Grenfell: Mis-Trust, Contempt and the Ongoing Struggle to be Heard

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

Almost a year on from the most devastating fire in the UK for a century, the Public Inquiry began, following advocacy by INQUEST and others, with “commemoration hearings” dedicated to the memories of the 72 victims who lost their lives. It was an unremittingly painful, yet wholly just and necessary, process.

So much more is to be said and learnt about the circumstances leading up to the fire. But one thing we already know – and a fact to which anyone remotely connected to Grenfell Tower can surely never be reconciled – is that this mass killing followed a conscious decision  by the richest council in England to save £293,000. This is surely the apogee in the contempt displayed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKCC) and the Tenants Management Organisation Grenfell residents which had “endured … for years” – what local MP Emma Dent Coad described as “a real disdain for people lower down the social order” – and must generate an enduring sense of worthlessness that the residents in and around the area will never shake off.  But what is perhaps more surprising – and disgusting – is that this contempt has persisted in the aftermath of the fire, further generating what Majid Yar has labelled harms of misrecognition– in essence, disrespect. It is with this mis-trust and contempt that this short comment is concerned, as we approach the one year anniversary of the fire.

One aspect of this contempt was the apparent in the complete lack of effective immediate response or leadership in the aftermath of the disaster – what Theresa May was to refer to, one week after the fire, as the “”failure of the state, local and national, to help people when they needed it most”. This is the context of the observation that “absence of clear strategies breeds lack of trust in authority, loss of confidence and a fear of the future that, sadly, is often well founded.” These failures on the part of authority persisted and continue to this day – as documented, for example, in the Initial and then the Second Report of the Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce, which have documented the continuing failings of RKCBC and the “severe trust deficit” between it and the local community. Then, more recently, the charity Muslim Aid has documented the void left by local and central Government, one filled “particularly in the first few weeks” by the community itself and a vast array of local organisations.

The continuing contempt on the part of central and local Government has also been repeatedly evidenced in the series of lies, half-truths and broken promises made to the affected households in the aftermath of the fire.

 

Billboards

Image courtesy of  Justice4Grenfell at https://justice4grenfell.org/press-release/3-billboards-outside-grenfell-tower-london/

One area of mis-trust was the palpable failure to meet the commitment made by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire – namely that “every person made homeless would receive an offer of accommodation within three weeks”. In fact, this was subsequently “clarified” as meaning temporary accommodation. In November 2017, RBKCC “promised that every survivor would have the opportunity to move into a new home before Christmas”, while weeks later the Minister for Housing and Planning estimated it would take RBKCC “up to 12 months” to rehome families. Moreover, the promise of being offered like-for-like tenancies was repeatedly broken.  As the Chair of Grenfell United noted, “For the survivors and affected families it seems like one broken promise after another.” By late May 2018, almost one year after the fire, only a third of the 210 families who had lived in the tower were in new, permanent accommodation, with another 72 neither in permanent nor temporary, but emergency,  accommodation.

A further area of mis-trust was the shifting and uncertain nature of the ‘amnesty’ offered to undocumented residents – originally stated at one year, then extended for 3 further months, followed by a policy announcement that “survivors would be able to apply for further periods of limited leave to remain, building up to five years. They could then apply for permanent residency”. A less well-documented condition of the offer set a deadline of 31 January to apply for the amnesty.

A further focus of contempt is to be found in the struggles between survivors and residents on the one hand and central government on the other around the Inquiry. First, contrary to assurances from Government, local residents were not consulted before the appointment of Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick to lead the Public Inquiry, in the light of which Justice4Grenfell concluded that this “further compounds the survivors and residents sense of distrust in the official response to this disaster” – and had they been consulted would likely have objected to the appointment. Following this was the protracted process in which the limited initial Terms of Reference of the Inquiry were challenged and then largely confirmed, itself followed by the Inquiry’s formal December 2017 opening, at which the lack of direct or indirect representation of residents was the key point of contention. Only on the virtual eve of its opening did Teresa May confirm that there would be a Phase 2 of the Inquiry what which two panel members would be appointed. Of this partial, last-minute concession, Deborah Coles of INQUEST stated, “at every stage, bereaved and traumatised families have had to fight to be at the centre of the inquiry”.

This sense of constantly being of constant struggle to be heard, of being treated without sensitivity, being at worst lied to or at best told half-truths, must surely exacerbate feelings of mistrust, of being treated as worthless, as contemptible – exactly the same characteristics which defined many of the ways in which residents felt they were treated prior to the fire (notably by the TMO and RKBCC), and, more, exactly the ways in which their concerns about safety in the tower were dismissed.

