My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the disaster at Grenfell Tower. I would like to start by apologising to the Leader of the Opposition for the short notice he has had of this Statement. I received an important update in the hour before making this Statement which I felt was essential to bring to the attention of the House this morning.
What happened in the early hours of last Wednesday morning was one of the most unimaginable tragedies our country has seen in many years. As of this morning, 79 people have been confirmed dead or listed as missing presumed dead, and with work ongoing to recover the bodies, sadly the death toll may rise further. We already know that many children are among the dead and that in some cases whole families perished, and that those who survived have lost loved ones, friends, neighbours and in many cases everything they own.
It should never have happened. In a few moments I will say how we are going to discover why it did. But, as I said yesterday, that initial failure was compounded by the fact that the support on the ground in the initial hours was not good enough. As Prime Minister, I have apologised for that second failure and taken responsibility for doing what we can to put it right.
On my first visit to north Kensington, I met with the emergency services. These extraordinary men and women put their lives on the line in an effort to save others, and my first responsibility was to check that they had all the resources they needed. I then visited Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, where I met some of the most seriously injured survivors—it was from that experience that I decided we had to have an emergency fund. I also met a group of residents in Kensington, whom I then invited to Downing Street last weekend. I returned to Kensington again last night to hear directly from them about the progress that we are making.
What became clear very quickly was that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea could not cope, and it is right that the chief executive officer has now resigned. It is also why I set up the Grenfell Tower Recovery Taskforce, which I have been chairing personally.
But this is not just about the steps we take in the first few weeks; it is about a lasting commitment that we are making to supporting the families affected, long after the television cameras have gone. So let me set out in detail the steps that we are taking to support the victims and rehouse those who have lost their homes.
On Friday morning, the Government established a central command centre under the leadership of John Barradell, the chief executive of the City of London and former lead for London local government on resilience, and Eleanor Kelly, the chief executive of the London Borough of Southwark. On behalf of the whole House, I want to thank John and his team for all the work they are doing.
I also want to pay tribute to the fantastic response from London boroughs, including a number of chief executives who are currently working at the command centre, as well as the Mayor of London and leading figures from a number of councils from outside London. I want to thank the army of volunteers who stepped in to provide shelter, sustenance, comfort and practical support. And I want to thank my Communities Secretary and the Ministers for Housing and Planning, the Minister for London and the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service for the work they have been doing.
There are currently around 600 people on the site and in the immediate area who are working to provide support to the victims. The Westway sports centre has been transformed into an emergency community hub, staffed by 40 officials from six government departments. They are making sure that people have essential documents such as driving licences and passports that are fundamental to carrying on with their lives. They have also been joined by experts from organisations such as Transport for London, Citizens Advice and the Red Cross, and by NHS mental health staff, nurses, care managers and a GP. Anyone affected by the blaze can walk in and access the support they need, and so far there have been almost 700 visits to the centre. The centre’s on-the-ground work is supplemented by the victim support unit, whose emergency helpline provides a single point of contact for victims who need to deal with multiple government services in the wake of the disaster.
Each family whose home was destroyed is receiving a £5,000 down payment from the emergency fund so that they can buy food, clothes and other essentials, and outreach workers are seeking to make sure that everyone gets the money they are entitled to. We are also paying all additional adults over 16 in these households £500 in cash. Other cash payments are being paid out by the council on a discretionary basis—for example, to those whose home has been severely impacted but not permanently destroyed. As of midday on Wednesday we had made payments of over £700,000.
It is absolutely essential that people understand that they can keep the money they receive; these grants are not loans and they will not be expected to repay a single penny. Neither are they waiving any legal rights as a result of accepting this financial help. The payments will be disregarded for means-tested welfare payments, so no one in receipt of benefits will see their benefits cut if they accept emergency support.
I would also like to reassure people that we will not use this tragic incident as a reason to carry out immigration checks on those involved or on those providing vital information to identify victims or those assisting with the criminal investigation. We will make sure that all victims, irrespective of their immigration status, can access the services they need, including healthcare and accommodation.
