With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the Government’s response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy and our safety inspections of cladding in other buildings.
I know that I speak for the whole House when I express my heartfelt grief at the Grenfell Tower catastrophe. Almost a fortnight has passed, but the shock has not subsided. I have visited Kensington and witnessed the terrible anguish of those who have lost so much. In some cases, people have lost literally everything. I am sure that, like me, many hon. Members have returned from their constituencies today with the anger and the fears of residents still ringing in their ears. It is anger that a tragedy on this scale was ever allowed to happen in 21st century Britain, and fear that it could happen again. It is this fear that I want to address first.
I know that the entire country is anxious to hear what we are doing to reassure residents about fire safety in similar blocks around the country. My Department has contacted all councils and housing associations in England to identify all tall residential buildings with potentially similar cladding that they are responsible for. We estimate that number to be around 600. On
I can inform the House that, as of midday today, the cladding from 75 high-rise buildings in 26 local authority areas has failed the combustibility test. Members will rightly want to know whether their residents are affected, and my Department will publish regular updates on gov.uk.
The combustibility test has three categories rated 1 to 3, and it is judged that cladding material in category 2 or 3 does not meet the requirements on limited combustibility within building regulations. I can also confirm to the House that, so far, on that basis, all samples of cladding tested have failed. The fact that all samples so far have failed underlines the value of the testing programme and the vital importance of submitting samples urgently.
The testing facility can analyse 100 samples a day and runs around the clock. I am concerned about the speed at which samples are being submitted. I urge all landlords to submit their samples immediately. Landlords and local fire and rescue services are alerted to every failed test, and we are supporting and monitoring all follow-up action, including by dedicated caseworkers in my Department.
Landlords for all affected buildings have informed, or are informing, tenants and are implementing the interim safety measures needed, working with fire and rescue services. At this time, the safety of people living in these buildings is our paramount concern. I am determined that residents have as much peace of mind as possible in such worrying times. Landlords must keep residential buildings safe for their tenants. Where they cannot satisfy that obligation with appropriate mitigating measures, we expect alternative accommodation to be provided while the remedial work is carried out. That is exactly what happened in Camden, and I pay tribute to the residents for their brave response to such a distressing situation.
It is obvious that the problem of unsafe cladding may not be unique to social housing or residential buildings. We have asked other owners, landlords and managers of private sector residential blocks to consider their own buildings, and we have made the testing facility freely available to them. My Department is also working with the Government Property Unit to oversee the checks on wider public sector buildings. Hospitals are well prepared. Each one has a tailored fire safety plan, but nothing is more important than the safety of patients and staff, so, on a precautionary basis, we have asked all hospitals to conduct additional checks.
The Government will continue to work closely with fire and rescue colleagues to prioritise and conduct checks based on local circumstances. The Education and Skills Funding Agency is contacting all bodies responsible for safety in schools, instructing them to carry out immediate checks to identify any buildings that require further investigation. We will have more information this week.
Across the wider Government estate, 15 buildings have been identified as requiring further investigation. While that work continues, it is vital that we offer every assistance to the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. As of this morning, 79 people have been confirmed dead or listed as missing, presumed dead. Sadly, it is believed that this number will increase.
As the Prime Minister told the House last week, the initial response of the emergency services was exemplary, but the immediate support on the ground was simply not good enough. A remarkable community effort sprang up overnight while official support was found wanting. That failure was inexcusable, and it is right that a new team and approach is now in operation. We have activated the Bellwin scheme and sent significant central Government resource, including a single point of access into Government provided by the Grenfell Tower victims unit, operating from my Department. Staff from six Departments are offering support at the Westway assistance centre and a family bereavement centre in Holborn.
The Government have also set aside £5 million for the Grenfell Tower residents discretionary fund, with more than £1 million already distributed. Each household affected is receiving £5,500 to provide some immediate assistance, and so far 111 households have received payments. The British Red Cross is operating an advice line for anyone affected or in need of support. It is just one of many charities, faith organisations and businesses that have provided invaluable assistance to victims. I can announce to the House today that the Government will contribute £1 million to support their efforts. That money will be new money. It will be distributed to a local consortium of charities, trusts and foundations that are working together to respond to this tragic event.
Our other priority has been to find survivors a safe and secure place to live. The Prime Minister made a clear commitment that a good-quality temporary home would be offered within three weeks to every family whose home was destroyed in the fire. Every one of those families will also be offered a permanent social home in the local area. That work is under way and the first families moved into their homes over the weekend. Last week I also announced that the Government had secured 68 homes in a new development in Kensington to rehouse local residents. We will do everything we can to support the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, now and in the future, and I will regularly update the House on our progress.
