Consideration of Lords message
After Clause 2
Legislative proposals relating to prohibition on passing remediation costs on to leaseholders and tenants
I beg to move,
That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 4L.
As I have said on a number of occasions at this Dispatch Box, I want to express my sincere thanks once again to all right hon. and hon. Members for engaging in this important debate. I would like to repeat the message given by my noble Friend the building safety Minister in paying tribute to the fire and rescue services across our country, because in recent days we have seen large fires in Greater Manchester and Shropshire, and they have been dealt with in an exemplary and professional manner. This is a reminder of why we want to get this Bill on to the statute book—to help fire and rescue services do their job to ensure that buildings are properly and thoroughly assessed.
All of us in this House and in the other place agree in the strongest terms that residents have the right to be and to feel safe in their homes. This Government remain steadfast in our commitment to delivering the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase 1 report’s recommendations. The Fire Safety Bill is an important first step in our legislative programme delivering these recommendations. I cannot stress enough, as I have reiterated on a number of occasions throughout the passage of this Bill, the vital importance of this legislation and the ramifications if it fails as a result of outstanding remediation amendments, and that is why I move that this House disagrees with Lords amendment 4L.
Without the Fire Safety Bill, legal ambiguity around the fire safety order will continue. Moreover, the updating of fire risk assessments to cover structure, external walls and flat entrance doors will be ignored by a number of negligent building owners, and fire and rescue services will lack the legal certainty to support enforcement decisions. That is a matter that I know will be in the minds of Members today, as it should also be in the minds of Members of the other place.
A number of Members across the House have said to me, “Well, why not simply redraft the Bill?” That might be easier to do with other legislation that already has careful cross-referencing to other Acts and already has detailed secondary legislation to revise regulations, but not so with this small but none the less important Bill. Redrafting it, even if the amendments were not defective, so that it carefully navigates the intricate web of contract law and does not fall foul of such Acts beloved of Members of this House, including many Opposition Members, such as the Human Rights Act 1998, will take considerable time, and we do not have that time.
Following our announcement in February, I am pleased to say that hundreds of thousands of leaseholders will be protected from the cost of replacing unsafe cladding on their homes as part of our five-point plan to end the cladding scandal once and for all, improve the saleability of properties and restore confidence in the housing market. The measures that we announced in February—including our work with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors to reduce the need for EWS1 forms; our work with developers to put more of their own money on the table, additional to our tax and levy plans; and our work with lenders to buy into our package of measures to ensure sensible and proportionate value is re-ascribed to homes valued at zero—will allow hundreds of thousands of homes to be sold, bought or remortgaged once again. That will provide certainty to residents and lenders, boost the housing market and reinstate the value of properties. All the amendments we have received, debated and already disposed of would simply reignite uncertainty in the market and risk lenders once again turning to leaseholders saying, “Computer says no: we can’t value your property”.
I find it somewhat ironic that Members are flagging these issues in the context of trying to impede the progress of the Bill, as having an up-to-date fire and risk assessment that considers the external wall system of a building should enable an insurer to take an informed and proportionate approach to risk that considers not only the material and construction of the building but the way in which it is managed.
I agree that leaseholders need stronger avenues for redress. The draft Building Safety Bill, which has already gone through prelegislative scrutiny, will bring forward measures to do this, including making directors, as well as companies, liable for prosecution.
I agree that the industry must also play its part. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who is in his place, our high-rise levy and developer tax will make sure that the developers with the broadest shoulders pay their way. I reiterate what I said to him yesterday about forfeiture, which is a draconian measure that should be used only as a last resort. We believe this matter should be considered as part of our wider programme of leasehold reform, which we have already indicated we will bring forward.
I also welcome my right hon. Friend’s suggestion, in yesterday’s speech, about the case study from Portishead in his constituency. As I agreed yesterday, I think we can make good use of this opportunity to assess in-depth lessons learned from the systems on the ground. Again, I am grateful to him for his proposals.
The safety of leaseholders and residents will be compromised if we do not ensure that this Bill is placed on the statute book by the end of this Session. We will not help leaseholders, nor will we make homes any safer, by impeding its passage.
Lords amendment 4L lacks clarity, just like the others. Just like the others, it prohibits all kinds of remediation costs from being passed on to leaseholders, which means that were there to be even minor costs as a result of wear and tear, or even where leaseholders themselves are responsible for the damage, they would not be expected to pay. I do not believe, and I do not believe this House believes, that that is a proportionate response.
I am grateful to the Minister, and he knows I am trying to play the ball and not the person. The question is not the small amounts but the large amounts. It is estimated that the cost of remediation may go up to £15 billion. The Government are providing £5 billion, which leaves £10 billion that may fall on the shoulders of leaseholders. We are moving from a situation that might be ironic for some, to one that is irenic for more. The point of the amendment is that it needs to be met by Government, and it needs to be met in good time, or else many people will not be able to meet the demand to pay for the cost of remediation, and forfeiture will follow. That will happen in a shorter timescale than the one talked about by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox).
