Tuesday 28th January 2020

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Matt Rodda Portrait Matt Rodda (Reading East) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the fire risk in flats and shared housing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I start by paying tribute to the Grenfell families. As I said in the House last week, it is difficult to imagine the suffering that they have been through. They deserve our respect and our support. I also pay tribute to those in the fire service, who protected local residents as best they could and with such dedication during the night of the tragedy, and to all those in the local community and beyond who have supported local people as the aftermath of the tragedy has unfolded across London and, indeed, across the country.

Today’s debate is an opportunity to discuss some of the many important issues that have arisen in the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster. I will focus my remarks on the following: cladding, of both aluminium composite material and other materials; fire doors and other fire safety matters; problems in flats under 11 metres tall, of which we have many in Reading and Woodley, in my constituency; and, above all, the need for a completely new approach to fire safety from central Government, the fire service, local government and, indeed, the construction industry, all of which have important parts to play. I urge the Minister, who is listening attentively and has offered her support, to urge her colleagues in Government to take determined action on the matter, which has been going on for too long.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He has not specifically said that he will do so, but I hope that he touches on the concerns of leaseholders in such blocks, and how they are to meet the often very high costs of remediation. They cannot always access the block insurance that the developer has taken out in their name, or in the name of their managing agent. I hope that the Minister will address that point, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will touch on it.

Matt Rodda Portrait Matt Rodda
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28 Jan 2020, 9:33 a.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an excellent point. I will address that very issue, which is of great concern to many of the residents I represent and to many people across the country. I heard a very moving report on BBC radio over the weekend discussing the concerns of a young couple in Leeds who were living in a block with ACM cladding and who were deeply traumatised not only by the fire safety issues, but by the lack of amelioration of these serious problems. That links to insurance, and to the situation that leaseholders in such blocks face.

I find it simply staggering that two and a half years after the Grenfell disaster, the Government are still only beginning to address this terribly important issue. Little ACM cladding has been removed in that period. In my borough of Reading, four blocks were identified by Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service as having ACM cladding on the exterior. I believe that only one of them is in the process of having that cladding removed, and that represents a very serious continuing fire risk.

I have been advised that that risk may be getting worse because of the continued possibility of human error. Although additional fire safety measures have been instituted—such as waking watches, where fire wardens are on site during the night—as time goes by, there is a greater possibility that a resident or another person will accidentally do something that induces a fire risk, or that some other problem will cause an accident or a terrible tragedy. I have been advised by fire service personnel that with the passage of time, the risk of human error increases, so the fact that nothing has happened to address the issue in the past two and a half years is significant. The problem is ongoing, and it may be getting worse because of the lack of response from central Government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) rightly pointed out, local residents who live in blocks with ACM cladding face significant stress and concern. The issue affects many of us around the country, because many towns and cities have blocks containing that dreadful material and very few buildings have had it removed. Many of the people affected are private tenants or leaseholders, who have little recourse to take any substantial action on their own. They are often locked into a situation where the freeholder has the power to remove the material but is struggling to do so. Alternatively, they may need to come together with other leaseholders, and it may be difficult in practical terms to agree a way forward. I urge the Government to address that issue in particular. I hope and believe that the Minister is very much in listening mode and will consider how best to push that forward immediately.

I will also pick up on some related concerns. ACM cladding has been mentioned in the Grenfell inquiry, the second part of which opened only yesterday. Without going into significant details, it is worth pointing out that from the opening day of the second phase of the inquiry, it appears that some businesses involved may have known about the potential fire safety risk of ACM cladding some time before the Grenfell disaster. That relates to the problem of current ACM cladding. Cross-party support for much tougher action appears to be emerging. I listened with interest to the comments of Lord Porter, the Conservative chairman of the Local Government Association and a Member of the other place, who rightly picked up on the Government’s lack of action on this important matter.

There are many other forms of cladding, and I will mention some concerns that have been raised with me about the wide range of other materials. In Reading, two buildings have other types of cladding that have caused fire safety concerns. One is the Chatham Place development—it is a series of large multi-storey blocks near the town centre—which has wooden cladding. Wooden cladding is a serious issue, which we need to address as well as ACM; indeed, it played a part in the recent fire in Barking, which was very nearly a complete tragedy. Luckily, residents managed to escape.

Serious concerns have been raised regarding other forms of composite material. Crossway Point, another large block in my constituency that contains a lot of social housing, has other forms of cladding that also need to be addressed urgently. Indeed, there was another fire in Bolton, in the north of England, from which students had a very lucky escape; the Minister is nodding wisely. I appreciate that colleagues in central Government are aware of the problems, but I ask them to act as fast as they can to deal with the wide range of cladding issues.

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab)
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My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know that the Government are doing a review of those other materials. Are we not slightly uncomfortable about the fact that material that has now been banned from use on new buildings under Government regulations is still allowed on existing buildings? Materials that are not of limited combustibility cannot be put on new buildings, but such materials are still on existing buildings, and they pose a risk to residents.

Matt Rodda Portrait Matt Rodda
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28 Jan 2020, 9:38 a.m.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The issue is that the use of such materials has been allowed for many years, and we now face a national crisis—I do not use that word lightly—in building safety and standards, with a legacy of dangerous materials across the whole United Kingdom. We need to take urgent and determined action to address that. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I understand that the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, which he chairs, has carried out some excellent work on that issue, and he is working on a cross-party basis to try to move the matter forward as fast as possible.

I am aware of the need to press on. I will address some specific issues beyond the exterior of buildings, because a number of important points have been made about internal fire safety, an area in which serious dangers could also be lurking for many existing buildings. I draw colleagues’ attention to the issue of fire safety doors, and I will give two examples from Reading residents I have spoken to who have serious concerns about this matter. Obviously, because of the number of buildings that are either tall or are flatted developments, fire safety doors should play a crucial part in stopping the spread of fire—rather like compartmentalisation, which I will come to later.

Eddie Hughes Portrait Eddie Hughes (Walsall North) (Con)
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28 Jan 2020, 9:40 a.m.

Perhaps I should apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman as he is getting to the bit I am particularly concerned with. One problem is that although we have lots of legislation regarding the assembly of fire doors—such as BS 8214, which I think was revised in 2016—on a hot day we may walk through buildings where doors are, ironically, held open with fire extinguishers, as often happens on this Estate. Additionally, during the life of a building, a lack of routine maintenance may mean that its fire doors become less effective than they were previously. Certainly, one of the things that was identified in Grenfell was that some fire door closers were not functioning correctly.

Matt Rodda Portrait Matt Rodda
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28 Jan 2020, 9:41 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes excellent points about the need for proper maintenance, for sensible information to be shared with residents, and for greater awareness of the importance of fire safety doors.

I will give two examples of potentially substandard fire safety doors in two types of development in my constituency. One was a piece of casework that came to me only last week, when an elderly gentleman in his 70s was asked—quite understandably—by the landlord of a shared retirement block to replace his front door, because it was a fire safety door. Although this resident has real concerns about fire, he is an elderly man with a limited income.

