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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the response to the Grenfell Tower fire.
I wish to thank the Backbench Business Committee, the Minister, the Government Members who agreed to support the debate, my colleagues here today and those who have given me strength and help over the past two years, but who are, I hope, on the battlefield of the Peterborough by-election today. I also thank those in the Public Gallery who are watching the debate. I want to reassure them that this debate is just one step and that we will return to this subject over and again until all our demands are met.
I asked for briefings on all aspects of the response to the Grenfell Tower fire from organisations and groups that I have met. I was inundated. I received enough information for a two-hour lecture with slides, but I have just 15 minutes in which to speak today. To preserve this invaluable response, all the briefings will be available online very soon in the Grenfell archive that I am compiling—it will be factual information. In the short time available, I will speak on areas close to my heart and leave comments on the detailed issues to my hon. Friends and other Members.
Just four days after my election two years ago, a horrific and an entirely avoidable atrocity took place in my neighbourhood. Shock and disbelief resonated around the world. Pledges, commitments and guarantees were made in this House in the aftermath. Many of these commitments have been broken, and my community has been failed horribly. A year ago, a debate was held in Westminster Hall about the response to the disaster. The briefing from members of Grenfell United and the inquest was clear: they wanted the Government to demand that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council rehouse those people made homeless by the fire within a certain time frame and that if the council continued to fail, the Government would send in commissioners to take it over. They also demanded that the Government appoint two independent panel members from diverse backgrounds to advise the public inquiry. It took a further year to appoint the panel members, and their very late arrival after phase 1 had ended will surely reduce their effectiveness.
I commend the work of Grenfell United in its tireless campaign to hold the council and the Government to account, often in very difficult circumstances. I also commend the work of the countless campaign and community groups fighting against the odds for Grenfell-affected people, including Humanity for Grenfell, the Grenfell Trust, Justice4 Grenfell, the Latimer arts project, Kids on the Green, Hope for Grenfell, Grenfell Speaks, Cornwall Hugs Grenfell and all those other groups that I may have forgotten. I thank the community centres, religious centres and the vast number of outside campaigns and individuals whose breadth of expertise and support is evidence of the depth and breadth of the failure of the statutory services that we have paid for to care for the people to whom they have a duty of care.
Let us look for a moment at rehousing. I must declare an interest as a current member of the council—I will remain a member of that council until every single person has been housed and cared for in the way that they deserve. The Government have failed to make the demands of the council that were requested a year ago, and the council has failed to rehouse many people who were made homeless. The official figure is 19 tenants, but a tenant can comprise a household of many people with disparate needs. Only those made homeless from the tower and the facing Grenfell Walk are counted in those official statistics. In the walkways attached to the tower, there are a further 109 homeless households as of last month, making a total of 128 homeless households. Some remain in their homes, which re-traumatises them every day. The council has removed those households from the wider Grenfell rehousing scheme, and they will now languish on the council waiting list; some for many, many years.
While desperate families struggle to keep going, there is frustration and impatience within the council. Although there are good and empathic officers, this impatience is demonstrated by outbursts from some people because they are overstretched, and from certain senior councillors who should know better, while they persuade, cajole and sometimes, I am sorry to say, bully people into homes that are not suitable. While these 128 homeless households—around 250 people, in my estimation—are still awaiting rehousing, the rank incompetence of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation to have an up-to-date list of tenants at the time of the fire means that fraudsters have sneaked into the system and pillaged funds meant for the genuinely homeless and desperate.
During my tenure on the TMO board from 2008 to 2012, along with the now leader of the council, the TMO was so dysfunctional that I had to call in an independent adjudicator. There followed a change of director, but clearly not of culture or of staff Meanwhile, the attitude of some people at the council is questionable, and I have noted that for years some people have found it almost feudal.
In the early days after the fire, my predecessor as MP wrote to the council to air her concern about the numbers of people roaming around the streets “like gangs”. A senior council officer was told to go down to the site but refused, saying, “It’s like little Africa down there.” Another said that the area was full of people “from the tropics”. A senior officer regularly, in front of others, referred to my neighbours as “muzzies”. A recent visitor to the walkways was congratulated by a senior councillor for entering the “lion’s den”. I say “vulnerable”; they say “volatile”. This attitude is hardly surprising. About two years ago during a debate on refugee children, a senior councillor said:
“if we let these people in, we will have an Islamic Caliphate in Kensington and Chelsea.”
Racism or snobbery—take your pick.
What I see is people who have been utterly failed by the system subsequently being punished for it. Is it right to off-roll a child from school because they cannot cope with the pressure of trauma and schoolwork, and send them to a pupil referral unit or alternative provision located in a council-owned building, which is then closed because it is in such a poor state of repair that it is judged to be dangerous? According to parents who confide in me, these children have been left to roam the streets. Who is responsible for safeguarding these fragile children? Is it another case of accountability pass the parcel?
Is it right to punish a bereaved man beside himself with grief and anger—someone who has been a good friend to many people—who in a moment of blind fury on behalf of others used threatening words? Is it right to punish this moment of fury with imprisonment? Should we imprison someone who has been so dramatically failed? I say, “Free Mr Latimer,” so he can at least join the memorial event on Friday week for those he lost on
I am reliably informed that a senior councillor recently complained, “I do not know why they are wasting so much time on mental health. They all seem fine to me.” I declare an interest as a recipient of mental health services, although they have not helped me. We have 11,000 people affected to various degrees by the Grenfell atrocity in our neighbourhood. Some have been helped; many have not. The type of trauma we have does not go away. There have been several suicides. While it is always difficult to ascertain causes, the five people I know of who lost their lives in the past seven months were affected by what happened to various degrees. This heavy toll includes young teenagers.
I am still meeting people who are not getting any help and some who are refusing help because of the perceived shame of mental illness. I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder myself, but I am able to function. However, I know so many who cannot. On their behalf, I will wear the scars of my own mental ill health with pride. The shame is not for those whose mental health has been damaged. The shame lies with those who neglected our homes—those whose first reaction to the fire was that of damage limitation and passing the buck of blame, rather than accepting failure.
Local people and specialists have also been discredited over the controversial soil testing exercises. Members of the community concerned about toxicity of soil in the area around the tower contacted a university professor of fire chemistry and toxicity, who took samples and was so alarmed that she reported it to the council, Public Health England and the NHS. For some reason, they sat on these interim findings, and then six months later, the council leader denied in public that she had seen them, even though we have seen the minutes of the meeting at which she was informed of them.
After a long and failed campaign by the council and from other quarters to discredit the professor, they are now finally—after two long years—starting to test the soil for carcinogens and other toxic materials that can seriously affect people’s health. We are calling for full health screening, including blood and DNA testing; they are offering lung capacity tests. It is another fight that has sapped the energy of so many unnecessarily.
I turn briefly to the wealth of information we have had from the fire services, building regulators, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Association of British Insurers, which all have an interest, from various perspectives, in the safety of buildings and those who live and work within them. All this will be available in the Grenfell archive. I have worked closely with the fire brigade and the Fire Brigades Union for many years. The cuts to services have been devastating, and I pay tribute to the fire services for their extraordinary dedication. They often work long hours and double shifts to keep the service functioning. I well remember the previous Mayor of London, when challenged at a public Greater London Assembly meeting, uttering a foul expletive that I shall not repeat. The Minister may have witnessed it.
The independent review of building regulations and fire safety, the Hackitt review, includes many recommendations that fire services have put forward, including improving skills in the sector, defining who is responsible for what under fire safety legislation and increasing the role of the fire service in the safety of buildings, which, owing to deregulation, is currently open to all comers. The demand for the inclusion of sprinklers to all new buildings and for the retrofitting of residential buildings is consistent from many quarters. It costs money but not a lot, and not having them can have a terrible human cost that I have no wish to see imposed on anyone. Today, my hon. Friends will speak in more detail about improved regulation for fire doors, about responsibility for fire safety within the trained professional setting of fire services themselves and about regulating for safer electrical goods.
As many here will know, I spent most of my career writing about design and architecture. I know how buildings are constructed and what went wrong at Grenfell during the refurbishment. During my time on the TMO, work was done on digital cabling to Trellick Tower, which has the same concrete frame construction. During this work, firebreaks had not been reinstated. Fortunately, I was alerted to this by tenants, and after a row, these defects were corrected. Since that time, there have been several fires in Trellick Tower, all of which have been contained within a single flat.
The RIBA has specific demands that are more extensive than the recommendations in the Hackitt report. Its demands for non-combustible cladding, the use of sprinklers and alternative means of escape in new buildings would add just a few percentage points to the cost of buildings and keep people safe.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, however good building regulations might be, if developers can get away with not having them signed off, they are of no use? In St Francis Tower in Ipswich, in my constituency, a developer completely refurbished a tower block with flammable cladding without ever getting the building regulations signed off, because it did not have to do so through the local council.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.
I will move now to the question of insurance, which might have been relevant in this case. The ABI has been working closely with the Fire Protection Association to reform building regulations, including on its review of approved document B. This relates not only to saving life; saving property is also paramount. If someone escapes a catastrophic fire in their home, they will have lost all their possessions and documents, and this can set them back years. They may never recover. A catastrophic fire in an office or warehouse not only destroys the contents and building; it can destroy a business, the jobs of all those who work there and the future of their work and family life, as well as all the organisations that depend on the business.
The ABI is demanding that sprinklers be fitted to homes, student accommodation, schools, care homes and warehouses. It is also concerned—as am I, with my background in architecture—with the implications of modern methods of construction, many of which have not been fire tested to destruction and do not perform well under more stringent tests. The results of tests I have seen argue against the wholesale embrace in the architectural profession of cross-laminated timber, particularly in the production of the next generation of social housing, which we so desperately need. I know that colleagues will discuss that later. The Shelter report on social housing has been a welcome piece of research whose recommendations I hope, in time, will be adopted. We need more homes for social rent, but they must be the right homes in the right places.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful and important speech. My Committee heard from Professor Anna Stec about her concerns about the way that these combustible panels are being used in warehouse, school and hospital constructions that are exempt from the Government’s review of the new regulations post the Hackitt review. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to look more widely at the use of flame retardants in these panels and the way in which these buildings are being constructed, to avoid tragedies in the future?
I thank my hon. Friend for that hugely helpful intervention. That work is ongoing and we must reach conclusions soon. We cannot put toxic chemicals in mattresses, foam furniture and so on too near to people, including babies. There is a wealth of information out there, and we must listen and learn.
The public inquiry has been subject to criticism and a lot of delays. While we wait for the interim report, now expected in October, there are serious concerns whether it will make any recommendations at all and stop the merry-go-round of speculation about whether meaningful change will come from this detailed and forensic process. We believe that phase 2 will now begin in the new year, prolonging the pain and anxiety of those who have to give evidence, plus those awaiting justice for the perpetrators of what some have called “social murder”.
The police investigation is struggling for funds, having asked for a further £2 million from the Government and been refused. The timeline for criminal charges is slipping and, along with it, the hope for justice. As far as most local people are concerned, the police are one of the few trusted bodies, which is gratifying in an area where previously there was very little trust. I commend the police for their sensitivity in dealing with most of us, at least, in the past two years.
The campaign group Inquest recently published “No voice left unheard”—the results of a family consultation day for the bereaved and survivors when a large proportion of affected families were asked about their experience of being heard in the inquiry. It was pretty devastating. Many of them stated what I have witnessed—that they have had to fight for every single one of their rights: to be housed, to be compensated, to receive legal advice and mental health support and to understand what they are entitled to. Many of them feel that they have been punished for the failings of others.
On that note, I will hand over to my hon. Friends and other Members. I look forward to hearing their opinions and perspectives on these terrible matters that affect all of us across the country and worldwide.
Order. We have about 14 speakers and a couple of hours, so I hope that Members will limit their remarks and be careful in how long they take. If that does not work, then I will impose a time limit, but I hope, as this is a good-natured debate and everyone is aiming in the same direction, we should not need it.
I shall take your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, and be as brief as I can.
