From David Maughan Brown in York:Grenfell

Grenfell

February 12th

The temperature outside has barely risen above freezing for the better part of a week. The pavements are icy and the side roads that the gritters can’t get down aren’t a lot better.  Even were the cycle-paths not quite so treacherous, and the temperature not so unconducive to cycling, one would be inclined to try to avoid doing anything that had even the remotest chance of ending with a visit to A&E in times of Covid-19.  So, with the exercise bike still squatting uselessly in the corner of our dining-room with its missing part still unavailable  – held up, I’m told, at Customs (thanks to Boris and his misled Brexit voters) – getting much in the way of exercise involves methodically walking the stairs:  six times up to the top floor and back amounts to 192 stairs climbed and descended.

At least I have stairs, and at least they get me down to ground level for a quick exit should I need one.  As I walk them, I thank my lucky stars that I am not locked down in a totally unsalable two-bedroom flat, home-schooling two or more children on the umpteenth floor of a tower block still clad in lethally flammable cladding three and a half years after the Grenfell fire killed 72 people and injured as many more.   Grenfell Tower has been back in the news as the Inquiry into the disaster gets underway again following a Covid-19 enforced break, and campaign groups like End Our Cladding Scandal intensify pressure on the government finally to do something meaningful to assist the roughly 700,000 people financially trapped into staying in some 275,00 flats in high-rise buildings that could go up in flames and incinerate them at any moment.

Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – he of the corrupt housing deal with Richard Desmond whom I wrote about on June 28th – stood up in Parliament yesterday, positively glowing with self-esteem, and announced that £3.5 billion was to be added to the already committed £1.6 billion, to sort the matter out once and for all.  The news did not receive the rapturous welcome he seemed to expect.  A House of Commons select committee report in 2020 had estimated that the cost of addressing the problems of the tallest buildings, the ones taller than 18 metres, i.e. those with more than six floors, would be at least £15 billion, other estimates go as high as £100m.[1]   Leaseholders on the lower floors will have to contribute to the costs of replacing the cladding for which they were no more responsible than were the flat-dwellers on the 7th floor and above but, as Jenrick magnanimously announced, ‘no leaseholder will ever pay more than £50 a month towards the removal of unsafe cladding’, which the builders in many cases knew perfectly well to be highly flammable.  £50 a month may not sound like a vast amount, but at a time of increasing unemployment and hopelessly inadequate social welfare it can easily make the difference between having food on the table and going hungry.   Why the seemingly utterly arbitrary 18 metre cut-off?  For some peculiar reason Mr Jenrick apparently thinks that flats on the sixth floor are much less likely to be incinerated than flats on the seventh floor.  It would, at least, be more logical, if perhaps marginally less politically defensible, to think that people on the 6th floor have a better chance of making an escape if the block of flats goes up in flames that people on the 7th floor. 

But the problems don’t stop with the cladding.  The unfortunate lease holders, some of whom are being bankrupted by the trap they find themselves in, are paying hundreds of pounds for ‘waking watch patrols’ in the absence of the fire-alarms and sprinkler systems one might have expected to be compulsory features of high rise buildings.   In the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, hundreds of blocks of flats have been found to have inadequately filled wall cavities that will have to be filled if they are not to contribute to the spread of fires.  Leaseholders are being faced with huge increases in insurance costs as insurers cash in, while mortgage lenders are understandably hesitant to advance the necessary funding to anyone perverse enough to want to buy a flat in one of the affected blocks in present circumstances.

The leaseholders, even those who aren’t killed or injured in uncontrollable conflagrations, are the victims of the progressively lighter-touch regulatory regimes favoured by successive Conservative governments and their Tory-lite New Labour counterparts over the past three or four decades.   The consequences for the victims range from bankruptcy to sleeplessness, perpetual anxiety and acute mental health problems.  So far the developers responsible appear to be getting away scot-free.   When the Inquiry is finally over and blame comes to be apportioned there is a chance that a few senior managers might find themselves in the dock charged with corporate manslaughter.   Perhaps the deregulation wouldn’t have happened, the Grenfell victims wouldn’t have died, the leaseholders wouldn’t have had to wait so long for the wholly inadequate £5bn, had there been any remotely similar legislation available with which to hold negligent and incompetent governments to account.  But that would require parliament to pass the necessary legislation, and no turkey ever asked another one to vote for Christmas.


