Friday, 4 August 2017

Neoliberalism On Trial For Grenfell

Today marks the end of the consultation period for the terms of reference for the Grenfell inquiry.

My colleagues Jeremy Corbyn, David Lammy and London Mayor Sadiq Khan have all made submissions to Martin Moore-Bick, the retired judge leading the inquiry.

Labour has called for a two stage inquiry – the first would examine the immediate causes of the fire with findings to be presented by the end of summer and the second would examine the deeper context of how in excess of 80 working class people could burn to death in their homes.

When the inquiry was first established Moore-Bick appeared uninterested in broadening its scope beyond the fire’s immediate causes.

It took public pressure to force him to consult on the inquiry’s terms of reference; we now wait to see if he listens and broadens its scope.

And yet we should remember that Moore-Bick is a man with a track record of uncritical views towards the establishment.

On two occasions during his tenure at the Court of Appeal, he found in favour of controversial decisions that were later overturned in the Supreme Court.

The first was when Moore-Bick approved of Westminster City Council’s decision to rehouse a vulnerable single mother miles away from her home, the second was when he approved of disgraceful Tory legislation on Employment Tribunal Fees.

If we are confident about this process then we need only wait, perhaps till Christmas, perhaps longer. But if we’re not, we should keep talking.

Those like me who have a healthy dose of scepticism should follow the lead of local residents and survivors and refuse to be silent.

However supportive of the process, my concern is that Moore-Bick’s inquiry will not go far enough or quickly enough.

Will an enquiry led by a retired judge with a pro-establishment bent examine the wider political context of this fire, one in which the ideology of private profit has systematically trumped the needs of public safety?  

We cannot wait to find out.

That is why, in the court of public opinion, it’s time we put neoliberalism on trial for Grenfell. 

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, myself and colleagues named the culprit instantly: the Thatcherite ideology of privatisation, cuts and deregulation.

Labour was accused of politicising this tragedy.

Yet if, as Theresa May put it herself, we intend to leave no stone unturned in understanding what “went wrong” then let’s not shy away from examining the underlying principles that have guided government for the past 30 years.

In the mid-1980s, Thatcher’s government deregulated fire safety standards in homes, abandoning enforceable requirements for guidelines which the building industry could choose to follow, or not. 

Also complicit was the government led by Tony Blair, who, ideologically speaking, was the offspring of his Tory predecessors. 

Despite New Labour’s gains for working people, such as the minimum wage and Sure Start, behind the scenes the same principle of deregulation was at work.    

Blair’s government further blurred the lines of responsibility for fire safety enforcement by insisting that the role of a fire inspector should be to “inform and educate” rather than enforce. 

With a renewed emphasis on facilitating the private sector, the role of fire safety enforcement officers morphed into being that of “business support”, charged only with keeping buildings “safe enough” and not simply safe. 

As for the principal of privatisation, it was again during the mid-80s when the imperatives of private profit began to trump the need for public safety. 

Prior to 1984, plans for new buildings or refurbishments had to be approved by local authority inspectors.

Then with new legislation Thatcher’s government allowed private so-called Approved Inspectors to compete with local authorities over contracts to inspect plans for new building work.   

The impact of competition was twofold. First, in a bid for competitiveness the new inspectors drove down costs which in turn drove down quality, particularly in the skills and training of officers and inspectors. 

Second, competition created incentives for inspectors to please their clients, the developers, who could “shop around” for leniency.    

Finally, our fire service has seen some of the deepest cuts having lost 11,000 front line firefighters since 2010. 

The Fire Brigades Union has also raised concerns that the service is under-resourced, in particular in regards to aerial ladders.   

But the pursuit of cuts goes back further. 

Again, under Blair,“modernisation” of the fire and rescue service became a euphemism for cuts. 

As a result, fire and rescue authorities lost inspectors and so also lost the capacity to oversee fire risk assessments.  

Whatever fault we are likely to find with the regulations, legislation on its own doesn’t prevent the risk of fire, only an adequate number of well-trained enforcement officers can do that.  

Deregulation, privatisation and cuts: the three pillars of neoliberalism. 

Yet an ideology as powerful and as widespread as this one in Britain today won’t be dealt with through a handful of prison sentences. 

That is why a grieving society should learn the extent of the damage this pervasive idea has inflicted. 

The survivors of Grenfell are not the only ones to suffer the violence of neoliberalism.

Those who have experienced the sharp end of the free market know the truth of this event only too well: that neoliberalism is a threat to human life.

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