An Englishman’s home is his castle. That is if you are white and wealthy. For many of the residents of Grenfell Tower, their home was anything but their castle: it was their deathbed. Of the residents of Grenfell Tower who lost their lives on the night, 85% were people of colour. In 2018 I asked the public inquiry into the fire the – rhetorical – question: does the colour of a person’s skin matter in this country? The fact is skin colour is one of the defining facts of life in the UK. If you don’t feel compelled to think about it much, chances are you are white. If you think about it often you probably fit another demographic description. A description that unerringly affects whether you get a decent education, whether you get a job or, in the context of the Grenfell Tower, whether you live or die.
The stark reality is that the race, religion, disability status and social class of the residents of the tower determined their destiny. Let us today, of all days, not mince our words: institutional discrimination played its part in the death of 72 people and loss and suffering to many, many more. Yet, despite this obvious truth, no one in authority wants to discuss this issue, let alone tackle it.
Many of those mourning today – bereaved, survivors and residents – have told me they have little faith in the public inquiry, the police investigation and, perhaps most significantly, the government to affect any change. The public inquiry has persistently refused to deal with the issues of race, class and disability. Despite five years of investigating, the Metropolitan police appears no closer to laying any charges; and when it comes to the government history tells us it won’t act on the inquiry’s recommendations. Even a few weeks ago it shamefully rejected the inquiry’s phase-one recommendation for building owners to provide evacuation plans. Instead, the government favoured the very “stay put” policy that the inquiry found contributed to the loss of 72 lives on 14 June 2017.
And this is where the great and the good, and those in power and in powerful institutions who have come out today to remember those who died, and comfort those who lost and suffered, must answer. Your presence is important to the bereaved, survivors, residents and wider community. But they do want to ask you this: while you are here today, where were you before the fire? Because everyone knew the fire was going to happen: it was inevitable. The warning signs were everywhere: from the fire at Lakanal House in 2009 to the blog written by the Grenfell Action Group.
Where were you when disabled tenants were placed on the 18th floor of the tower without an evacuation plan? Where were you when the residents complained about a lack of smoke alarms and fire safety doors not functioning properly? Where were you when the residents raised concerns about the poorly planned and executed refurbishments to the tower and the building’s dangerous living conditions? Where were you when highly combustible cladding was pasted to high-rise buildings across the country? Where were you when those responsible for the refurbishment of the tower put profit before people?
The reality is that the tragedy of Grenfell was foreseeable and foreseen and you were not there. But you are here today and you might be forgiven – just about – for not knowing about the problems of Grenfell. But you know now. You may be sitting next to someone bereaved, a survivor or a resident, and you will no doubt shake their hand and express sorrow and condolences. You will show them a comforting smile, perhaps give them a hug or embrace. And then you will walk out of the door. And so will they.
But while you will go back to your home, those who lost their homes and loved ones will go back to empty houses – not homes. Their actual homes were lost in the fire. They will go back to houses that are missing family photographs and heirlooms. You will see your family and loved ones. The bereaved will be haunted by the memories of theirs. No longer will they be able to embrace their family members, have a family meal around the dinner table, tuck their children into bed and read them a bedtime story. This – all of this – has been lost to so many people. And all because of a fire that could – and should – have been avoided.
If this was not enough, the bereaved, survivors and residents have to suffer the indignity and pain of having to fight for justice – within the public inquiry, with the Metropolitan police and with those who were legally responsible for their loss. And what does this justice look like? The bereaved, survivors and residents I have spoken to are clear: if nothing changes, those who lost their lives will have died in vain. And they are not prepared to accept that. The tragedy is, of course, that but for the deaths – but for the loss – change might not take place. Those who I have spoken to want wholesale change to the housing sector in this country so there is safe and suitable housing for all, not just the white, able bodied and wealthy.
They want meaningful recommendations to come from the inquiry and they want those recommendations implemented in full and in a timely manner. They want those who are considered criminally culpable to be swiftly prosecuted and properly punished. They want those who are responsible for failures to be forced to accept responsibility at the outset, rather than playing the blame game as almost every party did at the inquiry.
And when tragedies such as this occur – and they will, if nothing changes – when everyone knows what happened and why it happened and who was at fault, they don’t want those who lost loved ones or suffered to have to wait for half a decade as they have had to do here. They also want 14 June to become a national day to memorialise the Grenfell Tower fire, so it is a lasting and permanent legacy of something that is never forgotten. So it cannot be forgotten.
So, when you do walk out of the door today, remember this: there are no excuses for not doing something now. While your support was welcome today, if you fail to act, if you do nothing in the next 365 days before the next anniversary, you will, I am sorry to say, not be welcome then.
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