Civil service ‘complacency’ contributed to Grenfell tragedy, inquiry told

Lawyer representing victims of 2017 fire says government has yet to acknowledge the regulatory failures that happened on its watch
Sam Stein QC at the Grenfell Inquiry on 15 September 2021

By Jim Dunton

16 Sep 2021

A lawyer representing victims and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire has told the public inquiry into the 2017 tragedy that ministers and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have yet to fully acknowledge their role in the tragedy.

Sam Stein QC said that while MHCLG had made clear it understood and deprecated the role of building product manufacturers and testing and certification bodies in the disaster, there was no recognition of government-level shortcomings and that the civil service had been "complacent".

Stein was speaking at the end of the latest module of Phase Two of the inquiry into the causes of the west London tower-block fire, which claimed 72 lives. His comments focused on evidence about the products used for the over-cladding of the 1970s structure, their testing and certification, and the way they were marketed.

The aluminium composite material cladding added to the outside of the tower during its refurbishment, and the insulation fitted behind it, have already been identified as the principal reason fire engulfed the block so rapidly in the early hours of 14 June 2017.

The inquiry’s Phase One report found that the refurbishment project – which principally ran between 2014 and 2016 – gave the building a new exterior that not only failed to “adequately resist the spread of fire”, as required by building regulations, but one which “actively promoted it”.

On Wednesday, Stein told the inquiry that MHCLG’s most recent submissions lacked “an apology or the slightest recognition” that the regulatory failures underpinning the tragedy had happened “on the government’s watch”.

He noted that the coalition government’s so-called Red Tape Challenge,  which aimed to reduce the burden to business of “excessive regulation”,  was a live issue at the time of the Grenfell refurbishment.

“A complacent civil service and the revolving door of ignorant ministers failed to appreciate the risk to life posed by dangerous cladding and failed to introduce any rigour to the regulatory process,” he said.

Stein was clear that firms responsible for misrepresenting the suitability of some of the construction products used for the Grenfell Tower refurbishment bore great responsibility for the tragedy, while certifiers and testers had been “negligent” at best.

But he said evidence to the inquiry had shown that a “big part” in the tragedy had been played by the government, which he said had “failed to operate any level of oversight of a poor regulatory regime and actively avoided regulation”, choosing instead to trust industry.

“The sad and unpleasant truth which the government has yet to embrace is that although there is the fault of industry, this does not stand alone, as there was also a gross failure of government to put in place rigorous regulatory requirements in relation to a known and identified risk,” he said.

In December last year the inquiry heard evidence that a senior official at the then Department for Communities and Local Government was aware of concerns that combustible cladding was being used in façade systems fitted to high-rise buildings some three years before the Grenfell fire.

The acknowledgement came in an e-mail exchange between Brian Martin, policy lead for building fire safety at DCLG, and the National House Building Council.

Martin told the body, which assesses, inspects and insures new homes, that his mail should be treated as a “friendly warning” to check that NHBC’s inspectors and other staff were aware ofthe issue.

Stein said there had been “clear knowledge of the dangers posed by combustible materials being used on high−rise buildings within the manufacturers, the testing and certification bodies, and the government”.

A future module of the inquiry will look more closely at the government’s role in overseeing building regulations and related safety issues. It is expected to hear from former officials and ministers at MHCLG and its predecessor department.

The module, which is currently scheduled to start towards the end of next month, will also probe ministers’ response to 2009’s Lakanal House fire in south London, in which six people died.

A 2013 letter to DCLG from the coroner responsible for the inquests into the Lakanal House victims urged ministers to review evacuation guidance for residents of high rise buildings and consider promoting the retro-fitting of sprinkler systems in high rise buildings.

Coroner Frances Kirkam also recommended ministers to update relevant building regulations for clarity, particularly in regard to maintenance and refurbishment of older housing stock that may affect its capacity to limit the spread of fire. The update had not materialised at the time of the Grenfell fire.

Department ‘absolutely committed’ to help inquiry get to truth

An MHCLG spokesperson said the Grenfell Tower fire was a tragedy that must neve be allowed to happen again and that the department remained “absolutely committed” to helping the inquiry get to the truth.

“The role of central government in the fire will be considered in more detail in Module 6, and we will continue to support the inquiry throughout its investigations,” they said.

“We’re making the biggest improvements in building safety for a generation and strengthening the regulatory system for the whole life of a building.”

MHCLG said the Building Safety Bill, introduced to parliament in July, would create a stronger and clearer regulatory framework that ensured all construction products were covered by regulation .

It added that the bill would also pave the way for a national regulator for construction products to be established within the Office for Product Safety and Standards, which was created in January 2018.

This article was updated at 15:15 on 17 September 2021 to include a response from MHCLG

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