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Grenfell Rehousing

Volume 626: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2017

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the ongoing work that is being done to rehouse the victims of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower.

Three weeks have now passed since the fire. As we all know, it soon became clear that the delivery of the initial response on the ground was simply not good enough. Since then, much has been done to support victims, to see that justice is done, and to ensure that other buildings around the country are safe. Throughout that process, however, our first priority has been helping victims who have suffered such an unspeakable trauma. We have been working hard to ensure that they have all the support that they need, securing emergency accommodation and making financial and emotional support available as quickly as possible.

The response efforts have been co-ordinated by the Grenfell response team, led by John Barradell. He is being supported by colleagues drawn from London councils, the wider local government sector, the voluntary sector, and police, health and fire services, as well as central Government. I want to express my heartfelt thanks to them all for their immense efforts over the last few weeks. The new leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Elizabeth Campbell, has given a fulsome apology for the inadequate initial response. She has also asked for help from central Government to put things right. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said in a written ministerial statement today, we will be establishing an independent taskforce to help the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to build its capability so that it can deal with the longer term challenge of recovery.

The Prime Minister promised that we would offer temporary housing to all those who have lost their homes as a result of the fire, within three weeks. These are good-quality, fully furnished homes. Families will be able to move on from emergency accommodation and live, rent-free, in proper homes while permanent accommodation, on equal terms, is found; 158 families from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk have been identified as being in need of such housing.

I can confirm that every family that is ready to talk to the housing team has been offered a temporary home, and that 139 families have received offers of accommodation. However, 19 families have not yet been ready to engage in the process, and we need to respect that. Some are still in hospital as a result of their injuries. In some cases, the people on the ground offering those families support have made clear that it would be inappropriate at this time to ask them to make a decision about where they will live. They have been through unimaginable trauma, and we need to go at the pace at which they want to go. What matters above all else is what the families individually want.

The Grenfell response team have been working with the 139 families currently engaged with the process to match them with appropriate temporary accommodation, and to start to talk to them about their long-term needs. The housing team have identified and secured more than 200 good-quality properties so that residents can have a choice of where to live. I know that some have raised concerns about the quality of the accommodation offered. All the properties have been inspected by the housing team to ensure that they are in good condition. My right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary has personally seen an example of the kind of property that is on offer, and representatives of local residents groups have also seen and been assured of the quality. If the shadow Minister would find it helpful, I would be happy to visit some of the properties with him so that he can assure himself of their quality.

All the properties are local, and are either in Kensington and Chelsea or in a neighbouring borough. That will mean that families can continue to be near their friends and relatives, go to the same GP, and send their children to the same school. Fourteen offers of temporary accommodation have been accepted, and three families have already moved in. I expect the number to increase, but we must respect the pace at which the families want to move. I have personally met more than 30 of the families who have been directly affected, and from talking to them, I understand that there are many reasons why they are reluctant to take up these offers. Some may choose to remain in hotels until they have an offer of a permanent tenancy.

We also understand that one of the big issues holding people back is the lack of trust. Some families were told that they were moving into Grenfell Tower on a temporary basis, and then, years later, they were still there. Their concerns are entirely understandable, and this is a trust that we need to work hard to earn. We must also respect their decision if they do not wish to move out of temporary accommodation before permanent housing is available. We will continue to make offers to families of local homes that we think would be suitable for them, but no one will be forced into a home to which they do not want to move.

I want to respond directly to a number of reports that have been made, claiming that people are being told to move far from London, or that they may be deemed homeless if they do not accept an offer. I want to be absolutely clear to the House: if that is ever suggested to a victim, it is completely unacceptable. I have already stated that if anyone is aware of an individual family that is not receiving the offer we have promised, please tell me, and we will fix this. I repeat that call to the House now.

Let me set out again what the Government have committed to do. Every household that is ready to talk has been offered temporary accommodation. The housing team will continue to work with families to ensure that their individual needs are met. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, everyone whose home was destroyed by the fire will be guaranteed a new home on the same terms as the one they lost. That means paying the same rent, with the same level of security, and in the same area.

When it comes to permanent housing, we have already announced a new block of social housing that will provide 68 new homes in Kensington Row. We are urgently working with a number of developers to secure similar properties, either in Kensington and Chelsea or very close to North Kensington, so that families can stay in the same area. These negotiations have not yet concluded, and we need to work closely with the residents to make sure that the sort of properties we are able to make available will match what they want.

