Disabled activists are “shocked and outraged” at the government’s decision to commission fire safety guidance from a company that produced a “discriminatory” and “discredited” policy on evacuating disabled people that was in place at the time of the Grenfell tragedy.
Consultants C S Todd and Associates wrote a guide for the Local Government Association (LGA)* in 2011 – six years before the Grenfell Tower fire – 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.
Shortly after the Fire Safety in Purpose-Built Blocks of Flats guidance (PDF) was published, fire safety consultant Elspeth Grant wrote to the LGA to warn that it was unlawful and that it discriminated against disabled people.
She called for it to be withdrawn and amended “before this Guidance leads to an unnecessary tragedy because plans were not in force”.
The Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) had also raised concerns, and warned – in comments on a draft version of the guidance – that to “ignore and eliminate advice on disabled access and evacuation is a fundamental error of the document and [it] is recommended that it must be included”.
Six years later, with the guidance and advice still in place, 72 people lost their lives in Grenfell Tower, including many disabled residents who died after public bodies failed to plan how they would evacuate their homes in the event of a fire.
Lawyers for survivors and relatives of those who died have told the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that two-fifths of disabled Grenfell residents lost their lives in the fire.
The inquiry questioned Colin Todd, managing director of C S Todd and Associates, last July about the guidance, the views of CFOA and Elspeth Grant’s letter, although he told the inquiry that he did not remember her letter or its warning.
He said that some of the responses to the draft guidance had been “in the affirmative, some were in the negative.
“[The CFOA submission] obviously falls into the category of in the negative. Others expressed a completely different view.”
He also told the inquiry that he did not think that his company had consulted organisations representing disabled people about the guidance at the time.
Now the Home Office has awarded his company a £210,400 contract to produce new fire safety guidance, part of a series of changes to fire safety and building safety the government is taking following the Grenfell tragedy.
Claddag, a leaseholder action group led by disabled people, said it was “horrified” at the award of the contract.
It said that awarding the contract to C S Todd and Associates had sent a “message of endorsement of this discriminatory approach”.
Claddag co-founder Sarah Rennie, a wheelchair-user who lives in a block of flats in Birmingham, was advised for more than 10 years by the fire and rescue service to “stay put” and not attempt to evacuate in the event of a fire.
After Grenfell, she found an independent expert to help draw up her own evacuation plan, but she says this makes her “one of the lucky ones”.
She said: “I feel sick to my stomach that the authors of the LGA guidance are being commissioned by the government to further influence policy on the lives of disabled people.”
Georgie Hulme, another Claddag co-founder and wheelchair-user, has also had to seek expert advice to prepare an evacuation plan from her flat, and even had to crowdfund for an evacuation chair.
She said: “There is no reason to think any lessons have been learnt and, as is often the case, our lives will continue to be viewed as inferior.
“I feel upset and angry that the Home Office have agreed [this contract], especially considering the history.”
The Home Office is working on a revised version of the 2011 guide, and the three paragraphs relating to evacuation of disabled people have been redacted from the original guidance, which is still available online (PDF).
The section was removed following the threat of legal action from the family of Sakina Afrasehabi, a disabled woman who lived on the 18th floor of Grenfell and died in the fire.
C S Todd and Associates had not responded to a request to comment by noon today (Thursday).
The Home Office says it is implementing the recommendations of phase one of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and is reviewing the use of controversial “stay put” advice.
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.”
*At the time of its publication, the organisation was known as the Local Government Group
Picture: Close-up of Grenfell Tower with banners in June 2018 (c) by Carcharoth is licensed under Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…