Before I call the shadow Secretary of State to move the motion, I must advise the House that no fewer than 23 Back Benchers wish to speak in the debate, and that it is expected to conclude at approximately 4 pm. This truncation of available time is consequent on a Government statement that was made earlier today, but we are where we are. I am sure that colleagues will wish to be sensitive to each other’s concerns. There will have to be a very, very tight time limit on Back-Bench speeches: apologies, but it is inevitable.
I beg to move,
That this House
notes the commitments given by the Government that all survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire of
and calls on the Government to make good on those commitments, to lay a report before Parliament and to make an Oral Statement by
I am conscious of the indication that you have given to the House, Mr Speaker.
Eleven months on from the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower, we remain shocked by those searing images on the night, by 72 lost lives, and by the charred black carcase of a building that still stands. Many Members in all parts of the House, Mr Speaker, were deeply moved again by the testimony of the survivors and families whom we met when you threw open Speaker’s House to Grenfell United last week. Our common commitments in the House remain absolute: to make certain that Grenfell residents have the help and the new homes that they need, to make certain that all who are culpable are held fully to account, and to make certain that any measures that are needed to ensure that such a disaster can never happen again are fully implemented.
This is a debate that we did not want to call and should not have had to call, but the House has to hear and debate what the Government are doing to honour those pledges to the Grenfell survivors and to residents in other high-rise blocks around the country. I welcome the £400 million that the Prime Minister announced during Question Time, moments before the start of the debate. Labour Members have argued for that from day one. Why on earth it has taken the Prime Minister 11 months to make such an important decision is beyond me, but I welcome it nevertheless. However, I defy anyone to say that they are satisfied when two in three of the Grenfell families are still living in hotels and temporary accommodation, when it has been confirmed that 304 other tower blocks across the country have the same suspect Grenfell-style cladding but only seven have had it removed and replaced, when more than 100 privately owned blocks have dangerous cladding and it is reported that none of it has been replaced so far, and when there may be other private blocks with suspect cladding that, 11 months on, have still not been tested.
The timing of this debate is therefore important. It is also important, in part, because we expect the Government’s Hackitt review of building regulations and fire safety to be published tomorrow. This is a chance for the Government to show their commitment to a complete overhaul of the failed system of building safety, and I will deal in a moment with the steps that Labour believes are necessary. Above all, however, it is a chance for the new Secretary of State to make good the other failings of his predecessor, and our motion calls on him to report to Parliament sometime before the anniversary of the fire on
Let me deal first with the rehousing of Grenfell residents. From day one, the Government backed Kensington and Chelsea Council to do the job. On
“I am confident that the council is capable of that”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 633, c. 773.]
The council promised residents:
“We are committed to rehousing you to permanent social housing within twelve months.”
However, 11 months on, only one in three of the families are living in a permanent new home. No one wants to bring up children in a hotel room, and residents tell us about the defects in the properties that they have been offered: properties with damp and leaks, properties without enough bedrooms, properties that are not properly furnished, and tenancy terms that are different from those that they had in the tower.
The Government could have stepped in—should have stepped in—at any point in the last 11 months, both to help to make the homes that were needed directly available and to send in commissioners to help to run the council when it was clearly failing. They could have acted at any point, but they did not. I hope that when the Secretary of State responds to the debate, he will not give the same answers that we have heard for 11 months, and I hope that he will act to accelerate the pace of help and rehousing for the Grenfell families.
Constituents of mine observed that in the immediate aftermath, in the complete absence of any visible presence of representatives of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea or any sort of officialdom, it was people power—mosques, voluntary organisations and the like—that stepped into the void, along with, eventually, the London Borough of Ealing and SportActive, whose members you hosted in your rooms yesterday, Mr Speaker, and which runs the Westway sports and fitness centre. Does that not underline the need for better inter-agency and inter-borough partnerships should such a disaster ever befall us again?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and to be fair to Ministers some of them, like me and other Members, were down in Kensington very soon after the fire, and were overwhelmed by the good will there and the response of the community and the volunteers who came from all parts of the country. But Ministers were also embarrassed, as they conceded, by how poor and slow Kensington and Chelsea was from day one. I pay tribute to other councils, particularly London borough councils, that have since sent in good people to help try to get that bad council to do the job properly.
Let me turn to other tower blocks, because there are 65 local authority areas around the country with at least one block that has failed the safety test, is non-compliant, is unsafe and is unlawful. Directly after the fire, on
“My Government will do whatever it takes to…keep our people safe.”
But 11 months on, when more than 300 other tower blocks have this same dangerous Grenfell-style cladding but just seven have had it removed and replaced, things are not working.
We have thousands of families living in homes with unsafe materials tacked to the side, thousands of people buying and renting homes in these tower blocks, and others trying to sell their flats and finding that they are worthless or that their landlord turns around to them as leaseholders and says, “You’ve got to pay all the costs.”
I say to the Secretary of State that when people’s lives are at risk, it is the Government’s clearcut duty to get all suspect buildings tested and all the work done to make them safe, but that is not happening. For 11 months Ministers have refused to ensure that private block owners, not residents or leaseholders, pay for the urgent work that must be done; they have refused to release the location, ownership, and safety testing status of other high-rise blocks so that residents know where they stand; they have refused to confirm what materials are safe, meaning that landlords who have taken off cladding do not know what to put back up; and they have refused—until today, under Labour pressure—to help fund vital safety work in social housing blocks. Even now they have refused to fund what we and fire chiefs say is necessary to ensure safety: the retrofitting of sprinklers in all high-risk high-rise blocks. Only Ministers can make that happen, and the new Secretary of State has the chance to act where his predecessor would not and make good on the Prime Minister’s pledge of
Finally, let me turn to the Hackitt review of building regulations, which is due tomorrow and has already been briefed to many people, including the press it seems.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions compelling landlords to carry out remedial work to blocks with inappropriate cladding on the outside, and I understand the imperative and rationale behind that, but where there is not a contractual obligation on the landlord to do that—where the building is occupied by long lease holders—by what mechanism would he force them to have that work carried out?
The hon. Gentleman serves on the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, and he puts his finger on an important question that only the Government can deal with. Are the powers to require testing clear? Are the powers of enforcement on landlords who will not do the right thing—will not test or will not make their building safe when it is confirmed as having suspect cladding—in place? There are question marks over that, and it is part of the action that the Secretary of State must now take. I also say to the hon. Gentleman that the principle of councils having the power to step in to take control or confiscate buildings where landlords are not doing what is required and they have had notice to do that is exactly the same principle that the Select Committee that he is a member of recommended in cases where private property owners are breaking the law and will not do what they are required to do and requested to do by local councils. The recommendation is that councils are then given the power to step in and do the work for them.
I will not give way again, because of the pressure on time.
We welcomed the interim Hackitt review in December because it clearly set out the comprehensive failings in the current system of building checks and controls. The warnings were there in 2013 in coroners’ reports to Ministers after two previous fatal high-rise fires, but Grenfell, and Hackitt’s interim review, confirm that nothing less than a root and branch reform of the current failed system is required. So I am concerned by reports that the Hackitt review will stop well short of that, but the new Secretary of State has the chance in today’s debate to make clear his standards for the new rules that are needed. The Opposition know that only an end-to-end overhaul of the system will make sure that people’s homes are safe, including ensuring that only non-combustible material is used for cladding and insulation on high-rise blocks—
The hon. Gentleman is nodding strongly in agreement with that. The overhaul must also include a ban on desktop studies, which currently allow building materials to be deemed safe without a basis in testing; full disclosure of the location, ownership and testing status of all high-rise blocks; clear powers, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, for councils to enforce testing and the work that might be required; a publicly accountable system of building control; a presumption that private block owners are, as the Government have argued, responsible for paying to replace dangerous cladding; and tougher sanctions, including the backstop power for councils to take over a block where property owners are breaking the law and putting people’s lives at risk by not making their buildings safe.
For 11 months, Ministers have been off the pace in their response to Grenfell Tower, failing to act with enough urgency on almost every front. The next month, before the anniversary of the fire, is when the Government must finally make good on their promises to the Grenfell residents and to the country.
When I was appointed to my new role, I was clear that one of my biggest priorities was supporting everyone affected by the unimaginable tragedy at Grenfell Tower and ensuring that we learn from it so that nothing like this can ever happen again. That is why one of the first things I did was meet some of the bereaved and survivors as soon as I could, and why I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to this important debate.
