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Grenfell Tower: Insulation Materials

Volume 788: debated on Monday 5 February 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will repeat a Statement made by the Housing Minister in the other place earlier today:

“Mr Speaker, I wish to comment on the decision by the Building Research Establishment to withdraw a building cladding safety test from its website. BRE was contacted by Celotex after it identified anomalies between the specification for a cladding system that it had submitted for testing and the actual system tested. It was alerted to this issue last week. As a result, BRE has withdrawn the classification report relating to that test, which was carried out in 2014. That is the right thing to do.

The cladding system in question included a fibre cement board rainscreen and Celotex RS5000 insulation. It is important to underline that this was not a test of the aluminium composite material cladding system understood to have been present at Grenfell Tower. We understand that Celotex is contacting customers who have used this material. We have published a range of advice for building owners on the fire safety of cladding and insulation materials, including this type of insulation.

That advice still stands. As it makes clear, building owners should take their own professional advice on any further action, reflecting their building’s particular circumstances. We continue to expect building owners to progress necessary remediation work and, where necessary, to implement the interim fire safety measures to ensure that residents and their buildings are safe”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the answer to the Urgent Question given in another place. I remind the House of my declarations of interest as a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

The answer is disappointing and highlights for me that the testing system is in chaos. More than seven months on from the disaster at Grenfell Tower, only three of the 300 tower blocks have had their unsafe cladding replaced, leaving thousands of people living in homes that are not safe. How many residents are living in tower blocks with insulation that now has invalid approval? What action are the Government taking to ensure that any other similar tests are also not flawed?

Some in the industry now suggest that the government-commissioned cladding tests used different standards from those in official guidance, with cavity barriers three times as fire resistant. Can the Minister confirm today that that is the case? What does he say to insurers or landlords who say that the Government’s tests are not sufficient to show that they breach building regulations so they will pay no removal and replacement costs for leaseholders, leaving them liable to foot the bill?

My Lords, the test system is not in chaos. I made it quite clear that the Celotex issue does not have a bearing on the advice that we have given in relation to the Grenfell testing. The system tests were designed in line with the British Standard and were scrutinised and witnessed by independent observers. This is a discrepancy between what Celotex thought it had submitted and what was actually tested; it was not a reflection on the testing itself. Meanwhile, officials are working with the manufacturer on what has happened, and we will look to learn lessons from this. I will write to noble Lords to give more details of that as they become apparent, but I want to underline that this is no reflection at all on the testing system, or on what has happened in relation to Grenfell.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

There are 10 points in the Government’s response. Paragraph 2 says that the Building Research Establishment was contacted by Celotex last week. However, the reply does not say why this problem occurred in the first place. Why was the testing inadequate?

With regard to paragraph 5, the Minister has made clear that this was not a test of the aluminium composite material cladding system that was understood to have been present at Grenfell Tower. However, weekend media reports said that Celotex RS5000 insulation was on Grenfell Tower. Was that the case?

Thirdly, on paragraph 8, the Minister says that the advice currently given to owners of high-rise blocks and public buildings still stands, but I suggest to him that it is not enough. As of 10 January 2018, there are 312 residential buildings over 18 metres high in England, and public buildings are part of that total. All those have aluminium composite material cladding but, of the 312, 299 have aluminium composite material cladding that the MHCLG’s expert panel advises is unlikely to meet current building regulations guidance, and therefore presents fire hazards on buildings higher than 18 metres.

Does the Minister feel that that situation is acceptable, and does he understand the frustration of building owners that the Government are not being sufficiently clear on fire safety measures that are essential, nor on exactly where the finance for essential works will come from?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises various material points which I shall try to deal with. First, I restate that nothing in the system of testing done in relation to Grenfell is faulty. The Grenfell testing is not in question from the Celotex test.

The noble Lord raises an issue about the 299 tests that failed. He is absolutely right about that figure; it is the ministry figure. These are failed tests following the Grenfell fire in June last year, and we are in the process of ensuring that all are remedied. Some are on local authority buildings, some are public buildings, some are student residences, some of them are in private hands, but on all of them either interim measures have been taken or the process has been completed. That process was put in place post Grenfell and, as I said, there is no question but that appropriate action is now being taken in relation to those 299 failures of the 312 tests undertaken.

My Lords, is not the simple truth that there are many tenants in private, publicly owned and social-housing blocks of flats nationally who are completely unaware whether their flats or the blocks that they live in are a fire risk? With that in mind, would it not be wise to introduce a simple and cheap initiative? That would be for all freehold landlords of all blocks in the United Kingdom, whether they be social landlord, private or whatever, to place in a public place in the entrance to those blocks a sign on the wall which specified the cladding of that particular block. That information in the hands of tenants would be a powerful weapon for them to use when they sought improvements to the standards of insulation of their block.

The noble Lord is right that many different blocks have been tested and found wanting in this process. I just referred to the 299 that have failed and I have the breakdown here: 45 in local authority hands, 115 housing association, 13 public buildings, 95 private residential and 31 student residences. They are going through the process of ensuring that appropriate measures are put in place.

Meanwhile, the Hackitt review is looking at the area much more widely. In response to the disaster that we had at Grenfell, it was felt appropriate to have a thoroughgoing review of fire safety measures; I agree. We are already acting on the interim report. We are now awaiting the final report, which will come up with recommendations which we will pursue once they are made. That is expected in the late spring. There is also a public inquiry.

There are many aspects to this, but in relation specifically to the Grenfell-type of cladding, we put in process a system of testing that goes across all sectors, public and private, and I do not think we could really be expected to do more.

My Lords, can the Minister inform us whether the documentation of the type of cladding includes the way it is attached to the building? If it is adherent to the surface, there will not be an updraught on both sides of it. The problem, as soon as anything starts to burn, is updraught, which brings more air and oxygen in and fuels the inflammability of whatever material is there.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has a degree of expertise which I do not profess. If I may, I will pick up her specific question, but I think it is appropriate to say that it was the system that was tested, not just the cladding. I will write more fully to her and ensure that my letter is copied to other noble Lords who have participated.

My Lords, the noble Lord did not answer my question. I am interested in the position of the tenants. The tenants do not realise what is happening. I suggest empowering the tenants by giving them the knowledge so that they can put pressure on the landlord, whoever it is. Will the Minister answer my specific question, which is about the rights of tenants?

My Lords, I take the specific point that the noble Lord makes. It is not so much that something is happening; it is ensuring that that is percolated down, as it were. It is a fair and material point; I apologise for not seeing it earlier. I will make sure that that is put in front and drawn to the attention of the Hackitt review.