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Sailesh Mehta:‘Light touch regulation’ failings reflected in inquiry report

Survivors and family members of people involved in the Grenfell fire, (L-R) Nabil Choucair, El Alami Hamdan, Flora Neda, Hamid Al Jafari, Nazanin Aghlani, Shemsu Kedir, Paulos Tekle and Shah Aghlani pose for a photograph following a press conference on October 30, 2019 in London, England.  (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)

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IN THE early hours of June 14, 2017, at Grenfell Tower in north Kensington, London, a kitchen fire in a flat on the fourth floor broke out as a result of a fault in a fridge-freezer.

It was an unremarkable fire, the sort that the fire brigade deal with on a regular basis, rarely resulting in anything more than a little local damage. And it should have remained that way.

Unfortunately, it expanded out of the kitchen window and then spread rapidly in the 23-floor building, as a result of cladding on the outside walls of the tower block. The cladding was put there during refurbishment works, but it should never have been there.

The building had a “stay put” policy, which means that the fire brigade expects and advises residents to stay inside their flats until the fire is put out. The policy works as long as the fire remains contained and does not spread. Within two hours, all of the upper floors
were alight, and 72 people died as a result of the blaze.

Phase 1 of the Grenfell fire inquiry results was published last week. It reached damning conclusions in relation to a number of topics, mainly relating to the cause of the fire and the response by the emergency services.

Cladding on the high-rise block breached building regulations and caused the fire to spread rapidly. The “stay put” policy requiring residents to remain indoors rather than use the single stairway escape route should not have been adhered to once it became clear that the
fire was spreading quickly and it was clearly unsafe to remain inside.

The author of the report, Sir Peter Moore-Bick, concluded that senior fire officers should have abandoned the policy when it became clear that the fire was spreading very fast. Had this been done, many more lives could have been saved. Instead, residents remained in
their flats until the stairway became unusable and they could not escape the fire.

The lack of training of senior fire officers to deal with such large fires involving cladding is also a focal point of criticism. The fire brigade is seriously criticised for “systemic failures” in the report.

The report’s conclusions are valid and were expected, given the nature of the evidence received by the Grenfell inquiry. Unfortunately, it has not and will never deal with the more important underlying causes of the fire and the cause of so many unnecessary deaths.

Successive governments have reduced the role of regulatory bodies such as the fire brigade to deal with fire safety. Since the 1980s, the burden has slowly been shifted from the regulator to those it regulates.

The new regime, referred as “light touch regulation” requires self-regulation. Unfortunately, that often results in cost cutting, at the expense of safety for those who need protection.
‘Light touch regulation’ has been the watchword in areas ranging from banking and food hygiene, to health and safety. It is often a thinly disguised way for local and national government to cut costs. Such policies have had disastrous consequences elsewhere, usually lead-ing to a lowering of standards and allowing unscrupulous companies to prosper
at the expense of those who they should be protecting.

The second part of the inquiry will not deal with the likely causal connection between cuts to the emergency services and the lack of adequate training, the lack of sufficient equipment to fight large fires and the “institutional failings” of the fire brigade. The budget for prosecutions for breaches of fire safety has been slashed over the years – and again
this will not feature in any report.

While the inquiry will have been told about the lack of equipment for fighting high-rise fires – some had to be brought in from other fire brigades during the blaze at Grenfell – it cannot look into the cost-cutting exercise that leaves London with some of the tallest high-rise buildings in the world but without adequate equipment to protect them.

The inquiry will also not look at the financial reasons for building regulation officers’ lack of sufficient scrutiny of the refurbishment works that were the main cause of a fairly ordinary fire becoming an uncontrollable blaze. Every local authority in the country has faced similar
– or worse – belt-tightening exercises.

It cannot be of comfort to the families of the deceased to know that the report will not deal with such fundamentally important potential causes of the disaster. In fact, family representatives were asking for a broadening of the terms of reference, but such calls were not heeded.

Instead, the report heaps blame on easy targets such as the fire brigade service, whose officers were placed in extreme danger in a situation which should never have occurred.

Observers of the British constitution have often remarked that public inquiries such as Grenfell are designed by the government of the day to meet their own ends. They serve a purpose beyond any investigation into the true causes of an incident. Often the purpose is to create a commotion while a minister tiptoes away before the real causes of the disas-
ter are discovered.

It was ever thus with inquiries. They are designed to allow ministers to tiptoe quietly away.

Sailesh Mehta is a barrister specialising in human rights and regulatory law