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Grenfell Tower

Volume 629: debated on Thursday 19 October 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if he will update the House on Government action following the Grenfell Tower fire.

It is now just over four months since the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Since then, the Government, the local council and the wider public sector have been working hard to ensure that everyone affected by the fire gets the support they need and that all tall residential buildings across the country are safe.

Since I last updated the House on 5 September, the number of households seeking rehousing has risen to 202. As before, this increase has been caused by members of larger households choosing to be rehoused separately. The local council has now secured more than 200 suitable local permanent properties. Negotiations are under way on others, and by Christmas it expects to have more than 300 available. As of this week, 112 households have accepted an offer of either temporary or permanent accommodation. Of these, 58 have moved in, 44 into temporary accommodation and 14 into permanent accommodation.

The Government are determined that everyone who needs support gets it regardless of their immigration status. We have previously established a process to grant foreign nationals who were resident in Grenfell Tower or Grenfell Walk 12 months’ leave to remain in the country with full access to the relevant support and assistance. Last week, the Immigration Minister announced a dedicated route to permanent residency for the survivors. This policy will allow them to apply for free for two further periods of two years’ limited leave. After this time, they will be able to apply for permanent residence.

Meanwhile, our work to ensure the safety of other tall buildings continues. A total of 169 high-rise social housing buildings in England feature some of the aluminium composite material cladding, and our programme of testing has identified 161 that are unlikely to meet current fire safety standards. The particular focus of current efforts is now on supporting remedial work on those 161 buildings. We are also improving our understanding of the situation for the privately owned high-rise residential buildings with ACM cladding, so that all such buildings can be as safe as possible.

We have made clear to councils and housing associations that we expect them to fund measures that they consider essential to making buildings safe. However, if councils have concerns, they should get in touch with us. We will consider the removal of financial restrictions if they stand in the way of essential work. To date, 32 local councils have expressed concern to us in principle. We have liaised more closely with seven of those, and one of them has now submitted supporting evidence for consideration by my Department.

The terrible tragedy of Grenfell Tower was a national disaster. At such times, people look to the Government to lead and to act. The survivors, and the relatives of at least 80 people who lost their lives, deserve no less. I do not doubt the Secretary of State’s good intentions, and I pay tribute to the work of the frontline staff, volunteers and local groups who helped immediately after the fire and are still helping to support the survivors; but, more than four months after the fire, the facts are these.

Only 14 of more than 200 Grenfell families have new homes. Fewer than one in 10 of the country’s 4,000 other high-rise tower blocks has been tested by the Government. The Secretary of State has refused any Government funds for essential fire safety work on other high-rise blocks. Can he confirm that 152 Grenfell households are still in hotels, although the Prime Minister said on 17 July:

“I have fixed a deadline of three weeks for everybody affected to be found a home”?

The Prime Minister told the House on 22 June:

“We can test more than 100 buildings a day”.—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 169.]

Can the Secretary of State confirm that, in fact, the Government have tested the cladding on fewer than 300 high-rise blocks? On 20 July, he told the House that the Government would

“make sure that they have the support that they need.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 1025.]

Can he confirm that he told the Communities and Local Government Committee last week that there would be no Government funding for councils or housing associations for essential retrofit fire safety work?

Grenfell survivors have a deep mistrust of those in power who failed to respect social housing residents for so long. When Ministers make pledges but fail to act, or fail to ensure that others act, that fuels a wider lack of trust and confidence. The buck stops at the top. Will the Secretary of State now, four months on, secure the extra homes that are needed for all the Grenfell families, provide the Government funds that are needed for urgent remedial work and to retrofit sprinklers, and set a date to come to the House to tell us that every other tower block in the country is safe—not “as safe as possible”, as the Secretary of State said earlier—for the people who live in it?

