10 June 2019

The fire at Grenfell should have been a wake-up call for urgent changes, yet almost two years on hundreds of blocks are still at risk. Public inquiries need to be faster at helping prevent repeat tragedies, writes Emma Norris.

New figures obtained from the Government by Sarah Jones MP, Labour’s Shadow Housing Minister, show that two years on from the Grenfell disaster at least 270 residential blocks, with almost 25,000 homes in them, are still covered in the same Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding which has been blamed for the Grenfell fire. 108 out of 158 social housing buildings have still not had this cladding replaced.

The slow pace of activity contrasts with the sense of urgency felt in the wake of the disaster. While criticisms are largely levelled at the Government – which has announced a £200m fund to "speed up vital cladding replacement" – it is also worth asking why public inquiries are not able to move more quickly. Set up with the purpose of looking at what can be done to prevent the tragedy in question happening again (among other questions), inquiries should – in theory – be an important tool for making urgent changes to policy and practice.

Inquiries create rare opportunities for substantial policy changes

At their best, inquiries are unrivalled agents of change. The Piper Alpha Inquiry transformed health and safety in offshore oil and gas in only a few years, and the Macpherson Report – the inquiry which followed the murder of Stephen Lawrence – established the concept of ‘institutional racism’.

But too often they have struggled to achieve change. Dame Janet Smith, who chaired the inquiry into Harold Shipman, has spoken about her "disappointment" at the limited implementation of her recommendations. Similarly, Lord Laming’s review of child safeguarding, which followed the death of Baby P, highlighted how many local authorities had failed to adopt reforms proposed nine years earlier in his report into the death of Victoria Climbié.

Partly this is down to pace. Inquiries have tended to be slow, deliberative beasts. Since 1990, nine inquiries have taken five years or more from the point of inquiry announcement to produce their final reports. Of the nine inquiries currently ongoing, more than half have lasted for over four years already.

Sir Martin Moore Bick, Chair of the Grenfell Inquiry, has told participants that he will not be making any urgent recommendations before the first phase of the inquiry is at a close. While it is right and proper that inquiries fully consider the evidence they hear, there is nonetheless an argument for making urgent recommendations that relate to public safety more quickly. Six out of the 15 expert reports that the Chair commissioned into aspects of the fire have already been received, one of which specifically examined the issue of cladding and stated that “such ACM products present a clear and significant fire hazard that ought to be explicitly considered by anyone contemplating their use on buildings.”

Inquiries need to move more quickly when there are unambiguous lessons for public safety

Inquiries need to move more quickly. Their pace is often dictated by the complexity of the issues they consider, but this doesn’t take away from their duty to provide timely advice when there are serious public safety concerns – such as the existence of dangerous cladding on residential properties.

When a plane crashes, the Air Accident Investigation Branch publishes interim reports as rapidly as possible to set out any immediate necessary changes. In the case of the Shoreham Airshow disaster in August 2015, the first report was released only 13 days later. This allows longer deliberation to be combined with short-term action, and is an approach which should be replicated.   

Making timely recommendations is only part of the challenge, implementing them is often hard

Even when inquiries produce recommendations, there is little firm procedure for holding government to account – the Inquiries Act 2005 does not make any provision for the implementation of inquiry recommendations.

Of the 69 inquiries that have taken place since 1990, only six have received a full follow-up. The recommendations of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Inquiry received significant, high-quality follow up when the House of Commons Health Select Committee ran an in-depth analysis of the Government’s response – but this is unusual. The inadequacy of monitoring and accountability mechanisms in the aftermath of inquiries is striking and a cause for concern. Even if the Grenfell Inquiry did produce sound and fast recommendations for change – there is no mechanism to hold government to account for implementing them. 

The Grenfell Inquiry undoubtedly faces one of the most complex challenges of any inquiry in recent history – both in terms of the scale of the harms, and the depth of the issues revealed. But the revelations about the hundreds of housing blocks still at risk demonstrates that the Government is not doing enough on the back of tragedy and outrage, and that inquiries are not realising their potential to provide rapid and authoritative recommendations for change.