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House of Commons Hansard
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05 September 2019
Volume 664

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With permission, I wish to take this early opportunity as Secretary of State to update the House on the Government’s progress on building safety and to set out this Administration’s approach. Two years on from the Grenfell tragedy, it remains our priority to ensure that we have a building safety system that people can trust. In taking on this role, I have been mindful of my responsibility to the bereaved and the survivors of that tragedy. We must support them to recover and rebuild their lives. I am pleased that we will have the continued support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) as Minister for Grenfell victims. I am determined to play my part in their pursuit of answers and justice and to ensure that all residents of high-rise blocks of flats are safe, and feel safe, now and in the future. My predecessors have tackled that work with commitment and integrity but, having reviewed such matters since my appointment, it is clear to me that we must go further and at pace if we are to secure the system of building safety that we all want, so I will update the House on the immediate action that I intend to take.

First, I am consulting on changes to fire safety regulations for new-build blocks of flats. We will seek to commit to requiring sprinkler systems as standard in a wider range of new flats. I am minded to reduce the height at which sprinklers are required down to 18 metres, but I am open to hearing evidence for other relevant thresholds and will be led by that evidence, wherever it takes us. We will also consult on requiring better signs and evacuation alert systems to support effective firefighting. I am grateful to the National Fire Chiefs Council and the London Fire Brigade for their valuable and continuing contributions. I have also published a summary of responses to our call for evidence on a full review of the technical requirements in approved document B. There will likely be additional changes in due course. When taking such decisions, we will always be led by the evidence and residents’ safety. I will keep the industry and Parliament informed.

Secondly, with respect to the “Building a Safer Future” consultation, I intend to respond by the end of the year and to legislate at the earliest opportunity. I believe that we should establish a new building safety regulator to oversee the new regulatory regime for buildings. However, it is clear that we need to act now, so we are working with the Health and Safety Executive to use its experience to set up the regulator in shadow form prior to new legislation, and I want to see that happen as soon as practicable. We will take decisions on the regulator’s long-term functions and structure during autumn. Again, I will update the House accordingly.

Thirdly, although the answer to the concerns of residents is the establishment through legislation of the new safety case regime, with the individual assessment of buildings envisaged by Dame Judith Hackitt, it is clear that we should not wait until then to act.

The Home Secretary and I have worked with the National Fire Chiefs Council and intend to establish a new protection board, which will provide expert and consistent inspections across the country to ensure we are identifying, managing and properly recording risks. This will significantly increase the pace of inspection activity across high-rise residential and other high-risk buildings to make sure building owners are acting on the very latest safety advice.

I expect all high-rise buildings to have been inspected or assured by the time the new building safety regime is in place, or no later than 2021. Residents of these buildings should be swiftly informed of the results of those assessments and inspections, with any changes acted upon as soon as possible.

Improved inspection activity for non-ACM high-rise buildings will be informed by local authorities’ current data collection work. Today, to support that work, I am pleased to confirm that we are providing them with £4 million of additional funding. I can also confirm that my Department will provide £10 million a year of additional funding to help local authorities improve their inspection capabilities and to support the work of the protection board, which we are now launching.

Should the protection board consider it necessary, I will, of course, consider providing additional resources during the remainder of this financial year to increase the pace of inspection and assurance work. I hope this systematic inspection programme will provide reassurance to residents across the country, many of whom I understand have legitimate concerns.

Finally, on our ongoing work to support the remediation of dangerous ACM cladding on buildings, where it poses a clear risk, the Government made funding available in May for its removal from eligible buildings in the private residential sector, in addition to funds already available for the social sector, bringing the total to £600 million.

As of 12 September, eligible private sector building owners will now be able formally to submit their applications for funding for ACM removal and replacement. They have until the end of December to apply. There is no excuse for building owners to delay. My Department has been encouraging swift applications, and we now have a direct relationship with a named individual in the United Kingdom for each relevant building. Where we receive applications, we will do everything we can to turn them around rapidly, prioritising and considering responses on a rolling basis.

Let me be clear: inaction will have consequences. I will name and shame individuals and businesses if I see inaction during the autumn. If we reach the end of autumn and building owners have not responded, and do not have exceptional reasons for it, I will take whatever steps and sanctions are necessary. I will support local authorities to take robust enforcement action against reluctant building owners, and I have asked the joint inspection team to provide them with all necessary advice.

