Monday 14 May 2018
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
Grenfell Tower Inquiry
We begin the debate with a 72-second silence to mark the lives lost in the Grenfell Tower fire.
A 72-second silence was observed.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered an e-petition relating to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and I am grateful to you for that 72-second silence, which I know will be treasured by all involved. The prayer of e-petition 206722 says:
“Bereaved families & survivors call on PM to exercise her powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 to appoint additional panel members with decision making power to sit alongside Chair in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry: to ensure those affected have confidence in & are willing to fully participate in the Inquiry”.
The petition goes on to say:
“To secure trust in an establishment we feel has been distant & unresponsive, & to avoid a collapse of confidence in the Inquiry’s ability to discover the truth, it is fundamental that…The Inquiry is not led by a judge alone. Panel members must be appointed with relevant background, expertise, experience, & a real understanding of the issues facing those affected”
“Legal representatives of bereaved families see all evidence from the start & are allowed to question witnesses at the hearings”.
As we start this process, it is important to realise that it needs to be a people-led process at every stage, the reason being that real people’s lives are being affected now and real people’s lives have been lost. If you will indulge me for one second, Mr Rosindell, I will read out the names of those whom we are here to commemorate as much as we are here to fight for justice for them: Victoria King and her daughter, Alexandra Atala; Amna Mahmud Idris; Gary Maunders; Deborah Lamprell; Rania Ibrahim and her children, Hania and Fethia; Gloria Trevisan and Marco Gottardi; Fathia Ahmed and her children, Abufars Ibrahim and Isra Ibrahim; Raymond “Moses” Bernard; Mohamed Neda; Hesham Rahman; Nadia Choucair, her husband Bassem Choucair and their three children, Mierna, Fatima and Zeinab, and the children’s grandmother, Sirria Choucair; Hashim Kedir, his wife Nura Jema, and their daughter Firdows Hashim, and sons, Yahya and Yaqub Hashim; Logan Gomes; Abdulaziz El-Wahabi, his wife Faouzia, and their children, Yasin, Nur Huda and Mehdi; Ligaya Moore; Khadija Saye and Mary Mendy; Jessica Urbano Ramirez; Farah Hamdan, her husband Omar Belkadi, and their children, Malak and Leena; Mariem Elgwahry and her mother, Eslah Elgwahry; Mohamednur Tuccu, his wife Amalahmedin and their daughter Amaya; Berkti Haftom and her son Biruk; sisters Sakina and Fatima Afrasahabi; Isaac Paulos; Khadija Khalloufi; Vincent Chiejina; Kamru Miah, Rabeya Begum, Mohammed Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and Husna Begum; Joseph Daniels; Majorie Vital and her son, Ernie; Sheila Smith; Hamid Kani; Steve Power; Mohammed al-Haj Ali; Denis Murphy; Zainab Deen and her son, Jeremiah; Abdeslam Sebbar; Ali Yawar Jafari; Anthony Disson; and the 72nd person, who died a while afterwards, was Maria Del Pilar Burton.
We must absolutely express our sympathy to the families of victims and the survivors, and pay tribute to the emergency services, volunteers and all those involved in supporting those in desperate need.
I would like to make an early suggestion to my hon. Friend, based on the experience I had with a charity set up after the World Trade Centre disaster. We will need to consider a memorial for the victims. Is he aware that when 67 Britons were killed in the World Trade Centre disaster a charity was set up in New York, called the British Memorial Garden, with a small London end, which one or two of us were involved in, and that a memorial garden was built in New York, called the Queen Elizabeth Garden? I strongly commend to him that something similar is done in London now for Grenfell.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I know that the community have expressed an interest in doing something along those lines. There is a process in train and it very much needs to be community-based. I know the Minister will take that on board and he may say more about it.
I also thank the petitioners—Adel Chaoui, Karim Mussilhy and Sandra Ruiz—and all those who have signed the petition. As of now, the number of signatories is 156,659. I know that Stormzy and the like had a lot to do with that, but it is more than that—it is a community coming out and expressing solidarity, and a country expressing solidarity. I was going through the names of victims and their stories just yesterday. Nobody can fail to be moved by the stories and pen-sketches that have appeared in the lead-up to this debate, particularly in The Guardian this morning.
I thank Grenfell United, for the dignified and resolute way that it has represented its community, and Inquest, the independent charity that has supported the community with expertise in the investigation of contentious deaths involving both state and corporate bodies, for its work.
Some things have changed since the petition began. I know that Grenfell United is happy with the appointment of Sir Martin Moore-Bick because of his experience and expertise in regulation and law. It appreciates that that expertise will be valuable in determining what happened, but they believe that the question as to why might not be tested sufficiently without further panel members, in addition to those originally determined by the Prime Minister on 21 December 2017.
However, the written statement by the Prime Minister last Friday was a very welcome move. Appointing two new panel members will add much to the inquiry, but Grenfell United feels that more may be required to ensure that the panel has a diversity of experience beyond that of the two extra members.
As the hon. Gentleman was reading out the names of victims very movingly, one of the things that I think would have struck all of us was the diversity of people in Grenfell Tower, as is the case with North Kensington and in modern London generally. Grenfell Tower was a symbol of diversity. Does he agree that, if this inquiry is to win the public confidence of such a diverse community like the Lawrence inquiry did some years ago, it needs to reflect that diversity at every level, so that all of the communities who were there, and the relatives of the deceased, will know that this inquiry can speak for them?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I will discuss the make-up of panel members later, but it is right that at every level we respect and understand the diversity of the community that has been affected, in particular in North Kensington.
Will the Minister tell us whether the number of additional panel members—two have been added so far—will be kept under review? It is important that the panel is not restricted—the panel needs to reflect the investigation, rather than the other way round. We do not want to restrict the questions the panel can ask, the avenues the panel can go down and the expertise that panel members bring just because we do not have enough panel members with the right expertise.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware whether the Prime Minister has responded to the other two demands made by the survivors and the relatives of the victims of this tragedy: first, that legal representatives of the bereaved families are able to see all the evidence from the start of the inquiry; and, secondly, that the families are allowed to question witnesses at those hearings?
That is something I will touch on later, because I know those things are very important to the Grenfell community—they are the second half of their ask in the petition.
In a statement, the Prime Minister highlighted the extensive nature of the inquiry. Some 330,000 documents have been received so far—many more are expected—and about 183,000 have had a first-stage review by Sir Martin and his team. Will the Minister explain how the Prime Minister can be sure than two additional panel members will be sufficient and offer enough diversity of opinion should the inquiry continue to grow in complexity?
The hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) mentioned the make-up of the panel. There would undoubtedly be concern if all the panel members were white middle-class Oxbridge alumni, but the community understand that the make-up has as much to do with experience as with ethnicity and background. When I spoke to him last Friday, Adel, one of the petitioners, cited the appointments of Dr Richard Stone and the Most Reverend Dr John Sentamu—then Bishop of Stepney—to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry panel as an excellent example of how members should be chosen. Those individuals had a wider understanding of the community and brought a very different insight to the inquiry from that of Sir William Macpherson, a retired High Court judge—now Lord Macpherson—and Tom Cook, a retired deputy chief constable. Lord Macpherson himself credited his panel of advisers with playing a crucial role in shaping the inquiry’s important recommendations.
Sir Martin has appointed 547 core participants to the inquiry, 519 of whom are individuals from the Grenfell community. They will receive relevant evidence in advance of hearings and be able to make opening or closing statements at some of them, suggest lines of questioning and, with permission, ask witness questions through their own legal representatives. That number of core participants is unprecedented, but the petitioners have noted that their role remains limited next to that of a panel member, who can make decisions and ask questions without notice. Such questions are more likely to get a straight answer, rather than one that has been developed while the witness has been preparing for the inquiry hearing.
The second part of the petition asks for greater scope for QCs to be able to question witnesses and review all the evidence. In asking for this, Grenfell United cites the Hillsborough inquiry as an example of how some of the key evidence that helped to get to the bottom of why things happened came from the questions posed by the families’ QCs. The petitioners feel that the impartiality of Sir Martin and his panel means that they will not be able to, or will not think to, ask certain questions that would be required to uncover crucial information, whereas the core participants’ QCs will not have that constraint.
The quick commitment to hold an inquiry is welcome, but the community are clear that they want it to be done properly the first time around, with the process not being rushed, but not being dragged out interminably either. One concern about the appointment of the panel members for phase two of the inquiry only is what would happen if those new members felt they could not make a judgment because they had not been able to analyse all the evidence from phase one and had missed the opportunity to question witnesses during that phase. The petitioners worry that that could risk preventing the inquiry from being able to come to comprehensive conclusions. If phase one needed to be revisited at a later date, there would be considerable impact on the families, with their having to relive everything yet again. Such repeats would also significantly increase the cost and time, which would risk damaging the credibility of the inquiry.
The petitioners believe that the police inquiry may well be the more significant part of getting to the bottom of what happened and why, and of bringing justice to those people who lost so much. With the inquiry starting before the police investigation had finished, there is a further risk that any delays will cause complications for both the inquiry and the police investigation.
I very much value the time that Grenfell United took to meet some 100 MPs in the Speaker’s apartments last week. In the briefing they shared with us afterwards there was a third request: that the Government undertake now to guarantee that any recommendations from the report will be implemented in full. Although I am sure we all understand the sentiment of that seemingly simple request, I would not expect the Government to go quite that far at this stage, before the inquiry has even started in earnest. However, it is important that the Government are open, understanding and responsive at every stage of the process, because the community believe that those three qualities have been lacking, certainly during the period leading up to the fire.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good start to the debate. May I suggest that it has been wonderful how the Speaker has brought everyone together on this important issue and shown great sensitivity, together with Rose our chaplain, when it comes to how we as parliamentarians come to terms with something so dreadful?
I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the Speaker. He has shown compassion at every point; many of us saw how powerfully and emotionally he spoke at the reception last week. The Speaker’s office was on to my office last week when there was talk of a possible announcement by the Prime Minister. He is really keeping a keen, close eye on developments. That is as it should be; none the less, it is an absolute testament that we should pay tribute to him.
There is no doubt that we need to do everything we can to build and retain trust with a community who feel left behind. Those of us who spent a few moments on Parliament Square just before the debate will have seen the raw feeling that is still there 11 months on—and we can absolutely understand why. There are so many unanswered questions and so many people still unhoused—an issue I will return to.
Last week, a resident described what had happened as a tragedy in three acts: being ignored during the refurbishment of the tower, the fire itself, and the sense of abandonment at certain times afterwards. The Minister and other members of the Government have updated the House on several occasions about what is being done to rehouse those who lost everything last June. I do not underestimate Ministers’ efforts and the work they are undertaking to allow survivors to rebuild their lives, but we need to ensure that the Government go as far as they can to assure residents that they will not simply kick the inquiry—or any part of it—into the long grass. I dare say that the Lakanal fire will be mentioned a good few times during the debate, but we cannot countenance any situation in which recommendations are filed in the “too difficult” drawer. There can be nothing too difficult to ensure that there is no repeat of the Grenfell fire.
While I was speaking to Grenfell residents, they naturally raised other issues of concern, which I am sure will be mentioned in this debate. I heard that some people were still unable to move into new homes. A number of reasons were given, but the one that struck me were the considerable delays in getting gas certification for the properties. We need to address that sort of bureaucracy in some way, shape or form, so that efforts can concentrate on the more complicated rehousing needs, while the higher duty of care as a social landlord is still being met. I used to be involved with residential properties, and I know that gas certification is a relatively straightforward process that should take days to organise, not weeks, so will the Minister update us on what is happening in that regard?
People living in tower blocks around the country will be following the Grenfell situation carefully. I have been in touch with my constituents many times over the last 11 months, especially those in Chaucer House and Balaam House—two tall, recently clad buildings in Sutton. I understand their fears, and I will continue to be in touch with them until we have all the assurances and the remedial work they need. I hope that the Minister will continue to keep us up to date with fire safety testing. Will he tell us whether the new Secretary of State will continue to evaluate both the merits of banning desktop studies entirely and Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendation to restrict their use?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is taking far too long to ensure 24/7 security provision for tower blocks where the cladding has been found, and that the Government need to step up and ensure prevention work as a matter of urgency? That is not to mention the private blocks—Ministers have confessed that even they do not know how many are affected. There needs to be greater urgency in dealing with the prevention of future risks. Surely it is vital that the Government take that on board.
When I was in the hon. Lady’s constituency, and in Newham—I was going around the boroughs campaigning in the local elections—seeing some of the tower blocks was a real eye-opener. There was one with, I think, 20 floors, that had 14 people working in it—one in reception and then fire wardens looking after two floors each. We find ourselves in that extraordinary situation when basic fire regulations should be put in place in those people’s stead. Yes, we can always do more, and I am interested in hearing what the Minister will say.
The two lovely ladies I met at the reception last week had only just been rehoused. I am not familiar with the geography of London, but they said they had been offered homes all over the city. When I asked them if they had lost everything they had owned in the fire that night, they said it was not about material possessions but that they had lost a community.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. On the whole, most of the houses are within a couple of miles of the site. It is a relatively small, incredibly expensive area of London, so it is always going to be a huge challenge to give everyone what they need, but on the other hand, as I have been describing, we must rise to and meet that challenge. It is crucial that we do so.
