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Grenfell Response

Volume 798: debated on Monday 10 June 2019


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement on the Government’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire. 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 Library of the House. But before I begin, I would like to take a moment to thank all those who responded to the serious fire in Barking, east London, yesterday afternoon. The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham provided emergency accommodation for those residents who needed it, and we will continue to work with the council to ensure that residents receive the support they need at this most difficult time. While the cause of the fire has yet to be confirmed, I have asked the Building Research Establishment to investigate the fire, working with the London Fire Brigade. I have also asked the independent expert panel on wider fire safety issues to provide urgent advice to the Government. We will take account of the findings of the investigation and the advice of the panel in our further work on reviewing the fire safety guidance. The local authority and the building owners are reviewing fire safety for the rest of the development, and I remain in close contact with the London Fire Brigade. I will also be visiting the community later today.

As we mark two years since the devastating events of 14 June 2017, I know the whole House will join me in remembrance and solidarity with the people of north Kensington. I want them to know that this House is behind them in honouring the loved ones they lost, in helping those left behind to heal and rebuild their lives, and in our determination to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again.

This unprecedented disaster has been met with an unprecedented response across government, our public services, local government and the voluntary sector. I am hugely thankful to everyone involved, especially our emergency services and the public and voluntary sectors. In total, we have spent over £46 million of national government funds and committed a further £55 million to help meet rehousing costs, reimburse the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for Grenfell site management costs, deliver new health and well-being services, and deliver improvements to the Lancaster West Estate. More than £27.8 million of the nearly £29 million raised through the generosity of the British public has also now been distributed, thanks to the Charity Commission. Those affected are also getting vital support from the NHS, with a further £50 million committed over the next five years to addressing long-term physical and mental health needs. To date, nearly 8,000 health screenings have been completed, including for more than 900 children, with over 2,700 individuals receiving or having received treatment for trauma, including over 600 children.

We are determined to make sure that those affected remain at the heart of the response to this tragedy. That is why my right honourable friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner continues to meet families regularly in his role as the Grenfell Victims’ Minister. It is why the Prime Minister recently appointed two new panel members for phase 2 of the Grenfell Tower public inquiry, to make sure it has the necessary diversity of skills and experience. And it is why the community will be pivotal to decisions about the long-term future of the site as the Government take ownership of this to ensure sensitivities are respected, and they are fully engaged in additional environmental checks after concerns were raised.

Testing has started to assess any risks to health. We will ensure that all appropriate action is taken. One of our biggest priorities has been rehousing the 201 households who lost their homes, with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea acquiring over 300 homes to meet their needs and provide choice. I am pleased that all 201 households have accepted permanent or temporary homes, with 184 households in permanent accommodation and 14 in good-quality temporary homes. This represents significant progress since last year, but I am concerned that three households remain in emergency accommodation, including one in a hotel. I have asked the Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce, which was set up to ensure that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea better supports residents and rebuilds trust, to look into this. I have been assured that the council is taking an appropriate and sensitive approach, given the complex needs of these households, to find the right long-term solution for each of them.

A new home is undoubtedly an important step on the road to recovery, and it is vital that this is reinforced by long-term support such as the recovery services co-designed by the council in partnership with the community and local health partners. It is essential that we build on this collaboration, with the council listening and the community being heard. That is fundamental to laying the foundations for a new and stronger partnership between residents and those who serve them.

Central to this relationship, and indeed to so much of the work flowing from the fire, is the need to rebuild trust. Above all, this means ensuring that people are safe, and feel safe, in their homes. With that in mind, Members will be aware that we launched a consultation last week on proposals to implement meaningful reform to our building and fire safety regulatory systems following the independent review led by Dame Judith Hackitt. It will provide a clear focus on responsibility and accountability and give residents a stronger voice to achieve the enduring change that is needed. Alongside this, the Government have also launched a call for evidence on the fire safety order to determine what changes may be required to strengthen it. This follows the recent launch of a new fund to expedite remediation of buildings with unsafe ACM cladding in the private sector and protect leaseholders, adding up to a £600 million commitment from the Government to make buildings in both the private and social sectors safe.

This builds on other significant measures we have undertaken, such as a ban on combustible cladding, a review of the building regulations fire safety guidance—Approved Document B—and tests on non-ACM materials not only to keep people safe now but also to fundamentally transform the way we build in the future, through legislation, yes, but more crucially through a change in culture. But I know that we must continue to challenge on what more needs to be done.

