Grenfell Tower Fire Inquiry

Part of Humanitarian Situation in Mosul – in the House of Commons at 5:59 pm on 12th July 2017.

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Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Fire and Emergency Services) 5:59 pm, 12th July 2017

May I say what an honour and pleasure it is to be back on the green Benches speaking on behalf of my constituents after a two-year enforced sabbatical? Before I speak about the subject of today’s debate, I should say just a few words about my predecessor Amanda Solloway, who took my seat off me by 41 votes in 2015. She was in some ways an unusual and unlikely Conservative party candidate, coming from fairly humble origins and having herself experienced homelessness in an earlier part of her life. She made it her business to highlight the plight of homeless people and to draw attention to that really important issue, which scars our country, the fifth richest nation on the planet. Another big issue on which she fought hard was making mental health care more of a priority for the Government and ensuring that resources were made available for it.

My hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick sought a collective noun for the excellent maiden speeches that have been made today—he referred to a “feast” of maiden speeches. I agree with that description of the excellent contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Leigh (Jo Platt). I am sure that they will go on to make a big contribution in this place for as long as they are here.

The origins of the catastrophic fire that occurred at Grenfell can be traced back to the neoliberal doctrine that was inflicted on our country back in 1979 and has disfigured our public services over the intervening four decades. A big feature of that approach has been deregulation, privatisation and cuts, which led to combustible materials being perfectly legitimately used on Grenfell Tower and, as we know, many other tower blocks around the country. How can that possibly be? Added into the mix is the move towards compulsory competitive tendering, which was brought into the public realm almost 40 years ago and meant that the cheapest price was all that was looked at when services were externalised. How could the maintenance of our public realm and housing stock be put out to the private sector?

Of course, if the work had been done properly and there were firestops on every floor of Grenfell Tower, as there are supposed to be, even if there had been a fire, it would have been contained on the floor where it started. The combination of compulsory competitive tendering and the business-friendly inspection regime has culminated in this appalling, catastrophic fire in which so many people lost their lives.

We can also look at the cuts that have been imposed and see the number of fire safety inspectors who have been taken out of the system—between 60% and 75% depending on which fire authority we are talking about. So now the fire and rescue authorities cannot undertake the safety checks that they used to be able to carry out as a matter of course. The slapdash, corner-cutting approach that we have seen over the past few decades has ultimately led to this appalling, catastrophic fire.

There was an exchange earlier in the debate about the laissez-faire approach to student accommodation. Legislation requires new residential tower blocks over 30 metres high to have sprinklers installed in them. However, nurse and student accommodation is deemed to be “other accommodation”, so there is no requirement for sprinklers to be installed there. It is as if nurses and students are expendable—that cannot be right.

I mentioned the fire safety inspectors who have been taken out of the system, and while we are talking about cuts, it is important to remember that fire station after fire station in this capital and right across the country has been closed. Since 2010, 11,000 firefighters have lost their jobs, which I think means that one in five firefighters have effectively been removed from the system since then.

That creates its own problem. I spoke to Fire Brigades Union representatives, who talked about such things as the use of breathing apparatus. The fact is that reducing the number of firefighters available to deal with emergencies means that when we have a catastrophic fire, such as the one at Grenfell Tower, firefighters repeatedly have to go into the building to rescue people. The problem with that is that when firefighters use breathing apparatus, their blood thickens, putting them at greater risk of a coronary attack. We know from eyewitness accounts that some firefighters were entering Grenfell Tower to rescue people up to three times each. They should not have been in that situation.

When the Prime Minister was interviewed about that, she said that London fire brigade had the resources it needed and implied that the fact that it was able to respond to the fire was proof of that. But the truth is that London fire brigade did not have the resources it needed, because if it did have them, individual firefighters would not have had to enter Grenfell Tower time after time to rescue people, as there would have been enough firefighters to ensure that they each had to enter the building only once.

If we are seriously going to learn any lesson—we hear rhetoric about the importance of learning lessons from catastrophic events, but often it is just for the birds—from this dreadful fire that should never, ever have happened, surely it must be that we need a different approach to the neoliberal agenda that has influenced and informed the way in which public services have been delivered in our country. Surely we have to reverse the deregulation agenda to which we have been subjected and abandon the privatisation of our public services.

We have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber about the importance of installing sprinklers. It is an unanswerable argument. If Grenfell Tower had been fitted with sprinklers, we might have lost the building, but we would not have lost human life. I do not think that there is a building anywhere in the world that has been fitted with sprinklers in which people have died in a fire—there have been very few deaths, if any. Surely we must learn that lesson.

We should also listen very carefully to the survivors, the community and the residents who have been so affected by this appalling episode. When I spoke to somebody from the Justice4Grenfell group just yesterday, she said that they had a number of demands, including two that I hope the Minister will agree with and deliver. First, the survivors want to ensure that everybody affected is housed within the borough in decent, good-quality accommodation. My hon. Friend Andy Slaughter made the point that there is empty accommodation in the borough that could be acquired. The local authority in Kensington has the resources within its reserves to acquire those properties, but it seems to me that the Government are responsible and they should ensure that those resources are available.

The second thing that the survivors want is help in their present situation. The person from the Justice4Grenfell group said that she had spoken to one survivor who had been put into a hotel and just left to fend for themselves. They did not know where to go to get food or a change of clothes, so more needs to be done. There needs to be more immediate help for the survivors and, in what should be the shorter term, we should make accommodation available. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that that will happen.

When I attended a meeting of the Local Government Association Labour group fire services commission earlier this week, I was shown a paper that had been put to the fire services management committee, which included a number of recommendations. I would be interested in the Minister’s response to them. The paper said:

“Government should agree to have Sprinkler Systems fitted in All High Rise Flats in the Country”,

and that

“Any Cladding fitted to High Rise Flats should be of high quality Fire Resistant Material approved by the Fire Service to a Uniformed National Standard.”

The paper also proposes:

“The Fire Service should have overall responsibility for Fire Safety for High Rise Flats, which includes the Flats, corridors, public spaces, fire alarms, safety advice to tenants, and the Fire Service should provide Fire Safety Assurance for Residential High Rise Flats. All High Rise Blocks should be inspected by the Fire Service once every 2 years, and inspected after a major refurbishment.”

The paper goes on to say:

“New High Rise Flats should be regulated to ensure they are built to include all of the above, and in addition they should be built with two Stair Wells within the building”,

and that

“Government urgently review the fire regulation order and fully fund the Fire Service to re-enable planning and building control applications to be review by Fire Safety issues on a risk assessed basis.”

Finally, the paper says:

“Government will need to recognise that extra Government financial resources will need to be made available to Fire and Rescue Services to enable them to provide for the necessary workload that this will require.”

That seems to me to be a list of common-sense requests. We should remember that it came from a cross-party group, so there are people from the Conservative party, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats in the Local Government Association saying this, as well as independents. I therefore hope that the Minister will take into account what that cross-party group has said, take into account the very sensible suggestions made on both sides of the House today and, most importantly, listen to the survivors and the community and respond appropriately, because this is a stain on the very character of Great Britain. We need to learn lessons to make sure that we mean it when we say that this will never, ever happen again.