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I beg to move,
It is now over two and a half years since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, and I believe I speak for all Members of this House when I say that we once again offer the 72 victims, the bereaved, the survivors and everyone affected our profound condolences. They remain in our thoughts and prayers. They seek answers, accountability, justice and action to ensure that this terrible tragedy is never repeated. That is why yesterday I set out our immediate plans to improve building safety in this country. Getting this right is a priority for this new Government and the Prime Minister, and it is something that I will personally be taking forward at pace.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early in his speech. He refers to the statement he made yesterday. I welcome the decision in that statement to consult on ensuring that building regulations are relevant to buildings of a lower height, but he talked about that being relevant to new buildings and not to existing buildings. He will know from the fire at Samuel Garside House in my constituency that that was an existing building, and that it went up in just six minutes. If the fire had happened in the middle of night, it could have led to huge loss of life. Fortunately it did not, but I ask him to consider whether the regulations should not also be relevant to existing buildings, as well as to new buildings of a lower height.
I will come to that issue in a moment. The right hon. Lady and I have worked together on this and she has been a strong advocate for her constituents after the fire in Barking.
The announcement we made yesterday goes further. It says that we will be working with experts to develop a far more sophisticated measure of safety in buildings than simply the crude one of height alone that has existed for decades in this country. Once we have arrived at that, it will inform all the actions that building owners will have to take. It is the responsibility of building owners to take a view of building safety through an independent assessment of risk in that building that bears in mind all the characteristics of the building, whether it be the height, the residents in the building, the fire safety system or—as with the fire in Barking—balconies and other materials that are used on the building.
If I could perhaps make some progress, I will come to the points around building safety in a moment and return to Lucy Powell.
As I have said, getting this right will be a priority for the Government, for the Prime Minister and for myself. We will be introducing two Bills: one to deal with the immediate fire safety issues that we have identified, and another that will bring in the biggest change to building regulations in almost 40 years. Having met families of the bereaved and survivors, some of whom join us in the Gallery today, I remain acutely aware of our responsibility to ensure that they continue to receive the support they need and to see the change that they rightly demand. They have shown incredible resilience and acted not just with great dignity but with great courage. Their voices are being heard, and they must continue to be. On
Sir Martin’s report provides a detailed, minute-by-minute account of what happened on the evening of
If I may, I will come to my hon. Friend in a moment.
I will now turn to the actions the Government have taken since receiving the report. First, in response to Sir Martin’s findings that there was compelling evidence that the external walls on Grenfell Tower were not compliant with building regulations—this was an important finding—we are wasting no time in addressing this. The Home Office will introduce the fire safety Bill in the coming weeks so that the necessary changes are made as soon as possible. This Bill will leave building owners in no doubt that external wall systems, including cladding, and front doors to individual flats in multi-occupied residential buildings fall within the scope of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. This means that they must assess the risk and they must take precautionary measures to keep people safe. The fire safety Bill will also make clear the enforcement powers that can be taken locally against building owners who have not remediated unsafe ACM—aluminium composite material— cladding. This Bill will be the first step towards the new regulatory framework that will implement the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase 1 and the regulatory requirements to do so.
I thank the Secretary of State for the tone in which he is conducting this debate, and indeed in which he has been leading on these issues since he took over. Could he clarify whether this new body will mean that residents such as mine in Skyline Central 1, who are facing £25,000 bills each being passed on by the building owner, can have recourse back to the building owner, who would have to meet the cost of their now unsafe building?
That will depend on the exact legal relationship in the building in question, and I am very happy to work with the hon. Lady to help investigate that. It is the responsibility of building owners to take action and, as she rightly mentions, many have for various reasons passed that on to leaseholders. I am acutely aware, as I said in the House yesterday, that some leaseholders feel trapped and unable to fund the mediation works that now need to happen, and that costs should not be a bar to that. As I said yesterday, we are now working with the Treasury to see if there are ways of providing financing to support those individuals.
I thank the Secretary of State for being generous with his time. On that very point, he mentions having conversations with the Treasury to look at different options—he said this in his statement yesterday—but is there any set timeline for the conversations that he will have with the Treasury on this point? I ask, because leaseholders have been in this position for two years and seven months, so the sooner we can resolve how to support them so that they do not to have to front the costs of any remediation works, the better. What is the timeline that he has with the Treasury to ensure that this can be sped up, because it has been over two years?
I cannot give the hon. Lady an exact timetable, but it is worth saying that we have already—I will come on to this in my remarks—made available £600 million for building owners in both the social sector and the private sector. On expert advice, I have targeted that public grant funding towards ACM-clad buildings of over 18 metres. I will say again that all of the expert opinion I have seen has confirmed the decision that those are the most unsafe buildings and that they should be the priority for public funding. A number of building owners are already helping to remove cladding in their own buildings, and coming up with funding arrangements to help leaseholders to meet those costs, such as low-cost or zero-interest loan schemes. If the Government can assist in that, I think we should do so, because we want to see this cladding removed as soon as possible.
May I slightly extend that point, as these issues reach across the Floor? Since the terrible Grenfell disaster, people in a privately owned block of flats in my constituency have faced massively increased insurance costs. They have been unable to get anyone to give them a confirmed view about the cladding, or to receive information from the fire brigade about the real nature of the threat and danger. Everybody has run for cover, and as result those people have already spent a vast amount of money—they are not wealthy people. They have now been told that the cladding does not pose a threat, but they have a backwash of costs and are still affected by this issue. Will the Secretary of State consider whether insurance companies, and others, should have been charging leaseholders those extra costs until it had been confirmed that there was a real threat?
I would be happy to take up the individual case raised by my right hon. Friend, and the wider point. We are working closely with the insurance industry. This issue involves a range of materials, the most dangerous of which is ACM cladding, which was on Grenfell Tower. That has been the focus of public money. It is the responsibility of all building owners to have an independent assessment and ensure that the building is safe—it sounds as if that is what happened, perhaps belatedly, to the building in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. That assessment should provide the answers, after which remediation work, if necessary, needs to happen at pace. If I can help to support that in any way, I will.
This inquiry is not about finding blame; it is about finding causes and rectifying the situation. In this case, the problems that have been created regarding the wider building stock and liability are no fault of property owners, tenants or leaseholders, and that leaves a liability that falls on the Government, at least to a degree. Otherwise, there will be widening injustice, bankruptcy and failures across a whole sector of housing, because we are trying to remediate the failure of regulation in the past.
The question at the heart of my hon. Friend’s remarks is what the judge will determine in the second phase of the inquiry. What went wrong that led to that cladding being on Grenfell Tower? Was it a failure of Government or of regulation of the construction industry, or a combination of those things? I do not think we can prejudge what the judge will determine over the course of the detailed second phase of the inquiry that is about to commence.
I have followed these matters over the past couple of years, and in my experience the Secretary of State has done more to try to resolve these problems than any of his predecessors, all of whom tried to tackle a thorny issue. He is right to say that ACM is probably the most dangerous cladding, and we should deal with that first. Advice Note 14 does not deal with ACM, but it does effectively say that other combustible materials should not be on the outside of high rise buildings. The official guidance was more equivocal than that, which leaves long leaseholders in a difficult situation with unsaleable properties—I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in that regard. We must consider this issue. Yesterday the Secretary of State said that he would look at doing more, and we will need to.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who is a long-standing campaigner on this issue. Next month we will publish the final result of the testing process that my Department has been undertaking over many months with the Building Research Establishment. That will lay out for all to see evidence that I have already seen about the safety, or otherwise, of a range of different materials. I believe it will demonstrate that ACM is by far the most concerning material and should come off buildings as quickly as possible.
I had better make some progress, but I will return to my hon. Friend in a moment.
The Bill we will bring forward later this year will be the first step towards the new regulatory framework that will implement the recommendations of the phase 1 report’s legislative requirements. Under the Bill, building owners and managers will be required to share information with fire and rescue services on external wall systems, and undertake regular inspections of flat entrance doors. The Home Office will consult on the detail of the proposals in spring this year.
That legislative action will address many of the inquiry’s recommendations and forms part of the wider Government response to ensure that action is taken against unsafe cladding. My Department has already introduced a ban on combustible materials on the external walls of new buildings over 18 metres, and, as I have said, made available £600 million in Government funding to support that work.
Sir Martin’s report concluded that it was not just the materials of the building that contributed to the tragedy: more people could have survived the fire had the London Fire Brigade conducted a full evacuation earlier in the night. He recognises existing Government guidance stating that fire and rescue services should have contingency plans for when a building needs full or partial evacuation, and noted that the London Fire Brigade policies were in this respect deficient.
In the Minister’s statement yesterday there was not anything that I saw about evacuation and changes to the stay-put policy, which would be a huge change that would have implications for means of escape, alarms, sprinkler systems and so on. When can we expect the Government to pronounce on that?
I will come on to that point in just a moment, if I may.
Sir Martin recommended that the Government produce national guidelines for carrying out the evacuation of high rise residential buildings. I am now working closely with colleagues in the Home Office on those guidelines. My Department and the Home Office have formed a steering group with the National Fire Chiefs Council and other experts, which met for the first time in December. The group agreed on the scope of an evidence review into stay put and evacuation. Let me reiterate, however, that the advice from the National Fire Chiefs Council is that stay put remains an appropriate policy providing compartmentation is maintained. In fact, Sir Martin highlighted that effective compartmentation is likely to remain at the heart of fire safety and the response to fires in high rise buildings. I think that that is an important point that we should all bear in mind in how we communicate on these issues to members of the public.
A number of recommendations made by Sir Martin were for the London Fire Brigade, and for fire and rescue services more widely across the country. The firefighters serving that night showed exceptional bravery and dedication. I would like to pay tribute to their courage, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did last year. However, the report made very clear that there were failures in the London Fire Brigade’s response. Significant changes are needed in its policies, guidance and training, including on evacuation procedures. We know that fire and rescue services across the country need to have the training and processes in place to be able to respond as effectively as possible to fires in residential buildings. The control rooms that co-ordinate emergency responses must have the processes in place to deal with all incidents effectively.
I am pleased that London Fire Brigade has already rolled out fire survival guidance training, and is reviewing its policies and guidance in the light of the inquiry’s recommendations. It is important that all our emergency services have proper protocols in place to ensure that they can work together and communicate effectively in an emergency. The Home Office is working with the interoperability board to ensure that those lessons are learned. While these recommendations are not aimed directly at the Government, clearly the Government have a role and we will not sit back.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. As Home Secretary I chaired the board of JESIP, the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme. What is clear from Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report, page 698, is that the protocol was not followed on the night of the Grenfell fire. He recommends changes to that protocol. Have the changes been put in place? Equally important, have frontline officers and staff of the three emergency services had the changes drawn to their attention, so that they know what they must do when they are working together in a major incident?
My right hon. Friend makes a series of extremely important points. Those issues have been brought to the attention of all the emergency services; they are now working through them. The Home Office is helping to co-ordinate that work and, like her, I hope that those lessons are learned as quickly as possible so that if we are ever presented with a tragedy on this scale again all the emergency services can work together as one, in a co-ordinated way.
Fire and rescue services need urgently to address these issues and must set out their plans to do so. There have been some welcome developments, including, for example, that the London Fire Brigade now carries smoke hoods on its fire engines; that five pumps and a drone, rather than four pumps, are now deployed to fires in high-rise buildings; and that the London Fire Brigade has already taken steps to ensure that personnel understand the risk of fire taking hold in external wall systems. My hon. Friend the Minister for Crime, Policing and the Fire Service will address the House at the end of the debate on the work he is doing with the sector.
The work I have outlined shows the urgency with which we are addressing Sir Martin’s recommendations. The Government did not wait for the phase 1 report to begin addressing the most pressing building safety issues. We took immediate action in the aftermath of the fire with a comprehensive and independent review of building safety, chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt.
It seems to me that ACM cladding, which my right hon. Friend addressed earlier, goes to the heart of the matter. How many high-rise buildings with unsafe ACM cladding have been identified and have had remedial treatment? How many others does he think still have to be identified, and what steps is he taking to do so?
We are working very closely with the social sector and private owners. I am afraid that, frustratingly, progress has been extremely slow, as my hon. Friend and others across the House know. The fund that we opened for the taxpayer to pay for the remediation has so far seen only four successful applications. However, there is evidence that progress is moving at a pace that we have not seen before. There are now only 10 buildings in the private sector that have not begun the process of remediating, which means drawing up a plan and beginning with or contracting workers who can come on site and take away the cladding. There are exceptional circumstances with all those 10 buildings because, unfortunately, they have been identified only recently as having ACM cladding, so they have come to the process only over the course of the autumn. I want that work to proceed at a pace that we have not known before. As I said yesterday, we are now commissioning an independent building safety construction expert to advise my Department on how we can get that moving very quickly.
It was clear to me when I became Secretary of State—this was confirmed by Sir Martin’s report—that we need to go further to bring forward a series of very significant reforms and ensure that the work moves at pace. In response to Dame Judith Hackitt’s report, we are creating, immediately, the new building safety regulator. As I announced yesterday, we have chosen that that will be established within the Health and Safety Executive. The new regulator will raise building safety and performance standards. It will oversee a new and more stringent regime for high rise buildings and for higher risk buildings more generally.
Non-compliance is an issue in the industry, and the building safety legislation announced in the Queen’s Speech will ensure that the new regulator has the appropriate powers to sanction those responsible. This is a new and significantly tougher regime, underpinned by improved enforcement, dedicated to ensuring that our buildings are made with the necessary high safety standards and that the people within them always feel safe.
My right hon. Friend refers to people who suffered from the fire. Can he confirm how many of those families are still waiting for permanent housing? If there are any, what is he doing to find them a permanent home speedily?
Of the households who lived in Grenfell tower, 10 are yet to move into permanent accommodation. Of them, one is in hotel accommodation; the others are in high-quality temporary accommodation. Without going into the personal details of each household, which would not be appropriate, I can tell the House that I have personally reviewed the circumstances behind each of them, and my right hon. Friend the Housing Minister and I have worked closely with Kensington Council to review them again several times since coming to office. They are complex cases with a range of individual circumstances behind them, but we are hopeful that many of them will move into accommodation in which they feel comfortable as soon as possible.
Yesterday, I announced a series of new measures, including the appointment of a construction expert, to quicken the pace of the remediation of ACM cladding. I announced that I was minded to lower the height requirements for sprinklers in residential buildings from 18 metres to 11 metres, and I will set out a full proposal on how we intend to deliver that in February.