In terms of local schools, Kensington Aldridge Academy, the school right next door to the tower, remains closed. However, all its pupils have already been accommodated at other schools in the area. The Department for Education is working with Ofqual to ensure that children who are sitting their GCSEs receive an appropriate exam dispensation, and specialist counselling has been offered to local schoolchildren and also to teachers affected by the fire.
Turning to rehousing, 151 homes were destroyed in the fire—most in the tower itself but also several in the immediate vicinity. All those who have lost their homes have been offered emergency hotel accommodation, and all will be offered rehousing within three weeks. Already, 164 suitable properties have been identified, and they are being checked and made ready for people to move into.
In the longer term, everyone whose home was destroyed will be guaranteed a new home on the same terms as the one they lost. Sixty-eight of those will be in a brand-new low-rise block that has just been built by Berkeley Homes. The developer has generously offered to turn over the entire block at cost price. Contractors are on site now, working 24/7 to speed up fit-out so that the first families can move in this summer.
Within the wider cordon area, many more homes were damaged by smoke or water or have lost gas, heating and hot water. Emergency hotel accommodation is available for anyone who does not want to remain in a damaged property, and over 100 hotel rooms have already been provided. We are also putting in place practical support to help accelerate necessary repairs and yesterday drew on expertise from the Army to assist with this.
Some survivors have said that they want to leave the local area, and we will of course support that and help them find a home elsewhere. But I want to be absolutely clear: nobody is being forced to move somewhere they do not want to go. If any honourable Member thinks they know of anyone being treated in this way, they should contact my office in Downing Street with the details.
As the scale of the tragedy became clear, we quickly decided that there had to be an independent public inquiry. As I said to the House yesterday, it will be chaired by a judge to get to the truth about what happened and who was responsible, and to provide justice for the victims and their families, who suffered so terribly. All those with an interest, including survivors and victims’ families, will be consulted about the terms of reference, and we will pay for legal representation for those affected.
Listening to survivors last night, it also became clear that they want support to come together as a group to have their voices heard, and the Government will play our part in helping them to do so. For too long, residents have been overlooked and ignored. We will ensure that they are involved in every step of this process. No stone will be left unturned in this inquiry and, for any guilty parties, there will be nowhere to hide.
I am also clear that we cannot wait for ages to learn the immediate lessons, and so I expect that the chair of the inquiry will want to produce an interim report as early as possible.
I know that many others living in tall residential buildings will have concerns about their safety after what happened at Grenfell. All social landlords have been instructed to carry out additional fire safety checks on tower blocks and ensure that the appropriate safety and response measures are in place. This is being done in co-operation with local fire and rescue services. We have also taken steps to make private landlords aware and have made our checking facilities available to them for free.
The House should, of course, be careful on speculating what caused this fire, but as a precaution the Government have arranged to test cladding in all relevant tower blocks. Shortly before I came to the Chamber, I was informed that a number of these tests have come back as combustible. The relevant local authorities and local fire services have been informed and, as I speak, they are taking all possible steps to ensure buildings are safe and to inform affected residents. Immediately after this Statement, the Department for Communities and Local Government will contact any MPs whose constituents are affected, and the Communities Secretary will provide a further update later today.
We can test over 100 buildings a day, and the results come within hours. I urge any landlord who owns a building of this kind to send samples for testing as soon as possible. Any results will be communicated immediately to local authorities and local fire services. Landlords have a legal obligation to provide safe buildings and, where they cannot do that, we expect alternative accommodation to be provided. We cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes.
It is clear that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was not able to cope with the scale of the tragedy, so we will also develop a new strategy for resilience in major disasters, which could include a new civil disaster response taskforce that can help at times of emergency.
Finally, we must learn some of the lessons of this and previous disasters where bereaved families have not had the support they need. We will introduce an independent public advocate for public disasters, a strong independent voice for victims and on behalf of bereaved families, supporting them at public inquests and inquiries.
In the past week, a lot of remarkable people have gone above and beyond to help deal with the fire and its aftermath. First and foremost, of course, are the incredible men and women of the emergency services who did so much to save so many lives. I cannot imagine the kind of bravery it takes to run into a burning building and head upstairs when any normal person would head for the exits. But we have also seen sterling work from people across the public sector—teachers, nurses, staff from various local authorities and civil servants—who are doing all they can to help. We have seen incredible acts of generosity from private businesses, and we have seen the people of this great city and this great country stepping up to help in any way they can, by donating money, clothes, toys and food, volunteering their time, and so much more.