Rather like the problems with insurance, one aspect of the issue is the cost of fitting new doors. It is not just about fear and risk, but about the cost to some residents, and the resident I have mentioned told me what happened in his case. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) made a good point about the need for maintenance; in this case, the freeholder, which is the business that runs that block of private retirement flats, had asked residents to fit new doors. This gentleman spent £1,500 fitting a new door, only to be told that a different standard applied, and he has now been asked to fit another door, which will cost £2,000. This is an issue of information, of regulation, and of providing clear advice to vulnerable people.

My other point relates to the pure unease and deep concern felt by many residents. I spoke to another gentleman who lives in a block in Reading town centre. He is in his 20s—completely at the other end of the age range—and he described the poor maintenance of some fire doors, which the hon. Member for Walsall North also mentioned. In the block in which this resident lives, which I believe dates from the 1990s, the doors already seem flimsy. They may not have been up to the relevant standard when they were built, and they certainly seem poorly placed to withstand a prolonged fire. There is little information and little support for residents facing this deep concern, so I emphasise that residents are very concerned about fire doors; that there is poor information; and that many residents face significant extra costs when fitting such doors in private rented or leasehold accommodation.

Eddie Hughes Portrait Eddie Hughes
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28 Jan 2020, 9:43 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman and I have common cause here. My understanding is that some of those fire doors are regarded as 30-minute compliant, or whatever, but they have subsequently been retested and found to not have that level of resistance. Even when somebody thinks they have bought a product that complies, subsequent testing can prove it does not.

Matt Rodda Portrait Matt Rodda
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28 Jan 2020, 9:50 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and I appreciate his intervention. In many ways, the issues are similar to those with cladding: residents have been left with poor-quality building materials in their homes. The advice and the testing of those materials is not up to modern standards. As a result, residents face a great deal of anxiety, and potentially the huge extra cost of retrofitting adequate doors.

A further related issue, which has been discussed quite widely in the media, is compartmentalisation. I have serious concerns about this issue as well, both in tall buildings and in lower ones. Again, I refer colleagues to some of the advice I received as a councillor when the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service investigated blocks in our county. It shared some of the horror stories it had heard about conversions of buildings where compartmentalisation had been clearly breached, leading to a serious increase in fire risk.

For example, I was told that in a block in Slough—obviously not in my constituency, but a similar town not very far away—builders had inadvertently drilled large holes in walls that were meant to compartmentalise fire, to allow service pipes to gain access through the walls, and had not adequately sealed the holes. In a large block of flats, that type of work can breach compartmentalisation. Just as I have raised serious concerns about the exterior of buildings and about fire safety doors, I am equally concerned about the need to maintain compartmentalisation, as are many other Members. This all comes back to the issue of legacy buildings with significant problems, as well as the need for far greater resources for the fire service, local government and private sector contractors, along with regulation and training for staff working on these matters.

There is a growing awareness of the series of problems in tall buildings, and I understand that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is particularly aware of the issues related to ACM. However, I want to highlight how many other blocks also contain the same potential fire risks. This is an issue not just with the very tallest of tall buildings, but with the far greater number of lower-rise buildings that are still flats and contain a large number of residents. To give an idea of the scale of the issue, I want to discuss how it affects Reading and, indeed, the county of Berkshire. I am using Berkshire as an example because our fire service is still operated on a county basis, although the county is made up of small unitary authorities.

Between 2,000 and 2,500 buildings in Berkshire are flatted or multi-occupancy purpose-built buildings under 11 metres tall. I understand that Ministers are currently looking at buildings above an 11-metre threshold, but I urge them to look at those below 11 metres, because of the large number of them across much of this country. I hope that my local examples will give Ministers a flavour of the sorts of problems they may come across when they discuss this issue with local authorities and the building industry. Across Berkshire, there are a large number of buildings—student accommodation at universities and colleges, old people’s residential blocks, a wide range of other residential buildings, and possibly some other buildings—where there may be issues such as faulty fire safety doors and problems with cladding and compartmentalisation, as well as other matters that we have not yet discussed. The scale of the issue is simply enormous.

I appreciate that many Members may have visited Reading only on the train, perhaps while on their way home to their constituencies in the midlands, the west country or other parts of the UK. To give them a simple illustration, if Members were travelling through my constituency on the train, they might notice four or five tall blocks, but below those individual high points on the horizon they would see a townscape of many, many flats. In my constituency office, we carried out an exercise of trying to establish how many addresses had the term “flat” attached to them. It is difficult to fully establish that fact, because some buildings are described as “court”, “residence”, or with some other prefix or suffix, but the number is huge. Several thousand people in Reading itself live in flats. Imagine the number of flats across the whole county of Berkshire, with neighbouring towns such as Slough or Bracknell, which are heavily built up and developed. Indeed, some of the market towns such as Wokingham, Windsor or Newbury may also contain a large number of new flats or retirement homes for older residents, all of which are potentially affected by these same serious issues.

The scale of the problem is simply enormous, and it exists across the whole of the UK. I imagine that every Member here today has dozens and dozens of similar low-rise flats in their constituency, all with the same potential problems as the high-rise flats, yet those buildings are not on the Government’s target list at the moment. I appreciate that looking at buildings below 11 metres may require a significant injection of resource, but given the scale of the concerns and what we have already seen with Grenfell and those other fires, which were in lower-rise buildings at or around the 11-metre threshold, this is a very serious and substantial issue. I also appreciate that the Minister took time to talk to me before this morning’s debate, but I urge her once again to find the necessary resources to address this extremely serious problem, which affects so many residents.

There are two or three other issues that act in combination with those relating to lower-rise buildings below 11 metres. There are not only structural issues, which we have discussed, but important related issues to do with tenure and the nature of conversions, which are also germane to the debate. I will use Reading and Woodley as examples, because I know them well, but I am sure that every hon. Member present could describe the same thing.

Simply, there has been an explosion in the number of houses of multiple occupation in the United Kingdom in the last 20 to 30 years. Many hon. Members may have rented properties in their youth. It is now common to rent properties by room, rather than a couple renting a flat together or a single person renting a small flat by themselves. It is common for terraced houses, including taller three-storey houses, to be divided between multiple occupiers who often do not know one another and who may be cooking and using the building at different times. That building may be old and not have fire safety doors or other measures fitted, which is potentially a massive problem that is linked to the issues with lower-rise buildings. It is an additional and to some extent overlapping problem. I urge the Minister to look at the regulation of that part of the housing sector.

Some local authorities have been quite robust in registering landlords, which is my preference. In my borough, there are serious problems with resourcing, but the local authority has cracked down on the worst offenders. That is typical of many local authorities, which are doing their best with limited resources. One or two local authorities have led the way with full registration schemes, such as Newham Council and Liverpool City Council. I urge the Minister to consider finding the resources for local authorities across the country to run registration schemes, because of the fire safety risks and other related health and amenity risks.

My local fire services told me that, although it has not been widely discussed in the media, there are a large number of unregistered HMOs, which are particularly dangerous, because vulnerable people may be living there and being exploited by unscrupulous landlords. That is beyond the sector where landlords register with the local authority.