I welcome this debate and congratulate Emma Dent Coad on securing it on what is nearly the second anniversary of this terrible, terrible tragedy. If we look back to
The hon. Lady talked about the fact that there are a number of people still to be housed. I believe that the last figure mentioned by Lord Bourne in the other place was that about 196 out of 211 households had been rehoused, so that still leaves some to be rehoused. We need to look into exactly what expectations they have and what barriers are stopping those last few families getting into a property that they can call home; I hope the Minister will outline some of those in his summing up. It is important that people are not just pulled from pillar to post and moved around the area. They need to rebuild their roots. Their children will be at school and they will have local community roots, and they need to know that there is surety for them in that part of North Kensington.
I am glad to see that the Government have committed £80 million to a number of things over the past two years, including not only rehousing but mental health services. The hon. Lady talked about PTSD and mental health. It was one thing watching it on television, but if someone has lived through that—if they sat and watched it unfold in front of them, able to see and smell the flames and hear the sounds, which would undoubtedly have been terrible—that will stay with them. It is so important to look at the ongoing human costs, not only the bereavements. I am pleased that some money has gone into community spaces and support for the bereaved and survivors.
I was interested to read that the Bishop of Kensington has done a wider piece of work. I have not had time to go through all his conclusions, but the areas that he looked at, following conversations with survivors and people in the area, are really worth exploring. Those areas are wider than just the fire. He talks about renewing democracy, to ensure that people in those kinds of buildings and communities are listened to and that when there are warning signs and people are crying out for change, there are people—regardless of party politics—who are listening and, more importantly, responding.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I commend the hon. Member for Kensington for her speech. She has been a stalwart MP for her constituents in this matter, and I congratulate her on that.
It is important that out of this terrible tragedy, with the lives that were lost and those that were changed, comes recommendations from the inquiry. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that lessons are learned and then shared with other parts of the United Kingdom? Across Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, we all have areas in our constituencies where there are high-rise flats, and these changes need to happen everywhere else. Does he agree that the recommendations that come out of the inquiry and this debate need to be shared with the regional Administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I totally agree. It is disappointing that the report from the first part of the review has been delayed, but I hope that when it comes out in October, we will get some decent answers. I would rather it be slightly delayed, but with a decent set of answers that we can share across the UK, than rushed through to hit an arbitrary deadline. People want answers, and we want to be able to share those in all areas of the UK.
In July last year, a flat in a tower block in my area, Chaucer House, caught fire. Fortunately, there were many firemen, and I pay tribute to Sutton fire services, which I visited recently, and the neighbouring fire services. Because of the fear and worry following Grenfell, they were on top of it and controlled the fire very quickly. Some lessons have already been learned, but there are plenty more. Whether it is about the response of the fire services, the cladding or the building regulations, we need to learn these lessons to ensure that this can never happen again. Whether it is Lakanal House or other fires, how many times have we said in this place, “This must never happen again” and then similar things have happened again? We need a comprehensive response that we can all learn from.
The Bishop of Kensington talks about humanising welfare. It is a controversial issue in this place, but I would argue that universal credit seeks to do that, because it is tailoring benefits that were a blunt instrument. We always need to review these things, but in Sutton, which was a digital pilot area for universal credit, things have started to improve. Unfortunately, because of the political rhetoric about universal credit, there are people who are not claiming as much as they could, because they are still on the legacy programme. We need to smooth out the bureaucracy and technology as much as we can, to ensure that we have a humanised welfare system.
The Bishop of Kensington talks about becoming neighbours. When I led the e-petition debate last year, I read the names of the 72 victims of Grenfell into Hansard. I saw how Grenfell United and the other advocate organisations had mobilised so many people. The area had its own community, but that community has come so much closer together as a result. That is another lesson we need to learn. It should not take a tragedy to bring people together in communities. We talk about social isolation and loneliness. Many of the people in those flats knew each other and their stories. The more we have to do with our neighbours, the better, and if such a tragedy should occur or if there is a risk, we will find out about it by getting to know our neighbours better.
The bishop also talks about providing homes and noticing faiths. It was disappointing to hear the hon. Member for Kensington say that people had used the words “Islamic caliphate” and other disparaging terms. We just had Eid al-Fitr on Tuesday, and I wish everyone celebrating that Eid Mubarak. John Cleese said on Twitter recently that London is not an English city. How do we define Englishness? It is a set of values, and it is a community. When I was doing my research for the e-petition debate, I looked at the stories of the 72 people who died. Many of them travelled across the world to make London their home. Some of them were fleeing persecution and conflict, and others were looking for a better life. I cannot use the word “community” enough. My friend Shaun Bailey, our London mayoral candidate, comes from that area. He was working in charities for young disadvantaged people in North Kensington, living under the shadow of Grenfell Tower himself.
It is clear that Grenfell Tower, with the white hoarding and the green heart on it, remains a symbol of community. You can see it from so far away. I go down the westway on the A40 quite a lot, and the tower dominates the skyline. When you are walking past the posh houses on Holland Park, you only need to look down the road to see Grenfell Tower dominating the skyline. I hope that for as long as it is there, local people in Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster, which borders the area, reflect on what has happened there, to ensure that this never happens again.
I welcome the two new appointees to the panel, who I hope, with their experience, can add value to the findings. Perhaps the Minister could say a few words about the fact that some private leaseholders who have bought their properties may get caught out with the extra cost of re-cladding their buildings. Some developers have said that they will protect leaseholders from exorbitant fees, but we see from restoration of other buildings and blocks around the country how leaseholders can suddenly end up with a sky-high bill, and have to re-mortgage or sell their home. That is totally inappropriate, when these should be basic fire safety measures.
I will speak in particular about the work of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad. I say in a heartfelt way that I do not think her constituents—particularly those most directly affected by this disaster—could have a better champion. She has the respect of Members across the House for what she has done to represent her constituents forcefully, with emotion and with detailed knowledge of these matters. She certainly has my respect for what she has done.
In looking at a disaster and a tragedy such as Grenfell, we can occasionally look at what can come out of it that will help others—in this case, what will help other people to be safer in their homes as a result. As a Committee, we have not looked at the causes of the disaster and the reasons for it, because that is a job for the inquiry to do. It was not our job to go into that area and second-guess its findings, but we have tried to follow up particularly on the work of the Hackitt report. We have looked at what improvements can be made to regulations and rules on buildings and building safety to make other people safer in their homes and other buildings they are in in the future.
We produced a report last July after taking evidence. Prior to that, we had had a session with Dame Judith after both her interim report and her final report. We have had Ministers before us on a number of occasions. I see the Minister for Housing in his place. He came most recently in January, and he is coming again in a few weeks’ time. Dame Judith came in January, and she is coming again at a session before the Minister. We have tried to follow through not merely on what the promises were, but on how far they have been implemented and what more needs to be done. We have had a very detailed exchange of correspondence with Ministers. Indeed, I am still waiting for some answers on the most recent questions we have asked. As I say, we tried to concentrate in our inquiry on the issues of cladding, building safety and building regulations.
In the end, this is a story of a response by the Government with a recognition that dangerous or potentially dangerous material on high-rise and high-risk buildings needs to be removed. However, it is also a story of probably quite a slow response in some respects, and of a response that is still completely inadequate in others and one that has not been finalised. I hope it has not been finalised because I hope that the Government will go further. It is a story about ACM cladding—the cladding on Grenfell—and clearly a requirement for that to be removed, and it is a story of other materials that may be just as dangerous as ACM cladding. It is a story of materials generally that are not of limited combustibility and what should happen to them. It is a story not merely of high-rise residential buildings, but of other high-risk buildings such as hospitals and old people’s homes. Very importantly, it is a story not merely about new building, but about existing buildings, and I will make particular reference to that in a few moments.
It was immediately agreed that the ACM cladding—the cladding on Grenfell—on other high-rise residential buildings should be removed. However, the Government initially produced no funding to go with that. It took till
Alongside that, there has been a real problem in relation to private sector buildings and the refusal of the freeholders to accept responsibility. The Government’s reasoned response was that leaseholders should not have to pay for the responsibility. However, for a year after the announcement of the funding for social housing, there was virtually no progress at all on private high-rise buildings, except where some developers decided that they would accept responsibility for the material they had put on. We have to recognise that, in some cases, developers were no longer responsible for the buildings—they may have been bought out by other companies, which were often freehold companies with limited assets— while there were leaseholders who could not pay. It really was a situation that was never going to be resolved. Ministers kept saying—I think this was the famous phrase—“We rule nothing out”, but for the most part nothing actually got done for a long period of time. That was even though the Committee, when it did its report last July, recommended that an immediate fund be established, initially at a very low rate of interest, at least to provide the wherewithal to get this work done, and we could argue about who would pay for it afterwards. We are still very much in that position.
Does the Chairman of the Select Committee accept that there was not only a financial impact on the leaseholders exposed to this pressure, but an emotional one on their mental health from the anxiety of living in what they thought was not a safe home and of worrying about where they were going to find the money to pay for the remedial work and other fire costs?
I entirely accept my hon. Friend’s point. I suppose I am trying to take a practical and financial approach to this issue. I recognise that that is all right for me sitting in here as a Member of Parliament, but for the people who actually live in these properties it is a very different experience given the impact on their daily lives and their mental health, as my hon. Friend has rightly highlighted.
The Government then gave additional powers to local authorities. I am not sure that a single local authority has used any of those powers yet. Indeed, when the permanent secretary came to see the Committee, she said there was a risk to local authorities if they used the powers in relation to whether they could actually make them hold and make them effective, and whether local authorities could actually get any money back if they went in and spent the money themselves.
Now we at least have the £200 million fund that the Government have announced for private sector properties, but there are a lot of questions about it. First, who applies for the fund? Who ensures the work is carried out? Is there a timeline by which all this work has to be carried out? What happens if no one applies and the building is still there with this cladding on it? What happens to the local authority if it goes in and does the work in default: does it get the money back? What happens where a developer has already, rightly, paid for the work themselves: can that developer claim the money back from the fund, or does it apply only to work that currently has not been carried out? In the end, who is responsible for the work being signed off as satisfactory? There are a lot of questions that need addressing, and I have written to Ministers about them on behalf of the Committee.
The Chairman of the Select Committee has proved very tenacious in following up on these issues. Does he agree with me that the Grenfell Tower fire was a systems failure—a whole-system failure—at various points, and that it is now imperative for the Government to put in whatever money is required to rebuild that system from the bottom up, so that in dealing with the consequences and the aftermath of that fire we do not recreate problems or create new ones in the systems for homes, inspections or fire regulations?
I thank my hon. Friend for taking away from me my final, winding-up comments. She is absolutely right, and that is at the heart of Dame Judith’s report. This is about making sure that materials are right and are properly tested. In the end, it is not even about the building regulations in relation to fire; it is about the building industry as a whole and how it operates. There is a race to the bottom, and the industry is taking the cheapest on board all the time as the way forward. This is about making sure not merely that the materials are right, but that the materials specified are actually used, that the buildings are properly signed off and that they are properly maintained and managed. This is a whole-system issue.
Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the correct way of doing that is for local authorities, not private companies, to police the building regulations system?
That is a really important point. In our report in July 2018, one of the things we highlighted was the conflict of interests in the building industry, which go right the way through. Fire authorities can actually be testing their own work and recommendations, which is wrong. This is also about the whole testing regime for products. We had evidence of producers going around different testing organisations until they found the one that actually approved their material, and there was no record of the failures from other organisations. Fundamentally, this is about building inspectors being appointed by developers and then signing off the work of the people that have appointed them. That cannot be right. This is not necessarily about local authority or private sector building inspectors, but about who appoints them to a particular job and whom they are accountable to, which is absolutely key. Dame Judith’s recommendations on that need to be followed through, because they are really an important part of the changes we need.
On other issues, when the Minister came to the Select Committee in January, we asked him about other forms of material. Rockwool had drawn to the Committee’s attention about 1,600 properties on which the material was not ACM, but could be as dangerous. The Minister was very open and direct about it, and he did say that all those properties would now be tested—I think there has been a delay in the testing, which is unfortunate, but it has started—but that if those tests showed that the material on those properties was as dangerous or as risky as ACM, the same rules would apply about taking it off and about having a requirement to take it off. That is what he said. There is, of course, disagreement about the testing arrangements, which have been a matter of contention right the way through our work. We must come to a conclusion whereby the industry in general is satisfied that the tests are fit for purpose, but nevertheless that testing is happening, and if any material is as dangerous as ACM, it must be removed. Will the Government pay for that as well as for taking ACM off homes in both the social and private sectors? That is a fundamental question. There is no point in banning the stuff if we then return to the same problems that we had with ACM.