But, above all, I want to pay tribute to the people of Kensington, who have opened their hearts and homes to people affected by the fire, coming together and showing what a real community looks like. The selfless actions of local people and the courage and resilience of the survivors should give us all pause for thought.
Right now, our focus is on supporting the victims, finding homes for those made homeless and making sure this country’s housing stock is as safe as possible. But as we move forwards, so we must also recognise that for too long in our country, under Governments of both colours, we simply have not given enough attention to social housing. That itself is actually a symptom of an even more fundamental issue.
It should not take a disaster of this kind for us to remember that there are people in Britain today living lives that are so far removed from those that many here in Westminster enjoy—that in this tower, just a few miles from the Houses of Parliament, and in the heart of our great city, people live a fundamentally different life, do not feel the state works for them and are therefore mistrustful of it. So, long after the TV cameras have gone and the world has moved on, let the legacy of this awful tragedy be that we resolve never to forget these people and instead gear our policies and thinking towards making their lives better and bringing them into the political process. It is our job as a Government, and I believe as a Parliament, to show we are listening and that we will stand up for them. That is what I am determined we should do. I commend this Statement to the House”.
That concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating this very comprehensive Statement, with lots of information in there. She will understand that it also begs a number of questions, and I hope that she will be able to answer them today—but, if she is not, I shall be happy for her to write to me.
First, it is right that we recognise the almost unspeakable horror of the fire in which so many have lost lives, friends, family, their homes and all their possessions; it is a tragedy on an almost unimaginable scale. If you listen to those who are affected, it is clear that it is never going to leave them; it will stay with them for the rest of their lives. The noble Baroness is quite right to say that the support is not just for today or tomorrow—it is long-term support that we are talking about.
I also place on record our huge gratitude to the emergency services—the medical staff, police and, particularly, the fire and rescue services, which went above and beyond the call of duty. I understand from those who have seen and heard the recordings from the fire engines when they arrived at the fire, they could not believe what they were going to. They were saying, “How in the something or other are we ever going to get into that building to rescue people?”. Those were the comments that they were making as they arrived. There was no structural engineer on site at that point, so they had no way of knowing whether it was safe to go into that building or not—but they went in. Many years ago, I did some fire service training as a fire authority member, and I have done a mock-up wearing breathing apparatus. That was in safe conditions, but I know something of how terrifying it must be for those who arrive at such a scene, and the bravery of those men and women who attended the fire. No words can express how grateful we and others are to them.
The response from the local community and the public was almost overwhelming, such was the scale of the horror of what they witnessed. However, as the noble Baroness has said, the response from the local council was nothing short of appalling and a disaster. I pay tribute to the other London boroughs which do not have the wealth or resources or the financial reserves of Kensington and Chelsea but which went to the aid and assistance of people outside their borough to do what they could to help—and they seemed better able to provide some of the support that was needed. The noble Baroness made the point that the council was certainly not up to responding to residents’ needs.
I welcome the inquiry, which is a step forward. The noble Baroness is right to say that there should be an interim report—one hopes by the summer—but, as well as the other issues that it addresses, can it address the wider issues of accountability? The management of that block was outsourced to a private company, which does not seem—and this will be borne out by the inquiry—to have had any direct relationship with the residents so that the residents could force it to respond or have any accountability process. That should be looked at as part of the wider issues.
I note in the Queen’s Speech that the Government have taken up the proposal from my noble friend Lord Wills of a public advocate. It would seem that the quicker we can have somebody in place to advise those who want to play a role and be involved in the inquiry, the better. I hope that we can look at that ASAP.
Clearly, this is a fast-moving situation, with new information and details emerging all the time. I appreciate that government and local councils want to reassure people, but we can reassure people only if they are genuinely safe; people cannot be reassured unless the necessary checks have been undertaken and any changes have been made so that people are safe. Shortly after the Prime Minister gave her Statement to the House of Commons, we heard the alarming news that, when in the Statement today she mentioned that a “number” of high-rise tower blocks were affected, up to 600 in England alone could have combustible cladding installed. Can the noble Baroness confirm that the figure of around 600 is correct? If it is, when did that figure become known to the Government? What action are the Government taking? If there are 600 blocks of flats in England alone in that situation, the scale of the work to be done is just enormous. The Downing Street spokeswoman said earlier today that:
“Obviously nobody will be living in buildings that are unsafe. They will be rehoused if they need to be and landlords will be asked to provide alternative accommodation where that’s possible”.
