Disabled campaigners have launched legal action over the government’s decision to award a crucial fire safety contract to consultants who have repeatedly argued against introducing written evacuation plans for disabled residents of tower blocks.
In 2011, CSTA was responsible for drafting and editing a fire safety guide for the Local Government Association (LGA)* that stated that it was “usually unrealistic” to expect landlords to put in place arrangements for disabled people to evacuate blocks of flats in case of an emergency.
Six years later, with the guidance and advice still in place, 72 people lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower disaster, including many disabled residents.
None of them had evacuation plans in place, with a single staircase the sole means of escape in the event of an evacuation.
The LGA guide has been widely criticised during the inquiry, including by its independent expert on fire safety engineering.
Lawyers for survivors and relatives of those who died told the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that two-fifths of disabled Grenfell residents lost their lives in the fire.
Colin Todd, CSTA’s managing director, has told the inquiry in a written witness statement that the reference in the 2011 guidance to personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) for disabled people had been approved by senior figures in the fire and housing sectors – who were consulted on the specific wording – and government lawyers.
But he also made it clear that CSTA’s view when drafting the guidance had been that “PEEPs, in the sense that the term is normally used whereby staff on premises assist with evacuation of disabled people, were not practicable”.
The inquiry chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, disagreed with his evidence and recommended that all high-rise residents whose ability to self-evacuate was “compromised” should have a PEEP.
But now the Home Office has awarded a contract to CSTA to produce a series of guidance documents, which will include advice on disabled people’s means of escape from fires in buildings.
Claddag’s lawyers, Bhatt Murphy, point out that CSTA also authored a fire safety code of practice for BSI, which was published in December 2020 – well after the Grenfell fire – and they say that this again stated that it was not necessary for any plans to be drawn up to assist disabled people who may need to escape.
BSI was forced to withdraw that guidance following the threat of legal action by a bereaved family member of a disabled tenant who died in the Grenfell fire.
Todd said yesterday (Wednesday) that the code of practice “actually advised that arrangements needed to be made for the provision of contact numbers for persons with whom disabled people could discuss and plan their evacuation in the event of fire”.
Although the guidance is now available as a free download from the BSI website, several paragraphs referring to the evacuation of disabled people have been redacted.
Bhatt Murphy argues that the decision to award the contract to CSTA appears to be a breach of home secretary Priti Patel’s public sector equality duty, under the Equality Act.
In a statement, Claddag said: “Given Mr Todd consistently advocates against evacuation plans for disabled people, and was the only expert of four to do so in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, we do not feel it is right for him to have this influence and authority over the safety of disabled people.
“In awarding this contract, we believe that the home secretary has failed in her public sector equality duty towards disabled people.
“The denial of our right to evacuation plans is a huge hidden injustice faced by private tenants, social housing tenants and leaseholders alike.”
Sarah Rennie and Georgie Hulme, Claddag’s co-founders, both wheelchair-users who live in blocks of flats, told Disability News Service (DNS) that Todd had been unable to point to any legal basis for his views about evacuating disabled people, and that three other experts at the inquiry had disagreed with him, as had the inquiry.
They added: “Why then is Todd the appropriate author for guidance on the means of escape for disabled people?
“We are not technical experts, but we speak from lived experience.
“Georgie and I are two clear examples of where we have had to write our own PEEPs and presented workable plans to our building managers in the face of resistance or outright refusal to recognise them.
“This is despite that fact that our plans do not require any member of building staff to assist us.
“Our plans are wholly workable, practicable and maximise our chance of survival.
“The objections we face come from a culture of dismissing PEEPs for disabled people which Todd has undoubtedly helped create and sustain, most notably by [his role in drafting and editing] the LGA guide.”
Meanwhile, DNS has seen an article Todd has written for this month’s issue of an industry magazine, The Journal of the Institution of Fire Engineers, which suggests that his views about PEEPs have not changed.
He points out that the government has yet to respond to a public consultation on a proposal – following a recommendation made by the Grenfell inquiry – that PEEPs that do not involve the fire and rescue service should be required by law for those disabled residents of high-rise blocks of flats who want one.
Todd points in the article to the “practical difficulties” of this proposal and adds that it is “well known that there is a school of thought that these PEEPs are totally impractical, while there is another school of thought that they are required for compliance with the [Equality Act]”.
Although he has not yet commented publicly on the award of the Home Office contract to CSTA, Todd – who is himself a disabled person – has shared the article with DNS, as well as public comments he has previously made criticising other sector experts for ignoring disabled people’s fire safety needs.
The article describes how he has been involved for more than 20 years in initiatives to enhance the fire safety of disabled people, including how they communicate from refuges in emergencies.
It focuses on a project he has been working on for more than two years that will allow firefighters to identify disabled people who are still in a block of flats and need to be evacuated in an emergency.
The proposed solution is to issue a small pendant – containing a microchip – on a neck chain to each disabled resident, which will be recognised by electronic sensors each time they enter or leave the building.
In an emergency, the fire and rescue service would then have access to a screen which would show which disabled residents were currently in the building.
The project begins trials shortly.
Lord Greenhalgh, the fire minister, said: “Keeping the public safe is our top priority and we are determined to ensure the tragedy of Grenfell Tower does not happen again.
“C S Todd and Associates has significant technical experience in complex fire safety matters and is appointed to provide guidance relating to fire safety.
“The company was the successful applicant for the contract after an open and fair procurement process.
“There is strong governance in place, which is kept under regular review, to oversee the direction and detail of the guidance before it’s published.”
The Home Office says it is implementing the recommendations of phase one of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
*At the time of its publication, the organisation was known as the Local Government Group
Picture: Sarah Rennie (left) and Georgie Hulme
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