The ‘Grenfell housing minister’ just got a top job in social housing

Grenfell Tower Gavin Barwell and the Clarion Logo
Steve Topple

Disclaimer: the author of this article is a resident of the housing association involved


The so-called ‘Grenfell housing minister’ has landed a new job. He’s now a non-executive director for the UK’s largest social-housing provider. It has 42 high-rise tower blocks.

But this was the minister that campaigners accused of ‘suppressing’ action on fire safety before the Grenfell Tower fire. So at best, it shows the revolving door between big business and government is wide open. But at worst, one campaign group says, it shows no “compassion or humanity”.

Grenfell: the inquiry continues

In June 2017, the fire that ripped through Grenfell Tower killed 72 people. Currently, the second phase of an inquiry into the disaster has opened. As The Canary previously reported, some witnesses have now said they will only give evidence if the government’s attorney general will protect them from prosecution. Many people reacted angrily to this. Labour MP David Lammy, for example, tweeted:

Completely wrong for witnesses to demand immunity from future prosecution before giving evidence in the Grenfell inquiry. Those responsible for the cladding must face the full force of the law.

Meanwhile, away from the inquiry, another scandal is brewing.

Enter Gavin Barwell

Conservative Gavin Barwell was housing minister from 2016 to 2017. He lost his seat as an MP at the 2017 general election. Former prime minister Theresa May then made him her chief of staff. And after she resigned, she gave him a peerage. Now, he has branched out into the private sector, opening a consultancy firm. He has also got a job at accountants PricewaterhouseCooper; but it’s his job in social housing which is most contentious.

Clarion Housing Group is the UK’s largest housing association. Barwell has joined it as a part-time non-executive director. And on Tuesday 28 January, the government formally disclosed this.

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments oversees former politicians’ post-parliamentary jobs. This is theoretically to make sure they don’t breach any rules. Barwell’s new role, though, may spark outrage from many people.

Barwell landed the role with Clarion in December 2019. But the committee only announced his appointment on 28 January.

What’s the issue?

Barwell was housing minister right up until a few days before the Grenfell disaster. As Inside Housing reported, the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group sent seven letters to him. They were about a review of regulation in the wake of another fire. Previous ministers had promised a review after the Lakanal House tower block fire. It killed six people. But Barwell either “ignored” the letters or claimed they got “lost”

As Inside Housing said:

He finally replied on 5 April [2017], saying the previous letters had been ‘lost in transit’ and accepting that this was ‘completely unacceptable’. He finally accepted their offer of a meeting.

The group replied on the 18 April saying: ‘It is over 11 years since Part B [dealing with fire safety] was last reviewed and I trust that the matters… will now receive your due consideration and early decision to proceed. The group firmly believes after being given a similar response by three successive ministers… that it is now the time to listen to what the fire sector is saying and get on with the promised review.’

Mr Barwell finally responded to this letter on 2 May without setting a date for the review, and the group sent its last letter to him on May 19 – just weeks before Grenfell.

The inquiry

Now, as 24housing reported, on Thursday 30 January the lawyer for Grenfell victims and relatives made a submission to the inquiry. It stated that the government was guilty of “extraordinary inaction” over fire safety before the disaster. And there’s now growing pressure for former housing ministers to give evidence. Not least among those is Barwell, who was the last one before the Grenfell disaster to display extraordinary inaction; ignoring calls for a review of regulations.

Many people would think it incomprehensible that Clarion would give Barwell a job. But the company has stood by its decision.

Clarion says…

A spokesperson for Clarion Housing Group told The Canary:

Gavin Barwell has brought valuable expertise and insight to Clarion Housing Group board. As an ex-Housing Minister and Chief of Staff to the former Prime Minister, he has brought a unique perspective into how housing policy is made and implemented at the highest levels of government. It would not be appropriate for us to comment on events that took place during Gavin’s time as Housing Minister, Chief of Staff to Theresa May, or as an MP.

Let’s hope Barwell doesn’t bring too much of his “perspective into how housing policy is made and implemented at the highest levels of government”. Because the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments clearly stated that in his new role, Barwell must not:

draw on (disclose or use for the benefit of himself or [Clarion]) any privileged information available to him from Crown service…

Clarion will probably reward Barwell quite well for his role, though. Because the average salary of a non-executive director is £28,000.

Barwell says…

The Canary asked Barwell whether he thought his job at Clarion was appropriate. He had not responded by the time of publication.

No ‘humanity or compassion’

Campaign group Justice4Grenfell, however, is furious. A spokesperson told The Canary:

We hope his non-executive director position does not have a remit for fire safety. We would question if Clarion carried out due diligence before his appointment. Sitting on the Lakanal House report and not acting on any recommendations has to be a critical factor in the loss of 72 lives in the Grenfell Fire. On taking this appointment, how does he think bereaved families and survivors feel? Did he even consider them? Taking this appointment after already taking a peerage reveals his lack of humanity and compassion. But, when the likes of Barwell go low, we will go high.

He couldn’t really sink much lower. His refusal to speak to journalists or answer questions helped define the Grenfell disaster. And now, it seems that he hasn’t lost any of that arrogant inhumanity. By moving into a position of power with the UK’s largest housing association, Barwell has indeed shown a staggering lack of humanity and compassion.

Moreover, Clarion has shown contempt for its tenants, and the UK social-housing market more broadly. What residents in its 42 high rises will think remains to be seen. But Grenfell survivors and relatives must surely be disgusted.

Featured image via Paula Peters, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Govt – Creative Commons and Clarion Housing Group 

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