A lawyer representing survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire has questioned whether justice will be delivered if the public inquiry into the tragedy fails to pass a diversity “smell test”.
On the opening day of the investigation, barrister Leslie Thomas QC raised fresh concerns that the inquiry’s independent expert advisory panel lacks people from different backgrounds.
Thomas made reference to the largely white, male lawyers who appeared before inquiry chief Sir Martin Moore-Bick at the start of a two-day procedural hearing on Monday.
He contrasted the “homogenised group” to the “diverse group of people” that made up survivors and families of the victims who were witnessing proceedings.
Thomas, who is representing 17 core participants in the inquiry, went on to suggest that it reflected a wider problem with the panel that is advising Sir Martin.
Its composition has been criticised for not including enough people from ethnically and religiously diverse backgrounds, or enough people with expertise in fires and social housing.
In powerful remarks, Thomas said:
“I make no apologies for what I’m about to say.
“One of the things that will not be lost on you, or anybody else that sits on this inquiry ... you can see most of the victim core participants ... because they’re sitting right at the back. You couldn’t get a more diverse group of people.
“Now look at the lawyers.
“Look at the lawyers who represent predominately the corporate core participants. And even to an extent, look at those of us that represent the victim core participants. A fairly homogenised group, wouldn’t you agree, apart from the odd exception here and there?
“What must they be thinking in terms of ‘are we going to get justice? Do they understand us?’”
Thomas made reference to lawyers representing victims and survivors of the disaster handing the inquiry team a list of 25 experts from the BME community as potential panel members, and said “isn’t just lip service”. He went on:
“This isn’t just saying, ‘I want someone who looks like me, for the sake of someone looking like me’. No, it’s much more than that.
“Does this inquiry pass the smell test? What is the smell test on an inquiry such as this?
“I’ve already said, look at the suits. I’ve already said look at the victim core participants. I’ve asked you to take a long hard look at your panel, yours assessors, your team.
“Ask yourself does it pass the smell test? Because that relates to perception ... public perception... do they understand us, do they speak our language? Do they know anything about social housing?
“How many have lived in a tower block, or a council estate, or in social housing? That affects confidence.
“Confidence - or lack of it - affects participation. And a lack of participation from the people that matter will affect justice. And a lack of justice is injustice.”
Over the weekend the inquiry, Labour called for an overhaul of the inquiry’s format as Britain’s official human rights watchdog expressed misgivings.
Labour highlighted a petition launched by bereaved families and survivors in recent weeks, calling on Theresa May to install an expert panel from a diverse range of backgrounds to sit alongside Sir Martin, who has also been accused of being out of touch.
On Monday, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced its own investigation into the blaze, examining whether authorities failed in their legal obligations to residents.