I certainly accept my hon. Friend’s assurance that he is playing the issue, as he always does, and not the man. As he rightly says, we propose to spend £5.1 billion of public money on remediating the tallest buildings, as directed by the Hackitt report and its recommendations.
We have also said that as a result of our tax on the development industry, which the Chancellor will consult on imminently, we will raise a further £2 billion. We have also said that we will introduce a tall buildings levy. Developers themselves are placing more money on the table. Taylor Wimpey has now placed a further £125 million on the table for remediation, and Persimmon £75 million. The amounts are building up. We have also suggested a very advantageous financing scheme for those buildings below 18 metres that may require some remediation.
I think all Members would agree that the taxpayer should not be paying for every cost associated with the provisions of the Fire Safety Bill, but that is the risk, because the scope of the amendments that have been tabled is far too broad to provide a sensible solution. Lords amendment 4L is also unclear on who should take responsibility for remediation works until a statutory scheme is in place to pay the costs. That would result in all types of remediation being delayed—a really unsatisfactory outcome for leaseholders. Leaseholders also will not thank us for voting through an amendment that will generate lots of litigation that they may need to pay for.
The amendment would prevent the passing on of remediation costs, but it does not define what those costs are. That is a recipe for litigation and a recipe for delay. There is a lack of clarity on the definition of remedial work and what may be attributable to the provisions in this Bill, in other Acts or in none. How would Members suggest that we disaggregate the legislation under which works are carried out and the definition to differentiate between remediation, maintenance or improvement? It is a recipe for litigation and a recipe for delay.
In effect, it may not be possible to relieve leaseholders and tenants from all costs for remedial works attributable to the Bill without breaching subsidy control rules—a form of state aid. Further detailed consideration would be needed about that, too. Practically speaking, drafting legislation is, as many Members will know, a complex matter that cannot be dealt with in the timeframe proposed by the amendment, and to provide an arbitrary deadline is neither helpful nor practical.
There is a common theme uniting these points. The amendments will not work. They will not help leaseholders. They are not detailed enough for a complex and intricate problem of this nature. We have seen the key elements of this amendment time and again, and this House has voted them down time and again. Yet time and again, peers and the Opposition—unintentionally, I trust—seem set on reinjecting uncertainty into the market, which cannot help leaseholders. I respectfully ask the House to reject this amendment, so that we return a further clear and consistent message to the other place.
The Minister has made a lengthy speech on this occasion, perhaps trying to ensure that others have less time to speak. I am glad that he took an intervention from the Father of the House on this occasion—he did not do so yesterday—but unfortunately he did not answer the main point, and therefore we must conclude that the Government are content for the £10 billion of additional cost to be shouldered by leaseholders.
We find ourselves in an extraordinary position. We voted on this only yesterday, and in that debate every single speaker—the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem contributors—pleaded with the Government to support leaseholders. No one spoke in the Government’s favour, and the Government’s majority was halved in the vote. At what point does the Minister question the sense of his approach? At what point does he turn around and think, “Well, all these people who have spoken are sensible and well meaning; perhaps they have a point”? At what point does he consider that he might actually agree with us?
I suspect that the Minister has had those thoughts, and I suspect that he even agrees with us. He knows that the Bank of England is worried about a crash caused directly by the crisis. He knows that hundreds of thousands of people are suffering. But he also knows that his Chancellor and his Prime Minister do not care enough to act. They have other priorities—to their property and development donors. Fourteen separate companies and individuals with links to construction companies using potentially lethal aluminium composite material cladding on buildings have donated nearly £4 million to the Conservatives since 2006. The Prime Minister must have his new curtains, so they turn away from the screams for help from the people hit with extraordinary bills of £40,000, £50,000, £60,000, and the Minister has to bunker down, hold his nose and hold the line. I almost feel sorry for him.
Let me touch briefly on the arguments put forward by the Minister yesterday and today for not accepting these amendments. The argument that they would further delay the implementation of the Grenfell recommendations does not wash and is frankly insulting to the Grenfell survivors. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) read out Grenfell United’s condemnation of the use and abuse of the tragedy to put the blame on leaseholders. It said that the Government’s excuse that amendments to protect leaseholders would delay Grenfell recommendations is “deeply upsetting”, “wrong”,
“and shows they’d rather protect the corporates responsible from paying for the mess they created.”
That argument against delaying the Bill was put to us time and again when we were trying to make amendments to implement the Grenfell inquiry recommendations. On Report, the Minister for Security, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), said that accepting our amendment to implement the Grenfell inquiry phase 1 recommendations would “create uncertainty”. The Minister for Crime and Policing, the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), later said:
“It is not helpful, I have to say, for the House to keep returning to this issue.”—[Official Report, 24 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 950.]
