It is an obscenity that people live in death-trap homes while super rich avoid paying tax – Corbyn speech on Grenfell

9th November, 2017 1:52 pm

This is the full speech delivered by Jeremy Corbyn today at the launch of Labour’s Make Homes Safe campaign.

We are here today less than 150 days after the country woke up to the devastating news of the fire at Grenfell Tower.

It was a fire that shocked the whole country.

A 24-storey tower block subsumed in flames. Whole families, adults and young children alike, trapped inside the tower with no chance of escape.

The scenes inside that tower would have been unimaginable hell.

Firefighters entered the burning building nonetheless at huge risk to themselves, saving many lives. But far too many, at least 80 people, were beyond rescue.

On the morning after the Grenfell fire I visited the scene and I talked to those who lived in the tower and the surrounding area.

They were in shock and they were grieving. People simply did not believe that such a horrifying event could take place in 2017, in the UK’s richest borough, in the 5th richest nation on earth.

But tragically it didn’t happen by chance but because of shockingly avoidable political decisions, driven by a cruel and failed economic ideology.

The country was shocked and the local community was hurting but it was this shock and pain that prompted such an inspirational response from the local community in this part of West London.

It was a response stirred by the shared grief of innocent adults and children having their lives taken from them in the fire.

Stirred by the pain of seeing that burning building, knowing there were people trapped inside and stirred by the anger of knowing that working class voices had been ignored once again; and that a tragedy of this shocking scale had been allowed to happen.

Although the local council of Kensington and Chelsea has faced criticisms for its response to the fire, other local authorities, such as here in Hammersmith and Fulham, deserve to be acknowledged for their efforts to help those affected by the fire.

Whether it was running fundraising events or directly offering the use of their own council services and council officers free of charge, it was this council, along with others including my own, that did what it could to help those in need.

Local organisations and community groups have also played a huge part in the response. Queen’s Park Rangers Football Club for instance managed to raise almost £1m for legacy projects that will leave a lasting impact in the area around Grenfell.

Combined with the efforts of individuals, charities and local small businesses, this response was a heartening example of the unbreakable strength of communities and sense of solidarity in this hugely diverse and multi-faith area of London.

On the morning that I visited Grenfell I also had the chance to talk to some of the firefighters who battled that deadly inferno for hours.

Utterly exhausted, these were the women and men who saved large numbers of people – adults and children.

I asked them why they did it? Why did they put themselves in such danger, saving the lives of people who they’ve never even met.

They answered without any hesitation: “We do it because it’s our job”.

Because on that night, firefighters of the London Fire Brigade did do their job.

Firefighters across the country have faced the harsh reality of politically driven austerity.

Along with the other emergency services across the UK they have been forced to deal with repeated budget cuts since 2010.

In the last seven years 10,000 frontline firefighter jobs have gone; equivalent to one in six positions.

This is a staggering figure and is compounded by the loss of fire stations, equipment and the loss of almost a third of fire safety inspectors in the same period, with some areas such as West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, which covers the city of Leeds, having lost as many as 70 per cent of its inspectors.

Indeed, because of the continual loss of firefighters’ jobs, if the fire at Grenfell had occurred outside of London there would not have been enough firefighters in the vicinity to tackle a blaze of that size.

That is why Labour is committed to recruiting 3,000 new firefighter jobs with a full review of staffing levels.

This is essential if we are to improve response times and ensure the fire and rescue service has the resources it needs to do the job – which they do with such professionalism – of keeping us safe.

As firefighters themselves say: if we are serious about reducing deaths and injuries from fire, we need a co-ordinated approach across government. We need a well-funded fully staffed fire and rescue service but what is also needed is a strong focus on fire prevention.

We must make sure that nothing like the fire at Grenfell Tower can ever happen again.

But to make sure it doesn’t we need action and we need action now.

Of course we are all waiting for the result of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry but there is some action that we believe the government could, and should take immediately.

