Two campaigners have launched a legal challenge over the Home Office decision to reject a key recommendation from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that would have ensured they and other disabled residents could safely evacuate blocks of flats.
Georgie Hulme and Sarah Rennie, co-founders of Claddag, have told the Home Office in a legal letter of the “upset, outrage and betrayal” felt by disabled people and those who survived Grenfell and lost family in the fire.
The letter, which is seeking key government documents and information and is likely to be followed by a claim for a judicial review of the Home Office decision, came as survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives this week marked five years since the Grenfell disaster.
The fire led to 72 people losing their lives, including 15 of Grenfell’s 37 disabled residents, on the night of 14 June 2017.
This followed years of failure to plan for how disabled people living in Grenfell would evacuate if they needed to.
National guidance in place at the time of the fire stated that it was “usually unrealistic” to expect landlords to put in place arrangements for disabled people to evacuate blocks of flats in an emergency.
Claddag’s legal challenge, through solicitors Bhatt Murphy, centres on the Home Office decision to reject the inquiry’s recommendation that all owners and managers of high-rise residential buildings should be legally required to prepare a personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP) for all residents who may find it difficult to “self-evacuate”.
Last month, the Home Office said its decision was taken on the grounds of “practicality”, “proportionality” and “safety”.
Instead, it is consulting on its own “alternative package” of measures, which it calls Emergency Evacuation Information Sharing, which does not go as far as PEEPs and which will only apply to the minority of buildings that have been assessed as being “at higher risk”.
Hulme told Disability News Service this week: “An evacuation plan is not a big ask and the fact that the Home Office is blocking this is an outrageous act of discrimination.
“Their focus on ‘proportionality’ shows a total disregard for those who died, survivors and bereaved.
“We know that over 40 per cent of those who died were disabled.
“How many disabled deaths would be an acceptable amount for the Home Office to consider proportionate to warrant action?
“We are being framed as a costly hindrance to the taxpayer and a physical obstacle to non-disabled people trying to evacuate. This is despite producing no evidence of either.
“There was overwhelming support in the last consultation for PEEPs, following the Grenfell inquiry recommendation.
“Yet the Home Office chose to have secret meetings behind closed doors which provoked the U-turn in policy and did not give us the same opportunity.
“We therefore have no other choice but to challenge the lawfulness of the process.”
Hulme’s comments came as London’s fire commissioner, Andy Roe – head of London Fire Brigade – told the London Assembly’s fire, resilience and emergency planning committee yesterday (Wednesday) (watch from one hour 16 minutes) that it was “neither morally nor legally justifiable” to tell non-disabled residents living in higher risk tower blocks in London that they must evacuate in an emergency, while leaving disabled residents in their flats to be rescued by firefighters.
He said: “In the highest risk blocks, I have always been clear with colleagues in government, despite the challenges, that some form of PEEPs has to exist, it simply has to.
“We have to do something for disabled residents before we arrive, it’s that straightforward.”
Hulme and Rennie believe the Home Office PEEPs decision breaches the government’s duty to protect life, and its duty not to discriminate against disabled people, under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Among other grounds for a potential judicial review, they believe the decision breaches the government’s public sector equality duty, under the Equality Act, while they say the consultation process on the PEEPs proposal was “clearly unfair”.
Both Hulme and Rennie are wheelchair-users and live in blocks of flats, Rennie in Birmingham and Hulme in Manchester.
They have also joined with Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, and Natasha Elcock, chair of Grenfell United, to write to the prime minister, Boris Johnson, home secretary Priti Patel, housing secretary Michael Gove, and building safety and fire minister Lord Greenhalgh.
They point out in the letter that Johnson promised to implement all the recommendations from the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry that were aimed at the government.
Nearly three years on, they say, not one of those recommendations has yet been implemented.
They say in the letter: “We would ask you and your government what evidence you have that the – often not costly – implementation of PEEPs is a disproportionate response to saving a life.”
They add: “Those unable to self-evacuate are forced to live every day knowing that they cannot access a safe means of escape.
“Many of these individuals also still live in buildings with dangerous cladding.
“It’s been clear throughout the handling of this issue that the safety and lives of Disabled people is not a priority for your government.”
Although the Home Office confirmed that none of the recommendations aimed at the government after phase one of the inquiry has yet been implemented, nine of the 15 will be considered to have been implemented on 8 July, when its new fire safety regulations should receive parliamentary approval.
They will then come into force on 23 January 2023.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our fire reforms will go further than ever before to protect vulnerable people as we are determined to improve the safety of residents whose ability to self-evacuate may be compromised.
“That is why we have launched a new public consultation seeking views on an alternative package of initiatives, building on the information garnered from the Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans consultation, that enhance the safety of those residents.”
The Home Office confirmed it had received the letter from Claddag, Disability Rights UK and Grenfell United and would respond in due course.
Picture: Sarah Rennie (left) and Georgie Hulme
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