Colin Prescod, chair of IRR, writes on the launch of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report into Grenfell and the continuing wait for justice.
Twenty-one months on from the disaster that was visited on their community, Grenfell people still wait for justice. On 13 March 2019 the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released a report on Grenfell.[i] The findings and recommendations are being submitted to the Government’s Grenfell Public Inquiry in regard to the 14 June 2017, west London, Grenfell residential tower fire in which seventy-two people perished.
Earlier last month, the Metropolitan Police admitted that no prosecutions would be likely until the public inquiry has reported its findings and recommendations – although at its inception in 2017, it was indicated that it was already possible to see grounds for prosecutions to be brought.
Meanwhile the Public Inquiry’s Phase 1 hearings, concerned with exactly what happened on 14 June 2017, were completed in December 2018. The report from those Phase 1 hearings, chaired by Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, is not yet delivered. And the Public Inquiry’s Phase 2 hearings, to examine the circumstances and causes of the fire (original design and construction; subsequent modifications; fire safety advice and prevention; communication with residents) are due to commence in 2020. And the Public Inquiry is expected to complete its work in 2022.
Given the slow progress of the Public Inquiry, and the fact that human rights and equalities concerns belong properly to its Phase 2 hearings – the EHRC’s submission is timely.
The EHRC report
The EHRC reported on its investigations in regard to Grenfell residents’ access to services and support in the period before and after the 2017 fire. And, in a bold and politically sensitive move, it chose to hold the public launch of its findings and recommendations at the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in west London – in the neighbourhood of the tower.
Highlighting an urgent need for ‘duty of accountability’ public sector training, the EHRC reported that overall it had found a degree of ‘institutional inadequacy’ in regard to communicating and sympathising with those most affected by the Grenfell disaster. The investigation found, for example, that the local Roma gypsy community, mostly overlooked in media coverage about the Grenfell neighbourhood, could obtain no assistance with clearance of the litter of burnt debris covering its site, in the wake of the fire. Just so, the EHRC notes, as many others have done, that the Public Inquiry itself has been convened geographically too far away from the Grenfell locality!
Sifting through the evidence gathered by Race on the Agenda (ROTA)[ii] along with that emanating from the Public Inquiry hearings, the EHRC investigated matters specifically related to both ‘the right to life’ and ‘equality rights’. It found evidence of serious breaches to the right to life – for which see the coroner’s report to the Public Inquiry in relation to improper use of cladding, lack of proper evacuation procedures, poor high-rise fire-fighting training, poor advice to residents – all of which demonstrate past, and continuing, breaches of the right to life. What’s more, the EHRC has concerns as to whether the duty to investigate potential risks to the right to life has been complied with. And, in terms of equality rights, the EHRC found violations of the public sector duty in regard to the rights of the vulnerable, women, the disabled, and children – where ‘minority ethnic’ groups made up the majority of the residents in the Grenfell tower.
Looking to the continuing process of the Public Inquiry, the EHRC representatives stressed a concern that right to life and equalities matters would in all likelihood not be picked up in the Phase 2 hearings. And, in conclusion, they stressed the need for urgent attention in regard to changes to buildings legislation, adequacy of information to residents, lack of regulatory systems, remedial works, fire-fighting training, systemic failure – affecting a large number of now existing sites around the UK.
In the Q&A with which the event ended, local activists appeared to be under-impressed. The tone of their questions – so what now? where is the focus on power-inequality in these human rights concerns? can ‘independent’ organisations like the EHRC please give some explicit guidance and specific action support? – hardly disguised the fact that they would like to see considerably more militancy added to the need for urgency that is acknowledged in the the EHRC’s report.
The platform speakers came up with judicious responses – (a) keep up the campaigning, (b) try to effect change in public sector practices by using the electoral system, (c) take legal advice and action.