My Lords, I shall repeat a Statement made in the other place by the right honourable Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the Government’s response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy and our safety inspections of cladding in other buildings. I know I speak for the whole House when I express my heartfelt grief at the Grenfell Tower catastrophe. Almost a fortnight has passed; the shock has not subsided. I have visited Kensington and witnessed the terrible anguish of those who have lost so much. In some cases they have lost everything.
I am sure that, like me, many Members have returned from their constituencies this morning with the anger and fears of residents still ringing in their ears—anger that a tragedy on this scale was ever allowed to happen in 21st century Britain and fear that it could happen again. It is this fear I want to address first today.
On the cladding checking process, I know the entire country is anxious to hear what we are doing to reassure residents about fire safety in similar blocks around the country. My department contacted all councils and housing associations asking them to identify all tall residential buildings in England that they are responsible for that have potentially similar cladding applied. We estimate this number to be around 600. On 18 June, we wrote to them and asked them to start sending samples, and on 21 June our combustibility testing programme for aluminium composite material cladding started, run by the Building Research Establishment.
On 22 June, the Government provided advice to all these landlords about interim safety measures where a building has ACM cladding that is unlikely to be compliant with building regulations. This advice was recommended by an independent panel of experts and includes advice based on the emerging findings from the Metropolitan Police investigation into Grenfell Tower. I can inform the House that, as of midday, the cladding from 75 high-rise buildings in 26 local authority areas has failed the combustibility test. I know that Members will want to know if their local residents are affected, and my department will publish regular updates on GOV.UK.
The combustibility test has three categories rated 1 to 3, and it is judged that cladding material in category 2 or 3 does not meet the requirements for limited combustibility in building regulations. I can also confirm to the House that so far, on that basis, all samples of cladding tested have failed. The fact that all samples so far have failed the test underlines the value of the testing programme and the vital importance of submitting samples urgently. The testing facility can analyse 100 samples a day and runs around the clock. I am concerned about the speed at which samples are being submitted. I would urge all landlords to submit samples immediately.
In every case of failed tests, landlords and local fire and rescue services have been alerted, and we are supporting and monitoring follow-up action, including by a dedicated caseworker in my department. Landlords for all affected buildings have informed or are informing tenants and implementing the interim safety measures needed, working with fire and rescue services. At this time, the safety of people living in these buildings is our paramount concern. I am determined that residents have as much peace of mind as possible in such worrying times. Landlords must keep residential buildings safe for their tenants. Where they cannot satisfy that obligation with appropriate mitigating measures, we expect alternative accommodation to be provided while remedial work is carried out. That is exactly what has happened in Camden and I would like to pay tribute to the residents there for their brave response in such a distressing situation.
It is obvious that the problem of unsafe cladding may not be a problem unique to social housing or residential buildings. We have asked owners, landlords and managers of private sector residential blocks to consider their own buildings and we have made the testing facility freely available to them. My department is working with the Government Property Unit to oversee checks on wider public sector buildings. Hospitals are well prepared—each one has a tailored fire safety plan. But nothing is more important than the safety of patients and staff, so on a precautionary basis we have asked all hospitals to conduct additional checks. The Government will continue to work closely with fire and rescue colleagues to prioritise and conduct checks based on local circumstances.
The Education and Skills Funding Agency is contacting all bodies responsible for safety in schools, instructing them to carry out immediate checks to identify any buildings which require further investigation. We will have more information this week. Across the wider government estate, 15 buildings have been identified as requiring further investigation.
While that work continues, it is vital that we offer every assistance to the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. As of this morning, 79 people have been confirmed dead or listed as missing presumed dead. Sadly, it is believed that this number will increase. As the Prime Minister told the House last week, the initial response of the emergency services was exemplary, but the immediate support on the ground was simply not good enough. A remarkable community effort sprung up overnight, while official support was found wanting. That failure was inexcusable, and it is right that a new team and approach is now in operation.
