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Grenfell Tower

Volume 790: debated on Thursday 22 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. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement to update the House on support for those affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy and on the second report from the Independent Recovery Taskforce. This report will be published in full on GOV.UK and placed in the Library of the House.

Nine months on, the shocking and terrible events of 14 June continue to cast a long shadow. I know that it cannot have been easy for survivors and the bereaved hearing last week about the failure of a fire door from the tower, tested as part of the Metropolitan Police Service investigation. I am confident that the police and public inquiries will, in time, provide answers but, having met survivors and heard their stories, I know that does not take away from the pain and loss being suffered now by those left behind. Their welfare remains our highest priority, through our continued work supporting the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and through my right honourable friend’s valuable work as Grenfell victims Minister, ensuring that their voices and concerns are heard right across government. That work is supported by my department and, more widely, by the NHS, local government and the voluntary sector.

My thanks go to everyone who has gone the extra mile to be there for a community which has gone through so much. I also thank the task force for its work in helping us ensure that, after the slow and confused initial response to the disaster, the people of North Kensington are receiving better support from RBKC to help them recover and rebuild their lives.

When I reflected on the task force’s first report in November, I was clear that, while progress was being made, I expected to see swift, effective action to address all the issues highlighted, particularly the slow pace of delivery and the need for greater empathy and emotional intelligence. These two things are absolutely vital if RBKC is to regain the trust of the people it serves. My department has been working closely with RBKC throughout to provide the support and challenge necessary to drive this work, and I am pleased to see, from the task force’s second report, that some important progress has been made. RBKC, alongside the Government, has put in significant resources and increased its efforts to provide those affected with greater clarity about the support that is available to them.

We have also seen a stronger focus on implementing new ways of working to drive much-needed cultural change across the council and collaboration with external stakeholders, along with greater candour about the improvements that still need to be made. However, there is much more to do to ensure that residents can see and feel that things are getting better on the ground. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the vital task of rehousing those who lost their homes: a task that, as I have always been clear, must be sensitive to individual needs, but not use these needs as an excuse to justify delays.

Five months on from the fire, at the time of the task force’s first report, 122 households out of a total of 204 had accepted an offer of temporary or permanent accommodation. Only 73 households had moved in, and only 26 of those into permanent homes. Today I can report that 188 households have accepted an offer of accommodation. Just over two-thirds of these— 128 households—have already moved into new accommodation, 62 into permanent homes. This is welcome news, but as the task force’s second report highlights, progress has been far too slow.

It was always going to be a challenge to respond to an unprecedented tragedy on this scale and to secure new accommodation in one of the country’s most expensive locations, but progress has not been made as quickly as it should have. There are still 82 households in emergency accommodation, including 15 in serviced apartments, with 25 families and 39 children among them. This is totally unacceptable. The suffering that these families have already endured is unimaginable. Living for this long in hotels can only make the process of grieving and recovery even harder. As the task force has said, it is unlikely that all households will be permanently rehoused by the one-year anniversary of the fire. This is clearly not good enough. I had hoped to have seen much more progress, and it is very understandable that the people of North Kensington will feel disappointed and let down even if there are encouraging signs that the pace of rehousing is speeding up.

The council now has more than 300 properties that are available to those who lost their homes, so each household can now choose a good quality property that meets their needs, with the option of staying in the area if they wish. To ensure that these homes are taken up, I expect all households, regardless of their level of engagement, to be given whatever support they require to be rehoused as quickly as possible. The Government will continue to play their part and provide help with rehousing and other support for survivors, including financial support worth £72 million to date.

The weeks ahead will be critical for ensuring that efforts to rehouse survivors go up a gear. I will be closely monitoring this progress and will of course keep the House updated. As I said earlier, if the council is to regain trust, it is paramount that the Grenfell community is not only being told that things are changing but can see that their views and concerns are being heard and acted on. A good example of this, as highlighted by the report, is the transfer of responsibilities from the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation—KCTMO—to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea on an interim basis. This happened after residents made it clear that the tenant management organisation could no longer have a role, not only at Lancaster West but in wider housing management within the borough.

