Labour Research June 2018


The fight for justice and accountability continues

As the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire approaches, Labour Research looks at union action to support those affected, and the fight for justice for victims and survivors.

In the early hours of 14 June 2017, a simple fault on a fridge freezer in a fourth-floor flat in Grenfell Tower in Kensington, west London, sparked a fire that rapidly spread throughout the 24-storey residential block. The FBU firefighters’ union describes the blaze, which killed 72 people, as the deadliest since the Blitz.

Last month, the first public inquiry hearings began with memorial statements commemorating those who were killed. 

The inquiry’s role is not to apportion blame, but to examine the circumstances leading up to, and surrounding, the fire; establish the facts; and make recommendations as to “the action needed to prevent a similar tragedy happening again”. 

The public inquiry

Hearings at the Grenfell Tower public inquiry began on 21 May 2017, following the formal opening of the inquiry in September 2017 and the first procedural hearing in December 2017. 

There are almost 550 core participants, including people who lost family members or were injured in the fire, commercial organisations, trade unions and public bodies. Core participants can receive relevant evidence in advance of hearings, make opening or closing statements at some hearings, suggest lines of questioning and, with permission, question witnesses through their legal representatives. 

Phase 1 of the inquiry will look at what happened including:

• the existing fire safety and prevention measures at Grenfell Tower;

• where and how the fire started;

• the development of the fire and smoke;

• how the fire and smoke spread from its original seat to other parts of the building;

• the chain of events before the decision was made that there was no further saveable life in the building; and

• the evacuation of residents. 

The chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, is aiming to complete this part of the inquiry by the end of the year.

At the same time, the biggest ever UK police investigation in terms of the number of witnesses and documents is taking place, and former Health and Safety Executive (HSE) chair Judith Hackitt has been leading a review of fire safety and building regulations. 

She published her final report last month and angered many by failing to recommend an outright ban on the use of flammable cladding on tower blocks.

Human rights lawyer Martin Howe, a senior partner at the social justice campaigning law firm Howe and Co, is working with the Unite union and representing 64 individual core participants at the inquiry, as well as assisting with housing, welfare, immigration, probate and injury claims. 

“First and foremost, what has to happen is that those who have suffered the loss of family members must be at the front, heart and centre of this inquiry,” he told Labour Research. “It must not be restricted to a dry investigation of fire safety and building regulations. 

“This is a human tragedy on a huge scale. It is a historic and very important case and must become a watershed moment for safe social housing, not only in the UK but worldwide.”

FBU concerns

The FBU, the only TUC-affiliated union to have been granted core participant status at the public inquiry along with the non-affiliated Fire Officers’ Association, is also clear the disaster must mark a turning point. But it has been critical of the inquiry’s terms of reference.

“For example, it is only looking at the response of the London Fire Brigade, the most well-resourced brigade in the country,” FBU general secretary Matt Wrack told Labour Research. 

“It should be looking at services and plans elsewhere. The brigade managed to get 70 engines and more than 250 firefighters to Grenfell. 

“Anywhere else the same response is not credible. In towns and cities across the country, engines are not crewed at night because the risk of fire is supposedly lower.”

The union has also called into question the role as an expert witness of Steve McGurk, a former chief fire officer and chief executive of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.

Wrack said: “He advised government and the Local Government Association on fire policy and we are concerned that he is part of the regime and should be under investigation rather than providing independent expertise.” 

More generally, the union says the inquiry’s terms of reference are too narrow to deliver what is necessary. Last year, Wrack told those at the Durham Miners Gala that the fire was “the result of a series of political decisions” that created the environment where the terrible tragedy could happen. 

He pointed to the government’s attack on council housing; the decimation and privatisation of local authority building control; the reduction in the number of fire safety inspecting officers in the fire service by more than half and the corresponding reduction in the number of fire safety inspections; the virtual elimination of public fire research; government attacks on so-called “red tape”; the slashing of local authority budgets; fire and rescue services (FRS) “decimated by cuts”; and the abolition of national standards for FRS.

He said the inquiry “will likely deliver recommendations and the government will act on some. But looking at what has happened so far, the agenda from politicians is to focus not on central government, but on Kensington and Chelsea council and the TMO [tenant management organisation]. The spotlight is not on ministers.”

Nevertheless, the FBU will be pushing ministers to answer several questions. 

Wrack says the FBU “explicitly warned” about the use of flammable cladding materials following a fire in the Garnock Court tower block in Ayrshire in 1999 and wants to know why its use was not addressed and planned for. 

He also has questions about the testing and enforcement regime. “People have been shocked that cladding on over 30 buildings has failed in every test and want to know why it wasn’t being tested before,” he said. 

He described as “perverse” the fact that commercial organisations can decide whether to have a large-scale test carried out and become a client of the Building Research Establishment — the now-privatised institution that provides testing, certification and standards for public and private sector organisations. 

