Grenfell Tower Fire/Fire Safety

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:21 pm on 26th June 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Housing 5:21 pm, 26th June 2017

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, 22 June 2017;
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?