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Grenfell Tower

Volume 791: debated on Monday 11 June 2018


My Lords, with the permission of the House I beg leave to repeat the Statement made by my right honourable friend James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, in the other place earlier today. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the Government’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire, meeting our commitment to update the House following the Opposition day debate on 16 May. I am also writing to the Chair of the Select Committee to provide a formal report on progress, a copy of which will be placed in the House Library.

As we prepare to mark a year since that tragedy, this will be an extremely painful time for the community. Many honourable Members provided powerful and poignant contributions in the e-petition and Opposition day debates last month, and I know that the whole House will join me in sending the bereaved and survivors our love and prayers.

The fourteenth of June 2017 saw the greatest loss of life in a residential fire since the Second World War. Seventy-one people lost their lives on the night of the fire, and a former tower resident who was rescued from the 19th floor passed away earlier this year. The start of the public inquiry was a timely reminder of that terrible human cost: a baby who never lived to learn how much he was loved; three generations of a family wiped out; and heroes who died saving others. Nobody could fail to be moved by the extraordinary tributes paid by family and friends to the loved ones they lost, by their courage and dignity in the face of unimaginable loss, and, yes, by their anger too. A catastrophe of this kind should never have happened in the United Kingdom in 2017 and, when it did, the initial response was not good enough. Nothing can undo the anguish and devastation this has caused, but as the Prime Minister has said, we can and must do right by the memory of those who lost their lives and those left behind, by supporting those affected, securing justice and, above all, ensuring that nothing like this can ever happen again.

There has been an unprecedented effort across government and our public services. Help is being provided on a range of issues—from advice on benefits to emotional and mental health support. In total, we have spent over £46 million of national Government funds and committed a further £34 million to help meet rehousing costs, deliver new mental health services and deliver improvements to the Lancaster West estate. The appointment of my right honourable friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner as Grenfell victims’ Minister has helped ensure that the voices of those affected inform the response. We set up the independent Grenfell recovery task force to help and challenge the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to provide better support for residents and rebuild trust. I want to thank everyone for their tireless support, particularly the emergency services and the public and voluntary sectors.

Clearly, one of the most pressing issues has been rehousing those who lost their homes. A large-scale programme of investment work has been under way to ensure homes are of good quality and personalised to meet the needs of families. The council has acquired more than 300 homes in and around the borough. A total of 203 households needed new homes, and 198 have accepted permanent or temporary accommodation. That means that all but five households have accepted offers, and 134 have now moved in. Most of the work to ensure all homes that have been accepted are ready to move into is complete, and we expect many of the remaining properties to be ready in the coming weeks. While those households are preparing to move, the council has ensured that they have all have had the option to move into more suitable accommodation, but I remain concerned about the 43 households who are living in hotels. My ministerial team has met many of them and I have personally written to all of them to find out what barriers exist in each individual case and how we can overcome them.

This is not where any of us wanted to be one year on from the fire. While there has been progress in recent weeks, overall the pace has been too slow. My department and the independent taskforce continue to provide scrutiny and challenge to the council, and we have provided additional resources directly to the council to help speed up this work. We will not rest until everyone is settled into new homes.

Those affected also badly need answers and to see justice done. The Grenfell Tower inquiry and Metropolitan Police investigations will ensure this happens, but we must also learn from what has happened. Over the past year my department has been working closely with fire and rescue services, local authorities and landlords to make sure that other buildings like Grenfell Tower are safe. Remediation work has started on two-thirds of buildings in the social housing sector, and the Prime Minister announced last month that the Government will fully fund the removal and replacement of potentially dangerous ACM cladding on buildings over 18 metres high owned by social landlords, with costs estimated at £400 million, and we have made it clear that we expect building owners in the private sector not to pass costs on to leaseholders. To that end, I recently met leaseholders and put their concerns to representatives from industry at a number of roundtables. Some in the sector, such as Barratt Developments, Legal & General and Taylor Wimpey, are doing the right thing and taking responsibility. I urge all others to follow. The private sector must step up, and I am ruling nothing out if it does not.

