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House of Commons Hansard

Grenfell Tower and Building Safety

05 September 2017
Volume 628

  • With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the latest progress following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower 12 weeks ago. Over the summer the Prime Minister, the Housing Minister, the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service and myself have been meeting the people of north Kensington to make sure that their concerns are being listened to and, more importantly, acted upon. As a result, the Grenfell recovery taskforce has been appointed and started work. The process of removing control of properties from the tenant management organisation has begun; the remit of the public inquiry has been set; a temporary school has been built; and work is under way on the scaffolding that will surround the tower.

    I would like to pay particular tribute to the incredible team recovering and identifying the remains of those who died. They are doing an exceptionally difficult job in the most trying of circumstances. So far, they have identified 57 victims, hopefully bringing some measure of comfort to their loved ones. Obviously we would all like to see the process completed as quickly as possible, but I am sure all hon. Members appreciate the need for both accuracy and dignity as well as speed.

    My statement will focus on two areas in which the House has previously shown particular interest: the rehousing of residents and our building safety programme. However, I will be happy to answer as many questions as I can on any area that hon. Members wish to cover, and my door is always open to anyone who wants to discuss issues in greater detail.

    First, on rehousing, 151 homes were lost to the fire. A number of the households have said that they would like to be rehoused separately, leading to 196 households from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk needing a new home. Everyone who was ready to engage with the process was offered a temporary home within three weeks of the disaster. Sixty-one households have accepted an offer, and 29 have moved in. Some 153 households, including all but two of those that suffered a bereavement, have had face-to-face meetings with the team responsible for offering a choice of permanent homes, and 164 households have used the online allocation system to look at what permanent accommodation is available, with 127 having expressed an interest in one or more properties. Viewings are continuing this week. So far, 10 households have accepted offers and two have moved in. Twenty-one households that accepted offers of temporary accommodation with housing associations have asked for their tenancies to be made permanent. That is entirely fair, and the council is working to make it happen.

    The number of people who have moved into temporary or permanent homes continues to rise, but I know that the overall total is still low. One reason for the low take-up of temporary home offers is that some residents simply do not want to move twice and have said that their preference is to stay where they are until a permanent home becomes available. Meanwhile, residents who have accepted an offer of a permanent home have been given the opportunity to make choices about furniture and so on before they move in. That obviously takes a little time too.

    We are talking here about people’s homes and lives, and what matters to us is not ticking boxes but working at the pace that suits the needs and circumstances of individual residents. We do not want to rush anyone. That is why, at the request of residents, the council extended the expressions of interest period for permanent homes. I do not want to see anyone living in emergency accommodation for any longer than is necessary, but nor do I want to see families being forced to move or make snap decisions simply so that I have better numbers to report at the Dispatch Box.

    I turn to testing and building safety. Of course, the issues raised by the Grenfell disaster extend well beyond Kensington. Across England there are 173 social housing buildings that are over 18 metres tall and clad with some form of aluminium composite material. In July, the Building Research Establishment began a series of large-scale fire safety tests on ACM cladding systems—both the visible cladding and the internal insulation. The aim was to establish whether each system, when properly fitted, complied with the relevant building regulations guidance, BR 135. Three of the seven cladding systems that were tested were found to meet the criteria set out in BR 135. The other four fell short of what is required. The cladding systems that passed the test are in use on eight social housing towers. Systems that failed are in use on 165.

    The owners of affected buildings have been given detailed advice drawn up by our independent expert advisory panel, covering steps to ensure the safety of residents, including, where necessary, the removal of cladding. We have also held weekly update calls with local authorities, housing associations and other building owner groups. We have today published further advice that brings together all the results and the views of the expert panel on the implications for building owners, and we will shortly meet local authorities and housing associations to discuss further steps. That will include the process by which we will ensure that remedial work is carried out.

