John Healey – 2020 Speech on Building Safety

Below is the text of the speech made by John Healey, the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne, in the House of Commons on 20 January 2020.

I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement this afternoon.

The Secretary of State will remember, as we all do, the shocking disbelief and grief in the immediate aftermath of the dreadful Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, and he will remember, as I do, the solemn undertakings from all parts of this House to make sure that such a fire could never happen again. I never thought that, two and a half years later, I would be standing here facing a Secretary of State—the third Secretary of State—who still cannot say that all the necessary action has been taken and that a fire like Grenfell cannot happen again in Britain.

Directly after the fire, the then Prime Minister made this promise on behalf of the Conservative Government:

“Landlords have a legal obligation to provide safe buildings…We cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 169.]

Yet thousands of people continue to live in unsafe homes, condemned to do so by this Government’s failure on all fronts after Grenfell. Why, two and a half years later, are 315 high-rise blocks still cloaked in the same Grenfell-style cladding? Why do 76 of these blocks’ owners not even have a plan in place to replace the deadly cladding? Why have 91 social tower block landlords still not replaced their ACM cladding, when this Secretary of State promised that it would be done by the end of last year? And why have the Government not completed and published full fire safety tests on other unsafe, but not ACM, types of cladding? Why has the Secretary of State had nothing to say this afternoon in his statement on these points?​

The Secretary of State has made pledges of his own on Grenfell action. He promised:

“to take action of a scale and a pace that is commensurate with the tragedy that prompted it.”—[Official Report, 30 October 2019; Vol. 667, c. 419.]

Seventy-two lives were lost in that Grenfell Tower fire, yet there have been no prosecutions, no fire safety fund to retrofit sprinklers, no legislation to make private block owners, not leaseholders, pay the safety work costs, and still no legislation in place to overhaul building safety legislation more than 20 months after the Government’s own Hackitt review was published and accepted in full by Ministers.

I know that the Secretary of State has approached this task with a very serious intent since he was appointed in the summer, and we welcome the setting up of a national regulator to do the job that Ministers and the Department have been unable to do so far. I also welcome the decision to name and shame block owners who will not do the work, and the recognition that the system of building safety checks and controls does not just affect buildings of over six storeys.

There have been 21 announcements on building safety in this House since Grenfell, but there are still not enough answers and there is still not enough action, so let me ask the Secretary of State: given that the new building safety regulator will need legislation to underpin it, when will the new draft building safety Bill be published, and when on earth is it actually going to reach the statute book?

The Secretary of State has said this afternoon that ACM cladding with an unmodified polyethylene core should not be used on buildings of any height. How many additional buildings does he estimate fall into this category? Also, why wait a month to name and shame block owners who will not do the work? Why not do it now? In fact, why did he not do it in June, when I previously called for him to do so? And why has he not restated to the House that June 2020—fully three years on from Grenfell—is the Government’s hard deadline for the full removal and replacement of ACM cladding from all tower blocks in this country? I am afraid that this is too little, at least two years too late.

At every stage since Grenfell, Ministers have failed to grasp the scale of the problems or the scale of the Government action required, and I fear that we will reach the third anniversary—and, Lord forbid, the fourth anniversary—and still not be able to say to people with confidence that a fire like Grenfell can never happen again in Britain.