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Grenfell Inquiry Terms Of Reference - A Bitter Disappointment

18/08/2017 14:34 BST | Updated 18/08/2017 14:34 BST
Neil Hall / Reuters

The announcement yesterday that the Prime Minister has accepted the recommendations of Sir Martin Moore-Bick on the terms of reference for the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster is not surprising. She was hardly likely to restrict them any further than Moore-Bick has himself. But for those who want to get to the truth of how this horror was allowed to happen, the terms of reference will be seen as the latest betrayal of the victims.

Moore-Bick is well aware of the concern which his recommendations will arouse and refers to the demands of many of those involved for a broad ranging inquiry. But he has chosen to exclude "questions of a social, economic and political nature." How is it remotely possible to seriously examine the causes, spread and results of the fire without examining "social, economic and political" matters?

He argues that wider issues can be examined elsewhere, even though this inquiry is the one tasked with looking at this terrible event. His suggestion that "social, economic and political" matters can be dealt with elsewhere is a mighty kick of some really fundamental issues into some very long grass. There is clearly no intent from government for any wider inquiry or serious debate.

Investigations by the fire service and the police will be able to discover where and how the fire started and look at how it spread. They will be able to discover which contractor made which alteration to the building and which official agreed the relevant contract. They will be able to uncover the series of decisions which appear to have compromised the fire protection originally designed into Grenfell Tower.

These are all essential parts of the jigsaw. But they miss crucial questions. Firefighters attending the incident were initially struck by the fact that a fire of that nature was "impossible." If the agency responsible believes a fire on this scale to be so impossible that it has made no plans to react on such a scale, Moore-Bick is missing a blatantly obvious question: how could this even happen?

This question is not simply about the individual decisions of a local authority or a landlord. Nor is it simply about the actions of a particular contractor (although all these should be examined as well.) It is about the overarching regime, the political climate under which they operate. People across the world are asking how, in the UK, it is possible to apply flammable systems of cladding to residential tower blocks. The risk in Moore-Bick's terms of reference is that the inquiry is able to avoid probing deeper to examine the regime which allowed these deaths to happen, conveniently taking the spotlight off government ministers and any policies that were or weren't in place that may have had an impact.

Moore-Bick will look at the "response of central and local government in the days immediately following the fire." Good. Both were utterly inadequate and were rightly condemned by local residents. Anyone who visited the scene in the days after the fire would have been shocked at the total absence of those who would be expected to step in, respond and address immediate needs.

How is it possible, however, that the actions of central and local government after the fire are more important than the actions of central and local government before the fire, especially since a key question is how such a thing could even happen in 2017?

The Fire Brigades Union argued in our submission to the terms of reference consultation that the advice given to, and actions taken by, government ministers must be thoroughly examined. Central government has created the housing and fire safety regime and central government must be held to account for any failings in it. Yet the terms of reference signed off by Theresa May appear designed to avoid this.

The Prime Minister was subject to severe criticism in the days after the fire. Since then we have seen the start of a campaign to protect the government and place the blame anywhere else - anywhere but Whitehall.

In his speech to the Local Government Association last month (link) Communities Secretary Sajid Javid warned Council leaders that local government faced a "crisis of trust." This was an early example of central government seeking to pass the buck. It appears that Mr. Javid is happy for a few heads to roll. That may mean a contractor here and there. It may mean the fall of the leader of a former flagship Tory council. It may even mean prosecutions. But it becomes increasingly clear that the agenda is to protect central government and key ministers at all costs.

This cannot be allowed to happen. An open and honest inquiry must be broad and all encompassing. It must examine the risks to communities elsewhere and the likely response to a similar event. Above all, it needs to examine in detail not just what happened, but how it became possible for it to happen. That means inevitably looking at the housing and fire safety regime. The social, economic and political matters that formed the backdrop to this horrific event cannot be ignored or written out of the story. To do so would be to exacerbate the crime against the victims.