Meg Hillier contributions to the Fire Safety Bill 2019-21

Wed 29th April 2020 Fire Safety Bill (Commons Chamber)
2nd reading: House of Commons
3 interactions (947 words)

Fire Safety Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Meg Hillier Excerpts
Wednesday 29th April 2020

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Home Office
Madam Deputy Speaker - Hansard

Order. I am very sorry, but I have to interrupt the hon. Lady again. Those in the Chamber, and presumably those listening in other ways, cannot make out what she is saying, so we will interrupt her speech for the moment and hopefully come back to her shortly.

I am glad to see that in the Chamber we have, without any sound difficulties, Meg Hillier.

Meg Hillier Portrait Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
29 Apr 2020, 12:06 a.m.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I wish to start by declaring my own interest, in that I am a leaseholder in an affected block. Happily, the owner of my block has taken on all the costs of replacement but, like many of my constituents, and others up and down the country, I live in a property that is technically valueless at the moment. That is causing problems, which I will touch on, but I also want to use this opportunity to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) to her place on the Front Bench. She has been a doughty campaigner on this issue in her previous portfolio, so it is great to see that she can continue to fight for all those up and down the country who are affected. I hope that the Minister will hear what I have to say, and what others have said, and answer these questions, some of which go a little beyond the Bill, because it goes only so far, as a short, three-clause Bill, and there are wider issues here.

The Bill is long overdue—it has taken a long while to get this far—not just because of the tragedy of the Grenfell fire three years ago, but because of changes over many years and, as others have highlighted, under different Governments, that led to weakness and confusion over who is responsible for fire safety in a block. That and recent developments have led to real misery for many leaseholders in my constituency and up and down the country. Such people are mortgage prisoners, trapped with expensive mortgage payments and valueless homes. They are therefore unable to sell or rent their properties out, and they are dealing with the costs involved, including those for a waking watch, which in many blocks means two people per block. That is very expensive, but these people are also dealing with the upheaval, and the fear of scaffolding and major works going on around their home, which makes it harder for them to have peaceful enjoyment of their homes.

As of March 2020, only 54% of social housing blocks had had their remediation works done and nearly 90% of private residential blocks still had work to be done. That means that overall three quarters of ACM blocks—266 blocks, mostly flats—have yet to have remedial work done. We have highlighted in debates beyond this one the need for experts to do this work, and with coronavirus we have hit another challenge, because we cannot bring in expertise from elsewhere. Coronavirus is also increasing cost, making it harder for contractors to do the work, which means more delays and yet more costs for leaseholders. This therefore has to continue to be a priority, even during the pandemic. I know that this is not the direct remit of the Minister, but the Bill, and particularly the secondary legislation that follows it, could play a part here.

In the Budget, the Chancellor set aside £1 billion to do this remedial work, but we know that that is not enough—we see that when we look at the Bill and the amount of work involved. It might be a 10th of what is needed, and there is still no clarity about who will bid for that money. The Home Office is responsible for fire safety, so it needs to work closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to make sure that the money that is available is properly applied, easy to bid for and quick to be spent so that we make sure that these blocks get dealt with. The Home Office is responsible for fire safety, so if MHCLG does not have enough funds to help to deliver that, there will be ongoing problems.

I could raise many specific examples—I have raised them in the House before—but when there are owners with housing associations involved, there is double trouble, because there are leaseholders of the housing associations, and the HAs have a relationship with the owner or developer of the block. I want to highlight some of the tactics that can be in play and the delays that owners and developers can inflict on residents. I wish to highlight the case of Regal London, which built The Cube building in Hoxton. In the first year, when many residents were raising snagging issues, Regal did not respond. That lack of response has continued. There has now been five years—scaffolding has been up for a good couple of years—with residents still not sure what is going to happen and who is going to pay. In the meantime, the block has some fire safety issues, and with the to-ing and fro-ing between the owner and leaseholders, the resolution is not there.

