I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry.
I begin by expressing my deep sympathy to all those who lost family members and other loved ones in this terrible tragedy. Their suffering is beyond imagining. Our thoughts also go out to all those who lost their homes and possessions in the fire. Since that terrible event of
I pay tribute to the men and women of our emergency services, many of whom risked life and limb in their efforts to tackle the fire and showed extraordinary courage in their determination to save lives. Equally important, I pay tribute to the many volunteers and charities that have given their time and much, much more to help the bereaved and those who have lost their home.
Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the chair of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, is currently consulting on the scope of the inquiry’s terms of reference, so this debate provides an opportunity for Parliament to express its views on the inquiry before the terms of reference are set. Of course, it is most important that the chair listens to the views of those most affected by the tragedy and takes account of those views when considering the scope of his inquiry’s terms of reference, but I am sure Sir Martin will want to reflect on the views expressed in this House today—we should all be conscious that the survivors of this terrible tragedy will also be listening.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way so early. Does he agree that it will be important to have an interim report? If there are recommendations that address crucial safety issues with high-rise blocks, clearly, they need to be attended to as soon as possible.
My right hon. and learned Friend is correct, and he may be aware that there is an intention to produce an interim report as soon as is practical. I am conscious that one of the great wishes of many survivors, and of the groups representing them, is for as many of the questions as possible to be resolved as quickly as possible.
I am sure there will be lots of comments on the scope of the report during this debate, and I do not want to widen it too far, but can the First Secretary of State assure the House that the scope will include private blocks and not be confined to social housing? In my experience as a city centre Member of Parliament, it is often much more difficult for residents of private blocks with opaque ownership and unresponsive managing agents than for residents of social blocks to have their voices heard.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. I cannot guarantee what the terms of reference will be, because that is obviously a matter for Sir Martin, but one of the purposes of this debate is precisely to allow such views to be expressed. I am happy to assure her and the House that the testing regime for the safety of blocks does extend to private blocks.
Will the First Secretary say what has happened to the independent recovery taskforce, which was announced about a week ago by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? We do not know who the members are, what they are doing or whether they have been to Kensington. If the taskforce has not yet been convened, will he reconsider sending in commissioners, particularly given what we heard this morning? We heard that the person to whom the taskforce is reporting, the new leader of Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council, despite being a councillor for 11 years and a cabinet member for five years, has not seen fit to go into any of the tower blocks in her borough.
Is the First Secretary saying that the taskforce has no executive authority and that executive authority remains with the council? Is there a distinction between the taskforce’s powers and the powers that would be available to a commissioner, if one were appointed?
The taskforce will be overseeing what the council does but, as I have said to other Opposition Members, it will report to the Secretary of State, who can then decide the appropriate way to proceed. The taskforce is independent of the council, is not reporting to the council and will oversee what the council is doing.
The Prime Minister rightly identified the immediate priority when she announced the inquiry: establishing the facts of what happened at Grenfell Tower in order to take the necessary action to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. The inquiry will fulfil that purpose and will report in two phases, with an interim report being published as quickly as possible.
Beyond that immediate focus, it is also important that all the wider lessons from this catastrophe, and from the inspections of other buildings around the country that followed it, are identified and learned. Sir Martin has said:
“I should make it clear that I shall want to consider a broad range of evidence, including on the role of the relevant public authorities and contractors, in order to help me answer the important questions.”
I am grateful to the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), for answering my written question on the privatisation of housing functions in Kensington and Chelsea Council. I find it extraordinary that there is no central management, nor even records kept, of housing contracts within the housing department. We now have a situation where there is no accountability and no transparency on the nature of local authority contracts with the private sector involving housing, or on the degree to which housing contracts are subcontracted to other private providers. In view of this tragedy, will the First Secretary advise me on whether there are plans to revisit that policy?
There is clearly a large range of issues on which the inquiry may wish to make recommendations to the Government, and the hon. Lady has put that thought on the record. As I said, I imagine that Sir Martin will wish to take note of the views expressed in this debate.
On a wider point, my right hon. Friend will appreciate that many survivors suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning. Of course, carbon monoxide is known as the silent killer. Will he ensure that, among the many other lessons that are learned, the planned review of carbon monoxide alarms actually goes ahead in October 2017?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. A range of lessons need to be learnt from this terrible tragedy. As he knows, an expert panel with a range of skills and expertise across a number of areas will be helping the inquiry. Again, he raises an important issue that not only the Government but the inquiry itself will want to consider.
The First Secretary is right that no stone should be left unturned in uncovering the truth behind the horror that was the Grenfell Tower fire. On wider lessons and action in the meantime, Birmingham has 231 tower blocks and the city council has rightly decided that it will retrofit sprinklers in all of them, costing £31 million to a council that has suffered £700 million of cuts to its budget. Will the Government unequivocally commit to funding all the necessary safety measures, pending the outcome of the inquiry?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that the necessary safety measures recommended by the fire service will be met by the Government. The inquiry is designed to ascertain the causes of the tragedy.
For clarity, the First Secretary has just made an important statement. Is he saying that the necessary safety measures to protect 10,000 households in 231 blocks will be funded by the Government?
For clarity, I will go all the way through this. If the fire service recommends that something needs to be done for safety reasons, the local authority will be the first port of call to pay for it—I am sure all local authorities will want to follow the fire service’s recommendations on this. If a local authority can show that it cannot afford it, central Government will obviously then step in. That is a matter for local authorities and the fire service in the first instance. Clearly, that is the sensible way to proceed.
I have been very generous in giving way and I really need to make some progress.
The inquiry will need to examine all relevant circumstances leading up to and surrounding the fire at Grenfell Tower, its spread to the whole building and its effect on residents. That necessarily means looking at circumstances well beyond the design, construction and modification of the building itself. It will mean looking at the role of relevant public authorities and the contractors, and the broader implications of the fire for the adequacy and enforcement of relevant regulations. It will also mean looking at the handling of concerns previously expressed by local residents.
May I make some progress and then I will give way? I am conscious that many Members want to contribute to this debate. I have been extremely generous in giving way during my opening remarks, and I think the House will benefit from making progress.
Sir Martin is highly respected, and as a recently retired Court of Appeal judge he brings with him many years of judicial experience. He and the Government fully agree that, for this inquiry, consulting on the terms of reference is an important way of involving those affected by the tragedy. It is clearly right that those affected by this terrible tragedy, and others with an interest, are given the opportunity to shape the terms of reference, which will in turn give direction and focus to the inquiry. Sir Martin has started that consultation process and is keen to give as many people as possible the chance to contribute to the consultation. He will consider all suggestions made to him when drawing up the terms of reference. He will then make a recommendation to the Prime Minister, who under the Inquiries Act 2005 is responsible for setting out the terms of reference.
May I do so in a moment? I will give way again, but first I wish to finish this section of my speech.
I will quote Sir Martin at length, because this is at the heart of many of the issues that have arisen:
“I am determined to establish the causes of the tragedy, and ensure that the appropriate lessons are learnt. To do this, the Inquiry will need to examine all relevant circumstances leading up to and surrounding the fire at Grenfell Tower, in order to understand its causes and prevent such a tragedy ever happening again.
To produce a report as quickly as possible, with clear recommendations for action, I will listen to people and consider a broad range of evidence, including on the role of the relevant public authorities and contractors, in order to help me answer the important questions.
I therefore want to hear from people directly affected by the fire and others involved, to listen to their views on the shape of the Inquiry’s work and the questions we should be seeking to answer.”
That is clearly the right approach. Sir Martin has set a deadline for comments of Friday
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I am heartened to hear about the inclusivity of the inquiry, and public safety must be at its forefront. Will the inquiry look back historically and look into the effectiveness of the fire regulations and enforcement regime introduced in 2005 and 2006 respectively?
My hon. Friend raises a valid and important point. I assure her that the expert panel, which covers a range of different expertise, is already looking at that, and it will feed into the inquiry.
Following on from the question asked by Rebecca Pow, the building regulations should be due for review. In this country that usually happens every 10 years, and 11 have now passed. The Lakanal House inquiry recommended in 2013 that building regulations should be reviewed. The Government have been saying since 2011, including after Lakanal House, that that would be done by this year. We do not have to wait for a public inquiry to say that building regulations should be reviewed. When will the working party be recalled, to show that that work is under way?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has huge experience and expertise in this area. I assure him that the expert panel is considering whether any advice needs to be given urgently to the Secretary of State to act on.
The First Secretary is right that there should be a consultation on the remit to try to help rebuild the local community’s trust in the inquiry, but is he prepared to go further? Should not there be an advisory panel made up of genuine and diverse community members?
The right hon. Gentleman may know that a similar group, namely Grenfell United, has already brought together many other groups. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Alok Sharma, had a long and extensive meeting with the group last night. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the views of those most affected are being fed to Sir Martin directly, and they are also in direct communication with the Secretary of State.
In terms of the potential appointment of panel members, the priority at this stage is for consultation on the terms of reference, which once agreed will allow the inquiry to start work. The chair will then want to consider what other expert assistance might be required and how that should be provided to the inquiry, including the process of consultation.
I assure the House that Government work is already in hand to address issues highlighted by this terrible tragedy. The Department for Communities and Local Government and the Cabinet Office are working together across the piece and on the wider building safety programme, about which I know hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned. DCLG has written to local councils and housing associations, calling for checks to social housing. A survey of the public sector estate began on
Is the First Secretary aware that a lot of DCLG advice has been contradictory? It initially informed us that certain kinds of cladding had to be removed, but then its position changed and it said that certain kinds of cladding could still be safe as part of fire safety systems. There was also a lack of clarity about whether that testing regime was compulsory. That appeared to be the initial position, but now we have been informed that the Department was responding to landlords’ concerns. Is the First Secretary aware that such flip-flopping is causing a lot of confusion and concern, including among tenants?
The expert panel, which I have mentioned on a number of occasions, includes precisely the people to provide advice and it continues to do so. Its advice has been consistently followed by the Department because it has that expertise. It may well discover more and decide that its advice needs to change, but it is all done on the basis of fire safety experts who are independent of Government.
I grew up in a two-bed flat in a council block and the traditional advice was always to stay put and await rescue. I wonder how many souls perished following that traditional advice. Will the advice change?
That issue may well be addressed by Sir Martin in the public inquiry, which is clearly the appropriate forum for that sort of investigation.
Even as we speak, and before the inquiry has begun, new tower blocks continue to be constructed and developed in my constituency and around the country. What new advice has been issued to planning authorities, those who monitor construction standards and the building industry?
The expert panel published new advice last week in a memorandum of understanding about what should be done about new blocks, so that issue has been addressed very directly over the past month.
On the points that were just made, I have constituents with disabilities who live in tower blocks on higher floors who have expressed great concern about what they should do in the event of an emergency. Sometimes they have been given conflicting advice about, for example, whether people in wheelchairs should be using lifts, which is contrary to general advice. Will the First Secretary encourage the inquiry to consider people with disabilities who live on higher floors?
As the hon. Lady will know, rules are already in place to cover precisely that type of thing. The best advice is obviously that those rules should be obeyed. The fire safety advisers are looking at what happened and what should happen in future, but it will be the local fire safety authorities that give that advice. I am sure they will all have been looking carefully at the advice they have been giving, particularly to people in wheelchairs and so on, who clearly will be understandably concerned about whether they are getting the right safety advice. I advise the hon. Lady to talk to her local fire safety officials.
Over the past month, the Cabinet Office has established a cross-Government working group called the public estates response group, with a technical sub-group to ensure that all technical advice is understood and is being properly applied. The Government are ensuring full engagement and alignment with activity in the devolved Administrations—I am conscious that they will be concerned as well. As I said, DCLG has formed an expert advisory panel made up of a range of building and fire safety experts to advise the Government on any immediate action required to ensure that buildings are safe. The Cabinet Office is working with DCLG’s expert panel and others to establish a remediation plan and the next steps towards the review of building regulations that several Members have asked for. All that work is under way outside the inquiry’s timetable, so its completion will not be dependent on the publication of the inquiry’s report.
Some of those affected by this terrible event are concerned that an inquest would be more appropriate than an inquiry, and that the inquiry might delay the identification of those who died. I can reassure them that there will be an inquest: the coroner, Dr Fiona Wilcox, is already investigating the deaths—that is a statutory duty. Once the identification of each of the deceased has been completed, I understand that the coroner will open the inquest into each individual death and then adjourn proceedings pending the outcome of other investigations, including the inquiry. The coroner will consider the inquiry’s recommendations to determine whether to resume the inquests. The process will not delay the formal identification of victims.
I can reassure those who want a criminal investigation into this terrible tragedy that that is in hand. The Metropolitan police announced the investigation on
“identify and investigate any criminal offence and, of course, given the deaths of so many people, we are considering manslaughter, as well as criminal offences and breaches of legislation and regulations”.
That point was reinforced on Monday by Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt, who said:
“The investigation we are conducting is a criminal investigation that quite obviously is starting from the potential that there was something that effectively amounts to the manslaughter of those people.”
It is clear that it will be a rigorous, detailed investigation; the police are determined that, if wrongdoing has occurred, the perpetrators will be brought to justice.
The Grenfell Tower inquiry’s task is of the utmost importance to establish the facts and make recommendations about the action needed to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. The Government will provide the inquiry with all the resources it needs to complete its work thoroughly and rapidly. This was a terrible tragedy; we must learn the lessons to ensure nothing like it can happen again.
It is four weeks to the day since the truly dreadful Grenfell Tower fire—the worst fire and greatest loss of life in this country since at least the London blitz. One hundred and fifty-eight families have lost their homes, and many others have lost loved ones. All are struggling with the horror and trauma of losing family members, of their own escape, and of being left with absolutely nothing. This is the time when they should feel that they can look to their council and their Government for help, as well as to the overwhelming solidarity and support of their local community. But so many do not, and so many feel that they simply cannot trust those in authority to listen to them and do what they promise. This is a very strong message to Ministers, Kensington and Chelsea Council and the chair of the Prime Minister’s public inquiry.
Today is one week on from the Prime Minister’s deadline for everyone affected to have been found a home nearby, yet just four of the 158 families from Grenfell Tower have moved into a fresh home—and those are only temporary. Today is 24 days on from the start of the Government’s testing programme; the Prime Minister said that we could test more than 100 buildings a day, yet only 224 tests have been done, almost all on one type of filler in one type of cladding. Today is four years and four months since two official coroners’ reports following other fatal tower-block fires, yet the Government have still failed to act on their recommendations. And today is almost three weeks since the Prime Minister said that
“we simply have not given enough attention to social housing”—[Official Report,
Yet, in her speech yesterday crying out for ideas—any ideas for a domestic policy programme—there was no mention of housing and no mention of the words “social housing”.
This is the measure of the Government’s response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy: too slow to act; too slow to grasp the gravity and complexity of the problems; and one step off the pace at every stage. Let me spell out to the First Secretary and his colleagues the pledge that the Labour party makes, as the official Opposition, to, above all, the survivors and the relatives of the families from Grenfell Tower: we will not rest until all those who need help and a new home have it; until all those culpable have been brought fully to account; and until all measures needed to make sure that this can never, ever happen again are fully in place.
We welcome the Prime Minister’s public inquiry and what the First Secretary said about this debate helping to inform the terms of reference and the way the inquiry will be conducted. We will make a submission to the Prime Minister on the terms of reference and recommend an approach like that of the Macpherson inquiry, with the appointment of panel members with deep experience in community relations to help to overcome the serious gulf in trust that many in the north Kensington community feel.
Let me turn to housing and the help for the survivors. The pledges that the Government have made to the families and the survivors—no-strings financial assistance, open access to trauma counselling, guaranteed school places, no legal action on immigration status or sub-letting, and rehousing—are all welcome and important. But there is still a big gap between what Ministers are saying to us in the House and what the residents and the community in north Kensington are saying is happening to them.
On housing, how is it, one week after the Prime Minister’s deadline, that only four families have moved into a fresh home and 13 others have been offered somewhere they feel they can say yes to? Who is finding, checking and offering this temporary accommodation? Who is providing the reassurance needed for the families? Who is in charge?
The right hon. Gentleman is making a good point, and of course these people, their homes and rehousing them is of the utmost importance, but to politicise the figures and to argue—[Interruption.] I do not know where he is getting his figures from. I was led to believe that 139 people had received offers of accommodation and many families have agreed not yet to engage, because they are not quite ready—we cannot force them to either. I am not sure where the statistics are coming from or whether all the scaremongering about statistics is helping to solve the actual problem, which this Government are getting on with doing.
The First Secretary’s speech to this House was fact and figure free. If I am wrong about the fact that only four of these families, after nearly one month, have moved into a fresh home—a temporary home—and the rest are still in hotels, he can get up and correct me, but he is not doing so. The hon. Lady talks about scaremongering and political point scoring, but it is precisely the decisions and policies of those in power that the Grenfell Tower residents want challenged. And it is precisely the questions of policy, ideology and responsibility in government that lie at the heart of the deep changes needed to fix the housing crisis in this country, and her own Prime Minister has recognised that.
Just to clear up any confusion there is in the right hon. Gentleman’s mind: 159 families have been offered accommodation, as my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow rightly said. Some of those have said—I heard the leader of Kensington’s council say this this morning—that they do not wish yet to make the move into the housing they have been offered. Of course everyone across the House will recognise that we need to meet those wishes. These people have to decide how they can try to cope with this, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that 159 of the families identified have been offered accommodation—some of them have been offered more than one type of accommodation. That commitment has been met.
I think the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government may want to set the record entirely straight when he winds up this debate. I take the First Secretary at his word for now, but last week we were told that 158 families lost their homes in Grenfell Tower, and 139 had been offered accommodation by the Prime Minister’s deadline. Last week, only three had moved out. This week—today—four weeks on, four had moved out and only a further 13 have actually been given offers that they feel they can accept. There is a huge gap between what Ministers are saying here and what residents are saying there. That is the problem, and the question to the First Secretary and the Secretary of State is: who is sorting this out? Who is in charge? Who is responsible for this continuing failure to provide the homes and the start again that people need? I am sure the First Secretary would accept that a hotel room is no home and that temporary accommodation is no place in which to try to rebuild a shattered life. So the top and the urgent priority must be for Ministers to find the permanent homes that are needed.
We welcome the 68 homes in Kensington Row that now will be available, as social housing, for the residents of Grenfell Tower. The rest could be done straightforwardly by doing a deal with local housing associations to make new homes available; by leasing or buying vacant private properties in the area; and by funding the council to build or acquire the new homes needed. The Government might even force Kensington and Chelsea Council to use some its reported £274 million in reserves to take this urgent priority action.
Most of the residents who have been decanted are in budget hotels—I know that as I have visited a number who were unceremoniously dumped in my borough by Kensington and Chelsea Council, without money, a change of clothes or anything of that kind—and have been there for four weeks. None of those people are there because they want to be there; they are there because they have not been made appropriate offers. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that the Government should stop this sophistry and get on with offering decent, permanent homes to people who have suffered extraordinary trauma?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about that. He speaks with a special authority, as a neighbouring MP who has spent a great deal of the past four weeks in the North Kensington community, working alongside my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad to try to support and give voice to the concerns of survivors.
Let me move on to the issue of safety testing. It is totally unacceptable, four weeks on from the Grenfell Tower fire, that Ministers still do not know and cannot say how many of the country’s other tower blocks are unsafe. The Government’s testing programme is too slow, too narrow and too confused. This is a testing programme in chaos. Only 224 tests have been done, yet an estimated 530 tower blocks have the same cladding and we have a total of 4,000 tower blocks across the country. That means that 24 days after the start of this testing programme, which we were told could test 100 buildings a day, we find that tests have been done on only half the highest-risk blocks and on fewer than one in 20 of the total number of tower blocks around the country.
Last week, the Secretary of State said that there was “no backlog” in testing and that tests would be processed within a matter of “hours”. Given the continuing shortfall in the number of high-rise buildings that have been subject to testing, does my right hon. Friend share my bafflement that the Government do not appear to know where any of this material actually is?
Yes, I share my hon. Friend’s bafflement entirely. I also hear of councils and housing associations that want to test their buildings, which may not have the same type of cladding, but simply cannot get the tests. I note, again, that the First Secretary’s speech was entirely free of any facts or figures that can update the House on the chaos of this testing programme.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that Camden Council has done the testing in my constituency and, as a result, has evacuated more than 3,000 people from the Chalcots estate. The council is spending its own money to try to ensure that the buildings are fit for purpose before the residents are placed in them again. Does he agree that the Government should be giving financial support to councils such as Camden after cutting their budgets for years on end?
The short answer is yes; the longer answer is that I pay tribute to Camden Council for taking the tough decision that it had to make in those circumstances. My fear is that other housing associations, councils and landlords of high-rise blocks around the country will hold back or perhaps cut corners because they know they cannot afford to do the works required—either to remove and replace cladding, or to make the inside safe and fully fire-safety compliant—and that they will do so only because they cannot get a straight answer from this Government on a clear commitment to up-front funding where it is needed to make sure that this essential work is done. The situation leaves hundreds of thousands of residents in tower blocks around the country still uncertain as to whether their block is safe.
I hope that Ministers will stay to hear the debate because a number of colleagues from around the country will set out concerns about the testing system, including the problem that landlords and residents are confused. The testing system does not meet the needs of those residents or landlords. We know from the Lakanal House fire that cladding is not the whole problem—nor, I suspect, was it in Grenfell—yet only one component of one type of cladding had been tested until very recently. We are therefore talking about no tests on cladding systems, on insulation materials, on the interaction between cladding and insulation, on installation, and on the fire breaks between floors. I can tell the First Secretary of State and the Secretary of State that housing associations across the country, such as Bradford-based Incommunities, cannot get their type of cladding tested, so they cannot reassure their residents that their tower blocks are safe. Councils such as Salford have stopped stripping off cladding from their high-rise flats because they have no guidance from Government on what to replace it with.
I wish to comment on that point in relation to Hounslow Council. I commend it for the speed with which it was able to de-clad a block in my constituency, but it has hit some of these concerns about what to replace that cladding with. Given the amount of re-cladding that might take place across the country, I am worried that the producers of that cladding could jack up the prices, thus making the replacement even more expensive.
My hon. Friend is right. Her council, like Oxford, is in the dark on this—it simply does not know what the Government’s guidance and advice will be. If it takes off the cladding, what does it replace that with, because the council must be certain that it is safe?
The First Secretary of State rightly made great play of the panel of independent experts in his speech. The panel is there to advise Ministers on the urgent lessons that need to be learned and the action that needs to be taken, and that is very welcome. I hope that the panel can help the Government to get back on track and deal with some of the following concerns, which Ministers will hear about from colleagues right across the country. What advice will the Government give to landlords—and what reassurance will they give to residents—if cladding systems pass the new second round of tests despite the fact that they failed the narrow first test? If cladding fails the Government’s tests, must it be taken off tower blocks in all circumstances, and will the Government cover the costs of taking it down and replacing it? When will councils and housing associations be able to get other cladding or insulation tested? How will the Government make sure that all internal fire safety works that are now being carried out inside tower blocks meet the highest safety standards? Will the Government launch an immediate review into the approved inspectors responsible for building control checks, as well as who hires them, who pays them and who approves their qualifications, starting with all those responsible for signing off the systems that are being failed by the Government’s tests?
