. The purpose of the Bill is to update the fire safety order and better manage and reduce the risk of fire. What better and more straightforward way of achieving that than to implement the recommendations of part 1 of the Grenfell inquiry, which deals with issues such as the inspection and maintenance of lifts and doors, and having proper systems of evacuation in place and communicated to residents? It is impossible to imagine those steps, backed by the moral and legal authority of the inquiry, not becoming law. That is the purpose of Lords amendment 2.
Although safety is the paramount concern, the treatment of leaseholders and tenants living in unsafe blocks is a wholly new scandal that this Bill will fail to address unless Lords amendment 4 is agreed today. Those tenants should not bear the cost of remedial work to their flats where they did not and could not have known the risks posed by their construction. The Government do not seek to deny that, but instead make a series of partial concessions. That is the wrong approach. We should start, as amendment 4 does, with the presumption that remedial costs attributable to the Bill should not be borne by leaseholders. They should not be borne by tenants or social landlords either, or by the rents of the least well off or the limited funds set aside for the provision and repairing of social homes.
The cynical disregard for the lives of our fellow citizens that Grenfell exposed will take years, billions of pounds and the concentrated efforts of the Government and industry to address. Building design, materials, construction, maintenance and inspection are all in the dock. Height is a factor, but so is who the occupants and users are and how they are taught to behave, especially in an emergency.
For the Government constantly to adopt a reductive approach to the crisis is irresponsible. This is not just about one or two types of cladding, buildings over 18 metres or residential buildings. Today is an opportunity not to address all those issues, important as they are, but to show a serious intent to act now on the most obvious faults and injustices. The Government should take it by accepting all the amendments before the House.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). This is a horrendously complicated issue involving cladding—ACM, high-pressure laminate and other forms of inflammable cladding—fire safety measures and the height of buildings. I warmly welcome the fact that the Government have come up with the money to remedy the most unsafe buildings—tall buildings—and the cladding that was put on them, which fails to provide safe accommodation to residents.
The reality is that the £5.1 billion will remediate only the unsafe cladding and will not do the comprehensive work. The issue then becomes one of the fire safety work that has to be carried out as well. There is no funding to provide for that, so it has to be paid for by someone.
I have a series of suggested tests that could apply. The first is that, emerging from the Grenfell inquiry, it is quite clear that the ACM cladding was illegal, so those responsible for developing the cladding and putting it on the building must pay for the remediation in all other buildings where that is the case. Similarly, for other forms of unsafe cladding, if those people fail to accord with the building regulations that exist at the time, they should pay the cost of removing and correcting it.
Leaseholders could not reasonably have been expected to foresee the fire safety issues when they bought the leases on their flats, so the fundamental issue is that they should not have to pay the cost of remediation, either of cladding or of fire safety defects. My hon. Friend the Minister said that he finds the amendments defective. My challenge to him, when he responds to this debate, is to make it clear from the Dispatch Box that the Government will bring forward proposals in the Lords to amend the Bill to make sure leaseholders do not pay.
The defence seems to be that the Building Safety Bill will eventually come through and be implemented. The problem is that we have sat through the pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill and recommended at least 40 changes to it. It will take probably 18 months for it to reach the statute book, and then we have the secondary legislation. Leaseholders do not have the time: this work needs to be carried out now. The industry estimates that it will take some four years to implement all the safety works required. It must be made clear that the leaseholders are not the ones to pay.
Currently, leaseholders cannot insure or sell their properties and no one wants to buy them. We are in danger of freezing the housing market because of this problem. I urge the Minister, when he responds, to—
I, too, send my best wishes to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) and wish him a speedy recovery.
I have been listening to the debate and the various interventions. A question asked consistently in interventions from Conservative Members has been whether it is not best to put things right rather than act quickly. I remind those Members, as others have, that it is now four years on from Grenfell. Four years is a timescale in which we should have been able to address this issue and given people security and some form of confidence.
Confidence has been shattered by the failure to include in the legislation the recommendations from the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry. I share the view of the Fire Brigades Union that the Government seem to be doing the bare minimum to fend off bad headlines. I have not the eloquence to speak on behalf of my constituents and portray just how strongly they feel about this matter. They are really very angry—and, I have to say, distressed. They feel not only at risk but that their lives have been put on hold by their inability to sell their properties and move from them.
We have heard today about the £5 billion that the Government have allocated; my constituents, like those of other Members, are asking what happens if the money runs out—the costs so far have been estimated to be nearer £15 billion. In addition to that, just as the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said, the money will not cover many of the defects that have now been found and the additional measures that have been demanded and required. My constituents are now being hit with potential bills from the developers—including the worst, Ballymore—for things such as rectifying wooden balconies and other defects that were not of their making. The idea of waiting for the Building Safety Bill is like “Waiting for Godot”, what with the time it takes to get the right type of Bill and then get the legislation through and implemented.
My constituents in lower-rise blocks do not see why they are being discriminated against. My constituents were blameless. They were failed by developers, regulators, suppliers of materials, inspectors—all of them. Many of those developers made fortunes out of developments in my constituency; it is they who should pay the cost of their own failures. I urge urgency, which is why I will support all the amendments that would protect leaseholders from being burdened with the debt caused by others who have failed us all.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to correct the historic wrongs, and I especially welcome my hon. Friend the Minister’s commitment to fundamentally change the culture in the building sector and to take a more robust, risk-based approach. Leaseholders are the innocent parties in this matter and rightly expect that the developers, builders and current landlords—some of whom were developers—along with the local building controllers, national regulators and component manufacturers, should be the ones to bear the costs.
My constituents have raised a range of their outstanding concerns that they feel still need to be addressed. They are concerned, first, that those responsible should take far more of the financial burden; secondly, that they have the unfair burden of massively increased insurance costs and waking watches; and thirdly, about the distinction between buildings above and below 18 metres and why they should be treated so differently.
To many people, a monthly cost of £50 may not be a great deal, but for many others who are already at their financial limit, the equivalent of a 13th month of mortgage payments is a huge burden that they can barely afford—if they can afford it. They want to be able to move on with their life—they may want to have a family, or move for work or for a whole range of other reasons—but they cannot. They feel trapped.
I am particularly concerned about the 18-metre distinction, especially because of the Cube fire in Bolton about 16 months ago. As it was 16 cm below the threshold, there were lower safety expectations for the cube, including regarding the requirement to have fire-resistant cladding. The Cube turned into an inferno in a matter of minutes, and if the carelessly discarded cigarette had been thrown at four o’clock in the morning rather than eight o’clock in the evening, we can only imagine the toll on the 217 residents. I urge the Minister to change the focus from 18 metres-plus, as with Grenfell, or 18 yards-plus, which would apply to the Cube, and to move towards taking a fully risk-based approach to dealing with this crisis, because ultimately this is about protecting lease- holders, who have done no wrong.
I too send my best wishes to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). I have told the Government repeatedly that many residents in Salford face exorbitant fire and safety remediation costs—up to £100,000 per flat in some cases. I told them that even buildings under 18 metres were failing EWS1, and that many residents were being forced to pay thousands for measures such as waking watch, and increased insurance premiums.
On 10 February, I hoped against hope that the Government had listened—that they had heeded the recommendations of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform, a range of sector bodies and MPs from across the political spectrum, and had decided finally to address this great moral injustice, to ensure an urgent national effort to make buildings safe, and to guarantee that no resident or leaseholder would ever have to pay for a crisis that they did not cause. Sadly, the Government did not listen. The extra £3.5 billion of funding announced was only for cladding removal, not for remediating fire safety defects, which usually accounts for the majority of remediation costs. Only buildings over 18 metres are eligible. Residents in all other buildings, including those even one metre under, will need to apply for a loan, and buildings under 11 metres will receive nothing at all.
My constituents are devastated. Every day, bills for interim fire safety measures and increased insurance premiums rack up. They cannot move or sell; they struggle to get credit; and, worse, some may face bankruptcy or homelessness. It is so bad that the UK Cladding Action Group reports suicides nationally, and 23% of those surveyed by the group had considered suicide or self-harm. My constituents are victims of systemic regulatory failure or, worse, corporate malfeasance, but the Government are making the victims take responsibility. This has to end today. I say to the Minister that his Government have a moral duty to agree to legislate for the principle that residents and leaseholders should not pay for historical fire safety defects. I urge him to support amendments to that effect today; to ensure that the Government lead an urgent national effort to carry out fire safety remediation by June 2022; to forward-fund that work; and to reclaim the costs from those responsible and via a levy on new development.
I, too, thank the Government for the £5 billion that they have committed to targeting and helping to make safe these high-risk buildings. May we remember the lives lost in the Grenfell Tower tragedy. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) for all she has done to fight for justice for the Grenfell Tower survivors. I volunteered to help; I first went there two days after the fire. The tales of the fires that consumed the outward escape mechanisms because of the cladding, and of the way the building was encased with flames, are not something I have wanted to speak about, but I feel that it is appropriate to do so today, because I see that the Government are trying to bring some justice to the victims and to future-proof the safety of social tenants in tower blocks, and I thank them for that.
My concern is the long-term unintended consequences of the high levels of fire safety regulations for private leaseholders. They are often young men and women who have saved their whole life to buy their first home. Oftentimes the flat is in London, and as leaseholders, they are now unable to leave that flat. Many of my constituents have written to me about their children in London who have purchased a flat and are now trapped. They can no longer afford the soaring costs of their debts, and some have even moved home to their parents in Beaconsfield because they cannot afford the financial burdens they are now under as leaseholders. I hope that we can continue to address this issue long term, but I want to see this legislation passed and this first stage accomplished. I appreciate and sympathise with many of the amendments, but I would ask that we just move forward and support the Government to ensure that this first level of safety is on offer for residents across the UK.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. We are in the middle of a building safety crisis, and post Grenfell, we must all play our part in ensuring that no one is ever unsafe in their home again. The amendments we are discussing are a step in the right direction, and I urge my colleagues to support those that enhance protections for leaseholders, but the Bill is a missed opportunity to enshrine in law further amendments to protect leaseholders.
The issue I want to draw the House’s attention to is interim costs of temporary fire safety measures that leaseholders have to put in place while they wait for the start of long-term remedial work, such as the replacement of dangerous cladding. They have to put those measures in place, because they have been told by the fire authorities that their buildings are too unsafe to live in without them. The vast majority of these interim costs are not covered by any Government assistance, and hundreds of my leaseholder constituents in Vauxhall are already paying out, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
The amendment that I tabled to the Bill would have ensured that building owners could not pass these interim safety costs on to leaseholders. These costs are extortionate, involving eye-watering sums of money. Thousands of pounds are being paid by ordinary, working people, and it is money that they just do not have. How can that be right or fair? I am sure that my honourable colleagues do not need reminding that this building safety crisis was not caused by leaseholders. They are the innocent victims, caught between an industry that has failed them and a Government who are unwilling to go the full distance. Ensuring that leaseholders do not pay these interim costs is not only morally right, but essential if they are not to face financial hardship or ruin. The building industry and the Government must take full responsibility for protecting leaseholders from these interim costs. No leaseholder should have to pay a penny for making their home safe.
It is with deep sadness, but also with optimism, that I speak today—sadness because I recall only too clearly the shock of hearing about Grenfell Tower. That shock turned to horror when I went to pay my respects in person. I stood by those charred remains, the dense and acrid smoke heavy in the air, with an inescapable horror at the awareness of what was mingled in the smoke and the dust, at the horrendous loss of life, and at the harm to so many who still carry the terror and fear of that night.
Housing has been my lifelong passion and was my career before I came into Parliament. My interest in and deep commitment to it continues, as shown in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I chair the New Homes Quality Board, which is bringing in a new code of practice and a new homes ombudsman. It complements the serious and vital work of Dame Judith Hackitt on the building safety regulator, as well as the essential remit of the Fire Safety Bill.
This Bill is not the whole solution to the Grenfell tragedy, but it is an essential and important technical Bill that needs to be brought in as a matter of urgency. That is why today we must not confuse the purpose of this Bill and the immediate necessity of bringing in laws to protect every person in every constituency, whether they live in a terraced home, a bungalow, or a low, medium or high-rise building. Back in 2017, I called for leaseholders to be protected against remediation costs in high-rise buildings where cladding such as Grenfell’s had to be removed. I therefore welcome the Government making that happen through a £5 billion investment for that activity and for building safety; it is the right thing to do.
I called for changes in obligations, and for the ability of fire services, councils and Government to intervene in fire safety matters, so that where there were known problems—for example, with doors or common areas—they could be corrected. The Bill will put that right, and it will give authorities the power to intervene and protect lives. That is what the Bill is all about. I commend the actions of the Housing Secretary and the Government in recent months, and encourage them to look at a broader review of the rights of leaseholders and renters alike, but I welcome the Bill. It is the right thing to do, and it needs to be urgently concluded.
I have spoken previously on the nightmare facing residents in the Wicker Riverside complex in my constituency, who were evacuated before Christmas with no notice because of multiple fire safety failings. We got them back, and I thank Lord Greenhalgh for his assistance with that, but their problems remain. They face waking watch costs of up to £600 a month, which for some is almost twice their mortgage payments, and they are still waiting for huge bills for works that they anticipate will be needed to make their homes safe. Nearby leaseholders in Daisy Spring Works received a bill this week for £7,000 to cover compartmentation works, to be paid within 28 days, on top of £10,000 of previous costs, with bigger bills yet to come. In the Metis building, the removal of ACM cladding will be covered by Government funding, but leaseholders still face bills of up to £50,000 to make good other faults.
Of course, there are others across my constituency and the country who are in the same situation. In all these cases, they are expected to pay simply to make their homes safe by putting right the mistakes of others. That is the central wrong that we have an opportunity to remedy today by supporting the amendment of the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and the amendments tabled by those on the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that the Government will not try to prevent a vote, because Ministers know that there is a grave injustice here that must be remedied. They must know, too, in their hearts that the action they have taken so far falls well short of what is needed.
This is a huge problem. We should start from the basic principle that those who are responsible for the failings should be responsible for putting them right. In any other consumer purchase, a dangerous item would be recalled by the company that made it and repaired or replaced at no cost to the person who bought it. The same principle should apply here. Leaseholders in these buildings have not just been let down by developers; they were people who exercised due diligence, undertaking all the checks that were needed before they bought their flats, but they were let down by comprehensive regulatory failure, which was the responsibility of successive Governments. That is why we must step in and ensure that their homes are made safe as a matter of urgency. Of course we should seek to recover as much of the cost as possible from the developers and others responsible, but the principle must be that leaseholders pay nothing, either now or in the future, through any loan scheme. Many leaseholders have stretched their finances to the limits to buy these homes. Some have become bankrupt already, and others are facing ruin and unimaginable mental strain. This is wrong and we can begin to put it right today.
The cladding issue is of great importance to many of my constituents, particularly in Portishead. They understand that a balance must be struck between the problems of leaseholders caught in the cladding trap and the interests of taxpayers at a difficult time for the public finances. We know that the Government will publish more details of the financing scheme when further discussions with the Treasury are completed, so we still have time to make changes. Although it would be completely improper to ask the taxpayer to, in effect, sign a blank cheque, it has to be a basic principle that those who have to undertake changes purely as a result of change in government regulation should have any remediation underwritten. As these changes will affect dwellings irrespective of their height, such support should be available to all. Where changes are required not as a result of change in government regulation but because of faulty workmanship or frank dishonesty in the declaration of materials used, all costs should fall directly on developers, builders and insurers—indeed, there may be occasions when criminal sanctions are required. Although it is generally unacceptable for taxpayers to pay in these circumstances, there will have to be exceptions, particularly when the developers in question have gone out of business and leaseholders have no other options from which to seek redress.
We must also see a number of practical issues resolved, including through urgent Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors guidance on EWS1 certification and the speeding up of the training of qualified staff able to conduct EWS1 assessments. We need building societies and banks to take a realistic and constructive attitude to the buying and selling of these properties, especially when a taxpayer safety net is being deployed to provide greater certainty. We also need the Association of British Insurers to provide realistic guidance to its members, so that on top of the financial worries they already have leaseholders are not subjected to the added anxiety about the failure to insure their properties. As I have said in the House before, we have to ensure that surveys are factually accurate, as we have seen too many examples of shoddy practice that adds both financial cost and unnecessary worry for w the leaseholders concerned.
We all understand the problems facing the public finances and we all welcome the £5 billion of taxpayers’ money that the Government have already put forward. What we need to see as soon as possible are fair and equitable solutions for all those caught in a trap not of their own making.
Lords amendment 4 is about protecting blameless leaseholders from the extortionate costs of fire safety remediation. I tabled it initially in Committee and it has been re-tabled by Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Pinnock in the other place. I thank the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) and their colleagues, who have improved upon it, and I support all these amendments. Hundreds of thousands of people affected by this fire safety scandal are counting on us to put our party political differences to one side and work across party lines to protect them. The Government have made three claims today. They say that this Lords amendment should not be dealt with now, that it is defective and that it will delay this Bill. Let us address those in turn.
First, the Government say this Bill is not the time and place to protect leaseholders, and that they should wait until the Building Safety Bill. The Government are wrong. From the date this Bill comes into force, leaseholders will be required to pay for any costs incurred consequent to a notice by a competent authority. If they receive a notice from a fire service or a local council in relation to the external wall of a building of two or more dwellings, those leaseholders will be liable to pay from day one of the Bill taking effect. Leaseholders cannot afford to be hit with huge costs, and that is why this Bill is exactly the right Bill to address the issue, and it is why leaseholders cannot wait any longer.
Secondly, the Government say that the various amendments under consideration today are defective. Well, why have they not proposed their own amendments to solve any defects? I first tabled this amendment on 25 June last year, which is eight months ago, and I note that the Government have failed to bring anything forward in all that time.
Thirdly, the Government say this amendment could delay the Bill. With respect, that is a bit flippin’ rich, given that it has taken three and a half years to bring forward a Bill that extends to a whole two pages.
We cannot end the whole fire safety scandal today, but we can protect leaseholders from having to pay for it. I call on the Government to put all the amendments to a vote, and I call on all Members of this House to put our party differences to one side and to vote for them all.
I start by sending my very best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). We want to see him back soon, but it is good to see this Minister, my Hampshire neighbour, leading the debate today.
Owning your own home is a very British dream, but it has turned into a nightmare for thousands in the aftermath of Grenfell. That is why there is such strength of feeling across the House today. Our thoughts will always be with those lost in the Grenfell tragedy, with those who are grieving and with those who survived, but there are now thousands more who are dealing with the building safety consequences of those events.
In the UK it should not be high risk to buy a home in a block of flats built and marketed by a reputable house builder under strict building control regimes, only to find that the professional and regulatory checks have been a fiction. That is a situation in which hundreds of my constituents find themselves.
It is clear from today’s debate that no one wants residents to pay for this disgraceful behaviour, that there cannot be a blank cheque from Government, and that those who caused the problem have to pay for the works that are needed. The only question is how we achieve all that, so I warmly welcome the Government’s announcement of an additional £3.5 billion to fund remedial work, a grant scheme for low-rise buildings, a builders levy and a property developer tax. This will be of some reassurance to leaseholders, and a start to making sure that those responsible for the failings are made to pay for what they did wrong.
I accept the argument of my hon. Friend the Minister that this may not be the right place for further assurances on remediation costs and, given his undertaking to look at this further in the Building Safety Bill, I will pause my support for the amendments today. He has been constructive and helpful in his contribution.
In the meantime, the Government have to show how funding promises will work in practice. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for working with me to identify how funds will flow for the waking watch relief fund and remedial works. Making this work in practice has to be a ministerial priority in the coming weeks.
There also needs to be complete transparency from Homes England on which buildings have been accepted into the scheme, and that if eligible costs legitimately increase from the initial assessment, applicants can claim from the fund for a cost variation. Above all, these plans need to be in place as quickly as possible, and the Government need to tackle the insurance problems that many leaseholders now face.
Remediation works will not happen overnight, but it is in no one’s interest to delay this Bill, which includes provisions from my 2018 fire safety ten-minute rule Bill. If there is not clear progress, more action will be needed in the Building Safety Bill when it is considered later this year.
I rise to speak in support of Lords amendment 4 and the amendments tabled by those on the Labour Front Bench. I also express my support for what is colloquially coined the McPartland-Smith amendment. The common thread is to urge the Government to ensure that freeholders do not unjustly pass fire safety remediation costs on to leaseholders and residents. Too many of my constituents are living in dangerous homes, facing huge financial and legal liabilities for remediation of building safety defects not of their making. Too many are suffering anxiety and stress from living in blocks with ACM and other types of cladding, whether in New Providence Wharf, New Festival Quarter or Indescon Square, to name just a few. Residents have contacted me in despair, devastated that they have been hit with huge bills for work to make their buildings fire safe. They have described the nightmarish situation they are in, living in unsafe homes that they cannot sell, with no idea when they will be made safe. Meanwhile, developers such as Bellway and Ballymore have continued to make huge profits, thanks to Government inaction, privatisation, and deregulation of the housing sector.
The cladding scandal must end. How is it possible that so many residents are still living in blocks that are unsafe? This is the reality of what so many people are enduring on a day-to-day basis, trapped in a never-ending game of buck-passing between the Government and the developers. No one wants to take responsibility; no one wants to pay to resolve the situation; and each looks to the other to step up. However, what is clear and indisputable is that people in my constituency and all over the country bought homes in good faith to build their lives in. I urge the Government today to rethink their approach and finally do the right thing by people who are having a really difficult time, and support amendments to the Bill.
I also express support for Lords amendment 2, which would place robust requirements on building owners or managers, and implement recommendations from phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. We need to be sure that the Grenfell Tower fire never, ever happens again. Years have passed since the catastrophe, and still no one has been called to account. When will we ever get answers? When will victims ever get justice? The truth is that decisions stretching back years have led to the gutting of the UK’s fire safety regime, and the failure to regulate high-rise residential buildings properly for fire safety.
I conclude with this: our constituents and our communities need much more decisive action than we are getting from this Government. It is absolutely not fair that leaseholders or residents are left to pay for building safety works that have not arisen because of any fault on their part, and it is unacceptable that people continue to live in their current state of limbo in unsafe buildings. I plead with the Minister today to end this impasse, and finally do the right thing.
I am pleased to make a small, short contribution to this afternoon’s debate and, like so many others, wish my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) all the best.
For many in Wimbledon, the dream of home ownership —the aspiration to have a home—has gone from a dream to a nightmare because of these cladding and safety problems. I listened carefully to the Minister, and he is right: it is our duty to protect and provide legal certainty to leaseholders who are facing these issues through no fault of their own. As such, I warmly recognise and welcome the efforts of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Housing Minister, who have provided an extra £3.5 billion to make a total of £5 billion. I also recognise that this is for cladding, and that a number of other remedies will be required. On that basis, the principle must be that the defector must pay.
The Government have rightly said on a number of occasions that the costs must not fall on the leaseholder, and, in making the extra contribution to the fund, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that he was taking a risk-based approach. The approach for people living in buildings under 18 metres is supposedly similar. We are told there is going to be new guidance that will ensure that risk-based approach will happen, so that many buildings under 18 metres will not necessarily be within the scope of remediation, and that no one will pay more than £50 even if they are. However, we have no details. We have no guarantees that the banks and the insurers will respect these new assessments, and provide mortgages and decrease insurance costs. We have no guarantee that when the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors produces this guidance it will take precedence, and that the EWS1 forms will be produced.
The Government have said that the details of these schemes will be available shortly. However, until they are available, there is no certainty for leaseholders in blocks under 18 metres, and, as has already been said, they may become liable for costs earlier than that. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) has already pointed out that this is not an unlimited ask of the Government; it is a specific ask, saying that those who caused the defects should pay.
I listened carefully to the Minister, and I will listen again, but I say to him that the Government could have provided some certainty today by agreeing to bring forward an amendment in the Building Safety Bill, or indeed an amendment that would have given a clear hint in this Bill. Until that happens, unfortunately, lease- holders in buildings under 18 metres will have no certainty, and they deserve it.
May I add my warm words to those of other Members in wishing the Minister for Security, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), a full and swift recovery?
I think that many constituents, from constituencies across the country, will struggle to understand some of the arguments and excuses that the Government have put forward today. I support the amendments tabled by hon. Friends on the Opposition side, and also those tabled by the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith), who made powerful speeches. To emphasise that, I have received an email during the course of the debate, from a leaseholder from a Conservative English constituency, in support of those amendments. He says, “I am a Conservative, and the Housing Department is a disaster in this regard.” That is the message that I am getting from people. Regardless of their political affiliation or where they live in the country, they want this resolved. They are living in anguish and uncertainty, and it is affecting their mental health. It is affecting key workers in our covid response. It is affecting people who are trying to support young families. It is just a completely untenable situation for them to find themselves in. I think they will find some of the excuses we have heard today very difficult to hear.
This is a national scandal that has been brewing for decades, and it needs urgent action to resolve it. It needs action across the United Kingdom, so it needs the UK Government to work constructively with the Welsh Government. They have worked constructively in preparing this Fire Safety Bill, so it was really disappointing the other day when the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government brushed off any questions about Wales, saying, “I don’t know what’s going on there”—or something to that effect—at the end of the debate. He simply has not answered any of the questions, or responded to a very reasonable letter from our Housing Minister in Wales, Julie James.
