Grenfell Inquiry Update

This is the first of a regular feature by Catherine Levin, covering updates and developments as the Grenfell Tower Inquiry continues.

I have spent hundreds of hours watching the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Initially sitting in the Inquiry press room in Holborn Bars and since the pandemic, watching online from my kitchen.

I think it would be fair to say that since the initial phase of the Inquiry, it has fallen off the mainstream news agenda and is reported mostly in the specialist press and via a handful of journalists on Twitter. This is a real problem. The problem is that there are millions of words of testimony and evidence that are going unheard and unseen by most people. And yet, it is all needed to understand why it was possible for the fire at Grenfell to happen and what should be done to make sure it can’t happen again.

How will I be able to make sense of it all for F&RM readers each month? I can’t tell you everything, but I can tell you what I think is interesting and significant. I hope to pique your interest enough to get you visit the Inquiry website and have a look yourself, because what they are doing over in a nondescript building near Paddington station is important, and it matters what happened at Grenfell.

So far, the Inquiry has disclosed just under 300,000 documents. Every witness that sits in the Inquiry room or appears via Zoom leaves behind at a minimum, a transcript and a statement. The expert witness reports can run into hundreds of pages each, with dense technical detail that would befuddle most people. Opening and closing statements from highly paid legal counsel representing the various interests are beautifully written and contain thinly veiled or outright criticism of others.

First Phase

We have already seen the results of Phase 1 of the Inquiry, with Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s 800+ page report which contained 46 recommendations. Fire and rescue services, along with government and others are busy working on implementing those, and the Home Office is now publishing semi-regular progress updates.

Phase 2 of the Inquiry is made up of eight modules. We’ve heard from three modules so far, with evidence relating to the refurbishment of the Tower and residents’ complaints, as well as their relationship with the Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO). We also heard from Grenfell Tower fire risk assessor Carl Stokes as part of an overview of how fire risk assessments were carried out, how the building complied with the Fire Safety Order, and a look at passive fire safety with an emphasis on fire doors. The module three closing statement from counsel representing Mr Stokes is interesting because it hits back at the contribution of one of the expert witnesses, Dr Barbara Lane.

It argues that the role of the fire risk assessor has been largely misunderstood and misrepresented during the process of the Inquiry: ‘The Panel has not been aided by a significant quantity of expert evidence from Dr Lane who, as CS Stokes submits below, simply does not have the experience or standing to comment on what could be expected of an ordinarily competent Fire Risk Assessor in 2017.’

The closing statement goes on to say that the Inquiry is hindered by having to ‘dissect’ the Fire Safety Order: ‘which fundamentally failed to provide for the profession of the Fire Risk Assessor it spawned.’

Expert witness

Colin Todd is an expert witness to the Inquiry. His expert report published in March 2018 sets out the legislation, guidance, and enforcing authorities relevant to the fire safety measures at Grenfell Tower. Counsel for Mr Stokes said that the Inquiry should give ‘no weight’ to the Dr Lane’s evidence about fire risk assessors, and instead accept the evidence of Mr Todd. The reason I highlight this is because it touches on an issue that was unsatisfactory in this part of the Inquiry as it showed differences in expert opinion about whether a fire risk assessor should have known about external wall fire safety and considered it as part of their assessment.

Dr Lane said a fire risk assessor should have known, but Mr Todd says it’s not in the scope of the Fire Safety Order. It’s these differences of opinion that will make it hard for the Inquiry to decide what is right. To a certain extent, it is a moot point as the Fire Safety Act 2021 has a provision to change the Fire Safety Order to include the external walls. This hasn’t come into force in England yet, as the government has not laid the regulations, unlike in Wales where they came into force on 1 October 2021.

We’ll hear more about fire risk assessments in module six of the Inquiry which started in October. This module is broken down into four parts: firefighting, testing and certification, fire risk assessment, and the role of central government.

Lead counsel to the Inquiry, Richard Millett QC confirmed in opening statements that it would start with an examination of high-rise firefighting policy and a look at the national guidance known as Generic Risk Assessment (GRA 3.2) and issues relating to evacuation. It’s worth noting that GRA 3.2 was withdrawn by the Home Office and replaced by National Operational Guidance last year.

Policy and practice

During this module, the Inquiry will look at how LFB policy and practice included the risk of cladding fires and how they trained staff to deal with fire survival guidance calls. It will also look in more detail at how lessons from the 2009 Lakanal House fire were learned. We will see former London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton return to give more evidence as well as hearing from her predecessor, Ron Dobson and her successor Andy Roe.

I’ll look at the first part of module six in the next issue, but for now it’s worth touching on some of the points made in one of the opening statements. These are all available on the Inquiry website, but it’s worth listening to the different counsel presenting their statements as they often ad-lib and react to what others have said along the way.

Danny Friedman QC represents one of the groups of bereaved, survivors, and residents. He gave the Inquiry a fire and rescue service history lesson. For many of us who have been around fire for a long time, this was a very familiar story punctuated by legislative change, the removal and return of inspection, and numerous reports starting with the 2002 Bain review.

He went on to talk about the machinery of government change that saw fire move from the Home Office in 2001 to the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.  ‘On some level, firefighting was always seen as politically incapable of reform.’ He quoted the words of senior civil servant, Philip Wood who told the Fire Minister, Nick Raynsford: ‘This won’t take up too much of your time. The policy is one of benign neglect.”

That ended up not being quite right, and fire took up a lot of ministers’ time as they responded to national fire strikes and introduced new legislation in 2004 that shook up the way the fire and rescue service operated. It also saw the introduction of the Fire Safety Order. So, by 2006, all the legislation was sorted, and fire went quiet as localism took hold.

Danny Friedman said that there was a lack of synergy and joined up thinking between fire response, fire safety, and building regulations. He also said something that we all know: that Fire Ministers do not last long and there is considerable turnover of civil servants who lead on fire, resulting in a lack of continuity and loss of organisational memory.

By 2016, Teresa May was Home Secretary and fire moved back to the Home Office, the inspectorate was resurrected and the 2017 Policing and Crime Act allowed Police and Crime Commissioners to take on governance of fire. No more benign neglect then.

Lack of oversight

Concluding this part of his opening statement, Mr Friedman said: ‘Ultimately, localism was deregulation. The main laws remained in place, but they were left empty of much of their effect. Instead, there was fragmentation, lack of oversight and tolerance of suboptimal competency as regards modern construction. All of that came unstuck at Grenfell with disastrous consequences.’

While it may seem like a diversion, rehashing the changes that fire has been through over the last 20 odd years, it is important. There is a reason why people like Sir George Bain, Sir Ken Knight, and Adrian Thomas were asked to write reports about the fire and rescue service: because something wasn’t working. It’s the same with Lakanal. Why do we see recommendations made by Her Honour, Frances Kirkham reappear in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 report?

When the reports are published and then sit on the proverbial shelf gathering dust, we ask ourselves why things haven’t changed. They don’t change because we don’t listen, and we don’t learn. As I continue watching the Inquiry via YouTube and see a couple of hundred other people doing the same and I read the very few news stories that appear when something ‘newsworthy’ comes out of the evidence, I know that by writing this column I am at least able to share what is happening with you.

I do this so that you can know and care why 72 people needlessly lost their lives on 14 June 2017 in a tower block in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. If you can, watch some of the Inquiry or read one of the opening statements to form your own view. I’ll keep doing that and sharing my thoughts through this column, but it would be nice to have some company.

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Catherine Levin is a Freelance Communications Consultant specialising in fire.