Grenfell: Will this Avoidable Disaster Happen Again?


One year on from one of the worst civil disasters, experienced in Britain in the post war period, the Grenfell Tower fire remains a deep scar on the consciousness of the nation, and a constitutes pain beyond most understanding. The contrast couldn't be greater, with local people suffering pain and tragedy has been utterly incomprehensible, whilst the response of those same ordinary people, has provided a bright shining light of hope on an otherwise dark and desolate incident.

As part of BME Lawyers for Grenfell we have sought to support victims in keeping pressure on Government in relation to broadening the remit of the inquiry and ensuring that the Inquiry team is representative modern London.

Our Prime Minister was recently forced to publicly apologise after she admitted that she was wrong not to meet the families of the victims of the fire in the immediate aftermath of the blaze. What she didn’t say is that the police and the security services had told her they couldn’t guarantee her safety at that time. May’s woeful response in the immediate aftermath, sneaking in and out of Ladbroke Grove, like a thief in the night, was comparable to the callous insensitivity shown by President Bush’s infamous response in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Whilst much will be said in remembrance of the 73 people who died as a result of the fire, I believe that one of the most important ways to pay respects to the dead and respond to the cries of justice, from their families is to tackle the systemic failures of public inquiries that could potentially derail the current Grenfell Inquiry.

British Governments track record of ‘managing’ public crisis of one sort or another follow’s a well worn path, where one can discern a set routine, as set pattern, with largely predictable outcomes. And in recent times it’s to be remembered that our Prime Minister Theresa May has granted more public inquiries than any other PM in modern history. Hillsborough, child sex enquiries, Chilcot, Jimmy Savile and now Grenfell.

It's a form of political Akido, where you use the strength and momentum of your enemies attack to ultimately defeat him.

When faced with moral outrage and public concern, you concede and offer a public inquiry, which then binds people into a legal and bureaucratic process that can take anything from 2 to 5 years to complete. Hoping in that time, that public concern will have waned, the victim’s families would be worn down with grief and the relentless bureaucratic process of inquiry and new government in power. All of the personnel involved could have retired or moved on. The process is lengthy, turgid, inequitable and expensive. Specifically designed to frustrate, rather than enable the search for the truth.

The processes of ‘pubic inquiries’, whether they be Corners inquest processes, police investigations into corporate failures are all, in theory at least, suppose it exercises in facilitating the search for the truth, in addition to holding people to account for their failings to adhere to British law and recognised policies and procedure.

However, I would suggest that in the experience of very many people, principally victims families, these statutory led formal inquires, rarely achieve the goals of ensuring that we learn the hard lessons of avoidable tragedies, in an genuine attempt to ensure that they never occur again.

Lets take the area of deaths in prison or police custody as an example, however we could equally focus on child sex abuse, mental health, the outcomes are virtually the same,, few formal prosecutions, no political focus regard for Coroners or public inquiry recommendations, beyond the period of press interest and public concern.

This is true of most famous public enquiry in British history, the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Often heralded as making great strides towards the elimination of institutional racism within policing and criminal justice, some 25 years on, we see those early green shoots of optimism in relation to the expressed determination by politicians and the police, to rout out racism within its ranks and the demand for greater public/police accountability are now just distant memories of more optimistic times.

Much like the Trumpesque backlash we see in America, against all things associated with the former US President Barrack Obama, when it comes to justice and equality, the status quo is remarkably resistant to change and will almost always, even if initially conceding, will always at some point, aggressively push back against any attempts at progressive reform

I would suggest that there are very few issues of public concern and safety, which have not already been subject to previous inquires of one sort or another.

In the case of Grenfell we recall the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell Southwark and the key recommendations of making t mandatory to install fire sprinklers in existing and new high rise flats as but one example. For me, the heart breaking reality, the truth as can be evidenced, is that most of these types of tragedies could have been avoided.

Imagine the pain, trauma and personal sacrifices that are made by families whose loved ones become victims of such public tragedies. The grief, the endless bureaucracy in trying to ascertain the truth, the pain of seeing those who should be held accountable walk free, this is the reality of our confused and medieval process of inquest, and public inquiry.

Surely, if we want to breathe life into the powerful sentiment repeated again and again, by those affected, that such avoidable tragedies should "never happen again to anyone else" we must find a way to ensure that their horrendous experience and loss, is put to the public good and that certain recommendations of inquiries and inquests should have mandatory force.

I believe if we are to do an national the audit today, assessing which of all of the public safety inquiry and inquest recommendations made over the last 30 years, we would be alarmed at the extent to which people's pain and suffering has not resulted in preventing others from suffering similar fates, whether that's in our prisons, our mental health institutions, within police cells or public spaces and places.

Currently there is no formal requirement for government to be held account for the decision it makes in the aftermath of inquiries. A report published by the Institute for Government in December 2017 " How Public Inquiries Can Lead to Change. “ reported;

"Of the 68 inquires that have taken place since 1990, only six have received a full follow-up by a select committee to ensure that government has acted. Even in a case where government decides not to implement recommendations, they should be a set process for having it explain why. Parliament should play a more significant role in holding ministers to account."

The report makes a number of key recommendations all of which should be considered alongside further reform of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

That the act is in need of urgent reform is also supported by the Chief Coroner of England and Wales who in his annual report last year 2017, reiterated the need for a National Coroner’s Service that could iron out the "inevitable inconsistencies" between localised coroner areas.

Long advocated by the campaigning group Inquest, we need to radically reform of the coroner's inquest process to bring it in line with the values and expectations of 21st-century Britons instead of retaining the processes, policies and procedure of 12th century Britain.

So as we mourn our losses of those who suffered unimaginable pain and horror in the course of their deaths, and we inquire and imagine how this could have happened, who could be responsible and what does justice look like, let's not forget that the very system designed to deliver justice is in need of urgent institutional reform, if we are to definitively ensure that what happened to the residents of Grenfell can never, ever happen again.

Lee Jasper