Human Rights and the Grenfell Tower Inquiry

Aoife Nolan

The chairman of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has published his first report. Phase 1 of the inquiry was ‘concerned with investigating the cause of the fire, its subsequent development and the steps taken by the London Fire Brigade and the other emergency services in response to it’.

Moore-Bick makes a series of findings and recommendations. They include serious and detailed criticisms of the fire brigade’s preparedness and response, as well as of the 2014-16 refurbishment of the tower, when the highly combustible panelling and insulation were installed. The report gives a strongly evidenced and reasoned account of how ‘a kitchen fire of that relatively modest size’, which was ‘perfectly foreseeable’, resulted in the deaths of 72 people, including 18 children.

On the facts established in the report, there is prima facie evidence that the human rights of those who died in and were affected by the fire were violated. The rights to life, to family life and to property are all protected under domestic law through the Human Rights Act 1998. The UK is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognises the rights to adequate housing and to the highest attainable standard of health. If there is a foreseeable risk to human rights of which the government (local or national) is or should be aware, and the government is in a position to ameliorate that risk, then a failure to do so amounts to a failure to secure the right in question. Human rights, however, are effectively ignored in Moore-Bick’s report.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission and the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing both applied to be core participants in the inquiry. Neither was admitted. They – and others – have since demonstrated that, at the very least, serious questions need to be asked about the human rights implications of the fire itself, of the situation that preceded it, and of governmental shortcomings in its aftermath.

The human rights blindness of the report is perhaps unsurprising. Human rights do not form an explicit part of the Inquiry’s terms of reference. In August 2017, Moore-Bick recommended to Theresa May that the inquiry not address such ‘broad questions’ as social housing policy and the relationship between residents of the Lancaster West Estate, the local authority and the tenant management organisation. The reasons he gave were, first, the need to get the inquiry completed quickly; and, second, that ‘questions of a social, economic and political nature’ were, in his view, ‘not suitable for a judge-led inquiry’. The decision appeared to shut the door on considering systemic questions about long-term structural inequality and socio-economic marginalisation that human rights, with their focus on ensuring multi-level accountability, require answers to.

Taken seriously, human rights would not only have affected the scope of the inquiry and the questions asked; they would also have shaped the way it was conducted. Human rights require that the voices of rights-bearers be placed at the centre of procedures related to securing – or investigating violations of – their rights. The decision to give time to ‘pen portraits’ from family members and others affected by the fire seems only to have been made some months after the inquiry was constituted. Another problem was that much of the inquiry was held in Holborn rather than close to Grenfell, which made it harder for those affected by the fire to attend. Again, this could have been avoided by taking a rights-based approach which would have focused on facilitating the participation of right-holders in all aspects of the Inquiry to the greatest degree possible.

Forty-four of the report’s 838 pages are devoted to remembering the dead: ‘It is fitting,’ Moore-Bick writes, ‘that this report should not only name each of those who died but should celebrate their lives as individuals.’ What it doesn’t do, however, is conceptualise those affected by the fire as rights-holders who were owed a duty, were failed badly, and are entitled to meaningful accountability. The report focuses on the victims as loved and sadly missed individuals, not as people let down by those who were duty-bound to protect them. There is scope for this to happen in Phase 2 of the report. But at the moment it is a glaring omission from a human rights perspective.

The principal focus of Phase 2 will be on ‘the decisions which led to the installation of a highly combustible cladding system on a high-rise residential building and the wider background against which they were taken’. Moore-Bick will look further into the warnings from the local community before the fire, and into the authorities’ response to the disaster, ‘because they reflect what is said to be a general lack of concern on the part of the authorities for the residents of the tower and the wider community.’

There is still a chance for the inquiry to take human rights on board. Moore-Bick could adopt a wider ranging approach to the issues to be addressed in Phase 2. Systemic change is needed to ensure that something like the Grenfell fire doesn’t happen again; human rights offer a way to effect that. The report expresses concern that it will not ‘do justice’ to the lives of those who died in the fire. This is one of only two times that the word ‘justice’ appears. Human rights and justice are two sides of a coin – without one, you will not find the other. The victims of Grenfell deserve both.


  • 5 November 2019 at 8:53pm
    Paul Demarty says:
    > Systemic change is needed to ensure that something like the Grenfell fire doesn’t happen again; human rights offer a way to effect that.

    This seems implausible. The UK has been a signatory to the European and UN declarations for, what, 70 years now? These supposed obligations are always honoured in the breach, and have never amounted to more than a posture, a figleaf for whatever sordid bit of staatsräson was politic at the time. Human rights are a convenient fiction, to give momentary political motives a sanctifying scent of ontology; and when they are not convenient, they are immediately forgotten. A real look at the causes of the Grenfell fire could not be less convenient for our illustrious PM.

    A way to effect that systemic change would be to expropriate most of the large outsourcing firms, and property developers to boot, and moreover to grant councils broad power to seize vacant properties that are mere objects of speculation. But that would be a quite categorical violation of the 'human rights' arrogated to the owners of all that capital by the UDHR and ECHR ... including those owners, like shell companies in the Caymans, that do not meet our ordinary definitions of the word 'human'.

    • 7 November 2019 at 11:12am
      Reader says: @ Paul Demarty
      You are absolutely correct. Human rights are the way to go, together with international bodies, such as the International Criminal Court, that can enforce them. Such courts also have a role of course in prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity against individuals (the body for international disputes between states is the ICJ).

      However, it is this latter role that ensures that countries such as the United States and Israel, to mention only those countries among our allies, will consistently oppose them. Israel signed the Rome Statute for the ICC but never ratified its signature, and the US is not a party to the Rome Statute.