House of Commons
Monday 1 February 2021
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I would like to take the opportunity, on behalf of everyone in Defence, to send Captain Sir Tom Moore our best wishes for his recovery from covid. He continues to be an inspiration to us all, embodying the “Trust, Courage, Team Spirit” motto of the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, for which he is the honorary colonel. From the newest recruit upwards, we all wish him a very speedy recovery.
We are taking several steps to ensure that we are using the estate in a most effective way. They include updating our infrastructure strategy plans; implementing an asset management system across the estate; and increasing investment in the estate to implement the defence estate optimisation portfolio, reducing our footprint and modernising our infrastructure.
My constituents are very proud of the role RAF Linton-on-Ouse has had in the defence of our realm, all the way from the second world war to the current day—or near to it. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on any other potential purposeful military uses he has for the base?
At the urging of my hon. Friend—the RAF have been in the process of drawing the base down, as he said—we did look at exploring other military uses for that base, but at the moment no long-term military requirement has been identified. Defence is, I am afraid, therefore completing the final assessment, with disposal details to be announced in due course.
May I join the Secretary of State in sending our best wishes to Sir Tom for a speedy recovery? It is a well-known fact that in the 21st century we need to modernise our defence estates to compete, given changing world needs. The Government have announced the closure of 90 sites across the country, so will the Secretary of State update this House as to how his Department aims to ensure that the British taxpayer is not left paying huge rents on a great number of empty properties, as has already happened, when these sites are closed? How many of these defence estate sites will be affected by the Crichel Down rule?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The defence estate optimisation programme was and is planned to unlock £1.4 billion, to be reinvested in an overall plan of a £5.1 billion investment in the defence estate across the board, helping soldiers, sailors and air force personnel with better quality accommodation and a better training estate. He is right to point out the challenges relating to historical problems with both private finance initiatives and the Annington home deal at the end of 1997. Some of the PFI schemes introduced under his Government lay a heavy burden on the defence budget. We are both examining and negotiating on a number of those areas to try to reduce the overall burden on the taxpayer.
Military Training: Overseas Armed Forces
The Biden Administration have halted the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, with many Democrats citing the killing of civilians, including children, by Saudi forces in Yemen. A freedom of information request by The Guardian revealed that the Government provided training on UK soil for Saudi military. Will the Minister ensure that the Government expose the widely documented crimes committed by Saudi personnel with US counterparts as they undertake this review? Will he take a leaf out of the American book and reassess whether we should be enabling the Saudi regime, given the awful crimes it has committed?
The hon. Gentleman will know from the many parliamentary questions that have been asked on this that much of the information relating to licensing is subject to ongoing legal proceedings, but our defence relationship with Saudi Arabia on training includes courses, advice and guidance. This supports the efforts of Saudi Arabia to protect national and regional security, as well as its military’s compliance with international humanitarian law. The UK is not a member of the Saudi-led coalition and we played no role in setting Saudi-led coalition policy.
Covid-19: Regional Support
As part of the national covid-19 response, Defence has been active in all regions of the UK, providing support in a variety of ways, including through the distribution of personal protective equipment and diagnostic equipment; the planning, construction and staffing of Nightingale hospitals; conducting school and community testing; and providing military support to NHS trusts and support to the vaccine programme. As of 27 January, there are approximately 14,500 personnel committed or at readiness, and service personnel are deployed in every region of the UK.
In the south-east, we are lucky to have more than 300 defence personnel working in a mixture of medical and non-medical roles in our NHS. On Friday, I heard directly from my local trust about how important that has been as a boost to our NHS workforce. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should extend our deepest gratitude to the hard-working men and women who have been working on the frontline of this pandemic?
I certainly do. I am delighted that defence personnel have been of such use to the local authorities in the south-east. Personnel from all three services are employed in a range of roles to support frontline NHS services, both providing direct clinical care and undertaking support roles to free up NHS staff. I know from everything that I have heard from nursing directors and clinicians across the country that their contribution has been of enormous benefit and we are very grateful to them all.
Having volunteered at a new local vaccine centre in Bishop Auckland, I have seen the looks of joy and relief on people’s faces. I was pleased to hear that the Ministry of Defence is standing up more than 40 vaccine quick reaction forces, ready to help ensure that the vaccine roll-out reaches even the most remote areas of the UK. Could my hon. Friend update the House on how many of these teams have been deployed and to where?
With pleasure: 42 vaccine quick reaction force teams comprising 252 defence personnel are deployed across seven NHS England regions to locations determined by NHS priorities. As my hon. Friend says, their primary effort is to ensure that the roll-out of the vaccine is equally paced across the country. Where we can reinforce the efforts of local NHS trusts, that is exactly what these quick reaction teams are there to do.
I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier answer and for the three military planners who are currently supporting the Staffordshire local resilience forum with their covid-19 related planning. Will he expand on the diverse roles that the military planners have carried out in the pandemic so far?
I have been speaking to our joint military commanders in every region and they have all been clear about the value that these planners and their liaison officers have brought in helping the local authorities to understand what it is that the military could do and in helping us in the MOD to get ahead of that demand so that we can get troops lined up. It is clear that, whatever the lessons learnt about the covid response more generally, one of the biggest lessons for the Ministry of Defence is that those relationships at local level are of huge importance and I hope that we can institutionalise them as we go forward.
May I also put on record my best wishes, and those of my party, to Captain Sir Tom Moore and wish him a speedy recovery?
I have mentioned before that we are extremely grateful for the effort of the armed forces in Scotland, but I must mention the effort that they are making in my constituency at the Castlemilk vaccine centre. It is so good that it even managed to bring the Prime Minister out of Downing Street to my constituency—against all advice, but there we go. What plans does the Minister have to recognise the extraordinary effort and the extraordinary work of those in the armed forces working on the pandemic alongside such brilliant NHS staff up and down the country?
I am not sure whether I agree that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom visiting the United Kingdom armed forces hard at work in all parts of the United Kingdom is in any way an inappropriate activity for him to undertake. The great thing about our nation’s armed forces is that they get on with the job at hand and do not seek any recognition at the time. This is their priority; it is our priority. Of course, we have an eye on how we might recognise their contribution when all this is done.
I can tell the Minister that my inbox tells a rather different story. What they want is to be paid properly, to have decent working conditions and employment conditions, and their families to be supported better. But let me ask this. All those NHS and social care workers they are working alongside in Scotland will receive a £500 thank you payment from the Scottish Government. Will he match that for all UK personnel working here and abroad to help fight the pandemic in the upcoming Budget—yes or no?
Armed Forces Covenant: Military Charities
This Government are committed to strengthening the armed forces covenant with measures to further incorporate it into law introduced last week in the Armed Forces Bill. Service charities play an integral role for the armed forces community. We have regular dialogue, and they also provide observations on our progress each year in an unadulterated version of the covenant annual report.
I, too, send my best wishes to Captain Sir Tom Moore for a speedy recovery.
I have long been a supporter of the military covenant, and the local authorities in my constituency are among the first to adopt it, but the Minister will know that the director general of the Royal British Legion told the Committee considering the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill that the six-year longstop will breach the military covenant. Why does he think they say that?
I was Minister on that Bill Committee, and the person to whom the hon. Gentleman refers actually supports the legislation. It does not breach the armed forces covenant. We are clear that that legislation gives our soldiers more rights and protects them in a better manner for the intricacies of modern warfare. Those who continue to peddle untruths about that Bill are doing quite a serious disservice to those who need to be protected from vexatious claims when they serve this nation on operations.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that local authorities play an important role in implementing the national covenant. In Sheffield, extra priority is given to ex-servicemen when it comes to the right to social housing. There is also a wraparound service that includes employment and skills, and mental health. All that is overseen by a council-appointed ex-servicemen’s champion, Councillor Tony Damms, who works with local charities, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, and the Sheffield and district ex-service associations; they all work closely together. I am sure that the Minister will agree that charities and the council working together in that way is a model for the implementation of the national covenant.
I pay tribute to Tony and to many like him across the country who work tirelessly in the endeavour of veterans’ care. I am clear that the future of veterans’ care is a blended model between statutory and voluntary provision, where there is a role for everybody, and we mark ourselves by the key questions: “How do you access that care? Does everyone leaving who needs it know where to turn?” Until we get there, we continue to need people such as Tony. It is a team effort, and we will get there in the end.
Part of the armed forces covenant is, of course, to look after war widows, including an estimated 265 who lost their war widow’s pension on cohabitation or remarriage and have not been able to benefit from the change in the law preventing that from happening in the future. I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State personally have been fighting with the Treasury to find a way to settle this debt of honour. In the light of the latest knock-back, what further plans do Ministers have to try to make good their promise to look after those war widows, who have sacrificed so much?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning on this issue. The Secretary of State has taken a personal lead and has recently written to Mary Moreland. As a result, the Department is currently considering how we can best support those represented through her War Widows Association, and, indeed, what that support might actually look like.
I have been speaking to a number of local authorities about their commitment to the armed forces covenant. We already know that many local authorities do a really great job of supporting service personnel, veterans and their families, but having the covenant in law will enhance those responsibilities. When there are more legal responsibilities, will Government funding to local authorities follow?
The Department is looking to issue in due course statutory guidance on how precisely these matters will be achieved. The key thing is that the legislation is very clear that it does not specify outcomes, but simply ensures that a set of principles is adhered to. That is what the armed forces covenant was always about; it was designed never for advantage, but to prevent disadvantage. That is what this Bill does. It is carefully calibrated to ensure that we raise the floor so that the experience for veterans, the serving community and their families is equal across the nation.
Defence Equipment Programme
We are implementing changes through the acquisition transformation scheme to improve cost controls. Through the outline strategic case, we are ensuring that the right expertise is brought together at the outset, so that projects are properly risk assessed and, with the right commercial expertise available, set up for success.
The National Audit Office recently concluded that for the fourth year in a row the defence equipment plan remains unaffordable. While the extra money for defence is to be welcomed, how will the Minister ensure that the investment does not simply disappear into a black hole but delivers on the new capabilities we need as a nation to deal with emerging security threats?
The hon. Gentleman’s point is very wise and we would endorse it. We need to invest in the right capabilities to meet the threats of the future. it is good to hear someone on the Labour Benches speaking sense. We agree that that is exactly where our funds should be directed—to meet the threats of the future. That is being undertaken through the integrated review, which is a cross-Government review. More information will be coming out in due course, but we are very focused on it.
The defence equipment plan has seen escalating costs over time, and agreeing priorities has proved to be difficult. The NAO says that industry has a prioritised list of funding options following a multi-criteria decision analysis exercise. This sounds worth while, if a bit of a mouthful, so will the Minister commit to publishing that list of priorities?
The hon. Gentleman needs to look to the outcome of the integrated review that will take place in due course, which will set out the overarching strategic priorities for the Government in meeting the needs of this country across a broad spectrum of foreign affairs and defence. It is from that strategic set of decisions that we need then to ensure that our procurement follows.
The MOD has been leading work to review our defence and security industrial strategy across Government, and we expect to publish the findings of this work in the spring. In our strategy we are aiming to ensure that we can access the industrial capabilities that we need to meet current and future threats to our national security.
That is good to hear. The national shipbuilding strategy reflects the strategic importance of ship systems and the supply chain that provides them. The Secretary of State will be familiar with the world-beating electric power and propulsion systems produced by General Electric in my constituency of Rugby. Will he confirm that those are considered strategic national assets and that they will be included in the Government’s thinking on the forthcoming fleet solid support ships programme?
I can certainly confirm that I recognise that many of the benefits of naval procurement are seen in the supply chain; General Electric and other systems providers play a hugely important role as part of the UK’s shipbuilding enterprise. I am committed to maximising the benefits to UK industry in all our defence procurement, within the regulations.
The extra funding is welcome and promises an overdue upgrade of Britain’s defence and defence industry. The Secretary of State talks about the rise in capital funding but not the real cut in revenue funding over the next four years. This year’s defence equipment budget is £16.4 billion, of which over half is revenue-based equipment support. How on earth has he agreed to this cut, and how is he going to meet the future threats to this country and fix the black hole in the budget by cutting day-to-day defence spending?
It is great hearing the right hon. Gentleman trying to turn a £16 billion or a £24 billion increase in defence spending into a cut and finding any way, across the budget, to get in the word “cut” so that no doubt at the next election he can claim that somehow we have cut defence spending despite the £24 billion increase over the next four years. We are planning to spend £186 billion on equipment and support between 2018 and 2028. Of course we have to balance revenue spending and capital spending in terms of the resource departmental expenditure limit throughout the process. The reason our Army and our armed forces are different in size from what they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago is defined not just by the threat but by the equipment we have available. The proportion of our RAF that is unmanned, which will grow, of course means fewer people flying aeroplanes. That is the nature of things. If one looks at the US air force, one will see that pattern over the past 15 to 20 years.
It will be quite easy and perfectly straightforward to try to find the right balance, as long as we are defined by the threat and the ambition we need to meet. Some of the money that we have received—the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—is not going to buy new shiny toys in some areas; it is about fixing some of the current problems in infrastructure and so on to ensure that we are more efficient and more productive.
I appreciate the Defence Secretary wanting to downplay the real difficulties he faces, but we were told by his predecessor in 2012 that the black hole has
“been eliminated and the budget is now in balance”,—[Official Report, 14 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 262.]
yet less than a decade later the National Audit Office says that for the fourth year running the equipment plan is unaffordable and the black hole is as high as £17 billion. On the integrated review, where he promises answers to these difficult questions, may I urge him not to repeat the mistakes of past Conservative defence reviews by trying to balance the books off the back of forces personnel, industry investment and equipment support?
Since taking my post as Defence Secretary I have been absolutely determined to ensure that the figures that both we and the Treasury use are absolutely of the highest quality and transparency.
If the right hon. Gentleman reflects on the NAO’s 1998 report, he will see the same systematic problems in the management of the defence budget: phantom efficiency savings that turned out to have already been spent by other people have been a significant problem in defence for 20 to 30 years. It is not just a governing party problem. All of that has meant that when we publicise the integrated review, we will start from a baseline where we can all be transparent about our figures and trust the figures we are putting before it. I will not indulge in fantasy savings or phantom programmes. I will not allow the services to procure equipment that has a balloon payment at the end, in 10 or 20 years’ time, when it becomes somebody else’s problem.
I join the Secretary of State and others in wishing Captain Sir Tom Moore a speedy recovery. He has become a living symbol of the very British spirit that we need to get us through this pandemic, and we all wish him well.
May I press the Government on when the integrated review will be published and warn against suggestions that our infantry might be cut by up to 10,000 personnel? If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the value of spare capacity and the built-in resilience to deal with the unexpected. With that in mind, I invite the Defence Secretary to look at deploying RFA Argus, our hospital ship currently alongside in Plymouth, and other military assets to assist with the international roll-out of vaccines to developing countries. The UK set an example by stepping forward during the Ebola outbreak, and we should do so once again with covid-19.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. HMS Argus has literally just returned from giving assistance in the Caribbean; she has been helping the populations there deal with the initial outbreak and all the problems. She was involved in dealing not only with the covid outbreak, but with security and making sure that the borders and so on were kept from immigration pressures as well.
