One year on, and the time is fast approaching when the prime minister will have to apologise for a third time about the official response to the Grenfell disaster. Yet the time for apologies, it hardly needs to be said, has long since passed; what is needed now is action, and specifically, permanent homes.
Jeremy Corbyn, who was it his best in the aftermath of the fire, raised once again at Prime Minister’s Questions the continuing failure to provide sufficient permanent, new accommodation for those who lost their loved ones, homes, and possessions in the fire. Had the SNP’s parliamentary protest about Brexit not overshadowed his interventions, Theresa May’s inadequate, though not uncaring, replies might have come in for more scrutiny and criticism.
As it is, thanks to the SNP, Ms May’s lack of commitment to permanent rehousing got less attention than a row about the timing of a vote on the House of Commons meeting in private – a symbolic gesture that the SNP was never going to win in any event. Perhaps that was the point; the walkout was probably planned and premeditated (even if diverting attention from Grenfell was not).
It is worth making clear how the SNP walkout was based on such narrow procedural grounds. Speaker Bercow offered a vote on a private session of the Commons to discuss the failure to adequately address Scottish concerns about the Brexit bill. The leader of the SNP at Westminster, Ian Blackford, insisted on an immediate vote, rather than wait half an hour or so. When he refused to sit down he knew he would eventually be kicked out of the chamber. He duly was and he took his entire parliamentary representation with him. It was dramatic. The cause may have been just. But it was the wrong time and the wrong day to make such a demonstration of disaffection.
Ms May, who has rightly taken a personal interest in the Grenfell disaster, needs to use what political clout she still has to do whatever is necessary to find former residents new permanent homes. In the Commons she weakly recited, again, the number of offers made for permanent and for temporary accommodation – the point of course being that temporary accommodation is supposed to be just that, and is no basis for families to rebuild lives.
Having met families she spoke with some feeling about their plight and how much they have lost in this trauma, but she was vague about any commitment to provide suitable new homes for people made homeless and bereaved through no fault of their own. While they wait for the Grenfell Inquiry to make its way towards justice, the survivors deserve to be given some immediate solace in the form of a new, and permanent, place to live. Given the degree of genuine goodwill that must exist in government and at Kensington and Chelsea council, it is bewildering why more homes have not been allocated.
It speaks, perhaps, to a more profound shortage of good quality social housing, especially in London – an admission it might be too inconvenient, and expensive, for the government to admit. Either way, the families in temporary accommodation deserve an explanation.
This week, in the Evening Standard, Ms May acknowledged that her failure to meet families immediately after the fire made it look as though she “didn’t care”. She admitted that her actions were “not good enough” and that “residents of Grenfell Tower needed to know that those in power understood their despair”. They still need to know; and the provision of proper, lasting homes would be the proof.
It is in the nature of this awful tragedy that the victims will have to wait for justice and for wider change – hard though it may be to accept further delays. The Inquiry’s remit is wide – as the families wished – and it must be pursued in a legally sound and vigorous fashion. Many of the technical issues are complex. Many of the social questions too, require the maximum disclosure of evidence and examination. Who made the decisions on the cladding? Was the London Fire Brigade wrong to persist with the “stay put until” advice to those in danger for as long as it did? Was there, as Imran Khan QC, acting for the families, suggests, “institutional racism” at work before and after the blaze? Was privatisation and deregulation a factor? Why was the immediate political reaction so poor? Did the media exacerbate the distress of those affected?
All these questions deserve proper care and time devoted to them; but that inevitably means final reports and any subsequent actions may come later than desirable. So too will any criminal or civil proceedings.
No doubt there will be more apologies to come, from a depressing range of public and private bodies, but what so many of the families need now (indeed, have needed for a year) is somewhere to call home. It is not too much to ask.
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