David Lammy MP: Remembering Khadija Saye, two years on from Grenfell

When the state outsources its responsibility to provide safe housing, those who do not have the means to live elsewhere are burned alive.

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Khadija Saye’s father still mourns the loss of his daughter. Speaking at the beginning of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry last year, Mohammadou Saye remembers the moment that Khadija shared her photography with him. Khadija was a young, talented black woman whose tender yet powerful artwork entrusted us with an intimate exhibition of Gambian spirituality.

Khadija died with her mother on the 22nd floor of Grenfell Tower. Shortly after the fire, I broke down while giving an interview to Channel 4, trying to articulate what my friend’s death meant to me. She was left with no agency and became completely reliant on the wilfully ignorant authorities above her. She was one of 72 victims of gross negligence and manslaughter.

Having lived through the murder of Stephen Lawrence and Hillsborough, I knew how long justice can take in this country. I was fearful that Britain’s history of kicking national disgraces into the long grass would repeat itself. Two years on from the fire, fear has eroded into dismay. The public inquiry report has been delayed for the second time, and won’t be released until October. And despite interviewing 13 people under caution, the Met has told survivors and bereaved families to wait until at least 2021 before they formally ask prosecutors for charging decisions.

Justice delayed is justice denied. At least 17 Grenfell families still reside in temporary accommodation. Tens of thousands of people are still living in high rises that are wrapped in Grenfell-style cladding, and the government has still not made any regulatory changes to the fire-door industry. When those in power witnessed the dark grey smoke rising from the skeleton of Grenfell Tower, they decided to put up a smokescreen of their own, using empty rhetoric and vacuous promises to disguise their pernicious indifference towards those in need.

Before the fire, Khadija had complained about the safety of the building. Along with other residents, she was systematically ignored by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which looked after the building on behalf of the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council. Despite receiving multiple warnings about serious fire safety failures in the months before the blaze, they didn’t act. And despite the deaths, anger and grief, we are still waiting for the government to establish a new independent housing regulator. Just last week, 20 flats were destroyed in a fire in Barking, even though residents had repeatedly complained about potential fire hazards. The lack of penance for the residents’ deaths on the 14 June two years ago makes me writhe with resentment: it exposes the irrelevance with which their lives continue to be treated.

If the government wants to be taken seriously when it says that it deeply regrets the loss of life at Grenfell, then it must commit to reforms that express both remorse for the past and a willingness to prevent these atrocities from occurring in the future. Failing to do so has consequences that run deeper than we might be we willing to accept. The harrowing video last year in which a group of white men and women laughed as they burnt an effigy of Grenfell Tower is a shameful indictment of a society that is more likely to engender hatred to those in peril than to secure their right to safe housing.

This kind of wickedness stems from the same sentiment that fuelled the fire in the first place: disdain, or at best apathy, towards those who live in social housing.  When the state outsources its responsibility to provide safe housing, those who do not have the means to live elsewhere are burned alive. When rights to resources and capabilities are eroded by the unregulated market, corporate manslaughter is disguised as neoliberal efficiency. When public investment is framed as fiscal incompetence, poverty is punished with a death sentence. And when economic growth is prioritised at all costs, human lives are treated as mere collateral damage.

Khadija found her solace in photography. Today, we will commemorate Khadija and all of those who lost their lives, two years on from the fire. I hope we can spread an image of faith, compassion and love, a picture she should have been there to capture.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham