Moved by
Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office and Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (Lord Greenhalgh) (Con)
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My Lords, it is a privilege to open the Second Reading debate of this landmark Bill today. I will never forget the events that led us to this moment, nor the 72 people who lost their lives in the most appalling circumstances in the largest loss of life in a residential fire since the Second World War. The fire at Grenfell Tower in the early hours of 14 June 2017 should never have happened. The legislation we are bringing forward today is part of our wider reform to make sure that something like this tragedy can never happen again.

We cannot bring back those who lost their lives on that terrible day, and nothing can undo the errors that led to their deaths. Yet, if anything is to come from this disaster, it must be the lessons that we have learned from the mistakes that were made. That is why the Government appointed Dame Judith Hackitt to review the current building safety regime and recommend wholesale reform. Her findings were unequivocal and clear. Too often, regulations and guidance were misunderstood or misinterpreted. The drive to do things quickly and cheaply—the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, mentioned the concept of value engineering—meant that concerns were ignored and safety was not prioritised. There was ambiguity around who is actually responsible for the safety of buildings, with insufficient oversight and enforcement.

Dame Judith called for a complete overhaul of the system, and her recommendations underpin the Bill, with a golden thread that will ensure that, henceforth, people remain safe in the homes that we build for them. The Bill is unapologetically ambitious, creating a world-class building safety regulatory regime that holds all to the same high standard. The Fire Safety Act, which we will commence shortly, was the first legislative step towards delivering meaningful change following that dreadful tragedy. The Building Safety Bill represents the next step, delivering significant improvements to both the regulatory framework and industry culture, creating a more accountable system.

The Bill will deliver improvements across the entire built environment. It will strengthen oversight and protections for residents in high-rise buildings and give them a greater say, and will toughen sanctions against those who threaten their safety. Its focus on risk will help owners manage their buildings better, while giving the homebuilding industry the clear, proportionate framework it needs to deliver better, higher-quality homes. It is proportionate and strengthens fire safety requirements in all premises regulated by the fire safety order. It rightly focuses the new, more stringent requirements on those buildings and issues that pose the greatest risk.

To that end, we are strengthening our regulation of high-rise residential buildings which are over 18 metres or above six storeys in height, whichever is reached first; those buildings pose the greatest safety risks in the event of a spreading fire or structural failure. We are including hospitals and care homes that meet the height threshold during their design and construction. We will establish a robust link between safety, design, construction and occupation, with stringent duties to ensure safety throughout the building’s life cycle.

The Bill provides the framework to ensure that, during the design and construction, defined duty holders have clear responsibilities for compliance with building regulations, including fire and structural safety. They will have to clear a series of hard stops, through the new gateway system for in-scope buildings.

In occupation, every building in scope will have an identified accountable person with clear responsibility for safety matters. Their duties include registering the building with a new regulator, building an evidence and risk-based safety case, and the continued evaluation of potential hazards. Importantly, it will be a criminal offence not to carry out these duties effectively, punishable by an unlimited fine and up to two years in prison.

We are giving residents a stronger voice in the system through the Bill, making it easier for them to seek redress and raise concerns. The Bill will require an accountable person for a high-rise residential building to engage with their residents and establish a formal complaints process for residents to raise concerns. Both the accountable person and the responsible person for premises regulated by the fire safety order will be required to provide residents with access to key building safety information.

These measures will be overseen by the new building safety regulator within the Health and Safety Executive. The regulator will be equipped with robust powers to crack down on substandard practices. It will oversee the safety and standards of all buildings and will provide important independent advice to government on building safety and standards. It will support a significant improvement in the performance and competence of industry and building control professionals.

The Bill ensures that the regulator will regulate in line with best practice principles, being proportionate and transparent and targeting activity where action is needed. Crucially, it will act to ensure that proportionality is embedded within its operations and in its work with accountable persons to assess buildings.

I turn now to construction products. The testimony we have heard at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has been shocking to say the least and has exposed a culture of corner-cutting, Spanish practices and disgraceful behaviour by an industry that has compromised building safety. We intend to put a stop to this. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, we banned the use of combustible materials on the external walls of high-rise residential buildings. The Bill creates powers to strengthen regulatory oversight for firms that manufacture and sell construction products and, crucially, powers to remove unsafe construction products from the market and take action against those that break the rules. The Bill will improve the standards of our construction products oversight regime.

