Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for the opportunity to have this debate. I acknowledge the huge efforts he made as a Minister in the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster. I pay tribute to the resilience of local people since the fire, in particular to the campaigning work of Grenfell United, which has had a profound impact on our thinking and will have much more yet.
We have heard that this report is forensic in its detail, and it is. It shows that compartmentation did not work; that the “stay put” policy became a mistake; that external walls failed to comply with building regulations; that the new cladding and insulation boards actively promoted the spread of fire; that the command plan on the night of the fire was not adequate; and that there were some very serious deficiencies in training and organisation. That said, we must pay tribute to all the individual firefighters who showed immense personal bravery on the night.
A great deal has been said about the causes of the fire and its extent and I shall not repeat it all. Rather, I will concentrate on the implications of Grenfell for tenants and leaseholders in residential blocks, whether over 18 metres or lower. The first relates to compulsory electrical safety checks. We know that the fire broke out as the result of an electrical fault in a large fridge- freezer. It should not have done. Do the Government take account of the experience of other countries and their policies for regular safety checks of electrical appliances, and how policies in this country might be changed to reflect the need to reduce the number of faulty electrical appliances? What discussions have the Government had with the Electrical Safety Council on ways risks can be reduced?
My second concern relates to local councils and fire and rescue services right across the country, and the quality and robustness of their emergency planning. At this point, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I have previously asked this question but I ask it again: have the Government taken any steps to ensure that the emergency plans of local councils and fire and rescue services across the country are up to date and properly tested?
My third point relates to the need for the Government to be clearer on timescales for the next stages of their work on building safety, by which I mean they need to speed things up. The report by Sir Martin Moore-Bick is very critical, at paragraph 33.6, of the Government’s slowness in getting combustible materials off affected buildings. I hope the Minister is in a position to clarify how quickly they can achieve that clear objective.
Further, the Government’s consultation on strengthening building safety regulations, arising from the Hackitt report, ended in July, so can the Minister tell the House what the Government’s timescales for reform actually are, given that it is now the end of October? The noble Lord, Lord Porter, made a very forceful case for faster action. I support every word he said.
Next, I have an issue about the right of tenants and leaseholders to have up-to-date information about the safety of their blocks. Surely everybody should have a right to know how safe their building is, yet it is astonishing that Grenfell, which was run by a tenant management organisation, fell outside the remit of the Freedom of Information Act, as do all housing associations. I raised this issue in a debate in July and the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, said:
“The review of social housing regulation, announced in the Government’s social housing Green Paper last summer”— that is, in 2018—
“will look at how transparency and accountability for tenants can be improved. I will ensure that this review takes on board the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, about the legitimate requirements of tenants”.—[
I make the request again: it is terribly important that information is available for those who live in buildings about which they might have concerns.
I mentioned the need for the Government to speed up. It was reported in the Times on Monday that owners of up to 500,000 flats might have difficulty selling them because of the Government’s guidance in their advice note 14, “Advice on external wall systems that do not incorporate aluminium composite material”. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, referred to this issue in his speech in greater detail I plan to, but there is clearly a very serious problem. Mortgage lenders are requiring a certificate of compliance, which can be impossible to get since it requires technical information on the original construction of the building. Can the Minister confirm what government policy now is in respect of such blocks, since they represent 94% of the total? ACM cladding affects only 6% of all blocks.
As we have heard, the fire at Grenfell Tower should not have happened. I am pleased that Sir Martin Moore- Bick’s recommendations are being accepted by the Government, but the question that has been posed by several contributors in this debate remains: how quickly will those recommendations be implemented?