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Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:09 pm on 21st January 2020.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Housing 4:09 pm, 21st January 2020

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 14 June 2017.

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, 22 June 2017;
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, 30 October 2019;
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, 22 June 2017;
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, 20 January 2020;
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?”

The Prime Minister should apologise and reverse the decision to appoint Benita Mehra.

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, 22 June 2017;
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.