In short, the contempt displayed towards the residents before the fire was maintained and reproduced after the fire. It was popularly recognised as a cause of the fire per se. As one resident stated outside the tower as it continued to burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count”. The struggle of survivors of the fire, the bereaved, and the residents of the Lancaster West estate to count – to be heard – continues.

This blog was originally posted at BRAVE NEW EUROPE, https://braveneweurope.com/steve-tombs-grenfell-mis-trust-contempt-and-the-ongoing-struggle-to-be-heard on 12 June 2018

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Grenfell: unfolding dimensions of harm

Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University

 

Exactly six months ago, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block on the Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, west London. Grenfell was and is many things: a tragedy, an outrage, a testimony to the violence of austerity, the biggest fire in Britain for generations, and perhaps a crime of corporate manslaughter. But it is also the site of a whole series of harms, generated both by the fire and its aftermath – albeit some are much more immediately apparent than others.

Physical Harms

The most manifest harms associated with the fire are, of course, the immediate deaths which it caused – some 71, so it is officially claimed, although intense controversy about the actual numbers has raged. Moreover, a week after the fire, the clinical director of the major trauma centre at King’s College Hospital, said that : “Many of the people who have survived will go on to make a good recovery, but how many will have life-changing injuries remains to be seen. It may take weeks and months for some patients to recover physically.”

There are other possible physical health effects of the fire which are perhaps less identifiable. It is not fully known what airborne toxins might have been emitted as a result of the fire, and what long-term effects exposures to these might be felt by residents and those in the living in the vicinity. However, we do know that asbestos was present in the building, while hydrogen cyanide was emitted from the burning insulation.

In addition to causing death, injury and illness, various aspects of the aftermath of the fire are likely to have caused detrimental health effects. First, it is likely that anyone with existing problems of alcohol and/or drug dependency at the time of the fire would have experienced heightened dependency as a result of the trauma of the fire. Second, many illnesses associated with deprivation – the residents of Grenfell were amongst the 10% most deprived in England – such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol  are likely exacerbated by their having to live in hotel or B&B accommodation where control over diet is more difficult to exercise.

Psychological and Emotional Harms

Surviving the fire in Grenfell Tower is most obviously likely to have produced a whole gamut of searing psychological and emotional problems with which victims will live  for years to come. These are likely to be associated with grief at the loss of loved ones, loss, too, of possessions which cannot be replaced, of pets, the recall of the horrors of exiting the building (and of seeing others unable to do so), guilt at survival, as well as horrors and guilt for bystanders and members of the emergency. These have all variously been reported in the aftermath of the fire. None are surprising. None are easily imaginable. None are, one suspects, easily remediable, not least given the parlous state of socially provided mental health services in the UK. In this context, within a month or so of the fire, reports began to circulate about suicide attempts and other manifestations of long term mental health problems, including PTSD, stress, depression and anxiety.

Grenfell

Image courtesy of Gerry Popplestone (Creative Commons)

Financial and Economic Harms

There is no way of knowing what financial costs were, and continue to be, incurred by former residents of the Tower, as well as those living in the vicinity (but they would include extra travel costs to work or school, the costs of eating out, of time off to attend meetings, funerals, medical appointments, and so on).  Moreover these costs are dwarfed by those to local, regional and national economies which are likely to follow the fire. At the local level, the Council faces heavy financial costs following the fire. Costs to central Government will be significant.  The costs of the inquiry itself are likely to run into millions. None of this is to mention the fallout costs for other councils across the country. Numerous councils have tested cladding on high rise tower bloc and other public buildings, notably hospitals, and many are seeking central Government funding for major cladding-replacement programmes.

Thus, these economic effects of Grenfell Tower are not confined to residents, the local community or even the borough – there are ripple effects that are flowing and will continue to flow through communities across the UK. This in turn means that those who are most dependent upon central or local services and facilities – those with the least financial independence – will be hardest hit. The poor, the disabled and the sick, those on various forms of benefits, children in the mainstream school system, and, with no little irony, those in social housing or who lack access to adequate or any accommodation at all, all will be impacted upon. The least hardest-hit will be the most financially independent – the wealthiest.

Cultural and Relational Harms

A further, discrete category of harms I label here as cultural and relational. In terms of cultural harms, it is clear that in their physical relocation from the Tower and area – their  dispersal –  that many of both the routines and the networks which constitute social life – at school, the local shops, around the flats and so on – have been rent asunder.  They have lost their social networks and social supports when they need them most; dispersal does not just mean loss of community, it can mean isolation, desperation or, at best, a state of painful limbo.