While the Bill goes so far, there is a practical element to this, too. As we in this place know, legislation does not solve everything. While what needs to be done will be on the statute book, and that is a welcome beginning, there is a big practical job of making sure that the Bill is real, living legislation that delivers on the ground. While there are legal wrangles going on between owners and residents and organisations such as Regal, which is leading constituents a merry dance and not responding very well, this causes a problem. We know the costs for individuals are huge. I hope the Minister will, in Committee, be able to answer our questions on how this will practically deliver. It is a welcome first step late in the day. It is a start, but I hope that in Committee we will see discussion and movement on how this could be the beginning and not the end.

Matt Western Portrait Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab) - Hansard
29 Apr 2020, midnight

It is a real pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) to her place on the Opposition Front Bench. Like her, I arrived here on 11 June 2017, along with Emma Dent Coad. I want to place on record my thanks, and I think those of many, for the great campaigning work she did for the residents and the community in the immediate aftermath of the terrible tragedy that was the Grenfell fire. I then sat on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, and it was a privilege to meet many of the survivors of the terrible events of that night. They have acted with such determination and diligence to force through many of the changes I am sure we will see over the coming months.

I welcome the Bill. It is an important first step in making our high-rise tower blocks safe for those who live in them, but it is just a first step. It is the first and only piece of primary legislation that has been brought forward by the Government since the tragedy of that night. Three years on, I am afraid I just do not see it as good enough. For all that time, people across the country have remained in unsafe housing. As someone who lives at the top of a very high tower block, I can understand the fear they live in.

A few months ago I set up the all-party group for council housing, which seeks to represent the views of council tenants here in Parliament. In that spirit, I mention the meeting I hosted with tenants back in the summer of 2018. We heard from tenants across the country about their priorities and how they felt, time and time again, that they were not being listened to by the Government or local authorities, and that the response to Grenfell had been inadequate. They still felt at risk in their homes a year on from the tragedy, and they still do three years on. Ed Daffarn, one of the survivors of Grenfell who campaigned brilliantly on the issue, spoke of the institutional indifference of the council and national Government to the concerns of Grenfell residents before the fire. I am afraid that that still exists in places.

Three years on, up to 60,000 worried residents are still living wrapped in lethal Grenfell-style cladding. Almost nine in 10 private sector buildings and over half of social sector buildings affected have not had that cladding removed or replaced. That is despite the former Housing Secretary, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), setting a deadline of the end of 2019 for social sector blocks to be made safe and a deadline of June 2020 for all private sector blocks to be made safe—a deadline that now looks likely to be missed. For years, Ministers did everything they could to avoid taking responsibility for ACM cladding removal. I am afraid that they had to be dragged into action by the campaigning of groups such as Grenfell United, the Labour party and others. It is still not happening quickly enough.

Elsewhere, the Grenfell inquiry found that the Government ignored recommendations to retrofit sprinklers in social housing blocks in the years leading up to the tragedy. It included the recommendations from the coroners after the loss of life in the Lakanal House fire in 2009 and in Shirley Towers in 2010. The lessons were not learned then and they are not being learned now. Some 95% of local authority-owned tower blocks taller than 30 metres still do not have sprinkler systems installed. We have repeatedly called for a £1 billion fund to retrofit sprinklers in all high-rise social housing blocks. Sadly, that has been ignored. I called for sprinklers to be retrofitted. As a new MP, I could see how desperately they were needed. I wrote to my district council asking for that to happen.

The Bill is important. I do not wish to downplay it. It is welcome and necessary, and I hope that it results in much greater enforcement action, and particularly in the removal of ACM cladding. However, we must be confident that the resources are there for enforcement to happen. I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). We know that £142 million has been cut from fire and rescue services since 2013, and that between 2010 and 2017 the number of fire safety inspectors fell by 28%. Without them, we have no protection on the frontline. Finally, I want to be assured that there is absolute clarity in the Bill that it will be the ultimate owner of high-rise blocks, not individual leaseholders, who will be responsible where remedial action is not being taken.

In conclusion, I welcome the Bill. It seeks to underline the importance of ownership, accountability and responsibility, but we have been slow in getting to this point. I look forward to the building safety Bill coming through, hopefully this summer, because it is critically important. At the same time, however, the Government must take urgent and necessary steps to get all cladding removed and install sprinkler systems in all high-rise social housing blocks, and we need to ensure that national, independently funded testing facilities are established as soon as possible.