He added that it causes “confusion”. However, after continually voting against our amendments, the Government eventually gave in and made the concession in the other place. It was possible then, even after months of their saying it was not, and it is possible now.
The Housing Minister has the audacity to imply that the supposed delays from new amendments would mean that people were less safe, as if people are not already unsafe living in buildings riddled with fire safety issues. Has he forgotten that hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country are already stuck in unsafe buildings? I say to him again today: 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 now? Labour’s amendment would buy the Government time. It would protect leaseholders while the Government came up with a longer-term plan.
As Lord Kennedy of Southwark said yesterday in the other place, it is unusual to be here again so soon, but this is an unprecedented crisis and the Government should be taking unprecedented measures to sort it out. The Government know that hundreds of thousands of people are being forced to pay to fix fire safety issues that were not their fault. The Government should pay and then go after the building companies and developers who are responsible. Most MPs agree: 95% of all MPs, and 92% of Tory MPs, said that the developers who built the flats should pay to make them safe.
The tragedy is that we know that, at some point, the Government are going to have to act to fix this problem. We know that they cannot leave leaseholders to foot a £10 billion bill. Yet yesterday, many Conservative Members voted against an amendment that would have protected leaseholders. What will they do today? Will they keep voting against their conscience, against their opinions, against the will of their constituents, or will they do the right thing and vote to protect leaseholders?
First, I have agreed with pretty much everything that the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) has said in these debates over the last few weeks, but I disagree fundamentally with her bringing into it this political trope that the reason the Government will not act is that they are all in the pocket of the developers. That does not help this debate, it does not help us move it forward, and it does not help the leaseholders to keep putting in their minds that there is some sort of conspiracy. I agree with the hon. Lady on almost everything, but certainly not on that.
In yesterday’s debate, the Minister said—this was repeated just a few moments ago from the Dispatch Box—that
“all of us in this House agree that residents deserve to be safe, and to feel safe, in their homes.”—[Official Report, 27 April 2021; Vol. 693, c. 264.]
He is correct. We all agree on that. I think we all agree —at least, the Government, from the Prime Minister down have repeatedly said they agree—that leaseholders should not have to pay for historical fire defects.
The Minister reminded us that this Bill was introduced over a year ago. May I remind him that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) tabled the “McPartland-Smith amendment” nearly five months ago? The Minister has repeatedly suggested that our amendments are defective, and he has done so again today, but in five months the Government have done nothing to take our well-intentioned amendment and incorporate it in the Bill. We have less than 48 hours until the end of this parliamentary Session. If the Government and Minister agree that innocent leaseholders should not pay, and if they are now concerned that they have run out of time, should they not have attempted a compromise in the five months since we tabled our amendment?
Noble Lords from the other place have now done the Government’s work for them. They have found a mechanism to save the Fire Safety Bill—which we all want, incidentally—and, at the same time, to insert a requirement for the Government to protect leaseholders from the crippling charges for defects that are not of their making. I cannot repeat this enough—this is not of their making. We have repeatedly asked the Government to compromise, but they have not done so. This amendment allows them to do so now, even at the eleventh hour, and finally secure the future of the Bill and protect those who have been begging the Government for help.
I will support the Lords amendment today, and I hope that the Government and my colleagues on the Government Benches will do so. If they are serious about protecting innocent leaseholders and securing the Bill, they will agree to the Lords amendment or table their own in the other place before the end of the parliamentary Session. I think everyone knows that it is time to take the compromise.
The Minister knows that this problem is not going to go away. Whether it is the Fire Safety Bill today or in the Building Safety Bill, we will keep returning to this. He knows that because what has been done so far is insufficient. He knows it because, as things stand, the length of time it is likely to take to sort this out will be too long for many leaseholders to be able to continue to bear the costs that they are paying at the moment and to contemplate the future costs that hang over them. And the Government know it because, as they said right at the beginning of this crisis—we intend to hold them to this promise—it is not right that leaseholders should be asked to bear the costs of something they were not responsible for.
I really do not understand the Minister’s argument. The uncertainty is not caused by our voting for the Lords amendments; it is the unresolved problem that is causing huge uncertainty. As for his point about drafting complexity, he should give a commitment to go away and draft something and bring it back in the Building Safety Bill, because either his view is that it is complex and no one has drafted anything suitable yet—so go away and draft it—or it is simply a way of trying to resist the idea that leaseholders should not have to pay.
In the meantime, I have a practical suggestion to make. All those involved, including MPs, spend a lot of time going back and forth about practical problems in respect of blocks, difficulties, delays, a lack of communication and so forth. I have had to use parliamentary questions to try to find out what has been happening in respect of applications to the building safety fund for particular blocks in my constituency. I have to say, the replies I have received have been distinctly unhelpful.
