Tuesday 26th March 2024

(3 weeks, 3 days ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Mrs Pauline Latham in the Chair]
14:30
Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch (Halifax) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of cavity wall insulation under Government grants.

I start by thanking you, Mrs Latham, for chairing this important debate. What a pleasure it is to see you.

The problem I am going to outline starts with Government grants for cavity wall insulation schemes, but I wish it ended there. Sadly, it doesn’t. I am grateful to the Minister for her time last week: I had the opportunity to brief her on the scale and nature of the problem, which I can only describe as a scandal upon a scandal. I also want to thank The Yorkshire Post, God’s own newspaper; its editor, James Mitchinson; and the deputy business editor, Greg Wright. They recognised the agony of ordinary people in what is a complicated legal mess and have worked hard to unravel it and tell those stories, and I am truly grateful to them for their diligence and painstaking work in shining a spotlight on this situation.

I am working with 20 constituents in my Halifax constituency who have all been affected. However, figures quoted by the BBC indicate that up to 1,400 people may have been impacted. More and more MPs are taking to the Chamber and writing to Government Ministers with their concerns and their local cases. Most of the cases I am working on follow a similar pattern. People had a knock on the door in around 2015 or 2016 and were asked whether they would like cavity wall insulation. They were assured that it would not cost them a penny because it was a Government-funded scheme. They were told it would be better for the environment, help them to reduce their energy bills and save them money. Most of the people who had the knock on the door were eligible for the scheme on the basis that they were in receipt of some form of welfare support, so the prospect of saving money on energy bills was an attractive one.

Yet months and years later, mould and damp started to affect properties where it had never been an issue before. In some cases, I have seen families become really quite unwell living in these conditions, and they could not understand what had changed so drastically in their homes. Years later, people had a second knock on the door from representatives of law firms, who often told them that they should not have had cavity wall insulation in the first place; that it has done damage to their homes that would cost thousands to fix; and, if they wanted the situation resolved, they should allow the law firm to take the insulators, many of which have since disappeared, to court on a no win, no fee basis. These cases were taken on by SSB Law, which corresponded with my constituents for some time until, just before Christmas of last year, these families and individuals received enforcement notices telling them they owed thousands of pounds in legal fees and that, if they did not pay them, bailiffs would be coming to their homes. One bill was for £18,000, one was for £32,000, and there were a range of amounts in between and beyond.

Bearing in mind that people were usually eligible for the Government-funded schemes on the basis that they were in receipt of some form of welfare support, these bills have devastated people who simply have no means of paying them. It is hard to overstate the impact that this has had on people’s lives. One of my constituents, Mr Zafar, is featured in the extensive coverage by The Yorkshire Post. His home was visited by a representative from a law firm in 2019. His wife was told that cavity wall insulation which had been installed a few years earlier was unlawful and potentially harmful to their children’s health. This representative persuaded Mr Zafar that they should take on the case on a no win, no fee basis. The case was subsequently transferred to SSB Law solicitors, who handled the case for nearly two years. Then, on 30 January 2023, Mr Zafar received a first enforcement letter demanding £2,973. He contacted SSB Law Solicitors and was assured via email that the payment had been made to the High Court bailiff. Despite this assurance, on 28 November 2023, he received another enforcement letter, this time for nearly £19,000. Distressed by this demand, he made inquiries and learned that SSB Law solicitors had gone into administration. He contacted Leeds High Court, requesting the suspension of the enforcement order. However, just a few days before Christmas last year, an enforcement agent visited his home while he was at work, leaving his wife terrified.

Mr Zafar said:

“I can’t work properly and me and my wife can’t sleep. The amount in the enforcement notice is always on my mind. Wherever I go, I have on my mind the fact that I must pay £19,000…My kids asked me, ‘Dad, have you done anything wrong? Why are you paying this amount? Are we going to end up homeless?’…I just want to release my family from this stressful and horrible situation.”

Another Halifax constituent, Mrs Battye, was told that cavity wall insulation would make her home more energy efficient, more environmentally friendly and would improve heating costs—as we all know, if it is done properly, that is all correct. However, in the following months, she started to notice damp and mould appearing in her front and back bedrooms—that was not a problem she had ever had before. Then in 2020, someone knocked on Mrs Battye’s door and asked whether there was any damp in the property. This man told her that the cavity wall insulation should never have been installed in the first place, and this had now caused extensive issues at her property. He stressed that it would be difficult and expensive for her to rectify, which she could not afford.

She said:

“He advised me to submit a claim for damage done to the property through a no-win, no-fee claim. I was assured I would not have to pay anything and this was the best way of rectifying the problem.”

Over the next four years, Mrs Battye received correspondence from SSB Law in relation to her case, but like the others, just before Christmas last year, she received a letter from High Court enforcement, informing her that she was liable to pay £32,000 to the defendant’s solicitor.

Mrs Battye lives alone and works for the NHS on what she describes as a modest salary. She said:

“I have no means to pay this money and I am worried about bailiffs coming to my house and getting a CCJ or a charging order on my property.”