On the broader issue of the integrated review, I know I have come to this Dispatch Box on a number of occasions to say it was going to be on a certain date. It will be in the spring. Obviously covid has taken its effect. The No. 1 priority of the Government is dealing with covid and delivering a covid response. That does not prevent defence, with a multi-year settlement, setting out and driving forward, in conjunction with the Foreign Office, a plan to ensure that when the review is launched, everyone will be able to see it. I am determined that it will be done this spring, because it is important not just domestically, but for our international allies to understand the direction of travel on our defence.
British National (Overseas) Immigration Pathway
There have been no discussions on this matter. British national overseas status holders who serve in our armed forces already have the option either to apply for British citizenship while serving or to settle in the UK on discharge. BNO veterans who have not pursued these routes and choose to apply under the new BNO route will be on a pathway to settlement in the UK and can then apply for British citizenship.
During the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the existing immigration rules meant that only 159 of the 654 soldiers who had served in the British armed forces in Hong Kong and applied to live in the UK were successful at the time. With the opening of the new settlement scheme for British nationals overseas, many of those veterans are keen to escape the crackdown of the Chinese Government on Hong Kong. Can the Defence Minister confirm that he will defend their right to UK citizenship in any consultations on the matter with Cabinet colleagues?
The hon. Member raises a good point and a good question. These negotiations are ongoing at the time. We are very clear, though, that those who have served in the armed forces should suffer no disadvantage because of their service, and that of course extends to those who apply for BNO residency, should they be eligible.
Armed Forces Covenant
As committed to in the Queen’s Speech, last week measures to further incorporate the armed forces covenant into legislation were introduced in the Armed Forces Bill. The Bill requires those public bodies in scope to consider the principles of the covenant when developing policy and making decisions in health, housing and education—areas that are fundamental to service life.
I thank my hon. Friend for his response, and I am very pleased with that support for the family, which is very much in the spirit of our military covenant. What duty will be applied to education, and what support measures are in place for the children of our military families to support their learning in schools both while the parent is serving and later when a veteran?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her tireless campaigning on this issue. Registered service children in the annual school census in England receive the £310 service pupil premium per child per year up to year 11. Since 2016, registered service children, even if their serving parent has left the armed forces, continue to receive the SPP for up to six years while they attend state schools in England.
One of the ways that enshrining the covenant in law could deliver more for our armed forces is on housing. Surveys continue to show low levels of satisfaction with maintenance, and the Government renegotiate the rents on some accommodation. Will the Minister provide an update on the arbitration process for Annington Homes, and can he assure those living in service family accommodation that he will not bring back a deal that hikes up their rent?
Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
The Government have been clear that we will not sign the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. We welcome the US offer to extend the new START—strategic arms reduction treaty—with Russia, and we would support that treaty and its robust verification mechanisms continuing.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the deep disappointment and frustration felt across Scotland and much of the UK because the UK Government did not join 85 other countries and sign up to the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons on 22 January. Can he explain why the UK has failed to support this treaty, and how this is consistent with its strategic objectives and obligations under article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to make attempts in good faith to move towards the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons programmes?
The Government did not sign up to it because we do not think it is an effective way of dealing with this. We do think that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty is a more effective way of reducing both the spread and, indeed, the number of nuclear weapons on the planet, and that is why we favour gradual multilateral disarmament negotiated through a step-by-step approach.
It seems as if global Britain is running in the opposite direction of global consensus on this issue. Rather than just hoping that nuclear weapons will never be used and working for some eventual point in the future when they might be eradicated, why will the Government not take the bold steps of signing this treaty and, for that matter, removing Trident from the shores of this country?
It may have missed the hon. Gentleman’s attention that other countries, those much less democratic and with much less regard for human rights, are working in the other direction and developing nuclear weapons. One reason we felt that nuclear weapons are important to the United Kingdom, when other regimes such as, potentially, North Korea and others develop them, is as a deterrent. We will continue to believe that, and seek ways to reduce nuclear holdings around the world in a multilateral, not a unilateral way. If I think that some of those adversaries care about some of those countries having nuclear weapons or not, the world might be slightly different, but it is not. We should be careful and protect our friends. We are a provider of a nuclear deterrent for NATO and for Europe. That has kept the peace for 50 years, despite some very aggressive nuclear powers.
Defence Procurement: Net Zero Carbon Emissions Target
Sustainability is considered at all the appropriate stages of the acquisition lifecycle, from setting requirements to disposal. In addition, we are improving sustainability in the defence estate, which offers a significant opportunity for the future.
We face a climate crisis, and we must build back greener out of the pandemic. Will the Government undertake to do more to increase investment in research and development in low-emission planes and ships, working in collaboration with the civil sector? Will he meet me and Airbus, and others, to discuss the opportunities to boost innovation and production of non-military planes and ships—like the US does with Boeing—to help us meet our net-zero obligations? Will he boost exports, so that defence expenditure can be used to defend us against climate change?
We are focused on the Government’s world-leading commitment to net zero 2050, and defence will, without doubt, play its part. A lot of work is ongoing regarding how we can increase our activity in that sphere, but we have discussions with commercial entities and throughout the MOD about how we can tackle carbon emissions throughout the armed forces. That includes, recently, clearing MOD planes to use up to 50% sustainable aviation fuel. That is a good step in the right direction, and others will undoubtedly follow.
Our armed forces are a force for good, providing security, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping and defence engagement across the globe. They have a proud track record on the frontline of our national response to humanitarian disasters the world over, from Ebola in west Africa to hurricane seasons in the Caribbean.
As chair of the British Council all-party group, I suggest that soft power can pay for itself many times over by building links and improving trust and understanding, all of which makes conflict less likely. As the Government assess our international engagement, does my right hon. Friend agree that soft power must be a consideration alongside traditional hard power? Will he assure me that he will make the case for soft power when it comes to the Government’s integrated review?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work on the British Council all-party group. The British Council is an outstanding institution around the world—indeed, in my opinion there is not enough of it around the world. The integrated review will enhance defence engagement, ensuring that our armed forces are more forward, present, and active around the world, and involve changes to operational development structures, defence diplomacy and allowances. I completely agree that alongside hard power must come soft power. It can be delivered by the military, as well as by those excellent non-governmental organisations, and organisations such as the British Council. The best way to not get into a conflict is to avoid one in the first place by understanding each other’s issues, and by helping nations and people’s economies to build. That is the first way to go.
Dreadnought Class Nuclear Submarine
The 2020 annual update to Parliament on the United Kingdom’s future nuclear deterrent provides progress details on the Dreadnought submarine programme. The programme, underpinned by around 30,000 defence nuclear enterprise jobs across the United Kingdom, remains on track to deliver the first of class in the early 2030s. The programme will sustain thousands of jobs across the United Kingdom, including in Scotland.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. We live in uncertain times and should always maintain peace through strength, of which the nuclear deterrent is the best example. Will he join me in thanking all those involved in both delivering the Dreadnought programme and operating the Vanguard boats with such dedication and skill in the intervening period until they are replaced?
Continuous at-sea deterrence has kept us safe for more than 50 years. I recognise and thank all the personnel involved and their families for the tremendous sacrifices they make, and I am proud of all our Royal Navy and industrial partners for delivering this very important Government commitment.
Covid-19: Overseas Territories
The armed forces have provided a range of support to the British overseas territories throughout the covid-19 pandemic where it has been requested. That has included support to local government and civil authorities in their response, through the provision of defence planners, the deployment of critical care teams, the provision of food and medical supplies, and, more recently, logistical support with vaccine delivery.
Defence has to date delivered 10,725 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Gibraltar, as mentioned by my hon. Friend. Further deliveries are planned to the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar by the end of today, of 6,825 Pfizer doses and 3,000 AstraZeneca doses respectively. Defence is scoping the delivery of 65,850 further vaccine doses to Ascension Island, Gibraltar and the Falklands throughout February, and of course we stand ready to support vaccine delivery to all the British territories overseas.
Covid-19: Armed Forces Professional Development
The Government remain committed to ensuring that the professional development of our armed forces personnel continues during this difficult time. The safety of our workforce and their families is paramount. Measures including social distancing and, where appropriate, testing regimes have supported the continuation of prioritised face-to-face training. Alongside that, innovative ways of working and use of virtual platforms has enabled remote delivery of other professional development activity, including for those transitioning to civilian life or undertaking professional qualifications.
My hon. Friend makes a very valid point, and this former rifleman rather agrees. The issue of gendered rank titles is something that the chiefs have been considering. Diversity and inclusion leads are working collaboratively across the services to develop an inclusive language guide for release in the spring. That guide is informed by the wider work that NATO has done to produce gender-inclusive language manuals.
I am pleased to report that throughout the covid pandemic, Defence has continued to maintain a steady drumbeat of orders. Those include recent orders to enhance F-35, a project that particularly benefits the north-west of England, and the next generation munitions solution, which saves £563 million over the course of its contract and supports jobs in Glascoed, Tyne and Wear, and Stoke-on-Trent.
Beautiful Hastings and Rye has a number of excellent small to medium-sized manufacturing businesses serving the defence industry. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that, as part of defence procurement and the levelling-up agenda, those small companies are given the opportunity to benefit from any increase in defence procurement spending, thereby increasing jobs and helping to turbo-charge our local economy?
My hon. Friend has already discussed the brilliance of her small and medium-sized enterprises with me in the past, and I expect I will be hearing a lot more about them in the future. The good news is that with our SME action plan in place, which I would encourage them to look through, SMEs are now accounting for nearly 20% of all defence procurement expenditure. With a £24 billion investment in defence to come forth, there is plenty for them to go at.
What progress has been made with the upgrade of the British armoured vehicle capability? What are the Government doing to ensure that those contracts are fulfilled by British-based manufacturers such as David Brown Santasalo, which is based in my constituency?
It was a great pleasure for me and the Secretary of State to join my hon. Friend in visiting David Brown last year to discuss its vital work on Type 26 frigates not only for us, but our allies. Investment in UK armour, as I think my hon. Friend knows, is ongoing with the Boxer programme and Ajax. Other projects are also under active consideration.
So many industries have been hit hard by the pandemic, including aerospace and engineering companies in Wolverhampton North East. I am delighted to hear about more and more procurement contracts. What steps is the Minister taking to start as many of those contracts as quickly as possible, so that we can really help our industrial economic recovery?
I understand my hon. Friend’s question. Throughout the pandemic, we have made certain to maintain the drumbeat of existing orders so that they have continued. Through the interim payments scheme, we have helped to support defence companies with cash where that has been required. It is right that core defence decisions are taken on an holistic basis in the context of the integrated review. However, we have, where possible, advanced procurement in particular on improvements to the defence estate, where tens of millions of pounds of improvements are ongoing as we speak.
Today, I am placing a copy of the Department’s qualitative whole force inclusivity report in the House of Commons Library. It will form part of the evidence the Ministry of Defence is submitting to the Defence Committee’s inquiry into women in the armed forces. The report helps to underline the scale of the task we must address. Given the significance of the issue, I felt that a wider readership was important. The armed forces offer a fantastic career opportunity for men and women alike, but, as the reports highlights, their experiences are not always equal and in some cases are unacceptable. I am determined to level up opportunities for all who work in defence through behaviour and culture change. While much is being done, including the implementation of the Wigston and Gray reports, I am grateful to the Defence Committee for its additional work in this important area.
We take taskforce protection of our service personnel allies very seriously, and want Iran to engage seriously with the international community, especially on its nuclear commitments. We remain concerned over support for militant proscribed groups. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a whole remains subject to UK, EU and US sanctions. Many associated individuals and entities are also designated. We review the list of proscribed groups, but do not routinely comment on specific organisations.
I thank the Secretary of State for answering my question before I asked it, which was excellent and very timely. I thank him for his answer. In recent weeks, Iran has once again threatened to crush its enemies. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been testing long-range missiles and drones. I am aware of what my right hon. Friend said in regard to proscribing the revolutionary guard, but this is a country that continues to destabilise the middle east so we really must go further.
I apologise to my hon. Friend for jumping the gun, so to speak. The IRGC and its activities in the region are destabilising. That is why the United Kingdom is investing, along with its allies and NATO, in keeping places such as Iraq stable and secure. We ask the IRGC and the Iranian Government to desist from that activity, and to return to the table on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action now that we have a new US Administration. Let us try to resolve the nuclear issue and return to some stability.
The Secretary of State mentions nuclear proliferation in relation to Iran, but I am disappointed that he makes no mention of New START—strategic arms reduction treaty—which President Biden rescued last week, particularly as Britain is a beneficiary of the stability that it brings to Europe. He made no mention of New START when it collapsed with President Trump last year. He was also silent when the US pulled out of the 34-nation open skies treaty, so why has Britain become a bystander while the international rules-based order has been breaking down? While it remains essential to maintain our UK nuclear deterrent, will he also use the integrated review to reboot Britain’s commitment to help forge the next generation of necessary arms controls and security agreements?
First, we did not necessarily write it, but I read the right hon. Gentleman’s good article over the weekend with the shadow Foreign Secretary, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), calling for action on a number of these issues. It was not the case that the United Kingdom did not communicate to the United States Administration the importance of both the open skies treaty and the New START agreement. We welcome its return. Sometimes we do things in public; sometimes we do things in private. It is incredibly important, and we welcome the steps that are being taken, but we should not forget that Russia has consistently broken some of these treaties and played on loopholes, both on chemical weapons and nuclear weapons.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his relentless campaigning on this. The recent review by the independent Advisory Military Sub-Committee into the case for medallic recognition concluded that it did not meet the level of risk and rigour. However, we are committed to ensuring that we have good wraparound care for those who suffered injury from these operations and exercises at the time.
I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that the current contract—which is obviously in the middle of a competition, so I have to be cautious in what I say—is not about driving down terms and conditions; it is about increasing the productivity around getting our boats and ships out on the water and making sure that our men and women of the armed forces are getting the maintenance and the turnaround that is required for taxpayers’ money. I have already met a number of stakeholders, including the leader of the trade union to discuss his concerns. My eyes and ears are wide open to the fears of the workforce, and I shall be working to make sure that whatever comes afterwards is not about driving down conditions, but about increasing and improving service.
The Warrior CSP is now at an advanced stage in its demonstration phase. It has been ongoing for a period—it is now 75% through—but all projects are subject to the integrated review. I know that my hon. Friend would not expect me to comment on any particular project at this stage, but I will say that it is one of a huge number of contributions that Bedfordshire makes to defence, including across Ajax, Wildcat and Tempest. It is a county that has got a great investment in and support for our services.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. If she writes to me with the specific details, I will be more than happy to help her. However, I am very clear that no previous Government have done more than we have for armed forces communities. We are absolutely determined to get to the root causes of veterans’ suicide, and if the hon. Lady writes to me with the particular case, I will of course reach out and see what we can do.