As I have stated, I have had the privilege of meeting survivors and their families and friends as well as people from across the community of north Kensington, and from the schools, such as Kensington Aldridge Academy and St Francis of Assisi Catholic Primary School, that provide a safe and caring space for children affected by the tragedy to reflect and remember their loved ones, to the worshippers at the Al-Manaar north Kensington mosque, who came together to support the community after the fire and continue to do so. One thing has been clear to me: this is a community of people who look after one another, who will continue to support one another and who will never forget what happened on the evening of the fire.
We owe it to them to ensure that their views are heard throughout our work, that justice is delivered and that the system is changed so that such a tragic fire can never happen again. That means reforming our building safety regime, but it also means reform of social housing to ensure tenants’ voices are heard and that their landlords provide good-quality, safe accommodation with strong and robust sanctions in place to hold them to account where that does not happen.
The Prime Minister and I have committed to bringing forward a social housing White Paper. This will set out further measures to empower tenants, hold social landlords to account and support the continued supply of social housing. This will include measures to provide for greater redress and better regulation and to improve the quality and safety of social housing.
Most people would welcome the White Paper the Secretary of State has just announced, but will he consider extending it to those living in private blocks? Many more people are now living in high rise blocks in city centres such as mine, but leaseholders have no rights against the building owners and very little recourse, and there is no teeth when the leasehold valuation tribunal or any other body finds in their favour. The need of private tenants and leaseholders for recourse is just as great.
The hon. Lady makes several important points. Much of the work of the social housing White Paper will apply to private leaseholders, and of course we have a separate stream of work on reforming leasehold. We have already said we will shortly publish a draft Bill on leasehold reform, and we await the further reports from the Law Commission and then in time from the Competition and Markets Authority on leasehold, which will inform our work and I hope lead to significant legislation to reform the leasehold market later in this Parliament.
I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. As he will remember, one of the issues that arose from the fire in Barking was the fact that none of the leaseholders had household insurance, so when they lost all the contents of their homes or the contents were damaged they had no recourse to insurance to replace them. Is he giving any consideration, in any of these reforms, to introducing a system whereby not only is building insurance imposed on leaseholders—presumably in social housing that would be covered by the local authorities—but victims of fires do not end up losing all their belongings and having no money with which to replace them? These are people on the edge who really are finding it hard to manage.
I did look into that issue when the right hon. Lady raised it after the fire in Barking. I am acutely aware of the number of individuals who do not have household insurance—that was brought home to me after the floods in Doncaster last year, when we encountered many households that did not have it. I do not think that it is for the state to intervene—I am not sure how practical it would be for household insurance to be provided centrally, regardless of the value of the contents of individuals’ homes—but I am happy to think again, and to speak to the right hon. Lady if that would be helpful.
My Department continues to hold regular meetings with the crucial stakeholders, including Grenfell United, to discuss our emerging proposals, and to ensure that the reform we are introducing is what is needed to deliver meaningful change. I am grateful for their engagement and commitment. It was at their request that we did not rush to publish the social housing White Paper, but are continuing to work with them to ensure that they will—I hope—be able to support it in due course. I will report back to the House shortly with our conclusions.
We know that for the families, the relatives and the survivors, change cannot come quickly enough, and we know that there is still a huge amount to do. We have heard that already, in the opening of this debate. The recent fire in Barking and the fire in Bolton at the end of last year only serve to remind us of the urgency with which we must act, and will continue to guide our work.
Phase 1 of the inquiry was just the first part of a complex process to uncover the truth of what happened. Next week, phase 2 hearings will begin as the work of the inquiry continues. Those hearings will help us to understand how the building was so dangerously exposed to the risk of fire. I have no doubt that Sir Martin will leave no stone unturned in his work. There will be tough questions for those involved in the refurbishment of the tower, and for the manufacturers of the materials used; but there will also be questions for central and local government to respond to, and I will support the work of the inquiry in any way I can.
We also continue to work alongside others to bring about changes that will protect the public, and I will ensure that further updates on the steps taken to implement the chairman’s recommendations are shared with the House at the earliest opportunity.
As has already been noted, a number of survivors and families from Grenfell are present today. They will be looking for leadership from both their local council and this place. Can the Secretary of State reassure us that he will continue to speak to all the people and organisations involved in the north Kensington area?
I will certainly make that commitment to the bereaved, to the survivors, and to the community of north Kensington. I have met a number of those groups on a number of occasions since becoming Secretary of State, and last week my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I met a group of survivors, bereaved people, local residents and members of the community.
I think that I speak for the whole House in once again offering the bereaved and the survivors our most profound condolences. Their pain and loss were unimaginable to us. We owe it to them, and to all whose lives have been affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower, to match these sentiments with action, on a scale and at a pace commensurate with the tragedy, and to do everything in our power to ensure that this never happens again.
This is a grave and important debate. I welcome the Government time for it, but I regret that the Prime Minister is not here to lead it. The public inquiry into Grenfell reports to him; it is the Prime Minister’s responsibility. A national disaster on the scale of the dreadful Grenfell tower fire demands a national response, on a similar scale. That has not happened, and that too is the Prime Minister’s responsibility.
More than two and a half years since that dreadful fire, the widespread grief and disbelief in the immediate aftermath that something so dreadful could happen in 21st-century Britain has become an increasingly widespread frustration. There is, as the Secretary of State said, still a huge amount to do. I never thought I would be standing here, two and a half years after that Grenfell tower fire, facing a Secretary of State who is still unable to say all the steps have been taken so that we can, as a House of Commons, as a Government, say to the country, “A fire like Grenfell can never happen again.” The fact that he cannot say that—the fact that there is still so much to do before we can all say that—shows the extent of the Government’s failure on all fronts since that fateful fire on
There have, regrettably, been other major residential fires since then—mercifully, without casualties—in Manchester, in Crewe, in Barking, in Bolton. It was clear to me, speaking to the students who were in that fire in Bolton, days after it happened, that had it not been for their quick thinking that early Friday evening, there would have been casualties in that fire, too.
Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his inquiry staff have done a huge amount of work on the first phase of the inquiry; on behalf of the Labour party, I pay tribute to that. Despite our reservations about the inquiry, we recognise that the inquiry is on an almost unprecedented scale. The phase 1 report—the subject of this afternoon’s debate—was 1,000 pages long. It was based on 123 days of hearings, evidence from more than 140 witnesses, half a million documents and nearly 600 core participants. However, Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his team simply could not have produced such a thorough and thoughtful report without the testimony of the Grenfell families and survivors. So, most of all today I pay tribute to the Grenfell survivors, to the families of the victims, to the community of North Kensington, who have conducted themselves with such dignity during this very painful inquiry. I say to them: you have suffered almost unimaginable trauma and loss, but we thank you for having the courage to share this, and the resolve to turn your grief into a fight for justice and for change. It is they who should be at the forefront of our thoughts and of our debate this afternoon.
I also pay tribute, as Sir Martin Moore-Bick does, to the courage of individual firefighters and emergency services on the night. They really did put their lives at risk in many ways—often breaking the operating procedures they were meant to follow—in order to help get people out and save lives that night. I, like the Secretary of State, am glad that the London fire and rescue service has not just accepted all the recommendations in full, but already begun to implement them.
I want to take the House back to the immediate aftermath of the fire, more than two and a half years ago, and to three big promises made by the then Prime Minister, Mrs May, on behalf of the Conservative Government. First, on rehousing and support for the survivors, she said, as Prime Minister, the week after the fire:
“All those who have lost their homes…will be offered rehousing within three weeks.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 626, c. 167.]
Ministers had to pull back from that initial promise, and they then said everybody would be rehoused within a year.
Thirty-one months on from the fire, as the Secretary of State has confirmed this afternoon, and notwithstanding individual circumstances, survivors of the fire have still not all been found adequate, permanent housing. Some of those families spent Christmas in temporary accommodation or in hotels. It is no good the Minister for Crime, Policing and the Fire Service—a former housing Minister—or the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government shaking their head. I acknowledge the individual circumstances, we all do, but they have had four reports from the Grenfell recovery taskforce, each and every one taking the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to task for not doing enough at enough speed to rehouse and help those families.
Secondly, on justice, the present Prime Minister said in the debate at the end of October that
“we owe it to the people of Grenfell Tower to explain, once and for all and beyond doubt, exactly why the tragedy unfolded as it did”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 667, c. 378.]
The Grenfell survivors do, indeed, want answers, but they also want justice. They want change and they want those responsible to be held to account and, where justified, prosecuted. They are right to expect that, and they have been promised it, but it still seems so far off.
Ahead of the setting up of the public inquiry, the then Prime Minister promised
“to provide justice for the victims and their families who suffered so terribly.”
And she rightly said on behalf of the Government:
“I am clear that we cannot wait for ages to learn the immediate lessons”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 626, c. 168.]
That public inquiry, initially expected to report at Easter 2018, did not in fact report until 18 months later, in autumn 2019. It has been phased into two reports, which means we have only a partial, incomplete judgment, and we still have not got to the bottom of what went dreadfully wrong and why.
I have to say to the Secretary of State and the Government that these problems have been compounded by recent thoughtless decision making by the Prime Minister. Just before Christmas he picked a new panellist for the inquiry who in her previous post, we are told, accepted funding after the fire from the charitable arm of the company responsible for manufacturing the insulation on the outside of Grenfell Tower.
Yesterday, the Secretary of State said:
“I know the Prime Minister is aware of the issues”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 670, c. 33.]
He must do better than that. The Grenfell inquiry must command the confidence of those most affected by the fire. The vice-chair of Grenfell United has said in the last week:
“How can she sit next to Sir Martin Moore-Bick when Arconic will be on the stand and is one of the organisations we need answers from in terms of what caused the deaths of our loved ones?”
Thirdly, on cladding and the safety of other tower blocks, the then Prime Minister, again on behalf of the Government, promised directly after the fire:
“Landlords have a legal obligation to provide safe buildings…
We cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 626, c. 169.]
Yet thousands of people continue to live in unsafe homes, condemned to do so by this Government’s failure on all fronts since Grenfell. Why? Why, two and a half years later, are 315 high-rise blocks still cloaked in the same Grenfell-style cladding? Why do 76 of these block owners still not have a plan in place to remove and replace that cladding? Why have 91 social block owners still not replaced their ACM cladding when the Secretary of State said it would be done by the end of last year? Why have the Government not completed and published full fire safety tests on other unsafe but non-ACM types of cladding? And why has no legislation to overhaul the building safety rules been published, let alone implemented, more than 20 months after the Government’s own Hackitt review was completed and accepted in full by Ministers?
After pressure from this side, the Secretary of State did set deadlines for all Grenfell-style ACM cladding to be removed and replaced: he set the deadline of the end of December 2019 for social sector blocks and of June 2020 for all private sector blocks. He has missed the deadline for social sector blocks and, if the current rate does not change, it will take a further three years for them all to be done. He is also set to miss the June 2020 deadline and, if the current rate does not improve, it could take 10 years to complete the work on those blocks. He said a moment ago that Grenfell families want “answers”, “accountability” and “action”, but at every stage since Grenfell Ministers have failed to grasp the scale of the problems and the scale of the Government action required. At every stage, the action taken has been too slow and too weak.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about action and about the guidance. Surely he must welcome the Government’s action in banning combustible materials in external surfaces, which his Government had the opportunity to do during their tenure but did not do?
I do indeed welcome the ban, which we argued for for some time. It was something the Hackitt report did not recommend, but Ministers wisely decided that they would not follow that recommendation. It is a no-brainer that we should not be putting combustible cladding on the sides of buildings in that way.
I welcome some of the action that has been taken. I know that the Secretary of State is approaching this with a serious intent. He did indeed announce what he calls “more measures” yesterday and he said he is
“minded to lower the height threshold for sprinkler requirements in new buildings”—[Official Report,
Vol. 670, c. 23.]
But this is for new build only. He is considering, with the Treasury, whether leaseholders will get any funding help, and he is having yet another consultation exactly on that issue of flammable material. I say to him that we have had 14 consultations already since the Grenfell fire. We had 21 announcements on building safety in this Chamber before yesterday’s announcement. I say to the Secretary of State that he and his Government still have some way to go to give people confidence and to convince those people affected by unsafe cladding that there will be change.
My right hon. Friend referred to the position that leaseholders find themselves in, and we discussed this yesterday following the Secretary of State’s statement. Those who now discover that they are living, to their surprise and horror, in unsafe buildings do not just face the problem of having to pay out for a waking watch, which is very expensive; even with the new guidance to mortgage lenders, who is going to buy a flat in a block where, in addition to taking on the normal costs, the new owner will have to pay for the waking watch and will have no idea at this stage, until the matter is clarified, who is going to foot the bill for replacing the cladding in those buildings? So we have a continuing problem, in the wake of the terrible Grenfell tragedy, as more and more people discover their lives completely on hold. Does that not make the case for Government help to get them out of this mess urgent and necessary?
My right hon. Friend anticipates the argument I was going to move on to. For such leaseholders, the situation he outlines assumes that they can sell in the first place and that the wannabe buyer can get a mortgage. Many are finding now that they are trapped in these blocks. Some of the steps the Secretary of State is now taking may help with this, but, fundamentally, there is a serious flaw in our leasehold legislation. In the particular circumstances we face here, we have the failure to match the legal responsibility that landlords or block owners have for the safety of those blocks with the financial responsibility for ensuring that they, not the leaseholders, pay for that. I have a proposal for the Secretary of State that requires Government action to deal with that problem and shall explain it in a moment.
First, though, a more general point. Since the fire, Grenfell survivors have seen three Secretaries of State and four Housing Ministers, all serious and sincere as individuals about the lessons to learn from Grenfell, but all fettered by the same flawed Conservative ideology and Government policy. They are too reluctant to take on vested interests in the property market; too unwilling to have the state act when private interests will not act in the public interest; and too resistant to legislation or regulation to require higher safety standards. Only the Government can fix the broken system of building safety. Only the Government can make good the cuts to fire services. Only the Government can renew social housing. Only the Government can make landlords meet their legal and financial obligations.
Here is a five-point plan for action for the Secretary of State. First, widen the Government-sponsored programme to cover comprehensive tests on all non-ACM cladding and publish the full results. Secondly, give councils the power to fine and take over blocks whose owners refuse to make them safe, in order to get the work done. Thirdly, pass legislation to end the injustice of flat owners paying for the costs of works simply to make their home safe, and bring in financial help for hard-pressed leaseholders billed by landlords for essential interim safety measures such as waking watches. Fourthly, set up a £1 billion fire safety fund, including to retrofit sprinklers in social housing blocks. Fifthly, establish a new national fire safety taskforce, reporting directly to the Prime Minister, responsible for auditing every high-rise and high-risk building and enforcing the replacement of all types of deadly cladding. If the Secretary of State will do that, he will have our backing.
