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GRENFELL: Is Justice in Sight?

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The next phase of the Grenfell inquiry into the tower block fire that officially claimed 72 lives in 2017, is scheduled to start on January 27th at its new venue in Paddington, 13 Bishop’s Bridge Road, London, W2 6BU.  Its focus will be on examining the circumstances and causes of the disaster. (1)  This will be three months after the publication of the report produced at the conclusion of Phase 1 in October 2019.  This part of the inquiry dealt with a “broad introduction to the events that took place during the early hours of 14 June 2017” and “a detailed narrative account of the fire and the steps taken in response to it,” followed by recommendations by inquiry chair, Sir Martin  Moore-Bick. (2)

Few were surprised that the report included strong criticism of the London Fire Brigade’s (LFB) management of the situation that was found to at fault before during and after the disaster, the bravery of individual firefighters notwithstanding.  LFB commissioner Dany Cotton, who has since stepped down (3), was singled out for her “remarkable insensitivity” when she told  the inquiry, that she would do nothing differently if Grenfell were to happen again, and that planning for such a fire would have been like planning for a spacecraft landing on London’s tallest building. (4)  The inquiry found that lives could have been saved had the management of the situation, particularly the “stay put” advice been more effective:

“Once it was clear that the fire was out of control and that compartmentation had failed, a decision should have been taken to organise the evacuation of the tower while that remained possible. That decision could and should have been made between 01.30 and 01.50 and would be likely to have resulted in fewer fatalities. The best part of an hour was lost before AC (Assistant Commissioner) Roe revoked the “stay put” advice.” (5)

In contrast, the report exonerated Grenfell resident Behailu Kebede, in whose flat fire started, perhaps laying to rest the harassment he has received from across the media spectrum. (6)

What was less expected from the report however, at least at this phase, was the conclusion that the tower was not compliant with building regulations, despite being signed off by Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s (RBKC) own building control department:

“There was compelling evidence that the external walls of the building failed to comply with Requirement B4(1) of Schedule 1 to the Building Regulations 2010, in that they did not adequately resist the spread of fire having regard to the height, use and position of the building. On the contrary, they actively promoted it. It will be necessary in Phase 2 to examine why those who were responsible for the design of the refurbishment considered that the tower would meet that essential requirement” (7)

The report was well received by Grenfell United, the survivors and bereaved group, who regarded it:

“A strong report with a forensic examination of the events of the night and clear recommendations that if implemented will save lives. [These] findings give us some confidence that our journey towards truth has finally begun.” (8)

Phase 2 of the inquiry will focus on materials and construction in more detail bringing with it the prospect of prosecutions:

“The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) and Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) still have serious questions to answer … as do each of the corporates involved including Arconic, Celotex and Rydon among others …

[it]

adds to our determination to see criminal charges brought against those responsible for turning our homes into a ‘death trap’”. All of this will be further investigated, but for now the report is a vindication of the experiences of survivors on the night.” (9)

Legal observers responded by saying that the report makes criminal charges more likely.  Paul Ridge, a partner at Bindmans, which represents 200 bereaved relatives and survivors, said Moore-Bick’s finding that Grenfell’s facade was “not compliant with building regulations” was a game-changer:

“He’s saying that the building is effectively unlawful. Immediately the spotlight has been turned on to the designers, the constructors and the materials. The only question now is who was responsible. The chances of criminal prosecutions have increased significantly.” (10)

The concern for many is that large entities, be they corporate or statutory often find a way to escape accountability.  For example, Cressida Dick’s career was in no harmed by her overseeing the operation that lead to the shooting to death of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes after being mistaken for a suicide bomber in July 2005.  Her upward trajectory to Britain’s top cop was untainted by the jury’s guilty verdict for breaking health and safety laws. (11)  Closer parallels might be ‘Bloody Sunday’ and Hillsborough, where decades of state duplicity and obfuscation presumed to deny the victims justice. (12)

These efforts are more effective when public opinion supports the position of the state.  From the outset Grenfell was characterised by its ‘otherness’ in the British psyche to the extent that burning a cardboard model of Grenfell Tower, replete with black and brown effigies can be seen as a merry bonfire night jape to be filmed and shared on social media. (13)

We see these attitudes embedded at the highest level when the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, can suggest that the victims of Grenfell lacked common sense when they adhered to the LFB’s “stay put” advice. (14) His parliamentary colleague Andrew Bridgen weighed in by suggesting Rees-Mogg would have survived the Grenfell Tower tragedy because he is more “clever” than the victims.  Both MPs were forced into making apologies of sorts. (15)

Ironically, Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon (Doreen Lawrence) was also called on to apologise for comments made in a Channel 4 interview that, “Had that been a block full of white people in there, they would have done everything to get them out as fast as possible and make sure that they do what they needed to do. Nobody wanted to mention the word ‘race’ in the whole thing. [Because] when I saw the residents who lived in that block, to me it was under no doubt around the racism that existed at that time.” (16)