Office-to-flat conversions are another pressing issue because building standards are much more lax than in other forms of development. A significant part of the new housing in the borough of Reading, which makes up a large part of my constituency, comes from that type of conversion. If someone were to drive from Reading town centre to the M4, they would see a series of buildings built in the 1980s, which were then the most attractive office buildings. Because of changes to building design and the use of IT in buildings, however, they have been converted to flatted accommodation. A wide range of other risks could lurk inside those buildings. I urge the Minister to address that point, as I am sure she is willing to, when she considers the other issues that I have mentioned. Local authorities lack sufficient powers to investigate the full nature of those conversions, so many fire safety risks may exist in such buildings.

I appreciate that I have spent some time on these matters, so I will address the new fire safety Bill and the need for significant resources. I welcome the Government’s Bill, which I hope will contain the type of regulation that I have suggested that we will need to address those serious concerns, but I ask the Minister to address the full scale of the matter and to make sure that fire services, local authorities and the construction sector have the necessary resources to address the crisis as new legislation is introduced.

I have discussed the measure with colleagues in local government and the fire services in Berkshire. It is estimated that Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service would need 30 extra staff, which is 5% of their total headcount. It is a significant extra resource, which would be needed to inspect the buildings that I have described, which are not currently being inspected. After Grenfell, the service rapidly inspected tall buildings in Berkshire, but did not have the necessary resource to address the 2,500 additional buildings of 11 metres and below, the large number of HMOs or the other buildings that I have mentioned, which may need to be inspected.

The 5% increase in the establishment number for Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service is just one example of a county fire service needing further resources. It is estimated that it would take between two-and-a-half and four years to train some of the key staff. The figure of 30 includes support staff, admin and legal support, all of which are important parts of the fire service team. It will take time to train the fire inspectors, some of whom have significant academic qualifications at degree level, and in some cases at masters level, in fire safety and building matters. I am sure that our fire services are willing to undertake that important work, but they will need extra financial resources.

Our fire services face specific pressures, as the Minister is aware. Many services in areas near major conurbations—in our case, London—face additional financial pressures due to problems in recruiting and retaining public sector staff because of the high cost of housing. In Berkshire and many other places, there is a lack of flexibility in the current fire service precept. In our case, the precept went up to around £65 per household per year across the county, which was only a £1.20-per-household increase. The fire service would dearly like a £5-per-household increase to allow it to carry out further work. That would not cover the extra 30 staff, but would enable other recruitment and retention measures.

In addition to the fire service, there is a clear need to invest far more in local government and to revise the model of accreditation of fire inspection and building control inspections to make it a more professionalised service. The Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), has carried out more detailed work on this important issue, about which I have spoken to him. Again, it relates to the need for personnel in the fire service. I urge the Minister, who I am sure is aware of the issue, to look at it as a matter of urgency because of its importance and because of the lead time for training staff, many of whom have degree-level qualifications, which are necessary given the complicated world of construction. The staff we need are highly trained and skilled. As a country, we need time to invest in those people, to pay them and to retain them in the public sector.

I urge the Minister to consider the work of other, related Departments, such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health and Social Care, and other forms of regulation in local authorities that overlap with fire safety responsibilities. It is also worth considering the pressure on private sector firms that operate in the construction industry. Yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with a small business in my constituency about that pressure and the fact that there needs to be greater awareness in the industry of different types of cladding and materials, so that it can move away from ACM cladding. As hon. Members may know, part of the problem is that the inner core of ACM cladding is petrochemical-based, which is highly flammable. Many members of the construction industry would like to know more about alternative materials, but they have training needs. They would be grateful if they could work in greater partnership with central Government and local authorities to address those needs.

I have had similar conversations with local councillor Ayo Sokale, who is a civil engineer and has a lot to offer on the subject in Reading. She pointed out the desire of civil engineers to learn more as specialists in their field, which again relates to the issue of building construction safety. There are needs within professions and within the wider construction industry that must be urgently addressed. I encourage the Minister to work closely with the sector through industry bodies, as I am sure she wishes to, to provide it with the support that it needs.

In Reading, we are lucky to have a great academic tradition in the University College of Estate Management, which is now more than 100 years old, and the University of Reading, which provide academic training and support, architecture degrees and other estate management and surveying courses. That type of investment is greatly needed to support the training of people within the industry, working with the sector and related professional bodies, to help them to provide the level of service that they wish to, and to move away from a low-cost, low-quality model, so that we encourage buildings that are safe, that will last for generations and that will provide the kind of homes that people want to live in.

I thank you, Mr Gray, and the House for allowing me this debate. I thank colleagues for their helpful and thoughtful interventions. I look forward to hearing more from the Minister and from other colleagues. I urge the Minister to take those points on board and to act with the greatest urgency to address these very important matters.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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28 Jan 2020, 10 a.m.

I thank the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for setting the scene so well. He has given the perspective from his constituency and I wish to do the same for Northern Ireland.

I have been considering this issue and liaising with our Housing Executive and others since the terrible Grenfell disaster highlighted massive concerns. I am pleased to see the Minister in her place and I look forward to her response to the debate.

The blocks in Northern Ireland were built in the 1950s and ’60s. Of the 33 blocks in Northern Ireland, 25 are in Belfast, and the 1,931 flats in them primarily have two bedrooms. Of those flats, 1,650 belong to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and 281 have been sold. That complicates the problem—I have heard the issues discussed on the media here on the mainland—as some people who have bought their properties find themselves in a Catch-22 situation.

Although our buildings differ in scale from those on the mainland, the issue must still be taken seriously. I am deeply concerned about this matter. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for healthy homes and buildings. Safety and healthy living are important qualities, and this debate on risk in flats and shared houses is important to the APPG.

One of my constituents has a massive interest in this issue due to his extensive knowledge of it. He has provided me with notes, which I have brought to the attention of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive back home. Those notes should be taken seriously, and I thank my constituent for the information.

Although we use a different type of cladding from that used on the mainland, my constituent says that there are still issues to be addressed. The PVC cladding on tower blocks owned by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive was tested under the BRE 135 and BS 8414 standards. The tests were carried out in 2013, long before the Grenfell fire, but they raised an issue about which I believe we should have been more aware. BRE concluded that the PVC cladding was safe, even though it fully combusted within five minutes of being exposed to temperatures exceeding 600°C. That is a very surprising conclusion, to say the least.

The PVC cladding company claims that the material is Euroclass B, which is of limited combustibility. Other documents, however, suggest that it is Euroclass E, which is fully combustible. The Government must reconsider the continued use on blocks higher than 18 metres of any material below Euroclass A. Under that standard, many blocks would be non-compliant. I hope the Minister can give an idea of how that proposal would impact on existing proposals across the United Kingdom.

According to BRE, smoke toxicity is a major concern. Burning PVC emits significant quantities of hydrogen chloride gas, which can kill people in minutes, long before they have a chance to escape the building. How many of the people in the awful tragedy of Grenfell were dead before the fire got to them, because of the emissions? If people can be killed by the emissions, those emissions have to be addressed. Proposed smoke toxicity regulations from Brussels have not been adopted. We must address the issue, regardless of pre-existing regulations. I hope the Minister can tell us where we stand on the implementation of those regulations.