Today we are also remembering those who died and were injured in the Ronan Point disaster 50 years ago. This feels especially poignant as we prepare to mark the first year since the Grenfell fire next month. These milestones will be extremely painful for those who have suffered so much, and I know that the thoughts of everyone in this House will be with them. With our focus today on the terrible events at Grenfell, I want to take this opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to helping them rebuild their lives as we remember their loved ones. In doing so, I want to pay tribute to the incredible way in which the community itself has come together to support and comfort one another, and to thank local charities and other groups who have been on the ground from the very beginning.
In the fire’s aftermath, our immediate priority was, quite rightly, to support those affected, with Government Departments and public services pulling together and playing their part to offer help with everything from business support to advice on benefits. This includes vital work by the NHS and voluntary sector organisations to offer emotional and mental health support to over 6,000 people. The dedicated NHS Grenfell helpline also remains available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In total, over £46 million of national Government funds have already been spent to support recovery following the Grenfell Tower fire, and we have committed to spend a further £34 million. This includes funding for rehousing, new mental health services, investment in the Lancaster West estate, and a new community space.
As John Healey has fairly flagged up this afternoon, one of the most urgent issues has been rehousing people who lost their homes. The latest figures from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which is responsible for finding these new homes, show that of the 210 households that need to be rehoused, 201—over 95%—have accepted offers of temporary or permanent accommodation. Of these, 138 households have moved in—64 into temporary accommodation and 74 into permanent accommodation—so while progress has been made, there is no question but that this has been too slow. As a result, some households will still be in emergency accommodation in June.
It was always going to be a challenge to respond to an unprecedented tragedy on this scale. It has taken time to purchase suitable homes and to adapt and refurbish them to meet people’s needs and the highest safety standards, but this is clearly not good enough, and it is understandable that the community will feel disappointed and let down. I, too, am very concerned, especially to see people who have accepted an offer of a permanent home still living in emergency accommodation. I am therefore establishing at pace what further action could be taken, by the Government or by the council, to speed up this process. The council now has more than 300 properties available to those who need them, and my Department will continue to work with it to ensure that people are given whatever support they need to be rehoused as swiftly as possible. This is part of the wider work we are undertaking to ensure that, after a slow and confused initial response to the fire, the council is delivering better support to those affected and rebuilding trust.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this Government will be judged on actions, not words? I stood in this Chamber and asked his predecessor for a timescale for those residents being permanently rehoused. If we are not going to do it within a year, will the Secretary of State give me a timescale within which it will happen?
The fairest answer I can give to the hon. Lady is that we obviously want to see that happen as soon as possible. That is why I have made my comments about assessing what further steps can be taken with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea at pace to establish what further support can be given. I spoke to the leader of the council yesterday on this very point, and I will certainly continue to do so in the days ahead.
Kensington and Chelsea has had 11 months and it has failed terribly to deliver for the survivors of the Grenfell fire. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is now time for him to send in the commissioners?
I would say to the hon. Lady that we set up the independent taskforce and put it in to support and challenge the council to deliver an effective long-term recovery plan with local people at its heart. That was an important intervention that we took, and the taskforce’s valuable work so far has highlighted the need for the council to do more to listen to the local community. We in the Government have been playing our part to make this happen through the important work of my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, and, of course, that of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Grenfell victims, the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service. He has helped to ensure that the voices and views are heard right across Government and are at the centre of decision making about the future of the site.
People who are familiar with the area will not underestimate the difficulty of rehousing people, because they perhaps understand it better than some in the Government have done—hence the Prime Minister’s three-week target. If I understand the Secretary of State correctly, only a third of those in need have been permanently rehoused. I think he needs to say a bit more, given that there is a finite number of people and that Government and council resources are available, about how he is going to ensure that everyone is satisfactorily and permanently rehoused within a fixed time.
As I said earlier when I relayed the figures, nine people have not accepted an offer. I know that the council is doing work at pace with its contractors to ensure that the necessary work is undertaken to enable people to move into those homes. I know that that is what the hon. Gentleman would wish to see, and it is also what I would wish to see. That is why I have made the point about working with the council to challenge, to pressure and to see what support can be given to it, if need be, to make that process speedier. This is a question of having the contractors there and doing the practical work to ensure that the necessary improvements and modifications are made to those homes. That is absolutely at the heart of the work that we continue to support the council with.
Will the Secretary of State say more about the situation for Grenfell survivors who are in temporary accommodation? As a London MP, I know that this London housing crisis means that people are living in temporary accommodation for years rather than months. If that turns out to be the situation for Grenfell survivors, it will add a further injustice to the tragedy that they have already faced. That issue needs to be addressed upfront with a plan for the permanent rehousing of those residents who are now in temporary accommodation.
I absolutely hear the point that the hon. Lady is making about the need to see families moved from temporary to permanent accommodation. We need to ensure that the necessary homes are there, and to work carefully and sensitively with the families to ensure that they are confident and comfortable with making that step. We need to be guided in part by those families, and we need to support and work with the council to do all that we can to ensure that those homes are available.
The wishes of those affected by these terrible events are also central to the ongoing public inquiry, which was debated in Westminster Hall earlier this week. On Friday, the Prime Minister announced her decision to appoint two further panel members to sit with the chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, on phase 2 of the public inquiry’s work. They will help to ensure that the inquiry has the breadth of skills and expertise it requires and, I hope, provide reassurance to the bereaved, the survivors and the wider community.
The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne touched on the Hackitt review. The Grenfell fire has raised wider questions about building safety. That is why last year, my predecessor—now the Secretary of State for the Home Department—and the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Amber Rudd, commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt to carry out an independent review of building regulations and fire safety. In December, she published her interim report. This showed that there is a need for significant reform of the regulatory system and for a change in culture in the construction and fire safety industries. The Government accepted Dame Judith’s findings and we are implementing the recommendations in the interim report that relate to us.
I sit on the Select Committee that took evidence from Dame Judith Hackitt. We had concerns about her interim findings, and we had correspondence with her following that session in which she admits, in relation to building regulations:
“There is currently a choice between using products of limited combustibility or undergoing a full-system test”.
She goes on to say that
“the former is undoubtedly the low-risk option.”
Could we even conceive of a situation in which we would not take the lowest-risk option in that regard?
Dame Judith will be publishing her report tomorrow. I appreciate some of the questions that have been raised with me, and the point that my hon. Friend has just made. I think it is right that we should see the report when it is published, and I intend to make a statement to Parliament to allow further questioning on it. I am conscious of the timeliness of this debate and of the need for others to participate in it.
It is essential that work should proceed at pace. To that end, we offered financial flexibilities such as additional borrowing to local authorities last year, and we have been listening to what social sector landlords have been telling us about the cost of removing aluminium composite material—ACM—cladding systems. We know that the expense involved means that social landlords are having to take decisions about how to prioritise important services, repairs and maintenance work, and new supply. That is why, as the Prime Minister announced earlier, the Government will fully fund the removal and replacement of dangerous cladding by councils and housing associations, with costs estimated at around £400 million. This will ensure that local authorities and housing associations can focus their efforts on making cladding systems safe for the buildings that they own.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State. In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, the Prime Minister promised that all the necessary assistance would be given to ensure that tenants were safe. In Birmingham, there are 213 tower blocks—10,000 households—and the West Midlands fire service has recommended a range of measures, including the retrofitting of sprinklers, but not a single penny has yet been forthcoming. As a matter of urgency, will the Secretary of State look into the repeated representations that have been made by Birmingham City Council for the necessary financial assistance to ensure that the city’s tenants are safe?
This announcement is all about providing financial support to ensure that the works can be carried out swiftly. If the hon. Gentleman has specific points about Birmingham City Council, I will certainly look into them, and if I need to add anything else, I will certainly do so.
Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that I updated the House by way of written ministerial statement, as promised, on our investigations into the failure of a fire door at Grenfell Tower. To reiterate, our independent expert panel has said that the risk to public safety remains low. However, we have informed the manufacturer’s customers about the performance issues with such doors and have advised building owners about the action that they should take. My Department will continue to work with the sector to consider what further support building owners may need to address any issues quickly.
We also need to improve building safety and rebuild public confidence in the system, and issues have been raised about the need to listen to residents and understand the experiences of people in living social housing, which is why we will shortly bring forward a social housing Green Paper to look at how well social housing is serving those who depend on it.