Four weeks on, Ministers must widen their testing programme and reassure all high-rise tenants that their buildings are safe, or commit to fund the urgent work necessary to make them safe. The clearest warnings that the system of fire safety checks and building controls was failing came more than four years ago following the inquest into fatal tower block fires at Lakanal House and Shirley Towers. Both coroners wrote formal rule 43 letters to Ministers with recommendations to improve fire safety in high-rise buildings. Such letters are written by coroners only when the Government can prevent further loss of life—that is their importance. Some of the recommendations were simply rejected, such as making internal cable supports fire resistant and providing onsite information about a tower block to firefighters arriving to fight a blaze.
Ministers said that they would act on other recommendations, but they have not. The Government passed all responsibility for retrofitting sprinkler systems on to landlords. In 2014, one Minister even said:
“We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government.”
“this work will now need to be informed by any recommendations that the independent inquiry into Grenfell Tower fire makes.”
Rather than waiting months or years to start this work, Ministers must put this right now. They must start installing sprinkler systems in the highest-risk high-rise blocks and start the overhaul of building regulations, into which any findings from the fire investigations or the public inquiry can be incorporated.
Has my right hon. Friend picked up on the rumour about the review of building regulations in the Department for Communities and Local Government? I have heard that the review was paused because the civil servants who were leading on it were put on to other work related to Brexit. If that is true, how many other pieces of essential, urgent and safety-related work are on pause in government right now?
I had not heard that rumour—I prefer to deal with the facts in front of us—but my hon. Friend is dead right that there is a serious question of capacity in DCLG. There is an even greater question over leadership, which I shall come on to in a moment.
Finally, I want to turn to the “fundamental issues”, as the Prime Minister described them, that were raised by the Grenfell Tower fire. When a country as decent and well-off as ours fails to provide something as basic as a safe home for its citizens, things must change. Let me mention two areas, the first of which is regulation. Surely Members in all parts of the House would agree that all markets, organisations and consumers require regulation to guarantee quality and safety, to ensure fair practice and to stop abuse, yet that is not the current Government’s mindset. Never again can we have a Government Minister who, when challenged on fire safety measures after the fire in Camberwell, said that they were not the Government’s responsibility, justifying that with the “one in, two out” approach to regulation. If the Prime Minister and First Secretary of State are serious about change, they should start by confirming that that approach came to an end with the Cameron-Osborne era of Conservative government.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. He and the House might like to know that when I was a junior Business Minister, people from No. 10 and the Cabinet Office asked me whether we should get rid of fire safety regulations for girls’ and ladies’ nightdresses and furniture. I said no. We did not get rid of them, nor should we have done. He is absolutely right that we have to change the culture.
I am grateful for that unexpected support from the Liberal Democrat Benches. The right hon. Gentleman’s very important and specific point supports my general argument.
The second area is social housing. For decades after the second world war, there was a national cross-party consensus about the value of social housing to help to meet the housing needs and aspirations of many ordinary families. There is a recognition that there has been only one year since the second world war in which this country has built more than 200,000 new homes without the public sector doing at least a third of them. This is the first Government since the second world war to provide no funding to help to build new social-rented housing, and they have also ended all funding through the Homes and Communities Agency programme for decent homes, which is investment to bring social housing up to scratch. If the First Secretary of State and the Prime Minister were serious about social housing, they would lift the cap on councils borrowing to build and maintain their homes, restore central Government investment to help to build new social housing, guarantee “first dibs” on new homes for local people, and strengthen the hand of councils to get better deals from big developers for their residents.
Finally, we hear that the Prime Minister wants us to “contribute” rather than just “criticise”. I have to ask this: has she asked her Cabinet to contribute? What does the Secretary of State have to contribute to solving the country’s housing crisis; to doing more on social housing; to reversing the plunging rate of home ownership, especially for young people; to giving 11 million private renters basic consumer rights; and to preventing the rapidly rising numbers of homeless people sleeping on our streets? Where is the plan? Where is the hope? Where is the leadership? If the Prime Minister wants a domestic policy programme, and if she wants to find common cause and to make fundamental changes to Government policy, we stand ready to contribute—we offer our Labour housing manifesto, published last month, as a starter.
If the Government want our support for a plan to tackle the country’s housing crisis, they must raise their sights. If Ministers want our support for their recovery programme post-Grenfell, they must raise their game.
I agree with John Healey on one aspect: he is right to say that this accident should not have happened in a country such as ours. He is also right to argue for a national and clear approach that does not just concentrate on one issue but considers all the issues involved.
Slightly uncharacteristically, the right hon. Gentleman was not prepared to accept—at least he seemed not to—that, over the years, both main parties have made mistakes in this area when in government. If he thinks back to 2005-06, when the enforcement regime was weakened and the building regulations changed, he might wonder whether that tackled the problem. The previous Labour Government also had a deplorable record on building houses. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can be holier than thou in this debate, as he was tempted to be.
I should like to pay tribute to the local community for all it has done at the Westway centre. People were generous and warm-hearted; they put their arms around the victims’ families. Our thoughts are, correctly, with the victims and families, but I pay tribute to the communities of Latimer Road and the Westway, who come out of this very strongly.
It is time that fires that claim lives in high-rise buildings were a thing of the past. In February 2005, there was a fire in Stevenage in my constituency, at Harrow Court, a high-rise, 17-storey block of flats. Two firemen lost their lives, including my constituent Jeff Wornham; a member of the public died as well. Jeff came from a family who are very committed to public service. He was extremely brave in the fire and saved lives. His loss was felt in my constituency and by his family, friends and the fire service in Hertfordshire more widely.
The incident led to a fire investigation by Hertfordshire fire and rescue service—a very good service with a lot of experience of dealing with hazardous materials. It fought the Buncefield fire as well as that could have been fought. It is generally a highly respected fire and rescue service, and one of its recommendations was that the UK fire service should explore options for high-rise buildings to have provision for sprinklers. I felt at the time that that was an important matter, and we had a Westminster Hall debate about Hertfordshire firefighters’ safety. The then fire Minister, Sadiq Khan, met Jeff’s father, Robert Wornham, and fire safety experts to discuss the case for sprinklers being retrofitted to all high-rise blocks; sprinkler experts also went to the meeting. That retrofitting has not happened, but Robert Wornham still believes that it is an important way of helping to ensure fire safety in such blocks. He contacted me recently to say that he hoped that the issue can get back on the agenda.
After 2007, the rules were changed for new buildings more than 30 metres high, which are now required to be fitted with sprinkler systems. Some local authorities have gone ahead and retrofitted sprinklers to some of their blocks. As the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne mentioned, coroners have recommended retrofitting sprinklers on two occasions. But that has not been the general rule. We need a national approach—something clear.
The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association estimates that the cost of fitting a system in Grenfell Tower would have been about £200,000. We need to establish the truth of what happened in Grenfell Tower and make sure it does not happen again. I hope that the retrofitting of sprinkler systems can be firmly and urgently considered, because that may be long overdue.
I turn to the investigations that have been ordered. There is a police investigation, which will look at criminal wrongdoing, but it is good that a judicial public inquiry has been announced by the Prime Minister. The two types of investigation have different purposes. Public inquiries investigate issues of serious public concern, scrutinising decisions and events. The Inquiries Act 2005 ensures that witnesses can be compelled and documents brought forward without any difficulties—something that did not happen with other forms of inquiry.
Public inquiries are different from criminal investigations, but the parallel criminal investigation into the fire that is being carried out by the Metropolitan police will be informed by the public inquiry. Facts are given and recommendations made in a public inquiry, and if the inquiry comes across criminal activity during its investigation, it will obviously pass that information to the police. That is its duty.
There has been some discussion nationally about the choice of chair for the public inquiry. People from all over the world come to our country to have their legal issues resolved. They come here because we have independent-minded judges who do not mind telling the Government where to get off when they are wrong. Our judges are of the highest quality and there is a transparent system that people trust. That is why the English legal system has been copied all over the world, and why people respect it so much. Our common law system is excellent.
The choice of chair for the public inquiry is a senior judge. Think of the Hillsborough case, over which a senior judge presided. Nobody would argue that such judges are not capable of dealing with a complex case and getting right to the heart of the issues. The Lord Chancellor asked the Lord Chief Justice for a recommendation of a judge who would be best suited to leading a public inquiry of this sort. The Lord Chief Justice recommended Sir Martin Moore-Bick. Sir Martin is one of our most respected judges, with extensive experience of trying complex cases, including the investigation of disasters. He was vice-president of the civil division of the Court of Appeal—one of our most senior judges—until he retired in December. He will be thorough and get to the heart of the issues.
Members in all parts of the House are determined that there will be justice for victims of the tragedy and for their families. I believe that the combination of a judge-led inquiry and a police investigation will achieve that. We can judge how well a judge will run an inquiry by how speedily he gets on with the matter in hand. By immediately consulting—he opened the consultation on
It is welcome that the chair has been so open to ideas, and that he said he wants to establish the terms of reference as soon as possible, so that the inquiry can begin making sure that we know what happened and how to stop it from ever happening again. I am personally a strong supporter of a judge-led inquiry, and I hope it will be possible to have a relatively early interim report that will deal with some of the key issues, such as sprinkler systems and cladding, so that we have the national, clear approach mentioned by the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne. I am a strong supporter of the inquiry, and I would like sprinklers to be strongly on the agenda.
The Scottish National party welcomes the Government’s announcement of a full public inquiry into this terrible tragedy. But we are clear that, as others have already said, no stone should be left unturned in ascertaining not just the immediate cause of the fire but the wider causes of what happened and what went wrong in order to ensure that the appropriate lessons are learned and to get justice for those affected.
Our thoughts and sympathies are very much with those affected by this terrible tragedy, and it goes without saying that we pay tribute to the bravery and professionalism of the first responders and the emergency services who dealt with the matter. I want to address, though, the scope and nature of the inquiry. I am glad to say that the days when inquiries in the United Kingdom were establishment whitewashes are long over. Our modern society could not tolerate the sort of cover-up we saw in the now notorious Widgery tribunal after the Bloody Sunday massacre, or the delay that occurred before the Hillsborough families found justice. However, we should always be mindful that the history of inquiries has seen many examples of justice being delayed and being denied altogether.
It seems that this most often happens when those affected by death and disaster come from among the ranks of those who do not have wealth, power or influence in our society. I am thinking about the fleeing unarmed Catholic civilians who were shot dead by the Army on Bloody Sunday while protesting for their basic civil rights, and the innocent Liverpool football fans who were unlawfully killed at Hillsborough while going about their lawful business and then wrongfully blamed for so many years for being the cause of their own deaths. Those two incidents are very different from the Grenfell Tower inquiry, but I was struck by the words of one Grenfell survivor that were recently brought to my attention by the Scottish journalist and commentator Lesley Riddoch. The man’s name was Mehed Egal, and he told the BBC:
“We are not poor people, we are working-class people. We are leaseholders. We are homeowners. We pay tax. We pay council tax. We make the economy turn while the rich put us in hazardous positions. I’m not going to hold back—we have been neglected from the get-go and we are neglected still.”
Those words may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but they cannot and should not be ignored as they come from a survivor and someone who lived in the tower block.
Underlying this tragedy is the stark contrast in our society between those who have wealth, power and influence, and those who do not. What I mean by that is that it seems unthinkable—to me, at least—that those with power, wealth and influence would have been condemned to live in accommodation that seems to have been such a death trap. The tragedy raises real questions about the inequalities in our society and the inadequate provision of social housing in cities such as London. There is real issue as to whether the inquiry will be of adequate scope to address not just the immediate causes of the fire and its rapid spread, but systemic issues underlying the tragedy. The terms of reference are vital. It is also vital that the participants have confidence in the chair, and that all participants have adequate funding to ensure representation and equality of arms. I will take each of those issues in turn.
The Stephen Lawrence inquiry is often considered an exemplar of what an inquiry should do. It is worth remembering that that inquiry’s terms of reference were simply,
“matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence.”
In the Grenfell case, the survivors are concerned about some comments made by the judge chosen to chair the inquiry that suggested, at an earlier stage, that the inquiry will be restricted to issues relating to how the fire started, rather than examining wider issues about Grenfell Tower, the council, central Government, and the management and funding of social housing.
I note that the Communities Secretary last week told the House that the Government expect the inquiry to be as broad and wide-ranging as possible, and the First Secretary has today addressed the way in which there can input into the framing of the terms of reference. What is not clear is whether this House will be able to scrutinise or have any input into the final framing of those terms of reference. In my view, a way should be found to enable that to happen because the Grenfell fire raises issues that concern the public and our constituents all across the UK.
Constituents have written to me, concerned about the extent of the death toll and its composition, which seems to include the poor, immigrants, the elderly, disabled people and undocumented people—people who are sometimes forgotten in society. Members of the public are concerned that the fact seems to be that a refurbishment budget for the block was spent with an emphasis on cladding that was pleasing to the eye, rather than fire-safe, and about the suggestion that not enough was spent on fire safety measures. They are also concerned about the adequacy of the response to the fire. People have asked, “Where was the publicly funded infrastructure dealing with relief? Where was the plan for the aftermath?” We need to ensure that the inquiry’s terms of reference encompass those matters, while ensuring that the interim report deals with the immediate fire safety issues.
We should never forget that the decades of failure to investigate properly what happened at Hillsborough began with the controversial decision by the coroner in the inquest to close off certain questions from proper investigation, so we must be very careful not to close off from proper investigation certain questions arising from how the fire came about.
Turning to the chair, the problems with the historical child abuse inquiry show that it is vital to have a chair who commands the confidence of the victims. As a lawyer, I will not cast any aspersions on Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s ability to chair the inquiry, but the residents’ concerns about his ability must be respected and listened to. Doubt surrounding public confidence in his suitability cannot be ignored because it will undermine the efficacy of the inquiry.
The hon. and learned Lady knows as well as I do that we are talking about a judge who has dealt with the most complex matters and disasters. How can she say that somebody of that sort of ability, who has been hand-picked to do the job by the Lord Chief Justice, is not the right sort of person to run a judicial inquiry?
That is not a decision for me. I am bringing to the House’s attention the perfectly valid concern of local people about the judge’s ability to chair the inquiry. I was careful to preface that—[Interruption.] Will Sir Oliver Heald let me develop my point?
Sir Edward Davey, who is no longer in his place, said that a properly diverse expert panel is required to sit alongside the inquiry judge to advise on a variety of issues. A local organisation, BME Lawyers 4 Grenfell, has made a number of demands, including that there should be such a properly diverse panel to advise on issues including housing need, and fire and safety construction. I respectfully suggest that doubts about the ability of the judge may be allayed if that suggestion is followed. [Interruption.] Whether Conservative Members like it or not, it is vital that the people affected by the disaster have confidence in the ability of the constitution of the inquiry to bring about a just result. We do not need to look far back in British history to see many examples where that has not happened, and which shame us.
I am going to develop my point. I will give way in a moment.
All that I and others are asking is that the Minister gives serious consideration to the demand that, in addition to the judge, there should be a properly diverse expert panel that has the proper expertise to advise on issues concerning housing need, and fire and safety construction. We lawyers are not necessarily experts on housing need. The point is that we may need a bit of assistance from somebody who is.
People take cases against the Government to our courts the whole time. Judges are keen to do the cases properly, and they kick back the Government on numerous occasions, as everybody in the House knows. Is the hon. and learned Lady really saying that one of the most senior judges in our country will not be able to do an independent and objective job of the highest quality? [Interruption.]
As has been said by a colleague from a sedentary position, that is not what I said. This is not litigation; it is a public inquiry. All I am saying is that the Government have already accepted that a panel of advisers is required. The point I am making is actually quite simple: the panel of advisers should be of suitable expertise and diversity to inspire confidence.
Another thing we need to do to ensure justice is done is to make sure that not only victims but tenants’ groups are given public funding for independent and separate legal representation sufficient to enable them to have a voice equal to that of local and national Government and the private management company. This is a simple matter of human rights and equality of arms, and I was pleased that, when I asked the Prime Minister about this on
“those who require legal representation, that will be funded by the Government” and that she was not going to
“set any limits in relation to the types of body or the individuals for whom”—[Official Report,
funding would be available. I welcome what she said, because although funding and proper representation are matters for the inquiry, the inquiry can work well only within the constraints imposed on it by the Treasury. If the tenants’ groups are not represented in this inquiry, I fear that justice will not be seen to be done.
Finally, before I say something about the position of the devolved Administrations, which the Minister alluded to, I want to turn briefly to question of the inquiry’s recommendations being properly implemented. It is vital that this House is empowered to make sure that the recommendations are implemented promptly, because important recommendations are not always implemented promptly. We have already heard about the recommendations after the Lakanal House fire. After a tower block fire in Irvine, in Scotland, in 1999—just before devolution—a Select Committee of this House recommended that all cladding on high-rise dwellings should be non-combustible. Subsequent to devolution, that report was taken seriously by Scottish housing authorities, and building regulations in Scotland were duly amended in 2005. All new high-rise domestic buildings in Scotland are therefore fitted with non-combustible cladding, or a cladding system that meets stringent fire tests, and with sprinklers. The same recommendation was seen as optional south of the border, and it appears now that that has had tragic consequences. So it is vital that this House finds a way to make sure that the inquiry’s recommendations are properly implemented.
I join the tributes that have been paid to the victims and the first responders. Many people in Scotland, including in my constituency, still live in tower blocks. Despite the reassurances my hon. and learned Friend has provided, they will nevertheless be looking to the recommendations that come from the inquiry’s report. Does she agree that there will be lessons to be learned across the UK and that it is important that assurances are provided not just to the constituents she mentioned earlier but particularly to people who continue to live in tower blocks?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I have many tower blocks in my constituency, and I was pleased that the City of Edinburgh Council, in very early course, had all elected representatives in to tell us what investigative steps it was taking to make sure these high-rise blocks were safe.
As I have indicated, Scottish building standards are devolved, and the Scottish Government have already set up a ministerial working group to make sure that our buildings are up to scratch and that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is satisfied with the standards in all local buildings. I am pleased to say that all 32 local authorities in Scotland have been able to confirm that none of the high-rise domestic properties they own use the type of cladding we understand was used on Grenfell Tower. However, the Scottish Government are not being complacent, and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service will continue to carry out additional operational assurance visits to high-rise buildings. The Scottish Government will continue to monitor the situation in Scotland, gathering information from local authorities and taking a proactive and safety-first approach to this issue while we await information from the investigation into the fire in London.
The point I have sought to make in my contribution is that the way this inquiry is set up—the framing of the terms of reference, and the way in which the expert panel that will advise the chair is made up—and the funding that is made available to all relevant participants are vital for justice to be seen to be done, and we cannot cut corners on any of those things. There is widespread concern across the United Kingdom about the circumstances surrounding this fire, and all our constituents, but particularly the people local to this fire, need to be satisfied that justice is done and seen to be done.
The House struggles on occasions such as this to get the tone of the debate right. When Members of this place awoke on
I pay immediate tribute to the local Member of Parliament, Emma Dent Coad. She has not been here very long, but in no time at all she has done her very best to support local residents. So I congratulate her, and I think that the House will come together at least on that point.
There are no words that are adequate to describe our feelings about this horror. The fire started on the fourth floor at one in the morning, when most of the residents were asleep. Within half an hour, a towering inferno took place. It was truly shocking to turn on our TV screens in the morning and see what had happened. This was just a month ago.
This House has a huge responsibility in terms of how we deal with this matter in the debate, and the tone must be moderate. Recently, an article was written by Nick Ross. He is not someone I know personally, but he appears on TV as a commentator. He said:
“no one has a right to a monopoly on anger, or grief…For 15 years I have been campaigning to update building regulations in England to improve fire safety and to have sprinklers fitted routinely to council and other social housing, and I can’t recall a single Government minister or Opposition frontbencher—Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem—who ever campaigned with us…Three times I’ve addressed the Local Government Association…pointing out how the risks are disproportionate in subsidised housing—‘It’s the poor wot gets the flame’—as three times they applauded and did nothing.”
Now, I come to my hon. Friend the Minister. Mr Ross continues:
“Ministers are mostly here today, gone tomorrow”, although I hope my hon. Friend will be around for a little time,
“and few would claim to be expert in their briefs. Except for those who know it all because they are gripped by rigid ideology, most ministers do listen to their advisers…If there is any group whose actions allowed the catastrophe to happen it was these advisers”, and Ministers took their advice.
Finally, Mr Ross says:
“Sprinklers are not invincible. They can’t function if the water supply fails. But—and this is the truth that makes me so angry—no one ever dies from fire when a home is protected by automatic sprinklers. That’s why in the U.S. they’re installing 40 million a year.
But let’s not be persuaded that the risk is only in high-rise towers. There are 300-400 fire deaths a year and most victims live in low-rise properties.
We need sprinklers in all social housing, care homes, and multi-occupation premises including schools—and let’s not forget our hospitals…There is a terrible anger after Grenfell. Instead of trading political insults we must put it to good use.”
We politicians are often criticised—we take the blame for most things that happen—and we have been criticised for not acting on this issue. However, that cannot be said of the all-party group on fire safety rescue, and I am delighted that a number of its very active members are present. Unfortunately, we lost one or two members in the last election, but the group has been going for a long time. I do not know whether colleagues here today are experts, although we found out this morning that one newly elected Scottish Conservative Member is a former firefighter, and he will no doubt bring his expertise to this. Most of us are not experts, however, and since 1986 the APPG has depended on two marvellous secretaries. First we had Douglas Smith, and then, in 2013, Ronnie King took over. Time after time—as was mentioned earlier by the group’s vice-chairman, Jim Fitzpatrick—we asked Ministers to look at the Lakanal House recommendation about the retrofitting of sprinklers, and we asked for the building regulations to be reviewed after 11 years.
The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Alok Sharma, who I think will be replying to the debate, has already met members of the all-party parliamentary group, and this morning it was agreed that I should put a number of points to him, which I hope he will consider. They are as follows.
“Without prejudice to the public inquiry or the police criminal investigation, the all-party group…want to respond to the Secretary of State’s invitation to submit measures which can be put in place immediately to keep people safe”.
I entirely accept the frustration felt by Opposition Members who feel that something needs to be done now, and that we need not wait until the outcome of the public inquiry for that to happen. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will reflect on that.
The APPG said:
“One such measure is to commence the long promised review of Approved Document “B” to the Building Regulations, forthwith, and in particular to seek an immediate reinstatement of the provisions of Section 20 of the London Building Acts insofar as they are required a one hour fire resistance to outside walls of blocks of flats”.
It is crazy that we no longer have those regulations. The Minister will face a test: he will be given advice on the matter, and I hope that, unless it is in the affirmative, he will make his own decision and will agree with the recommendation from the all-party parliamentary group.
My hon. Friend obviously understands these things better than I do, but one thing has really worried me about this tragedy. If there had been sprinklers inside the building, and the outside of the building had caught fire, would people have survived although the outside of the building was aflame? That worries me. I do not know whether there is an answer, but it seems to me that they might have survived.
I will come to that point, but I also want the Minister to hear this, because it is not the responsibility of his Department. It is crazy that it is not mandatory for all new school buildings to have sprinklers fitted. We must address that, as a matter of urgency. Again, I hope that, if the Minister is not given the advice that I certainly want him to be given, he will make a contrary decision and recommend that all new school buildings have sprinklers fitted.
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said about sprinkler systems in schools, but does he agree that it is also imperative for the regulations to be changed to cover student accommodation? I understand that tower blocks more than 30 metres high will now be fitted with sprinklers, but that student accommodation more than 30 metres high will not qualify. I hope my hon. Friend agrees that that cannot be right.
I certainly do agree. The Minister has heard what has been said. I understood that every building more than 30 metres high would have to have sprinklers fitted. I hope that at some stage when the Minister is winding up a note will be passed to determine whether or not the hon. Gentleman—who was at our meeting this morning— is right, but as far as I understand, that cannot be the position.