People living in buildings like Grenfell Tower need to trust that there can be no repeat of what happened that night, to trust that the state understands their lives and is working for them. That is why the social housing Green Paper, published last year, and the new deal it sets out for people living in social housing matter so much. My thanks go to the many residents who engaged with us on this for their invaluable contribution. We are assessing the consultation responses and finalising our response. The deal it proposes aims to rebalance the relationship between residents and landlords, address stigma and ensure that homes are safe and decent. In addition to our drive, backed by billions, to boost the supply of social housing, it is a deal that promises to renew our commitment to people in social housing, ensuring that everyone, no matter where they live, has the security, dignity and opportunities they need to build a better life.

This, ultimately, is what we hope for for the bereaved and survivors and for the strong, proud people of north Kensington, who have shown us the power of community. They, and we, will never, ever forget those who died in the most horrific circumstances.

I know that the pain of that loss continues as they wait for answers and to see justice done as the police investigation and public inquiry continue their important work. But they should know that they are not alone. The Government, this House and, indeed, our whole country will always have a stake in the future of Grenfell. I have every faith that this remarkable community, working in partnership, will move forward, rebuild and emerge even stronger. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, for repeating the Statement given by his right honourable friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup in the other place earlier today. I refer the House to my relevant interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I join the noble Lord in paying tribute to the London Fire Brigade, the other emergency services and the staff of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham for the way they responded to yesterday’s fire. They are true public servants, one and all, and we owe them our thanks and gratitude for the exemplary way they carry out their duties.

I welcome the reviews referred to in the Statement, but more needs to be done to ensure that the regulations in force are fit for purpose, and this needs to be done urgently. While progress has been made in many areas, and is to be welcomed, things are generally moving too slowly. Perhaps the noble Lord could tell the House what he is doing to inject more speed into matters.

I join the noble Lord and others in remembering those who lost their lives on that terrible night two years ago, and I am thinking of those who were injured and their families and friends. I also pay tribute to all the emergency services, the local authority staff, civil servants, the faith communities and the community at large in north Kensington, who have done so much to get people back on their feet.

What have the Government learned over the past two years to ensure that the initial response from the local authority, which failed two years ago, will not happen again? Specifically, I am concerned about the department’s thinking, as opposed to any recommendations that will come out of the public inquiry. That thinking will, I am sure, have played some role in how events last night in Barking and Dagenham were dealt with. It would be good if the noble Lord could update the House.

I was pleased to note that the right honourable Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner meets regularly with the families. Can the noble Lord tell the House when was the last time the Secretary of State sat down with the families and others in the community for a formal discussion, as opposed to the event today in Speaker’s House? When did the Secretary of State last meet both the leader of the council, Councillor Elizabeth Campbell, and the chief executive, Mr Barry Quirk?

Clearly progress has been made in finding people new accommodation, but we need to get the remaining households into permanent accommodation as quickly as possible. It is now two years since the fire, and a new permanent home is an important milestone on the road to recovery.

In respect of the consultation launched last week, does the noble Lord accept that there is some urgency here? Across the country, people living in blocks of flats want to see action. I have no doubt at all about the good intention but, as I said, it is the pace of change and reform that concerns me.

The Statement referred to the social housing Green Paper, and I was surprised to hear reference to the need to “address stigma”. I grew up on a council estate and see no stigma about it whatever. Council estates are full of law-abiding, hard-working citizens. My parents always paid their taxes and their rent, and they worked hard. I do not see the stigma there. What worries me is that, if that is the Government’s view, how is it impacting government policy? It would be good to hear the noble Lord’s view on that.

I also want to make reference to the position of the blocks that are in private hands. We need to make urgent progress with the recladding programme. I was obviously pleased that the Government announced additional funding, but will we get to the point when, if progress is not sufficiently quick, we will name the owners of the blocks with dangerous cladding? Will we set a deadline for when the work needs to be done—say, September this year or some time early next year? Are the Government considering giving additional powers to local authorities under the Housing Act 2004 to include fines or other action if the owners of these blocks are not moving quickly enough? Where blocks are not being dealt with quickly enough, will the Government consider allowing local authorities to apply for that funding to actually do the work? We need to ensure that people are safe. It would be good to get a response from the noble Lord on those points.

What about other public buildings with dangerous cladding, such as schools and hospitals? What are we doing there?

I understand fully that the noble Lord may not be able to answer all my questions, but I am sure he will respond to me in writing, as he normally does.

