Grenfell Tower and Fire Safety: Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:12 pm on 20th July 2017.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat 2:12 pm, 20th July 2017

My Lords, I remind the House that I, too, am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for the promise of regular further updates over the summer. We join in the thanks to all the rescue services for their work. This was a devastating but avoidable catastrophe, and we need to get to the truth of what happened and guarantee the highest level of support for the community.

There is clearly a need to find workable terms of reference for the inquiry, but I have concluded that we also need a mechanism for the parallel issues of the supply of affordable housing, how tenants are treated and provision for displaced and affected residents, with the same level of public involvement and the same status and respect. I hope that the Government might agree with that and find a means of doing it.

The Statement confirms that the independent expert advisory panel on building safety, whose work is critical and urgent, is undertaking a new system of testing ACM panels, which is clearly needed. We have heard that the first results are due next week. There has been a catastrophic failure in building control, either in the regulations themselves or in their implementation—or both. We need to know urgently which it is and then implement actions across the country to meet the recommendations made.

I will raise two issues, the first around emergency planning and the second around other towers and testing, both mentioned in the Statement. Two weeks ago, I asked a Written Question of the Minister, to which I got a reply yesterday. My question was whether Her Majesty’s Government,

“plan to audit the emergency plans of local authorities to ensure that they are up-to-date and robust”.

The reply I got yesterday said:

“The Government currently does not plan to audit local authorities’ emergency plans. Local authorities, as category 1 responders under the Civil Contingency Act 2004, are subject to the full set of civil protection duties and are best placed to develop appropriate emergency plans based on local risks and needs”.

Clearly, it did not work in the case of Kensington and Chelsea. Might the Minister look at that again? The Government should not assume that no other local authority has similar problems. There is a responsibility on central government to make sure that local authorities’ emergency plans are in place and robust.

It is clear that the Government have accepted that Kensington and Chelsea cannot yet take over the recovery operation by itself, and that when it does, it will be under the supervision of the independent Grenfell recovery task force. That is the right decision, but I hope that the Government will look carefully at this to ensure that the situation that occurred in Kensington and Chelsea cannot happen elsewhere.

On the issue of other towers and testing, the Statement says that,

“no more than 228 local authority and housing association residential blocks over 18 metres tall have been fitted with aluminium composite material cladding”.

That is a very high number indeed. The first question the Government need to answer speedily is whether or not the material was within building regulations—in other words, large numbers of buildings have been using this material, but should they have done so? Secondly, can the Minister explain why the height of 18 metres is so material? I am two metres tall; 18 metres is nine times my height. I am not clear where this figure has come from and why this material is deemed to be safe on high-rise buildings under 18 metres high, bearing in mind that none of the material in the blocks so far has passed the limited combustibility test that has taken place.

Finally, the Government have made it clear that when the results are available to the new system of testing they will be shared,

“first with local authorities and housing associations”,

which are immediately concerned, and,

“with the local fire and rescue service”.

Towards the end of the Statement it says that the Secretary of State has “the power to direct” a local housing authority,

“to consider these test results as part of their duty to keep housing conditions under review”.

There is then a statement that the power may well be used and enforcement action could be,

“taken against a landlord if a fire risk is not dealt with”.

Of course, that would include all fire risks within a building. I am not sure that what the Statement says is strong enough in law, because it indicates that the local housing authority has the final decision. It is not good enough simply to direct an authority to consider the test results. They should be implementing the test results, and if resource is required to do that, Her Majesty’s Government may well have to find the resource to do it.