4M: Because the issue of remediation costs is too complex to be dealt with in the manner proposed.
My Lords, I express my thanks once again to everyone for their contributions to this important debate. The other place has now consistently voted against four different amendments on the issue of remediation. It is a vital issue but it is not for this Bill. This House has a choice about whether to prioritise finalising this important Bill or to delay it to the point where it falls.
The Government’s position on the Fire Safety Bill has not changed. I will repeat our key points. We are all in agreement about the importance of getting the Fire Safety Bill on the statute book. Residents have a right to be safe and feel safe in their homes. As I have said repeatedly, without this Bill the legal ambiguity around the fire safety order will continue.
Let me be clear about what is at stake if we do not resolve this: responsible persons for multi-occupied residential buildings will be able to continue to argue that it is lawful to ignore the fire safety risk of the structure, external walls and flat entrance doors; and fire and rescue services will lack the legal certainty to support enforcement decisions taken to keep people safe.
Failure to get this Bill to the statute book will lead to a delay in delivering the Grenfell recommendations. This is not a political point. This Bill must come first as it provides the legal certainty that I have just referred to. That certainty will enable the Secretary of State to make regulations with reduced risk of challenge to place duties on responsible persons in relation to the external wall structure and flat entrance doors, as the inquiry recommended.
It might help the House if I provided an example. The inquiry recommended a frequency of checks on fire safety doors, including flat entrance doors and communal fire doors. That cannot be done easily and in a way that is relatively free from legal risk if we have not identified that flat entrance doors are within the scope of the fire safety order. Equally, enforcing authorities would not be able to take appropriate action in this regard.
I thank your Lordships for recognising the substantial government support—to the tune of £5.1 billion—for leaseholders for remediation of unsafe cladding. Our five-point plan to bring an end to this cladding crisis helps provide certainty to the housing market. Noble Lords yesterday raised some points about uncertainty in the housing market and about the concerns of lenders and insurers. Our five-point plan addresses these.
More needs to be done to ensure that those responsible for fire safety defects should contribute to paying the costs of remediation. Industry must play its part and pay its way, and through our high-rise levy and developer tax we will make sure that developers with the broadest shoulders pay their contribution.
I agree that leaseholders need stronger avenues for redress and I made that clear yesterday. The building safety Bill will bring forward measures to do this, including making directors as well as companies liable for prosecution. We are bringing about the biggest changes in a generation to the system through the building safety Bill.
Finally, I reiterate the comments I made yesterday about forfeiture. It is a draconian measure that should be used only as a last resort. This measure should be considered as part of our wider programme on leasehold reform. I beg to move.
Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)
My Lords, I first draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, a non-executive director of MHS Homes Ltd and chair of the Heart of Medway Housing Association.
It is disappointing and frankly outrageous that the Government are doing nothing and not delivering on their promises to the innocent victims of the cladding scandal. The noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, has gone through various points. He said that the other place had consistently voted against our amendments. That is a matter of much personal regret. Most Members of the governing party do not seem to recognise the plight of the innocent victims in this scandal.
What also irritates me about this issue is the point made by my noble friend Lord Adonis. The Government are now saying, “Well, of course, the Session finishes tomorrow and we need to get the Bill on the books”. The fact is that the Government, when the House of Commons rejected our amendments some weeks ago, left them sitting there and did not bring them here. They could have done so and I do not know whether that was deliberate or incompetent. The fact is that the amendments just sat there and were not brought here. For the Government then to claim, “We cannot go any further because of where we are” is irritating, to say the least.
It is fair to say that one could never accuse this Government of acting in haste when it comes to the Grenfell Tower inquiry recommendations. This is the first piece of legislation since the fire happened four years ago this summer. The Government have not acted in haste at all. The noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, is right: I want to see the people who built defective buildings and put cladding on improperly pay. I do not want to see the innocent victims pay. I also want the companies that provided insurance honour it. They were clearly happy to provide the insurance and they should pay up. I also want to see the professionals who signed the buildings off and who pay for their professional indemnity insurance, come forward, recognise and be held to account for what they have done.
It is even more outrageous when one considers what our Prime Minister—the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom—been saying for the past 18 months. I shall remind the House of one or two of his quotes—not all because there are loads of them. There are many examples and I suggest that noble Lords, particularly those on the Government Benches, would do well to reflect on some of those comments, read what he said, think about them and consider what they will do in terms of the how they are being whipped to vote. The PM said on 30 October 2019:
“I know that progress is not as fast I should like, but I am pleased to say that all such buildings owned by central and local government have now had their cladding removed, are undergoing work to remove it, or, at the very least, have such work scheduled. In the private sector, progress is slower, and too many building owners have not acted responsibly.”—[Official Report, Commons, 30/10/19; col. 379.]
