Three weeks have now passed since the fire. As we all know, it soon became clear that the delivery of the initial response on the ground was simply not good enough. Since then, much has been done to support victims, to see that justice is done, and to ensure that other buildings around the country are safe. Throughout, our first priority has been helping victims who have suffered such an unspeakable trauma. We have been working hard to ensure that they have all the support they need, securing emergency accommodation and making financial and emotional support available as quickly as possible.
The response efforts have been co-ordinated by the Grenfell response team, led by John Barradell. He is being supported by colleagues drawn from London councils, the wider local government sector, the voluntary sector, police, health and fire services, as well as central government. I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to them all for their immense efforts over the last few weeks.
The new leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Elizabeth Campbell, has given a fulsome apology for the inadequate initial response. She has also asked for help from central government to put things right. As the Communities Secretary has set out in a Written Ministerial Statement today, we will be establishing an independent task force to help the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea build its capability so that it can deal with the longer-term challenge of recovery.
The Prime Minister promised that we would make an offer of new temporary housing to all those who have lost their homes as a result of the fire, within three weeks. These are good-quality, fully-furnished homes, so that families can move on from emergency accommodation and live, rent-free, in a proper home while permanent accommodation, on equal terms, is found; 158 families from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk have been identified as being in need of such housing.
I can confirm that every family who is ready to talk to the housing team has been offered a temporary home, and that 139 have received offers of accommodation. However, 19 families have not yet been ready to engage in this process, and we need to respect that. Some are still in hospital as a result of their injuries. In some cases, the people on the ground offering these families support have made clear that it would be inappropriate at this time to ask them to make a decision about where they will live. These families have been through unimaginable trauma, and we need to go at the pace that they want to go at. What matters above all else is what the families individually want.
The Grenfell response team has been working with the 139 families currently engaged with the process to match them with appropriate temporary accommodation, and to start to talk to them about their long-term needs. The housing team has identified and secured more than 200 good-quality properties so that residents can have a choice where to live. I know that some have raised concerns about the quality of the accommodation offered. All properties have been inspected by the housing team to ensure that they are in good condition. My right honourable friend the Communities Secretary has personally seen an example of the kind of property on offer, and representatives of local residents groups have also seen and been assured of the quality. If the Shadow Minister would find it helpful, I would be very happy to visit some of these properties with him so that he can assure himself of their quality.
All of the properties are local, and are either in Kensington and Chelsea or in a neighbouring borough. This will mean that families can continue to be near their friends and relatives, go to the same GP and send their children to the same school. Fourteen offers of temporary accommodation have been accepted, and three families have already moved in. I expect this number to increase, but we have to respect the pace at which the families want to go. I have personally met over 30 of the families who have been directly affected and, from talking to them, I understand that there are many reasons why some are reluctant to take up these offers. Some might choose to remain in hotels until they have an offer of a permanent tenancy.
We also understand that one of the big issues holding people back is a lack of trust. Some families were told that they were moving into Grenfell Tower on a temporary basis and then, years later, they were still there. Their concerns are entirely understandable—that is trust which we need to work hard to earn. We also have to respect their decision if they do not wish to move out of emergency accommodation before permanent housing is available. We will keep on making offers to families of local homes that we think would be suitable for them, but no one will be forced into a home that they do not want to move into.
I want to respond to a number of reports which have been made, claiming that people are being told to move far from London or that they may be deemed homeless if they do not accept an offer. I want to be absolutely clear: if this is ever suggested to a victim then that is completely unacceptable. I have already stated that if anyone is aware of an individual family who is not receiving the offer we have promised, please tell me, and we will fix this. I repeat that call to the House now.
Let me set out again what the Government have committed to do. Every household that is ready to talk has been offered temporary accommodation. The housing team will continue to work with families to ensure that their individual needs are met. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said, everyone whose home was destroyed by the fire will be guaranteed a new home on the same terms as the one they lost. This means paying the same rent, with the same level of security, and in the same area.