In addition, I recently welcomed Dame Judith Hackitt’s final, comprehensive report following her independent review of building regulations and fire safety. In response, I committed to bringing forward legislation to reform the system of fire safety and give residents a stronger voice. Having listened carefully to concerns, the Government intend to ban the use of combustible materials on the external walls of high-rise residential buildings, subject to consultation. We will publish the consultation next week.

It is essential that people living in buildings like Grenfell Tower are not only safe but feel that the state understands their lives and works for them. There is no question but that their faith in that has been shaken. That is why, as well as strengthening building and fire safety, we will be publishing a social housing Green Paper by the recess. I am confident that these measures will help us to rebuild public trust and deliver the meaningful, lasting change that is needed.

Our country has seen many difficult times, but that night at Grenfell Tower was one of our darkest hours. We will never forget those who died. We will not falter in our support for those who are still grieving, or flag in our determination to ensure that no community has to go through such agonies again. In doing so, we can be inspired by the incredible spirit of the people of north Kensington and the way they have come together. And when we say never again, we mean it. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier in the other place by his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. I shall start where the Minister finished: as he said in the Statement, when we say “never again” we mean it, and that is absolutely paramount.

As the Minister said, the fire happened a year ago next Thursday, and the total of 72 people is the biggest loss of life in Britain due to a fire since the Second World War. Recently I watched the “Panorama” programme, which brought back the images of what happened that night. It was a truly horrific and terrible event and all our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. Every time we have a Statement on Grenfell, our thanks go out to everyone in the local community who has helped: the civil servants, the staff from the borough council and from other councils, the faith sector, the charities, and the community who have come together to help this part of north Kensington to move on and try to get lives back on track.

Having said that, here we are a year on and still more than half the Grenfell survivors are in either hotel rooms or temporary accommodation. I accept entirely that the Minister would not want to see that but it is still not a good situation to find themselves in. There are also more than 300 other tower blocks with the same unlawful cladding on them and so far only 10 have had it removed or replaced. We are not sure where we stand with the private sector, where there are even more such blocks. This is not a good place to be. It is fair to say that the residents of Grenfell Tower were failed long before the fire, and some of them clearly feel that they have been failed since. Actually, if I am right, only 82 residents out of the 209 are in permanent replacement homes, and that is just not good enough.

I believe the North Kensington Law Centre has released a document saying that even in the new homes there are defects in terms of damp and delayed repairs, while some of the tenancies that have been offered are not the same that the residents had at Grenfell Tower. I do not know if that is the case, but if it is then it really needs to be corrected; they should be offered exactly the same tenancies that they had in the tower.

Does the department now have any sort of estimate or deadline for when people will be permanently rehoused? To start with, the Prime Minister talked about getting it done in a matter of weeks, but that has been extended and extended. I know that in the last Statement the Government talked about a year’s time, but at what point do they now see everyone getting into a new home and being able to start to rebuild their lives? We do not want to be back here again in the autumn not much further forward.

On the question of the other high-rise blocks, only 10 local authority tower blocks out of more than 300 have had their cladding replaced. The Government said they would do everything it takes to “keep our people safe”, so in that sense I welcome the £400 million funding that the Minister has announced to remove the cladding. It has come from another budget but it is still welcome. I also welcome the intention to ban combustible material on the outside of tower blocks. Is that all the Government are going to do, though, or are they going to go further? There has been talk before of looking at retrofitting sprinklers in tower blocks. I do not know if the Government are thinking about those sorts of things. Where are we on the question of evacuation procedures in blocks of flats? When will we be in a position to confirm that all blocks of flats are safe?

I was pleased with the important point that the Minister made about the private blocks, which has our full support: blocks in the private sector have to be corrected as well and those costs should not be passed on to the leaseholders. I welcome that.

