15:57, July 03 54 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-03 15:57:03
The Grenfell residents should boycott a superficial public inquiry

Grenfell Tower caught fire in the small hours of Wednesday 14 June, just after midnight. Theresa May announced a public inquiry the very next day. That was the right thing to do. But less than three weeks later its future is already in doubt. What has gone wrong – and can we rescue it?

The purpose of a public inquiry is to address public concern. Think of it as an opportunity to stand back and reflect; to consider all of the facts; and to arrive at a structural understanding of the problem, rather than a superficial one. The idea is to learn lessons so that there is no repetition.

That reflective exercise is what the sequence of events at Grenfell Tower demands. If they were torn from a Victorian novel, they would stretch credulity: but in the 21st century, in one of the wealthiest boroughs of one of the wealthiest cities of one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we would never countenance that such a thing could happen. Until it does.

Today, just three weeks on, we cannot have answers. But as a society we can have questions aplenty. Did the push for “value” cause officials to devalue what cannot be measured in currency? How, without legal aid, are the voiceless to be heard? Have we created a market that incentivises the weakening of building inspection regimes? And what about tenant management organisations: do they give a voice to social tenants, or merely play patsy to venal landlords?

But will the public inquiry answer these questions? The portents are poor. Speaking on the day his appointment as inquiry chair was leaked to the press, Martin Moore-Bick said: “I’ve been asked to undertake this inquiry on the basis that it would be pretty well limited to the problems surrounding the start of the fire and its rapid development … I would hope to be able to answer basic factual questions such as: how did the fire start, how did it spread, how was it able to engulf the whole of the building at such speed? And also questions such as what internal precautions there were, what steps were available for alerting residents and for allowing them to escape.”

We won’t, finally, know what Moore-Bick is to consider until we see his terms of reference. These are set by the minister when appointing the inquiry chair, or within a “reasonable time” thereafter. We haven’t seen them yet. But it’s hard to imagine they will differ much from those Moore-Bick foreshadowed.

If you assume he has correctly relayed his understanding, you should be alarmed. He is envisaging an inquiry that focuses on the immediate cause of the fire – a malfunction in a Hotpoint fridge freezer; how it spread so quickly; and the adequacy of the safety and evacuation procedures.

Of course, understanding what went wrong on the night of the blaze is important. But we must also understand the structural factors that generated these dangers: we must understand not only how the Grenfell disaster happened, but why it happened.

The Grenfell story is charged from many sources. The extent of the death toll – expected to be far higher than the official count so far. Its composition: the poor, the foreign, the elderly, the undocumented, the forgotten and the swept away. How the refurbishment budget was spent: so much on the exterior, beautifying the tower for the benefit of those looking from outside; so little on the interior, gas pipes left exposed and sprinklers unfitted, to the ultimate detriment of those living within it. These are the concerns of the public. These are the matters the public inquiry must consider.

We must not allow the government to pretend that the Grenfell disaster poses no questions about the value placed on residents’ lives; about the priorities of those who commissioned the works; about the structure of the management of social housing; and about the management of outsourced work.

And we must also give voice to the surviving residents of Grenfell Tower. It is a painful irony that Moore-Bick was appointed in the same week as we accepted, with the decision to prosecute, our decades of failure properly to investigate Hillsborough. Those failures began in 1989 with a controversial decision by the coroner to close off certain questions from proper investigation. It is vital that the terms of reference of the inquiry into the Grenfell disaster avoid any repetition.

The pleas of residents that refurbishment works had rendered their homes unsafe went unheard before the fire, so we owe it to survivors to hear them now: why were they ignored? By answering their questions, we give voice to the families of the dead. In this way an inquiry carries the power to heal – a process with a promise of resolution. To brush their questions aside is to pile insult upon injury.

We must not connive in an inquiry that fails to be inquisitive. If the government, for its own political convenience or otherwise, determines to push ahead regardless, and insists on an inquiry likely to produce only a superficial analysis of structural problems, then the residents of Grenfell should boycott it.