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.