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Closing the doors at St Paul's Cathedral

How seriously is the Cathedral taking health and safety concerns?

How seriously is the Cathedral taking health and safety concerns?

The doors of St Paul's Cathedral are now closed to all visitors. No tourists or worshippers are allowed in. One of the finest ecclesiastical buildings in Europe, which for centuries towered over the rest of London, is no longer open simply because, it is said, of health and safety and the tents of the "Occupy LSX" protesters outside.

One would expect that such a drastic move would be based on sound decision-making by the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral, a proportionate measure with a rational connection to risks identified in an objective and professional exercise. Given the national significance of the building, and given that any identifiable risks would also affect the protesters and those who work locally, one would also expect that the full basis of the decision be disclosed publicly so that it could be subjected to proper scrutiny. Overall, one would hope that it was not a bad decision made for the wrong reasons.

"Health and safety" should never be an empty phrase. Identifiable risks to the health and safety of occupiers, employees, and others, must always be managed responsibly and on a continuing basis. That is, of course, if "health and safety" is not, as it it so often is, an excuse offered by incompetent managers for misconceived measures. However, too often "health and safety" is invoked to cover up woolly thinking, or indeed cover up when there has been no thinking at all.

So has the Cathedral made a good decision in closing its doors? Have they done something reluctantly, where there is no other sensible and responsible thing to do? Or did the Cathedral just close its doors because it threatened to do so unless the protesters moved away? Was the closure because the Cathedral made a bluff which was called by the protesters?

My main interest in all this is that I happen to work locally. I walk past the St Paul's at least twice a day. I have no particular sympathy for many of the causes promoted by the protesters, but over the last ten days I have been impressed by how the camp, and the protesters generally, have conducted themselves. The camp is clean, there is no significant impediment to the Cathedral steps or any other entrance, and there appears to be no graffiti or other damage. Indeed, one might say it is the very model of how a protest should be done. And it is a daily reminder to the City workers who pass of issues which the protesters do not think should be ignored. To my mind, it causes no real inconvenience to anyone.

But my happy and subjective impression could be entirely wrong. It may well be that there are real dangers presented by this camp. We could be just days away from "an incident" where those now expressing worries about "health and safety" can then say that they told us so. Accordingly, to avoid personal bias and misplaced sentimentality of anyone involved, there needs to be an assessment of the situation so that the right decisions are made in order to deal with objectively identified problems.

And so the key question here is straightforward: do health and safety concerns really explain the decision to close the Cathedral? The starting point must be the five public statements of the Cathedral. The first was last Monday:

Services at St Paul's Cathedral were able to take place as normal this weekend but the last few days have not been without various challenges. Our chief concern is that St Paul's be allowed to operate as normally as possible and for all people to be respectful of this need.

Public safety has been a major concern. We have been in constant touch with the police and community leaders. As the City of London returns to work this morning we are monitoring the situation carefully.

On Sunday the protestors did reduce their presence on the landing and the steps of the West Doors enough to allow people to come in to worship throughout the day.

It is also now important that the thousands of visitors wishing to visit the cathedral and to enjoy our hospitality this week are able to do so freely and that the daily life of St Paul's Cathedral can continue without serious interruption.

Then last Wednesday came an implied ultimatum:

St Paul's Cathedral stated on Monday that it was still trying to provide worship and welcome to all in spite of the presence of the protest camp in the churchyard. St Paul's asked everyone to respect this need and to acknowledge the risk to the life of the cathedral posed by the current situation.

The cathedral has managed so far to remain open on a reduced basis. The increased scale and nature of the protest camp is such that to act safely and responsibly the cathedral must now review the extent to which it can remain open for the many thousands coming this week as worshippers, visitors and in school parties. Is it now time for the protest camp to leave?

The consequences of a decision to close St Paul's cannot be taken lightly.

