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Grenfell Recovery Taskforce

Volume 785: debated on Monday 6 November 2017


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I would like to repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the other place:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the independent Recovery Taskforce, which is working with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in the wake of June’s tragic fire at Grenfell Tower.

The people of North Kensington have been failed by those who were supposed to serve them. They were failed by a system that allowed the fire to happen, and they were failed once again by a sluggish and chaotic response in the immediate aftermath.

It was clear that, if RBKC was to get a grip on the situation and begin to regain the trust of residents, it would have to change and change quickly. That started with a change in leadership of the council, new senior officers, and new support brought in from other councils and central government. To ensure that that translated into a better service for the victims and people of North Kensington, and to assure me that the council would be capable of delivery, I announced on 5 July that I was sending in a specialist task force.

The task force is made up of experts in housing, local government, public services and community engagement. I deliberately appointed independent-minded individuals who would not hesitate to speak their minds. I have now received the first report from the task force, reflecting on its first nine weeks on the ground. The report has been shared with the right honourable Gentleman opposite. I will also be placing copies in the Library of the House, and it will be published in full on GOV.UK.

It is clear from the report that progress is being made, that much-needed change has happened and continues to happen, and that the council today is a very different organisation from the one that failed its people so badly back in June. The task force is satisfied that RBKC, under its new leadership, recognises the challenges it faces and is committed to delivering a comprehensive recovery programme. For that reason, it does not see any practical advantage from a further intervention at this time, which would risk further disruption.

But while the green shoots are there, the report pulls no punches about the fact that there is still significant room for improvement. The task force has identified four key areas in which the council needs to step up. The first is pace. The speed of delivery needs to be increased—more work needs to be done more quickly.

The second area is innovation. The scale and impact of the fire was unprecedented in recent history, but RBKC is relying too much on tried and tested solutions that are not up to the task. The council should be much bolder in its response.

The third area is skills. Too many of the officers and councillors working on the response lack specialist training in how to work with a traumatised community. This needs to change.

The final area, arguably the most important going forward, is a need for greater empathy and emotional intelligence. The people of Grenfell Tower, Grenfell Walk and the wider community have already suffered so much. Yet the task force has heard too many accounts of that suffering being compounded by bureaucratic processes that are not appropriate, when so many deeply traumatised men, women and children have complex individual needs. So a greater degree of humanity must be put at the heart of all RBKC’s recovery work.

I have discussed these recommendations with the council’s leadership and they have accepted them all without question. Culture change is never quick or easy to achieve in any organisation, but I am in no doubt that the leadership and staff of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea genuinely want to do better. It is their community too, and they desperately want to help it to heal.

I am particularly encouraged that the council is now drawing on NHS expertise to secure specific training for those front-line staff responsible for providing direct support to the survivors. I have assured the council that I will continue to support it in building capacity. However, I have also made it clear that my support will not be uncritical or unqualified. I expect to see swift, effective action to deal with all the issues highlighted in the report. I am not taking any options off the table if progress is not made, and I shall continue to monitor the situation closely.

Until now, one aspect of that monitoring has involved weekly meetings, chaired by myself, that bring together Ministers from across Government and senior colleagues from RBKC. Although these have proved effective, the task force has expressed concern that meeting so often is beginning to become counterproductive. The time required to prepare properly is cutting into the time available for front-line work. As a result, the report recommends that we meet less often. I have accepted this recommendation. However, let me reassure the House that this does not mean our priorities are shifting elsewhere, or that the level of scrutiny is being reduced. It is simply a matter of ensuring time and resources are focused to the maximum on those affected by the fire.

One area to which the House knows I have been paying particularly close attention is the rehousing of those who lost their homes in the fire. While I have always been clear that rehousing must proceed at a pace which respects the needs, wants and situations of survivors, I have been equally adamant that bureaucratic inertia must not add delay. Clearly, some progress is being made. The latest figures I have from RBKC are that 122 households out of a current total of 204 have accepted an offer of either temporary or permanent accommodation. Seventy-three of these have now moved in, of which 47 households have moved into temporary accommodation, and 26 households into permanent accommodation.

However, the report is also clear that that the process is simply not moving as quickly as it should. RBKC’s latest figures show that 131 Grenfell households are still living in emergency accommodation. Behind every one of these numbers, there are human faces. There can be no doubt that there are families who desperately want a new home but for whom progress has been painfully slow. Almost five months after the fire, this must improve. Responsibility for rehousing ultimately lies with RBKC. However, in central government we cannot shy away from our share of responsibility. I expect the council, in line with the task force’s report, to do whatever is necessary to ensure households can move into settled homes as quickly as possible. I will continue to watch closely to ensure this is done.

