24 January, 2019
It is now approaching 18 months since the terrible tragedy that took the lives of 72 Grenfell Tower residents on 14 June 2017. So where are we up to with the fallout, and what happens next?
The press and public were quick to criticise. In the months following the incident, numerous companies and bodies were scrutinised for failures, which, it was perceived, contributed to the fire itself, and the catastrophic loss of life.
There were the obvious and less controversial targets, of course; firms that manufactured, supplied and fitted the cladding that caused the fire to spread so quickly, those that were involved in the refurbishment of the tower, and the Local Authority overseeing that process. Around 500 private companies are said to be under investigation, but there were also criticisms of a number of other bodies involved in the handling of the fire itself.
The Fire Service, for instance, was accused of failing to have any coherent tower evacuation plans. Government guidelines recommend a "stay put" policy to try and contain tower block fires and, ultimately, make them more manageable. However, the same guidelines also recommend contingency plans for situations where the standard stay put advice needs to be abandoned when it is no longer tenable. On the night of the blaze, residents were kept in place under the standard policy for around two hours until an evacuation was ordered at 2.47am, somewhere in the region of 80 minutes after the policy had "substantially failed".
The London Fire Brigade and Fire Brigades Union hit back by stating that there had been "no obvious and safe alternative strategy" and that mass evacuation of Grenfell Tower was not possible, as the brigade lacked the training and procedures to deal with the "highly combustible death trap" that had been created by the refurbishment. There was also said to be a "fundamental misunderstanding" that fire commanders could simply change government policy on the spot where a building was not designed for simultaneous evacuation. Since then, the LFB has created a High Rise Task Force to review the risks associated with high-rise residential premises, which has since instigated a programme of guidance and advice for building owners on the implementation of the Government's interim arrangements for Aluminium Composite Material clad buildings. A number of Fire Safety Regulation posts were also established following securing of funding to enhance the LFB's building inspection regime, and the policy for responding to high-rise fires has changed from 4 fire engines to 8 plus one aerial (high reach) appliance, or 10 where the building is reported as cladded.
It isn't just the bodies that are under scrutiny. Dany Cotton, who had only been in post as the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade for six months when the incident occurred, is said to have been under direct and personal scrutiny for potential breaches of the Health and Safety Act 1974. Other CEOs, MDs and corporate leaders will also be nervous.
Since the Grenfell disaster we now have new guidelines for the sentencing of Gross Negligence Manslaughter, which are predicted to increase the penalties handed down by judges. The Sentencing Council Guidelines oblige the court to determine the offender's culpability with reference to various factors in each category of severity. Category B culpability, for instance, may involve "continued or repeated negligent conduct in the face of obvious suffering", or where there was a "blatant disregard" for a very high risk of death resulting from the negligent conduct". Category A would include more extreme forms of the same behaviour.
Having determined the culpability, the sentencing range is established. For category B culpability, the starting point is 8 years' custody, with a range between 6 and 12 years. For A, offenders are facing 12 years' in a range from 10 to 18 years. All brackets are for a single offence resulting in a single fatality, so where others are put at harm as well the offence is aggravated and the sentence potentially increased.
Where a corporation is identified instead of an individual, the body itself may be prosecuted under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. Sanctions are fines of up to £20 million for category A offenders with a turnover of more than £50 million.
No arrests for health and safety offences have been made as of yet. But there have been other knock-on effects. The tragedy sparked the review of Building Regulations, which was ultimately criticised by the Royal Institute of British Architects for ignoring several recommendations made by them, including fitting sprinklers in existing housing blocks and ensuring all high rise building have a second means of escape. From 21 December 2018, we now have the Building (Amendment) Regulations 2018, which ban combustible materials on the external walls of new buildings over 18 metres containing flats, as well as new hospitals, residential care premises, dormitories in boarding schools and student accommodation. Schools over 18 metres built as part of the government's centrally delivered build programmes will also not use combustible materials in the external wall.
Sir Martin Moore-Bick concluded phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry with a statement on 12.12.18. In the forthcoming months, around 200,000 documents will be disclosed to the core participants, and hundreds more witness statements will be taken, particularly in reference to the refurbishment works. He does not envisage that phase 2 hearings will comment until the end of 2019.
It seems that the answers so sorely needed by the families and friends of the Grenfell victims will be a long way off yet. In the meantime, at least some positive progress is being made to preventing further tragedy, and to ensure that those who can be identified as culpable are made to properly answer for their actions.
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