And on Friday, the announcement that the Cathedral was to close its doors:

It seems a very long time since the protesters arrived around the Cathedral last weekend and I want to stress at the outset that we have listened to them and indeed developed a conversation with them. We are delighted that the London protests have been peaceful and indeed there has been a good atmosphere generally between Cathedral staff and those dwelling in the tents around St Paul's. There is something profound about protest being made and heard in front of this most holy place: a gathering together of those concerned about poverty and inequality facing the great Dome of this Cathedral Church. You actually have to be here to witness it for yourself because the extent of feeling and protest is not easily translated via media in that sense.

But it is about the practical and safety issues which this peaceful protest has raised which I need to address with you today.

It should be obvious to anyone approaching the Cathedral that the size of the camp and the consequent compliance issues which it inevitably raises, has increasingly put us in a difficult position. Last night, I met with members of the Chapter to discuss some of these key issues. As the week has gone on, and in a statement we issued earlier this week, we intimated how difficult the situation was becoming.

As a result of that meeting, and reports received today from our independent Health, Safety and Fire officers, I have written an open letter to the protestors this afternoon advising them that we have no lawful alternative but to close St Paul's Cathedral until further notice. I have here copies of the letter clearly outlining the reasons we have had to take this dramatic course of action which I will ask my colleagues to distribute.

The Health, Safety and Fire officers have pointed out that access to and from the Cathedral is seriously limited. With so many stoves and fires and lots of different types of fuel around, there is a clear fire hazard. Then there is the public health aspect which speaks for itself. The dangers relate not just to Cathedral staff and visitors but are a potential hazard to those encamped themselves.

The decision to close St Paul's Cathedral is unprecedented in modern times and I have asked the Registrar to implement emergency procedures whereby the building remains closed but fit for purpose until such a time that we can open safely. Our 200 staff and 100 volunteers are also being informed of this decision this afternoon.

I want to say two simple things at this point.
1)We have done this with a very heavy heart, but it is simply not possible to fulfil our day to day obligations to worshippers, visitors and pilgrims in current circumstances.
2)That all of the Chapter are at one on this and recognise the complexities of the issues facing us at this time.

As you can see in the open letter, I am asking the protestors to recognise the huge issues facing us at this time and asking them to leave the vicinity of the building so that the Cathedral can re-open as soon as possible. So many people who visit this great Cathedral come here, of course, because they love the Gospel of justice, peace and reconciliation (which some of the protestors are embracing for a whole host of reasons), but also because they want to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of a place of prayer and pilgrimage.

Some will rightly say that the Church should be alongside those seeking equality and financial probity. We are. The debate about a more just society is at the heart of much of our work at St Paul's and indeed we hope to contribute to the wider debate in the very near future through a Report from the St Paul's Institute.

But today is about our ability, practically, to carry on our mission with free and open access to this public space and treasured place and I hope that the protestors will understand the issues we are facing, recognise that their voice has been legitimately heard, and withdraw peacefully.

The terms of this announcement were also repeated in an "open letter" from the Dean to the protesters:

It seems a very long time since you arrived here last weekend. I am very grateful indeed to you for the peaceful nature of your protest. You know that many people around the world, including many Christians, identify with the injustices and inequalities which you believe our financial systems perpetuate and support. Your peaceful protests have been significant in voicing the problem.

With a heavy heart I have to tell you that St Paul's Cathedral has to be closed today until further notice, because of the legal requirements placed upon us by fire, health and safety issues. I know you will appreciate that in taking on the burden of responsibility for the care and well being of people entering our building, we must also be able to ensure everyone's safety and, according to those who are expert in this regard, we cannot do so at the moment. I wanted to inform you of this necessary decision before I announced it to the Press.

I am therefore appealing to you directly to recognise that a great deal had been achieved by your presence here outside St Paul's but that, in order that we might re-open the Cathedral as speedily as possible, we ask you to withdraw peacefully. We are concerned about public safety in terms of evacuation and fire hazards and the consequent knock-on effects which this has with regards to visitors.

