Grenfell: Mis-Trust, Contempt and the Ongoing Struggle to be Heard

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

Almost a year on from the most devastating fire in the UK for a century, the Public Inquiry began, following advocacy by INQUEST and others, with “commemoration hearings” dedicated to the memories of the 72 victims who lost their lives. It was an unremittingly painful, yet wholly just and necessary, process.

So much more is to be said and learnt about the circumstances leading up to the fire. But one thing we already know – and a fact to which anyone remotely connected to Grenfell Tower can surely never be reconciled – is that this mass killing followed a conscious decision  by the richest council in England to save £293,000. This is surely the apogee in the contempt displayed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKCC) and the Tenants Management Organisation Grenfell residents which had “endured … for years” – what local MP Emma Dent Coad described as “a real disdain for people lower down the social order” – and must generate an enduring sense of worthlessness that the residents in and around the area will never shake off.  But what is perhaps more surprising – and disgusting – is that this contempt has persisted in the aftermath of the fire, further generating what Majid Yar has labelled harms of misrecognition– in essence, disrespect. It is with this mis-trust and contempt that this short comment is concerned, as we approach the one year anniversary of the fire.

One aspect of this contempt was the apparent in the complete lack of effective immediate response or leadership in the aftermath of the disaster – what Theresa May was to refer to, one week after the fire, as the “”failure of the state, local and national, to help people when they needed it most”. This is the context of the observation that “absence of clear strategies breeds lack of trust in authority, loss of confidence and a fear of the future that, sadly, is often well founded.” These failures on the part of authority persisted and continue to this day – as documented, for example, in the Initial and then the Second Report of the Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce, which have documented the continuing failings of RKCBC and the “severe trust deficit” between it and the local community. Then, more recently, the charity Muslim Aid has documented the void left by local and central Government, one filled “particularly in the first few weeks” by the community itself and a vast array of local organisations.

The continuing contempt on the part of central and local Government has also been repeatedly evidenced in the series of lies, half-truths and broken promises made to the affected households in the aftermath of the fire.

 

Billboards

Image courtesy of  Justice4Grenfell at https://justice4grenfell.org/press-release/3-billboards-outside-grenfell-tower-london/

One area of mis-trust was the palpable failure to meet the commitment made by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire – namely that “every person made homeless would receive an offer of accommodation within three weeks”. In fact, this was subsequently “clarified” as meaning temporary accommodation. In November 2017, RBKCC “promised that every survivor would have the opportunity to move into a new home before Christmas”, while weeks later the Minister for Housing and Planning estimated it would take RBKCC “up to 12 months” to rehome families. Moreover, the promise of being offered like-for-like tenancies was repeatedly broken.  As the Chair of Grenfell United noted, “For the survivors and affected families it seems like one broken promise after another.” By late May 2018, almost one year after the fire, only a third of the 210 families who had lived in the tower were in new, permanent accommodation, with another 72 neither in permanent nor temporary, but emergency,  accommodation.

A further area of mis-trust was the shifting and uncertain nature of the ‘amnesty’ offered to undocumented residents – originally stated at one year, then extended for 3 further months, followed by a policy announcement that “survivors would be able to apply for further periods of limited leave to remain, building up to five years. They could then apply for permanent residency”. A less well-documented condition of the offer set a deadline of 31 January to apply for the amnesty.

A further focus of contempt is to be found in the struggles between survivors and residents on the one hand and central government on the other around the Inquiry. First, contrary to assurances from Government, local residents were not consulted before the appointment of Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick to lead the Public Inquiry, in the light of which Justice4Grenfell concluded that this “further compounds the survivors and residents sense of distrust in the official response to this disaster” – and had they been consulted would likely have objected to the appointment. Following this was the protracted process in which the limited initial Terms of Reference of the Inquiry were challenged and then largely confirmed, itself followed by the Inquiry’s formal December 2017 opening, at which the lack of direct or indirect representation of residents was the key point of contention. Only on the virtual eve of its opening did Teresa May confirm that there would be a Phase 2 of the Inquiry what which two panel members would be appointed. Of this partial, last-minute concession, Deborah Coles of INQUEST stated, “at every stage, bereaved and traumatised families have had to fight to be at the centre of the inquiry”.

