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Grenfell Tower Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:28 pm on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Conservative, Maidenhead 2:28 pm, 30th October 2019

I recognise that since this terrible tragedy took place, significant efforts have been made to ensure that the survivors—those who have lost so much—have been provided with accommodation that is suitable for their needs. I know that in the early stages many people felt that that work did not go as quickly as it should have done. I recognise, too, that in the struggle that the survivors have been facing to ensure that justice can be done, that the truth can be uncovered, and, crucially, that responsibility for what happened is identified, they have felt that the response of Government at national and local level has not always been as swift or as full as they wished it to be. Every effort will be made, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, to continue the work to support the families of those who suffered this terrible experience in this appalling tragedy. There are other aspects of support that need to be provided in the longer term as well, not least the question of providing mental health support for people who have been affected by this tragedy.

Of course, today we can only look at phase 1 of the inquiry, because that is the report that is before us. One thing that comes through from phase 1 and will be clear to anybody who has met or has had any discussions with members of the Grenfell community is the care that they feel for each other—not just care within families, but care for friends and neighbours, too, and, indeed, for their whole community. The Grenfell community has a lot to teach all of us about the true meaning of community.

It was that care for each other that led to their raising their concerns and fears, over a period of time, about the safety of the building in which they lived. Concerns were brought home to me at a very early stage—when I first met survivors from Grenfell Tower—that they had been raising these issues about the safety of their building over a period of time, and yet those issues, their voices and those concerns had gone unheeded and had been ignored. I want to go on to reference some of the shocking aspects of this report, but I think that one of the most shocking features that has come out of consideration of what happened at Grenfell Tower is that those people had been genuinely raising matters about safety and yet felt that those matters were just completely ignored—and in some cases they were indeed just completely ignored. That was what led to the work to look at social housing across the country. I am grateful that a number of Housing Ministers undertook that work.

I see my right hon. Friend Alok Sharma, the first Housing Minister who started that work, in his place on the Treasury Bench. That work was due to lead to a social housing Green Paper. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reference a social housing White Paper. We are now about to go into an election. There is purdah, but I urge the Government, as soon as possible after Parliament is reconvened, to publish that White Paper, because change is needed to ensure that those who are living in social housing are able to have their voices heard so they can have the confidence that, when they raise issues, those issues will be acted on, and if they are not, they can seek redress in order to ensure that their concerns are being heard.

There are other shocking aspects of this report on which I wish to touch briefly. Some of them relate to the conclusions on the London Fire Brigade. Our emergency services do an amazing job, day in and day out, and there is absolutely no doubt that, on that fateful night, individual firefighters gave totally of themselves. They bravely went into a building with a fire whose like, as they said to me afterwards, they had never seen before, yet they bravely put themselves in danger to try to rescue others. None the less, it is also clear from Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report that there were questions over the command structure, training and communications in London Fire Brigade, which all need to be addressed.

When there is an emergency, we are used to seeing—indeed we expect to see—our emergency services working seamlessly, both in teams within an individual service but also in services working together. Sadly, on that fateful night, that was not the case. Now these were the most challenging of circumstances. None of us should take away from the fact that people were dealing with something that they had not seen the like of before and were having to respond with instant and split-second decisions. But there is absolutely no doubt from the report that the lack of communication and of the passing on of crucial information had an impact on the response. Sir Martin Moore-Bick states in the report:

“The chaotic nature of the communication links meant that neither the control room nor the command units nor the incident commander could know whether rescue attempts had been made in response to calls, or if they had, what had been the outcomes.”

That seamless working together is important within teams but also across the services. It is very important that when our emergency services attend an emergency, they are able to work together in the best possible way to deal with it.

When I was Home Secretary, I oversaw the work on the joint emergency services interoperability principles, or JESIP. The whole purpose of that work was to ensure that there was a way of our emergency services working together that enabled them to provide the service we wanted them to provide. And yet on this night, a major incident was declared by each of the services at different times, but they did not communicate that to each other. Sir Martin Moore-Bick makes that point when he says:

“One of the consequences of the declaration of a Major Incident by the emergency services is that there should be a multi-agency conversation between the control room leads. This was a requirement of the joint operating requirements established under the Joint Doctrine…That was also a requirement of the Procedure Manual…The evidence that such a conversation…took place is at best unclear.”

This need to communicate is very important and it is absolutely right that Sir Martin Moore-Bick has raised it as an issue that needs to be addressed in his recommendations.

I want to comment on what in many ways must be the most heartbreaking aspect of the report for the survivors: the use of the doctrine “stay put”. I can quite understand why there was a doctrine of staying put. The experience was that a fire in a flat within a tower block would normally remain in that flat and would be able to be dealt with in that flat—compartmentalisation or containment within a flat. But of course that did not happen in this circumstance; something else happened because of the cladding on the outside of the building.

The doctrine of “stay put” had been developed for good reasons, based on the normal experiences of firefighters. The problem was not the fact that that was the doctrine in such circumstances; the problem was that there was no flexibility to know how to deal with and respond to different circumstances. As we see in the report, at a point in time—the Prime Minister referenced that point—a decision was taken to evacuate rather than to continue to operate the “stay put” doctrine, but even at that time the messages that were getting through were not clear and the messages being given by the control room were not as clear as they should have been. One of the issues here is making sure that there is training to ensure that those who are making decisions on the ground know that they have the flexibility to make a different decision, but also know when and how to exercise that flexibility.

This doctrine did have an impact. On the Friday after the fire I was visiting survivors in hospital, where I met one family, the father of which told me that he, his wife and child had been told to stay put in their flat and that others had been brought into their flat as a place of safety. There came a point when this father took the decision that they could no longer stay in the flat, so he said what he was going to do and took himself, his wife and his child out of their flat. They survived. The others did not. So this doctrine did have an impact that night.

The worst thing that could happen now would be to lurch to having everyone say, “We can’t have ‘stay put’ at all”, because there will be circumstances in which “stay put” is still the right advice to give. But what is important is that flexibility is provided, and that training is given so that individuals know when and how they can exercise that flexibility and change the advice.