Many of the Government’s decisions, reviews and inquiries are good, but they will not be good enough until the Government get a grip, and get these fundamental problems sorted out.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman cares as deeply about helping the survivors of this terrible tragedy as I do, and as the entire Government do, and it is a real shame that he should try to treat it as some kind of political points-scoring opportunity. He knows exactly what the situation is, not least because I updated the Select Committee—whose members included his colleagues—just last week. The Committee had an opportunity to go into many of the issues in detail, as a Select Committee should, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman followed all that. This is not what the victims of the tragedy want to see, and it not what the country wants to see. They want to see all of us working together to do whatever we can.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about housing. I have talked about that before, but I am happy to say again that the victims of what was easily one of the most terrible tragedies ever to have taken place in our country are people, not statistics. We must work with them and listen to what their needs are. For example, there were 151 households at the start, with Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk—the two buildings—taken together, but we are now working with 202 households. That has happened because some of the survivors have asked to split where there are larger families or for other reasons, and we have listened to that. We have listened to every single case, and not one request has been turned down. That, of course, means we have to find even more permanent and temporary accommodation, but that is not our consideration; our consideration is the needs of the victims themselves.

It is right that every family should be properly assessed for their housing need, and should be listened to. Every single family has been offered an assessment by professional housing officers. Some of them have met a number of times, because if they change their mind we need to listen to them. Literally only a handful have not yet had that meeting, but that is at their request, because they are not ready; they will typically be a bereaved family who are not ready to engage. They would rather not go through that process now, and we have listened to them, too.

After the assessments, we have tried to determine—obviously the council was leading the work—whether the survivors wanted to be back in an apartment block again, or if they want a house, and whether there are any other needs. Some families say they do not want to live in the borough, but would prefer to move closer to family elsewhere. All of that is being listened to; we are trying to action all of that and listen to it.

There can be a time lag when families have identified a property—as I have said, 112 families have accepted offers of temporary or permanent accommodation. That lag occurs between acceptances and moving in, because every family has been offered a moving-in package so they can choose the décor, the furniture and any other things that will make their life comfortable. That has been listened to, and of course that will take time.

That is how we are treating these people: as real people and survivors, not as statistics. I know the right hon. Gentleman is not saying that they are statistics, but sometimes it does come across like that. I urge him to work with us, and to listen to what work is actually going on.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked me about the building test. I have given the House an update on the numbers, and a fuller update was given last week at the Select Committee. He asked particularly about the speed of the tests. The Prime Minister rightly said previously that the testing facilities can test up to 100 samples a day. They were specifically testing the samples of ACM—aluminium composite material—cladding that were sent in, and they were done at the speed that they were sent in; the testing facilities can only operate at the speed at which the samples are sent in.

Those tests have subsequently been superseded by the more comprehensive systems tests, which test the whole ACM cladding system. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that was tested during the summer and it gave a fuller result. I have just shared the numbers of social buildings and private buildings tested so far, and following on from those results, both the interim and remedial action plans that have been put in place.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about council funding. He rightly said that I have stated before that I will make sure that all councils have the support they need. That is exactly what I and this Government are doing. Councils are rightly expected to carry out all essential works, and they will determine, as the legal owners of the properties, what is genuinely essential work; and if they cannot afford it, that should not be a reason not to do the work. Whether they are interim measures or the final remedial measures, the work must happen, and if the councils need support through financial flexibilities, we will provide that. Again, I gave a fuller account to the Select Committee, so perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will take another look at that.

I commend my right hon. Friend on keeping the House updated and the comprehensive nature of the updates he has given to the Communities and Local Government Committee.

Given the terrible traumatic circumstances that the victims of Grenfell Tower have been through, is it not much more important that they have a home they can call their own, and that we take the time to achieve that, than that we rush to push people into homes they do not want?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is right: we must take the time that survivors ask of us. We cannot rush any survivor into making a decision with which they may eventually be uncomfortable. Even in circumstances, which have arisen, whereby survivors have accepted a property offer, moved in and then changed their minds and said, “Actually this is not what I wanted”, we should listen to them. We should work at their pace—that is the right thing to do.

