“Britain’s human rights watchdog is to launch an inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire that will examine whether the government and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea failed in their duties to protect life and provide safe housing.
The dramatic intervention by the independent Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has the potential to draw damning conclusions about the role of the state, could foreshadow the official inquiry, ordered by Theresa May and chaired by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, which has been criticised for excluding social housing policy from its remit. The commission’s recommendations are due to be published in April, considerably earlier than the official inquiry’s full findings.
The commission’s chair, David Isaac, said the EHRC, whose application to become a core participant in the official inquiry was rejected, had decided to launch its own inquiry amid concerns that key questions – including the extent to which the state has “a duty to protect its citizens”– were being neglected. While acknowledging that the move might be seen as “controversial” in some quarters, he defended the commission’s decision to become involved.
Six months on, Grenfell Tower fire survivors are left demanding answers
“We are the UK’s national human rights body and we have a statutory duty to promote equality and human rights,” Isaac said in an interview with the Observer. “We think the human rights dimension to Grenfell Tower is absolutely fundamental and is currently overlooked. Grenfell for most people in this country, particularly in the way the government has reacted, is a pretty defining moment in terms of how inequality is perceived.”
He recalled his reaction to the tragic events of 14 June. “Like everybody else, it was shock, horror, distress. I think it was a national moment that defined how certain parts of society experience the state’s public provision of housing and also how the state responds. We need to learn from what’s happened with Grenfell, look at it in the context of our human rights obligations, and think about how we can improve. There are loads of lessons to be learned.”
Last week it emerged that four out of every five families who were made homeless in the fire are still looking for new housing, with almost half of them likely to spend Christmas in emergency accommodation.
The EHRC inquiry, which will involve a panel of legal experts, will pay particular attention to the UK’s obligations to the tower’s residents under the Human Rights Act and international law. At a time when some want the act scrapped, the inquiry’s actions could be viewed as provocative.
“Human rights are for everybody,” Isaac said. “This is political and I know there is a view among some politicians, but also among society more generally, that human rights only protect extremists and terrorists but that isn’t the case at all. I always talk about Hillsborough as a really good example of where the Human Rights Act and the human rights lens has been used effectively to ensure justice prevailed.”
In a statement to be published on its website tomorrow, explaining its decision to launch what it refers to as its “project”, the EHRC will say: “The Grenfell Tower fire caused catastrophic loss of life for which the state may have been responsible. More than 70 people died in homes managed by the state. They should have been safe and they were not. The people who died and others affected by the fire come from diverse backgrounds. They include children, elderly people, disabled people and migrants. …
… The commission’s decision to examine the Grenfell Tower fire reflects a more muscular approach to addressing human rights and equality issues. Recently it has brought a number of high-profile legal actions and launched several major inquiries, such as that into the gender pay gap.
Isaac said: “We are a more confident organisation and this is a good example of us being that – holding the government to account by doing what only we can do. It might be perceived to be controversial but I believe that’s our role.””