Kit Malthouse debates involving the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities during the 2019 Parliament

Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report

Kit Malthouse Excerpts
Tuesday 21st January 2020

(1 year, 12 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and I completely agreed with much of what he said. We must learn what mistakes were made and then make improvements across the board so that others never suffer the same terrible tragedy that happened at Grenfell.

I want to express both sympathy for the Grenfell victims and admiration for their demeanour. I have met many of them. If such a thing happened to most of us, I do not think we would be able to cope. I express my admiration for the way they have conducted themselves since this terrible tragedy and sympathy for the people who lost their lives and their families. It must be the most horrendous experience possible to die in such circumstances, and we must always remember that that is what happened.

I served on the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority between 2004 and 2007. The Minister served on the same board subsequently.

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Kit Malthouse Portrait The Minister for Crime, Policing and the Fire Service (Kit Malthouse)
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No one in this House will ever forget the tragic events that unfolded in the early hours of 14 June 2017 or the 72 people who lost their lives in the most appalling circumstances. This city and country have had too many dark days, but the night of the Grenfell disaster must rank among the darkest. In a debate in this House on 30 October, the Prime Minister said that no words, written or spoken, can undo the pain caused to so many by this tragedy, and I am sure we all echo that sentiment. However, we can and must learn from it, so I want to thank personally Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his team for their work in producing this first report. Many questions about that night remain unanswered, but given the forensic and unflinching nature of part 1 of his report, I am confident that Sir Martin and his team will leave no stone unturned in getting to the truth.

I would also like to join every speaker in the Chamber this afternoon in acknowledging the survivors and the bereaved for their dignity and their resolution to see lessons learned following this devastating event. Their determination and resilience helps us to remember the scale of this tragedy and keep those who lost their lives firmly in our minds while we work to make the changes needed. For their sake, we must ensure that a disaster on this scale can never happen again.

I also want to express my own thanks to the firefighters who braved the unprecedented conditions they faced that night. As my hon. Friends the Members for Watford (Dean Russell) and for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) pointed out, many disregarded their own safety, returning time and again to the flames to try to rescue those who were trapped. Such individual acts of heroism cannot, however, undo the systemic failures that the inquiry has found in the London Fire Brigade response. They must be addressed, and work is already well under way.

The report makes a number of significant findings and recommendations. As highlighted in this House, in the Government’s published response to the report and in the opening of this debate, we are committed to driving forward the work needed to effect real change. The Government have accepted in full the principle of all the recommendations addressed to them. On legislation, it is clear that urgent action is needed from all corners of the fire sector and the construction industry to secure the future safety of residents. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and others have pointed out, the pace of this change concerns us all. So the Government will bring forward the fire safety Bill, as outlined today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, which will help our remediation efforts immediately. The foundation set by this Bill lays the groundwork for further regulations to meet a number of recommendations in the report, which we will consult on in the spring.

On “stay put”, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and Home Office’s expert stay put steering group met on 18 December to discuss the parameters of its stay put and evacuation research. The Home Office will begin the tendering process in February for the first package of research required. The outcomes of that will inform operational research later in the year. It is also relevant to stay put that the inquiry recommended that all high rise buildings be equipped with facilities for evacuation signals and have way-finding signage. The Government ran a consultation on building-wide alarms, signage and sprinklers, which closed on 28 November. The consultation led to more than 180 responses, which the Government are currently analysing. But we urge all developers and building owners to act now on the inquiry’s recommendations and not wait for legislation or other changes to take effect.

Turning to the criticisms of the LFB and the recommendations for it, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services completed its first tranche of inspections of all fire and rescue services in December 2019 and produced its first “State of Fire and Rescue” report last week. The inspectorate and the inquiry reports both show that there is much work to be done. The inspector found that the LFB had learned the lessons of Grenfell but that change has been slow. In November, the Home Secretary wrote to the previous commissioner asking that the LFB provide regular updates on its improvement actions. We have now received an action plan from the LFB setting out the work it will do to take forward the recommendations over the coming weeks and months. We will look for ongoing assurance from the commissioner and the Mayor of London, as well as from the inspectorate, that plans are robust and that progress is being made. I note that today the Mayor has today published his first update report on the work he is taking responsibility for in this regard. I have written to the Mayor and met the new commissioner, Andy Roe, and I welcome his commitment to work with the Mayor to ensure that performance improves and to ensure his acceptance of all the report’s recommendations.

Beyond London, the report and its recommendations have implications for all fire and rescue services. The Government are working with the sector leaders and the National Fire Chiefs Council to identify the improvements needed and to ensure co-ordination across the sector. The Home Secretary wrote to the chief fire officers after the inquiry published its report, asking that they work together and through the National Fire Chiefs Council. Her letter also announced that the Government would bring fire leaders together to discuss the report, and we will do so before the end of March.