In conclusion, 71 people died last June in the greatest loss of life in a fire in a century, and a 72nd resident from the tower passed away earlier this year. The toll on those who survived and the wider community was also on a scale unseen. I am determined that we will not falter in our support for them or in our efforts to find the answers they need and deserve. There is still much to do, and I hope that Members across the House will work with us to deliver a legacy that is truly worthy of the Grenfell community—a legacy that never forgets what happened and one that ensures that no other community has to go through what they endured.
The Scottish National party is pleased to add its support to this Opposition day motion. From the outset, we have urged that no stone should be left unturned in ascertaining the causes of this terrible tragedy, ensuring that appropriate lessons are learned and, most important of all, seeking justice for the families of the victims and for the survivors. I am particularly grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for facilitating the meeting with survivors and relatives of the dead in your rooms last week. It was of huge assistance to parliamentarians such as myself to meet those people, and no one could fail to be impressed by their immense dignity and by the strength of the campaign that they have fought so far. I was particularly privileged to meet the husband of the 72nd victim.
The evidence to suggest that the deaths could have been avoided is mounting and compelling. I know that this is a matter for the inquiry, but it bears mentioning again today that we know from newspaper reports that costed proposals to fit the tower with panels that would not burn were apparently dropped amid pressure to cut corners on costs. We also know from the Grenfell Action Group’s blog that the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation had been repeatedly warned that Grenfell Tower was a potential deathtrap. I look forward to the inquiry reporting on those matters in due course, but as I said in the Westminster Hall debate earlier this week, it is disgrace that it has taken 11 months of campaigning by the bereaved and the survivors to wring from the Prime Minister a concession that a special panel should advise the judge at the inquiry. That should have been a no-brainer in the light of the Macpherson inquiry, and it is ridiculous that it has taken so long to get to that stage.
In Westminster Hall, I also addressed other issues relating to the legalities of the inquiry, so I will not repeat them because I want to ensure that there is time for everyone to speak today. However, I will endorse what Shelter said about the disaster. The charity said that we need a national conversation about some of the broader issues of policy and about our society that the tragedy has highlighted, particularly the role of the management organisation and wider issues around the treatment of social housing and its tenants. We also need to know that the Government will deliver on some of the promises that have already been made. In Westminster Hall on Monday, as today, there were many fine words, but the reality is that this Government have three times let their pals at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea get away with breaking their promises about rehousing, which is an absolute disgrace. Those broken promises did not just happen in a void; they occurred against a background of previous broken promises and failings.
It is quite right that the Secretary of State highlighted housing, as have many Opposition Members, and housing and the lack of it are of great concern. However, I also hear that many families are failing to get access to the essential mental health services that they need after the disaster. Will the hon. and learned Lady comment on that?
Again, it is a no-brainer that these people need immediate access to the best mental health services that public money can provide. If, as seems likely, none of this should ever have happened in the first place, and if the responsibility lies at the door of the state, there will be all the more pressure on the state to provide the necessary services.
I am conscious of the time pressures today, so I will not say much about the position in Scotland other than that building standards are devolved. Scotland has stricter building regulations in relation to some of these matters, but the Scottish Government are not complacent and have set up a ministerial working group that has made some important announcements.
I really want to spend some time discussing social housing, which is the big issue that comes out of all this. It is not for the inquiry but for this House and this Parliament to address the problems relating to a lack of social housing in England—I am not sure about Wales. As I have said, it is a disgrace that the promises to rehouse people have been broken because there is not enough housing available to rehouse them in the community that belongs to them and in which they grew up. What is the Secretary of State going to do about those broken promises? In my view—some of the survivors think the same—deadlines should now be set, and if the council cannot meet them, it should be put into special measures. This tragedy has raised profound concerns about how social housing is provided and managed in England, and Parliament needs to look at that.
When I met survivors and the bereaved, they told me that they were sickened and angered by the stigma attached to social housing. They said, “We are not poor people. We work hard and contribute to society. All we want is somewhere affordable to live in our own community. Is that really too much to ask?” I direct that question at the Secretary of State. Is it really too much for these people to ask for somewhere affordable to live in the community where they work so hard and contribute to our society?
Does the hon. and learned Lady agree that the 11-month delay in the Government committing any funds to the replacement of flammable cladding has compounded and magnified the injustice of Grenfell Tower, leaving councils that already do not have enough money to deliver social housing scrabbling around to reprioritise urgent major works and unable to deliver the necessary changes?
I agree wholeheartedly. This is a question of priorities and of where funds are committed. I understand that the council has huge reserves, so could it not dip into them to meet the requirements?
Even with a squeezed budget and without adequate powers to fully resist Tory austerity, the Scottish Government have managed to commit to an ambitious programme of home building, and I want to say a wee bit about that to show what can be done even with that squeezed budget. In the last Parliament, over 33,000 new affordable homes were built in Scotland, including 6,000 council houses. In this Parliament, £3 billion has been invested by the Scottish Government to deliver at least 50,000 affordable homes—of which 35,000 will be available for social rent—security of tenure has been introduced in the private rented sector and, most importantly, we have abolished the right to buy.
I know the right to buy is a sacred totem for some Conservative Members, and I understand the desire many people have to buy and own their homes, but the reality is that selling all the social housing without replacing it will set up huge problems for the future, which is exactly what the Government have done.
Is it not time that we stopped using the words “affordable housing” when really we should be talking a lot more about social housing?
We need have both affordable housing and social housing. The point is that not everyone can afford to buy their own home any longer, especially in this great city of London, where prices are out of the reach of most people, including most Members of Parliament. Building affordable homes and providing social housing has to rise to the top of the agenda in England. It has already done so in Scotland, and the record of the Scottish Government shows what can be done where there is a will to act. I urge the Government, as a result of this tragedy, to address the issue of social housing and to put it to the top of the agenda.
Order. Colleagues will realise that a large number of Members want to speak so, to start with, I will impose a four-minute time limit.
I, too, pay tribute to Mr Speaker for throwing open his apartment last week so that 100 MPs could meet Grenfell survivors and Grenfell families.
Monday’s debate on the public inquiry was humbling, and the response from the Grenfell United group was humbling, too. I met the group afterwards, and I met them on Parliament Square before the debate. They have carried out their campaign, liaison and dialogue with the Government and Members of Parliament with such dignity, dedication and resolve. It is important that we continue to make sure that people are at the centre of every decision we make.
When I read out the names of the 72 victims on Monday, the response from the Grenfell families was humbling. It took me a minute and a half to read out the names, but it was so significant for the families to know that their loved ones were named in the Official Report. That was very humbling for me. The small moves we can make do help.
Of course, there are much bigger moves that we have to make. There are people who are still concerned about their housing, and 14 households are likely still to be without a permanent home beyond the anniversary of the fire, which is 14 households too many. This should have been done a long, long time ago. I know that this is not for want of effort or concern. This is an ever-complicated process, and it has been getting more and more complex as the number of households affected, beyond the ones that were lost, and the scale of the situation have become apparent.
I was in touch with the leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea ahead of Monday’s debate, and I was updated on the reasons why those 14 households might remain without a permanent home beyond the anniversary. Those reasons include the levelling of floors; awaiting feedback from residents; internal fire-door work; finalising resident requirements, including flooring where freehold permission is required; the removal of old gas infrastructure within a particular property; and awaiting resident input on kitchen design. There are a number of different things, but we hope that they do not take too long.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea bought 307 new homes, at a cost of £235 million, but Grenfell United residents are concerned that, in some cases, they are the wrong homes. There are people with mobility issues, and we have heard about the mental health issues. I have spoken to someone who had been living on an upper floor, above the fire, and their children clearly do not want to live on the first or second floor of a block of flats—they would like a ground-floor flat.
Going back to where I started, it is important that we make these residents the heart of our decisions and our process.
As my hon. Friend knows, I was also at the event in Speaker’s House. The woman I spoke to was very realistic. The borough found a property for her, and works needed to be done, including works to make it fire compliant, which is what is taking the time. Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps more effort needs to be put into getting the works done?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely correct. We need to put every effort into getting these works done now. For every day that these people are in inappropriate temporary accommodation, their suffering is extended and prolonged.