St Paul's, through its Institute and place in the City, will continue to encourage debate on many of the issues you are concerned about. In the meantime, by withdrawing peacefully, you will enable us to re-open the Cathedral for people to use for prayer, worship and reflection as soon as we possibly can.
With my thanks,
Graeme Knowles

This was followed by a statement from Canon Giles Fraser on Saturday:

I remain firmly supportive of the right of people peacefully to protest. But given the strong advice that we have received that the camp is making the cathedral and its occupants unsafe then this right has to be balanced against other rights and responsibilities too. The Christian gospel is profoundly committed to the needs of the poor and the dispossessed. Financial justice is a gospel imperative. Those who are claiming the decision to close the cathedral has been made for commercial reasons are talking complete nonsense.

Then, in response to these statements, there was then an Open Letter from the protesters:

To the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's Cathedral,

We are grateful to the Reverend Canon Dr Giles Fraser, Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, for reassuring us that our activities are not harming the Cathedral's commercial concerns - that has never been our intention. Our intention was to highlight the iniquities of the global economic crisis, in a peaceful manner, especially as the Cathedral has been so hospitable.

We have endeavoured to clarify perceived health and safety issues and continue to place these as a priority for the health and safety of everyone, both inside and outside of this historic Cathedral.

Unfortunately, despite our requests of the Cathedral, they have not provided us with details and information as to how we are perceived to be threatening health and safety. We once again urge the Cathedral to bring to our attention, immediately, the particular details of the health and safety issues to address them. Our concern is if there are health and safety issues (which we in any event refute) by the Church failing to tell of them, they are exacerbating any perceived dangers.

Due to the urgency of the situation you have raised, we would appreciate your immediate response so that we can deal with these concerns.

Regards,

Occupy London Stock Exchange

This response of the protesters warrants careful reading, as it indicates what appears to be a serious flaw in the Cathedral's position. On the one hand, it is contended that the health and safety concerns are so serious, they required the closure of the Cathedral and nothing less. But, on the other hand, the Cathedral is refusing to provide any information to the protesters so as to allow those supposed health and safety concerns to be properly addressed since the time the Cathedral closed its doors.

It would almost seem as if the Dean and Chapter, with a health and safety report in their hands, looked down the steps of St Paul's at the protesters and, rather than sharing the content of the report with those who could be affected, chose to close the Cathedral doors instead.

The position of the Cathedral seems to be a hopeless muddle. Few, if any, of the contentions advanced actually explain the two crucial decisions made -- to close the Cathedral to all visitors and to then not engage with the protesters in respect of health and safety. The revealing back story to these decisions is that before Thursday last week the Cathedral was in fact dealing with the protesters directly, and on the Wednesday there was a wide-ranging meeting where variety of health and safety concerns were discussed, and constructive solutions agreed. Attending the meeting were those directly charged with maintenance and safety of the building. It was only after what appeared to be this successful and practical exercise in identifying and managing risks that the Dean and Chapter then moved to close down the Cathedral completely and to break off further engagement with the protesters. It seemed the mood of the Cathedral changed overnight on Wednesday and Thursday of last week.

The worrying refusal by the Cathedral to share the details of its supposed health and safety concerns with the protesters after Wednesday would seem to undermine the sincerity of its reliance on those concerns to close the Cathedral. Whatever one's views as to the merits of the protesters, there can be no good reason for these details not to be shared, especially as it is claimed that the health and safety concerns are so serious as to mean that the Cathedral should be closed down completely.