I of course pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituents from RE:ACT, and to Richard Sharp, who set up RE:ACT. I think that every vaccination centre in the UK has veterans serving again in what is a national effort to defeat coronavirus. I pay tribute to them, I thank them for their work, and I urge them to keep going.
There are a number of measures related to service justice in the Armed Forces Bill, which was introduced last Monday. Those measures are particularly focused on improving the experience of those who use the system and make service complaints, making that system more transparent, with more integrity and more resilience to challenge. My hon. Friend will be delighted to hear that the Bill will have its Second Reading next Monday. There is some really good stuff in there; I urge her to have a look at it, and I am more than happy to engage with her further on the issues.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point, which is that first, we, as the United Kingdom armed forces, are here to help, and will do whatever is needed to help any one of the four nations of the United Kingdom. The amazing thing about the United Kingdom—the most successful political union in history—is that we are here to help each other seamlessly. An 80-year-old in need of a vaccine in London has the same need as an 80-year-old in Caithness. Our armed forces are all of our armed forces, and we will not be playing petty nationalist politics when it comes to defeating this evil virus.
On behalf of everyone in Bolton, I would also like to wish Sir Tom a speedy recovery. I was heartened to hear that many soldiers have been deployed to set up 80 new covid-19 vaccine centres for NHS Scotland. Can my hon. Friend confirm how many have now opened as a result of this military support?
We are very proud of the fact that military planners and advisers are embedded in so many Departments of the Scottish Government, just as they are down here in Whitehall with the UK Government, helping to make sure that the response of the Scottish Government is properly resourced with military expertise and planning horsepower. At present, 70 vaccination centres have been identified in Scotland as a result of the support from the United Kingdom’s armed forces, with 11 of those now open.
I am happy to look into the specific parameters of the issue that the hon. Lady raises. I have been very clear that with representatives of the armed forces in every DWP centre, helping users of the service, we now have a better service than we have ever had for those who use those jobcentres. We are always looking to do more. My heart goes out in this appalling case, and I am more than happy to look at it. However, the reality is that the vast majority of our people have an excellent experience in very difficult times. I pay tribute to the staff at the DWP and all those working in jobcentres, particularly at the moment.
We have many team medics, who are trained in advanced first aid and are well used to injecting morphine with some urgency on the battlefield. We are looking at how we might train them to be part of the vaccination process. There are 275 of them currently undertaking training, and clearly, the more of them we can make available, the better we will be able to support the NHS in vaccine delivery.
The veterans ID card is an important recognition of those who have served. Everyone who leaves the services receives an ID card. The hon. Lady is right to identify the challenges in backdating the cards, with issues of fraud and so on. We are committed to delivering this year, and backdating the cards for all those who have served, so that everyone has an important memento of their service in the UK armed forces.
I can confirm that that is very much the requirement, and we would fully expect all those whom we send out to support local authorities to be properly catered for. There have been one or two instances —one was reported to me by my hon. Friend—in which the service has fallen short. That is not good enough; we are investigating.
The Department has worked hard to put our arms around veterans across the community, working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to make sure that our homeless veterans are looked after. We have commissioned studies from King’s College to look at the specific impacts of the covid-19 pandemic on veterans. We are committed to making sure that we do our duty by those who serve, and I am confident that we will do so.
16th Allotted Day
Unsafe Cladding: Protecting Tenants and Leaseholders
I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to urgently establish the extent of dangerous cladding and prioritise buildings according to risk; provide upfront funding to ensure cladding remediation can start immediately; protect leaseholders and taxpayers from the cost by pursuing those responsible for the cladding crisis; and update Parliament once a month in the form of a Written Ministerial Statement by the Secretary of State.
Buying your first home is a life-defining moment. It is exciting and scary. It symbolises security, and the time to start a family and build a future, but for so many what was a dream come true has become a nightmare. The Grenfell tragedy shed light on a crisis of building safety in this country, and hundreds of buildings have the same cladding that caused the Grenfell fire to be so deadly. Thousands have other equally dangerous cladding, and even more have other serious fire safety problems, such as combustible insulation, missing fire breaks and faulty fire doors. Millions of homeowners are caught up in the wider building safety crisis caused by the defects and are unable to sell, remortgage or buy a flat, freezing up 16% of the housing market and affecting possibly as many as 11 million people.
It can be easy to get caught up in the vast numbers, but it truly is a human tragedy. Many in this House will have read or heard Hayley’s story. Hayley was a first-time buyer in Leeds. She bought her flat through an affordable housing scheme designed to help people on low incomes take that first step on to the housing ladder. After moving in, Hayley was told that the roof of her building was covered in dangerous cladding similar to that used on Grenfell Tower, and further inspections threw up more problems with brickwork, insulation, balconies and possibly firebreaks.
Every month, Hayley faced an additional £300 in charges for what is called a waking watch—a 24-hour fire safety patrol that gives little confidence but costs dearly. That £300 a month was as much as her mortgage, and she just could not afford it. The terms of her mortgage meant that she could not move or rent our her flat. Facing mounting bills for the repairs, fire alarms and the looming threat of the costs of fixing the building, Hayley declared bankruptcy. A first-time buyer so recently, Hayley would now struggle to take out a loan to buy a car.
However, the crisis is not just affecting those at the beginning of their housing journey. I was written to recently by an elderly constituent who wants to move out of his flat and into a home that better suits his mobility needs. His block does not have dangerous cladding, but misguided advice from the Government means that he cannot get a survey to prove it. His home cannot be mortgaged, so he cannot get a buyer and so he cannot move into a home where he can be comfortable.
The situation is reflected across the country. People are being forced to pay more than they can afford for a problem they did not cause. Some are paying so much that they cannot keep their home: first-time buyers getting on the housing ladder to secure their future; people trying to move up and start a family; people approaching or in retirement wanting somewhere smaller; key workers such as NHS junior doctor Will, also in the media today, working on the covid frontline in Sheffield and facing costs of £52,000, a doubling service charge each month and skyrocketing insurance costs; housing associations, councils and their tenants; and everyone in between.
Everyone in this House, I think, agrees that this intolerable situation must not go on. People cannot continue living in unsafe homes. Leaseholders should not face mounting bills for a crisis they did not cause. Labour’s motion today expresses three simple principles that we hope will receive endorsement from across the House. First, the Government must urgently establish how much unsafe cladding there is, where it is and what danger it poses. It is extraordinary, three and a half years on from Grenfell, that we still do not have such basic information. Immediately after Grenfell, the Government could have done as Victoria in Australia did and set up a taskforce to establish the extent of dangerous cladding, prioritised by risk, and ensured enforcement against those who refuse to undertake the work. We are calling on the Government to do that today.
Many leaseholders are discovering that there is a shortage of engineers and fire safety specialists to carry out inspections and works. The Victoria taskforce manages the supply chain and ensures that it is directed first to the buildings that are most at risk. It has also prioritised safety by ensuring that the highest-risk buildings are fixed first, rather than the first come, first served approach that the UK Government are currently taking.
Secondly, people’s homes should be made safe as soon as possible. Where there is dangerous cladding on buildings or other serious fire safety problems, that must be fixed immediately. All the big players in this crisis have spent the past few years pointing fingers and avoiding responsibility, and the Government have called on building owners to do the right thing, but there is nothing to prevent building owners from passing on costs to leaseholders, and indeed they have a fiduciary duty to do so in many cases. Leaseholders simply cannot afford it, and they simply should not have to. If someone bought a new car that turned out to be dangerous, they would not expect to be told to take out a loan of tens of thousands of pounds to pay for it—often more than the price of the original car—but here we are talking about people’s homes. The stalemate we have now is leaving hundreds of thousands of people stuck in flammable buildings, and the only way to make homes safe is for the Government provide up-front funding to make that happen.
Finally, the cost of the work should not fall on leaseholders or taxpayers. Residents did not cause this crisis. They bought their homes in good faith only to find themselves victim to years of corporate malpractice, Government inaction and a broken leasehold system. Ministers have promised at least 15 times that leaseholders would not bear the cost, but recently the language has shifted to state that they should not bear “unaffordable” costs, and there is talk of loans. Labour’s motion calls on them to reaffirm and put substance behind their original promises to leaseholders.
Neither should the taxpayer carry the burden. The Government should pursue the dodgy developers, cowboy builders and manufacturers of flammable cladding through legal action—that is the “polluter pays” principle. Where laws need to be changed to make that easier, we should do so. There is precedent for that in Australia. Many councils and social landlords are being stung for the cost of the remediation. The Government have set them two impossible tasks: build to the building targets they have set, and at the same time carry out expensive fire remediation without passing on the costs to hard-pressed tenants. That must also change.
I am a Member of Her Majesty’s Opposition, but I am not here to score party political points. We know that at least 34 Conservative MPs agree that leaseholders should not pay for these costs, and I am sure there are many more who have not yet said so publicly. I commend in particular the work of the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) on the Fire Safety Bill. Their amendments sought to protect leaseholders and push the Government to take action. We have tabled our own amendments that build on theirs and fill in some gaps, but the Government have not said when the Fire Safety Bill will come back, and the end of this parliamentary Session is rumoured to be fast approaching.
The Government may say that Opposition day motions are not binding, but it is up to them if they choose not to be bound by the sovereign will of the country’s elected representatives in this House. Many people remember that when the Labour Government were defeated on an Opposition day motion on Gurkhas, they honoured the will of Parliament and changed the policy the very next day. I ask the Government to heed the will of this House.
Further delay and inaction is not an option. Building insurance will continue to skyrocket and the unaffordable cost of waking watch security guards will continue. On top of all that, the colossal cost for fixing buildings will fall on leaseholders. People will go broke. Mortgages risk going into negative equity on a massive scale as more and more flats become literally valueless. We need a solution to this crisis that fixes buildings and ensures that those responsible pay.
I pay tribute to the absolutely inspiring cladding campaigners. I have met some in my constituency of Bristol West and others from across the country along with my colleague, the excellent shadow Minister for housing and housing safety, my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury). Those residents just want to get on with their lives. It is a tribute to all of them that they keep campaigning. So many MPs tried to get on to the speaking list today that they could not all get on. I commend colleagues for standing up for lease-holders, whether they are able to speak today or not.
There is cross-party consensus—agreement across both Houses and across the country—that we should put the needs of those first-time buyers, key workers and pensioners first. I am not asking Members to vote with the Opposition; I am asking them to vote with their constituents to show that they will always put their interests first. If Members agree with what is in the motion, they should vote for it. It is as simple as that.
There is a shared desire in Parliament to ensure that absolutely everyone in our society lives somewhere decent, safe and secure. We are united in that commitment, and our thoughts naturally turn to the still unimaginable tragedy of Grenfell Tower. It should not have taken such a deadly fire, with such a terrible loss of life and suffering, for us to face up to the failures of building safety that have built up over decades under successive Governments. We are determined to do our duty by those whose lives were changed forever that night, right the wrongs of the past, and bring about the biggest improvement to building safety in a generation.
The Minister will know that cladding issues affect thousands of my constituents, as do the wider issues of fire safety and building safety. Will he make clear when the legislation will come forward on both fire safety and building safety? Will he also give us an update on the EWS1 forms? He told the House in November that there had been negotiations, through the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, with lenders, but many of my constituents say that they are still facing serious issues in acquiring those forms.
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I shall certainly address the fire safety and building safety legislation as I advance through my remarks. With respect to the EWS1 forms, he will know that RICS has undertaken a consultation on the reform proposals, which ought to reduce some of the burden that some people face. That consultation closed on 26 January, and we await its results, but certainly as a result of the negotiations that we undertook with the industry and with RICS, some 450,000 people who might otherwise have been affected by the EWS1 forms are no longer obliged to complete them.
We know that, through no fault of their own, many leaseholders have found themselves in a most challenging, difficult and, indeed, agonising situation. Their situation is undoubtedly a complex one. Its roots extend over many years, and there are no easy answers.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right. Leaseholders will in no way be gagged by the standard contractual obligations between Government and applicants for Government moneys for remediation. We have written to anybody that has applied to the scheme to make it clear that if people wish to make comments about policy or about their own remediation situation, they should be allowed to do so. I say to my hon. Friend that should anybody from petty officialdom suggest that his or any other constituents do not speak out, they offer that petty official a good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon gesture in response.
I will make some progress; I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later on.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and to outline the decisive action that we are undertaking to remove unsafe cladding, to strengthen the regulations and to support leaseholders. We established our building safety programme within days of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Its aim has always been to ensure that residents in high-rise blocks of flats are safe now and in the future. We have worked intensively and extensively to ensure that buildings with dangerous cladding are made safe as quickly as possible and, backed by £600 million of Government funding, real strides have been made in removing this unsafe aluminium composite material—ACM—cladding. Last year, despite the pressures of covid-19, more high rises with ACM cladding were made safe—either their works were begun or they were made safe—than in any previous year, which is nearly double the number in the previous year, 2019. Last month, we reached a major milestone. All high-rise social sector buildings have either had their unsafe ACM cladding replaced or seen the work get under way.
My constituents in Ipswich are very pleased that they will be eligible for the waking watch relief fund, but it is only £30 million and many are concerned that it simply will not go far enough in addressing all buildings that need a new fire alarm system. What would the Minister say in response to their concerns?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend, who I know is a doughty campaigner for his constituents in Ipswich. I shall be addressing the issue of the waking watch and the support measures that we are putting in place as I move through my remarks.
I should also say that around 95% of all high-rise ACM buildings identified before the beginning of last year, across both the public and private sectors, are either fully remediated or have seen work commence on site. Indeed, all the buildings with unsafe ACM cladding in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) constituency have at least seen works start, if they are not already fully completed. These figures bear testament to the progress that we have made, the pressure that we have successfully exerted and the action that we have taken over the last three and a half years to get this job done. Where funding alone has not been enough to increase the pace of remediation, the Government have not hesitated to direct expert support to projects. Where building owners have still failed to take action despite that support, we have backed robust enforcement measures, spurring them to act without delay. Indeed, there have been 57 enforcement actions so far, 19 of which have been supported by the Government’s joint inspection team.
I am very grateful the Minister. He refers to building owners. Clearly, where there is a contractual obligation for building owners to remediate, that is absolutely right, but does he accept that lots of building owners have no contractual obligation—no legal obligation—to carry out that work? At Nova House in Slough, for example, the building owner simply gave it back to the local authority, which then issued service charges to the residents because there was no contractual obligation for anybody else to do the work. Perhaps we need to look at a wider community, rather than just building owners, to provide a funding solution for this problem.
My hon. Friend puts his finger on the nub of the matter, which is the complexity of the situation with which we and those people who find themselves in this difficult situation have to grapple, and that is what the Government are doing.
The Government initially focused our efforts on ACM cladding of the type used on Grenfell Tower because it poses the most severe safety risk on high-rise residential buildings, but we recognise that other forms of unsafe cladding, although less dangerous than ACM, should never have been used. Although many building owners have taken action, some have not. Too many building owners and managing agents in the private sector have been slow in getting remediation work started, which is why we introduced the £1 billion building safety fund to remediate high-rise residential buildings with unsafe non-ACM cladding as soon as possible and protect the leaseholders from burdensome costs.
