Robert Jenrick – 2020 Statement on the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 Report

Below is the text of the statement made by Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, in the House of Commons on 21 January 2020.

I beg to move,

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

It is now over two and a half years since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, and I believe I speak for all Members of this House when I say that we once again offer the 72 victims, the bereaved, the survivors and everyone affected our profound condolences. They remain in our thoughts and prayers. They seek answers, accountability, justice and action to ensure that this terrible tragedy is never repeated. That is why yesterday I set out our immediate plans to improve building safety in this country. Getting this right is a priority for this new Government and the Prime Minister, and it is something that I will personally be taking forward at pace.

Dame Margaret Hodge (Barking) (Lab)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early in his speech. He refers to the statement he made yesterday. I welcome the decision in that statement to consult on ensuring that building regulations are relevant to buildings of a lower height, but he talked about that being relevant to new buildings and not to existing buildings. He will know from the fire at Samuel Garside House in my constituency that that was an existing building, and that it went up in just six minutes. If the fire had happened in the middle of night, it could have led to huge loss of life. Fortunately it did not, but I ask him to consider whether the regulations should not also be relevant to existing buildings, as well as to new buildings of a lower height.

Robert Jenrick

I will come to that issue in a moment. The right hon. Lady and I have worked together on this and she has been a strong advocate for her constituents after the fire in Barking.

The announcement we made yesterday goes further. It says that we will be working with experts to develop a far more sophisticated measure of safety in buildings than simply the crude one of height alone that has existed for decades in this country. Once we have arrived at that, it will inform all the actions that building owners will have to take. It is the responsibility of building owners to take a view of building safety through an independent assessment of risk in that building that bears in mind all the characteristics of the building, whether it be the height, the residents in the building, the fire safety system or—as with the fire in Barking—balconies and other materials that are used on the building.

Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab) rose—

Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con) rose—

Robert Jenrick

If I could perhaps make some progress, I will come to the points around building safety in a moment and return to the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell).​

As I have said, getting this right will be a priority for the Government, for the Prime Minister and for myself. We will be introducing two Bills: one to deal with the immediate fire safety issues that we have identified, and another that will bring in the biggest change to building regulations in almost 40 years. Having met families of the bereaved and survivors, some of whom join us in the Gallery today, I remain acutely aware of our responsibility to ensure that they continue to receive the support they need and to see the change that they rightly demand. They have shown incredible resilience and acted not just with great dignity but with great courage. Their voices are being heard, and they must continue to be. On 30 October last year I stood in the House with the Prime Minister following the publication of the Grenfell inquiry’s phase 1 report, which covered the events of the night. Our immediate response was to accept in principle all the findings of the report that relate to the Government. Since then, we have worked at pace to deliver the Government’s response, which I am setting out today.

Sir Martin’s report provides a detailed, minute-by-minute account of what happened on the evening of 14 June 2017. It is built around the testimony of survivors and of the fire and rescue team involved in the response. The report made very important recommendations, including new duties for building owners; operational changes for the London Fire Brigade and, indeed, for fire and rescue services more widely, as well as for emergency services across the country; and addressing the continued presence of unsafe cladding on buildings.

Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Robert Jenrick

If I may, I will come to my hon. Friend in a moment.

I will now turn to the actions the Government have taken since receiving the report. First, in response to Sir Martin’s findings that there was compelling evidence that the external walls on Grenfell Tower were not compliant with building regulations—this was an important finding—we are wasting no time in addressing this. The Home Office will introduce the fire safety Bill in the coming weeks so that the necessary changes are made as soon as possible. This Bill will leave building owners in no doubt that external wall systems, including cladding, and front doors to individual flats in multi-occupied residential buildings fall within the scope of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. This means that they must assess the risk and they must take precautionary measures to keep people safe. The fire safety Bill will also make clear the enforcement powers that can be taken locally against building owners who have not remediated unsafe ACM—aluminium composite material— cladding. This Bill will be the first step towards the new regulatory framework that will implement the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase 1 and the regulatory requirements to do so.

Lucy Powell

I thank the Secretary of State for the tone in which he is conducting this debate, and indeed in which he has been leading on these issues since he took over. Could he clarify whether this new body will mean that residents such as mine in Skyline Central 1, who are facing £25,000 bills each being passed on by the ​building owner, can have recourse back to the building owner, who would have to meet the cost of their now unsafe building?