This sense of constantly being of constant struggle to be heard, of being treated without sensitivity, being at worst lied to or at best told half-truths, must surely exacerbate feelings of mistrust, of being treated as worthless, as contemptible – exactly the same characteristics which defined many of the ways in which residents felt they were treated prior to the fire (notably by the TMO and RKBCC), and, more, exactly the ways in which their concerns about safety in the tower were dismissed.

In short, the contempt displayed towards the residents before the fire was maintained and reproduced after the fire. It was popularly recognised as a cause of the fire per se. As one resident stated outside the tower as it continued to burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count”. The struggle of survivors of the fire, the bereaved, and the residents of the Lancaster West estate to count – to be heard – continues.

This blog was originally posted at BRAVE NEW EUROPE, https://braveneweurope.com/steve-tombs-grenfell-mis-trust-contempt-and-the-ongoing-struggle-to-be-heard on 12 June 2018

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Hostile environments and the politics of un-belonging

Anna Colom, The Open University

This article by PhD candidate Anna Colom is a personal reflection on the symposium Hostile Environments: The Politics of (Un)Belonging, co-organised by Victoria Canning, Gabi Kent (Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative) and Umut Erel for the WhoAreWe collaboration at the TATE Exchange. It was first published under the Year of #Mygration Open University series: www.open.ac.uk/mygration

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This week I became a British ‘citizen’.  While waiting to affirm my allegiance in the official citizenship ceremony, and like so many times in recent months, I thought about what this new status meant for my rights and my identity. But, also like so many times before, I thought about the many people trapped in liminal spaces, existing but without being recognised, unable to move or stay, asked to fill out papers that will be rejected, pushed into bureaucratic labyrinths that can return them from where they escaped. Fellow human beings who, like me, were born in any part of the world by accident. Like me, with hopes and dreams. Where do we belong? And who decides it? For some, these are rather philosophical questions. For others, literally a matter of life and death. And, in between, a myriad of struggles, sometimes endured in the privacy of one’s silent journey through life, others through collective understandings, often invisible, or perhaps turned into social movements of resistance, claiming for the right to be – to belong.

These are the questions, the spaces, the lives, the injustice that Who Are We?, a collaboration between The Open University (OU), Counterpoints Arts and Stance Podcast, helped to make more visible through combining arts, activism and academia at the Tate Exchange. A symposium on hostile environment policies against migration and the politics of un-belonging shed light on what these policies mean for people’s lives and for democracy.

Through the presentations and lively discussion, the  members of the panel showed how the overarching headline of ‘hostile environment policies’ translates to have a varied impact. It can mean you are denied free healthcare in the middle of your cancer treatment, which happened to Mo, a member of the Migration and Asylum Seekers Forum. It means that as a woman facing domestic violence you might be denied accommodation but offered a flight ticket home (even if the law doesn’t allow it), as Sandhya Sharma from Safety 4 Sisters explained. It means the tools and support to seek legal aid are being stripped away. It means you lack voice, are disconnected and isolated from those campaigning for you whilst you are in a detention centre. It means asking doctors to become police, which Docs Not Cops is campaigning against. It means hate violence perpetrated by authorities, as Monish Bhatia from Birbeck University described. It means that the immigration policies are shown as separate from, but actually part of, systemic racism and neoliberal policies, intersecting and reinforcing patriarchy and heterosexual hegemony. It means you escape war legally but your status is then taken away, like 70% of the Syrian population in Lebanon, as explained by Syrian activist Leila Sibai and stated by Human Rights Watch (2017). As OU academic and activist Victoria Canning said, “there is a lot to be concerned about, and a lot to fight against”.

I have always wondered where I belong. I have felt both privileged and an underdog, and many spaces in between. I have learnt that migrating comes with endless longing for something, no matter how privileged in your new home. I have learnt not to take any of my rights for granted and that belonging is an endless struggle. But I have felt privileged after all. I have always had a safe, private place to stay, and warmth, and food and water. I have never been denied free access to quality healthcare, or education and, with it, the essential driving force that learning is to me. I have crossed many borders many times, comfortably, knowing well I could return.

There are millions, however, that have not had this experience – forced to make impossible choices, trapped, illegal, unwanted, dehumanised, in constant fear, too close to death. And, as I became a British citizen, this week has been a stark reminder of the injustice and systemic oppression faced by many whose worth is questioned every day. If citizenship is more than a legal status, if it is also care for your neighbour and to be part of a community, as was indicated in the citizenship ceremony, then it is also a responsibility to engage in practices of solidarity. It is to report, resist and change the policies, the laws, and the everyday racist and patriarchal practices that normalise this hostile environment.