The Government introduced a ban on materials that are not of limited combustibility immediately after Dame Judith’s report—on reflection she probably feels that she might have recommended that herself, and she is certainly comfortable with that recommendation, which was right. But there is a problem—the elephant in the room—how can we possibly say that it is too risky to put materials that are not of limited combustibility on new buildings, if we are happy for such materials to remain on existing buildings? How can we say to people, “You are safe in your homes, but we wouldn’t put that material on a new home because we don’t think it’s safe”? That is a fundamental problem.
I am sure that sums are going round in the heads of people in the Treasury, who will be counting the cost of taking material that is not of limited combustibility off all existing buildings. That cost will be considerable and probably far larger than the budget for dealing with ACM to which the Government had to commit, but is the Minister really comfortable with saying to people, “You’re going to live in a home that has material on it that we would not consider safe to put on a new building”?
I know that if building regulations are changed, we cannot always go back and retrospectively apply them to all existing buildings, but we are talking about a fundamental issue of safety and fire prevention that the Government must consider. Importantly, we must also think about non-residential buildings. Many hospitals, schools, student accommodations and residential homes are not covered by the current ban, although they are high-risk buildings. In 2018 the Committee said that this is about not just high-rise but high-risk buildings, and that provision must be applied.
Some progress has been made on many issues, but we have a lot more to do. Dame Judith recommended a whole review of building regulations, which is key, and we must get proper tests agreed. There is the conflict of interest to resolve, and the issue of existing buildings. Fundamentally, however, as my hon. Friend Mary Creagh prompted me to say, this is about the whole construction industry not being fit for purpose. We need a fundamental review of how it operates, considering not just specifications, but including the management of projects and ensuring that people have homes and other buildings that are safe to live in.
Order. I am happy to have given some latitude to the Chair of the Select Committee, which is perfectly reasonable, but we must now introduce a time limit of seven minutes.
Grenfell should not have happened and it is a stain on this place that it did, but my words will be of no comfort to the victims and relatives of those left behind. I think I was sitting in the Chair where you are now, Madam Deputy Speaker, when I listened to the maiden speech by Emma Dent Coad. She has spent two years of her time here fighting tirelessly on behalf of her constituents. Those who report on these matters are fixated with Brexit and with who is or is not visiting our country, but in eight days it will be the second anniversary of the nightmare, and I pay tribute to the ways that the hon. Lady has ensured that Grenfell is not forgotten in this place. She has become vice-chair of the all-party fire safety rescue group. A number of other colleagues in the Chamber also bring their expertise to that group, whether that is a former fire Minister who leads on fire safety in leasehold properties, a colleague with expertise in white goods, or another who brings with him 31 years of service in the fire brigade. It is probably the best all-party group with which I am involved.
The world was horrified when we saw a tower block ablaze in the fourth or fifth wealthiest country in the world, and it should never, never, have happened. Over the past six years, the all-party group has met resistance when seeking improvements to fire safety, despite compelling evidence that such measures should be introduced. In the 13 years since regulations were last reviewed, nothing has happened. It is perhaps rather easier for a Conservative Member to make those points than it would be for other Members, because we should never have got to the position of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, especially after the warnings and recommendations from the coroner after the Lakanal House fire and the 2013 inquest, the rule 43 letter to the Secretary of State—I am glad to see the Home Secretary in his place—the large number of letters exchanged between me and numerous Ministers, and meetings with successive Ministers.
It brings no comfort to the victims of Grenfell if we blame. It is the fault of the Conservative Government, the coalition Government, the Labour Government—it is the fault of every Member of Parliament that our voice was not heard and the recommendations were not listened to. Speaking at the Local Government Association fire safety conference on
“we may have to confront an awkward truth…that over many years and perhaps against the backdrop of, as data shows, a reduced risk in terms of fire, in terms of number of incidents and deaths, that maybe as a system some complacency has crept in.”
The questions to which we need an answer are: has enough been done? What has changed? What difference has been made? The official answer is that immediately after the fire, the Government announced a public inquiry under Sir Martin Moore-Bick. They appointed Dame Judith Hackitt to undertake an independent review of building regulations. They established an independent expert panel, chaired by Sir Ken Knight, and set up a comprehensive website at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government that lists all actions then taken and proposed. It is therefore not true to say that nothing has been done, but not enough has been done. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and the Home Office, would retain overall joint responsibility for the measures to be taken, and as the hon. Member for Kensington said, it is for others to talk about how the housing situation has been dealt with.
Whether enough has been done during these two years depends on what perspective we take. The Government have established a public inquiry, an independent panel of experts, and a building regulations review. There have been calls for evidence, working groups, and Committees have been pointed in a direction of travel, with instructions to those who were guilty of a “race to the bottom” to fix things. There are Departments full of people and a website stacked with volumes of literature and guidance, but there is little by way of prescriptive action and that is the frustration of the all-party group.
To his credit, the Secretary of State has banned combustible materials from high-risk buildings over 18 metres and desktop studies, and he has extended the removal of dangerous materials on private sector flats. But why not all high-risk buildings, not just those over 18 metres? Why are we still building single staircase high-rise flats? This is crazy! Why are we still building new schools without making it mandatory for them to contain sprinklers? It is six years since the Lakanal House fire and disaster, and the coroner’s letter to the former Secretary of State has still not been properly acted on. The classic example is the encouragement for retrofitting sprinklers in all tall flats, which was recommended by the coroner after the Lakanal House fire.
The Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and my hon. Friend have raised this issue, and so that the House is fully informed, it is worth pointing out that this morning we laid a written ministerial statement with our response to the Hackitt report and our proposals for consultation, including calls for evidence. One of those proposals is about the scope of buildings that should be looked at as part of the Hackitt inquiry. I understand my hon. Friend’s desire for urgency, but we have today published that statement and launched a large exercise to gather evidence, consult on proposals, and put in place some of the measures that have been mentioned.
I apologise to my hon. Friend and the Home Secretary. I was not aware that that action had been taken and I have not had time to look at it. I will read it with great interest and hopefully it will be of some encouragement to our group.
The formal review of building regulations promised by the Secretary of State in 2013, to be completed by 2016-17, still has not started. They were last looked at in 2006 and it will take at least a year and a half before anything comes from it.
In conclusion, the building regulations must be reviewed. We have to stop messing about. We want a proper audit, so there is retrospective fitting of sprinklers in all high-rise buildings. We need urgent action on all these matters. There are a number of Scottish and Welsh Members here. Wales and Scotland are further ahead than England in regulating for automatic fire sprinklers and the built environment. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister: why is England so far behind, given that it is coming up to two years since Grenfell and 10 years since Lakanal? The hon. Member for Kensington is doing a splendid job, but I really hope it is not necessary to have another debate in a year’s time and to be again frustrated by a lack of action.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad on securing the debate and on the work she has championed since she was elected. She was plunged into this catastrophe just days after being elected—probably one of the biggest challenges any Member of Parliament has had to face. She knows how much it matters to me, too. My previous constituency boundary included Grenfell Tower. As the neighbouring constituency, many residents in my constituency watched in horror from tower blocks around Harrow road as the fire claimed those lives. The trauma affects my constituents, too.
The night that Grenfell burned and 72 people died in a modern, refurbished tower block, at the heart of one of the wealthiest communities in one of the most prosperous cities the world has ever known, is seared into our national consciousness. It is a defining moment of modern British politics. It should have been the event that changed everything. It should have brought about a wholly new attitude to housing, social housing and meeting housing need, the duty of care we have to people in high-rise accommodation, risk and deregulation in housing. I let myself believe that that would be true. It should have been a defining moment and it has not been.
Of course, some action has been taken, as my hon. Friend Mr Betts, the Chair of the Select Committee, said: the inquiry is under way; we have had the interim report from the Hackitt review; and the Government have today launched a consultation. I am grateful for the fact that the Government backed my private Member’s Bill, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018, which allows tenants legal recourse when their homes, including the common parts of flats, are unfit and threaten their health and safety. That includes fire risk. We have also had the £200 million fund for cladding removal in private blocks.
What has not happened, however, is a seismic shift in attitude and action from the Government. That falls into two parts and I will briefly refer to both of them.
The first is the meeting of housing need relating specifically to Grenfell. On the day after the fire, we convened in Westminster Hall—Parliament was still prorogued; it was just after the election—and a number of us spoke to Ministers about the aftermath. I recall saying to Ministers that one of the things that needed to be understood was how many of the residents in Grenfell Tower and around Grenfell had direct or close experience of homelessness, and how critically important it was that immediate action was taken to provide permanent accommodation for them. In addition to the trauma of the fire, the dislocation of moving from one home to another and the experience of being in emergency or temporary accommodation would only compound what they had experienced. I remember placing that in the context of rising homelessness across London and the importance of not making other vulnerable families in housing need wait longer for a home because of the demands posed by Grenfell. Heads nodded.
We know now, two years later, that not all those housing needs have been met. Of the 202 households from Grenfell, 14 remain in temporary accommodation. Of the 129 evacuated from the wider area, 41 are still in temporary accommodation. That is unacceptable. It sits in the wider context of homelessness across London, which is detailed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington said, by the Shelter commission. That should also have been a wake-up call and a demand for immediate action to tackle housing need.
We have seen very little action. There has been a collapse in social housebuilding under this Government. It was inadequate beforehand—I am happy to say that—but there has been a collapse since then, with record lows in housing delivery and an acute homelessness crisis. The needs of the Kensington and Grenfell families should be seen in that context. In a new era for social housing that Grenfell should have generated, we have not seen action from the Government.
The second legacy, as we have heard, is the Government’s commitment that such a catastrophe should never happen again and that people should not fear that it will happen again. They should not live under the shadow of safety concerns in their own blocks, yet two years on that is exactly where we are. We know that 60,000 people live today in blocks with potentially dangerous cladding. We know that eight out of 10 of the blocks that had cladding are yet to have it removed. We know that 16,400 private apartments are wrapped in potentially dangerous cladding. In a question to the Mayor of London two weeks ago, Assembly Member Andrew Dismore found that London Fire Brigade paid 1,200 visits to high-rise premises with suspected flammable cladding, of which 316 confirmed flammable cladding. That is at its most acute in three boroughs: Tower Hamlets, where there are 65; Greenwich, where there are 45; and my own borough of Westminster, where there are 26.
The £200 million the Government recently announced is welcome—it came just under the wire for the second anniversary—but it is clearly not enough to ensure that either the ACM cladding blocks or those in potentially non-ACM flammable cladding can be dealt with.
We have heard from the Select Committee about the generally deregulatory attitude of the building industry. It was very, very concerning to see a survey in Building, which showed how little the business industry had risen to the challenge of safety concerns and how little change there has been in the way it works.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the industry has not taken responsibility. It is a shame that past Ministers are on record as putting the onus on industry, saying it is not for the Government to regulate but for the industry to self-regulate. Does she agree that we have to end that, and that if industry will not take responsibility the Government will have to act?
I totally agree. People living in high-rise blocks wrapped in cladding find it inexplicable that the Government still have such a deregulatory approach and expect the industry to take responsibility.
Does my hon. Friend share my concerns about the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s review of fire retardants in foam on the back of fridges and in furnishings, cots and mattresses? This issue has been ongoing since 2004, following warnings from officials that the flame retardants were no longer fit for purpose and could, paradoxically, cause more injury through smoke inhalation than they prevent through stopping fire. Three years after the 2016 consultation, the Government still have not published the responses.
It is completely inexplicable. The public expect the Government to act quickly and firmly to ensure that products and building standards are safe, but that has not been done. As the Building survey showed, nearly half those operating in the industry had yet to change the way they carried out competency checks on their supply chain partners; nearly half had not been swayed by the Hackitt report’s recommendations to change the way they shared building safety information with their supply chains; nearly a third reported no change in product specification and performance checks; and more than a third reported no change in checking on the quality of work being undertaken. We have an industry that is effectively in crisis in meeting safety standards. As we approach the second anniversary, it is time that the Government recognise that the deregulatory approach does not work.
