When I published “The Last Post” in May 2019, I intended it to be the last blog I would post on this site. However, the controversy concerning Dany Cotton reached a conclusion in November that year and it became clear that her fate had not been fairly or satisfactorily settled. There was a lot more to be said in her defence than I had previously stated, but it would have been premature to do so at the time and this has haunted me ever since. Although I had tried to make my defence of Commissioner Cotton as thorough as I could (given the limitations of time and space necessary when writing a concise blog) I had completely failed to influence those in power and in whose hands her fate rested. The task of defending her reputation remained incomplete and it was vital now that this be done without further delay.
Grenfell United, in particular, had targeted Commissioner Cotton, in what I can only describe as a vindictive campaign of misogynistic demands for her resignation, and in some quarters, for her prosecution. This followed what I consider to have been unduly harsh, partisan and unjustifiable criticism by Sir Martin Moore-Bick whose concluding report at the end of Stage One of the Inquiry had unjustly singled her out for special and damning criticism, despite the fact that the Inquiry had been provided with an abundance of evidence that pointed elsewhere.
Dr Barbara Lane, perhaps the most respected and credible expert witness to the Inquiry wrote:
“I do not consider it reasonable that in the event of the installation of a combustible rainscreen system on a high rise residential building, the fire brigade should be expected to fully mitigate any resulting fire event. That is particularly so in circumstances where the fire brigade had never been informed that a combustible rainscreen system had been installed in the first place.”
“I have found no evidence yet that any member of the design team or the construction team ascertained the fire performance of the rainscreen system materials, nor understood how the assembly performed in fire. I have found no evidence that Building Control were either informed or understood how the assembly would perform in a fire. Further I have found no evidence that the TMO risk assessment recorded the fire performance of the rainscreen system… I await further evidence on these matters, which I will explore in my Phase 2 report.”
I now feel duty bound to set the record straight for the benefit of the general public and especially for those who remain wilfully ignorant of the vital details of this sordid affair and to correct some of the misapprehensions and misrepresentations, deliberate or otherwise, on which the persecution of Dany Cotton was based.
On the night of the fire Assistant Commissioner Andy Roe, who was on call for major incidents, arrived on scene at 2.29 and took control as Incident Commander. It was he who ordered the suspension of the ‘stay put’ policy, but having arrived late, having been called out from home, his suspension of that policy at 2.47 was too late to improve the survival prospects of the many who had not yet been evacuated. According to expert witness testimony to the Inquiry, in order to be effective that decision would need to have been made no later than 1.40am, about an hour earlier.
When Commissioner Cotton arrived, also on call and a little later than Assistant Commissioner Roe, her role became that of Monitoring Officer. This was fully consistent with LFB protocols which require that the Monitoring Officer must always be of a superior rank to the Incident Commander. As Monitoring Officer her duty was, therefore, not to assume overall command but to provide effective support, guidance and reassurance to the Incident Commander and his command team. This is not a role that all Fire and Rescue Services use, but it’s a protocol that the LFB employs, and that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has recommended as good practice.
As Monitoring Officer Commissioneer Cotton decided she could be most useful on the ‘fire ground’, ie in and around the base of Grenfell Tower, and this is where she spent most of her time. It should be noted that Grenfell Tower was, by that time, almost fully engulfed in fire and she stationed herself in this area at great personal risk. As exhausted lines of firefighters queued to enter the blistering hot grenfell stairwell, smoke-logged with toxic black smoke, to begin again a climb many had already made more often than was recommended, Dany Cotton was there to utter a few last words of encouragement, while fearing every time she might be sending them to their deaths. Time after time they made the ascent in search of any who might still be alive inside. And when they returned, many in tears of grief, frustration and exhaustion, Cotton was there to comfort them.
How could it have been fair or reasonable to hold her responsible for the many fire safety failings of government over the years, the failings inherent in the Building Regulation system, the inadequate firefighting and personal safety equipment the firefighters had to make do with, the savage funding cuts imposed on the Fire Service by Boris Johnson as Mayor of London and the criminal negligence and rank incompetence of all responsible for the botched refurbishment of Grenfell Tower? Was Commissioner Cotton expected to be some miracle worker?
