All 1 Baroness Sanderson of Welton contributions to the Building Safety Act 2022

Read Bill Ministerial Extracts

Wed 2nd Feb 2022
Building Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading

Building Safety Bill

Baroness Sanderson of Welton Excerpts
Baroness Sanderson of Welton Portrait Baroness Sanderson of Welton (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I welcome today’s debate, and I thank my noble friend the Minister for his commitment to this issue. It is appreciated.

We all know the importance of the Bill before us today and we all know what led to its creation: the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower. It was a tragedy that shocked and shamed the country, yet more shocking still has been the evidence that has since come out of the public inquiry. Listening to all those involved makes for a deeply depressing experience. With the notable exception of RBKC, no one is ever to blame. It is always someone else’s fault, someone else’s problem.

Take the architects involved in the refurbishment. Apparently, they did not have design responsibility; that was the contractors’—except the contractors say that they delegated it to the cladding subcontractor. But no, hold on a minute, the cladding subcontractor says that the design compliance was not its job but the job of—wait for it—the architects. As for the companies that made the cladding, Arconic, Celotex and Kingspan —no, none of this was their responsibility. Never mind that the inquiry evidence shows that they manufactured or provided products that they knew or suspected to be dangerous for buildings of above 80 metres. Nor, apparently, was it the fault of the bodies responsible for testing and certification—bodies that have been accused of being too close to their customers and failing to provide the necessary protections.

Worse even than all this is the casual disregard—the flippancy—shown by pretty much everyone involved, at every level, in an industry that is supposed to have safety at its core. It is impossible to convey, so here they are in their own words, as heard at the public inquiry. An email from a senior staff member at Local Authority Building Control about the wording of a certificate, wrongly asserting that Kingspan’s insulation could be used on high-rise buildings, states:

“This issue has been burning for a LONG time though, hasn’t it? (Get it!!!!) Why is it raising its head again all of a sudden?”

An email between the contractors, fire engineers and architects, about the need to install strong fire barriers, says:

“There is no point in ‘fire stopping’, as we all know, the ACM will be gone rather quickly in a fire!”

Messages between employees of Kingspan discussing the rating of their material as class 0, or non-combustible, state:

“Doesn’t actually get class 0 when we test the whole product tho. LOL.”

An email from Grenfell’s fire risk assessor to the council’s tenant management organisation, after the LFB contacted them asking for help in identifying vulnerable persons, said:

“I would say you have nobody that this refers to … If you identify anybody now questions like why were they not included in the buildings FRA spring to mind. A good response I believe would be thank you for this information if we find anyone in the future we will let you know.”

For reference, while some updating did later take place, 15 of the 37 residents classed as vulnerable and disabled died in the fire.

This, then, was the culture of a truly broken industry. Within this, I fully appreciate that the role of government must also be looked at, and it will be considered by the inquiry shortly. I also appreciate, however, that that must not take away from the huge strides that the Bill will make.

Before I get on to that, I have one question for my noble friend the Minister. Incredible as it seems, post Grenfell and after all we have learned, the regulations still allow for tall residential buildings with only one fire escape staircase. Last month, it came to light that plans for two such developments in London are being rethought after concerns were raised locally and by the LFB.

Dozens of other countries require two or more escape stairs in such buildings, and I would like to know whether we will consider doing the same. It seems an anomaly when the Bill will do so much to fix the system, including the building safety regulator; new competence requirements for anyone carrying out design or building work; gateway points to ensure that building regulations compliance is considered at every stage of design and construction; and an accountable person who will ensure that residents are given a voice in decisions that concern the safety of their buildings. These changes are all designed to ensure that a tragedy such as Grenfell never happens again. While I understand that there will be improvements to make, regarding cladding remediation in particular, I urge noble Lords to bear in mind the fundamental reason for the Bill: that no one has to endure what the residents endured that night.

I declare my interest as a community adviser on Grenfell. I have worked with many members of the community since the days immediately after the fire. I have witnessed their strength and dignity in the face of so much suffering. I have heard what happened to them. It is not something that they like to talk about but, with kind permission, I want to tell one man’s story.

He grew up in Grenfell Tower and his mother and sister still lived there. On the night of the fire, they were trapped on one of the upper floors. His sister called him, leaving the line open as he rushed from his home in north London. Standing inside the cordon area, he saw his friends at the windows. He watched the flames engulf the building, as he remained on the phone to his sister. Despite her deteriorating situation she kept insisting she was okay, until finally she began to fade away. He heard a banging on the floor and then silence. At this point, he thought he had lost his mum too but, 30 seconds later and for the first time in the early hours of that morning, he heard her voice. She was struggling for breath and said her last words: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” He stayed on the phone, unable to cut off the call, hearing only the sound of the fire but hoping against all hope that maybe they would be okay, maybe someone would rescue them. It took him over an hour before he finally managed to switch off his phone.

Can noble Lords imagine how difficult that must have been and how difficult the reliving of that moment must still be? That is the reality of Grenfell. That is why the Bill is before us today—and it is why we must do everything we can to ensure its safe passage through this House.