Another constituent, who does not want to be named, said she had cavity wall insulation fitted—work in which she had confidence, on the basis that it was funded under a Government scheme. In the months that followed, she and her young son contracted pneumonia, living in a house with mould and damp—again, that was not a problem they had ever had before.

She said:

“I kept changing my wallpaper and house decorations to try to cover the mould…Because SSB Law was a big company, I believed they were definitely going to help us.”

On 5 December 2023, my constituent came home to find an enforcement letter at the back of the door. It said that she must pay more than £17,000, otherwise bailiffs would be dispatched to her home.

She said:

“It was just so shocking. My entire credit history had been damaged. My credit card has been suspended. For 10 days, I couldn’t sleep. I’d borrowed some money, I thought about selling my jewellery…It’s really hard for me. Every day, I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to be able to pay this money back?’ It’s affected my mortgage and affected my credit history. It’s affected my daily life.”

This lady was so terrified that she managed to borrow money to pay the debt she had no idea she was liable for, just to alleviate her fear of bailiffs coming to her home. However, she now worries every day how she will pay back that loan.

Mr Goodey, a constituent with a similar story, said:

“The amount of stress this has put myself and my family through is grossly unfair. I’ve since learnt that the construction and age of my property means it is unsuitable for expanding foam cavity filling and should never have been used in the first place. I’m a widowed 65-year-old who is due to retire this year with an 18-year-old son who will inherit the house eventually. I do not want him to inherit this problem.”

The Minister will see what a profound, life-changing impact this scandal has had, and is continuing to have, on people. The Solicitors Regulation Authority is investigating SSB Law, which is welcome. In a letter to me, from 23 February, it confirmed:

“We are currently investigating to see if the SSB Group acted in accordance with our Standards and Regulations. This will include whether the firm properly assessed the merits of claims, whether your constituents were properly advised at the outset on potential liabilities arising from initiating litigation, even if this was on the basis of a ‘No Win, No Fee’ agreement.”

It said:

“We will also be looking at the handling of the files and the arrangements for after the event insurance, the failure of which appears to be the main reason why your constituents are facing the prospect of demands for costs.”

Crucially—and I really welcome this—the letter from the chief exec of the SRA states:

“After the event insurance has been around for several years and is frequently used in ‘No Win, No fee’ agreements. We are not aware of similar circumstances to those your constituents now face, being experienced on this scale before. As such, we will also be speaking to a number of organisations to explore whether the numbers of cases where the failure of after the event insurance is increasing, or whether there are any wider gaps in protection to consumers that need to be addressed, given the importance of such products to individuals pursuing civil redress.”

I really welcome this investigation, which I hope will be comprehensive in assessing what has gone so horribly wrong for so many people, but the SRA advises that it is expected to report in the autumn. While we have had some success in managing to get some of the enforcement notices paused, they hang over constituents like the sword of Damocles. I therefore ask the Minister to help move this to a permanent resolution.

As I acknowledged at the beginning of my contribution, this all starts with cavity wall insulation, but I am acutely aware that the scandal has grown tentacles into a number of Government Departments and policy areas. My first ask of the Minister is that she makes representations to her colleagues to see what else can be done to hold the insurers and law firms involved to account. I am afraid to say that the responses so far from Ministers at the Ministry of Justice have been less than useless. The SRA investigation is significant, and I am hopeful that it will expose what has failed so badly. I would urge the SRA to consider making recommendations to Government and the other relevant agencies, with a view to fixing whatever its findings deem so broken that it has had an impact on 1,400 people. I would ask the Minister to liaise with the SRA to provide any support that she can, so that if there is any way to accelerate the investigation that is made a reality. Given that the SRA might not be the right body to investigate why after-the- event insurers have failed in this scenario, I hope the Minister will also consider ways in which any further regulators or agencies could be instructed to investigate and made to understand the scale, seriousness and urgency of this situation.

Returning to the Minister’s brief, I have been reassured to some extent that oversight and regulation of cavity wall insulation—which is such a good thing when done well—has improved since the energy company obligation 1 and energy company obligation 2 schemes, having discussed this in some detail with experts. However, there are still many people out there who do not know where to turn with cavity wall insulation problems dating back to that period. That problem has been exploited by some of those agencies, leading to the problems we now have.

CIGA—the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency—issues guarantees for cavity wall insulation and has issued almost 6.2 million since 1995. It operates a scheme that puts right failures in materials or workmanship for a period of 25 years from the date of installation, and many of my affected constituents could have explored this as a first step in seeking advice and redress. CIGA, in its correspondence with me, stresses that often homeowners were actively told not to lodge a claim with the guarantee provider, who could take action to correct the problem under guarantee, but who instead made, in these cases, false promises of a pay-out in court.

One of the questions I asked on behalf of people with cavity wall insulation who received a knock on the door from someone representing a law firm, was where did that person get their intelligence so they knew where to knock? CIGA suggests that the claims solicitor model relied on farming a large number of potential claims using data accessed either through freedom of information requests from Ofgem, or under the guise of the Data Protection Act, in an attempt to access their own guarantee records. Having gained information on properties where insulation had been installed, unqualified assessors were sent out to encourage the homeowner to pursue a claim. In most cases, they inflated any potential damage or indeed alleged damage that simply did not exist, with the subsequent report signed off by unscrupulous chartered surveyors registered with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The Minister can see just how much all of this stinks.