Lots of people want to speak, so I will conclude. Will the Minister please convey my thanks to the Prime Minister for listening to the community in North Kensington and increasing the number of panel members, which was the right thing to do? The Grenfell community clearly will not have time to keep petitioning the Government, raising significant points of interest. The Prime Minister is committed to supporting everyone affected. The Minister is listening, as did the previous Minister with this portfolio, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma). I urge the Minister to continue in that vein. The people in the Public Gallery, in the Jubilee Room next door and outside on Parliament Square are looking to us to provide answers.
Within Grenfell United and other organisations are community leaders who are immense in their dedication and resolve. That is because they share the memories, the hurt and the uncertainty over their future, but they are 100% committed to getting their friends, family and neighbours to the other side—to a point where they can start to move on. While we still need to focus on the immediate programme of ensuring that everyone affected has a good home as soon as possible, getting this inquiry right first time is so important to getting answers, securing justice, bringing some closure to a very dark chapter and, yes, ensuring that such a tragedy can never happen again.
First, I thank the Petitions Committee for making this debate possible. As the Committee will know, after the initial disappointing response from No. 10 to the request for a debate, I wrote to the Chair saying that I felt that response was inadequate. I am pleased that the Committee agreed and asked No. 10 to review its response. After months of extra work from survivors and the local community, many feel that this moment could be a turning point towards getting the justice they need.
I will lay out some of the concerns that the community and related local groups and representatives have about the public inquiry. I ask the Chamber to bear with me as I run through a few of the many occasions when the community has been badly let down since the fire at Grenfell Tower changed their lives for ever.
On 15 June 2017—the day after the fire and while the tower was still smouldering— the then Communities Secretary stated that, under the Bellwin scheme, immediate financial assistance would be offered to the local authority to support Grenfell-affected people. The former Housing Minister guaranteed, on behalf of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Government, that every family would be rehoused in the local area. That guarantee has not been delivered. On 16 June 2017, the Prime Minister committed to rehousing those who had lost their homes within three weeks at the latest and as close as possible to where they had previously lived. She set the public inquiry in motion, and assured those affected that they would be able to help shape the scope of the inquiry. Those commitments have not been delivered.
On 17 June, the Prime Minister stated that the support on the ground from Kensington and Chelsea Council had not been good enough and ordered immediate action. She then confirmed the deadline of three weeks for everybody affected to be found a home nearby and announced that the inquiry would be open and transparent and that Government and Ministers would co-operate fully—three further commitments that are undelivered. A week later, the Prime Minister again stated that the support on the ground had not been good enough, and that a taskforce had been set up. She reassured people that the fire would not be used as a reason to carry out immigration checks, and that all victims would be able to access the services they need, “irrespective of immigration status”. Those reassurances have not been delivered.
I have in my file a record of all the pledges, commitments and guarantees made by the Government. So many have not been implemented. Since last June—it has been 11 long and very painful months for all those affected—the Government have been criticising the failures of Kensington and Chelsea Council, saying that it is simply not good enough. The taskforce report was unequivocal in its criticisms of the council’s response and gave a number of recommendations that the council has still not implemented. Despite that devastating report, the Government will not listen to the calls of residents’ groups and the Labour councillors who support them for commissioners to be called in to deal with the council’s frankly shocking ongoing failure to rehouse victims.
Last week I had one of my regular meetings with the team in charge of rehousing. They are on their knees. Finger-wagging from the Government will not help; they need outside assistance now. I take this opportunity to repeat our request to the Government to call in commissioners to take control of rehousing, which frankly is in chaos. It is yet another example of how Grenfell-affected people have been badly let down while the Government refuse to take actions that are within their power.
Let us now look at who has and has not been granted core participant status. More than 500 individuals have been granted the status. Quite correctly, those who have been directly affected—the survivors and bereaved family members—have been granted core participant status. While Kensington and Chelsea Council has been granted CP status, the opposition Labour group, bizarrely, has not. It opposed the Conservative council on so many of its social housing policies, including how the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was carried out and the location of the school at the foot of the tower. The Labour group of councillors has been considered, in some kind of joint enterprise judgment, to be part of the council. Despite two appeals, Labour councillors—including the ward councillors for Notting Dale, where the tower is located—have been refused separate CP status. While supposedly being considered jointly accountable, the Labour group has no access to lawyers and no access to documents that are part of the inquiry.
I personally requested CP status as MP for Kensington, as someone with experience as a board member of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation until 2012—I am well acquainted with the dysfunctional nature of the organisation—and as a member until 2014 of the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee, which is supposed to scrutinise the TMO. I was also refused by the judge, as apparently I have “nothing to add”. The chair of the Grenfell Tower compact—a kind of residents’ association—was directly involved with the negotiations throughout the period of the refurbishment, and they were also refused.
We have heard about some bereaved family members granted CP status whose visas have expired and who have been forced to return to their home countries. They have been told, despite previous assurances to the contrary, that they are not to be afforded extensions to their visas so they can attend the inquiry, as is their right. Shockingly, they have been told that they can watch proceedings on TV. I give those examples to underline the frustration of those concerned at being excluded from the inquiry, which is so important to their grieving, their peace of mind, and their demand for justice.
Unfortunately, there is a precedent for the frustration at the results and recommendations of a public inquiry. From June 2016 to June 2017, I sat on the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority at the Greater London Assembly, which was charged with London-wide organisation and planning of these services. Much of our time was dedicated to lobbying Government for the implementation of the Lakanal House inquiry recommendations of 2013. Six people had died in a preventable fire that involved external cladding and fire spread. If the Lakanal House recommendations had been implemented, Grenfell Tower would not have burned. If they had been implemented, 72 lives would not have been lost, yet to this day—and despite the then Secretary of State’s insistence that they have been—the Lakanal House inquiry recommendations have still not been implemented.
Whether it is our community or the various industries concerned, there is little confidence that the recommendations of the Hackitt report, due within two weeks, will be implemented either. What do we have to do to ensure the safety of those for whom we have responsibility? Do they not have a right to life? How can the Government state that no stone will be unturned and that everything is being done when so clearly it is not? The Government state they have given the council £72 million towards housing and other necessary services. Meanwhile, a fourth food bank is about to open to serve the immediate Grenfell area. I find that shocking and unacceptable. How can the Government stand by and wag their fingers while Kensington and Chelsea Council is so clearly failing in its statutory duties?
Some Grenfell-affected people tell me that they have had enough of hearing that politicians are honoured and privileged to have met them and heard their stories. They have heard enough about resilience and dignity, as if somehow it is a surprise that people living in social housing have any kind of integrity and discernment. They feel they are being told, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy)—in another context—to
“be quiet, be grateful, know your place”,
and that somehow, if they behave appropriately, according to some unwritten rulebook, they will get their dues. Some people feel they are being played, or that there is a “divide and rule” ploy to split the community. If that is so, it is a misjudgment because in this matter the community is united. Let us have no more platitudes, no more lionising those you wish to control, and no more attempts to pacify, neutralise, sideline and mollify people whose genuine and justified concerns are being ignored.
Grenfell-affected people, represented by Grenfell United, Humanity for Grenfell, and other more or less formal groups, are asking for no less than what they are due. They do not want charity—they want reparations and they want justice. They tell us, “Nothing can bring back our family and friends, but we need justice.” They need to have confidence in the inquiry, and to do so they are asking simply for an advisory panel, with diverse experience, expertise and decision-making powers, to sit alongside the judge and to be involved in both phases of the inquiry. They want an undertaking that they can have some input on the selection of panel members. They want agreement that the inquiry will be carried out with diligence from the outset and that panel members will be fully involved. They want an understanding that recommendations on building and fire regulations are implemented without delay so that we do not have another Lakanal House situation where recommendations are ignored.
There has already been criticism about the very narrow remit of the inquiry and the fact that social, economic and political considerations are not to be considered. Survivors and bereaved family members have expressed their concerns, but were not listened to. The announcement on Thursday that only two additional panel members will be appointed to only the second phase of the inquiry is welcome, but we know they can be appointed at any time. Many feel, after so many disappointments and failures, as I have just described, that there will be full confidence in the inquiry only if the additional panel members are appointed without delay. We ask that that is expedited now.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for presenting this important debate.
Grenfell Tower was quite simply an horrific tragedy that will doubtless have an effect on all of us for the rest of our lives. As someone who served as cabinet member for regeneration on my local authority, I am keen to have concrete answers as to how it was allowed to happen, who must be held accountable, and what will be done to prevent it from happening again.
I am sure that none of us here or anywhere else across the country will ever forget waking up on that Wednesday morning to see those terrible images of that blazing inferno in the heart of our capital city. Lives were lost that should never have been lost, and lives were also changed for ever. It could all have been avoided. That is why I welcome the findings of the Hackitt review’s interim report that calls for a culture change within the construction industry, which should take on much greater responsibility for what is built and how it is built.
The interim report also highlighted several broad areas for change, including improvements to the process, compliance and enforcement of regulations, as well as providing and creating a quick and effective route for concerned residents’ voices to be heard.
In the interim report, Dame Judith stated that she would not recommend detailed changes to the technical requirements. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with groups, including the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Local Government Association, who have repeatedly called on Dame Judith to recommend bans on combustible materials on tower blocks and on so-called desktop studies? Does he not agree with me that the only solution is to ban combustible cladding?
I absolutely agree that we must ban combustible cladding. It should never have been used in the first place. We must move on and that is why I was talking about how the construction industry must take on greater responsibility for what is built and how it is built.
I am pleased that the Government will consider any recommendations made by the review and how they will interact with the requirements of the construction product regulations. That is a step forward, but we still have many steps to take, including the work that Ministers have been doing with local government officials and organisations to provide support to the victims—both in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and in the long term. The autumn Budget 2017 also committed £28 million of additional community support to victims. It is right that we do all we can to support victims and to ensure that such a tragedy never ever happens again.
I call on all my colleagues to support the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). It is a truly cross-party endeavour. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government helped to draft the Bill ahead of its publication. It will ensure that everyone is entitled to a decent home and that all properties should be free from potential risks to the health and safety of occupants. That really should go without saying. We can all agree that provisions must be put in place to ensure that that can happen everywhere. Having read the Bill, I agree with Shelter that it would help to achieve that aim by enabling meaningful action to be taken on poor and unsafe living conditions for renters.
The Bill will build on a raft of policies introduced by the Government aimed at driving up standards in the private and social rented sectors. Those include empowering local authorities to fine failing landlords up to £30,000. From April, local councils will also be able to issue banning orders to put the worst offenders out of business altogether. Passing the Bill would be another positive step towards ensuring that such a tragedy never happens again.
Although we have done some good work, I am conscious that questions remain unanswered, so it is right that we are having this very important inquiry and that the inquiry panel was expanded. Those we are seeking to provide answers for must feel certain that the inquiry is working for them. An expanded panel will provide that certainty, and all Members of the House must now allow the inquiry to proceed without its being used as a political football. In the face of such tragedy, we should all work together.
I do not say that the issue is not political—everything is political, from planning decisions to housing—but we need rational and responsible politics if we want to do right by the people who lived in that tower and by the countless people who live in other such towers across the nation. By doing that, we may well be left with the type of reasonable, thought-provoking and evidence-based political debate that uncovers all the aspects of Grenfell and moves us towards a better policy for all people in such housing in the future.
I dedicate my contribution today to my friends Khadija Saye and Mary Mende, who lost their lives in Grenfell Tower. This debate does nothing really to convey their lives and their memories. I am sure everybody else whose friends or loved ones were victims will feel that. Nevertheless, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) on her outstanding speech. I associate myself with all of her remarks.
I welcome the decision taken on Friday to appoint two additional panel members to sit alongside Sir Martin Moore-Bick on the inquiry. The decision is testament to the courage and dignity of the survivors and the families of the bereaved, many of whom I have had the privilege of getting to know over the past year. However, I regret that the Prime Minister ignored the calls for a panel for so long. I regret that she ignored the findings of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, in which Sir William Macpherson said that
“the Inquiry would have been infinitely less effective”
without the advisers he had alongside him as chair. I regret that a petition and a debate in Parliament was required for the Prime Minister to finally change her mind. I regret that people who are in grief and suffering so much pain have had to organise and campaign and beg the Government to ensure that their voices are heard. From the start the Prime Minister has failed to recognise who the inquiry is actually for.
Today, almost one year on from the Grenfell Tower fire, and despite all the promises that have been made, 72 Grenfell households are still living in hotel rooms, a further 64 are still in temporary accommodation, and only one third have been housed.
On the subject of meeting unmet housing need, does my right hon. Friend share my shock that London housing associations are still auctioning properties on the open market in areas such as Kensington, Hammersmith, Camden, Brent and Westminster, when there is at least a possibility that some of those properties might be available to meet those needs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. How can it be that properties are available, and as a country we are unable to bring to bear both the state and the local authority to get those homes and house those people? Why is it that, a year on, my hon. Friend has to make that point as well as she has made it?
We have to ask whether the inquiry for the people who were failed before the fire, and who have been failed after the fire as every promise made to them has been broken. The inquiry is not for the Government, and it is not for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is for the victims. It is for the people who died in the Grenfell fire. It is for all who managed to get out of the tower, but still relive that night every single day. It is for the bereaved families and their broken hearts. It is for everyone who is grieving and carrying the burden of loss around with them, like a scar burned into their soul. It is for the people who saw the burning, saw people jumping to their deaths, and still have to look at that tower every day. It is for the people who are still living in hotel rooms, 11 months on.
