Steve and I are out back of the BIS building, by the bike shed, so he can have a cigarette.
"Remind me," he says, "why we're having this meeting at one day's notice."
The bare facts are that yesterday, Barbara got me to organise a meeting of leading test experts at one day's notice without an awful lot of explanation. That many of them are here, having had to rearrange busy schedules, and another will be phoning in, is ironic, of course. They’ve come because I have such good working relationships with them, yet Barbara and John have been telling me that I don't. It's double ironic in that probably none of them would have come if Barbara had asked them.
"Let's see," I say, opening the folder I'm carrying and reading from the page on top, "'The aim of the meeting', she says, 'is to consider how we can further evidence the safety standard of the new test.'"
"Short of just repeating the work I did, and FIRA did, there isn't any way to do that."
"She may have covered that with the first bullet point under 'Aim': 'This is emphatically not about questioning good work done; this is about solving a political and perception issue about the new test.'"
"Well, you can't solve perceptions that are fixed in profit motive. As for the political issue - isn't she the one who created it?"
"Maybe, but don't worry, the next bullet point solves all our problems: 'We need to think outside the box.'"
He shakes his head. "The new test is already thinking outside the box of the current one that, by the way, doesn't work."
"Ah, but the real issue is that she's been telling Jo Swinson that we need to do more work to bring the naysayers on board. But she's discovering that nothing will bring them on board other than us saying that we're abandoning the new test and they can carry on as normal. She actually said to me the other day that she knows the new test is ready to go but then in the next breath said we have to listen to all our stakeholders."
Steve gives me one of those looks that roughly translated means, Why the hell did you ever join the Civil Service?
We go upstairs to the meeting room where we find Barbara standing before a defensive barrier of flip charts. She has adopted something of a school teacher stance's, which somewhat clashes with the table of experts before her. Clashes in the sense that it implies they are here to learn something from her, not the other way around.
I'm sitting on the right of Kevin Nimmo who as always looks immaculate. Kevin was Chair of the British Standards furniture flammability group for many years; worked for one of the country's top test houses, and is still an advisor to the London Fire Brigade. On my left is Steve; next to him is Phil Reynolds of FIRA; then John Lord; then someone I'll call Barry of XXX, one of the country's biggest furniture manufacturers and a test expert in himself. Barry was on the committee that originally put together the Furniture Regulations. He told me recently that the claims some were making, that the new test hasn't been researched enough, were frankly rubbish. The original match test, he said, was simply voted in by a show of hands, based on no research at all. Finally, on speaker phone is Karin of IKEA, a test expert based in Almhult, Sweden.
"Thank you all for coming," says Barbara, still standing. "I'm going to facilitate today--"
Oh no. These are not people you facilitate, Barbara. These are experts whose opinion you ask for. Facilitation implies conflicting views to balance. However, the only conflict here is between Barbara and John and the truth. And perhaps FIRA (we'll see).
"Can I please have your agreement that today's meeting is confidential."
WHAT!? No, Barbara; you just can't hold meetings during a consultation period and make them confidential. Better Regulation unit told you this just the other week.
John Lord frowns slightly, indicating he perhaps didn't know this was going to be Barbara's angle.
No one really responds to her request but Barbara carries on anyway.
"What we need to do today," she says, "is come up with some additional work that we can use to convince our Minister that the new test is clear to proceed."
I can't let this pass, not with the deadline looming. "Barbara, shouldn't we be asking first if there is any reason why we can't proceed as we are now?"
Barbara is not pleased about this; ignores it and continues.
I should perhaps take time out here to explain how senior civil servants in Whitehall usually work. Essentially, their days are filled with meetings, the majority of which are with other civil servants. The protocol of which is simple: the highest grade in the room tells the rest how it's going to be and the rest agree. This is reflected in everything, including annual performance reports and whether or not you're fit for promotion.
On the rare occasions that they are forced to deal with non-civil servants who aren't they're theoretical superiors, e.g. Ministers, they tend to employ the same process. This is particularly bizarre in this sort of meeting, where the people round the table are far more expert in the subject to hand than the civil servant trying to railroad them into agreeing with her unfounded technical point of view.
Things go from bad to worse. Barbara hardly pauses for breath as she valiantly attempts to get everyone to agree that more work should be done on the new test. Several times, Kevin next to me tries to speak. Eventually, I interrupt Barbara's flow to point out that Kevin has something to say. Eventually, she flinches as if hit by a can of sofa stain repellent and nods reluctantly.
"I've read Steve and Terry's technical paper," he begins. I'd circulated it to all of them yesterday, except for Barry who already had a copy. "And it categorically proves that your new match test is ready to go; done and dusted."
So, here we have one of the most respected people in the testing world confirming that BEIS can go ahead with the new test; no further work needed.
Barbara is not pleased about this but before she can speak, Barry says, "I've had this paper for a couple of weeks and it's become my bible. It explains everything; a fantastic piece of work. After I read it, I took a box of our unregulated materials up to Steve's lab and he tested the lot in a couple of hours. We're sorted."
Here, Barry is referring to the new, moderated, additional match test which deals with materials close to the surface that can be highly flammable. This is very important in that while cover fabric on a main sofa cushion may not ignite under a flame, because the thick foam below it will put it out, foam in a sofa arm, for instance, is very thin. Which means the flame will penetrate it and ignite the often highly flammable materials, like hessian, that are often placed below it. Some had complained that this would greatly increase testing costs. In fact, this is not the case since, unlike with the main match test, the moderated one need only be applied once to each material to produce a result that stands forever, for everyone, no further testing required.
"With our flammable materials," Barry continues, "we're going to use thin strips of flame resistant cotton on the exposed parts. That passes the new test and will just cost us pennies."