As the Prime Minister said in her statement to the House last week, the disaster at Grenfell Tower should never have happened. There is an ongoing police investigation and there will be an independent, judge-led public inquiry to get to the truth of what happened and who was responsible. Building regulations and the system for ensuring fire safety in buildings have been developed over many decades. Until the Grenfell Tower fire, many experts would have claimed that that system had served us well. But now we have witnessed a catastrophic failure, on a scale that many thought impossible in 21st century Britain. It is clear that that failure must be understood and rectified without delay, and the Government are determined to ensure that happens. As an initial step, I can inform the House today that I am establishing an independent expert advisory panel to advise the Government on any steps that should immediately be taken on fire safety. Further details about the panel, including its members, will be released shortly.
This tragedy must never be forgotten. It should weigh heavily on the consciousness of every person tasked with making decisions that ensure that it can never, ever happen again.
I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement, and for what he has told the House. As he has said, the shock from this truly terrible, tragic fire at Grenfell Tower has not subsided, and neither has the fear. As the Prime Minister said in her statement last week, the Government’s response, both national and local, was not good enough in the early days. Nationally, it is still not good enough. Hundreds of residents of Grenfell Tower and their relatives are still struggling to keep their lives going in the face of this gravest loss, and hundreds of thousands of residents in 4,000 other tower blocks across the country are still wondering whether their homes are safe, worried about sleeping at night and want to know what the Government are doing to ensure their safety.
Trust is so low in the local community around Grenfell Tower that I welcome the local gold command leadership. I welcome the key workers who are in place to provide each household with support and advice, and I welcome the £1 million paid so far in immediate assistance payments. However, the Secretary of State has made a promise to rehouse all Grenfell Tower residents in the local area within three weeks. It is now nearly a fortnight since the fire. How many people are covered by that pledge? Two weeks on, is it correct that 370 households are still in emergency accommodation? How many have so far been found permanent new homes, or even the “good-quality temporary” homes mentioned by the Secretary of State? By what date will all residents affected by the fire be in a permanent new home? Finally, as those residents move, will the Government guarantee that the children will still be eligible to attend their same schools?
More widely, Ministers talk too loosely about the buildings that have been tested so far. The Prime Minister said last week:
“We can test more than 100 buildings a day”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 626, c. 169.]
Will the Secretary of State make it clear to the House that the Government’s “testing” is only of cladding samples sent in by councils and housing associations? The Government say that more than 600 tower blocks with cladding need safety checks, so why, five days into the programme, have only 75 tests been done so far? Why have all failed? Importantly, will he confirm that cladding is just not the whole story? We know this from both coroners’ reports in 2013, into the Lakanal House and Shirley Towers fires. We may well find that from investigations into Grenfell Tower, as the fire there broke into almost every floor of the building.
We need from Ministers a much more thorough review of fire safety in all the country’s residential tower blocks, a total commitment to action to deal with any problems, and a guarantee that the Government will help to fund the costs. That also applies to other public buildings such as schools and hospitals, over which similar doubts may hang.
The issue of costs is crucial because some significant work and alterations have to be done, and quickly. Will the Secretary of State make funding available up front—not after the event through the Bellwin scheme—for any council or housing association that needs it for recladding or the installation of sprinklers and other fire prevention measures, starting with the highest-risk high-rise blocks and those with sheltered accommodation? Will he lift the central cap that he currently places on local authorities’ housing so that they can borrow and invest to ensure that their residents are safe?
I welcome the independent expert advisory panel, but frankly the Secretary of State is wrong to say that many experts would claim that our buildings regulation and fire safety system serves us well. Many experts have said exactly the opposite, especially since the two coroners’ reports four years ago into previous tower block fires. Will he now act on the recommendations in those reports?
There really should be a triple fire safety lock around buildings and works on them. First, the materials must be fit for purpose and meet safety specifications. Secondly, fire safety systems must be in place and fire risk assessments done regularly. Thirdly, building regulation and control must make sure that design, construction and any further works are fully safe. Instead, the update that the Secretary of State has given us this afternoon suggests a collapse of the fire safety control and check system. It is not working and it must change.
Finally, what is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that when the Prime Minister said that we simply had not given enough attention to social housing in this country, those were not merely empty words? What is he doing to make sure that this terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower means a profound change of course on housing in this country?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments—in particular, his support for Gold Command and the relief effort on the ground in Kensington.
The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions. I can give him some updated numbers on rehousing the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The commitment that we have rightly made is that every single one of the families whose homes have been destroyed—both at Grenfell Tower and in the neighbouring Grenfell Walk: together, some 144 units—are guaranteed an offer within three weeks of temporary housing in the local neighbourhood; we have defined “the local neighbourhood” as Kensington and Chelsea, but also the neighbouring boroughs.