We received 2,840 registrations for the fund, and have been able to make eligibility decisions on a significant number of them that were fully completed. It is disappointing that, despite our requirements having been made clear from the outset, many building owners have been unable to provide the basic information needed to advance works, including information such as the height of their building, the EWS systems on their walls and even sample lease agreements. We have been engaging with registrants and the industry bodies to understand the challenges they have in meeting the deadlines, and have set a new deadline of June based on what we now know about the registrants and their readiness to be able to deliver.
Building owners should be in no doubt: it is vital that dangerous cladding is removed as fast as possible, and the Government will not tolerate unnecessary delays. If they can collect the service charges, they can get the remediation on their buildings done. That applies just as much to small blocks of flats as it does to large ones, and we have given clear expert advice on a range of safety issues for buildings of all heights. Public funding has rightly been focused on remediating unsafe cladding on high-rise buildings of 18 metres-plus. That reflects the exceptional fire risk that certain cladding products pose at that height, as Dame Judith Hackitt observed in her report into fire safety. However, our guidance is unambiguous in stating that building safety is the responsibility of building owners, irrespective of whether their buildings are above or below 18 metres in height. The Government will continue to ensure that building owners—the ones who are ultimately responsible for making sure that these homes are safe—do the right thing.
We have targeted remediation funding where it is needed most: removing and replacing cladding on high-rise residential buildings. Interim safety measures such as waking watch have in many cases been used to ensure that the safety of residents in buildings with unsafe cladding is maintained. However, we are clear that waking watch regimes should only ever be used in the short term, because they are an entirely inadequate substitute for remediation. Some building owners have been using them for too long and have been passing on costs, which are unsustainable to leaseholders and residents, adding to the emotional distress and financial strain that they already suffer. We have been clear that that behaviour is unacceptable and cannot continue, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in December a £30 million fund to pay for the costs of installing alarm systems in buildings with unsafe cladding, thereby reducing the need for a waking watch. The fund is available across England. It is now open and I encourage those eligible not to delay but to start their applications now, so that we can urgently distribute the payments.
It is wrong and unjust for leaseholders to have to shoulder unfair costs to fix historical safety defects that they did not cause. That is why the Government have already set aside £1.6 billion in funding for cladding remediation. The funding was put in place precisely to ensure that the most dangerous types of cladding were removed as quickly as possible without imposing crippling bills on leaseholders. However, public funding does not absolve industry from taking the responsibility for the failures that led to unsafe cladding in the first place by putting materials on buildings that should not have been there.
We have seen many developers and building owners rightly taking responsibility for correcting those defects. They have done so in more than half of the high-rise private sector buildings with unsafe cladding. We absolutely expect developers, investors and building owners who have the means to pay to do the right thing and cover the costs of remediation of other unsafe cladding themselves without passing on the cost to leaseholders. However, in many cases, building owners or their managing agents have simply passed on significant remediation costs to leaseholders without regard to the affordability of those measures. That is why we have been accelerating the work to develop a financial solution to protect leaseholders from such costs. There is no quick fix. If there were, we would have done it long ago. It is complex and it involves many parties: leaseholders with different leases, developers, warranty holders, the insurance industry, the mortgage lenders, and the owners themselves. We have to find a solution that is right and proper, that demands of owners and developers that they put right the problems and defects they caused, that is fair to leaseholders who should not have to carry unfair costs for problems that they did not cause or envisage, and that is fair to the taxpayer, who is already shouldering a significant burden in remediating many buildings.
I can assure hon. Members that we will be making a further announcement on this important work “very shortly”, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said at PMQs last week. We must recognise that Government funding alone cannot solve some of the deep-rooted issues surrounding building safety. As Dame Judith Hackitt concluded in her review, it is vital that we reform the entire building safety regime, and that means a fundamental change in the regulatory framework, in industry and in its culture.
We are committed to bringing forward the most significant building reform in almost 40 years, with two landmark pieces of legislation: the forthcoming Building Safety Bill that will create a more accountable system, and the Fire Safety Bill, currently before the House, which clarifies the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. Taken together, these measures will improve the safety of residents in blocks of flats of all heights.
It may be worthwhile if, before I conclude, I commented on some of the amendments tabled to the Fire Safety Bill, particularly those by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith), who is in his place. We fully understand what our hon. Friends are attempting to achieve in their amendments. We entirely understand that they want to remove or reduce the burden on leaseholders, and we wish to do the same. However, having looked at their amendments closely, it is clear to us that their scope, as currently drafted, would mean they would apply only to residents and leaseholders who have had a fire risk assessment undertaken, and not to residents who have suffered an incident or had works done for any other reason. Nor are the amendments drafted in such a way as to allow them to be introduced without significant change to the Bill, both to the primary legislation and to the secondary legislation that must follow. As a result, the amendments would significantly impair the Bill’s progress through the House—they would delay it—and so, having looked carefully at my hon. Friends’ amendments, I encourage them to withdraw them.
The Building Safety Bill is the best mechanism to achieve my hon. Friends’ aims, which are to introduce a new and stronger regulatory regime for building safety in buildings of 18 metres or more in height, and for all construction products. The Bill will establish a new building safety regulator in the Health and Safety Executive, sitting at the heart of the reformed building programme. It will place clear legal duties on those who build and manage buildings in scope of the new regime to manage any risks that they create and, crucially, it will enable the regulator to enforce those laws.
In conclusion, high-rise buildings in this country should never have been fitted with dangerous or unsafe cladding. Successive Governments have failed to confront this issue, but it is this Government who are resolving it once and for all, making homes safer and protecting the residents from crippling costs, and at a pace that the severity of the situation demands. That is what we have already achieved: almost 95% of buildings identified at the beginning of last year with unsafe ACM cladding have now completed or are in the process of completing their remediation; we are advancing applications for the building safety fund; we are appointing specialist consultants to increase the pace of remediation; and we are introducing our additional landmark legislation. We will not let up. This work will be going on long after this Opposition day is over and long after the Leader of the Opposition has issued his tweet. We will not let even the pandemic, which is affecting our country and the world, slow us down. We will work to restore the inalienable right of everyone in this country to live somewhere that is decent, secure and, above all, safe—a place that they can rightly and proudly call home.
The Grenfell fire of 2017 was a catastrophic event and its devasting consequences are still being seen even today, with the public inquiry revealing new information each week. I want to take a moment to remember all those who died in the fire—all those lives so needlessly lost. I also want to pay tribute to the tireless campaigning by their families. It is vital that the victims of the fire and their families receive the justice they deserve through the inquiry. It is my hope that, because of the work of the Grenfell inquiry, serious measures will be put in place to prevent another catastrophic event such as Grenfell from ever happening again.
However, when we look at how the UK Government are currently tackling the cladding crisis, we see that their policies fall short. For example, the fund provided by the UK Government is not enough to cover all the properties with dangerous cladding, leading to a first come, first served approach and many people still living with unsafe cladding on their properties. Obviously, housing and local government is a devolved issue, but the UK Government’s building safety programme will undoubtedly have consequences for Scotland. Despite the building safety programme applying only in England and Wales, its advice is being used by insurance companies and mortgage providers in Scotland to guide their decisions. The EWS1 form currently applies only to properties in England, but the Glasgow Times has reported that inspectors are using the form and granting homeowners a certificate of safety. Without the EWS1 being law, homeowners are looking towards England’s cladding situation as guidance.
While these decisions by the UK Government are positive for improving safety, they have meant that many property owners in England are unable to remortgage, sell or insure their properties, as insurance and mortgage providers refuse to accept the risk of external cladding. Residents are not legally responsible for the external cladding and do not have the money to remove it, which has left huge numbers of people completely stuck and unable to sell their properties.
Guidance is now even affecting properties below the 11-metre and the 18-metre mark. Again, while this currently applies only to England and Wales, insurance companies in Scotland are also following these recommendations, thus affecting Scottish homeowners and tenants. Surely the UK Government and the Minister can see that it is completely unfair that residents and leaseholders are burdened with the costs of removing cladding that they had no say in installing. There are certainly reports of residents in England facing huge and very unfair repair bills, while the housing firms that own the at-risk buildings are having their costs recovered.
I recently heard the story of Sophie Grayling, a mother who was so proud to buy her first home in 2017. However, the flat that she bought was part of a building clad in ACM cladding—the exact same type, as we know, used on Grenfell Tower. Ms Grayling’s building is under the 18-metre threshold for the fund offered by the UK Government to remove the cladding, and with cladding remaining in place she has seen the sale of her home fall through, is facing a bill of thousands to fix the block’s issues and, most importantly, every night puts her child to bed with the knowledge that her building is covered in the same material that saw 72 lives lost in the inferno at Grenfell.
It is clear that that is unjust. Homeowners like Ms Grayling now face a Catch-22 situation: they either pay out of their own pocket to fix a problem that is not their fault or stay stuck in an unsellable flat that risks their safety. That story is not unique. More than 1 million people are still unable to remortgage or sell their properties because of the cladding. However, the frustration does not even end there: the UK Government are attempting to silence homeowners currently waiting for support, demanding that they do not speak to the media.
Homeowners applying for the fund to help to pay to remediate buildings will not be able to talk to a journalist. I know that the Minister said earlier that people should not listen to petty officialdom, but in order for petty officialdom to come to the fore at some point a Minister was not doing their job in terms of signing this off. People who are stuck in that incredibly tough position—unable to sell their house and facing massive bills because of the UK Government’s policy—must be able to speak to the press and expose the reality of how the cladding scandal is being dealt with.
In Scotland, cladding has been handled differently. As I said, housing and local government are devolved, so the removal of cladding is within the remit of the Scottish Government. That has enabled Scotland to require buildings to be constructed in a way that aids in the prevention of fires, which has contributed to Scotland having only a handful of properties—albeit, in my view, still too many—with Grenfell-style cladding compared with more than 450 in England.
However, even with that lower number, the Scottish Government are avoiding being complacent on cladding through the building standards futures board, and are continuing to improve building standards across all of Scotland. They are looking at other issues related to fire outside of cladding, such as holistically addressing high-rise buildings to make them safer, leading to requirements that will soon be introduced for sprinklers to be installed in new-build social housing and flats.
The UK Government should similarly address the cladding scandal by placing a focus on those who own and rent properties with unsafe cladding. The people most affected by the dangers of cladding should be at the centre of the discussion. Instead, the UK Government are burdening them with huge costs and the inability to sell or remortgage their flats.
The hon. Member has obviously been very critical of the UK Government and full of praise, as usual, for his colleagues in the Scottish Government, but he will be aware that the press reports in Scotland are highly critical of the high-rise inventory and how the Scottish Government have managed it. Furthermore, the group set up by the Scottish Government to allocate the almost £100 million fund that was designed to support people having to deal with cladding issues has not met since April last year. I would like to hear his comments on those points, please.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention. Speaking as someone who has 10 tower blocks in my constituency—I do not know how many there are in rural Scotland—I am very familiar with the issue, and I assure him that the conversations that I have on a regular basis with the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, Kevin Stewart, indicate that it is a very high priority for the Scottish Government. That is precisely why they have taken that action. I am none the less very grateful to the hon. Member for making what I am sure is not a party political point on what I think we all agree is a very serious issue.
The English fund covers only around one third of the costs to remove cladding in England, and with its being first come, first served, it will exclude some of the buildings in the most dire need of remediation. The UK Government should invest the money necessary to ensure that all at-risk residences in England can have remedial action carried out on them. The UK Government should also follow Scotland’s example of targeted support for the most at-risk buildings to avoid the first come, first served approach.
Instead of the UK Government’s policies targeting the companies responsible for the dangerous cladding, they are burdening homeowners and leaseholders. When we look at preventing further fires caused by cladding, it is important that we keep renters and homeowners in mind, such as Sophie Grayling and her young son, both of whom are stuck in an unsafe flat facing huge bills. We should consider the impact on homeowners and renters who already feel unsafe in their own homes. It is time for the UK Government to step up and truly tackle the cladding crisis, and help those in the most vulnerable position.
It is on record that I am a leaseholder, and I face no problems of these kinds. I have been working on leaseholders’ problems for well over 10 years, with the support of the campaigning charity Leasehold Knowledge Partnership.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister and to the Secretary of State, who are now showing that Government understand a large part of the scale of the problems. I believe that it is better if we do not have a vote today. We should look on this debate as a “take note” one. We are all trying to face the problems of our constituents who are living in homes that are unsafe, unsaleable and unaffordable. I pay tribute to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, and I look forward to hearing the Chair, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), speak shortly. Its reports on the situation of leaseholders even before we knew about this tragedy and its subsequent reports about the Fire Safety Bill are important.
I wish Michael Wade well in trying to advise Government on finding ways forward, and I commend the then Prime Minister who, on 27 June two and a half years ago, said that the Government do not rule anything out. What needs to be ruled in are, first, making the money available so that buildings can be made safe; secondly, challenging the insurance industry, which is putting premiums up at rates that I think should be investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority to see whether they are fully justifiable; and, thirdly, making sure that in the end, and as we know from court actions and inquiry results we can anticipate, the people who are responsible for this chaos—dangerous chaos—will actually have to pay. I do not think the taxpayer should necessarily have to do it; the Government have to make themselves responsible for finding the way forward.
Those who are responsible—not all, knowingly—include the developers, the builders and the present landlords, some of whom were the developers. They include local building control possibly, national regulators certainly and the component manufacturers. Those of us who have been speaking about the problem for the past three years—and I wish that some of the other advisers to Government on leasehold issues had been saying the same thing rather more clearly—think that this has to be tackled in a way that cuts short waiting for court actions that may take 10 years and provides the money now, by the end of the year, so that work can be started and finished as soon as possible and so that people have homes they can stay in or leave safely, and are affordable. I would trust those on the Select Committee most to work with Government to make sure that we find the solution, and I would hope to know that we have done that before we have got another few months further forward.
I begin by thanking the Father of the House for his very kind comments. Certainly, we have worked together on these issues. I congratulate all the members of the Select Committee as well. We have looked at the issue of building safety, particularly cladding, on a number of occasions, and we have produced a number of reports, all of them unanimously. It is to the credit of all members of the Committee—I notice that the next speaker will be the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who is an important member of the Select Committee—that we have done so on a cross-party basis.
I will quote one or two of our very clear recommendations. In 2019, we said that the Government should provide funding to remove
“any form of combustible cladding…from any high-rise or high-risk building”,
regardless of height. In our 2020 report, we recommended:
“The Building Safety Fund will need to be increased to address all fire safety defects in every high-risk residential building—potentially costing up to £15 billion.”
Then we did pre-legislative scrutiny of the Building Safety Bill, and we said:
“The Government must recommit to the principle that leaseholders should not pay anything towards the cost of remediating historical building safety defects”.