When it comes to permanent housing, we have already announced a new block of social housing that will provide 68 new homes in Kensington Row. We are urgently working with a number of developers to secure similar properties either in Kensington and Chelsea or very close to North Kensington, so that families can stay in the same area. These negotiations have not yet concluded, and we need to work closely with the residents to make sure that the sort of properties we are able to make available will match what they want.
There are also 17 leaseholders who lost their homes and we are working with them to make sure that they do not lose out financially because of the fire. I met with them recently as a group, and we are working with the individually to find the right solution for them.
On my visits to the West Way, hearing the harrowing accounts of survivors has been the most humbling and moving experience of my life. The families I have met have been through unimaginable pain. We will continue to do all we can to get them the help they need. This tragedy should never have happened, and I am determined to do all that we can to make sure that something like this never happens again. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made by the Housing Minister earlier today in the other place. I draw to the attention of the House my registered interests: I am a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
It is accepted that the response by Kensington and Chelsea Council fell far short of what would have been expected. I thank and pay tribute to all those public sector workers who have come to the aid of the victims and their families and the wider community. They are drawn from London councils, the wider local government sector, the police, the NHS, the fire service and officials from central government, along with the voluntary sector and faith communities. Their contribution in supporting the residents and the wider community has been remarkable, humbling and invaluable. I thank them all for all that they have done and continue to do.
The new leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, Councillor Elizabeth Campbell, has rightly given a fulsome apology for the abject failure of that local authority in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. She has an important job to do in getting the council back on its feet and serving the community as intended. It is important that the new leader works with all members of the authority and specifically involves the leader of the opposition, Councillor Robert Atkinson, and quickly gains the trust and respect of the local community, working with them closely.
I have read the Written Ministerial Statement issued by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and welcome the decision taken to appoint an independent recovery task force to advise the council on the longer-term recovery needs. I am pleased that this body is reporting directly to the Secretary of State and can advise him of any further action that needs to be taken as it sets about its job of supporting the local authority. However, it cannot act as commissioners can, which would have been the best option, and will need to be kept under review. However, what has been decided is progress and moves on from the “keeping an eye on the council” approach we had earlier.
More work urgently needs to be done on progressing the provision of new homes to the families. As we have been told, only three families have moved to a new temporary home and 11 more have been offered somewhere they feel able to accept, out of the 158 families that have been identified as in need of rehousing. If there was an offer for me and my noble friend Lord Beecham to see examples of the housing available, we would certainly like to take it up. I agree that even the suggestion that a victim could be made homeless if they do not accept an offer of housing is completely unacceptable. If anyone has information about such actions, could the noble Lord explain where they should go and who they should speak to if they feel pressurised? Such people are, of course, traumatised and frightened.
That leads me on to a disturbing report of which I was given details this morning. I was told that, in the immediate aftermath of the fire, the TMO provided space at a premises for an art therapy group to work with young children from Grenfell Tower who were traumatised by the fire. It had been working with the children—who had experienced a horrific tragedy—but sometime later the TMO contacted the group and said that it needed the keys back as it wanted to resume the letting of the premises. The group asked for more time to carry on working but, on arriving at the premises for the next session, it was unable to gain access because the locks had been changed, leaving the art therapists and the children standing outside. Will the noble Lord urgently investigate what happened here, because that is not the action of an organisation or individual who has any compassion, empathy and respect for the victims or, frankly, any understanding of what has happened? It is a truly appalling action by those in authority and an example of why further interventions may be necessary.
This tragedy should never have happened. Everything must be done to make sure it never happens again, to do right by the victims and their families, to treat them with care and respect, and to give them the support they deserve and the answers they need.
My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for keeping the House so well informed about the consequences of this disastrous and tragic fire. Although shamefully delayed, I am encouraged that the Government are now recognising the scale of the disaster, which, as the Minister himself has said, was wholly avoidable. It is also positive that the council leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has resigned, as called for last week by several Members of your Lordships’ House. I am pleased that the newly elected leader has acknowledged the council’s failings, which clears the way for others to step in and provide it with the support it obviously needs. The Government have announced how they intend to do that through the task force.
