With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Grenfell Tower and fire safety.
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 recover.
Over the past five weeks the Government have endeavoured to keep the House up to date with these developments. This is the third oral statement that 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 that have been sent to all Members. My aim today is to provide an update before the House rises, and another opportunity for hon. Members to ask questions. I would also like to let the House know exactly what action we will be taking over the summer.
[Official Report, 5 September 2017, Vol. 628, c. 2MC.]The police continue to list 80 people as either dead or missing and presumed dead. Thirty-nine victims have so far been formally identified, with 39 inquests opened by the coroner and adjourned pending the public inquiry and the police investigation. Two adults remain in hospital. I know that some local residents remain concerned that the number of people in the tower that night has been underestimated. I 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 re-homing 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 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 them suitable alternatives. Where residents are not yet ready to engage in the process, because they do not want to make a decision right now or they would rather wait for a permanent home to be offered, we will of course respect that.
At Communities and Local Government questions this week, the quality of the accommodation being offered was raised. I repeat the Housing Minister’s offer to those on the Opposition Front Bench to visit some of these homes so that they can inspect them for themselves. I do not believe that they have taken us up on that offer so far, but it still stands.
In the long 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 to start making the offers.
At the town hall, we are continuing preparations to return 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 Command will not hand over the reins until it is clear that the council is ready and able to cope. We saw last night the raw anger that some in the community still feel towards the council. That 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, and not a lot of confidence, and that is why, when Kensington and Chelsea Council takes over the recovery operation, it will do so under the supervision of the independent Grenfell recovery taskforce. It is important to stress that the role of the taskforce is not to investigate the causes of the fire or to apportion blame—that is for the public inquiry and the police investigation. Rather, the taskforce is there to provide advice and support and to see to it that the council does the job that is required of it. We are in the process of finalising the taskforce membership, and I hope to make an announcement soon. I can confirm that the handover from Gold Command to Kensington and Chelsea will not happen until the taskforce 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 18 metres tall have been fitted with aluminium composite material cladding. Some 189 of these have had cladding samples tested by the Building Research Establishment, have been tested by proxy or have already had their cladding taken down. None of them has passed the limited combustibility test. Samples from a further 12 towers have been submitted this week, and they 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 all those housing associations submit samples without any further delay.
On the advice of the independent Expert Advisory Panel on Building Safety, the BRE is now undertaking system testing, which 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 the local authorities and housing associations that have confirmed that their properties are clad in the same combination of materials that were used in the test. We will also, of course, inform 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 do have the power to direct an authority to consider these test results as part of its 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 do hope it will not come to that.
Moving on to 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 had an opportunity to share their views.
With the House due to rise later today, this is the last statement I will be making before the summer recess, but work on the recovery effort and the testing regime will obviously continue at pace while Parliament is not sitting. 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 the recovery effort so far. They 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 who were caught up in the fire and those who have 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 the whole House shares my determination to take care of those who have been affected by the fire, to make sure that the truth comes out and that justice is done, and to see to it that a tragedy like this never, ever happens again.
I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement.
This is the fourth time in less than four weeks that we have had to encourage the Secretary of State or his Ministers to make a statement on Government action following the Grenfell Tower fire. He praises the scrutiny provided by Members on both sides of the House, but how will he keep Members informed over the next six recess weeks? More importantly, how can we get answers to the continuing, serious concerns we have from our constituents and from the Grenfell Tower families and survivors? Round-robin letters are simply not sufficient.
The Secretary of State calls today’s statement an update on progress, but in truth there has been next to no progress. After this truly dreadful fire, the Secretary of State had two urgent, overriding responsibilities: first, to ensure that everyone affected from Grenfell Tower had the help and rehousing they needed; and secondly, to reassure all the people living in tower blocks around the country that their homes were safe or that the work necessary to make them safe was being done. More than five weeks after this fire, he is failing on both fronts.