When I announced the creation of the task force, I said it would stay in place for as long as it was needed. Based on this first report, there is still much to be done, so the task force will remain in Kensington and Chelsea for the foreseeable future. I have asked the task force to ensure that proper action is taken on all the fronts they identify, and to come back to me in the new year with a further update, which I will of course share with the House.

I must of course thank the four expert members of the task force, Aftab Chughtai, Javed Khan, Jane Scott, and Chris Wood, for their tireless efforts. Last week I read the right reverend James Jones’s excellent report on the appalling experiences of those who lost loved ones in the Hillsborough disaster. It is a sobering piece of work, reminding us that,

‘the way in which families bereaved through public tragedy are treated by those in authority is in itself a burning injustice’.

We saw that all too clearly in the hours and days after the Grenfell fire.

The clock cannot be turned back and the woeful inadequacies of the early response cannot be undone. But I can say, once again, that for as long as I am in public life I will do all I can to ensure that the failures of the past are not repeated and the people of Grenfell Tower get the help and support they deserve. The Hillsborough families had to fight for a quarter of a century to get their voices heard, to be taken seriously and to be treated properly by those in authority. We cannot allow that to happen again. I will not allow that to happen again. The public inquiry established by the Prime Minister will play the major role, but for its part, I am confident that the continued work of the task force will also help ensure that the survivors receive the support and respect they deserve”.

My Lords, I refer the House to my interests in the register as an elected councillor for the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the other place. I also pay tribute again to the public sector officials—from the police, the fire service and the ambulance service to the NHS and local and national government—along with the faith groups, the charity and voluntary sectors, and the community in North Kensington, for the way that they have all supported families as they recover from this appalling tragedy.

As I have mentioned before, within the public sector there is not one group of heroes and then another group of workers that deserves to be attacked. That is unfair. I remind the House of the treatment of firefighters by the Foreign Secretary when he was the Mayor of London, which is a case in point. Some of the comments he made when he was mayor are shameful. He should apologise for what he said about these heroes, but all we get from him in this area is silence. He is not a politician usually noted for being quiet; he is usually very happy to give his views on a range of subjects, but strangely not on this one. I say again: come on, Boris Johnson MP, your apology to the firefighters of the London Fire Brigade for your ill-informed and hurtful comments is long overdue.

The people of North Kensington were failed by those elected to serve them. Therefore, the change of leadership in the authority is welcome, and I wish the leadership well in the important work that they are doing. The former chief executive of my own borough, Barry Quirk, has been installed as the new permanent chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea Council. He will provide much-needed stability and leadership for the council staff. He is a very able man and the council has chosen wisely in this respect.

The report of the recovery task force highlights some serious problems that need to be overcome. At some point, consideration will have to be given as to whether this authority can continue in its present form. That is not a decision for today or next week, but Ministers must keep it under review and not take it off the table. What we cannot have happen is that as the authority fades from our attention, the old ways, habits and failures return. If the structure is beyond saving then other options will need to be considered to ensure that all residents of the borough are properly served. The governance arrangements are of concern to us all. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell me whether the new leadership has offered a seat or two in the cabinet to the opposition. I have mentioned that a number of times before and it would be a welcome step.

I take the point about the frequency of meetings of the ministerial recovery group and the pressure that it brings, and agree that it should be reduced. However, it is welcome that the council will remain very much in the sight of the department. Will the Minister tell us what the department has done specifically to help the new chief executive bolster the capacity and capability of the senior staff team? There are some very able people working in his department and elsewhere in local government, in London and across the country. What support has his department given to the authority to aid this work?

I fully understand that we want to give people time to be rehoused in a permanent place rather than having to move again. However, as the Minister said and as the report highlights, the pace is slow. What analysis has the department undertaken to see why this is the case? If it has not done any work on this, why not? What are the barriers to rehousing people permanently and what has the department done to remove them? Can he give the House an example in this respect? I do not believe that people want to carry on living in hotel rooms for any longer than is necessary.

I agree that there is a greater need for more empathy, emotional intelligence and humanity as we move forward. It is just a tragedy and a terrible indictment that when it is the richest borough of one of the richest cities in the world, and in the fifth-richest country in the world, a Minister in 2017 has to come to the Dispatch Box and say so.