Failure to act, particularly now that the funding is provided by the taxpayer, would be frankly disgraceful, and I know colleagues in this House will share that determination. Where Members have ACM-clad buildings in their constituency, we will provide guidance on how they can encourage building owners to apply. My Department stands ready to advise on the contact we have had already.

With regard to non-ACM cladding, the research programme began in April 2019 and scheduled testing has now concluded. Findings will be published in the autumn. Following the full report, the expert panel will consider whether further testing should be commissioned or existing advice supplemented. The panel anticipates that it will publish any such additional advice by the end of this year. In the interim, building owners should continue to follow the very clear steps set out in advice note 14 to ensure the safety of their buildings and residents.

The safety of people in their home must be paramount. I hope the House will welcome the measures I have laid out today to ensure that no one should feel unsafe in their home and to build a safety system that people across this country can trust.

I commend this statement to the House.

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I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement. I have to say that I admire his air of calm. This is a Government of chaos—even the Prime Minister’s brother has walked out of office this morning—so his presence is welcome. I recognise his good intent to make good on the failings of his predecessors over the past few years.

Why, two years and three months after the terrible Grenfell tragedy, are 324 high-rise blocks still cloaked in the same dangerous, Grenfell-style cladding? Why have 72 private block owners not even got a plan in place to fix the problem? Will the Secretary of State do what his predecessors did not and bring in Labour’s five-point plan to force the pace of the recladding? It would mean: naming and shaming those private block owners now, not some time in the future; setting a hard deadline for block owners to get the work done; updating the sanctions available to councils under the Housing Act 2004; making Government funding available for cladding remediation on private blocks where they have to do the work, and widening now the Government-sponsored testing regime to test comprehensively all suspect non-ACM cladding.

One year and four months after the final Hackitt report was published, why is there no comprehensive implementation plan? Why is there no legislation? Today, the Secretary of State confirmed his intention to respond by the end of the year. Can he do better? Will he guarantee that legislation to implement the much-needed legal changes is part of the Queen’s Speech that is promised for next month?

Ten months after the Government’s contract for the wider testing was due to be completed, the report has not been completed and published. Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to publish in full and without delay—not sometime in the autumn—those results in full?

We welcome the consultation on extending the requirement for sprinklers in new build flats. That builds on the provisions that the Labour Government introduced for high-rise blocks. However, will the Secretary of State go a step further, do what we planned and pledged, and set up a fund so that we can retrofit all high-rise social housing blocks so that the people who live in them can be assured that they will be safe in future?

I welcome the Secretary of State’s plans for a new inspection system, but why on earth does he say that all high-risk buildings may not be inspected until 2021? That is two years in the future; four years after Grenfell. What is he doing to speed that up?

Grenfell was a national tragedy. People look to the Government in such times for a national response. At every stage, the Government have been too slow to grasp the scale of the problems. Their actions have been too little, too late, and I regret to say that there is too little in today’s statement to give us confidence that the Secretary of State and the Government can rectify their failure to act as they should to make everyone safe after the terrible Grenfell tragedy more than two years ago.

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I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. He and I have worked well together on other issues and I hope that we can do so on this issue, which should be beyond party politics.

We have taken many steps. My predecessors have worked with commitment on the issue. We have given clear advice to building owners, who must take personal responsibility. We have introduced a ban on combustible cladding. We have had the independent review, which has now concluded, by Dame Judith Hackitt, and we have had the consultation, to which we will respond by the end of this year. We now have 150 individuals in my Department working on building safety, many with decades of experience. Again, they are working with great commitment and at pace.

We have put £600 million of public money behind remediation of dangerous ACM cladding in the social sector, of which £200 million is now available in the private sector. We have of course launched a full public inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy and the first phase is expected to report back shortly. Of course, the timing is up to the judge.

We have issued clarified building regulations guidance and we are increasing support for local authorities. Today, I announced £10 million for the protection board and £4 million directly for local authorities. We have already removed a range of substandard products from the market. Is there more to do? Of course there is, and I hope that hon. Members of all parties will see from my statement the number of steps that I intend to take and the pace at which I want my Department to work in the months to come.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about funding; we have made the funding available, and I share his determination to hold private sector building owners to account. As I said in my statement, I will be naming and shaming the individuals and the companies that own the buildings if they do not take action very quickly this autumn. If we come to the end of the fund in December—the right hon. Gentleman asked for a hard deadline; that is a hard deadline—and there are buildings that have not been remediated, or at least applications to the fund have not been put in and there are not exceptional reasons for that, we will take whatever enforcement steps are required at that point. We will work with local authorities to make sure that they robustly use their powers. There are instances of their doing so, and we are working with them already.

