Posted by Richard on  UTC 2023-06-01 14:11

Sam Leith, the literary editor of The Spectator, recently posed the despairing question: Why is it so difficult to find MPs who aren’t useless? Unsurprisingly, he found no answer, but in his search focused upon the unsavoury figure of David Warburton, Tory MP for Somerset and Frome.

Warburton's antics lacked decorum and all class – at least they harmed him rather than anyone else, made a fleeting contribution to the jollity of the nation and gave Leith the topic for an article. Leith's cri de cour was directed at the many 'run-of-the-mill wallies' who become MPs.

Unfortunately, if they don't self-destruct on the way, as Warburton has done, the parliamentary wallies frequently become ministerial wallies, in which positions they can do real harm. Sam Leith brought you David Warburton, I bring you Gavin Barwell, now The Rt Hon. the Lord Barwell, Baron Barwell of Croydon PC. no less.

The Rt Hon. the Lord Barwell, Baron Barwell of Croydon PC.

Official portrait of Lord Barwell, Baron Barwell of Croydon PC. Image: Official portrait (18.12.2019)

The story of Gavin Barwell's time as a Conservative MP and a minister goes beyond simple wallydom to cast a light on the lethal incompetence in the UK government that has emerged in the course of the inquiry into the fire disaster at the Grenfell Tower high rise block in London on 14 June 2017.

In that fire seventy-two people died horribly, their deaths not the result of a tragic accident but of a perfect storm of technical, regulatory and administrative failures. The swamp of incompetence in this case is so glutinous that the inquiry is still squelching around in it nearly six years later.

The intention here is not to prejudge or anticipate the conclusions of the inquiry but to use one of the witness statements submitted to illustrate just how inefficiently and incompetently government works and how reshuffles and short-termism reinforce and cover up those defects.

The witness statement in question was written by Gavin Barwell, now the Right Honourable the Lord Barwell PC. It is dated 22 April 2021. Our scope is just Barwell's written witness statement and does not include his appearance before the inquiry.

Barwell entered parliament in 2010 for the seat of Croydon Central. He scraped in again with a much reduced majority in May 2015. During his time as an MP there was some wally-like behaviour and some alleged shenanigans, but these things fade into history when, on 17 July 2016, he became Minister of State for Housing and Planning and Minister for London.

In both of these jobs the issues of fire safety in high-rise buildings were – or should have been – a major topic. Indeed it was over his desk that the paperwork about these issues passed – or should have passed. On these points recollections vary.

Barwell held this office from July 2016 until Theresa May's disastrous snap election of 8 June 2017. In practice, his tenure as a minister was around ten months, since Theresa May announced the election on 18 April 2017 and the 'purdah period', which essentially shuts down the normal operation of government, began on 22 April. Shortly afterwards Parliament was dissolved and the members hied back to their constituencies to ingratiate themselves with their electorates.

Briefing the newbie

When a minister moves into post, he or she receives an extended briefing from senior civil servants in the department. Barwell described his initial briefing thus:

After I became a Minister in the Department I had introductory briefings with each of the teams in my policy areas. Each team would brief me on their work and current issues and challenges in their areas. I received an initial briefing from Bob Ledsome on the work of the Building Regulations team on 8th August; I remember it specifically as being one of the last introductory briefings I had. The order of these briefings was determined by my private office; my sense was that it reflected the Department's view of the urgency of the issues different teams were dealing with.

It is obvious to anyone that a minister, who, like Barwell, has no previous background in his field, is utterly at the mercy of the civil servants carrying out the briefing – unless he or she is blessed with a forceful personality, a capacity for independent thought and fearless interrogation as well as an ability to become enthused over the task at hand.

Paraphrasing his words: someone told him something about building regulations but the issue was at the bottom of the list so no one cared very much therefore neither did he.

The Rule 43 letter

Barwell goes on to state that the slides of the Building Regulations briefing did not 'refer to the Rule 43 letter or recommendations'. In other words the 'no one told me' argument. Barwell notes that he first became aware of this Rule 43 letter in autumn 2016, a few months after he became the Minister responsible. The implication is that this document was not considered important enough to make it even into the last of Barwell's briefings and worthy of only an aside a few months later.