We heard a great deal in the early days after the fire about retrofitting sprinklers, but in my constituency, where the local authority—to its credit—was prepared to make that investment, that has faltered, as it has in many other places, because the Government are yet to get to grips with the reality of mixed tenure in high-rise properties and the fact that it is impossible, under the current law, for local authorities to require the owners of private flats in local authority blocks to give them access and comply with the requirement to fit sprinklers. As a result, everybody else in those blocks is potentially suffering.
We are, two years later, in an unsatisfactory position. We have failed to rise to the challenge of Grenfell and this distracted, exhausted and fractured Government have not done enough to honour the memories of the dead and support the survivors—nowhere near.
It is a privilege to follow Ms Buck.
I congratulate Emma Dent Coad on securing the debate and commend her for the tenacity and dignity she has shown over the past two years, which must have been an immensely difficult journey. I thank her for that.
This is an intensely emotional subject, and I am aware that some in the House have strong views on what the royal Borough or the Government might, or should, have done differently in their immediate response to the aftermath of what we all know as “Grenfell”. Likewise, the former residents, who have all been through the most traumatic event—some having lost family and all having lost their home—have every right to expect clarity going forward. I hope that this debate will go some way towards providing a bit of clarity, because it has been lacking to date.
There have been well-publicised cases of families still waiting to be offered permanent accommodation, seemingly for reasons that are not swiftly resolved. Given the magnitude of the tragedy, I suspect that the response was reasonable in the circumstances and accepting the constraints of a single London borough, particularly considering that those working within Royal Borough of Kensington would have been just as devastated—and probably more devastated—as the rest of us in the UK when we first learned of the tragedy that summer morning, as the facts unfolded. This includes people working in the housing department, in adult social care and in family and children’s services, as well as local councillors and, not least of all, the MP, all of whom will have liaised with the residents of Grenfell Tower over the two-year period and will have been deeply affected by the fire and its aftermath and consequences.
Whatever some of us might feel or think about the response, we must commend those workers for their efforts in the most extreme and distressing circumstances. They worked tirelessly and efficiently to find temporary accommodation and support, and they should be proud of their efforts. I note, however, that there have been failures in that journey—not by all, but by some—and the failures that I have heard about in the Chamber today are totally unacceptable. A number of emotional support schemes were set up to assist former residents of the tower after the fire, but I hope that those working within the borough have also had all the support necessary to help with their emotional wellbeing in dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy and the personal contact that they had with individuals.
Former residents have rightly and reasonably expressed concerns about the speed at which the Grenfell Tower inquiry is progressing, or, as might be the case, not progressing. They are understandably keen for closure to an extremely traumatic episode in their lives—an episode that someone can only imagine unless they experienced it themselves. It must be borne in mind that by all accounts there is a remarkable weight of written evidence and verbal testimony, and giving that testimony would have been a challenge for those individuals. That is all to be worked through and properly considered and the response will take time. Nevertheless, will the Minister update the House on the progress of the inquiry? I am sure that it would bring some comfort to the residents to know that progress is hopefully being made on the journey towards securing the truth and justice that they so richly deserve.
There are few adjectives sufficient to describe the bravery of the fire officers and other emergency responders on the night of the Grenfell fire—and a very dark night it was in London. We owe those individuals a great debt and I thank them. I am aware that the review of the fitting of sprinklers is ongoing. It is a natural move from the effectiveness of the home smoke detector. It is a natural move for the system where we live to have sprinklers, irrespective of the cost, which should not come into it. It will be only a small fraction of the new-build cost of a house, and retrofitting can be achieved. In my time in the fire service, as a fire officer of 31 years’ standing, I have seen the effectiveness of sprinklers. They work—that is not in any doubt.
The key issue is cladding, and how the fire spread so rapidly is of particular interest to me. Pending the release of the inquiry report, I would be grateful to know from the Minister what progress has been made in remediating social, public and private buildings with regard to the high-risk cladding that is attached as we speak. There are unsafe homes in the United Kingdom. We need to speed up addressing, resolving and mitigating or removing that risk—mitigating is an option, but the final thing is to remove the risk entirely. I know that there has been difficulty in persuading the owners of some private dwellings to do the right thing for their leaseholders and tenants. An update on that matter would be most welcome from the Minister.
For those who have been through an ordeal such as this, there is seldom enough that can be done to restore personal confidence or relieve long-term anxiety. I am hopeful, however, that with the right support and with post-inquiry progress on building and construction standards, we will—and must—do everything possible to ensure that this tragedy can never be repeated, as I have said before. That thought, I hope, will bring a little comfort to those who survived this tragedy. I am fearful that they and others will remain troubled and traumatised for years to come. The loss of 72 innocent lives at Grenfell must focus the minds of legislators. Their loss must not be in vain.
I add my congratulations to those given to my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad for her phenomenal leadership on this issue. She represents a constituency where many people feel disenfranchised and voiceless. In this place, she has become their voice and we thank her very much for that.
Days after Grenfell Tower went up in flames and 72 lives were lost, the Prime Minister promised to do everything in her power to keep people safe. That was two years ago and the Government’s record since then has been one of denial, dither and delay, as they failed to act on words that now ring very hollow indeed. Some years before Grenfell, in 2009, there was a fire at Lakanal House in south London that led to the death of six people, including a baby. The inquest reported in 2013 with very clear recommendations. The coroner said that the fire safety regulations and, specifically, part B of the building regulations that cover fire safety, were unclear. That was why unsafe and combustible cladding was being strapped on residential buildings inappropriately. The coroner warned, sadly prophetically, that if the confusion was not put right, more deaths would follow.
The Government were given that warning in 2013, but they did nothing, so three years later, flammable ACM cladding was strapped to the outside of Grenfell Tower. A year after that, it went up in flames and 72 people lost their lives. It could not be more horrific, and I am afraid that Ministers’ responsibility could not be clearer. We are now two years further on and yet the fire safety regulations remain unaltered. The Government could have acted on those regulations after Lakanal House 10 years ago, but they did not. They could have introduced a complete ban on flammable cladding after Grenfell, but they did not. They could have taken immediate action to strip Grenfell-style flammable cladding from every housing block where it existed, but they did not. Why not? Because if they had belatedly acted on the Lakanal House recommendations after the deaths at Grenfell Tower, they would have had to accept that their failure to act earlier had contributed directly to that disaster. Rather than do that, they chose to cover up their earlier inaction with more inaction. If the leaders of a private company had acted in the way that Ministers did, they would find themselves in the dock charged with corporate manslaughter. Ministers should reflect on that.
Last December the Government finally, and belatedly, announced a partial ban on flammable cladding, but a partial ban is not enough. They have proposed a ban on flammable cladding on new buildings over six storeys or 18 metres high, but have excluded hotels and office blocks. I simply cannot not understand why. I have written to the Minister asking for the evidence that a hotel or an office block is safer than a block of flats, but he has not provided anything convincing, and I doubt whether he will be able to. Surely people in a hotel where they have never stayed before are less likely to know the fire safety escape routes than they would be at home, in a block of flats with which they are familiar; and if flammable cladding is not safe above six storeys, why would anyone on the fifth or the fourth floor want flammable cladding strapped outside their home?
The Government propose to continue to permit the use of flammable cladding on the majority of schools, care homes and hospitals, because most of them are under than 18 metres high. How do the Government think parents will feel, knowing that flammable cladding is still allowed on the outside walls of the school that their child attends every day? No parent I know would tolerate that.
Right now, there are still 60,000 people living in 272 blocks with Grenfell-style cladding. The Government refused all demands to act for nearly two years. They finally performed a welcome U-turn last month and found £200 million to remove and replace flammable ACM cladding on residential blocks, but even that is not enough to pay for the work to be carried out fully. It includes nothing to deal with other types of flammable cladding which could be just as dangerous as ACM, nothing to deal with failing fire safety doors, and nothing to enable sprinklers to be installed in the blocks where they are required. Even after all this time—even after two years—Ministers continue to evade their responsibility to keep people safe.
The best way in which to meet the Lakanal House coroner’s demand for clarity on fire safety rules is to introduce a complete ban on flammable cladding on all buildings where people live or work, and that ban should not only cover new buildings. We must take down flammable cladding wherever it exists, because it is an unacceptable danger to people’s lives. Many European countries have already introduced a complete ban; Scotland is introducing one, and we need one here in England as well.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is completely insane for the Government not to introduce a complete ban? If they are not going to do so, Ministers should guarantee today that there will be no further fatalities. Otherwise they should call for a complete ban, through legislation if necessary.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It strikes me as incredibly and frighteningly contradictory to say that flammable cladding cannot be allowed on new buildings, but is fine on buildings where it already exists. If I lived in a block like that, I would be living in fear, and I know that thousands of people are living in those circumstances.
There is still an average of one fire a month in buildings with flammable cladding, and it is only a matter of time before one of those fires is not put out. Let us mark the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster next week, and honour the memory of those who died by making sure that what happened at Grenfell can never happen anywhere ever again.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for securing this important debate. Like others who have spoken, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad for her powerful speech, and for all the work that she has been doing to support her community and, in particular, the victims of the Grenfell fire. I also wish to commemorate the 72 people who needlessly lost their lives, and all those who were injured and traumatised by that terrible fire. The grieving and suffering, the trauma and anguish, have not diminished since that dreadful night, and our thoughts remain with those who are having to live the nightmare again and again—an experience that is worsened by the fact that the Government have still failed to tackle the underlying problems that are leaving people at risk.
Like Hillsborough, the Grenfell Tower fire was an avoidable man-made disaster. It is a story of warnings ignored and official neglect: the stuff of nightmares, which could have been prevented. Shockingly, it has emerged since the disaster that ACM cladding, and similar flammable cladding, are present on hundreds of buildings across the country. Many blocks in my constituency have ACM cladding. In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire, Ministers promised swift action to replace such cladding, but, as we have already heard, that action has not featured the urgency that is so desperately required.
Members on both sides of the House, as well as many campaign groups including Grenfell United, had to fight tooth and nail to secure £400 million for the removal of ACM cladding from social housing blocks. More recently, after much campaigning by, for instance, “Inside Housing” and Members here—especially Opposition Members—the Government finally, grudgingly, agreed to provide £200 million to remove dangerous ACM cladding from private blocks. I am grateful to them for that, but people should not have had to wait a year for the social housing funding and two years for the funding for private blocks—and it is still not enough, because 1,700 high-rise blocks in the UK have non-ACM cladding that is also dangerous.
The Government need to act. We should not have to keep coming back and begging Ministers to address this appalling failure. They should be using their own initiative. If the risk of further deaths is not scary enough for them, what is? How will they be able to live with themselves if the Grenfell fatalities are repeated in the future? I know that they do not wish that to happen, but we need to see cross-Government work to ensure that the necessary resources are available, and we need to see legislation to back up the work that is so urgently required for all buildings that are at risk.
As we heard from my hon. Friend Mr Reed, after Grenfell the Government banned the use of combustible cladding on some high-rise buildings measuring more than 18 metres, but that does not go far enough, because people will remain unsafe in cladded buildings less than 18 metres high. A ban that is limited to hospitals, student accommodation and care homes is also not enough. The ban must be comprehensive, applying to any block with ACM cladding or other forms of dangerous material that needs to be removed.
Dangerous cladding is a risk on all buildings, irrespective of their height or purpose. A fire does not discriminate between buildings of different use: it does not discriminate between student accommodation and an office block, or between a private homeowner and a social housing tenant. It is not acceptable that the Government continue to permit the use of combustible materials of any kind on our buildings, for reasons that Ministers have already heard. It is a dereliction of duty to carry on like this. It is vital for Ministers to take the situation seriously and act, rather than constantly having to face pressure to do so.
As others have pointed out, the Prime Minister said:
“My Government will do whatever it takes…to…
keep our people safe.”
The Government have done nothing of the sort. They have taken some action, but it is frankly not acceptable. The Minister is raising an eyebrow; he should try living in one of those blocks, perhaps for a few nights, and see what it feels like. He should experience the insecurity and anguish that families have to live through, with their children, fearing that their homes might burn down and there might be further fatalities. That is why this is so important; that is why action is needed.
