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Grenfell Tower Fire

Volume 626: debated on Monday 26 June 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the tragic Grenfell Tower fire and to put on record a number of questions for the Government, most of which are on the record already, especially after the statement today by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I will not be covering the awful response by the authorities locally to the survivors—that is well documented—but I do want to pay tribute to all those who tried to help, volunteers and officials, and to my new hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), who has performed admirably in the service of her constituents.

Because I was in the London fire brigade for 23 years and I am a former Fire Minister, I have been asked to make many comments on the fire. I need to say that I am no fire prevention expert. I was an operational fireman for 13 years and an elected Fire Brigades Union lay official for 10 years, acting as a safety rep, as well as performing other duties. I am therefore no expert, but I know many who are—those who work with the all-party group on fire safety rescue and in the field of firefighting, fire protection and fire prevention, and of course I had my departmental officials, who were also very knowledgeable.

Armed with that assistance, experience and common sense, there are many questions that I want to ask or, rather, that I want the public inquiry to address. It would be very helpful if the Minister gave the House any details of when more might be known about the inquiry, which will face many questions on many issues. They include: the source of the fire; the rapidity of the spread of the fire; the catastrophic failure of all the fire protection features that the building should have contained; the building’s refurbishment, including the original specifications and the materials actually used, as well as the quality of the work and the finish; the monitoring of building control; the inspection of the completed job by the council, the designated responsible person and the fire service; and the recommendations of the Lakanal House coroner’s inquiry concerning a review of building regulations guidance in Approved Document B and the role of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee. I will finish with the question of the Government’s decision not to equip new schools with fire sprinklers, reversing the upgraded advice that they should have sprinklers, published in 2008.

Mr Speaker, you may know—I would be surprised if you did not—that my original bid was for an Adjournment debate this week on the subject of the governance and accountability of registered social landlords, or housing associations, but obviously matters changed shortly after and I retendered my bid. When Labour came to power in 1997, there were 2 million homes below the decency threshold in our social housing sector. We tackled that challenge aggressively, spending billions on new kitchens, bathrooms, double glazing, central heating and security. The de-municipalisation of much housing brought many pluses in recent decades, but also problems. Those wider problems need examination, as we have heard with the many challenges in recent days, in connection with how we provide social housing in the UK. How we address that question sets the perspective for how we approach the build, maintenance and safety of those homes—the kind of housing I lived in for decades.

In respect of the questions I want to raise, I would like to thank Jon O’Neill OBE of the Fire Protection Association, London fire brigade, Sir Ken Knight, Ronnie King, the Fire Brigades Union, the Commons Library and the Lakanal House coroner for their assistance with material for my remarks this evening. Let me take the questions in turn.

The police have apparently identified the source of the fire as white goods on the fourth floor. London fire brigade and the Electrical Safety Council, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who I am pleased to see in his place, have been leading the Total Recalls campaign for such faulty white goods—dryers and the like—and for improvement in their design. Initially, the Government seemed well disposed to this. I am pleased to see the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service in his place, as he responded so positively and has had a number of meetings with colleagues about the campaign, which would have required compulsory product registration at the retail point of sale and better manufacturer marking of goods to allow them to be identified after a fire and traced back to source. One person has already died and there have been a series of serious fires, including one in a Hammersmith tower block. Fortunately, the fire integrity of that block was better than at Grenfell. If the Minister responding to the debate has any information about the campaign from his colleague, I would be very pleased to hear it.

As for the fire integrity of the Grenfell block, it is difficult to know where to start. The public inquiry, assisted by fire investigators, forensic specialists from the Metropolitan Police Service and the Building Research Establishment, will pronounce on the cladding and the insulation, why the fire spread so rapidly and what other contributing factors there may be. There will be questions not only about the fire resistance specification of the material used for the refurbished block, but about whether the architect’s original plan was followed, as well as the finish. Those, along with compartmentalisation and correct fire doors, are the basis of the “stay put” policy about which so much has been written. I am sure that the public inquiry will look again at that as well.

The failure of all the cladding panels tested since the fire, allied to the Secretary of State’s startling information from Camden earlier today about fire doors, indicates a complete systemic failure. Many decent local authorities and housing associations are under scrutiny in relation to how they manage their housing stock, and many good construction companies are as well. Questions about monitoring, building control, “responsible person” and fire brigade sign-off, and the rules that we put in place, will all be issues for the inquiry, as well as the question of how contracts are delivered, including the system of subcontracting.