So far, some 373 hotel rooms are being occupied; that represents 153 households from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk and 220 households from the cordon area. Individual housing assessments have been done for almost all those from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk; the work is led by Westminster City Council, with support from a number of other councils across London. If any have not been done, that has been through choice: people have asked that their assessment be delayed because they are not ready. We are, of course, respecting their wishes. In respect of those whose assessments have been done, there have already been 59 offers of temporary accommodation.
As I am sure hon. Members will understand, we are finding that some families want to take their time to make a decision on the temporary accommodation. In a number of instances, some of the families have quite understandably first asked for something in Kensington as close as possible to where they lived, but when they have been shown the home and seen what is left of the tower they have understandably changed their minds and asked for some other options. We are working with them at their pace. Our commitment is that they will all be made offers within the three weeks, although they will not all necessarily be in the temporary accommodation within that time. We have to respect their choice when they are made offers. If they change their minds, we want to accommodate that.
The other issue is that some families actually doubted us when we said that the initial accommodation is temporary. One family I met in the Westway Centre on Friday said, perfectly understandably, “How do we know temporary is temporary? How do we know that you’re not just going to leave us there and not find us better quality, more suitable and permanent accommodation?” When I probed a bit further, the family said they were told that Grenfell Tower would be temporary accommodation when they first moved in, but they were still there 17 years later, so I absolutely understand their concerns. In that case, I had to make a personal commitment to that family. That worked; they are now in temporary accommodation. We want to work with each family at their pace to get them what they deserve and need as best we can.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the testing facilities. I can confirm that the testing facility operated by the Building Research Establishment is testing the cladding material only. That is so important because, besides the whole building structure, the material itself has to meet minimum combustibility standards. The test tries to achieve that. So far, 75 tests on samples have taken place and all 75 have failed.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s statement that cladding is not the whole story, as it goes much further than that. One example is what has happened in Camden. The result of the cladding test for Camden triggered further investigations by the local fire service and the London fire commissioners. When the commissioners went into those tower blocks in Camden, they found, in their own words, multiple fire safety inspection failures, which, frankly, should not have happened in tower blocks of any type, and certainly not in those tower blocks in Camden. There were problems with gas pipe insulation, some stairways were not accessible and there were breaches of internal walls. Most astonishingly, literally hundreds of fire doors were missing. Camden Council itself estimates that it needs at least 1,000 fire doors because they were missing from those five blocks. That has nothing to do with the cladding. Something has clearly gone drastically wrong there. These issues need to be looked at very carefully to find out why this is happening in this day and age in our country.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about costs. We have been very clear that local authorities and housing associations must not hesitate at all. As soon as they learn about any action and necessary steps that they need to take to ensure public safety in terms of fire risk, they must take that action. If they are not able to pay for that themselves, we will of course work with them and put a financial support package in place with the individual organisation.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about what more we can do now. I am sure that he understands that we can do some things now in this immediate and urgent situation, but that there are also longer-term lessons to learn. Some will come from the public inquiry, but we cannot wait for the final results of that inquiry. Hopefully —it is up to the judge—there will be an interim report, but work can be done much sooner than that. That is one reason that I am putting the independent expert panel in place, and I would be very happy for the right hon. Gentleman to meet and have access to that panel.
The right hon. Gentleman’s final point was about social housing. I absolutely agree that there are very big lessons to learn about the quantity and quality of social housing. There has been massive investment of record amounts in social housing over the past six years. More than 330,000 new units have been created, and more council housing has been built in the past six years than in the 13 years before that. We can do a lot more, but it is much better if we work together.
There will be no more tragic matter treated of in this House in this Parliament than that which is before us now, in consequence of which I want every Member who wishes to contribute to the exchanges to have the opportunity to do so. It might, however, help the House if I point out that there are a would-be 52 contributors in the debate to come. As a result, there is a premium upon brevity from Back and Front Benchers alike, now to be brilliantly exemplified by Mr Duncan Smith.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the action he is taking, the urgency with which he is seeing this process through and the way he wants to drive it through, but to return to the points raised by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, there is one issue we need to revisit in parallel and to get on with as fast as we can. My main concern is that, as we look at the cladding and all the other issues, such as the windows in these tower blocks, which can explode into flames if they are made of the wrong type of glass—that is often overlooked among the other things, such as the fire doors—we should really ask ourselves the simple question, and have a real review into, whether it is necessary any longer in many cases to have these older tower blocks, and whether we would not be better off taking a very strong decision to bring some of these tower blocks down and to provide much better, much more family-friendly low-rise, or even council house, accommodation. Will my right hon. Friend comment on that?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks— he makes a very good point. Our most urgent work right now is to make existing tower blocks safe, but there are also longer term consequences, and that includes looking at our whole approach to social housing and the quality of social housing.