We have learned today that 169 families lost their homes in Grenfell Tower, but that only 10 have moved out of emergency hotels and hostels, while 25 more have been offered a temporary home they feel they can accept. I accept that the reasons may be complex, but I am still getting reports of residents being told they will be made intentionally homeless if they refuse an offer, despite the Government’s word that this will not happen; residents being offered accommodation with damp, leaks and a lack of full furnishing; residents being shown somewhere with too few bedrooms for their children; and residents being made an offer, but then being told that the details will follow only afterwards.
As for the Government’s fire safety testing programme, the more we are told, the worse it gets. The Secretary of State’s statement raises more questions than it answers. The Prime Minister said:
“We can test over 100 buildings a day”.
So why have only 259 tests been done? Why can councils and housing associations not get non-ACM cladding, or insulation, tested? Why is the Secretary of State ignoring the views of fire safety exports, landlords and residents, ignoring the potential fire risk in thousands of other tower blocks, and only narrowly testing ACM cladding? How many of the 259 blocks that have failed have had their cladding removed? Where blocks have failed the first, samples test but passed the second, systems test, is the cladding still safe to leave in place?
Have the Government agreed any financial support for any council or housing association to help with the costs? Has the Secretary of State persuaded the Treasury to agree access to the Government’s Contingencies Fund, or will any costs have to come from within the Department’s existing budgets?
We know from the report on the Lakanal House fire—I suspect we will see the same with Grenfell Tower—that the problem was not just cladding. The Government’s testing programme is simply too slow, too narrow and too confused. It is simply not fit for purpose. Ministers must therefore act. They must widen the testing programme to reassure all high-rise residents that their homes are safe; fund the necessary work on cladding and on fire safety to make them safe; review the system of approved inspectors for building control checks, starting with all the cases where the cladding has failed but had been signed off previously; and start the overhaul of building regulations, which the coroner reporting on the Lakanal House fire recommended to Ministers four years ago, and which can later incorporate any findings from the fire investigations or the public inquiry into Grenfell Tower.
The Secretary of State talked about the pace of what is being done. In truth, Ministers have been three steps off the pace in responding to the tragedy of Grenfell Tower at each stage. I fear that without the scrutiny of Members on both sides of the House that he praised, the Government’s pace will slacken over the recess weeks at the very time when it is clear that he needs to do a great deal more to deal effectively with the complex problems and consequences of the Grenfell fire tragedy.
So far, the right hon. Gentleman has taken a fairly constructive approach to this very, very important issue. I would urge him very much to maintain that in the weeks and months that lie ahead, and not to adopt the approach of his right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor, who has shown just how out of touch he is on this issue. That is not what the public want to see.
The right hon. Gentleman asked how I can make sure during the recess period that all hon. Members in all parts of the House are kept in touch or informed and are able to ask questions. Obviously he knows that because Parliament will be in recess, some of the usual channels will not be there. However, I am determined to ensure that we make use of what is available, whether through regular communications with all Members of Parliament or through my Department’s own operations in issuing press releases and explanatory notes. In addition, my colleagues and I will be available during the summer recess to meet or talk to any hon. Member who has any questions. I have already planned to meet the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) next week. I will be happy to talk to the right hon. Gentleman at any time, or to meet to discuss with him any of the issues pertaining to Grenfell Tower and this terrible tragedy.
