Grenfell Tower Fire Inquiry

Part of Humanitarian Situation in Mosul – in the House of Commons at 6:13 pm on 12th July 2017.

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Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth 6:13 pm, 12th July 2017

That is an excellent point. Clearly fire service officers and other workers are on the frontline when it comes to experiencing trauma; we heard about that in many reports on the Lakanal fire. Such an essential service, which employs people who will experience that trauma, cutting specialist counselling services by half is yet another example of the impact of cuts and austerity on public services that are there for us all. Everybody should have a right to post-trauma counselling and support, whether we are talking about an employer providing it to frontline workers, or whether we are talking about members of the public who are nearby or just passing, charity workers helping out at a rescue station, or those who live in similar blocks, because as my friend has told me, it makes a real difference to people’s long-term ability to function.

I have constituents, as I am sure many other Members do, who live in older council-owned tower blocks, such as Brentford Towers and the Ivybridge estate. Many have contacted me because they are frightened. They and their children cannot sleep at night. They do not want to carry on living there. They need reassurance. For some of them, the trauma is so bad that they are asking to be rehoused. This is a major issue.

I had the benefit of being briefed by London Borough of Hounslow officers and council members in the week immediately after the Grenfell fire. I have been reassured that none of the blocks in my constituency have cladding that fails the Government tests. I was also pleased to hear that on the day after the Grenfell fire, the council’s programme to reclad the six towers of Brentford Towers, which people can see from the elevated section of the M4, has been put on hold while it reviews the specifics of the programme. That cladding programme is urgently needed for reasons relating to the safety of the existing external cladding and for thermal insulation, but given what has happened, it is absolutely right that the specifics of that programme be reviewed.

The leader and councillors of the London Borough of Hounslow are meeting all residents of tower blocks to hear their concerns—to listen and to respond. That is the right thing to do. The London Borough of Hounslow is also responding to requests and offering help to Kensington and Chelsea on a range of services. The council is preparing estate fire safety and improvement plans, to ensure that issues such as prevention and tackling fire safety inside and outside all tower blocks are addressed. It is also reviewing all the fire risk assessments in all blocks.

I have considerable experience as a councillor: I was lead member for housing and had lead responsibility for contingency planning. I have seen at first hand how proper fire safety mechanisms and management by residents and landlord alike can work. There was a fire at Fraser House, and sadly a resident died, but the fire did not spread through the block because the appropriate fire doors were shut and the appropriate venting was open. The fire was therefore drawn away from the other flats and out of the vents on that floor.

I understand how buildings are designed for fire safety, and how we must be careful when revising the structure, cladding and other aspects of buildings. I also understand why working with the management and the residents is so important. The reason why the fire doors at Fraser House were shut was that residents and the council worked together after the Lakanal House report was published to learn the lessons from that fire. I am regularly in and out of the Brentford Towers blocks—talking to residents, canvassing at elections and so on—and I know that on hot summer days it is tempting to prop open the fire doors. That stopped happening after the Lakanal report, however. The fire doors were regularly closed. Good management and good communication will work.

I have been the lead member for contingency planning, but thankfully I never had to deal with an emergency. I was, however, briefed to know what an emergency looked and felt like, what my role and that of senior officers would be, and how the communications links with other authorities would work, up and down the line. The way of managing in a crisis is completely different from day-to-day managing.

When I woke up that morning and started following the Twitter feed and listening to and watching the news, I was shocked at the poverty of the response from Kensington and Chelsea. To me, it smacked of inadequate preparation for an emergency. I accept that the Grenfell fire was of a different order; as others have said, it was the biggest fire in this country since wartime. Nevertheless, one of the things I would look for as an outsider is a person who is regularly in front of the cameras, listening and speaking. I would expect to see that person meeting the affected residents, the frontline workers and the charity workers. I would expect the charities and others to be responding to requests for help from the local authority, rather than having to be the sole providers of support in the hours and days after the event. But what did we see? Community centres, mosques and churches dealing with things on their own, and receiving massive amounts of good will and items that they perhaps did not need at that time; for example, there was an over-supply of blankets. They were working on their own, and they did not know what to say to all those offers of help.

I was also concerned to hear that when other local authorities, particularly those close to Kensington and Chelsea, offered that week’s allocation of social rented housing to Kensington and Chelsea to use as temporary or permanent homes for those affected, there was no adequate response. Other local authorities also offered specialised, experienced trauma counsellors to Kensington and Chelsea, but there was no response. At a time when people were willing and able to go the extra mile to share with colleagues in an extreme crisis, there was nowhere for people to turn. I hope that the inquiry will look at the response of the local authority and at what it should have been. We have already heard how this can work, following reports of what happened after the terrorist attack at the Manchester concert hall. Members from Manchester have said that there was a good response from the local authority there.

The residents of Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk and their families deserve justice. All residents of tower blocks deserve reassurance, so that they can live and sleep in peace. Poor communities and those in housing need require a Government who no longer ignore them, cut vital services, and ignore the conclusions of public inquiries, and a Government who invest in adequate, good-quality, truly affordable housing.