On the inquiry itself, the tributes to the victims and families were very moving. I wish the inquiry well as it has a very important job to do. After that there will of course be the result of the police investigation, but I will leave it there.

My Lords, I remind your Lordships’ House of my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as a Kirklees councillor.

Seventy-two men, women and children tragically died in the Grenfell Tower fire. Our responsibility to their memories and to those who survive is to seek the truth, secure justice and make the radical change to culture and practice so that no such fire occurs ever again.

Last week, I met representatives of Grenfell United and listened. I was struck by their quiet determination and by the inspiring leadership of their fellow survivors. They want all the facts before, during and after the disaster to be exposed to the full light of day. Then, those responsible for the decisions that enabled the fire to be so catastrophic must be brought to justice.

All these issues are, of course, the subject of the Grenfell Tower inquiry and we must wait for it to hear the evidence and draw its conclusions. However, what is clear so far is the painfully slow response of the Government to the consequences of this disaster. One year on, some of the survivors are still living in hotel accommodation and have been for a whole year. There is no chance for them even to attempt to start their lives again.

From the information I was given by Grenfell United, some of the accommodation purchased by Kensington and Chelsea Council was totally inappropriate. Perhaps the Minister will comment on the information I heard that one of the survivors was allocated a basement flat with no direct access to daylight. Does he regard this as appropriate in the circumstances of what those families had already endured?

Then there is the issue of the dangerous cladding. I welcome the proposal for a ban on ACM cladding in today’s Statement and that a consultation will begin shortly. This is really positive but this cladding continues to be on many public and private buildings. It is reported in the press that 32 NHS hospitals, several hotels and at least one school, as well as 132 private sector and 208 public sector tower blocks, have this dangerous cladding. Can the Minister assure the House that all these buildings will have the cladding removed as quickly as possible so that people who live or work in them can have some improved peace of mind? Meanwhile, can the Minister explain what actions are being recommended to provide additional safety in these buildings and information as to whether those in the public sector will have compensatory government payments for all their additional costs? As many people will know, fire safety wardens are being employed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to ensure that no fire starts in these buildings and that, if one does, prompt action can be taken. This will be a huge additional cost in the social housing sector. Can the Government assure us that all buildings with this cladding have been identified, with the owners acknowledging their responsibility, and that the Government will monitor that effective remedial action has or will be taken in a timely way? If we are not careful, the curse of this cladding will continue for years to come.

On this day, our thoughts and prayers are with all those people—residents and rescuers—whose lives have been indelibly scarred by this disaster.

Before the Minister responds, I make clear that I am also a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for refreshing our memory.

I start by thanking both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness—and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, over a period of time—for their general support in dealing with what has been a very difficult, heart-rending situation. It has aided the consideration of some very important issues in this House, so I thank them very much.

I shall try to deal with the points made by the noble Lord and the noble Baroness in so far as I can. If I miss any—and on some points of detail—I may need to write to them, and I will of course ensure that that is copied to other noble Lords participating on the Statement, with a copy placed in the Library.

First, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their words about the civil servant and public sector work that has been done in the community since the dreadful fire at Grenfell, and about the faith sector and the charitable sector. I was recently at a meeting in the community hall of the local mosque, where Muslim Aid was talking about the work done and the commitment of people in the faith sector and particularly mentioned the West London Synagogue. This was a general commitment from the faith sector in the area, an outpouring of support from individuals and from the third sector, which is a continuing feature of what is happening at Grenfell.

The noble Lord mentioned points in the North Kensington Law Centre report. I know of the report but I must admit that I have not studied it in detail. I will certainly do so and cover those points in response to him. He will be aware that experts will be sitting with Judge Moore-Bick on the second phase of the inquiry, which I think helps to provide the disinfectant of sunlight which we all welcome for transparency. He asked questions raised by the North Kensington Law Centre about rent in the same general terms. Of course, there is a rates, rents and utilities holiday—although holiday is not the right word. There will be no rent, rates—council tax—or utilities payable until June 2019, I think, for families who were in Grenfell Tower or Grenfell Walk. For other families, there is an abatement of those bills, although not on the same terms—to a lesser extent.

