“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the disaster at Grenfell Tower. I would like to start by apologising to the Leader of the Opposition for the short notice he has had of this Statement. I received an important update in the hour before making this Statement which I felt was essential to bring to the attention of the House this morning.
What happened in the early hours of last Wednesday morning was one of the most unimaginable tragedies our country has seen in many years. As of this morning, 79 people have been confirmed dead or listed as missing presumed dead, and with work ongoing to recover the bodies, sadly the death toll may rise further. We already know that many children are among the dead and that in some cases whole families perished, and that those who survived have lost loved ones, friends, neighbours and in many cases everything they own.
It should never have happened. In a few moments I will say how we are going to discover why it did. But, as I said yesterday, that initial failure was compounded by the fact that the support on the ground in the initial hours was not good enough. As Prime Minister, I have apologised for that second failure and taken responsibility for doing what we can to put it right.
On my first visit to north Kensington, I met with the emergency services. These extraordinary men and women put their lives on the line in an effort to save others, and my first responsibility was to check that they had all the resources they needed. I then visited Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, where I met some of the most seriously injured survivors—it was from that experience that I decided we had to have an emergency fund. I also met a group of residents in Kensington whom I then invited to Downing Street last weekend. I returned to Kensington again last night to hear directly from them about the progress that we are making.
What became clear very quickly was that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea could not cope, and it is right that the chief executive officer has now resigned. It is also why I set up the Grenfell Tower Recovery Taskforce, which I have been chairing personally.
But this is not just about the steps we take in the first few weeks; it is about a lasting commitment that we are making to supporting the families affected, long after the television cameras have gone. So let me set out in detail the steps that we are taking to support the victims and rehouse those who have lost their homes.
On Friday morning, the Government established a central command centre under the leadership of John Barradell, the chief executive of the City of London and former lead for London local government on resilience, and Eleanor Kelly, the chief executive of the London Borough of Southwark. On behalf of the whole House, I want to thank John and his team for all the work they are doing.
I also want to pay tribute to the fantastic response from London boroughs, including a number of chief executives who are currently working at the command centre, as well as the Mayor of London and leading figures from a number of councils from outside London. I want to thank the army of volunteers who stepped in to provide shelter, sustenance, comfort and practical support. And I want to thank my Communities Secretary and the Ministers for Housing and Planning, the Minister for London and the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service for the work they have been doing.
There are currently around 600 people on the site and in the immediate area who are working to provide support to the victims. The Westway sports centre has been transformed into an emergency community hub, staffed by 40 officials from six government departments. They are making sure that people have essential documents such as driving licences and passports that are fundamental to carrying on with their lives. They have also been joined by experts from organisations such as Transport for London, Citizens Advice and the Red Cross, and by NHS mental health staff, nurses, care managers and a GP. Anyone affected by the blaze can walk in and access the support they need, and so far there have been almost 700 visits to the centre. The centre’s on-the-ground work is supplemented by the victim support unit, whose emergency helpline provides a single point of contact for victims who need to deal with multiple government services in the wake of the disaster.
Each family whose home was destroyed is receiving a £5,000 down payment from the emergency fund so that they can buy food, clothes and other essentials, and outreach workers are seeking to make sure that everyone gets the money they are entitled to. We are also paying all additional adults over 16 in these households £500 in cash. Other cash payments are being paid out by the council on a discretionary basis, for example to those whose home has been severely impacted but not permanently destroyed. As of midday on Wednesday we had made payments of over £700,000.
It is absolutely essential that people understand that they can keep the money they receive; these grants are not loans and they will not be expected to repay a single penny. Neither are they waiving any legal rights as a result of accepting this financial help. The payments will be disregarded for means-tested welfare payments, so no one in receipt of benefits will see their benefits cut if they accept emergency support.
I would also like to reassure people that we will not use this tragic incident as a reason to carry out immigration checks on those involved or on those providing vital information to identify victims or those assisting with the criminal investigation. We will make sure that all victims, irrespective of their immigration status, can access the services they need, including healthcare and accommodation.
In terms of local schools, Kensington Aldridge Academy, the school right next door to the tower, remains closed. However, all its pupils have already been accommodated at other schools in the area. The Department for Education is working with Ofqual to ensure that children who are sitting their GCSEs receive an appropriate exam dispensation, and specialist counselling has been offered to local schoolchildren and also to teachers affected by the fire.
Turning to rehousing, 151 homes were destroyed in the fire—most in the tower itself but also several in the immediate vicinity. All those who have lost their homes have been offered emergency hotel accommodation, and all will be offered rehousing within three weeks. Already, 164 suitable properties have been identified, and they are being checked and made ready for people to move into.
In the longer term, everyone whose home was destroyed will be guaranteed a new home on the same terms as the one they lost. Sixty-eight of those will be in a brand-new low-rise block that has just been built by Berkeley Homes. The developer has generously offered to turn over the entire block at cost price. Contractors are on site now, working 24/7 to speed up fit-out so that the first families can move in this summer.
