Grenfell – Two Years On By The Cynic

26 June 2019 — Off Guardian

The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower blaze affects every person in the country, not just those living in tower blocks. Many of the safety issues potentially reach into every home, not just high-rise dwellers.

This is not just about fire-safety. The Grenfell tragedy revealed defects at every level of government, from top to bottom. When action was needed urgently, instead we have witnessed astonishing paralysis. Government has been unable to acknowledge let alone remedy the problems it created. It became obvious the entire system of government is dysfuntional.

No lessons have been learned, nothing has changed. New buildings are still being covered with plastic cladding and flammable Celotex insulation – “solid petrol” that burns to produce cyanide.

Even the scale of the potential problem has yet to be properly assessed. The government has set arbitrary limits about the type of buildings and cladding that could be considered – limits that fire would not respect. A dramatic recent blaze at Barking illustrated that the same problems also affect low-rise buildings and types of flammable non-plastic cladding that the government claimed were not at risk.

Nothing has been done about appliances such as the fridge-freezer that started the inferno, which was insulated with flammable material broadly similar to that on the outside of the building and, like the building itself, lacked fire-proof cladding that would have made it less dangerous. The government simply dismissed the risk, claiming the fridge-freezer complied with the regulations, therefore must be “low-risk” ignoring complaints from consumer groups that the regulations were inadequate..

Many have criticised the slow pace of the inquiry. It took a year to set up. A first report is due in October 2019 but this will only address the performance of the rescue effort, not  the refurbishment, cladding and the spread of the blaze. The Inquiry will only begin considering those issues in 2020, three years after the blaze

The government has actually used Grenfell as an excuse to delay rather than hasten action already recommended after a previous fire, ten years ago. Safety measures are to be delayed yet longer, pending the outcome of the Grenfell inquiry.

This is not just about national government – similar failures occurred at every level. This was no single broken link but rather an entire chain of broken and unfit agencies and procedures, from top to bottom, down to individual local council departments and the “Arms Length Management Company” created to distance the council from responsibility for housing. Every single agency was to blame, because no single agency could have failed so badly except for lack of action from all the others. The problem was not just that the regulations were so lax but that even these were not enforced, in many different ways at successive levels.

The response has been embarrassment and evasion. Theresa May was criticised for her initial reluctance to visit the site and meet the survivors.

A very self-serving system has shown little interest in the problems of ordinary people. Two years later, some of the families are yet to be re-housed.

This is a profound scandal but nothing has changed. No-one has lost their job, no-one has been censured, no changes have been made – no response at all. There has been no official criticism of anything – not the agencies nor any individual.

The only possible conclusion is that there is a total absence of accountability. No matter what happens, no-one will be held to account. The entire point about democracy is that government has to be accountable to the public. Here government is not accountable to anyone or anything – not even the law.

This is not just about fire-safety.

We can see similar lack of accountability in other areas, with similar fatal consequences. Take the scandal of the Gosport hospital deathsmore than 450 people were deliberately killed in hospital by lethal injection of morphine – a process that continued over a period of years.

No-one has been punished, no-one has been held to account – so far, there have been no consequences at all. Officials at the Department of Health covered-up the deaths, and a string of ministers went along with this until, after two decades, finally one minister went against his civil servants‘ advice[1] and unexpectedly decided there should be an inquiry.

A government that is willing (and able) to cover-up 450 intentionally-caused deaths is likely more than willing to conceal the issues behind 72 accidental deaths, at Grenfell, caused by apparent wilful neglect. And we cannot know how many other scandals have been successfully concealed[2].

These stories reveal a total absence of accountability. This is a culture of impunity.

When there is no accountability, this opens the door to… let’s not call it corruption, let’s call it “influence”. One of the phenomena we have seen grow, as accountability has diminished, has been the lobbying industry. Different industries have lobbied to change the regulations that affect them, to give them a commercial advantage.

In relation to Grenfell, the plastics industry successfully lobbied to change insulation regulations, setting insulation standards difficult to achieve without plastic foam insulation, while weakening the controls against flammable materials. It seems this process happened via the European Union, via the Building Materials regulations.

The European Union adopted regulations, but Britain lobbied for these particular standards to be adopted, at the behest of the plastics industry.

