Nick Thomas-Symonds – 2020 Speech on the Fire Safety Bill

Below is the text of the speech made by Nick Thomas-Symonds, the Labour MP for Torfaen, in the House of Commons on 29 April 2020.

I thank the Security Minister for his speech and his welcome. I shadowed him briefly in a previous role over recent months, and I look forward to working with him on issues of national interest.

In our deliberations today, at the forefront of our minds are the 72 people who lost their lives and the more than 70 who were injured in the terrible tragedy of Grenfell on 14 June 2017. All of us in this House and, indeed, the whole country will remember where we were when we first saw those devastating scenes in west London. It was one of the most heart-wrenching tragedies we can all imagine, and what made it unbearable was the fact that the event that unfolded was wholly preventable. It is and always will remain a stain on our national conscience. For those who escaped, for the emergency services at the scene and for all the family, the friends and the wider community, the events of that awful day will live with them forever.

The fact that such a tragedy could happen in one of the wealthiest boroughs in one of the wealthiest countries in the world shines a piercing light on the inequality in modern Britain and the many ways in which it manifests itself. Over the course of this debate, we will, of course, discuss the legislation, the numbers and the finance, but at the heart of it, we must always remember first and foremost that this is about people, and most strikingly, those who lost their lives and those who managed to escape but will live forever with the memories of that night. That is why people will rightly look to this House for not just words but action.

Getting the Bill right is vital, not just to address the failings so horrifically exposed by Grenfell but to guard against similar incidents—incidents that may appear unlikely or unimaginable today, but could be all too real ​in future. Labour Members support the Bill, but we urge the Government to go further and faster on fire safety so that there are no more Grenfell Tower tragedies and people are kept safe and secure in their own homes.

In October, we welcomed the first phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, which addresses the events of the night itself: when the fire began, when the first 999 call was made, at six minutes to one in the morning, and when the first firefighters reached the tower, five minutes later. We await phase 2 of the inquiry and its investigation into the broader causes, but we already know from the first phase report how it happened. The report says:

“Once the fire had escaped from Flat 16, it spread rapidly up the east face of the tower. It then spread around the top of the building in both directions and down the sides until the advancing flame fronts converged on the west face near the south-west corner, enveloping the entire building in under three hours.”

The report also sets out that there is

“compelling evidence that the external walls of the building failed to comply with…the Building Regulations 2010, in that they did not adequately resist the spread of fire having regard to the height, use and position of the building. On the contrary, they actively promoted it.”

It continues:

“It is clear that the use of combustible materials in the external wall of Grenfell Tower, principally in the form of the ACM rainscreen cladding, but also in the form of combustible insulation, was the reason why the fire spread so quickly to the whole of the building.”

Given the particular focus on the actions of the London Fire Brigade at the scene in the first phase report, recommendations made to the fire service should be given the full response that they require. At the same time, while recognising what the first phase report says and learning the lessons, we continue to pay tribute to the heroic actions of firefighters in our country every day, including on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire, when so many put themselves at serious risk to save the Grenfell Tower residents. We will continue to press the Government to give all survivors the support that they need, to bring those culpable to justice, and to put in place every measure needed to prevent a fire such as Grenfell from ever happening again.

As the Security Minister said, the Bill’s provisions clarify that the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies to external walls, including cladding, balconies and windows, and individual flat entrance doors in multi-occupied residential buildings. Responsible persons will need to ensure that they have assessed the fire safety risks of the relevant premises and have taken the necessary fire precautions, with fire and rescue authorities having enforcement powers, including the ability to remove cladding and to put in place prohibitions until changes are made. However, we have to be absolutely clear who the responsible persons are and allow nobody—owners or anyone else—to shirk their responsibilities under the Bill.

Although those powers are welcome, they are clearly not enough in themselves to meet the Government’s pledge to prevent another tragedy from happening. Clause 2 gives the Government powers to make further changes through secondary legislation, and the Government have said that that will provide a foundation to take forward recommendations. The Government have said they will launch a consultation on the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 in spring 2020, and that that ​will include proposals for implementing the Grenfell Tower phase 1 report recommendations, which will be delivered via secondary legislation.

However, the Government have not given a timetable for when they will deliver those recommendations through secondary legislation. They must do so urgently. There is an urgent need for the fire safety measures recommended, and that urgency must be reflected in the actions of Ministers. Indeed, almost three years after Grenfell, this three-clause Bill is the first and only piece of primary legislation on fire safety that the Government have put before the House.

The Bill does not include provisions for the inquiry’s recommendations. The Government had already promised, in October 2019, to implement the inquiry’s recommendations in full and without delay. The 2019 Conservative manifesto repeated that commitment, but even the simpler recommendations, such as the inspection of fire doors and the testing of lifts, are not in the Bill. Long-overdue reforms of building safety are also not included in the legislation—they are to be in a separate building safety Bill. The Security Minister indicated that the draft version of that Bill would appear before the summer, but that process still needs to be moved forward as quickly as it possibly can be. He should clarify when it will appear in final form.

The House cannot escape the way in which the inquiry report was repeatedly critical of the Government: for the failure to remove ACM cladding from other blocks; for not funding the fire service efficiently to be properly equipped; for failing to publish national guidelines on the evacuation of tall buildings; and for ignoring recommendations to retrofit sprinklers in social housing blocks in the years leading up to the Grenfell tragedy.

The Bill will require a higher level of inspection and enforcement and will increase the workload on fire and rescue services. There has to be clarity about the funding to carry out such work. The Fire Brigades Union has said today that there are 1,100 fire-safety inspectors left; there have to be more to carry out the duties in the Bill. Between 2010 and 2016, the fire and rescue services were cut centrally by 28% in real terms, with a further cut of 15% by 2020. That led to 12,000 fewer firefighters—20% of the whole service.

As Mayor of London, the Prime Minister was responsible for deep cuts. An independent review by Anthony Mayer found that in the eight years of the Prime Minister’s mayoralty, the London Fire Brigade was required to make gross savings of more than £100 million, leading to the cutting of 27 fire appliances, 552 firefighters, 324 support staff, two fire-rescue units and three training appliances, along with the closure of 10 fire stations and a reduction of fire rescue unit crewing levels.

Grenfell was not the first fire in a high-rise block of flats that resulted in loss of life. In 2013, coroners wrote to Ministers about two separate fires: in Camberwell in 2009, in which six people died; and in Southampton in 2010, in which two firefighters died. The coroners’ letters included clear points of criticism and recommendations, important parts of which—including recommendations to retrofit sprinklers in high-rise housing blocks and to urgently overhaul building regulations—were either rejected or ignored. Letters were sent to the then Housing Minister by the all-party group on fire safety and rescue, with the last sent just 26 days before the tragedy.​

An issue that must be recognised is the reaction to the Grenfell fire, with the Government not acting swiftly enough to remove Grenfell-style cladding from tower blocks and a failure to support residents with interim safety costs. To give an example, waking watches, when fire wardens patrol residences, can cost residents £10,000 or more for very short periods of time.

Coronavirus is an unprecedented challenge and I recognise what the Security Minister said about action continuing where it can and the crisis that we are currently in. We of course recognise that it absolutely changes working patterns, but it cannot ever be an excuse for failing to take strong and swift action on the removal of cladding, because 60,000 worried residents are still living in buildings wrapped in cladding that needs to be replaced. Almost nine in 10 private sector buildings and half of social sector buildings have not had cladding removed.

The Security Minister will, I am sure, remember setting a deadline of the end of 2019 for social sector blocks to be made safe, and of June 2020 for private sector blocks—a deadline that now looks likely to be missed. In addition, the Government have yet to publish their findings from the audit of how many buildings are covered with dangerous non-ACM cladding, such as high-pressure laminate. I urge the Minister to make that audit’s findings, which I understand were available at the end of March, fully available as soon as possible.

After Grenfell, the Government accepted that there were flaws in the building safety regime and commissioned the Hackitt review, as the Security Minister said. That was published in May 2018. The Government accept that they did not go far enough. That led to the ban on combustible cladding in November 2018 and the restrictions on desktop studies. As I have indicated, the Government have yet to publish that primary legislation. While the draft will be available in the summer, as the Security Minister said, the process must be faster.

Labour will look to improve the Bill during its passage through Parliament. I urge the Government to have an open mind in the short Committee stage they have allocated and to give reassurance on a timetable for the measures they intend to take. Anything less than that would be a breach of promise to those who were lost and every person affected by the terrible tragedy of Grenfell, which none of us wants to see ever happen again.

I will conclude by taking a moment to pay tribute to all those who were impacted by the Grenfell tragedy and the remarkable community efforts that grew up and have been maintained to support people. In this, the most awful of incidents, we also saw the very best in people. I commend the work that they have done campaigning for justice.