    We have made the BRE test facilities available to all private residential building owners. Although 89 buildings in England have had their cladding tested through those facilities, I continue to urge all private sector owners of similar blocks to submit samples for testing. I have also asked housing authorities to ensure that the same steps are taken for all private sector residential tower blocks in their areas, and to collect the data so that we understand the scale of the issue and can track remedial action.

    Inspections carried out since the fire have also highlighted other safety issues related to building design. For example, structural engineers studying Southwark’s Ledbury estate said that strengthening work may be needed on blocks constructed using the concrete panel system that failed with devastating effect at Ronan Point in 1968. They also raised concerns about cracks that appeared cosmetic but could compromise fire safety and compartmentalisation. We have been in contact with Southwark Council and the engineers to discuss those issues and have engaged the Standing Committee on Structural Safety to advise on their implications. Meanwhile, all local authorities that own similar buildings have been advised to review their designs and check whether any strengthening work was carried out properly.

    Separately, the British Board of Agrément has told us that, based on its investigations following incidents in Glasgow, some cladding systems may have been designed and installed in such a way that they could fail in strong winds. We are not aware of any injuries caused by this kind of failure. However, we are taking advice from the independent expert panel and we have written to building control bodies to draw their attention to the issues that have been raised. The wider issues of competence and certification will also feed into Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of building safety, the terms of reference of which were announced last week. Finally, I have established an industry response group, which will help the sectors required to improve building safety and to co-ordinate their efforts.

    For all the work being done, nothing can match the strength and determination shown by the people of North Kensington. We saw it in their initial response, we have seen it in the dignity and the courage that has been shown by survivors, and we saw it in the deeply moving scenes at this year’s Notting Hill carnival. For me, the biggest sign that the people of Kensington will not be beaten was the amazing results achieved by local children in their GCSEs and A-levels. I am thinking particularly of a remarkable young woman named Ines Alves, just 16 years old. Her family lost their home in the fire, but she still received a string of top grades, including an A in chemistry despite Ines’ sitting the exam just hours after the burning tower. Ines is due to start her A-levels this month and I wish her all the very best. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Her achievement should be an inspiration to us all. If a teenage schoolgirl who has suffered unimaginable trauma can do something so incredible, we in this House have no excuse for failing to do everything possible to support the victims of Grenfell and to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again. I hope all hon. Members will join me in doing just that.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for his letters over the summer and for the advance copy of his statement this afternoon.

    Twelve weeks on from the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower, our horror has not lessened. Our determination to support the survivors and see all those culpable called to account is undiminished. Grenfell Tower must mark a change in our country on housing, so that such a tragedy can never happen again. The Secretary of State has three overriding responsibilities, on which we have pressed him ever since the fire: first, to ensure that everyone affected from Grenfell has the help and the rehousing they need; secondly, to reassure everyone living in other tower blocks across the country that their homes are safe, or that work is done to make them safe; and thirdly, to learn the lessons from Grenfell Tower in full.

    On help and rehousing, we have been reminded today how vital this is by reports that 20 Grenfell survivors have tried to commit suicide since the fire. Twelve weeks on, how on earth can it be that only 29 households of the 196 from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk have been rehoused? What is the Secretary of State doing to speed this up and when will all the survivors be offered permanent rehousing? A hotel room is no home and temporary housing is no place to rebuild shattered lives.

    On the Government’s fire testing programme, 12 weeks on the Secretary of State still cannot answer the question: how many of the country’s 4,000 tower blocks are safe or not fire safe? He tells us today that 173 high-rise blocks with aluminium-based cladding have now been tested. When will the many more with non-aluminium cladding be tested, so residents will know whether their homes are safe? His testing programme is still too slow, too narrow and too confused to do the job that is needed.

    Then there is the question of funding. In the Secretary of State’s last statement to the House, on 20 July, he said of councils’ funding for remedial work:

    “If they cannot afford it, they should approach us”—[Official Report, 20 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 1025.]

    but that so far he was not aware of a single local authority that had done so. However, at least six councils had already done exactly that. How could the Secretary of State have been so misinformed about his Department that he so misinformed the House? Let me give him another chance. Twelve weeks on, how many councils and housing associations have asked for funding help? How many requests has he agreed? How much has he set aside for financial support?

