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Tower Block Cladding

Volume 641: debated on Monday 21 May 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government if he will make a statement on the action taken and planned by the Government with respect to residents in tower blocks with dangerous cladding, following the Grenfell Tower fire.

We are remembering those who lost their lives in the tragedy at Grenfell Tower today as the public inquiry opens. I know this will be an incredibly difficult time for all those affected. The whole House will join me, I am sure, in sending them our thoughts and prayers. I am determined to ensure that no community suffers again as they have done.

To that end, in the days since the fire, my Department has worked with fire and rescue services, local authorities and landlords to identify high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding; to ensure that interim measures are in place to reduce risks; and to give building owners clear advice about what they need to do over the longer term to make buildings safe. Remediation work has started on two thirds of buildings in the social housing sector, and we have called on building owners in the private sector to follow the example set by the social sector and not pass on costs to leaseholders. I will be holding the first roundtable with representatives from the private sector this week and repeat what I said last week: if the industry does not step up, I am not ruling anything out.

My predecessor and the then Home Secretary asked Dame Judith Hackitt to carry out an independent review of building regulations and fire safety. I welcomed her final comprehensive report last week, which called for major reform. Having listened carefully to the arguments for banning combustible materials in cladding systems on high-rise residential buildings, the Government are minded to agree and will consult accordingly.

In addition, the Prime Minister announced that the Government will fully fund the removal and replacement of potentially dangerous aluminium composite material—ACM—cladding on buildings owned by social landlords, with costs estimated at £400 million. I will be writing to social sector landlords this week setting out more detail.

It is vital that people living in buildings like Grenfell Tower are safe and feel safe. I am confident that the work we are undertaking and the important reforms triggered by the Hackitt review will help to restore confidence and provide the legacy that the Grenfell communities need and deserve.

As the Secretary of State has said, on this first day of the commemoration hearings at the Grenfell Tower inquiry, we remember the 72 people who lost their lives. We will not forget our special duty as Members of Parliament to do right by them, so it is a matter of deep regret that I must drag Ministers to Parliament again to explain their response to the Grenfell Tower disaster.

The Government have been off the pace at every stage since the fire. More than eleven months on from Grenfell, how is it that two thirds of Grenfell survivors are still in hotels or temporary accommodation? How is it that the Government still do not know how many private tower blocks are unsafe? How is it that only seven out of more than 300 tower blocks across the country with the same Grenfell-style cladding have had it removed and replaced? How can it be that Ministers offered money to councils and housing association landlords for re-cladding costs and finally agreed to consult on a combustible cladding ban only last week?

Many people will have learned only yesterday that the London fire service has fundamentally changed its safety advice to residents in blocks still wrapped with the same Grenfell-style cladding. In place of “stay put” if a fire breaks out—strong advice given for decades to all residents in all tower blocks across the country, including those in Grenfell Tower—the London fire brigade now says “get out” directly. Do all fire brigades now give the same advice? Do all residents in all blocks with unsafe cladding know that? I say to the Minister that more action, more clarity and more urgency are required from the Government.

When will the Secretary of State publish a clear national statement on evacuation policy? When will he confirm when all tower blocks be re-clad? When will he get sprinklers retrofitted—the Opposition and fire chiefs have argued that they are needed? When will he make public the location, ownership and fire safety status of all high-rise blocks at risk? The information is held by the Government, but Ministers are keeping it secret. We know that the Secretary of State knows—he is the new Secretary of State—that more action and greater urgency is needed. When will we get it?

May I underline what I said in my opening comments about the importance of remembering and reflecting on the very moving testimony that has already been provided in the public inquiry? It is right that all those affected are able to share their memories of those who lost their lives and, indeed, that there should be no time limit on that process. We all need to reflect extremely carefully on the testimony given.

