All 2 Baroness Fox of Buckley contributions to the Fire Safety Act 2021

Tue 27th Apr 2021
Fire Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments
Wed 28th Apr 2021
Fire Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments

Fire Safety Bill

Baroness Fox of Buckley Excerpts
Consideration of Commons amendments
Tuesday 27th April 2021

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Fire Safety Act 2021 - Government Bill Page Read Hansard Text
Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Garden of Frognal) (LD)
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The following Members in the Chamber have indicated that they wish to speak: the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, and the noble Lords, Lord Stoneham of Droxford and Lord Adonis. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, while the headlines are all focusing on the scandal of who paid for the internal refurbishment work on a flat in No. 10, for me this is a far greater scandal about who is being forced to pay for the external remediation works on more than a million flats caught up in this fire safety cladding debacle. As things stand, innocent leaseholders—the only party with no hint of blame for negligence or mistakes—are the sole group to shoulder the burden. We have heard some passionate speeches about that.

Why am I back here? I just need some reassurances from the Government. They say that this is not a legislative matter and that this is not the legislation, so what are they going to do? Many of us united here usually disagree. My goodness, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and I are on the same side. Whatever is the matter? But we are here in good faith. This is not Tory-bashing or a cheap dig at rich developers or landowners—it is a warning to the Government.

This reminds me of the convictions of the 39 post- masters, now cleared, but after the tragedy of what befell them because no one would listen. It also feels to me like a betrayal of all those promises made to the red wall voters that this Government care about the aspirations of ordinary people. It seems to make a mockery of parliamentary priorities, and I genuinely do not understand the point of us being here and debating levelling up when many leaseholders concerned bought their flats or houses as part of affordable housing schemes. They are front-line workers who have been thrown to the wolves.

Similarly, what is the point of legislating on the welfare of veterans and supporting the police when one veteran and serving police officer writes to me explaining that he has worked every day since he was 16 and has never needed to rely on state benefit or accrued debts in any way, yet now faces bankruptcy and could even, as a bankrupt, lose his job. He describes it as a living nightmare. He says: “I am a leaseholder, and that is the biggest mistake of my life.” What a terrible thing to say. He says he is disillusioned, angry and frustrated, and powerfully notes that he feels defeated and that all his attempts to be heard are ignored.

These leaseholders feel ignored. Whatever happens here today, I ask the Government to listen and not to ignore them. At the very least, I ask the Minister to listen to the Bank of England. As the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, noted, last week the Bank of England said it is seriously assessing whether the building safety scandal could cause a new financial crisis—hardly an encouraging sign for building back better or economic growth.

Even from a pragmatic basis, I do not understand why the Government will not note that if more than a million properties become unmortgageable, if we create a negative equity problem, if leaseholders become bankrupt and cannot pay for remediation costs, if there is a knock-on effect on property values, if there is an effect on labour market mobility because people are unable to sell their homes, are trapped and have to stay where they are, surely this is a matter that the Government, even the Treasury, might look at. We look to the Government here because only they can provide the capital up front to pay for the works now.

The Commons reason for rejecting the amendment is that

“the issue of remediation costs is too complex to be dealt with in the manner proposed.”

I just want to know what manner is actually proposed. The plan from the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, seems sensible to me. I would like to hear the Government’s.

I do agree that there are no easy solutions. That is why it is too easy for the Government to boast of generous loan funds and grant schemes when people are ineligible to apply for them and are facing huge bills now. Although it is tempting, it would be too easy to blame developers or whatever, and that is not my intention—I just do not want the blameless to pay.

It is also too easy to use the Grenfell tragedy to imply that those of us supporting the leaseholders or backing these amendments are cavalier in any way about fire safety standards. As a leaseholder, I assure noble Lords that I am not cavalier about my own safety. But I do note that today the Grenfell United campaign has issued a statement saying:

“Using Grenfell Recommendations to justify government’s indifference is deeply upsetting for us”.


As victims of the Grenfell fire, they say that they stand in solidarity with innocent leaseholders.

I know that the Bill is good and full of good intentions, but it creates liabilities for leaseholders without giving them any means of redress and, more broadly, it betrays any commitment to a meritocratic society. I appeal to the Government to listen.

