Three months after the horrific fire, the Grenfell inquiry begins. But even at the outset, there are significant concerns that justice will not be served. There is a fear that those most affected will not get a seat at the table. This is crucial. Without building trust in the inquiry process, and placing victims, survivors and their families at the heart of the process, it will be doomed to failure.
Survivors hoping to witness Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s opening statement at the Grenfell Tower inquiry will need to get to the Connaught Rooms early on Thursday morning. The venue has a capacity of 200: there were 900 homes on the Lancaster West estate alone. Seats will be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.
The inquiry website states that preference will be given to “affected individuals”, yet makes no provision for determining who these individuals are or how the inquiry team will manage the process. What if the room fills up with journalists or campaigners before survivors and family members arrive? Will local residents need to bring ID? Public meetings in the area around Grenfell have been busy, with lots of people affected wanting to take part. There have been shocking failures with local meetings, most notably when survivors were locked out of a council chamber where they had been invited to testify. Although arrangements have been made for screenings elsewhere, justice will not be served if those who should be at the heart of the process do not attend because they are unsure they will get in.
“We’ve done this before,” said one officer. But they have never done anything quite like this. There hasn’t been a tragedy on this scale since Hillsborough.
The issue around seats may seem trivial, but it has wider resonance for the inquiry. At the heart of this are the stories of at least 80 women, men and children who died, and a question about who accesses justice. If we have learned anything from the fire and the government’s response, it is that the old ways of doing things have not worked.
“The state is not there to dispense favours to the unfortunate,” writes Lyndsey Stonebridge, professor of modern history and literature at the University of East Anglia. “Everybody is entitled to juridical and political access. If you disrespect the civility of the process, in effect you are disrespecting not just people who are suffering, but the very idea of citizenship itself.”
Trust. It is so difficult to build, and so easy to undermine. For the survivors and victims’ families, there is no aspect of life that has been untouched by the morning of 14 June 2017. Nothing is, or ever will be, the same. Conversations with survivors, evacuees and volunteers are full of examples of broken promises, survivors being placed in situations that are undignified, in which they are forced to beg for their rights. I have heard stories of survivors being left without money to meet weekly expenses, of being moved from hotel to hotel without notice, of being continually sent to the wrong offices. There is no trust.
Each day brings fresh reports of traumatised survivors forced to return to the area near the tower to access key services, of suicide attempts, families living on top of each other in small rooms. Against the ongoing daily indignities, major concerns about justice continue to erode trust in the authorities.
This week, news broke of a police investigation into allegations of theft from a property in Grenfell Walk. These allegations raise significant questions around the management of the crime scene in the weeks after the fire. On Monday, lawyers for the family of Hesham Rahman, who died in the fire, wrote to Theresa Maywarning that the inquiry risked breaching the public sector equality duty of the Equality Act 2010. There are concerns about a failure to give due regard to these obligations, about the lack of diversity in the inquiry team, and of the chair’s failure to appoint a multi-ethnic panel.
On Tuesday, lawyers from campaign group BME Lawyers 4 Grenfell, sought a judicial review that was rejected by the government “before the ink was even dry”, according to Peter Herbert of the campaign. “Behind all of this is central government, and a message that the lives of poor people are not worth spending money on.” Perhaps the most urgent matter undermining faith is that – in spite of the prime minister’s original promise that all survivors would be rehoused in three weeks – only 29 families have been so far. The process has been laborious, if not downright insulting: survivors have told me they have been offered flats in blocks about to face further refurbishment, or offered temporary accommodation in buildings earmarked for demolition.
That is not to say that there has been no improvement. There are positive signs of change from the new chief executive at Kensington and Chelsea council and incredible new community initiatives. But it is hard to imagine any trust in justice while children are doing their homework in hotel lobbies.
As the inquiry opens, it has emerged that Robert Black, the ex-chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, is still drawing a six-figure salary, in spite of stepping aside “to focus on the inquiry”. This will be difficult for local residents to stomach, and undermines efforts by the council to turn the page. “This is clearly an outrage,” said local resident and Green party campaigner Jennifer Nadel. “It is an insult to all those in the community. It’s absolutely extraordinary that this man is still being paid, and that not a single councillor has resigned their seats. It’s very hard to believe that the council isn’t continuing with business as usual despite all that’s happened.”
Trust. It is in the interests of the victims, their families and the survivors that this process is successful. It is in the interests of those living in both private and local authority housing across the country that trust is rebuilt, that the necessary evidence is heard by the inquiry chair, and that accurate, meaningful lessons are learned. It is in the public interest that appropriate recommendations are made about fire safety, and the kinds of materials we wrap our buildings in. And it is in all of our interests that the families affected by the fire achieve justice. It took the Hillsborough families 28 years. The Grenfell families cannot wait that long.