    On lessons, as the Secretary of State has said, over the summer the terms of reference have been published for the Grenfell Tower public inquiry and the independent review of building regulations. I welcome both as Sir Martin Moore-Bick and Dame Judith Hackitt begin their important work, but there are omissions in both. The regulations review fails to recognise the recommendations accepted by the Government at the time from two coroners in 2013 after the deaths in high-rise fires at Lakanal House and Shirley Towers. Four years late, will the Secretary of State act on those recommendations, start the necessary overhaul of building regulations now and incorporate later any further conclusions from the Hackitt review?

    On the remit of the public inquiry, we are dismayed that the Government have closed off wider questions on social housing policy. These are exactly the “fundamental issues” the Prime Minister rightly said were raised by the Grenfell Tower fire, and exactly the failings that Grenfell residents and survivors want examined. A hard look at social housing policy is essential to a full understanding of this terrible tragedy, and to making sure it can and does never happen again.

  • First, may I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions and his remarks? He shares, I think with the whole House, a determination to do everything we can to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again. He asked questions on three broad areas. Let me take them in turn.

    On rehousing, I have to say in all seriousness that I am a bit disappointed by the right hon. Gentleman’s response. Through the letters I sent him throughout the summer, my statement and the work done for the council through Gold Command, we have tried to make it very clear that when it comes to rehousing we will be led by the needs of the residents and the victims of this tragedy. The right hon. Gentleman knows that this is about the needs of the families and not about having statistics that might sound good but may not actually lead to what those people want. I am not going to go through the statistics I shared in the statement. The most important thing for the families affected is that we first listen to them. They said they want to separate their homes and create more households—especially as many of the homes in Grenfell Tower were overcrowded—and that they want us to deal with that now. It is also right that there is, at the request of residents, a priority system that, for example, puts bereaved families first, and disabled people and families with children second, and that each family is given the time they have asked for to select properties. The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have already identified and acquired over 100 properties. These properties are new, and are in Kensington and Chelsea. On top of that, the conversion of temporary properties into permanent homes has been requested. All that is being done at the pace demanded by the residents. We will be led by what the residents actually require.

    On the safety of other tower blocks, I will not repeat the numbers I have just shared with the House on the number of tower blocks in the social housing sector owned by either local housing authorities or housing associations. The right hon. Gentleman asked about other types of cladding. There is nothing to stop any housing provider, whether in the public or private sector, sending samples to test any type of cladding. Some have done that, but for all the right and obvious reasons the priority had to be ACM-type cladding. It is right that that was prioritised. It was also correct that we carried out the BR135 systems tests, as well as the limited combustibilities test, to make sure we had a whole joined-up approach.

    The right hon. Gentleman asked about the public inquiry and the review. Let me start with the review, which is fully independent and is being led by Dame Judith Hackitt. Last week we set out the terms of reference of what will be a very broad review. The intention is that Dame Judith will produce an interim report by the end of this year, followed by a final report in the spring of next year. The work should not be rushed. Dame Judith will set up an advisory panel and carry out the work thoroughly so that we can properly learn the lessons, including lessons from the past and the contents of reports that have been published. We want those matters to be taken into account together, in an independent way.

    In the meantime, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, soon after the tragedy we established an independent expert panel to advise on any more urgent immediate action that is required for the purposes of building safety. In the light of developments over the summer, I have decided to extend the term of the panel by at least four months. I want to add further professionals with more experience of building structural safety in the light of what has happened in Southwark, and in particular Ledbury Towers, while retaining the fire safety specialists. I have asked specific questions about structural safety—again, in the light of what we discovered in Southwark—to ensure that we are given any immediate advice that can be used.