There are also 17 leaseholders who lost their homes, and we are working with them to make sure that they do not lose out financially because of the fire. I met a group of leaseholders recently, and we are working with them individually to find the right solution for them.

My visits to the Westway, hearing the harrowing accounts of survivors, have been the most humbling and moving experience of my life. The families I have met have been through unimaginable pain. This is a tragedy that should never have happened, and we are determined to do all that we can to make sure something like this never happens again.

I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box for his first oral statement in this job and thank him for making a copy of his statement available. May I also add the thanks of Labour Members to John Barradell and the emergency response team, as well as to the community organisations that are still supporting the survivors?

The Minister has had a testing first few weeks. I hope he knows now that, whatever he says, it is the Government’s actions that count in getting Grenfell Tower residents the help and new housing they need, and in giving them and the wider local community in North Kensington the confidence that what is promised will be done. I have to say to him that the Government have been slow to act. They have been off the pace at each stage following this terrible tragedy, and it is clear from this statement that in some ways they still are.

After the fire, the Prime Minister said:

“I have fixed a deadline of three weeks for everybody affected to be found a home nearby.”

The three weeks are up, yet whole families, who have lost everything, are still in hotels and hostels. We have learned today that three—just three—of the 158 families from Grenfell Tower have moved into a fresh home, and these are only temporary, which was not what the Prime Minister first said. Plus, only 11 others have so far been found somewhere they feel they can say yes to.

Why have so few families been successfully matched with fresh accommodation? Is it the case, as I have been told, that some have been offered accommodation with too few bedrooms, or in another tower block, or indeed with bizarre conditions attached, including “no overnight stay” for family or friends? A hotel room is no home, and temporary housing is no place to rebuild shattered lives. When will all those now homeless from the fire be offered a new permanent home?

The Minister mentioned the 68 homes in the Kensington Row development. They were already allocated for social housing. How many extra social homes have the Government or the council made available in the borough? Will the Government guarantee that the number of new social homes planned before the fire will be increased by at least the number needed now as a result of the fire? What assessment have the Government made, with the Mayor of London and the other London boroughs, of the knock-on consequences for temporary accommodation, social housing and council waiting lists across the city?

The Minister mentioned the recovery taskforce for Kensington and Chelsea. This is the taskforce that has now been sent in to take over from the taskforce sent in three weeks ago. Kensington and Chelsea is a failing council—it has even failed to admit that it is failing. The fundamental concern about this council is not just its capability, but the total lack of trust that residents or anyone else have in it. The Government concede that by sending in the taskforce, yet they leave the council in charge. Labour Members want the taskforce to work, but we doubt that it will. It can advise but it cannot act. It lacks the powers of decision or action that commissioners would bring. Public confidence in the council will not be restored by replacing one set of leaders with politicians from the same ruling group. What will be the tests for this taskforce, and what will be the tests of further council failings, before Ministers take the fuller intervention steps needed, as they have in other areas?

The fears following the fire go well beyond Grenfell Tower, as do the consequences. Hundreds of thousands of people who live in high-rise blocks around the country want to know that their homes are safe. That means that the full building has been tested for fire safety, not just one component of the cladding on the outside; that all replacement cladding and fire prevention works necessary to guarantee safety are done; and that no remedial action is delayed or not done because the council or housing association has not got the funding.

How much funding have the Government set aside for these costs? Has the Treasury agreed access to the Contingencies Fund? Will the Minister reassure tower block residents today by making a clear commitment to full up-front funding for whatever work is needed to make these high-rise homes safe? When Ministers have rightly said, “You can’t put a price on people’s lives,” that is what it means.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I will take each of his points in turn.

In terms of actions, we have made it very clear that the initial response was not good enough—the Prime Minister has said that at the Dispatch Box. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, ministerial colleagues and I have been engaged in meetings with the community, both on an individual basis and as part of community meetings, and that work will continue.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the three-week offer. The purpose of that was to make sure that we offered temporary accommodation to the people who wanted it.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the numbers. As I have said, we are working with all the families involved. I expect that number to rise, but I know that he and all in the House will acknowledge that it is not up to Government, or indeed any Member of this House, to determine the pace at which families should move—that has to be up to them. We have to treat them with sensitivity and that is what we are doing.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about whether people are being housed in tower blocks. That is not the case. I know there was initially some reporting about tower blocks, but I believe that was in relation to emergency accommodation in hotels that are tower blocks, and we responded to that.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about affordable housing. I can confirm that Kensington Row was originally designated as affordable housing, not social housing, so this represents a net increase. We are looking to provide a net increase in the number of homes in the social sector.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the independent recovery taskforce that has now been appointed. It will report directly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Its members, including the chair, are being identified, and we should be in a position to announce further details over the coming weeks. I want to be clear that the special focus of the recovery taskforce will be on housing, regeneration and community engagement.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about high-rise blocks, and I do understand that those living in similar blocks across the country will have concerns. That was why we acted immediately and made sure that we informed local authorities and housing associations of the checks that they needed to do. We put in place a regime for them to send us the cladding materials on any building that they felt was suspect, and that testing has been going on at a pace. We have been very clear that local authorities and housing associations should do whatever is necessary to keep people safe, and that if there are issues to do with funding, we will work with the individual local authorities and housing associations. It is vital that we ensure that everyone who lives in such a block is kept safe.

