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Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:30 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Conservative 1:30 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, on 14 June 2017 events occurred that have left a dreadful scar on the nation’s conscience. We cannot turn the clock back, but we can take urgent action, some of which is outlined in this phase 1 report. One of the most moving parts of the report, which runs to four volumes and is considerable in its extent, is the tributes paid by loved ones and friends of those who lost their lives on that fateful night. It demonstrates what the country has lost, what the community has lost and what the families of Grenfell lost. It shows a diverse community of different races; a wondrous, breathing, living, loving community; children doing great things in sport, in school and in culture; a community at work and leisure; charitable work and strong community relations in Grenfell Tower. It also demonstrates the work that was done by the churches, the mosques, the synagogues—places of worship and public services coming together after the dreadful fire and, more widely across the country, the concern that this has left.

My focus this afternoon is on what we must do as a country and as a Parliament to honour those who died, to show solidarity with those who survived, and to work together to learn the lessons and ensure that we simply never again are in this position—and I mean never again. In that regard, I very much welcome the role, the work and devotion of Grenfell United, which I know will be following our deliberations and, more importantly, monitoring our actions. I acknowledge the work done by Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his fellow assessors in what is a very strong report with some very clear recommendations in phase 1. Of course we await phase 2, which starts in the new year and will look at other aspects, and I will touch upon them later.

This part of the consideration focuses on what happened on the night, and particularly the role of the London Fire Brigade, and to some extent the other emergency services. First, I ask the Minister, who I know shares my concerns, to ensure that this is carried forward for all fire brigades in our country: it is addressed specifically to the London Fire Brigade, because of course it was the one involved on the night, but the findings and recommendations apply much more widely. We need also to ensure that it is shared with devolved Administrations and more widely across the world. There are references in the report to other high-rise fires, in Australia, the Middle East and so on, and I hope that we will share the findings much more widely.

Before I get into the meat of the report I shall look at some preliminary issues. One that is identified, and that I think the inquiry will come back to in phase 2, is the height where we consider that different rules apply. In England and Wales, it is 18 metres; while in Scotland it is 11 metres. It is not clear why there should be that discrepancy. Consistent with what the approach of the inquiry and of the Government has been, I invite the Minister to confirm that safety, not cost, will be the prime consideration in whether we carry this forward with 18 metres or 11 metres as the appropriate height.

A second issue that I think is important and is not touched on particularly by the report, although it does say something about it, and I will touch on that in a minute, is criminal charges. This is obviously independent of the inquiry and independent of this House and of the Government—it has to be—but I merely say that the report makes it clear that this should be happening concurrently. There is no reason why criminal charges have to wait while the inquiry is being conducted. Indeed, in many ways criminal charges are important early on, if that is possible, because memories fade and people forget things—they move on, they retire, they resign and they die. It is important for there to be closure for people who may well be subject to criminal charges. This issue must be carried forward and I would like the Minister to recognise that and to say that it is being made clear to the police and prosecuting authorities. When I was Minister I was able to indicate how many cases there were of people being interviewed under caution. Is the Minister able to update the House on this?

One other issue, before I look at some of the recommendations, is that of sprinklers, which many people think is important. I have heard many experts say that if sprinklers had been there, the fire would not have happened. Again, this has some urgency. I recognise that it is in phase 2 of the report, but where do the Government stand on this? Is safety the watchword rather than cost, because this is important? I invite the Minister to look at the Welsh experience, where it was carried forward in the National Assembly—I was proud to adopt and support that policy when I was there.

I turn to the report itself. A key issue was the “stay put” versus “get out” policy on the night. That is clearly central as the judge chairing the inquiry found that, if an evacuation had happened more quickly, lives would have been saved. That is a very serious point. It has nothing to do with those who were there fighting the fire: the heroism and bravery of people in Grenfell, at the bridgehead, fighting the fire, was faultless and they went well beyond what could have been expected. It is perhaps systemic, but there was certainly an issue of communication between people in the control room and those at the fire itself. It is perhaps not surprising, in a sense, given the sheer overwhelming nature of the fire. In the Lakanal fire in 2009, a serious fire that I will make reference to later, there were six calls relating to fire survival guidance. In Grenfell there were more than 400, such was the sheer overwhelming nature of what was happening. It meant that communication was under strain. We have to ensure that the very strong recommendation about improved communication between the control room and the people in the building and at the bridgehead is carried forward. It was clearly not as effective as it could have been; there are doubts about whether the communication worked for people wearing helmets and breathing apparatus. There may be costs associated with this, and again I ask the Minister to respond on that. I know we are accepting all the recommendations; the issue is what the timeline will be. The Prime Minister said in the Commons yesterday that there would be legislation. When will it be brought into effect? This is clearly of key significance.

