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Grenfell Tower

Volume 642: debated on Monday 11 June 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire, meeting our commitment to update the House following the Opposition day debate on 16 May. I am also writing to the Chair of the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government to provide a formal report on progress, a copy of which will be placed in the House Library.

As we mark a year since the tragedy, this will be an extremely painful time for the community. Many hon. Members provided powerful and poignant contributions in the e-petition and Opposition day debates last month, and I know that the whole House will join me in sending the bereaved and survivors our love and prayers.

On 14 June 2017 we saw the greatest loss of life in a residential fire since the second world war: 71 people lost their lives on the night of the fire, and a former tower resident who was rescued from the 19th floor passed away earlier this year. The start of the public inquiry was a timely reminder of that terrible human cost: a baby who never lived to learn how much he was loved; three generations of family wiped out; heroes who died saving others. Nobody could fail to be moved by the extraordinary tributes paid by family and friends to the loved ones they lost—by their courage and dignity in the face of unimaginable loss, and, yes, by their anger too. A catastrophe of this kind should never have happened in the UK in 2017, and when it did the initial response was not good enough. Nothing could undo the anguish and devastation this has caused, but as the Prime Minister said, we can and must do right by the memory of those who lost their lives and those left behind, by supporting those affected, securing justice and, above all, ensuring that nothing like this can ever happen again.

There has been an unprecedented effort across Government and our public services. Help is being provided on a range of issues from advice on benefits to emotional and mental health support. In total, we have spent more than £46 million of national Government funds and committed a further £34 million to help meet rehousing costs, deliver new mental health services and deliver improvements to the Lancaster West estate. The appointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) as Grenfell victims Minister has helped to ensure that the voices of those affected inform the response, and we set up the independent Grenfell recovery taskforce to help and challenge the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to provide better support for residents and rebuild trust. I want to thank everyone for their tireless support, particularly the emergency services and the public and voluntary sectors.

Clearly, one of the most pressing issues has been rehousing those who lost their homes. A large-scale programme of investment work has been under way to ensure that the homes are of good quality and personalised to meet the needs of families. The council has acquired more than 300 homes in and around the borough. A total of 203 households needed new homes, and 198 have accepted permanent or temporary accommodation. That means that all but five households have accepted offers, and 134 have now moved in. Most of the work to ensure that all the homes that have been accepted are ready to move into is complete, and we expect many of the remaining properties to be ready in the coming weeks. While those households are preparing to move, the council has ensured that they have all had the option to move into more suitable accommodation.

I remain concerned, however, about the 43 households who are living in hotels. My ministerial team has met many of them, and I have personally written to all of them to find out what barriers exist in each individual case and how we can overcome them. This is not where any of us wanted to be a year on from the fire. There has been progress in recent weeks, but overall the pace has been too slow. My Department and the independent taskforce are continuing to provide scrutiny and challenge to the council, and we have provided additional resources directly to the council to help to speed up this work. We will not rest until everyone is settled into a new home.

Those affected also badly need answers and to see justice done. The Grenfell Tower inquiry and Metropolitan police investigations will ensure that this happens, but we must also learn from what has happened. Over the past year, my Department has been working closely with fire and rescue services, local authorities and landlords to ensure that other buildings like Grenfell Tower are safe. Remediation work has started on two thirds of buildings in the social housing sector. Also, the Prime Minister announced last month that the Government will fully fund the removal and replacement of potentially dangerous aluminium composite material cladding on buildings over 18 metres high owned by social landlords, with costs estimated at £400 million, and we have made it clear that we expect building owners in the private sector not to pass costs on to leaseholders. To that end, I recently met leaseholders and put their concerns to industry representatives at a number of roundtables. Some in the sector, such as Barratt Developments, Legal & General and Taylor Wimpey, are doing the right thing and taking responsibility. I urge all others to follow. Those in the private sector must step up, and I am not ruling anything out if they do not do so.

In addition, I recently welcomed Dame Judith Hackitt’s final, comprehensive report following her independent review of building regulations and fire safety. In response, I committed to bringing forward legislation to reform the system of fire safety and give residents a stronger voice. Having listened carefully to concerns, the Government intend to ban the use of combustible materials on the external walls of high-rise residential buildings, subject to consultation. We will publish the consultation next week. It is essential that people living in buildings like Grenfell Tower not only are safe but feel that the state understands their lives and works for them. There is no question but that their faith in that has been shaken. That is why, as well as strengthening building and fire safety, we will be publishing a social housing Green Paper by the recess. I am confident that these measures will help us to rebuild public trust and deliver the meaningful, lasting change that is needed.

Our country has seen many difficult times, but that night at Grenfell Tower was one of our darkest hours. We will never forget those who died. We will not falter in our support for those who are still grieving, or flag in our determination to ensure that no community has to go through such agonies again. In doing this, we can be inspired by the incredible spirit of the people of north Kensington and the way they have come together. And when we say never again, we mean it. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for honouring his commitment to make this statement following our Opposition day debate and for giving me early sight of it this afternoon.

In this anniversary week, we remember the 72 people who lost their lives through the Grenfell Tower fire, and we will not forget our special duty as Members of Parliament to do right by them and by those who survive them.

Directly after this national disaster, the Prime Minister was right to make the first statement to the House herself, and she had the whole House with her when she pledged that Grenfell residents would have all the help and new homes they needed and that every necessary step would be taken to stop this ever happening again. Imagine the reaction if the Prime Minister had said instead, “One year on, more than half of Grenfell survivors will still be stuck in hotel rooms or temporary accommodation; more than 300 other tower blocks around the country will have the same Grenfell-style cladding, yet only 10 will have had it removed and replaced; there will be more tower blocks in private hands that have still not been tested; and, astonishingly, the Government will still not know how many high-rise tower blocks there are in the country.” In truth, Ministers have been off the pace and too slow to act at every stage for 12 months, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s admission of that this afternoon. The Government’s response has not been good enough, and it is still not good enough. The time for warm words is long past. More action, not more apologies, is needed now.

On rehousing survivors, Grenfell residents feel that they were failed before the fire, and many feel failed since. They were promised permanent new homes within a year, but only 82 of the 209 households are in permanent new homes. On the wider Grenfell estate, only 39 of 127 are in permanent new homes. The dossier released today by the North Kensington law centre catalogues the defects in the new homes that have been offered, which include damp, delayed repairs and tenancy terms different from those for the homes people lost in the tower. The Secretary of State told the House on 16 May that he was

“establishing at pace what further action could be taken, by the Government or by the council, to speed up this process.”—[Official Report, 16 May 2018; Vol. 641, c. 314.]

However, he has told us nothing more today. What further action is he taking? What deadline has he set for all survivors to be permanently rehoused so that they can begin to rebuild their lives? Without a deadline, more words of regret will simply ring hollow to the still homeless residents of Grenfell Tower.

Turning to the safety of the other high-rise blocks around the country, after 12 months only 10 of more than 300 with the same Grenfell-type cladding have had it replaced, despite the Prime Minister’s promise to

“do whatever it takes to…keep our people safe.”

We welcome the funding for social housing tower blocks, which was pledged under Labour pressure, and we welcome the Secretary of State’s intention to ban combustible material on the outside of high-rise blocks, which was also pledged under pressure.

May I keep up the pressure following the statement this afternoon and persuade the Secretary of State to go further and take the action that is now needed? Will he accept that sprinklers must be retrofitted in high-rise blocks, and will he set up an emergency fire safety fund to help council and housing association landlords with the costs? Will he publish in full the details that the Department holds on the location, ownership, testing status and evacuation policy of all high-rise blocks confirmed unsafe? Will he make it clear to private block owners that they, not residents, have the legal duty to pay for replacing dangerous cladding? Finally, will he strengthen councils’ enforcement powers and sanctions so that they can act when private landlords will not make their buildings safe? That is how we honour the promises made in this House. That is how we ensure that, as the Secretary of State said today, when we say never again, we mean it.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response. I can say to him that, yes, we are very firmly focused on the outstanding issue of those needing to move into permanent accommodation. Since my last statement to the House, I have been pressing the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and its contractor. It is fair to say that, as I indicated in the initial response, the council had issues with its contracting that meant it needed to replace its contractor. The council has had a new contractor in place for a number of months that is making important progress on ensuring standards are met in respect of accommodation for those needing to be rehoused and that, actually, there is a firm element of personalisation in that accommodation to ensure that, when residents move in, they can see the care, thought and attention that has been put into the accommodation to make it a home and so that they can feel stability and safety in those new homes.

The right hon. Gentleman made a number of other points in respect of high-rise blocks and the various steps that have been taken over the course of this year. I point him to Dame Judith Hackitt’s comprehensive report on building safety, which gives a real sense of this Government’s commitment to making sustained change on building safety, and, equally, to my decision to go further in respect of banning combustible cladding and to the consultation I will launch next week.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about mandating sprinklers, and I underline to him that, since 2007, building regulations guidance has stated that all new high-rise residential buildings over 30 metres must have sprinklers. Sprinklers can be an effective safety measure, but they are one of many such measures that could be adopted. As Dame Judith Hackitt points out in her report, no single fire safety measure, including sprinklers, can be seen as a panacea.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to provide details on the list of properties, which is something he has raised before, and there are particular safety concerns around that. In respect of his point on private owners, if he listened to what I have said he would know that I have stated on a number of occasions a very clear message on the responsibility of private owners, and I have underlined to a number of building owners and developers their responsibilities and the need to take action. We have also ensured that local authorities have the appropriate powers to investigate further, as I have previously indicated to the House.

The right hon. Gentleman’s broader point is a very relevant one, on remembering and honouring the victims of this appalling tragedy—one that, across this House, we all fully recognise—and the need for us to work together to ensure that appropriate changes are put in place. I certainly will not shrink from that, and I will certainly work with him on bringing forward changes. He knows that substantive changes have come from the Hackitt review, and I intend to publish further proposals on building regulations before the summer recess. I will certainly be updating the House on that again before the summer recess because, in honour of all those who lost their lives, we must get this right, and that is what the Government intend to do.

The Secretary of State says he has an expectation that building owners in the private sector will not pass costs on to leaseholders. I have met constituents at Premier House in Edgware who are rather concerned and would like to know what tangible and legal steps the Secretary of State will introduce to ensure that costs are not passed on to them, as leaseholders, either through a management charge or through a direct charge.

I certainly understand the concerns that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have expressed, which is why I have met a number of building owners directly to set out our expectations. The industry is considering how to ensure that those obligations are not passed on to leaseholders, but there is a growing sense of doing the right thing. It is notable that more building owners have determined to meet the costs themselves but, as I have indicated to the House, if they do not, I have not ruled anything out.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. One year on, our thoughts are with all the families and communities whose lives have been touched and altered unimaginably by this terrible tragedy. We welcome the publication of the Hackitt report, and I want to make it clear that the Scottish Government will swiftly consider any lessons and any actions that may be needed, as they did earlier this year when the Scottish housing Minister, Kevin Stewart, announced changes on requiring smoke alarms to be put in buildings.