Residents have also been engaged in the process of refurbishing the Lancaster West estate, with the Government matching the £15 million that the council is investing in this programme. Alongside this, the council will shortly be consulting with residents on the long-term delivery of housing management needs across the borough, and their voices and needs will also be at the heart of the process to determine the future of the Grenfell site and the public inquiry, which has just held its second procedural hearing. Those needs must be an even stronger focus as we go forward and step up efforts, not just on rehousing survivors but on helping them rebuild their lives and, vitally, rebuilding trust. It is a process that will clearly take time and unstinting commitment on all sides.

As the task force has noted, some progress has been made, but there is no room for complacency. I expect the council to take on board its recommendations and do more to listen to the community, to improve links with the voluntary sector and to act on feedback from those on the front line. I also want to thank the task force’s members once again for their valuable contribution—which will continue for as long as it is needed. As it has noted, despite the many challenges that exist at Grenfell, there is,

“a level of community spirit and attachment not often seen in local communities in London”.

There is a dynamic and diverse community spirit, made stronger during the darkest of days, which is determined to secure a brighter future for North Kensington. We share that determination and look forward to working with the bereaved, survivors and others, in this House and beyond, who want to help turn this into reality. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, for repeating the Statement delivered by his right honourable friend the Secretary of State in the other place earlier today.

As usual, I pay tribute to the response on the night from the emergency services, and of course the response from all the public servants who have been helping ever since that terrible night, as well as the charities, faith groups and others who have worked to get the community back on its feet. We owe them all a great debt of gratitude for the work they have done and continue to do.

I also put on record—I have mentioned this many times—that the firefighters are still waiting for the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to apologise for the offensive comments he made about firefighters in the past. He is still silent on this, and of course he is a man who is not normally known for not voicing an opinion. We will probably never get that apology, but it is right that we should put that on record.

At 11 pages, this is a fairly long Statement from the Government today. When you look at it closely, it reveals disappointing progress; the Minister recognised that in his comments. We have 204 households, and only 62 have accepted permanent accommodation—so 142 households are still in some form of temporary accommodation nine months on from that dreadful fire. That is a regrettable situation to be in. The Prime Minister said in the immediate aftermath of the fire that everyone would be rehoused in three weeks. We now learn today that there will still be people in temporary accommodation on the anniversary of the fire. That is a most regrettable situation to be told of in the House today.

Can the Minister set out for the House what actions he and his other ministerial colleagues have undertaken since they previously reported on the numbers of households that had accepted permanent accommodation? In addition, for future Statements, can the Minister persuade his colleagues to set out where we are a bit more clearly? We know that we have 204 households—that is an agreed figure. It would be much easier for everyone if he then stated the number of households in permanent accommodation, then the number in temporary accommodation, and then the number in hostels, hotels or staying with family and friends. Sometimes we end up getting the permanent and temporary totals added together, and it is not always clear where we are. It would be much more transparent if we got them all laid out clearly for everyone in that way.

It is disappointing to note in the report of the task force that progress has been far too slow, with 82 households in emergency accommodation, including 25 families and 39 children. I agree with the Minister that this is totally unacceptable. As he said, the suffering that these families have already endured is unimaginable. However, although I agree with him, he is a member of the Government, and it is their duty to deal with this matter and to do right by the survivors as quickly as possible. We as the Opposition can only raise this question, but the Government’s job is to deliver, and they need to do so much more quickly. I noted also in the Statement that the Government had hoped to see more progress. When the Minister leaves the Chamber today, what will he do, with his other ministerial colleagues, to make sure that we do not have such a disappointing report the next time he reports back and that more progress takes place? Clearly, there have been systematic failures here. Whatever we thought would happen has not happened.

