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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:49 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 2:49 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, what a privilege to follow the magnificent maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley. I have long been an admirer of the work of Operation Black Vote, and of the noble Lord as its inspiration. As he has described, huge strides have been made in social and racial equality in the past 20 years, much of it the result of his campaigning work. I thank him. Having heard him speak today with insight and passion, it is clear what a significant difference he will make to the work of this House, as well as continuing his campaigning zeal across the country. I wish him good luck.

There are just a few tragic incidents of such magnitude and horror that they become seared into our collective memory: Aberfan, the “Herald of Free Enterprise”, Lockerbie—and now Grenfell.

Grenfell brought out the absolute best of human reaction: Grenfell residents supporting, caring for and rescuing others; the heroic efforts of the firefighters who put their own lives at risk. All those at the heart of that horrific fire need to know that reasons are unearthed and responsibilities allocated. The Phase 1 inquiry report is thorough and unflinching in setting out some of the answers. It says:

“The principal reason why the flames spread so rapidly ... was the presence of the aluminium composite material”,

as well as panels which,

“acted as a source of fuel”.

We should bear that in mind as we consider the responses of the London Fire Brigade.

What struck me as I read the report was that communication failure and lack of training were fundamental to how the emergency services responded. The control room operators were understandably inundated with calls. There were insufficient operators, and routing the calls to other fire and rescue services was not as helpful as it should have been because there was no ability to share information of the incident; as a consequence, differing advice was given. Neither did the emergency services have sufficient training in fire survival guidance or, crucially, the implications of a decision to stay or evacuate; nor were they able to give firm, clear messages when evacuation was the only option.

The lessons of the Lakanal House fire of 2009 have not been learned and here the Government bear considerable responsibility. Information between the control room and the site of the fire were totally inadequate. That finding in the report is quite astonishing; in itself, inadequate information-sharing contributed to poor decision-making at a senior level that surely led to lives being lost.

As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, the report states that the communications equipment used by the LFB was unreliable and in some cases failed to work at all. How can it be that firefighters are asked to put their lives at risk without the invaluable aid of modern and effective communications equipment that is reliable in all situations? How can that be?

The failure in communication systems did not end there. Each of the emergency services that responded so heroically to the fire failed to share vital information. For example, as we have heard, each service declared a major incident at a very different time. During the incident, this lack of shared information meant that the nature and extent of the fire was not properly understood. Even helicopter surveillance of the fire was of little help as the pictures of the scene could not be communicated to the incident commanders because the downlink failed to function.

This catalogue of communication systems failures should be—must be—a lesson learned by emergency services and gold command operations across the country. In an age of easy, instant communications, it is simply shocking that the failures were so widespread. These failures have made me question whether the very deep cuts to government funding to the London fire service contributed to that communication failure, resulting in more lives at risk and more lives lost. There ought to be a review of the impact of these cuts in the light of Grenfell. Will the Minister respond to that?

This report focuses on the horrors of the day itself. It is rightly critical of operations, but also clearly indicates the failures of others; for instance, the landlord. A further obvious failure of communication was the lack of internal signage in Grenfell. The floor numbers were not clearly marked and, where there were floor numbers, they did not reflect the additional floors created during the refurbishment. That leads me to conclude that the managers of the building were not sufficiently concerned about the building’s safety or appearance, and that this reflects what they thought about their tenants.

The Grenfell Tower inquiry report is thorough. It concludes with over 40 detailed recommendations. It is the utmost duty of this Government not just to accept but to respond with urgency to all these recommendations to assure Grenfell survivors that the loss of their loved ones was not in vain.