The APPG also agreed on the following:
“without prejudice to the public inquiry or the police criminal investigation, the all-party group…wish to support the recommendation of the coroners at Southwark and Southampton arising from the Lakanal House and Shirley Towers tower block”
—which was mentioned by John Healey—
“whereby both coroners recommended in a letter to the Secretary of State that the Department for Communities &
Local Government, encourages providers of housing in high risk residential buildings containing multiple domestic premises to consider the retrofitting of sprinkler systems”.
I hope my hon. Friend will deal with that as well.
The APPG said:
“a letter to the then CLG Minister, dated 1st May 2014…drew the Minister’s attention to”
“personal involvement with the Lakanal House Coroner’s Inquest, where clarification was given from the Department that the current Building Regulations allowed the composite panels under the external wall window sets of such tower blocks not to have any fire resistance”
—that is absolutely crazy—
“and that this weakness in the Regulations remains uncorrected today;
despite the upward spread of fire which occurred, resulting in the deaths of six people.
(Under the current Building Regulations guidance Approved Document B, the external walls of Tower Blocks need only have a classification “O” Surface spread of Flame, with no fire resistance)”.
The House would not expect the Minister to be an expert on all these matters, and he will have to take advice from somewhere, but I hope he understands the frustration that has been caused by the ignoring of the APPG’s recommendations. This fire should never have happened, and it would not have happened if notice had been taken of our recommendations.
“we are maybe looking at a system failure, built up over many years, which we now have to address urgently…over many years and perhaps against the backdrop of, as data shows, a reduced risk in terms of fire, in terms of number of incidents and deaths…maybe as a system some complacency has crept in.”
Well, it certainly has not “crept in” as far as the APPG is concerned.
I understand that the Fire Brigades Union has talked a great deal about the cuts in services and about deregulation, and the hon. Gentleman has talked a great deal about sprinklers today. Does he agree that the cuts and what has happened to the fire regulations cannot have failed to have an impact, and that they happened on the Conservatives’ watch? Let me add that I am a bit disappointed to see how many Conservatives are missing from this debate. It is a crucial debate, and Conservative Members should be here.
I know the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, and I shall be meeting him shortly to hear in more detail precisely what his criticisms are. I can assure the hon. Lady that the APPG will raise any issues that the union mentions to us. As for attendance on the Conservative Benches, in time the hon. Lady will have a view on attendance in the House. A long time ago, all the Benches were packed. I can only say that I regret that that is not the case on this occasion. Given that the general public can see our proceedings on the parliamentary channel, it is always disappointing when the Chamber is not packed, but I am afraid that, in recent years, that has been the trend.
The Minister will have heard what the hon. Lady has said. I cannot believe that there will not be very close involvement. I do not want to trip myself up if there has already been a discussion about the matter, but I certainly do not see why there cannot be real participation in the inquiry. Perhaps the Minister will take up the point when he responds.
Finally, I want to highlight three points to my hon. Friend the Minister. The first is that building regulations no longer include a requirement for one-hour fire resistance for outside walls, as was the case under the London Building Acts. That has got to be corrected. Firefighters were horrified by the way this disaster took place. The second point relates to the testing of cladding. It costs £10,000 to fire-test a 30-metre cladded wall. Most testing is done on the desktop, which does not take into account materials used underneath or between cladding, such as wood. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will look at that point. The last point is about the retrofitting of sprinklers over the past year: in 100% of cases where sprinklers have been activated, they have controlled or extinguished the fire. I welcome the fact that there is a public inquiry, but I again ask my hon. Friend the Minister not only to listen to the recommendations of the all-party group, but to act on them.
Order. We have plenty of time for this debate. A lot of people wish to take part in it, and I should tell the House that I have had notifications from several new Members wishing to make their maiden speeches. I would like to manage without a formal time limit; especially for the benefit of those making their maiden speech, it is much better not to have a time limit. We can manage that if people, showing some self-restraint and some thought for their fellow Members, speak for about nine minutes. That means calculating on the basis of 10 minutes and then stopping a bit earlier. It is amazing how difficult people find it to do the arithmetic once they are on their feet, but I will try to help them. If we keep to about nine minutes, everyone will have an opportunity to speak without a formal time limit, and I know that I can rely on Mr Clive Betts to do this perfectly.
This is the most appalling tragedy. I am sure that our hearts go out to the friends and families of everyone who lost their lives, to everyone who has been traumatised by this appalling event, and to everyone who has been displaced and is now homeless. The only good that can come out of this is that we learn lessons quickly about what happened and make sure it never happens again.
On the practicalities, I first want to address the issue of funding to put right the tower blocks up and down the country that are now deemed to be failures and in non-safe situations. I was worried by the conditions that the First Secretary of State put on the funding that might be available. When challenged, he initially said that of course the Government would fund any safety work that the local fire authority deemed necessary, but he then withdrew that statement and said that the Government would fund such work when the local authority could not afford to do it, which is a very important condition. Will the Minister explain precisely what that means, what criteria will lead to Government funding, and if local authorities will be asked to find funding for themselves?
We must see this in the context of local authority finances as a whole—not merely in relation to the cuts to local authority budgets, but in the light of the fact that this work on social housing will come out of not the general fund, but the housing revenue account. In 2010, funding for social housing was cut by more than any other form of expenditure—by 60%. There is not a penny of Government money in the current spending round for new social housing, decent homes work or any remedial work on social housing. Local authorities have been asked to find the money all by themselves.
Is it my hon. Friend’s understanding that any works at the local level will, in effect, be paid for by tenants out of their rents and by leaseholder contributions? Does he agree that the basic repairs and maintenance budgets for local authority social housing have already been cut by 20% since 2010?
Absolutely—that is precisely the point I was coming on to make. The money will come out of the housing revenue account, which is, of course, funded from rents. In the 2015 Budget, the Government decided that rents would not rise by CPI plus 1%, but would actually fall by 1% per year. It is estimated that that will have a massive effect, with many billions of pounds less—about £40 billion over 30 years—coming into housing revenue accounts. Councils can, of course, borrow money, but the amount is capped by the Government.
When the Government cap rents and borrowing, where can local authorities go to find the money to show, in the Minister’s terms, that they can afford to do this work? All they can do is to cut other planned expenditure for the maintenance of social housing. Solving one problem will simply lead to other problems unless the Government are prepared to find the money. It is as simple as that, and I hope the Minister will reflect on this very seriously. Local authorities should not have to show either that they will not build a few social houses that they were going to build, or that they will cut maintenance programmes so that they can prove that they can afford to provide extra money for the necessary work on tower blocks. Instead, the Government should say that all the necessary work approved by local fire authorities to make tower blocks safe will be eligible for extra Government money. It is a very simple request, and if the Minister could say yes, he would resolve an awful lot of concerns and difficulties in this debate.
In a slightly wider context, we simply must start to view social housing differently. There has been a tendency in the past few years to see social housing as poor housing for poor people, and to think that anything will do for the people who live there. I have to tell Ministers that that is somewhat reflected in the pay to stay scheme. Fortunately, the Government have recently made the scheme voluntary for social housing landlords, not compulsory. In other words, there is a view that those who can afford it—slightly better-off tenants—should not be in social housing. I disagree: social housing should be there for those who need it.
Such thinking is also reflected in the proposal to sell high-value council assets. In other words, there is a view that if council housing is good and decent, it should not be council housing any longer. That is wrong as well. The proposal to fund the right to buy for housing association tenants seems to have been put on the back burner. Again, the Minister could address that by saying that we will have good-quality social housing in the future that will remain as social housing for those who need it.
My hon. Friend is making an extraordinarily good case and I hope that the Minister will respond to his points. May I add an additional point? When social affordable housing is used for tenants who have been decanted—in the case of Grenfell or, indeed, of other examples—such housing also needs to be replaced, because otherwise we will again be looking at a net loss of social housing.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful point. Not merely should the Government fund the remedial work on tower blocks but, in the Grenfell case, they should fund the replacement of social housing to make sure people do not lose out.
There has been a call for an immediate review of the fire regulations, and the Minister could announce today that the Government will get on with that. I hope that whoever is elected as Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee today will take a lead, with its new elected members, by getting the Select Committee involved, just as we were in relation to regulations for gas and electrical safety in the home.
Getting Ministers to agree to new regulations has, at times, been a bit like drawing teeth. I draw attention to the Select Committee hearing in 2013 at which Peter Holland, the new chief fire and rescue adviser, and the then Minister were questioned very strongly about the mandatory retrofitting of sprinklers. The then Minister said no to that, and one of the reasons given—it was also given in a Westminster Hall debate—was that we could not have a new regulation unless two old ones were taken off the statute book. What a nonsensical position! Regulations are either necessary or they are not. If regulations are necessary to keep people safe, they should be implemented without having to wait for two others to be cancelled. I hope Ministers will act rapidly, and I am pleased that my local authority in Sheffield has decided to retrofit sprinklers to all its tower blocks in advance of any Government statement.
Colleagues have made the point that cladding should not be fire-tested in isolation. The insulation, the firestops, the fire doors and all other aspects of tower blocks’ fire safety systems must be tested. Sheffield, working with the fire service, has so far found only one block where the cladding has failed—the Hanover tower block in the constituency of my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield. However, the fire service has said that because of everything else that is in place in that block, it still believes its fire systems make it safe for people to live there.
Sheffield City Council has done very well. It has written to the fire authority and all the tenants. It has held meetings with them and said that if anyone wants to move temporarily because they feel unsafe, they can do so. It has also put a 24-hour fire watch in the block. But in the end, the fire authority believes that the block is safe because of how the cladding works with the insulation, the firestops and everything else. I hope that Ministers will now look at extending the tests beyond cladding to whole fire prevention systems in blocks, and encouraging local authorities to do the same.
Finally, will the Minister explain why there is to be a taskforce in Kensington and Chelsea and not commissioners? As I said the other day, I believe, as a localist, that commissioners should be used only in extremis, but this is an extreme example of a failure of governance.
This point has not been raised so far in the debate. I am a Greater Manchester MP, and there was a first-class contingencies response after the Ariana Grande incident in Manchester. What does my hon. Friend think of the council’s civil contingencies response after the Grenfell Tower incident?
I think that the council itself and the Government have admitted that the response was not adequate.
I ask the Minister why there are not to be commissioners. The explanation has been that the taskforce will report to the Secretary of State, but will not have executive powers. I say to him that this is a recipe for another disaster. When there are mixed lines of accountability and no one is sure who has executive power, that is exactly when things go wrong, because no one is sure who is responsible, everyone leaves things to everyone else and, when something happens, everyone blames everyone else. I ask that we please learn the lessons. Can we have an explanation of why commissioners have not been put in place? It seems to me that the Minister could have acted quickly, but now we have confusion rather than clarity.
On a more serious note, I would like to declare an interest. As is set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I am an unremunerated director of 3SFire Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hampshire fire and rescue authority and a local authority trading company created to help to fill the gap left by the shrinking Government grant for the Hampshire fire and rescue service. 3SFire returns all profits to the fire and rescue authority, and all the directors are unremunerated.
The fire in Shirley Towers happened in 2010. The inquest concluded in 2012, and the coroner issued his letter in April 2013. In that letter he recommended—some of this has been said, but I will repeat it, because I think it is important—
“Social housing providers should be encouraged to consider the retro-fitting of sprinklers in all existing high rise buildings in excess of 30 metres in height, particularly those identified by Fire and Rescue Services as having complex designs that make fire-fighting more hazardous and/or difficult.”
After the coroner made his recommendations, Southampton City Council committed to retrofit sprinklers in three high-rise tower blocks. However, as the weeks and months passed, there was no move to carry out the work. I asked the council about it over and over again, and was always given assurances that a report was about to be written or that funds were being made available, but nothing actually happened. Months and years passed, but then finally, in February 2015, Southampton City Council approved a cabinet report saying that it would commit £1 million of housing revenue account money to retrofit three blocks: Shirley Towers, where the fire happened; Sturminster House; and Albion Towers in my constituency.
Two and a half years after the council agreed that report and allocated the funds, those sprinklers are still not installed. Coincidentally—the Labour cabinet member with responsibility for housing in Southampton has assured me that it is a coincidence—the sprinklers that the city promised more than two years ago for some of the most vulnerable blocks will soon be fitted. That is, at least, what I have been told.
The Leader of the Opposition will be visiting Southampton on Saturday. I hope that while he is there, he will ask the leader of the Labour-controlled council, who was also the Labour candidate in the general election, why he has not acted on the coroner’s recommendations and carried out the retrofitting of sprinklers in the city’s high-rise flats. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will also explain to residents of those towers why he and his shadow Chancellor have sought to politicise the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, but have remained silent about Labour-controlled Southampton’s failure to act on the coroner’s recommendations, despite its promise to residents that it would do so. I am confident—or, more likely, hopeful—that seven years after the Shirley Towers fire, Southampton City Council will retrofit sprinklers in our tower blocks.
I recount these events not for political point scoring—[Interruption.] Labour Members may laugh, but that is what they have done from the day of the tragic event at Grenfell Tower. I have done so not to score political points in the way that Labour has sought to do, but for a really important reason. When the inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy has concluded and we know what happened, and how and why it happened, the recommendations flowing from that inquiry must be accepted. The Government must act on those recommendations and not allow the situation to drift for year after year in the way that has been allowed to happen in Southampton. In the years since Shirley Towers there have been dozens of fires in Southampton’s tower blocks, and if one of those had turned out like Grenfell or Shirley Towers, there would have been no excuse and nowhere for the local authority to hide.
The hon. Gentleman’s case might be more convincing if he did not see everything from one particular vantage point. He says that there must be action after the public inquiry, but does he not agree that action should have been taken in the light of what happened at Lakanal House? Can he perhaps explain why Ministers did not make recommendations about retrofitting sprinklers after that, despite what the coroner said in his letter? [Hon. Members: “We did.”] No, you did not.
As I understand it, and as I said, there was a recommendation that the use of sprinklers should be encouraged. The difference between Southampton and the local authority in the Lakanal case is that Southampton committed to that retrofitting but did not do it.
As I said, if one of the dozens of fires in tower blocks in Southampton since Shirley Towers had turned out like that fire or Grenfell, there would have been nowhere to hide. If the Government fail to act on the findings of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, we will have nowhere to hide either, and the public will never forgive us.
Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for this opportunity to address the House and make my maiden speech, and as a London MP I am grateful for the chance to speak in the debate about the tragedy of Grenfell Tower.
It is an honour and a privilege to be elected to represent Lewisham West and Penge, the area that I love. I was raised and went to primary school in Sydenham, and I went to secondary school in Penge. I am now raising my own family there and I am proud to call it home.
Growing up, if anyone had told me that I would go on to become the Member of Parliament for my area, I would have laughed. Society never seemed to have much aspiration for girls from Cator Park School, and all too often we were written off, but I am here, and my sister, my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves, is here, so as my former English teacher said during the general election campaign, Cator Park now has almost as many alumni in this place as Eton.
Our constituency is a collection of strong south-east London communities around Forest Hill, Bellingham, Perry Vale and Sydenham, within Lewisham. Since 2010, it has taken in the bustle of Penge High Street, the suburban calm of Clock House and the splendour of Crystal Palace park, including its legendary dinosaurs.
I am the 12th Member to serve either Lewisham West and Penge or Lewisham West, as it was before 2010. I feel privileged to be the first woman to represent the it, 99 years after it was created, in the same year as the Representation of the People Act and the first election in which women could vote. My predecessor Jim Dowd represented the constituency for 25 years and devoted more than 40 years of his life to public service, both in this House and on Lewisham Council. A lifelong resident of SE23, Jim stood up for our local services and good jobs, and he represented his constituents with conviction on national issues. He held a range of positions both in government and opposition, and effectively used his position to further causes that were important to him, especially animals, which he loved, and their welfare. Even his general election literature from 2015 included a picture of him shaking hands with a giant cat.
Previously a bellwether seat, Jim and those who helped to run the local party have helped to turn Lewisham West and Penge into a strong Labour seat, while never taking anything for granted. It is in part thanks to them and their hard work that I am able to stand here now as their representative in Parliament. Jim has been a good friend to me and my family. His support has been immeasurable, and I know that he will be greatly missed in this place.
The enormous loss of life at Grenfell Tower and the preventable tragedy of what happened there have cast a shadow over the first few weeks of this Parliament. Hearing stories of the events that night, it was hard to hold back tears. The unimaginable horror of a mother throwing a baby from a 10th-floor window still haunts me.
The inquiry must now happen quickly, transparently and with the full inclusion of the victims, but what seems clear to me is that what happened at Grenfell Tower and in the aftermath are symptomatic of a system that is broken; a system that neglects the poor and vulnerable; a system in which cost-effectiveness seems to have been put before health and safety; and a system that I have come to this place to change.
Around the time that Jim was making his maiden speech, I was at secondary school in the constituency. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, we had lessons in huts, class sizes of 35, and not enough books to go around. As the daughter of two teachers, I knew that teachers were undervalued and underpaid. My parents are here today, and I am thankful for the values and the support that they have given me.
It was my experiences, growing up, that made me want to stand up and fight to end inequality, and to make sure that every child gets the best chance in life, no matter what their wealth or background. I am saddened to say that all schools in my constituency face funding cuts, and our wonderful boys’ comprehensive, Forest Hill School, is £1.3 million in deficit. I made a promise to my constituents that I would fight hard for our schools and our young people, and that is exactly what I will do.
Another issue that I want to fight for in this place is defending workplace rights. Before entering Parliament, I was an employment rights lawyer for more than a decade, representing working people day in, day out. I know at first hand how many of our employment rights come from Europe, such as paid holiday, limits on working time and many of our discrimination laws. I will fight tooth and nail to prevent any compromise of those rights as we negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union, but we need to go further than that and create a secure workplace and decent wages by banning zero-hours contracts and raising the national minimum wage. I was at a food bank in my constituency on Friday, and it is an absolute travesty that people are having to choose between feeding their children and feeding themselves.
An issue close to my heart is maternity discrimination. After the birth of my son, I set up a business to provide pregnancy discrimination and flexible working advice to mums and families. I want to work to ensure that all jobs are flexible by default, and that all parents can take parental leave without fearing discrimination or the loss of their job.
I believe that a first-rate education, excellent healthcare, decent housing and proper employment rights are essential to the prosperity of us all. Rather than condemn our constituents to a race to the bottom, we must offer them hope and collectively ensure that our country is able to thrive, advance and progress, while no one is left behind.
May I begin by congratulating Ellie Reeves on such a powerful and articulate maiden speech? It is clear that she will be a forceful and effective advocate for her constituents. Her sister, Rachel Reeves, who is sitting behind her, her parents, who are sitting in the Public Gallery, and her constituents, who are watching on TV, can all be proud.
I will say a few words about the public inquiry into this dreadful tragedy. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is of course vital that the inquiry is carried out with absolute impartiality and without fear or favour, and is motivated by a dogged determination to get to the truth, wherever it may lie and however convenient or inconvenient it may be. It is precisely because of those fundamental principles that I think Sir Martin Moore-Bick is the right man for the job, notwithstanding comments that have been made.
Let me be clear: I do not know Sir Martin from Adam; I have never met him, but I know the Court of Appeal, where he served with great distinction, and I have appeared there as an advocate on more occasions than I care to remember, and I can say with my hand on my heart that it is a jewel of the British constitution. In that body reside some of the most brilliant brains to be found anywhere in our country, and perhaps more importantly, that academic distinction is allied with absolute and ferocious independence. I am sorry to say that I have lost there far more times than I have won, but the most powerful tribute that I can pay to the Court of Appeal is that I have always left it understanding the judges’ reasons and acknowledging the consummate fairness and integrity that they have brought to the process.
That is why I want to address a troubling insinuation that may be being made: that as an educated man with a title, Sir Martin is somehow ineligible for this job. Let me be clear that in our system of law, no one gets to his position by being nice to the Government. They get to it, more often than not, by being a nuisance—by holding the Government back when they overreach themselves, and by holding them fiercely to account—because the legal culture in this country is that the greatest accolade that can be paid to a judge is that he or she is fair. The Court of Appeal has that in spades; Sir Martin has that in spades. We owe it to the victims to let him get on with the job.
May I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend Ellie Reeves? She made an eloquent speech and is clearly going to fill the shoes of her predecessor. He was one of the more outstanding Members on the Labour Back Benches and will be remembered for many reasons, not all them to do with his approach to parliamentary debate, which we will all remember with affection. He was a forthright advocate on behalf of his constituents, and I can remember with a great deal of affection when he was my Whip too—we finished on good terms.
I associate myself with all the comments made about the first responders and the emergency services, about the officers of Kensington and Chelsea Council who went above and beyond the call of duty to try to respond to the needs of local people—it is sometimes overlooked that there were individuals who did an enormous amount of work; we need to recognise that—and, of course, about those affected by the tragedy.
The response exposed a complete failure on the part of Government, right the way to local government. It also exposed the fact that when local authorities reduce their manpower resources and the services they provide, and when they are so thin that they cannot respond in such circumstances, it is clear that we are going too far with reductions in investment in what is needed to support local communities. There is more to a council than a posh town hall; it is what is in it that counts. When a council prides itself on being able to give a £100 council tax rebate in the run-up to local elections, it leaves itself with few resources with which to respond in such circumstances. When that council takes what has to be described as a minimalist approach to providing and backing up those services and when it prides itself, first and foremost, on how little it spends, it is no wonder that there is no resilience when such a tragedy happens.
This is a tragedy that would have overwhelmed any local authority. The demand on local resources was huge, and any council would have needed the assistance of other local authorities to step in and support them, so one of the questions for the inquiry has to be: why, when those offers of help were made in the first 24 hours, did Kensington and Chelsea Council not respond to them? My local authority has been dealing with the concerns of local residents living in tower blocks, who want to know that they are safe, and using its communications and its housing officers and councillors to go out and talk to residents to reassure them and to carry out the fire safety checks and everything else. At the same time it has been providing support to Kensington and Chelsea. It is quite clear from the response to those offers of help that there was something fundamentally wrong at the heart of Kensington and Chelsea. I pay tribute to those in the local community who spontaneously got together and responded to the needs of local people.
There are some lessons that we could have learned along the way, as the chair of the all-party group on fire safety rescue mentioned, and not just from Lakanal House. There have been incidents in other countries where exactly the same type of aluminium cladding caused the rapid spread of fires. The photographs of one that took place in 2014 in Melbourne, Australia—they are on the internet and were in the media at the time—look almost identical to those of the fire that took place at Grenfell Tower. What is surprising is that it is clear from talking to experts in the field—fire safety officers and others—that they knew the significance of that fire and the lessons that should have been learned about this type of cladding at the time. It is remarkable that there seems to have been no knowledge of that on the part of the Government or any review of the materials used for tower blocks at that time, because other countries did take action. They took steps to ban this type of cladding from being used on tower blocks.
There are questions to be asked. In the Lacrosse tower case in Melbourne, there was a sprinkler system in place, and some 500 people were evacuated from that block. No one died; they got out safely because a sprinkler system was in place. In some areas in that building the sprinkler system was overcome by the fire, but it was still sufficient to keep the fire from spreading within the building, thereby enabling people to leave. This question has to be asked: why have the Government not been learning these lessons along the way, not just from Lakanal, but from other fires that are clearly sending a message about the types of materials we use on these tower blocks? I want the inquiry to look into that.
