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House of Lords Hansard

Grenfell Tower and Fire Safety: Update

20 July 2017
Volume 783

    Statement

  • My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat a Statement made by the Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

    “Five weeks have now passed since the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. Nothing that has happened in those five weeks will have diminished the grief of those who lost loved ones. Nothing will have negated the trauma of those who lost their homes. But across the public sector, in local and central government, in the emergency services, in hospitals, in schools and more, dedicated public servants have been doing all they can to deal with the aftermath and help the community to recover.

    Over the past five weeks, the Government have endeavoured to keep the House up to date with those developments. This is the third Oral Statement I have made on the subject. The House has also heard from the Prime Minister and the Housing Minister, who also answered questions in Westminster Hall before Parliament formally returned. There has been a full debate in the Commons, four Written Statements, and a number of letters sent to all Members. My aim today is to provide an update before the House rises and another opportunity for honourable Members to ask questions, and I would also like to let the House know exactly what action we will be taking over the summer.

    The police continue to list 80 people as either dead or missing presumed dead; 39 victims have so far been formally identified, with 39 inquests opened by the coroner and adjourned pending the public inquiry and police investigation. Two adults remain in hospital. I know that some local residents remain concerned that the number of people in the tower on the night has been underestimated. I would continue to urge anyone with further information to come forward. We have been very clear that we do not mind if those affected were subletting or have immigration issues. All we care about is getting to the truth.

    Turning to the rehoming programme, everyone who lost their home in Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk has been made at least one offer of good-quality, fully-furnished temporary accommodation in the local area. As of 10 o’clock this morning, 35 of these have been accepted and 10 families have moved in. Those numbers are slightly down on the figures that were published recently as some people have changed their minds, as they are perfectly entitled to do. Where residents have turned down an offer, we are finding suitable alternatives to offer them. Where residents are not yet ready to engage with the process, do not want to make a decision right now, or would rather wait for a permanent home to be offered, we will respect that. At DCLG questions this week, the quality of the accommodation being offered was raised. I would like to repeat the Housing Minister’s offer to the Opposition Front Bench to visit some of these homes so they can inspect them for themselves. I do not believe they have yet taken up that offer, but it still stands. In the longer term, we are continuing to seek out and secure suitable permanent accommodation. The first such homes for Grenfell families will be ready within days, and specialist teams are ready to start matching them to families and start making offers.

    On the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea recovery task force, at the town hall, we are continuing preparations for the return of control of the recovery effort from Gold Command to Kensington and Chelsea Council. I have spoken at length with the new leader of the council and been very clear that Gold will not hand over the reins until it is clear that the council is ready and able to cope. We saw last night the very raw anger that some in the community still feel towards the council. It is entirely understandable. As the Prime Minister herself has said, the initial response from the local authority was simply not good enough. There is not a lot of trust there, not a lot of confidence, and that is why, once Kensington and Chelsea Council takes over the recovery operation, it will do so under the supervision of the independent Grenfell recovery task force. It is important to stress that the role of the task force is not to investigate the causes of the fire or to apportion blame—that is for the public inquiry and the police investigation—rather, it is there to provide advice and support and see to it that the council does the job that is required of it. We are in the process of finalising the task force membership and I hope to make an announcement soon. I can confirm that the handover from Gold to Kensington and Chelsea will not happen until the task force is up and running.

    Away from Kensington, the fire safety testing programme continues. We now believe that no more than 208 local authority and housing association residential blocks over 80 metres tall have been fitted with aluminium composite material cladding; 189 of these have had cladding samples tested by the Building Research Establishment, been tested by proxy or have already taken their cladding down. None of them has passed the limited combustibility test. Samples from a further 12 towers have been submitted this week and are now being tested. The BRE has yet to see samples from seven towers, all of them managed by housing associations; a month after the tests began, that is simply unacceptable, and I expect to see them all submitting samples without any further delay.

