The Second Reading is normally the first opportunity for a Bill to be debated in either House and it is the stage where the overall principles of the Bill are considered. If the Bill passes Second Reading it moves on to the Committee Stage where amendments can be made. It then returns to the House as the Report Stage where further amendments can be made. The Third Reading on is a final opportunity to discuss the issues of the bill.
At the beginning of his speech I intervened to ask the Secretary of State:
“Does my right hon. Friend accept that we have to get away from the term “cladding” as a generic issue and start to focus on genuine fire risk? There is a real danger of us creating unnecessary anxiety and cost where there is little or no increase in fire risk and, what is worse, using taxpayers’ money to remedy non-fire risks that should be the responsibility of the building industry.”
“I could not agree more with my Rt Hon Friend. That is exactly the approach that we now need to follow as a country. I hope that the Written Ministerial Statement, which I will come on to explain in a moment, will provide further reassurance to him.”
HERE ARE THE KEY PASSAGES FROM HIS SPEECH
“Waking watches are being used excessively. They can be rip-offs and, in many cases, they can be replaced by modern fire alarms. That is why I created the waking watch relief fund last year, which is assisting with the issue, but has not closed it down entirely. The National Fire Chiefs Council has now produced further guidance, which essentially says that waking watches should be used only in the most exceptional of circumstances, and where they are used, they should be used only for short periods. My Rt Hon Friend, the Home Secretary, is taking forward that work with fire and rescue services, and I would like to see most waking watches, barring the most exceptional of circumstances, brought to a close as quickly as possible.”
“Too many people living in lower and medium-rise buildings have told us of feeling trapped in their properties, held back from selling their homes because of excessive caution in the lending, surveying, insurance and fire risk assessment markets. Understandably, this has caused residents to worry over safety and has led to unnecessary costs. I want to be clear that the vast majority of residents in all homes in this country, including blocks of flats, should not feel unsafe. Driven by these concerns, earlier this year I asked a small group of experts on fire safety to consider the evidence and advise me on the steps that should be taken to ensure a proportionate, risk-based approach to fire safety in blocks of flats. I thank them for their time and their expert advice, which I will publish later today.”
“The key finding of the experts’ advice is clear: we cannot and should not presume systemic risk of fire in blocks of flats. I quoted some of the statistics earlier, but let me repeat them. Dwelling fires are at the lowest point that they have been since we started to collect comparable statistics in 1981, despite the fact that in 2020 people spent significantly greater amounts of time in their homes as a result of Covid restrictions. On that basis, the expert advice includes five significant recommendations to correct the disproportionate reaction that we have seen in some parts of the market.
First, EWS1 forms should not be a requirement on buildings of less than 18 metres.
Secondly, in the small number of cases where there are known to be concerns, these should be addressed primarily through risk management and mitigation.
Thirdly, there should be a clear route for residents and leaseholders to challenge costly remediation work, and to seek assurance that proposals are indeed proportionate and cost-effective.
Fourthly, the Government should work with the shadow building safety regulator to consider how to implement an audit process to check that fire risk assessments are following guidelines and not perpetuating the risk aversion that we are witnessing and which in some instances are taking unnecessary costs to leaseholders.
Finally, fire risk assessors and lenders should not presume that there is significant risk to life unless there is credible evidence to support that. This will ensure that they only respond to the evidence and adopt a far more proportionate and balanced approach.
This advice is supported by the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Institution of Fire Engineers. The Government support and will act on the recommendations. Delivering real change for leaseholders requires a concerted effort from all those actively involved in the market. The Government have in recent weeks been working intensively with lenders, valuers and fire experts in this regard. We welcome the expert advice and support the position that EWS1s should not be needed for buildings of less than 18 metres.
I am pleased that all major lenders have today welcomed this advice, with Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and others agreeing that the expert advice and Government statement should pave the way for EWS1 forms no longer to be required for buildings below 18 metres, which will further unlock the housing market.”
“This is a highly complex issue, but the Prime Minister and I expect that the appropriate next steps will be taken expediently. The market is shaped not only by the Government but by lenders, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the fire and rescue service, and fire experts. All of us need to act to achieve a market correction and relieve the pressure on homeowners. There can be no bystanders in this action. I am hopeful that other lenders will follow soon, and that RICS will rapidly reflect on the expert advice and update its guidance accordingly. This concerted cross-market approach will open up the housing market for the remaining affected leaseholders.
The expert advice that I commissioned has concluded that there is no systemic risk to life from purpose-built flats in this country and in particular—this was the question that I asked of the experts—from those flats that are low and medium-rise, meaning those of 11 to 18 metres. The experts’ advice, following on from that, is that they do not see a need for lenders to ask for EWS1 forms in the ordinary course of business. They also recommend that fire risk assessments are conducted in the usual compliance cycle, rather than on demand, in order to satisfy a market transaction such as purchasing or re-mortgaging a property. They do not conclude—as one would not expect them to do—that all buildings below 18 metres are safe. One can never say that, and there will be buildings that need remediation below that level, but because there is no systemic risk and the number of buildings is likely to be very small, it is not appropriate, in their opinion, which the Government have accepted, that lenders and other parties in the market should act as if there was a widespread and systemic issue. That is a subtle but important change of tone and one that I hope will lead—the initial support of the lenders suggests that this will happen—to a significantly different housing market.”
“In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy, advice was published by Government that sought to provide information to the market where there was a significant absence of expert opinion. The market in the years since then has reacted and taken what I have described as a safety-first approach.
