“Human rights commission to launch its own Grenfell fire inquiry”

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.””

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/dec/09/human-rights-commission-to-launch-own-grenfell-fire-inquiry

Devon/Somerset devolution: DCC Tories and Labour votes Yes on deal that scrutiny committee savaged

From the blog of EDA Councillor Martin Shaw:

“Most Labour members joined the Conservative majority on Thursday in voting down my amendment for the County Council to revisit its controversial ‘devolution’ proposals to join Devon with Somerset in the so-called Heart of the South West, first in a formal Joint Committee and then (envisaged but not proposed at this stage) in a Combined Authority. I argued that the proposals for an extra layer of bureaucracy have no democratic consent – they were not even in the Conservatives’ Devon manifesto last May.

I argued that we were being asked to support ‘a regional economic strategy that doesn’t add up to a government which doesn’t know what it’s doing about devolution, and for this we’re prepared to enter a half-baked new constitutional arrangement which will probably have to be scrapped as soon as a more rational government devolution policy is devised.’

Six of Labour’s Exeter members followed the line of Exeter City Council which is joining the Tory-run County and district councils in supporting the current devolution proposals (one abstained). They believe that Exeter’s economy will gain from the (currently unknown) amount of money the devolution bid will gain from government (which of course will be giving back a small proportion of the money it is currently taking from services). I argued that the plan does not have a viable economic strategy behind it, and that rural, coastal and small-town Devon stands to gain virtually nothing from it.

Liberal Democrat and Green councillors joined Independents in voting for my amendment. The webcast will be available here:

https://devoncc.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/305858”

Labour joins Tories at Devon County Council to support joint ‘devolution’ with Somerset, against Independent, Lib Dem and Green opposition

“The Guardian view on social housing: time to fight for affordable rents”

“ …On Friday the specialist journal Inside Housing published research that showed a new and significant factor behind the sharp rise in the numbers relying on emergency support.

The right to buy, first introduced in 1980, already abandoned in Scotland and soon in Wales, was successfully reinvigorated in England by David Cameron five years ago. It has been a boon to the buy-to-let market and a curse on councils that find themselves renting them back at hugely inflated cost.

Soaring house values have turned what should be a place to live into a golden asset. Former council properties have been snapped up by private landlords. In the most prosperous areas, up to 70% of former council homes are now privately let. Private rents out of London average over £200 a week while council rents are nearer £90 a week.

Councils in England have been sending up emergency flares for more than a year, trying to alert the government to their inability to build enough new homes to replace the ones they have been forced to sell, with predictable consequences.

In the last five years, since right-to-buy discounts were nearly doubled, 54,581 homes were sold and only 12,472 homes were started. Some are built in one authority from receipts of sales in another, compounding local shortages.

Councils have to use part of the receipts from sales to pay off housing debt, and can only keep a third for replacement. They are still banned from borrowing to make up the full cost of buying or building new ones. Between now and 2020, councils also face having to sell off higher-value council homes in order to fund discounts on housing association homes that are due to come in under right-to-buy provisions.

Like so much else that has happened since 2010, social housing policy has not just been damaging but contradictory, fostering the chimera of a property-owning democracy in an age of shrinking social housing stock and rapidly growing demand. The government makes bold promises on new affordable homes to buy. But what’s needed is homes that people can afford to rent.”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/08/the-guardian-view-on-social-housing-time-to-fight-for-affordable-rents

“Shepton Mallet hospital campaigners: “Reopen this hospital or we’ll see you in court”

Any bets on this hospital re-opening!

“A group of campaigners have launched a legal bid to try and prevent the temporary closure of a community hospital in Somerset.

Shepton Mallet Community Hospital Supporters Group have submitted a pre-action protocol letter to the Somerset Partnership Trust in an effort to reverse the temporary closure of the town’s community hospital.

A pre-action protocol letter is sent from one party to another in a dispute to narrow any issues or to see if litigation can be avoided.

Ten in-patient beds were closed temporarily in October due to staffing issues with the trust saying that they hoped to reopen them in March 2018.

Confirmation of the decision to temporarily close the hospital came after an email to staff was leaked on social media, saying that the plans would “proceed”.

This was despite a previous statement which said that it was “considering its next steps”.

The partnership later insisted that “nothing has changed” and that it remains focused on reopening the hospital towards the end of March 2018.

In a statement, a spokesman for the supporters group said that the letter aimed to challenge the alleged “unlawfulness” of the trusts decision and to “achieve the re-opening of the in-patient beds as quickly as possible.”

Paul Turner said: “We have asked the Trust to rescind its decision before a Court quashes it, and if it wants to take any such decision in the future or any other decision on a change in service at SMCH, the Trust must undertake a prior proper public consultation.

“This is nothing new and the point has been made before in meetings with SOMPAR representatives.”

He added: “We are of course also prepared to take part in alternative dispute resolution to avoid going to court.

“We have asked to be kept up to date concerning developments in this dispute.”

Somerset Partnership Chief Executive, Peter Lewis said: “We have received the letter and we are considering our response.

“In the meantime, I want to reassure the Shepton Mallet community that we remain committed to re-opening the community hospital inpatient ward as soon as we can, although we do not expect this to be before the end of March 2018.”

The issue of the temporary closure was raised at a debate in Westminster Hall last month by the MP for Wells, James Heappey.

Mr Heappey said: “The overall nurse rota statistics for both day and night shifts were 100 per cent in Shepton.”

http://www.somersetlive.co.uk/news/somerset-news/shepton-mallet-community-hospital-883030

“Philip Hammond causes storm with remarks about disabled workers”

Disability charity Scope and others call for chancellor to withdraw his comments implying disabled people are to blame for sluggish economy.

“Disability charity Scope called on Philip Hammond to withdraw his “totally unacceptable and derogatory comments” after he said Britain’s sluggish productivity could partly be blamed on more disabled people in the workforce.

In Wednesday’s treasury select committee, the chancellor was asked about low economic productivity levels, which he had reported during the autumn Budget last month.

At first, he responded saying that high levels of unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, “will be felt for many many years to come”.

He then added: “It is almost certainly the case that by increasing participation in the workforce, including far higher levels of participation by marginal groups and very high levels of engagement in the workforce, for example of disabled people – something we should be extremely proud of – may have had an impact on overall productivity measurements.”

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/dec/07/philip-hammond-causes-storm-with-remarks-about-disabled-workers