Some countries take steps to limit the number of people who can live at height above a certain floor in tower blocks of specific designs. I also ask the inquiry to look into that. Do we need to have regulations in place to try to limit the number of people who live in tower blocks at height? This, again, was an issue in the Melbourne fire; because of shortages of housing and housing costs, so many people were crammed into the units in that tower block. Do we need to have a fire regulation on this? I ask the inquiry to look into that, too.
When I met Sheffield local authority, it expressed concerns about the safety of not only tower block residents but individuals living in flats above takeaways and other commercial premises, which often share the same staircase, bathroom and kitchen as the commercial premises and often are very overcrowded—for example, with illegal immigrants sharing beds. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look into the possibility of having regulations in this area?
I entirely agree. We need to look at that, as in another situation the numbers of people in a block could become an issue—and we do not know that that was not an issue in this instance as well.
The inquiry must also look at the issue raised by the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Betts, about building control. There are a number of issues about enforcement and making regular checks on the work done when refurbishments take place. Are the fire blocks being put in place between the floors, for instance? The advice to me from a constituent of mine who is an expert and who has been in the media speaking about this case, and about this issue for many years, is that we are very lax about the enforcement of the fire blocks between the floors and around windows, and we need to ensure that there is proper enforcement of this. The inquiry must look into that, too.
Responsibility for appointing the building control must lie with the local authority. There must be clear lines of responsibility for maintaining these standards, and we must stop local authorities being side-lined over ensuring that safety standards are considered of the utmost importance when these schemes go ahead.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a scandal that no minimum qualifications are required to become a building control practitioner, and does he agree that we need urgent action on this?
Yes, an incident such as this one shows that there must be a basic knowledge of fire safety regulations, and there are many other issues that building control has to cover, so of course there must be a minimum qualification requirement.
The current position on sprinklers makes no sense. New blocks built to new building standards over 30 metres high are required to have a sprinkler system installed. However, older buildings built to an older standard of building control are not required to retrofit. That is completely and utterly illogical. The Government—outside of the inquiry and everything else—must fund the retrofitting of sprinklers in those blocks of flats where that has been recommended by fire safety officers. There can be no equivocating on that. This fire shows that that is essential, and the Government should just accept that we cannot hold back on it any longer.
We are told that there was a plan to put fireproof cladding on to Grenfell Tower but that it was £2 per square metre more expensive than the cheaper version that was actually put on. If that is correct, the inquiry will obviously have something to say about it. There are some questions here. As I have said, this cheaper type of cladding was already on other blocks where similar fires had taken place. Why was it allowed to be used on this block? Is it true that the contractors who were erecting the cladding raised concerns about whether they should be putting that cladding on that block at that height? If it is true, action must obviously be taken against the people who made that decision.
I will not, because I am taking up some time and I want to sit down. I have had the nod from the Deputy Speaker, and if I do not sit down quite soon, I will not get called again.
My final question for the Minister is about the Building Regulations Advisory Committee. We were told that, in the light of the Lakanal report, that committee would meet to oversee fire regulations, but that meeting did not take place. The Minister said that that work would be completed by the end of this year, but the committee has not yet met. We need to hear from the Minister why, in the light of the report on Lakanal, that committee did not meet to review the fire regulations. In my opinion, this shows that the Government were asleep on the job. I hope that we will learn the lessons from this, once and for all, when the inquiry reports. Lakanal should have shown us the steps we needed to take to prevent this. Fires that have happened in other countries since Lakanal have pointed the way to the action that we should have taken. We have to learn the lessons once and for all to ensure that this type of tragedy never happens again.
I should like to extend my congratulations to Ellie Reeves. It feels a bit strange to be welcoming you to the House when I have only just arrived here myself, but you made a wonderful speech and I look forward to working with you—I mean “her”; I am still learning the conventions myself.
I greatly enjoyed making my maiden speech, but it gives me no pleasure to stand before the House today to talk about this tragedy that has befallen our country. I am afraid that it will be one of those disasters that mark this period in our history and that we will remember for a long time to come. The Prime Minister has responded to it entirely appropriately by calling for a judge-led inquiry, and I was pleased that the shadow Secretary of State did not question the basis on which we intend to proceed. The Prime Minister went to the Lord Chief Justice and asked for a senior judge to be appointed and to proceed with an inquiry that will look into the immediate causes of the fire as well as the wider issues. As my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Oliver Heald said earlier, that will give the inquiry the opportunity to report in two or more stages, so that local residents can hear the issues that have immediately affected them while the inquiry goes on to consider the broader questions that affect communities and councils in many areas across the country.
It is with reference to those wider issues that I want to make some remarks, and I declare a sort of interest in that for a while I was on the board of Yarlington Housing Group, a housing association in the west of England.
The first thing that struck me came from a BBC “Newsnight” investigation which suggested that developers may have used only desk-based research to persuade inspectors that the cladding was safe to use. If that is the case, serious questions must be answered following the tragedy, and we would want to know where else in the country that has happened.
The second thing is tenant feedback. If the reports are true that tenants had complained to the tenant management organisation about safety in the building and if those calls were not listened to, we need to know why. We need to know why the TMO was not picking up on the important feedback that only someone who lives in a building can give. I am not saying that had that feedback been listened to the fire would have been prevented, but without that feedback we can be certain that people in other buildings are being put at risk.
That brings me on to my next point: illegal sub-letting. It is a delicate, sensitive subject, and the Government have been absolutely right to announce an amnesty to encourage everyone to seek help and to come forward. Illegal sub-letting in our tower blocks and social housing discourages people to come forward and report their concerns—it breaks that feedback. We all have to think of ways to ensure that people living in social housing can come forward and have their concerns heard.
My fourth point relates to something that I said in the House the other day, and it has been picked up on by a couple of other Members. What happened in Kensington and Chelsea prompts some serious questions about emergency and contingency planning in our local authorities. Just as some other authorities have used the cladding that seems to have been a major contributor to the fire, so other authorities may have emergency planning that leaves a lot to be desired. However, I was reassured by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that the Cabinet Office is already looking into that, and I am keen that that work is taken forward.
Before I sit down, I would like to reflect on something said by my hon. Friend Alex Chalk. I am glad that we seem to be in agreement that we should have a judge-led inquiry. I was pleased that the shadow Secretary of State did not criticise Sir Martin, and I presume that he backs him in his role. Sir Martin is a highly respected judge and has achieved great things in his profession, dealing with extremely complex areas of law that will be relevant to this inquiry. That is an asset to the investigation, and we should all welcome that. His ability to do that work is not hampered by the colour of his skin or his social class. His skills have got him to where he is, and it is his skills that we should back. The inquiry will require some cool-headed thinking. It will not be helped by hot remarks that suggest to the families that the victims were intentionally killed by people in government. It will not be helped by remarks that suggest that someone’s impartiality is undermined by their social class. While we can debate its particulars, we all have a duty to get behind the inquiry and to encourage people who live in the area and in other tower blocks to come forward and be part of it.
I congratulate you on your election, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It is a privilege to make my maiden speech, but it is sobering to do so in this debate on Grenfell, which reminds us all of the seriousness of our duties as Members of this House. I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend Ellie Reeves, who also made her maiden speech today.
I begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Michael Dugher. The son of a railwayman, he has been true to his working class roots and a strong campaigner for Barnsley East on issues such as community pharmacies, Orgreave and brass bands. For all his achievements, he has been awarded the rare accolade of featuring on the wall of Strangers Bar—better the wall than the floor. Music is his passion, and now it is his job, as chief executive of UK Music. I know that family is important to him, and I wish him and Jo well in their new adventure. His predecessor, Jeff Ennis, has served as leader of Barnsley council and MP for Barnsley East, and is now mayor of Barnsley—a unique achievement.
Like Jeff, I was a teacher before entering this place. Working in education, I saw the profound power of learning, and I have learned myself that it is incumbent on all of us to support the next generation. I am particularly proud to be the first female MP for Barnsley East, but I would not be here without the help and encouragement of a former female Member, Sylvia Heal, who sat in your Chair for many years, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you will remember. I am delighted that she is here today, along with my parents. I am the daughter of a midwife and a care worker, and I owe them huge thanks for all their support.
For the past four years, I have been proud to fight for working people as an officer of the GMB trade union. As a Member of this House, I will continue that fight for working people, not least for the many trapped in jobs that are more precarious than ever before. Today’s debate reminds us of what we have fought for over so many years, of how the lessons of the past are still as relevant today, and of how, even now, not all communities are equal and the protection of human life requires our action in this House.
Many people will know about Barnsley’s history, and there is so much to be proud of, but still I have constituents waiting for justice for what happened to them at Orgreave in 1984. We must ensure that the Grenfell victims do not wait as long.
In Barnsley East, our industrial and cultural heritage runs alongside our history of working-class struggle. It is appropriate that the town is home to both the National Union of Mineworkers and the famous Grimethorpe Colliery band. Our communities were built on heavy industry—glass, steel and coal. Mining was a way of life for entire communities. Some 30,000 people worked down the pits, and the impact of their loss is still felt today.
Many of my hon. Friends will know my constituency from the film “Brassed Off”, which showed so powerfully the character, grit, humour, solidarity and struggle faced by honest, decent, hard-working people. No one who has seen the film can forget Danny’s powerful speech when he says that nothing matters like people matter. It is traditional for Members to talk about the great history of their constituencies in a maiden speech, and I am very proud to do so, but nothing matters like people matter.
It is above all the people of Barnsley East who make the constituency what it is. People like the teaching assistant, her pay falling but her bills rising. She looks after our children; we should look after her. People like the insecure worker at a warehouse, labouring on the minimum wage. She works hard for her family; we should work just as hard for her. People like the veteran who served his country, yet is now homeless and jobless. He fought for us; we should fight for him. In Barnsley East we can be proud of our industry and our history. All of it matters, but none of it matters like people matter.
The NUM in Barnsley has a banner embroidered with the words, “The past we inherit, the future we build.” I have spoken about our proud past, but the people of Barnsley East did not send me here to honour our history. They sent me here to build our future, and that is what I intend to do.
This is only the second opportunity I have had to make a speech in this Chamber, so when I look at those making their maiden speeches today, I think, “That was only me last week.” The Labour party has so far not had the presence of mind to elect a female leader, yet having listened to the speeches of the hon. Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), I think it cannot be long until it does so. There is such an amazing proliferation of female talent in that party that I just cannot understand why they have not taken it over and occupied all the Front-Bench positions, with the greatest of respect to those men who occupy them at the moment. While it is an honour to follow both hon. Members, it is also unfortunate, because that will only demean my own performance.
I feel not only that I should declare some interests—I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—but that I should present my CV. I am still the chair of the board of a housing association that has 20,000 homes in Walsall. I am also notionally, at least until the end of this month—it is not paying me at the moment, but I am still trying to help out—the assistant chief exec of YMCA in Birmingham, which has 300 units of accommodation for formerly homeless young people. I am also a member of the Chartered Institute of Building and a civil engineer by degree. That is relevant because of the points I feel that I need to make.
I have sat in a number of meetings as chair of the board of Walsall Housing Group, an association that is currently on site or in contract to build approximately 800 properties, some of which will be for shared ownership. The need for that type of property across the UK is understood. Some of the properties will be available under the slightly more innovative rent to buy scheme, so there will be opportunities for different tenures of housing, funded by this Government. Perhaps the part of that Government funding I am most proud of is Homelessness Change funding, which is received by the YMCA and will allow us to provide much-needed modernisation for a 72-bed hostel in Northfield. This Government are investing in housing of various tenures.
My hon. Friend Alex Burghart said that we will talk about the Grenfell tragedy for many years to come. It was a significant and tragic event. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Ronan Point disaster. Ivy Hodge lit a match to make a cup of tea, and the ensuing explosion, which was caused by gas leaking from a pipe to her cooker, blew her across the room and, more importantly, knocked out some supporting walls in her flat, which was on the fifth floor from the top. Not only did the explosion take out the supporting walls and damage all the flats above, but it led to catastrophic failure for all flats below, resulting in four people dying and devastation to the building.
Tests were subsequently done, and new structural supports were put in and the building was reoccupied. However, the consideration of the design criteria went on for years, with many people challenging complex issues such as wind loading, which was affected by whether or not the windows were open, and the building was taken down about 18 years later.
The point I am trying to make is that it is sometimes not easy to understand what has gone wrong. Speaking as somebody who has supervised the construction of these buildings and has been involved in their design, I know that designers invariably err on the side of caution.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and I very much value his experience in the building sector. Does he agree that often the devil is in the detail of the legislation, which uses terms such as “limited combustibility”? A definition of a precise standard for fire retardancy might be more useful. Perhaps there will be an opportunity for the inquiry to provide some recommendations along those lines so that everybody knows the exact standards that need to be met.
My hon. Friend is right. Any opportunity for interpretation means that people have the chance to err either on the side of caution or, as some might suggest, on the side of cutting costs. The inclusion of that explicit detail would prevent such an opportunity for interpretation.
We will never be able to mitigate all risk, so it is incredibly important that we work with the fire service to minimise risk. I am grateful to Lee Sketchley from West Midlands fire service who came to see us at the YMCA. He inspected the hostel and we are acting on some of the recommendations for improvement that he made. That is relevant because of the stay-put policy, which has been mentioned. Its concept is built on the idea of compartmentalisation: if the whole fabric of the flat allows two hours’ exposure to fire before it penetrates, people can reasonably stay in that flat for a period, safe in the knowledge that somebody should be able to come and rescue them during that time. However, we will have all seen—we will have seen it in this building during the warm weather—fire doors propped open, sometimes with fire extinguishers, ironically, but that renders the door useless in the event of a fire. Similarly, we will have seen fire doors that have been painted: the intumescent smoke-seal strip on the edge of the door will be affected by the paint, which will prevent it from serving its purpose if there is a fire.
I say to Members on both sides of the Chamber that we all have a responsibility. It is up to us to go back to the big housing providers in our constituencies and seek reassurances from them, individually, that they are sticking to the legislation that is already in place. Before we go looking for too much new legislation, let us at least make absolutely sure about that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we also have a responsibility to provide adequate resources to our fire services? Let us also deal with staff morale, as the pay cap that has been imposed on our emergency services, including the fire service, is not helping matters at all.
I am not sure that I can totally agree with the latter half of the hon. Gentleman’s point. I think the fire service’s response to the Grenfell tragedy was absolutely fantastic, as was that to the bombing of the Ariana Grande concert. The service that I personally have had from Lee Sketchley at West Midlands fire service has been absolutely fantastic. The fire service is clearly managing to deliver a first-class service with its current resources.
I end by simply saying: let us make absolutely sure that we understand that fire safety is everybody’s responsibility.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is just about to finish his speech but, notwithstanding all his points about personal responsibility, and not painting fire doors or propping them open with fire extinguishers, people must be forgiven for leaving their windows open on a hot summer’s night only for flames to engulf their flats from the outside in.
At times of national disaster, poets laureate are often called on to commemorate and reflect on events. In north Kensington, we have our own Ben Jonsons and Alfred, Lord Tennysons. Our poets laureate are Akala, AJ Tracey, Lowkey and Peaky. We have Stormzy, and Potent Whisper calling out what he calls “Grenfell Britain” in gut-wrenching prose. We have poets and artists aplenty, but the Philistine council does not recognise their talent and would rather spend £30 million over 20 years on opera for a minority in Holland Park.
Why is all that relevant to this debate? Because for many years Kensington and Chelsea Council has misspent Government and council tax payers’ funds on countless vanity projects and handouts, as we have heard, while underfunding essential services such as nurseries, play centres, lunch clubs, homework clubs, youth centres, advice centres, skills training and of course, as so tragically demonstrated, council housing. That is not to mention the recent controversial projects to hand our beautiful North Kensington library and neighbouring youth centre over to two private schools, at a cost to the council of £11 million, without even consulting the public, whose money is being used to fund private education. This is an £11 million gift to the private sector, while the council cannot find the money for sprinklers, decent cladding or fire alarms. Where is the accountability? To whom does Britain’s favourite council report? Clearly, it is not to the taskforce.
As we have seen, and as has now been acknowledged, the council’s response in the early hours and days after the fire was shockingly inadequate, and possibly even criminally neglectful; we shall see. So in the past four weeks, has it improved? Has the council learned from its mistakes? It has not. It has removed a chief executive and senior councillors have resigned, but who are replacing them? Where fundamental change is so desperately and clearly needed, we have had no change at all and a consolidation of the leadership that failed.
Survivors and volunteers are asking: where is the money so generously donated by the public? Where are the millions? Who is deciding where this money should go? Why is the council not using some of its reserves—near a third of a billion pounds—to purchase properties and support those whom it has so disgracefully failed? Has no one demanded that, after years of underspending revenue, money that has been shuffled into capital reserves for vanity projects be returned, quite properly, to those who need it? No one has. What is needed in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council is fundamental change, and I can see that we are not going to get it without further outside intervention and the support of people who can be trusted. The longer the situation prevails, the worse it will get. I am asking for intervention.
I get daily updates from people on the ground. Where is the wrap-around support for bereaved and desperate people who are still staying in hotels, as the much trumpeted “high-quality” temporary accommodation has been unsuitable or has not materialised at all? Why offer a survivor a high-rise flat? That happened this week. Why offer a disabled woman a home reachable only by stairs, where there is no lift? That happened this week. Why offer a flat in Pimlico, which is too far away for people to reach survivors’ networks? Where is the offer of temporary accommodation—
They have been offered one choice, so they have had no choice. It is that choice or the hotel. Normally, when someone is offered temporary accommodation, they have a choice of three or four places, and after that, they may be threatened with voluntary homelessness. On this occasion, they have been offered one each, so they have had no choice at all. All that happened this week, and I have direct communication with the people it happened to. Still no one is accountable.
More specifically on housing, can we please acknowledge that this process continues for many to be chaotic, daily? Why is a tenant management organisation that is under criminal investigation still in control of housing? The updates I get from survivors, members of voluntary groups and others directly involved in this project talk about a lack of cultural awareness among some social workers, and a lack of continuity of care. The issue of whether or not there is an amnesty where there are concerns about someone’s immigration status continues. I know what the situation is, but those involved certainly do not, as the communication is very poor.
Issues relating to the walks or finger blocks continue. Are these things safe? What about the fire exits? The issues about communication from the TMO, the confusion about the payment of rent, and the threatened eviction of people who have not paid may have been dealt with, but the legacy is still there. Does everyone know where they stand? It seems not. Some near neighbours in blocks are too scared to return, saying that they hear ghosts and screaming. As far as we can ascertain, survivors are given one choice of accommodation. Why only one? There should be a choice. One person turned down a flat with mould. Another turned down a flat scheduled for demolition. Is there no centralised list of decent available housing? There seems to be no co-ordination here. Somebody this week had offered three impeccably refurbished flats to the council, only to be told that everyone had been housed in high-quality homes, which we know is not true.
Frankly, this continuing disaster and lack of care and respect for survivors is unacceptable. It comes from a culture at Kensington and Chelsea Council that needs to be addressed—soon. The longer this goes on, the worse it is for survivors. Will the Government continue to let the council fail its survivors in so many ways? This is Potent Whisper’s Grenfell Britain.
Let me turn briefly to mental health. Many survivors are still in shock and cannot begin to recover until they can bury their loved ones. Many will have to wait a very long time for that. Many are fragile, and I have huge concerns for their mental health. I know people who are still in shock and not on any path to recovery. One was on the phone to her terrified best friend for over an hour, debating whether she should stay in the flat or try to leave. Then the phone went dead. The surviving friend calls and texts her friend every day, even though she knows that she is dead. Who is looking after her?
I am particularly concerned about those who may have mental health crises. There has already been one threatened suicide and one attempted suicide, and there may be more. We can be sure that many affected people will need urgent and intensive treatment at some point.
For many years, the minority party councillors in Kensington and Chelsea have been asking for an increase in the number of places of safety for people suffering crises. This followed a series of incidents in which people with mental health issues in sheltered housing had had crises and then ended up in a police cell overnight because there was nowhere else for them to go. Meanwhile, we hear that an entire ward at a London hospital is locked because there is not enough cash to keep it open. Patients are offloaded to private mental healthcare facilities at a cost of nearly £600 a day. Where is the logic in that, and who should be held accountable for it?
After four weeks, we are still witnessing a process that is reactive, not proactive. The council and the Government are one step behind. We need a sensible plan in place. We need to review that closed ward and allocate funds to staff it. Please can we have a proper strategic plan for housing and all the other issues? We are just reacting daily.
A lot of people and groups are beginning to plan for the future. Many come to me—many are well-meaning—and want me to tell them where they went wrong and how they can improve their approach or better serve their people. With my background in architecture and planning, I have lots of ideas, some of which I have been working on for years, but at a time when people feel so utterly betrayed and distrustful, I cannot possibly support any kind of top-down, outside intervention, however expert or well-meaning it is. At any time, but particularly at a time like this, good planning starts with the people whose lives will be changed by it. It starts with a blank sheet of paper, and should end in improving the lives of the people who live in the area, but often that does not happen. The estate development proposed by the council—and developments proposed by many councils of all political hues—is not for the benefit of existing tenants. We need a completely fresh approach. Overarching this is a genuine, often misplaced and sometimes insulting attitude that those in positions of power and influence know better than the “little people”, as some see them. I have never believed that, and perhaps that is why I was elected.
Members will have heard about our volunteer groups and organisations; they did not spring up from nowhere. They have always been there—always unappreciated and undervalued. They are amazing and self-organising. We need to learn lessons from them and bring them into the future.
What was so cruelly taken from our Grenfell people must be returned. They do not wish to be penalised financially forever for an act that they were not responsible for. They want their dignity back, and somewhere decent to mend and recover. We cannot return their deceased to life, but their families do want to bury something. They want the choice of where to bury their dead, and that has not always been offered.
This horrific event must be a game-changer. We need a thorough review of approaches to estate development and of the funding of social housing. We need to listen to the people affected and their warnings, and act on their concerns and priorities with the transparency and honesty that has so clearly been missing. Grenfell people do not want our pity or charity. They want their dues, they want justice, and they want change. Our poets and artists will continue to shame us all with their insight and intelligence until we recognise that, and accept their collaboration on the fundamental change that is so desperately needed.
I welcome you to your place, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is humbling to follow my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad and her powerful words. What a difference it makes having a Labour MP in that constituency to speak up for the voiceless and those without power following this tragic incident.
Many of us still find ourselves unable to comprehend the shocking fire at Grenfell Tower—the tragedy that so perfectly captures our deep national, political and social crisis. The Grenfell fire is also a symbol of the systematic running down of institutions that we all need. Inevitably, as those systems begin to break down, the poor and vulnerable are the first in line to experience that failure.
We need high-quality journalism and a properly funded legal aid system that allows ordinary people their rightful protection under the law. We need properly paid public sector workers, and local government with the resources and power to do what is needed—not just act as a rubber stamp for Westminster. Of course, it is critical that today we focus on the detail of what went wrong at Grenfell, but I would also like to make two short points that argue for wider action—the kind of action that never ends.
The institutions that have a critical role in preventing disasters and clearing up the mess when things go wrong do not exist by accident. If they are run down, we reach the point where we—the lawmakers in this place—are daily exposing families and communities to unacceptable risks. When that happens, as it has for too long, we are culpable because we have pushed systems and people to the limit. I stand here today with friends on the Opposition side of the House to say that we will fight hard to end the relentless running down of multiple civic functions. No longer will that be done in our name. It looks to me as though the country is with us in that endeavour.