Nothing can bring back those who died in the Grenfell fire on that dreadful day—it is important to remember those who were lost—but we must use the tragedy to spur us on to make sure that another preventable tragedy does not happen. We must think about the action that could have been taken and the lives that could have been saved.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, including on how we will filter information to the devolved Assemblies to ensure that we are all on the same page. It is vital that there are UK-wide regulations and guidelines—that all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has the same policy, law, guidelines and rules, that all people will be safe and that what happened at Grenfell will never happen again.

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab)
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28 Jan 2020, 10:05 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) on an excellent opening contribution. It was serious, thoughtful and comprehensive. I am sure the Minister will respond accordingly, as my hon. Friend made some valid points.

I begin by thanking hon. Members for re-elected me as Chair of the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government. I say that because I want to refer to the Committee’s work on these matters in the previous Parliament. It looked many times at post-Grenfell issues. Dame Judith Hackitt and Ministers appeared before the Committee, to discuss her excellent report and the Government’s response.

I could not be in the House last Monday, but I read what the Secretary of State had to say on further Government proposals. Most are welcome and I think there is cross-party agreement about the direction of travel. The cross-party concern on the Select Committee has been that while the Government’s response has ultimately moved in the right direction, they have not moved as quickly as they should have done. Many of the proposals that the Government are now considering implementing were recommended by the Select Committee some time ago.

The cladding and aluminium composite material were a major factor in the Grenfell disaster. The Government moved very quickly to ban that material, and they were right to do so. The problem is that it has taken time to remove it from buildings. There are still far too many buildings with ACM material on them, partly because, even though the Government brought in the ban, it took an awful long time to persuade the Treasury to come up with the funding to remove the material from social housing, and then to offer a financial assistance scheme to the private sector.

There is a real issue that will affect any other Government action on leasehold properties. It is absolutely right that leaseholders are in no position to pay for cladding removal. In cases involving fairly recent developments, the property developer may still be the freeholder, so the ownership will not have changed and they might be in a financial position to pay for the cladding to be removed. If the freehold has been sold to a company whose only source of income is ground rent, that company is unlikely to be able to fund the removal. That is a Catch-22 situation. If neither leaseholder nor the freeholder can pay for it, we are back with Government responsibility.

That leads us to other forms of cladding. The Government have quite rightly banned the use of non-limited combustibility materials on new development. However, certain cladding that cannot be put on new buildings is allowed to remain on existing buildings. There is something fundamentally wrong with that situation. I hope it does not take another disaster before the Government recognise that some of that other material has to come off as well. I know that the review is taking place. Experts tell me that zinc composite material is just as dangerous and combustible as aluminium composite material. High-pressure laminate material has been reviewed and tested. It is not allowed on new buildings but it can stay on existing buildings. As my hon. Friend said, there is also wood cladding material. If, eventually, the Treasury were asked to fund a scheme for those materials that is similar to that used for ACM, the bill would potentially run up to £3 billion. I suspect that is why Ministers cannot move faster at present. There is a real challenge there.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned that this is not just about height. The focus has been on buildings that are more than six or 10 storeys, but buildings do not necessarily have to be high in order to be at potential major risk. Such buildings include student accommodation, residential accommodation for the elderly, hotels, hospitals or nursing homes. The risk posed to each is different, and there must be specific regulations to deal with it. Any material of limited combustibility on those buildings, irrespective of their height, creates a greater risk. That is something else that the Government now have to address.

The Select Committee also focused on an issue that came out of Dame Judith’s report—namely conflicts of interest, which often mean that the wrong things are done. I will highlight just two examples. The first involves building inspectors appointed by the developer who then sign off the work of the company that appointed them. Dame Judith was caustic about this practice, and she made it very clear that this has to end. That does not mean that every building should be inspected by a local authority-employed inspector, but the local authority should do the appointing so that there are no conflicts of interest, and that has to be resolved quickly.

The Royal Riverside development in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) is horrible case. The resident students had to be moved out by the council and the university. The building had been signed off as fit to live in, but there were fire doors missing and it had not had a fire risk assessment. A whole catalogue of problems meant that the building was a real fire risk, but it had been signed off by the building inspector, who could not have been to the site to check those things. It was proved later that he had not been to the site. This is simply not acceptable.

Fire authorities also have conflicts of interest. They often set up their own trading arms and then mark their own homework. That has to stop as well, and the Committee was very clear on that.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
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28 Jan 2020, 10:12 a.m.

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention, and that of the Minister, to a third conflict of interest, in relation to warranties? Warranty providers appoint their own approved inspectors, which, again, leaves the resident with no independent redress.

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Betts
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28 Jan 2020, 9:59 a.m.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that further conflict of interest. The National House Building Council refused to honour a warranty because the development had not been signed off by its own building inspector. That is in the small print of the warranty agreement. These fundamental problems need to be addressed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East has said, people in private sector accommodation face fire risks. Houses in multiple occupation have real challenges and difficulties. My hon. Friend drew attention to licensing schemes, which are really valid. It is not the licence itself that matters, but managing the licence and ensuring that proper inspections are done. Local authority resources are key, but local authorities often do not have the resources to do it properly. I am disappointed that the Government did not accept the Select Committee’s recommendation that it should be down to the local authority to decide which areas should have licensing schemes. Why do the Government have to second-guess this? We said this should be a local authority decision. In the age of devolution and local democracy, let local authorities do it. As long as people can appeal to the Secretary of State if local authorities do not follow the proper process, the decision should be for the local authority and local community, and not something for Ministers to second-guess.

The Minister kindly wrote to me about the Government’s right decision to bring in inspections every five years of electrical installations in private rented accommodation. The Select Committee recommended that in 2015, which was five years ago—we got there in the end. She can probably give a very simple answer on this point. She said that the work will be signed off by a “competent inspector”, but what does that mean? One of the problems with part P of the building regulations is that, although there is a competent person scheme, that does not mean, ironically, that a competent person has to do the work. It simply means that the company has to be part of a competent person scheme and that it has someone with the necessary qualification, but that someone does not necessarily have to be the person who does the work. Will the inspectors have a certificate to say they are competent, or will they simply be employed by a company that is part of the competent persons scheme? That is a really fundamental point.

My hon. Friend has covered many points, and I will not go into all of them. He raised an important issue about not just how well buildings are built when it comes to fire safety, but about how they are managed and maintained afterwards. One of the strengths of Dame Judith’s report was that it looked at the whole life of buildings, including residents’ involvement in ensuring that they are properly informed about their buildings, and at how buildings are maintained and managed. It also looked at ensuring that a properly accountable person is in place to do that, so that the organisation has rules and procedures on whether doors should be changed to improve their fire resistance, whether they are being kept open, and whether they are being properly maintained. All of those issues are absolutely crucial to the safety of buildings.

There are an awful lot of issues to examine; the Minister is probably grappling with some of them in her new post. There are major challenges. I look forward to the Minister, along with Dame Judith, attending the Select Committee before long, to see what progress has been made. Our job is to challenge and scrutinise the Government, and hopefully to push them to move a little quicker than they have moved in the past.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
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28 Jan 2020, 9:38 a.m.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chair of the Select Committee. I am pleased to see him back in his position and to speak in this crucial debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) on securing it. He, the Chair of the Select Committee and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have covered many of the important issues at stake. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I wish you all the best in the elections this week.

