Consideration of Lords message
After Clause 2
Prohibition on passing remediation costs on to leaseholders and tenants pending operation of a statutory scheme
I want first of all to thank all hon. Members for joining in this crucial debate, because all of us in this House agree that residents deserve to be safe, and to feel safe, in their homes. I want to reiterate in the strongest terms the importance of the Bill as a step along the way to delivering that objective, and the risk that we would create if we were to continue to allow these remediation amendments, however well-intentioned, to delay legislation.
The Bill was introduced over a year ago. We are almost at the point of getting it on the statute book, and it is vital that we remind ourselves of the fundamental purpose of what we are seeking to achieve—to provide much-needed legal clarification of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and direct the update of the fire risk assessments to ensure that they apply to structure, external walls and flat entrance doors. I will give way briefly to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), but I want as many hon. Members to speak as possible.
The right hon. Gentleman knows of the very significant amount of public money that we have set aside to remediate those buildings that are the most at risk of fire, where serious injury might take place, and the financial provisions that we have set aside also to help other leaseholders. If we do not resolve the Bill this week, fire assessments will not cover those critical elements of which I spoke, and they may continue to be ignored by less responsible building owners. Moreover, the fire and rescue services will be without the legal certainty that they need to take enforcement action. Ultimately, that will compromise the safety of many people living in multi-occupied residential buildings. Without the clarification provided by the Bill, it will mean delaying implementation, possibly by a year, of a number of measures that will deliver the Grenfell inquiry recommendations.
As I said, I want as many Members as possible to have the opportunity to speak, so I will say no more for the moment until I wind up the debate, save for reiterating two points. First, these remaining amendments, although laudable in their intentions, would be unworkable and an inappropriate means to resolve a problem as highly complex as this. Secondly, the Government share the concerns of leaseholders on remediation costs, and have responded, as the House knows, with unprecedented levels of financial support to the tune of over £5 billion, with further funds from the developer tax, which the Treasury will begin to consult upon imminently, as well as the tall buildings levy. Developers themselves have begun to announce more significant remediation funds.
It is in everyone’s interests to ensure that we do not put at risk the progress that has been made by failing to get the Bill on the statute book by the end of this Session.
Before I call the shadow Minister, may I reiterate that this is a very short debate with a long list of speakers, which is why I have put a three-minute limit on Back Benchers? Obviously, if colleagues can be shorter than that, we might actually get everybody in.
The Sunday Times reported two days ago that the Bank of England is worried that
“Britain’s building safety scandal could cause a new financial crisis.”
The Bank is worried about the scandal’s impact on property values, as new data from the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership shows that fire-risk flats can sell for as little as one third of their purchase price. That is devastating and requires an immediate response from the Government.
The Government surely should not need reminding that a collapse in house prices triggered the global financial crisis in 2007, but it seems that they do, and it seems that they also need reminding of the misery that this crisis is causing hundreds of thousands of people. The safety scandal that has unravelled in the wake of inaction and indecision since the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 has left up to 1.3 million flats unmortgageable and affects thousands of recently built houses. As many as 3 million people face a wait of up to a decade to sell or get a new mortgage because they cannot prove that their homes are safe, and we have leaseholders who face repair bills of up to £75,000 for flaws such as flammable cladding and balconies, and missing fire breaks.
We stand here today while thousands watch this debate and suffer, worrying about their futures, getting into debt and facing bankruptcy. We have to ask ourselves what the Government actually care about. They do not appear to care that the Bank of England thinks that we are heading for a financial crisis. They do not appear to care that thousands and thousands are living with anxiety, fear and debt. They do not seem to care that the vague and undefined loan scheme that they have hailed as the answer—despite having promised many times that leaseholders will not have to pay—will damage people’s property prices and will not actually be in place, as we hear today, for at least two years, leaving thousands to pay mounting waking watch bills and stuck in properties that they cannot sell.
I completely agree with the points that my hon. Friend is raising. She will know the suffering of my constituents in Cardiff South and Penarth. Does she agree that the UK Government need to get around the table with the Welsh Government and provide clarity on how those taxes will work, and how money will flow from the building levy and the tax? The UK Government have not yet done that. We have finally had an answer to the letter from the Welsh Housing Minister, and the Welsh Government have put aside money, but they are not clear how much money is coming from the UK Government.
My hon. Friend has raised that point many times, and he is standing up for his constituents in a way that I am afraid that this Government will not.
What do the Government care about? We are left with one possible answer. Do the Government care only about the donors who keep their Prime Minister in fancy furniture, so that he can spend £60,000 on curtains in No. 10, while nurses and key workers out there face £60,000 bills for cladding with no wealthy Tory donors to bail them out? Do the Government really care only about big property developers, such as European Land and Property, which developed a block of flats in Paddington that used the same aluminium composite material cladding as was on the Grenfell Tower, and which has donated £2.5 million to the Conservative party since the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017? Do the Government really care only about Britain’s biggest builders, who have built up vast profits during the pandemic, such as Persimmon—
The Minister is shouting names at me from a sedentary position, but he is not answering the question. I do not want to be right. I do not want that to be what the Government care about. I honestly always believe the best in people and applaud my colleagues from across the House who have stood up for their constituents time and again on this, but even they are asking why else the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are ignoring a financial and human crisis on such a growing and worrying scale.