One of the particular features of the European Union is lack of transparency. The public never finds out which nations voted for, or lobbied for, particular EU legislation or rules. This has given rise to the phenomenon of “policy laundering” – governments introduce controversial legislation via the European Union, then claim to the public “We didn’t want this, we fought against it, but the EU has adopted it, so now our hands are tied – it must become law.”

They claim this, blaming the EU, to hide their own role in introducing the proposals and forcing them through. Britain has adopted this approach repeatedly – it has become a standard ploy. Tony Blair’s New Labour used this several times to introduce unpopular new measures.

Unfortunately, the EU dimension explains much of the dithering about flammable building materials, post-Grenfell. After the EU has set rules, only the EU can change them – member-states are prohibited from setting their own standards. National fire-safety standards are considered a “non-tariff barrier to cross-border trade”. The idea is that contractors from one country should be able to bid for insulation and renovation projects across Europe, using the same standards, not having to navigate a profusion of different rules in different countries.

For example, Germany lost a case in the European Court of Justice, trying to asset its own national standards for fire-safety – the ECJ insisted EU rules took precedence and nation-states could not set higher standards.

These EU rules were a subject of controversy for years before Grenfell – fire safety experts across Europe had forecast they would lead to a disaster.

Since the EU has adopted these rules, only the EU can change them – and that could take a decade. There is no sign these rules will change quickly.  This paralysis highlights the problems with the EU system of government.

An acute irony is that, at this point. the building materials industry itself would desperately like the uncertainty resolved, because the delay is costing millions. Unfortunately, no-one seems able to break the deadlock and hasten action.

(The role of the EU this issue has been disputed, due to Brexit politics. A detailed account of the technical issues has been made by Richard North in his EUreferendum blog, over several articles – see this , this, this, this, this and this.)

This has become a Europe-wide issue. Although the UK press does not report much from Europe, the same issues of flammable insulation have affected hundreds of buildings across Germany and other EU nations. (An important distinction, however, is the tragedy at Grenfell also reflected that the UK did not enforce what rules there were. The rules may have been inadequate but they were broken in multiple different ways, mainly due to the UK’s enforcement regime and interpretation of the rules.)

Also relevant is that the type of plastic-clad fridge freezers that started the Grenfell blaze are legal in the EU, under EU regulations, but not in USA.

The point is that the European Union is subject to the same forces that have led to a crisis of government in the UK. These forces are international. They originate at a higher level than Britain or the EU. The issue is the ‘Washington Consensus’ – pressure from the US that all governments must make their policy open to influence from multi-national corporations. This is the basis of Globalisation.

Pointing out the problems of lack of accountability and bad government in the EU is not some stale and hackneyed attempt to argue about Brexit – this is pointing out issues that have to be faced whether inside or outside the EU.

For many years, Labour and Conservative Parties both represented similar policies – it made little difference which was elected. In a similar way, it is likely to make little difference whether Britain is in or out of the EU

It is not difficult to see why Theresa May and other UK politicians were so reluctant to talk about the EU dimension to Grenfell – and why the pro-Brexit politicians did so little to expose this. Grenfell represents why many of Britain’s problems are tied-up in the EU – but equally how Brexit may represent no solution to these and may even make matters worse.

What most commentators have been reluctant to realise is that the EU is the ‘regional agent of globalisation’, that is, it advances US interests in Europe. In many ways, the EU is actually an anti-European institution, dismantling European traditions and culture on behalf of US commercial interests.

Unfortunately, many of the advocates of Brexit propose pushing us deeper in the direction of ‘trade agreements’ that increase corporate influence over policy. Opening government to corporate influence requires being less responsive to the views of the people – to be less democratic. Unfortunately, this is what ‘trade deals’ are really about – less democracy and more corporate ‘influence’.

Faced with the widespread lack of accountability, we see the ‘democratic deficit’. We see that government officials can flout the law with impunity. To what extent are we a democracy?

Holding elections is not enough to make a country a democracy. North Korea holds regular multi-party elections and there are three main parties in the North Korean parliament – does this make North Korea a democracy?

There is plenty of evidence that Britain is not a democracy, because policy is imposed on Britain by the US. A nation cannot be a democracy when it is ruled by a foreign power -democracy is only possible in a free nation, with self-determination. It cannot be “rule by the people” when the rules are imposed by someone outside.

