All 2 Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe contributions to the Fire Safety Bill 2019-21

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Thu 29th Oct 2020
Fire Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage:Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee stage
Wed 17th Mar 2021
Fire Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments & Consideration of Commons amendments & Lords Hansard

Fire Safety Bill

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Excerpts
Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 29th October 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Fire Safety Bill 2019-21 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 132-I Marshalled list for Committee - (26 Oct 2020)
I understand that the Minister might be reluctant to accept Amendment 3 today, but I am expecting him to assure your Lordships that everything is in hand and that various steps are being taken, et cetera. However, for those of us—I think that is everyone in the Committee—who wish success to this Bill, there is an uneasy feeling that, in fact, the Government have not yet got everything in hand, and that they are at risk of a severe overreach that would bring the regime into disrepute. More seriously, it could fail to achieve its key objective of making people’s homes safer, leaving us with a framework Bill that proves to be more of a hole than substance—more red tape than safety net—and still leaving us a long way from tackling, let alone solving, the problems that the Grenfell inquiry and Dame Judith Hackitt have identified. I beg to move.
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. I thank the Minister for his briefing on the Bill, although, sadly, because of my technological ineptitude, I was able to access only a part of it, but it was very good of him to do that and it was very helpful.

The fire at Grenfell Tower has had a profound impact, certainly on our sector. Ensuring the safety of residents is the number one priority for housing associations. They are taking urgent and comprehensive action to inspect buildings with safety concerns and to remediate them as a priority in line with Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations. I therefore welcome the Bill and its aims of ensuring the safety of residents in multi-occupied buildings.

I will say a few words about points raised in other amendments, but I particularly support Amendment 4, in the name of my noble friend Lord Kennedy, because it seeks to ensure maximum consultation with all interested parties. Housing associations are committed to working with government and all other partners to achieve our shared aim of keeping residents safe and ensuring that a tragedy such as the fire at Grenfell Tower never happens again.

None the less, as others have said, there are challenges in implementing the Bill’s proposals. There is severely limited capacity to effectively inspect and remediate external wall systems, not just in our sector but in sectors such as inspection and construction, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, emphasised. The scale of this work cannot be overestimated.

It is important at this point to emphasise potential challenges in both capacity and resource if everyone is to work with government towards a risk-based approach in transitioning to the new requirements. In order to ensure a just and deliverable transition, would the Minister consider staggering implementation, using risk as the determining factor to prioritise when the buildings move to adopt the new regulations in the Fire Safety Bill and in the draft building safety Bill? Does the Minister accept that it is critical that the Government co-ordinate limited resources and capacity for remedial works to ensure that these are directed first at buildings that need them most? Does he accept that only the Government can fulfil this role?

Proposals in other amendments to update and strengthen the fire safety order would be welcome, as would proposals to clarify responsibilities, improve the competence of fire risk assessors and clearly define higher -risk workplaces. The new regulatory system must strengthen building safety standards for multi-occupied residential buildings covered by the FSO but outside the draft building safety Bill’s more stringent regulatory regime.

Finally, the Bill seeks to clarify duty-holders’ responsibilities for inspecting flat entrance doors. Right of access to uphold this duty is imperative. Unfortunately, in a small minority of instances, access is repeatedly denied and the duty-holder must seek a court injunction to gain the necessary access. The court process is lengthy and, as we know from recent reports, subject to ever-lengthening delays. There are then additional safety risks for everyone in the building as a result of how long it takes to gain access through the courts. Does the Minister agree that there needs to be a strengthened process to take account of the urgency of the safety inspections and works required under the regulatory changes that will come from the Bill?

The Bill needs support, but it also needs improvement. I hope that the Minister will address the need for inspection of all buildings to be based on a prioritisation of risk and that he will consider other amendments tabled by noble Lords; for example, on the need for fire risk assessors to be properly accredited and on the need to clarify the definition of a responsible person. It is clear that we on these Benches, and the Government, seek the same goal: to put right the flaws in the building and fire safety regimes and to give residents confidence that they live in a secure environment. I wish this Bill fair wind: it is needed urgently.

Baroness Pinnock Portrait Baroness Pinnock (LD) [V]
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My Lords, my noble friend Lord Stunell has made a characteristically well argued and factually detailed contribution in moving Amendment 3. The basis is this: that the practical implementation of new legislation is as important as the legislation itself. Fine words butter no parsnips, as the saying goes.

The Grenfell tragedy taught us, I hope, that the concerns of tenants and residents must be listened to. At Grenfell, concerns were ignored, with horrific consequences. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in his amendment, seeks to list potential consultees. There is always a risk in this that some valuable contributions may not be heard because they were not included in the list. Constructors should be among those who are consulted, and I thank the British Woodworking Federation for its detailed briefing, as referenced by my noble friend when proposing the amendment. Hence I prefer the more general statement in our Amendment 3, which is much more open-ended.

Experts are invaluable, fire safety assessors never more so. In the debate in the House of Commons, the Minister stated:

“I share honourable Members’ alarm at the existence of unqualified fire risk assessors”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/6/20; col. 51.]

The fact that vital fire risk assessments are being carried out by people not qualified to do so is something that we should be taking very seriously. Later amendments seek to close any possibility of unqualified assessors by creating a public register of those certified to undertake the varying demands of the role. As my noble friend has pointed out, there is always a cost attached to improving safety regulation. The question then is: who will be required to meet that cost?

It is surprising that those who have constructed buildings in the last decade are not currently being required to meet the majority of the costs of putting right their errors. Perhaps the Minister can say whether the construction firms are seen as being a significant part of the solution to those leaseholders now facing potential costs in the tens of thousands to make their homes safe.

In response to the last group of amendments, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, stated that construction firms and insurance companies are expected to contribute towards these significant costs—which is good news. Perhaps the Minister will be able to explain how quickly this will occur and what actions the Government are taking to ensure that decisions will not be long drawn out, as, for many, three years with no light at the end with the tunnel is already far too long. How much can these leaseholders expect to be paid from the government funding?

I look forward to the Minister’s response to these important questions.

Fire Safety Bill

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Excerpts
Consideration of Commons amendments & Lords Hansard
Wednesday 17th March 2021

(3 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Fire Safety Bill 2019-21 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 173-I Marshalled list for Consideration of Commons reasons - (15 Mar 2021)
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.