The inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire fails to consider the “institutional racism” which could have played a role in the disaster, a lawyer who represented Stephen Lawrence’s family said on Tuesday.
Imran Khan, who was a key legal aide to the parents of the murdered black teenager, addressed the second day of evidential hearings at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry today as one of the lawyers representing the bereaved and survivors.
Khan urged inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick to consider whether Kensington and Chelsea council or the Tenant Management Organisation, which ran the 24-storey tower, were influenced at all by racial prejudice.
He called for the inquiry to broaden its terms of reference, which set out the scope of the inquiry’s investigations, in order to include whether race, religion or social class played any part in the disaster.
In his opening remarks this afternoon, Khan said: “Does the colour of a person’s skin matter in this country? Does it affect your education? Does it affect whether you get stopped by the police? In short, does it affect your life chances?
“For most people from black and minority ethnic communities, Britain is still either a land of denied opportunities or one in which opportunities are begrudgingly extended and extremely limited.”
Khan said: “There is grave foreboding among our clients that the race, religion or social class of residents may have determined their destiny.”
“Our clients believe this is a proper issue to explore,” he said. “The evidence that we have seen this far is overwhelmingly in favour of its inclusion as a term of reference.”
He read out a statement from one of his clients, who said: “Had this been in Westminster or Knightsbridge with white upper middle class people residing in the tower the fire and the measures taken beforehand would never have happened.”
Khan said that, despite a 2011 census recording that 71% of the population in Kensington and Chelsea being white, a disproportionate number of poor and ethnic minorities ended up living in the tower.
The Metropolitan Police were found to be “institutionally racist” in their investigation into the death of Stephen in 1993.
Khan added: “If we do not ask the question now as to whether race, religion or social class played any part in the events surrounding the fire at Grenfell and answering it with recommendations for the future, we will be putting at risk the lives of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people from black and ethnic minority communities who are over-represented in high-rise blocks across Britain.
“And that was certainly the case as far as Grenfell Tower was concerned.”
Turning his attention to the actions of the London Fire Brigade (LFB) on the night of June 14, Khan said that descriptions of Grenfell residents in the firefighters’ witness statements suggests “unconscious or some conscious racism”.
He said those in the block from black or minority backgrounds were not described by their clothes or features, but ethnic origin.
This included “middle eastern appearance”, “of Arabic descent” and a reference to someone of “Tunisian appearance”.
Khan asked what someone of “Tunisian appearance” was supposed to look like.
He went on: “The use of such stereotypes including, in one instance, referring to someone as ‘foreign’, in the statement of the firefighters on the face of it suggests unconscious or some conscious racism.
“If that is the case we simply ask the question – did it have any impact on the way individuals were treated on that night?”
He said that his clients were “very concerned about the procedures, conduct and operation of the fire service and its governing authorities on the night”.
He continued: “Did race or religion play any part in the procedure and operation of the fire service on that night?
“Did race or religion affect how the LFB could communicate with residents?”
Khan concluded: “After the disaster there was a profound sadness but also a sense of national shame.
“It is only if we look at how and why they ended up in the tower, and whether their background played a part in that, will we truly understand the tragedy of what happened and learn the lessons of what went wrong.”