UK risks another Grenfell fire with human rights breaches - watchdog

The scaffold clad Grenfell Tower is seen from Latimer Road tube station in London, Britain, August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

While international law protects housing rights, British law has been criticised as outdated, complex and poorly enforced

By Adela Suliman

LONDON - Britain must act to protect people in 400 high-rise flats facing the same fire risks as London's Grenfell Tower, where more than 70 people died in 2017, a watchdog said on Wednesday, warning that the government has a legal duty to safeguard lives.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission questioned whether authorities had violated their duty to protect life by allowing buildings to be covered in cladding as flammable as petrol, leading to one of the worst blazes in modern British history.

"The authorities failed and continue to fail in meeting their human rights obligations. The fire at Grenfell Tower was a tragedy that should have been avoided," the government agency said in its report.

"With more than 400 other high-rise residential buildings across the UK identified as having the same cladding as at Grenfell Tower, there is risk of another fire and further loss of life ... These issues should be addressed immediately."

The overnight blaze sent shockwaves around the world and raised public anger over social inequalities in London's affluent Kensington and Chelsea area, home to million-pound properties and public housing tenants like those of Grenfell.

The commission's findings will be fed into an ongoing wider public inquiry into the fire, which seeks to examine its cause and the response but not broader issues such as social housing policy.

In response to the report, the government said it had already banned combustible materials in the external walls of flats, hospitals and student accommodation more than 18 metres high.

"There is nothing more important than ensuring people are safe in their homes," a government spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

While international law protects housing rights, British law has been criticised as outdated, complex and poorly enforced, and individuals cannot take legal action against the government for violations, the commission said.

Other domestic legislation is stronger, such as the Human Rights Act, through which the government and public officials have a duty to protect life and can be taken to court for failing to do so, it added.

A key issue in assessing whether the government has fulfilled this duty was whether building regulations banned the combustible cladding in high-rise blocks and whether those regulations were enforced, it said.

"Our actions before the tragedy will continue to be analysed – that is right, and it is what the inquiry is for," said Elizabeth Campbell, leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, the local government body responsible for Grenfell Tower.

British police said this month that prosecutors were unlikely to consider whether anyone should face criminal charges over the deadly blaze until the inquiry was concluded.

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