Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis questioned on fire regulations at Grenfell inquiry

By Jim O'Hagan

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis has being questioned as part of the Grenfell Tower inquiry amid union calls for politicians to be held to account.

Mr Lewis was repeatedly asked why, during his time as Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Service, he decided not to recommend further regulations despite repeated recommendations that his department do so.

In the years before the Grenfell Tower fire which killed 72 people, warnings and recommendations to improve fire safety had been made to the government including from two coroners, a Fire Commissioner, the General Secretary of the Fire Brigade's Union.

There were also several reports, reviews and letters of which Brandon Lewis' office was aware, which recommended government intervention to improve fire safety, particularly around ensuring the competency of fire risk assessors, who required no qualifications at the time.

But no regulations were put forward by Mr Lewis or his department.

"Nothing was done in order to regulate when you had accumulative weight of evidence that something needed to be done. Why in those circumstances was greater weight attached to an ideological presumption against regulation rather than taking action when it was plain the sector-led approach was not working?" asked Mr Andrew Kinnier QC.

"My point would be that it wasn't just an ideological thing around devolving it was also around what practically can make a difference," Mr Lewis replied.

"And practically making difference is making sure that the right experts who have that understanding and expertise are available to those organisations that need that advice to get their fire risk assessments done correctly."

"But it wasn't working, was it?" Mr Kinnier interrupted. "This is the point we're dancing around that your answers aren't grappling with. It wasn't working."

Brandon Lewis MP is the first politician to appear as a witness at the inquiry, which is attended by bereaved family members and survivors of the 2017 blaze.

Mr Lewis was a minister with responsibility for fire safety from 2016 to 2017 but had other responsibilities relating to fire safety stretching back to his time as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government from September 2012 until July 2014.

Stephen Williams, Lord Wharton and Gavin Barwell, all of whom were ministers with responsibility for building regulations in the run up to the disaster, will also appear, and former fire safety minister Lord Pickles.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, called for politicians who supported deregulation in the years leading up to the fire to “bear the brunt of the blame”.

“Politicians over successive decades committed to deregulation as a fundamental political idea,” he said.

“They have scrapped standards, privatised public services and weakened the regime of inspecting buildings.

“A clear line can be drawn from these political decisions to key failures at Grenfell, with highly flammable cladding and insulation facilitated by a lack of clear regulation.”

Mr Wrack added that ministers “imposed the worst cuts in our history, cutting one in five operational firefighters while expecting our members to do ever-more arduous work”.

Mr Lewis will give evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday, followed by Lord Wharton on Thursday.