The Commons has heard that the roots of the Grenfell disaster “lie in Westminster and Whitehall” with Boris Johnson taking a share of culpability and responsibility.
Johnson, already under pressure over his personal appointment to the Grenfell public inquiry panel of a member with links to the company that made the tower’s cladding – was not present at the debate.
The debate on the Government’s response to the inquiry’s Phase 1 report prompted a Labour ‘pile on’ putting previous housing ministers in the frame for “politically motivated” post Lakanal policy decisions.
But Johnson’s absence was “a matter of regret” said shadow Housing Secretary John Healey.
“The public inquiry reports to him; it is the Prime Minister’s responsibility.
“A national disaster on the scale of Grenfell demands a national response, on a similar scale.
“That has not happened, and that too is the Prime Minister’s responsibility,” said Healey.
Labour’s Grahame Morris rooted the disaster in “Westminster and Whitehall” saying Grenfell Tower was compromised through political decisions:
- “From the cosmetic so-called refurbishment that wrapped it in a flammable cladding”
- “Because of deregulation of in respect of buildings and fire protection”
- “From the cuts to the fire service to the failure to learn from previous tragedies”
Morris urged the House to at the disaster in a broader context through the political decisions and the individuals involved.
“As Mayor of London, our current Prime Minister must accept his share of culpability and responsibility.
“He was at the forefront of driving cuts through when he was the Mayor of London; cuts to the London Fire Brigade of over £100m, which led to the loss of 27 fire appliances, 552 firefighters, 324 support staff, two fire rescue units and three training appliances, the closure of 10 fire stations and a reduction overall in crewing levels,” Easton said.
During a period of “politically motivated austerity”, recommendations arising from the Lakanal House and Shirley Tower fires landed on the desks of respective housing ministers with recommendations on the retrofitting of sprinklers in high rise buildings and an overhaul of building regulations being ignored, said Easton.
“Let’s not pretend that did not happen,” he said, specifically referencing a 2013 pledge to review existing building and safety fire regulations that was not carried out until July 2017, following Grenfell.
Healey told the House issues over Grenfell had been compounded by “thoughtless decision making” from Johnson in appointing Benita Mehra to the inquiry.
“The inquiry must command the confidence of those most affected by the fire. The Prime Minister should apologise and reverse the decision to appoint Benita Mehra,” said Healey.
“At every stage since Grenfell Ministers have failed to grasp the scale of the problems and the scale of the Government action required.
“At every stage, the action taken has been too slow and too weak,” Healey said.
Johnson came under a kind of ‘friendly fire’ from Kensington MP Felicity Buchan who said the Cabinet office should re-consider the appointment.
“It is vital that the north Kensington community has faith in the second phase of the inquiry.
“One of the lessons that we learnt from Grenfell is that decision making cannot be only top down; it needs to be community-facing,” she said.
Labour’s Helen Hayes brought the debate to her doorstep citing Tory cuts to the funding for social housing costing London’s Southwark Council – which covers part of her constituency – some £60m out of its Housing Revenue Account.
“Without proper resourcing, the services tenants need and deserve will be stretched to the very limit,” said Hayes.
“Grenfell United has continued to express concerns about the inquiry panel and, in particular, would like to see a member of the panel with expertise on culture who understands how social housing tenants are sometimes treated when they raise complaints and how some organisations can foster an environment in which tenants raising serious service failings or health and safety concerns are far too easily dismissed,” she said.
Tory Kevin Hollinrake acknowledged “some tough challenges before we get to the bottom of this issue”, but stressed a need to depoliticise the disaster.
“That is a lesson for this House, we should depoliticise this issue because the source of these problems is pan-governmental.
“We have some way to go to get this right.
“We have to do what is right, not just what is easy,” he said.