The government has caused outrage after announcing that it would not implement measures – recommended by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry – that would have ensured disabled people could safely evacuate high-rise blocks of flats in emergencies.
The inquiry had recommended that owners and managers of high-rise residential buildings should be legally required to prepare a personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP) for all residents who may find it difficult to “self-evacuate”.
But the Home Office said yesterday (Wednesday) that it had concluded that such laws would cost too much, and would not be safe or practical, even though some disabled people have already drawn up their own PEEPs.
One of its excuses is that attempting to evacuate disabled residents before firefighters arrive could “slow the evacuation of other residents”.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, previously promised to implement all the recommendations of the first phase of the inquiry.
The Home Office announcement came nearly five years after the Grenfell Tower disaster, in which 72 people lost their lives, including 15 of its 37 disabled residents.
Appalled activists have now called for disabled-led organisations and allies to organise an urgent campaign of opposition to the government’s decision.
Sarah Rennie, co-founder of the disabled-led leaseholder action group Claddag, said: “We are outraged by the government’s U-turn on evacuation plans for disabled people.
“The government is wholly out of step with public opinion on this – even the professional sector seem shocked.
“This policy position is unethical and our community will not accept it.”
Jumoke Abdullahi, communications and media officer for Inclusion London, said: “It is truly deplorable that, coming up to the five-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, the government has decided not to require high-rise buildings to prepare evacuation arrangements for disabled residents to escape.
“Deciding that PEEPs would not be ‘practical’ and that they would cost too much speaks volumes to the government’s attitudes towards disabled people in the UK.
“The government must do better. Disabled people’s lives and safety cannot be seen as a fair trade-off in order to save money.”
The Home Office has also published its response to a consultation on the PEEP proposal, which ended last July.
The document shows that more than 83 per cent of those who responded supported the PEEP plan, even though many of those taking part in the consultation were building owners, property companies, construction companies and trade bodies.
Instead of implementing the PEEP proposal, the Home Office has decided instead to consult on its own “alternative package” of measures, which it calls Emergency Evacuation Information Sharing (EEIS).
But this will only apply to the minority of buildings that have been assessed as being “at higher risk”, while residents of other flats, including disabled residents, will have to continue with the current “stay put” policy, which means being told to “stay in their flats as long as the heat or smoke from the fire is not affecting them”.
EEIS will involve carrying out a fire risk assessment for disabled people who would need support to evacuate from their flat.
The Home Office has concluded that any fire safety measures suggested for inside a disabled person’s flat after this assessment “should remain largely for the resident to implement and finance”, while it will “also almost always be reasonable for the resident to pay for adjustments to common areas”.
These measures, it says, could include additional handrails, flame retardant bedding and fire safe ashtrays.
Although a PEEP could still be agreed if it was “practical, proportionate and safe”, the Home Office said it believed “these cases would be relatively rare”.
Details of any residents who still had “issues preventing them from self-evacuating in the event of a fire” would then be shared with the fire and rescue service, who would be able to access this information if an evacuation was needed.
It is now consulting on its EEIS plans, and is asking for evidence of any existing PEEPs that “support the full evacuation of mobility-impaired residents, and that satisfy the principles of practicality, proportionality and safety”.
Peter Apps, deputy editor of Inside Housing, which has led coverage of the inquiry, was highly critical of the Home Office’s decision, and analysed its many flaws in a long series of posts on Twitter, describing the announcement as “miserable, miserable news”.
Dennis Queen, a spokesperson for Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, said: “GMCDP is really disappointed and angry at the government’s rejection of the recommendations of the Grenfell investigation and those of Claddag.
“Requiring personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) for people living in high rise is really quite a minimal ask of landlords, and GMCDP has joined in with campaigning for PEEPs.
“This decision means landlords will continue to ignore best practice methods, lawfully.
“The government’s alternative suggestions do not go far enough. We will continue to support Claddag with their campaign.”
Disabled artist-activist Jess Thom called yesterday for disabled-led organisations and allies across the country to act “urgently” and make it clear that “this decision is unacceptable and will be challenged”.
She has been particularly involved in the issues around evacuation of high-rise blocks and fire safety since witnessing the 2009 Lakanal House fire, in Camberwell, south London.
Thom knew two of the children who died in the fire, and their mother, because they had attended a local children’s play project she ran.
Just as with residents of Grenfell, eight years later, they died after being told by the emergency services to stay in their flat and wait to be rescued.
Thom wrote to home secretary Priti Patel earlier this year, telling her about her connection to the Lakanal House fire, and the “indescribable” horror she felt in 2017 when she saw reports of the Grenfell fire and realised that “the warnings from Lakanal had not been heeded”.
She raised concerns in the letter about the Home Office’s decision to award a crucial fire safety contract to consultants who had repeatedly argued against introducing PEEPs for disabled residents of tower blocks.
She said this week that the Home Office’s decision on PEEPs “makes it brutally clear that the government views disabled lives as less valuable”.
Thom said the government’s decision to ignore the “clear” recommendation from the Grenfell inquiry on PEEPs, “the campaigning of Grenfell families and the powerful testimony of disabled residents trapped in buildings wrapped in dangerous cladding” was “outrageous”.
She added: “It should not be acceptable to ask disabled people to stay in burning buildings and to prioritise commercial interests over life safety.
“While this decision makes it brutally clear that the government views disabled lives as less valuable, we need individuals and organisations to urgently act in solidarity and allyship, and make it equally clear that this decision is unacceptable and will be challenged.”
Thom said: “It feels to me like they are making policy decisions based on industry’s assumptions about disability and not utilising any specialist and deeply held knowledge within disabled communities.”
She said it was “deeply troubling” that disabled people appeared to be getting “less protection and less progressive fire policies post-Grenfell than before”.
She added: “Ultimately you couldn’t get a clearer example of everything about us without us.
“Disabled lives and those of our families are on the line. Are disabled parents expected to sit with their children in burning buildings?”
Picture: Close-up of Grenfell Tower with banners in June 2018 (c) by Carcharoth is licensed under Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
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