On 14 June last year, as images of the Grenfell Tower fire dominated the media, the main question on my mind was ‘how could this have happened in the UK in 2017?’ The ongoing public inquiry – which resumed this week – was set up, in part, to answer this question. But whether it will do this and meet the expectations of those most affected by this tragedy, remains to be seen.
The unprecedented scale of the tragedy at Grenfell shook public confidence. The very next day, the Prime Minister announced the inquiry, stating that ‘no stone would be left unturned’. But for those let down by both local and central Government before, during, and after the fire, it is hardly surprising that many were initially mistrustful of this Government led process.
From working with and supporting the bereaved and survivors, it is clear that there are two main hopes for the inquiry: to get to the truth of what happened, and to ensure that lessons are learned so that something like this never happens again.
But unless the inquiry gains the trust and full participation of the bereaved, survivors and residents, the inquiry findings and recommendations could be undermined.
The first part of the inquiry began in May 2018 with commemoration hearings held in a hotel local to Grenfell Tower with excellent facilities. They humanised the process and were handled with utmost respect. What struck me most was the outpouring of love and support and the real sense of community from those who attended. It appeared at that point, that trust and confidence in the process had strengthened. But sadly, this is now waning, and numerous barriers to the effective participation of those affected remain.
The inquiry has since moved to Holborn Bars in central London, for its second phase. On the first day here, I was struck by how cramped the main room was, with little space for bereaved and survivors to sit. There have been complaints about the difficulties of reaching the venue on time following the school run. And there is an issue with a lack of break out rooms, for bereaved survivors and residents to have some private space. Following the inquiry’s summer recess, these concerns have still not been addressed.
I have noticed numbers of those attending from the community gradually dwindle. The inquiry team have made some efforts to make things more comfortable, but from the outset, there were concerns about Holborn Bars being chosen. It may be easier for lawyers working nearby, but it is not easier for the local community. Nor is it an adequate space for those wishing to attend.
Another clear problem is the slow drip of evidence to core participants, many of whom are bereaved families and survivors. Clearly this is a monumental task, with the huge numbers of documents involved. However, it is imperative there is full and prompt disclosure, with absolute transparency. This would enable lawyers to raise informed questions and facilitate a collaborative Inquiry. How can bereaved survivors and residents have trust in the process if they feel evidence is being withheld? Disclosure of evidence after witnesses have given statements is not sufficient. Nor is the current practice on questioning witnesses.
Up to this point, all questioning has been conducted by Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry. Lawyers representing bereaved, survivors and residents can submit questions in advance, but cannot ask direct questions when they wish. A common sight is lawyers passing up post-it notes during the Mr Millett’s questioning. Voices of the residents of Grenfell were ignored before the fire, now it feels as if their lawyers’ voices are being silenced too.
Language continues to be an additional barrier for some of the bereaved. The inquiry has so far refused to translate key witness statements. Lawyers are required to apply for funding to obtain their own translations. Some core participants also face the uncertainty of not knowing if they will be granted permission to remain in the UK for the duration.
The Grenfell fire was a shocking social injustice. The truth about what went wrong is of value to us all. To get to this, the Inquiry must ensure effective participation from the people affected most. The Inquiry Team have promised to place the bereaved, survivors and residents at the heart of the Inquiry - but actions speak louder than words.
Remy Mohamed is the Grenfell Project Coordinator at Inquest, a charity providing expertise on state-related deaths