Government accused of 'abandoning' people over fire safety costs

22 March 2021, 22:29 | Updated: 23 March 2021, 18:10

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The government has been accused of "abandoning" hundreds of thousands of "innocent" leaseholders and tenants over who pays for key fire safety improvements post-Grenfell.

It comes after MPs voted by 322 to 253, a 69-vote majority, on Monday to remove a House of Lords amendment from the Fire Safety Bill.

Peers added the clause to prevent remedial costs for work, such as the removal of unsafe cladding from blocks of flats, being passed to leaseholders and tenants.

It would have required ministers to stump up the cash and then recoup it from developers, construction firms and cladding manufacturers.

The division list showed 29 Conservative MPs rebelled in a bid to keep the House of Lords proposal in the legislation.

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"The Government has got this very badly wrong and they've mismanaged their own colleagues over this," said litigation lawyer from End Our Cladding Scandal Liam Spender, "they don't seem to be listening to anyone inside or outside the Conservative party."

Shadow Home Office minister Sarah Jones said: "This was another chance for the government to allow people up and down the country to sleep at night knowing they would be protected in law from fire safety costs they did not cause.

"Instead, the government has once again broken its promise to protect leaseholders, and it is blameless people who will pay the price."

Prior to the vote, Conservative MP for Southampton Itchen Royston Smith warned that expensive bills for remediation costs are already arriving for leaseholders.

He told the Commons: "In my hand this evening I have an invoice, it's an invoice for service charges and remediation of fire safety defects, it is an invoice for nearly £79,000.

"Imagine for one moment you're trapped in a flat you've been told is unsafe. Night after night you go to bed with the fear of fire. You can't sell your flat because it's worthless.

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"Everyone knows none of this is your fault and then an envelope drops through your letterbox. When you open it, there is a bill for £78,000 to put defects right that are not of your making."

He added: "There is an economic reason for voting for the amendment and there is a political reason for voting for it. But beyond that there is a moral reason.

"If this Bill becomes law, we will be abandoning hundreds of thousands of innocent people and I'm not going to have that on my conscience."

Tory MP for Stevenage Stephen McPartland said: "Interim costs at the moment are bankrupting leaseholders up and down the country.

"Leaseholders are screaming for help, they are screaming in pain and what are we doing?

"Today we are saying to them thanks for paying the interim costs, once you've finished that we're now going to load you up with remediation costs on top. Tens of thousands of pounds that people just don't have the funds for.

"We're nearly four years on from Grenfell and it appears to me that the government has given up on those who should be responsible for paying and just pushing the cost onto leaseholders.

"It is morally unacceptable."

But Housing Minister Chris Pincher said the government could not support the proposal from peers, noting: "I am afraid to say that despite the best intentions of these amendments, and I absolutely accept the sincerity with which they are posited, they are unworkable and impractical.

"They will make legislation less clear, they do not reflect the complexity involved in apportioning liability for remedial defects."

The legislation, which clarifies who is responsible for fire safety in blocks of flats, was drawn up in response to the fire at Grenfell Tower in west London on 14 June 2017, which claimed 72 lives.

Last month, the government announced a new £3.5 billion package, with ministers insisting no leaseholders in high-rise blocks in England will face charges for the removal of unsafe cladding.