A very large range of people is involved: leaseholders of course, freeholders, the fire service, managing agents, building companies, developers, chartered surveyors, local authorities, mortgage lenders, insurance companies, and the Minister’s Department. I know that Ministers and officials meet individual groups and organisations regularly, but I think there would be great merit in bringing together representatives of all these groups to establish what we can call a contact group or an action group, so that the Minister and his officials can sit around a table on a regular basis to share information about what is happening and to progress-chase, iron out problems, test out ideas and find answers to the problems for which there is as yet no plan, but which my constituents in Leeds have to live with each and every day and which weigh so heavily upon them, their lives and their sense of whether there is a future that they can look forward to, because, as things stand, there is not one. I really hope that Ministers will take up the idea and finally acknowledge that only a comprehensive plan is going to bring this nightmare to an end.
Again, we all want the same thing. We want the protection of leaseholders from bills that they cannot afford and should not have been given; we want the protection of taxpayers from a burden that they should not have to carry; and we want the application of the “polluter pays” principle, so that the developers, insurers and builders who are responsible for the problems in the first place are the ones who have to pay the costs of remediation. All of that has become perfectly clear during our various debates on the matter.
I welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) said yesterday and today about establishing a study on the ground—similar, in some ways, to that which the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) just mentioned—that would make it possible to talk to real people about real bills, and about why the huge sum of taxpayers’ money that has been set aside is not getting through to them. What rate-limiting steps, and what problems with bureaucracy and the timescales that have been set, make it impossible for that money to get to the people who need it? I very much welcome that idea. I hope that the timescale will be short and the Minister will be able to share the lessons learned with all Members.
Today, the Minister has edged us towards the necessary compromise. If we are willing to make it clear in the Queen’s Speech that leasehold reform will deal with forfeiture, that will remove one of the biggest fears. As the Father of the House said, what about the potential for forfeiture to occur during the time before the passing of that legislation? That does need to be dealt with. If I may say so, my hon. Friend the Minister was clearer about that today than he was yesterday, and that is hugely to be welcomed. I have always thought that the idea that we could not say what would be in the Queen’s Speech sat a bit oddly with the fact that we can read what will be in the Budget three days before it actually happens.
I also welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister said about the scope of the Building Safety Bill and the ability to set out in it the concept of apportionment, which will be a major element. I hope that if we can take these concepts forward in the other place, we might reach a solution to this problem. It seems to me that the building blocks of a solution are there.
As my hon. Friend and Members from all parts of the House have said, we all want certainty, so that lenders can lend, property values can stabilise and homeowners—the very people my party wants to encourage—can sleep soundly in their beds once again, as they have a right to do.
I, too, rise to support the Lords amendment. The amendment is simple; it protects leaseholders and prevents them from being charged crippling, life-changingly colossal bills to make safe properties that are unsafe only because of the actions of developers and a lack of Government regulation.
Here we are: the Government have played to the final whistle, and they are down by the corner flag keeping ball and feigning cramp in the hope that the final whistle will go and we will all move on. Let me be clear. I assure the Minister—and, more importantly, I encourage anxious and distressed leaseholders—that we will not give up. We will not troop off the field, not to play again, once the 90 minutes are up. We will come back next Session and fight the corner of leaseholders who currently face bills that they can never, ever hope to be able to afford, and that are not theirs to pay in the first place.
As has been mentioned, the Government’s stance on this issue sets out starkly whose side they are on. They are on the side of the wealthy developers, some of whom fund their party. They are on the side of negligent officials who allowed this to happen. They are not on the side of those who are working hard to afford a roof above their heads. This is a Britain, it would appear, where innocent householders have to pay to remove dangerous cladding while somebody else pays for the Prime Minister’s new curtains. We believe in a better Britain where there is justice, not crushing, undeserved debt. If we do not win today, then, for the sake of leaseholders across this country, we will be back.
So, here we are again debating the Fire Safety Bill and the Lords amendments to it. The key issue here is not whether we enshrine in law the requirements on fire safety but who ends up paying for them. The reality is, as the Father of the House mentioned, that the £5.1 billion offered by the Government thus far will be insufficient to cover the remediation and fire safety costs identified not only in tall buildings but in lower buildings as well. The key issue, then, is that it is going to take some five years for the work to be carried out, and that leaseholders are receiving bills now of £50,000 or more in order for the work to be carried out. They can ill afford it.
The Government are committed to producing the Building Safety Bill, but we know that it will be announced in the Queen’s Speech and that it will probably take 18 months to two years before it is live and operational. Leaseholders do not have the luxury of that time. They are being charged the money right now. We still do not know the details of the forced loan scheme that the Government are offering for leaseholders in buildings below six storeys. We have been asking to scrutinise it, so we can see whether it is fit for purpose or whether it will even work.
