UK government apologises for failures that led to Grenfell tragedy

The British government apologised on Tuesday for its failure to ensure the safety of high-rise tower blocks as it conceded that inaction by successive administrations had helped to create an environment that led to the blaze at Grenfell tower in London in 2017.

Speaking at the public inquiry into the tragedy, in which 72 people died, Jason Beer QC, acting for the housing department said it was “deeply sorry for its past failures” in overseeing and upholding building safety regulations.

The inquiry, which started its work in mid-2018, has so far examined the causes of the disaster and the responsibility of various organisations, including the roles of the suppliers, the contractor that refurbished the tower before the fire, Kensington and Chelsea council, which owned the property, and the London Fire Brigade’s response. The latest phase, which started this week, is probing the role played by successive governments.

The legal team acting for the bereaved and survivors had told the hearing on Monday that the failure to investigate adequately a series of fires in high-rise buildings over the past 30 years amounted to a “grotesque abdication of responsibility”, and raised “the spectre of a deliberate cover-up”.

Beer accepted that the department and its predecessors bore at least partial responsibility for a building safety regime that was “not fit for purpose”.

But he said the construction industry and the suppliers of the cladding and insulation materials, which were found to have been responsible for the rapid spread of the fire at Grenfell, were to blame for abusing the system by putting profit ahead of safety.

“The public, residents and indeed government trusted that those constructing and approving high-rise blocks and supplying the products used in them were following the law and doing the right thing. This trust was both misplaced and abused,” he told the inquiry.

“The building safety regulatory system was not fit for purpose and within the construction industry there was a race to the bottom with profit being prioritised over safety. The [housing] department did not interrogate the underlying performance of the system nor take active steps to ensure itself whether the regulatory regime was working as intended,” he added.

Stephanie Barwise QC, the lawyer for the survivors group had told the hearing on Monday how successive governments had, over a period of decades, pushed to deregulate construction as they sought to encourage more house building. That push had left the government as the “junior partner” in its relationship with the construction industry, she said.

Beer conceded that had the government had a better grasp of the regulations and a firmer enforcement system, the Grenfell tragedy may have averted.

“Individually, these errors and missed opportunities from the department and across industry may not have caused the fire at Grenfell tower but cumulatively they created an environment in which such a tragedy was possible,” he said.

The examination of the role of government will last until April. The hearing continues.

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