On housing, the right hon. Gentleman will know that huge efforts have been made by Gold Command, by my Department and by Kensington and Chelsea Council to make sure that the needs of all the residents are met and that their wishes are respected in terms of temporary accommodation and permanent accommodation, whether they were social tenants or leaseholders. Very shortly, within just a matter of days, Kensington and Chelsea Council, with the support of the Government, will issue a fresh document to every resident that will make it very clear how this process can work going forward, answer a lot of the questions that residents will naturally have, and make sure that all the information is in one place. A lot of that work has been put together after consultation with many of the residents to try to make sure that all the questions they would naturally have are answered, including some of the key questions around the allocation policy of some of the permanent housing that has been identified.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the testing process. This is a very comprehensive, detailed and, by its very nature, complex process. At every stage, we have been led by advice from the independent expert panel. These are the people we should all rely on to give the best advice on how testing should be prioritised. The clear advice, right at the start, was to prioritise testing of cladding that may be similar to that which was on Grenfell Tower. I think it was right to prioritise that. That does not, of course, preclude tests on other types of cladding. The BRE facilities are not the only test facilities available in the country. Landlords, whether they are local authorities, housing associations or private landlords, have a legal responsibility to make sure that their buildings are safe. That is why, on the back of the advice and explanatory notes that we have issued, landlords—I know of this happening in many cases—are already taking further action to make sure that even if their buildings do not have ACM cladding, they have still done everything they can to re-check that they are safe. With regard to the systems tests, I mentioned that we will be publishing an explanatory note that will go into much more detail about exactly how those tests will work, and how their results will then be used.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about funding. I have made it clear from the Dispatch Box a number of times that if any local authority or housing association has to take any action to make sure that its buildings are safe, we expect them to do that immediately. If they cannot afford it, they should approach us, and we will discuss how to make sure that they have the support that they need. To date, as far as I am aware, not a single local authority or housing association has approached me or my Department to ask for any assistance. If they did, of course we would take that very seriously. If he is aware of any local authority that has a funding issue, then he should encourage it to contact me.
On the building regulations, the right hon. Gentleman again rightly said that we need to learn the lessons from this terrible tragedy—whether they come from the public inquiry, the police inquiry, or the fire inspection work that has happened—and make sure that where changes are required in the building regulations or the enforcement of those regulations, they are made as swiftly as possible. There will be further news on that in due course.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his interest. I repeat that he can approach me at any time during the summer recess period.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and congratulate him on keeping the House up to date with progress thus far.
My right hon. Friend is right in saying that there is a lack of confidence in the local authority in Kensington and Chelsea. The taskforce that he is going to nominate, hopefully later today or tomorrow, is vital to restore confidence. Will he update the House on the exact powers that the taskforce has? Clearly, if control is passed back to Kensington and Chelsea Council, that raises the question of who can direct the council to do things, and what happens if there is a dispute over what is done. For example, the shadow Secretary of State mentioned individuals almost being blackmailed into accepting a property that they do not want. Does the taskforce have the power to direct the local authority to take certain actions, and will my right hon. Friend personally intervene if it needs extra help?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the importance of the taskforce and the work that is required of Kensington and Chelsea going forward. As I said, there is a very low level of confidence among the residents—perfectly understandably so. We saw that last night at the local council meeting. The taskforce will comprise experienced people independent of the council to provide the council with strategic advice, particularly on rehousing and community engagement, and it will report independently to me. I have made it very clear from the start that, if it believes that the council is not up to the job, I will not hesitate to take further action.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I have confirmed in response to previous statements that the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities have in hand the safety of Scotland’s high-rise flats, and that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is undertaking fire safety and incident planning visits to all high-rises in Scotland.
I am sure that many hon. Members will, like me, have received intimations of concern from constituents about a number of aspects of this terrible disaster. One question that I hear over and again is, “Where was the infrastructure in the borough to deal with such a disaster, and where was the plan for dealing with its aftermath?” Constituents and members of the public ask me what was going on in such a wealthy borough that it did not seem able to cope with such a disaster on its doorstep. Was this just a failing of one out-of-touch Tory council, or is it an endemic problem? What steps are the UK Government taking to ensure that such an inept and incompetent response to such a terrible disaster could not happen again in what is really a very wealthy area?
Another concern to all our constituents, I am sure, is the BBC report earlier this week saying that less than £800,000 of the £20 million donated has been disbursed in the past five weeks. That is leading to growing scepticism among residents, with the chair of the residents group saying recently that she feels that the public’s generosity “is being betrayed”. Can the Secretary of State assure us that there will be full transparency with regard to how the funds donated by the public and business are being put to use, and that any administrative and bureaucratic obstacles that are preventing that money from being distributed promptly are removed, so far as is reasonably possible?
The Scottish Government and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service have done a commendable job in responding to this tragedy and in ensuring that the lessons are learned in Scotland, too.
