Mocking Grenfell Tower On Bonfire Night Is Appalling, But Should Not Be Criminal

Greater Glasgow Police - THINK - Social Media - Police State - Free Speech

A society which looks to the state to deliver retribution for non-harmful offensive speech is a society which no longer values a core tenet of liberal democracy

The battle for free speech is won or lost at the margins, which means that those who call themselves advocates of free speech without being able to point to a history of defending deeply offensive speech from people across the ideological and cultural spectrum can be considered fair-weather friends of free speech at best – and outright liars at worst.

And so while a universal chorus of condemnation rightly rises from every corner of Britain regarding the sickening and provocative act of burning an effigy of Grenfell Tower, impersonating the victims and mocking the tragedy – and worse still, recording the vile show and sharing it on social media – it falls to this blog to point out once again that in a society which even aspires to uphold Western liberal values, having the police regulate social conduct is just plain wrong.

First, the appalling story, as recounted in the New York Times:

It was among the worst fires in modern British history: The blaze that gutted Grenfell Tower in London last year killed more than 70 people, displaced hundreds more and marred the lives of the mostly low- and middle-income residents who lived there.

But to a group celebrating Britain’s annual Bonfire Night, it was a joke.

In a widely shared video that circulated on Monday, a group of people laughed as they burned an effigy of Grenfell Tower, which included paper cutouts of residents in the windows. “Help me! Help me!” one person mocked as flames overtook the model tower. “Jump out the window!” another shouted.

Of course this is a disgusting and rather shocking act, one which no decent human being would ever contemplate performing. Of course it is injurious to the feelings of survivors of the fire, the bereaved families of the 70+ victims and the emergency services workers who attended the unimaginable scene. The act fully deserves the condemnation it has attracted from the prime minister on downwards.

But it is disturbing to hear that following such incidents, the police – empowered by law – take it upon themselves to seek out, arrest and charge those responsible. Many reprehensible actions either do not or should not meet the threshold of criminal liability, and absent any form of direct incitement to violence there is no good justification for invoking criminal sanctions against trolls. You cannot make a society politer and more considerate by fining or locking up the rude and provocative, and if you try then you will either preside over a hugely arbitrary and unjust system or else incarcerate tens of thousands of people and attach criminal stigma to social losers.

Some make the argument that scare police resources should not be diverted from frontline public safety duties toward scouring the internet for potential sources of offense and hunting down those who hurt the feelings of others, and this is quite correct. Particularly at a time when London is suffering a “stabbing epidemic” and has by some measures surpassed New York in terms of danger, continuing to employ crack teams of deskbound constables to scour Twitter and Facebook for thoughtcrime or bully the public with veiled warning about speechcrime is a monumentally bad use of resources.

But that is not the main issue at stake. Even if London was a refulgent and harmonious city of perfect safety and benevolence with no other crimes for the Metropolitan Police to handle (thanks to the inspired leadership of Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan) it would still be wrong to hunt down, arrest, intimidate or prosecute people for simply being vile human beings who delight in causing offense.

The remedy for such behavior lies not in criminal law but in the power of society to make its universal horror at such behavior known by exposing, shunning and shaming the culprits. Social consequences are a far more suitable and proportionate response – few people would contest that those who mocked the Grenfell Tower fire deserve any consequences which flow from their notoriety, be it lost jobs, lost friendship and ruined reputations.

And yet we live in an age where society will form a Twitter mob in nanoseconds to take down perfectly well-meaning people for simply misspeaking, making an error of judgment or not being fully up to date on the latest linguistic demands of the identity politics brigade, while in cases of positive acts of universally condemnable behavior we seem content to shrug our shoulders and outsource the job to the police and the criminal justice system.

This is not right. The kind of punishment which communities can dole out to moral miscreants is flexible enough so that the punishment can be made to fit the crime, but does not tar somebody forever. Being arrested, charged, convicted of a supposed “public order offense” and given a lifetime criminal record is another matter entirely, particularly when there is no injury to persons or property.

You can tell a lot about a society by the people who languish in its prisons. In the United States, my new home, over 2.2 million people are presently incarcerated in federal, state or county prisons and jails, nearly 1 percent of the population – many for non-violent crimes, the victim of a prison industrial complex warped by the prevalence of privately owned and operated prisons. Brits are often quick to mock or denigrate the United States for this fact, and hold America up as a cautionary tale – and rightly so.

Yet in Britain we arrest, charge, caution or imprison people for making YouTube videos in poor taste, joking on social media, singing offensive football songs, preaching non-violent religion in public or criticizing another religion (though of course some religions are more equal than others). This would make us an international laughing stock and object of grave concern were it not for the fact that many other Western countries are merrily going down the same path – particularly with the rise in authoritarianism on one hand and the desperation of an intellectually bankrupt establishment to smother dissent on the other.

Apparently five people have now been arrested after surrendering themselves to police following their depraved little Bonfire Night stunt. They are doubtless all entirely reprehensible and unsympathetic characters who will now join the ranks of lowlifes, oddballs, misfits and assorted others who have found themselves bundled into the back of a police van and charged with criminal acts for having made other people feel bad or outraged.

This should not be the purpose of criminal law in a liberal democratic Western society. The police at present cannot even guarantee our physical safety or reliably bring to justice those who commit crimes against people and property. Are we now to add to their burden a responsibility to guard our ears and eyes against taking in that which we find offensive and repellent?

This is the kind of case which makes me cringe when Britain’s unenlightened attitude toward free speech comes up while comparing and contrasting different judicial approaches here in law school in the US. This is the kind of case which makes me vaguely embarrassed to be British, because when British society and communities abdicate their role in self-regulating behavior and outsource the job to the police, it tells the rest of the world that we are too hopeless, too fragile, too pathetic to withstand the slings and arrows of daily life without the state acting as auxiliary parent to us all, stepping in to fight our battles for us.