Let us vote today to start putting this right and prove me wrong. It is not just Opposition Members who support amendments to protect leaseholders. A recent poll from YouGov commissioned by the National Housing Federation found that three quarters of MPs, including two thirds of Conservative MPs, say that the Government should pay the costs of all building safety work up front and then claim it back later from those who are responsible. I have not heard a single argument that bears any scrutiny as to why it is okay to let leaseholders foot a bill for tens of thousands of pounds, or to sit by as homeowners face bankruptcy or decades of lingering debt.
We welcome the latest amendment from the Bishop of St Albans, which would put into law a guarantee that building owners cannot pass on the costs of any remedial work to leaseholders in the time before the Government introduce their promised legislation. I am also very interested in the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), which propose that the Government should follow the polluter pays principle.
Yet again, the Government have decided to lay a motion to disagree with the Lords amendment. This is a betrayal of the promise that Ministers have made over 17 times that leaseholders will not be left to foot the bill. The Minister’s argument that it would delay further works does not work. If the Government have not managed to work out how to pursue the money from those responsible, why do they not do what is right and stop leaseholders footing the bill?
The Bishop of St Albans’s amendment would buy the Government some time. It would protect leaseholders while the Government come up with a longer-term plan. We ask the Minister again, if he does not think that the proposed amendments are right as they are, why not amend them? Why, when it is directly in their gift, will the Government not pay to fix these problems and then go after the building companies and developers that are responsible? Leaseholders deserve justice now.
I want to end by remembering the 72 people who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire nearly four years ago. The inquest is a daily reminder of the impact of the bonfire of regulations under David Cameron and the lack of care that the Government took over the last 11 years. For the memory of those who died, we must right these wrongs, we must learn the lessons and we must protect the hundreds of thousands who face daily uncertainty, fear and bills. I say to all Members: back the bishop today, vote for the Lords amendment and start to put this right.
The longer this debate drags on, the more damaging it becomes to the Government and the worse it becomes for innocent leaseholders. On Saturday evening, there was a fire in the tallest tower block in Southampton. That building has ACM cladding. As I understand it, it was alight. Hampshire fire and rescue responded quickly and dealt with the fire with its characteristic professionalism. Fortunately, the fire was not too serious, but it could have been. What would we be saying today if the worst had happened, I wonder?
I have said from the start that there are three dimensions to the fire safety scandal: the moral, the economic and the political. The moral obligation is obvious: this Government have a duty to hold those who are responsible to account and to defend the innocent leaseholders. There should be no disagreement on that issue.
Secondly, on the economic, the Government clearly think that my concerns about toxic debt, mass bankruptcy and repossession are wrong, but it is not just me who thinks it is a risk. The Bank of England is concerned, too—so concerned that it is assessing whether the fire safety scandal could cause a new financial crisis. With up to 1.3 million flats unmortgageable, perhaps the Government should be a little more concerned about the economic issue.
Finally, on the political, the Government believe in the home-owning democracy. It defines us. We have encouraged it. We have incentivised it. In fact, many people would not be in their own property without the support of Government. How do we look ourselves in the mirror when we have helped people to buy a home in a dangerous building that is worth less—sometimes much less—than they paid for it? The truth is that most MPs, including Conservative MPs, agree that the Government should resolve this issue. They believe, as I do, that it should not be the taxpayers who pay, despite what some in government have been saying. It should be those who are responsible—the manufacturers, the developers, the National House Building Council and development control. Some of those, of course, are local authorities. The Government can underwrite what is needed and then take it back from the industry. It may take years, but we will charge interest. It should be those who are responsible who pay.
We have been accused of wanting to kill the Fire Safety Bill. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the Government wanted the Bill to succeed as much as I do, they would do what was necessary to get the Bill through this place and the other place, but they have thus far chosen not to. After today, the Bill will go back to the Lords, and it will, in all likelihood, come back again. The amendment may come back with a different name and moved by someone else. If that happens, the Bill may well fall. That will not be my fault or our fault. That will be the Government’s fault.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith). Here we are again debating a Lords amendment to protect leaseholders from having to pay to fix construction defects and unsafe cladding that never were and never should be their responsibility, and yet Ministers continue to resist, even though they have repeatedly said that leaseholders should not have to bear the cost. The trouble with this endless debate is that the clock is ticking and innocent leaseholders continue to face unreasonable costs as bills now start to arrive demanding sums of money that they simply do not possess. One constituent wrote to me last week enclosing a photograph of the bill he has just been sent, for £27,000. Another thinks that their bill will be £40,000. They obviously cannot remortgage their flats. So I ask the Minister: what are people in this situation meant to do? Sadly, we know that the Government do not have an answer to this, or indeed to the mental and emotional torment that these people are being put through. That is why this amendment is needed, and needed now.