The switch of policy within the building itself also comes up in the report, because it was not clear; the transition from “stay put”—the normal policy when a building is sound and all the regulations are being abided by—to “get out” was not done uniformly. Again, part of that was due to not having clear notice of the switch, which can be done by a sounder device. Could the Minister comment on that as well? Good communication is key to this.

Undoubtedly, the factor that caused the fire was the flames sweeping up the outside of the building along the cladding. The judge quite rightly approves of the banning of ACM cladding and the programme to ensure that it is taken down from blocks. He also says that he agrees with the local government committee, which says that progress is too slow. He does not quite say, “Get a move on”, but does say that this should be pursued more vigorously. That is a very serious recommendation, and we need to pay attention to it. I would be grateful for a comment on how that will be pursued, because it is very important.

Another issue on the night was that communication between the different emergency services was not effective; it was not always compatible between the ambulance service, police and fire brigade. They seemed for a long time to be acting independently of each other. The system in the police helicopter was not compatible with the fire brigade, so the latter was not able to access what was happening on the helicopter. Again, some comment on how we will carry that forward would be welcome.

In terms of obligations on the owners of buildings, the judge recommends that the plans of buildings should be made available to the fire brigade and that any updates or changes to the structure or design of the building need to be carried forward as well, so that the fire brigade is aware of them. That is not happening consistently now, but there is a recommendation that it must happen. The lifts were working, alas, in some ways, but the fire brigade was not able to take control of them. They were being used by residents, often with fatal consequences, because they did not know not to. There is a recommendation that owners should test lifts on a regular and thorough basis. This is also important.

Signage was also homed in on by the inquiry; the signage on floors was not clear and should have been advertised on each floor such that one could see it in low lighting and through smoke, both in the lobby area that needs to indicate where and on which floor the flats are and on the floors when you get to them. You can only imagine the hell it must have been for the people trying to escape and the emergency services trying to operate not always knowing where they were. Particularly in the context of Grenfell—this will not apply to every block of flats; it very much has to be appropriate to the area we are looking at, but certainly applies to many parts of the capital city and other large cities—English was not the predominant language. It was not the first language for a lot of people there. All the signs about fire procedures were in English and no other language. Individual owners of blocks need to be aware of whether signage should go up in other languages such as Arabic, Urdu, Spanish or whatever it may be. It is clearly an important consideration.

The judge also homes in on fire doors, which need regular testing. They were not working effectively in Grenfell, which meant that, although the fire was going up the outside, the smoke was not compartmentalised and spread very quickly. If the fire doors had been effective, that would not have happened. It is a really important consideration that the spread of smoke was enabled to happen. A clear recommendation from the judge, one that he says may involve extra cost, is that fire doors on buildings with unsafe cladding— those identified with ACM—should meet current standards rather than the standards of when they were built. That is a very important recommendation that must be carried through quickly; I would be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts on the timeline of this, as I know the Prime Minister has accepted all the recommendations.

These are the key issues. In phase 2 we come to others: the responsibility of local government, which is not touched on; the responsibility of Government; sprinklers, which I touched on; and the Lakanal fire and the lessons from that, progress or lack thereof in relation to which will be looked at when phase 2 is considered.

It is a very weighty report with a lot of good things in it. I know that this House and the other place want to do the right thing by the people who suffered and perished that night and the survivors who have shown awesome resilience and determination in carrying on the fight to ensure that these things are done. I am very pleased that the House is taking this very seriously. We clearly have a good representation of speakers, who I know will be addressing their concerns. We have three maiden speeches, which I know your Lordships’ House looks forward to hearing very much, from my noble friend Lady Sanderson and the noble Lords, Lord Hendy and Lord Woolley.

In the meantime, the clear message from the judge, the community and the country is that we really have to get on with this, to make sure that it never happens again and to honour both the memory of those who perished that night and the survivors who have been carrying on the fight for justice and action. I beg to move.