Housing is a devolved matter, and I pay tribute to the Welsh Government for their work on fire safety and building issues—particularly the groundbreaking law on sprinklers in buildings that was introduced in 2016; the ban on combustible cladding that was announced just last week by the Minister for Housing, Julie James; and the plans to bring forward a crucial White Paper on the wider life cycle of apartment buildings and buildings in general. There are many things here on which we can work UK-wide, as the hon. Member for Strangford said.

Many of the construction companies involved in building these blocks are based across the UK, and many issues relating to insurance and legacy regulation are at a UK level. Co-operation between the UK Administrations, and with the UK Government, is therefore crucial to ensure that we keep our residents safe and expose companies—I will come on to some very specific concerns—that, quite frankly, should be ashamed about their buildings and their failure to live up to construction standards.

I will talk about a specific example in my constituency that has been heavily in the media in recent months: the Celestia block in Cardiff bay, which is a short distance from the National Assembly and other developments. It is one of the many developments that have brought people into the former docklands areas of Cardiff bay over the past 15 to 20 years. In my constituency we now have something over 16,000 individual apartment units in a range of different styles. Some of them are extremely pleasant, with beautiful views across the water, and they have brought in people from all over to contribute to Cardiff’s economy.

However, I am sorry to say that some very serious issues have been raised with me about defects in the buildings, and a significant number of them relate to fire safety. I do not want to name all the other blocks; as Members will be aware, one challenge that we face as elected representatives is that if we expose such things in the media, we can cause serious damage to the financial standing of owners and leaseholders, and we can create panic and fear. In the aftermath of the horrific events at Grenfell, many constituents have come to me with serious fears and concerns that have led to mental health worries and other difficulties, especially for people who live in taller blocks.

With the city’s public high-rise housing, which is run by Cardiff Council and other providers, I am pleased to say that the council has taken significant steps to address fire safety concerns and reassure residents. I pay tribute to my colleague Councillor Lynda Thorne for the work she has done on these issues for Cardiff Council; to the councillor for Butetown, Saeed Ebrahim; and to my Assembly colleague Vaughan Gething, with whom I have worked closely.

Unfortunately, we have not seen the same in the private sector. Celestia, the development, was built by Redrow and Laing O’Rourke. I am sorry to say that their response to me, other elected representatives and, most importantly, the residents of the Celestia block has been, quite frankly, shameful. The failure of the chief executive, John Tutte, and others even to respond to the concerns that I and others have raised with him shames the company. They have some very serious questions to answer.

Celestia is a huge development built in 2006, comprising 457 leasehold residential development dwellings, ranging from one-bedroom flats to multi-bedroom apartments. It is spread across seven apartment blocks in Cardiff bay that are joined together. We have been advised by residents and, more recently, in inspections that the building has several serious dangerous defects ranging across, but not limited to, fire safety. They include defective render, defective roof anchors and defective balconies, which are not safe to go out on. Sewage has spilled into people’s apartments. I was told of a sewage pipe that had been propped up on a Starbucks cup behind a wall, resulting in one of the flats being flooded with sewage. The issues go well beyond fire safety.

On fire safety, the inspections found very poor or non-existent compartmentation measures, which my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East spoke about, missing or defective external fire cavity barriers, and the use of timber cladding insulation that is not of the required standards. In response, Redrow and Laing O’Rourke have washed their hands of the issues. I have been dealing with two organisations at the block: the Celestia Action Group and the leasehold association, Celestia Management Company Ltd. Both have separately raised concerns with me.

Redrow and Laing O’Rourke responded to me. Redrow said:

“Redrow procured the services of Laing O’Rourke as main contractor…Redrow are no longer the freeholder…and any works required to be carried out would require the consent of the freeholder…Redrow acknowledge the potential issues relating to fire safety and will continue to work closely with the management company, freeholder and main contractor,”

and so on and so on, but it gives no commitment. To add insult to injury, its suggested remedy for work that will potentially cost millions of pounds on such a large block is to offer the residents a loan to pay to rectify defects that it is responsible for. That is, quite frankly, shocking and an insult to the residents in the block.

Laing O’Rourke similarly washed its hands of the issue, saying:

“We are aware of the background to the issues raised in your letter. The present situation is that the current building management company has engaged third party technical advisers”—

blah, blah, blah.

“We have fully co-operated…We are however unable to comment further on the issues raised in your letter whilst the technical review is in progress.”

From a pride point of view, I think of what I would do if I were involved in a company responsible for a building with so many defects, particularly relating to fire safety, which put residents’ lives at risk to the point that South Wales Fire and Rescue Service had to intervene and issue orders that could have resulted in the immediate evacuation of the building. Thankfully, it was possible to undertake some immediate remedial work, so that was not required, but the fact that work had to take place within the next 12 months shows the scale of the problems.

I have met Councillor Lynda Thorne and Cardiff Council to discuss building control and environmental safety, and they are working closely with South Wales Fire and Rescue Service to try to address some of the immediate concerns. There are also issues relating to access for fire appliances around the building. Such access involves a path on the edge of the docks that often floods, and the fire service is understandably worried about being able to get appliances round to the side of the high-rise building.

One of the residents wrote to me to say:

“Although the most shocking fire safety issues were only discovered in the last year or so, the majority of the defects from a cost point of view have been known about for many years, yet you”—

Redrow—

“have refused to put them right. These aren’t defects caused by wear and tear, or poor maintenance, they are fundamental construction defects. Indeed, I haven’t once heard an argument put forward by either company”—

Redrow or Laing O’Rourke—

“that the defects are a fault of leaseholders, and my understanding is that the reason you aren’t paying to put them right is because you are hiding behind legal loopholes. Morally, I find your attitude absolutely disgusting. I like many others, am currently stuck in an apartment that is”

potentially worthless.

“I would like you to explain to me why, after buying this apartment in good faith, I am essentially out by”

a very large sum of money. They asked why they should have to pay the sum,

“instead of you—the builders and developers of the complex.”

Celestia Action Group told me and other elected representatives in December that, despite its attempts to secure a standstill agreement with Redrow—there is a belief that Redrow has been dragging out this process to go over a 12-year period to try to avoid its responsibilities further—Redrow rejected that. Celestia Action Group believes that there is a deliberate attempt to try to frustrate the interests of the building’s leaseholders and residents.

Celestia Action Group is equally shocked by the proposal of a soft loan, not least because Redrow did pay out for and rectify the issues at the Ropeworks building in Barking. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) raised that issue at the time. The block was built at around the same time as Celestia and there are very similar issues, and yet Redrow paid out there. Why is it one rule for a block that the company built in Barking and a different rule for a block that it built at about the same time in Cardiff? I believe that the company was building similar blocks to similar standards in other cities around the UK at the time. Clearly, it was attempting to get away with avoiding its responsibilities in a couple of places to save itself money, and in other places it was paying up.

The company is predicted to make £406 million in pre-tax profits this year, so I understand residents’ outrage at its failure to deal with this problem. John Tutte himself received something like £2 million annual compensation, so the loan that the company is offering the residents in Celestia is about 50% of what he gets, let alone what the company makes. Understandably, people are absolutely shocked. I was delighted to join residents protesting when, to our shock, Redrow was being recommended for an award in Cardiff bay just before Christmas. I stood outside another building where the awards ceremony was taking place, protesting with residents. Many of them had not had the courtesy of a response from Redrow and Laing O’Rourke. Many residents attending the awards ceremony live in the block of flats and were unaware not only of the scale of the building’s problems, but of Redrow’s and Laing O’Rourke’s failure to deal with them.

