House of Commons
Wednesday 30 October 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Order. It will be for the convenience of Members to be aware that, unusually, our House photographer will take several photos from the Bar of the House and from behind the Chair today, tomorrow and, as appropriate, on Monday.
BUSINESS BEFORE QUESTIONS
That there be laid before the House Returns for Session 2017-19 of information and statistics relating to:
(1) Business of the House
(2) Closure of Debate, Proposal of Question and Allocation of Time (including Programme Motions)
(3) Sittings of the House
(4) Private Bills and Private Business
(5) Public Bills
(6) Delegated Legislation and Legislative Reform Orders
(7) European Legislation, etc
(8) Grand Committees
(9) Panel of Chairs
(10) Select Committees.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Armed Forces Veterans
Before I begin, may I pay tribute to you, Mr Speaker, on what I believe is—I am not sure—your penultimate day in the Chair? As I have said before, despite the odd disagreement in my past life as Government Chief Whip, your energy, drive and commitment to this role has been without parallel. I hope you will indulge me if I also pay tribute to two other departing Members with a strong interest in Northern Ireland: first, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who has served his constituents with good grace for over 20 years and clearly cares deeply about Northern Ireland and its people; and secondly, my ministerial colleague my right hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who has been in indispensable to me since I took over this role. He has been critical in driving forward preparations for Northern Ireland’s exit from the EU, and also in his tireless work for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. I would also like to wish all colleagues who are leaving Parliament my best wishes; as Chief Whip, I saw at first hand how tough this period of political history has been for all colleagues.
The UK Government are fully committed to the covenant. A veterans strategy was published last year and a consultation event held in Belfast in conjunction with the veterans support office. I am now working closely with colleagues to develop a comprehensive response to that consultation so that we can ensure that every veteran receives the support they need and the recognition they deserve.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but when is the pursuit of brave Northern Ireland veterans and former members of the security services going to come to an end? Is the Secretary of State aware that the Ministry of Defence supports a presumption against prosecution when a case has already been fully investigated, unless there is new evidence? May I urge him to support that proposal and make it an election pledge?
My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a consultation going on, as he has referred to. The Northern Ireland Office is looking at the Northern Ireland challenges on legacy. These are very sensitive issues—the system is not working, and we will be reporting back to this House over the coming weeks.
May I, on behalf of my party, extend our best wishes to the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and the Minister of State, to the right hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who has been incredibly helpful to me on a particular issue and, indeed, to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who has been a recurring strong voice for Northern Ireland?
The Secretary of State said three weeks ago that no party in Northern Ireland would have a veto, yet Sinn Féin used its veto on the extension of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland; it does not apply in whole or in part, because of Sinn Féin’s sectarian intransigence. Will the Secretary of State keenly pursue the full implementation of the covenant in Northern Ireland?
The Government are committed to the armed forces covenant. As I said, we are engaging with the consultation that has occurred. We are clear on our responsibilities; the covenant is working across Northern Ireland, but we obviously need to ensure that it is working as efficiently and productively as possible for members of the armed forces.
In the 30 years since I attended the Remembrance service at Enniskillen after the tragedy and atrocity there, there has been recognition of the service by nationalists, Catholics and Irish people in the great war and in the second world war. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to encourage the joint remembrance of a joint sacrifice?
I will be joining Remembrance Day in Enniskillen in a week or so, and I will be thinking of all the people who have contributed in the way that my hon. Friend refers to.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), may I gently say to the Secretary of State —and I apologise for all the grief I have given him over the past few years—that, on this very important matter, when I was the Veterans Minister I had the great honour of visiting Northern Ireland, and I have to say to him that the covenant, which the coalition Government did so much to advance in that time, has just not happened in Northern Ireland, and it is because of sectarian differences? That is not fair, and those in Northern Ireland must have exactly the same rights under the covenant as those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question and pay tribute to her for the work she did in that role. I am aware that there is more to do, which is why we have been consulting on how the covenant is being implemented. There are things to improve, and we will make sure that we improve them.
It is deeply frustrating that there has been no functioning Assembly for so long. MLAs’ pay is deeply controversial, but they are doing important constituency work. I have said that I will review MLA pay, and I am currently doing that.
I echo the sentiments about colleagues who are leaving, in particular my fellow Northern Ireland Affairs Committee member, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who has stood up for Northern Ireland.
At the Select Committee last week it was revealed that the cost of MLA salaries has reached over £15 million since the Assembly was dissolved. MLAs do good constituency work, but is it not time to use that mechanism as a tool to get the Assembly back up and running?
My hon. Friend is right that this is a challenge. It is a controversial amount of money, but in my view we have to do everything we can to encourage the political parties in Northern Ireland to come together. We need to review pay, but we also need to encourage the Assembly to get up and running.
There is a lot of talk about reducing the salaries of MLAs, but I am sure the Secretary of State will agree with me that many, many MLAs work hard in their constituencies to provide constituency services through their offices. That is an important factor.
My hon. Friend is right. The quality of political leadership and the quality of MLAs is high. We need all MLAs to come together and get going in the interests of Northern Ireland.
I should like the Secretary of State to explain to the people of Northern Ireland why he is still dithering about cutting the salaries of MLAs. He cannot possibly justify continuing to pay MLAs almost £36,000 a year each during the next five years, and the general election campaign will bring no expectation of the Assembly being restored. For goodness’ sake, give the people of Northern Ireland some good news. Cut their salaries and do not dither.
The hon. Lady is being tough on me. At the Select Committee the other day I committed to doing a review as a result of her question, and I am doing that review.
Leaving the EU: Peace in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland’s security situation has been transformed as a result of the peace process. Although the threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism continues to be assessed as severe, hard work by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and others means that most people are not affected. Challenges remain and will continue after EU exit, but Northern Ireland is a place where people want to work, study and live free from the threat or use of violence.
The Prime Minister will spend the next several weeks trying to sell his damaging Brexit deal in Northern Ireland, among other places. The Chief Constable of the PSNI believes that that deal could lead to an increase in violence and civil unrest. What additional funding will the Secretary of State commit to community policing in Northern Ireland to help him cope?
The PSNI has received additional funding in the run-up to Brexit. I remain in constant touch with the Chief Constable, and I will ensure that the funding and resourcing they need to do their job, which they do day in, day out to protect the citizens of Northern Ireland, is there.
There is widespread disquiet among Unionists about the proposed deal, because of the concept of a border down the Irish sea. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the UK comes out of the interim period and has a free trade agreement, Northern Ireland can have absolute equal status with the whole of the rest of the UK if mutual enforcement is introduced both north and south of the border? That would get rid of the need for a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and a border down the Irish sea.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. The Government, through this deal, are ensuring that the United Kingdom comes out of the EU as a whole. On east-west trade, we are doing everything we can to ensure that there will be unfettered access to the GB market and no barriers to that trade.
The PSNI operates on a very flexible basis. My view is that it is well resourced—as I said, it got additional funding through the recent funding increase for the police—but I will keep monitoring that over the coming weeks.
There can be no justification in any circumstances for the use of violence against a democratic decision taken by the people of this country. Nevertheless, the EU withdrawal agreement could create a precedent whereby the principle of consent is altered. The principle of consent is fundamental to Unionist support for the political process and our participation in it. I ask the Secretary of State to look again at what the Government have proposed in this agreement and the damage it is doing to Unionist confidence in the process.
As my right hon. Friend knows, there is no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. I accept that there have been significant questions from the Unionist community. I met with a range of Unionist community groups, including the Orange Order, on Saturday. I will continue to have those meetings and to reassure people that there is no constitutional change and that the arrangements for the Assembly and the Executive remain unchanged.
I thank the Secretary of State for his most generous words. I have to say, the warmth and kindness he displayed are not normally characteristics of the Whips Office, which made them doubly welcome.
This is a bittersweet occasion, but for me the bitterness is assuaged by the sweetness of the 21 years I have worked in Northern Ireland, in that most beautiful part of the world, with some of the finest and sweetest people anyone could ever hope to meet. I implore the Secretary of State and all those who will assemble in the new Parliament to strain every sinew to see that those children born 21 years ago, who are now a new generation of adults in Northern Ireland, may finally know the peace to which they are entitled and let Northern Ireland finally flourish and bloom in peace and prosperity.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. My conversations with young people in Northern Ireland are the most moving and humbling I have ever had, and I will do everything I can to ensure that the opportunities those women and men have are maintained and can flourish. All the young people I have met in Northern Ireland so far in this job show every hope for a successful future for Northern Ireland.
The withdrawal agreement is clear that the UK Government are committed to protecting Northern Ireland’s position in the UK internal market, and we have guaranteed that Northern Irish businesses and farmers will continue to have unfettered access to the rest of the UK market. When the withdrawal agreement comes back, those clauses on unfettered access between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will be in it. Businesses in Northern Ireland will benefit from tariff-free access to the UK single market while also benefiting from future trade deals negotiated with the UK.
It is one of the defining characteristics of a nation state that goods moving into a territory are subject to regulations that are not there for goods that move within it. That is why the withdrawal agreement is a threat to the future of the Union that is the United Kingdom. It is why the former Prime Minister was absolutely right to discount completely the possibility of a customs border down the Irish sea. Why has the Conservative and Unionist party changed its mind?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the key priority was to maintain no hard border on the island of Ireland—the thing that has ensured peace there for the last few decades. As I said, we will deliver on the commitments in the protocol on unfettered access for NI businesses into the GB market.
If there are to be east-west arrangements, may I press my right hon. Friend to try to ensure that they are cost-neutral for Northern Irish business?
I am having proactive discussions with the Treasury, and I agree that we need to have no costs and no barriers for Northern Ireland business.
In the light of that answer, how does a Unionist Secretary of State justify export declarations on £18.5 billion-worth of trade flowing from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, and what charge will be placed on that £18.5 billion-worth of trade?
Through this agreement, the United Kingdom maintains total control of how that is applied. As my hon. Friend knows, we are working day in, day out to ensure that Northern Irish businesses can send their goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain with absolutely unfettered access.
May I return to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)? Could we not consider the mutual recognition and mutual implementation proposals in much the same way as we administer the common travel area?
Over the coming weeks, and then when we enter the implementation period, we must do everything we can to deliver on the commitment that I have just made to unfettered access for goods travelling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, and ensure that trade can continue as it is now.
Northern Ireland in the UK
As part of the world’s sixth largest economy, Northern Ireland benefits from sharing resources to fund public spending on defence, education and health, and from access to the UK’s unique international networks. It also benefits from the Government’s UK-wide policies, including recent increases in the national living wage and the personal allowance. As Conservatives and Unionists, we should always support the Union and Northern Ireland’s place within it.
In an interview on Radio Ulster this morning, I reiterated our unwavering commitment to Ulster from the Tory Back Benches. I trust that the Minister agrees that, despite the DUP’s initial reservations about the withdrawal agreement, they will hopefully realise that it is in all our interests for it to be passed as soon as possible.
I do agree with my hon. Friend. I think it is clear that this deal safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the customs territory of the UK, safeguards the principle of consent, and safeguards the right of the Northern Ireland Assembly to opt out of future arrangements if it chooses. It absolutely safeguards Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as part of the United Kingdom.
One of the hallmarks of this United Kingdom is fairness and justice for people who have been victims, wherever they have suffered abuse, but today the victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland feel very frustrated and angry about the fact that because an election has been called, the Bill that was designed to address that issue and provide compensation will not now proceed. Can the Minister please indicate, even at this late stage, that it will be allowed to proceed?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to this issue. Time is of the essence when it comes to the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill, and we will do all we can to ensure that it is passed before the general election: my Secretary of State has made that clear. No decision has yet been made about the Bill prior to the dissolution of Parliament, but we will do everything possible to take it forward.
I must press the Minister on this issue. We have literally only a few days and hours left. Surely the Minister can give a more definitive explanation. Surely he can give a definitive commitment that, on this issue, he will step forward. There is cross-party support here in the House, and there is cross-community support in Northern Ireland. Please, please get on with it.
I absolutely recognise the urgency of the matter. Earlier this week, the Secretary of State stated publicly that in order to speed up the delivery of redress mechanisms, he had tasked officials in the Department to work at pace with the Executive Office, and to begin preparations for the scheme once it becomes law. Those preparations will continue, and we will also provide whatever support is needed to assist the Northern Ireland civil service to ensure that victims are paid as rapidly as possible. However, I recognise that this is a question for the House, and we will work with the usual channels to see what we can do on that front as well.
May I begin by thanking you, Mr Speaker, for your courtesy and consideration to the Opposition’s Northern Ireland team?
It would be remiss of me not to recognise the ending of the place on the Front Bench of the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), as well as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who will be sadly missed on our side of the Chamber and, I believe, on the other side as well.
As the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) has said, it is absolutely intolerable that victims of institutional abuse, who had been led to believe that legislation would pass through this House imminently, now face the prospect of the Leader of the House and the business managers frustrating their simple call for justice, even though the Secretary of State, the Opposition and the Democratic Unionist party want that legislation. Will the Minister ensure that he talks to the Leader of the House and demands that that Bill be brought forward before Parliament is prorogued?
It is clear that we have agreement across the House on how important this issue is, and we are doing everything we can to move forward on it. I will certainly have those conversations, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also have those conversations with the usual channels on his side of the House.
Leaving the EU: Withdrawal Agreement
In my last questions, may I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his over-generous remarks and associate myself with his kind words about my north-west London neighbour, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound)? I should also like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for your support over many years in the Chair.
Under the proposed agreement, all businesses will continue to trade across the north-south border without tariffs or new regulatory checks. Businesses in Northern Ireland will continue to benefit from tariff-free access to the UK’s single market while having the opportunity to benefit from any future trade deals negotiated by the UK after we leave the EU.
Has an economic assessment been prepared to illustrate how much of a competitive advantage Northern Ireland will gain from effectively remaining in the EU’s customs union and single market, compared with other businesses across the rest of the UK? If so, will the Minister publish it?
I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the impact assessment. I do not recognise her comments about competitive advantage or disadvantage. I hope that she will recognise that the circumstances in relation to Northern Ireland are special because of the land border, and that the proposed agreement responds to those special characteristics.
The Foreign Secretary has described the deal as “cracking” for Northern Ireland. It stands to reason, then, that the deal must be less cracking for the rest of the UK. Why is Northern Ireland getting special treatment when it voted to remain, while Scotland, which also voted to remain, is having to take the bad hard Brexit that the Tories are so determined to push through?
I understand, I think, the point the hon. Gentleman makes, but I return to what I was saying. He knows that the circumstances in Northern Ireland are special in relation to our exit from the EU because of the existence of the land border and because of the importance that we all attach to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. One of the great achievements of this new proposed withdrawal agreement is the removal of the need for a hard border.
Heysham in my constituency is the nearest mainland UK port to Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that my area could be a boomtown if we had a free port, as 10% of the north-west’s GDP comes in through our port, and it will be 20% once this withdrawal agreement has been finalised?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his creativity in introducing that point, which I am sure will have been heard by the relevant Secretary of State. He raises an important point about the opportunity and need to talk up the UK economy and to talk up the opportunities to increase business and trade links across the UK internal market once we leave the EU.
Welfare Mitigation Payments
The mitigations in place were agreed by the previous Northern Ireland Executive and are sunsetted in March 2020. Ministers here in Westminster do not have the power to instruct the Northern Ireland civil service to take action or to direct spending in relation to devolved matters. Any extension of those mitigations will be a matter for the Northern Ireland civil service and restored Executive Ministers.
I am—[Interruption.] I am sure that the people of Selly Oak would like the welcome that the Prime Minister just received.
In view of the importance of this issue, will the Minister consider amending the Bill, because it is clear that if the people of Northern Ireland face this welfare cliff edge, there will be major problems from March next year?
This is an incredibly serious issue. Thousands of people in Northern Ireland benefit from these mitigations, and there is a sunset provision for the end of March 2020. The hon. Gentleman will know that alternative mechanisms are available to the devolved Administration to extend the mitigations, but that is not ideal. The best way would be to change the legal framework, which is best done in Northern Ireland by a Northern Ireland Executive, and the day when it is restored cannot come too soon.
Does the Minister agree that many families in Northern Ireland are particularly affected by the Government’s policy to cap benefits for families with more than two children? When he next sees the Prime Minister, will he ask for the lifting of the cap, which affects poor children throughout the whole United Kingdom, to be part of his election manifesto?
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and the Prime Minister has heard it directly.
It is not for me to revisit the bowels of welfare policy, but the right hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee on Work and Pensions has raised a serious point about extending the mitigations. That is for the devolved Administration and would be an urgent requirement for a restored Executive.
The introduction of universal credit has had a devastating impact in my constituency, but women in Northern Ireland who wish to access an exemption to the two-child limit, known as the rape clause, may still be subject to criminal prosecution for not reporting under the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, as confirmed by the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State commit to lifting the two-child limit that places families into further hardship?
That is an extremely important and sensitive issue. The hon. Lady will know that, in practice, there have been no prosecutions under section 5 of the 1967 Act in the past 50 years. She will also know about the guidance from the Attorney General and from the outgoing DPP, particularly on the status of public interest. I come back to the same old riff: any change in the law is for a devolved Executive and a devolved Administration. This is a serious issue, so it is about time elected politicians in Northern Ireland stepped up to their responsibility.
When giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirmed that Northern Irish businesses will have better access to the EU single market than Scottish businesses. Shamefully, this Government will not publish an economic assessment of the Prime Minister’s deal, but we know from independent research that it will hit Scotland hard. Will the Minister therefore ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is sitting next to him, whether Scotland’s man in the Cabinet demanded that Scotland’s businesses be given the same access to the single market and customs union as Northern Irish business, or did he sit there meekly, abandoning them to their fate?
The Government have published an impact assessment in relation to the proposed withdrawal agreement, and we have rehearsed the arguments about the arrangements in Northern Ireland. These are Northern Ireland questions, and I am sure that the Secretary of State has heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Immediately after questions today, I will open the debate on the Grenfell Tower inquiry report.
Mr Speaker, I know that the whole House will want to join me in recording that, after 10 tumultuous years, this is your last Prime Minister’s questions. As befits a distinguished former Wimbledon competitor, you have sat up there in your high chair not just as an umpire ruthlessly adjudicating on the finer points of parliamentary procedure with your trademark Tony Montana scowl, not just as a commentator offering your own opinions on the rallies you are watching—sometimes acerbic and sometimes kind—but above all as a player in your own right, peppering every part of the Chamber with your own thoughts and opinions like some uncontrollable tennis-ball machine delivering a series of literally unplayable and formally unreturnable volleys and smashes.