The Grenfell residents who survived the fire have lost their homes through no fault of their own. It is therefore right that the wishes of the residents in seeking new accommodation are paramount, so that they can begin to settle into new homes. They must be given time and support in making their decisions. Many families will wish to remain in the area, which is the one they know, so that their children can continue to attend the same school and families can remain with the local general practitioner. Will this be the case? The Minister seemed to confirm that in the Statement, but it is not clear what kind of distances residents will be expected to travel in order to retain their links, and perhaps will rely on even more given the tragedy they have been through. What is the distance or length of time for travel the Government consider is acceptable to residents from their new accommodation to schools, GPs and so on?
I want also to ask about ongoing mental health support, in particular for all the children who have been through this awful experience. If residents choose to move well away from Grenfell Tower, as I can imagine some may well wish to do, how will support move with those families? It would be awful if people move, perhaps even away from London, but still need support to get through this difficult time. Given the reason for rehousing, is the Minister able to reassure residents that every new unit of accommodation on offer will have been given a thorough fire safety check before anyone is asked to consider moving? It is the kind of reassurance that I would seek if I had been through even part of what the Grenfell residents have experienced.
Finally, I understand that yesterday the Secretary of State at DCLG, when speaking to the Local Government Association, claimed that as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire there was a crisis of trust in local government as a whole. I would say to the Minister that the crisis of trust is in only one council—the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. A comparison that I would draw to his attention is that of the amazing response by Manchester City Council to the terrorist attack earlier this year. Equally in that case, there were many casualties and the need to co-ordinate an instant response. As a country, we will not learn the lessons from this tragedy if the Government or anyone else attempts to put the blame on a single institution. Across government, local government and public services in general, we all need to learn the lessons so that this awful and avoidable tragedy can never be repeated.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, very much for their contributions. I shall first take up the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I agree with him: the response on the ground we have seen from gold command, the local authorities, central government and the emergency services was absolutely awesome, and from voluntary and charitable bodies. There is no doubt of that.
I thank the noble Lord for the welcome of the recovery task force that has been announced, as he rightly said, by Written Ministerial Statement. On the specific issue he raised of the art therapy group, if he has further details of that—it is the first I have heard about it—I would be happy to look at that and to get officials to look at it. He is absolutely right that this should not be happening. At a time like this we need added sensitivity, not a lack of it. I shall certainly follow that up, but as I say, I know nothing of it.
I have not heard that this is the case, but if anyone feels that they are not being dealt with properly regarding some of the housing offers, again, there is the Westway centre, which is staffed by the people I just referred to—local authority members and central government, with assistance from voluntary and charitable bodies. They can go there. There is a victim support unit there. There is a family and friends centre at Holborn. Again, if any noble Lord has any details of anything they would like me to follow up I am happy to do that. I thank him very much indeed for the welcome he gave to Elizabeth Campbell, the incoming leader. I agree that she will want to work with other councillors across the piece. I am sure that is what she will do.
Turning to the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, I once again thank her very much indeed for her positive response. The challenges are daunting across many areas, some of which on housing were specifically dealt with by this Statement, but there are many much wider than that. The wishes of residents relating to temporary accommodation and, indeed, permanent accommodation are paramount. We are trying to meet the needs and wishes of residents because of the massive need for sensitivity. That is what is governing this. That is why the process may take some time because the trauma means people will initially feel they want to go back to where they lived and then, giving it more thought, think that is perhaps the last thing they want to do. Understandably, people do not want to rush a decision on something such as this, hence staying in the emergency accommodation of the hotel. As I think has been indicated—I shall restate it—there is no rental charge for the emergency accommodation or the temporary accommodation. There is no charge on that at all.
