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Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:37 pm on 21st January 2020.

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Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North 5:37 pm, 21st January 2020

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?