Although we may disagree about some of the legislative innovations you have favoured, there is no doubt in my mind that you have been a great servant of this Parliament and this House of Commons. You have modernised, you have widened access, you have cared for the needs of those with disabilities, and you have cared so deeply for the rights of Back Benchers that you have done more than anyone since Stephen Hawking to stretch time in this session. As we come to the end of what must be the longest retirement since Frank Sinatra’s, I am sure the whole House will join me in thanking you and hoping that you enjoy in your retirement the soothing medicament that you have so often prescribed to the rest of us.
I know that Members across the House will want to join me in wishing the England rugby team the very best for the final in the world cup on Saturday.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I fully associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comments about your outstanding service, Mr Speaker, and wish you a long and successful life after your speakership comes to an end.
Labour will produce a strong offer at the forthcoming election on the climate emergency and net zero, including a full ban on the extraction of fossil fuel by fracking. What chance does the Prime Minister think he has of matching that offer, particularly in the light of the news that the Conservative manifesto will be written by a lobbyist for the fracking industry?
We will shortly make an announcement about fracking in this country, in view of the considerable anxieties that are legitimately being raised about the earthquakes that have followed various fracking attempts in the UK. We will certainly follow up on those findings, because they are very important and will be of concern to Members across the House.
But I must say that this Government yield to nobody in our enthusiasm for reducing CO2. We have cut carbon emissions massively in the UK and we were the first European country to commit to net zero by 2050, and that is what we are going to do. We can do it because we believe in a strong, dynamic, robust market economy that is delivering the solutions in clean technology that are deplored by the Labour party.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on everything he does for his constituents and the thalidomide victims. I reassure him that the current health grant, which as he rightly says is subject to review in 2023, will be reviewed. I am getting confirmation of that from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. I hope that my hon. Friend will pass those assurances to the thalidomide victims as fast as he can.
Mr Speaker, I hope you will indulge me one moment while a say a word about you—I am sure you will. I want to thank you for the way you have used your speakership over your decade-long tenure. You have done so much to reform this House of Commons, and our democracy is stronger for the way you have done it.
You have served for 10 years. You have given real power to Back Benchers, vastly expanded the use of urgent questions, which has been overwhelmingly popular with all Ministers, and opened up the number of emergency debates, which is even more popular with even more Ministers. In the traditions of the great Speaker Lenthall and others, you have stood up for Parliament when it has to be stood up for, and we thank you for that. You have also carried that message internationally in terms of the role of parliamentary democracy and Parliaments holding Governments to account. As we hope to form a Government in the future, we hope to be held to account by Parliament as well.
I also think, and I am sure the whole House would agree with me, that you have done excellent work in opening up Parliament to visitors, exhibitions and children. You have reduced some of the strange customs and strange garments that people wear in this building—[Interruption.] It’s all right. I know you are all jealous of my tie, but it is okay. You have used your office to increase diversity among the staff in the House and make this a much more LGBT-friendly place. You have taken it from being a gentlemen’s club that happens to be in a royal palace to being a genuinely democratic institution.
I want you to accept our thanks and pass on our best wishes to Sally, Freddie, Oliver and Jemima, your wonderful family, for the support they have given you. There will be a great celebration today—I am sure the whole House will join us in this—when you and I celebrate Arsenal beating Liverpool tonight. [Interruption.] The Labour party loves a debate and loves a bit of banter.
The Prime Minister’s planned sell-out deal with Donald Trump means yet more national health service money being siphoned off into private profit. Channel 4’s “Dispatches” reported that the cost of drugs and medicines has repeatedly been discussed between United States and United Kingdom trade representatives. Why did the Prime Minister previously say the health service was not on the table in any post-Brexit trade deal?
The answer to that is very simple: it is because it is not on the table. I pay tribute to officials of the NHS, who have just done a brilliant job in reducing the cost of Orkambi—made in America, by the way—so that cystic fibrosis sufferers in this country get the treatment they need, at a cost that is reasonable to the taxpayers of this country. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to know how the people of this country are able to afford the stupendous investments we are now making in the NHS—£34 billion, the biggest ever investment in the NHS, with 40 new hospitals that we are building as a result of the decisions we are taking—I can tell him that it is because this is the party that supports wealth creation. The reason we are able to invest in the NHS is that for the last nine years this economy has been growing. It has grown by 19% since the Conservatives first came into office, and he would ruin this economy and ruin our ability to fund the NHS. That is the reality.
We all welcome the fact that Orkambi will now be able to be provided in this country under the NHS, and we thank those who campaigned for it. The shame is that we are not told what the deal is with the company concerned. As for the fabled 40 hospitals, that figure dropped to 20 and then finally dropped to six.
We learned this week that Government officials have met US pharmaceutical companies five times as part of the Prime Minister’s planned trade deal. The US has called for “full market access” to our NHS, which would mean prices of some of our most important medicines increasing by up to sevenfold. While the Government are having secret meetings with US corporations, it is patients here who continue to suffer. Can the Prime Minister explain why the number of people waiting longer for urgent cancer treatment has tripled over the past nine years?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows very well, this Government are investing £34 billion in the NHS. We are seeing improvements in cancer survival rates throughout the country, thanks to the investment that the Government are making. I think it absolutely satirical that he should claim credit for getting Orkambi and other drugs delivered at a reasonable price; that is the work of the UK Government and the NHS, supporting the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence to ensure that people in this country get affordable treatments. He may not be aware of it, but Vertex, the company that makes Orkambi, comes from America. Is he seriously suggesting that the NHS should not engage in negotiations to ensure that British patients get the drugs they deserve? Is he so phobic of American companies that he would forbid the NHS from having those discussions?
Not for the first time, the Prime Minister is talking nonsense. Of course we need to import medicines from various places; I just want it to be done in an open and transparent way. I do not want secret talks between Government officials, on behalf of Ministers, and big pharma corporations in the USA.
Last year, 34,000 cancer patients waited more than two months for treatment. Although early detection is obviously very important, the longer people wait, the less chance there is of their surviving cancer. The Prime Minister knows that, I know that, the whole world knows that—why can he not get it, and put the necessary resources into the NHS to cut the waiting times?
If he could just be patient for 30 seconds.
The Prime Minister claims that the NHS is safe in his hands; why, then, has NHS privatisation doubled under this Government, with nearly £10 billion being spent on private companies in our NHS?
The NHS is receiving unrivalled and unprecedented sums of taxpayers’ money. If the right hon. Gentleman is seriously saying that he would not like dentists, opticians and Macmillan care nurses to work with the NHS, he must be out of his mind. Cancer survival rates have actually increased year on year since 2010, and more and more people are seen within the right waiting time, thanks to the investments that we are making. I think he should pay tribute to the hard work of NHS staff, stop talking down their incredible achievements, and recognise that if we are allowed to come back as the next Government, we will invest massively in the NHS and take it forward with the funds that we will make available from a strong and growing economy. The reality is that he would wreck that economy.
What we do not want is private companies like Virgin Care suing our NHS for contracts that they did not get. Our NHS should be focused on making people better, not making the wealthy few richer.
National health service A&E departments have just had their worst September on record. This morning, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine said that this winter the NHS needs more than 4,000 extra beds. Will the Prime Minister explain why, under his Government, the number of people in England waiting for an operation has now reached a record high of 4.4 million?
There is a reason why more people are receiving NHS care: it is that the NHS is working harder and achieving more than ever before. If the House wants to see what Labour would be like in office, it should look at its performance. By the way, I should say that the SNP Government negotiated a much higher price for Orkambi in Scotland. [Interruption.] They did. They got the price totally wrong. The Leader of the Opposition should have a word with them.
If the people of this country want a horrific foretaste of what life would be like under a Labour-run NHS, they should look at the NHS in Wales where all health targets are routinely missed, where the A&E waiting target has not been met since 2008; and where the target for in-patients and out-patients has not been met since August 2010. The right hon. Gentleman talks about cancer treatment—that target has not been met since June 2008. That is how Labour runs the NHS.
I am surprised that the Prime Minister can keep a straight face saying that, while his Government have cut so much from the Welsh Government’s budget. And that from a Government who have cut 15,000 beds from the NHS and who have cut £7 billion from social care. I do not know how he has the brass neck to say what he has just said. The reality is that his words are hollow. That is clear to anyone who has tried to get a GP appointment, who sees how overworked our NHS staff are when they visit a hospital and who sees the stress that NHS staff go through when they cannot deal with all the patients who are coming in. He needs to think about this.
Let me give an example. A lady called Gillian wrote to me this week. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Yes, it is a real case of a real person, and I will quote her letter if I may, Mr Speaker. Gillian says:
“My mother died in February as a direct result of the GP shortage in the UK. Her last years were marred by long waits for treatments and for interventions…Whenever she got care, it was given by overstretched but dedicated people, but it always came after painful and debilitating delays.”
Why should that happen to Gillian’s mum or anybody else’s mum? The problem is the shortage of GPs, the shortage of nurses and the excessive waiting time for people with very difficult conditions and deep pain. They should be sympathised with and supported.
I can certainly say that we will deal with the concerns of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent Gillian, but I can tell him that there are 17,300 more doctors and over 17,000 more nurses on our wards since 2010. Frankly, it is time to differentiate the politics of protest and the politics of leadership. He should apologise for continually striking attitudes that I do not think are in the interests of the people. It is all very easy to be an Islingtonian protester and say that you side with Russia over what happened in Salisbury, or say that you have a £196 billion programme of renationalisation, or continually flip-flop one way or the other—now leave, now remain—refusing to respect the verdict of the people in the EU referendum. Leadership means standing up for the people of this country, standing up for our police, standing up for our NHS and making sure that it gets the funding that it needs, and standing up for our economy and for our wealth creators. Above all, it means getting Brexit done and ending the dither and delay. The time for protest is over. It is time for leadership, and that is what this Government provide.
Coming from a Prime Minister who withdrew his own Bill, that seems a bit odd. My question was about somebody whose mother had died and who believes that that is because of the shortage of staff within the NHS. I had hoped that the Prime Minister would have shown some empathy and answered that question, because GP numbers are falling, there is a 43,000-nurse shortage in the NHS, and the NHS has suffered the longest spending squeeze ever in its history. The choice at this election could not be clearer. People have a chance to vote for real change after years of Conservative and Lib Dem cuts, privatisation and tax handouts for the richest. This Government have put our NHS into crisis, and this election is a once-in-a-generation chance to end privatisation in our NHS, give it the funding it needs and give it the doctors, nurses, GPs and all the other staff it needs. Despite the Prime Minister’s denials, our NHS is up for grabs by US corporations in a Trump-style trade deal. Is it not the truth—[Interruption.]
Order. The right hon. Gentleman will not be shouted down under any circumstances. He will complete his inquiry to the satisfaction of the Chair, and people who think otherwise will quickly learn that they are, as usual, wrong.
Despite the Prime Minister’s denials, the NHS is up for grabs by US corporations in a Trump trade deal. Is it not the truth—the Government may not like this—that this Government are preparing to sell out our NHS? Our health service is in more danger than at any other time in its glorious history because of the Prime Minister’s Government, his attitudes and the trade deals that he wants to strike.
I do indeed agree that there is a stark choice facing this country at this election, and one of the options is economic catastrophe under the Labour party, with a £196 billion programme that will take money away from companies and spend it on a pointless renationalisation programme. Labour will put up taxes on corporations, on people, on pensions and on businesses—to the highest level in the whole of Europe. That is the economic catastrophe that the Leader of the Opposition offers. But it is worse than that because he also offers a political disaster, consigning next year, which should be a wonderful year for our country, to two more referendums: another referendum on the EU because he cannot make up his mind what he thinks, flip-flopping this way and that; and another referendum on Scottish independence. Why on earth should the people of this country spend the next year, which should be a glorious year, going through the toxic, tedious torpor of two more referendums thanks to the Labour party?
We want next year to be a great year for our country. We are going to invest more in frontline NHS services. We are going to reduce violent crime, with 20,000 more police officers on our streets. That is what I pledged on the steps of Downing Street, and we have done it. We are going to invest in every one of our primary and secondary schools across the country. That is what I pledged on the steps of Downing Street, and we are delivering it. We are going to invest in a fantastic infrastructure programme for our country, with gigabit broadband across the whole nation. That is what I pledged on the steps of Downing Street, and that is what we are going to deliver. And we are going to deliver a fantastic deal by which this country will come out of the European Union—a deal that the Leader of the Opposition has tried to block but which we will deliver. That is the future for this country: drift and dither under the Labour party, or taking Britain forward to a brighter future under the Conservatives. That is the choice this country faces.
Order. I call Bob Blackman; I am sure he is delighted to be so popular.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on everything he does to campaign for his constituents, and particularly for the hospital in Stanmore. I assure him that that hospital, along with many others, will be in line for the funding that it requires. On his specific point about the administration at that hospital, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary to deal with his concerns very speedily.
Can I, Mr Speaker, on behalf of those of us on the SNP Benches, wish you all the best for your impending retirement and salute you, Sir, for the way that you have stood up for the democracy of this House in order that at this time of crisis we hold the Government to account? We trust that you will enjoy your many passions in retirement. You will always be welcome up in Scotland, and if you need to visit a football team as an antidote to Arsenal you will always be welcome at Easter Road to see the mighty Hibernian. Let me, Mr Speaker, wish England all the best for the rugby on Saturday.
This Prime Minister’s extreme Brexit will take a wrecking ball to the economy and cost Scotland and the United Kingdom £70 billion a year. [Interruption.] We talk about the impact of Brexit and the Conservatives howl and complain, because they know the reality is that it is going to damage people’s lives. Is it not the truth that this Prime Minister is willing to throw Scotland under his big red bus to deliver his Brexit, no matter what the cost?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows very well, the greatest damage that could be done to the Scottish economy would be the SNP’s reckless plan to break up the Union with the UK. Sixty per cent. of Scotland’s exports are with the rest of the UK. They would be throwing away not just the biggest block grant in history that Scotland has received this year but, of course, all the benefits of membership of the most successful political partnership in history, from shipbuilding in Govan to the Glasgow climate change summit next year, which will be a glory of our whole United Kingdom and which is coming to Scotland precisely because Scotland is part of the United Kingdom. They would throw all that away with their crackpot plan for borders at Berwick and creating a new Scottish currency or joining the euro; and, worse still, going into the European Union and handing back control of Scotland’s fisheries—Scotland’s spectacular marine wealth. Just at the moment that they have been won back by this country, they would hand back control of those fisheries to Brussels. That is their policy; I look forward to contesting it at the barricades.
You know, Mr Speaker, I thought it was Prime Minister’s questions, not a rant from the Prime Minister. I have to say—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Kerr, I am seriously worried about your condition—calm yourself, man. [Interruption.] Mr Grant, I am very concerned for you. Calm down.
Well, I certainly wish Mr Grant all the best for his future, because he is not coming back, like so many of the Scottish Conservatives. We hear that the Prime Minister will be coming up to Scotland in the election campaign. He will be welcome, because each time he comes to Scotland he drives up SNP support.
Scotland did not vote for Brexit and we will not have it forced upon us. Is it not clear that the Scottish National party is the only party standing up for Scotland’s interests and respecting our democratic decision to remain in the European Union? This coming election will be one of the most important in Scotland’s history. Only a vote for the SNP can secure the escape route for Scotland away from this Brexit mess, from the chaos of Westminster and from the austerity of the Tories, and protect Scotland’s right to choose our own future as an independent country in Europe.
I am sorry if I seemed to rant at the right hon. Gentleman, but if I may say so, he does rant quite a lot about independence for Scotland—he bangs on about it endlessly. Why does he go on about Scottish independence so much? It is because he wants to conceal what the SNP Government are actually doing in Scotland. They are wrecking it. They are diabolical for the Scottish economy. They have the highest taxes in the UK. They are not running either health or education well. That is why they are so monomaniacal about independence and smashing the Union.
There are some wonderful things happening in Scotland, and it is very often thanks to Scottish Conservatives, who are delivering £200 million for Scottish farmers—that is all thanks to the intercessions of Scottish Conservatives —as part of the biggest ever block grant from London to Scotland. It is Scottish Conservatives who can be relied upon, unlike any other party in Scotland—unlike Labour or the SNP—to keep the Union together: the most successful political partnership in history.
Order. The House must calm itself. The truth is that one person’s rant is another person’s stream of passionate and uninterrupted eloquence.
I can certainly give my hon. Friend an assurance on his second point. The only way to deliver a great Brexit is to vote for the Conservative party and this Government. I can make him happier still by pointing out that those 153 police are just the first wave for Ribble Valley, as part of the 20,000 more police who we will be putting on the streets of this country.
Order. Both representatives at the Dispatch Box spoke with force and fully. The hon. Lady is not going to be cut off by people ranting at her. She will be heard. If there are people who do not want to hear it, they are welcome to leave; I do not think she will care, and neither will I. Her question will be heard, and that is the end of it.
I do not want to hear the Prime Minister’s campaign-ad answer, because my son will not be able to go to school on Friday, and his campaign-ad answer does nothing for me as a parent. [Interruption.] I am so glad that they think it is really funny that children cannot go to school five days a week. The Prime Minister is responsible for the children in this country, and while he might struggle with that personally, will he today give a commitment that there will be a maximum number of children in every class post the election and that every single child will be able to go to school for five days a week?
May I first of all wish a very happy birthday to Danny? I can reassure the hon. Lady that I believe that under this Government—under this Conservative Government—he will have the best possible chance not only of having the funding for his school that he needs, because we are investing in every primary and every secondary school in the country, but of having, as I say, the £14 billion to level up funding both in primary and in secondary schools. I believe that Danny will have a better chance of a great job under this Government—and look at what we have achieved already: record employment under this Government—and a better chance of being able to find, eventually, his own home. So Danny has a great future under this Government, and I hope she will reassure him on that point.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on everything that he does for his constituency of Berwickshire, and he is absolutely right. As I said earlier, that is why SNP Members rant, to use their own word, so incessantly about independence—because they wish to distract or to dead-cat, as the saying goes, from the lamentable failures of the SNP Government. He is entirely right that, if this goes on, I think the SNP will forfeit all right to manage the NHS in Scotland.
