Former Conservative housing minister is set to give evidence about his part in what has been described as ‘one of the greatest public policy failures anywhere in the modern world’
Gavin Barwell, the former Croydon MP who as housing minister ignored multiple warnings about the risks of deadly fires in tall tower blocks, is to appear before the Grenfell Tower inquiry tomorrow.
“Lord” Barwell is one of three ex-ministers being called to give evidence this week.
The relatively perfunctory questioning time for ex-ministers has prompted the Fire Brigades Union to accuse the independent inquiry of “protecting” politicians.
Just three-and-a-half days are being spent this week to question Stephen Williams, the former LibDem MP who was a junior minister from 2013 to 2015 in the Conservative-led coalition government, Barwell tomorrow and then, on Wednesday and for half a day on Thursday, “Big” Eric Pickles.
Past and present Tory MPs Brandon Lewis and James Wharton were the first politicians to undergo cross-examination at the inquiry last week.
The inquiry has already heard how there was compelling evidence about the danger of aluminium-based cladding available since 2002 – 15 years before the terrible blaze at the Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, where 72 people died, another 70 were injured and more than 220 others lost their homes in June 2017.
In 2009, another fatal fire in a London tower block, at Lakanal House in Southwark, had claimed the lives of six people, including three young children. The coroner’s report on that tragedy made a series of significant recommendations on safety in tower blocks, which successive Conservative governments failed to implement.
Barwell, the MP for Croydon Central from 2010, was minister for housing from July 2016 until June 9, 2017, when he lost his parliamentary seat in the General Election. He was swiftly employed as Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief of staff in Downing Street. The Grenfell fire was on June 14, less than a week later.
In 2019, the website Inside Housing published correspondence that showed that Barwell, and his ministerial predecessors, had failed to act on pressing fire safety recommendations.
Former ministers Barwell, Pickles and Wharton have all been made Tory peers.
Inside Housing described their failure to act on housing safety as “one of the greatest public policy failures anywhere in the modern world”.
The research by Inside Housing journalist Peter Apps suggested that there was enough information following Lakanal to have made the Grenfell Tower fire an entirely avoidable tragedy. Only the inaction of ministers, including Barwell, allowed it to happen.
Inside Housing reported that between 2014 and 2017 the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group (APPG), chaired by the late Sir David Amess MP, wrote to ministers 21 times calling for action to be taken to implement the findings of the Lakanal review.
“These messages were not received well by ministers – who would frequently reply to lengthy letters with a brief two or three paragraph response,” Inside Housing noted.
In one of his warning letters, Sir David wrote, “the group wishes to point out to you that should a major fire tragedy with loss of life occur between now and 2017 in, for example, a residential care facility or a purpose-built block of flats, where the matters raised here were found to be contributory to the outcome, then the group would be bound to bring this to others’ attention”.
The APPG never received a reply.
When Barwell was handed the housing ministerial brief, he adopted the policy of his predecessors and barely bothered to respond to correspondence from his parliamentary colleagues.
Apps found that Barwell was written to by Sir David Amess and the APPG at least seven times in the months immediately before the Grenfell disaster.
The warnings received only a ministerial brush-off from Barwell.
Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the FBU, has said that politicians who supported deregulation in the years leading up to the Grenfell fire should “bear the brunt of the blame”.
The union also says that the time so far given to evidence from witnesses such as civil servants, firefighters and control staff relative to national politicians shows that the inquiry is – unwittingly or not – helping to protect politicians, whom it believes have responsibility for the disaster.
Civil servant Brian Martin was recently subjected to questioning for nearly eight days.
According to the schedule, in this 72nd week of the inquiry, Barwell will be questioned for little more than five hours in total.
“The lack of focus on ministers raises serious questions about the inquiry’s commitment to justice for the victims of Grenfell,” Wrack said.
“That is what the FBU has feared all along.
“Individual firefighters and control staff did not put cladding on Grenfell Tower: politicians created the regulatory system that allowed it. Yet it is firefighters and control staff who have been dragged before the inquiry for weeks of evidence, with politicians getting only a single week altogether.
“FBU members were asked to deal with a situation that no one had prepared for, that no one expected and that they did not create. They are not to blame for this disaster.
“Politicians should be held to account for their actions which could have prevented this fire.”
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