Grenfell Tower Fire/Fire Safety

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:12 pm on 26th June 2017.

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Photo of Sajid Javid Sajid Javid The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 5:12 pm, 26th June 2017

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 18 June, we wrote to those councils and housing associations and asked them to start sending samples. On 21 June, our combustibility testing programme for aluminium composite material started. It is run by the Building Research EstablishmentBRE. On 22 June, the Government provided advice to all these landlords about interim safety measures where a building has ACM cladding that is unlikely to be compliant with building regulations. This advice was recommended by an independent panel of experts and includes advice based on the emerging findings from the Metropolitan police investigation into Grenfell Tower.

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.