Shameful Government u-turn on evacuation plans for disabled people

We are horrified and deeply dismayed by Lord Greenhalgh’s announcement that the Government does not agree that disabled people should have a right to a personal emergency evacuation plan. This follows a 9-month wait since the Government’s second consultation on the matter. It now proposes to launch a third one.

It is unconscionable that the Government has dismissed, for a third time, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s recommendation for personal emergency evacuation plans for disabled people living in high rise buildings. The tragedy involved the deaths of over 40% of disabled residents.

Lord Greenhalgh is wrong to assert that mobility-impaired people cannot evacuate without the fire and rescue service. Many of us do this already thanks to an evacuation plan drawn up with responsible managing agents and following an informed discussion, reflecting on the options, making some adjustments and briefing those involved. This is why it is called ‘a plan’. Radio and TV awareness campaigns encourage us all to have plans in place should our homes catch fire – the Government clearly believes this caution and responsibility should only extend to non-disabled people.

We were sickened to hear the Minister question whether any associated costs of evacuation plans are reasonable as he “seeks to protect residents and taxpayers” from costs. Lord Greenhalgh has repeated the tired myth that every evacuation plan involves a cost. Further, this comment is shocking given that the Government has done nothing to protect leaseholders across the UK from exhausting their life savings and facing bankruptcy as a result of the building safety crisis. Lord Greenhalgh is provoking fear and resentment among cash-strapped leaseholders against their disabled neighbours, based on a dangerous generalisation.

The final blow was Lord Greenhalgh’s attempt to shame disabled people into ‘staying put’ in a fire to avoid “hindering others” from evacuating. Please let that sink in.

It is preposterous for the Government to assert that it is ‘committed to supporting the fire safety of disabled people’ when it rejects the use of evacuation plans on the basis of costs, convenience and ableism. 

It is clear that the Government is poorly advised in this area of policy, as demonstrated by the Minister’s consistent references to people with “mobility concerns” only. Standard emergency evacuation protocols also exclude disabled and older people with a range of impairments including visual impairments, learning disabilities and Deaf people.

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 places a duty on responsible persons to have procedures in place in the event of serious danger. There is no exclusion for disabled people. Any landlord who disregards this duty and refuses to implement an evacuation plan for a disabled person faces serious legal liability.

We do not support a third consultation. It is not necessary and is a shameful attempt to evade the Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s recommendations.

Landscape photo of Grenfell Tower in the background, with the sheeting displaying the green heart. Four high rise buildings are in the foreground

Home Office’s delay and disregard for PEEPs: Write to your MP

This week, another peer expressed their concern about the Home Office’s handling on personal emergency evacuation plans for disabled people.

Baroness Grey-Thompson and Baroness Brinton proposed a series of amendments to the Building Safety Bill that would have added to the bill explicit references to the need to protect disabled people living in high-rise blocks of flats and other “higher-risk” buildings. Baroness Brinton also expressed support for Claddag’s legal action against the Home Secretary for awarding a fire safety contract to a company who notoriously opposes PEEPs for disabled people.

We have been asked a lot this week how best you can support this action. Below is a template letter which you can send to your MP urgently. If you need any help with this, please contact us.

Claddag issues proceedings against Home Office over ‘means of escape’ contract

Further to our statement two weeks ago, we have taken the decision to commence judicial review proceedings against the Home Secretary for awarding to CS Todd & Associates Ltd a contract to produce guidance which includes the means of escape for disabled people from fire.

Given Mr Todd consistently advocates against evacuation plans for disabled people, and was the only expert of four to do so in the Grenfell Tower inquiry, we do not feel it is right for him to have this influence and authority over the safety of disabled people. Paralympian and disability rights campaigner, Baroness Grey-Thompson has raised grave concerns in the House of Lords last week (video below.)

In awarding this contract, we believe that the Home Secretary has failed in her public sector equality duty towards disabled people. The denial of our right to evacuation plans is a huge hidden injustice faced by private tenants, social housing tenants and leaseholders alike.

We thank everyone for their support, including our committed legal team at Bhatt Murphy solicitors.

Government reappoints the same company to write the ‘Means of Escape for Disabled People’ guidance: A statement from Claddag

Claddag are shocked and outraged to learn that the Home Office has commissioned C S Todd & Associates to re-write the Means of Escape for Disabled People, and the other suite of fire safety guidance documents.

