THIS week Sir Martin Moore-Bick will hear the demand from companies responsible for wrapping Grenfell Tower in inflammable cladding that they be given immunity from prosecution in return for giving evidence to the official inquiry.
Victims’ families’ lawyer Michael Mansfield QC is right to ask if they “really want to put the families through more anguish [and] more agony,” but the reality is they have already given their answer.
From the beginning, the official response to the terrible blaze that killed 72 people on June 14 2017 has been a succession of cynical bids to evade responsibility.
Although the inquiry is separate from the police investigation into the fire, the request strongly suggests that companies involved in the refurbishment of the tower have something to hide, even if the “carefully crafted statements” they proffered when phase two began last week were a masterclass in passing the buck.
They would hardly have made the request unless they feared Scotland Yard might seize on any indiscretions for its own probe. But it at least has the value of highlighting a culture of impunity that has dogged the process since the beginning.
The inquiry began with what Fire Brigades Union (FBU) general secretary Matt Wrack noted was a “back to front” order of priorities, with phase one maintaining a relentless focus on the response of firefighters who risked their lives to put out the flames once the fire had already broken out, rather than looking at its causes in the first place.
All aspects of a disaster on such a scale must be considered, the emergency service response included, and nobody disputes that — indeed, as Wrack points out, no firefighter tried to wangle immunity from prosecution before giving evidence.
But all aspects of this disaster are not being considered. When it was set up, Theresa May ignored calls from the FBU and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for a serious investigation of the institutional causes of the fire — almost certainly because it would mean admitting the deadly consequences of four decades of deregulation.
The FBU has detailed the successive stages by which fire safety considerations were written out of construction law from the Thatcher government onwards, from 1980’s Review of Fire Policy, when mandarins advised “judicious reductions” in safety regulations.
Reducing the “significant financial burden” of safety legislation would admittedly “lead to recurrence, albeit infrequently, of multiple fatality fires,” Thatcher’s advisers counselled, but so long as there was no “unacceptable increase in loss of property or casualties” this would be a price worth paying.
It was followed by John Major privatising the Building Research Establishment, so the body responsible for advising government on building safety also had a commercial interest in approving building materials for construction firms, by the Tony Blair government abolishing national standards of fire cover and scrapping the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, and by David Cameron’s “bonfire of red tape.”
If companies are afraid that even given the industrial-scale shredding of construction safety laws by neoliberal administrations they may have broken the law, it only shows that the cost-cutting culture created by government had convinced them there was no chance they could ever be held responsible for their actions.
Granting them immunity from prosecution would confirm that. It would not only send yet another signal to the Grenfell community that it is not going to get justice.
It would allow corporate criminals across Britain to sleep easy in their beds, knowing that even if their slapdash approach to safety costs scores of lives in a catastrophe that makes headlines around the world they will never have to answer for their crimes.
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