Social housing will not be considered as part of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, despite the “contempt” with which tenants were treated contributing to the disaster, a lawyer has said.
John Cooper QC, who is representing survivors and bereaved families, said that his clients are “very disappointed” with the omission of social housing policy from the inquiry’s terms of reference, which were released on Tuesday.
Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the judge heading the inquiry, wrote to Theresa May with six recommendations that should be covered.
But one startling exemption from the inquiry’s brief was that of social housing policy.
The Government said that Moore-Bick had identified broader questions on social housing policy but that “after careful reflection he has concluded (that it) should not be within the scope of the inquiry itself”.
In a letter sent to the Prime Minister, Moore-Bick said he “can well understand” why local residents feel the issue of social housing is important, but listed the following two reasons as why the inquiry is “not the best way of satisfying their wishes”.
Cooper, a leading barrister, said that people in social housing are being treated as “second-rate citizens” and it is the treatment of tenants in council-owned properties that helped contribute to the tragedy of June 14.
He told HuffPost UK: “We are very disappointed to note that the inquiry is not going to deal with social housing policy generally as far as Grenfell is concerned and discrimination.
“I’m not saying we need a total review of social housing policy of the last 60 years.
“Our point is that the tragedy at Grenfell has arisen significantly because of neglect and deprivation of those in social housing which has mounted up over a period of years.
“That neglect and deprivation and downright contempt by which many people in social housing are treated has been evidenced, we would say, in situations which have led to Grenfell.
“For instance, with residents being ignored when they’ve raised complaints.”
He added: “The point we’re making is that those in social housing are being treated as second-rate citizens and as people whose opinions and views really have not mattered for far too long.
“It’s not comparing social housing with private housing.. the point we’re making is that it’s simply a symptom of the way people with lesser influence, with lesser power and with lesser money are treated.
“And we are very disappointed indeed that the attitude towards the Grenfell Tower residents and social housing residents generally over the last few years has not been considered, as well as the discrimination in the way that they’ve been treated.”
At least 80 people died when the fire ripped through the 24-storey high-rise in the early house of June 14.
Concerns have been raised in the past by residents over Moore-Bick’s previous rulings on social housing cases.
In 2014 the head judge allowed Westminster Council to rehouse Titina Nzolameso 50 miles away in Milton Keynes.
“This is why there’s a distrust in the community, because we look at your public record,” one resident told Moore-Bick at a heated meeting in July.
In response to the release of the terms of reference, Diane Abbott tweeted on Tuesday that the Government was “off the hook” on issues such as social housing and cuts.
Emma Dent Coad, the Labour MP for Kensington and Chelsea, said: “This announcement is precisely what we feared.
“We were told ‘no stone would be unturned’ but instead are being presented with a technical assessment which will not get to the heart of the problem: what effects if any the lack of investment into social housing had on the refurbishment project.
“The Government has delegated this responsibility to an in-house team. We have no confidence whatever in the ability of Alok Sharma and a few politically compromised individuals to take on the task of answering this most important question.
“In addition, we are hugely disappointed that the terms of reference have been published in the middle of August when so many concerned parties are away and unable to respond.
“The closing date for response was 4 August, yet somehow Moore-Bick personally managed to consider the detail of all 550 written responses within a short week, producing terms of reference which were then agreed by Theresa May over a weekend.
“How can the community possibly have faith in an inquiry with terms of reference so hastily determined by the Prime Minister and her government?
“It is a complete betrayal of everything we were promised. Clearly, the Government are running scared.”
May confirmed that August 15 would be the official start date of the inquiry.
A preliminary hearing is due to be held on September 14 with an initial report dealing with the cause of the fire and the means with which it spread to the whole building by Easter next year.
Chris Williamson, shadow minister for fire and emergency services, said: “This is exactly what we all feared would happen. It’s not good enough. It will not deliver justice for Grenfell.
“How can Theresa May praise the scope of this inquiry while having the cheek to say that broader social questions will be answered? Her announcement today comes as a sick joke.
“The PM has repeatedly tried to kick Grenfell into the long grass. She wants us to forget the fact that two months ago more than 80 working class people burnt to death in their own homes.
“But we cannot forget Grenfell. We need a deeper investigation into the systemic causes of the fire. Our response to this tragedy should be to expose and do away with this country’s laissez-faire model of governance.”
But Joe Delaney, from Grenfell Action Group, said that, although the debate about social housing “should be had”, Moore-Bick’s inquiry was probably not the forum.
Delaney added: “However it is vital that Moore-Bick’s Inquiry covers relevant issues in detail, particularly the relationships between RBKC, KCTMO, and the Resident’s Association, with a thoroughness that will ensure that all those responsible are identified, for that to happen the panel and its advisors must have a thorough understanding of the area and the issues locals face.”
The Radical Housing Network said that the Grenfell fire has posed “extremely serious questions about the way we house people”.
“Investigators should be looking at the social policies which allowed such a tragedy in 21st (Century) Britain, and the way these have created a housing system in which some people matter more than others,” the group said in a statement.
“Grenfell must mark a turning point away from a broken and profit-driven system that treats tenants with contempt, and toward a society that ensures good housing for everyone.”
The Justice for Grenfell campaign added: “It is disappointing that the question of social housing especially social cleansing/gentrification will not be addressed in the inquiry as this remains a critical issue not just for the community of North Kensington but across the country and goes to the heart of a changing ideological approach to social housing and the pursuit of profit rather than provision of safe, affordable, appropriate and adequate housing.”
A Government statement said that May “respects the reasons set out” by Moore-Bick for not including social housing policy in the terms of reference.
The statement added: “But (the Prime Minister) is also very clear that should not - and will not - mean the questions raised are left unanswered or are somehow seen as a lower priority.
“As part of this work the government will now consider how best to address the social housing issues.
“The housing minister, Alok Sharma, will personally meet and hear from as many social housing tenants as possible, both in the immediate area around Grenfell Tower but also across the country to help build up a comprehensive picture of some of the immediate issues facing tenants, as well as to identify any common concerns that must inform any national approach.
“There will be a further announcement on this work shortly.”
The initial report is expected to be published by Easter next year. But Cooper critciised the timing, asking “why is it going to take so long?”.
There are also concerns among the legal team representing survivors that the there has been no indication given as to whether they will get access to the site to get an assesment of the evidence by their own panel of experts.
“We want to put our own independent people in there,” Cooper told HuffPost UK. “It’s a big issue for the survivors, I can’t over emphasise that.”