Lord Stoneham of Droxford Portrait Lord Stoneham of Droxford (LD)
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We have had some very good speeches and some very good points have been made, so I will speak quite briefly. First, I declare my own interests in property and as someone with 15 years’ experience of housing association work. I am speaking tonight largely on behalf of my noble friend Lord Newby, who has been tied up in commission work for most of the afternoon.

Looking back at last week’s debate, at the Minister’s speech and at the debate in the Commons this afternoon, I thought there was far too much emphasis on fear of the Bill not going through rather than on trying to set out and address the concerns not only of both Houses but of leaseholders, who have the uncertainty and the fear of liability. Simple fear is prevailing, and that is what we need to address. It is why the Government are in some difficulty in getting final decisions on the Bill.

Let us not forget that a lot of the leaseholders affected by these problems are first-time buyers. Developers made a lot of money out of government deals. The Government have been very keen on first-time buyer schemes and stamp duty relief. Why is it that they are so reticent to spell out more detail and give more assurance to leaseholders in the problems that they are facing? The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, was absolutely right: the Government are very keen on plans in all sorts of areas, but they really need a plan to deal with this problem.

In just one area, pooled insurance, there is great fear of the costs for leaseholders from their insurance going up because of the problems that they are facing and the extra risk that the insurance companies assess. The Government responded very quickly when there were pictures of people with their homes flooded and residents trying to deal with their problems in specific geographical areas, and they very quickly came up with pooled insurance schemes. Why are they not doing that more in this area? These leaseholders are a very specific group and they need help.

All evidence and experience suggest that the problem will grow. We have evidence in our own ranks of a Peer whose block of flats had a cladding problem: when the cladding was taken down, the block was found to be unsafe structurally. This is a growing problem. What lies behind the cladding, I suspect, is what is scaring the Treasury rigid. However, the problem has to be dealt with.

I am afraid that a lot of these properties were designed and built for first-time buyers. The developers knew they had to keep the price down when prices were escalating, but they also kept the costs down because they wanted to make their profit. They made a lot of money, so there will be all sorts of problems in these buildings.

The leaseholders will have seen the situation last week of the sub-postmasters and will be thinking that, as time goes on, they will be left behind and hung out to dry by the bureaucracy and the government machine failing to address their problems. They need protection from eviction, and they need to know exactly how they are going to be able to access grants.

They need to see the Government putting pressure on the developers. In some respects, the Government are a bit too close to some of those developers, but they need to be seen to be taking on the developers, the companies and the contractors involved in these buildings to make sure that it never happens again.

The industry is in fact dysfunctional. It is going to demand government intervention to address skills, regulation and the whole quality of development in this country. The Government need a plan and a timescale. They need to address the uncertainty and fear among very vulnerable people, and they need to start now as the problem will grow. That is why we support these amendments.

Fire Safety Bill

Baroness Fox of Buckley Excerpts
Consideration of Commons amendments
Wednesday 28th April 2021

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Fire Safety Act 2021 - Government Bill Page Read Hansard Text
Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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I remind the House of my interests: I am a leaseholder. Like the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, I heard Boris Johnson telling Parliament in February that

“no leaseholder should have to pay for the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects that they did not cause and are no fault of their own.”—[Official Report, Commons, 3/2/21; col. 945.]

To be honest, I cheered. Maybe I was being naive, but I sort of took him at his word—and I sort of still do. But can I? Has anyone briefed the Prime Minister on how his promise to leaseholders is being broken by his own Government as we speak?

In the other place the Minister, Chris Pincher, said that the amendments lacked clarity and prohibited minor costs from being passed on to leaseholders. That was so disingenuous. This is not a load of whiny leaseholders whingeing about minor costs. People are utterly desperate. As we have heard from other noble Lords, this Bill almost guarantees that major costs will be passed on to them—unless the Minister thinks that remediation costs of up to tens of thousands of pounds each, or 400% hikes in service charges, are minor. Those are not minor in my world, nor in the world of so many leaseholders who, as I have stressed here before, bought into that nirvana of home-owning democracy. They were often first-time buyers, who became leaseholders as part of affordable housing schemes.

The Minister in the other place said that the amendment would not help leaseholders. But leaseholders do not feel that way. What they do feel is exasperated. They have been told about the loans scheme, and that this issue can be sorted out by the passage of the building safety Bill. Even then, if there were an assurance from the Government that they would prioritise that Bill as an urgent piece of legislation at the start of the next Session, it might be some consolation. But of course, we do not know when it will appear.

