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UK’s Grenfell Tower Fire Response is Falling Short on Rights

Six Months On, Justice and Safe Housing Remain Key

Street art in Ladbroke Grove, West London, commemorating the victims of Grenfell Tower fire, December 2017. © Benjamin Ward/Human Rights Watch

In the West London neighbourhood surrounding the Grenfell Tower apartment block, it’s hard to miss the street art remembering this summer’s terrible fire.

A memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral last week shows that this is a national as well as a local tragedy. Police have confirmed that the June 2017 blaze killed 71 adults and children, including a stillborn baby.

But there are still many questions about the authorities’ response to the tragedy.

First, will there be justice for the deaths and injuries that occurred?

Second, will authorities meet their duty to ensure that those who survived the inferno are able to secure safe and adequate housing, and take reasonable steps to protect other people at similar risk of deadly fires?

On the face of it, a lot is happening. The local authority has invested huge sums to acquire new housing for those made homeless by the fire. A public inquiry began preliminary hearings this month. The London Metropolitan Police is carrying out a criminal investigation into companies who refurbished Grenfell Tower, that could lead to corporate manslaughter charges. A government-ordered expert review of building and fire safety regulations has already published interim findings. And local authorities have acted to improve fire safety in similar high-rise social housing blocks they own.

But look deeper and things are not going so well.

As of mid-December, challenges finding suitable and acceptable permanent housing mean more than 100 families caught up in the Grenfell disaster were still in temporary housing. Most will likely spend Christmas there.

The public inquiry has struggled to gain the confidence of the community affected by Grenfell, which is vital to its success. A request for community members to join the chair’s panel of advisors has yet to be accepted. And a request by the national human rights commission to be a party to the inquiry has been rejected, making it less likely that human rights will be at the centre of its work.

Meanwhile, an interim expert report has found that the whole system of fire regulation is, “not fit for purpose,” and while some local authorities have pledged to install sprinklers in high-rise blocks (a safety measure recommended in the wake of a similar, less deadly fire in London), others are still looking at the issue.

But putting human rights at the heart of the Grenfell Tower response makes it more likely that authorities will meet the needs of victims. Importantly, it could also help to prevent future disasters.

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