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By Eleanor Leydon

On Human Rights Day, 10 December, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) launched ‘Following Grenfell’, an independent review with the aim of examining the disaster from an equality and human rights perspective.

David Isaac, the chair of the EHRC, stated that ‘We think the human rights dimension to Grenfell Tower is absolutely fundamental and is currently overlooked. Grenfell for most people in this country, particularly in the way the government has reacted, is a pretty defining moment in terms of how inequality is perceived.’

The EHRC’s application for core participant status in the official inquiry was rejected last year.

The human right to adequate housing

Included among the issues the review will address are the adequacy of the housing provided to residents, and various rights and duties regarding equality which include freedom from discrimination, the Public Sector Equality Duty, and the as yet unenforced socio-economic duty. But what does it mean to talk about a right to housing?

The UK has ratified several international treaties that recognise the right to safe and adequate housing, notably the ICESCR, Article 11(1). This right means living in security, peace and dignity, and the guarantee of physical safety (para. 7 and 8(d)).

Despite assuming the accompanying obligations under international law, the UK has yet to incorporate them and enshrine the right to adequate housing domestically. However, the EHRC’s new inquiry shows that public authorities can and must be held accountable for compliance with all human rights, including the right to housing and other economic and social rights.

Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s inquiry asks whether modifications and safety measures were compliant with UK standards and regulations. It questions whether existing regulations were inadequate – ‘so far as relevant to the nature and immediate causes of the fire and its spread’. This clause reads as an unnecessary restriction to proximate cause, one which hinders a more thorough evaluation of the adequacy of our housing law and safety standards. It is further unclear by what standard ‘adequacy’ will be judged.

It must be judged with regard to our international human rights obligations.

By including the right to adequate housing in its review, the EHRC will reintroduce human rights to the discourse and contribute to hold the UK to its international commitments. The review will run parallel to the official inquiry. Whilst the inquiry limits its investigation to the proximate cause of the fire, the EHRC’s review adopts a more extensive lens in determining where the State failed the residents. As well as doing vital rights work, it is hoped that this will restore residents’ faith in the overall justice process.

The right to adequate housing is fortified in respect of protected groups through several further conventions ratified by the UK: see Article 27(3) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 5(e) of CERD, Articles 13 and 14 of CEDAW, and Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is recognised that many of the residents of Grenfell Tower have protected characteristics, and that children, the elderly, and people with disabilities might have faced particular difficulties in attempting to leave the tower. The EHRC will again review the extent to which these international obligations were met, to more comprehensively assess the adequacy of fire safety arrangements. The review will further benefit from the findings of the EHRC’s formal inquiry into housing for disabled people.

Equal rights

In addition to the right to adequate housing, the EHRC will consider three key aspects of the Equality Act 2010. Under the Act, public bodies have a duty not to discriminate, and to make reasonable adjustments for persons with disabilities. Further, they are obliged to comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty, which entails having due regard to eliminating discrimination, and to advancing equality of opportunity to those with protected characteristics, when developing policies and allocating resources. The EHRC will examine whether these were obligations were met both before and after the fire, in a further move to seek justice for residents in the aftermath.

Finally, it will consider whether the socio-economic duty (section 1), if enacted, would have made a difference, and whether the duty indeed needs to be strengthened. The duty is one of the last provisions of the Equality Act to remain uncommenced. It would require public authorities, when making strategic decisions about exercising their functions, to have ‘due regard to the desirability of exercising them in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage.’ This is a live issue, as the Early Day Motion 591 to bring the duty to life was tabled in November, and currently totals support from 63 MPs from five different parties.

The remainder of the EHRC’s review will examine whether State bodies fulfilled their positive duties to protect the right to life, whether the residents suffered inhumane and degrading treatment, how the State must carry out its duty to investigate and whether the current arrangements are adequate in this regard. It will examine access to justice, and the specific rights of children, as partially outlined above.

Meanwhile, residents still await an answer to their most immediate demands

Whilst a thorough examination into the conditions which enabled this disaster is essential to ensuring we will never see another Grenfell, the impact of Grenfell itself continues to reverberate.

More than seven months after the disaster, four out of five residents still need new housing, with 118 households in temporary accommodation over the holiday period. The Council are scrambling to buy up houses, but progress is slow.

Discussion of the tragedy must extend to considering how an implemented right to adequate housing could have equipped public bodies to respond more fully and effectively to disasters like Grenfell.

The official inquiry is arguably weakest in its consideration of the aftermath. Whilst it is set to examine what policies and procedures were in place to deal with such major emergencies, its investigation of the adequacy of the response is limited to merely the ‘provision of emergency relief in the days immediately following the fire’ (issue 13(b)). This overwhelmingly ignores the human rights and needs of those who remain homeless seven months later. It is hoped that the issues raised by the EHRC’s review will go some way towards the development of stronger medium and long-term support systems to deal with the human impact of future disasters.

The terms of the official inquiry close the door not only to a fuller analysis of preventability, one which accounts for our international legal obligations, but also to a thorough analysis of the adequacy of response and rehabilitation efforts. The human consequences, extending long beyond the immediate aftermath, must command our attention.

As the months unfold, residents remain unhoused, and other tower blocks tremble, following Grenfell is a human rights issue.

Elanor is a Just Fair member & law student at City University

Just Fair monitors and campaigns for economic and social rights in the UK. In July2017, Just Fair made a submission to the inquiry, urging it to include a consideration of the right to adequate housing in its terms of reference. The full submission is accessible here. You can ask your MP here to support the EDM 591 to bring the s1 of the Equality Act into effect.