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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:40 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 3:40 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, it is both a privilege and a challenge to contribute to this debate, in which there have been so many excellent contributions. The terrible events of 14 June 2017 will leave a mark on our national public consciousness for years to come. Today, we have remembered the victims and their families, and those traumatised by their experiences not just that night but in the days, weeks, months and, sadly, years since. They were all victims of a catastrophe that should not have happened and that must not be repeated. To avoid that, we must have a clear understanding of what went wrong, what the contributing factors were, what measures are needed to remove and change those factors; and, quite rightly, survivors and residents want to know who made the mistakes that created the disaster.

I want to join other noble Lords in warmly welcoming the phase 1 report by Sir Martin Moore-Bick. It is forensic; it is forthright, and it is devastating. I want to hear the Minister repeat what I heard the Prime Minister say yesterday—that the Government will accept all the recommendations—and I hope that he can put some timescales on it, as a number of noble Lords have requested.

If one looks at chapter 34 of that report, one sees that it gives a precursor of the likely, equally devastating conclusions that will come from phase 2 next year; that is, in respect of the adequacy of the regulations, the monitoring and competency of the construction and material supply industry, the testing of products and the record-keeping. All these are matters which noble Lords have raised during this debate, and I hope that the Minister will take to heart the point that we do not have to wait for the publication of phase 2 to start work on tackling the problems already identified.

It is a sad truism of major disasters of this sort that they happen only when there are multiple system failures—it is never just one thing. Unfortunately, at Grenfell that was exactly the case, so it is not to be expected that the solution comes from one particular sector; it comes from all sectors and we have to be alert to that.

I want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for introducing this debate, which has been valuable and has had plenty of expertise brought to bear on it. I thank him for the leading role he played as a Minister in the Government post Grenfell, not just for keeping this House well informed but for the sensitivity and thoughtfulness that he always showed, and continues to show, about the terrible issues that Grenfell raises. His courteous and thorough answers to our sometimes difficult questions have been a model of ministerial accountability over the past two years, and I echo the thoughts of others that I hope on a future occasion—but perhaps not in the next Government—he will again have that opportunity.

I also want to say how much I value the contributions from all three of our maiden speakers today. The noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson, is clearly far from being at the shallow end, and we look forward to her further contributions very much. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, who is perhaps the self-definition of a Labour lawyer, I am sure that we will find many occasions to listen carefully to the advice that he gives. And it is a real pleasure to see the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, in this House. I think the noble Lord will find that he already has many noble friends. You will be able to tell the friends of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, because they will all have little nibbles in their ears from the times that he has so effectively lobbied us to take action, in our political parties and in our public life, to make sure that we have a more diverse public life. We have seen from his outstanding speech today that he will not rest until we get there.

There were so many other important and valuable contributions that it is quite embarrassing to comment or not to comment, but there were some really important points that I hope the Minister has noted. Those that particularly struck me were: the need to stress-test for the unthinkable, which is something that, apparently, had not happened; the need to look carefully at the public alert technology that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred to, which it seems is stuck in a ministerial in-tray and just needs a good kick to get going; and that red tape is not always what it looks like. Sometimes, red tape is a safety net, and knowing the difference between red tape and a safety net is something that we need to be absolutely sure we get right.

I echo what has been said about the valiant work done on the night by firefighters. I absolutely support and commend the work that they did and the comments in their support that have been made today, but there is no getting away from the fact that the report found that there were fundamental problems with the command and control systems of the emergency services. I am indebted to the London Fire Brigade, the mayor’s office and the LGA for their responses to the report’s criticism. They have made some strong and pertinent points by way of what we might broadly speak of as rebuttal. However, the report did expose that recommendations made by the coroner to the brigade and other emergency services back in 2013 as a result of Lakanal had not been implemented. The response of the fire chief at the inquiry hearing was deeply troubling, as the report sets out.

London is one of the largest cities in the world. It is complex and multi-risk, and the London Fire Brigade and emergency services in general are charged with protecting it and the people who live here. We need to have confidence that the resources, the competencies and the leadership are there for them to do so. I want to hear the Minister say that the Government will make sure that they are, and that resources from the centre will never be a barrier to making sure that that happens.

Phase 2 needs to start immediately and to proceed at pace; I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Porter, on that really important point. Apparently, it will start in the new year—which is about when the new Government is going to start, so perhaps I should not be too critical of that—but we surely need to get things moving. Residents are already downcast at the time it has taken to produce phase 1, and they are urgently in need of reassurance that phase 2 will start quickly, deliver quickly, and produce closure and outcome for them. Of course, it is also important because we need to get started on putting right the many systems that must be overhauled and changed. We must allow the police to pursue their own inquiries into criminal liability and to bring charges where evidence supports it. We absolutely must not have another sequence of events like Hillsborough, where lingering uncertainty and prosecutions go on stretching years ahead.

In parallel to that, I want to see rapid action by the Government on legislation to implement the Dame Judith Hackitt report. I welcome the Government’s consultation proposals on that. They are due to complete that consultation in January; I hope that they can say—as a new Government—that they will commit to having in their new Queen’s Speech a Bill to cover that, just as I can assure the Minister that, if the Liberal Democrats have any power to do so, we will certainly be saying exactly the same thing.

I want to pick out some of the consequences of the Hackitt consultation. In many ways, its implementation will answer many of the points that the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and others raised about the need for far higher quality buildings, properly supervised, with a golden thread of responsibility from the very beginning of the design, right through the building’s life, to demolition at the end of its life. Many of the questions and problems that have emerged in this debate and from the report will be answered by such a system being in place. The London Fire Brigade in its response this week has said it wants to see the Hackitt programme of oversight and supervision of high-rise buildings, which is in the report, extended to all buildings, not just high-rise buildings. I notice that the Government’s consultation document, in paragraphs 241 and 243, asks for views on extending it to all building regulations: the one way of improving the woeful standards of our construction industry is to say yes to that question and to get on with it.

Grenfell has been an unmitigated disaster for the families and the local community and has touched the hearts of the whole nation. It must not happen again, and I believe that every noble Lord in this House will want to make sure that whatever Government we have after the election are held to account to deliver that.