The right hon. Gentleman has talked about some pretty decisive action against building owners he says will not take action to remove cladding. That is possible with a social landlord, because they have a direct connection to and responsibility for the maintenance of the building, but who is he talking about in the case of a block of leasehold apartments? The only person with a connection—the only landlord he might speak to—might be the owner of the ground rents on that property. They are technically the freeholder, but the freeholder has no maintenance responsibility whatsoever, so there is no legal action he could take to force the freeholder to take remedial action on the block.
That is precisely why new legislation is required to enable action where it is needed. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman grimaces, but I take the argument and the principle from a recommendation of the Select Committee of which he was a member, which said in a unanimous report that for privately owned residential homes, if a landlord ultimately will not keep the properties up to scratch, a local authority should have the power to take over those properties and make them good. If the principle can apply for individual properties, it can apply for tower blocks when something this serious and urgent is required.
I will not give way anymore; I am going to end my speech because a lot of people wish to speak in the debate.
Post election, the Government and the Prime Minister have a majority, but with that mandate comes responsibility. We in the Labour party will continue to hold the Government hard to account for their continued failings following Grenfell. More widely, I say in particular to the Grenfell survivors and the families of the victims, just as I said in the days immediately after the fire: we in the Labour party will not rest until all those who need it get a new home and long-term help; all those culpable are brought to justice; and all measures necessary are in place, so that we can, with confidence, say to people that a fire like Grenfell can never happen again in our country.
I thank the Secretary of State and the Government for bringing this further debate to the House. It was good that we had an initial debate in the previous Parliament, on
I want to raise two issues. I have already touched on the first in my intervention on the Secretary of State. It is the question of interoperability and the communications between the emergency services. I am pleased to hear that the Home Office is working with his Department to look at this issue. Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s recommendations included some changes to the wording of the protocol. That should be relatively easy and, I hope, quick to achieve, and should be relayed to all those who are likely to have responsibility for major incidents and therefore be responsible for putting that protocol in place.
The other issue I want to touch on today goes absolutely to the heart of what happened at Grenfell Tower. There are many quotes that I could use in reference to this, but I am looking at page 584 of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report. His essential conclusion, which he did not need to go into in phase 1 of the report but did, was that he could see
“no rational basis for contending that the external walls of the building met requirement B4(1), whatever the reason for that might have been.”
Requirement B4(1) is the regulation that requires the external walls of a building
“to adequately resist the spread of fire over the walls…having regard to the height, use and position of the building”.
It seems to me that absolutely at the crux of this issue—Sir Martin Moore-Bick acknowledges that it is a key issue for phase 2 of the report—is why that building in which so many people were living did not meet the building requirements, because it had on it material that would not adequately resist the spread of fire. It was not just the material, but other issues such as the positioning of the windows, which was changed when the refurbishment was done in a way that actually made it easier for fire to escape from a flat and take hold of that combustible cladding.
Sir Martin Moore-Bick goes on to say that
“on completion of the main refurbishment, the external walls of the building did not comply with requirement B4(1) of Schedule 1 to the Building Regulations. A separate question is how those responsible for the design and construction of the cladding system and the work associated with it, such as the replacement of the windows and infill panels, satisfied themselves that on completion of the work the building would meet requirement B4(1).”
This seems to me to be absolutely crucial.
In his intervention, my hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin used the phrase that the inquiry is not there to place blame. Actually, the inquiry is there to find out what happened, why it happened and how it happened. Phase 1 has shown what happened. The crucial issue for phase 2 is how, despite the regulations and the requirements that were there, we still had this building with cladding that did not meet the building regulations. The questions must be: who took decisions along the line that led to that being possible; were the decisions taken because there was a misinterpretation or a misunderstanding of building regulations; was it about the drafting of the building regulations; and did people properly inspect the buildings? Further on in the report, on page 590, Sir Martin Moore-Bick says:
“The failure to appreciate the nature of the risks posed by the cladding at Grenfell Tower was due in part to the approach adopted by the LFB to the discharge of its obligations under section 7(2)(d) of the 2004 Act.”
He notes further on that
“there was no attempt to carry out a visit which comprehensively addressed each of the listed matters to ensure that the information relating to the refurbished building and the assessment of the risks it presented was accurate and up to date…no good explanation was given for the failure to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the tower after the refurbishment had been completed.”
He goes on to say that individual members of the London Fire Brigade had not received training and that they cannot be blamed, because they could not be expected to assess the risks.
What this shows is a failure of the system, and this is where I slightly take issue with the shadow Secretary of State. He referred to the Government being able to make decisions and regulations. Yes, Ministers decide policy and this House passes legislation. We can pass all the legislation we like, but if it is not properly implemented on the ground, it is of no effect. That is the issue that lies behind the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. We should be worried not just because of all those people who lost their lives and the many families whose lives have been absolutely turned upside down because they lost everything and have had to rebuild their lives; we should also be worried about other areas. The purpose of this place is to pass legislation for the betterment of our society and the protection of our citizens, but we rely on others to ensure that it is then implemented properly.
It is essential, as Sir Martin Moore-Bick himself states, that
“the principal focus of Phase 2 will be on the decisions which led to the installation of a highly combustible cladding system on a high-rise residential building and the wider background against which they were taken.”
That, it seems to me, is absolutely crucial. The shadow Secretary of State has said that this inquiry is taking longer than any of us would have wished. Crucially, however, Sir Martin Moore-Bick is ruthless in getting to the truth, and that is what we want, not just for the victims and survivors of Grenfell Tower but for the wider good of our society. We need those answers and I have every confidence that, given the integrity he has shown, Sir Martin Moore-Bick will come forward with them. Then, of course, this place and the Government will have to respond to the inquiry’s findings.
As I said on
There were many things on which I profoundly disagreed with Mrs May when she was Prime Minister, but I pay tribute to her for staying in this new Parliament not only to serve her constituents but to see through some of the issues with which she grappled as Prime Minister. For that I have an enormous amount of respect for her, despite our political differences.
I wish to start, have others have done, by paying tribute to the dignity and conduct of the survivors and the families who are bereaved as a result of the tragic event at Grenfell Tower on
It is important that we learn from this horrific event and make sure that something similar is never allowed to happen. Families need reassurance. Time and again the report reminds us of the events surrounding the Lakanal House fire in 2009. Let us not forget the six poor souls who died as a result of that fire. Sadly, there are some striking similarities between Lakanal House and Grenfell Tower that make this all the more upsetting. There is absolutely a legitimate debate to be had about the cuts to fire budgets, which the current Prime Minister cannot necessarily absolve himself from, but it is also clear that lessons were not learned from Lakanal House. For example, chapter 8 of the Grenfell inquiry concludes that similar shortcomings were displayed by the LFB control room when responding to callers from Grenfell Tower in 2017 as in 2009 at Lakanal House. Likewise, again we hear of an authority not adhering to building safety regulations. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead said, in chapter 26 Sir Martin says that there was compelling evidence that the external walls of the building at Grenfell failed to comply with requirement B4(1) in schedule 1 to the building regulations. That is negligence, pure and simple.
Planning and preparation are covered in chapter 27 of the report, which makes reference to the fact that national guidance requires fire services to draw up contingency evacuation plans for dealing with fires in high rise blocks that spread beyond the compartment of origin, thereby causing a “stay put” strategy to become untenable. It is a damning indictment when the report concludes that the LFB’s preparation and planning for a fire such as that at Grenfell Tower was “gravely inadequate”. Indeed, the report goes on to say that
“otherwise experienced incident commanders and senior officers attending the fire had received no training in the particular dangers associated with combustible cladding, even though some senior officers were aware of similar fires that had occurred in other countries”.
Chapter 28 of the report rightly acknowledges the extraordinary courage and selfless devotion of the firefighters on the scene, but there were clearly serious shortcomings at command and control level. For example, in the chronology of events around 2 am—I found it incredibly difficult to read that bit—we learn of two LFB officers who, without communicating, had simultaneously assumed command and control of the situation. Likewise, at varying points throughout the night, the utter chaos and disjointed nature of the response is laid bare. The Metropolitan Police Service declared a major incident at 1.26 am without telling the London Fire Brigade or the London ambulance service. The London Fire Brigade then declared a major incident at 2.06 am without telling the Metropolitan police or the London ambulance service. Finally, the London ambulance service declared a major incident at 2.26 am without telling the London Fire Brigade or the Metropolitan police. Sir Martin is absolutely right to conclude that all of this was a serious failure to comply with the joint working arrangements and protocols designed for major emergencies in London. It is right, therefore, that further scrutiny will now continue.
As the emergency services pointed out last year, it is regrettable that the first findings of fault seemed to be with the brave emergency services who ran towards the fire that night rather than focusing on the makers of unsafe cladding, but we, as Members of this House, can only deal with the inquiry—an independent inquiry—as it has been structured. So the SNP certainly welcomes the publication of the first stage of this report.
However, the damning verdict of survivors and bereaved is that this Government are simply going through the motions regarding their response. Let us not forget that people are still living in dangerous homes. The public inquiry has been beset by delays, and promises to give council tenants a bigger voice have not yet been delivered. As the shadow Secretary of State said, thousands of high rise residents are still living in towers wrapped in banned Grenfell-style cladding, with figures this month showing that 315 high rise residential and publicly owned buildings are unlikely to meet building regulations because they are clad in combustible aluminium composite panels. People’s health also continues to suffer as a result of the stress of living in unsafe buildings, with residents saying that they have turned to alcohol and drugs. The Government themselves have admitted this, with the Housing Secretary on record as saying:
“I feel as if we need to do a lot more and a lot faster to make sure that people are safe. If, God forbid, there was another incident anything like the Grenfell tragedy tomorrow, how would you explain how that could have happened two and a half years later?”
I absolutely agree with him on that. So, as we move on to phase 2 of the inquiry, let us truly listen to the bereaved and the survivors from Grenfell tower.
I want to touch on the situation in Scotland, which, although devolved, is still of interest to constituents watching at home north of the border. In my own constituency of Glasgow East, I have 10 high-rise blocks in Sandyhills, Parkhead and Cranhill, and the safety of my constituents is absolutely paramount. Last October, the Scottish Government introduced new regulations that will make Scotland’s high rise buildings even safer. I warmly welcome that, and it goes some way towards reassuring those who live in the high rise blocks that I mentioned.
I say to the Secretary of State that I am not the only Scottish MP who is aware of a degree of consternation among constituents relating to advice note 14. I understand that homeowners have been left with flats deemed to have zero value, due to the way in which advice note 14 was written and rolled out. That has left surveyors with no idea as to what is required for a building to be deemed safe or how to value a property properly. The knock-on effect is huge, particularly when it comes to selling properties. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers was willing to meet me and a number of colleagues from Scotland to discuss the technical aspects of advice note 14, which I appreciate might be a bit complex to discuss on the Floor of the House.
My hon. Friend will know that a number of my constituents have been in touch to say that they cannot sell their properties. A couple told me that their house sale had fallen through because the implications of advice note 14 meant that the other party was not able to get a mortgage. Does he agree that a lot more needs to be done to reassure the industry, as well as the people who are stuck in those houses unable to move and those who would like to move in but are unable to get mortgages?
Absolutely, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who was my predecessor in this role. When she covered the statement by the Secretary of State yesterday, that point was made. He has indicated that there will be meetings next month, with a view to reviewing this issue. I urge him and his Ministers, if a review is ongoing, to please take into account the representations that our constituents are making to us.
I see the Secretary of State nodding. I hope that is him agreeing to a meeting with me and my colleagues, and that we can look at this issue before the guidance is rolled out in the coming months.
I am conscious that other colleagues wish to contribute to the debate, so I will conclude by thanking Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his team for their work thus far. I very much hope that we see rapid and thorough progress as we enter phase 2 of the inquiry in the coming days.
I start by paying tribute to my constituents. I believe most hon. Members are aware that Grenfell Tower is in my constituency of Kensington. The Grenfell bereaved and survivors, and their friends and neighbours, have suffered hugely, but they have always conducted themselves with huge grace and dignity. I pay tribute to them, some of whom are in the Gallery today.
The report will never make good the loss of so many lives on
As my right hon. Friend Mrs May said, we must establish the truth of what happened, not only through phase 1 but looking forward to phase 2. We must learn the lessons and, very importantly, we need to implement the recommendations with a sense of urgency.
I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has accepted all the recommendations from the first phase of the inquiry. I encourage him to implement those recommendations quickly and decisively. I am concerned that there continue to be residential high-rise buildings that have ACM cladding, so I ask him to ensure that local authorities use their enforcement powers to take action on those buildings.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement yesterday, as well as his review and consultation on combustible cladding and whether the threshold should be decreased from 18 metres to 11 metres. Will he consider reviewing whether the ban on combustible cladding and the threshold for sprinklers should also apply to all blocks of flats, all schools, all hospitals and all care homes?
Let me move on to talk about the Fire Brigade. There is no doubt that individual firefighters on the night showed the most remarkable courage and bravery. Where most of us would have run away from that towering inferno, they went in, and I want to pay great tribute to them. But it is also clear that there were institutional failings within the London Fire Brigade. I met Andy Roe, the new commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, just yesterday. I was struck by his openness and his desire for change. He immediately said that he accepted all the recommendations of the first phase of the inquiry, and he accepted that, at a corporate level, the Fire Brigade needed to work to regain the trust and confidence of the north Kensington community. He assured me that he would drive change, and we agreed that, as the MP for Kensington, it is my responsibility to hold him to account.
I want to raise one other matter, referred to by John Healey, which is the appointment of Ms Benita Mehra to the panel of the Grenfell inquiry. I am sure that Ms Mehra is a very well-qualified engineer, but I must reflect to the House that the north Kensington community is very concerned that she has a conflict of interest, since while she was president of the Women’s Engineering Society, it received a donation of £71,000 from the charitable arm of Arconic, which provided the external cladding of Grenfell.
It is vital that the north Kensington community has faith in the second phase of the inquiry. One of the lessons that we learnt from Grenfell is that decision making cannot be only top down; it needs to be community-facing. I know that the composition of the panel does not lie within the Secretary of State’s jurisdiction, but rather with the Cabinet Office, so I ask the Cabinet Office to consider that appointment very carefully.
As the new Member of Parliament for Kensington, I am going to spend a lot of my time and focus on fire safety, building regulations and the social housing sector in general. I look forward to working with Members across the House to ensure that all housing in this country is safe and truly fit for purpose.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I am pleased to follow Felicity Buchan, and I hope that I can work with her on issues in relation to Grenfell, as I was able to work with her predecessor. Her contribution was a very good start.