After pushback from the London Fire Brigade and the Fire Brigades Union she conceded “I’ve met LFB and the FBU. I am reassured race played no part in their response to the Grenfell Tower fire. Learning about the conditions firefighters faced that night has been insightful, apologies for any upset caused. I’m confident how valued equality is to LFB and FBU.” (17)  However, the attitudes of the LFB, FBU will not change the fact that race is inherent to Grenfell and other scenarios like it given that that in England, the majority of children living on the fifth floor or above were not of white ethnicity. (18)

More recently concerns have been raised by the prime minister appointing a new member to the inquiry panel with links to Arconic, one of the companies under scrutiny in the inquiry.  Last December Boris Johnson drafted Benita Mehra, an engineer, to assist Sir Martin Moore-Bick. Mehra previously ran an organisation that received a £71,000 grant from the charitable arm of Arconic, the US conglomerate that made the aluminium composite cladding panels used on Grenfell. (19)

Thus those seeking after justice should know they have a fight on their hands, no matter how clear cut the case appears.  Indeed, the aforementioned cladding form Arconic has already spend £30m on lawyers and advisers while the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, has already set aside more than £6m for legal costs. (20)  The inquiry itself has cost at least £40m so far, an estimated 100 times the £300,000 RBKC decided to cut from the budget in 2014 by swapping fire resistant cladding for a cheaper alternative that actively promoted the spread of the fire. (20) There are even some suggestions that the Daily Telegraph leaking of the inquiry report was designed to set the narrative in the public arena and guide people’s ire towards the Fire Brigade and away from the corporate players. (21)

Legal issues aside, the survivors of Grenfell still need to deal with the impact and trauma, often within the context of the ongoing “hostile environment” as Liberty Policy and Campaigns Manager Gracie Bradley asserts:

“Why fix a broken lock or clear a blocked fire escape when you know your tenants have nowhere else to go? If they make too much of a fuss, you can always call the Home Office.  The hostile environment is just one part of the web of contempt and systematic failure that preceded the Grenfell fire and came to characterise much of the immediate response to it.” (22)

Moreover, while the large majority of the 201 affected households have been permanently rehoused, eight families remain in temporary accommodation and one is still in a hotel. (23)  Within six-months of the tragedy there had been a reported twenty-four suicide attempts by Grenfell survivors or witnesses. (24) The inquest into the December 2018 death, judged a suicide, of Amanda Beckles, a campaigner for victims of the fire, heard a note she had written saying:

“By the time you read this I will have passed. I need to let you know that there is nothing you could have done to stop this from happening… The Grenfell Tower fire has affected me badly. I had hoped the worst would be over but 17 months after I still suffer from acute anxiety. I really don’t know why it has affected me so badly, but it isn’t a life worth living.” (25)

Campaigners like Sis. Isis Amlak, who lives in the area and has worked in mental health have been raising these issues for some time said at and RBKC health scrutiny committee meeting in May 2019: “Not talking about it does not help the situation. We need to talk about suicide.”  She also expressed surprised that the council’s figures did not reveal a spike in suicides post Grenfell and was concerned that the council’s plan did not seem to have anything on offer to prevent suicide in the Grenfell area and said she was aware of several cases of attempted suicide.  (26)

The scope of the challenge for the Grenfell campaign is broad and if history is a guide, potentially arduous.  Almost a year ago the Equality and Human Rights Commission confirmed that residents’ right to life and right to adequate housing were breached before the fire started on 14 June 2017, under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  They added, “Not banning the cladding at the time, or strengthening rules for its use in the UK, breached residents’ right to life under. This is a fault the lies with the authorities.” (27)

As the Hillsborough and Stephen Lawrence Campaigns to name just two demonstrate, being right doesn’t guarantee the right result in the short term.  In fact, as many engage in remembrance of the victims of another fire, New Cross, thirty-nine years on, we are no closer to the truth and state sanctioned malfeasance doesn’t even appear on the agenda to be called to account. (28)  All of these lesson s need to be incorporated into the Grenfell campaign.

(1) INQUEST (30/10/19) INQUEST calls for new mechanism for oversight on recommendations in response to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. https://www.inquest.org.uk/grenfell-phase1

(2) The Rt Hon Sir Martin Moore-Bick (2019) GRENFELL TOWER INQUIRY: PHASE 1 REPORT OVERVIEW REPORT of the PUBLIC INQUIRY into the FIRE at GRENFELL TOWER on 14 JUNE 2017. https://assets.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/GTI%20-%20Phase%201%20report%20Executive%20Summary.pdf. p. 1.