Just because you are less fortunate, because you are poor or because you live in a council property does not mean that you should have fewer rights, be less respected or have your views taken into account any less. But that is what the local community has clearly felt and experienced in Kensington and Chelsea, which is shameful. I am pleased that the task force will remain in place for the foreseeable future and that nothing is to be taken off the table. I join with the Minister in thanking the task force and specifically the four expert members for their work and comprehensive report. There is serious work to be done to support the victims and the local community on the long road to recovery. I wish everyone well in that task. They have my full support and gratitude for the work they are doing.

My Lords, I draw noble Lords’ attention to my entry in the register of interests as an elected councillor in the borough of Kirklees and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I welcome today’s Statement on the interim report of the task force. However, I draw attention to one of the four priorities that were set by the Secretary of State for the work of the task force—that it would,

“ensure that all the immediate housing needs resulting from the fires are fully and promptly addressed by RBKC”.

But we have heard today in the Statement and the interim report that the number who have been permanently rehoused is pitifully low. Four months after the dreadful fire at Grenfell, only 26 of 204 families have been rehoused permanently and 130 are still in emergency bed and breakfast accommodation. I find that disgraceful and a tragedy; I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us why those figures are so low. The full report also asks for an immediate strategy and agreed targets for rehousing. It would be good to hear from him whether that has been done, whether targets have been set and what they are. That is the most important feature of the aftermath of this dreadful fire.

The second point that I would draw attention to is that the report, I am pleased to say, makes no immediate recommendation about the future of the tenant management organisation. Fears have been expressed in the media by residents that disbanding the TMO would lead to avoidance of effective scrutiny of its actions or inactions, and the avoidance of potential prosecutions. Can the Minister confirm whether that is the case? Will the TMO remain in place until the report of the Prime Minister’s inquiry and for any consequences of that inquiry?

The third issue that I raise is not referenced in the report, which is strange. It is the consequences of the fire and the impact on those families in the adjacent tower blocks. For example, what action is being taken to have the fire hazard panels replaced? What government contribution will be made towards their replacement?

Lastly, the final recommendation in the interim report talks about the awful consequences of having the burnt tower remaining in place. It recommends:

“Covering the Tower: Management of the site is not currently the responsibility of RBKC. Nevertheless we would strongly recommend that those responsible for it accelerate covering the Tower. It is reprehensible that it has remained uncovered for so long”.

It then gives a timetable for it to be done by December 2017—in six weeks’ time, perhaps. That is unfortunately not mentioned in the Secretary of State’s Statement, but it is an important step towards a healing process and I urge the Minister, if he is not able to reply this afternoon, to give us a written response.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, for their responses and I will try to deal with the points that they raised. First, I join with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in his tribute to the public sector. I wholeheartedly agree, as he knows. We have been here before, but it is certainly worth restating the continuing role played by the public sector and the role that it obviously played in the immediate aftermath of the fire—the fire service, the ambulance service, the police, the whole of the public sector and local government—along with the voluntary sector, the local community of North Kensington and many individuals who went along to help. It showed our country and our society at our best. I thank the noble Baroness for also making that tribute. I certainly also echo what the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said about Barry Quirk, who is doing excellent work in helping in relation to Grenfell.

I will try to deal with the points raised. First, the Secretary of State has made it absolutely clear on behalf of the department and the Government that all options are on the table for the future. The task force has recommended that at this stage commissioners are not appropriate, but that does not mean we have taken that option off the table. Of course, it is a possibility for the future if we feel it necessary. But the report makes the point that significant progress has been made, although more progress is needed. The Government have accepted the report in full, which covers the comments about the clothing of Grenfell Tower, which I wholeheartedly agree needs dealing with in very short order. I will come back to the timescale, if I may. But to restate, the Government have accepted all the recommendations of the task force as, to be fair, has the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, in relation to those comments addressed to the borough. As the noble Baroness made clear, the clothing of the tower is not the responsibility, as things stand, of the local borough.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about working with the opposition party, or parties, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. That is something for them, but we would very much encourage the council to look at how to work together. It is obviously far better if parties work together, as we have been doing in this House, so I would certainly encourage that.

As to how we as a department have bolstered—an appropriate word used by the noble Lord—in this context, we have certainly been helping with housing issues and encouraging the appropriate use of the NHS, and with community engagement. Staff are still there; I spoke to some this morning and that work goes on. He talked about the barriers to rehousing. Once again, as he knows, this is a complex position in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. We can push for and ensure that there is a speedier response, and the task force recommends that. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea will make an announcement about the appropriate strategy as we move this forward. But some things, in all fairness, are more difficult. Some families have moved into temporary accommodation, and I think in some cases to permanent accommodation, then changed their minds. We are keen to listen to what local people want so we have sought to honour that because feelings are still very raw. Sometimes people feel that they want to move close to the tower and then change their minds, understandably. So there are barriers other than the process arrangements set by local government and central government.