    On the advice of the independent Expert Advisory Panel on Building Safety, the BRE is now undertaking system testing that will help establish how combinations of different types of ACM panels with different types of insulation behave in a fire. An explanatory note, setting out the process and the timetable for further advice, will be published shortly. It has taken a short time to design and set up the test, but we expect the first results to be available next week. As soon as results are available, we will share them first with local authorities and housing associations that have confirmed that their properties are clad in the same combination of materials that are used in that test. We will, of course, share them with the local fire and rescue service. The results will provide further information that building owners and their professional advisers can use to take decisions about what, if any, remedial action is required.

    Although legal responsibility for fire safety enforcement lies with local authorities, I have the power to direct an authority to consider these test results as part of their duty to keep housing conditions under review. If necessary, I will not hesitate to use this power, which could lead to enforcement action being taken against a landlord if a fire risk is not dealt with. I hope that it will not come to that.

    On the public inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick is continuing his preparatory work. I welcome his decision to extend by two weeks the consultation period for the terms of reference. While we are all anxious for the inquiry to get under way, it is important that the remit is appropriate and that everyone affected has an opportunity to share their views.

    On updates over the summer, with the House due to rise later today, this is the last Statement that I will be making before the Summer Recess, but work on the recovery effort and testing regime will obviously continue at pace while Parliament is not sitting, and my department will be writing regular letters to all Members to keep them abreast of progress.

    Finally, I pay tribute to the many Members on both sides of the House who have assisted with the emergency response and recovery effort so far. Members have provided insight, support, scrutiny and a voice for their constituents, both in public and behind the scenes.

    The weeks, months and even years ahead will be unimaginably difficult for those caught up in the fire and those who lost family and friends. There is nothing that any of us can do to bring back those who died or to erase the trauma of that terrible night. But I am sure that the whole House shares my determination to take care of those affected by the fire, to make sure the truth comes out and that justice is done, and to see to it that a tragedy like this never happens again”.

  • My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in the other place earlier today. I refer Members to my declaration of interests as a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

    I too pay tribute to the dedicated public sector workers across the fire service, police, ambulance service and the NHS, local authority staff and staff from various government departments. Some were the heroes during the fire and the immediate aftermath; others are working as we speak to help this community to get back on its feet. I thank them all for everything they have done and continue to do. But, as I have said before in this House, there is not one group of heroes and dedicated professionals, and another group of people employed in the public sector who are unfairly attacked. I draw the attention of the House to the crass and wholly unfair attacks on firefighters by the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor of London. I hope that he never repeats them again, and that we never hear again the nonsense about health and safety and red tape, or the daft requirement that before a new regulation is agreed, two—or is it three?—have to be deleted.

    The number of people dead, or missing presumed dead, stands at 80. It is important that we support the police and other authorities in the work that they are doing to identify the victims. I endorse the call from the Minister for anyone with information to come forward. As he said, no one with subletting or immigration issues should have any worries about coming forward; we just want to get to the truth.

    In respect of the rehoming of people, the process seems very slow. I accept fully that people have the right to change their mind and make the decisions they want to in their own time, but can the Minister reassure the House that he is confident that everything possible is being done, because concerns have been raised about the quality of the accommodation being offered, as he said in the Statement?

    I am pleased that gold command remains in control of recovery efforts and that that will not change until the Government are confident that the council can cope. The community is still very angry with the response of the council, and rightly so. I have observed that the new leader of the council is seeking to begin the process of winning the trust of the local community back, and that is very welcome. The Secretary of State has spoken at length with the new council leader, as we have heard. Can the Minister tell us what action he believes the council leader is taking to win back the trust and confidence of the community, and what discussions have taken place with the leader of the opposition on Kensington and Chelsea Council, Councillor Robert Atkinson, in this regard?

