If the Government were a private company and acted as they have over the Grenfell Tower disaster , Ministers could be in the dock for corporate manslaughter, says Croydon North MP Steve Reed.
Mr Reed told an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on fire cladding that is absolutely extraordinary that we are not looking, right now, at a ban on all forms of flammable cladding.
“What we see now is still evidence of a go-slow and foot-dragging approach by the Government that is highly inappropriate—I would almost say negligent—given the risk to life that we know exists from the deaths that happened at Lakanal House and those that happened in even greater numbers at Grenfell Tower. [Interruption.]
“It is no good the Minister shrugging his shoulders and grunting from the Front Bench. “Grenfell happened after Lakanal because Ministers refused to act on the guidance—the instruction—that they were given by the coroner.
“Eric Pickles, who was the Secretary of State at the time, refused to act on the advice given by the inquest into Lakanal House in 2013. “In 2016, because it had not been banned, ACM cladding was strapped to the outside of Grenfell Tower. “In 2017, it went up in flames and 72 people lie dead as a result. It could not be more serious.
“We need properly to understand how this came to be, why the Government did not act, and why the Government still have not acted to ban that type of cladding from buildings. “They are talking about banning it, but all flammable cladding has not been banned from all buildings—[Interruption.] The Minister will have an opportunity to respond later in the debate, and we look forward to hearing him. [Interruption.] “If he wants to intervene, I will take his intervention.”
Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government): “I am quite happy to intervene, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. “It should be clear that in December last year, we banned flammable cladding of all types on buildings over 18 metres. “This is an absolute and complete ban, and nobody should be under any illusion about that, or represent it as being anything other than that.
Steve Reed: “A partial ban is not a ban. This kind of cladding is still permitted on far too many buildings, and too many people are not safe. There has been no action to take flammable cladding off buildings where it already exists. Those are the issues that I want to come on to. In fact—
“There are still thousands of terrified residents living in blocks with the same kind of cladding, or a very similar kind of cladding, as that which went up in flames at Grenfell Tower. “There are still 56 private blocks of flats around the country—that is 56—that have no clear plan in place to remove and replace it. “People are left living in fear.
“There is no point in the Minister standing up and telling me the Government banned it last December when right now, in 56 blocks around the country, people are living with flammable cladding strapped to the outside of their homes and no plan whatsoever to remove it.
“We need to recognise the scale of Government failure to put things right in any acceptable way, given that it has been 10 years since Lakanal House and 19 months since Grenfell Tower. “The best way to meet the Lakanal House coroner’s demand for clarity is to implement a complete ban on the use of flammable cladding on all buildings where people live or work. “It is crystal clear; it is understandable to the building industry and everybody else; and it could be implemented if the Government had the will. “In addition, we cannot look only at new builds.
“We need to look at all buildings where flammable cladding exists and continues to pose an unacceptable danger to people’s safety and even to their lives. “We need an action plan from the Government, for which they take responsibility, to strip flammable cladding from every single building where it exists. “Many European countries have such a ban. “Scotland is introducing a ban. We need that ban here, too.
“There is one fire a month on average in buildings with flammable cladding. “It is only a matter of time before one of those fires is not put out. “The Government simply cannot risk the horror of another Grenfell. “This is a time for action, not for words.”
Kit Malthouse: “We went through this yesterday. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to make an issue of it. We have made it very clear that while he is correct that there are still a number of private sector residential buildings that do not have a clear plan for remediation, it is the case, as I said yesterday, that 100 per cent of those buildings have temporary measures in place that have been agreed and certified by the local fire and rescue service as appropriate for the building.
“My primary concern, and the Department’s primary concern, has been to make sure that people are safe tonight. “As I am sure he would acknowledge, it is not possible, by some feat of magic, to make this cladding disappear overnight. “We must, however, make sure that everybody is safe overnight. “That is where we have been focused.
“The hon. Gentleman says that thousands of people are living in terror in blocks, but that should not be the case, on the basis that every local fire and rescue service has visited, inspected and agreed temporary measures with every residential building over 18 metres in height that has this cladding, and they are going back to check and monitor to make sure that they are in place.
“I really would urge him not to cause undue alarm among this residential population, because steps have been taken to keep them safe.”
Steve Reed: “I have to say, with all due respect to the Minister, that I find that comment rather complacent. “It is all well and good to say that this cladding cannot be taken down overnight, but it is 19 months since Grenfell Tower went up in flames, it is 10 years since Lakanal House went up in flames, and it is eight years since the coroner told the Government that there needed to be a ban on this kind of cladding—that is not overnight.
“The Government have not acted with anything like the requisite speed, given the scale of threat to human life. “It is completely unacceptable.
Thangam Debbonaire (Lab, Bristol West): “Does he agree that part of the problem is the lack of trust? “When I met residents in my local tower blocks, they said, ‘You’re telling me that this cladding on my block of flats is okay, but how can I trust?’ “That is compounded by the fact that the Lakanal House fire report, published in 2013, was not fully acted on by the previous Government but one.
Steve Reed (agreeing): “I have seen previous Secretaries of State stand at the Dispatch Box and say that those responsible need to take responsibility. “It is the Government who are responsible because the Government failed to act on the instructions and advice of the coroner following the tragic and fatal Lakanal House fire in 2009.