[1] https://www.pressreader.com

From David Maughan Brown in York: Covid corruption

October 21st 

It would appear that the supposedly Right Honourable Robin Jenrick – Member of Parliament for Newark and Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – has achieved the elevated status of being informally appointed, in public school terms, as the Prime Minister’s private fag.  He is being sent scurrying all over the country, most often to media studios, running errands for Boris.  Most people have better things to do, even under Covid restrictions, than keep an accurate count of the number of hours the different cabinet ministers spend in front of microphones and TV cameras, but if anyone is keeping count they will almost certainly find that Jenrick is way out in the lead at present.   I suspect that, although he is so bland as to be instantly forgettable, his readiness to run errands enables Boris himself to get on with his other priorities in life which, if past record is anything to go by, involve spending a lot of time in bed – not with Covid-19 for company.  As the one Cabinet Minister who should very evidently have been sacked for corruption – in his case for his role in the Richard Desmond property scandal I wrote about on 28th June – it is entirely appropriate that Jenrick should be seen to be the government’s chief spokesperson these days. 

Anyone in the UK who stereotypically regards governance in Africa as endemically corrupt, needs to look closer to home.  Motes, beams and eyes come to mind.  Human Rights organisations around the world have been pointing to the extremely worrying extent to which the governments of a range of countries around the world have been taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to crack down on human rights.  Far less publicity seems to have been given to the extent to which the pandemic has provided cover for governments to line their own pockets, and those of their friends and associates, while attention has been focussed on the far more immediate issues of national health systems and economies that are on the verge of being overwhelmed.   Arguing the need to act urgently in these “unprecedented” circumstances, without any parliamentary scrutiny or oversight, the UK government has seen the pandemic as the ideal opportunity to pour billions of pounds without any need for a competitive tendering process into the coffers of private sector companies that in many instances have had no previous experience whatever of the services or goods for which they have been contracted.   We should all by now be detecting a very pungent stink of rat every time a cabinet minister opens his or her mouth to utter the word “unprecedented”. 

An article by Ben Chu in Sunday’s Independent 1 titled ‘Has the government wasted billions on private firms?’ provides some revealing figures.   The desperately poorly performing “NHS” test and trace system, outsourced to companies like Serco, whose notoriety has up to now been based mainly on the crass way it runs detention centres and gaols, has quietly soaked up £12bn.  Serco apparently thinks its contribution to the programme has been a ‘triumph’.  Another 15bn has been allocated for personal protective equipment.  Ben Chu cites a figure of 1,997 private sector contracts that have been awarded to the private sector, to a total value of £12bn, since February. The absence of any need for competitive tenders has, inevitably, resulted in a number of suspicious awards such, for example, as a £840k contract for running focus groups awarded without competitive tender to what Ben Chu categorises as “close associates” (read “friends”) of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove. 

In the context of this over-energetic pumping of tens of billions of pounds into the bank accounts of private sector companies – Serco’s trading profit for the first half of this year was up 53% at £76m – the additional £5m Boris Johnson balked at in his protracted negotiations with Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester, is utterly trivial.  Burnham needs the money to provide support for those about to lose their incomes as a result of the imposition of Tier 3 on Greater Manchester and the significant, and wholly unexplained, drop in government support since the first lockdown.  Boris’s tactic of trying to pit the different regions in the North against each other by insisting on negotiating support packages with each region separately, rather than having a nation-wide formula, is cynical and contemptible but will almost certainly come back to bite him via its exacerbation of the North/South divide in this country.  A further example of the Tories’ utter disregard for the hardship and destitution being visited on so many families came with the voting down by a significant majority this evening of the proposal that free school meals should continue to be provided through the coming half-term and the school holidays until next Spring for children whose families qualify for them.  Angela Rayner, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was obliged to apologise for referring to one of the Tory backbench MPs as ‘scum’ during the debate.  She probably wouldn’t have got away with ‘lick-spittle’ either.

[1] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-independent-1029/20201018/281655372555692

From David Maughan Brown in York: Smoking guns

July 25th

So the Intelligence and Security Committee’s long and eagerly awaited Russia report did not contain the ‘smoking gun’ our cliché-loving journalists might have been either slightly apprehensive about (the right-wing majority) or hoping for (the very small proportion who don’t like Boris and the Tories one little bit.)  A ‘smoking gun’ was always unlikely at both a literal and metaphorical level.  At the literal level the Russians moved on from six-shooters long ago: their preferred author when it comes to getting interesting ideas about how to kill people is much more likely to be John Le Carré than Stephen King, and the preferred method for whacking the target more likely to be a scent-bottle full of novichok, or a few drops of polonium in a cup of tea, than a Smith and Wesson.  It was unlikely at the metaphorical level because unearthing a weapon of any description that has been used with ill intent tends to involve wanting to find it, and that means having to look for it.   The Intelligence and Security Committee is not in the business of hunting for weapons; its job is to analyse what they were being used for once they have been found.  So someone else has to find them and it has been transparently obvious ever since the Brexit referendum that the last thing the Conservative government wanted was an investigation into how the fraction of the electorate that voted to leave the EU was persuaded to do so.

