The Grenfell Tower Inquiry

Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University

 

Introduction

What follows is my response to the consultation by The Chair of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, into its terms of reference, which will set out what the Inquiry will cover. The text that follows is an un-edited version of that submission, save for adding hyperlinks as references to this version. The submission aimed not to reproduce the details that would have been forwarded by other organisations with whom I have close working relationships, such as INQUEST and Hazards.

 

Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Terms of Reference

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is designed to ascertain the causes of the tragedy, and to ensure that the appropriate lessons are learnt.  With this in mind, and as a leading academic commentator on regulation and enforcement in the context of social regulation, not least with respect to occupational and public health and safety, it is my considered view that it is crucial that the Terms of Reference of the Public Inquiry take cognisance of three broad sets of issues within which many of the specific concerns that it will no doubt address must be contextualised. These are crucial not simply for understanding why the fire occurred, but also in preventing other multi-fatality incidents, since each of these contextual features continue to be in existence whilst some, notably cuts in Local Authority funding, are likely to become even more significant.

 

  1. Anti-Regulation Rhetoric

The rhetorical undermining of the very idea of regulation and its enforcement, and thus of those men and women who undertake this work as a form of public service, which have contributed significantly to an anti-regulatory culture in the UK. This rhetorical under-mining has long been espoused through formal politics, and has seeped into popular consciousness, not least via repetition across all forms of broadcast and print media. It can be traced back some forty years but my specific concern is with the ways in which it has circulated through and seeped into political and popular consciousness in the past twenty years. Based on apocryphal tales, half-truths and sheer falsehoods, it undermines regulation and regulators, and thus makes social and public protection less likely with publics offered a very distorted view of what ‘health and safety’ means in practice with regard to protecting them, their families and their communities.

This Term of Reference might be captured thus:
The nature and effects of the long term pejorative rhetoric around regulation and its enforcement as ‘red tape’ as part of a broader anti-regulatory culture.

 

Grenfell.jpg
Source: Hazards magazine, http://www.hazards.org/votetodie/bluemurder.htm

 

  1. The ‘Better Regulation’ Initiative

The broad policy direction in terms of regulation and enforcement which spans some fifteen years at least in the UK and which can be subsumed under the rubric of the ‘Better Regulation’ initiative, which since 2004 has formally impacted upon all national and local regulators in the UK. This trajectory has drawn upon, and then contributed to, the anti-regulatory culture highlighted above (1.). Officially launched by a Labour Government, then maintained and developed both by the subsequent Coalition then Conservative Governments, this cross-party initiative contains a series of assumptions and constituent policy dynamics which are crucial to understanding the combination of policy decisions which produced a context within which the Grenfell Tower fire could occur.

This Term of Reference might be captured thus:
The nature and effects of Better Regulation in producing a policy context within which the fire at Grenfell Tower could occur.

 

  1. The Absence of Credible Enforcement Capacity

The particular effects of funding reductions since 2008/09 both for national regulators and also for Local Authorities, not least in a context of the ‘Better Regulation’ policy initiative ( see 2., above), which has claimed that ‘less’ can and should be done with ‘more’. The specific dynamics of how funding reductions have, at both national and local levels, impacted upon regulation and enforcement is a crucial issue for the inquiry to consider, undermining as it does the idea of public protection and safety. Specifically, the Inquiry must address the extent to which, on the part of those regulatory services and bodies which have a statutory requirement to enforce laws for public and social protection against public bodies and private organisations, there remains any form of credible enforcement capacity.

This Term of Reference might be captured thus:
The nature and effects of the funding of national and local regulatory bodies and services upon public protection.

 

Further, Specific Considerations

These broader issues will provide some of the key context within which some of the more focussed considerations of the Inquiry will proceed, these including, but not exhausted by, the following:

The triggering event for the fire.

The history of the tower block, from inception and planning as a local authority housing development, to its commission, design, transfers of ownership, subsequent modifications, so on.

A consideration, since at least 2004, of the oversight of fire and health and safety regulations at Grenfell Tower and other tower blocks.

Complaints by and demands of residents of Grenfell Tower in relation to safety of the block in particular and its general maintenance and housekeeping issues in general, as well as responses to and actions following these by TMO and RBKC.

A review of all previous Coroner’s recommendations on fires in high rise residences, and an audit of actual responses to these recommendations.

