Grenfell Inquiry: ministers blasted for blaming ‘civil servant incompetence’

Politicians in denial about impact of ongoing deregulatory drive, union says
Photo: Matt Brown/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Jim Dunton

14 Apr 2022

A public sector union leader has accused ministers of being in denial about the impact of successive governments’ deregulatory drives on building safety,  choosing instead to blame factors including “civil servant incompetence” for failings that led up to the Grenfell Tower fire.

Fire Brigades Union national officer Mark Rowe’s comments followed evidence given by former communities secretary Lord Eric Pickles and several other ex-Department for Communities and Local Government ministers at the inquiry into 2017’s devastating fire in west London.

Rowe said evidence given by ministers in recent weeks had sought to distance the coalition government and subsequent Conservative administrations’ deregulation agenda from the tragedy. The agenda included the Red Tape Challenge and one-in, one-out requirement for new regulations, which ramped up over the years to become one-in, three-out.

“Time and time again we heard ministers trot up and deny that deregulation – a government commitment to cutting rules, [to] benefit business - had anything to do with Grenfell,” Rowe said in a blog post today.

“Let us be clear: there is absolutely no way that that is the case. Grenfell is widely acknowledged to have resulted from specific gaps in regulation. Deregulation, meanwhile, has been pursued for 40 years by governments of both colours.

“Are we meant to believe that this is all a big coincidence – that on the one hand the government wanted weak regulation and the other hand there were specific weaknesses in the legislation, and that these things had nothing to do with each other? According to the evidence of these ministers, apparently so.”

Giving evidence to the inquiry last Wednesday and Thursday, Pickles said DCLG officials had told him not to worry about concerns raised by the coroner who presided over inquests into the six deaths that resulted from 2009’s Lakanal House fire in south London. Frances Kirkham had been particularly worried about the clarity of building regulations designed to prevent the spread of fire.

Earlier sessions heard the All Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group had been calling for a package of recommendations to be adopted in response to issues raised by Kirkham.

“Ministers from these governments gave evidence that essentially said that these warnings being ignored was nothing to do with deregulation,” Rowe said. “That these recommendations were ignored for a whole variety of reasons – their own incompetence, civil servant incompetence, anything except the most obvious answer. The true answer.”

Pickles accused DCLG’s building-regulations section of “living in an isolation bubble” in relation to workload pressures and having a mindset that that “just simply ignored what was happening” in relation to building safety. He went on to wrongly state the number of people who died as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire as 96, when the correct figure is 72, and described the victims as “nameless”, which was also wrong.

The FBU’s Rowe said Pickles’ evidence should have been as “vital” to the inquiry but turned out to be “stunning”.

“He was presented with evidence that senior civil servants in his department felt crushed in what they could do by deregulation,” Rowe said.

“Yet he claimed that it was an utter mystery why they would feel like that, despite his own repeated cheerleading for deregulation during his time as secretary of state.

“He also repeatedly [claimed] that documents showed he had exempted vital building regulations from specific deregulation policies. The inquiry has not been able to find a conclusive document of this type.”

Dave Penman, general secretary of senior civil servants’ union the FDA, said Pickles’ assertion that he was unaware officials believed the coalition government’s deregulation policies applied to building-safety rules was a classic ministerial get-out line.

“This is what govt rhetoric like Red Tape Challenge and ‘hostile environment’ means in practice,” he wrote on Twitter last week.

“Civil servants know exactly what ministers priorities are; ministers get to say ‘not in my name’ when it goes wrong.”

The FBU’s Rowe added that there were other “clear examples” of deregulation that had impacted safety in the run up to the Grenfell Tower fire. He cited Pickles’ 2013 reform of the London Building Act, which removed some height-specific fire-safety requirements and a mutualisation drive for the fire and rescue service spearheaded by then-Home Office minister Brandon Lewis.

The current phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry is looking at systematic failings and underlying causes of the problems that led up to the fire.

The first phase of the inquiry has already established that the aluminium composite material cladding added to the outside of the tower during its 2014-16 refurbishment, and the insulation fitted behind , was the principal reason fire engulfed the block so rapidly in the early hours of 14 June 2017.

Its phase-one report found the refurbishment 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”.

The report was also critical of the London Fire Brigade for having “gravely inadequate” preparation and planning in place for a fire of the magnitude of the one at Grenfell.

It found that no LFB incident commanders at the scene in the early stages of the blaze seemed to have been able to acknowledge the need for a mass evacuation of the building because the fire was out of control.

The report said there had been a delay of around an hour in recognising that the strategy of urging people to “stay put” in Grenfell Tower needed to be dropped.

High-rise building design calls for fire compartmentation to prevent flames from spreading. As a result of the combustible cladding and other flawed elements of the refurbishment, Grenfell’s fire compartmentation totally failed.

The report said LFB “could and should have” recognised the fire was out of control, ditched its stay-put advice and organised the evacuation of the tower the best part of an hour before it actually. It said doing so “would be likely to have resulted in fewer fatalities”.

The inquiry continues.

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