We have been very clear on all those matters: leaseholders should not pay. They should not pay some unidentified, affordable amount or fair amount, and neither should we get into a position of offering them loans to pay off the debts, because what do loans do but put leaseholders in more debt? At the same time, loans would put many of them into negative equity.
The leaseholder should not pay, and we know that developers and others eventually should be held accountable, but as the Father of the House has just explained, so many potential organisations could be held accountable and the legal arguments will go on and on. Many of the developers have gone out of business and do not exist anymore. Yes, we should pursue them, but in the meantime, the Government have to stand up and commit far more funding than is in the Building Safety Bill, which simply does not cover anything like the £15 billion of potential costs. Eventually there might need to be an industrial levy to pay part of it, and it is for the Government to come forward with recommendations, if they so choose.
The issue is not just about high-rise buildings over six storeys—I think the Minister has accepted that point. It is about all buildings where people could be at risk, including residential homes, care homes and so on. It is also not just about cladding, but about all potential fire risks in buildings, such as dangerous balconies, faulty fire doors, missing firebreaks and faulty installation —all the things together that need putting right to make the buildings that people live in safe.
Finally, we talk about numbers, but in the end behind all these numbers are individuals and families living in potentially dangerous buildings with debts around their neck that they cannot afford to pay, unable to sell their homes if they so wish. We owe it to them to get action on this issue immediately.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee, who spoke about the inquiries that we have done—seemingly endlessly—over the past six and a half years. Three and a half years after the Grenfell tragedy, we still have leaseholders living in unsaleable, un-mortgageable, uninsurable, unsafe properties, and that is a disgrace that we have to put right. Progress on remediation has unfortunately been slow. It picked up last year, which is good news, but it has been slow and we still have buildings with unsafe cladding, which makes the homes almost impossible to sell, should someone so wish.
This is a complicated debate and a complicated issue, because we have ACM and non-ACM cladding and we have other fire safety issues, to which the Chairman of the Select Committee has referred. The Government, however, are responsible for two things that are important in this process: first, the testing regime, which is not fit for purpose and needs fundamental reform to ensure that cladding and other things that are put in buildings are safe; and secondly, the building regulations that control them.
We have a problem with building ownership, which is complex and unclear, with many buildings owned by offshore trusts and other organisations. We have to deal with those particular issues, but it is fundamental that leaseholders should not have to pay a penny piece towards the cost of remediating unsafe cladding.
The Government have rightly come forward with the Fire Safety Bill and the Building Safety Bill, and I sat through the pre-legislative scrutiny on the Building Safety Bill. The problem with the Building Safety Bill is that it will take a very long time before it comes into law and is actually put into practice. If the Government are against the amendments to the Fire Safety Bill tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) and for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), they are honour bound to come forward with alternative amendments that meet the fundamental principle that leaseholders should not pay.
The key is this: what do we do for the people who are in this position? Surveys cost an enormous amount of money. The industry cannot have the capacity at the moment to rectify all the damage that has been done. What is clear is that we need to ensure that the building owners and those responsible foot the bill. We have to end self-certification of buildings. It is unacceptable that building developers can just self-certify that their buildings are safe and are within the scope. We have to make sure that the Government extend the building safety fund into next year, increase the amount of money available, and make sure that the work is done—if necessary, taking over these buildings, remediating them, and then turning them into commonhold so that the leaseholders know that they have a safe building and are not paying a penny.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman).
In June 2019, Samuel Garside House, a block of flats in Barking, was consumed in a wild inferno, going up in flames in seven minutes. It is a miracle that because the fire occurred in daylight, nobody died, but many residents, mainly leaseholders, lost all their possessions. In Barking, leaseholders are families who a generation ago would have been housed by the council, but with the shocking lack of affordable social housing, their only option is to stretch their finances to the absolute limit by buying a lease. They live on the edge from one pay cheque to the next, and they cannot even afford household contents insurance. They, and thousands of others in my constituency, certainly cannot afford to pay for putting right the mistakes of others. They are locked into an absolute nightmare in unsafe homes, unable to sell, unable to remortgage, and facing mounting bills to fix a crisis they did not create. The Government’s response today had little basis in reality. They have, in truth, shunted this into the “too difficult to tackle” box and abandoned leaseholders,
In three minutes I have three issues. First, the Government must act to protect all multi-occupancy buildings. Fire does not discriminate between one height and another. Samuel Garside was below 18 metres but it was a lethal fire trap. Arbitrary height thresholds do not work. All leaseholders must be covered and existing buildings must also be remediated.
Secondly, I have spent months of research trying to identify the owners of blocks in Barking. Ownership is often hidden. The properties are sometimes held through companies located in tax havens. Freeholders who make easy money by charging a ground rent are getting away scot-free. Freeholders must contribute towards the massive remediation costs, alongside developers, contractors, suppliers and regulators.
Thirdly, the Government must solve the spiralling cost of building insurance. Some are struggling to find any insurance cover at all. Residents of one block are facing a 900% hike in their building insurance. The Association of British Insurers told me that the Government are simply not engaging in a realistic dialogue to produce a scheme where risks are shared between the taxpayer and insurance companies. They have done so on covid issues but they have singularly failed where people are living in danger in their own homes.
I have not forgotten my constituents, but the Government have failed them. Those living in the Ropeworks, Academy Central, Spring Place, Samuel Garside, Central House, Benedicts Wharf, Rivermill Lofts, 360 Barking and Spectrum Building are all being left behind, abandoned by a Government refusing to—
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I say that just for the avoidance of doubt, as I do not think the leasehold property that I own is included in this matter.
The cladding and fire safety crisis has blighted too many lives for far too long. Leaseholders bought their homes in good faith. They would have trusted the developer to build a safe home and they would have trusted the Government to ensure that it conformed with the law. Most would have needed a valuation for a mortgage and nearly all would have used a solicitor to ensure that everything was legal. Governments have encouraged them to buy by offering them incentives to do so. Buyers had every reason to expect that our building regulations were sound and could be more than forgiven for believing that modern flats built in Britain would be safe. However, the events of the past few years have shown that this is not the case. Leaseholders have had to wake up to a sobering reality that the dream of home ownership has turned into a living nightmare as they face huge bills and bankruptcy.
Let me make something clear: the Government are not to blame for this situation. This is not the fault of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State or the Housing Minister; it is a failure of building safety regulation over many decades, involving many Governments. Regardless of what happens today, the Government have an opportunity to sort this out once and for all. They can give leaseholders the certainty and security they deserve and let the unwitting victims of this crisis once again sleep soundly in their beds at night.
The Government may feel that our amendment to the Fire Safety Bill is defective. Perhaps it does not do what leaseholders would like or it would slow the progress of the Bill. There is a simple solution, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman): accept our amendment, tidy it up, and ensure that it does protect innocent leaseholders.
The shadow Minister for Housing and the Leader of the Opposition said in interviews today that we should put party politics aside and work together. I could not agree more. Labour has had seven weeks to sign our amendment—seven weeks of victims of this scandal begging it to join us—and what has it done? It has done as it always does—ignored the opportunity and instead jumped on a passing bandwagon. Labour has led the victims of the cladding crisis up the hill, and now it is going to abandon them at the top.
There are options for the Government, and I know that they are working hard to find one that works, but today I ask them to accept our amendment and once and for all tell the leaseholders that it is not their fault and they will not have to pay.
It is shocking that, almost four years on from the Grenfell disaster, the Government have failed to get a grip of the cladding scandal. Despite repeated promises that leaseholders would not bear the cost of fixing this problem, there are countless families living in flammable buildings facing colossal bills for repair work and increased service charges to pay for interim safety measures.
One of my constituents living in Austen Apartments in Anerley is expecting her second child in March. She and her partner, along with their one-year-old daughter, had been hoping to move from their current two-bedroom flat to a bigger family home, but in October they were told that their property was covered in dangerous cladding. That meant they were unable to sell their flat, effectively trapping them in a fire hazard with no ability to move out. The estimated cost of removing the cladding is £30,000. Meanwhile, they face the prospect of increased service charges for a fire marshal and have received a notice from the building owner that the installation of a new alarm system costing £81,000 will be billed to residents.
My constituent told me:
“We live in a state of crippling uncertainty. Our plans to move are on hold indefinitely. We have no choice but to raise our young family in a small flat with no garden that is also unsafe. And we face the prospect that all the money we have worked extremely hard to save in order to buy our first family house will instead be spent on paying for remediation works or steep mortgage fees—through no fault of our own.”
Another constituent from the same building wrote to me:
“I am a single parent with two young children. I am currently not in employment and in receipt of Universal Credit. So, to now be potentially facing astronomical fees on top of already costly service charges is having a real negative effect on my mental health.”
Those testimonies are deeply worrying. While the £1.6 billion building safety fund has been set up to pay for remediation of unsafe buildings, it does not go nearly far enough, and buildings such as Austen Apartments are not even eligible for the fund because they are below 18 metres.
Sadly, Austen Apartments is not an isolated case. Another building in my constituency, in Forest Hill, also below 18 metres, no longer conforms to fire safety standards. Residents have contacted me saying that they are likely to have to split the remediation costs of £350,000 between 11 flats.
My constituents bought their flats in good faith, only then to find out that their homes are a potential fire hazard and that they face huge costs to make them safe. The Government should be doing everything possible to protect leaseholders from these costs and pursue those responsible for the cladding crisis. For the sake of my constituents and thousands like them, I hope that the Government will finally take meaningful action to resolve this injustice.
Last May, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee heard from Alex Di-Giuseppe, the co-founder of Manchester Cladiators, who told us how it felt to live in an unsafe high-rise building. Describing the fear of residents of buildings where a fire could happen at any point, who faced unaffordable bills, he said:
“It is the fear of living in the unknown…It is the feeling that we are trapped; we cannot sell and we cannot move.”
At the end of last year, ACM cladding remained on more than 160 buildings in England. Although progress on cladding removal is welcome, every night spent in an unremediated block is potentially a sleepless and fearful one, so it is important that we move at pace to fix these problems. Responding to the Select Committee report on cladding remediation, the Government were clear that
“there can be no more excuses for inaction”
from building owners, and they backed up that stance with a £1.6 billion fund for cladding removal, but clear targets are still needed if those building owners are to take their responsibility seriously and fix this problem.
Since the Grenfell fire tragedy claimed 72 lives in June 2017, fire defects have been discovered in thousands of other buildings. We know that the removal of dangerous ACM cladding was far from the end of the nightmare, as inspections uncovered non-ACM cladding and other failures, including missing fire breaks and other serious defects. Again, the Government stepped in with a £1 billion building safety fund to help meet those costs, but the costs are rocketing and leaseholders are being forced to pick up the bill. Although there is agreement that taxpayers should not foot the whole bill, we should consider expanding the fund to ensure that building owners can properly manage the costs associated with remediation, and not pass them on to leaseholders. In too many cases, leaseholders have been asked to pay huge bills to rectify a problem that is not their fault. They face waking watch charges, vastly increased insurance costs, worries about external wall system certificates and a massive loss of property value. They should not be facing those costs.
The Minister made it clear to the Select Committee that leaseholders will not be bankrupted by the remediation costs, but unfortunately that is setting the bar far too high and many have already reached that threshold. We should be ready to step in and stop leaseholders being unfairly penalised by freeholders who pass on costs, and the Government should be leading the effort. We need to take the action necessary to ensure that all our homes and buildings are made safe from fire and the fear of fire.
I pay tribute to my constituents—the Grenfell bereaved, the survivors and the wider community. I was shocked by several of the recommendations that came out of the Grenfell inquiry in November and December, especially those relating to building products, their testing and their marketing. It is clear that there have been regulatory and corporate failures. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has announced a new regulator for construction products and will start a review of the testing process.
I think the whole House would agree that we need a comprehensive and speedy solution to the leaseholder situation. Leaseholders are in this dilemma through no fault of their own, and as colleagues have said, in many cases they are sitting on unsaleable properties that are potentially dangerous. I welcome the fact that the Government made available £1.6 billion for cladding remediation, and I am glad to hear in particular of the progress on ACM cladding remediation. However, I suspect that £1.6 billion will not be enough. Today, I call on the Government to put together a substantial and comprehensive package such that we can remove all dangerous cladding on high-risk buildings. I agree with colleagues that we must ensure that freeholders, insurance companies, warrantee holders and developers pay their fair share, but I do think the Government need to put together a comprehensive package.
I was delighted that the Secretary of State and the Chancellor took time last week to hear me make the case for more Government money. I am glad to hear the Minister at the Dispatch Box say we will make important announcements in the short term. It is now three and a half years since the Grenfell tragedy in my constituency. We need to make urgent progress, so I look forward to hearing the Government’s announcements over the next few weeks.
The Government’s handling of the cladding crisis has lacked any sense of grip or urgency. Almost four years on from Grenfell, it is heartbreaking to see the pain that families are going through. I thank The Sunday Times for its campaign.
Residents are facing lockdown in inflammable buildings with potentially huge bills for repair work, higher insurance, and interim safety measures such as waking watch. They are also unable to sell their flats. An estimated 4,000 residents in Hounslow alone are affected. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) has also supported many affected constituents. They include young couples, now with children, trapped and unable to upsize to a home big enough for their growing family.
The situation is now not just about cladding. There is also a worrying lack of transparency and speed from housing associations such as A2Dominion and FirstPort. They were slow to undertake the survey work needed on fire safety, despite residents asking for clarity a year ago. With permission, I will share part of a letter that my constituent Pamela Canales received last week from A2Dominion. It reads:
“We wrote to you in June 2020 to let you know your building needed an ‘intrusive survey’. Our fire safety contractor carried out an intrusive survey in several different areas of your building…The results showed that there are issues with timber cladding, insulation inside the masonry walls with incorrectly installed cavity barriers between flats and cavity closers”.
It goes on to say:
“If you would like to re-mortgage or sell your flat, the mortgage lender involved will probably ask for an (EWS1 form). Your building received an ESW1 rating of Option ‘B2’—confirming combustible materials are present and remedial work is required. It is likely a lender will ask for more information about what work is needed, the likely timescales and the costs of carrying out the work. Unfortunately, we don’t know that information at this stage.”
On who will pay for the remedial works, it says:
“At this stage it is too early to say. We fully understand this is a key area of concern for residents and this is a top priority for us. We do not wish to pass cost onto leaseholders and will only do this as a last resort.”
A2Dominion and others do not have a good track record on transparency of costs for leaseholders. This morning, residents told me:
“We don’t know how much this is going to cost us. We don’t know if we will have to vacate the building. It’s time for us to have answers. It’s stressful enough already with the pandemic. We can’t go on like this.”
We need a Government-led plan now to fix the cladding crisis that does not burden leaseholders with the cost. Those responsible must pay.
I would like to pay tribute to UK Cladding Action Group and End our Cladding Scandal for the massive work they have done, along with the Select Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith), to raise the profile of this issue and help millions of leaseholders.
