11:45, June 29 59 0 theguardian.com

2017-06-29 11:45:03
Grenfell’s victims trusted the state with their lives. Now it owes them justice

So it is done and the die is cast. We learned overnight that Sir Martin Moore-Bick will lead the public inquiry into what happened at Grenfell Tower. As journalists pore over his past legal decisions, the Grenfell families will no doubt be anxious to read, as I am, about a “controversial” record and “concerns” over his suitability.

Customarily, members of parliament do not interfere in, nor comment on, the work of our independent judiciary. And the chastising of supreme court judges as “enemies of the people” last year was a very low point in our public life.

An independent and impartial judiciary is absolutely integral to our democracy, and ensuring that judges can carry out their work fairly, without fear or favour or the influence of external pressures, is essential to upholding the rule of law, as well as public confidence and trust in our legal system.

The public inquiry must have the confidence and trust of the survivors and the victims’ families if it is to be legitimate. We are told that no stone will be left unturned in uncovering the truth about what happened at Grenfell, that the survivors will be consulted on the inquiry’s terms of reference, and that an interim report is expected in the coming months.

The inquiry will face an uphill struggle in overcoming the deep mistrust of authority that is felt within the community since the fire. These people have been let down and have no faith that this inquiry will be independent or effective, or that justice will be done. It is incumbent on the government and the public inquiry to convince the survivors and the victims’ families that their voices will be heard and that they will not be failed again.

The victims of Grenfell Tower, their families and the survivors will need Moore-Bick’s independence and impartiality during the course of this public inquiry. They will need his experience and his judicial mind. But above all else, they will need his empathy.

I sincerely doubt that Moore-Bick has ever visited one of our inner-city tower blocks, but I hope that he will do so soon. I doubt that he has lived in social housing or spent a night in a flat in a high-rise building, but he will now have to stand in the shoes of the people who called Grenfell home, he will have to empathise with their experiences, and he will have to walk alongside them and their families.

If you are middle class in Britain, in the course of your day-to-day life you rely on the state only to care for you if you fall sick, take your bins out and pave your roads. But if you are on the 22nd floor of a tower block, the state literally has your life in its hands. It is the state that told you to stay put in the case of a fire. It is the state that failed to install working fire alarms. It is the state that you rely on to come up the stairwell to save you and your family from a burning building.

A public inquiry is not like a trial. Those who survived, those who burned to death and their relatives are all victims. The Grenfell families will want reassurance that another posh white man will stand with them and interrogate the authorities on their behalf.

They will understandably fear that, when push comes to shove, Sir Martin will stand with the leadership of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation and a whole array of powerful and rich subcontractors: people who are very much part of the establishment and who, on paper at least, are people very much of his own image.

Wednesday’s announcement that six people will face criminal charges in relation to the Hillsborough disaster is a timely reminder that the road to justice is often a long and arduous one. As the proceedings of the public inquiry and criminal investigation stretch inexorably into the future for years to come, and as they become engulfed by the machinations of the powerful corporate-legal nexus, the news cycle will inevitably move on and the television cameras will be sent elsewhere. So we must learn the lesson of Hillsborough and not let those responsible get away with it through cover-up, prevarication and legal wrangling.

This public inquiry can help us to understand the mistakes that caused Grenfell Tower and how to prevent a tragedy like this happening again; but its recommendations will change nothing unless the government implements the proposed changes. What this public inquiry will not do is bring anybody to justice. Justice for the victims and their families can come about only as a result of the criminal investigation, when those culpable are standing before a judge and jury.