The noble Lord referred to the rehousing effort. Let me say first that every household has been offered at least one alternative. The noble Baroness mentioned somewhere without sunlight in a basement. I am extremely surprised to hear that, but I will look at that case. If she has more detail, that would be useful. I join her in paying tribute to the work done by Grenfell United. We may have been at the same occasion when Grenfell United was present, and it has done a remarkable amount, as have others from the community.

The noble Lord asked about retrofitting sprinklers. He will be aware that new blocks more than 30 metres high, I think, are having sprinklers fitted. There is a general issue about retrofit. He will know that this was not recommended by Dame Judith Hackitt: she dealt with the issue but did not recommend that. However, in addition to the £400 million support specifically for ACM cladding, if local authorities can justify it, we will certainly consider financial flexibility for them. This follows recommendations done earlier by the Lakanal inquiry about sprinklers, and that local authorities can do that independently. There is nothing to stop that happening, except perhaps the finance, but we will look at financial flexibilities if the case is made.

The noble Baroness referred to interim measures while the cladding work is being done. Of course, we are committed to all the combustible ACM cladding being removed from both social and private sector buildings. We think we have identified all the private sector buildings and are confirming whether all of them have ACM cladding. We have identified buildings that might have it and we are now seeking to ensure that. If I am wrong, I will address it in a letter, but I believe that local authorities have now come up with definitive figures on that. Interim measures will be in place while or until the cladding is removed, and this will be a matter for the local fire and rescue services to advise on and determine. It would certainly include the 24-hour presence of safety wardens, a ban on the use of car parks, and so on. We are obviously in discussions with local authorities on measures that need to be taken and, as I say, I think we have identified all the buildings. I hope that that addresses all the points raised, but if I have missed any I shall certainly address them in a letter.

My Lords, on 14 June it will be unbearably painful for everybody who was involved. I should declare an interest as my daughter, seven weeks after a caesarean section, was called in. She worked that night as an emergency medicine doctor. She had no doubt that she had to go in as something major was going on.

The Government are saying never again. This year, or next year, we may be thinking of it—everyone will this year—but in decades on it will be emblazoned on the memory of every survivor and everyone who was bereaved, although the rest of the country may have forgotten. I just wonder whether the Government have given any consideration to discussing with Grenfell United and others—not now when it is so raw, but in the future—about marking the day as a national fire safety day, whereby the whole country will be expected to test their fire alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, and evacuation procedures. We would get into a national pattern and once a year make sure that in every workplace, every residence—everywhere that people are—they remember that fire safety is paramount. Some schools I know in the area have upped their evacuation procedures since this happened, but I offer it as a suggestion.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for those points, and I am sure that the whole House would want me to thank, through her, her daughter for the assistance that she offered. I reiterate what I said on Grenfell United and its work, as well as that of the entire community.

In relation to 14 June this year, the community has wanted it recognised in a low-key way, if I can put it like that. We want to talk to the community about how they feel it is best remembered one year on. That is important. I shall certainly take away ideas brought forward by the noble Baroness to ensure that we do not forget about fire safety and the lessons learned. Perhaps in the same spirit, in terms of the future of Grenfell Tower itself, it is important for the community to lead on what happens in years to come. I am sure that it will regard this as something we never want to forget, and nor should we.

I welcome the Minister saying that action in the case of the private sector had not been ruled out. That should send a very important signal to the private sector that there needs to be action.

In the Statement I think I heard the Minister say that he thought the local authority had identified all the private property. If that is the case, surely the electorates in the area—the people who live in areas where these blocks exist—are entitled to know where those blocks are located whether they are in the public or private sector. My first question is whether that information will be made available to the general public.

Finally, there are a number of hotels nationally that are covered with what looks like the material we are talking about, but we simply do not know. What is happening in the case of those hotels with this material?