However, the 'Rule 43 letter' is of crucial importance for the Grenfell inquiry. The document was part of the Coroner's report into the Lakanal House fire, which had occurred in a tower block in Camberwell seven years previously on 3 July 2009. Six people were killed and at least twenty injured in that fire, the causes of which would prefigure many aspects of the Grenfell fire.

The Coroner's Rule 43 letter was a statement of the factors that the Coroner had found to be dispositive in the Lakanal tragedy. It should have been essential reading for anyone concerned with the creation and enforcement of building regulations.

The lacuna in Barwell's general knowledge about the Lakanal House fire is surprising. He is a London boy himself and the tragedy occurred at a time when he was a high ranking 'consultant' for Conservative Central Office and a cabinet member in Croydon Council. We might have expected a bit more curiosity, but perhaps building regs are just not his thing.

The APPG letters

One of the principal accusations directed at Barwell in the media at the time in respect of the Grenfell catastrophe is that he was lackadaisical, dilatory or just disinterested in the fire safety issue.

This accusation is based mainly on his apparent lack of effective reaction to the promptings of the Fire Safety and Rescue All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), chaired by the late Sir David Amess MP, together with his lack of response to a letter of concern written to him by the London Fire Brigade Commissioner. Not only were the ghosts of Lakanal haunting his in-tray, he had the Fire Brigade Commissioner round his neck and was being pestered by a noisily turbulent backbencher.

To his great credit, Amess was particularly diligent in pursuing the issue, but his letters to Barwell were either not received, not answered or answered very tardily.

Responding to this point, Barwell stated:

By way of background, Ministers receive an extremely large volume of correspondence, which is managed by a correspondence unit. Ministers are not even aware someone has written to them until a reply drafted by an official comes into their in tray. I was often embarrassed by how long it took to reply, though conscious that the Department was under-resourced and everyone was doing their best. I would review draft responses and occasionally make amendments before the responses were sent (sometimes, if the amendments were significant, the draft response had to go back to the relevant official to check that they were happy with the changes I had made).

In other words, Barwell popped into his office from time to time, perhaps between spells of ministering for London or agitating against Brexit, opened his red box and usually signed whatever was put before him.

He tells us of his frequent embarrassment at the poor response times to correspondence. The shame was obviously not felt deeply enough for him to actually attempt to do something about the problem.

Instead, his proposed solution to this administrative shambles was for those who wished to gain the great man's attention to send him a text message or buttonhole him in the Commons and hand over a letter in person.

Barwell even insinuates that the fault for the communication problems lay with Amess and the APPG, because they didn't resort to the helpful Barwell's backstairs solutions.

Sir David Amess, however, was a very senior MP. He had sat in Parliament for more than thirty years by this time and clearly knew very well the importance of getting things down in writing as opposed to an undocumented chat with some young whippersnapper in the Tea Room.

At one point Barwell sent Amess his office phone number with a request to call him. A quick call to Amess at the phone number displayed on his letterhead seems to have been beneath the dignity of a minister. Remember, Amess was not just a lone MP riding his personal hobbyhorse, he was very long-serving MP and Chairman of an official all-party parliamentary group. Amess didn't want a chat with Barwell, he wanted some action.

On 10 April 2017 the Honorary Administrative Secretary of the APPG sent a plaintive email to Gill Lee, David Amess' Office Manager:

In view of Gavin Barwell's failure to respond to the last three letters, is it possible to have a 'signed on delivery' postal mail letter sent, or for the letter to be sent to Gavin Barwell's P/A by email attachment seeking an acknowledgement by email return?

Too late. On 18 April 2017 Theresa May announced her snap election, the purdah curtain came down and Barwell was definitely not answering any more letters from these pests. And with one bound he was free.

An odd fact strikes us: Barwell at no point in his witness statement uses Amess' honorific title (Knight Bachelor since January 2015). Carelessness, ignorance, arrogance or plain contempt? Perhaps a former Tory whip doesn't need to bother with these niceties.

