Stephen Williams says he only learned of banned Class 0 rating at yesterday’s hearing of Grenfell Inquiry
A former minister in charge of building regulations was not aware of the existence of a flawed fire rating before being told about it at the Grenfell Inquiry yesterday.
Stephen Williams said “that is honestly the first time I’ve ever heard that phrase” when asked what he knew about the ‘Class 0’ rating at yesterday’s hearing.
Class 0 was an important national fire safety standard in building regulations which cladding panels needed to obtain to achieve compliance.
But the rating, which measured the spread of flame over the surface of a material and was based on how fire behaves indoors rather than on external walls, is now considered flawed and was removed from the regulations in December 2018.
The use of Class 0 and its role in allowing combustible materials to be included in cladding systems has been discussed repeatedly and in great detail throughout the inquiry’s second phase, which has looked into the causes of the 2017 Grenfell fire which claimed 72 lives.
Williams was a minister at the then Department of Communities and Local Government between October 2013 and May 2015.
He told yesterday’s hearing: “I genuinely don’t recall any discussion about what class 0 was.”
Counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC asked if he had queried officials at the department including building regulations lead Brian Martin – who has given extensive evidence to the inquiry over the past two weeks – what the meaning of Class 0 was.
A former Liberal Democrat MP Williams, who lost his seat in the 2015 general election, said: “No, but in order for me to ask…‘What is class 0?’, someone would have to have said something to me about class 0. That wasn’t, in itself, self-explanatory. And I don’t recall any discussion about class 0 at all. I don’t know what it is now, so…”
Millett asked: “Did you ever become aware of criticism or concern over the national classification standards for reaction to fire on external walls, of which class 0 was one; no?” Williams said: “No.”
Part of Williams’ role was to oversee the implementation of changes to fire safety regulations recommended by coroner Frances Kirkham in her inquest into the 2009 Lakanal House fire, which caused the deaths of six people including three children in Camberwell, south London.
Kirkham had requested in 2013 that the government review Approved Document B, the part of the building regulations which deals with fire safety, to make the guidance clearer about the spread of flame over external walls.
Williams admitted yesterday that he had never read Kirkham’s letter and had never heard of the Lakanal House fire before being appointed to the role.
He said he had only learned of the blaze, which at the time was the UK’s worst ever tower block fire, after being informed by officials.
He also said he had never been told that the fire involved the building’s cladding panels and “never had a really detailed conversation about what happened at Lakanal House”.
He said he believed the cause of the fire was “something to do with defective windows” and that Kirkham had advised updating guidance on window installers.
Kirkham had in fact made no recommendations on window installers, which Williams admitted he found “quite surprising” when this was explained to him yesterday.
“Given that you were involved in progressing the actions in response to the coroner’s letter, Mr Williams, as you say, how could you possibly have undertaken that task without reading the coroner’s recommendations?” Millett asked.
“Well, because officials are there to advise and officials - so I was aware of it in the context, obviously. What I’m saying is I never saw a physical copy of the actual letter, so I don’t know how long it was, how prescriptive it was, I simply don’t know,” Williams said.
The hearing was also shown the minister’s responses to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety, which had been calling for tougher fire safety regulations for several years.
The group, which was chaired by the late MP David Amess, had urged the government to remove the Class 0 rating for external walls and to install more sprinklers in tower blocks as part of the review into Approved Document B.
A three-and-a-half page letter from Amess in August 2014 called on Williams to give these issues “immediate attention” and included a lengthy history of Class 0 and its flaws as a fire rating.
Williams responded in September 2014: “I have neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest that consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent and I am not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters be brought forward.”
“Given the careful and detailed letter to which this was a response, this is something of a brush−off, would you agree?” Millett asked.
Williams said he did but that the response had not been written by him, but by an official.
But he admitted that he was responsible for signing off the letter, adding: “I do now regret sincerely that this letter left the building. I desperately wish I’d put a line through it and sent it back and said: ‘Try again’.”
Today the inquiry is hearing evidence from former housing minister Gavin Barwell.
The inquiry continues.