I totally agree, and I was just about to come to that. I welcome the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to his place. The Government have been listening for so long and have been responding well—I know the Prime Minister is listening—and the Secretary of State, in his own redoubtable way, will add extra energy and bring a fresh pair of eyes. He is a man of action, and I suspect that it is because of his intervention that we now have two extra panel members on the public inquiry and that the Prime Minister has announced £400 million towards fire safety in other blocks. That is of particular interest to me because, ever since the fire, I have been liaising with people in my constituency, including residents of Chaucer House and Balaam House, to make sure they are in some way satisfied. It is not just people in north Kensington but people across the country who are worried and concerned about the safety of the property they call home. The funding is very welcome news.
In terms of action, we have already talked about the Hackitt report, and the Royal Institute of British Architects has said that desktop studies should not have a place in fire safety and that non-combustible panels should not be used. We really do need to look at how much further we can go. Whatever Dame Judith says, can we go a little further so that we do not just talk about the fact that Grenfell should never happen again but that we make sure that it does not happen again?
I will shortly be leaving to sit on a Committee, so I apologise that I might not be in the Chamber for the wind-ups.
Like others, I praise the dignity of the survivors and families of Grenfell on what might be our last opportunity to discuss Grenfell before the one-year anniversary. I praise the ongoing fight for justice. Civic society—not just in Kensington, but much more widely—has come together to support these families and raise money, with people helping each other. That includes the firefighters who risked their lives on the night of the fire and who, only a few weeks ago, ran the London marathon, some in full kit, to raise money for Grenfell.
It is worth acknowledging the fact that residents, many of whom were in tower blocks in Kensington, Westminster and Hammersmith, watched the tragedy unfold from their windows. They watched the horror and have, for the whole of the past year, looked out at an 18-storey tomb. What that does to people—some are worried about their own safety—is unimaginable. Much as the services, including mental health services, have tried to rise to the occasion, we know that those services have not been wholly adequate.
I have two quick points. The first, of course, is the issue of rehousing. At the meeting here in Parliament two days after the fire, I stressed the importance of getting people rehoused—and permanently rehoused—quickly. Many of those families had already been through the homelessness system and had been placed out of borough. They know what it is like to be in temporary accommodation, and they know what it is like to be insecure and to be moved around for years. No wonder they do not trust either the Government or the local authority to secure their housing.
Understandably, it will take time to place individual families, and their needs and circumstances have to be taken into account, but the wider picture, as has been mentioned, is the chronic shortage of social housing. Only today, the Chartered Institute of Housing reminded us that in 2016, out of 270,000 homes started across the whole country, just 5,000, or 2%, were social housing. There is a very long way to go.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that the “Who owns England?” blog found, through a freedom of information request, that nearly 2,000 properties were lying empty in Kensington and Chelsea, and that some of those had been empty for between 11 and 15 years, with many owned by offshore trusts? Obviously some of that was taken into consideration during the passage of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill.
I have a particular question I want to put to the Minister. I am concerned about the fact that even after the fire, housing associations in inner London, including in Westminster, and on the border, including in Hammersmith, were selling vacant properties on the open market, including family-sized properties. I am not saying that those properties would have been suitable for Grenfell families, as they may not have been, but they would have relieved the general pressure on housing and homelessness in inner London, and perhaps created other opportunities. I am also aware that, even as we speak, Kensington and Chelsea Council is considering planning permission for developments in the borough where there is a net loss of social housing. Again, those social housing places may not have been appropriate for Grenfell survivors, but they would have reduced the pressure. The Minister needs to stop this and deal with it.
I, like others, welcome the slightly overdue but genuinely welcome investment in fire safety and the removal of the cladding. I would like to know from the Minister whether this will be retrospective. The six 20-storey towers of the Warwick and Brindley Estates have had their cladding removed, at considerable expense, and we would like to know whether we will be able to draw upon that money.
Finally, on the issue of the Hackitt review, there are concerns about desktop studies and the ability to use combustible materials. We will see tomorrow, as there will be a statement, whether the review confirms some of our concerns. I am clear that it does not look as though the Hackitt review or the Government fully understand the nature of mixed tenure in some of our blocks. We know there are issues to address on social housing and on leaseholders, which I am sure others will address, but many social housing blocks contain leasehold properties, and the fact that we cannot access them or ensure that they are available for fire safety works, including the retrofitting of sprinklers, is a real worry. It does not look as though the Hackitt review has fully taken that on board and it needs to do so.
The Grenfell tragedy must never be repeated, and neither must the disastrous aftermath of that tragedy, which let people down so badly. Some progress has been made, particularly with this announcement of additional money, but at the moment neither the issue of housing nor the issue of fire safety have been fully dealt with, even a full year after that appalling tragedy.
I am pleased to speak in this debate on the Grenfell Tower tragedy as we head towards the first anniversary of this most horrific fire, which took so many lives and caused enormous suffering and devastation. We are all keen to ensure that such an event is never repeated.
I am very aware that this Government have given the survivors of Grenfell and relatives of the deceased enormous support, through both resources and financial assistance. Like many, I am grateful for the priority that the Government have given to the survivors and also to the circumstances of the fire, in order to ensure that such a disaster is never allowed to happen again in this country. Since entering the House, I have been fortunate enough to have served as a vice-chair of the all-party group on fire safety rescue, under the distinguished chairmanship of my hon. Friend Sir David Amess, and I am pleased that so many members of that group from both sides of the House are in the Chamber today. As one would expect, much of our time over the past 11 months has been taken up with the aftermath of the Grenfell fire tragedy. I am very grateful to our secretariat, Mr Ronnie King, the former chief fire officer for Mid and West Wales fire service, whose experience has guided us fully through many hours of evidence and witness participation, which has given us a valuable insight into this terrible disaster.
Many points have been highlighted to our group, and they have raised many matters that we expect to be examined in and covered by the public inquiry into this fire headed by Sir Martin Moore-Bick. Like many Members, I am grateful to the Prime Minister for adding two additional members to the panel ahead of phase 2 of the inquiry, thereby bringing an additional breadth of skills and diversity of expertise. That was requested by the campaigning groups, and the members of those groups will now have additional confidence in the inquiry itself.
The all-party group was grateful to Dame Judith Hackett for attending one of our sessions. She gave a comprehensive insight into the structure and remit of her independent review of building regulations and fire safety. Dame Judith’s interim report pointed out six broad areas for improvement, which have been heavily highlighted and will be taken on board by the Minister for Housing and the Secretary of State. I am pleased that the Government have committed to implementing all the recommendations which fall directly to the Government to deliver. Like the whole House, I look forward to Dame Judith’s full report, which is being published tomorrow.
I have already said that the Government have made support available for survivors, families of the bereaved and members of the surrounding community, but—there is a “but”—it still appears that some of those in need are unaware of all the support that is available. Perhaps the Minister would like to update the House on all actions that his Department is taking to ensure that those in need are aware of the help available to them. I believe that the same can be said for those in need of mental health support—this is, of course, Mental Health Awareness Week. I know that the support is available, but clearly not all survivors or bereaved families know that, or will even admit that help is needed and accept that help after such a traumatic event. I look forward to the Minister’s summing up and to the many other contributions that will be made by colleagues on both sides of the House.
I will leave the discussion of cladding and the Hackitt report to others, and I will instead focus on the dire state of rehousing our Grenfell-affected households—it is shameful. Let me remind the House that I am talking about my community: some of my friends, some who passed away, and some who lost close family. As it is Mental Health Awareness Week, let me announce that I have also had my Time to Talk counselling treatment. It does not make you better, it does not make the anger go away and it does not make the sadness go away. Perhaps you cope with that better, but it does not actually heal.
Ministers have said over and again in this House that those responsible will be held to account, but the failing council responsible for the deaths of 72 cherished individuals—the failing council under police investigation for alleged corporate manslaughter—is still in charge of rehousing. The taskforce report of December last year demanded culture change at the council. Some of the faces have changed, but the culture of disrespect towards social tenants, and the shambolic organisation behind it, with which I have daily contact, remains in place. My office is now dealing with about 100 Grenfell-affected households, comprising nearly 250 people. More are coming every week, as months go by, and they are still in emergency accommodation. The Grenfell-related housing statistics we have heard weekly from the council and successive Ministers are not the whole story. There is a lack of candour about those statistics. To put it politely, the figures have been spun. In November, there were not 210 Grenfell-related households needing rehousing. I had a full tally from the housing department at the time and there were 376 such households, because this includes the Walkways—homes to which people are afraid to return or cannot abide to return. The number of children who needed rehousing at that time was 323, of whom more than 200 were in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which is an infringements of their human rights. I have asked the council four times to update these figures and it will not do so—what on earth is it hiding?