I want no part in this societal self-infantilization. It should fall to strong communities with shared values (if there are any such values left that are not being busily undermined by progressives and reactionaries) to moderate discourse where they feel necessary, not the government. We do not need the police to arrest everyone who makes us feel bad or sickens our stomachs with their trollish, attention-seeking behavior.

People who see fit to publish online a video of themselves mocking the victims of one of the worst fires in modern British history condemn themselves through their actions well enough – they don’t require any additional help from the state.

 

Free Speech - Conditions Apply - Graffiti

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Advertisements

In My Version Of The British Dream, Leaders Acted With Integrity

BRITAIN-POLITICS-EU-BREXIT

The World, Transformed

I saw this:

A traumatised and bedraggled family, still wearing the pyjamas in which they fled their smoke-filled flat in Grenfell Tower, were huddled together when the prime ministerial motorcade swept up outside the impromptu crisis centre and Theresa May strode through the open door accompanied by a single aide and minimal security, having dismissed police advice to maintain close-quarter protection at all times.

There were jeers, boos and some pointed profanity shouted in her direction as her entourage passed the crowd gathered outside, but the prime minister walked on unfazed and immediately approached the family, pointedly spurning the reception line of Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council officials assembled to greet her. The husband looked brittle, angry and ready to snap while his wife, in shock, stared blankly ahead.

But before either of them could speak, Theresa May knelt down and spoke to their two small young children. It was as awkward for those watching the scenes on television as it was to be there at the scene – the prime minister was not a natural empath at the best of times and as uncomfortable around children as she was in any other unscripted setting. But still she spoke quietly and reassuringly to the children while the cameras flashed, and produced some little toys from her bag before standing up to speak with the parents.

Again, it was awkward. The parents, still in shock, were monosyllabic and uncertain of what to say, but already some left-wing agitators gathered outside had decided that the inferno was the fault of the Conservatives and were chanting about the Evil Tories having blood on their hands. Over the muffled chants, however, the prime minister could be heard promising the family that they would be spending the next night together in a local hotel, and she would personally ensure that the Office of the Prime Minister, not anybody else, would secure them alternate local accommodation as soon as possible. As she went off to speak to other survivors, her aide followed behind, taking the details of each family and repeating the same assurances. Firefighters were still pumping jets of water onto the smouldering tower as the sun rose in the sky; the Mayor of London and Leader of the Opposition would not arrive for several hours yet.

As it became clear that Britain’s disaster preparedness and response plans were woefully outdated and inadequate, with poor coordination between the local council, emergency services and the Red Cross, Theresa May became a frequent fixture in the shadow of Grenfell Tower over the coming days. The hostility of the crowds became worse, if anything, and some of the survivors were understandably very angry, providing newspaper editors with choice quotes of criticism and TV news editors with more than one video of the prime minister being angrily dressed down by survivors.

But undeterred, the prime minister kept coming back. Though her security detail now maintained a more high-profile presence, the prime minister was frequently onsite, being briefed by response leaders and answering questions while her husband helped to coordinate donations and supplies. Once the immediate crisis was over, May gave a speech admitting that Britain’s disaster response plans were not fit for purpose, and pledging to create a new unified agency to take charge of Britain’s resilience against disasters both natural and man-made. Even many of her political enemies had to grudgingly admit that she had displayed real leadership in difficult circumstances.

This all happened shortly after the prime minister had finally imposed some order and discipline on her fractious Cabinet, pointing out to the Brexit Ultras that getting 100 percent of what they wanted on the back of 52 percent of the vote and an EU referendum question and campaign which deliberately avoided specifics was not reasonable.  Boris Johnson and several others had made their displeasure known and even sought to destabilise her position as leader, with Boris effectively drafting his own personal Brexit manifesto in the Telegraph. Theresa May’s response was swift and unforgiving, warning Boris Johnson and other rebels to fall in line or be sacked and personally denounced from the podium at 10 Downing Street. The next day Boris gave a contrite press conference in which he acknowledged May’s leadership and admitted that he was in fact not the sole custodian of Brexit, before being sent by the prime minister on a long diplomatic tour of South America.

There was still loud discontent in Parliament about the government’s Brexit stance, not helped by mischief-making and uncertainty from the Labour Party. But Theresa May made it clear in all of her speeches, press releases and PMQs appearances that Brexit is a process, not an event, and that the best way to abide by the verdict of the 52 percent while acknowledging the 48 percent was to seek continued participation in the single market in the short term by applying to rejoin EFTA and trading with EU countries through the EFTA-EEA agreement in the short to medium term. She acknowledged that this interim step out of the orbit of the EU would offer only limited and largely untested tools to manage the free movement of people, a sticking point for so many, but pointed out that through this mode of Brexit, any retaliatory measures taken by the EU in the face of democratically determined UK immigration restrictions would at least not then automatically impact the entirety of our trade with the EU.

But still there was discontent and rumours of plots. So Theresa May issued a public challenge from the garden of Downing Street, daring Labour to call a vote of no confidence in her government and plunge the country back into chaos, and to her disloyal Cabinet members to fall in line or prepare to hand their ministries over to Jeremy Corbyn’s government-in-waiting. This bold, conciliatory stance on Brexit paid off. The grumbling died down, and Theresa May went into the Tory Party conference in Manchester strengthened and respected, if still widely disliked by many.

And what a conference it was. Nobody had any great expectations for the Conservatives, particularly given the distrustful atmosphere in Cabinet and after Jeremy Corbyn cemented his iron rule of the Labour Party by delivering a triumphalist, ambitious left-wing credo. But for once in her political life, Theresa May surprised everyone. Freed from the pernicious influence of her old Red Tory brain trust, May showed a new willingness to listen to the Right of the party, on the condition that they applied their small government values to coming up with new solutions rather than simply reheating the old Thatcherite medicine of the 1980s.

Her conference speech, though marred by a prolonged coughing fit, a juvenile protester and the gradual collapse of part of the stage, was the complete opposite of her first outing in 2016. It was an acceptance that the dour, paternalistic, technocratic approach to government she had championed in her first year had inspired zero enthusiasm in the public, and that the Conservatives could not expect to win based on scaremongering about Venezuelan socialism or overwrought insults to Jeremy Corbyn.

