A meeting room in the House of Commons. Faded glory everywhere, a make-over sorely needed, but still slightly intimidating. Twenty-eight people sitting in a loose circle; Sir Ken Knight chairing. Today, he's representing the Fire Sector Federation. I think. It's not easy to tell since Sir Ken is on a lot of boards, panels and committees. He has a lot of influence too; in fact he bagged this up-ish venue.
Mind you, we shouldn't have needed as large a space as this in the first place. When we met some of the Fire Protection Association (part of the FSF) recently, they demanded a second meeting and said it would be a small get-together with a few of their fire safety experts, to discuss the technical paper they'd also demanded Steve write (with my help). Before the meeting starts, Steve leans towards me and says, "Do you reckon all of these are fire safety experts?" In fact, many of those present are what are becoming the usual suspects: those with a fondness for flame retardants. For example, Mike Hagen is here, representing the Fire Safety Platform (a one-man operation). I've met Mike a couple of times since we had dinner with Bob Graham and a young guy from Chemtura back at the end of 2012. Last time we met, Mike he was still telling me that he's independent in his views despite being funded by the flame retardant industry.
And there's David King, who claims to represent the foam industry, even though the European Commission banned them from having representation after finding them guilty of forming a cartel and fining them around 40m euros in the process. His opposition to the new match test has been vocal, as well as voluminous, but without much actual substance, it has to be said.
A couple of places to my right is John Shipman ex of SATRA test house, now a freelance consultant. Many years ago, John and I went to Poland, along with a woman from Trading Standards. The plan was that John would give a 90 mins talk on testing for the Furniture Regs and Trading Standards would talk about enforcement. But when we arrived, the Chair told us that we were doing the entire meeting, in front of about 50 Polish furniture makers.
The reason for going to Poland was to persuade their furniture makers to stop selling furniture in the UK that doesn't comply with our Regulations. John was a star. He stepped up and gave an impromptu talk on the history of European furniture making, followed by his planned talk on the Furniture Regs. The first question from the audience after he'd finished was, "How do we get around these Regulations?" That night, in a proper Polish restaurant recommended by our Warsaw host, John showed courage in ordering a local delicacy - raw minced beef topped off with a raw egg.
John came to BIS this morning for a pre-meeting meeting. This was partly my idea, in order to provide Barbara with a friendly and knowledgeable test expert who could independently corroborate the technical paper - given that she didn't really understand it. She should have been satisfied enough that her Departmental expert and our official external expert did, but then she has been telling the Minister that more work needs to be done on the test, something the technical paper very much contradicts.
John, Babara, John Lord, Steve and myself had an interesting conversation until Steve said at one point, "You haven't read the technical paper, have you John?" We had sent it to him before this meeting and of course its contents are the main focus of both meetings today. John looked sheepish and admitted that he had only had time to glance at it so far. Which was a little hard to believe.
And during the course of the afternoon meeting, it becomes clear to me and Steve that few if any around the table have read it either, despite O'Neill demanding it in the first place. It's easy to assume that this is down to laziness. But in retrospect it's more likely that the real reason is they know the paper is going to convincingly blow out their arguments against the test. Solution? Don't read the paper. Okay, that doesn't look too good (although of course no one is actually going to admit they haven't read it) but it's better than reading it and having to admit that you can't beat it.
In short, this meeting is going to be a waste of time.
The first meeting with the FSF/FPA was at BIS. What happened was that Jon O'Neill, Secretary of the FPA had contacted colleagues at DCLG demanding that they immediately scrap the new match test. He was told that BIS was the Department responsible for the regulations (although it's difficult to believe he didn't actually know this anyway); that they agreed with BIS, joined up government and all that, and that any meeting should be at our place.
O'Neill was very rude over the arrangements, making it clear that we had usurped what he believed to be correct protocol which, apparently, meant the FPA/FSF should have the ultimate say on any fire safety regulatory changes. He brought along a motley collection of people, with Paul Fuller of the Chief Fire Officers Association chairing. John Lord was also present but as usual said next to nothing, leaving it to me and Steve to do the talking. Steve had prepared some excellent videos, for example showing what goes wrong if you drop a match near a sofa arm - the flame penetrating the cover and thin foam layer, igniting the flammable hessian and plastics beneath the surface, turning the sofa into an inferno in next to no time - even though the cover fabric on it passes the current match test.