The right hon. Gentleman also talked about wider tests. When we wrote to local authorities and housing associations on 22 June, we also asked them to look at issues related to insulation and to make checks. On 27 June, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State appointed an expert panel to advise on these matters. It met on Thursday 29 June and agreed a range of matters that it will look at. In particular, it agreed to consider whether any immediate additional action should be taken to ensure the safety of existing high-rise buildings.

I know that this is a subject that we wish we did not have to debate, but I have found, through the discussions that I have had with colleagues on both sides of the House, that this is a time for us to work together. There is a public inquiry, and a criminal investigation is under way. They will apportion blame, leaving no stone unturned, but this is the time for us to work together. I say again to colleagues, including the right hon. Gentleman, that if they feel that any individuals are not getting the right level of support, please come to me. I stand ready to help.

It is clear that the Minister fully understands the great challenges that the residents face. Anyone who has had dealings with their local authority housing department will recognise the difficulties of finding accommodation quickly, particularly in an area of high housing demand such as North Kensington, and will understand that a long-term solution will take time. Can the Minister provide reassurances to residents that their needs will be paramount and that they will be given a choice of housing that is suitable for their needs?

I can absolutely confirm that to my hon. Friend. As I have said, it does not matter what any of us in the House thinks about the accommodation that is on offer. What matters is what the individual families think, and we are going to keep working with them to ensure that they get the right accommodation in the right area to meet their needs.

I thank the Minister for giving us advance notice of his statement. Members appreciate the fact that Ministers have come to the House to make statements so regularly.

There have been reports of some families not having security and certainty about their emergency accommodation, and not knowing where they will be sleeping tonight or tomorrow night. I would appreciate it if the Minister could update us on that situation, particularly with regard to those who are still in emergency accommodation. I also want to ask what support the families are being given when they move into temporary accommodation to ensure that they are able to buy the things that make a home a home, not just a shell, such as toys for their children and perhaps ornaments. I appreciate that the properties are fully furnished, but that does not provide everything that a family needs.

I hope that we will continue to receive updates. I understand that the public inquiry will look into the circumstances surrounding what happened and what led up to it. We have asked for that inquiry to be as wide as possible, with the residents’ views taken into account at all times.

Will the Minister also commit to looking into the response to the events, and to carrying out an inquiry or some other kind of assessment into that, so that we can ensure that we across the nations of the UK can learn from what has happened and, should a disaster like this happen again—we hope it will not—make the best possible response?

I thank the hon. Lady for her acknowledgement that Ministers have been updating the House regularly. That is exactly what we should be doing, particularly at this time. She asked about hotel rooms. I appreciate that in the initial stages there were concerns that some people were being asked to move at very short notice. I believe that that has been rectified, and that people will be given much more notice. We will try to keep people in the hotels that they have become familiar with, so long as they are happy to be there. I have had individual conversations relating to hotel accommodation with some of the families, and I think that we have managed to fix this.

The hon. Lady asked about money. When people have lost absolutely everything, we need to ensure that funds are readily available so that they can replace things. We have the discretionary fund: 249 payments of £500 have been made so far to those in Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk, and 112 grants of £5,000 have been made to households. Another 840 discretionary payments have been made to others in the wider area who have been affected. The total spend from the discretionary fund is £2.5 million, but we will ensure that funding is made available where it is required.

The hon. Lady also asked about the public inquiry. Sir Martin Moore-Bick has been appointed, and he has already met victims, survivors and members of the local community. Although the House already knows this, I want to make it clear again that legal support for victims will be provided so that they can play a full part in the inquiry. Clearly it is up to the judge to determine the scope of the inquiry, but I am sure that he will have heard that people want as full an inquiry as possible.

