Grenfell inquiry: Government officials questioned over their role in weakening fire safety rules

Two former ministers and a senior government official were scrutinized this week for their role in scrapping fire safety regulations.

It was the first time that former government officials have given evidence in the Grenfell Inquiry. Former fire and safety minister Brandon Lewis and former building regulations minister James Wharton gave evidence, while former senior civil servant Brian Martin also concluded his testimony.

‘Show me the bodies’

The first was Martin, a former senior civil servant who was in charge of official building regulations before the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire when 72 people were killed.

As reported by construction news sister title, the Architects JournalMartin denied saying “show me the bodies” when he was challenged by an architect about tower safety in 2016.

Architect Sam Webb claims he informed Martin that following the 2009 Lakanal House fire in Camberwell which killed six people, safety standards needed to be tightened to prevent a much worse disaster.

In his witness statement, Webb claimed he sat next to Martin at an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) event on February 9, 2016. He said he warned him that if the document approved B , a key document on fire safety, was not rewritten, “another fire like Lakanal was inevitable”.

“Brian Martin’s response was, ‘Where’s the evidence? Show me the bodies. This was over a year before the Grenfell Tower fire,” Webb’s statement added.

“The impression I got from Brian Martin was that if it hadn’t happened, it wouldn’t have happened. It was as if he needed a catastrophe before he or the government acted.

Martin denied using the phrase, saying, “I’ve been known to use plain English or speak clearly. I think it’s a little clearer than I would have said.

“What I was trying to explain to him was that it would be difficult to justify raising the standards, given that what we were really experiencing was a steady reduction in the number of fire deaths,” he said. -he adds.

Let building regulator proposals ‘wilt on the vine’

Next to come before the inquiry was Lewis, who served as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the then Department for Communities and Local Government between 2012 and 2014. He was promoted to Minister of State until in 2016.

The inquest heard how Lewis snubbed repeated calls from two coroners – following separate fires in which people were killed – and in a Home Office report to create a building safety regulator .

Instead, the minister opted to let the industry self-regulate, despite overwhelming advice that it was ‘risky’.

The Home Office report warned: “Without a holistic and effective sector-wide approach to fire safety, it appears that the Government’s policy of stepping back to allow the sector to fulfill the space vacated by the government is risky.

But an email from one of Lewis’ advisers said he was “not keen on the idea of ​​a national regulator”. Asked about it, Lewis said that although he did not recall the exact situation, the government at the time was pushing for decentralization and self-regulation of the sector.

The coroner investigating the Lakanal House fire also recommended tightening guidelines around the compartmentalization of exterior walls, which was found to be partly responsible for the blaze. But the government said it had ‘no intention of issuing further guidance’.

In response, inquest lawyer Andrew Kinnear said, “The coroner’s recommendations for more regulation were clear and unambiguous, and the review clearly failed to respond to the coroner’s recommendations.”

Following repeated questions about why the need for a building regulator was rejected, Kinnear asked what it would have taken to push the government towards regulation rather than self-regulation of the sector. The minister said regulation would have been continued if the government deemed it necessary, but that would not necessarily have helped.

“The continuing concerns were made clear by two coroners,” Kinnear said. “Why were you glad the proposal was withering on the vine?”

Building security updates ‘far from a priority’

Wharton, who was previously assistant minister responsible for building regulations at the then Department for Communities and Local Government, faced the Grenfell inquiry on Thursday.

The inquiry heard how the ministry was reluctant to release building safety research reports, which were to be used to help revise building regulations.

In December 2015, department head Andrew Newton wrote to colleagues about the research, which was “seeking ministerial approval” for publication.

He then wrote twice in March 2016, after receiving no response, saying he understood the clearance process was “completely non-urgent and far from a priority”, but would be worth worth starting the process so that questions regarding building safety can be answered.

The investigation also showed a letter from the late Sir David Amess to Wharton about the need to change building regulations, which discussed the same updates.

At the time, Amess was Chairman of the APPG on Fire Safety.

In February 2016, Amess wrote to Wharton expressing concerns about the lack of regulatory progress. In the letter, Wharton reportedly outlined his plan to “[simplify] regulation to the extent possible”, despite the concerns expressed by the APPG.

“Corn [Wharton mentioned] nothing about “existing guidelines needing change, nor that there is evidence that current built environment issues could compromise both life and socio-economic security,” the letter continued. of Amess.

Wharton replied that he was “not yet in a position to present our plans for building regulations”.

The inquest found this week that Wharton moved forward with the reports but did not approve them for entry into force until February 2018, two years after Amess’ plea and nearly a year after the fire. Grenfell Tower.

Inquiry lawyer Richard Millett asked: “Despite the APPG’s request for urgency, particularly on the issue of life safety, you have nevertheless approved the submission, which will not become effective until 2018?”

“I would say that was the right way to go about the job, yes,” Wharton replied.

In the coming weeks, Eric Pickles, who served as housing secretary between 2010 and 2015, will give evidence at the inquest.

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