More than this, there are relational harms that follow from mis-trust of central and local Government, each of which were absent in the immediate aftermath of the fire, and for which PM May apologised. In terms of central Government, the uncertain nature of the ‘amnesty’ offered to so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ (a harmful term in itself) was one such source of anxiety. Another was the palpable failure to meet the commitment made by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire – namely that “every person made homeless would receive an offer of accommodation within three weeks”. In fact, this was subsequently “clarified” as meaning temporary accommodation. Exactly six months after the fire, four of out five of the households requiring accommodation have not been permanently rehoused. Also, contrary to assurances from Government, local residents were not consulted before the appointment of Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick to lead the Public Inquiry in the light of which Justice4Grenfell concluded that this “further compounds the survivors and residents sense of distrust in the official response to this disaster”.

In many senses, there has been a contempt displayed towards the residents after the fire – one which entirely reproduced the attitudes displayed towards local residents prior to it. In fact, some recognised this contempt as a cause of the fire per se: as one resident stated outside the tower as it continued to burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count.” As the Inquiry opens this week, the demands that the voices of the residents must be heard and must count seem ever more pressing in the light of the unfolding, complexly interacting and layered harms which many of them continue to endure.

Why are the harms caused by poverty so ignored?

Joanna Mack , The Open University

and Stewart Lansley, Bristol University

Over the last three decades, overall wealth in Britain has doubled, yet the number of people falling below the minimum standard of living set by society as a whole has risen alarmingly, from just over one in six in 1983 to nearly one in three today.

The view promoted by the coalition government ministers and much of the media is that rising poverty is largely self-inflicted and a matter of individual failure – ‘a lifestyle choice’ as ministers like to call it. This individualistic focus on the causes of poverty echoes a tendency within social sciences and criminology to focus more on ‘the abstracted rational actor, as the primary unit of harm analysis’ rather than the differential impacts on different social groups of wider social and economic changes. Furthermore, it enables a policy focus that sees the role of the state as limited to changing the behaviour and aspirations of those who ‘fail’ – often through punitive means, such as benefits sanctions – and providing some, limited, support to enable them to change their prospects. Thus the coalition government imposed a series of ongoing cuts in benefit levels, leading to rising numbers turning to charitable help for the most basic of needs.

In our new book, Breadline Britain – the rise of mass poverty, we chart the rise in poverty in Britain over the last three decades through four large scale surveys – the ‘Breadline Britain’ surveys of 1983 and 1990 and the subsequent ‘Poverty and Social Exclusion’ surveys of 1999 and 2012. These surveys measure poverty using the public’s views on what is an unacceptable standard in contemporary Britain. Respondents are asked which of a long list of items and social activities, from a basic diet and minimum housing decency to a number of personal and household goods and leisure and social activities, they consider to be essential for living in Britain today.

This method establishes a minimum standard based on what the majority of people think are the necessities of life, which everyone should be able to afford and no-one should have to do without. This is the nearest we have to a democratic definition of poverty. It’s a standard that has support from all groups in society, across different social classes, genders, ages and, significantly, political affiliations. These surveys conclusively show that the public take a clear relativist view of poverty.

In 2012, the proportion of people who could not afford (as opposed to did not want) a number of the most basic of the publicly-defined necessities was higher than in 1983. Around six percent of households lived in a damp home in 1983, dropping to just two percent in 1990. It now stands at ten percent. The percentage of people who cannot afford to heat their home adequately has trebled since the 1990s, rising from three to nine percent. Nearly one in five children – 2.5 million – live with damp, while over half a million children live in a home that is both damp and cold.

Having enough food is another core aspect of everyone’s conception of poverty. The Department of Health has defined food poverty as ‘the inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet’. The proportion of households unable to afford two meals a day stood at three percent in 2012, back to the levels found thirty years earlier, having dropped to negligible levels in the intervening period.

There has also been an increase in the numbers struggling to maintain a diet of sufficient quality. Being able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables every day has been a consistent health message of recent years – yet the percentage of households where adults go without has risen from five percent in 1999 to seven percent in 2012. The proportion of households where the adult goes without ‘meat, fish or vegetarian equivalent every other day’ (a measure of adequate protein in the diet) is up – from two percent in 1999 to five percent in 2012. On the basis of the three adult food necessities (two meals; fruit and vegetables; and meat, fish or vegetarian equivalent), three and half million adults are not properly fed by the standards set by the public. In addition, half a million children are not adequately fed.

The negative impact of poverty on people’s lives is very well established. Children who live in damp and mouldy homes are up to three times more likely than those in dry homes to suffer from coughing, wheezing and respiratory illness. This has long term effects on people’s health and well-being beyond childhood. The number of ‘excess winter deaths’ – the additional numbers that occurred from December to March compared to the average for the rest of the year – is on the rise following a long-term decline since the 1960s.