I am sorry. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I have declined intervention requests from other colleagues. If I have time at the end of my speech, I shall be happy to give way.

I am not sure whether the Minister will be able to comment on any of those building matters. The fire service, as inspector and enforcement body, should offer us some peace of mind, but reports of a 25% reduction in both domestic fire brigade inspections and fire safety audits do not inspire confidence, and perhaps the Minister will be able to comment on the accuracy of those reports. I am pleased to see that the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service is present; he may be able to advise his hon. Friend.

Of course, the Lakanal House fire, the six people killed there and the coroner’s inquiry were a wake-up call, as was the Shirley Towers fire in Southampton, in which two firefighters, Alan Bannon and James Shears, died. Much happened as a result, but not all the lessons were learned. The key lesson for the Government was about the reviewing of the building regulations guidance on fire, as contained in Approved Document B. That is the architects’ bible: it says what is allowed and what is required. The guidance needs to be reviewed regularly to take into account not only new methods of construction, but new materials being used. They are changing all the time, as we can see from the structures and the skyline around us. Approved Document B gives details of when and where sprinklers should be used, and what types of fire alarm system should be mandatory for which types of building.

I welcomed the Secretary of State’s announcement earlier today, and the convening of his new independent expert panel of advisers. As I said to him at the time, the Building Regulations Advisory Committee has historically been central to such work. The last published review of Approved Document B appeared in 2006. Her Honour Frances Kirkham, CBE, the Lakanal House coroner, wrote to the Secretary of State in 2013 saying, very simply,

“It is recommended that your Department review”

Approved Document B. The Secretary of State’s response, in the same year, was:

“We have commissioned research which will feed into a future review of this part of the Building Regulations. We expect this work to form the basis of a formal review leading to the publication of a new edition of the Approved Document in 2016/17.”

As the Minister will know, however, BRAC has not met for five years, although a succession of Ministers assured us that work was in hand.

As late as last Thursday, when I asked the Prime Minister what assurance she could give

“that the review of building regulations and Approved Document B, as recommended by the Lakanal House coroner, will be carried out as urgently as possible, and that the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, which has historically undertaken this work, will be recalled as a matter of urgency”,

she replied:

“That work is indeed in hand.”

She also said:

“Obviously, that will be one of the issues that the public inquiry will want to look at.” —[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 178.]

As I said then, that work does not need to wait for a recommendation from a public inquiry. Can the Minister assure us that the new independent panel of experts will undertake it as a matter of urgency? I should be grateful if he could give us a timeframe for its work programme.

The final matter that I want to raise, before making some concluding remarks, is Government policy in respect of fire sprinklers in new schools. In 2008, the Minister of State at the Department for Education upgraded the guidance for local education authorities and school governors, and changed the wording on what was expected. He wrote, and the Department published, the following:

“It is now our expectation that all new schools will have sprinklers fitted. Any exceptions to this will have to be justified by demonstrating that a school is low risk”—

for instance, single-storey or brick-built. The Government have changed this guidance, and the now revised version from the Department for Education states:

“The Building Regulations do not require the installation of fire sprinkler suppression systems in school buildings for life safety and therefore BB 100”—

that is, building bulletin 100—

“no longer includes an expectation that most new school buildings will be fitted with them.”

The regulations that it cites are 11 years old. They are overdue for revision, and at least one coroner’s inquiry has requested that they be reviewed. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed press reports at the weekend that the Government were reversing this and going back to the original guidance from 2008.

Sprinklers save lives, and they are not as expensive as some detractors claim. The situation is not helped by TV adverts, dramas and films incorrectly portraying buildings being flooded whenever a sprinkler head activates. It is only the sprinkler directly above the fire that sprays water, not those across the whole building or even a floor. We know from reports that the cost of fitting sprinklers to Grenfell Tower would have been £200,000. If we divide that by 79—you do the math, Mr Speaker—it works out at just over £2,531 per death, and that figure is likely to come down as more deaths are confirmed.

To conclude, we need to know the terms of reference of the public inquiry as soon as possible. We need to know who is to preside over it, when it will be expected to report and when we can expect interim reports on urgent life safety matters. We need to know when the independent panel will be convened, and when we can expect building regulations and the guidance in Approved Document B to be published.