One question I wish to ask today is whether the changes the Minister is announcing apply to buildings not in the super high-rise category? Do they apply just to super high-rise buildings or do they also apply to other high-rise buildings and other high-risk buildings that may be affected by combustible cladding and other poor fire safety procedures? We welcome the Prime Minister’s acceptance earlier today that her and her Government’s initial response to Grenfell was not good enough. I echo the views of the Opposition spokesperson in saying that I hope that those actions can be solid and can be taken much more quickly in future. I particularly wish to highlight issues relating to the mental health support that is available. I ask the Government to look closely at what is being done to ensure that those whose lives have been affected by this terrible tragedy are not at the high risk of attempting suicide that they seem to be just now and at ensuring that suitable mental health support is put in place so that they have the best support in future.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments and for the indication about the Scottish Government working with us as we seek to take a number of these proposals forward. Judith Hackitt’s report was very much focused on high-rise residential blocks, but she did indicate a need for reflection on whether the requirements she set out should have broader application. Clearly, as we move forward with the implementation of the Hackitt review and the consultation on the banning of combustible cladding, we will be keeping this under examination.

As I have indicated to the House, we accept that the initial response was not good enough and I have set out why we have been taking a number of the steps we have. The hon. Lady highlights the mental health issue. NHS England has responded really proactively, in terms of contacting all the bereaved through the family liaison officers, providing a 24-hour emergency response service, making outreach contacts and providing a comprehensive trauma service. The point is that that is not just for now; it will be for a considerable time to come. We firmly recognise the support that will be needed, and discussions continue with the NHS and others to see that that remains in place.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. He will be aware that the Hackitt review described current building regulations as too complex, too confusing and “not fit for purpose” in the 21st century. So what discussions will he be having with representatives of the fire service, particularly the Chief Fire Officers Association, about how we can reform that to make sure that our building regulations are fit for purpose?

A considerable body of work needs to be advanced, and we are advancing it. My hon. Friend mentions the fire service, but we are also engaging with others on taking forward the implementation of the Hackitt review. It will require legislation and we want to get that right, and I will certainly be updating the House on the next steps in the coming weeks so that we can make that a reality. We need to put that system-wide change that Judith Hackitt underlined into effect, because of all the wide challenges that she rightly set out.

I very much welcome the regular updates by the Secretary of State. Will he add Bellway Homes to the list of developers who have been very helpful in paying back any of the extra costs to Palm House and Malt House residents in respect of the temporary fire prevention measures? However, there is some ambiguity about whether or not category 2 aluminium composite material cladding has to be removed from lower high-rise blocks. Clearly, there is concern about that, so I hope he will come forward with some more guidelines that will help the authorities.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting the particular case in her constituency. The purpose of the consultation that I set out—the technical consultation that I intend to issue next week in relation to the banning of combustible cladding—is absolutely about seeking to give that clarity. It will obviously allow people to respond to that to ensure that this is in the right place, but issues over the nature of the materials to be used are absolutely at the heart of it.

When I attended the very moving event held in Speaker’s House and spoke to survivors, one of the most striking and moving points made was residents telling me that repeated complaints and concerns had been raised but had not been listened to or acted on. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the point in the Hackitt report where she recommends a clear line of complaint, recognition and action must be acted upon if we are to rebuild trust—not just in relation to Grenfell, but everywhere with tenants in high-rise buildings?

Trust lies at the absolute heart of all this, and the issue of escalation is one that Judith Hackitt refers to starkly and clearly in her report; it is one of the key recommendations. Obviously, all of it sets out change that needs to happen, but it is important that the complaints—the voices—are listened to and that there is a means of escalation so that change can happen.

On this sad anniversary, my thoughts, too, are with all those affected by Grenfell Tower.

The Secretary of State has already mentioned the Hackitt review and the implementation of the recommendations. I would like to insist on one particular recommendation—that is on the named qualified individual responsible for signing off on the safety of high-rise buildings. Is there a timeline for introducing a statutory instrument on that?

We will certainly be looking at steps that can be taken sooner rather than later in respect of the Hackitt review. As I said to the House when the review was published, while some of this will require primary legislation, not all of it will. Therefore, as we look at how to take this forward, I have charged my officials to set out what we may be able to do sooner rather than later, and where consultation may be required and where it may not, so that we can see progress and action. That is why I indicated then—and I will do so—that I would update the House before the summer recess.