Even taking account of the Government funding already announced, the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership estimates that about two thirds of the total cost will still fall on leaseholders: the very people whom the Government say should not pay. The Association of Residential Managing Agents estimates that the average remediation bill will be about £50,000 a flat and that insurance costs have risen by 400%. The Government estimate that the average cost of a waking watch outside London is over £2,100 a year for each flat. Leaseholders in shared ownership properties are in a particular bind. The building safety fund is moving too slowly. There is a shortage of companies who can, or will, do the work. There is total uncertainty as to what is meant to happen when we know that there are other works that have to be done to make buildings safe but for which the Government are not prepared, so far, to offer funding. I find it very hard to believe that Ministers do not understand that the remedy they have come forward with so far is patently insufficient, or that, without a comprehensive plan, leaseholders will, month by month and year by year, inevitably face financial collapse because of the huge burden of costs being put on their shoulders.
In conclusion, can I assure the Minister that the growing number of MPs who support the Lords amendment are not going anywhere, and that is because our constituents have nowhere else to go?
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this debate.
It is unfortunate that this is the third time the House of Lords has felt it necessary to return this Bill to the House of Commons. That is because their lordships, like many MPs across the House, feel that the Bill cannot progress without some form of protection for leaseholders. It completely astonishes me that people in government cannot hear the screams of pain of leaseholders begging for help—people who are going bankrupt and people who are being hit with high insurance premiums. We were told only last week of an insurance premium for a building that was £11,963 last year but £242,400 this year. People are being hit with bills of £6,000 each with seven days to pay them and no recourse to help. With waking watches, there are interim bills that are going through the roof. Leaseholders cannot pay this; they cannot afford this. The reality is that these buildings will not be made safe by transferring the financial and legal liability on to leaseholders. Leaseholders do not have the funds to fix it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) said, we, leaseholders and leaseholders’ groups do not want the taxpayer to pay; we want the taxpayer to provide a safety net to help. We believe that those responsible should pay—nobody else.
Nobody wants this Bill to fail. We are nearly four years on from Grenfell. The Minister mentioned Grenfell in his opening remarks. I would like to read him a statement that has been issued by Grenfell United:
“The fire safety bill is back in the commons. Government is using the excuse that the amendment will delay Grenfell recommendations. The amendment is to protect leaseholders from charges. The FSB is separate & it is wrong to claim support of it damages recommendations. Using Grenfell Recommendations to justify government’s indifference is deeply upsetting for us and shows they’d rather protect the corporates responsible from paying for the mess they created. Our request is simple: implement Grenfell recommendations make homes safe & protect lease holders from financial ruin. Nearly 4 years since Grenfell and yet not a single piece of legislation has been passed. Homes have to be made safe this is a basic human right. We ask all MPs that committed to ensuring Grenfell 2 could not happen to do the right thing today by us and the thousands of leaseholders effected.”
Grenfell United and the people affected there have spoken. Leaseholders up and down the country are speaking. Our constituents are speaking and Members of Parliament are hearing them. The Bishop of St Albans has tabled an amendment to try to provide the Government with the opportunity of the time and space to come forward with a compromise. I urge the Government to compromise and bring forward an amendment in the House of Lords later today to help support leaseholders.
I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to speak so early in this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland). I thank their lordships for the tenacity and perseverance they have shown over many months in standing up for all the blameless leaseholders affected by the cladding crisis, including the many thousands who live in one of the more than 70 affected buildings in my constituency.
In seeking last week to persuade their lordships to cease insisting on amendments designed to protect all leaseholders from remediation costs, the Minister for Building Safety argued once again that such provision is unnecessary and that to continue to seek to amend the Bill in such a way would risk its passage in this Session, could increase fire safety risks and might “ultimately cost lives”. Yet it is the very fact that this crisis is already ruining countless lives that led their lordships to insist once again that this place reconsider, and they were entirely right to do so.
I agree with what my hon. Friend says. I wonder whether he has visited claddingscandalmap.co.uk, which maps 450 buildings with 60,000 homes affected by this scandal. It also shows the Members of this House who are voting to force leaseholders to pay towards the costs.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I have seen the site in question, and it brings home—I know he shares my feelings, as his constituency is so close to mine—the fact that certain parts of the country with high numbers of new build properties, including constituencies such as ours, are particularly badly affected. I have tens of thousands of constituents affected.
As welcome as they were, the five-point plan and the additional grant funding that the Government announced on 10 February are still only a partial solution to the cladding crisis, and they consciously and deliberately leave a significant proportion of leaseholders exposed to costs they cannot possibly hope to bear. For significant numbers of leaseholders, that exposure is not some theoretical future risk, but a reality that they are already confronting.