He also said:
“My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to this injustice and what is happening with leaseholders at the moment. That is why we have put £1.6 billion into removing unsafe cladding. I do not want to see leaseholders being forced to pay for the remediation, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we are looking now urgently—before the expiry of the current arrangements—at what we can do to take them forward and support leaseholders, who are in a very unfair position.”—[Official Report, Commons, 9/12/20; col. 842.]
That was the Prime Minister on 9 December 2020. He subsequently said:
“We are determined 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, Commons, 3/2/21; col. 945.]
Everyone would agree with that. That was the reply of the Prime Minister to the Leader of the Opposition on 3 February this year. That is just three quotes but there are many others that noble Lords should look at. Those are the quotes but we then come back to the reality of where we are, which is something different, is it not? It goes on and on.
What is shocking for me is that whenever the Government are provided with the means, through the Fire Safety Bill, to do what they promised—what the Prime Minister promised—they vote against it. We get excuse after excuse after excuse from the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, or at the other end about why the Prime Minister cannot do this and why the Government cannot deliver on their promises.
Frankly, some of these excuses are feeble. “It’s not the right Bill” is regularly trotted out. I have been in this House for 11 years and have seen some absolutely dreadful Bills from the Government. Look at the dreaded Housing and Planning Act: appalling legislation, poorly put together on the back of a cigarette packet and pushed forward by then Prime Minister David Cameron, only to be dumped virtually completely by Theresa May when she assumed office. Or the useless Fixed-term Parliaments Act that proved totally pointless and delivered nothing. Or the ridiculous decision not to go for higher building standards to make homes carbon-neutral, only to completely reverse the position a couple of years later and actually want to do that. Or the rogue landlords database that the Government repeatedly refused to let the public have access to, only then to change their mind but say, “We’re really sorry but we can’t find the time to actually make the change.”
I fully respect the conventions of this House and the primacy of the other place, but that does not prevent us keeping on raising this scandal and speaking up for the innocent victims—the people who play by the rules, pay their taxes, pay their council tax, go to work, work hard and expect better from their Government. They are not getting that today.
This issue will not go away. In this House and the other place we will confront the Government with the reality of their absurd position. With the victims of this scandal, we will force the Government to honour their promises and pledges. People in this country have had their eyes opened to the actions of the Prime Minister and his Government, and they are not going to be fooled by all the pledges, promises and desire to do things when they actually do nothing. Yes, we have finally found them out. The country has found them out. I beg to move.
My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a member of Kirklees Council.
Throughout the course of this Bill, I have said that I support its contents and purpose. I cannot support the unintended consequences that will have a devastating impact on individual leaseholders and a very damaging effect on the housing market. Those are the reasons for my asking again for the Government to take responsibility for the consequences of this Bill, which despite the Minister’s best efforts has been totally underwhelming so far. Promises have been made by the Government and not kept.
The Government’s response to date is to provide grant funding of £5 billion while knowing that the total cost is estimated at £16 billion. The grant includes only blocks over 18 metres and only removes the flammable cladding. For those in lower blocks, there is the prospect of paying up to £50 per month for years to come.
Conveniently, the Government fail to take into account the non-cladding issues that are a result of construction failure of immense proportions. These non-cladding issues are the ones that will finally push individuals over the edge. Meanwhile, those who have literally built this catastrophe walk away with their billions of profit. The Government have a duty to protect their citizens—it is their prime duty—yet here we are today with perhaps a million of our fellow citizens being thrown to the ravages of financial bankruptcy, and the Government wash their hands and look the other way.
The Government will argue that the Bill is a vital response to the Grenfell tragedy. It is so vital that it has taken four years to get to the statute book. The Bill’s purpose is to include external walls, doors and balconies in the fire safety order of 2005, so that action is taken to protect people from another Grenfell tragedy. However, a Bill is not now needed to force action to remove cladding; that is happening. It is not needed to get fire alarms put in; that is happening. Those who own the buildings, and those who are leaseholders and tenants, already know that action has to be taken to make their buildings safe. It is no longer urgently necessary to get legislation to force the issue and it is no longer possible to force construction firms to take the necessary action; there is not capacity to do so. If, though, the Bill does fall, this provides a breathing space for the Government to develop a package of further measures that will protect the interests of leaseholders and save them from penury.
The amendment in my name seeks to achieve that breathing space. It is based on the original one in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and has been adjusted to include the various very valid points that have been made during the passage of the Bill. We must all recognise that passing this Bill will not magic away the crisis that individual leaseholders are facing. It will not remedy the construction scandal. It will not provide stability for a foundering housing market. It will be the beginning of a scandal of individual bankruptcies, homelessness, intense stress and mental illness. It will become a public scandal and I for one will at least have on my conscience that I have done all in my power to prevent it. Leaseholders have done everything right and nothing wrong. Liberal Democrats will stand by them. I give notice that I wish to test the opinion of the House on the amendment in my name.