Reacting to incidents such as Grenfell is always challenging. After the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday, there are more questions about the Government’s handling of the fire and its aftermath. In Scotland, a working group is reviewing evidence on fire suppression measures, including sprinklers to ensure the safety of residents in high-rise buildings. Sprinklers are only one of a range of risk-reduction measures, but we are reviewing them. The Government dismiss them, telling one council:

“The fire safety measures you outline are additional rather than essential.”

Why do the Government seem to deem any risk-reduction measure as additional, not essential?

Ninety-two households have yet to be found new homes, despite rehousing being a priority. After four months, hundreds of people are still living out of suitcases and hotels and it is simply not good enough. It is time to stop the words—people need action. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that permanent homes will be found for everyone before Christmas?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that a full, independent review of building regulations and fire safety rules and regulations has been set up. That is one way in which we can make changes and learn lessons from the terrible tragedy.

The hon. Gentleman talked about what is essential and non-essential for fire safety. As I said a moment ago, we expect councils and housing associations to take expert advice, certainly from their local fire and rescue service, but it is then for the council, not the Government, to determine what is essential.

Obviously, the police conduct that work independently, but I can give my hon. Friend the latest number: 80 people are missing, presumed dead. That is the latest information that the police have, but they have committed to keeping people updated.

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for coming to the Select Committee meeting and answering questions so thoroughly last week. I want to return to the point about the essential fire safety work that other councils have got to do on their tower blocks. The Secretary of State has talked about extra flexibilities, probably extra borrowing, for those councils, but he has ruled out any money from the Government to help fund the work. Does he realise that many councils may have to defer or cancel other essential maintenance work on properties, putting the lives and health and safety of other residents at risk? Will he reconsider and recognise that this is a national problem, and that the Government should at least share responsibility with local councils to deal with it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work through the Select Committee and the scrutiny that he and his colleagues provide. Last week was a welcome opportunity to meet the Committee and discuss this and other issues.

The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about funding and whether the funding requirement could delay other work. Given that each council’s situation is different, I cannot give a general answer for all councils. I said to the Select Committee, and it is worth repeating to the House, that I have set out a process for a full, top-to-bottom review of social housing, not just of the rights of tenants and how they are treated—the redress systems—but of our approach as a country to social housing, which has not been looked at for a generation. We will set out our thoughts in a Green Paper and discuss them with the Select Committee and any other colleagues who want to talk about them. That is an appropriate way in which to consider the wider issues, including renovation, around social housing.

I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House again today. He obviously recognises that the fire at Grenfell has implications for the wider area. What are the Government doing to listen to residents’ concerns and how are they addressing their needs?

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that point. He will know that in London in the wake of the tragedy we have asked councils to check the quality of buildings, not just the fire safety, but other matters. For example, cracks so big that you could put your hand into them were discovered in the walls of the Ledbury estate tower blocks in Southwark. All those issues, including structural matters, need to be looked at.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has had a series of meetings and will travel across the country to meet and listen to social housing residents. There is also the Green Paper and the review that we are carrying out.

Following the fatal fires at Shirley Towers in Southampton and Lakanal House in Camberwell, coroners recommended retrofitting sprinklers in high-rise residential buildings to prevent deaths. Will the Secretary of State therefore explain why the Housing Minister recently wrote to Nottingham City Council to say that the sprinkler system that it requested was additional rather than essential? The Government should be doing everything in their power to prevent such tragedies, so should they not launch a separate formal review into the wider neglect of social housing? The failure to use the Grenfell inquiry to examine wider neglect is an act of neglect in itself.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the coroners’ reports following the two previous tragedies, and he is right that in both cases the coroner asked social housing providers to consider the provision of sprinklers. It was recommended that the then Secretary of State write to housing associations and councils to pass on that recommendation, which is exactly what the Secretary of State did at the time.

