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Building Safety Update

Volume 789: debated on Thursday 15 March 2018


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I will repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, in the other place earlier today, on building safety. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, with permission, I wish to make a Statement on issues arising from the Metropolitan Police investigation into the Grenfell tragedy. This investigation has involved a thorough examination of every aspect of the tower, including front doors to flats within the property. These doors include a glazed fire door manufactured around five years ago. Initial inspections indicate the door is believed to have been designed to resist fire for up to 30 minutes, as required by building regulations guidance, but when tested by the Metropolitan Police it failed after approximately 15 minutes. The Metropolitan Police considered that this test result might have wider implications for public safety and alerted my department.

The Government immediately sought advice from the independent expert panel on the test findings and to see whether any action was required as a result. This expert panel is made up of a range of building and fire safety experts, and chaired by Sir Ken Knight, former London Fire Commissioner and former government Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser. The panel consulted with representatives from the Metropolitan Police, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisers and the National Fire Chiefs Council. Following this, the expert panel has advised that the risks to public safety remain low. There is no change to the fire safety advice that the public should follow.

I nevertheless fully appreciate that this news will be troubling for many people, not least all those affected by the Grenfell tragedy. That is why, based on expert advice, we have begun the process of conducting further tests and will continue to consult the expert panel to identify the implications of those tests. I have made it clear that the necessary tests and assessments must be carried out thoroughly but at pace. There is no evidence that this is a systemic issue. Data between 2009 and 2017 shows fire does not generally spread beyond the room of origin. I am also clear that my department and the Metropolitan Police will ensure that the bereaved and survivors are kept informed of progress. I commit to updating the House when further information is available, and no later than the end of April.

I should stress that, in carrying out these tests, conclusions should not be drawn about the nature or cause of the Grenfell tragedy. That is a matter for the separate police investigation. It must be allowed to run its course.

Honourable Members will be aware that Dame Judith Hackitt is undertaking an independent review of building regulations and fire safety to ensure that the regulatory system is sufficiently robust. Dame Judith has been made aware of these latest findings, and, having accepted the initial recommendations set out in her interim report in December, we look forward to her final report, which is expected in the spring.

Nine months ago, we faced a loss of life and suffering on an unimaginable scale at Grenfell. Since then, significant efforts have been made by the Government and others to support survivors, find them new homes and keep people safe. However, I know that the matters I have raised today will raise questions. I want to reiterate that on the basis of expert advice my department has received, there is no evidence that risks to the public have changed. I want to reassure honourable Members that all possible steps are being taken to properly investigate the issues and to take action where needed. Public safety is paramount. Our position is clear: the events of 14 June 2017 must never be allowed to happen again”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement delivered earlier in the other place. I refer the House to my relevant interests as a local councillor and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I appreciate the Government updating the House, but it is important that when we have these Statements on Grenfell we always recognise not only the terrible suffering that took place but the wonderful efforts of all the emergency services, both on the night itself and afterwards, and the support from the local community, faith groups and charities, which have carried on working since that night to help rebuild that community. We should pay tribute to them all every time we have these Statements—we owe them so much for the work that they have done.

The noble Lord is right: we are nine months on from that dreadful tragedy and it must never be allowed to happen again. We must make sure that we do everything we can to ensure that that is a reality. It is very worrying, therefore, to find out that a door which it was suggested would survive for 30 minutes failed in less than half that time. These doors are supposed to give people time while they wait for the authorities to come and rescue them. To find out that it failed in half the time is very worrying indeed. It exposes serious problems with the door itself and raises questions, which I know Dame Judith is looking at in her review, on the health and safety regulations that are designed to keep people safe, but which have failed here.

It is good that we no longer hear the “red tape” nonsense that we did in the past. Clearly, this is not about red tape: it is about keeping people alive and saving lives. It is important that we do not hear such comments ever again. It is troubling for many people that these doors failed. The Government need to ensure that we move at a quicker pace to get all these matters dealt with and resolved quickly. People are concerned about this and it is always in their minds.

The Metropolitan Police investigation is a separate matter. As the Minister said, they need time and space to investigate and deal with the matters properly and to bring them to a conclusion.

I have a number of questions for the Minister which I hope he will be able to answer today. If he cannot I know that he will write to me and other Members of the House and cover both the points he made and wider points. Can he explain why, nine months on from the fire, we still do not know how many private tower blocks are covered in cladding similar to that used in Grenfell Tower? I do not know whether the House is aware of the figure, but I am not. I believe up to 41 local authorities have contacted the department in regard to fire safety works. How many have funding from the department for this work? I think it may be none or very few.

