23 June 2017

Grenfell Tower Fire and Inequality: Statement from IFSW Human Rights Commission

Statement from IFSW Human Rights Commission

By Nigel Hall

IFSW and its Human Rights Commission wish to express their condolences and concern following the 14 June 2017 fire that engulfed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in the prosperous suburb of Kensington and Chelsea in London, UK. This involved a major loss of life and a traumatic experience for many. Flammable cladding on the outside of Grenfell Tower is suspected to have aided the rapid spread of the blaze, trapping dozens inside. Numerous warnings by the tenants to the management committee about the fire safety risk were ignored over many years and there seems to have been a pattern of lack of concern about the interests of the marginalized and vulnerable population residing in a stigmatized area of the city, albeit surrounded by some of the wealthiest residents in the country.

This tower block, comprising social housing for people with low incomes, like many similar ‘social’ housing schemes around the UK had been neglected over the years through insufficient investment in housing and a seeming disregard for the tenants’ expressed concerns. The first victim to be named was Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, a 23-year old refugee from Syria, which highlighted the variety of the communities living in this tower block as elsewhere in this very diverse city.

The disaster left at least 79 people dead and many more affected. The government has faced fierce anger from survivors and victims’ families over the official response. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has now apologized for a “failure of the state” and said the early response “was not good enough”. May later pledged to rehouse survivors within three weeks and ordered an independent inquiry into the disaster after a public outcry forced a reconsidered response.

Social workers, alongside other public sector workers and volunteers have played a significant role in supporting the victims of this tragic event. More importantly a social work approach recognizes that prevention is better than cure and it is important that the genuine concerns of residents, of whatever social background, are taken seriously and acted upon. The IFSW Policy on Human Rights states that “Social workers have to ensure equal access to public services and social welfare provision in accordance with the resources of national and local governments, and have a particular responsibility to combat discrimination of any kind in their own practice”. The Grenfell Tower tragedy demonstrates the relevance and significance of this statement and the Human Rights Commission urges all public authorities to listen to and respect the views of residents and tenants and act quickly if issues of safety are identified. It has indeed been indicated that numerous tower blocks and other housing in the UK and elsewhere in the world face similar risks and urgent action is required.

Video in remembrance of Grenfell Tower tragedy: http://www.standard.co.uk/showbiz/watch-the-heartbreaking-video-for-simon-cowell-s-grenfell-tower-charity-song-a3570696.html