This is a tragedy that has shocked the whole country and it should never have happened.
The first priority must be to ensure that all those who are affected are given the support they need now and in the years ahead. The initial support was not good enough and the Government must now do everything it can to support residents, including providing new housing for all families displaced in the local area. Funding must also be guaranteed for victims’ legal, funeral and other costs.
Over £10 million has been raised for the people affected so far, of which £2.8 million comes from the Red Cross London Fire Relief Fund. Local and national charities, including the Red Cross, are working together to coordinate financial help for those affected, with the support and advice of the Charity Commission. These funds are separate to and independent of funds made available by the Government or local authority but the charities involved will seek to work with the authorities where necessary in the weeks ahead.
The Red Cross coordinating with London Emergency Trust states that they “take the issue of donor funds very seriously and always vigilant in making sure all donations reach those who are most in need. The money raised has been used to assist the victims, their families and dependents. We will not take any of our administration costs out of the money raised – no staff salaries or such costs will be deducted. Absolutely no administration costs will come out of the fund. All net proceeds will go to the victims and those affected by these terrible circumstances.”
In the meantime, I believe the Government should set out a plan to act immediately on the recommendations from the Coroners’ reports from the Lakanal House and Shirley Towers fires – which it has had since 2013 – by retrofitting high-rise blocks with sprinklers, starting with the highest risk buildings. Central government should be providing funding for local authorities so that this work can be progressed as quickly as possible. In addition, residents need to have up-to-date advice about what to do in the event of a fire in their block; and full safety checks should be undertaken for all high-rise blocks.
The Government announced a period of “limited leave to remain” for victims of the Grenfell Tower fire and claimed that the Home Office will not conduct immigration checks on survivors. I do not believe this goes far enough. To access all the support they need without fear of deportation, I agree that any survivors concerned about their status must be given indefinite leave to remain.
More widely it is clear that a wider re-think of housing policy is now needed, including the resources and powers available to local government to build and maintain homes. At the General Election I stood on a manifesto that pledged the biggest council house building programme for over 30 years. The manifesto committed to prioritising homes for social rent and building new homes for living rent, with rents capped at a third of local incomes to give private renters the breathing room to save for a deposit on a first home.
Ipswich Borough Council owns only one tower block, Cumberland Towers, which was inspected by Suffolk Fire & Rescue Service and the Ipswich and East Suffolk Building Control team on 20th June. This did not raise any fire safety concerns. An independent Fire Risk Assessment was already in place.
Cumberland Towers is completely different in construction from Grenfell Tower and all the external structural work (cladding, window openings etc.) taking place as part of the building’s refurbishment meets all fire safety and building control requirements. The cladding at Grenfell Tower was aluminium composite cladding with an air gap between it and the main building fabric. The Cumberland Towers cladding is mineral wool applied to the face of the building, finished with render. This has a high fire protection rating and has BS476-6 and BS476-7 certification. The Council has consulted the Government (Department for Communities and Local Government) and BRE (the company working for the Government to test cladding) and they have confirmed that there is no need for the mineral wool cladding to be tested as it is known not to be combustible.
Despite this, Ipswich Borough Council has taken the decision to install sprinklers in Cumberland Towers and will proceed with the work as soon as it is practical to do so.
I welcome the announcement of a public inquiry into the fire at Grenfell Tower, which includes a commitment to publish interim findings. The consultation on the terms of reference of the inquiry closed on 4 August 2017. I will follow the outcome of the consultation and the progress of the inquiry closely. I take the view that the public inquiry should have covered the area of government policy and local authority funding as well as covering the decisions that directly led to the disaster, but I do appreciate that the over-riding need is for answers, and for those answers to lead to changes in policy, and if it is easier to achieve that within a sensible timeframe within the terms of reference that have been agreed then I accept that the inquiry should now proceed without further delay.
In July the Government announced an independent review of building regulations and fire safety. This long-awaited review is welcome but long overdue, as Ministers promised this four years ago after the last fatal high-rise fires. I believe the Government must now expand its testing programme, publish results in full so that residents and landlords know whether or not their buildings are safe, and stand by their earlier promise to help fund the costs of any necessary work.
There are thousands of tower blocks around our country and every person living in one deserves answers about why this happened and what will be done. Above all, they need to be able to know that they will not face the same disaster in their own homes. The tragic fire that occurred at Grenfell Tower must never be allowed to happen again.