I have submitted a series of parliamentary questions over the past few weeks to try to get some clarity on the gateway 2 builder levy, the proposed new tax, and on related matters, and I have received completely opaque answers. That is simply not good enough for leaseholders who want those answers and want to know what support is coming from the UK Government to ensure that their concerns are dealt with, not least because many of these pre-date devolution. I hope that the Minister will be able to look constructively on my request for those meetings, and will be able to arrange urgent briefings on these matters between officials in the Welsh Government and the UK Government.
I must go back to one of the biggest problems, which is the developers. I have called them out before and will do it again. Companies such as Redrow, Laing O’Rourke and Taylor Whimpey need to be held accountable for this. They have been raking in billions in profits while building shoddy buildings, in relation to fire safety and building safety, and it is simply unacceptable that leaseholders might then be expected to pick up part of the cost. I am very pleased that the Welsh Government have confirmed unequivocally that they should not have to do that, but that requires working together across the UK—across the Union that the Minister and I support—to ensure that we deliver for them.
Lastly, we urgently need clarity on the EWSI issue, because it is still affecting lots of people and it is not getting through to the ground, and on insurance, working with the Association of British Insurers and others.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; I was tempted for a moment to think that you were saying that I am just perfect.
I must first declare an interest, as I am a leaseholder in a building with dangerous cladding, but happily for me and my neighbours, our developer stood up and is paying for every aspect of the costs, which is what every developer should do, although clearly that is not the case. I, too, pay tribute to the Minister for Security, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), and commend him for his decisive action at the early stages of this challenge, when he issued a ministerial direction to ensure that ACM cladding was removed from blocks. He recognised that it would take too long legally to chase down who should pay, and in the meantime the urgency of the issue was so great that it needed to be done. I feel that sets the tone for what the Government should be doing.
I commend the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) for their work to try to maintain the profile of this issue, which is particularly difficult to do as a Back Bencher. I also align myself completely with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) on the impact on residents. I am are not going to go into that, because I have repeated that many times and my constituents know that I understand their challenges.
This is the biggest consumer and fire safety failure in a generation. Both the Public Accounts Committee, which I chair, and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee have said that we need to make sure this is dealt with, and that we need to deal with the many challenges. I refer hon. Members to those reports. The housing association sector alone estimates £10 billion costs, so although I welcome the Government’s recent £3.6 billion injection, we know it is not going to be enough, and we are concerned about the £50 a month loan fee, on which I hope the Minister will come back to us at the end with a bit more information.
While ideally the taxpayer should not pay, the fact that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup recognised that that direction had to be made and that the Government needed to step in with taxpayers’ money sends, to me, a very clear signal that that is the very best way of approaching this. Yes, we should be recovering money from the developers, ultimately, but we need to get the Government to do that. The Government are not always very good at getting money back from the private sector, but I am sure we can work together, across parties, to support the Government in that endeavour.
I do welcome the Bill. It is right that it should be introduced, and I hear the heartfelt plea from the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan). It is the right thing to do, but it contains an inherent contradiction: to implement it, work needs to be funded, because without that funding the Bill cannot be implemented. That is the problem, and that is why I support the amendments. I hope the Minister will come back, in his closing remarks, to explain what evaluation will be made about the £50 a month loan scheme. I refer him to the not great success of the green deal, which also put a charge on homes and failed badly. I would also like more detail and clarity on the timing of the building safety Bill, because all our constituents need that clarity.
The Fire Safety Bill is a short Bill of seven clauses that amends the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. That order consolidated different pieces of fire safety legislation, and this Bill clarifies that the order applies to a building’s structure, external walls and any common parts. I am sympathetic to the aims of Lords amendment 4, but I am concerned that the fire safety order, or any Bill concerned with amendments to it, is not the appropriate legislative device to resolve the problem of remediation costs. The fire safety order is designed to place duties on the person who has some level of control in a premises to ensure that they identify the fire safety risks for the building for which they are responsible and, if necessary, put the relevant precautions in place.
I understand the Government are looking to the building safety Bill to address the issues raised in this amendment, and I agree that that would be a more relevant place to consider them. I also understand that the clauses, as drafted, would stop all remediation costs being passed on to leaseholders, including those that one might expect to be covered by service and maintenance charges, such as safety work required as a result of routine wear and tear. There is a further concern that the amendment, as drafted, could delay the implementation of the Bill itself and crucial measures to improve the fire safety regulatory system, including delaying recommendations from the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry.
I am, however, pleased that the Government are paying for the removal of unsafe cladding for leaseholders in all residential buildings of over 18 metres in England. As Dame Judith Hackitt, the independent adviser to the Government on building safety, has said:
“Statistics show…that buildings above 18 metres have a four times greater risk of fatality in the event of a serious fire than lower rise buildings”,
and these buildings are rightly being prioritised for funding. For lower-rise buildings of between four to six storeys, there is a lower risk to safety, and leaseholders will gain the new protection of having cladding removed with a generous scheme to pay for it through a long-term, low-interest, Government-backed finance arrangement, where leaseholders never pay more than £50 a month for cladding removal.
I appreciate that nothing can compensate for the horror of the prospect of being liable for the costs of remedial work following the joy of moving into one’s home, bought on the entirely reasonable assumption that the block it is in would have been built correctly. However, given the complexity of this issue and the fact that leaseholders face paralysis, this does offer a route forward. I believe that these measures will help provide some certainty and confidence in this part of the housing market so that the affected flats can be bought and sold again, which would be a significant step forward from where we are at the moment.
For these reasons, I hope that the Fire Safety Bill can reach the statute book quickly, together with the building safety Bill, so that we will have a comprehensive set of measures in place to correct past wrongs and also to move forward safely.
I welcome the steps the Government are taking to improve fire safety, including through this important Bill, which is critical in clarifying that fire risk assessments are updated to take account of external walls and flat entrance doors. The Bill provides clarity as to what needs to be covered in fire risk assessments and empowers fire and rescue services to confidently take enforcement action and hold building owners or managers to account if they have not complied with their duties in respect of these parts of the building.
The Bill is an important first legislative step in implementing the Grenfell inquiry phase 1 recommendations and one part of the Government’s major building and fire safety reform programme, which I warmly welcome. Building safety is the Government’s priority, and I am pleased that there is now an independent expert panel convened after Grenfell to consult on fire safety issues.
My concern over the amendments is that they would not be cost-free and would render the Bill legally unsound, so the Government would be unable to proceed. We would not be able to give fire and rescue services the powers they need to keep people safe. These powers have been needed for some time, as Grenfell has shown us, without any doubt. We would also not be able to proceed to implement the Grenfell inquiry phase 1 recommendations, and that would be a travesty. For the bereaved or for those who have worked closely with the survivors, to say that delaying this Bill would not be a welcome move is an understatement. There is clearly a lot at stake in not implementing this Bill. The Grenfell enquiry reinforced the fact that the Government needed to do more, and so to stall on this Bill would not reflect the Government’s own commitment to never see such a tragedy again.
On whether leaseholders should have to pay for defects, it is clear that there has been a lot of substandard work that should never have been passed and had circumnavigated fire safety standards. We need to recognise this by holding those responsible to account. None of us wants to see leaseholders foot the bill. We need to see the sector step up and foot the cost of the remediation. We should not forget that the Government stepped in and put £5 billion against these issues, not forgetting the extra £3.5 billion. This is £8.5 billion to support leaseholders in a very difficult situation. Leaseholders in buildings over 18 metres will not have to pay for the cost of remediation, and those in buildings between 11 and 18 metres no more than £50 per month, compared with what could have been thousands of pounds.
I wanted to speak in this debate as I strongly echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), who spoke so passionately earlier. We need to just get on with this Bill; surely we owe that to her constituents.
Any debate about fire safety should not just be about cladding, nor just about buildings over 18 metres high, as residents of the four-storey block, Richmond House, which burned down in just 11 minutes in 2019, would testify. Nor is just about leaseholders, as the students and tenants, as well as leaseholders, in the Paragon building in my constituency found when they were evicted last October with one week’s notice as their blocks were found to be too dangerous to live in. Both blocks were built by Berkeley Homes. Nor is it just about residential housing, as those in student flats in Bolton found when fire crawled up the sides of their building.
The fire safety crisis did not just start with the tragedy at Grenfell Tower; it has been growing for years. As a result, hundreds of thousands of residents and users of thousands of buildings live in fear of being caught in a fire, and leaseholders face bankruptcy in having to fund the costs. In her report on building regulations, Judith Hackitt summed up a
“mindset of doing things as cheaply as possible and passing on responsibility for problems and shortcomings”.
One could start with the deregulation of the building and fire safety standards that began in the ’80s, when building control services were opened up to the private sector so that building inspectors now price for work on the number of visits, so fewer visits mean a cheaper bid. Developers have been cutting costs for years, going for the cheapest materials and corner-cutting again and again on site. Then we have had the growing skills crisis in the construction industry. The Government ignored the recommendations of the inquiries into the Lakanal House and Shirley Towers fatal fires almost 10 years ago. Even now, there is the inability to train and accredit qualified fire safety inspectors who are needed to inspect the properties that in fact should never have been signed off as safe to occupy in the first place.
As I said, the scope of this Bill is far too limited. It is fiddling while too many of our constituents and their homes are at risk of burning, and leaseholders face unaffordable costs. Responsibility for sorting this should lie with those who are responsible—the Government and their friends in the construction sector. As other speakers have said, the Bill hardly scratches the surface of the crisis. It does not even implement the recommendations of phase 1 of the Grenfell inquiry.
Despite its limitations, I support the Bill, as well as the amendments tabled in the names of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), and the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland).
The tragedy of Grenfell should never have happened, and the lessons we have learned are not ones we can ignore. I am glad that, today and over the past few years, we have found consensus in the House that fire safety and the regulatory system should be improved, even if not about the pace of implementing those reforms. I welcome the clear commitment from my Treasury colleagues in putting together a comprehensive solution to make homes safe, while protecting leaseholders from unaffordable costs.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. He is right. We are operating within a financial envelope, and one of the most pleasing things about the intervention from the Treasury announced last week is that it is what we would probably call an “elegant” financial solution. The transfer of risk away from the leaseholder to the building, combined with capping repayments at £50 a month, is possibly the most generous and neatest way that the Treasury could do that, and in effect it has gone a long way to protecting leaseholders from those unaffordable costs.
We have all been working towards a comprehensive solution for redressing those defects and reforming safety practices in the industry, in order to ensure that the heart-breaking events of Grenfell never happen again. The Bill is a key part of that, and significant progress has been made across the board, with ACM cladding either removed or in the process of being removed from every building in the social sector, and work on private sector buildings taking place at pace.
I also welcome the agreement on EWS1 forms, which will provide much-needed reassurance to leaseholders. We need such reassurance so that leaseholders face fewer burdens when they are trying to get on with their lives. We sometimes forget that we are here for people who have lives and worries, and we need to get out of their way and let them get on with their lives. These measures go a long way to addressing leaseholders’ largest concerns. This Bill and the draft Building Safety Bill are big bits of government, and more bits of government will be added. However, it is all necessary. Reference has already been made to the pre-legislative scrutiny carried out by the Select Committee, of which I was part. It was a big bit of government, but it is all necessary.
This scandal has highlighted the security of everyone living in buildings, and that must be the principal concern of this Bill and the draft Building Safety Bill. We must protect people’s lives where they are most at risk. There are some well-meaning amendments to the Bill but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) noted, they would slow down the pace of the Bill’s implementation. I do not want to see the Bill frustrated. It is crucial to building safety that we get it up and running. We have heard in this debate about the difference between pace and speed, and about getting it right. We need to get this right.
I support Lords amendment 2, and I hope we will be able to vote on the amendments that Members have tabled. I also hope the Government will finally honour the promises to leaseholders that they have been making for the past three years, and this Bill is an opportunity to do that.
I want to draw the attention of the House to a problem facing hundreds of my constituents living in flats recently built by Barratt at Waterside Park alongside the Thames and Upton Gardens on the site of the Boleyn Ground, where West Ham used to play. Freeholds have since been bought from Barratt by Aviva. The landlord agent is Mainstay, and the property manager is FirstPort. The buildings in both developments have a B1 EWS1 certificate. There is combustible material in the walling, but the risk is not sufficient to warrant requiring its replacement. The combustible material is in a vapour layer within the structure. That material is still being used in buildings being built now, and there has been no suggestion that builders should stop using it. Leaseholders in the development have had no problems in obtaining a mortgage, given the B1 certification.
These buildings clearly do not meet the criteria for the Government’s cladding fund. Nevertheless, the property managers made an application for funding to replace this combustible vapour layer. In the case of Upton Gardens, the application has been refused. In the case of Waterside Park, the decision is still awaited, but presumably that will be refused as well. However, the property managers appear poised to embark on replacing this combustible material at an estimated cost of £30,000 per flat, which they will charge to the leaseholders. They have appointed contractors and paid for preliminary work already, although work has not yet begun in earnest. The material to be replaced is being used in buildings being built at the moment. There is no requirement to replace it, and the residents do not want to fund its replacement, so why is replacement poised to go ahead? The only motivation the leaseholders have been able to identify is to provide fee income for the managers.
Will the Minister state clearly today that buildings with B1 certification should not be remediated without agreement of the leaseholders? At the start of the debate, he said that 95% of high-rise buildings with unsafe ACM cladding have either been remediated or have workers on site doing the job. Can he tell us the actual figures? How many buildings have been remediated? How many buildings have workers on site? My constituents would be very interested to hear those numbers.
This is a short but critical Bill. The Lords amendments, while well-intended, are inappropriate for the Bill and would require the drafting of primary legislation to make them legally workable. To make things worse, if these amendments were added to the Bill, both the Government and the taxpayer could be exposed to action by the owners of these buildings. That must be avoided, and therefore the Bill must be watertight. It would be quite wrong if we had to withdraw the Bill because of this.
Those undertaking inspections and assessments need clarity, and the key to that is to keep the Bill short. It would also be wrong to delay the implementation of the judge’s recommendations from the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry, which the amendments would potentially cause. Legal advice must be accepted and forms the basis for making good on our promises, as does the input of independent experts.
Decisive action must be taken. The extra £3.5 billion committed by the Government, bringing total funding to £5 billion, is to be welcomed. This has culminated in a commitment to fully fund the replacement of unsafe cladding for all leaseholders in residential buildings of 18 metres and higher. While that is not the case for buildings between 11 and 18 metres, the new scheme will protect against unaffordable costs and limit them to £50 per month towards remediations. That also gives reassurance to banks and mortgage lenders. The new developer levy will ensure that developers make a contribution, and Gateway 2 should raise an extra £2 billion towards this.
As has been stated before, the Building Safety Bill will provide a new era of accountability for managing risk with the construction of these buildings. There will be tougher sanctions for those who fail to meet their obligations and a guarantee that it is they, not the taxpayer or leaseholders, who will remedy that. The Bill will also ensure that there is more transparency about the cost of maintaining a safe building, such as in the annual service charge. It is right that reasonable limits are placed on those charges and that leaseholders are protected from large-scale remediation costs. The Association of British Insurers has also backed the Government’s stance, as has Dame Judith Hackitt, the Government’s independent adviser on building safety.
The replacement of unsafe cladding and other remedial works must be taken seriously. The Fire Safety Bill alone cannot remedy that. Therefore, although these well-intentioned amendments are not appropriate, the wider approach must be considered and, indeed, welcomed.
Nearly four years after the terrible Grenfell disaster, it is shameful that people are still living in unsafe buildings. More than 50% of blocks identified as having unsafe cladding have either not started or not completed remediation. That is causing sleepless nights for many across the country and deep anxiety about the threat of huge financial costs. The Government have failed to step in to protect leaseholders. The Minister said that these issues should be dealt with in another piece of legislation, but that comes across to the public as simply an excuse to kick these issues further down the road. As other Members have said, they are affecting our constituents now and should be tackled now.
I speak in support of the amendments in the names of the Leader of the Opposition, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith). Although the Government announced additional funding for cladding remediation on 10 February, leaseholders living in buildings under 18 metres will still have to cover some cladding-related costs. The fund fails to cover the huge cost of rectifying other fire safety defects and the necessary interim safety measures. According to the UK Cladding Action Group, the average total cost of building remediation for cladding and other fire safety defects is £49,000. The group states that 33% of affected flat owners earn £35,000 or less a year. Those people cannot afford to cover the cost of high interim safety measures, excessive insurance premiums, the Government’s piecemeal loan scheme for buildings under 18 metres with cladding or the huge cost of remediating other fire safety defects.
Luton South constituents have told me that living with the threat to their safety and facing exorbitant remediation costs has severely impacted their mental health. Some are on the brink of bankruptcy as they are unable to cover the cost or sell their homes. That is an issue across the country. Seventeen per cent. of respondents to an Inside Housing survey said that they are exploring bankrupts.
Let us be clear who we are talking about. The people affected are social workers, teachers, nurses and other key workers in our communities. Many are first-time buyers. It is unjust to leave leaseholders to bear the costs. Leaseholders bought their properties in good faith, and were unaware of the failures of the regulatory system. The Government must deliver on their promise to keep the public safe by urgently remediating the remaining unsafe buildings, ensuring that leaseholders do not have to foot the bill and implementing the recommendations from phase 1 of the Grenfell tower inquiry.
All that many people seek is certainty, an assurance that they will not face unaffordable costs and the confidence that they are not trapped in a home they cannot sell. The Government have worked hard to deliver that. There has been clear action to make the most unsafe buildings secure, and they are fully funding the replacement of cladding from buildings deemed by independent expert assessment as the highest risk, ultimately with no cost to the leaseholders. That is what we are discussing today.
We have talked a lot about taxpayers’ money in this debate, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is also right that the Government work with the industry, the construction sector, financial services providers and the insurance industry to find ways of making sure those parts of the private sector can also contribute?
Before coming to this place, I worked as an insurance broker, so I do know a thing or two about the insurance industry. One of the things that came up for those properties most likely to flood was the Flood Re scheme. I urge Ministers in the Treasury and on the Front Bench today to see what they can do with the insurance sector to bring in a similar scheme for the affected properties.
It is right that public money has been committed to those buildings most at risk. As has been discussed many times already in this debate, those over 18 metres are at four times the risk of any other property, so it is right that we are tackling those to begin with. I know there are calls for more money to be made available, but there is a balance to be struck and accommodations to be made. As has been said already, public finances are finite and we cannot create a further tax bombshell at this time for those who are struggling across the country, who are not all leaseholders.
There is no such thing as Government money—it is taxpayers’ money—so we need to find the right balance, and so far we have found the middle ground. Yes, we can do more. The Building Safety Bill, which has been discussed previously, will be a good avenue to address some of those further concerns, as next week’s Budget may be. It is right to contemplate these things in a broader spectrum, rather than just making a knee-jerk reaction to this Bill today.
We all have a responsibility to strike a fair settlement, to balance concerns and to find a way to ensure for people affected by this scandal that safety and security are the No. 1 priority. We also have a duty to consider, particularly in a difficult economic environment, the spending of taxpayers’ money. We should consider that many taxpayers are not homeowners and ask whether it is fair to ask them to step in.
We must remember why the Government introduced the Bill in the first place, and why its scope is so focused and specific in what it is designed to achieve. The focus of this legislation is, as should be clear, safety—ensuring that those responsible for fire safety and the safety of those living in their buildings know their duties and are held to those duties. Leaseholders, building owners and the taxpayer deserve a solid legislative base with clarity.
I am listening carefully to what my hon. Friend is saying, and he has mentioned the taxpayer several times. I said in my opening remarks, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), that our amendment would not put any burden on the taxpayer. If my hon. Friend is worried about the taxpayer, as I am, and we are saying that the taxpayer will not be responsible, will he therefore say that we should protect all the leaseholders?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Unfortunately, I think there cannot be a guarantee. A lot of the developers may no longer exist and insurance schemes may no longer be applicable. There will be gaps, and we do have to be responsible. Although his amendment is very well intentioned, and I am incredibly sympathetic towards it, there are gaps in it, and that is why, unfortunately, I will not be able to join him in the Lobby today, although I very much applaud the sentiment of it and the work he has put into it.
Leaseholders, building owners and taxpayers deserve a solid legislative base. That is what we are trying to do today by making sure that our properties and our leaseholders are safe. That is why we need to focus on those who are most likely to be affected. I do not want to see the Bill’s implementation frustrated. It has already taken far too long to get to this point, and we need to ensure that we can proceed.
As has been said many times, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) and the Minister, we have a duty: do we get this right, or do we do it quick? From my perspective, we need to get it right. Far too many people have fallen through the gaps, are struggling and are unable to afford this, so it is right that we take a fully reasoned approach, speaking to experts and to all trade bodies to ensure that we get it right. That is what I urge Ministers, the Treasury and everyone else to continue to do. I finish by thanking all Members for bringing forward some of these amendments. They do not quite deal with the Bill at hand. That is why I will not be able to support them and will be backing the Government today.
I am speaking in utter frustration, having heard many of the comments so far in the debate today, I am speaking in support of the amendments tabled by the Opposition and by the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith), and I am speaking on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of leaseholders, including in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields, who are staring down the barrel of this scandal. And I thank the cladding action campaigners across the country.
I welcome the Bill, but it is too small and too slow. There is frustration across the House of Commons today. We can do this right and do it faster, and we must. Today, we had another statement of support for leaseholders from the Minister, who said that he agrees with the intent to give leaseholders peace of mind and financial certainty, yet the Government did not write that into the Bill and are not supporting the amendments. No leaseholders of buildings of any height should be made to foot a bill of thousands of pounds that they cannot afford.
At the sharp end of the failings of this Bill are millions of leaseholders trapped in unsafe homes who are suffering enormous stress, anxiety and emotional anguish, and who feel totally abandoned. I have met many of them in my constituency. Their lives are on pause and might be for years. This is what some have told me. One said:
“As every day, week or month goes by, our financial liability and stability become ever more disturbing and deeply troubling. When will it end?
Another resident, who bought her flat using money inherited from her mother’s passing, said to me:
“Despite my emotional attachment to my flat, current circumstances make me almost wish that I had never bought it. It is a burden and a hindrance to me moving forward with the next stage of my life, at a prime time when I want to start a family.”
Another resident, a victim of domestic violence, has been trying to sell her property to raise money for legal fees. She has had to receive food parcels due to lost income during the pandemic. Her insurance premiums have now increased by 500%. Under no circumstances should leaseholders, regardless of the height of their building, have to pay for cladding remediation costs that are the fault of developers and a failed regulatory system. Funding should be based on fire risk, not on height. It should include upfront costs—it should not be loans—for all leaseholders and it should include other fire safety issues. Some Putney leaseholders face up to £100,000 in charges.
At the current pace of spend, the building safety fund, which has only approved 12 applications, will only approve all the applications—the 532 applications—by 2031. The pace of change is far too slow, so I urge colleagues on both sides of the House: please do the right thing today, back the British people and make sure that lease- holders do not pay.
One of the lessons from the Grenfell tragedy was that a number of companies in the construction sector had been recklessly gaming the system, resulting in unsafe materials being used. But crucially, construction and post-occupancy inspections did not pick up those risks.
As someone who worked in oil and gas and then in construction over several years, I can see the very different approach taken by the two sectors. Many of our constituents who live in leasehold flats face significant costs, such as waking watch costs and several other fire risk liabilities not related to cladding. The new £30 million waking watch relief fund, the £1.6 billion remediation funding and the commitment to recruit hundreds of specialist risk assessors and specialist workers show that this Government are committed to resolving the problem and to supporting people stranded in their property through no fault of their own.
I wish to raise issues brought to me by a constituent. At present, buildings over 18 metres will have all cladding remedial work paid for by the Government. Those in buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres will be offered a loan, with residents in buildings lower than 11 metres receiving no financial support at all, the latter being the situation my constituent’s daughter finds herself in. Although it is right to target remediation first at highest-risk buildings, there is a question of fairness as to who pays if a person happens to have purchased a building that is not as tall.
In addition to the removal of cladding, inspections have highlighted further building faults, such as missing firebreaks, wooden balconies and combustible insulation. The repair costs alone could be in excess of £25,000 per flat. There is no provision for support with these repairs, which will be required before a fire safety certificate can be issued, allowing the resident to eventually sell their home. They would not have been privy to these liabilities as the conveyancing process would not have highlighted the possibility of these risks existing at point of purchase. Risk awareness at the conveyancing stage is something that I raised in my ten-minute rule Bill.
Fire safety officers should not only be competent by the certifications that they hold; they should be present and responsible for sign-off on site at all key stages. While the amendments before us were tabled with good intentions, we cannot delay the Bill any longer. I hope that Ministers will consider a post-construction and occupancy model for fire safety, much as gas and electrical checks are carried out, to pick up on changes to the fabric of a building that could be made over time.
I welcome the Bill but, nearly four years after the Grenfell disaster and despite assurances by the Government, hundreds of thousands of people are still living with the fear that they could be next. It is a scandal that this is the first and only piece of primary legislation on fire safety that this Tory Government have brought forward to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again.
In Liverpool, 10% of buildings are still covered in highly flammable cladding, with a further 5% covered in fire-retardant cladding. Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service has suffered a 35% cut to its funding and lost one third of its firefighters since 2010. Austerity has combined with roll-backs and safety regulations to make a perfect storm.
Time and again, we have heard promise after promise that the recommendations of the first phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry will be fully implemented, yet the Bill does not include a single recommendation from the inquiry’s first phase. Does the Minister agree that his Government have fundamentally failed to take the necessary steps to keep people safe in their own homes?