To take just one example, I had a lengthy exchange yesterday with the right-to- manage directors of a small 24-unit building in east Greenwich, Blenheim Court, which requires urgent remediation and is under 18 metres in height. As things stand, not only are the leaseholders in question living with the punishing uncertainty of not knowing if or when their building might be issued with a forced loan of the kind the Government propose, but because they do not have the funds to commence remediation works, they are struggling with myriad secondary costs, including a soaring building insurance premium, which has led their service charges to increase from about £2,500 a year per flat to more than £130,000—I have seen the invoice, and the figure is correct—and there is a very real risk of mass defaults as a result.
Every week that this House fails to act, more leaseholders are placed in similar situations and put at risk of negative equity and bankruptcy. I have absolutely no doubt that the Government will ultimately be forced to bring forward a more comprehensive solution that protects all affected leaseholders from the costs of fixing both cladding and non-cladding building safety defects. Seeking to pass the costs on to even a proportion of them will almost certainly mean that the works simply do not get done. Unless this House is content to follow that path and see many more lives needlessly destroyed in the interim, it must act today and take decisive steps towards resolving this crisis.
I urge Ministers, even at this late stage, to honour their commitments previously given from the Dispatch Box and come forward with a sensible concession. If they do not, I urge MPs from across the House to protect blameless leaseholders and support the amendment in the name of the Lord Bishop of St Albans in the Division Lobby shortly.
I rise to speak to the amendments in my name. I am grateful for the support from all parties for them. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) for the work they have done on this issue.
We have to find a way forward. We cannot continue this sterile ping-pong between the two Houses of Parliament. We need an actual plan, and I believe that my amendments set out a workable way that the Government can take this issue forward.
There are three issues that need to be dealt with, the first of which is forfeiture. The idea that people’s properties can be repossessed because they have been unable to pay cladding costs, which are unjust in the first place, is abhorrent. We need to reform leasehold legislation to prevent that from happening.
Secondly, we need a proper plan for apportionment of costs, as I set out in the appropriate persons for fire safety order costs amendment. That means that taxpayers are not asked to write a blank cheque, and nor will those with responsibility have the ability to collapse a company so that they can avoid costs at a future date. We have got to ensure that the “polluter pays” principle is applied in this case.
The third thing we need is a real-time study, by the Department, to look at real people with real bills who are facing real negative equity and insurances issues, and who have difficulty accessing the building safety fund, given the narrow timescale and the fact that there are too few experts able to get them into that process. I therefore suggest the following.
How do we do this? First, on 11 May in the Queen’s Speech, we need to bring this issue forward in leasehold legislation, and deal with it once and for all. The Government have the ability to give us that assurance. Secondly, the long title of the forthcoming Building Safety Bill needs to be framed in such a way that we can deal with amendments relating to appropriate persons for fire safety order costs. That is also within the Government’s gift. Thirdly, if the Minister looks at my constituency of Portishead as a microcosm of the problems we face, he will see there are some buildings above 18 metres and some below; some have good management, some poor management. There are people with good copies of all the bills and who can tell a story to real officials in real time. All these things are possible. I set them out in the amendments as a route out of the sterile position in which we find ourselves.
We cannot simply continue passing this issue between the two Houses of Parliament. Our voters expect Parliament to come forward with solutions. We can find a genuinely practical way forward. We are two weeks from the Queen’s Speech. We can bring this legislation forward and enable the House to come together and provide solutions for our constituents in the way that they have the right to expect, and we have the duty to provide.
Four years have passed since the Grenfell tragedy, and once again the House is debating whether or not to protect leaseholders from the costs of remedying fire safety defects caused by a failure of regulation and negligence, as well as by deceptive practices in the building industry. Meanwhile, the Government continue to dither and delay, and order their MPs to vote against amendments designed to protect leaseholders. Make no mistake, the funds that the Government have made available thus far have taken too much time to come on stream. The money will not ultimately be enough to meet the scale of the crisis and, crucially, interim costs are not covered.
On top of all those costs, today we have heard about the cost of insurance. I have lost count of the times that I have pleaded with the Government to do something about insurance costs. In my constituency there have been insurance increases of 1,000% in affected buildings. Those are shocking figures, and this shocking situation is falling on deaf ears as far as the Government are concerned. Long before any cladding is removed from these buildings, the people living in them will have been ruined by the costs of insurance and interim measures such as waking watches to keep their buildings open. There is simply nothing left to remedy the internal fire safety defects as well. Leaseholders need the protection that the Lords amendment would offer.
We should never forget that at any point, a further tragedy could—God forbid—occur. That is a terror that leaseholders in Brindley House in my constituency have had to face, because on 31 January this year there was a fire in a flat in their building. I have seen the burned-out husk of that flat for myself. The fire service said that the residents were only two minutes away from the fire engulfing the whole of their building. Two more minutes and the windows in that flat would have shattered, and the cladding wrapped around that building would have caught fire. When I heard that, my blood ran cold. Can the Minister imagine what it must be like for the people who live in Brindley House? That is the risk, that is the fear, and that is the scale of the financial ruination that people in my constituency and all over the country are trying to cope with.