The right hon. Gentleman raises many points, a number of which we dealt with last week during the debates on Grenfell Tower and during my statement on the Hackitt report. He knows that I have been very clear about wanting to speed up the process, which is why I said last week that it is not a question of waiting for the final recommendations to be fully implemented, and it is why I took the steps that I did in relation to combustible cladding and other issues such as the use of desktop studies. I have outlined that although the consultation on desktop studies closes later this week, I will obviously not hesitate to ban them if they cannot be used safely.

The right hon. Gentleman highlights the advice from the fire authorities. Obviously, we are guided by the National Fire Chiefs Council on these matters, and the London fire brigade has given its advice in that regard. He mentions sprinklers. I would underline the points that I made last week—that is, we have given certain advice regarding the provision of sprinklers on new blocks of over 30 metres in height, but for existing buildings it is for the building owner to decide. As Dame Judith Hackitt rightly pointed out in her report, no single fire safety measure, including sprinklers, can be seen as a panacea.

I have already outlined the further steps that we are taking regarding remediation. We gave further instructions to local authorities last week to further empower them to take action in respect of identifying buildings. There is no lack of urgency on my part or on the part of my Department when it comes to moving forward with addressing these issues and underlining and recognising the serious concerns that have been expressed. Equally, I have underlined our desire to do the right thing in relation to fire safety. We will be taking the actions that I outlined last week and underlined again today to ensure that we are following this through and pursuing it rigorously.

Order. There is considerable interest in this matter, as I would have anticipated, and which I shall endeavour to accommodate, but it might help the House if I advise colleagues that I do not want to run this urgent question at great length. There is another to follow; there will be many further opportunities to debate Grenfell; and of course we have other important business of which to treat. Succinctness personified would be appreciated and could be aided by the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) if he were standing, but it will not be because he is not.

My right hon. Friend is right to highlight that Barratt has done the right thing by saying that it will not be passing costs on to leaseholders. It is outrageous that many have acted in the way in which they have by not participating. I am this week hosting the first roundtable to consider the next steps. As I said, I am not ruling anything out.

I welcome the comments of right hon. and hon. Members across the House that no stone will be left unturned in delivering justice for the victims affected by this tragedy. I also welcome the news that the inquiry has opened today and that the necessary lessons will be learnt. As we approach the one-year anniversary, we need to look at all necessary regulation changes and the implementation of pre-emptive systems. Will the Secretary of State confirm that these will be planned and that the review of all at-risk buildings will be included?

Obviously, we have taken steps to identify at-risk buildings. As I pointed out, we set out a further direction last week aimed at local housing authorities in England. We want to support them in their work through that statutory declaration. There are some local authorities that still have more work to do, which is why we have committed a sum in the order of £1.3 million to support local authorities to move as swiftly as possible to identify buildings and see that remediation takes place.

If we are banning the cladding, which is absolutely right, are we also banning bad work practices to ensure that all installations and all retrofittings are of an acceptable standard, so that there is no compromise with regard to the new cladding put on?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, because it touches on some of the issues in the Hackitt review about a culture change—a culture shift—across the whole sector in terms of the standards that should be applied. That is why I am determined that we will pursue this rigorously and follow through on the recommendations that Dame Judith Hackitt has given.

Last week, the Select Committee welcomed the Secretary of State’s decision to consult about banning all combustible material from the cladding on tower blocks. May I ask him, once again, whether he has given further thought to banning the material on existing blocks as well as on new blocks and refurbishment works? If he is minded to do that, does he accept that the Government would then have a responsibility to compensate building owners for the effects of building regulations that were changed retrospectively?

I welcome the action of the Select Committee in this regard. We are obviously working at pace to move forward with the consultation, which is intended to be forward-looking. I hear the hon. Gentleman’s point about building regulations that could only speak to the existing timescale. There is also an issue, which comes through very clearly in Dame Judith Hackitt’s report, about the risks of these sorts of systems and why these building owners need to take their responsibilities extremely seriously.

