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Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:44 pm on 21st January 2020.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary 6:44 pm, 21st January 2020

I am glad to have the opportunity to respond to this very important debate. Above all, I want to say to the survivors and the relatives of the dead of Grenfell that they are not forgotten. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy and my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Westminster North (Ms Buck), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for Easington (Grahame Morris), for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on their very thoughtful and informed contributions.

We have heard an enormous amount, in very important speeches in this debate, on building regulations—a vital subject. We have heard an enormous amount on cladding—another vital subject. But above all, this issue, and this debate, is about people, and it is the issues that touch on people that I want to talk about.

I do not think anybody in this House can forget where they were when they saw the first, terrible images of Grenfell tower covered in flames, like a roman candle. I cannot remember more horrific images of a disaster in mainland Britain. It happens that I know the area rather well because when I was a child, north Kensington was at the heart of the West Indian community. We know that 72 entirely innocent citizens perished in Grenfell tower. Many more suffered injury and injustice. Lives have been shattered. What is more, it was a peculiarly horrible death to burn to death in that way, and it is peculiarly horrible for the survivors to know that they would have known many of the people who burned to death. They would have seen them on the landings or in the lifts on their way to work, or taking their children to school. They would have been families of their children’s schoolfriends. This was an extraordinary tragedy, and the survivors have seen sights they will never unsee. As other Members have said, it is important to note the bravery and the dignity of the survivors, and the fact that they helped one another from the very earliest hours of the fire, and continue to help one another today.

However, I have to remind the House: these were deaths foretold by the residents themselves. They argued that their homes were being prettified for the benefit of other people. They warned about the dangers of the cladding. They warned about the lack of fire equipment. They warned about the problems with the fire doors and the absence of water sprinklers. Sadly, they seem to have been ignored by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

So I welcome what the Minister said—it is a cautious welcome, but it is a welcome—about the reform of social housing, and I await with interest the social housing White Paper, which he told us would deal with redress, regulation, quality and safety. Clearly, we need to see the White Paper and read the detail, but the planning of a White Paper reflects something that I have always felt very strongly—that Grenfell is more than the sum of its parts: there are issues, drawn to our attention by Grenfell, about the way we regard and treat people who happen to live in social housing.

Members on both sides of the House have drawn attention to the delay in rehousing Grenfell’s survivors. The Government of the time promised that all the survivors of the Grenfell blaze would be rehoused in a matter of weeks. Two and a half years later, some survivors are still waiting for a reasonable offer of local accommodation. I know it is complex, but it is simply not acceptable that, two and a half years later, they have not all been rehoused. As colleagues have said, some spent Christmas in hotels or temporary accommodation.

The Minister did not say what happened to the residents of the Walkways, who also saw awful things and also have housing needs. I stress that this is not just about housing. There are issues about the general support offered to survivors, and about mental health. I seek an assurance from Ministers that everything is being done to support survivors in terms of not just housing, vital as that is, but their broader holistic needs and their mental health.

As Members on both sides of the House have said, the Government have moved very slowly on the issue of cladding on other buildings. We have heard in informed contributions by Members on both sides of the House that hundreds of tower blocks are effectively wrapped in ultra-flammable elements. The removal work on many of those blocks has not begun. The Secretary of State said there are 10 such buildings left in the private sector, but I hope the Minister will tell us how many buildings in the public sector have yet to have their cladding removed.

Labour Members were accused of scaremongering when we said that other Grenfells were waiting to happen but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East has reminded us, a Bolton tower block of student accommodation went up in flames in mid-November 2019—it was covered in flammable cladding. The National Union of Students had previously listed it as one of the many blocks presenting severe safety concerns. I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said about the proposed legislative response, and we await the details of the fire safety Bill.

I take this opportunity to join other Members in thanking the emergency services for the brave work they do. I especially thank the firefighters for their excellent, brave work and for their bravery on the night. I also place on record my thanks and the heartfelt thanks of the Grenfell community to their former MP, Emma Dent Coad. She has been a tireless champion for the entire community, and she continues to be so.

The Leader of the House came dangerously close to seeming to blame the residents for not having the common sense to escape the fire—dangerously close, some of us would say. Labour Members regret that there were no representatives of the survivors and the bereaved on the panel but, just as it would be wrong to scapegoat the residents, we have to be careful what we say about the “stay put” policy. “Stay put” is a Government policy. I am glad to hear it is in the process of review, but when will we get the new guidelines?

I draw the House’s attention to something that is not entirely relevant to the inquiry: the Grenfell recovery taskforce. It has made its fourth report and, if the Minister has not read it, I suggest he does. The recovery taskforce says, as many Members have said, that Kensington and Chelsea has been too slow in much of its response, and it says there have been strategic failures. The recovery taskforce also says that the quality of the council’s relationship with the local community has too frequently been weak. That is a very serious matter. How is the community to recover from this tragedy if the local authority is not engaging seriously with them?

In closing, first, Benita Mehra may be a very informed woman but, as other Members have said, her conflict of interest means the Cabinet Office must take her off the panel. Secondly, Ministers must listen to what the Grenfell recovery taskforce is saying, what the inquiry is saying and what the residents are saying: there is not enough speed and haste, both in dealing with the broad issue of removing cladding from vulnerable buildings and in helping, supporting and rehousing residents.

Finally, the reason Grenfell lives on in so many of our memories is not just the horror of the images but what it says about us as a society that all these people could burn to death in such horrific circumstances in the wealthiest borough in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. To make good the horror that not just the people in this Chamber and not just the British public but people around the world feel about the images of Grenfell tower, the Government must really listen to what has been said in this debate on both sides of the Chamber, and they really must make much more haste in doing what needs to be done. Anything less would not be honouring the memory of the dead.