As for the wider funding issues, I have already answered that question.

The whole House will agree that it is important that those who have been directly affected by the fire have their voices heard, so will the Secretary of State update us on what meetings the Government have had with the victims?

My Department, which has been leading the Government effort, has been heavily involved right from day one of this tragedy, as have several councils—not just the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. London boroughs came together quickly under what is a called a gold command, and all councils have been involved in working with and listening to the victims. Over the summer, a majority of the victims came together to set up Grenfell United under their own initiative, and there have been regular meetings with the group’s committee. I met the group at a meeting to which every survivor was invited, and the victims Minister and the Prime Minister have also met the group.

I was troubled to hear the Secretary of State tell the Communities and Local Government Committee that councils would be expected to reprioritise in order to complete essential fire safety works post-Grenfell. Will he confirm whether it is my constituents living in temporary accommodation and desperately waiting for a new home or those waiting for much-needed major works who should be reprioritised? Can he not see that, unless the Government provide grant funding for essential fire safety works, the long-term impact of the tragedy across the country will be a deepening of the housing crisis? We owe it to the victims and survivors to do better than that.

As we discussed at the Select Committee, councils are expected to do whatever work is necessary to keep people safe, including interim measures and final remedial measures. They will get support from the Government in the form of flexibilities that will allow them to do that work. The hon. Lady referred to other work, and I believe that I have answered the question about how that should be considered in a fuller review, because that issue is bigger than the essential work. We need to look beyond the essential work to see what else needs to be done by the Government to improve social housing more generally. I am sure she would welcome the steps that the Government have taken towards that, such as the commitment to put an additional £2 billion into social housing that was announced just a couple of weeks ago.

I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s comments about social housing and to hear that, as recommended by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the Government are looking more closely at social housing issues. Will the Secretary of State update us on the first steps that are being taken to put something in place?

My hon. Friend refers to the Green Paper on social housing that we are already working on. One of the key ways in which we will develop that paper is by listening to people who already live in social housing—not just those in one area. London is important, but we want to listen to people from across the country about the issues they face in terms of the quality and type of social housing. We want to hear about redress and how to ensure that we can have a better system, so that we can listen and take action when residents come up with issues.

Can the Secretary of State imagine a situation in which so many thousands of people were in potential danger that would not be treated as a national issue for the Government? We have a Secretary of State who is trying to wash his hands of responsibility. The commissioner of the London fire brigade says that retrofitting sprinklers in tower blocks

“can’t be optional, it can’t be a nice-to-have”.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the commissioner, and will he work with local authorities to retrofit sprinklers in tower blocks?

With respect, I do not think the hon. Gentleman has been listening to my responses. As I have said, and I repeat it again for his benefit, it is for property owners—local councils and, in some cases, housing associations—to determine what is essential, after taking the advice of their local fire and rescue service, the local experts. Once they take that advice, we will listen to their determination.

I welcome the work my right hon. Friend has set out. He mentions the social housing review; should not that focus on our need for dramatically more social housing? Will he lobby the Treasury for tax incentives for housing associations, and will he liberalise planning rules so that we can build social housing for the 21st century?

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend raises that point. He highlights the importance of social housing, which is a significant part of the total housing delivery in this country. That is why we want to provide more support for housing associations and ambitious councils that want to build more homes—one reason we recently announced the additional £2 billion. We listened to the sector when it said it wanted more certainty on rents from 2020 onwards, and we have provided that.

The Secretary of State has talked about financial support through financial flexibilities, but I would be grateful if he specifically confirmed, or even agreed, that what he is referring to is a loan and that financial provision needs to increase because budgets have been cut.

Charities have raised more than £24 million for the survivors of this horrific tragedy. How do they access that money, and how much of it has already been accessed?

First, on flexibilities, in some cases it may well be a loan. If a council’s housing revenue account borrowing limit is increased, that will be an additional loan, but in some cases councils have approached us to ask for a one-off authority to make a transfer from their general fund reserve—in that case, it will not be a loan.