I am sorry that the Labour party, the official Opposition, has played a little bit of politics today. We are very close to having the support in the House of Commons to force our amendment into law. Sadly, the vote today makes no difference whatever to any leaseholders. However, what we can do is focus on the amendments to the Fire Safety Bill, as those votes do make a difference. I say to the Minister that we are very close to having the support in the House of Commons, and we have the support in the House of Lords to keep sending the amendments back. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen and I therefore urge the Minister to work with us to ensure that leaseholders do not have to pay.
I believe that the Department has been incompetent throughout this saga. It has created a whole host of problems, especially with the consolidated advice note published in January 2020. Buildings over six storeys or 18 metres were already involved in this crisis, but the note then involved any building of any height, taking the number from around 1,700 buildings to well over 100,000. On top of that, buildings under 18 metres can still be built with combustible cladding.
We must also focus on fire safety defects. I hear the Minister when he says that the Fire Safety Bill is not the right place for this, but I remind him that the Bill builds on the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which tried to clear up two ambiguities around cladding and front doors. The Fire Safety Bill also ensures that costs can be recovered from leaseholders, which puts that cost on leaseholders in law. The Building Safety Bill is not in front of us, but it will also ensure that leaseholders are liable. That is not acceptable to me, and it is not acceptable to leaseholders. We have been very clear that leaseholders do not have to pay.
The Government must provide a safety net. They must step in and help leaseholders. I will not accept loans for leaseholders. If the Government announce that, I will vote against it. We cannot have leaseholders pay 90% mortgages of £150,000 and then maybe have to repay a loan of £75,000. Building societies and banks will say that they can offer mortgages only if they are affordable, and having such a debt on a property is not affordable. I urge the Minister to work with us to deliver for leaseholders and to ensure that they do not have to pay.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), whose amendments to the Fire Safety Bill I have signed. I will speak on behalf of my constituents in Leeds—they include Hayley Tillotson, whose story has moved us all—who find themselves in desperate circumstances not of their making. They saved up. They bought what they thought was the home of their dreams. It has now turned into a nightmare as the outer layers have been peeled back on each block to reveal the full horror underneath. Their homes are firetraps. They are worthless. They cannot borrow against them. They cannot sell them. They are trapped by waking watch bills, trapped by rising insurance, and trapped by the fear that they will be told they must pay to fix this, even though they are not in any way responsible.
The impact on the mental health of my constituents is enormous, because every day they wake up and are reminded of this nightmare with no apparent way out. Today’s debate is so important, because we, together on both sides of the House, need to give them hope by calling on the Government to draw up a plan to sort the situation out.
Ministers know that the building safety fund will not deal with the problem. Why? Because the cost of making every home safe is way in excess of the money allocated so far, and we know that Ministers are looking at a loan scheme. I am not opposed to a loan scheme in principle, provided that leaseholders are not required to pay the loans back. After all, they did not fail to put in the firebreaks or cover the blocks in unsafe cladding, so why on earth should they have to pay?
This is a story of monumental regulatory failure and of flats being built as cheaply as possible—in many cases without even complying with the building regulations. Like the Minister, I applaud those freeholders and developers who have taken responsibility and sorted things out, but I deplore those who have tried to walk away and claim that it is nothing to do with them. Those who developed and constructed the buildings should pay, the industry as a whole should pay, and the Government should pay because they allowed it to happen. We all have a responsibility for that.
The most important thing of all, however, is that we act now to bring this crisis to an end, because that is what the leaseholders I represent and Leeds Cladding Scandal, which has done such a great job, want. More than anything else they just want to feel safe and secure in their homes once again, so that they can get on with their lives. We have a responsibility to make sure that that now happens.
The coronavirus pandemic is all-consuming for many Members of Parliament, but for my constituents in Hendon, another issue is equally as disruptive: the connected problems of external cladding, demand for the EWS1 form, and the potential liability of leaseholders for the removal and replacement of fire hazardous materials in their buildings.
I have spent countless hours working on this issue. Two weeks ago, I asked the Government for a commitment to accept an amendment tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) to the Fire Safety Bill. The amendment would ensure that leaseholders are not liable for remedial works, and I have put my name to it. That cannot be said by everyone speaking today. Given that this issue has been largely ignored by some Members, it is astounding that this motion has been tabled today. It is as though those on the Labour Front Bench did not know about the problem and have ignored the amendments to the Fire Safety Bill. By seeking to push this debate to a vote, Labour Members are pretending to show how much they care, even though they know that Opposition-day debates are not binding on the Government, unlike amendments to the Fire Safety Bill. That is where those on the Labour Front Bench could have shown real leadership, but there has been none.
Two weeks ago I voted against the Government on an Opposition-day motion about universal credit. That was an opportunity for me to show the Government the strength of my feeling, and indicate what I want to see in the Budget in March. Today’s debate is not the same. This is a cynical opportunity for Labour Members falsely to raise the hopes of leaseholders and try to gain some popularity that they think they will translate at the ballot box. My constituents are not that naive, so today I shall be abstaining if there is a vote. I will be spending the rest of my afternoon helping my constituents, and not jumping on a bandwagon.
I have spoken a number of times in Parliament about these issues, because Manchester Central has one of the highest numbers of private blocks that are now deemed to be dangerous. I thank the Manchester Cladiators—a fantastic committed group of residents who have been working tirelessly to raise these issues locally and nationally.
The toll—both financial and mental—facing those living in a building now deemed dangerous is heart-breaking, devastating, and simply wrong. It is a national scandal, and as we have heard, it is absolutely no fault of leaseholders. It has also created a completely broken housing market for millions more people. At a time when we are being asked to stay safe at home, living in a dangerous building has particular resonance, not to mention the added uncertainty faced by those on furlough, by the many key workers living in those flats, or by disabled residents such as Georgie Hulme in Hulme Life Buildings, who are anxiously worrying about how they might escape.
Although it is not the Government’s fault that we got here in this way, their response has been inadequate, slow, and unresponsive. The ACM building fund is too small and narrow in scope for nearly all affected buildings in my constituency, including those under 18 metres, such as Hulme Life Buildings, which is unable to apply, despite its residents facing bills of £115,000 each. Buildings with non-ACM cladding or with wooden balconies or walkways, such as Albion Works and St George’s Island, are unable to apply. Buildings where the cladding’s exterior façade is brick effect, such as at Leftbank, and those where work has already begun, such as the skyline buildings, are also out of scope. For those buildings that do meet the tight criteria, the process is too slow and decisions are not forthcoming.
Taken together, all those issues, as well as the lack of accountability for leaseholders in the system, is leading to a broken market. Too many players have stepped away from taking responsibility for building safety, leaving millions of residents in homes that are uninsurable, unsellable, uncertifiable, and with negative equity. The fund needs urgent reform so that more buildings are eligible, and we need a comprehensive taskforce to look at the whole range of issues such as insurance, mortgage lenders, liability and so on. We must fix this broken market and stop a whole generation of homeowners losing everything they have.
Happy birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker. Turning to more serious matters, let us be in no doubt that the issue of building safety is a vital one. It emerges from a tragedy that unfolded before horrified eyes just a few years ago. ACM cladding is dangerous, unsafe, and should never have been used. I understand that through the Government’s £600 million fund, work has at least started on all of the buildings whose owners have given the required information, as well as those in social housing, and interim safety measures such as waking watches are in place. All building owners should take responsibility and progress the work to put in their fund bids now.
In remediating this safety problem, knock-on issues arise, which many Members have articulately raised already. As the Minister said in his opening remarks, leaseholders should not bear the brunt of correcting these problems. I have heard from my constituents Sally Smith and Maureen Wareing, both of whom have relatives in London who are incredibly worried about facing big bills for remediating cladding in their flats. They are uncertain and worried. No one should be put in this position; I can only imagine the fear I would have felt in my 20s, or even my 30s, receiving a letter suggesting that I had a liability for tens of thousands of pounds that was not my fault. I call on owners to do the right thing, and I seek to amplify the comments my right hon. Friend the Minister made in his opening remarks.
Although this Government are putting in extraordinary efforts to make the biggest improvements in building safety in a generation, this is no quick fix, but a really integrated picture. It is technical and complex, and gets really messy quickly, with multiple types of cladding and lots of different people and organisations involved: residents, leaseholders, renters, building owners, building developers—some of which are not around or not in business any more—as well as mortgage providers and insurers. If, as a Government, we rush this, we risk not addressing the problems completely, so to my mind, the worst thing we could do is rush through a suite of measures that does not resolve the issues. What Sally and Maureen’s families need is certainty. Let us get this right first time, and make sure our mantra is “never again” so that we never have another tragedy, and we have a long-term fix for all our residents.
Ultimately, our measures need to give people surety about their safety, give value back to their homes and let people get on with their lives. There should be no mortgage prisoners and no sale prisoners. Let the Building Safety Bill later this year address these points and others. Let us do it once, and let us do it right.
The topic of this debate is an incredibly pressing one, and I am glad to have the opportunity to speak because it affects so many of my constituents. The ongoing scandal surrounding the replacement of cladding has two main components to which I would like to draw attention by using an example in Poplar and Limehouse: building safety and remedial costs.
New Providence Wharf in my constituency is a development owned by Ballymore housing. The building is covered in ACM cladding—the same sort of flammable cladding that was wrapped around Grenfell Tower. Representatives of the residents’ association at New Providence Wharf have been in touch with me for some time now, but the most recent update I had from them is perhaps the most shocking. Currently living surrounded by flammable cladding, these constituents have told me that remedial work on the building has now been pushed back to May. Those who bought properties in developments such as New Providence Wharf in good faith now find themselves in a nightmare scenario. These leaseholders bought a property under the reasonable assumption that it was safe to live in, but not only are they now struggling to sell or remortgage their homes, they have been left stranded, having to foot the bill for remedial works.
The recent update I have received about New Providence Wharf is that the remediation costs are set to be between £12.5 million and £25 million. These are astronomical figures to fall on the shoulders of those living in the development. With only £5,000 offered by Ballymore, this could mean that each leaseholder would have to pay up to £50,000 in remedial costs. How can this possibly go on?
That is just one example from my constituency of the effects that this scandal is having on so many people’s lives. Residents in dangerous developments right across my constituency are not being supported by their building owners. At New Festival Quarter, leaseholders are being left in the dark about how safe their building is; at Indescon Square, residents have been charged hundreds of thousands of pounds by Galliard Homes for the cost of inspection works; and at New Atlas Wharf—constructed by Britain’s most profitable housebuilder, Persimmon—residents are facing costs of up to £66,000 per flat. But, of course, in this whole debacle buck passing has been the order of the day. The unsafe conditions that such residents are living in will only be made worse by the trajectory of outsourcing and deregulation that the Government continue to follow as they attempt to avoid culpability for the poor housing conditions that so many in this country face.
It is a disgrace that anyone should be living in the same cladding that we all saw burning on Grenfell Tower. Safe housing should not be a privilege for the few; it should be a basic right. The Government need to front up to the mistakes made in the past and work quickly to undo them. The onus must not in any way fall on those currently living in flammable buildings through no fault of their own.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding my role as vice-president of the Local Government Association.
For 12 years I served as a member of planning committees on councils, and on my election to this House I founded the all-party parliamentary group for SME house builders. Last year, the APPG produced a report on the future of planning, which made it clear that building regulations are planning regulations’ most important partner. Building regulations maybe did not receive as much attention until 2017, and since have—for the most tragic of reasons. We need a resolution to this that protects public safety and means that we have an efficiently functioning property market regardless of property type.
Cladding has blighted the housing sector, and the concern has been illustrated by many, including the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform, the all-party parliamentary fire safety and rescue group, and the all-party parliamentary group for the private rented sector, which I chair. We are well aware of the impact that this crisis is having on the sector, including on buy-to-let landlords, who have been left trapped, as a result of EWS1 forms, with properties that are not safe, not sellable and not remortgageable. Cladding will remain a standing item on the agenda of the APPG for the private rented sector and we will draw on the expertise of those groups.
As a National Residential Landlords Association quarter 4 survey outlined last year, of those respondents who were required to carry out an EWS check on their property, 42% were unable to secure an EWS report, stagnating movement on their property. Although I recognise the good intentions of these checks, a lack of availability is a problem, as Ministers are aware. Despite the Government’s hard work to rectify the outstanding issues, these forms continue to hamper the movement of property, squeezing a market already facing an uphill battle.
As the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s report outlined, every property agreement differs in who it allocates responsibility to and for what issues. Solutions are hard, but they are needed. Requesting that the Government front up the money first and then determine liability places a heavy burden on the taxpayer. Suggesting that leaseholders take out loans means that millions would be paying for a problem that they did not create and often cannot afford to fix. Northampton only has one 18 metre-plus tower, and Northamptonshire Partnership Homes was quick to check that everything was safe. Northampton does, however, have a number of 11 metre-plus properties, and the Government’s forthcoming measures on those will be hugely welcome and provide peace of mind. It is abundantly clear that that announcement is needed sooner rather than later for tenants, developers and the housing market as a whole.
Strip away all the technical complexity, and the cladding crisis has always been about two fundamental issues: how can we identify and quickly make safe dangerous buildings; and who is going to pay for them? Both issues haunt those affected by this crisis, but in the long term it is the issue of liability that is in many ways the more terrifying, because leaseholders fear that it is they who will ultimately be forced by the Government to pay the lion’s share of a bill that is projected to rise to over £16 billion. They have good reason to be alarmed, because although we may not know the detail, the broad contours of the proposals developed by Michael Wade that Ministers are considering ahead of the Budget are an open secret—minus an unknown, but almost certainly tokenistic, annual contribution from developers. He recommends that remediation is funded up front by long-term loans attached to individual sites, with the building owner or responsible person then recouping that loan from its leaseholders over a period of decades. In the brief time that I have, I want to draw the attention of the House to what that would mean in practice. First, unless leaseholders were deliberately to be protected from any form of repayment until the point of sale, they would be hit by significant service charge increases.
Even assuming an interest-only repayment model with modest interest rates—say 1% or 1.5%—on remedial works bills at the lower end of the scale, say £30,000, leaseholders would still be looking at an extra £60 to £100, or perhaps more, on their monthly bills, depending on the length of the loan period. What on earth makes Ministers think that leaseholders can manage such costs, and what do they think those additional charges will do to mortgage affordability calculations?
Secondly, the attachment of a loan to a site will immediately devalue the properties within it, instantly creating a two-tier property system and placing a significant proportion of affected leaseholders, particularly in areas of lower property values, at risk of negative equity and bankruptcy. Who is ever going to purchase—willingly—a flat with one of those loans attached, at least unless the leaseholder discounts their total liability from the asking price, with all the consequences that that implies for the housing market and mortgage lenders? The fact that Ministers are even contemplating a proposal of that kind is utterly reprehensible, given the commitments made by many Secretaries of State and Ministers of State at the Dispatch Box that blameless leaseholders in privately owned blocks would be fully protected from cladding costs in all circumstances. If the Government plough ahead with Mr Wade’s recommendation or any variant that punishes leaseholders they will make a colossal mistake.