One of my constituents recently said to me that he now thinks it will be less stressful to declare himself bankrupt and become homeless than to try to find a way to carry on as a leaseholder. At the very least, the Government could and should support the Lords amendment, or indicate a clear way through the crisis, so that we send a clear signal to all leaseholders that we will stand with them.
I start from the principle that successive Secretaries of State and Ministers have said from the Dispatch Box that the leaseholders are the innocent parties in this scandal and that they should not have to pay a penny piece towards the costs of remediation. I applaud the Government for coming forward with £5.1 billion of public money to support the remediation of unsafe cladding, but our problem is that it is not enough. The estimate now is that £15 billion will be required and that the extra £10 billion will have to come from leaseholders as the last resort, because building owners will naturally pass that on to leaseholders wherever they possibly can. They are the ones in situ; they are the ones facing these huge bills.
The Government say that further proposals will come forward on the forced loan scheme. We were promised in the earlier statement in February that the loan scheme would be announced at the Budget. Now, I did make the assumption that that was the Budget in 2021, not the Budget in 2022 or 2023. The reality is that the evidence given to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and other bodies suggests that the forced loan scheme is nowhere near being available. We as Members of Parliament are not even able to scrutinise the proposal, so those who are living in blocks of flats of six floors or less do not even know how that scheme will work. My estimate is that many people will end up with a bill that will last for 100 years, therefore factoring in, almost inevitably, a dramatic reduction in the value of their properties. Equally, we know that the fire safety remediation required in addition to the remediation of unsafe cladding almost dwarfs the costs of remediating the cladding. All those costs will once again be passed on to the innocent leaseholders.
I understand that my right hon. Friend on the Front Bench has to defend this position and clearly wants to get the Fire Safety Bill on the statute book. Let us be clear. I do not think any MP wishes to prevent the progress of the Fire Safety Bill. What we do need, however, is surety and assuredness, because the draft Building Safety Bill will almost certainly take 18 months to two years to bring to fruition. The leaseholders do not have that time to wait. My right hon. Friend the Minister has made it clear on a number of occasions that he finds the amendments defective. Well, there is still time. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) that there is a solution. If the Government reject that solution, let them come forward with their own solution in the House of Lords. Let us agree that the leaseholders do not have to pay a penny and the Fire Safety Bill can go on the statute book, as we would all like to see.
The Minister should be very careful. The speeches in this debate today are an example of Parliament at its best and Government at their worst. The Minister has heard Members from across the House, and from his own party in particular, criticise what the Government are doing. He would be a very wise Minister to listen to Parliament. If he refuses to listen, I think he should think about his future.
In March this year, leaseholders in Wembley Central apartments in my constituency were told that in response to the publication by the Government of the Building (Amendment) Regulations 2018, a waking watch system would be implemented as soon as possible. The cost of the waking watch patrols would be recovered from leaseholders in the sum of £91,380 a month. The cost of the remedial works to the fire alarm system across Central Apartments, Ramsey House and Metro Apartments is estimated to be in the order of £250,000 to £300,000. The owners said that they were unable to say the total cost of all four recommendations and that they therefore could not advise the liability of each leaseholder.
I find it unacceptable that the Government are imposing billions of pounds of costs on leaseholders retrospectively to remedy misconduct by others, such as the developer, the builder or those producing the Government’s own advisory documents and in particular building regulations control. The fire survey for these particular buildings said:
“There is evidence that the junctions between compartment floors were inadequately fire stopped…as there were gaps at mineral wool fire barriers at steel framing. There were no visible fire barriers at vents or around windows/door frames and it could not be confirmed that the window/door frames themselves formed cavity barriers.”
That indicates that at the time of construction the building regulations then in force were not followed. That means that these people were sold a building that was not fit for habitation, yet the Government are not pursuing the people responsible; they are making sure that it is the innocent parties who will pay. Their lives are being ruined, as Members in all parts of this House have said. It is vital that the Government address this and accept the Lords amendment. In particular, they need to focus on addressing the very real issues in building control regulations that allowed this scandal to happen in the first place.
The Government’s plan and funding to address this fire safety issue are a welcome start. I am not going to rehearse the points already made this afternoon, but I believe that the role of affordable home ownership schemes in this disaster has been overlooked.
Many people engulfed in this scandal are first-time buyers who took their first step on the property ladder through Conservative-backed schemes intended to boost home ownership. People use these schemes because they are not cash rich, but they are now facing unexpected bills for life-changing sums, and some are being asked to take up further Government loans to pay them. The drafting of this Bill means that despite owning only part of the value of their flat, leaseholders are potentially liable for 100% of the share of the costs. In effect, they are subsidising their landlords, who own the remaining percentage of the value of the flat but pay nothing to remedy the defects. Leaseholders have always had to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of buildings they do not own, owing to the way leasehold agreements work, but the building defects and costs involved to fix them are beyond what anyone could have contemplated.
