'A national tragedy': MPs demand answers
15 June 2017 National News
It was not the maiden speech in Parliament that Emma Dent Coad, the new MP for Kensington, would have wanted to make.
On Tuesday, after MPs had re-elected John Bercow as Speaker, I interviewed her for Sky News about her first impressions of the House of Commons.
She said – as many new MPs do – that even though she’d visited Parliament many times, she couldn’t believe how noisy and raucous it was inside the chamber.
Yet now, two days later, she was making her first speech to MPs in a hushed, sombre atmosphere of shock – and at times anger – about the in her constituency.
She spoke eloquently about how the community was “traumatised and angry” and demanded answers on emergency planning and whether previous warnings were heeded.
She was the first backbencher called to speak by new Police and Fire Minister Nick Hurd – himself in that job three days – in an emergency briefing for MPs in Parliament’s Grand Committee Room.
Normally, after an event of this magnitude, a minister would make a statement in the House of Commons. But Parliament isn’t officially sitting yet, because the Queen’s Speech isn’t until next Wednesday.
Unlike his famous father – former Cabinet minister and Tory grandee Douglas Hurd who had a loud bark of a voice – Nick Hurd speaks softly.
Here, on this tragic and emotional occasion, he spoke particularly softly and it was difficult to hear him at times.
Mr Hurd began the 90-minute session by declaring: “What we are dealing with here is a national tragedy, reflected in the fact that we have MPs from all corners of the UK to participate in this briefing.”
Labour’s David Lammy called for criminal prosecutions while his party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, revealed he had just visited the scene of the blaze and met “very angry” residents.
He said: “They’re very angry that they have raised concerns about this building, that the Grenfell Action Group raised concerns about this building, that their concerns were not answered, questions they asked were not responded to.
“There are so many questions to put. It cannot be right that a fire like this takes so many lives in the 21st century in modern Britain – somewhere along the line regulations or something failed.”
He said there were thousands of similar buildings around the country, adding: “Every single person living in a tower block will be terrified.”
Hilary Benn, who told me before the briefing his Leeds Central constituency has many tower blocks, challenged the advice given to residents in Grenfell Tower to stay in their flat when the blaze began.
Labour’s Mary Creagh demanded the same sort of emergency cash as the Government hands out to areas hit by floods.
In his response, Mr Hurd said resources were not an issue, promising: “Every conversation I’ve had, either with the emergency services or with the local authorities, my question is ‘What do you need?”‘
Mr Hurd said the would leave “no stone unturned” and added ministers “completely understand” the shock and horror people felt at the tragedy.
New housing minister Alok Sharma said the Government would guarantee every family from Grenfell Tower will be rehoused in the local area.
For now, MPs were reassured by these pledges: on a public inquiry, on re-housing and on resources to help the local council and others cope with the emergency.
“It’s very reassuring that the Government has said it will step in and back them up, and it’s right they’re going to have a public inquiry,” Labour’s Harriet Harman told me afterwards.
“But I don’t agree with the minister when he said that this is completely new, it’s unprecedented and this is a one off.
“This is exactly what happened in 2009 in my constituency in Lakanal House, where refurbishment compromised fire safety.
“It meant that when a fire started in a flat it spread and when the fire brigade gave their usual advice of stay put the people who accepted that advice died.”
Another Government statement on the disaster was promised as soon as possible and, sadly, there will no doubt by many more Commons statements and debates on this dreadful tragedy.
And when Ms Dent Coad officially makes her maiden speech in the Commons chamber and talks about her Kensington constituency, that too will inevitably be a very sad contribution.