The regulatory system has failed to protect our residents. In 2016 I raised in the House concerns about the inability of residents to complain to the local government ombudsman about major disrepair issues which could lead to further fatalities. Grenfell tenants raised some of those issues. They complained about problems they were facing and risks long before the fire. That is well documented in programmes including the “Panorama” documentary. One of the major issues for residents is that under the Localism Act 2011 they have to wait a few weeks and then contact a Member of Parliament to submit their complaints to the ombudsman. Those things delay attention being paid to major issues, particularly around the safety of the blocks people live in.
The Government could improve the regulation to ensure residents have a strong voice. They could ensure that there is better accountability and transparency about the kind of blocks people live in and the kind of safety issues those blocks face, so that people can hold the management of those buildings—whether freeholders, registered social landlords or arm’s length bodies—to account. We must never allow fatalities like those at Grenfell to happen again, and that is why the Government must act quickly.
I am very pleased to be able to speak in this important debate and declare an interest as a member and co-chair of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group. Like other Members I pay tribute to my good and hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad for her work and congratulate her on securing this debate and on her remarkable personal courage in the work she has done in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy. I think every Member has acknowledged that and is touched by her commitment to the issue. I want to pay respect too to the victims of Grenfell—those who lost their lives and all who were touched by the terrible tragedy—and acknowledge the contribution of the fire and rescue services in their valuable and valiant work on the day and subsequently.
I know we want to go forward together in a positive fashion with some positive ideas about how we can ensure that this never happens again, but I want to touch on a couple of points. I was surprised that in her resignation speech the Prime Minister referred to Grenfell as part her positive legacy, because in my humble opinion that shows a complete lack of self-awareness and suggests that everything has been resolved and the issues have been addressed when, frankly, they have not. As we approach the second anniversary of Grenfell it is an absolute scandal that no one has been held accountable for the deaths of 72 innocent people.
A flawed inquiry with narrow terms of reference is proceeding at a glacial pace. The inquiry was expected to produce a phase 1 report and urgent recommendations to the Prime Minister by this spring, but the Minister has just told us from the Dispatch Box that this has now been delayed until October, and that the second phase of the inquiry, due to commence this year, is now being delayed until 2020. The public inquiry, rather than securing answers, is delaying justice. The Metropolitan police warn that there will be no changes arising from its criminal investigation until at least 2021 as they wait for the inquiry to publish its findings.
In my opinion, the inquiry’s decision to focus phase 1 on the night of the fire provided a reprieve to the companies and public bodies for their decisions. These things do not happen by chance; they are the consequence of decisions, often political decisions, and this has given those companies and bodies an opportunity to shift the blame and emphasis as to who should be held to account.
From reading Dame Judith Hackitt’s report it is plain to me that our fire safety regime is simply not fit for purpose when it allows—and continues to allow, as we have heard from a number of Members—people to live in buildings that can burn at the speed and ferocity we saw at Grenfell. The decline in fire safety and building standards is such that a leaked report by the Building Research Establishment found that had Grenfell Tower been built today under modern, less stringent safety standards, it is likely that the building would have collapsed either fully or partially as a result of the fire. That shows how far regulation has regressed by not improving standards but allowing them to fall.
The magnitude of what happened at Grenfell, which should have been a wake-up call or watershed moment, seems to have passed Ministers by. After decades of deregulation, the scrapping of professional standards and the fragmentation of fire and rescue services, we need nothing short of a complete overhaul of our fire safety regime. We need to reverse a decade of austerity and under-resourcing that has led to the loss of one in five firefighter posts and one in four fire safety officers since 2010. Interestingly, one message to come out of this is that it is vital that we understand that fire safety officers are critical in preventing fires. The Government need to commit to the ban and removal of all combustible cladding on buildings, irrespective of height, and deliver safe homes for all.
We need a national review of the “stay put” policy when compartmentation fails. I say this without any disrespect to firefighters, as I hold them in the very highest regard. They are trained according to national guidance on the “stay put” policy and they train according to set procedures, but this is about managing risk and the uncertainties of firefighting. When confronted, as they were on that night, with a most appalling blaze they were put in an impossible position, in extreme conditions that would be beyond the comprehension of most of us. All their training focused on the “stay put” policy, and I will quote from an article by Tony Sullivan, a retired London firefighter with 31 years of experience in the service. He wrote that
“the “stay put”
policy is the only thing that can work routinely in a residential high-rise building, and here is why.
The building is designed to contain fire in each individual flat and for the stairways especially to remain clear of smoke and heat. This is why it is vital all doors are fire doors and closed in the event of fire…If everyone were to evacuate around the same time, opening doors…would immediately compromise the fire safety of the building…This could create a chimney effect, spreading fire, and result in loss of life…When a “stay put”
policy begins to be compromised, we can’t immediately advise people to leave their flats and enter several floors of several hundred degrees centigrade.
If you know crews in full fire gear and breathing apparatus are struggling to get through several floors of heat and smoke, how will residents get down?”
So perhaps we need a review of the policy if compartmentation fails and a situation such as that at Grenfell arises. But what we certainly need is a complete overhaul of building regulations and fire safety.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad on securing today’s debate and commend her for all her hard work over the past two years on behalf of her constituents.
It is a shame that we are here today. This debate should not be happening or should at least be happening on better terms. Two years ago on
It is therefore unsurprising that, two years down the line, the Prime Minister’s initial display of apathy has been sustained through the Government’s overarching indifferent approach to an issue that required urgency. There are still 128 households that have not been rehomed, and the area surrounding the tower is still contaminated with toxic chemicals. The community were, and still are, vulnerable, and they need the state’s help. Instead, they have been woefully let down.
The threat of another disaster like Grenfell has not been addressed. Grenfell was not the first catastrophic tower block fire to be caused by the failure of fire regulations, and lessons should have been learned from the fires at Harrow Court, Lakanal House and Shirley Towers, but they were not, and due to action since Grenfell being restricted to weak tinkering, many communities are still living in constant fear. The Government know that there are 338 residential buildings wrapped in the same combustible aluminium composite material—ACM—cladding that was used on Grenfell Tower, but they have not identified all the buildings at risk and there are potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of ticking time bombs across the UK.
The restrictive building safety programme has displayed no urgency to identify all the current threats, and I hope that the Secretary of State can explain to the House why the Government have restricted the search to buildings with ACM cladding and are only just beginning to search for high-pressure laminate cladding when there are countless other types of combustible cladding. The scope of the search must be expanded to all combustible cladding below Euro class A1. I understand that the Government are constrained by financial considerations, but public safety must be the prevailing priority, and it is important that we understand the total risk.
Combustible cladding is not the only threat. It is important that we understand how building compartmentation is failing and multiplying the risk of fire by combustible materials interacting with one another. There needs to be a mechanism for holistic assessments that include all the materials installed on a building. As a result of years of cutting red tape and deregulation, the current state of fire safety has created this dangerous mess, and I urge the Government to acknowledge the threat caused by deregulation and to conduct a review into what is necessary to ensure effective compartmentation.
Meanwhile, it is firefighters who are expected to respond to the increased risk, but although the threat remains, the fire and rescue services’ capacity to respond has been progressively degraded over the past nine years of austerity and each firefighter’s workload has increased dramatically. As research by the Fire Brigades Union has shown, fire services across the UK are not sufficiently prepared for a disaster on the scale of Grenfell. The Home Office has suggested that fire services are prepared, even though it did not contact the services directly before making that claim. The Government do not grasp the severity of the threat, and research shows that regional inequalities represent a difference between 40 fire engines attending a disaster like Grenfell and only two attending.
I hope that Government Departments realise they are not doing enough, and that they will take considerable action to safeguard vulnerable communities and support the Grenfell survivors. Simply banning combustible materials but not seeking out the full scale of the threat is not good enough, and neither is failing to recognise that a review into the fire and rescue service is desperately needed after nine years of destructive austerity. The threat is still very real and the emergency services cannot keep the public safe on a shoestring budget. The time for talking is over. We know that people are suffering and that the same threats remain, so it is time for the Government to take this seriously and to act. All of us in this House represent communities across the country, and I believe that we come into politics for sincere and positive reasons, but we must surely understand that what has happened in the past two years with regard to Grenfell is just not good enough. It is long past the time for warm words; it is time for positive action to rehome those people and to deal with the future threats. Let’s just get on with it. No more words; let’s see some positive action, please.
The horrific image of Grenfell is still very fresh in all our minds, almost as if it happened yesterday. I am sure that is true for every Member here, but it is particularly true for those of us who represent neighbouring constituencies. In many ways, the community across north Kensington, north Westminster, White City and Shepherd’s Bush is one community, and people there feel this very deeply. I would like to add my thanks and praise to my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad, who has had the difficult and traumatic job of trying to represent that community. She has done that brilliantly over the past two years, and indeed for many years before that. I would also like to thank the shadow Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend John Healey, who has doggedly pursued this issue and tried to ensure that there is action on the subject.
The truth is that Grenfell did not happen yesterday. It happened two years ago and, as we have heard from many Members today on both sides, there has been dragging of feet. Let me say a few words about the concerns being expressed about the inquiry. There are concerns about the order of issues and the fact that the inquiry has not even got on to looking at the building material, among other aspects, and will not do so until next year. The tone of the inquiry has also raised concern. We have other major inquiries, such as the contaminated blood inquiry, going on at the moment, which might have got that better. There is also the issue of cost. I have heard—I do not know whether this is absolutely right; I ask the Minister confirm or deny it—that the police costs for the Grenfell inquiry are not being covered by the Government and that up to £30 million may be coming out of the Metropolitan police budgets. If that is true, it is a disgrace that adds insult to injury.
I am happy to provide some clarity. As I understand it, on costs, the Metropolitan police service was awarded £11.4 million in 2018-19, of which it has spent £5.9 million. The expected costs in 2019-20 will be around £6 million pounds, which will be provided from the special grant budget. So there is no intention that there should be any shortfall on investigatory costs.
I am grateful for the Minister for intervening, but I would like to feel absolutely certain on that. I would be grateful if he could to write to me to guarantee that any additional costs for the police will be covered from central funds and not from their own budget.
The key point I want to make on the inquiry relates to its longevity. The fact that it will take time means that it is being used as an excuse. We are not short of good advice from people at the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Fire Brigades Union and the London fire brigade about what needs to be done now, but actually things are not being done now. An example is the fact that a consultation has just been published in the middle of this debate. In fact, I was tipped off by the fire brigade about five minutes before the debate started that there was a 200-page document to be read. Why could that document not have been published yesterday, or even the day before, to inform the debate? The terrible suspicion is that this has been done in order to capture a headline, so that, rather than the Government’s inaction on this subject being highlighted, they appear to be doing something.
I had a chance to read the written statement and the Government’s press release, which contained the welcome comment that
“too many in the building industry were taking short cuts that could endanger residents in the very place they were supposed to feel safest—their own home.”
I could not agree more, but who is responsible for this? Within the last five years, Ministers have said in relation to the important issue of sprinklers:
“We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 575, c. 188WH.]
Brandon Lewis has stated:
“The industry itself has an opportunity to make a case. I am not convinced at the moment it is for the Government to make a case for private industry”.
That is typical of the Government. The right hon. Gentleman said that when he was the Housing and Planning Minister, but I am sure I could have quoted many others. We have to get rid of this ideology, and the Government we have to face up to their responsibility on this matter.
In the short time I have, I will cover a number of topics, although necessarily very briefly. Individual Grenfell survivors are not being well served. I am not going to name her for reasons of privacy, but I have a constituent who escaped with her daughter from a high floor in Grenfell Tower on the night. She then spent a year in hotel accommodation and a year in temporary accommodation in my constituency. She appears to be no nearer to getting rehoused. I may pass that case to the Minister, because he may want to intervene himself, because this clearly is not working. It is not working generally for survivors. I would like to see an open book approach to how the rehousing has been dealt with. It happens that Kensington and Chelsea was the richest council in the country; I wonder what would have happened in Northamptonshire or somewhere of that kind. To some extent, the Government have been let off the hook there. We still hear reports that people are not in permanent or suitable housing, or that housing has been purchased but is in such a state that it still needs to be got ready. People have gone into permanent housing because they felt pressurised to do so and have then had to come out of it because it turned out to be unsuitable. That is entirely unfair.