Government policy is characterised by being petty and vindictive

Dave Middelton, The Open University

May.jpg

What sustains a Government in power? Having the number of MPs to win votes seems pretty important you might think (although the Tories threw away a working majority and now have a very narrow lead and need the support of the DUP). As does having support in the country (see recent YouGov poll here.) However, neither of these can quite explain the success of the current Tory Government who should be in far more electoral trouble than they are. Of course, some people will point to a divided opposition and this remains true.

But that is to assume that the Tories themselves are united which is clearly not the case. What is sustaining the Government currently is a politics that can best be described as petty and vindictive. Unfortunately this pettiness and vindictiveness has plenty of support throughout the country and can be seen in many policies introduced over the past 20 years or so.

The most recent example is the so-called Windrush scandal in which the Home Secretary has been made to resign over an overtly racist policy introduced by her predecessor with the explicit aim of “encouraging” people to leave the UK. (Here is the BBC doing their best to emphasise the personal tragedy for Amber Rudd).

windrush

The hostile environment policy introduced by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary was a policy that was racist both in its intent and application. What is so disappointing is that this policy received no real critical examination in the media (and very little in Parliament) until it emerged that black citizens, who clearly had the right to be in the UK, were affected. This came to light following an investigation by Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman.

guardian

The policy and its political fallout is largely treated as if it was an accident, an oversight, and even a personal tragedy for Amber Rudd. But, it was not an accident it was a deliberate and sustained attempt to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation toward black citizens in a somewhat vain attempt to meet targets which despite the lies to the contrary clearly existed.

It is not clear how many ‘illegal’ immigrants there are in the UK (the Office For National Statistics warns that methods of calculating the number are seriously flawed), but what is clear is that this policy and its accompanying ‘leave now’ vans were designed to intimidate a particular community. Why is tackling so-called ‘illegal immigration’ seen as so important to a Government that surely has more important things to worry about?

Theresa May in defending the policy constantly ignores the human suffering she has caused preferring to remind us that there are people in the UK illegally. It is an obfuscation that plays well with the Tory grassroots and the mass media and it completely misses the point. Although the right wing press play along. (Heres the Daily Mail’s reporting of May’s defence of the policy.)

There is no need to consistently victimise people who do not have the means to fight back. This is a policy based on a vindictive and empathy lacking political elite whose own lives are rarely, if ever, touched in a negative way by the programmes they introduce.

The “hostile environment” policy is no aberration. The disabled, single parents, unemployed, refugees, those who rely on benefits have all been treated, in one way or another, to versions of the hostile environment.

The Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake showed brilliantly how difficult it has become in the UK to claim benefits.

I_Daniel_Blake3

Rather than social security, as we used to call it, being a safety net for those in need it has become a bureaucratic means of humiliating individuals whose only crime is to have fallen on hard times.

We now know that as a result of the stress caused by the ‘hostile environment’ policy more than one person was driven to suicide.   The website Calum’s List lists 63 known cases of deaths attributable to cuts in benefit. The figures for the number of suicides attributed to austerity programmes and particularly those involving the targets to reduce benefits are difficult to ascertain as coroners rarely report “Government policy” as a cause of death, but a recent report suggested that at least 81,000 people have taken their own lives shortly after receiving suspensions to their benefits (https://archive.is/zhvCc#selection-597.0-605.36).

Perhaps this will be more shocking if we name some of these people. On November 17th 2017 the Manchester Evening News reported that 38-year old Elaine Morrall died in her freezing home after her benefits were stopped. (Manchester Evening News)

Elaine

On 10thDecember 2017 The Independent reported that 32 year old singer-songwriter Daniella Obeng died in Qatar where she had gone to find work after her disability benefits were stopped. (Independent)

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On June 22nd 2017 the Disability News Service reported on the case of Lawrence Bond a disabled former electrical engineer who died of a heart attack after being told that he was fit for work. (Disability News Service)

Lawrence

But, it is not just the suicides, though if I were a Government Minister I would not want them on my conscience (assuming, of course that Government ministers actually have consciences). The strain that ordinary people are placed under as a result of being denied benefits or being investigated by the Home Office is cruel and usually unnecessary (this blog shows the effect on some of the people who get caught in this bureaucratic trap). For the victims of these deliberately created hostile environments life becomes like living in a Kafka novel.