There are some very serious issues here, and we have heard about the wider context that they sit within. It is clear that such issues occur across the United Kingdom. They relate to serious defects in fire safety and other building construction standards. They go back many years, and companies simply wash their hands of them, often by self-certifying, not having adequate inspections and offering worthless guarantees. Then, when problems are identified, instead of doing the right, moral thing—rectifying the issues and coming to agreements with leaseholder associations and others—they simply try to wash their hands of them and bat them off to somebody else. It is not good enough. The senior management of Redrow should sit down with me and the residents of Celestia in Cardiff bay. There needs to be much wider investigation and regulation of the industry, particularly because in cities such as mine—my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East said the same—new apartments blocks are going up all the time. This is about not just the high-rises, but the lower-rise blocks, too. I am sorry to say that I am frequently told about serious concerns and problems.

I will continue to work with my Assembly colleagues and others, and I am pleased by the work that they and Cardiff Council are doing. The UK Government must look at the matter too, and companies such as Redrow and Laing O’Rourke should take responsibility for their shocking and shameful behaviour.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
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28 Jan 2020, 10:28 a.m.

As ever, it is an enormous honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Like others, I thank the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for securing this debate on a hugely important and topical issue. We of course await sight of the fire safety Bill, but I know from last week’s debate on the phase 1 report of the Grenfell inquiry that there is rightly significant cross-party support in the House on this issue, as evidenced by the four Back-Bench speeches this morning. I am glad to be summing up for the Scottish National party.

In his very comprehensive speech, the hon. Gentleman spoke about concerns about cladding. We are moving into phase 2 of the Grenfell inquiry, and we all agree that we should wait and see what happens over the course of phase 2, so that our actions can take that in. Certainly, there is a wider point about the Treasury and leaseholders.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about issues relating to internal safety in buildings—particularly high-rise blocks—after the Grenfell inquiry. I have 10 tower blocks in my constituency of Glasgow East. I was very grateful to Glasgow Housing Association for taking me on a tour of those blocks, where we looked at internal issues, some of which related to fire doors. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), who is no longer in his place, was right to make the point that we can have all the legislation in the world, but cultural issues sometimes mean that people might use fire extinguishers to hold doors open, for example, which is not necessarily ideal.

The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) spoke about some of the devolved issues in Wales and Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth was right to take to task some local organisations that are definitely not stepping up to the plate. As ever, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who chairs the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, spoke very powerfully and with great authority. He was right to make the point about the impact on leaseholders.

We covered so much ground in last week’s debate in the main Chamber, so I will not repeat much of what I said then. I will focus instead on a number of ancillary issues that I did not manage to touch on last week. In the context of the debate, let us not forget that people are still living in dangerous homes, so it is imperative that we reassure our constituents, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth tried to do. He made the point that we cannot have just words; we must have actions from Westminster.

Last year, we saw the chilling sight of a block of flats in Barking go up in flames. The psychological impact on survivors of Grenfell, as well as on those who were bereaved, can scarcely be imagined. The fact remains that tens of thousands of people live in privately owned tower blocks in which remedial work on fire safety has yet to be completed, while the British Government pass the buck to freeholders. My message to the Government remains very much the same as last week: we must make better progress in reassuring people who live in high-rise blocks and shared accommodation.

According to the charity Electrical Safety First, in 2017-18, 150,000 fires were caused by an electrical ignition source, which accounted for 60% of all accidental domestic fires across the UK. The Government’s strategy to tackle that problem has been poor. The concentration of consumer messages has centred on the “Fire Kills” campaign, but despite the British Government’s advertisements last March—including some messaging on the dangers of overloading sockets—more definitely needs to be done to focus on electricity in future campaigns.

In Scotland, Electrical Safety First has been running the successful “Inequality Street” campaign, the aim of which is for everyone to be protected by the same electrical safety laws regardless of tenure or dwelling type. The campaign’s focus this year will be electrical safety in mixed-tenure blocks, which I welcome. Put quite simply, flat owners should be expected to meet higher standards when there is a potential impact on their neighbour’s safety.

North of the border, the Scottish Government have shown their commitment to high safety standards in Scottish homes by introducing new legislation last February that requires all domestic properties in Scotland, regardless of tenure, to have the same levels of smoke and fire detection. Private landlords have also been required to carry out five-yearly electrical checks since 2015—the Select Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East, made that point—and will soon be required to fit residual-current devices, which cut off the power if a fault is detected, in all their rented properties.

When it comes to tumble dryers and washing machines, there have been two major recalls recently, so electrical appliance and fire safety need to be a priority, especially for people living in flats. How is the Minister working with colleagues in the Department to communicate messages to the public about appliances causing fires? Will we soon see, for example, TV advertisements from the Fire Kills campaign about appliance fires? Will she also think about how fires are recorded by fire and rescue services?

Consumers are charging their devices more than ever before, so will the Minister commit to ensuring that British Government records include fires caused by, for example, mobile phone chargers rather than trouser presses, which must surely be falling out of use? A wider point is that more and more consumers use websites such as Wish.com, and we essentially import products from China that do not meet British standards. That is a concern.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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28 Jan 2020, 10:29 a.m.

The hon. Member has outlined what the Government need to do. Does he agree that companies also have great responsibilities? The Government perhaps need to introduce legislation or make changes to the law to ensure that companies are accountable to the people to whom they sell their electrical products, because currently, if the products catch fire, the companies seem to walk away.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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28 Jan 2020, 10:29 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; the Government absolutely have a role in ensuring that we hold those companies to account. Equally, we have a role as consumers on a personal level. We have to consider the standard of an Apple charger that is sold for only £2 or £3, for example. We know that consumer behaviour is evolving and it is important, as he has said, that the Government keep pace.

As I said at the outset of my remarks, there is much cross-party consensus on ensuring that we have the highest possible fire safety standards, on which Scotland is already leading the way. The SNP would certainly support some kind of team approach—of the sort mentioned by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth and the hon. Member for Strangford—to ensure that we are on the same page across the UK. My fundamental message is that action needs to come at a much greater pace.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) (Lab)
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28 Jan 2020, 10:35 a.m.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) on—as the Select Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), said—his incredibly thoughtful, considered and detailed speech. We will all be listening to the Minister’s response.

Nearly a thousand days since the Grenfell tower fire, it is hard to know where to begin on the chaos of building controls and safety systems in this country. Before this debate, the Royal Institute of British Architects, which is a well-respected body, sent a briefing in which it said that it remains deeply concerned that, apart from the ban on combustible cladding in certain buildings, regulations remain exactly the same as they were when the fire occurred over two years ago.