Regaining the trust of the community has to be the priority for Kensington and Chelsea Council. The political and senior management team has been changed, but we still have not seen the council get to grips with the challenges it faces. We expect the council to take on board what was reported and to be able to deliver. Can the Minister confirm that he is confident that, even with the changes to date, the authority can meet the challenges it faces? I accept that these are unprecedented challenges; if it cannot meet them, what else will the Minister and his colleagues do to ensure that the authority can deliver and do right by the residents? I noted the change of the housing organisation, which is good and what the residents wanted—but again, what about the council?

This is a most disappointing Statement from the Government. I hope that the next time we have a Statement, much more action will have taken place. I hope that the council takes on board the recommendations—but if the Minister feels that it does not, what will he do? I thank again the members of the task force for their report, which is a valuable contribution to what has happened, and I agree that the community in North Kensington has come together, which is the saving part of the tragedy. I will leave my comments there and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I thank the Minister for the Statement he has made and echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, on the emergency services and the voluntary organisations in the area—and, of course, on the huge community spirit that has been released by this tragedy and which is still driving the community forward. I also welcome the forthright and robust terms that the Statement used, such as, “disappointing”, “concern” and “clearly not good enough”. All those feelings of anger and concern which were expressed in the other place and which the Minister has expressed again in this Statement are shared on these Benches—and more than shared by the local community, which is at the cutting edge of the disappointment, the concern and the anger.

As the Statement acknowledges, far too little progress has been made between the first report and the second report. It was good to hear that there will be increased attention to getting results, and so on. However, when all is said and done, I found it difficult to see in the Statement any new and different thing which the Government or their agents and agencies will do to move things forward. First, therefore, can the Minister tell us what new, practical steps will come out of the anger and concern that the Secretary of State expressed at the other end of this building? I recall that in a Statement before Christmas, the Minister responded to a question from me by saying that the wrapping of the eyesore—the fire-damaged block—would be completed by Christmas. I would welcome confirmation from the Minister that that is now the case.

There is a wider issue. There are 340 other blocks around the country with compromised fire safety, and many of them also have compromised insulation, which means higher heating bills as well as a higher fire risk. What advice is the Minister’s department giving to the owners and managers of those blocks about the remedial measures that they should be taking and, just as importantly, how many agreements have now been made with local authorities which have affected blocks about paying for the remedial action needed?

I thank the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Stunell, for their contributions and for their general welcome of the report. Turning to the issues that have been raised, I totally endorse the comments about the commitment that we saw from the emergency services at the time of the fire and the immediate aftermath. They did fantastic work, and obviously that work is being continued by public servants—by civil servants and local authority workers, as well as by charities, faith organisations, voluntary organisations and volunteers. There was also an incredible outpouring of charitable giving after this awful disaster.

I shall try to deal, first, with the point concerning the figures raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I think I understand what he is getting at: it is perhaps more a question of the organisation of the figures. All the figures were in the Statement, as I am sure he appreciates. I shall take that point back—but, as I said, the figures are there. The noble Lord will know that to an extent there is a degree of fluidity about this. Some people were initially in temporary accommodation and, after a period there, they opted to stay on a permanent basis. So there is a bit of fluidity in the figures, as I am sure he will accept.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, for his acknowledgement of the robust nature of the Statement. I think that it reflects the feeling in the department. In fairness, considerable progress has been made in some areas, as the report will demonstrate, but much more needs to be done. We should remember that the task force is an intervention. This intervention will remain and the task force will report again in the autumn. The leader of the council and the council have an obligation to respond to the task force’s report, and I know that the Secretary of State has already spoken to the council about that.

We are expecting to see more progress in relation to the housing issue, but I gently remind noble Lords that the approach—which we have all accepted was the right one—was to allow people to turn down offers. I think it is right to say that everybody has had an offer, although I hesitate to say “every household” because some households have recently split, and that is another factor. However, certainly the vast majority of households have had offers. It was an agreed policy—probably in both Houses, but it was certainly the feeling in this House—that people should have the opportunity to turn down properties and change their minds. That said, we recognise that too many people, and certainly too many children, are in emergency accommodation, and that is not desirable. However, some people are still suffering trauma and do not want to discuss moving at this stage. I am not saying that that is the case for everybody but I remind noble Lords that it is still very much a factor, particularly if there is talk of moving to a high-rise building or even to one that has more than two or three storeys. There are considerable difficulties here, for understandable reasons.

