WORTHY as Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim conclusions on the Grenfell fire tragedy are, it will take more than a “culture shift” to stop such crimes happening again.
Hackitt argues that regulatory changes will “not be sufficient unless we can change the culture away from one of doing the minimum required for compliance to one of taking ownership and responsibility.”
There are echoes here of Nick Clegg’s plea to bankers to remember they didn’t live in a “social vacuum” but were part of society, of David Cameron’s injunction to Starbucks to “wake up and smell the coffee” on tax avoidance and of Ed Miliband’s dream of a “responsible capitalism.”
The bankers who crashed the economy in 2008 and continued to reward themselves with seven-figure bonuses afterwards were not unaware that there were ordinary people out there who might need an NHS or an affordable place to live or a state-funded school for their kids. They just didn’t care very much.
Starbucks bosses didn’t expect their tax avoidance to be popular with the public at large — only with their shareholders.
And Miliband was slapped down directly by Google chief Eric Schmidt when he told the IT giant it was “wrong” to dodge its own responsibilities to the public purse. Schmidt pointed out dryly that Google simply maximised profits within a legal international framework.
The “mindset of doing things as cheaply as possible and passing on responsibility for problems and shortcomings” that Hackitt so ably identifies is no accident. It didn’t emerge because the people charged with renovating Grenfell Tower happened to be lazy, cowardly or irresponsible.
It is a logical consequence of a “chain of confusion” in which jobs and responsibilities are outsourced to a bewildering variety of companies.
This is done deliberately to minimise accountability — both to residents and to workers — and maximise profit.
Construction union Ucatt, now part of Unite, did a great deal of research into how “umbrella companies” are used to allow firms to avoid their responsibility to employ workers on proper terms and conditions.
Reputable high-street brands from Apple to Topshop are implicated in global supply chains where their costs are kept low by sweatshop conditions imposed on workers by companies further up the chain, companies whose names won’t ring bells with shoppers and whose behaviour can be disowned whenever it hits the headlines.
The outsourcing in our public services likewise enables staff to be shunted onto worse pay and conditions, generally with dire consequences for service users. Authorities hunt for the cheapest bid, and how the bidder makes that price work for its shareholders is its business alone.
Grenfell was a preventable disaster. We know this, because the residents had repeatedly complained about the fire risk to the building.
We know that cuts to fire brigades have seen over a quarter of fire safety officers axed since 2010 and that safety inspections have fallen by a similar degree.
Diane Abbott was right at the Labour Party conference to blame “deregulation of fire standards and inspection, privatisation and outsourcing” for this corporate manslaughter in North Kensington.
Jeremy Corbyn was right to say that “those who manage public-sector housing must be made democratically accountable.”
This means a publicly run social housing programme, investment in our fire brigades, tougher building regulations and a drive to bring services back in-house across the board.
It means serious penalties, including prison sentences, for managers whose reckless race for profit costs lives.
A change in culture, yes, but a legally and socially enforceable change involving new legislation, the empowerment of communities through a revival of meaningful local democracy and the empowerment of workers through their trade unions so those who spot corner-cutting and unsafe practices can speak out.
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