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Will Britain’s Grenfell fire tragedy spur change for social services?

June 28, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
The deadly Grenfell Tower fire is raising questions about the ways the United Kingdom cares for its poorest citizens. Prime Minister Theresa May has promised a national investigation into the tragedy and the flammable material believed to have accelerated the fire, but the disaster has already seriously undermined confidence in May's government. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May has promised a national investigation into the exterior paneling, called cladding, used in the construction of high-rise buildings, this in the wake of the London apartment fire two weeks ago that left at least 80 dead.

Testing shows that the paneling is highly flammable, and is found on apartment blocks around Britain. It is thought to have accelerated the fire. The disaster at Grenfell Tower has seriously undermined confidence in Prime Minister May’s Conservative minority government. Many believe the tragedy could mark a turning point in how Britain cares for its poorest.

From London, Malcolm Brabant reports.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The faces of Grenfell Tower haunt the streets of North Kensington. Hope that the missing will ever be found has long expired.

Two weeks on, the official death toll remains at 79. This traumatized community is convinced at least 100 perished, if not more, in what was a high-rise crematorium.

DAVID LAMMY, Member of Parliament, Labour Party: Grenfell is a monumental disaster on a scale that we have not seen for a generation. It raises huge issues about how Britain cares for people that are poorer in our social housing in particular who need the state to house them. It’s absolutely clear that what we have seen is gross negligence or corporate manslaughter.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The memorials proffer silent protests and demand reform.

Lawmaker David Lammy, who lost a friend in the fire, is leading the charge.

DAVID LAMMY: At its heart, Brits like to see themselves as fair and as tolerant. What they saw in Grenfell has alarmed them. They really saw the face of a welfare state that has largely disappeared. I do believe Grenfell is a turning point. It’s a Hurricane Katrina moment.

MALCOLM BRABANT: During urgent safety spot checks in 120 public housing blocks across Britain, cladding in every single case failed fire resistance tests. In the London borough of Camden, the risk to tenants was compounded by other inadequate fire protection measures and considered so severe that the council ordered the immediate evacuation of 4,000 people over last weekend.

MAN: I think they’re behaving ridiculous, to be quite honest with you, because they have known for seven years about all this stuff.

MAN: The system is broken, it’s cracking up, and it’s evident to see for everybody.

MALCOLM BRABANT: As refugees from the wars of former Yugoslavia, Alen and Andrea Kevric are used to leaving home in a hurry. The council gave them $7,500 for temporary accommodation during repairs, but a private rental agency rejected them.

ANDREA KEVRIC, Nurse: They actually realized who we are, that we are plebs from social housing. And they don’t want us there. This is the reality, how people are treated in this country.

MALCOLM BRABANT: According to local council officials, the fire department recommended evacuation, but hundreds of residents refused to move.

The Kevrices, who have four children, are uncertain about their immediate future in a country that has become their home. In common with many immigrants, they have low-paid jobs and are priced out of London’s expensive housing market.

ANDREA KEVRIC: To make some kind of decent living, I have to be in social housing, which I’m very lucky to be in, because it’s so rare and hard to come by. I was lucky to get it. And so my rent is considerably reduced, but, even with that, we just make ends meet.

ALEN KEVRIC, Premises Manager: The divide between rich and poor unfortunately only gets exposed with the worst kind of disasters. History will teach us as well that’s the only way when we can actually ask for change.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This crisis coincides with a slew of reports highlighting poverty in Britain. The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, says Britain has some of the highest levels of hunger and deprivation amongst the world’s richest nations.

It claims that one in three British children experience poverty in terms of food, clothing and social activities. The housing charity shelter warns a million families could be made homeless by 2020.

Volunteers at this food bank in the heart of London are taking delivery of donations that will help sustain 50 people. The food bank charity Trussell Trust is reporting today that four in five of its clients are going hungry for days at a time.

DOROTHEA HACKMAN, Camden Food Bank: A big group of those are not receiving their benefits, benefit delayed. The next biggest group are low-income. And these are people who are just managing. And one crisis, a canceled day’s work, an additional bill, a sick child, any of those issues can tip them into desperately needing more assistance.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Dr. Youssef El-Gingihy, a general practitioner and author who has campaigned against cuts in the National Health Service, believes that Britain’s political tide is turning irrevocably.

DR. YOUSSEF EL-GINGIHY, Anti-Austerity Campaigner: Austerity kills. This terrible tragedy with the Grenfell Tower fire has unfortunately become this grim monument, this rather ghastly memorial for the Conservative government’s austerity regime of massive cuts to public spending, particularly on public services.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The argument about austerity erupted in Parliament today.

MAN: Are there questions for the prime minister.

Jeremy Corbyn?

JEREMY CORBYN, Leader, Labor Party: This disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners, I urge the prime minister to come up with the resources needed to test and remove cladding, retrofit sprinklers, properly fund the fire service and the police, so that all our communities can truly feel safe in their own homes.

THERESA MAY, Prime Minister, United Kingdom: The cladding of tower blocks didn’t start under this government. It didn’t start under the previous coalition government. The cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government.

MALCOLM BRABANT: It’s been 10 years since Tony Blair was prime minister. Under Corbyn, Labor has returned to its socialist roots, and a rock star welcome at last weekend’s Glastonbury music festival showed his popularity amongst young people.

JEREMY CORBYN: Is it right that so many people in our country have no home to live in, and only a street to sleep on?

AUDIENCE: No!

JEREMY CORBYN: Is it right that so many people live in such poverty in a society surrounded by such riches? No, it obviously is not.

CLAIRE-LOUISE LEYLAND, Conservative Leader, Camden Councillor: Did you like it?

MALCOLM BRABANT: Conservatives like Camden Councillor Claire-Louise Leyland are fighting Corbyn’s portrayal of the Conservatives as uncaring.

CLAIRE-LOUISE LEYLAND: It’s duplicitous and I think really unhelpful for people who are trying to deal with trauma to try and turn this into such a simple argument. Difficult choices were made. Things happened that shouldn’t have happened, and we need to really explore what went wrong.

MALCOLM BRABANT: As the politicians fight for the moral high ground over Grenfell, there is yet another report about divided Britain by a commission which says that successive Labor and Conservative governments have failed to reduce the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The Social Mobility Commission warns that, unless there is urgent radical and reform, the divisions in Britain will get widen even, threatening social cohesion and economic prosperity.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in London.

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