[Relevant Documents: Seventh Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2019-21, Cladding Remediation—Follow-up, HC 1249, and Seventh Report of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Session 2021-22, Building Safety: Remediation and Funding, HC 1063; and the joint Government response, Session 2022-23, CP 863.]
Before we come to the important debate on the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, I remind Members that, under the terms of the sub judice resolution, they should not refer to active legal proceedings in the debate. That includes proceedings on inquests.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate, and I especially thank those MPs from across the House, including Back-Bench MPs from the governing party and all the Opposition parties, who supported its application. It is essential that we have a moment like this in the House to remember the events at Grenfell, to mark the worst domestic fire in living memory, to commemorate the 72 people killed and to acknowledge all those whose lives were changed for the worse that day. Such a debate is an important moment of reflection. It should also be an opportunity for the House to show that it is learning the lessons of that atrocity by taking the action needed to prevent it from ever happening again.
I ask the Government for an annual debate in Government time when the House can receive and debate reports on progress made on the Grenfell fire inquiry recommendations and to discuss changes to our justice system and the changes that must be made to make homes safe if we are to show that lessons are truly being learned. If we allow the memory of Grenfell to slip away, there is a real risk that the changes needed to prevent another Grenfell will slip away with it.
I want to focus on two areas: the need for justice for all those killed, for the survivors, for the bereaved families and for the wider community; and the changes that we need to ensure that it never happens again. Five years on from the fire, it is clear that bereaved families and survivors feel deeply let down by our justice system, and they have every right to do so. They are rightly asking, “Where are the criminal charges? Why are those who made the decisions that turned Grenfell into a deathtrap still walking free, and why, five years on, have those who ignored residents’ warnings not been held to account?”
The deep sense of injustice goes all the way back to day one of the atrocity. Hours after the fire, a public inquiry was announced, even though families had wanted the criminal investigation to go first. I remind the House that, while bereaved and affected families were mourning their loved ones, seeking a new place to live and trying to continue to bring up their children and look after their parents, they had to launch a public campaign over the nature of the public inquiry to stop it from being done to them rather than with them. They were initially refused the simplest of demands for the public inquiry to be led by a broad-based panel; a demand to help them have trust in it. There had to be protests, marches and petitions signed by more than 150,000 people to get the House to even debate such an inquiry panel before it was belatedly granted. As shadow Justice Secretary during the fire and its aftermath, I was privileged to work with the families as they campaigned for that simple demand, but I remember feeling sick to my stomach that their energies had to go into fighting for something that should be a basic right.
From the very outset, the confidence of the survivors and bereaved family members in the justice system was damaged and it is clear that it has not been repaired. As Grenfell United said this week:
“For 5 years we’ve had to endure a justice system that protects the powerful. A system that prevents justice. Whilst this system exists, we face the same unachievable battle as the many before us. From Aberfan, to Hillsborough, justice has been denied & #Grenfell is no different. They left us to search for answers, they mocked us publicly. Now, they stand in the way of justice. We must pave a new way forward. We must hold those responsible to account.”
We know that this experience of our justice system is not a one-off. Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday are just two examples of when the state blocked the truth and justice for years, sowing distrust and undermining justice.
Going forward, one way to show that lessons have been learnt would be to make changes, so that families do not have to fight for years more than necessary in inquiries to get justice. For many, the history of inquiries in this country often gives the impression that they are there to slow down justice and deny justice. We should implement the Hillsborough law, backed by the Grenfell families, as a matter of the utmost urgency. It would not address all the issues that led to such appalling treatment of the Grenfell families, but it would ensure that in future the scales of justice are not so tilted against ordinary families and in favour of public authorities who hold all power. But of course, true justice will only be done when those responsible, be they politicians, officials or company decision makers, are fully held to account, including through the criminal courts.
We have heard a lot in recent days about ensuring that this atrocity never happens again, but the Grenfell families believe that, five years on, another Grenfell is a very real possibility. Already at the inquiry there has been a mountain of evidence of how profits were prioritised over safety, how privatisation and deregulation watered down building standards, and how cuts and austerity contributed. All that must be tackled if the words “never again” are not just platitudes from politicians. The lessons from the inquiry must be implemented in full, however uncomfortable that is for the Government. But there are already deep concerns that lessons will be ignored and that they already are being ignored.
The Government, so far, have failed to implement a single recommendation directed at them from the first phase of the inquiry. Worse still, they are actively rejecting some of the recommendations. One key recommendation from the inquiry’s first phase was to make it mandatory for owners of high-rise flats to arrange personal emergency evacuation plans, known as PEEPs, for disabled people. Of the 37 disabled people living at Grenfell, 15 lost their lives—41%—yet the Home Office recently rejected that recommendation. It is a total scandal that once again profits seem to be being put before life, with the Government labelling this recommendation impractical and too costly. That breaks a previous Government promise to implement the recommendations in full. What is the point of an inquiry if the recommendations are then rejected?
Peter Apps, the journalist who has perhaps best covered housing and fire safety in the aftermath of Grenfell, says that that happened after the Home Office had one-to-one conversations with building owners and ignored its own consultation responses. No wonder Edward Daffarn, a Grenfell resident who warned of a catastrophic fire months before it happened, says that the Government are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I am sorry that I will not be able to make a speech in this debate as I will be in Committee.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it was quite extraordinary that plans for people with disabilities to leave in the event of a fire were not already in place and legally required in the first place? It is even more extraordinary that, with the evidence that emerged during the inquiry that such plans were needed, the Government, having said repeatedly in this House that they would implement the findings of the Grenfell inquiry in full, are now backtracking and putting at risk our most vulnerable people, which we find quite unacceptable.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I hope that after this debate the Government will revisit their position and their rejection of that important recommendation from the first phase of the inquiry.
That is not the only concern about fire safety measures not being addressed. Government officials did not heed coroner advice after the Lakanal House fire killed six people in 2009. It was followed by an even more deadly fire. We cannot allow the same to happen after Grenfell. Yet as David Badillo, the first of many firefighters who went into Grenfell Tower, wrote this week:
“Apparently 72 lost lives is not enough. There is still no requirement for a second staircase in high rises. No requirement to fit fire alarms in all high rises. No national strategy on how to evacuate high rises.”
The figure revealed this week by the Fire Brigades Union, of 221 firefighter positions cut since Grenfell, represents a serious failure to change course after the loss of 11,000 firefighter roles between 2010 and 2017. Of course, a failure to sufficiently address the housing safety crisis is another reason why we have to take with a healthy dose of scepticism claims that lessons have so far been learned. Even on the ground in Kensington and Chelsea the situation is not yet resolved. Three Grenfell households are still to be rehoused, while 50 more have replacement homes unsuitable for their needs in numerous ways. After five years, it is unacceptable that people are still being treated as second-class citizens.
More widely, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are still at risk in unsafe housing. Work is still to be completed on 111 buildings that are over 18 metres tall and have exactly the type of aluminium composite material—ACM—cladding identified by the Grenfell inquiry as a leading cause of the 2017 atrocity. Some 640,000 people are still living in buildings with that exact type of cladding. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Last week, after accessing Government figures, LBC reported that almost 10,000 buildings in England are unsafe due to dangerous cladding and other associated fire risks. Those shocking figures include at least 903 buildings over 18 metres tall with cladding systems that need to be removed. A study last year estimated that between 6,000 and 8,900 mid-rise residential buildings, between 11 metres and 18 metres in height, require remediation, partial remediation or mitigation works.
As well as the danger to their lives, as End Our Cladding Scandal has so well documented, there are the financial costs, with many living in unsafe homes that they cannot sell and facing bankruptcy because their house has plummeted in value. This is affecting their physical health and their mental health. Surely, five years on from Grenfell, one of its legacies should be an end to all unsafe homes.
I want to conclude with the words of the families in a statement made this week:
“We don’t want our 72 to be remembered for what happened, but for what changed.”
Those are their words. We need more than the apologies of politicians. We need more than an inquiry. We need to see justice properly done and we need real change to the practices, cultures and policies that led to so many people needlessly losing their lives five years ago.
The last few days have been very intense, emotional and difficult for my constituents as we remember the 72 men, women and children who lost their lives so horrifically and so needlessly. You will never be forgotten.
It has been my great privilege over the course of the last few years to get to know many of the bereaved and survivors. They have borne so much with so much dignity. It was humbling to spend time with them at Westminster Abbey on the anniversary on Tuesday, and a few days before that at Al-Manaar mosque in north Kensington in my constituency. Their individual accounts of what happened to them that evening are truly harrowing. I do not think that any of us can imagine the pain, anguish and suffering that people went through that night, or indeed the pain and anguish that relatives, friends and the community continue to suffer from.
On the morning of the anniversary, I went to Grenfell Tower. It was 7 o’clock in the morning, but there were already students from the neighbouring Kensington Aldridge Academy there, paying their respects. KAA, as it is known, lost five students in the tragedy. In total, 18 children died, their lives cut horrifically short.