    I am alarmed to learn today that samples from 27 tower blocks, all owned by housing associations, have still not been provided to the Building Research Establishment. What action are the Government taking to get those samples? After a month, this is totally unacceptable. I note that the Secretary of State has powers to direct local authorities to consider test results as part of their duty to keep housing conditions under review. What powers has the Secretary of State got to ensure that housing associations provide the samples requested? There is no excuse on their part for not providing them quickly.

    I am pleased that work is continuing on establishing the public inquiry. I fully support this as the best way to get to the truth and to make provision so that nothing like this ever happens again. It is important that Sir Martin Moore-Bick is properly supported in his important work and that the widest possible agreement on the terms of reference and how Sir Martin should be supported is achieved.

    The Statement also makes reference to keeping Members of the other place informed over the summer. Can I ask that Members of your Lordships’ House are also kept informed? Emailed updates to Members would not in my opinion be too onerous for the department to undertake.

    I join the Minister in fully supporting the operations on the ground to restore confidence, and I pay tribute to all involved. I wish the leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, her fellow councillors and the staff of the authority, the vision and foresight to regain the trust of the community and to provide the proper civic leadership that the royal borough needs. As the noble Lord said, the truth must come out—justice must be done, and we must do everything in our power to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again.

  • My Lords, I remind the House that I, too, am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for the promise of regular further updates over the summer. We join in the thanks to all the rescue services for their work. This was a devastating but avoidable catastrophe, and we need to get to the truth of what happened and guarantee the highest level of support for the community.

    There is clearly a need to find workable terms of reference for the inquiry, but I have concluded that we also need a mechanism for the parallel issues of the supply of affordable housing, how tenants are treated and provision for displaced and affected residents, with the same level of public involvement and the same status and respect. I hope that the Government might agree with that and find a means of doing it.

    The Statement confirms that the independent expert advisory panel on building safety, whose work is critical and urgent, is undertaking a new system of testing ACM panels, which is clearly needed. We have heard that the first results are due next week. There has been a catastrophic failure in building control, either in the regulations themselves or in their implementation—or both. We need to know urgently which it is and then implement actions across the country to meet the recommendations made.

    I will raise two issues, the first around emergency planning and the second around other towers and testing, both mentioned in the Statement. Two weeks ago, I asked a Written Question of the Minister, to which I got a reply yesterday. My question was whether Her Majesty’s Government,

    “plan to audit the emergency plans of local authorities to ensure that they are up-to-date and robust”.

    The reply I got yesterday said:

    “The Government currently does not plan to audit local authorities’ emergency plans. Local authorities, as category 1 responders under the Civil Contingency Act 2004, are subject to the full set of civil protection duties and are best placed to develop appropriate emergency plans based on local risks and needs”.

    Clearly, it did not work in the case of Kensington and Chelsea. Might the Minister look at that again? The Government should not assume that no other local authority has similar problems. There is a responsibility on central government to make sure that local authorities’ emergency plans are in place and robust.

    It is clear that the Government have accepted that Kensington and Chelsea cannot yet take over the recovery operation by itself, and that when it does, it will be under the supervision of the independent Grenfell recovery task force. That is the right decision, but I hope that the Government will look carefully at this to ensure that the situation that occurred in Kensington and Chelsea cannot happen elsewhere.

    On the issue of other towers and testing, the Statement says that,

    “no more than 228 local authority and housing association residential blocks over 18 metres tall have been fitted with aluminium composite material cladding”.

    That is a very high number indeed. The first question the Government need to answer speedily is whether or not the material was within building regulations—in other words, large numbers of buildings have been using this material, but should they have done so? Secondly, can the Minister explain why the height of 18 metres is so material? I am two metres tall; 18 metres is nine times my height. I am not clear where this figure has come from and why this material is deemed to be safe on high-rise buildings under 18 metres high, bearing in mind that none of the material in the blocks so far has passed the limited combustibility test that has taken place.

