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18 months later: An update on the Grenfell Inquiry

Housing and Homelessness Programme / Blog

Photo: © INQUEST

In June 2017, a devastating fire at Grenfell Tower, West London, killed 72 people. The disaster destroyed people’s homes and lives in circumstances that were preventable. The UK Government set up an Inquiry to investigate the event. An Inquiry is a public investigation aimed at establishing the facts of an event to prevent it from happening again. It will result in a report with recommendations.

In summary, the goal of this Inquiry is to establish what led to the loss of so many innocent lives. It is likely that the Inquiry will show that the fire was caused by poor housing management, the use of dangerous materials with poor quality construction, a disregard for resident concerns, and inappropriate fire safety advice and procedures.

Oak Foundation made a grant to INQUEST to support the families and survivors through this Inquiry, and to challenge when Inquiry processes are not working and help ensure that families are at the heart of the process. INQUEST works with bereaved families and focuses on the investigation of contentious deaths – in particular, those that raise concerns about state and corporate accountability. The fire at Grenfell clearly raises significant concerns. We have funded INQUEST to provide a permanent presence at the Inquiry to ensure that the voices of the survivors and bereaved families are at the centre of it. The hope is that the Inquiry process will be transparent, to uncover where processes or individuals failed, and to identify where accountability lies. INQUEST is also tasked with pushing for the final recommendations to be implemented. In previous inquiries, recommendations have been largely ignored and then forgotten.

The Grenfell Inquiry began on 21 May 2018 with seven days of commemorations for those who died. Phase 1 took place between June and December 2018, during which the event and the response on the night was covered. We await the report with interim recommendations.

The rest of the schedule will continue as follows:

  • Summer 2019 – It is hoped that there will be an inquest function hearing before the second phase. The inquest function hearing would establish exactly how each person died and their last movements.
  • End 2019/early 2020 – Phase 2 will cover what led to the fire and will include final recommendations.

In the UK, there is a history of bereaved families struggling to access justice against public bodies following deaths in state care and in disasters. For example, in 1989, 96 people died at a football game at Hillsborough, and the bereaved families spent 25 years trying to uncover the truth of what happened that day. In these cases, often the state response is characterised by a culture of delay and denial. Oak is therefore also funding INQUEST to work on the adoption of a law called the Public Authority Accountability Law (also referred to as the Hillsborough Law). This new law would legislate a duty to act in the public interest with candour and frankness, including full disclosure of documents and information.

I attended one of the Phase 1 conclusion days in December along with the INQUEST Grenfell Project Coordinator, Remy Mohamed, whose post Oak is funding. She has built strong relationships with the families, and introduced me to a bereaved family member, who is part of Grenfell United. The family member discussed how upsetting the responses from a large proportion of firefighters were to the families. He said, “in a case of seemingly institutional amnesia, even when supported with documented evidence, many firefighters chose not to remember their actions on the night or lead up to the fire, yet remembered other (unconnected) fires and events easily enough.”

Dany Cotton, the Fire Commissioner, when giving evidence, said that she would not have changed anything about the fire brigade’s response on the night. This highlights how important the “Hillsborough Law” is to changing the institutional indifference and denial that is so prevalent.

Grafitti: "Love for Grenfell".

Photo: © INQUEST

Clearly the content of the Inquiry is very important, but what struck me is that other issues, such as choice of venue and where people sit, are also important to ensure an Inquiry is inclusive and fair. For example, the initial commemorations were held in a west London venue close to Grenfell, but the first phase of the Inquiry was held in Holborn close to lawyers’ offices. This has made it very difficult for survivors and family to attend – making the room very “lawyer heavy”.

The venue itself was too small to accommodate people which in summer made it very hot and to keep paparazzi out the blinds were closed; so, in addition to the heat, there was no natural daylight. Initially, the families and survivors were stuck in the back of the room, but after INQUEST and others complained, they were moved to the front.

The number of lawyers and laptops in the room was staggering: lawyers for every company and organisation involved were in attendance, with the family lawyers crowding in one corner. I found it intimidating and struggled to keep the tears at bay when closing statements gave examples of residents’ unsuccessful attempts to save themselves. I can only imagine how the families feel, and it really hit home how important it is for the families to be supported and guided through such an alien environment when they are already traumatised.

After months of requests from INQUEST and others, in his closing statement, the Inquiry chairman announced that they will negotiate a new venue further west for the Phase 2. Hopefully this means that many more survivors can attend. This should also give a different dynamic to the atmosphere in the room. The next step for INQUEST was to hold a “family consultation day”, where they invited bereaved families to talk about the aftermath of the fire and Inquiry process thus far. It is important for bereaved families to have support from INQUEST to ensure they feel they are being listened to.

This is an important grant, not just for the families and survivors from Grenfell, but for wider society. Only when the voices of those affected are truly heard and all facts are uncovered, can we understand what could and should have been done differently. Oak’s Housing and Homelessness Programme believes access to an affordable home is paramount to be able to fully engage in other parts of life. Social housing in the UK has the potential to be well managed and inclusive, providing a foundation for society to thrive. This can happen only if those who live there are valued, only if those with power are willing to listen, and only if recommendations for change are implemented.

Sometimes you need to push for these to happen, and INQUEST is tasked with doing just that.

Written by: Susanne Bjork, programme officer, Housing and Homelessness Programme