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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:33 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour 2:33 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, it is an enormous pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Hendy, who made an outstanding maiden speech. I am not surprised. I am sure that somebody who cut his teeth in the Newham Rights Centre and then became “the barrister champion of the trade union movement” will fit into your Lordships’ House and its various strands of view with great aplomb and that he will add immeasurably to the quality of our debate and counsels. In fact, I am sandwiched between two maiden speeches. I am looking forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, whom I think I first worked with about 20 years ago, possibly more, on Operation Black Vote.

The fire on 14 June 2017 was an appalling disaster and a tragedy for all affected. I am quite clear that the reason why so many lost their lives was the nature of the cladding and the condition of the building. I want to focus today on one narrow aspect of the tragedy: the problem with communicating effectively with the residents. Assistant Commissioner Andrew Roe told the inquiry that he made a decision to change the policy soon after taking over as incident commander and by 2.47 am—almost exactly two hours after the fire started—control room staff were told to advise residents who called to evacuate immediately. At 4.14 am, an hour and a half later, the police started telling onlookers to contact anyone still trapped in the building and tell them to evacuate immediately. There were no other means of contacting residents in the tower directly. Indeed, the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, Dany Cotton, told the inquiry that as there was no central fire alarm, evacuating the building,

“would physically require someone to go and knock on every single door and tell people to come out”.

Likewise, Michael Dowden, the North Kensington watch manager, told the inquiry:

“For me to facilitate and change a stay-put policy to full evacuation was impossible”,

because there were no means of communicating directly with the residents in the 20 floors above the fire.

I am not wanting today to make any judgment on the rightness of the “stay put” policy generally in fires in tower blocks, nor am I qualified to make any comment on how quickly that policy should have been overridden in the specific circumstances of Grenfell Tower. What I want to concentrate on is that through no fault of its own, the fire brigade could not tell those in the tower that the “stay put” policy had changed and that they should evacuate at once.

One of the many tragedies of that appalling night was that the technology that would have enabled that communication to happen exists and is widely deployed elsewhere in the world, but not in Britain. It has been tested here; the Cabinet Office deemed the tests a success; but it has not been deployed. The issue has frequently been raised in your Lordships’ House. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, was wheeled out time and again as a Minister to defend the indefensible. I apportion none of the blame to him personally because I know that behind the scenes, he tried to get this issue moving.

This technology was trialled in Easingwold in North Yorkshire on 18 September 2013. Those with a suitable mobile phone handset received an alert on the home screen of their phones saying “UKAlertTest. No Action Required”. It was trialled again in Glasgow on 3 October 2013 and in Leiston in Suffolk on 20 November 2013. Those tests were part of a Cabinet Office project on mobile alert systems for use in an emergency. The conclusion from those trials was that,

“emergency responders are still very keen to see the implementation of a national mobile alert system. Views from members of the public also suggest that the vast majority of people (85%) felt that

The report recommended further trials. They never happened.

I looked at this as part of my 2016 review for the mayor—London’s Preparedness to Respond to a Major Terrorist Incident. That led to my recommendation that,

“the Mayor should quickly work with the Cabinet Office to introduce a London-wide pilot of this public alert technology”.

Three years further on, there is still little progress.

The fire brigade has said that it could not have communicated directly with the residents because it did not have the people to do so and, in any case, it would have taken too long, but the technology has been used regularly in Australia since 2009. The United States and the Netherlands started doing so in 2012. Portugal uses it. The summer before last when I was on holiday there, I received a text message on my mobile phone, in English, alerting me to the danger of forest fires. Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Saudi Arabia and Iceland have alerting systems. Earlier this year, thousands of lives were saved in India when 2.6 million text alerts were sent to residents in the path of Cyclone Fani. These systems work, are proven and save lives.

Australia’s emergency alert can send an SMS text message to every mobile phone in a tightly defined area. Precisely the same sort of scenario as the Grenfell Tower fire was tested six years ago. It focused on the 37-storey Department of Justice and Community Safety building in the heart of Melbourne. The system’s mapping tool was used to draw a warning polygon over the building and the presence of 5,736 mobile devices was detected. When the alert was sent, it reached over 90% of those devices within 12 seconds and delivered the alert to people on every floor.

Therefore, we have had six years of drift. Apparently, no one could decide which government department should lead and whose budget it should come from. Then there was a whole row about which technology was best—the best being made the enemy of the good.

I do not know whether an alerting system such as that deployed in Melbourne would have saved lives in Grenfell Tower, but at least residents could have been told that the “stay put” advice had changed and they could have tried to leave. Debating “what if” does not bring back any of those who lost their lives and it cannot heal the hurt of bereaved families and friends, but we cannot go on any longer without emergency alert technology being made available in this country. Next time there is a disaster, those alerts would make the difference between the life and death of those involved.