The noble Baroness asked about links with GPs and schools where appropriate. Clearly, that is something that will influence the residents concerned. As she indicated, often it may be a question of distance or at least the time travelled, but not always. Someone may be travelling to work or something in a particular area, so it has to be judged by the individuals concerned. Once again, we are taking our leads from the individuals concerned.
The noble Baroness asked about mental health support. Again, that is certainly being provided for bereavement and more widely through the Westway centre. I thank her for her comments about people who may move away to be with relations or who may want to move out of the area completely. It is important that we do not drop the ball in relation to mental health, so I will make sure that point is followed up, as I am sure everybody wants it to be. Fire safety checks are being done on new accommodation offers. I can confirm that; obviously it is central.
On the Secretary of State—my boss—I can say only that he has been working tirelessly on this. He knows the important role of local authorities and the good work they did. The noble Baroness referred to the Manchester terrorist attack. I went up there during the election campaign when the dreadful attack happened. She is absolutely right that it was the best of British public services, voluntary services and individuals all coming forward. I can confirm that that has uniformly been the case. I thank her very much for her point on mental health, which we will certainly follow up.
While I concur with a great deal of what has been said, has the Minister seen or read the allegations which I have seen that a number of the flats had been unlawfully sublet by their tenants, so the victims were people who were not actually tenants of the local authority? Quite clearly, those people should be fairly and properly treated, but what is to happen to the tenants who had illegally sublet? Surely they will not be holding out their hands for another tenancy to unlawfully sublet.
My Lords, my noble friend is right that there have been allegations of unlawful subletting. The Government have been keen in this situation—I think, correctly—to say that this does not matter at this juncture; what really matters is ensuring that we have proper account of those who have lost their lives or who have gone missing. Therefore, in these circumstances, it is entirely appropriate that we say that no charges will be brought in relation to unlawful subletting—that is not to condone it more widely, but in these special circumstances, the important thing is the loss of life and the learning of lessons so that we can ensure that this does not happen again.
My Lords, we all welcome the emotionally supportive tone of the Government—both the DCLG and the DWP—and I think that we are at one in the House in backing the Government so far, but will the Minister allow me to ask him some questions, so that we have his reassurances on the record? Some of them might also have been addressed on the Question asked earlier by my noble friend Lady Lister. The first relates to DHPs, or discretionary housing payments. Will they be available for as long as the individual needs them, given the endorsement given by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, about the need for peace and security? That will mean that the borough almost certainly runs out of money. Will government then guarantee to produce the additional resources, the DHPs, for Kensington and Chelsea for as long as those needs last? If not, as my noble friend said, the tenants will be caught by the housing benefit cap somewhere down the line and have insecure accommodation.
Secondly, I have some other DWP-type questions about money. The public have responded most generously—I think some £17 million and rising has come in through charitable giving, which will be distributed to tenants, many of whom were on benefit. Conventionally, if you have more than £6,000 in savings, your benefit is cut. Can we have an assurance in person from the Minister and therefore on the record—I am sure that the Government intend to be as compassionate about this as they can—that any such charitable money, support money or bridging money will not be offset under capital and savings rules against people’s income?
Thirdly, a number of residents—
Will your Lordships allow me one more question? Many people in that tower will be on UC and will have interview letters stating that if they do not attend those meetings they will face sanctions. Will the Minister again assure the House that for people who have lost all their paperwork, which was their line through to universal credit, housing benefit, disability benefit and so on, sanctions will not apply as they would do if they had not been engaged in this tragedy? I am sure that the Government have good will in this regard, but can we have assurances on these matters in writing, which will make all the difference to the security of income of affected tenants?
My Lords, the noble Baroness raises several points. I understand that there is no time limit on discretionary payments being made. I reiterate the point made in the Statement and by the Prime Minister previously that accommodation is being offered on terms at least as generous as those available previously. That means that no bedroom tax would be charged if it applied previously. Charitable payments will not have an effect on benefits, and there will be no sanctions.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement, in which he confirmed that,
“everyone whose home was destroyed by the fire will be guaranteed a new home on the same terms as the one they lost”.