There are other solutions that can provide up-front funding to accelerate the pace of remediation and that would protect the general taxpayer as well as leaseholders. All that is required is that Ministers give them serious consideration and, more importantly, that they steel themselves finally to confront the vested interests that created this problem in the first place.
I am pleased to contribute to this debate, very much remembering those who lost their lives and those who lost their loved ones in the Grenfell fire. The scale of that loss and the sorrow are still unimaginable.
In the wake of that tragedy, much important work on building safety has been done, and much ground covered, across the country and in my constituency of Eastbourne. For too many local leaseholders, however, the nightmare of towering costs still looms large and is a source of everyday stress. Up to 40 buildings in my town have been identified as being at risk. ACM cladding is part of that, but in the mix is a raft of historical safety defects that require costly remedial action that is not currently in scope. Over the past year, I have worked with residents, most recently on Friday, when one man described himself as “broken” by the experience of trying to find his way forward. One building alone in my constituency requires works estimated at £5.1 million, which translates as £40,000 to £90,000 per flat—a sum totally beyond the reach of all leaseholders, who bought their properties in good faith many years ago.
The Government have made it clear that building owners are legally responsible for ensuring that buildings are safe, so I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, who I know shares my dismay and frustration, what enforcement action will ensue against those building owners who have rejected this duty, or who simply cannot be found. How will we ensure that developers play their part too, particularly the smaller subsidiaries of some of our most prominent housing developers?
The Government have made provision, in the form of £1.6 billion, and I thank Ministers for extending the application deadline. However, I would ask for assurances that applications from my constituency in this latter period will not suffer disadvantage in any way. There are concerns about the value of the fund, and whether it will meet the need, so I would very much appreciate assurances on that. It is not right and it is not fair that costs are passed on and that leaseholders are left exposed and vulnerable. I know that much work is going on to bring this to a safe conclusion, and I anticipate Government announcements. I recognise that it is important to get it right, but time is toxic, and I implore Ministers to move with speed so that those residents in Eastbourne still caught up in this nightmare can sleep at night.
The pain of the Grenfell fire was felt very deeply in my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn. Those who died were our neighbours and our friends. Some survivors were rehoused in Camden and Brent and became part of our community. Then, one Friday night, shortly after the fire, thousands of my constituents had to be evacuated from the Chalcots estate in Swiss Cottage after it emerged that they had ACM cladding that was near-identical to that on Grenfell Tower. I ask all those on the Government Benches to consider what it must be like to live in a property that they know could face the same fate as Grenfell, and where a 24/7 waking watch patrol is required to make sure that the building is not on fire. That is the reality for many of my constituents living in the new-builds in and around West Hampstead Square, many blocks in south Kilburn and other parts of Brent, and over 70 private sector buildings in Camden that still have dangerous ACM cladding.
Perhaps the worst part of it is that the residents—the leaseholders—who had no part in creating this crisis, are being forced to pay to fix it and to pay for the waking watches, the fire safety measures and the replacement of the unsafe cladding that threatens their lives. One constituent in Kensal Rise who bought their flat using the Government’s Help to Buy loan scheme wrote to me recently to say that they are being made to pay for cladding remediation works. As she so aptly puts it, it is
“a disgusting abuse that a government would aim to help so many and then bankrupt those they aimed to help by not legally protecting leaseholders from these costs”.
To add insult to injury, none of these people can sell their homes. Many others are unable to sell simply because they are being forced to wait many years for an EWS1 form. Lucie Gutfreund, a constituent of mine who co-founded the End our Cladding Scandal campaign, told me that she and others are effectively trapped, facing crippling bills, and that the mental turmoil is ruining their lives and the lives of so many.
Grenfell was a tragedy. The Government’s response has been a travesty. I am urging Ministers to do what they can and what they should have done a long time ago: make these buildings safe, shield leaseholders from the costs and make those who installed dangerous cladding pay. Anything less is unforgivable.
Like all Members of Parliament, I have had residents raise these issues with me, and in Southend, they are particularly stressful for young couples starting out on home ownership. I say to the new Minister, who I welcome to his place: this is a complex problem that involves decisions by previous Governments of all persuasions, and a solution to it is far from easy. The whole history of freehold and leasehold has been long overdue for resolution, and I believe that the Government will tackle it. However, in the immediate term, I do agree that leaseholders should not be responsible for remedial work to identify unsafe properties with combustible materials on external walls that they bought in good faith. This includes not just unsafe cladding but a number of other deficiencies, such as unsafe insulation and combustible materials on balconies.
Leaseholders, however, should of course be expected to pay for any legitimate maintenance that is reasonable and fair. In most cases, a responsibility for paying for this remediation rests with the owner-developer. When there is a dispute or difficulty to identify the owner, I am asking the Government to make the necessary funding available, pending resolution. It is really unacceptable for people to continue to be expected to sleep safe in their beds at night while surrounded by combustible materials on the external walls of their homes—in many cases, living at some distance from the ground. However, I agree that UK taxpayers—many of whom do not even own a home and perhaps question why they should contribute—cannot ultimately be expected to pick up the costs of the remediation.
I very much support the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s target for completion of the remedial work by June 2022, and meanwhile seek the bringing together of the RICS, the Association of British Insurers, banks, building societies and representatives from the fire safety sector. The Prime Minister was challenged on this issue last Wednesday and he said that
“the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will be bringing forward a plan very shortly.”—[Official Report, 27 January 2021; Vol. 688, c. 371.]
I know that he will honour that. The all-party parliamentary fire safety rescue group, which I chair, and the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), have worked closely together. On 25 February at 4 o’clock I will be chairing a joint meeting of the groups, attended by leading Members of Parliament, and parliamentarians will have the opportunity to question the Minister, Lord Greenhalgh, directly on this issue. I will also be supporting amendments tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) and for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) when the Bill is debated.
Happy birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate those on the shadow Front Bench on prioritising this debate in the absence of sufficient attention or pace from the Government. I enter into the spirit of today’s debate mindful of the cross-party support for amendments aimed at addressing the issue, and in the hope that we will see that support reflected in today’s vote. Frankly, everyone affected has waited far too long.
In Bermondsey and Old Southwark, more than 60 blocks of homes and thousands of people are affected. People have often bought in good faith and then been told that their home may not be safe. They have since been left in limbo. They include NHS worker Lucy Grayston, who attempted to sell her L&Q flat. A buyer was found, and Lucy, who was five months pregnant, moved out. The sale fell through due to an external wall survey issue, and she is now having to pay for two properties. They also include William Lecky, who celebrated the birth of his new baby with his wife and had plans to relocate to Scotland. They are now trapped in a one-bed property in Borough that they are unable to sell until this matter is resolved.
This could have been sorted by now, with the right political will and wherewithal, but it has not been, despite the Government’s promising 15 times to protect leaseholders. My constituents are still waiting and some face extortionate costs while they do so. One block is paying £40,000 a month for a waking watch, which is well above average and in no way a reasonable fee. I have asked the Government many times about the waking watch relief fund, and I am glad that they have finally published the eligibility criteria, but I hope Ministers will now answer my other questions on the fund. When will applications be assessed, and when will those funds begin to be distributed? The people waiting for news cannot wait any longer. They cannot sell their homes, they cannot reinsure and they cannot remortgage. Some of the people affected have also lost their job due to covid. They cannot afford their existing mortgage, and speed is of the essence. For many people, sadly, all they have seen is delay, and Government guidance has even contributed to the problems they face. For example, homeowners in Sudrey Street, Leathermarket Street and Monmouth Court are all being asked to provide EWS1 forms, despite the height of their blocks not reaching the threshold.
Last year, I raised concerns on behalf of constituents affected and asked Ministers to provide new guidance or clarify existing guidance, given the misapplication of the 18-metre rule. Today, I again ask Ministers to prevent misinterpretation, to ease pressure on the system and to take many of the people affected out of coverage altogether. Today’s motion would address many of the concerns of so many people affected and I hope that it is successful in the vote, to ensure that the thousands of my constituents who are experiencing these huge concerns can begin to plan their lives again.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), and I welcome our new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), to his place. This is a very important issue. Ensuring the safety of the individual is one of the most important functions of the state. I welcome the fact that the Government have made available £1.6 billion for cladding to be removed from buildings and that they are working closely with building owners to ensure that all dangerous ACM cladding, as found at Grenfell, is removed by the end of this year. It is also good news that the vast majority of buildings with ACM cladding have had it removed—or that the work is under way—including 100% of buildings in the social sector. It is remarkable that the Government have achieved that during the covid pandemic. It is necessary work and it must be completed as soon as possible. This Government are bringing forward the most significant building control legislation for 40 years. The Building Safety Bill and the Fire Safety Bill are an essential part of the way forward.
As more than £1 billion in public funding has been made available, there is simply no excuse for building owners not to have begun this important remedial work, or for them to be passing the costs on to leaseholders. It is good to note that the Government have introduced several measures to support leaseholders over the last year, including the essential £30 million waking watch fund. That issue prevented many people from being able to sell their homes. The Government will continue to engage regularly with leaseholders to understand their concerns and find ways to protect them at affordable prices.
I am particularly concerned that, through no fault of their own, some flat owners have been unable to remortgage or sell their properties. That cannot be allowed to continue. I have been contacted by a constituent on that issue, who is rightly concerned about a junior member of the family who finds themselves in that position in one of our major cities. The issue simply has to be resolved. It is essential that the Government continue to work closely with all parties, including lenders, for example, to resolve the challenges, ensuring that EWS1 forms are requested only where absolutely necessary, and that the number of surveyors who can complete the work is increased significantly to meet demand.
However, much more needs to be done. The remedial cost will need to be spread over those who are actually responsible. I look to the Government rightly to assist as a safety net, but a safety net only—not the first port of call to pay for everything, as the Opposition invariably do. This is a complex legal and policy problem. We need complex resolutions in a proper timeframe. I am glad that the Government have committed to providing a solution. I appreciated the comments made by the Prime Minister a short while ago, and I look forward to a proper permanent solution. I will not vote in favour of the Opposition’s motion, because it is simplistic and solves nothing. The Government will solve the issues.
I associate myself with many of the important contributions already made by hon. Members. As has been made clear, the Government’s lack of action over the last three and a half years to tackle the building safety crisis has left thousands of leaseholders trapped in unsafe homes that they are unable to sell or remortgage. Instead, they are being forced to pay enormous sums for remediation and interim fire safety measures such as waking watches.
The untold impact that that is having on people’s lives is deeply concerning. I have heard from countless residents about the stress and anxiety that the scandal is causing, having bought their homes. Some blocks face bills of up to £3 million for replacing the dangerous cladding, as is the case for my constituents living in Norfolk House in Deptford. Then there are examples such as Aragon Tower—a 160-apartment building also in my constituency—where, following extensive testing, the fire break system was found not to be working. When challenged, the developers, Berkeley Homes, refused to take any responsibility, leaving many residents stuck and unable to sell.
Those examples are sadly not unique, as Ministers will keep hearing through the debate. I praise my local authority, Lewisham Council, and its housing body, Lewisham Homes, for their speedy response to the crisis; yet sadly, three and a half years since the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, national Government are yet to resolve these issues. One group that I fear is being overlooked in the debate is disabled tenants and leaseholders. Disabled people caught up in these unsafe blocks face additional barriers. The Leaseholder Disability Action Group—Clad DAG—has raised many concerns, from inadequate evacuation plans to reports of bullying and harassment by stressed residents who resent the extra costs of meeting access needs. That is totally unacceptable. Urgent steps must be taken to ensure that disabled people feel safe in their own homes.
The Government must get a grip of this scandal and put in the proper resources needed so that tenants and leaseholders up and down the country are not left in unsafe homes for a minute longer. It cannot be right that so many people are having sleepless nights because of a problem not of their own making.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), who made some good points that I agree with. However, she blames the fact that leaseholders are trapped inside these buildings on the Government’s actions or inactions over the past three and a half years, whereas the reality is that this has come from systemic failure over decades. That is the only thing that could have contributed to a scandal on this scale, which has included developers; cladding and insulation manufacturers, who have not been heavily mentioned in this debate; building control; and building regulations, which are the work of Governments on either side of the political divide for decades. The only way we are going to get through this is somehow by sharing the huge cost of these issues, which is potentially £10 billion to £15 billion, over that whole industry, with some possibly held by the taxpayer. I do think it would be wrong to put this cost at the door of leaseholders.
The Government have taken significant action, with the most decisive being the ban on combustible materials on the outside of high-rise buildings as soon as this tragedy struck—that was absolutely the right thing to do and it came within days of that tragedy. That was followed by the £1.6 billion of funding to remediate these buildings, but what everybody knew—I served on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee during a number of inquiries on this—was that the cost would be much greater. We all accept that fact.
Let me read out what one of my constituents, who lives in Borrowby, near Thirsk, but has a flat in London, wrote to me:
“This has been caused by two main factors, poor building regulations in England across decades and a lack of regulatory oversight, which led to a construction industry that took advantage, put profits ahead of safety and built buildings with combustible materials and with missing compartmentation now regarded as fire traps.”
I absolutely concur with those words, so we need a pan-industry solution, involving cladding manufacturers, insulation manufacturers, developers and installers. The situation with building owners is more difficult, because many of them do not have a contractual obligation. I hear lots about building owners, but many of them are not legally obliged to remediate. But leaseholders should not be involved here, even though they are legally obliged; I would advocate more money into the building safety fund, and a levy spreading the cost around the industry, wherever possible, but not to leaseholders.
Happy birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to have the opportunity to represent the concerns of my constituents in this important debate. There are a number of buildings with unsafe non-ACM cladding in Portsmouth, and I have been speaking to residents and building managers in Admiralty Quarter and Gunwharf Quays in my constituency. Residents in those buildings have suddenly found themselves in unsafe homes and potentially liable for astronomical costs from remediation. They are also unable to sell their homes. One retired resident, who is on a low income, has told me that she faces costs of £20,000 to £30,000 towards the remediation. They are also having trouble accessing the Government’s building safety fund. Delays to the implementation of the fund are preventing vital work from commencing and preventing leaseholders from moving on with their lives, and it is not clear whether the fund is large enough. In the event that they are not covered by the building safety fund, residents and responsible building owners will struggle to establish who is now responsible for the remediation, as it comes with a hefty price tag.
Health and safety must be the priority. Ministers should focus on the rapid disbursal of funds with immediacy, with a relatively low burden of proof and with recovery taking place later, as appropriate. Ministers should also look again at the 18-metre height qualification for applications to the building safety fund. If cladding is unsafe, surely it is unsafe regardless of the height of the building it sits on. Buildings in my constituency fall under that arbitrary distinction, and this is a piecemeal approach to building safety. The fund should apply to buildings of any height.
Instead of asking leaseholders and building owners to embark on a protracted search for accountability and funds, with bureaucratic and time-consuming procedures, the Government should take responsibility for safety, fund the work in full and recover the funds later, as appropriate, and get on with legislating to prevent this from happening again.
It is a particular pleasure to see the new Minister in his place today. He is a man who has spent a lot of his life working to improve housing conditions for the poorest people in this country, so he is absolutely the right man in the right place at the right time to take forward this hugely important work.
