Harold Wilson famously said: “A week is a long time in politics.” This rings true now more than ever. With a 24-hour news cycle and the growth in social media, national stories quickly come and go from prominence. There is often little scope for thorough analysis or the attention span in Westminster to allow real investigation and consideration of the results. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is relevant for two of the most devastating scandals to have scarred the consciousness of modern Britain.
On June 14th, 2017, a fire broke out at Grenfell Tower in West London causing 72 deaths and hundreds of injuries. The images of that night and stories of families, young people alone and couples waiting in their flats as the fire engulfed the building still haunt us. At the same time, over the course of 2017 and into 2018, newspaper reports emerged about the Home Office threatening and sometimes succeeding in deporting citizens who had lived in the UK for over 50 years. The Windrush scandal with anecdotes of elderly men and women – our neighbours and friends for decades – being detained, deported, denied healthcare, housing and employment by their own government’s scheme to implement a ‘hostile environment’ shocked us all.
There was immediate attention for both. Theresa May suffered immense criticism for her lack of emotional bandwidth to immediately meet with residents at Grenfell who had survived the fire. Amber Rudd resigned as Home Secretary as a result of the Windrush scandal. But once the political furore ebbs away, the struggle for justice continues. There are two key aspects: real analysis as to what went wrong; then the battle, as much as is possible, to put things right.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission this week concluded that the Home Office had broken equality law with its focus on a hostile environment policy. But on the day of its release, the story was the fifth item in the news. The report is worth reading in full. It reveals a Home Office agenda where political battles to appear ‘tough on immigration’ were deemed more important than people’s lives, particularly Black people’s lives. Although couched in legal terminology, the conclusions are damning. For example:
“Where negative equality impacts were identified by the Home Office and stakeholders, they were repeatedly ignored, dismissed, or their severity disregarded at crucial points of policy development, particularly where they were seen as a barrier to implementing hostile environment policies in a highly-politicised environment”
To translate: Home Office politicians and officials prioritised chasing headlines in the Daily Mail over properly considering the effect of their policies on people. Black lives did not matter enough.
The Grenfell inquiry continues and the evidence that is emerging should be front-page news even during the pandemic. You may not know, but it has recently been admitted that the executives who sold combustible insulation for use on Grenfell Tower, and other high rise buildings, perpetrated a “fraud on the market” and behaved in a “completely unethical” way. Celotex, the responsible company, had used an insulation foam that fuelled flames and released toxic gases but had passed the safety test (at the second time of asking) after presenting the product, as an employee now accepts, in an “intentionally misleading” way.
Asked by counsel at the inquiry: “Did you realise at the time that this would be a fraud on the market?” The relatively junior employee replied: “Yes, I did. I felt incredibly uncomfortable with what I was being asked to do.” This staggering evidence and the questions it poses as to corporate culture and the regulation of suppliers critical to the safety of our homes has not achieved the prominence it deserves in the media or indeed in Westminster. It is right to note that the inquiry is still ongoing, but there is a sense that, only three and half years on from Grenfell, too many have moved on and the right lessons have not been learnt. And whilst we look back at the causes of Grenfell and the Windrush scandal, not enough is being done to prevent the very same egregious horrors occurring again.
With regards to Grenfell, the cladding safety scandal continues, with the government looking weak-willed and flat-footed. A damning report published this week by the communities and local government select committee highlighted the hundreds of thousands of people stuck in properties that have flammable cladding similar to that used in Grenfell. Some blocks have rota systems, by which residents share the responsibility of ‘keeping watch’ overnight in case there is a fire. The residents each face bills of tens of thousands of pounds to remove the cladding, and their homes are worthless until they are paid.
The cross-party report stated that the government’s current plans still leave residents in this impossible scenario despite repeated assurances from ministers that they would not. It concludes: “We consider this unacceptable and an abdication of responsibility on the part of the government.” As MP Hilary Benn told the Chancellor in the House of Commons, nothing in this week’s autumn statement changed this situation.
The struggle for justice for victims of the Windrush scandal shows an equally unimpressive government response. The latest compensation scheme figures show just £2.8m has been paid out. In the context of the billions that have been thrown down the drain in personal protective equipment procurement, the figure is offensive. The scale of the Windrush scandal should not be forgotten.
The Home Office has admitted that it wrongly deported or detained at least 164 British citizens (likely many more). Victims were made homeless, jobless, left destitute and denied access to public services by their own government. At least 11 died before they received any justice. There are more than 5,000 cases of individuals alleging that they were in some way seriously harmed by the contempt their own government showed them. It is also worth noting that many citizens continue to be victims of irrational decision-making by the Home Office.
When tragedy and horrific scandal occurs, it is very easy to mourn or show outrage. Real political leadership requires the stamina and resolve to get justice for those who suffered and work to ensure the mistakes are never made again. This government is failing in that duty.