Grenfell Tower Fire Inquiry

Part of Humanitarian Situation in Mosul – in the House of Commons at 2:20 pm on 12th July 2017.

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Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire 2:20 pm, 12th July 2017

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 5 July—to establish the terms of reference, Sir Martin has shown that he is seeking a wide range of views. That bodes well for the inquiry. He wants to hear from those directly affected by the fire and from others who have a contribution to make. He is having a series of meetings to listen to victims’ families, survivors and others affected, and to take their views.

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.