Robert Jenrick

That will depend on the exact legal relationship in the building in question, and I am very happy to work with the hon. Lady to help investigate that. It is the responsibility of building owners to take action and, as she rightly mentions, many have for various reasons passed that on to leaseholders. I am acutely aware, as I said in the House yesterday, that some leaseholders feel trapped and unable to fund the mediation works that now need to happen, and that costs should not be a bar to that. As I said yesterday, we are now working with the Treasury to see if there are ways of providing financing to support those individuals.

Marsha De Cordova (Battersea) (Lab)

I thank the Secretary of State for being generous with his time. On that very point, he mentions having conversations with the Treasury to look at different options—he said this in his statement yesterday—but is there any set timeline for the conversations that he will have with the Treasury on this point? I ask, because leaseholders have been in this position for two years and seven months, so the sooner we can resolve how to support them so that they do not to have to front the costs of any remediation works, the better. What is the timeline that he has with the Treasury to ensure that this can be sped up, because it has been over two years?

Robert Jenrick

I cannot give the hon. Lady an exact timetable, but it is worth saying that we have already—I will come on to this in my remarks—made available £600 million for building owners in both the social sector and the private sector. On expert advice, I have targeted that public grant funding towards ACM-clad buildings of over 18 metres. I will say again that all of the expert opinion I have seen has confirmed the decision that those are the most unsafe buildings and that they should be the priority for public funding. A number of building owners are already helping to remove cladding in their own buildings, and coming up with funding arrangements to help leaseholders to meet those costs, such as low-cost or zero-interest loan schemes. If the Government can assist in that, I think we should do so, because we want to see this cladding removed as soon as possible.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)

May I slightly extend that point, as these issues reach across the Floor? Since the terrible Grenfell disaster, people in a privately owned block of flats in my constituency have faced massively increased insurance costs. They have been unable to get anyone to give them a confirmed view about the cladding, or to receive information from the fire brigade about the real nature of the threat and danger. Everybody has run for cover, and as result those people have already spent a vast amount of money—they are not wealthy people. They have now been told that the cladding does not pose a threat, but they have a backwash of costs and are still affected by this issue. Will the Secretary of State consider whether insurance companies, and others, should have been charging leaseholders those extra costs until it had been confirmed that there was a real threat?

Robert Jenrick

I would be happy to take up the individual case raised by my right hon. Friend, and the wider point. We are working closely with the insurance industry. This issue involves a range of materials, the most dangerous of which is ACM cladding, which was on Grenfell Tower. That has been the focus of public money. It is the responsibility of all building owners to have an independent assessment and ensure that the building is safe—it sounds as if that is what happened, perhaps belatedly, to the building in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. That assessment should provide the answers, after which remediation work, if necessary, needs to happen at pace. If I can help to support that in any way, I will.

Sir Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con)

This inquiry is not about finding blame; it is about finding causes and rectifying the situation. In this case, the problems that have been created regarding the wider building stock and liability are no fault of property owners, tenants or leaseholders, and that leaves a liability that falls on the Government, at least to a degree. Otherwise, there will be widening injustice, bankruptcy and failures across a whole sector of housing, because we are trying to remediate the failure of regulation in the past.

Robert Jenrick

The question at the heart of my hon. Friend’s remarks is what the judge will determine in the second phase of the inquiry. What went wrong that led to that cladding being on Grenfell Tower? Was it a failure of Government or of regulation of the construction industry, or a combination of those things? I do not think we can prejudge what the judge will determine over the course of the detailed second phase of the inquiry that is about to commence.

Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)

I have followed these matters over the past couple of years, and in my experience the Secretary of State has done more to try to resolve these problems than any of his predecessors, all of whom tried to tackle a thorny issue. He is right to say that ACM is probably the most dangerous cladding, and we should deal with that first. Advice Note 14 does not deal with ACM, but it does effectively say that other combustible materials should not be on the outside of high rise buildings. The official guidance was more equivocal than that, which leaves long leaseholders in a difficult situation with unsaleable properties—I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in that regard. We must consider this issue. Yesterday the Secretary of State said that he would look at doing more, and we will need to.