I am conscious that soon after the fire the Prime Minister fixed a deadline of three weeks for everyone who was affected to be found a home nearby. We are now nine months on and I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House how many families have been found a permanent place. The last time we debated this he told us that it was 60 out of the 208 households but it would help if he can give updated figures on how many have been found a permanent place and the numbers in temporary accommodation. Again, we need to get these matters resolved as soon as possible.

I am pleased that the noble Lord said that we will be updated as testing goes on—it is important that, as other issues come to light, we update people—but, in relation to these doors and other matters, what is the process for alerting local authorities and the manufacturers? I know the name of the door, but how many of them are there elsewhere? People need to know this and that they have failed. I know the Minister said that there is a low risk—but there is still a risk—and that most fires are contained within the place where they start. However, the fire was not contained where it started in Grenfell Tower and people are worried. Can the Minister tell the House what the Government do to alert manufacturers and other private companies in order to protect people in the future? I will leave it there and I look forward to the Minister’s responses.

My Lords, I remind the House that I am vice-president of the Local Government Association. I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the tribute he paid to all those affected by the Grenfell tragedy.

I refer the Minister to paragraph 10 of the Statement in which it is said that there is no change to the fire safety advice that the public should follow. Does that mean that the stay-put policy for tenants in high-rise blocks is seen to be the right policy? I suspect that many people who live in high-rise blocks doubt that that should be the case.

Secondly, should the Government insist that fire regulation assessments for every high-rise building are published and made available in an accessible form for the public to read? At present, fire regulation assessments may not necessarily be public documents. If the Government are now going to say that a stay-put policy is appropriate, it follows that fire regulation assessments should be publicly available for the tenants and residents of such blocks.

I was struck by paragraph 14 of the Statement, which states that there is no evidence that this is a systemic issue. In one sense all the evidence suggests that that may be true. It probably is true that the data between 2009 and 2017 shows that fire does not generally spread beyond the room of origin. That may be generally true but, of course, sometimes it is not true and in the case of Grenfell it was not true. There is a huge amount of evidence being collected by all those working to prevent Grenfell happening again and it is pretty clear to me from what I have read in documents published by the Minister’s own department, the latest update being about a fortnight ago, that we need to move much more quickly than the Government seem to be working: there is an issue of public confidence in fire safety regulations and I fear that the Government are too slow in their resolution of some of these problems.

The public want to know whether the Government will enforce compulsory, regular electrical safety checks in high-rise blocks as a matter of policy. My final point is that there is a huge issue arising now about who is going to pay the bill for all the remedial works that are required. There is a huge amount of publicity around private leaseholders, some of whom are likely to have a fee to pay for the fire wardens who are currently in their blocks. More generally, because cladding has been put on to a large number of blocks and is having to be taken off, there is an issue as to who is paying the bill for the private leaseholders. I am not sure that it is sufficient for the Government to say simply that the solution is for private leaseholders to sue the council, the local housing authority or some other party; I fear that it is not.

Finally, the Government have consistently said that they will fund essential and necessary works to high-rise blocks. Will the Minister confirm that that remains their policy?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Shipley, for the points they have raised and for the way in which they raised them. I share their true, undying respect and admiration for all those who, on the night of Grenfell and ever since, have made such a massive contribution in relation to that dreadful disaster. It has been truly awesome and we owe an undying debt to people who have helped in that way. I shall try to deal with some of the points and, in so far as I cannot, I will certainly write to noble Lords and make sure that a copy is placed in the Library.

First, I am not sure about the number of private tower blocks; I will need to write to the noble Lord about the outstanding position there. On funding for local authorities, which was raised by both noble Lords, I can confirm that the Government’s aim—it will be our number one aim and we will ensure it happens—is that nothing will not be done by reason of lack of finance. Safety is the priority. Discussions are ongoing with a number of authorities about the possibility of meeting some costs. I will provide a more detailed update, if I may.

Of the 209 families that we are undertaking to rehouse from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk—noble Lords may remember that it is more than the initial number of households because some are splitting— 184 have found accommodation, some temporary and some permanent. I am not sure of the precise numbers of those who have moved in and those who have not. Another important point to make is that some of those who initially opt for temporary accommodation subsequently decide to go permanent. There is an element of flux between the different categories, and that is perhaps the most significant one. Again, I will provide an update there, if I may.

On the more specific issue in the Statement about fire safety and fire safety advice, the advice that remains unchanged—I say to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley—is to keep fire doors shut to help prevent the spread of fire and smoke. That is central, as is understanding the fire safety advice for your building and, if in doubt, discussing this with your landlord or building owner; it should be advertised. I very much take his point about ensuring that this local assessment is known by people. That is no doubt something that the Dame Judith Hackitt review will be looking at, and of course we will look at that with a degree of urgency as soon as the review reports—the final stage of which is in the spring—because these matters are urgent. I accept what the two noble Lords have said about the importance of that.