I would like to take this opportunity to extend my sympathies and those of the SNP to those who have been affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy and those who face worry as they wonder about their accommodation tonight. I am glad to see the proposal to give funds to local charities, which is very welcome, but I would like to ask a few more questions on the statement.
First, will there be funding from central Government for mitigating measures and alternative accommodation where local authorities face expensive remedial work? That work may take a significant time, and residents will need to be housed and perhaps compensated during that period. Will there also be additional funding for the fire service, which was clearly not able to carry out fire safety work on, for example, the blocks the Secretary of State mentioned in Camden?
Will the tenancy agreements for those moved into temporary and more permanent accommodation be equivalent to, or better than, the tenancy agreements they had in Grenfell Tower?
It was clear—the Minister’s response acknowledged this—that the official response was not good enough, although I make these points in the spirit of helpfulness and not in any way on a party political basis. In Scotland and in Glasgow, we have a well-developed resilience strategy involving all local authority bodies. Will the Secretary of State look at the way it is implemented at local government level? Will he also look at how building regulations in Scotland compare with building regulations in England?
Is it possible to have Scottish representatives on the advisory panel the Secretary of State mentioned, so that they can share some of that experience and that different approach? Lastly, the Scottish Government have already established a short-term ministerial working group on building in fire safety. Will there be a means for it to report to the inquiry?
I thank the hon. Lady for all her important points and questions. On funding, we have made it clear that all the local authorities and housing associations absolutely must do all the necessary work, and we will work with each of them to make sure they have the funding they need if funding is preventing them from doing that work.
On the tenancy agreements for the Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk residents, the terms will be the same or better, whatever housing they eventually receive—whether it is temporary or permanent.
On Scotland, the hon. Lady made a good point. Scotland has already identified around 500 high-rise buildings with cladding, but none of them has ACM cladding. Scottish building regulations certainly deserve a closer look, and as we do a wider review, we should certainly take that into account.
The most worrying thing in the Secretary of State’s statement was when he said that none of the examples of cladding so far had met the requirements in the building regulations but had clearly been fitted to buildings. May I urge him to make that the first thing he asks his independent expert advisory panel to look at? If we have widespread non-compliance with existing building regulations, that is the most urgent thing we need to deal with to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy elsewhere in the country.
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. That is a very urgent question that is already being looked at. Once we have the independent panel established, which will be from tomorrow morning, that is one of the first things it will be tasked with.
I have heard some very ill-informed comments about tower blocks here. As the only architecture expert in the House, as far as I know, I am happy to give a lecture about the safety of well-maintained tower blocks. Concrete-framed tower blocks are safer than Victorian terraces, for example. But that is for another day.
I have heard this morning, shockingly, that people who have concerns about their immigration status or lack of documentation are still not coming forward, and are sleeping rough, and some have been told that they may not be eligible for housing and medical services, and may be reported to the Home Office. Will the Secretary of State please make a firm commitment now, and communicate it widely, that immigration status will not be a barrier to help from medical and housing services, and nor will they be reported to the Home Office, so that traumatised and frightened people have no fear in coming forward?
First, I thank the hon. Lady for the reassurance that she has been providing to her constituents, many of whom are looking for support from across Government and elsewhere. She has been a very reassuring figure locally, and I thank her for that.
On her particular question on immigration, I can absolutely give her that assurance. We have already made it clear that any information that anyone coming forward provides either to Government or local government will not be used for any kind of immigration check. That has been put in a letter that has been given to every affected family. If the hon. Lady has some further suggestions about how we can get that message out, as I think we should follow up on those, I would be very happy to listen.
I welcome the rapid pace of testing of the cladding. It is shocking to hear that so many tower blocks are unsafe. We have heard about the situation in Camden, where tower blocks are being evacuated. Does my right hon. Friend expect other councils to manage evacuations of tower blocks?
Thankfully, no other councils have come forward so far with a need to have an evacuation. There are many more tests to take place, so I do not want to prejudge them, but hopefully what has happened in Camden will be a rare occurrence. As I said earlier, in the case of Camden, in particular, the cladding was a trigger for further fire safety inspections, but it was the massive failure of those further fire safety inspections that caused the evacuation.
I thank the Secretary of State for rightly commending the bravery of the 3,000 residents who were evacuated from their homes in my constituency on Friday. In the past few days, residents have repeatedly brought up the closure of Belsize fire station, which was 500 metres away from the tower block in question. Will the Secretary of State give his support to reopening Belsize fire station, which was closed by the former Mayor of London in 2014, so that my residents can feel safe in their homes again?
