Monday sees the start of Phase 2 of the Grenfell Inquiry. There is a new venue, two additional panel members and the same terms of reference as phase 1. So will Phase 2 deliver justice and long term change for the better? We think not!
At the start of Phase 1 in December 2017, Deborah Coles, the director of Inquest, said:
“Grenfell is a shocking injustice and the need for the inquiry to get to the truth is of value to us all. It can only do this if the individual voices of the bereaved and survivors are not lost and silenced. Recognising the bereaved as victims, placing them at the heart of the inquiry, is essential to help humanise the legal process.
“To assuage the profound anger and mistrust requires meaningful engagement of those affected, along with prompt, full and proper disclosure and a panel representative of the community. This can help instil confidence and encourage participation.”
Has the Inquiry listened and acted on this crucial piece of advice? No
The new venue is nearer to north Kensington, enabling a shorter distance to travel and avoiding travel on the underground, bereaved families and Survivors asked for this. However they also raised issues about conditions inside the building, including the lack of natural daylight, poor ventilation, and a claustrophobic room for the hearings. The same complaints have been raised about the new venue.
After eleven months of lobbying, Theresa May agreed to appoint two additional ‘diverse’ panel members to sit alongside the Chair. There appeared to be some confusion on what a diverse panel entailed. What was needed were panel members that understood diverse communities like North Kensington. To understand the full reasons behind what happened at Grenfell Tower, it is important that the inquiry appreciated the social and cultural aspects of the community where it happened. However, this was interpreted by the cabinet office as putting ‘black and brown’ faces on the panel. This lack of understanding led to the appointment by PM Boris Johnson, of Benita Mehra, an engineer, who previously ran an organisation which received a £71,000 grant from the Arconic Foundation, the manufacturer’s philanthropic arm. Yes, Arconic who manufacture the highly combustible cladding panel system, that the first phase of the inquiry has already established were “the principal reason why the flames spread so rapidly up the building” causing the inferno. Did Cabinet Office officials not carry out due diligence in checking any concerns regarding Ms Mehra’s suitability for the panel? It also appears that they did not fully brief the Prime minister either. How does this severe lack of care and scrutiny, keep the bereaved and survivors at the heart of the inquiry? Within any other public sphere, this would be tantamount to non-verbal bullying. . Ms Mehra has now resigned on the eve of the inquiry.
There has been no review or refresh of the Inquiry’s terms of reference for Phase 2. The full terms of reference for the public inquiry, accepted in full by the then prime minister, Theresa May, are:
- The cause and spread of the fire;
- The design, construction and refurbishment of Grenfell Tower;
- The scope and adequacy of the relevant regulations relating to high-rise buildings;
- Whether the relevant legislation and guidance were complied with in the case of Grenfell Tower; The actions of the local authority and other bodies before the tragedy;
- The response of the London Fire Brigade to the fire and the response of central and local government in the aftermath.
Broader questions on social housing, working class communities, social inequality or institutional discrimination were not included. Calls for the inquiry to broaden its terms of reference and include these issues fell on deaf ears. This implicitly reveals their lack of interest, to know if these matters played any part in the events surrounding the fire at Grenfell. Moreover, there is no obligation for the Inquiry panel to make recommendations on vital changes for our communities in the future.
If you do not keep ‘people’ at the heart of it, then you lose touch with what the inquiry’s paramount role is. This is the litmus test of any Pubic Inquiry. Inquiries are the responsibility of the government; that they did not listen and act once is unfortunate, to not listen and act twice is careless, thereafter we can only conclude that their consistent inertia is deliberate and belligerent. Seventy-two men, women and children perished at Grenfell and our community has continued to make demands; we want the truth, we want accountability, we want answers, we want changes in our society to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. The consistent Institutional indifference shown by the local authority (RBKC) and the tenant management organisation to the former residents during the refurbishment of the Tower; appears to be also permeating through the Inquiry’s attitudes. When will they listen to the voices of those most affected? In the words of Deborah Coles, ‘without this (their voices) the inquiry will be flawed and will fail those seeking the truth and justice they deserve.’ We agree.