    It would, of course, be wrong for me to talk about the public inquiry in detail, given that it is rightly being led by a judge, completely independently. However, the right hon. Gentleman raised wider issues involving social housing, and he was absolutely right to do so. Such wider issues need to be addressed, as we know from the Grenfell tragedy and subsequent events, and from what the House has learnt and discussed in the past. We know about what has happened in Camden, for example, and we now know things about Southwark as well. In due course, I will set out for the House how we intend to deal with those issues.

  • The horrific and tragic events of Grenfell Tower have brought the issue of faulty white goods into even sharper focus. A recent freedom of information request revealed that more than 600 house fires in the midlands had been started by tumble dryers in the last decade. What conversations are my right hon. Friend and his ministerial team having about that issue with their counterparts in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy?

  • My hon. Friend is right to raise the question of white goods. We have heard, and have seen from the police report on the Grenfell tragedy, how that tragic fire started. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is very much part of the ministerial group that meets weekly to make key decisions about, in particular, building safety. One of the issues involved is that of white goods, and we are working well with the industry and in co-ordination with BEIS.

  • Let me again extend my deepest condolences, and those of my party, to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire and their families. Responding to such a tragic incident is undoubtedly challenging for any Government, but it is also a test of how a Government can react to ensure that we never find ourselves in the same situation again, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s response to questions about rehousing, testing and building safety.

    In Scotland, we have already moved quickly to establish a ministerial working group on building and fire safety to co-ordinate responses to the ongoing investigations. Building standards are devolved, and the cladding that is suspected of contributing to the spread of the fire at Grenfell is not permitted for use on high-rise tower blocks in Scotland. While we are confident that we have stringent building and fire safety regulations, public safety is of paramount importance, and this afternoon the Scottish Government agreed on a programme of work that they will now carry out. They intend to organise a review of the current building standards and the fire safety regulatory framework and a consultation on fire and smoke alarms in Scottish homes, and to introduce a targeted fire safety campaign for residents of high-rise buildings.

    The Grenfell Tower fire raised profound concerns about the way in which social housing is managed in England, and lessons must be learned. I welcome the inquiry, but I worry that, without a wider focus, it will fail to get to grips with the causes of the fire and the lack of integrity and confidence that so many of the residents want and deserve. It should have one clear objective: justice for the survivors, victims and families. Will the Secretary of State therefore look again at the terms of reference and include the wider implications of social housing policy, which would mean examining social and political conditions including the provision and state of social housing in England? Will he also note that fire safety tests have concluded that more than 200 buildings are at risk of fire? The Government must act to ensure that people living in those buildings are adequately supported. What support does the Secretary of State plan to provide for the people in those at-risk buildings?

    Reports that survivors and witnesses are suffering from mental ill health as a result of the tragedy is hugely distressing. Post-traumatic stress disorder will undoubtedly play a part in the aftermath, and I urge the Government to look again at the support mechanisms that are currently in place for those affected. The Secretary of State has said that he is open to suggestions about expert input. How will the Government help the local authority to provide counselling services for survivors and witnesses, and what additional funds have been provided for mental health support services?

    We have heard that families are still living in hotels, and there are reports of consequential mental ill health, a lack of emotional support and a lack of confidence in the Government's terms of reference. Surely the Government must deliver actions and answers to give people confidence in the system again.

  • The hon. Lady has raised a number of issues. Let me start with her points about Scotland and the safety of buildings. As she rightly said, building regulations are a devolved matter, but that does not prevent England and Scotland, and other devolved areas, from working together on common issues. In my statement, I mentioned some of the problems identified by the British Board of Agrément in relation to the structural safety of cladding following incidents in Glasgow. We are working together through the Ministerial Working Group on Building and Fire Safety, which meets regularly. Its meetings obviously include discussion of Scotland and other devolved areas, and will continue to do so.

    The hon. Lady asked about social housing and the remit of the public inquiry. As she will know, the inquiry’s terms of reference are set independently by the judge. They were accepted in full, without amendment, by the Prime Minister, and rightly so. That said, the hon. Lady—and the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne—raised the issue of longer-term social housing; we will report to the House on that in due course.