It is clear that both local authorities and the fire service were heavily relied on, both before the Grenfell tragedy and in dealing with the aftermath as it unfolded. So far there are only a few buildings of concern in Norwich, but a small and diminishing army of public sector and housing association workers doing their jobs day in, day out, with diminishing resources and morale, have had to deal with the fallout from Grenfell. Too often, those workers have too little power and too few resources to regulate the private sector in the public interest. Of the six blocks being tested for flammable cladding in Norwich, five are in the private sector.
What, for example, is being done to check privately owned student halls of residence? Will the Minister address the fact that many are now privately owned and managed? How can the Government and the universities ensure that such residences are checked for flammable cladding and that the highest safety standards apply? Can they confirm that student halls are classed as “other residential buildings” and are therefore subject to weaker requirements for sprinklers? If so, will the Government consider closing that loophole?
On a similar note, parents rely on their children being safe in our schools. The Government had been planning to change the regulations on fire safety in schools, removing the expectation that most new school buildings would be fitted with sprinklers, on the basis that school buildings do not need to be sprinkler-protected to achieve
“a reasonable standard of life safety”— the Government’s own words. Since the Grenfell fire, Ministers have hinted that those plans will rightly be abandoned. Can they make their position absolutely clear to the House?
Schools in Norwich are suffering particularly badly from Government cuts and are threatened with the worst settlement in Norfolk under the proposed funding formula, although we are waiting to find out whether and how that will ever be implemented. Can the Minister tell us whether any central funding will be made available for essential safety work, so that those schools do not face yet more unfunded costs from the Government?
I turn back to the local authorities, which have been subject to 1,000 unnatural shocks in funding and changes to their ways of working. To name but one, there is the Government’s mandatory 1% rent reduction, which, at a stroke, reduces Norwich City Council’s ability to repair and improve its ageing housing stock by an average of £7.4 million a year. What is the reality of that mandatory rent reduction? There is less investment in our council housing stock, and council activities such as the daily safety checks carried out on our high-rise blocks are put at risk. In Norwich, we are fortunate enough to have a Labour-run city council that makes sure that those safety checks happen, but like many other local authorities, my council is coming up against the physical limits of what it can do with its resources, which have been cut year after year by this Government.
It is not just our local authority that is struggling to maintain safe standards. Our fire services—the men and women whom we are rightly so quick to applaud for their bravery—also have concerns. Whole-time firefighters earn less than £30,000 a year, so the Labour party welcomes the fact that the 1% cap was not imposed on their new pay offer. But there is a catch. Given that there has been no confirmation of how this will be funded, firefighters are concerned that the money will come from the service itself. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul will not improve anyone’s safety. The Government must understand that the ongoing funding cuts to our institutions and to those who work so hard for them are critical parts of the Grenfell story. Reversing them is essential to preventing another tragedy.
I am pleased to be making my maiden speech in such an important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) on their contributions today.
I am deeply proud to have been elected as the first ever woman MP in Croydon. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Gavin Barwell, who served our town for seven years. Among the many good things he did was his work to introduce Lillian’s law, following the tragic death of 14-year-old Lillian Groves in 2010. The law means that drivers can now be prosecuted if they are caught exceeding new drug limits. Since it was passed, there have been more than 13,000 convictions.
Gavin is also an acclaimed author. I understand that his book, “How to Win a Marginal Seat”, was much read among Conservative Members. I cannot wait for the sequel. I should also record my gratitude to the Prime Minister for giving me an early replay after my narrow defeat in 2015. I am so glad that I was able to repay the favour by helping her with her own staffing problems.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Geraint Davies, who was the MP for Croydon Central for eight years, and Sir Paul Beresford, who was the MP for the constituency for six years. I am delighted to be here with my hon. Friend Mr Reed, who is already a great champion of our town. I hope that two on the Opposition Benches will be better than one, and that we can truly stand up for Croydon.
I am privileged to have worked for two former Members of this House: the late Mo Mowlam, when she was a trailblazing shadow Northern Ireland Secretary; and as a civil servant for Tessa Jowell, when she was in charge of delivering the 2012 Olympics. They were both truly inspirational in completely different ways, and I am grateful to Tessa for the help she gave me during my recent campaign.
I am so proud to be part of a record number of women in this House, and particularly to be part of the women’s parliamentary Labour party, which makes up 45% of Labour MPs. Just one more heave and we will be there. With the growing number of women and men from ethnic minorities, we are getting closer to looking like the country we represent. That is really significant for our democracy.
Croydon is deeply special to me. I have lived there all my life. Generations of my family were born and have died there. Most recently, my father died on
Croydon is exceptional. The greenest and the largest of all the London boroughs, its diversity is its strength, from the woodlands of Shirley to the tower blocks of the town centre, and from the strong community of New Addington surrounded by fields to the Victorian terraces of South Norwood. Most agree that the name of our town derives from “crocus valley”, where, during the Roman period, crocuses were grown to make saffron to be sold as medicine on the streets of London. In the very heart of Croydon, we are growing crocuses again to make saffron. Our great theatre, Fairfield Halls, is being reborn through a multimillion pound makeover, and our art and culture are at the cutting edge, with artists from across the world literally painting our town with new art work. Our tech scene is the fastest growing in London, and we have the highest number of young people in London with nearly 100,000 in the whole borough. We are ambitious for Croydon, and I know that we will thrive.
But there are two sides to every tale. Seven years of austerity have ripped through our community: low pay, the horror that is the implementation of universal credit, cuts to disability benefits, high housing costs, rocketing homelessness, crippling cuts to local government, increasing knife crime, cuts to school funding, and young people starting out on their lives with debt.
We are letting people down if we do not, as a House, acknowledge the reality of the lives of those we are here to serve. I think many in this House are in complete denial about the scale of the problems we face. We are letting people down still more if we do not, with the greatest energy and hunger for change, act in every way we can to make the lives of those we represent better, richer and more secure.
The Grenfell Tower fire showed just how extraordinarily our emergency services can respond at a time of great crisis, but it also shows how badly we get things wrong. On the Saturday after this disaster, I met a Croydon fireman who had been called to fight the Grenfell blaze just days earlier. There were tears in our eyes as he told me about the terrible things he had seen. He made me promise not to rest until we saw justice done. Today, as a House, I hope we can make a reality of that promise. It is clear that we failed too many people for too long. The victims were speaking, but we were not listening. We cannot make the same mistake again.
My right hon. Friend John Healey has suggested that we set up an advisory panel to help build confidence and relations with local residents and survivors. That sounds very sensible. Shelter has said that it is not acceptable to expect residents to rely on written submissions only, and residents have clearly stated that the current timeline for submissions on the terms of reference is too short. That also seems sensible. But I wonder whether we also need to be brave enough to say, “We don’t have all the answers.” The whole point of listening is to listen and then to act. I would like us to be strong enough to commit to do that with the survivors and the local residents.
I am proud that Labour Croydon Council was the first council to commit to retrofitting all our high tower blocks with sprinklers. I call on the Government to clarify whether they will fund this, and all the other changes we need to make, and reverse the shocking cuts we have seen to local government. We cannot afford not to do this.
We must also view Grenfell in the wider context of a national housing crisis. Three figures tell the story. Right now, 76,000 families live in temporary accommodation—that is the best part of 120,000 children. Some 20% of our homes do not meet the Government’s decent homes standard—that includes fire safety. We also need to build 75,000 social rented homes a year; last year, we built fewer than 7,000.
I spoke to thousands of people on the doorstep in the election. Of course, there was nothing anything like on the scale of the horrors of Grenfell, but there were many experiences that led people to believe they had no voice. Having a voice is not about being able to speak out; it is about knowing you will be listened to and about being sure that action will be taken that makes a difference. Nowhere is that more important than in our response to the Grenfell Tower fire.
I said it was my goal to be the MP for Croydon Central. My ambition is not to be something, but to do something—to make a difference to the lives of the people I now represent. I do not underestimate the scale of that responsibility.
Many young people voted for me, just as young people voted in many other constituencies. There were many others who were voting for the very first time. They had perhaps never voted before because they felt politicians had nothing to offer. Now that they have put their faith in democracy—in us—for the first time, we must not fail them. If the election has taught us anything, it is that we cannot take anyone for granted. As Croydon’s Stormzy put it so well in one of his songs,
“You’re never too big for the boot”.
When I am campaigning again in five years’ time—or even sooner— the true test for me will be that people tell me that I listened, I heard what they said, and I did my best to make a difference to their lives. I think that has to be the test for all of us on both sides of the House.
It is a particular honour to follow three new maiden speeches, all made by three new female Members. I made my maiden speech two weeks ago, so I am now speaking as a very experienced old timer. What particularly resonated with me was what Stephanie Peacock said: people matter. That is very relevant to our debate today.
One month on from this tragedy, there is no less pain for the victims and their families, no less fear, and no less anger over the failings of the political system. The disaster at Grenfell Tower has left a huge scar, not just in the local community of Kensington, but across Britain. It has moved people deeply, whether they have local connections or not, and that has been reflected in the generosity shown by public donations. It has also exposed deep divisions and inequalities in our society which we have ignored for far too long. This disaster should have been avoided. How is it possible that, in a very wealthy borough like Kensington and Chelsea, dozens of people can burn to death in their own homes?
We now need to find out from the public inquiry exactly what happened and what mistakes were made, but reports that unsafe building materials were used, that the need to cut costs was put above tenants’ safety, and that concerns raised by the residents were repeatedly ignored paint a picture that goes much deeper than this disaster. It goes to the heart of our political system and its failures. Trust between our local communities and the political system has been seriously eroded, and must be restored.
Trust is a very precious thing which takes a long time to build. It is an essential part of a healthy democracy and a functioning society. It is vital that, in the work to restore lives affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, everything possible is done to rebuild that trust, which means genuinely listening to victims’ families and the local community, involving residents in the decisions that affect their lives and their future, and taking all possible action to put things right. That action must include an urgent increase in social housing provision throughout our country. The Grenfell Tower disaster was the result of a long-term failure of successive Governments to invest in social housing, in terms of both the quality and the number of homes. Leaving house building to the private sector has utterly failed. It has led to a housing crisis that has driven vast inequality and pushed many families into poverty and homelessness, and until we take radical action that crisis will continue to spiral out of control.
Furthermore, we need widespread reform of systems and structures. We need an immediate review of the building regulations to ensure that they are up to date and appropriate. We cannot wait for the results of the public inquiry. We cannot have a repeat of what happened after the Lakanal House fire, when a review of regulations was promised but never delivered. This time, lessons must be learned and implemented fast.
Given that the fire started in a fridge, there must also be reform of electrical safety. My colleagues in both Houses have been fighting for a long time for the introduction of compulsory electrical safety checks in rented homes. So far the Government have seen that as an unnecessary regulation, but now it is surely inexcusable not to make a simple change that has the potential to save lives.
All residents in Britain, whatever type of housing they live in, have the right to live in homes that are safe, warm, and set in well-run, safe, green and clean neighbourhoods. This disaster has exposed huge weaknesses in the housing provision of our country, and has undermined people’s trust. We all have a responsibility to rebuild trust between the public and their elected representatives, but the Government have the power to take radical steps to fix the system, and they must do that now.
I congratulate you on your election, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my first contribution to this honourable House by participating in today’s debate, following the witty and on-point maiden speech made by my hon. Friend Sarah Jones and the contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock). Before I do so, however, I want to speak briefly about my constituency. As anyone who has visited it could tell you, it is a place that defies easy description. Other Members have previously claimed to have the most varied constituency, but I want to stake a claim myself.
My constituency starts in inner-city Hyde Park, where we have a vibrant cultural and music scene including the legendary Brudenell Social Club, where only a few weeks ago my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech to 5,000 people—people who climbed trees and stood on rooftops to feel part of our movement. We then move on to Headlingley, with its world-renowned sporting pedigree. The legendary stadium and cricket ground, home of Yorkshire County cricket club, is to this day the most successful county championship team, and it is also a place where I have spent many happy afternoons since my days as a student.
Weetwood ward, where I make my home, has a fine literary tradition. Once the home of Tolkien—in a towered residence in West Park reminiscent of Minas Tirith—it is now home to many other creative figures, including the award-winning television writer Kay Mellor. Across the ring road, Adel is the setting for the grade I listed church of St John the Baptist, one of the best and most complete Norman churches in the country. My constituency also boasts Yorkshire’s international airport in Yeadon, and Otley, with its amazing breadth of events hosting hundreds every year—from the fabulous Otley show to the authentic Victorian fayre. Between the market towns of Yeadon and Otley lies the beautiful upland Chevin, from which the foundation stones of this very House were hewn, so Leeds North West provides the very foundation of our parliamentary democracy.
My first experience of this place was 20 years ago, when I came here as an executive officer of Leeds University union to lobby Leeds MPs about the retention of student grants and opposing the introduction of tuition fees, an issue I intend to pursue in this Parliament. I met Harold Best, the only other Labour MP to represent Leeds North West, who not only agreed with me on the issues of fees, but spent the afternoon showing me the Palace of Westminster. That reflected his great generosity of spirit, a generosity of spirit which he and his family continue to show me to this day, and one, having a family of my own, that I now wish to replicate in this place.
My immediate predecessor served in this place for 12 years. During that time, he became champion of a number of causes, not the least of which was his support for rugby league and his role as chair of the all-party rugby league group, championing a sport which is of great importance to our local area. Greg Mulholland was also a strong advocate for pubs, not just locally, but across the country, and for local breweries, serving as chair of the all-party save the pub group and as an executive member of the all-party beer group. Greg was a hard-working local MP, fulfilling the intentions made in his own maiden speech to this House.
My hon. Friend Darren Jones, my namesake seat, rightfully claimed to be the first Darren in this place. I can with great certainty say I am the first Sobel to be elected to Parliament. My own parents arrived in this country in 1972, and could not imagine that their son, born at the Leeds Maternity Hospital, would one day enter the mother of Parliaments.
My own history in Leeds North West started, like that of so many of my fellow constituents, as a student in one of the city’s fine universities. It was at university that my interest in fighting for justice and equality began, as staff-student representative for the School of Computing at the University of Leeds, first advocating for my fellow students, before going on to campaign on issues such as student funding and against racism on campus. I am still an elected member of Leeds City Council, and prior to my election here, I was the lead for climate change and chair of the affordable warmth partnership—two topics that are close to my heart and to which I will return shortly.
I turn now to the substantive issue of the debate. In doing so, I first want to echo the words of hon. Friends and other hon. Members who have already spoken on this devastating event in expressing my heartfelt condolences and sincere sympathies to the victims of the Grenfell fire, their families and the people of Kensington. I pay tribute to the emergency services who responded so rapidly and bravely, and to my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad and all the volunteers who supported families in the aftermath of the fire. That so many lives should have been lost was a tragedy that defies description.
On the Sunday following the fire, I visited the only tower block in my constituency and ensured that tenants felt safe in their homes. Leeds City Council has confirmed to me that no aluminium composite material cladding has been used on council-owned blocks of flats in Leeds. However, I have been approached by constituents who live or work in other types of clad buildings. I hope the Minister will be taking action to ensure that testing is done on all cladding in this country—working with and compelling the sector representative bodies and building owners to undertake the testing—and that the testing of cladding is fully addressed in the inquiry.
I am sure that all Members of the House agree with me on the need for urgent action on safety, but I would like to address the use of cladding as part of our wider aims to reduce carbon emissions and to reduce fuel bills, tackling fuel poverty. In my constituency, a wholesale programme of external wall insulation started, but then stalled due to cuts in energy company obligation funding, leaving one side of the road with clad buildings and the other side without. External wall insulation—whether using mineral wool, phenolic resin or other materials that meet building regulations and have a U-value of 0.3—contributes to eradicating fuel poverty and to meeting our obligations under the Paris climate change agreement. We must ensure that this work is completed, alongside other measures not just in housing but in transport, energy and manufacturing, to ensure that runaway climate change does not occur. The safety of our citizens is paramount, so we must also ensure that our standards and inspection regimes are among the best in the world.
In the words of President Obama:
“No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”
This Chamber is a stage where the world can hear our voice. It is incumbent on me to use that voice to ensure that while I sit on these Benches, I will speak truth to power and be an advocate for this one issue, which will define and shape our future more than any other. Action to combat climate change will give us the best possible chance to save this planet, because it is the only home that we have got. If we do not ensure that we take every step towards a carbon-free future, we will be judged as having failed future generations, and I am sure nobody came into this House to be a failure.
There will be many other local and national issues that I will raise in the House, concerning our market towns, universities, sporting and cultural institutions, transport links and technology, but for today, I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech. I pledge to my constituents and to hon. Members to be a strong voice in this House as well as a powerful advocate for my constituency.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and it is delightful to follow the excellent maiden speech of my hon. Friend Alex Sobel. We have also heard three other superb maiden speeches today, from my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock). This House is renewing itself with huge talent, youth, energy and diversity on all sides, and all Members can be proud to see that.
The Grenfell Tower fire was the worst residential fire in modern history and the worst disaster of any kind in this country for 30 years. The truth is that residential fire is not an equal opportunities killer. I know from the history in my constituency and in Kensington that we in north-west London had a spate of the worst fires in modern history before Grenfell. We had the Clanricarde Gardens fire, in which eight people died and 100 were made homeless. The year before that, in 1980, nine people died in a fire at a hostel for homeless women in Kilburn, and shortly before that, seven people died in a fire in an interconnected multiple-occupied property in Maida Vale.
All of those large-scale residential fires had something in common: they affected the lowest-income people in the worst kind of housing. We cannot and should not prejudge the results of the inquiry into exactly how the Grenfell fire started and how it spread so quickly, but the conclusion that we can draw is that it is substandard housing that is at risk, and it is the poorest people who live in substandard housing. They need to be protected. There is an issue of power here, and that needs to be addressed now rather than waiting until the inquiry’s findings are known. There is much that can be legislated for immediately through the issuing of building regulations and guidance, much of which we have heard about today. That includes the lessons that were learned from the Lakanal House fire, but we can also legislate immediately to redress the imbalance of power between landlord and tenant by giving tenants statutory powers of consultation on major works and hearing their voice in a way that, tragically, the voices of Grenfell Tower residents were not heard. We can strengthen the power of redress of tenants in substandard accommodation, both in social and private housing.
Reference has been made to legal aid. It is absolutely right that we should look again at tenants’ capacity to draw on legal aid so that they can represent their case when they are in accommodation that is substandard or in disrepair. Will the Minister commit today to reviewing the whole scope for legislation, both through fire safety regulations and building regulations and through residents’ rights of redress and consultation? None of that would prejudge the Grenfell Tower inquiry, and progress can be made immediately on all of it.
Homelessness and housing need are also not equal-opportunities impactors; they disproportionately affect the poorest people in this country. In the last week, there have been some increasingly harsh judgments in parts of the media about what has happened to Grenfell residents and how their housing needs are being met. Their housing needs do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in the context of a London that is yet again seeing a rising homelessness crisis, where the number of families accepted as homeless has increased by more than half and where the number of children living in temporary accommodation is on a scale that has not been seen since the early part of the last decade.
I asked the housing Minister a question before and I would like to know whether he can answer it today—how many of the occupants of Grenfell Tower had already been through the homelessness system? We know that there were residents who were already living in temporary accommodation in that building; we know that many of those residents and their families will already have been through the horrific experience of homelessness; and we know that many of their relatives, friends and neighbours will also have been through it.
Those people will already know what this House needs to be reminded of, which is that Kensington already has one of the worst homelessness situations in the country, because of the pressure on local housing stock. We know that it has the worst record in the country of moving homeless households away from the borough and that families in temporary accommodation will find that the word “temporary” does not mean what we understand it to mean; instead, it means that people will live for many years, and sometimes for a decade or more, in “temporary” accommodation, often moving from one home to another. Those people will do anything to avoid that experience yet again. Families should not be expected to move more than once and they have an absolute right to know that their housing needs will be met, not only swiftly but fairly and decently.
Also, because this situation does not exist in a vacuum, their housing needs should not be met at the expense of other vulnerable homeless households. It is already the case that in neighbouring boroughs the allocations process has slowed and in some cases stopped—hopefully, only temporarily—while precedence is rightly given at the moment to Grenfell survivors. However, that cannot be allowed to stand over the medium term. We have to know—we must have a categorical assurance from the Minister—that families in other boroughs, and indeed in Kensington, who are also homeless and in housing need will not be pushed to the back of the queue and see their needs go unmet because the council and the Government are not working together to meet the needs of all local families.
We also know that the story of investment in local services is not a fair or equal-opportunities one. We know that urban authorities have been the hardest hit by the Government’s cuts in local authority expenditure since 2010. We also know that, based on present trends, by the end of this decade funding for local Government will have fallen by 70%, which must be seen in the context of the fire safety measures that local authorities want to take to reassure their residents in other high-rise blocks.
It was simply not satisfactory for the Minister to tell us in his opening remarks that only local authorities that demonstrate they cannot afford fire safety work will have the money reimbursed. What message does that send to anxious residents who want to know that their safety will be absolutely paramount? What clarity can he give about what fire brigade fire safety recommendations will meet the criteria for Government funding? Will he confirm that he understands that any expenditure that will be met by local authorities will come from tenants and leaseholders, and that such expenditure will certainly be in competition with the resources needed to fund repairs and maintenance elsewhere in the system? I have already said that expenditure on basic repair and maintenance of social housing is 9.7% lower this year than last year and 22% lower than it was in 2010.
Finally, we hear of the great work being done in the borough by health services, including mental health services. They are working with survivors and other local residents. That work is much needed. Will those services also be fully funded and reimbursed by central Government, so that the mental health services and other healthcare services for Kensington and for surrounding boroughs will not be put at risk or compromised in any way because those crucial public services have stepped up to the plate now?
My absolutely final point is this. We also heard from the Minister in his opening remarks that there was a fundamental lack of clarity about what the taskforce being sent into Kensington was going to do and what its duties would be—that it will not be an authority with any executive function whatsoever. The Minister needs to be absolutely clear with us what this means. It means that when the Gold operation finishes, the functions of service will be handed back to the already deeply discredited Kensington and Chelsea Council, where trust has totally collapsed. Does the Minister think that is acceptable? I doubt that the people of Kensington will, as my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad has set out so powerfully. I do not believe they have trust in the taskforce; I think they want to see the Government demonstrating that there will be a radically different approach to meeting their needs. We have not heard that yet. The Minister has a chance to put that right later.
The tragedy of Grenfell was felt all over the nation. I am sure that I speak for all in my constituency, who send their thoughts and prayers to all those affected, and similarly want a swift and timely response from the investigation into the events of that terrible night. The community surrounding Grenfell wants answers, and if we have learnt anything from past tragedies, it is that the voice of the community must be given paramount attention.
I would like first to pay tribute to the people of Leigh for placing their trust in me to stand here as their first female Member of Parliament. This is all the more important as we fast approach 100 years of unbroken Labour representation for the people of Leigh. I would also like to place on record my thanks to my family for all their support—to my mother, my father and my sisters, but especially to my two children, who are the drivers of my political ambition. As a single mother from a working-class background, wanting what is best for them is wanting what is best for the future of everyone in our country. Without them, I would not be standing here today.
Leigh has always benefited from the strong Labour voices that it elects to this House. With that in mind, I would like to pay tribute to my predecessors Harold Boardman, Lawrence Cunliffe and, of course, my most recent predecessor, Andy Burnham. Andy served this House with commitment for 16 years. His work on the Hillsborough disaster and, more recently, the contaminated blood scandal, as well as his strength and passion for truth and justice, will forever be his legacy. This is something that I can only aspire to emulate.