The prime minister took responsibility for the awful 2017 general election campaign, pledging that henceforth the Conservatives would be a party of ideas, that the status quo was something unacceptable, not something to be preserved, and that only the Tories could be relied upon to preserve the best of tradition while orienting Britain to meet the challenges of this century. And the British media, showing a renewed dedication to serving the public interest by reporting seriously on policy over spectacle, gave the speech the hearing it deserved. Within two days, nobody remembered the prankster or the coughing fit.

But having set out these goals in her speech, Theresa May also made clear that she would not fight the next general election, but rather would step down at some point after the formal EU secession was complete to make way for new leadership. She did this knowing that it would ignite speculation about her likely successor, but maintained that neither the Conservative Party nor the country would benefit from a hasty leadership election – that potential Tory leaders needed time to think about their ambitions Britain as well as their career ambitions. By announcing this long-term intent, May enabled the Conservatives to finally begin a meaningful debate about what conservative government should look like in the 21st century. Ideas were debated, not policies floated, dissected, discarded or refined.

After a long period of questionable value added to British politics, the right-wing think tanks took on a new lease of life, finally becoming incubators of radical, civic-minded policy rather than mere enablers and cheerleaders for a very narrow agenda. The IEA, Centre for Policy Studies and Adam Smith Institute became among the most exciting places to work in Westminster, the mediocre-but-well-connected hires having been pushed out to make room for thinkers of real vision and expertise.

Because of this ideological renewal, when potential future Tory leaders did eventually start to manoeuvre for position they were forced to appeal to would-be supporters by convincing other MPs (and the general public) that they had the best ideas, as well as the courage and leadership skill to enact their agenda. No longer was it enough to appeal to the vanity or career aspirations of junior MPs with offers of advancement, or woo them over sushi and sandwiches.

And when Theresa May eventually stepped down as promised, one year before the next general election, her strategy paid off handsomely. In hindsight, her successor was a natural choice – someone with solid small government credentials but not an ideologue imprisoned by 30-year-old dogma. Someone able to talk up rather than down to the nation, unafraid to show a bit of poetry in their rhetoric but equally comfortable talking with voters at the local pub.

Theresa May’s successor came from a humble background and a history of community and philanthropic involvement, a walking refutation of leftist charges that conservatives are selfish, callous and born to privilege. But more than all that, the new prime minister was someone with a burning mission to improve Britain and a desire to help their fellow citizens help themselves. Someone who promised to inject some ambition and a sense of direction back into Britain. Someone whose conception of the journey ahead extended beyond the moment they stepped across the threshold of 10 Downing Street.

The 2022 general election would be a close-fought race, but at least the Tories now respected the threat posed by Corbynite Labour and stepped up their own efforts in response. The Conservatives had pulled off that most difficult of manoeuvres – a major ideological course correction whilst in government – but Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party were still riding high, level in the polls. For the new prime minister to truly cement their authority, a convincing general election result was needed to usher in an intake of new Tory MPs fully committed to the new project – and to sweep out a lot of dead wood from previous administrations (though Theresa May had graciously agreed to remain in Cabinet as Minister for Citizenship).

And there were some encouraging signs. While Jeremy Corbyn continued to attract support by offering free things to millennials, it appeared that Generation Z which followed them were more independent and receptive to a conservative message now that it was being delivered boldly and unapologetically. A nascent conservative youth movement was reborn. Campaign events were held in real public squares encouraging real public interaction rather than being clinical press photo opportunities with distant party activists brought in by bus. These campaign stops were used to discuss ideas, not transmit soundbites, and when the inevitable public heckles and hostile media questions occurred, the prime minister was fond of quoting John F. Kennedy, calling for people to ask not what their government can do for them, but what they can do for their country, and for their fellow citizens.

There was even a positive public and media response to the Conservatives’ new slogan and title of their 2022 election manifesto, which rejected the usual pandering platitudes and simply read: Dare Mighty Things.

It made me feel as though there is hope for our political class, for conservatism and for our country.

That is what I saw this week.

I should note – this part is true – that I saw much of this while slumped over, asleep at my desk after a long and tiring week. For an hour afterward, even knowing it was either a fantasy or a dream, I felt so . . . hopeful. Cheerful. Proud. I give it to you.

 

This article is inspired by the great Peggy Noonan, an homage to her recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed re-imagining the Trump presidency in an alternate America where civic virtue is still valued. If I manage to become one tenth of the writer that Noonan is, all these years of blogging will not have been in vain.

Dare Mighty Things

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Grenfell Tower And Westminster’s Assault On Local Democracy

Kensington and Chelsea town hall

The latest casualty of the Grenfell Tower fire is local democracy

One of the key ideals of democracy – only ever half-heartedly observed in the United Kingdom – is the principle of subsidiarity, the notion that higher levels of government should take on only those duties which cannot be performed at a lower level by local officials more directly accountable to local people.

Most people would agree that local people are best placed to make decisions that directly affect them and their communities. Of course, in Britain this is balanced out by our terror at the thought of a “postcode lottery” when it comes to public service provision, that gnawing feeling that someone, somewhere might be getting a better deal from the government and that it would be far better if we all resign ourselves to the same low standard of uniform mediocrity than witness excellence in some places and failure in others (see the Cult of the NHS). But generally speaking, the principle of subsidiarity makes sense to people when it is explained in abstract.

It is sad, then, to see that the latest victim of the Grenfell Tower fire is (thankfully) not another person, but rather the ability of local councils, elected by local people, to manage their affairs in the way that suits them best. This was manifested today by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid’s request that the CEO of Kensington & Chelsea council submit his resignation as an act of public contrition for the council’s chaotic and disorganised response to the disaster.