I have had the honour and privilege of serving on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee for the past 11 years. We are publishing a report on cladding and the other issues tomorrow. Obviously I am not allowed to pre-disclose the details, but it is fair to say that we are critical of the way in which the Government are approaching this necessary means. I urge the Minister for Housing, who is a good friend for whom I have every respect, to let us have some commitments from the Front Bench in his answer to this debate, and to tell us what he will do to ensure that leaseholders are prevented from having to bear these unnecessary and unacceptable costs. Let us also have some commitments on when we will see the proposed forced loan scheme. Let us have some commitments on when we can expect to see the Building Safety Bill brought into operation, and some overall commitment to ensure that people living in unmortgageable, unsaleable flats are given appropriate comfort, because, frankly, without that, we will have to support the Lords amendment to ensure that the Government come back with these proposals early in the new Session.
Let us make sure that we send the message to leaseholders out there: you should not have to pay a penny piece to rectify the problems that are not your fault in the first place. I shall be supporting the Lords amendment once again today.
This Bill has been passing backwards and forwards between the Lords and Commons because the Government will not do the right thing and protect leaseholders from the ruinous costs of replacing cladding and remediating internal fire safety defects during construction. By refusing to do so, the Government are making liars out of all the successive Ministers—and, indeed, a Prime Minister—who have told this House that leaseholders should not pay for building defects for which they are not responsible.
Today I want to focus on the impact of the EWS1 regulations and the callous way in which another operator, FirstPort, is treating vulnerable residents in Blackberry Court in my constituency. FirstPort has written to the 27 leaseholders in Blackberry Court, which is a two-storey block of flats, to advise them that the fire safety work will cost more than £20,000. It has not provided a breakdown of costs or issued a section 20 notice, as it is legally obliged to do for any work costing more than £250 per leaseholder. What is most disturbing, however, is that FirstPort has been demanding access to the roof void through the only loft hatch, which is located in the bedroom of my constituent, who is an elderly lady of 94 years of age. FirstPort would brook no objection to this until I intervened to forestall this intrusion and asked it to create new access to the roof void from the common parts of the building. But the fact that it had not yet been able to access the void to survey it means that it must already have been aware that there was no compartmentation in the roof space. Indeed, I have discovered that Blackberry Court, which was built in 2007, never got a completion certificate, despite being covered by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. That prompts the question of why the company had not acted on this fire safety defect before. Some may suspect that the properties were unsaleable and devalued—unless the work was done—because of the EWS1 form. The Government did change the requirements on the form, but the Minister knows that the banks and the mortgage lenders have not changed their stance, nor have the insurers.
Charitably, EWS1 forms are the Government’s attempt to force a proper assessment of fire safety defects. Less charitably, they appear to be an attempt to outsource the crucial work of assessing dangerous buildings after Grenfell Tower to an unregulated private market. Currently, there is no requirement for a surveyor to hold the minimum qualification—professional registration or certification as to their competence—and nothing to ensure a uniform approach as to how inspectors carry out checks. This means that, in some cases, different EWS1 ratings are being given for the same block.
According to Government statistics, there are around 88,000 residential buildings taller than 11 metres in England, containing 1.2 million leasehold homes. The Government have said that there are currently just 212 chartered fire engineers across the UK registered with the Institution of Fire Engineers. This means that getting an EWS1 form is nigh on impossible, and, in the meantime, leaseholders are left in economic limbo, unable to sell or to move on with their lives. My constituent, at the age 94, simply wants to live out her life in peace and safety in the flat that she bought more than a decade ago. The Government’s refusal—
I shall be supporting Lords amendment 4L today with some regret, because I wish the Government had moved to resolve this issue since we last debated it yesterday; it is disappointing that they have not done so. I support the amendment on the basis that I want the Fire Safety Bill to proceed; I want it to be successful. The truth is that, while the fundamental elements of the Bill are worthy, it none the less has, at present, the effect of causing collateral damage to innocent leaseholders. That flies in the face of undertakings that the Government themselves have regularly given. Despite the huge sums of money that has been put in, as is already apparent, it is not enough.
In the meantime, we need to have a scheme that protects leaseholders, and it is the absence of a provision in the Bill to do that which is the problem. If Lords amendment 4L is not satisfactory to the Government, then there is still time for them to produce their own. I very much hoped that the Government would have acted on the proposals in the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) yesterday. That still offers a way forward, but absent that, at least the current amendment from the Lords gives the means of protection in the interim.
At the present time, leaseholders in blocks, such as Northpoint in my constituency, have properties that are unmortgageable. They cannot move. They cannot raise any more money on them. They have already expended tens of thousands of pounds in costs relating to waking watch and greatly increased insurance claims. That is not satisfactory.