None of the above was sufficient to dissuade Grenfell Inquiry Chair Martin Moore-Bick, in his Stage One summary report, from launching into a series of excessively personalised and individualised criticisms of emergency fire control staff, incident commanders and firefighters who had attended the incident, nor from saving his most barbed and damning criticisms for Commissioner Cotton herself.
It is noteworthy that Commissioner Cotton had served her thirty years (and more) as a firefighter, during which time she had risen through the ranks, and was due to resign shortly, so even if she had been at fault – and there is little credible evidence that she had – would it not have been more reasonable and more gracious to allow her to serve out her time and resign with honour as she deserved?
To this day she is held in high esteem by her colleagues in the London Fire Brigade and by those who served under her as commissioner. Matt Wrack, the leader of the Fire Brigades Union, claimed she was scapegoated following the fire and the decision to remove her caused shock and anger among the rank and file. On the day of her forced resignation former and current firefighters publicly expressed their support for her. Thousands of firefighters paid an informal tribute to her by lining the street outside the LFB headquarters to form an informal guard of honour as she emerged from the building to the sound of bagpipes and was applauded and cheered at every step.
Shortly after the fire a new action group was formed called Grenfell United. From its inception GU was strictly exclusive and highly secretive. Only former residents of Grenfell Tower who had survived the fire and the bereaved relatives of those who had perished were eligible for membership. According to The Times from 11 December 2017:
“Survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire have accused fringe agitators and political groups of exploiting the disaster for their own ends. Advocacy groups such as Justice4Grenfell, which describes itself as a grassroots organisation, claim to represent the interests of survivors and the neighbourhood. However, residents have accused activists of treating the tower “like a piece of meat”. Former residents of the block are so dismayed at the self-promoting agendas and militant tactics espoused by some of those claiming to support the victims that they are bypassing outsiders and are in direct contact with Downing Street. The local council has given Grenfell United the use of one floor at a £3 million friends and family centre for survivors and the bereaved. A public authority source familiar with Grenfell United said: “They want to keep it as a closed shop so people can’t infiltrate”.
The Times is known to be a right-wing rag and the article above is clearly intended as a hatchet job on Justice4Grenfell which is well known locally as a left-wing activist group, but the attack on J4G inadvertently revealed much about the chauvinism of Grenfell United, which The Times sought to glorify, along with the contempt in which GU holds its Lancaster West neighbours (eg ‘a closed shop so people can’t infiltrate’).
In August 2017, two months after the Grenfell Fire, the prime minister, Teresa May, agreed to meet in private with about 100 Grenfell survivors at the five-star Royal Garden Hotel (near Kensington Palace). The meeting was held in secret and the attendees were members of the exclusive and secretive Grenfell United, with their leadership prominent among them. The GU leadership had a second meeting with the prime minister in April 2018 and it is also worth noting that the venue for the first full GU meeting was committee room 14 of the House of Commons. They had also secured £40,000 of government funding and had direct access, not just to to the prime minister, but also to Sajid Javid (at that time the Communities Secretary), Alok Sharma, the Housing Minister, and his successors, Dominic Raab and Kit Malthouse.
Ed Daffarn, who had abandoned The Grenfell Action Group without discussion or explanation to become a founder member of Grenfell United, claims to have attended more than 30 meetings with ministers and civil servants during the first two years following the fire, so it is clear that GU had powerful government connections and the recognition, support and influence that accompanied those connections. In the opinion of this writer they had also adopted a right wing political philosophy, in keeping with their cosy relationship with a right-wing government, and had ceased to be, if ever they had been, a positive influence in the Grenfell Community.
Where Dany Cotton was concerned the coup-de-grace was delivered by Grenfell United, accompanied by members of an obscure group called the ‘Grenfell Next Of Kin’, who claimed to be the ‘voice of London’. Together they met with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who deferred to their fanatical anti-Cotton zeal. He demanded her resignation and in so doing sealed Cotton’s fate, leaving an indelible and wholly undeserved stain on her reputation.
The vindictiveness with which Commissioner Cotton was singled out for special treatment – particularly by Grenfell United – demonstrates, in my view, a total lack of empathy, particularly on the part of the GU leadership, a smug self righteousness and a ruthless refusal to credit the heroism and leadership she demonstrated on the night of the fire. Along with this came a cruel disregard of her personal feelings throughout this whole sordid episode in the history of the Grenfell fire.