I am glad that the hon. Lady highlights the charities. Charities raised more than £20 million of funding immediately after the tragedy, and they continue to raise money. I commend their work, which will really help the victims of this tragedy. More than half the money has been distributed so far. Of course, distribution is not a Government job—it is up to the charities—but the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has tried to co-ordinate for the charities so that they can work together to ensure that they help victims in the best way.[Official Report, 1 November 2017, Vol. 630, c. 1MC-2MC.]

I commend my right hon. Friend and the Department for their granular approach to this tragedy—that seems the right approach. Finding the truth and identifying justice is crucial. Will he update the House on the progress on the inquiry?

My hon. Friend raises one of the most important issues following this tragedy: the need to seek the truth and justice for the survivors, their families and their friends. Of course, he will know that that work is rightly being led through an independent public inquiry—a judge-led inquiry—and that work has begun. It is not for me to comment on how it is progressing or on the final timing of it, but it is right that this has been set up. The judge will get the co-operation of everyone he needs it from, be it Government, my Department or others. The police work and the police inquiry are going on separately, and I expect the police to continue to give public updates on that.

An Erdington tower block tenant asked me, “Will the Government pay to keep us safe?” The west midlands fire service has advised £41 million of works, including the retrofitting of sprinklers, but the city is reeling from £700 million of cuts to its budget. Will the Government pay to keep the tenants of Birmingham safe?

First, if the city had managed its public finances better, it might be in a better position. But when it comes to essential work, of course there should be no shortcuts. Any support that it needs will be provided. I have talked about how that support can be provided and the type of works it needs to do. As I have said, and am happy to repeat, it is essential that the city take the advice of its local fire and rescue service, which it has done—that is important and it is good to see. We will look at that, but it is the legal owner of that building with a legal responsibility to keep it safe. Whatever it comes to us with and determines as essential, that is what we will listen to, and this is how we will work with it to help provide the flexibilities it needs.

Will my right hon. Friend please reassure me that the victims’ views will always be given paramountcy by the Government and that when making decisions about the recovery their views will be taken into account above all else?

Does the Secretary of State not recognise that escaping from a 20-floor tower block is exactly the same in Birmingham, Manchester and London, so leaving this to local decisions is not good enough? Local authorities will face having to replace panels and trying to retrofit sprinklers in a short period. I do not see that that is manageable out of a normal essential works budget.

The hon. Lady raises an important point about how this is about not just the funding, which I have talked about at the Dispatch Box a number of times, but capacity—the capacity to commission the work, and to make sure the replacement cladding, the scaffolding and all the essential bits and pieces are available. That is why one of the first things we did, working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, was to set up an industry response group, with representatives of industry across the UK, to make sure we are co-ordinating the availability of essential materials and capacity, including the specialist labour that will be necessary. As well as the funding, that is also a necessary part of this and we are very much involved in it.

I am chairman of the all-party group on local government, and along with other members of the group I have been following closely the responses of individual local authorities. I recognise that much hard work has been done to monitor the situation in social housing, but to reassure people up and down the country, will the Secretary of State confirm that his Department is monitoring the response of councils, particularly those facing financial problems and those perhaps with a lack of expertise within them?

Yes, I am happy to give my hon. Friend that reassurance. From day one, when we put the building safety programme in place, the number of people in my Department—the specialists—dealing with this has increased dramatically. One reason that has been necessary is that every building that has been identified—where, first, there had to be testing, and this was followed by the results of the testing, the interim measures and the remedial measures—has been allocated to an individual in my Department. So an individual has been following how the local authority, housing association or private sector operator has handled the testing and their response to the results of that testing. That has been necessary to make sure that all the necessary work takes place, and we will continue to do it for as long as is necessary.

