Diane Abbott MP: The Grenfell tragedy is a scar on the British conscience

Posted On: 
14th June 2018

A year on from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott blasts the government and the Conservative-run Kensington and Chelsea council in the wake of the blaze she argues must become "a turning point".

72 people died in the fire a year ago and dozens more were left homeless
PA Images

The catastrophic Grenfell Tower fire claimed 72 lives, the highest loss of life in a residential fire since World War Two. The response from the Conservative government and local council reads like a litany of failures. The Grenfell Action Group's now chillingly prophetic blog predicted that it would take a serious fire and loss of life for their voices to be heard. Their voices were unheard before the fire and on many key issues remain so.

When a tragedy of this magnitude takes place, the government should aim to do everything in its power to address the needs of survivors and the bereaved. Instead, families and survivors have had to face enormous hurdles, struggling to achieve what is their due.

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A year on, survivors are still in hotels. The Prime Minister's offer of rehousing within 3 weeks and the council's promise that they would be housed within a year of the fire have been broken. As of the start of June, less than half of the households in need of permanent homes have moved into them. I have called for commissioners to be brought in to run the failing borough of Kensington and Chelsea for months and the case for this grows stronger by the day.

Theresa May’s apology over the inadequate response is too little too late for a community that was in need of urgent action on rehousing, fire safety and justice from day one.  It took a public outcry for the Prime Minister to finally grant them additional panel members to sit alongside the judge, but this is only for the second phase of the Inquiry. This could have been done months ago sparing them this distress. They need to grieve and are attempting to rebuild their lives.  Imran Khan, a key adviser to Stephen Lawrence's family, is right to call for the Inquiry terms to be broadened to consider whether race, religion or social class played a part in the residents’ treatment.

This fire was avoidable. Recommendations after the Lakanal House fire in 2013 to retrofit sprinklers in high rise buildings could have made a difference to Grenfell Tower. Around the world, major fires in high rise buildings have seen lives saved by sprinkler systems. Yet during a debate on implementing fire sprinkler regulations in 2014, Brandon Lewis reiterated the Tories' commitment to be the first Government to reduce health and safety regulation. In order to bring in one new regulation, two other regulations had to come out.  Sprinklers are fitted in MPs’ offices in Parliament. If they are good enough for MPs they are good enough for social housing tenants.

Even after Grenfell, urgent action was not taken to remove flammable cladding on social and private housing, meaning tower block residents cannot sleep safely in their homes.  Eleven months later, ministers finally agreed to fund its removal from tower blocks around the country. The Tory culture of cuts to budgets and deregulation has come back to haunt us all. Boris Johnson replying ‘get stuffed’ to concerns about his cuts and closures to the fire service as Mayor of London was as callous as it was indefensible. Firefighters risked their lives to save lives during the Grenfell catastrophe.

One year on, closure is nowhere in sight for those whose lives the fire ruined. They have lost loved ones, had their homes destroyed and their trust in the authorities broken.

The devastating ordeal survivors and bereaved families have been through are a scar on the nation's conscience. The government must urgently address all the outstanding issues. The fire must become a turning point, leading to lasting change that overhauls all parts of the system that allowed this disaster to happen.