FORMER chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) Robert Black told the Grenfell Tower Inquiry last week that ‘a failure to fulfil his role had contributed towards historic safety issues’ in the block.
The chief executive of the management body of Grenfell Tower has blamed his staff for allowing the block’s fire safety plan to become so out of date that ‘it failed to account for more than two dozen of the disabled people in the block’.
Robert Black, the most senior executive at the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (TMO), told the public inquiry into the disaster that the obsolete plan showing no more than 12 vulnerable or disabled people was caused by staff not carrying out managers’ instructions.
The tower was in fact home to 37 disabled people – and 15 of them had died. As a consequence, the inquiry has heard claims from lawyers for the bereaved that the fire was a ‘landmark act of discrimination against disabled and vulnerable people’.
Such ‘information should have been updated by staff’, Black told the inquiry. ‘The whole thing that I suffered throughout my career working with people is the ability to forget to fill in the paperwork.’
Counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC put it to Black: ‘In reality, as the chief executive you were ultimately responsible for a failure to keep these documents up to date lower down in your organisation.’
‘Pass,’ he replied. ‘It should have been updated. I’m not shying away from that, so that’s my situation.’
Black also said he had made a decision not to act on warnings that the landlord should draw up specific emergency evacuation plans for vulnerable and disabled people, claiming it was impractical and that the key policy was to tell residents to stay put in the event of a fire.
Only two of the about 10,000 TMO tenants in the borough had a personal emergency evacuation plan.
From 2009, Black was in charge of the TMO, which operated the council block for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. He was in post when it caught fire four years ago this month, killing 72 people.
The inquiry heard how, in the preceding years, the TMO let the idea of producing personal emergency evacuation plans for vulnerable people ‘drop’ – despite warnings from safety consultants and the London fire brigade that its fire risk management was falling short.
Seven years before the fire, a consultancy hired by the TMO said it should develop ‘formal procedures to deal effectively with fire safety issues associated with disabled or vulnerable tenants and leaseholders … this should include a range of options from relocation in severe cases … and the provision of personal emergency evacuation plans in those less serious cases.’
It indicated this was a ‘high risk’ issue, but asked whether this was done, Black said: ‘No, we didn’t have individual emergency plans per block.’
He didn’t accept that specific fire evacuation plans needed to be made for disabled people, despite being warned that failing to do so would breach fire safety regulations. He questioned how it would be possible with 10,000 tenants, and said residents were told to stay put and await rescue in the event of a fire.
Black also described how he gave the TMO’s director in charge of financial services and IT, Barbara Matthews, responsibility for fire safety, even though he did not check if she had any experience in fire safety.
‘Can you account for having a head of health and safety who had no health and safety background?’ asked Millett.
‘I wouldn’t have had the income to have someone sitting on the executive specifically doing health and safety,’ said Black. ‘Local authority funding across the country had been cut.’
- Meanwhile, in a broader context, the Housing Ombudsman has recorded a 73% increase in the number of complaints it has received compared with the previous year, data show.
The Ombudsman’s latest ‘Insight’ report, published on Wednesday, revealed that the organisation received 6,010 enquiries and complaints between January and March this year, compared with just 3,482 in the same quarter last year.
The sector’s complaints arbitration service noted that the number of complaints declined during the coronavirus pandemic while lockdowns were in place, but has been steadily increasing and has now exceeded the previous year.
Comparison from March alone shows an increase from 960 complaints in 2020 to 2,447 this year, with the ombudsman suggesting that these figures ‘may be the new normal’.
The report said: ‘More cases came into our formal remit for investigation, increasing from 430 in January to March 2020 to 675 for the same three months this year. We also made a decision on more cases, at 640 compared to 505 in the same period last year.’
Thursday’s report is the second one published by the ombudsman to have a regional focus, with case studies covering the East Midlands, West Midlands and East of England. However, complaints figures relate to the entire country.
The watchdog has undergone a number of changes over the past year, including a new commitment to publish reports on all investigations in attempt to increase transparency. The ombudsman has also begun publishing ‘thematic investigations’, the most recent of which is an assessment of damp and mould.
Housing ombudsman Richard Blakeway said: ‘Demand for our service is clearly increasing, which we expect to continue this year. This reinforces the need for landlords to use the good practice set out in our complaint-handling code, so they can respond to complaints fairly and effectively.
‘A number of cases highlighted in this report concern the challenging period during the Covid-19 pandemic, and I hope the case studies and the lessons identified in this report provide useful learning for the sector.’