I will run through events since the fire. Following the fire, the first phase of the public inquiry was 18 months overdue, and the response to the Grenfell survivors was woeful, as the Government admit. On the removal of ACM cladding, nine in 10 private blocks are still covered in it, and three-quarters of all residential blocks with that cladding are still wrapped. A thousand days on since the fire, developers and freeholders are not taking responsibility at all, as my Friend the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, but the Government also need to step up to the plate. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the number of times that he mentioned Redrow and Laing O’Rourke. I hope that their public affairs firms, to which I am sure they direct significant resources, will pick up on this debate and take some action.

The Government are more than a year overdue in publishing the results of testing of suspect non-cladding materials other than ACM cladding. They told us that publication would be set for summer, then autumn, then before Christmas, and now spring. How much longer will we have to wait? The delays and contradictory advice in government guidance mean that up to 600,000 people are now trapped in unsafe or unsellable buildings—their lives are on hold and they do not know whether their flats are worthless. In my constituency, there are several cases of people who cannot sell and are trapped. Last week at my surgery, I saw some people who work in the NHS and who are moving to Southampton in two years to start a new job. They cannot sell their flat because they have not got the paperwork that says whether it is safe.

On sprinklers, which have been mentioned, Labour research from last year revealed that just 5% of tall council blocks are fitted with sprinklers. The two-tier system that the Chair of the Select Committee talked about is growing ever wider; there are some rules for new buildings but not for people in existing blocks. That is completely unfair and the Government have offered no funding to help with the retrofitting of sprinklers.

No legislation has been promised. Ministers have made 21 announcements on building safety since Grenfell and have made repeated promises to legislate, but nothing has reached statute, not even a draft Bill. Will the Minister give us a date for the introduction of the fire safety Bill? That would be very helpful.

We still do not know how deep the scandal goes. That is perhaps the most worrying aspect of all, because the Government have still not audited tower blocks, which they should have done straight after Grenfell. Despite saying that HPL cladding is lethal and must be removed, Ministers cannot tell us how many blocks have HPL—or other types, such as timber cladding, as mentioned—or where they are.

Last week’s Government announcement was welcome, but it is a half-hearted response, long overdue and too weak. We have been calling for naming and shaming developers and freeholders since last June, but the Government have set December in the timetable. Why wait? Seventy-five block owners still have no plan, although they have had two-and-a-half years of warnings. Why not name them today?

Reducing the height threshold for sprinklers and combustible cladding, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East said, serves only to increase the gulf in our two-tier system. The Government apply a safety standard for those in new blocks but not for those in existing blocks. That disproportionately affects social housing tenants because, fundamentally, they are the ones in the existing blocks. Thousands of blocks over 30 metres do not have sprinklers—let alone those over 11 metres—because they were built before Labour introduced the 30-metre threshold for sprinklers.

Why do we need more consultations when last year we had months and months of consultations on Approved Document B, which covers sprinklers, combustible cladding, fire doors and more? The responses were clearly in favour of greater safety, so why wait? Why not legislate now? Why ignore the recommendations that for specialised housing, such as care homes and hospitals, the ban on combustible cladding should apply to all heights of buildings? Talk to anyone in the fire service and they will say, “We need to have sprinklers in care homes.” The London fire service advises that every new school built should have sprinklers. The cost is about the same as putting in carpets, but only 3% of new schools built have sprinklers. We need to address all such issues.

There are also some big questions about the announcement that ACM cladding should be removed from all buildings, regardless of height. If that is what the Government are suggesting, the implications for Government, local authorities, housing associations and leaseholders are profound. If the Government had always been clear that ACM buildings below 18 metres must be remediated, as the Secretary of State implied last week, why are they not collecting information on how many buildings there are and where they are? Why are they not publishing the information in the monthly building safety updates? Why are those buildings not entitled to help from the ACM remediation fund, or will they be going forward? Have the residents been informed? What guidance was sent to local authorities to indicate that that was the Government’s view? Most of all, why did the Government guidance, post Grenfell, in amendments to building regulations last year, explicitly refer to buildings over 18 metres?

Finally—I want to give the Minister plenty of time to respond—the scandal at the heart of all this is that hundreds of thousands of leaseholders and people in blocks do not know what is happening to them. They do not know what they will have to pay. They do not know whether they will be able to move out of their blocks. They are suffering deep anxiety and stress. We all have people in our constituencies in that situation, although rather highlighting those in my constituency, I will highlight some who have been trying to get in touch with the Secretary of State for a long time. For months, the residents of the Skyline Central block in Manchester have been asking him to intervene after they were charged up to £25,000 each. The deadline for when they were supposed to pay has now passed, but they have still not heard from the Secretary of State.

Nearly 1,000 days after the fire, everything comes down, fundamentally, to trust. There are so many problems that the Government have yet even to begin to solve. They have a responsibility to do so. The Government won a large majority in Parliament, on which I congratulate them, but now they have a responsibility to fix the problems, which will not go away and are only getting bigger as we uncover more and more issues at play. Please, no more excuses and no more delays.

Esther McVey Portrait The Minister for Housing (Esther McVey)
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28 Jan 2020, 10:43 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

I thank the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for securing this debate and for speaking so thoughtfully on fire safety last week in the Grenfell Tower public inquiry debate. I am also grateful to all Members who brought key issues before us today and made pertinent points. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chair of the Select Committee. His job is to scrutinise, and he has been present to do exactly that. There is much—if not all—that we agree on, but the question is how we deliver safety to everyone so that when they go to bed of a night time, they know that they are in a safe home and can feel safe and secure.

I hope to get through the points that everyone has made as best I can, but I will also recap briefly some of the key things that we have already done, because people have asked what has been done. The Government have committed to bringing about the biggest changes in building safety regulation in almost 40 years. After the Grenfell Tower tragedy, we took decisive action on the safety risks exposed by that fire. We banned the use of combustible materials in cladding systems on high-rise tower blocks and committed to £600 million of funding to replace aluminium composite materials of the Grenfell style. In the autumn, we committed to adopting in full the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase 1 report and, on 21 January, we published our Government response to that report. However, as more issues arise, the Secretary of State says that we will widen up to address concerns as they are brought forward.

We have established the new regulator, and we are doing that at pace. We are ensuring that the regulator has the information it needs. We are reviewing fire safety guidance and the sprinkler and fire safety measures, going further on combustible materials, which the hon. Member for Sheffield South East spoke about. We are providing clear advice to building owners, setting clear expectations for all residential buildings, for remediation of fire doors—that was raised—ensuring that there is a more comprehensive assessment of building risk, speeding up the remediation of unsafe ACM cladding, reviewing all remediation timescales and ensuring sufficient action. Inaction will not be allowed. We will bring forward the fire safety Bill and the building safety Bill to ensure that the necessary remediation happens. We will also support those who were affected. I agree wholeheartedly that that must be done at pace. The hon. Member for Reading East talked about the enormous scale of the task. What we do has to be thorough and rigorous, but it has to go at pace.

The Government have also accepted the independent Dame Judith Hackitt review of building safety, and we will introduce that legislation. We expect all housing developers not only to deliver good-quality housing, but to deliver it on time and to treat house buyers fairly. We intend to legislate to introduce a requirement for developers of new home buildings to belong to a new homes ombudsman, to protect the interests of home buyers and to hold developers to account when things go wrong. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) raised that point. What are those developers doing, how are we bringing them to account and are they delivering the building—the homes—that people expect?