We will never be able to right the wrongs of the past, but we can ensure that there is a lasting legacy from Grenfell. I am very clear that that legacy must be that everyone has a right to be safe in their homes, and that the voices of all residents and all communities need to be heard.
Last week we had a debate on building safety and social housing. I will not repeat the remarks that I made then, but I did say that I had been very frustrated over the last five years at the speed at which many of the changes were being implemented. There is no question but that we have made progress. We have enacted the Building Safety Act 2022 and the Fire Safety Act 2021, and lots of developers have said that they will contribute towards the cost of remediation. However, there is a lot more to be done, and it needs to be done quickly.
One of the first things that I did when I got to this place was to give a speech on Grenfell. It was January 2020, following my election in December 2019. I called then for all the recommendations of the Grenfell inquiry to be implemented, and to be implemented at speed, and I reiterate that call today.
What we collectively need to do is to ensure that a tragedy of this kind can never be allowed to happen again, and I am determined that I will do what I can to ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Richard Burgon on securing this debate. It is a pleasure to follow Felicity Buchan, whose constituency includes the area of Grenfell Tower. Of course, for 13 years I represented the constituency of Regent’s Park and Kensington North, including Grenfell Tower, and I knew it and the people living in it well. When the phone calls began in the middle of that fateful night five years ago, it was a personal horror to me as well.
The inferno engulfed Grenfell Tower just days after the 2017 general election. Parliament had not reconvened, but Ministers and MPs gathered in Westminster Hall for a special meeting, for which an official parliamentary record could not be provided. The newly elected Member for Kensington in 2017, Emma Dent Coad, was plunged into probably the most challenging set of circumstances that almost any newly elected Member of Parliament has had to face outside of wartime. She went on to make the case over the following two years, and she continues to do so outside this House. We should commend her for coping so well with that extraordinary challenge.
I believe that Emma Dent Coad is with us today, watching from the Public Gallery. I also came to Parliament in 2017, and this has absolutely been the defining issue of my entire five years. What happened was such a huge thing for those of us who were new, and I can only imagine how she managed to cope with the challenges she faced.
I thank my hon. Friend and agree very strongly with her.
That gathering of parliamentarians, which is not on the parliamentary record, was very intense indeed. We pressed Ministers very hard for answers. In addition to the obvious shock that everybody was still feeling, there was an absolutely overwhelming demand for urgency not only in response to the catastrophe that happened in north Kensington but in relation to the wider lessons, which I will come to in a moment.
In the days that followed, including the day on which we gathered, it became immediately obvious that there was a failure of epic proportions on the part of the state, and particularly the local council in Kensington, and those of us who went to the Grenfell area to offer support in the immediate aftermath could see that. During that parliamentary debate, I asked what we were going to do, immediately and urgently, to deal with the homelessness crisis faced by hundreds of people. That quickly became a larger number, because over the following days there was an evacuation of residents from the Lancaster West estate surrounding Grenfell Tower. Having been the Member of Parliament for that area, I knew well the sheer scale of the homelessness diaspora resulting from Kensington council’s behaviour, and indeed of the wider homelessness problems in London.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, people were sleeping rough. How was that allowed to happen? We discussed the issue, yet it was allowed to happen. It is important that we remember that five years on, because the way in which the institutions of the state failed the survivors, the relatives and the wider community set a tone for the whole of the following five years. Understandably, that fed into a deep and profound sense that they could not rely on the institutions of the state to offer them support and justice. One of the things that we have to do today is recognise that epic failure and collectively apologise for it. I am ashamed. Anybody who went down to north Kensington over those following days could not believe their eyes in seeing a failure on that scale.
Homelessness was one of the first issues raised, but it took months—it took years—for the housing needs of Grenfell survivors, relatives and the community to be dealt with, even though they were recognised within hours of the fire. The second immediate issue raised in Parliament on that day was the need for justice—the need for those responsible to be held to account for what had happened. We did not immediately know exactly who was responsible—which components of the system, from building design and maintenance to the emergency response—but people knew that there was a need for justice.
I do not think anybody would now say that the passage of five years means that justice has been served. That is not in any way a criticism of the inquiry, which has been profoundly rigorous in going about its work, but justice delayed is justice denied. Five years is far too long for the community to wait for justice. Urgency was the prevailing tone in the immediate aftermath of the fire, but five years on, the promise of urgency and the commitment to urgency have been denied. The community has been let down profoundly as a consequence.
Building safety has been a dominant theme in Parliament in the intervening five years, but we need to reflect again on emergency planning. The fact that it failed so catastrophically in Kensington tells us something quite profound, which we continue to raise in other contexts: there is an institutional belief that these kinds of things cannot happen here. There is a complacency about risks that should have been shattered comprehensively, forever, by what happened five years ago, but it has not. Again and again, we see the expectation that we should drive towards a deregulatory approach to services and a de minimis public sector, even though the capacity of the public sector, which failed so badly on that day, is so essential to ensuring that such things cannot happen again.
Within days and weeks of Grenfell, it became quickly apparent that hundreds of thousands of people across the country were living in buildings where such things could happen again—in some cases, they still are. That possibility has dominated our discussions in this Chamber. Ten days after Grenfell, I had to attend a meeting of desperate and frightened residents of a six-block, 22-storey estate in north Westminster that overlooked Grenfell Tower and had been covered with the same form of cladding. In many ways, they have been the fortunate ones: they went through terminal upheaval as the cladding was removed over the following winter. However, 10,000 buildings continue to be covered with some form of cladding. The people in them live with that risk. In many cases, they also live with the reality that they face financial ruin and are trapped, unable to move.
I completely recognise that the Government have taken some steps in their legislative programme to implement proposals on fire safety and building safety, but so little has been done compared with what is needed.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I have been in this place for only five years; the Grenfell fire and its aftermath have been a defining part of my term. A number of buildings in my constituency are still wrapped in unsafe cladding. Despite many years of promises that leaseholders would never have to foot the bill for fire safety and remediation work, and despite the Fire Safety Act and the Building Safety Act, leaseholders are still being burdened with thousands of pounds of debt to pay for all the fire safety and remediation work to be completed.
I totally agree. So many people still live with the fear, the risk and the stress of having to contribute financially. As we have said again and again, so many of the people who bear the burden of cost and risk are the very last people in the chain of responsibility to have had anything to do with the circumstances in which they are trapped.
Five years on, as the inquiry continues its work, the Home Office’s decision not to implement the inquiry’s recommendation
“that the owner…of every high-rise residential building be required…to prepare personal emergency evacuation plans” sends out the worst possible signal, particularly to survivors and to the north Kensington community, who are looking to the inquiry for answers on the long road to justice.
This is the fifth anniversary of an avoidable tragedy of epic proportions—a tale of corporate malfeasance, incompetence, indifference and institutional inertia, even after the Lakanal House fire had given us all the signals that Government action was needed. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East, I pay tribute to Peter Apps and Inside Housing for years of painstaking work in following the inquiry, reporting on it and giving us the information that we need to follow what would otherwise be a very complex story.
The chains of reporting by Peter Apps make salutary reading for every Member of this House, because they lay so bare what has gone wrong. For example, contractors and developers knew that the cladding system would fail. As Peter Apps has reported:
“In an email exchange…designers of the tower’s cladding system wrote: ‘There is no point in “fire stopping”. As we all know;
the ACM will be gone rather quickly in a fire!’”
It is worth reading the dozens of reports that have been put on record in the inquiry, which give us revelations of that kind.
Five years on, I pay tribute to the survivors, the relatives, their representatives, the mosques, the churches, the community and Grenfell United, who have done such extraordinary work, in the aftermath of this tragedy, to hold the community together and support people, their dignity and their campaign for justice. But five years on, there is not yet justice.
I can only agree with Ms Buck about the complacency that infused the entire safety system and the emergency planning. I hope that the Moore-Bick inquiry will address that point in the fullness of time, although it is taking so long, which is what I want to address today. If my comments today have a theme—I appreciate that this is possibly controversial—it is about learning, not necessarily blaming. There may be people to blame, but we need to learn.
It is terrible for survivors and for victims’ families and friends that we are here five years on, but there is still no closure or resolution for them. As every hon. Member knows, people come to see us after a terrible accident or mistake with the words—echoed by Richard Burgon, who so capably opened the debate, and by my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan—“I just want to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.” The living victims of Grenfell still feel as far as ever from that confidence, and I dedicate my speech to them.
I will set out the two main recommendations made in the submission to the Grenfell inquiry that I co-authored with the right hon. Nick Raynsford, former MP for Greenwich and Woolwich and a former Minister for housing and for fire and rescue services, who is now chair of CICAIR, the Construction Industry Council Approved Inspectors Register; Kevin Savage, a leading figure in the building control profession; and Keith Conradi, current chief investigator of the health services safety investigations body, which arose from a recommendation from the Public Administration Committee, which I chaired, and previously chief investigator of the air accident investigation branch of the Department for Transport, who therefore brings a wealth of expertise to the panel of drafters of our submission on the question of safety systems and safety management, and accident investigation. The inquiry has not yet published our submission, but has given me permission to place copies in the Library. I hope right hon. and hon. Members will find it helpful.