It is important to strike a balance, and people should be allowed to celebrate Guy Fawkes night and other occasions with fireworks, but the hon. Gentleman is plainly right that they are very disturbing for animals. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is looking at this very matter. I would just point out that, on animal welfare, it may interest him to know that there are measures we will be able to implement as a result of Brexit—such as banning sow farrowing crates, for instance, which I think is of great concern to our constituents, and banning the live export of animals—that we would not otherwise be able to do. That is one of the reasons why we need to get Brexit done and take this country forward.
I thank my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right not just that this matters very much to him and to his constituents, but that the welfare of communities in Kashmir is of profound concern to the UK Government. He also knows, of course, that it is the long-standing position of the UK Government that the crisis in Kashmir is fundamentally a matter for India and Pakistan to resolve and, alas, since we were there at the very beginning of this crisis, he will understand that, for long-standing reasons, it is not for us as the UK to prescribe a solution in that dispute.
I might ask the hon. Lady how she can justify this country spending another £1 billion per month on delaying our exit from the European Union, which is what she voted for.
I remind the hon. Lady that, under this Government, we are spending £225 million more per year on policing in London than was the case when I was Mayor of London. She might ask her friend the Mayor of London what he is doing with that money and why he cannot do better. Frankly, his record on policing in London is utterly shameful. She should be holding him to account.
I am very happy to congratulate Warren Wood and Norbury Hall schools. I believe that Norbury Hall is my hon. Friend’s alma mater. I confirm what I think he and the whole House know: those schools and every other school in the country are getting £14 billion more to level up funding for every pupil. That is possible because of the policies pursued by our one nation Conservative Government. It would be ruined by the Labour Opposition.
I will certainly look at what we can do to ensure that the hon. Gentleman does get a new hospital in his constituency, because we have a huge programme now under way, but the only way to deliver that £34 billion investment in the NHS—the biggest in modern history—is to ensure we have a dynamic, one nation market economy of the kind that we have. I am afraid all the Labour party would do is whack up taxes on business and companies in such a way as to destroy the viability of the UK economy. That is the programme he supports.
Mr Speaker, may I take the occasion of your last Prime Minister’s questions and mine to join in the tributes to your role in the Chair? During your decade, there have been unprecedented attempts at times to try to increase the power of the Executive at the expense of this Parliament. You have been very formidable in maintaining the duty of government to be accountable to this House. I trust that your successor will try to live up to your considerable achievement.
To show that a veteran MP, even one who is retiring from the House, can still look to the future, will my right hon. Friend give me some clarity on what he will seek to achieve—if, by chance, he wins this unpredictable general election—by way of the permanent relationship he will have to negotiate between the EU and the United Kingdom as an ex-member? In the years of negotiation that he will have to undertake, will he seek to ensure that we maintain trade and flows of investment between the whole United Kingdom and the European Union that are free of tariffs, free of custom controls and largely free of regulatory distinctions; indeed, as near as possible to the single market and customs union that we are in? Just talking about a free trade agreement is an extremely vague aspiration that covers a wide range of possibilities. Can he demonstrate that he really is a liberal free trader at heart?
Indeed. As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, the advantage of the partnership we will build is that not only—[Interruption.] I am sure the talks will go well. We will have a zero-tariff, zero-quota arrangement with our European friends and partners. Under the current deal, which is a fantastic deal, we will also be able to do free trade deals around the world. There will be many ways in which we will stay very close to our European friends partners, but there will also be important ways in which we may seek to do things differently and better.
I have already mentioned animal welfare; I might mention tax breaks for new technology, I might mention cutting VAT on sanitary products, I might mention free ports. There are all sorts of ways to do this. I might mention different regulation on biotechnology or in many of the areas in which this country now leads the world. That is the opportunity for our country: to do a great free trade deal with our European friends and partners of a kind of which I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend would thoroughly approve, while also being a champion of free trade around the world. That is what we are going to do.
As the Father of the House leaves this place after 49 years without interruption, I for one want to salute him. [Applause.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman is one of the most popular and respected politicians in our country. For his service to this place, for his service to his constituents and for his service to our country, he deserves the warmest appreciation. For my part, I thank him for his support and friendship over decades. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, as most sensible people know, whether they agree with him or not, is a great man.
I am afraid that shows a fundamental division between us, alas, because I think that what we need is a strong and dynamic economy, and the evidence is that reducing corporation tax delivers more in yields and more in growth. That is how we have been able to commit now to spend another £780 million on special educational needs schools, and to allow communities to set up new SEND schools where they desire them. We will back them with the funding made available by that strong economy. That is the fundamental difference between the hon. Gentleman and me.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that during your time in office, Mr Speaker, and the 326 Prime Minister’s questions over which you have presided, thanks to decisions made by the Government and this House the British taxpayer has paid for life-saving vaccinations for more than 140 million children living in the poorest countries of the world? At a time of considerable division in our country, is that not an achievement in which the whole of Britain can take real pride?
It certainly is an achievement of which the whole House should be proud. I know that my right hon. Friend has done a huge amount to champion the cause of overseas development, and he can be absolutely certain that this Government will continue not just to provide support for vaccination around the world but to ensure that we continue to lead the world in our overseas development budget. Our commitment is followed and respected by countries around the world.
It would be inappropriate for me to comment on ongoing legal proceedings.
This is also my last Prime Minister’s questions, and I want to follow the comments that have been made about your strong leadership from that Chair, Mr Speaker, and, indeed, your kind comments about my good friend my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and others. I would also like, if I may, to take this opportunity to thank the staff of this place, particularly those in the Library and the catering department, and the Doorkeepers, who do so much to keep us hale and hearty. I thank my numerous friends and colleagues across this place, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who have been so personally kind to me over the past few months and so supportive of our policies, particularly the introduction of our net zero legislation. I want to thank the people of Devizes who have given me their trust for the past nine years; it has been the privilege of my life to serve you.
I would like to ask the Prime Minister a question. Does he believe, like me, that there is no planet B and that we should take the opportunity of this Brexit blockage breaking election to move the country on and focus on the incredible things we can do as the host next year of the UN’s global climate change talks, which may be in Glasgow but are a four-nation COP, so that we can help the world to get on with dealing with the problem of the next 30 years and how we repair our climate?
May I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for everything she has done in her parliamentary and ministerial career, and associate myself with your comments, Mr Speaker, about my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke)? I know that my right hon. Friend is leaving this place to do something perhaps even more important, which is to run our COP 26 summit next year in Glasgow, and I know that she will do an absolutely outstanding job. She is completely right that it would be far more wonderful for this country to focus on what we can do to lead the world in tackling the problems of the environment and climate change rather than frittering away yet more political time and capital on two more pointless referendums. I thoroughly agree with her proposal.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising his constituent’s problem with UKVI and I will make sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary addresses it immediately.
We all remember that the Opposition parties never wanted to give the people an EU referendum, even opposing our amendment to the 2013 Queen’s Speech, selected by you, Mr Speaker, an early Brexiteer, regretting the absence of a referendum Bill. Given that they have done everything they can to delay our departure, as we head into Christmas may I urge the Prime Minister, whatever their antics, to lead a positive, decent one nation campaign for a stronger economy to help those less fortunate that addresses the divisions in our country? We wish him well.
I thank my hon. Friend for putting that so succinctly and well. That is exactly what we want. I think it is what the people of this country want; they want to get Brexit done and they want to move forward with a one nation agenda to unite this country, and to level up across the country with better education, better infrastructure and fantastic new technology. That is our agenda; the Opposition’s agenda is for years more of political dither, delay and division.
I think the hon. Gentleman knows my answer to that, which is that there was a referendum in 2014, the result was very clear, people were promised that it would be a once-in-a-generation referendum, and I do not think we should break that promise.
It is a pleasure, Mr Speaker, to see you in your Arsenal tie, and for two reasons: I have worn mine as well, but I am sorry the Leader of the Opposition has not worn his.
Mr Speaker, before I go on to ask the Prime Minister a question, may I thank you not just for giving me a voice in this place but for giving representation to my family and those I grew up with in Buckingham whom you have served so well as their local MP? They have asked me to pass on the fact that you will be missed dearly by them.
Returning to the football/politics metaphor, does the Prime Minister agree that when it comes to both football and politics the owner of the No. 10 berth is key to success, so would he rather see a centre-right, dominant leader sweeping all before him domestically and in Europe, or should we look towards the left wing where we might see a misfiring striker more at home in the 1970s?
I thank my hon. Friend, who does a superb job of representing his constituents. My own footballing skills are—[Interruption.] I can do it, Mr Speaker, and I enjoy it, but the most important thing is to have a team that is united and will deliver a great future for this country. That is what we offer, and I am afraid it is in sharp contradistinction from the Labour party, because last night more than 100 of them could not even be bothered to vote for a general election, which they are shortly about to contest. What kind of confidence is that in their leader?
Ni fyddwn yn gweld eich tebyg eto yn y Tŷ hwn a byddwn yn gweld eich eisiau, Mr Speaker: I do not think we will see your like again, and we will miss you in this House.
We are coming to the close of nine years of Tory misrule, misinformation and broken promises. Leading us in this merry dance is the Prime Minister, a lord of misrule at this shambolic Christmas election. But my party has long been prepared for this election. In Wales we have a simple choice: we can back our country by voting Plaid Cymru or be let down once again by one of these deeply divided Westminster parties that offer nothing but more Brexit chaos. Will the Prime Minister be honest for once with Wales: there is only one way out of the chaos, isn’t there, and that is to remain in the European Union?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her beautiful Welsh—although I could not get all of the Welsh—but I remind her that the most important point that she might bear in mind is that her constituents, the people of Wales, voted to leave the European Union. And that is what the people of this country voted for; that is what the majority of the constituents of those on the Benches opposite voted for, and it is high time that they honoured that promise.
My constituents in North Hykeham deal with some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, and they tell me that completing Lincoln’s bypass would make a huge difference to their lives. Can my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirm that his Government will support the building of this bypass?
Not only can I can confirm that, but I can thank both my hon. Friend and our candidate in Lincoln, Karl MᶜCartney, on everything they have done to campaign for that bypass.
May I, Mr Speaker, on behalf of the Members of my party thank you for your service to this House? You came to office at a very, very turbulent and challenging time for this House, and you have always been assiduous in protecting the rights of Back Benchers and smaller parties, and we thank you for that and wish you well in your retirement.
In the dying days of this Parliament, will the Prime Minister please do something for the victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland? I raised this at Northern Ireland questions. There is still time in this Parliament to get this legislation through. The victims have been waiting for so long now. There is cross-party, cross-community support; will he please act on that?
I thank my right hon. Friend; he has campaigned very much on that issue. The Government of course have fulfilled their promise to introduce legislation on the matter, and, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has had productive meetings with representatives from victim and survivor groups. But the most powerful way to address this issue, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, will be if we can all work together to get the Stormont Executive back up and running to deal with the matter themselves.
There will never be, because there could never be, a more eloquent and articulate Speaker than you, Mr Speaker; we will miss your style and your remarkable, encyclopaedic grasp of detail—and I will miss the literary references by the way, Mr Speaker.
Marcel Proust said the only—[Interruption.]
Order. I want to hear about Proust.
Marcel Proust said:
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”.
Hard-working British patriots who voted to leave the European Union with fresh eyes have in their sights the bourgeois liberal elite who are trying to steal Brexit from them. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, as he is broadcast on the wireless and elsewhere and actually meets people in real life too in the coming days and weeks, simply evangelise this plain and straightforward message: back Brexit, back Britain, back Boris?
There is only one way to take this country forward, and that is to get Brexit done. My right hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for people in his constituency and across the country, and if our Government are returned, as I hope we will be—and I will work very hard to ensure that we are—the people of this country will be seeing record investment in their NHS, they will be seeing improvements in their wages through the biggest expansion of the living wage in memory, and they will be seeing reductions in the cost of living, because it is one nation Conservative policies that can be relied on to take this country forward—and the Labour party would take us backwards.
Mr Speaker, from the Liberal Democrats Benches may we wish you well and congratulate you on a decade particularly as a modernising Speaker? From topicality of debates to promoting diversity within the staff of the House to reforms to support parents who are MPs, you have helped to drag this institution out of the past so it can face the future.
At this general election, voters deserve better than a choice between the two tired old parties, and in the TV debates people deserve to hear from a leader who wants to stop Brexit and build a better future, so will the Prime Minister commit today to take part in those three-way debates, or is he going to run scared of debating with “a girly swot”?
I think what the people of this country want is the promises made to them kept, and I am not disposed to believe in the promises of the Liberal Democrats when their leaflets in London say they want to revoke the result of the referendum and their leaflets in the south-west of the country do not mention Brexit at all. That is what they stand for—a bunch of hypocrites, the lot of them. They stand for nothing but a policy of dither and delay and indecision. To take this country forward with fantastic environmental policies and fantastic policies on education of a kind that I think will appeal to all the hon. Lady’s constituents, she should join this party, vote for this Government and support us at the general election.
Mr Speaker, may I join the tributes from across the House to your service and your speakership? Even though, our 30-year friendship notwithstanding, I have not agreed with everything you have done recently, I have been a big supporter of you in the Chair. You have been a champion of Back Benchers, and you have allowed the Chamber to hold the Executive to account, and you have enabled that in a very good way. The best of luck, and good wishes to you and your family.
When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was standing for the leadership of our great party, he spoke about ending the witch hunt of our Northern Ireland veterans. He said:
“We need to end unfair trials of people who served Queen and country.”
He also said that the persecution of veterans facing historical allegations over troubles in Northern Ireland has “got to stop”. Given that there was nothing on that in the Queen’s Speech, will he give a clear manifesto undertaking that if he is re-elected as Prime Minister of a Conservative Government, he will bring forward legislation as quickly as possible to end this awful injustice?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for everything he has done to campaign on this issue. As he knows, the consultation on the new legislation was concluded only a few days ago. I can certainly give him the reassurance that we will bring forward legislation to ensure that, when there is no new evidence being provided, there are no unfair prosecutions of people who served this country faithfully and well.
The Prime Minister said at the start that I had demonstrated that I was stretching time and I would not want to disappoint him. Two final contributions from colleagues who I know are leaving the House.
Mr Speaker, I have been in Parliament for 32 years. I have seen many Speakers in the Chair and I must say you have been the best. As we say in the north-east—it’s not quite the language of the Welsh—you’re a canny laddie.
The WASPI women were given a bad deal on their pensions. Does the Prime Minister have any plans to put that wrong right?
First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman as he leaves this House. Indeed, I repeat my congratulations to all hon. Members who are standing down on the service they have given.
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the WASPI women. As he knows, it is a very difficult and very emotionally charged issue. We have done our best to try to satisfy that group. Another £1 billion has, I think, been allocated to the support of WASPI pensioners. I would just remind Opposition Members who are chuntering at me that under the Labour Government I seem to remember female pensions went up by 75p. That was their approach to pension rights for women. We are looking at what more we can do to satisfy that issue but, as he knows, it is very difficult.
Mr Speaker, I wish you well and add to the plaudits by thanking you for the way you have represented my father’s old constituents of Buckingham. I know you have been assiduous in that.
Many years ago, the Prime Minister was campaigning in Newbury to help get me elected when he was asked by the Newbury Weekly News whether there was any chance of him becoming Prime Minister. He said that he thought there was more chance of being decapitated by a frisbee. I will continue to take great delight in the fact that he has defied those odds if he can commit to me here today to continue this country’s bold ambition on ocean conservation, in which we are a world leader.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all the service he has given to this Government and this country. I remember vividly campaigning with him on one occasion when we were interrupted by a dog show. He has done particularly important work on conserving oceans. He has helped to ensure that this country has global leadership in establishing marine conservation areas around the planet. As you know, Mr Speaker, this country protects a vast expanse of the oceans, more than any country on earth, and it is thanks to the work of my right hon. Friend that we have put that issue at the forefront of our politics, protecting marine life and protecting not just the fish but the penguins as well. As he will know, a third of the world’s Emperor penguins are British. He has done a signal job of protecting those penguins and I thank him for it.
Order. Just before we proceed with a number of statements that need to be made, I would like to thank the Prime Minister and colleagues for their kind and generous personal remarks, which are greatly appreciated. I want to thank staff of mine, past and present, who have given of their time to be here today for the last Prime Minister’s questions that I will chair. All of them are people who have worked with me for a significant period of time. We have had fantastic relations and a terrific bond. I hugely appreciate the fact that they have bothered to turn up on this occasion. In particular, I want to thank my wife Sally and our three children Oliver, Freddie and Jemima for the support, stoicism and fortitude they have displayed through thick and thin over the past decade. I will never forget it and I will always be grateful for it. [Applause.]
It may also be for the convenience of the House for me to make a short statement about Dissolution guidance. The draft guidance for Members standing, Members not standing and Members’ staff is available on the intranet. It will be finalised after Dissolution is confirmed. In the course of today, answers to frequently asked questions—FAQs—will also be published. These will include an answer to the point of order raised by the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on Monday concerning arrangements for Remembrance Sunday.
Colleagues, I am very pleased to announce the appointment of Patricia Hillas as the new Speaker’s Chaplain. She was selected following a fair, open and competitive recruitment process. Tricia, as she likes to be known, is currently Canon Pastor at St Paul’s cathedral, where she leads on diversity and inclusion, and—goodness knows, there is a piquancy about this today—on the Church’s response in times of disaster. In particular, she was part of the team at St Paul’s that brought together the national memorial service following the Grenfell Tower disaster, working alongside the bereaved families and survivors, and local faith and other groups. As we know, that avoidable disaster has caused intense grief, pain and anger among those affected in the community.
Born in Kuala Lumpur to an Indian mother and a British father, Tricia moved to the UK with her family in 1971. Formerly a social worker, Tricia specialised in supporting individuals and families diagnosed with HIV and AIDS, helping them deal with complex multiple challenges with dignity. Married to Andrew, who is head of the youth offending service for Southwark, Tricia will additionally be priest in charge of St Mary-at-Hill in the City of London. I am also proud to say that she will be the second female Speaker’s Chaplain from a BAME background. Tricia replaces our dear friend, the Rev. Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who leaves on Thursday to become—I am so proud to say this—the first black Bishop of Dover. Tricia’s start date remains to be agreed, but I hope that when she does take up the post, probably early next year, the House will enjoy working with her.