Nobody was tasked with finding out if Russia had been trying to meddle in our democratic processes, and a blind eye was turned to all pointers to what might have been happening, such as the odd 145,000 or so anti-EU messages allegedly posted on social media by Russian bots in the 48 hours leading up to the referendum, so the committee’s report was always bound to have been unable to come to any substantive conclusions.   Boris and company, having engineered it, obviously knew that.  They knew precisely what was in the report and knew that it didn’t contain a ‘smoking gun.’  Which raises the interesting question as to why they should have bothered to stop it from being published before the General Election, in the face of considerable noisy flak from their parliamentary opposition.   And, following-on from that, why would Boris have deliberately delayed the Intelligence and Security Committee from holding any meetings at all for more than six months after the general election?  Could that delay have been deliberately designed to generate enough of a Brexit-related furore around the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report to distract attention from whatever else was going on that they really did need to cover up?   Was the ISC report just a decoy?

Even by the government’s own analysis, leaving the EU can only be seriously damaging for the UK’s economy.  It will, equally obviously, threaten the integrity of the UK which the Conservative and Unionist Party pretends to hold so dear.   Our cabinet cannot be so stupid that they don’t recognise those facts, or appreciate that trading under World Trade Organisation terms will make just as much of a nonsense of their cherished ‘independence’ as they claim trading on hated EU terms does.  So I can only conclude that what this is all about is personal wealth aggrandisement from Brexit in general and, more immediately, from the flow of Russian money into UK in particular.   The way the  ‘Leave’ campaign was conducted made it abundantly clear that the people now leading us into an economic wasteland wouldn’t recognise an ethic if it took its face-mask off, ignored social distancing, and introduced itself to them at a cocktail party.

If Robert Jenrick’s dinner side-dish of £12k into party coffers was a down-payment on a  £1 billion housing agreement with Richard Desmond, what was the value of the deal for which the wife of the former Putin minister, Lubov Chernukhin, was prepared to pay £160k, ostensibly just to play tennis with our fat (by his own admission) prime minister?  Boris was clearly seen for some reason to be likely to be more susceptible to female than male charms.   Ms Chernukhin was clearly so ready to take one for the team that she was also prepared not just to endure a dinner with Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, a less than enthralling prospect, but even to pay £30k for the experience.   The same question needs answering there , and was it just coincidence that it happened to be our Defence Secretary who was the lucky beneficiary of her company? 

Boris and his already wealthy chums were bound to welcome any help they could get, from any source however shady, where the referendum and election were concerned, but is it possible that anger at the blatant failure on the part of government to take any interest whatever in whether external forces had influenced the outcomes was deliberately fomented to divert attention from, and investigation into, precisely whose pockets Russian money is flowing into even as it goes to swell the Conservative Party’s coffers?

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘The right deed for the wrong reason’

28th June

So bumptious Boris is back to his bounciest and most boisterous best, particularly at performing U-turns.   Overdoing the alliteration seems an appropriate way to pay deference to a man whose rhetoric overdoes everything, most of the time including the truth.   Suitably socially-distanced Boris watchers (health warning: only for those with their blood-pressure medication close to hand) might well be asking themselves whether Boris’s very obvious disorientation is the result of his making himself dizzy with so many U-turns in such a short time, or whether the U-turns are the result of his having no idea where he was going in the first place and simply being comprehensively lost.   Those of us who are old enough to remember what my grandchildren would regard as ‘the olden days’ before sat-navs were invented will probably remember the latter feeling, although we were fortunate enough not to have a visually-impaired Dominic Cummings in the back seat telling us where to go.  Watching Boris’s blunderings and speculating about their origins may not be a particularly productive or spiritually fulfilling way of spending one’s time in lockdown, but it can become compulsive.

