News 04th Jul 2017

Corruption and Grenfell Tower


Robert Barrington

Executive Director

Robert joined Transparency International UK in 2008 and was appointed as Executive Director in 2013. His areas of expertise include the Bribery Act integrity in the private sector and corruption within the UK. Recent projects and publications include ‘Anti-Bribery Due Diligence for Transactions’, ‘Adequate Procedures & Guidance to the UK Bribery Act’ and ‘Corruption in the UK’.

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There has been much talk of corruption in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.  Could corruption have played a part in the alleged catalogue of errors and shortcuts that led to so many lives being lost? n.b. Transparency International will be writing to the Head of the Inquiry outlining the corruption risks that will need to be analysed.

It’s worthwhile trying to work out what corruption would mean in the context of Grenfell Tower.  A caveat: these are scenarios not accusations.  It’s sobering to think that we may need to look at events such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh to give an insight into how corruption might have caused a similar loss of life in the UK.  One of the lessons of such tragedies is that you don’t always need ‘grand corruption’ to end up with a tragedy: many small acts of corruption can conspire to have a devastating consequence.

What does corruption look like in practice?

Here are a few areas in which corruption could have played a part in a tragedy like Grenfell Tower:

  • Shortcuts and sub-standard work: these might typically be a result of bribery (for example, to persuade inspectors to turn a blind eye) or cronyism (for example, allowing an incompetent contractor to get a contract).
  • Failure to deter corruption: it’s also possible that contractors cut corners because there is a lack of oversight that means they are unlikely to be found out.  The lack of oversight itself might be a result of corrupt decision-making (for example, a decision to outsource council procurement decisions being taken by someone who has a serious conflict of interest, such as a job offer from one of the private sector companies that will benefit).
  • Theft or diversion of council funds leading to under-funding: this would be rare but not unprecedented in the UK, and might be an explanation for shortcuts, poor service provision or lack of resources in key areas such as responding to fire safety warnings.

Beyond those that have an immediate and obvious link, there are a couple of ‘systemic’ corruption issues that it would be foolish to ignore:

  • Housing priorities distorted by inflows of corrupt capital: did the wealth and prestige brought to the borough by corrupt oligarchs buying top properties lead to distortions in political decision making with regard to housing?
  • A political system that perpetuates inequality: could it be that the UK’s political system, both in national and local government, has become so accustomed to listening to the voices of lobbyists and vested interests, through the buying of political influence through donations, and the revolving door – that it has neglected to listen to the voices of ordinary citizens, creating an environment in which decisions are inevitably and systematically taken on behalf of ‘the few not the many’?

Five factors that exacerbate corruption risk

If there was corruption at play, it will have been made more likely and made worse by five factors:

1. Lack of oversight of local authorities. As outlined in our 2013 report on Corruption in Local Government, the abolition of the Audit Commission, decline of local media and other factors have led to a decline in oversight of local government.

2. Decline in local government’s ability to provide oversight.  A second oversight problem is the ability of a local council to provide adequate oversight of projects it initiates (ie did the council have the ability to check compliance of its contractors, or did it just pass the buck down the supply chain?).  Again, this has been subject to cutbacks and is affected by other factors such as the decline in the investigative capacity of local media.  We will only know the consequences in a decade or so, but meanwhile lack of oversight in the use of public funds opens the space for corruption, and we can expect corruption to increase.

3. Confusion over who is responsible. Over forty police forces and sixty-six other bodies have some responsibility for corruption in the UK, and some of them don’t even know it’s their job. The chances of investigation, let alone successful investigation, are very small.

4. Disincentives for whistleblowing.  Throughout the world, one of the main ways in which corruption – a hidden crime – comes to light is through whistleblowing.  But whistleblowers are not well treated in the UK, and so there are strong disincentives to coming forward, and thus less deterrent to those who act corruptly.

5. Lack of transparency.  When public services are contracted out to the private sector, they are no longer subject to public scrutiny such as Freedom of Information requests.

Why is it important to know where there was corruption?

There are three good reasons:

1. It will help define under which laws people can be prosecuted

2. It will reassure the general public that this area, which is subject to strong public speculation, has been properly examined

3. The response – how the lessons are learned and what changes are made to provide future safeguards – will be more effective if it is based on a proper understanding of the problems.

Will corruption be part of the public inquiry?

The UK does not have a great track record on this.  There is a long-standing complacency that corruption happens overseas and not here, and many of our national responses are built on that foundation.  However, there is a chink of light.   In the justified outrage that many people feel about the tragedy, we should also remember that levels of corruption in the UK are nowhere near those of some other countries.  We can have a fair degree of confidence that the public inquiry will be conducted fairly, impartially and in the interests of justice, with a genuine effort to get to the bottom of what happened and identify who, if anyone, should be held accountable.  It has taken many years, far too many, for justice to come for the Hillsborough victims – but the system in this country does allow it to happen.  But.  There is a but.  The right questions must be asked at the start of the investigations – not many years after, as happened with Hillsborough.  And Hillsborough also tells us that there may be vested interests who will wish it not to happen.   A key question for the Grenfell Tower public inquiry to ask is whether there was corruption involved, and if so whether it made a difference.  It needs to be an explicit question, properly and expertly investigated.

A related question is who should run the public inquiry.  Irrespective of whether the judge selected for the Grenfell Tower enquiry is appropriate (clearly, there are different opinions), it is important in the interests of both an effective inquiry and justice for the victims that certain principles are adhered to in appointing such an individual.  There is a two-fold risk:  having a popular choice who lacks the skills or has a pre-determined sense of the findings, or approaches the task ideologically and not objectively; or appointing an individual whose is pre-disposed not to examine the hard questions and is inclined to a knee-jerk defence of the establishment.  If the process of public inquiries is itself hijacked, for reasons of political or personal gain, then there is a risk that we let people down again.  In an atmosphere in which the word corruption is liberally applied to everything people don’t like, it will not take much for the public inquiry to be labelled as such, and if that is improperly applied it will not serve the interests of the victims or justice.

Where next?

We also need a mechanism to make sure that corruption does not play a part in any other national tragedies.  Corruption may or may not have played a part at Grenfell Tower: but that tragedy illustrates how it might play a part.  The right home for such thinking is the UK’s National Anti-Corruption Strategy.  This was due for publication in December 2016.  Then May 2017.  And now…when?  The new government has not committed to a date.  Yet the National Anti-Corruption Strategy is more important than ever, and must cover key areas highlighted by Grenfell Tower: corruption risks in politics at local and national level; transparency over the public procurement process; the role of lobbying, the revolving door and political party funding in distorting decision making; the oversight mechanisms; and the resources and capability of law enforcement authorities.

Grenfell Tower was a terrible tragedy.  The least we can do for the victims is to make sure that the public inquiry looks at whether corruption played a part, and how we can prevent future such tragedies being caused or made more likely or made worse by corruption.