The Grenfell Tower Inquiry has been accused of racism over security guidelines which state people should not bring “knives, replica guns, hammers or wrenches” to hearings, and for searching visitors on arrival.
Similar physical security checks and bag searches are not in operation at the Infected Blood Inquiry, another high profile UK public inquiry where the majority of participants are white, HuffPost UK has learned.
But at the Grenfell hearings, where many of those impacted are from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (BAME), far tougher security checks are in place.
Bag searches are carried out on entry and security guidance includes a detailed section on “weapons” and other items that cannot be brought into the building.
Yvette Williams, of the Justice4Grenfell campaign group, said the differences were indicative of racial stereotyping of BAME and working class people presenting a greater risk.
“I think it plays into racial stereotypes. It plays into class politics as well,” she said.
“There’s a feeling that we need a higher level of security rather than the demographic who they assume are part of the contaminated blood inquiry.
“It plays to stereotypes that we’re more of a risk, we’re more likely to be aggressive, we’re more likely to have a criminal element. We don’t have the same level of behaviours as the upper middle classes.”
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s website, in a section about venue security, tells visitors not to attend with “any type of knife or bladed article, replica guns, work tools such as hammers and wrenches, drugs or alcohol, or any other items that could be used as a weapon”.
No such section exists on the website of the Infected Blood Inquiry, where those impacted include a far higher proportion of white people.
Additionally, those who attend the Grenfell inquiry in Paddington are subject to physical security checks, including bag searches, on arrival.
No such measures are in place for the hundreds of victims and families who have attended the Infected Blood Inquiry, held near Fleet Street.
The differences in security were first noticed when Grenfell campaigners visited the Infected Blood Inquiry for a meeting and were surprised not to be searched on entry.
Grenfell United, the bereaved families and survivors group, said: “We’ve been questioning the security arrangements at our inquiry for a while.
“They say families are meant to be the heart of the inquiry but the first thing that they do when you get there is put you through a metal detector and search area.
“Survivors and bereaved families turn up day after day and are searched on arrival. When we visited other inquiries we saw it’s different.
“You can’t help but think they are making different judgements for us based on race and class. When we question why it’s one rule for us and another for others, they are very defensive and don’t seem to understand how it makes us feel.”
The disparity in security checks exists despite the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and the Infected Blood Inquiry being sponsored and overseen by the same group of officials at the Cabinet Office.
The Cabinet Office has distanced itself from the issue, saying decisions about how inquiries are run are made by individual inquiries.
“Practical arrangements at public hearings are matters for each independent inquiry to decide,” a government spokesperson said.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry, though, appeared to suggest it was only following Cabinet Office guidelines over security searches.
“The physical security baseline measures – set by the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure and the Cabinet Office – state that, where members of the public are attending a building, an appropriate screening process should be applied,” said a spokesperson.
“For this reason, we need to put in place security checks similar to the security measures in place at the Royal Courts of Justice, other courts and high-profile public venues.”
The inquiry said given its profile and significant media coverage, it is required to follow “standard practice for high-profile public buildings”. It also said it has a “duty of care” to anyone that attends.
When we question why it’s one rule for us and another for others, they are very defensive and don’t seem to understand how it makes us feel.Grenfell United
A spokesperson for the Infected Blood Inquiry said it has “a dedicated security team during hearings” to keep participants safe.
Williams, who is a co-founder of Justice4Grenfell, said the differences may have resulted from “unconscious bias” but that this was no excuse.
She said the bad feeling over the security arrangements will heighten concerns, long raised by the bereaved and survivors, that the Grenfell Tower inquiry is failing to consider race in its terms of reference.
At the inquiry last week Leslie Thomas QC, representing a number of survivors and bereaved, called for a closer focus on the extent to which race discrimination played a role in Grenfell, noting that 85% of those who died in the fire were not white and calling race “the elephant in the room”.
The barrister also drew links with the disproportionate deaths of BAME people from Covid-19 and the killing of George Floyd in the US.
The bereaved and survivors have since last year been demanding a third panel member with experience of these complex issues is added to the inquiry team.
Nabil Choucair, who lost six members of his family in the Grenfell fire and is one of the group represented by Leslie Thomas QC, said race should be right at the heart of the inquiry’s terms of reference, but this had not happened.
“It is crucial and very important that race is examined, because it plays one of the biggest roles in what happened,” he said.
“People were discriminated [against] without a doubt, in how they are, who they are and what they are, it’s just trying to prove it. If they examine it, will they prove it to themselves? They’re trying to avoid it.”