My Lords, as we seem to be in the last chance saloon, I will try not to repeat myself too much, but declare my interests as both a property professional and a vice-president of the LGA. As I said yesterday, the House seems to be presented by the Government with a choice. On the one hand is the evident desirability of implementing fire safety measures in pursuance of the valuable recommendations in the report by Dame Judith Hackitt into the Grenfell tragedy, plus a partial solution to some of the effects of cladding replacement on a limited class of taller buildings, as we have heard. On the other is what I am afraid I must describe as the effective hanging out to dry of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other home owners. It should not be a question of either/or in dealing with a growing and pressing social and economic disaster. I too support improved fire safety, but not on the basis of creating further untold, and probably unquantified, problems.
Yesterday, the Minister endeavoured to persuade us by saying that this brief and simple Bill merely clarified the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. I am afraid to say that, on my own rereading of that, he is plainly mistaken. This Bill amends the scope of the fire safety order by inserting an exception to paragraph 1a, referring in turn to two newly inserted paragraphs, 1A and 1B, that substantially expand the scope of the order. The fact that anything was attached to the named elements means the Bill has far wider implications than might be supposed. So I am afraid to say that the Minister’s assertion really did it for me. I felt it was misleading and what my late father would have described as an exercise in intellectual sharp practice. My distinct impression is that I am being taken for some sort of fool. The indisputable fact that must be regarded as plain is that this Bill makes the changes that by direct chain of causation have created the issues and caused the results that the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, seek to resolve.
Another issue appears to be one of definition. The Government are concerned that any scheme that might be put in place could be used to avoid regular maintenance and routine upgrades. The amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, in particular, seeks to address that. In my experience there may be grey areas, but I do not have any difficulty in my work in distinguishing repairs and the like, or like-for-like replacements, from those items that are improvements. Nor do most leaseholders and property owners.
Let us be clear—and here I take a cue from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for a bit of historical background—that it was on the watch of a Conservative Government that the 1984 Building Act brought in the approved inspector regime and the effective privatisation of the regulatory oversight of construction quality, previously exercised by local authority building control. Despite indicators of shortcomings and shortcutting, this process continued, without adequate checks on who was doing the inspection of the works, or how good the oversight was in practice. It is on the basis of the subsequent 37 years of construction and its legacy of known and unknown deficiencies, scattered randomly about the nation’s housing stock, that modern housebuilding, construction warranties, lending and home ownership have been founded.
If the Government consider that they need to take steps to protect the valiant and much-abused postmasters from system failure, how can they, with it any cogency or conscience, make a distinction concerning a far greater number of home owners who are affected at least as severely? So, while I note that the Minister in the other place this afternoon sought to point the finger at the unelected Lords blocking the democratic decision of the Commons, I simply say that the exercise of raw political power vis-à-vis the party whip to procure a majority in the Lobby does not endow the Government with a moral superiority, or indeed the social advancement of justice and ethical treatment of citizens. I note the reasons for rejecting our amendments, which simply translate as “too difficult”. I suspect not half as difficult as picking up the bits after this has rolled itself out.
At one point I believed the Government had it hand to corral all the potential damage, but I believe they have not done so. It would not concern me if this Bill fell, so unreasonable do I believe its true effects to be, and so lacking is the willingness of the Government to deal with it. What it has proposed will roll out far too slowly: eight months to do the highest-risk buildings, and how much longer to deal with the far greater number in future stages? What about capacity in terms of manpower, training and so on?
I took note of the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, but I find that sitting on my hands, signifying my acceptance of the Government’s position here, does not sit comfortably with my conscience—knowing, as I do from professional experience, just what harm the Bill is likely to do, alongside its undoubted good.
I suspect that the Bill will ultimately pass into law, even if the Parliament Act has to be invoked—but I am afraid I cannot agree to it as it stands. I fear that Lobby fatigue may mean that this is the end of the matter for now. Either way, I shall return to this subject in the new Session—as, doubtless, will the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. Meanwhile, I have absolutely no hesitation in supporting the thrust of the amendments—any one of them, whichever might gain approval. And I hope I will sleep with my conscience clear as a result.
My Lords, the following Members in the Chamber have indicated that they wish to speak: the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester and the noble Lord, Lord Newby. I call first the noble Baroness, Lady Fox.
I remind the House of my interests: I am a leaseholder. Like the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, I heard Boris Johnson telling Parliament in 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, Commons, 3/2/21; col. 945.]
To be honest, I cheered. Maybe I was being naive, but I sort of took him at his word—and I sort of still do. But can I? Has anyone briefed the Prime Minister on how his promise to leaseholders is being broken by his own Government as we speak?