The numbers have been spun because of the division between those from the tower and Grenfell Walk, and those living in the Walkways, many of whom are reliving the horror every day as they look through their windows. Some have returned, but many cannot. Keeping children in a bed and breakfast for more than six weeks is illegal, and there is good reason for that. We saw on ITV recently a mother whose four-year-old was regressing and talking like a baby, and struggling at nursery. I know of many schoolchildren who are unable to keep up with their studies, falling into depression at a young age and wanting to take their own lives, and of students who have dropped out of further education because they simply cannot cope, while their parents are barely hanging on. Meanwhile, we are subjected to a barrage of platitudes and spin from Ministers—and, indeed, the council—who have it in their power to take control of this pitiful and shameful situation, but refuse, crying crocodile tears and commending people’s dignity while reproaching the council for its failure.
Let me paint a picture of the chaos which the Government are allowing to prevail. First, why were so many households with disabled people living in a tower block? Some had lived there for many years, but some were moved there. There was a policy of moving households with disabled people into the lower floors of the block—we have seen a letter confirming this—and that needs to change.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way during such a passionate, moving and correct speech. Does she agree that those people have generally been failed by the Government?
I absolutely concur; they have been failed.
Secondly, the more pernicious sections of the media have berated families for not accepting so-called interim housing, implying that they love living in the luxury of hotels. I have visited those hotels. A Premier Inn is not a luxury. Some have called it a prison. Many have refused the so-called interim housing because they know what it means. A “temporary” placement that I know of lasted 13 years.
As for offers of permanent accommodation, the problems are manifold. Some are heartbreaking. One family was offered a flat in the so-called luxury of Kensington Row, but could not accept it because they needed adaptations to live independently. That work cannot be done for two years because the block is still under guarantee. The proposed solution was to offer home care. A family who were able to live independently were told to accept care from strangers, and another were offered accommodation in an older building needing adaptations.
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend.
The council has refused to pay for those adaptations because the property is owned by a housing association, and the family are so desperate to move that they have offered to fund the adaptations themselves from their compensation payment. Worst of all to date is a self-sufficient family, whom I know very well, who care for their older disabled family member and are proud to do so, but whose housing needs cannot be met. The council suggested they put that older family member in a care home so that they could be rehoused separately.
The pledges, commitments and guarantees of the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State or this week’s Housing Minister are not rehousing people. We ask the Government once again to send in commissioners to take control of this shameful process. If the Government continue to sit on their hands while tutting their disapproval, they should think about this: some Grenfell-affected people may not make it.
Order. I understand that there have been interventions, but because of that, after the next speaker, I will have to reduce the time limit to three minutes. Even then, it might not be possible to get everybody in.
Last July, following the general election, we gathered in the House to debate the inquiry into Grenfell. Many of us also attended the gathering in Speaker’s House, and I will never forget the conversation I had with someone who had lost two relatives in the fire. They described how they had spoken to their relatives on a mobile phone, instructing them to go down to the ground floor, and then had a different conversation when their relatives went to the top of the building and lost their lives. I do not know how those people are coping with the trauma they have suffered.
I join others in saying that the disaster should never have happened and that it has brought great shame on our nation. My hon. Friend Chris Davies is the vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for fire safety and rescue, which I chair. It has existed for 18 years, and we have been served by two wonderful secretaries, Douglas Smith and now Ronnie King. We have 29 active members and we have given countless recommendations to all sorts of people about what should have happened.
I gently say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that I do not want to hear anyone in the House say that there are lessons to be learned. There is no point in saying that unless we take action. The lesson to be learned is that when good advice is given, it should be taken.
The all-party group wrote to the previous Secretary of State, now the Home Secretary, with several recommendations, which the Opposition spokesman mentioned. They include the mandatory implementation of automatic fire sprinklers; the retrofitting of sprinklers—it is crazy that we build new buildings but it is not mandatory to have sprinklers in them; the introduction of a legally binding requirement for the use of non-combustible materials; the full publication of all information used to secure approval of building materials; the introduction of a legally binding requirement for new builds to have multiple escape routes; the introduction of regulatory provisions for the better assignment of responsibility; accountability at key points in the build chain, through to building handover; the creation of a national fire safety agency as a non-departmental public body answering to the Home Secretary; and the necessary revision of the statutory building regulations and approved documents to achieve those goals.
I fully accept that the Government have already acted on several points, and I look forward to Dame Judith Hackitt’s report tomorrow. However, our regulations and enforcement mechanisms are unchanged from those that failed to stop Grenfell. I regret that I did not shout louder as the chairman of the all-party. There is blame— I understand that.
I agree. It is no comfort to the traumatised victims when we engage in all this. Action is needed. I therefore hope that tomorrow, when we have the report and the statement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his team of Ministers will not just say that there are lessons to be learned, but will take action and accept recommendations, not least those of our all-party group.
Just a year ago, following the tragic and horrific fire at Grenfell, the Prime Minister promised to
“do whatever it takes to keep people safe”.
Nearly a year later, every piece of failed safety regulation and every piece of flawed guidance that was in place before Grenfell is still there. That is not acceptable.
Although it is welcome that the Government have belatedly found the funding to help with the remedial works on social housing blocks, they have offered precious little to people living in privately owned blocks. I want to focus on the plight of leaseholders, who feel that the Government have abandoned them and hung them out to dry.
Let us consider briefly why this cladding is on buildings in the first place. Following the deadly Lakanal House fire in 2009, when six lives were lost, an inquest was held. It reported to the Government in 2013. The coroner told the Government that the fire safety regulations were confusing, not fit for purpose and needed to be revised, but the Government did nothing. The same ACM cladding with a polyethylene core continued to be put up on residential buildings. It was put on Grenfell in 2016, and Grenfell went up in flames 2017 with such lethal and tragic consequences.
If the Government had acted on the coroner’s advice after Lakanal, people would never have died in Grenfell Tower. The cladding is on buildings because the Government did nothing to correct the flawed regulations when they were told they were a problem. The moral duty to act was on the Government, but instead of accepting that, the previous Secretary of State made an art form of palming off the blame on anybody else. In this Chamber, he said that it was the responsibility of developers, freeholders, managing agents and insurers, even though there is no proven legal obligation on any of those people to pay for the removal of cladding. The two first-tier housing tribunals found leaseholders responsible for the costs. However, the previous Secretary of State said that he wanted no costs to be passed on to leaseholders, yet he took no action to ensure that. Leaseholders have been left living in unsaleable homes, fearful for their safety, and in fear of unaffordable debt that is often more than they earn in a year.
Constituents in Bromley and Chislehurst have exactly the same problem. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as was mentioned earlier in the debate, the difficulty is that there is no mechanism for enforcing a moral duty and no means whereby leaseholders can get recompense? Should the Government consider some emergency funding comparable with the help that is being given to those in publicly owned blocks?
The hon. Gentleman makes the legal point much more eloquently than I could. I hope that the Secretary of State will listen to that.
Here is a proposal for what the Government might do. First, they should fund the removal and replacement of flammable cladding on all residential blocks on which it is found, whether in the private or public sector. We simply cannot leave leaseholders living in limbo, their lives on hold for years while these issues are dragged through the courts at a snail’s pace. If it turns out that developers, freeholders or whoever are legally liable, the Government can then claim the money back. My guess is that it will turn out that the Government are liable for failing to correct guidance and regulations that they knew were flawed for years before this happened.
The Government’s first priority must be the protection of human life. We cannot allow any more Grenfells. It is not acceptable just to leave this cladding on buildings in which people are living. This dangerous cladding must be taken down, wherever it is found. No more delays, no more Grenfells; let us get this cladding taken down.
This is a very important issue for Government Members. For too long, we have hidden behind technocratic debates and technocratic assertions of how much money we have spent or whether the sprinklers were in the right place. I think too few Members on the Government Benches understand the emotional charge of the debate about Grenfell. It was an appalling tragedy. It has been described, quite rightly, as a national scandal.
