Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:08 pm on 21st January 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 5:08 pm, 21st January 2020

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.