Friday 30 June 2017

Grenfell Tower: still burning with anger

It is now more than two weeks since the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, and I am still very, very angry.

The people who died that night should not have died. They need not have died. They died because over several decades, successive governments presided over a progressive weakening of regulation and inspection systems that they knew would one day lead to tragedy.

How did they know? Because they had been warned -- not once, not twice, but again and again, by fire officers, buildings inspectors, MPs, insurers, everyone who knew anything at all about fire safety.

In Scotland, after a man died in a tower block fire in 1999, the rules on permissible building materials were changed and the inspection regime tightened. Was the same done in England? It was not.

In 2013, after six people died in a tower block fire in London, a coroner recommended a review of fire safety regulations 'with particular regard to the spread of fire over the external envelope of a building'. Was a review carried out? It was not.

I  hope no one will dare ever again to mock health and safety rules. They save lives. And although tearing up 'red tape' is always good for an easy headline, it can lead directly to the appalling sight of the charred remains of Grenfell Tower.

But here's what angers me most -- and bear with me, because it gets a bit technical. The cladding panels which were bolted to the outside of Grenfell Tower last year to improve the insulation of the building (and thereby reduce tenants' heating bills and energy consumption) were a 'multicomponent rainscreen cladding system' made up of an insulating core, marketed as Celotex RS5000, and exterior decorative cladding, made of aluminium sheets, sold as Reynobond PE. 

But the company that makes the panels says in its marketing material that the version used on Grenfell Tower is suitable only for buildings no more than 10 metres high. (Grenfell Tower is 67 metres high.) It makes two other versions -- one that is fire-resistant, and one that is non-combustible -- for higher buildings. So someone, somewhere, ordered the wrong version.

Knowingly, or unknowingly? To save money, or because they didn't know the difference? Questions for the public inquiry. (The Times reports that internal emails suggest the cheaper version was chosen deliberately to keep costs down, saving £293,368 on an £8.6 million refurbishment programme.)

What's more, someone else checked the panels' specifications, and said: 'Yeah, fine. No problem. Go ahead.'

Knowingly, or unknowingly? Another question for the public inquiry.

The prime minister said in the House of Commons on Wednesday that the Grenfell Tower cladding was 'non-compliant' with current building regulations. (So, it seems, is the cladding on every other tower block in England.) But two of the key issues for the inquiry will be to ascertain whether the testing processes used to certify building materials are adequate, and how well qualified are the inspectors who approve them. There are also suggestions that the relevant regulations are now so opaque that no one can be exactly sure what is, and is not, permissible.

I have spent a lot of time in hotels during my time as a journalist -- and the vast majority of them were equipped, thank goodness, with fire doors, smoke alarms and sprinkler systems. The same goes for office blocks, of course -- so why are the rules different for tower blocks? I think we know the answer ...

All tower blocks built after 2007 have to be fitted with sprinkler systems. But older blocks don't have to be retro-fitted. There can be only one explanation: to save money. And there can be only one conclusion: saving money matters more than saving lives. Tens of thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- of people go to sleep every night in over-crowded, sub-standard homes that are just one faulty fridge away from being death traps. (Interesting fact: the Conservative-run Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which owns Grenfell Tower, currently has a £274 million surplus sitting in the bank.)

The Grenfell Tower disaster was not an unavoidable accident. It was avoidable. And it wasn't an accident. It was the result of culpable, criminal negligence.

I just hope that the survivors and the relatives and friends of all those who died -- and we will probably never know for sure exactly how many perished -- will not have to wait 28 years for justice to be done, as have the families affected by the Hillsborough stadium disaster of 1989.

And I hope that Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the retired judge who will be chairing the public inquiry, is up to the task he has been given. He will need to be utterly fearless and ruthlessly determined. And he must be prepared to apportion blame.

Friday 9 June 2017

Another fine mess ...

To choose one party leader who makes a catastrophic error of judgement may be regarded, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, as a misfortune; but to choose two in quick succession looks like carelessness.

First David Cameron gambled and lost with the Brexit referendum. Now Theresa May has done the same by calling a wholly unnecessary general election. What is it with these people? Do the words hubris and nemesis mean nothing to them?

Thank you, young voters, who seem to have woken from their Brexit nightmare and flocked to the polling stations. (According to Lord Ashcroft’s post-election survey, two-thirds of voters aged 18-24 voted Labour.)

Thank you, fellow Remainers, who seem to have decided, despite the confused message from party leaders, that Labour was their best chance of softening the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU. (According to Ashcroft, more than half Remain voters went for Labour.)

Thank you, voters in Scotland, who gave the SNP a bloody nose, kicked a second independence referendum out of sight and thereby saved the Union for the foreseeable future. (Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson both defeated? Wow …)

And thank you, voters everywhere, who ignored the pundits (yes, including me), who said Jeremy Corbyn could never be an election winner, and ignored the right-wing tabloids who spewed their usual poison all over the body politic. Last night, it most definitely was neither The Sun nor the Daily Mail what won it.