My Lords, I associate myself with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and with the sentiments of the Statement in what it has to say about both the Barking fire and the role of the voluntary and emergency services at Grenfell. I should perhaps remind the House that, during the coalition Government, I had some responsibility for building regulation policy. I welcome in particular the referral of the Barking fire to the independent expert panel. It seems to me that, if there are further lessons to learn, we need to learn them quickly and make sure that the appropriate action is put in place promptly.

We should very much recognise the fantastic work done by voluntary and community groups in the two years since the fire. It has been quite outstanding; they have brought the community together, and we should celebrate that amid all the tragedy of the fire itself.

I welcome the information in the Statement on rehousing residents. There is a little more to do, but it is good to know that progress is being made. I also welcome the progress on meeting the physical and mental health needs of residents, and carrying out proper testing of potential toxicity around the site.

I include in my congratulations the often maligned British public and their £29 million of charitable giving to relieve hardship, and the stout work done in distributing the funds appropriately in the area.

However, I have some questions for the Minister. Is he aware of the Building magazine survey of building contractors, published last week, which shows that very few firms have yet taken any serious steps to change their supervision and inspection regimes on projects, or their monitoring and recording procedures on the buildings they put up? The change of culture referred to in the Statement does not seem to be happening. The recommendations of Dame Judith Hackitt’s inquiry, as far as they are applicable to the industry, seem to have made no practical difference, despite the urgency of action. It is not really surprising that Dame Judith herself has publicly expressed concern that her report has now gone into the “too difficult” box.

Given that, does last week’s consultation have a proper timeline? Some might say that it is not really in accordance with the Minister’s often expressed views that we should do things “at pace” in relation to this tragedy. We are now two years on, and the consultation and a somewhat minimalist pilot scheme have just been launched. Can the Minister give us some assurance on, or timeline for, when legislation and statutory instruments will be in front of Parliament to change the regulations now in force and the culture of the construction industry? As I am sure the Minister is absolutely committed to do, that is all designed to ensure that we never have another Grenfell Tower tragedy.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Stunell, for the very appropriate way in which they addressed these issues, their reasonable response and the support that they indicated for public servants, who really have committed to this work, not just on Grenfell but more recently in Barking. Too often, we do not underline how much we owe our public sector, particularly the emergency services. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, for what he said about the generosity of the British public and the £29 million in donations. If you really want to understand a country, you look at its voluntary sector and how people are supporting it through charitable donations—it speaks volumes. Also, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, more than anything else, the dignity and humility of the victims of Grenfell—the survivors—in how they have conducted themselves throughout what must have been an extremely difficult day in the anniversary week of Grenfell is certainly worth mentioning.

I shall try to cover the questions raised and, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, kindly suggested, pick up any other points in a letter which I will copy to the Library. However, first, I will give an update on the position in De Pass Gardens in Barking. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is there this afternoon to thank the emergency services, to see first-hand what happened and to understand it. Clearly, an investigation is going on and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, for what he said, based on his experience as a Minister, about the appropriate response of that investigation going on with expert assistance. Thank God no one was seriously injured. Two people suffered from smoke inhalation but there were no serious injuries.

The Borough of Barking and Dagenham has stepped forward to assist with accommodation. Clearly, people there have lost their property, their homes and their memories. It is a serious situation but everything is being done that may be done to assist there.

I pay tribute to the firefighters, the first of whom were on the scene in less than six minutes from the time the first 999 call was received. We should note that, and applaud and thank them for it. It clearly helped in an awful situation and we will no doubt come to that again.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about the Secretary of State engaging with families and specifically referred to Elizabeth Campbell and Barry Quirk. The last time he saw them in a formal setting was on 21 May at a ministerial recovery group, which happen fairly frequently. As the noble Lord rightly acknowledged, the Secretary of State met with Grenfell United earlier today at the reception and the Housing Minister, the honourable Member for North West Hampshire, met Grenfell United last Monday—he tends to engage more frequently than the Secretary of State—and the Victims Minister also holds regular casework surgeries as appropriate.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about speed. He knows that I tend to get as exasperated as he does, understandably, about what sometimes seems slow progress. It is perhaps like the fire engines getting there yesterday—I am sure that would have seemed much longer than six minutes to the people suffering on the ground in the fire. There is obviously a process to go through in relation to the Hackitt review.

We are making progress with document B independently of the consultation on the need for appropriate legislation. As I have always said, there is a need to proceed at pace. The Secretary of State is committed to appropriate legislation but we need consultation with people affected to see exactly what form the legislation should take. That is going forward. It is not in the “too difficult” box. I did not have the opportunity to see the survey of building contractors that the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, referred to, but it underlines the need to take action and the appropriate change to the law is going forward. We owe it to all the people affected by the dreadful event of two years ago to ensure that we get it right.