In the other place the Minister, Chris Pincher, said that the amendments lacked clarity and prohibited minor costs from being passed on to leaseholders. That was so disingenuous. This is not a load of whiny leaseholders whingeing about minor costs. People are utterly desperate. As we have heard from other noble Lords, this Bill almost guarantees that major costs will be passed on to them—unless the Minister thinks that remediation costs of up to tens of thousands of pounds each, or 400% hikes in service charges, are minor. Those are not minor in my world, nor in the world of so many leaseholders who, as I have stressed here before, bought into that nirvana of home-owning democracy. They were often first-time buyers, who became leaseholders as part of affordable housing schemes.
The Minister in the other place said that the amendment would not help leaseholders. But leaseholders do not feel that way. What they do feel is exasperated. They have been told about the loans scheme, and that this issue can be sorted out by the passage of the building safety Bill. Even then, if there were an assurance from the Government that they would prioritise that Bill as an urgent piece of legislation at the start of the next Session, it might be some consolation. But of course, we do not know when it will appear.
As one group of leaseholders noted in an email to me, the reality is that they are accruing costs now. They are not allowed to postpone paying them until a new parliamentary Session. They cannot say, “Sorry, won’t pay until the building safety Bill’s got through.” They fear that by the time that legislation is passed, many of them will already have lost their homes—and, as one said, “I will certainly have lost my mind.”
Earlier today I heard a Minister here justify imposing a set of regulations on the Northern Ireland Assembly, although that would undermine the devolution agreement. He justified that decision because he said that the Government had a duty to ensure that women’s rights were addressed, and legal abortion services were made available. I was anxious at this procedural and technical fix to solve a complex constitutional and moral problem. But now, if only the Government would come up with some procedural and technical fix to solve what is undoubtedly a complex problem, but one, in this instance, of leaseholders’ rights. There seems to be a sort of stubbornness, which is so unbecoming—a kind of evasiveness, which is kicking this problem down the road, where it will get worse, and letting the most blameless take the hit in the meantime.
I have a lot of respect for the Minister, but I feel as though the Government must know in their heart of hearts—with Tory rebels in the other place, noble Lords from all sides of this House and all the devastating personal testimonies we have shared over the last few days—that what is being asked for here is modest. We are asking for any mechanism, however technical, or any scheme that would actually help leaseholders and save them from bankruptcies now, as is so urgently needed.
We have heard about the £5 billion scheme, and we have all welcomed it, but it really applies only to those in buildings over 18 metres. Leaseholders in buildings of 17 metres or 15 metres are still being asked to pay sky-high costs. As we have heard, it is estimated that the £5 billion scheme still leaves at least £10 billion unaccounted for, and maybe more.
I want to test whether the Government are true to their word—true to the Prime Minister’s word that I started with—and ask the Minister a simple question. If this Fire Safety Bill were to pass, what will the Government do in the interim between its passing and the building safety Bill to stop leaseholders’ bankruptcies and the negative equity crisis that this Bill undoubtedly helps to create?
Finally, I take this opportunity to say to the leaseholders: you have allies in the other place and here who will continue to stand up for you and keep raising awareness of your plight. I am still hopeful that the Minister and the Prime Minister might be among those allies too.
My Lords, the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of St Albans and the Bishop of London have both been involved in earlier stages on the Bill and, regretfully, neither is able to be in your Lordships’ House this evening. However, I come with my own background and interests, as a former board member of various housing associations over 25 years and as the former chair of the charity Housing Justice.
As noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has been heavily involved in this matter and has been persistent. He said yesterday that none of us wanted to be in this position at this stage. But while so much of the Bill is welcome—not least the £5 billion which has been referred to—there are continuing and serious concerns, some of which have already been expressed in the debate this evening, about the position of leaseholders and tenants, and particularly certain groups of leaseholders and tenants.
Yes, remediation is a complex matter, but I am sure that it is not so complex that it cannot be worked out. I want to believe that Her Majesty’s Government are sincere in the express desire to protect leaseholders and tenants. The proposed amendments, including one here tonight, are designed to provide time for the Government to bring forward their own statutory scheme. It is the absence of clarity about that scheme and the timetable for it which is the cause of continuing regret on these Benches. Mention has been made already of the loan scheme in relation to buildings under 18 metres and the fact that that is likely to come forward in the context of another Bill. But, of course, that leaves open the questions of the detail and timescale and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, has just observed, there are leaseholders facing those bills today.
We have heard many tragic stories of people with unpayable bills and crippling insurance and service charges. One concern of Members of these Benches is the effect of all that on people’s health and well-being, as well as on their financial capacity. These are important matters; they affect people’s daily lives, mental state and financial futures. While the Bill tackles a number of really important things, it leaves open some others which leave people facing uncertainty and potentially very significant liabilities.