This is about more than just a panel of advisers. The people have been badly let down. Of course there is deep mistrust of authority within the community. Of course they have no faith in the state and the establishment. If the Government lose sight of who the inquiry is for, it ceases to be an inquiry. It becomes a talking shop and an exercise in spin. It is up to the inquiry to ask tough questions and interrogate the authorities on behalf of the Grenfell families. That is why it is so important that survivors and families, and their representatives and lawyers, are able to ask uncomfortable truths of those who give evidence to the inquiry.
The right hon. Gentleman makes some very fair points. Does he accept, though, that the Prime Minister has not ruled out including other panel members at a further phase of the inquiry? She has simply said, in the interests of expediency and getting answers as quickly as possible, “Not at this stage.” Phase 2 of the inquiry may be open to the addition of more panel members.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I would simply say that we should have had those panel members right from the beginning. That was the evidence of Macpherson, when John Sentamu and Richard Stone were so important to the community. We should have those panel members now. Quite understandably, the community will want to get into the detail of who those panel members are, and how they can have a say and influence that. If we have an inquiry that fails to represent the people in whose interests it is supposed to act, it has failed before it has even begun. I do not want it to fail. I want it to get to those answers, but trust is important within that.
It is important that we understand the role of the state in this, because if you are middle class in Britain, you only really rely on the state to care for you if you get ill, if you send your children to Church schools, maybe because you use a leisure centre, or to take your rubbish away. However, if you live on the 22nd floor of a tower block, the state literally has your life in its hands. It is the state that you rely on for the roof over your head. It is the state that you rely on to come up the stairwell and save you and your family from a burning building. It is the state that has told you to stay put. It is the state that has approved the combustible cladding around your building. It is the state that sets the rules for the regulations that govern your life. It is the state that has failed to install working fire alarms. If you cannot afford to be in the private sector, you are at the mercy of the state. That is the bottom line. It is the state that has failed, so it is the state that has to work hard to regain the trust of the Grenfell families.
Why does trust matter? Because trust in the inquiry is a precondition of justice. If there is no trust, there will be no justice. A lack of trust will affect participation. If those affected do not fully participate, we cannot and will not get to the truth. If we do not get to the truth, we will not get justice. If we do not get justice, we will get injustice—more injustice.
Representation, which is at the heart of this debate, matters. Look at the Grenfell survivors; look at them clearly. Look at the families of the bereaved and the community of north Kensington protesting outside Parliament today, and sat in the public gallery during the preliminary hearings. Then look at the Cabinet—not just this Cabinet, but Cabinets under the Government that I was part of. We do not have representation. We do not have the experience of living in a tower block estate.
Let recent history serve as a reminder of what happens when we do not have that representation. We get residents associations being ignored time and time again when they raise fire safety concerns with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. We get a local authority that cares more about saving money than the lives of people living in social housing. We get a council leader in a local authority in London—a city with 700 tower blocks of 11 floors or more—who had never even set foot in a tower block before she became leader. We get a local authority that cares much more about how the tower block looks in appearance to the rich folk who live around it than the lives of those inside it. We get two thirds of Grenfell households still living in hotel rooms and temporary accommodation.
When the voices of people living in social housing were ignored and marginalised, what did we get? We got a towering inferno, burning into the sky as a reminder of what happens when the state does not listen to those it purports to serve. We got the senseless and avoidable death of people who burned to death in their homes.
At a memorial service for Hillsborough, Professor Phil Scraton read the poem, “Their Voices Will Be Heard”:
“Shattered by loss but unbroken in spirit
In the face of injustice you never backed down
You forced them to listen, you sacrificed your lives,
You bore witness with dignity on the day of reckoning
And their voices, your voices, have been heard”.
The voices of Grenfell Tower have not been heard yet. Their voices were not heard before the fire, and before the Prime Minister did the U-turn that brings us to this point today. This is a test for the leadership of the Prime Minister. Can the Government regain the trust of the Grenfell family? Theresa May talks about burning injustices, and this injustice burned. If the inquiry fails to gain the trust and confidence of the survivors and the families of those who lost their lives, we will not get justice. I remind the Government of what Neville Lawrence said in 2012, almost 20 years after the loss of his son Stephen:
“The loss itself, together with the lack of justice, have meant that I have not been able to rest all this time.”
That point must hang in the air. How do we regain that trust? How do we demonstrate that we really get what representation means? How do we honour those lives? How do we recognise that it is the state that has failed, and how do we ensure that we are not too establishment to put the state and those who assisted it—the private contractors and others—on trial?
Order. I advise Members that there will be an informal six-minute limit to speeches for the rest of the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for introducing the debate. It is a pleasure to speak after the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), many of whose comments I agree with entirely.
There is no doubt that what we witnessed at Grenfell was a complete failure of our system, on the most horrific scale and with the most horrific consequences. Everyone who is associated with the system, including myself—we are part of the system—should apologise to those who lost their lives. There were 72 needlessly lost lives, and hundreds more lives ruined, because of what happened at Grenfell. It is entirely unacceptable that this could happen in this day and age. It is our 9/11, but it is entirely self-inflicted.
I have had the pleasure of meeting many members of Grenfell United and local residents, and I pay tribute to their determination, their composure and their steadfast approach to getting answers and finding solutions. No doubt they feel they have been subject to injustice and discrimination, and that they were treated like second-class citizens in the lead-up to this terrible tragedy. Those are their words, not mine. They now, quite rightly, want answers and solutions, but the first question I would ask if I were in their situation is, why would I trust a system that has already let me down?
The feelings behind this petition, which 156,000 people have signed, are understandable. There is a clear need for additional panel members so that those affected have confidence in the system, to ensure that the people on the panel have the relevant background and experiences, and so that the legal representatives can ask the right questions and see the right evidence. To reiterate what I said earlier, as I read the Prime Minister’s letter, she has not ruled that out. Clearly, we need to get answers as quickly as possible. The letter said “not at this stage”. There are two distinct phases to the inquiry, and phase one is a fact-finding mission: it is about the what, not the why. The most important time to look at the panel members is when we look at why it happened. I have had discussions about that. We must look at why this happened and get to the bottom of that.
Grenfell United applied for a judicial review, which was heard by the High Court on 4 May. Lord Justice Bean and Mr Justice Edis looked at the question of additional panel members and conceded in their conclusions that there are arguments either way. Clearly, the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and the Hillsborough independent panel are examples of where that has happened, but there are examples of where it has not happened. They said that an initial report is required as soon as possible, and that they therefore understood the current position. Their conclusion said that phase two of the inquiry may be an appropriate time to include different considerations and to cover a larger number of issues. [Interruption.] Those are not my words; they are the words of those judges. That is the right thing to do, and I spoke to a justice chief executive about that point at Mr Speaker’s reception last week.
There are other big questions that need answering, certainly about rehousing, but the important point is that this tragedy must never happen again. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has looked at this issue, and we are very concerned that Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim report seems to imply that there will be an outcomes or risks-based approach, rather than a simple prescriptive approach to completely ban combustible materials. We have had correspondence with Dame Judith Hackitt about that point. In a letter of March this year, she said that in current regulations
“there is currently a choice between using products of limited combustibility or undergoing a full-system test…The former”—
non-combustible materials or products of limited combustibility—
“is undoubtedly the low-risk option.”
I cannot think that Parliament would ever countenance a higher-risk option after what we have been through. It is absolutely critical that that inquiry, which reports on Thursday, also comes up with the right conclusions.
We absolutely need confidence in the inquiry. The request about phase two seems reasonable to me. We must clearly do everything we can to support and rehouse those affected. Future regulations must be as clear and risk-free as possible to ensure this never happens again.
Part of the Government’s response to Grenfell must be to ensure that it can never happen again, but nearly a year later, far too little has been done to give people living in blocks like Grenfell with similar cladding that very important reassurance. In 2009, the Lakanal House fire caused the loss of six lives. In 2013, the coroner reporting on that tragedy told the Government that the fire safety guidance was confusing, unclear and not fit for purpose, and that it needed to be revised, but the Government did nothing. In 2016, flammable cladding was put on Grenfell Tower, and in 2017 Grenfell Tower went up in flames. Had the Government listened and acted, those people would be alive today. Industry figures show that there is still an average of one fire a month relating to that kind of cladding. How long will it be before one of those fires is not put out? Eventually, that will happen unless we take that cladding down.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Ministers stood up and declared that the cladding was not compliant with the guidance or the regulations, but the Government’s chief fire safety adviser signed off specification for the same kind of cladding for use on high-rise residential blocks. That emphasises the coroner’s point, after the Lakanal House fire, that the regulations and guidance were unclear and confusing. Ministers did not know, because they cannot interpret the guidance any more than anybody else can.
We will have to wait and see what the Hackitt review comes out with, but there are widespread concerns that it is compromised because there are so many individuals on it representing vested financial interests, and the early reports of what is coming out of the review do nothing to allay those fears. The Government must act without further delay.
My concern, which is widely held in the sector and by people living in blocks that have the same kind of cladding as Grenfell, is that a money-go-round is operating in the fire safety sector. The BRE makes considerable revenue from running fire safety tests for cladding manufacturers, which are able to design their own tests and keep rerunning them, slightly differently, if they fail, until they get the result they desire. They are then able to keep the detail of those multiple tests, and even the fact that they have taken place, secret on grounds of commercial confidentiality. That simply cannot be right. That gives the BRE, which also drafts the fire safety guidance, a direct financial interest in allowing the use of semi-combustible cladding, which is banned in many EU countries, because non-combustible cladding would not require the same level of very profitable testing—of course, it also would not result in so many deaths.
Ministers need to start listening to independent sources of advice. The chair of the Government’s fire safety expert panel is a trustee of the BRE. The culture that allows that is why nothing has changed since Lakanal House or Grenfell last year. One of the reasons why Ministers do not want to recognise these failings is that they do not want to accept their share of the responsibility for the tragedy that happened at Grenfell Tower, but they must recognise failings if they are to put them right. Ministers must now change course. There can be no more Grenfells, but there will be another if Ministers do not act.
I had not intended to speak in this debate, but I have lived in London all my life. I am 42 years old and of a west African background. My mother, who still practises as a barrister at the age of 74, had one or two relatives in Trellick Tower, which is near Grenfell Tower, so I spent time there as a boy.
One of the things that is missed about this whole debate is that that location, Notting Hill, with the race riots and the carnival, is very important to the Afro-Caribbean community. It is an area that I have known on and off all my life, although I do not know it intimately, and many here know it much better. I assure the House and those who hear the debate that I have not really engaged as much with this issue as I might have, given my responsibility in the Treasury as a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor—I was appointed just when this tragedy happened—but what I have to say, as a Londoner, is that I found it extraordinary that 72 people died in the tragedy.
I have lived in and around London all my life, but I have never heard of anything similar before. The Grenfell fire was a huge tragedy and a national scandal. People on both sides of the House, but on the governing side in particular, have to be generous and open enough to recognise it for what it was. Frankly, it is a disgrace that that sort of thing can happen—that a tragedy and loss of life on that scale can happen in London. As a governing party, we cannot walk away from it. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea cannot walk away from it either—although I am not saying that it has done. We have to understand the history of London—of that part of London—to understand the resonance for many people in such an appalling tragedy.
What happened over the decades in Notting Hill? Initially, it was the hub of the Afro-Caribbean community, and many people came to Britain from the Caribbean and Africa to make a home there, but over the past 10, 20 or 30 years what people call gentrification has happened. The area originally had a vast connection with people of diverse communities and faiths, but over 20 or 30 years property prices increased and there was a new influx of much wealthier inhabitants. The area changed and— I am not saying that this happened, but there is a suspicion that it did—the priorities, values and interests of the people running the borough changed. As more people with more money came in, there is a suspicion that the people who were left behind commanded less of the attention of the local councillors or even perhaps of the Government.
We have to talk about that context—about North Kensington and Notting Hill, and remembering the Notting Hill race riots—when we look at how scarring the tragedy was. Nothing like that has happened in London before, certainly in my recollection.
I am a London MP, and some of the shocking statistics that we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) about the housing situation of the Grenfell families sound eerily and uncomfortably familiar to my casework, given our housing load and the struggle that my local authority has to rehouse people. All of our constituents are entitled to a decent place to live, but the situation of the Grenfell families is particularly egregious, and this goes directly to the point about trust made by my right hon. Friend: if, now, the state locally and nationally cannot mobilise effectively to ensure that every Grenfell family has a decent home to call their own, what does that say to the entire country about the ability of government locally and nationally to deliver the priorities of the people? Housing is such a basic need—I urge the hon. Gentleman as a Treasury PPS to take this message back to the Chancellor—and we need action on housing across London, but for goodness’ sake we should have moved heaven and earth to ensure that those people had a decent home.
I cannot talk about the circumstances in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but clearly housing is a need. Specifically, however, I want to talk about this tragedy and its location, and about how resonant it was. I do not have much time, so my final remarks are addressed to colleagues on the Government Benches. This is an incredibly emotive and resonant issue. In many of the speeches—not perhaps today—and the things that I have read, there is massive compassion but not enough empathy about how important the issue is, and how seriously people of different faiths and communities treat it. There is a danger that people reciting statistics or even facts simply lose sight of the human element.
A national scandal happened in June last year. From my point of view, Grenfell is the biggest challenge that the Government face—forget Brexit and all the rest of it. Grenfell asks us questions about who we are as Conservatives, what our values are, and our ability to connect with people from the wider community and with new immigrants. I shall not mention Windrush—we have talked a lot about that—but I say to the Government and to other Conservative Members: we have to be very sensitive. We have to not just give the impression but feel that we are batting on the side of the people who have been affected. We can make lots of speeches—although I do not question our motives or emotional response—but I warn my fellow Conservative MPs that this is a big question about our own motivations and values. The eyes of the world and certainly of people in London are watching us carefully.