I ask the Minister to undertake a review into the whole sorry mess. It is a scandal upon a scandal, which has affected these vulnerable people, up to 1,400 of them, who in some cases have chronic problems with damp and mould in their homes as a consequence of a Government-funded scheme. They were then preyed on by unscrupulous assessors and lawyers, falling through the cracks of regulation and mismanagement, and we find that the people who could least afford or least deserve it were picking up the bill, driving them into debt and despair. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

14:45
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for leading the debate. Things are different in Northern Ireland, and it is not the Minister’s responsibility to reply for Northern Ireland, but I wanted to come along to support the hon. Lady in her request for justice. Ultimately, that is what she is looking for: justice for her constituent. Hon. Members who speak after me will be seeking justice, too. The scheme was for England, Scotland and Wales—the Northern Ireland scheme is different—but I support the hon. Lady.

In my research for this speech, I read the background information, and today I have listened to the hon. Lady’s comments about the despair that some people feel. She referred to one lady who was unable to sleep for 10 nights, such was her trauma and concern. That level of concern was financial, ultimately, and she was presented with a huge bill. We have heard about figures of £17,000, £25,000 or £35,000, which indicate just how worrying the issue can be. People do not understand why they are in that position, because that was not what they signed up for.

The hon. Member for Halifax was right to set the scene. She described the financial ruin that her constituents have faced, with unexpected legal bills running to tens of thousands of pounds. Without doubt, more needs to be done to support those families and protect people from such schemes in future. It is not only about helping people with the problems that they have today, but about ensuring that such things do not happen again. [Interruption.] I think there must be something wrong with the plumbing, Mrs Latham: there is definitely a background noise. Whatever it might be, I am sure that it will not silence me or anyone else.

It is important that all constituents have good access to thermal insulation to prevent heat loss in their home. I will give some examples about our heat loss and cavity wall insulation schemes in Northern Ireland. We were able to sort the problems out, by the way, and we did not have individual companies soliciting round the doors for no-win, no-fee representation. There is no doubt that the insulation process is expensive, and many will struggle to pay for it. The Government need to be commended for what they do: it is incredible that we have schemes to enable people to upgrade their homes and ensure that they have the levels of insulation and heating that we all need.

Schemes are offered across the United Kingdom to ensure that those on a low income can avail themselves of cavity wall insulation. The schemes are different across the United Kingdom, as I have intimated. Beginning in 2013, the Government’s energy company obligation has required large energy suppliers to pay for energy-saving measures in British households that meet certain conditions, covering wall and loft insulation. We have different schemes back home: a cavity wall insulation scheme and a roof insulation scheme. The new schemes are offered through the Housing Executive and sometimes through local councils. The ECO scheme covers England, Scotland and Wales, and it is no surprise that we have differing circumstances in Northern Ireland; we often do. We have a scheme that seems to be working well, and whenever there are indiscretions or things do not fall into place, we have been quite able—so far, anyway—to come up with solutions.

Northern Ireland has a sustainable energy programme, which was set up by the utility regulator. Some 80% of the funding has been targeted at vulnerable customers and at those who are older or on a low income. It is important that we enable those people to bring their houses up to a standard such that they can avail themselves of the same energy savings and efficiencies, as well as helpful cavity wall and roof insulation. It is great that those most in need of assistance are getting it.

In my office, I deal every week with people applying for the cavity wall insulation scheme that we have in Northern Ireland, the sustainable energy programme. We have been successful in enabling people to get on it; we just wish there were a wee bit more financial aid available. Now that the Northern Ireland Assembly is back, that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the Assembly and of the Department that looks after these matters. In my constituency of Strangford and in my main town of Newtownards, many of the homes are of a certain age and standard, so they need the cavity wall insulation schemes. The Housing Executive is the major provider of homes, although the Housing Association provides homes now, some of which are old as well.

With some cavity wall insulation schemes, we have seen examples of insulation not even being put into the walls, although people said it was. We have also seen cavity wall insulation having a detrimental effect, as the hon. Member for Halifax noted. I am not quite sure of the reasons for that, but ultimately we have been able to sort those things out because the companies involved have an obligation to deliver what is right and what is proper.

The priority is to ensure that the Government properly back those schemes to ensure that they are being done legitimately, and that constituencies like Halifax are not being lumped with thousands of pounds of fees to pay back. There certainly must be justice for those who were victims of the scheme. I am pleased that many of them have already contacted the legal ombudsman and the financial services ombudsman to question the level of service that was provided. When it gets to the stage of contacting an ombudsman, we hope for recourse, justice, restitution and ultimately compensation for the people who have been part of that process.