I thank the noble Lord for his comments, particularly his recognition that the Secretary of State is determined about remedial measures for private sector buildings. The position is that local authorities have powers to identify through one of the Housing Acts—I forget which one—the properties concerned in relation to cladding. In many cases, information is being made available through local authorities, using their powers. I think I am right, and will correct it in the letter if I am wrong, that we have had confirmation from all the local authorities that that work has been done.

They are making the information available to the department. This brings me to the point that the noble Lord was pursuing as to whether we will make that information public. We have to consider whether that would be helpful in addressing the work we need to do, based on safety considerations, discussions with the fire services, and so on. Considerations of safety are paramount here; we do not want to cause concern for the people in the blocks involved by issuing public information in that way. Again, I will cover that in the letter if I may.

In relation to hotels, any buildings with this cladding and above the requisite height are brought within our consideration, whether they are in the private or public sector, whether they are housing, hospitals, and so on, as was referred to earlier. This job of work has to be done with every building that is above the requisite height and has the combustible ACM cladding that was identified at Grenfell.

I declare an interest as a resident of the borough, and a further interest in that my wife is a councillor for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. She is not a councillor concerned with any of the issues that arise from the inquiry, but she is extremely concerned on a personal level with all the issues that arise from Grenfell.

I am sure the Minister would agree that the Government have been extremely critical of local government throughout the period that has elapsed since the fire. That has been a narrative to which the Government and the Opposition have subscribed. There has been a significant counternarrative, of which the Minister may be aware, in a remarkable article written by Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books.

I do not ask the Minister to come to any judgment about these matters at this stage. We have an inquiry, which has made a promising start under the skilful chairmanship of Sir Martin Moore-Bick. However, there is one unfortunate part of the Statement that deals with challenging the local authority. I respectfully suggest that we should not be rushing to judgment and that central government should assist not only local government but all other agencies in dealing with this terrible problem in the way that is most effective.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his comments and understand his personal concerns and those of his wife. I could well understand somebody from the area having a particular concern.

The noble Lord referred to the article in the London Review of Books, which I confess not to having the privilege of reading, but I will do. He referred to criticism of local government in the Statement. The part the noble Lord must be referring to is setting up the independent task force at an early stage, which was asked to provide scrutiny and challenge to the council. That is a normal usage of words when such a task force is appointed, but I take the noble Lord’s point. I certainly agree with him that Sir Martin Moore-Bick has made a very good start on the inquiry, which will run its course, as will the police’s consideration of criminal charges; I must be very careful not to say anything in detail about either of those. I understand the position that he is coming from and will seek to read the relevant article to which he referred.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his clarification on a number of issues so far. I seek responses to two issues that I think would benefit from further clarification.

First, there is a single sentence on page 4 of the Statement that says:

“Remediation work has started on two-thirds of buildings in the social housing sector”.

By implication, remediation work has not started on one-third of buildings in the social housing sector. Is the Minister in a position to explain why that is the case? Is there a list in the department as to which blocks we are talking about and which local authorities we are talking about, and why that remediation work has not yet started? What is the timescale for starting going to be, and what is the timescale for completion of that remediation work? The Minister may not be able to respond to all that today—to do so in a letter later would be fine—but is it possible to define what remediation work actually is? It is one thing to strip off cladding, which is dangerous, but replacing it with suitable cladding which is warm and will reduce people’s energy bills is clearly important. So I am not quite clear what remediation actually means.

Secondly, and very briefly, we have a date for the publication of the social housing Green Paper, which will be “by recess”. It would be helpful to the House if we knew when a debate would take place on the Green Paper. I hope that it will not just be the case of the Green Paper being published and then going out to consultation and the House itself not having the opportunity to debate it. I hope that, rather, time is allowed for a full debate on that Green Paper, because we have been waiting for it for many months.