From the Guardian:

The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council, Nicholas Holgate, has resigned after being asked to do so by the communities secretary, Sajid Javid. In a statement Holgate said that Javid “required the leader of the council to seek my resignation”.

His resignation comes after a tide of criticism of the council, not only for the way it responded to the Grenfell Tower tragedy but also for historical neglect of poorer residents of the borough and a neglect of social housing.

Holgate said: “Serving the families so desperately affected by the heartbreaking tragedy at Grenfell Tower remains the highest priority of the council. Despite my wish to have continued, in very challenging circumstances, to lead on the executive responsibilities of the council, I have decided that it is better to step down from my role, once an appropriate successor has been appointed.

He added: “Success in our efforts requires leadership across London that sustains the confidence and support of central government. There is a huge amount still to do for the victims of the fire, requiring the full attention of this council and many others. If I stayed in post, my presence would be a distraction.”

The local council has instead been instructed to “work in a new way with different partners” going forward until the disaster relief efforts are concluded.

In some ways this speaks to the urgent need to reform Britain’s lacklustre civil contingencies protocols, which (as this blog discussed yesterday in detail) were proven not fit for purpose, with contradictory guidance about who has ultimate ownership for disaster recovery and unclear lines of communication between local government, national government and the emergency services.

But more worrying, from a democratic perspective, is the fact that the Communities Secretary has the power to unilaterally intervene and demand that a local council fire one of its own officers – for any reason, let alone mere bad optics.

Personally, I have never seen the great wisdom in councils hiring Chief Executives to effectively run their jurisdictions. One wonders what the job of councillors is supposed to be, if not that very thing. Far better to have directly elected mayors with real executive responsibility – and in the case of London, powers should either be vested in the office of Mayor of London or in elected mini-mayors for each individual borough – who are then responsible for running the machinery of local government.

To separate out the roles of political leadership and administration is itself to subvert the democratic process, as elected councillors are essentially divesting themselves of any direct responsibility for running their own fiefdoms while giving considerable power to a typically overpaid and unremarkable individual who is not directly accountable to voters. This gives local elected officials “plausible deniability” when anything goes wrong – including disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Rather than holding local politicians to account for their failures, instead the unelected CEO is offered up as a sacrifice to soak up the public rage while elected officials serenely glide on as though nothing had happened. This is no model for democracy.

But even though the CEO model is clearly flawed, it certainly should not be any business of central government in Westminster how the people of the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea manage their affairs. If people were politically engaged and had the will to do so – and if local elections were more than a glorified opinion poll in the gaps between general elections – then the local people could demand that the council dismiss their chief executive, or else punish the ruling party at the ballot box. But because we in this country look to central government to solve literally every one of our problems (and central government happily grants itself the authority to try), most people don’t care how their local government is organised. Turnout figures for any local election make this immediately plain.

Ultimately, there are two dangers here. The first is that by forcing the resignation of the Kensington & Chelsea Council chief executive – a huge overreach of authority by an already overcentralised Westminster government – we essentially paper over all of the cracks and flaws in our emergency response protocols. Rather than asking deep and searching questions about what went wrong at every stage of the process, we instead simply pat ourselves on the back for having forced one particular figurehead (or scapegoat) to resign and congratulate ourselves for a job well done.

But the second danger is the continued, seemingly limitless growth of the state. What is the point in having local elections or having a layer of local government if its decisions and appointments are to be arbitrarily second-guessed and overruled by Westminster? Sajid Javid is accountable to nobody in Kensington & Chelsea, and yet he saw fit to dismiss a local official whom local officials had entrusted with the running of the borough. This is appalling, and people should be outraged.

Never mind that the mere presence of an unelected borough chief executive is itself a shameful abdication of responsibility by local politicians and one of the key reasons why there are so few opportunities for elected officials to gain real executive experience in local government before seeking higher office. Ultimately, if Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council want to run their administration in this ludicrous way and the people are lethargic enough to allow it to continue, then Westminster has no business meddling in their affairs and picking and choosing who should be allowed to perform that role.

Some aspects of government – such as emergency response and disaster recovery – clearly require the close interaction of different levels of government and a variety of different agencies. But who Kensington and Chelsea council choose to keep in the position of chief executive should have absolutely nothing to do with Sajid Javid, Theresa May or anybody else in central government.

When it comes to designing protocols and procedures which clearly spell out how these different levels of government and different agencies work together during the emergency response and disaster recovery phases, there is clearly a vital role for national government. That is exactly the kind of high-level central planning that national government is designed to do. But when it comes to deciding who can and cannot serve in a position reporting to local government, Westminster needs to butt out. It sets a terrible precedent and undermines what little local democracy we actually have in Britain.

We are all outraged by the Grenfell Tower fire and we all want to see tangible actions taken to hold those responsible to account and prevent future occurrences. But mindlessly clapping along as the state makes yet another power grab and undermines the very idea of local democracy even further is not a sensible response to last week’s tragedy.

Theresa May’s beleaguered government has enough to be getting on with at the moment, without acting like a glorified parish council on top of everything else. We must stop encouraging Westminster to do so, and demand a revolution in local government instead.

 

Kensington Town Hall Protests - Grenfell Tower

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

A State Of Unpreparedness: Lessons In Disaster Recovery From The Grenfell Tower Fire

Grenfell Tower fire - disaster relief - Red Cross

The chaotic government response to the Grenfell Tower disaster has made it worryingly clear that despite extensive legislation and incredible local spirit, Britain’s civil contingencies and disaster preparedness protocols are not fit for purpose

“The Government’s handling of risks and emergencies in recent years has failed to inspire public confidence. In a range of crises, from the Foot and Mouth outbreak through to the grounds for war in Iraq, official predictions or capabilities have been found wanting. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 tenders reassurance by the promise of systemic planning and activity in civil resilience, though defence lies beyond its scope. The wide-ranging powers in the Act have the capability of delivering on the promise. But, as shall be revealed [..] efforts will be hampered because the legislation is hesitant and uneven.”

