At the recent Social Work Action Network steering committee meeting, colleagues discussed the dreadful fire at Grenfell Towers.
Our immediate thoughts were, and are, with those directly affected by this most traumatic of events.
Three weeks has passed: victims remain scared to accept the available temporary accommodation; the decision to pursue an inquiry over an inquest with a judge who immediately declares the limitations of his reach has caused deep distress; neighbouring councils are feeling the after affects as the role of private companies in social housing is dissected. SWAN believes it is essential that the social work community reflects critically upon the origins and handling of this disaster. Social workers both have unique skills for such a crisis, and are frequently deployed to deliver the aims of the local government. The abandonment of community social work is highlighted as a disaster in times of great need such as this, the real skills of social workers should be used to give voice to the victims and not to hide the incompetence of authorities. SWAN extends a thanks to all frontline workers doing their best to empower the victims.
We cannot ignore our duty to speak out.
SWAN believes that:
The fire at Grenfell was not a random event, it was a disaster waiting to happen. It was the result of cuts, of austerity, of privatisation of council housing, of deregulation, of out-sourcing and of inequality.
That inequality meant that, in a Borough such as Kensington and Chelsea, the lives of ordinary people matter less to local politicians and local government officers than those of the fabulously wealthy who live in the Borough.
The fire, and the deaths, stand as a symbol of all that is wrong with new-liberal social policy. This was an example of 'social murder' - the unnecessary deaths of ordinary working people by a system skewed to meet the interests if the wealthy.
SWAN denounces the system of cuts, privatisation and deregulation that led to the catastrophe.
We offer our solidarity to the Grenfell community, to the volunteers who have self-organised to support their brothers and sisters in this time of trouble, and to those public sector workers who have been on the frontline saving lives, tackling fires, and supporting families.
Below we print a first-hand account from a SWAN supporter in the area. This is a powerful critique that we would encourage you to read and share:
"As a Development Worker and Sociologist I feel the Grenfell Tower Inferno should be called at very least corporate manslaughter and at worst holocaust. Despite the stated 59 deaths (correct at time of writing) and rising it is clear that the numbers of dead have been suppressed to protect the guilty. Performance artist Saku states on DVD that a fireman reported 200 dead and obviously it's likely to be at least double that. Despite the TMO calling on K&C for review of the safety at the block repeatedly, it was ignored. Moreover, a law was proposed to tighten safety regulations in tower blocks but it was blocked by the Tory government, many of whose members are corporate landlords, who make considerable donations to their party. LowKey, another singer, lived on the 15th floor. He escaped through black smoke preventing any idea of where he was and how to reach a fire escape, after treading on what felt soft and realising later it was bodies....now reports say the fire escape had been blocked off to make way for an Academy School next door. See how the council buys off planning opposition, by offering priority education at the expense of safety measures.
Some in the community feel it was a revenge attack to punish the Islamist terrorists, but a more likely source of the neglect is the fact that the poor in the community are regarded as not just disposable or undesirable but targets for ethnic cleansing, in order to create a borough with up-market residences and up-market residents. This would entail demolishing the old tower blocks (or spending small fry budgets of Â£10m on "refurbishment" to repair faulty water, heating and insulating) rather than providing quality homes for them. Quality homes cost, and no profit can be made on them if they're inhabited by the unemployed, so the obvious solution for a Tory Borough Council being starved of funds by the Government is to "accidentally" allow a tragedy to occur which disposes of the undesirables.
Too cynical? The RBK&C is the richest borough in London, in the UK. For them to plead poverty is to ignore the plethora of community organisations which rallied round as soon as needed. The BBC news broadcasts mentioned only the council-run services but not the grass roots organisations which know the area from within. Maxilla and the other Under the Westway Youth Groups weren't credited with the food stall set up free of charge for the survivors, the mattresses brought out for temporary respite for relatives and friends, nor the hundreds of helpers organised into teams to sort donations and accommodation in schools and community centres.
The fire service has been decimated, with 3 station closures in the area. Teams brought in from elsewhere couldn't get close enough fast enough because no local authority presence was there to assist and move parked cars. The Management of the fire service is corporate now, with Commanders brought in from the Army etc., not working their way up from the grass roots as in the past. Corporate Management took advice from the US re: restricting tenants to their own flats. If they had been in the service like the officers they might have given different directions. They're divorced from the real work. The firefighters who tried their best, were breaching rules to save lives, and at risk to themselves. Too few were available and those that were on site were over-age as union guidelines state. Working conditions have been eroded.
I talked to local people and observed the love and pride in them. One young woman holding her toddler and turning round to take a wide view, told him: "Look. Remember this - this is your beautiful community working together." That says it all.
We would like to encourage other social workers to send us their reports so we can upload them, to ensure that worker and community voices are not silenced.
- That the government and Kensington and Chelsea Council provide full resources for the victims' families and survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster.
- That all families should be rehoused immediately in suitable accommodation within the borough. Rehousing must take full account of the trauma people have been through - allocating families to high rise flats would not necessarily be in their best interests and the location of housing should be part of allocation procedures. .
- That social services must be supported to provide fully funded services to survivors and their families.
- That children who have lost their parents or carers should be housed suitably. This may be with family or friends or suitable foster homes. Whenever this is in the best interests of the child, this should be within the borough.
- That fully funded and supported trauma and psychological support services should be made available to all victims.
- That the interests and needs of survivors and families of victims must always come first. People matter. Cost - in the richest borough, in the richest city in Europe - is secondary.
Written by Michael Lavalette (Convenor) and Alissa De Luca-Ruane (Deputy Convenor) with independent contribution from Ruth Appleton.
This version was amended 7/717 to include the term 'corporate manslaughter' in the opinion piece.