Urgent tests ordered after the Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 79 people died, have found combustible material on residential tower blocks across the country.
Theresa May told the House of Commons on Thursday that all local authorities with tall residential buildings were ordered to send samples of cladding on the outside of buildings to the Department of Communities and Local Government for testing.
The cladding on Grenfell Tower, which was made from aluminium and polyethylene, is thought to have contributed to the swift spread of the blaze by fire.
“The house should of course be careful in speculating on what caused this fire but as a precaution the government has arranged to test cladding in all relevant tower blocks,” May said.
“Shortly before I came to this chamber I was informed that a number of these tests have come back as combustible. The relevant local authorities and fire authorities have been informed and as I speak they are taking all possible steps to ensure the buildings are safe and to inform affected residents.
“Landlords have a legal obligation to provide safe buildings. And if they cannot do that, we expect alternative accommodation to be provided. We cannot and will not expect people to live in unsafe homes.”
Councils across the country wrote to residents living in towers last week to reassure them – but May urged any social or private landlord who has not had their building checked to do so urgently. DCLG has capacity to quickly test up to 100 buildings a day, she said.
The prime minister gave a lengthy update on the operation to support victims of the tragedy and the forthcoming public inquiry, and said that the an update is expected from the police and fire service on the criminal inquiry in the next 48 hours.
And she said that while the inquiry may take some time to return its findings, it should publish something sooner. “It’s also clear that we cannot wait for ages for the lesson from this inquiry so I expect the chair will want to produce an interim report as soon as possible,” she said.
The families will have legal representation at the inquiry, paid for by the government.
May repeated her apology from earlier this week, in which she admitted that the government’s response in the immediate aftermath of the fire was not good enough.
The said more than £700,000 had been paid out to survivors and those affected by the fire and stressed that this money had been paid as a non-repayable grant and wouldn’t affect anyone’s means-tested benefit claims.
She reiterated that the government would not use the incident as a way to carry out immigration tests on residents or people who assist with the investigation. Many Grenfell residents are thought to have been immigrants.
May confirmed that 151 homes were destroyed in the fire, with many more damaged or affected in some way, and that all those displaced would be re-housed in three weeks. Already 68 homes have been acquired for Grenfell survivors, in a standalone block in a high-end £2 billion development in Kensington.
May stressed that except for those survivors who have expressed a wish to leave the area, everyone would be offered a home in the local area. The local council had previously warned that this might not be possible. All residents, she said, would be offered homes on the same terms as their previous home.
Speaking more generally, May spoke of how the political class needed to learn profound lessons from the disaster.
“As we move forward we must also recognise that for too long in our country, under governments of both colours, we simply haven’t given enough attention to social housing and this itself is a symptom of an even more fundamental issue,” she said.
“It shouldn’t take a disaster of this kind for us to remember that there are people in Britain today who are living lives that are so far removed from those that many here in Westminster enjoy.
“So long [after] the TV cameras have gone and the world has moved on, let the lesson of this awful tragedy be that we resolve never to forget these people and gear our thinking into improving their lives and bringing them into the political process.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the incident was “both a tragedy and an outrage”.
“Every single one of those deaths could and should have been avoided. the Grenfell Tower residents raised concerns about the lack of fire safety in the block,” he said.
And he warned the government not to exclude the voices of the victims and the wider community from the public inquiry process.
“From Hillsborough to the child sex abuse scandal to Grenfell Tower, the pattern is the consistent: working class people’s voices are ignored and their concerns are dismissed by those in power.
“The Grenfell residents and the North Kensington community deserve answers and thousands and thousands of people in tower blocks around the country need urgent reassurance.”