Issues of causation have not been addressed, such as that of the fridge-freezer—the plastic back is still legal, despite the fact that it is prone to fire—the fridge-freezer, manufactured by the Whirlpool company, who have a terrible reputation for white goods of this kind. We will not find out until the end of this year exactly what the cause of the fire was. Everyone suspects that the cladding was the major form of spread, but we are no further forward in knowing the exact sequence of events in relation to that. On all the other fire safety issues around regulation, means of escape, fire doors, and building security—fire alarms and matters of that kind—we are really as in the dark now as we were two years ago.
There were issues around what happened on the night, and the fact that clearly—not just Kensington and Chelsea, although they were utterly, utterly abysmal, to the extent that they could not even accept offers of help from other authorities, but generally speaking—we were not in a state to deal with a major emergency of this kind. If it happened again tomorrow, would we be any better off? I would like to know the answer.
I am grateful that the Chair of the Select Committee and others have dealt with some of the complex issues of fire safety; I do not have time to do so. I am glad to hear from the chair of the all-party group that they are pursuing this matter as well. To have dealt with ACM cladding only, and not with high-pressure laminate cladding—which can be twice as combustible as ACM cladding—over the last two years is negligent. Not to have heeded the advice of the fire brigade and others in relation to sprinkler systems is negligent. Not to have looked at the testing processes, and the combination of materials—not just cladding but insulation, and how they work in situ, not just in test circumstances—is equally negligent. I am afraid there is still a terrible stench of complacency from the Government, even after two years.
My hon. Friend is making some important points about the inadequacy of what the Government are proposing, but in the written ministerial statement that they have issued—during the debate rather than before it—they are proposing not to consult on whether 18 metres or six storeys is the appropriate height, and therefore they are not even going to consider whether a ban on flammable cladding below that height should be looked at. Does he think that is acceptable?
It is absolutely not acceptable, and my hon. Friend has made some points in his excellent speech about the lacunae—all the missed opportunities to deal with existing buildings, including other types of high-risk and high buildings, which are not even within the Government’s purview here, despite many experts’ having pointed out the necessity of that.
Let me say a few words about housing. In the decades following the second world war, we were building an average of about 125,000 social homes a year. In the past year, we built 6,000. I would like to know what will happen on the site of Grenfell. The sooner the building goes, the better. Yes, we can have a consultation on what should be on the spot. It is a sensitive matter. Why are we not specifically replacing the hundreds—it is not just the tower itself—of social homes that have been wrecked by the fire?
The year before the Grenfell fire there was a serious fire in Shepherd’s Court, a tower block in Shepherd’s Bush, in my constituency, and the fire spread; so I am only too aware just how traumatic fire can be for residents. Thankfully, there were no injuries. But incidents like that should have been warning signals; they were not taken. Grenfell is a nightmare. I can think of no worse way to die—waiting for rescue, hoping for hours that it was going to come, and then the slow realisation that it was not going to, and that you were going to have the most horrific death. If that is not a wake-up call to this Government, I do not know what is. I would like to see much, much more action to ensure that this never happens again.
I appreciate the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this very important debate. I commend my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad for securing it, and for the role that she has played over the past two years as Member of Parliament for the constituency containing the Grenfell Tower. I am very pleased to follow my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter, a fellow officer of the all-party parliamentary fire and rescue group.
I will not refer to the housing, rehousing and social issues because they were ably covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and others much closer to the events than I. I want to focus on the response in terms of the fire aspects. I thank the London fire brigade, the Mayor of London, the Business Sprinkler Alliance, the Fire Brigades Union and the Local Government Association for their briefings and continued interest and continued pressing of Government on this issue—and, of course, the Library for their papers for the debate.
All those bodies agree, I believe, that this is not, and was never going to be, a quick fix. There were and are some things that the Government could do, some of which they have done, and others that they should be doing, but I suspect that until the public inquiry concludes, the full story will not be out, and I am sure that even then there will be disagreements about the inquiry’s conclusions and recommendations. There have been some interim actions from the Government via the Hackitt review and pressures from elsewhere, but as Dame Judith pronounced, we need a comprehensive cultural change, including the revision of fire guidance and regulations, and the updating of building design, construction, inspection and approval. Fire protection through suppression systems like fire sprinklers has become a main focus for many, and that is the one area where the Government ought not to await the conclusion of the public inquiry. There is a consensus across the fire sector that the protection offered, the lives that can be saved, the reductions in systems costs and the understanding of what can be achieved, ought to persuade Government to do more on this, and to do it sooner rather than later. That includes for new and refurbished schools. That is one area that the all-party group has been focusing on since the coalition Government reversed the Labour Government’s 2008 guidance to local authorities, which had stated that schools should be fitted with fire sprinkler systems. That reversal has cut the number of schools being protected by fire sprinklers by over half in the past six years.
The all-party parliamentary group, chaired so ably by Sir David Amess, has been pressing on that, and for a revision to Approved Document B, for some years. Government should act now. I was very pleased to read the written ministerial statement issued this morning—a little bit late, but at least it is out. It has some very important elements, especially on the first page in respect of a comprehensive duty holder regime, and the list on page 2 of the things that the Government have done so far, which at least demonstrates that they have been doing something. I acknowledge that another consultation will be necessary, but a brief one—to the end of July—so hopefully, given how much work has been done, and ought to have been done, by the Department so far, conclusions will be quickly reached at the end of the consultation and we can see further progress in respect of protection for people in their homes.
On removal and replacement of defective cladding, the Government moved to support the social sector more quickly than they did the private sector. It took a year—it was two years for the private sector—but at least there is £600 million out there and most council and housing association properties have been addressed, or are completed, or at least the process is under way. The much slower response of the private sector obviously meant that similar progress was not possible there, but to his credit, the Secretary of State’s decision to come forward with the £200 million, and to instruct the Department and give a directive that that money should be made available, is very welcome. As my hon. Friend Mr Betts, the Chair of the Select Committee, said, any more information in respect of application for and circulation of the £200 million will be extremely useful, because there is still great concern about who can apply, how to apply, when the money will be available and who can get it.
There emerged from evidence sessions at the public inquiry some very unhappy and unfair criticisms of individuals, particularly of London fire brigade personnel, who unfortunately, in terms of timing, were among the early witnesses before the inquiry. As we all know, the media are merciless when they have anyone in their crosshairs focused as a target. No one is individually to blame for Grenfell. Some will be more guilty than others, some more culpable than others, but that will only come out through the public inquiry in due course. This was a comprehensive and catastrophic failure of Government, local government, architects, engineers, construction, building control, inspectors, fire authorities, fire brigades and, no doubt, others. Apportioning responsibility is important, and I am sure it will happen. What is more important, what is critical and what is life and death, however, is to make sure that we construct and maintain safe buildings for people to live in. We are not there yet, and we will not be there for some time, but the responsibility for progress lies with the Government. They have to recognise what needs to be done—I know they have recognised that to a degree—what can be done and how to do it before the public inquiry concludes. The House’s impatience is clear from today’s debate. The Government need to recognise that and move on with this as quickly as possible.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate. Few of us here will ever forget the awful scenes of summer 2017. I pay tribute to all the families who lost loved ones and to the beautiful community spirit of all the residents who have campaigned tirelessly for justice. I thank Grenfell United and all who have provided support and solidarity. We saw earlier this month the community iftar commemorating those who were lost two years ago.
The organisation and activism in this community has been exemplary, but let us be clear that they should never have had to be activists. They should not have had to fight for justice—Rushanara Ali outlined some of that fight—and they should be living their lives, playing with their kids and spending time with family and friends in safe and appropriate housing.
I thank Emma Dent Coad for securing this debate and for her personal commitment to this cause. It touched my heart to hear of all she has been through and of all she has done on behalf of her constituents. I am sure she would agree that we do not want to have another debate six months down the line, although I acknowledge her desire to see this through, whatever it takes.
There have been too many debates already, and too little action. Speaking to Katherine Sladden from Grenfell United, it is clear to me that survivors need more than another debate; they need clear and decisive action from this UK Government. It is shocking to hear that they are still waiting to be rehoused in the area.
In her resignation speech the Prime Minister cited the UK Government’s response in calling an inquiry into Grenfell, as the hon. Members for Lincoln (Karen Lee) and for Easington (Grahame Morris) mentioned, as if this were some kind of achievement. I am afraid that history will not judge the Prime Minister kindly on this. Indeed, even the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has told the House that the Government’s initial response to the Grenfell tragedy was not good enough, and it is beset by delays even now.
It is equally disappointing that the timescale for the public inquiry has slipped and that phase 2 will not now begin until next year and, further, that Scotland Yard has stated that there will be no criminal charges until 2021. I appreciate that there are complexities, but there is a desperate need for justice. The Grenfell fire was a tragedy, but that does not mean it was unavoidable. The people of Grenfell were systematically failed, and a catalogue of errors led to the fire. They tried time and again to raise their concerns about fire risk and other issues, and it should not have taken this fire to get notice taken of those concerns.
The Grenfell residents are not alone, and we know there are still too many people living in high rises with ACM cladding and other issues. They are living with no certainty and a great deal of anxiety about their safety. That is unacceptable, and I ask the Minister for an update on the progress on all building types.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Grenfell United, the Grenfell community and their wonderful MP, Emma Dent Coad, are fighting for basic human rights? The Edinburgh Trade Union Council and Living Rent are jointly organising a demonstration next week to show their support for the Grenfell community, to pay homage to those who died and to show support for the ongoing fight. Does my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss agree that it is appropriate for all rights campaigners and trade unionists across the UK to stand with the people of Grenfell?
I absolutely agree, and I thank my hon. and learned Friend for what she says. The solidarity across the UK and across the world has been moving. Again, it is a fight that should not have to be fought. The right to safe housing should not be a fight that we are still fighting in 2019.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on Grenfell makes for difficult reading, and it says: that the housing was inadequate to begin with; that the right to life of particular groups, such as disabled people, elderly people and children, was not properly considered; that safety notices were published only in English, a language that some people in the tower did not speak; and that, after the fire, people who had suffered inhumane and degrading treatment were continually let down when trying to access support and basic services.
There has been a lack of investment in social rented housing and a lack of value placed on the lives of those who live in such housing. Grenfell United’s briefing says that residents feel short-changed by Kensington and Chelsea Council, with corners cut and concerns ignored. What it calls a “culture of institutional indifference” is chilling, but not as chilling as what the hon. Member for Kensington outlined about the racism and the comments made by people in that institution.
It struck me at the time that some representatives of Kensington and Chelsea Council had never been inside Grenfell. It quickly emerged that other tower blocks in London had no fire doors or safety procedures, and had been like that for some time. I have been inside every block of flats in my constituency, not least because they are great places to leaflet in the rain—it rains a lot in Glasgow—and I cannot imagine going in and finding no fire doors or finding them in such condition. Most have an on-site concierge who wants to know why a visitor wants to get into the building, and there is maintenance.
In the past, some blocks that, thankfully, have now been demolished were not great but, as a councillor at the time, I had a relationship with housing officers so I could challenge such things. I listened to constituents’ concerns, as I still do, and I acted on those concerns. I find it hard to understand this fundamental disconnect, and I hope it is not too late to mend that disconnect between those who live in such blocks and those who represent them.
I urge Ministers to consider the calls from Grenfell United for an independent tenant protection regulator that can put power back into the hands of tenants to ensure that they have full recourse to means of resolving complaints and bringing all properties up to a safe standard. The Scottish Housing Regulator was established in 2011 under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010, and its statutory objective is to
“safeguard and promote the interests of current and future tenants of social landlords, people who are or may become homeless, and people who use housing services provided by registered social landlords (RSLs) and local authorities.”
That is a means of recourse.
I urge the Minister to look at the Scottish model, which includes a process for reporting significant performance failures. That is defined as
“something your landlord does or fails to do, which puts the interests of the tenants at risk. This does, or could, affect all your landlord’s tenants.”