If 600 blocks are affected, I am not sure that the checks can done as quickly as that. If 100 blocks can be checked today, it will still be quite a long time before all blocks are checked and any work is undertaken. If those people are to be rehoused, it will be more than a million people. There must be some contingency plans for the Government to work with local councils on that, because this clearly seems to be beyond the scale of most local authorities’ ability to cope. Can the noble Baroness confirm whether that figure is correct, when the Government knew and what action is being taken?
I have a couple of questions on resources for local authorities. This is clearly going to be an expensive business—rightly so—for local authorities to undertake properly, so are local authorities guaranteed the resources to carry out any necessary additional checks? What conversations or discussions have there been between central government and the private companies that have supplied and fitted such cladding on to high-rise blocks? There is an issue about whether all housing providers have been alerted by those companies that fitted such cladding. The inquiry is welcome, but the noble Baroness is right to say that we do not have to wait to take action. After the previous fire that we saw in 2009, I gather that the coroner’s recommendations were made in 2013 to the Department for Communities and Local Government about retrofitting sprinklers—those recommendations could be acted on now. We would be grateful if the noble Baroness could respond on that.
When the Prime Minister was asked in the House of Commons about whether the buildings were compliant with building regulations, she said that the police and fire services were investigating and would report in 24 hours. That is a reasonable response in terms of the buildings that we are talking about, but the legal position regarding that kind of cladding on high-rise buildings is not a matter for the fire and rescue service or the police to investigate; the Government must know whether or not the building regulations allow it. Can the noble Baroness respond immediately on that? I cannot see why we have to wait 24 hours for a statement from the fire and rescue services, because whether the building regulations do or do not allow it should be a matter of fact. In terms of this particular block, there were building regulations inspections. Were faults found during those inspections and, if they were, was action taken to remedy the faults? It is clear that there were complaints beforehand.
I have one final point: a Minister commented to me a while ago regarding deregulation that the Government’s policy was that you had to have three regulations out before you could bring another one in. We all know that society does not like to be overregulated—nobody wants unnecessary red tape—but that seems to not look at the value of regulation; it is a numerical chance exercise. Can the noble Baroness confirm whether that is the case? I would be delighted if it was not, but if that is still government policy, surely it should be reviewed. We should regard regulations on their merit, not on the number of regulations, which is completely irrelevant in terms of safety for society.
The Statement is comprehensive and welcome. As times goes on, there will be some challenging, difficult and perhaps uncomfortable truths to be faced about how society operates and how it treats poorer people, particularly with regard to housing. This is a disaster beyond anything we could have ever contemplated. If lessons are not learned from this, we will be doing the public an enormous disservice.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the extremely comprehensive Statement. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to all those who lost their lives in the tragedy; our sympathies are, of course, with all those residents who will have to rebuild their lives after such a horrific event and with the families of those affected. I also put on record again the huge debt of gratitude that we owe to those in the fire service and all the emergency services who worked tirelessly to rescue residents and support families in the immediate circumstances of the fire, and in the almost as bad circumstances of having to sift through the building day after day to see what they could find in the wreckage.
There was a huge gulf in the response to this tragedy between the public and the Government. The public acted immediately and with great generosity. Government, both national and local, acted slowly and, initially at least, without the same energy or generosity. It took the Government 48 hours to establish a central command centre, for example, and the borough council seemed unprepared and overwhelmed. If this had been a terrorist attack, the response would have been far more effective—we saw that in London only a few days ago. Things that have, for example, taken 48 hours in this case, would, in the case of a terrorist attack, be in place within 48 minutes. There was clearly a failure of emergency planning for this kind of incident, which we do not see for terrorist attacks, for which emergency planning is clearly extremely good. So I ask the Government: what immediate steps are being taken to ensure that such a failure will not be replicated in any future non-terrorist incident?
