Grenfell cladding fire risk was ‘covered up by ministers for years’ before blaze

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Michael Mansfield QC, lawyer for the bereaved and survivors, also said David Cameron made ‘ridiculing’ comments about health and safety in the years before the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people

People attend a commemoration to mark the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire on June 14, 2020
People attend a commemoration to mark the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire on June 14, 2020

David Cameron should be quizzed over his involvement in “one of the major scandals of our time”, the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster heard today.

In explosive opening statements from lawyers, the hearing was told how successive governments had covered up the extent of the cladding crisis for more than 30 years.

Michael Mansfield QC, for the bereaved and survivors, said former PM Cameron made “ridiculing” comments about health and safety in the years before the 2017 fire, which killed 72 people.

In 2010, Cameron said he wanted to “scrap health and safety rules that put people off”, Mr Mansfield said.

The ex-Tory leader followed this the year after by saying “the shadow” of health and safety was holding people back, adding that this was not “how a great nation was built” and that “Britannia didn’t rule the waves with arm bands on”, Mr Mansfield recalled.

Michael Mansfield QC, for the bereaved survivors, claimed Cameron spoke in 2010 of how he wanted to ‘scrap health and safety rules that put people off’
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Reuters)

Mr Mansfield said such speeches were “ridiculing, humiliating health and safety, and relegating citizens, as it were, to effectively a bonfire”.

The inquiry was told how the blaze occurred partly because of an “unbridled passion for deregulation”.

It heard how ministers knew how bad the problem was before the 2017 tragedy but “concealed” the faults rather than tackle them.

While a desire to boost housing construction led to the industry being allowed to exploit regulations, the latest module of the probe was told.

Stephanie Barwise QC, also acting for the bereaved and survivors, said the fire came as a result of “an unintended consequence of a political ideology” where “deregulation… enabled industry to write its own rules”.

Other opening statements included how the government received an estimate in the 1990s that the cost of fixing dangerous cladding was £500m.

The bill today for all buildings is estimated at well above £15 billion.

Ms Barwise said three reports into two key cladding fires in the 1990s were “covered up”.

The scene in Camberwell, south London, after a fire ripped through a tower block
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PA)

The inquiry heard how the government acknowledged that a rule against introducing new regulations for the building industry in the 2010s put it in breach of its duty to protect the right to life.

The hearing heard the government suppressed information about the combustibility of cladding used on Lakanal House after a fire killed six people in 2009 in Camberwell, south east London.

It noted the need to “avoid giving the impression that we believe all buildings of this construction (are) inherently unsafe”.

The investigation into this fire was shut down by officials in a “grotesque abdication of responsibility” which “raises the spectre of a deliberate cover up”, the inqury was told.

After Lakanal, despite the government outwardly promising to implement the coroner’s recommendation to encourage the use of sprinklers, civil servants wrote that it was simply acting “to be able to say that DCLG is taking action”.

A senior civil servant warned in May 2017 – just a month before the Grenfell Tower fire – that “we or ministers are increasingly vulnerable to some or all of these risks becoming material and (government) being held to account for being inactive”.

Michael Mansfield QC speaking at the Grenfell enquiry today

On the day of the fire, another civil servant emailed: “Some of the stuff about disproportionate burdens feels uncomfortable today.”

Government elected not to drop a weak fire standard for cladding in the early 2000s out of fears that tougher standards would “discriminate against” certain products and a warning from industry that different testing would effectively outlaw rainscreen cladding with “economic consequences for the building industry and the UK as a whole”.

Insulation manufacturer Kingspan wrote in 2003 that the government would not adopt tougher European fire standards “until the industry is ready to adopt it”.

And a government-commissioned test in 2002 on the specific cladding product used on Grenfell Tower failed five minutes into its 30-minute duration but the product was not banned.

Ms Barwise said there had been a “prolonged period of concealment by Government which should properly be regarded as one of the major scandals of our time”.

She told the inquiry: “The Grenfell disaster is a predictable, yet unintended, consequence of the combination of the laudable desire to reduce carbon emissions, coupled with an unbridled passion for deregulation, in particular a desire to deregulate and boost the housing construction industry.

“Government’s dependency on that industry resulted in Government becoming the junior partner in the relationship, thereby permitting industry’s exploitation of the regulations.

“Government’s response, on realising the extent of the problem, was to react by concealment, instead of candour.”

Grenfell United, which represents the bereaved and survivors, said in a statement: “Government’s indifference to safety has been going on for decades and, had it not been for the loss of our families in the most public way, people would still be oblivious to how deadly their homes really are.

“While Grenfell United has campaigned for safer homes and the banning of deadly materials, Government ministers were all too happy to be wined and dined by the same companies responsible for Grenfell.”

The group said the line “between lobbying and corruption is dangerously thin and the grey area has left 72 dead”.

They added: “This ugly reality is more evident than ever, so we need to know how far the rot goes – as no-one should be exempt from real accountability.”

Module six of the inquiry’s second phase is looking at the regime for the testing, certification and classification of materials for use in external cladding systems, and examining the role of central Government in establishing the legislative regime and formulating guidance on how to comply with it.

A spokesman for David Cameron said: “As prime minister, David Cameron advocated a sensible new approach to health and safety regulations to ensure that they protected people and were applied where needed rather than unnecessarily overwhelm businesses with red tape.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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