At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.
In this article, Steve Tombs considers the differences in the treatment of powerful and less powerful groups by the criminal justice system since the fire at Grenfell Tower. Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology at The Open University.
Justice after Grenfell?
Today, almost exactly two and a half years after the fire at Grenfell Tower which killed 72 people and irrevocably devastated the lives of hundreds if not thousands, the criminal justice system is nowhere near fulfilling its dominant promise – that it might deliver justice to the victims, bereaved and the wider affected community.
Yet talk of ‘crime’ and ‘justice’ had proliferated in the days and weeks following the Grenfell Tower atrocity. For example, it did seem even in its very immediate aftermath that there was a prima facie case of corporate manslaughter in relation to the fire, as there very quickly emerged strong and mounting evidence of negligence, of cost-cutting, and of a string of warnings being dismissed and thus of a knowledge of risks at the very top of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKCC), the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants’ Management Organisation (KCTMO), and perhaps also implicating some of the private contractors involved in refurbishment and maintenance.
Indeed, in July 2017, weeks after the atrocity, the Metropolitan police sent a letter to residents saying:
After an initial assessment of that information, the officer leading the investigation has today notified Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that each organisation may have committed the offence of corporate manslaughter, under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.
This announcement did not exclude possible charges against the main contractor, Rydon, and some 60 companies who had played significant roles working on Grenfell over the years. Indeed, by September 2017, the criminal investigation had identified 336 companies and organisations linked to the construction, refurbishment and management of the tower. At that point, charges of gross negligence manslaughter against individuals were also said to be a possibility. Then, in June 2019, on the eve of the second anniversary of the atrocity, the Met stated that 13 people had been interviewed under caution in relation to “individual gross negligence manslaughter offences, corporate manslaughter offences and health and safety offences committed by organisations and individuals.”
The Long Haul towards Prosecuting the Powerful?
At that point, in June 2019, the Met’s criminal investigation had already gathered 45 million documents in digital form as well as 14,500 physical exhibits. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the Met have warned that any charges will not be determined until at least 2021. Personally, I would be amazed if any corporate or individual manslaughter charges would be laid as soon as that; past experience tells us to expect such charges to emerge later. Of course, past experience also tells us that in the vast majority of cases where such charges may be laid, they are not – or, where they are, prove to be unsuccessful, such are the inabilities of criminal law to deal effectively with large corporate bodies or the powerful individuals who occupy senior positions within them.
Finally, it should be acknowledged that, also in June 2019, US lawyers representing some of the Grenfell survivors and bereaved filed a class action in Philadelphia under product liability law. The civil suit names three US based companies: Arconic and Celtotex, who between them manufactured and supplied the cladding which had been disastrously fitted to the exterior of the tower in 2016, during its refurbishment prior to the fire; and Whirlpool, the manufacturer of the plastic-backed fridge-freezer which was believed the likely trigger for the fire. Indeed, despite the company’s unsupported and frankly egregious evidence to Phase 1 of the Inquiry that it believed a lit cigarette had mysteriously entered the window of the fourth floor flat to start the fire, the report on Phase 1 of the Inquiry has concluded that, “Although some questions remain unanswered, the evidence, viewed as a whole, leaves me in no doubt that the fire originated in the large fridge-freezer”. Within months of the civil case being announced and with disgusting irony, it was calculated that one of the companies, Arconic, had already spent “£30m on lawyers and advisers defending its role in the disaster in an outlay that dwarfs the amount spent on the panels a public inquiry has determined were the main cause of fire spread”. At the time the lawsuit was opened, it was reported that “the legal process is expected to take several years”.
Convicting the Poor
Yet it is not the case that all parts of the criminal justice system have been so slow to crank into decisively punitive action. In fact, it was within a couple of weeks of the fire that the first conviction related to it was recorded – Omega Mwaikambo had inexplicably posted photos of a Grenfell victim on social media, and was jailed for 12 weeks. This was the first of a steady stream of Grenfell-related convictions which, at the time of writing, total 22 successful prosecutions involving 21 separate defendants.
It is worth looking in a bit more detail at these cases, cases which have proceeded virtually entirely below the radar of any public or academic scrutiny (the latter with one notable exception). Almost all were forms of fraud – effectively, people securing being housed in emergency accommodation and/or receiving financial assistance on the basis of falsely claiming that they had been resident in the tower at the time of the fire. The sums of money at issue in the frauds – for accommodation, food, travel and other emergency costs – are reported as ranging from a few thousand pounds to a couple who claimed up to £125,000. All received custodial sentences, ranging from 18 months to six years – sentences which, taken together, totalled in excess of 70 years jail time.