The Government say that they welcome—and indeed precipitated—the resignation of the chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council. But what about the leader of the council? It was a political decision to stockpile huge cash reserves while apparently skimping on safety measures. Will the Government now be asking him to resign also?
We welcome the public inquiry that has been announced by the Prime Minister. We must obviously ask a raft of difficult questions, including why the fire spread so quickly and why the lessons of the past seem not to have been learned, but there are obvious concerns about how long such an inquiry might last. History is not very encouraging in this respect. Can the Leader of the House give any further assurances in terms of both the speed with which any interim recommendations might be produced and how we can ensure that the full inquiry does not drag on for years?
The Statement says that a number of tests already carried out have shown other blocks to be clad in combustible materials, and the Government claim that all local authorities and fire services are now taking all possible steps to ensure buildings are safe. Given that some—indeed many—of these steps will be costly, can the Government give an assurance today that they will not be delayed by any shortage of funding? In the case of such buildings which are privately owned, what steps beyond exhortation will the Government take to ensure that the owners fulfil their legal obligations to provide safe buildings?
It is clear that, when the tests on all these buildings are complete, there will be a need for large-scale remedial action. If there are 600 blocks, there will be a vast amount of work that needs doing quickly. This can be undertaken only by skilled workers in the construction sector. Given that there is already a shortage of such skills, particularly in London, and that 50% of the construction workforce in London is from the EU, can the noble Baroness give an assurance that, as the Brexit talks proceed, every encouragement will be given to such workers to continue to come to London, as any major labour shortage in this area could be literally a matter of life and death?
There are a number of issues in the Statement that could legitimately give rise to anger. But what got to me was the Prime Minister’s peroration. She said:
“It should not take a disaster of this kind for us to remember that there are people in Britain today living lives that are so far removed from those that many here in Westminster enjoy”;
and she went on,
“let the legacy of this awful tragedy be that we resolve never to forget these people and instead to gear our policies and our thinking towards making their lives better and bringing them into the political process. It is our job as a Government … to show we are listening and that we will stand up for them”.
This is a leader of a party who has just stood on an election manifesto to cut spending in schools by 7% and impose big further cuts in welfare payments and local government expenditure. This hypocrisy makes me very angry. Will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House suggest to the Prime Minister that if she really wishes to stand up for people such as the tenants of Grenfell Tower, she should start to adopt policies which follow her words?
I express my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for their comments and contributions today. As we have all recognised, this has been one of the most unimaginable tragedies that we have seen in many years. I once again reiterate that our thoughts at this time are very much with the families and all those affected. I reassure everyone that the Government’s focus is on doing everything possible to help those affected.
Before I respond to some of the points the noble Lords have made, in the light of the tragic events, my noble friend Lord Bourne will provide time to update Peers on the events and the Government’s response. He will host an all-Peers briefing session on Monday 26 June at 3 pm in Room 10A. As the noble Baroness said, given that things are changing regularly, we hope that the comments of my noble friend Lord Bourne on the latest issues will be a very useful update for noble Lords.
I will try to answer as many questions as I can but I shall read noble Lords’ comments, and I apologise if I do not respond to everything at this point. I will try to follow up where I can afterwards. Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about the public inquiry. I reassure everyone that we want to leave no stone unturned, which is why we have ordered a public, judge-led inquiry. Draft terms of reference have been shared with the Lord Chief Justice and discussions about a potential chair are ongoing. We hope to have a confirmed appointment very shortly. I also reassure noble Lords that the families of victims and other interested parties will be consulted on the terms of reference, as it is essential that their voices are heard, and, as the noble Baroness rightly said, that the whole range of issues that need to be investigated are included in this inquiry.
