SILENCE OF THE ON-THE-LAMS
We now know that while Grenfell Tower was still burning and for days following, officials of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council were holed up in their offices planning their denials and busily shredding incriminating papers, doing nothing at all to help stricken citizens. The government was busy with its urgent priorities, too, one of which was shaping the Inquiry to minimise damage across a whole range of interests, including its own, in particular the bodge it had made of buildings and fire regulations over the past thirty years or so. That and the fact it was directly responsible for failing to put right the furniture flammability regulations when it had the chance to some four years previous to the fire.
There were plenty of well-compensated officials in government and the fire sector who would have received their orders almost as soon as the building caught fire. Oh, and let's not forget the flame retardant industry. After all, they had markets to protect, and it didn't help that outside the UK, the western world had largely turned against its products in furniture. So much so that it had been expanding into building materials instead. But it clearly wouldn't do if the truth got out that its products in sofas and mattresses in the tower were obviously not doing the job of preventing fire; worse still, they added greatly to the toxicity of the blaze. And so Dr Malcolm Tunnicliff was rushed into the media, while the fire was still burning, to assure everyone that there was no hydrogen cyanide poisoning (actually there was, and lots of it) and only old furniture (pre-1988) was toxic; modern furniture was not. Now, a common theme amongst those with something to lose from tragedies like Grenfell is that when they are pushed into an ethical and logical corner regarding, in this case, their lies, they simply don't respond. And so Dr Tunnicliff did not respond when I wrote to him to point out that he'd got the issue with furniture exactly the wrong way round, i.e. modern furniture is far more toxic than older stuff when it burns.
Meanwhile, a shocked and devastated community had to look after itself.
There was an interesting moment, following the end of a meeting in June this year at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We were being escorted from the meeting room to the reception via the lifts by, well, I'll call her Doris for now, since civil servants are very sensitive about being named in public. Even though they're public servants.
Incredibly, considering what had gone on in the meeting, Doris was smiling and actually skipping a little with some kind of self-induced pleasure. She then made small talk by asking us what we were doing next. Instead of answering that particular question, however, I decided to try popping her joy bubble by saying, "You met the All Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group yesterday and they're hopping mad that you didn't answer any of their questions either."
I watched her carefully. The jolly sheen in her eyes dimmed for about half a second but then quickly returned. "We had a meeting with them, yes," she beamed.
As we left the building I said to my colleague, "She believes the meeting went well because she thinks she dealt with us. She'll tell her line manager everything's fine and probably get a positive mention in her annual report."
Move forward to last week. I'd put in some questions to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (along with many other people) regarding their complete inability to acknowledge, let alone deal with, the fall-out of the fire in terms of sickness and environmental damage. One of my questions was what is the Council doing about the fact the government proved four years ago the furniture flammability regulations don't work and therefore they contributed greatly to the toxicity of the fire? Well, RBKC contacted BEIS for a statement. Doris would have provided it and what she put forward was the same stock response BEIS has been giving for over a year - that they're still working on the regulations but must not do anything that would reduce fire safety.
Compartmentalisation. In our meeting with Doris, I had asked a similar question about twenty times: do you agree that your own evidence proves that the current match test fails in up to 90% of cases and therefore UK sofas are unsafe? She would not reply. The closest she got was to say the government believes the regulations can be improved.
To state that BEIS must not do anything to reduce furniture fire safety when they themselves have already proved it doesn't exist is clearly a lie. Doris lied. How can a civil servant lie in a public statement, especially when the result of that lie means millions of people are being poisoned in their own homes, and the Grenfell Tower fire was worse than it should have been?
Compartmentalisation. At one point in our meeting, I asked Doris about the sofa in her own home and the fact that it is toxic both in normal use and especially if it catches fire. I watched her eyes cloud briefly, sensing a trap - a trap, for God's sake! Yes, a trap of the truth - finally, she said, "I don't feel that my sofa is unsafe." Bear in mind, this is the woman who is responsible for these failing regulations that right now are damaging the health of thousands, perhaps millions of children. "And what are your feelings based on?" I said, "against the hard evidence on your own department's website that proves your sofa isn't safe." She didn't respond, presumably because to do so might have weakened the compartmentalisation protecting her from having to actually do some work.
Doris, by the way, has been full time on the furniture regulations for around two years. She's even received a promotion in post, her salary now around £50K a year. When I asked her where they'd got with interliners (a proposal for which is in the 2016 consultation document that they are still apparently 'working' on) she said, "What's an interliner?"
This, in a nutshell, is how the establishment - government, local authorities, fire services and police at management levels - works. It is not there to help/protect the public. It exists to protect and reward itself. Similarly, the leadership of RBKC does not exist to protect its citizens; it exists as a career platform for itself. Like BEIS, it compartmentalises in order to allow it to lie, essentially. And when it's presented with the truth in such a way that threatens that compartmentalisation, it will just go silent, like Dr T.
So it is that the Leader of the Council, Elizabeth Campbell, has gone silent on me. As detailed on the Grenfell Tower Fire page of this site, after she mentioned that I'd raised the issue of the furniture regs at a recent RBKC meeting (well, she didn't have much choice), I wrote back offering to bring her up to speed on one of the main contributors to the fire. She didn't reply. I wrote a reminder. Again, she didn't reply.
And thus the Leader of RBKC joins the long list of others who do not reply either, such as Sir Ken Knight, Dame Judith Hackitt, the Inquiry, BEIS, MHCLG, the GMB, Matt Wrack of the FBU; and Dave Sibert also of the FBU but recently and mysteriously stripped of his job there.
Silence, of course, should be damning, a sure indication of cowardice and mendacity. But it often works in the UK, unfortunately, simply because the recourse of the ordinary person is much more limited than it should be. The press used to be a reliable recourse but they are mostly hamstrung these days, by rich owners who do not want their rich mates pursued, and/or by the fear of legal action. There is a TV journalist who has been following the Grenfell fire since the beginning. I had a long conversation with him once about the role the furniture regs played in the fire. He was very interested but he didn't report on it. Later, I found out that he'd suffered from thyroid cancer. Thyroid conditions are one of the more well-established effects of flame retardant chemicals the like of which will be in this journalist's furniture in large amounts. I wrote to him about this. He didn't reply, although he's still reporting on Grenfell. Just not on the bit about furniture and flame retardants.
Yes, in a way you know you're right when they don't reply. The trouble is, they're surrounded by many others of a like mind, who also don't reply.
MONEY TO BURN