Of course, local fire and rescue services must have the resources that they need, but in the assessment that was done with Camden in recent days, there is nothing to suggest that that was the issue that might have led to an evacuation. As the hon. Lady is rightly concerned about her constituents, I am sure that she will be hugely concerned with what has come out of the fire inspection report on the towers in Camden, particularly the issue around the fire doors. I am focusing my efforts right now on making sure that Camden can get all that remedial work done, with significant help from Government to ensure that those fire doors are in place as soon as possible.
Regrettably, it would appear that unsafe cladding is widespread. It exists where there are Labour councils, Conservative councils, and councils of other colours; it was put up during Labour Administrations and Conservative Administrations. Does the Secretary of State share my concern and regret, therefore, to hear some party politicisation of this tragedy, and hope that we can all work together across parties to make sure that it never happens again?
I agree very much with my hon. Friend. As I said in my statement, clearly some things have gone drastically and catastrophically wrong. It has happened over a number of decades. If we are going to put that right, we can do it if we all work together.
Will the Secretary of State inform us whether any samples of cladding have been received from Coventry for evaluation? Has he taken up with the Chancellor of the Exchequer the question of making money available from the central Treasury contingency fund, which is usually very large and was established precisely for this sort of disaster?
I will first attend to the question about Coventry. As I have said, 26 local authority areas have done tests that are public, but not all of them have told the residents of their respective towers. Coventry is not on the list of those that have gone public. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that, if Coventry were one of those, it would contact its local MPs individually. On funding, local authorities also have reserves for unforeseen circumstances. Some local authorities will certainly want to use their reserves.
May I commend my right hon. Friend for his extensive statement to the House? All our thoughts must still be with those affected by these dreadful events. I welcome the systemic testing of cladding material. What would be the legal ramifications if landlords failed to make use of that service or, indeed, to ensure that their property is safe? Secondly, does my right hon. Friend agree that local authorities should review the use of high-rise accommodation for disabled and very elderly people?
Let me start by addressing my right hon. Friend’s final point about disabled and very elderly people. Of course, special circumstances will be required in situations such as evacuation in case of fire. That should certainly be taken into account by local fire services looking at those buildings and carrying out a further inspection. On the legal ramifications, if a landlord does not submit something for testing when there is good reason to do so, it is the legal responsibility of every landlord in the country, whether the property is social or private, to make sure that it is safe in every way for tenants, and there will certainly be action.
Although I welcome the announcement about an independent expert advisory panel, the Government have historically had the Building Regulations Advisory Committee. It has not met for five years, but it sounds as though the independent advisory panel will do the same job. What is the difference between the two?
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done over a number of years to promote fire safety. He has secured this evening’s Adjournment debate, to which my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, will respond. I am sure that will enable the hon. Gentleman to further explore his question and others. In the light of the tragedy, this particular panel will possibly have a broader remit, and its membership might also be broader, including through taking on international experience.
The horror of Grenfell Tower will remain with victims and their families and friends for generations. Will my right hon. Friend expand on the role of the victims unit, in particular the work it is doing with children who have lost a parent and those adults who have lost the English-speaking member of their family?
The victims unit, which is now based in my Department, has a number of officials from at least six Departments. The idea is that if any victim, family member or friend has any issue that central Government can help with—it might relate to immigration, tax and benefits or housing—they would have to deal with only one individual, making it much easier for them.
I am grateful for the statement and share the Secretary of State’s grief, anxiety and shock at the Grenfell Tower catastrophe. When tower blocks fail fire safety tests, and when urgent mitigating measures cannot be done to make those buildings safe, what he has said to date does not reassure many Members, because local authorities and housing associations will need funding support to help them provide new housing for those residents affected. What consideration has been given to declaring this a civil emergency, so that central Government funds can be provided to housing associations and local authorities trying to rehouse local residents?
I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that funding is already being provided by central Government in certain circumstances. We have made it clear that if there is an issue and the remedial work to make a property safe cannot be done immediately, as was the case in Camden, the local authority should not hesitate but should take action immediately, regardless of cost, to make residents safe. When the local authority needs funding support, we will work with it and provide that support.
I thank the Secretary of State for his full and detailed statement. I am sure that all Members on both sides of the House are united in their determination that the horrific events at Grenfell will never happen again. I am enormously encouraged by the announcement that there will be a full public inquiry. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment that that inquiry will not be allowed to drag and that it will happen as soon as possible? We need answers, and quickly.
My hon. Friend refers to the public inquiry that was announced by the Prime Minister last week. It will be a judge-led fully independent inquiry. We should not prejudge the terms of the inquiry because they will be set by the judge. The issue of timing is important, but it is also important to ensure that the victims are properly represented, as the Prime Minister has promised that they will be.