With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to read out a case study of a future constituent —someone hoping to relocate to my constituency. This individual owns a one-bedroom flat in the Olympic village in London, in which she has a 35% interest, and is seeking to move to Penzance, in my constituency, to be with her fiancé. The flat was sold to her as a low-risk investment; she was encouraged by the shared ownership Government scheme, as part of their affordable housing directive. Her block was found to have missing fire cavity barriers, rendering it a B2 rating, warranting remediation, with the bills potentially being in excess of £50,000 for her flat alone. The housing association is trying to bring the developers to account, something that legally it is not required to do. Failing that, this will result in a lengthy legal battle, during which she may well be presented with the bill for remediation work in order to make the block fire safe and adhere to the Government’s new guidelines. Applying for a grant under the Jenrick announcement for remediation works is an extremely slow and complicated process. If the housing association does not succeed in getting the perpetrators to fix their mess, she will get the bill, and as a shared owner she will be liable for the full 100% of the bill, not 35%, which is the share she owns of the property. In any case, it is highly unlikely she will be able to sell property for years to come and buy into the Cornish economy by purchasing a house.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) has put forward very pragmatic proposals to unlock the deadlock and improve the fire safety of homes across our nation, and I would welcome the Minister’s response to these sensible proposals,
Over the weekend, it was reported that the Bank of England is assessing whether Britain’s building safety scandal could cause a new financial crisis—why? It was because 1.3 million flats are unmortgageable and as many as 3 million people face a wait of up to 10 years to sell or get a new mortgage because they cannot prove that their homes are safe.
This scandal has gone on for too long and it has already caused too much damage. This Government must accept the Lords amendment that would protect leaseholders from exorbitant costs, or they should drop this Bill altogether and bring back a better version in the Queen’s Speech. It is simply incredible that the Government have had 10 whole months to break the deadlock and propose a solution that they find acceptable, but they have refused to do so. Instead, they wage a campaign of scaremongering, telling us that if the Bill fails it will have the effect of increasing fire safety risks. Well, that is not the view of the leaseholders in my constituency; it is not the view of the leaseholder group; and it is not the view of the Cladding Action Group. They are speaking with one voice and they are clear that they would much rather see this defective Bill fall than pass in its current form.
The devastating consequences of accepting the Bill unamended cannot be overstated. Millions of leaseholders who are already facing financial ruin through no fault of their own live with the terror of this Bill passing into law. If it does, they will be landed with even more extortionate bills, perhaps within a matter of days. The Government’s intransigence—their outright refusal to budge—is making the situation so much worse, to the point where I believe we now need an inquiry into the Government’s response to the fire safety scandal.
How much money have leaseholders already had to pay out? How many people have been driven to bankruptcy? How many have been made homeless? How many leaseholders have been pushed to the brink of suicide? Do the Government really think it is okay for 3 million people to have to wait up to 10 years before they are free to live in a fire-safe home? Do the Government think it is acceptable that leaseholders have no viable legal routes to challenge those who are responsible?
The cladding scandal and the fire safety scandal have been a protracted nightmare for leaseholders, and the Government’s failure to address the fire safety scandal properly is now a scandal in itself. I urge all colleagues to support the Lords amendment, because millions of homeowners are relying on us all to do so.
I support holding the Lords amendment. I think it is the right thing to do at the moment, although not because it is perfect—it is far from perfect and not without its flaws. My problem is that I do not see the Government responding to the overwhelming concern about what is happening to leaseholders, many of whom, as has been said before, were first-time buyers.
We face, today, an issue of concern both personal and public. The public concern is that the devaluation of these homes is now so dramatic that it will cause an economic shock. I remember the old negative equity problem that erupted as a result of a collapse, and I do not want to see us back there again. I accept that, as has been said, the Government have already put £5.1 billion into the process, but it is worth at least another £10 billion in settlement, and that is going to fall on the shoulders of leaseholders.
Let me relate what is going on in my constituency. Like everybody else, I have a set of estates, including Queen Mary’s Gate and Blackberry Court, among other blocks in my constituency. Many of them are under 18 metres and have cladding—this is the point that has been raised—that was not compliant at the time of their building. The leaseholders did not know that—they bought their homes with a sense that they were buying something that was right and reasonable—and are now not eligible for the safety fund.
What has happened because of all this? We have tried to get hold of the developer, Telford Homes, but it has not engaged for more than a year now. Telford Homes does not answer anything or engage about what it might do; it has gone to ground. That is the problem that lies at the heart of all this right now: there is no way that the leaseholders can get redress because they cannot go to those who did this wrongly at the time and the Government have not brought forward any mechanism to allow leaseholders to get after these individuals, who will sit there and wait for the leaseholders to waste their money.