    Finally, the Government have made it clear that when the results are available to the new system of testing they will be shared,

    “first with local authorities and housing associations”,

    which are immediately concerned, and,

    “with the local fire and rescue service”.

    Towards the end of the Statement it says that the Secretary of State has “the power to direct” a local housing authority,

    “to consider these test results as part of their duty to keep housing conditions under review”.

    There is then a statement that the power may well be used and enforcement action could be,

    “taken against a landlord if a fire risk is not dealt with”.

    Of course, that would include all fire risks within a building. I am not sure that what the Statement says is strong enough in law, because it indicates that the local housing authority has the final decision. It is not good enough simply to direct an authority to consider the test results. They should be implementing the test results, and if resource is required to do that, Her Majesty’s Government may well have to find the resource to do it.

  • My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Shipley, for their contributions. I will try to deal with the various points they made. I thank them very much for echoing the thanks to our dedicated public servants across the piece for all they have done and the support that we continue to give them. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned the fire brigade in particular, and I am happy to say how important its work is and how much we as a Government respect and value what it does. I am grateful to both noble Lords for the continuing support, because this issue unites us and does not divide us.

    I will try to deal with some of the points that were raised. First, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, spoke about the quality of accommodation and the issue of rehoming. We have to respect the trauma that these families have been through, which often makes it difficult for them to make a decision, even over a period of weeks, about their accommodation. In many cases they are not certain where they want to settle and we respect that. We have made offers of temporary accommodation to all families. Some have taken those offers up and some have not, but from what I can see I am certainly satisfied that the accommodation has been of an outstanding quality in all cases.

    The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, spoke about the task force and the work of gold command being vital—I absolutely agree with that—and the importance of the council winning back trust. I thank him for what he said about how the leader of the council, Elizabeth Campbell, is trying to win back trust. She is reaching out genuinely to all people who have been victims and to the opposition parties. That is certainly the approach that the Government want and support. The noble Lord talked about outstanding samples that needed testing. The number is actually seven; perhaps the noble Lord’s figure is slightly out of date. It has come tumbling down over the last 48 hours, so seven tower blocks—

  • I had a different number.

  • The noble Lord is right to query that. Until shortly before I came in, the figure was still being updated, but the Secretary of State used the figure seven in the Commons, which is the one that I repeated. Of course, it is still important that we bear down with regard to those seven outstanding tower blocks that have yet to be tested; it is important that the housing associations comply with the request to bring forward their samples.

    The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about the power to issue directions—I think the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, also referred to that—which is under the Housing Act 2004. We have been careful to check what legal powers we have, and those are the powers as stated. The inquiry may want to look at this—I am sure it will—but that is the power as set out. Both noble Lords made a point, understandably and rightly, about updates, and I will certainly ensure that the updates provided to MPs in the Commons are also sent to noble Lords. I will also address in correspondence any points that noble Lords want to raise over the summer, and I will copy it to Peers. If it is felt that it would be appropriate and helpful, and it may well be, I am willing to give an update briefing and answer questions when we come back in September, as happened as during the earlier briefing.

    On points made by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, in addition to those I have tried to cover, the supply of affordable housing and permanent housing is important. Kensington and Chelsea will make a statement on this shortly. The council will want to share the housing commitment to residents who lived in Grenfell Tower first with those affected, but it will certainly be available shortly to noble Lords.

    System testing has been recommended by the expert panel, and that is being carried forward, starting next week. Once that information has been conveyed to housing associations and local authorities, it will be conveyed more widely.

    Regarding the cut-off height of 18 metres, I am not an expert on this but I believe it is used very often in relation to tower blocks. I think that fire and rescue above 18 metres is demonstrably more difficult but, again, I suspect that is something the inquiry will be looking at.

    On the terms of reference, the consultation will be open until 28 July—that is, a week tomorrow—to gain as broad a consensus as possible on what should be looked at. Once that has been completed, we will hope to settle the terms of reference very quickly.