Whatever happens this evening, I know that many in this place and elsewhere will continue to make the cause, because this issue will not go away. I dare to hope that if the Bill does pass this evening, Her Majesty’s Government will bring forward their proposals as soon as possible in the new Session to remove the uncertainty from those who are finding it really difficult to live with. These Benches continue to hold out hope for a more empathetic attitude towards leaseholders.
My Lords, I begin by declaring my interest as a leaseholder affected by fire safety remediation costs.
This afternoon, I decided to listen to the debate on the Bill in another place to see whether I had been missing something, by just hearing debates here, about the Government’s real reasons for not taking any appropriate action. Instead, I found that the key challenges that have been set out by noble Lords this evening were being made most eloquently by Conservative Back-Benchers. Bob Blackman made the key point that leaseholders have no luxury of time to deal with the demands dropping on their doormats today. Sir Robert Neill made the logical and consequential point that bridging provisions to fund remediation were needed, until the Government had put in place measures to recoup the costs from developers and builders—costs to be met, in the interim, by the Government. As a former Minister, he also made the telling point that the Government would have had time to produce their own amendments, if they had put their mind to it.
The response from the Government was from the right honourable Christopher Pincher, who replied with all the empathy and grace of a Victorian miller faced by workers’ demands to install expensive safety equipment on all the machinery. He also put the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, to shame in his ability to ape Sir Humphrey. Unlike the noble Lord, who at least shows a certain lack of conviction in some of his adjectives, Christopher Pincher had none. In describing this amendment, as we have heard before, he mentioned the uncertainty that it would cause, the lack of clarity and the litigation that would flow, which would be voluminous. He had us almost in tears at the prospect of these terrible consequences.
There was not a word of explanation as to why, given that the Government allegedly want to do what is right, in the seven months since this Bill’s Second Reading they have made no progress whatsoever in bringing forward their own proposals to deal with the issues now. There was not a scintilla of a suggestion, from him, of when there would be certainty for leaseholders. He said that the building safety Bill would be brought forward as quickly as possible and that it would protect leaseholders “as far as possible”. Those two statements are of literally no comfort to somebody facing a bill today. We all know that those phrases “as far as possible” or “as quickly as possible” allow the Government to do whatever they want or not very much at all.
He also had the temerity to say that the Bill should now pass,
“so that people can get on with their lives.”
The one thing certain is that, if this Bill passes unamended, hundreds of thousands of people will not be able to get on with their lives, because overwhelming uncertainty will remain over their financial position and their ability, if they wish to do so, to sell the property in which they live.
The truth is that the Government have shown themselves indifferent to the mental and financial anguish faced by these people today, or else they would have made a meaningful commitment to the timetable for lifting the burden of costs and uncertainty from them. In these circumstances, how can we, in all conscience, pack up our tents now and let the Bill sail into the night? We on these Benches will not do so, and I urge Members across the House to vote for my noble friend’s amendment to bring tenants the relief that they so richly deserve.
My Lords, in Alice in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty says:
“ ‘When I use a word, … it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’ ”
That is exactly the position we find ourselves in today. It is an argument about the meaning of words, which the noble Lord, Lord Newby, in an excellent speech, has just pointed up. If one took the Government’s statements and sought to give the usual meaning to the words, then there would not be a problem here this evening.
I noted down what the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, said in his opening remarks: these are just some of the statements he made. My writing is not fast enough to recite his whole speech, but if one took his whole speech, one would think there was no disagreement between us at all. “More needs to be done”, he said. “Industry must play its part and pay its way,” he said. “I agree that leaseholders need more protection,” he said. “Forfeiture,” he said—the fact we are talking about forfeiture is a sign of quite how serious a crisis we are facing—“is a draconian measure”; my writing was not fast enough here, but I think he said, “which is to be discouraged.” He also said, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, just said, that these measures will be further addressed in the building safety Bill.
All those statements that the noble Lord made go to the heart of the protection we have been seeking to provide for all of those categories of people affected, not just those who live in buildings of more than 18 metres and not just those with costs directly attributable to cladding if they fall in the category of remediation costs which are essentially post Grenfell. This is the key point, because assessments that have been made about fire risks which are not just restricted to cladding are in the wider areas, some of which are in the expanded fire safety order which the Minister referred to.
The issue then is whether the scheme that the Government have said they will introduce to implement the principles that the Minister himself has set out to the House this evening is adequate to the task. We take the Minister at his word that it will be adequate to the task. There is some disagreement about how far it needs to be legislative and how far not legislative, though the fact that he constantly refers to the building safety Bill leads us to think that it will be substantially legislative. In so far as it is not legislative, these measures could be put in a legislative form, or he could make a categoric statement about when the Government will come forward with a comprehensive scheme.