The list of U-turns is impressive, indeed, dare I say it, potentially ‘world-beating’: vouchers for free school meals during the summer holidays; binning our ‘world-beating’ tracking and tracing app.; relenting on all primary school children being back in school before the summer holidays; reversing the decisions on the NHS surcharge and the bereavement scheme; remote voting in the House of Commons; and the imposition of the blanket quarantine.  And those are just the ones that come immediately to mind.  Those are, however, just details: the Grand-daddy of them all, which Boris has been ‘doubling down’ on again today, is the gargantuan Tory U-turn on ‘austerity’.   The other U-turns, which have to do to what are essentially mere details, were forced on an unthinking government, both congenitally and ideologically averse to consultation with anybody, least of all unions and local councils, by public pressure. This one, which involves borrowing at historically low interest-rates in order to spend our way out of recession and mass unemployment by investing in infrastructure, “Building, building, building”, suggests that there is, after all, a glimmer of intelligence, a flickering candle, somewhere in the pea-soup fog of collective Tory intelligence.

As the Keynesian economists they obdurately refused to listen to have been telling them for the last decade, that is what they should have been doing ever since the recession in 2008.  If they had gone down that road, they could have avoided the untold misery, anxiety, poverty and cultural impoverishment their ideological obsession with shrinking the state has occasioned:  the closing of youth and child services; the forcing of tens of thousands into the humiliation of having to rely on food-banks; the closing of municipal libraries; the strangling of the justice system; the denial of adequate funding to the NHS, which occasioned the lack of PPE and caused how many deaths?  The list goes on and on and on.  And, even in deciding on the U-turn, Boris still can’t bring himself to be entirely honest:  “We are absolutely not going back to the austerity of 10 years ago,” he told the Sunday Times today.  ‘The austerity of the last 10 years’, to which he gave every evidence of being wholly committed, would have been more honest.

Now, with his invariably tone-deaf timing, bouncy Boris declares his commitment to ‘Building, building, building’ at the precise moment his housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, is coming under increasing pressure for overruling Tower Hamlet officials, who apparently begged him not to give a last-minute go-ahead to Richard Desmond’s application to get ‘building, building, building’ a one billion pound housing development, involving 1500 houses, in an already overcrowded part of Tower Hamlets in London.  Having sat next to Desmond at a dinner, and allegedly watched a promotional video for the development, Jenrick is alleged to have overruled planning objections the day before Desmond would have been obliged to pay £45 million in extra developer’s contributions to the Labour-run Tower Hamlets council.  Desmond subsequently sent Jenrick a message thanking him for his speedy response and for saving him from having to pay ‘loads of doe (sic)’ to ‘the Marxists’.  It will, of course, have been entirely coincidental that Desmond then made a £12,000 donation to the Conservative Party.  But a mere twelve grand is peanuts in the grand scale of things:  the Independent reported yesterday that the Tories have received a total of £11 million in donations from building magnates in the six months since Boris became prime minister.   Who, any longer, wonders why?

T.S. Eliot has Becket say in his Christmas sermon in Murder in the Cathedral: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.’  In clinging on desperately to avoid losing Dominic Cummings, Boris was very clearly doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason: he is wholly dependent on Cummings to run the country for us.  In regarding the Jenrick matter as ‘closed’ (according to Priti Patel, who would know) he is laying himself open to the very strong imputation that his commitment to “building, building, building” is a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.  Infrastructure projects, as anyone who has ever managed them knows full well, leave all sorts of opportunities for corruption and sleaze.   

In his bouncily boyish way, Boris has been trying to demonstrate to the world that he is back to his best, but perhaps only managing to give the impression that he is, in P.G. Woodhouse terminology, a bounder.  Today he has told us that he is ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’ and we’ve been regaled with unedifying footage of his backside as he did press-ups for the benefit of the Mail on Sunday to prove it.  While many of us would be only too pleased to see his back, I don’t imagine that too many people want to be shown his backside as an accompaniment to Sunday dinner.   Boris may well be ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’, although how many press-ups he managed wasn’t mentioned.  Some of the women who know him best may, for all we know, also consider him to be as randy as a butcher’s dog and to have the moral compass of a butcher’s dog.  His apparent inability to see anything whatever wrong with Cummings’ and Jenrick’s behaviour might suggest to some people that he also has the ethics of a butcher’s dog.  But, however fit he may or may not be, best not to enter him in the butcher’s dog category at Crufts (‘The World’s Greatest Dog-show’) until someone has, at the very least, groomed him.   There are times when I get the impression that Crufts isn’t even in the same league when it comes to the world’s greatest dog-show.