Socialists are often accused of pursuing a politics of envy and yet the real politics of envy is not those who seek a more equal society but those who seek to maintain a society which is structurally unequal. The vindictiveness of those who enact laws and regulations aimed at the most desperate and vulnerable members of our communities is a national scandal that the occasional ministerial resignation does nothing to change.

Whilst the papers and broadcast media were full of pity for Amber Rudd and enthusiasm for her successor, they fail to notice the number of people who are the real victims of the policies Amber Rudd, Sajid Javid and Theresa May are responsible for enacting. And, whilst it is tempting to think that a change in government would end the hostile environment for ethnic minorities, the disabled, the poor and the vulnerable in our society ultimately we need a change in our culture which will probably only occur in a completely different type of society from the one we are living in now.

 

This post was originally published on Dave Middleton’s blog Thinking and Doing, at: http://davemiddletons.blogspot.co.uk/2018/05/government-policy-is-characterised-by.html

Dangerous Times: health and safety protections under attack

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

Since 2010, the Coalition, then the Tories, have both continued and significantly extended some of the ‘reforms’ initiated by Blair and Brown under the Better Regulation initiative from 2004 onwards; and, significantly, these approaches to regulation in general and to health and safety law and enforcement in particular, have been pursued in the context of austerity and the attempt to shrink the state. The effect of these trajectories has been to unravel the levels of social protection for workers and local communities. Health and safety law is being undone, undermined and is under attack.

There are three keys ways in which attack this has proceeded: first, through a constant stream of reviews of regulators and of regulation in general; second, through various legal reform initiatives which have delivered both de-regulation and re-regulation; third, via the ratcheting up of a long term rhetorical assault on regulation as burdensome, red tape and so. These, alongside austerity cuts to national and local regulatory services, have combined to undermine health and safety law enforcement to the point where it lacks credibility.

First, specific regulatory agencies and the very practice and purpose of regulation in general is under constant scrutiny via review. 2011 saw the Priority Regulatory Outcomes Review, which eradicated the word “enforcement” from the working priorities of local authority regulators, instead committing inspectors to “support economic growth, especially in small businesses, by ensuring a fair, responsible and competitive trading environment”. This has been accompanied by a whole series of (often quite populist) reviews of regulators or regulation or both, including: the review of 900 ‘quangos’, announced in 2010; ‘Red Tape Challenge’;  ‘Transforming Regulatory Enforcement’; ‘Your Freedom’; ‘Focus on Enforcement Review’; ‘Business Focus on Enforcement’; and, most recently in 2016, ‘Cutting Red Tape!’. None of this is to mention two ‘Triennial’ Reviews of the HSE where the very existence of the regulator is on the line, and two further, major reviews of health and safety law per se, namely, in 2010, The Young Review, followed quickly by, in 2011, The Löfstedt Review.

These initiatives have been accompanied by a series of institutions, set up in or around the heart of Government, designed to provide a level of oversight that restricts the development of regulation. These in fact stretch back at least to the establishment by the first Blair Government, in 1997, of the Better Regulation Unit, since when a torrent of bodies have been created, all with the aim of mitigating any tendency to regulate, these including, amongst others,  the Better Regulation Task Force, Regulatory Impact Unit, Better Regulation Commission, the Risk and Regulation Advisory Council, the Regulatory Policy Committee, Better Regulation Executive, Panel for Regulatory Accountability, Ministerial Committee on Regulation, Bureaucracy and Risk, Local Better Regulation Office, Better Regulation Delivery Office, Better Regulation Strategy Group. Independent Regulatory Challenge Panel, Regulatory Delivery and, last but not least, a Better Regulation Minister in every Government Department, supported by Board Level Champions themselves supported by Departmental Better Regulation Units. Phew!

Hazards

Image courtesy of Hazards Magazine, http://www.hazards.org/index.htm

Second, there has been a plethora of regulatory and legal reforms – too numerous to mention. But crucial here are not just Acts of Parliament per se, but apparently ‘technical’ reforms or developments which are central to the re-fashioning of regulation and enforcement. One example of these is the use of Regulatory Impact Assessments, which require every law that might affect business to be costed in terms of its costs and benefits prior to enactment. First introduced in 1997, they were used, in 2010, as the basis for a One-In, One-Out approach to regulation, whereby the costs of any new law for business had to be offset by a similar saving in the form of the withdrawal or regulation; this saving had to be doubled with the onset of One-In, Two-Out in 2013 and then trebled in 2016 when Government announced a One-In, Three-Out policy, one which “raised the bar” in an economy which already has the lowest burden of regulation in the G7.