On the hon. and learned Lady’s wider questions, it is fair to say that, with a tragedy on this scale, of this size and proportion, almost any local authority in the country would be overwhelmed. Despite that, however, there are certainly things that any reasonable person would have expected of Kensington and Chelsea Council. As I said earlier, there were failings, and that is why there is a need for an intervention of the type I have described. There are longer-term lessons to learn not just for boroughs in London, but more widely to ensure that, as a country, we are better prepared for civil emergencies of this type. That work, led by the Cabinet Office, has already begun.
The hon. and learned Lady talked about charity funding. It is great that so many people have contributed to help the people hurt by this tragedy. The Charity Commission has been working with a number of charities to ensure that there is a co-ordinated response. All of them are working together to get the maximum benefit from the donations that have been made, and I think that is right. We were asked to make it clear that any donations through the co-ordinated response of charities—funds raised by the Evening Standard, the Rugby Portobello Trust and others—would not have an impact on benefits. We have done what was asked of us. We were asked to disregard donations from the point of view of benefits, and we have done exactly that.
The residents of Grenfell Tower have of course been very badly affected by this terrible tragedy, and they need help in a number of areas, such as financial help—immediate financial assistance—as well as rehousing and emotional support. Would it help if individual caseworkers were deployed—or has the Secretary of State already deployed some—to provide one-to-one support through this process to ensure that residents get the assistance they need?
Yes. Right at the start, Gold Command very quickly brought in key workers for every family affected, whether they were in Grenfell Tower, Grenfell Walk or other nearby housing. One part of the transition process—this has already begun—will be making sure that Kensington and Chelsea Council puts in place permanent key workers for each family for as long as the families require that support. That is essential, and it has been supported by the Government.
This morning, I met a number of local government leaders, who said they were completely in the dark about the circumstances in which central Government would help them to pay for essential work on tower blocks. The Secretary of State has said that local authorities should go ahead and that, if they cannot afford to pay for such work, the Government will help in those circumstances. The Secretary of State knows that the funding comes out of housing revenue account. Rents are capped and borrowing is capped, so for many authorities the only way in which they will be able to pay for extra work on tower blocks is by stopping important work on other properties. Does he accept that, in those circumstances where work on tower blocks would mean not doing important work elsewhere, central Government will pay to help local authorities to do the necessary work?
Of course we want other essential work, such as on maintaining social housing, to continue. The clear starting point, however, is that it is the legal responsibility of local authorities and housing associations to ensure that their properties are safe. They should already be doing that work. Where they have found that that is not the case and they need to take action, they should take such action. As I have said, if they need help because they cannot afford it, they should approach us. So far, however, I am not aware of a single local authority that has done so.
I thank the Secretary of State for his detailed statement, and for having kept the House so fully apprised of recent developments. I am horrified to hear that some housing associations have not yet, despite requests to do so, sent in samples for testing. Is the Secretary of State considering taking any further action? Perhaps the time has come for naming and shaming, for example.
If such action is required, I will not hesitate to take it. In the past few days, since we have been a lot more public about pushing those that have not come forward with the relevant information, I must say that information has flowed in very quickly, especially during the past 48 hours. I believe we are still waiting for information on seven buildings managed by housing associations. I understand that all those properties are privately owned but managed by housing associations, so I recognise that they may be different from and more complex than others, but we still expect the information to come in right away.
I commend the Secretary of State for coming to the Chamber again, and indeed the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), for being very accessible to colleagues on this issue. However, they still seem to be in denial about the review of approved document B, the fire guidance for building regulations. Ministers have been promising a review since 2011, and the Lakanal House coroner recommended it in 2013. As recently as 2015, the then housing Minister said that work would start in 2016 and that it would be published in 2017. One can only assume that either the independent panel of experts is telling them not to do it because it is not necessary, or the Government believe that the public inquiry will conclude that we do not need to do it. Which is it? The work will take time, and the Government could get ahead of the curve by starting the work now, so that when the public inquiry recommends doing so—many of us expect the inquiry to recommend it—they can say, “Here’s the work.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As usual, he has raised a very important point. The purpose of the independent expert panel is to provide any advice that might require emergency action. If it does so in terms of building regulations or enforcement, we will certainly do that. As I said in response to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), I accept that there are clear issues around building regulations and enforcement and that, to make perhaps longer-term changes, we should act more swiftly and not necessarily wait for the outcome of a public inquiry, because with an independent inquiry the Government do not control the timing of that. I am looking at what further steps we can take to ensure we learn the lessons very quickly.