The Statement then goes on to clarify what that means:
“Paying the same rent, with the same level of security and in the same area”.
I suggest to the Minister that there should be a fourth definition: “with at least the equivalent furniture, fittings and decoration at no cost to the tenant”.
I raise this because there are issues around whose insurance policies will pay for furniture and fittings. In my view, that should lie not with the tenant but with the landlord. Even though the Statement overall seems to imply that it includes the substantial cost of furniture and fittings, for the avoidance of doubt the Government should be very clear about this. I just remind the House of my vice-presidency of the Local Government Association.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. I have some sympathy with that point. Indeed, when I read the Statement I made a similar point. I think it is inherent in the Statement but I am happy to confirm that not only should the accommodation be at least as good and with as many bedrooms—I understand that in many cases it will be more—but also the furniture and fittings should be of equivalent standard. Perhaps one could go too far in setting that out but that should encapsulate the point the noble Lord wanted.
I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on the approach he is taking, and congratulate both Front Benches. In the interests of the people concerned and given the tragedy they faced, the last thing we need is party-political point-scoring. How can we all work together to deal with this appalling tragedy? The one remark I disagree with in each of the previous contributions was when it was said that this must never happen again. There is a real risk that something will happen—not necessarily this; maybe a plane crash. It is quite clear that the organisation in London of individual boroughs is not properly equipped to handle a tragedy of this scale. There is no wonder that Manchester City Council did a better job than Kensington and Chelsea: the resources available are on a vastly different scale. The Minister talked about a task force. There needs to be a permanent organisation so that if tragedy strikes in one of these ways, it can go straight in and do the work. I very much hope that that will be the outcome of this.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that positive contribution, and echo it. I thank noble Lords who have sought to approach this in a genuinely bipartisan way, because it transcends party-political differences. The specific point raised is one that the Prime Minister indicated, so my noble friend is very much on that page. There will be a civil disaster task force to deal with circumstances like this. I certainly echo what my noble friend said.
My Lords, I do not believe that the Cross Benches have spoken. I echo from these Benches the welcome for the Statement and the determination by the Government to ensure that these families have peace of mind in future. I also echo the concern raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, on the Opposition Benches, that in the longer term we may need exemption from the bedroom tax for these families. They may be moved into larger homes; the Minister said that they might have more bedrooms than previously. I hope the Minister will give careful consideration to those suggestions. I also welcome what the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, said about not seeking to blame one particular individual but looking at how the system itself failed to meet the needs of the people.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that. Clearly, there are issues that will be looked at by the inquiry. Initially, issues will be looked at by the expert panel in relation to this disaster—the immediate action necessary. Then, I anticipate that there will be an interim report for the inquiry, then a fuller report. The noble Earl referred to perhaps even broader issues that we will need to address. I am sure that they will be addressed in due time. Just at the moment, we are focused on the immediate things that must be dealt with in terms of the awful tragedy at Grenfell Tower.
My Lords, the Minister said there were 17 leaseholders; that is, people who will have purchased their property from the local authority. Can he say a little more about their position? I presume that they will either be block insured under a block policy or they will be individually insured in terms of the value of their property. Will they be treated in any way differently from those who were tenants of the local authority?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that perceptive question. Each case is different and each is being looked at individually. I think they will be dealt with mutatis mutandis. Obviously, there are differences because they own the property rather than being social tenants. But in essence it will be dealt with in parallel in exactly the same way.
Does my noble friend agree that the judge who has been appointed to head the inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, is extremely well qualified to head that inquiry and that criticisms of him are wholly misconceived? Does my noble friend agree that it is to be hoped that everybody affected by this tragedy will work with the inquiry to determine the true causes?