Our submission is addressed not to who should be blamed but to some of what should be learned. The remit of the inquiry includes “the scope and adequacy” of the relevant regulations, legislation and guidance. The Building Safety Act reflects in large part the recommendations of the review commissioned by the Government from Dame Judith Hackitt, called “Building a Safer Future”. I thank her and Peter Baker, the chief inspector of buildings, who leads the new building safety regulator; they have both been extremely helpful with our submission, although they may not agree with all of it. We have presented our submission to Ministers, but they are, naturally, awaiting the outcome of the Grenfell inquiry before responding formally.
The Building Safety Act establishes the new building safety regulator based in the Health and Safety Executive. It is responsible for a wide range of activities, including overseeing the safety and performance of all buildings and taking responsibility for control and approval of higher-risk buildings—currently defined as buildings of a height of 18 metres or more, or comprising more than six storeys. It also deals with residents’ complaints, oversees a new competence regime for people working on buildings, advises on the need for changes to building regulations, and oversees and reports on the performance of building control bodies.
We looked carefully at the Hackitt review recommendations and how they have been interpreted by the Government. We recommend, first, that there should be a new, independent building safety investigation body. The interim Hackitt review did not consider how future fires should be investigated, and this seems to me to be a gap in the thinking so far. Under the new regime, investigations will still be carried out by the Health and Safety Executive or by new public inquiries. The length of time that the Grenfell inquiry is taking is yet another example of how public inquiries are likely to leave survivors and their families feeling betrayed for far too long, even though I am certain that, in the end, the Moore-Bick inquiry will be of great value.
There is also a problem that we discovered after Ladbroke Grove: investigations conducted by the regulator can turn out to be conflicted, because the cause of the failure might be a failure of Health and Safety Executive oversight and its regulation. That is not a criticism of the Health and Safety Executive; it is a criticism of the system. The Health and Safety Executive, of which the new building safety regulator is a part, should be precluded from any possibility of having to investigate itself, because it is inherently conflicted. Many, including my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning, feel that the inquiry into the Buncefield fire was conflicted for exactly that reason, with the result that the inquiry was less authoritative than an independent investigation would have been.
Our proposal for an independent building safety investigator is based on the Rail Accident Investigation Branch of the Department for Transport, which in turn is based on the AAIB—the air accident body. That is what the Cullen inquiry recommended following the Ladbroke Grove rail crash. In rail and other sectors, including aviation, this approach is much quicker, much less costly and more effective than public inquiries, because these bodies acquire a permanent body of expertise and experience.
Like a public inquiry, an accident investigation body establishes the causes of a major incident, but these independent bodies seek not to find who to blame, but to learn from failure for the future. In the case of Grenfell, there may well still be people to blame and to prosecute, but people who make mistakes are very often blameless because they are part of a defective system or failing safety culture. There are many instances of aviation accidents where pilot error has been a contributory factor but the pilot is not blamed for that failure. We have all watched the wonderful film “Sully” about such a failure. These independent bodies make safety recommendations to regulators and to the Government, who are accountable for ensuring that they are implemented.
The hon. Member for Leeds East complained about delayed prosecutions having to defer to the judicial inquiry. Unlike with a public inquiry, the regulator may still conduct a parallel investigation to the safety investigator’s to establish responsibility and, if necessary, to prosecute those at fault, as the Civil Aviation Authority prosecuted the pilot in the Shoreham air crash. The crucial point is that the regulator cannot force the accident investigation branch to reveal witness statements except by High Court intervention. That is essential in accident investigation, because it creates a safe space for those giving their account in which they can talk freely and be completely candid, whether or not they think they are to blame. That speeds the whole process of investigation and engages survivors and their families and the bereaved. There is no safe space for candour under the Building Safety Act, and this must change.
Our second principal proposal concerns building control. We propose a new regulatory system for building control. We propose that approved inspectors, who are the private sector, and local authority building control, which is the public sector, should both be regulated on an equal basis, as in any other safety-critical profession. There is currently no licence regime or register for local authority building control and no dedicated independent scrutiny or regulation of its service, yet the failure of local authority building control appears to be one of the factors that led to the Grenfell disaster. Ironically, the proposals that have been brought forward seem to treat the private sector with more suspicion than the public sector, even though it seems that the public sector is what failed in the case of Grenfell.
Building control bodies are responsible for checking building work to verify that it complies with building regulations. Building control work can be carried out either by private firms, known as approved inspectors, or by local authority in-house building control bodies, which have a statutory duty to provide building control services in their area. To be approved to provide building control services in the private sector, authorised inspectors, unlike local authorities, must be licensed by CICAIR. Approved inspectors are subject to a code of conduct, regular auditing and a complaints and disciplinary regime leading to suspension of their licence if they are acting improperly or seriously underperforming. Local authorities opposed being subject to the same oversight and inspection regime. There is no credible case for accepting that.
Those are the two recommendations that we submitted to the inquiry. I have not spoken to the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Eddie Hughes, who is in his place on the Treasury Bench, so I do not expect him to respond in detail to these proposals. I thought it would be helpful to the House if I laid them out. I repeat that the full text of our submission is now in the House of Commons Library. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will take an interest in it.
When I think of Grenfell, which I often do, I think first of the people who died; not just that they died—72 people, including 18 children—but how they died. I forced myself to read the accounts of what happened—the phone calls made that night, the people waiting for rescue that never came. It is harrowing. They are well documented, partly through the inquiry and partly through what the families themselves have done. I cannot look at the pictures of the building in flames, but nevertheless I cannot get them out of my head because they were everywhere when the fire happened.
Next, I think of all the thousands of people whose lives were changed by the fire: the survivors and their families, and the wider community. It was a very mixed community in Grenfell, with many people of middle eastern and north African descent, often second and third generation, who had settled in the area and had wider families not only across Kensington but in my constituency of Hammersmith and that of my hon. Friend Ms Buck, who spoke so well earlier. These are big, close communities and this has had an effect on the whole area, and indeed the whole of London and beyond.
I also think of the scandal of the negligence that has been revealed, in its infinite complexity, leading up to this one event. The breadth and depth of the mistakes that were made and the things that went wrong are affecting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people across this country. Too many people have insulted all these groups of people by the way in which they have responded over the last five years. That includes the Government, the building industry and other industries involved, local authorities and other social landlords, and private landlords. Everybody has failed on a catastrophic level by causing the problems that now have to be dealt with, but the Government bear a particular responsibility, not only because they created the climate that enabled much of this negligence to happen but because they have not stepped up to the plate in tackling it.
When I say that people have been insulted, I mean, for example, why did we not have a full-day debate in Government time on the anniversary? I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Richard Burgon for securing this debate, but it is a Backbench Business debate on a Thursday afternoon, and I think that a full-day debate on the anniversary is the very least that could have been done. People have also been insulted by the response in terms of rehousing—or failure to rehouse—people from Grenfell and the surrounding damaged properties. People have been waiting for years in temporary accommodation or hotels. Other examples include the lack of a proper memorial and the pace at which the inquiry has gone. None of this shows respect, in my view, and at the end of it, people have not been held to account.
Also, we have not what I would call a permissive response from the Government, and that is what I want to spend most of my speech talking about. The Government have been asking experts to tell them the full extent of the problems, and then responding. Every step of the way, everything has had to be dragged out, whether it is money, concessions or legislation, in order to get only a very little distance down the road to where we need to be. Let me just run through some of those issues on which we are failing.
We know a lot about cladding and insulation, but determining the types of cladding that have been banned—whether they have been banned in the sense of being removed from existing buildings or not being allowed to be put on to new buildings—and what types of buildings are affected has been done in a very slow and erratic manner, and the most recent changes are pretty de minimis, frankly. The Government have now decided that hotels, hostels and boarding houses over 18 metres should be included in the ban, but what about residential and other buildings that are under 18 metres—and indeed, under 11 metres? What about other buildings that might be at risk, possibly because of their function or because of the people who live in them or go to school in them, such as hospitals or hotels? There is no comprehensive response.
The hon. Gentleman is completely right in what he is saying. The 18-metre limit is a completely arbitrary distinction. Far more people die in fires in low-rise buildings, especially houses of multiple occupation, than in high-rise buildings. The 18-metre limit is a media-driven preoccupation, and I could even say that the preoccupation with cladding is a media-driven preoccupation. This whole process has been driven by public pressure, not real risk assessment, which is what we need. That is why we are proposing the reform of building control.
