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Reduced emphasis on fire safety rests with “Governments for decades”

17 September 2021

IN A session on post-Grenfell Tower building sector rule changes held on Tuesday 14 September, Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack informed a cross-party Select Committee of MPs that “Governments for decades” have been responsible for a reducing emphasis on fire safety.

Wrack said there had been a period “where the endless mantra from Government ministers of both parties, and senior civil servants, had been that fire is a declining risk and, therefore, we can afford to reduce our emphasis on fire safety. That was very clearly a theme we heard for more than a decade.”

He concluded that: “There has been a deep, deep complacency about fire safety that has emerged. Hopefully, Grenfell Tower will serve as a major turning point on that.”

Wrack went on to lay out the impact that weak fire safety standards can have, saying that: “We have had incidents where our own members have died and it has emerged that the fire risk assessor for the building concerned had no qualifications. That’s quite shocking and a clear sign of a deregulated sector.”

During the session, Wrack highlighted falls in fire safety inspector numbers as a key part of the “financial pressure on Fire and Rescue Services”. He stated: “I don’t see how, as in the case of the London Fire Brigade, for example, you can cut 25% of your fire safety inspectors and not think that that will have implications for public safety. Something like 20% to 25% of fire safety inspecting officers have gone over the past eleven years, and somewhere in the region of 40% over the past 20 years.”

Building Safety Bill

Wrack was appearing in front of the committee of MPs tasked with scrutinising the Building Safety Bill, itself arguably the most significant piece of post-Grenfell Tower legislation to date.

He criticised the Building Safety Bill for allowing the new Building Safety Regulator to potentially turn to the private sector for assistance if Fire and Rescue Services were stretched. He said that, under the proposals, if a Fire and Rescue Service “could not provide that assistance [to the Building Safety Regulator], the regulator could go to the private sector. We would object to the role of private sector providers within that. If we have a problem with resources in the appropriate public service then those resources should be provided.”

Wrack was asked by MPs whether height was the best measure of risk, with the Building Safety Bill stipulating a higher level of regulation for buildings over 18 metres. Wrack said: “We don’t agree with the 18 metre cut-off. If there is to be a height measure then a more logical one would be 11 metres.” The Trade Union argues that 11 metres has a more logical link to Fire and Rescue Service procedures and equipment.

He also said that “we have questions about resources” in relation to the new Building Safety Regulator, which is designed to sit within the Health and Safety Executive. “There are concerns about the scale of reductions in Health and Safety Executive inspectors, whose number has reduced by something like a quarter.”

Unprecedented cuts

Wrack observed: “Fire and Rescue Services have been subject to unprecedented cuts in staffing numbers over the past decade. Inevitably, this will raise questions about resources when it comes to Fire and Rescue Services’ ability to co-operate with the requests of the regulator.”

In conclusion, Wrack said: “While we welcome the moves towards regulation, that regulation has to be adequately resourced.”

*For more information on the Fire Brigades Union’s view on deregulation and fire safety visit https://www.fbu.org.uk/publications/grenfell-tower-fire-crime-caused-profit-and-deregulation

**Matt Wrack’s appearance before the Select Committee can be viewed here: https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/4ff64bdc-800f-466a-9d56-5a1f6c5722ea