Friday, June 16, 2017

Tony Rice is not a bad man, but he's cashed in on a shockingly dysfunctional system


This isn't an article about what a bad man Tony Rice is. It's an article about the systemic failures of unregulated capitalism when governments take a Laissez-Faire attitude to public safety.

The fact that Tony works for the homelessness and housing charity Shelter and runs a health and safety products company (Halma) suggest that he actually cares about issues like housing, poverty and public safety.

Tony probably thinks of himself as an upstanding citizen who has devoted much of his valuable time to make the world a better safer place, and he's probably right. But on the other hand the private equity group Xerxes that he chairs is the sole shareholder in Omnis Exteriors, which is the company that manufactured the flammable cladding that was stuck all over the surface of the Grenfell tower block.

In 2015-16 (the year the cladding was installed on Grenfell tower) Omnis reported profits of £1.2 million, £950,000 of which was paid to Xerxes Equity, where Tony is the chairman and biggest shareholder.


The kind of plastic filled cladding that Xerxes have profited from selling has been banned in countries like Germany and the United States for years, and has been implicated in high rise fires all over the world, but somehow the British government never saw fit to ban the practice of sticking highly flammable materials all over the surfaces of high rise buildings.

Apparently Omnis also produces fireproof cladding for just £2 extra per square metre which raises some serious questions.
1. Why did Omnis continue selling highly flammable cladding when they had the capacity to produce a non-flammable alternative?
2. Why was flammable plastic-filled cladding not banned in the UK when it has been implicated in so many rapid high rise fires across the world? 
3. Who signed off on the decision to save an estimated £5,000 in renovation costs by choosing the flammable cladding for Grenfell tower rather than the fireproof version?
The answer to the first question is that there was nothing to stop them. The answer to the second question is that public safety is terribly incompatible with Tory Laissez-Faire ideology. And the answer to the third will surely come out at some point during the criminal inquest.

Since 2010 the Tories have had an ideological fixation with cutting safety regulations. David Cameron's 2012 New Year's resolution was the extraordinary commitment to "kill off health and safety culture for good", so the idea of them actually impinge upon corporate profits by introducing new legislation to stop people coating high rise residential buildings in highly flammable plastic is beyond ridiculous. The Tories have actually been on an ideological mission to reduce public safety regulations in order to boost corporate profits, so the introduction of any new rules would have been seen as massively counter-productive.

I'm fairly sure that until it actually happened, Tony Rice never even thought about the possibility that scores of people would be burned alive as a result of the products his private equity group was making huge sums from selling, but that's where under-regulated capitalism fails.

When markets become under-regulated free-for-alls where companies can sell dangerous products, and governments blithely ignore repeated warnings from experts that such products are dangerous and should be banned, then companies will obviously choose the easy profits, and people will die.

I'm sure that Tony Rice is devastated that he had a hand in turning Grenfell tower into such a horrifying death trap, and wishes that someone in the chain of command that he topped had realised the unscrupulousness of selling such dangerous flammable products when the company actually had the capacity to manufacture the fireproof version, but this remorse is too late for the victims now.

All the sorrow and remorse in the world won't bring the dead back to life.

Omnis offered the option of saving a minuscule amount of money off the renovation costs by choosing the flammable option, the private equity owners considered that they had no corporate responsibility to put public safety ahead of their profits, the building owners decided to save a few paltry grand by choosing the flammable option, the government ignored expert advice and failed to intervene to outlaw such dangerous products and risky cost-cutting measures, and now people are dead as a consequence.

The horrifying tragedy at Grenfell tower is shocking and highly visible evidence that under-regulated capitalism, and uncaring governments cost lives.

Let's hope that the UK government takes measures to ban flammable cladding as soon as possible, and that Tony Rice does everything in his power to now take some belated corporate responsibility and ensure these flammable cladding products are removed from the market even before the government ban is put in place.

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