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House of Lords Hansard
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Fire Safety: Lakanal House Fire
27 June 2017
Volume 783

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will publish all the correspondence, internal briefings, and policy advice relating to the 2009 Lakanal House fire and subsequent inquest; and whether they will implement the Coroner’s recommendations relating to building regulations and processes.

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I expect all correspondence and relevant files to be released to the public inquiry. Work on simplifying the guidance that supports part B of the building regulations on fire safety was under way, but we need to look again at that in the light of the Grenfell Tower fire. The Secretary of State has announced the establishment of an independent expert advisory panel to advise the Government on any immediate steps that may need to be taken on fire safety.

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I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. I asked this Question because I was a Member of the London Assembly and chair of the Housing Committee and we produced a report on the Lakanal fire. When the Grenfell Tower fire happened, there were striking similarities. Now we have another 95 high-rise buildings with the same cladding. Is it the building industry that is failing or this Government failing to do their job properly and update building regulations and guidance in proper time?

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My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the work which the noble Baroness has done. Indeed, her expertise, I am sure, will be most welcome when the inquiry is under way. It is the case that we will have to update these building regulations. As I say, work was under way when this dreadful fire happened, but obviously it is right that we should look at updating the regulations in the light of that event, because the previous advice was to simplify them. That might not now be the appropriate way forward.

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My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the issue goes wider than what has been covered so far? Is not the evidence now from Camden in particular that there are no fire doors in some of these tower blocks and there are gas leaks? Do those failures not rest with inspection by local authorities of their housing to ensure that the facilities and safety precautions that are already in place are properly doing the work that they should be doing?

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I am grateful to my noble friend. This is not simply about the issues that have arisen from the Grenfell Tower fire, although obviously they are the focus of the public inquiry. I think Camden has identified that in five blocks, four of which have subsequently been evacuated, some 1,000 fire doors were missing. That must also give rise to concern.

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My Lords, I refer the House to my interests in the register. In the Lakanal House fire in 2009, there were compartmentation breaches that allowed the fire and smoke to spread through the building, in conflict with the evacuation procedure. Failures like this have come to light often only as the result of a fire or when the advice of the fire brigade has been sought after construction, although the power to take enforcement action expires one year after construction and the power to prosecute expires after two years. Does the noble Lord agree that this is far too small a window for action to be taken, and will he act on the London Fire Brigade’s call to extend these deadlines to a more appropriate period to be determined by consultation with key stakeholders?

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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his suggestion. It is right that these issues should be looked at by the independent advisory committee that is being set up by the Secretary of State. It will come up with urgent actions that need to be taken and will decide which first actions are appropriate. I will take away the noble Lord’s suggestion; it is something that no doubt the committee will wish to ponder on. However, this episode has thrown up a whole range of actions to be taken not only in relation to the cladding but much more widely, as we have seen in evidence from around the country.

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My Lords, does this not demonstrate that we should not allow the industry to set safety standards, which is what has happened in this case? Do we not need to have a stronger public sector that can actually set these standards on our behalf?

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My Lords, it is not true to say that safety standards are set by the industry. They are set by the Government in consultation with the industry and the public sector. We take advice from many sources and we will do so again through the public inquiry that is now being set up. It is important that we do not prejudge this and that the public inquiry acts in a judicial way. It will be judge-led and will look at all the evidence before we come up with conclusions. That is the purpose of the inquiry.

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My Lords, the coroner in the Lakanal House case actually cited some of the wider issues with the maintenance and refurbishment of buildings as well as their outer envelopes. I am slightly bemused that the Minister has said both today and yesterday that work has not yet started on the revision of part B regulations, because on 3 March 2015 the then Minister for Housing, Stephen Williams, announced that not only would the review start but that it would report back to Parliament in 2016-17 with a revised document. Can the Minister explain why this was stopped after the 2015 election and what interim steps will be taken before the result of the inquiry to make sure that we do not have to wait a long time before urgent changes can be made to these regulations?

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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. I did say that work is actually under way on the review, not that the work had not started. Work is being undertaken on the review that was recommended by the Lakanal coroner, but in the light of recent events we have halted the work so that we can take evidence on what has happened in relation to the Grenfell Tower fire, because it is important that we should do so. I will say two important things. One is to restate the point that we have an advisory committee that will look at the issues and come up with urgent recommendations, and of course the public inquiry will want to consider the possibility of an interim report that could look at taking urgent action as well.

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My Lords, I understand that as late as in May this year the red tape task force published a recommendation that the EU directive that covers precisely this point was extraneous and should be withdrawn. Do the Government agree with that?

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My Lords, I thank the noble Countess. As I say, I do not want to prejudge what will be decided partly by the advisory committee, which will make recommendations to the Secretary of State, and partly by the public inquiry. It is the case that regulation is necessary and we are revisiting that. The Lakanal inquiry and recommendations focused on simplifying fire regulation. We are revisiting that because it might not now be the appropriate response, but we do not want to prejudge that; it is something that the inquiry will want to look at.

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My Lords, in his response yesterday on the Statement, the Minister said:

“we have been in contact with all the private sector landlords and are recommending that they test the cladding. It is not compulsory”. —[Official Report, 26/6/17; col. 201.]

Why is it not compulsory? What is the difference between a socially-owned block of flats and a privately-owned block of flats?

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My Lords, I did, indeed, say that. That is the case. There are far more blocks in the social housing sector that are of the relevant height, above 18 metres, that are being contacted. We have contacted all private sector landlords and we will follow up on that, but the noble Lord is absolutely right: it is not compulsory for them to do so, because that is what we have decided.