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Grenfell: lessons must be learned and justice must be done

Four years on from the tragic north Kensington fire, profit is still being prioritised over safety in the housing industry – meaning tragedy is likely to strike again, write HOWARD BECKETT and GAIL CARTMAIL of Unite

IT IS chilling to realise that the Grenfell tower fire, which claimed the lives of 72 innocent residents, was four years ago.

Since that terrible day, Britain has experienced huge changes, but for those directly affected time has largely stood still.

Unite is actively involved in the ongoing legal campaign for justice, many of our members and their families lived in Grenfell. The union is acting for and supporting 70 members affected by the tragedy.

That support comes in many forms and included legal assistance with housing, immigration matters, applications to become a core participant at the public inquiry and compensation for what our members and their families experienced.

The support that our members have received with regards to housing has been particularly critical. 

Four years after the disaster, several still have outstanding housing matters.

The Grenfell survivors had their lives turned upside-down overnight and then struggled to find a new home, which is essential to a stable existence. 

Grenfell families were moved from emergency, to temporary and finally to permanent accommodation, a process which took at least a year and was made more complicated as the accommodation often offered was often unsuitable. 

Throughout this long and tortuous process, Unite was there for our members and ensured they were treated fairly.

Unite is also assisting its members through the legal labyrinths where some kind of justice can be achieved. 

Firstly, and most obviously, is the public inquiry. The inquiry is now in phase two which is examining why the tragedy occurred. 

Proceedings were heavily delayed last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic but are ongoing and it is expected the inquiry’s hearings will not be completed until next year, with a final report not expected before the second half of 2023.

The public inquiry will make recommendations and it is essential that they are extensive and fully acted upon, any buck-passing or watering down of what is needed to prevent another Grenfell occurring would be a complete betrayal of those who lost their lives.

Concurrently to the public inquiry is the ongoing criminal investigation by the Metropolitan Police, one of the largest the force has ever mounted. 

So far there have been no arrests, no charges and no prosecutions and, while not impossible, it is likely that the police investigation will not move dramatically forward until the inquiry, which they are closely following, is complete.

The third element to the ongoing legal issues is the battle for compensation for the victims. 

The primary focus is the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and its Tenants Management Organisation which was responsible for the management of Grenfell Tower. 

However the two organisations have joined in a number of other parties.

The legal case is currently stayed while attempts are made to agree appropriate compensation without a court case. 

This is an incredibly complex process involving large numbers of lawyers and insurers but where our members are fully represented.

While Unite has stood by and will continue to fight for our members every step of the way, it is also imperative that the union is at the forefront of ensuring a change of culture that ensures another Grenfell-type incident never occurs.

Unite represents tens of thousands of workers in the local authority, housing and construction sectors. 

For decades the union has fought against a tide of outsourcing and subcontracting, which at every turn removes the decision-maker from the worker who eventually undertakes the work required.

Everything we have learned about Grenfell since the tragedy is that the levels of outsourcing which began with Kensington Council divesting its responsibility for the tower to an arm’s-length tenant’s management organisation were immense. 

Problems were then accelerated through the refurbishment period where the flammable cladding was added and every single step was subcontracted. 

The Grenfell tragedy didn’t occur due to poor workmanship but fundamental failures of decision-making far higher up the subcontracting chain.

These extremely long subcontracting and outsourcing chains remove any form of accountability from the process. 

Even if someone in the subcontracting supply chain has a concern there is no way for their voice to be heard or concerns listened to, let alone acted upon.

In short, the only motive was profit that was prioritised over safety. The single most important group in the whole process — the tenants — were ignored or treated as an irritant.

Unless we return to a system of direct employment, where there are clear lines between those who make the decision and those undertaking the work, similar Grenfell tragedies are in danger of reoccurring.

The role and responsibilities of councils can’t be overstated — they are democratically elected and accountable to the local population, they must provide services for the benefit of the whole community and that includes providing decent and affordable homes to rent.

The issue of profit before safety, the lack of accountability and the fact that tenants’ voices must be fully listened to, are critical matters for the public inquiry to tackle and for the government to act upon immediately.

The bottom line is that when you stop treating people as human beings but as commodities on a balance sheet, disaster looms.

Unite will fight like hell for our members who became victims overnight for as long as it takes but equally we will not stop campaigning until the conditions that allowed this tragedy to occur are stamped out.

Howard Beckett and Gail Cartmail are assistant general secretaries of Unite.

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