Robert Jenrick

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who is a long-standing campaigner on this issue. Next month we will publish the final result of the testing process that my Department has been undertaking over many months with the Building Research Establishment. That will lay out for all to see evidence that I have already seen about the safety, or otherwise, of a range of different materials. I believe it will demonstrate that ACM is by far the most concerning material and should come off buildings as quickly as possible.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

​Robert Jenrick

I had better make some progress, but I will return to my hon. Friend in a moment.

The Bill we will bring forward later this year will be the first step towards the new regulatory framework that will implement the recommendations of the phase 1 report’s legislative requirements. Under the Bill, building owners and managers will be required to share information with fire and rescue services on external wall systems, and undertake regular inspections of flat entrance doors. The Home Office will consult on the detail of the proposals in spring this year.

That legislative action will address many of the inquiry’s recommendations and forms part of the wider Government response to ensure that action is taken against unsafe cladding. My Department has already introduced a ban on combustible materials on the external walls of new buildings over 18 metres, and, as I have said, made available £600 million in Government funding to support that work.

Sir Martin’s report concluded that it was not just the materials of the building that contributed to the tragedy: more people could have survived the fire had the London Fire Brigade conducted a full evacuation earlier in the night. He recognises existing Government guidance stating that fire and rescue services should have contingency plans for when a building needs full or partial evacuation, and noted that the London Fire Brigade policies were in this respect deficient.

Andy Slaughter

In the Minister’s statement yesterday there was not anything that I saw about evacuation and changes to the stay-put policy, which would be a huge change that would have implications for means of escape, alarms, sprinkler systems and so on. When can we expect the Government to pronounce on that?

Robert Jenrick

I will come on to that point in just a moment, if I may.

Sir Martin recommended that the Government produce national guidelines for carrying out the evacuation of high rise residential buildings. I am now working closely with colleagues in the Home Office on those guidelines. My Department and the Home Office have formed a steering group with the National Fire Chiefs Council and other experts, which met for the first time in December. The group agreed on the scope of an evidence review into stay put and evacuation. Let me reiterate, however, that the advice from the National Fire Chiefs Council is that stay put remains an appropriate policy providing compartmentation is maintained. In fact, Sir Martin highlighted that effective compartmentation is likely to remain at the heart of fire safety and the response to fires in high rise buildings. I think that that is an important point that we should all bear in mind in how we communicate on these issues to members of the public.

A number of recommendations made by Sir Martin were for the London Fire Brigade, and for fire and rescue services more widely across the country. The firefighters serving that night showed exceptional bravery and dedication. I would like to pay tribute to their courage, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did last year. However, the report made very clear that there were failures in the London Fire Brigade’s response. Significant changes are needed in its policies, guidance and training, including on evacuation procedures. We know that fire ​and rescue services across the country need to have the training and processes in place to be able to respond as effectively as possible to fires in residential buildings. The control rooms that co-ordinate emergency responses must have the processes in place to deal with all incidents effectively.

I am pleased that London Fire Brigade has already rolled out fire survival guidance training, and is reviewing its policies and guidance in the light of the inquiry’s recommendations. It is important that all our emergency services have proper protocols in place to ensure that they can work together and communicate effectively in an emergency. The Home Office is working with the interoperability board to ensure that those lessons are learned. While these recommendations are not aimed directly at the Government, clearly the Government have a role and we will not sit back.

Mrs Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con)

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. As Home Secretary I chaired the board of JESIP, the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme. What is clear from Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report, page 698, is that the protocol was not followed on the night of the Grenfell fire. He recommends changes to that protocol. Have the changes been put in place? Equally important, have frontline officers and staff of the three emergency services had the changes drawn to their attention, so that they know what they must do when they are working together in a major incident?

Robert Jenrick

My right hon. Friend makes a series of extremely important points. Those issues have been brought to the attention of all the emergency services; they are now working through them. The Home Office is helping to co-ordinate that work and, like her, I hope that those lessons are learned as quickly as possible so that if we are ever presented with a tragedy on this scale again all the emergency services can work together as one, in a co-ordinated way.

