Unlike most people when newly out of work, gaffe-prone Gavin Barwell didn’t spend his first day of unemployment looking for a new job.
The £150,000 per year Downing Street chief of staff until Boris Johnson’s coronation on Wednesday, Barwell spent Thursday sitting in the sunshine at the Lord’s Test, sipping free drinks, munching complimentary sarnies and sharing a joke or two with the ex-Prime Minister.
What Barwell failed to do while at the cricket was answer enquiries about whether he has, in fact, been questioned under caution by the police for his role, when housing minister, in the failure to implement recommended safety measures ahead of the Grenfell Tower disaster.
Certainly, there have been questions asked in the House of Commons and at City Hall, seeking to discover whether the Grenfell criminal investigation has reached the upper tiers of government. So far no one, whether government ministers or the Mayor of London, has been prepared to issue an out-and-out denial that former Croydon Central MP Barwell, or other housing ministers, have had to help the police with their enquiries into the blaze which claimed the lives of 72 men, women and children.
This can only add to the growing suspicions that there has been a cover-up for ministerial incompetence, over repeated failures to implement recommendations from the Lakanal House fire coroner’s report which may have contributed to the horrific death toll at Grenfell two years ago.
The loud crashing noise to be heard in the House of Commons at lunchtime on Wednesday was that of the Establishment closing ranks.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, there were carefully orchestrated mentions of Barwell and his work since 2017 as Theresa Mayhem’s chief of staff.
In her final PMQs, Mayhem had clearly arrived prepared to make a conspicuous declaration that Barwell was “A first-class Member, a first-class minister and a first-class chief of staff”, which are points of view that might not attract universal agreement. But it’ll sure look good on Gav’s updated CV.
What would perhaps not appear so attractive to future employers, or local activists for the Conservative Party in safe Tory seats looking for “first-class” parliamentary candidates, is any on-going link to one of the worst disasters to befall Britain in peace-time.
Certainly, there are many who believe that Barwell and his predecessors have a case to answer. In the four years before the Grenfell fire Barwell and two other government housing ministers – Eric Pickles and the LibDem Stephen Williams – managed to ignore warnings about flammable cladding despite the recommendations of a judge following the inquest into the 2009 Lakanal House fire (in which six were killed) and no fewer than 21 warning letters from their parliamentary colleagues.
Steve Reed OBE, the MP for Croydon North, started looking into the matter last month, when he put in a written question to the current housing minister, asking “whether any (a) current and (b) former ministers in his department have been questioned under caution by the Metropolitan Police in connection with the Grenfell Tower fire.”
The response was less-than-forthcoming, Kit Malthouse saying only that “it is a matter for the Metropolitan Police to disclose the names of the those they have questioned as part of their investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire.”
Of course, Malthouse might have said that no ministers had been questioned by the police, unless that was not the case. But he did not.
Caroline Pidgeon, the LibDem London Assembly Member, followed up Reed’s interest with a question of her own to London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Pidgeon went further than Reed and specifically named Barwell in her question.
“The answer to a recent parliamentary question asked by the MP for Croydon North revealed that the government is refusing to answer questions about whether government ministers, including the former Minister for London and Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, have been asked questions under caution over their involvement in the Grenfell fire tragedy, stating it is a matter for the Metropolitan Police to disclose the names of the those they have questioned as part of their investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire.
“Do you support this information being made public and will you encourage the Metropolitan Police to publish this information?”
“I understand and empathise with the frustration caused by the lack of information currently available about who has or has not been interviewed under caution,” the Mayor stated in his written response.
“However, the decisions regarding what aspects of the investigation should and should not be put into the public domain are complex given an investigation of this size and sensitivity. They remain a matter for the Metropolitan Police, who are conducting the investigation, in order to enable them to preserve its integrity and to bring those responsible to account.”
Again, the answer might have been “Barwell has not been interviewed under caution”. But, instead, it went to great lengths not to say that.
Of course, even if Barwell, or any ministers, have been questioned under caution, it does not mean that they have been charged or are guilty of any offence. But it might, at least, show that the police are considering the responsibility of senior government figures in the delays in implementing recommendations which might have helped save lives in the Grenfell tragedy.
At risk of turning Barwell’s chilled Chablis sour yesterday, Inside Croydon tweeted a question at him. “Have you ever been interviewed under caution by the police in connection with the Grenfell fire?”
A simple “No” would have cleared up the whole matter.
Barwell was obviously enjoying the corporate hospitality too much. He hasn’t responded.
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