So far, so good. What happens is that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and his understudy who is here this evening, if I may so describe him—anyway, he seems to be maintaining the line of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans—and other noble Lords then consistently, on now about 10 occasions during the passage of the Bill, have come forward with proposals to put into legislative form what the Government themselves have told us they want to do. What happens, because we are now back in Alice in Wonderland, is that we pass amendments saying that remediation costs should not be passed on to leaseholders which are attributable to the additional costs which have come post Grenfell, and then the Government come along and say, “Ah, but this does not take account of the following five concerns.”
These are the concerns that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, just mentioned about small costs, concerns about defining costs, concerns about costs which might be attributable to leases which applied and which tenants willingly engaged in before there were any additional costs put forward—we had a whole list of issues that were raised. What then happens is that the ever-receptive Bishop of St Albans, and other noble Lords change the amendments to take account of the Government’s concerns. Indeed, the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, this evening meets most of the concerns that have been raised by Christopher Pincher in the House of Commons and by the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, here.
It is worth dwelling on this, because these are hugely important issues potentially affecting millions of people, so we ought to be clear about it. Under the noble Baroness’s amendment, proposed new subsection (1) states:
“The owner of a building may not pass the costs of any remedial work attributable to the provisions of this Act”—
so defining clearly what should and should not apply. Proposed new subsection (2) states that the prohibition on remediation costs being passed on to tenants will have effect
“only until a statutory scheme is in operation which ensures that leaseholders and tenants of dwellings are not required to pay more than £50 per month during the course of the lease”,
but it does not apply to a cost that
“is permitted under a lease or tenancy agreement that was made before this Act is passed, and … does not exceed £500, whether as a one-off cost, or in total across a 12-month period.”
This meets the concerns that the Minister has raised, unless he does not propose to bring forward a scheme that meets his commitments in due course, which is the reason why we go round in circles again.
We then come out of Alice in Wonderland and into the real world. In the real world, we all know what is happening. It is not a secret to those of us who are politicians what arguments have now been happening for two months. Two things are happening. First, a battle royal is going on between the Minister’s department and the Treasury about what costs the Treasury will meet and how narrowly defined they need to be. The Treasury is already concerned about the size of the fire safety fund, the £5.1 billion fund which the Minister referred to, and whether the costs even under that scheme will end up being significantly higher. It certainly does not want more costs to be recognised. The second thing going on of which we are all well aware is that, although the Government say—because huge numbers of people are affected by this, many of them first-time buyers, many of them who have, under Conservative schemes, bought council properties and are leaseholders —that they want to see them fully protected, they do not at the moment either have a plan to fully protect them nor, to be blunt, do they want to protect them any more than they think is politically necessary to get this and subsequent legislation passed, presumably in the run-up to the next election, in a judgment they make on the salience of the issue.
We then come to the role of this House, which is unusual in this case. We had a lecture from the Chief Whip earlier about the supremacy of the House of Commons, which we all recognise, but the supremacy of the House of Commons is in this instance qualified in two respects. The Salisbury convention is clear that the supremacy of the House of Commons applies to all matters which the Government have placed in their manifesto. This House does not seek to cut across clear manifesto commitments which the Government have made when they want to realise them. The Government’s commitment at the election was to sort out this issue; it was not not to sort out this issue. If we take that reading of the role of this House, we will actually be implementing the Salisbury convention this evening if we pass the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. We are seeking to hold the Government to their manifesto commitments to the people, not going against them.
The other reason why we are back in Alice in Wonderland in respect of the role of this House is that, when the Minister and the Chief Whip said this evening that the Bill will fail, it will fail only if, in response to the amendment being carried, the Government choose to let it fail rather than accept an amendment that puts into law the very commitments that they have said that they propose to meet.
We are in a conundrum as to what to do. If we vote for the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, we be voting for something that will indeed send the measure back to the House of Commons and could, if the Government refused to give way, lead to the fall of the Bill. That is entirely in the hands of the Government. However, it is manifestly not the case that we are breaking the Salisbury convention, it is manifestly not the case that we are going against the commitments that the Government themselves have given, and it is manifestly not the case that we would be the cause of the Bill falling. The Government would be the cause of the Bill falling, because they were not prepared to accept the amendment.
We all have judgments to take as to how to vote, and I respect people who take different views on this issue, but it is very clear to me that this is not about the supremacy of the House of Commons. As the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said, in what I have to say is the most impassioned speech I have heard him deliver to the House, this is a matter of the good faith of the Government and whether, when they say something, they mean it. If this House has any role to play, it is to see that high standards of conduct in public life are maintained, that Governments are held to commitments that they give and that the ordinary meaning of words should be taken to apply when they are uttered by Ministers.
My Lords, I will not trade Alice in Wonderland anecdotes with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, but I take issue with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, that this Government and Prime Minister have done nothing or sat on their hands.
