Attended the last oral session today at the EAC [Environmental Audit Committee]. The BEIS Minister, Kelly Tolhurst, with three other government reps, faced some very tough questioning. Mary Creagh's first question of the day to Tolhurst was: "If I can ask you first of all, Minister Tolhurst – about the fact that five years ago BEIS proved that the current match test is not fit for purpose. Do you agree with that? If you do not, why do you not agree with it?"
This of course is probably the key question to everything concerning the Furniture Regs, and great that Mary Creagh got straight to the point. Would we now get a definitive yes or no answer from the Minister on a subject that is crucial to the safety of the entire country? Would we hell.
Tolhurst first thanked the Committee for the opportunity to talk about this subject. Well, she didn't really have much choice, did she? She might have explained why her officials have been incredibly reluctant to talk about the same subject over the past 3 or 4 years but given those same officials had written her words I suppose it wasn't very likely. She went on for quite some time, giving a potted history of the review of the Furniture Regs – sorry, "review". Told one outright porky – that there was not a big enough evidence base for changing the test, when the uncontested evidence for doing exactly that is on her own department's website.
The Chair interrupted Tolhurst's stream of unconsciousness to point out that the review she was talking about has been going on for ten years with no result in sight. To cut a long story short, Tolhurst's dodges took the form of waffle about how the review is looking at everything (it isn't); that she wasn't around then (so what?); it's all so complex (no, it isn't -the EAC has picked up the issues and details pretty swiftly), and the oft-repeated assertion that she must "make sure there is no reduction in fire safety". The latter I suppose could be accurate in that there is no fire safety presently provided by the Furniture Regs, therefore it isn't actually possible to reduce it any further.
The EAC tried every variation of the main question, about the fact the Regs in effect don't work – e.g. Caroline Lucas pointing out that no one else has a match test so why do we? – but the answer was always the same, "We're reviewing . . . "
A big alarm bell for me was when Tolhurst talked about the British Standards Institute. She started with a lie – or read out the lie that was given to her by her officials – that in 2015 further work was facilitated by BEIS from BSI on the match test. It wasn't. BSI turned it down because it was regulatory work and too political for them to be involved in. Then she went on to say that they are going to get BSI to come up with a range of new requirements. If anything proved that government is aiding the desires of industry above public safety, this was it. Because K Kannah of Lanxess had previously insisted to the EAC that this was the proper route for BEIS to take in updating the Regulations. Well, he would, wouldn't he, given that the BSI committee concerned comprises almost entirely industry reps, most of who are making a packet one way or another out of flame retardants in furniture.
Professor Tim Gant of Public Health England did a great job, just a pity it wasn't for the people he's supposed to be representing. If you read his responses to the EAC without knowing where he was from you'd conclude he must be from industry. According to Gant, the Grenfell fire wasn't toxic, the Grenfell Cough doesn't exist (which means all those folk coughing up their lungs at the Grenfell meetings I've attended must be suffering from False Cough Syndrome), and soil around Grenfell is no more toxic than anywhere else in London.
He did make one interesting comment, however, which was this: "We know that the plume [of smoke and fumes from burning cladding] rose up and went a long way out, so it was not deposited in the immediate area."
Hmmmm. Could this be an example of how those with something to hide sometimes contradict others with something to hide? Because many of course claim that cladding was the main supplier of toxic fumes which killed people in the fire. I mean, basic physics says Gant is right: hot air moving fast on the outside of the Tower would have stayed outside for the most part. But it's clear he's stating this now only to "explain" why the soil around Grenfell Tower was not toxic. Except of course it was. Because what he isn't referring to is the vast volume of flame retarded furniture which burned inside the Tower. How did that get carried "a long way out" professor?
The fact is that all four of them – from Defra, BEIS, PHE and HSE – never once stated anything with positivity and clarity. Worse, what they didn't do, not once, was give public safety the benefit of the doubt, only industry. One example was Gant stating that the levels of organophosphate chemicals in mattresses are "low" and therefore not a risk. But the thing is, he can have no way of knowing. We happen to know that they are in fact high – but only via internal intelligence that's not in the public domain. So why would he err in industry's favour?
Most telling was something the Countess of Mar said to me at the end. We were sitting behind the two rows of civil servants who'd briefed their masters and every now and then had been slipping them notes. "They look really pleased with themselves," said the Countess, "because they think they've got away with it."