It may also be helpful to inform the House now—these matters have been properly discussed with the usual channels—that at the start of the general debate on the report from the Grenfell Tower inquiry, I will ask the House to observe a minute’s silence to reflect on that tragic event and those whose lives were lost.
Business of the House
That, at this day’s sitting, proceedings on the motion in the name of the Prime Minister in relation to the Report from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry may continue for three hours, though opposed, and shall then lapse if not previously disposed of.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Grenfell Tower Inquiry
I now ask the House to rise to observe a minute’s silence to reflect on the Grenfell tragedy and those whose lives were lost.
The House observed a minute’s silence.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the report from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
I will be making quite a lengthy speech this afternoon, reflecting the comprehensive nature of the report, so if hon. Members will bear with me, I am sure that I will address many of the issues on which they may be planning to intervene.
The bereaved, the survivors and the members of the north Kensington community joining us in the Galleries today each have their own story to tell, their own perspective on what happened at Grenfell, but over the past two and a half years, they have been united in their fight to uncover the truth. It is not a fight they would ever have chosen, but it is one they have taken up with determination, dedication and great dignity. Yet their exceptional tenacity in seeking justice has not always been matched by their faith in the system’s ability to deliver. This is no surprise. After all, they have been let down many times before, too often overlooked and ignored in the months and years before the tragedy and shamefully failed by the institutions that were supposed to serve them in the days and weeks after it.
Since then, the survivors, the bereaved and the local community have endured one unbearable milestone after another—the funerals, the anniversaries, giving and hearing evidence at the public inquiry, the painful process of building a new life in a new home without loved ones and without treasured possessions, and then the publication of this report today—all the while carrying with them the unimaginable trauma suffered that night. I am very much aware that no report, no words, no apology will ever make good the loss suffered and the trauma experienced, but I hope that the findings being published today and the debate we are holding this afternoon will bring some measure of comfort to those who suffered so much. They asked for the truth. We promised them the truth. We owe them the truth. And today the whole country and the whole world is finally hearing the truth about what happened at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017.
When the sun rose over London that morning, it revealed an ugly scar of black smoke cutting across an otherwise clear blue summer sky, and on the streets of north Kensington a scene of horror and desperation. Shortly before 1 o’clock that morning, a faulty fridge freezer had started a small fire in the kitchen of a flat on the fourth floor of the 24-storey Grenfell Tower. The resident of the flat did everything right. He raised the alarm, called the fire brigade and alerted his neighbours. Within five minutes, firefighters arrived to deal with what appeared to be a routine incident, and in the normal course of events, the fire would have been contained and extinguished, and that would have been that, but what happened that night was anything but normal.
Even before firefighters began to tackle the blaze on the inside of the tower, unbeknown to them flames were already beginning to race up the outside. Just seven minutes after the first firefighters entered the kitchen on the fourth floor, a resident on 22nd floor dialled 999 to report the blaze at her level, almost 200 feet higher up. By 1.27 am, a column of fire had reached the roof, one whole side of the building was ablaze and dense smoke and searing flames, visible across the capital, began wrapping around the tower, penetrating its heart. By 1.30 am, less than three quarters of an hour after it began, it was clear to those watching below that the inferno was completely out of control.
Grenfell Tower, filled that night with almost 300 souls in its 129 flats, was beyond saving. The fire that shocked the nation and the world that June morning took the lives of 72 men, women and children. The oldest, known simply as Sheila, was a poet, artist and great grandmother who had brought joy to many and seen and experienced much in her 84 years. The youngest, Logan Gomes, had never even seen his own parents. He was stillborn hours after his mother made a narrow escape from the choking, noxious smoke. Many who lived together died together: husbands and wives, parents and children were found in each other’s arms. Those who survived saw everything they owned reduced to dust and ash: wedding dresses, irreplaceable photographs, beloved children’s toys—all gone. The true scale of the trauma, the impact of the fire not only on those who survived but on those who lost loved ones or who witnessed its destruction, is unlikely ever to be known.
Grenfell represented the biggest loss of life in a single incident in the UK since the Hillsborough tragedy 28 years previously, but my predecessor as Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), was determined that there would be no repeat of the travesty that followed that disaster, which saw the friends and families of those who died forced to fight the establishment tooth and nail, year after year, decade after decade, to secure justice for their loved ones. That is why just 15 days after the tragedy she appointed one of our most experienced and respected former judges, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, to lead a rigorous public and completely independent inquiry into what happened.
Sir Martin has today published his report on the first phase of that inquiry, covering the events of 14 June: the cause of the fire and its rapid spread, and the way in which emergency services and others handled the immediate response. As the sponsoring Minister under the terms of the Inquiries Act 2005, I laid copies of the report before Parliament this morning. I was in no doubt that the House should have the opportunity to debate it on the day of publication.
Grenfell was a national tragedy, and this is a report of great national importance. However, I recognise that Sir Martin has produced a very substantial piece of work—almost 1,000 pages across four volumes—and that therefore the vast majority of Members will have not yet have had an opportunity to digest and analyse it in any great detail. I believe that Members have an important role to play in scrutinising such reports and the Government’s response to them, so let me reassure the House that we will seek to schedule a further debate on Sir Martin’s findings at the earliest suitable opportunity so that Members can debate the report in detail. Obviously that may be after the election, but we will certainly ensure that it will happen.
Of course, what happened during the hours in which the fire raged is only half the story. Phase 2 of the inquiry, which will start taking oral evidence earlier in the new year, will look at the wider context, including the nature and application of building regulations, the way in which local and central Government responded to the fire, and the handling of concerns raised by tenants over many years. Phase 1 sets out what happened; phase 2 will explain why. Such a complex process will inevitably take time—longer than any of us would wish—but, as I have said, we owe it to the people of Grenfell Tower to explain, once and for all and beyond doubt, exactly why the tragedy unfolded as it did, and with the standard set by this first report, I am confident that that is exactly what will happen.
Sir Martin’s work is exhaustive in its detail. He provides an authoritative, and often harrowing, minute-by-minute account of the fire and its terrifying spread. Led always by the facts, his recommendations are clear and numerous, and where there are failings to be highlighted, he does so without fear or favour. Nowhere is that clearer than in his verdict on the single biggest cause of the tragedy. He leaves no doubt that the cladding on the exterior of Grenfell Tower was the defining factor in the rapid and all-consuming spread of the blaze.
It was the cladding—the aluminium composite material rainscreen—and the combustible insulation behind it that ignited because of the fire in flat 16. It was the cladding that allowed the flames to climb so rapidly up the outside of the tower, causing compartmentation to fail. It was the cladding that turned into molten plastic raining fire on the streets of north Kensington and causing the blaze to travel up and down the building. In short, it was the cladding that turned a routine and containable kitchen fire into a disaster of unprecedented proportions that cost 72 people their lives. Sir Martin is clear that the cladding on Grenfell Tower was fitted in breach of building regulations. Why that was allowed to happen, and who was responsible for it, will be covered in phase 2 of his inquiry.
I give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who I know was bereaved, or suffered the loss of a friend, in the Grenfell fire.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way, and for the manner in which he is making his speech.
It is still the case that men, women and children up and down the country will be sleeping tonight in buildings with that cladding. So many years after the tragedy, does the Prime Minister not think that, in this sixth richest democracy in the world, we could have done more to prevent people from sleeping in infernos across our country?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point; indeed, I was coming to that very matter in my explanation of what happened. All I can say is that he is quite right. We cannot afford to wait for the full conclusions of the report. That is why, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has just pointed out to me, we have allocated a further £600 million to the removal of such cladding. It is essential that we remove similar cladding on all buildings as soon as possible, which is why we have established the fund to pay for the removal of such cladding systems from tall residential buildings.
I know that progress is not as fast I should like, but I am pleased to say that all such buildings owned by central and local government have now had their cladding removed, are undergoing work to remove it, or, at the very least, have such work scheduled. In the private sector, progress is slower, and too many building owners have not acted responsibly.
What action will be taken against private building owners who fail to remove or replace the cladding by the June 2020 deadline?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We propose to name the businesses and companies that own those buildings but are failing to comply, to encourage them to get on with this vital work. While the people living in those privately owned buildings are safe—and, as the House will know, round-the-clock fire patrols and other temporary measures ensure that that is the case—I am in no doubt that they need a long-term and lasting solution.
May I just make some progress?
Nearly all private high residential buildings where such cladding remains are now in line to have remedial work scheduled. Where that is not the case, the Government will work with local authorities to take enforcement action if landlords refuse to deal with the problems themselves. I think the House will agree that they have had enough time. There are no more excuses; they must make those buildings safe, or face the consequences.
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has done a lot of work on this issue, and we have highlighted the need for speedy removal of the cladding. It is in the private sector that there are often disputes between the freeholder and the leaseholders, who may be legally responsible but simply do not have the wherewithal to do the work. I am pleased by what the Prime Minister has said, but will he confirm that he will work with local authorities and they will do the work in default, in order to ensure that people in these properties are safe?
We will indeed be working—in fact, we are already working—with local authorities to enforce the requirement that they remove the cladding in question. Although I—like, I think, many Members—feel that progress should be faster, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are hard at it to remove that cladding.
If I may, I shall turn now to the second and most important factor that Sir Martin identified. The cladding on Grenfell Tower caused the fire to spread out of control and to behave in ways that nobody had seen before. This unprecedented fire created an unprecedented challenge to the men and women sent to fight it. Since 2017, much has been written from many perspectives about the way in which the London Fire Brigade handled the unfolding disaster, so let me be very clear from the start.
I thank the Prime Minister for the thoughtful delivery of his speech. I have seen the report this morning, and I have seen its recommendations. Will he give an undertaking today to enable adequate extra funding so that those recommendations can be taken forward as a matter of haste? It has been two and a half years, and that is too long. We need that money specifically so that they can be taken forward quickly.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I can tell her that I will be coming to that matter—and, I think, probably all the matters that hon. Members wish to address—a bit later in my remarks.
I think that the House will want to hear now about Sir Martin’s opinions on the way in which the London Fire Brigade handled the disaster. After examining all the evidence and listening to hundreds of witnesses and experts, Sir Martin does not call into doubt the actions or the bravery of any of the rank-and-file firefighters dispatched to Grenfell Tower. No one in this House or the other place should be in any doubt about that. As Mayor of this great city of London, I saw for myself the courage and commitment demonstrated by the men and women of the London Fire Brigade, and Sir Martin’s report bears that out. It tells of firefighters exhibiting
“extraordinary courage and selfless devotion to duty”
as they pushed themselves
“to and even beyond the limits of endurance”,
facing choking smoke and temperatures as high as 1,000° C. Their work that night was nothing short of phenomenal.
However, Sir Martin concludes that the firefighters on duty that night were
“faced with a situation for which they had not been properly prepared”.
He finds the London Fire Brigade’s planning and training for such an incident were “gravely inadequate”, and that on the night of the fire there were “serious deficiencies” in command and control. The report highlights a lack of co-ordination between emergency services, which Sir Martin calls a “serious failure” of stated policies. He also finds—the point that will be of most concern to those who lost loved ones—that the failure to order an evacuation of the tower once the fire was clearly out of control most probably led to the deaths of individuals who could otherwise have been saved.
If I may, I will continue, as it will be important for the House to hear the whole context in which these criticisms and points are being made.
The so-called “stay put” policy is the bedrock on which all plans for fighting fires in tall residential buildings are based. Building regulations are supposed to mean that fires cannot spread beyond individual flats, because they are compartmented. When that is the case, it is indeed safest for most residents to stay in their homes until the fire is extinguished, but at Grenfell that was not the case. The fire spread widely and rapidly, up, down and across the tower.
Will the Prime Minister give way?
If I may, I will continue so that the House can get the whole picture that Sir Martin wants to convey.
By 1.30 am, it was clear that the compartmentation had failed. By 1.50 am, it was still not too late to order an evacuation, yet according to Sir Martin senior officers simply could not conceive of a situation in which compartmentation could fail so comprehensively. In the report, “stay put” is described as such an article of faith within the fire service that senior officers were reluctant to let the reality before them override their training. As a result, the decision to order an evacuation was not taken until 2.35 am, by which time the tower’s single staircase was already filling with impenetrable smoke.
Even after that time, poor and confused lines of communication meant that operators in the 999 control room were not aware that the advice had changed. Swamped by the sheer volume of calls, and dealing with a challenge well outside their experience and training, some continued to give conflicting advice to callers trapped inside the tower. Sir Martin notes that many operators did not realise how all-encompassing the fire had become until well after 5 am, when a lull in calls allowed them to check their phones and see images of the burning building for the first time. Information gleaned from callers inside the tower was faithfully recorded, but only rarely made its way to firefighters who could act on it.
I thank the Prime Minister for the tone and the reflective manner in which he is delivering his speech, but may I point out that this was not the first time that compartmentalisation had failed? In July 2009, Lakanal House, a multi-storey building, suffered a similar tragedy in which six people lost their lives and more than 20 were seriously injured. Subsequently, the coroner wrote to the then Minister, Eric Pickles, with a recommendation that the “stay put” policy be reviewed, but no action was taken.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, as the whole House knows. As I said at the outset, that is among the issues that will be addressed in the second part of Sir Martin’s report, but I will say a little bit about it later on. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that issue.
While brave firefighters led many people to safety from inside the tower, Sir Martin concludes that the chaos and confusion meant that some calls for help were not responded to until it was too late.
I have visited Grenfell Tower twice to sympathise with the relatives, but I have also been able to see at first hand how firefighters in these complex situations risk their lives. I had a meeting only yesterday at the Fire Service College in my constituency, which provides worldwide training for every type of fire officer. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we owe it to our firefighters up and down this country to enable them to have the very best training?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am well aware that he has a centre for the training of firefighters at Moreton-in-Marsh in his constituency. Directly on his point, Sir Martin cautions all of us against making judgments at a distance, and I agree with him wholeheartedly on that.
It is very easy for us on these green Benches to have 20:20 hindsight. We are not about to run into the heart of a fire that is blazing more than 200 feet into the night sky.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way. First, when he was Mayor of London he presided over fire service cuts despite warnings from London MPs from across parties, which he did not heed. Does he regret that? Secondly, on his Government’s watch, the regulators were stripped of powers, including the ombudsman’s power to investigate complaints without complainants having to go to their MP first. Will he now take action? He does not have to wait for the reports to come out to take action to strengthen the regulations. Will he provide the much-needed resources? We had to fight tooth and nail for two years with Grenfell United and the survivors to secure the £600 million. It is time that he acted and provided the necessary additional funding so that our constituents can sleep at night without having to worry about whether their homes may be set alight.
Sir Martin notes that appliances were at the site within five minutes, and he makes no findings that I am aware of about a lack of resources, nor about the other issues that the hon. Lady raises.
It is vital that individuals are held accountable for their errors, and when we do so we must do so very carefully. It is clear from this report that the firefighters on the ground were in a position that they should never have been in. They were doing their damnedest to tackle a fire that should never have been allowed to happen. But that does not absolve us of responsibility.
We must ensure that the failures identified by the inquiry are corrected, because not only does Sir Martin highlight that mistakes made by the London Fire Brigade in responding to Lakanal House, which the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) mentioned earlier, were repeated, he also raises concerns that the London Fire Brigade is, I am afraid,
“at risk of not learning the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire.”
I must make some progress.
It is vital that the London Fire Brigade learns those lessons, and I am sure that everyone there will want them to do so. As a constituency MP, Mayor, or journalist, I never met any firefighter who was anything less than totally committed to public safety. I will be working with the London Fire Brigade, the Mayor’s office and local authorities across London to ensure that the lessons of Grenfell are learned and that Londoners are made safer for it. Where Sir Martin recommends that responsibility for fire safety should be taken on by central Government, I can confirm that we will legislate accordingly.
If hon. Members will allow me to complete my points, I think they will hear the answers to their questions.
More widely, we plan to accept in principle all the recommendations that Sir Martin makes for central Government. We will set out how we plan to do so as quickly as possible, but I can assure the House and all those affected by the Grenfell tragedy that where action is called for action will follow.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way and for his tone in delivering his response to the report. On the night of Grenfell, it took 38 minutes for a high-reaching aerial appliance to arrive. By that time, the building’s cladding had already caught fire. Will the Prime Minister consider his own actions in removing aerial appliances from London Fire Brigade’s engines and in the cuts made to the fire service when he was Mayor of London?
Sir Martin makes no recommendation on that point to the best of my knowledge.
For the survivors, the bereaved and the local community, the report will prove particularly harrowing, yet I hope it will strengthen their faith in Sir Martin’s desire to determine the facts of the fire and this Government’s commitment to airing those facts in public, no matter how difficult they may be, and to acting on them. That commitment is absolute—
Mr Speaker, I have given way enough.
That commitment is absolute, because if any good is to come of this senseless tragedy—a tragedy that should never have happened—and if it is to become a catalyst for change in our approach to fire safety and, indeed, to social housing more widely, we must get to the truth about what happened and why. We must expose and fix the failings that allowed an otherwise safe building to become so dangerous, that allowed a small kitchen fire to become a devastating inferno, and that led to so many people being told to stay in their homes when they could and should have been fleeing to safety. The inquiry is a vital part of that.
I thank Sir Martin and his team for all their work so far, and I know that all current and former Ministers, civil servants and all public sector workers will fully co-operate with phase 2. While uncovering the truth is very important to the survivors and the bereaved, it is not the only aspect of the post-Grenfell story that requires our attention. We will continue, as the previous Prime Minister promised, to support the affected families long after the television cameras are gone. We will continue the work of the Grenfell ministerial recovery group, which brings together the efforts of all parts of central and local government in meeting the needs of the community. We will continue to ensure that a beautiful and appropriate memorial is created on the site of the tower—a process that is being led by the bereaved and the local community.
Will the Prime Minister give way?
No, I am winding up.
We will continue to make sure that those affected by the fire have an active and engaging role to play in implementing the lessons of Grenfell, including working closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to develop the policies in our social housing White Paper. We will continue to implement the findings of the Hackitt review of building regulations, and I have asked the civil servants responsible for implementing Sir Martin’s recommendations to provide me with regular and frequent updates on their progress. I will not allow the lessons of this tragedy to fall through the cracks.