But it was not just this House that benefited from Andy’s work. Andy was a formidable constituency MP, forging great relationships within our communities and fighting tirelessly for those who did not have a voice. He constantly pushed for the regeneration of the constituency, driving projects such as the creation of Leigh sports village, the home of the best rugby league team in the country, Leigh Centurions. I am sure that the House will want to wish Andy Burnham every success in his role as Greater Manchester Mayor. I have no doubt that Andy will use his position to ensure that devolution enhances the lives of everyone in Greater Manchester.
Leigh and its people have always had a sense of social justice, from the towns that lie within, such as Tyldesley, Golborne and Atherton, to smaller villages such as Astley, Mosley Common, Lowton and Atherleigh, each with a historic story to tell. From our early focus on agriculture and the uncontroversial creation of the spinning jenny by Thomas Highs—I am giving him that one—Leigh, like most places in the north, gave way to the might of the industrial revolution, in particular the coal and cotton industries, all linked by its canal networks. The legacy of Leigh’s industrial past can still be seen in the remaining red-brick mills and the iconic mining headgear at Astley, which is sadly the last one remaining in the whole of Lancashire. Fortunately, however, the good people of Leigh want to keep this legacy alive, and I look forward to the heritage project linking coal at Astley, via the canal, with the great cotton mill of Leigh Spinners.
Like most post-industrial areas, however, we have seen years of decline: our manufacturing industry gone and not replaced; infrastructure, such as our rail link, taken away; and town centres declining. That common story is shared by many constituencies.
Social mobility is a huge problem for young people in Leigh, with many unable to get support to go to college or university. A lack of post-16 education leaves our young people only able to access low-paid, low-skilled jobs. We must ensure that new industries and skills are at the forefront of regeneration in Leigh.
I have spent the last six years as an elected councillor in local government and watched this Government’s austerity measures chip away at our essential public services. Cuts to adult social care and children’s services are nothing but an attack on the most vulnerable in our society. But I have also seen our local authorities and communities fight back, supporting and empowering the very people they serve. I am proud to have been a part of the innovative way our services have dealt with such measures, helping communities to do what they have always done in times of crisis: supporting each other, just as they did in the 1980s miners’ strike and just as they are doing now, in homeless shelters and food banks, as well as with countless volunteers who work to keep our heritage alive. That is what is called a social movement—communities who work tirelessly to ensure each other are supported. Today, I would like to pay tribute to those who give their time to do such work.
My own experience of education in the 1980s was not good. Of course there were many success stories in my school, but many people struggled without adequate support, and were not equipped to face the challenges of a changing economic landscape. Many left school without qualifications, ambitions and hope. Today our children and young people face the same challenges, from cuts to early years to cuts to early-intervention grants and, of course, cuts to our schools—the very resource that gives our children and young people the support that they need to do well. We cannot afford to see our children suffer because of ignorance of the challenges faced by our more deprived communities, and I will do all that I can to ensure that all aspects of our children’s lives are adequately supported.
I am proud to stand among Labour colleagues, men and women, and in particular the new intake, all sporting their individual regional accents—how refreshing! I am proud of my working-class roots and of those who built the very area I now represent. When we talk about standing on the shoulders of giants, these are the giants I wish to attribute myself to. Let us not forget that there are giants now who are also making history. I stand side by side with them: our WASPI women; our miners still fighting for their lost pensions; our veterans, who are still not receiving the support they are owed once they leave service; our disabled and sick, who are being unfairly treated by our systems; and our public services—the police, the fire service, the NHS and schools. These are the backbone of our communities, and we as representatives must continue to stand up for them.
There is no good reason for people in Leigh, or anywhere, to endure the insecurities they now face. It is a choice—a choice to defend our communities and public services that I have been sent here to fight for, on behalf of the people of Leigh.
I am not sure if this has been planned or not but, as the regional Whip for my hon. Friend Jo Platt, it is nice to have this opportunity to congratulate her on a wonderful speech. She obviously has big shoes to fill, but it is clear that she will be more than able to fill them. I know that she will be a real credit to this House and the people of Leigh.
First, I want to add my thanks to the emergency services for their bravery in the Grenfell Tower fire. I also offer my sincere and heartfelt condolences to those who lost their lives, their families and their homes.
I want to focus on an issue that I firmly believe has not received enough attention in the aftermath of last month’s fire. Since then, the media, we in this House and the wider public have sought answers for what caused the disaster. So far, cladding, individuals and the local authority have taken much of the blame, but I rise in today’s debate to highlight the role that insulation could have played in the hope that the House and the inquiry will consider the consequences of using flammable insulation, rather than a non-flammable alternative.
For those who are not aware, Grenfell Tower was insulated with a foam product named Celotex RS5000, also known as PIR. The first issue is that PIR is flammable. In small-scale tests the material’s combustibility appears to be limited, but under genuine fire conditions it is nothing short of combustible. The second issue is that when it is ignited, PIR releases toxic, deadly fumes, the most notorious of which is hydrogen cyanide, the effects of which a number of Grenfell survivors were treated for.
In the vast insulation market, there are many alternatives to PIR. The key point is that insulation has been developed that is simply not combustible. For example, the use of insulation engineered from stone wool could have saved lives in Grenfell, as it has done in previous fires. The key problems with foam insulation such as PIR are completely avoided with stone wool. It is not combustible, so it does not encourage or spread fire. As a result, it does not create the problem of toxic product inhalation.
Constructors are well aware of the dangers of using foam or fibreglass, but cannot or will not find the funds to use non-combustible stone wool. I am not suggesting for a moment that private developers should be legally bound to develop private housing estates or other developments using a particular type of insulation. Those are commercial decisions for businesses and developers, but I hope that those businesses would put public safety at the heart of whatever they are constructing in the private sector. Social housing, however, is there to protect our most vulnerable, and it should be the responsibility of the Government to legislate to ensure that the insulation used in our social housing is non-combustible.
This week I have put written questions to the Department for Communities and Local Government to ask what it will do to test similar insulation for combustibility. The reply from Ministers, in short, is that they are doing nothing. They are offering no testing, and they have no plans to do so. Today I have written to Sir Martin Moore-Bick asking him to confirm the extent to which his inquiry will consider the role of insulation in the fire, given that the Government have thus far treated the matter as an afterthought.
It is almost a month since the horrific tragedy at Grenfell Tower in Kensington. I would like to take this opportunity to offer my sympathies to the individuals and families for the horrendous ordeal that they endured, and for the loss and uncertainty they have encountered since. As colleagues have said, this has had an impact far beyond Kensington and far beyond London. In my constituency of Redditch, there have been outpourings of sympathy and offers of practical help, as residents have rallied round and organised donations of much-needed items for the victims.
I welcome the actions that the Government and the local authority have taken so far, including the emergency funding that has been made available and the rehousing of surviving residents. I call on the Minister to confirm that everything is indeed being done to help those poor families who have suffered and lost so much, and that he is taking into account the needs of each family to ensure that they have a home that is right for them, so that they can rebuild their lives. I also welcome the deployment of experienced civil servants. We recognise that they are dealing with a complex situation as they support the council in its response.
I welcome the additional £1.5 million to assist in delivering mental health support to victims. We can only imagine how devastating it must be for them to endure that mental trauma and that post-traumatic stress syndrome as they seek to rebuild their lives. I also welcome the funding to ensure that residents are represented during the inquiry. Does the Minister agree that it is in the interests of Grenfell residents, their friends and families and those who died that we allow Sir Martin to start the inquiry and get on with the job of establishing the facts of the case, instead of speculating further? It is right that an inquiry is launched, so that we may learn from this terrible incident, better understand the events that led to the disaster, and prevent a similar tragedy. Redditch Borough Council is doing that, and I congratulate it on reviewing and launching an emergency disaster response. Even though we do not have tower blocks, we recognise the impact on other public buildings, including schools and hospitals.
As the Secretary of State recognised, the national and local response was not good enough in the aftermath of the fire, and processes must be rectified to support victims better in future. What steps is the Department taking to review our emergency planning procedures to ensure that future responses are rapid, effective and give proper support to victims? I am pleased to see that precautions are being taken and checks are being made, and that the Department for Communities and Local Government, alongside the Government Property Unit, is overseeing building regulations and wider checks on public sector buildings.
I was deeply shocked and concerned by the incident at Grenfell Tower, and that led me to seek assurances from Redditch Borough Council regarding the condition and safety of council-owned housing. I know that colleagues on both sides of the House are doing the same in their constituencies. I was pleased to learn that all properties within the borough contain cladding and insulation that is certified and installed to stringent nationally recognised standards. However, I finish by calling on the Secretary of State to consider reviewing building regulations and fire safety procedures in the light of the results of the Grenfell Tower inquiry; that will help us to ensure that regulations are up to date and take into account all the learnings from this tragedy. Every effort should be made around the country to give people who live in tower blocks, or who spend their education or leisure time in public buildings such as leisure centres, community centres, hospitals and schools, confidence that they are safe.
I am glad to be able to contribute to this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friends who have made maiden speeches this afternoon. It has been a real pleasure to hear them, particularly that of my hon. Friend Jo Platt, who is my neighbour in Greater Manchester.
Like other Members, I repeat my deep condolences to every victim of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, which is an unimaginable horror for those affected. When we first learned of it just after the general election, it seemed that everyone around the House, especially Ministers, were absolutely horrified by the scale of what had occurred. There was a real sense of determination right across the House and Government to act to ensure that nothing like this could happen ever again in our country. I do not question Ministers’ continuing deep sense of responsibility and desire to make things different, but the reality is that we seem to have already lost that sense of impetus. We seem to be down in the mire of uncertainty about who is responsible, what is to be done, and when we are going to have clarity about what will keep people safe in their homes. That is playing out every day among tenants, leaseholders and homeowners in my constituency.
Of the high-rise blocks in Stretford and Urmston, eight are owned by social landlords, seven by Trafford Housing Trust, and one by Irwell Valley. The remainder are owned by a range of private companies, the names of which are meaningless to me; I have no idea who these companies are, who owns them, or who governs them. There is a major housing development in my constituency, with more in train; new privately owned high-rise blocks are being constructed. I do not believe that there is no place in our housing mix for good-quality high-rise housing, but if those new buildings are not constructed to the very highest standards, as we should expect in the light of Grenfell, and if we are not yet sure what those highest standards look like, those developments need to be paused until we can be confident about it.
The other day, when I asked one of my social landlords how things felt now, he said, “Well, it’s continuing to get worse,” by which he meant that there is increasing uncertainty, because the actions that need to be taken are becoming increasingly unclear. I recognise that there is an inordinately complex mix of factors to be considered, but that is of no use to landlords and tenants who are trying to make decisions about how to act in response to safety concerns. I urge Ministers to do everything they can to give clarity and certainty, at the highest common denominator, as soon as possible.
A small number of blocks in Trafford are partially clad, and all that cladding, as across the country, has failed the flammability tests. The intention is to remove the cladding, but the work has not yet begun because the property owners cannot be sure that, in removing the cladding, they will not make the buildings even less safe.
My hon. Friend Chris Elmore rightly alluded to concerns about insulation. Our landlords intend to have that insulation tested, but can Ministers say why the testing of insulation is not being mandated and put on the same footing, with the same resources, as the testing of cladding? I find that inexplicable. Are Ministers aware of how many buildings have had their insulation tested? What has been the result of that testing?
There is a clear view on both sides of the House that sprinklers should now be retrofitted. Do Ministers have a view on whether, in some cases, it may be appropriate to install sprinkler systems on the outside of buildings, as well as the inside? As to whether sprinklers are installed in homes or only in common areas, that will vary from building to building, but an indication of Ministers’ attitudes to those questions would be helpful.
Similarly, do Ministers have a view on whether planning legislation could accommodate the possibility that additional external fire escapes may now be needed on some buildings? Will advice be given on alarm systems and on the level of safety checks that landlords should carry out? Will there be new advice on whether people should stay put in their flat or flee in the event of a reported fire? What assessment has been made of whether any remedial activity may expose new dangers, such as those relating to asbestos? Have Ministers reminded those who own high-rise buildings of their particular obligation to work safely with asbestos?
I am not clear, and landlords in my constituency are not clear, about the precise responsibilities of the fire service and landlords. Is the fire service giving advice that landlords have to weigh up and interpret when deciding how to act, or is the advice mandatory? I hope that the Minister can give us clarity.
The assurances we have received from Ministers on who will meet the costs have been opaque. Saying that Ministers and the Government will work with landlords and councils that are not able the meet the costs tells us nothing. We cannot have tenants bearing the costs, and we cannot expect leaseholders to bear the costs, because they cannot afford them. Social landlords and councils will run out of money as they put the different rectification measures in place. Ministers need to say clearly that, at a minimum, they will underwrite the costs, and that rather than the Government working with landlords to fund the measures, the costs will be met by central Government.
I want to mention a few other risks that have been identified and the questions that landlords in particular are asking me. Cladding is beginning to be removed from properties across Greater Manchester and the rest of the country. That is happening during the summer months, when the warmth provided by the cladding, and its protective effects on the decency standards of those homes, is perhaps not a major issue. Come winter, however, if that cladding has not been replaced by new means of keeping those homes warm and dry, there will likely be a rise in cold and damp homes, respiratory illness and all the other associated problems that we always hear about in our constituency surgeries. It will also result in extra costs for householders, who will spend this winter turning up their heating. Many of them are on relatively low incomes. It would be helpful if Ministers could indicate that, where it has not been possible to make those homes warm and dry again in time for winter, there will be help for tenants in meeting heating bills. They need that assurance; otherwise the poorest and elderly tenants will simply turn off their heating, at great risk to their health and wellbeing.
That brings me to my final point: the position of vulnerable tenants in these buildings, particularly those in sheltered accommodation. In some parts of Greater Manchester—thankfully not in my constituency—there are high-rise blocks that provide sheltered housing. Moreover, even low-rise sheltered housing is, as one of my social landlords put it to me, basically a tower block turned on its side. There are many vulnerable tenants in large sheltered housing accommodation. We need the Government to work with landlords on strategies to protect vulnerable tenants in particular, whether or not they are in dedicated sheltered accommodation.
Will Ministers give particular consideration to the contentious issue of data sharing? In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, as my social landlords began to try to take action to make premises safe and offer assurances to tenants, I was told that they did not necessarily know who was in every flat, or the particular vulnerabilities that those tenants might have. So far as is possible, information is being shared across social services, schools, NHS commissioners and others, but obviously there are real difficulties and sensitivities. The Government envisage introducing a data protection Bill this Parliament, so that is an opportunity to think carefully and constructively about achieving a balance that respects individual privacy and data, but allows for appropriate access when that is important for health, safety and the preservation of life. I hope that that will be fed into the proposed legislation as Ministers develop it.
There is potential for some good to come from this appalling atrocity, but only if Ministers retain the determination and resolve that we saw in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. I tell them, for the sake of those who have died, those who have lost family members and those who live in tower blocks today and will do so in future: you must take on that responsibility.
I congratulate hon. Members who have made such powerful maiden speeches today, including in particular my constituency neighbours, my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), with whom I look forward to working on the issues that affect all of our constituents in south London.
The Grenfell Tower fire was an unspeakable horror that became an unimaginable tragedy for hundreds of people who lost parents, sisters, brothers, children, friends and the fabric of their lives, the basis of their security and community. My thoughts are with everyone affected by such devastating loss. Indeed, it has often been hard to think about anything else over the past month.
The fire has had a profound impact not only on all those who were directly affected by it, but on the wider community in Kensington and London, and on the country as a whole. The first priority must of course be help and support for survivors of the fire to access new homes within their existing community that meet their needs and are genuinely affordable, and the support they need to rebuild their lives.
The Government must also recognise that for residents throughout the country one consequence of the Grenfell Tower fire has been a colossal loss of confidence and trust, because somewhere along the line the systems, regulations, standards, inspections and emergency procedures that were put in place to keep people safe failed to do so. Since the Grenfell Tower fire, there have been two fires in tower blocks in my constituency; on one of those occasions, I was on site as the fire broke out. The level of anxiety and fear that residents in tower blocks feel at the moment cannot be overstated. In working to ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again, the Government must focus on how confidence and trust can be rebuilt so that residents of tower blocks throughout the country can rest easy again, without any shadow of a doubt that the framework of governance, regulation and inspection that is supposed to keep them safe will do so.
I was elected as a councillor in the London Borough of Southwark in 2010, the year after the Lakanal House fire, as part of a new council administration picking up the pieces following that devastating tragedy in which six people lost their lives. Fire safety was the council’s top priority. Every block was subject to a rigorous fire-risk assessment, starting with the tallest blocks and working down, and the council spent more than £60 million on fire safety works. Fire safety is an ongoing responsibility and must be monitored and assessed constantly, so I am not suggesting there is any room for complacency in Southwark or that there is not more to do, but the level of commitment to ensuring that Lakanal could not happen again was crystal clear.
Lakanal House should have been the wake-up call not just for a single borough, but for the country as a whole. The fact that it was not is down to the lack of political will and commitment from a Government ideologically committed to deregulation at all costs and the reduction of public expenditure, and down to seven years of deep cuts to local and central Government and to our emergency services.
The obsession with deregulation was illustrated in 2014 when the then Housing Minister said, following advice from the Lakanal House coroner that the Government should consider progressing the installation of sprinkler systems in all tower blocks:
“We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.”—[Official Report,
What utter nonsense. It is the responsibility of the Government to keep people safe, and that requires a framework of regulation and funding, not a private marketing campaign for sprinklers. That same ideologically driven approach to deregulation has resulted in the review of building regulations that the Lakanal House coroner also called for being left in the long grass for four years.
Multiple problems with the regulatory framework need to be addressed. Fire risk assessments can be undertaken by anyone—there is no requirement for any minimum level of qualifications, expertise or registration, and no requirement for independence. There is no minimum requirement for the number of building control inspections that have to be undertaken during construction works, allowing defects to be built in and covered up between inspections. The all-party group on group for excellence in the built environment, of which I am vice-chair, published a report a year ago that highlighted this issue. It said:
“We are concerned that competition in building control might be fuelling a race to the bottom and we are therefore recommending there should be a defined minimum number of inspections”.
There has been no Government action on the issue.
Building control inspections can be self-procured from private providers, thereby setting up a contractual relationship between construction contractors and building control inspectors that lacks independence and can therefore be compromised. The Government cannot pretend that austerity is not part of the problem. There has been a huge loss of local authority capacity because of cuts to council budgets. Planning and building control is the second most severely cut area of expenditure across local authority services. There has also been a huge loss of capacity in the Department for Communities and Local Government and among the emergency services.
Even without the conclusions of a public inquiry, it is clear that there are actions that the Government can and must take now to rebuild the trust of residents living in tower blocks. They must act on advice that has already received and information that is already known. There must be a complete overhaul of the fire safety inspection regime: responsibility must be restored to the fire service on a completely independent and statutory footing and cuts to the fire service must be reversed to enable it to fulfil that role. There must be a complete overhaul of building regulations, as called for by the Lakanal House coroner four years ago, and its recommendations must apply to existing buildings as well as new builds. Residents must be given a voice in this process. The Government must provide urgent clarity on the safety of cladding products of all types, not just aluminium composite cladding and insulation, including advice on safe replacements for panels that need to be removed and specifications for new buildings. Importantly, there must be new rights for residents in high-rise blocks who have concerns about fire safety to trigger an independent inspection, the outcome of which has statutory weight.
Finally, the Government must stop playing semantic games on the funding for fire safety works arising as a consequence of the Grenfell Tower fire. In response to a written question I submitted last week on this matter, the relevant Minister wrote:
“Where work is necessary to ensure the fire safety of social housing, we will ensure that lack of financial resources will not prevent it going ahead.”
What does that mean? Does it mean that the Government will decide whether they believe that councils have the resources or not? What will be the process? Who will make the decision? The Grenfell Tower fire came out of the blue, and the steps to put it right cannot be at the expense of planned maintenance or major works, or of the delivery of urgently needed new homes. The Government must make a firm commitment to fund fire safety works, sprinkler systems and the replacement of cladding required in response to Grenfell Tower, and they must make this commitment as a matter of urgency. So I call on them to begin the process of addressing the fears that communities across the country have because of Grenfell Tower, and of restoring trust and confidence in the systems that are there to protect people. The memory of those who lost their lives must be respected and honoured by making absolutely certain that such a tragedy can never happen again.
I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend Helen Hayes and her typically thoughtful contribution in this important debate. I am also pleased to have had the chance to listen to maiden speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Leigh (Jo Platt), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves). I was trying to think what the collective noun must be for maiden speeches and I decided on this occasion that it is a feast—we had a feast of maiden speeches. Their constituents must be proud of them already, and I know that they will work very hard in the months and years ahead to repay the confidence that they showed in my hon. Friends.
The First Secretary, in opening the debate, referred to the fire guidance and Approved Document B, which is an essential element of the building regulations. He said that the expert panel will be advising the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and it is that issue that I wish to ask about. My right hon. Friend John Healey, speaking for Her Majesty’s Opposition, also commented on that aspect of matters relevant to Grenfell, saying that the Government can start the overhaul of building regulations now and feed into the public inquiry recommendations afterwards. In my view, that is the right approach to take.
I raised the issue of the terms of reference for the public inquiry in my Adjournment debate two weeks ago, when I said:
“It would be very helpful if the Minister gave the House any details of when more might be known about the inquiry, which will face many questions on many issues. They include: the source of the fire;
the rapidity of the spread of the fire;
the catastrophic failure of all the fire protection features that the building should have contained;
the building’s refurbishment, including the original specifications and the materials actually used, as well as the quality of the work and the finish;
the monitoring of building control;
the inspection of the completed job by the council, the designated responsible person and the fire service”.—[Official Report,
I went on to raise the question of the outstanding review of the building regulations guidance on fire, as contained in Approved Document B, and the recommendation of for urgent review by the Lakanal House coroner in 2013. There is no statutory timetable laid down for a periodic review of the guidance, as I said at the time and as I mentioned in my earlier to question to the First Secretary when he was opening this debate. In my Adjournment debate, I asked about the building regulations, and in response the Minister said that after Lakanal House:
“The Government took action in a number of areas following that fire. In particular, DCLG provided funding to enable the Local Government Association, in partnership with the housing sector and enforcement authorities, to publish new fire safety guidance for purpose-built flat blocks in 2011. That guidance is still current”.—[Official Report,
That raises the key issue. If the guidance is still current and it failed at Grenfell, one of two things must be true: either the guidance is not up to the job and needs reviewing; or the guidance is adequate but was ignored. That is the fundamental question that should be addressed by the independent expert advisory panel, which was announced by the Secretary of State and which contains a number of distinguished members. As I understand it, it can also second additional members for specific tasks. When he responds, will the Minister tell us whether the panel has identified the guidance in Approved Document B of the fire regulations as a priority piece of work that needs addressing? As has been mentioned several times today, it was last revised in 2006, so its review is overdue.
If the Government await the outcome of the public inquiry and then start the review—given that it will then take time for any working party to do its job properly—the gap between the last revision and an updated Approved Document B will be at least 14 years and probably a lot longer. Historically, the reviews in the UK are usually about 10 years apart—in some other countries it is less. Does the Minister agree that that is too long a gap and that there should be a statutory responsibility to review the guidelines in a set period of time rather than having a periodic review? Has the expert panel commented on that? If it has not, will the Minister ask them that question?
“The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about building regulations and the guidance on them. It is already clear to us that there will need to changes, and that we need to look carefully at the causes and at the fact that so many buildings are failing the guidance test. The expert panel has a wide remit, which is broadly to recommend to the Government immediately any action it thinks we should take that will improve public safety.”—[Official Report,
That validates my question about whether the expert panel has recommended an immediate urgent review. If the answer is no, will the Minister ask it why it has arrived at that conclusion?
