Lawyers acting for a bereaved Grenfell Tower family have issued legal proceedings against the Home Office, claiming that its republication of guidance which advises against planning for the evacuation of disabled residents is unlawful.
The judicial review relates to a guidance document titled Fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats, which was published by the Local Government Association (LGA) in 2011 with the support of government.
It has been the subject of criticism from families of the bereaved – particularly passages that describe the preparation of ‘personal emergency evacuation plans’ (PEEPs) for disabled residents as “usually unrealistic”.
The LGA removed the guide from its website in April, but it was republished by the Home Office last month with the section on PEEPs still visible but greyed out and subject to a caveat that new guidance will be published later in the year.
Law firm Bhatt Murphy, acting for the family of Sakina Afrasehabi – a disabled woman who lived on the 18th floor of Grenfell Tower and died alongside her sister Fatima in the blaze – have now issued proceedings challenging the reinstatement of the guide.
A briefing on the action said that the Home Office’s argument that not republishing the guide would leave an unlawful gap in guidance was “unsustainable”.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry has heard that 41% of the disabled residents of the tower died during the fire, a higher percentage than any other group of people within the building, with lawyers for the bereaved and survivors calling the fire “a landmark act of discrimination” against disabled and vulnerable people.
The report of inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick for the first phase of the inquiry, published in October 2019, recommended the provision of PEEPs to all disabled residents of high-rise buildings.
The government had initially sought to water this down to cover only buildings known to have dangerous cladding, after an industry response group called the plans “totally impracticable”.
However, another legal action from the same family prompted a reopening of a consultation on this point. This consultation recently closed, and the government is currently considering its response.
The LGA guide was prepared by consultancy CS Todd Associates, with its director Colin Todd taking ultimate editorial control of its contents.
Mr Todd has just finished giving evidence to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, where he was appointed an independent expert witness.
In the course of his evidence, documents emerged showing that the LGA was warned shortly after publishing the guide in 2011 that the passages on the evacuation of disabled people risked causing “an unnecessary tragedy”.
Consultant Elspeth Grant said the advice “reflects an outdated viewpoint which is highly discriminative and not in line with UK legislation relating to equality or fire safety”.
The LGA shared this warning with government ministers and Mr Todd, who responded to say that providing PEEPs was not “reasonable and practical” for evacuation.
In his evidence, Mr Todd told the inquiry that the law generally required occupants to be able to escape a building without help from firefighters but that this did not apply “for disabled people in blocks of flats”.
He said this was a matter of “reasonable practicability”, claiming that the absence of staff meant arranging for evacuation was impossible.
His consultancy has also been appointed by the Home Office to produce the updated version of this guidance and other official guides to fire safety.
Mr Todd has also prepared separate guidance for the British Standards Institution – PAS 79(2) – which gave a model methodology to risk assessors. This guidance also talked down the need to provide PEEPs and was withdrawn by the British Standards Institution following a legal challenge from the same family.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Keeping the public safe is our top priority and we are determined to ensure the tragedy of Grenfell Tower does not happen again.
“We are working on updating existing fire safety guidance, including the Fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats guide which we aim to publish later this year.”
It is understood the Home Office believes that the issues with the existing guide are matters to be considered by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
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