Grenfell Tower fire: Housing minister denies Government 'cover-up' while avoiding questions on legality of the cladding and victims

Alok Sharma sidestepped key questions in a series of interviews on Monday

Joe Watts
Political Editor
@JoeWatts_
Monday 26 June 2017 08:52
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Housing Minister avoids questions on legality of Grenfell Tower cladding and victims

A senior minister has denied there is a Government “cover-up” around the Grenfell fire, but still refused to give straight answers to questions about the legality of the tower’s cladding and number of victims.

Housing minister Alok Sharma repeatedly dodged questions in a series of interviews as anger at the Government’s response to the tragedy simmers.

He also sought to point the finger of blame at councils for the slow pace of tests to discover if hundreds of other buildings also have flammable cladding similar to that linked to Grenfell’s blaze.

Mr Sharma who only took up his job as the minister responsible for housing the day before the fire tore through Grenfell Tower in Kensington, first appeared on ITV’s Good Morning Britain where he refused to be drawn on whether cladding on the building was illegal.

He was asked at least five times, but only told viewers, “from what we’ve seen it would suggest that the material used was combustible”.

Asked if a builder putting up a tower block today would be allowed to use the cladding, Mr Sharma replied: “The building regulations are very clear. Any building above 18 metres, this would be non-compliant.”

Presenter Susanna Reid asked whether that meant the cladding is “banned” to which he replied:” It means that you are not allowed to do it.”

Pressed further on whether this meant it was “illegal”, he would only say: “Well, you are not allowed to do it, it is non-compliant. The regulations are very clear on this point, and clearly the public inquiry has been set up to investigate precisely what happened and we will get to the bottom of this.”

There was a further winding exchange on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as presenter Sarah Montague tried to get to the bottom of a “gap” in the figures, between the number of people thought to have been in the building, up to 600, and those so far been confirmed dead or re-housed.

Asked to say what number are missing, Mr Sharma repeated the figure of 79 relating to those confirmed dead, before adding: “That’s is exactly why we need to build up that picture and I would appeal to people who are listening to this who know people who were in that building to come forward and tell us.

“It is not about a cover-up, it’s about making sure we have a complete picture.”

Ms Montague tried a different approach, asking how many people the Government had re-housed, to which Mr Sharma responded: “We are in the process of talking to the families who were affected ... and what we’re also doing is making sure that each of those families has an assessment for their housing needs.”

Asked again to give a figure for those re-housed, Mr Sharma would only say: “There have been a couple of hundred households that have been affected by this, that we are talking to.”

When the presenter then suggested there is a “gap” in the Government’s numbers, Mr Sharma said: “What we want to make sure is that we build up as clear a picture as possible.”

He urged all people with knowledge about who was inside the building to come forward and promised the Government “will not act in any way” against people who fear their immigration status is in doubt or who had sub-tenancies.

Stormzy calls out the Government "f***ery" over Grenfell Tower at Glastonbury

When he was questioned as to why it is taking so long to test other buildings, with only 60 tested so far, he said: “We would say to all landlords out there who own these buildings, please urgently send those samples in.

“Some are sending them in very quickly. We want others to act very quickly as well.”

Pressed on whether he meant it is councils’ fault that testing is going slowly, he said: “Certainly some councils are acting very quickly, We want all of them to be acting urgently on this.”

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