Relevant, related governmental and / or parliamentary knowledge, response and oversight of recommendations and actions in response to those cases and relevant surrounding issues.

A consideration, since at least 2004, of the oversight of fire and health and safety regulations at Grenfell tower and other tower blocks.

The nature of the response to the fire and subsequent crisis by a variety of state bodies.

This is What Austerity Looks Like

Joanna Mack, The Open University

 

The hulking, charred remains of Grenfell Tower stands as a symbol of the disastrous results of years of austerity, deregulation and outsourcing. When government ministers sit on warnings of the fire risk of high-rise social housing, when penny-pinching renovations involve unsafe cladding, when councils run inadequate inspection regimes, when warnings from tenants are ignored, then there is nothing accidental about the resultant loss of life. It is social murder.

 

Grenfell tower remains

Image source: ChiralJon/FlickrCC BY 2.0

 

While Grenfell has brought these issues into focus, it is just the tip of the damage done by the neoliberal agenda to decrease the size of the state and the years of elective austerity. In the Violence of Austerity, Vickie Cooper and David Whyte, and their co-authors, set out the depth and extent of this damage, the way the very fabric of society had been dismantled and people’s lives impoverished. The effects are being felt by everyone, but one of the groups that has been hardest hit has been families with children and, in particular, lone parents.

Back in 2010, the coalition government promoted their aggressive programme of cuts, justified as an economic ‘necessity’, as fair, as something we were ‘all in together’. It was only after leaving office, the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – accusing the former chancellor George Osborne of taking the axe to welfare to boost Conservative popularity – admitted that the policies were designed to hit the incomes and housing security of the poorest households. And that’s what they did.

While the incomes of households without children on middle incomes rose between 2010 and 2015, those of the poorest two deciles fell by around six per cent. Before these cuts, adults in households with children were already over twice as likely to be in poverty as adults without children.  Lone parents – of whom, before the cuts, two-thirds were in poverty – saw the severest percentage reductions: getting on for ten per cent (around £2,000) for those out of work and nearly seven per cent for those in work.

And these households already had a hand-to-mouth existence, were already missing out on the most basic of contemporary needs. Before the impact of current changes to the benefit system had taken effect, the Poverty and Social Exclusion survey found that in 2012 more than two and a half million children, around one in five, lived in a home that is cold or damp. Over a million children, just under one in ten, missed out on an essential item of clothing. One in twenty households couldn’t afford to feed their children adequately, resulting in 600,000 children missing out on one or more of three meals a day, fresh fruit and vegetables each day, or meat, fish, or the equivalent, while 300,000 children went without two or more of these essential food items.

 

So, when the Coalition government opted for a programme of progressively harsher cuts to welfare spending of around £20 billion, the outcomes were entirely predictable – and predicted.  Back in 2012, the Institute for Fiscal Studies was warning that the absolute living standards of poorer households were declining and that as the welfare cuts began to bite there would be further pain in 2012–13 and beyond.

As a result, the UK’s child poverty record has slipped far behind many other nations with similar levels of economic development. Eurostat, which gathers comprehensive data across Europe, reports that in 2014 over 22 per cent of children in the UK lived in deprived households, taken as being unable to afford for three or more of a range of household items, compared with 14 per cent in France, around 12 per cent in Germany and a mere four per cent in Norway and Sweden. In 2007, before the austerity years, the UK’s rate was 15 per cent – well below the EU average. Now it is above.

Throughout childhood, poverty raises the risk of premature death.  The progress that had been made in the 1980s and 1990s in reducing child mortality rates, shuddered to a halt in this millennium with the result that the UK has fallen behind other European countries with similar levels of development. The BMA notes that if the UK had the same all-cause death rate as Sweden, around 1,900 children’s lives would be saved each year.

The UK infant (0 to 1 years) mortality rate, at around four deaths per 1,000 births in 2014, is higher than all but two of the nineteen Euro area member states. About half of these deaths are linked to short gestation and low birth weight, both of which are highly associated with deprivation.  Babies born into poorer families in deprived neighbourhoods are, as a result of many interlocking factors, more likely to die at an early age than children from richer families.

In addition, children born in poor areas have, as is well and long established, a shorter life expectancy than those born in rich areas and a much shorter period free of the limiting effects of illness and disability – inequalities that are increasing.

