By Isabel Ringrose
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Politicians ‘must bear brunt of Grenfell blame’ says firefighters’ union leader

Politicians who oversaw building regulations before the fire will appear before the inquiry
Issue 2798
A crowd shot on a justice for Grenfell march

Demanding justice on the first anniversary of the Grenfell fire that killed 72 people (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Politicians with blood on their hands will appear at the Grenfell Tower injury for the first time on Wednesday.

The inquiry, investigating the 2017 tower block blaze that killed 72 people, is currently looking into governments’ role in the disaster.

Tory cabinet minister Brandon Lewis will take the stand first. He oversaw fire regulations in 2012-14 and 2016-17, and was the minister for housing and planning in between. Eric Pickles, Gavin Barwell, Stephen Williams and Lord Wharton are also set to address the inquiry. They all oversaw building regulations before the fire, but ignored fire safety warnings and failed to carry out necessary reviews.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU fire fighters’ union, said politicians “must bear the brunt of the blame for Grenfell”. “Politicians over successive decades committed to deregulation as a fundamental political idea,” he said. 

“They have scrapped standards, privatised public services and weakened the regime of inspecting buildings. 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.”

David Cameron, prime minister during the Con Dem coalition of 2010-15, pledged to “kill off health and safety culture for good”. He delivered £10 billion of cuts to deregulate the building industry, and subsequent Tory governments have tried to thwart the introduction of new safety measures. 

The “Red Tape Challenge” brought in rules such as “one in, one out” for new health and safety policies. This was followed by “one in, two out”—and culminated in “one in, three out” in 2016. 

Former housing minister Barwell and his predecessor Lewis were at the centre of the crusade against regulations under Cameron. Barwell, housing minister from July 2016 to June 2017, was contacted seven times by the Fire Safety and Rescue All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG).

The APPG warned of the potentially deadly consequences of Class 0 rated materials—the lowest-ranking standard for building materials—but was ignored. It also “strongly recommended” sprinkler systems in some 4,000 tower blocks. Increased privatisation came alongside weakening local building control and brutal cuts. 

Following the Lakanal House fire in south London in 2009, which killed six people, the coroner found that not enough fire risk assessments had been carried out. It also found that panels on the exterior of the building hadn’t provided the necessary resistance to fire. And it pointed to the lack of sprinklers as a reason why the fire spread so rapidly. But its recommendations were not implemented.

Lewis opposed making sprinklers compulsory. In a debate in parliament in 2014, he admitted, “Sprinklers work. We know that. No one can deny it.”

But Lewis told MPs, “We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.”

His real justification was cost cutting. “The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building—something we want to encourage,” he said. “So we must wait to see what impact that regulation has.” Instead, the government continued with a building safety regime that was found not fit for purpose.

“These ministers used their time in office to promote the privatisation of the fire and rescue service,” Wrack added.

He said that privatisation culminated in the sale of the Fire Service College. It turned public services into businesses and inspectors were told to go easy on corporations breaking safety laws.

And Wrack called on the inquiry to “highlight the truth”. “It must expose the role of deregulation and those who pursued it in killing 72 people,” he said. “It is time to call ministers to account. The buck stops with ministers in charge in the years leading up to the fire.”

‘Show me the bodies’—fire safety official’s response to calls for tighter regulation 

Senior civil servant Brian Martin admitted to the inquiry this week that he “struggles to understand” why he did not act to prevent the Grenfell fire.

Martin has been on the stand for seven days and was responsible for guidance on fire safety for 17 years. But he missed opportunities to reduce the risks from using deadly ACM cladding in high-rise buildings.

Emails were shown sent by cladding experts prior to the fire warning him of the use of the flammable ACM. He was also warned about confusion over ambiguous regulations—authorised by him—over the use of certain claddings on buildings above 18 metres.

Martin responded to one email that an ACM-related fire “shouldn’t be a problem in the UK” as the regulations were “designed to prevent this”. In reality it was the crushing of regulations that caused the atrocity.

He has already admitted to the inquiry that he had “completely underestimated” the hazard posed by ACM panels despite warnings of ambiguity. Martin also “forgot” to clarify that ACM wasn’t to be used.

An architect campaigning for tighter fire safety regulations Sam Webb also gave evidence to the inquiry that his concerns were dismissed by Martin. 

Webb warned Martin in February 2016 that if regulations were not reviewed another fire like at Lakanal House was “inevitable”. And it risked multiplying the fatalities by a multiple of “10 or 12”. 

“Brian Martin’s reply to me was, ‘Where’s the evidence, show me the bodies’,” his statement said. 

Asked at the inquiry why it took the death of 72 people for any concerns to be listened to Martin replied, “That’s quite a complex question. I’m not sure if it’s for me to answer that in full.” 

“Well, for whom else is it to answer, then, if not you?” asked counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC . “Well, I can answer it, but it’s a long answer”, Martin said. He pointed to “decay in the construction industry”, and “the impact of government policy on regulation”. The inquiry continues.

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