Order. I am keen to accommodate the level of interest in this extremely serious matter, about which there will, I suspect, be many statements in the weeks to come, but I must advise the House that both subsequent debates are well subscribed, especially the debate on Israel and Palestine, which is very heavily subscribed. I must leave time for that, so what is now required in each case is a short, preferably single-sentence question.

My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that a number of families had not yet engaged with regard to rehousing. The community in Latimer Road and the Westway have been marvellous in putting their arms round those families, but can he confirm that, even if there is a delay before those families engage, they will still be given the same priority and rights to rehousing that he has mentioned?

Yes, I can absolutely confirm that. I should also like to pay tribute to the local communities and volunteers who have worked so hard to support these families.

Is the Minister aware that, despite the press narrative of survivors refusing £1 million luxury flats, some are being offered totally unsuitable accommodation? One man in particular, whom I think the Minister has met, runs his own business and cares for his elderly disabled mother. He was offered a home in a poorly maintained, rat-infested estate that is about to be demolished. What kind of peace and stability could that traumatised family, who escaped with their lives while rescuing their neighbours, possibly find in that frankly shameful offer? I would really like to know who considered that kind of accommodation to be suitable.

We do not want any family to be placed in accommodation that is unsuitable. I invite the hon. Lady to join me and the shadow Minister—let us go and visit some of these properties and make sure that she is happy with the quality of what is on offer.

In his statement, the Minister suggested that some of those who lived in Grenfell Tower had been there for five years, despite having been assured that it was temporary accommodation. Can he assure us that those now being placed in temporary accommodation will not subsequently have it described as permanent?

Does the Minister agree that the uptake of temporary accommodation by only 14 families is disappointing? If he thinks that this is to do to with a lack of trust rather than the quality of the housing, will he tell us what is being done to build that trust?

I want to return to the point that the pace at which things happen has to be determined by the families, but I accept that lack of trust is an issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written letters directly to the affected families, setting out clearly what we are offering, but we must continue to build that trust.

In addition to ensuring discretionary funds, what discussions have Ministers had with the Association of British Insurers to ensure that life policies and household policies, where they were affordable and were in place, are paid as quickly as possible?

I can confirm that the Treasury is looking at all the insurance matters, and the Chancellor recently met the insurance industry.

Does the Minister know how many of the households from Grenfell have previously been homeless and have experience of the homelessness system? Those who have will know that it is hell. They were living in insecure, bad-quality accommodation and were subjected to frequent moves. In some cases, they have stayed in temporary accommodation for up to a decade. Does the Minister understand that that is the context that feeds the residents’ catastrophic mistrust? He needs to deal with those factors as well as the immediate rehousing.

I have already acknowledged that there has been a lack of trust, and Ministers must ensure that we work to restore that trust.

I thank the Minister for his statement. He referred to several leaseholders in the flats, so will he outline what steps he is taking to ensure the security of those leases?

I am happy to do that. I met a number of the leaseholders yesterday, and we have asked them to provide us with further information on their leases. We expect to start having individual discussions from next week.

There have been two fires in my constituency and one in a neighbouring constituency since the Grenfell Tower fire, and they were not in high-rises. People are very concerned, so will the Minister explain what systematic action is being taken to prevent other fires? What will he do to ensure that we strengthen the regulators’ powers to address residents’ concerns when they raise the alarm?

I talked about the expert advisory panel, which will consider many such matters. As the Prime Minister said at last week’s PMQs, we need to look “much more widely” at what has happened

“under different Governments and under different councils”.—[Official Report, 28 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 587.]

We will ensure that we get to the bottom of that. It is vital that people feel safe, and that is what we are going to ensure.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for assuring the survivors that they will be supported at the pace they want. There have been disputed reports in the media about the number of missing residents, and the situation has been complicated by sub-letting. What efforts have been made to help to identify missing residents?

We want to build as full a list as possible of the people who were in the building at that tragic time. As my hon. Friend will know, the Director of Public Prosecutions has said that if people were sub-letting illegally, they will be exempt from prosecution. If some of them are aware of people who were in the building that we do not know about, I hope that they will come forward.

I want to share the words of my constituent, Jess. She says:

“I am a firefighter and went into Grenfell Tower, rescuing an unconscious girl from the 12th floor. Myself and my fellow firefighters will never forget the horrors of that night and the fact we couldn’t rescue everyone. But we are not to blame for these deaths, the shocking and tragic fire in Grenfell Tower was avoidable. I have never seen a building go up in flames so quickly, it took minutes for the fire to hop from floor to floor. This tragedy has shown that the laws on fire safety in buildings aren’t fit for purpose.”