The Hackitt review was an important step forward. This is a complex policy area and we all want to ensure that we get this right, so we need to work through the responses to the consultation carefully, and my Department is doing that. As I said, we will bring forward the legislation at the very earliest opportunity. The right hon. Gentleman has my assurance that I will be working within Government to ensure that happens and to impress upon the Prime Minister and others that legislation needs to come forward at the earliest opportunity. I do not think it should be rushed, which is why I have worked with the Home Secretary to bring in the interim measure to establish the protection board. The individual assessments of buildings will begin as soon as possible once the board has been established. That will provide reassurance to residents. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern that time is passing; I hope he sees that I intend to work at considerable pace to get this done.

On sprinklers, we are currently consulting on the building regulations guidance so that the regulations can come into force for whatever is deemed to be the appropriate threshold. As I said, our preference is 18 metres, but we are open to evidence in other respects. On the retrofitting of sprinklers in existing high-rise buildings, Dame Judith Hackitt and other expert advisers have made it clear that that is not always the right option for a building. It may well be, but other measures could be taken instead that might be more appropriate for an individual building. Dame Judith Hackitt made it clear that it was wise to proceed on an individual basis, so the safety regime that we will be introducing in legislation will ensure that there are individual assessments of buildings. Those assessments may conclude that there is a requirement to retrofit sprinklers, but they might recommend alternative arrangements instead. Obviously, we will ensure that whatever is proposed in those assessments happens in a timely fashion.

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Order. Again, I appeal for extreme brevity on the part of colleagues; if they do not provide it, they will have to be cut off, I am afraid.

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I wrote to the Secretary of State on Monday about the position of my constituents in Northpoint in Bromley. I welcome his announcement. Will he confirm that the establishment of the protection board ought to and must be used so that people such as my constituents—who have had to do this—may avoid the rigmarole of commissioning a building survey to prove eligibility for the fund and then applying for funding from the pre-application fund, the portal for which was not live at the beginning of the week? We need to cut through that immediately.

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My hon. Friend and I have corresponded and spoken about the issue in his constituency. As I said in my correspondence to him, I encourage the building owners in his constituency to apply to the fund. It will be open on 12 September and we will be handling the applications on a rolling basis. In fact, it will also be possible to get a refund retrospectively, so they could get on with the work immediately and seek the funding at a later date.

My hon. Friend asked me previously about buildings that may have a mix of ACM cladding and other forms of cladding. Public money will obviously be spent for the remediation of the dangerous ACM cladding, but if it is proven that it is impossible to remediate the ACM cladding without taking off the other forms of cladding, it may well be possible to use public money to fund that as well. I hope my hon. Friend’s constituents will put in an application as soon as possible and that we can move forward at pace in his constituency.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to his place, but I agree that he is not quite moving fast enough. We owe it to all those who lost their lives and survived at Grenfell to do more, and to do more quickly. The Scottish ministerial working group is already way ahead of where the UK Government are on this and is moving forward with recommendations. In Scotland, we are looking at 11 metres rather than the 18 metres that the Secretary of State suggests. Has he spoken to his counterpart in the Scottish Government? Will he look at the evidence that Scotland took on making the threshold for mandatory sprinklers in high rises 11 metres rather than 18 metres?

We are looking at regulations around new builds, including having two forms of escape stairs and sound alerts in new builds. Will the Secretary of State look at those ideas? We are also looking at compliance plans for high-risk buildings and at strengthening enforcement.

May I ask—because the Secretary of State has not mentioned this—what the advice has been regarding ThermoWood and similar cladding on low-rise buildings following the fire in Barking? It is clear that there needs to be some advice and regulation in that regard.