I know the area reasonably well: my mother had two cousins who lived in Trellick Tower when it was social housing, so I spent time there and know the area. One of the problems is that in the ’80s the people who lived in the tower—people who lived in social housing—felt far more like members of the community than perhaps is the case now. Today, the suspicion is that as the royal borough has got wealthier and wealthier, the political class—the people running the borough—have forgotten some of the less-advantaged members of their community. It has become very much a place of bankers, millionaires and hedge fund owners, and I have heard that the people who lived in Grenfell Tower had felt more and more isolated over the past 20 or 30 years.
For people on this side of the House—for Conservatives —this is a very big problem. Members on these Benches do not often like to talk about inequality, but in this instance there was an issue of a polarised society between the haves and the have-nots. The suspicion has always been that the borough and the political forces that shape people’s lives have been less and less involved in and interested in the lives of more vulnerable people, poorer people and immigrants.
That is a huge challenge for my right hon. Friend who has just entered his post as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. His tenure will very much be judged by his response to this appalling tragedy. As other Members have said, we can debate this endlessly—we can use warm words and exchange speeches—but I suggest to my right hon. Friend that he should have an action plan and a list of tangible things that he wants to achieve that can actually benefit people on the ground. There is no end of words and speeches but, as people have said, we need action. Frankly, the Government and the Conservative party, which was in charge nationally and locally, will very much be judged on the outcome. This is something from which we should not be allowed to walk away.
I fully endorse what has been said about that. One of the difficulties and sadnesses of this whole process has been that although the Government have given with one hand, what they have granted has been perceived as having been given slowly, grudgingly and reluctantly. A situation like this is all about hearts and minds. As a Government and a party, we have to bend over backwards to ensure that people have trust in or a modicum of respect for the process. If there is any hint or suspicion that people do not care, or if people feel that they have to jump over a series of administrative hurdles, we will lose a huge amount of good will from the people who matter the most in this tragedy: the victims and their families.
I am pleased to speak in this debate, but it is nothing short of outrageous and frankly shameful that we are debating this motion today, because the rehousing of all the survivors from the Grenfell Tower should have been done as a matter of course and should be complete by now.
A great tragedy and injustice of the Grenfell fire is that it was so easily avoidable. As we all know, the residents had repeatedly raised their concerns and asked for maintenance work to be carried out, and they had spoken of their fear that they would not be listened to until disaster struck. The warnings were not listened to, and the horror that befell the residents of Grenfell Tower was the consequence. This disaster should have marked a decisive moment in British politics. It should have shocked the Government into acknowledging the injustices and their neglect of working-class people, including people of colour and migrants.
It is hard to conclude that the Government have acknowledged that injustice. Eleven months on, two thirds of survivors are still stuck in budget hotels or temporary accommodation. Eleven months on, only seven of the 311 tower blocks with dangerous cladding have had it replaced, with residents in blocks such as Castlemaine Tower in my constituency still going to bed each night knowing that their block is not safe. Eleven months on, the Government still do not know how many tower blocks are unsafe, with some councils, such as Wandsworth, not even releasing the information. That is 11 months during which the survivors of the disaster have not been able to begin to rebuild their lives, and 11 months of residents in tower blocks living in fear.
The Government promised that they would take action. Immediately after the fire, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, said that he would support Kensington and Chelsea Council in rehousing all survivors within a year. I think we can all fairly conclude that Kensington and Chelsea Council has failed the people of Grenfell. The Government must not allow a year to pass without all survivors being adequately rehoused, and they must not allow a year to pass without taking comprehensive action to fix our broken system of building controls and checks.
When the Minister responds to the debate, will he promise that all survivors will be permanently housed in good social housing before the anniversary of the fire? Will he pledge to undertake a comprehensive reform of fire safety checks and controls, including ending the use of desktop studies and not allowing combustible cladding and insulation to be used on high-rise tower blocks? We need a Government committed to doing justice for those affected. The best that we can now hope for is that the Government will not let a year pass.
As I said earlier this week, on Monday, Grenfell Tower was quite simply an horrific tragedy that will doubtless have a profound effect on us all for the rest of our lives. It is therefore right that we work together to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.
Currently, of the 158 buildings with cladding in the social sector, remediation work has begun on 104—that is 66%—and has only been completed on seven of them. That is not good enough. I know that Ministers are fully supporting local authorities in their remedial cladding work, including where they need financial flexibility and support. I am pleased to say that no local authority seeking financial flexibility for remedial cladding has had their request denied. I understand that funding for this work is being provided directly from central Government. These delays have been caused by the necessary engagement with construction services to ensure that renovations are carried out correctly, accurately and in a way that can reassure tenants and the wider public. Tenants need to know that they are living in a space that is safe; they need to be able to sleep peacefully at night, without care.
Although I recognise that the pace of change has been slow, the Government have been moving forward at a pace commensurate with safety and security, which is vital. I say that as someone who is disappointed with the pace of change here, but also as someone who believes that we should work together to address these issues, rather than use these delays as a justification to rush our response to this dreadful tragedy. This is a truly complex situation and we must come together and take time to deal with this issue properly. We must also recognise the progress that has been made so far. Ministers have made progress with the reform of the building regulations—another area covered by the motion today. We all know that there will be an independent review regarding building regulations and fire safety led by Dame Judith Hackitt. An interim report published in December pointed out six broad areas for improvement, and the Government have committed to implementing those improvements.
In conclusion, we must see that survivors are permanently rehoused. We must see a reform of the current building regulations. That might take time but we must see that the job is properly done.
The east end of Edinburgh is a very long way away from North Kensington, but in this debate today I want to place on record, on behalf of the people whom I represent, our solidarity with the victims of Grenfell and our support for their campaign to get the answers as to why this happened to them. I say that not just because we are motivated by a sense of outrage that this could happen, or a sense of empathy for the victims, but because we have a direct material interest in making sure that this never happens again. That is why this inquiry is not just a matter for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, nor indeed for London or for England, but a matter of concern for the entire United Kingdom.
I want to see the fullest possible inquiry, and I want to see an inquiry that is not scared to investigate—without fear or favour—and to take on some of the vested powerful interests that are no doubt at play in this debate. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has decided that she will appoint independent advisers to assist the chair, but, like others, I am somewhat bemused that it has taken so many months of campaigning, 150,000 people to sign a petition, and a parliamentary debate for this most reasonable of requests to be met. I hope that that does not give us an indication of how the Government will deal with the inquiry as it goes forward. We need more Government intervention and we need it to be swifter and to have greater force.
I know that the Minister’s hands were not on this decision or on the delay in appointing these people, but what is vital now is that these independent advisers have the confidence of the people who were most affected by this disaster. Therefore, I would like to secure a commitment from him that there will be consultation with the victims of Grenfell in determining who should take up the position of these advisers.
On the point about rehousing, it beggars belief that people are still living in hotels and temporary accommodation almost a year after the disaster. Frankly, it undermines all the declarations of commitment and concern that have come from the Government. The Government must intervene. I want to hear from the Minister that he will set a deadline by which Kensington and Chelsea Council have to provide a report on the rehousing of every person affected. If that deadline is not met, the Government should take the council into special measures and make this a national responsibility. Unless that happens, there is no guarantee that this will not drag on and on. The matter is of course compounded by historical context. I agree with Kwasi Kwarteng when he remarks that it is clear that public administration in this area has been conducted for too long on behalf of the well-off and the content, and it has ignored people at the other end of the scale. That must change and it must change quickly.
This was an appalling tragedy. I understand the situation as a London MP, but it has had consequences across the country. It concerns me as a former fire services Minister and as a former Minister dealing with planning matters in the Department for Communities and Local Government. I know that the Secretary of State wants to get this right; he starts with great good will. The best thing we can do is to ensure not only that the causes are discovered, but that the lessons are learned. I will not touch on building regulation issues today—I will perhaps save that for tomorrow—but I do want to hark back to my intervention on Mr Reed.
I am pleased that the Government have made increased public funding available to ensure that cladding on council-owned or housing association tower blocks is replaced and rectified. That is the right thing to do. The Secretary of State’s predecessor said that the owners of private blocks should ensure that the costs did not fall upon the leaseholders. Morally that is right, but there is no legal mechanism for enforcing that.
The Northpoint building in my constituency was converted from offices to flats in 1999 by Alfred McAlpine, and the flats are on long leases. The building was certified as compliant in 1999. It was then checked in 2009 after the Lakanal House fire, and was held to be compliant. A subsequent check after the Grenfell Tower fire led to it being classified as category 3, which is the worst level of combustibility.
