Alok Sharma responds to Grenfell Tower fire inquiry debate

12th July 2017

Housing Minister Alok Sharma responds on behalf of the Government to a Parliamentary debate on the Grenfell Tower public inquiry.

We have had a detailed and wide-ranging debate on the Grenfell Tower public inquiry, but I start by congratulating all the Members who made their maiden speeches today: the hon. Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), for Leigh (Jo Platt) and for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones).

We heard some incredibly powerful speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith), for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) and for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), and we of course heard from the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), who has been very involved in dealing with the residents and has been part of the response.

We also heard from the various members of the all-party group on fire safety: my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and the hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). I can tell the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), that I met them recently to hear their views. They will be writing to me in some detail to set out what they want to see happen in the inquiry.

Colleagues have had an opportunity to express a range of views—some obviously different from others—but the House is today united in the view that ultimately the people who matter the most are those who have been affected directly by this terrible tragedy. They must have their questions answered, and that is precisely what the inquiry will do.

In his opening remarks, the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), said that he will not rest until the residents have the help they need, until we get to the bottom of what happened, and until we make sure that this never happens again. I assure him that I, too, will not rest until all three of those conditions are met, and nor will the Secretary of State or, indeed, any colleague in this House.

I again put on record my deepest condolences for all those who have suffered such great loss as a result of this fire, which we all agree should never have happened. Colleagues from all parties have paid tribute to the victims, their families and the heroism of the emergency services, and I know that such heart-felt views will be heard and echoed throughout the country. This debate has provided an opportunity to reflect on the scale and human cost of this tragedy, but it has also given us a valuable chance to start to look ahead to what comes next—principally, the public inquiry that will establish precisely what went wrong, why and who is responsible.

Colleagues have raised a range of issues, and before I continue with my speech I shall take a few minutes to respond to some of them. On the help available to those who are directly affected, Members will know that we have made first offers to all those who are ready to have such offers made to them. A large number of second offers have been made, and 19 of the families have now accepted an offer. I just point out that, as I know Opposition Members have acknowledged, we need to go at the pace that the families want us to go at. That is incredibly important. I know that some of them will want to move into permanent homes rather than into temporary homes, and we accept that. We have had a discussion about Kensington Row, and I hope we will soon be in a position where we can start viewings of the flats there. We are also looking to secure similar accommodation so that we have net additions to the social housing, rather than take up homes that others might have occupied. The key thing is that nobody is going to be forced into a home that they do not want to go to.

On funding, I can report that 120 of the households have received a grant of £5,000, and many others have also received the £500 cash payment. In total, almost £4 million has been paid out from the discretionary fund. Colleagues have raised issues relating to trauma support, which of course is being made available to those who need it. Given the exceptional nature of the incident, we have agreed that MOPAC—Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime—funding will used for this, even though no crime as such has been committed that we are aware of.

We heard a discussion on the Government’s response and the testing regime that we have put in place. The Secretary of State has led right from the start on that. I have been by his side, so I can tell Members that he has led on it. I ask hon. Members to look on the Government website because it will tell them about all the letters we have written to local authorities and housing associations, and all the tests that we have suggested are done. Yes, 211 tests have come back as positive—or negative; it depends on who one looks at it—but I just say that we are working with the Local Government Association and others to encourage housing associations, local councils and private landlords to send in the cladding for testing. What I say to every Member here, as they can help with this, is that I know they will be in touch with their local authorities and housing associations, so please help us. They should ask their local—

For clarity, will the Minister confirm that half or more of all the high-rise towers identified at the earlier point in this discussion have not submitted materials to be tested? That is the clear implication of what he was saying.

I am saying that we want to get this testing done as quickly as possible. We have got the resources available for that. Let me just say that there are some cases where local authorities will have sent in one piece of cladding for testing from a building and may have had a number of buildings that were re-clad at a similar time, so we are hoping to establish whether that is the case or not. An awful lot of work is going on, and I just recommend to right hon. and hon. Members that they look on the website as it will tell them, in great detail, what the expert advisory panel is doing and it will tell them about all the tests that have been carried out.

Members have also talked about insulation, and of course when we wrote to local authorities on 22 June we asked them also to look at that. On 6 July, the independent expert panel announced that it would be recommending wider systems checks of cladding, and that it would be testing a combination of ACM panels with two of the most commonly used insulation materials as well.

We had a discussion about building regulations, and I respectfully point out that they were put together in 2006, not when the current Government were in place, so this idea that somehow deregulation has played a part is unfair. Let me also make reference to the Lakanal House fire and what the coroner wanted to happen. The coroner recommended simplifying the fire safety guidance under the building regulations, not a change in the standards. I accept that that has not happened as yet, but clearly in the light of this tragedy we need to reflect on the previous plans for consulting. Clearly, if anything emerges from the investigation where we need to take immediate action, we will do that.

The expert advisory panel, which my right hon. Friend has appointed, is considering a range of matters, particularly whether there are any immediate additional actions that need to be taken to ensure the safety of existing high-rise buildings.

I am very grateful to the Minister for his comments about high-rise buildings. Will he clarify whether the testing and the regulation-reviewing that the Government are undertaking also extend to other buildings that may be affected, such as schools and hospitals?

Yes, I can. That work is ongoing.

There was a discussion about the independent recovery taskforce, which was appointed by the Secretary of State. Let me point out that if we had gone down the road of appointing commissioners, that would have been a statutory intervention, which would have taken longer. Our view is that we need to get people in there now and to focus particularly on housing regeneration and community engagement. People from that taskforce will report directly to the Secretary of State.

Will the Minister enlighten us on who they are and where they are?

That information will be published very shortly.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) talked about product safety. The Government have a working group on product recalls and safety, which has been asked, as a matter of urgency, to review its final report in the light of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

Finally, on social housing, I know that we will have opportunities to debate these matters in the months and possibly years ahead, but may I just point out to the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne, that, during the period of 1997 to 2010, the number of social rented homes fell by 420,000. Since 2010, we have delivered 333,000 new affordable homes. [Interruption.] That is a debate for another day. May I just return to the public inquiry?

The Minister did say “finally”, but he has not yet come back to the issue of what funding will be available to other local authorities carrying out this essential work and what criteria will be used to assess any funding applications.

The Secretary of State and other Ministers have been absolutely clear: we do not want local authorities and housing associations to stop doing anything that is necessary to keep people safe. If they do not have the funding, we will work with them on the funding process.

rose

No, I will not give way as I really must get on.

A range of views have been expressed about the cause of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. What is vital is that we have a full independent public inquiry with a remit that goes way beyond the design, construction and modification of the building itself. An effective and prompt inquiry will necessarily have to follow defined terms of reference, and setting those is obviously crucial. The terms will be set formally by the Prime Minister, but she will do so following recommendations from the chair of the public inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick. Sir Martin was appointed to head up the inquiry on 29 June and, on that very day he visited the site and spoke with some of those who had been affected by the tragedy. Sir Martin has been absolutely clear in his desire to consult the affected residents about what the terms of the reference should be. I know that he has been meeting them to hear their views. He has also said that he welcomes the views from the wider community. Those are the actions of a person who wants proactively to engage with those directly affected right from the start. I urge hon. Members who have concerns or ideas about the terms of the inquiry to raise them with the team. The details are available on the inquiry website: grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk.

During today’s debate, some concern has been expressed about Sir Martin’s suitability for the role, but as the First Secretary of State has said, he is independently appointed, extremely well qualified and totally impartial. Sir Martin is a hugely experienced former Court of Appeal judge. Judges decide cases solely on the evidence presented in court and in accordance with the law. As a senior judge, Sir Martin has worked across a range of cases. There have been cases where Sir Martin has been praised by civil liberties lawyers and cases where he has found in favour of housing association tenants, but in each case he will have made decisions based on the law and the evidence—nothing more, and nothing less.

Opposition Members may be aware that from December 2005 to December 2009, Sir Martin was chair of the legal services consultative panel, which advises successive Lord Chancellors on the regulation and training of lawyers, legal services and other related matters. The Lord Chancellors whom he served were Lord Falconer and Jack Straw. I have previously noted in this House that it is vital for Government, central and local, to work hard to win the trust of those people directly affected by this tragedy. I have no doubt that Sir Martin is similarly aware that he needs to foster that trust. I am sure that, as his dialogue with the local community continues, they will note that his only motivation is to get to the bottom of what happened.

I assure hon. Members that the Government will co-operate fully with the inquiry, and I hope that the same will be true of the local authority and any other individual or body whose work falls within the inquiry’s remit. It is absolutely vital that no stone is left unturned and that anyone who has done wrong has nowhere to hide. To help get to the truth, survivors of the fire and the families of the victims will receive funding for legal representation at the inquiry. Details of how they access that legal funding will follow once the inquiry is up and running.

Some concern has been raised about the lack of a coroner’s inquest into the deaths at Grenfell. Let me assure colleagues that there will be an inquest. The coroner is already investigating the deaths; that is a statutory duty. The police led investigation is already under way in conjunction with the London Fire Brigade and the Health and Safety Executive. The police investigation will consider potential criminal liability. The police have been very clear: arrests will follow if any evidence of criminal wrongdoing is found. Unlike a coroner’s inquest, a full, judge led public inquiry will allow us to look at the broader circumstances leading up to and surrounding the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower. It will also allow us to take any action necessary as quickly as possible to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.

A number of colleagues have expressed concerns about timing. Of course, we want the inquiry to be completed as quickly as possible and the main priority will be to establish the facts of what action is needed to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. It will be for Sir Martin to determine the timescale for the inquiry, but I am certain that he will be aware of the universal desire for an interim report to be published at the earliest opportunity.

In cases of some past disasters, such as Hillsborough and the sinking of the Marchioness, it took far too long for the whole story of what happened to emerge. We do not want that to be the case with Grenfell Tower. That is why the Prime Minister ordered a full public inquiry as soon as the scale of the tragedy became apparent. Regardless of politics or ideology and of what we think is the best course of action, all of us here want one thing: the truth. It might prove uncomfortable for some and it might not fit the preconception of others, but the truth must come out. I am confident that Sir Martin Moore-Bick will see that the truth does come out. The survivors of the Grenfell fire and the families of those who were lost deserve no less.

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