Picking up on other points, the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, asked about the status of the block. I will get back to him on the precise situation but it remains a crime scene, which limits what can be done on it at the moment. However—again, this has been widely welcomed—we have given an undertaking that the future of the site will be determined by the local community. Quite rightly, it will take the lead on how the redevelopment goes ahead, and I am sure that we will all want that to happen at pace once the site is no longer a crime scene.

The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, also asked what was intended in relation to managed blocks in the private sector. We have provided financial assistance of £1 million to help identify blocks with Grenfell-type cladding, and that process is ongoing. However—I think that this is the point that the noble Lord was getting at—there is then a question of who pays for that. The view of the Secretary of State and the Government is that this should be met morally, if not legally, by the owners of the blocks. That said, we have seen cases where that process has not been followed. The Secretary of State is calling together a round table of those involved—landlords and, following an undertaking in the Statement made earlier today in the other place, tenant organisations, which will also have a view on this—to see what can be done in that regard.

On the question of those in social housing, we are still talking to 41 authorities, and deep discussions are going on with four to five organisations about assistance. Most of them do not want assistance with cladding; they want assistance with other things such as sprinklers. Therefore, it is not all specifically Grenfell-related, if I can put it that way. It may be that Grenfell has provided the impetus to look at these matters, but the assistance does not all relate to cladding. However, the discussions about financial assistance continue.

I think that those were all the points raised by noble Lords. If I have missed anything, I will, as always, write following the Statement, picking up points and, if necessary, correcting myself, as is sometimes the case.

My Lords, I welcome the emphasis in the Statement on the need for the council to listen more to the community. However, two weeks ago I attended a meeting in Parliament with Grenfell survivors and the UN special rapporteur on housing, and the primary message that I took away was that survivors still do not feel that they are being listened to—they do not feel that their voices are being heard. What will the Government do to ensure that survivors really are listened to and to ensure that they feel they are being listened to and that their voices genuinely are being heard?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, very much indeed, and I would be interested in talking to her further about that meeting. I know that Leilani Farha, the UN rapporteur, visited—we were, I think, unaware that she was coming and I do not think that she contacted the department or the Government. That said, in relation to the noble Baroness’s question, the Grenfell survivors Minister, Nick Hurd, certainly meets frequently with members of Grenfell United and with Grenfell survivors and bereaved. We are engaged in meeting the community. Civil servants from the department are still there on a permanent basis and are engaged in finding out what people’s needs are. As was indicated in the Statement, with the wide support of political parties here and in the other place, the welfare of the bereaved, the survivors and the community is central to the Government’s philosophy and policy.

My Lords, the Minister talked about rebuilding trust and clearly recognises that as an issue. I understand that there are anxieties and rumours locally that the total number of deaths has been withheld and that inaccurate information is being given out—in other words, that there were many more fatalities than have been reported. I also understand that the forensic work being undertaken is of a very high quality. It has been described to me as “heroic” by someone who is aware of the details, which I am not. Can the Minister encourage as much sharing of information as is possible? Of course there are sensitivities, but I hope he will agree that, however brutal the truth may be, truth is better than rumour.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, very much indeed, and I understand where she is coming from. First of all, in relation to the death toll conspiracy theories, if I can put it that way, these were certainly very much in existence early on. I think they have abated somewhat. There is certainly no substance to this. It is unimaginable that there would be some sort of cover-up of the number of dead. This just has not and would not happen under any government or local authority, or in any set of conceivable circumstances in this country. That has not happened.

Could I join the noble Baroness in the tributes she paid to those who have been engaged in forensic work? The trauma and the horror of having to do something like that is something that leaves the rest of us in awe. That has been very hard. While identification of the dead has not slowed the housing issue, it has slowed some of the progress that could be made. It has contributed massively to the trauma that people have felt there.