It is a genuine honour to follow the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) and to hear some uncharacteristic honesty from the Government Benches about people who feel left behind. I am speaking about people’s feelings and, if we get this wrong as the inquiry unfolds, about what we will be deciding to do to people’s feelings.
Last week, in Speaker’s House, I met the auntie of Tazmin Belkadi. She is a little girl: both her siblings and both her parents were killed in Grenfell. She is now being raised by her family, who wish for her to have a normal life—a life just like my children’s or the lives of the children of everyone else in the Chamber—rather than having to deal with just having the identity of a kid who was in Grenfell.
I have met children of the Hillsborough disaster who were seven years old when it happened. I have met children of the Birmingham pub bombings families who were nine and 10 when it happened—43 years later the rictus remains, the pain and suffering on their faces: not ever because of the incident in fact, but because of their continuing fight for justice for their families. At every stage, people have not considered their feelings, or how it is never to be able to grieve properly while still also having to fight.
For 43 years, my constituent Julie Hambleton has fought to get some semblance of truth about what happened to her sister. She was a child when her sister died, and every time I speak to her she cries about it as if it is 1974 again. I was not even born, but that is as real to her today as it was all those years ago. Tazmin Belkadi deserves better than that life, growing up trying to ensure that her sisters and her mum and dad get justice. It is in our gift to do that for her—to ensure the passage of facts and truth, and a mea culpa by those who ought to stand up to say, “We did this wrong.” That would stop that little girl from being the future Julie Hambleton or Louise Brookes, whose lives have been changed immeasurably by having to fight the state.
Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that the pastoral skills of Bishop James Jones, who led the Hillsborough inquiry, brought significant closure for some of the Hillsborough victims and their families? He is now leading the inquiry on contaminated blood products, a long-standing injustice for the victims. Although they can never bring the departed back, the correct assembly of skills brought together—particularly those pastoral skills—can assist the families in bereavement. We have every hope that the same will be true for the victims of Grenfell.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Lady; she has been an ally to the families of the Birmingham pub bombings and she knows a thing or two about how families go through these situations. It is vital that we take real care of the feelings of the people involved. So far, that has not happened. We have come to an impasse where they have already had to fight with a petition to get us to listen to a basic thing that they were asking for. That should never have happened.
Let us grease the wheels and not think that these families are unreasonable in their demands. It was raised with me at Speaker’s House that the building is being covered up, and that the families did not it to be covered in white, as if it would fade away and be invisible. They do not mind it being covered up; they recognise the trauma it causes for children in the community, especially when they have to look up at it—although there is diverse opinion, as one could imagine. They wanted it to be covered in a vibrant colour. That just was not listened to. When they complained, they were made to feel a little like they were being a bother.
I want those people to be told that nothing is a bother. I want us as a group of people who make decisions, and the Government, to be a parent to these people. When my son says to me, “I don’t want to go to school”, or “I think I’m being a bother”, I say to him, “Nothing you need is a bother to me. I’m going to help you in your life, to make sure that you feel that I care and I have your best interests at heart.” We have failed in the past so many times to stop people feeling like a bother.
I will finish on the fact that there is a class issue. People recognise hierarchy and feel they cannot speak up. We have to make sure that we never act supreme over these people, because nobody knows more about what happened, and the what of the initial phase at Grenfell, than the people who lived there. The absolute expert in that is Tazmin Belkadi—and she will be for the rest of her life.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. It is a particular pleasure, and perhaps a daunting prospect, to follow my friend, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). As Brummies, I feel “friend” is the appropriate word. It is appropriate that I should follow her, because I want to open my remarks by talking about the idea of sentiment and feeling.
My understanding is that some people postulate that there are five stages of grief that people move through, beginning with denial, then anger, and ending eventually in acceptance, although as the hon. Lady said, I understand that that period of acceptance may never come. The feeling may diminish over time, but originally, I was approaching this situation from a much more technical position.
I am a civil engineer by degree and a member of the Chartered Institute of Building, so I was giving some thought to the complexity of the panels, how they may be configured and where else they might be deployed. Of course I would do that because, as well as being a member of the Chartered Institute of Building, I also chair the board of the housing association in Walsall. We have 20,000 houses. Following the Grenfell disaster, we had to review our buildings in order to determine whether we had any aluminium composite materials—ACMs—in buildings that we were building or cladding at the time. We determined that, in one case, we had exactly those elements present in one of our buildings. Although it was relatively low rise, we fully appreciated that the people living in that building would be concerned. It was not a question that would be answered by referring them to a technical building regulations document that would allay their fears. They needed reassurance on the basis that a tragedy had happened and they wanted to ensure, beyond reasonable doubt, that they would not be involved in a similar tragedy.
One of the things that helped to move me along massively was the opportunity to meet Grenfell survivors last week. I spoke to Hisam, who had lost six family members. The level of grief is incomprehensible to me. I lost my father 18 months ago. That feels like a dreadful tragedy, but he was an 83-year-old man who had a stroke and we had the opportunity to spend time with him before he passed away. It is not a comparable situation at all. I cannot begin to understand the level of grief experienced by those affected.
While speaking to Hisam, I thought, “Are you reassured with regard to the way the Government are handling this situation?” He explained to me that they wanted to bring family members over from another country to offer support to those who were grieving in this country. The barriers that they faced were incredibly intractable. When finally they were given the opportunity to bring family members over, my understanding is that it was for a two-week period. Sometimes we have processes that people follow by virtue of some sort of diagram or detailed specification, and we lose sight, as an hon. Member said earlier, of the fact that we are talking about people, not processes.
Similarly, Hisam had a child who had been affected and who had missed some time from school. He hoped that some one-to-one education might be provided to help that child catch up with the education he had lost. Originally, that was refused by his school. He needed to move to another school before, eventually, the original school said, “Actually, we could have provided some support after all.”
This is not a technical question about composite materials and ACMs; this is about how we treat people. I see first hand just how complicated that can be. I used to be the assistant chief executive of the YMCA in Birmingham. We had 300 accommodation units for formerly homeless young people. We had a building that we refurbished that used to be a social care building in Birmingham, so we had an architect design a scheme for us and we refurbished it to create 33 flats. That was two years before Grenfell.
In the light of Grenfell, we went back to the fire safety experts—in fact, we brought in new experts—to review the layout of the building and ensure that we would be able to manage a safe and secure building for the vulnerable and frequently chaotic young people that we serviced. Dreadfully, we found that some items in the layout of the building needed to be addressed in order for us to regain that confidence. That building had been designed and refurbished only two years previously, yet there was an opportunity to reinterpret and be more secure in the judgment that was applied.
I sincerely hope, although I fully appreciate that it is unlikely, that we will be able help people to move through all those stages of grief and to reach a point where they feel a level of acceptance. As a Government of MPs, not just the governing party, it is beholden on all of us to ensure that we provide that support from a people point of view rather than a process one.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad). Becoming an MP is daunting, as I found out three years ago, but at the same time as doing that she had to deal with this enormous tragedy on her doorstep. If I may say so, she has done a very good job. Her speech was very courageous and contained some hard home truths. I hope Government Members were listening carefully.
I led for the Scottish National party when we debated the scope of the inquiry on the Floor of the House in July. Like others, I said that there should be a panel of advisers to sit with the judge chairing the inquiry. That was one of the demands of BMELawyers4Grenfell, which said there should be a diverse panel. Like others, I followed my speech up with a letter to the inquiry and to the Prime Minister, renewing my request for a diverse panel and adding that the terms of reference should be as broad as those of the Macpherson inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder.
To be frank, that seemed to me like a bit of a no-brainer. It is an absolute disgrace that it has taken 10 months and a public petition to wring a concession from the Prime Minister on the appointment of the panel. Like others who have spoken, I am concerned that we do not yet know for certain how many people will be on that panel or what background they will be drawn from. Will the Minister reassure us that the lessons from the Macpherson inquiry, which we were all reminded of by the powerful BBC documentary about Stephen Lawrence’s murder, have indeed been learned? When I met survivors and bereaved families last week, they said to me that they felt it was “morally reprehensible” that they had had to campaign so hard to get that concession about the panel while they were grieving and trying to put their lives back together. I fully endorse that sentiment.
The Prime Minister has at last listened to the Grenfell victims on that. We now need assurances that she will listen to the inquiry’s recommendations and that there will not be the same fight to ensure that those recommendations are followed, no matter how uncomfortable they may be for those in government and their friends—including their party colleagues—on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council.
The hon. and learned Lady is making an excellent speech. I wonder whether she has looked at the aftermath of the Manchester Arena attack, which happened around the same time. Mayor Andy Burnham instigated the Kerslake review very quickly, and put the families and their wishes at its heart. That review has already reported, and every single recommendation has been agreed to.
I of course endorse that. I had hoped that the days of the sorts of cover-ups we saw after the Bloody Sunday murders and Hillsborough were over. I think they are, but I understand why the families of the deceased and the survivors of this terrible tragedy still require assurance.
As a lawyer, I feel strongly that there must—not should, but must—be equality of arms at the inquiry. In a previous life at the Scottish Bar, I represented the families of bereaved people at fatal accident inquiries in Scotland, which are a bit like inquests. In general, I found that unless the family of the bereaved had their own counsel, who was well prepared and able to ask difficult questions, the truth was not got at. The state did not seem capable of getting at the truth without the assistance of counsel fighting for the family. But counsel cannot do that with one hand tied behind their back. As others have said, it is very concerning to hear that only a tiny percentage of documents have been disclosed so far. Can the Government guarantee that issues with disclosure will be addressed?
It is a disgrace that promises to rehouse the survivors of this terrible fire have been broken on no fewer than three occasions. I want to say a little about that before I sit down. This tragedy illustrates the wider, very real issue of the neglect of social housing in this country. When I say “this country”, I mean England. I am happy to say that in Scotland, even under the constraints of Tory austerity, we have taken steps to address that by building tens of thousands of new social homes and getting rid of the ridiculous right to buy. Again, I would like to hear assurances from the Government that lessons will be learned from this tragedy and from the council’s failure to rehouse about the need to build social and affordable housing for everyone who lives in this great city, so that they can live in the area they belong to and in their community in affordable, safe housing.
I would like to add to the debate by drawing the parallels between the fight of the Grenfell survivors and their families—I know some of them are here today—for truth and justice and the synonymous struggle in my city, Liverpool, of the families of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster, who we can at long last say were unlawfully killed.
The pattern is consistent: powerless people’s voices are ignored by those in power. The parallels are everywhere—prior to both disasters, concerns were raised but ignored; after the disasters, powerless families wrestled with authority and the law for truth and justice. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign and the Hillsborough Family Support Group for their role in offering support and solidarity to the survivors and the families of Grenfell. It took them 27 years of tireless campaigning to get the truth about what happened at Hillsborough, and the fight for justice continues to this day. That cannot happen again in this situation.
When bereaved families campaign for justice, they deserve openness, transparency and access to the very same tools that are available to the powerful. That is why we need a Hillsborough law. We need to make it a legal duty for public authorities and public servants to tell the truth and, more importantly, challenge the culture of denial that far too often pervades public institutions.
Although it is a welcome step forward, the appointment of just two panel members to sit alongside the judge in the Grenfell inquiry, and only in phase 2, is not enough. Panel members for the families must be brought into the heart of the inquiry right now. The legal representatives of bereaved families must be able to see all the evidence from the start and be allowed to question witnesses at hearings. Surely, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), it is time to call in the commissioners at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. She raised many questions, which I hope the Minister answers.
Right from the start of this process, there have been too many failures to give families and victims the trust and hope they need in the system. If the Grenfell inquiry is to deliver truth and justice, the Grenfell survivors and bereaved families, more than anybody else, must have full confidence in it. Those necessary steps then might just start to build trust, and the Grenfell survivors, families and friends might not be left to climb the same long, obstacle-ridden route that the Hillsborough campaigners have had to travel, but instead be set on a path that leads swiftly to the truth and justice they deserve.
This was of course a tragedy—that goes without saying—but, as was put so powerfully by so many people, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), it was also a national shame. It was a disgrace. That it could have happened in our country is unthinkable. It is a matter of shame that we could not keep those people, many of whom came to our country, safe.
We cannot change the past, and nothing that we say or do in this debate can begin to mitigate or soothe the pain suffered by so many families. It is not intended to. Our job is to focus like a laser on ensuring that justice is done, and specifically on ensuring that the inquiry is properly constituted. We have to ensure that one dreadful injustice is not replaced by another.
Will my hon. Friend give way.
No—I will in a second.
Notwithstanding the points powerfully made by the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), I want to pay tribute to the dignity of the community in the face of unimaginable pain. Why? Because at the time it happened, I had a child who was five—I am not unusual; many people in the Chamber will have children—and I remember reading about the case of Isaac Paulos. I cannot say how I would have responded if it had been my child, but I doubt it would have been with such dignity.
I also pay tribute to the media, who have told the stories behind the statistics. I do not know whether anyone else in the Chamber read the story of Marco and Gloria, the Italian couple in their 20s who moved to London to find work as architects. Marco’s family and friends have written a children’s book, turning what happened into a fairytale. It is a story of unbearable poignancy, and just one of many tributes, but we must always remember that these are not statistics; these are people.