I thank the hon. Member for Halifax again for leading the debate. She should know that she has my full support in this matter; she has the support of all of us in this room, and that is why we are here today. I hope that the Minister and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), will be in a position to offer some support and answer some of the questions that the hon. Lady posed. There is no doubt in my mind that the Government must now step in to right the wrongs and ensure that people are protected financially. I believe that that is their obligation. That is why we are here: I am here to support the hon. Lady and support her constituent. Other Members who will speak in this Chamber want the same justice.

Pauline Latham Portrait Mrs Pauline Latham (in the Chair)
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I am sorry for the buzzing noise that we can hear in the background. The Doorkeepers have contacted the engineers, and they are going to address the issue. Meanwhile, it is quite difficult to hear—I cannot hear from the Chair what is being said—so can people speak up so everybody can hear?

14:53
Kate Hollern Portrait Kate Hollern (Blackburn) (Lab)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this very important debate. I am pleased that it has cross-party support, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, and that there are shared concerns about this shocking situation.

This is a real opportunity to seek clarity and pursue justice for all our constituents who have been affected by this shocking affair. The human toll of the SSB Law crisis is significant and has undoubtedly caused considerable shock, anger and distress to those affected. I have met multiple constituents over the past few weeks to discuss the impact of the collapse of SSB Law. I have heard at first hand how the devastating situation has had a severe impact on them, their loved ones and their lives. I have seen the damage to their homes, which is shocking, considering that the Government spent millions of pounds on the scheme. It is leaving families in a terrible situation.

The situation goes on. People are receiving letters threatening court action. Several of my constituents are in real fear of losing their home. It is shameful and outrageous that people have been misled. We need to demand justice for those who have been targeted. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax mentioned the data on who was affected by the scheme; it must have been shared. That must be investigated.

I am one of 20 MPs who have signed early-day motion 423, which calls on the Government

“to ensure that all demands for payment and court orders resulting from the collapse of SSB Law are dropped immediately”.

We need to take pressure off these families.

It is significant that the situation has arisen from the poor implementation of a Government-backed decarbonisation scheme. The Government must therefore be held accountable for the crisis that ensued. The failure on the Government’s part to ensure the proper implementation of the insulation scheme means that we must now firmly commit to upholding the rights and protecting the wellbeing of citizens. People are living in unsafe homes, with damp and mould threatening their physical and mental health.

If we are not forceful and succinct in our approach to solving the crisis, we could see serious or potentially life-threatening health issues developing. One mother told me the story of her little boy who suffers severely with asthma; she is really concerned about him. It is vital that we work across the parties to ascertain the true scale of the crisis and find a solution for affected constituents as the scope of the problem comes to light. I am sure it will continue to grow.

We must urgently work with those affected to put right the failings of SSB Law and address this extraordinary scandal. I implore Government Ministers to meet victims of the crisis and hear their stories, as I have done, so that they can fully comprehend the urgency of the situation. It is incumbent on the Government to address the unacceptable and desperate situation in which so many people find themselves through no fault of their own. I will continue to do whatever I can in this House to pursue justice. I am pleased to learn that the Minister has the same ambitions as my colleagues and me, because the situation cannot continue. Measures need to be put in place to ensure that it never happens again.

14:58
Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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It is a privilege to see you in the Chair, Mrs Latham. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing the debate and for telling us about the experiences of her constituents as well as the problems that they have had after having cavity wall insulation fitted to their homes. Some of the problems might have arisen from very poor ventilation as a consequence, and it is troubling to hear about that.

On the doorstep, I have come across constituents who have suffered from mould and damp. I have also talked to an employee of East Devon District Council who is responsible for the maintenance of social homes and who has said to me that some of the issues with damp and mould are linked to cavity wall insulation. Done properly, cavity wall insulation is a positive thing. It keeps people warm and saves money for the Government, taxpayers and individuals. It is one of those rare policy areas that is not just a win-win, but a win-win-win.

On the subject of heating, the End Fuel Poverty Coalition estimated that 4,950 people in this country died in the winter between 2022 and 2023 because they were living in cold conditions. Clearly, worries all of us. I know that the Government were also concerned, because they introduced the energy price guarantee. On the face of it, the energy price guarantee was a very popular policy because it reduced people’s energy bills by a very significant amount, although many of my constituents will not have felt it because their energy bills were still staggeringly high in that winter of 2022-23. The energy price guarantee was a subsidy from the Government—from the taxpayer—of £37 billion. The really sad thing is that had the Government continued to invest in home insulation measures at the rate they had been in 2012, a large proportion of the funding spent on heating people’s homes and subsidising their heating would not have been necessary.

The third win is, of course, in the reduction of emissions. Given the concerns that the Government might not reach their net zero target by 2050 and that the world might not meet the target of reducing temperature rises by 1.5°, we absolutely have to be concerned about reducing emissions, too. Heating homes, saving money and reducing emissions are all things that can be achieved with cavity wall insulation done properly.

I want to look back at the last decade or so and at how much cavity wall insulation has helped some of our constituents. One million cavity wall insulations were carried out in Great Britain through the energy company obligation scheme between 2013 and 2023, 27% of all measures carried out under the scheme. The annual number of cavity wall insulations provided through ECO has fallen over time, from a peak of over 316,000 when the Liberal Democrats were in government in 2014 to a low of little more than 11,000 last year. The number of ECO measures installed overall peaked at three quarters of a million in 2014, but fell to just 159,700 in 2022—a fall of almost 80% and a figure 59% lower than in 2021.