This terrible fire has affected not just the people who were unfortunate enough to live in the block itself, but the residents living around Grenfell Tower. They must have been horribly affected by seeing the fire and by its aftermath. What support is being given to local residents to help them to live with this tragedy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. The immediate support was to provide emergency accommodation in hotel rooms for all families who required it, and that has been done. Many of them are still in hotel rooms; that is what they decided to do. The council has designed an offer for people in many of the nearby blocks. Specific offers have been made to families in three of them— Barandon Walk, Hurstway Walk and Testerton Walk—to allow them to return to their homes and to provide them with the support they need.
The Government intervened in housing providers’ budgets by imposing a rent cut that reduced their income. Because of that and other factors, we already know that repairs and maintenance budgets have fallen by almost a fifth since 2010. If tenants and residents are not to fear that fire safety will be compromised by budgets or that repair and maintenance budgets will not be compromised by fire safety, will the Secretary of State assure us that all housing providers will know that they do not have to squeeze further other essential repairs and maintenance work in order to install sprinklers and carry out other remedial fire safety work?
I have been clear that it is clearly the legal responsibility of all local authorities and housing associations to ensure that their residents are safe and that they are meeting all safety regulations, including fire safety regulations. If there are instances where they cannot afford such work, they should approach us.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his detailed statement. This fire is a terrible tragedy that will have a huge impact on many aspects of future Government policy. I have always been a passionate believer in the important role of urban regeneration in a holistic housing policy. Will he confirm that, for schemes that are brought forward in future and in our wider housing policy, we have to learn all the lessons of what happened at Grenfell Tower and ensure that we have the most robust possible fire measures in place?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are many lessons to learn from this terrible tragedy. We have talked already about a number of them in the House, and one certainly concerns our wider and longer-term approach to social housing.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s willingness to keep us all updated over the next few weeks. Does he agree that local authorities and housing associations have a real duty to keep the residents and tenants in those blocks updated? Some local authorities are better than others, and there is huge concern about times when testing has not been reported back or results have not been received. It is absolutely crucial that local authorities report back over the summer.
Has the Secretary of State agreed that the Fire Brigades Union should be a main participant in the inquiry, to which it can bring all its expertise, knowledge and willingness to help to get to the bottom of this terrible tragedy?
The decision on the FBU’s role in the public inquiry will be for the judge. With the extension in the terms of reference, he is keen to ensure that he speaks to all interested parties, but the decision will ultimately be his to make. I agree 100% with the hon. Lady that all local authorities and housing associations must do everything they can to keep their residents informed. Many residents will, naturally, be worried and have concerns. I have seen good examples of local authorities and housing authorities keeping their residents up to date, but, as she says, there are some not-so-good examples. If she or any other hon. Member is aware of councils or housing associations that are not doing a good job, please make me aware of that.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s clear, informative statement, but I wonder whether he might give us a little more indication of what progress has been made in the provision of temporary accommodation for those who have lost their homes in this tragedy. It does seem as though some are still facing difficulties. Could he give me an assurance that all efforts are being made, especially when it comes to replacing homes on a like-for-like basis?
The initial response was to provide emergency accommodation and to ensure that people were offered temporary accommodation within three weeks, and that certainly happened. More than 200 units of temporary accommodation, all of which were of high quality and fully furnished, were identified in the local area. As I have mentioned, some families have taken up the offer. Others wish to move straight to permanent accommodation, and others say that they are not ready. We will respect their wishes. This is one of the biggest jobs for Kensington and Chelsea and for the Government, who are working together to ensure that all the families affected have accommodation available that is of high quality and, importantly, on the same terms as that which they had before. That is certainly what we are pursuing.