    The hon. Lady understandably raised the issue of counselling and mental health support. In the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, that support is being led by the local NHS trust. The work is being co-ordinated through GPs, pop-up clinics and a 24-hour hotline. However, there has also been a desire to get out there and make sure that the authorities are not waiting for people to come to them, and that people know what services are available. Thousands of doors have been knocked on, including hotel doors, and facilities have been set up in hotels. That process will continue so that everyone who needs help knows that it is available, and will receive it.

    Lastly, the hon. Lady mentioned at-risk buildings and the need to ensure that any remedial work is done. We are monitoring that in the case of public sector buildings, and the same process will be applied to those in the private sector when problems are identified. The work will, of course, require funds. That allows me to return to a question asked by the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne about the funding of local authorities and others to ensure that they can continue to do the work that is necessary: I apologise for not addressing it earlier. As has been made clear from this Dispatch Box before, all local authorities and housing associations are expected to carry out immediately, without delay, any essential works that are required. We have said from the start that when there are funding issues they should approach us, and we will look at ways of trying to support them.

    The right hon. Gentleman asked me a question earlier about the number of local authorities that have approached us. We have been approached directly or indirectly by 27 local authorities—either by the authority itself, or in some cases by their local Members of Parliament—and so far we are in more detailed discussions with six of those local authorities.

    As for housing associations, we have made it clear that they should approach the social housing regulator. The regulator has written to every housing association and said that that should be the starting point of any financial discussions. As of today, the social housing regulator has told us that no housing association has approached it with financial viability concerns over fire safety.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, not least because it gives me my first opportunity to put on record that my thoughts and prayers are with the community and those who have lost their loved ones and those who have been injured in the Grenfell disaster. I also want to put on record my admiration for the emergency services. I am a former member of the fire service; we were never trained to do this sort of tower block fire, and some of the things they saw will be with them for the rest of their lives. I therefore ask the Secretary of State to assure me that all emergency services personnel will have the suitable support they will need as they go forward, because post-traumatic stress will be with many of them for the rest of their lives.

  • I can assure my hon. Friend—

  • My right hon. Friend, of course: I can assure him that such support is being provided to all emergency workers, and I join him in commending once again the work of the fire service workers in particular. We will continue to make sure they get all the support required, including, of course, counselling. This point allows me to highlight the work being done by voluntary sectors, including in Cornwall recently. The Cornwall Hugs Grenfell response led by Esme Page shows what communities can do, because through that response, as well as helping the victims of Grenfell, they reached out to fire service workers in London.

  • I acknowledge the work of the Government to date over the summer, when I was also working on this, of course. However, I have two issues of outstanding concern. It is clear that the rehousing of Grenfell survivors and evacuees has fallen disgracefully behind schedule, and we know that some of the homes offered to them within three weeks were completely unsuitable. The school year began today and students will shortly be beginning university from inadequate accommodation in hotels, with no space to study. Their grades will suffer, as will those of the young man who was taking his GCSEs on the morning of the fire, who arrived at school in his underwear and was given clothes to wear. He did not have the fabulous good fortune of the efforts of the young woman the Secretary of State spoke about; he has had no consideration, and has lost his place at school, which I find disgraceful.

    As well as hearing the Secretary of State’s response on that, I would like him to address the issue of the provision of mental health services. The so far unsubstantiated press story we have heard today about the potential number of attempted suicides is very unsettling for a community still under huge stress. While the NHS foundation trust rebuttal today stated that nearly 4,000 people have been contacted, there are still many survivors and their families who feel forgotten and neglected, and who are not getting help. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that trust is restored among these very vulnerable people and they get the help they need?

  • First, may I take this opportunity from this Dispatch Box to thank the hon. Lady for the work she has been doing ever since this tragedy happened to bring comfort to her constituents? We will continue to work with her closely. She mentioned an education case and a young man who has been excluded from school; if she can bring forward any details of that to my team, we will certainly take a careful look, as that kind of thing should absolutely not be happening.