As well as the sharp reduction in benefit levels, the Coalition government also introduced a far more punitive regime, with more restrictive conditions for the receipt of benefits and tougher sanctions. These sanctions came with a new set of fixed-period suspensions of benefits ranging from four weeks to three years. Claimants are not allowed to appeal till two weeks after the decision. Combined with administrative delays in processing applications through over-loaded benefit offices, it leaves many desperate and penniless.

 

food bank queue- food poverty

Image source: www.foodpoverty.org.uk

 

Kayleigh Garthwaite, in her book Hunger Pains, talked to Gemma who was four days from giving birth when she ended up in a food bank in Stockton-on-Tees. She and her partner had had no money for three weeks as they waited for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to process their jobseeker’s allowance claim:

 ‘I was crying on the phone to them [the DWP] telling them I am pregnant. I don’t want my baby coming home to a house with no gas or electric. We have laminated floor and it’s so cold.’

Allowing a pregnant woman to go without food in a cold, unheated home, is to compromise her baby’s life-chances. WHO defines ‘child maltreatment’ as an action that in the context of a relationship of power results in ‘actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity’. If an individual takes such actions then they may be liable to prosecution. Yet if a political system results in such actions, it is seen as an inevitable, if unfortunate, by-product of economic necessity. This is not covert violence but overt violence.

 

After winning the 2015 election, the Conservatives announced a further £12 billion of welfare cuts, which included limiting tax credits to two children, a continued freezing of working age benefits and a lowering of the level of the benefits cap.  The poorest households were, again, the hardest hit; poor households with children were hit the hardest of all, set to lose up to 12% of their income.

The damage caused by austerity has been well documented. The United Nations has issued damning reports.  Claimants have told their stories. Advocacy groups have warned of the dangers and damage being inflicted.

All ignored.

 

en-austerity-now-march

Image source: Peter Damian/WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0

 

Instead, the government has blamed the problems of poverty on the poor themselves, the life styles of individual families and their parenting practice.  Thus the rolling back the state could continue and the state’s responsibilities to provide an adequate safety net be abandoned.

But, suddenly, this dominant discourse seems to be unravelling. In the general election, the Labour Party, campaigning on a clear anti-austerity agenda (in contrast with the 2015 election), far outperformed expectations, upturning conventional thinking on what is politically possible.  Last week, the High Court ruled that the government’s benefit’s cap is unlawful, illegally discriminating against single parents with young children. Delivering his verdict, High Court judge Mr Justice Collins said the benefit cap was causing ‘real damage’ to lone parent families, noting that ‘poverty can have a very damaging effect on children under the age of five’.

And Grenfell Tower has unleashed a wave of anger at the way in which the poorest have been treated.  The voices of the poorest have started to be heard.

But this should not be mistaken for the end of austerity. For all of the government’s sudden talk of a change in direction, all the planned cuts to benefits are still going ahead. The predictions of a sharp rise in the numbers of children in poverty remain in place.

To reverse austerity will need not just a change in direction, but a complete reversal. And even with that, it will take years to overcome the vast damage already done.  It will need a real commitment to the transfer of income and wealth from the rich to the poor. It will require a sustained challenge to the neoliberal ideology that has dominated for the last thirty years.

But, if there is a long way to go, the first cracks are appearing.

 

Joanna Mack is an honorary senior research fellow at the Open University and contributory author in the ‘Violence of Austerity’ where she writes on ‘Child Maltreatment and Child Mortality’.

One law for the poor at Grenfell Tower

Steve Tombs, Open University and David Whyte, University of Liverpool

 

In austerity Britain, can justice and accountability be served for the victims of the Grenfell fire? Or are our laws already too much shaped to the needs of the business class?

35353492476_2faa7aa6a8_o.jpg

Image source: ChiralJon/FlickrCC BY 2.0

 

Days after the Grenfell Tower disaster, London Mayor Sadiq Khan expressed the sentiments of many, not least the bereaved, the survivors and the local community at large, when he stated that, “if negligence or other wrongdoing by individuals or companies played any role whatsoever, I will fight for the full force of the law to be brought to bear.” But what exactly is the full force of the law in this case?

One demand has been that those who had the knowledge and ability to prevent what has happened should be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter. And the fire at Grenfell seems exactly the kind of disaster which the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act was introduced in 2007 to deal with. Yet in almost 10 years since it was introduced, the law has only been used successfully 21 times – and in no cases has a large organization been convicted following a multi-fatality disaster. In fact, following the deaths of six people at the Lakenal tower block in 2009, the CPS eventually decided against pursuing a case of corporate manslaughter against Southwark council despite the fact that the council “knew the building posed a fire risk but did not act and had not carried out a fire risk assessment.”

