Former Department for Communities and Local Government permanent secretary Dame Melanie Dawes has told the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that the ministry did not properly understand its regulatory oversight role before the 2017 disaster, which claimed 72 lives.
Dawes said the department – subsequently branded the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and now called the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – saw itself as writing building-safety rules for others to enforce without taking account of the wider picture.
Giving evidence to the panel probing the construction and governance failures behind the west London tower-block fire, which followed a flawed refurbishment programme that clad the building in highly-flammable panels, Dawes said building regulations had not been viewed as a “priority area”.
At a full-day hearing yesterday, Dawes spoke of her “deep regret” for DCLG’s multiple failures over more than 20 years to act on warnings from similar fires, or to properly understand its role in the regulatory system.
Dawes, who was DCLG and then MHCLG perm sec from 2015 to 2020 and who is now chief executive of Ofcom, also warned that other departments could have “a building safety” sitting on their patch and but being attended to.
However she also suggested to the inquiry that the deregulatory fervour among ministers in 2015-16 – exemplified by the “Red Tape Challenge” – would have made reform of the building-safety regime a hard sell for officials, even if widespread system failings had been better understood.
Dawes was questioned about briefings she received when she took over as DCLG perm sec in early 2015. She told the panel, chaired by former Court of Appeal judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, that she had meetings with senior officials on big priority areas, but that building regulations “wasn’t one of those”.
Dawes said she did not know that fire-safety guidance that forms part of the building regulations was out of date and had not been made aware of any systematic problems or failings within the construction industry before the Grenfell Tower fire.
She added that she was “still surprised” she did not know about the Lakanal House fire in 2009, in which six people died, or the coroner's recommendations in 2013 that called on DCLG to review the wording of fire-safety guidance. The work was not done before the Grenfell Tower fire and Dawes said the lack of a system to flag such official recommendations was “a serious oversight”.
She told the inquiry that in the early stages of her time at DCLG the department had been looking at ways to deliver 25% budget cuts. Dawes said building safety fell into the category of operations where work needed to continue, but may have to be scaled back, rather than being a priority area.
Counsel to the inquiry Kate Grange QC asked Dawes why building regulations were not seen as a priority area.
“It’s a question to which I’ve given a lot of thought over the last five years and I’m still not quite sure I know the answer,” Dawes replied. “My overall impression here is that the department just didn’t see that it had a role of oversight of that system.
“It saw that its role was one of writing the rules , and it understood that there was a role for local government to do by way of approvals and enforcement, but everything else in the middle that you do when you’re performing regulatory oversight, and that I do today through Ofcom, wasn’t, I believe, understood by the department as something that needed to be done or as something that needed to be done by the department.”
Red Tape Challenge was barrier to reform
Dawes later said that the backdrop of the government’s Red Tape Challenge and its “one-in,one-out” requirement for new regulations, which later ramped up to “one-in, three-out” would have stacked the odds against any wide-ranging reform of the system pre-Grenfell.
She said the new system of oversight begun since 2017 following the post-fire Hackitt Review would “not have been something that was very well received” in 2015-16 and that she was “honestly not sure” reform would have come without the fire.
“ I find it just horrific to think that we had to experience such a terrible loss of life and such an appalling catastrophe for the community and the families in order to understand quite what was going on,” she said.
“But… I think that by the time you got to 2015, the non−compliance in the industry was so entrenched, and that combined with the very strong focus on red tape and all the history of that over the previous few years, would have made it very, very, very difficult to get anything changed.”
Departments should look for similar stewardship shortcomings
At the end of her evidence, Dawes was asked what she would have done differently as perm sec with hindsight.
Dawes said that as the most senior official to be giving evidence at the inquiry that she deeply regretted the failures of civil servants and ministers that led up to the Grenfell disaster “over a number of years”.
“I was very proud to be a civil servant for 30 years, but there’s an awful lot about these episodes which I feel extremely saddened by,” she said.
“It’s just not the standards I would have expected of government departments.”
Dawes acknowledged that she could have gone through even more of DCLG’s “backdoors” when she became perm sec and “might have been able to help at the margin” if she had done that.
She said that as far back as the mid-1980s the department and its predecessors had failed not only to act on risks but also to “recognise there was such a thing as system stewardship”.
“ I don’t view this as a legal issue. I view that as it is a responsibility , as a policy responsibility , an oversight responsibility,” she said.
“I don’t think that that kind of thing is well understood in government.”
Dawes said all departments should look again at their portfolio of responsibilities to see whether there is “a building safety” they have not attended to.
“If it’s not with the regulator and not being properly overseen from a system perspective, then I would ask that department why they have the rules in the first place,” she said.
“If the rules matter, they should be properly overseen. It doesn’t have to be bureaucratic, it doesn’t have to be onerous, but somebody has to be thinking about that system, reviewing it, gathering data and so on.
“So that’s my big lesson, really, from this very difficult set of failures.”