There is no evidence that the UK is near the saturation point for cavity wall insulation. The Government have estimated that 71% of homes with cavity walls had insulation installed at the end of 2022. Some 3.8 million homes with uninsulated cavity walls were thought to be “easy to treat”, and the remaining 1.3 million were “hard to treat”. There is still much low-hanging fruit to progress with now that we know how cavity wall insulation can be done, and done well. If we think about not just Great Britain as a whole, but England, England has a lower percentage of cavity wall insulation: just 69% of homes have it, compared with 76% in Wales and 80% in Scotland. As for my region, the west country, the south-west got just 6% of all ECO spending, compared with 18% for the north-west. Clearly, the west country is dipping out again.

Again, the Liberal Democrats in government made sure that home insulation was a real priority, given the savings on heating, money and emissions. In 2012, we made sure that 2.3 million homes benefited in a single year. If the Conservatives had carried on insulating at that level, the average household would have saved hundreds of pounds per year on their energy bills and the taxpayer would have saved money, too, during the crisis that followed the invasion of Ukraine. It is reckoned that the failure to continue insulating at that level cost taxpayers around £9 billion under the energy price guarantee, because of the lack of insulated homes.

To finish on a cheerier note, some really good work is happening, including in my local area. In my constituency, the Blackdown Hills parish network has invested in an infra-red camera—a thermal imaging camera—that it offers to residents to use so that they can identify where their homes are leaking heat. The camera has also been lent to Sidmouth Town Council and the chair of the council, Chris Lockyear, is offering to help residents to save not just heat but money.

15:04
Imran Hussain Portrait Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab)
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It is of course a pleasure, Mrs Latham, to serve with you in the Chair. I join colleagues in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this very important debate.

My hon. Friend quite rightly pointed out the importance of this debate, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) and other hon. Members. Indeed, it is very important to many of our constituents, who are suffering the results of some of the scandalous actions that we have heard about. Many of them are having sleepless nights and are threatened with financial ruin, which I will say more about a little later.

As other hon. Members have said, with the promise of reducing energy bills and with the Government’s stamp of approval, cavity wall insulation schemes were an attractive proposition that were readily signed up to by many people, including many of my constituents in Bradford East. However, the reality was a far cry from the promise of warmer homes and lower bills. Cavity wall insulation has now left many of them facing financial ruin, because, after it was installed, they began to notice, as many other hon. Members have said already, damp and black mould was growing on walls, ceilings, window ledges and floors in their homes, and their electrical systems were compromised. Their homes became harder to heat and in some cases skin conditions increased. Also, many experienced mental stress, because they constantly had to deal with the problem. It is important to mention the real-life consequences for our constituents.

The cavity wall insulation that was supposed to keep their homes warm instead acted as a bridge to draw in the moisture from the external walls and transfer it inside their homes. Although cavity wall insulation was an excellent way to improve energy efficiency in many homes, which it is if it is correctly installed, in those cases it was discovered tragically that those homes were never suitable for cavity wall insulation or that the work that had been carried out was defective.

Like other hon. Members, I have tens of cases now of people being forced to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds. That is the total accumulated amount, including legal fees, which I will come on to. What is alarming is that in every one of these cases the companies that initially installed the cavity wall insulation disappeared, and my constituents had nobody to go back to to ask for help. They were literally left on their own.

That is where the next serious issue arose, because legal firms were going around, door to door, and promising no win, no fee. Sometimes, that was the only option for people who had very limited means and who had already gone through so much stress. One such law company was SSB Law, which has already been mentioned today; actually, it has now been highlighted by a documentary. I and other colleagues have raised the issue in Parliament. SSB Law took on £200 million in debts in trying to deal with these cases. Actually, the company probably knew that many of these cases never had any chance of success, but they were taken on and there were many victims in Bradford, as we have heard.

My constituents were pursuing financial reparations for damage caused by defective insulation. There was no fault on their part for the situation they found themselves in, but they are now facing demands for payments that stretch into tens of thousands of pounds and are simply unaffordable. Despite the situation, with many of my constituents in Bradford growing more and more desperate, it is clear that no one in the current system has any inclination to deliver them justice. It is therefore equally clear that the Government need to step in and intervene.

There is cross-party support for this issue, and it is not an issue that has never been raised before. According to my research, the reviews go back as far back as 2015, when it was acknowledged by at least one report, if not more, that there was an issue with some of the work on cavity wall insulation and the level at which it was being carried out. Certainly, the matter has been raised a number of times in parliamentary questions and debates, including in 2016 and 2017.

