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Grenfell inquiry begins: not sufficient, not trusted
Jail the killers!
For an independent workers' movement inquiry
Paul Kershaw, London Socialist Party and chair, Unite the Union housing workers' branch
Three months after the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower the official inquiry has opened in the De Vere Grand Connaught Rooms, Covent Garden. The elegant central London venue's palatial surroundings underline the 'them and us' gap at the core of this inquiry.
Local people and trade unions have voiced concerns that the terms of reference for the inquiry are too narrow to draw crucial conclusions. Its chair, retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, allowed no time for questions and ignored survivors' barrister Michael Mansfield QC when he attempted to raise them.
They also reacted with anger to a decision not to appoint a survivor or local resident to a panel of assessors who will advise the inquiry. Moore-Bick argues that "to appoint someone as an assessor who has had direct involvement in the fire would risk undermining my impartiality in the eyes of others."
So much for pleas for diversity and community representation! But his inquiry does have plenty of involvement from establishment figures who had direct involvement in the events that led up to this avoidable catastrophe. Why should working class people have any confidence in them?
Sir Ken Knight, the inquiry's technical advisor:
- responsible for a report that recommended against installing sprinkler systems as not "economically viable," despite post-Lakanal fire recommendations that they should be installed in tower blocks
- signed off 'Reynobond', used in the Grenfell cladding, as safe, when he was a director of Warrington Certification. His defence that he was "not aware" that he was director of the safety firm may have convinced the judge but simply won't convince others
Sir Peter Bonfield, advisor to the inquiry:
- responsible for a report in April 2016 which found that safety regulations in relation to cladding were "adequate"
Robert Black, chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) and so the Grenfell landlord, responsible for the period in which residents' fire safety concerns were ignored:
- facing anger after the fire, he announced his resignation. But it has now emerged he is still receiving his full six-figure salary, in addition to the new chief executive - presumably both paid from local tenants' rent! Kensington and Chelsea TMO says he is assisting multiple inquiries into the causes and aftermath, including Moore-Bick's inquiry, and that this is a full-time job
Will comparable funding go to local residents wanting to document and articulate their side of the story?
Gavin Barwell, the housing minister who sat on recommendations to review building regulations after the 2009 Lakanal House fire in Camberwell, south London:
- now Theresa May's chief of staff. Moore-Bick appears unembarrassed that the narrow terms of reference of his inquiry have been agreed with Theresa May's office
The terms of reference do include the government response in the immediate aftermath of the fire, but why stop there? Despite promises, just two families have been permanently rehoused.
A press officer told the Guardian that the number moved to permanent accommodation is not a "metric" the council is using. If local people were involved in the inquiry, they might ask why not.
It is essential that broader questions about why resident warnings were ignored, privatisation and lack of accountability, as well as the rundown of social housing and regulation are examined. Local people want the truth to be told and they want justice - as do firefighters, ambulance crew and hard-pressed council workers.
It makes sense to push the official inquiry as far as possible given its resources. But there is a need for an inquiry that does not downplay local residents and working class people, or let the profiteers and capitalist politicians off the hook.
Working with the local community, the trade unions should set up a parallel investigation.
Unite, for instance, organises housing and construction workers among others. Imagine the effect if Jeremy Corbyn and Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, for example, were to convene an inquiry and, in the full glare of publicity, call on residents and workers to give their testimonies.
Such an inquiry could draw the wider political conclusions about the effects of privatisation and deregulation, and point the spotlight on all the main parties and their roles in national and local government defending the interests of big business ahead of working class people.
No excuses - install sprinklers now!
Just 2% of UK social housing tower blocks have a full sprinkler system, figures released after a BBC freedom of information request revealed. It also found that only one in three blocks had more than one staircase, another issue cited in fire safety concerns at Grenfell.
Following the Lakanal fire there were recommendations that sprinkler systems should be installed. These have been supported by the Fire Brigades Union.
Now London's fire brigade commissioner, Dany Cotton, has called for retrofitting sprinklers saying "Grenfell should be a turning point. I support retrofitting - for me, where you can save one life then it's worth doing. This can't be optional, it can't be a 'nice to have' - this is something that must happen."
Landlords must act now on this and other fire safety concerns and they must report progress to tenants and residents.
Some have said they do not have the money, or that carrying out the work will result in cuts to other services.
The government has claimed that money will not be a reason not to do the work - but has dragged its feet when it comes to coughing up.
That is not acceptable. Start the work now - bill the government!