Socialist Worker

Murderous contempt for poor people’s lives goes to the top

Issue No. 2559

Theresa May and Gavin Barwell. Until recently Barwell was housing minister. He is now Mays chief of staff

Theresa May and Gavin Barwell. Until recently Barwell was housing minister. He is now May's chief of staff (Pic: Number 10)


Tory contempt for the poor runs through the decisions that led to the deaths in Grenfell Tower.

A series of Tory housing ministers fought to stop developers and landlords taking responsibility for fire safety.

Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s new chief of staff, was housing minister from July 2016 until this month’s general election when he lost his seat.

He and his predecessors—Brandon Lewis and Kris Hopkins—blocked a report warning of fire risks in tower blocks for four years.

Lewis staunchly opposed making sprinklers compulsory. In a debate in parliament in 2014, he admitted, “Sprinklers work. We know that. No one can deny it.

“They are an effective way of controlling fires and of protecting lives and property.”

But, he told MPs, “We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.”

The reason was explicitly tied to profit. Lewis said, “The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building—something we want to encourage—so we must wait to see what impact that regulation has.”

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Fire Safety and Rescue “strongly recommended” installing fire suppression systems and sprinklers in 4,000 tower blocks.

It followed a coroner’s report into a fire in Lakanal House in Southwark, south London, that killed six people in 2009.

The coroner found that panels on the exterior of the block hadn’t provided the necessary resistance to fire, and that not enough fire risk assessments had been carried out.

Spread

The APPG’s honorary administrative secretary and former fire chief Ronnie King said last Wednesday, “We were strongly recommending this because the fire at Lakanal House spread within four minutes.

“I wouldn’t have expected fire to spread like that if there had been automatic fire sprinklers installed.”

APPG chair and former firefighter Jim Fitzpatrick said Lakanal House should have been a “wake-up call”.

But, he added, “Four years later, we’re still trying to get the government to undertake that review.

“You’d have to ask them why they’ve sat on it for four years.”

Eventually in 2015 Lib Dem junior minister Stephen Williams said the government would look at fire safety rules—but not until the next parliament.

The promised review—into part B of the Building Regulations 2010—still hasn’t emerged.

The government says it would take place “in due course”—eight years after Lakanal House.

The drive of the government has consistently been to remove regulations that protect people from corner-cutting bosses and landlords.

David Cameron’s “Red Tape Challenge” boasted of having scrapped or “improved” 84 percent of health and safety regulations.

It claimed to have saved bosses and councils £100 million a year by making it “cheaper and easier” to build.

Burdensome

Some £48.8 million of this came from making the rules on building inspections “less burdensome on business”.

The Housing and Planning Act 2016 took another step in putting business in charge of housing.

Labour put an amendment that would compel landlords to make homes “fit for human habitation”.

The Tories voted it down, including 72 MPs who are themselves private landlords—among them then prime minister David Cameron.

This list of shame includes 18 members of Theresa May’s government today (see box, right).

Some ministers responsible for the response to the Grenfell fire are among them—communities and local government secretary Sajid Javid and fire minister Nick Hurd.

Lewis, now minister for immigration, is a landlord too.

New housing minister Alok Sharma was an accountant for big investment banks.

Another white paper on housing was published in February, laying out the direction of the next round of government policy—yet faster and cheaper building. Local bosses and officials are rightly under scrutiny for their role in the Grenfell fire.

But the charge of murderous contempt for working class people’s homes and lives goes right to the top.


The list that shames Theresa May

Eighteen members of Theresa May’s government who are private landlords voted against forcing landlords to make homes fit for human habitation.

They are:

  • Robert Buckland
  • Alun Cairns
  • Therese Coffey
  • Philip Dunne
  • George Eustice
  • John Glen
  • Robert Goodwill
  • Chris Grayling
  • Chris Heaton-Harris
  • Nick Hurd
  • Margot James
  • Sajid Javid
  • Brandon Lewis
  • Sarah Newton
  • Jesse Norman
  • Julian Smith
  • Mark Spencer
  • Ben Wallace

All remained in post as Socialist Worker went to press.


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