Barbara's face appears to have developed a slight tick. She clearly isn't as pleased to hear this from such a large manufacturer as I am.
Phil Reynolds starts to say something but stops himself. I can see that his copy of the paper is covered in hand-written comments but I suspect somehow that these are mostly complaints rather than scientifically-based rebuttals. I suspect it a) because his own testing proved the new test works and b) because he'd have told us what they were by now.
Steve says, "Do we all agree that the technical paper proves that the current test doesn't work and that the new one will."
Kevin, me, Steve, Barry and Karin all agree.
"Come on, Phil," says Barry, "I know you're worried about upsetting your chemical industry mates so, tell you what, just nod slightly and we'll all get the message."
Phil doesn't nod but neither does he shake his head.
The discussion continues amongst the experts, now considering various details of the new test. Barbara looks more and more upset, as they appear to have forgotten that she's facilitating here. Eventually, she actually stamps her feet and shakes her fists, saying, "None of you are listening to me!"
An awkward silence follows after which Barbara says, "I just think we can still do some more research work for the Minister. It's what she wants, after all."
What she wants?
And on she goes until eventually it's agreed that four test houses will in effect repeat the testing work that FIRA and Intertek have already done. This is worrying, given we're working to a tight timetable.
"How long will this take?" says Barbara, which is about the time I note that once again John Lord has not said a thing.
Phil Reynolds says, "Um, about two months."
Barry laughs loudly. "Phil - I can have the gear delivered to your lab tomorrow and you can run those tests in your tea break the same day."
The meeting finishes with Barbara remaining in the room, clearly still upset. I escort Kevin down to the reception area.
"What did you think of the meeting?" I ask him.
He frowns. "I'm confused," he says.
"But you're a test expert," I say.
"Maybe but I didn't understand a word of what Barbara was going on about."
I return to the meeting room area where some of the others are chatting by the lifts. Barry asks if he can have a word with me in private.
We find an empty room.
"Terry, you have got to bring in this new test as soon as possible. We don't like selling unsafe products. I wish we could be more publicly supportive of the new test but, well, you know . . . "
I do: the 'Fake Britain' programme a few months back really spooked you retailers, as it was intended to do.
"Because you don't want the public to see you supporting changes to safety laws that will make you a profit?" I say.
He nods. A couple of years later, I'll appreciate more fully this point, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Then, it will become apparent to everyone that industry has in many cases hijacked safety legislation to suit its hunger for profits. So, while Barry has been supportive of the new test, that isn't the whole story.
I see Barry to the lifts where Steve is waiting for me. After Barry leaves, Steve says, "You have to convince her. She's had a bunch of top test experts tell her the new test is ready to go. This could be her last chance."
"Okay, but it won't be easy."
I force myself to go back to the meeting room. Barbara is packing away flip charts, pens and papers. I'm not sure but she might be crying. She's certainly still angry.
"You should not have contradicted me," she says. Which in many ways sums up her position: people may be dying but a subordinate disagreeing with her in public is far more important.
As calmly as I can, I say, "Barbara, we have the backing of the test experts. We can go back to the Minister and tell her we're clear to proceed."
She looks at me and there is still bruised pride in her gaze. I know from that look that she isn't going to change her position.
"We need to put up a submission," she says, "telling the Minister that we're going to do some more urgent testing and should have the results soon, in time to meet the deadline."
Unbelievable. Or maybe not.
The next day, she has me phone the four test houses and Barry to put them on standby. Then she spends a few hours looking into how to raise the funding for the work. After that, she never mentions the subject again. Eventually, I phone everyone to tell them we aren't doing the extra testing after all. Who knows; maybe she didn't go through with it because she realised that the further testing would only prove that the new match test would work. And while that might be good for the nation, it could be disastrous for Barbara, because she would have wasted more public money just to prove that Steve and I were right all along.
Here is the email I sent to Steve the day after the meeting:
I had quite a long talk with Barbara just after you left. She was very emotional - went to storm out of the room at one point. This wasn't just at me: she felt her ideas weren't listened to at the meeting. When she'd calmed down a bit I said she'd been railroading it somewhat. Point is: it's supposed to be the junior staff who get emotional with senior people calming them down - not the other way around. I did my best to get her to go back to the Minister with an 'it's okay' message. Don't think she will; not exactly anyway. She still doesn't see the contradiction of her advice to the Minister. She agreed with me that the meeting had confirmed that the test works, but she doesn't translate that into what the Minister needs to hear. When I pushed her, she backed into her point about how we have to deal with the negativity of some of the consultation responses. I reminded her she'd just been in a room of experts who agree the test is good; I also went through the past year - the support from IKEA, XXX, etc. But she won't budge from that contradiction.
She's also convinced herself that she's actually helping me with this approach: because I haven't paid enough attention to the consultation responses! I emphasised yet again that delay will cost lives. When I thought about it later, I realised that she and John between them have caused about 5 months' worth of delay, i.e. we could have got the measure in by this October - now it might be a year late.
She did agree that John is at fault, in that he should have been able to tell her it's all good when she joined us, or if it wasn't, to have dealt with it long before. "I needed two pairs of eyes on it," she said, i.e. she didn't.
However . . . I still think her behaviour today was very poor. She got me to turn in a lot of favours to get busy people in at short notice, then she resolutely refused to listen to their advice.
Perhaps the moment that summed up their position for me was what John said about the fire services' consultation returns (the only thing he actually said in the entire meeting) that they'd been negative - which wasn't true. When I pushed him, he said that they'd said they'd support the test if it worked, i.e. that's a negative - then Barry said, "No, that's a positive!"
All the best,