With all due respect to Elton John, sorry is quite an easy word to say. We hear it an awful lot from politicians nowadays. What we don’t often hear – and what makes a true apology hard – is a politician taking responsibility for the actions which require an apology. Or, still harder, enacting change which would prevent further apologies in the future.
The difference between apologies and accountability was evident in recent sessions of the Grenfell Inquiry.
As he reflected on his own role in the 2017 tragedy which killed 72 people and exposed widespread failings in the construction industry’s understanding of building regulations, senior official Brian Martin became visibly emotional.
Martin clearly regrets those missed opportunities deeply, and has thought about what must change to avoid another tragedy, saying he could see “a number of occasions where I could have potentially prevented this happening.”
Yet while he took responsibility for his own decisions, he added that successive governments’ approaches to regulation “had an impact on the way we worked, the resources that we had available, and perhaps the mindset that we’d adopted as a team”.
The following week, Martin’s former boss Eric Pickles appeared at the inquiry. Aside from worrying about how long the session would last, and calling victims the “nameless 96” – wrongly on both counts – he also washed his hands of responsibility, saying that even if he had reacted differently at certain points, the “mindset” of officials was such that things would still have ended up as they did.
Pickles didn’t seem to notice that he helped create that mindset. And while acknowledging his accountability for key decisions in theory, he suggested that officials were not properly advising him: “I have to say, as a matter of fact, there was no indication from anyone that there was a problem, and that I think is critical.”
Building regulation officials were “living in an isolation bubble” he added, and if he had known that they were struggling with their workload, he would have “addressed it in a kind way rather than a scolding way”.
It’s hard to reconcile this image of a supportive leader with the minister known for his derisive attitude towards civil servants. Even if Pickles was “kind”, the context of huge spending cuts and a strong de-regulatory drive mean it is not surprising – though still worrying – that officials either did not spot potential problems or did not feel able to discuss them with ministers.
The inquiry will set out its findings on the failures which led to Grenfell in due course. But these findings will only make a difference if individuals are prepared to accept responsibility and the need for change. Politicians – and some senior officials – must acknowledge their role in systems which are failing. If they don’t, the result is not only a failure to address problems or improve outcomes, but ever-diminishing trust in government.
A few days after Pickles’s appearance, the inquiry heard from Karim Mussilhy, who lost his uncle in the fire and is now a leading member of campaign group Grenfell United. “Five years later these crooks, these criminals – the government and local authorities – they’ve not learned their lessons,” he said, adding that he had lost faith in “almost everything”.
“The government’s duty is to protect us, but only last week a Lord was here, calling our families nameless, getting the numbers mixed up,” he said. Mussilhy believes that failures to protect his family were not mistakes but the result of a system which benefits those in power: “We suffer and they prosper. The system isn’t broken, it was built this way specifically.”
This is the editor's letter from the April 2022 issue of CSW. Read the digital edition now