Jonathan O'Neill's speech at the Fire Sector Summit 2019

7 November 2019

Jonathan O'Neill OBE chaired the Fire Sector Summit 2019 held on Tuesday 5 November. Read below his speech discussing the recent public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen - may I begin by offering a warm welcome to this year’s Fire Sector Summit. 

You will notice a slight change in format this year, insofar as you have to put up with me chairing this year’s event as opposed to a TV or radio personality, as has been the case in recent years. So I apologise in advance for the lack of the sharp questioning technique of Charlotte Hawkins, John Pienaar or John Humphrys - all of whom have entertained us as chairs of this event in the past. 

I saw John Humphrys speaking at the Stratford Literary Festival, where he recounted the event that sparked his interest in journalism and began his cynicism and distrust of authority - when as a 16 year old, he was send to cover the Aberfan disaster as it unfolded, and which he likened to Grenfell Tower. 

I am sure that it will be a relief to you all that as chair today, I have been strictly briefed that you haven’t come to listen to me. You have of course come to learn from the eminent panel of speakers that we have been fortunate enough to attract to this event.

However, for those of you who know me, you will be well aware that I probably wouldn’t be able to pass over the opportunity of giving you my thoughts on something - and given the events last week, the likelihood was that it would be the public inquiry, particularly given the coverage it has received since its publication.

So, whilst I have the stage I would like to pose a quick question: how many of you have read it? I ask because it appears to me that the majority of opinion and comment that I saw reported appeared to be before its official publication, and by the time Sir Martin formally released his report - and a video of his summary recommendations - the debate appeared to have moved on to a discussion of the size of Danny Cotton’s pension pot. Not particularly useful in my view. Not being a core participant, my first opportunity to see the report was the morning it was published. And for me – given what it was, an account of what happened on the night - I think that it is well balanced, and its recommendations are pretty much as expected. 

As we all know it points out that the tower was clad in combustible materials which were responsible for the rapid fire growth, and which led to the largest loss of life in fire in the UK since the Second World War. But it is of course his observations about the fire and rescue service that have caused the greatest stir.

It should of course be remembered that he commented heavily on the bravery and commitment of the firefighters deployed to that job. However, he did also point to management failures, and that has been the focus. So before we begin this morning, please indulge me for a minute or two whilst I provide my interpretation of why we are where we are.

The success the fire and rescue services have had in reducing deaths and injuries and the number of fires they are called to attend is second to none.

 I am fortunate enough in the job that I do to travel around the world meeting fellow fire professionals, and prior to 14 June 2017, the UK’s community fire safety programme was what everyone internationally wanted to discuss and to emulate. 

Sadly the success of this programme lead to complacency in my mind. Minister and officials thought that the fire problem had been cracked – we didn’t have a building regulations review for 12 years, so we allowed more combustible materials into the building process and - I believe that this is the crux of the matter - we allowed austerity to hit the fire and rescue service, and the knife was too sharp and the cuts were too deep. 

Something invariably gives. Whether it be training, whether it be inspections, whether it be kit and equipment or more probably a combination of all of these – something gives.

Many will have heard me say this before – insurers have been aware for some time that there was a problem. In a period when the number of fires have dropped by 40%, fires have been getting bigger year on year, and claims continued to hold steady, in fact they rose. 

So before I get off my soapbox and allow the people you have really come to listen to take the floor, I would make this plea to the fire and rescue services – please don’t see Sir Martin’s comments and recommendations as an attack, see them as an opportunity.

If Dame Judith Hackitt gets her way, you are likely to be asked to do more and more and to be better at it – you mustn’t stand by and see others moving out the shadow of austerity whilst you are left behind. 

Show that you are a service that listens and learns. Recognise the changing risk profile of your patch, such as more greater numbers of at risk groups and individuals being accommodated in more combustible, less resilient structures, and demand the resources to sort this out.

And to government – get on with it. Yesterday I heard that you aren’t planning to introduce the legislation that will see Hackitt’s recommendations become law until the middle of next year, and that the law will take about a year to get through the parliamentary process. That is four years after Grenfell – it is too long.

So I make this plea - after the General Election to whoever is in power - get on with it. Make the changes in building regulations that are so obvious they really don’t require further scrutiny. Mandate third party certification; ban single staircase escapes in tall buildings; install sprinklers and high integrity detection and evacuation; and ban combustible materials in all high risk occupancies regardless of the building’s height.

This isn’t rocket science, so get on with it immediately – please.

OK – I have got that off my chest. Now we can sit back and listen to the expert panel you have really come to hear.

Jonathan O'Neill's speech at the Fire Sector Summit 2019