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Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 21st January 2020.

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Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood 6:32 pm, 21st January 2020

I speak in this important debate as someone who has been a member of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee for the last five years. As a Committee, we have had regular engagement with survivors and bereaved families and have undertaken regular scrutiny of successive Government Ministers. The survivors are remarkable in their courage, dignity and commitment to one another and to justice, and I pay tribute to them.

It is absolutely shocking and unacceptable that 10 families are still in temporary accommodation two and a half years on from the Grenfell Tower disaster. The process of rehousing survivors has been far too slow—that it is still ongoing at all now is inexcusable. I understand that there are some complex individual circumstances, but the fact remains that some actions were taken by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea early on in the response that contributed to the ongoing delays, including the failure to undertake sufficiently detailed assessments of housing need before properties were purchased, resulting in homes being bought that survivors could not live in, either because of physical constraints or the impact of the trauma—for example, an understandable terror of living at height.

The lack of clarity on cladding is also a disgrace. The Government have still not tested, identified and specified in a transparent way all the types of cladding that are installed on buildings in the UK, leaving thousands living with constant anxiety about whether the cladding on their building is or is not flammable and whether their lives are therefore at risk when they go to bed at night. We do know, however, that there are cladding types in addition to ACM that are flammable, and yet the funding for removal is limited to ACM. Grenfell brought to light the scandal of unsafe cladding. It is now for the Government to identify comprehensively all the types of flammable cladding on buildings in the UK and fund their removal.

The Government announced this week that they would reduce the height above which flammable cladding is banned from 18 stories to 11 stories. For the survivors who have contacted me, this is simply not good enough. ACM cladding is tantamount to soaking the outside of a building in petrol. They can see no justification for any resident at any height or none being asked to live in such circumstances, and I agree. After Grenfell, the Government promised to address the issues raised about how people living in social housing are treated. The promised White Paper on social housing must be grasped as the opportunity to deliver a legacy for Grenfell. The Government must ensure that people living in social housing are treated with dignity and respect, live in safe buildings and have repairs, complaints and concerns addressed quickly and that all landlords are robustly regulated, whether in the social or private sectors, with swift access to redress for tenants and penalties for landlords who are found in breach of their responsibilities.

This is not just about regulation, however, but about funding. Tory cuts to the funding for social housing mean that a council such as Southwark, which covers part of my constituency, has lost £60 million over the past four years from its housing revenue account. Without proper resourcing, the services tenants need and deserve will be stretched to the very limit.

Grenfell United has continued to express concerns about the inquiry panel and, in particular, would like to see a member of the panel with expertise on culture who understands how social housing tenants are sometimes treated when they raise complaints and how some organisations can foster an environment in which tenants raising serious service failings or health and safety concerns are far too easily dismissed. I hope the Government will listen to the survivors and seek to recruit a panel member who understands these issues without further delay.

Among many important recommendations, Sir Martin Moore-Bick recommends that all high-rise buildings have floor numbers clearly marked on each landing and stairwell, yet during the general election campaign, canvassing in many different constituencies, I came across public and privately owned buildings where even this basic and straightforward recommendation had not yet been implemented, meaning that, in the event of another serious fire, the emergency services and residents would again be hampered in their efforts to evacuate the building safely for want of such basic information. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that building owners are clear about their responsibilities and ensure their implementation? There is no excuse for delaying the installation of simple signage that could save lives.

The Grenfell families and the wider north Kensington community have suffered a trauma and loss that runs very deep. They will continue to need support, particularly with both physical and mental health, for the long term. Will the Minister commit to that support, particularly in terms of liaising with the Department of Health and Social Care to secure additional NHS resources, so that whatever the ongoing long-term consequences of this tragedy continue to be for the community, no one will feel abandoned?