Such a system would certainly have caught the concerns of Grenfell residents and prompted an investigation.
What is most disturbing, however, is the Government’s approach to fire safety. It has been nearly two years since the events at Grenfell and, as Mr Reed reminded us, nearly 10 years since Lakanal House. The response in England has lagged behind the response in the other nations of the UK. The National Fire Chiefs Council and the Royal Institute of British Architects have called for fire safety regulations in England to be brought in line with those in Scotland and Wales, particularly in requiring sprinklers and a second means of escape.
The Scottish Parliament set up a ministerial working group in the wake of the Grenfell fire, and legislation will be introduced this year to fulfil those recommendations, which include extending the mandatory installation of sprinklers in new builds to cover buildings that provide care and to larger multi-occupancy flats. A change in building standards will reduce the height of high rises from 18 metres to 11 metres—I note that the UK Government are still talking about 18 metres, but 11 metres is much better because 18 metres is very high—and will extend the range of new buildings that require non-combustible cladding.
New measures have also been proposed to improve evacuation by using sound alerts and requiring two escape stairs in all new high-rise residential buildings. That will go alongside the development of a database of safety-critical information for existing high-rise residential buildings. The Scottish Government will also issue fire-safety risk assessment guidance to the residents of high rises, the lack of which was a contributing factor at Grenfell.
For private companies, a positive step from the UK Government would be to zero-rate cladding and sprinkler systems. I have repeatedly called for that, as has the Scottish Government’s Minister for housing, Kevin Stewart MSP. It is in the Government’s gift to incentivise private companies to act responsibly and to relieve some of the burden of costs, and I sincerely hope they will take that small step.
Some private developers have taken a responsible route and met the costs, but there is still no statutory obligation on them to do so. I call on the Minister to make a move in that direction. As Mr Betts and others have said, the Minister must also provide revenue funding for ongoing building maintenance—not just for the one-off capital works—because that will keep people safe for years to come.
I also urge the Minister to look at more advanced testing across various materials, as the hon. Gentleman also said, and to consider the wider context. It has been suggested to me by some in the industry that materials may pass the tests when taken out of context, but they act in quite a different manner once in situ and installed on a building, as Andy Slaughter mentioned. This requires serious investment and testing, with discussions with all involved in building design and manufacture, and I urge the Minister to take that on board.
The impact on those who endured trauma at Grenfell will continue for some time, and I appreciate that a wellbeing service has been set up to last five years, but we must not assume that this will be the end of the need of some residents or that they will all access such support when it is first offered. The support needs to be there for the long run. I ask the Minister for further consideration of what the needs of residents will be in future years, and an assurance of how those will be met. I also note that although the soil testing that the Minister announced last October has shown low risk, people are still anxious. He must be mindful that some harms, due to the chemicals involved, may take longer to emerge, and I ask him what the plan will be to ensure that everybody is looked after in the years ahead. As the hon. Member for Kensington mentioned, the mental health and social needs of the whole community must also be taken into account; the definition must be as wide as possible.
I also understand that there has been a period in which rent and bills have been frozen for some residents who were displaced and rehomed, but that it is due to come to an end relatively soon. I ask the Minister to give more detail on what is going to happen, because I am concerned that for those who have lost everything, a sudden hike, with no gradual transition, could leave some residents struggling. Although I believe sessions have been arranged with Citizens Advice, as much assistance as possible should be offered by the whole of government to those residents who require it.
Grenfell was a tragedy. It was scandalous. It was avoidable. It was symptomatic of a wider problem with this UK Government’s attitude to social rented housing and to the people and communities who live there. But this is not irredeemable. The residents of Grenfell want to ensure that nobody else will lose their life or the life of a loved one in such an awful way. They will always remember the 72 who died, but they want to create lasting change in their memory. I call on the UK Government and the Minister to honour the survivors and the lost by taking action, and to do it now.
Today in this debate and over the next week, above all else we remember the 72 men, women and children who lost their lives that night in the terrible Grenfell Tower fire. We recognise the continued suffering of the survivors and bereaved families. We rededicate ourselves to seeing the survivors get the homes and other help they need; to bringing all those culpable to justice; and to putting in place every measure needed to make sure we can with confidence say that Grenfell can never happen again.
May I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad not only on securing today’s important Back-Bench debate but on the extraordinary way in which she has fought for her community over the past two years? She has done so again today, setting out the way in which the trauma and problems of that night continue for the survivors and for the community of north Kensington. Let us also pay tribute to that community—to the churches, faith groups, advice centres and residents associations—for their compassion and commitment to each other, not just in the immediate aftermath of the fire but in the two years since. We especially pay tribute to the Grenfell survivors and families, who, like Grenfell United, have turned their grief into their fight for justice and for wider change.
It is precisely the wider policy, procurement and political decisions of those in power that the residents and the communities affected by this tragedy want us to tackle. This was not a natural disaster; it was man-made. Sir David Amess said:
“Grenfell should not have happened and it is a stain on this place that it did”.
May I add to that by saying that all of us in this House have a deep responsibility to make sure that it never happens again? Members on both sides in this debate caught the human side of the tragedy and of the aftermath. My hon. Friends the Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), both of whom have constituents who were caught and lived in the tower did so, as did Paul Scully, although I have to say that he lost Opposition Members when he started lauding the merits of universal credit as a humanised welfare system.
A series of powerful points made by Members on both sides of the House require action and answers from the Government, and we look to the Minister to provide them. The Chair of the extremely important Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Betts, rightly said that the real problem is of private block owners, where he said almost no progress has been made. He asked a series of important questions about the new £200 million fund for block owners and freeholders, which of course is not yet open for business. Bill Grant, whom I was interested to hear spoke as an ex-fire officer, said that sprinklers should become a “natural” thing in all our high-risk buildings. I say to him that it is not a lack of clarity that has led to the fact that they are not, but a lack of will and commitment from the Government to make sure that that happened. My hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick, who also has experience as a serving fire officer, made the same strong argument about the value of fire sprinkler systems.
My hon. Friend Mr Reed asked why hotels have been excluded from the Government’s new ban on inflammable cladding and why action has been so slow on testing non-ACM cladding. That was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, who rightly described the failure to do this systematically as negligent. He also called for an open-book approach to get to the root of what the problems really are in rehousing the Grenfell survivors.
My hon. Friend Rushanara Ali talked about the need for residents to have the right to complain about problems in their building and, in particular, about safety concerns—Alison Thewliss picked up on that.
My hon. Friend Grahame Morris, speaking with the backing of the Fire Brigades Union, rightly reminded the House of the vital role and bravery of firefighters. He made the important point about the impact of the past nine years of austerity, the cut in the number of frontline firefighters and the loss of one in four fire safety officers.
My hon. Friend Karen Lee also cited FBU research, which concludes that at present our fire services are now unprepared for and potentially unable to tackle a fire on a similar scale—that really should worry the Minister.
We do not underestimate the Government’s challenge in responding to Grenfell. Some progress has certainly been made over these long two years, which we welcome and for which Ministers, including the current Secretary of State, deserve credit. There has been some Government procurement of new housing for survivors, and there is now a ban on combustible materials for new high-rise homes and funding for the cladding remediation on existing blocks. However, a national disaster on the scale of Grenfell Tower requires a national response from the Government—that has not happened. Ministers have been like rabbits in the headlights. For two years, the action they have taken has been too slow and too weak on every front. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North rightly set out for the House the background to this fire: the collapse in social house building; and rapidly rising homelessness. This wider context of the night, after seven years of a Conservative Government, is important, because it helps to explain why action from Ministers has fallen so far short.
Since 2010, Ministers have abolished the tenants’ regulator for social housing and National Tenant Voice; they funded just 1,000 new social homes in the year of the fire, when they also became the first Government since the second world war to stop all national funding to help build new social housing; and they have pursued a regulation policy of “one in, two out”, with the then housing Minister saying after the coroner’s report on the Lakanal House fire that on fire safety measures such as sprinklers it was
“not…for the Government to make a case for private industry around what they should be doing.”
When the far-reaching changes that are demanded in this country by the Grenfell tragedy must mean tougher safety regulations, stronger enforcement powers for councils, clearer legal duties for private block owners, and greater rights for tenants and for leaseholders, it is clear that the fundamental problem lies not in slow administrative decision making or in the lack of compassion from individual Ministers; it lies in the basic beliefs of the Conservative party in government about hands-off government, light-touch regulation and private sector market solutions.
So let me set out for the Minister where the Government are still failing and must do more, and I hope that he will be able to respond to these points.
First, there has been a failure to rehouse the survivors. Two years on, one in 12 of the families from the tower are still living in emergency or temporary accommodation, even though Ministers promised that every victim of the fire would be rehoused in a new home within one year. Will the Minister now give the House and those families his cast-iron assurance that every survivor will be in a permanent home by the two-year anniversary at the end of next week?
Secondly, there has been a failure to give the Grenfell community justice. Two years on, the public inquiry is moving too slow and its remit is too narrow. The first phase was due to report at Easter 2018, but it has still not been published. Will the Minister now confirm when it will report, when the crucial second phase of the inquiry will start, and when the inquiry will finish?
Thirdly, there has been a failure to re-clad blocks that have been confirmed to have the same dangerous Grenfell-style ACM cladding. Two years on, eight in 10—that is 272—of those high-rise blocks that are known to be clad in the same dangerous material have not had it removed and replaced. Seventy private block owners do not even have in place a plan to do the work. Will the Minister set a deadline by which all blocks that are known to have this dangerous cladding will be made safe?
Fourthly, there has been a failure to identify unsafe non-ACM cladding. Two years on, tests on hundreds of blocks with other types of potentially dangerous cladding are still not done, despite the Government’s testing contract having set a deadline for the work to have been completed by November 2018. Will the Minister now confirm, for thousands of high-rise residents, when he will publish the results, and that the tests will be comprehensive pass/fail tests and will cover all, not just some, types of non-ACM cladding?
Finally, there has been a failure to overhaul the building safety system, as many Members mentioned. The Hackitt review published its final report in May 2018, yet two years on the legislation is still not in place. Following the publication today of the post-Hackitt consultation paper, will the Minister now tell us when he will publish the legislation itself and when the Government will take the steps needed to keep buildings safe? Most importantly, when will the Government retrofit sprinklers in all social housing blocks, as Labour, the fire chiefs and the chairman of the all-party group on fire safety, the hon. Member for Southend West, have all long argued?
The Government have been too slow to grasp the depth and breadth of the problems that they need to fix, and then too slow to act. A few weeks after that terrible fire in June 2017, a leading housing chief executive said to me, “Grenfell changes everything.” It should have done, but it has not. I desperately want this to be the last anniversary of that terrible fire when the basic duties of Government are unfulfilled and when the necessary fundamental changes to our system are incomplete. Until then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington said, we will return to this issue again. We will continue to press, with the Grenfell community, for justice and for the far-reaching changes that can guarantee that a tragedy like Grenfell can never happen again in our country.
I commend Emma Dent Coad for securing this important debate at a time when, as John Healey pointed out, we are all reflecting on the terrible tragedy of Grenfell Tower and remembering the 72 people who tragically died at that time. Since I took up this role last year, doing right by the victims and survivors of the Grenfell Tower has been central to my work as Housing Minister. It has also been part of a personal mission, not least because the tower stands in what was my London Assembly constituency, with which I obviously have a personal connection. I recognise the strength of feeling on this issue from Members from all parties, and I am grateful for all their contributions. A number of complex questions have been raised, and I will attempt to try to address most of them in my remarks, but we will respond in writing to each Member whose questions are not covered.
I am quite happy to be held to account for our work on this issue. As the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne said, Grenfell does change everything, and I have made commitments, in private and in public, on the need for fundamental change as a fitting legacy to those who died. I am held to account in meetings with Grenfell United and with individual residents, and by the Select Committee, and I have been held to account by the House on a number of occasions. It is quite right that I am, because we need fundamental and swift change.
