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Grenfell: The Story of a Human Rights Failure

The Grenfell Tower fire started in the early hours of 14th June 2017. The tragedy caused 72 deaths, with a further two people dying at a later stage in hospital from their injuries. The incident has been scrutinised since its occurrence and has been the subject of fierce debate. Many have argued that the tragedy was the result of a systemic failure on the part of the Conservative government. Amongst the tragedy and the anger aimed at the government, there has been much solidarity, particularly within the local community. Floats at the 2017 Notting Hill Carnival were covered in green in remembrance of the tragedy along with the release of doves at its opening. Most recently, there has been footage of a London Underground driver stopping his journey on the first anniversary of the fire in order to pay his respects to those who lost their lives.

Grenfell Tower

In the most recent twist of events, the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission, a human rights watchdog, has written to the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Within that correspondence, the Commission have outlined concerns over the continued use of combustible cladding in existing buildings and have advised the government of its responsibilities under various human rights laws to protect lives.

Immediate concerns arise when one considers the “Right to Life” as prescribed by Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). The provision reads:

1. Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.

2. Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this Article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary:

(a) in defence of any person from unlawful violence;

(b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained;

(c) in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection.

A troublesome point to note is that the government has taken steps to launch a consultation regarding the Grenfell disaster. However, the focus of the consultation is on the use of cladding only and completely omits any reference to the duty to protect the lives of citizens under Article 2 of the ECHR. It would be apparent on the face of Article 2 ECHR that the government does have a duty to protect life where it knows or ought to have known that there was a risk to life. However, this is limited to circumstances whereby governments failed to use measures within their powers which, judged reasonably, may have been expected to avoid that risk from occurring. This was made apparent by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Osman v United Kingdom (at paragraph 116 - the judgment can be found here). Although this case related to criminal activity, it can be applied to the current scenario regarding Grenfell when one considers the recent investigations into cladding and the causes of the fire. The UK EHRC maintain that there is an ongoing violation of Article 2 as the government now ought to know of the risks. The case against the government becomes stronger when, after announcing the fire doors in Grenfell Tower did not satisfy fire safety standards, a further five suppliers of fire doors also failed the relevant standards.

Whilst there have been additional safeguards implement in some residential buildings that may be high risk (predominantly blocks of flats), these merely include the use of fire wardens and sprinklers. Concerns arise as to whether these measures go far enough and whether more can be done. These concerns are further compounded as the owners of the buildings refuse to pay for replacements to cladding. This has resulted in the tenants paying for the costs. The residents of such buildings, especially given the short-term notice, are unlikely to have access to funds to pay for cladding. A prime example of this issue can be seen in Wandsworth in South London.There is also the question of fairness: should the residents have to pay for something that is either the responsibility of the building owner or the government?

Unfortunately, no response has been received from the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government. This is despite launching its consultation in June. It is believed that the cladding used in Grenfell Tower was a key factor in the severity of the disaster and remains the centre of the consultation. Whilst there appears to be increasing pressure from all sides for the government to provide answers and be held accountable, it seems that such a result will not come any time soon.

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