Today, and for months now, we have heard from Members across the House about the nightmare situations faced by many leaseholders across the country who have been left physically, mentally and financially trapped in dangerous housing. Many of my constituents have contacted me for support. They are worried sick about being trapped in unsafe housing, crippled by costs they did not incur and with no end in sight.
One pensioner wrote to tell me that he had just been sent a bill for £20,000. He has no savings and no possibility of paying the bill. Two young NHS doctors want to sell up and take positions in hospitals in the north-east, but they cannot; they are trapped in a flat they cannot sell, faced with the possibility of mounting debts due to flammable cladding that they did not install.
I ask the Minister how he sleeps at night, knowing that his Government’s move to cut red tape has left hundreds of thousands at risk in their own homes, and how he can justify asking the leaseholders of those unsafe homes to foot the bill. It is the responsibility of this Government to identify the buildings covered in dangerous cladding and make them safe before another disaster occurs, and to bring the companies that profited from cutting corners and compromising the safety of residents to justice.
Enough is enough. We are now at a crisis point. Instead of further delays and prevarication, I call on Members across the House to do the right thing today and back Lords amendments 2 and 4 so that we can get a grip of this crisis before it is too late.
The first surgery I ever had as a Member of Parliament was about the issue of cladding. It was with residents of St Francis Tower in Ipswich. They were being chased for bills of thousands of pounds for unsafe cladding that they had nothing to do with; it was not their fault. Since that first meeting, there has been case after case after case after case. It is a huge issue in Ipswich, a huge issue in my constituency, and it is destroying the lives of many of my constituents. That is why I am speaking here today.
There has been a significant move forward since that first meeting; since that first surgery appointment, we have moved forward. The £5 billion support has helped many of my constituents. The waking watch fund, although I do not think it will be enough, is a step in the right direction—we are getting there—and the Building Safety Bill is itself 100% necessary and welcome. However, I am still at a point right now where there are a significant number of my constituents who are leaseholders, often living in buildings over 18 metres, where there are significant issues to do with fire safety that will cost thousands of pounds to remedy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) has just touched on, and the support announced recently does not cover them. So they continue to have this uncertainty hanging over them, not just at a regular time but during a pandemic, when, more often than not, they have a million and one other concerns and anxieties influencing their lives. Ultimately, that is why I believe that we have moved significantly forward. I am very interested in the possibility that a Building Safety Bill will pick up on the issue and make sure that we address those leaseholders who are living in buildings that are unsafe and where there are significant issues and significant costs are currently being placed on them. It is not specifically about cladding; there are other issues and other factors that make these properties unsafe.
As the Member of Parliament for Ipswich, I realise that this is a huge issue. I need to have assurances that the Building Safety Bill will cover those constituents and give them certainty, because I made a promise to my constituents when I met them that I would leave no leaseholder behind, and I take my commitment as a Member of Parliament very seriously. I promised them—I looked them in the eye and I said, “I won’t leave any of you behind.” Sadly, there are still a significant number of those constituents who feel like they are left behind, because they are. It is our duty, I believe, to alleviate that and, for that reason, my name is on the amendment put forward by my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) and for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland).
The subject of the debate we are having today—worries about fire safety—has, I am afraid, blighted far too many lives for far too long. That is why this is a particularly important Bill. It is short, it has a very clear purpose, and we need to implement it as quickly as possible. Why? It is 16 months since the first report from the Grenfell Tower inquiry was published, and we need to get a robust piece of legislation on to the statute book to deal with the fire safety issues identified. We owe it to that community to address these issues in a way that will not be open to legal challenge and that brings to a halt the to-ing and fro-ing between this place and the other, which will delay the changes that are needed.
With this Fire Safety Bill, we have rightly had the consultation on fire safety orders, and that now needs to be enacted. At the same time, we have the Building Safety Bill. That needs to come to this House so that many of the issues that are understandably being debated today can be resolved in that legislation. This is about doing things in the right way, so that they are not able to be challenged in the courts in future.
I am not taking away anything at all from the many leaseholders who bought their homes in good faith, trusting developers to build a safe home and purchasing with what they believed to be confidence that all had been done in accordance with the law. My constituency does not have any buildings over the height of 18 metres that require remediation, and we are not hit by the same issues as, say, cities such as Manchester or Liverpool. However, I have constituents with families and friends who are desperately worried about their loved ones’ safety and the costs of potential remediation, because they have used some of their savings to invest in a property to give them a future income.
I welcome the £5 billion already put forward by the Government to begin to allow some of the issues to be addressed, with a commitment to funding all buildings over 18 metres high. I welcome the clear indication today from the Minister that Government will work with hon. Members to address the many concerns being raised through the forthcoming Building Safety Bill. We must also recognise the daily worries and distress among people who have been caught in this nightmare situation. The Government now have an opportunity to show how funding promises will work in practice. In fact, it should be a ministerial priority.
To conclude, I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan): this Bill is the first step, and we need to get on with it.
To follow on from the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), I cannot believe the Government think that this is the end of the matter, and I do not understand why they will not commit now to meeting the needs of all of those whose lives have been blighted through no fault of their own. This is a colossal injustice and a very simple one to solve: the Government just need to make sure that it is not those blameless people who bear the burden.
People bought their leasehold properties in good faith. They are in the situation that they are in—those properties are unsafe—through no fault of the owners and entirely through the fault of the developers, the regulatory framework and the Governments of various colours over the years who permitted unsafe buildings to be built. How outrageous would it be if the blameless and the poorest were left to pay the burden and the bill? The reality is that so many leaseholders in my constituency and elsewhere throughout the country are in no position to move and cannot sell. They are at their wits’ end and they are facing the end of their financial resources, too.
The Government say they will fund the making safe of blocks that are higher than 18 metres, but actually that funding relates only to the cladding of those buildings; it does not cover other things that may make those buildings unsafe. What about wooden balconies or cement particle board behind the cladding? That also needs to be covered. Those in buildings that are higher than 11 metres but lower than 18 metres will potentially have to take out colossal debts to pay privately for the work required to make their properties safe. Those who own flats in buildings that are smaller than 11 metres get no support whatsoever. The vast majority, if not all, of the relevant properties in constituencies like ours, Mr Deputy Speaker—I bet it is similar in your constituency—are much smaller than 11 metres. The provisions in the Bill ignore in particular those in rural communities who are in need.
It is a massive injustice that we should be forcing people to be fretting, worrying and facing bankruptcy and all sorts of other challenges to their lives because of a burden that is not their fault, that they cannot afford and for which the Government are refusing to pay. As things stand, the Government will meet the costs of the removal and making safe of cladding on properties that account for only 13% of those affected and less than a third of the costs, and leave the massive majority of the burden on people who are blameless and the poorest. That is unjust, and that is why the Bill needs amending.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). Like many other Members, I extend my best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). We all hope to see him back in his place as soon as possible.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. This is the first opportunity I have had to speak on this extremely important Bill, and naturally my thoughts turn to the unimaginable tragedy of Grenfell Tower, which none of us will forget—it shocked and horrified us all throughout the country. I know that the Government are gripped by a determination to right the wrongs of the past and to bring about the biggest improvement to building safety in a generation, to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.
While I am speaking about Grenfell, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) and her speech earlier. She is right that we need to get on with it rather than muck about with parliamentary procedure. That brings me to the reason why I support the Government’s positions today. The Queen’s Speech committed the Government to introducing two Bills on fire and building safety. This Bill, the first, is straightforward but is nevertheless an important step. I very much await the second Bill, the Building Safety Bill. We have to get things right in the right order, and we have to proceed as quickly as possible.
On the substance of this Bill, I certainly welcome the policy intention. It is a profoundly important step towards remedying the flaws in the building safety regime that were identified in the Hackitt report. It is a narrowly drafted Bill, but it enables legal certainty. When the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee did pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, we heard a lot of evidence suggesting that it was a compelling vision for the future of the industry. The Fire Action Safety Group called it “a positive first step”—I recognise that the group said “first step”—and the London Fire Brigade said it went
“a long way towards meeting the policy objective of a robust regime.”
On that, I think we can all agree.
There are, though, other issues in respect of the remediation of safety problems. I am sure I am not alone in having received emails from a number of leaseholders worried about the unaffordable costs of remediation. They are uncertain and worried, and some face negative equity. I agree with those who have said today that nobody should be in such a position. I can only imagine how I would have felt in my 20s or 30s if I had received a letter suggesting that I had a liability of tens of thousands of pounds. I do not minimise those concerns. However, I do take the Government at face value when they say that the Bill, as drafted, does not have the necessary legislative detail to underpin the amendments in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith)—a problem my hon. Friend the Minister referred to in his opening speech. Accepting these amendments would require extensive drafting of primary legislation to make them legally workable. That would significantly delay the implementation of the Bill, and I am concerned about the consequences of that.
It is clear that high-rise buildings in this country should never have been fitted with this dangerous, unsafe cladding. It is vital that we take the steps to make this right once and for all—making those buildings safer and protecting residents from crippling costs—and at a pace that the severity of the situation demands. We must ensure that Grenfell can never, ever happen again.
I thank the many Members who contributed to this at times impassioned debate about a matter that is of interest to all of us. I know that my fellow Ministers at the Home Office and, indeed, at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will take on board the many points raised. Given the time available to me, I apologise that I am not able to address all the questions put forward. However, I will turn to some of the main themes that have dominated the debate, not least the remediation issue, about which there has been such natural and understandable focus.
It might be worth restating at the beginning the broad task that lies ahead of us as a House and, indeed, as a Government. It falls in three areas. First, we have to deal with remediation as quickly as possible. We talked a lot about that today, and about how we can perhaps increase the pace. Obviously there have been significant steps recently, not least the money that has been put forward. Secondly, we have to restore a proper appreciation of risk and value to affected properties, so that the finance industry and insurance industry can do their work in enabling the transfer of those properties and their protection correctly, rather than the current “computer says no” system.
The Minister mentions the time that this will take. Whatever money is put forward, it will take five or 10 years to remediate many buildings. Insurance costs have quadrupled for many residents. There is a solution on the table, provided by the Association of Residential Managing Agents, in which the Government take a top-sliced risk, which would put those premiums back down. Will he look at that proposal and see whether that could be put in place to ease the burden on many leaseholders?
Secretary of State—sorry; Mr Deputy Speaker. You never know. My hon. Friend raises, as usual, a constructive point. I know that the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and, indeed, the Chancellor are meeting with banks and the insurance industry to see what solutions may come forward. The third strand of work is obviously to build a system of building safety and regulation for the future, so that the terrible tragedy of Grenfell can never happen again.
I turn to some of the questions asked. First, I was asked, not least by the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), why we cannot give a firm timetable for the building safety legislation programme. I recognise that there is an intent and a desire for certainty, and we want to legislate at the earliest possible opportunity. However, Members should also be aware that making these fundamental reforms to building safety is incredibly complex, so it is important that we get this right, as a number of Members raised, by ensuring that our measures are properly scrutinised by experts and Parliament before we legislate.
The Building Safety Bill has more than 140 clauses, and I cannot prejudge the time that Parliament will need to properly scrutinise this important piece of legislation before it is put on the statute book. It is for that reason that I cannot provide specific dates for when legislation will come into force, but I emphasise again that the Government are as committed as ever to delivering the inquiry’s recommendations. We will bring the Fire Safety Bill into force as early as possible after Royal Assent. The regulations will follow as early as practicable, and we expect the Building Safety Bill to be introduced after the Government have considered the recommendations from the HCLG Committee, and when parliamentary time allows. We are therefore resisting the Labour amendment, for the extensive reasons that I mentioned in my opening speech. We think it is unnecessary and inflexible. I restated various points as to why we think that is the case earlier.
I turn to remediation, and particularly the amendments laid by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and my good and hon. friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith). We recognise that they care deeply about this issue, as do many Members from across the House, and they have obviously worked hard to represent their constituencies with dedication and passion. Having sat with leaseholders, in my role as Housing Minister, and with the bereaved and survivors of the Grenfell community, I am aware, as of course we all are, of the terrible anguish and worry that this has caused to many. We agree with the intent to give leaseholders the peace of mind and financial certainty they crave.
The funding the Government have given to leaseholders is unprecedented. In total, we have supported them to the tune of £5 billion. That is a very significant commitment indeed. It means that the Government will pay for the removal of unsafe cladding where people are in a building of over 18 metres. It means that people who live in a building of between 11 metres and 18 metres in height and need to remove unsafe cladding will never have to pay more than £50 a month. That is certainty and clarity that leaseholders have asked for and we have provided. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) pointed out, this is a complex area, where we are more than happy to continue conversations with my hon. Friends and others as we move towards the Building Safety Bill.
A number of Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi), raised the issue of height, and there was a focus on 18-metre buildings. We have rightly focused on those above 18 metres with unsafe cladding for the most generous and comprehensive support package. The Department’s position on this has been set out on a range of guidance. It has not changed and remains clear: we are taking a proportionate approach to fire safety, based on long-standing expert advice. The importance of height alongside use as a risk factor is recognised around the globe. The number of people potentially exposed to a fire increases with the height of the building, and at greater heights firefighting and rescue becomes more challenging. In this country, 18 metres is the height at which building standards become more restrictive and presumptions about firefighting tactics change. The advice from the expert panel recognises that the risk from cladding fires reduces for lower-rise buildings.
Finally, let me turn to the broad issue of where the measure or debate should happen and whether this is the right Bill for that, which was raised by a number of Members, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) and, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan). I know that she has been working extremely hard on this issue, with some dedication, not surprisingly, given that Grenfell Tower lies in her constituency—it also lies in my former London Assembly constituency. I pay tribute to the work she has done alongside that community to push the Government and challenge us to do better and go faster all the time. Both those Members and others made the point that this Bill is not the correct vehicle to address the matter. As I said earlier, this is a short but crucial Bill to ensure that fire risk assessments are updated to take account of external walls and flat entrance doors. The Building Safety Bill is the appropriate legislative mechanism for addressing the other issue, and it will be addressed in the spring. That Bill will contain the detailed and complex provisions that are needed to address remediation costs.
It might be worth my rehearsing what will come in that Bill, just to outline its complexity. It will produce a new national building safety regulator to enforce a more stringent regime for high-risk buildings, to oversee safety and the standards of all buildings, and enhance industry and regulatory competence. It will introduce clearer accountability for and stronger duties on those responsible for the safety of buildings in scope of the new more stringent regulatory regime through design, construction and occupation. It will give residents a stronger voice in the system, ensuring that their concerns are never ignored. It will create a stronger enforcement and sanctions regime to deter non-compliance with the new regime, along with regulatory resources to use sanctions effectively. It will put in place a new stronger and clearer framework to provide national oversight of construction products to ensure that all products meet high performance standards. It will also introduce a requirement that developers of new build housing belong to a new homes ombudsman and removal the need for social housing residents to pass through the democratic filter in order to access the housing ombudsman. Members will recognise that this is an extremely complex piece of work and we think that for us to try to reproduce that in what is meant to be a short, technical Bill to kick off this process of work would be an incorrect way to go.
However, our programme of work outside this House is not limited just to legislation. As I said earlier, we have a £5 billion investment in building safety, including the £3.5 billion announced on 10 February, which will fully fund the cost of replacing unsafe cladding for all leaseholders in buildings over 18 metres. Obviously, we have the financing scheme for the removal of unsafe cladding on buildings of 11 metres to 18 metres, under which leaseholders will contribute no more than £50 a month. As the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) said, we have banned the use of combustible materials in cladding systems on high-risk blocks, as well as on hospitals, care premises and student accommodation. We are also establishing a fire protection board, chaired by the National Fire Chiefs Council, which is leading a programme of work supported by £10 million of Government funding to ensure that all high-rise residential buildings in England are inspected or reviewed by the end of 2021. It is for this reason, and for the various reasons that I outlined in my opening speech, that we wish to support amendments 1 and 5, and resist those—
Three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
Question agreed to.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
After Clause 2
Prohibition on passing remediation costs on to leaseholders and tenants
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 2.—(Kit Malthouse.)
Lords amendment 2 disagreed to.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today's debates.
Lords amendment 3 disagreed to.
After Clause 2
Prohibition on passing remediation costs on to leaseholders and tenants
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 4.—(Kit Malthouse.)
Lords amendment 4 disagreed to.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Lords amendment 5 agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments 2, 3 and 4;
That Kit Malthouse, Tom Pursglove, Scott Mann and Sir Alan Campbell be members of the Committee;
That Kit Malthouse be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(James Morris.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.
Relevant documents: 25th and 29th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Fire Safety Bill, has consented to place her interest, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
My Lords, in moving this Motion, I want to thank all those around the House who have taken part in the Bill’s passage so far. I am proud that this is the first Bill I have taken through your Lordships’ House solo.
The Bill represents a significant step towards delivering meaningful change so that a tragedy like that at Grenfell Tower can never happen again. The Government are, and always have been, committed to implementing the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase 1 recommendations. The Fire Safety Bill is the first legislative step in this process, and, as I have stated before, we are committed to delivering the Grenfell recommendations through regulations following the fire safety consultation.
The building safety Bill will also deliver significant change in both the regulatory framework and industry culture, creating a more accountable system. Taken together, the Fire Safety Bill, the building safety Bill and the fire safety consultation will create fundamental improvements to building and fire safety standards and ensure that residents are safe, and feel safe, in their homes.
Although this is a short, technical Bill, it is important to ensure we get the legislative sequencing right. I am therefore committed to delivering this Bill, which will pave the way for the Government to introduce regulations that will deliver on the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase 1 recommendations. We received 200 responses to our consultation, and I thank everyone who responded. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, for his engagement with myself and the House in general as we have considered the Fire Safety Bill. The noble Lord engaged with Members of all parties and none in his friendly, engaging style. I very much appreciate that; it is the only way to do business in this House. I think the noble Lord will have a long career on those Benches, and I wish him well there. The Bill goes back to the other place in a much better state than it arrived here in. Important amendments have been passed. I hope the Government will reflect carefully on those amendments and not just seek to overturn them in the other place.
It was good that the noble Lord again confirmed that the Government are committed to implementing the first phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry report. I am delighted to hear that, and we have passed amendments to facilitate that. I will say to the noble Lord and the Government that it is ridiculous that the Government keep voting against the pledges they make at the Dispatch Box and had in their manifesto. I hope they will take that on board in the other place. Surely it is right that a public register of fire risk assessments is available and kept up to date.
Finally, we must end the leasehold and tenant cladding scandal. These are the innocent victims; they must not bear the costs. The costs must be borne by the people who built the building—the warranty provider, the guarantors and the people who signed the buildings off as being fit for purpose—not by the poor tenants and leaseholders. All the amendments agreed by the House have gone to the Commons. I hope they will do the right thing in the other place and not just oppose them and send them back. I thank everybody who engaged in this Bill.
My Lords, this short, two-clause Bill has provoked considerable interest across the House, which is surprising, as it is a Bill that seeks to remedy some of the system failures that led to the appalling tragedy at Grenfell Tower. I join in the thanks to the Minister for arranging meetings with those of us who wished, through amendments, to improve the Bill. I thank him very much for listening to the concerns we raised.
The Bill, as amended, provides greater protection for residents by implementing some of the recommendations of the Grenfell inquiry phase 1 report and requiring fire risk assessments to be made publicly available for potential residents. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is, little by little, exposing the building practices that resulted in flammable cladding being attached to Grenfell Tower—and many other buildings across the country—with such tragic consequences.
Currently, there is a crisis involving people across the country who are in constant fear and anxiety because they are living in flats that are encased in flammable cladding. Currently, it is the leaseholders and tenants who are expected to pay towards the costs of making their homes safe. However, we have passed an amendment to stop that outrageous practice. They have been sold homes that were deemed to be safe but are not, because of building failures. The cost of putting those failures right must not be theirs. The amendment we passed on Report puts that principle into the Bill.
Since Report, I have had many emails and messages from desperate and distraught residents of these flats. Some are being asked to pay way over £40,000 towards the costs of putting these cladding and other building failures right. It is not fair and it is not just. I hope the Government will be able to accept the principle set out in the amendment. I very much look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to be invited to make some concluding remarks on the Bill on behalf of the Cross Benches, especially as I was not able to participate in the initial stages. We have covered a huge range of issues, such as those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, on electrical safety, and those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and others, focusing on safety assessments and the perils of the deregulatory approach under permitted development rights. We have ranged from fire doors to liability issues and, of course, as highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, the effect on the innocent who are blighted by the costs of remediating cladding systems.
As a technician, first and foremost, I am particularly grateful for how some of my own points were received. With Dame Judith Hackitt’s report ringing in our ears, even as we debated the Bill the ongoing inquiry under Sir Martin Moore-Bick reminded us of the construction culture that we need to address, along with the reputational challenges that have been the hallmark of what has come out post Grenfell. We must never forget the effect on those who were directly affected by that terrible tragedy. I pay tribute to the Labour Front Bench for constantly reminding us of the need for the Bill. I thank the Bill team and the Minister for keeping us on the critical path—expediting things at this stage is clearly an expression of our common wish.
Of course, some matters will now need to be reconsidered by the Commons, so it may not be the last we hear of this: the Bill needed improvements and I hope that, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, the Commons will take due regard of the careful and considered points that have been raised in this House. Given the legacy of issues that have got us here, it is a tough call, demanding courage and a firm steer from the Government, and I hope the Bill will underpin that process.
My Lords, I genuinely thank all Members of this House for their positive engagement. The Cross Benches, the Liberal Democrats, the Opposition —at the end of the day everybody wants to see a better Bill, and I certainly understand that. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. I learned a lot from his contribution on behalf of the Cross Benches. It was incredibly thoughtful and practical, understanding that this requires a firm hand from the Government and that we need to have a coherent programme as we move forward.
I am well aware that the building safety Bill, which already has around 120 clauses, will be considerably longer, in its passage through Parliament, than this three-clause Bill. But I want to make the point that we have seen constructive and more opportunistic contributions, and I want to put them into three buckets. The very constructive contributions, as this returns to the other place, are around the competence and capacity of the professionals who will have to work with the system day to day. We not only want to have nice documents and a good fire risk assessment, we need to ensure that fire safety management works and that the people in the buildings know how to prevent these things from happening in the first place. The identification of a responsible person is also important. Accountability underpins all this, so that was very helpful, as was the discussion about the recording of fire risk assessments and their availability to occupants. Some of those points were incredibly constructive—there were more, but I put them in the “constructive and relevant” bucket.
Then we have the “constructive, but this is not the right legislative hook” bucket. Electrical safety is incredibly important, since its lack is the cause of many fires in dwellings. We recognise that we need to find the right vehicle, but this is not it and I think noble Lords accept that.
Then we had the more opportunistic comments. There is a real commitment to implement the phase 1 inquiry findings from this Government, from the Opposition Benches and from the Liberal Democrats, but we had to consult, and the fire safety consultation had more than 200 responses. We need to use that as the vehicle, through regulation, to ensure that the crisis that happened three and a half years ago never happens again. Although you can never say “never”, that is the purpose of these packages of reform and we stand by that commitment. We just want to find the most practical and proportionate ways of achieving that end point, by talking to the people who have to manage that system day to day.
Also more opportunistic were the comments around decades-long poor construction and poor quality. We are talking about decades of problems and, unfortunately, they are going to take a long time to resolve. The question of who pays for this remediation requires careful balance. We want building owners to be responsible for this. We want developers to build high-quality buildings, so that we do not have to remediate in the future to the extent that we do today, and that we face today with our future buildings. We want developers to pay, and they have paid. We have seen this with the ACM fund. However, the extent of how bad this is, beyond cladding, has not really been calculated. It has just been guesstimated, but it runs into many billions of pounds. Therefore, in wanting to have personal accountability but also appropriate action by the state, we have options.
How much does the taxpayer front up? We have already fronted up £1.6 billion; we will probably have to look at more in due course, but at the moment we are spending the first billion. The taxpayer should stump up, because sometimes the warranty claims are not there. The warranty system is, frankly, not fit for purpose, as I have said before at the Dispatch Box. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, has also made that point: often, a 10-year period is not enough when you are buying a home for life, and two years for defects is not enough to cover substantial structural issues, as we are finding out.
Beyond the taxpayer, we can then look at levies, as have been raised in Australia; but levies do not raise very much, and you have to balance that with the need to build more homes. So, levies can be looked at by government, but they are no silver bullet. Lastly, we can look at loans. Loans are a vehicle to make something that is unaffordable affordable, but at this stage we have not announced policy, and this is not the legislation to announce policy around how we deal with the cost of historic remediation. So, I consider this a little opportunistic, yet I do think it is constructive, because it is a serious issue that the Government have to grapple with.
I finish by thanking noble Lords, and I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.
Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.
Clause 1: Premises to which the Fire Safety Order applies
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, after “paragraph (1A)” insert “or paragraph (1C)”
My Lords, the Fire Safety Bill is important legislation that I strongly support, as I do the building safety Bill, which is in draft form and which I believe your Lordships’ House will receive early in the new year. The motivation behind the amendments I am proposing is that there should be a safer home environment—a motivation shared, I believe, by the whole House. Specifically, the amendments refer to high-rise blocks; that is the spur.
