Grenfell Inquiry Update

Catherine Levin continues her monthly round-up of developments with the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

"Some people might think that the government deliberately covered up the test results showing that ACM panels with a Class 0 badge performing disastrously at height and the government let them be used at height for another 17 years. What would you say to them?"

This is a question from lead counsel to the Inquiry, Richard Millett QC on 28 February to Anthony Burd, former government official with oversight of technical policy relating to the building regulations. He responded: "I can see how that might appear and why people might think that. I can only provide you with my assurance that is not what happened from my perspective."

Asking an official if the government deliberately covered up evidence about the flammability of materials that were later found to be on a tower block that burnt so ferociously it led to the deaths of 72 people in London in 2017, is mind boggling. It is also an early indication of why this phase of the Inquiry will be the most powerful as we establish what both officials and ministers knew before the fire.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry continues to be an impressive, dogged, and detailed investigation into how the Grenfell Tower fire was possible, and it has now moved on to hear the evidence of government officials for the first time, starting with Anthony Burd.

Mr Burd was a government official (a civil servant) from 1998 to 2013 in the government department that oversaw building regulations. He has an impressive résumé of building and fire-related qualifications and affiliations to chartered bodies. He now works for BSI as Head of Built Environment Sector.

BRE fire performance review

They were talking about work commissioned by the government from BRE to review the fire performance of external cladding systems, and to revise the BRE guidance document BR135 in the light of findings from the review. The reports from BRE were not publicly available until they were disclosed by the Inquiry.

Mr Burd told the Inquiry: "I didn’t realise they hadn’t been published. I agree they should have been published. It’s something that’s fallen down between the department and BRE." Mr Millett asked: "Given the fact that not publishing it was unusual, was there a cover-up?" To which Mr Burd gave an emphatic no, there was not, and reasserted: "From my perspective, sat here today, there was no cover-up."

Mr Millett suggested that another reason for a cover-up was because the government feared what industry might do, "or that the government might know that releasing these results would immediately trigger a cladding crisis." Mr Burd said that the data would have been shared "albeit in generic form" with industry groups and BSI committees developing the large-scale fire test that came to be known as BS 8414. He added: "Ultimately, a pass/fail criteria was set which would have ensured that if these types of systems were tested, they would have failed."

One of the issues that comes up time and time again in the inquiry is the problem of recollection. Mr Burd said he couldn’t recall a lot of things that happened in the early 2000s and to an extent it’s understandable, given that it’s 20 years ago. It does get a bit wearing though, as was the case with the previous witness, Dr Debbie Smith.

Over the five days that Dr Debbie Smith gave evidence she said "I don’t recall" over 250 times. Dr Smith is the former chief of the BRE and is now retired. She had a long career with the BRE, working her way up to the top; she was involved in a wide array of standards setting committees, was a member of Building Regulations Advisory Committee, and was a trustee of the Fire Services Research and Training Trust. I find it stunning that she couldn’t recall important things for this incredibly important inquiry.

No response

Another notable part of Dr Smith’s evidence was her response to the final question from Mr Millett: what would she have done differently?

It will come as no surprise, given her inability to recollect detail in her responses over the previous five days, to learn that Dr Smith did not want to respond to this final question. She said she didn’t want to say anything "off the cuff" and wanted time to reflect and put it in a written submission.

Mr Millett was having none of it and pushed her to respond there and then, and under oath.  She continued to demur saying she hadn’t prepared an answer and was exhausted by the process: "I don’t feel I can directly answer you right now." She is the only witness to decline to answer this question.

Dr Sarah Colwell from the BRE was asked the same question on 17 February. All she said was that she would have handled her interactions with the CWCT in a different way and added no further detail.

Neither offered sympathy or regret to the bereaved, survivors, and residents of Grenfell Tower. It makes me think of what Leslie Thomas QC said at the end of his closing statement for Module 6. He represents one group of bereaved, survivors, and residents, and said on 24 January:

"This Inquiry has illustrated all too clearly why the duty of candour is so vital. As we stated at the start of these submissions, witnesses have hidden behind obfuscation and selective recollections. Their answers have not assisted the investigation or brought clarity and frankness to the proceedings. At times, the evidence in Modules 5 and 6 has been Delphic to the point that it lacks any transparency. This has to stop. The families and the memories of their loved ones deserve better."