The polluter must pay; developers and construction product manufacturers must be held to account. Residents must be protected against substandard materials, workmanship and practices that make homes unsafe. Our new regime will help address these issues for high-rise residential buildings, but we need to expand legal safeguards for residents wherever they live. That is why the Bill retrospectively extends the period during which compensation for defective premises can be claimed by over double the current period—from six to 15 years prospectively and by 30 years retrospectively —to make sure that the failures of the past can be addressed. This is a significant step forward, and we are going further, expanding the scope of the work for which compensation can be claimed to include future renovations.

We are also strengthening redress for people buying a new-build home through provisions for the new homes ombudsman scheme that will provide dispute resolution and resolve complaints involving the buyers of new-build homes and developers.

We also know that we must go further to protect innocent leaseholders, who are the victims, from bearing the financial burden of this crisis. I thank your Lordships, in particular my noble friends Lord Blencathra and Lord Young of Cookham and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. I could not forget the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, as well for being ever so helpful during these debates. I also thank the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and, of course, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who has been an inveterate campaigner on behalf of leaseholders. This is a hugely important issue; it is important that we continue to do our best collectively to protect leaseholders.

The Secretary of State in the other place has been unequivocal in his determination that leaseholders living in their own flats in medium and high-rise buildings will not pay a penny to remediate unsafe cladding. We have scrapped proposals for loans and long-term debt for medium-rise leaseholders. We have allocated a further £27 million to help bring the misuse of waking watches to an end, and we are working towards making sure that leaseholders are protected from the risk of forfeiture relating to historical building safety issues, until a new industry-developed system is in place. But we know that more is needed. We will also explore further statutory protections for leaseholders and we will bring forward proposals for this House to consider at the earliest opportunity. I look forward to working with your Lordships on the Opposition Benches, with the Liberal Democrats, with the Cross-Benchers, and even with my own awkward squad, to ensure that this 143-clause Bill perhaps adds the odd extra clause and is the best possible Bill that we can take forward and get on the statute book.

The Government have accepted their share of responsibility and made significant financial provision—over £5 billion—through the ACM remediation programme and the building safety fund. Some developers have already done the right thing and provisioned or are funding remediation works. We are also seeing that among registered providers. But too many others have failed to live up to their responsibilities; in some cases, they are not engaging at all with government. We cannot keep looking to the taxpayer to keep bailing out this failing industry: we must get the polluters to pay.

We have already announced a £2 billion tax on the biggest residential developers through the residential property developer tax and a further levy on developers building tall buildings through the Building Safety Bill, and we are now engaged with industry to ensure that it pays its fair share for fixing cladding problems, rather than the leaseholders. I point out that where both private developers and social housing organisations have developed land, they are equally culpable if they put up unsafe buildings and they must pay. Our expectations are clear: industry and the owners of land, such as registered providers, should fix the buildings they were responsible for. They need to contribute to a wider fund to ensure that remaining buildings are remediated to protect leaseholders.

In a round table held with the Secretary of State, senior executives from the country’s biggest developers agreed that leaseholders should not pay. We continue to engage with them on how they will deliver a fully funded action plan by early March. We are also acting directly to make sure that those who manufactured dangerous products, built unsafe buildings and knowingly put lives at risk are also properly held to account. We have had a similar meeting with construction products manufacturers. I was shocked that Arconic, one of the manufacturers of the material used on Grenfell, did not show up; that is completely unacceptable. We have been clear in our intent: industry needs to develop real proposals to fund this crisis. If it does not agree a solution soon, we will, if necessary, impose one in law.

The Bill represents the most radical revision of our building safety regime in generations. It is a complete overhaul of safety management, putting residents’ safety at the absolute heart of our reform. I commend the Bill to the House.