On the morning of
In the wake of the fire, I assumed that this man-made disaster would be a defining moment in how we thought about housing in this country. In my view, it exposed a tale of two cities. In the wealthiest borough of one of the richest cities in the world, 72 people were forced to live in a tower wrapped in flammable cladding, and their complaints about safety in the blocks were ignored by the authorities in the months and years before. Back in the summer of 2017, I would never have imagined that the response, including that of the Government, would be so appallingly slow. I cannot believe that I am standing here in the next decade and that the Government still cannot say that all the necessary action has been taken to prevent another fire like Grenfell from happening again. In a sense, that is a summary of what the Secretary of State has said.
Members will have heard some of the statistics already today, but they are worth repeating so that the message gets through. We know that 91 out of 159 social sector buildings found to have Grenfell-style ACM cladding have still not had it removed, and that 174 out of 197 private sector buildings—those are the ones we know about—are in the same situation. On any analysis, this must be defined as cruel and unusual punishment for the families living in those buildings. I ask all of us in the House this afternoon, particularly those of us who are parents, to imagine the stress and strain of being in a building that could go up in the way we saw Grenfell Tower go up. This means that for more than two and a half years, thousands of concerned families have had to go to bed at night afraid that what happened in June 2017 might happen to them.
I am afraid that much of the blame for this inaction lies with the Government. It took them one entire year to provide the funding for councils and housing associations to remove the cladding, and it took them two years to announce a fund to help privately owned blocks. Ministers set a deadline of the end of 2019 to make social blocks safe and a deadline of June 2020 for private blocks. What is the explanation for why the first target has been missed and the second looks likely to be missed?
The inaction on cladding is matched only by the treatment of the survivors of the fire. Families have expressed frustration and anger at the chaos and lack of organisation over the past three and a half years. Much of this, of course, lies at the door of the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Inquest is a charity that supports many of the families, including 55 of the 72 families who lost a relative. Its report contained serious criticism of the Government’s response at both local and national levels. Families have been made to feel like bystanders rather than participants in the inquiry proceedings. They have not been given adequate notice of hearings or fast disclosure of legal papers, and many have been locked out by technical jargon and inadequate language support. Most shockingly, 31 months later, nine Grenfell households are still living in temporary accommodation. When are these families going to be allowed to get on with their lives?
At the start of the last election period, we were shown the truth of how some in the Government really think about the night of the Grenfell Tower fire. Mr Rees-Mogg blamed Grenfell residents for lacking “common sense” by obeying the orders of the fire service to stay put. Defending him, Andrew Bridgen explained that it was because he is more “clever” than the Grenfell victims. I have got to tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I was appalled by these statements. In a different era, what would have followed making statements like that was the honourable thing, which is a resignation.
I am obviously glad that the Government have accepted all of the recommendations made by phase 1 of the inquiry. I of course congratulate Sir Martin Moore-Bick on a very thorough first phase report that is some 1,000 pages long, but there are things that we need to take away from that. While I, too, would not want to do anything but add my own tribute to those firemen who rushed towards so many people, as I said in the last debate, I am hugely disturbed that my friend Khadija Saye heard fire officers on her floor in the early hours of the morning, but those officers did not come to her door and, as it were, drag her and her mother out of that building. Had she left earlier, I am absolutely convinced that she would be alive today and would not have lost her life on the ninth floor.
I am concerned that we now need to create a new independent body—a national oversight mechanism—to make sure not just that the Government accept the recommendations, but that the recommendations are implemented. Because of all we have heard about previous fires, previous reviews, previous inquests, previous recommendations and then inaction, it is really important that we have some kind of body that sees, this time, that implementation flows as result of what everyone has been through.
We also need to reintroduce the Public Authority (Accountability) Bill to create a duty of candour from state and private bodies. It is of course important that we do not allow the sequencing of this inquiry to scapegoat the brave firefighters who risked their lives that night. The bulk of the responsibility lies with decision makers in successive Governments and private companies that cut corners on fire safety. By doing this, individuals in positions of power, in my view, committed gross negligence manslaughter.
While this House makes much of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s inquiry, let us not forget that there is a police investigation into the decisions that have been made— I hope that at some point the House is updated on how that police investigation is proceeding—because for many, justice will be served when survivors see arrests and prosecutions and see those responsible for this crime given the justice that many of us believe they deserve.
First, may I say to the families of the victims, from Watford and I am sure from everywhere in the UK, that you will forever be in our hearts following this terrible tragedy? I have heard today and over the past few years the terrible stories from this event, which really touched my heart, and I want to share one of the stories today.
Less than a year ago, I met one of the firefighters who was first on the scene at Grenfell. My conversation with him was not part of a review or of my being a politician; it was one man talking to another, by chance. He went into huge detail about what he saw that day, and in the following days as he dealt with the tragedy on site. I will share some of what he told me, but not all the details because I do not want to cause any more hurt to the families. After he had spoken, I shed many tears—I feel no embarrassment in saying that. As my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan said, those brave firefighters enter the buildings from which we want to flee, and put their lives in danger to save others.
That firefighter told me about going into Grenfell when the fire was raging. He saw it get worse, and he had literally to grab people and carry them out of the building, down stairs that were pouring with water and slippery, while flames raged around him. We must protect these heroes over the coming years, and learn from the mistakes that were made. Mistakes absolutely were made at the top level, but people on the ground—first responders, paramedics, police, and firefighters in particular—put their lives at risk for people they would never have met.
From that story I learned that the challenge was not just during the event but afterwards as well, and from going back and having to recover bodies—people will have the scar of that in their minds for ever. Having just been told the story, I still sometimes wake up in the night with nightmares, so I cannot imagine how those who were actually there and did that felt, and still feel.
I heard that, since that day, those firefighters who were so brave and saved so many lives have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have left the fire service, and some have had issues with relationships or with alcohol. They are struggling with the reality of what they saw, which in some ways sounded akin to a warzone. If they were soldiers we would probably give them support to deal with that.
I say to hon. Members, to the families, and to firefighters who were at the scene, that throughout history the biggest failure has been a failure to learn from our mistakes. When we look ahead at this review, we must not fail to learn from those mistakes. We must be able to tell the families and those who survived that those deaths, those awful tragedies, were not in vain, and that we will learn from this and ensure it does not happen again.
I wanted to share that story because a lot has been said today, quite rightly, about building regulations, buildings and cladding, but the real tragedy is in the lives that were lost, and lives that have been so damaged over many years, and will remain damaged for years to come. Let us learn and move forward. I hope that those on the Front Bench will put provisions in place, and take these matters forward in the review. We must put people first, and ensure that, along with that of the victims and the families, the mental health of firefighters is looked after, and that they are supported moving forward.
I will begin by expressing my admiration and respect for the survivors and families of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, many of whom I have had the honour of meeting over the past two and a half years. I also pay tribute to my friend and colleague, Emma Dent Coad, former MP for Kensington, who made Grenfell the focus of her two and a half years in this place. She will continue to do that as a local councillor, resident, and champion of Grenfell. In a way, it is not surprising that Grenfell became the focus of Emma’s life, because it is such an all-encompassing tragedy with so many aspects to it, some of which we are trying inadequately to explore in this debate.
I know that one of the first things Emma would say is, as my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy mentioned, what about the residents who have not been permanently and properly rehoused? What about the future of the site? What is going to happen to the tower? From my constituency a few hundred yards away, we see it every day. It is a very visible part of the landscape. I do not know why it was not mentioned by the Secretary of State in opening the debate. Perhaps the Minister, in closing, will deal with those points. We need to know, for the whole area and indeed for the whole country, how we are going to move forward.
I felt, with due respect to Mrs May, that yes, she is right to talk about issues of cladding and responsibility for those who manufactured, fitted, commissioned and so on, but that is only one aspect. We all have to share blame. The Government have to share blame, as well as local authorities, tenant management organisations, cladding companies and everybody else who has been engaged in this situation. I do not want to take too much time, so I will focus on just three issues—building type, evacuation policy and the cause of fires—but clearly there are many more.
The Government have only scratched the surface of what needs to be done. Perhaps in the first few months or even the first year it was not clear exactly what remedial actions needed to be taken, but I think it is becoming increasingly clear now. We have talked about height and the fact that there are types of high rise buildings that are not included. Yes, in terms of either the removal of cladding or a ban on combustible materials for new build, but what about offices, schools and hospitals? What about high risk buildings, of whatever height, such as care homes? Should we not be looking at all types of building with dangerous forms of cladding where there is a substantial risk? Should we not be looking at other forms of cladding beyond ACM and HPL—high-pressure laminate? Other dangerous building materials are in use at the moment.
There is a constant feeling that the Government are taking things very slowly and step by step, and perhaps getting there but not getting there nearly fast enough. Should we not look at the testing regime? There has been a lot of criticism of the BS 8414 test, because it does not necessarily replicate the conditions that exist in buildings as they have been constructed. Buildings sometimes have faults in construction, but also features such as vents and windows that are not reflected in that test. Why is the Euroclass classification system, which clearly differentiates non-combustible from combustible materials, not the driving force in deciding what is and is not fit for purpose? Why are we concentrating only on new build when there are so many existing buildings that have different types of materials with different degrees of combustibility? Yes, it is a huge task. As soon as one begins to look at it in detail, it ramifies in every direction. But surely if we are going to ensure the safety of the hundreds of thousands of people who live and work in high rise buildings—or stay in them, if they are hotels—we have a duty as a society to do that? There is a feeling that this is not being done at the speed it could be by the Government because it is too difficult, too complex and too expensive.
I mentioned earlier in my intervention the issue of evacuation. The Government have accepted the recommendations in part 1 of the inquiry report. They include, under evacuation, the development of
“national guidelines for carrying out partial or total evacuations” and that
“fire and rescue services develop policies for…evacuation”.
It also recommends that owners and managers do the same and that there are alarm systems that can be used to alert residents about evacuation—indeed, that policy can specifically be developed for managing a transition from “stay put” to “get out”. Two and a half years on, I want to know when that will be done. When are we going to have that response from Government?
The situation is complicated and it has, as I indicated, many implications. If a building is going to be evacuated, residents clearly have to be alerted, there has to be an alarm system, and there has to be a secure means of escape. The problem at Grenfell was that there was one relatively narrow staircase. High rise buildings are being constructed now with one fairly narrow staircase. When will we get new design guidelines that allow for the possibility of secure evacuation?
I heard what was said about compartmentation. “Stay put” may well remain the general policy, but even if there are one or two exceptions a year, we have to be prepared for and be able to deal with them. It is unthinkable that another Grenfell could take place in this country in our lifetime, and that will only be the case if we deal with all the issues that have arisen.
Are we going to have sprinkler systems fitted, and not just, as the Minister indicated—I hope he will stick to this—for buildings of 11 metres and above? Are we going to retrofit? I spent the morning at the all-party fire safety and rescue group. We had an interesting presentation from the chief fire officer of Staffordshire, who said that there are 47 high rise residential buildings in Staffordshire—that is not very many; it is perhaps not a county that is renowned for its high rise buildings. Nevertheless, that has been taken sufficiently seriously, and by the end of this year—I think this is right—30 of the 47 will be retrofitted with sprinkler systems. Why is that not being done across the country? Why is that not being led by the Government?
There is no example in which, when sprinkler systems have worked in residential buildings, they have not worked to suppress fire. There are complications where there are leaseholders who decline to have sprinkler systems fitted in individual flats, but they can be fitted in communal areas and where leaseholders allow, or in tenanted properties. It is perfectly possible to have that done, at no great cost. I think it is unforgivable not to—that goes back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead. We will wait to see what is in part 2 of the report, but it is very likely that flammable cladding and insulation—which had been put on the outside of Grenfell—was the primary cause of fire spread and that without that we would not have had the tragedy. However, if there had been evacuation plans and sprinkler systems in that block, it is also likely that a number of those deaths would have been prevented. We have to take every possible step that we can.
Finally, I think it is now accepted that the cause of the fire in Grenfell was a fridge-freezer. The cause of the major fire in Shepherd’s Court, a tower block in my constituency, the year before was a tumble dryer. We now have the second major recall within a year of electrical goods: over 500,000 Indesit washing machines have a fault and there have so far been nearly 80 fires —that we know of—or “thermal incidents”, as they are known. There is increasingly a trend where electrical goods, whether this is due to poor design, poor manufacture or faults in the way that they are operated, are causing huge numbers of fires. These can lead—particularly in high-rise buildings or buildings with dense populations—to tragedies of the type we have seen. It is not the Minister’s Department—it is the responsibility of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—but it clearly needs work across Government. When will we see firm actions such as the compulsory registration of electrical goods so that recall can be done effectively? These issues are the responsibility of Government. The buck should not be passed on to anyone. We need not just firm but quick action. I hope that some of the lessons in part 1 of the inquiry will be learned and that the Minister and the Government will take action quickly.
I am pleased to follow Andy Slaughter and I completely agreed with much of what he said. We must learn what mistakes were made and then make improvements across the board so that others never suffer the same terrible tragedy that happened at Grenfell.
I want to express both sympathy for the Grenfell victims and admiration for their demeanour. I have met many of them. If such a thing happened to most of us, I do not think we would be able to cope. I express my admiration for the way they have conducted themselves since this terrible tragedy and sympathy for the people who lost their lives and their families. It must be the most horrendous experience possible to die in such circumstances, and we must always remember that that is what happened.
No? The Minister shakes his head. I thought he had served on that board subsequently.
The key point I remember from serving on that body is how difficult it is, in London in particular, to deal with fires in high-rise buildings—buildings so high that the fire brigade cannot put ladders up—and with the people in those buildings and how we train firefighters to deal with that type of tragedy. We cannot replicate what our brave firefighters faced on that night in training. It cannot be done. We can try to prepare them for it and teach them what to do in certain circumstances, but replicating what they had to do and suffer is almost impossible. Training and ensuring firefighters are fit and healthy and able to cope with such conditions is obviously at the forefront of what our fire brigades have to do. As others have mentioned, we must praise the bravery of the firefighters who went into a living hell to combat the fire and get the people out from Grenfell that night.
As the hon. Member for Hammersmith mentioned, we should remember that the fire was caused by an electrical fault, which raises a question, as he said, about the testing of appliances and how we make sure they are fit for purpose. If we buy goods and services, we expect the supplier to have made sure they are safe, and if they are not, there is a liability on the suppliers and manufacturers. We should look at that issue. Another concern is the testing of wiring not just in high-rise buildings but in all buildings. I will come back to that in a moment.