Fire and rescue services need urgently to address these issues and must set out their plans to do so. There have been some welcome developments, including, for example, that the London Fire Brigade now carries smoke hoods on its fire engines; that five pumps and a drone, rather than four pumps, are now deployed to fires in high-rise buildings; and that the London Fire Brigade has already taken steps to ensure that personnel understand the risk of fire taking hold in external wall systems. My hon. Friend the Minister for Crime, Policing and the Fire Service will address the House at the end of the debate on the work he is doing with the sector.

The work I have outlined shows the urgency with which we are addressing Sir Martin’s recommendations. The Government did not wait for the phase 1 report to begin addressing the most pressing building safety issues. We took immediate action in the aftermath of the fire with a comprehensive and independent review of building safety, chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt.

Bob Seely

It seems to me that ACM cladding, which my right hon. Friend addressed earlier, goes to the heart of the matter. How many high-rise buildings with unsafe ACM cladding have been identified and have had remedial treatment? How many others does he think still have to be identified, and what steps is he taking to do so?​

Robert Jenrick

We are working very closely with the social sector and private owners. I am afraid that, frustratingly, progress has been extremely slow, as my hon. Friend and others across the House know. The fund that we opened for the taxpayer to pay for the remediation has so far seen only four successful applications. However, there is evidence that progress is moving at a pace that we have not seen before. There are now only 10 buildings in the private sector that have not begun the process of remediating, which means drawing up a plan and beginning with or contracting workers who can come on site and take away the cladding. There are exceptional circumstances with all those 10 buildings because, unfortunately, they have been identified only recently as having ACM cladding, so they have come to the process only over the course of the autumn. I want that work to proceed at a pace that we have not known before. As I said yesterday, we are now commissioning an independent building safety construction expert to advise my Department on how we can get that moving very quickly.

It was clear to me when I became Secretary of State—this was confirmed by Sir Martin’s report—that we need to go further to bring forward a series of very significant reforms and ensure that the work moves at pace. In response to Dame Judith Hackitt’s report, we are creating, immediately, the new building safety regulator. As I announced yesterday, we have chosen that that will be established within the Health and Safety Executive. The new regulator will raise building safety and performance standards. It will oversee a new and more stringent regime for high rise buildings and for higher risk buildings more generally.

Non-compliance is an issue in the industry, and the building safety legislation announced in the Queen’s Speech will ensure that the new regulator has the appropriate powers to sanction those responsible. This is a new and significantly tougher regime, underpinned by improved enforcement, dedicated to ensuring that our buildings are made with the necessary high safety standards and that the people within them always feel safe.

Dr Caroline Johnson (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

My right hon. Friend refers to people who suffered from the fire. Can he confirm how many of those families are still waiting for permanent housing? If there are any, what is he doing to find them a permanent home speedily?

Robert Jenrick

Of the households who lived in Grenfell tower, 10 are yet to move into permanent accommodation. Of them, one is in hotel accommodation; the others are in high-quality temporary accommodation. Without going into the personal details of each household, which would not be appropriate, I can tell the House that I have personally reviewed the circumstances behind each of them, and my right hon. Friend the Housing Minister and I have worked closely with Kensington Council to review them again several times since coming to office. They are complex cases with a range of individual circumstances behind them, but we are hopeful that many of them will move into accommodation in which they feel comfortable as soon as possible.

Yesterday, I announced a series of new measures, including the appointment of a construction expert, to quicken the pace of the remediation of ACM cladding. ​I announced that I was minded to lower the height requirements for sprinklers in residential buildings from 18 metres to 11 metres, and I will set out a full proposal on how we intend to deliver that in February.

As I have stated, I have had the privilege of meeting survivors and their families and friends as well as people from across the community of north Kensington, and from the schools, such as Kensington Aldridge Academy and St Francis of Assisi Catholic Primary School, that provide a safe and caring space for children affected by the tragedy to reflect and remember their loved ones, to the worshippers at the Al-Manaar north Kensington mosque, who came together to support the community after the fire and continue to do so. One thing has been clear to me: this is a community of people who look after one another, who will continue to support one another and who will never forget what happened on the evening of the fire.

We owe it to them to ensure that their views are heard throughout our work, that justice is delivered and that the system is changed so that such a tragic fire can never happen again. That means reforming our building safety regime, but it also means reform of social housing to ensure tenants’ voices are heard and that their landlords provide good-quality, safe accommodation with strong and robust sanctions in place to hold them to account where that does not happen.

