Department for Communities and Local Government permanent secretary Melanie Dawes has applauded the initiative and dedication of central government staff in response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and cited it as a "most amazing" lesson in inter-department co-operation.
At a question-and-answer session during the Civil Service Live conference, Dawes said officials had provided brilliant examples of the way departmental boundaries could be broken down when a crisis clearly demanded such an approach.
Dawes was replying to a question about how cooperation between departments could be improved in a way that was more institutionalised and less dependent on personal relationships. But she chose to use the response to the June 14 fire – in which at least 80 people are believed to have lost their lives – as an example of what was possible.
“I’ve been leading the response to the terrible Grenfell Tower tragedy from DCLG, and I have seen the most amazing collective civil service response,” she said.
“I saw DWP payment specialists mobilising immediately in teams to go on the ground and help people with their benefits and other payments.
“I saw DVLA come along: someone incredibly sensible – I don’t know if anyone knows who that person is, because I want to thank them – worked out that everybody would’ve lost their driving licence and that everybody would need ID, so rather than waiting to be asked they just printed off all the driving licences for the tower and brought them along. That is an extraordinarily gifted public service.
“I saw my own teams go in and work at the housing departments of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea and meet the affected families and listen to the most unimaginable stories and show such compassion and humanity.
“I saw the HMRC Surge teams come and help us – they were in the Home Office buildings, which you all know is very hard to get security clearance for. But we got them in.”
Dawes said she had received numerous calls offering support from perm sec colleagues, including help to mobilise commercial and project management staff from civil service chief exec John Manzoni.
She said there was a clear generosity of spirit in the civil service, and a sense of wanting to be part of a collective endeavour.
“Over the last month of working on Grenfell Tower I have seen DCLG rise to challenges that they’ve never had to rise to before,” she said.
On July 5 communities secretary Sajid Javid announced the creation of an independent “recovery taskforce” to aid the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea with its response to the Grenfell fire.
He said the taskforce would take a “longer term” approach than the multi-agency response team created in the wake of the tragedy, spearheaded by police, health and fire services, but also including central government staff, the wider local government sector, and the voluntary sector.
RBKC leader Councillor Elizabeth Campbell said her first action as leader had been to ask DCLG for help.
“The unprecedented scale of this incident makes it impossible for one organisation to cope on its own,” she said.
Campbell replaced former leader Nicholas Paget-Brown, who stepped down from the role following criticism of the authority’s response to the Grenfell tragedy.