Josephine Whitehouse, intern at BIHR, shares her thoughts on the event about the Grenfell Tower fire

Last week I attended an event titled ‘Grenfell Tower Fire: The Avoidable Tragedy’, organised by the International State Crime Initiative and the Human Rights Collegium of Queen Mary, University of London School of Law (a partnership between the School and BIHR)

As described by the organisers, the event aimed “to bring together experts on crime, human rights and health & safety regulations to hear their reaction to the tragedy in order to try to understand what happened, and how justice could be achieved.” This forum for open discussion, debate and analysis of the events prior to and the response after the tragic fire at Grenfell has certainly been overdue.

The event involved eight different speakers, who each spoke about a specific topic. One speaker, Dr Vicky Cooper, lecturer in Criminology at the Open University, gave insight into understanding the Grenfell Tower fire as “housing violence” and how the tragedy can be placed within general systemic violence – something I had not considered before. She explained how the state has acted to dismantle housing protection by selling up council-owned property to make profits, often resulting in mass evictions. These evictions have significant violent physical and psychological effects on the displaced tenants. She feels the neglect, disdain and contempt shown towards the Grenfell residents is a continuation of this violence.

What I found to be the most educating discussion was that surrounding the responsibility of deregulation in allowing the events at Grenfell to take place. Hilda Palmer of Hazards Campaign and We Love Red Tape spoke about this topic. She opened her speech by reminding us that deregulation has been and still is central to neoliberalism. From Thatcher to New Labour, to the Tory 2015 manifesto and to Brexit, cutting back the ‘red tape’ has often been the rhetoric involved in discussion of health and safety regulations. David Cameron was vocal in his view that such regulations limit the scope and effectiveness of business, and whilst Theresa May has spoken about addressing “burning inequalities”, it is not clear how much has been done to prioritise this.

A truly compelling speaker was Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, who described the effect deregulation has had on the fire service. He reminded us whilst firefighters are deliberately sent into hazardous situations, they can only do so if provided with safe processes. This was not the case with the Grenfell Tower fire; in their commitment to saving what lives they were able, some firefighters did not follow their own procedures. The situation at Grenfell was so unusual that it could not be planned for. Wrack explained that this was the result of two factors. Firstly, the decimation of local authority building controls and responsibility for fire risk assessments has resulted in a deregulated approach to the environment in which the fire service operates. Secondly, the ‘Post Code Lottery’, where the abolishment of national standards for fire service responses has led to the development of local targets, means a fire in two tower blocks built by the same people may receive different fire service responses depending on their location.

Two other notable speakers placed the tragedy in the context of human rights. Geraldine Van Bueren linked housing disasters to the right to life, and explained two European Court of Human Rights cases where the state knew of risks to life prior to large-scale losses of life in relation to housing. The situation at Grenfell was similar: the government had been provided with information about the risks to life at the block due to both poor quality construction and the inadequacy of the safety features. Helen Wildbore of BIHR explained how the Human Rights Act works, and how it can be used to hold public bodies to account. Of particular interest was her explanation of how public bodies have procedural duties under the right to life to have safe systems in place to minimise the effect of known risks to life, and to investigate when deaths occur and a public body might be at fault.

This event helped me to better understand the political situation in which a tragedy like that at Grenfell was able to occur, and provided insight into the human rights principles at play. However, it is the survivors of the fire and the families of the deceased who need answers. I await the findings of the inquiry, which I hope will uncover the failings that took place and hold those responsible to account.