“The Government are responsible for the situation that these people find themselves in, and the Government should take responsibility for giving those people a way out of this, without burdening them with unmanageable debt or pointing the finger at all sorts of other people who they say have a moral obligation to act, when that is unenforceable in any court.
“The only way this can be dealt with is if the Government take direct action. “As my hon. Friend said, the Government failed to clarify the regulations and guidance after the fire at Lakanal House. “It is not about an individual Minister or Secretary of State—there has been a whole string of Secretaries of State who have failed to take appropriate action in line with the guidance that they were given. “A previous Housing Minister, who is now the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, failed to act in this circumstance.
“I am afraid that collectively the Government are culpable for what has happened, and failed to act when they were told that action was necessary to prevent a repeat of Lakanal House. “Of course, it was repeated horrifically in the disaster at Grenfell Tower.
“I thought long and hard about why the Government would not act on that advice, and I have come to the conclusion that what is going on in this sector is nothing short of a national scandal. “There is a tangled web of conflicts of interest that have led to the framework for fire safety regulations being wholly inadequate.
“The Building Research Establishment is a privatised organisation that helps to write fire safety regulations and drafts fire safety guidance. “Its chief executive sits on the Government’s expert panel on fire safety, and one of its trustees, Sir Ken Knight, was until recently the Government’s chief fire safety adviser.
“The BRE has a direct financial interest in the sector. “It makes money by allowing cladding manufacturers to run fire safety tests on rigs that it sets up. “The manufacturers are allowed to rerun those tests multiple times, with various adjustments, until they get the result that they want. “There is no requirement on them ever to disclose the outcome of the final successful fire safety test—it is considered commercially confidential—nor is there any requirement on them to report publicly how many times their product failed a fire safety test before finally passing it.
“The BRE makes money every single time a different rig is put up and a product is tested for combustibility. “It has a direct financial interest in permitting the use of flammable cladding, because testing it is how it makes its money, and it was people with a direct interest in the BRE who advised Ministers not to ban combustible cladding. “It is an absolutely shocking and scandalous network of conflicts of interest that the Government should never have allowed to happen.
Jon Cruddas (Lab. Dagenham and Rainham): “My hon. Friend is getting to the fundamentals of the issues. “Let me give an example. “I met a bunch of laggers, who handed me a document about the combustible compounds contained in phenolic foam insulation, which is used in multiple buildings. “That document was 15 years old, and it detailed the combustible properties of that foam, which is still used and passes Government tests. “The whole industry has to put up its hands on its historic culpability and the way it has dodged the inspection regime. “These are life and death issues for our constituents.”
Later in the debate, Mr Cruddas said: “Something must be systemically wrong if the guys who put the stuff on these buildings—and they are guys—are aware of that, and have commissioned reports because they are being damaged by those materials. “If they are aware of it, it should not be beyond our collective wit for the Government to be aware of it.”
Steve Reed: Jon Cruddas has emphasised that this is not just about ACM cladding—there is a problem with wider fire safety regulations in the entire building sector—which we cannot allow, not just on residential blocks but on many different kinds of buildings.
“It is not just the cladding that is flammable; it is the combination of the cladding with the insulation.
“We need to understand properly those conflicts of financial interest if we are to understand what led Ministers to reject advice that they should have followed all that time ago.
“I hope the Minister will put me right on this point, but I fear that subsequent Secretaries of State and Housing Ministers did not correct the mistakes made in the decision to ignore the Lakanal House findings because, if they recognised it as political failure, they would have to take political responsibility for the 72 deaths at Grenfell Tower after it went up, which they did not want to do.
“That is an extraordinary thing to have to say, but I believe it is true because I can think of no other reason why Minister after Minister failed to correct regulations and guidance that were so manifestly unacceptable, and that posed such a threat to life.
“That is not just supposition—we saw that it was a threat to life in the scale of the tragedy and the deaths that happened at Grenfell Tower.
“I would go so far as to say that, if the Government were a private company and acted as they have, Ministers could be in the dock for corporate manslaughter.”
Citation: HC Deb, 23 January 2019, c296)
Responding, Kit Malthouse said: “The hon. Gentleman made a good point about the effect of insulation combined with cladding. “Our ban on the use of combustible materials on buildings more than 18 metres high applies to everything that makes up the skin of a building, and that includes the insulation, not just the cladding. “The 18-metre rule was of course introduced on the basis of advice from the expert panel. “As I have said, if there is evidence to show that there are significant dangers to buildings that are less than 18 metres high, we will of course be happy to look into it.
“I realise that Labour Members are trying to make this point, but I want to dispel the idea that we are complacent, because that is absolutely not the case. “An enormous amount of effort, time and energy has been put into getting this right, and a large number of voices have been prayed in aid.
“The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that a defective industry has grown up over the last 20-odd or 30 years, under Governments of all stripes. “As I said yesterday, the Grenfell disaster lifted a big flat rock from the building regulation system, which has not been functioning well for some time. “It falls to me, and to the Secretary of State, to play our part in correcting that, and we are trying to do so with all speed.
“My understanding is that phenolic foam is covered by the ban. “However, I will commission a report from the Department to give me a quick review of the points raised by Jon Cruddas to satisfy myself about our approach on that particular issue. “I recognise his point about the potential toxicity of fumes that may occur, whatever the height of the building. “We ought to have a look at that, and I am more than happy to do so.” (Source:TheyWorkForYou 23 January 2019 )