The noble Baroness asked about the 600 figure, which I should clarify. We think that there may be around 600 buildings which have cladding. That is not to say that is combustible cladding but we think that about 600 buildings have cladding. Landlords are now examining these to see which have aluminium composite material which may need to be tested. Testing will reveal how many have the wrong type of cladding. It is important also to stress that aluminium composite material cladding itself is not dangerous, but it is important that the right type is used. Not all those 600 buildings may have an issue; that is the range of buildings which may need to be looked at. I can also confirm to the noble Lord that the testing being undertaken is free. The Government are providing the funding for that, so funding should not get in the way of testing. Indeed, we are urging all landlords to make sure that they send in samples as quickly as possible. The labs can test about 100 a day and results can be turned around very quickly so we can get very quick responses. Indeed, Camden council announced this morning or this afternoon that it needs to investigate one of its buildings. It has acted very quickly on the information it has received. Therefore, we very much hope that everyone will send their samples in and we will be able to take action as quickly as possible.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about the building regulations. Cladding using a composite aluminium panel with a polyethylene core would be non-compliant under current building regulations, as this material should not be used as cladding on buildings over 18 metres in height. It is also important to note that tests are ongoing to identify the exact causes of the fire, but we will, of course, take all steps necessary to prevent this happening again. The cost of dealing with the cladding on buildings will, of course, vary depending on the buildings. It is the landlord’s responsibility to ensure that people are safe but cost considerations should not, and cannot, get in the way of that, so we will look at how we can provide support. We will also obviously work with local authorities where they identify issues to ensure that they have the resources they need to deal with the issues that they may find.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, commented on the initial response. The Prime Minister has been very clear that we absolutely accept that the initial support for families was simply not good enough. She has apologised and I do so again on behalf of the Government. In terms of actions going forward, one of the actions that we will take is to set up a new civil disaster response task force. That will be part of our procedures going forward, so that we can try to ensure that the suffering people experienced after the event because the response was not good enough does not occur again.
My Lords, I knew this block of flats well as it was part of a complex—about six or eight of them—which was included in the Hammersmith area which I represented for many years. I often went into Grenfell Tower when campaigning for elections. It is important to say that those flats were very spacious inside and were not at all unpopular with residents if—this was the crucial bit—they were managed well. There are questions about management on which my noble friend and others have touched. That is a matter for the inquiry and I do not wish to second-guess it. However—this is very important—my understanding from many people who have made comments, such as residents and organisations or individuals representing residents in that block, is that they warned of a fire risk. If residents or residents’ associations or representatives express concern about fire safety, that should be dealt with as a matter of urgency and immediately, whatever the other concerns. It is far too serious to be put to one side to be looked at later. Sadly, in this context, I note that the chief executive has resigned. I guess that is probably the right thing to do. Having heard the leader of the council’s comments on television soon after the event, I felt that he was out of his depth and did not understand the extreme nature of the horror that had overtaken that block of flats. In those circumstances, I also think that he should consider his position.
I disagree with nothing that the noble Lord has said. As I have said, we want the inquiry to look at all elements of this tragedy to make sure that such things do not happen again. The noble Lord is absolutely right: we have heard a lot of reports of the residents’ groups complaining and putting forward their points of view about their concerns and not being listened to. That is why it is crucial that we get the inquiry set up, that it is judge led and that the voices of families and victims are heard so that we can make sure this does not happen again. I know that is of no comfort to the families who have lost their lives in this but we will have to learn these lessons and make sure that we follow through.
My Lords, as my noble friend outlined, 151 homes have been destroyed. However, has an accurate list been compiled of all the residents of the block? My noble friend outlined that homes will be provided to people on the same terms as the ones they had. Has a clear communication been given that for residents who may have resided in the block without a tenancy agreement, or with a tenancy agreement not authorised by the landlord, that does not matter one jot when it comes to rehousing people and considering the effects of this incident on them? I welcome the Government’s response that the immigration status of anybody in the building is utterly irrelevant to their receiving compensation. Will my noble friend the Leader of the House ask my noble friend Lady Williams to consider earnestly what the Home Office policy will be? Some people may end up in front of Home Office decision-makers. What will be the Government’s policy in relation to any victims who have irregular immigration status?
I am very happy to reiterate that the Government will not use this tragic incident as a reason to carry out immigration checks on those involved and those providing vital information to identify victims. I also reassure the House that we will make sure that all victims, irrespective of their immigration status, will be able to access the services they need, including accommodation and healthcare.
My Lords, I was a councillor in an adjoining ward of Golborne and I am a long-term resident in the area. The Government’s response at last appears to be closer to the scale of the tragedy. How can one justify a council which has given priority to keeping council tax down and which has placed so much emphasis on outsourcing what are in effect its responsibilities in management and housing generally? On visas, will the funeral visas be extended to family members who want to come to this country to help those who have been affected? Finally, did I hear the Leader correctly when she said that she agreed with my noble friend Lord Soley that the council leader should consider his position?