The reality is that I was appointed a Minister, a little over a year ago, into this role. The previous Government had first committed £400 million and then, very reluctantly, an additional £200 million towards the costs of remediating the same cladding that was on Grenfell Tower—aluminium composite material. In the month I was made a Minister, the Chancellor committed a further £1 billion. Now this Chancellor and Prime Minister have committed a further £3.5 billion, taking the total funding to an unprecedented £5.1 billion. It is simply not correct to say that we are doing nothing; that is a considerable sum of money and a massive commitment to recognising that we need to dampen the impact of the costs of remediating the unsafe cladding—the major fire accelerant on these buildings—so that a tragedy like the Grenfell Tower fire never happens again.
I also take issue with the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, whose contributions I really enjoy; he is a property professional who speaks with great passion. The reality is that I spent the last year at the coalface, dealing with the tail of building owners who do not want to get on with the remediation—even when the funding is in place. There are two enforcement routes to get them to move even when they do not want to: one is the Housing Act 2004 and the other is the current fire safety order of 2005. It is recognised as an enforcement route, even for external cladding systems; it is just that some fire and rescue authorities feel that it is too ambiguous. That ambiguity, lack of clarification and operational disagreement between different fire and rescue services—I say this as Fire Minister—is a significant problem. However, one reason that remediation is happening today is that enforcement options are in place and this modest three-clause Bill is a very sensible clarification of the fire safety order of 2005.
We are at an impasse. I hope that we may get this vital Bill through, because it is important to get that legal clarity I have referred to. The safety of leaseholders and residents is paramount, and it will be compromised if we do not ensure that this Bill is placed on the statute book by the end of this Session. Tonight is the moment to decide that very fact. The Bill falling will not help leaseholders or make homes safer.
I turn to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. It lacks clarity in prohibiting all kinds of remediation costs being passed on to leaseholders. It means that, where costs are minor, as a result of wear and tear, or even where leaseholders are responsible for damage, they would still not be expected to pay, which is not a proportionate response. I think all Members would agree that the taxpayer should not pay for all and every cost associated with remediation. The scope is far too broad to be a sensible solution.
In several ways, this amendment has the potential to make things worse for leaseholders; for example, it is unclear who should take responsibility for remediation works until a statutory funding scheme is in place to pay for the costs. This would result in all types of remediation being delayed, which is an unsatisfactory outcome for leaseholders. Practically speaking, on the amendment’s requirement to deliver particular requirements to Parliament within 90 and 120 days, we must be mindful that drafting legislation is a complex matter, which cannot be dealt with in the timeframe proposed. I note that the noble Lord is unlikely to press for a Division this evening, so I will not go any further, but to impose an arbitrary deadline, as stated, is neither helpful nor practical.
I turn to the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, who has indicated that she wishes to test the will of the House. We see the same key elements of this amendment time and again and the other place has voted it down time and again. The same issues apply with this amendment. It lacks clarity, which will lead to delay. The scope is too broad and there are practical issues. For instance, regardless of blame and whether it is remediation or wear and tear, it seems like no leaseholder will ever have to pay more than £600 a year. What if a leaseholder is responsible for an attempt at renovations that is picked up in a fire risk assessment and has damaged part of the structure of the building? Is the noble Baroness really suggesting that the leaseholder should not pay for that?
A number of noble Lords have asked the Government to come up with their own wording to deal with this issue but, as I have stated before, the Fire Safety Bill is simply not the right place for these amendments. It does not have the legal underpinning to carry them. This issue does not belong here.
I place on record once again this Government’s commitment to an unprecedented sum of £5.1 billion to protect leaseholders from the costs of remediating unsafe cladding. We are committed to developing stronger avenues for redress and we are ensuring that developers contribute through our high-rise levy and developer tax.
In answer to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester, it is quite clear that the ability to deliver and provide grants will be via the building safety fund, which is in operation today. If it is helpful, I can put on record that the financing scheme does not have to await any statutory passage of the building safety Bill and will be available as a very important way of protecting leaseholders in medium-rise buildings.
The only thing that would require statutory underpinning in terms of supporting leaseholders is the high-rise levy that would form part of the regime to collect a levy for those buildings that would be considered high risk at that point. That would form part of the building safety Bill. The vast majority of this does not have to wait for the building safety Bill to be passed. The building safety Bill will be helpful to strengthen redress and make it clear what charges can passed through to leaseholders to protect them from charges that they should not be paying for.
This Government always have been and will continue to be committed to delivering the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. I respectfully urge noble Lords to reject the noble Baroness’s amendment. I reiterate that if we do not move forward with the Fire Safety Bill and get it passed tonight, it will fall and the Government will not be able to deliver the inquiry’s recommendations in relation to external walls and flat entrance doors. Ultimately, this means that the safety of residents and leaseholders could be compromised. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate tonight. It is worth pointing out that for the second day in a row debating these issues not a single Member of the Government Benches has come forward to support the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, or the Government’s position. As I said yesterday, I am not surprised because the position of the Government, frankly, is a disgrace and is totally outrageous.
