Grenfell Tower - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:14 pm on 22nd June 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords 2:14 pm, 22nd June 2017

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating this very comprehensive Statement, with lots of information in there. She will understand that it also begs a number of questions, and I hope that she will be able to answer them today—but, if she is not, I shall be happy for her to write to me.

First, it is right that we recognise the almost unspeakable horror of the fire in which so many have lost lives, friends, family, their homes and all their possessions; it is a tragedy on an almost unimaginable scale. If you listen to those who are affected, it is clear that it is never going to leave them; it will stay with them for the rest of their lives. The noble Baroness is quite right to say that the support is not just for today or tomorrow—it is long-term support that we are talking about.

I also place on record our huge gratitude to the emergency services—the medical staff, police and, particularly, the fire and rescue services, which went above and beyond the call of duty. I understand from those who have seen and heard the recordings from the fire engines when they arrived at the fire, they could not believe what they were going to. They were saying, “How in the something or other are we ever going to get into that building to rescue people?”. Those were the comments that they were making as they arrived. There was no structural engineer on site at that point, so they had no way of knowing if it was safe to go into that building or not—but they went in. Many years ago, I did some fire service training as a fire authority member, and I have done a mock-up wearing breathing apparatus. That was in safe conditions, but I know something of how terrifying it must be for those who arrive at such a scene, and the bravery of those men and women who attended the fire. No words can express how grateful we and others are to them.

The response from the local community and the public was almost overwhelming, such was the scale of the horror of what they witnessed. However, as the noble Baroness has said, the response from the local council was nothing short of appalling and a disaster. I pay tribute to the other London boroughs which do not have the wealth or resources or the financial reserves of Kensington and Chelsea but which went to the aid and assistance of people outside their borough to do what they could to help—and they seemed better able to provide some of the support that was needed. The noble Baroness made the point that the council was certainly not up to responding to residents’ needs.

I welcome the inquiry, which is a step forward. The noble Baroness is right to say that there should be an interim report—one hopes by the summer—but, as well as the other issues that it addresses, can it address the wider issues of accountability? The management of that block was outsourced to a private company, which does not seem—and this will be borne out by the inquiry—to have had any direct relationship with the residents so that the residents could force it to respond or have any accountability process. That should be looked at as part of the wider issues.

I note in the Queen’s Speech that the Government have taken up the proposal from my noble friend Lord Wills of a public advocate. It would seem that, the quicker we can have somebody in place to advise those who want to play a role and be involved in the inquiry, the better. I hope that we can look at that ASAP.

Clearly, this is a fast-moving situation, with new information and details emerging all the time. I appreciate that government and local councils want to reassure people, but we can reassure people only if they are genuinely safe; people cannot be reassured unless the necessary checks have been undertaken and any changes have been made so that people are safe. Shortly after the Prime Minister gave her Statement to the House of Commons, we heard the alarming news that, when in the Statement today she mentioned that a “number” of high-rise tower blocks were affected, up to 600 in England alone could have combustible cladding installed. Can the noble Baroness confirm that the figure of around 600 is correct? If it is, when did that figure become known to the Government? What action are the Government taking? If there are 600 blocks of flats in England alone in that situation, the scale of the work to be done is just enormous. The Downing Street spokeswoman said earlier today that:

“Obviously nobody will be living in buildings that are unsafe. They will be rehoused if they need to be and landlords will be asked to provide alternative accommodation where that’s possible”.

If 600 blocks are affected, I am not sure that the checks can done as quickly as that. If 100 blocks can be checked today, it will still be quite a long time before all blocks are checked and any work is undertaken. If those people are to be rehoused, it will be more than a million people. There must be some contingency plans for the Government to work with local councils on that, because this clearly seems to be beyond the scale of most local authorities’ ability to cope. Can the noble Baroness confirm whether that figure is correct, when the Government knew and what action is being taken?

I have a couple of questions on resources for local authorities. This is clearly going to be an expensive business—rightly so—for local authorities to undertake properly, so are local authorities guaranteed the resources to carry out any necessary additional checks? What conversations or discussions have there been between central government and the private companies that have supplied and fitted such cladding on to high-rise blocks? There is an issue about whether all housing providers have been alerted by those companies that fitted such cladding. The inquiry is welcome, but the noble Baroness is right to say that we do not have to wait to take action. After the previous fire that we saw in 2009, I gather that the coroner’s recommendations were made in 2013 to the Department for Communities and Local Government about retrofitting sprinklers—those recommendations could be acted on now. We would be grateful if the noble Baroness could respond on that.

When the Prime Minister was asked in the House of Commons about whether the buildings were compliant with building regulations, she said that the police and fire services were investigating and would report in 24 hours. That is a reasonable response in terms of the buildings that we are talking about, but the legal position regarding that kind of cladding on high-rise buildings is not a matter for the fire and rescue service or the police to investigate; the Government must know whether or not the building regulations allow it. Can the noble Baroness respond immediately on that? I cannot see why we have to wait 24 hours for a statement from the fire and rescue services, because whether the building regulations do or do not allow it should be a matter of fact. In terms of this particular block, there were building regulations inspections. Were faults found during those inspections and, if they were, was action taken to remedy the faults? It is clear that there were complaints beforehand.

I have one final point: a Minister commented to me a while ago regarding deregulation that the Government’s policy was that you had to have three regulations out before you could bring another one in. We all know that society does not like to be overregulated—nobody wants unnecessary red tape—but that seems to not look at the value of regulation; it is a numerical chance exercise. Can the noble Baroness confirm whether that is the case? I would be delighted if it was not, but if that is still government policy, surely it should be reviewed. We should regard regulations on their merit, not on the number of regulations, which is completely irrelevant in terms of safety for society.

The Statement is comprehensive and welcome. As times goes on, there will be some challenging, difficult and perhaps uncomfortable truths to be faced about how society operates and how it treats poorer people, particularly with regard to housing. This is a disaster beyond anything we could have ever contemplated. If lessons are not learned from this, we will be doing the public an enormous disservice.