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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:05 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench 3:05 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, I start by commending the firemen who carried out such acts of bravery on the night, as the noble Lord, Lord Porter, rightly said.

I wish to declare an interest. Since the day after the fire, my husband has been a regular visitor to Grenfell, and on behalf of the National Theatre, with a colleague, has been writing a play that directly captures the voices of the survivors and the bereaved. Because of that, I have watched much of the inquiry and been able to speak directly to lawyers and survivors. I thank them today for taking the time to brief me.

I commend the patience and bravery of the residents, survivors and bereaved of Grenfell Tower who have not only tirelessly fought to seek justice for themselves and their loved ones but made it their mission to ensure that a fire of this nature should never happen again. I want to put on the record that Mr Kebede, in whose 4th floor flat the fire broke out, has been entirely exonerated. The vilification of this man, who at each point did the correct thing, was a disgrace.

Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s phase 1 report confirms that the fire at Grenfell was a preventable tragedy. Significantly, the report finds that the cladding used in the refurbishment—which was a primary, but not the only, cause of the fire spreading—was non-compliant with building regulations. That is a shocking and scandalous fact, yet he also finds that similar cladding remains on 400 other tall buildings across the UK. On this issue he makes no recommendation because:

“It is unnecessary for me to recommend that panels with polyethylene cores on the exterior of high-rise buildings be removed as soon as possible and replaced with materials of limited combustibility because it is accepted that that must be done”.

Sir Martin then adds his voice to that of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that called the lack of progress in removing Grenfell-like cladding “unacceptable” and speaks of the Government’s moral duty to act swiftly. The chairman of this most rigorous and thoughtful report felt that the removal of cladding was already identified as such an urgent and obvious action that it was “unnecessary” to make a further recommendation. So I ask the Minister, when he is back in his place, whether he can today commit to taking down non-compliant cladding of all varieties, irrespective of the occupants’ tenure or the final cost. It seems that fire spreads quickly, but justice moves slowly.

The report is a bracing critique of the specific failings which, on the night, contributed to the tragedy at Grenfell. However, it will escape no one who reads the report in full that Frances Kirkham, the coroner who investigated the cladding fire at Lakanal House in 2009, also made recommendations, which were equally clear but remained unheeded. If they had been heeded, we may have avoided the fire at Grenfell.

I hope that the House will be as appalled as I was to be told that between 2014 and 2017 the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group wrote to Ministers 21 times to ask for the Lakanal House recommendations to be implemented—only to be comprehensively ignored. That is an outrage, and it must not happen this time. It is imperative that the Moore-Bick recommendations are implemented without delay. While I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday that he will accept the findings and act on the recommendations, it is necessary for the Government to say today when those recommendations will be implemented and how we can trust them to do so.

A briefing from the campaign group Inquest, which has worked closely with the families of Grenfell, makes a recommendation for the establishment of a “national oversight mechanism”, described as,

“an independent public body tasked with the duty to collate, analyse and monitor recommendations and their implementation arising from inquiries, inquests and post-death investigations”.

Perhaps the Minister can say whether the Government will implement such a mechanism to make sure that history does not repeat itself, because we cannot take oversight for granted. The Public Authority (Accountability) Bill, which had its First Reading just three months before the Grenfell fire, provided statutory duties for public and private bodies to protect and implement recommendations in the interests of victims—but it was withdrawn just before the 2017 election and never reappeared. We are about to have another election, so can the Minister assure the House that the interests of victims will not once again be sidelined for political expediency?

The Grenfell inquiry has been world class—a collective effort of the residents, bereaved and survivors, and the tireless work of the legal teams and the inquiry team itself. But it has met obfuscation and obstruction by commercial companies actively responsible for creating a non-compliant building surface that not only failed to prevent the spread of the fire but actively promoted it. It is clear from chapter 34, paragraphs 7 to 12, that Sir Martin intends to tackle this forensically during phase 2, so I will not pre-empt those findings. But there is something rotten with our culture when our regulatory system and business practice can commission a human tragedy on the scale of Grenfell. I hope that the Minister will join me in condemning the obstruction of those who should step up and acknowledge their part in the tragedy. As one survivor said to me this morning, “We fear a carousel of scapegoating and finger-pointing, but what we need is for the carousel to stop and for individuals and organisations to now accept their responsibilities”.

The legacy of the lives lost and the safety of those in buildings still dangerously clad are in the Government’s hands. The Moore-Bick recommendations must be taken up with the greatest expediency. This would represent the best way of moving towards justice for Grenfell.