Both of us were tired, frankly. This protest had come late from the FPA, after the consultation had closed. O'Neill claimed the FPA had not been consulted, which was a lie. First, they had made a consultation return; and second, I'd spent a day at their research lab near Moreton-in-Marsh, with their testing experts. I'd invited them to present us with ideas for putting together a new match test but they'd never responded.
Despite tiredness, Steve spoke for about twenty minutes, summing up the problems with the current test and how the new one would put them right. When he'd finished, one of our guests said, "That's brilliant, Steve. Thank you very much; that explains everything." We never saw him again. Throughout the meeting O'Neill sneered, tutted, clucked and generally made sure everyone knew how unhappy he was. Towards the end, he demanded another meeting, before which he wanted to see Steve's technical theory and evidence.
"No problem," said Steve.
Back at the House of Commons, Sir Ken opens proceedings by explaining that this meeting has arisen following concerns raised by the FSF about the new match test. The FSF had offered to assemble a Technical Panel to scrutinise and peer-review the BIS proposals, he says. This is somewhat rich when it transpires, as said, that our so-called peers have not even bothered to read the technical paper.
I then give a talk on the regulatory background to the changes, followed by Steve giving a technical talk. Once again, he shows videos that demonstrate the massive problems with the current test.
Then it's open discussion and the claim is made by a couple of people, that more work needs to be done on the new test. Barbara speaks after this and says, "We believe this new test will improve the regulations. You keep telling us it needs more work. What is this work, precisely?"
Leaving aside the irony of her raising this question, I'm pleased she has. And the ensuing reaction says everything.
Which is eventually broken by Jon O'Neill mumbling, "We'll have to give this further thought."
Let's pause here to reflect. BIS has spent nearly two years working on a new match test. It has been thoroughly researched and tested, and proven to be effective. At the same time, we've also proven that the current test is unsafe. We have been rudely challenged by the FPA/FSF, telling us that we need to let them peer-review the work (even though many of them were involved in the work in the first place) and they demanded a technical paper. They're given the paper but haven't read it. They've now admitted that they don't even know what the further work is that we must do on the new test.
Of course, a real Chair at this point would have called off the meeting and told the FSF to stop wasting the government's time. Instead, Sir Ken asks if there are any more points to consider. Which is when they come up with their fall-back idea, that the new test cannot proceed without the right test foam formula.
The match test requires cover fabrics to be tested over a slab of generic foam. In the current test, this is the old kind of polyurethane foam that is now illegal. The new test proposes using instead the combustion-modified, flame resistant foam that is actually found in furniture. It also provides a formula for this foam.
David King tells us that it's imperative to get the right foam formula. If it's out even by a slight amount, he says, then it can lead to bodged results, extra fires, failed prosecutions, etc. This view is supported by Dick Horrocks and Mike Hagen, no strangers it has to be said to flame retardant industry funding.
Steve gives two counter-arguments. First, he points out that the new formula already exists in the current regulations, for loose covers; and it has caused no problems in nearly 30 years of daily use. Second, where the match test for non-domestic furniture is concerned (which requires testing on a composite true to the finished product), test houses have traditionally used any pieces of combustion-modified foam that happens to be lying around, again with no problems.
Barbara decides to be diplomatic and suggests that the FPA come up with a new test foam formula and present it to BIS at a meeting next month. While I'm not happy about this, I can see the sense in letting them contribute to the process and we will still be on time to make the changes.
Which is somewhat naive notion to have, as it turns out.
After the meeting, and after everyone else has dissipated, Steve and I go for a coffee in the House cafe.
"We seem to spend a hell of a lot of time," he says, "providing endless proof and evidence to points they raise off the top of their heads without any substance."
"It's probably mostly down to a pride and status thing," I say. "The FSF sees itself as the go-to authority on fire safety. It's used to dealing with the fire safety department, DCLG. Then they find themselves facing a change to fire safety put together by the business department which managed it without any input from them, even though they were invited to contribute."
He nods. "I'm still annoyed with John, though."
Shortly after this meeting, John writes to Barbara to suggest that more work needs to be done on the new test - without, however, stipulating what exactly - and that he can be contracted to do it.