As was found in the inquiry and as we heard already, there was much confusion on the night about what was going on with the fire brigade. The firefighters went into the initial flat to combat the fire, and in many ways that was routine. We should remember that it was not the first fire in Grenfell; there had been others there and in other blocks across London and up and down the country. The compartmentalisation of these units should mean that a fire is contained within the unit. Then the fire can be put out and everyone made safe. That is the fundamental point of the “stay put” policy encouraged and promoted by the fire brigade. What the fire brigade did not know was that the fire had spread to the external cladding. As those firefighters were leaving, others were trying to go in and deal with the fire that had engulfed the tower block. There were clearly confusions. We hear and read in the report, which makes horrific reading, about the circumstances of the senior officers on site, about what training they had been given and about what they could do in such circumstances. I do not criticise them, but they were clearly underprepared and ill trained to deal with the terrible tragedy that was unfolding before them.
I have had the privilege of serving on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee for the last nine and a half years, and we have looked at building regulations on several occasions. We have also conducted two inquiries on the Grenfell fire. Not only have I been present for the statements, urgent questions and updates that we have heard from various Secretaries of State and other Ministers, but I have had the opportunity to go through a lot of the detail that has emerged about Grenfell. The Committee made recommendations on two separate occasions, and there is clearly concern about the pace at which the Government have moved. There have been plenty of consultations, but I am concerned about the fact that they have not necessarily, at all times, moved swiftly enough. People up and down the country are still living in tower blocks with unsafe cladding, and two and a half or three years on, that is absolutely unacceptable. We must speed up the process of removing that cladding and making those blocks safe.
The Select Committee had the opportunity to interview Dame Judith Hackitt. She is an admirable individual who gives robust answers, looks at the evidence and is clearly to be respected. I welcome the fact that she will head the new regulator, because that will make a clear difference.
Changes in building regulations also need to be implemented swiftly. I welcome what the Secretary of State said about ensuring that the necessary regulations are in place, but I think that we should look again at part P, which was the subject of one of the Select Committee’s past inquiries. The regulations applying to gas fitters are stringent, but those applying to electrical fittings are very lax. People can qualify as electricians after two or three days’ training, and then conduct electrical works in both Houses, and in flats and high-rise buildings. As long as someone comes along and signs off the work, that is deemed acceptable, but in my view it is not acceptable. Most householders in this country do not understand what responsibilities they take on for electrical safety when electrical work is conducted in their own homes. I want us to look into that, because although it was not a fundamental cause of this fire, electrical work may be the fundamental cause of other fires if it is not done properly.
My right hon. Friend Mrs May put her finger on the issue of the cladding on Grenfell. The inquiry has made it clear that the cladding did not comply with building regulations, and we have found in our inquiries that that is true up and down the country. I have made this point repeatedly: if the cladding was not compliant with building regulations, someone must have signed it off as being compliant. Someone gave it approval. I am afraid that whoever gives approval for these things must be brought to account, because if they are not compliant with building regulations, someone in a position of responsibility is saying that a building is safe when clearly it is not. I do not want to go into what happened at Grenfell, because there are police inquiries and part 2 of the inquiry will continue, but clearly this is a matter of concern up and down the country.
One fundamental concern that I have is that some leaseholders and other individuals who believed they were buying a flat or other property that was perfectly safe, are now being told that they might have to pay towards removing the cladding and replacing it with a safer type. The fact is that someone, somewhere said the cladding was safe according to the building regulations—and if they did, who is responsible, and why should leaseholders be funding the work? Clearly, there is a failure of corporate governance across the piece in preventing that from happening.
Another fundamental issue is fire doors. When fire doors at Grenfell were tested originally, because there was a concern that they should be able to resist fire for 30 minutes, they actually resisted fire for 15. There is a fundamental issue, therefore, of whether such fire doors are fit for purpose. If fire doors do not keep back fire, fire will spread and people who are trying to get out of those buildings will not have time to do so safely.
When we have looked at the various building regulations and the changes that need to be made, we have been looking at them in relation to tests that have been conducted on cladding and so on. We must challenge: are those tests fit for purpose? Do they replicate a real fire, when there is fire all around, as opposed to direct contact of flame on a door or cladding? When there is fire all around, does that fire door or cladding get consumed in a way that no one envisaged in tests? I would challenge whether our tests are now fit for purpose to justify the assertion of safety for people up and down this country.
A wide variety of buildings need to have their cladding removed and made safe.
My hon. Friend raises the point, as did my right hon. Friend Mrs May, about whether ACM cladding complied with the building regulations. He would probably agree that the evidence we have taken in the Select Committee is that the building regulations, particularly Approved Document B, are ambiguous. It is clearly set out within Government guidance that there are two ways that external walls may meet the building regulations, and one of them is that each individual component of the wall meets the required standard, but in Approved Document B it certainly appears that the required standard is a combustible standard. That is the difficulty that we are wrestling with, which might explain why so many buildings up and down the country have combustible cladding on their external surfaces.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is an expert in this field. In the previous Parliament, his expertise was much appreciated by all his fellow members on the HCLG Committee. He draws attention to a fundamental issue, which we must be cognisant of. Where there is lack of clarity or confusion, people not unreasonably ask, “What should we do? What standard do we put our buildings up at? What tests do we apply? What is reasonable?”—because everything is risk-based. We need to look at that in some detail.
In my opinion, the “stay put” policy that is implemented by both the London fire brigade and other brigades must be examined in detail. If, under compartmentalisation, a building is safe and a fire breaks out in one part of it, it is a sensible policy that the fire is eliminated in that part of the building and other people do not try to escape from the building unnecessarily. If a fire spreads from one compartment to another, that is when the building has to be evacuated straightaway. That is the examination that has to take place.
That point is not in dispute, and it was forcefully made by the coroner in the aftermath of the Lakanal House fire in 2009. Those recommendations landed on the desk of the then Secretary of State, and nothing was done about it. There is complicity here. The roots of this terrible tragedy lie in Whitehall and Westminster, and we should not gloss over that.
I will not go into who was at fault and when. We need to look at what we should do now. We can all look back at the history of various different events; that fire was in 2009, which is quite a long time ago, and subsequent inquiries may have taken place.
I have two points. First, it was a mistake for the Government not to require new schools and new developments to have sprinkler systems fitted. We should re-examine that, because sprinkler systems control fires and prevent them from spreading, giving people time to escape by dialling down the extent of the fire.
Secondly, and this is of clear importance, we need to get it right. We have to examine the regulations, when they come, and the legislation that follows in great detail. We need to make sure the regulations are fit for purpose and will stand the test of time, because we are building more and more high-rise buildings and will place more and more people at potential risk unless we get them absolutely right.
We must learn the lessons from this terrible tragedy and make sure that it cannot happen again. We must make sure that our brave firefighters and the other emergency services are properly co-ordinated, as the report recommends, and we must make sure that the lessons are learned so that other people do not suffer what the victims of the Grenfell fire suffered on that terrible night in June 2017.
Like my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy, I woke at 5 am on that terrible night to phone calls from friends and colleagues who were at the scene of the fire. They were watching events that they had never imagined could happen in one of the wealthiest and most developed countries in the world. Those calls came partly because mine is the neighbouring constituency and Grenfell Tower is only a few hundred yards from the constituency border, but also because Grenfell Tower was in my constituency before the 2010 boundary changes and I obviously knew it well. We have a shared community across much of north Westminster and north Kensington.
We must make sure that, with the passage of two and a half years and a new Parliament, we never forget the sheer horror of what people saw and experienced. Tribute has rightly been paid to the dignity and courage of the survivors, the families and the community, but we must never forget what happened. We must not let the passage of time dull that experience, and we should not lose our sense of urgency.
Some of us gathered only 24 hours after the fire, even before Parliament had properly reconvened after the 2017 general election, to discuss what action needed to be taken. There was a palpable sense of urgency, including from the Government, about what must be learned from the fire and how similar events must be prevented. As has been acknowledged, including by Bob Blackman, that sense of urgency has unfortunately faded.
The steps that needed to be taken, either to serve the survivors in their desperate need for rehousing or to protect the interests of the thousands of people who live in high-rise blocks, both private and social, across the country, have not been implemented. Although it is completely right that the inquiry has to take what time is necessary to be sufficiently rigorous and make sure that the lessons learned are the right ones, there are steps the Government can take, and should have taken in that intervening period. They have failed to do so. We must demand and require that the Government act quickly where they can.
I wish to make three quick points, because many important points have already been made and I do not want to replicate them. The first relates to the issue of sprinklers, which has been referred to in this debate already. We know from the recommendations of the Lakanal House coroner’s report that sprinklers can be supported and should be implemented. We know from the Government that the installation of sprinklers in new builds is being encouraged, and that the height requirement for sprinklers to be installed in new builds is rightly being reduced. That is good and I support it, but why is that same approach not being applied to the retrofitting of sprinklers in existing blocks? How can this be justified? Why are residents in blocks that already exist not being awarded the same level of protection, given that we know from the experience in Australia, where a broadly similar fire occurred, that sprinklers can be effective?
Progress on implementing the retrofitting of sprinklers, left to local authorities, has become mired in complications. We know that Wandsworth Council’s decision to go ahead with sprinklers was overturned in the first tier tribunal only a couple of weeks ago. Unusually, I give credit to Westminster Council—its former leader, Nickie Aiken, is in her place—as it was intending, and still potentially is, to go ahead with the retrofitting of sprinklers in high-rise blocks. That has been delayed because of the complexity of multi-tenure property.
I raised that issue yesterday during the statement and I wish to expand upon it for a moment today, because I think the Government fail to understand that there is not a binary division between private blocks and social housing blocks. The latter are, almost without exception, multi-tenure. There are 15 high-rise social housing tower blocks in my constituency. Those blocks contain within them at least a third—sometimes a half or even more—properties that have been sold under the right to buy. Some of those properties are now in the hands of management companies or corporate landlords, and some of them are owned by overseas companies. Some of them are privately tenanted and some of them are owned; some of them are still owned by those who had the original right to buy. Almost all of them have different leases. So there is massive complexity there and at the moment the legislative framework simply does not allow local authorities to go ahead, even if they wish to and have put the money aside to do so, with carrying out the necessary works to retrofit sprinklers and, in some cases, fire doors—reference has also been made to alarm systems. That has to be sorted out. Two and a half years on, it has not been. So even the local authorities that are willing are not able to go ahead with that work. The Government simply must understand that and take necessary action to move this forward.
The second point I wish to make concerns the issue of evacuation and stay put. The Government are proceeding with a review of that policy. I understand that policy and the issue about compartmentalisation. The question I have to put to the Government is: do they understand what the behavioural impact is on those residents who watched Grenfell burn, be it on TV or from the 15th and 20th storeys of the tower blocks in my constituency overlooking Grenfell? Do the Government understand how people will react in real-life situations if a similar fire occurs now? Two and a half years later, we are still not clear exactly what policy we are adopting. That policy may be different in different circumstances. The Government need to be really clear about how they are going to advise residents—fast-changing residents, residents in different tenancies and residents in private residential property, as well as long-standing tenants—to respond if an event occurs.
It is absolutely right that the policy of the fire brigade in these circumstances is central, but I put it to the Government that people have been advised by a Government Minister that it was lacking in common sense to stay in a burning building. How will those people react? How will the Government make sure that people are properly advised and informed about the latest policy?
I wish to reiterate what the hon. Lady has said, having been the leader of Westminster City Council and very much involved in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy, helping to run the response centre. She is absolutely right about the confusion of the different tenures in many blocks. I am proud that in Westminster we have put sprinkler systems into our social blocks. Glastonbury House in my own ward in Pimlico is purely social tenure—it is an old people’s home—and we have put in sprinklers and that issue is now over, but she is absolutely right that we have this confusion.
We also have confusion about being able to go in, as the local authority, to check the fire safety of homes that have become privately owned under the right to buy. There has to be legislation that takes that into consideration and gives local authorities powers to go in and look at the fire safety of all tenures—not just social rented but also shared ownership. As we move on to more shared-ownership schemes to house more people across central London in particular, there will be an ongoing issue, so I ask the Government to act and I back what the hon. Lady says.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention and hope that Ministers are listening, because that is cross-party consensus among people who have more experience than most of representing areas with multiple high rises with high levels of tenure complexity, and who are calling for action to be taken.
Finally, there has been talk in this debate, and certainly in the inquiry report and elsewhere, about the higher level of risk-assessment work that needs to be done, whether in terms of fitting sprinklers or other safety arrangements, and about the levels of inspections that need to be undertaken. I remain to be convinced that the Government have a proper plan for capacity for those people who will carry out that level of inspection. My worry is that even when the legislative change comes—it is too late, but it is coming—there will still be a bottleneck because the Government have not planned out the resource necessary to do the risk assessment and the inspection work. What assessment have Ministers made of the training and human resources necessary to ensure that we do not find that, even in the aftermath of legislation, we are still a year, two years or three years late in carrying out the work because there simply are not the skilled and trained people required to carry out the work?
There is a powerful responsibility on everyone in the House, but especially the Government, to honour the memory of those who died in the Grenfell fire by acting not just thoroughly and rigorously but swiftly, even at this relatively late hour, to make sure that measures are in place so that nothing like the Grenfell horror can ever happen again. It is clear from today’s debate that there is a long way to go. I hope that, when the Minister responds to the debate, he will be able to give some answers to those who have spoken and assure them that that lesson has been learned.
I pay tribute, as others have done, to the residents of Grenfell, and particularly to members of Grenfell United. They have managed not only to cope with this terrible tragedy, but to make some sense out of it afterwards and to depoliticise it. That is a lesson for this House. We should depoliticise this issue because the source of these problems is pan-governmental. We have some way to go to get this right. We have to do what is right, not just what is easy. There will be some tough challenges before we get to the bottom of this issue.
As I have said, the Secretary of State has done more than anybody else in trying to tackle this issue. Also on the Front Bench today is the former Housing Minister, my hon. Friend Kit Malthouse, who did a tremendous job in bringing forward the remediation fund, which was initially for the social element of the remediation works. We are going further all the time. I was heartened by the Secretary of State’s comments yesterday on his seven-point plan, which has taken us further in understanding that we have not got to the bottom of this issue yet; I really do not think that we have.
We all say that this terrible tragedy should never be repeated. I listened carefully to the words of my hon. Friend Dean Russell, whom I welcome to his place. If we are to make sure that this does not happen again, we absolutely must confront the lessons of this tragedy.