Our constituents are now begging us. I cannot emphasise enough the strength of feeling in some of the conversations that I and my colleagues have had. If it were not for the one-line Whip and the last minute nature of the debate, which only my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) could have pulled off as quickly and miraculously as she did, many more colleagues would have been here. We are here to plead that this issue is causing anxiety, stress and depression. I have had people who have not slept for days, worrying. If someone is a pensioner and the only thing they have is their house, and they are already living through one of the biggest cost of living crises and making ends meet, and they suddenly get a demand for £28,000 through the door, that is going to cause untold misery—of course it is.

As was said earlier, the SRA knew about this. A complaint went in about SSB Law way before many of these cases had advanced to the stage where people are now being asked to repay. The insurance company responsible is now not agreeing to pay any of the indemnity insurance that is the legal protection—I will not go into further detail as I suspect the matter will be subject to much legal debate when the time comes.

I respectfully ask the Minister to step in, in the spirit of the cross-party agreement on this issue. I wrote to the Justice Minister about the issue in that spirit more than a month ago, and I have yet to receive a response. All I request is a meeting for MPs to sit down and discuss this issue, because we have a duty to protect those constituents who have been wronged.

I have just three asks of the Minister. First, the Government must ensure that the legal proceedings, costs and demands for payment that our constituents are mired in, along with the charging orders, interest charges and threats of home repossession are dropped immediately. I think the Government can step in to address these issues and to take some action, although I appreciate the legal technicalities. Secondly, the Government must conduct a full review of all Government-funded insulation schemes to identify the total number of homes affected by defective cavity wall insulation, as well as a full investigation into the collapse of SSB Law and the role of regulators in guarding against risks. Thirdly, the Government must convene a meeting between Ministers, energy providers, insulation companies, legal firms and anyone else involved in this scandal to agree steps toward a compensation fund such as the one developed for the Fishwick insulation scandal. That involved insulation of a different type, but there was compensation there. It set a precedent where defective cavity wall insulation was removed from the homes, the structural damage was addressed, and good quality suitable insulation was retrofitted with a 25-year warranty. That is what happened in that case.

I thank again my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax. Thousands of our constituents up and down the country will be very grateful to her for securing this important debate. I cannot emphasise enough how important this area is to our constituents. If we can save further misery, we have an absolute duty to do so. I look forward to working with Ministers to address and end this scandal for our constituents.

15:16
Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) not only on securing this important debate but on making the detailed case that needs to be made about his scandal. The contributions of hon. Members from across the Chamber have added to her exemplary presentation, and have underlined the urgent need to do something about the issue. My hon. Friends the Members for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) and for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) and the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) all made first-class contributions to the debate.

Cavity wall insulation has played, and will continue to play, a tremendous role in keeping people’s homes warm, reducing bills, fighting fuel poverty and uprating homes so that they are fit for a low-carbon future. Indeed, the vast majority of cavity wall insulations work perfectly well and do a good job for the homes where they are fitted. Of course, cavity wall insulations need to be done with the right materials, by the right people, in the right places and according to the right standards. I regret to say that there are circumstances—rather more in the early days than now—where those criteria were not adhered to, and problems arose with properties in which cavity wall insulation had been placed.

Pauline Latham Portrait Mrs Pauline Latham (in the Chair)
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Order. Could you face this way?

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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I am sorry, Mrs Latham. One would think that, in a reasonable world, there should be speedy recognition that the problem has arisen and an equally speedy arrangement whereby the person in whose home the problem has arisen can get restitution for what has happened, in terms of both compensation and putting right what has gone wrong with the cavity wall insulation.

The Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency came into being in 1995. As hon. Members have mentioned, it provides guarantees for cavity wall insulation. There have been 6 million since it was set up, over a 25-year period. The agency has a good record of ensuring that redress is carried out speedily and properly, where problems have arisen.

Unfortunately, not everybody knows about the agency or has had their wall insulations guaranteed through CIGA. Indeed, they might have had cavity wall insulation installed before guarantees came into place. The picture today is quite good regarding guarantees, but that does not remotely address the problem before us this afternoon. As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said, this is essentially a scandal on a scandal. It is the problem of cavity wall insulation going wrong in a certain area. When it does go wrong, several cases often appear in certain areas because the installer—

Pauline Latham Portrait Mrs Pauline Latham (in the Chair)
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Order. Could the Opposition spokesperson address the Chair?

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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Yes, I am sorry; I keep doing that. The appearance of a number of problems in a particular area might relate to a particular company carrying out faulty insulations or using the wrong material, whereas in other areas no such events will occur.

Scandal one is that a relatively high number of deficient cavity wall insulation arrangements came to light in a particular part of the country. Scandal two is that a parasitic law firm decided to make a good living by zealously pursuing people it thought might conceivably have a claim for failed cavity wall insulation, and tried to push those people down a path to restitution in a wholly cynical and unacceptable manner. I am pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax that the Solicitors Regulation Authority is investigating that company, SSB Law, but that does not address the fact that other firms also pursued that practice. Ironically, SSB Law took over a number of claims from a company that had pursued this model and gone bust in the process. One might say, therefore, that it is a scandal, upon a scandal, upon a scandal.

The way this worked is set out in a letter from CIGA to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax, which describes how the model operated.

“Claims lead generator often unqualified promises large payouts if homeowner signs up to pursue a claim for failed cavity wall insulation.