The Secretary of State referred to cladding but not to insulation. He will know that the police and the fire service have raised serious concerns about the way in which the insulation spread the fire at Grenfell Tower. What is being done about insulation? Is it now time to require that insulation materials are tested as well? Will there be transparency about what insulation materials were used in Grenfell Tower, and should those materials be banned in tower blocks and other properties?
The right hon. Lady is right to raise that issue, and the police report on Grenfell Tower rightly focuses on it. I will not say anything more about Grenfell Tower, as it is important that I do not get involved in that, but, more broadly, it is possible that a test could show that cladding was category 1, which is the correct type, but that the insulation was the wrong type. Since the police report, we have worked with the Local Government Association to update the advice that is going to local councils. We are looking at what is the best way to respond and to ensure that insulation is also looked at properly.
Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that this tragedy has been politicised so heavily by senior members of the Labour party? How long does he think the public inquiry will take to come to conclusions? Is there any evidence that the panelling has been used in countries other than ours?
What the public want to see—this is what they are seeing today in this Chamber—is everyone working together. The timing of the public inquiry will be up to the judge, but it is hoped that the judge might see fit to produce an interim report that we can act on much more quickly.
I want to press the Secretary of State a little further on funding for local authorities. Most of them do not have vast reserves but are struggling with 40% funding cuts. There is still not sufficient clarity on exactly where and when the Government will step forward with funding. It is needed not only for places that need sprinklers and to get rid of cladding but, crucially, for rehousing. Will he say exactly what the national Government will fund?
I can only repeat what I said earlier: whether it is removing cladding, taking other necessary action to improve the fire safety of buildings or rehousing, local authorities should get on with it, just like in Camden. The first thought there was not, “How exactly are we going to fund this?” The council rightly got on with action and made the tenants safe. The Government will then work with those local authorities that cannot afford that to provide necessary support.
As someone who previously worked for Shelter, may I thank that organisation and all the other charitable organisations that are working so hard in the constituency to do what they can for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire? What is the Government’s timeline to rehouse all the displaced Grenfell survivors from temporary accommodation into long-term, stable homes in their local community?
We welcome the hon. Lady to the House and look forward to her bringing the benefit of her experience in that and other sectors to our deliberations.
On the timeline, the offer of temporary accommodation will be made within three weeks. On permanent accommodation, we have already found a number of units. Some people are starting to look at them, and my expectation is that we can hopefully do that within months and move very quickly, as long as that is what the tenants want. I, too, welcome the hon. Lady’s experience at Shelter. She may be aware that Shelter is giving tremendous help on the ground in Kensington to a lot of the tenants who have concerns over whether temporary really means temporary, and I hugely welcome that.
On funding, basically the Secretary of State has said that the Government will work with local authorities and housing associations to provide funding if they cannot afford to carry out the work. Will he explain precisely what that means and what criteria he will use? Is it not fundamentally wrong to expect other social housing tenants to pay for this work through either increased rents or less maintenance of their properties? Will the Government bring forward a comprehensive finance package that provides not merely increased borrowing for organisations, but the actual cash to pay for this work?
The hon. Gentleman will know that, as we speak, it is a legal requirement for local authorities and housing associations that they ensure that the homes they offer to tenants are fit for habitation. They should be meeting those requirements already. I gave the example of Camden; it should already have been meeting those requirements. Despite that, if authorities and associations are not able to do that from their current resources, they should get on with the job and meet those requirements, and we will work with them and give them the support they need.
It is good to be back, Mr Speaker.
Ann Jones, the Assembly Member for the Vale of Clwyd, has brought forward her own legislation to introduce sprinklers in all new-build houses in Wales. I am a firm believer in the dictum that out of badness comes good. What happened at Grenfell Tower was bad—it was a tragedy. Can we use this disaster to open a complete review of fire safety across the UK, not just on the issue of cladding, but on insulation, containment, emergency lighting and especially sprinkler systems, and for not just high towers but other vulnerable housing, such as houses of multiple occupation?
Approximately one in three properties in Westminster towers are leaseholds and I am sure the same is true for other blocks. Does the Secretary of State have the power to require leaseholders to install fire doors and other internal fire safety measures? If not, what is he going to do about it and who is going to pay?
The hon. Lady raises a very important point. This is often the case, although not exclusively. Many leaseholders have removed fire doors, which is clearly not acceptable. I believe that all the legal powers are in place. Certainly, one of the lessons of this tragedy—this is certainly what we have seen in Camden—is to make sure we take a much greater interest in enforcement.
