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Grenfell: What have we learned?

02 October 2017

In the weeks that have passed since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, much has been written on the safety issues that surround this catastrophic event.

Having established that the fire spread so rapidly because of the block’s external cladding, it will be many more months before the ongoing investigations will establish the full story.

The source of ignition was a faulty fridge freezer on the fourth floor, which had not been subject to a product recall or safety notice. However, over the past six years, fire services in England have gathered data which shows that four fires a week, on average, are caused by faulty fridge freezers.

In response to this, leading charity Electrical Safety First is lobbying government to provide electrical checks - initially in tower blocks - but with the potential to extend to all social housing.

In a letter to Margot James MP, who is the Minister for Small Businesses, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility, the charity has called for a new policy requiring housing assocations and local authorities to provide free mandatory electrical safety checks  - including fixed electrical installations and appliances – for all tenants.
Phil Buckle, chief executive of the charity, said: “We are also suggesting that social landlords compile a register of white goods located in their tower blocks, regardless of tenure. And we have just launched a microsite to advise consumers on white goods safety, including how to register an appliance, with a search tool allowing users to find information regarding any recalled electrical items.

"Electrical Safety First has already successfully lobbied for regulations requiring five-yearly electrical installation checks in the private rented sector (PRS) and these are now in operation in Scotland, with Wales and Northern Ireland committed to following suit. Details of how similar requirements will be introduced in England’s PRS have yet to be announced, though the amendment – which we supported - was included in England’s Housing and Planning Act, which gained Royal Assent last May. However, the amendment has not yet been agreed by the Housing Minister and we are pushing for it to be enabled."

The Group believes that extending regular electrical checks to the social housing sector is beneficial to both landlords and tenants – people and property. Current Government policy states that there is an ‘expectation’ on social landlords to keep electrical installations safe. On this basis, electrics and appliances contained within the sector could go unchecked for many years and remain dangerous until action is taken.  So it is also calling for housing associations and local authorities to ensure that their tenants have registered their products.

Research to date indicates that recalls generally have a very limited success rate (an estimated 10% - 20%), in terms of engaging the end consumer. So many people were disappointed by the Government’s muted response to Lynn Faulds Woods’ independent Review of the UK’s System for the Recall of Unsafe Products. However, a Working Group on Product Recalls and Safety - which the Group is members of – was established by the Government.

The Group has now produced a report, yet to be published, offering a number of recommendations for improving product safety, including the development of a recall code of practice.  Other recommendations call for research into consumer behaviour, the promotion of product registration and greater coordination of product recalls and enforcement. And a new website, Product Recall  has just been launched by the Government to act as a centralised resource for consumer information.

But to optimise efforts to improve product safety, data collection issues need to also be addressed. There does not appear to be a uniform approach to the collection of fire statistics, with regions providing different classifications for the same source of ignition. This means it is difficult to determine exactly what electrical appliances present the greatest risk and why this should be – is it down to an issue with the product or consumer misuse?

This sort of confusion was illustrated by one of the supposed causes of Grenfell Tower itself. It was suggested that the source of the fire was due to the use of plastic-encased consumer units, or fuse-boxes, as there appeared to be an increase in fires with this point of origin. But this was, it seems, due to a change in reporting by the London Fire Brigade, rather than an issue with the materials encasing the consumer unit itself. And it is worth noting that clarity in relation to data should be considerably improved if related agencies – for example, fire and rescue services, trading standards, retailers and insurers – could share information.
The multiplicity of safety issues arising from Grenfell Tower will take some time to address, of that there is no doubt. But The Group aims to ensure that every tenant – whether they live in social housing or rent privately – feel confident around the electrical safety of their home.