I thank the noble Lord very much indeed for that and shall seek to deal with the points that he has raised. On remediation, I do not disagree with him on the importance of ensuring that any appropriate measures take account of the need for proper insulation and ensuring that we meet our climate change targets, and so on—but the most important thing here is the target of ensuring that people are safe. That is the remediation that we are talking about. That work in relation to the public sector has started on two-thirds of buildings. In relation to the other third, interim measures will be in place; for example, 24/7 security workers will be there to ensure that fire wardens are there.

I shall seek to cover the point on the timescale in a letter, if I may, with some more detail that the noble Lord asked for. One reason why the work might not have started on one-third of the buildings is that it may displace tenants—so full account must be taken of that. Suffice it to say, appropriate interim measures will be agreed with fire and rescue authorities in relation to those that have not had work started on them yet.

The noble Lord asked for a debate on the social housing Green Paper, and I hope that we can accommodate that. Of course, there are means available to the Liberal Democrats and others, too, and I am sure that somehow we will make sure that there is proper consideration of this important Green Paper. One reason for the delay to which the noble Lord refers is that we were very keen to talk to people, through Grenfell United and others in the community, to learn about particular points that they may feel needed addressing in relation to the social sector—points that have been made in relation to dealing with complaints, and so on, that arise. That is one reason that it was felt appropriate to take that into account in working through the Green Paper.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement and, in particular, its acknowledgement of the anger felt by many in the area and many survivors. It says that it is,

“essential that people living in buildings like Grenfell Tower are not only safe but they feel the state understands their lives and works for them”.

I do not know whether the Minister read the Observer yesterday—just to add to his reading list—but there were some very moving interviews in it, including with a survivor called Mouna El-Ogbani. One of the things she said really jumped out at me. She talked about,

“how we were treated by the government, as if we are nothing .… It’s just box-ticking for them. They don’t look at us as humans, only as numbers”.

That suggests that the people of Grenfell do not feel that the state understands their lives and still do not feel that the state is really working for them. I welcome what the Minister said about talking to people around Grenfell about the forthcoming Green Paper, but what will the Government do now to ensure that both Grenfell survivors and social tenants generally feel that the state understands their lives and works for them?

I thank the noble Baroness for some very valid points and for her general welcoming of the Statement, which refers to the anger felt by the community—an anger that we can all understand—and the fact that people feel that the state is not on their side. This is something that we must seek to put right and it is one element of the social housing Green Paper on which we can all come together and discuss how it is taken forward. I did not have the privilege of reading the Observer yesterday. The Sunday Times also had some very good articles on the Grenfell situation and on ensuring, as the noble Baroness said, that people feel that they are humans, not numbers. Whenever I have spoken to anybody from the Grenfell community, that message comes across loud and clear. I have seen the hours and hard work that people from all parts of the community have been putting in—not least civil servants—and the anguish that it has been causing them. I hope that that helps to convince people that we really do care about the people of Grenfell. The important thing is that we carry this forward and that nothing like this ever happens again, and I know that the House is united on that.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that preserving life and saving life is just as important whether you live in Southampton, Sheffield or Sunderland. If so, then why are the Government not committing to making the retrofitting of sprinklers mandatory in tower blocks and finding the funding for that nationally, as advocated and recommended by the Royal Institute of British Architects expert fire safety group, set up after the Grenfell fire?

The noble Lord makes some valid points about the importance of a national response, whether it is Southampton, Sheffield, Sunderland or Carlisle. He is absolutely right. In that context, I should say that we keep very much in contact with the devolved Administrations as well, to ensure that we are joined up on this. The noble Lord referred to a particular report that recommended retrofitting, but, as I have indicated, that was not the recommendation of the Hackitt review. The Hackitt review said that this was not a silver bullet and shied away from recommending compulsory retrofitting. I have said that it is open to local authorities to fit them and to ask us to use financial flexibilities where they can make an appropriate case for it, because the £400 million is specifically meant for the removal and replacement of combustible cladding. In other situations, if the local authority wants to make a case for retrofitting, the department will certainly look at it.