The Role of Civil Servants before the Grenfell Tower Fire
The 20 year rule means that most of us have lost interest by the time we can begin to see the inner workings of government departments. But civil servants have been forced to explain in some detail how they worked, and why they took the decisions they did, in the years, months and weeks before the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire. I therefore thought it would be interesting to publish some of the evidence, and I have done so here.
Much of the evidence – about deregulation policy, for instance – is quite illuminating. And anyone who has worked in, or dealt with, a minister’s Private Office will be fascinated to read how MHCLG officials felt constantly frustrated that their work on building regulations was given the lowest possible priority – until 72 people died, of course.
Here, for instance, is an email sent from one Private Office to the Deputy Director responsible for that regulatory area:
“We are looking to compile a list of things that have been stuck in Private Office for more than a month.”
Ministers themselves seemed resigned to accepting the department’s chaotic correspondence handling:-
“In my experience, many MPs knew that government correspondence took time, at best, and could sometimes just disappear. … it was quite common that an MP would approach me in the division lobbies when we were voting in the evening and say to me, ”I’ve written this letter to your department, just in case it gets lost or buried in the official system, I want to give you a paper copy, I’m really worried about this, I want you to personally see it””
As were officials:
So what I’m trying to say is that at least probably five months of the delay is down to decisions made in private office . …. And … it would be quite destructive to our relationship with that private office if we start pointing fingers and saying, “This is delayed because …”.
And here is one pre-Grenfell letter, from London’s Fire Commissioner, no less, that a Private Office thought could wait until after an election:
”When compartmentation is missing, or incorrectly installed , it can potentially place residents at significant risk . With the Lakanal House fire in 2009 in which six people died, there were compartmentation breaches which allowed fire and smoke to spread through the building contrary to the functional requirements of the Building Regulations and in direct conflict with the evacuation strategy for the building.
We are deeply concerned that since the beginning of 2017, LFB has identified , on average, at least one residential property (or development) in London with significant compartmentation deficiencies per month. … It is safe to assume that there are many other cases that do not come to our attention, yet are placing the residents of those properties in significant risk from fire spread within the building.”
I do not highlight the above evidence in order to pile onto Private Offices. The key point, it seems to me, is that no official, from the Permanent Secretary down, appears to have told ministers that these delays were unacceptable, nor told ministers that these working practices were symptomatic of unacceptable wider problems in the department, and that the answer might be to employ more, and more experienced, staff.
It is important, if you read the paper, that you decide for yourself what it says about the management of MHCLG and the performance of its senior officials. My own view, for what it is worth, has swung between hyper-critical and sympathetic; the latter acknowledging the staff and salary cuts etc. imposed by ministers. In the end, I suspect that:
- Senior officials were too desk-bound to realise that their staff were seriously struggling, and that the construction industry was “rotten from top to bottom … The entire industry has come across as venal, careless and negligent”.
- They also don’t seem to have found the time, or had the inclination, to consider whether they were right to assume that the department did not have an oversight role in building regulation, nor whether the department was being too complacent about the downward trend in fire deaths.
- Officials’ reactions to external expressions of concern about fire risk were far too defensive, including:
- recommendations made by the coroner investigating a cladding fire at Lakanal House,
- letters from MPs on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety (the APPG),
- correspondence from an industry expert expressing ‘grave concern’ about the use of ACM panelling on high rise buildings, and
- the above-mentioned letter from the London Fire Commissioner.
In other words …
This does not seem to me to be a picture of a civil service setting out to obstruct ministers’ policies. It is at best a picture of excessive willingness to accept staff cuts and other HR policies which left the department, at all levels, incapable of doing its proper job. It is a picture (to quote Nick Hardwick) of ‘people who … can write a good minute which gets the minister out of trouble. Not those who can run things so they don’t get into trouble in the first place’.
The evidence also seems to suggest that Permanent Secretaries believe that they have no option but to live with the modern ‘streamlined’ civil service that they and ministers have created. They do not see themselves as the stewards of an important part of the constitution. Maybe – as suggested by the IfG’s Alex Thomas – this should change? :-
“Their job description means that Permanent Secretaries [themselves on five year contracts] do not focus on long range planning, including for catastrophic risks, to the same extent that they focus on the policies of the day. And it is in their job description that a Cabinet Secretary is limited from stepping in if a Prime Minister over-reaches on propriety or legality issues. This should change. Stewardship is a responsibility all civil servants should be able to exercise with more confidence – but, for now, that is not really how our civil service works.”
The Grenfell fire is important not just because it killed 72 people. It is important because it highlights deficiencies within the highest levels of the civil service. MHCLG civil servants seem to have responded to ministerial pressures by degrading their working practices until they became unrecognisable to those of us who worked in government 20 or 30 years ago. It seems likely that their opposite numbers in other large departments are even now working in similar ways.
You can read my summary of civil servants’ evidence here.
Postscript:- The department’s closing submission to the Inquiry was commendably brief:
“.. the department wishes again to apologise for its failure to ensure effective whole-system oversight of the regulatory and compliance regime. The department recognises that it failed to appreciate that it held an important stewardship role over the regime and that, as a result, it failed to grasp the opportunities to assess whether the system was working as intended. For the department’s failure to realise that the regulatory system was broken, and it might led to a catastrophe such a this, the department is truly sorry and apologises unreservedly.”
Author – Understanding the Civil Service
Understanding Regulation, and