Firefighters have accused the Grenfell Tower public inquiry of injustice by focusing on the shortcomings of rank and file officers while failing to scrutinise those in power, including the prime minister, Boris Johnson, who oversaw firefighting in London for eight years as mayor.
Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said on Tuesday that it was “unfair and unjust” that firefighters were being publicly scrutinised in the long-awaited report being published this week, while political leaders were not.
Johnson said on Tuesday night that the report revealed “the truth about what happened at Grenfell tower on 14 June 2017”, and would bring comfort “to those who suffered so much”.
“For the survivors, the bereaved, and the local community, this report will prove particularly harrowing,” he said. “Yet I hope it strengthens their faith in the inquiry’s desire to determine the facts of the fire – and in this government’s commitment to airing those facts in public, no matter how difficult that may be and acting on them.”
Leaks of the 935-page report into the night of the fire, which claimed 72 lives, included detailed criticism of relatively junior incident commanders and 999 call operators. Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the inquiry chairman, found the London fire brigade’s readiness was “gravely inadequate” and fewer people would have died if it had been better prepared.
But Wrack told the BBC that the inquiry was “back to front” and should have first assessed why the building was covered in combustible cladding and scrutinised government policy on fire safety, including ministers’ response to the fatal cladding fire at Lakanal House in Southwark in 2009.
He said the cladding was “a key issue and yet it is not seriously being addressed. The firefighters turned up after that happened, after the building had already been turned, in reality, into a deathtrap.
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“Why is nobody holding to account the fire minister or the prime minister, who was previously in charge of the London fire brigade himself?” he asked.
Johnson is expected to speak during a Commons debate on the inquiry’s findings on Wednesday. While he was mayor of London he oversaw the LFB as it was required to make gross savings of more than £100m, partly as a result of cuts to central government grant. This involved cutting fire appliances by 27, closing 10 fire stations and cutting 552 firefighters and 324 support staff posts.
The report includes only the conclusions to the first phase of the inquiry. Hearings for the second phase examining events and decisions leading up to the fire will begin early in the new year. Moore-Bick said in this week’s report that he would go on to “scrutinise those who are responsible at the highest level for [the LFB’s] operations”.
Wrack’s comments came after the report leaked on Monday night. Copies had been distributed earlier in the day to hundreds of core participants in the inquiry, including survivors, bereaved relatives, the LFB, builders and materials manufacturers.
Why is no one holding to account the fire minister or prime minister, who was previously in charge of the fire brigade?Matt Wrack
It found that people died because the “stay put” policy, which recommends that residents are safer in their flats than trying to escape, was not lifted earlier, LFB “personnel and systems were overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster”, 999 call handlers sometimes refused to believe desperate victims and the £10m refurbishment of the block between 2014 and 2016 by its owner, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, breached building regulations.
Recipients were required to sign non-disclosure agreements ahead of the planned publication at 10am on Wednesday. Some have voiced frustration that they are not able to comment despite the contents of the report being widely reported.
Grenfell United, which represents hundreds of bereaved relatives and survivors, said it was “disappointed that the dignity of the bereaved and survivors has not been respected” and said it would respond after formal publication.
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“We are determined that those at the heart of the inquiry are not sidelined and that the views of the Grenfell community are kept at the forefront of the inquiry,” it said.
Andrew Dismore, chairman of the London assembly fire, resilience and emergency planning committee, said: “Criticism of any individual firefighter’s actions on the night risks losing the focus on the fact that they should never have been faced with that situation. The brigade’s areas of improvement are well documented.
“What appears new in the leaks today is the inquiry’s findings that the cladding was non-compliant. We know that the release of this report will be harrowing for the bereaved, survivors and relatives, as well as firefighters involved on that night, and we encourage anyone who needs it to reach out to dedicated welfare services.”