Poor diet is a risk factor for the UK’s major killer diseases. In a review of the evidence, the Royal College of Physicians reports that it contributes to almost half of coronary heart disease and a third of cancers. For growing numbers, it leads to diabetes, for older people it increases the risk of fractures, and for pregnant mothers there is a greater chance of a baby of low-birth weight.

Figure 1: Material deprivation and other harms, UK 2012

Material deprivation and other harms, UK 2012The pressure on living standards is also having a much wider impact.  In 2012, under half of adults could afford all the necessities, fourteen percent lacked one, nine percent lacked two while thirty percent of adults were unable to afford three or more necessities. Moreover, the percentage of households that cannot afford each of the items and activities seen as necessities in 2012 and 1999 has, in nearly all cases, risen or stayed the same. For some, the increase has been large: those unable to afford to ‘replace or repair broken electrical goods’ up from twelve to twenty-six percent; and those unable to afford ‘appropriate clothes for a job interview’ – a particular problem for the young unemployed – up from four to eight percent. There was also a rise in the proportion of children missing out on a number of key necessities, in some cases more than doubling. In 1999, two percent of children couldn’t afford a school trip once a term; by 2012 it was eight percent.

Significantly, these material and social deprivations are associated with other disadvantages and harms. Figure 1 shows that looking across all the necessities, fifty-nine per cent of those who lack three or more necessities say their health is affected in some way (from ‘slightly’ to ‘a lot’) by their situation and seventy-three percent have at least one financial problem (that is, they are constantly struggling to keep up with their bills or have fallen behind, they have during the last year borrowed to meet day to day needs or have been in arrears on one or other of their household bills). In addition, half of those who lack three or more necessities suffer four or more of the standard twelve indicators of stress, anxiety and depression used in government surveys, a cut-off widely taken as an indicator of poor mental health. Those who lack control over their lives, and sense this lack of control, pay the cost in poor mental health.

Even those with moderate levels of material deprivation, those who lack one or two items, are more likely to face a range of other disadvantages. Thus, a fifth of those lacking one item and a fifth of those lacking two say their health is affected in some way, a quarter of those lacking one item and forty-one percent of those lacking two have one or more financial problems, and a quarter of those lacking one and nearly a third of those lacking two have poor mental health.

In sharp contrast, those lacking none of the necessities are much less likely to experience other disadvantages. There is a clear gap between the experience of the forty-seven percent of the population who have all the necessities and the fifty-three percent who lack at least one and especially those who lack three or more. Among this latter group a large majority face a range of other problems.

Using a cut-off point of those who cannot afford three or more necessities – a group whose deprivations are both overwhelmingly enforced (by lack of income) and whose lives are affected in deep and multiple ways – the level of deprivation poverty has been steadily rising over the last thirty years – up from fourteen percent in 1983 to thirty percent in 2012. While the poor today are in some respects better off than those in the early 1980s, in particular possessing a wider range of consumer goods, they are less a part of the society in which they live. It is this that impacts on people in such a harmful way. Not only are they more likely to suffer direct harms – such as illness – but they also suffer harm in terms of the denial of resources to – using Amartya Sen’s concept of capabilities – be able to live the life one values.

This sharp rise in poverty – and its related harms – cannot be explained by a sudden explosion of individual failings. In contrast, it is intimately connected to the rapid rise in inequality resulting from the great interlocking social and economic upheavals of the last thirty years, many of them politically driven. The rolling back of the welfare state, the deregulation of markets (in particular financial markets), and the impact of increasing unrestricted terms of trade through globalisation have come at an enormous cost for increasingly large numbers of people.

Today’s working generation faces a much more treacherous labour market, one that has brought greater joblessness, the spread of low pay and deepening insecurity at work. These problems have been compounded by other changes from the shrinking of housing opportunities, especially for the young, to a deliberate shift in the burden of economic and social risks from the state and employers to the individual. People have increasingly been left to cope by themselves at the very time when insecurity and uncertainty have been on the rise.

The widespread harms caused by poverty have been ignored – despite being well established – precisely because they stem from the very organisation of society. When that organisation is dependent on promoting the primacy of individual agency and responsibility – or, in current parlance, of personal choice – then the harms of poverty are all too easy to blame on the poor themselves. Recognising that poverty stems from the accumulated reductions in opportunities, pay and life chances that result from systematic barriers acting differentially on people – dependent on their social and economic context – poses a much more fundamental challenge. It requires different ways of thinking about, and greater levels of inquiry into, how society could be organised to produce lower levels of poverty. Crucially, it challenges the current, dominant, free market model of capitalism with it bias toward capital and widening inequality.