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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:14 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Sanderson of Welton Baroness Sanderson of Welton Conservative 2:14 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, it is a great honour to stand before the House today. I confess that I do so a little earlier than I had intended and while there is still an awful lot to learn. Yet, in the space of less than a fortnight, one thing is overwhelmingly apparent, and that is the good-hearted professionalism of all those who work in this place. From the doorkeepers to the librarians to Black Rod and her team, everyone has been so kind in gently, and sometimes literally, steering this new Member around the House.

I would like to thank all those in the Chamber for their unfailing courtesy and encouragement, as well as my supporters, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and my noble friend Lady Barran. Their humour and warmth on the day of my introduction helped to keep the nerves at bay. More importantly, it was a privilege to receive the support of these two formidable women who have achieved so much, particularly in the fields of modern slavery and domestic abuse. I would also like to thank my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington. She is someone who has helped many women in the political sphere, and she has certainly helped me with her generous mentoring and characteristically no-nonsense advice.

I hope that my former press colleagues will not be offended when I say that this is a very different atmosphere from that of Fleet Street, where I spent 17 years at the Mail on Sunday. I worked in the features department, sometimes known as the “shallow end” of a newspaper; in truth, it is anything but. While I covered my fair share of lighter stories, the real privilege of the job was in meeting people—real people, not celebrities or those seeking to promote themselves—who found themselves, for whatever reason, in unforeseen and unimaginable circumstances. They were men and women from all walks of life who had become the victims of events that only ever happen to “other people”—until they happen to you.

In a House where the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence of Clarendon, and my noble friend Lady Newlove both sit, I would never pretend to any great authority. Their dedicated and courageous campaigning was cited again and again by those I met after moving to the Home Office to work for the then Home Secretary, Theresa May. During her time there, and in No. 10 as Prime Minister, she gave a voice to many who had previously gone unheard, very often for decades. She established public inquiries for the victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and those affected by the infected blood scandal. She fought for justice for the families of Hillsborough and introduced the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill. Through her, I have learned what it means to engage in work that makes a difference, and through her I have had the honour to work with many different people, all of whom have found themselves in those unforeseen and unimaginable circumstances, which brings me to today’s debate.

I think noble Lords will agree that none of us can truly comprehend what the residents of Grenfell Tower and their neighbours, friends and families went through that night. Yet amid the devastation, in the days and weeks after the fire, the residents and relations came together to form a number of different support groups, the main one being Grenfell United. In the months and years since, they have proved themselves to be powerful advocates, and they have done so while having to rebuild their lives, return to their jobs and settle into new and unfamiliar homes. It has been an uphill struggle, and I know that those of us working in government often added to their frustrations. The machinery of the state is agonisingly slow in such circumstances, yet the survivors have prided themselves on showing dignity throughout. It would have been easy not to.

Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report makes clear in unflinching detail the horror of that night and is unambiguous about the grave mistakes that were made. He states that the cladding breached building regulations and caused the fire to spread, and he draws the distressing conclusion that fewer people would have died had the “stay put” policy been revoked at an earlier stage. I am pleased that the Government have agreed to all of his recommendations, but there is of course more to do. Sir Martin has clearly signposted his intentions for phase 2 of the inquiry, which will establish how Grenfell Tower came to be in a condition that allowed this tragedy to occur. He will also look at the response of the Government and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in the aftermath.

Then there is the work which is outside of the inquiry’s remit, in particular the response to the Green Paper consultation on social housing and forthcoming White Paper, which must now wait until we return to this place. If it tackles, as it must, the stigma of living in social housing and gives tenants a proper voice, then residents believe, rightly, that this can be the positive legacy of Grenfell.

Someone from North Kensington once told me that you can always tell the people who live in the area from those who do not. Those who live there never look up at the tower—there are too many painful images; too many painful memories. The Grenfell community will have to live with those memories for the rest of their lives, but it is to their enormous credit that they wish to be remembered not for what happened in the early hours of 14 June 2017 but for the change that must happen as a result, for which they continue to fight tirelessly.

I thank my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth for calling this important debate. I join other Members of the House in making sure that we do all we can to help them, thereby honouring all those who lost their lives.