I said that I agreed with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Soley said. It is not for me to make those decisions, but we have all accepted that the response was not good enough, so I think everyone is looking at themselves to see what we can do better in the future. On the noble Lord’s questions about visas, my understanding is—I might need to write to confirm this—that a number of family members in cases where their loved ones and relatives have been involved have already been able to come over. I do not know the exact numbers, but we are already working hard to ensure that at this awful time family members can come over to be with their loved ones.
My Lords, accountability is very important in political life to ensure that the people we take decisions for trust those of us who represent them. The noble Baroness has so far failed to respond to direct questions from my noble friend Lord Newby and the noble Lord, Lord Soley, about the position of the leader of Kensington Borough Council. This was a council-owned building, the council had invested in renovating it, and it went up in flames, destroying the lives of, so far, 79 people. For accountability to be real, should not the leader of the council resign?
As the Prime Minister said in her Statement, we believe that it is right that the chief executive resigned because we have acknowledged all along that there has not been good enough support for the families. As I have also said, the judge-led inquiry will allow us to look at the broader circumstances leading up to and surrounding the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower so that all lessons can be learned by everyone involved.
My Lords, I welcome the Statement and the eventual comprehensive response, and I particularly welcome the speech given by the noble Baroness, the Leader of the Opposition, which was especially powerful and helpful. Having been with voluntary groups at the Grenfell Tower during the day following the fire, I have two questions. First, one of the fire officers we were talking to said, “This is the third once-in-a-generation event in a few weeks”. The number of emergency service people, who for the third time in a very few weeks put their lives on the line and found themselves in a situation of the most absolute horror, seeking to save the victims who were caught in the fire as well as in the previous terrorist incidents, is much higher than would normally be expected. Can the Leader of the House confirm that there will be no budgetary constraints on the emergency services in providing support for those who have been involved in taking these huge risks and that those services will be adequately funded above and beyond their normal provision in supporting those who may need extra support after such a traumatic period? Secondly, one of the other notable things is that around the site of the fire on the following day the faith communities—there is reference in the Statement to volunteers—were working together in a way that completely gave the lie to the divisions that the terrorist attacks had sought to create. This was the most powerful visual image of unity, and of unity around the suffering. Would she agree that those communities also merit mention and commendation?
I am happy to agree with the comments of the most reverend Primate. We also saw a similar coming together of community after the Finsbury Park mosque incident, so I am very happy to endorse everything he said. With regard to the emergency services, again, I think we have all agreed about the emergency services and the bravery of the fire services—the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, spoke very well about that. We saw in their response that they were able to act very quickly and to do everything within their power to save as many people as possible. Of course, we commend all the incredible work that they do.
Is it possible to take into account that there were a lot of people to put the fire out, but where were the people to stop the fire from happening? If you know that particular part of London—Notting Hill and Latimer Road—you will know that over the last 30 or 40 years the council has shifted and ethnically cleansed other parts of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, moving them into an area that has become pretty troubled. I want to know what we are going to do about councils that have very rich parts of their borough but do not know how to deal with the poor parts. This has been going on for a considerable period of time. By the way, I speak as an ex-employee of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Obviously, a lot of work is going on within government to learn the lessons. We are focused on dealing with the immediate aftermath, but as I have also said, we want the inquiry to look at the broader circumstances that led up to the tragic fire, and we will work across government to make sure that we address the issues, whatever they may be, to make sure that this does not happen again.
My Lords, surely the most disturbing aspect of this is that people forecast a terrible fire. Should we not conduct some sort of survey of those living in tower blocks around the country? We are having the cladding examined, but should we not try to find out whether in other parts of the country people living in similar tower blocks have warned the local authorities of their fears? This was an unspeakable disaster, but for another one to happen would be totally unforgivable.
I am sure that local authorities are considering the sorts of issues that my noble friend has mentioned. As I said, what is most important is that we get the cladding checked on these buildings to make sure that we can truly identify where there may be issues and act quickly. That is why we have set up these testing centres, why we are turning round results as quickly as possible, and why we were very pleased, for instance, to see Camden’s very swift and impressive response once it discovered an issue with one of its blocks.