The night of 14 June was horrendous, but in the darkness we have also seen the best of humanity: the residents who sacrificed their lives to save their children or neighbours, the local community that rallied round in such an incredible fashion, holding the survivors in a tight embrace as the authorities failed to step up, and the bereaved and survivors here with us today. Those who would have every reason to hide away have instead fought to uncover the truth about what happened that terrible night. They have forced themselves to relive time and again the kind of trauma that most of us, mercifully, cannot begin to imagine. They have dedicated so much of their lives in so many ways to ensure that those who died on the night of 14 June 2017 will always be remembered. To them, I say once again that the truth will out, that justice will be done, and that Grenfell Tower and the people who called it home will never be forgotten.
May I start by thanking the Prime Minister for the serious way in which he has approached this matter and for his speech today on the findings of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s first report? I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for ensuring that we had a minute’s silence at the start of the debate for those who lost their lives on that terrible, terrible night.
I start by paying tribute to the survivors of the fire and their family members, who have campaigned with such dignity and determination for the past two years—two long years. Many of them are here today in the Gallery or watching the debate on television. For them, it is yet another horrible day of remembering a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, a cousin, a nephew, a niece who they will never see again and who will never come back. Those memories will never go away. With sympathy we should have an understanding of our responsibility to ensure that everyone is able to live in safety, wherever they are in this country.
Seventy-two people lost their lives on that night in June 2017. That situation rocked the community and shocked the whole country. It brought together help from lots of people—people from local churches, mosques and synagogues, and from different community organisations. People rushed to Grenfell as the fire was still blazing with gifts of food and toys, and with support. That simple human understanding from so many people is something we have to cherish and begin to understand, because it demonstrates that there is a natural human instinct to help people.
I cannot forget going there straight after the fire and talking to dazed people who did not really understand what had happened and to exhausted firefighters, police officers and many others who were trying to comprehend the enormity of the situation. It was truly horrific. I pay absolute tribute to all those volunteers and others who turned out that day to help. Local government officers from all across London immediately volunteered to try to help, because the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea seemed to have difficulty in responding to the enormity of the situation—I say no more than that at the moment.
It was a tragedy, Mr Speaker, but it was an avoidable tragedy. A tragedy is when there is an earthquake, a tidal wave or a volcano that we cannot understand or predict. This was an avoidable tragedy. All the survivors—all of them—deserve a new home and safety and security in this country, as my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary demanded at the time. All those responsible for this avoidable tragedy must understand that justice must prevail. Every necessary measure must be put in place to prevent a fire such as Grenfell from ever happening again.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a national fire response issue and that it is not just about London? Will he comment on my request to the Prime Minister that extra funding be made available so that the recommendations can be put in place, because I have not heard a positive response that says, “Yes, we will pay for that”?
Yes, it is a tragedy at Grenfell and a tragedy in that part of London, but obviously it is a potential tragedy anywhere where there is dangerous cladding on blocks of flats. My hon. Friend, who is our shadow Fire Minister, specifically asked that question about funding. Perhaps the Prime Minister or whoever responds for the Government would care to answer that point.
I have been on a number of the walks for Grenfell. Over my life, I have been on many marches and demonstrations, but I have never been on anything so poignant and powerful as thousands and thousands and thousands of people silently walking through north Kensington and then walking past the carcase that is Grenfell Tower. The power of that—the power of silence—is palpable. What is also palpable is the way in which the community as a whole supports those people.
When the silent march passes the fire station, there is genuine love and affection for all the firefighters who risked their lives that night. I know that nobody is trying to do this today, but let us not blame firefighters for their work. They did everything they could, and well beyond that.
I thought that it was absolutely right to hold the service in St Paul’s, because it was a way of bringing people together to try to come to terms with the horror of their loss. The events that I have been to in the mosque have also brought people together to try to comprehend the horror of their loss.
I was privileged to be the Minister for Civil Society at the time and, along with the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), I met many of the charities and support organisations. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in thanking them for all the work they have done, both in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and since then, to support the victims, their families and the wider community?
I absolutely do, and I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I have never forgotten meeting so many different groups and charities that day, who were already doing their best to meet in the church. Community organisations, the citizens advice bureau, North Kensington Law Centre and so many more were all doing their very best. There were also collections in the local community to try to ensure that people had what they needed.
We welcome the report on the first phase of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s inquiry, which, as the Prime Minister pointed out, not everybody has yet had a chance to study in detail. It has, after all, only just come out. We expect the Government and the other agencies cited to respond in full. It is very unlikely that a further debate will be held in this Parliament, so it will be for the next Parliament, I hope, to start with an urgent debate on this matter.
I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman would like to reflect on the two events that Mr Speaker organised in Speaker’s House to which survivors came. I thought they were very useful occasions for Members to speak informally to people who had had this dreadful experience. It was remarkable how stoical they were and how grateful they were to the fire service and all those who had helped them.
Those were memorable occasions. There was courage and determination in support of the families and those who were bereaved, but there was also a strong determination to make sure that Grenfell never happens again anywhere else.
I think that the Grenfell survivors are the heroes of all this. When people go through a tragedy, the natural human instinct is to put it behind them, move away and do something else if they have that choice or opportunity. The survivors have not done that; they have stayed in the community and kept that community together, in order that the rest of us might learn the lesson of the pain they went through.
The limited scope of the inquiry was agreed by the Government. The fact that phase 1 looked only at what happened on the night of 14 June is important, because many questions inevitably remain unanswered and the recommendations do not cover the range of issues that need urgent action from Ministers. The Prime Minister talked about the whole truth, but sadly the whole truth is not yet with us.
One of the unanswered questions for phase 2 of the inquiry relates to the types of flammable cladding that are out there on buildings right now. The Government’s response to date has focused solely on ACM-type cladding. There has been a failure both to acknowledge fully that there are other types of cladding that might be just as flammable and just as much of a risk, and to commission an adequate range of tests so that building owners and residents can know what is on their buildings and what response is required. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on the Government urgently and ahead of the second phase of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report to address comprehensively the range of flammable cladding that is still putting residents at risk?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I am going to come on to more details about that a bit later in my speech, but she is right about it. She and I represent constituencies that include people living in high-rise blocks, and we know the stress and pain they go through. She is absolutely right on everything she said in that intervention.
I, too, welcome the tone of the Prime Minister’s presentation and the Government’s position. My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) has just alluded to this, but does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a much bigger picture than phase 1? Phase 1 focuses on the fire brigade response mostly, and many in the media have targeted the fire brigade for criticism, some of which is not unfair, but they are targeting only the fire brigade, as opposed to waiting for the big picture. The inquiry was always going to take a long time, it is incomplete and there are others, including ourselves here in this Parliament, who have some responsibility for the conditions that led to the Grenfell tragedy taking place.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He knows, as a former firefighter, not only the stress and strain firefighters go through, but the way in which, because we now live in an age of such instant media, people half-read half a bit of a report of a bit of the report and decide that that is the conclusion of all things. This is the first of two major reports and we should be cautious in throwing blame around too quickly and too soon, because these are serious and tragic matters.
Does my right hon. Friend also agree that many of the families are waiting for the criminal prosecutions and inquiries being made by the Met police? A number of people have been interviewed under caution. There are many who believe that what happened at Grenfell amounts to corporate manslaughter and that we should also wait to find out who is going to be prosecuted for what happened.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He lost a dearly loved friend in that fire and he has done great work in supporting the Grenfell community, and I thank him for that. I ask the Government also to listen carefully to the remarks he has just made. Remembering people who lost their lives in a wholly preventable fire has to be met with a political response, which is what we are trying to do; with a procedural response, which is about the fire service and fire training and which I will come to in a moment; and of course with building regulations. But this also has to be about justice, because of those people who have knowingly—perhaps or perhaps not; that is what a court must find out—clad buildings with materials that they knew to be dangerous. That is where the corporate manslaughter issues arise. I hope that neither the Government nor anybody else will put any obstruction in the way of that process. The Prime Minister talks about the whole truth and that clearly is not with us yet.
In the light of the particular focus on actions of the London Fire Brigade in phase 1 of the inquiry report, we urge that the recommendations made of the London Fire Brigade are given the full response they require. At the same time, I want to pay tribute to the heroic actions of firefighters in our country every day, including on the night of the Grenfell fire. A lot of the time they stand in fire stations waiting for something to happen, but then they have to go and deal with it. They do not know what they are going to deal with before they get there. Our natural instinct whenever we see a thing of danger is to put ourselves in a place of safety—to run away, to avoid, to do whatever—but firefighters do not do that. They cannot do that. They have to run into a burning building while the residents are trying to escape from it. Firefighters know that is in their job and they know it is their responsibility, and they do it day after day. We should understand the bravery of those who sacrificed so much that night. Despite being told, when they came out of the fire, exhausted and dehydrated, that they must not go back in, as it was against fire service regulations, they said, “No, we might manage to save a life” and so they went back into that fire. That is what they do.
Matt Wrack is the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union and a man who has been a firefighter. His union is composed of firefighters and he is a strong man who fights for his members. He spoke that summer at the Durham miners’ gala. I had never before known 200,000 people in absolute silence, as there were while he described what his members—his firefighters—had done at Grenfell. We should pay tribute to all firefighters and of course to the work done by the FBU, which helps to make us all safe.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the great tribute he is paying to our fire brigade service. Does he agree that between 2010 and 2016, the Government cut central funding by 28% in real terms, leading to 11,000 fewer firefighters? The then Mayor of London, now our Prime Minister, was at the forefront of cuts to the fire service, cutting 27 fire appliances, 55 firefighters and 324 support workers, and closing 10 fire stations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister should apologise for removing aerial appliances from the London Fire Brigade fire engines when he was Mayor of London?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Like other colleagues who have intervened, she represents a constituency in which many residents live in tower blocks. I do not suppose too many Members of Parliament live in high-rise, council-owned tower blocks, but we should all understand the stress and strain that people go through with worry about what would happen in a fire.
The Government’s response to Grenfell has been too slow and not strong enough, on every front, from rehousing survivors to dealing with Grenfell-style ACM cladding on hundreds of other blocks across this country.
On the Government response, one in 10 of the council blocks in England are in Birmingham; we are talking about 213 and 10,000 households. In the aftermath of the fire, the west midlands fire service recommended the retrofitting of sprinklers in all those blocks, costing £31 million. At the dreadful time we lived through at Grenfell, pledges were made that local authorities would be helped and supported in making tenants safe. Birmingham has not received one single penny, and that cannot be right.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and he is absolutely right; this is a huge gap in the Government’s response. The retrofitting of sprinklers will help to control and possibly stop the spread of a fire. It will not stop every fire, but it will save lives, which is why it is so important that that issue be addressed properly.
The Prime Minister must now act urgently on the Government’s failures following Grenfell: the failure to learn the lessons from previous high-rise fires, with no proper response having been made to the coroners’ recommendations made in 2013 following the Lakanal House fire and the Shirley Towers fires in Southampton. Those were terrible tragedies, where lives were lost—those of firefighters in the case of Shirley Towers and those of residents in the case of Lakanal House. We have to learn those lessons. We cannot be here, going on towards 2020, still talking about the coroner’s response from 2013 to the Lakanal House fire. Another failure was the failure to rehouse survivors, with some families still living in hotels and temporary accommodation more than two years on—that is shocking.
The Government have also failed to re-clad blocks identified with dangerous, Grenfell-style cladding. Disgracefully, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) pointed out, eight in 10 residential blocks have still yet to have that ACM cladding replaced. Almost 60,000 people are still living in blocks that have this cladding: 18,000 in the residential social sector and 41,000 in the private sector. Thousands of blocks of flats all over the country need to be dealt with urgently now. I say that in respect of those with ACM cladding, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, that is not the only dangerous cladding that must be dealt with. Local authorities must act quickly to ensure that every block in their community, whether public or private, is inspected and that the dangerous cladding is removed.
My constituency has some tower blocks. I went to a meeting after there had been a small fire in one flat, when fear ran all through the estate because people could see what had happened at Grenfell. Dangerous cladding was found in another block, and I commend my local authority, Islington, for immediately responding when it was discovered by putting fire watchers in within two hours and starting removing the cladding a week later. That is a local authority that is totally on it. The local authority got on to it straight away, and it is with pleasure that I have seen that the scaffolding is about to come down because the replacement has already happened. That shows what happens when local authorities work efficiently and quickly because they are totally on it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is an outrage that the Government have allowed so much time to be wasted before supporting local authorities to deal with ACM cladding? Only three buildings in my constituency have had the work done. There are 39 private blocks in which people cannot sleep at night. Does he think that the Government should learn some empathy? Perhaps the Prime Minister should visit some of the residents who have to live like this; he might then learn the importance of urgent action. We do not see urgent action on this Government’s watch.
My hon. Friend is so right: it is a question of urgent action. That means recognising that local authorities are underfunded and very stressed and strained by the situation. Local authorities know full well that unless they get the money refunded from the Government—that has not always happened—other services are affected because of their trying to bring about safety for their community.
Grenfell Tower would not have happened to wealthy Londoners. It happened to poor and mainly migrant Londoners. I have met Grenfell survivors on many occasions since that dreadful night, and they have all told me about the wonderful community that existed in and around Grenfell Tower. Those in the multi-ethnic, multi-racial community around Grenfell Tower are supporting each other now and were supporting each other that night. People tried to wake others who were frightened of the fire and those who were asleep and did not realise that the building was on fire. People did all that.
Although the report does criticise London Fire Brigade, we should remember that it was not firefighters who deregulated building safety standards; it was not firefighters who ignored the concerns of tenants; it was not firefighters who ignored the coroner’s report and failed to put sprinklers in high-rise blocks; and it was not firefighters who put flammable cladding on Grenfell Tower.
It is disgraceful that, two years on, there has still not been a major review or assessment of the “stay put” policy. I echo the Prime Minister’s words when he said that it is an article of faith in dealing with high-rise block fires, but although it may be an article of faith, there clearly has to be a serious review and examination of that policy. The Fire Brigades Union has raised the issue with Ministers on numerous occasions. Concerns about the “stay put” policy were raised with the Government years before Grenfell, by the FBU and others. Will the Government today stop dragging their feet and act?
I raised the “stay put” policy at Home Office questions on Monday, so I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has raised it today.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.
The past nine years of austerity have seen cuts degrade our fire and rescue services. The reality and the truth is that we have fewer firefighters, fewer fire appliances and, as a result, slower response times. I am not being critical of individual firefighters or their collective response to try to deal with Grenfell. The reality is that if we cut fire services, we live in a more dangerous place. While firefighters selflessly risk their lives to protect others, the Government have not provided them with the resources that they need. Between 2010 and 2016, the Government cut central funding by 28% in real terms, followed by a further cut of 15% by 2020. These cuts have led to the loss of 11,000 firefighter positions—that is 20% of firefighters.
The Prime Minister will know that, as Mayor of London, he was at the forefront of the cuts to the fire service. In the eight years for which he was Mayor of London, the London Fire Brigade was required to make gross savings of £100 million. That led to the cutting of 27 fire appliances, 552 firefighters, 324 support staff, two fire rescue units and three training appliances, and it closed 10 London fire stations.
We all agree that Grenfell must never happen again. It happened because of the way in which building regulations either have not been adhered to or are inadequate, because of an inspection regime that was either non-existent or inadequate and because of a response that was insufficient.
I give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts).
My right hon. Friend is right that one of the real problems with the inspection regime is the way that responsibility was taken away from local authority building control officers, who acted independently. Very often developers can now appoint their own friends to sign off the buildings. Is that not something that Dame Judith Hackitt identified as a real problem that needs addressing? We need urgent action now, rather than to wait for legislation in two years’ time.
As Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, my hon. Friend has done excellent work in highlighting all these issues, for which I thank him. That is Parliament at its best, examining what has happened.
I give way now to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin).
I was going to make exactly the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts).
That is a first, Mr Speaker: someone rises to intervene but does not actually do it. I thank my hon. Friend; he represents a community with mixed housing so also has to deal with these issues.
There are serious questions to be asked about what the Government have done, about what has been happening with the funding of the London fire service and, of course, about the performance of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The night of 14 June will never, ever be forgotten. I have never forgotten talking in my office that evening to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad)—who has been and is a wonderful representative for the people there—about what it was like being an MP. She had been an MP for only for a few days. I said, “It’s great, but it’s hard work and you need to get into it slowly.” She went home and had probably the greatest test of her life two hours later. The way she has spoken up for her community and what she has done is something we should all be very proud of.
The shameful fact is that feet have been dragged. The exact same cladding is on similar high-rise blocks; sprinklers have not been fitted; and thousands of people in this country will go to bed tonight, and tomorrow night, not feeling safe. I pay tribute to the firefighters and, most of all, I pay tribute to the dignity and solemnity of the survivors and the bereaved, who continue to campaign for justice so that no one else has to suffer like them.
I welcome Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report and look forward to the second part of the inquiry. I want us to have a properly funded fire service in all parts of the country. I thank Grenfell United and all the survivors for everything they have done to try to bring people together and keep communities together. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has said that an appropriate memorial will be constructed near or on the Grenfell site, but the real memorial will be a properly funded fire service. The real memorial will be safety for people in every tower block throughout the country. Currently, 60,000 people are unsure of their own safety, and there are many more tower blocks with other kinds of composite materials that are just as dangerous. We need very tough regulation to ensure that all our people can sleep safely and soundly in their beds at night, rather than having in their minds the image of that burning monstrosity of a fire, which took the lives of so many wonderful, wholly innocent people.
I thank the Government for scheduling this debate, which gives the House the very earliest opportunity to debate the recommendations from Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report on part 1 of the public inquiry into what happened at Grenfell Tower. I thank the Prime Minister for his commitment to make time for further debate on this issue when Members from all parties will have had an opportunity to look more fully at the report and its recommendations.
Today’s debate gives us an opportunity to recognise, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition did, the appalling nature of the tragedy that took place at Grenfell Tower in June 2017. I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for the tone that he took in his speech and the understanding that he showed. This was a horrific loss of life and, of course, it was a tragedy that should never have happened. I pay tribute to the survivors and to the families and friends of those who died for the dignity and fortitude that they have shown in circumstances that none of us would ever want to face. They have shown not just dignity and fortitude, but commitment and dedication in their struggle for the justice they want for all those who lost their lives and also for those who lost everything they possessed and the home that they had built up.
I also thank and pay tribute to the survivors who gave evidence to the public inquiry. Reliving those horrific times cannot have been easy, but without their evidence it would not have been possible for Sir Martin Moore-Bick to produce his report. I also thank him for his thoroughness and for the considerate and thoughtful way in which he has produced this report. It is detailed, and aspects of it are shocking.