Any points I have missed, I will pick up by letter.

My Lords, I attended the reception hosted by the Speaker in another place for Grenfell United this lunchtime. It was humbling to hear again the testimony of those affected by the disaster. I commend Grenfell United for the generosity of spirit it has shown in campaigning for building safety measures to ensure the safety of all residents, right across the country, now and in the future.

However, it was clearly frustrated and angry that, even after two years, thousands of people are still living in dangerous buildings and that not enough action has been taken to put things right. In the Statement, the Secretary of State acknowledged that there is a lot more to be done and, as chair of the National Housing Federation—which I declare—I know that housing associations are working hard to ensure that their buildings are as safe as possible. How does the Minister intend to engage with Grenfell United in responding to the range of issues in its campaign for safer buildings?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her comments, with which I associate myself. I too was at the Speaker’s reception earlier, as I was last year, and it is humbling to see the dignity and humility of people who have lost so much and to appreciate that they are focused on learning the lessons and how we can seek to ensure that this should never happen again. We must do that and we must learn from that.

There was a great deal of literature at the meeting but I have not yet had the opportunity to look at it, but I will discuss it with the Minister of State and the Housing Minister and decide what we should do in relation to the valid points brought forward. It is a great opportunity to engage with Grenfell United on the basis of the suggestions it has put forward, on how we approach dangerous buildings and what we do in relation to them.

The noble Baroness did not ask specifically about the removal of cladding but we are now in a position in the social sector where 87% of buildings have had work either begun or completed in relation to what is necessary for the removal of cladding; 13% have a plan in place but the work has not yet started. As to the 175 buildings in the private sector—I will correct the number if I have got it wrong—the £200 million we have committed has galvanised this. We are beginning to see success there, although it is slower. I will give the precise figures in a write-round letter so that everyone has them to look at.

My Lords, I echo the praise that has already been given to the emergency services following both Barking and the Grenfell disaster. I welcome the Statement’s recognition of the power of community and its commitment to a new and stronger partnership between residents and those who serve them, for trust to be rebuilt and, in particular, for the council to listen and the community to be heard.

The Minister will be aware of the recent report of the Bishop of Kensington, one of the faith leaders alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. Will the Government encourage serious engagement with this thoughtful report arising out of his conversations with local residents, his identification of their sense of loss of agency and his inspiring call for a renewal of a properly local democratic culture? Does the Minister agree that this careful report shows how Grenfell has much to teach government and society as a whole about the reimagination of welfare, housing and community life—the kind of reimagination that will be necessary to effect the long-term social changes that Grenfell deserves as its legacy?

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for that contribution. I readily acknowledge the importance of faith institutions, both generally and specifically in relation to Grenfell, and the contribution of the Bishop of Kensington. I also reference the work done by Muslim Aid and the local mosque, which was also significant. Very often, faith institutions are the most trusted and the most responsive. They are there on the spot, they are local and they have been significant players, if I can use an inappropriate phrase, in relation to what is right about the response in Grenfell.

As the right reverend Prelate rightly said, the community is central to this and the planning to ensure that this kind of situation does not happen again has been greatly assisted by the faith organisations. We want to study what the Bishop of Kensington has put in his report and I know that the Minister for Housing and the Minister for Grenfell recovery will be engaged in that. He is right about the importance of democratic culture and community. It is a good way of putting it.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and associate myself with the remarks made about the community response and the emergency services, which did a wonderful job in supporting that community and saving lives. I draw the attention of the House to my interests in local government as set out in the register. The Minister will perhaps not be surprised if I share my utter frustration at the lack of speed with which action is being taken to put right the wrongs that led to that awful fire. In May 2018, Dame Judith Hackitt’s report Building a Safer Future was published. The Government swiftly and rightly accepted its recommendations. That was excellent. At the end of 2018, the Government published their implementation plan for the Hackitt report, but sadly no timetable was attached to it. Dame Judith had written:

“There is no reason to wait for legal change to start the process of behaviour change … A sense of urgency and commitment from everyone is needed”.

