A former cabinet minister has challenged the Grenfell inquiry not to waste his time while giving evidence, before getting the death toll from the disaster wrong.
Lord Pickles, who served as secretary of state at the then Department of Communities and Local Government between 2010 and 2015, sparked anger after he advised the inquiry’s senior counsel to “use your time wisely” as he had an extremely busy day.
Pickles said: “By all means sir, feel free to ask me as many questions as you like, but could I respectfully remind you that you did promise that we would be away this morning and I have changed my schedules to fit this in.”
The first report from the Grenfell inquiry found that lessons from the 2006 Lakanal House tower block fire had not been learned by the time of the Grenfell disaster.
In response to this, Pickles said that he had come to the view that a swifter response to the coroner’s recommendations in 2013 would not “have made any difference whatsoever”.
“This is not about deregulation,” he added, but the “nameless victims” and “96 people” who were killed. 72 people were killed in the Grenfell fire, all of whom have been named. The 96 figure Pickles used is the number of people who died in the Hillsborough disaster – a Liverpool fan’s death last year was ruled as the 97th.
The inquiry’s chief counsel, Richard Millett QC, said: “You were spectacularly out of touch with what was happening in your department.” Pickles responded that it was “uncharacteristically unjust” for counsel to say that, and that his was an “enormous department”.
Millett said: “Your department was always subject to the deregulatory agenda and you are now seeking to recast that narrative and to underplay what was in truth and enthusiasm by your government for a deregulatory agenda, which led to a complete absence of proper checks and balances so far as concerns life safety. ”
Pickles replied, “I think that would be unkind.”
At the end of the hearing, the inquiry chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, thanked him for his time, saying: “I am sorry that it interfered with your arrangements for today, but there were things that we needed to ask you.”
The survivors’ group Grenfell United criticized Pickles for what it called his “utter disregard” for victims and called for his removal from government and the House of Lords.
“His utter disregard for what happened and to those no longer with us is horrifying, given that he had the ability as minister of housing to reform building safety,” they said.
Eric Pickles must be removed from government and the Lords. Otherwise, government continues to show the contempt it always had for people’s safety in this country. ”
Yesterday several UK housebuilders signed a government-led pledge to fix fire safety problems in apartment blocks built since 1992.
The new Building Safety Pledge commits developers to remove unsafe cladding and address fire-safety issues on all buildings of 11 meters tall or higher which were developed in the last 30 years, and not to claim any funds from the government Building Safety Fund.