Details passed to a RICS surveyor who does not visit the property but prepares a claim schedule based on detail provided by the lead generator.

Claim is handed to a claims solicitor”.

SSB Law, as mentioned, was a claims solicitor that took on a number of these cases, including those of another company operating this model, Pure Legal, having apparently been offered the opportunity to do so by the Solicitors Regulation Authority itself.

The claims solicitor then sends a letter to the installer and

“informs them to put their insurer on notice and that the claim will be in the order of 60k for damages caused by poorly installed insulation—schedule of costs does not reflect the property and damage is often not evident.

Homeowners are actively discouraged from notifying the guarantee provider”

—in this instance, CIGA—

“and instead promised a large pay out.

Just before the claim goes to court, the Claims solicitor drops the compensation amount to just over 10k (They do this to encourage the installer or insurer to pay out and also so that they can still claim costs through the fast track legal route). Costs are typically around 70k at this point”.

That is the model, and it is a scandalous model. No one should be allowed to operate that kind of arrangement in this country, in this age. Solicitors’ companies are supposed to be protecting the interests of their clients and not just trying to make a living parasiting on the distress of homeowners dealing with cavity wall insulation problems. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has a substantial job to do in not just investigating this particular company, but hopefully broadening this out to investigate how solicitors are able to get away with this kind of arrangement, in this kind of way. As we have heard this afternoon, when that arrangement does not work out very well, they go bust and leave all those householders facing those huge bills.

Are the Government able to pursue any form of intervention to assist householders protecting themselves from the claims coming back against them? In a number of instances, those claims are from the installers that have basically been attacked by these particular law firms. The installers have defended themselves, but then the law firms went bust. They have put in a lot of money, and naturally they want some of it back. It is an almighty mess as to who is really responsible for all this, although we know that overwhelmingly the responsibility lies with the dodgy law firms that have pursued this kind of practice and given false guarantees and false promises to householders. Perhaps the Ministry of Justice could look at what sort of practices make this sort of arrangement possible.

We all want to see confidence in cavity wall insulation for future programmes, although we differ among ourselves on the extent of those programmes. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton suggested that it was the Liberal Democrats, in alliance with the Government, that really pursued cavity wall insulation. That was true, but it was based on the programmes of the previous Labour Government, under the cert and assess programmes that carried on until about 2012 and 2013. That produced an enormous number of generally very good cavity wall insulation programmes, but it has crashed since that date. Certainly, the Opposition hope to revive those publicly funded and sorted-out retrofit measures under a future Labour Government.

I think there is agreement on all sides that we want the general public to see that cavity wall insulation is a good thing for their homes and for them, and indeed will be a good service for the nation in making our homes warmer and more liveable. It is important that everybody has confidence that that system is going to work as well as it should and, if it does not work as well as it should, that there is proper redress. I ask the Minister to pursue seriously whatever can be done to seek additional redress for the householders who find themselves in this difficult situation. I also ask the Minister —perhaps working in conjunction with the existing guarantee agencies—to ensure that, for the future, the public have the best level of protection they can get when cavity wall insulation goes wrong: a guarantee that, under most circumstances, people undertaking cavity wall insulation can rest easy that their cavity wall insulation should work rightly for them, but that they need not worry if it does not because help will be at hand to put it right.

15:30
Amanda Solloway Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero (Amanda Solloway)
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It is the greatest of pleasures to be here under your Chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for raising this incredibly important debate, and all hon. Members who have partaken in it and shared some heart-moving stories. It is dreadful for consumers to be in the situation described in those stories and I have every sympathy for the people affected. All Members who have spoken have made their points incredibly well. We need to remember the impact this situation has on people’s lives, which has been portrayed very clearly.

As the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) and for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) have stated, insulating homes properly is one of the most impactful and cost-effective things we can do, which is why we have a number of schemes ongoing to install cavity wall insulation.

As the hon. Member for Halifax has said, the Solicitors Regulation Authority is already working with the Financial Conduct Authority and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors to look into the conduct of the firm in question, but these bodies are independent of Government and it would be inappropriate for my Department or the Ministry of Justice to intervene.

The Ministry of Justice, as the Department responsible for legal services regulation, will continue to closely engage with the SRA and Legal Services Board to understand the action being taken and the timeframes for investigation. However, I am concerned to hear from the hon. Member for Halifax and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) about how companies such as SSB Law may have targeted people. We will ask the SRA, as part of their ongoing investigation, to consider how SSB Law were able to do that. I also acknowledge the points raised by the hon. Members for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) and for Southampton, Test on this subject.

I do not want to see this issue passed around like a football, because this is an urgent matter for the households impacted. I therefore guarantee that I will be writing to the Ministry of Justice, asking them to encourage the SRA to accelerate the investigation for affected homeowners, as they deserve to have this matter addressed swiftly.

Imran Hussain Portrait Imran Hussain
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While the Minister is writing to the Ministry of Justice, can she please kindly request that her colleagues there respond to the letters from MPs and organise an urgent meeting?