We have activated the Bellwin scheme and sent in significant central government resource including: a single point of access into government provided by the Grenfell Tower victims’ unit operating from my department; and staff from six government departments offering support at the Westway assistance centre. The Government have set aside a £5 million Grenfell Tower residents’ discretionary fund and more than £1 million has so far been distributed. Each household affected is receiving £5,500 to provide immediate assistance, and so far 111 households have received payments. The British Red Cross is operating an advice line for anyone affected or in need of support. It is just one of many charities, faith organisations, and businesses that have provided invaluable assistance to victims. I can announce to the House today that the Government will contribute £1 million to support their efforts. This money will be distributed by the local consortium of charities, trusts and foundations that are working together to respond to this tragic event.
Our other priority has been to find survivors a safe and secure place to live. The Prime Minister made a clear commitment that a good-quality temporary home would be found for every family whose home was destroyed in the fire, within three weeks. Every one of those families will also be offered a permanent social home in the local area. This work is under way, and the first families moved into their homes over the weekend. Last week, I also announced that the Government had secured 68 homes in a new development in Kensington to rehouse local residents. We will do everything we can to support the victims of the Grenfell fire now and in the future, and I will regularly update Members on our progress.
As the Prime Minister said in her Statement to the House last week, the disaster at Grenfell Tower should never have happened. There is an ongoing police investigation, and there will be an independent judge-led public inquiry to get to the truth about what happened and who was responsible. Building regulations and the system for ensuring fire safety in buildings have been developed over many decades, and until the Grenfell fire many experts would have claimed that system has served us well. But now we have witnessed a catastrophic failure on a scale many thought impossible in 21st century Britain. It is clear that that failure must be understood and rectified without delay, and the Government are determined to ensure that that happens. As an initial step, I can inform the House today that I am establishing an independent expert advisory panel, which will advise the Government on any steps that should immediately be taken on fire safety. Further details of the panel, including its members, will be released shortly.
This tragedy must never be forgotten, and it should weigh heavily on the consciousness of every person tasked with making the decisions that ensure it can never happen again”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I refer the House to my interests, specifically as a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, for repeating the Statement made in the other place by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families of this terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower, and with our emergency services, which responded so bravely and quickly to the unfolding disaster. Their actions saved countless lives. The whole nation owes these heroes a debt of gratitude.
The Prime Minister acknowledged that the response by Kensington and Chelsea Council was not good enough and a firm grip on the situation needed to be taken. The response by charities, faith organisations, businesses and local residents has rightly been praised and I pay tribute to them all. They add to the shame with which the response of Kensington and Chelsea council is viewed by everybody. I find it staggering that the council leader did not resign immediately. He should resign without further delay. The chief executive of Lewisham, Barry Quirk, has taken over as the chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council. He is a public sector manager with years of experience and will get a grip of the situation quickly. The command centre is under the joint leadership of John Barradell, the chief executive of the Corporation of London, and Eleanor Kelly, the chief executive of Southwark council. Both are experienced public sector managers. Eleanor Kelly is known to me, and she will do an excellent job, I am sure, with the chief executive of the Corporation of London.
I have no intention of speculating on matters that are best left to the police and the inquiry. I have confidence that robust work will be undertaken, and where criminal activity is found to have taken place, prosecutions to the full extent of the law will be brought. But lessons have to be learned and things have to change. I hope that we never again hear the nonsense that we have heard in the past about red tape and health and safety regulations. It is clear that, rather than having too much regulation, there has in this case been a catastrophic failure. Regulations were either not good enough or were not followed and applied thoroughly and properly.
The checks on tower blocks throughout the UK need to continue as quickly as possible. I pay tribute to the residents of Camden who have been affected by the right decision to evacuate their blocks, which are deemed by the authorities to be unsafe, and to the leadership shown by the leader of Camden council, Councillor Georgia Gould, who has been there on the ground speaking to residents. It would be welcomed by the whole House if we were given further details of the work being undertaken by the Government Property Unit to oversee checks on wider public sector buildings.