I agree with her about transparency. Wherever we can be transparent, I think the disinfectant of sunlight is the best way forward. Of course, there are sensitivities as she rightly says. There are also considerations with regard to any criminal proceedings, which would be another sensitivity. But certainly, wherever we can provide information and be open about information in response to any inquiry or in making Statements, we are seeking to do so.

My Lords, can the Minister give a timescale as to when Ministers intend to complete discussions with those in private properties who are now part of the situation where cladding has been under question? I have raised this matter with the Minister in a private letter, and I declare an interest as someone who lives in such a property. There is no such thing as moral obligation, because I do not think so far the landlords or the property owners have been given any indication as to when any help or advice will be forthcoming from the department. It would be very helpful if the Minister could indicate the timescale within which it is intended to complete this discussion, so we know exactly where we stand.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. He has indeed already raised this issue. Once again, I can well understand what is prompting him to do so, and it is an issue that concerns the Government. As I indicated, we are still in the process of identifying blocks that fall into this category, partly because of issues about where ownership is held. That said, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is very keen to hold this round table to look at the range of issues and options that apply here, because we do recognise, as the noble Lord has indicated, that this needs addressing. If I have further information on this, or about the timescale, I will certainly include it in the letter that I will write.

My Lords, I remind the House of my registered interests. I would like to ask the Minister to clarify the number of permanent homes that there shortly will be. I remind the Minister that, on 14 December 2017 in this Chamber, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, said:

“The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is doing intensive work alongside the families, finding out what accommodation they need and where they need it, and seeking to match that with the 300 houses that it is acquiring. I very much hope that by June everybody will have been offered and accepted permanent accommodation”.—[Official Report, 14/12/17; col. 1669.]

It is now three months on since that Statement, and the end of June is three months on from now. I am very concerned about numbers being published which are open to question. I would like the Minister to clarify this: I think, but seek clarification, that the 300 homes referred to in this ministerial Statement are the same 300 homes that were said to be being assembled by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in December. Only 62 households have been permanently rehoused as of today, and a large number are waiting to be permanently rehoused. What is not clear is how many of the 300 mentioned in this Statement are permanent, and how many are only available for a temporary tenure.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, very much for those particular points. I think I heard the first question, but I think there was a sneeze in the Chamber, which happened at a strategic point. I think he was asking about the number of people housed in permanent homes at the moment?

To clarify, it was explained by the Minister in December, but not by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, that there was an expectation that all 300 families—all those who needed a permanent home—would have a permanent home by the end of June. I think that the 300 homes talked about in this Statement are the same 300 homes that we had in December. I do not know, because the Statement does not tell us, how many of those 300 in today’s Statement are actually available for permanent tenure. If they are not all available for permanent tenure, it implies that many are going to have to wait for many months to come to secure permanent accommodation.

I am grateful to the noble Lord and see the point that he is making. I think the reference in the Statement, though I do not have the relevant figure to hand, is over 300. I think it is the same 300. I think there are certainly more than enough permanent homes to house all the households, which are, I think, 204 as we stand. There are still splitting of households, which might send it up to 210. I will confirm that in the letter, if I may. I think that is the case.

I take the more general point which was made previously by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, about providing more clarity in the way we set out the figures. The figures are here, but perhaps not as well set out as they could be. The aim is certainly to ensure that these homes are taken up on a permanent basis. I do once again confirm that the vast majority of people have had offers made to them. We can make offers, but we cannot command people to accept them and nor have we ever sought to do so. It has generally been supported in the House that we cannot require people to accept them. Of course, we can try to ensure—this is a point that the task force made in the second report—that there is more personalised consideration of people’s particular needs and wants, and that is something that I hope we are able to pick up, so that we can match people’s needs with a particular property. But there are still people—I do not want to overstate it—who do not yet want to engage with the discussion because of the trauma associated with moving, even out of emergency accommodation where some of them are quite familiar. That may be something that we do not think is objectively desirable, but we have to be sensitive to their feelings.

My Lords, before we move on, I should have declared my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as a local councillor.