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Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry: “Politicians must take brunt of blame” asserts LFB

04 April 2022

POLITICIANS APPEARED as witnesses at the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry for the first time on Wednesday 30 March amid strong calls from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) for the Public Inquiry to highlight the role of Government in “creating the system that, in turn, caused the disaster”.

Brandon Lewis MP, now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was minister with responsibility for fire from 2012-2014 and again in 2016-2017. He was the first politician to take to the stand at the Public Inquiry, to be followed by Stephen Williams, Lord Wharton of Yarn and Gavin Barwell, all of whom were ministers with responsibility for the Building Regulations in the run-up to the Grenfell Tower disaster. Also giving evidence will be Eric Pickles, who had overall responsibility for both fire and building safety between 2010 and 2015.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, noted: “Over successive decades, politicians have committed to deregulation as a fundamental political idea. They have scrapped standards, privatised public services and weakened the regime of inspecting buildings. They must bear the brunt of the blame for Grenfell. A clear line can be drawn from these political decisions to key failures at Grenfell, with highly flammable cladding and insulation facilitated by a lack of clear regulation.”

Wrack added: “In its questioning and its reports, the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry must highlight the truth. It must expose the role of deregulation and those who pursued it.”

Health and Safety culture

The politicians called to give evidence were ministers in David Cameron’s Conservative-led Government. According to the FBU, Cameron pledged to “kill off Health and Safety culture for good” and committed to delivering £10 billion worth of deregulation (in terms of reducing cost to industry).

The FBU also asserts that successive Governments since 2010 have enforced the ‘Red Tape Challenge’ to strip away life-saving laws put in place to protect the public. They introduced rules such as ‘one in, one out’, then ‘two out’ and, finally in 2016, ‘one in, three out’ in order to “make it very difficult” to introduce new safety measures.

Wrack continued: “For building safety, civil servants were told that new regulations were off the table and that the review of Approved Document B guidance was not a priority. Ministers demanded more privatisation, while weakening local building control with swingeing cuts and edicts for light touch enforcement. They failed to implement the coroner’s recommendations after the Lakanal House fire. They oversaw a building safety regime that even their appointed expert Dame Judith Hackitt found was not fit for purpose.”

Further, Wrack stated: “These ministers used their time in office to promote the privatisation of the Fire and Rescue Service. They forced the sale of the Fire Service College. They tried to force through the ‘mutualisation’ of local Fire and Rescue Services, turning our public service into a business. They told inspectors to go easy on corporations and owners, rather than punish those breaking fire safety law. They imposed the worst cuts in our history, cutting one-in-five operational firefighters, while at the same time expecting our members to do ever-more arduous work.”

As far as Wrack’s concerned, it’s time to call ministers to account. “The buck stops with those ministers in charge in the years leading up to the fire.”

Minister “dismantled” Fire and Rescue Service

In particular, the FBU has determined to highlight the role of Brandon Lewis in “damaging” the Fire and Rescue Service in the years preceding Grenfell.

Matt Wrack said: “I watched for years as Brandon Lewis took an axe to the Fire and Rescue Service. Our Trade Union warned of the destruction he was risking, yet we were ignored time and time again. He purposefully and persistently dismantled the Fire and Rescue Service through cuts and a privatisation agenda. In just five years between 2012 and 2017, 20% of firefighting posts were cut across England. That’s one in every five firefighters. In London, ten fire stations closed in 2014. Those cuts have had disastrous consequences across the country, and directly relate to the worst loss of life in a fire since the war.”

Back in 2013, Lewis commissioned an efficiencies review of the Fire and Rescue Service in England by former chief Fire and Rescue Service advisor Sir Ken Knight, which recommended saving money through a variety of untested suggestions such as substituting retained (part-time or on-call) firefighters for wholetime crews and was seen by the FBU as “a fig leaf for further cuts to the Fire and Rescue Service”.

According to the FBU, Lewis was also “responsible for failing to resolve serious fire safety issues”. Prevention and enforcement were weakened, fire safety officers were cut by 25% between 2011 and 2017, and the number of fire safety audits fell by around one third between 2012-2013 and 2016-2017.

Lewis “appears to have supported privatisation” in relation to the Fire and Rescue Service, suggests the FBU, with a 2013 news item run by The Daily Mirror stating that the newspaper had obtained a letter written by Lewis to the Regulatory Reform Committee in which he called for new laws that “would enable Fire and Rescue Authorities in England to contract out their full range of services to a suitable provider”.

Fire Service College sale

Further, Lewis oversaw the sale of the Fire Service College to Capita, and “indicated support” for “the attempted mutualisation” of the Cleveland Fire Brigade, allegedly saying that the Cleveland Fire Authority “wants” mutualisation.

The FBU observes that Lewis made statements which were” supportive of deregulation” in relation to the fire sector, for example telling the 2012 CFOA Conference that: “I firmly believe that businesses have the right to expect that those enforcing regulatory compliance do so in accordance with the fundamental principles of better regulation”.

During a 2014 Westminster Hall debate, Lewis said: “We believe that it’s the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.”

“Serious questions” raised

On Friday 1 April, the FBU raised “serious questions” after the release of the schedule for the following week’s Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry hearings revealed that national politicians would receive just five days of questioning in total. The schedule was released at around midday.

The Trade Union believes that the amount of time afforded to evidence from witnesses such as civil servants, firefighters and control staff relative to national politicians shows that the Public Inquiry is – unwittingly or not – “helping to protect politicians” whom, as has been stated, the FBU believes have to shoulder some of the responsibility for the disaster.

The Public Inquiry has spent weeks questioning individual firefighters and control staff, and has also given extensive time over for questioning other figures such as civil servants, with civil servant Brian Martin recently subjected to questioning for nearly eight days.

Matt Wrack observed: “The lack of focus on ministers raises serious questions about the Public Inquiry’s commitment to justice for the victims of Grenfell, and is what the FBU has feared all along. Individual firefighters and control staff did not put cladding on Grenfell Tower. Politicians created the regulatory system that allowed it. Yet it is the firefighters and control staff who have been dragged before the Public Inquiry for weeks of evidence.”

Wrack went on to state: “FBU members were asked to deal with a situation for which no-one had prepared, that no-one expected and that they did not create. They are not to blame for this disaster. Politicians should be held to account for their actions which could have prevented this fire.”

Wrack also highlighted that ministers have so far been questioned without reference to hand-written notes that would help reveal their views on key documents, because they appear to have gone missing.

He concluded: “We cannot continue with a situation where the Public Inquiry is seeing an incomplete picture, including with regards to vital records that would reveal politicians’ motivations and decisions. The Public Inquiry must be far more active in seeking these documents and politicians must do everything they can to provide them.”