  • My Lords, I welcome the point to which the noble Lord has just referred—the decision to extend the period for agreeing the terms of reference. Anything that can be done to defuse the high state of tension that exists at present is wise. One would like this inquiry to proceed in a relatively calm atmosphere so that the evidence can be listened to without interruption and with proper attention to detail. However, perhaps the noble Lord can inform the House on one or two other matters relating to the preparation of the inquiry.

    First, have steps been taken to identify somebody who might be invited to act as counsel to the inquiry? I suspect that that will be an extremely important element in the preparation of the evidence before the inquiry begins. Secondly, has thought been given to where the inquiry might be held, bearing in mind that large numbers of people will want to attend it and the premises will have to be large enough to accommodate them, as well as to provide a secure position for those who wish to attend, for those giving evidence and, indeed, for the judge himself? Thirdly, can we have any insight into the timing, bearing in mind that the point has been made from the very beginning about the need for an interim report to be made available as soon as possible so that the details of the evidence that might lead to steps to prevent a repetition can be brought into the open as soon as possible, and also bearing in mind that the inquiry cannot begin until the evidence has been sufficiently well prepared for the judge to hear it and assess it in the first place?

  • My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord very much for that contribution and for the very helpful points about defusing the high state of tension that exists and has existed from early on—for very understandable reasons. I think efforts are being made, with some success, to defuse the tension. The judge leading the inquiry is consulting local residents and residents’ representatives about the terms of reference, and it is right to do so. I am sure that the judge will have views about the timing of the inquiry and where it is to be held, and those will be taken into account. If it is acceptable to the noble and learned Lord, I will write to him on the more detailed and relevant points concerning the conduct of the inquiry.

    He is right about an interim report, which I think we would be hoping to see, although, again, ultimately that is for the judge leading the inquiry to determine. Because of the need for urgent action, we set up the independent expert advisory panel under Sir Ken Knight. He has already given a lead, as has the rest of the committee, in relation to, for example, the testing and other important matters. However, the Secretary of State is very well aware of the need for early action on the building regulations and fire safety measures, probably in parallel with the inquiry.

  • My Lords, perhaps I may follow up a question from my noble and learned friend Lord Hope. Will the interim panel have adequate powers within its terms of reference so that, if some of the questions that have been emerging in the press about, for example, electrical safety, power surges and so on arise, it will be able to request all local authorities to undertake electrical safety reviews in similar blocks? It would be an unimaginable tragedy for a fire of a similar nature to occur while the inquiry was going on. Although one does not wish in any way to pre-empt the finding of the inquiry, there is a need to defuse tension, rather than risk the possibility of the people who have suffered so terribly feeling that their concerns are being put off until the outcome of the inquiry. Therefore, I wonder whether it would be wise for a series of interim reports to be released as and when the overall inquiry felt that that was appropriate and helpful in the interests of safety in the future.

  • My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness very much for her, as always, very helpful suggestions. When the Secretary of State presented the Statement to the Commons, electrical safety was raised and he undertook to discuss it with the Secretary of State for BEIS, and I think that that will be helpful. That is a very important point. Of course the inquiry should look at these issues. In addition, the interim panel—it is an advisory panel—will be able to make urgent recommendations. It will be a very open process and we are very keen for the panel to bring up important issues. That has been the approach throughout; certainly it has not been to push issues away. The seriousness of what has happened at Grenfell and its wider implications are recognised across government, as they are across all political parties, as demanding immediate and thoroughgoing action. Therefore, we would welcome any necessary suggestions from the advisory committee.

  • My Lords, can the Minister give any clarity about what will happen to residents who accept permanent accommodation? I have been told by some community volunteers that residents are concerned that, although they may get help in the first year after moving in, they may not be able to afford the rents after that because they will go up and it will be beyond their ability to pay. This is causing some of the reluctance to accept offers.