Much has already been said, so the few additional things that I would add are as follows. First, it is important that we look at the other dimensions of fire safety as well as just cladding. I have been asking written questions about fire doors in particular. I was told that we do not hold any central data on the quality and state of fire doors in social housing blocks. I hope that the Government will audit, and get social landlords to audit, the state of those doors, making sure that they have at least the 30-minutes protection that we expect, and that we will work through all the other dimensions of fire safety as well as cladding.
When it comes to cladding, may I express my hope that we will see the people behind this tragedy brought to justice? It has been absolutely extraordinary to watch the proceedings of the inquiry and to see some of what has come out. In The Times the other day, Dominic Lawson summarised exchanges of emails between employees at Kingspan after the Grenfell tragedy. They joked about rigging tests and about how they lied, saying, “Yes, mate, it’s all lies. All we do here is lie.” The testimony of an employee of Celotex, Jonathan Roper, said that his company had behaved in a completely unethical way. Then there are the officials from Arconic, who are refusing to testify at the inquiry, hiding behind the French blocking statute. I hope that the Government will use all the means at their disposal to put maximum pressure on the representatives of these companies to come and face the inquiry and, ultimately, to face justice for what has been done.
Finally, I encourage Ministers to keep going in their efforts to remove unsafe cladding. I welcome the £1.6 billion that is being spent on this. I welcome the progress that is being made in reducing and removing ACM cladding. The removal of ACM cladding from the social sector is great. I hope that Ministers will continue to press on with the new regulator for construction products, so that such a tragedy does not happen again. Ultimately—let me put it like this—I hope that we can make sure that those who are suffering through no fault of their own are not made to pay and that the people behind the Grenfell tragedy are made to pay.
I am pleased to contribute to this debate. I declare that I am a leaseholder in a block of flats, albeit not one affected by cladding problems.
When the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower struck in June 2017, I was London’s Deputy Mayor for Housing. Madam Deputy Speaker, if you had told me then that, three-and-a-half years later, we would still be trying to force the Government to make buildings safe, I would not have believed you. Yet here we are with hundreds of thousands of people across the country still living in unsafe homes and millions caught up in the wider building safety crisis.
There has been a fundamental failure of leadership by the Government in resolving the question of who pays to remediate buildings, and that has been instrumental in the delay in making them safe. Two related principles must therefore be at the heart of what Ministers do next: first, there must be absolutely no further delay; and, secondly, leaseholders must be protected from the costs of the work. That is why I will be voting today for the Government to provide upfront funding to ensure that remediation can start immediately and then to protect the leaseholders and the public finances from the cost of doing so by pursuing those responsible for the cladding crisis.
The Government’s failure to get a grip on this situation has left leaseholders facing huge bills, with their lives on hold while the problem is resolved. I wish to draw Ministers’ attention to the plight of shared owners and leaseholders in the Central West building—a block of 69 flats completed in 2005 on Greenford Broadway in the heart of my constituency. Central West was built by Shepherds Bush Housing Association and is home to teachers, social workers, retired nurses, transport workers, delivery drivers, agency workers and many others. Central West is only just less than 18 metres, and so is not eligible for the Government’s building safety fund. Leaseholders face paying for all the works to make the building safe, despite residents being unable to afford the thousands of pounds that that would entail.
I wrote to the Housing Minister about the situation faced by residents at Central West, and I have received a reply from Lord Greenhalgh, the Minister for Building Safety and Communities, in the past few days. He wrote:
“it remains building owners’ responsibility to address unsafe cladding on buildings of all heights…and we have called on them to do all they can to protect leaseholders from the costs of remediating historic building defects.”
The Government do not have to call on others to protect leaseholders; it is within their power to help leaseholders themselves. The buck stops with them, and we expect them to act.
Happy Birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome my hon. Friend the Housing Minister to his place. He is right to point out that the current problem has built up over many decades, and he is also right to decide to resolve the problem once and for all.
Bolton at Home, which serves many of my constituents, has raised concerns with me, ranging from the status of fire doors to fire risk assessments. That indicates how much more work needs to be done on this issue. My hon. Friend the Father of the House comprehensively set out the parties that must be led or forced by the Government to act. He was right to say that it would be better not to divide the House on this motion, but instead use this debate to have the Government take note and take action.
I support the amendment to the Fire Safety Bill in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) and for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland). I urge the Government to build upon it if they do not think it is suitable, in order to deliver certainty and safety for my constituents and many others around the country. People ought not to think that this applies just to huge tower blocks; it applies to a huge range of other buildings too.
The Grenfell Tower events were horrific, but they were nearly repeated on 15 November 2019, when The Cube burned down in Bolton. The student accommodation caught fire and became an inferno within minutes. If it were 4 o’clock in the morning, rather than 8.30 in the evening, we do not know how many deaths there would have been. Would it have been Grenfell mark 2? We have to act, be decisive and comprehensive in our actions, and sort this out incredibly quickly, because this is about people’s safety and physical and mental wellbeing. Many people have put their lives on hold and are waiting to move on—they may want to start a family or get a job—so we have to resolve this issue incredibly quickly.
I am grateful for the hard work of the shadow Housing Secretary and her team, which has ensured that this issue is brought to the fore and not forgotten.
Over the past year, we have all been confined to our homes to shield ourselves and our families from a deadly virus. We have been doing what we can to protect our country, the NHS and vulnerable people. Lockdown has bene tough for us all. Imagine if what is meant to be a person’s sanctuary over these difficult months is the exact opposite. Leaseholders have been having sleepless nights, wondering each day whether the flammable cladding covering their homes will catch fire. The deadly combination of a pandemic and a national scandal is impacting millions across our country. Many of those constituents have worked hard to achieve their dreams of home ownership, only to have it turned into a living nightmare. Characteristically, the Government have once again been dragging their feet and are too slow to act. It has been more than three years since the horrific Grenfell tragedy, and thousands still fear for their safety in their own homes.
It must be noted that the Government knew about the dangerous cladding well before then. In my Slough constituency, we sadly have a number of blocks affected. I have been contacted by residents of Nova House, West Central, Rivington Apartments, Lexington Apartments, Foundry Court, Ibex House and Aspects Court, to name just a few. I have raised their concerns personally with Ministers in the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, of which I was a member, and with the Leader of the House on the Floor of the House. Some of those residents are paying hundreds of pounds for waking watch, and others are in lengthy communication with the property management companies to ascertain the type of cladding used and when it will be replaced. All of them just want to live somewhere they know is fire safe. In 2021 Britain, that does not seem like a big ask.
Already, an estimated £174 million a year is being spent by leaseholders on interim measures to ensure their buildings do not catch fire. This is on top of the constant fear that they will be held responsible also for the eventual remediation costs, leaving them bankrupt and homeless. This is typical of the Government’s response on this issue—inadequate action forced only after huge pressure from campaigners, charities and Opposition parties. Even their funds available for ACM and non-ACM cladding fail to address the devastating scale of the problem, potentially leaving thousands without support.
Leaseholders are being held responsible for a chain of actions with which they had absolutely no involvement. As one leaseholder told me, they are not the developers of their blocks, they did not select the building materials and they did not certify them as safe, yet they are the ones left picking up the bill. It is very simple: all dangerous cladding should be removed with up-front funding, those who are responsible for the cladding scandal must pay the cost, and measures must be put in place to ensure that this can never happen again.
Happy birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker. I too welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) to his Front-Bench position this evening.
A few weeks after my election to this place in 2017, we witnessed the tragedy of the fire at Grenfell Tower. We of course remember those who, sadly, lost their lives on that terrible evening, and I welcome the action the Government have taken to ensure that the horror of Grenfell never happens again. However, there have been some unintended consequences that have resulted in some people, through no fault of their own, being unable to sell or remortgage their properties.
I want to use this debate to highlight the case of two of my constituents, Sam and Cora Younger. The Youngers moved to the Scottish borders last year, but have run into serious problems with the sale of their London flat. The purchaser of the flat in London is having difficulties with their mortgage provider, Lloyds bank. The bank became unwilling to proceed with the mortgage because of the cladding guidance. My constituents’ flat is below 18 metres and has no cladding, but Lloyds has insisted that the flat falls into the ambit of the guidance, and it is therefore requiring expensive certification to say that the building is compliant.
The upshot of all of this is that Sam and Cora face having to pay two mortgages and also a stamp duty uplift as they have failed to sell their property within the required time period. This has turned into a nightmare for this young couple and their new baby, and I have a huge amount of sympathy for them. They have been put in this position as a result of the misinterpretation of the guidelines by banks and lenders, and this cannot be allowed to continue. I know the Government are working with lenders to ensure that they take a proportionate and reasonable approach to this, and there are signs that lenders are adopting a more pragmatic approach, but more need to follow suit. These are welcome steps forward, but the purpose of raising the case of the Youngers tonight is to highlight the very personal impact that this is having on individuals and families across the country.
I conclude my brief remarks by remembering those who, sadly, lost their lives in the Grenfell disaster. It is right that we sort this out to ensure that it does not happen again, but we must also protect those being caught up in the unintended consequences of these changes.
Happy birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I have many constituents whose lives have been thrown into turmoil by the failure of the Government to act promptly on this issue, and by what can only be described as abusive behaviour by the developers of their properties and neglect by housing associations. I wish to name one developer in particular—the notorious Ballymore Group. It is notorious for its profiteering from extortionate, ever-increasing service and insurance charges. From the start of the cladding crisis, Ballymore has lived up to its track record of failure to communicate with and consult its residents, and its continuing attempts to shirk its own responsibilities and load as much cost directly on to the residents as possible.
My constituents have submitted their case study of their experiences to the Minister. They have explained that, as leaseholders and participants in shared ownership schemes, they are being placed in extremely vulnerable positions, facing the risk of heavy cost burdens. The delay in Government decision making over arrangements to cover remedial costs has meant that many of my constituents are unsure of their safety and unsure when their properties will be made safe. Ballymore has just said not until 2023, and that items such as other safety defects revealed on inspection beyond the cladding will not be covered by the Government grant or by the company. This includes the very wooden balconies that this company installed itself. The scale of the costs will clearly overwhelm the amount allocated by the Government. That, plus the restrictions on what work is eligible for financial support, is resulting in developers such as Ballymore seeking to shift as much of the cost burden as possible on to leaseholders and shared ownership residents.
Shared owners are absolutely over a barrel. They own nothing. They cannot sub-let or sell. The clocks are ticking on short leases. The housing associations are charging premiums for lease extensions but doing nothing to help in any way, while taking a management fee on top of the developer’s management fee. Shared owners now risk having to pay for 100% of remediation and the interim costs, despite owning nothing. How can that be termed affordable housing? The emotional stress on my constituents is immense, especially as many have lost their jobs or had their wages cut as a result of the pandemic.
The message from my constituents to the Government is very clear. They want an immediate assurance, with legislation, that their homes will be made safe and that the developers who caused these problems will be the ones to pay.
I, too, wish you a happy birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I would like to start by expressing my condolences to all who have been impacted by events such as Grenfell. Whether we think of the residents and their families or the emergency services involved, we need to do all we can to prevent a repetition of such events. It is clear to me that those responsible should be paying, and that the Government should provide support where that is not possible.
In such a short contribution, I will focus on my belief that it is clear that we also need to deliver and enforce standards to prevent any risk of repetition. We need both standards and enforcement processes that provide confidence for residents that property is safe.
Like so many on the Government Benches, I speak from experience gained outside this place and a perspective gained in what many call the real world. I spent many years working in the construction sector, and I saw at first hand the frustration of many good businesses whose great products gained specification from architects only for installers or distributors to switch them to cheaper alternatives. The impact of the lack of enforcement is a clear root cause of safety risks but it manifests itself by undermining the viability of our businesses and reducing our manufacturing base. As the Building Safety Bill is finalised, we need to ensure that all products, and particularly imported products, are required to meet our standards, and that unsafe materials are not allowed to enter the UK supply chain and become incorporated into another product, missing quality standard checks. Product quality assessments should be made necessary at all appropriate stages of production.
I am delighted for my former colleagues that the Government are working on fixing the building safety system from all angles, including with tougher regulations and requirements for all construction products, a national regulator to monitor industry-wide compliance, and severe penalties for anyone flouting the rules and compromising public safety. Whether it is for safety or any other specified reason, it is important that products are installed as specified. I welcome the fact that that will support our UK-regulated businesses, and I hope it will frustrate the undermining of standards by cheap, poor-quality materials.
When it comes to the need for fire-safe products, as the son of a fireman I have an absolute understanding that we should not use materials that could unnecessarily increase the risk to any of our emergency services, never mind the people they are trying to help. I would like to express my thanks and respect for all of those who have had to place themselves at risk when things go badly wrong.
I welcome not only the fact that regulations are being prepared but that they will have some enforcement teeth, and I hope most sincerely that we never see a tragedy like Grenfell again.
The cladding scandal has wrought emotional and financial devastation upon my constituents who live in affected buildings. The human impact of this crisis on leaseholders is horrendous. One constituent recently told me:
“It is pretty much all I talk and think about. I have thought about killing myself and have started counselling to try to manage the thoughts and my anxiety.”
The Government have not yet offered the scale and range of measures necessary to meet the full impact of this crisis. I hope this debate changes the dial on their approach. I wish in particular to address the issue of insurance costs, which I have raised in this House for the past year. The Islington Gates development in my constituency saw a hike in insurance prices from £36,000 to £321,000. The Brindley House development in my constituency has the horrible honour of being the first building—in May last year—to find itself uninsured as a result of the cladding scandal. It was eventually able to secure cover, but it was being quoted prices of half a million pounds.
I have been writing to Ministers and officials at MHCLG and the Treasury, as well as the Financial Conduct Authority, ever since these issues came to light in my constituency, but to no avail. It is clear to me that the Government need to step in to sort out the insurance costs issue, because there seems to be little relationship between the interim measures that leaseholders are paying for, such as very expensive, state-of-the-art alarm systems, and the cost of the insurance premiums that they are being quoted. That has to be called out, and it is clear to me that some form of guarantee eventually needs to be offered by the Government that reflects a balance of all the risks and affordability for our constituents.
In terms of the way forward, I associate myself with the remarks made from the Labour Front Bench, but I also believe that the businesses, developers and construction companies responsible for putting these buildings up should face some consequences if they do not step up to remedy the defects that they are responsible for. Such businesses should not be able to bid for and receive public sector contracts. I think of developers such as Galliford Try in my constituency, which is failing to engage with leaseholders over Islington Gates. It is eligible to bid for projects that are part of the West Midlands Combined Authority area framework. I do not believe that anyone who fails to live up to their responsibilities and does not pay their due liabilities to wider society should get our money. It is unconscionable that ordinary people who are wholly innocent and have done nothing wrong are losing everything that they have ever worked for, and that those responsible are getting off scot-free. This House should act as one tonight, call time on this behaviour and stand with leaseholders.