Within the wider cordon area, many more homes were damaged by smoke or water or have lost gas, heating and hot water. Emergency hotel accommodation is available for anyone who does not want to remain in a damaged property, and over 100 hotel rooms have already been provided. We are also putting in place practical support to help accelerate necessary repairs and yesterday drew on expertise from the Army to assist with this.
Some survivors have said that they want to leave the local area, and we will of course support that and help them find a home elsewhere. But I want to be absolutely clear: nobody is being forced to move somewhere they do not want to go. If any honourable Member thinks they know of anyone being treated in this way, they should contact my office in Downing Street with the details.
As the scale of the tragedy became clear, we quickly decided that there had to be an independent public inquiry. As I said to the House yesterday, it will be chaired by a judge to get to the truth about what happened and who was responsible, and to provide justice for the victims and their families who suffered so terribly. All those with an interest, including survivors and victims’ families, will be consulted about the terms of reference, and we will pay for legal representation for those affected.
Listening to survivors last night, it also became clear that they want support to come together as a group to have their voices heard, and the Government will play our part in helping them to do so. For too long, residents have been overlooked and ignored. We will ensure that they are involved in every step of this process. No stone will be left unturned in this inquiry and, for any guilty parties, there will be nowhere to hide.
I am also clear that we cannot wait for ages to learn the immediate lessons, and so I expect that the chair of the inquiry will want to produce an interim report as early as possible.
I know that many others living in tall residential buildings will have concerns about their safety after what happened at Grenfell. All social landlords have been instructed to carry out additional fire safety checks on tower blocks and ensure that the appropriate safety and response measures are in place. This is being done in co-operation with local fire and rescue services. We have also taken steps to make private landlords aware and have made our checking facilities available to them for free.
The House should, of course, be careful on speculating what caused this fire, but as a precaution the Government have arranged to test cladding in all relevant tower blocks. Shortly before I came to the Chamber, I was informed that a number of these tests have come back as combustible. The relevant local authorities and local fire services have been informed and, as I speak, they are taking all possible steps to ensure buildings are safe and to inform affected residents. Immediately after this Statement, the Department for Communities and Local Government will contact any MPs whose constituents are affected, and the Communities Secretary will provide a further update later today.
We can test over 100 buildings a day, and the results come within hours. I urge any landlord who owns a building of this kind to send samples for testing as soon as possible. Any results will be communicated immediately to local authorities and local fire services. Landlords have a legal obligation to provide safe buildings and, where they cannot do that, we expect alternative accommodation to be provided. We cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes.
It is clear that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was not able to cope with the scale of the tragedy, so we will also develop a new strategy for resilience in major disasters, which could include a new civil disaster response taskforce that can help at times of emergency.
Finally, we must learn some of the lessons of this and previous disasters where bereaved families have not had the support they need. We will introduce an independent public advocate for public disasters, a strong independent voice for victims and on behalf of bereaved families, supporting them at public inquests and inquiries.
In the past week, a lot of remarkable people have gone above and beyond to help deal with the fire and its aftermath. First and foremost, of course, are the incredible men and women of the emergency services who did so much to save so many lives. I cannot imagine the kind of bravery it takes to run into a burning building and head upstairs when any normal person would head for the exits. But we have also seen sterling work from people across the public sector—teachers, nurses, staff from various local authorities and civil servants—who are doing all they can to help. We have seen incredible acts of generosity from private businesses, and we have seen the people of this great city and this great country stepping up to help in any way they can, by donating money, clothes, toys and food, volunteering their time, and so much more.
But above all, I want to pay tribute to the people of Kensington, who have opened their hearts and homes to people affected by the fire, coming together and showing what a real community looks like. The selfless actions of local people and the courage and resilience of the survivors should give us all pause for thought.
Right now, our focus is on supporting the victims, finding homes for those made homeless and making sure this country’s housing stock is as safe as possible. But as we move forwards, so we must also recognise that for too long in our country, under Governments of both colours, we simply have not given enough attention to social housing. That itself is actually a symptom of an even more fundamental issue.
It should not take a disaster of this kind for us to remember that there are people in Britain today living lives that are so far removed from those that many here in Westminster enjoy—that in this tower, just a few miles from the Houses of Parliament, and in the heart of our great city, people live a fundamentally different life, do not feel the state works for them and are therefore mistrustful of it. So, long after the TV cameras have gone and the world has moved on, let the legacy of this awful tragedy be that we resolve never to forget these people and instead gear our policies and thinking towards making their lives better and bringing them into the political process. It is our job as a Government, and I believe as a Parliament, to show we are listening and that we will stand up for them. That is what I am determined we should do. I commend this Statement to the House”.
That concludes the Statement.