    The hon. Lady asked specifically about mental health support. I talked about that just a moment ago, but she is right to highlight it, because it is one of the key things we must all work together on, through the councils, the NHS trusts and the Government, to make sure it is being provided to all who need it. I can after this statement send the hon. Lady even more details about what exactly is being done. If she wants to discuss the matter further, we are happy to do that with her, but the work the NHS trust in particular has done is important, especially by reaching out to residents through the process of knocking on doors, going to hotels and engaging the Samaritans as well to provide a different avenue of support that might be more welcome by certain residents. But it is also important to continue to look for other ways to provide that support.

  • The Building Research Establishment is in my constituency, and I know what an excellent job it does on this and many other issues to do with building safety. The Secretary of State talked in his statement about each system when properly fitted; what further advice is he giving to councils to ensure that contractors are correctly fitting and retrofitting buildings and ensuring inspections are carried out not just on the materials used, but on the implementation or any compromises made over time?

  • I join my hon. Friend in commending the work of BRE. I went to see some of its facilities myself and was impressed by how it has approached these systems tests and how quickly it was able to conduct them. She is right to ask about contractors and implementing some of the early lessons we have learned. The advice we have received from the independent expert panel has been sent out to building groups and industry groups, and shared with all local authorities. One further thing we have done today is publish a consolidated note of all the building safety advice that has come out in recent weeks, to make sure it is in one place and is easily accessible.

  • Many people in the House who have dealt with bereavement will know that it is about three months later, after the initial shock, when things really kick in, and that is what I heard from the father of my friend who died in Grenfell Tower this week.

    We hear reports of suicide attempts, and I know that in the community people are talking about self-medication. The Secretary of State’s statement did not include anything about health assessments, bereavement counselling and those services to support those people; will he make all that information available to the House by placing it in the Library in the coming days?

  • I always listen very carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman has to say, particularly on this issue. He has made a number of good points on this in the past, as has just done so again today. A huge amount of support has been put in place in terms of bereavement, such as through the family bereavement centre that has been set up. If he has any other ideas or suggestions that he thinks we could follow, we will happily look at them. In response to his request to put in the House more details, I will happily do that.

  • On building safety and testing, what work has been carried out for those buildings across the country that have been converted under permitted development rights?

  • We have not differentiated between whether or not the buildings were converted under permitted development rights; our focus is on all buildings regardless of how they came to be residential housing. As I said in my statement, it has been more straightforward to find out what residential towers there are and the types of cladding in the public sector, but less straightforward in the private sector. That is why on 11 August I wrote to all chief executives of local authorities in England asking them to immediately start working on compiling information on the private sector residential towers in their area and the type of cladding they have, and to share that information with us, and also to remind them of the enforcement powers they already have to make sure all these buildings, including in the private sector, are safe.

  • There remains a real concern about the clarity regarding the testing process, including what is being tested and the relationship between the materials and the whole building in a real-world context, such as whether the impact of fire safety in respect of cladded buildings takes into effect the design of windows. It does not give me a great deal of confidence that the Fire Protection Association has now started to consider doing its own tests because of its concerns about the Government’s testing. This is a real worry for residents—thousands of residents—in my tower blocks and in others.

    May I ask a very specific question about the role of the fire authorities in this? Are the Secretary of State and his Department liaising with fire authorities across the country and receiving regular briefings from them, and have there been any cases where fire authorities have recommended a change to the “stay put” policy during the process of testing, and the removal of, cladding?

  • We have been very open in sharing information on what the testing process is and why it is important, as well as sharing the results that are coming out of the process. For example, as each of the systems tests took place over the summer, we provided an update as soon as the results were made available to us through the Building Research Establishment. We contacted each of the relevant local authorities and housing associations to ensure that we could answer any further questions they might have. As I said earlier, I have also decided to publish today a consolidated note giving details of the testing processes and the subsequent results and advice. I am also asking the expert panel to think about this further, especially in the light of some of the structural—as opposed to fire safety—issues that have emerged in recent weeks. The hon. Lady asked about fire authorities. We are working closely with them, and the head of the National Fire Chiefs Council is a member of the expert panel and of the building safety ministerial group, which I chair. We continue to get advice from those sources, and as and when any of the advice that they share with us changes, that will be published.