I thank my noble friend Lord Randall and the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Whitty, who are also signatories to the amendment and have given strong support. I also thank many others for their strong support and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Best, who, unfortunately, is unable to speak today. I thank the Minister for making time to discuss these issues; I know he is sincere in his desire to do something constructive to move matters forward on checks in tower blocks. I also thank Electrical Safety First, an excellent charity dedicated to reducing deaths from fires caused by electrical accidents. It has been magnificent, and I would like to thank Rob Jervis-Gibbons in particular but also Lesley Rudd, Ron Bailey and Martyn Allen for their help.
We need to translate the good intentions of the whole House into action, and there are some important facts to bear in mind. Approximately 7,000 domestic fires per annum are caused by faulty electrical goods; that is 53% of domestic fires. Many of these are in high-rise blocks and, in those circumstances, they are particularly treacherous. We can all recall Lakanal House in 2009, Shepherds Court in 2016 and, of course, tragically, Grenfell Tower in 2017—all confirmed to be caused by electrical ignition.
My amendments essentially focus on two proposals, as they did in Committee. First, mandatory five-year electrical system checks in high-rise blocks—just high-rise blocks. The model for this is what is being done currently in the private rented sector, just introduced by the Government this year: I endorse that move. It applies, of course, to all the private rented sector, essentially, not just high-rise blocks. My amendments would apply just to high-rise buildings—those over 11 metres high—but would apply to social tenants and owner-occupiers as well as private tenants. I ask myself why social tenants should be excluded: I am a strong believer in the levelling-up agenda, which the Government also are strongly behind. It should apply to owner-occupiers too, of course.
Social tenants are a large part of the residents of high-rise blocks. In Grenfell, they constituted the vast majority of residents, for example. I should say, and I congratulate the Government, that I am pleased to see, in the social housing White Paper issued today, moves not just in relation to smoke and carbon monoxide alarms—I see that consultation is opening on extending that into social housing, quite rightly—but also consulting separately on ways to ensure that social housing tenants are protected from harm caused by poor electrical safety. That is certainly welcome. The wording confirms the direction of travel. What is at issue, of course, is the pace, the speed: that is what we need to pick up. This is something that should be done expeditiously. The most sensible course of action in high-rise blocks would surely be to mirror the checks in the private rented sector for all residents of tower blocks, to provide for the safety of everybody in those tower blocks.
I should say in passing that I certainly endorse other actions that have been taken to help protect and guard against fire. The Home Office “Fire Kills” campaign is very welcome and is supported by the charitable sector. The building safety Bill that is coming down the tracks provides, in Clause 86 currently, that responsibility should be placed on residents for electrical goods and their safety. I welcome that but, of course, it is not sufficient in itself and will not protect, in the way that this would protect, against the fires that we are all too familiar with.
The second of the two main proposals in my amendment would require that a person responsible for fire safety, who is of course being designated in this legislation, should be responsible for a register of electrical goods. The majority of fires are caused by faulty electrical goods, and many of these are goods that have been subject to recall by the manufacturer. The fire at Shepherds Court, for example, was caused by a faulty tumble dryer that was subject to a recall. The purpose of the register would therefore be to identify these goods and ensure that they were recalled and either refitted or replaced. The person responsible for fire safety would be able to distribute information to residents, and there is a precedent for such a register in student accommodation throughout England.
I know that we all recall graphically the Grenfell Tower tragedy: it is forged on our individual memories, just as it is seared on the nation’s conscience. I look to my noble friend the Minister, who I know is sympathetic, to provide some clear way forward, indicating the seriousness of the Government’s intentions and the intention to move decisively on this agenda in the building safety Bill, possibly with a working party to move the agenda forward quickly. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am pleased to support my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth and I was delighted to put my name to his amendments, together with the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Whitty. My noble friend has expressed very clearly and eloquently what his amendments are about. I also welcome the very constructive discussions we had with the Minister. As my noble friend Lord Bourne said, I believe that he understands fully what we are trying to achieve.
It seems strange to me and, I am sure, to many others, that the rules for private tenants are stronger than they are for social tenants. This inequality of responsibility should be addressed. That applies also to owner-occupiers, of course. As my noble friend said, in high-rise buildings the majority of tenants are, indeed, social tenants, and I think they need as much help as they can get in ensuring the safety of their premises and, of course, the safety of their neighbours.
On the issue of a register, again, I think this is extremely important. We have heard that this is already in place for student accommodation. I feel that there is a real problem: perhaps we should consider, with both of these proposals, that there is a huge number of, presumably, second-hand electrical appliances in existence. People will be buying them not necessarily from retail outlets; they may be buying them on eBay or elsewhere, and they will not necessarily be having them tested appropriately. This is something that I think we have to look at. Having somebody responsible for maintaining that these items are safe is, I think, of paramount importance.
I welcome the social housing White Paper that was published today, particularly the provisions around these matters. Even if we cannot get exactly what we want today—and I understand that the Bill may not be the ideal vehicle for these amendments—I look forward, when the building safety Bill comes before your Lordships, to being in a position to implement these excellent ideas and proposals from my noble friend.
My Lords, I begin, as always, by declaring my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and co-president of London Councils, the body that represents all the London boroughs and the City of London. Particularly in respect of these amendments, I should declare my interest as patron of the charity Electrical Safety First.
I apologise that I was not able to be present in Committee when the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, moved and debated these amendments. We debated this issue fairly fully at Second Reading; we certainly covered amendments very similar to these in Committee—which I have read, even though I was unable to participate—and I have been very pleased to add my name to them again. I do not think I need to repeat today all the things that were said very ably by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. The key points have been made; I think that they are understood and I believe that they are generally accepted.
We have made reference a number of times, and again today, to the fires that happened not only at Grenfell Tower but at Lakanal House and at Shepherds Court. In all those buildings, a significant number of residents living there were owner-occupiers. They were not tenants in the private sector or the social sector; they were owner-occupiers.
In a way, this is key to these amendments. In a high-rise block—these amendments apply only to high-rise blocks—there is what has been described as a tenure lottery. There is a mixture of tenure, yet, by the nature of a tower block, every resident in it—regardless of their tenure—is equally at risk from these dangers. We owe it to all of them, not to any particular sector, to provide as best we can not only to deal with the risks after they have happened but, even more importantly, to prevent them happening in the first place. That is the object of all these amendments.
I again thank the Minister for meeting me and my Liberal Democrat colleagues to discuss this issue, among others that we will come to later. I am certain he understood exactly what we were trying to achieve. The issue before us is how and when.
Before I go on to that, I will deal with the other aspect of these amendments: the provision for a register of electrical appliances to be kept by the responsible person. The Local Government Association—I have declared my interest—is at least doubtful about that, suggesting it shifts the responsibility from the manufacturers. I do not agree at all. The responsibility to deal with recalls for their faulty goods rests fair and square, and will continue to rest, with manufacturers. I see this as a measure that helps the manufacturers do this more effectively than at present. It is very much a positive aid in that. I hope the Minister will be equally keen on accepting some form of mandatory register of all electrical appliances to be kept in high-rise buildings, not because the responsibility has shifted, other than to keep the register, but because it enables the residents in the block to be alerted to any recall and encouraged to take it up.
I will not divert into a discussion on the shortcomings of the present recall situation, but I think we all accept that it is by no means perfect and that most if not all manufacturers wish to see it improved. This is a significant way of being able to do that; it may not be perfect, but, as has been said, similar registers are voluntarily kept in student accommodation. It is a very long time since I have had any experience of student accommodation, but I suspect it is a lot harder to keep such a register there than it would be in any permanently residential high-rise block.
We come now to what exactly we will do, how we will do it and when. We will hear shortly that the Minister is sympathetic and certainly understands the issues. I would like to hear a clear commitment from him today on the action to be taken, whether through this Bill—perhaps not—the building safety Bill or any other course; what that action will be and, in particular, when it will be taken and subsequently implemented.
The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, mentioned the possibility of a working party. I think there was a similar working party before the introduction of the private rented sector provisions. It would be extremely helpful to all concerned, particularly the Minister, to have such a working party, comprised of Government and other interested parties in the sector, to make sure that such provisions can take effect as soon as they are put into practice. I would be interested to know what the Minister thinks about the possibility of that.
I support these amendments wholeheartedly. I look forward very much to hearing the Minister’s response and commitment.
My Lords, I fully support all the amendments put down by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. Many of the points have been made by my cosignatories already.
On the last point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, clearly this does nothing to undermine the essential responsibility of the manufacturer—and to some extent the retailer—in the safety of appliances. Indeed, some of the liability rests with the user or householder if they use them irresponsibly or unsafely or do not return them when a recall has been issued. However, it is also the case that the owner or manager of the building is responsible for all the tenants, leaseholders and owner-occupiers who occupy that building. If there is a fire, differential tenure is hardly relevant; the rules should be the same for all forms of tenure. An electrical fault could arise anywhere and could affect any neighbour in the block, as we have tragically seen all too often. It is important that a high-rise block is covered, with responsibilities to the owner or manager, regular clear inspections and a list of equipment. Electrical systems are presently dealt with differently from gas; there is a requirement for gas inspections for everybody. We need to require the owner to take account of the potential damage to others within his or her building.
Obviously, we hope the Government will take this up as rapidly as possible. There are issues around who bears the cost and whether this is the appropriate Bill for these clauses. The latter seems odd to argue; this is the Fire Safety Bill. We are arguing that it should include provisions about the single most frequent cause of fire and measures that have already been identified in the Grenfell inquiry. These are most relevant here. I understand the Minister might prefer to see them in the forthcoming building safety Bill, but they are not there; the fact that the provisions in these amendments are not in the pre-legislative version of the Bill at the moment, although some aspects of electrical safety are, makes us doubt the speed with which these clauses would be brought into operation. It would be much better if they were in this Bill.
On cost, I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Best, who wanted to speak in this debate but was somehow precluded. He calculated that, even if inspection costs for carrying out the regular inspection were £100, that would be £20 a year over five years, or 20p a week per premise, which would go on the service charge to leaseholders and tenants in one way or another. That is a minimal cost for a major contribution towards everybody’s safety. It would not be logical for the requirement on the owner for inspection to be postponed until the building safety Bill comes through, but it would be better than nothing. If we can be given an absolute assurance, I will accept it as second best, but it really should be in this Bill to prevent fires starting now. I support all these amendments.
My Lords, I first declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a chartered surveyor with some 45 years of experience in dealing with the management, maintenance and condition survey of properties, as well as matters of tenure. I apologise to the House for not having been able to participate directly on previous stages of the Bill. Many noble Lords will know that I have been following this extremely closely and have written to many of them, including the Minister.
Turning to the thrust of these amendments, I entirely agree with the purpose of the amendment on electrical systems: to make regular periodic tests and inspections of fixed electrical installations most desirable. However, with leases in long-leasehold tenure, the leaseholder is typically responsible for what is in the flat and is identifiably unit-specific to that bit of accommodation. Typically, that also applies to other conducting media and conduits such as drains, extraction ducts and water supplies. Some items are centrally operated, such as fire alarms and detection equipment, which may be within the flat and may be differently treated, but such provision does not always pertain to rack-rented letting. Straightaway, the legal obligations between different types of tenure, which are established in the case of long leasehold in their long leases, and therefore in their title, are not consistent across what I might call the flatted sector.
I also have concerns about the scrutiny and enforcement of the regulation, which in the past has sometimes been patchy. The issue is one of resources. The capacity, competence and finance are often insufficient or inadequate in the areas where the responsibility lies, or, in some circumstances, the responsibilities may be split. The Government must address these in the context of the Bill, because the subject matter is vital in terms of human safety, and too important to be left to chance, but I wonder how secondary legislation will deal with overriding established practices set out in the legal arrangements for tenure and occupation.
I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, is very enthusiastic about electrical appliances. I am a little less enthusiastic, not about the objective of greater safety, but about the practicality. There should be a clearer cut-off between what is “system” and what is “appliance”. For instance, a hardwired electrical hot towel rail is regarded as appliance, not system. There should be a clearer definition, so that anything with a square pin plug on the end of its lead falls under “appliance”. Again, there are issues to do with things such as cookers, which are also hardwired.
I note and largely agree with the views of the LGA regarding the enforceability in real life, and the shifting of responsibility, in my definition, from the primary leaseholder or occupier of the unit, who is in charge of the items in the building, unless they have been supplied by the lessor or manager from inception. There is an assumption that there will be some degree of occupier co-operation. Logging the appliances on a register may capture the inventory at a moment in time, but that does not procure accuracy without continuous updating, so there are issues there as to how much time and energy are to be taken up with doing this. Some modern service lettings include white goods, and possibly many other smaller items, and, to give the example of holiday accommodation, typically the owner of the accommodation provides all the white goods and appliances, but even that does not stop someone coming along with their own appliance, which may not be tested. The same thing applies for normal rentals.
Therefore, accuracy is an issue. Retrofitting the sort of standard that might apply in circumstances where all the white goods and appliances are pre-provided by the lessor would be extremely difficult. If the intention is to include everything that might be caught under a normal PAT test, that will be extremely detailed, with a high turnover of items within any five-year period. If occupiers of flats are not obliged to declare all relevant items whenever exchanged for another, or whenever a new item is brought in, this could create an impossible task for managers. Therefore, if the Minister agrees to this amendment, in detail or in principle, some of these issues must be addressed.
I suggest a phased approach, to allow for the most at risk and the most dangerous situations to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. Here, I am with the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, but for the rest, one must ensure that the arrangements are put in place in a workmanlike manner, that they are practical and, particularly, that manufacturers and retailers be locked into the chain of compliance. Also, there has to be a cultural change, so that every occupier of a high-rise block realises that they have a responsibility and an input, and that they are pivotal in procuring safety and ensuring that they do not misuse—or fail to maintain and clean—their appliances or operate them in unsuitable locations. I recognise, approve and agree with the thrust of these amendments, but I remain concerned about some of the detail.
My Lords, I declare an interest, having lived for nearly 20 years as a private tenant in—under the definition in this amendment—a high-rise block in London. I am trying to work through how a register would apply, because I have never solely rented. It has always been part of a multiple-occupancy residency within a council-owned block where a private owner has bought a property and then leased it out to the likes of me.
The amendment seems to be approaching this the wrong way around. The poorer one is, the more one will be buying second-hand goods and not buying direct from manufacturers, particularly with white goods. Systems of registration can never easily apply with that. The Government should be looking at the opportunity—although it cannot be fitted into this Bill at this moment—whereby there is an incentive at local authority level for there to be certificates of competence in relation to properties that are being let out, in relation to electrics and gas, so that one can see that the standard has been met. Such a system would quickly isolate those who were not prepared to have the relevant certificates in place, who would then become the primary targets for enforcement investigation. It seems that the market could assist in a significant part of the solution if it was required to parade its worthiness in an effective public way in terms of the safety of a property.
Under this definition, this building would be a high-rise building. In planning terms this is one building, with at least two occupied residences; there may be more that I am unaware of. That is not necessarily an argument against this amendment, and might even be one in favour of it, to fast-forward some of the building changes that are needed in here. However, rightly, the focus has been the Government’s focus. I make no criticism whatever of this or of contributors in this debate, in terms of traditional high-rise. However, while I am in favour of the Government’s approach in wanting more office-style or above-shop conversions over the last 20 years, often these buildings were not designed as accommodation, and, having seen first-hand some of those which have been done over the last 20 years, if they are badly designed, the fire risk seem disproportionately high. That aspect of “above-shop”, which could be two, three, four or storeys in some cases, in terms of accommodation, needs more attention from the Government, and potentially, more powers for local authorities.
Finally, in the context of Clause 1—I hope that the building safety Bill is the appropriate place for this—the fire risk in fixed Traveller sites and park home sites is a different kind of problem. The problem could be immediately outside the property. Park home sites in particular may be constrained by a perimeter wall, and the fire risk comes from the lack of space therein. I have direct experience of challenging that, and it has been fiendishly difficult to do anything about it in law. I hope, as the Government move the building safety Bill forward, that the question of properties on fixed Traveller sites and park home sites will be looked at, including in the context of fire safety. More can and should be done there.
My Lords, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I strongly support this group of amendments, and it is good to see cross-party support for them.
At previous stages of the Bill, I spoke on the importance of increased electrical safety checks. In view of what we are now hearing from the Grenfell inquiry, such checks of electrical systems and appliances in high-rise blocks are vital. As the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said, there should be a safer home environment and we should be translating good intention to action. I strongly agree. He reminded us that almost half of domestic fires relate to an electrical fault, and also of the precedent of a register of electrical equipment in student housing blocks.
The noble Lord, Lord Randall, made a number of points on second-hand electrical equipment, which I hope the Minister will note. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, explained that the cost is minimal. This derives, in part, from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Best, in Committee, where he identified how the cost could be much lower than people had thought. My noble friend Lord Tope called for a clear commitment from the Minister on what action the Government are proposing and when they are proposing to implement it.
It has been said that the legislation will be complicated to enforce. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, made a number of detailed points about the responsibilities of leaseholders and those with other kinds of tenure. I hope the Minister responds to those points, particularly in view of the distinction that may have to be drawn between systems and appliances. The points made by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, will be very helpful in drafting regulations. He said that we need a cultural change; that has to be right.
The noble Lord, Lord Mann, has personal knowledge of living in a residential block as a private tenant. That experience will clearly be helpful to the proceedings of the House. He raised a number of important issues on design, which I hope the Minister will note.
It is important to understand the issue properly. It is surely the right of tenants and leaseholders of high-rise blocks to feel more secure. This is a public safety issue. I cannot understand why checks are required in the private rented sector but not for high-rise blocks, except where the property in that block is privately rented. I hope that we hear something helpful on this from the Minister in a moment.
Finally, there is going to be a responsible person. I am fully in support of that, but such a person needs responsibilities to undertake. This group of amendments presents some responsibilities that seem central and core to the duties and obligations of a responsible person. For that reason, I fully support this group of amendments.
My Lords, as this is the first time I am speaking on Report today, I refer the House to my relevant registered interests—namely, as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, chair of the Heart of Medway housing association and a non-executive director of MHS Homes Ltd. I support the Fire Safety Bill. My main concern across the whole Bill is the speed with which we are moving forward. That is the main issue for me with this and other amendments.
I fully support the amendments before us today in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, and other noble Lords. I tried to sign up to these amendments, but I was too late; all the spaces had already gone when I contacted the Public Bill Office. I have made it clear to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, that he has my full support, and I pay tribute to him for raising these issues, as he did on 29 October during the consideration of the Bill in Committee. I also put on record my admiration for the charity Electrical Safety First, and Robert Jervis-Gibbons and his colleagues, for all the work they do to highlight the danger of electrical fires to both property and people. Through their campaigning work, we have managed to make progress in recent years in the area of fires started by electrical ignition.
In speaking in this debate, noble Lords mentioned the fires at Lakanal House in Southwark, Shepherds Court in Shepherd’s Bush and Grenfell Tower—all examples of the tragedies that electrical fires can cause. We need to ensure that action is taken. As has been clearly set out to the House, these amendments are intended to build on the Electrical Safety Standards in the Private Rented Sector (England) Regulations 2020, which provide for mandatory checks in the private sector every five years. Those regulations were good news, and the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, deserves credit for all his work in bringing them into force.
What now needs to be addressed is the tenure lottery that has been created, as private tenants in a building will be covered by the regulations but social tenants and owner-occupiers will not. There are three types of tenure, but only one would be required to have electrical safety checks. You can see the problem: if you have a block of flats but only some of the properties are tested, covered and confirmed as safe, or have remedial work that is needed and undertaken, but others are not checked, the building is then not safe. How can some properties be required by law to be checked, when others are not? That has to change. I suggest that, to be certain the building is safe for all dwellings, it would need to be checked by a competent person. If it is for only some of the dwelling, you cannot deem the building to be safe.
The amendments before us also provide for a responsible person, which is a new role that I fully support, to be brought into being to compile a register of every white good in a building. This would ensure that, when a recall of a product occurs, we can quickly identify all the affected appliances and the safety issue can quickly be resolved. This does not take away responsibility from the people who sell the appliance or the manufacturers, but it is another important safety measure.
The Government may take the view that they cannot commit to this, at this stage. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, has not indicated that he wishes to test the opinion of the House, but I hope to have a considered opinion from the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, on these important amendments. I also hope that the noble Lord and his team will look at what goes on in other parts of the world—certainly in Australia—where there are much stricter regimes about electrical white goods than elsewhere. They need to be looked at because, clearly, if this can work in other parts of the world, it can work here. All these amendments are about keeping people safe, and I fully support them.
My Lords, I refer to my relevant commercial and residential property interests as set out in the register. I thank my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth for his amendment, which shines a light on the important issue of electrical safety. Indeed, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for his clear focus and mission to prevent fires happening in the first place as a result of electrical faults as absolutely the key. I also thank my noble friend for the constructive meeting that we had on this issue last week, involving my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge. I recognise the covering fire received from the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Whitty, for this amendment, and in particular, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, mentioned, the work of the Electrical Safety First organisation. I commend the latter for the work that it is doing to raise awareness of the risks of electrical fires. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Mann, for pointing out the issues around second-hand electrical goods; this is a particularly difficult area to regulate and something that we need to look into.
I will not reiterate all the points that I raised in Committee, but I will mention two concerns that I have in relation to this amendment. First, I note that the wording has changed to focus on high-rise buildings, but I am still concerned that it would not have the effect that my noble friend seeks to achieve. In particular, it is doubtful that the amendment would result in electrical appliances in private dwellings being brought within the scope of the fire safety order. This in turn will thwart the amendment’s underlying objectives for systematic checks on electrical appliances and for the responsible person to keep a register of appliances, as required by the additional schedule proposed in this amendment.
My other concern is that the amendment risks delaying the implementation of necessary reforms to fire safety regulation. A number of concerns have been raised in both your Lordships’ House and the other place about the pace of reform to fire and building safety legislation. We now have a package of reforms: this Bill, the upcoming fire safety order regulations, and the building safety Bill. The amendment would impact on the delivery of this package of legislation, and in particular on the fire safety order regulations.
A lot of the detail of this amendment is left to be implemented through regulations, and the work that this would require would lead to significant delays in our being able to deliver other key recommendations from the Grenfell inquiry. The answer to addressing the concern about electrical safety lies in the work that is being undertaken across government, which includes a number of strands. I will not repeat all of the work that I referenced in Committee but will pick out some key aspects.
A regulatory regime is in place on product safety, underpinned by legislation and overseen by a national regulator, the Office for Product Safety and Standards, which was created in 2018. This regime places responsibility for the safety of products on those actors best placed to ensure this before products are placed on the market. The draft building safety Bill reflects the role that all parties have to play in ensuring the safety of high-rise dwellings, from the developer to the accountable person to the residents themselves, and electrical safety is an important part of this. As mentioned by a number of noble Lords, there are standards for electrical checks in private rented accommodation, which require that electrical equipment is checked at least every five years. This is already in place for new tenancies and will apply to existing tenancies from 1 April 2021.
I recognise the concerns expressed by a number of noble Lords with respect to there being no mandatory checks on social housing. The inequality between social and private housing was raised by my noble friend Lord Randall and the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Kennedy. I am pleased to say that today we have published a social housing White Paper, which sets out our charter for social housing residents. It includes a commitment to undertake a consultation on keeping social housing residents safe from electrical harm. Among a range of issues, this will consider extending the safety measures already in the private rented sector to social housing.
I assure my noble friend that the Government take the issues raised in his amendment very seriously indeed. In that regard I am happy to give him a firm commitment that, outside the Bill process, my officials will engage Electrical Safety First and other key stakeholders in an official-led working group to inform the content of our consultation. Given the assurances that I have provided, I ask my noble friend to agree to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I first thank everybody who has participated in the debate on the amendments in this group. It has been a very worthwhile discussion, and every noble Lord who participated added something valuable. It is clear that there is broad support within the House for action, and a recognition of the inequality that exists between private tenants on the one hand and social tenants—and indeed owner-occupiers—on the other hand.
I note what my noble friend the Minister said in relation to some of the detailed points in the consideration of the amendments that may cause concern; clearly they are matters that could be looked at. I agree with my noble friend the Minister on the importance of what has happened today in relation to the White Paper, although I note that there is no timescale attached to that. Before I withdraw my amendment, which I am minded to do, I will press my noble friend a little on two matters. First, would he be willing to meet with me and the other signatories to the amendment ahead of the building safety Bill to see how we can dovetail what we are seeking to do here with that Bill? I know from discussions with him that he felt that that Bill was a more appropriate medium to use, so I seek that from him.
Secondly, I thank him very much for the undertaking that he has given to meet with Electrical Safety First, along with officials, to consider the proposals in the social housing White Paper as to possible timescales. He will understand that we are now three and a half years after the dreadful events of Grenfell. The social housing White Paper has been a long time forthcoming, for reasons that I do understand, and we are now looking at a future consultation; we do not—and I am sure he does not—want this stretching out a long time into the future. So I will just press him a little bit on those two matters before I withdraw my amendment.
My Lords, I am very happy to give my noble friend the assurance that we can meet together before the introduction of the building safety Bill. Indeed, as soon as I have more information about the timescales in relation to the social housing White Paper being turned into legislation, I will be able to provide that to my noble friend. I am happy also to agree to meet with the Electrical Safety First organisation; I would find that very constructive indeed.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendments 2 to 4 not moved.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 5. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or any other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in debate.