In any case, the scope of this relatively new law was carefully shaped to the needs of the business class rather than ordinary people. Champagne and Pimms glasses would no doubt have been chinking in some parts of Kensington and Chelsea when the Blair government announced in 2006 that the new law would grant a blanket exemption to directors and senior individuals in organizations. This means that the most likely result of any such prosecution is a fine against the organization (and in this case the costs of a fine against the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) would ultimately fall on local taxpayers). It is a prime example of what happens so often in our legal system: even the laws that appear to be holding the wealthy to account tend to do nothing of the sort.

Some senior experts have noted that there may be evidence to support a different approach, a prosecution of individuals for the common law offence of manslaughter. We already know unequivocally from the testimonies of the Grenfell Tower Residents Association, that the RBKC was told about the fire risks, and were warned of specific risks on multiple occasions. Yet apparently there was no adequate fire safety assessment.

Here we confront a much deeper problem with the law designed to regulate organizations and businesses. Regulation has been on the back-foot in the UK for some 30 years. Successive governments have virtually mandated a withdrawal from law enforcement in health and safety and in local authority regulation.

When David Cameron pledged to kill off health and safety for good, he followed a long line of governments desperate to prove their pro-business credentials by cutting inspection and prosecution, and stripping back regulations. In most recent years, austerity cuts have taken us to the point that the average workplace can now expect an inspector to call once every 50 years.

Fire protection has been similarly compromised by the cuts. A report by the National Audit Office shows that between 2010 and 2015 funding for stand-alone fire and rescue authorities fell by 28% on average in real terms. Savings came predominantly from reducing staff costs and reducing audits, inspections and fire risk checks. The result: fire safety checks in tower blocks fell 25% in the most recent 5 years. Perhaps most alarmingly in light of Grenfell, the report noted that the government had “reduced funding most to fire and rescue authorities with the highest levels of need….as defined by the social and demographic factors.” In other words, the cuts to fire and rescue services have fallen hardest on the poorest – just like all austerity cuts.

More generally, at local authority level, since the cuts began to bite, campaigns to enforce regulation against business have become almost extinct. This is because most councils, unlike RBKC, have reached rock bottom in terms of their ability to maintain services. As an Environmental Health Officer in Merseyside put it to one of us recently: “it’s going to come to the point where it’s going to affect the residents, the local population, in many ways we are at that point now, public health and protection is being eroded.” Even more galling is that RBKC, the richest borough in London and one of the few councils that remains cash-rich, is choosing law enforcement on behalf of the rich over enforcing the law in the general interest.

We know this by looking closely at what building enforcement officers in Kensington and Chelsea have been doing in recent years. In 2015 RBKC embarked on a major campaign to stop construction companies displaying unlawful and ugly advertisements and messages on the side of the buildings. At the time, RBKC planning policy head Cllr Timothy Coleridge said:

“Unfortunately, some developers ignore the rules and turn their hoardings and scaffolding covers into huge adverts, sometimes in the heart of historic and sensitive residential areas. This is unfair on our residents and it is unfair on those developers that follow the rules and we will prosecute when required.”

In other words, this was a law enforcement campaign aimed at enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the area, and maintaining the successful gentrification of the area, rather than ensuring high standards of building renovation for working class residents.

The public inquiry and inquests will seek to learn how we can prevent another Grenfell Tower happening again. If the police and the CPS are serious about using the full force of the law, it may well be possible to prosecute for corporate manslaughter and for common law manslaughter. Individuals in charge of key decisions can be held accountable for this latter offense if they have acted with gross negligence and have breached a particular duty of care. It is very possible those conditions will be met in the case of Grenfell Tower.

By contrast, a lack of prosecution will send a clear and powerful message: that justice and accountability cannot be served in austerity Britain. But the solution to what happened at Grenfell will not be found in the courts. If there is one resounding lesson that must be learned, it is that any future government must reverse 30 years of attacks on regulation and law enforcement and cease this war against the poor.

This post was first published by Open Democracy on the 21st of June 2017, at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/steve-tombs-and-david-whyte/on-grenfell-one-law-for-rich-one-poor