It remains the case that we want 300 potential houses. That is the target of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and I am sure that the council will say more on this when it makes an announcement shortly, specifically about how we get there by the end of the year. That is broadly the number of permanent homes needed. In fact it is more than is required but one feels the need for a bit of a cushion. If I am not wrong, I think that there are around 160 available at the moment, which leaves another 140 to be brought on. There has to be, and to a degree there has been, a cultural change on the part of the borough. In fairness, I do not think that any local authority would have been able to take on this sort of challenge without making some incredible changes. Some of those have happened in Kensington and Chelsea, although clearly more still needs to be done.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, asked about households that were living not in Grenfell Tower or Grenfell Walk, but in the walkways. There is still a need for them to be permanently housed as well. Again, I think the feeling among many of those families is that they do not want to move back until the tower is properly clothed, which goes back to the point that she rightly picked up on. She also raised the issue of the tenant management organisation. We do not want it to disband because of the possibility—I should state that it is important that we get this legally right—of prosecution. There needs to be the possibility of prosecuting authorities and individuals, and therefore from that point of view its status will remain. I say that without prejudice to anything that is found in the inquiry or by the CPS. In terms of running the housing, of course the organisation was removed immediately and we have not yet made a decision about what fresh arrangements will happen. Again, we will want to look very carefully at all the options for future housing arrangements for Kensington and Chelsea. We are not saying that it will be a, b or c because it is something that needs to be looked at. The point was picked up in the task force report, and it remains the case that all options are open.

I have written something down in my own handwriting which I cannot remotely read. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I pick up the point in the write-around later. I turn to the timescale for the tower, which was raised by the noble Baroness, and where the work needs to be done by December 2017. As I say, the department and the Government have accepted all the recommendations, so we are looking for that to be completed within the timescale. I reiterate that the Secretary of State has made that absolutely clear on behalf of the Government.

My Lords, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I should like to address the issue of emergency planning. It has become clear from this report that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea did not have an operational emergency plan in place when the Grenfell fire broke out in June. The Statement does not actually tell us whether there is one in place now, or whether officers are being employed in the council to deliver one. However, on page three the report states:

“This intervention has not had the benefit of an inspection that would identify specific failings in a local authority and would precede a statutory intervention”.

Will action be taken to assess the robustness of Kensington and Chelsea’s emergency planning, which is a statutory requirement? Also, can the Minister say what advice his department will now give to other local authorities about emergency planning arising from the lessons being learned in Kensington and Chelsea?

I thank the noble Lord for his question in relation to emergency planning. He will be aware that one of the terms of reference of the inquiry is the actions of the local authority and other bodies before the tragedy, so it certainly will be picked up by the inquiry. Further to that, what we obviously want to ensure, and no doubt the House will totally support this, is that all the lessons from this are learned by all local authorities and public authorities. We would wish the message to go out and we will ensure that that happens. The messages from this are to be learned by local authorities for the future, including in relation to emergency planning along with many other issues.

My Lords, I declare my local government interests as a councillor in Newcastle and as an honorary vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for the tone and the content of the Statement that has been made today. It is clear that there is a great deal going on, and a great deal more to be done. However, I should like to ask about the general situation in the country. What is going to happen about the installation of sprinklers up and down the country? That is a key issue. I am not expecting an immediate decision, but is there a timescale within which it is likely that a decision can be made?

In addition to that, to what extent are the Government engaging with the owners of other multi-story buildings; that is, housing associations and privately owned blocks that are not in the social housing sector? Presumably all of these blocks will need the same checks that were lamentably lacking in the case of Grenfell if we are not to see, unfortunately, some kind of repetition. It is not a matter that can be resolved quickly, but the sooner we start on it, the better. I hope that the Minister can give us some assurances in those respects.

I thank the noble Lord very much indeed for his typically generous comments about the tenor of the Government’s response to this dreadful tragedy. He asked specifically about the position on sprinklers. Perhaps I may restate something that has been said before, but it certainly bears restating: the Dame Judith Hackitt review is looking at building regulation and fire safety and it will certainly be considering this issue. I have also just looked at the terms of the inquiry and it is in there as well, so I have reassured myself that it is in place. Obviously we will await the results of these two independent inquiries. It is for them to make their recommendations and we would expect to carry them forward and regard them with appropriate seriousness.

