View from the Street: Grenfell - a look forward

Daisy Penman

View from the Street: Grenfell - a look forward

Watching the news on the morning of the 14thJune last year made for harrowing viewing. As reports from the tragedy at Grenfell filled our screens, we watched aghast as flames tore through the tower, confused and shocked at how a disaster of this magnitude could happen in Britain in 2017.

But a year on, has our collective response to the horror of that night gone far enoughto protect us from future tragedies and support those affected by Grenfell? Clearly not. As the official inquiryhas laid bare, 72 people are confirmed to have died and hundreds more are still displaced, not knowing when they will find a permanent home. Only four per cent of tower blocks in the country have had their flammable cladding removed. Campaign groups have worked tirelessly to hold the guilty parties responsible for their negligence, with precious little evidence of progress to show for it.

To the man or woman on the street, it looks like a classic case of corporate negligence. Scotland Yard has promised to bring charges against anyone they find culpable – including the companies who made the highly flammable cladding attributed to the fire spreading so quickly, and the borough of Kensington and Chelsea which approved the installation. The charge that would be brought against the accused parties would likely be corporate manslaughter, which is defined as when “an organisation’s activities were managed or organised in a way that caused a person’s death and amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care.”

But the path toward pursuing formal charges is littered with obstacles. Companies have only been liable to manslaughter charges since 1965. Before that, the principle of a judge from the eighteenth century summed up the problem of litigation against large businesses. According to 1stBaron Thurlow: “corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned.” Today, the good news is that the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 allows the courts to punish companies if they have made decisions or shown negligence resulting in the loss of life.

This will apply to Grenfell if it can be proven that those at the most senior level of the cladding companies or the council knew that the material was unsafe and could lead to loss of life, but gave the go-ahead for it be installed anyway. Known as the “identification doctrine” – when the prosecution is able to identify a controlling mind of the organisation in the form of an individual who made the decision on behalf of the company - the organisation as a whole can be convicted and members of senior management can be jailed.

Many will be familiar with the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise in Zeebrugge in the 1980s: 193 people died and P&O’s parent company was charged. Despite an inquest jury returning a guilty verdict on 187 counts of unlawful killing, the case was dismissed as the negligent acts could not be attributed to an individual deemed to be the “controlling mind”.

Of all the corporate manslaughter cases tried in the UK, the majority of guilty verdicts are found against small businesses. Those brought against large corporations often end in the case being dismissed or the company being fined.

The scale of horror of the Grenfell disaster is unprecedented, as was the public outpouring of compassion that followed. The government’s response must rise to meet the efforts of those campaigners and families who have not stopped fighting for the memories of the victims and the lives of the displaced residents.

If the inquiry returns a guilty verdict against the cladding companies or the council, potentially resulting in prison sentences for members of senior management, it will set a ground-breaking precedent for cases like these.  That would also send a message that corporate failings resulting in the loss of human life will not be tolerated.

Daisy Penman is a researcher with Charlotte Street Partners, currently studying for a degree in Psychology at the University of Edinburgh.