“We don’t ask learner drivers which test they would like,” said Wrack. 

“In other situations, organisations don’t choose to be regulated, but that is what is happening in the area of housing and public safety. Commercial interests decide how they will be policed.”

Community concerns

Justice4Grenfell campaign co-coordinator Moyra Samuels says the local community has concerns about the police investigation as well as the public inquiry. 

She accepts the criminal investigation should be thorough and hold individuals to account for the decisions that led to the fire and therefore expects it to be a long process. But she questioned why, almost a year on, no one had been arrested or charged. 

“There is quite a lot of uncertainty and lack of trust,” she told Labour Research. “Will the bar for culpability be set so high that people won’t be held responsible?”


The FBU firefighters’ and NEU teaching unions both support the Justice4Grenfell campaign. 

Months after the fire, the campaign pointed out that there had been no arrests, there were still around 300 tower blocks with external cladding that had failed fire tests, and hundreds of survivors were still homeless and not represented on the inquiry. 

Currently, a key issue for the campaign is housing for survivors and displaced families, which Moyra Samuels, the Justice4Grenfell co-coordinator, describes as “an incredibly slow process”. 

Following pressure from campaigners, prime minister Theresa May last month announced that she will appoint two decision-making members to the inquiry panel for Phase 2 of its work to give it “a breadth of expertise and diversity of experience”. 

Union branches can affiliate to the campaign, receive a newsletter and invite campaign speakers to keep the Grenfell fire in the public eye.

“Many trade unionists live in social housing, including tower blocks,” Samuels told Labour Research. “The cuts experienced by public service workers are impacting on the communities they serve.”

Campaigning for survivors and safe housing

While the outcomes of the public inquiry and police investigation are awaited, there is considerable anger at a lack of government action to ensure people are living in safe and decent housing following the fire, both locally and nationally. 

Government promises to quickly rehouse those living in and around Grenfell Tower have been broken. As the first anniversary of the fire approaches, many who were affected, including half of those who are members of Unite, were still living in hotels and other temporary accommodation. 

Unions step in where state fails

Twenty members of the Unite general union were living in the Grenfell Tower and seven died in the fire. 

The union immediately started an appeal with branches, regions and Unite staff and raised £140,000. 

It has supported members “from day one”, providing financial support, specialist counselling and what head of Unite Community Liane Groves describes as “humanitarian” aid in the form of clothes, food and toiletries and space to store these. 

“Some of those living in the block came from countries where they had experienced terrible things and then this happened to them,” she told Labour Research. 

“They needed support to rebuild their lives and we provided legal support in areas like welfare and housing. We provided clothes for the family of a 12-year-old killed in the fire to wear at her funeral. Unite stepped in because the state was not providing the support the families needed on the ground.”

The union even had to intervene to prevent three members being sacked because they took time off sick after the fire. 

The FBU firefighters’ union’s “100 Lottery” donated £30,000 of funds it raised to charities helping the victims of the fire. Tickets can be purchased at

The head of Unite’s Community section, Liane Groves, also pointed out that in the immediate aftermath of the fire, former communities minister Sajid Javid also promised money would be available to make the housing stock safe. The government then said local authorities would have to pay, while at the same time cutting their budgets by 40%.

In the run-up to the anniversary of the fire, there are signs that this anger, and effective campaigning, are forcing the government to act. Last month prime minister Theresa May agreed to expand the public inquiry panel as requested by bereaved families (see box at bottom of page 10). 

Just two days after the community campaign Grenfell United held a protest outside parliament on 14 May, she announced the government would, after all, provide around £400 million funding to pay to replace potentially dangerous cladding from high-rise social housing tower blocks. 

And within hours of Judith Hackitt failing to recommend a ban on combustible cladding (see page 9), the government announced it would consult on a ban. A week later, the prime minister announced that the government was “minded” to ban such cladding.

Union campaigning is therefore vital to keep Grenfell in the public eye. Samuels says the Justice4Grenfell campaign would not survive without union support, and Wrack pointed to the need for an escalation of political campaigning in the run up to the anniversary of the fire. 

Union work with the Labour Party

Meanwhile, both the FBU and Unite have been working with the Labour Party to address the wider causes of the disaster. For example, Unite’s emergency housing motion was overwhelmingly supported at Labour’s London regional conference last year. 

It called on the party to develop policies to roll back the marketisation of social housing, bring local authority construction and maintenance services back in-house in Labour-controlled councils and support full ballot rights to estate residents in any ongoing and future regeneration projects. 

“We always say that Grenfell is a turning point for the country and the legacy that has to be left must relate to social housing,” said Samuels. 

“We have to take the marketisation out of social housing and go back to providing everyone with a safe and decent home.”