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Grenfell Tower

Volume 785: debated on Thursday 19 October 2017


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to an Urgent Question in another place on Grenfell Tower. The Statement is as follows:

“My Lords, it is now just over four months since the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Since then the Government, local council and wider public sector have been working hard to ensure that everyone affected by the fire gets the support they need and that tall residential buildings across the country are safe.

Since I last updated the House on 5 September, the number of households seeking rehousing has risen to 202. As before, this increase has been caused by members of larger households choosing to be rehoused separately. The local council has now secured more than 200 suitable local permanent properties. Negotiations are under way on others, and by Christmas it expects to have over 300 available. As of this week, 112 households have accepted an offer of either temporary or permanent accommodation. Of these, 58 have moved in—44 into temporary accommodation and 14 into permanent accommodation.

The Government are determined that everyone who needs support gets it, regardless of their immigration status. We have previously established a process to grant foreign nationals who were resident in Grenfell Tower or Grenfell Walk 12 months’ leave to remain in the country, with full access to relevant support and assistance. Last week, the Immigration Minister announced that there will be a dedicated route to permanent residency for these survivors. This policy will allow them to apply, for free, for two further periods of two years’ limited leave. After this time, they will be able to apply for permanent residence.

Meanwhile, our work to ensure the safety of other tall residential buildings continues. One hundred and sixty-nine high-rise social housing buildings in England feature some form of aluminium composite material cladding. Our programme of testing has identified 161 that are unlikely to meet current fire safety standards. The particular focus of current work is now on supporting remediation work in these 161 buildings. Additionally, we are improving our understanding of the situation for privately owned high-rise residential buildings with ACM cladding so that all such buildings are as safe as they can be. We have been clear with councils and housing associations that we expect them to fund measures that they consider essential to make a building safe. However, if councils have concerns, they should get in touch with us. We will consider the removal of financial restrictions if they stand in the way of essential work. To date, 31 local authorities have expressed concern in principle to us. We have liaised more closely with six of these, and one of them has now submitted supporting evidence for consideration by my department”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question asked in the other place. I remind the House of my entry in the register of Members’ interests. I pay tribute to the work that continues to be delivered on the ground by public sector staff across a variety of disciplines and by charities, faith groups and volunteers.

The noble Lord has just said that the Government expect councils and housing associations to fund the work they consider essential to make buildings safe, that councils should get in touch with the Government and that the Government will consider removing financial restrictions if they stand in the way of essential works. That is slightly different from where we were four months ago, when I think it was said that money was no object. Therefore, does it follow that the Government are saying that they will not provide any grant funding to fund these essential works? Can the noble Lord be very clear on that? What are the Government actually saying? They seem to have moved a little on that over the last four months. We need to be clear what they are going to do on funding works—or not.

I thank the noble Lord for his thanks to the public sector staff and very much echo those on behalf of the Government. Emergency staff, central government staff and local government staff have performed absolutely magnificently, and continue to do so around the clock. That is particularly true of staff in the National Health Service as well, who provide care for people suffering from emotional distress and others. I thank, as did the noble Lord, charities and the many volunteers for the work they have done. I also thank the public for their generous giving.

The noble Lord asked a specific question about the building works. We have been clear that the safety of buildings subject to these checks post Grenfell, whether in the public or the private sector, is absolutely paramount. We have said that we will ensure that financial restrictions will not be a barrier to essential work being carried out. That would mean, most typically, the lifting of borrowing restrictions on councils. That is what we have in mind. As I have indicated, 31 authorities have been in touch with us—we have been very clear about this and have encouraged local authorities to take up this offer, if appropriate. Six have issues that we wish to pursue, one has completed—I think, from memory, that it is Portsmouth—and we are looking at that now. I repeat that financial restrictions will not limit essential work post Grenfell.

My Lords, I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, on the vital role of public sector staff, who have done a magnificent job. I had not realised until a couple of weeks ago that a large number of people from all over the United Kingdom have assisted at Grenfell. We should note that contribution in what has been a very difficult time for everybody.

I wish to ask the Minister two specific questions. First, the Statement makes it clear that the Government expect councils and housing associations to fund measures that they consider essential to make a building safe. But what if the Hackitt review says that such works are essential? Will the Government step in at that point? As I understand it, there will be an interim report from the Hackitt review some time during the autumn, which may well make clear statements about what should be done.

Secondly, sprinklers have been required since 2007 in all new high-rise buildings in England over 30 metres, whereas in Scotland, the relevant height is 18 metres. Will the Minister explain why that is the case? Do the Government expect that sprinklers will be retrofitted in buildings constructed prior to 2007?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for what he said about the work carried out by the public sector. I certainly echo his thanks to people from throughout the country who have come to help at Grenfell on a voluntary basis. That shows our country at its very best.

The noble Lord asked about essential work and sprinklers. I think he raised a similar point somewhat earlier in relation to the Hackitt review. As I said then, having set up the review to look at building regulations and fire safety—it will obviously look at sprinklers, and the inquiry will doubtless want to look at that as well—I do not think we should prejudge what it will come up with. If it recommends that something essential be done, clearly, the Government will take that very seriously—I cannot imagine it being otherwise—and that would include points relating to retrofitting.

On the difference with Scotland and the devolution element, I know from a previous life that if you have devolved systems, policies may diverge, sometimes for very good reasons. Therefore, I will not tread on any toes by pontificating on something I am not clear about, except to say that these things are sometimes quite different.

My Lords, Newcastle is not the only city or place where in recent years a huge number of newly built multi-storey buildings have been constructed to house students. Do the Government have a view on requiring the builders of those buildings to ensure that they also check issues concerning cladding and sprinklers? In respect of the latter, I endorse the plea of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. I hope the Government decide that it should be a requirement to install sprinklers. If so, I hope they will ensure that they provide appropriate finance, and that this will not simply fall on local council residents.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for that point about Newcastle and more generally on higher education. I can confirm that some higher education and further education blocks—on which I think we have published statistics—also fall foul of these concerns, and they are being looked at in exactly the same way. That is also true of one or two buildings in the health service. It does not extend more widely in other areas of government, at least not in England; separate considerations and reviews are going on in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I reiterate that we have set up the Hackitt review, which is looking at building regulations and fire safety, including sprinklers, for the specific reason that we want it to come up with evidence-based recommendations. We should not anticipate those, but I can confirm that, obviously, whatever it comes up with—this goes for the inquiry as well—will be taken seriously by the Government, and, no doubt, by opposition parties as well.

My Lords, moving away from building work, can my noble friend say whether the people of Grenfell are getting the emotional support that they require as they go through this difficult time? In addition, will he ensure that young people and children in particular are being well looked after, especially with regard to their needs during their time at school?

I think my noble friend for that sensitive and appropriate question. It is obviously a massive concern. NHS experts estimate that 50% or more of the people who survived the fire are expected to display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. NHS teams are providing the screening close to Grenfell at the Bard Road centre, and we are also providing support and counselling through the night with volunteers at the Notting Hill Methodist Church and at a number of hotels. It is obviously a serious issue, but I hope and believe that we are addressing it. My noble friend also mentioned young people. This is certainly a subject of great hope, and it is to our great credit that we have been able quickly to open a temporary school to substitute for the one we lost. It seems to be performing magnificently. Once again, I pay tribute to all the people who made that happen.