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 14 June, as the tower blazed, an organisation called the Red Tape Initiative convened for its prearranged discussion about building regulations. One of the organisation’s tasks was to consider whether rules determining 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” that 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 editor of the Daily Telegraph and the chair of an organisation called Policy Exchange. He was also best man at Letwin’s wedding. Sitting beside him is Archie Norman, the former chief executive of Asda and the founder of Policy Exchange. He was once Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells – and was succeeded in that seat by Greg Clark, the minister who now provides government support for the Red Tape Initiative.
The Red Tape Initiative’s management board consists of Letwin, Baroness Rock and Lord Marland. Baroness Rock is a childhood friend of the former Tory chancellor George Osborne, and is married to the wealthy financier Caspar Rock. 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 are outnumbered by executives and lobbyists from the industry. And there – surprise, surprise – is a man, called Richard Blakeway, from Policy Exchange.
The panel’s task on 14 June was to consider a report that 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? One of the sources was 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. While Grenfell Tower was smouldering, the panel members decided that on this occasion they would not recommend the removal of the regulation.
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 Conservatives and New Labour. 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 six hours to 45 minutes”.
One of the results of this bonfire of regulation is the government’s repeal in 2012of the fire prevention measures in the London Building Act. Had they remained in place, the Grenfell fire is unlikely to have risen up the tower. This assault on public protections is just one element of the compound disaster that neoliberalism –promoted by opaquely funded groups such as 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.
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 14 June 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.