It is not just me who is asking these questions. The all-party fire safety and rescue group has been pressing them for some time. The Royal Institute of British Architects wrote to colleagues yesterday, saying:
“Ahead of any inquiry conclusions, the RIBA has called on the Government to carry out the following:
Commence immediately the delayed formal review of Approved Document B, which was first proposed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in 2013 in response to the Coroner’s rule 43 letter following the inquest into the deaths resulting from the 2009 fire at Lakanal House.
The RIBA believes that the review of Approved Document B must be a comprehensive, transparent and fundamental reappraisal, rather than an amendment or clarification, and should begin without delay to remove uncertainty, provide clarity and protect public safety.”
It also goes on to raise the issues of Building Bulletin 100 and school sprinkler systems, which I also highlighted in my debate and which has been mentioned by several colleagues today.
The Fire Sector Federation president, former London Fire Commissioner Mr Brian Robinson, writes a more qualified view of Approved Document B, which none the less supports the idea of a review. He said:
“We would also part recommend and suggest increased provisions for protection, including sprinklers, in line with the latest thinking in fire safety. But an update of AD B is only one part of the greater whole. That isn’t, by any means, the complete solution to the weaknesses exposed by the Grenfell fire.”
In support of that key point, the Association of British Insurers was even more direct. It said:
“A comprehensive review is urgently needed of ‘Approved Document B’, the regulations in England covering fire safety matters within and around buildings. The ABI has been calling for a comprehensive review of Approved Document B since 2009, and most recently in May 2017 in our response to the Government’s Housing White Paper.”
My final source is the London Fire Brigade itself. In the briefing for this debate supplied by Helen Newton on behalf of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, it says of Approved Document B:
“This document has not been reviewed for some time, which means that it has not kept up with British standards and new and innovative methods of construction or allowed debate of the sprinklers and other suppression systems especially around specialised housing.
We have been calling for Approved Document B to be reviewed and renew that call now as a matter of urgency.”
The Lakanal coroner, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Association of British Insurers, the Fire Sector Federation, fire authorities, the all-party group and others, including the Fire Protection Association, which I have not had time to quote, all agree on the urgency of reviewing Approved Document B. It is not the full solution, but it needs to be done, and it needs to be done now—not in three or five years’ time. If the work does not start until after the public inquiry, it could be as long as five years before Approved Document B is renewed. The “Government building safety programme—explanatory note”, in response to a parliamentary question, mentioned by the First Secretary earlier, says:
“We have set up an expert panel to advise us on other urgent steps we should take to improve fire safety”.
I would be grateful if the Minister addressed my specific points about the review of Approved Document B. For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that there are three questions. Has the expert panel advised on an immediate review of Approved Document B? If not, will the Secretary of State ask the panel whether it considers such an immediate review to be appropriate? Will the Secretary of State deposit the answer to those two questions in the Library?
It has been said many times today that the majority of those who die in fires are the poor, the old, the young and the sick, as well as people with substance abuse issues and the rest of it. The Grenfell Tower fire demonstrated that—writ large. We need regulations to protect people in our buildings. Approved Document B is the foundation stone on which all buildings safety is constructed. If it is not operating as it should, we are exposing people to more danger.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick. I do not pretend to match his expertise, but I hope that the Minister has listened to his absolutely vital points about the key element of safety and the passion with which he made them.
My constituency neighbours Kensington; many of my constituents have strong community and family ties with the victims of Grenfell Tower. We are now host to between 50 and 100 of those victims in hotel accommodation in the borough. Just yesterday, I found out that Kensington Aldridge Academy, at the foot of Grenfell Tower, will now be housed for about a year in portakabins built on Wormwood Scrubs. I use that as an example of the ramifications of this terrible national disaster, which will affect many people—not just in Kensington and the rest of London, but across the country. They will last a long time.
I wish to put a number of questions to the Minister. The first is, who is in charge? We have heard statements from at least five Ministers; four were present at the beginning of this debate, but only for the opening speeches. Although I value the contribution of the Prime Minister and others and the ordering of a full public inquiry at an early stage, I am afraid to say that, since that happened, there has been confusion and a degree of inaction. I do not say that with any pleasure.
Who is the Minister at central Government level who takes overall responsibility? Should there be a specifically designated Minister to deal with this tragedy? After all, Ministers are often appointed to deal with natural disasters; this is a man-made disaster with just as many—if not more—ramifications, and over more time. If the position is confusing at national level, it is even more confusing in Kensington and Chelsea. I am afraid that what has happened in that benighted borough since these terrible events has been appalling—almost tragicomic.
First, there was the chief executive, clearly not up to the job, who was thrown under a bus to protect his political masters—he went reluctantly. Then there was a leader who should have gone as soon as it was clear that the disaster relief was a disaster in itself, but who said that he was leaving because of “purported” failures. A new leader has now been installed. From what I have seen of her, I do not think she is up to the job either. I found it highly embarrassing to hear her on the radio this morning saying that she had not been into high-rise council blocks before. She has been a cabinet member for at least five years and a councillor for the borough for at least 11. I have visited all sorts of accommodation around the borough hundreds if not thousands of times, for all sorts of reasons. In all honesty, how can someone who works for a London borough not have been into the flats? She later clarified by saying, “I might have been canvassing there, but I’ve never been into a flat there.” I do not want to personalise the matter, but it is clear that she is simply out of touch with the people she is trying to represent, and honestly cannot represent the people of north Kensington in particular. That is why a ready solution was available in the form of commissioners.
None of us, particularly those of us with a local government background, want to see commissioners go in, but they had been put in previously during less extreme cases. There is a suspicion that politics is preventing that from happening. An obvious course of action is to put commissioners in to manage the situation. We have London elections next May, so what is the problem? Instead, there is a hybrid solution with a taskforce, which, as the Secretary of State clarified earlier, is advisory, but which does not report to the people in charge, who are still the same old bosses in Kensington and Chelsea. How is that a recipe in any way for clarity, firm judgment and decision making in Kensington and Chelsea?
Who is on the taskforce? It was announced by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government a week ago, but we do not know who these people are or their terms of reference. We do not know whether any of them have been appointed or whether they have visited the borough over this period of time. I am afraid that this all smacks of the continuing delay and prevarication that has become the hallmark of dealing with the aftermath of Grenfell. Is the Minister able to clarify those points? If he is the Minister who is going to take responsibility, I am sure that we will all support him, but let us have that clarity.
It is true that it took about a week—too late—to realise what a disaster the Kensington management team were and to put in the new Gold team under John Barradell. Things did start to improve because there were more competent people in place, but they only started to improve and we are still not entirely there. I remember that my chief executive in Hammersmith was on the phone at 6 o’clock in the morning offering help, and that was true of many other London boroughs. Accommodation, offices and assistance were offered, but calls simply were not returned. It was not that the offers were rejected or accepted; there was simply no co-ordination of services. Even when the new Gold team came in, what appeared to be a better solution to the situation was not quite all it seemed.
Let me give an example that I mentioned in an earlier intervention. I went to speak to a group of Grenfell survivors who are now in a hotel in Fulham, and they told me differing stories. That is not surprising because every single family has a different story and different needs. Some had not been made housing offers and some had. Some had initially been told that they would not get a housing offer at all because they were lodgers and not tenants. That was then revised. Some were given keyworkers, albeit somewhat belatedly. Some only had keyworkers in the sense that people would occasionally ring them from hidden numbers, so they could not get back in touch and that person would not answer many of their questions. Others said they had a good relationship with the keyworkers. Some had been given money and some had not. Some had been given money on one day, but then another family member was refused money the next day.
It seemed an entirely arbitrary system, which was extraordinarily confusing to people who, let us not forget, were already living without any of their possessions, having suffered, at best, the severe trauma of the evacuation, and who were often in a state of bereavement after losing family members, neighbours and friends in the fire. They have now been stuck in hotels for four weeks or more. I am proud of the staff and management of the hotel I visited. They made people welcome and looked after them, but the truth is that people cannot live in a small room in a budget hotel. Many of these people had no change of clothes and no money when they were first sent to hotels. Whole families were put in one room, and Kensington and Chelsea Council had no further contact with them. In several cases, they were picked up by local residents in Hammersmith, who got them food, put them in touch with people and got local businesses to give them food, cleaning facilities and clothes for free. Hammersmith Council then intervened and gave them money, vouchers and things of that kind. But this was all on an ad hoc basis. How on earth can this be happening in our capital city in the 21st century? Yes, things are getting better, but they are getting better only slowly.
Let me put to bed the myth of the offers of accommodation. These offers of accommodation included people being asked to go to places substantial travelling distances from their children’s school or their place of work. As we heard from my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad, offers of accommodation were made to disabled people when there was no disabled access. One elderly lady I spoke to could not get into the toilet at the place she was offered. Is it reasonable to refuse an offer of accommodation like that? I think it probably is.
But it goes further than that. I ask the Minister to imagine that his house burned down, even without all the trauma associated with Grenfell Tower. I think he would expect the insurance company to put him up in like-for-like accommodation in a similar area, ensure that he could continue his life as best as he could, and then restore the property and move him back in or give him an equivalent alternative property. I do not see why the residents of Grenfell Tower should get any less, even if the assistance has to come from the state, rather than an insurance company.
So let us not pretend that we are doing people favours and offering them permanent accommodation or like-for-like accommodation. Some of the accommodation around Grenfell is excellent quality social housing, and we should be proud of the fact that it was built in the 1960s and 1970s. It has good space standards, and it is light and airy, with plenty of room. Why should these people be given anything less than that as an alternative when they have suffered so much already?
That brings me to the wider issue of housing. There was an interesting piece on the “Today” programme last week looking at the options for the long-term rehousing of the people from Grenfell Tower. It went through half a dozen, and they are quite revealing. First, people could be put at the top of the housing waiting list in Kensington. The problem with that, apparently, is that only about eight units come up per week, and most of those are small, one-bedroom flats. Nobody mentioned the fact that taking that option would displace everybody who had been on the housing waiting list for years and years. However, that option was ruled out because of the small number of units.
What about the private rented sector? The Residential Landlords Association said, quite rightly, that private rented accommodation is a completely different form of tenure: there is no real security, and mortgage lenders often attach conditions that mean that tenants on benefits or tenants who want longer tenancies are not eligible to take that accommodation, so that option goes out as well.
What about redeveloping? What about estate regeneration, which councils such as Kensington often use to reduce the quantum of social housing? It was said that most estates in inner London are already at high density, and only a limited number of additional units can be put into them.
One novel suggestion was to use the big development sites at White City and Old Oak in my constituency to temporarily house people. That is an interesting development. I would absolutely welcome new social housing being built on the big development sites in my constituency, and I am sure that, as part of that, we would absolutely welcome people displaced from Grenfell, as well as our own residents. But that is not what was being offered; what was being suggested was temporary accommodation on a building site for three to five years until people could be moved on and luxury housing could be built, as originally planned.
The 68 units in Kensington Row have been mentioned a number of times. Initially, there was a rather inflammatory article in The Guardian, in which the other residents of this large luxury development on Kensington High Street said they did not want people like the Grenfell tenants living cheek by jowl with them. Whatever misinformation led to that story, the Kensington Row flats on offer are not luxury flats—they are not the £1 million one-bedroom flats that characterise the rest of that development. They are existing affordable housing units which would have been used for people who cannot afford market rents. In most cases, Grenfell Tower tenants will be offered existing social housing. That means that social housing tenants generally—people in existing council and housing association accommodation, and people on the waiting list, which, in west London, is a very long waiting list—will be subsidising the relief effort for Grenfell Tower.
The sixth option was this: why not buy some units of accommodation? That was ruled out, because a unit of accommodation—a two-bedroom flat in Kensington—costs about £600,000. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington, Kensington and Chelsea has a balance of nearly £300 million which it has been stashing away. Moreover, if anyone thinks it is controversial to change units between the social and market housing sectors, let me point out that when the Conservatives were running Hammersmith council it was selling off its social housing on the open market as it became empty, for nearly half a million pounds per unit. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: if you can sell it off, you can buy it.
I want the Minister to give a clear instruction to the council. I suggest that he should go away and listen to the interview with its leader, which was, I may say, a superb example of interviewing skill. At the fourth or fifth time of asking, having tried to dodge the question on every possible occasion, she said yes, the council would buy some units. I hope the Minister will listen to that interview, and I hope he will hold the council leader to her promise so that we can start to provide permanent, decent, adequate housing for the people who suffered in Grenfell Tower, and do so sooner rather than later.
This also shines a light on the wider crisis in social housing. If we cannot find social housing units for the 200 to 300 families who have been displaced from Grenfell Tower and the blocks around it, how can we come near to resolving the overall housing crisis, especially in high-value areas? The other story that has been doing the rounds in inner London concerns what is happening at Battersea power station, where there is a development consisting of 4,200 properties. The developer has persuaded Wandsworth Council to reduce the number of affordable homes by 40%, from 686 to 386, and they now represent 9% of the development. That is the truth of Conservative policy on affordable housing in London. The Minister has an opportunity to say, when he winds up the debate, that that will no longer happen, in the case of Grenfell Tower and in the wider context as well.
Let me raise one final issue. I will not speak about it for long, because others with more expertise, including my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse, have already spoken about it. The issue of safety, in the widest sense, must be resolved, and it cannot be resolved over the timescale of the public inquiry. Earlier action must be taken.
Both the chair and the secretary of the all-party parliamentary fire safety and rescue group—Sir David Amess and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse—mentioned the group’s expert adviser and secretary, former chief fire officer Ronnie King. Has made a number of very clear points which he wishes us to put to the Minister, and we are happy to do so. The first relates to Approved Document B—which has been dealt with extensively—and the fact that it needs to be revised, and that we need clarity in relation to the whole issue of construction and external cladding.
We are not talking only about the type of cladding that has been tested; we are talking about all forms of cladding. We are talking—as other Members have said—about insulation, and about how it is fitted. In particular, we are asking, “What is the effect of fire?” We are not talking about what can be done on a desktop computer or on a small piece of cladding, but about what happens when a real building burns when it has cladding of that kind, or some similar external modification. The London Building Acts—which, I believe, were repealed in 1986 and replaced by a much weaker form of legislation—specified an hour’s retardation of fire on external structures. Why can we not go back to those standards and have that clarity? A huge amount of testing needs to be done; this is not just about testing the minority of types of cladding that the Minister has spoken about so far.
Cladding is only one issue, because there is also the issue of sprinklers. I wish the Minister and his colleagues would stop saying that they have done exactly what the Lakanal House coroner said. The coroner recommended that this matter should be looked at, and all the Government did was to pass it on to local authorities.
I absolutely agree that we can learn from the devolved Administrations on this issue. It is weasel words for the Minister to say that the coroner did not insist that we follow that recommendation. A coroner cannot insist on such matters. The coroner gave a clear indication, and the Government dodged the issue. I think that it should be revisited.
Another issue that should be revisited is who carries out inspections of tower blocks. That is not just about cladding, but about fire alarms, means of escape, maintenance and access for emergency vehicles. In the course of the public inquiry, we may find out that all of those were factors at Grenfell Tower. We must not wait for the inquiry, because my constituents who live in tower blocks will not be able to sleep easily in their beds at night until they know that they are living, as they always thought they were, in entirely safe buildings and until they know what they are supposed to do in the case of a fire. The Minister therefore has quite a long agenda to tackle.
Let me make one final point. It is a matter for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy rather than for the Minister’s Department, but I know he is taking an interest in it. The cause of the fire was once again a white good manufactured by one of the Whirlpool companies. It caused an electrical fire in a fridge-freezer, just as one of the known fire risk white goods—an Indesit tumble dryer—caught fire causing a substantial tower block fire in my constituency last year. When are the Government going to start tackling these issues?
The issues involve the registration of white goods, the collection of data on which are safe and which are unsafe, the recall of products when they are shown to be dangerous and the release of the risk assessments that currently—and scandalously—are not revealed on grounds of commercial confidentiality for the companies that manufacture the goods. It is another whole area of investigation that is long overdue. Although much of the attention on Grenfell concentrates on the external spread of the fire, the fire would never have got outside the tower block had it not started in a fridge-freezer. We still do not know—because the Government have not said—whether the tests have been completed, whether it was due to a design fault or whether the construction of that model allowed the fire to take hold.
I hope that the points I have made are all relevant and are all matters for the public inquiry to consider, but some of them cannot wait until then. Certainly, the relief and rehousing of the people who have been displaced by the Grenfell fire cannot wait any longer. We are about to enter the summer recess, and I hope we do not come back in September or October to find that nothing has changed. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington, because she has been thrown in at the deep end in no uncertain fashion and she has absolutely risen to the challenge. She is a strong and powerful advocate for her community, but she cannot do it all on her own; this is a job, both locally and nationally, for the Government to take hold of. We must not forget this terrible tragedy, which has blighted our country, because if we do not learn lessons from it, it will recur again.
May I say what an honour and pleasure it is to be back on the green Benches speaking on behalf of my constituents after a two-year enforced sabbatical? Before I speak about the subject of today’s debate, I should say just a few words about my predecessor Amanda Solloway, who took my seat off me by 41 votes in 2015. She was in some ways an unusual and unlikely Conservative party candidate, coming from fairly humble origins and having herself experienced homelessness in an earlier part of her life. She made it her business to highlight the plight of homeless people and to draw attention to that really important issue, which scars our country, the fifth richest nation on the planet. Another big issue on which she fought hard was making mental health care more of a priority for the Government and ensuring that resources were made available for it.
My hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick sought a collective noun for the excellent maiden speeches that have been made today—he referred to a “feast” of maiden speeches. I agree with that description of the excellent contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Leigh (Jo Platt). I am sure that they will go on to make a big contribution in this place for as long as they are here.
The origins of the catastrophic fire that occurred at Grenfell can be traced back to the neoliberal doctrine that was inflicted on our country back in 1979 and has disfigured our public services over the intervening four decades. A big feature of that approach has been deregulation, privatisation and cuts, which led to combustible materials being perfectly legitimately used on Grenfell Tower and, as we know, many other tower blocks around the country. How can that possibly be? Added into the mix is the move towards compulsory competitive tendering, which was brought into the public realm almost 40 years ago and meant that the cheapest price was all that was looked at when services were externalised. How could the maintenance of our public realm and housing stock be put out to the private sector?
Of course, if the work had been done properly and there were firestops on every floor of Grenfell Tower, as there are supposed to be, even if there had been a fire, it would have been contained on the floor where it started. The combination of compulsory competitive tendering and the business-friendly inspection regime has culminated in this appalling, catastrophic fire in which so many people lost their lives.
We can also look at the cuts that have been imposed and see the number of fire safety inspectors who have been taken out of the system—between 60% and 75% depending on which fire authority we are talking about. So now the fire and rescue authorities cannot undertake the safety checks that they used to be able to carry out as a matter of course. The slapdash, corner-cutting approach that we have seen over the past few decades has ultimately led to this appalling, catastrophic fire.
There was an exchange earlier in the debate about the laissez-faire approach to student accommodation. Legislation requires new residential tower blocks over 30 metres high to have sprinklers installed in them. However, nurse and student accommodation is deemed to be “other accommodation”, so there is no requirement for sprinklers to be installed there. It is as if nurses and students are expendable—that cannot be right.
I mentioned the fire safety inspectors who have been taken out of the system, and while we are talking about cuts, it is important to remember that fire station after fire station in this capital and right across the country has been closed. Since 2010, 11,000 firefighters have lost their jobs, which I think means that one in five firefighters have effectively been removed from the system since then.
That creates its own problem. I spoke to Fire Brigades Union representatives, who talked about such things as the use of breathing apparatus. The fact is that reducing the number of firefighters available to deal with emergencies means that when we have a catastrophic fire, such as the one at Grenfell Tower, firefighters repeatedly have to go into the building to rescue people. The problem with that is that when firefighters use breathing apparatus, their blood thickens, putting them at greater risk of a coronary attack. We know from eyewitness accounts that some firefighters were entering Grenfell Tower to rescue people up to three times each. They should not have been in that situation.
When the Prime Minister was interviewed about that, she said that London fire brigade had the resources it needed and implied that the fact that it was able to respond to the fire was proof of that. But the truth is that London fire brigade did not have the resources it needed, because if it did have them, individual firefighters would not have had to enter Grenfell Tower time after time to rescue people, as there would have been enough firefighters to ensure that they each had to enter the building only once.
If we are seriously going to learn any lesson—we hear rhetoric about the importance of learning lessons from catastrophic events, but often it is just for the birds—from this dreadful fire that should never, ever have happened, surely it must be that we need a different approach to the neoliberal agenda that has influenced and informed the way in which public services have been delivered in our country. Surely we have to reverse the deregulation agenda to which we have been subjected and abandon the privatisation of our public services.
We have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber about the importance of installing sprinklers. It is an unanswerable argument. If Grenfell Tower had been fitted with sprinklers, we might have lost the building, but we would not have lost human life. I do not think that there is a building anywhere in the world that has been fitted with sprinklers in which people have died in a fire—there have been very few deaths, if any. Surely we must learn that lesson.
We should also listen very carefully to the survivors, the community and the residents who have been so affected by this appalling episode. When I spoke to somebody from the Justice4Grenfell group just yesterday, she said that they had a number of demands, including two that I hope the Minister will agree with and deliver. First, the survivors want to ensure that everybody affected is housed within the borough in decent, good-quality accommodation. My hon. Friend Andy Slaughter made the point that there is empty accommodation in the borough that could be acquired. The local authority in Kensington has the resources within its reserves to acquire those properties, but it seems to me that the Government are responsible and they should ensure that those resources are available.
The second thing that the survivors want is help in their present situation. The person from the Justice4Grenfell group said that she had spoken to one survivor who had been put into a hotel and just left to fend for themselves. They did not know where to go to get food or a change of clothes, so more needs to be done. There needs to be more immediate help for the survivors and, in what should be the shorter term, we should make accommodation available. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that that will happen.
When I attended a meeting of the Local Government Association Labour group fire services commission earlier this week, I was shown a paper that had been put to the fire services management committee, which included a number of recommendations. I would be interested in the Minister’s response to them. The paper said:
“Government should agree to have Sprinkler Systems fitted in All High Rise Flats in the Country”, and that
“Any Cladding fitted to High Rise Flats should be of high quality Fire Resistant Material approved by the Fire Service to a Uniformed National Standard.”
The paper also proposes:
“The Fire Service should have overall responsibility for Fire Safety for High Rise Flats, which includes the Flats, corridors, public spaces, fire alarms, safety advice to tenants, and the Fire Service should provide Fire Safety Assurance for Residential High Rise Flats. All High Rise Blocks should be inspected by the Fire Service once every 2 years, and inspected after a major refurbishment.”
The paper goes on to say:
“New High Rise Flats should be regulated to ensure they are built to include all of the above, and in addition they should be built with two Stair Wells within the building”, and that
“Government urgently review the fire regulation order and fully fund the Fire Service to re-enable planning and building control applications to be review by Fire Safety issues on a risk assessed basis.”
Finally, the paper says:
“Government will need to recognise that extra Government financial resources will need to be made available to Fire and Rescue Services to enable them to provide for the necessary workload that this will require.”
That seems to me to be a list of common-sense requests. We should remember that it came from a cross-party group, so there are people from the Conservative party, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats in the Local Government Association saying this, as well as independents. I therefore hope that the Minister will take into account what that cross-party group has said, take into account the very sensible suggestions made on both sides of the House today and, most importantly, listen to the survivors and the community and respond appropriately, because this is a stain on the very character of Great Britain. We need to learn lessons to make sure that we mean it when we say that this will never, ever happen again.