The Lords amendment is not perfect, but I am trying to articulate a cry for help from my constituents and others around the country. I agree with and support the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). Let us find a way to make sure that those who were responsible stand up and pay the bill. They have made a lot of money in the past, legitimately, on building homes; those who did not put up the right cladding should automatically be in the frame. Meanwhile, the costs spiral and my constituents will pay them.
Today, for the first time, I shall vote to maintain and hold the Lords amendment. I say to the Government that if they do not want it, they had better get to the Lords and get us something decent that allows us to give support to our leaseholder constituents, because that would be doing the right thing.
I speak in favour of the Bishop of St Albans’ amendment. As the UK Cladding Action Group has previously reported, there have already been leaseholder suicides and, worryingly, 23% of those surveyed by the group have considered suicide or self-harm.
The Government must realise that the building safety fund only covers unsafe cladding, yet 70% of the buildings surveyed have non-cladding fire safety defects. They must understand that providing cladding remediation funding for buildings over 18 metres, yet forcing leaseholders in buildings under 18 metres to pay, is entirely unfair. They must recognise that there is no support available at all for interim measure costs, including increased insurance premiums and waking watches, which often run into figures of more than £15,000 per week.
To add further devastation, as we have heard today, Inside Housing has reported that even the minority of leaseholders who could apply for loans face a wait of potentially years. In the meantime, many residents still live in unsafe buildings and are understood to have already received requests for up-front payment, with freeholders sometimes instructing solicitors to carry out debt recovery. This could result in a tide of bankruptcies and evictions. The situation is so bad that I understand that analysts at the Bank of England are now assessing whether Britain’s building safety scandal could cause a new financial crisis.
It is clear that the Government’s approach is untenable and it must change today. Even the National Housing Federation states that the only way to prevent leaseholders and social landlords from having to pay to remediate buildings they did not construct is for the Government to provide up-front funding to remediate all buildings. I hope all MPs today can recognise the moral duty they personally have to protect our constituents and will vote in favour of the Lords amendment.
I had very much hoped that it would not be necessary for us to continue to have this debate in relation to this Bill. The core elements of the Bill are worth while and I support them. Unfortunately, however, it creates a set of potential liabilities upon wholly innocent leaseholders, without giving them an adequate means of redress. That is simply unfair. It is unfair on my constituents and it is unfair on people who have bought properties in good faith and who have relied on professional advice and the regulatory regime that was then in force. If there are people who were at fault, either in the construction of the buildings or in the way in which surveys were carried out, they should absolutely be held to account, but the people who should not end up with a liability are the leaseholders, who have acted in good faith throughout. It is the absence of protection for them that, regrettably, causes me to have to support the Lords amendment again today.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) tabled what I thought were constructive amendments, which I was happy to sign. I hope—still; even at this late stage—that the Government will see that there is a basis for progress to be made. As things stand, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) noted, we have to continue to press the case on the Government. I hope that, if the House rejects the amendments—I hope it will vote for the Lords amendments and deal with the matter—it will give the Government yet a further chance to resolve this matter.
At the end of the day, we are not asking that the taxpayer pick up the burden. We are asking that the leaseholders should be relieved, certainly in the short term, of the pressures that fall upon them and that they are unable to deal with. The Government are in a position to fund the cash flow that leaseholders cannot fund and which is driving them to desperate situations. It is absolutely right that they should then seek to recoup those funds from those who are responsible and who have been at fault. There is nothing in the Lords amendment or the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset that would prevent that from happening. I urge the Government to think again and recognise that, although the core elements of the Bill are good, collaterally, it does real injustice to innocent leaseholders, such as many in my constituency and elsewhere. For heaven’s sake, can we not find a constructive way forward to achieve the objectives of the Bill and protect innocent leaseholders? Those things should not be mutually incompatible, but at the moment we have not yet found a solution.
I actually think that the Prime Minister framed this debate well, because he told the House on 3 February that
“no leaseholder should have to pay for the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects that they did not cause and are no fault of their own.”—[Official Report, 3 February 2021; Vol. 688, c. 945.]
Those were his words. No ifs, no buts—it was an unequivocal pledge. Clearly, the Government’s measures so far fall well short of fulfilling it. Today we have the opportunity to address that, because the Lords amendments make good on that failure.
I have spoken previously in the House about leaseholders in the Metis building, Wicker Riverside, Daisy Spring Works and elsewhere in my constituency who face a range of issues with ACM and other cladding, compartmentation, flammable materials wrongly used and other fire safety products. They are trapped in homes that are unsafe and unsaleable, facing bills that will break them—some up to £50,000 each.
Let us remember that we are talking about young people who stretched their budgets to the limit to buy their first home; couples unable to move on when they have their first child; others who cannot take new jobs because they cannot sell; and older people who have sunk their life savings into their flat and have nowhere to turn. They are being put under unbearable pressure and unimaginable mental strain. People have told me they fear collecting their post in the morning because of the bills it might contain. It is simply unacceptable. Today we can end that misery.
