Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Moore-Bick Inquiry will not stifle debate on the Grenfell Tragedy.

This is a letter to my MP, who was pretty huffy about a 38 Degrees email I sent to him.

John Penrose MP
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA

Dear John

Thank you for your letter of 26 June about the Grenfell fire.

You accuse me of trying to politicise the tragedy. What I am in fact trying to do is to get Ministers and politicians to accept their responsibility in this matter in order to defuse some of the anger and frustration that exists in the community.

As you know, after the Lakanal House fire in 2009, the coroner's inquest published a report in 2013 identifying failures of safety, including the effect of cladding. The All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety & Rescue Group produced a Fire Safety Review (FSR) which was sent to Housing Ministers, but successive Ministers, over a period of four years, failed to take action on the FSR. We still do not know the its contents, but we can be reasonably certain that if it had said that there was no problem with cladding on high buildings, it would have been published by now. The fact that it remains hidden away strongly suggests that Housing and Community Ministers did not regard fire safety as important. Gavin Barwell was Housing Minister for a year, up to the recent election. He and other Housing Ministers who made this error of judgement should publicly accept their responsibility in contributing to the Grenfell tragedy by not acting on the FSR. You could help by asking the present Housing minister to at least publish the FSR.

You ask whether the regulations on fire safety were too lax, or whether inspectors did not do their job? The dominant ideology presented by the Conservative Party is that of neo-liberalism, which calls for a small state with less regulation of the market. David Cameron called for a “bonfire of regulations”, and this is indeed what had been happening. Outsourcing means that a plethora of contractors and sub-contractors have been working on Council owned properties, and light-touch regulation means that safety choices have been very much delegated to the companies themselves.

At the same time, Council budgets have been cut to the bone. Environmental Health Officers are reduced by about one third from the time that I was on the Council. You will find that there are not enough building and fire safety inspectors to meet demand. The answer to your question is therefore that both regulations were too lax, and inspectors did not have the resources to do their jobs well.

There is much concern in the community about the Inquiry itself. Although Mrs May has said that it would leave no stone unturned, and would be able to publish an interim report on the cause and spread of the Grenfell fire, there is justifiable misgiving about politicians using Inquiries to kick difficult questions into the long grass. We have only just now, after 28 years, got to the point of holding decision makers responsible for the Hillsborough disaster. Similarly, the Chilcot Inquiry took seven years to complete. The suspicion is that the Moore-Bick Inquiry will be similarly used to defer consideration of responsibility and action.

Brandon Lewis MP, a past Housing Minsiter, has already used the Inquiry to avoid questioning from Channel 4 news about his non-action about fire risk. It is perfectly clear that fire propagates more quickly on inflammable cladding. As I said in my original letter, you don't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows. There have been fires in the UK, Australia, USA, France, and the Emirates where cladding was an issue. The first concerns were raised in the UK in 1991 after the Knowsley flat fire in Liverpool. The Inquiry is not needed to establish that cladding was the cause of the unusually rapid propagation. Indeed, the fact that cladding is right now being removed from tower blocks around the country confirms that inflammable cladding was to blame for Grenfell. The Inquiry should go into the matter of why the knowledge of the risks of cladding were not put into the building regulations in the 26 years since the Knowlesly fire; but there is no guarantee that the Inquiry will pursue this unless it is specifically put into its remit.
In conclusion, it is perfectly reasonable to argue that deregulation and small-state ideology have contributed to the tragedy of Grenfell Tower fire, and there is no merit in trying to avoid questions about political responsibility for the disaster under the banner of “politicisation”.

I will address the question of fracking that you raise in a separate letter.

Yours sincerely

Richard Lawson

No comments: