Wednesday the 14th of June 2017 is a date that will go down in infamy.
On that day, the disastrous fire in the 24 storey Grenfell Tower claimed the lives of 71 men, women and children – their lives snuffed out in a horrific inferno.
An inferno that should never have happened.
An inferno that took those lives – and destroyed the lives of so many others – despite the almost superhuman bravery shown by hundreds of firefighters, police first responders and neighbours and friends of the residents.
As a local journalist said:
“On the night of the fire it was occupied by retired people and … workers, schoolchildren, poets, engineering students and refugees – an island of the ordinary and vulnerable in a rich part of town.”
It should never have happened – and it could have been avoided if those responsible for safety in that building had listened to the voices of the people who knew it best.
The residents in the Grenfell Action Group had warned of the extreme danger caused by blocked passageways, condemned fire extinguishers and aluminium cladding of a type that is banned in the US and parts of Europe.
They had condemned the recent botched refurbishment that did not include the new fire escapes and sprinkler system they had demanded, and which could have saved so many lives.
That botched refurbishment cost £8.6 million – slightly less than the cost of a four bedroom house just a few streets away in Kensington and Chelsea.
In Scotland we have experience of the devastation that fire can cause. The recent blaze at Cameron House is a reminder that is still fresh in the memory, and we can all remember other shocking and disturbing incidents.
But there is one simple intervention that we know can lessen the risk of these disasters happening and greatly reduce the loss of life if they do.
An intervention the Grenfell residents demanded but did not get.
A working sprinkler system.
There has never been an incidence of multiple deaths caused by fire where a building has a working sprinkler system.
Sprinklers are a tried and tested technology, used throughout the world for 150 years, and we know that they save lives and protect firefighters.
As the saying goes, we have the technology – and it is time to use it to protect householders and their families from fire and the death, injury, destruction and trauma that it causes.
That is why I am proud to announce to conference today, that I am proposing to take to Parliament a Member’s Bill to require and enforce the installation of sprinklers in all new social housing built by local authorities and registered social landlords.
My bill will also launch a consultation on the retro-fitting of sprinklers in existing highrise blocks, with a view to taking early action to make them safer, too.
Conference, I welcome the support my bill has received from the Fire Brigades Union – and also from MSPs of other parties, across the political divide.
What I am proposing is a simple, bold but effective intervention.
The kind of initiative – like the smoking ban and free personal care – that shows the devolved Scottish Parliament at its best.
Of course, automatic fire sprinklers on their own won’t prevent all fire deaths, any more than the smoking ban ended deaths from cancer.
But they can make a vital difference.
Crucially, the installation of these sprinklers will buy people time.
Time to dial 999 and call out the firefighters.
Time to gather their families and make an escape.
Time to avoid the shockingly rapid spread of fire that happened in Grenfell Tower.
And combined with regular fire assessments and structural fire protection, we can make these buildings safer for the tenants who live in them – if only we have the will.
I am doing this for one reason - because I believe it can make a real difference and save lives.
And I have been inspired by the tireless work of Labour colleagues in Wales, which resulted in sprinkler systems being installed in all new housing.
And by London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s enhanced fire safety proposals.
And, closer to home, by local authorities in Dundee City, Fife, Angus and North Lanarkshire who have already had the vision to ensure sprinklers are installed in all their social housing.
Conference, working together we have the chance to make a real difference.
To save the lives of those most vulnerable to the risk of fire death - older people, children, those who are ill and who have mobility problems, and those who live in disadvantaged areas.
To make sure that never again will we wake up to the news of another horrific inferno like the one that destroyed Grenfell Tower.
Conference, I ask for your support.