(3) Phoebe Cooke (06/12/19) FORCED TO GO London fire chief Dany Cotton is forced to quit early after ‘remarkable insensitivity’ over Grenfell response.  https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/10495319/london-fire-chief-dany-cotton-grenfell/

(4) Editorial (30/10/19) The Guardian view on the Grenfell Tower report: bringing justice closer. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/30/the-guardian-view-on-the-grenfell-tower-report-bringing-justice-closer

(5) Moore-Bick. p. 6

(6) Seraphima Kennedy (31/10/19) The Grenfell families have been vindicated. Now they need justice. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/31/grenfell-families-vindicated-justice-martin-moore-bick-report

(7) Moore-Bick. p. 5

(8) Kennedy. Op. cit.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Mark Townsend (03/11/19) Grenfell criminal charges more likely, say lawyers after inquiry. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/nov/03/criminal-prosecutions-for-grenfell-more-likely-say-lawyers-after-official-report

(11)  Dr Sandra Bell (01/11/07) De Menezes: What are the lessons that need to be learnt?https://rusi.org/commentary/de-menezes-what-are-lessons-need-be-learnt

(12)  The Consciousness of Sheep (18/06/17) The second Grenfell disaster has already begun. https://consciousnessofsheep.co.uk/2017/06/18/the-second-grenfell-disaster-has-already-begun/

(13) Kevin Rawlinson (22/08/19) Court clears man over video of Grenfell Tower model being burned. https://www.facebook.com/RBGCommuniversity/posts/dr-amos-wilson-died-in-1995-under-mysterious-circumstances-few-understand-how-he/513268185386526/

(14) Anahita Hossein-Pour (05/11/19) Jacob Rees-Mogg condemned after suggesting Grenfell fire victims lacked ‘common sense’. Jacob Rees-Mogg condemned after suggesting Grenfell fire victims lacked ‘common sense’.

(15) Kevin Schofield (06/11/19) Andrew Bridgen apologises for suggesting Jacob Rees-Mogg ‘cleverer’ than Grenfell Tower victims. https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/political-parties/conservative-party/news/107819/andrew-bridgen-apologises-suggesting-jacob

(16)  Leah Sinclair (30/10/19) Grenfell Tower: Doreen Lawrence “reassured” race played no part in firefighters’ response. https://www.voice-online.co.uk/news/uk-news/2019/10/30/grenfell-tower-doreen-lawrence-reassured-race-played-no-part-in-firefighters-response/

(17) Ibid

(18) Professor Danny Dorling (2010) How does green space inequality compare to other inequalities?. Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.  http://sasi.group.shef.ac.uk/presentations/cabe/

(19) Robert Booth (16/01/20) Boris Johnson’s pick to help lead Grenfell inquiry linked to cladding firm. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/16/benita-mehra-grenfell-inquiry-boris-johnson-appoints-engineer-with-links-to-cladding-firm?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other&fbclid=IwAR3iynSdI-Gv3M04MYMVqt_D5ldM8ndLmkSQYVEI6q7zGapox3PfT0qbFv4

(20)  Robert Booth (01/11/19) Grenfell inquiry has cost 100 times amount saved on cladding. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/nov/01/grenfell-inquiry-costs-exceed-hundred-times-price-of-cladding.

(21) LBC Radio (29/10/19) James O’Brien’s Emotional Response To The Grenfell Fire Report. https://www.lbc.co.uk/radio/presenters/james-obrien/emotional-response-grenfell-fire-report/

(22) Gracie Bradley (14/08/17) Two Months After The Grenfell Tower Fire: The Hostile Environment Laid Bare. https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/news/blog/two-months-after-grenfell-tower-fire-hostile-environment-laid-bare

(23) Robert Booth (16/01/20) Grenfell survivors and bereaved still fighting frustrating battles. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/16/grenfell-survivors-and-bereaved-still-fighting-frustrating-battles

(24) Patrick Hill (23/12/17) 24 suicide attempts by Grenfell survivors or witnesses since blaze which killed 71 residents. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/tragedy-24-suicide-attempts-grenfell-11746403

(25) Barry Mason (07/08/19) Grenfell fire campaigner Amanda Beckles died by suicide. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/08/07/gren-a07.html

(26) Julia Gregory (12/05/19) ‘We need to talk about suicide to stop more lives being lost’. https://www.mylondon.news/news/west-london-news/we-need-talk-suicide-stop-16265395

(27) Equality and Human Rights Commission (13/03/19) Watchdog confirms Grenfell breached human rights laws. https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/our-work/news/watchdog-confirms-grenfell-breached-human-rights-laws

(28) Bro. Ldr. Mbandaka (19/01/20) New Cross Massacre – We Will Not Forget. Presentation at Auntie Jean’s Afrikan Culture Market, The Loughborough Centre, Brixton, London