By Isabel Ringrose
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Shocking admissions by Tory ministers at Grenfell fire inquiry

Ministers ignored repeated evidence of the fatal lack of safety regulations
Issue 2800
Around 100 people marching past parliament on the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. They look determined and resolute. Many carry placards saying "Justice for Grenfell"

Marching on the first anniversary of the Grenfell fire. The demand for justice continues (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Tory and Lib Dem politicians responsible for housing and fire safety regulations before the Grenfell Tower fire were condemned by their own evidence this week. It showed that their policies were central to causing the disaster on 14 June 2017 that killed 72 people. Brandon Lewis, James Wharton, Stephen Williams, Gavin Barwell and Eric Pickles have appeared before the inquiry into the west London blaze.

Questioning focused on failures to implement a review of safety rules following a coroner’s recommendations after six deaths in a fire at Lakanal House, south London, in 2009. The coroner’s recommendations included a review of advice on external fire spread, which proved fatal at Grenfell.

Each Tory was asked why he ignored warnings from fire services and the Fire Safety and Rescue All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). On Wednesday of this week the inquiry heard from Eric Pickles, secretary of state of communities and local government from 2010-15.  Pickles tried to avoid responsibility by saying the issue of dangerous cladding and fire spread was never brought up in parliament, despite receiving the coroner and APPG’s warnings.

He was shown examples of civil servants telling the inquiry that deregulation got in the way of fire safety. Pickles slammed this as “ludicrous”.

On Tuesday Gavin Barwell, housing minister from 2016-2017, said he was “embarrassed” by delays in responding to letters from the APPG. He admitted that the “housing supply agenda” overshadowed “life critical” fire safety.

A letter sent by then commissioner of the London Fire Brigade Dany Cotton in April 2017 said she was “deeply concerned” by fire safety issues in blocks of flats. Barwell said he never received the letter—claiming his office was instructed to forward only “the most urgent correspondence”. 

“How can you read this letter and not see it as raising the most important of issues?” asked inquiry counsel Kate Grange. “It’s the only explanation I can offer,” Barwell replied. “It’s not a satisfactory one, is it?” asked Grange. “No,” replied Barwell. 

He claimed the government had “a completely false situational awareness” about how building regulations were functioning. But Barwell was asked about them in parliament in October 2016.  “Can we agree that in your time as housing minister, no positive steps were taken to advance matters of fire safety?” asked Grange. “I don’t think that is a fair thing to say,” he replied.

Barwell was made a life peer after Grenfell and is now a board member of housing association Clarion. 

Stephen Williams was under-secretary of state for local government between October 2013 and May 2015. Williams told the inquiry on Monday he also never read the coroner’s letter and only discussed the fire on two occasions. Yet he received multiple letters from the APPG urging him to act. 

A briefing prepared for Williams on the government’s actions in response to the Lakanal recommendations was discussed. Asked if he ever compared this with the coroner’s letter, Williams said, “I honestly don’t think I ever saw it.”

“How could you possibly have undertaken that task without reading the coroner’s recommendations?” asked Richard Millett, lead counsel to the inquiry. 

Asked if looking back he would have done anything differently, Williams said, “I don’t think there is anything I could have done to materially make a difference to what happened in July 2017.” The fire was in June.

The inquiry heard last week from James Wharton—responsible for building regulations between May 2015 and July 2016. He regularly responded to questions with “I don’t recall”. 

And last Wednesday Tory secretary for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis took to the stand. He oversaw fire regulations in 2012-14 and 2016-17 and was housing minister in between. “Is the reality that it took a multi-fatality event such as Grenfell to focus proper attention on the issues that had been discussed in the decade before?” counsel to the inquiry Andrew Kinnier asked. “In a practical sense, that’s clearly happened, tragically obviously,” said Lewis.

This recent evidence has confirmed the Tories have blood on their hands.

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