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Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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My Lords, I really enjoy the tutorials I get from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I shall do my best to start at a high level because this is a serious debate. There have been a lot of expert contributions and I have, as noble Lords will know, listened carefully to them all. I should start by saying that when I joined the Government I was told that I could have any job I wanted and was then assigned building safety and fire. The offer changes as one goes through the process.

It means that I have spent some time thinking about the root causes of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. I like to think about things and today we are addressing two of the fundamental root causes. That is why the Bill has the support of this House. We saw a corrosive construction industry culture that needs addressing and the Building Safety Bill seeks to do that. That is why it is so important. We also have, as admitted by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in the other place, a building safety regulatory system that is, frankly, broken. That is why we need the Bill and we are all keen to make sure that it gets on to the statute book. That is important.

I also want to respond as Fire Minister to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, about the ordinary firefighter and the Fire Brigades Union. I engage; I met Andy Dark and Matt Wrack last week and will engage with them again. However, it is important to reflect that, as regards the Manchester Arena attack and the night of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, there are lessons to be learned for fire and rescue services. We must not mistake the need for reform, which should get widespread support from this House. As Fire Minister, I am about to publish a White Paper that will seek to reform professionalism and ensure that we get better people into the fire and rescue service. The paper will also look to improve governance. It should not prove particularly controversial and will, I hope, have widespread support. However, the reform agenda does not take away from the fact that the ordinary firefighter goes forward into danger, rescuing people’s lives. They certainly have my support and, I am sure, the support of everybody in this House.

It is virtually impossible to respond to the contributions of 32 speeches in the time available. We are then going on to Committee, where the Bill will be debated in depth in the unfortunately slightly less well-lit Moses Room—although it is now dark in here without natural light. We will, however, have an opportunity to debate these matters at length during the passage of the Bill.

First and foremost, we need to understand the issues around scope. This Bill affects the whole built environment. The new building safety regulator will be responsible for building regulations, looking at standards and competence and working with the British Standards Institution to set the competence of the professionals involved in the development of all the built environment.

I want noble Lords to realise that it is important to set the high-risk regime at an appropriate level. If we say we want everything in the high-risk regime then, frankly, the building safety regulator will fail. There are 12,500 high-rise and 77,000 medium-rise buildings—the lower one goes, the more buildings there are. It is very important to have an appropriate scope for the high-risk regime and not ask too much of a new fledgling regulator who exists in shadow form. I hope noble Lords will be patient about scope. This does not mean that it will not widen over time, but we need to start in the right place.

I really enjoyed the valedictory speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester. I do not think I have heard the right reverend Prelate speak before, but I listened to almost every word. While I do not think the Palace of Westminster is an example of remediation at pace, I completely agree that “caring for building safety is caring for the health of our nation.” That is absolutely right. It is one of the reasons why I am passionate about this ministerial brief. It is very important that we get this right, and I thank the right reverend Prelate for raising it in that way.

As someone who loves history, I recognise that the Victorians did not get everything right, but they got the built environment right. They worked off pattern books. They built some of the finest homes that—like the Romans’—will probably last for a thousand years. We must get back to those principles of quality that the Victorians pioneered and that the Edwardians followed. Somewhere along the way, we lost the culture of building quality in this country.

I also single out my noble friend Lady Fox of Buckley—although she is not my noble friend because she is not on these Benches. She raised a very important point. The proportionality needs to be right in both council homes and social housing, as well as in private housing. There are people who profiteer from this stuff; they create a disproportionate approach and people pay for that. I was approached, not about a council home, but about Saxon House—a home in Sutton—where, essentially a cowboy did an EWS1 form and failed it. This caused untold stress and misery. A young man, called George Martin, managed to challenge it. It is important that we stop in their tracks those who are not acting properly. I involved the police in that case and supported the leaseholders in Saxon House. It is important to have a greater sense of proportion when approaching this crisis. We must remember that some people simply want to profiteer from a problem that has effectively been built up over 30 years. It is shameful to see such instances.