Going back to the inquiry, quantity surveyors, the architects, the main contractors, the subcontractors, the building control officers and the planning officers of the council will all be asked many questions. Will their answers all appear in the interim report and will the findings of the inquiry at that stage also be in the interim report? In particular, I ask that the specifications originally set by the architect and approved, we have to assume, by the building control officers and the fire authorities, will be in the appendices of the interim report so that we can all see them, along with all the approval documentation and survey reports by all the organisations involved. Some of us will be more interested in seeing what is in those documents than reading the report itself, because we will probably want to make up our own mind.
Obviously, it will be for the head of the inquiry to decide exactly how they want to conduct the inquiry. However, as I have said, we want to ensure that voices are heard and that the terms of reference of the inquiry cover all the issues that, rightly, families, victims and others want to see. I therefore assume that the judge who is appointed will be taking soundings and will have views on the terms of reference. I cannot speak for them about what the interim report will include but I think we are all very conscious of the fact that we want this to be done speedily and that we expect an interim report.
Perhaps I may follow on from the questions in relation to the public inquiry and the reference that has just been made to the legislation. Can we please ensure that when people give evidence, they do so in full and do not hide behind the fact that, if they answer certain questions, they might incriminate themselves, which could result in a criminal prosecution? People expect a public inquiry to be full and public, not partially full and partially in public.
As I hope I have made clear to noble Lords, we want a judge-led inquiry. It will be for the person appointed to lead the inquiry and to determine how it works. However, as we have said, we want to make sure that all voices are heard, and I am sure that whoever leads the inquiry will refer to this debate with interest and take account of noble Lords’ comments.
Can the noble Baroness confirm that the Fire Brigades Union asked the Department for Communities and Local Government to update Part B of the building regulations—the fire safety regulations—some time ago and that this has not been done? Especially as she confirmed the element of illegality of certain types of cladding, does she know whether the request was to look in any way at the nature of cladding? Can she also take the opportunity to answer the question asked by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition about the Government’s future attitude to regulation? It is significant that the Prime Minister says in the Statement that the state has not worked for many people. I suggest that the reason for that is that in recent years it has been so whittled away in respect of important and defensible regulations, not least in relation to planning and housing.
Having listened to the Statement and the comments from the House, I cannot help thinking, as a former housing officer, that this dreadful tragedy is a terrible episode in a systemic failure. I recognise that the Government are making every effort to respond to the tragedy—albeit too late—but I wonder whether the Minister might respond to the systemic issues. There is evidence that a letter was sent to the Housing Minister by the APPG—which consists of experts who know about fire safety in buildings—asking for the regulations to be updated. That advice and request should have been responded to some time ago and it would be a shame if a public inquiry stopped it being responded to now. Equally, the concerns that the Grenfell Tower residents sent to their landlord appear to have been ignored, and it would be a shame if a public inquiry stopped those concerns too being responded to immediately. Similarly, the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Bird, about ethnic cleansing cannot be ignored. I cannot help but notice that the skin colour of a number of the people affected by the tragedy happens to be nearer the shade of my skin than that of others. If we are to respond to the systemic issues of this tragedy as well as the episodic ones, we have to look at the allocations policy in local government housing, at the design of social housing and at the paucity of policy leadership in this area. Perhaps the Minister would care to respond to that.
I can certainly reassure the noble Lord that, although the findings of the public inquiry will of course feed into the work that we are doing, that work will not stop, and we are continuing to work on simplifying the guidance on the fire safety building regulations. Therefore, there will not be a stop on the action but the public inquiry will of course play an important part in helping us to ensure that we have a suitable response across all the issues that have led to this tragic accident.
My Lords, besides the issues of the public inquiry, it will also be necessary to look at the structure of local government taxation. Those of us who live in the middle of London—I live in the City of Westminster, not in the royal borough—are acutely aware of the very low differential between the taxes paid by those of us who live in desirable properties in desirable areas and the amount paid by people who live in less desirable properties in less desirable areas. There really ought to be a bigger bandwidth between the two.