Refusing the positive

It is often said that terrible events give us all an opportunity to learn lessons. That those affected by a disaster and who suffer the most will at least, if sometimes inadvertently, leave a positive legacy for others to make sure that whatever cataclysm occurred never happens again.

This tendency to express heartfelt empathy for the victim while extracting ourselves from painful emotions to pick up the pieces and ‘move on’ might be perceived as a cliché, but there is no doubt there exists a plucky spirit of making-do that is a source of national pride. In fact, what else can those who survive and who have influence really do?

With the horror of the Grenfell Tower tragedy still fresh in the memory and with various fire reports, responses and inquiries still in progress, it is right to say that today, as I write this on 14 June, one year on, we have not yet fully ‘learned the lesson’, nor yet drawn a line between ourselves and those awful events.

In part, this is because we don’t know for certain what actually happened or why, but also because the consequences of what happened are far from over. So far, the actual legacy of the fire that swept away so many lives continues to be a disgraceful state of insecurity for those directly affected by its devastating impact. It is also clear that treating the powerlessness as some kind of failure of regulation or education to which the answers are better systems, somewhat misses the point.

The danger of rushing to these kinds of lessons is that in adopting a position of calm rationality in search of something positive or useful to say, those commentators on Grenfell Tower simply end up speaking on behalf of victims in words that can sound impersonal and detached.

The anger and outrage should not be washed away, people should be more wary of speaking on behalf of others and it should be emphasised that Grenfell Tower was not some kind of natural disaster that occurred out of the blue. It was a man-made event based on decisions that were – and continue to be made – involving a wide body of individuals embedded within the administrative architecture that frame our lives and which clearly treats some people as more worthy to be listened to than others.

July 5 2017 Railings close to Grenfell Tower covered in memorials to those killed and missing. Photograph: iStock / Amanda Lewis

We can already see how some want to interpret the event. Andrew O’Hagan’s seven-part piece for The London Review of Books, based on individual stories of survivors and victims of the catastrophe, is a ground-breaking work. Yet, as well as implicating those involved in the cladding process and emergency fire services response, it seems to want to exonerate the borough council from responsibility.

How well-documented complaints from residents to the council were ignored is, well, ignored yet again, in a narrative that seeks a simple ending, with all loose ends tied up. In the world of health and safety we know that the views of people, and how any organisation responds to those views, is not an irrelevant sideshow. On the contrary, it is actually the main story.

At the British Safety Council we believe that people who are at the sharp end of a risk should have a say in how significant it is and how much effort should go into its prevention and control. As we already know, what happened at Grenfell was entirely preventable and there is simply no excuse that victims are still suffering.

However, learning lessons is not always the same as seeking justice. A desperate rush to learn lessons too quickly risks failing to learn the greatest lesson of all – that justice, in its demand for accountability and fundamental change, does not put Grenfell Tower behind us. It puts it in front.

Mike Robinson FCA is Chief executive of the British Safety Council