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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:51 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing) 3:51 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, for bringing this Motion to the House today. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and others, that he always kept the House informed when he was a Minister. If we are going to have a Conservative Government, I hope that he will be a Minister in it—maybe not soon, but if there is to be one I will always want him to be a member of it. The report enables the House to debate the first stage of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, and we are very grateful to him for bringing the Motion before us.

We heard three excellent and powerful maiden speeches from the noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson of Welton, the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, and my noble friend Lord Hendy. I congratulate them all and, like others in this House, look forward to further contributions from each of them in the period ahead. I thank Sir Martin Moore-Bick for his thorough and comprehensive report into what happened at Grenfell Tower. It is a powerful and compelling document. The noble Lord, Lord Porter, made an important point about the order of the inquiry and the fact that it is actually back to front. I agree with him, but that is what has happened so we must now get on with the second stage of the inquiry as speedily as we can in the new year, as other noble Lords have said.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, referred to, reading chapter 32 is heartbreaking, telling of 70 lives lost on the night, a child stillborn as a result of the trauma and another resident who died in hospital a few days later. It is a fitting tribute to celebrate their lives, their hopes and dreams and the contribution the victims made to their community. I pay tribute to the survivors and their families in their fight for justice and to uncover the truth with that steely determination and dignity they have shown all the way through. I endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, about the work of Grenfell United.

It makes me even more angry at the lack of respect shown to the victims of the fire, to the survivors and their families, by the publishing of parts of the report in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday of this week. There is no justification whatever for the paper: it was a truly dreadful thing to have done. My noble friend Lord Whitty referred to this. No public interest was served; it was just to get it out there first, ahead of other media outlets, ahead of the game and ahead of colleagues who would be attending the press briefing and getting copies of the report the following day. Survivors, families and core participants should have been able to read the report, take in what had been said and prepare themselves for the formal publication yesterday, but that was cruelly denied them. I condemn the actions of the Daily Telegraph in the strongest possible terms

I agree with my noble friend Lord Hendy that it would be very welcome indeed to learn that Sir Martin intends to summon the editors of the newspapers to the inquiry to explain their actions. I hope that there will be a full investigation into the leak, that we will identify whoever was behind it and that action will be taken against them. When the Minister speaks shortly, could he confirm that the Government will ensure that a proper police investigation into it will take place? Let us be clear: if the leaker and the Daily Telegraph get away with this in stage 1, it will happen in stage 2, and then any other inquiry on any other issue in the future will be at risk of leaks and the further hurt and damage they entail.

The report makes it clear that it was the cladding on the building, the aluminium composite material rainscreen and the combustible insulation behind it that was the cause of the fire spreading so rapidly on the outside of Grenfell Tower. The cladding was fitted in breach of building regulations, producing a fire which cost 72 people their lives. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell the House how many other blocks of flats, nearly two and a half years after the fire, still have the same cladding fixed to the building. Private or public, it makes no difference; even if there is only one block, it is a scandal and must be rectified immediately.

My noble friend Lord Adonis made the point that there can be no excuse for the remedial work taking so long—it must be done urgently. However, there is a further problem. Cladding is being used on schools, hospitals and office buildings. It is everywhere. This material has to come off all buildings; it is just not an appropriate material to use today. In this Chamber I have called on the Government to empower local authorities to remove cladding from private blocks where there is no response from the building owner or where they refuse to act. We must ensure that happens. Could the Minister update us on that?

I pay tribute to all the emergency services for their bravery and courage: the Metropolitan Police, the London Ambulance Service and particularly the London Fire Brigade, the firefighters on the night who went into that tower to fight the fire and save people. These are enormously brave people who worked in the most challenging of circumstances at Grenfell Tower, going well beyond what would normally be asked of them at any time. I concur completely with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Porter, in his tribute to the brave firefighters risking their lives again and again to save people on the night of the fire. They are heroes.

Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s recommendations are thorough and challenging and need to be carefully assessed and fully implemented. They will require changes to practice and procedures, new ways of working and a whole new approach to building safety. There can be no excuse for not delivering what has been set out in the report: changes to operations in the London Fire Brigade, and in every other fire and rescue service in the country and I expect across the world, and changes in how first responders communicate with each other and members of the public. My noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey gave a compelling case for the urgent introduction of emergency alert technology into the UK without any further delay.

There is also the question of how local authorities look after blocks of flats and their tenants and leaseholders, and how the owners of private blocks of flats maintain them and look after their residents. There is a huge challenge for the Government not only in implementing the recommendations or the legislation that is needed but in providing the resources that must be commensurate with the new obligations that will be placed on fire and rescue services, first responders and local authorities and others: the training on an ongoing basis which will have to be repeated again and again; the gathering of information and making it immediately available as required to those who need it in times of emergency; the establishment of thorough procedures; the upkeep of that information; and the powers that will have to be given to the fire service, the police, the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities so that they can take legal action and prosecute to the full extent of the law those who will not take their responsibilities seriously.

Dame Judith Hackitt called for fundamental reforms to fix the broken system of building regulations. Buildings must be designed, built and maintained with fire safety as a priority. We need to see urgent action from the Government on these matters. Could the Minister update the House on the progress they are making in this regard?

I very much hope that the Government listen to calls from the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, and others for sprinkler systems to be introduced. This happened in Wales, having been introduced by the Welsh Assembly when he was a Member. The Government have to follow that action and introduce sprinklers here in England. I fully support the calls for urgent research on buildings that fail on fire safety, as that leaves the “stay put” advice compromised and no longer viable.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said that the response in the aftermath of the fire was truly shocking, and it was. It was the community, the churches, mosques, the synagogue and the charities that stepped in when the local authority failed to deliver. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham told the House of the wonderful work they undertook, and I join him in paying tribute to everyone involved. I also recognise that when the emergency support plans were put in place a few days after the fire, teams of local authority staff from across London and civil servants came together to bring stability to the situation on the ground. We also pay tribute to them for their work.

I agree with the right reverend Prelate that we have to change our attitude to housing. The loss of council housing and the failure to see housing as homes needs to change. Everyone deserves to live in a home that is clean, safe, warm and dry, and there is nothing wrong with growing up or living in a council property.

I very much agree with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, about the loss of local papers and the ability to hold local power to account, be that the local council, the local police or any other power centre. As a local councillor in Southwark in the 1980s and 1990s, the South London Press was a vital part of holding the authority and others to account. It knew what was going on in Southwark, Lambeth, Lewisham, Greenwich and Wandsworth, it knew who the leadership was, and it would hold you to account. The current state of affairs is regrettable, as we do not have those local papers in many parts of our country. I also agree with her remarks about red tape. As has been said, these regulations often keep you safe and alive. The “two in, one out” policy was daft— absolute nonsense—and I hope that the Minister can confirm that it is no longer the case.

In concluding my remarks, I again pay tribute to the survivors, the families and to Grenfell United for their determination to get to the truth of what happened at Grenfell Tower. I thank Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his team for all their work to date and as we move on to the second phase of the inquiry, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.