A third plank in the assault on regulation in general and health and safety law and enforcement in particular has been via the ratcheting up of a long term rhetorical assault on regulation – as burdensome, anti-entrepreneurial red tape. This has a long history in the UK, and can be traced back to Thatcher’s attempt in the 1980s to unleash an ‘enterprise society’. But since 2010, both the Coalition and then the Tories have missed few opportunities to rhetorically undermine health and safety law. Examples abound, with some of the more recent vitriol espoused by Cameron when PM being recalled in the light of the disaster at Grenfell Tower – not least his stated desire to kill off health and safety culture for good. Regulation has been at best derided, at worst an object of class hatred.

In combination, these three processes have undermined the idea and practice of regulation. They have also fuelled by the cuts unleashed in the name of austerity. Caught within the pincer of these ideological and material processes has been the capacity for law enforcement, at both national and local authority levels, upon which any effective system of health and safety protection depends.

This capacity has been dramatically eroded in the UK under the Coalition and the Tories. So, for example, in 2010 there were 1,311 frontline HSE inspectors; but by the end of 2016, there were just 980, a decline of 25%.  In April 2010, there were 1050 local authority health and safety EHOs (FTEs holding appointments under S19 of HSW Act); by April 2016, there were 711, a decline of 32%.

Given these declines in staffing – and the demoralisation to which inspectors have been subject – it is hardly surprising that, from 2010/11 to 2015/16, all forms of health and safety enforcement activity, at national and local levels, have been in sharp decline. This much is indicated by the fact that the very basis for any enforcement activity – that an inspector actually enters a workplace – is becoming a rarity. Between 2010 and 2016, inspections by Health and Safety Executive (FoD) inspections fell by 38%; at local authority level, inspections by Health and Safety EHOs fell by 69% and preventative inspections by EHOs fell by 96%.  To provide some indication of what this means, in 2015/16, HSE inspected 18,000 of the 900,000 premises for which it is responsible – meaning that the statistically average workplace could expect to see an HSE inspector once every 50 years.

In short, we have a system of health and safety protection systematically under attack to the point where its enforcement capacity lacks credibility. But there is no inevitability in this. Some very simple, achievable changes to the current framework for regulating workplace health and safety could change the situation radically. What is mostly needed is the political will to break from what has become a consensus about regulation as “red tape”.  Such changes form part of the IER’s recent proposals for reform of Labour Law under a Corbyn-led administration. For safety’s sake, that cannot come too soon.

 

This blog was originally published on 30 June 2017 by The Institute of Employment Rights at http://www.ier.org.uk/blog/dangerous-times-health-and-safety-protections-under-attack

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.

 

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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?

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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

Undoing Social Protection

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

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.” Environmental Health Officer, Merseyside

 

Making Regulation Better

 

In 2004, Sir Phillip Hampton was appointed by Chancellor Gordon Brown to oversee a review of 63 major regulatory bodies as well as 468 local authorities. His subsequent report proved to be a watershed in the trajectory of business regulation and enforcement across Britain.  The report formally established a concept of ‘better regulation’ which entailed, notably, a policy shift away from formal law enforcement.

 

The effects of this initiative have been staggering. Between 2003/04 and 2014/15:

 

  • Food hygiene and food standards inspections fell by 15% and 35% respectively, while there were 35% fewer food prosecutions.

 

  • In relation to occupational health and safety, inspections by both the national regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, and local health and safety inspectors, fell by 69%; national prosecutions fell by 35%, whilst local prosecutions fell by 60%.

 

  • Local Environmental Health Officers enforcing pollution control law undertook 55% fewer ‘Part B’ inspection visits and issued 30% fewer enforcement notices.

 

The trends in enforcement are staggering in that they all point in the same direction – enforcement across these three areas is in rapid decline. But if these clearly are effects of ‘Better Regulation’, they are also effects of austerity policies.

 

Better Regulation and the Local State

 

In order to assess what this combination of the politics of better regulation overlain by austerity have meant on the ground, I interviewed 35 local authority front-line inspectors  across 5 local authority areas in Merseyside (Knowsley, Liverpool, Wirral, St Helens, and Sefton) during 2014 and 2015, as a way of examining the state of their enforcement capacities across food, pollution control and occupational health and safety.

