Fire Safety Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Meg HillierMain Page: Meg Hillier (Labour (Co-op)) - Hackney South and Shoreditch)
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Order. I am very sorry, but I have to interrupt the hon. Lady again. Those in the Chamber, and presumably those listening in other ways, cannot make out what she is saying, so we will interrupt her speech for the moment and hopefully come back to her shortly.
I am glad to see that in the Chamber we have, without any sound difficulties, Meg Hillier.
It is a real pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) to her place on the Opposition Front Bench. Like her, I arrived here on 11 June 2017, along with Emma Dent Coad. I want to place on record my thanks, and I think those of many, for the great campaigning work she did for the residents and the community in the immediate aftermath of the terrible tragedy that was the Grenfell fire. I then sat on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, and it was a privilege to meet many of the survivors of the terrible events of that night. They have acted with such determination and diligence to force through many of the changes I am sure we will see over the coming months.
I welcome the Bill. It is an important first step in making our high-rise tower blocks safe for those who live in them, but it is just a first step. It is the first and only piece of primary legislation that has been brought forward by the Government since the tragedy of that night. Three years on, I am afraid I just do not see it as good enough. For all that time, people across the country have remained in unsafe housing. As someone who lives at the top of a very high tower block, I can understand the fear they live in.
A few months ago I set up the all-party group for council housing, which seeks to represent the views of council tenants here in Parliament. In that spirit, I mention the meeting I hosted with tenants back in the summer of 2018. We heard from tenants across the country about their priorities and how they felt, time and time again, that they were not being listened to by the Government or local authorities, and that the response to Grenfell had been inadequate. They still felt at risk in their homes a year on from the tragedy, and they still do three years on. Ed Daffarn, one of the survivors of Grenfell who campaigned brilliantly on the issue, spoke of the institutional indifference of the council and national Government to the concerns of Grenfell residents before the fire. I am afraid that that still exists in places.
Three years on, up to 60,000 worried residents are still living wrapped in lethal Grenfell-style cladding. Almost nine in 10 private sector buildings and over half of social sector buildings affected have not had that cladding removed or replaced. That is despite the former Housing Secretary, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), setting a deadline of the end of 2019 for social sector blocks to be made safe and a deadline of June 2020 for all private sector blocks to be made safe—a deadline that now looks likely to be missed. For years, Ministers did everything they could to avoid taking responsibility for ACM cladding removal. I am afraid that they had to be dragged into action by the campaigning of groups such as Grenfell United, the Labour party and others. It is still not happening quickly enough.
Elsewhere, the Grenfell inquiry found that the Government ignored recommendations to retrofit sprinklers in social housing blocks in the years leading up to the tragedy. It included the recommendations from the coroners after the loss of life in the Lakanal House fire in 2009 and in Shirley Towers in 2010. The lessons were not learned then and they are not being learned now. Some 95% of local authority-owned tower blocks taller than 30 metres still do not have sprinkler systems installed. We have repeatedly called for a £1 billion fund to retrofit sprinklers in all high-rise social housing blocks. Sadly, that has been ignored. I called for sprinklers to be retrofitted. As a new MP, I could see how desperately they were needed. I wrote to my district council asking for that to happen.
The Bill is important. I do not wish to downplay it. It is welcome and necessary, and I hope that it results in much greater enforcement action, and particularly in the removal of ACM cladding. However, we must be confident that the resources are there for enforcement to happen. I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). We know that £142 million has been cut from fire and rescue services since 2013, and that between 2010 and 2017 the number of fire safety inspectors fell by 28%. Without them, we have no protection on the frontline. Finally, I want to be assured that there is absolute clarity in the Bill that it will be the ultimate owner of high-rise blocks, not individual leaseholders, who will be responsible where remedial action is not being taken.
In conclusion, I welcome the Bill. It seeks to underline the importance of ownership, accountability and responsibility, but we have been slow in getting to this point. I look forward to the building safety Bill coming through, hopefully this summer, because it is critically important. At the same time, however, the Government must take urgent and necessary steps to get all cladding removed and install sprinkler systems in all high-rise social housing blocks, and we need to ensure that national, independently funded testing facilities are established as soon as possible.