We need a provision that bridges the gap in getting those responsible to pay. None of us who supports this amendment wants the taxpayer to be picking up a blank cheque. We want those who are responsible, who were at fault, ultimately to pick up the tab, but it will take some time to pin the financial responsibility on those people. In the interim, we must have a means of protecting the innocent leaseholders. That bridging arrangement is something that only the Government are able to do. I would have hoped that accepting that, together with commitments to move swiftly in legislation in this Queen’s Speech, was not an unreasonable thing to do.
Having served as a Minister myself, I do not buy the proposition that it is beyond the resources of Government to swiftly produce legislation that remedies the alleged defect that the Minister sees in the current amendment and sets the Bill in good order. There is still time to do that. I beseech the Minister to reflect on this and to come back with the Government’s own proposals in the other House before the end of this Session.
Robustness is a virtue, but when it turns into obduracy it ceases to be a virtue. I do not want the Government to get themselves into that situation. There is still time, and this amendment buys them time to resolve that satisfactorily. I urge the Minister profoundly to listen to this.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). I agree wholeheartedly with what he said, and indeed with the comments made from the Front Bench by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) and by many other Members across the House. I also support the Lords amendment, not least because of the suffering undergone by my constituents in Cardiff South and Penarth and by many others across the UK.
The Minister talked about uncertainty, but as many Members have pointed out, uncertainty is being caused by the Government’s failure to engage with reasonable proposals made from all parts of the House to provide certainty for the very leaseholders who have been affected.
The Minister’s arguments simply do not wash. Our leaseholders have been dealing with this matter for years—the anxiety, the stress and the financial pressure, not least during the covid pandemic over the past year. That has been intolerable for some of them, and I have met constituents who were crying and in a terrible state because of the situation they have been left in. I simply cannot understand the Government’s continued resistance, not least given the cross-party pressure and support.
I thank the Welsh Government—Housing Minister Julie James, my colleague Vaughan Gething and so many others—for meeting with leaseholders in my constituency. They have put pressure on developers and made a commitment to £32 million in the recent budget, and have already committed £10 million. They have an active programme on leasehold reform and, crucially, are making it clear, which the Government here seem unwilling to do, that leaseholders should not have to foot the bill for fixing these fire safety and building safety defects.
We all want the developers to pay and we all want the resources to come through, but the reality is that we all have to stand up and say clearly, once and for all, that leaseholders should not be the ones paying for the remediation. This is not their fault. I will continue to work closely on the issue with my constituency colleague Vaughan Gething, our local councillors, and a range of residents and leaseholder organisations. We are not going away. Some of the stories of how people have been affected have been told passionately today on BBC Wales—the suffering, the anxiety, the pressures.
I am yet to receive adequate response from the UK Government, who have left the Welsh Government and Welsh leaseholders in the dark on the way forward. There is no need for that unless there is something to hide. As the Minister knows, Welsh Government officials have worked constructively with his Department on the passage of the Bill, and are working on a range of issues relating to the building safety Bill, yet it took the Housing Secretary more than a month to respond to the Welsh Housing Minister on the crucial, very reasonable questions she was asking in an offer of co-operation.
I have raised this matter with the Secretary of State for Wales, the Minister and others, yet the letter that came back from the Housing Secretary over a month later said he is
“not able to confirm the details and timing of budgetary allocations to Wales”,
although he says the Barnett formula will
“apply to that funding in the usual way”.
Why can he not give a clear and unequivocal answer about the money that will be available to Wales, and how the Government will work with Welsh officials on the proposed new tax and the new building levy so that we can finally provide some assurance to leaseholders in my constituency and, crucially, across the country?
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and all the Members who have spoken since the Minister sat down.
Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have said in the House and in the other place on many occasions that leaseholders would not have to pay for fire safety failures not of their making, so why do the Government still disagree with the Lords amendment? The Minister said yesterday and just now that the Government do not have time to draft appropriate amendments to the Bill in the way we seek, yet they have had seven months since Second Reading and five months since Third Reading—plenty of time to try to sort this out.
The safety scandal exposed by the Grenfell Tower fire affects up to 1.3 million flats. Current leaseholders cannot sell, and potential leaseholders cannot get new mortgages until they can prove the homes are safe. Insurance is impossible to come by. Worse, residents of those flats live with the fear of being trapped by a fire in their home. Leaseholders live with the fear of unaffordable costs for the remediation being imposed on them.
The human cost is incalculable. In my constituency alone, at the Paragon estate, built by Berkeley, about 70 homeowners, along with hundreds of assured tenants and students, were evacuated with a week’s notice and cannot return. A fire raged up the cladding of Sperry House in the middle of the Great West Quarter estate built by Barratt Homes. Leaseholders in at least 25 blocks in my constituency that were built by volume house developers face unknown costs, including for waking watch, for the replacement of flammable cladding and wooden balconies and, most expensive of all, to address the lack of fire breaks or proper compartmentalisation.