C S Todd & Associates authored the guidance document Fire Safety in Purpose-Built Flats, published by the Local Government Association (LGA) in 2011 with the support of Government, which has been the subject of judicial review. This guidance advised building managers for ten years that it was “unrealistic” to prepare emergency evacuation plans for disabled residents. The specific wording which legitimised a less robust approach to disabled people was redacted by the Government late last year, shortly after there was a threat of legal action by the family of disabled resident who lost their life in Grenfell Tower.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry heard that 41% of the disabled residents of the tower died during the fire.

As part of the consultation on the LGA guidance, the Chief Fire Officers Association stated that “to ignore and eliminate advice on disabled access and evacuation is a fundamental error of the document.”

Disabled people living in blocks of flats are fighting the legacy of the ‘stay put’ ethos every day. Claddag are frequently contacted by disabled people who cannot secure evacuation plans from their managing agents or even the support of their local fire service. This is despite the Government’s proposals, consulted upon last year, to require managing agents to implement them in a U-turn approach.

Claddag co-founder, Sarah Rennie, had lived in a block of flats in Birmingham since 2008. She is a wheelchair user and, for over 10 years, was advised by the Fire Service to stay put and not attempt to evacuate. “After the Grenfell Tower tragedy,” Sarah explains, “I felt frightened to stay in my flat when everyone else was ordered to immediately evacuate when the klaxons are sounded. I approached my managing agents for a personal evacuation plan but their advisors told them it was a matter for the Fire Service. I found an independent expert to help me draw up a plan and, with the support of the building’s Board, follow it myself anyway. But this makes me one of the lucky ones. I feel sick to my stomach that the authors of the LGA guidance are being commissioned by the Government to further influence policy on the lives of disabled people.”

Georgie Hulme, Claddag co-founder, is also a wheelchair user and is fighting for an evacuation plan. “I also live in a flat where the evacuation guidance changed from ‘stay put’ to ‘simultaneous evacuation.’ However, like so many other disabled, I was refused an evacuation plan. I was informed that I would need to wait for the Fire Service to attend before I could evacuate. Like Sarah, I obtained expert advice and embarrassingly crowdfunded for an evac chair, just to feel safer, even though neither are ‘officially’ recognised. I felt that there was some hope following the Government’s consultation last year, but now it feels that disabled people will have to continue the same fight, when all we want is an equal right to evacuate residential buildings in an emergency. There is no reason to think any lessons have been learnt and, as is often the case, our lives will continue to be viewed as inferior. I feel upset and angry that the Home Office have agreed this, especially considering the history.”

Last year, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, boldly condemned Mercedes F1 for a sponsorship with Grenfell insulation firm, Kingspan. That was a private commercial arrangement. However, this is a Home Office contract. We ask Mr Gove – and Lord Greenhalgh (Minister of State for Building Safety and Fire) – for urgent comment and intervention.

Disabled people’s lives are of no less value. The LGA guidance, for which C S Todd & Associates were commissioned as editors, legitimised a discriminatory approach to disabled people. We fight the legacy of that guidance each day.

By awarding yet another contract to the authors of that guidance, the Government sends a message of endorsement of this discriminatory approach and demonstrates that it has learned nothing from the judicial review or the Grenfell Tower tragedy. We implore the Home Office to immediately review its decision on the award of this contract.

Welsh Government buy-out plans: Disabled leaseholders must be included

Welsh minister for climate change, Julie James, revealed on Tuesday that the Government is to launch a scheme in the new year which will target leaseholders who have found themselves in “significant” financial hardship. Full details of the strategy are yet to be published, but we urge policy-makers to expressly include disabled leaseholders who are trapped in inaccessible flats.

Man sitting in his home. Anthony is white, had his hair pulled back in a tie and is wearing a grey tshirt
Anthony Kerrane is unable to move from his inaccessible flat (C) ITV LONDON

Last month, ITV News reported Anthony Kerrane’s story. Anthony became paralysed and needs to move as his flat is no longer suitable for his needs as a wheelchair user, particularly in light of his building’s unreliable lift. He is unable to move as his shared ownership flat is unsellable and has recently received a £100,000 bill for remediation works.

Most disabled people acquire their conditions during their lifetime or their conditions progress. Our housing needs change over time. This means that many people are needing to move to more suitable housing but cannot. One leaseholder told us: “I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2018. My condition is deteriorating. It’s only a matter of time before I won’t be able to walk. I want to move into more suitable accommodation but my flat is unsellable.

Many disabled leaseholders are also diverting their savings from moving costs and adaptations to paying their cladding remediation bills.

