The public inquiry set up soon after the Grenfell Tower Fire completed its hearings last November and is expected to publish its final report in 2024. There’s much to learn already…
On 14 June 2017 the fire in Grenfell Tower killed 72 Londoners, injured many others and left hundreds of people bereaved or homeless, their lives changed forever.
Evidence given during the course of the public inquiry hearings, and publicly available, shows a shocking catalogue of incompetence and deceit. Time and time again bad decisions had been made, neglectful of the consequences. And too often these decisions were accepted or not challenged.
As workers we should be concerned about the culture, both institutional and political, in which we earn our living. The inquiry has shone a light on practices which are the antithesis of what it means to take charge, to take control of our lives.
The catastrophic spread of the fire was ultimately avoidable and mainly attributable to external flammable cladding fitted during refurbishment completed the previous year. This was the conclusion of Phase 1 of the inquiry in October 2019, which also pointed to systematic failings by the London Fire Brigade in several respects.
Phase 2 considered the causes in detail through 85 weeks of evidence and over 300,000 documents. The aim was to determine how Grenfell Tower was in the condition that allowed the fire to spread as it did.
The inquiry chairman, Martin Moore-Bick, said: “Although it is possible to identify some decisions relating to the refurbishment that had an immediate effect, the wider causes of the fire have their roots in the culture of the construction industry and the regulatory regime. Many decisions, taken by many people over the course of many years, conspired to create a building which in June 2017 was vulnerable to a catastrophic fire.”
In this article we look at some of the evidence about one aspect of the disaster, the use of flammable panels. It is illustrative of what was happening not just in one company or organisation but also of systemic failures in many places.
There was an early indication that unquestioning reliance on the judgement of team leaders could contribute to unsafe outcomes. QC Richard Millet, Lead Counsel to the inquiry, asked a witness for Kingspan Insulation (Inquiry transcript Day 83, 7 December 2020), “You let them get on with it?” The witness answered: “Yeah”.
Kingspan Insulation had put out misleading marketing literature in order to sell a type of protective cladding which had not been tested, instead of more expensive material that had. The company’s head of marketing had knowingly failed to revise the product literature. He “believed”, without scientific evidence, that there was no difference between the tested and untested material.
Two members of his technical team conducted a Messenger chat cynically commenting on the product but decided to keep quiet: “Shit product”; “Scrap it”; “But don’t tell anyone that”; “What’s like the literature?” “Fire Performance”; “Ha ha”; “Fire Performance” “Woops”; “Fire Performance”; “Whey”; “Look who knows their shit”; “Yeah all lies mate”; “All we do is lie in here.”
Arconic, another cladding manufacturer, gave evidence (9 February 2021). It was the job of Arconic’s sales manager to specify whether cladding was purely fire-retardant or highly flammable. Under cross-examination, the manager was asked how much attention she paid to the properties of the material when selling it. She replied: “not very much...it was not something that was discussed.”
‘A shocking catalogue of incompetence and deceit…’
This was irresponsible, since before Grenfell there were many warnings resulting from cladding igniting on high-rise buildings in Dubai. She received an email from a supplier after the 2012 Dubai fire saying: “Half of the country [UK] is full of this rubbish due to price.”
On 14 February 2022 the Inquiry took evidence from a Fire Suppression Manager at the Building Research Establishment (BRE). Her team had been shocked and surprised during tests on polyethylene sandwiched between aluminium sheets, which resulted in an inferno.
Yet shocked as they all were, no-one thought to alert the industry or local authorities. Meetings with government were sloppy and informal, with no notes taken. Emails requesting clarity around the use of combustible materials were ignored. Smiley emojis accompanied internal memos about the Dubai fires – again, the cynicism.
No one thought it “appropriate” to have discussions with the government about suitability for high-rise buildings. The manager explained: “We would not go out and make comment around that, no...we wouldn’t have stepped into that space.”
Here, as in many other instances uncovered by the inquiry, a group of workers saw themselves as passive cogs in the machine. Someone higher up would take responsibility – a false and eventually fatal assumption.
Finally someone writes, “What a buck-passing load of incompetents.” Counsel inquires: “Can you explain how that [buck-passing] was professionally or ethically acceptable...?”
Lack of professional curiosity was confirmed in a later piece of evidence (21 March 2022) from a former BRE manager. Asked how he felt on being shown a section of the cladding which had burned so fiercely during testing, he replied: “...it felt like a conversation amongst colleagues about an interesting result.”
Counsel exploded – “Well, it’s more than interesting, isn’t it? This was a conflagration, a 20-metre fire.” Asked why he did not give consideration to fire risk, the witness answered that the opportunity never arose. This was untrue.
In 2009 there was a fire in Camberwell, south London (the Lakanal House fire), in which six people died. The coroner had made recommendations, including the re-writing of fire safety documents in clear language, which were never followed up.
Not only was there another Lakanal waiting to happen, there were civil servants waiting for it to happen before taking action. ‘Where is the evidence? Show me the bodies’ seemed to be the thinking. Data from fire tests was never made public, as evidenced by enquiry statements such as: “It just got forgotten and fell between the gaps...” because “Fire safety is a very subjective subject.”
Deregulation was government policy at the time – the Red Tape Challenge from the coalition government. The BRE could have requested exemption but didn’t. “We didn’t really have a strong argument for doing so.” Counsel: “Well how about life safety being a strong argument...?” Here was a departmental fire safety expert deferring to inexpert politicians eager for deregulation.
When workers fail to prevent a catastrophe, by not speaking out or escalating an issue, or simply through inertia, it can prey on their conscience and take a toll on mental health.
The final stumbling words of the BRE manager seem to suggest this: “...perhaps the mindset that we’d adopted as a team, and I think, as a result of that, I ended up being the single point of failure in the Department, and I think that’s why I think we failed to stop this happening. For that’s something I’m bitterly sorry.”
The Grenfell Phase 1 recommendations aren’t yet fully implemented – and there are concerns that little will change. Certainly deregulation is back on the political agenda, and that worries firefighters.
Workers – including those in managerial and professional jobs – don’t have to carry the can for capitalism. Trade unions are there to support whistle-blowers. Use them and save lives!
• See the Inquiry website for all the evidence, documents and Phase 1 report at www.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/