The public inquiry was set up not only to get to the truth of what happened on that night, but, crucially, to understand why it happened. As has already been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and by others in interventions, there are many questions as yet unanswered because they lie in phase 2 of the inquiry. Crucially, they are issues around building regulations, the cladding, the enforcement of regulations, and why cladding that was non-compliant with the regulations was put up—and it was agreed it be put up—on this building. It is significant that Sir Martin Moore-Bick found himself able to say clearly that the cladding was non-compliant. That was an important aspect and finding of phase 1 of the inquiry, although greater detail in relation to those matters will be gone into in phase 2 of the inquiry.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way. Does she not accept that, while phase 2 will need to deal with these more difficult issues, there are hundreds and hundreds of families still living in conditions that are completely unacceptable because actions have not been taken? These actions could be taken prior to phase 2 coming forward. For instance, in St Francis Tower in my own constituency, people are living in a building, which is, quite frankly, no longer fit for habitation because the cladding has been removed and there are now gaps around all the windows.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that, of course, the Government have put in place support both for local authorities and for the private sector to take action in relation to cladding. Following a question that was asked earlier not just about ACM cladding but about other cladding, I can say that the Department has also been ensuring that tests are undertaken on other cladding on these buildings. We also initiated Dame Judith Hackitt’s report and are clear that the recommendations of that report have been accepted by the Government.
I said that the issues around cladding, building regulations and so forth will need to be addressed in phase 2, but so, too, will the question of the role of Government and the role of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that it just cannot be right that the survivors and bereaved of Grenfell are not properly permanently rehoused?
I recognise that since this terrible tragedy took place, significant efforts have been made to ensure that the survivors—those who have lost so much—have been provided with accommodation that is suitable for their needs. I know that in the early stages many people felt that that work did not go as quickly as it should have done. I recognise, too, that in the struggle that the survivors have been facing to ensure that justice can be done, that the truth can be uncovered, and, crucially, that responsibility for what happened is identified, they have felt that the response of Government at national and local level has not always been as swift or as full as they wished it to be. Every effort will be made, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, to continue the work to support the families of those who suffered this terrible experience in this appalling tragedy. There are other aspects of support that need to be provided in the longer term as well, not least the question of providing mental health support for people who have been affected by this tragedy.
Of course, today we can only look at phase 1 of the inquiry, because that is the report that is before us. One thing that comes through from phase 1 and will be clear to anybody who has met or has had any discussions with members of the Grenfell community is the care that they feel for each other—not just care within families, but care for friends and neighbours, too, and, indeed, for their whole community. The Grenfell community has a lot to teach all of us about the true meaning of community.
It was that care for each other that led to their raising their concerns and fears, over a period of time, about the safety of the building in which they lived. Concerns were brought home to me at a very early stage—when I first met survivors from Grenfell Tower—that they had been raising these issues about the safety of their building over a period of time, and yet those issues, their voices and those concerns had gone unheeded and had been ignored. I want to go on to reference some of the shocking aspects of this report, but I think that one of the most shocking features that has come out of consideration of what happened at Grenfell Tower is that those people had been genuinely raising matters about safety and yet felt that those matters were just completely ignored—and in some cases they were indeed just completely ignored. That was what led to the work to look at social housing across the country. I am grateful that a number of Housing Ministers undertook that work.
I see my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), the first Housing Minister who started that work, in his place on the Treasury Bench. That work was due to lead to a social housing Green Paper. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reference a social housing White Paper. We are now about to go into an election. There is purdah, but I urge the Government, as soon as possible after Parliament is reconvened, to publish that White Paper, because change is needed to ensure that those who are living in social housing are able to have their voices heard so they can have the confidence that, when they raise issues, those issues will be acted on, and if they are not, they can seek redress in order to ensure that their concerns are being heard.
There are other shocking aspects of this report on which I wish to touch briefly. Some of them relate to the conclusions on the London Fire Brigade. Our emergency services do an amazing job, day in and day out, and there is absolutely no doubt that, on that fateful night, individual firefighters gave totally of themselves. They bravely went into a building with a fire whose like, as they said to me afterwards, they had never seen before, yet they bravely put themselves in danger to try to rescue others. None the less, it is also clear from Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report that there were questions over the command structure, training and communications in London Fire Brigade, which all need to be addressed.
When there is an emergency, we are used to seeing—indeed we expect to see—our emergency services working seamlessly, both in teams within an individual service but also in services working together. Sadly, on that fateful night, that was not the case. Now these were the most challenging of circumstances. None of us should take away from the fact that people were dealing with something that they had not seen the like of before and were having to respond with instant and split-second decisions. But there is absolutely no doubt from the report that the lack of communication and of the passing on of crucial information had an impact on the response. Sir Martin Moore-Bick states in the report:
“The chaotic nature of the communication links meant that neither the control room nor the command units nor the incident commander could know whether rescue attempts had been made in response to calls, or if they had, what had been the outcomes.”
That seamless working together is important within teams but also across the services. It is very important that when our emergency services attend an emergency, they are able to work together in the best possible way to deal with it.
When I was Home Secretary, I oversaw the work on the joint emergency services interoperability principles, or JESIP. The whole purpose of that work was to ensure that there was a way of our emergency services working together that enabled them to provide the service we wanted them to provide. And yet on this night, a major incident was declared by each of the services at different times, but they did not communicate that to each other. Sir Martin Moore-Bick makes that point when he says:
“One of the consequences of the declaration of a Major Incident by the emergency services is that there should be a multi-agency conversation between the control room leads. This was a requirement of the joint operating requirements established under the Joint Doctrine…That was also a requirement of the Procedure Manual…The evidence that such a conversation…took place is at best unclear.”
This need to communicate is very important and it is absolutely right that Sir Martin Moore-Bick has raised it as an issue that needs to be addressed in his recommendations.
I want to comment on what in many ways must be the most heartbreaking aspect of the report for the survivors: the use of the doctrine “stay put”. I can quite understand why there was a doctrine of staying put. The experience was that a fire in a flat within a tower block would normally remain in that flat and would be able to be dealt with in that flat—compartmentalisation or containment within a flat. But of course that did not happen in this circumstance; something else happened because of the cladding on the outside of the building.
The doctrine of “stay put” had been developed for good reasons, based on the normal experiences of firefighters. The problem was not the fact that that was the doctrine in such circumstances; the problem was that there was no flexibility to know how to deal with and respond to different circumstances. As we see in the report, at a point in time—the Prime Minister referenced that point—a decision was taken to evacuate rather than to continue to operate the “stay put” doctrine, but even at that time the messages that were getting through were not clear and the messages being given by the control room were not as clear as they should have been. One of the issues here is making sure that there is training to ensure that those who are making decisions on the ground know that they have the flexibility to make a different decision, but also know when and how to exercise that flexibility.
This doctrine did have an impact. On the Friday after the fire I was visiting survivors in hospital, where I met one family, the father of which told me that he, his wife and child had been told to stay put in their flat and that others had been brought into their flat as a place of safety. There came a point when this father took the decision that they could no longer stay in the flat, so he said what he was going to do and took himself, his wife and his child out of their flat. They survived. The others did not. So this doctrine did have an impact that night.
The worst thing that could happen now would be to lurch to having everyone say, “We can’t have ‘stay put’ at all”, because there will be circumstances in which “stay put” is still the right advice to give. But what is important is that flexibility is provided, and that training is given so that individuals know when and how they can exercise that flexibility and change the advice.
If there is to be this change—a flexibility, under which there may be a full evacuation from time to time—would the right hon. Lady agree that it would be essential for buildings to have sprinkler systems, at least in communal areas, more than one means of escape and a central alarm system, and that Grenfell Tower would have benefited from those measures? Would she support those provisions being introduced in new buildings and retrofitted?
I have been asked about sprinklers on a number of occasions. Of course, the response to the Lakanal House fire was not that sprinklers should be fitted in all high tower blocks, but that the landlord should look at that issue. Sir Martin Moore-Bick is going to address the issue of sprinklers in part 2 of the inquiry, and he references that and makes the point that I have just made about the Lakanal House fire in this report. On the issue of the means of escape, there was a central stairway in Grenfell Tower, and I think firefighters have raised the question of the means of escape in that regard. This is another issue that part 2 of the inquiry is likely to look at, as it is looking at the requirements and regulations necessary for the future.
There are issues about the cladding itself and about the responsibility for why the fire was able to happen because of the circumstances of the building. I set up the inquiry to get to the truth, and Sir Martin Moore- Bick has shown that he is capable of and determined to get to the truth. His report so far has been clear and uncompromising, and I have every expectation that his report on part 2 of the inquiry will also be clear and uncompromising, whoever or whatever it needs to address.
I welcome the Government’s commitments, set out by the Prime Minister, to accept the recommendations, but change requires a willingness to change. I refer to paragraph 28.55 in volume 4 of the report, where Sir Martin Moore-Bick references the evidence of the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade and says that he feels that it
“only serves to demonstrate that the LFB is an institution at risk of not learning the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire.”
For the families and friends of those who lost their lives, the pain of that loss will never go away. But for their sake, and in memory of all who lost their lives, the lessons must be learned.
Colleagues will see that many hon. and right hon. Members wish to speak in this debate. Time is limited so I will impose a five-minute time limit after the speech from the Scottish National party Front Bench, and that time limit may have to be reduced.
It is my pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who made a very careful and considered speech in response to these matters. It is good to know that the days of establishment cover-ups in the immediate aftermath of tragedies—such as we saw over Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday—are over. Although I find much to disagree with the right hon. Lady about, I know that she has been pivotal in ensuring that there was an inquiry in this case, and that her actions were also pivotal in relation to Hillsborough. That is something about which we can agree.
I welcome on the publication of phase 1 of the reports, but I agree with the Leader of the Opposition when he says that this was an avoidable tragedy, and I will come back to that in a moment.
Before I say anything else, I want, like others, to pay tribute to the resilience of the survivors of this tragedy and the bereaved. Like many other hon. Members, I had the privilege, thanks to you, Mr Speaker, of meeting some of the survivors and bereaved at a reception in your offices. That was of great use to me in understanding their lived experience of this avoidable tragedy, which must be central to how we deal with preventing this sort of thing and ensuring that it never happens again.
As well as paying tribute to the fortitude and dignity of the families—the bereaved—and the survivors, I want, like others, to pay tribute to the bravery of individual firefighters. For most of us, it is really unfathomable that they had the courage to run back and forth in and out of that inferno. I believe that the bereaved families have had very warm words for the coroner, Fiona Wilcox, and tribute should be paid to her, as well as to Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his staff. Of course, tributes should also be paid, as others have said, to the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), who had to deal with this terrible tragedy on her patch very shortly after she had been elected a Member of Parliament, and has been able to do so, again with great fortitude and resilience, because she knew the area so well.
It is important to remember that this is only phase 1 of the inquiry. Many have argued that perhaps the inquiry was the wrong way round and that phase 1 should have looked at the cause of the fire and phase 2 at the response. There is some force in that, but we are where we are. It is very important to look to the statement that the Fire Brigades Union made, pointing out:
“Before any firefighter arrived that night, Grenfell Tower was”
“a death trap. Firefighters…acted bravely in impossible circumstances, many of them repeatedly risking their own lives to save others.”
Indeed, that is reflected in the report. The Fire Brigades Union goes on to say:
“The true culprits of the fire are those who wrapped the building in flammable cladding.”
It is good that the inquiry has recognised that, and I am sure that phase 2 will spend a lot more time looking at it. Also contributing to this avoidable tragedy were those who gutted the fire safety regime of the United Kingdom, who ignored the warnings from previous fires, and who did not hear the pleas of a community who were worried for their safety.
I cannot help thinking that the story of the avoidable tragedy of Grenfell is a modern tale of two cities. Do we really think that this carnage would have been allowed to happen if the residents of the tower were white, wealthy, middle and upper-class residents such as we find elsewhere in Kensington? Do we really think that the survivors and the bereaved would have waited so long for state support and rehousing if they had been white, wealthy and middle-class? Of course not. This divided city, and our divided society, have developed under the watch of the Conservative party. As others have pointed out, the Prime Minister was Mayor of this great city of London at the time when cuts were made to the fire brigade. There are issues of political responsibility that are properly the province of this House.
Some outside—I am not saying that the hon. and learned Lady is doing this—have said that the fire brigade differentiated its response because of the ethnicity of the people in the building. That is complete and utter nonsense, as I am sure she will agree. On her point about the social class of the people in the in the building, a number of colleagues have referred to the privately owned freehold buildings across the country that are not getting reclad. They are all private blocks that are owned by leaseholders. The social blocks have all been done—perhaps a little slower, but they have all been done. These people are mostly white middle-class, and they are in desperate need of their cladding being taken down and replaced.
I cannot disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s second point, and I also agree with his first point. However, the point that I sought to make was that it has not gone unnoticed by many of us that the social class and ethnicity of the people who died in Grenfell Tower was very different from that of other people who live in the surrounding area, and there is a very strong suspicion that that has led to the some of the shortcomings in this case.
Will the hon. and learned Lady give way?
No, I am going to make some progress.
When this House reassembles after general election 2019, we must not allow political blame for this avoidable tragedy to be deflected. The second phase of this inquiry, I believe, will be uncomfortable for Conservative Ministers and Conservative councillors who sat on their hands or took actions that let circumstances occur that contributed to this tragedy. I believe that phase 2 will be far more uncomfortable for them than phase 1 has been for the fire service—and that is as it should be.
I welcome the undertaking from the Prime Minister to implement all the recommendations for central Government, but I reiterate the question that other hon. Members have asked: will he commit to the requisite funding to implement those recommendations? In the past, many post-death inquiries have made very important recommendations, but there is not always national oversight of those recommendations. There is not a national body keeping track of whether they have been implemented, and the reality is that important recommendations often fall by the wayside.
The hon. and learned Lady is making a very important point. Does she think that as soon as the Government, whichever Government it is, have had a chance to consider the recommendations in detail, they should publish a list of those recommendations, what they are going to do to implement them, how much that will cost, and the timeframe in which they will be delivered?
That is an eminently sensible suggestion.
Others have mentioned Lakanal House. The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) pointed out that the tragedy at Grenfell was not the first time that compartmentation had failed. The Lakanal House fire, which resulted in the deaths of six people, with 15 residents and a firefighter injured, was the subject of a coroner’s inquest. As the hon. Gentleman said, the coroner sent a rule 43 letter to the then Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, on 28 March 2013, recommending that the Westminster Government should
“publish consolidated national guidance in relation to the ‘stay put’ principle and its interaction with the ‘get out and stay out’ policy, including how such guidance is disseminated to residents.”
Ministers promised to review that guidance with the Local Government Association. However, in the four years after the coroner’s letter, no guidance was produced. So the lessons that should have been learned from the Lakanal House fire, and that might have prevented at least the scale of this avoidable tragedy, were not learned. It is vital that this House is empowered to make sure that the recommendations of phase 2 are implemented promptly, because important recommendations have not been implemented promptly in the past.
Does the hon. and learned Lady accept that what took place after the Lakanal House fire should have involved an examination of the Government of the day? That is not to be partisan, but simply to say that it is important that justice applies to everyone. The firemen are not here, but it is important that justice means that anyone, wherever they are and of whichever party—because it may have gone back many years—may be found culpable and must be able to answer for their failure on behalf of these people.
I entirely agree. This is the job of the inquiry, but it is also the job of this House, as I said, to scrutinise the political responsibility for factors contributing to this tragedy.
In Scotland, building regulations are devolved. After a tower block fire in Irvine in 1999, just before devolution kicked in, a Select Committee of this House recommended that all cladding on high-rise dwellings should be non-combustible. Subsequent to devolution, that report was taken seriously by Scottish housing authorities, and building regulations in Scotland were duly amended in 2005. All new high rise domestic buildings in Scotland after that date were, by regulation, fitted with non-combustible cladding or a cladding system that met stringent fire tests, and with sprinklers. The same recommendation was seen as optional south of the border. It appears that that has had tragic consequences, so it is vital that this House finds a way to ensure that the inquiry’s recommendations are properly implemented.
It is also the case that a history of deregulation and its legacy has contributed to this tragedy. That history dates back many years and includes previous Conservative party Administrations’ decisions to cut building regulations drastically and the coalition Government’s cutting of fire budgets by around 28% in real terms. Those are facts. The fact is that the regulatory regime for housing and fire safety created in England has contributed to the scale of this tragedy.
I believe that the coalition Government’s policy of austerity has contributed to conditions surrounding the scale of this tragedy. I am conscious of not taking up too much time, so that others can speak, but Labour Members have mentioned cuts made by the Prime Minister to the London fire service when he was Mayor. I have read carefully comments from Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, who notes that a review of the London Fire Brigade’s resources in 2016 warned against any further cuts to its budget and advised that City Hall
“be ready to mitigate any unacceptable negative impacts arising from cuts in frontline resources”
made by the then Mayor, the Prime Minister. Those allegations come from somebody who knows what he is talking about.
Despite those concerns, the Prime Minister, when he was Mayor of London, went on to insist to Londoners that he had improved fire cover, despite cutting the number of firefighters, fire engines and fire stations. When confronted in the Greater London Assembly chamber about that matter, he told a Labour party Assembly Member to “get stuffed”. I am sorry for that language, Madam Deputy Speaker, but that is a fact, and I have seen the video. It is a great indictment of our politics that that sort of approach to such serious matters is seen as acceptable by some.
As the charity Shelter has said, this tragedy outlines the fact that we need a national conversation about some of the broader policy issues, particularly social housing. In Scotland, even under the constraints of Tory and Lib Dem austerity, we have taken steps to build tens of thousands of new social homes. We have got rid of the right to buy, built council houses and reintroduced security of tenure in the private sector. Those things are all widely accepted in other European democracies, and we need to look at improving them in England and Wales.
Finally, the families must never be forgotten. Working with the organisation Inquest, the families have produced a blueprint for the handling of future disasters. They have called in particular for a co-ordinated response from central and local government and emergency services. They have also recommended that a central point be set up for families to contact about missing relatives and for help and information. The views of the families, whose lived experience is central to our consideration of this avoidable tragedy, must be put at the heart of any work that the next Parliament takes forward, to put right the terrible wrong that occurred on that night.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). Grenfell is a tragedy that should never have happened, and the likes of it must never happen again. I welcome any report that allows us to learn lessons for the future, but we must not simply learn; we must follow through and apply those lessons. Unfortunately, given the timing of the phase 1 report’s release, I have been unable to read the 1,000 or so pages of the four volumes. That said, as a former firefighter and senior officer in Strathclyde fire brigade, I feel compelled to make a short contribution to this important debate.