Cladding is not the whole story. That is clear from the Lakanal House and Shirley Towers fires, as the respective coroners’ reports show. Can the noble Lord tell the House what plans the Government have to provide up-front funding to local authorities to take recladding measures, the installation of sprinkler systems or other fire precaution measures rather than the after-event funding through the Bellwin scheme? I welcome the independent advisory panel that is being set up, but the Statement repeated by the noble Lord seems to suggest that the system is at the point of collapse, and urgent action must be taken. We need to do that quickly.
Last Thursday, the Prime Minister said,
“we simply have not given enough attention to social housing”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/6/17; col. 169.]
I would suggest that the Government have given plenty of the wrong attention to social housing. Schemes such as the National Tenant Voice have been scrapped. The social homes build is down from 37,000 to 1,000, and Homes and Communities Agency funding for the Decent Homes programme has been ended. What we need now from the noble Lord is a commitment to do everything to ensure that the Prime Minister’s promise is not just empty words and that we will see a complete change of course by the Government in support of funding for social housing so that we have truly affordable homes in this country.
My Lords, I start by declaring my interests as a councillor elected in Kirklees and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I join with what has already been said in tribute to both the fantastic work of the emergency services on the night and to the ongoing support that has now been put in place by a combination of charities, faith groups, community groups and finally—although too late—the Government and local government. I have three major areas of concern following the Grenfell Tower fire.
The first area is that of care for the victims of the fire. The initial co-ordination of this huge and probably preventable catastrophe was a fiasco. As I said in this House last Thursday, accountability in the political process is absolutely vital if we are to retain trust between those who are elected and those who are represented. I called for the leader of the council in Kensington and Chelsea to take responsibility for the fact that 79 people have died in a council building on his watch. I cannot believe that a leader elsewhere in the country would not have resigned by that point. I repeat my call of last Thursday and I trust that some Members on the government side will talk to the leader and urge him to take responsibility.
A second element in the area of care for the victims is the co-ordination of ongoing support for them. I understand that the Government are implementing the Bellwin scheme, which provides recompense to councils and other authorities for the emergency costs of the work they do. That is positive, but I am concerned about the work that they ought to be doing to support the children who have been involved in this awful trauma. They are a particular concern of mine because of my interests. Are their welfare and ongoing education needs going to be well supported for a very long time, because that is probably what they will need?
My second major area of concern is that of prevention, referred to by the Minister in the Statement. What we absolutely must ensure is that there are no other buildings where further loss of life could take place. My understanding is that all building materials have to be passed by the British Board of Agrément, which determines whether the materials are fit for purpose and how they can be used. I have not heard in any of the statements in either this House or the other place whether this is the case for the materials referred to by the Minister; that is, the aluminium cladding. I would welcome an answer to that point.
The second element in the area of prevention is that I am particularly concerned about schools. I am a governor of a school which should be opening in September. It is being built through the government scheme. As I speak it is being clad and does not have a sprinkler system because the requirement for such systems in schools has been removed. No doubt the Minister will not be able to respond, but a number of schools are currently being built around the country. Will they have sprinkler systems put in and will the cladding be checked?
My third area of concern is that of costs. We have heard that the emergency costs are to be covered by the Bellwin scheme, but we expect that cladding which fails the checks will have to be replaced. Who is going to pay for that? If there are some 600 tower blocks, numerous schools and some hospitals which did fulfil the building regulations but latterly discover that the cladding material is combustible, who will fund the enormous cost of recladding those buildings? I doubt whether cash-strapped local authorities will be in a position to fund replacement cladding, and similarly I doubt whether the NHS will be able to meet the cost of recladding buildings. It is not responsible in the sense that, if the building regulations were complied with, in my view the costs ought to be met by the Government.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, for their contributions and I acknowledge, as I think I did in the Statement, the importance of the role played by the emergency services. They were truly heroic and the events demonstrated in a very graphic way how much we owe to them on a continuing basis. Of course, as has also been said, the response has not been limited to the emergency services, although their role was extraordinary. I was reading this morning about a young Latvian-born Russian man who went five or six floors up into the tower to rescue people. The human response was extraordinary, while the continuing response of charities and faith organisations has also been first class. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned Barry Quirk, Eleanor Kelly, John Barradell and indeed the work of many London boroughs which have contributed massively since Kensington and Chelsea, as it were, stood down. Their response has been extraordinary too. Elected representatives are responsible and should be held accountable, and that is a matter for them to consider, but I certainly hear what has been said by both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness.