There is no suggestion of any negligence on the part of the contractors or those who carried out the previous investigations—certainly nothing that will found any cause of action on behalf of the leaseholders. There is nothing in the lease to suggest that any breach of duty by the managing agents, the freeholders or anyone else involved in that building would remove liability from the leaseholders. The findings in recent litigation in the upper tribunals have, in fact, gone against leaseholders and in favour of freeholders. Freeholders are often commercial companies that have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders. I am afraid that moral obligations are not going to be enough.
In this case, Alfred McAlpine, through a series of mergers and takeovers, ended up as part of the Carillion Group, which is now in liquidation. The prospect of there being any redress for the leaseholders of the Northpoint building, even if there were a legal mechanism, is non-existent. The Minister should therefore look into some kind of emergency mechanism; we are not talking about large sums of money in the overall scheme of things.
Well, that may be something to look at for the future, but it cannot be done retrospectively and it would not help the position of current leaseholders. We need something that assists them.
It may be that something can be recovered at some point if people are found to be at fault, but we need a bridging arrangement to enable leaseholders to carry out remedial works. They often have very little equity because the flats are virtually unsaleable, and they are either first-time buyers or downsizers so are financially pressed at the best of times. I suggest that some bridging arrangement to help them through that period would be a practical means of ensuring that the Government meet that moral duty, which there is currently neither a legal nor a practical means of achieving. Such an arrangement would give a greater degree of parity between those in the private sector and the Government’s welcome approach to those in the public sector.
I am very grateful to have a few minutes to speak in this debate, and because it is only a few minutes I want to focus on Khadija Saye, who died on the 20th floor. My interest in this is not wholly impartial, because Khadija worked for my wife as an intern. She was a beautiful 24-year-old woman with her life before her. She was really going to emerge as a fantastic artist and had already done some formidable work that was on show at the Venice Biennale.
Even though Khadija lived on the 20th floor, she died on the ninth floor of Grenfell Tower. I think that her mother was found further up, on the 16th or 17th floor. Khadija died, frankly, because the state failed her. The state told her to stay put and she stayed put. When she did leave, even though obviously she got spilt up from her mother, she did not quite make it out. Had she set about leaving earlier, she would probably be with us today. It is that business of state failure that I ask the new Secretary of State to reflect on.
When we have a Prime Minister who says that people will be housed within three weeks, that compounds state failure. When we have a community that ask for representation on an inquiry that speaks to them and their experience, and it takes so long to get that, that is state failure. When there are other people living in social housing and big tower housing blocks fully aware that the vast majority of Members of Parliament have not experienced living in a tower block, have not experienced social housing, and do not have families who have experienced it, and it takes this long to get a commitment to help fund the replacement cladding, that is also state failure.
I implore the Secretary of State to reflect hard on what “social” means. In the economy around us, “social” clearly has to mean something. That is why there is now so much emphasis on social housing and not just affordable housing. Affordable housing has come to mean something that might speak to a political class because they find it affordable—just—but certainly does not speak to many ordinary people. Let us put back in the “social” if we are to rebuild trust and make a commitment to Khadija and her mother Mary who died, and all those others who lost their lives, but also to the people who witnessed this most awful atrocity.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Lammy, who captures the tragedy so effectively in his words.
So much of what I would have said has already been said incredibly effectively by colleagues across the House that I would just like to reflect for a moment on one particular issue—the purpose of the cladding and why it was there in the first place. It is actually there to improve the standard of living of residents in these blocks by ensuring that they have better insulation and therefore their flats—their homes—are more comfortable and warmer places for them to live. I would like the Minister to reflect on the standard of living of these residents. Whatever comes later, we must offer people safety and reassurance, but also the right standard of living.
I am grateful for this brief opportunity to speak. It is a pleasure to follow the—very brief—hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), who does the House a great service in giving us extra seconds. I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position. Much is expected of him and his ministerial team. He has a huge challenge in this area.
The key conclusion already drawn about the Grenfell fire is that it should never have happened. The various inquiries—the inquest, the police’s criminal investigation, the Dame Judith Hackitt review and the public inquiry—should give us confidence that there will be conclusions to reassure all of us. However, in an age of such scepticism and cynicism, it is easy for society to be worried about the outcomes. The first element expected to report is the review led by Dame Judith Hackitt. The police and public inquiries will naturally be expected to be more fundamental in their conclusions. Clearly, the public inquiry will be the chance to examine, minute by minute, what happened leading up to the fire, the development of the fire and the conclusions.
Dame Judith’s conclusions might not be so explicit, but much is expected, especially with regard to the review of the fire guidance included in Approved Document B, which guides the building regulations. The Government have been expected to review Approved Document B and have been promising to do so since 2011. Other matters such as sprinklers and desktop studies ought to be included in her review’s recommendations, as well as the ban on combustible materials as part of the external envelope of buildings, already mentioned by a number of colleagues. Another positive recommendation ought to be to relocate fire safety enforcement from the Home Office to sit alongside building and housing regulations in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. There is logic to that suggestion.
Can the Secretary of State assure us that he and his team will see Dame Judith’s report tomorrow not as a conclusion—especially if it falls short on a number of the explicit recommendations expected by the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety rescue and others—but just as a starting point?
Finally, the PM’s announcement of more money for social landlords for removal, replacement and remedial work is very welcome. We need the same fund to be available to leaseholders.
There are so many questions that have either not been answered or inadequately answered in the past year that all I can do is go over some of them very briefly and hope that the new Secretary of State will take some heed.
First, with regard to the seat of the fire, yesterday saw the publication of the results of the inquiry by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy into the type of fridge freezer that we have known, almost since the date of the fire, was the cause. All it says is that there was a low risk from these types of fridges continuing to be used. There is no indication of what the fault was, whether it was a manufacturing fault, or how the fire actually started. We now know, as Which? has told me during the debate, that it was a plastic-backed fridge. We know that plastic-backed fridges cause fire to spread incredibly quickly compared with metal-backed fridges, and there is a big campaign now to stop that type of fridge being sold. That needs to be looked at.
Of course we need to look at the issue of fire spread, and not just cladding or what should have retarded the spread of fire but what may have accelerated it. We need to look at things such as sprinklers, the means of escape and, as has just been mentioned, the advice given to residents in this situation. What we need is prescription. That is the message coming from RIBA, the Local Government Association, the National Housing Federation and Shelter, which I met this morning. We need architects, designers and builders to be told how buildings should be built to make them safe—for example, only using non-combustible materials or having more than one means of escape.
I understand that we will return to this tomorrow morning, but all the indications are that Dame Judith Hackitt’s review will not go down that route. Instead, it will go on about safe systems and systematic answers. With respect, that is not sufficient. I want my constituents, as I am sure every other Member here does, to feel safe and know that they are in safe buildings that will not catch fire and that, if the buildings do catch fire, that fire will be easily retarded.
The other main issue, as Members have said, is housing. It is about not just the rehousing of the people from in and around Grenfell, but the replacement—probably not on the Grenfell site—of the social housing that was lost. It is about the wider lessons to learn.
I am glad that there will be a Green Paper on social housing, but I say gently to the Secretary of State that there will have to be a sea change in the way the Conservative party has dealt with social housing over the past 10 to 20 years if it is to really make a difference to the security, safety and decency of social homes. I hope that he will be committed to that. Like my hon. Friend Ms Buck, I have seen examples of the disposal of good-quality homes, the failure to replace them and the insecure conditions in which people have been made to live. Grenfell has shown that that is the problem, but it is a problem that goes much wider than Grenfell and is one we need to address.
I want to say two things. First, I ask all Members of the House not to say about Grenfell that this should never happen again. I was the local councillor for Lakanal House when it went up in flames in 2009, and I have to tell everyone that it is too late; it has already happened again. Grenfell is this disaster happening again. We all need to consider the reasons why we failed to learn those lessons. It is very important that we stop thinking about the fact that we ought to prevent future disasters when we are already staring in the face the repetition of a disaster. In addition, the secondary tragedy of the Government’s failure to respond to disaster, as happened after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, looks set to happen again. The lack of faith that people felt in institutions of the state at that time is, I feel, on the horizon now.
