Why the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry must not drag on too long

This is the 68th public inquiry set up by ministers since 1990 – the average time from inquiry announcement to final report is two and a half years. 

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The inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire will allow survivors and victims’ families to put on the public record their versions of what led to the fire and how it affected them. That is important but one is bound to wonder if much more will be achieved. The danger of this inquiry and others like it is that by the time they report, public pressure to take necessary action – in Grenfell’s case, stricter standards of building safety and more rigorous enforcement – has dissipated. It has taken nearly a year since the Grenfell fire to get the inquiry started and it will probably be at least two more before we get a final report.

According to the Institute for Government think tank, this is the 68th public inquiry set up by ministers since 1990. The average time from inquiry announcement to final report publication is two and a half years, but nine have taken five years or more, including the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War, which notoriously took seven years. Professor Alexis Jay, the fourth chair of the accident-prone inquiry into child sexual abuse, originally set up in 2014, expects “substantial progress” by 2020.

Given the cost of all these inquiries – at least £640m, much of it in lawyers’ fees – parliament should surely insist on annual reports on the implementation of their findings. And given the frequency with which they now come along – nine have been announced in the past three years alone – ministers should also set up a permanent unit to provide guidance on how they can proceed more quickly and efficiently.

Brexit bumps

When Britain opens post-Brexit trade talks with the US, it is reported, Donald Trump will demand that the NHS pays more for prescription drugs, thereby plunging its beleaguered finances into even deeper trouble and/or increasing charges for patients.

Trump argues that the NHS and other “socialised” health services can negotiate lower prices because they are monopsonies (monopoly buyers), giving drug companies no choice. Private health companies in the US have no such bargaining power and drug prices are therefore higher for Americans. Trump is also likely to demand that NHS services are opened to American companies.

Jeremy Corbyn favours Brexit because he believes (wrongly, some argue) that Labour’s renationalisation plans would fall foul of EU competition rules. Has it dawned on him that he risks the survival of the biggest, most successful and most important nationalised public service we have left?

Ken’s calamity

Ken Livingstone’s departure from the Labour Party – by resigning ahead of almost certain expulsion for claiming that Hitler supported Zionism – prompts me to wonder whether Gerald Kaufman, who died in 2017, could still be a member. A Labour MP for 46 years and finally father – oldest member – of the House, he shadowed two of the great offices of state (Home and Foreign) under Neil Kinnock.

He was a fierce and consistent critic of Israel who supported economic sanctions, called it a “pariah state”, and accused its government of “ruthlessly and cynically” exploiting Gentiles’ guilt over the Holocaust to justify the “murder of Palestinians”. When an Israeli army spokeswoman described most of the Palestinians killed during the Gaza war of 2009 as “militants”, he called it “the reply of a Nazi”. Worse still, he said “Jewish money, Jewish donations” biased the Conservatives in Israel’s favour and that in Jerusalem the Israelis were “executing” Palestinians and then fabricating tales of “attempted stabbings” as justification.

Kaufman, whose parents were Polish Jews and whose grandmother was killed by the Nazis, once said he was himself a target for anti-Semitism. But, he added, “I get much more hate mail from Jews.” Anti-Semites had never threatened him with violence but Jews had, “even when I was at worship in the synagogue”.

Almost nothing said by those Labour members now accused of anti-Semitism was not said in the past by Kaufman. Just about the only thing he didn’t say was that Hitler was a Zionist.

Developers and other animals

Though I haven’t been there for some years, the far north-eastern corner of Corfu remains among my favourite destinations. Much celebrated by the Durrell family, it was just about the only section of the island’s coastline that remained largely unspoiled. My wife and I once walked on a moonless night across the wild headland between Avlaki Beach (about two miles from relatively downmarket Kassiopi) to upmarket San Stefanos (otherwise known as Kensington-on-Sea) and got hopelessly lost while gazing at a sky less polluted by artificial light than anything we’d seen in England since childhood.

Now this 500-acre area, known as Erimitis, has been sold to an American developer, NCH Capital, which, according to its website, plans “a hotel complex with sports facilities, outdoor swimming pools and a marina with berths for tourist vessels”. NCH describes the headland as “previously undeveloped and neglected”, which presumably means nobody is making money out of it.

Lee Durrell (widow of Gerald Durrell, author of My Family and Other Animals), writing in the Sunday Times, argues that, though the complex will occupy only 45 acres, it will be enough to ruin the headland as a “home to otters, orchids and magnificent strawberry trees”. Forced to pay off its debts by international creditors, Greece is a country for sale. This is just one example of what is being lost.

Wave of approval

In my curmudgeonly republican way, I refused to watch a single second of the royal wedding. I now wonder if that was the right decision. Anything that allows one to get as far as page 30 of a Monday morning Daily Mail without a single reference to “Remoaners” and their “treachery” must have something to be said for it.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman