The pressure is back on former housing ministers accused of sitting on safety reports that could have prevented the Grenfell disaster – with the Commons hearing that had they been employees of a private company they would “potentially be in the dock for corporate manslaughter”.
Neither Gavin Barwell, now chief of staff to Theresa May; Tory party chairman Brandon Lewis; and one-time Communities Secretary Sir Eric Pickles, have been called to give evidence to the Grenfell inquiry.
The three have previously been accused of not acting on a review of building regulations at tower blocks that uncovered serious safety failings following the fatal 2009 Lakanal fire in Camberwell, London.
Speaking in the Commons, Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North, said that a “string of housing ministers” had failed to act on advice over Lakanal given by the Inner Southern District of Greater London coroner – with its call for a review of building regulations.
Reed accused the government of being “culpable” for not preventing the Grenfell through its failure to respond to advice given after Lakanal.
“The government failed to clarify regulations and guidance after Lakanal, it is no individual minister, it is a whole string of them… that have failed to take appropriate action in line with guidance they were given.
“I’m afraid to say the government is collectively culpable of what has happened, and failure to act when told action was necessary if they were going to prevent a repeat of Lakanal House – of course, it was repeated horrifically in the disaster at Grenfell Tower,” he said.
Reed added that had housing ministers belonged to a private company and failed to act in the same way they would now “potentially be in the dock for corporate manslaughter”.
Following the report on Lakanal in March 2013, the coroner wrote to Pickles – then communities secretary – calling for a review of Approved Document B guidance.
Housing secretary James Brokenshire sought defence in the government’s Grenfell response and the “comprehensive” Building Safety Programme aimed at high rise blocks and subsequent measures related to the removal of cladding.
During Prime Minister’s Questions last week, Labour shadow housing minister Sarah Jones spoke of a “stench of complacency” around the government’s post Grenfell actions.
Evidence to phase one of the Grenfell Inquiry raised questions over a need to examine prevailing political choices in the top down application of social housing policy.
- Barwell has faced calls to account for accusations of “sitting on” the findings of the Lakanal Review – his avoidance of questions on this outside Downing St being a defining image of government’s Post Grenfell response.
- Lewis has faced calls to account for passing responsibility to the ‘fire industry’ when told toughening regulation would hit housebuilding rates.
- Pickles has faced calls to account for the rejection of sprinkler retro-fitting and the need for landlords to provide more information to firefighters.