[Here, I record details of two meetings on the same day which in many ways embody how my managers continued to put their pensions/industry liaisons/career fears before public safety.]
First today, we had a meeting at 10.00 with David Bolton, the new chair of the British Retail Consortium, and what a fucking shower my lot are. First, Phil is Chairing but doesn’t get to work until 10.02. He brings David up with him from the foyer, then has to excuse himself to change out of his sporty cycle gear (necessary, apparently, for his two-mile ride from the station to here, on a Brompton). He gets to the room by 10.15 but there’s only me and Victoria there with David: fourothers are due but are late. Phil and Vicky have a conversation about one of the absentees:
P: “Where’s Michael – is he coming?”
V: “I don’t know.”
P: “He’s meant to be here, isn’t he?”
V: “Who knows?” (She is only his line manager so why would she know?) “Do you want me to fetch him?” (He’s in the office, of course, but probably still having his breakfast which normally takes an hour or so.)
Michael finally rolls in at 10.20. While we’re waiting, David reminds me that he and I met at a very tough BRC meeting last year. Steve Owen and I had been invited to speak to a room full of retailers about the new match test. But unbeknown to us, David reminds me, Phil Reynolds of FIRA had spoken to them all first and really bad-mouthed the test, setting Steve and me up for a lot of negativity. But, David continues, we did a great job under pressure. “Make sure you tell Phil,” I say, but don’t mention Steve’s observation that all my managers had chickened out of the meeting in the first place.
At the start of the meeting, Phil does a lot of fast talking, covering strings of minor facts, intended to demonstrate that he knows ‘stuff’. When we get to furniture, he asks me to give an update. Which I do, after which David offers the following observations:
- A lot of the negative responses to BIS’s consultation were orchestrated by FIRA.
- FIRA have vested interests in being opposed to the match test
- The flame retardant producers and treatment industry are obviously opposed to the new test because they’re going to lose a lot of money
- [And to me with a sympathetic twinkle in his eye]: It must have been like wading through mud
I saw much significance in these comments but could tell that Phil either didn’t or didn’t want to. It looks as if the retailers are going to stand against the ‘No’ camp. Which makes sense since they will lose by further delays to the new test, e.g. David mentioned the public’s growing resistance to flame retardants and the problems of disposal of old sofas and mattresses, especially in light of the coming Stockholm Convention ruling on safe disposal of hazardous flame retardants at end-life.
Oh, and he also agreed with my suggestion that the chem boys/FIRA would use the overall amendments to the regulations to cause further delays to the new test (and all this was building nicely for what I had planned in the team meeting following this one).
As I’d expected, Phil made no mention of the significance of David’s comments, so I brought it up, as far as I was allowed to. Then the others decided to look at everything other than the most important issue: the coming meeting at FW/6.
[Background: Sir Ken Knight, Paul Fuller, Jon O’Neill, Dave Sibert and others had persuaded the Minister, Jo Swinson, that she should commission the British Standards Institute to undertake 12-months ‘fast-track’ work on producing a new test foam formula for the new match test. No one wanted to listen to Steve and I pointing out that we already had a test foam formula in the existing regulations which had never produced any problems. In the event, Swinson agreed but Phil and Bridget were then in a bit of a pickle, i.e. if BIS went ahead and commissioned the work, then in 12 months time we’d be in the position of having no reason not to implement the new test and also having to explain why the hell we’d kept the public at risk for another year to produce a formula that already existed! Thus, Phil and Bridget changed the Minister’s recommendations in the government response published in March 2015, retaining the (frankly ridiculous) stuff about a new test foam formula, but a) changing Swinson’s directive that BSI be commissioned to do the work to just seeking their views on, and b) surrounding it in a huge amount of waffle, also not agreed by the Minister but guaranteed to ensure any changes were going to be delayed again – the response can be found here:
Note that the first suggestion talks again about finding ‘consensus’, despite Phil and Bridget being told by our Better Regulation unit that this is not possible and not necessary. Just for good measure, delay wise, they also added in that this attempt at consensus would now include allthe regulations, not just the match test: another recommendation never agreed by Swinson. Following, the publication of the government response, Phil and Bridget had persuaded BSI to hold a special meeting to discuss these items but both of them were clearly terrified of actually going along to explain it in person. Although I was currently in locked horns mode with them, they needed me to present at FW/6.]
Bridget was acting strange again: kept referring everything to me as if – IRONY ALERT! – I was the expert on the regs. I suspect this was her unsubtle way of saying, “It’s your arse on the line at FW/6, mate; don’t expect me to show my face.” Whatever, they wittered on about the forthcoming stakeholder meeting here in August, planning the order of events, discussing whether or not we need a facilitator . . . Good grief; the avoidance of the truth by diving into minor details was truly remarkable but not a million miles away I suppose from the Sir Humphrey playbook.