  • It is impossible for us to imagine the suffering of the bereaved who lost loved ones on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire but who still do not know their fate with any certainty. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that everything is being done to identify the victims as quickly as possible?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this point. This is one of the most challenging aspects of the tragedy, and as I said in my statement, we commend the people who are doing this work and the dignity and speed with which they are doing it.

  • Will the Secretary of State admit that he has only scratched the surface of the scandal surrounding building regulations for cladding and insulation? We have allowed tall buildings to be clad with combustible materials that would not be allowed in almost any other European country. He has failed to test all classes of cladding and insulation that are more flammable than those used at Grenfell, and I think that that includes any internal wall insulation. Will he publish a full, comprehensive schedule of cladding and insulation types, detailing their combustibility and where they are being used, so that we can judge independently what still needs to be done to make tower blocks safe?

  • I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a lot still to be learned about building safety and building regulations. There are a lot of lessons to learn, and that is exactly why we have the independent review, which is being led by Dame Judith Hackitt. We have also asked the Building Research Establishment to start publishing historical data on other cladding systems, as well as testing them, to ensure that we can learn the lessons about them as well.

  • I am sure that all Members will have been shocked by the revelation that 1,000 fire doors were found to be missing from towers in Camden. Does not this raise wider questions about the maintenance of premises in Camden and other areas by landlords who should know better?

  • My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of this wider issue of building safety that goes beyond any one local authority. He mentions the issue that has been unearthed in Camden, and I mentioned earlier the issues in Ledbury Towers in Southwark. There are a number of building safety issues across a number of local authorities, and that is why there are so many lessons to be learned.

  • The Secretary of State has said that 165 tower blocks in the public sector have failed the systems test. What is the figure in the private sector across England and Wales?

  • That figure of 165 does indeed relate to the public sector, so those buildings are owned by either a local authority or a housing association. In the private sector, 89 buildings have been tested so far, of which 85 have failed and four have passed. That is only 89, however; there are obviously thousands of private sector buildings, and that is why we have asked all local authorities to conduct an audit of properties in their area and to work with us on a process to enable us to monitor this situation.

  • The horror of the Grenfell Tower fire has, sadly, provided us with a tragic snapshot of the state of high-rise social housing in Britain today. In his statement, the Secretary of State said that 151 homes were lost to the fire, but that 196 households had asked to be rehoused. That presumably means that one third of the homes in the tower were overcrowded. My question to him is: how can that level of overcrowding be permitted to exist in one of the richest boroughs in the land? Is there no means of control over the local authority, either internally or externally? What is now being done in the aftermath of the fire to address similar overcrowding in other high-rise blocks?

  • My hon. Friend raises an important issue. He is right to say that 151 homes were lost and that we are now looking for 196 homes. That is not entirely due to overcrowding, however. It is partly due to the fact that a number of families have requested to split their households. In many situations, for example, they have asked for separate accommodation for the young adults in the household. In every case, we have accepted those requests. He is right to raise the issue of overcrowding, however, and we are determined to take a much wider look at social housing.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for his update. He is absolutely right to praise the outstanding results achieved by Inês Alves, but it would be wrong of us to expect such resilience from everyone. I agree with the concerns raised about the emotional wellbeing of the people suffering from post-traumatic stress who have not received proper support. I have a separate question, however. Does the Minister have plans to address the question of the many empty homes in Kensington and Chelsea and elsewhere? This is unacceptable when there are so many families in need of a permanent home.

  • The hon. Lady will know that there are already measures in place to deal with empty homes and to provide incentives for them not to be left empty. In terms of finding the necessary homes following the Grenfell tragedy, considerable progress has been made over the summer in acquiring mostly new homes in Kensington Row, Hortensia Road and elsewhere. A considerable amount of work has also been done to convert some of the temporary homes into permanent ones, at the residents’ request.

