Grenfell Tower Fire Inquiry

Part of Humanitarian Situation in Mosul – in the House of Commons at 5:36 pm on 12th July 2017.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 5:36 pm, 12th July 2017

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.