Whistle-blower turned academic historian Clive Ponting wrote several books about how power in Britain really works – so called “revisionist histories”. In “Breach of Promise“, about the Wilson government, 1964-70, Ponting reveals that the first duty of every British Prime Minister is to visit, with his deputy, the US President, to be told what his policy will be.

Ponting was able to obtain the minutes of these meetings (though official secrets in the UK, they were freely available from the US under their Freedom of Information Act). These revealed that Wilson was forced to adopt a series of policies extremely detrimental to the UK. One was an exchange-rate policy designed to protect the US Dollar, that the US realised would cripple the UK economy. Appreciating this, to control the effects on the UK, the US required the UK to introduce prices and wages controls.

Apart from Wilson and Callaghan, nobody in the British Cabinet knew these policies originated from the US – not even the minister who introduced the (desperately unpopular) prices and wages controls, Barbara Castle. This policy endured from 1964-1979, through both Labour and Conservative, and led to the defeat of three governments. No mater how unpopular the policy, it was not possible for the British people to overturn it, because it was imposed by the US, and no British government could change it.

During the period of the Roman Empire, the different conquered nations had the appearance of self-rule – they each had their own kings and the people believed these kings were in fact their sovereign rulers; the hand of Rome was kept out of sight. The reality was, they were vassal states and had no meaningful independence. Vladimir Putin has referred to the Western nations as “vassal states” of the US. He was referring to their lack of power to make their own policy.

This is very much like the situation in Britain’s different local councils. Local people can elect their local councillors but the policy of the council is directed, often in great detail, by the regional office of national government. The officers of the council liaise with the government office and develop their policy in collaboration with national government officers much more than in response to their own elected council leaders. The job of elected councillors often ends up being no more than the sell to the public a policy they had no hand in creating.

Over time, a nation that is ruled by a foreign power will become more and more obviously not democratic. It cannot respond to the will of its people, therefore cannot allow accountability. Democracy, particularly accountability, is essential to the health of public institutions. Without this, over time, corruption must inevitably proliferate – only accountability can hold it in check. Corporate influence is a particularly concentrated form of corruption – and it has actually become official policy to embrace it. We can see its disastrous effects on public institutions today. We are descending into epic corruption for much the same reasons as ancient Rome.

What happens to the elected “leaders” of a nation, when they cannot make its policy? It appears they realise they have no power except to get rich from their position. They cannot much influence policy, but they have the advantage of knowing what policy is going to be, before anyone else, thus can take advantage of investment opportunities, knowing what direction government policy will take.

(Of course, these remarks should not be considered to refer to Theresa May or her husband’s position at a large investment bank. But maybe read this, this, this and this.)

Ultimately, the issues at stake here are not about race, class, poverty or even about high-rise blocks – the issue is whether we can trust our government. Is our government competent, honest, efficient and accountable – a democratic government – or is it spreading chaos and even causing unnecessary death because it doesn’t care about our interests? Is it run by people who are robbing the country, corruptly, because they are not accountable, because this is not functionally a democracy.

We are in a very terrible predicament. We can only hope that public awareness and debate about this may lead to a solution over time.

Notes

[1] Government officials tried to dodge inquiry into 800 deaths at single hospital, ex-health minister claimsThe Independent

A former health minister has claimed government officials tried to dodge a public inquiry into the suspicious deaths of more than 800 patients at a single hospital in England.

Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb said he suspected a “conspiracy” among officials, when in his absence they tried to reject an inquiry into hundreds of deaths allegedly linked to Dr Jane Barton.

He claims to have intervened at the last moment, allowing the subsequent launch of the probe into circumstances around the deaths of mainly elderly patients, many of whom were prescribed high doses of morphine.

[2] Gosport scandal exposes blame culture in NHS, says HuntThe Guardian

… a warning by Prof Sir Brian Jarman, head of the Dr Foster Unit at Imperial College London, that situations similar to Gosport were likely to be happening elsewhere.

He told Today: “At the moment, whistleblowers are fired, gagged and blacklisted. Nobody dare whistleblow in the NHS.”

Posted in: UK

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