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Tower Blocks: Cladding

Volume 795: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall repeat as a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Housing. The Statement is as follows:

“There is nothing more important than making sure that people are safe in their homes. We remain determined to ensure that no community suffers again as the community did so tragically and appallingly at Grenfell Tower.

Within days of the tragedy, a comprehensive building safety programme was put in place to ensure that residents of high-rise blocks of flats are safe and feel safe, now and in the future. Our department has worked with fire and rescue services, local authorities and landlords to identify high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding, and ensured that interim safety measures are in place until they are permanently remediated. These have included measures such as “waking watch”, which has been put in place in all high-rise buildings with ACM cladding, with the oversight of the National Fire Chiefs Council. As of 31 December 2018, interim measures have been in place in all 176 high-rise private residential buildings with unsafe ACM cladding.

Permanent remediation must now, rightly, be our key focus. On 18 December we published our plan to implement the recommendations of Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, which will create a stronger regulatory framework and fix these issues for the long term.

We have repeatedly called on private building owners not to pass costs on to leaseholders who find themselves in this position through no fault of their own. We have also warned private building owners that unless they remove and replace unsafe ACM cladding from their high-rise residential buildings now, local authorities have the power to complete the works and recover the costs from the owner. As a result of our interventions, we have secured commitments from the owners of 268 privately owned buildings, while 212 have either started, completed or have commitments in place to remediate. There remain 42 private residential buildings where the owners’ plans are unclear. On this we are maintaining pressure, and we rule out no solutions.

This is obviously a matter of great importance to many colleagues and indeed to many constituents, and that is reflected by the huge amount of activity that is taking place within the department, externally within the industry concerned and, critically, in this House, with an Adjournment Debate tomorrow and appearances by me at Oral Questions and in front of the Select Committee this coming Monday”.

My Lords, I refer the House to my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer given in the other place to this Urgent Question.

I agree with the Minister that there is nothing more important than making sure that people are safe in their own home. The fire at Grenfell Tower happened on 14 June 2017. Today is 22 January 2019. The fact that 19 months later dangerous, even lethal, cladding has not been removed from all buildings is a national scandal. Does the Minister agree that it is time for all the information about individual tower blocks, schools, hospitals and other buildings covered in dangerous cladding to be published so that all residents, staff and users can see what the situation is and question those in authority about what they are doing to make sure that the building they live in or use is safe? It is clear from the latest scandal reported in today’s Daily Mirror that we cannot rely on those who have responsibility for building safety to do the right thing.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his questions and for his welcome of the Statement. I understand, and I shall repeat what was in the Statement: there is nothing more important than making sure that people are safe in their homes. I think we would all agree with that, and that is precisely what I have said today. The measures that are in place ensure that everyone is safe tonight and every night in the buildings where they are. There are two aspects to this. One is making sure that people are safe, and the other is the remediation to make sure that we have a permanent solution to the cladding issue. I have given the figures on that. Even since I last gave figures in this House in answer to the noble Lord on 7 January, the first day after recess, we have made significant progress. He will see that we are closer to ensuring that we complete that process.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Statement. But even after his emollient words, there are still around 800 families living in privately owned blocks who do not yet know what is going to be done to make their homes safe or who will be responsible for paying for that. If, as the Statement says, no solution is being ruled out, does the Minister not agree that the time has come for the Government to commission local authorities to step in and carry out this work without any further delay?

I thank the noble Lord for those points. I agree that we are entering that stage where local authorities need to be considering these measures. I update the House, as I did on 7 January, that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State wrote to local authorities in December, indicating that they have the power—and, in extreme circumstances, even a duty—to act here. We have given an assurance that if financial assistance is needed, we will come forward with it. The Secretary of State will be reviewing progress, as officials do every week to ensure that progress is being made. As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, we have made progress, even since 7 January. Do we need to do more? We do, but officials are pressing forward, as is the Secretary of State.

