I think it is important that we do not rush to conclusions over the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower that has killed so many people in West London. The priority must be supporting residents who have lost their homes and comforting those who have lost loved ones. Many of those who lived, and died, in the block were union members and trade unions have already been active around supporting those members, or their families.
However, regardless of the outcome of any enquiry, it is clear that we cannot see Grenfell Tower as a “one-off” disaster but as something that is much more symptomatic of the society we live in and the value that it places on human life, especially the lives of the poor, the dispossessed and the vulnerable.
From a health and safety point of view I also feel incredible anger that so many warnings were ignored. Tower block fires have already been the subject of several enquiries after the 1999 fire in Irvine and the 2009 Camberwell fire. There have also been horrendous fires in tower blocks abroad – the most publicised being Melbourne and Dubai. It is not that we did not know the dangers, simply that the Government did not act on them, and when tenants groups did speak up their voice was ignored.
In part, Grenfell Tower is a testimony of the government’s ideological obsession with deregulation. In 2000 the government was warned that current guidance “may not be adequate for the purposes of ensuring the safety of external cladding systems in a fire”. Recommendations from the inquest into the 2009 fire were also ignored, while in 2013, the all All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group issued a report on the safety of tower blocks yet the minister refused to meet them. In March 2014, the all-party group wrote to the minister to say “Surely… when you already have credible evidence to justify updating… the guidance… which will lead to saving of lives, you don’t need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?”
There is no doubt that the reason for government inaction was anti-regulatory zeal. Brandon Lewis, the Tory housing minister between 2014 and 2016, warned against increasing fire safety regulations to include sprinklers in 2014 because it could discourage house building. He told MPs: “We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.” He said the Tory Government had committed to being the first to reduce regulations nationwide. Lewis added: “The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building – something we want to encourage – so we must wait to see what impact that regulation has.”
A couple of days ago, the Guardian journalist, Polly Toynbee, wrote a devastating account of the government’s assault on health and safety regulation under the guise of tackling red tape. If you have not seen it, it is well worth a read. Today, all the main health and safety professional bodies have produced a letter on the fire which can only be read as an attack on the whole deregulatory agenda. It includes the following lines;
“For many years, Ministers and others with influence over them have called for regulations, including in health and safety, to be axed as a matter of principle. Arbitrary rules were imposed to establish deregulation of health and safety, such as a requirement to abolish two health and safety regulations (and more recently, three) for any new one adopted.
This mind-set has meant that, even when it was recommended and accepted that mandatory fitting of sprinklers would make homes or schools safer, this was rejected in favour of non-regulatory action. In practice, this approach favours inaction. Good, well-evidenced and proportionate regulations in health and safety, based on full consultation, are developed and adopted because they save lives and protect people’s health and wellbeing. They are not “burdens on business” but provide essential protection for the public from identifiable risks.”
This realisation about what deregulation means is well overdue. However there are a few other issues that I think we have to look at when we consider fire safety, in particular how it effects workplaces.
One of these issues is the problems that are created by the Government’s reliance on standards made and approved by unaccountable industry bodies. This is effectively the privatisation of regulation making. No-one is sure whether the cladding used in the Grenfell Tower was legal or not. The Chancellor and DCLG say it was banned, while many in the construction industry say it was not, and if you look at the regulations it is totally impossible to tell. That is because most of the building regulations just refer back to British or European Standards, which are not publicly available and cost quite a bit of money to access. This means that if tenants groups, or safety representatives, want to find out if their building meets the legal standards it is virtually impossible.
The other question that the trade union movement will be asking is about inspection and enforcement. The last available figures show that 22,200 fires were reported in non-dwelling buildings and 17 fatalities occurred as a result of fires which started in commercial premises.
For decades all workplaces needed to have a fire certificate and received regular inspections. When the 2005 Fire Safety Order came into force, fire certificate legislation was repealed. Instead, employers are expected to prepare a fire risk assessment and emergency plan, which means that they have considerable discretion in deciding what is appropriate. At the same time we have seen big cuts in the fire service with more than 10,000 firefighters posts axed and dozens of fire stations closed since 2010. This means that the resources that the fire and rescue service can spend inspecting premises has fallen.
The Government has pointed to the fact that there was no immediate increase in fires after 2005 when the Fire Safety Order came into effect, but the number of fires has been falling steadily since the 1980s so that is not surprising. They can’t however claim that the cuts have not had an effect. 2015-2016 saw a 15% rise in fire deaths compared with the year before.
I don’t know whether the risk assessment approach is better than fire certificates or not, but, what I do know, is that if employers are going to be allowed to assess their own risks there have to be proper independent inspections, and that means enough firefighters to do them.
No-one in the trade union movement is going to try to make political capital out of the deaths of those victims of the fire in Grenfell Tower, however we have a duty to ensure that the safety of all our members is guaranteed as a human right.
It is right to ask whether the current workplace fire safety system of employers assessing themselves with regulations based on guidance that is often drafted by industry is fit for purpose. Let us make sure that the correct lessons are learned from this catastrophe so that our fire regulations and enforcement regime are as robust and effective as possible.