Let me deal with some of the specifics that were mentioned: I shall start with the victims, then move to costs and shall try to pick up some of the other points that were made. As I indicated in the Statement there is a Grenfell Tower victims’ unit which looks at many things through the medium of the Red Cross, with the funding assistance I have just mentioned, and a hotline. It is helping with advice on health, education and finance. Many of these people, it has to be recognised, do not speak English, so language support is being offered as well, for the various languages that are necessary: it is quite right that that should happen. There is counselling, including grief counselling and counselling to deal with the dreadful situation there.
On the cost, first, one should not ignore the significance of the Bellwin scheme. It has been used on many occasions, such as the Buncefield disaster, floods and so on. After 0.2% of the authority’s budget—in the case of Kensington and Chelsea, £300,000 is not significant in terms of that budget—the other money is supplied by the Government within the scheme, up to 100%. One should not ignore the significance of that: it really is important, it is in place already, as I understand it, in relation to Grenfell Tower, and in relation to Camden, it will obviously be utilised. On top of that, primary responsibility, of course, rests with the landlord of the relevant body, whether that is public sector or private sector, but of course we recognise that there is a cost here. The most important thing is the safety of individuals. That is something we want to stress and we will obviously be talking with local authorities about the cost. At the moment we do not know what that cost will be: even in relation to the 75 examples I cited of non-compliance, it is not necessarily clear that removing the cladding will be necessary overnight, as it were. We just have to look at how that is to be taken forward, but I recognise the importance of the point; of course, I do.
The general, broader point about social housing is well made. We know that many of the authorities concerned are of all parties, I think, and all parties have to look at how we address this on an ongoing basis. There are certainly lessons to be learned there. The noble Baroness mentioned prevention—I do not think the noble Lord did, but it is clearly an issue that needs looking at. Fire safety checks on cladding and so on are needed, not just on residential buildings but on all buildings. We have already put in place a system for the NHS and for education, but of course in the private sector there will be office buildings and so on, which while perhaps not as urgent as residential buildings will still need to be looked at. I know that some hotels—Premier Inn, for example—have stated that they will be removing cladding. So the private sector needs to look at this too and there are many issues to be looked at.
The sprinkler situation has been mentioned. Residential blocks above 18 metres since, I think, 2007, need sprinklers. That raises the question, clearly, which I think the public inquiry will certainly want to look at, that if it is right for them, what about retrofitting other buildings within that system? I would be astounded if, when we see the terms of reference, that is not part of the inquiry. Those terms of reference will be discussed not just with tenants and representatives of tenants of Grenfell Tower but with the chairperson of the inquiry. Those matters need to be looked at too.
Once again I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for the genuinely consensual way that they have been seeking to move this forward, which I am sure is the right way. I think that certain statements made elsewhere are unhelpful, but this is a national position which we have to deal with in a national, consensual way. I do not think that victims would welcome any other approach than the one that has been demonstrated today.
My Lords, the Minister made clear in his Statement that the Government are aware of the lack of preparedness at all levels of government to take a grip of this situation. Is the Minister aware that the Cabinet Office runs the Emergency Planning College at Easingwold in North Yorkshire, an admirable organisation that trains people from all over the world, who come to prepare themselves for catastrophes and disasters of this sort? Will the Minister please go away urgently and ask his department to see what can be done to encourage people at all levels of government to make use of this admirable institution so that the lack of preparedness in this case is not perpetuated again in the future?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend very much for that helpful suggestion. He will be aware that, in the Statement repeated in this House by the Leader of the Lords last week, mention was made of the possibility and maybe the likelihood of a civil disaster action body—I forget the exact appellation—being set up to look at this type of situation so that lessons can be learned. I think that the Emergency Planning College that my noble friend mentioned would be an admirable body to involve in that discussion and I will take that back.
My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what work is being done to check the safety of electrical appliances? It is a slightly different angle. I am sure that the safety of electrical appliances will be covered by the public inquiry, but what work is being done at present? It is clear that safety in American appliances is very different from that in appliances sold in the UK. What consultation, if any, is taking place with the much reduced trading standards officers, who have a lot of experience in the area of electrical appliance safety? Finally, what involvement, if any, does the Health and Safety Executive—again, much reduced—have in the current activities?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that contribution. It illustrates the breadth of the inquiry that is needed here, because there are many aspects to this. One has almost overlooked how the fire started, but she is absolutely right. The supplier of the white goods in question, if I can categorise it in that way, has made a statement and is looking at checks on that. I will write to the noble Baroness and copy it to all Members, with any additional points I miss or am unable to answer in this session, including on the involvement of the consumer safety bodies she referred to and the Health and Safety Executive. I am sure that they will be very much involved—I was going to say, plugged in, but that might not be the right word—in the discussions in relation to the inquiry and taking this forward. It illustrates the immense challenge that we have here, and we really cannot duck this challenge. I should also say that I held a briefing earlier today on this situation, attended by many noble Lords, ahead of the Statement. It is my intention to hold another, because this is a quickly changing position, and to take points in more detail with officials then.
My Lords, I tried last week to ask this question and I should like to try again. I had the privilege in the 2013-14 Session to chair a Select Committee of a dozen Members of this House on the Inquiries Act 2005 and whether it was fit for purpose. We produced a report which was unanimous and generally well received. We said that it was fit for purpose. Therefore, the question is this: is the full rigour of the Act going to be used in the public inquiry? If it is not, whether it is judge-led or not, it will not have the power to pull witnesses in and they can slink away. It is very important that the Act be used.
My Lords, as I understand it, the inquiry will be within the rigour of that Act. I had a briefing today that indicated that people could be obliged to attend by subpoena, for example, which indicates that that is the case. Another point I am getting officials to check is that we have somehow to ensure that people giving evidence to this public inquiry—we want it to happen in a very timely way—are protected in that, if they face criminal charges, there has to be some sort of mechanism for making sure they are aware that anything they say on that occasion could be used in criminal proceedings. I will contact the noble Lord, via the letter I am sending round, if I am wrong on that, but as I understand it the Inquiries Act will apply.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that public figures should be very slow to make criticisms of individuals or wild allegations of criminal responsibility until such time as the public inquiry informs us where responsibility truly lies?
My Lords, my noble friend speaks with great authority, as a distinguished lawyer. Of course, that is the case. We have a proper procedure and process to follow in our parliamentary and democratic system, based on the rule of law and the English legal system. That is the reason for the inquiry. That is the reason for legal proceedings, and we must make sure that they happen in a timely way so that we can draw the necessary conclusions, and draw them quickly.
My Lords, first, where cladding must be removed, whether on high or low-rise buildings, can this be done while the residents remain in place? Secondly, the disaster makes it clear that almost no reserve of rented accommodation exists. Does this not underline the urgent need to multiply the rate at which safe and affordable dwellings are produced?