This is a particularly depressing notion, given the Dean said expressly that the decision was taken "because of the legal requirements placed upon us by fire, health and safety issues". So I asked the Cathedral for a full description of these health and safety issues, and this list was provided in response:

- Presence of unknown quantities of flammable liquids.
- Smoking/drinking within the tented areas.
- Potential gas safety within the catering facility.
- Compromised free fire exits, usually open now closed but manned.
- Slips, trips and falls exacerbated at night with cover of darkness.
- Due to the darkness issues on North side, use of naked flame lighting.
- Sleeping risk within the tented area, if fire should break out.
- Public heath issues
a Sanitation
b Food hygiene
c Rodent/pest issue
- The issues of rope/guy-lines attached to trees, bollards, lamp standards possibly causing injury to face/neck/upper limbs and trips on low level guy-lines.
- VIP security due to camp protest.
- All of the above are representative of the possible injury to life and limb.

This prompts an obvious question, and so I asked the Cathedral what it was actually doing now to manage these risks, other than closing the Cathedral. What had it done since the closure, if it thought these risks were serious? But the Cathedral was not able to say.

I asked who compiled this list of issues. The vague response was "health and safety advisers". Who were these advisers? The Cathedral would not say. What are their qualifications and expertise? The Cathedral would not say. Are they external or internal? The Cathedral would not say.

In essence, the Cathedral was refusing to disclose who gave them the serious advice which made them close down the Cathedral. I asked about Canon Giles Fraser's reference to "the strong advice that we have received". What was that "strong" advice and who did it come from? The Cathedral would not say.

So I then asked which person took the decision to close the Cathedral, and was told: The Dean and Chapter, "based on lawfully binding advice". How was this advice "legally binding"? After all, advice is just that: advice. Advisers advise, and presumably church ministers decide. But the Cathedral could not tell me how the advice was "legally binding".

What about the the Dean's express comment that "the legal requirements placed upon us by fire, health and safety issues". Surely the Cathedral can specify the "legal requirements"? But the Cathedral could not.

However, I was told "liability rests with the Dean and Chapter who were told that the Cathedral had to be closed". This seemed promising. What liability, I asked, and who had this power to instruct the Dean and Chapter to close the Cathedral? The Cathedral could not tell me. What did the Dean mean by there being "no lawful alternative"? The answer: "because they were told that ignoring the advice to close the Cathedral would have left them legally vulnerable". In what way would they be "legally vulnerable"? The Cathedral could not tell me.

So I went to the protesters, and I asked them what they were doing to identify and manage health and safety risks, even though the Cathedral was refusing to disclose the details of its own assessment and were refusing to engage with the protesters to manage any identified risks.

In a manner which contrasted with the unhelpful attitude of the Cathedral, I was quickly provided with this full and impressive response (edits are to remove personal names and for trade mark reasons):

The Steps - Throughout we have been working to ensure that people stay off the steps and that visitors can easily access the Cathedral. This has been happening from the first day that we arrived when initially a corridor was created through the crowds to allow for visitor access, then we worked with the Cathedral to arrange for the steps to be clear throughout. It also must be factored in that visitors to the Cathedral and tourists often sit on the steps and also get involved in the activities of the camp. The camp has made signs and made clear notices at the information point, regarding respect for the area that we are occupying, and especially noted the needs of visitor access and ensured noise levels have been kept to a minimum during services and other events.

Camp events - Rearranged timings of all events of the camp so that they would not clash with services and other events at the Cathedral, as well as to ensure that noise levels are kept to a minimum when we've been made aware of these events and services. In relation to the wedding last weekend, we did try to ascertain what time the wedding was being held so as not to create any disturbance, but were not given the times for the wedding, as the Cathedral was not communicating with us at that time. However, we waited for the bells to toll, which announced that the wedding was concluded, before we started our assembly meeting on Saturday. On Friday we facilitated a pathway for the school function to ensure that parents and other guests could access the Cathedral from the stairs on the north side.