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That this House has considered the Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s Phase 1 Report.
Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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A national improvement plan is being created for the sector by the National Fire Chiefs Council and will build on the work of its central programme office, the fire standards board, the protection board and the inspectorate.

Several Members, not least my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), raised the issue of interoperability, and concerns have rightly been raised about co-ordination and communication errors between the emergency services at Grenfell. We take this issue very seriously, and the Government are committed to working with all emergency services to improve interoperability. The joint emergency services interoperability principles, or JESIP—their joint doctrine—set out a standard approach to multi-agency working. It will be reviewed and republished by September this year to incorporate learnings from the Grenfell disaster. Following the inquiry’s report, the interoperability board has written to all emergency services to reinforce what is required when a major incident occurs. The report made recommendations in relation to the images and data sent from the National Police Air Service helicopters, and I can confirm that that work has been completed.

Let me turn to some specific issues that Members have raised during the debate. If I miss any out, I am more than happy to write to Members afterwards. Several Members raised the issue of members of the Grenfell community—survivors and families—still remaining in temporary accommodation. As Housing Minister for 12 months, I met individuals regularly and reviewed individual cases. As I have explained, particularly to the Opposition housing spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), these are complex and difficult cases. Our concern at the repeated raising of this issue is not necessarily for our own political advantage, but that raising it increases the pressure on individuals who are living in temporary accommodation, who are leading complex and difficult lives. We are attempting to be sensitive to them and to accommodate them. We should not assume that those individuals have been continuously in temporary accommodation: a number have been in and out as they have struggled with the circumstances they face. We are keeping up pressure on the council—the Secretary of State and the Housing Minister meet the council regularly—but as we deal with these particular individuals, it behoves us all to remain sensitive to their plight.

Several Members, not least the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), raised the wider issue of the ability of those who are living in buildings with cladding either to sell or to secure finance against their properties. Work did start last year, and I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that it has now concluded. A working party at the MHCLG, including the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and UK Finance, was formed to try to resolve the issue. That has now produced a new simplified process by which surveyors can reassure themselves that a property is mortgageable and insurable, and therefore financeable, so that sales can be effected.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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We will of course wait and see the outcome of that process and how it works in practice, but can the Minister give an undertaking that, in the months to come, his Ministry will have a watching brief over it to see whether it is indeed working for our constituents who have been raising some of the concerns expressed by myself and by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake)?

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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Yes—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reassures me that we will absolutely keep a watching brief. The early signs are that the new protocol is having a beneficial effect.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) raised a query about what will happen to the site. He should be aware that a commission has now been constituted. I gather that it has met a number of times, and it is very much being led by the bereaved, the survivors and the community themselves so that they are in the driving seat about what should happen on the site and what kind of memorial they wish to have. I am sure we can provide the hon. Gentleman with more information on that if he wishes.

Some Members raised issues around electrical safety compliance. Obviously progress has been made as far on the duty of landlords, in both the private and the social sector, to ensure compliance, particularly where small electrical goods are concerned. I am informed that the Consumers Minister—my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst)—has commissioned the Office for Product Safety and Standards to develop options for increasing the rate of product registrations, including potential mandatory registration. A number of workstreams are under way looking to understand the barriers to registration and consumers’ attitudes to that registration, which will inform this work in the future.

The hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken)—I know her area well from my time as a councillor and as a London Assembly member—raised the issue of sprinklers and the complexity of tenure that may stand in the way of the retrofitting of sprinklers in older blocks across the city. That is obviously a difficult and complex area of legality, not least because one would have to cross the barrier of possibly fitting sprinklers against the will of a property owner where they are in a collective block and therefore have collective safety, but I know colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will be dealing with the issue.

Finally, in her excellent speech, following on from her equally brilliant maiden speech in which she raised this subject, my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) mentioned a couple of issues. First, she said that she had met the new commissioner of the LFB, whom I have also met recently. He impressed me with his ambition and his willingness to embrace the issues for the London Fire Brigade that have been raised both by the inspectorate and by the inquiry. He does seem committed to real change in that organisation, which was very encouraging to see.

Along with the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), my hon. Friend raised the issue of a member of the inquiry panel. The Home Office is obviously a core participant in the inquiry, so it would not be right for me to comment either way, but I can reassure both of them that the Cabinet Office is aware of this issue and is giving it some thought.

There is nothing that we can do to turn back the clock on this tragedy, and there are no words of condolence or sympathy that will bring back those who lost their lives or offer comfort to those whose lives have been irrevocably changed by this tragedy. All we can do is learn the lessons of this terrible event and work tirelessly to ensure that a disaster on this scale can never happen again.

It is incumbent on all of us—the Government, the emergency services, those responsible for managing high rise residential buildings and the construction industry—to work together to bring real change. I am confident that the inquiry’s detailed analysis of the evidence seen in phase 1 will continue to phase 2, and that the panel will uncover the full truth of what happened on that terrible, dark night.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s Phase 1 Report.