The Competition’s Killing

The scaffolding’s going up around Big Ben. Thus begins an estimated (!) three-year, £29 million refurbishment scheme at one of London’s most famous landmarks. This may be seen as a toe in the water for a full revamp of the Houses of Parliament, a looming project whose current leading bidder is U.S. Company CH2M, which promises to bring the whole thing in for a mere £3.5 billion over six years.

Four miles away in North Kensington, there is no sign of scaffolding around the Grenfell Tower; nor will there be. What’s left of the building is to be demolished before the end of 2018, possibly the first of many such 1960s-70s tower block demolitions in London, if Mayor Sadiq Khan is to be believed.

About a mile and a half from Big Ben to the north east, cleaners at St Bart’s Hospital have been staging industrial action against the imposition of new terms and conditions imposed by Serco, who have just taken over the cleaning contract for Barts Health NHS trust, worth £600 million over the next decade, and with a further three years possible after that.

Meanwhile, back in North Kensington, the Grenfell Response Team has been in action. This team, comprising paid central government and local authority staff, fire officer and police, as well as British Red Cross volunteers, has been set up as the one-stop shop for anyone affected by the fire.


One of the most recent “responses” of this team has been to block the activities of its own volunteers. The Red Cross are a vital part of the “A Safe Space To Talk” initiative, which, as the name suggests, provides a non-judgmental, no holds barred chance for direct victims, their friends and loved ones to express themselves and ask for help.

A Safe Space to Talk was partly the idea of SOS – Silence of Suicide, a third sector mental health support group. SOS report that one person has committed suicide as a result of the Grenfell atrocity, and another 21 people have attempted suicide. People attending their Safe Space meetings have exhibited signs of “trauma, depression, PTSD, grief, isolation” and many other after-effects.

Unfortunately, the Grenfell Response Team have banned SOS from publicising any further Safe Space To Talk meetings at their HQ (The Curve, No 10 Bard Road, Nottingdale W10 6TP). Presumably the Red Cross’s involvement with one group does not qualify it for activities with the other.

On Thursday, 3rd August, striking Barts’ cleaners picketed nearby JP Morgan’s City of London HQ (60 Victoria Embankment EC4Y 0JP), where Serco were holding a shareholders’ meeting. They were joined by Bank of England support staff and British Airways cabin crew. Workers (not bankers, obviously) at the Bank of England have had their pay frozen for the second year running; BA cabin crew have had pay differentials forced on them, and been victimised since deciding to try to do something about it.

Political Football

Grenfell Support Group and Serco might not appear to have much in common at first glance. One is an ad-hoc coalition of agencies which might be expected to work towards giving assistance to survivors and victims of a national tragedy; the other is part of a foreign-owned corporation whose raison d’etre is to make money.

Certainly, most of the Grenfell group’s activities are funded by council tax and income tax; Serco has to justify any wages it pays to its shareholders. The first thing Serco did on taking over at Barts was to abolish ten minute tea breaks; it is also fighting tooth and nail not to award its workers the 30p an hour pay rise they are fighting for.

The irony of the Grenfell situation is that local authority staff at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have been paid under false pretences inasmuch as one of the buildings in their Borough caught fire, killing dozens of residents. While some of these staff may well have had a wake-up call (and two of them have resigned, along with all four of their surnames), it is widely acknowledged that volunteers on the ground have been, and always are, the most effective second-line helpers in times of crisis.

The British Red Cross is one of the oldest-established and arguably most effective charities in the world; and as such is unsurprisingly integral to the combined response to the Grenfell catastrophe. It is, of course a victim of politics; a situation it will be well used to. The harsh reality of one of its organisers not being allowed to work due to the actions of a group in which it is itself involved must be remarkably frustrating, and is surely by any objective measure counterproductive.

As Long As Your Arm

Grenfell Tower is “managed” by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO). This is what’s known as an ‘arms-length’ management organisation; since 1996, local authorities across the UK have divested themselves of complicated situations brought about by the sale of council properties in what were council-built and council-owned blocks of flats and estates.

As such, the relationship between local authorities and their TMOs is complicated. While some residents of buildings ran by TMOs own their own properties, others are private tenants of landlords who have bought properties to let. Other residents, of course, are still Council tenants; as such, they pay rent as well as Council tax, and have rights over and above other residents. None of this, of course, counts for anything if the building burns down.

What it does enable local authorities to do is to distance themselves from such disasters. While two high-profile Council members have fallen on their swords, they did this to avoid bad publicity; no Council staff will ever face prosecution for the events of Wednesday, 14th June 2017. The Chief Executive of the TMO resigned shortly afterwards to “concentrate on assisting” with the inevitable inquiry into its causes. However, it is likely to be decision-makers in the labyrinth of sub-contractors which applied the cladding who are likely to be losing sleep as events unfold.

Just as local government has washed its hands of such matters, so national government long ago abandoned hospitals to their fate. Whether Serco decide to give an extra few pence an hour to some of the most poorly-paid workers at four of the most prestigious hospitals in the UK’s capital city is of no concern to the Department of Health. Since the early 1980s, when local authorities started (willingly or not) selling their housing stock, private companies have been increasingly welcomed into the National Health Service.

Since Labour’s Alan Milburn announced in 2002 that the NHS was to be “freed” to operate as a collection of Trusts in competition with each other for, among other things, cleaning services, private companies have made ever-bigger profits from such contracts. One of many US-based companies with serious investment in the UK, Serco has moved from prisons to hospitals as easily as swine flu passes from pigs to humans.

Whatever the outcome of the Grenfell inquiry or the plethora of industrial disputes in what used to be called “the public sector,” central and local government employees will not pay any price. Some of those who will are currently homeless in a Royal borough and on strike at a world-famous teaching hospital. As workers at the Red Cross, Bars, the Bank of England and British Airways will testify, names don’t mean what they used to. If your boss has an arms-length arrangement, you wash their hands for them.


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