Tory delays, excuses and contempt for ordinary people have dogged those searching for justice for the Grenfell Tower fire.
Two years on from the atrocity that claimed at least 72 lives, there is still a long way to go to win justice. The public inquiry into the fire has been delayed, then delayed again. Now its second phase won’t begin until 2020.
The criminal investigation has been delayed to wait for the inquiry to conclude. The Met Police has said no criminal charges will be made until 2021—after the inquiry has published its findings.
Aware that the two-year anniversary was approaching, police last week announced that 13 people have been interviewed under caution in connection with the fire.
But there is no indication of who they are, and no sign that the government ministers, MPs, council chiefs and corporate criminals are facing jail.
The police have been swift to hunt down anyone suspected of fraudulently claiming to be a victim of the fire. The immensely bigger culprits are still unpunished.
Now Tory MP for Sutton and Cheam Paul Scully has the audacity to say that people shouldn’t fixate on “arbitrary deadlines”.
He was speaking at a parliamentary debate on the fire in the House of Commons on Thursday of last week.
Moving the debate in parliament the Labour MP Emma Dent-Coad described the contempt with which people have been treated.
She said, “In the early days after the fire, my predecessor as MP wrote to the council to air her concern about the numbers of people roaming around the streets ‘like gangs’.
“A senior council officer was told to go down to the site but refused, saying, ‘It’s like little Africa down there.’ Another said that the area was full of people ‘from the tropics’.
“A senior officer regularly, in front of others, referred to my neighbours as ‘muzzies’. A recent visitor to the walkways was congratulated by a senior councillor for entering the ‘lion’s den’.
“I say ‘vulnerable’—they say ‘volatile’. This attitude is hardly surprising. About two years ago during a debate on refugee children, a senior councillor said, ‘If we let these people in, we will have an Islamic Caliphate in Kensington and Chelsea.’ Racism or snobbery—take your pick.”
Such appalling levels of racism and class hatred give an idea of the reason why the Tories have been so slow to act—before, after and during the fire.
There are dozens of ways people are being denied justice in North Kensington, argued Moyra Samuels from Justice4Grenfell. “A lack of affordable childcare means parents—and overwhelmingly women—can’t attend meetings at the council or scrutiny committee,” she said. “This means whole swathes of people are getting locked out from the justice process.
“The council’s response has been to just advertise what few childcare services it does offer.”
Every delay and every time the Tories introduce an element of confusion or division means that justice gets a little further away.
As Eileen Short from Defend Council Housing argued, “Politicians have a hundred reasons to tell you they can’t do something. But when we organise they can shift very quickly.”
Campaigners have resolutely refused to be silent about the injustice of Grenfell. Their work, and the support from the trade union movement—in particular the FBU firefighters’ union—has achieved results.
Council leaders were forced to stand down in the face of huge public anger in the aftermath of the fire. When 100,000 people signed a petition demanding a wider panel for the public inquiry that happened too.
That anger needs to be kept alive and directed at the right people—the Tories in the council and those in the government who made decisions that allowed Grenfell to happen.
Speaking in parliament, Scully asked, “How many times have we said in this place, ‘This must never happen again’ and then similar things have happened again?
“We need a comprehensive response that we can all learn from.”
Yet the Tories are ensuring that such a response is ever-more remote.
Theresa May claims she is proud of her record on Grenfell. During her resignation speech in May she said being in office had given her a “platform to give a voice to the voiceless.”
“It is why I set up the independent inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, to search for the truth so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten,” she said.
But some 25,000 households nationally—60,000 people—are in blocks with the same type of dangerous cladding as Grenfell. On top of this, there are other types of cladding which are potentially as lethal, yet are not being removed from buildings.
Coupled with brutal cuts to the fire and rescue service since 2010 of between 26 percent and 39 percent, this Tory inaction risks another Grenfell happening.
Unless, that is, campaigners fighting for justice can push back the campaign of delay and passing the buck.
Tory ‘self-regulation’ paves the way for more disasters
Six people died, and at least 20 were injured, when a high-rise fire spread through Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London, in 2009. Like Grenfell, it showed that fires were not always kept from spreading by building design.
One key recommendation made by the coroner at the inquest was the installation of fire sprinklers in buildings.
The Tory communities minister at the time, Eric Pickles, refused to make this a legislative requirement. Instead he just suggested landlords carry it out.
After the Grenfell fire Theresa May said there would be no extra money for sprinklers and that it was “up to the council to make decisions” about funding such work.
On Thursday of last week housing minister Kit Malthouse reiterated this argument. He refused to give guarantees about making sprinklers or other specific safety work a legal requirement
Given that a third of Tory MPs are private landlords it is hardly surprising the party is keen not to regulate the sector.
This is the kind of attitude that led to Grenfell in the first place. The self-regulation of the building industry through privatised fire safety inspectors meant Grenfell Tower was passed as fit for purpose by inspector Carl Stokes.