I welcome what the Secretary of State said about bringing in a regulator, as we already have a Scottish Housing Regulator in Scotland. Such provision would allow residents to take up any issues they have with the regulator and to prevent something such as Grenfell from happening, because there would be a process through which complaints could be resolved. Has he met with the Scottish Housing Regulator to discuss their work? If not, will he do so? Will he also speak to the Chancellor about the potential VAT reduction to incentivise sprinklers and other remediation works in buildings, as that could make such works easier and cheaper for building owners. Is the Secretary of State convinced that the money he has allocated will be sufficient, because £10 million does not really sound like enough to me?

Finally, the Chancellor has talked about this period of time as being the end of austerity. Fire and rescue services in England have seen a 38% cut since 2005; will the Government restore that money and ensure that fire services are able to respond adequately to emergencies?

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With respect to the threshold for sprinklers, we have made it clear that our preference is 18 metres, on the basis of the expert advice that we have received so far, but we are open to reviewing the evidence for an alternative threshold, including a lower one. There are obviously precedents elsewhere for thresholds of 11 metres. As I understand it, 18 metres has historically been the traditional marker above which higher fire safety systems are put in place—that has been the case with cladding and in other regards—but we will be led by the evidence and will pay careful attention to what is happening elsewhere, including in Scotland.

The consultation does ask questions about better signage in high-rise buildings and alert systems that would enable the fire officers attending the scene to communicate to all residents in the building and give them proper messages about staying in their flats or evacuating, and so on.

The incident in Barking was clearly very concerning. We have published advice about wooden cladding on balconies, so that is in the public domain; I am happy to send the hon. Lady a copy of that advice. As I understand it, the building in Barking, along with another on the same development, were unusual designs with excessive amounts of wood on their balconies. It was an extremely distressing incident, which I do not want to see repeated, but I advise anyone who is concerned to see the advice that we have published.

I will consider the hon. Lady’s request as a Budget representation to the Chancellor. In the recent spending review, we secured the funding that we announced today for local authorities and to fund the protection board, and we believe that that funding is sufficient. We think that £10 million a year is enough to carry out individual urgent inspections of high-risk and high-rise buildings across the country within the timeframe that I have set out.

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I remind the House that I am looking for single-sentence questions without preamble.

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May I support what my right hon. Friend has said in his statement about driving forward cultural change and ensuring that people are safe in their homes? I also encourage him to follow through on the social housing Green Paper to see that tenants have that voice to challenge their landlords and to drive change.

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I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s work. A number of the initiatives that I announced today commenced during his tenure and he was the driving force behind them. I will, of course, take forward the social housing Green Paper. We are considering the very large number of representations that we received, and I will update the House in due course.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to his position. With regard to ACM cladding, will he give a date when he is going to require—not expect, but require—this cladding to be removed, and what steps and sanctions does he intend to take? In terms of the testing of non-ACM cladding, if that material is found to be as dangerous as ACM cladding, will he give a commitment to provide exactly the same funding for the removal of that cladding so that people in those homes are safe as well?

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The announcement that I made today sets out a timetable. The fund is now open. Every private sector building should apply, and we believe that they will. If, over the course of the autumn, some are procrastinating and not complying, I will name and shame them. The hard deadline is the closure of the fund in December. I will consider all options available to us at that point to ensure compliance. With respect to non-ACM cladding, the advice that we have had to date is now in the public domain. Building owners should be acting upon that. The testing process will conclude this autumn. If further updates are required, of course we will put that in the public domain.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that building regulations can allow us a triple opportunity to build zero-energy bill homes—the homes of the future—quickly and affordably, reduce poverty and reduce greenhouse gases?

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My hon. Friend and I share a passion for doing that. We announced in the spring statement a new future homes standard that will ensure that no new home will be built in this country after 2025 without low or zero-carbon heating and the highest levels of energy efficiency. That is good for the environment and good for people on lower incomes.

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Can the Secretary of State say a bit more about his protection board? What kind of people will be on it, how many of them will there be, will they have staff or will they be carrying out inspections themselves, and will they monitor how local authorities spend this £10 million?

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I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with more details of the board, but it will be a partnership between fire and rescue services and other appropriate experts. They in turn will commission probably regional teams of experts to ensure the consistent and competent inspections of buildings across the country.

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Fire safety matters, but so does the health and safety of workers, so will the Secretary of State keep a focus on the current review of building regulations to make sure that that prohibition on low-level letterboxes is delivered?

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Yes, I think we may all welcome that in the coming months.

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There is confusion about the “stay put” policy and tall buildings being approved with single staircases. What has happened to the review of means of escape?