As a former firefighter and Fire Minister myself, I am really pleased to hear the Secretary of State say that we should immediately, as soon as this report allows us to, ban combustible cladding. That is something that we could do. One thing that we could easily do tomorrow morning is to make sure that there are heat-seeking cameras on every appliance that goes out to any incident in the country. That would provide the opportunity to make sure that there are no hotspots, which could mean that this sort of fire could have been put out much earlier.

My right hon. Friend touches on broader issues of appliances. There is also an issue in relation to electrical safety. Some colleagues may be familiar with some of the building regulations standards in that respect. The Government are continuing to work with the British Standards Institution on a revised standard that is due to be published in July.

While last week’s announcement of money to replace unsafe cladding on social housing is welcome, that still leaves a lot of private blocks, including in my constituency, where leaseholders are facing potentially a very large cost and great uncertainty about when the work will be done. Since the Government’s policy is that those who own the freehold should pay, will the Secretary of State now introduce a low-interest, long-payback loan scheme so that the work can be done and my constituents, and everybody else’s, can get peace of mind at last?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for highlighting the really essential issue of private sector leaseholds, where I have made the points that I have. That is why I will be hosting a roundtable this week, with a further roundtable to follow, to inform next steps. I hear what he has said, and all I can say to him at this stage is that I have not ruled anything out.

I welcome the £400 million that the Government have put forward to help remove unsafe cladding. What advice would the Secretary of State give to housing associations on accessing this fund so that they can bring the work forward very quickly?

Like my hon. Friend, I would like the funds to be available quickly. That is why we will be writing out to relevant agencies later this week with further details. This is about prioritising the funding becoming available to relevant housing associations and local government, and we will take action this week.

I have just come from the Grenfell inquiry, which began this morning. One of the survivors said to me, “If it was thought that combustible cladding was responsible for the fire and it had to come down, why is not banned?” Can the Secretary of State give some timetable on when combustible cladding will finally be banned?

I understand and hear very clearly the call that has been made. There are certain statutory obligations to consult under the Building Act 1984. That is why I have said that I am minded to make this change, subject to the consultation. My officials are working at pace in relation to getting that consultation out, because I hear the very clear message that the right hon. Gentleman is giving about the urgency of this.

What confidence can I give to my constituents who work in tall buildings that they will be as safe at work as people who live in tall buildings?

Obviously it is for all building owners to ensure that they are taking appropriate steps. We know that interim measures are in place. As I said to my hon. Friend last week, Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations are focused on residential accommodation of 10 storeys and above, but she has said that some of her recommendations may have a broader application, and we will consider that as part of the consultation.

I welcome the launch of this inquiry. The Secretary of State will be aware that the fire was started by a faulty piece of electrical equipment. Given that recall of these sorts of products is currently only running at around 20%, what further action can the Government take to ensure that faulty products are fully recalled?

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy effectively leads on that issue, and we will continue to work in conjunction with it, to work with industry and to support action, so that all fire safety issues are at the forefront.

You will recall, Mr Speaker, that in Edgware in my constituency, Premier House was recently converted from an office block into residential property, but unfortunately the cladding has remained. Many of my constituents who saved up to buy a property there find themselves in a situation where the owners of the building want to charge them for removal of the cladding. I hear the point that was made about a low-interest scheme, but does my right hon. Friend agree that leaseholders should be afforded the same protection as tenants and not have to pay for that out of their own pocket?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes on leaseholders. Obviously there are legal relationships, but that is why I have underlined the need for us to take further action and to have the initial meetings that I have set out. I have been pretty clear in my view.

The “stay put” policy has been a recognised element of fire safety for a long time, and those of us who have thousands of residents in high-rise towers in our constituencies now want clarity from the Government. My understanding is that the London fire brigade has changed its policy for blocks with particular types of cladding, but are residents expected to know what kind of environment they are living in before deciding whether to stay put or to leave? What will the Government do about that to ensure that there is total clarity, from tonight, to guide people?

