Grenfell Tower fire, illustration by David McConochie in the Financial Times

This essay, on Grenfell and the culture of impunity, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 27 June 2021, under the headline “From Grenfell Tower to the Met police, shirking responsibility has become endemic”.

Being accountable for one’s actions seems about as fashionable these days as a foreign holiday. It is telling that Dido Harding can oversee the debacle that was the test-and-trace programme and yet still be in the running to be the next boss of NHS England; that the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, having been rebuked by the inquiry into Daniel Morgan’s death for her failure to cooperate, can swat away all calls to account for her actions; that hopeless Matt Hancock should be brought down more by his wandering hands than by his failure to protect care homes or provide adequate PPE.

The culture of “It’s not my responsibility, guv” and “Even if it is my responsibility, why should I be held accountable for my misdeeds?” is not confined to Westminster but now permeates society. Those with power feel little obligation to answer for their actions. To see the raw impact of this culture of impunity, have a look at the Grenfell Tower inquiry. It’s been going on for so long (the first hearings took place in June 2018) that it now barely makes a ripple in the news. What it continues to expose, however, is that the kind of culture that allows Harding and Dick to blithely brush off failure and dodge responsibility was also the culture that led to that fire on the night of 14 June 2017 and the 72 deaths that resulted, and that has allowed relatives of the victims and the wider community to be ignored and abandoned ever since.

Private companies sold materials they knew could kill and crowed about their lies and deceit. Such contemptuous disregard for people’s lives in the pursuit of profit was buttressed by state institutions and officials who sought the cheapest solution to any problem, boasted about cuts to fire safety regulations and branded anyone who challenged them as troublemakers.

Last week, the main witness at the inquiry was Robert Black, former boss of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), set up by the council to manage its housing. He was responsible for the disastrous Grenfell refurbishment that took place from 2014 to 2016. Two reports, in 2009 and 2013, and a London Fire Brigade “deficiency” notice in 2014 all pointed to major failures in fire safety procedures at Grenfell, with systems in breach of statutory obligations raising the possibility of “fatal consequences” for tenants. The warnings were ignored; Black did not even inform the KCTMO board of the full details. The KCTMO’s emergency procedures were 15 years out of date, for which Black blamed staff “with the ability to forget to fill in the paperwork”.

In 2010, there was a fire in the tower after some recycling bags caught alight. The smoke extraction system failed, causing inhalation injuries to a number of residents. When the Grenfell Tower leaseholders’ association called for an independent investigation, KCTMO fobbed it off by blaming firemen for not knowing how the manual vents worked when its own internal maintenance report showed the problem lay with the vents themselves. Black did not make evacuation plans for disabled tenants, as required by law, even after being reminded by a report that he himself had commissioned. And, after all this, when he was asked at the inquiry if he took responsibility for the failures on his watch, he wriggled and squirmed before disdainfullyreplying: “Pass.”

“Robert Black should be put in handcuffs after his evidence,” says Yvette Williams of the Justice4Grenfell group. “Instead, he will be allowed to go back to his villa in Marbella.” What outrages bereaved families and campaigners is that the litany of failure and irresponsibility in the years running up to the Grenfell fire has been compounded by a litany of failure and irresponsibility in the four years since.

Many want to know why the council, whose policies and policy failures helped kindle the fire, is still in charge. The council leader at the time, Nicholas Paget-Brown, eventually resigned but the body that oversaw the fire is now overseeing the recovery. “It’s like putting the criminals in charge of a crime scene,” said a spokesperson for the Grenfell Next of Kin, a group that supports the relatives of 31 of the 72 residents who died in the fire.

Transparency and accountability seem as lacking now as they were before the fire. The first council cabinet meeting in the wake of the tragedy was due to exclude the public and the press until a high court judgment forced it to change its plan. The Grenfell Scrutiny Committee, set up to allow public oversight of the council’s response to the disaster, was dissolved last year, much to the anger of local people. “It’s made scrutiny of council decisions so much more difficult,” according to Grenfell Next of Kin.

The Grenfell Recovery Fund, established by the council “to support people in their recovery”, has spent more money on consultancies and council staff salaries than on proper support for the bereaved or the community. It has, in the words of a Next of Kin campaigner, spawned an “industry of bureaucrats”. Those who object or criticise are, just as before, condemned as troublemakers. In the eyes of the authorities, one campaigner notes, “The problem isn’t the problem. You are the problem.” A council spokesperson replied: “Grenfell recovery is the top priority for the council.”

What particularly causes anger is that, for all the shocking details exposed in the inquiry, there won’t be any prosecutions, at least not until the inquiry is finished, which may not be for another three years. After the Manchester Arena bombing, which took place the month before the Grenfell fire, the inquiry followed the prosecutions. Grenfell is a more complex case. Nevertheless, says Williams, even as the inquiry has exposed wrongdoing, it has also acted “like a shield” for the wrongdoers.

We live in a world in which making the wrong comment on social media can lead to people losing their jobs but where politicians and public officials, whose actions affect the lives of millions and whose failure can lead to deaths in the most unimaginable circumstances, can simply walk away and into their next lucrative assignment. It’s a world in which if you have power you also have the power not to be held accountable for your power.

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