As one group of leaseholders noted in an email to me, the reality is that they are accruing costs now. They are not allowed to postpone paying them until a new parliamentary Session. They cannot say, “Sorry, won’t pay until the building safety Bill’s got through.” They fear that by the time that legislation is passed, many of them will already have lost their homes—and, as one said, “I will certainly have lost my mind.”

Earlier today I heard a Minister here justify imposing a set of regulations on the Northern Ireland Assembly, although that would undermine the devolution agreement. He justified that decision because he said that the Government had a duty to ensure that women’s rights were addressed, and legal abortion services were made available. I was anxious at this procedural and technical fix to solve a complex constitutional and moral problem. But now, if only the Government would come up with some procedural and technical fix to solve what is undoubtedly a complex problem, but one, in this instance, of leaseholders’ rights. There seems to be a sort of stubbornness, which is so unbecoming—a kind of evasiveness, which is kicking this problem down the road, where it will get worse, and letting the most blameless take the hit in the meantime.

I have a lot of respect for the Minister, but I feel as though the Government must know in their heart of hearts—with Tory rebels in the other place, noble Lords from all sides of this House and all the devastating personal testimonies we have shared over the last few days—that what is being asked for here is modest. We are asking for any mechanism, however technical, or any scheme that would actually help leaseholders and save them from bankruptcies now, as is so urgently needed.

We have heard about the £5 billion scheme, and we have all welcomed it, but it really applies only to those in buildings over 18 metres. Leaseholders in buildings of 17 metres or 15 metres are still being asked to pay sky-high costs. As we have heard, it is estimated that the £5 billion scheme still leaves at least £10 billion unaccounted for, and maybe more.

I want to test whether the Government are true to their word—true to the Prime Minister’s word that I started with—and ask the Minister a simple question. If this Fire Safety Bill were to pass, what will the Government do in the interim between its passing and the building safety Bill to stop leaseholders’ bankruptcies and the negative equity crisis that this Bill undoubtedly helps to create?

Finally, I take this opportunity to say to the leaseholders: you have allies in the other place and here who will continue to stand up for you and keep raising awareness of your plight. I am still hopeful that the Minister and the Prime Minister might be among those allies too.

Lord Bishop of Rochester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Rochester
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My Lords, the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of St Albans and the Bishop of London have both been involved in earlier stages on the Bill and, regretfully, neither is able to be in your Lordships’ House this evening. However, I come with my own background and interests, as a former board member of various housing associations over 25 years and as the former chair of the charity Housing Justice.

As noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has been heavily involved in this matter and has been persistent. He said yesterday that none of us wanted to be in this position at this stage. But while so much of the Bill is welcome—not least the £5 billion which has been referred to—there are continuing and serious concerns, some of which have already been expressed in the debate this evening, about the position of leaseholders and tenants, and particularly certain groups of leaseholders and tenants.

Yes, remediation is a complex matter, but I am sure that it is not so complex that it cannot be worked out. I want to believe that Her Majesty’s Government are sincere in the express desire to protect leaseholders and tenants. The proposed amendments, including one here tonight, are designed to provide time for the Government to bring forward their own statutory scheme. It is the absence of clarity about that scheme and the timetable for it which is the cause of continuing regret on these Benches. Mention has been made already of the loan scheme in relation to buildings under 18 metres and the fact that that is likely to come forward in the context of another Bill. But, of course, that leaves open the questions of the detail and timescale and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, has just observed, there are leaseholders facing those bills today.

We have heard many tragic stories of people with unpayable bills and crippling insurance and service charges. One concern of Members of these Benches is the effect of all that on people’s health and well-being, as well as on their financial capacity. These are important matters; they affect people’s daily lives, mental state and financial futures. While the Bill tackles a number of really important things, it leaves open some others which leave people facing uncertainty and potentially very significant liabilities.

Whatever happens this evening, I know that many in this place and elsewhere will continue to make the cause, because this issue will not go away. I dare to hope that if the Bill does pass this evening, Her Majesty’s Government will bring forward their proposals as soon as possible in the new Session to remove the uncertainty from those who are finding it really difficult to live with. These Benches continue to hold out hope for a more empathetic attitude towards leaseholders.