Amanda Solloway Portrait Amanda Solloway
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I thank the hon. Member for the intervention. Of course, I will pass on those remarks.

I encourage Members to write to the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero about specific cases. If there is a guarantee in place, my officials will engage with the guarantee agency to see if there is anything that we can do about that particular situation.

The range of Government-backed schemes to install cavity wall insulation are ongoing and lessons have been learned from the complaints that we are discussing today. These complaints, thankfully, are not representative of the experiences of thousands who have used our existing schemes. As I said earlier, in certain circumstances in suitable properties, cavity wall insulation is one of the most cost-effective measures for energy saving. For a relatively small outlay in costs, we know that cavity wall insulation, which costs between £1,000 and £3,000, can save homeowners up to £300 a year.

The hon. Member for Halifax is aware that the Government have made improvements to installation standards as a result of earlier findings. I will summarise the changes we have made, because any response to the problem must include preventing it from happening again. That is why the energy efficiency measures installed under all current Government schemes must be in line with industry best standards established by the British Standards Institution. All installers must be certified to the publicly available specification 2030 standards for any energy efficiency measure that they carry out, including cavity wall insulation, and must demonstrate a high level of competence. The latest revision to the standards was published at the end of September 2023, so I can assure hon. Members that this is a live issue for us and that we continue to refine and improve.

The Department published guidance in October 2019 for consumers who suspect they may have had faulty cavity wall insulation installed in their homes. We urge consumers to follow the guidance to help them avoid becoming victims of fraudulent cavity wall insulation claims.

Outside of Government-funded schemes, I urge all consumers to check the certifications claimed by their installer and what protections or warranties installers can offer before going ahead with work. TrustMark is the Government-endorsed quality mark for retrofit, so its “find an installer” web search will be a good place to start for any consumer, whether the work is Government-funded or not.

As the Minister for Affordability and Skills, I am glad we are discussing this matter today because I think there is a double injustice. People who did the right thing by wanting to install insulation to lower their energy use have suffered from insulation that has failed. That emphasises why we are now required to use the PAS certificate and TrustMark-registered businesses in Government schemes.

A legal firm that was recovering the costs has now collapsed, leaving affected households wondering how this will finally be resolved. That is why I am grateful to the hon. Member for Halifax for bringing the cases in her constituency to my attention, as have other hon. Members. I encourage Members who were unable to attend today to write to the Department about specific cases. My officials will follow up with the relevant guarantee agency to ensure that all due process has been followed.

15:37
Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch
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I thank you once again, Mrs Latham, for chairing this important debate so ably. I thank those hon. Members who have contributed. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), in his diligent and dedicated fashion, is a voice and advocate for his constituents. He is always incredibly supportive of me and so many across this House, and we all appreciate his contributions. I thank him for what he said.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern), who spoke so eloquently on behalf of her constituents, including the young boy struggling with asthma and his parents, who are battling that and the debts to resolve the problems in their home, as well as taking on the giants they are up against that have boxed them in to an incredibly desperate financial position.

Like the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) set out the strong case for cavity wall insulation. When it is done well, it can have a positive impact on homes’ energy efficiency and can reduce energy costs. He described it as a win-win-win. We can see from hon. Members who have outlined the impact of the scenario we have been discussing on our constituents that it has ended up being a lose-lose-lose. I said it was a scandal upon a scandal; the shadow Minister said it was a scandal upon a scandal upon a scandal, and he is absolutely right. This has to be done well. We need to find a solution that gets us through this mess and gives people confidence in cavity wall insulation again.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), who characteristically explained the emotional impact on his constituents and mine, and gave a detailed assessment of how cavity wall installation not only has failed, but has shockingly led to an increase in skin conditions, including in some of the cases he has been involved in. I thank him for his contribution.

I am grateful to the Minister, who I think has understood, from the cases that have been shared, the seriousness and the urgency for the constituents we are representing today. She has encouraged Members to write to her Department. I am sure we will take her up on that offer; however, I ask her again to make representations in the strongest possible terms to her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. As I said, I have not really been left with any confidence that it understood the seriousness of the issue. Its response to me on 22 February just gave definitions of some of the bodies involved and ended by saying:

“At this stage, given that legal services regulators are independent of government and the SRA has ongoing investigations into this issue, it would not be appropriate for MoJ to seek to intervene further.”

That really underlines the point. I absolutely am sensitive to the separation of Government and the legal system, but where there has been such a catastrophic failure, as the shadow Minister so articulately outlined—he described these law firms as operating in a parasitic way—I look to the Ministry of Justice to explore all the ways in which it could appropriately intervene.

Some legal bills that constituents are facing have been paused. I do not know how for long, and am I not absolutely clear why, but expecting people to live with this until the autumn—even if, in the best-case scenario, there is then a solution that resolves it—is asking them to live in pretty desperate, distressing conditions, which I know will drive them further into despair, debt and poverty.

I thank the Minister for her time and finish with a final plea: please can she convey in the strongest possible terms to her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and other Departments why we really need Government help on this?

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the provision of cavity wall insulation under Government grants.

15:42
Sitting suspended.