Questions from Members have fallen broadly into four areas, which I shall address specifically. First, several Members expressed concerns about the speed of the rehousing and resettlement of the bereaved survivors. The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne wishes to hold me to a guarantee on rehousing; I hope he appreciates that, such are the complexities of the circumstances of some of the individuals concerned and of rehousing, our ability to move swiftly for them is reliant on their own circumstances, wishes and desires. I have taken specific interest in individual cases, particularly those in emergency accommodation in hotels and serviced apartments, and reviewed them regularly with the council to satisfy myself that not only are those people being catered for but that we are being sensitive to their particular state and their own desires and requirements.
The fact remains that for the 201 households that needed rehousing, the council acquired more than 300 homes in and around the borough. Of those 201 households, I am pleased that they have all accepted offers of permanent or temporary homes, with 184 households now living in their new permanent accommodation and 14 households in good-quality temporary homes. We have had cases in which those in temporary accommodation have sought to have that accommodation converted into their permanent homes. I do, though, share Members’ concerns about the three households that remain in emergency accommodation, including the one household that remains in a hotel. As I said, it is essential that people move on only when the time is right for them. To make sure that an independent eye is kept on those particular circumstances, I requested that the independent Grenfell recovery taskforce continues to keep us apprised of the evolving situation and looks specifically at those three cases to satisfy itself that the council’s actions are proportionate and that those individuals are catered for appropriately.
It is fair to point that it would be a mistake to think that people who are in emergency accommodation in a hotel or serviced apartment have been there throughout the whole two years. Such have been the circumstances of individuals and the trauma and difficulties that they have been coping with that some individuals have moved in and out of temporary accommodation. As I said, I hope that Members appreciate the complexity of the situation with which we are dealing. We are working in partnership with the community, the council and local health partners, and we remain determined to ensure that all the families who are recovering from this tragedy have the long-term support that they need to move on with their lives.
The hon. Member for Kensington raised the issue of the residents on the Walkways. I remind her that all those residents were awarded an extra 900 points to push their priority upwards. Nevertheless, I recognise the situation they are in.
The second area of questions raised by several Members was on the environmental and health impacts. Public Health England has been monitoring air quality in the area since 2017. We have not taken the community’s concerns lightly and have carried out extensive testing to assess whether there is any ongoing risk to health. We will take all appropriate action to ensure that no risk is posed to residents. Of course, Professor Stec now serves on the Government’s scientific advisory group, to make sure that we all work together to find some kind of resolution or, indeed, to reassure the community that they have nothing to fear.
The NHS has stepped up health services and checks for the local community, committing more than £50 million over the next five years, including for increased trauma screening, fast-track referrals and long-term follow-up, if required. I thank the NHS for all its incredible work to support the long-term physical and mental health needs of the Grenfell community.
The third area that has been raised is, quite rightly, the speed of remediation. I can understand the anxiety, fear and insecurity that many people feel on this issue, not least because I have met, on a number of occasions, people who live in these buildings and representatives of the UK Cladding Action Group. In the time since the fire, this Government have acted with the utmost urgency to address the most serious fire and public safety risks that the tragedy so ruthlessly exposed. With the support of local authorities and fire and rescue services, we identified a total of 433 high-rise residential buildings, hotels, hospitals and schools with unsafe ACM cladding. These buildings were assessed by fire and rescue services, and interim safety measures were put in place.
We have amended the law explicitly to ban combustible materials from use in the exterior walls of all high-rise residential buildings, but I recognise that residents across the country will truly have peace of mind only when unsafe cladding has been removed and replaced with safe materials. We have made £400 million available to pay for the remediation of ACM cladding for those buildings owned by local authorities and housing associations, and that work is almost complete, with 87% of buildings done. We have allocated £259 million of that £400 million to 140 buildings. We do not anticipate that there will be any further claims, but if there are, they will be honoured. We gave owners of buildings in the private sector enough time to step up and meet their responsibilities, and many did, but I regret that some did not. Last month, the Government acted decisively, providing a fund to unblock progress and ensure that remediation takes place on all buildings that need it. That fund stands at £200 million. We estimate that 153 blocks will be eligible. I was quite rightly pressed about detailed criteria, and we will be issuing the application process and what those criteria will be as soon as possible. There was a question from a Member whom I cannot recall about whether buildings that have already been remediated in the sector could seek to recover costs.
Yes, indeed, and that is the case.
Although I understand the concerns about the speed of the remediation, I hope that Members will be aware that this work requires significant amounts of engineering and construction work, which will necessarily take time. On numbers, at the end of April, of the 175 residential buildings, 15%, or 27, have finished or started their remediation, and a further 116, or 66%, have plans in place. I have asked the Department to report to me as soon as possible on what a timetable might look like to ensure that we can reach completion of that programme within a reasonable length of time. I hope that Members will appreciate that, while there is a requirement or a desire to press me for an end point, it is more complicated than just fixing a date and time, because there are obviously capacity issues. There are planning and engineering issues that need to be taken into account, but I would like to get to that place in pretty short order. The money has only just been provided, and what I would like to get to in pretty short order is a sense of what the industry is capable of achieving and some benchmarks for performance that we can hold it to.
A number of Members also asked about the testing regime for other materials and that work is now under way. We hope that that will be completed before the summer, and that we can publish the results shortly thereafter. As I have said in previous debates in this House, we have a commitment and a strong imperative to investigate the materials that are being used in these circumstances in a systematic and methodical way. Although there is a range of cladding products, they are used in a range of circumstances and in combination with a range of other materials. That matrix of possibilities creates many dozens of combinations that will need to be assessed over time. We have to start with the cladding itself, and, as I have said, that testing is under way at the Building Research Establishment, and we should be able to publish results soon.
The fourth area of work is obviously the building safety programme itself. After the tragedy at Grenfell, it became obvious that things had to change around building safety and change very significantly. The Government responded quickly with the Hackitt review, and it has given us an important root and branch look at building safety. We have been vociferous in calling for a culture change across the industry and backed it with serious action. We have consulted on a clarified version of approved document B and issued a call for evidence as the first step towards a technical review. As part of that review—a number of Members raised the issue of sprinklers—we obviously can review the requirement for sprinklers in buildings.
We have also established an industry early adopters group made up of key players in the construction and housing sector who have just this morning launched a new building safety charter calling for all of industry to commit to putting safety first.
Will the Minister also tell us what the Government will do about the “stay put” policy? According to Inside Housing and the FBU briefing for this debate, 209 residential buildings in London alone have changed from “stay put” to evacuation, which has all sorts of implications for guidance, alarm systems and so forth. What are the Government doing to make sure that these matters are addressed and are clear to everyone?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands, fire safety policy does not fall within my remit and is effectively a Home Office issue. I did recently meet representatives of the fire service, who said that this policy is under constant review but remains valid. However, I am happy to write to him with details of what the Government are doing with regard to “stay put”. I understand the concern that that policy has produced in the light of the Grenfell disaster and it is important that we are transparent about it. As I have said, I am more than happy to write to him with some details.
On building safety, we are determined to bring forward meaningful legislative reform. Just today, we launched a consultation on the new building safety regulatory system. The written ministerial statement was not actually laid, as Mr Reed said during the debate. It was raised at 10.30. I asked Doorkeepers to distribute it if they could, and it is now available for Members to read if they wish. In that review, we have accepted all 53 of Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations and in some areas we intend to go further. What we are proposing is a radically new building and fire safety system—a system that puts residents’ safety at its very heart. It will be a challenging but essential step to help drive the long-term culture change that we need and restore confidence in our country’s building safety system.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I had not seen the details of the statement until when I spoke earlier in the debate, but I welcome the Government laying it. I know that the Minister has made arrangements to speak to me later about it and to come to the Select Committee where I am sure we can ask further questions. May I just draw his attention to one interesting phrase where he says that we have proposed that the new regime should apply from the beginning to all new and existing multi-occupied residential buildings? Does that mean that the Government are having a careful think about whether the ban on materials, which are not of limited combustibility, should apply to existing buildings as well as new buildings? It says that the regime will apply to all buildings, including existing buildings.
I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee for raising this issue. The hon. Member for Croydon North also implied that we were not willing to look at other buildings retrospectively or indeed at buildings below 18 metres, or at hospital or schools or whatever it might be. What we are trying to do is fix a starting point, but then design a system that allows for flexibility in response to evidence and research in the future. One lesson is that, obviously, as building technology develops and new issues emerge, the system must have the ability to respond. That is what we are seeking to do in the consultation. Certainly, we are open to representations as part of the consultation about whether the scope should be widened. I hope that the Committee will respond.
Was that a yes? I was trying to work out whether the Minister would be willing to look again at this matter.
The issue of retrospection is obviously a difficult one from a regulatory point of view. One of the things that we have said is that all building owners have a duty to ensure that the buildings that they own are safe. If that means that they have to take remedial action retrospectively to comply, to make it safe, then they should do so. The question of liability, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is also a difficult one. Nevertheless, in the light of the reformed building regulations, it will be for building owners to review whether the buildings that they are maintaining and owning are safe and to take appropriate action.
As I said, we have accepted all 53 of Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations and we will be going further. Indeed, we may well go further in scope in the light of the issues that are brought forward.
The final matter raised by a number of Members, particularly Ms Buck, was the issue of the residents’ voice, the social housing Green Paper and, indeed, the place of social housing in our society. One of the most important legacies of Grenfell must be the rebalancing of the relationship between residents in social housing and their landlords. After the tragedy, we spoke to almost 1,000 people, including the bereaved and survivors of Grenfell Tower. It came through in those conversations, time after time, that residents feel excluded from the discussion about their homes; they feel that their voices are not being heard. I reject the idea that people in social housing can expect only a second-class system. This has been and is fundamentally wrong. Last August, we published our Green Paper, “A new deal for social housing”, and our response and action plan will be published in due course. I have given commitments in the various meetings that I have had around the country that there will be change on that too.
Nothing can undo the pain and devastation caused by the fire at Grenfell Tower. We remain determined to do right by the victims and survivors of the tragedy, and to provide a legacy of real change for them—to deliver fundamental reform, to end the stigma attached to social housing and to honour the memories of those who lost their lives. I thank everybody who has participated in the debate, and share the determination across the House to ensure that nothing like Grenfell can ever happen again.
I thank the Minister and all hon. Members for their insightful and detailed comments. I particularly pay tribute to the work that has come out of the all-party parliamentary groups and Select Committees, including the all-party parliamentary fire safety and rescue group, of which I am vice-chair. But when will all these recommendations and all this good work be implemented? I just see more delay.
Yes, in due course.
As we have seen recently in the press, Kensington and Chelsea Council behaved like a property developer instead of looking after the residential buildings it already owned. With no governmental oversight, it used our money for its own purposes, building a property portfolio to squeeze out social tenants in Kensington and Chelsea—that was actually openly admitted in council. I am sad to say that, despite protestations, the council continues with much of this agenda under a guise of improvement. For example, part of its new council house building programme includes fully private luxury flats. I really hope that the taskforce, which I have been working with quite closely, will report on that in its first report, and I hope we get a really robust response because the council is still failing people. It seems that the council is also determined to end the Grenfell recovery scrutiny committee when it is doing very good work and there is still a great deal of recovery left to be done.
There are various other issues that I hope the taskforce will look at. Our beloved Wornington College is still under threat. The council bought it without any reference to council taxpayers, let alone local councillors. Some £28 million of taxpayers’ money was thrown at a business venture intended for private housing. Where do we expect our young people to get education and training to get them into work, off the streets and out of trouble—something that this damaged community needs now more than ever?
I have said many times, and I will say it again, that if and when the Government regulate, and the council steps up and treats our people with compassion and justice as they would their own family, I will gladly shout it from the rooftops. It is not too late to bring in commissioners to take over the council. We all know very well that if it had been a Labour council that had failed so catastrophically, that would have happened a long time ago, and I would have applauded the Government for that. Until we see that progress, I will continue to berate the council for the duplicity and at times blatant lies—provable—of those who should be held accountable, for the perpetrators of ongoing failure and for those who deny the failure of the system after two years. I will berate those who are complicit through inaction for the incompetence, cover-ups and refusal to make the clear decisions we need to keep people safe in their beds.
We in this House need to view this issue as a far higher priority and with more urgency. I would not wish the horror of Grenfell to happen to anybody else. I plead with the Minister not to wait for another anniversary to announce any kind of progress. We need action, not further consultations.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the response to the Grenfell Tower fire.