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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.