Survivors, bereaved relatives and justice campaigners vowed to keep up the fight as the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire opened on Monday.
The Tories showed that they were vulnerable to pressure last week. Outrage at the Hackitt review’s findings forced housing minister James Brockenshire to swiftly announce a consultation over banning flammable cladding.
Theresa May said that two “experts” would be brought in as advisers to inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick. While this isn’t the full panel inquiry that survivors demanded, it’s a small victory that shows more can be won.
Deborah Coles from the Inquest legal charity and campaign group spoke to Socialist Worker about the problems with the panel and inquiry. “They have bowed to political pressure,” she said. “It’s not a panel, but in a way it’s a climbdown.
“I give it a very cautious welcome until we know who that panel are.”
The two appointed experts are going to sit alongside Moore-Bick from the second stage of the inquiry. This will look at some of the wider issues around the fire, such as the council’s failings and parts of the regulatory framework.
“The panel need to be around from the beginning,” said Coles. “Especially in the next couple of weeks when we’re going to hear testimony from families about who they’re mourning as a result of this shocking injustice.”
If the inquiry is to deliver anything near to justice, the Tories and Moore-Bick will have to be put under irresistible pressure.
Coles said, “History has taught us that unless you get inquiries’ recommendations enacted then things don’t change.
“It’s about ensuring with inquiries and inquests that recommendations are acted upon. And there’s a duty to report on what action is being carried out and that that is regularly monitored and audited.”
“Had recommendations from inquiries into previous fires been acted on we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” she added referring to the Lakanal House fire in 2009.
Key recommendations to retro fit tower blocks with sprinklers were not implemented after an inquiry published its findings in 2013. May’s current adviser Gavin Barwell was the housing minister who sat on that report.
Coles was also scathing about the specific problems with how the Grenfell Tower inquiry has been set up. “We can never again have a situation where you set up an inquiry into an injustice in the way that this has been set up,” she said.
And she said that Inquest would work to make sure future governments would set up inquiries “with proper thought as to its role and also in terms of its diversity”.
The pressure can’t let up—the Silent Walks and protests must continue alongside the inquiry.
Fire safety review fails to ban flammable cladding
Dame Judith Hackitt’s report, published last Thursday, called for a “wholesale change of culture” on fire safety.
But it failed to recommend an outright ban on the use of flammable cladding. Shahin Sadafi from Grenfell United survivors’ group said, “When we met Dame Judith Hackitt we asked her for an outright ban on combustible cladding.
“We are disappointed and saddened that she didn’t listen to us and she didn’t listen to other experts.”
In response Tory housing minister James Brockenshire announced a consultation into banning similar materials to those used on Grenfell Tower.
The news on Thursday came after Theresa May announced the Tories would set aside £400 million to strip tower blocks with similar cladding. That’s likely to be nowhere near enough—151 blocks still require work and the cost of removing cladding from just 10 in Camden came to £50 million.
The review also “does not ban assessments in lieu of tests”—the now-infamous “desktop studies”.
“Desktop study” safety tests of building materials are based on the results of previous tests on similar products. These tests were revealed to be faulty by the Fire Protection Association last month.
The report claims it doesn’t recommend banning desktop studies because some products are too large to be tested in the Building Research Establishment’s facilities.
It’s possible that Hackitt pitched the report for what she thought the Tories would agree to, not for the changes that need to happen.
She said the regulatory system is “a broken system and banning cladding on its own is not going to fix it.”
Yet she offered no explanation of why fixing the system couldn’t include banning the use of cladding.
Other recommendations are that residents should be consulted over safety decisions and to introduce an “outcomes-based” approach to the regulation.
Some of the report’s recommendations would be welcome changes, but whether the Tories implement even those remains to be seen.
Tories want inquiry to restore trust in the state
Some of the strongest mainstream critics of the Tories over Grenfell have insisted the inquiry must gain the trust of survivors.
At a meeting in parliament last Monday Labour MP David Lammy said, “Of course there is deep mistrust of authority within the community. Of course they have no faith in the state and the establishment.
“It is the state that has failed, so it is the state that has to work hard to regain the trust of the Grenfell families.”
And he asked, “Why does trust matter?”
He had already given the answer—the inquiry’s job is to make sure people continue to trust the state. The inquiry has been set up to prevent the guilty at the top of the state being held to account.
That doesn’t mean they won’t end up being held to justice.
In the weeks after the fire Tory-run Kensington and Chelsea lead councillor for housing Rock Fielding-Mellen was forced to stand down from the cabinet. It shows we can wring concessions from the Tories with a militant campaign that demands justice for the dead.
But Fielding-Mellen was re-elected as a councillor in last month’s local elections.
It’s an example why the justice campaigns need to relentlessly keep up pressure.
Survivors, the bereaved and activists should not trust the state, contrary to Lammy and other MP’s protestations. The state failed the people who died in the Grenfell Tower fire, but it is not designed to—it’s a tool for one class to rule over the other.
If justice is to be won, a deep mistrust of the capitalist state which allowed Grenfell to happen is a good start.
What can the inquiry achieve?
Public inquiries are limited in what they can recommend the government to do. These limitations are dictated by the Inquiries Act of 2005 and also by the terms of reference a specific inquiry sets itself.
The two main official purposes of any inquiry are to find out exactly what happened and to recommend steps to ensure a similar event does not happen again. That means an inquiry can identify a chain of events that suggests who is responsible but do little more.
The Inquiries Act stipulates that an inquiry can’t recommend civil or criminal charges be made against an individual or organisation. But new evidence heard by an inquiry can be used in a subsequent or simultaneous criminal investigation.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s terms of reference have been limited to “examining the events surrounding the fire”.
Perhaps the most significant part of the inquiry’s remit is to look at the “scope and adequacy of building regulations, fire regulations and other legislation” relating to high rise buildings. Even this falls far short of what is needed to get anything like justice.
The terms of reference in the Stephen Lawrence inquiry were very broad—“the matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence”. That meant that, under immense pressure the inquiry could arrive at the conclusion the Metropolitan Police were “institutionally racist”.
The Grenfell Tower inquiry could have been given such specific terms of reference to avoid such a damning summary of the system that allowed Grenfell to happen.
Despite this the Tories have already made concessions under relatively light pressure—and must be made to feel more.