  • The statement reports that the weaknesses discovered following the Ronan Point collapse have not been fully addressed or remedied. That collapse took place nearly 50 years ago. We also read that 165 existing tower blocks have the same combustibility and dangers that existed at Grenfell. Does not this show a continuing catastrophic failure of building regulations? Do we not need an examination not only of combustibility but of all the other structural problems that are likely to affect those who have the misfortune to live in multi-storey blocks?

  • The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this matter. This is precisely why I have asked for an independent review of building regulations. Also, in the light of the discovery at Ledbury Towers in Southwark, I have written to Dame Judith Hackitt and asked her to ensure that she considers those types of structural considerations. As well as building regulations, there are also wider questions. The issue at Ledbury Towers was discovered because of Grenfell Tower, but it is a structural issue. The work should have been done after the Ronan Point disaster, and there are some really big questions for the local authority to answer. The cracks that were discovered were large enough to put a human hand through or to put books in. Those cracks did not appear overnight. They had been there for some time—months, or even years. How can it be that the local authority was seemingly able to act only after the Grenfell tragedy?

  • The Secretary of State has furnished us with information about the number of residential housing blocks that have failed under the safety regime, but will he tell us how many other public buildings, including hospitals, libraries, shopping centres and even schools, have failed the test and what he is doing about it?

  • I can tell the hon. Lady that I am aware of 16 public buildings that have failed the test so far, and other public buildings may come in for further testing. This talks to a wider problems, however, because we are seeing a huge rate of failure, as I have said, across the board in both the public and private sectors and in residential and commercial buildings.

  • Twelve weeks ago, when I heard the Prime Minister try to encourage local authorities to get in touch and to put forward samples for testing, I put it to her that encouragement was not the right route to take and that we should be mandating, but it still seems that we are inviting local authorities or housing associations to submit material. The public inquiry will inform us of its findings, but I am concerned by the significant under-investment in our council properties and social housing stock, which I can speak about from experience in my constituency. I therefore suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that the right course of action would be to undertake a full independent audit of all aspects of safety in the 4,000 blocks, hospitals, student residences and other buildings, because just one item is being considered. Surely that is the least that we owe to the families.

  • The process of testing the buildings that have been similarly clad is not voluntary. It has not been voluntary for the public sector; it has been a requirement of all local authorities and housing associations. Clearly, not one has refused, so there is nothing voluntary about it. It is important that we keep looking at how to continue the process, in particular to capture much more of the private sector, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.

  • As a psychologist, I am particularly concerned by the number of residents—those who witnessed things or lost loved ones—who have tried to harm themselves. Survivor guilt will become a real issue. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for psychology, I wonder whether the Secretary of State has spoken to the British Psychological Society. There is so much expertise around the country, and I am sure that it would be only too willing to help and lend that expertise where it is required.

  • I agree with the hon. Lady’s point about the importance of that type of support. Some of the reports that we have heard, including today, are worrying, so we must ensure that we are providing counselling and mental health support to all who need it. As for the experts that we have spoken to, the work is being led by my colleagues in the Department of Health and they are part of the overall response group, but I will be sure to pass on her thoughts to the Secretary of State for Health.

  • I commend the Secretary of State on the great compassion and sensitivity that he has shown in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy. I want to seek clarification on one particular matter from his statement: the permanent accommodation that is on offer to residents. Is the rent for the permanent accommodation so high that it is acting as a deterrent to families in accepting the offers? Bearing in mind the last sentence in his statement, which said that the House should put no obstacle in the way of helping the residents of the tower, the Government should pay those rents.

  • I first thank the hon. Lady for her kind comments. As for rents, we have made it clear that all properties, whether permanent or temporary, will be rent-free for the first year. Following the first year, no former tenant of Grenfell Tower or Grenfell Walk will pay a penny more than they previously paid in rent.