– Clive Walker and Jim Broderick, The Civil Contingencies Act 2004: Risk, Resilience and the Law in the United Kingdom

And so, on Sunday, the inevitable happened: the government took over direct control of the Grenfell Tower disaster relief efforts from the beleaguered Kensington & Chelsea borough council, following days of disturbing reports about a lack of proper coordination on the ground.

At the government’s request, the British Red Cross has now expanded from providing psychosocial support, fundraising and donation processing services to being the primary coordinator of the community assistance centre, distributing donations and being the single point of contact for anybody needing help. While organisations like the Red Cross had been on-site in some small capacity even while the fire still burned, they are now to significantly step up their presence and the type of support they are offering.

The Times reported:

The British Red Cross was drafted in to help with disaster relief in west London last night after Theresa May admitted the initial response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was “not good enough”.

The charity, part of the International Red Cross, which is more usually deployed in war zones and after natural disasters in the developing world, was recruited to give “psychological support” to survivors and the emergency services.

May praised the response of the fire brigade, police, NHS services and the local community as “heroic”. But in her first admission that the official response failed survivors and relatives of the dead, she added: “Frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough.”

Senior staff at Kensington and Chelsea council were ordered to stay at home yesterday after ministers decided they were not doing a good enough job.

Instead, officials with crisis experience were sent in from Westminster and other councils as well as Whitehall departments.

More disquieting accounts of the local council’s failure to get a grip:

A senior government source said Kensington council had been “decapitated”. Ian Austin, the Labour MP, said: “Isn’t it a good job that we’ve got charities and aid workers ready to step in when one of Britain’s richest councils can’t sort its own mess?”

While Paul Waugh provided this rather more encouraging update on Tuesday:

At last, the authorities seem to be getting some kind of grip on the response to the Grenfell Tower disaster. The PM chaired the first taskforce meeting yesterday and last night had some stats that showed progress, with £200,000 being distributed yesterday from the £5m emergency fund.

The Grenfell Response Team – a pan-London, Whitehall, police and British Red Cross effort – said 78 families were on course to be rehomed locally by Monday night. And 126 hotel places have been found. DCLG expected all councils to tell it by last night how many tower blocks needed extra safety checks.  Testing of samples of cladding begins today with all councils told to assess their building materials.

It is heartening to see the situation finally being stabilised, but it is also slightly worrying that it took a Cabinet-level intervention – with the prime minister taking personal charge of the taskforce only to delegate the heavy lifting to the Red Cross – to bring what is effectively (considering all of the worse possibilities lurking in the shadows) a mid-sized disaster relief campaign back under control.

But at this point they had no option. It has become increasingly clear since the Grenfell Tower fire that while our emergency services are incredibly brave and well-trained, there is no similarly disciplined and well-equipped group able and fully prepared to step into the void to help deal with the humanitarian consequences of a disaster once the first responders have done their job.

Frustratingly, it quickly became evident that the huge outpouring of public support for the survivors and bereaved was not being effectively harnessed and proactively directed to those in greatest need – not through any absence of goodwill but because of a failure to properly plan and delineate responsibilities.

And as the days wore on following the tragedy, there grew a disquieting sense – first highlighted on this blog, and later expanded upon – that our civil contingency procedures are not working properly, and that ultimate responsibility for dealing with the aftermath of a mass casualty incident with major damage inflicted is currently falling down the gaps between central government, local government, charities and private citizen volunteers, none of whom have an incentive to take ultimate ownership or be the public face of the response. And so a giant flaw in Britain’s emergency planning measures revealed itself.

The lynchpin of Britain’s emergency response protocol is the Gold-Silver-Bronze (or strategic, tactical and operational) Command structure, which was designed to coordinate the response of emergency services to a serious situation but which in actual practice is also used to organise preparedness for other events such as football matches and concerts.

But the Gold-Silver-Bronze Command structure – established after the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot, strengthened by the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act and invoked as part of standard practice in response to the Grenfell Tower fire – is clearly inadequate to dealing with the aftermath of a disaster from the point when the “blue light agencies” (fire, police, ambulance) have brought the immediate issue under control.

The Gold Command structure is useful primarily for coordinating the activities of first responder agencies from a strategic and tactical level. It has far less applicability when it comes to dealing with the human aftermath in the event of displaced or homeless people, where the police have only a limited role and the fire and ambulance services almost no role. The British Red Cross, for example is not wired in to this command structure as a matter of course, even though it has become evident that no other British agency possess the expertise and experience in dealing with the humanitarian aspect.

This is a design flaw that has lurked unnoticed for a long time. The vast majority of incidents in which the Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure is utilised, from football games to terrorist attacks, do not take place in residential settings – so once a situation has been brought under control and the locality is cleared, non-injured people can be reasonably expected to find their way home and fend for themselves. There is no humanitarian aspect, so to speak, as soon as the last victim has been put in an ambulance and carted off to the hospital or coroner.

But in the event of a disaster such as Grenfell Tower, where domiciles themselves were destroyed, there is often no home or alternative shelter to go to. After the fire, people found themselves homeless and in the well-meaning but erratic initial care of various community groups, religious organisations and the local Kensington and Chelsea council, outside any formal command structure overseen by government.

Unfortunately, the council’s role in coordinating the response and the amount of effort required on their part was not properly spelled out in advance in our emergency planning laws. Ironically, the level between Gold Command and Central government, which once defined the role of regional government offices in responding to a disaster, was abolished under the previous Conservative-LibDem coalition government.

Thus, in yet another example of the gross overcentralisation of all aspects of British government, local councils were effectively cut out of the loop when it came to disaster response, at least formally speaking. This is probably why it took the better part of a week – and was trumpeted as a huge achievement when it finally happened – for Kensington & Chelsea council workers assisting in the relief effort to even be issued with official council staff vests so that people could easily identify them and seek assistance.

