Debates between Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe and Lord Newby during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 17th Mar 2021
Fire Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments & Lords Hansard

Fire Safety Bill

Debate between Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe and Lord Newby
Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest. I am a leaseholder in a block where I stay when I am in London during the week which has been found to have major safety defects and in which a waking watch is now in operation. I have therefore been able to see in my own bills but also by talking to people who live in the block what the consequences of the current situation really are. I strongly support the Motions in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and of my noble friend Lady Pinnock.

This is a scandal of major proportions, and it is a modern one. Most of the buildings we are talking about have been built in recent years. We are not talking about a problem left over from the Victorians or the Edwardians; this is a recent problem of our own times. As we have heard, it is causing great distress, not minor worries, to a large number of people. The scale of the financial consequences of the problems they face affects not just their short-term economic position but every aspect of their lives. The immediate costs in themselves are pretty horrendous for people on modest incomes. In my block, as elsewhere, people in that position are having to take out loans at very high rates of interest to deal even with the ongoing waking watch costs, which are considerable. However, beyond that, people are stuck. They cannot sell their flat or move, even if there were compelling reasons for them to do so. In some cases they feel unable to start a family as they planned, because of the overwhelming financial uncertainties that they face. None of this, as is obviously the case, is their fault at all. The Motion in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans deals with the core of the problem and would remove from them the cloud of the future financial burdens they face. I strongly support it.

For reasons which I fully understand, his Motion does not deal with who should ultimately pay for all this. In my mind, that is pretty straightforward. The principal burden should fall on those who are culpable: the developers. They have made very significant profits over very many years from building substandard accommodation, and they should pay for it. In the case of Barratt Developments, which built the block in which I live, its profits over the past five years alone have been more than £3.5 billion. It can afford to clean up its own mess, and the same applies to other major housebuilders. Exactly how that is done is, I admit, complicated, but this is a challenge for the Government which they have not begun to meet.

During the lockdown, television channels are showing old series because it has been so difficult to make new ones. Last night, I watched an old episode of “Yes Minister”, which I strongly recommend. It is clear that the Minister here watched it as well because he has used exactly the arguments which Sir Humphrey used to persuade his Minister not to take action: “It’s highly complex. I’m really sorry. We’d love to do it but it’s really quite difficult, you know. Even if we could do it, which we can’t, it’s not appropriate to do it in this Bill. If we can do it—and I’m not sure we can—it may be possible to do it in a future Bill. I’m not sure which Bill; I don’t know when it’s going to come. But because it’s very complicated, you wouldn’t expect me to say further.” That is the Minister’s response to this.

In last night’s “Yes Minister”, what happened was that the Minister in it, completely frustrated by these usual arguments, put his foot down by announcing on national television that something was going to be done, which in effect bounced his Permanent Secretary into doing it. I suggest that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, takes a leaf out of that Minister’s book and goes on television this very evening to say that he has been so impressed by the debate he has heard that the Government will now act speedily.

The truth is that the reason we are hanging about has everything to do with a lack of political will, and not to do with the technicalities. It is the job of government to deal with difficult things. Most bits of public policy are tricky and difficult. This is no exception but it does not mean that the Government have no policies on anything. It means that they choose what they want to devote time and effort to, and they have decided they are not prepared to put in the time, effort, commitment and funds to deal with this glaring injustice.

The right reverend Prelate’s Motion is a start because it removes the major part of the cloud facing people currently in difficulty and it should be supported. But even when it has been supported, it does not absolve the Government from grappling with this issue and sorting it out properly.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the National Housing Federation, the representative body for housing associations in England. Our members house 6 million people in 2.6 million homes, including a significant number of flats in multi-storey, multi-occupied buildings that need remedial work on their external wall system.

Nothing is a greater priority for housing associations than their residents’ safety. Following the awful Grenfell tragedy, they have been leading the way in the past three years by identifying buildings that need urgent work and carrying it out as quickly as possible. In his Motion C1, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans wants to protect leaseholders from huge bills to make their homes safe, and I support him. Leaseholders should not be facing such costs. Other noble Lords have given vivid examples of the impact on leaseholders.

Housing associations are doing what they can to ensure their leaseholders do not have to foot the bill for developers’ mistakes by pursuing the companies that built the buildings, as well as warranty and insurance providers. Sadly, these efforts are not always successful so I applaud a move by this House to provide extra assurance to leaseholders living in these homes.

However, housing associations face a huge dilemma. They exist predominantly to provide social homes to those on lower incomes. The buildings that housing associations need to remediate due to safety concerns will largely be made up of social housing. This welcome move to protect leaseholders must also be coupled with further government funding to pay for the necessary remedial works to all the buildings that need them. While the funding that the Government have made available for remediation costs so far is very welcome, the £1 billion building safety fund and the additional £3.5 billion announced last month are not available to remediate homes in which social tenants live.