It is right that the Government acted in terms of a ban on combustible materials; they were very quick in doing that. The Select Committee called for it, but simultaneously the Government brought it forward. It was absolutely the right thing to do, as was the decision to replace ACM on every building—social or private—in the UK. The question now is on other combustible cladding on high-rise buildings around the country. It is difficult to challenge the findings of Sir Martin Moore-Bick in his very comprehensive report, but I think that it is ambiguous: I am not sure whether he is right in chapter 2.16, where he says that the building
I shall tell Members why I think that. That is not definitive; that is why I say it is ambiguous. According to the Government’s own guidance, there are two ways to meet the requirement on fire spread—there are two ways that external walls may meet the building regulations. One is for each individual component of the wall to meet the required standard of combustibility. The guidance is in section 12.6 of approved document B, which says:
“The external surfaces of walls should meet the provisions in Diagram 40.”
If we look at diagram 40, it is clear that the standard allowed is class B, which is a combustible standard, so it is ambiguous. This answers the question of my right hon. Friend Mrs May and my hon. Friend Bob Blackman as to why this happened. We have to look in detail at exactly why this happened. We cannot simply say, as advice note 14 does, that combustible materials were not allowed to go on the outside of buildings. It refers only to materials of “limited combustibility” —A2 and above. Diagram 40 refers to class B, which is clearly below A2 in terms of standard. Therefore, there is ambiguity between advice note 14 and approved document B and diagram 40.
Yes, combustible insulation is clearly banned in terms of a component test. As for cladding, there is ambiguity to say the least. Of course, on the back of advice note 14, we are saying to people who live in buildings with combustible cladding that those properties do not meet the standard, which makes them unsaleable and puts long-lease holders in this terrible situation—this invidious situation—where they are left totally in limbo. Even if that were not the case, there would be a difficulty with this. Clearly, the situation with the guidance is so serious. We recognise now that it was a mistake to allow combustible cladding on the outside of high-rise buildings. That is why the Government rightly brought forward the combustible ban. Building regulations, however, work prospectively, not retrospectively. How can we say that it is wrong to allow combustible cladding on new high-rise buildings but okay for old ones? We simply cannot countenance that, but leaseholders are being put in that situation.
People keep saying that freeholders—the building owners—must pay. However, as I have pointed out time and again, both in the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government and on the Floor of the House, while social landlords must pay, and the Government have put in some money for them, in most cases freeholders—the owners of a property’s ground rent and the ground on which the building stands—have no legal responsibility to carry out remedial maintenance work on a high-rise building. We can talk tough all we like and say, “We’re going to make them do this and make them do that”—Opposition Members have said that, and I have heard Conservative Members say it, too—but there is no legal way to do that. I do not know of a way to impose on anybody a retrospective legal requirement in a contract. It is simply not possible in our legal framework, and that leaves leaseholders in limbo.
We are going to have to look again at the issue and do something for long-lease holders, many of whom will have bought their properties on a high loan to value and who do not have the £20,000 or £30,000 to pay for the remedial work of removing combustible cladding from each flat and replacing it with limited combustibility cladding. So we will have to look at this again. I welcome the fact that the Government have said that they are looking at it again and will look at the testing. It is absolutely right that we wait to see the results of the testing on a lot of the systems—I get that. If it turns out, however, that some of the buildings are unsafe, it is absolutely right that we look again at the issue. I know we are talking about a lot of money, but to put people in a situation where they feel at risk and have a property they simply cannot sell, cannot be right. It is right that we in this place do what is right, not what is easy.
It is a pleasure to follow Kevin Hollinrake. I welcome his willingness to look at a wider range of policy responses to try to deal with this terrible problem.
I would like to start by paying tribute to the Grenfell families. It is almost impossible for us to imagine what they have been through. Their steadfastness and determination are a wonder to us all, and I pay tribute, from the bottom of my heart, to them, the whole Grenfell community and the firefighters who so bravely served local people on that dreadful day. I thank the Secretary of State for his work and the tone in which he spoke earlier. I concur with the views of many hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I want to focus on two areas that have been discussed but that I believe need to be developed further. The first is the scale of the problem. The fire was truly dreadful. We have heard moving accounts of how people heard about loved ones who were caught up in this disaster. The aftermath affects the whole country and we need to consider the full scale of the issue, by which I mean many of the aspects that we have started to discuss tonight, including the much wider range of cladding that is believed to be dangerous, such as wooden cladding and other forms of composites, and the lack of fire safety, such as potentially substandard fire doors. There is a whole range of other issues that we are just starting to touch on.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his thoughts on the height of buildings, and I urge him to work with me and other Members who have a large number of lower-rise flats in our constituencies. It is a huge potential problem. Many have a whole series of potential fire hazards buried within them. In Reading, for example, we have four high-rise buildings that were identified as having ACM cladding on them after the terrible disaster. It took some time for Berkshire fire and rescue to investigate a number of tall buildings across the county. They did a very thorough job. However, there then comes the issue of buildings that are not quite as tall but may contain very serious fire safety risks to residents. Substantial numbers of people in medium-sized towns and cities around the country are living in flats that are four, five, six, seven, eight or nine storeys high that are not covered by some of the issues we have discussed today.
There are other issues with potentially dangerous houses in multiple occupation where terraced houses are divided up into maybe two or three flats. I have seen for myself, as a former local councillor, two or three families living in one terraced house, crammed in, often in very squalid conditions, subject to poor quality housing. There are real issues about the provision of fire safety in those buildings.
We also need to address the very real problems that some Members have discussed, or hinted at, regarding other types of buildings, whether they be academic buildings, workplaces, hospitals or schools. A whole range of buildings could contain dangerous cladding in one form or another. We need to address those issues very thoroughly. In the wake of the original disaster, we have had terrible fires in a number of parts of the country, such as the Bolton incident, Barking and several others. These fires could take place across a number of parts of Great Britain, and they deserve to be addressed properly through a suitable scale of response.
I am grateful for the attention that has been paid so far to the scale of response needed from central and local government. However—I urge the Government to consider this fully—I find it deeply disturbing that in the fifth wealthiest country in the world, two and a half years after this disaster, we are still waiting for people to be rehoused and still waiting for a series of actions to be taken. Those actions just deal with the initial problem of the ACM cladding, not the subsequent issues that I have discussed. I note that the Minister for Crime, Policing and the Fire Service is in his place and attentive, and I believe he is very sincere in his desire to improve matters. I urge Ministers to ensure that we look thoroughly, afresh, at the need for human resources in DCLG—skilled people who understand the issues and who are trained in building safety—and the need for fire inspection by fire services. In my case, in a typical English county, it took months for the local fire and rescue service to inspect all the buildings. They worked very hard with the limited resources they had.
We need to look carefully at the resources for dealing with emergencies but also for inspecting and understanding risk, and we need to take urgent and determined action to tackle that risk. That covers a number of fronts, both at official level in central and local government and on the ground, with firefighters and building control officers making sure that the new inspectorate has real teeth and has suitable resources to take the action that is needed. I am sure the Minister would agree that this is a vital point. I urge him to ask his friends in the Treasury to look afresh at this issue and to commit substantial and significant sums of money on a timescale that is appropriate to the urgency of this very serious issue. I hope that he will take account of that plea.
My town of Reading and the neighbouring small town of Woodley, which also falls largely within the Reading East constituency, are just one small example of many towns and cities across the country where this serious problem exists. Luckily, we have not yet had a disastrous fire, but it could happen at any time. We need urgent and determined action, with central Government in the lead, to tackle this dreadful problem. I urge the Minister to take action on the scale that is needed.
It is an honour to follow Matt Rodda and, indeed, so many colleagues from all parts of the Chamber who have made so many important observations about this issue and the way forward.
I will always remember the week of Grenfell. It was my first week as a Member of Parliament. It had started with so much optimism, energy and enthusiasm, and then it so, so quickly turned into horror, tragedy and just unbelievable sadness that was felt all across this country. I join others in paying tribute to the families for their continuous support for each other, for making sure that no member of their community is ever forgotten or left behind, and for their mission to make sure that the lessons are learned and that it never happens again.
I recall, as a new Member of Parliament, quickly thinking about my own constituents, many of whom commute into London every day to work in the City, in Canary Wharf and in other very tall buildings. I used to work in Canary Wharf, on the 46th floor, and indeed was working there during the 9/11 tragedy. All members of staff at that time felt that we were the next target. If London were to be hit, it was our tower that would be targeted. Entering that building, each of us was full of fear every day. On two occasions, the fire alarm did go off. Even though I was fitter and younger then, walking down those stairs as quickly as I could took 40 minutes. My hon. Friend Felicity Buchan, in her powerful speech, asked the Minister to look at the safety of not only residential blocks but schools, hospitals and care homes. I say to the Minister, please do not forget our office workers and others who work in tall buildings.
I would like to talk about electrical safety. The fire in Grenfell was started by an electric fridge. I lost my father in an electrical accident—an accident that should never have happened—when I was only 10 years old. I know that nothing can ever bring back a loved one, but those of us who have lived through such accidents always want to do everything we can to make sure that they never happen again.
The sad thing is that instances of electrical appliances starting fires are not unique. According to Electrical Safety First, more than 10,000 fires in this country last year started because of electrical appliances. A large number of fires start because the owners misuse the appliance. We must continue to raise, focus on and talk about the importance of using electrical appliances safely. There are also a growing number of counterfeit and fake items, especially in online sales, which I am afraid often have high accident rates in respect of fire and other electrical accidents.
Then there is the issue of faulty products, which was mentioned by Andy Slaughter. We should look at what is happening right now in this area and think urgently about what more we can do to help. Just before Christmas, Whirlpool announced the recall of half a million—500,000—washing machines. These washing machines have caused fires. It is not a huge number of fires and nobody has had a serious injury—touch wood—but the situation is serious enough for the manufacturer to want to recall those goods.
If I may, I will finish the point because this is an important statistic.
Whirlpool has reached out through national media, local media and social media—the radio, the newspaper—to try to find out where those 500,000 appliances are. It has been in touch with 2 million customers, but so far has managed to identify only 105,000 appliances. That means that nearly 400,000 homes in this country today have a washing machine that is at significant risk of fire. I know that the Minister is engaged at the moment, but I ask him to please take seriously the question of how we can improve the ability to find the owners of faulty appliances. Whirlpool and other manufacturers are calling for a mandatory registration scheme. I think this is an area where one small step could potentially save many thousands of lives.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I agree with her about a mandatory registration scheme. This morning I had a meeting with a colleague of mine from Electrical Safety First. One of the things they put on my radar, which I had not necessarily considered, was that as we move towards electric cars—we covered this in our climate change debate last week—there are concerns about people who live in flats and do not have charging points. I say to the Minister, through the hon. Lady, that we need to have that issue on our radar. People living in flats who do not have charging points might try to use more informal mechanisms to charge their car, such as daisy-chaining, and we have to think about that, particularly as we move towards electric vehicles.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent broader point. Moving towards electrification is vital as part of our reaction to climate change and achieving net zero, but it needs to be done safely. The safety of the products that we buy online and in shops, and ensuring that those products can be recalled and replaced when there are safety issues, is key.
I congratulate Vicky Ford on her speech. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. I declare an interest, as a member and co vice-chair of the newly formed all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue. As a member of the APPG in my last term in this place, we seemed to have a revolving door of Ministers responsible for fire. That was not helpful when we were looking to progress any action on a range of issues. I hope that that will change and that we will have some continuity. I commend the Secretary of State for the way he conducted himself today.
This is my first speech in this place since being returned as the MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, and I am honoured that the people of that incredible constituency have placed their faith in me once again to represent their interests in Westminster. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my immediate predecessor, Ged Killen, who was a diligent representative for my constituents.
The success of my constituency has depended on the efforts of working people throughout the centuries, from the old shipyards of Rutherglen to the famous Hoover factory in Cambuslang. The traditional industries dominated my constituency and built up working-class solidarity, which is evident across Scotland’s industrial heartlands. It is with that heritage in mind that I will speak up for those people who do the hard graft and make my constituency the unique and special place that it is.
The Grenfell Tower fire is a stark reminder of what happens when we let down those hard-working people who deserve our support. I would like to pay my respects to the victims and their families and pay tribute to the families and survivors for their fortitude and dignity throughout this ongoing inquiry. I would also like to pay tribute to individual firefighters for their bravery. They deserve our gratitude and respect for the dangerous job that they do.
It is to the shame of the authorities that such a tragedy was ever allowed to occur in the first place. On
In the immediate aftermath of Grenfell, the Scottish Government established a building and fire safety ministerial working group, and I am pleased to see that it has made progress on improving fire safety in domestic and public buildings in Scotland. The most prominent change to come from the group is a new requirement for all homes in Scotland to have interlinked smoke and heat alarms by 2021. That is a small but essential step towards reducing the risk of fires in homes, schools, prisons and hospitals.
The headquarters of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is based in Cambuslang in my constituency, which I have had the pleasure of visiting. It is a state-of-the-art resource, and I have seen at first hand the training that it undertakes to keep us all safe. It demonstrates the commitment of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to finding new and better ways to save lives and prevent fire. They are heroes in my eyes.
Everyone deserves to live in a safe home, and the people of Grenfell Tower had put their trust in the authorities to build, upgrade and modernise their homes, yet there is no doubt in my mind that cutting corners in building work ultimately proved fatal. Even though the phase 1 report is mainly concerned with the emergency service response to the fire, it cannot avoid highlighting the role that aluminium composite material cladding had in spreading the fire at devastating speed, which we will hear more of in the phase 2 inquiry. The public have a right to know if other buildings are affected by Grenfell-style cladding. Developers and building owners should consider this report very carefully and act on the recommendations with no delay.
I turn to the findings of the phase 1 report. We must learn the lessons that will enable fire and rescue services across the UK to respond quickly and effectively to situations like Grenfell. Recommendations about operational changes, specifically the procedure for communication between command and control and incident commanders, must be looked at during major incidents, and how we deal with a high volume of 999 calls. We must ensure that firefighters have enough training, especially on the “stay put” policy, and about if or when it should be used alongside the practical consideration of full or partial evacuation, which will require multi-agency co-operation. The fire brigades and authorities should hold information about what materials and methods of construction were used in the external walls of high-rise buildings, so that they know what they are dealing with on arrival. There must be flexibility in the decision-making process. Split-second decisions have to be made on arrival at a fire, and there must be good communication between the joint emergency services. These measures will go some way to protecting some of the most vulnerable people in society.
In conclusion, we must do everything in our power to ensure that an event like this does not happen again. The pain and anguish of the loss of 72 people will live with us all forever, especially for the relatives—many are in the Gallery today—who will continue to grieve for the loss of their loved ones every single day. As the inquiry progresses, they should be at the forefront of our minds. My constituency has always had a reputation for caring as much for the needs of others as for its own. David Livingstone, Blantyre’s most famous son, once said:
“Sympathy is no substitute for action.”
