Grenfell Tower Fire Inquiry

Part of Humanitarian Situation in Mosul – in the House of Commons at 3:29 pm on 12th July 2017.

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Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham 3:29 pm, 12th July 2017

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.