My second point is that Ministers, especially the Secretary of State, should not think there is nothing they can do about that lack of faith. They should not think that people will necessarily lose faith in the Government and what they do because of this disaster. There are things that they can do about it, such as implementing the charter that Bishop James Jones called for in his report on the experience of the Hillsborough families. We know that the Bellwin scheme and all the things we have in place at the moment are way out of date. I know that from the New Ferry explosion in my constituency. We should learn the lessons of Tessa Jowell’s life in responding to disaster and implement James Jones’s charter. In addition to the other measures that we need, the Government should bring forward the public advocate mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. That way, as the Minister said, people will have a legacy.
Each of these deaths was completely avoidable, as concerns about the safety of the building were repeatedly ignored. The people who have died were failed. The survivors of the tragedy at Grenfell were failed. They were failed by their local council, and they have been failed by central Government since the fire. They were failed before, during and after this whole avoidable tragedy.
Those affected by this tragedy deserve justice, and those responsible for the refurbishments and the failure to ensure the safety of residents with the appropriate fire safety measures should be held to account and face criminal proceedings. Having spoken to survivors of this tragedy, I know there is distrust in this Government’s ability to review properly what happened in the build-up to the fire and during the aftermath. In fact, one of them told me that they had
“lost hope for the future”.
It has taken the Prime Minister 11 months finally to hear the voices of campaigners, such as those at Grenfell United, and to appoint an independent and experienced panel for the public inquiry. Understandably, many people are asking why this important appointment has taken this long to agree. There is genuine concern that the fight for truth about Grenfell could last decades, much like the grave injustices of Hillsborough and the murder of Stephen Lawrence. But through the hard work of the survivors at Grenfell United, there is hope that by implementing the recommendations of the inquiry for survivors, bereaved families and thousands living in tower blocks up and down the country, a catastrophic tragedy like Grenfell Tower fire, which should never have happened in the first place, will never happen again.
I want to commend the Fire Brigades Union for its work on the night of the fire and for its support for the bereaved and the survivors since then. I will depart from my script to say that, about a week after the fire, I visited the site, and I popped into the Latymer Christian centre next door. To say that the grief and pain was raw is just an understatement. I ended up in tears; seriously, I did.
For me, this debate is about two things. First, there is the failure permanently to rehouse the people who still need rehousing. Let us have a timeline—a clear timeline—for that. Secondly, there is the failure to say when that cladding is coming off. Let us have a date for that—a timeline again—because the people of Grenfell deserve better. This Chamber needs to hear those dates.
I am sorry that our debate has been cut short by the statement earlier, so Members did not get to speak for the length of time they wanted and our response has to be so short.
“There will be no more tragic matter treated of in this House in this Parliament than that which is before us now”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 626, c. 352.]
Time does not diminish the tragedy for those who lost their loved ones, but the time that has passed should have helped us to do right by those people and to do more to ensure that this does not happen again. As so many powerful and reflective contributions today and in Westminster Hall earlier this week have told us, the Government’s response on every point and at every turn has not been what it should it have been. As my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy so powerfully said, this has been “state failure”. The Secretary of State spoke with compassion in his wide-ranging speech and struck a different tone by accepting his Government’s failings, but he did not give us the commitments and answers that we and many watching this debate wanted to hear.
Eleven months ago, the Government promised that all survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire would be permanently rehoused within one year. As my hon. Friend Marsha De Cordova said, two thirds of survivors are still in hotels or temporary housing. We heard so powerfully from my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad about the impact of that on the children who are falling into depression and dropping out of education. When will everyone be rehoused? As my hon. Friend Ms Buck said, when will the Government look at the wider problems of the under-supply of social and affordable housing? The Secretary of State said that he wanted to speed up this process. When he has finished looking at that, will he come back to the House and tell us what is to be done?
Eleven months ago, the Government promised that all tower blocks with dangerous cladding would be made safe. As Giles Watling said, over 300 buildings so far have been identified as unsafe, but only seven of them have had their cladding removed. The Government have today announced £400 million to fully fund the removal and replacement of dangerous cladding, which is welcome but obviously questions remain. What is the £400 million based on? Where is that money coming from? Is something else to be cut? Will this pay for all 158 social housing blocks to have their cladding removed? What is the Minister’s definition of dangerous cladding? What about the private blocks? As my hon. Friend Mr Reed said, there is a complete lack of clarity about who is responsible for removing cladding in private blocks. Are the Government accepting, given the announcement today of that £400 million, that there are significant deficiencies in building regulations that need to be looked at?
Eleven months ago, the Government promised there would be significant reform of the current system of building regulations. It has been widely reported that the Hackitt review will not recommend bans on combustible material on tower blocks and nor will it abolish desktop studies. On the Labour Benches, and I think on all sides of the House, we pray that that is not true. If it is true, we pray that the Government go further than Hackitt and that that is the start and not the end of the process. I think there is unprecedented support across this Chamber for a ban on combustible cladding, a ban on desktop studies and a publicly accountable system of building control.
To use the lives of those who died as a vehicle for point-scoring would make us all monsters, but not to call out and hold to account the Government’s failure to act—to act well, to act quickly, to act now—would make us worthless to those survivors who need us now. I therefore say to the Government that it is not too late to put this right. As Sir David Amess says, there is no point in saying there are lessons to be learned unless we take action.
I welcome the powerful and poignant contributions to the debate from all sides, in particular the very moving personal speech by right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy).
May I pay tribute to the bereaved and the survivors who continue to suffer the anguish of having lost so many loved ones, who continue to suffer personally in countless scarcely imaginable ways and yet who, through their tenacity and determination, can only inspire every one of us in this House? As sobering as it has been over the past four months to hear at first-hand the piercing pain of this precious community, it has also been an honour to get to know the Grenfell United community, the survivors and bereaved, and a privilege to try to serve them in a ministerial capacity. If I could sum up the task at hand, it is to support the survivors and bereaved to move into new homes, but also, more broadly, to help them to move on with their lives in as positive a way as possible after such a harrowing ordeal.
The Government are committed to ensuring that all former residents are supported into permanent new homes as swiftly as possible and we continue to work hard with the council to achieve that. Of the 210 house- holds from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk, there are now 201 who have either moved or accepted temporary or permanent accommodation. Two thirds of them have moved out of emergency accommodation. The council is working intensively to support the remaining nine households in finding homes that meet their needs. We will not rest until all of them have moved into the right homes.
Further to the comments by my hon. Friend Paul Scully and Marsha De Cordova, I am grateful to the work of the independent taskforce for scrutinising the process and bringing some extra pressure to bear. It has been difficult and arduous. I have had several meetings with the council to go through individual cases. I have met residents to understand the barriers that remain and to offer Government support to overcome them. Contractors have been appointed to ensure that any necessary repairs and safety checks are carried out as soon as possible.
The Government have invested and committed £80 million to support the recovery and to support victims, including on their mental health, an issue touched on by Emma Dent Coad. I have personally agreed with Grenfell United on a mechanism for escalating cases of undue delay directly either to me or to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service.
The decision to wrap the tower has been a particularly difficult one for the bereaved and the survivors. After consultation with them, the decision was taken to protect the building and reduce the visual impact, while respecting the view that the tower and what happened inside it must never be forgotten. No decision has been taken on the long-term future of the site, but my right hon. Friend, who is the Minister with responsibility for Grenfell victims, has worked with the community to agree the principles to guide the way forward, so that the bereaved, the survivors and the north Kensington community will lead the decision-making process on the future of the site.
Finally, I understand that the forthcoming final report by Dame Judith Hackitt on building regulations and fire safety will be published tomorrow. I reassure Joanna Cherry, Ms Buck, my hon. Friend Sir David Amess and others that it will set out recommendations for far-reaching reform of the regulatory system. We will also publish our Green Paper on social housing by the summer recess. That follows the social tenant workshops that we have conducted across the country; the final one, which I attended, was hosted by Grenfell United. That Green Paper was inspired by the cri de coeur from the Grenfell community—a challenge to reform social housing and address the stigma and prejudice that too many social tenants face up and down the country.
I share the restlessness of hon. Members across the House to relocate the survivors more swiftly, to bring accountability and justice to this most horrific of tragedies and, ultimately, to bring some solace to those brave souls picking up the pieces of their lives and determined to move on to a brighter future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
notes the commitments given by the Government that all survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire of
and calls on the Government to make good on those commitments, to lay a report before Parliament and to make an Oral Statement by