Barely six months after the submission of Barwell's witness statement, Amess was stabbed to death in his constituency surgery on 15 October 2021. He would have made an interesting witness when examined at the enquiry, but Fortune was once more very kind to Gavin Barwell.

The cloud of unknowing

After all the revelations of lost letters and tardy answers our eyebrows really elevate in surprise when Barwell tosses off an admission that:

I was aware from this letter that the APPG had been in correspondence with my predecessor, which would not have been uncommon, but I was not aware that the chain of correspondence between Ministers and the APPG had been going on for what I now understand to be a period of years.

If this is correct then not only was the minister ignorant of the long history of this issue, he remained so during his brief tenure in post and for long after, despite the persistence of Sir David Amess and his parliamentary group in trying to alert him, the minister responsible, to the deadly serious issue of fire safety in high-rise buildings.

If Barwell's account is correct, the letters his civil servants put under his nose for signature inspired no curiosity in the Minister about the underlying issues. As far as the issue of the fire safety of tall buildings is concerned, Barwell tells us that:

I had no personal technical knowledge and I trusted that the specialists in the Department would commission appropriate research and undertake the technical work necessitated in this area.

That seems to be what government does these days, ask experts what to do and generally 'trust' them. Barwell has a Cambridge Natural Sciences degree (which, let's be honest, is more 'about science' than doing the hard stuff itself) and seemingly just can't or won't get his head round all this technical guff.

The quote above follows a lengthy and bizarre aside on the Twin Towers catastrophe, presumably intended to demonstrate what a deep thinker on the subject of fire safety he is. His conclusion?: 'the time to ensure the fire safety of tall buildings was at the design stage'.

Think about that in the context of the Grenfell Tower and Lakanal House tragedies, which were both to a large extent due to retrofitting and maintenance activities. Think, too, about the implications of Barwell's crass statement: If the huge legacy of high-rise buildings in London had not been built according to modern fire safety regulations, then there was no more to be done. Once the building had gone up, that was it.

The ascent to the Empyrean

After ten months of tedious letter signing, Fortune smiled on Gavin Barwell as she had done so often in his career: at the snap election on 8 June 2017 Barwell lost his seat and therefore his ministerial post. That may seem like a setback, but not only was he now freed from Amess' mithering, it was the moment that Gavin Barwell's career really took off.

Just two days after the election, on 10 June, Theresa May made the now unemployed Barwell her Chief of Staff. His unemployment had lasted two days, in other words. One further heave, a few days later, on 14 June 2017, made him that sinecure for life, a Privy Counsellor, one of the great and good in perpetuity.

Why Theresa May, at that moment struggling to bring Brexit over the line, chose to elevate an ardent Remainer to such a position is a mystery. May is a good example of another parliamentary wally, who rose through the ranks to the highest office despite unremitting serial incompetence.

The Grenfell Tower block went up in flames shortly after midnight that very morning, 14 June, and was still not under control while Barwell, the newly minted Privy Counsellor, was shimmering around Buckingham Palace at his initiation.

Despite fierce criticism of his political role in the Grenfell tragedy, Theresa May kept him at her side, right up until her departure two years later, in July 2019. When she went, Barwell went, too, but this CV hiccup for the forty-seven year old was sweetened by his ennoblement as a Life Peer in Theresa May's Resignation Honours List in September 2019: The Rt Hon. the Lord Barwell, Baron Barwell of Croydon PC.

We like to think that in the private sector promotion comes in general as a consequence of competence and talent. In politics it seems to come as the result of the face fitting, not the job done. Ministers are plucked from the pool of parliamentary wallies: some fail and sink without trace to be replaced by other wallies; others bob along secure in their incompetence; a few more, like Barwell, are 'wafted by a favouring gale… To a height that few can scale'.

The cultivation of the third rate in government ministers has been a feature of UK politics since well before W.S. Gilbert wrote those lines for the Lord High Executioner. This process goes a long way to explain the dismal record of Britain over the last forty years. Unfortunately, there is no reason to hope that the situation will improve or that even a half-way competent Prime Minister will ever emerge from this brackish pool of third-raters.

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