I very much thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he has put it very clearly and succinctly. I started with cladding and insulation—I have quite a long list—because that is where we have seen some activity. As I said, it is not the correct activity and it has not been done quickly, comprehensively or logically enough, but there has been a focus on cladding, then on cladding and insulation, and then on other matters that relate to cladding. It has spread out very gradually and slowly from there, but I just make the point that when we drill down, we find that there is still a long way to go, and it is impossible not to conclude that the reasons for that are partly financial and partly that the Government are overwhelmed and do not have the support they need.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I guarantee that owing to the panic to designate certain buildings unsafe because of their cladding, a vast amount of cladding has been removed, at vast expense, that it was probably not necessary to remove, perhaps because it was installed differently or it did not have an air gap or it was associated with flammable windows. There are all kinds of reasons that have not been taken into account because there was a blanket categorisation of cladding and height. That was understandable very early in the crisis, but it is not understandable five years on.
Again, I entirely agree. Every month, more comes to light. That is true in my constituency, as I am sure it is in other Members’ constituencies. I am dealing with one case at the moment where the cladding is not flammable but there are no fire breaks behind it. That cladding still has to come down, at huge cost. These things are interrelated. The solutions that have been suggested are really inadequate. We are an outlier—in a bad way—in terms of international practice, because the standards that we were enforcing and those that we are now enforcing are not of the best.
Another example is the design of buildings. It is only in the last few weeks or months that the issue of single staircases in new build high-rise blocks has really taken hold, and planning authorities have begun to look at that. Directly abutting Grenfell Tower and the Lancaster West estate in Kensington and Chelsea are my constituency and two major opportunity areas: the White City opportunity area and the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation. I mention that because high-rise buildings are mushrooming across that area. How high are they? In the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation area, which is just outside my constituency to the west, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Dr Huq, there is one 55-storey block already being built and three more in planning at the moment. So four buildings over 50 storeys high with a single staircase are being planned.
In my constituency, there were similar applications for 46-storey blocks, and I am pleased to say that some of those developers are now lowering the heights, perhaps by 10 storeys, and putting in additional staircases. But this has involved catching things in the nick of time, and some single staircase blocks are still being built now. Why is this important? It is important because of the failure of the stay-put policy. It is not just a question of design and how the buildings are constructed. Almost every high-rise residential building in the UK in recent decades has been built on the basis of the stay-put policy.
Office buildings with more than five storeys are required to have a second staircase, but a 55-storey residential block can be built with a single staircase because we rely on stay-put. Well, stay-put is undoubtedly a cause of the number of fatalities at Grenfell. More pragmatically, people will not stay put any more—I have encountered this with fires in my constituency since Grenfell—and I do not blame them. If we do not have a stay-put policy, we need evacuation plans, we probably need alarm systems and we definitely need a second staircase if we are to evacuate buildings. The excuse for having a single staircase is that everyone will stay in their flat while the fire service deals with the issue. Sometimes that works, but who would now rely on it working?
Personal emergency evacuation plans have been in the news again recently. They simply are not being done, and the Government do not intend to implement them. Yet, as the Mayor of London said in his briefing, 41% of disabled people in Grenfell Tower died in the fire.
I am alarmed by what my hon. Friend says about a 55-storey building having a single staircase, which I believe would make it impossible both to fight a fire and get people out. Why was the building given permission, and who authorised it? Was there a fire assessment in advance of permission being granted?
Most of these buildings are in the planning process, and some have been withdrawn and resubmitted, as I hope is the case with this one. Fifty-five storeys and a single staircase is the proposal as things stand. There are many other examples across west London and the country, not necessarily of that height but 40, 30 or even 20 storeys. Grenfell Tower had 24 storeys, so we are talking about buildings of more than twice that size.
My hon. Friend alluded to the number of disabled people in Grenfell Tower. If the recommendation on personal emergency evacuation plans is not implemented, and the Government have chosen to reject it, what impact will it have on the many disabled people living in high-rise buildings? What trust and confidence does it give them if their Government are choosing to reject such an important recommendation to ensure they are safe and secure in their homes? The Government are saying these people’s lives do not matter by saying they do not need personal emergency evacuation plans.
I could not agree more. The truth is that the Government have put it in the “too difficult” column, along with other things. It is not that they have an argument for why they do not need such plans; it is because they are saying, “Well, it will be too difficult, too expensive or take too much time, and we have other things to do.” That is extraordinary. I have long-term concerns about disabled people, or indeed young families, living in high-rise blocks, which are unsuitable accommodation. There is a much wider debate about the type of housing we build in this country, but this issue seems to be glaringly obvious.
The Government can be forgiven for one reason, which is that there is no systemic safety risk management in the building sector that differentiates between different forms of safety mitigation. In the Manchester airport fire, in which an aircraft caught fire on the runway and many people died, the initial reaction was that there had to be better evacuation from burning aircraft, but nothing changed. One or two extra over-wing exits were built into aircraft, but nothing fundamentally changed. The problem was that the probability of a fire was much too high, and that is what had to be addressed. Until we have a totally comprehensive safety management system, which does not yet exist in building control, we will never have the safe buildings we want.
I agree that we need safer systems and that we need to plan. There has been a free-for-all for too long in the building industry, where there has been a gold rush to acquire sites and build whatever it can get away with—the envelope has been continually pushed.
I slightly disagree with the hon. Gentleman because a lot can be done. My local authority has done about 1,000 PEEPs. Anyone can ask for one. They are not proactively given but, nevertheless, they are quite effective in assessing people’s needs, providing equipment, linking people with neighbours and making sure they have proper notifications, alarm systems and things of that nature. A lot can be done, and it would save a lot of lives. It just needs to be institutionalised across the board.
I will speed up a little. I have mentioned cladding and insulation, design, construction and the height and use of buildings, but I have a couple of other points. One is the cause of fires, and the predominant cause is electrical safety malfunctions. We see that in everything from lithium batteries to white goods. The Grenfell fire was caused by a fridge-freezer. There is a lack of electrical safety all the way down the line from manufacture to retail.
The Minister will be pleased to hear me speak favourably of his Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, which makes provision for five-yearly electrical checks on social housing in the same way as for private rented housing. That is important, although I am not quite sure what it means. Does it mean checks on appliances, wiring or systems?
Secondly, there seems to be a lacuna because a single block could contain different types of flats. The first flat could be rented out by the local authority, and such flats are not covered at the moment but will be in the future, as I understand it. The second flat could be a private flat rented out by the leaseholder, which is already covered, and the third flat might be owned by a resident leaseholder who does not have any checks at all, as far as I can see. There is inconsistency and a failure to nail down what the problems are.
Regulation has failed. Desktop surveys are another horror we have encountered, but they are still happening. In their most recent announcement, the Government said they will rely on the discredited BS 8414 test, so regulation is still not working properly. Management and maintenance is not working properly, and it certainly did not work in Kensington and Chelsea through either the council or the tenant management organisation. Even simple things such as fitting door closers and making sure fire doors are of an adequate standard are still not being done.
A lot has rightly been said about how non-cladding costs are still falling on leaseholders, but they are also falling on social landlords. The National Housing Federation and my hon. Friend Mr Betts, the Chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, have made this point time and again, but the Government never respond—perhaps they will today. If we require social landlords to bear the extraordinarily high costs, billions of pounds, of remedying defects in the buildings they own, that money will simply come out of their capital resources, whether borrowing, balances or rents, that would otherwise go towards maintaining their existing properties and building new properties. There is a crisis in the social housing market, as even fewer social homes will be built over the coming years because the money has to be diverted into fire safety.
The point I wanted to make is that this is partly a problem of building control. In particular in relation to high-rise buildings, the problem is that the Building Safety Regulator will draw on established building control bodies to carry out its function. The Select Committee pointed out that this creates a new conflict of interest, because the BSR both regulates and then carries out the building control inspections. The danger is that we do too much defensive regulation, which costs a great deal of money and is not of public benefit, and then we do not do the right regulation, which actually mitigates the biggest risks. All that gets lost in the wash in the present system.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments, because he is going through the practical steps that need to be taken rather more methodically than I am. I accept his concentration on getting the regulation right, but it is not the only thing we have to get right. As I began my speech by saying, this is a real crisis across the whole industry, government, the regulation and the tone that has been set. I hope that, coming out of things such as the Hackitt review, that will change, but I do not see sufficient change yet. The progress has been glacial on correcting the many, many defects. Nobody says that it is easy; its complexity and extent mean that it will be very difficult. However, I do not see that sense of urgency, because hundreds of thousands of people still live in unsafe buildings.
I pay tribute to the all-party group on fire safety and rescue, of which I am a member. I pay a particular tribute to the late Sir David Amess, its chair for many years. It warned about many of these problems time and again. It is not right to say that the Government have not been warned. Unfortunately, they ignored much of this. There has not been justice for the Grenfell families. We know which companies were responsible—Rydon, Arconic, Celotex, Kingspan and many, many others. These companies continue to manufacture and make great profits, and, as far as I know, they have not paid a penny in compensation. I would like to know what the Government are doing about that and what is happening in terms of civil damages for the people who suffered as a result of Grenfell, and I would like all this to happen a little more quickly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North mentioned Peter Apps and Inside Housing. They have done a fantastic job and, frankly, the Minister could do a lot worse than simply reading through the articles it has published in the past few weeks. The one that sits most firmly in my mind is the one that asks, “Could it happen again?” I know it is well intentioned but, “We must never let this happen again” has become a cliché. I would rather the Minister focused on that article and read it. It is a long article, but it goes through, step by step, all the problems that there are with high-rise buildings, and even not so high-rise buildings, in this country, which mean that Grenfell could happen again, any day. It could happen again and we have to come to terms with that.