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
That, perhaps, all goes without saying. What is really important is that we add value in the debate. The conclusions drawn must have credibility and legitimacy, so we must strike the right balance, ensuring that the panel that considers these incredibly grave matters is not, on the one hand, unwieldy and slow or, on the other hand, too narrow as to lay itself open to the suggestion of having conclusions arrived at by individual whim.
There are precedents, as the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), the SNP spokesperson on justice affairs, showed. I remember the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly. Its advantage, in one view, was that it considered matters quickly, between August 2003 and January 2004. However, as everyone in the Chamber remembers, when it published its findings, it had a credibility issue. We must ensure that we do not repeat that mistake.
Many in the Chamber will have spent time in the criminal courts, and we know that jury verdicts have their currency and legitimacy because juries are derived from the communities they serve. They do justice by reflecting the common sense and shared experience of people in everyday life. That ought to be the bedrock of how we go forward.
From my experience, just an appeal from a magistrates court in a relatively modest case will involve a judge and two lay assessors. That is why it is critical that the other members of the panel, which includes Mr Justice Moore-Bick, have decision-making power. They cannot simply be there to be thought of as making up the numbers; they must bring their weight of experience from the community and shared understanding. By the way, over many centuries lay people have shown themselves well able to analyse complex issues and do justice. To those people who might suggest we have simply a single judge, it is no answer to say, “Oh, it’s too complicated, too difficult, too technical.” Lay people are capable of understanding—of course they are—as long as matters are properly presented, and I am sure they will be.
Having decided on that format, we must let the tribunal get on. There must be cool, forensic analysis of the evidence so that the answers we get are valid. Whatever the consequences that flow from the inquiry—consequences there will be—they must be built on solid ground. This is our task. This is our duty. We owe the victims nothing less.
I am pleased we are debating Grenfell—though it took 150,000 members of the public to bring us here—and I am also glad that we will debate it again on Wednesday, when it is the Labour party’s Opposition day debate subject. Speaking for myself and my constituents in Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush, we could debate it every day until we get justice for the bereaved, the dead and the survivors, and real assurance—not just words—that it will never happen again.
As a neighbouring constituency, we experienced Grenfell in three separate ways. First, we experienced it directly. I will never forget waking up at six o’clock that morning when Grenfell was still burning to hear messages on my phone telling me what had happened and watch it. I went down there later that day and spent most of the rest of the week there, to try—I do not think I was very useful—to give some moral support to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad). She has shown today that she does not really need that. At the time, I think she had been an MP for four days, and she dealt with it fantastically, as her speech, which pulled no punches, showed. Many of my constituents were there, including volunteers from the al-Muntada mosque in Parsons Green offering spiritual, moral and practical comfort every day. Many of my constituents watched Grenfell unfold from their own high-rise blocks, a mile or half a mile away. It affects us profoundly.
Secondly, it affects us as neighbours. Let me give an example. Our local authority offered help on the day in the form of accommodation and assistance but received no response. We found out later—we were not told—that 52 households were placed in budget hotels in Hammersmith and, nearly a year later, 17 of them are still there. Only six have been made permanent offers of accommodation. Those are real failings, and I cannot help but agree that even now—this is a party political point in a way—I wish the same faces were not still in charge in Kensington town hall, because I do not think they have learnt their lessons. There is still a role for commissioners if we are actually to take it as seriously as Government Members as well as Opposition Members say they wish to do. There were such singular failures by that authority, and they continue to this day.
Given the limited time, let me talk about two aspects—there are many others, particularly on the physical and mental health of survivors and the wider community—of the wider consequences: social housing and fire safety. Grenfell is the result of a systematic denigration and demoralisation of the social housing sector in this country over 30 years. We experience that in Hammersmith, where insecurity is introduced through short-term tenancies and there no longer being a duty to discharge housing duty in the public sector. Social housing is second or third-class, so the people who lived there were ignored. Their views were not taken into account. What was good enough for them would not have been good enough for other people. That continues to happen.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said, the sale of social housing properties is deliberately making the housing crisis worse, and none are being built. There has been no money for investment in social housing across London since 2010. Then we are surprised that the housing crisis is as bad as it is.
Let us look at fire safety, which has many aspects. I am still waiting for what I was promised six months ago: information on the cause of the fire. We know it started in a particular type of fridge-freezer in a particular flat. That is a common electrical fault that affects hundreds if not thousands of properties across London and the country, yet we know no more about that.
We know there are substantial problems with cladding and insulation, but the response on that has been entirely inadequate, as it has been on means of escape, and on other fire safety measures and advice such as the “stay put” policy. I do not regard the Royal Institute of British Architects as a radical left-wing organisation, but it is a good organisation and it has asked that we use only non-combustible cladding. Is that unreasonable? Yet I had an instance of a landlord who wanted to replace one type of partially combustible cladding that had failed a test with a type of partially combustible cladding that had passed a test. I am pleased to say that, in response to me and residents protesting, they backed down.
We need buildings with more than one means of escape, but in my constituency buildings on the Grenfell model of design have been proposed and approved since the fire happened. We need sprinkler systems in blocks, and not on the random basis of whether an authority can afford it.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will not, because there is very limited time.
We also need to stop this farce of desktop studies and all of that. It is insulting, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) said, that the Hackitt inquiry may propose business as usual, and the police inquiry, leaked to the Standard, may say, “It’s all the fault of the workmen who put the stuff up in the wrong way.” I am sorry; the fault will go far, far beyond that. And we are here today because even now the public inquiry has not got the full confidence of the residents. I support a public inquiry, doing a thorough investigation, but there are more urgent matters that need to be dealt with before that, in relation to social housing and fire safety. We need to get on with them. I have heard warm words today, and have been hearing them for the past year. Frankly they do not get us anywhere. What gets us somewhere is action, which is lacking at the moment. I hope we continue to debate the matter every day.
I apologise for the fact that I shall not be here for the winding-up speeches, Mr Wilson. I wanted to speak because of the close relationship I mentioned, but also, particularly, because I want to say that the debate must continue until the action we require is taken to ensure justice for Grenfell and the safety of the millions of people living in Grenfell-style conditions across this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Wilson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for securing this important debate.
As a former fire officer with 31 years’ service, I pay tribute to the bereaved and survivors of the Grenfell fire, and their tireless personal campaign for truth and justice. It is only through justice, answers and accountability that we can ensure that nothing like the Grenfell fire ever happens again, as has been said. I am pleased that the Government have at last listened and agreed to appoint additional panel members to the Grenfell Tower inquiry. That must be a welcome step, but I hope it will not be the final one.
I pay tribute to the London Fire Brigade and other emergency service personnel, whose response to the fire did much, I am sure, to save many lives. I can appreciate what a vast operation it must have been to bring that horrendous fire under control. We must ensure that the Grenfell community receives the support needed to rebuild lives. The previous Housing Secretary was right to denounce Kensington and Chelsea Council’s slow progress on rehousing those who lost their homes in the fire, and I hope that his successor will redouble the Government’s efforts to accelerate the council’s response to those who need new homes.
It is already clear that a series of failings led to the needless, pointless deaths of 72 individuals last June. I understand that in November 2016, the Grenfell Action Group raised concerns about poor fire safety standards at Grenfell and predicted a catastrophe. It is clear that no one listened. The question is: “Who did not listen?” There are ample and tragic precedents for fires spreading rapidly up the exterior of tower blocks, owing to flammable or unsuitable cladding. In May 2017, the London Fire Brigade warned all London councils about the fire safety risk from external cladding, following a fire in Shepherd’s Bush in 2016. Again, the question is who did not listen to the fire brigade.
It is essential that the Grenfell Tower inquiry, and also Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building regulations and fire safety, should get to the truth. They must be bold, transparent and wide-ranging. It is a question of truth and justice for the bereaved and survivors of the Grenfell fire. A weak or diluted inquiry and review would let the Grenfell community down, and lead to vital lessons not being learned.
As we speak here in Westminster Hall, thousands of people living in tower blocks across the United Kingdom are anxious about the safety of their homes. It is imperative that the inquiry and review set an agenda for change that will deliver justice for the Grenfell community, give tower block residents nationwide the safety and dignity they so richly deserve, and remind all authorities of the importance of fire safety. Fire safety should not play second fiddle to decoration and visual appearance, but should be the priority, where people live and work—and, indeed, in some hospitals where I understand there are cladding issues. Lastly, the inquiry and review should make sure that the horrors of the Grenfell fire are never repeated.
I commend South Ayrshire Council, where I was formally a member, which has three tower blocks that are 42 years old, and which 15 years ago took the wise and important decision to retrofit sprinklers.
Finally, perhaps I may take the House back 45 years to August 1973 and the Summerland leisure complex fire on the Isle of Man, where there were 50 fatalities. It was a tragedy and I am sure that it haunts many to this day. In his book on that event, Dr Ian Phillips described it as
“one of the most forgotten and trivialised disasters in the post war history of the British Isles”.
Neither Summerland nor Grenfell resembled their original designs and specifications at the time of the tragic fires. In the case of Summerland, that was because it was heavily modified—those concerned changed their mind while it was being built. In the case of Grenfell it was because of the recent refurbishment and modifications, and the failure to listen to residents’ concerns. At Summerland the fire spread rapidly, aided by the poor fire resistance of Galbestos cladding and Oroglas sheeting that formed part of the walls and roof of the seven-storey leisure complex. The nation has clearly never paid heed to the Summerland fire tragedy. We must pay heed to Grenfell.
I want to speak about my experience of meeting Grenfell survivors in Speaker’s House last week. I spoke to people who had lost family, and was impressed by the dignity of their reaction. I spoke to a man called Antonio, who had survived the Grenfell Tower fire. Having lived to tell the tale, he wanted to speak to me about his experience. I hope that the House will bear with me as I describe something of what he went through.
Antonio was nodding off when he suddenly got a text from a family member telling him that the tower was on fire. He was on the 10th floor and had not realised it was on fire, but when he looked out of the window he saw thick black smoke circulating outside. He was not sure what to do, and decided to try to escape down the main stairwell. As he tried to do that, he realised that the smoke was so thick that there was no way he could survive. He said he felt he would have choked if he had gone down the stairs, so he went back to his room.
Hon. Members will be able to imagine Antonio’s agony while he waited there. He said he thought about whether he would ever see his friends and family again, so he tried once more to go down the main stairwell and escape from the burning tower. Once again he saw the thick smoke and realised there was no way he could go down the stairs. He decided once again to go back to his room—unsure this time whether he would make it out.
Then, at 6 am, our firefighters came and saved Antonio. They took him outside and he was reunited with his son, whom he lives with on the 10th floor. He told me that after the tragedy and upheaval he had faced, and the dreadful wait in that room, unsure whether he would live or die, he was put in a temporary hotel. He asked the council when he would get a permanent home and was promised that it would take three weeks.
Those three weeks came and went and Antonio was not placed anywhere. He was passed from pillar to post, hotel to hotel and temporary accommodation. Then he was promised that he and his son would get a permanent home by Christmas. The House needs to bear in mind that Antonio and his son were not even together but were in separate temporary accommodation; but he looked forward to being with his son in December. Christmas came and went and he was still not placed in a permanent home. He went back to the council, which said, “If you give us six months we will make sure that you are placed in a permanent home.”
Not only had Antonio had to suffer the fire, and the loss of friends, families and neighbours; he also did not have a permanent home to go to. That is why I appeal to Ministers today to say that we have already failed the Grenfell survivors, and the people who did not survive, once, and that we cannot fail them again by not giving them permanent homes. I make a plea for the council to be held to account on the promises it made, and for the promises of permanent homes to be carried out. The statistics about one in three households not getting permanent accommodation, and a further third being in hotels, can wash over the people who read them, but meeting someone who lived through the fire and still does not have permanent accommodation leads to the realisation of the impact on their lives.
In the time remaining to me, I want to talk about Richard Stone, who has been mentioned a few times. He was an advisor to the judge in the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. I have known him since I was a teenager. The inquiry dominated a large part of Richard’s life. I see him often and he has spoken to me about it many times in the past 20 years. He has said that in his mind the inquiry served a few purposes. The first was justice—justice for the family of Stephen Lawrence, but also for all the young black men out there who had faced institutional racism. In the same way, this inquiry must be about justice—not only for the people who died in Grenfell Tower and the families and friends who are still mourning their loss, but for all those families who live in high-rise buildings in London and around the country, and who feel so unsafe.
Anecdotally, I have had Bangladeshi families from across the country emailing me. Many hon. Members will have heard the tragic story of two Bangladeshi young people who refused to leave their elderly parents in Grenfell Tower. Their elderly parents could not move and they did not want to leave them, so they died along with them. Bangladeshi families who live in tower blocks have been emailing me to say that they feel unsafe.
The second thing Richard Stone keeps coming back to is how the inquiry must look into the institutional and systemic failures in society. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry was about institutional racism; here, it is about our collective failure to make people feel safe in tower blocks and the fact that we have not tested the claddings in tower blocks and private blocks across the country.
In Camden, we did test one of our high-rise blocks. There was immense disruption to residents, but the council took them out and replaced the cladding. It cost £40 million, but you cannot put a price on people’s lives, and now people are back there. We know that we caused immense disruption to the residents, but it was the right thing to do, because if we want to address this failure, we have to test the cladding in all tower blocks and not just in a few.