From the Guardian:

At the Westway centre where the relief effort is being coordinated, there appeared to be evidence of much greater efficiency in efforts by councils, the Red Cross, the NHS and other officials to help residents after days of chaos. For the first time employees of Kensington and Chelsea were visible wearing nylon vests marking them out as council staff.

This, apparently, is what happens when you cut an entire layer of government out of emergency planning and disaster preparedness protocols without properly thinking through the consequences. Even wearing matching clothes becomes a challenge. We should be glad to hear that the relief effort is now finally being coordinated more effectively, but one wonders what is the point of local government if it is to have no formal role (let alone overall responsibility) for keeping citizens safe and ensuring their welfare following a disaster?

It need not be like this. When I first flagged concerns about the Grenfell Tower disaster relief operation on this blog, I recounted my experience of watching state government, local government and voluntary aid organisations working seamlessly together following a deadly tornado in Missouri:

I happened to be living in the American Mid-West when a huge tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri back in May 2011, killing 158 people and levelling entire neighbourhoods. Driving into town two days later, it looked for all the world as though an atomic bomb had gone off. Whole blocks of houses were reduced to matchsticks. Big box retail stores had been blasted away so that only their steel frames remained standing. Even big, solid buildings like churches and a concrete-constructed hospital were damaged beyond the point of repair.

And yet within almost no time, there was real organised and disciplined aid on the ground, delivering help and comfort to people who needed it. Charities like the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse sent convoys of trucks with aid and facilities such as washing machines and tumble driers so that people suddenly made homeless could do their laundry. Medical trucks administered tetanus shots to people, like me, who mucked in to assist with some of the repairs. The insurance companies sent mobile offices on the back of trucks to process damage claims. Churches organised the making and delivering of meals to those who needed them. And crucially, mobile command centres helped to coordinate the response, so that the appropriate help reached people who needed it while avoiding duplication of effort wherever possible. Honestly, the response was a sight to see and something I’m not likely to ever forget.

And all this in a town of little more than 50,000 people, far away from any real centre of political power or commerce in America. One shudders to think what might have happened if the Grenfell Tower fire had taken place somewhere further from the beating heart of our own democracy, perhaps in Sheffield or Newcastle or Glasgow.

In some ways, perhaps, the response might have been better – with fewer local resources to be brought to bear on the challenge, more may have been sent by other regions and leaders may not have been so quick to assume that somebody else was taking charge. Equally, the Grenfell Tower response may have suffered because people assumed that being in London, the logistical and welfare planning would take care of itself.

Ironically, the government’s own document – “Emergency Response and Recovery: Non statutory guidance accompanying the Civil Contingencies Act 2004” – discusses at length the importance of this phase. They even give us this helpful Venn diagram:

Civil Contingencies - Disaster Recovery - Grenfell Tower

 

There is no lack of consideration given to all of the aspects on which a proper Disaster Recovery plan should touch – see page 83 onwards in the report.

But the guidelines also go on to give these instructions:

5.2.1. The local authority is the agency responsible for planning for the recovery of the community following any major emergency, supported by other local partners via the Local Resilience Forums (LRF). In most cases, it will be sensible for top tier local authorities to lead but all local authorities and Category 1 responders should input. If there is more than one top tier local authority in the LRF, they should work together to co-ordinate recovery planning.

5.2.2. Following an emergency, the local authority will usually co-ordinate the multi-agency recovery process, including by chairing and providing the secretariat for the RCG, with support from the full range of multi-agency partners as necessary.

5.4.1. Activation of the Recovery Co-ordinating Group (RCG) is initiated by the local authority, usually following a request by / agreement with the Strategic Co-ordinating Group (SCG). An important part of the work of the RCG during the response phase of an emergency is to develop a recovery strategy (see paragraph 5.4.4) and inform the SCG of this strategy to ensure decisions made by the SCG do not compromise medium to long term recovery.

So the local authority – in the case of Grenfell Tower that would be London’s Kensington & Chelsea borough council – is nominally responsible for the “recovery of the community”, yet was partly cut out the direct interface between national government and the emergency services (through the Gold Command structure) when regional government offices were disbanded following the Coalition reviews.

To make things even more confusing, this document was produced by a group called the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, established in 2001 as a department of the Cabinet Office tasked with overseeing emergency planning in the UK. And we learn from the Metro newspaper that in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, Police and Fire Minister Nick Hurd “chaired a meeting of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat” to “coordinate the response to the disaster”.

So who was really in charge of the disaster relief response effort? Nick Hurd, in his role as chair of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat meeting following the fire? Katharine Hammond, director of the CCS since 2016? Theresa May, for ordering that the CCS convene in the first place? Kensington & Chelsea borough council, in accordance with the leadership role assigned by the CCS’s own guidelines, published in 2005 and updated in 2013? Central government, in its role as the “platinum” COBR level sitting above the Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure? Piers Morgan? Bigfoot?

It seems that we have protocols in place that are not worth the paper they are printed on – guidelines which foresaw a potential role for local Tourist Boards and even English Heritage in disaster recovery protocols, and yet failed to anticipate the degree to which the Grenfell Tower survivors and bereaved relatives of the victims would come to rely on the Red Cross and an army of disorganised but good-hearted independent volunteers to pick up the government’s dropped ball.

If the British Red Cross (rather than local government) is to be called upon to take operational control of the recovery process following any disaster with significant humanitarian implications then this should be clearly specified and written down in procedures, both to avoid confusion and duplication of effort but also to give the Red Cross a fighting chance of being ready to step into this role in the many various potential emergency scenarios tracked by the government.

In many ways, this would be a brilliant and quintessentially conservative solution – rather than forcing the state to duplicate services and expertise already provided by the charitable sector, instead we formalise their role and integrate them more tightly into our national emergency planning protocols. Rather than seeing the horrific Grenfell Tower disaster as an opportunity to expand the boundaries and competencies of the state even further, instead we formally recognise that voluntary organisations are best equipped to translate a huge and overwhelmingly generous public response into meaningful assistance for disaster victims.