I have not done this for some time, because of the covid emergency, but I recently took part in the silent walk, which was an incredibly moving event. I know that my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North, the sponsor of the debate, my hon. Friend Richard Burgon, the shadow Minister, the shadow Secretary of State and others were there to witness the thousands of people who monthly walk through the streets in absolute silence around Grenfell Tower not only to remember people, but so that the Government know they are not going away. Somebody else who is not going away is the former Member for Kensington, who is in the Gallery and who of course was there with most of the Kensington Labour councillors on Tuesday. I know that she continues to take just as strong and powerful an interest in this as she did when she was the Member of Parliament for the area.
Let me conclude by saying to the Minister that I hope he will come on the silent walk one month. I hope he will talk directly—[Interruption.] I think he should listen. I am happy to wait until he has finished his conversation, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was addressing my comment directly to him. I was saying that I hope he will visit Grenfell and the families. I hope he will come on the silent walk. I hope he will understand not just the absolute thirst for justice, but the fact that what they want to come out of the terrible events that happened to them is that, sooner rather than later, everybody living in a high-rise block in this country, be it social housing, private housing or whatever, can feel safe when they go to sleep at night and feel safe for their children. Is that honestly too much to ask? It is not what we are getting from the Government’s policies at present.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Richard Burgon for securing this important debate, and I echo his call for an annual debate in this place. It is great to see Emma Dent Coad in the Gallery listening to this debate today, and it is good to be in the debate with Felicity Buchan.
I think we all remember that awful morning five years ago in June. I felt physically sick as I watched Grenfell Tower burn. Whenever I see images of that charred building, I cannot help but think about the innocent children, women and men who died that night, and the panic they must have felt as they realised that they would not survive. My thoughts, like those of everyone in Durham, I am sure, are with the 72 people who died and their loved ones, now and always. The Grenfell fire did not just take lives; it tore a warm and loving community apart. It is to the immense credit of the survivors and local residents that they have found the strength to rally together and fight to ensure that lessons are learned and that justice is done. They have my complete solidarity. Before I move on, I also pay tribute to the heroic efforts of the firefighters and emergency responders who worked tirelessly that night. I will never forget the image of the exhausted firefighters slumped outside the tower as they gathered their energy once more. Firefighters regularly risk their lives for our safety, and we should never forget their service.
We should not forget that those who died in Grenfell that night were primarily minorities, asylum seekers, migrants, the disabled and the poor. These are the people that our society values the least, and for the residents in Grenfell the value placed on their safety was nowhere near enough. The leadership of Kensington and Chelsea Council, which was at the time the richest borough in the country, with hundreds of millions of pounds in reserves, chose to use combustible cladding because it was marginally cheaper than the safer alternative. When concerns were repeatedly raised by residents that the building was unsafe in the weeks leading up to the fire, they were ignored. As Grenfell resident Lee Chapman told the inquiry:
“as residents in a so-called ‘social housing block’, we were treated as sub-citizens”.
In 2019, my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn said,
“Grenfell Tower would not have happened to wealthy Londoners. It happened to poor and mainly migrant Londoners.”—[Official Report,
Sadly, he was right. And what upsets me most about the Grenfell fire is that it was all so sickeningly avoidable. These 72 people did not lose their lives because of a faulty fridge—they died because those in positions of power were more committed to austerity, to deregulation and to privatisation than they were to ensuring that human beings were safe, and because certain companies were motivated by greed over decency. I despaired as I read how a building that was home to so many people came to be wrapped in a material that manufacturers knew was highly flammable. I was disgusted to learn that private contractors celebrated as corners were cut and money was saved.
It is staggering how many times fire building safety regulations have been watered down and stripped away by Governments in the name of the removal of red tape and the reduction of burdens on businesses, while key processes to regulate and inspect fire and building safety have been privatised, thereby lowering standards and weakening precious protections. As the Fire Brigades Union has pointed out, since 2010 the slavish commitment of Conservative Governments to pursue austerity at whatever cost has seen a staggering 20% of frontline firefighter jobs lost, including those of at least a quarter of fire inspectors. Listening to this, can anyone honestly say that the path of deregulation, privatisation and austerity has made society safer?
Most troubling of all is the fact that five years after 72 people died as a result of corporate greed and institutional failure, so little has changed. So far, no one has been prosecuted, safety regulations are still inadequate and less than 1% of buildings have had their dangerous cladding removed. Like many in this House, I anxiously await the full findings of the inquiry and the outcome of the ongoing criminal investigations. Until those inquiries are complete, the response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy is defined by a few powerful numbers: five years, 72 dead and zero convictions—a reminder that we can never stop fighting for justice.
I welcome this debate and the work done by many Members of Parliament to bring it forward and by Richard Burgon in particular to secure it. We had a debate in Government time in 2019, after the general election had been announced, and the Prime Minister spoke for the Government on the issue of Grenfell; it seems a bit strange that we now have to rely on Back-Bench Members to get a debate on the fifth anniversary of Grenfell. This debate should have been held in Government time.
The fire was obviously appalling in every conceivable way. I went to Grenfell the day after the fire and met many of the firefighters and others who had risked everything to try to save life. Their trauma was palpable, as was the trauma of police officers, local people and many other community groups that, as my friends have pointed out, came forward to help and support people and to provide food and comfort for them. The horror has not gone away. The trauma of losing loved ones—children, parents—has not gone away and will never go away. We should pay tribute to all those who did so much to help and provide support.
In particular, we should pay tribute to the firefighters who risked everything to try to save life. I remember just like it was two minutes ago their telling me, “We work to save life; it is not our job to carry dead bodies out of buildings.” They knew they had to do it and they did it. I have been on a number of the silent walks, and it was interesting that at the walk on Tuesday evening the silence was broken, as we walked under the bridge in Ladbroke Grove, to cheer and applaud the firefighters for the work they have done. That was absolutely the right thing to do because the firefighters are the absolute heroes of the occasion.
Tuesday’s silent walk was silent, dignified and very respectful, and it was very moving, for that and many other reasons. But Ministers and local authorities should not take that silence as some kind of consent to what has happened. Underneath that silence there was a wave of anger through the crowd. Five years on, nobody has been prosecuted. Five years on, people are still suffering the trauma. Five years on, people feel they have not had the support that they should have had. The speeches at the end of the silent march indicated all that. People from Grenfell United spoke, but I think the most powerful speech was by Lowkey—he is from the area, in the area, of the area and part of the area—who gave the strong message that the people of Grenfell will not tolerate another five years of silent marches and waiting for something to happen.
The only regulation that appears to have come out—the one that deals with those with disabilities—has not been properly implemented. Let me quote from an article written by Emma Dent Coad, the former Member of Parliament for Kensington. We should thank her for the huge amount of work that she did, just a few weeks after being elected to this place, to represent her people. Now, as a councillor and leader of the Labour group on Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council, she is still doing great work. She wrote in Tribune that
She went on to say that it appears that somebody thinks people with disabilities are “a nuisance” that would get in the way of dealing with a fire rescue. A disproportionate number of people with disabilities died in Grenfell Tower. Saving life has to be an absolute priority, and those with mobility problems should have the highest possible priority in being helped and saved.
I am sure that, eventually, the inquiry will show the many failings of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, but I hope it will also recognise the strength of the community support that, as other Members have pointed out, came from churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. All came and did everything they could to provide support.
After Grenfell, there were concerns throughout the country about flammable cladding around buildings. I am sure that every Member of this House has been contacted by residents who live in high-rise blocks wishing to express their concerns. My own local authority immediately inspected every single block and building in the borough and took remedial action where it was required on local authority-owned property. Generally speaking, across the country the response of local government to the cladding dangers has been far better and far more efficient than that of the private sector, and has shown far more concern about it.
Many people in this country are now either very frightened or very frustrated by the situation in which they find themselves. As the hon. Member for Leeds East pointed out, 10,000 buildings around the country have cladding that needs to be dealt with. Many people live in private sector leasehold or shared ownership properties and thought they had bought or moved into a place that was safe, but the regulations now indicate that it is not. As a result, they are being saddled with very large bills and cannot move on, move out or do anything else. The Government seem incapable, unable or unwilling to bring some comfort to those people’s lives.
I have in my constituency many fairly new developments where the cladding has been deemed unsafe. It was not deemed unsafe when the buildings were constructed, but it now is. Let me quote a letter from residents who live in Drayton Park in my constituency:
“We need your support to push the developer Galliard homes to carry out what they have recently pledged the government to do in terms of removing inflammable materials and providing us with the EWS1 fire safety certificate. They have not confirmed to us what exactly they are going to do”.
