Survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster in West London and members of the North Kensington community travelled to Parliament on 29th June, giving evidence to relevant Labour shadow cabinet members to enable them to better hold the Conservative government to account over its handling of events.
Earlier in the day, the UK government announced that its public inquiry in to the disaster would be led by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick. The controversial choice of Moore-Bick, made without consultation with survivors, adds to the sense in North Kensington that the government, in cahoots with its local government counterparts, are fudging the official response to the disaster, which has officially killed 80, although the real death toll is known to be far higher. The public inquiry will establish the cause of the fire, but will not have the power to bring criminal charges against those responsible.
Meeting in Parliament
The Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott invited survivors, families and local residents to meet with her and her colleagues in parliament to bear witness to the truth of what is happening on the ground following the unprecedented disaster. What they learned was that the reassurances given to them by prime minister Theresa May and home secretary Amber Rudd are at odds with reality.
Survivors, who arrived in busloads from around West London, spoke directly, through family members and one through a translator. The main concern raised was housing, but indignation was also expressed regarding the incompetence of the local authority, treatment of surviving families as charitable cases, class differences, the choice of judge and the impact of the disaster and government response on local children.
The theme, recurring with every speaker, was dignity. Dignity for the dead, for the survivors and for the North Kensington community. They were asking for dignity and they conducted themselves with the utmost dignity, in a strange setting, making demands they should never have to make. The Labour MPs present were armed with facts and anecdotes and will be keen to hammer home, to the government and the electorate, the need for dignity.
Numerous survivors told of how they had been moved to wholly inadequate and inappropriate “box rooms” in hotels or Bed and Breakfasts outside of Kensington and Chelsea. Some of these small rooms are not even equipped with fridges.
Some of the hotels are only providing breakfast to survivors, who must otherwise fend for themselves. One woman said that a relative of hers with asthma had been placed in a room with no window.
Others reported having been offered unsuitable accommodation in the south of the borough, while others had turned down numerous properties outside the borough, which had been offered only as temporary shelter. The local authority has not come forward with a plan for permanent housing, and concern was expressed that when temporary accommodation tenancies expired, Grenfell victims would be forced out of the borough by the unaffordable private sector market.
Those gathered heard that when hotels decided that they no longer had room to house the survivors, in some cases at 2am, there was no council contingency plan in place to support them.
Authorities Losing Authority
All of the residents who spoke decried the lack of support from Kensington and Chelsea council. While public support has flooded in, the survivors “have to go and search for it.” The absence of deliveries by the council has meant that survivors have had the unedifying experience of rooting through bags of charity donations to find essential items. One story was of a survivor who was provided with no shoes and no food by the council and had to head out to look for them.
The council was condemned for its inhuman response, “they haven’t even sent people to ask how we are” said one survivor, “Everyone else is asking how we are, why can’t they?” When Abbott asked if the information given to her by May and Rudd, that every survivor had been allocated a social worker, was correct, she was met with a resounding “No!” from all sides.
Survivors and community organisers demanded a local authority presence 24 hours a day at all hotels housing survivors to ensure their basic needs could be met.
The MPs heard that the Westway Sports Centre, acting as the hub for coordination of the relief effort is not using translators, despite English not being the mother tongue of many of the residents of the Lancaster West estate, of which Grenfell Tower is a part. Residents of neighbouring blocks have also been moved, lost gas and not kept informed of developments.
Emma Dent Coad, Labour MP for Kensington, agreed that residents had been “fobbed off” by the local authority, and claimed that the council was now effectively in “special measures” due to its incompetence.
Others questioned how the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO), which manages the estate for Kensington and Chelsea, could still be in situ following their own mishandling of the disaster.
Among the many shocking revelations brought to parliament by survivors was that the council was giving people an allowance of £30 per day to live on. Additionally, they were required to keep a record of what they had spent their £30 on.
Others told of traumatised survivors being offered £500 in cash with a further £5,000 to be put in their bank accounts, but with the caveat that accepting the money would affect future housing benefit payments. It was not clear if relief had now become a loan in the richest borough in Europe. Community organisers pleaded with the MPs present to take action to stop the authorities presenting victims with complex agreements to sign to enable them to receive minimal relief. The MPs explained that they had been given an entirely different report from the government: that everything was going “okay.”
Another fact, presumably not reported to the official opposition party by May and Rudd, is that survivors who need to use the Westway centre are made to wear wristbands to identify them as Grenfell residents. This made them “look like cattle” stated one family member of a survivor, who explained that as a sports centre, Westway already has the technology to produce photo identity cards, which would afford the survivors more dignity.
A Syrian survivor, who lost his brother in the blaze, talked about his family traveling to the UK to be with him in order to grieve together. He said that the grieving process was very difficult as the hotel room he has been housed in is a box room, so he and his family cannot spend the private, quality time they so desperately need to honour their loved one.
One man told of how his sister had been investigating safety in the Grenfell Tower and had been threatened with legal action by the council as a result. His sister died in the fire.
One major problem among the many identified was that Grenfell survivors were now dispersed across a wide area. They are unable to console each other, share their experiences together or coordinate their response. A weak constituency has now been further weakened.
More harrowing anecdotes followed: orphaned children with no social worker; one survivor, so traumatised and receiving little support, attempting suicide.
The link between the suffering of these residents and the class-based politics of the area was eloquently identified. One survivor compared the class system in North Kensington to that of the Titanic, where the rich can survive but the poor are at the mercy of events. People described the “managed decline” of the area and the council’s social cleansing.
Others objected to being referred to as “the poor” by Abbott, protesting: “we’re educated working class people, we’re not poor.” But there was no debate about culpability over the inadequate response of both the local and national governments: “the local and national governments don’t care,” “If you want to help us, just help us,” “the government just do not care.”
Improperly reduced to the position of almsmen, confusion surrounds the whereabouts of the millions of pounds of charity that society rallied to pledge.
In the absence of an effective local authority, word of mouth has become king in North Kensington. In parliament, those gathered heard unfiltered testimony from many mouths. On the future of the area, questions were raised about the demolition of Grenfell Tower, about rumours that the neighbouring school, Kensington Academy will not open in September and about the long-term psychological impact on children.
Incredulity over the absurdity of the official death toll was expressed, a scene replayed daily on every street in North Kensington. Disappointment, but no surprise, over the appointment of an unsuitable judge with an inadequate remit, was voiced. What is essentially an inquest in to the cladding used on the building was labelled “an insult.”
Some asked Abbott and her colleagues, the Shadow Justice Secretary, Richard Burgon and MP David Lammy, to work to ensure the skeletal tower is covered up to protect the dignity of those that died and to stop the community having to face that constant, harrowing reminder.
The politicians responded with the guarantee that they would “not rest” until justice was done. They called for transparency and action from the government.
The diligent work promised by Labour is very necessary, but above all, the cry of the North Kensington community must be heard and kept at the centre of any decisions taken: Dignity and respect now. The most traumatised community in the country have conducted themselves with grace and fortitude, but at the moment this not being met in kind.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles
This article was written for, and also appears on, The New Arab
Art by Junior Tomlin