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 Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 2:14 pm, 22nd June 2017

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the extremely comprehensive Statement. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to all those who lost their lives in the tragedy; our sympathies are, of course, with all those residents who will have to rebuild their lives after such a horrific event and with the families of those affected. I also put on record again the huge debt of gratitude that we owe to those in the fire service and all the emergency services who worked tirelessly to rescue residents and support families in the immediate circumstances of the fire, and in the almost as bad circumstances of having to sift through the building day after day to see what they could find in the wreckage.

There was a huge gulf in the response to this tragedy between the public and the Government. The public acted immediately and with great generosity. Government, both national and local, acted slowly and, initially at least, without the same energy or generosity. It took the Government 48 hours to establish a central command centre, for example, and the borough council seemed unprepared and overwhelmed. If this had been a terrorist attack, the response would have been far more effective—we saw that in London only a few days ago. Things that have, for example, taken 48 hours in this case, would, in the case of a terrorist attack, be in place within 48 minutes. There was clearly a failure of emergency planning for this kind of incident, which we do not see for terrorist attacks, for which emergency planning is clearly extremely good. So I ask the Government: what immediate steps are being taken to ensure that such a failure will not be replicated in any future non-terrorist incident?

The Government say that they welcome—and indeed precipitated—the resignation of the chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council. But what about the leader of the council? It was a political decision to stockpile huge cash reserves while apparently skimping on safety measures. Will the Government now be asking him to resign also?

We welcome the public inquiry that has been announced by the Prime Minister. We must obviously ask a raft of difficult questions, including why the fire spread so quickly and why the lessons of the past seem not to have been learned, but there are obvious concerns about how long such an inquiry might last. History is not very encouraging in this respect. Can the Leader of the House give any further assurances in terms of both the speed with which any interim recommendations might be produced and how we can ensure that the full inquiry does not drag on for years?

The Statement says that a number of tests already carried out have shown other blocks to be clad in combustible materials, and the Government claim that all local authorities and fire services are now taking all possible steps to ensure buildings are safe. Given that some—indeed many—of these steps will be costly, can the Government give an assurance today that they will not be delayed by any shortage of funding? In the case of such buildings which are privately owned, what steps beyond exhortation will the Government take to ensure that the owners fulfil their legal obligations to provide safe buildings?

It is clear that, when the tests on all these buildings are complete, there will be a need for large-scale remedial action. If there are 600 blocks, there will be a vast amount of work that needs doing quickly. This can be undertaken only by skilled workers in the construction sector. Given that there is already a shortage of such skills, particularly in London, and that 50% of the construction workforce in London is from the EU, can the noble Baroness give an assurance that, as the Brexit talks proceed, every encouragement will be given to such workers to continue to come to London, as any major labour shortage in this area could be literally a matter of life and death?

There are a number of issues in the Statement that could legitimately give rise to anger. But what got to me was the Prime Minister’s peroration. She said:

“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”; and she went on,

“let the legacy of this awful tragedy be that we resolve never to forget these people and instead to gear our policies and our thinking towards making their lives better and bringing them into the political process. It is our job as a Government … to show we are listening and that we will stand up for them”.

This is a leader of a party who has just stood on an election manifesto to cut spending in schools by 7% and impose big further cuts in welfare payments and local government expenditure. This hypocrisy makes me very angry. Will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House suggest to the Prime Minister that if she really wishes to stand up for people such as the tenants of Grenfell Tower, she should start to adopt policies which follow her words?