The Prime Minister and I have committed to bringing forward a social housing White Paper. This will set out further measures to empower tenants, hold social landlords to account and support the continued supply of social housing. This will include measures to provide for greater redress and better regulation and to improve the quality and safety of social housing.

Lucy Powell

Most people would welcome the White Paper the Secretary of State has just announced, but will he consider extending it to those living in private blocks? Many more people are now living in high rise blocks in city centres such as mine, but leaseholders have no rights against the building owners and very little recourse, and there is no teeth when the leasehold valuation tribunal or any other body finds in their favour. The need of private tenants and leaseholders for recourse is just as great.

Robert Jenrick

The hon. Lady makes several important points. Much of the work of the social housing White Paper will apply to private leaseholders, and of course we have a separate stream of work on reforming leasehold. We have already said we will shortly publish a draft Bill on leasehold reform, and we await the further reports from the Law Commission and then in time from the Competition and Markets Authority on leasehold, which will inform our work and I hope lead to significant legislation to reform the leasehold market later in this Parliament.

Dame Margaret Hodge

I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. As he will remember, one of the issues that arose from the fire in Barking was the fact that none of the leaseholders had household insurance, so when they lost all the contents of their homes or the contents were damaged they had no recourse to insurance to replace them. Is he giving any consideration, in any of these reforms, to introducing a system whereby not only is building insurance imposed ​on leaseholders—presumably in social housing that would be covered by the local authorities—but victims of fires do not end up losing all their belongings and having no money with which to replace them? These are people on the edge who really are finding it hard to manage.

Robert Jenrick

I did look into that issue when the right hon. Lady raised it after the fire in Barking. I am acutely aware of the number of individuals who do not have household insurance—that was brought home to me after the floods in Doncaster last year, when we encountered many households that did not have it. I do not think that it is for the state to intervene—I am not sure how practical it would be for household insurance to be provided centrally, regardless of the value of the contents of individuals’ homes—but I am happy to think again, and to speak to the right hon. Lady if that would be helpful.

My Department continues to hold regular meetings with the crucial stakeholders, including Grenfell United, to discuss our emerging proposals, and to ensure that the reform we are introducing is what is needed to deliver meaningful change. I am grateful for their engagement and commitment. It was at their request that we did not rush to publish the social housing White Paper, but are continuing to work with them to ensure that they will—I hope—be able to support it in due course. I will report back to the House shortly with our conclusions.

We know that for the families, the relatives and the survivors, change cannot come quickly enough, and we know that there is still a huge amount to do. We have heard that already, in the opening of this debate. The recent fire in Barking and the fire in Bolton at the end of last year only serve to remind us of the urgency with which we must act, and will continue to guide our work.

Phase 1 of the inquiry was just the first part of a complex process to uncover the truth of what happened. Next week, phase 2 hearings will begin as the work of the inquiry continues. Those hearings will help us to understand how the building was so dangerously exposed to the risk of fire. I have no doubt that Sir Martin will leave no stone unturned in his work. There will be tough questions for those involved in the refurbishment of the tower, and for the manufacturers of the materials used; but there will also be questions for central and local government to respond to, and I will support the work of the inquiry in any way I can.

We also continue to work alongside others to bring about changes that will protect the public, and I will ensure that further updates on the steps taken to implement the chairman’s recommendations are shared with the House at the earliest opportunity.

Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)

As has already been noted, a number of survivors and families from Grenfell are present today. They will be looking for leadership from both their local council and this place. Can the Secretary of State reassure us that he will continue to speak to all the people and organisations involved in the north Kensington area?

Robert Jenrick

I will certainly make that commitment to the bereaved, to the survivors, and to the community of north Kensington. I have met a number of those groups on a number of occasions since becoming Secretary ​of State, and last week my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I met a group of survivors, bereaved people, local residents and members of the community.

I think that I speak for the whole House in once again offering the bereaved and the survivors our most profound condolences. Their pain and loss were unimaginable to us. We owe it to them, and to all whose lives have been affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower, to match these sentiments with action, on a scale and at a pace commensurate with the tragedy, and to do everything in our power to ensure that this never happens again.