It is a great pleasure to have sat through the whole of this debate and listened to the excellent maiden speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and for Leigh (Jo Platt)—I hope I have got them all. This has been an excellent debate, with very many important points raised and questions asked of Ministers on issues that the Government must address. I will not take up Members’ time by repeating many of them.
The Grenfell fire was an appalling and, very likely, preventable tragedy, exacerbated by what seemed to me, as somebody with a bit of experience of this, the frankly dysfunctional response from Kensington and Chelsea Council in the hours, days and weeks following that terrible fire—and even now. I share all Members’ concerns for the families of those who lost their lives, and those who lost their homes. I share the concerns of the emergency and frontline service workers who have had to deal with the trauma. I hope that there will be adequate long-term post-trauma support for them all, of the kind that the Government put in place immediately after the 7/7 bombings; somebody I know well is benefiting now from the support he received immediately after that.
London fire brigade has reduced the number of its counsellors from over 10 to under five in the last seven years. Does my hon. Friend agree that that should immediately be addressed, so that we offer adequate support and counselling to our service personnel?
That is an excellent point. Clearly fire service officers and other workers are on the frontline when it comes to experiencing trauma; we heard about that in many reports on the Lakanal fire. Such an essential service, which employs people who will experience that trauma, cutting specialist counselling services by half is yet another example of the impact of cuts and austerity on public services that are there for us all. Everybody should have a right to post-trauma counselling and support, whether we are talking about an employer providing it to frontline workers, or whether we are talking about members of the public who are nearby or just passing, charity workers helping out at a rescue station, or those who live in similar blocks, because as my friend has told me, it makes a real difference to people’s long-term ability to function.
I have constituents, as I am sure many other Members do, who live in older council-owned tower blocks, such as Brentford Towers and the Ivybridge estate. Many have contacted me because they are frightened. They and their children cannot sleep at night. They do not want to carry on living there. They need reassurance. For some of them, the trauma is so bad that they are asking to be rehoused. This is a major issue.
I had the benefit of being briefed by London Borough of Hounslow officers and council members in the week immediately after the Grenfell fire. I have been reassured that none of the blocks in my constituency have cladding that fails the Government tests. I was also pleased to hear that on the day after the Grenfell fire, the council’s programme to reclad the six towers of Brentford Towers, which people can see from the elevated section of the M4, has been put on hold while it reviews the specifics of the programme. That cladding programme is urgently needed for reasons relating to the safety of the existing external cladding and for thermal insulation, but given what has happened, it is absolutely right that the specifics of that programme be reviewed.
The leader and councillors of the London Borough of Hounslow are meeting all residents of tower blocks to hear their concerns—to listen and to respond. That is the right thing to do. The London Borough of Hounslow is also responding to requests and offering help to Kensington and Chelsea on a range of services. The council is preparing estate fire safety and improvement plans, to ensure that issues such as prevention and tackling fire safety inside and outside all tower blocks are addressed. It is also reviewing all the fire risk assessments in all blocks.
I have considerable experience as a councillor: I was lead member for housing and had lead responsibility for contingency planning. I have seen at first hand how proper fire safety mechanisms and management by residents and landlord alike can work. There was a fire at Fraser House, and sadly a resident died, but the fire did not spread through the block because the appropriate fire doors were shut and the appropriate venting was open. The fire was therefore drawn away from the other flats and out of the vents on that floor.
I understand how buildings are designed for fire safety, and how we must be careful when revising the structure, cladding and other aspects of buildings. I also understand why working with the management and the residents is so important. The reason why the fire doors at Fraser House were shut was that residents and the council worked together after the Lakanal House report was published to learn the lessons from that fire. I am regularly in and out of the Brentford Towers blocks—talking to residents, canvassing at elections and so on—and I know that on hot summer days it is tempting to prop open the fire doors. That stopped happening after the Lakanal report, however. The fire doors were regularly closed. Good management and good communication will work.
I have been the lead member for contingency planning, but thankfully I never had to deal with an emergency. I was, however, briefed to know what an emergency looked and felt like, what my role and that of senior officers would be, and how the communications links with other authorities would work, up and down the line. The way of managing in a crisis is completely different from day-to-day managing.
When I woke up that morning and started following the Twitter feed and listening to and watching the news, I was shocked at the poverty of the response from Kensington and Chelsea. To me, it smacked of inadequate preparation for an emergency. I accept that the Grenfell fire was of a different order; as others have said, it was the biggest fire in this country since wartime. Nevertheless, one of the things I would look for as an outsider is a person who is regularly in front of the cameras, listening and speaking. I would expect to see that person meeting the affected residents, the frontline workers and the charity workers. I would expect the charities and others to be responding to requests for help from the local authority, rather than having to be the sole providers of support in the hours and days after the event. But what did we see? Community centres, mosques and churches dealing with things on their own, and receiving massive amounts of good will and items that they perhaps did not need at that time; for example, there was an over-supply of blankets. They were working on their own, and they did not know what to say to all those offers of help.
I was also concerned to hear that when other local authorities, particularly those close to Kensington and Chelsea, offered that week’s allocation of social rented housing to Kensington and Chelsea to use as temporary or permanent homes for those affected, there was no adequate response. Other local authorities also offered specialised, experienced trauma counsellors to Kensington and Chelsea, but there was no response. At a time when people were willing and able to go the extra mile to share with colleagues in an extreme crisis, there was nowhere for people to turn. I hope that the inquiry will look at the response of the local authority and at what it should have been. We have already heard how this can work, following reports of what happened after the terrorist attack at the Manchester concert hall. Members from Manchester have said that there was a good response from the local authority there.
The residents of Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk and their families deserve justice. All residents of tower blocks deserve reassurance, so that they can live and sleep in peace. Poor communities and those in housing need require a Government who no longer ignore them, cut vital services, and ignore the conclusions of public inquiries, and a Government who invest in adequate, good-quality, truly affordable housing.
The Opposition welcome today’s debate, and I begin by thanking colleagues who have contributed, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), for Eltham (Clive Efford), for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), who speaks with so much knowledge and first-hand experience of the dreadful tragedy and its aftermath, for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), for Westminster North (Ms Buck), for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Derby North (Chris Williamson), and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury).
We heard brilliant and powerful maiden speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), and for Leigh (Jo Platt). All of them showed passion and dedication. They will be doughty champions for their constituents and their constituencies in this place, and I welcome each and every one of them.
From other parts of the House, we heard from Sir Oliver Heald and the hon. Members for Southend West (Sir David Amess), for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith), for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), and for Redditch (Rachel Maclean).
There can be little dispute that the shock that we all felt following this tragedy has not subsided in the weeks that followed it. While the need for immediate answers is clear, we welcome the Grenfell inquiry’s decision yesterday to extend the consultation period by two weeks to provide those affected with more time to respond. It is understandable that the immediate focus of the response to this tragedy has been on meeting the needs of the bereaved and the survivors, but may I urge the Government for action with regard to the neighbours and community members around Grenfell tower? We have been speaking to some of the volunteers, and they have expressed concern at the lack of access to support for the many nearby residents. These people saw the disaster develop close at hand, but some have not accessed support, either because they have not been directly approached, or because of a reluctance to do so when local services are so overwhelmed.
I pay tribute to the fire service, the police, and the community, who pulled together to assist when statutory authorities frankly failed. That is why I ask the Government to ensure that support is available to those who are volunteering after this disaster. Some volunteers are now doing a job as part of the disaster victim identification team that many of us could not imagine.
As the tragedy unfolded on
Similarly, residents in tower blocks throughout the UK need assurances that their homes are safe. My right hon. Friend John Healey was clear about where the Government need to improve. Four weeks on from this tragedy, we still need the Government to show some leadership, because concerns run deep, and run beyond the neighbourhood surrounding Grenfell. We heard today that Members across this House have been contacted by concerned constituents living in the 4,000 other tower blocks across the country. Ministers still cannot say how many of these tower blocks they consider to be safe. In the last update given by Ministers, of the 530 tower blocks covered in aluminium composite material that have been the focus of the testing process, only 200 had actually had material tested.
We have heard that housing associations whose residents have sought assurances that their non-ACM clad buildings are safe—I have three such buildings in my constituency—have been told that the Government are refusing to check their cladding due to the current narrow focus of the testing. That is just not good enough.
Where buildings have failed safety tests, including in Salford, local authorities are unclear on how to proceed, because guidance issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government is unclear on whether cladding that fails combustibility tests requires removal, and on whether, if it does fail those tests, leaving a building unclad and open to the elements is actually a worse fire situation than leaving the cladding on.
“are ‘unlikely to be compliant’ with the limited combustibility requirement of the building regulations”.—[Official Report,
However, as per the explanatory note referenced by the Secretary of State, it may be possible for individual materials that do not meet limited combustibility definitions to be used where they form part of a system that does meet the requirements.
There are two ways to meet that requirement. One is to ensure that each individual component of a wall meets the criteria for limited combustibility, which is the test currently used by the Department, and the other is to ensure that the façade system meets the acceptance criteria of BR 135, following the method in BS 8414. But under the current regulatory system, even cladding that fails tests for limited combustibility can be used in developments as long as the criteria in BR 135 are met. Despite the Chancellor’s misinformed comments, the cladding used in the project at Grenfell Tower was not banned in the UK. If we are to prevent such a tragedy from happening again, it is important that we get these things right.
The fire service was among the first at the scene at Grenfell. The least we can do is ensure that it plays an important role in the forthcoming inquiry, and that its expertise is not just valued but taken on board and acted on. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, many local authorities have been undertaking safety checks and installing fire prevention systems. Many councils have gone beyond just the tower blocks by looking at public buildings such as schools and hospitals.
Some local authorities began removing cladding from their buildings after it failed the recent tests, but as I have explained, the building regulations do not necessarily reflect the documentation issued by the Department. Some housing providers have since stopped removing cladding because of that lack of direction; they do not know how, and with what materials, the cladding should be replaced. Residents are worried that inaction is leaving them vulnerable, yet without guidance, local authorities are unsure how best to act. Leadership on this issue has not been forthcoming from the Secretary of State, who has instead passed the buck to landlords, in conjunction with fire services, so that they take decisions on building safety.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne, the shadow Secretary of State for Housing, noted in his opening remarks, this is not the first time that the Government have failed to take responsibility for safety. He referred to the words of the former Housing Minister, Brandon Lewis, who said it was the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to encourage the installation of sprinkler systems.
Members on both sides of the House, including the right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire and the hon. Member for Southend West, have called for the retrofitting of sprinklers. I urge the Minister to consult the all-party parliamentary fire safety rescue group on that, because there is an urgent need to ensure that all buildings—public buildings and housing—are fire-safe.
I commend the Labour-led Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, one of two councils covering my constituency, on agreeing to retrofit sprinklers in all Stockport Homes tower blocks. That is down to the work of Councillor Sheila Bailey in particular. Similar commitments have been made by other local authorities of all political persuasions.
Ministers need to clarify an important matter. They have not given any real commitment to local authorities. The First Secretary of State has announced that the Government are prepared to fund these measures only in certain circumstances. That basically means that already cash-strapped local authorities will have to either find more money that they just do not have or cut services elsewhere. Unless the Government explain how they will make resources available to local authorities to do those works, and what “stepping in” means in practical terms, that is a bit of an empty promise.
I raised that issue in the debate. I asked the Secretary of State in a written question to set out the criteria against which applications for additional funding will be assessed. The answer I got was
“that it will not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period.”
That is a rather empty answer, is it not, to a very pressing problem?
Absolutely, and I am afraid it speaks volumes. Unless the Minister, in summing up, can explain how local authorities are going to get that resource, the fact is that councils in my hon. Friend’s constituency and many others across this country will not have the financial means to address the issue. They need certainty that they will receive some recompense from central Government.
I want to turn quickly to governance. We heard today that the taskforce sent in to advise Kensington and Chelsea Council lacked the powers necessary to co-ordinate what needed to be done following this disaster, and about the deficit in local leadership. As the First Secretary of State has said, the taskforce can advise, but it cannot act. Surely that is an issue of real concern, because Kensington and Chelsea Council just was not up to the job of dealing with a disaster of this magnitude. The way in which it responded was, quite frankly, not acceptable in any sense of the term. There is very real concern about not only how the local authority handled the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, but its shortcomings over the following days and weeks.
Having spoken to those offering support to survivors, I understand that there are very real concerns that the uptake of financial support is still not what it should be. I appreciate that Ministers have given assurances that benefits will not be affected, but the lack of trust that some continue to have in their elected representatives locally has led to some refusing support. That needs to be addressed at a local level.
On the council’s ability to deal with this type of emergency, it has emerged that there are serious shortcomings in its contingency planning and management, yet the Government have not been good enough at the job of intervening. People are still in need of support services and rehousing. It appears that the Government have acknowledged the council’s serious failings, because they sent in a taskforce, but at this crucial time, they have left in charge those who failed the residents in the first place. Today, we heard the new leader of the council state that she has never before been inside a high-rise council block. What a farce!
Until we can guarantee that all those who lost their homes are in secure accommodation, until support is available for all who need it, and until the public are again able to trust the elected representatives in Kensington and Chelsea Council, we will repeat our call for commissioners to take over the running of the council. Changes need to be made to laws, to regulations and in the governance of the council, and they must be made based on the evidence we have now, as well as on the additional evidence from the inquiry. We urge the Government to make this happen swiftly; if they do, they will have our support.
We have had a detailed and wide-ranging debate on the Grenfell Tower public inquiry, but I start by congratulating all the Members who made their maiden speeches today: the hon. Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), for Leigh (Jo Platt) and for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones).
We heard some incredibly powerful speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith), for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) and for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), and we of course heard from Emma Dent Coad, who has been very involved in dealing with the residents and has been part of the response.
We also heard from the various members of the all-party group on fire safety: my hon. Friend Sir David Amess and the hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). I can tell the shadow Minister, Andrew Gwynne, that I met them recently to hear their views. They will be writing to me in some detail to set out what they want to see happen in the inquiry.
Colleagues have had an opportunity to express a range of views—some obviously different from others—but the House is today united in the view that ultimately the people who matter the most are those who have been affected directly by this terrible tragedy. They must have their questions answered, and that is precisely what the inquiry will do.
In his opening remarks, the shadow Secretary of State, John Healey, said that he will not rest until the residents have the help they need, until we get to the bottom of what happened, and until we make sure that this never happens again. I assure him that I, too, will not rest until all three of those conditions are met, and nor will the Secretary of State or, indeed, any colleague in this House.
I again put on record my deepest condolences for all those who have suffered such great loss as a result of this fire, which we all agree should never have happened. Colleagues from all parties have paid tribute to the victims, their families and the heroism of the emergency services, and I know that such heart-felt views will be heard and echoed throughout the country. This debate has provided an opportunity to reflect on the scale and human cost of this tragedy, but it has also given us a valuable chance to start to look ahead to what comes next—principally, the public inquiry that will establish precisely what went wrong, why and who is responsible.
Colleagues have raised a range of issues, and before I continue with my speech I shall take a few minutes to respond to some of them. On the help available to those who are directly affected, Members will know that we have made first offers to all those who are ready to have such offers made to them. A large number of second offers have been made, and 19 of the families have now accepted an offer. I just point out that, as I know Opposition Members have acknowledged, we need to go at the pace that the families want us to go at. That is incredibly important. I know that some of them will want to move into permanent homes rather than into temporary homes, and we accept that. We have had a discussion about Kensington Row, and I hope we will soon be in a position where we can start viewings of the flats there. We are also looking to secure similar accommodation so that we have net additions to the social housing, rather than take up homes that others might have occupied. The key thing is that nobody is going to be forced into a home that they do not want to go to.
On funding, I can report that 120 of the households have received a grant of £5,000, and many others have also received the £500 cash payment. In total, almost £4 million has been paid out from the discretionary fund. Colleagues have raised issues relating to trauma support, which of course is being made available to those who need it. Given the exceptional nature of the incident, we have agreed that MOPAC—Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime—funding will used for this, even though no crime as such has been committed that we are aware of.
We heard a discussion on the Government’s response and the testing regime that we have put in place. The Secretary of State has led right from the start on that. I have been by his side, so I can tell Members that he has led on it. I ask hon. Members to look on the Government website because it will tell them about all the letters we have written to local authorities and housing associations, and all the tests that we have suggested are done. Yes, 211 tests have come back as positive—or negative; it depends on who one looks at it—but I just say that we are working with the Local Government Association and others to encourage housing associations, local councils and private landlords to send in the cladding for testing. What I say to every Member here, as they can help with this, is that I know they will be in touch with their local authorities and housing associations, so please help us. They should ask their local—
I am saying that we want to get this testing done as quickly as possible. We have got the resources available for that. Let me just say that there are some cases where local authorities will have sent in one piece of cladding for testing from a building and may have had a number of buildings that were re-clad at a similar time, so we are hoping to establish whether that is the case or not. An awful lot of work is going on, and I just recommend to right hon. and hon. Members that they look on the website as it will tell them, in great detail, what the expert advisory panel is doing and it will tell them about all the tests that have been carried out.
Members have also talked about insulation, and of course when we wrote to local authorities on
We had a discussion about building regulations, and I respectfully point out that they were put together in 2006, not when the current Government were in place, so this idea that somehow deregulation has played a part is unfair. Let me also make reference to the Lakanal House fire and what the coroner wanted to happen. The coroner recommended simplifying the fire safety guidance under the building regulations, not a change in the standards. I accept that that has not happened as yet, but clearly in the light of this tragedy we need to reflect on the previous plans for consulting. Clearly, if anything emerges from the investigation where we need to take immediate action, we will do that.
The expert advisory panel, which my right hon. Friend has appointed, is considering a range of matters, particularly whether there are any immediate additional actions that need to be taken to ensure the safety of existing high-rise buildings.
Yes, I can. That work is ongoing.
There was a discussion about the independent recovery taskforce, which was appointed by the Secretary of State. Let me point out that if we had gone down the road of appointing commissioners, that would have been a statutory intervention, which would have taken longer. Our view is that we need to get people in there now and to focus particularly on housing regeneration and community engagement. People from that taskforce will report directly to the Secretary of State.
That information will be published very shortly.
Andy Slaughter talked about product safety. The Government have a working group on product recalls and safety, which has been asked, as a matter of urgency, to review its final report in the light of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
Finally, on social housing, I know that we will have opportunities to debate these matters in the months and possibly years ahead, but may I just point out to the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne, that, during the period of 1997 to 2010, the number of social rented homes fell by 420,000. Since 2010, we have delivered 333,000 new affordable homes. [Interruption.] That is a debate for another day. May I just return to the public inquiry?
The Minister did say “finally”, but he has not yet come back to the issue of what funding will be available to other local authorities carrying out this essential work and what criteria will be used to assess any funding applications.
The Secretary of State and other Ministers have been absolutely clear: we do not want local authorities and housing associations to stop doing anything that is necessary to keep people safe. If they do not have the funding, we will work with them on the funding process.
No, I will not give way as I really must get on.
A range of views have been expressed about the cause of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. What is vital is that we have a full independent public inquiry with a remit that goes way beyond the design, construction and modification of the building itself. An effective and prompt inquiry will necessarily have to follow defined terms of reference, and setting those is obviously crucial. The terms will be set formally by the Prime Minister, but she will do so following recommendations from the chair of the public inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick. Sir Martin was appointed to head up the inquiry on
During today’s debate, some concern has been expressed about Sir Martin’s suitability for the role, but as the First Secretary of State has said, he is independently appointed, extremely well qualified and totally impartial. Sir Martin is a hugely experienced former Court of Appeal judge. Judges decide cases solely on the evidence presented in court and in accordance with the law. As a senior judge, Sir Martin has worked across a range of cases. There have been cases where Sir Martin has been praised by civil liberties lawyers and cases where he has found in favour of housing association tenants, but in each case he will have made decisions based on the law and the evidence—nothing more, and nothing less.
Opposition Members may be aware that from December 2005 to December 2009, Sir Martin was chair of the legal services consultative panel, which advises successive Lord Chancellors on the regulation and training of lawyers, legal services and other related matters. The Lord Chancellors whom he served were Lord Falconer and Jack Straw. I have previously noted in this House that it is vital for Government, central and local, to work hard to win the trust of those people directly affected by this tragedy. I have no doubt that Sir Martin is similarly aware that he needs to foster that trust. I am sure that, as his dialogue with the local community continues, they will note that his only motivation is to get to the bottom of what happened.
I assure hon. Members that the Government will co-operate fully with the inquiry, and I hope that the same will be true of the local authority and any other individual or body whose work falls within the inquiry’s remit. It is absolutely vital that no stone is left unturned and that anyone who has done wrong has nowhere to hide. To help get to the truth, survivors of the fire and the families of the victims will receive funding for legal representation at the inquiry. Details of how they access that legal funding will follow once the inquiry is up and running.
Some concern has been raised about the lack of a coroner’s inquest into the deaths at Grenfell. Let me assure colleagues that there will be an inquest. The coroner is already investigating the deaths; that is a statutory duty. The police led investigation is already under way in conjunction with the London Fire Brigade and the Health and Safety Executive. The police investigation will consider potential criminal liability. The police have been very clear: arrests will follow if any evidence of criminal wrongdoing is found. Unlike a coroner’s inquest, a full, judge led public inquiry will allow us to look at the broader circumstances leading up to and surrounding the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower. It will also allow us to take any action necessary as quickly as possible to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.
A number of colleagues have expressed concerns about timing. Of course, we want the inquiry to be completed as quickly as possible and the main priority will be to establish the facts of what action is needed to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. It will be for Sir Martin to determine the timescale for the inquiry, but I am certain that he will be aware of the universal desire for an interim report to be published at the earliest opportunity.
In cases of some past disasters, such as Hillsborough and the sinking of the Marchioness, it took far too long for the whole story of what happened to emerge. We do not want that to be the case with Grenfell Tower. That is why the Prime Minister ordered a full public inquiry as soon as the scale of the tragedy became apparent. Regardless of politics or ideology and of what we think is the best course of action, all of us here want one thing: the truth. It might prove uncomfortable for some and it might not fit the preconception of others, but the truth must come out. I am confident that Sir Martin Moore-Bick will see that the truth does come out. The survivors of the Grenfell fire and the families of those who were lost deserve no less.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry.
We will soon come to the matter for which a good many Members are probably waiting—I rather imagine they are; if they are not, they should be. They could be awaiting the Adjournment debate with eager anticipation, bated breath and beads of sweat upon their brows, but quite a lot are probably waiting for the announcement of the results of the elections for Chairs of Select Committees. Before we come to those, I will take a point of order from Jenny Chapman.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The House is aware that the repeal Bill is to be published tomorrow morning. Disconcertingly, the Labour party has received reports that the press is to be briefed on its contents this evening. Mr Speaker, have you received any notice from the Government that a Minister intends to come to this House at the earliest opportunity to make a statement as to the contents of the Bill? If not, could you please advise me on how we might be able to bring the contents of the Bill to the attention of the House before
The short answer is that I have received no indication of any intention on the part of a Minister to make a statement on the matter tomorrow. However, it is perfectly open to the hon. Lady and her colleagues to ensure that they have a default position so that if no ministerial statement is proffered, they could at least give themselves the chance of an urgent question. I cannot offer any guarantee as to whether such a question would be selected, but it can be selected, by definition, only if it is submitted. Insofar as the hon. Lady seeks my advice, that is my advice without prejudice.