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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:53 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 1:53 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety Rescue Group. Our APPG is very active and has been making recommendations and questioning Ministers—including the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, when he was Minister—since the Lakanal fire in 2009. I also co-chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Victims of Crime and I am a former trustee of UNICEF UK.

First, I pay tribute from the Liberal Democrat Benches to the Grenfell survivors and the bereaved families. Their determination to be heard and to achieve justice for those who died and whose lives have been changed forever by the Grenfell Tower disaster is humbling. I say to them that we too will not rest until changes are made that mean another disaster like Grenfell will not happen. We put the Minister and any future Government on notice that, while we welcome their acceptance of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s recommendations in part one, we will push for action on the many parts that can happen swiftly, especially those that do not require primary or secondary legislation.

I also note that firefighters have been praised significantly for their individual behaviour—there were many acts of heroism. The systemic failures of the fire service must not take away from the exceptional performance of individual firefighters at the scene.

We also need to note that, once again, our media has behaved badly. Grenfell United, the group representing survivors and the bereaved, has rightly said that it was “unacceptable” that people learned findings through the media, without having the opportunity to first read the report. What on earth was the Daily Telegraph thinking? Shame on you.

I wish to focus on some of the specific fire service-related problems but will first briefly cover some of the other key failures that contributed to the deaths of so many people. First, in report after report over the decades, coroners and chairs of inquiries have talked about the inability of our public services to work together in an emergency. The inquiry reports that the fire commander, the Met Police commander and ambulance control all declared major incidents at different times and were not co-ordinated. Surely, at such an incident there should be one senior commander in charge of the entire incident, working together. We know that it can be done. In terrorist incidents such as the Westminster and London Bridge attacks, we have seen examples of good practice. Why did that not happen in this case? Sir Martin also comments that Kensington and Chelsea Council and the TMO were not prepared for any such emergency—and that is before we even get to the appalling issue of the lack of checks on the fire protection for the building. Fire doors that did not work and refurbishment works that destroyed compartmentation—which is absolutely key if any “stay put” policy is to work—meant that the key role of public services in supporting emergency services just did not happen. For disabled people having to wait in refuge areas, to have failing fire doors and no PEEPs—personal emergency evacuation plans—is very serious.

Secondly, the treatment of the survivors and bereaved families by the various bodies that should have been there to help was woeful. Reading the report of Inquest, the charity that provides expertise on state-related deaths, was absolutely grim. As a former trustee of UNICEF, I know that in major emergencies around the world NGOs come together to work together and respond, not just during the emergency but to support survivors long after. Through the UN and other bodies, the protocols for working in such emergencies are well known, well founded and followed. Each NGO knows what it is to do at each stage of the emergency and in the aftermath, and who leads at each stage. The UK Government fund many of these NGOs, yet Government after Government have failed to address our own problem here for our own disasters. This just is not good enough; the Government must take a lead in changing the attitude, not just through legislation but by leading by example.

On some of the specific fire service-related issues, it is just extraordinary that there was no LFS contingency plan for the evacuation of Grenfell Tower. Following the Lakanal House fire coroner’s inquest in 2013, our APPG was aware of exchanges of letters between the coroner, the Secretary of State and the London Fire Brigade, and this kind of issue was supposedly satisfactorily resolved. What follow-up and monitoring have taken place since 2013, and what is the role of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of fire services to ensure that such key plans are in place?

The LFB maintains an operational database and has a risk assessment policy, accessible by all firefighters at any such incident. However, the entry for Grenfell Tower contained almost no information of any use to an incident commander called to a fire, and some information was out of date as it did not take account of the refurbishment and was therefore wrong. In addition, what about the fire survival guidance calls being communicated to the incident commanders, arrangements relating to the internal spread of the fire, and deficiencies in command and control, where senior officers arrived but failed to give sufficient practical support or inform themselves quickly enough, given that the spread of the fire was so visible? All these issues had plans in place—or should have—which should have been inspected by the HMI of fire services in its yearly inspection for each service.

Finally, I mention automatic fire sprinkler protection. We now have five years of compelling evidence from real fires in the UK that automatic fire sprinkler protection controlled or extinguished fires where they operated on 100% of occasions in flats. A single fire death in a working sprinkler building designed for the purpose anywhere in the UK is an extremely rare occurrence. Multiple deaths are unheard of. We must implement sprinklers in high-rise residential buildings. As others have said repeatedly in this House, sprinklers in Grenfell would have changed everything.