Where is it? Why have changes not been made? Why can we not get going with what everyone accepts is the right thing to do, making changes to prevent future disasters of the sort that occurred at Grenfell and giving people confidence that they are living in secure and safe homes? Will the Minister give us a sense of urgency in his response?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her remarks. To reassure her, there are two points to be made. First, we are having a consultation on Dame Judith Hackitt’s report and the framework changes that are necessary. I think that consultation is right before one proceeds with legislation in that situation. However, that has not stopped us doing things in relation to urgent action. As the noble Baroness knows, we have also banned combustible ACM cladding on buildings. The Secretary of State has acted decisively with progressing Approved Document B, which should be ready at the end of July. Behaviour change has been highlighted and has therefore started, but I accept that there is more to be done. I, too, sometimes get frustrated and wish that we could do it more quickly, but it would be wrong and inappropriate to suggest that we have not done some very important things. Indeed, we have ensured that ACM cladding is coming off social and private-sector blocks. That has meant the commitment of some considerable amount of public money, but it is the right thing to do.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and I agree with many—all, I think—of the points that have been made, but two underlying issues do not seem to have been addressed. The first is the clear failure of the authorities in this instance—it appears also to be true of Barking—to listen to the concerns of residents. In Grenfell, there were anxieties about not only the cladding but the lack of containment between flats, which used to be a common feature of most council blocks, the removal of the piping in the ducts, the lack of a sprinkler system and the lack of an effective alarm system. All those things had been raised months and years before the tragedy happened by the people who lived there, and by and large they were ignored. From the instant reports from Barking, it sounds as though a very similar situation arose there. It is part of what is often a failure of the authorities to recognise the expertise of the people who live in these premises and understand the situation. Unless there is a more responsive attitude by the authorities, regrettably, we will see more of these tragedies. Whatever we do to change the law and the regulations, effectively the best policers of the situations in those buildings will be the residents themselves, and we need to listen to them.

The second aspect, which would reinforce that, is resources. It is not just a question of the regulations. We know that in most local authorities, building regulation has become a Cinderella service, and quite frequently seriously understaffed. Unless we—from the Government through to local authorities—put more people into building regulation, planning departments and the Health and Safety Executive, the buildings we put up now will not be fit for purpose, in the same way that Grenfell eventually and tragically turned out to be not fit for purpose. Those two features also need to be addressed as part of the culture or agency for the people who live there, to whom the right reverend Prelate referred, as a comprehensive and holistic solution to these issues.

Finally, it is still not comprehensible to those who were living in Kensington and know the situation that there have been no prosecutions. Until that is remedied, this tragic episode cannot be truly finished.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for that important contribution. I shall take his three points in the order he made them. The first was on the failure of the authorities. It is a very fair point, and something we are focused on. He will understand that I cannot comment on the situation in Barking; it is very early days and we have not yet analysed it sufficiently to be able to comment on it. However, I accept that something central to the messages that we are getting and to common sense is that the people who know their housing best are the people who live in it. That fundamental lesson needs to sink in and be taken forward.

I know that noble Lords and many others think the public inquiry is painfully slow, but 200,000 documents are being examined and will inform the response of the three commissioners. I very much welcome the additional two commissioners. They will be very helpful, but I agree with the point the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is making. In relation to resources, the budget is important. Changes in regulations will no doubt feature in the spending review, but I would not disagree with that either.

In relation to prosecutions and the police situation, the noble Lord will know that the separation of powers is such that I cannot comment in any detail on what is happening. Indeed, I do not know in any detail what is happening, but interviews have been held under caution. In such a situation, one would expect there to be potential for ensuring that those who are to blame for aspects of this are brought to justice. While the matters that relate to the police are quite rightly not within the control of government on a daily basis, it seems that work is happening in that regard.

My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as set out in the register. I want to raise two issues about tenants’ rights, both of which have been proposed by Grenfell United. The first is that there should be a new, separate consumer protection regulator to protect tenants and change the culture of social housing across the country—in other words, not just leaving everything within the remit of the current system of regulation. That idea has merit, and I hope that the Government will be willing to look at it. The second relates to freedom of information. Grenfell United is—in my view, rightly—calling for an extension of the Freedom of Information Act to cover tenant management organisations and housing associations, to give tenants the right to see critical information about their homes. Have the Government done anything about that, as previously proposed? It seems to me that tenants, as occupiers of their dwellings, have a right to know what their landlord knows about their property.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for the constructive way in which he approaches these issues, as always. I have not yet read the document that Grenfell United distributed today but I will no doubt have that opportunity, as will other Ministers. Obviously, in the context of the social housing Green Paper and the subsequent legislation, there will be an opportunity to look at some of these points. Certainly, the point that the noble Lord made about freedom of information seems a very sensible way forward. I do not want to commit us to anything at this stage, other than to say that we will look at this issue very seriously along with the other proposals that have been made. As I said, these people know the situation better than anybody else and we do right to consider what they say.