The Government claim that we have not got this amendment right, it lacks clarity and we do not have the time. If we were going to accept that as a serious proposition, we would not have had this Bill just sitting there for weeks and weeks not being tabled by the Government. After it was rejected by the Commons it could have been brought here. They chose not to table it. They left it sitting there. I really do not think that point holds water.
Of course, the problem for the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, is that the sums of money pledged—and I accept that they are considerable—do not deliver the Prime Minister’s pledges, or do his pledges count for nothing? I will leave that there. He makes a lot of promises and pledges. I hope they count for something or do they count for nothing?
If voting again for this amendment would change anything, I would divide the House, but I am also not prepared to mislead those affected that we can force the Government to change this Bill. Sadly, the Government are not listening and the House prorogues tomorrow.
This issue, however, will not go away. The Government will be forced to do the right thing by the leaseholders, by the campaigners, by the Cladiators and by Members of this House and the other place. They will be dragged kicking and screaming to do what the leader of their party, the Prime Minister of the UK, pledged to do. I quote the Prime Minister—I think that the House will hear this quote time and again, until the Government do what he promised. He said:
“We are determined 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, Commons, 3/2/21; col. 945.]
That was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Conservative Party, the right honourable Boris Johnson MP, in response to a question put to him by the Leader of the Opposition on 3 February. That statement was made after this Bill had been through both Houses and three weeks before the Government, in the other place, rejected our amendments for the first time. The PM’s Government voted against the PM’s pledge—his promise—at every opportunity. The position is, frankly, ridiculous; what complete and utter nonsense has come from the Government.
As I said, I will not test the opinion of the House on my Motion tonight. This issue, however, will not go away, and the Government will have to deliver on their pledges and promises. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Motion A1 withdrawn.
Motion A2 (as an amendment to Motion A)
4N: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Prohibition on passing remediation costs on to leaseholders and tenants pending operation of a statutory scheme
(1) The owner of a building may not pass the costs of any remedial work attributable to the provisions of this Act on to leaseholders or tenants of that building.
(2) This section has effect only until a statutory scheme is in operation which ensures that leaseholders and tenants of dwellings are not required to pay more than £50 per month during the course of the lease in respect of remedial work attributable to the provisions of this Act.
(3) Subsection (1) does not apply to a cost that—
(a) is permitted under a lease or tenancy agreement that was made before this Act is passed, and
(b) does not exceed £500, whether as a one-off cost, or in total across a 12-month period.
(4) Subsection (1) does not apply to a leaseholder who is also the owner or part owner of the freehold of the building.””
I thank all noble Lords for another excellent debate—the fourth in the series—and their contributions tonight.
Again, the tune from the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, the Minister, has not changed—it is the same old record: “This is not the right Bill”. Well, if it is not the right Bill, where is the Government’s Bill to address the horrendous problems that are going to be faced by leaseholders? Where is the Bill that will keep the Government’s pledge that leaseholders would not have to face the unaffordable consequences of fire safety defects? Where is it? Its absence tells us more than anything else about the Government’s commitment to help leaseholders.
To pledge, as the Minister has done, that the building safety Bill will pave the way, forgets the fact that bills are landing on doormats as we speak. Time is of the essence, and still the Government refuse to move. It is a thoroughly depressing moment when people can be thrown to the wolves in order to save the Treasury from paying what it ought to pay and extracting what it ought to extract from those who have caused the problem. The construction scandal—the cladding crisis—is the Government’s, and the Government’s alone.
I thank the Minister for his criticisms, once again, of the amendment I have proposed today. I just wish he would do something about it rather than saying that he cannot do this and cannot do that. What is he going to do?
I have taken heart from the impassioned speech by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. He is an expert in the housing field and has frequently shared his expertise in this House. The fact that he too cannot in all conscience vote for the Fire Safety Bill as it stands, unamended, gives me heart that we have got this in the right place from the point of view of those of us who want to protect people from exorbitant costs of putting right fire safety defects.
I will say one last word. Let us remind ourselves that leaseholders are those that have done everything right. They have saved up for their house, put down the deposit and budgeted for the expenses they anticipate. They have done everything right and nothing wrong, yet the Government—and, it seems, others in this House—are willing to make them pay the price. That is not acceptable, and the Liberal Democrat Benches will not stand by and let it happen if we can help it. It is a depressing moment, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has indicated that he is not prepared to vote for the amendment to try to get safeguards for leaseholders. He has thrown in the towel, and I find that disappointing and utterly depressing.
However, with those words, I am prepared to have one more go to try to protect leaseholders and, indeed, tenants from the awful, if unintended, consequences of this Fire Safety Bill. I wish to seek the opinion of the House and I beg to move.
Motion A agreed.