But even if we don’t adopt this approach – even if we create a new government Disaster Recovery Agency to do the same job – at this point we just need to make sure that somebody, anybody is clearly given ownership of this phase of the emergency response process, as well as the authority and resources required to do the job.

Ultimately, it should not have taken the national government five days to recognise that our existing disaster recovery processes – in this case, seemingly half-heartedly managed by a local council whose role in the process was made murkier, not clearer, by recent guidelines – are inadequate to even a medium-sized incident in the heart of our capital city.

The Grenfell Tower fire had exposed serious failures, not just of political leadership (which this blog has covered extensively here, here and here) but crucially of planning and organisation. And we do not live in the kind of quiet, uneventful era where such government confusion and incoherence, broadcast to the entire world on television and the internet, can be permitted to continue.

This is a national security issue as much as an humanitarian one. And the worrying gaps in our civil contingencies protocol must be filled, quickly.

 

UPDATE: 21 June (15:55)

In her Commons speech following the Queen’s Speech, Theresa May finally acknowledged some of these failings:

 

The prime minister also stated that in addition to the judge-led inquiry the government would also consider implementing a Civil Disaster Response Taskforce to look at how disaster recovery processes can be strengthened and improved.

From Hansard (my emphasis in bold):

I would also like to say a few words about the disaster at Grenfell Tower. The whole country was heartbroken by the horrific loss of life and the utter devastation that we have seen. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the friends and families of all those who lost loved ones. Today, we also think of those who survived but lost everything. One lady I met ran from the fire wearing no more than a T-shirt and a pair of knickers. She had lost absolutely everything.

Let me be absolutely clear. The support on the ground for families in the initial hours was not good enough. People were left without belongings, without a roof over their heads, and without even basic information about what had happened, what they should do and where they could seek help. That was a failure of the state—local and national—to help people when they needed it most. As Prime Minister, I apologise for that failure and, as Prime Minister, I have taken responsibility for doing what we can to put things right. That is why each family whose home was destroyed is receiving a down payment from the emergency fund so that they can buy food, clothes and other essentials, and all those who have lost their homes will be rehoused within three weeks.

There will also be an independent public inquiry, chaired by a judge, to get to the truth about what happened and who was responsible, and to provide justice for the victims and their families who suffered so terribly. All those with an interest, including survivors and victims’ families, will be consulted about the terms of reference, and those affected will have their legal costs paid. Because it is clear that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has not been able to cope with the scale of the tragedy, we will also develop a new strategy for resilience in major disasters, which could include a new civil disaster response taskforce that can help at times of emergency. We must learn some of the lessons of this and previous disasters when bereaved families have not had the support they need.

Good. This is exactly what needs to happen – a thorough review of the way that Britain’s emergency services, voluntary organisations and different layers of government respond to the aftermath of any incident with humanitarian implications.

This blog’s concern would be that Theresa May’s instinct for authoritarianism and centralisation makes it more likely that we will see an entirely new agency created as an outcome of this review, paralleling much of the work already done by voluntary and charitable organisations such as the Red Cross. We should actively guard against this approach during the Taskforce once it is established.

But duplication of effort and concerns over the size and scope of the state must take a back seat to public safety. First and foremost, local and national government should be empowered to keep the people safe and provide for their welfare in the event of disaster through the application of clear and realistic protocols. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, these protocols were found wanting. Hopefully now we will take the action needed to make them fit for purpose.

 

Grenfell Tower fire - disaster relief - Red Cross - 3

Top Image: British Red Cross

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Why Theresa May Needs To Go Now

Theresa May - Tory Leadership -resignation

Every day that Theresa May remains in office is another day that the Conservative Party is idling in neutral, failing to retool and re-energise itself to take on Jeremy Corbyn’s marauding socialists

Tim Montgomerie, writing in the Evening Standard, explains quite comprehensively why there is only downside and no upside to keeping Theresa May in 10 Downing Street a moment longer than it will take the Conservatives to organise a leadership contest to replace her.

Montgomerie writes:

Tory MPs, returning in a shell-shocked daze to Westminster for this week’s low-fat, low-content Queen’s Speech, must quickly recognise that Theresa May is as finished as Mrs Clinton. Every day she remains in charge is a wasted day. Every day the country inches closer to an election for which Jeremy Corbyn will have added more activists to his impressive turnout machine. Equally, the Conservatives will have one less day to rebuild their own offering and operation.

Mrs May’s flat-footed response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was not just further proof she’s not that good at politics. It was another moment of not rising to the occasion as a leader with vision would do. The horrific burning alive of largely poor and marginalised people was — like 2008’s crash — another reminder of unjustifiable vulnerabilities at the bottom of society and inadequate responsibility from those at the top.

Yes. This blog has noted the number of commentators who leapt to the prime minister’s defence in terms of her out-of-step public response to the horrific Grenfell Tower fire last week. A significant minority seem to have convinced themselves that the prime minister’s excessive reserve terror at the thought of interaction with the public is somehow an admirable thing, the epitome of British stoicism, rather than further dismal evidence of Theresa May’s inability to lead.

These claims dismiss critics of Theresa May as reactionaries who just want to see the prime minister emote for the cameras and hug a few of the survivors, but this dismissive attitude completely misses the point. I don’t think anybody in Britain had any great desire to see the prime minister weeping with the Grenfell Tower victims on the evening news bulletins. They did, however, expect her to show up, even if it was politically awkward, just as American political leaders show solidarity with disaster victims in the United States and French political leaders in the aftermath of terror atrocities in France. This is not an unreasonable, irrational demand. It is Leadership 101, and Theresa May has been failing the test in manifold ways since well before the general election.

Montgomerie continues:

The most fitting memorial to those who perished [in the Grenfell Tower fire] is not to comfort the bereaved as all half-decent societies would. The best way of honouring the dead would be to deliver the scale of house-building that Conservative PMs such as Churchill and Macmillan championed but which an ideologically rigid Thatcherite dogma has since discouraged. For good measure, a government building more homes in the South would also significantly expand infrastructure in the North. The everyday so-called current government spending still needs trimming but leaving the next generation with inadequate roads, railways and broadband is just as irresponsible as leaving them up to their necks in debt.