Most of those convicted fit a pattern: they are poor, marginalised individuals, overwhelmingly non-white, many of whom were born outside the UK – places of birth appearing in media reports include Bangladesh, Grenada, the Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Portugal, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. They are also often referred to in the media reporting of the cases as “unemployed”, “squatters”, “homeless”, and, most pejoratively of all, as “illegal immigrants”.
There are exceptions. One of those convicted for fraud was quite different to other defendants – Jenny McDonagh had been a finance manager at the RBKCC, in which capacity she stole nearly £62,000 in pre-paid credit cards intended for victims. She was tried for this and a previous offence – she’d stolen £35,000 from the NHS in her previous job – and was sentenced to five-and-a-half years for these two offences in September 2018.
There were also three people convicted for non-fraud offences, including Omega Mwaikambo (above). The second, Reiss Morris, has been convicted for two separate offences. First, Morris, bereaved by the fire and a local campaigner in relation to it, was attending a vigil to mark 100 days since the fire when he threatened the deputy leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council; in October 2017, he was convicted for using threatening words or behaviour with intent to cause fear of or provoke unlawful violence, receiving a 12-month community order involving 100 hours unpaid work, ordered not to contact Cllr Taylor-Smith for a year, and to pay him £100 compensation, as well as £85 costs. Then, in May 2019, he was jailed for 8 weeks having threatened a firefighter, putting his hands around his neck . Fellow campaigners failed in their attempt to have him released to mark the second anniversary of the fire on 14 June, 2019. The only other non-fraud conviction was of Eamon Zada. In March 2018, police searching the burnt out tower block had found cannabis cuttings, butane gas canisters and an oven in his flat, reported as a ‘cannabis oil factory’ in the media. Zada received a 12 week prison sentence suspended for 18 months, was forced to do 200 hours unpaid work, 40 days of rehabilitation activity, and had to pay a £115 victim surcharge and £85 costs.
‘Crime’, Power and the Capitalist State
Let us enter some caveats to this rather bald analysis of the different speed and intensity with which the criminal justice system has moved against the relatively powerless compared to the powerful in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. It certainly isthe case that potential manslaughter and other charges that might be levelled at the powerful may be complex and require significant evidence trawling and “Grenfell would represent, by a very large margin, the biggest and most complex corporate manslaughter case ever brought in the UK”. So it remains that these investigations may ultimately lead to prosecutions, even convictions, even if the history of such cases hardly gives cause for optimism. So, too, while defrauding funds collected for Grenfell victims might appear to be particularly deplorable, and none of this is to excuse this fraud, there is hardly a moral equivalence between the dispossessed – those consistently at the sharp end of state violence and coercion – seeking to secure somewhere to live or cash for food when compared with the life and death decision made by the richest council in England seeking to make what for them was a tiny saving in switching from less to more flammable cladding. Thesepoints made, the rapidity and punitiveness with which the criminal justice system has targeted marginalised offenders in the wake of the atrocity also provide a crucial context for understanding why the fire happened where and when it did in the first place.
Thus, as Davis and Moore put it in their analysis of three post-Grenfell convictions,
Although criminal justice may claim to be blind it appears to have no trouble differentiating between the powerful and powerless. Since Grenfell it has done what it is good at – disciplining the poor. The cases described have been directed at working class people of colour. All cases have received swift ‘justice’. Determining guilt has been easy, the sentences harsh and those identified as ‘criminals’ publicly shamed.
Nineteen further convictions later, that observation can be underscored significantly. As the oft-quoted saying goes, criminal laws are like spiders’ webs: “They’ll restrain anyone weak and insignificant who gets caught in them, but they’ll be torn to shreds by people with power and wealth”. In many respects, this observation is the very essence of critical criminology. It is the obviousness which explains how the rich get richer and the poor get prison. It reveals the role of the criminal justice system, with the prison at its centre, one highlighted by abolitionists from Mathiesen to Sim as a capitalist stateinstitution which serves to punish, discipline and control, sometimes to the point of death, those deemed and cast aside as ‘unproductives’. But like everything else that is obvious, it bears recalling, repeating and documenting. It is a truism of a society characterised by searing levels of inequality that could not be illustrated more glaringly than in the state’s legal responses to Grenfell.
This blog was originally posted by Liverpool John Moores University’s Centre for Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion on 6 December at: https://ccseljmu.wordpress.com/2019/12/06/the-poor-get-prison-grenfell-as-a-site-of-crime/