Then, probably sensing that I was suspiciously quiet, B announced that she had to leave early for another meeting; which suited me since now I had only one rat to trap.
I pointed out that forces were gathering around the FW/6 meeting next month. Sir Ken Knight was attending as a guest, for a start. “Why would that be?” I asked but received only blank looks by return. “Could it be?” I went on, “That, following his success in getting us to agree to let BSI come up with a new test foam formula, he’s now going to push for us to let them take over amending the entire regulations?” Blank and blanker.
“Assuming I’m the one who has to face them,” I said, “I need two lines-to-take” and gave them my questions/suggestions of such.
First line: what do I say when they ask me why the Minister’s agreement – that BSI would be asked to spend 12 months on a new test foam formula, which was what they’d agreed was all that needed doing towards implementing the new test - has now had loads of other vague recommendations added to it including allthe regulations; and why we haven’t commissioned them to do this straight away, instead are now just asking for their ‘views’ on it (and the rest of the regs)?
Oh, boy, did this permafrost the atmosphere. The main rat saw the danger all right and said exactly what I expected him to: that the Minister had agreed to the drafting of the government response and not just the 12 months extra BSI work. To which I was able to say (since I’d checked all the emails) that the Minister had very clearly put in writing that, following the round table meeting in February, she wanted the 12 months BSI work to go ahead in order that the new match test would be implemented in April 2016 (there is of course no chance of that date being met now). But she did not agree to seeking consensus on all the rest of the regs. Phil repeated that she’d agreed to everything in the government response but we both know he’d slipped the extra stuff past her and besides, as I said, “That’s not what the stakeholders like Sir Ken believe is going to happen.”
In essense this is the trap the rats are now in:
Phil and Bridget allowed Sir Ken, O’Neill and Sibert, followed by the round table meeting, to advance the proposal that BIS undertake 12 months work on a new test foam formula that isn’t needed. Swinson was open to this at the meeting and confirmed it to us in writing afterwards. I’m the only BIS person to speak out against this unnecessary work – getting shouted at by Sir Ken for doing so – but now Phil is doing the same thing, albeit for very different reasons. He’s had to leave the new test foam thing in the response’s Next Steps but he’s also having to obscure it as much as possible, otherwise the work would get done and he and Bridget would have nowhere to hide.
So, in essence what Phil has done is this:
- Allowed the round table/FPA, Sir Ken, etc to believe they’d won the argument for 12 months BSI work
- Refused, at my request, to put Swinson right about the fact such work was not needed
- Got her to sign off the government response but without making it clear to her that he’d changed a) the commission for BSI to dothe work to just seeking their ‘views’ on it, and b) 12 months being changed to just a few months – in order to make the desired new implementation date of April 2016
- Further added things in the commissioning letter to BSI, now stating that we don’t in fact need anyextra work doing, just getting their views on the foam and the rest of the regulations while you’re at it
The wonderful irony is that in order to ‘answer’ my question about a line-to-take, he had to push further into the argument that BSI doesn’t consider that any more work is necessary. Well, they wouldn’t, especially with Steve being FW/6’s new Chair.
The other line I said I needed was in response to BIS’s almost certain demand – especially with Sir Ken present – that they should be commissioned to produce a new standardfor all the testing requirements of the regulations. (Working with all the leading test houses a couple of years back, we’d established that it was best to do away with standards and instead put all the test requirements in the regulations – much to BSI’s horror, of course.) If we concede to that, I said, we’ll be looking at 3-5 years delay. The irony being that if Phil doesn’t want that to happen, he’s going to have to come up with a line to defend my work.
After Phil chewed his mental lips for a few seconds and threw sociopathic eye daggers at me, I put a proposal to them: that I put down a marker at FW/6 that as soon as we see that all the amendments to the regulations will not get in by April 2016 (which they clearly won’t), BIS will ensure that at least the new match test does. This is to defuse the delaying tactics, and we have the perfect reason: removing the current danger to public safety (something that Clare, our lawyer, was very strong about the other day).
Phil said that we’d need Ministerial approval for this (I resisted pointing out that the absence of such had not stopped him before); to which I agreed but said we can at least set out our intention at FW/6. To which he suggested – somewhat desperately, it has to be said – why not wait until we see how the FW/6 meeting pans out then think about suggesting something at the August stakeholder meeting? To which Chris, of all people, said, “It could be too late by then?” (Well, yes, that’s the point; glad you finally appear to see it.)
They decided that I should put all this in writing, which means I’m in the interesting position of having to set out in writing how they misled a Minister.
The bigger picture? In some ways, I saw it in David Bolton’s eyes earlier in the day (Phil wouldn’t have, of course): respect. The BRC were somewhat resistant to me and Steve at their meeting but I think they’ve had time to mull it over and see that he and I can be trusted, and that we know what we’re doing. Respect: something that Phil will neverget from anyone he deals with, stakeholders and colleagues alike. He may of course be getting something else from the chemical industry that for him is more important.