Clause 2: Power to change premises to which the Fire Safety Order applies
5: Clause 2, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
“( ) The consultation under subsection (5) must involve—(a) local authorities;(b) relevant trade unions including but not limited to those representing firefighters;(c) relevant organisations representing firefighters;(d) bodies representing tenants and residents of impacted properties; and(e) any other bodies deemed relevant by the Secretary of State.( ) A report detailing the findings of the consultation under subsection (5) must be laid before Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would ensure that any consultation must include local authorities, trade unions, and representatives of tenants and residents.
My Lords, this is an issue that I raised in Committee, and I confirm that I have no intention of dividing the House on it this afternoon. I have tabled it again to give the Minister the opportunity to put beyond any doubt that the organisations that I have listed will be consulted, without question, because they are important in their different ways. I accept the point that has been made before that things change over time, but I think it is a reasonable assumption that we will have local authorities, trade unions representing firefighters and other workers in the sector more generally, and associations representing tenants and residents, for the foreseeable future, and that consultation must go much wider than the National Fire Chiefs Council.
Amendment 6 from the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, is a probing amendment, as the noble Baroness makes clear in her explanatory statement, allowing the Minister to offer clarity to the House. Again, I welcome the amendment made in that spirit by the noble Baroness and I beg to move.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I think that he and I agree on the value of consultation in many different arenas.
My probing amendment relates to an appalling situation arising as an indirect consequence of the Grenfell tragedy. As a direct result of that fire, vast amounts of cladding, especially on high-rise blocks, will have to be removed. The requirements for improvement consequently imposed on those concerned—freeholders, leaseholders and so on—affect a very large number of multiple-occupation dwellings, unnecessarily, some might say, whatever their height. As a consequence, surveyors, insurers and mortgage lenders, all financially involved, have become very concerned by their clients’ potential unquantified exposure to risk and are taking steps to minimise it. Inevitably, they are taking a cautious view. Wooden features such as staircases and partitions—used since the dawn of time and much more sustainable than steel or plastic derivatives—are often viewed with suspicion.
A particular uncertainty is what the remedial action will cost and who will bear that cost. There is currently no good answer to that concern and, as a consequence, much of the market is effectively frozen. Thus, many properties are in practice unsaleable, with knock-on effects on people’s financial viability and the mobility of workers. As I emphasised in Committee, this is a nightmare for the young who want to move when they have a baby, for the old who want to trade down to something smaller and release capital for their care, and for the unemployed who need to move to get a new job.
I explained all that in Committee, and I think it would be fair to say that, although the Minister, in responding, accepted that there was a problem, he said nothing about how it might be solved. I hope that we can move a step forward today and that the Minister will be able to say something that will ease up the market in respect of at least some of the dwellings where the fire risk is small. Standing back, it is apparent that the Bill takes us in the wrong direction on this issue, because it provides for an increase in the number of requirements and regulations without providing a way forward on the threat to the housing market and our reputation as supporters of home ownership, which many people aspire to.
To be more specific, first, can the Minister provide a clear trajectory for the implementation of the Bill, the revisions to the fire safety order and the building safety Bill to reassure us on consistency and show how the uncertainty and unintended consequences for leaseholders arising as a result of these changes will be kept to a minimum?
Secondly, what assessment have the Government made of the availability of qualified assessors and fire safety engineers to account for the increased demand that will arise from the Bill? How can they help in this regard?
Thirdly, can the Government develop a system, such as you might see in the health and safety area, referenced earlier, that allows non-professionals involved in managing multiple-occupation properties to do the necessary risk assessments and give the assurances needed for the market to move? The EWS1 system—designed, I believe, to help with the mortgage problem—has, unfortunately, had a perverse effect.
Fourthly, can the Minister say anything to unfreeze properties—for example, those of a low height where the risk is much less?
This is a very difficult issue and I know that my noble friend the Minister, with his experience of local government, understands the issues and has been trying very hard. I welcome the considerable funds made available to deal with the most serious high-rise cladding issue and the progress that is therefore being made. He should also be thanked for his wider efforts to improve the housing sector and build more homes. However, the problem that I have described, with support from my noble friend Lord Shinkwin in Committee, is a very serious one and we need action now. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will be winding up on this group, I should like to say that I, like my noble friend Lord Bourne, would appreciate a further meeting on how we tackle this matter before the new order and the building safety Bill proceed.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, has made a number of helpful and very important points. Amendment 6 seeks clarification from the Minister on a number of problems in relation to leaseholders and the impact on the housing market of the current problems with selling properties. I, too, look forward to the Minister’s response, as it would be helpful to us all to have an up-to-date understanding of his thinking.
We shall, of course, address this matter on Amendment 13 as well, as it is central to the future management of high-rise accommodation, or the less high-rise accommodation that nevertheless still suffers from some of the problems of the high-rise blocks. As the noble Baroness said, we need a way forward for the housing market in solving the problems of some leaseholders. I entirely agree with that, and I hope that forthcoming meetings will be able to address those issues.
Amendment 5, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, is entirely sensible. Of course it is right to consult properly and fully in developing legislation, so I assume that the Minister will be able to confirm this afternoon his entire agreement to this amendment because it is so eminently sensible.
My Lords, although I certainly agree with the thrust of Amendment 5, it is Amendment 6, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, that I really wish to address.
Many of my years in the property profession have been spent in survey inspections, with a spell in estate agency and mortgage valuations and brief periods in block management, and I have spent a good deal of time on the forensic identification of defects. Therefore, I feel reasonably well qualified to support the noble Baroness, and I thank her for raising this important issue, which affects the residential sector. Rightly, she referred to the indirect effect of the Grenfell tragedy. That is a matter on which I have been in constant contact with the Chartered Association of Building Engineers, of which I am a patron and which has been very helpful in identifying various matters in respect of the Bill.
As the noble Baroness said, the effect on the residential market for flats in particular, and over a very broad spectrum by age and type, is now apparent. This has affected security for mortgage lending, exacerbated by the prospect of large and, as the noble Baroness said, unquantified remediation bills. Some sort of game of pass the parcel seems to be in train as to who will end up picking up those bills. It affects buildings insurance cover and premiums, and interim measures such as “waking watch” are racking up huge costs. These and the likely shortfall, as I see it, in the provision for remediation made by the Government—welcome though that is, but nevertheless there is a shortfall as against the widening scope of the buildings that might ultimately be affected—have seriously affected the ability to sell flats. It is not clear that this is in any way confined to high rise, as I am increasingly aware, as one of my children attempts to sell a flat in a four-storey modern and, I believe, conventionally constructed block.
A few days ago, a lady emailed me to say that she is a resident of a sister block to the one in Worcester Park which burned down last year. She is completely stuck with a currently worthless asset and no apparent movement on remediation. The latest Sunday Times carried an article about this, graphically illustrating the issues and defects that have been found to be present in a number of remaining identical buildings that are still standing.
Before this gets yet more problematic and starts affecting potentially a far wider range of properties than at present, the Government need to use their powers and influence to get all the interested parties round a table—constructers, lenders, insurers—and point out, as the noble Baroness said, the reputational as well as economic and social damage that needs to be contained beyond the issue of direct liability and who shoulders that, and require their active co-operation to resolve this in a constructive manner and not leave vulnerable homeowners, to put it bluntly, hung out to dry.
I appreciate the criticism of the EWS1 form, but it came about because of a particular need to do with mortgage lending. It is now being required for a much wider range of purposes, for which it was never intended. Why? Because it was the only tool available. The Government could step into this obvious void and make sure that some other form of certification solution was provided. But they, or somebody else, would have to take responsibility for that, and I realise that that is an issue. Meanwhile, the potential liabilities make it ever less likely that those without specific accreditation to do the necessary inspections will be willing to undertake such work and, indeed, they may not be able to get professional indemnity insurance either.
The Government need to get ahead of the curve here. If these measures are rushed into effect with full force immediately and without additional steps, there will be more serious disruption and collateral damage to come. I suggest there be a phased and managed approach aimed at containing the ill effects, restoring trust and confidence, above all, in the measures being put in place and limiting financial loss while dealing, most importantly, with the most pressing issues where residents’ safety is at the greatest peril. None of this is without risk; nor is the normal “Not my responsibility, guvnor” liability-passing response appropriate in these abnormal times, given the number of national issues we face and the effect on the wider economy.
This means temporary but probably arbitrary cut-offs, probably in height terms—11 metres may be the right figure for blocks of flats—perhaps with certain other definitions, then dealing with those and drawing the net more widely later on and inevitably, as one will, picking up legacy issues from older regulatory sign-offs on the way. Some sort of lower-tier interim certification, which the noble Baroness referred to, perhaps by a non-specialist, would enable low-risk properties to escape the contagion that might otherwise engulf the sector. I wonder if this is what the Minister will propose in Amendment 7. I will listen with great interest to his response.
My Lords, I remind the House of my interests, as recorded in the register, as a councillor in Kirklees and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I turn first to Amendment 6, through which the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, has raised concerns about the inclusion of all multi-occupied domestic premises within the scope of the Bill. The issues raised relate to leaseholders who find that they are, in effect, unable to move as their property is within the scope of the Bill and, therefore, that the fire risk exists but is not quantified. The later amendment in my name explores these issues in more detail.
In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, spoke on behalf of the Minister and confirmed that the Government intend that all multi-occupational buildings are within the scope of the Bill and the fire safety order 2005. He also argued in Committee that the height of a building is only one factor in assessing fire risk, and others have given recent examples of fires in such buildings that support that argument. The issue, then, is about prioritisation, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has so expertly explained, and what actions the Government are able to take to minimise the impact on properties deemed low priority and, therefore, presumably of lower risk. It is that issue that the Minister needs to clarify. Will the Government bring forward regulations or guidance to demonstrate the criteria to be used to fire assess properties? Can these be used by leaseholders to demonstrate low risk, and thus release their property from being frozen out of the housing market? I look forward to the Minister’s response to these concerns.
The other amendment in this group, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, raises issues about consultation. It lists consultees, as a very similar amendment did in Committee. My colleagues and I are always in favour of the widest possible consultation on any issue. However, there is an inherent risk in a list that becomes exclusive while intending to be inclusive. The list of consultees is one which we would expect, however, to be involved in all relevant consultations. As my noble friend Lord Shipley said, the list is inherently sensible, so I hope the Minister will be able to accept such a list. Again, I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for raising the issue of engagement to make sure the right groups and organisations are consulted on any changes or clarifications to the types of premises that fall within the scope of the fire safety order. The Government have given this matter further consideration since Committee stage. I support the noble Lord’s aim of ensuring that the widest range of groups are given an opportunity to comment. It is sensible to seek views from all groups impacted by any future changes, which is why Clause 2 of the Fire Safety Bill provides a requirement to consult anyone appropriate, which is likely to include all the parties highlighted in the amendment.
Robust policy-making can be achieved only by reaching out to all sections of the fire sector and other interested parties, such as responsible persons and residents, not by relying solely on the expertise of certain groups. To be clear, of course we will consult with the National Fire Chiefs Council but equally, we will consult with the Fire Brigades Union and with tenants’ and residents’ associations.
The Government are committed to considering the most appropriate means of conducting any future consultation before making any regulations—regulations which Parliament would have an opportunity to scrutinise, should it so wish. It remains the case that the specified list as presented identifies groups whose role, name or function may change over time, potentially creating the need for future primary legislative changes or making such provision ineffective. However, the Bill as drafted safeguards against this while ensuring that relevant groups are not excluded. I want to assure your Lordships’ House that we recognise the importance of consulting relevant stakeholders, but the wording of Clause 2 already allows us to do just that, without the need to be prescriptive in the way the noble Lord’s amendment suggests.
I turn now to the very important consumer issues raised by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe. I had a meeting with my noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lord Shinkwin, and I am very happy to commit to a further meeting before the introduction of the building safety Bill. These are huge consumer issues, and I praise my noble friend for being a champion of the consumer. We recognise that many leaseholders’ properties have been valued at zero, they are waiting for remediation of their properties and they are unable to remortgage or to move. They are effectively trapped, and the Government recognise that that is a considerable issue for them. We also recognise that the costs of historic building safety and fire safety remediation will be considerably more than the £1.6 billion already committed. It is important to address that in a way that is affordable to leaseholders, and there are only certain ways of doing that. We will make announcements on that in due course.
Equally, we recognise that the pace of remediation is important. I have talked to many people in the social housing sector about the fact that they have probably overspent on waking watch. I am very pleased that we provided guidance on waking watch, the cost of which is exorbitantly high; it can be replaced by a fire alarm system within six or seven weeks, which reduces some of the costs of interim measures. I draw the attention of those using waking watch for extended periods to the most recent guidance from the National Fire Chiefs Council and the work on waking watch costs. I am very happy to commit to a further meeting.
Turning to the amendment, I thank the noble Lord for his continued input on the Fire Safety Bill and for his amendment seeking clarity on how the Government intend to use the power to change the types of premises to which the fire safety order applies. I remind noble Lords that the purpose of the Bill is to improve fire safety in all the buildings to which it applies to make sure that residents feel safe in their homes. I know this objective is shared by all in your Lordships’ House and the other place. The Government believe we have the right buildings within the scope of the order at present, but it is important that we create the right legislative framework to provide the flexibility to make future changes to the types of buildings which may pose a risk. The Bill may be on the statute book for a long time, and this clause allows us to keep it agile and relevant to emerging changes. If, for example, a new design of building emerges in future, we will want to make sure that it can be captured without the need for further primary legislation.
The clause is not intended to be a blunt instrument. We have introduced a robust set of safeguards to ensure that relevant parties can comment on any future changes. However, I understand the concerns about the current mortgage and insurance situation that my noble friend is looking to address, and which I have already discussed. We are working with lenders on a more proportionate approach to the assessment of fire safety risks for valuation purposes, which will benefit residents. The updated fire risk assessments following this Bill should provide the further reassurance that lenders are looking for in the EWS1. I hope this gives my noble friend confidence that our aim is to ensure flexibility, and not a form of mission creep to bring more premises under the order. Given the assurances I have provided, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, to withdraw his amendment and my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe not to move hers.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response to this short debate and for putting clearly on the record his views on consultation, which I fully support. As he said, it is important to have a wide range of appropriate consultees.
I also fully support the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe. We cannot allow people to continue to live in properties that are, effectively, worth nothing. I hope that the meeting referred to will take place, but it is also important that when builders construct these buildings and give warranties and guarantees, they are upheld. It cannot be right to allow builders to walk away from their obligations under warranties and guarantees have given; they need to be held accountable. I hope that the Minister will take back that very important point. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
Amendment 6 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 7. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division should make that clear in the debate.
7: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Risk based guidance about the discharge of duties under the Fire Safety Order
(1) Article 50 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (S.I. 2005/1541) (guidance) is amended as follows.(2) After paragraph (1) insert—“(1A) Where in any proceedings it is alleged that a person has contravened a provision of articles 8 to 22 or of regulations made under article 24 in relation to a relevant building (or part of the building)—(a) proof of a failure to comply with any applicable risk based guidance may be relied on as tending to establish that there was such a contravention, and(b) proof of compliance with any applicable risk based guidance may be relied on as tending to establish that there was no such contravention.”(3) After paragraph (2) insert—“(2A) Before revising or withdrawing any risk based guidance in relation to relevant buildings the Secretary of State must consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”(4) After paragraph (3) insert—“(4) In this article—“relevant building” means a building in England containing two or more sets of domestic premises;“risk based guidance” means guidance under paragraph (1) about how a person who is subject to the duties mentioned there in relation to more than one set of premises is to prioritise the discharge of those duties in respect of the different premises by reference to risk.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that, where the Secretary of State issues risk based guidance under the existing duty to ensure the availability of appropriate guidance, proof of compliance or a lack of compliance with that guidance can be used in legal proceedings. It also requires the Secretary of State to consult before revising or withdrawing risk based guidance.
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 14. In Committee I made a commitment to set out during today’s debate the Government’s position on how the Fire Safety Bill will be commenced. Your Lordships’ House is aware that the Home Office established an independent task and finish group, chaired jointly by the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Sector Federation, which brought together interested parties from across the fire and housing sectors. Its role was to provide a recommendation on the optimal way to commence the Bill. The group advised that the Bill should be commenced at once for all buildings in scope. I have accepted this recommendation to commence the Fire Safety Bill at once for all buildings in scope on a single date.
The group also recommended that responsible persons under the fire safety order should use a risk-based approach to carrying out or reviewing fire risk assessments upon commencement by way of using a risk operating model, and that the Government issue statutory guidance to support this approach. I also agreed to this recommendation, which will support responsible persons to develop an effective prioritisation strategy for such assessments, which will be supported by a risk operating model currently being developed. The Home Office, with support from the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Fire Sector Federation, will also host this model once it has been finalised.
The government amendments tabled today intend to take forward the provision of statutory guidance to support this approach. These amendments ensure that the risk-based guidance which will be issued by the Secretary of State to support commencement of the Bill for all relevant buildings will have the legal status to incentivise compliance with it. It does this by stating explicitly that a court can consider whether a responsible person has complied with their duties under the fire safety order by compliance with the risk-based guidance. Equally, if a responsible person has failed to provide evidence that they have complied, it may be relied on by a court as tending to support non-compliance with the duties under the order.
The government amendment also creates a provision to allow the Secretary of State to withdraw the risk-based guidance, but this can be done only after consultation with relevant stakeholders and appropriate persons. Our rationale for inserting this provision is that we believe that a point will eventually be reached where, having followed a risk-based approach to prioritisation, responsible persons will have assessed all the fire safety risks for the external walls of their buildings in direct consequence of the commencement of the Bill. At that stage there may no longer be a need for the guidance to remain in place. I assure your Lordships’ House that the Government will commence the Bill at the same time as issuing the guidance. Amendment 14 achieves this effect.
I thank my noble friend Lord Porter of Spalding for his amendment in Committee, which would have placed a duty on the Secretary of State to issue an approved code of practice to support the commencement of the Bill. I had a very constructive discussion with my noble friend and officials from the Local Government Association last week, and I am pleased that he supports our approach and agrees that there should be no delay in commencing the Bill.
One of the issues that the task and finish group considered was how responsible persons will be able to update their fire risk assessment where there is limited capacity in the fire risk assessor sector, primarily fire engineers, to advise on external wall systems. This underlines the recommendation for a risk-based approach to an all-at-once commencement, on which we are acting. Our approach sends a signal to the fire risk assessor sector, mainly fire engineers, that their expertise should first be directed to where it is needed most: to the highest risk buildings.
I draw attention the statement of the Fire Sector Federation, which supports our approach to commencement. It said that
“the introduction of further new measures … using systematic risk- based guidance, will lead a prioritisation approach towards helping to identify the fire risk status for a … building such that those presenting the highest threat to life are afforded the highest priority”
for “remedial action.”
I thank all members of the task and finish group for their work in developing advice to the Home Office and my officials. I consider that the group has provided an optimal solution to commencing the Fire Safety Bill, allowing the Government to introduce the provisions at the earliest opportunity. It is important that we continue the good work undertaken with relevant stakeholders on the task and finish group, with a view regularly to monitoring the effectiveness of the risk-based guidance and risk-operating model. My amendments seek to take forward the recommendations from operational experts in the field of fire safety. I beg to move.
My Lords, the proposed risk-based guidance set out in the amendment is extremely welcome, particularly if it means what I think it means: assessment not only by building type but in relation to the specifics. The risk-operating model is especially welcome in this respect, and I thank the Minister for tabling the amendment. When is the guidance likely to be finalised? It is linked to the Bill coming into force and it is important that it be done as soon as possible, subject to reasonable scrutiny. We need reasonable certainty and to calm financial, insurance and property market fears.
Knowing the limited scrutiny that secondary legislation receives, can the Minister give an assurance that the guidance will be unequivocal—in clear, jargon-free and plain English, capable of consistent application and not liable to misleading or alternative interpretations? I say that with some feeling, having had to deal with matters of regulation over many years. Can the Minister also say whether there will be consultation on the details —in the knowledge that, within reason, the sooner this measure is brought in, the better—and whether there will be parliamentary scrutiny of it?
I particularly welcome the Minister’s reference to the signal that will be given to the accreditation sector and the insistence on indicating priorities. Getting capacity will clearly be an issue and the person responsible for a building—as happens in some employment situations—does not necessarily need to be an externally trained professional.
I will raise one further issue. A member of my family, as I mentioned earlier, has a flat in a relatively low-rise block in a London borough. I spent a bit of time on the borough’s website looking for details of the 2006 planning consent that governed its construction. Unfortunately, all the information—bar the notice—was missing from the website. I was told that I could make an application; it is not clear whether or not I would have to pay for that.
The other aspect of this is the information that goes into building control, which should be the details of how the building is to be constructed. If people are to be able to make a reasoned assessment of the safety or otherwise of their building, having that constructional information is rather important. The standard approach, however, is that building regulation information is not readily accessible on demand and may involve copyright issues where plans are provided. This may be fair enough, but there is an overriding need to know. If the architect, or the approved inspector—or whoever might have this information, since it might not be in the local authority records—cannot be traced, the only solution, which may have to happen anyway to some extent, would be for someone to take intrusive steps to open up parts of the building for inspection.
That basic information, which at some stage must have gone into the public domain or been used for an approved building regulation inspection, needs to be rounded up. Can the Minister offer any comfort or reassurance that steps will be taken to make sure that this essential information is recovered and available to those who need it?
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, has withdrawn from speaking to this group of amendments so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock.
My Lords, these government amendments, as described, seek to clarify what evidence of culpability, in relation to compliance with the regulations, is required. The very fact that government amendments have been tabled to the Bill at this late stage shows the importance and value of the scrutiny work of this House.
As the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has just said, a risk-based approach is essential to ensuring that high-risk buildings are prioritised and to calming financial sector fears. The timing of the publication of the guidance to which the Minister has referred is vital if the implementation of the changes in the Bill, and the guidance, are to take effect as soon as possible. These are important additions to the Bill, and we support them.
My Lords, I am very happy to support government Amendments 7 and 14 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh. These amendments respond to the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Porter of Spalding, whose amendments I moved in Committee because he was having connectivity issues.
I have read the briefing from the Local Government Association, which confirms its support for the government amendments but reflects the concerns it raised about the fact that there were far too few fire risk assessors competent and insured to carry out the fire risk assessments of buildings with external wall cladding systems required under the Fire Safety Bill. We need to implement these powers quickly, and this is a reasonable way forward. The LGA is happy and I, too, am happy to support what the Minister is proposing today.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this short debate. I will address a couple of points. I assure the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, that I will endeavour to see that the regulation is written in plain English that even I can understand. In response to the noble Earl and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, I agree that the timing is important, and guidance will be available at commencement.
These government amendments ensure that the risk-based guidance issued by the Secretary of State to support commencement of the provisions in the Bill that apply to all relevant buildings has the right legal status to incentivise compliance. These amendments also ensure that the Government can commence the Bill for all relevant buildings as early as possible after Royal Assent and at the same time as the risk-based guidance is issued.
I am sure that noble Lords will agree that there should be no delays in bringing this Bill into force. I thank the task and finish group for all its hard work in developing the advice to the Home Office, which I consider the optimal solution for commencing the Bill. It is important that we get this right, which is why we have listened to the views of the experts who will have to implement the Bill. I beg to move.
Amendment 7 agreed.
We now come to Amendment 8. I remind noble Lords that Members, other than the mover and the Minister, may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division should make that clear in debate.
8: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Duties of owner or manager
The relevant authority must by regulations amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) to require an owner or a manager of any building which contains two or more sets of domestic premises to—(a) share information with their local Fire and Rescue Service in respect of each building for which an owner or manager is responsible about the design of its external walls and details of the materials of which those external walls are constructed; (b) in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake annual inspections of individual flat entrance doors;(c) in respect of any building for which an owner or manager is responsible which contains separate flats, undertake monthly inspections of lifts and report the results to their local Fire and Rescue Service if the results include a fault; and(d) share evacuation and fire safety instructions with residents of the building.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would place various requirements on building owners or managers of buildings containing two or more sets of domestic premises, and would implement recommendations made in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 Report.
My Lords, Amendment 8 in my name seeks to make progress in respect of the recommendations of the first phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. I intend to test the opinion of the House on this amendment.
It is disappointing that progress has been so slow, in all matters, following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017. That is a matter of huge regret and, quite frankly, unacceptable. I have stood at this Dispatch Box for years urging the Government to move forward on all aspects of the tragedy with greater speed and urgency, but that plea has so far not been answered. We have on record pledges from Ministers to implement the full recommendations in the report of the first phase of the inquiry, but this Bill does not include provision for any of those recommendations to be implemented. That is most regrettable.
When this Bill was before the other place the Government did not take the opportunity to correct this, and opposed bringing it forward. Instead, they said that they would launch a consultation. The consultation was launched in July and ended last month—a full year after they pledged to implement the first phase recommendations. That highlights the problem: we are not moving quickly enough. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, will explain to the House why the timescale that the Government are working to is so slow. People have waited far too long for legislative action.
I do not understand why the Government are not even prepared to include in the Bill the simplest of the inquiry’s recommendations, such as the inspection of fire doors and the testing of lifts. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why when he responds to the debate. These recommendations need to be implemented urgently. The Government need to do more and act with greater speed.
We remember that terrible night of 14 June 2017, with its dreadful loss of life and the ruin and devastation caused to the lives of those left behind. The physical scars may have healed, but the mental scars remain. It is beyond belief that, more than three years later, we have seen so little action.