 

In the context of business regulation and enforcement, Local Authorities are a particularly appropriate site of analysis – in the three spheres of social protection at issue here, the vast bulk of enforcement occurs at this level. Meanwhile, this is also the place where funding for regulation and enforcement has been reduced the most. Thus, from 2009/2010, local government funding from Westminster came under pressure. Indeed, of all the cuts to Government departments between 2010-2016, the Department for Communities and Local Government has been impacted most of all.  Moreover, analyses of the distribution and impacts of these cuts indicate overwhelmingly that they impact most heavily upon poorer Local Authorities. As one calculation in 2014 put it, “Councils covering the 10 most deprived areas of England – measured  according to the index of multiple deprivation – are losing £782 on average per household, while authorities covering the richest areas are losing just £48 on average. Hart district council in Hampshire, the least deprived local authority, is losing £28 per household, while in Liverpool District B, the most deprived area, the figure is £807”.

 

Perhaps the clearest finding in my interviews across five Local Authorities was that each experienced significant reductions in staffing, notably in the latter part of the period under scrutiny.  In every Local Authority, the numbers of front-line inspectors had fallen significantly between April 2010-April 2015. Overall, total numbers across the three functions fell by over 52% – from 90.65 FTEs to 47.78 FTEs. The declines were across all functions and Authorities, with health and safety inspectors falling most starkly; indeed, in two authorities, Liverpool and Sefton, by 2015 there were no dedicated health and safety inspectors, while at the same date there were no pollution control inspectors in Knowsley.

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Sonae UK’s controversial chipboard plant in Knowsley. Image courtesy of Dave Jacques.

 

Inspectors were in no doubt what these cuts in staffing meant. As one told me, “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”. That view was mirrored almost exactly by another who told me: “We’re at the point where there is no flesh left, this is starting to get dangerous, a danger to public health”.

 

With fewer staff, it is hardly surprising that the inspectors I interviewed raised the issues of a long-term decline in inspection; a long term decline in the use of formal enforcement tools, and a decreasing use of prosecution. Time and time again, inspectors told me of increasing obstacles to the ability to prosecute. These obstacles included: a lack of staff time; fear of losing cases; lack of support from Legal Services departments to prosecute; and an increased political risk (“flak”) in prosecuting. Moreover, these types of responses are indicative of a political context for regulatory enforcement where the idea of regulation is under attack, and are a powerful illustration of how discourses and policies at national level can translate into barriers to enforcement at local levels.

 

While all of the local authorities had seen reductions in staff, this did not just mean a loss of overall resource, but the loss of a particular kind of resource, that is, expertise and experience: redundancies did not only mean that staff were not replaced but a loss of specialist expertise, alongside pressures for regulators to become generalists. As one  inspector put it, “it’s the experienced staff who have gone, so we have lost numbers and expertise”.  In fact, the shift from regulators being specialists to generalists was one consistent theme across the interviews, referred to by numerous respondents and in every authority: “People have had to become generalists”; “most of them are just thankful they’ve still got a job”.

 

The End of Social Protection?

 

Taken together, the trends set out above may mark the beginning of the end of the state’s commitment to, and ability to deliver, social protection. What began as a neo-liberal policy turn to ‘better regulation’ then become turbo-charged under conditions of austerity, where the state claims that it cannot afford to enforce law, and where business must be left to generate recovery. The subsequent institutionalisation of non-enforcement of law sends a green light to business that its routine, systematic, widespread social violence is to be tolerated, allowing private business to externalise the costs of its activities onto workers, consumers, communities, the environment. It further diminishes the quality and longevity of lives of those with the least choice about where they live, what they do for a living or where they buy foodstuffs. And it adds a further dimension to our understanding of the multi-dimensional violence of austerity – even if the story documented in this article is one which attracts little or no political attention.  In short, we are witnessing in the UK the transformation of a system of regulation – a system of social protectionwhich has existed since the 1830s. And, despite its political framing, this is not a story about rules, regulations, nor red tape, nor about the demands of austerity. It is a story about social inequality and avoidable business-generated, state facilitated violence: that is, social murder.

 

Steve Tombs is a contributing author in ‘The Violence of Austerity’ where he writes on Undoing social protection. The book is available to buy from Pluto Press:

http://www.plutobooks.com/promo_thanks.asp?CID=AUSTERITYCOOPER