Leaseholders in my constituency are continuing to be beset with fear at having costs ranging between £40,000 and £50,000 passed on to them to carry out remedial and fire safety work, so this is my question: it is okay for the Secretary of State to say that, morally, people should not be doing this, but does he not have to take action? It requires Government intervention to ensure that these costs are not passed on to leaseholders.

I hear that message loud and clear. It was a message that was conveyed to me very firmly at the leaseholder roundtable that I convened to hear directly from those who are really suffering at the moment—the concerns, the risks, the fear, the anxieties that they have. I think industry is starting to listen. I indicated some of the progress that has been made, but that needs to be at pace. It is the landlords and the building owners themselves who should bear that responsibility and cost. As I have said, if that does not happen, I will keep all issues under review.

The Secretary of State was remarkably and refreshingly candid in saying that the Government had been too slow to act. Nine months ago, West Midlands fire service recommended a raft of measures to be taken to ensure that the 10,000 households in 213 tower blocks in Birmingham were safe, including retrofitting of sprinklers. Nine months later, not one penny has been forthcoming from Government to help Birmingham City Council—cash strapped—to carry out the necessary work to ensure those blocks are safe.

I know the Secretary of State is sympathetic to acting on this, but can I press him further: when will the Government act to make the necessary resources available, in partnership with local government?

That is an example of what I call shoehorning. The hon. Gentleman has shoehorned his very legitimate and intense preoccupation with matters Birmingham into an exchange about matters Grenfell, but we know he has done that in a positive spirit, and therefore the House is, I think, benignly disposed to him.

I know that that is an issue of particular concern to the hon. Gentleman. He will know that the Government have committed £400 million in respect of the remediation of combustible cladding. He makes a slightly different point, but we obviously have given financial flexibilities to local authorities in respect of other measures, and we are looking to provide any further technical detail in relation to the remediation of cladding in the coming weeks, and working with local government to ensure that the £400 million is duly utilised.

Will the Government set up a fund, as requested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), so that, where fire safety officers recommend retrofitting sprinklers, they will be fitted and paid for by the Government?

I have already set out the position of the sprinkler issue in relation to new buildings. Obviously, it is for building owners to assess risk and consider what is appropriate for them. We have sought to support the sector in relation to remediation of combustible cladding with the £400 million and give financial flexibilities to local authorities, too. We will continue to keep the situation under review.

In his statement, the Secretary of State spoke about further recommendations for change. Given that Government statistics for 2016-17 show that faulty electrical appliances were the second largest cause of accidental house fires in the UK, does he support my early-day motion 1119 on PAT testing of domestic electrical appliances?

I must confess to the hon. Gentleman that I am not conscious of his early-day motion, but I will certainly look at it in due course to see the specific point that he has made. If any issues come through, I certainly commit to write to him in respect of his early-day motion. Obviously, we continue to keep the regulations under review, and, of course, the inquiry itself will be looking at a number of these issues.

I note what the Secretary of State says about sprinkler systems in new buildings, but how can we justify protecting tenants in new tower blocks in that way while leaving vulnerable and exposed tenants in existing tower blocks? How also can we justify the difference in treatment of hotel guests who are protected in existing buildings from sprinkler systems while leaving residents in tower blocks exposed?

We must look at the overall position of safety in buildings. I suppose that we could point to the fact that the Hackitt report drew that out. It is for building owners to seek professional advice and to decide whether to fit sprinklers on the basis of their assessment of the particular risk in a particular building. I must point out that my Department did write to local authorities and housing associations in 2013 to ask them to consider a coroner’s report recommendation that they should consider retrofitting sprinklers in existing high-rise residential buildings. It is for them to do so. As I have said, it is about looking at all of the measures that are in place in a building to protect and guard against fire safety issues. Again, we look forward to the recommendations that the inquiry itself will make.