My Lords, the noble Lord asked two very relevant questions. The first was whether the cladding can be removed while people are in place. Yes, that is possible, certainly physically, and that could well—and almost certainly will—happen to some of these blocks if there are other mitigating factors meaning that those people are not at risk; for example, if the block was built after 2007 and there is an effective sprinkler system, that might be the right way to proceed. Each case is being looked at individually and that will not necessarily be appropriate for every case but it will be for some. The noble Lord then made a general point about the importance of affordable housing and, by implication, having it in the appropriate places, which is a challenge that we are addressing and have been seeking to address quite independently of this. He is absolutely right about that, and that assault on the importance of affordable housing will continue quite independently of this, but this does underline it.
My Lords, the Minister has described some of the work that will be done, and that is welcome. However, there is utter confusion at the moment among not just residents and tenants but those in the construction industry about what will now be deemed safe, because of the seeming contradiction between the building regulations and the combustibility test that the Government are carrying out. Where does the industry now go for a definitive list of what is safe in areas such as the cladding of schools, which was referred to by my noble friend Lady Pinnock? If there is not a definitive list, how quickly will the Government get one so that those who are cladding or retro-cladding will know exactly what is safe?
My Lords, admittedly, this is a proxy test that is being done at the moment but the testing facility that is being used by the BRE is incredibly fast and very clear. That is why we know that 75 samples that have been assessed so far are non-compliant. I do not think there can be any doubt about that. There is a wider question about the building regulations—last revised in 2006 and amended in 2010 and 2013—which the inquiry will no doubt also want to look at.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comments about the voluntary sector. In the lessons learned exercise, will research be done to understand exactly why the voluntary and faith sector was so good at responding and could organise teams within four hours to distribute things, compared with the local authority response? Will lessons be learned about why the concerns raised by the residents in the months—indeed, years—beforehand were never listened to, and in the future will tenants be listened to more appropriately? Finally, what can the Government do about the speed of the submission of samples by landlords, which is woefully slow?
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for those points. First, perhaps I might, through him, congratulate the faith sector more widely, and indeed the charity sector and the voluntary sector. I do not think this is limited to Grenfell Tower, but it is true that often Governments and local authorities—the public sector in general—are not always trusted as much as the local faith, charity and third sector, which is local, trusted and more responsive. I have seen the same thing in relation to some of the dreadful terrorist incidents we have had, most recently in Finsbury Park. That is certainly true there.
The right reverend Prelate mentioned the concerns of tenants not being listened to over time. Of course, that will be looked at again by the inquiry. I do not want to prejudice that by coming out with statements but concerns raised by tenants should always be listened to. The tenants are the people who know about this. He then asked about the slow response, was it? I am sorry.
The Minister said that landlords are being very slow to send in samples.
Yes, in repeating the Statement. That is certainly the case. We are talking to the LGA, which is a very helpful partner and is following up on some of these. The testing is quite quick. We need to make sure that some of the local authorities are coming up with the material for us to test. With the LGA, we are following that up.
My Lords, a question was asked about work being carried out while residents are in situ. The recladding and other fire protection work will involve potentially hundreds of blocks of flats nationally and perhaps as many as 50,000 families. Instead of the evacuation of families, which will arise in some cases, with all the disruption of family life that entails—which is what we hear is going on in Camden at the moment—have the Government and local authorities considered the appointment of fire monitors, on a shift system basis, during surveys and periods of work, carefully located in vulnerable blocks, in particular where there are clusters of blocks of flats, and where those fire monitors can be in fire alarm contact with all flat owners? There are two advantages. First, it will give residents some peace of mind and, secondly, it will save a lot of public money.
I thank the noble Lord and congratulate him on his perseverance in asking the question. He is absolutely right that evacuation should be only in extremis, which I think the Camden situation was. They considered very carefully whether it was appropriate there. The possibility of fire monitors—or, as I think we are calling them, fire managers—being in situ on the premises is certainly being looked at as one possible way of mitigating that, and I thank the noble Lord for his support for that idea. He is absolutely right that, where appropriate, this will provide peace of mind and save money and, of course, save disruption in other cases. But in some cases, evacuation will be appropriate and Camden was certainly one of them.