In more recent times we have seen - Dame Judith Hackitt, our expert adviser, has used these words herself recently - extreme risk aversion, and that is leading to fear and anxiety above all for members of the public who have a sense of risk with respect to their homes that is not borne out by the evidence in terms of the number of fires or the likelihood of dying in a fire in a high-rise or a purpose-built flat. Secondly, that risk aversion is leading to other market participants, whether lenders, insurers, surveyors or assessors, seeking remediation of those buildings over and above what might seem to be absolutely necessary to achieve an acceptable level of life safety.”
“I will conclude my remarks simply by noting a few other points within the Written Ministerial Statement. With the Health and Safety Executive, we will explore ways to deliver a fire risk assessment audit process that ensures assessments are carried out in a risk-proportionate way, avoiding unnecessary and costly remediation works where they are absolutely not needed. We will explore options to provide a clear route for residents and leaseholders to challenge costly remediation work. That will be progressed alongside the steps we are taking to ensure a proportionate response to risk is embedded in the market, including: developing guidelines for fire risk assessors, such as, and principally, PAS 9980 and the withdrawal of the consolidated advice note; and launching a Government-backed professional indemnity insurance scheme for qualified professionals conducting external wall system fire risk assessments to help ensure there is sufficient capacity in the market to allow EWS1 forms to be completed in a timely manner, where they are necessary, and that those conducting them feel the confidence and security to be able to do so in the most sensible and proportionate manner.”
In concluding the debate, the Minister for Housing, Chris Pincher told the house:
“It is hugely important that we take a proportionate approach to the safety of tall buildings and all buildings. The industry must take note that risk aversion is causing unnecessary financial burdens to homeowners. Remediation works should only ever be undertaken where absolutely necessary. We must not spend taxpayers’ money where it is unnecessary to do so, or ask hard-pressed leaseholders to pay for works that do not need to be done. Our Bill takes a proportionate approach. It rightly focuses on mitigating and managing risk and targeting activity only where action is needed.
The new building safety regulator is being established in the Health and Safety Executive, precisely because of its experience overseeing safety case regimes and its record of delivering robust yet proportionate regulation. The requirements of the Bill will help to ensure that proportionality is embedded in its operations.
Building owners and managers, along with lenders and insurers, need to ensure that they, too, take a proportionate approach to risk in blocks of flats whatever the height. In line with the expert evidence that we have published today, EWS1 forms should not be a requirement on buildings below 18 metres. Lower-rise blocks should not need them, and lenders should not ask for them. The consolidated advice note, which was born out of the need for safety information in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, will now be retired.
Any concerns that do exist about existing buildings should be addressed primarily through risk management and mitigation. For many thousands of people, the “computer says no” approach to risk and valuation has been hugely unfair and distressing. It must become much more proportionate. That is what our measures are intended to do—to get the market moving again.”
“I want also to assure the House that the Bill in no way absolves the sector from responsibility for paying its way. Indeed, it will place more and greater duties and responsibilities on developers, construction companies, building owners and managers than ever before, embedding the principles of safe design and construction right from a building’s inception. The new Regulator will have the skills and resources to pursue those who refuse to meet their responsibilities. We will strengthen criminal penalties throughout the Bill, making offences imprisonable for up to two years, and making directors and managers criminally liable if they decide that their companies should act unlawfully.
Those who can pay must pay. Through the Bill, we will further cement developers’ contributions to the cost of remediation, as well as increase the ability of building owners and leaseholders to seek redress. Specifically, Part 3 of the Bill contains a provision to introduce a levy, which will apply to high-rise residential buildings and will be paid by developers. That complements the residential property developer tax that the Chancellor will bring forward. Together, those will contribute more than £2 billion for remediation.”
“The Bill will give millions of homeowners new rights to seek redress for shoddy workmanship, extending the period during which they can claim from six years to 15 years. It will empower building owners, leaseholders and homeowners to take legal action, clamping down on rogue developers and their owners.
I urge all who have fallen victim to shoddy work to use the newly extended liability period to consider whether litigation is right for them and to explore who, or which group of them, can best take action. I trust that the Bill will also encourage developers and freeholders, aware of the new additional rights of their customers, to act responsibly and quickly to deal with concerns before they reach the courts.
As well as redress, the Bill will provide residents with a greater voice. It will strengthen the voice of residents and leaseholders through a statutory residents’ panel, while a formal complaints process will give residents the confidence to raise issues and escalate them where needed, including to the building safety regulator.”
The Bill was agreed to without a division as all parties agreed with the aims of the bill. It now moves on to the Committee Stage. The following day, 22nd July I spoke on the subject in the summer Adjournment Debate.
“As I have had the chance to digest it overnight, I can say that there was much to welcome in the Government’s Building Safety Bill, unveiled yesterday. I would like to thank my constituents in Portishead for taking part in the consultation; it seems that their voices were listened to. I particularly welcome the fact that there will be no EWS1 form for buildings under 18 metres, and that there will be increased duties on developers, construction companies, building owners and managers. Those who create the problems should pay to sort them out. I welcome the increased right of redress for shoddy workmanship extending to 15 years, and the increased right of building owners and leaseholders to seek redress through the Building Safety Regulator. I also welcome the potential for binding arbitration, to avoid disputes going to court. We will look for further detail during the Bill’s passage, but redress must not be determined by those who can afford to go to lawyers.
The issue remains, however, about the bills that are still dropping through my constituents’ letterboxes today. Even if the abuse of systems such as waking watch is redressed, we need to look at how to compensate leaseholders through the money already allocated by the Government.”