Let us embrace the spirit of these words in our determination to ensure that the victims of Grenfell are never forgotten.
It is a pleasure to follow the returning speech, as it might be termed, of Margaret Ferrier. It is also a pleasure to have heard some very powerful speeches, not least that of my new colleague, my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan. I remember, in 2017, when her predecessor had to come to this place in such terrible circumstances and had to respond to that within weeks. My hon. Friend has really taken up being that champion and advocate for the people of her constituency of Kensington. It is so important that we make sure that we do keep the action going, as I will try to cover in the few minutes of my contribution.
We also heard a speech from my hon. Friend Dean Russell, who spoke powerfully about the mental health aspects not only of the victims’ families and friends and the people who had to witness that, but of the emergency services. It is good to make sure that he is aware, although he is not in his place at the moment, that NHS England has a budget of £50 million to offer direct support to the people in the community. That clearly does not cover the emergency services, so we must make sure that people like the fireman to whom he bore testament get mental health support as well. It is so crucial that they can carry on living a fulfilling life and doing the fulfilling, heroic job that they absolutely do.
I led the first debate on Grenfell in Parliament. It took place in Westminster Hall as the result of a petition that had been signed by a number of people who could not fail to be struck by the plight of the 72 victims and their families and friends. I read each of those 72 names into the record. I had researched and looked into the people who lost their lives, and it was so tragic. I could not fail to be moved, and I defy anyone who looks into those stories not to have a tear in their eye. People have said today that we must never let this happen again, but I do not want to say that at the end of my speech. We must get on. We must not spend time just talking about this; we must get things done.
A couple of years ago, I remember hearing in the Speaker’s apartment a family member from Grenfell United describe this as a tragedy in three acts: the first stage was being ignored during the refurbishment, the second stage was the fire itself, and the third stage was the sense of abandonment at the end. I understand those sentiments, but I have also seen how the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mrs May, Ministers for housing and for the police, and other Ministers, together with local authority representatives and Members of Parliament for Kensington, have tried to do their best for that community and for others who live in similar at-risk properties. I therefore welcome two Bills proposed in the Queen’s Speech that will follow through on the recommendations in phase one of the report.
The proposed fire safety Bill will
“enable the Government to lay regulations needed to deliver the legislative recommendations” in that report, and the proposed building safety Bill will allow us to prompt a change in industry culture. We have heard what it will be like for private contractors. Do we legislate? How do we push them to meet their responsibilities to the people who will live in their buildings?
This is not just about height. In a previous debate in this place I spoke about a fire at Chaucer House, a high-rise block in my constituency, and I saw the lessons that the fire services had learned and were able to put into practice. In the past few months there was a fire at Richmond House, a low-rise, privately owned block in Worcester Park in the Hamptons. It burned down in minutes. That clearly has not been covered by Government or industry action, but I saw the devastation that the fire caused to a comparatively small number of families. As we heard from John Healey, at that stage there was fortunately no loss of life. What can we learn from that, and what can we learn from Grenfell to ensure that people who still live in similarly constructed houses do not have their safety put at risk? How can those people who want to move but find that their homes currently have no market value move on and get things done? Those two Bills will be instrumental in holding the industry to account and ensuring fire safety in our new properties. We must have confidence and ensure that people feel safe in their own homes—a fundamental point that we should expect in this day and age.
It is an honour to speak in this debate, and I am so pleased to be called. I have spoken in previous such debates. I wish to declare an interest: I am proud to support our firefighters, and I am a member and co-chair of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group. I will also pay tribute to my good friend, Emma Dent Coad, former Member of Parliament for Kensington. Emma was a strong advocate and wonderful representative for her constituents and the Grenfell families, and I know that her passionate voice will be sadly missed in this place—I suspect on both sides of the Chamber.
I have some misgivings about the nature of the first phase of the inquiry, and whether it was right simply to focus on the night of the fire. It is really important that we look at the context of the fire, not just the actions on the night. It is my belief that before a single firefighter arrived at Grenfell, the building was already compromised in several ways. I want to list them. Some of them have been touched on.
The rainscreen ACM cladding covering outside the building was compromised. A number of Members talked about the safety testing regimes and the way in which the safety tests are conducted. My understanding is that the panels are not tested as they would appear on the side of a building, with sections cut for windows and balconies, so I believe there is an issue with the tests. The lining materials around the windows were compromised. There was also the fire resistance of the flat doors; the flat fire doors that did not self-close; and the lack of provision for people who needed assistance. One hon. Member mentioned the terrible fire in Bolton recently, where most of the occupants were fit and able students, but circumstances like those at Grenfell, with children, elderly and disabled people, need to be taken into account. There was a lower standard of stair doors, and heating systems and gas pipes were in the protected central stairwell. There was a single stairwell only just over a metre wide; firefighting lifts were not provided; there was a dry fire main instead of a wet riser for water supplies. For the uninitiated, a dry fire main is an empty pipe that can be connected to a water source from outside the building by firefighters, whereas in a wet riser system pipes are kept full of water for immediate automatic use or manual use by firefighters. There was also the failure of the lobby smoke control system.
Grenfell Tower was compromised through political decisions from the cosmetic so-called refurbishment that wrapped it in a flammable cladding, and because of deregulation of in respect of buildings and fire protection. From the cuts to the fire service to the failure to learn from previous tragedies, I think we have to look at the broader context, the political decisions and the individuals involved. As Mayor of London, our current Prime Minister, in my view, must accept his share of culpability and responsibility. He was at the forefront of driving cuts through when he was the Mayor of London; cuts to the London Fire Brigade of over £100 million, which—let us be honest about this—led to the loss of 27 fire appliances, 552 firefighters, 324 support staff, two fire rescue units and three training appliances, the closure of 10 fire stations and a reduction overall in crewing levels. Let us not pretend that that had no impact, because it did.
During this period of politically motivated austerity, recommendations arising from the Lakanal House and Shirley Tower fires landed on Ministers’ desks. Let us not pretend that that did not happen. The recommendations on the retrofitting of sprinklers in high rise buildings and the recommendations to overhaul building regulations were ignored. A 2013 promise to review existing building and safety fire regulations was not carried out until July 2017, following Grenfell. In relation to the “stay put” policy, the Government were warned by Frances Kirkham, the coroner for the Lakanal House tragedy, who said that the Government should
“publish consolidated national guidance in relation to the ‘stay put’
principle and its interaction with the ‘get out and stay out’
policy, including how such guidance is disseminated to residents”.
In response to the coroner, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is now in the other place—the noble Lord Pickles of Brentwood and Ongar—said that detailed national guidance on the issue was already available in “Fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats”, produced by the Local Government Association; I think someone has referred to that. However, this guidance does not give any direction on the circumstances in which it might be appropriate to move from a “stay put” to a “get out” policy—in fact, it restates the “stay put” policy.
The Grenfell inquiry cannot be another example of failure, where good intentions fail to turn into meaningful actions. I will ask the Minister a few direct questions: will he meet the Fire Brigades Union to draft a detailed and effective policy on “stay put” and identify when a “get out, stay out” policy should come into effect? If so, does he accept that he needs to change the guidance and warn residents in high-rise buildings of the risks that they face?
Will the Minister and the Prime Minister now accept that cuts to the fire and rescue services in London and nationally have increased the risk to the public and undermined fire safety? The latest figures show the decline in response times to primary fires, with firefighters taking two minutes and 42 seconds longer to respond to a primary fire compared with 1994-95, under a previous recording system. Seconds count when it comes to fire. In the case of Grenfell, it took just 12 minutes for the fire to spread 19 floors to the roof. If we are going to improve fire safety and response times, we need to replace the firefighters that have been lost and provide our fire service with the resources and equipment that it needs to maintain public safety.
I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to thank our firefighters from the Dispatch Box—as the Secretary of State did in his opening remarks—but I want him to accept that a decade of austerity has had an effect on morale and resources. The firefighters who went to Grenfell Tower, risking their lives in circumstances that few of us can imagine or will ever experience, are nothing short of heroes—I accept that they will not thank me for calling them that. Grenfell was avoidable. The warnings from past tragedies were written in black and white and sat on Ministers’ desks. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr Speaker—I am almost finished.
I speak in this important debate as someone who has been a member of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee for the last five years. As a Committee, we have had regular engagement with survivors and bereaved families and have undertaken regular scrutiny of successive Government Ministers. The survivors are remarkable in their courage, dignity and commitment to one another and to justice, and I pay tribute to them.
It is absolutely shocking and unacceptable that 10 families are still in temporary accommodation two and a half years on from the Grenfell Tower disaster. The process of rehousing survivors has been far too slow—that it is still ongoing at all now is inexcusable. I understand that there are some complex individual circumstances, but the fact remains that some actions were taken by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea early on in the response that contributed to the ongoing delays, including the failure to undertake sufficiently detailed assessments of housing need before properties were purchased, resulting in homes being bought that survivors could not live in, either because of physical constraints or the impact of the trauma—for example, an understandable terror of living at height.
The lack of clarity on cladding is also a disgrace. The Government have still not tested, identified and specified in a transparent way all the types of cladding that are installed on buildings in the UK, leaving thousands living with constant anxiety about whether the cladding on their building is or is not flammable and whether their lives are therefore at risk when they go to bed at night. We do know, however, that there are cladding types in addition to ACM that are flammable, and yet the funding for removal is limited to ACM. Grenfell brought to light the scandal of unsafe cladding. It is now for the Government to identify comprehensively all the types of flammable cladding on buildings in the UK and fund their removal.
The Government announced this week that they would reduce the height above which flammable cladding is banned from 18 stories to 11 stories. For the survivors who have contacted me, this is simply not good enough. ACM cladding is tantamount to soaking the outside of a building in petrol. They can see no justification for any resident at any height or none being asked to live in such circumstances, and I agree. After Grenfell, the Government promised to address the issues raised about how people living in social housing are treated. The promised White Paper on social housing must be grasped as the opportunity to deliver a legacy for Grenfell. The Government must ensure that people living in social housing are treated with dignity and respect, live in safe buildings and have repairs, complaints and concerns addressed quickly and that all landlords are robustly regulated, whether in the social or private sectors, with swift access to redress for tenants and penalties for landlords who are found in breach of their responsibilities.
This is not just about regulation, however, but about funding. Tory cuts to the funding for social housing mean that a council such as Southwark, which covers part of my constituency, has lost £60 million over the past four years from its housing revenue account. Without proper resourcing, the services tenants need and deserve will be stretched to the very limit.
Grenfell United has continued to express concerns about the inquiry panel and, in particular, would like to see a member of the panel with expertise on culture who understands how social housing tenants are sometimes treated when they raise complaints and how some organisations can foster an environment in which tenants raising serious service failings or health and safety concerns are far too easily dismissed. I hope the Government will listen to the survivors and seek to recruit a panel member who understands these issues without further delay.
Among many important recommendations, Sir Martin Moore-Bick recommends that all high-rise buildings have floor numbers clearly marked on each landing and stairwell, yet during the general election campaign, canvassing in many different constituencies, I came across public and privately owned buildings where even this basic and straightforward recommendation had not yet been implemented, meaning that, in the event of another serious fire, the emergency services and residents would again be hampered in their efforts to evacuate the building safely for want of such basic information. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that building owners are clear about their responsibilities and ensure their implementation? There is no excuse for delaying the installation of simple signage that could save lives.
The Grenfell families and the wider north Kensington community have suffered a trauma and loss that runs very deep. They will continue to need support, particularly with both physical and mental health, for the long term. Will the Minister commit to that support, particularly in terms of liaising with the Department of Health and Social Care to secure additional NHS resources, so that whatever the ongoing long-term consequences of this tragedy continue to be for the community, no one will feel abandoned?
I appreciate you calling me to speak, Mr Speaker.
I begin my brief remarks by paying tribute to the Grenfell survivors and their families bearing the weight of bereavement. They have fought for justice in the face of suffering that I cannot begin to imagine. Their dignity and determination continue to be awe-inspiring, and I uphold them in my prayers. On top of that, I honour the bravery of the firefighters. The personal risks they took are utterly humbling and we should be clear that any systematic failures in how the disaster was handled detract in no way from the phenomenal courage and hard work of firefighters on the ground.
The new building safety regulator must have the widest possible scope to ensure that people are safe and feel safe in their homes. It must, for example, look at all building materials. We need a complete review of the content and implementation of building regulations, including provisions for the use of sprinklers and cladding in tower blocks; local councils’ ability to check the details of developments prior to and during building or renovation; the ability to update building regulations as new products, processes and techniques become available and to use the regulations to enforce changes, where necessary, in buildings, based on updated knowledge of new products, processes and techniques.
It is unacceptable that thousands of families are still living in unsafe high-rise buildings. Smaller, often privately rented buildings in places such as south Cumbria can be, potentially, lethally unsafe, with their residents living in fear of what might happen or—more likely—in ignorance of the risk they are in. So I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement in his statement yesterday that from next month those responsible for failures to remove cladding would be named and shamed, but we cannot rely on that being sufficient when so many of those living in their properties may not have the means to take action. The Government must establish deadlines for the removal of the cladding. If that does not happen, they must step in and change the buildings themselves, and even present landlords with the bill. If they cannot be trusted to provide safe buildings, they cannot be trusted to be landlords. That may seem a radical step, but two and a half years after this tragedy is enough time to start the remediation of the work. It is not enough to ask them to remove it and pass on the responsibility; the Government must ensure that that happens. It is nothing less than a matter of life and death.
Yesterday, the Secretary of State referred to the Government’s absolute duty to ensure that action continued to be taken as quickly as possible so that a tragedy such as the one at Grenfell could never happen again. I commend him for his ambition, and plead with him to take those steps to enact the recommendations so that he can be true to his word.
No one can forget their experiences of seeing the Grenfell fire, but I also want to talk about something that happened in my constituency. On
I pay tribute to Greater Manchester’s fire and rescue service for ensuring that all the residents were evacuated quickly and safely, and that the fire was rapidly brought under control. I also pay tribute to the university staff who came to the scene to give immediate assistance, and who continued to provide physical, financial and mental support, although the university does not own the building. The local community also came together to support the students. It is not surprising that in 2013 Bolton was voted the friendliest, warmest and most considerate town in the United Kingdom.