Will my noble friend clarify the position on Part B of the building regulations? That seems to be the part that is relevant. As I understand it, in 2009 a coroner in Southwark recommended that the building regulations should be reviewed. In 2016 the Minister for Housing undertook that they would be reviewed. I understand that recently the Minister for Housing has said, “We are ready for consultation”. Surely this should be a real priority; otherwise, no one in the construction industry knows what on earth they can do. That is an absolute priority. May I have an assurance from my noble friend that something will be done about this now?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend very much indeed. The Lakanal inquest in 2009 that he referred to suggested that the building regulations needed simplifying. That work has not yet started. We were about to start that when an election intervened but, clearly, we have to learn the lessons in relation to building regs and fire safety measures. We will be setting up a public inquiry, which I am sure will have an interim report that will come forward with some urgent findings. But I agree with my noble friend that this clearly is in purview.
My Lords, perhaps I might ask the Minister to say something further about the private sector. I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association, although it is in no way involved in my asking this question. He has referred twice to the private sector. If I recall his wording, he said, first, that private sector companies should do the checks in blocks that they own and, secondly, that the testing facilities will be open to them. However, where a block is in the private sector and the building control function has been undertaken by the private sector, does the Minister agree that it is very important that checks are compulsory and not advisory?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. Perhaps I may track back on to something that I should have mentioned earlier in relation to those blocks that have, after testing, been found not to be compliant. In those 75 cases, my department will nominate a specific employee to liaise about the necessary action. That is in relation to all those public sector or social housing blocks that have been identified. In relation to the private sector blocks, subject to the same sort of constraints at 18 metres and above, we have been in contact with all the private sector landlords and are recommending that they test the cladding. It is not compulsory; we are making a facility available to them without charge, but those are not part of the 600 blocks which I mentioned. I am sure that we will want to follow up on that but, as things stand, it is not compulsory. We are focusing on the social rented sector at the moment because that seems the right thing to do.
My Lords, there has been a systemic failure to deal with policy in relation to fire for some years. One reads newspaper reports, which I think the Minister has confirmed, that some action was intended in recent years after reports were received, but nothing has yet happened. Can he confirm that, as the situation is reviewed after this tragedy, it will be a cross-governmental engagement? All departments ought to be involved—one thinks, for example, of education, health and indeed justice, with prison establishments. It will need to reach out to the private sector as well. It has already been indicated that there are potential problems in private developments, which also need to be covered.
Can the Minister confirm that, so far as local authorities are concerned—and it may be that a similar principle will have to be extended to other areas, such as health—the full costs of this will be met by government? I remind him that a reduction is going ahead now in council house rents, which will help the Government’s finances by significantly reducing housing benefit. Some billions of pounds will be involved over a long period. I suggest that, if the Government are looking for a resource to fund the necessary work, that would be one way—by using the money being diverted from local authorities at the moment—to ensure that they are at least able to carry out all that is required of them.
First, I thank the noble Lord for his point on the involvement of other government departments. As I have indicated, it is absolutely right that this is wide-ranging. I also mentioned in the Statement the fact that some of the people on the ground in the Westway centre near Grenfell Tower are from DCLG; they are also from many other government departments as well. There is certainly a recognition— more than a recognition, an embracing of the fact—that this involves many other government departments. He is absolutely right to mention education, health and justice.
The most important duty of any Government is to keep people safe. We recognise that, and there will obviously need to be a discussion about the cost of this. We do not yet know what the cost will be. I suspect that the testing we have seen so far has indicated some of the more urgent instances. We cannot conclude that this is the case, but it may well be that local authorities have recognised those blocks where there is a concern and therefore submitted those samples in a timely way. We might therefore find that the 60 in one category and the 15 in another category are not representative of the rest of the 600 blocks. Let us hope and pray so; we do not know that yet. We will want to engage with local authorities once we know the sum total of what it will cost, to see how that is determined, but some local authorities—notably, Kensington and Chelsea—are perhaps not quite so short of money as others.