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.