The Secretary of State said in his statement, “Landlords must keep residential buildings safe for their tenants.” The experts all agree that sprinklers save lives. Sympathetic words are simply not good enough. Fitting sprinklers would cost far less than the deal the Government have stitched together with the DUP. Let us have no more excuses. What is more important to the Secretary of State: clinging to power or preventing fire deaths?
Was the Secretary of State’s Department aware of the fire at the Lacrosse tower in Melbourne in 2014? It had cladding similar to that at Grenfell Tower. What lessons did the Department for Communities and Local Government learn from that fire? Should it not have prompted a review of the cladding of tower blocks in this country?
The important point that the hon. Gentleman highlights is that we can benefit from international experience, whether that comes from Australia, Europe or elsewhere. That is certainly one thing we should look at as we learn the lessons.
It is important that we are clear on this. The coroner did not say in her 2013 report that all high-rise buildings should have sprinklers; she said that they should be considered where they are appropriate.
I want to follow on from the point made about immigration status by my very welcome hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad. Having worked with people with a very fragile immigration status who have suffered a trauma, I know that until people have a stable immigration status, they will never feel safe to speak out. The Secretary of State asks what we can do. We could give those people a message today that we will fast-track them for indefinite leave to remain, with access to public funds, so that they can go through the inquiry without fear or favour. Will he agree to that?
It is a very important point. I think we can show appropriate sensitivity to victims who feel that they have challenges with their immigration status and treat them more favourably.
Public inquiries are slow, lumbering instruments of change, as we found with the Chilcot report and the Savile inquiry, which took nearly a decade. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that we will not wait until we have inquiry reports for remedies, but that as soon as remedies are obvious and required, we will act instantly, because the danger is so high and the anxieties are so widespread?
The Secretary of State is right that profound lessons need to be learned from this tragedy, such as why fire service checks on high-rise blocks have been cut by 25% since 2010, but in the here and now, urgent action is necessary. There are 10,000 households in 213 tower blocks in Birmingham where rightly anxious tenants want action. Birmingham City Council has pledged that it will retrofit sprinklers to all those blocks. That will cost £31 million, but the council is suffering the biggest cuts in local government history and therefore urgently needs Government support. May I therefore ask for a straight yes-or-no answer? Will the Secretary of State guarantee that Birmingham City Council can go ahead and carry out that work, and that it will be refunded in full?
Birmingham City Council, like every other council, has a legal responsibility to its social tenants, so it should do whatever it believes is necessary. As I have said before, if there is an issue with funding for necessary works, we will provide the support.
May I praise the swift response of the Welsh Government and Cardiff Council in responding to the concerns of residents in Cardiff South and Penarth, which has more than 14,000 apartment units, and urge Vale of Glamorgan Council to come up with some answers as soon as possible?
Will the Secretary of State look at the issue of estate management companies? I have seen very variable records of action on fire safety and response to concerns across many privately owned tower blocks in my constituency. Quite frankly, some of them are not living up to their responsibilities in terms of staffing, resourcing and looking at issues such as fire door, sprinkler and fire alarm safety.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. One of the lessons from this tragedy and what we are learning now is that we should look at the private sector much more carefully, including estate management companies.
Thirteen Group owns most of the social housing across Teesside. It paid for fire-retardant and non-toxic cladding for the balconies at Kennedy Gardens in Billingham in my constituency but ended up with flammable, toxic material, which is now being removed. One thing was paid for and another dangerous alternative was provided. Does the Secretary of State agree that frauds such as those ought to be investigated and those responsible prosecuted?
The Secretary of State said nothing about the cause of the fire. I realise that product safety is a matter for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but given that this is his statement, will he say when the tests of the fridge-freezer model that caused the fire will be complete, whether other fires have been caused by this model and whether he will immediately change the advice that owners of this model can continue to use it, pending the outcome of the tests?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary and his Department are speaking to not just the manufacturer of the fridge-freezer concerned with regard to Grenfell Tower but a number of other manufacturers of white goods, some of which already have products on recall. The pace of recall is, frankly, far too slow, and my right hon. Friend is taking that very seriously.
Between 2010 and 2015, the Department for Communities and Local Government reduced its staff capacity by a higher proportion than any other Department—almost 40%. As a member of the Communities and Local Government Committee in the previous Parliament, I saw that in many areas the Department is clearly very stretched. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the number of staff in the Department is being increased, so that it can co-ordinate the national response to all aspects of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in an efficient and timely manner, including providing emergency support to any council that requests it?
I want to echo what colleagues have said about the need for certainty on funding coming into councils. As the Secretary of State will know, Bristol is facing £104 million of cuts over the next few years. We need to know whether we have to make other cuts. May I press him on a couple of changes that would help us to raise our own finance? One is scrapping the annual rent reduction rule, and the other is allowing us to spend all right-to-buy receipts on new housing, which would free up other money for investment. Will he talk to Bristol City Council about being able to do those two things, which would help us to pay for this work ourselves?