The building safety fund does not even cover the cost of cladding remediation throughout the country, let alone any of the other failures in these buildings, and it provides loans only for sub-18-metre blocks. Nor does it support housing associations with the cost of rectifying the safety failures that affect the social rented flats for which they have found themselves responsible through planning gain, so they are having to take the repair costs from the funds meant for the building of new social rented housing.
Unamended, the Bill will mean that leaseholders will be forced to pay. They should not have to pay—they did not design or build their flats and they do not own the building their flat is built in. This Parliament, with the support of this Government, could take the burden from leaseholders now, but instead we are told that we have to wait for a different Bill, the content of which is unspecified, as is its timetable. That is unacceptable.
We have heard a lot recently about the Prime Minister’s honesty and integrity. It is important to our democracy that people can trust the word of their leaders, but this debate highlights that issue yet again. As I reminded the House yesterday, on 3 February the Prime Minister told us 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.]
It was a clear statement of policy—an unambiguous pledge to those who face ruin as a result of fire defects that are the responsibility of developers. Yet the Prime Minister has consistently whipped his Members to oppose amendments to the Bill that would honour his pledge.
I have listened carefully to the justifications from Ministers for opposing the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and by the Bishop of St Albans, and we heard them again yesterday. The Minister described the amendments as “laudable in their intentions” but
“unworkable and an inappropriate means to resolve a problem as highly complex as this.”—[Official Report, 27 April 2021; Vol. 693, c. 264-265.]
His ministerial colleague in the other place, the Minister for Building Safety and Communities, said that it was
“the Government’s view that the Bill is not the right legislation in which to deal with remediation costs.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 April 2021; Vol. 811, c. 2207.]
So, they are not the right amendments and it is not the right legislation.
Surely the Government should embrace the new Lords amendment, because it gives them the opportunity to draft their own proposals in separate legislation and to honour the Prime Minister’s promise to leaseholders. The Minister claimed today that it will take time; the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) rightly pointed out that they have had time. It has been five months since the hon. Gentleman tabled his amendment and three months since the Prime Minister’s promise: if the Minister genuinely felt that the objectives were laudable, he has had time to come up with his own proposals. Those in the Metis building, Wicker Riverside, Daisy Spring Works and other buildings throughout my constituency deserve nothing less, because they face bills of up to £50,000 each to fix the mistakes of others. Unlike the Prime Minister, they do not have access to private donors. They face bankruptcy and ruin, trapped in homes that are unsafe and unsaleable, facing unbearable pressure and unimaginable mental strain.
We have to recognise our responsibility. The leaseholders have been let down by not just the developers but a flawed system of building inspections. They are—as I know Ministers recognise—the victims of comprehensive regulatory failure. The Government have to step in, urgently fix the faults and then recover the funds from those responsible—
Order. Again, I have allowed considerable leeway, but the hon. Gentleman has had his time. I do not understand: when people are speaking from home, can they not see the time limit? I think that might well be the case, so perhaps someone will send a message back. Here in the Chamber we can see the time limit and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I allowed him to exceed it.
I had put on a tight time limit because I had anticipated some vigorous debate and interventions; there has not been a single intervention, which leaves plenty of time for the Minister to respond to the debate.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for that opportunity. I am sorry that I have, unfortunately, interposed on the time that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) might otherwise have supposed to be his own; he was making a careful and passionate speech, as have the other nine right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken from the Back Benches today. I am grateful for their insight and considered contributions. I remind them and both Houses that the Government understand the aims that underpin the objectives that have been sent to us over the last several weeks by the House of Lords.
Let me address some of the points made in the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) made a typically powerful and helpful speech. I agree with him that we want to help people get on to the housing ladder; that is a good Conservative principle. We also want to help them to stay on the housing ladder, which is why we brought forward a package of measures that we believe—and the lending sector tells us—will ensure that proper and sensible value can be reascribed to properties so that people can get on with their lives.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) asked a number of questions, including when the Building Safety Bill will be brought forward. My noble Friend the Building Safety Minister is working on the feedback from the pre-legislative scrutiny process, and is considering the secondary legislation that must sit alongside the primary legislation. He will bring that Bill forward as quickly as may be in the next Session. My hon. Friend also asked about the speed with which we will bring forward our tax on developers. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will begin his consultation on that process imminently.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) has been an honourable and doughty campaigner in his cause over the last several months. He asked why the Government did not bring forward proposals earlier. The amendments that we received from the Lords, and indeed the amendment that for many months stood in his name, were defective. That is why we were not able to accept them and it is why we are not able to accept this particular amendment.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), made a number of points. I will not dignify the slur that she made on the integrity of the Conservative party and our commitment to this cause, other than to remind her that any party that is owned lock, stock and barrel by the trade unions and that has within it such luminaries as Tony Blair and Lord Mandelson—gentlemen not unknown to the lobbying industry—should be very careful about throwing mud, because mud tends to stick on those who throw it.