My Lords, the Government should be commended for the speed with which they have put extra resources into the social sector to make sure that money has not been a barrier to getting the cladding removed. The time must now have come for financial assistance to be given to those buildings that are in the private sector. However, I do not believe for one minute that the money should then be written off for the taxpayer. Surely the Government must pursue the people responsible for the inappropriate materials—not just the cladding, but the inappropriate insulation, where it has been used. Every effort should be made to recover that money for the taxpayer, but the current leaseholders should not be the ones having to face that dilemma every night.

My Lords, as ever, I thank my noble friend for a timely and helpful intervention. While his question related specifically to private residential buildings, I do not want to miss the opportunity of saying that in the public arena and the social sector, we have made £400 million available for remedial activity. I agree with what he says; that is part of the process the Secretary of State is engaged in. We are very aware that we need to complete this process. We want to do it with the assurance that leaseholders will not pick up the bill. That would be morally unacceptable, as we have indicated. I pay tribute to the many private companies that have come forward to say that they will sustain the financial cost of this position. We need to encourage, cajole and ensure that others do the same.

My Lords, first, I refer to my local government interests, recorded in the register. Secondly, I query the arithmetic which says that of 268 privately owned buildings, 212 have been started or completed, and 42 remain. Should that not be 56? If not, what happened to the other 14? More seriously, the Statement avers that local authorities have the power to complete the works and recover the costs from the owner. If they are unable to recover the costs from the owner, will the Government fund the work?

I thank the noble Lord for the points he has raised; I too questioned the mathematics. I will write to the noble Lord to confirm the position, but I think the other 14 are made up of hotels and other types of buildings that are not private residential buildings.

I always admire the noble Lord’s great assiduity. With regard to the other point the noble Lord made about picking up the bill, we have ruled nothing out. I agree with my noble friend Lord Porter that we are seeking to ensure that the cost of this is picked up by the owners, not the leaseholders. That is the position we are in and the position that the Secretary of State is carrying forward. As I have said, officials monitor progress in this area on a weekly basis.

My Lords, I remind the House of my entry in the register of interests. In repeating the Answer to this Urgent Question, the Minister referred to the waking watch that has been put in place in all high-rise buildings with ACM cladding. In the case of social housing tower blocks, will he confirm that the significant cost over many months will be paid by the owners and not loaded on to the tenants’ rents?

My Lords, I understand that that is the position but if I am wrong, I will write to the noble Lord. The most important thing, as I say, is that the Government are determined that the safety of individuals comes first. As he knows, we have committed the £400 million to that, of which I think only £248 million has been deployed. There therefore remains a significant amount of money that will help in this process.

My Lords, I commend my noble friend the Minister for keeping us well informed on the wide-ranging progress on Grenfell. Has there been a clear conclusion as to the original cause of the fire, and are there any implications for the safety of electrical and other household goods?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend very much. The position on possible criminal charges remains outstanding, so I must be careful what I say in that regard. I do not think the cause has been established, as it were, by a court of law. My noble friend is right that there are wider considerations here, and they will certainly inform the Hackitt review on safety requirements, in which we are engaged. It is of course not just on buildings that Dame Judith has reported. We have a very wide-ranging response to the safety considerations, which will inform our process in many other areas as well.

My Lords, I want to make a general comment to the Government. Coming from a plastics manufacturing background, I was staggered to read in the newspapers that weekend that plastics were used to encase buildings. I say to the Minister: beware of experts. Based on my plastics manufacturing experience, I would have been very concerned by that. Please can the Government check on these experts?

My Lords, over the years the fire brigade has been a key factor in planning. That has changed dramatically. To what degree has the fire service been involved in looking at not just cladding but electrics—mentioned earlier—and escape methods? Can the law be changed in such a way that the fire brigade will always be brought in at the early stages of planning, when life was a safer bet?

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend’s question, which enables me to pay tribute to the public services for the great work they have done in this regard, particularly the fire brigade. It is central to the policy we are putting in place and will inform the process. I know it is involved in consultation on document B, regarding the safety of buildings, which I think remains open until 1 March. I am sure that the fire service will take part in that consultation. We have been in touch overnight about matters that have arisen and have its assurance that the building in Manchester, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is entirely safe and that the process is going forward to ensure that the cladding is removed.