What would the Minister say to my constituent, and what support has been put in place for workers like her?

I pay tribute to the firefighters, not only for the incredible work they did that night but for the work they do every day of year. As for support, it is vital that we ensure that trauma counselling is made available, including to firefighters. The public inquiry is there to get to the bottom of what took place, and we will ensure that that happens. Ultimately, we can never have something like this kind of tragedy happen again in our country.

The Minister spoke about the importance of building trust among the community. Does he agree that it is important not to inadvertently diminish trust in the judge in the inquiry—Judge Moore-Bick—without good cause? Of course we would all like to see the judiciary in this country more accurately represent the population, but we must not cast aspersions on their impartiality before they have even begun the inquiry.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said, Sir Martin Moore-Bick has already met some of the victims and survivors, and we need to allow him to set out the full scope of his inquiry.

As cladding is being removed from high-rise blocks around the country, those blocks are losing the insulation protection that it offers. If that cladding has not been replaced by the time winter comes, it may be a struggle to keep those homes warm and dry. What assessment are Ministers making now of the need to have those buildings properly insulated by the winter, so that people are warm, dry and safe?

As the hon. Lady will know, where the cladding is coming down, new, non-combustible cladding is planned to go up.

I commend the Minister for his calm and dignified approach today following a dreadful disaster.

I and all of us in Northern Ireland have been terribly affected and deeply moved by what happened in the tower block, and it concerns me that the survivors now face an indeterminate time in different accommodation. It would help matters enormously if the Government committed to help with rents if they are higher than what residents were used to in Grenfell Tower. The Government have a moral obligation to give that assurance to the survivors.

I am sorry if I did not explain myself correctly; the temporary and emergency accommodation is rent-free.

The financial provisions for local authorities that are trying to sort out problems around the country seem very ad hoc. Would it not be much better to set up a specific fund that local authorities could draw down from, thus making a proportionate amount available for local authorities in Wales?

It is important to respond to the needs of individual councils and local authorities, and that is precisely what we will do in conversations with them.

I say gently to the Minister that the fudge at local level about who is control of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea will not work. The local community does not want the usual suspects in charge of the council. Will he say today that there will be no loss of social or affordable housing and that every single unit will be replaced? It is wrong that people on waiting lists are paying the price and will suffer as a consequence of Grenfell.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been a change of leadership at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the independent taskforce. As for the housing that people will be put in permanently, it absolutely has to be of very good quality, and that is what we are going to ensure.

We all know who the villains of the piece are, but it is right that we mention the heroes. I thank the Minister for his warm words today and his gratitude to councils, such as that of the London Borough of Ealing, that have committed resources and staff to help, but some of the most active groups within the area are the local faith communities—St Francis of Assisi, the Holland Park synagogue, the local mosque, the community church. What plans does the Minister have to meet that group which collectively has done so much for so many people with so few resources?

Ministers have committed to meet community groups, and some meetings have already happened. My right hon. Friend Secretary of State has also met some of these groups, and Home Office Ministers are also looking at the situation. I understand that it is vital to engage with community and faith groups to ensure that they also provide their input.

The Minister showed real humility in his statement—humility not shown by his Secretary of State at the Local Government Association conference, where he sought to attack local government for the failings of an individual council. If he will not stick up for local government, I will: Kensington and Chelsea does not represent local government as a whole.

It will take time to work through the regulations and to find better regulations for building control, but properties are being built today with Government money through the housing investment funds that are devolved to Greater Manchester, Birmingham, East Anglia and so on, and we could be insisting that sprinklers are installed today.

First, I am sorry to have to say this to the hon. Gentleman, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been working incredibly hard on this issue from day one with me. This is a time for us to work together and to come together, particularly on this issue. [Interruption.] On building regulations and related issues, we have an expert panel and we understand we are going to have to look at all of this in the round.

If the Government want a little advice from a mere observer of this towering inferno, I can tell them that I think it is time we had an end to Government Members and their supporters howling with derision at the very mention of health and safety and having resolutions to get rid of red tape and regulation. The truth is that had there been more red tape and regulation in those blocks, we would not be talking about this today.

I respectfully point out to the hon. Gentleman that the regulations were set out in 2006, when of course there was a Labour Government. The reality is that we have to learn the lessons from this, and of course where people have lessons to offer, we will listen.