I understand the concern that the hon. Lady raises. Obviously that advice would normally come from the National Fire Chiefs Council. The London fire brigade has made that specific alteration. I will take further advice from the National Fire Chiefs Council and ensure that we report back to the House as a matter of urgency.

Does the Secretary of State share my surprise that the Hackitt review did not look in detail at the building regulations? Does he accept the need for urgent revision of the building regulations and clarity on them, particularly with regard to combustible materials, and will he set out the process and timescale for that review?

Dame Judith has set out a whole review of the system, end to end, and has taken a comprehensive stance. As I said in my statement last week, I intend to update the House before the summer on next steps. Knowing that certain issues will require legislation and others will not, I want to get on with it.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a real issue of enforcement here and that self-regulation, especially in competitive industries such as construction, simply will not work? I suspect that that is what Dame Judith Hackitt was getting at in her report. Given austerity cuts, can he assure the House that enforcement will be strengthened, so that as the regulations are changed, they bite and have an effect?

The hon. Lady is right to point out what Dame Judith Hackitt says in that regard—she certainly underlines the need for stronger enforcement, and indeed criminal sanctions in a number of cases. That will be subject to consultation, as I indicated last week, and we will review carefully the submissions that we receive.

I welcome the tone of the Secretary of State’s responses, but can he say a bit more about the issue of desktop studies? I think many people find it very surprising that there can be a desktop study to see whether something will be safe in such a large building.

In her interim report, Dame Judith Hackitt recommended that the Government should significantly restrict the use of so-called desktop studies. We have accepted that recommendation, and we are consulting on significantly restricting or banning the use of desktop studies. As I have already said, the inappropriate use of such studies is unacceptable, and I will not hesitate to ban them if the consultation does not demonstrate that they can be used safely.

What advice does the Secretary of State have for landlords who are replacing cladding now? Perhaps the reason why only seven blocks have been re-clad is that landlords do not know what to do. Given that he has said he is minded to ban combustible cladding, why does he not put in place a provisional ban and advise landlords to use only non-combustible materials?

There are legal restrictions on me in terms of my obligations under the Building Acts to consult on changes to building systems and regulation. However, I underline that, as Dame Judith points out, the safest approach is to use non-combustible materials, and that is the very clear advice.

The Select Committee had an opportunity to review Dame Judith Hackitt’s report and to question her on it. One of the clear issues is legislative change, as my right hon. Friend has mentioned. Will he set out whether that is primary or secondary legislation, and what the timeframe is for the process we will have to go through, because decisions need to be made?

The end-to-end approach that Dame Judith recommends in her report will require primary legislation and secondary legislation. That is why I have said I will come back to the House before the summer recess to advise on the next steps, with a comprehensive response in the autumn. I made a commitment to primary legislation on Thursday, and I believe that is what is required, but it is a question of getting it right.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many private blocks have combustible cladding, and what sanctions will be imposed on companies that are passing on costs to leaseholders? He has mentioned not ruling anything out, so will he provide some specifics to reassure our constituents who are living in those blocks?

I can tell the hon. Lady that the latest figures I have are that 304 buildings have ACM cladding systems that the expert panel advises are unlikely to meet current building regulations: 158 are social housing buildings; 14 are public buildings, including hospitals and schools; and 132 are in the private sector, of which 101 are private residential buildings. Obviously, it is a question of the private residential side stepping up to the mark, and owners may well be taking interim measures. However, a sense of urgency needs to be applied, which is why I have mentioned the steps for getting on with making sure that leaseholders do not have to meet such a liability and that building owners meet their obligations.

I note that remedial work is under way on two thirds of public sector blocks where there is unsafe cladding, but what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to make sure that the final third are dealt with as quickly as possible?

It is important that we see the public sector estate dealt with as quickly as possible. Obviously, the additional funding of £400 million that the Prime Minister announced last week will go towards supporting that activity. Equally, there is an important point about the other things that may not be being focused on at the moment. Indeed, there is the actual supply side of more affordable homes and other building costs that might not otherwise receive the same focus.