I’d put believing that Elvis Presley is still alive on equal par with the claim that Mrs May could launch this agenda or something similar. Despite the words she uttered in Downing Street after first becoming PM she has done nothing of consequence for communities suffering most from the multigeddon of globalisation, open borders, automation and the collapse of the working-class family.

Rather than overhauling a threadbare party machine that helped lose a 20 per cent opinion poll lead, she has reappointed her Tory chairman. Those thinking the days of treating her Cabinet with disdain are over should look at her careless loss of two of the Brexit department’s four key ministers last weekend, a week before today’s starting gun for talks.

Also true. While this blog has focused on the need for conservatives to start transmitting a positive, optimistic message and defence of their worldview if they want to stand a chance of competing with the parties of the Left for the youth vote, good messaging alone is not enough. And while acts of pandering and voter bribery – such as matching Labour’s pledge for free university tuition – are rightfully unacceptable to conservatives, it should not be impossible for the Tories to recognise that their current housing policy (or lack thereof) is a punch in the gut to any young person not fortunate enough to inherit from their parents or be helped onto the housing ladder by them. Planning laws need to be urgently reviewed and liberalised. The Left wants to build council houses for all, so that everybody is dependent on the state for one more thing. Conservatives should counter with a bold proposal to expand the supply of private housing for rent and purchase.

Montgomerie is also right to criticise the party machine. CCHQ has presided over the near-total gutting of the party in recent years, from the winding up of the terminally dysfunctional Conservative Future youth movement to the neutering of the constituency associations and the megalomaniacal insistence of central control over candidate selection so as to ensure the continuance of the current system of patronage and nepotism which gave us such wonderful “rising stars” as Ben Gummer. Theresa May is not responsible for the party machine that she inherited when she became prime minister last year, but neither has she shown the slightest interest in revamping the party and opening it up to outside talent. The necessary change will not come so long as she remains leader.

Montgomerie’s conclusion is also strong:

A new PM and a contest necessary to establish who it should be will not be good for the nation’s immediate peace of mind or for business sentiment, but there are no easy options from where we are. What Britain does have is a two- to three-month window before September’s German elections. After that, Brexit negotiations will be fast and furious.

The Tories need a contest thorough enough to identify a team as much as a leader, and an agenda for social renewal as much as for Brexit. With both established, there is a real chance of stopping the momentum building behind Jeremy Corbyn — and it must be stopped. His views on tax, state power and defence would enfeeble this country.

We must not underestimate Corbyn. Voters who yearn for change may well roll the dice if forced to choose between Corbyn and “the same old Tories”. If, after all, people can convince themselves that the moon landings were staged, they may even believe Corbyn is equipped for Britain’s highest office.

There is never a good time to instigate a divisive, ugly leadership election campaign between general elections, but far better that Conservatives bite the bullet now than wait until a year into Brexit negotiations before swapping out the leader of the country. It’s bad enough to have to consider changing horses at the water’s edge of Brexit negotiations; changing horses mid-stream would only undermine the British negotiating position further.

And as Tim Montgomerie rightly says, a leadership contest is needed to identify not just a leader but also a team and a set of values – not just relating to Brexit – around which the party can coalesce and campaign. The 2017 general election campaign was a miserable affair in which Tories – led from the top by Theresa May – refused to make a bold, positive affirmation of free markets or other traditional conservative standards, instead portraying “austerity” and limits on the state as a necessary evil rather than as a potentially good thing in and of themselves.

The Tories were tricked into fighting on Labour’s turf (arguing about inequality) when they should instead have proudly made the case that conservative policies expand the pie for all while Jeremy Corbyn’s focus on equality of outcome promises only more equal slices of a rapidly diminishing national pie. Conservatives essentially went to fight in this general election only to discover that their leader had broken their best ideological weapon in advance of the battle. No wonder they lost ground against Jeremy Corbyn’s uplifting (if loopy and fiscally nonsensical) vision for Britain.

And then there is the elusive, undefinable sense of momentum. Whatever momentum Theresa May had when she took over from David Cameron, she has now squandered it all. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is on the march. Through her inept leadership and hopelessly prosecuted general election campaign, Theresa May literally gave 1970s style socialism a foothold back in our national politics, and raised the real risk that Corbyn could enter 10 Downing Street as prime minister if her shaky minority government were to fall. Prior to the election her aura of strength and stability was severely knocked by the multiple terror attacks on British soil, some of which exposed failings for which she was directly accountable as Home Secretary.

And now the Grenfell Tower disaster response has revealed the prime minister to be a shrunken, fearful and traumatised figure, clinging on day by day while colleagues openly worry about her mental state of mind. Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan between them have assumed the role of national Consoler-in-Chief, while Theresa May skulks in Downing Street and only meets with the survivors and bereaved relatives under duress. This might be partly excusable if she had organised a first-class disaster response plan a la Gordon Brown, but she didn’t. Instead there were days of chaos and confusion before Whitehall finally took over the response from Kensington & Chelsea council.

Rightly or wrongly – and the vast majority of criticism directed at Theresa may has been fully justified – the impression is of a prime minister in over her head, unable to regain her political footing and behaving in an entirely reactive way rather than giving the country the proactive leadership that it needs. There is no coming back from such a self-inflicted calamity. There is no PR job that can be done to repair the damage. And if Theresa May is hanging on in some desperate bid to burnish her legacy with a smattering of minor accomplishments before her inevitable removal then she is not only deluding herself but also putting herself before the Conservative Party, and party before the country.

So let’s bring on the contest. Let 48 Tory MPs submit their letters to the 1922 Committee and formally trigger a leadership challenge, forcing the prime minister’s resignation. There is no reason for us to continue to “bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of”. The undiscover’d country could hardly be any worse.

 

Theresa May - Downing Street

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.