Grenfell Tower: Four former Government ministers accused of ignoring warnings that tower blocks were fire risks

'We have spent four years saying 'Listen, we have got the evidence, we've provided you with the evidence'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 20 June 2017 15:49 BST
The All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group pleaded for changes to fire regulations in tower blocks such as Grenfell
The All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group pleaded for changes to fire regulations in tower blocks such as Grenfell

Four former Government ministers are facing fresh accusations that they ignored warnings that residents in tower blocks such as Grenfell Tower were “at risk” from fires.

Labour is demanding answers after leaked letters revealed how experts pleaded with ministers to tighten regulations – arguing they “could not afford to wait for another tragedy”.

The letters were sent by the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group in the aftermath of a 2009 fire which killed six people in Lakanal House, south London.

Obtained by the BBC’s Panorama programme, they reveal growing dismay after the Government promised a review of fire regulations in 2013 – but then failed to act.

In March 2014, the group called for “automatic sprinkler protection” in the UK’s 4,000 older tower blocks, arguing ministers had enough “credible evidence” to change guidance.

But then-government minister Stephen Williams, a Liberal Democrat, replied: “I have neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest that consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent.”

The group replied: “We're at a loss to understand, how you had concluded that credible and independent evidence which had life safety implications, was NOT considered to be urgent.”

And it added: “Should a major fire tragedy, with loss of life, occur between now and 2017 in, for example, a residential care facility or a purpose built block of flats, where the matters which had been raised here were found to be contributory to the outcome, then the group would be bound to bring this to others' attention.”

Three Conservative ministers then also received letters about fire regulations, according to the BBC, including former Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, in February 2014.

In December 2015, the all-party group wrote to James Wharton, warning about the risk of fires spreading on the outside of buildings with cladding.

“Today's buildings have a much higher content of readily-available combustible material. Examples are timber and polystyrene mixes in structure, cladding and insulation,” it wrote.

“This fire hazard results in many fires because adequate recommendations to developers simply do not exist. There is little or no requirement to mitigate external fire spread.”

Lastly, Gavin Barwell, who was recently appointed Theresa May's chief of staff, received further calls for action in September last year.

In November 2016, Mr Barwell replied to say his department had been looking at the regulations, and would make a statement “in due course”.

In April 2017, Mr Barwell wrote to say he did “acknowledge that producing a statement on building regulations has taken longer than I had envisaged”, according to Panorama.

Ronnie King, a former chief fire officer who acts as the group’s secretary, said the Government had ignored repeated warnings about tower block safety.

“We have spent four years saying 'Listen, we have got the evidence, we've provided you with the evidence, there is clear public opinion towards this, you ought to move on this',” he said.

John Healey, Labour’s housing spokesman, has written to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid demanding to know what action was taken in response to the warnings.

He alleged minsters had been given “specific criticisms and recommendations for the fire safety rules for tower blocks, vital parts of which were ignored or rejected”

“Will you release in full the correspondence between your department and the all-party group,” Mr Healey wrote. “Will you set out the reasons for not acting upon their concerns?”

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