What are the Government doing to ensure that residents of these high-risk buildings are made aware of the new arrangements about leaving in the case of a fire? Eight months since the change of policy there, residents of the privately owned Blenheim block in Hounslow have still not been given evacuation instructions or had a fire drill, and the only people who left the building when several fire engines turned up at one of several recent fires were the paid fire marshals.

I would certainly be interested in receiving further details from the hon. Lady about the case she highlights, because it is important that advice is followed and that appropriate steps are taken. I will certainly look into the issues she raises.

There is an increasing trend for modern high-rise buildings to contain a mix of office, retail, hospitality and residential offerings. Will he ensure that sufficient attention is therefore paid to building regulations on all such buildings?

This goes to the general point highlighted by Dame Judith Hackitt in her report about the need for a culture change, and a culture shift across the board on the responsibilities we all hold. That is why I think the report was a watershed moment.

The Secretary of State was good enough to agree to investigate why, the best part of a year on, Birmingham’s 10,000 households and 213 tower blocks are waiting for the Government to honour their pledge to provide financial support to make them safe. A sense of urgency is now absolutely vital, so I ask the Secretary of State: how many more weeks or months will they have to wait?

I committed to working with the hon. Gentleman in respect of Birmingham, and I hope that he recognises the announcement last week about additional funding. The point is that it is retrospective. I hope that will give him some assurance, but I will continue to pursue it with the urgency he asks for.

There is no enforceable legal obligation on builders, freeholders or insurance companies to pay for the removal of flammable cladding from private sector blocks, which means that the cladding will remain in place. Leaseholders feel that they are being hung out to dry and that their safety is being disregarded. If the Government believe that they can enforce a moral obligation, why do they not pay to take the cladding down, keep people safe and recover the funds from whoever they believe is responsible for paying for it?

I do not want to let the private sector off the hook for its responsibilities. That is why in the time for which I have been Secretary of State I have underlined my commitment and why I will be talking to industry this week and next to underline that clear message. I can then consider the right next steps to ensure that this is followed through with that intent.

The Secretary of State and his predecessor have repeatedly said that they wish to see essential fire safety works completed in tower blocks across the country, yet across the country councils are saying that sprinklers are the essential fire safety works that can save residents’ lives in the future. In several cases, they have been told that the Government do not consider sprinklers to be essential. No funding for sprinklers has been provided by the Government. Will the Secretary of State explain how that is consistent with the Government’s stated commitment to do everything possible to ensure that another catastrophic tower block fire cannot happen and will he think again about funding for sprinklers?

Sprinklers can be an effective fire safety measure, but they are one of many such measures that could be adopted. As Dame Judith Hackitt points out in her report, no fire safety measure, including sprinklers, could be seen as a panacea, as I highlighted earlier. We have obviously set out clear advice about new blocks over 30 metres, and for existing buildings it is for the building owner to decide, based on risk, the appropriate safety measures to take.

A study by the Association of British Insurers found that standard UK fire safety testing fails properly to assess risk. Why has the Secretary of State refused to initiate a large-scale programme of testing of suspected combustible cladding other than cladding made of aluminium composite materials?

Obviously, we have seen this issue with ACM material. We will continue to reflect on this in the light of Dame Judith Hackitt’s report. There are other issues as well. I made a written ministerial statement on fire doors and issues that have been highlighted in that regard, including on how we intend to follow through with further testing on fire doors to ensure that there are no further issues across the sector.

A year on, the NHBC is yet to conclude whether the New Capital Quay development in Greenwich was or was not compliant with building regulations at the time of construction. What can the Secretary of State do in such cases to ensure that warranty providers wrap up their assessments and determine claims as a matter of urgency?

I am happy to look into the specific issue of New Capital Quay. If the hon. Gentleman will send some more details, I will certainly investigate to establish the facts, the issues and what further action can be taken.