Regarding this particular exercise on what happened in the block, I should say first that this was discovered as a result of the Metropolitan Police investigation—because of course there is no access to the site at the moment because it is a crime scene. As soon as we became aware of it, we took the appropriate action to consult the relevant committees, fire chiefs and so on. In consequence of that, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has said that we need to move this on apace and look at it more widely in the context of fire doors elsewhere. It is a particular batch that is being looked at. There is no indication at the moment that it is wider than that, but we are now moving forward apace to ensure that, in consequence of what the Secretary of State has said, we look at other fire doors to see if it is any wider than that. I think that that is the appropriate thing to do. In the meantime, it is worth stating that this is somewhat different from the cladding. Whereas there was every prospect, at least in some cases, that the cladding could be an accelerant to a fire, here we are talking about something that impedes the fire. The issue in relation to this single door was that it was about half what it should have been; it did not impede it enough. In consequence of that, we are doing the other testing. As this is something that will now move on apace, I would like to write to noble Lords ahead of Easter with an update on this, and of course there is the undertaking from the Secretary of State that he will report back in the other place before the end of Easter. I would expect to repeat that exercise here.

My Lords, I echo the comments that the Minister and other colleagues have made about the sympathy that goes to those who have survived the Grenfell Tower fire, and also the resilience they have shown in trying to move on with their lives afterwards. I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group. Anybody who has an interest in fire safety realises that compartmentalisation is absolutely vital to the safety of a building. This is now the third breach of compartmentalisation that has become apparent: first it was the cladding, then the block in Camden where we know there was a breach of compartmentalisation from putting in new gas central heating arrangements, and now there are concerns about this fire door. Compartmentalisation is absolutely at the heart of the stay-put policy. I think we need reassurance that the slight complacency in the Statement that this is not a general issue, is absolutely not the case. It is easy to talk about a “batch” of fire doors, but how big is the batch? Have there been tests on other fire doors of different makes to check that they still meet the 30-minute compartmentalisation fire resistance?

Dame Judith Hackitt, in her interim report, talked about two key findings: improving the process, competence and enforcement of regulations, and improving testing, marketing and the quality assurance of products. I know that the Government have been saying that they will wait until Dame Judith Hackitt reports with her full report, but this particular incident means that we have to move forward now to look at compartmentalisation. This affects not just high-rise blocks but every rented block of flats in the country as well. Can the Minister assure us that there will be a Statement as soon as possible on whether it is just this one type of fire door or a more general problem, and also if it is possible to track where those doors have been placed, or whether there has to be a general request to go out and identify them.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the very important role that she fulfils in the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, which is absolutely vital. There is certainly no intention of complacency on the part of the Government. There is, however, a need to balance this with what we know at the moment. I quite appreciate that the avenues of investigation that the noble Baroness referred to are totally appropriate. We will ensure—I know this will be happening anyway; Dame Judith Hackitt will be watching very closely what is said in both Houses of Parliament regarding her review—that she has all the content of this Statement in front of her, and she will be looking at that.

I appreciate what the noble Baroness is saying, but it will not be long before we get that final report and I feel it would be premature to look just at the interim report when some of this will be picked up in the final one. By the nature of it, I am sure this will also be looked at in the context of Grenfell by the Moore-Bick inquiry that is going on.

The noble Baroness asked for an assurance that there would be a Statement. I can give her that assurance; my right honourable friend in the other place has indicated that he would do so at the latest by the end of April. I echo that because these are important areas. There is no intention of complacency, and I appreciate the point being made that we need to look at this holistically.

Order, my Lords. There is time for a number of noble Lords to get in, but on this side we need to decide which noble Lord would like to speak first.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the founder of the all-party parliamentary group on building and other housing groups. First, are Her Majesty’s Government going to issue a directive to every manufacturer of fire doors that they lodge within seven days certificates for those doors that they come up to standard? Secondly, are these particular fire doors to be withdrawn from sale across the whole of the UK? Thirdly, will the Minister confirm that the procedures for testing fire doors across Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England are identical? If they are not, what action is being taken to consult with the other parts of the UK to ensure that we have an identical standard across this nation?

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for those questions. First, I am very grateful for his suggestion of getting up to standard; that is a question that Dame Judith Hackitt will want to look at, and something of that nature appears to be very sensible. In relation to the question of withdrawing from sale, I can confirm that these doors are no longer on sale anywhere in the country, or indeed anywhere in the world as would be the case. In relation to the testing of fire doors in other parts of the UK, I believe the procedures are identical. If I am wrong or indeed right on that, I will confirm it in my write-round letter.