I was given a list of everyone who referenced protecting leaseholders and the polluter pays principle. I could spend the next 40 minutes reading out everybody’s names. In trying to answer all the questions, I will pick out those from my noble friends Lord Blencathra and Lord Young. In essence, we have made a commitment to protect leaseholders and make the polluter pay. Voluntary contributions can go so far, but we want this in law. From my noble friend Lord Blencathra I have learned about a framework—a toolkit in my language—for protecting leaseholders and getting the polluter to pay. The Government will bring forward amendments—I think the deadline for Committee is Valentine’s Day, 14 February. We will be ready to debate many of these amendments at the next stage of this Bill, although some may not be ready. Some are not government amendments. I have been working very hard and listening very carefully to Steve Day, whom the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has been championing. I have put him in touch with lawyers with real expertise. Professor Susan Bright of Oxford, a land lawyer of the highest quality, has been helping to draft an amendment —now known as the Bright-Day amendment, which is better than the dark night amendment. I hope that this will be ready for noble Lords to consider, although it has not yet gone through government processes. We want every tool in the toolbox to make sure that we protect leaseholders and make the polluter pay.

The comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, were very interesting. I want to find out more about the statistic she quoted. It is staggering to think that many registered providers put £6 billion towards remediating their own housing stock. The leading developers have made provision of no more than £1 billion for their share of this crisis. I therefore pay tribute to the registered providers who are doing the right thing and making their buildings safe and not relying entirely on the probably £300 million or £400 million of taxpayers’ money that has gone towards remediation. However, that is a small fraction of the amount of money that the noble Baroness referred to. That is a very useful contribution toward resolving this crisis, because of the balance sheets of the G15, whose shoulders are considerably broader than the average leaseholder and shared owners who live in their homes. That is a tribute, and I look forward to having a summit with the National Housing Federation and leading registered providers to see how we can move forward in that vein.

I was a little disappointed when I saw a tweet that a small number of registered social landlords were effectively engaging a lobbying agency to try to promote ways to stop leaseholders being able to pursue claims. That is not the way to go. We have to recognise that there are people who are doing the wrong thing, and we have to encourage them—whether they are developers or registered providers—to do the right thing by leaseholders.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, for sharing her speech, but it got to me quite late; it really struck me, and stopped me in my tracks. I got to know some disabled leaseholders who are leading the campaign, Claddag. Sarah Rennie and Georgie Hulme are incredible people, and I want to be pointed to some other examples. When it comes to public procurement —I declare my interest as someone who has been in local government for 20-odd years, although I never became a vice-president of the LGA; I do not know what I did wrong—it is important that we look at that. However, public procurement has the potential for litigation and there are all kinds of things that, as a Minister, I cannot do. I hear what the noble Baroness says, and there is an intention to do all we can to help disabled people to live safely in their home, whether in high-rises or medium-rises. I want to give her that assurance as the Minister responsible.

I have known the noble Lord, Lord Best, for a long, long time. He asked around 15 questions about the new homes ombudsman. I spent the weekend talking to my honourable friend Natalie Elphicke, who is interim chair of the New Homes Quality Board. She assured me that the governance is clear—although they seek contributions from developers to pay for this scheme, they have no say in how it is run. I was reassured by her clear explanation. While the detail of the scheme is going to follow this legislation, I can confirm that the Bill explicitly allows the new homes ombudsman scheme to expel members—that is one assurance that I can give. The scheme must also include provision about the enforcement of determinations made by the ombudsman that may include expulsion from the scheme, alongside setting out the circumstances in which an expelled member would be able to rejoin the scheme. I hope that gives some assurance.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, wanted to know about information for residents. Existing leaseholders and landlord-owners of flats will be able to request building safety information from the accountable person and to share this with prospective purchasers and tenants. Transparency is an essential way of getting this new system to work.

I have not had the benefit of the British Woodworking Federation information about fire doors, but I am pretty shocked by the numbers that have been quoted in this debate. I am aware, of course, that some of the newer fire doors perform far less well than some of the older ones. In many cases, the older the fire door, the better it performed. There is a real fundamental issue with the construction products testing regime carried out by the BRE or the BBA—we have to recognise that it is broken. That is why the previous Secretary of State asked for a construction products testing review. We are not that far away from having the report. We have a draft; I do not know how long it will be, but it is not miles away from being made public. We are looking at it very closely in draft form, but the usual phrase is “in due course”.