In his recent book, academic Stuart Hodkinson argues that “an estimated 85 percent of all building work that requires the notification of building control bodies is now self-certified.”
“This means that, as a rule, the regulators of safety in the built environment increasingly have to take the word of the relevant contractor that behind the façade of a shiny new building everything has been built to safe and legal standards,” he said.
The Tories’ response to Grenfell has been typical of those who protect the bosses after such atrocities.
On Thursday last week Tory MP Sir David Amess spread the blame around. He said, “It’s the fault of every member of parliament that our voice was not heard and that the recommendations [after Lakanal House] were not listened to.”
Yet the Tories have been told what to do time and again.
Clock ticking down to a tragedy
2 May 2012
Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) council cabinet approves £6 million budget to refurbish Grenfell Tower.
Preferred contractor Leadbitter estimates the cost of the work at £11.3 million.
16 July 2013
The Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) requests the budget be increased to £9.7 million. The council decides to put the contract out to tender “to ensure the best contractor is selected and value for money achieved”.
Cabinet approves a new budget of £9.7 million. A new planning application is submitted which specifies the use of zinc—non-flammable—cladding. This is approved on 10 January 2014.
27 March 2014
Rydon Property Services Ltd is selected as the contractor for the refurbishment because it submitted “the most economically advantageous tender”.
31 March 2014
Financial report shows council had reserves of £267 million in total usable reserves and a £31 million underspend in its annual budget.
Work begins on site at Grenfell.
6 July 2014
The TMO sends an “urgent nudge email” to managers working on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, reminding them to provide “good costs” for councillor Rock Feilding-Mellen, lead councillor for housing. Days later the TMO sends a list of requested savings totalling £693,161 to contractors. The savings include £293,368 that would be found by fitting “aluminium cladding in lieu of zinc cladding”. The cheaper, flammable, cladding is used.
31 March 2016
The council’s 2015-16 accounts show its total usable reserves have risen to £300 million.
13 July 2016
Work completed at Grenfell.
Grenfell Action Group blog post predicting “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord”.
14 June 2017
The Grenfell Tower Fire.
15 June 2017
Theresa May announces a Public Inquiry into the fire.
16 June 2017
Hundreds march on Downing Street to demand justice and for Theresa May to step down. Simultaneously thousands of local residents march through Kensington, with some storming the town hall.
22 June 2017
Council chief executive Nicholas Holate steps down.
29 June 2017
Sir Martin Moore Bick appointed as Inquiry chair.
30 June 2017
Council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown and councillor for housing Rock Fielding-Mellen stand down.
14 September 2017
Formal opening of the Inquiry.
30 November 2017
Petition is launched by bereaved families calling for an independent diverse decision-making panel for the Inquiry.
22 December 2017
Theresa May confirms she will not appoint a panel for the Inquiry.
23 February 2018
Petition for a panel reaches 100,000 signatures as public and legal pressure mounts.
7 March 2018
Police say they will not submit files to the Crown Prosecution Service until “the latter part of 2021”.
11 May 2018
Decision to appoint two panel members, but only for Phase Two of the Inquiry.
21 May 2018
The Public Inquiry opens with commemoration hearings.
4 June 2018
Oral hearings for Phase One of the Inquiry begin at Holborn Bars.
12 December 2018
Oral hearings for Phase One of the Inquiry end.
30 May 2019
Two panel members appointed for Phase Two.
Two years on and still homeless
Immediately after the fire Theresa May made promises. The first was that people “will be offered rehousing within three weeks”.
Two years on from the fire, some households displaced by it are still living in temporary accommodation and hotels.
The official figure of people in and around Grenfell Tower still awaiting rehousing is 19 tenants. But a tenant can comprise a household of many people.
Only those made homeless from the tower and the facing Grenfell Walk are counted in those official statistics.
In the walkways attached to the tower, there are a further 109 homeless households as of last month, making a total of 128 homeless households—about 250 people,
Some remain in their homes, which re-traumatises them every day. The council has removed those households from the wider Grenfell rehousing scheme, and they will now languish on the council waiting list—some for many years.
Bereaved campaigner sent to jail
A Grenfell justice campaigner was disgracefully jailed for eight weeks last month.
Reiss Morris, who lost a relative in the fire, had grabbed London Fire Brigade site manager Matthew Hogan on 9 April.
The court heard that Reiss had sent Hogan messages about the materials covering the burnt-out structure in the run-up to the incident.
He had previously received a suspended sentence after confronting Kim Taylor Smith, deputy leader of Tory-run Kensington and Chelsea council.
After a vigil in October 2017 Reiss said, “You have got eight weeks to sort this out, then I’m coming for you.
“I don’t care if I spend the rest of my life in prison.”
It’s a disgrace that Reiss has been jailed after being angry with the authorities.
He has also been banned from the Grenfell site and ordered to pay £100 in compensation to Hogan—on top of £250 in court costs and fees.
The Tory ministers, councillors, housing chiefs and private contractors—whose decisions allowed the fire to happen—are the real criminals.