Finally, Richard Stone comes back to one thing over and over when he talks about the Stephen Lawrence inquiry: that there is no point in conducting an inquiry such as this if it is just about giving politicians a pat on the back, saying we are doing it because we have to, making ourselves look good or getting votes. The reason why we do it is that we want to address the injustice of what has happened. If the Government do not commit now to implementing the report’s findings, there is no point in having an inquiry. The whole point of implementing the findings of a report is to show that all lives matter, that black lives matter and that, whether people live in a mansion in Chelsea or a tower block in Kensington, all lives are equal for us politicians in this room.
I absolutely agree with everything my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) has just said. I rise to say that we in this place should be ashamed at the lack of progress that has been made to date. Saying that it can never happen again and saying to the survivors, “We understand and we’re here to support you” cannot just be warm words.
Everything that Grenfell United has had to do to date should make us feel ashamed. The fact that there was a bell-mourning service for Big Ben but not to mourn the lives of people who have died, the fact that it had to ask for a service to be held to remember those who lost their lives, the fact that it had to set up an e-petition to say, “Let’s make this inquiry fair and independent”—all that is absolutely disgusting. We should be ashamed.
We have had promise after promise, so why, 11 months on, are families still not housed? We had a chance to meet and speak to the Grenfell survivors at Speaker’s House, but why did they have to ask whether they could come along and share their experiences—share with us that they had to escape from this and the lives that have been lost? Still we have questions about whether it should be now or phase two. That is completely unacceptable.
I feel that we are elected to this place to be a voice for those we represent. We are elected to speak to those in power and to make change come about for those we are elected to serve. The fact that they have had to fight—fight when they should have time to grieve and to be there with their loved ones, fight for accommodation, fight for their voices to be heard, fight for an inquiry, fight for people to be put on a panel—is completely unacceptable. I rise to say, in this short period of time, that we can do more, we can do better and, if we want this never to happen again, we must implement the recommendations that are made.
If recommendations such as those made after the Lakanal House fire had been implemented, we would not be in this position today and people would not have needlessly lost their lives. I ask—I implore—the Government: you can do something. Do not sit back and say warm words about how this could be different, how you care and how you want this never to happen again. Do something.
I am honoured to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya) and I agree with every word she has said. Many people here have spoken about the dignity with which the victims and survivors of Grenfell have spoken, but why should they have to hold it together in trying to persuade this place to take action? Why do they not have the time to grieve for the people they have lost, their families, friends and loved ones? To hold it together, to come to Speaker’s House, to persuade and fight for this Government to act—that should not have to be the case, and I am very sorry it has been.
I will make two practical points and one broader point. First is an issue that many hon. Members have spoken about: the appalling lack of action on rehousing those who have lost their homes in Grenfell. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) pointed out that 72 households are still living in hotel rooms and 64 are still in temporary accommodation. Even worse than that is the fact that over half of those families have accepted permanent accommodation, but they cannot move into it because it is not ready.
That is 68 houses. Are you telling me that with all the money, influence and power not just of the council, but of the national Government, we could not get those homes ready for people to move into? Where there is a will, there is a way. The problem is that there does not appear to be the will to sort out those 68 homes for people who have already accepted that accommodation. What is the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea doing? How hard can it be? I hope the Minister will answer that question at the end of the debate.
Secondly, I follow up on the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) made about the children who have been affected—who have lost not just their parents, but their sisters, their brothers, their cousins, their friends and their neighbours. This has affected the whole community in that area. I do not believe that either the council or the Government have understood just how widely and deeply it has affected people.
I have heard from the Grenfell families their real concern that, when children wanted to go to visit the tower because it would help them to grieve and to say goodbye, they were told they could not go because it was not safe. They were not asking for the children to go inside, just to go and look and say goodbye, and to feel close to the people they loved. The state knows best—but it did not in this case.
On the point about education, I am deeply concerned that families have had to fight to get the catch-up help they need for their children. We have to put that extra investment into those children, so that they can live as normal a life as possible, fulfil their hopes, dreams and potential, and become the people they want to be. I ask the Minister to look at that again, too.
Thirdly, on mental health, I know that many child and adolescent mental health services advisers have been put in place, but my concern is over the much longer term. If someone ends up needing a physical operation as a child, on their heart or their limbs, they get follow-up support throughout their life, because we know that those physical impacts early on have a big impact later in life. Where is that help and support for the mental health of those children in the longer term?
My final point, which many other hon. Members have made, is that there is nothing—nothing—to be feared from putting the families at the heart of this process. In fact, quite the reverse: there is everything to be gained, because we will not get to the bottom of what happened or have a proper plan to put things right in future unless the families are front and centre. Do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We have heard from many hon. Members about Hillsborough. We know what went wrong there. Do not repeat those mistakes. It is actions, not words, that matter. I hope the Government will act.
I thank all the people who signed the petition, which has given us the chance to put our demands to the Government on behalf of the bereaved people of Grenfell Tower and the wider community in Kensington. It is always people outside this place rather than Members themselves that push it to progress.
To be honest, like many others Members have said, it should not be this difficult to secure a debate to convey to the Government the demands of survivors. It should not have taken a petition or the precious energies of campaign groups for those to be heard. Everything I have seen about this horrific incident shows that that is part of a pattern. The people in Grenfell Tower were not, and are still not, listened to. They were not listened to before their homes were destroyed and they were not listened to in the immediate aftermath, nor in the months that followed.
It is clear that the lives of Grenfell Tower residents were placed at risk, not only because of the refurbishment—residents warned that it was shoddy and that corners were being cut—but because of the ongoing management of the block. I cannot seem to get over the fact that residents repeatedly warned that the building was unsafe. They produced a long list of issues that needed to be addressed, yet nobody listened. I was told outside that there was a group that blogged about their concerns for five years before the fire. Imagine the worry of someone going to bed each night knowing that, although they had done everything within their power to keep their family safe, their home was not safe and that nobody would listen.
Why is it only when death occurs on a huge scale that these people’s calls become significant or newsworthy? What is it about our society and the system we live in that judges working class people’s voices as so meaningless that they are only given weight and validity or heard on their death? Even that has been a fight. I would like for us to consider for one second how these people would have been treated if they were the wealthiest residents of Kensington and Chelsea. In fact, would this have happened at all if they were the wealthiest residents?
Why is it that the Government and Kensington and Chelsea council do not just give these people every single thing that they want without a fight? Why is it taking a battle to get a process that residents have confidence in, and that they believe will deliver justice and truth? When confidence is so low—understandably, after everything we have heard today—how can Ministers not see that what they think is appropriate in this situation is actually irrelevant? The only thing that is relevant, and the only experts, as has been said, are the residents of Grenfell Tower and the surrounding communities.
I do not believe that any Member here has ever experienced their home being burned to the ground or their gravest concerns being ignored by the state, or has ever had to rely completely on the state to get them and their family out of a hotel room and into a home. Why do these people, who know so much about their own situation, have to go through such a battle, on top of their grief and having to rebuild their lives? That is against the backdrop of deregulation, cost cutting, gentrification and the demolition of democratically controlled local housing, and of complex, distant and unaccountable tenant management organisations and cuts to fire safety inspectors. My own area of North West Durham is a long way from Grenfell Tower, but we have lost 50% of our fire safety inspectors since 2010. We do not have great tower blocks like Grenfell Tower, but we have huge concerns over that.
On top of that, the demands of generations of people have not been listened to. Those demands are modest, to say the least. What they ask for must be granted by the Government and the council. If not, the Government and the council will let those people down and, I believe, will re-traumatise them. That would only confirm what working-class people up and down the country have come to believe: the state and the Government actively work against their interests, even when they are in the most difficult of circumstances.
All they ask for is an independent expert panel, akin to the one afforded to the Macpherson inquiry, and that that panel is representative. The two members announced on Friday is a start, but it is not enough, and it should not have taken all this time to do such a simple thing. They also want a guarantee that all residents will have a permanent home by the one-year anniversary. If that does not happen, action should be taken against Kensington and Chelsea Council—action that is proportionate to the failings of the people responsible for Grenfell Tower.
As has been said by many Members, the deadline to re-house survivors has been moved time and again, as if it does not matter at all to the council or the Government. People are still living in hotel rooms, their lives on hold. I believe that, if there was enough care, they would have permanent homes, and this bureaucracy would not be preventing them from moving on. The hundreds of times we have returned to our homes since the Grenfell Tower fire is a luxury not afforded to those people who, through no fault of their own, lost everything on that night. A year to rectify that is simply not good enough.
The bereaved people’s legal representatives should be able to see all the evidence—from the start of the inquiry, and should have access to all the documents relating to the inquiry. They should be given whatever they need to properly represent their clients. Finally, we want a commitment from the Government that they will implement in full all the inquiry’s recommendations, and not pick and choose those that are most convenient.
I fully support the demands of the people of Grenfell Tower and Kensington. I hope the Government will do the right thing and announce today that they will grant all those people’s wishes. What a terrible disaster in the history of our nation. Living in one of the richest countries in the world means absolutely nothing if those riches are diverted from communities. As somebody—I wish I knew his name; I will find it out—so eloquently said at the protest outside, “The Government need to defend, represent and listen to the people and not the market—for once.”
I fully agree with the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) that the time for fine words and sympathies is up.
However, I must admit that I was fortunate enough to meet some of the survivors and the bereaved from Grenfell Tower last week. It was a most moving experience, and I admire the courageous individuals who have experienced terrible tragedy and are now fighting so that a tragedy like Grenfell will never happen again. It is shocking that justice has not been given to them without a fight. For years, the residents of Grenfell Tower were disregarded and ignored, and they were failed by those whose duty it was to protect them, yet they still need to fight.
The only acceptable outcome now is that the Government listen to every concern of the victims of Grenfell Tower and commit fully to implementing the outcomes of the public inquiry. I echo everything that hon. Members have said on that. The Prime Minister’s announcement last week to accept two extra members on to the panel was welcome, but it has to be properly seen through—with the full agreement of the residents at all stages—and increased if necessary.
Without pre-empting the outcome of the inquiry, the lessons of the Grenfell tragedy are very clear. We must ensure that tenants and residents across the UK are listened to when they raise concerns regarding the quality of their housing. To ensure that residents are listened to, there must be clear channels of accountability. The Government need to improve awareness of how tenants can raise complaints effectively, and there should be means of redress when action is not taken.
I am encouraged by Dame Hackitt’s interim report, which criticises the systemic lack of responsibility and enforcement within building regulations. The current system is completely broken, with builders and developers specifying and then signing off their own work. That cannot be right. Currently, decisions are made that prioritise price at the expense of people’s wellbeing and, ultimately, their lives. That cannot be right.
Grenfell Tower was a symptom of the failure of successive Governments to invest in quality social housing. We cannot leave social housebuilding and maintenance to the private sector. Until the Government take radical action in building the quality and quantity of social homes that this country so desperately needs, many of the problems highlighted by the Grenfell tragedy will remain.
The terrible tragedy of last year must serve as a call to action. We must fight for tenants’ rights, wholesale reform of building regulations and investment in social housing. Most importantly, we must continue to speak up in the House for the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. One in three Grenfell households are still living in hotel rooms, and a further third in temporary accommodation. More than half the Grenfell families who are still in hotels or temporary accommodation have accepted permanent accommodation, but have been unable to move in because of council delays. That is not acceptable. The tragedy of Grenfell Tower must never happen again, but the timid and inadequate response of Kensington and Chelsea Council is not good enough. We must call for action to be taken. The time for fine words is up.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Wilson, and to follow all the fine contributions to this debate. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing the debate and on reading into the record the names of those we lost. It is very important that he did so. I know so little about who those people were, but I hope that in due course we will all come to know much more about them. It was an honour to meet relatives of the deceased in Speaker’s House—I think we all felt that. I am sure that we will come to know them very well in this place.
I am the Member of Parliament for Wirral South, but from 2006 to 2010 I was the councillor in the London Borough of Southwark for the Brunswick Park ward, which contained the Sceaux Gardens estate, in the middle of which was Lakanal House. On 3 July 2009, Lakanal went up in flames. I can see that block in my mind’s eye as real as if it were that day. Six people, including a one-month-old baby, died in that disaster, and the inquest found that those were unnecessary and preventable deaths. We have heard people in this debate say that the Grenfell fire must never happen again. To me, those words are meaningless, because it has happened again—it is happening again. I saw Grenfell on the television, and to me it was alarmingly familiar. I have seen what the families have gone through since the day of the Grenfell Tower disaster. That, too, is alarmingly familiar, because unfortunately neither the disaster nor the secondary tragedy of the Government’s response to the disaster needed to happen.
Other hon. Members have talked persuasively about the recommendations following the Lakanal fire. It is a matter of great grief to all of us who were involved with Lakanal that the recommendations and the conclusions of the inquest were not progressed with more rigour. But there is something else. The Prime Minister, when she was Home Secretary, commissioned Bishop James Jones to report on the experience of the Hillsborough families. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) has talked about how all of this discussion and debate rings bells with us because it is all the same. Bishop James Jones’s report on the experience of the Hillsborough families was called “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power”. I would ask any person to listen to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) and ask whether what she described does not amount to the patronising disposition of unaccountable power. Of course it does. Hillsborough was not about football and the Grenfell disaster was not about a tower block in isolation: it was about the relationship between citizens and the state that was supposed to protect and respect them. Of course a diverse panel for the inquiry, for all the reasons that hon. Members have gone through, was vital, but we need more, and I will spend just a couple of minutes saying what more the Government can do.
First, the Government should answer Bishop James Jones’s call for a charter for families bereaved through public tragedy. In his report, he gives all the details of what that should contain. The report came out in November, but the Government have not responded. All this could have been avoided if they had.