The noble Lord also asked about the position of blocks other than those which are within local authority control; he specifically asked about housing association and privately owned blocks, and perhaps by inference other government blocks—there are some in the health sector and in education that are subject to the same principles that are being carried forward on testing and so on. That is true of housing associations as well. On private blocks, we have asked local authorities to follow up in relation to the blocks in their areas and have asked for a response from them. We will follow up on those responses in due course.

My Lords, perhaps I may follow up on a question put by my noble friend Lord Beecham on private blocks, and which I have raised before in the House with the Minister. Are local authorities required to hold information on the specification of the cladding that has been applied to private blocks where that cladding has been the subject of approval by building control officers in the local authorities where those blocks were built?

My Lords, if I may I will write to the noble Lord on the specifics of his question. However, on the general point, local authorities are being required by us to report on all private blocks that may offend in relation to these safety standards. As I say, I will get back to the noble Lord on his particular point.

My Lords, building on the comment by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, in relation to the terms of reference of the inquiry, it does not seem that the systemic issue that this raises is actually strictly within those terms of reference. It refers to the arrangements that the local authority and other organisations had in place to respond to complaints made by residents in relation to the fire safety of buildings. The question really raised the point about the systemic issue. Although Grenfell was unprecedented, the strength of the local authority not only in emergency planning but in other areas to deal with this kind of incident was lacking, yet there were other authorities which came to the aid of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea which seemed to have maybe better senior management and leadership. Do we need some form of stress testing of local authorities to see whether they are up to responding to this type of incident? As I read them, that does not seem to be strictly within the terms of reference of the inquiry.

I thank my noble friend. I have the inquiry’s terms of reference in front of me. First of all, I am not sure whether she was referring to the issue of fire sprinklers; perhaps not. The inquiry covers the scope and adequacy of the relevant regulations, legislation and guidance. It also refers to the actions of the local authority and other bodies before the tragedy, which puts it in scope. I am sure that any inquiry chairman, if they wanted to report, would regard that as in scope. I had better not go further than that.

My Lords, the Minister referred to culture. He used words such as “empathy” and quite rightly said that changing a culture is a very long-term project. Does he share my concern—this is no reflection on Barry Quirk at all—that local authorities must be tempted to put their efforts into senior leadership and front-line services, leaving a bit of a hollow in the middle? The culture has to go all the way down, and the people in the middle contribute to the culture. I am of course referring to the financial position that many local authorities find themselves in.

I thank the noble Baroness very much. Of course, she is very well acquainted with London local government, in particular. In relation to the culture, without prejudicing anything specific that is being looked at by any of the inquiries, I agree with her that the culture has to run throughout an organisation. She referred to finance. Once again, without wanting to prejudice anything in relation to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, I do not think finance is a major issue here, certainly not in terms of the costs of finding additional housing. We know the borough has the money for that, so I think that would be covered. She made another point, which I have now forgotten.

I was talking about local authorities focusing on senior leadership and front-line services, leaving something of a hollow in the middle. It is a much wider question than one can deal with in an afternoon.

I am sorry, that was the point I picked up on. I agree with her that culture has to be pervasive through the whole organisation. I am sure that that would be picked up, but again, that will be looked at by the inquiries. I do not want to prejudge what they will find.

My Lords, my noble friend has not said anything—I wonder if anything is known about it—about the prevalence of the habit that was exposed by the tower fire of tenants of such social housing moving out and letting their accommodation at an extraordinarily large profit to themselves, which enables them to live in much better accommodation somewhere else, and all sorts of people who may have no entitlement whatever to social housing moving in. Are we thinking a bit more about what should be done about that?

My Lords, clearly those issues must be looked at at some stage. I am sure my noble friend will appreciate that the tenor of the department’s concern at the moment is dealing with the grief, anguish and injury, and getting people properly rehoused. I will make sure that he gets a response about what is being done by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, but I think the Government are right to ensure that the focus is on rehousing and putting these people’s lives back together. That is not to say that those issues are not important, but I do not think they are as important as these issues.

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister for not being in my place to hear the earlier part of the Statement. Nevertheless, I think we all know that local housing authorities have certain powers of compulsory purchase of properties. Can the Minister tell the House whether, in his view, using those powers would speed up the permanent rehousing of the displaced people and families?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question—and his apology, which is accepted. On compulsory purchase powers, the first point I would make is that compulsory purchase can take quite some time. There is a degree of urgency here, as has been indicated by the task force response. I should also restate, although I think the noble Lord was in his place by this stage, that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea will come forward with an announcement in short order about how it will give more impetus to the issue. For the moment, from the department’s point of view, compulsory purchase would not be an appropriate response, partly because it would be too slow.