By Edward Higgs

The thought of so many human beings being burned alive in Grenfell Tower rightly fills us with horror.  However, this is also one of those events that reveals the ‘state of the nation’ in microcosm, exposing how poor people are ignored by the rich and their local representatives; policies of ‘social cleansing’ systematically pursued by the latter; the inability to deal with disasters by local authorities and public services after decades of hollowing out; a national government unable to respond emotionally to the distress of the disadvantaged; ministers of state who have ignored their duty to ensure the safety of the public; private builders and developers cutting corners to make a profit … the list goes on and on.  However, I would like to focus here on one of the aspects of the aftermath of the fire that has caused bewilderment and consternation, that is, the problem of identifying the victims of the blaze.  I do not want to go into questions of suppression of information about the number of victims for political reasons but wish instead to raise some broader questions on identification.

Image of Grenfell Tower, 20 June 2017. Courtesy Hannah Elias.

The first thing to note is that, for good or bad, the UK does not have a national registration system, like other countries. In many parts of Europe it is your duty to provide the authorities with your place of abode which is kept on a public register. In the UK, we had such a system between 1938 and 1950, and one was proposed by the Blair government under the 2006 Identification Card Act.  With the demise of the latter, the UK has tended to run a dual system of ID.  British citizens are identified through their relationships with the community they live in, or at least through the traces they leave in official and commercial systems – letters, invoices, and the like.  Today passports and birth certificates act as ‘official documents’ but neither are actually officially ID documents.

In one sense this system goes back to the medieval and early-modern system of identifying people via the community, although today it is becoming more a means of outsourcing state systems of ID.  In the e-Verify system being developed by UK government, commercial and public bodies such as the Post Office, credit reference agencies, and banks, can provide an individual with an identification they can use with other public and commercial bodies.  On the other hand, non-British citizens, or ‘aliens’, such as asylum seekers, refugees, foreign students, and soon other EU nationals, have to be registered and issued with photo-IDs.

This duality in systems of identification goes back at least to the aftermath of the First World War, although the 1905 Aliens Act had already started the process of slowing down immigration.  In the nineteenth century, the British state, influenced by the classical economists, believed in unfettered, and unrecorded, movement of labour in and out of the country as part of free trade.  The 1905 Act was passed by a Conservative government after their MPs in the East End of London tried to gain electoral support by playing on fears of Jewish immigration after Russian pogroms.  As the country negotiates Brexit, we seem to be rerunning the same process at breakneck speed without any serious consideration of the consequences.

But neither of these UK systems works very well when it comes to pinning people down to a particular building, especially when there are high levels of movement, unrecorded sub-letting of apartments, or the presence of illegal immigrants.  Given the extraordinarily draconian measures undertaken by Mrs May’s Home Office to track such people down and the resulting expulsions, it is understandable that the latter seek to avoid contact with the state, local or national.  The Minister for Immigration, Brandon Lewis (incidentally one of the former Ministers of State for Housing and Planning who did nothing to improve building safety), has helpfully granted a magnanimous twelve months amnesty for immigrants with an ‘unresolved’ status to encourage them to come forward.  This is hardly reassuring for those in such a position who have sub-let flats, or lost relatives in the fire, and who must be in torment as a result.  Nor, of course, does any of this help to identify visitors to the Grenfell Tower, especially during a time of family reunions at Ramadan.

Similar issues arise in the identification of the dead.  Traditionally in England, the bodies of the deceased were identified by kin, or by the coroner’s jury made up of the deceased person’s neighbours.  This system of personal identification has declined, in part, because of mass disasters such as railway accidents, chemical plant fires such as at Flixborough, and airplane crashes, in which bodies have been burnt beyond recognition.  In such circumstances it is unlikely that kin could identify relatives, even if they were emotionally fit to do so.   An increasing unfamiliarity with death and the dead may also have played its part in undermining the ability of friends and family to cope with such identifications.

Today forensic identifications in disasters are increasingly made through a series of less personal factors:  objects carried – clothing, bank and credit cards, jewellery and keys, laundry marks, hospital appointment cards, etc.; facial reconstruction; height and weight; abnormal physical structures – rheumatoid arthritis, healed fractures, tattoos, comparisons of x-rays; age; dental records; hair analysis; gender; fingerprints; left or right handedness; blood groups and DNA; and so on.

In the circumstances of the Grenfell Tower fire, however, where temperatures may have risen as high as 1000 degrees, many of these elements of identification would no longer be present.  Even if bodily features such as healed fractures and teeth did survive, of what use would they be if there were no hospital or dental records for immigrants?  What if there are no family members left, or willing to come forward, who could identify personal belongings, or remember historic injuries?

Much the same would apply to the much-vaunted method of DNA analysis – where would be the DNA profiles to match with the DNA of fire victims, especially if whole families have been wiped out?  If one does not know who was present, especially because of subletting and illegal immigration, how could one compare DNA samples with unknown family members abroad?   In a sense, identification in these circumstances can only work when there exists some prior identification of people, or someone else to make an identification.

None of this is to advocate a biometric or DNA registration system, as are being developed in some other countries.  For some people anonymity has its uses but also costs.  However, that hardly matters now to the dead but what about the needs of the survivors for news of their friends and family without having the beady eyes of the Minister for Immigration on them? In the end, the very need to identify the dead, which is an ethical as well as legal duty in any decent society, is embroiled in the inequalities of power and powerlessness that now poison our lives.

Edward Higgs is Professor in History at the University of Essex. His current research interests are in the history of state information gathering, personal identification and the development of biometrics.  He is the author of such books as The Information State in England; Identifying the English: a History of Personal Identification 1500 to the Present; and Making Sense of the Census: the Manuscript Returns for England and Wales, 1801-1901.

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