[Portable toilets] - The toilets that were put in place when people where kettled were removed on Monday PM. At the time, the police said they were being removed for cleaning (which we have on video) and that new toilets would be delivered. However two hours later, the police informed us that they had no intention of supplying any more [portable toilets], as they had no legal requirement to provide more loos, since the toilets supplied on Saturday were put in place as a legal requirement when they took the decision to kettle us. Following the removal of toilets by the police on Monday, we liaised with a number of providers for alternative arrangements. During this time, the camp, whilst not having adequate toilet facilities onsite, used the public facilities and local businesses. The Cathedral knew that we were working hard to source alternative [portable toilets], to ensure sanitation directives were met within the camp. [The Cathedral] expressed a concern prior to the [portable toilets], being installed that people were alleviating themselves overnight in the vicinity of the cathedral, however, some of the areas where he mentioned there had been problems with cleaning up, were not all in the immediate vicinity of the camp and cannot therefore be assumed to be the members of the camp. We were donated free [portable toilets], and delivery was arranged for Thursday PM and cleaning has been facilitated on a daily basis (apart from this Sunday). When we communicated this to [the Cathedral] on Thursday AM, he agreed the portaloos could go along the heras fencing that was placed at the fire exit to the Northside restaurant exit area. [The Clerk of Works] left work early on the Thursday 20th October and so was not available when the [portable toilets] arrived, and on requesting access to have the [portable toilets], placed where [the Clerk of Works] had agreed, a member of the camp was told by the receptionist at Chapter House that the Cathedral "would no longer facilitate any of the needs of the camp". Due to this lack of access, the toilets where placed in an alternative location in camp and [the Clerk of Works] was informed by text that they were placed in the only place possible (near the bins by the roadside). In addition, as only two toilets were able to be delivered, due to the Cathedral closing dialogue on Friday AM (NB. A further four toilets were due to be delivered including a disabled toilet), the toilets have been closed throughout the day whilst public toilets are available and opened late at night until early morning and then closed again once public facilities reopen.

Fencing - We liaised with [the Clerk of Works] regarding ensuring access to the restaurant on the Northside which had been closed since the arrival of the camp. The camp had actually kept this fire exit clear throughout, however we agreed for the heras fencing to be put in place as [the Clerk of Works] expressed insurance concerns on Thursday morning regarding this. The fencing was installed on Thursday afternoon providing access to the restaurant/fire exit as well as continuing to ensure the fire break that was already in place. We liaised with the rest of the camp to ensure that camp was aware that this was a necessity due to the requirements of the Cathedral's insurers

Recycling - Primarily liaising with the City of London. This is core to the camp, and the City of London has commented that the City's recycling quota has jumped since our occupation and jokingly offered the person in charge of this a job. The Evening Standard even wanted to do a story on this, thinking it was true (the job offer).

Liaising with Fire Brigade - Initially the Fire Brigade had contacted the Cathedral about fire concerns on Wednesday AM, and after a meeting with [the Clerk of Works] and members of the camp in which some of these issues were discussed, [the Clerk of Works] on Wednesday PM told us that the Fire Brigade had taken a look around the camp and had only a few requests for the camp to alter in order to facilitate that the camp meet fire safety requirements. A member of the camp met with the Fire Brigade officers and took notes on what needed to be addressed and these were immediately addressed over the next few hours, including creating more fire breaks, an evacuation plan, and for tents to be grouped into smaller groups with a fire break around these smaller groups (ie - thinning of the tents), as well as for a tent sharing scheme to be set up in order to limit the number of tents in the area, whilst allowing for new members to join the occupation. In addition, we have banned open fires anywhere in the camp, which everyone has adhered to. All of these issues have been addressed and the fire brigade has maintained that their remit to us has not altered, since these are all being facilitated and abided by the camp.

Liaising with City of London - After the Cathedral's open letter we spoke directly with [the Health and Safety Manager, City of London, who] confirmed that City of London Health and Safeyty had not raised any issues with St Paul's.

Kitchen - the FireBrigade have said they have "no concerns" about the kitchen. In fact they said they thought it was extremely well set up and well run. Hygiene has also been cleared - we can get you further details on request.

