No more Grenfells - Fight for social housing

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The narrow terms of reference for the Public Inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire, and the attempts to sideline and intimidate survivors, reveal that the government has no intention of seeking justice for those who have lost everything. As ever, those with wealth and power will continue to protect their own interests no matter the cost to the working class. The result of their tireless pursuit of profit will be further insecurity, poverty, homelessness and death. The public inquiry is designed simply to demoralise, demobilise and exhaust those fighting for justice, against austerity, and for social housing. Jack Lukacs reports.

The scene was set at the preliminary inquiry hearing on 14 September, held in an ornate central London hotel with marble hallways and dripping with chandeliers. In his opening address Sir Martin Moore-Bick QC – chosen to lead the inquiry by the government without any community consultation – refused point-blank to appoint survivors as assessors. The judge stated that the inclusion of ‘someone who had had direct involvement in the fire would risk undermining my impartiality in the eyes of others who are deeply involved in the Inquiry’. These ‘others’ include Roger Black, former chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which oversaw the lethal ‘refurbishment’ of Grenfell Tower which has – belatedly – been stripped of its control of local authority housing by Kensington and Chelsea council. Black apparently ‘stepped aside’ in order to focus on ‘assisting with the inquiry’. He retains his six-figure salary while he does so.

Moore-Bick will rely instead on his own handpicked group of counsel from the world of commercial law and selected ‘experts’ in construction and local government to direct the investigation away from the root causes of the tragedy, and in so doing will protect those most responsible. So far, the government has not even bothered to put in place a pretence of ensuring the public face of the inquiry reflects the ethnic and religious diversity of the Grenfell community in any way although, under pressure, Prime Minister Theresa May has suggested she may appoint a more ‘representative’ panel to sit alongside Moore-Bick. But even if she does so, it will not alter the essential purpose of the inquiry, which is to cover up the truth.

The terms of reference, which concern only the immediate causes of the fire, the actions of the local authority, and the response of the Fire Brigade and government, ensure that the fire will be treated as an isolated incident, rather than as a symptom of decades of targeted degradation of social housing. There is nothing in this narrow field of inquiry that suggests any substantial change will be brought about with regard to the deepening housing crisis, only quick fixes and buck passing. An interim report on the findings will not be forthcoming until Easter 2018 at the earliest.

At the conclusion of Moore-Bick’s 45-minute opening address, Michael Mansfield QC stood to make a request on behalf of the survivors. In response, Moore-Bick turned his back and departed without any acknowledgement whatsoever. Moore-Bick’s blatant snub was met with anger and shouts of ‘Rubbish!’ from those present, who have been ignored at every stage, both in the years leading up to the fire, and in the months following.

This is why the Revolutionary Communist Group calls for a People’s Inquiry, with a working class jury led by the community to fully investigate the fire and its causes within the wider context of the current destruction of social housing.

Where has all the money gone?

The horror of the fire on 14 June prompted an outpouring of solidarity across the country, with millions of pounds donated within days. The failure of the council and the government to meet the immediate needs of survivors meant that there was an urgent need for this money to be passed on by charities as quickly as possible. Yet for the first three months, it appears that precious little of this money reached its intended goal.

By 18 August – two months after the fire – the Charity Commission revealed that only 30% of the £18.9m donated to support survivors of the fire had in fact been handed out. It took another month for the major charities involved – predominantly the British Red Cross – to grudgingly concede a payout of a further £5.5m to those affected by the fire (Press Association, 21 September 2017). About £3.2m from the British Red Cross will go to the next of kin of those who died in the fire and survivors who were in hospital for at least a week, with a further £2.29m in grants to former residents of 139 homes in Grenfell Tower – £15,000 each – and 26 households in Grenfell Walk whose homes were irreparably damaged – £8,000 each. That’s a pitiful amount of money for those who have lost everything and have nowhere permanent to live. Mike Adamson, chief executive of the British Red Cross, attempted to justify how slow the organisation had been to hand over the money, saying they had been ‘entirely focused on the bereaved and seriously injured’.

As The Independent pointed out (18 August 2017), the Charity Commission report ‘shows a complex web of charities and distributors managing the donated funds, with various grants available to specific members of the community, often with strict eligibility criteria.’ Like the Poor Law Guardians of old, disaster charities like the Red Cross ‘manage’ donations in their own interests, creaming off a percentage for administration costs before deciding who is and isn’t entitled to a drip-feed of support – distinguishing as ever between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. The administration of funds is opaque and fundamentally undemocratic. At best it is mismanagement, at worst downright theft.

The Red Cross has form on this. Following the devastation to Haiti wrought by an earthquake in 2010, which killed hundreds and left 1.5 million people homeless, the US Red Cross collected nearly $500m, with which it built just six homes. The Red Cross spent at least 25% of donation money on itself, with money going to management, fundraising, expenses and programme costs. Charitable organisations, while all too often the only recourse for those in need, exist only to paper over the immense failings of capitalism. The deepening crisis, and the continued refusal of the ruling class to offer the barest modicum of support to the oppressed, will only see more and more money disappearing into charities’ coffers.

Still fighting for justice

Meanwhile the incompetence of Kensington and Chelsea council – and its complete contempt for the needs of its working class residents – continues. While local community groups in North Kensington co-ordinate resources to provide support for traumatised families, more than three months after the fire just 20 households have been permanently rehoused, with the remainder still living in hotels, despite the fact that 1,857 properties in the borough lie empty, in the wealthiest borough in the country, with reserves of £274m. Council support services remain wholly inadequate; small wonder there have been reports of over 20 suicide attempts since the fire in June.

Other promises made by council leader Elizabeth Campbell are yet to be fulfilled – including writing to the prime minister to demand a permanent amnesty for all migrants caught up in the Grenfell fire. Meanwhile, no criminal charges of any kind have been brought against any individual or organisation despite police saying at the end of July they have reasonable grounds to suspect the council and KCTMO of corporate manslaughter.

While the capitalist media and MPs – Conservative and Labour – call for respect for an inquiry process set up to serve only those with wealth and power, the real fight for justice must be waged by those most affected by the Grenfell fire. We demand an investigation into the full causes of the fire and the broader housing crisis led, not by those who share interests with landlords, property developers, banking executives and politicians, but by the community which bears the cost of the crises they engineer. Justice can only be achieved through the harnessed power of the working class.

  • People’s inquiry, not public inquiry!
  • Permanent, safe, local council homes for all who want them!
  • Full amnesty for migrants!
  • Criminal charges now!

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 260 October/November 2017