House of Lords votes to reinsert amendment protecting leaseholders from cladding costs

The government has suffered a defeat in the House of Lords as peers voted through proposals to make clear that leaseholders should be exempt from the costs of cladding repairs.

The vote in the upper house comes just weeks after ministers defeated backbench rebels on the issue in the Commons, by voting down a rebel amendment looking to exempt leaseholders from cladding cost.

Yesterday an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill tabled by the Bishop of St Albans, which effectively reinserted the rebel clause defeated in February, was passed by 326 votes to 248 in the Lords, with the support of a number of Conservative Peers.

The clashes concern the government’s Fire Safety Bill, which is designed to extend the scope of the existing Fire Safety Order to cover cladding and the external walls of buildings, including for residential blocks.

Critics are concerned the move – which they support in principle – will have the unintended consequence of immediately making thousands of leaseholders liable for huge and unaffordable repair bills unless they are specifically exempt.

Last month the government defeated the amendment after Home Office minister Kit Malthouse argued that the Fire Safety Bill was not the right place for a new law protecting leaseholders from the cost of fire safety remediation work.

However, propoising the amendment, the Bishop of St Albans said the proposed law could cause “severe dverse financial consequences” for leaseholders. He said: “In the Bill’s current form, whenever the fire service serves notice to the freeholder requiring remedial work to be undertaken, the freeholder will be able to force leaseholders to reimburse all the costs incurred. These costs are staggering.”

The view was supported by Labour, with Labour peer Lord Kennedy of Southwark saying leaseholders were being “penalised for the failure of others”. He said: “They deserve to be treated much better than they have been by the Government.”

Stephen Greenhalgh

Stephen Greenhalgh said the government was taking ‘firm action’ to tackle breaches of fire safety

Fire minister Lord Greenhalgh said he “recognise[d] the concerns of your Lordships to ensure that swift action is taken to protect leaseholders from the significant remediation costs related to unsafe cladding”, but that it would be “impractical and confusing to include remediation measures in the Bill.”

The vote in favour of the Bishop’s amendment sets up another confrontation on the issue, which has been championed by Conservative backbenchers Stephen McPartland and Royston Smith, when the bill returns to the House of Commons for its final stage approval before Royal Assent.

The news came as the government said landlords breaching fire safety regulations will face unlimited fines will be handed out to anyone caught obstructing or impersonating a fire inspector under new laws announced by the government yesterday.

Failing to record fire risk assessments for buildings will also become a civil offence as part of amendments to the existing 2005 Fire Safety Order, the Home Office said.

It means that failure to follow fire safety regulations may be considered in court proceedings as evidence of a breach of compliance.

The measures have been announced as part of the government’s response to the public consultation on fire safety which ran from July to October last year and will come into force as part of the new Building Safety Bill.

The Home Office said it intends to bring the regulations before parliament before the second anniversary of the Grenfell Inquiry’s phase one report, which was published in October 2019. 

Lord Greenhalgh said in a statement the new measures will help improve fire safety in buildings by taking “firm action against those who fail in their duty to keep people safe”.

It comes following the prime minister’s announcement yesterday that the government was considering a new tax on construction products firms to partly fund cladding remediation projects.

Boris Johnson also said that he was looking into new rules banning contractors which have engaged in “gross professional negligence” from public sector work.

The ongoing Grenfell Inquiry is currently looking into the role played by materials firms, material testing houses and construction product certifying bodies in the disastrous 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower, which claimed 72 lives.