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 5:20 pm on 21st January 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 5:20 pm, 21st January 2020

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.