Grenfell Tower and Fire Safety: Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:03 pm on 20th July 2017.

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Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 2:03 pm, 20th July 2017

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat a Statement made by the Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Five weeks have now passed since the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. Nothing that has happened in those five weeks will have diminished the grief of those who lost loved ones. Nothing will have negated the trauma of those who lost their homes. But across the public sector, in local and central government, in the emergency services, in hospitals, in schools and more, dedicated public servants have been doing all they can to deal with the aftermath and help the community to recover.

Over the past five weeks, the Government have endeavoured to keep the House up to date with those developments. This is the third Oral Statement I have made on the subject. The House has also heard from the Prime Minister and the Housing Minister, who also answered questions in Westminster Hall before Parliament formally returned. There has been a full debate in the Commons, four Written Statements, and a number of letters sent to all Members. My aim today is to provide an update before the House rises and another opportunity for honourable Members to ask questions, and I would also like to let the House know exactly what action we will be taking over the summer.

The police continue to list 80 people as either dead or missing presumed dead; 39 victims have so far been formally identified, with 39 inquests opened by the coroner and adjourned pending the public inquiry and police investigation. Two adults remain in hospital. I know that some local residents remain concerned that the number of people in the tower on the night has been underestimated. I would continue to urge anyone with further information to come forward. We have been very clear that we do not mind if those affected were subletting or have immigration issues. All we care about is getting to the truth.

Turning to the rehoming programme, everyone who lost their home in Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk has been made at least one offer of good-quality, fully-furnished temporary accommodation in the local area. As of 10 o’clock this morning, 35 of these have been accepted and 10 families have moved in. Those numbers are slightly down on the figures that were published recently as some people have changed their minds, as they are perfectly entitled to do. Where residents have turned down an offer, we are finding suitable alternatives to offer them. Where residents are not yet ready to engage with the process, do not want to make a decision right now, or would rather wait for a permanent home to be offered, we will respect that. At DCLG questions this week, the quality of the accommodation being offered was raised. I would like to repeat the Housing Minister’s offer to the Opposition Front Bench to visit some of these homes so they can inspect them for themselves. I do not believe they have yet taken up that offer, but it still stands. In the longer term, we are continuing to seek out and secure suitable permanent accommodation. The first such homes for Grenfell families will be ready within days, and specialist teams are ready to start matching them to families and start making offers.

On the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea recovery task force, at the town hall, we are continuing preparations for the return of control of the recovery effort from Gold Command to Kensington and Chelsea Council. I have spoken at length with the new leader of the council and been very clear that Gold will not hand over the reins until it is clear that the council is ready and able to cope. We saw last night the very raw anger that some in the community still feel towards the council. It is entirely understandable. As the Prime Minister herself has said, the initial response from the local authority was simply not good enough. There is not a lot of trust there, not a lot of confidence, and that is why, once Kensington and Chelsea Council takes over the recovery operation, it will do so under the supervision of the independent Grenfell recovery task force. It is important to stress that the role of the task force is not to investigate the causes of the fire or to apportion blame—that is for the public inquiry and the police investigation—rather, it is there to provide advice and support and see to it that the council does the job that is required of it. We are in the process of finalising the task force membership and I hope to make an announcement soon. I can confirm that the handover from Gold to Kensington and Chelsea will not happen until the task force is up and running.

Away from Kensington, the fire safety testing programme continues. We now believe that no more than 208 local authority and housing association residential blocks over 80 metres tall have been fitted with aluminium composite material cladding; 189 of these have had cladding samples tested by the Building Research Establishment, been tested by proxy or have already taken their cladding down. None of them has passed the limited combustibility test. Samples from a further 12 towers have been submitted this week and are now being tested. The BRE has yet to see samples from seven towers, all of them managed by housing associations; a month after the tests began, that is simply unacceptable, and I expect to see them all submitting samples without any further delay.

On the advice of the independent Expert Advisory Panel on Building Safety, the BRE is now undertaking system testing that will help establish how combinations of different types of ACM panels with different types of insulation behave in a fire. An explanatory note, setting out the process and the timetable for further advice, will be published shortly. It has taken a short time to design and set up the test, but we expect the first results to be available next week. As soon as results are available, we will share them first with local authorities and housing associations that have confirmed that their properties are clad in the same combination of materials that are used in that test. We will, of course, share them with the local fire and rescue service. The results will provide further information that building owners and their professional advisers can use to take decisions about what, if any, remedial action is required.

Although legal responsibility for fire safety enforcement lies with local authorities, I have the power to direct an authority to consider these test results as part of their duty to keep housing conditions under review. If necessary, I will not hesitate to use this power, which could lead to enforcement action being taken against a landlord if a fire risk is not dealt with. I hope that it will not come to that.

On the public inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick is continuing his preparatory work. I welcome his decision to extend by two weeks the consultation period for the terms of reference. While we are all anxious for the inquiry to get under way, it is important that the remit is appropriate and that everyone affected has an opportunity to share their views.

On updates over the summer, with the House due to rise later today, this is the last Statement that I will be making before the Summer Recess, but work on the recovery effort and testing regime will obviously continue at pace while Parliament is not sitting, and my department will be writing regular letters to all Members to keep them abreast of progress.

Finally, I pay tribute to the many Members on both sides of the House who have assisted with the emergency response and recovery effort so far. Members have provided insight, support, scrutiny and a voice for their constituents, both in public and behind the scenes.

The weeks, months and even years ahead will be unimaginably difficult for those caught up in the fire and those who lost family and friends. There is nothing that any of us can do to bring back those who died or to erase the trauma of that terrible night. But I am sure that the whole House shares my determination to take care of those affected by the fire, to make sure the truth comes out and that justice is done, and to see to it that a tragedy like this never happens again”.