Michael Gove – 2022 Statement on Social Housing and Building Safety

The statement made by Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in the House of Commons on 9 June 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered social housing and building safety.

The events of the night of 14 June 2017 were unimaginably horrific. The fate of those living in Grenfell Tower is something that none of us can ever forget. I am sure I speak for Members across the House of Commons when I say that the 72 innocent people who lost their lives—18 of them children—will forever be in our memory. Today we are approaching the fifth anniversary of that tragic night and we all, particularly those of us in government, have a chance as a House to reflect on the tragedy and the important questions that it posed. We have to be clear: what happened that night should never have occurred. Each of us has a right to be safe in our home. The situation in which the residents of Grenfell Tower were placed was unforgivable. The fact that those in the tower were not safe exposed failures that had been overlooked for too long—failures in building control and safety that it is vital we address.

As we reflect on this tragedy, we should bear in mind that there had been warnings before that night. Residents of the tower and others had warned about how the voices of those in social housing were not heeded. In reflecting on what happened, we should reflect not only on the failures in regulation and building safety but on the way in which social housing tenants had not had their rights respected or their voices heard as they should have been. We all have to do better to ensure that issues of life and death are never overlooked again, and that everyone in this country can live their life in safety and dignity, in a home that is warm, decent and safe.

I am glad that we are joined in the Public Gallery by some of those directly affected, including bereaved families, friends and survivors who, for almost five years now, have been living with the ongoing consequences of this tragedy in north Kensington. Since I was given this responsibility as Secretary of State last September, I have been genuinely humbled to hear the personal stories of those affected by the tragedy. I thank them for the vigour, energy, sincerity and determination of their campaign. It cannot have been easy—by God it cannot have been easy—to live with the memories of what happened five years ago, but the people joining us here today, and their friends, relatives and neighbours, have campaigned with dignity and resolution over the last five years to ensure that appropriate lessons are learned.

I can think of few better representatives of community spirit, few better activists for a better world, than those from Grenfell United and the other organisations representing the next of kin, bereaved relatives and survivors. It is important the Government recognise that those voices and that activism should result in action. Again, I apologise to the bereaved, the relatives and the survivors for the fact that, over the last five years, the Government have sometimes been too slow to act and have sometimes behaved insensitively. It is important that we now translate the actions they are demanding into real and lasting change. As I hope I have done, and as I will always seek to do, that involves acknowledging what we got wrong as a Government and what went wrong more widely in our building safety system.

It is clear from the wonderful documentary work on the experience of those in Grenfell Tower that their representatives had warned before the refurbishment about some of the dangers, some of the high-handedness and some of the lack of consideration for which the tenant management organisation and others charged with tenants’ welfare were responsible. Lessons need to be learned about that.

It is also the case that, in the immediate aftermath of the fire, many of the institutions upon which people in North Kensington should have been able to rely failed them. We have to be honest about that, too. There is nothing I can say from the Dispatch Box today that can make up for those failures. All we can do is seek to learn from those mistakes and make sure we work with the community to ensure that nothing like this tragedy ever happens again.

My Department has a dedicated team of civil servants who are working to make sure those lessons are learned and the community’s voices are heard, and I thank all the officials who have worked with the community over the past five years, and who in many cases have become close friends of those affected, for their work. I also thank other professionals in the public sector who have worked with the community and families. I particularly want to thank those in the NHS. The health and wellbeing of many survivors of the tragedy has been impaired in a terrible way, and the commitment of NHS professionals to working with those who have been affected is admirable and worthy of our support and, certainly on my part, gratitude.

I also wish to thank two colleagues, Nick Hurd, a former Member of this House, and Baroness Sanderson, who have been advising the Prime Minister on how we can support the Grenfell families. Both of them were, of course, appointed by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), and I would like to thank her as well for the continuing close personal interest she takes in the issues that the Grenfell tragedy has brought to the forefront of all our minds.

I also want to thank the independent Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission, and I stress that it is independent; it includes elected community representatives, and it has been working hard to ensure that we can have a permanent and appropriate memorial to honour those who lost their lives in the tragedy. I recommend to all Members of the House the commission’s recent report. It makes for powerful reading and gives us all an opportunity to reflect on what the right way is to ensure that there is a fitting memorial for those who have lost their lives. The scene of that fire is both, of course, a crime scene and a sacred place, because for all those who perished that night we want to make sure that their memory is never forgotten. That is why my Department wants to work with the commission to ensure that its report is brought to fruition.

I also want to thank those who have been working with the public inquiry, under Sir Martin Moore-Bick. I know that when the inquiry was set up many representatives of the community were concerned that its work might not meet the needs of the hour, but I think that Sir Martin and his team, particularly the counsels to the inquiry—the lawyers who have been working diligently to get at the truth—have done us all a service. They have laid bare a series of mistakes that were made by those of us in government and by others, and they have exposed what I believe is wrongdoing on the part of a number of organisations. I do not want to pre-empt the conclusions of the inquiry and the steps that will necessarily need to be taken to ensure that justice is done. Sir Martin’s inquiry’s first report made a series of recommendations and it made uncomfortable reading for some, but it also ensured that the decision by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead to set up the inquiry has been vindicated. We now need to ensure that we take seriously all the forthcoming recommendations when the inquiry concludes.

Of course, we in government have not waited for the inquiry to conclude in order to take action. Not all of the steps that should have been taken have been taken, but in recent months we have been seeking to ensure that in respect of the direction of travel set out by the inquiry, and by others who have looked closely at the problems that underlay our regime of building safety, appropriate steps have been taken.

It should not have taken a tragedy such as the Grenfell Tower fire for us to realise that there were problems in our building safety regime and in our regulatory regime. But now that we have had an opportunity to reflect, study and look at the multiple and manifold failings, we know that a significant amount of work, which we are undertaking, requires to be completed as quickly as possible. We know that shortcuts were taken when it came to safety. We know that unforgiveable decisions were made, in the interests of financial engineering, that put lives at risk. We also know that in my Department individuals sought to speak up and to raise concerns but those voices were not heeded. That must rest on my conscience and those of Government colleagues. Many of those involved in construction, from those in the construction products industry to those directly involved in the refurbishment and remediation of buildings, just behaved in a way that was beyond reckless. That is why it is so important that the collective fight for justice that the Grenfell community have asked for results in those responsible being brought to book. In the meantime, we have been seeking to ensure that we put in place a regulatory regime that repairs some of the damage of the past and that money is made available to repair buildings in which people still find themselves in unsafe conditions.