As I've described elsewhere on this site, the Grenfell Fire Forum met BEIS officials recently to discuss the Furniture Regulations. Three of us also spoke at a Fire Congress in Dublin on 31 May and took the opportunity to meet up the day before with officials and others from the Irish government to discuss the same issue (Ireland is the only other country in the world that has the same furniture flammability regulations as the UK).
During my time at BIS/BEIS I had met the same Irish officials many times, both in Ireland and London. We had a good working relationship; indeed, when I spoke at another fire safety conference in Dublin earlier this year, I met two of them for a drink the night before. They are good company. However, I couldn't help notice that they spent the first half hour or so that night talking about their pensions.
We met BEIS on 3 May. As I've described on the Grenfell Tower page, they refused to answer our first question, although by the end of the meeting they promised to answer it in writing. Five weeks later, and despite three written reminders, they still have not replied. The question put to them several times at the meeting and in writing was:
a) Do you agree that BIS/BEIS's published documents - the 2014 consultation paper, the 2015 Technical Annex, and the 2016 consultation paper - prove, through testing evidence and scientific reasoning, that the current match test fails in up to 90%* of cases in practice, confirmed by Trading Standards' in-field work, and that UK furniture is therefore unsafe**? Please answer Yes or No.
b) If your answer to a) is 'No' please provide the evidence to justify it.
* "Up to 90%" is based on the fact that Trading Standards report they are finding 84.3% failures in the match test in practice but that figure is based on just two of the failings of the test: undertreatment and stain-repellent spraying. It does not take into account failings caused by flammable materials close to the cover or the presence of a fibre-wrap layer in most sofas - 5.7% being a conservative estimate for these two factors.
** For example, from BIS's Technical Annex (our emphasis): "Consumers are, in many instances, being led to believe that the furniture they buy is match resistant when it is not so in its final form (because it has been sprayed by persistent and flammable materials or has covers which behave favourably in test but not in the finished item or has components near the surface which are flammable) ... The Regulations rely upon a combination of ignition resistance measures; if any one of these measures is compromised it can lead to catastrophic failure of actual final composites."
They managed to avoid answering this question for two hours, in the process displaying a stunning lack of knowledge of the regulations they are responsible for; that, and producing incredibly convoluted and contradictory statements which amounted to them claiming that the evidence they need in order to act has yet to be gathered.
Let's be clear about what this means: the people responsible for ensuring the public is safe when it sits on its sofas and when it sleeps on its mattresses are in fact deliberately keeping the entire British public at risk - both from flammable products and the vast amounts of toxic flame retardants in those products used in order to meet flammability requirements that don't even work.
They are doing this knowingly. Why? Because, evidently, their pensions and having a smooth career that doesn't cause their senior managers problems is more important to them.
The Irish have failed to act, too. And in their case they can't claim ignorance since the same people have been in charge of their regulations for many years more than the BEIS officials.
Here are a few of the explanations they gave us for why nothing has changed in Ireland:
"We are citizens, too, so we have to face the issue that we may be sitting/sleeping on unsafe and toxic furniture."
Our response: But you know there's a problem and therefore can make a choice about what furniture you buy. The vast majority of Irish citizens do not.
Their response to that was to say that there had been several articles in the Sunday Times which had alerted the Irish public to the problem.
Our response (leaving aside the obvious point that even if this were true, they should still have acted by now): Those articles were very short and did not alert the Irish public to the overall problem [we have copies of the articles and knew exactly what was in them].
"We are short of resources but we have made this subject a priority for 2018."
However, they appear to have done nothing so far, five months into the year.
We asked why they haven't been working with/consulting anyone on these regulations. Their response was to state that they can't do so when they are forming policy: it has to go to the Minister first.
Our response: Yes, the Minister has to sign off policy but you are completely free to consult anyone while gathering the information and evidence you need to draft the policy (which is exactly what was done at BIS in the build-up to the 2014 consultation on a new match test).
"Evidence is often not that important in forming policy."
This is ridiculous. Yes, at times some parts of policy may be formed around incomplete evidence but a) all the necessary evidence was in place for the 2014 proposed new match test and b) you don't have any new evidence anyway.
So, once again, we have officials in charge of public safety regulations, knowing that they don't work and therefore their entire population is at risk, coming up with complicated 'reasons' for their inaction when in fact they are simply protecting themselves.
Similar attitudes are at play in the Dame Hackitt Review, of course.
The worrying thing is that the same department, BEIS, is handling the Brexit work. The one thing we can be sure of is that every effort will be taken by those officials to make sure their pensions are safe.