It has been said often over the past 12 days that the Grenfell Tower fire could have been prevented at best, or at least mitigated. The deaths could also have been prevented, at least in the main. It is right to acknowledge—there has been controversy over this—that the Lakanal House inquiry did not order the retrofitting of all high-rise blocks with fire sprinklers. What it did say was:

“It is recommended that your department”—

the Department for Communities and Local Government—

“encourage providers of housing in high-rise residential buildings containing multiple domestic premises to consider the retrofitting of sprinkler systems.”

It was not quite an instruction, but coming from a coroner’s inquiry, it was a pretty forceful recommendation.

There will be harrowing accounts to come at the public inquiry and/or the inquests. Historically, the vast majority of safety legislation has been written after a tragedy or disaster, and that includes fire regulations. Health and safety regulations, which are much derided in the media, save lives but they also cost money. The message from the Secretary of State’s statement today is that there will be a cost to local authorities and registered social landlords, and we need assurances of Government support that will pay to keep our people safe. The full lessons of Grenfell Tower will not be clear until after the public inquiry, but it is clear that actions need to be taken now. The Government have a responsibility. Ultimately, the buck stops here in Parliament with all of us, and we need to commit the support that is needed in communities across the country now.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter forward. There are 32 high-rise blocks of flats in Northern Ireland, plus other private high rises as well. Does he think that the independent panel of advisers should include Northern Ireland in its investigation, so that all parts and regions of the United Kingdom can benefit from its findings?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter of the devolved Assemblies, because there are different practices in different countries. I commend the Welsh Assembly in this regard. Ann Jones, a former colleague of mine in the Fire Brigades Union, has piloted legislation through the Assembly, and Carl Sargeant, the Minister, has been on to my office today. The legislation in Wales is different from ours; it has improved and is more protective. I know that there are different procedures in Northern Ireland and Scotland as well. A lead from the Westminster Government would be very welcome, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. My last word is to commend the emergency service workers—firefighters in the main—who risked life and limb to try to help. If we give them the resources and the kit, they will do the job, and we stand in admiration of them, as always.

I start by thanking the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for calling for this timely debate. As he said, he is a former firefighter and was responsible for fire safety when he was a Minister, so he speaks from a position of knowledge and experience. This House is rightly taking a very strong interest in the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, and we want to ensure that the lessons are learned for the future. This disaster should never have happened, and we are absolutely determined to ensure that this never, ever happens again in our country.

Last week, I attended a community safety partnership meeting with the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), and we were both deeply moved by the bravery and dignity that has been demonstrated by those directly affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. I pay tribute to all Members here on both sides of the House who have helped and have made a contribution, particularly the new hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) for the work that she has been doing locally to support her community. Of course, all of us need to do everything we can to help those who have suffered during this tragedy to rebuild their lives, and that is what the Government are doing. We have put in place measures to help people to get back on their feet, but we absolutely understand that that will take a long time in many cases. As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse outlined, it is equally important that the questions that are being asked by those who have been directly affected are answered. We need to understand what went wrong and fix it for the future.

The hon. Gentleman has raised several extremely good points, and I will try to address them as I go through my speech. In the spirit of co-operation, however, we need to work together across the House on this issue, so I would like to meet him and colleagues on the all-party parliamentary fire safety rescue group. If he has time tomorrow, I would be happy to sit down and have a discussion with him and those colleagues. It is important that we work together, and I want to demonstrate that there is a clear willingness on the part of the Government to ensure that that happens.

We will do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of the causes of this disaster. There will be a full public inquiry, as the Prime Minister has announced, and it will have an independent chair. We want to be clear that the inquiry should leave absolutely no stone unturned to get to the truth. We will question everyone who has evidence to provide. We want to ensure that the survivors and the victims are consulted on the inquiry’s terms of reference and that the victims are able to be represented, so the Government will cover the costs of legal representation. That has been an issue in previous public inquiries, which is why we have been clear about coming forward and making that commitment.

I appreciate what the Minister is saying about the public inquiry. Can he give any information this evening about when we are likely to have an announcement about the chair or some idea of the timetable, when it is likely to start and over what period it will report?