The letter goes on to point out that the insurance costs for the whole building have increased from £81,084 in 2016-17—pre-Grenfell—to £233,367 in 2021-22 and now £403,000 for 2022-23. The fire insurance for the individual writing on behalf of the residents has gone up to £600 per year. He cannot afford that and he cannot afford to remortgage, either. He is not alone in feeling completely stuck because of the situation he is in through no fault of his own and which is not of his own making.
At the very least, we require Government action to deal with the issue of dangerous cladding on buildings and, if necessary, to pay for it and get the money back from the developers, the builders or the owners of the freehold, as appropriate. The worst thing is not to be able to give some comfort and security to people who live in those buildings.
I spent some time in another building called Highbury Gardens, where the same issue has arisen. Many young people who moved in, bought leases on those flats and had children now want to move. They want a bigger place—they have more children and so on. That is all part of normal life, but those people are completely and utterly stuck. They cannot sub-let their flat. They cannot rent it. They cannot move. They cannot do anything, and this has gone on and on and on. Meanwhile, their insurance costs have become very, very high indeed.
I hope that this debate will serve as an opportunity. I look forward to the Minister’s reply in which he can bring both some news for us on the progress of the Grenfell inquiry and what will come out of that, and some comfort to those people living in blocks of flats where, apparently, there is dangerous cladding.
I will conclude by quoting from Emma Dent Coad’s article that was published in Tribune on the anniversary of Grenfell. She said:
“While we suffer under a government with zero strategic vision, or indeed any vision whatsoever aside from its own survival, we must work towards a future where specialisms, professional organisations and industry do not compete, but work together positively. Only by listening to each other, between those categories”,
can we look at the failure of fire safety
“and the ongoing neglect of people with disabilities and social housing residents”.
Surely, if anything, Grenfell was a wake-up call to the two Britains that exist—those who have, and those who live in social housing that is badly maintained, not very well looked after and badly designed, who are the ones who have suffered.
The silent walk for Grenfell shows the unity of a community of people of all backgrounds, all ethnic groups and all languages coming together, wanting to see real justice within our society. We owe it to them. I do not want to be here in five years’ time, on the 10th anniversary of Grenfell, and say that we are going through the same thing. I do not think that there will be silent walks for another five years. By that time, people will be extremely angry, and those walks will become extremely loud and very noisy. Do not underestimate the anger and the frustration of the people of Grenfell for the way that they were treated then and for what has happened to them since.
It is always a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn. I congratulate my hon. Friend Richard Burgon on securing this debate and extend my welcome to Emma Dent Coad, who I know is in the Public Gallery today.
I wish to open my contribution by paying tribute to the family and friends of the victims and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, the residents of north Kensington and members of the emergency services.
This week, as we know, marks five years since this horrific event—one of the worst disasters in modern times. The disaster unfolded in north Kensington and left the community traumatised and 72 people dead. We need truth and accountability to ensure justice for the 72 people who tragically died five years ago, and their families.
As with many of this Government’s policies, their response showed the disregard that they have for working class lives. We should never forget that Mr Rees-Mogg accused the 72 people who died at Grenfell of lacking common sense. The Grenfell Tower fire shows the way that working class communities are treated in this country. Residents had warned about health and safety issues for years, and were ignored. Grenfell Tower would not have happened to wealthy Londoners. It happened to mainly migrant and black Londoners and now, five years on, we have seen no accountability from those responsible for this horrific tragedy—or to call it what it was, social murder.
In the five years since Grenfell, the chief executives of the four biggest building companies linked to the fire have collectively received £50 million in pay, bonuses, shares and dividends—a point that was also made by my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter—yet the people and families who still live in buildings with flammable cladding are being asked to pay for its removal themselves. That cannot be right. This Government are failing to protect people. Their own statistics show that less than 1% of those who have applied to the Government’s 2020 building safety fund for buildings 18 metres or higher have had their dangerous cladding removed. That is not just dangerous, but a disgraceful indictment of this Government. This disaster has shown us, in the worst possible way, the deadly nature of Britain’s housing stock—a housing stock built against a backdrop of deregulation, where a culture of chasing profits and cutting corners was, and still is, prioritised over building safety and people’s lives.
In this place today, we have to question how such a disaster was allowed to unfold, and remind ourselves that political rhetoric such as “cutting red tape” has real world consequences. Over the past 40 years, the dominant ideology of deregulation and allowing market forces to decide what is in the best interests of this country has not worked, with devastating consequences. At the forefront of this economic failure is the housing sector, with the fire at Grenfell Tower being the worst example of what happens when the interests of the market are put first and people’s lives a distant second. This is a rotten political culture that puts profit over people, that outsources work to companies that carry out these deadly construction decisions without oversight, that has a Government who are slashing local authority budgets, making them less able to monitor rogue landlords and homes that are unfit to live in, and that forces cuts on our emergency services. It is this rotten culture that leads to disasters like the Grenfell Tower fire.
I stand with the FBU in its call for the Grenfell inquiry to recommend reversing the disastrous deregulation that led to this fire, and insist on investment in our fire and rescue service and the implementation of the recommendations that have already been made. I also stand with the FBU and the victims and survivors in their call for contractors and senior politicians to be held accountable for the part that they played.
In the face of the injustice and struggle that has besieged the survivors and the family and friends of the victims at Grenfell Tower and the wider north Kensington community, I would like to pass on from the people of the Jarrow constituency our solidarity in their fight for justice. History will remember your strength and determination to make sure that such a disaster can never happen again.
I congratulate Richard Burgon on securing today’s debate and on circulating the briefings to help ensure that Members were well prepared to speak.
Tuesday marked five years since the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, and I want, first and foremost, to pay tribute to the 72 people whose lives were lost—men, women and children who were taken from their family, friends and neighbours far too soon and in the worst way. For those who knew them and loved them, their grief will never leave them. The trauma suffered by the survivors also weighs heavy here today. I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult this anniversary is for them every year, with the painful memories and emotions with which they have to live. On this anniversary, I have been keeping the survivors, the victims and their loved ones in my thoughts, and I am sure that the people of Rutherglen and Hamilton West have been doing the same.
What is so striking about the events of
Late last year, Channel 4 aired a documentary on the events at Grenfell, which was deeply emotional. I spoke in Westminster Hall not long after it aired, and I will reiterate today one of the key messages that I took away from the programme. It was desperately sad to understand that residents in Grenfell Tower felt that this had happened precisely because they were living in social housing. They felt unseen and unheard, overlooked until the very worst happened, because of the outdated stigma that exists around council housing and the people who might live there. Having learned what we now know, the fact that it was social housing was a huge contributing factor in why costs were cut and existing concerns were not addressed.
As I have said before, social housing is one of the great privileges of living in the UK and it should see investment reflective of that. No one should have to live in a home with potential safety risks just because it is a council property. While the Building Safety Act is a necessary milestone in improving the building safety system, the job is not done. There is work still to do and, for so many, justice to be done.
Grenfell Tower and the surrounding community were just like many areas of London and indeed the UK: dynamic, talented, culturally diverse and economically deprived. As Imran Khan pointed out at the Westminster Abbey memorial this week, 85% of those who died that night were people of colour. That is not an accident or coincidence; it is symbolic of the many levels of discrimination that the UK still grapples with. It is important to recognise that fact, to think about all the reasons behind it and to acknowledge it so that we do not see it repeated.
Imran Khan also said that many of the survivors and the families of victims have told him personally they have little faith in the public inquiry or the political appetite to act on its findings. They despair at the inquiry’s reluctance to face head-on so many aspects of this tragedy that are crucial to understanding what happened: the impact of race, class and disability. Even that service at Westminster Abbey faced criticism from some families of the victims for its lack of inclusivity of families from different cultures or faiths.
On Monday, The Times published a short note, penned by Natasha Elcock of Grenfell United, Kamran Mallick of Disability Rights UK, and Sarah Rennie and Georgie Hulme of CladDAG, in which they highlighted that 40% of disabled residents died that night. None had evacuation plans. The note pointed to the Government’s refusal to place a legal duty on building owners to provide personal emergency evacuation plans for disabled residents following the inquiry. That shows lack of regard for disabled people. What message does that send?
I hope the Minister will respond to that point in his closing speech, and I hope that it will be a substantial response. This is 2022, and the world has moved on from the times when a disabled person was seen as less important. They are just as entitled to respect as anyone else, and to peace of mind in the safety of their homes.
Grenfell Tower still stands, a looming presence, a husk of the building it once was both physically and sentimentally. It represents something much larger than its physical size—the ignored red flags and warning signs predating the tragedy by years, the awfulness of that summer night in 2017, and the inequality and injustice that led to the fire.
