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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:26 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 3:26 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, I can begin only by repeating the sentiments that many noble Lords have expressed about the amazing, powerful work of Grenfell United, the victims, survivors and families, who have, through their grief and suffering, fought to say, “Never again”. Like many other noble Lords, I pay tribute to the brave work of so many firefighters and emergency staff on the ground that night.

I begin by reflecting on a personal experience. In 2007, there was a fire that in many ways presaged later tragedies. It was in a block called Bucklebury, on the Regent’s Park estate in Camden. The staircases—the fire escapes—filled with smoke because the fire doors had been removed. The firefighters had to use breathing apparatus to evacuate the residents. I know about this because, until a couple of months before, I had been a resident of Bucklebury. When using the fire stairs, I had noticed that some of the doors were missing. I rang the council, after which I assumed that the matter had been dealt with. I was moving, so I did not think about it again, yet when we heard the reports of the fire in the excellent local newspaper, the Camden New Journal, we found that those fire doors had not been fixed.

We move forward two years, to an incident that many noble Lords have referred to, the Lakanal House fire. My noble friend Lady Jones was part of the London Assembly inquiry into that fire. There were lessons from that fire: the “stay put” guidance had to be reconsidered, and it was noted that there was no plan in place to change that advice to “get out”. That was in 2009. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, referred to the fact that there is very strong evidence of how sprinkler systems could make an immediate difference. Yet we are two years on from the great tragedy of Grenfell and nothing has happened. We have heard again and again, on many different points, a call for action. We do not want to be here next year, the year after that and in five years’ time, making calls for the same kind of action on fire safety in tower blocks that I was calling for in 2007. I do not want to go over the same ground. Many powerful points have been made already, but I want to follow the lead of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham in looking at some big systems issues behind what happened in the tragedy of Grenfell.

Your Lordships will hear me talk often about the need for transformational system change. I used to be a newspaper editor and one of the stories behind the Grenfell tragedy is the loss of local newspapers, and their local journalism and reporting. There was a very powerful website for the Grenfell Action Group blog, which drew attention to many of the issues now covered in this report. There was also a local journalist called Camilla Horrox, who reported for the Kensington and Chelsea Chronicle in 2014 on the issues around fire safety and electricals in Grenfell Tower. Later that year, the newspaper closed down and those stories disappeared from the internet. When the residents sought local journalists—we have to ask other London journalists why they had not picked this up—to report their concerns, there was nothing there. In his powerful maiden speech, the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, referred to the Leveson inquiry. The undelivered second part of that inquiry focused on the concentration of media ownership, and it might have looked at the lack of local media coverage. If we are to have democracy and safety, we need strong local media.

To address another systemic issue, I go back to February 2017, when details were posted on a government website about an anti-red-tape agenda on new-build properties. In a separate report at about the same time, the Government were boasting that fire inspections were being reduced, in some cases, from six hours to just 45 minutes. There is a very lazy phrase that we hear not just, I am afraid, from one side of this House or one side of politics: “We are going to cut red tape”. I ask your Lordships to consider Grenfell every time you hear that phrase, and think about replacing “red tape” with “the rules and regulations that keep us safe, at work and in our homes”. I really had this driven home to me back in 2014 by a meeting at the Green Party conference with the brilliant Hazards Campaign, which focuses on safety at work. It has a phrase, “Better red tape than red bandages”, which is one that I have repeated often since.

We have to focus on the issues about cladding and safety rules, and about the resources available to our emergency services. But in looking at Grenfell, we also have to look at some very broad systemic problems in our society and the need for transformational change.