Secondly, the Government should bring forward their own Bill on a public advocate at inquests. That proposal was brought forward by Michael Wills, a peer, and the Government are committed to implementing it. Just bring forward the Bill. Let us reform inquests now; let us not wait another second.
The third issue is the Hillsborough law proposals, which were first put to this House by my friend, Mayor Andy Burnham. Those proposals include reform of legal aid so that we get the parity of arms to which the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), alluded. The importance of that is absolutely clear. I worry greatly that we will again get into a situation in which families are worrying about legal costs and whether their legal advice will be sustained, while the state has all before it—whatever expensive QC it needs. Let us prevent that from happening now before the problem arises.
Fourthly, and most important to me, is a duty of candour. This is not party political. The Government have already implemented a duty of candour for NHS staff, but I want to change the situation in every council and every Government Department up and down the country, where people are told, “Don’t admit you were wrong. Don’t accept responsibility. Don’t give the information out. Don’t make it publicly available. Because you will be liable.” I want the lawyers to say to them, “You know what? You’ll be liable if you don’t tell the truth. You’ll be liable if you don’t give the information out.” Trust the public.
The Government, as I have said, accept the policy for the NHS. Let us just make it real for every other representative of the state in our country, because in the end the central question that we have to ask ourselves is this: what kind of country do we want to live in? Who are we really as British people? Are we the kind of people who see grieving families and want to worry about whether we might be responsible, or are we, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) said, the kind of people who want to reach out and help? I thought that our country had changed radically since 1989. I worry that I was wrong.
Before we hear from the Front Benchers, I say to them that I would like to leave two or three minutes for Paul Scully to sum up the debate.
I rise to speak on behalf of the Scottish National party, which is the third party in this Chamber and the principal party in Scotland, but I think I speak on behalf of the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland when I place on the record our support for the Grenfell campaigners in trying to get to the bottom of what was visited upon them.
We watched in horror at the scenes unfolding on our television screens on 14 June last year, conscious of the unimaginable terrors that were being visited upon the people trapped inside Grenfell Tower. In the months that have passed since then, that sense of horror has given way to a sense of solidarity, and a desire to stand with the people of Grenfell as they try to get the answers to questions that they so richly deserve. I associate my party and myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), and I take her advice about how it is very easy in a debate on this matter—indeed, we have witnessed people doing this—to get platitudinous in describing the campaigners. I do want to make one point, though. I have observed how the Grenfell campaigners have prosecuted their case, and it seems to me that they have a level of integrity that is head and shoulders above those from whom they are seeking redress, and that is highly commendable.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, most hon. Members here who also represent urban constituencies were concerned about another question as well. Could it happen again and could it happen in their area? That preoccupied many of us. In my own city of Edinburgh, there are 44 high-rise tower blocks managed by the local authority and another 80 in the private sector. I commend the work of the officers of the city council and the fire service, who very swiftly did a review. It was not a desk review but an inspection on the ground, and it concluded that the materials that had been used in the Grenfell cladding were not in use in my city, for which I am grateful.
I am grateful also that the Scottish Government have undertaken a review of safety regulations in tower blocks, trying to improve on the 2005 fire regulations, which are already more stringent than those that apply in the rest of the United Kingdom. I cannot be satisfied, however, that it will not happen again—that would be complacent—until we know the outcome of this inquiry, until the questions about how and why this happened, and what needs to be done to ensure it does not happen again, are put in the public sphere. That is why I support those campaigners in fighting for the widest and most effective inquiry possible.
I want to address the points that the petitioners have made. A lot of people have talked about the welcome news that the Prime Minister has decided to widen the leadership of the inquiry process and appoint advisers. Like others, however, I am bemused that it has taken months of campaigning, parliamentary debates and 150,000 people signing an e-petition to grant what is surely the most reasonable request in these circumstances. I say to Government Ministers—I invite them to respond—that it is critical who these appointees are. It is incumbent on the Government to ensure that whoever is put in the position to advise and support the chair of this inquiry not only must have empathy with the survivors of Grenfell and the relatives of those who paid the ultimate price in this tragedy, to understand and know what those people are going through, but must have the confidence of the Grenfell community. If the Government allow the inquiry to go ahead without those leading it having the confidence of the people at the centre of this matter, it will be stillborn and we will repeat the circuitous history of previous inquiries in this country. We have been down that path before. This is an opportunity to get it right.
The petitioners’ second point is about what is happening right now to the people who survived. I find it unbelievable that nearly a year later there are so many people languishing in temporary accommodation, who have not yet been given a proper, permanent roof over their heads after undergoing this horror. I just do not understand it. I say to those who mentioned the unfortunate term “political football”, I am not making a political football of this, but to pretend that this can be divorced from policy and political considerations is naivety bordering on the irresponsible. Questions have to be asked of the people who are in charge of public administration in Kensington and Chelsea about what is happening.
The historical context is apt here. It is no coincidence that Kensington and Chelsea has always been one of the boroughs in the country with the lowest proportion of public housing. I will put this in words that the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) might agree with. I do not want to make this a party political football, but let us put it this way. It is clear that the majority of people who have the fortune to live in Kensington and Chelsea are relatively well off and content. Public administration in the borough is being executed by, and in the interests of, those people, who are well off and relatively content. The needs of those who are at the other end of this unequal society are not being adequately listened to and put into public policy. I cannot see any other reason why these people would have not been rehoused almost a year later.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) mentioned the right to buy, which is not irrelevant either. I do not condemn or criticise the people who bought their council house over the last 20 years, but I condemn the people who sold it to them, because they did so without any regard for the consequences of that policy. The consequence of it now is that there is not enough housing to go around. When a catastrophe such as this happens, the public authority is unable to respond to it. That is not good enough.
I wondered just how difficult rehousing those people would be, even if we had to rely on the public sector. I have asked colleagues, “Why don’t they just buy some houses in the private sector?” That is what local authorities used to do. It was explained to me how difficult and expensive it all was. I checked, therefore, on the way to this debate. It is true that some of the house prices in Kensington and Chelsea border on the obscene. There are dozens of places available to buy in excess of £20 million. But I put into the filter on rightmove.co.uk this question: how many family-sized properties—two bedrooms or greater—are there today in Kensington and Chelsea on the market at a price tag of less than £1 million, which is a reasonable price for central London? The answer is that today in Kensington and Chelsea there are 512 properties on sale, which could house these families, so I suggest that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea goes and buys some of those houses and moves these people into them.
The question, however, is for Ministers, because this has been going on for nearly a year. We need to hear that Ministers are prepared to set a deadline on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, by which time it must provide a plan for the permanent rehousing of every one of the Grenfell survivors. If that deadline is not met, it is incumbent on the Government to take the matter into their own hands and ensure that this is delivered. They can no longer hide behind the inadequate excuse of leaving it to the local authority.
The petitioners’ final point is about the need to listen to the inquiry’s conclusions. I do not want to pre-empt them, but I seek assurances from the Minister in two regards. First, if the inquiry demonstrates that there is a need to change policy on housing provision, financing and regulation in this country, will he commit to bringing forward legislation to enact those recommendations? Secondly, if the inquiry finds, as many suspect it will, that the real problem is not in the original construction of the tower block, but in the re-cladding that took place between 2014 and 2016, and the decisions that were made, which arguably put price above the health, safety and wellbeing of individuals, then I want an assurance from the Government that those responsible will face the consequences of their actions, and that they will be charged and subject to criminal proceedings, if it is relevant to do so. I hope the Government will give us those assurances.
To conclude, the one good thing in all this is that, because of the experience that these people have been through, we have an organised community that is sceptical and critical, and which will keep an eye on this inquiry, and come back to us in this place and get our support anytime that they need it. Not only do they speak for the people of Grenfell; the actions they are taking to ensure that this inquiry works will benefit all the people of this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. We are having this debate for one reason only, namely the tireless campaigning by the bereaved families and the survivors, and the overwhelming public support they attracted as a result. The e-petition, signed by over 150,000 people, forced this debate, and we should be clear that it forced the Prime Minister’s welcome shift from her previous position on Friday, when she granted a panel of some description in the Grenfell inquiry.
That is testament to the efforts of the bereaved families and survivors, but after everything they have been through, they should never have had to wage such a campaign. Far too often in this country, politics seem to act as a dam holding justice back, rather than helping justice to flow. Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence and Bloody Sunday are all examples of when the state did not use its great powers to deliver truth and justice, but instead blocked truth and justice for years and years. In all of those cases, the state was accused of a cover-up by those affected. Distrust was sown. We cannot allow Grenfell to join that list.
Race, class and power are at the heart of this. Justice delayed is justice denied, so it is essential that the Grenfell inquiry gets it right first time, but it has got off to a rocky start. Most people will find it frankly unacceptable that to get justice, the bereaved and survivors of Grenfell have had to hold marches and organise rallies, petitions and lobbies, when they are still in shock about the horrific events that they witnessed and lived through, when they have lost everything, and when they are still trying to rebuild their lives and secure a home, as we have heard.
Friday’s decision to grant a panel of some description can be a stepping stone to justice, but for that to be the case, we need to be clear that it is not the end point, but a staging post. It needs the Government to draw the wider lesson. It must win the hearts and minds of those affected by the Grenfell fire.
A public inquiry aims to get to the truth as a key step to delivering justice. No inquiry can ever achieve that if it does not have the trust of those directly affected, and no inquiry can ever assume that it will automatically have that trust, nor can it demand it. Trust must always be earned. That is why the demands for an inquiry panel were important, and why it became a totemic issue for the full confidence of the bereaved, the survivors and the wider public.
From the start, survivors said that they wanted a panel to help to tackle the obvious distrust. It was always a reasonable demand. As we have heard, the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, which marked a watershed in uncovering institutional racism, had a similar type of panel overseeing it. As we have also heard, that panel reflected a wealth of relevant experience. That diversity was its strength, as Lord Macpherson later stated. That legitimacy led to calls for widespread change, which must be replicated with the Grenfell inquiry, but the demand for Grenfell was ignored, misrepresented and then denied. That further damaged trust and confidence.
Trust would have been stronger had the panel been granted when the demand was first made 10 months ago. Trust would have been stronger had the Prime Minister not waited until just days before Christmas to formally reject the panel. Now it has been granted, however, it needs to be a sign that the Government are going to behave differently. The ball is in the court of the Government, and specifically, of the Prime Minister, who is the Minister nominated under the Inquiries Act 2005.
The Government have taken a step in the right direction, but lots of questions remain unanswered. I will put those questions to the Minister, and hopefully he can give me guarantees. I will also write to him later and, with the inquiry set to restart very soon, I hope that I will get an answer within seven days. As mentioned earlier, on Wednesday, there is an Opposition day debate on Grenfell and housing. If we do not get answers quickly, there will be an Opposition day debate on the inquiry itself.
Much of the discussion has focused on the panel, but I want to make an important clarification. We are here to debate not just the panel, but the whole petition launched by affected families and backed by 150,000 signatories. That petition is entitled, “Call on PM to take action to build public trust in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry”. As well as a panel, it asks that,
“Legal representatives of bereaved families see all evidence from the start & are allowed to question witnesses at the hearings”.
I would argue that we have had a partial response to one of the petition’s demands. We need answers to much more. Why is the panel going to sit only in phase two of the inquiry? What if the panel members need to revisit issues in phase one? Where are we with the second demand in the public petition about survivors’ lawyers having all the evidence from the start? Just a tiny fraction of the material has been disclosed to lawyers so far. Where are we with lawyers being able to cross-examine the witnesses, as happened in the Lawrence inquiry? The families cannot be expected to negotiate with the Prime Minister through public campaigns and petitions, so we need to know.
What formal mechanisms are there for bereaved family members and survivors to request more panel members? What formal mechanisms are there to guarantee the ongoing confidence of survivors and of the bereaved family members in the inquiry? How do they make formal requests and what is the formal public way of responding? We need greater clarity from the Government on all those things. As one family member said to me: “We must do what is necessary, not what is convenient.” There must be no repeat of the delays and denials we have seen in recent months. The Government must meet all the demands of survivors and of the bereaved.
In bringing my remarks to a close, I will highlight a key flaw in the current inquiry process. We are relying on the Prime Minister, who is the Minister nominated under the 2005 Act, as I mentioned, to do the right thing, but surely justice should not be about the conscience or whims of one person, however powerful. Surely justice should be a right. That is why I urge the Government to press on with the Hillsborough law, which the bereaved Hillsborough families advanced as a way of preventing what happened to them from happening to others. I hope the Government will provide parliamentary time and support for the passage of such a Bill into law. Martin Luther King once said:
“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”
We need to ensure that our laws serve justice and are not seen as a block to justice.
The Chamber has been packed with MPs from all sides, as it was when many of us gathered together two days after the disaster in this very room, frankly stunned by the enormity of what had happened in north Kensington and what was unfolding before our eyes. Some MPs have not had an opportunity to speak. Next to me is the Minister for the Constitution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), and opposite me is the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott).
Those campaigning for this change and the many bereaved and survivors—the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster—can be in no doubt about the attention and focus that this place gives to Grenfell and to the journey towards truth, justice and healing. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on setting the tone so well at the start of the debate by reading out in such a poignant way the names of the 71 precious lives lost. He was quite right to add to that list the name of Maria Del Pilar Burton, who very sadly died earlier this year.
