Grenfell: Nine Months on
TIME PASSES. MEMORIES FADE. ANGER DILUTES. It will appear to many in the community around Grenfell tower that the authorities - at local government and central government level - are relying on these factors as part of a strategy to deal with the horror of 14th June 2017. Months pass but there are no arrests. There appears to be no action. And scandalously, of course, many of the immediate victims - the survivors - have not even had their immediate housing needs addressed.
For the Fire Brigades Union, the fire and its aftermath present huge challenges. The Metropolitan Police investigation is said to be the largest scale criminal investigation they have ever conducted - in terms of the number of witnesses and the number of documents to be examined. The police are scheduled to interview more than a thousand London firefighters, overwhelmingly FBU members. That is almost a quarter of our London membership and we have aimed to provide union representation in every single interview - some of which last up to six hours. It has required the help of FBU reps from across the country to achieve this and there remains a long way to go.
At the same time we prepare for other aspects of the investigations and inquiries which will follow the fire. These include major health and safety investigations and, of course, the public inquiry. But confidence in the public inquiry remains low in many quarters - especially among local residents. They rightly feel that they were ignored by those in power before the fire and that there is little or no sign of any change in this since.
The FBU shares many of these concerns. There is every indication at this stage that the Grenfell Tower Inquiry will be used to keep the debate about the fire and its aftermath within ‘safe’ boundaries. We have, for example, raised objection to the appointment of Steve McGuirk as the ‘fire expert’ for the inquiry team. McGuirk is a former chief fire officer who played a leading role in the numerous changes to the fire service which took place after 2003 - under New Labour’s so-called ‘modernisation’ programme. In the view of the FBU, this process led to the fragmentation of the service and a reduction in planning and preparation for emergencies.
It was characterised by a disgraceful complacency based on a downward trend in the number of fires in the UK. The key point here is that fires still happen and the public have the right to expect a top quality response to them even if they occur with less frequency. But the whole drive since 2003 has been to reduce the importance of emergency response - ie. responding to 999 calls.
In our view, any genuine inquiry must examine the impact of these changes on the planning and preparation for a fire like the one which took place at Grenfell. That means those in positions of authority have to be held to account and should have questions to answer.
In this context, then, Mr. McGuirk is not a neutral expert; rather he is someone who was centrally involved in many of the decisions which need to be examined. The decision to appoint him despite our objections is a clear indication of the direction in which the inquiry is heading.
If the inquiry is to really get to grips with how such a horror could happen, it will need to examine the entire housing and fire safety regime. These systems are created by political decisions.
The decisions to introduce (or to scrap) a particular regulation are political decisions. The role of various senior civil servants, advisors and government ministers should be subject to scrutiny as part of an inquiry. Ministers and former ministers should be called as witnesses. I suspect the inquiry will do everything possible to avoid any such step.
There is clearly huge pressure on the inquiry to have started taking evidence before the first anniversary in June.
The FBU has been granted ‘core participant’ status for the inquiry and we are currently preparing our case and evidence for what is likely to be a very long process.
The wider labour movement has a duty to ensure that the atrocity at Grenfell Tower is not swept under the carpet. We need to build solidarity with the Grenfell community across the country. On the 14th of every month members of the local community walk in silence to remember the dead and to raise the demands for justice. We always have an FBU attendance at this event which is remarkably moving and powerful. Anyone who is able should try to attend one of the monthly walks. It is welcome to see activists in other towns and cities begin to organise solidarity walks at the same time. We also need to build for a major event around the anniversary on 14th June.
Matt Wrack is general Secretary of the Fire brigades Union and Chair of the LRC