I want to take a moment to set the record straight. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West referred to the wealth of the individuals concerned. Firefighters the length and breadth of the United Kingdom will do their very best, irrespective of people’s colour, wealth, religion or gender. It is uniform throughout the UK. We will do our best, irrespective of where people live. If they ask for our assistance, they will get it.
On that dreadful night, firefighters did not set out to fail; and nor did they fail. I am relieved that the inquiry, in its report published today, is not overtly critical of the frontline firefighters, but rather highlights systemic failures. Firefighters respond where others would fear to tread, often putting their own lives on the line. A question I would ask, assuming that the media coverage is accurate, is: why are we regrettably seeing a pattern emerging of the same or similar systemic failures or shortcomings, from which lessons are apparently not being learned and with no timeous action being taken to rectify such failures?
We live in a world where scientific developments and technological advances aim to enhance our safety. That may lead us all on occasions to feel a false sense of security. Indeed, perhaps too often we take such matters at face value and for granted. In the fire and rescue service, there are often specialist divisions, such as fire safety, fire investigation and fire engineering. However, regrettably, fire certification by fire services has given way to fire risk assessments being conducted simply by responsible persons. There needs to be sufficient exchange of relevant information, particularly to the frontline fire crews and operational commanders, including appropriate familiarisation training and support for those who may, in their firefighting role, have less cause to visit, inspect and become familiar with premises.
Many of those improvements have led to a reduction in the number of recorded fires. As a result, practical experience at incidents, as opposed to on fireground training, is in decline, and that gap needs to be addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) mentioned the Fire Service College at Moreton-in-Marsh, which is a wonderful facility. Under the stewardship of the then chief officer, Brian Sweeney, my old service—the Strathclyde fire and rescue service—built a wonderful, modern training facility at Cambuslang in Scotland.
For many years, compartmentalisation has been seen as offering, in effect, a safe refuge. It has worked well on many occasions, but we have learned the hard way that it may not necessarily offer a safe refuge, due in no small way to construction materials and subsequent modifications that may involve original fire-stopping or fire spread-limiting measures being compromised.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; I call him my hon. Friend because there is an affinity and comradeship between ex-firefighters. In London alone, there have been 5,000 high-rise fires since 2014, and compartmentalisation worked in the vast majority of those. That is not an excuse for the London Fire Brigade not taking evacuation action earlier, but it explains why people arrived at the scene conditioned to expect a certain action, and Grenfell did not act like a normal building.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is correct. In Glasgow, where there are many high-rise flats, that policy has worked well, but as I will come on to say, we need a bit of flexibility. I firmly believe—I think he would share this view—that the events that night at Grenfell were exceptional. They were not normal; they were an extreme. It was a very difficult fire for any responding firefighters or senior officer to manage well.
While rules, procedures and practices are needed for health and safety, they require to be applied in such a manner that we do not stifle freedom of thought. One of the greatest assets in my early days as a firefighter was the use of initiative and improvisation. To some extent, that has been curtailed over time by the fear of disciplinary action, of being sued in an increasingly litigious society, or of departing from the perceived norm or any policy of long standing. Policies are often quite rigid and lack the flexibility that takes account of the inexact science of firefighting and the unpredictability of both fire and human behaviour.
The greatest question of all is: who was informed, and what revised fire risk assessment took place when the whole dynamic and risks presented at Grenfell changed? A high-rise building was draped in flammable cladding and became an inferno, costing the lives of 72 individuals. Their deaths must not be in vain. I would just comment that, as we speak today in this Chamber, there are still flaws in the building regulations in Scotland. We can still apply flammable cladding. I hope that the Scottish Government will put that right; I am sure that they will.
My sympathies go to the families of those who lost their lives in the Grenfell tragedy, but my sympathies also go to the families of the frontline firefighters, who have to deal with their loved one’s experiences on that dreadful night of 14 June 2017, together with external pressures from very intense public scrutiny. Grenfell must be a catalyst for change and secure improvements for fire safety and firefighting not only for the London fire brigade, but for the whole of the UK. Finally, I thank Sir Martin and those who gave evidence and shared their experience of that dreadful night, which will haunt many for years to come.
Order. As the next speaker is the constituency MP, I will remove the time limit, but I know the hon. Lady is aware of the time pressures. I call Emma Dent Coad.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to overrun the time limit.
There is one finding in this 1,000 page document that I welcome without hesitation: my former neighbour whose Hotpoint fridge freezer burst into flames, the match lighting a bonfire created by others, is entirely blameless and, indeed, did everything he could and should have done to alert the emergency services and his neighbours. He has been vilified by the gutter press, not by our community, and I would welcome an opportunity to reunite him with the neighbours he was advised—wrongly, I believe—never to speak to again, at huge personal cost to himself. Another point I welcome with some hesitation is that the building was non-compliant at the time of the fire. This finding, although very welcome, is left hanging with no commentary and no resolution.
Much of the rest of this story is, in my opinion, a litany of vested interest protecting itself. How very disappointing it is that the inquiry has to a certain extent gone along with this narrative, as we feared. I do hope people will bear with me, but I did not have the benefit of having the full report on Monday morning, as The Daily Telegraph seems to have done. I will be giving a visceral response, and I will give a more measured response in time to come, when I have absorbed all the details of the report.
For me—and I have spent a mere four hours reading the documents—one of the worst of many disappointments is the naming of some of the firefighters who, as has already been said, risked their lives in a bonfire made by corporate greed and by the disdain and complacency of politicians over many years. To create some balance and to point the finger of blame as I personally see it, I am naming some of those at the top of the pyramid of responsibility.
I am going to start with the chief executive of Arconic, which makes the cladding, Chip Blankenship, who, when he left in 2017, had a going-away present of $17.5 million, which is 500 times the earnings of a firefighter who ran into a bonfire that he was potentially responsible for. The chief executive of Whirlpool now, Marc Bitzer, who manufactured the now banned plastic fridge freezer that burst into flames and lit the bonfire, was on record as earning $11.8 million, which is 300 times as much as firefighters. The chief executive of Celotex, Pierre-André de Chalendar, made a mere £4 million from salary and dividends, and the chief executive of Rydon, Robert Bond, who constructed the bonfire of now banned combustible products—and did a pretty shoddy job of it from what we gather, with gaps creating chimneys, badly fitting windows and dodgy fixings, some fitted upside down which encouraged the fire to spread—earned a mere £2 million, which is a mere 80 times that of firefighters. All these men are responsible to some extent for the events of 14 June 2017, but if they are named at all, it will not be for two years, when their army of lawyers will have created a firewall between them and any degree of accountability.
I also name the Prime Minister who, as Mayor of London, was responsible for the brutal cuts that weakened the fire service and forced it to economise, and who, in his current role, will potentially happily allow further cuts to an already depleted service. I do hope that Ministers will deny that. When, as the Mayor, he was challenged about the cuts—at the time I was fighting, and I fought very hard, for North Ken fire station, which I hope we have managed to save—he, as we have heard, emitted a foul expletive, just to show his disdain for the concerns of his fellow human beings.
I also name the current chair of the Conservative party, James Cleverly, who, as the then chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, presided over those very same cuts and takes no responsibility for the outcome of those cuts. He did nothing in the aftermath of the Lakanal House fire of 2009 in which six people died.
May I just check whether, in line with the standard protocol, the hon. Lady advised my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), whom she has referred to by name rather than by constituency, that she would mention him in her speech?
Order. I believe that the hon. Lady referred to the Mayor. Did she use those words?
And James Cleverly.
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady used an actual name, but if so, that would be incorrect. The right hon. Gentleman was here earlier, but I am sure she will bear in mind that it is important not to refer to right hon. and hon. Members by name.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I would also like to name the previous Fire Ministers and Housing Ministers Brandon Lewis and Gavin Barwell, and Eric Pickles, the then Secretary of State, who turned a deaf ear to pleas about the fire cuts, as well as our current Fire Minister, whom I have had many conversations with. I feel that I have spent two years—I apologise for this—shouting into a void.
I also name the former Kensington and Chelsea cabinet member in charge of the refurbishment, Rock Feilding-Mellen, a man whom we have no love for in North Kensington. He abandoned his fourth home, a modest London crash-pad, which he had bought for cash, that now overlooks the shrouds of the Grenfell Tower he was so keen to improve the appearance of. He is a man who called my beautiful Golborne ward a “ghetto”, but he can sleep at night safe in one of his three stately homes, one of which appears to be a castle. He is a man who demanded good prices on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, and I am sure this will come out in the second phase of the inquiry in two years’ time.
I also name the past leader of the council, Nick Paget-Brown, a man who was happy to spend £250,000 on pre-Raphaelite paintings, but as the tower blazed behind him on that horrible morning—as my neighbours burned to death behind him—he said on camera that the residents had been offered sprinklers and refused them, which was an entirely provable black lie.
It is these people—cushioned by their millions, devoid of any conscience, protected by taxpayer-funded legal teams, reputation advisers and empathy coaches—who are the guilty ones here. They sleep easy in their beds, while half of North Kensington, including myself, have sleepless nights broken by nightmares, and tens of thousands of our fellow human beings across the country live in dangerous buildings, some of whom have put their life savings into them—all lost. Those I have named and the system they represent built a bonfire, lit the match and stood by wagging their fingers as firefighters, ill-trained and ill-equipped for a situation that should never have happened, ran into an inferno to save lives.
This interim report has failed us, as far as I am concerned. It does nothing to protect people tonight or into the future. In addition to protecting corporate interests and declining to look into potential dodgy dealings or even possible corruption, which is for police to investigate, it fails even to support the recommendations that would stop this man-made atrocity happening again. There are some things that could have been done at this stage, and they have not been done. Why should we wait another two years for that? These failures of corporate interests, the complacency of politicians over many years and the failures of this report mean, to my mind, that Grenfell 2 could happen tomorrow. I wonder whether they, if their children were living in a flat in the sky wrapped in solid petrol, would wake up to the potential disaster and legislate now.
The hon. Lady is making some fair points, but there have been failures over decades in terms of free regulation in relation to fire, and is it helpful at this point in time simply to use this issue in a party political perspective, as she is doing? This is about failures of previous Governments and, one could argue, failures of the current Government. Nevertheless, this should not be about party politics.
I acknowledge that, and I have not pointed to any parties at all. Indeed, there has been complacency and failure over many, many years.
If we wait another two years, we will see another Grenfell, and a finger of blame will point at the Government and their failures to act, and at this interim report. “Stay put” was the correct advice in Grenfell Tower for 45 years, until the building’s safety was compromised by a refurbishment designed by five years of bad decision making. This is a national Government policy that the fire services have been asking be reviewed for particular buildings for many years, ever since the first cladding fires. Firefighters are being blamed for Government policy failures and the Government still refuse to review the policy—it is “in due course”—because to do so would be, I believe, an admission of guilt.
I hope that the Government will reconsider and take immediate action. This is urgent. We must deal with safety and building regulations without delay. If another Grenfell happens, the Government will have knowingly sent residents and firefighters to their deaths. Let that be on their conscience and in their nightmares forever.
Order. Just a reminder that if right hon. and hon. Members are to refer to other right hon. or hon. Members who have not been in the debate, they should give them notice of that. I now impose a four-minute time limit.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the content and tone of his speech. I was appalled that this report was leaked two days in advance, and I was extremely worried that the fire brigade would be used as an excuse and blamed. That is quite wrong. I spoke to the fire brigade and found that it has dealt with internal learning and improvement, predetermined attendance, new equipment, training, control improvements, information gathering and other matters.
The reality is that Parliament is to blame, because over many years we have not prioritised this issue at all. Of course, we come together when there is such a tragedy, but over many years Parliament has not prioritised the situation. I gently say to colleagues that we have all been sent emails about fire training measures in this place, but I am afraid that the take-up among colleagues is relatively small, and I hope that we will do better.
We are all aware that when the fire brigade has to attend a fire the magnitude of Grenfell, that is because of a failure in the building system, which according to Dame Judith Hackitt is seriously broken and not fit for purpose. As we have heard, phase 2 of the public inquiry will commence next year and look at the original design, construction and composition of the tower and the subsequent modifications both prior to and during 2012 to 2016, including compliance with regulations and guidance and industry practice.
I only wish that we in the all-party parliamentary fire safety rescue group had been listened to many years ago. I am delighted that the group has three Members who were Ministers and two firefighters, all of whom make excellent contributions. Our group will be represented at stage 2 of the public inquiry by the group’s adviser, former chief fire officer Ronnie King.
As I said, the fire tragedy that unfolded at Grenfell Tower cannot be laid at the door of the firefighters. I have had only a brief opportunity to look at the 1,000-page report, but I want to pick out one or two words. Sir Martin Moore-Bick says that the London Fire Brigade’s readiness for the Grenfell fire was “gravely inadequate”. He stated that
“incident commanders had received no training in how to recognise the need for an evacuation or how to organise one”.
Her Majesty’s inspectorate of fire services really should be picking up that sort of thing. Whether it failed to notice it or just failed to act is a matter of grave concern.
There was no contingency plan for the evacuation of Grenfell Tower. Assurances had been provided following the 2013 inquest into Lakanal House that this kind of issue had been resolved. It clearly had not. The London Fire Brigade has an operational database of buildings in London and has a risk assessment policy accessible to all operational firefighters. The information available about Grenfell Tower contained almost nothing of any use to an incident commander called to a fire. I also understand that what was there did not reflect the significant refurbishment work that had gone on. Once again, Her Majesty’s inspectorate really should have picked up that shortcoming. The first incident commanders, although experienced, were of relatively junior rank. They were faced with a situation for which they had not been adequately prepared, and I know the fire service will look at that.
We should not argue any more about this. We should ensure that the cladding is dealt with everywhere in private and public buildings, we should ensure that sprinklers are retrospectively fitted, and we should ensure that a tragedy such as Grenfell never ever happens again.
Order. I am sorry; after the next speaker, I will have to reduce the time limit to three minutes.
I thank the Prime Minister for the tone in which he opened the debate, the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), for setting up the inquiry in the first place, and Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his inquiry team for the detailed work they have done. I also thank the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad). It is entirely understandable that the community is angry and wants justice. She expressed that, and she is right to do so. When she says this is urgent, she is absolutely right.
Nobody could not be moved by the horror of reading or listening to the testimonies of those who experienced that fateful night: the horror of people being trapped in a burning building, or of knowing that their loved ones were. In the report they then read the heartbreaking finding that advice to stay put was given to people who could otherwise have escaped, and that led to loss of life.
There are so many lessons to be learnt, but the truth is that the people who survived, and their friends and family, bear this burden every single day, as do those from our emergency services. There are the firefighters who bravely ran into danger in that hellish building—that inferno. There are those who gave medical support to the people who were affected, and those who picked up the pieces in the community, including people in the education service. I am struck by the story of the young woman who escaped from the tower and the next day went to set her GCSE chemistry exam. The reach of Grenfell, with the number of people whose lives were affected, or who have helped those affected, is huge. It continues to this day.
The report makes absolutely clear that the Grenfell tragedy was the result of several institutional failings. Simply put, it should not have happened. We need solutions now to ensure that it can never happen again—from local authorities having emergency planning procedures and risk assessments to the fire service having the support needed on lessons that must be learned about communication. It is also about the regulations made in this place about cladding and materials, the rules that we have for buildings, and learning the lessons from previous tragedies such as Lakanal House.
Everyone deserves a safe and secure home to live in, and, bluntly, the residents of Grenfell did not have that. It is unacceptable that that cladding was ever approved for use on buildings such as Grenfell. In part of the report, Sir Martin Moore-Bick finds that it is hard to understand whether it could ever have been compliant with building regulations—it is important that that is fully investigated in phase 2—yet 200 buildings still have that cladding today. People are going to sleep in buildings where that is the case. That is not good enough two and a half years on.
It is incredibly important that the next phase of the inquiry can proceed. It needs to be comprehensive and detailed, and it needs to do its work as quickly as possible, but the very fact that that cladding is still there on buildings more than two years on should shock us all. It is long past time that we matched our words with actions.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this debate, and I am honoured to follow the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson).
I need to start by acknowledging the grief, pain and anger of the bereaved and the survivors from Grenfell. No one can be anything other than deeply saddened at the huge loss of life. Anything other than complete condemnation of this event is unacceptable. No one escapes their share of the blame from Grenfell. This includes the London Fire Brigade, and I speak as a former operational firefighter with the brigade. London Fire Brigade is not hiding from the criticism levelled at it, but the catastrophic failure that is Grenfell was not caused by the London Fire Brigade, which did its best to deal with it. Compartmentalisation normally works. I have fought high-rise fires, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) has, too. It has saved countless lives over many years, but Grenfell was not compartmentalised. The building failure led to London Fire Brigade making many mistakes of which, I am sure, it is absolutely ashamed and that it regrets deeply.
Responsibility for what happened lies with us here in Parliament, with the Government and with many others—local government, building suppliers, construction companies and the rest. The focus of the inquiry is, in phase 1, on the initial evidence supplied by witnesses called by the inquiry. Subsequent phases will apportion more responsibility to a wider number of organisations and individuals. I believe therefore that the criticism of London Fire Brigade has to be viewed with that perspective—that there is a bigger picture and that it will subsequently be uncovered. I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for his kind words about London Fire Brigade, to the Leader of the Opposition and to Sir Martin Moore-Bick for commending the brigade’s bravery in his report.
The conspiracy theorists have had a field day, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) for putting on record that the resident who suffered from the fire and was vilified for it has been proved to be completely innocent. There were accusations that London Fire Brigade had used different operational firefighting techniques because of ethnicity, as well as accusations of cover-up and that the body count was not accurate; all these things are not only offensive but insulting to everyone involved in firefighting all the way through.
Nobody can deal with the pain of the survivors or bring back the victims. What we all have to do is to learn the lessons; I believe that London Fire Brigade has, and it is obvious that that is already being demonstrated. I say to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government that cladding is still a huge issue, both in terms of safety and policy.
