Grenfell was supposed to see the government leave ‘no stone unturned’ – instead, it left an entire community abandoned

On the third anniversary of the fire, numerous opportunities have been missed to properly uncover the root and impact of the tragedy

Thomas Kingsley
Wednesday 17 June 2020 10:53
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Keir Starmer says three years on from Grenfell fire there has been 'little justice or accountability'

Church bells across London will ring in unison on Sunday evening to mark the third anniversary of the Grenfell fire which took the lives of 72 people. Many argue the fire was the result of racial and class inequalities. Three years later, coronavirus is exposing those same disparities as government findings revealed that people of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (Bame) backgrounds have up to a 50 per cent higher risk of dying from Covid-19 compared to white British people.

The disproportionate effect of coronavirus on Bame people is hardly surprising, but what is harrowing is that three years on from Grenfell, the government has learnt nothing.

Kensington and Chelsea is one of the richest boroughs in London, yet North Kensington, where Grenfell tower now stands as a memorial, contains twice as many Black and Asian people compared to the rest of the borough. It beggars belief that in a borough with some of the richest streets in the UK, a 24-storey tower block housing hundreds would be covered in highly flammable material resulting in the deaths of 72 people.

According to Trust for London, North Kensington has above average poverty rates, child poverty, and receipt of out-of-work benefits. Speaking to me ahead of the anniversary, Yvette Williams, co-founder of Justice 4 Grenfell posed the important question: would the fate of the Grenfell victims be different if they were from a different demographic?

I believe it would have. The Grenfell fire didn’t occur in a vacuum but is predated by decades of discrimination of racialised immigrants including the Windrush generation who were forced to live in the slum areas of North Kensington upon entry to the UK. The echoes of this racial discrimination played out similarly with Grenfell, with residents being ignored after repeatedly raising concerns about the building’s safety. And even today, seven families are still living in temporary housing.

In the aftermath of Grenfell, Theresa May, the former prime minister, pledged that lessons would be learnt and in the inquiry into the tragedy “no stone [would] be left unturned”.

But the inquiry, which opened in 2017, showed early signs of the government’s failure to heed these lessons. Contrary to May’s pledge, stones were indeed left unturned as the inquiry chose to exclude the effects of race and class discrimination in its terms of reference.

The Grenfell inquiry said: “The prime minister agreed such matters would extend the scope of the inquiry too far and require an examination of social, economic and political factors of a kind that was not suitable for a judge-led inquiry.”

In response, Justice 4 Grenfell’s Williams, also a long-time resident of Kensington, said: “The people of Grenfell are at the heart of this story.” Therefore the exclusion of race and class inequalities “doesn’t allow the full story to be told”.

The question has to be asked then, when would it be suitable to evaluate the effects of race and class discrimination on Bame people? If not the painful deaths of 72 people, the majority being of Black and Asian ethnicity, living in social housing in the most deprived part of a wealthy borough, then when?

Perhaps when that same demographic is facing the brunt of a global pandemic? Apparently not. The government’s inquiry into Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on people from Bame backgrounds simply reinforced what was already known. The inquiry was delayed multiple times and when it did finally arrive in its 89-page entirety, not one page offered recommendations on how to address the effects of race and class inequalities – similar to the ongoing Grenfell inquiry.

Grenfell Inquiry delayed amid angry outburst

Once again, an opportunity was missed to properly explore how racial and class inequalities affect marginalised groups. Overall, the inquiry shows that three years on from Grenfell, where tragedy also struck a predominantly working-class Bame community, the government has learnt nothing. Or worse, it has learnt and chosen not to act, which is unacceptable. The government needs to turn this situation around.

Additionally, in a time where members of the public are being urged to stay in their homes as much as possible, latest government figures reveal there are still more than 300 high-rise buildings with Grenfell-style cladding. Last year, James Brokenshire, then communities secretary, said such cladding would be removed by this month.

The government has critically missed its own deadline and as a result, three years on from Grenfell, thousands of households are forced to sit in properties that could face a similar fate if a fire broke out.

Evidently, since Grenfell, little has changed in the government’s attitude towards Bame people and as this year’s anniversary falls in the midst of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, it’s laughable to hear members of this government regurgitate the slogan. Black lives cannot matter to this government until action is taken to address the racial and class inequalities painfully exposed by Grenfell, and now coronavirus.

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