My Lords, why did the consultation have such a narrow base? There is no mention of the Fire Brigades Union, the Health and Safety Executive or even the Local Government Association. Might it not have given a different view if those bodies had been consulted?

I am troubled by the Statement. Paragraph 25 says there is no evidence that risks to the public have changed but paragraph 28 says it must never be allowed to happen again. I wonder what steps are going to be taken to fill the gap between those two. What must never be allowed to happen again? How are the Government going to go about it if in this case there is no evidence of risk to the public?

I am also a bit concerned about something that I mentioned very much earlier. I know it is not connected with this report but the issue of white goods in multi-storey buildings seems to have gone very quiet. There seem to have been some hints that white goods, and the standard of them, may have had something to do with this. Maybe whether they are allowed into multi-storey buildings has to be looked at.

Lastly, I am concerned that so many different inquiries will be coming out at different times from different people. I want some assurance that there is a checklist of all the points raised, to ensure that all the things that are necessary to do are fulfilled by someone.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the relevant and very fair questions she raises. I think she was asking about what we do now but, first, in relation to the consultation, clearly at that stage there was an understandable intention to keep the information fairly tight in order to realise whether we had a problem on our hands. That was the reason for that. There were many people who would have had appropriate knowledge and interest to whom we could have gone. Certainly we will speak to these people now.

In relation to the broader point about Grenfell, of course it is a very complex situation with many different circumstances. However, there is a broad universal view that we must not let it happen again, which informs everything we are doing. It has many different facets to it. The noble Baroness referred to one of them: the white goods identified by many as a cause of the fire. There is an ongoing criminal investigation, so we have to be very careful about what we say in that regard, but she makes a very valid point. If I may, I will update her on what is happening in my letter.

A point I often make is that there seem to be an awful lot of inquiries, but that is because the issue is so complex. There is a quite separate criminal investigation which the Government and political parties have no input in framing. But it is very important, as is the inquiry into the fire itself and the broader circumstances, led by the judge, and we have this one here—the Dame Judith Hackitt review on building regulations and fire safety. Again that is important and, of course, we have the independent expert panel, which has been very important. Although there are many different bodies, which I shall outline in my letter so that people are aware of exactly where we are in relation to each of them, they each have a part to play, although there may be some overlapping here and there.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the real problem in the private blocks of flats that the cost being quoted for residents to have the cladding taken off and replaced is around £30,000 per person? That is absolutely unconscionable. What are the Government doing about making sure that there is some help for these people?

My Lords, the noble Baroness speaks for many people when she makes that point, which is a fair one. We have all seen this week the particular block in Croydon. There is some concern about this and my right honourable friend has said that, morally, it should be picked up by the landlords. If I may and as it has concerned many of us, I should like to update noble Lords on where we are on this issue in my letter, which I appreciate will be very wide-ranging.

My Lords, I declare my interests in the register as chairman of the Local Government Association and leader of South Holland District Council. I will contain my remarks purely to the issue of the doors today. If I spread into the wider Grenfell issues and my opinion of the expert panel, I will probably stray into unparliamentary language.

The manufacturer claimed it had the ability to produce 50,000 units a year, that the doors complied with Part M of the building regulations and that they had been approved by the BRE. Given all that, what can my noble friend the Minister say to assure the House that we can have faith in the advice from the expert panel that this is not such a major issue?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend who, understandably, has taken great interest in issues relating to Grenfell and the role of local government. In relation to the particular manufacturer he refers to, as I have said, these doors are no longer being manufactured. I can state that categorically. We are obviously looking at the issue of compliance.

Other doors have been tested and found to be deficient, but not nearly as deficient as this one, so that is another issue. There are difficulties in relation to Grenfell, because most of the fire doors were of course destroyed, which has presented a problem for testing. It is also a restricted site because of it being a crime scene. Nevertheless, we are obviously checking very closely to see exactly where these doors have been tested, as they are required to be, to ensure compliance. This will satisfy what the Secretary of State has rightly said about the need to look at this at pace and to test other doors beyond Grenfell to see whether they are compliant or not. At the moment, from the evidence that we have, it appears to be a single batch.