The failure to look at similar tragedies and learn from them is one of the hardest pills to swallow. In fire after fire, we know that cladding was the contributing factor. The Garnock Court fire in Irvine in 1999 was a moment of realisation in Scotland and led to the immediate removal of that cladding on all buildings. There were also the fires in Knowsley Heights in Merseyside in 1991 and Lakanal House in London in 2009. The all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue raised concerns in this area for years with a number of Ministers, but they fell on deaf ears.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to our late colleague and chair of the APPG Sir David Amess, who was a vocal advocate for fire safety and championed the cause regularly in this Chamber. The APPG, of which I am a co-vice chair and which is chaired by Bob Blackman, has today provided a statement setting out its position on current policy. I hope the Government will take note of the points made and consider them closely.
Nothing will ever bring back those lost. Nothing will ever erase the pain for those who loved them. But the Government cannot ever allow this to happen again. Whatever recommendations are made, they must be implemented whatever the cost. In memory of the 72 victims of Grenfell Tower, whatever happens to the building now must be agreed with the survivors and the bereaved. It should be a fitting tribute, a memorial that keeps in clear focus the events of that dreadful night so that it is never, ever forgotten.
I start by echoing the sentiments of everybody in this debate. Everyone has spoken respectfully and it has been quite humbling to sit and listen to the memories of people, and I am not just thinking of the survivors themselves.
The truth is that the inquiry so far makes really quite difficult reading, because it lays bare the level of incompetence, cronyism and indifference shown at both a corporate and governmental level. It is becoming clear that the manufacturers who made the cladding knew it was flammable, but ignored the tests proving it. There are claims that fire tests were rigged to look better and texts from employees seemingly openly joking about the mistruths their companies told. Overall, the inquiry is littered with evidence of a complete lack of knowledge, experience and regard for safety among those responsible for the tower’s refurbishment.
As if residents living in a highly flammable building was not bad enough, we now also know that the organisation responsible for maintaining the building also utterly failed in its duty to do so. With a backlog of hundreds of incomplete maintenance jobs arising specifically from fire risk, it failed to repair and inspect fire doors. As a result, on that fateful night, smoke and fire ran rampant throughout the place.
For years, residents repeatedly complained about how unfit the building was, and specifically about the risks of fires. Yet they were ignored and palmed off time and again. It has been said by a few hon. Members, particularly the hon. Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), and by the survivors themselves, that had the residents been majority white and wealthy the response would have been completely different—and they are absolutely right. The fact that that is held as an open fact that everyone is aware of, whether we talk about it or not, shows just how deeply embedded the problem is.
As Ms Buck said, the treatment of survivors after the disaster is grotesque in itself. At every single stage, from when the fire first started right through the five years until now, those people have been failed at every single turn by the very people who should be helping them.
The reason often given, which is quoted throughout the inquiry, is cutting costs; I think it was the hon. Member for City of Durham who made that point. Time and again, we see the company saying that flammable material was used because it was cheaper—it was to cut costs. Because of cost cutting, the council inspector responsible for ensuring the safety of the project had 130 other projects to keep an eye on at the same time. Our emergency services are stretched beyond their limit in the name of cutting costs.
If someone told me that this fire happened in 1917, and that we were here as a memorial to remember the tragedy that instigated health and safety laws, I could believe that—but it did not. It happened in 2017. We are supposed to have health and safety. We are supposed to have standards. Yet, five years on, it seems that nobody, particularly in Government, is actually that bothered by it. There has been no accountability, and the companies are still receiving profits from this entire saga.
Right now, we have half a million people still living in a building with some form of unsafe cladding. Officials still do not know how many buildings of four storeys or more could be at risk. The Government are yet to implement the majority of the recommendations from phase 1 of the inquiry, and as we have heard they have already rejected the idea that building owners should be responsible for evacuation plans for disabled people.
While I accept, and I truly do, the warm wishes and the real desire to never see this kind of tragedy happen again—I do appreciate the sentiment—no matter how well-intentioned they are, words and platitudes do absolutely nothing. This tragedy started long before any fire. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith has said, if we are to be serious about this, and if we are to respect those who lost their lives, what is required is action, because it is action that makes the difference. We should take that action, learn from history, as we are supposed to, and reflect and respond, because otherwise—I agree with the hon. Member—as things stand, I fear there is every chance this will happen again.
It is a privilege to respond for the Opposition in this important and timely debate. I commend my hon. Friend Richard Burgon for securing it and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. In so doing, they have given the House not only the opportunity to appropriately mark the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, but a chance for us to properly reflect on its aftermath and what could be, but is not yet its legacy.
It has been an excellent debate, and I thank all those Members who have taken part. We have had a series of incredibly well-informed and powerful contributions. On behalf of those on the Opposition Benches, I put on record once again the admiration we feel for the survivors and the bereaved, and for the wider Grenfell community. In the face of unimaginable loss, their pursuit of justice for their families and neighbours and their dedication to securing wider change command enormous respect.
The events of
Doing so is made all the more difficult by the knowledge that those guilty of wrongdoing have not yet been punished. Many Members have rightly raised that point in the debate. While we can never fully appreciate the grief that those who were directly affected have experienced, I can understand the fury that they must feel as they watch the Grenfell Tower inquiry continue day after day to relentlessly expose a catalogue of malpractice and negligence. While we recognise the need to await the conclusion of the inquiry before it is determined precisely what steps must be taken, I can understand the frustration that they evidently feel—it was palpable on the silent walk on Tuesday—that the prospect of justice feels more distant than ever.
When it comes to the question of justice, it is our responsibility as Members of this House to recognise that the fire at Grenfell Tower was not simply the result of pernicious industry practice; it was also the product of state failure—the failure of successive Governments in presiding over a deficient regulatory regime and ignoring repeated warnings about the potentially lethal implication of that fact. The Government have a duty to ensure that everyone lives in a safe home. Sadly, while there has undeniably been progress toward that end over the past five years—and a quicker pace of progress over the past nine months, for which I give the Minister and his colleagues due credit—this debate has highlighted the serious concerns that remain.
Time does not permit me to respond to all the pertinent issues that have been raised during this debate, from the failure of the Government to implement all the recommendations from phase 1 of the inquiry, to the ongoing impact of the building safety crisis on blameless leaseholders in privately owned buildings and on social landlords. I therefore want to use the time I have left to pick up two particular issues raised in the debate that are incredibly important for how we go forward: the functioning of the new building safety regime, which was raised in considerable detail by Sir Bernard Jenkin; and the extent to which the wider post-Grenfell building safety crisis has been comprehensively resolved.
When it comes to the new building safety arrangements, the Building Safety Act comes into force in 12 days’ time, but the practical implementation of the new arrangements is just as important as what the legislation itself provides for, and in that respect, we have real concerns about whether the new regime will be able to function effectively. In particular, we remain unconvinced that the new Building Safety Regulator, which the Act makes responsible for all aspects of the new framework, has what it needs to perform all the complex tasks assigned to it.
Take the issue of indemnity insurance for approved inspectors. The Minister will be aware that as a consequence of a late Government amendment to the Bill, the current Government-approved scheme comes to an end next month, yet there is no sign of an appropriate alternative arrangement being put in place to protect the public and the public interest. Indemnity insurance may seem like an incredibly technical matter, but it is nevertheless integral to the proper functioning of the new regime, and on this and a number of other pressing issues it simply is not good enough for the Government to pass the buck to the new regulator without providing it with the necessary support, as is clearly the case.
The Government will have to do more in the months ahead to ensure that the regulator can carry out its functions effectively, not least because the second phase of the Grenfell inquiry will almost certainly produce recommendations that place additional pressures on it. When he responds, can the Minister update the House on what more his Department is prepared to do to assist the regulator to discharge the duties the 2022 Act places on it?
I would go further than the hon. Member. The concept behind the architecture in the Building Safety Act is still not adequate. There are conflicts of interest for building control surveyors, and there is the complete lacuna of independent incident investigation. Would he undertake to allow Nick Raynsford, Keith Conradi and me to come and brief the Opposition Front-Bench team on this matter, so that they understand our submission to the Grenfell inquiry fully?
I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member and the other individuals he cites. I agree that there are gaps and deficiencies in the new regime, and I agree in particular that there is a conflict of interest with the Health and Safety Executive being the body that investigates major incidents. If those incidents were in in-scope buildings, it would be investigating the regulator that sits inside it, but there are also conflicts in building control, as he rightly raises.
When it comes to the wider building safety crisis, alongside its impact on blameless leaseholders, the overall pace of remediation is arguably the most pressing concern we face. It is agonisingly slow. In the debate that took place last week on social housing and building safety, the Secretary of State openly admitted what has been patently obvious for some time to any Member dealing with cladding casework, namely that the building safety fund
“has not been discharging funds at the rate, at the pace and in the way that it should”.—[Official Report,
Despite Members from across the House having repeatedly expressed concerns about that fact with Ministers over a considerable time, little has seemingly been done to expedite the processing of applications.
The result is that of the 3,462 non-ACM-clad privately owned buildings over 18 metres that have made applications to the fund, remediation works have begun on only 259 and have been completed on just 30. Can the Minister tell us what is being done to expedite decisions on those applications not yet determined? As one would expect, given that it was established earlier and its scope is far more limited, better progress has been made in remediating ACM-clad buildings via the building safety programme, with 78% having been completed, but five years on from the Grenfell fire, how can it be the case that 55 residential buildings still have deadly Grenfell-style ACM cladding on them, and 16 of those have not even begun to remove or replace it?