The retrofitting of sprinklers in all high rise social housing is something that could make a vital difference to people’s safety.

The evidence is clear: where sprinkler systems have already been fitted, injuries sustained from fires have been cut by approximately 80 per cent and deaths from fires have almost been eliminated entirely.

But don’t just take my word for it.

Take the word of the Chief Fire Officers Association. They support retrofitting because they recognise that sprinklers are both the most effective and the most efficient method to quell fires which occur in high rise buildings.

Take the word of the London Fire Brigade; the very people who risked their lives at Grenfell Tower and risk their lives every single day to put out other fires across this city, who have repeatedly called for retrofitting of sprinklers.

And take the word of the Coroner in its 2013 report after the fire at Lakanal House who recommended the retrofitting of sprinklers in all high rise residential buildings.

Two Conservative governments in succession have failed to act on that coroner’s report.

We said after that dreadful fire at Lakanal House in 2009 we would never allow anything similar to happen again, and yet here we are, eight years later, after an even worse avoidable fire.

The evidence is overwhelming. When almost every authoritative source on the matter is saying the same thing: that retrofitting of sprinklers is necessary in high rise housing.

This measure is just common sense and will protect thousands of lives.

It is our duty to listen to this clear and unambiguous advice.

Retrofitting of sprinklers is something that many Local Authorities know is necessary to ensure the safety of residents in high rise social housing. But with their budgets slashed by an average of 40 per cent since 2010 it is something that very few of them can afford.

A small number of Local Authorities such as the London Borough of Croydon have managed to find the funds to retrofit sprinklers. But of course on councils’ shoe string budgets, doing this can mean cuts to other vital services.

That is why people across the country are now looking at central government to act.

The government tells us time and time again that there are difficult choices to be made. “We are all in this together” they used to say.

And yet while people are living in potential death-trap homes without essential safety protections such as sprinklers, it is an obscenity that we have super rich elites and major corporations who are allowed to avoid paying their taxes. There can be little disagreement. The government must get its act together, take on the tax avoiders and put the billions of pounds that is being taken from the pockets of the British people back into the public services and safe homes we all so desperately need.

Social housing in this country has been badly and dangerously neglected for far too long.

Deregulation imposed by successive governments has caused a shocking collapse in standards.

While luxury accommodation proliferates across our big cities far out of reach of the vast majority of the population, the poorest in our country are forced to live not just in dilapidated run-down housing, but also in dangerous housing.

Time and time again this government has shown itself to be callous and indifferent to working class concerns.

But now we are asking this government to do something positive for those who live in social housing.

With the budget approaching imminently the government has a genuine opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives by making available the government funds that local councils are crying out for to improve the safety of high rise residents.

It is the primary responsibility of any government to ensure the safety of its citizens and we believe it is therefore the responsibility of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to make this money available to local authorities and devolved administrations across the whole of the UK.

We must be serious about people’s safety and governments cannot protect people on the cheap.

We see ourselves as a civilised society. We know that as a nation we should provide universal healthcare for the sick, decent pensions for the elderly, good quality education for every child to get on in life, but we also need to ensure that everybody has a home that is not just secure but also safe.

Funding retrofitting of sprinklers is an immediate step that Theresa May can take in the Autumn Budget.

It will ensure that high rise residents can sleep more safely in their beds.

That is why today, Labour is launching our campaign to Make Homes Safe.

The campaign’s aim is for sprinklers to be fitted in all social housing throughout the country which is 30 metres or above – around ten or more storeys.

We are asking for the public’s support to make sure the government listens to the concerns that we share with tower block residents, the Fire and Rescue Service and other professionals.

Retrofitting of sprinkler systems is a basic demand but it is one that will save lives if the government decides to make it happen.

Grenfell was an avoidable tragedy. It did not have to happen and it would not have happened if adequate precautions, including sprinklers, were in place.

So please, sign our letter and help us make sure that residents of high rise social housing can sleep safely in their beds, safe in the knowledge that they are being listened to.

Thank you

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