A former Conservative cabinet minister has provoked anger after telling the Grenfell Inquiry not to waste his time because he is “extremely busy”.
Eric Pickles, who was housing secretary, was being grilled about a programme to cut “red tape” that he oversaw in government – and whether it compromised building safety regulations.
The 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster, which saw the social housing block go up in flames after it had been covered in unsafe flammable cladding, resulted in the deaths of 72 people.
But the public inquiry was left stunned on Thursday after the irate Lord Pickles, who is now a Tory peer, responded to questioning by saying he had been promised he could leave soon.
Apparently angry at the line of questioning about a government document promising to cut red tape in the construction industry, Lord 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. I do have an extremely busy day.”
Conceding that the inquiry was “more important than anything” in his schedule he then added: “I urge you to use your time wisely.”
The former cabinet minister’s comments were met with a brief stunned silence before the inquiry’s chief counsel Richard Millett QC replied: “Right… May I please have an answer to my question?”
The peer said: “I have answered it, I have answered it to the point of exhaustion, this document has no status.”
Responding to the former minister’s outburst, a spokesperson for Justice4Grenfell told The Independent that the former minister lacked “humanity”.
“Eric Pickles should use his time wisely to meet each of the families of the 72 children, women and men who lost their lives at Grenfell,” she said.
Producing a list of names of those who died, the spokesperson added: “Here are the names, just in case he has been too busy to read them.
“How is our society tolerating this level of disrespect from a politician – paying him from the public purse too?
“What was he ‘busy’ doing when he ignored addressing blatant fire and building safety flaws at a government department he was in charge of?”
Emma Dent Coad, a local councillor who was previously the Labour MP for Kensington at the time of the fire, has been attending hearings of the inquiry with survivors and bereaved residents.
She told The Independent: “Pickles’ attitude was frankly jaw-dropping; there were gasps and heads shaking in disbelief at his utter refusal to accept any kind of accountability.
“Nothing was his fault. There was no remorse, no hesitation to bounce questions back, torturing his responses with conditions and exceptions. We were asking ourselves what does a secretary of state actually do?
“So his irritation today is no surprise but no less shocking. His self-importance sucks the air out of the room. Frankly he has condemned himself by his waffling words and impatience. And we all know now precisely why building regs were of so little importance to the secretary of state for communities and local government. Shame on him.”
After a break in the inquiry proceedings Lord Pickles apologised for being “discourteous” and said he had cancelled his later meeting.
The peer was being asked about the status of a document produced by his department which promised to cut red tape in the construction industry.
He said it did not represent policy and claimed that the the document had been drawn up by a “junior” or “middle-ranking” press officer “who is not aware of the discussions that are taking place”.
“This is a middle-ranking official who is trying to generate a series of stories during August. There is nothing wrong with this, but to think for one moment that this represents a mind of a department is as far from reality as you could imagine,” Lord Pickles said.
He added: “I don’t want to be flippant, this is a serious matter, but this is very much, if you forgive me, a dead cat bounce.”
At the close of the session, which overran into the afternoon, Lord Pickles got the number of victims of the disaster wrong, telling the inquiry: “I think it’s 96 people who were killed in the Grenfell fire”.
The public inquiry into the fire was ordered by Theresa May in the aftermath of the disaster, beginning in September 2017 and it is still ongoing.