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Betts
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28 Jan 2020, 10:48 a.m.

The new homes ombudsman is an interesting idea, and we look forward to hearing from the Government about the timetable for that legislation. Will the ombudsman have teeth? If it finds one of those scandalous situations in which developers have built shoddy homes, will individuals be able to get compensation? Will the ombudsman be able to ensure that the compensation is paid?

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

28 Jan 2020, 10:49 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman is correct. The ombudsman must have teeth so that it can support homeowners and ensure that they get full recompense. It must have teeth so that they will not be needed, and so that people follow the rules, the guidelines and the regulations.

Members have talked about sprinkler system safety. Our consultation on sprinklers and other measures for new build flats is now closed, and we have carefully considered the responses. The Secretary of State has said that he is minded to lower the height threshold from 18 metres to 11 metres. We will set out detailed proposals on that and the plans for other aspects in the full technical review of the fire guidance in February.

In December 2018, the Government banned the use of combustible materials on the external walls of high-rise buildings, and my Department has concluded the review into the effectiveness of the ban. Last week, the Department launched a consultation on the ban, including on lowering the height threshold from 18 to 11 metres. As I said, when things come forward, we have to look afresh, and that is why there has been a wider consultation.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

28 Jan 2020, 9:15 a.m.

I share the frustrations of the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones). The Government seem often to conduct reviews and consultations on issues where action has already been taken in Scotland. Why on earth are we doing more consultations when action has already been taken north of the border? What is the need to consult when we can see what is happening there?

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

28 Jan 2020, 9:15 a.m.

We are doing further consultation because although we have put in place bans and measures, we are now seeing whether they need to be strengthened, and whether the height threshold needs to be reduced. We are going further than we said in the first instance, because further matters have come to light. We are always led by an expert panel, and we always seek the latest advice. As points come forward, we scrutinise the various composite materials and look at what is best.

It has never been the case that simply because a building is below 18 metres, owners are exempt from ensuring the safety of residents. There is a requirement on building owners to ensure that buildings of any height are safe, and we expect all owners to act responsibly. The consolidated advice note also clarifies the actions that building owners should take in relation to fire doors. The Government have welcomed the commitment from members of the Association of Composite Door Manufacturers to work closely with building owners to remediate doors that have failed tests. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) and the hon. Member for Reading East talked about security and safety in buildings, and how other safety measures were being carried out. My hon. Friend talked about people blocking doors to keep them open. For the full safety of the building, we must adhere to the safety rules. It is not just about the safety of the materials used in buildings, but about whether the due safety process is followed.

Last week we published a call for evidence to seek views on the assessment and prioritisation of risks associated with external walls, such as cladding, in existing buildings. For many years, we have relied on crude height limits with binary consequences, yet it is clear that when approaching a building’s risk, height alone does not reflect the complexity of the challenges at hand. As the Secretary of State has made clear, we need a better, more sophisticated system to underpin our approach. Height will remain a significant and material factor, but it will sit alongside a broader range of risk factors. We have therefore commissioned leading experts in the field to develop, as quickly as possible, a sophisticated matrix of risks that will replace the historical system and underpin our approach to future regulatory regimes.

Hon. Members asked what was happening and how quickly it was happening: across all sectors, remediation is complete in 135 buildings; remediation has started in 123 buildings; and there are plans and commitments in place to remediate a further 182 buildings. At the end of December 2019, remediation had started or been completed on 145—91%—of the 159 social sector buildings with unsafe ACM cladding systems, and there are plans in place to remediate the remaining 14 buildings. At the end of December 2019, of the 197 private residential buildings, remediation had finished or started in 54, or 27%. Plans and commitments are in place for 143— 73%—of the other buildings. There are no buildings where plans for remediation remain unclear. We are following closely the speed with which that remediation is taking place and what is happening. Although mitigation safety measures are in place for unsafe ACM cladding where required, we do not underestimate the concerns of residents who live in buildings where remediation has not started. We are therefore appointing a construction expert to review remediation timescales and identify what can be done to increase the pace in the private sector.

We are aware of leaseholders’ concerns about meeting the cost of remediation. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and others mentioned that. We do not want cost to be a barrier to remediation, so we are considering, with Her Majesty’s Treasury, options to support leaseholders. The Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will set out further details in due course.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
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28 Jan 2020, 9:15 a.m.

Will the Minister consider looking at what might be done in the area of insurance to broaden access to the insurance cover currently taken out by developers or freeholders, so that leaseholders or their managing agents might be able to make a direct claim under such policies?

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey
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The hon. Member makes a very good point. Those are exactly some of the measures that we are looking at, to make sure that the remediation is done in the best way, while being mindful of leaseholders.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
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28 Jan 2020, 9:15 a.m.

Does the Minister agree that it is inappropriate for companies such as Redrow to offer soft loans to people to deal with things that were not wear and tear but fundamental building defects, in relation not just to cladding but to many other aspects of fire safety? Those people should be allowed to access insurance and opportunities to remediate that do not bear down on them financially. It was not their fault, and they should not have to pay.

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey
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28 Jan 2020, 9:15 a.m.

The hon. Member makes a good point. I wonder whether we could have a meeting to talk about some of the things we think should be put in place, so that I can make representations to the Secretary of State and the Chancellor.

I would like to leave some time for the hon. Member for Reading East to make his closing remarks, but first I want to talk about the stringent rules that private landlords must follow. By law, privately rented properties must already be free from the most serious health and safety hazards, which include fire. Landlords must put up smoke detectors on every floor, and they must have gas boilers and installations checked every year. Earlier this month, we laid before the House regulations requiring landlords to carry out safety inspections at least every five years, and to prove that the electrics in their property meet the legal standard. If they do not, the landlord must get the work done to make them safe.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) mentioned electrical safety inspections and the safety of electrical goods that people buy and plug in at home. He asked whether we could work with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and other Departments to ensure that such goods are safe. That is a fair point. We do work across Departments, but we need to do that as well as we possibly can. Landlords must ensure that all fire escapes are clear—

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Betts
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28 Jan 2020, 9:15 a.m.

Will the Minister give way?

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey
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28 Jan 2020, 9:15 a.m.

I will, but I was just about to talk about households in multiple occupation—a point that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Betts
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28 Jan 2020, 10:58 a.m.

Going back briefly to inspections, what is a competent inspector? The question of who will do the inspections is important.

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey
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28 Jan 2020, 10:58 a.m.

As time is running out, I will write to the hon. Gentleman to explain what is meant by a competent inspector.

Enforcement is key. We will hold landlords to account to ensure enforcement. At the end of the day, we must ensure that homes are safe and people can sleep safely at night, knowing that we are mindful of those points.

Matt Rodda Portrait Matt Rodda
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28 Jan 2020, 10:58 a.m.

I am grateful to the Minister for her detailed response, particularly her final point about the importance of enforcement and her response to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). I thank hon. Members for attending the debate, particularly as they represent such a wide spread of places in the United Kingdom. We have had a wide discussion of issues ranging from particular developers to a whole number of other matters. I ask the Minister, once again, to act with the utmost urgency, and to arrange a meeting with me and members of our local fire authority and local councillors in Berkshire.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the fire risk in flats and shared housing.