Editorial: A tragedy

by Yasir Ali

As I write this editorial, the confirmed death-toll from the Grenfell fire tragedy stands officially at 79, a figure that is only set to rise. The police have said that the building’s insulation and cladding tiles failed fire safety tests and they are establishing if its use was legal or not. Understandably, the conversation has turned to safety in preventing such avoidable devastation from recurring in future.

In 2009, following a fire at Lakanal House in south London, the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group called for a major government review of building regulations. In 2013, then-Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, responded to the coroner’s recommendations and promised a review. However, we are now four years on and no review has been completed, despite assurances from former housing Minister, Gavin Barwell, who is now Theresa May’s chief of staff. It is claimed that the building met all current building regulations, yet how could it have done when the top five floors were beyond the reach of fire brigade ladders? Those who watched the disaster on television saw how firefighters at the top of their ladders directed the flow of water from their hoses and even, in some cases, took those trapped in the building into their arms and carried them to safety on the ground, an incredible feat of strength and courage, as the ladders rocked beneath the weight of both parties. Surely the heads of Kensington and Chelsea local authorities were primarily guilty in failing to consult local fire brigades and failing to carry out their recommendations which would almost certainly have been to install sprinklers in all kitchens as well as smoke alarms loud enough to awaken sleepers – even those who were awake complained that they could not hear the alarms.

The residents in Grenfell Tower had made repeated protests that the single staircase was their only means of escaping the building. There was no central sprinkler system at Grenfell, which members of the Fire Protection Association have said would have “undoubtedly” saved lives and the London Fire Brigade claims that doors were not fire retardant. Fire doors do not completely stop fires but they do retard them by about twenty minutes which would have allowed tenants to escape burning flats. Refurbishment of the tower was completed last summer, at a cost of £8.7million and most criticism of the local authorities has centred on their installation of the expensive but inflammable cladding. Surely, though, local authorities are not expected to carry out highly technical tests on such materials? In this country we have laws that products sold must be “fit for purpose” It therefore appears to us that it is the manufacturers, rather than those who bought their products, who should be held responsible for their contribution to the fire. We shall have to wait for the findings of the Government’s recently announced Public Inquiry. Common sense suggests that there should at the very least be laws forbidding floors beyond the reach of firefighters’ ladders being used as dwelling places, whether publicly-owned or private. As London fills with more and more tall towers, we feel this should be high on the agenda.

Social housing should provide a stable home for families. Many who cannot rent, let alone buy, in the capital are completely reliant on social housing. We need to demonstrate that we value the lives of people in such tower blocks as Grenfell by making them as safe as possible. Consultation with local fire brigades should be essential to this. Investment in affordable housing is after all crucial in relieving the present housing crisis.

The recent General Election has seen Theresa May’s majority wiped out and a resurgent Jeremy Corbyn. Many see the General Election being called with the sole purpose of crushing opposition in Britain and now many are horrified at the prospect of any possible alliance the Conservatives may have with the Democratic Unionist Party, the DUP.

I would say that British politics are now beyond Left and Right. The confrontation relates to class, income, education, culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future. This is why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party manifesto connected with so many. His campaign was radical and fresh. Labour’s manifesto “For the Many, Not the Few” promised the scrapping of tuition fees for university students, the ending of zero- hour contracts and unpaid internships, a rise in the minimum wage, and included a pledge to build more than one million new homes. Whether there is a magic money tree or not – this remains a manifesto to get excited about. I myself met many life- long Tory voters who shifted over to Labour for this election.

Mr Corbyn’s message of a fairer society eclipsed Tony Blair’s swing in 1997, yet let us not forget that he still lost. One thing this election has proved is that Jeremy Corbyn is far from being “unelectable” and can be a strong political alternative.

The sustained vilification of both him and the Labour Party by the right-wing press was a disgrace and points to vested interests entrenched in British politics. An example is how the media whipped up hysteria around Corbyn and his alleged IRA sympathies while the Conservatives will enter government allied with the DUP, which is backed by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

In 2016 then-prime minister, David Cameron, sought to investigate the foreign funding of “extremist” groups. It was intended as part of a deal with the Liberal Democrats to support air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The ensuing report may never be published due to its “sensitive” contents. It is widely believed to directly implicate Saudi Arabia in the funding of such militant groups. We know that wealthy countries, such as Saudi Arabia, invest a lot of money into Western economies but also buy a lot of arms. For example, since the start of the conflict in Yemen in 2015, Britain has approved export licences for arms worth £3.1 billion to Saudi Arabia. And in the Yemen 10,000 have died and millions have been displaced by Saudi-led forces against Houthi rebels, with the Saudis accused of targeting civilians, along with the so-called rebels.

Finally, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) set up to probe the Sharif family and allegations of corruption appears to have descended into farce. The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, has lost the moral authority to hold power, yet will stop at nothing to cling onto it. The Pakistani judiciary has been under immense pressure from the first day the matter of Panama went to the Supreme Court. A truly shameful picture has been shown to the world of a “broken moral compass” which our contributor, on page 14, claims has filtered down to the lowest levels of society, a fear that many of us now have in regard to our own society in the UK. Subscribers will recall that we have already provided many shameful examples of the behaviour of local authorities in previous issues. We will continue to use this magazine to name and shame public bodies who conduct their affairs in an immoral fashion and we are sorry to say that there appears to be no lack of examples.

Issue 9 LAFZ Magazine

Image: mazur/catholicnews.org.uk