It is clear that the building regulatory system is broken, and has failed the residents of Grenfell, The Cube and other buildings. The height limit for tighter controls on building materials is 18 metres. The Cube is just 16 centimetres short of that height, and is therefore not subject to the same safety regulations as taller buildings. I welcomed the Secretary of State’s announcement yesterday that he was minded to reduce the limit to 11 metres, but I feel that that does not go far enough. Many buildings lower than that are also high-risk, including hospitals, care homes, schools, and complex buildings such as shopping centres.
The Government have focused on the ACM cladding that was used at Grenfell, but The Cube was clad in high-pressure laminate, which is used on thousands of other buildings across the country. The Government have been warned repeatedly by the Greater Manchester High Rise Task Force—whose representatives I met last week—that the risks extend beyond ACM cladding, but not all cladding systems have yet been tested. The Government must recognise that other cladding materials also present a risk, and that all buildings should be made safe as soon as possible. I was particularly surprised to learn that VAT is being charged on remedial works, and I urge the Government to exempt them in order to help building owners to carry out works in a timely manner.
Apart from the construction issue, there seems to have been a failure to tell people what procedures should be adopted in the event of a fire, and that was certainly not done in The Cube. Apparently the fire alarms went off regularly, and some of the students thought that there had been the same problem on the day in question. One young lady who realised what was going on knocked on every single door and got the people out. However, we must ensure that proper procedures are introduced in such buildings to ensure that people know what to do in case of fire, and also to ensure that there are ways of detecting fires.
I am glad to have the opportunity to respond to this very important debate. Above all, I want to say to the survivors and the relatives of the dead of Grenfell that they are not forgotten. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy and my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Westminster North (Ms Buck), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for Easington (Grahame Morris), for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on their very thoughtful and informed contributions.
We have heard an enormous amount, in very important speeches in this debate, on building regulations—a vital subject. We have heard an enormous amount on cladding—another vital subject. But above all, this issue, and this debate, is about people, and it is the issues that touch on people that I want to talk about.
I do not think anybody in this House can forget where they were when they saw the first, terrible images of Grenfell tower covered in flames, like a roman candle. I cannot remember more horrific images of a disaster in mainland Britain. It happens that I know the area rather well because when I was a child, north Kensington was at the heart of the West Indian community. We know that 72 entirely innocent citizens perished in Grenfell tower. Many more suffered injury and injustice. Lives have been shattered. What is more, it was a peculiarly horrible death to burn to death in that way, and it is peculiarly horrible for the survivors to know that they would have known many of the people who burned to death. They would have seen them on the landings or in the lifts on their way to work, or taking their children to school. They would have been families of their children’s schoolfriends. This was an extraordinary tragedy, and the survivors have seen sights they will never unsee. As other Members have said, it is important to note the bravery and the dignity of the survivors, and the fact that they helped one another from the very earliest hours of the fire, and continue to help one another today.
However, I have to remind the House: these were deaths foretold by the residents themselves. They argued that their homes were being prettified for the benefit of other people. They warned about the dangers of the cladding. They warned about the lack of fire equipment. They warned about the problems with the fire doors and the absence of water sprinklers. Sadly, they seem to have been ignored by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
So I welcome what the Minister said—it is a cautious welcome, but it is a welcome—about the reform of social housing, and I await with interest the social housing White Paper, which he told us would deal with redress, regulation, quality and safety. Clearly, we need to see the White Paper and read the detail, but the planning of a White Paper reflects something that I have always felt very strongly—that Grenfell is more than the sum of its parts: there are issues, drawn to our attention by Grenfell, about the way we regard and treat people who happen to live in social housing.
Members on both sides of the House have drawn attention to the delay in rehousing Grenfell’s survivors. The Government of the time promised that all the survivors of the Grenfell blaze would be rehoused in a matter of weeks. Two and a half years later, some survivors are still waiting for a reasonable offer of local accommodation. I know it is complex, but it is simply not acceptable that, two and a half years later, they have not all been rehoused. As colleagues have said, some spent Christmas in hotels or temporary accommodation.
The Minister did not say what happened to the residents of the Walkways, who also saw awful things and also have housing needs. I stress that this is not just about housing. There are issues about the general support offered to survivors, and about mental health. I seek an assurance from Ministers that everything is being done to support survivors in terms of not just housing, vital as that is, but their broader holistic needs and their mental health.
As Members on both sides of the House have said, the Government have moved very slowly on the issue of cladding on other buildings. We have heard in informed contributions by Members on both sides of the House that hundreds of tower blocks are effectively wrapped in ultra-flammable elements. The removal work on many of those blocks has not begun. The Secretary of State said there are 10 such buildings left in the private sector, but I hope the Minister will tell us how many buildings in the public sector have yet to have their cladding removed.
Labour Members were accused of scaremongering when we said that other Grenfells were waiting to happen but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East has reminded us, a Bolton tower block of student accommodation went up in flames in mid-November 2019—it was covered in flammable cladding. The National Union of Students had previously listed it as one of the many blocks presenting severe safety concerns. I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said about the proposed legislative response, and we await the details of the fire safety Bill.
I take this opportunity to join other Members in thanking the emergency services for the brave work they do. I especially thank the firefighters for their excellent, brave work and for their bravery on the night. I also place on record my thanks and the heartfelt thanks of the Grenfell community to their former MP, Emma Dent Coad. She has been a tireless champion for the entire community, and she continues to be so.
The Leader of the House came dangerously close to seeming to blame the residents for not having the common sense to escape the fire—dangerously close, some of us would say. Labour Members regret that there were no representatives of the survivors and the bereaved on the panel but, just as it would be wrong to scapegoat the residents, we have to be careful what we say about the “stay put” policy. “Stay put” is a Government policy. I am glad to hear it is in the process of review, but when will we get the new guidelines?
I draw the House’s attention to something that is not entirely relevant to the inquiry: the Grenfell recovery taskforce. It has made its fourth report and, if the Minister has not read it, I suggest he does. The recovery taskforce says, as many Members have said, that Kensington and Chelsea has been too slow in much of its response, and it says there have been strategic failures. The recovery taskforce also says that the quality of the council’s relationship with the local community has too frequently been weak. That is a very serious matter. How is the community to recover from this tragedy if the local authority is not engaging seriously with them?
In closing, first, Benita Mehra may be a very informed woman but, as other Members have said, her conflict of interest means the Cabinet Office must take her off the panel. Secondly, Ministers must listen to what the Grenfell recovery taskforce is saying, what the inquiry is saying and what the residents are saying: there is not enough speed and haste, both in dealing with the broad issue of removing cladding from vulnerable buildings and in helping, supporting and rehousing residents.
Finally, the reason Grenfell lives on in so many of our memories is not just the horror of the images but what it says about us as a society that all these people could burn to death in such horrific circumstances in the wealthiest borough in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. To make good the horror that not just the people in this Chamber and not just the British public but people around the world feel about the images of Grenfell tower, the Government must really listen to what has been said in this debate on both sides of the Chamber, and they really must make much more haste in doing what needs to be done. Anything less would not be honouring the memory of the dead.
No one in this House will ever forget the tragic events that unfolded in the early hours of
I would also like to join every speaker in the Chamber this afternoon in acknowledging the survivors and the bereaved for their dignity and their resolution to see lessons learned following this devastating event. Their determination and resilience helps us to remember the scale of this tragedy and keep those who lost their lives firmly in our minds while we work to make the changes needed. For their sake, we must ensure that a disaster on this scale can never happen again.
I also want to express my own thanks to the firefighters who braved the unprecedented conditions they faced that night. As my hon. Friends the Members for Watford (Dean Russell) and for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) pointed out, many disregarded their own safety, returning time and again to the flames to try to rescue those who were trapped. Such individual acts of heroism cannot, however, undo the systemic failures that the inquiry has found in the London Fire Brigade response. They must be addressed, and work is already well under way.
The report makes a number of significant findings and recommendations. As highlighted in this House, in the Government’s published response to the report and in the opening of this debate, we are committed to driving forward the work needed to effect real change. The Government have accepted in full the principle of all the recommendations addressed to them. On legislation, it is clear that urgent action is needed from all corners of the fire sector and the construction industry to secure the future safety of residents. As my hon. Friend Bob Blackman and others have pointed out, the pace of this change concerns us all. So the Government will bring forward the fire safety Bill, as outlined today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, which will help our remediation efforts immediately. The foundation set by this Bill lays the groundwork for further regulations to meet a number of recommendations in the report, which we will consult on in the spring.
On “stay put”, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and Home Office’s expert stay put steering group met on
Turning to the criticisms of the LFB and the recommendations for it, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services completed its first tranche of inspections of all fire and rescue services in December 2019 and produced its first “State of Fire and Rescue” report last week. The inspectorate and the inquiry reports both show that there is much work to be done. The inspector found that the LFB had learned the lessons of Grenfell but that change has been slow. In November, the Home Secretary wrote to the previous commissioner asking that the LFB provide regular updates on its improvement actions. We have now received an action plan from the LFB setting out the work it will do to take forward the recommendations over the coming weeks and months. We will look for ongoing assurance from the commissioner and the Mayor of London, as well as from the inspectorate, that plans are robust and that progress is being made. I note that today the Mayor has today published his first update report on the work he is taking responsibility for in this regard. I have written to the Mayor and met the new commissioner, Andy Roe, and I welcome his commitment to work with the Mayor to ensure that performance improves and to ensure his acceptance of all the report’s recommendations.
Beyond London, the report and its recommendations have implications for all fire and rescue services. The Government are working with the sector leaders and the National Fire Chiefs Council to identify the improvements needed and to ensure co-ordination across the sector. The Home Secretary wrote to the chief fire officers after the inquiry published its report, asking that they work together and through the National Fire Chiefs Council. Her letter also announced that the Government would bring fire leaders together to discuss the report, and we will do so before the end of March.
The debate stood adjourned (
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (
Question agreed to.
Question again proposed,
That this House
has considered the Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s Phase 1 Report.
A national improvement plan is being created for the sector by the National Fire Chiefs Council and will build on the work of its central programme office, the fire standards board, the protection board and the inspectorate.
Several Members, not least my right hon. Friend Mrs May, raised the issue of interoperability, and concerns have rightly been raised about co-ordination and communication errors between the emergency services at Grenfell. We take this issue very seriously, and the Government are committed to working with all emergency services to improve interoperability. The joint emergency services interoperability principles, or JESIP—their joint doctrine—set out a standard approach to multi-agency working. It will be reviewed and republished by September this year to incorporate learnings from the Grenfell disaster. Following the inquiry’s report, the interoperability board has written to all emergency services to reinforce what is required when a major incident occurs. The report made recommendations in relation to the images and data sent from the National Police Air Service helicopters, and I can confirm that that work has been completed.
Let me turn to some specific issues that Members have raised during the debate. If I miss any out, I am more than happy to write to Members afterwards. Several Members raised the issue of members of the Grenfell community—survivors and families—still remaining in temporary accommodation. As Housing Minister for 12 months, I met individuals regularly and reviewed individual cases. As I have explained, particularly to the Opposition housing spokesman, John Healey, these are complex and difficult cases. Our concern at the repeated raising of this issue is not necessarily for our own political advantage, but that raising it increases the pressure on individuals who are living in temporary accommodation, who are leading complex and difficult lives. We are attempting to be sensitive to them and to accommodate them. We should not assume that those individuals have been continuously in temporary accommodation: a number have been in and out as they have struggled with the circumstances they face. We are keeping up pressure on the council—the Secretary of State and the Housing Minister meet the council regularly—but as we deal with these particular individuals, it behoves us all to remain sensitive to their plight.
Several Members, not least David Linden and my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake, raised the wider issue of the ability of those who are living in buildings with cladding either to sell or to secure finance against their properties. Work did start last year, and I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that it has now concluded. A working party at the MHCLG, including the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and UK Finance, was formed to try to resolve the issue. That has now produced a new simplified process by which surveyors can reassure themselves that a property is mortgageable and insurable, and therefore financeable, so that sales can be effected.
We will of course wait and see the outcome of that process and how it works in practice, but can the Minister give an undertaking that, in the months to come, his Ministry will have a watching brief over it to see whether it is indeed working for our constituents who have been raising some of the concerns expressed by myself and by Kevin Hollinrake?
Yes—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reassures me that we will absolutely keep a watching brief. The early signs are that the new protocol is having a beneficial effect.
Andy Slaughter raised a query about what will happen to the site. He should be aware that a commission has now been constituted. I gather that it has met a number of times, and it is very much being led by the bereaved, the survivors and the community themselves so that they are in the driving seat about what should happen on the site and what kind of memorial they wish to have. I am sure we can provide the hon. Gentleman with more information on that if he wishes.
Some Members raised issues around electrical safety compliance. Obviously progress has been made as far on the duty of landlords, in both the private and the social sector, to ensure compliance, particularly where small electrical goods are concerned. I am informed that the Consumers Minister—my hon. Friend Kelly Tolhurst—has commissioned the Office for Product Safety and Standards to develop options for increasing the rate of product registrations, including potential mandatory registration. A number of workstreams are under way looking to understand the barriers to registration and consumers’ attitudes to that registration, which will inform this work in the future.
Ms Buck and my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken—I know her area well from my time as a councillor and as a London Assembly member—raised the issue of sprinklers and the complexity of tenure that may stand in the way of the retrofitting of sprinklers in older blocks across the city. That is obviously a difficult and complex area of legality, not least because one would have to cross the barrier of possibly fitting sprinklers against the will of a property owner where they are in a collective block and therefore have collective safety, but I know colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will be dealing with the issue.
Finally, in her excellent speech, following on from her equally brilliant maiden speech in which she raised this subject, my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan mentioned a couple of issues. First, she said that she had met the new commissioner of the LFB, whom I have also met recently. He impressed me with his ambition and his willingness to embrace the issues for the London Fire Brigade that have been raised both by the inspectorate and by the inquiry. He does seem committed to real change in that organisation, which was very encouraging to see.
Along with Ms Abbott, my hon. Friend raised the issue of a member of the inquiry panel. The Home Office is obviously a core participant in the inquiry, so it would not be right for me to comment either way, but I can reassure both of them that the Cabinet Office is aware of this issue and is giving it some thought.
There is nothing that we can do to turn back the clock on this tragedy, and there are no words of condolence or sympathy that will bring back those who lost their lives or offer comfort to those whose lives have been irrevocably changed by this tragedy. All we can do is learn the lessons of this terrible event and work tirelessly to ensure that a disaster on this scale can never happen again.
It is incumbent on all of us—the Government, the emergency services, those responsible for managing high rise residential buildings and the construction industry—to work together to bring real change. I am confident that the inquiry’s detailed analysis of the evidence seen in phase 1 will continue to phase 2, and that the panel will uncover the full truth of what happened on that terrible, dark night.
Question put and agreed to.