If one considers the oral evidence Commissioner Cotton gave under questioning at the Inquiry it is clear that she failed, at times, to express herself as articulately as she might have wished. In my opinion she should be forgiven rather than condemned for any such failings. Instead the gaffes she made were seized upon by members of GU with what I can only describe as spite and an unwillingness or inability to acknowledge or accept that she was, at the time, still suffering, like many others, from PTSD as a direct consequence of the trauma she had experienced on the night of the fire.
I have read elsewhere of the deep concern expressed by Grenfell United for the ongoing trauma, including and especially PTSD, experienced by the survivors and bereaved of Grenfell Tower. GU and others have made efforts to coordinate with the NHS and others in setting up regular counselling and other psychological interventions for any in the Grenfell community suffering such trauma who were open to such interventions, and yet there is clearly a marked absence on the part of GU and their followers of any remotely empathic response with regard to Commissioner Cotton, despite the fact that her own personal trauma is recorded for all to see in her written evidence to the Inquiry. Why would that be, one has to wonder?
Ultimately, the question that must be asked is this – what was it Dany Cotton had done that was so grievous as to warrant the contempt in which she was held by the most powerful and influential group in the Grenfell community? I can provide no answer to this question. And why was Andy Roe so completely absolved of all criticism or blame? After all they had shared the leadership of the LFB on that fateful night, he as Incident Commander and she as Monitoring Officer, and it was he, and not she, who had exercised direct command and who had ordered the suspension of the ‘stay put’ policy – unfortunately too late to have made any effective difference to the mortality rate that night.
What’s more, shortly after the Grenfell disaster Commissioner Cotton established ‘The Grenfell Tower Investigation and Review Team’, the remit of which was to understand the circumstances of the incident and what happened on the night, to identify lessons to be learned and, when all the evidence was available, provide an unfettered and comprehensive evaluation of the Brigade’s response to this unprecedented incident.
This review once completed the LFB, on Commissioner Cotton’s orders, began to work alongside the statutory Grenfell Tower Inquiry and Metropolitan Police. The LFB Review team had made a number of recommendations which were urgently acted on. They included improved training and a significant improvement to the quantity and quality of specialist equipment needed for high-rise fires, including extended height aerial appliances with turntable ladders up to 64 metres (of which there were none available anywhere in Greater London on the night of the fire). Moore-Bick was, of course, fully briefed on this ongoing programme of improvements. His claims, therefore, that the LFB suffered from an inability to learn the lessons of Grenfell appears, at best, to be misguided and, at worst, to be wholly disingenuous.
So how does one attempt to explain the marked disparity in attitude towards Cotton and Roe in some parts of the Grenfell Community despite the strong and well established tradition of left wing attitudes and activism in the Grenfell area? I used the word ‘MISOGYNY‘ once before in the early part of this blog. I use it again now with renewed emphasis and conviction. The only explanation I can offer for this misogyny, apart from the obvious one of inbred prejudice, is that misogyny is a right wing phenomenon, characterised by intense irrational animosity towards the female gender. It is a weapon which has been used routinely to subjugate women and girls and deny them the rights, equality and opportunities to which all should be entitled.
It has not been my intention to imply that all GU members are misogynists. Indeed I am mindful always of the depth of trauma and injustice to which they have been subjected and, for what it’s worth, I offer my deepest sympathy and condolences to those traumatised or bereaved in this most terrible of tragedies.
However, having carefully considered the content of this blog in relation to the circumstances surrounding the victimisation of Commissioner Cotton, and having paid particular attention to the role played by the GU leadership in this, the only conclusion I have been able to reach is that the gross abuse of Ms. Cotton was misogynistic in nature and that it stemmed from a powerful and charismatic chauvinist clique, surrounding and including the leadership of Grenfell United, which played a crucial role in persuading the Mayor of London to cruelly and unjustly demand Dany Cotton’s resignation. In my view this sordid episode was an unprincipled and unconscionable abuse of power by the GU leadership and their allies that is totally deserving of the moral condemnation of all fair minded people.
footnote – chauvinism is defined in my dictionary as an unthinking devotion to a particular cause, especially one of a right-wing, or authoritarian nature.