Those who say that the costs should not fall on the public purse are right. The developers responsible should pay up, as well as those responsible for failings in the building regulation system. The only way that developers and others responsible will be held to account is if the Government own the problem, urgently undertake remediation and then use the full resources of the state to chase down those responsible. Leaseholders simply cannot do it on their own.
We have that responsibility because successive Governments oversaw a flawed system of building inspections, which signed off so many of these unsafe buildings. These leaseholders are victims of comprehensive regulatory failure. There is a grave injustice here that must be remedied, and the Government must face up to it. Those responsible for the failings should be responsible for putting them right, without any costs falling on leaseholders, either now or in the future through loans schemes.
Many leaseholders have stretched their finances to the limit to buy their home. Some have already been bankrupted. Others are facing ruin. We have to put a stop to it today, so let us put aside other differences and do the right thing by accepting the Lords amendments.
I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions today. The House will know that we have a duty to implement clear and effective legislation to support fire and building safety reform. We have an obligation in this place to make good law. While I entirely accept that the motivations of all those who have contributed today are not to damage the Fire Safety Bill, I have to tell them that the practical consequence of passing the Lords amendments would be to do that, because they are ineffective and defective. Let me explain why, before moving on to some of the other points that Members have made.
The amendments would prevent any type of remediation costs being passed on to leaseholders, even if the cost was very minor or if the leaseholder was responsible for damage, and that is not a proportionate response. There is no framework in the Lord Bishop of St Albans’ amendment to distinguish between different works. I think all Members would agree that the taxpayer should not be paying for minor costs, such as replacing a smoke alarm, and that if the leaseholder is responsible for breaking a smoke alarm, in all likelihood they should fix it. The amendment is also unclear on who should take responsibility for remediation works until a statutory funding scheme is in place to pay or direct the costs, and that would result in remediation being delayed, even in the case of minor defects, if routes of cost recovery are unclear.
If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will not give way, because I have to conclude my remarks. Perhaps if I have a bit of time at the end, I will.
These orphan liabilities would leave leaseholders continuing to live in unsafe properties with no further clarity as to who will pay. It is important to ensure that taxpayers’ money is protected as much as possible and that remediation is not delayed unnecessarily in extended litigation such as we might find ourselves in. It is not the solution that leaseholders need or the one that the taxpayer deserves.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) has also tabled an amendment. It desires to provide greater clarity than perhaps other amendments do, but it also shares some of the defects of the St Albans amendment. It applies to any form of remediation, including wear and tear, and there is no cost threshold on what works should not be considered. Moreover, the amendment also provides that the Home Secretary will essentially be acting in a quasi-judicial role to adjudicate whether appropriate parties should pay costs of remediation. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will find herself apportioning liability for any building with two or more dwellings on a building-by-building basis for any possible cost associated with the fire safety order. That would take years. Leaseholders may be unable to sell or move until their building has been considered. Without much more clarity on how these decisions are to be made, the Government themselves could be open to judicial review, slowing down important implementation of policy and diverting taxpayers’ money towards litigation once again. We believe that we should seek to keep these decisions on liability in the hands of the courts, not those of politicians.
However, there are points on which we agree. That is, for example, on the principle around forfeiture. It is a draconian measure that should be used only as a last resort. This matter should be considered as part of our wider programme on leasehold reform that we have already indicated. Adding it to the Fire Safety Bill purely for fire safety order costs will create a tangle of loopholes and potential for satellite litigation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset also talked about the apportionment of costs. He will know that the Government have announced a consultation on a tax measure on the development sector to ensure that the developers—those with the broadest shoulders—pay their way. We reckon that that will yield at least £2 billion over the period. Of course, we will want to keep that under review so that we can ensure that those who ought to pay do pay and that taxpayers and leaseholders are protected as far as they possibly can be. He also asked us to assure him that we will consider his own constituency case. I am very happy to commit, as my hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done, to look at that constituency matter to see what we can learn from the case study in North Somerset.
In conclusion, these amendments are defective, and I am afraid I have to ask the House to respectfully disagree with their lordships and reject their amendments.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 4J.
Lords amendment 4J disagreed to.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendment 4J;
‘ That Christopher Pincher, Tom Pursglove, Scott Mann and Chris Elmore be members of the Committee;
That Christopher Pincher be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Maggie Throup.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It will be observed that the Government’s majority without the Scots Nats was halved in the last vote.
I would not ask for guidance from the Chair in the Commons about procedure in the Lords, but were the Lords to send back another amendment different from the one we have been considering, but trying to take up the points raised in this Chamber, am I right in saying that the Government could table their own amendment tomorrow, which would absorb the points made in this House, so that leaseholders are not penalised in the way they would be if the Bill went through as it is at the moment?