This is the third piece of legislation from the Government. Today, people are still living in blocks of flats covered with ACM cladding; there are schools, hospitals and other buildings covered in it as well. Three years after the Grenfell Tower disaster, people will go to bed tonight having to rely on a waking watch. The cladding scandal has people trapped in their homes, unable to sell them and with the unimaginable worry that they are living in buildings which are potential death traps.
We ask the Government to take the long-overdue action to which they have committed themselves. It is urgent, necessary and right. Everyone concerned demands that these safety changes are put into effect. There is no justification for delay. The Government have given no reason for not acting immediately. They say that they want to do it not in this Bill but in the building safety Bill. That is just not acceptable, and I hope that the House will reject it. I beg to move.
My Lords, I strongly support the eloquent plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, that we should get on with what everybody knows needs to be done. No one is apparently objecting to it, but the Government have not yet acted. The sense of impatience in your Lordships’ House is much more strongly felt by those who live in blocks affected by ACM and by all the terrible flaws in building construction revealed during the Grenfell inquiry and in Dame Judith Hackitt’s responses.
Amendment 8 systematically lists some of the key requirements that Dame Judith’s report strongly commended and recommended be done. The Government came to your Lordships’ House—not once, not twice, but at three-monthly intervals, for two years—promising that everything would be implemented and that this was a high priority. I am afraid to say that opportunities have been missed. The draft building safety Bill is silent on these issues, so it is not simply a case of saying that it will come up there: it does not. The opportunity has also been missed to include it in this Bill.
Among the recommendations is the inspection of individual flat entrance doors. We all know that tenants and leaseholders have individual views about personalising their accommodation. Not surprisingly, many flat doors do not comply. A survey in July showed that, of the roughly 750,000 fire doors in buildings of this type, perhaps as many as three-quarters needed some action to make them compliant. There is a potential risk to the residents in block after block after block. The Government are now resisting Amendment 8, which sensibly includes the core requirements of Dame Judith’s report for making our buildings safe. We have to wonder exactly how sincere the Government are in their frequent, powerfully expressed commitments, which, unfortunately, they do not seem willing to implement.
Just this last week, I have been looking with members of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service at what needs to be done to satisfy the requirements emerging from the Grenfell inquiry. They told me that they have been inspecting high-rise buildings in Greater Manchester—as you would expect—with considerable diligence. Having reassessed the situation based on their professional knowledge, they have already required a number of those blocks to completely change their evacuation procedures. Surely it is time that these sensible requirements were included in legislation. It should not just be up to particularly diligent fire authorities to make residents safe, but to owners, leaseholders and the building industry.
Here is the opportunity for the Minister to accept the strength of the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. Will he come back at Third Reading and include provisions along these lines? If not, I shall certainly be joining the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in the Lobby at the end of this debate.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, has withdrawn, so I now call the noble Lord, Lord Shipley.
My Lords, I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Stunell. There have been—and still are—legislative opportunities for the Government to act. When the Minister sums up, I hope that he will urgently clarify the Government’s plans.
As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, said in introducing this group, progress has been disappointingly slow. He went on to say that it is “beyond belief” that, three years after the Grenfell fire, action is so slow. He is absolutely right. The general public will become increasingly worried by the deeply disturbing revelations of the Grenfell inquiry.
This amendment seeks to implement recommendations made in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase 1 report. Surely that is the right thing to do as a matter of urgency. This new clause would clarify the duties of an owner or manager in relation to a building with two or more sets of accommodation to provide information on its construction to a local fire and rescue service. Secondly, it would introduce annual inspections of individual flat doors. This is an essential change, given recent experience and the growth of our knowledge about the state of so many entrance doors. This clause would also require monthly inspections, and for evacuation and fire safety instructions to be shared with the building’s residents. What on earth can be wrong with these proposals?
There is nothing in this amendment which should be surprising or problematic. Frankly, the general public would expect nothing else. If the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, decides to press this matter to a vote, I shall certainly support him.
My Lords, this amendment, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is fundamental to the effective implementation of the principles of this Bill. The role of the responsible person is one of the recommendations of the Grenfell inquiry phase 1 report which was published more than a year ago. I quote from the recommendations in the report:
“No plans of the internal layout of the building were available to”
the London Fire Brigade
“until the later stages of the fire … It should be a simple matter for the owners or managers of high-rise buildings to provide their local fire and rescue services with current versions of such plans. I therefore recommend that the owner and manager of every high-rise residential building”—[Inaudible.]
The report continued:
“I therefore recommend that the owner and manager of every high-rise residential building be required by law:
a. to provide their local fire and rescue services with up-to-date plans in both paper and electronic form of every floor of the building identifying the location of key fire safety systems;
b. to ensure that the building contains a premises information box, the contents of which must include a copy of the up-to-date floor plans and information about the nature of any lift intended for use by the fire and rescue services.”
So last year, the Grenfell inquiry report asked for the speedy introduction of these recommendations. A year later, we are waiting.
I know that the Government have stated a firm commitment to implementing the recommendations of the inquiry, and the amendment seeks to rectify this absence of government legislative action. As my noble friend Lord Stunell so wisely said, we all agree that this action needs to be taken and we are all impatient for it to be put in place.
The Government said that this was a high priority. However, even the building safety Bill is silent on the matter. How then can we be assured that it is a high priority for them? Here we have an opportunity to show intent, as a consequence of that tragic fire at Grenfell, to ensure that others do not endure what Grenfell residents endured. If the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, pushes this amendment to a vote, we on this side will vote in support of this vital change.
My Lords, the Grenfell Tower fire was a tragedy of epic proportions. It was the largest loss of life in a residential fire since the Second World War. We have to recognise that a lot has happened and that a lot of actions have been taken by the Government since that event over three years ago.
The Government took early and decisive action to announce an independent Grenfell Tower inquiry. They took decisive action to start the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, led by Dame Judith Hackitt, and they took decisive action to establish the building safety programme. The Government took decisive action in setting up a comprehensive aluminium composite material—ACM—remediation programme. They took decisive action in setting up an independent expert panel to provide advice to government and building owners. They took decisive action in providing £600 million to help with the remediation of ACM high-rises. They took decisive action in providing a further £1 billion to remediate high-rises with other forms of flammable cladding. They took decisive action to ban combustible cladding on buildings within the scope of the ban. The Government took decisive action in introducing a protection board.
I accept that the pace of remediation has been slow, but I point to the progress that has been made this year in particular. This was a year when we had a global pandemic with two national lockdowns, and nevertheless we have seen a considerably greater number of on-site starts in those buildings—high-rises with the same cladding as Grenfell—and we are on track to see that around 90% of buildings will either have had the cladding removed or people will be on-site to complete that in a matter of months. That is real progress. This is cross-party; I thank Mayor Burnham, and Mayor Khan in London, but also the local authority leaders for their work to make sure that there has been real pace in the remediation this year. It is not easy to continue these construction programmes in that sort of environment.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for the amendment on the duties of an owner or manager. It is important that we discuss this amendment given the attention it has already received in the other place and in Committee in your Lordships’ House. I know that the noble Lord and other noble Lords have strong views on this issue and wish to see the Grenfell inquiry’s recommendations implemented as soon as possible. I share that intention. However, the Government do not consider that this amendment provides the most effective means of giving effect to the inquiry’s recommendations.
I hope to reassure the noble Lord that our shared objective can be achieved without the need for his amendments, which may in fact work against the swiftest possible implementation of the recommendations. I reiterate, as I said in my all-Peers letter and in Committee in your Lordships’ House, that the Government are, and always have been, committed to implementing and, where appropriate, legislating for the inquiry’s recommendations. This was a manifesto commitment and I am determined to ensure that we deliver on it.
I will set out our approach on this issue. It is right that we consulted before making regulations to deliver the Grenfell recommendations. As I set out in Committee, this was not solely because we have a statutory duty to do so—but we do, and this amendment is not in keeping with that duty. It also reflects Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s own view on the need to ensure broad support for recommendations and an understanding of the practical issues associated with implementing them. Our 12-week public consultation, which closed on 12 October, is allowing us to do just that. I am pleased to say that over 200 responses were received. It is important that we consider carefully those responses before finalising the precise policy detail to implement these new duties. Due consideration has to be given to the views of those who have submitted a response to the consultation.
I will highlight an example of that. The amendment tabled by the noble Lord prescribes a minimum set period for checks of both fire doors and lifts. As we consider our responses to the consultation, other approaches may be suggested that may provide more practical and proportionate options which are no less effective. The amendment may hinder our ability to deliver what may be a better solution for the safety of residents. I hope that is not the noble Lord’s intention, but I ask him to reflect on that fact. Understanding and acting on the consultation responses will ultimately help us to produce better, informed legislation, which we will deliver through regulations under the fire safety order as soon as possible after the Bill is commenced.
I reiterate that this amendment is not necessary and will not speed up the legislative process. It requires us to make regulations to amend the fire safety order to introduce new duties on the face of the order, but we consider that we already have the ability to implement such new duties through the power in Article 24 to make regulations, which we plan to use to implement a number of the Grenfell inquiry recommendations. Our intention is to introduce these regulations as soon as possible after the Bill is commenced.
I am also concerned about the impact of the misleading media coverage—even in recent media coverage written by Pippa Crerar that quotes the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark—after this amendment was voted on in the Commons on the Grenfell community’s faith in our commitment to deliver the Grenfell recommendations. I reassure the Grenfell community that the Government remain absolutely steadfast to their manifesto commitment to implement the inquiry’s recommendations.
I think that all noble Lords are seeking the same thing—the swift implementation of the Grenfell inquiry’s recommendations—and that is what the Government are committed to. While I understand the spirit of the amendment, it will not do that and may risk undermining our efforts. As such, I hope that the noble Lord will be content to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I have received no requests to speak after the Minister, so I now call the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions in this important debate. While I have no doubt of the sincerity of the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, on all these matters, it is most disappointing that again the Government have failed to take up the opportunity afforded to them to implement the recommendations of the first phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. They have said, and repeated today, that they are fully committed to implement those recommendations. What is the problem preventing that? The Government have repeatedly said that they are fully committed to doing so, but for some reason they will not do it. It is not good enough.
One goes home and reads or sees on the television the shocking revelations in the second phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, and, sadly, nothing that the noble Lord has said reassures me on these matters. The Government are not taking the decisive action that has again been referred to. It is three years and five months since the fire. I hope that the House will take decisive action and agree with my amendment. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, we now come to the group consisting of Amendment 9. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division should make that clear in debate.
9: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Application of the Fire Safety Order to short-term lettings premises
(1) The relevant authority must, by regulations under section 2, amend article 2 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (interpretation) as follows.(2) In the definition of “domestic premises”, after “one such dwelling);” insert—“but does not include any premises let to persons for gain as holiday or short-term accommodation during the occupancy of the premises by such persons.””Member’s explanatory statement
The new Clause will clarify that the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies to holiday lets.
My Lords, Amendment 9 tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn, seeks to insert a new clause into the Bill. This is the same new clause I proposed on 29 October in Committee on the Bill. The clause seeks to plug what is in effect a gap in the legislation: the protection afforded by the order. I am sure that this will be of concern to all.
The fire safety order applies to the common parts of buildings and to the planning and arrangements for escape through those common parts. The position of the Government on these matters when we last considered this new clause was that, where someone lets a property for a period, at that point it is covered by the fire safety order. When it reverts to a normal dwelling house, it is not covered and does not need to be covered. The guidance from the Government is confusing to say the least. Last time we discussed this, I referred to the guidance from the Government in the document called Letting Rooms in your Home: a Guide for Resident Landlords.
In the fire safety order, Article 26 states:
“Every enforcing authority must enforce the provisions of this Order … in relation to premises for which it is the enforcing authority”.
But just look at large cities such as London. It surely must be of considerable doubt that the proper authorities have anywhere near the capacity to carry out the required inspections. How will they even know which properties come under the order, and at which time? In even greater doubt would be whether the owner of such a property has read the guidance and has any idea of their responsibilities under the order if their property is being used on sites such as Airbnb.
As I mentioned when this amendment was last debated, using freedom of information requests has revealed that no fire authority—not a single authority—has ever done an inspection of an Airbnb property, and the relevant authorities have no idea how many properties would come under the order. People renting property on a temporary basis should be properly protected. That means the owners or hosts understanding their obligations and demonstrating that to the people renting the property from them on a temporary basis.
My final point is that we are talking about people’s homes. There will be no fire escape: none of the fire safety measures you would find in a hotel, for example. The law is deficient in this regard. I hope the Minister will reassure us that he accepts there is an issue here and that the Government will work to sort out the matter. I beg to move.
My Lords, I first associate myself with the excellent speech of my noble friend Lord Kennedy, who put the case extremely well. Perhaps it would be helpful if I provided some of the legal underpinnings of why this is an issue that requires plugging. In that regard, I would also like to offer my deepest thanks to the distinguished leading counsel, Richard Matthews, who has provided us with a lot of excellent legal advice on the underpinnings of this. When I spoke about him in the last session, I may well have done him a disservice by talking only about his skills in fire and health and safety matters and underplaying his overall exceptional status as a well-regarded QC in all matters of regulation and criminal defence relating to businesses. His advice has been extremely helpful and I hope that the Government have had time to reflect on what it means and the implications of it.
Case law, frankly, is clear about the Government’s assumption that a private dwelling ceases to be one under a short-term let and that, therefore, this is covered by the fire safety order. The Government have made a number of statements on this in the House and have published guidance, Do You Have Paying Guests?, in this regard. In Do You Have Paying Guests? the Government’s position is expressed: when anyone pays to stay in your property, other than to live there as a permanent home, the property is not a premises occupied as a private dwelling.
Such guidance is not capable of establishing, as a matter of law, that whenever anyone pays to stay in a property, other than to live there as a permanent home, the property is not a premises occupied by someone as a private dwelling. Furthermore, such guidance is not capable of creating a duty in law extending the operation of the articles of the fire safety order to all such premises where anyone pays to stay in this way; nor is it capable of amending the definition of “domestic premises” in the fire safety order to incorporate the definition of what apparently makes premises temporarily no longer domestic premises.
This point is strongly embedded in existing case law. Looking at, in particular, the elements related to definitions of “private dwelling”, “occupation” and “occupier”, it would be worth making noble Lords aware that case law, in the case of private dwelling, is recent and relevant. There have been a number of landmark cases, including Caradon District Council v Paton, which had some very emphatic judgments expressed by Lord Justice Latham and Lord Justice Clarke. In relation to the occupation and occupier elements, the Court of Appeal judgment by Lord Justice Lewison in Cornerstone Telecommunications Infra- structure Ltd v Compton Beauchamp Estates Ltd in 2019 is of course highly relevant.
What these case law examples identify is that the following considerations come from those points. First, particularly in regard to land and property, occupation can be simultaneous with another occupier and does not require either a continuing or exclusive physical presence. While a contract is not wholly determinative, the fact that a licence to occupy is limited and preserves extensive power of re-entry for the host, coupled with the temporary limitations of the licence, means that the host, particularly if, at other times, they are in occupation of the premises as a private residence, continues to be in legal occupation of the premises as a private dwelling during the period of the limited licence of the guest.
Therefore, of course, this, along with other considerations that come from those case law examples, demonstrates that there is a clear gap in the law. Whatever the intention of the Government to ensure that such short-term lets come under the fire safety order, in law, specifically definitionally and under case law, they do not; that obligation is simply not there. So this amendment plugs that gap, and I hope that the Government are highly sympathetic to it and more than willing to consider how they may integrate this into the Bill.
Finally, another matter raised previously, which is not part of this amendment but does not fit neatly into this Bill, is that there should be some consideration of other elements that are missing in law, which again seem to be omissions due to the nature of the short-term letting business. One of those relates to smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, which fall under the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015. These specifically talk about the objective that landlords in the private rented sector in England should ensure that a smoke alarm is installed on every storey of a rented dwelling when it is occupied under a tenancy and that a carbon monoxide alarm is equipped in any room that contains a solid, fuel-burning combustion appliance. They also require landlords to ensure that such alarms are in proper working order at the start of a new tenancy.
Because short-term lets fall outside this definition, there is no obligation to ensure either that there are such smoke and carbon monoxide alarms or that they are working. To verify this, during the course of the week I went on to a site and found adverts for short-term lets of a number of properties that ordinarily should, even for building regulations or insurance purposes, have such things, which were explicit in saying that they did not have these devices. Therefore, it is very clear that in operating the law this is a clear error. This is not what the intention was, but this is another definitional problem. I do hope that the Government will be forthcoming in looking to clear up these clear gaps.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for raising this issue today, and to the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, for explaining it so fully and clearly. We have come a very long way in a fairly short time from the days when it was thought to be a good idea for people going on holiday for, say, a month to let out their home for a month to help cover the costs of the holiday, and everybody was happy. I recall lively debates in your Lordships’ House during the Deregulation Bill, as it then was, when we did away with the requirement for planning permission to be granted if a home in London was to be let for more than 90 days. That was thought to be one of the regulations that should be done away with, and so it was.
Although this may have happened anyway and is not a consequence of that, there has been an explosion—perhaps I should not use that word, but that is the way it has been—in the number of properties being let, initially primarily in central London, then increasingly spreading to the suburbs of London and now, for some time, throughout the United Kingdom, particularly in areas of high visitor attraction. Properties that are no longer, frankly, people’s homes, are let; probably most of these properties are not lived in by anybody who could conceivably be called an owner-occupier, as the people living in them change, often quite literally night by night.
If you talk to the Covent Garden Community Association, for instance, they will give you some considerable horror stories of the sorts of things that go on in that particular part of central London. We see whole blocks of flats where there is not a single resident—or, worse, there is a single resident surrounded by people who change on an almost nightly, and certainly weekly, basis. So it is a considerable issue, far wider than the very important one raised by the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Mendelsohn, and I am grateful to them for spotting this particular loophole, if it is a loophole—this gap in the legislation.
We need to recognise that, for better or for worse—probably for better and for worse—it is no longer simply a question of people letting their home while they are away for a temporary period. This is now big business, and there seems to be a significant and important gap in the legislation. I hope the Government will, if not agreeing to this particular amendment, certainly recognise that this is a very important issue throughout the country, that it needs to be dealt with very urgently, and that this is an opportunity to do so.
My Lords, I declare an interest here, as a co-owner of holiday cottages. I reassure noble Lords that for many years now these have been subject to precisely the type of matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, such as electrical system and appliance safety and smoke and carbon monoxide detection, which lie behind the amendment. To be honest, this is no more nor less than good practice; however, success depends on how intrusive the measures might be under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order. There are, as I mentioned earlier, some good precedents for a degree of self-assessment.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in ably moving this amendment, referred, I think, to hotel standards in comparison with Airbnb. I suggest that trying to apply hotel standards for something that is purpose-built for that type of operation, and with the numbers involved, is probably a different situation. However, some of the principles undoubtedly apply. One of the most important factors is that, unlike the homeowner in their own flat, the visitor is not necessarily familiar, at any rate initially, with the layout of the building. It so happens that every time I have to rent a property such as an apartment, or take a hotel somewhere, I usually make it my business to work out where the fire escape is, because one hears so many horror stories about these things. Generally, it is fine, but I make that point.
The point has already been made [Inaudible.] flip in and out of principal or second home status largely undetected. A point arises as to whether, in every case, the mode and category of occupation by somebody who is paying to stay is actually different, whether they are a tenant on a short-term holiday or something even shorter than that, such as Airbnb. The important thing is that the amendment does not need to capture premises that are outside the intentions of noble Lords or, for that matter, fail to capture those that should properly be brought into it.
If I may digress, I make a plea for consistency in the way some of these regulations are applied. I shall use electrical systems as an example. Recently, I was alerted to the need for a certain type of electrician qualification because of a query from building insurers. It transpired that accreditation for an electrician to self-certify their own installation work does not automatically permit them to inspect and certify somebody else’s. Even electricians do not understand this, let alone householders, so knowing what to ask for is a science in itself, and I think that sort of thing needs to be resolved. To stay on that subject, just about every electrician I know is already tied up doing landlord testing, so getting anything in addition done is not at all easy, because there is not the manpower capacity in the system. Personally, I would not want some quick-fix form of training and accreditation on electrical matters, other than by somebody who had a background and a proper qualification in electrical installation.
Finally, however safe the system may be, occupiers bring in equipment of their own, or may do things that are unsafe. There should be a certain amount of saving provisions for that sort of eventuality. I think of a typical example: you go and do your regular inspection of a holiday home and you find that the cover of the smoke alarm is dangling, with the battery missing. It may be that somebody removed the battery because it was bleeping—although, because you put the battery in only three months ago, that is not a terribly likely situation. Then it occurs to you that perhaps the battery was needed for some child’s toy and it was removed for that reason. Occupiers can do silly things, particularly when their minds are on holiday. If the noble Lord were to press the amendment, I am not sure at the moment which way I would vote, but I do think there is an issue about compliance in this case that needs to be addressed.
My Lords, between them my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, have shown how complex this situation is and why we need much greater clarity to ensure that such premises as are referred to in this amendment are covered by the fire safety order and everything that flows from it.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Tope, I have considerable anxiety at the way in which the Airbnb model has mushroomed—Airbnb itself and other less identifiable organisations and individuals. Flats in both private and social housing have effectively become short-term let premises, with a continuous rotation of people moving in and out. I have, in other contexts, frequently in support of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, who raises this frequently, been concerned for wider reasons, such as the effects on the housing market, environmental concerns. But in this context, there is also a safety concern.
The leaseholders, who are normally the owners of these flats, have quite frequently decided to make a business out of them. In terms of social housing, it has quite often been the people who have inherited what were once right-to-buy flats, or have bought them and turned them into a business. I have queried on previous occasions whether that is strictly legitimate, and quite what the role of the tax authorities is in this area, but in this context we are talking about safety. I am aware that in some of those flats, the leaseholders, sometimes in conjunction with the organisers of short-term lets, have changed the format of those flats—in effect dividing them up, increasing the number of bedrooms and, in some cases, knocking down walls and changing layouts, thereby compromising firewalls. More frequently, to allow for multi-occupancy, and in some cases for such things as disco equipment—because some of these flats are used not so much for tourist families but for parties and worse—the electrical systems are altered to cater for that clientele.
The requirements that would normally be on the owners to inform the occupants of the safety provisions and evacuation procedures, and to provide for detection instruments—smoke alarms, et cetera—are not observed in the often radical conversion to a different purpose than that of being a family home. If such premises can be seriously and dangerously subdivided, then there is a real risk here.
We have to be clear whose responsibility it is. In most cases, the responsibility is on the leaseholder, or it may be on whoever is supposed to inform the occupants of the safety provisions. Either way, if, for example, you are in a large block and a few of the flats in it are let by Airbnb or similar, you are a danger to the rest of the occupants. It is once again necessary, irrespective of the form of tenure, to ensure that all temporary as well as permanent inhabitants are made safe and do not impact on the safety of other families and occupants in neighbouring flats. It may be complex, but the outcome and intention are clear. We need clarity, consistency and to make sure that such premises are safe and covered by the legislation.
My Lords, in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, raised important concerns about the application of fire safety legislation to properties that are, in part or in whole, let as holiday lets. It was unfortunate that the Government were not able to return on Report with a comprehensive response in the form of a government amendment, which would have accepted that there is confusion about the applicability of the legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has rightly raised these concerns again. What must not happen is that the growing sector of short-term lets falls into a grey area of the legislation, and that the Government wait for a serious fire incident to accept that omissions need to be closed.
The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, has provided expert legal advice on this matter, which demonstrates that there is a gap in the legislation. It is complicated, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, explained. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, raised further concerns about potential subdivisions of dwellings. However, the amendment proposes a way forward to close a gap that all noble Lords agree exists in the fire safety extent of the current and proposed legislation. I will listen carefully to what the Minister says in reply and I hope that he seizes the opportunity to put this matter right. I look forward to his response.
I thank the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy of Southwark and Lord Mendelsohn, for raising again this important issue—the treatment of short-term accommodation and holiday lettings under the fire safety order—just as they did in Committee. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. Like them, I want to ensure that anybody staying in short-term or holiday accommodation is assured that their premises fall within the scope of fire safety legislation, and that there is a requirement on the owner to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, that they are safe from the risk of fire during their stay.
The noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Mendelsohn, mentioned the Do You Have Paying Guests? guidance that the Government issued. That was published in 2008 and is being updated, not least—as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said—because of the growth of this type of short-term letting that we have seen since then. As part of that update, we have consulted many in the tourism sector, including Airbnb and similar platforms. It might reassure noble Lords to know that Airbnb has provided advice to its hosts in the past, including a leaflet that was drafted in partnership with the National Fire Chiefs Council, giving tips for those who use that platform on how to comply.
Turning to the law, the fire safety order applies to non-domestic premises. The responsible person for each premises is required to undertake a fire risk assessment and put in place adequate and appropriate precautions to manage the risk of fire to those lawfully on the premises. The question here is whether domestic premises, when let through peer-to-peer online platforms or similar means, continue to be domestic premises. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, for sharing the legal advice that he cited in Committee and again today on this point.