Steve, a triple amputee, tells how his attempts to move from his flat to a more accessible home are on hold. “In 2019 I tried to purchase a larger apartment to better meet my needs, but was unable to get a mortgage due to EWS1. I am now trying to renovate and adapt a bungalow in an attempt to create a suitable home for myself. My building has been rejected by the Building Safety Fund and I’m anticipating a bill for around £25,000 to fix it. My life is expensive enough without this.”

Claddag co-founder, Sarah, has spent all savings which she had set aside for adaptations on cladding bills: “It’s almost impossible to get a disabled facilities grant so I saved hard to pay for a ceiling hoist, wetroom and any structural works I might need on a small bungalow nearer to my family – not only am I stuck in this flat, but those savings have all gone. I’m going to be trapped in this unsuitable flat for years.”

Claddag ask the Welsh Government to ensure disabled leaseholders living in flats which are inaccessible for them are included within their ‘buy-out’ policies. We also continue to implore Westminister to address our three asks and hope Michael Gove accepts our request for a meeting.

National survey: Leaseholders who have impairments or health conditions

We have launched a survey to gain a broader and deeper understanding of the ways in which leaseholders who have impairments on health conditions are affected by the building safety crisis.

https://www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/SVODM0/

Please take part if you are a leaseholder and live with any physical impairments or mental health conditions. This could be related to age. The survey is not just for people who consider themselves to be disabled.

At this stage, we are specifically collecting data on leaseholders (owner-occupiers), not tenants who are renting.

The survey should take 5-10 minutes. If it is not accessible to you, or you find the exercise distressing, contact us and we will help you to find a way to be involved.

Graphic of six rainbow-coloured speech bubbles spelling out "survey"

Waking watch: disabled residents

An alarming number of developments are being forced to keep Waking Watch in place due to one or more people living in the block who cannot self-evacuate.

Blurred images of a person in a high viz jacket which says waking watch on the back, walking away from the viewer down an empty corridor of a block of flats
Waking watch patrol buildings 24 hours a day

We advocate for the rights and safety of disabled and older people living in blocks of flats but are, nevertheless, very disappointed in this approach. As leaseholders ourselves, we share the enormous financial and emotional pressure placed on us by the building safety crisis. The costs of requirements like waking watch is financially damaging for us all, disabled or otherwise.

1 in 5 of us are disabled so it is highly likely that at least one disabled person lives in every block of flats around the country. Does this mean that waking watch is needed in every general needs housing development in the UK? Clearly not. So this haphazard and misguided advice needs to stop.

One of our ‘key asks is for the Government is to ensure that any costs associated with a disabled person’s safety are taken out of the hands of leaseholders and should be centrally funded. We fear a sense of resentment and hostility to specific individuals blamed for any additional costs in the service charge.

In the meantime, we have put this advice together with expert input to help developments challenge a refusal for waking watch to be withdrawn/reduced due to the presence of someone who cannot self-evacuate.

Encourage a personal emergency evacuation plan

We encourage all developments (and responsible persons) to regularly survey its occupants and ask open questions about their ability to self-evacuate. It is wise to avoid words like ‘disability’, ‘elderly or ‘infirm’ as many people who don’t consider themselves to be disabled (but would struggle to self-evacuate) might not engage with your survey.

Remember that nearly half of those who died in Grenfell Tower were disabled so we have to accept that this is an important issue that can’t be ignored. 

For years, disabled people have been the victim of a dangerous policy of staying-put and waiting to be rescued. Even if the fire is in their flat or on their floor, many disabled people are unable to move vertically to a place where they are safe. It has finally been accepted that this approach is wrong, particularly when we know that one’s chance of survival in fire falls significantly if you don’t get out within 20 minutes. Wherever possible, a disabled person should be given early warning of a fire in the building to give them the maximum time to evacuate safely and should be a priority.

Clarify if there really is a need for a buddy

Not everyone who cannot self-evacuate needs a physical person with them. Some may need priority warning to give optimum time to evacuate or need communication aids. See our blog here for more ideas on this.

Challenge why a buddy must be waking watch

If someone does need a helping hand, why can’t it be a volunteer? Studies of evacuations of high rise buildings show time and time again that people help others in an emergency.

Phil Murphy, HRRB Fire Safety Consultant, says it’s wrong to assume that only employees can fulfill the role of a Trained Evacuation Assistant (TEA) and that, in fact, most people with a basic level of fitness can be trained in a couple of hours. “Research has proven beyond all doubt that helping each other in emergencies is what people instinctively do. Partners, live-in relatives, carers and neighbours are all most often very willing and able to be TEAs. Using the excuse that no employees are present is a poor one and, having been proved false, it is no longer acceptable.”

