Covering Fire

The public inquiry into Grenfell Tower will be a farce unless it examines the long-running assault on public protections.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 5th July 2017

We don’t allow defendants in court cases to select the charges on which they will be tried. So why should the government set the terms of a public inquiry into its own failings? We don’t allow criminal suspects to vet the trial judge. Why should the government approve the inquiry’s chair?

Even before the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster has begun, it looks like a stitch-up, its initial terms of reference set so narrowly that government policy remains outside the frame. An inquiry that honours the dead would investigate the wider causes of this crime. It would examine a governing ideology that sees torching public protections as a sacred duty.

Let me give you an example. On the morning of June 14, as the tower blazed, an organisation called the Red Tape Initiative convened for its pre-arranged discussion about building regulations. One of its tasks was to consider whether rules governing the fire resistance of cladding materials should be removed for the sake of construction industry profits.

Please bear with me while I explain what this initiative is and who runs it, as it’s a perfect cameo of British politics. It’s a government-backed body established “to grasp the opportunities” Brexit offers to cut “red tape”: a disparaging term for public protections. It’s chaired by the Conservative MP Sir Oliver Letwin, who has claimed that “the call to minimise risk is a call for a cowardly society.” It is a forum in which exceedingly wealthy people help decide which protections should be stripped away from lesser beings.

Among the members of its advisory panel are Charles Moore, who was formerly editor of the Daily Telegraph and the chair of an organisation called Policy Exchange. He was also best man at Oliver Letwin’s wedding. Sitting beside him is Archie Norman, former chief executive of ASDA and the founder of Policy Exchange (see above). He was once Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells. He was succeeded in that seat by Greg Clark, the minister who now provides government support for the Red Tape Initiative.

Until he became environment secretary Michael Gove was also a member of the Red Tape Initiative panel. Oh, and he was appointed by Archie Norman as the first chairman of Policy Exchange (he was replaced by Charles Moore). Policy Exchange also supplied two of Oliver Letwin’s staff in the Conservative policy unit he used to run. So what is this Policy Exchange? It’s a neoliberal lobby group funded by dark money, that seeks to tear down regulations.

The Red Tape Initiative’s management board consists of Letwin, Baroness Rock and Lord Marland. Baroness Rock is a childhood friend of George Osborne’s, and married to the wealthy financier Caspar Rock. Lord Marland is a multimillionaire businessman who owns a house and four flats in London, “various properties in Salisbury”, three apartments in France and two apartments in Switzerland.

In other words, the Red Tape Initiative is a representative cross-section of the British public. In no sense is it a self-serving clique of old chums, insulated from hazard by their extreme wealth, whose role is to decide whether other people (colloquially known as “cowards”) should be exposed to risk.

Letwin’s Initiative appointed a panel to investigate housing regulations. It includes representatives of trade unions and NGOs, though they’re outnumbered by executives and lobbyists from the industry. And there, surprise, surprise, is a man called Richard Blakeway, from Policy Exchange.

Their task on June 14 was to consider a report the Red Tape Initiative had commissioned, whose purpose was to identify building rules that could be cut. Among those it listed as “burdensome” was the EU Construction Products Regulation, which seeks to protect people from fire, and restricts the kind of cladding that can be used.

What was the source of the report’s assertion that this regulation was unnecessary? A column in the Sunday Telegraph by Christopher Booker. He has a fair claim to being more wrong more often than any other British journalist – quite an achievement, given the field. As the panel members watched an ideology go up in flames, they decided that on this occasion they would not recommend that the regulation be removed. But the Red Tape Initiative, gruesome spectre that it is, continues its work.

It is one of many such schemes set up in recent decades, by both the Conservatives and New Labour. Among the recent examples are David Cameron’s Star Chamber (yes, that really was the name he gave it), in which ministers were interrogated by a panel of corporate executives; and the Cutting Red Tape programme, which boasts that “businesses with good records have had fire safety inspections reduced from 6 hours to 45 minutes”. One of the results of this bonfire of regulation is the government’s repeal in 2012 of the fire prevention measures in the London Building Act. Had they remained in place, the Grenfell fire is unlikely to have spread.

This assault on public protections is just one element of the compound disaster neoliberalism – promoted by opaquely-funded groups like Policy Exchange – has imposed on Britain since 1979. Its central purpose is not just to empower corporations and the very rich, but actively to disempower everyone else, through austerity, outsourcing and privatisation. An inquiry that failed to investigate such causes would be a farce. It would do nothing to prevent similar catastrophes from recurring. It would do nothing to stop the rich from destroying other people’s protections, as the Red Tape Initiative threatens to do.

But this is what we have been offered so far by a government that can choose charges, judge and jury. There’s an urgent need for an independent commission, whose purpose is to decide when inquiries should be called, what their terms should be, and who should chair them. Governments should have no influence over any of these decisions.

On June 14, a facade caught fire, in more senses than one. A blinkered inquiry threatens to clad the origins of this great crime, shielding their embarrassing ugliness from public view. We cannot and must not accept it.