I completely understand that colleagues want to have that announcement as soon as possible, and the Government are well aware of that. I hope that there will be an announcement soon and that the work will start. When Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made his statement earlier today, there was a discussion about how long an inquiry report would take. Clearly, it will be up to the chair to set out the full terms and to determine how to take things forward, but we would ideally want to see an early interim report.

The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, and I will come on to talk about the panel that the Secretary of State outlined in his statement earlier today. However, the BRAC actually meets several times a year, and I understand from my officials that the most recent meeting was actually last Thursday. The committee talked about the Grenfell Tower tragedy and how its work could have an input into what the Government and the Department are doing but, of course, as the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government also clearly outlined, the committee’s scope is more limited. He has talked about a panel that has a wider remit, and I will outline what that panel will be looking at.

As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse said, there was also a discussion about the coroner’s recommendations following the fire at Lakanal House in 2009. The Government took action in a number of areas following that fire. In particular, DCLG provided funding to enable the Local Government Association, in partnership with the housing sector and enforcement authorities, to publish new fire safety guidance for purpose-built flat blocks in 2011. That guidance is still current, and hon. Members may well have seen the letter my Department sent to housing associations and local authorities on 18 June, which clearly referenced that guidance. Of course, I urge all housing providers to ensure that they are following that guidance.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to sprinklers, and I will talk specifically about sprinklers in schools. In April 2011, in response to a coroner’s report following a fire-related incident in Southampton, the Department wrote to local authorities and other registered housing providers to ask them to actively consider the recommendation to install sprinkler systems in their existing properties, and he is absolutely right that that is the same recommendation that came from the coroner in the case of the Lakanal House fire.

The hon. Gentleman raised issues with the regime for testing white goods, and the report from the working group on product recalls and safety will be published shortly. The group’s recommendation for a strengthened product recall information site has been put into effect, and the British Standards Institution has been commissioned to establish a very clear protocol for product recalls. In this particular case, we know the brand of the product that caused the fire at Grenfell, and obviously my colleagues at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are already in touch with the manufacturer.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned sprinklers in schools, and the current guidance from the Department for Education strongly recommends sprinklers. The Department for Education was going to consult on language that might have weakened that recommendation, but of course that has been withdrawn. It said, “We are currently in contact with schools and all bodies responsible for safety in schools. We are instructing them to carry out checks to identify any buildings which may require further investigation… It has always been the case that sprinklers must be installed in school buildings if a risk assessment identifies them as necessary.” Of course that is determined on a case-by-case basis.

The hon. Gentleman said that the coroner’s report on Lakanal House addressed part B of the building regulations.

My apologies. I should have said that the vice-chair, my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), and the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue, the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), are both here, so I kindly invite them to our meeting tomorrow, if possible. I did not question the Minister about when BRAC’s meetings were, but what he says about the advice on sprinklers in schools is consistent. It is not the guidance that was issued in 2008, but I will not quibble now. I welcome the meeting, where we can clarify the matter with him and his colleagues in the Department for Education. I welcome the fact that there seems to be some movement in the Government’s position on that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I am of course happy to have a detailed discussion on all these points with him tomorrow—if that is possible for him.

The coroner’s report recommended that the Government look to simplify the guidance on part B of the building regulation. Although we have been working on the guidance, I accept that the work has not been completed. In the light of what has happened at Grenfell, we are going to have to take a very thorough look at the regulatory regime. That is precisely what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his statement to the House earlier. As he noted, there is an ongoing police investigation, which we are all aware of, and, as the hon. Gentleman noted, there will be an independent public inquiry to get to the truth about what happened and who is responsible. What is absolutely clear is that what we witnessed in the Grenfell Tower fire is a catastrophic failure on a scale that no one thought possible in our country at this time, in 2017. I cannot anticipate what the public inquiry will conclude, but I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he said that the failures must be understood and rectified without delay, and the Government are absolutely determined to ensure that that happens.

The Secretary of State has informed the House that he is establishing an independent expert advisory panel, and I hope very soon that more information emerges on that. I can already say that it will advise the Government on any immediate steps that need to be taken on fire safety measures, policies, inspection and regulation arising from the Grenfell Tower fire, and it will look at the wider fire safety regime.

I very much look forward to having a meeting with the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues to discuss these matters. As I said at the start of my remarks, this is a time for us to work together, to listen to wide-ranging views and ultimately to ensure that a tragedy such as the Grenfell Tower fire never happens again. We owe that to the victims, to their families and to the country.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.