I welcome the announcement of the social housing review, but will the Secretary of State please reconsider, as part of that review, my request of some weeks ago for an audit of all social housing? That would enable us to understand things such as the extent of concrete cancer and the percentage of homes with sprinklers, and therefore to best understand the scale of the problem and the investment that is needed, to which the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) perhaps alluded. That would be most welcome.

We must never forget the incredible work of the firefighters on that day. The fire and rescue service faced 30% cuts up to 2015, and local government settlements suggest there will be cuts of a further 20% before 2020. Meanwhile, firefighter pay has been capped at 1%. Is the Secretary of State at least having conversations with the Chancellor about a moratorium on fire and rescue cuts and about increasing firefighters’ pay?

The House cannot commend enough the work done by the fire service—not just what it did in response to this terrible tragedy, but its work in general up and down the country. With respect to the response to the tragedy, there is no evidence that there was a resource issue; however, it is correct that the ongoing independent inquiries are the ones properly to assess that, not us in this House. I direct the hon. Gentleman to the work that is being done through the independent review of not only building regulations, but fire safety rules and regulations. It is just the kind of thing that the review can look at.

The Secretary of State has confirmed that it is for local authorities to seek expert advice in determining what work is essential to keep tower block residents safe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) said, fire chiefs’ advice is unambiguous: the retrofitting of sprinklers cannot be optional or a “nice-to-have”; it is something that must happen. Why, then, did the Minister for Housing and Planning tell Nottingham City Council that sprinklers were “additional rather than essential”? Is he wrong?

We have asked Nottingham City Council for further information. What I have said generally for every council, whether it is Nottingham or others, is that it is for the council to determine what is genuinely essential, and that must be based on expert advice.

Lewisham Council has done all the safety checks and is doing all the remediation works to ensure that our blocks are safe, and it doing that at great cost. The Government said that such work would be fully funded, yet no funding is forthcoming. Are the Government trying to bankrupt councils?

Lewisham Council is one of the number of councils I mentioned earlier that have contacted us. We are in more detailed discussions with a few of them, and we have asked for further information and are looking at it.

What is the Secretary of State doing to build public confidence among the people of Barton Hill, Kingsdown, Redcliffe, Hotwells and elsewhere in my constituency in the content, scrutiny and enforcement of fire and building safety regulations?

The hon. Lady will know about the work that has been going on with respect to publicly owned buildings, which include those owned by housing associations as well as by local councils; I have set that out previously and done so again today in detail. Like all other Members, she will have in her constituency private sector buildings, including the tall buildings above 18 metres, some of which we have tested if samples have come forward to us.

On 5 September, based on the expert advice that we had received, I wrote to the chief executive officer of every council to ask them to put in place a procedure to work out what other private buildings they have that would meet the criteria, to make sure that they are tested and to confirm for themselves that they are safe. I also took the opportunity to remind local council leaders and chief executives of the powers they already have under the Housing Act 2004 to take enforcement action, if they need to, on building regulations, if the work was recently done, as well as the powers that the fire and rescue services have under the fire safety order.

I remind the Secretary of State that the withdrawal of billions of pounds of revenue support grant from local authorities has been a unilateral decision of his Government since 2010. Therefore, placing that responsibility on local authorities in that light is beyond contempt. The residents of my 24 tower blocks in Gateshead really do express their deep sympathy for the occupants of Grenfell Tower, the bereaved and the traumatised, but they are also looking for peace of mind. Their buildings are not clad in the same way as Grenfell Tower, but they do live in blocks that have no sprinkler systems, and many of them in blocks with single stairwells. They have to live there whether they are elderly, infirm, disabled or vulnerable. They are looking for peace of mind from this Government and from this Secretary of State, and I am looking for it now.

In that case, the hon. Gentleman should be reassured that his council, like others, has received expert advice and has been asked to work with us in checking all buildings locally, whether they are in the public or the private sector. Where it needs further support and advice from us, those are available. It has also been reminded of the extensive enforcement powers.