Graffiti - there have been two specific incidents we are aware of, to the Chapter House door and the Fire Fighters' Memorial. Both are tags and therefore cannot be assumed to be anything to do with the camp.

Technical - Tech have ensured that all cables are waterproof and their generator is properly housed.

The protesters even added:

As the Cathedral decided to close, we have planned a Sermon on the Steps - themed a celebration of peace and unity - on Saturday that will be a multi-faith, multi-denominational and non-faith representation of speakers. Due to the incredible communication we have had from members of the various organisations who want to engage on the issues that are being highlighted by the camp, and especially multiple denominations of Christian churches regarding the ecumenical issues that have been raised by the fact that the Cathedral has not at any time engaged the camp regarding the issues the camp has raised, this Sermon will allow for speakers to either say a prayer, read text from their book of worship, whatever their faith may be; or simply to speak about what their belief may be. There has been an invitation to St Paul's to participate in this Sermon on the Steps, although they have not confirmed that anyone from St. Paul's will be attending at this time. In addition, there will be a question and answer session open to the assembly immediately after the speakers have concluded, in order to facilitate dialogue and engage on the issues presented at the sermon by the multiple faith and non faith speakers.

The identification and continuing management of health and safety risks is always a serious matter. It is an on-going responsibility. It is not appropriate for the excuse of health and safety to be used only for one dramatic gesture -- that, say, of closing a Cathedral -- and then to be disregarded in any obstinate and worrying refusal to "facilitate any of the needs of the camp". Either health and safety concerns are taken seriously, or they are not. If there is an "incident" one will have to wonder if it will be attributable to the Cathedral's refusal to any longer engage constructively with the protesters on health and safety matters.

As it stands, it appears that the protesters in their tents are taking the continuing health and safety issues more seriously, and with more professional responsibility, than those responsible for one of the greatest buildings in the world.

 

Addendum

(17.50) A further statement has now been issued:

The Dean of St Paul's, The Right Reverend Graeme Knowles, said tonight that he was optimistic that St Paul's Cathedral would be able to reopen to the public on Friday afternoon (28 October) following significant changes to the layout of those dwelling in tents outside of the Cathedral which was achieved this afternoon.

"The staff team here have been working flat out with the police, fire brigade and health and safety officers to try to ensure that we have confidence in the safety of our worshippers, visitors and staff which will allow us to reopen." said Dean Knowles this evening.

"We have wide statutory obligations to ensure the safety of our staff, congregation, visitors and pilgrims and final checks will be made tomorrow. A passageway allowing evacuation procedures to be improved has been created; the kitchen providing food for those in the camp has been moved from close proximity to the building; bicycles chained to the railings have been shifted and a clear pathway restored", said the Dean tonight.

He added: "We have alternative arrangements in place to safeguard the evacuation of the crypt and floor areas but, for the time being, the galleries and dome will remained closed. Our continued dialogue with the fire brigade, police, and our own fire safety advisors has been encouraging."

Dean Knowles said that the Chapter would reach a final decision tomorrow on the re-opening: "We will revisit the risk assessment in the light of any overnight developments and subject to us getting the green light we hope to reopen in time for the 1230 Eucharist on Friday to which everyone is welcome."

On the question of the future of the campsite, the Dean explained: "We reiterate our basic belief in the right to protest as well as requesting that those people living in the tents now leave the site peacefully."

He added: "We want the site to be fully open to members of the public to have open access over the area as well as for those wanting to visit St. Paul's. The mission of the cathedral is committed to the Christian Gospel message of justice, dignity and peace. The debate about social justice and economic policy will remain at the heart of the work of the St Paul's Institute."

As regards any other action the Dean said "We have been and continue to take legal advice on a range of options including court action. Chapter very much hopes that we will achieve a peaceful solution."

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a solicitor working in the City of London. He also writes the Jack of Kent blog and for The Lawyer.