My Lords, I agree entirely with my noble friend. He is absolutely right. Sir Martin was chosen because he is the appropriate person to take this forward. He has already visited and has been consulting tenant organisations about the terms of reference and the scope of the inquiry. Details about the public inquiry are on the web at grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk. It is there for people to look at and contribute to the scope of the inquiry, I think until a week on Friday:
My Lords, in the Prime Minister’s Statement on
“everyone whose home was destroyed by the fire will be guaranteed a new home on the same terms as the one they lost”.
That is what we are intending to do. Beyond that, if the home that they go to is larger than the one they were in previously, they will not be charged extra, as I understand it; I was going through this this morning in the department.
My Lords, the House will want to welcome the practical steps that are being taken by the authorities, including central government and local authorities, to repair the practical and physical damage. But one of the missing ingredients between the community and the authorities is trust. Undermining that trust is the need to get some authentic and verified numbers about the number of people who perished in the awful fire. Is there any mechanism that can be set in train to get the information, whether it is held by the local authority or the housing association? Until that figure is properly authenticated, there will be mistrust and the healing of the community will take a very long time. The nation has a right to know how many people perished in that awful, tragic fire.
My Lords, I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, about the number of people who perished. We sorely want to know that information. It is not just a question of finding out how many people were tenants in the block. As we have indicated, there were people residing there who were not tenants, who were illegally subletting, which is certainly possible, or who were guests. It is entirely possible that people were staying overnight. Sadly, at the top of the block, it is very difficult indeed to identify people who have lost their lives. We are striving to find the number of people who died. I think currently we have identified 90 people who almost certainly perished in the fire. Beyond that, it is difficult, but we are seeking to do that by the measures I have mentioned. The Statement refers explicitly to the issue of trust. I agree that we need to rebuild the trust of the people who lived in Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk and more widely in Kensington and Chelsea, and that is what we are seeking to do in the way that we are approaching this.
My Lords, following the question from my noble friend Lord King, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that there are no other local authorities that are equally weak in disaster planning and response? Although this was a terrible tragedy, in terms of managing the disaster, it was not particularly difficult. It was very concentrated geographically. What would have happened if a wide-bodied jet had landed somewhere in west London?
My Lords, in the immediate aftermath of this dreadful tragedy we have, as my noble friend will know, contacted other local authorities to ensure that there is not a replica of this situation elsewhere. Everything we have done since then in terms of testing and action has been to ensure that that does not happen. There has been only one case to date, in Camden, where we have had to evacuate blocks, although we have found non-compliant cladding in, I think, 202 cases. My noble friend said that this case was easy to handle but I would dispute that. It might have been geographically concentrated, but the nature of this tragedy was such that it was, and still is, very difficult to address. I have no particular knowledge of detailed plans for the type of disaster he talked about, but the suggestion by my noble friend Lord King and the Prime Minister of some sort of civil action disaster task force is an appropriate one to deal with such awful occasions, which do happen over time—we can think of transport disasters or Hillsborough. Such situations would be helped by having an appropriate body with legacy ideas passed on from one awful disaster to another. It is an idea that is worth pursuing on a non-partisan basis.
My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Beecham, indicated that they would like to accept the invitation extended by my noble friend to see the properties that these unfortunate, tragic people are being offered. Clearly, we do not want to place strains upon those who are working so hard, but could we possibly have a little exhibition in the Robing Room or somewhere else illustrating the sorts of properties that are being offered so that Members of your Lordships’ House and of another place can see these things and the specifications?
My Lords, in relation to the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Beecham, seeing the properties, I was of course repeating a Statement in which the offer was made by the Minister in the Commons, Alok Sharma, to John Healey MP. That is not to say that I cannot make provision for that, but the most important thing—as I can see from the response of noble Lords opposite, and it is my own feeling—is that we should allow people to get on with the work which they need to do on an urgent basis. I would say the same to my noble friend in relation to any follow-up with the type of housing that is being offered. The first thing that is really important is for the people concerned to get on with their job. I know that civil servants from my department are working tirelessly at weekends and pretty much round the clock, and I would not want to impose any additional burdens on them at this time.