I was very struck by the speech of my noble friend Lady Sanderson, someone who has been a community adviser to the Grenfell bereaved and survivors and lived this since the night of Grenfell, along with Nick Hurd, the Prime Minister’s adviser on Grenfell; it is a fantastic way of staying connected with the community. It was a buck-passing culture and a pass-the-parcel approach that led to a lot of the tragedies we have seen. No one takes ownership or responsibility; frankly, that is why we need this Bill. My noble friend rightly questioned whether we should continue to build high-rises with a single staircase. That is a very important point that we need to look at and find out how to address.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and I have one thing in common: we were at Procter & Gamble. I was there in the 1980s and 1990s, but he was probably there in the 1960s.

None Portrait Noble Lords
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Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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I am only joking; that is not fair.

Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD)
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It was the 1970s.

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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The 1970s, okay. One of the things it taught you was to really distil your arguments down and to learn things over time. The noble Lord specifically asked whether we could review this on an ongoing basis. I take that suggestion as a very sensible one. Any Government—this Government in particular—need to do things and then see whether they work, review and reflect, and try to take that on board. I do not know whether I have overstepped the mark as a Minister, but I think that is a very sensible suggestion.

We will ensure that we improve competence. One of the things we must recognise is that, to improve competence, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, you need to establish what competence is. That is one of the things we are doing very carefully; it is being done by officials and the shadow building safety regulator. You then have to find out how the accreditation will work, and I know that UKAS and others want to step forward and do that. That will all happen as a result of this Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, gave a really thoughtful speech on something that was new to me, so I appreciate his contribution on cash retention. The Government continue to work with industry on the future of retention payments in the construction industry. However, I am told that there is not a clear consensus as to what may replace the practice, so there is more work to be done. I thank the noble Lord for raising an important issue.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, raised Part 5 and the duty on landlords, and asked whether we were going to cause litigation by setting unreasonable demands on landlords. He also came up with a solution. I really appreciate him raising that issue; leaseholders need as much protection as possible. We are requiring landlords to seek claims only where reasonable, but we note the noble and learned Lord’s suggestions for the guidance, and we will take them on board as we continue with the passage of the Bill.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Jolly and Lady Young of Old Scone, the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, and my noble friends Lady Eaton and Lord Naseby all mentioned the Safer Stairs campaign. As someone who has an elderly father—sadly, my mother did not survive the first wave of Covid—I worry. The thing I worry most about, as someone gets frailer, is staircases. I almost have to declare a personal interest. It is important that we look at staircase standards and recognise how best to achieve that end point, so that new builds have the right level of minimum standard. That does not mean it has to be enshrined as a maximum standard, but we have to work out what we would be proud of as a minimum standard in regulations. I thank noble Lords for raising this issue.

I think it is ironic that one of the sponsors of this campaign is Berkeley homes, because Richmond House, which someone mentioned, is of course a Berkeley build, as is Worcester Park, which really was a shoddy building, although luckily there was no loss of life there. Some developers who normally build good stuff have built things that they should be ashamed of. It is ironic that Berkeley is sponsoring what is a very noble campaign—none the less, I support it.

The noble Lord, Lord Foster, raised electrical safety. I am sure we will work through some of his suggestions—along with pretty much everything else he is interested in—in Committee. I have the briefing and I understand the issue; it is something that we have debated many times.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised building safety managers, and I have the note that was prepared by ARMA and IRPM on this. I hear the concerns about cost, and we take those concerns extremely seriously. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and if you are not prescribing how you do it, we do not see why you cannot have a property manager continue to discharge the functions of a building safety manager, going to the expertise only when it is needed. Think of the equivalent in healthcare: you typically go to a GP but see the specialist only when required. I have some sympathy with the issue, but I think that we are not being prescriptive about it, and so it should not be used as an excuse by managing agents to whack up the prices for leaseholders.

I welcome the clear cross-party support from so many noble Lords. There is broad support for the principles set out in a Statement by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in the other place, on 10 January. We will continue to work with your Lordships —even the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy—and by working together we will ensure that homes are safe for future generations. It is a worthy ambition. I commend the Bill to the House.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.