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It is always a pleasure to follow Joanna Cherry. Grenfell is a tragedy that should never have happened, and the likes of it must never happen again. I welcome any report that allows us to learn lessons for the future, but we must not simply learn; we must follow through and apply those lessons. Unfortunately, given the timing of the phase 1 report’s release, I have been unable to read the 1,000 or so pages of the four volumes. That said, as a former firefighter and senior officer in Strathclyde fire brigade, I feel compelled to make a short contribution to this important debate.
I want to take a moment to set the record straight. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West referred to the wealth of the individuals concerned. Firefighters the length and breadth of the United Kingdom will do their very best, irrespective of people’s colour, wealth, religion or gender. It is uniform throughout the UK. We will do our best, irrespective of where people live. If they ask for our assistance, they will get it.
On that dreadful night, firefighters did not set out to fail; and nor did they fail. I am relieved that the inquiry, in its report published today, is not overtly critical of the frontline firefighters, but rather highlights systemic failures. Firefighters respond where others would fear to tread, often putting their own lives on the line. A question I would ask, assuming that the media coverage is accurate, is: why are we regrettably seeing a pattern emerging of the same or similar systemic failures or shortcomings, from which lessons are apparently not being learned and with no timeous action being taken to rectify such failures?
We live in a world where scientific developments and technological advances aim to enhance our safety. That may lead us all on occasions to feel a false sense of security. Indeed, perhaps too often we take such matters at face value and for granted. In the fire and rescue service, there are often specialist divisions, such as fire safety, fire investigation and fire engineering. However, regrettably, fire certification by fire services has given way to fire risk assessments being conducted simply by responsible persons. There needs to be sufficient exchange of relevant information, particularly to the frontline fire crews and operational commanders, including appropriate familiarisation training and support for those who may, in their firefighting role, have less cause to visit, inspect and become familiar with premises.
Many of those improvements have led to a reduction in the number of recorded fires. As a result, practical experience at incidents, as opposed to on fireground training, is in decline, and that gap needs to be addressed. My hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown mentioned the Fire Service College at Moreton-in-Marsh, which is a wonderful facility. Under the stewardship of the then chief officer, Brian Sweeney, my old service—the Strathclyde fire and rescue service—built a wonderful, modern training facility at Cambuslang in Scotland.
For many years, compartmentalisation has been seen as offering, in effect, a safe refuge. It has worked well on many occasions, but we have learned the hard way that it may not necessarily offer a safe refuge, due in no small way to construction materials and subsequent modifications that may involve original fire-stopping or fire spread-limiting measures being compromised.