Richard Matthews QC submits that, if they are let as holiday accommodation, domestic premises do not necessarily cease to be domestic premises. A fire safety order would therefore not apply. As I explained in Committee, we had a different interpretation of the definition of domestic premises in Article 2 of the fire safety order but, as we said we would, we have taken the points raised by noble Lords and Mr Matthews on board and carefully considered them. To that end, the Home Office sought further legal advice, which acknowledges the points made by Mr Matthews and noble Lords that this is a complex issue with some legal ambiguity. That we are having this debate makes that point forcefully.
I hope I reassure noble Lords by setting out that the ambiguity is not a matter of arguing that either all or none of the premises are within the scope of the fire safety order, but that they must be considered case by case. I agree that ambiguity on such an important issue as this is not helpful. We want to ensure that fire safety legislation is clear, robust and properly protects the public. It is clear that further consideration of the points that noble Lords have raised is needed to ensure that the fire safety order captures the various types of premises let through peer-to-peer or similar platforms in a workable, practical and fair way.
Given the complexity of that undertaking, we do not believe that this Bill is the right vehicle through which to resolve it. It will, quite rightly, require consultation with interested parties, in both the fire safety and the tourism sectors. Doing that would delay the passage of the Bill, but we agree with noble Lords that that work needs to be done and I am happy to commit to undertaking it. I hope that noble Lords who have spoken today will continue to work with us as we do that, and that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, feels able to withdraw his amendment as a result of that reassurance.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. As my noble friend Lord Whitty said, clarity and consistency are important here. In particular, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn for first bringing this matter to my attention and enabling us to table the amendments in Committee. There has been good engagement from the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, and I am genuinely grateful for that. I am also grateful for the meeting we had a couple of days ago and the response that the noble Lord gave to the issue we raised today.
We all accept that there is a problem. I am pleased that we acknowledge that and that the Government are going to look at it in detail. That is a good outcome, so I thank the noble Lord for that. At this stage, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 9 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 10. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in the group to a Division should make that clear in the debate.
10: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Public register of fire risk assessments
(1) The Secretary of State must, by regulations, make provision for a register of fire risk assessments made under article 9 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (SI 2005/1541) (risk assessment). (2) Those regulations must provide that the register is—(a) publicly available, and(b) kept up-to-date.(3) Regulations under this section are—(a) to be made by statutory instrument; and(b) subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would enable prospective and current renters, leaseholders and owners to check the fire safety status of their home, by accessing a public register similar to the EPC register.
My Lords, Amendment 10, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Shipley, seeks to establish the provision, in law, of a public register of fire risk assessments. I will speak also to Amendment 11 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Stunell, which seeks to establish a public register of fire risk assessors. Amendment 12 in this group, in the name of my noble friend Lord Stunell, is on permitted developments. My noble friend will be speaking about this in detail. I say at the outset that the Liberal Democrats support the Bill wholeheartedly but feel that there are opportunities for improvement, some of which are within the amendments in this group.
I thank the Minister very much for the opportunities that he has provided to discuss these and other amendments. They have been very useful, and we have been able to talk around some of the issues raised.
I turn to Amendment 10. Energy performance certificates are mandatory and open for potential home- owners to view. EPCs are now an accepted part of house buying and renting, and that requirement is having a significant impact on home energy improvements. Why, then, cannot the same process be used for an issue that can literally be one of life and death?
The Grenfell inquiry is slowly but surely unravelling multiple causes of that dreadful tragedy. It has revealed an almost complete lack of basic information about the building and its adaptations that contributed both to the fire and to the response by the emergency services. Amendment 10, if accepted, will address that lack of information by mandating a public register of fire risk assessments. Such a register will bring vital fire risk assessments to the forefront of considerations by homeowners and tenants. Once those who live in a property take more notice of fire risks, such as the importance of well-fitting fire doors—a subject raised in earlier debates—the consequence will be that any replacements will be made with fire hazards in mind.
The other obvious benefit is that construction and maintenance companies will be aware that their work is being measured against a public test of fire risk. This knowledge will inevitably lead to safety-first construction and improvements. A mandatory, publicly available fire risk assessment register will be another important step in preventing further major domestic fires, as accountability and transparency become the norm.
Of course, as we heard in Committee, a register of assessments is dependent on qualified and competent fire assessors being available in the numbers required. We know that there have been significant cuts in government funding of fire and rescue services over the last 10 years, and one area of work that has borne the brunt of those cuts has been that of fire risk assessors. The Government have stated that they will develop a plan to greatly increase the numbers. That will of course take several years, but it must not slow down or prevent the start of this vital area of fire safety, even in a phased way.
Homeowners, tenants and freeholders will want to ensure that risk assessments are undertaken by fully qualified professionals—hence Amendment 11, which would establish a mandatory public register of qualified assessors. Again, the openness that this would enable would help property owners to have confidence in assessments, and there would surely be a knock-on effect on property insurance.
There would be many positive benefits from having both registers and I hope that, when he responds, the Minister will accept these proposals. However, if he is, unfortunately, not able to do so, I have to give notice that on Amendment 10 in particular, in the interests of householders, I will seek to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and I thank her for moving her amendment.
On the question of registers, I certainly agree that some list of assessments should be held for regulatory compliance reasons. However, there are likely to be several assessment bodies. Although something like the register of energy performance certificates, referred to by the noble Baroness, might be appropriate, I hope that the basis of assessment does not change every few years, as has happened with EPCs. I also hope that the standard of those accredited will be based on those with a professional standing and a working knowledge of construction. That standard was not adopted with the accreditation of energy inspectors, and I am sure that the noble Baroness would agree with me on that.
Beyond the minimum for regulatory purposes, it would probably be necessary to avoid a register that contained sensitive information. It is fair to say that some of the information that could be in a fire risk assessment might be sensitive. Therefore, it should not just be an online, free-public-access provision—at least, not in its full form.
It is also worth bearing in mind that this will, to a degree, for ever be a work in progress, so the register will not necessarily be accurate and up to date—but of course that is the situation with EPCs. However, somebody would have to maintain it. I think that that could be done only by a central government body, and that would have resource implications.
The really important thing is that occupiers and managers of buildings know that an assessment has been carried out, that it is in date and that occupiers in particular have the right to see it, and that any competent authority may do so as well.
Turning to Amendment 11, on the question of a public register of assessors, it is likely that many bodies will offer accreditation. Again, a central register would have to be held by some public agency if convenient public access was to be a reality. In practice, certifying bodies will themselves hold records of those accredited. I am not entirely convinced that others beyond occupiers, prospective purchasers and relevant public authorities need to have access to the register, and the public knowing that this matter is in hand, with enforcement of the need to carry out assessments, starting with those at greatest risk and progressing through the housing stock, would seem a fair balance.
The issue immediately before us, which has already been touched on, is the assessment of competence and, more particularly, capacity. This cannot be dealt with immediately. Not only does trainer capacity need to be built but issues to do with professional indemnity cover need to be resolved. I have already flagged up a number of these issues with the Minister, particularly the question of accrediting already competent professionals with a knowledge of construction. Therefore, the point was well made by the noble Baroness but there are issues that need to be taken into account.
On Amendment 12, in this group, I would much have preferred the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, in whose name it stands, to speak before me. This concerns one of the shortcoming issues that seem to be common in permitted development rights developments. Shortcomings in terms of living space, amenities, local environment, open green space standards and so on are all too frequent, and the health outcomes for occupants are also often very poor. Some of the buildings subject to conversion to residential have been quite unfit for that purpose. I have inspected some, so I can say that from professional experience. None the less, these projects have been signed off, although I suggest that that does not get owners off the hook on compliance more generally and that all developers who think themselves protected by completion certificates should think carefully about that. There is certainly an issue here.
In the meantime, ensuring fire safety in these permitted development conversions is a matter of top priority, particularly because they happen to house some of the most vulnerable people in society. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 10 and 11, but will speak more fully on Amendment 12, as prefigured by my noble friend Lady Pinnock and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton.
Amendment 10 requires there to be a national published risk register, of which the two key requirements we have set out are that it should be publicly available and up to date. I understand the noble Earl’s concerns that this would always be a work in progress, but fire safety is always a work in progress. If we are talking about annual inspections, keeping a fire risk assessment up to date should come with the job.
If every landlord, designer, building contractor and construction operative always acted in strict compliance with the spirit and letter of every part of the existing regulations, this amendment would be superfluous. In my former professional life, I spent some years supervising building construction work; in case every anecdote about shoddy builders has bypassed your Lordships, I can confirm that such strict compliance is rare. However, one thing I thought sacrosanct was compliance with fire regulations. Even if the brickwork was shoddy and the plumbing a nightmare, at least the fire doors would fit. I now know I was wrong.
The picture emerging with devastating force from the evidence given to the Grenfell Tower inquiry is that at every level, from client and specifier to designer, contractor, subcontractor, and, as it now seems from the evidence this week, even specialist suppliers of critical components, it was not just a case of a few unfortunate errors because of lack of skill or experience but in some cases deliberate efforts to defeat the rules—even safety-critical rules on which many lives depended.
In the months and years since that terrible fire, evidence has been accumulating that this was not a one-off event in a particular building that happened to have a terrible outcome. There now seem to be, right across the country, many hundreds of buildings containing thousands of homes that are not just non-compliant, but pose a real and significant risk of harm to the people who live in them.
None of this would have emerged had the horrific events of that night not brought it very starkly to light. There was no transparency or openness to inquiry but a dismissive casualness in handling the legitimate concerns of those who had worries. In the case of the residents of Grenfell, those who had practical observations of non-compliant building work were completely swept aside. There was certainly no register you could check to show that your home was not a death-trap.
That underlines a significant truth: when those with power and authority find out about bad things and high risks that do not affect them but have a great or even fatal impact on the vulnerable and the weak, their natural reaction is to keep the news to themselves in order to avoid trouble and expense and to hope for the best. We must decisively end the hoarding of bad news on fire safety by the informed and powerful and empower the vulnerable who carry the risks and sometimes pay the ultimate price of life itself.
From now on there will be fire safety assessments. That is a very good thing, but it is essential that those assessments are in the public domain. I take the caveats that the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has rightly made about privacy, security and so on, but the essentials of a fire safety certificate should be available for public inspection. They should be at least as public and accessible as an energy performance certificate from which you can discover how much insulation I have in my loft and I can discover how much the noble Earl has in his. We put up with that because of the greater good; we ought to be ready to put up with the same sort of thing for the far greater good of saving life post Grenfell.
It is unacceptable for landlords and building owners to hoard that assessment to the detriment of those to whom they rent and lease their properties and whose lives are in their hands. Grenfell Tower residents’ legitimate and specific fears about weaknesses they could see with their own eyes were swept away by those in authority. No one knew if any assessment had been made, what it said or what should be done about it, and who should rectify the faults disclosed.
In Committee, I said that only an open public register can safeguard residents and that I hoped to hear the Minister fully accept that case. He readily conceded that it was important that residents should have safe homes, but I missed his agreement that an open public register was a vital safeguard and essential step in securing their safety. I and my noble friends are back again, asking him to endorse this straightforward provision.
Amendment 11 mandates an open register of fire risk assessors, the people who draw up the assessments, and every building owner will be looking for a competent assessor. Let us stop there for a moment. Not every builder owner will do so; an unscrupulous or impoverished landlord—one perhaps is more common than the other—may want not so much a competent assessor as a compliant one. Here the risk is linked to the likely shortage of fully competent professional assessors and the very big risk of people who would be attracted to passing themselves off as suitable and qualified when they are not.
More positively, when diligent and caring landlords want to recruit an assessor, a public register of qualified persons makes that a much simpler prospect. That list might be produced, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has hinted, by deeming certain professional qualifications achieved in one of the chartered institutes as evidence for entry on to the register. It might be by a separate professional route as well or instead. In either case, we must look carefully at making sure the number of assessments required reasonably matches the number of qualified assessors in place. We need to make absolutely sure that there are no unqualified assessors making compliant assessments.
We should remember that there are many semi-professional landlords with a modest property portfolio of perhaps only one or two properties and no great professional competence themselves. However well-intentioned they are, they will often not have the capacity to do meaningful due diligence on an assessor. Making sure they have a safe route to the recruitment of a qualified and competent assessor is vital to the integrity of the new regime. In Committee, the Minister said that there were plans coming that would cover all this and, indeed, all our other concerns, but he failed to explain what they would be or when they would come, and he did not commit to an open register of fire risk assessors. I hope his thinking has developed some more in the meantime and I look forward to hearing from him.
Amendment 12 in my name is rather different and does not quite fit into the group, but here it is. It arises from a specific, recent, worrying case in my own borough of Stockport. I am indebted to the chief fire officer of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service for providing me with support and paperwork in connection with it. I shall refer to some of that in a minute. The amendment requires that any building being converted to two or more residential units under the permitted development rules must have a fire risk assessment before any of the premises are occupied.
This brings me to a building called Regal House in the centre of Stockport. It is a multi-storey office block, recently converted to residential accommodation under the expanded permitted development right extension. After occupation, the fire service carried out an inspection, resulting in an immediate enforcement order requiring a waking watch to be put in place pending remediation. The alternative, they made clear, would have been to evacuate the block.
Under permitted development rights, no application for planning was required, and although building regulations would have been required, there is no requirement for fire inspection before occupation.
In fact, my concern about Regal House turns out to have been justified not so much by that incident, where a prosecution may follow—I do not think it right to expand on that—but by the matter that it has brought to light; namely that under the terms of the draft building safety Bill, which is currently before the House of Commons Select Committee, there is no requirement for such a fire safety inspection at all for permitted development property.
The Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service copied me into the evidence that the Greater Manchester High Rise Task Force submitted to the House of Commons Select Committee, in which it raised precisely that point. The evidence stated that
“the key findings of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety which the Government accepted in principle are already being watered down. The principles of Gateways was welcomed by the Task Force”—
that is, the Greater Manchester task force—
“and in particular Gateway 1 as a means of embedding safety into the lifecycle of the building from the initial design stage. It is astonishing therefore, that there is no legislative provision within the Bill”—
the building safety Bill—
“for this and the Government plans to exempt buildings developed under Permitted Development Rights from this vital stage. It cannot be right that consideration of key safety features should not be required for all buildings at the outset and there are numerous examples in Greater Manchester of conversions undertaken without planning approval under permitted development posing a risk to residents”.
In other words, far from the situation being set to improve, the Government propose to entrench the permitted development right to bypass fire safety at what is known as gateway 1—the all-important design stage when critical decisions are made about layout and structure. This amendment quite simply says that that is the wrong approach.
What I am looking for today is for the Minister to say that he accepts the view of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service that the fire service should be fully engaged from the start of the design process; that this should apply not just to new builds but also to conversions under the permitted development right regime; and that under no circumstances should the use of permitted development rights be used to circumvent the early and proper application of fire safety policies. I look forward to the Minister’s answers on all of those points.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to support the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, on their amendments in this group. Both have comprehensively explained the intent of their amendments and, as I said, I fully support them. If the noble Baroness decides to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 10, I can assure her that the noble Lords on these Benches will support her in that endeavour.
Amendment 10 is particularly important as it talks about the public register of fire risk assessments, and I fully support it. As we heard from the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry and from elsewhere, the complete lack of important information about buildings is a huge issue. This amendment requires the Secretary of State to make provision for a register of fire risk assessments that is publicly available so that tenants and residents can see it. Importantly, the amendment also requires the register to be kept up to date. The relevant regulations would be brought before Parliament and subject to parliamentary procedure. I very much agree that there must be a safety-first approach to fire risk, and that is why I fully support these amendments.
Amendment 11 provides for a public register of fire risk assessors, which we have talked about. This amendment again raises an important issue that has arisen in a number of amendments throughout our consideration of the Bill; namely whether people are sufficiently qualified to do the assessments. Like many other noble Lords, I am concerned that we must never have fire risk assessment on the cheap. We need to have properly qualified people who know what they are doing and who can spot and correct the problems. A publicly available and up-to-date register of such people will make the difference.
The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, in speaking to Amendment 12, again made the point about permitted developments. It is absolutely right that fire safety and the work of the fire authorities is paramount when we are building buildings.
I fully support all the amendments in this group. As I said, if the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, tests the opinion of the House on Amendment 10, these Benches will support her.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord for raising this important issue on establishing a public register of fire risk assessments. The fire safety order currently places no requirement for responsible persons to record their completed fire risk assessments, save for in limited and specified circumstances. The self-regulatory and non-prescriptive nature of the fire safety order is the cornerstone of the legislation. It provides for a proportionate approach to effective regulation of fire-related risks across the wide range of buildings that fall within its scope.
I do, though, agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, that it is of paramount importance that residents have access to the information they need to feel safe and be safe in their homes. However, the creation of a fire risk assessment register would place a new level of regulation upon responsible persons that could be seen as disproportionate. There are also questions in relation to the ownership and maintenance of such a register and where the costs would lie. There is a delicate balance to be struck.
The Government do, however, acknowledge that there is work to be done and that improvements can be made in respect of the sharing of important information with residents and other relevant persons. That is why the fire safety consultation set out a range of proposals to ensure that those persons are provided with vital fire safety information.
First, the fire safety consultation proposed to change the current position that a responsible person does not have to record their fire risk assessment by including a proposed new requirement on all responsible persons to record their full fire risk assessments. This would provide a level of assurance that their duty to complete a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment has been fulfilled. In addition, the consultation also included proposals for responsible persons to take steps to provide vital fire safety information to residents, including the fire risk assessments on request. We are considering responses to the consultation to ensure that we take the needs of residents into account when establishing the final policy approach. The full consultation can be found online at GOV.UK and we will publish a response at the earliest opportunity.
I turn now to the related amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, which seeks to create a public register of fire risk assessors. I agree with the noble Lord and the noble Baroness that there is a clear need for reform in relation to fire risk assessors to improve standards. That is why the Government included a proposal for a competence requirement for fire risk assessors and other fire safety professionals in the recent fire safety order consultation.
Noble Lords will recall that, in Committee, I mentioned the work of the industry-led competency steering group and its subgroup on fire risk assessors. The group published a report on 5 October, which included proposals in relation to third-party accreditation, a competence framework for fire risk assessors and the creation of a register of fire risk assessors. The working group recommend that the register should be compiled from the existing registers and should be easy to use, with open public access to records of individuals and organisations. It is right that industry leads this work and continues to develop the competence and capacity of these professions.
I wish to assure your Lordships’ House that the Government are committed to working with the fire risk assessor sector to develop a clear plan to increase its capacity and capability. However, it is necessary to establish this basic principle of competence before we consider how the sector can be further professionalised. Again, the responses to the fire safety consultation proposals will inform the approach on issues relating to competence.
The right approach is for the Government to first establish a basic principle of competence and consider the competency steering group’s and subgroup’s proposals in relation to a register of fire risk assessors. The Government’s position is that this work should continue to be led and progressed by industry. We will support industry in taking forward this vital work.
I do not disagree with the idea of a professional register of fire risk assessors, but establishing a register for inclusion within the Fire Safety Bill is not the appropriate way forward, given that we are looking to deliver the fire safety consultation outcomes and the recommendations of the competence steering group. It would also significantly delay commencement of the Bill and place significant pressure on capacity in the sector. I also need to consider any regulatory impact of the recommendation on a professional register, as a result of the non-regulated principles of the fire safety order.
I turn to Amendment 12, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. I will explain how the fire safety order and building regulations already cover the issues that they are concerned about. Article 9 of the fire safety order already places a duty on the responsible person to update the fire risk assessment if there has been any significant change to the premises in scope. This includes when premises have undergone significant changes, extensions or conversions. As a result, the fire safety order already covers the scenario that the noble Lord and the noble Baroness have set out in their amendment. I thank them for raising the issue, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to clarify this point in your Lordships’ House.
I assure noble Lords that all homes must meet building regulations, irrespective of the route to planning permission. Noble Lords will know that national permitted development rights play an important role in the planning system. They provide a national grant of permission for specific types of development set out in legislation to have the right to provide a more streamlined planning process with greater planning certainty, while at the same time allowing for local consideration of key planning matters through prior approval. However, permitted development rights do not exempt work from building regulations requirements, or exempt the responsible person from their duties under the fire safety order.
When the use of a building is altered such that it comes to contain two or more sets of domestic premises, the requirements for material change of use in building regulations will apply. Regulation 5 of the Building Regulations 2010 defines a “material change of use”. It includes situations where
“the building contains a flat, where previously it did not”
“the building, which contains at least one dwelling, contains a greater or lesser number of dwellings than it did previously”.
Regulation 6 then sets out the requirements applicable where such a change takes place, requiring that work
“shall be carried out as is necessary to ensure that the building complies”
with a list of technical requirements set out in Schedule 1. This includes all five of the fire safety provisions known as part B. Regulation 6 was amended by the Building (Amendment) Regulations 2018, such that, in addition to the five requirements of part B, work must also be carried out as is necessary to ensure that any external wall or specified attachment to the building contains only non-combustible materials.
In the light of that explanation, and the assurance that I have given, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment. Finally, I point out that on the draft building safety Bill, we are working with experts to explore, with stakeholders, the best way forward to ensure that the key elements of gateway 1 can be considered for in-scope building with permitted development rights. I hope, therefore, that the amendment can be withdrawn.
I have had no requests to speak after the Minister, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. No? It will be slightly unfortunate if we cannot get the noble Baroness on the line—perhaps not for the Government but for others. Lady Pinnock, are you with us?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, also has his name to Amendment 10. With the leave of the House we could perhaps hear from the noble Lord, if he can be reached. No? It seems that we have a technical problem. I beg to move that the House do now adjourn for 10 minutes until 5.15 pm.
My Lords, perhaps I may recapitulate. We return to Amendment 10. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, is now on the line and very much in presence. I call on her to make her remarks and to indicate whether she intends to press her amendment.
I thank noble Lords for that brief wait while technical glitches were sorted out, and I thank everyone who has contributed to our debate on these important issues of public transparency and accountability in terms of fire safety. I especially thank my noble friend Lord Stunell for his knowledgeable and powerful argument, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for his expert input. I assure him that I totally accept the detailed points that he raised and, if we have an opportunity for this amendment regarding public registers for assessments, I am sure that they will be properly considered, and in detail.
I listened carefully to the Minister and I thank him for being so clear in his response to these amendments. I heard him accept the need for, and principle of, transparency in supporting fire safety. Unfortunately, he was unable to go on to say that the Government would accept a register of fire safety assessments so that people can see the issues relating to the properties they live in. He said that householders could ask for fire assessments, but they would have to be on request. I reflected that that would not work well for the residents of Grenfell, who repeatedly raised issues of fire safety and were unable to be heard. A public register would have given huge strength to the concerns that they raised.
Given that the Minister has, unfortunately, been unable to give me an assurance that the Government will provide for a public register for fire safety assessments, I should like to test the opinion of the House.
Amendments 11 and 12 not moved.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 13. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press the amendment to a Division should make that clear in the debate.
13: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Prohibition on passing remediation costs on to leaseholders and tenants
(1) The owner of a building may not pass the costs of any remedial work attributable to the provisions of this Act on to leaseholders or tenants of that building.(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to a leaseholder who is also the owner or part owner of the freehold of the building.”Member’s explanatory statement
The purpose of this new Clause is to prevent freeholders passing on remediation costs to leaseholders and tenants, such as through demands for one-off payments or increases in service or other charges.
My Lords, many tenants and leaseholders in blocks with cladding that is now known to be a serious fire hazard find themselves in a very bleak place indeed. This amendment seeks to address that. Leaseholders have purchased flats in good faith with building surveys, mortgage insurance and building warranties in place. They have done the right thing. Now, through no fault of their own, they are being threatened with additional service charges of several hundred pounds each month to pay for the so-called waking watch, a 24/7 in-person lookout for potential fires. On top of that, they are being asked to fund the considerable costs of remediation work to remove the dangerous cladding and replace it with a safer system. Figures I have seen for some of this work run to tens of thousands of pounds. How are leaseholders, who already have a hefty mortgage, supposed to afford, say, an additional £40,000 bill for the remediation work?
During the debate on an earlier amendment, the Minister referred to leaseholders being asked to pay only affordable costs. I am very disappointed if that reflects the Government’s thinking. Leaseholders should not be asked to pay towards remediation of problems that are not of their making in any way. The question that then arises is: who was responsible for including these dangerous cladding panels in the first place? The construction companies surely have some responsibility. The warranties that were provided on the building should surely cover errors made during construction. The people who do not have any responsibility are those currently being asked to pay the bills. This is not just and not right, and we have an opportunity today to take the first step towards removing the anguish and anxiety faced by homeowners and tenants in this position.
I thank the Minister for making time available for a very useful discussion of this issue, and I accept that the scale of the problem is very large and that the cost of remediation works will run to tens of billions of pounds. I also accept that the Government have made some attempt to relieve the financial pressure on homeowners by providing a £1.6 billion fund towards the costs. However, I suspect that that is just a small portion of the total cost. Perhaps the Minister can indicate the scale of the problem.
I bring us back to the basic question: who should take responsibility? Just yesterday, during the Grenfell inquiry, evidence was given by one of the suppliers of the cladding system about the misinformation provided to win the contract. Evidence has been provided that the Building Research Establishment had already shown the high flammability of these cladding systems. The Grenfell inquiry phase 1 report stated that
“there was compelling evidence that the external walls … failed to comply with Requirement B4(1) of Schedule 1 to the Building Regulations 2010, in that they did not adequately resist the spread of the fire having regard to height, use and position of the building. On the contrary, they actively promoted it.”