When we met almost 11 months ago, we were reeling. This afternoon, we meet clearer about what we are dealing with. In terms of loss of life, we are dealing with the worst disaster to hit this country since Hillsborough. We are dealing with a disaster that should not have happened. Those 71 precious lives should not have been lost that night. The lives of their friends and families should not have been torn apart by trauma and grief. More than 300 people should not have been made homeless—most of them losing all their possessions. Local residents who did not live in the tower should not have been traumatised by what they saw and heard that night, which will stay with them forever.
First responders have not been mentioned so far, but police, fire and ambulance staff should not have had to face what they had to face that night to keep the peace and save lives, often at huge risk to themselves. Grenfell will always be part of their lives.
Since then, of course, thousands of people have stepped up to try to help, either because they are part of the extraordinary voluntary effort or because it is their job and their duty. Grenfell will always be part of our lives. Of course, for all of us, as expressed so powerfully this afternoon and before in Parliament and through the media, there remains profound shock and horror across the country that such a disaster could happen in modern Britain.
Given all that, we cannot put everything right, but as a country we can and must do at least three things. First, we must honour the dead in the most appropriate way. I thank those people—many of them are sitting in the Public Gallery this afternoon—who have worked with us on the first steps of a process that I believe will lead to a beautiful and appropriate memorial on the site of the tower, which is a journey with the community at the driving wheel and the voice of the bereaved carrying the most weight.
Secondly, we must do everything we can to help the bereaved, the survivors and the traumatised residents to heal, and to rebuild their lives and—as far as is possible—their hope. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) was absolutely right that that must be done in a way that is human at all times and not bureaucratic and remote. Have we succeeded in that fully? No. But that must be our continued aim. For the homeless, that means settling in new homes that they like and that they feel safe in.
Can I expect the House to have full understanding of all the underlying complexity? No, of course not. It is absolutely right to express frustration, rage and disappointment at the pace of progress. In fact, the Government have put on the record our profound dissatisfaction with the pace of progress.
Let us not lose sight of the fact that, when we started this process, of the category A households—residents of the tower and the walk—210 needed to be rehoused, and we are now in a situation where the number of households in emergency accommodation who have still not accepted offers is down to nine. That is nine households too many and nine households that I am personally committed to trying to sit down with and meet personally, to understand how they are feeling, but it would be wrong to say that no progress has been made or that no action has been taken.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way to the hon. Lady, who did not have a chance to speak earlier.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Nobody here can doubt his commitment, but he has just said that the Government have put on the record their frustration. Can the Government put some resources behind resolving this question, so that we do not have to listen to more stories of people who have been through something horrific and are still without settled accommodation?
With respect to the hon. Lady, it is not an issue of resources; there is no shortage of resource that has been directed to this problem. If she happens to drill down into the underlying details of every single case, she will see that it is not an issue of resource. It is an issue of a deep underlying complexity about some of the things that are still getting in the way of a victim of the disaster finding the home that they feel is right for them and that they feel secure in, which ultimately is all that matters.
Last but not least—it is the theme of this debate—we must deliver truth, we must deliver accountability and we must deliver justice, because we must ensure that such a disaster never happens again, so that no family has to go through this hell.
I suggest to the Minister that it is absolutely vital that victims, the families of victims and the wider community have some faith in the process in terms of finding the truth, and that we as a Government do all we can to give buy-in and credibility to the people, who are the most important piece of this whole problem and tragedy.
I agree 100% with my hon. Friend. I have said it before and I will say it again: I spend a large part of my working day trying to do exactly that. We have to deliver truth, accountability and justice, not least because without those things the victims cannot heal and we cannot heal after the trauma of this terrible disaster.
I believe that the Prime Minister did speak for the whole country when she said last June that the public inquiry must
“get to the truth about what happened and who was responsible, and to provide justice for the victims and their families who suffered so terribly.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 168.]
This debate is not about the destination; it is about how we get there in a way that those who are the most important and most affected by the disaster feel comfortable with.
I join with others, notwithstanding the entreaties of the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), in paying my own personal tribute to the highly dignified way in which the victims of this disaster, not least as represented by Grenfell United, have resisted—let us be frank about this—attempts at the start of this process to agitate and cause unrest. They have resisted that and said, “That is not for us. We are going to conduct ourselves with dignity and peace. We are going to march silently and we are going to make our case. And we are going to make an argument.” They have won that argument. I have sat alongside the Prime Minister as she has listened to many of the people sitting at the back of Westminster Hall today while they have made their argument. They have won that argument, and I congratulate them on that.
Many people have argued, “Oh well, this is a straightforward thing. She should have given it a long time ago.” It is not straightforward. Changing the structure of a public inquiry is a big deal. It is a big decision. Let us be frank as well: there are also good reasons to set up an inquiry and to put it in the hands of a single judge, one with a tremendous reputation for integrity and forensic ability. There are good reasons for doing that, but the Prime Minister made it very clear that she would keep that decision under review, and she has done exactly that. She has the power to review the make-up of the inquiry panel at any time during the inquiry and she has done that. She has listened very carefully to the argument; as I said, I have sat next to her as she has done that and I know exactly the demeanour that she took into those meetings. However, she has also looked at the scope of phase two, and recognised its growth and complexity.
Phase two of the inquiry will look at original design, construction and subsequent modifications of the tower; the inspections carried out during the modifications; the governance and management of the tower; the communications between the residents of the tower and the council and the tenant management organisation before the fire; what fire advice was given to the residents; how central and local Government responded to recommendations relevant to the risk; and how central and local government and the tenant management organisation responded to the aftermath of the fire. As we get into this process, there are more and more suggestions about other things that need to be looked at in phase two.
The Prime Minister has looked at all that and combined it with listening to the arguments made by Grenfell United and others, which are rooted in their strong contention that the process needed to carry the trust of the most important people in it: those people most directly affected by the disaster. She has taken her decision.
I reassure the House that there is no intention of hanging around in identifying the two other panel members that the Prime Minister has agreed to. All Members will recognise that time needs to be given to making sure that we get this absolutely right in bringing to the table the right combination of experience and expertise to fill any perceived gaps, so that those individuals carry the confidence of the community. That is absolutely fundamental to the Prime Minister and my undertaking is to continue working with the community. I am sure that Sir Martin understands that completely as well. The intention is to get on with identifying and appointing the panel members in consultation with Sir Martin as soon as possible.
The petition also considers that, to secure trust in the inquiry, legal representatives of the bereaved families and survivors should be able to see all the evidence from the start and be allowed to question witnesses at the hearings. For the information of the House, the inquiry has received some 330,000 documents and has conducted an initial review of more than 180,000. The expectation is that more will follow. The inquiry must review the documents, first of all for relevance and to identify duplication, and then to decide how each document fits into the picture that the inquiry is building up.
The inquiry has been disclosing documentary evidence to core participants on a confidential basis since February and continues to do so in the run-up to the start of the hearings. It will disclose further relevant information as the hearings progress, and it must be right that the independent public inquiry is allowed to determine how and when it discloses information. As the inquiry moves forward, it will develop its picture and assess the relevance of the documentary evidence as it progresses.
MPs are advised that only a tiny percentage of the relevant documents have been disclosed so far to core participants’ lawyers. Given the recent scandals over lack of disclosure by the Crown Prosecution Service in England, can the Minister give the families of the deceased and the survivors sitting here today reassurance that disclosure will happen fully and orderly for this inquiry?
I am absolutely sure that that is the intention of those leading the inquiry. The process I have set out is one that is absolutely familiar and typical in relation to public inquiries. When we are talking about hundreds and thousands of documents, some judgments have to be made and some judgments will be challenged. I think there will be transparency in the form of regular bulletins from the inquiry. I would like the hon. and learned Lady and others to build into their feelings some consideration of the need to avoid unacceptable delays in the process of the inquiry. Underlying this is a strong feeling that I know well: people are worried about how long the process will take, and they are right to be, given some of the examples of the past. So these are judgments for the inquiry, but I think there will be transparency around the process and it will be open to challenge.
The third part of the petition is about the right to question witnesses. Core participants are able to suggest lines of questioning that the inquiry should pursue and, with permission from the inquiry, can ask witnesses questions through their own legal representatives. The inquiry rules are clear that the recognised legal representative of a core participant can seek permission to ask questions of a witness giving oral evidence. In his response to the inquiry’s procedural hearing in December, Sir Martin said that he would approach with an open mind any such applications, and that is the approach he will take.
While the Minister is covering that aspect of the inquiry, will he respond to my point about parity of arms? I know that legal resources are being made available to the families of those we lost at Grenfell, and that is a good thing, but I worry about getting into a situation in which, yet again, the state has vastly more resources at its disposal for lawyers than families do. That inequality cannot be tolerated, I am afraid.
I absolutely share the hon. Lady’s concern, as will anyone who has read the Bishop’s report. I also worked on the response to the death in custody review, in which exactly the same point was made by Dame Elish. There is a fundamental point here on which I hope we will make significant progress in our responses to the Bishop’s report and the death in custody review.
I wish to reassure the House about the scale and pace of the inquiry. I should also put on record commendation of the way in which Sir Martin has not only stepped up to the responsibility but has driven the process at pace. Many of those who have campaigned for the change have been at pains to point out that it is not a personal criticism of him. There is tremendous respect for his integrity and his forensic ability. He is driving a very complicated process at pace. He has granted 547 core participants to the inquiry, 519 of whom are individuals from the Grenfell community. That is an unprecedented number.
Procedural hearings to consider matters relating to the conduct of the inquiry have taken place and on 27 April the inquiry published a timetable for its phase one hearings, which will focus on the factual narrative of the events on 14 June 2017. Before the evidential hearings start on 4 June, there will be two weeks of hearings, beginning on 21 May, commemorating all those who lost their lives. That will provide an opportunity for those families who lost loved ones at Grenfell Tower to commemorate them as individuals, calmly and with dignity. The bereaved families will be able to memorialise their loved ones in any way they think best, whether as a presentation, an audio recording, a short film or in any other way. That shows the inquiry’s commitment to ensuring that the bereaved, the survivors and the residents are central to its work. The counsel to the inquiry has said that by
“starting the public hearings in this way, we can ensure that, however technical and scientific the issues may become”—
and they will—
“however dry, however legal, we will never lose sight of who our work is for and why we are doing it”,
and he is right on that.
Following the commemorations, the evidential hearings will begin on 4 June. They will hear evidence from the inquiry’s expert witnesses and London fire brigade personnel. The hearings will run until the end of July. There will be no hearings in August, as the inquiry prepares to hear evidence from the bereaved, the survivors and local residents, starting on 3 September and running for approximately four weeks. Further expert witness evidence will be heard during October, and the closing statements will be made in the week beginning 29 October. Sir Martin will prepare an interim report following the end of the phase one oral evidence hearings, and the programme for the phase two hearings will be issued nearer the time.
Bearing in mind the lack of confidence in the local authority, where reasonable concerns exist in the community, whether about the local authority, the inquiry or rehousing, is the Minister confident that clear processes and channels are in place for those concerns to be raised directly with the Minister and acted upon?
Since the start of the process, Ministers have been sitting down with representatives of Kensington and Chelsea and all the other state agencies that are working together on Grenfell to challenge things we have been told and to ask ourselves how we can support the statutory agencies in their work, so I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.
I wish to make reference to the fact that the public inquiry is, of course, not the only route to truth and justice. Only one Member of Parliament has mentioned the other route this afternoon, which is the criminal investigation. Let us be clear, the Metropolitan Police Service has started one of the largest criminal investigations ever outside counter-terrorism, with a dedicated team of approximately 200 officers, many of whom I met on a recent visit to Hendon. The team are extremely professional and very, very dedicated to doing the job properly. They are fully engaged with the public inquiry and are focused on four key areas. To give an idea of the scale and complexity of what they are dealing with, approximately 460 companies have been identified as having some involvement in work on Grenfell Tower, and the current estimate is that about 35 million documents will have to be processed. Let us not lose sight of the criminal investigation, because it is also a critical path to justice.
In conclusion, I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) that there is no walking away from Grenfell. That would be a complete abdication of our responsibility to our fellow citizens who have suffered a terrible wrong. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said, we know in this place just how badly the state has failed in the past in such situations, and we cannot fall into that trap again. Parliament will hold the Government of the day fully to account on that fundamental truth. Justice is a precondition of the healing we want to see. The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) said that trust was a precondition of justice; in fact, it is the passage of facts and truths that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley talked about, combined with the forensic investigation that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) referred to, that are the preconditions. However, we cannot proceed without trust.
We cannot proceed without the buy-in of those who are the most important in the process, those most directly affected, those who lives have been ripped apart by this disaster. They need to trust the process. That is at the heart of and underpins the Prime Minister’s decision, which is a big one. To change the course of a public inquiry is a big decision that is not taken lightly, and she has done so because she recognises the fundamental truth of the debate, which is to put the needs and feelings of those most affected by the disaster at the heart not just of the public inquiry, but of all our thoughts and all our processes, to try to help on this journey towards healing, recovery and a rebuilding of lives and hope. So no, we are not going away on Grenfell. We must deliver truth, justice and accountability.
I pay tribute once again to the campaigners, and I want to explain to them and the people watching that if they have seen MPs drifting in and out, it is because of the nature of this House and of our different priorities at any given time. I hope they will have seen that the interest in the debate—we have had four Cabinet Ministers coming in and out—shows the importance that we place upon solving the situation and bringing justice to the people who are most affected. Of all the speeches, the last one, by the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), really had the balance right between the raw passion that is still there, for her from Lakanal, and her approach to solving the problem. That is what we must do. We need action.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).