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Government fails to learn from Grenfell atrocity and continues to cut fire services

5 min read

Shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, looks at a new report from the Fire Brigades Union on Grenfell and what needs to be learned from the background of an atrocity.

I recently spoke at the launch of the Fire Brigades Union’s report Background to an Atrocity. This report provides an exhaustive history of where government policy has gone wrong over the past 30 years culminating in the Grenfell Tower fire.

The report makes clear that the FBU has been warning about the danger of a Grenfell like incident for years and nobody has listened.

Specifically, the FBU was warning as long ago as 1999, in the House of Commons itself, that certain flammable cladding was a threat to life, after a tower block (Garnock Court, a 14-storey block of flats in Irvine, Scotland) caught fire.

Cladding was a significant factor in the spread of the fire. William Linton was killed in the fire and five others injured.

As a result building regulations were strengthened in Scotland but not in England.

At the time, the FBU said cladding could act as a “vehicle for assisting uncontrolled fire spread” which “poses a threat to the life safety of the residents” above the fire.

The Background to an Atrocity report also outlines how the whole system of fire regulation, fire inspection and enforcement has been undergoing a series of negative so-called reforms ever since the 1980s.

This is the legacy of Thatcherism, and successive governments continued that policy of deregulation and privatisation that she began.

Such an approach continued all the way up to the Grenfell tragedy, which was a direct consequence of deregulation of fire standards and inspection, privatisation and outsourcing. As Jeremy Corbyn has said, “Grenfell is not just the result of bad political decisions. It stands for a failed and broken system which Labour must and will replace.”

To give specific examples, the FBU’s report also outlines how the FBU gave strong backing to the Fire Precautions Act 1971 which gave fire services the power to issue fire certificates to ensure building owners complied with fire safety laws. But unfortunately this system was then watered down in 2005 when the certification process was removed from fire services.

Additionally, a body called the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council provided national leadership on all fire matters including fire safety, research, training, equipment, firefighting operational procedures and personal protective equipment. It was abolished in the 1980s with no other national body to take its place.

When the current Grenfell Tower Inquiry reports its recommendations for changes in the fire sector, it’s worth remembering that there is no actual national body in existence that could ensure the changes are implemented. It would currently fall to individual fire and rescue services – another example of fragmentation in the fire service.

For this reason the FBUs report calls for a new national body to be established.

It wasn’t just the FBU who warned of the dangers of the cladding, about the lack of proper fire inspections and the increasingly laissez faire attitude towards all fire regulation.

When it comes to Grenfell specifically, before the fire a tenants’ group of Grenfell residents (the Grenfell Action Group) said that it firmly believed “that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

The Grenfell residents warned about the cladding, the lack of fire safety and they complained about their treatment as second-class citizens.

Unfortunately, all those warnings were ignored, and the worst possible predictions came to pass.

People didn’t listen then, but they should listen now.  Yet, looking at where we go from here, unfortunately the government continues to cut the fire service even after Grenfell.

This is within a context where, even if you don’t include Grenfell, fire deaths are on the rise, and the FBU have said last year was the worst year for fire deaths since 2010-11.

Indeed, firefighters dealt with more incidents, more fires and saw more fire deaths last year than for most of the last decade in England.

Firefighters attended over 564,000 incidents overall in England, the most since 2011-12. Firefighters attended over 167,000 fires, also the most since 2011-12. This also suggests that the long period of improvements in public safety has plateaued – with cuts the most likely explanation.

The reality is that nearly 12,000 firefighters have been axed since 2010 - one-in-five firefighter jobs have been cut.

The Tories may deny it again and again, but cuts have consequences, especially for public safety.

Response times to emergencies are getting longer (with fewer firefighters at the early stages of incidents), greater risk to the public and fires deaths are creeping back up.

Cuts have also impacted on the number of fire safety inspections fire services undertake. Home fire safety checks have fallen by 25%. The number of fire safety inspectors has fallen by 28%.

The Grenfell Tower fire should have been a wake-up call, and the Westminster government should have reacted by investing in the fire and rescue service, but instead they just keep on cutting.

In contrast to the Tories, Labour welcomes the publication of this important report from the FBU, fully supports their campaigning against the cuts and in government will recruit 3,000 additional firefighters.

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