  • I thank the noble Baroness for her question and the opportunity to provide some clarity on that. When permanent accommodation is offered—and, as we will see, it will be—it will be offered on exactly the same terms as the earlier accommodation. We are absolutely clear that it will be on exactly the same terms. Therefore, there is no reason to be concerned on the basis that the noble Baroness has set out.

  • My Lords, a lot of money is being collected by the charities. Is there any way of knowing how it is being distributed and whether it is being distributed fairly?

  • I thank the noble Lord very much for his question, which provides me with the opportunity to thank the charities that have provided massive support and have been very involved in the charitable effort, foremost among which are the British Red Cross and the Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund, although many others have also raised an enormous amount of money. I know that the distribution is being co-ordinated by the Charity Commission to make sure that it is done in the most effective way. Financial assistance and donated goods are being distributed. For their part, the Government have been very clear—and I restate it—that whatever is received through charitable giving will have no impact at all on benefits. We want to be absolutely clear about that.

  • My Lords, I declare an interest as being involved in the Hazards Forum, which is an organisation of all the engineering institutions dealing with hazards. It has met over several years on different issues. Similarly, there is a scientific organisation which I know about called the Science Council, which could deal with some of the very complex issues involving physics and chemistry. These bodies have not been directly requested to give their input. A scientifically interesting but challenging feature of the whole problem of Grenfell is the quite wide range of scientific and technological issues that have arisen. Equally, given some of the scientific results of more recent tragedies—some people have asked how this compares with the huge King’s Cross fire, which was studied very well and from which practical methods evolved—I feel that parts of the scientific and technical infrastructures could contribute more and I hope that the expert panel will make use of them.

  • I thank the noble Lord. He has unequalled expertise in this area. I am sure the judge and the inquiry would welcome input from the bodies mentioned by the noble Lord. Clearly the parallel he mentioned with the King’s Cross fire—and possibly also the Bradford City football ground fire—would have an impact on the inquiry. The Prime Minister early on suggested—this has been echoed since—that we should have, and will take up, a civil disaster impact forum for dealing with this kind of situation. No two awful tragedies are the same but there are clearly lessons that can be learned and passed on in relation to future dreadful incidents.

  • My Lords, I apologise to the House for not being here for the start of the Minister’s Statement, but I have read it. I noted that he mentioned the tower blocks owned by housing associations that have not submitted to testing. In the other place, the Secretary of State confirmed that these were all freehold buildings and recognised that housing associations, despite many attempts, are having difficulty in getting freeholders to comply. Is there anything the Government can do to persuade the freeholders that, in the interests of the safety of the tenants in these buildings, they should comply? I declare an interest as chair of the National Housing Federation.

  • I thank the noble Baroness, who I know has great expertise in this area. The position of these seven is, as indicated by the noble Baroness, not straightforward. We remain ready to help, if we can, if there are issues that need resolution. As I say, the number has come tumbling down over the past 48 hours. There were many more housing association properties that had not fulfilled the testing requirement until the past 48 hours. It may be that these will be dealt with in short order but we certainly are in touch to make sure that the number comes down to zero.

  • My Lords, I hope the House will allow me some discretion because, like my noble friend, I was not able to be here for the start of the Statement. Can the Minister comment on the potential frustration that could be caused by matters that become sub judice? Will there be a way for issues that emerge to be responded to in public while the inquiry is taking place?

  • The noble Lord is right to raise a difficulty that often exists in this kind of complex situation. The fact that the inquiry is likely to go on for a considerable time will make it that much greater. We are aware of that difficulty and trying to work within it. Obviously there are ongoing criminal investigations, the public inquiry, which is shortly to start, and the work of the independent expert panel. As a country that believes in the rule of law, we do not want to compromise the position of people who will end up in court as defendants. We have to work within that situation and are aware of it. Certainly the judge’s experience as a judge when he is chairing the inquiry will be helpful in that regard.