The second area I want to look at in this month’s column is money, and what happens when there isn’t enough of it to fund research and institutions to assist learning.

Mr Burd tells us in his 75-page witness statement from November 2018, and disclosed by the Inquiry on 24 February, about government cuts. When he joined the department in 1998 there were 40+ staff working on building regulations, a third of them technical specialists, with an annual technical research budget of nearly £6 million. By the time he left in 2013, there were 28 officials and only five of them had technical expertise. The research budget had shrunk to £2.5 million.

He told the Inquiry, as he finished his evidence, about the impact of the government’s "red tape challenge" to reduce the burden of regulation: "It was getting increasingly hard to undertake the job at hand and I felt that we did the best job we could do with the resources we had, but I’d had quite enough of it."

As we hear from more government officials, it is likely we will also learn about the impact of cuts to the department that oversaw fire policy. We know that in 2001, fire policy moved from the Home Office to join the same government department as building regulations. During this time the government passed the 2004 Fire and Rescue Services Act and the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. It also dismantled the inspectorate and abolished the Audit Commission, leaving fire and rescue services to ‘peer review’ their performance until the 2017 Policing and Crime Act changed that. Localism was king and government austerity led to substantial reductions in fire and rescue service budgets.

The Fire Brigades Union cite cuts in government spending in its evidence, as Martin Seaward revealed during his closing statement for Module 6. "Central government cannot deregulate, privatise, and cut away whilst at the same time increasing the duties of the fire and rescue service (e.g. community fire safety) but nevertheless expect the fire and rescue service to perform as if nothing had changed. It is bound to lead to deficiencies and mistakes."
What this demonstrates of course is that with less money, less work can take place and without commissioning research, analysis, or having third-party scrutiny, the learning from incidents can go unchecked. Lakanal House (pictured on page 18) is a prime example of this. Her Honour Frances Kirkham, the deputy coroner who led the inquiry into the deaths of six people in the July 2009 fire, made recommendations for change. We know now that not all were implemented, and some reappeared in Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s Phase 1 report into the Grenfell Tower fire.

Danny Friedman QC talked in similar terms in his closing statement for Module 6. He set out six "uncontested failures" of the London Fire Brigade on the night of the fire on 14 June 2017. "All foreseeable, all preventable, and all in their own way causative of the extent of loss of life."

His list included a lack of knowledge of cladding and its contribution to fire risk; poor fire risk assessments; incident command weaknesses; weakness in high rise evacuation procedure; tolerance of fireground radios working poorly at height; and a control room unable to cope under pressure. He added: "Each was foreshadowed by the fire at Lakanal House in 2009."

Independent body

Without an independent body to own the recommendations, and ensure that they are all implemented, it was all too easy for the passage of time to allow them to be forgotten. The Fire Brigades Union offered some thoughts about what a national body could do to share and promote learning from incidents. Martin Seaward talked about the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council (CFBAC) in this regard in his closing statement. CFBAC was abolished in 2004 with the passing of the Fire and Rescue Services Act. He explained:

"We submit that a national body similar to the CFBAC, crucially including the involvement of firefighter representatives, is not just helpful but essential to ensure that knowledge of risk is translated into policies and guidance which are properly discussed and then disseminated and implemented across the fire and rescue service. It is the only way to ensure the confidence of the front-line professionals in the processes of policy development."

As we hear more from Mr Burd, Bob Ledsome, his former boss at the department, and other officials, we will learn more about cuts and austerity. We will come to learn more about the bonfire of regulations and a political ideology that wanted to be kind to business at the expense of safety and how far this contributed to the circumstances that led to the Grenfell Tower fire.

Reading the witness statements and listening to the evidence from officials will be vital to understand the environment in which they worked before their political masters appear at the Inquiry. Whether they tell the same story is, of course, another matter.

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Catherine Levin is a Freelance Communications Consultant specialising in fire.