My Lords, I suppose I ought to draw attention to my register of interests, which no longer contains a reference to my local government experience, but I was the chair of a housing committee for a couple of years and ran our city council for 13 years. If I had heard the noble Lord’s Statement about these doors and I lived in a high-rise block, I would feel decidedly uneasy. I am rather worried about these doors. My recollection is that, at Grenfell, there was a major refurbishment that led to the cladding being put on the outside of the building. Is it the noble Lord’s understanding that these doors were part of the general refurbishment of the block at that time? If it is the case that these doors have been widely used elsewhere, why are the Government not simply putting all local authorities on alert and asking them to investigate and to test the fire safety doors in high-rise blocks? That would be a very practical and sensible step to take.

When I worked for the old Association of Metropolitan Authorities back in the 1980s and 1990s, we used to send letters weekly to our constituent member local councils, which contained guidance on the appropriate action to be taken by local authorities following central government announcements. Would it not be wise for the Government to work with the Local Government Association and local authorities and alert them to some of the findings from the fire tests on this particular batch of doors? If it is the case that they have been widely distributed—the noble Lord has a lot of knowledge about these particular doors—then residents living in high-rise blocks need assurance that proper fire tests will be carried out locally as well.

My Lords, in relation to the fire doors within Grenfell Tower itself, it appears that they were installed in 2013, as far as we can determine. On the point that the noble Lord made about testing more widely, this is exactly what we are doing but, until we have done those tests, which are going on at pace, we need to be careful about issuing anything that will cause more concern than is necessarily appropriate. What we need to determine is whether this is just a single batch from that period, and it is through conducting these tests very quickly that we will be able to do that. We are doing this on expert advice, working with fire chiefs and the expert panel. I will take back the point that the noble Lord made about working with local government; that sounds eminently sensible to me and I am sure it is something that we will want to do. As noble Lords would expect, we want to be an evidence-based Government; we are doing this at pace, but making sure that we are doing it thoroughly and appropriately.

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that Dame Judith Hackitt, in her inquiry, is taking on the full experience and best practice in the United States in these matters. They have much wider and longer experience of high-rise buildings. Has she specifically commissioned any inquiry into the best practice in the USA?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. I am not sure about whether Dame Judith Hackitt has commissioned any work to look at what is happening overseas or indeed in the USA. She has massive experience in this area and I would be very surprised if she is not looking at what happens in other countries—the USA and elsewhere. I will make sure that she has the benefit of my noble friend’s comments, but I would be surprised if she were not doing so.

My Lords, I welcome this announcement from the Minister and, in doing so, I declare my interests as a vice-president of the LGA and, more particularly, my practice as a chartered surveyor in the building and construction sector. I join other noble Lords in expressing concern that there are components—whether they be doors or something else—in buildings that are not meeting the standards that are claimed for them. That is a very serious matter that needs to be followed up with great rigour.

On the doors in particular, there are of course questions about the fireproofing of the door panel itself and its frame, but there are also more discrete fireproofing systems, such as smoke seals, intumescent paint and, of course, self-closers. I remember teasing a fire officer years ago, perhaps rather unfairly, by saying that the chief use in a particular building of the two-gallon water extinguishers seemed to be propping open the one-hour self-closing fire doors. There is this issue about the “desire line”—if I can use that term. How people use buildings is a very important factor in all this; we do not want to have fire doors propped open with bicycles, suitcases or anything else that might itself cause an obstruction but, more particularly—as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said—might imperil the very basis of the compartmentalisation. If we allow that to happen, because self-closers are inconvenient or because there are too many doors, we need to look into that. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that that is being looked into at the same time.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl and recognise his vast and detailed experience as a chartered surveyor. In drawing this debate to a close, I say first that I share the concern that he has expressed, but I think that we need to keep a sense of balance regarding what we know at the moment, which is that it could well be just this batch. But the Government are of course concerned and we are moving this forward at pace.

To echo the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, I also think that we have to look at all aspects of this in the round—that is absolutely appropriate. The Dame Judith Hackitt review gives us the context for doing that; she really does know what she is talking about and understands this country. Those points are very valid, and so is restating some common-sense advice, as the noble Earl has just done, on ensuring that fire doors are closed. Too often, one enters residential buildings where the fire doors are propped open, particularly in the summer months. We need to bear down on that and ensure that it does not happen. I take on board all the points that have been made and the concern expressed. I will write to noble Lords on all the points that have arisen and ensure that, in addition, we have a statement before the end of April so that all those points are dealt with.

Meanwhile, importantly—this will have particular resonance on Grenfell—officials have been out very early to speak people in Grenfell. The Minister for Grenfell survivors, Nick Hurd, has also been in touch and a letter is going out. This is very much at the forefront of our minds. This was happening ahead of the Statement being given in the Commons to make sure that the process was being carried forward, because it will raise particularly horrid memories and connotations for the people at Grenfell.