Of course, in both those cases, the figures I have cited relate only to high-rise buildings over 18 meters. By its own estimate and published figures, the Department believes that there are likely to be between 6,220 and 8,890 mid-rise residential buildings that require full or partial remediation or mitigation to alleviate life safety fire risks. I suspect that the real numbers are far higher.
The bottom line is that if the Government do not accelerate markedly the pace of remediation across the board, we are likely to find ourselves marking the 10th or even 15th anniversary of the Grenfell fire while still bemoaning the fact that some unsafe buildings require fixing. It is essential that the Government continue to be urged to address those failures and the others that have been raised in the debate, because honouring the lives of the 72 involves not just commemoration, but the building of a fitting legacy, as other hon. Members have said.
As Grenfell United made clear in the statement it released on Tuesday to mark the fifth anniversary, the survivors, the bereaved and the community want those who were lost to be remembered not for what happened, but for what changed. Not enough has changed over the last five years and it is beholden on the Government to go faster and, in many cases, further so that everyone has a secure, decent, affordable and safe home in which to live.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House for their moving and thought-provoking contributions in today’s debate. I know that I speak for all Members when I say that the 72 men, women and children who senselessly lost their lives at Grenfell will never be forgotten. It is entirely right that the House has met again just two days after the fifth anniversary of that national tragedy to honour their memory and to discuss our collective duty to ensure that such a tragedy is never repeated and that no one ever has to go through what residents of Grenfell Tower were forced to go through on that night or what the bereaved and survivors have had to endure over the last few years.
As a Minister in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, I feel an acute responsibility to do the right thing by the Grenfell community, and I know that feeling is shared on both sides of this House and in the other place. For those directly affected by that national tragedy, life has never been, or ever will be, the same again. The tributes paid this week by the survivors and their families to the victims have brought that fact into the sharpest possible light. As Members have rightly highlighted in their moving tributes today, and in last week’s debate led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the community has consistently shown incredible bravery, resilience and courage in the face of unimaginable loss.
Until the Grenfell Tower inquiry concludes and the police investigation finishes, the search for justice will continue. Five years on, the bereaved are still waiting for at least some sense of closure from that terrible night. Sir Martin and his counsels have been working diligently in pursuit of the truth, and they have already laid bare the opportunities missed by the Government and others, as well as exposing cut corners and wrongdoing on the part of several other organisations. We now need to ensure that we take seriously all the inquiry’s recommendations when it concludes.
I reiterate my humble appreciation of the way in which the bereaved and survivors have stoically campaigned for justice and reform. Their dignity and strength continues to inspire us all. They have been let down. No words and no apology could possibly make up for these failings, but I echo the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the debate last week when he said that we are sorry. For my part, I am sorry.
We are committed to making things right by fixing the building safety regime that badly failed those at Grenfell on that night through the Building Safety Act, by implementing the toughest and most stringent fire safety standards through the Fire Safety Act, and by putting residents at the heart of a reformed social housing sector through our Social Housing (Regulation) Bill. We are not naive about the scale of the challenges that remain and, as has been rightly pointed out in this debate, we still have a long way to go on several issues.
I do not want to cover the same ground as last week’s debate, but I will mention some of the comments and contributions that were made today. In congratulating Richard Burgon on securing this debate, I acknowledge that he and I agree on almost nothing politically, but we are united in our determination to ensure that a tragic event like Grenfell Tower genuinely never happens again. He called for an annual debate, as did Mary Kelly Foy, and my understanding is that the Secretary of State committed to that during the debate last week.
Andy Slaughter asked why the debate did not take place on the anniversary of that terrible event. Clearly, partly, that was because the Grenfell bereaved and survivors could attend the debate last week. They were invited to, and they did—there were two rows of them in the Gallery—and the Secretary of State and I met them before the debate. It would have been inappropriate for us to have it on the same day that they were holding events in other areas to commemorate it.
Touching briefly on the technical point that the hon. Gentleman made with regard to electrical surveys that will be carried out and whether properties of other tenures will be caught up in that, we are going to consult so that we can understand some of the complexities he described where there are multiple tenures in a single building as to what would be the most appropriate position to take.
I thank my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan for her support—I am incredibly grateful to her. I have recently done a lot of engagement with the Secretary of State. We have held a number of town hall meetings giving the opportunity for people to come in, for several hours if necessary, to speak to me and the Secretary of State to discuss their concerns and make their case.
I thank my hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin for putting on record his recommendations, which I am sure will be given serious consideration.
Will my hon. Friend undertake to arrange a meeting between Keith Conradi, Nick Raynsford and me and the Secretary of State? We have not met the current Secretary of State, and we met a Lords Minister who has now changed, so we feel that we need more engagement with Ministers about this. I would be very grateful if he could undertake to arrange that meeting.
I would be very happy to speak to the Secretary of State’s diary secretary on my hon. Friend’s behalf.
Margaret Ferrier made an important point about the memorial that may follow on-site. The Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission will ensure that the bereaved, survivors and, indeed, north Kensington residents lead decision making on the long-term future of the site.
Members have mentioned the pace of justice, and I recognise the importance of that to the families seeking justice who have already had to wait so long. The police, the CPS and the inquiry must rightly remain independent from Government. The police are keeping families updated and over the weekend issued a public update on their progress. It is also important that those affected by the tragedy can fully participate in the inquiry. As such, we have made a fund for legal expenses available to witnesses and to the building safety review’s core participants.
Of the 46 recommendations made in phase 1 of the report, 15 were directed to the Government. The majority have been addressed by the laying of the Fire Safety (England) Regulations 2022 and by the Building Safety Act. The remainder are being considered by a Home Office consultation that runs until
With regard to the pace of remediation, the building safety reset announced by the Secretary of State in January is galvanising activity across the board. The industry is gearing up to play its part, and over 45 developers have now pledged to remediate unsafe buildings that they developed. We are working rapidly to turn those pledges into legally binding contracts, and our goal is to get these out of the door before summer recess. In many cases, developers who made a pledge are getting on with it, contacting building owners and leaseholders and lining up surveyors to carry out assessments and prioritise work. For the 11-to-18 metre remediation scheme, in signing the pledge, developers have committed to working at pace with Government to finalise arrangements and commence remediation or mitigation work, as necessary, as soon as possible. We will announce further details of the launch of the 11-to-18 metre remediation fund shortly.
I am interested in what the Minister says about the remedial works being done. What compensation will be made available to people who, as I outlined, have paid unbelievably excessive levels of insurance, through no fault of their own, and are seriously out of pocket and unable to continue doing so?
I cannot speak to compensation, but I can say that the Department is in regular touch with the financial services industry to talk to it about the cost of insurance products and to do everything to ensure that it takes a balanced and proportionate approach so that those costs come down.
On the comments made by Matthew Pennycook on the work of the regulator, I ask him to meet the Housing Minister to discuss this in detail, because we are very keen to see progress made on a cross-party basis.
As a Parliament, we cannot and will not ever forget the events of
When we one day look back at what followed the tragedy, one of the defining parts of the post-Grenfell era will be what we did to replace a broken building safety system with one of the most rigorous and robust building safety regimes in the world. But the job is not done—we know we still have a long way to go—so we must redouble our efforts to finish the job we started and deliver justice for the survivors of the tragedy, forcing the industry to take collective responsibility for the safety defects it created. As Members of this House we can rightly expect that we will all be judged not by our words, but by our actions to fulfil our promise of making sure that everyone lives somewhere safe and secure and that they can be truly proud to call home. That will be our ultimate tribute.
I thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed to this very important debate. I am glad that the Government have committed to an annual debate on this in Government time.
I hear the Minister say that he and the Government will take seriously every recommendation from the inquiry, but I would like the Government to commit to implement every single recommendation, not just to take them seriously. I would like the Government to revisit their decision and overturn their rejection of personal evacuation plans. I would like the Government to help all people hit by the cladding crisis and surely, as we have heard from other Members, the cladding companies should pay. We need a commitment that no one in this country will live in a fire-unsafe home, and we do need the urgent implementation of the Hillsborough law, because the duty of candour from public authorities is so important.
Along with other Members, I was on the very moving memorial walk the other night, and we sensed the unity. I want to pay tribute to Councillor Emma Dent Coad, who has continued to pursue this injustice and advocate for local residents in the community in which she lives.
I want to finish with two brief quotes. One is from the journalist Peter Apps, who wrote in a recent article:
“What has emerged is a profoundly depressing portrait of a private sector with a near psychopathic disregard for human life, and a public sector which exists to do little more than serve or imitate it.”
However, I want the final words of this debate, fittingly, to be from the families, the bereaved and the survivors of Grenfell United, who said:
“We must pave a new way forward. We must hold those responsible to account.”
Our thoughts are with all those families affected by this awful tragedy, but particularly at this time.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire.