Bernard Jenkin – 2022 Speech on Fifth Anniversary of Grenfell Tower Fire

The speech made by Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex, in the House of Commons on 16 June 2022.

I can only agree with the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) about the complacency that infused the entire safety system and the emergency planning. I hope that the Moore-Bick inquiry will address that point in the fullness of time, although it is taking so long, which is what I want to address today. If my comments today have a theme—I appreciate that this is possibly controversial—it is about learning, not necessarily blaming. There may be people to blame, but we need to learn.

It is terrible for survivors and for victims’ families and friends that we are here five years on, but there is still no closure or resolution for them. As every hon. Member knows, people come to see us after a terrible accident or mistake with the words—echoed by the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), who so capably opened the debate, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan)—“I just want to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

The living victims of Grenfell still feel as far as ever from that confidence, and I dedicate my speech to them.

I will set out the two main recommendations made in the submission to the Grenfell inquiry that I co-authored with the right hon. Nick Raynsford, former MP for Greenwich and Woolwich and a former Minister for housing and for fire and rescue services, who is now chair of CICAIR, the Construction Industry Council Approved Inspectors Register; Kevin Savage, a leading figure in the building control profession; and Keith Conradi, current chief investigator of the health services safety investigations body, which arose from a recommendation from the Public Administration Committee, which I chaired, and previously chief investigator of the air accident investigation branch of the Department for Transport, who therefore brings a wealth of expertise to the panel of drafters of our submission on the question of safety systems and safety management, and accident investigation. The inquiry has not yet published our submission, but has given me permission to place copies in the Library. I hope right hon. and hon. Members will find it helpful.

Our submission is addressed not to who should be blamed but to some of what should be learned. The remit of the inquiry includes “the scope and adequacy” of the relevant regulations, legislation and guidance. The Building Safety Act reflects in large part the recommendations of the review commissioned by the Government from Dame Judith Hackitt, called “Building a Safer Future”. I thank her and Peter Baker, the chief inspector of buildings, who leads the new building safety regulator; they have both been extremely helpful with our submission, although they may not agree with all of it. We have presented our submission to Ministers, but they are, naturally, awaiting the outcome of the Grenfell inquiry before responding formally.

The Building Safety Act establishes the new building safety regulator based in the Health and Safety Executive. It is responsible for a wide range of activities, including overseeing the safety and performance of all buildings and taking responsibility for control and approval of higher-risk buildings—currently defined as buildings of a height of 18 metres or more, or comprising more than six storeys. It also deals with residents’ complaints, oversees a new competence regime for people working on buildings, advises on the need for changes to building regulations, and oversees and reports on the performance of building control bodies.

We looked carefully at the Hackitt review recommendations and how they have been interpreted by the Government. We recommend, first, that there should be a new, independent building safety investigation body. The interim Hackitt review did not consider how future fires should be investigated, and this seems to me to be a gap in the thinking so far. Under the new regime, investigations will still be carried out by the Health and Safety Executive or by new public inquiries. The length of time that the Grenfell inquiry is taking is yet another example of how public inquiries are likely to leave survivors and their families feeling betrayed for far too long, even though I am certain that, in the end, the Moore-Bick inquiry will be of great value.

There is also a problem that we discovered after Ladbroke Grove: investigations conducted by the regulator can turn out to be conflicted, because the cause of the failure might be a failure of Health and Safety Executive oversight and its regulation. That is not a criticism of the Health and Safety Executive; it is a criticism of the system. The Health and Safety Executive, of which the new building safety regulator is a part, should be precluded from any possibility of having to investigate itself, because it is inherently conflicted. Many, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), feel that the inquiry into the Buncefield fire was conflicted for exactly that reason, with the result that the inquiry was less authoritative than an independent investigation would have been.

Our proposal for an independent building safety investigator is based on the Rail Accident Investigation Branch of the Department for Transport, which in turn is based on the AAIB—the air accident body. That is what the Cullen inquiry recommended following the Ladbroke Grove rail crash. In rail and other sectors, including aviation, this approach is much quicker, much less costly and more effective than public inquiries, because these bodies acquire a permanent body of expertise and experience.

Like a public inquiry, an accident investigation body establishes the causes of a major incident, but these independent bodies seek not to find who to blame, but to learn from failure for the future. In the case of Grenfell, there may well still be people to blame and to prosecute, but people who make mistakes are very often blameless because they are part of a defective system or failing safety culture. There are many instances of aviation accidents where pilot error has been a contributory factor but the pilot is not blamed for that failure. We have all watched the wonderful film “Sully” about such a failure. These independent bodies make safety recommendations to regulators and to the Government, who are accountable for ensuring that they are implemented.

The hon. Member for Leeds East complained about delayed prosecutions having to defer to the judicial inquiry. Unlike with a public inquiry, the regulator may still conduct a parallel investigation to the safety investigator’s to establish responsibility and, if necessary, to prosecute those at fault, as the Civil Aviation Authority prosecuted the pilot in the Shoreham air crash. The crucial point is that the regulator cannot force the accident investigation branch to reveal witness statements except by High Court intervention. That is essential in accident investigation, because it creates a safe space for those giving their account in which they can talk freely and be completely candid, whether or not they think they are to blame. That speeds the whole process of investigation and engages survivors and their families and the bereaved. There is no safe space for candour under the Building Safety Act, and this must change.

Our second principal proposal concerns building control. We propose a new regulatory system for building control. We propose that approved inspectors, who are the private sector, and local authority building control, which is the public sector, should both be regulated on an equal basis, as in any other safety-critical profession. There is currently no licence regime or register for local authority building control and no dedicated independent scrutiny or regulation of its service, yet the failure of local authority building control appears to be one of the factors that led to the Grenfell disaster. Ironically, the proposals that have been brought forward seem to treat the private sector with more suspicion than the public sector, even though it seems that the public sector is what failed in the case of Grenfell.

Building control bodies are responsible for checking building work to verify that it complies with building regulations. Building control work can be carried out either by private firms, known as approved inspectors, or by local authority in-house building control bodies, which have a statutory duty to provide building control services in their area. To be approved to provide building control services in the private sector, authorised inspectors, unlike local authorities, must be licensed by CICAIR. Approved inspectors are subject to a code of conduct, regular auditing and a complaints and disciplinary regime leading to suspension of their licence if they are acting improperly or seriously underperforming. Local authorities opposed being subject to the same oversight and inspection regime. There is no credible case for accepting that.

Those are the two recommendations that we submitted to the inquiry. I have not spoken to the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), who is in his place on the Treasury Bench, so I do not expect him to respond in detail to these proposals. I thought it would be helpful to the House if I laid them out. I repeat that the full text of our submission is now in the House of Commons Library. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will take an interest in it.