It is at times like this that I cherish democracy and the determination of voters to make up their own minds, for their own reasons, how to cast their votes.

Back in April, when Mrs May announced the snap election, I recalled the fate of Edward Heath in 1974, when he called an election to answer the question ‘Who governs Britain?’ and received, much to his surprise, the answer ‘Not you, matey.’ Mrs May may think that she can hang on as a busted flush PM (does she really think that her harping on about the need for ‘stability’ convinces anyone at all?), but she must know that her days are numbered.

The election result was an unusually personal defeat for the prime minister: the Tory campaign was built around her, and her alone, to a ridiculous degree. The Tory manifesto offered nothing of note save the unlamented ‘dementia tax’, and the party’s messaging barely included even the party’s name.

Contrary-wise, the result was a personal triumph for Jeremy Corbyn. He stuck to his guns, remained true to himself, and allowed himself to be steered into a commanding position at the head of an impressively effective campaign. (According to Ashcroft, more than half of Labour’s voters made up their minds after the campaign had started. So goodbye to the notion that campaigns make no difference to the outcome.)

But once the Labour cheers have died down (after all, they still didn’t win), and the Tory tears have dried, one huge black cloud remains casting a pall over Westminster. What happens now to Brexit?

Theresa May wanted a strong Brexit mandate. Instead, she has emerged weakened and humiliated. Jeremy Corbyn wanted … well, to this day, I’m still not sure what he wanted. In theory, formal negotiations begin in less than two weeks’ time. Good luck with that, to whoever has to pretend to be representing Britain.

It is not entirely fanciful to see the election result, at least in part, as the Revenge of the Remainers. If all those young voters yesterday had turned out for the referendum, things would be looking very different.

So: before long, a new Conservative party leader. A rethought approach to Brexit. Perhaps even a cross-party negotiating committee? And an entirely new political landscape.

Back to a two-party system. A re-energised youth vote. A much diminished nationalism in both Scotland and the UKIP heartlands of England.

Don’t anyone dare tell me that politics is boring.

And in case you were wondering, yes, I have already applied to join the International Federation of Hat-Eaters, but I’m told there is a huge waiting list. In the circumstances, it's hardly surprising.

Monday 5 June 2017

Confronting terrorism: the challenge

Discussing an appropriate response to terrorism just a few days before a general election is far from ideal. Perhaps that’s why so much of what has been said and written since Manchester – and even more so since the London Bridge attack – has been of so little value.

So here’s an attempt to contribute to the debate as if there were no election on the horizon.

In my view, there are two essential elements to any successful counter-terrorism strategy: first, to identify and monitor those who are likely to plan and launch terrorist attacks, and if necessary to arrest them before they execute their plans; and second, to do everything possible to minimise the number of potential terrorists who are tempted to plan and execute attacks in the future.

This approach, incidentally, applies equally to terrorists motivated by jihadi zeal, or by Irish republicanism, or by extreme nativism and nationalism (eg Thomas Mair, who murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox in west Yorkshire, or Jeremy Christian, who is alleged to have killed two men who intervened to stop him screaming anti-Muslim abuse at two teenage girls in Portland, Oregon).

The identification and monitoring of those likely to launch terrorist attacks is the job of the security services and the police. It is also, of course, the responsibility of relatives, friends and neighbours whose suspicions are raised. (In both the Manchester and London Bridge cases, it appears that family members and neighbours had done exactly that – and we need to know much more about why their suspicions were not acted on.)

If more resources are to be made available to confront the terrorism threat, surely it makes more sense to use the extra cash to recruit more intelligence analysts and more specialist anti-terrorism police officers, who can sift through the mountain of material already available and make better-informed decisions about where the main threats lie.
So far, I have seen nothing to suggest that more armed police on the streets would do anything to prevent more attacks – and the responses to the Westminster and London Bridge attacks suggest that the armed police we do have are already extraordinarily good at their jobs.

Nor do I believe that they need extra powers. The problem is not that they aren’t able to find the potential terrorists, but that they don’t have the resources to analyse the information that they have to act effectively and in time.

As for reducing the numbers of new terrorists, surely the priority must be to work much more imaginatively – in schools, in prisons and in social service provision – to counter the alienation and anger felt mainly by a tiny minority of second generation immigrants who are lured by the siren call of jihadi recruiters.

It should not be forgotten that the deluded young men who become mass murderers are also committing suicide – so we need to understand much more about why they are so angry and devoid of hope that they are prepared to die while killing as many others as they can.

It is complex and difficult and will take time. But somehow, Western liberal democracies will have to learn how to encourage vulnerable young men to value their lives – and ours -- more than their, and our, deaths.