Guidance says that waking watch does not need to an employed person as long as they meet the person specification criteria (A4.6). So why does someone need to paid to offer an arm to a blind resident to go down the stairs?

There are also important questions to be asked around employers’ liability for requiring the waking watch to ascend a building and physically support a resident to evacuate. 

In fact, from the responsible person’s perspective, the legal liability is the same whether the buddy is an employee or a volunteer. A volunteer does not increase liability if protocols and training are in place. In fact, as employees are covered by Health & Safety at Work Regulations, extreme caution should be taken before involving employees in an evacuation that could put them in increased danger.

We urge you to ask questions around what the waking watch will specifically do for the disabled person(s) in the event of an evacuation. In our personal experience, things can get very ‘wishy washy’ so do not be afraid to pin down precisely what tasks the waking watch are expected to perform for the disabled person. Do not accept vague statements like ‘assist the person to evacuate’ – ask for specifics. Will they knock on the persons’ door to check they heard the alarm? Will they physically carry the person down the stairs if they can’t walk? Will they simply give a guiding arm whilst the person walks down the stairs? Will they push the person down the stairs in an evacuation chair?

When you have this list, this will enable two things to happen:

  • Realisation that the expectations on the waking watch are not suitable and the plan needs rethinking; or
  • An opportunity to demonstrate that the tasks could easily be fulfilled by a group of neighbours as volunteers (with the disabled person’s consent)

Involve the disabled resident

The financial pressure placed on all leaseholders is wholly unreasonable and everyone is feeling anxious about the safety of their homes. However, the situation is deeply terrifying for those of us who cannot self-evacuate so please be sensitive in challenging your current waking watch position.

Ask your agent if the tasks/actions assigned to the waking watch to enable the disabled person to evacuate have been fully laid out to that person and agreed by them. This is part of ensuring the specific tasks involved are clear, transparent and agreed by everyone.

Has the Fire & Rescue Service asked the disabled resident whether they have a social worker who could be involved in the discussion? There may be scope for alterations to a care package (if relevant) to reassure all parties. The disabled person’s consent is essential here. We are aware of several disabled tenants who cannot leave the flat unaided or self-evacate and are lobbying their local authority for increased care hours so some people may welcome the support of the Fire Service in pushing for this.

As part of this difficult but important conversation, you can also help by challenging anyone who asserts the myth that disabled people can just sell up or be rehoused to a ground floor flat. More on that here.

Everyone must have the right to evacuate a building if their life is in danger. However, insisting on waking watch provision in this manner is not the answer.

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Disability and Fire Safety

The APPG on Disability is jointly hosting a meeting on 12 July 2021 at 2pm to highlight the importance of the Government’s consultation on Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans for disabled residents unable to self-evacuate from buildings. 

The meeting will cover the Government’s key proposals and have input from disabled residents as to how the proposals need to be strengthened. The consultation closes on 19 July 2021 and it is vital that the views of Disabled People are heard.

The consultation seeks views on implementing the Grenfell Tower Inquiry which recommended that building owners and managing agents are given the legal responsibility for producing and storing Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans for residents of high-rise buildings unable to self-evacuate.

Line Up: 

2pm Welcome from Sir David Amess 

2:05pm – Keynote Address from Minister of State for Building Safety, Fire and Communities

2:15pm – Elspeth Grant, Expert advisor to Disability Rights UK

2:20pm – Sarah Rennie, Co-founder of Claddag (The Leaseholder Disability Action Group) 

2:25pm – A Grenfell Tower Survivor (Name tbc) 

2:35pm – Questions/Discussion  

2:55pm – Closing Remarks from the Chair  

Joining Link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87193895050 (no password required)

Mythbusting PEEPs #5: “You should be living on the ground floor”

There are two key problems with this view: 1) ignorance about accessible housing stock, and 2) failing to respect the right to choose where we live and why.

Accessible housing options

According to the Hidden Housing Market Report:

  • 1.8 million disabled people have an accessible housing need
  • At least 1 in 6 households that need accessible homes do not currently have all the accessibility features they need. 
  • The majority of those with accessible housing needs are already home owners.

Accessible housing campaigner, Fleur Perry says: “Accessible housing is a key pillar of Independent Living. Government need to act and make sure that we’re building the right amount of accessible housing and not continuing to let people down who have nowhere to go.”

So we need to frame this conversation within the frustrating backdrop of the lack of choice for disabled and older people.