One of the points that the shadow Minister made, which was also raised in the speech yesterday of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), concerned why the Grenfell phase 1 recommendations might be delayed if the Fire Safety Bill does not reach the statute book in this Session. I remind my hon. Friend and the shadow Minister that the Fire Safety Bill puts beyond legal doubt that the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies to external walls and flat entrance doors in multi-occupied residential dwellings. That certainty will enable the Secretary of State to make regulations, with reduced risk of legal challenge, to place duties on the responsible persons regarding external wall structure and flat entrance doors, as the inquiry recommended. Without this Bill on the statute book, there would be significant legal risks to the Secretary of State making such orders. It is vital that this Bill is placed on the statute book in order for us to use article 24 of the fire safety order to advance the recommendations of the Grenfell inquiry.
I want to place on record, once again, that this Government are committed to protecting leaseholders and tenants from the costs of remediation as far as possible. This democratically elected House has voted unequivocally and decisively on four occasions. Shortly, we will be asked to vote for a fifth time. I urge the House to vote to reject these Lords amendments and I urge their lordships to listen to the will of this democratically elected House.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Would it be within the Standing Orders of this House for the Government, if they chose to, to propose a carry-over motion, so that the Bill would not be lost as this Session comes to an end and the Government could then improve the amendment, which keeps coming back, quite rightly, from the House of Lords?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As ever, his experience shows in the idea that has occurred to him. I do not know whether that idea has occurred to the Government. I do not know whether, if it has occurred to the Government, they have decided to pursue it or not. Actually, I do know that: if the idea has occurred to the Government, they have decided not to pursue it. Therefore, it is not a matter for me to decide what ought to happen, nor a matter for the Chair. It is up to the Government to decide how they take this matter past this rather difficult and unusual point, where the other place has sent a Bill back on several occasions. I expect that, like me, the hon. Gentleman eagerly anticipates the outcome of this Division and then we shall see what will happen next.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 4L.
Lords amendment 4L 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.
As a point of clarification on the point of order raised just before the Division by the Father of the House—he will appreciate that I have now had the opportunity to consider his point more carefully—a Bill cannot, in fact, be carried over after it has been considered by the other place. I hope that that sets the mind of the Father of the House at rest about what the Government can and cannot properly do at this particular moment.
Motion made and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H(2)), That a Committee be appointed to draw up a Reason to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their Amendment 4L.
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.—(Alan Mak.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Further to a point raised at Scottish questions today, the Auditor General in Scotland has suggested that, of £9.7 billion allocated by UK taxpayers through the UK Treasury, only £7 billion had been spent on covid-related measures by the Scottish Government by the end of 2020. This is not discretionary spending that can be diverted to other causes, such as setting money aside for a referendum, but is specifically allocated to ensure that all parts of the UK are equally able to deal with the consequences of the pandemic. Given the nature and origin of this funding, can you give me any guidance as to which Committees of the House of Commons would be the most appropriate place to investigate where this money has gone?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. If he were seeking to further the exchanges that took place during Scottish questions, his point would not, strictly speaking, be a point of order for the Chair, but I appreciate that he is asking a serious question about a serious matter. I can point him in the direction of the Public Accounts Committee, which is concerned with the regularity of spending; the Scottish Affairs Committee, which deals with non-devolved Scottish matters; and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is concerned with the operation of the devolution settlement. In pursuing the question that he raised, he might wish to take the matter up with the Chairman of one or other—or, indeed, all—of those three Select Committees.
On a point of order, I am grateful for your clarification of the situation on the Fire Safety Bill, which is what I suspected it might be. It is obvious that the House of Commons has the opportunity of a carry-over motion only when dealing with business that is in front of it, and the other place has procedures that are similar but not exactly the same. There seems to be no precedent for what happens to a Bill that has been in both Houses, and that may be something that could properly be considered by the Speakers or the Procedure Committees of each House. In this particular case, as a carry-over motion is not possible, were the House of Lords to go on sending back helpful amendments and this Bill were to fail, if it were re-presented with the problem of the future burdens for leaseholders solved, it could pass both Houses within a day.
The Father of the House raises a most interesting point. He is right in saying that if the Bill were now to fail, a similar Bill with similar purposes could be brought forward by the Government in the next Session of Parliament. As to whether it could pass quickly through both Houses, or either House, is, as ever, a matter for Members of this House and, indeed, of the other place. If Members choose to make very short contributions and allow a Bill to pass through quickly, and if the Government choose to put all stages of a Bill in one day before this House and, indeed, the other place, the House of Commons as a whole and the Government could make those decisions, and it is not for me to anticipate what might happen. I thank the Father of the House for his second interesting point of order.
I am obliged to suspend the House for three minutes to allow arrangements to be made for the next item of business.