The Grenfell Tower tragedy is what happens when the concerns of ordinary people are systematically ignored. That’s why it’s vital the Inquiry does not commit the same fatal errors that brought us here in the first place.
When a public inquiry examines a major disaster and loss of life, it is critical that families should have the opportunity to establish why their loved ones died.This can best be achieved by survivors being given full and unfettered opportunities to put questions to the authorities and those who can shed light on the causes of the tragedy.
In many previous public inquiries and inquests, families have been cruelly denied proper opportunities to question those responsible and hold them to account. Sadly, the Grenfell Inquiry runs the very real risk of censoring the voices of the bereaved in the same way.
Grenfell families currently have to submit questions through Counsel to the Grenfell Inquiry, who then decides with the Inquiry Chair if the question can be raised.
The Inquiry Chair will soon decide if survivors will be allowed to ask questions of those called to give evidence. For the sake of survivors, I sincerely hope he will allow residents and the bereaved to ask proper and relevant questions during the inquiry process, to avoid the risk of a ‘whitewash’ inquiry that fails the victims of this tragedy.
Without this scrutiny, a neglected group of people will be rendered a voiceless group of people. Insult will be added to grave injury. Survivors who should be at the centre of the Inquiry will find themselves at the periphery, once again ignored.
In many previous public inquiries and inquests, families have been cruelly denied proper opportunities to question those responsible and hold them to account. Sadly, the Grenfell Inquiry runs the very real risk of censoring the voices of the bereaved in the same way
These good people were not listened to when their justifiable and legitimate concerns about the safety and refurbishment of their building were raised long before the fire. They were also left isolated by local government after the fire – it is difficult to believe such inhumanity on the part of the authorities.
The Inquiry has many important questions to address over the coming weeks and months, not least around whether the fire was foreseeable, whether it could have been avoided and what more should have been done to prevent it.
It will be important to consider why the refurbishment was needed and why it was conducted without properly consulting the residents of Grenfell Tower. Was the refurbishment simply cosmetic, to remove what was seen as an eyesore by some of the wealthier residents in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea? Were second rate materials used? Was the refurbishment really undertaken with the welfare and safety of Grenfell residents in mind? These questions must be addressed if we are to truly learn lessons from this devastating fire.
One of our clients was retired, elderly and blind. He lived on the 11th floor, formerly the eighth floor before the refurbishment. He had lived in the tower for 36 years and was able to work his way around, prior to the refurbishment. However, there was no consultation with him about signage, or allowances for his disability as a part of the refurbishment process. On the night of the fire when his daughter-in-law rang 999, she was told to tell him to get out of the tower if he could. He could not, and was condemned to die.
Another client said the refurbishment changed the building from being an “ugly and safe council block” to a “death trap that looked like a pretty private block”.
The refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, which was external and essentially aesthetic, did not treat the safety and security of the occupants as paramount or even a primary consideration. This lead to multiple failures and a building riddled with risk.
The Inquiry’s legacy can and should go beyond a focus on fire safety in tower blocks, essential as that is. It needs to examine how social inequality and prejudice allowed the residents of Grenfell to be neglected because of the type of housing they lived in.
Such attitudes and stereotyping resulted in cost cutting and the use of deadly materials becoming normalised. It meant the warnings of residents themselves went unheeded.
I’ll be calling on the Inquiry to recommend that Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 be extended to public bodies. This would hold these bodies to account through the courts, if state agencies fail to reduce social inequalities resulting from their decisions and policies.
Had this legislation been in force when Grenfell was refurbished, it would have required those involved to explain why it was considered acceptable to cut costs when refurbishing a publicly funded building in the richest borough in London, in the sixth richest country of the world.
Leslie Thomas QC is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers and represents 21 survivors and relatives of those who died at Grenfell Tower