1.8 million disabled people have an accessible housing need

Affordability

The average bungalow in the UK costs £288,000. This is significantly more than your average one or two bedroom flat so – whether renting or buying – flats are naturally more affordable for many people.

Suitability

There are many reasons why a disabled or older person may choose to live in a flat. As Claddag campaigner, Liz Kimber, explains “the set up of apartment-living works well for people with disabilities.” For some, this will be the lower maintenance needs, including a lack of garden and smaller footprint. Others value the support and security presented by a concierge service. There’s also the sense of community and company offered by neighbours in an apartment block.

Two images side by side. One shows the arms of someone with purple sleeves reaching for a kettle, whilst holding a mug on a lowered counter. The other shows a wheelchair user opening an oven located at a suitable height.
Credit: The Hidden Housing Market Report

Competing priorities

We shouldn’t disregard the usual factors everyone applies to choosing where they live: transport links, proximity to work, access to schools and hospitals, links with family and friends. If we are lucky enough to have a choice where we live, some of those factors will have to take priority – for example, living somewhere that enables you to keep your job may trump living ‘anywhere as long as it’s on the ground floor’.

Ground floor availability

If you do decide that a ground floor flat is your priority, let’s circle back to availability of accessible housing stock. The Government recently announced a plan to spend £30 million that could lead to more than 17,000 new homes, but refuse to insist that a single one of them is built to strict accessibility standards.

Whether renting or buying, disabled people consistently face barriers – from bathroom door widths to hostile landlords. Let’s also not forget that in most town and city centres, the ground floor of apartment blocks is often designated commercial space.

British High street of shops with residential flats above
Ground floor flats in city and town centres are rare or can feel unsafe

Right to choose

Putting aside the practicalities of finding an accessible ground floor flat, disabled and older people should have the same right to choose where they live as non-disabled people. Why should a young disabled person be denied the chance to spend his early 20s enjoying ‘city life’ in a block with his friends? If an older couple chooses to downsize their house in a rural area, ditch their car and live in a block close to amenities, isn’t this a decision we should respect?

Of course, some disabled and older people would not feel safe living in high rise buildings. This was the case with many people who died in 2017 at Grenfell Tower and had spent years pleading with the Council to help them to move. Nobody should be forced to live anywhere they don’t feel safe and secure.

All residential buildings should be responsibly constructed to high levels of safety standards and the Government must urgently step in to fund their remediation work. We must design homes that are suitable for everyone in society, with comprehensive plans for evacuation from the outset. When this is not the case, people panic and we start hearing “well, disabled people shouldn’t be living here.” This reactionary and ableist mindset leads to segregation and harassment.

If you believe that segregation is not answer and that the real problem lies in the lack of inclusive design and building safety standards, please respond to the Government consultation by 19 July 2021.

Mythbusting PEEPs #4: “They’re only for wheelchair users”

There is a whole range of reasons why people may not be able to self-evacuate. A mobility impairment is just one.

Five stickmen in a row. Four are blue, one is red.
One in five people in the UK are disabled

There are over 14 million disabled people in the UK. That’s one in five of us. One in five of us are not wheelchair users. Other impairments will include hearing and sight, learning disability, being neurodivergent and mental health conditions. In fact, it is estimated that that 80% of disabilities are ‘hidden’, for example anxiety and epilepsy.

Questions that help us to consider if a person can self-evacuate include:

  • Can you hear the alarm?
  • Do you understand what that sound means?
  • Can you safely descend stairwells?

This will be particularly relevant to blind and Deaf people, those with learning disabilities or anyone who takes a little longer to process information.

We also need to remember those who are temporarily disabled, such as following surgery or an injury. A resident may be laying in bed in their flat for many weeks in a plaster cast.

Older white woman with short grey hair and a trenchcoat is smiling
Older people may not consider themselves to be disabled

46% of pension age adults are disabled. Age and disability overlap as many impairments are often linked with age, such as arthritis and hearing loss. It’s important to remember that many older people living with impairments do not consider themselves to be ‘disabled’. Like disabled people, older people must be encouraged to reflect on their ability to self-evacuate in discussions which are tactful, sensitive and give no suggestion that they cannot live independently. Otherwise it may be distressing and end in the person abandoning the process.

Finally, the burden of fighting for evacuation plans is exacerbating the health conditions of many disabled people. One disabled leaseholder’s post-traumatic stress disorder is being regularly triggered every time she asks her managing agent for an evacuation plan. To this day she cannot get their support to create one.

If you agree that everyone who cannot self-evacuate deserves the opportunity to talk through their options of how to escape a fire in their block, please respond to the Government consultation by 19 July 2021.