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I will write to the hon. Gentleman with an answer.

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Will the Secretary of State use the campaigning charity the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership as a way of letting leaseholders in privately owned blocks know what should be happening and of making sure that their interests are taken into account just as much as those in the private sector?

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I am very happy to take my hon. Friend up on that. He knows that I share his determination to take forward wider reforms in the leasehold sector, and I will be introducing measures in that respect in due course.

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What can be done to identify developers such as Mr Jason Alexander in Greater Manchester who have a track record of repeatedly flouting regulations for buildings they own and to make sure they cannot continue to do so and will face sanctions?

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Local authorities have robust enforcement powers available to them, and we are working closely with them to guide and support them. If the hon. Lady would like to come to me with examples, I would be very happy to support her.

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First, tenants at Edwin Court in my constituency are having to move out of their homes while vital fire safety work is carried out. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that all housing associations look after their tenants in the process of such work? Secondly, will his review look closely at inadequate fire doors? Inside Housing’s review of this issue is very concerning, as have been answers I have received to parliamentary questions.

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I am very happy to work with my hon. Friend on that issue. We have already published updated advice notes on fire doors. It is an important issue that we want to take forward.

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Two years after Grenfell, buildings in Newcastle remain with this dangerous cladding, so will the Secretary of State admit that the privatisation of building safety, in effect, with building owners able to pick and choose who inspects them, has failed? Will he review the system generally and give local authorities more control, oversight and resource, as Newcastle City Council has requested?

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The hon. Lady can see that we are doing a root-and-branch reform of the building safety system, both in the interim and in the long term with the building safety Bill that will come forward as soon as possible. I am working very closely with local authorities, and today of course I have announced £14 million of additional funding that will help to support them to use their existing powers robustly.

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It is almost 12 years since the tragedy in Atherstone on Stour, in Warwickshire, which resulted in the deaths of four firefighters. Sprinklers were subsequently introduced into legislation. Can the Secretary of State not be more ambitious and ensure that sprinklers are retrofitted to all tower blocks and also insist that they be introduced into schools, so that we do not lose schools, as we did in Scotland the other week?

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As I think I said earlier, we will always be guided by the safety of residents, but we must be led by the evidence, and the consultation I am launching today will do exactly that. We will consider the appropriate threshold and whether measures need to be applied to other high-risk buildings of different types.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. Some 11,500 firefighters’ jobs have been cut since 2010. What representations has he made to other Government Departments?

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As I said in my statement, I have worked very closely with the Home Secretary in preparing this announcement. The protection board will be a partnership between the fire and rescue services, the Home Office and my own Department. The funding that the Chancellor has made available for this will help to ensure that fire and rescue services that participate are properly funded for that work.

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As we saw at Whaley Bridge this summer, it is not just residential buildings that can put lives at risk but infrastructure as well. While I welcome the review that is taking place on Whaley Bridge, will the Secretary of State confirm that the rigorous inspection regime will apply to infrastructure buildings as well as residential ones, and that where they are held by separate trusts such as the Canal and River Trust, capital funding will be available where needed?

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I am very happy to take that up with the hon. Lady, although I think it is more likely to be a question for the Environment Secretary. I thank her for the work that she and I did over the course of the summer and for the hard work she did for her constituents.

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Is the Secretary of State aware that what my firefighters in West Yorkshire want is to be able to do the job? They want the training, the resources, the time and the prioritisation, and then they will do the job.

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With respect, that is exactly what we have announced today.

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Notwithstanding the consultation, will the Secretary of State apply the same logic about sprinklers to existing tall blocks as he does to new blocks?

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I think I have already answered that.

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Tim Farron—one sentence.

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Given that naming and shaming has been set out by the Secretary of State, could he be more explicit about what sanctions he will be using against the individuals and organisations that fail to comply with making these buildings safe for their residents?

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The hon. Gentleman asks a pertinent question. In the first instance, we will be working with local authorities, which have such powers available to them. We will be supporting and guiding them to take robust action, but if we reach the end of the year and there are still building owners who have failed to participate—which would be shameful given that taxpayers’ money is available to them—I will consider all options available to us to ensure their compliance.

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Will the Secretary of State’s Department co-ordinate with the Northern Ireland permanent secretary to ensure that we too in Northern Ireland are securing improved safety measures for residents and for workers?

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I will.