In the light of the pressures on local authorities, it would make sense to look carefully at policies that may help them to meet some of the challenges, and that is something we have already started doing.
Last week, the Prime Minister informed us that the DCLG would write to us with an update on safety tests of all tower blocks. There are 63 tower blocks in Lewisham, Deptford, but I have yet to receive any information, despite writing to the Minister and requesting the promised update. Will the Secretary of State provide an update now, and will the Government, having been asked umpteen times, commit to fully fund the fitting of sprinkler systems and any associated costs, to ensure that people’s homes are safe?
In the wake of the awful disaster at Fukushima, the German Government shut down all their nuclear plants, fearing that a catastrophe such as that could happen on their soil. Surely after an event like the Grenfell Tower tragedy, we should be looking to put sprinkler systems in all our tower blocks.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should certainly do whatever is deemed necessary by the local fire and rescue service—the fire safety experts—and ensure that we take all the action they recommend to keep our citizens safe.
I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that what happened at Grenfell Tower was a national disaster. The Treasury contingency fund exists exactly to provide funding in these sorts of disasters. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor about releasing money to ensure that all remedial work and accommodation on an emergency basis is funded directly by central Government for local authorities and housing associations?
May I praise the staff, officers and leader of Ealing Council, who stepped in to run the relief effort at the Westway centre when Kensington and Chelsea was overwhelmed? I am informed that standards at Ealing are higher than at RBKC. I do not know whether that is the case, but surely any inconsistency needs addressing, with minimum stringent requirements that apply across tenure, even to student halls of residence—we have a lot of high-rise halls in my seat—and that are in place well before the inquiry ever sees the light of day.
I very much agree with the hon. Lady’s praise for the leader of Ealing, in particular for the help provided at the Westway centre. Ealing has taken this seriously in its response, like every council across London, but it is important that other councils do the same.
I have been contacted by many constituents concerned about our local hospital. Hull Royal Infirmary is a tower block and had cladding put on a couple of years ago. I note that the Secretary of State said that additional checks are being made on NHS properties. Are we likely to have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health about the outcomes of that investigation?
I note from the Secretary of State’s statement that he has asked owners, landlords and managers of private sector residential blocks to consider their own buildings, but there are around 150 such privately owned residential blocks in Nottingham alone. What is he doing to ensure that those owners, landlords and managers do not just “consider” but act to ensure the safety of their residents? What is he doing to support local authorities, such as Nottingham City Council, that are working to secure such reassurances on behalf of their citizens?
First, we are reminding all the owners of those properties of their existing legal responsibilities. We have done that through their trade organisations, letting agents and other bodies. Secondly, we have made our testing facility available to all of them free of charge. We will keep monitoring that, but right now my absolute priority has been the more recently clad buildings held by local authorities and housing associations that have cladding similar to what was at Grenfell Tower.
Five tower blocks in my constituency were found on Saturday lunchtime to have this dangerous cladding. By Sunday lunchtime it had all been removed. I praise the housing authority, the local authority and the fire and rescue service for working together. That work was done quickly and the buildings are safe, but obviously more work needs to be done to put them into a good state. Can the Secretary of State assure me that funding will be made available not just to local authorities—the local authority in my area does not have properties; there was a total stock transfer—but to the smaller housing authorities with that responsibility? Will the correct funding be made available to put right those works? Also, when tower blocks or other buildings are retrofitted, they might comply with building regulations at the time but things change, so will the building regulations be looked at to ensure that when that happens more checks take place?
I can confirm to the hon. Lady that our commitment on funding and providing support where necessary for those who need it also applies to housing associations.
The Secretary of State said in his statement that the problem of unsafe cladding might not be confined to residential buildings. It is also not necessarily confined to high-rise tower blocks. There is a particular concern about sheltered housing, which was described to me as, in many cases, a tower block turned on its side. Will the facilities for testing where cladding has been applied to those buildings also be made available?
The truth is that we in this country have for far too long tried to do social housing on the cheap, and in the end that decision by this country has killed people. I fully understand why the priority now is primarily residential property, but my hon. Friends are absolutely right: there are workplaces, too, that are probably dangerous. Indeed, the fire at the Glasgow School of Art showed that very old buildings are sometimes in the most danger, because they have lots of timber walls and floors that can easily spread fire from one part of the building to another. This building is one such. We have had hundreds and hundreds of warnings, but we have not acted on them. We have a fire alarm system so antiquated that it no longer works. When will the Government make sure that we do the work that this building needs?