Finally, I thank the inquiry. People said that it would not get to the truth and that it would be a whitewash. I had faith that it would never be that, and the inquiry has demonstrated that it is digging, and digging deep. There is a lot more to do, but the first phase demonstrates that the inquiry knows what happened and is telling the world.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), perhaps making his last speech in this House. I thank him for his friendship over the years and his unswerving commitment to fire safety. He will certainly be remembered for that. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) for her outstanding work on behalf of her constituents. This disaster happened shortly after she had been elected, and I do not think that anyone in this country could have had better representation through the difficulties that the community faced and the work that she has done on their behalf.
I thank Sir Martin Moore-Bick for his recommendations in the inquiry. Of course, they need to be implemented and the funding needs to be made available. To pick out certain salient points, it is very clear that the cladding on that building did not meet fire or building regulations. It was there illegally. Eventually, the inquiry will look at how it came to be in that situation, but at some point someone will have to be held accountable because if that material had not been on that building, the disaster would not have happened. That is absolutely key.
The second issue, a concern to which Sir Martin draws attention in paragraph 33.6, is the delay in getting action in removing this cladding from other buildings. Indeed, the Secretary of State has said that he has concerns about that. The Government were too late in providing funding for social housing and in providing money for the private sector. They now have to act to make sure that disputes between freeholders and leaseholders in the private sector do not lead to further delays and to support local authorities in taking enforcement action.
What can the Government do? We referred to this in the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee the other day: they should act quickly to deal with the conflicts of interest in testing, where producers go round from one testing organisation to another to find one that will approve their product with no public transparency about the products that have failed various tests. That must be rectified quickly.
As I said to the Secretary of State the other day, the process whereby developers in high-risk buildings can appoint their friends to be the building inspectors who sign off the work is not acceptable. It cannot be allowed to continue. I have referenced a block of student accommodation in Sheffield evacuated the other day because the building inspector had not even been on site to give approval to the building and sign it off. That, again, needs to be stopped here and now.
Finally, reference has been made to non-ACM cladding. There are materials on half a million properties—half a million flats and apartments—in this country now that would not be allowed and approved on a new building but that are thought acceptable, and people have to stay in those homes and live in them at night. That cannot be right either; that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency as well.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate.
Khadija Saye, my friend who died, was Facebooking her friends at 1.47 that night. I now know, as a result of this inquiry and the review by the fire brigade, that firemen were on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower at 2 am. I so wish that those fire officers—and I am sure they do as well—had knocked on the doors of people on the 20th floor so that they could make their way out. The “stay put” advice stayed in place until 2.47. Khadija made her way out of her flat with her mother at 3.14, an hour and 14 minutes after she should have done. She died on the 10th floor and her mother died on the 13th.
This report goes into tremendous detail about the leadership, the co-ordination and the communication of the advice that was offered to tenants, but of course it is important to recognise that much of this had been explored previously in the Lakanal House fire, the coroner’s report that followed it and, frankly, the lack of progress that should have been made following that tragedy.
But we are not really talking about a tragedy; we are talking about what many see as a crime. For that reason, I look forward to the next phase of this inquiry. I look forward to establishing whether companies like Arconic, Rydon, Celotex and Whirlpool, leaders of the local authority, mayors and Ministers will be held to account for the decisions that were made.
I also look forward to the Metropolitan police’s inquiry and review of the evidence and the prosecutions that many of us hope will follow. I said on the day afterwards that this was corporate manslaughter, and it cannot be right that people with lots of money escape justice if they are culpable. So, yes to the inquiry, but also to the Metropolitan police examination of this issue.
Everything I do in relation to this is in memory of that wonderful young woman who had so much to offer this country and lost her life in what was a preventable fire and all those victims and survivors who deserved better from the country in which they lived.
Let me start by joining other Members in commemorating the 72 people who lost their lives in the Grenfell tragedy, which was completely needless: it was a man-made disaster. I also want to acknowledge the tireless efforts of community organisations but, most importantly, of public servants such as firefighters, who worked incredibly hard to save people.
As others have pointed out, the issue with ACM cladding affects many thousands of residents across the country, in social housing as well as in private housing blocks. My constituency has among the largest number of ACM-clad blocks, and Tower Hamlets as a whole probably has the most blocks. Families are living in fear of their lives because of the failure of the Government to take urgent action. After continuous campaigning with Inside Housing, Grenfell United, the survivors and colleagues across the House, some funding has been provided, but it is not enough and it does not address the wider systemic failures that the Grenfell fire disaster exposed. That is why we have continually called on the Government to ensure that the resources are available and to take action to go after private freehold owners of private blocks, because our constituents are being left to take that fight to them. It has been over two and a half years, and very few of those blocks have had work undertaken on them to remove cladding. The lack of urgency from the Government is extremely worrying, because we all have to deal with the spectre of other fires that have taken place since Grenfell and the risk of further fires and disasters happening if action is not taken quickly.
In addition, the Government’s actions to deregulate have meant that residents do not have recourse to the support necessary to deal with problems when they arise. I ask Ministers to urgently address that matter rather than waiting for the inquiry’s further findings and reports to come out. The Government know what the problems are. They know that these actions can be taken immediately to provide remedy and reassurance to our constituents and the resources that are required to ensure that they can live in safety.
My final point is that, instead of constantly making excuses, the Government should ensure that they take action. That is what we all expect. That is what the survivors of Grenfell expect, and it is what the victims deserve.
The tragic, avoidable loss of life in the Grenfell Tower disaster is seared into our national consciousness as a shocking example of corporate greed and governmental complacency. The firefighters who responded on the night acted with commendable courage and professionalism, and yet, by choosing to focus on the fire and emergency services in its first phase, the inquiry has made a scapegoat of those who risked their lives to save others. The Labour party welcomes a thorough investigation into the disaster, and it is important that the LFB recognises where there were issues and where it can improve, but firefighters who go into burning buildings to save others must not be blamed for this disaster. I am particularly concerned by the inquiry’s unprecedented decision to name individual firefighters—I think that is shocking.
To deliver justice for the community, we must hold to account those who repeatedly ignored expert advice, deregulated building safety laws and allowed such dangerous materials to be fitted. This inquiry ought to have considered what led to the catastrophic fire at Grenfell before it looked at events on the night. Any recommendations should be implemented and fully funded, but nationally, not just in London. The inquiry’s report confirmed that the 2016 refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was catastrophically non-compliant with fire safety regulations. It also confirmed that the flammable cladding was a primary cause of the rapid spread of the fire, contrary to evidence given by the manufacturer. It took just 12 minutes for the fire to spread 19 floors to the roof.
The Government had been consistently warned about the danger of high-rise residential fires, and the coroner’s report on the Lakanal House fire in 2013 recommended a review of the “stay put” policy, retrofitting sprinklers and clear guidance on compartmentalisation, but the Government ignored that expert advice and failed to act.
In the two years since the disaster, the Government have let down Grenfell survivors with inadequate housing—that is disgraceful. They have dragged their heels on safety regulations and left people to live in unsafe buildings. The only meaningful reform of building regulations has been a ban of combustible materials on select buildings. There has been no review of “stay put”, nothing to ensure that sprinklers are installed and no widespread reform of building regulations. The deep and damaging cuts to our fire service continue. It is time that the Government—or perhaps the next Government—put people before profit and that we prioritised delivering justice for the local community and confronted the ongoing fire safety threat to communities across the UK.
I have only a few seconds left, so I just say this: we are all analysing what happened on the night, but my feelings are for the families and bereaved who are affected. Let us all spare them a thought today—they are certainly at the forefront of my thoughts.
The inquiry and the Government’s wider response had two obligations. One was to get justice for the families and survivors of the Grenfell disaster, and the other was to make sure that nothing like this could ever happen again. I welcome Martin Moore-Bick finding as a matter of fact that the content of the ACM cladding was the principal reason the flames spread so rapidly on the outside of the building. That clarity provides us with a helpful basis for stage 2 of the inquiry, however frustrated the community and survivors feel, quite understandably, about the length of the process.
The fact is, however, that far too many people are still living in properties with either ACM or other flammable cladding. For example, it was confirmed this summer that in London alone 315 joint inspections had taken place between the London Fire Brigade and local authority housing officers of tall residential buildings with flammable cladding. Some 26 of those were in my borough of Westminster—the third highest in London after Tower Hamlets and Greenwich. Those people are living in fear in blighted accommodation. This week, The Times has confirmed its findings that there are half a million owners of properties in the private sector who cannot sell or remortgage their properties because of the uncertainty over Government advice. This is having incredibly damaging consequences for their lives and mental health. We need greater speed. We do not have to wait for stage 2 of the inquiry to make progress in removing flammable cladding.
The Government have also failed to tackle some of the consequences of the complexities around properties with multiple tenure, such as council blocks with some privately owned properties in them, which is one reason there has been so little progress on the retrofitting of sprinklers. Westminster Council was going to make progress on that, but could not do so, and still cannot do so, because there remains a lack of clarity about its rights to enter those properties.
Finally, the Government promised us a wholesale rethinking of the attitude towards social tenants. Social tenancy was part of the approach to be reviewed. We have seen nothing of that change in attitude. Only this week, we saw it from the ex-councillor from Barnet, Brian Coleman, on the “Victoria Derbyshire” show, showing complete contempt for council tenants in temporary accommodation. It is really important that in addition to making the essential progress on fire safety, we carry through this rethink of our whole attitude towards social tenants.
With hindsight, I think we could have had part 2 of the inquiry first, because those are the difficult and complex issues of culpability that need to be addressed. Although there are policy issues such as “stay put” that come out of part 1, there is also a concentration on individual action. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), whom I, too, compliment on the role she has played: I would rather the politicians and the corporate chisellers had been identified.
Very little progress has been made on cladding. I have read the briefings for this debate from the Royal Institute of British Architects, the London Fire Brigade and Rockwool. Yes, there is a ban on combustible cladding on high-rise residential buildings over 18 metres, but what about non-residential high-rise buildings, including hotels and offices? What about high-risk buildings under 18 metres, such as schools, hospitals, care homes and sheltered housing, and what about the range of materials? It is not just ACM cladding; there is now the high-pressure laminate cladding and many other types. The Government have only scratched the surface in relation to these matters.
On the “stay put” policy, I intervened on the former Prime Minister because I hoped she might agree and say not just that these things might be in the inquiry, but that, if there is a problem fitting sprinklers in leasehold properties, at least they could be put in communal areas. One cannot vary the “stay put” policy unless there is a reliable means of evacuation, which requires more than one means of escape. Planning consent is being given now for tower blocks in my constituency built on the Grenfell model with one central staircase. That has to change. We have to have alarm systems.
We also have to crack down on product safety. A block of flats in my constituency, Shepherds Court, which was not compartmentalised, caught fire a year before Grenfell. That fire was also caused by a defective white good manufactured by the Whirlpool corporation. We need to be much tighter on these issues.
My final point goes beyond the Moore-Bick inquiry, but it concerns a matter that the Government have themselves highlighted. I have as yet seen no sign of a changed attitude towards social housing generally. Less than a mile from Grenfell are the West Kensington Gibbs Green estates, which, through the collusion of developers and Conservative politicians, have been blighted for 10 years. Two thousand people have lived in those homes without any security because of the greed of developers, who are now suffering because of the current climate. I should like the Secretary of State to go down to those estates with me, and see whether that changed attitude can apply not just to fire safety in Grenfell but across the board in social housing.
The Government have never fully accepted their responsibility for failings in the building fire safety regulations. The lack of clarity in those regulations was identified by the coroner at the inquest following the fatal Lakanal House fire as long ago as 2013, but Ministers failed to act. That lack of clarity meant that fire safety tests on cladding and insulation combinations were unreliable. Builders, developers, architects, planners—none of them knew with any certainty whether materials, or combinations of materials, were safe or complied with the regulations when they went up on buildings. A series of Ministers who were directly responsible for the failure to correct the problem were later rewarded with promotions, including to the Cabinet. That tells the victims’ families that this Government do not care, when Ministers are rewarded for such serious errors of judgment.
The Government have now announced, belatedly, a partial ban on flammable cladding on some new buildings, but they are still allowing it to go up on schools, hospitals and residential blocks less than six storeys high, and on hotels. I cannot imagine a single parent who would be happy to know that their child’s school was covered in flammable cladding, but the Government do not seem to think that it is a problem.
The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), rightly expressed and echoed concerns that fire safety issues raised by Grenfell Tower residents had been ignored. How much more shocking, then, that we continue to ignore issues raised by thousands of families who are still living in blocks covered in flammable cladding today. That is, quite simply, negligence on a grand scale.
The Government’s main objective throughout all this seems to have been to absolve themselves of blame, not to right the wrongs for which they are responsible. Far too many people are still stranded in potentially dangerous homes, facing bills that they cannot afford to pay for failures that have absolutely nothing to do with them, and that is simply not acceptable. I am left wondering, the victims are left wondering, and thousands of people living in accommodation of this type are left wondering what more needs to happen before this negligent Government finally take the necessary action to keep every home safe from the kind of tragedy that so horrifically destroyed 72 lives at Grenfell Tower.
I commend what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) and what has been said by many other Members, particularly the Leader of the Opposition. Let me also pause for a moment to convey my sincere tribute and deepest sympathies to the families who have been through the most appalling, absolutely dreadful experience over the past two years.
I want to reinforce some of the points made by colleagues from London, but also to make the point that this is a national problem, and a very serious one. It affects towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom. In my own area, Reading, several thousand people live in blocks of flats, some of which are very tall, and there is a significant expansion in the number of towers in the town. Those who travel there by train will see that a huge new tower block is being built right next to the station. There are plans for another enormous tower block on top of the Butts Centre, and the process is continuing as we rapidly urbanise and become more like an outer-London borough. Yet at the same time we face significant problems with cladding, and other fire safety issues which have not been fully discussed here today.
Immediately after Grenfell, four blocks with the unsafe cladding Members have been describing were identified in our town. Some of that is being rectified only now, two years after the disaster. Is it not awful that, in the fifth wealthiest country in the world, we cannot get our act together to solve such problems in a medium-sized, wealthy town?
To make matters worse, new problems are being discovered all the time. In the past few weeks, in a development that was finished in the late 2000s or perhaps 2013, a block containing 200 to 300 people was identified as having dangerous cladding of a different type from the kind we have been discussing today. There is also a series of other problems. I was briefed about this by Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service, to whom I pay tribute along with other colleagues in the fire service around the country. It was deeply worried about a whole series of related and interconnected problems in building safety that are not being addressed by central Government. The fire brigade felt that it did not have the resources or the powers to intervene, and it was unable to get the necessary support from building control because the regulations had been stripped away. This is very serious.
I can give examples of poor conversions in which builders have unwittingly knocked through partition walls, allowing the potential for fire to spread through large blocks without any interruption. There was a case of that in Slough that the fire service was deeply concerned about. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North said, fire services are also concerned about the cladding on a whole range of other buildings, including commercial buildings, schools and health buildings. They are also worried about the serious problems of houses in multiple occupation, including conversions over chip shops or takeaway premises. Some of these are deeply unsatisfactory, because a fire could easily be caused by the business premises. There are also examples of Victorian buildings in densely populated areas being wrongly converted. [Interruption.] I appreciate the pressure on time, Madam Deputy Speaker. Thank you so much for letting me make these points. I call on the Government to act urgently.
I am pleased to be able to speak in this important debate. I wish to declare an interest as a member and co-chair of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group. I would like to thank members of the FBU who gave up their time this week to brief me and other MPs on the implications of the report, and to speak to us about their concerns. I would also like to pay tribute to my good and hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) for her work, her remarkable personal courage and her bravery in naming the names that need to be named, and more generally for the work that she has done following the tragedy. I want to acknowledge and pay my respects to the victims and their families and, indeed, to the whole community of Grenfell and to all those who have been terribly touched by the tragedy. I also want to acknowledge the contribution of, and express solidarity with, the fire and rescue services and the firefighters who put their own safety and lives at risk on that most dreadful day.
In the little time I have, I want to make a couple of quick points about the inquiry that I hope are salient. Like others, I believe the inquiry has been conducted back to front. It might have been more valuable if we could have looked at some of the corporate aspects at the same time and the two aspects could have been run in parallel. Individual politicians and Ministers, including senior Ministers, should be held to account for their actions and the consequences of their policy decisions. I was just thinking about other common strands in this Parliament, where Ministers failed to accept responsibility for the consequences of the decisions. We call it culpability, don’t we? We saw it with the Windrush scandal and the then Home Secretary. We also saw it to a large degree with the May train timetable fiasco under the then Transport Secretary, and now we are seeing the tragic consequence of the dreadful loss of life at Grenfell Tower.
We have to hold the Prime Minister to account. People were huffing and puffing about that, but when he was Mayor of London, he was responsible—despite protestations from the fire authority and from London MPs—for the closure of 10 fire stations, the loss of 27 fire engines and 600 firefighters, and the cutting of 10 of the 52 fire safety inspectors. Someone mentioned the role of fire control, which is absolutely critical. He cut fire control by a quarter over that period. So in my opinion, the inquiry’s decision that phase 1 should focus on the night of the fire has given a reprieve to some of the companies, individuals and politicians who should be held account for their decisions.
I pay tribute to the families and people from the Grenfell community who are here to listen to this important debate. Upon reading the report, all of us should have the human reactions of anger, grief and shock at what happened on the fateful day of 14 June 2017. Those who lost their lives could have been our friends, our brothers, our cousins, our parents or our grandparents. They had their futures ahead of them. Birthdays, engagements, exams, graduations—they had a lot to live for. However, we know now that that tragic loss of life could to some extent have been prevented. Regardless of the politics, the families and the community deserve truth and justice, and this first report, in its clarity and bleakness, goes a step in that direction. It does not answer all the families’ questions, but I hope that the next report and the police inquiry will ultimately offer the necessary closure.
I commend the fire officers on the night for dealing with an unimaginable tragedy. Much has been said about the report today, but not much has been said in this House about compassion. One thing that came out of this event was the compassion of the people of London. Indeed, I think the Evening Standard managed to raise £7.4 million to support the families and the community. However, we know that all that is no substitute for the local authority doing its work to ensure that people are permanently housed properly as dignity requires. There is a lot that needs to be done, and there are many actions that the Government need to take, but this should not be about cost. Public safety—not just in Grenfell, but around the country—should be the most important issue in our considerations.