Electrical safety is of paramount importance in rented accommodation, particularly when it is high rise, and it appears as though the Grenfell Tower incident was caused by a fire in a fridge freezer. Will the Secretary of State commit to introducing mandatory electrical safety checks in rented properties, bearing in mind the fact that the Department for Communities and Local Government working group that was looking at the matter has concluded?
My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is looking at product electrical safety, including product recall, and I will ensure that he knows about the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns.
I get the impression from previous answers that I have received from my right hon. Friend that local authorities have been very good at meeting the different requests that Government have made of them, but can any specific pressure be applied to non-compliant housing associations? We simply cannot take any chances with safety.
Local authorities have generally been good in their response. Of the buildings mentioned earlier that have had their cladding tested or proxy tested, 46 are local authority buildings. Some local authorities have been very helpful in working with housing associations, but where that can help, we will certainly look at it further.
The West Midlands Fire Service has recommended that extensive work be carried out on 213 tower blocks in Birmingham containing 10,000 households. That work must be done as a matter of priority, but it will be very challenging indeed for the city, given the pressure on its budget. May I ask the Secretary of State, therefore—having spoken with the leader of the council, John Clancy, this morning—whether he is prepared to receive an all-party delegation from the city, consisting of Birmingham’s Members of Parliament and the leadership of Birmingham City Council, so that we can say to tenants in Birmingham, “Everything necessary will be done to ensure you are safe”?
Whether in Birmingham or in any other part of the country, we expect local authorities and housing associations to do any necessary work. If their local fire and rescue service says that such work is necessary, of course they should pursue it. I know the leader of Birmingham City Council well already, and if he wants to approach me, he should do so.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving us an update. I also thank the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), who has responsibility for housing, for his assiduous attention in the aftermath of the tragedy. People in Chaucer House, one of the two council-owned tower blocks in Sutton, have rightly been asking questions after the failure of the sample that was tested. In particular, they were not quite sure what the grading of 1, 2 or 3 meant. Residents in Balaam House nearby will also be asking questions when their results come back. Can the Secretary of State give me further details about the systems testing procedure that the Government have introduced?
It is perfectly reasonable to ask such questions. Because the tests are being done on the back of expert advice, some of them are naturally complex and require proper explanation. That is why we have already issued an explanatory note on the tests of the core material of the ACM cladding, and it is why I have also decided to issue an explanatory note on the new systems test, which will be available very shortly.
In Plymouth there are three tower blocks with combustible cladding. Plymouth Community Homes has acted quickly in fire testing and installing additional safety upgrades, but it needs additional information from the Government about the technical specifications of new cladding, if it is to be installed. Plymouth Community Homes and Conservative-run Plymouth City Council have written to the Government asking for financial assistance to enable them to do that. When will the Government be able to give them clarity about the technical specifications of new cladding and assistance with funding?
Two weeks ago, we issued clear guidance on what the limited combustibility test results mean and what action should be taken. As I said a moment ago, an explanatory note on the next set of tests—the so-called system tests—will be coming out shortly, and it will no doubt help Plymouth to make decisions. On funding, Plymouth should absolutely be getting on with any necessary work. If it has an affordability issue, it should approach us.
Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the safety of tenants in the private rented sector will also be taken into account in the independent expert advisory panel and in the Government’s future actions? Tenants living in private rented homes also deserve to feel safe.
Yes, I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. The testing facilities have been made available for free to the private sector, and a number of landlords have used those facilities. The housing Minister, other Ministers and I have met many representatives from the private sector to ensure that they are fully informed and that they receive all our guidance.
Will my right hon. Friend advise us what engagement his Department has had with the many charities looking to support survivors of the Grenfell tragedy?
As I mentioned earlier, a number of charities have set up dedicated funding efforts to provide help and support to the victims of this tragedy. The Department has been working across Government; for example, we are working with the Charity Commission to help to co-ordinate the use of those funds as they are distributed, and with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that they are disregarded for benefits purposes. Over the next weeks and months, we will continue to do what we can to help those charities to help the victims.