Clear evidence, then, of culpability during construction or refurbishment at Grenfell. Of course, we do not know if this is the case elsewhere, but we have sufficient information to demonstrate that those who pay for this extensive remediation must not be the tenants and leaseholders.
We on these Benches feel very strongly that there is a just and moral case for leaseholders and tenants not to be required to contribute to any of the costs. I will listen carefully to what the Minister has to say but if the Government do not accept the amendment, I will feel it necessary to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, I listened to the Secretary of State on the “Today” programme this morning, in which I heard him say that the cost of removal and remediation of dangerous cladding from residential buildings should be as affordable as possible for lease- holders. This afternoon is an opportunity for the Minister to make clear what this means. I understand that builders and freeholders may have responsibilities in meetings such costs, but where a leaseholder is not a freeholder, why should they have a responsibility to pay out?
The uncertainty for so many leaseholders who are stuck trying to sell their properties or are worried about their possible financial exposure needs swift resolution. The amendment would protect leaseholders who are not freeholders, and tenants, from extra costs, be they single or staggered lump sums, increases in service charges or increases in rents. The responsibility for making safe a building with a fire risk should not lie with the leaseholders or tenants. The amendment would make it clear that it is unreasonable to expect them to be responsible for those costs when they are the ones exposed to risk through no fault of their own. I hope the Minister will agree that this amendment, which would protect leaseholders and tenants, is justified.
My Lords, this is an enormously complex issue, as I outlined in an earlier amendment. The current legal framework makes liability for the matters that have been referred to by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord a patchwork, and entirely uncertain of outcomes. So significant are the matters at stake that in a normal course of events it may be years before matters are resolved by the courts. We need a quicker fix than that, which is why earlier I suggested that the Government should take a firmer hand in this and not leave it to the industry and markets to sort out. In other words, there is a strong case for government intervention. I welcome this amendment, although not precisely on its own terms, because I think it has some potential flaws. However, certainly the opportunity to debate the issue is absolutely vital.
I am satisfied in my own mind that where basic construction standards have been skimped, some residual duty of care ought to be capable of being invoked to make those directly responsible—constructors and developers and, to some extent, those responsible for construction warranties—liable. However, I am no lawyer and I fear that my hopes will not be fulfilled. Developers use increasingly sophisticated means to ring-fence liabilities of individual development projects, normally by means of a special purpose vehicle or similar device.
Enormously profitable housebuilding enterprises, which observed the provisions of approved documents but did not read the broad statement of objectives in the parent building regulations document, tell us they complied with the requirements at the time. The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, told us just now about a deliberate evasion of proper test procedures and certification. I must have seen the same BBC TV footage as he did, reporting on the investigation by Sir Martin Moore-Bick and the evidence of insulation materials suppliers, also referred to by the noble Baroness in moving this amendment.
The noble Baroness is right: the long leaseholder has paid hard cash in good faith. It is really wrong that they should be obliged to pay any significant sum in addition. Mortgage lenders have likewise relied on completion certificates, construction warranties and so on, although it appears that the construction warranty providers in particular have a role in monitoring quality of build—unlike the eventual building insurer, whose only concern is with subsequent post-construction insurance against specified perils. I do believe that construction warranty providers have some co-responsibility here.
The PI—professional indemnity—insurers, of course, may have some exposure in relation to professionals acting in the matter. I do not know about that, but I do know that these are powerful and well-funded interests. In order to break this logjam, it would require significant legal change. I think it would be necessary to lift what is known as the “corporate veil” to remove the assumption of “buyer beware”. These two matters in themselves would open up a whole area of wider responsibility which may yet have other serious implications.
I agree that the vulnerable and invariably innocent leaseholders and tenants should not pay twice. But if not them or the developer—who? Management is likely to have no asset beyond the management and maintenance generated via the service charge and guaranteed in terms of recovery from the occupiers, be they leaseholders or tenants. Freehold owners of the long-leasehold flats have an interest which, in general terms, is some multiple of the cumulative ground rent, so they do not have an interest of any significant value. The likelihood is that both management functions and freehold ownership are themselves vested in corporate structures for precisely the same reasons of delimiting potential liabilities to individuals that, of course, are common with special-purpose vehicles. Of course, the freeholder may not even be the original developer; they may have purchased in good faith.
I have written to the Minister previously to express my fears about orphan liabilities. This amendment allows us to consider the whole range of issues that arise if we are trying to establish or apportion liability. While everyone is saying “not me”, there is a real concern that the focus will not end up where it ought to be. Some sort of government initiative is needed unless the Minister can reassure us that something is already happening to try to resolve this.
I have enormous sympathy with the sentiments behind this amendment, but I do not think it works. Liability cannot fall on one person without establishing where else it might fall and what the consequences might be.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the contributions of my noble friends Lady Pinnock and Lord Shipley and to support this amendment. I hope the Minister will see the strength of the argument and accept the amendment. If not, I regret that I shall also be seeking the opinion of the House on the matter.
I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for his—as ever—very thoughtful and constructive contribution. I am sure the Minister is aware that this is a complex and difficult question with many different moving parts, which the noble Earl so eloquently summarised. The one set of people who are not moving are the tenants and leaseholders stuck in flats which they cannot sell. They may be putting themselves at considerable personal as well as financial risk. These tenants, residents and leaseholders have no control over the circumstances in which they find themselves. They played no part in the decision-making—or lack of it—that has left them stranded. They are the vulnerable people whom the mighty, the powerful, the professionals and those with big pockets have left stranded. Our amendment is saying, “Right, let us at least fix this bit of the moving parts—these bits of the equation.”
I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, that there is a much bigger set of problems to be confronted. I hope that the Minister will accept this and will say that the Government are going to launch a wholesale consideration. I suspect that this is of concern far beyond the Home Office. Perhaps some prime ministerial attention can be given to sorting out this difficult and complex area.
The key question is: who will pay for the necessary works? Our amendment is simple and, I hope, clear. The innocent occupiers—the renters and leaseholders of millions of homes across the country—should not be held to ransom by building owners. They should not be forced to pay for making their homes safe, when they should have been safe from the start.
I know that the Government have begun to face up to the excessive costs facing leaseholders. The Minister has a well-tried set of statistics which he will give us again. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, ticked that box for him by recounting them. I know the Minister believes—as I do—that far more remains to be done.
The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, mentioned the construction warranty guarantees. Most of them are turning out to be virtually worthless. At the same time, they are often sold to residents and leaseholders as though they were some kind of guarantee that, if things went wrong, they would be compensated. This is not so. For the moment, at least, they are not delivering. The rush of people disclaiming that their warranty warrants anything is remarkable.
That puts an interesting light on something the Minister said in discussion of the previous group. He said that we did not need registers or government oversight because self-regulation would deal with it. He said that was the way to go and they did not want to increase the regulatory burden on anyone. I know that is the Government’s mantra in general, but one of the few positive things to come out of Grenfell was the tearing up of that whole story—that regulation was for losers—and the understanding that regulation provides a safety net that secures people’s future. This is just another case where self-regulation failed and none of the industrial, insurance and construction sectors stepped up to regulate their own behaviour and safeguard tenants. No case at all, therefore, can be made that tenants and leaseholders should be the ones collecting the bill.
I shall not rehearse any of the hard-luck stories that we are familiar with, but a straightforward case can be made to the Treasury: the longer this issue hangs around, the longer it will take to put all the remedial work in hand. If there are arguments over who pays, it will not be done and, if it is not being done, the risk of another major incident—and all the public money that will be spent on that—looms in the distance. And it is not just that, of course: there are also the long-term costs of health and stress that will be loaded on to the NHS as a result of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of people finding that the home they live in is worthless. I wonder how many bankruptcies there will be. If you are a sole trader and the bank has a guarantee on your home, what is your position when you cannot get an EWS1 form? How does that leave you in terms of business survivability?
Today the Minister has talked about phasing things, going slowly and proportionately, and getting fire tests and so on, but every time that we have looked further than the end of our noses we have discovered that there is more stuff to do—an estimated 750,000 fire doors around the country, just for starters.
I hope, therefore, that the Minister can give millions of leaseholders some words of comfort and support in backing our amendment. If not, I fear that I shall join my noble friends in testing the opinion of the House.
My Lords, Amendment 13, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, adds a new clause to the Bill that would prohibit the owner of the building from passing the cost of any remedial work attributable to the requirement of the Act on to leaseholders or tenants, except where the leaseholder is also the owner of the building.
As the noble Baroness has said, these leaseholders have done absolutely nothing wrong. They have actually done everything right: they have bought their property and are paying their mortgage, and they are being penalised for the failure of others. That surely cannot be right. The fact that their building has been given dangerous cladding has made their flats worthless. They cannot sell them but they still need to pay their mortgage. They cannot get the work done. They may be paying for a waking watch.
In some cases, these properties will have guarantees on them; there will be warranties for the work done. As the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said, the people who have done nothing wrong are the leaseholders or tenants in the flats. We should all stand up to support the leaseholders and tenants, and get those who have done the work to accept their responsibility and put this right. Whether it is the individual builder or the company or organisation, it cannot be right for these people to wriggle out of their responsibility.
The Government need to take firm action. I hope the Minister will set out for us now what action they will take to support leaseholders, who are in a terrible situation. If he does not do that, I and other noble Lords on these Benches will certainly be joining the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, in supporting this amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for their Amendment 13 on remediation costs. I often think that we need to apply a Daily Mail test to discover whether the opinion of the House will be tested. We have had an article in the Mirror from Pippa Crerar indicating one Division, and an article on this amendment from a different Mirror journalist—the online political editor. So I am not surprised that there will be a test of the opinion of the House.
I want to make clear the sincerity of our view that we need to understand the scale of the problem. Removing the cladding is like unpeeling an orange. You then find greater defects: the internal compartmentation issues, the missing firebreaks, and the issues around fire doors and wooden balconies. These historic structural defects will involve a colossal sum of money. We do not know how much; there are estimates and there are guesstimates, but we accept that there is a significant job of work to be done to deal with the historic defects that have accrued over many, many years.
As the Minister with responsibility for building—as well as fire—safety, I am regularly in contact with leaseholders hit with high bills for remediation to help make their homes safer. I fully understand the anxiety and distress that these people are going through. These are people who have done the right thing, investing their hard-earned savings into a home for themselves and their families, yet now many of them are facing unaffordable bills. I fully understand the intention behind this amendment, and I want to assure noble Lords that we are working very hard in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to improve the situation that people find themselves in.
Finally, we have already committed £1.6 billion to fund the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding on high-rise residential buildings, and we have been putting pressure on building owners to step up to the plate, as well as using warranties and recovering costs from contractors for incorrect or poor work.
However, I can assure noble Lords that we want to go further to protect people from unaffordable costs. Noble Lords will be aware that we published the draft building safety Bill on 20 July 2020. This includes important public safety measures; the Government are committed to progressing the Bill as quickly as possible so that reforms can be implemented in a timely manner. The Bill will be introduced to Parliament once the Government have considered the scrutiny committee’s recommendations.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is committed to updating our position on remediation costs when the building safety Bill returns to Parliament. Michael Wade, senior adviser to MHCLG, is accelerating work with leaseholders and the financial sector to identify financing solutions that protect leaseholders from unaffordable costs while ensuring that the bill does not fall entirely on taxpayers. We have had regular meetings with leaseholder groups, on this and a range of other issues, since the draft Bill was published.
While I support the underlying intention to protect leaseholders and have gone on the record today saying so, this amendment falls down in three main areas, which might make the problem worse rather than better.
First, the safety of residents in their homes is of the highest priority. This is the intention behind today’s Bill and all the Government’s wider work on building safety. There is a range of options for meeting the costs of safety-critical remediation work, which will be appropriate in different circumstances. It would be irresponsible to close off one of the potential routes to funding these works. This amendment risks leaving a building with known fire risks in a position where the work is not taken forward.
Secondly, this new clause would stop all remediation costs from being passed on to leaseholders. For example, service and maintenance charges would at present meet the cost of safety work required as a result of routine wear and tear, such as worn fire door closers. These costs would now fall to building owners—who are, in many cases, also not responsible for original building defects, as they did not build the property—rather than being determined by the terms of the lease.
Thirdly, the fire safety order is not the appropriate legislative framework to resolve remediation costs. The primary focus of the fire safety order is to place duties on any person who has some level of control in a premises—the responsible person or the dutyholder—to ensure that they identify the fire safety risks for the buildings they are responsible for and, if necessary, put in place general fire precautions. As I have said, we are looking to the building safety Bill to address the issues raised in this amendment.
I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for his comment about orphan liability. He underlined the point that we need to keep the options open. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, for his comment about construction warranties. Typically, the market leader is the NHBC. I met the council very recently and, effectively, that is only a 10-year protection: two years for defects, with eight years insurance-based. While we are looking at ways of increasing the compliance period to align with the 10 years, it would be possible through other legislative means to extend the period, because I do not see why someone who has put their life savings into a home has such minimal protection when they purchase a property. I buy a pair of tweezers to take the hair out of my ears and they have a lifetime guarantee. When someone puts their entire savings into a home, they deserve protection over time. That is something we as a Government need to look to do, and will do in due course. This is not the moment to resolve this particular issue, but it is well noted.
I ask that your Lordships’ House recognises the complexity of this policy area, which cannot be solved through this amendment, and considers the assurances I have given today. For the reasons set out in my response, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response and all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. This is about saving thousands of householders from crippling debts when none of the fault for this awful situation is of their making: none of it. I accept what the Minister has said; this is a problem that is hugely costly and complex. However, Governments regularly—daily, probably—have to find solutions to complex and costly issues, and this is one. I trust that the Minister can find a fair and just solution to it.
I again thank the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, in particular for sharing his expertise in this matter. He has rightly pointed out that this is a difficult, complicated and knotty problem, but the principle must be right: somewhere in government legislation we need the principle to be accepted that these leaseholders and tenants have, in good faith, bought a flat, or are tenants or residents of a flat, and that these problems have arisen through no fault of their own. They should not, as my noble friend Lord Stunell said, be held to ransom for these problems when it is not their issue. They have every right to expect, as my noble friend said, to have bought a home that is safe, when they have all the guarantees and insurances in place.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, who spoke about flats that are worthless and residents who are being penalised through no fault of their own. I thank the Minister for his reply, and I know that this is difficult. What I want him to do is to accept that the principle we are putting forward is the fair and just one. It is no good, to my mind, saying that nobody is going to expect house owners to have to pay anything more than is affordable, whatever that means. Worse still came from the lips of the Minister when he said that what is happening is that, when they take off the cladding, they are revealing and exposing further terrible defects. Frankly, that makes matters worse and the principle of what the amendment proposes more just.
I fully understand the Government’s intention to try and find a fair way to pay for this. My view, and the view of my colleagues, is that the costs should not fall on those who in good faith have bought their home and, through no fault of their own, are in this terrible and difficult situation. Good intentions are okay but the path to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. In this regard, good intentions are not sufficient. We need the principle to be accepted that none of the costs of the remediation of poor building works or poor standards and fire hazards should fall on leaseholders or tenants. Given that I have not had a sufficient reassurance from the Minister, I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Clause 3: Extent, commencement and short title
14: Clause 3, page 2, line 28, at end insert—
“( ) Section (Risk based guidance about the discharge of duties under the Fire Safety Order) comes into force at the same time as section 1 comes fully into force in relation to premises in England.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that the proposed new Clause in the Minister’s name to be inserted after Clause 2 comes into force at the same time as Clause 1 in relation to premises in England.
Amendment 14 agreed.
Clause 3 agreed.
Amendments 15 and 16 not moved.
Clause 1: Premises to which the Fire Safety Order applies
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—
“(1C) Where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises, the things to which this order applies include electrical appliances.(1D) The reference to electrical appliances means any appliances specified by regulations made by the relevant authority.(1E) Schedule (Electrical Appliances) to the Fire Safety Act 2020 applies to paragraphs (1C) and (1D).”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would clarify that the Fire Safety Order applies to electrical appliances where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises.
My Lords, this amendment is also in the names of my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge and the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Whitty. I am delighted that Peers of such distinguished service and experience are able to support these amendments and I look forward to their contributions. I thank the Minister for his engagement and commitment on this issue. I know that he has given a briefing on this; I have apologised to him that I was unable to attend that briefing as I was engaged in a debate in Grand Committee at the time.
I welcome the Bill, and these amendments are intended to be proactive and to help prevent fires caused by electrical ignition. Similar amendments were tabled in the Commons by my honourable friend Sir David Amess.
I thank Electrical Safety First, a charity that is dedicated to electrical safety and which has helped in the presentation of this case.
These amendments are intended to build upon the Government’s new regulation for the private rented sector, the Electrical Safety Standards in the Private Rented Sector (England) Regulations 2020, which as the date suggests are obviously of a very recent vintage and which provide for mandatory checks every five years. I commend those regulations and believe that this legislation presents an opportunity to build on them.
As I said, this is an attempt to be proactive and to prevent fires happening in the first place. I accept that the Government are giving some consideration to this issue and I am grateful for that. My amendments are designed to ensure that electrical appliances are registered with the responsible person for high-rise domestic dwellings and to introduce mandatory checks for all residents, whatever the tenure of their home.
One anomaly of the present position is that some flats—those that are privately let—will have mandatory five-year checks. Some currently will not: the social tenants and the owner-occupied. I do not believe that that difference can be easily justified. It could be that one flat is having checks while the one next door is not.
According to Electrical Safety First, electrical faults cause more than 14,000 fires a year—almost half of all accidental house fires. There are around 4,000 tower blocks in the country, containing over 480,000 individual flats. Unless every unit in a high-rise building is subject to the same safety regime, the whole building is at risk from a fire emanating from one single flat, as we have seen.
New analysis of government data by Electrical Safety First reveals that nearly a quarter of accidental electric fires that occurred in high-rise buildings over the last five years in England were the result of faulty appliances and leads, as well as faulty fuel supplies, which can include electrical wiring in a property. These amendments would see a responsible person record the presence of white goods to minimise the risk that faulty goods can pose in densely populated buildings. Keeping a record of the appliances in use would also mean that faulty recalled appliances could be removed or repaired. Mandatory five-yearly electrical safety checks in tower blocks, regardless of tenure, are included in the amendment.
As I said, current regulations that we passed recently mean that privately rented flats are required to have these electrical safety checks but other tenures are not, which has in effect created a tenure lottery in buildings, which often include owner-occupied, privately rented and social housing properties.
These provisions for checking electrical safety would be undertaken by competent registered electricians. I am aware of the concerns and interest of the Fire Brigades Union and I welcome its engagement. I assure the union that there is no intention through these amendments that fire officers would undertake this work. They have other, very important jobs to do, which they are doing very well.
More worrying analysis shows that over the past three years, accidental electrical fires in high-rise buildings have risen consistently year on year. High-profile tower block fires have been previously linked to electrical sources, including the Lakanal House fire, where an electrical fault with a television caused a fire that claimed the lives of six people, and Shepherd’s Court, where a faulty tumble dryer led to extensive damage to an 18-storey building. While other factors certainly accelerated the Grenfell Tower fire, it must be highlighted that its primary immediate cause was of course an electrical source of ignition, subsequently confirmed by the Grenfell inquiry phase 1 documentation.
It is important to note that some fires are caused not by appliances themselves but by misuse of them. That is why, despite these amendments, education is certainly important, and why the Home Office in conjunction with Electrical Safety First runs a week of educational awareness-raising with the public through the Fire Kills campaign on the proper use of electricity and electrical appliances. I certainly welcome that, and it is a necessary thing to do, but it is not in itself sufficient.
Recent tragic events have demonstrated the fatal risk that electrical accidents and incidents pose to people in their homes, particularly in high-density housing such as tower blocks. The work of Electrical Safety First and others has helped ensure that tenants living in the private rented sector are now protected by mandatory five-yearly electrical safety checks in their properties. That law was recently brought into effect. Such measures are crucial in bringing down the number of electrical accidents and incidents, and saving lives. We believe that the time is right to include individual dwellings in tower blocks in this regime, regardless of their tenure.
I appreciate that this is a short Bill to amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which focuses on non-domestic measures, to cover domestic homes. This means that homes within high-rise blocks are affected by the proposed legislation. This offers an excellent and straightforward opportunity to ensure that all who live in such buildings are brought under the same safety regime. Given this, the newly created role of a “responsible person” for any high-rise building should be given the task of compiling a register of every white good in the building. This ensures that when a recall occurs, anyone with an affected appliance can be quickly alerted and the safety risk resolved. Relying on consumers to register and respond to recalls in those buildings, when the potential risk is so high, must be considered wholly inadequate.
The Government can therefore improve the Bill through a number of measures that seek to improve electrical safety in homes. Amending the Bill provides an opportunity to make immediate differences to the safety of people who live in multi-occupied high-rise buildings. Electricity causes fires and the Government need to consider seriously the electrical sources of ignition. I am pleased that these amendments enjoy broad-based support. This is a time for all of us to come together to provide a safer environment for high-rise buildings by the introduction of mandatory safety checks. I hope that the Committee will support these amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak in favour of the amendment in the name of my noble friend, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, to which I have added my name, as have the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Whitty. I should have also added my name to my noble friend’s Amendment 24, which I fully support.
As I mentioned at Second Reading, the issue of electrical appliances and their safety, especially as a potential cause of household fires, should be a major concern. We should do whatever we can to try to reduce those fires caused by electrical faults. The two amendments, introduced so eloquently by my noble friend, would be a valuable tool in trying to achieve that.
Hand in hand with measures for mandatory checks, we should also do what we can to educate the public on electrical safety. My noble friend mentioned that. I pay tribute to a scheme that used to run—I am not sure that it still does—in the London Borough of Hillingdon when I was the Member of Parliament for Uxbridge. Primary school children went into a series of locations or rooms, perhaps a kitchen or bathroom, to identify potential hazards and dangers. I remember saying at the time that the scheme should be not just for primary school children but for adults, too. Sometimes people are not aware of the problems that can be caused by all sorts of household appliances. We should all be aware that the labour-saving devices that we take for granted can also be potentially dangerous. We should therefore do whatever we can to try to eliminate the possibility of electrical fires because we know the devastation that they can cause.
My Lords, I strongly support these amendments and the requirement for a regular mandatory check on electrical appliances, broadly for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, explained to the Committee. I pay tribute to the campaign group Electrical Safety First, which has given me some information on the issue. As the noble Lord has said, the fires at Lakanal House in Camberwell, Shepherd’s Court and Grenfell were all triggered by faulty electrical appliances. Whether it was dangerous cladding, compromised firewalling or poor evacuation procedures that led to multiple deaths, electrical appliances triggered the fires in the first place. Indeed, more than half of the fires in dwellings in this country are related to electrical appliances.
These amendments would require regular checking of the standards and appropriate use of white goods in all multi-occupied properties. There are already mandatory gas checks on most such buildings for gas supply and the correct use of gas appliances. That is largely because people and regulators have long recognised that gas is dangerous. Yet, these days, electricity is the greater hazard. In multi-occupied multi-storey buildings, if there is a problem in one flat or unit, that is a potentially lethal problem for everyone in that structure.
We should explain that the amendment to regulations would in no way reduce the central responsibility and liability of the manufacturers to ensure the safety of their products; nor should any responsibility be taken away from users to follow instructions and not use equipment irresponsibly or inappropriately. However, the continued use of recalled products, dangerous wiring arrangements, damaged circuits and inappropriate placement of white goods requires regular inspection. There is also a requirement on landlords, tenants and leaseholders to have knowledge of that inspection to help reduce hazards. Failure on their part to facilitate inspection or to take action in the light of that inspection will rest primarily with the owner and manager of the building. That is how it should be. I strongly support these amendments.
My Lords, first, I remind the Committee that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I support both amendments in this group. My noble friend Lord Tope, who is a signatory to Amendment 1, is unable to take part today but I know that he is looking forward to debating the issues raised in both amendments when we reach Report.
As we have heard, evidence from Electrical Safety First tells us that electrical faults cause more than 14,000 home fires a year. That is almost half of all accidental house fires. Logically, therefore, the more electrical appliances are checked, the lower the risk will be of a fire breaking out and then spreading to other people’s properties. This is not just a matter of building safety but about preventing fires breaking out in the first place.
I suggest that the general public have a right to expect that Governments of all persuasions should be willing to legislate to ensure high standards of regulation to improve public safety. Those who live in blocks of flats have a right to expect that they are living in a safe environment and that the owner of their block has undertaken the necessary safety checks within it, in this case to electrical appliances within that block.
The proposal in this group of amendments is for checks at least every five years. That is justified. If I drive a car that is over three years old, I have to prove every year that it is roadworthy by having an MOT check. This is to protect other road users, not just me and my vehicle. The same principle should apply in shared buildings where electrical appliances that are a fire risk could cause damage to other properties and to their occupants in that shared building.
I therefore conclude that the fire safety order should apply to electrical appliances where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises. That seems reasonable. For high-rise residential buildings, in particular, it is important that a responsible person should keep a register of white goods in the building for which they are responsible, that they ensure that white goods are registered with the manufacturer for recall, should that be necessary, and that safety checks are conducted at least every five years.
Any privately rented home in a block of flats of mixed tenure will now be subject to electrical safety checks. It seems odd that in a high-rise block of mixed tenure, only the privately rented properties will be subject to the 2020 regulations. I would be grateful for the Minister’s explanation as to why that is, and to know whether the Government will act now to address that anomaly.