Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:47 pm on 31st October 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 1:47 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for that introduction and for his continuing engagement with this issue as a Minister and since. I think that is recognised in the community. I also thank the House for recognising that the aftermath of this tragedy is still with us—that there is continued grieving, distress and loss within the community. This report answers some of the questions; it makes some very good recommendations, most of which the noble Lord has underlined, and I agree with them. There are serious questions to be answered by all parties in fire protection ownership and the fire forces.

However, I fear that the sequence in which we have approached these reports, and to some extent the balance of this report, which focuses overwhelmingly on the night itself, are in danger of missing the main point. Unfortunately, bits of the report were leaked. They were seized on by elements in the media effectively to put a lot of blame on the fire brigade. Undoubtedly the fire brigade’s systems were found wanting in some ways, and the fire brigade has to examine whether to change its procedures; some of this has been demanded by the FBU for some years. The chief officer should perhaps consider her position, as mistakes were made. But the essential mistakes were made long before that. It is not just that the balance of blame in the media’s pre-coverage of this report has been unfortunate; it also obscures the many acts of bravery, dedication and innovation by individual firefighters that night. The focus is more than slightly the wrong way around.

I hope that subsequent stages will look at the cause of the fire—Sir Martin has started to do some of that, and some of it is in the Hackitt report. A simple fire in one flat went from the fourth floor to the 24th floor in 30 minutes. That was clearly the fault of the cladding, compounded by a degradation of the compartmentalisation of the building by the refurbishment that had taken place.

The key questions in this report and at the next stage must be why so much was ignored, why the owners and managers of the building had not provided the fire brigade with sufficient information, why concerns from the tenants had been utterly ignored for several years—regrettably, that situation is not uncommon in some of our social housing—and why, as the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said, they ignored the lessons from Lakanal in Camberwell, which is just around the corner from where I used to live, and indeed ignored the lessons from some overseas brigades and terrible incidents there. We now need to examine the relationship between the owners, public and private, of high buildings and the fire brigade, and we need to look at whether the regulations have perhaps been changed too much, taking the responsibility away from the fire brigade and leaving too much to self-regulation. We need to ensure that the regulations relating to cladding actually work. The report finds that it did not meet the law, yet the providers of it say that they met the regulations and were advised as such. There is a problem there.

The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, also referred to the issue of how we define high buildings when, for firefighting and safety purposes, there has to be an enhanced safety position. In Scotland, as he says, it is already at 11 metres rather than 18 metres. We need to re-examine that. If we do not do so and come to some conclusions, I regret to say that more individuals, families and communities will suffer the kind of distress that still exists in the Grenfell area. The real villains are not the firefighters but those who took those decisions and, in order to save money, failed to provide safe cladding or make the refurbishment safe. That is why I repeat the question of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne: where do we now stand and why are we so slow in bringing criminal charges? Otherwise, we may face this situation again in some other community in another part of the country. That would indeed be a tragedy, and it would be the fault of the authorities—by that I mean the Government and local government—that we have not learned the lessons even now.