Faced with an issue that saw former housing ministers warned in the Commons over corporate manslaughter, Esther McVey wasn’t going to give much away about the government’s response to the Lakanal House fire.
And especially when the written Commons questions were put by the MP who made the warning.
Labour’s Steve Reed asked what specific steps MHCLG took as a result of the inquest into the fatal 2009 fire – which saw six dead and housing ministers accused of sitting on subsequent coronial recommendations seen as having a bearing on Grenfell.
Responding, McVey referenced a note setting out the action the government took in response to recommendations made in the Coroner’s report.
This note, she said, had been placed in the Library of the House in September 2017.
Since publication of the letter, MHCLG had published a clarified version of related documentation and started a “wide ranging” technical review of the guidance to identify means of escape in blocks of flats as a key research topic.
Reed pressed further, asking whether MHCLG had commissioned the Building Research Establishment to write a Frequently Asked Questions document on cladding after the Lakanal inquest.
McVey offered the same response as she did to Reed’s initial question.
A subsequent follow-up asking what specific steps MHCLG took as a result of the Lakanal inquest had the same.
Reed’s next shot targeted the date MHCLG commissioned the Building Research Establishment to produce the External Fire Spread report, published in April 2016.
McVey said it would not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period – but an answer was being prepared.
Reed did get a result regarding which MHCLG minister had responsibility for the Building Safety Programme.
Overall responsibility lay with the Secretary of State (Robert Jenrick), who had asked Viscount Younger of Leckie to lead on day-to-day ministerial responsibility for the programme, said McVey.
A year ago in the Commons, Reed accused former housing ministers of sitting on safety reports that could have prevented the Grenfell disaster.
The House heard that, had those then ministers – Gavin Barwell, Brandon Lewis, and Eric Pickles – been employees of a private company they would “potentially be in the dock for corporate manslaughter”.
The three have previously been accused of not acting on a review of building regulations at tower blocks that uncovered serious safety failings following the fatal 2009 Lakanal fire in Camberwell, London.
In the Commons, Reed said a “string of housing ministers” had failed to act on advice over Lakanal given by the Inner Southern District of Greater London coroner – with its call for a review of building regulations.
Reed accused the government of being “culpable” for not preventing the Grenfell fire through its failure to respond to advice given after Lakanal.
“The government failed to clarify regulations and guidance after Lakanal,” said Reed.
“It is no individual minister, it is a whole string of them…that have failed to take appropriate action in line with guidance they were given.”