09:53, September 14 320 0 theguardian.com

2018-09-14 09:53:26
A year into the Grenfell inquiry, the families have been failed again

When the Grenfell Tower inquiry opened, one year ago today, the mood was still one of shock: how could a fire like this happen, how could it wipe out whole families and devastate a community, in this country, in the 21st century? There was scepticism as the inquiry opened, with most survivors still homeless and many bereaved still waiting for forensic investigations before they could bury their loved ones. The first hearing ended with Michael Mansfield QC shouting questions at inquiry chair Martin Moore-Bick’s retreating figure. Lawyers for the families – and the families themselves – were not invited to speak.

Since then, although there has been progress, it has been an uphill struggle for bereaved, survivors and residents, or BSRs. The bereaved were forced to campaign. Requests for a panel to sit alongside the judge were initially rejected by Theresa May days before Christmas last year, and granted only when parliamentary advocacy reached its peak (under the Inquiries Act 2005, the panel was not in the chairman’s gift). Lawyers and Inquest, a charity that provides expertise on state-related deaths, negotiated “pen portraits”, which humanised the process, and placed the deceased at the heart of the proceedings.

There have been signs of promise. The inquiry has run three procedural hearings, set up premises, commissioned expert reports, listened to 42 days of evidence, and disclosed 18,000 documents out of 378,000 so far received. The evidence-hearing stage opened with two weeks of commemoration hearings, using pen portraits to put the deceased at the centre, and setting out what Danny Friedman, QC, called a gold standard.

This format has since been used at the Westminster Bridge inquests.

Responding to submissions from lawyers, the chairman has also just granted a new process to tie together information about each of the deceased and ensure that the inquiry meets obligations under the Human Rights Act. This should ensure that families do not also go through inquests.

Grenfell Tower inquiry: victims' families pay powerful tributes - video

And yet the inquiry is still marked by a sense of conflict and disappointment. Last week, in a procedural hearing called by lawyers for bereaved families, barristers raised many concerns . On Thursday, Moore-Bick responded to the lawyers’ submissions: the answer, to almost all of them, was no. No urgent recommendations before the end of phase 1 (although he did agree to ask for an update into what public bodies such as the London fire brigade are doing to improve safety). There will be no change of venue, and no direct questioning of witnesses by families’ lawyers.

These refusals risk undermining the fragile trust built during the commemoration hearings. The inquiry seems to have forgotten the reasons why it needs to work hard to build that trust – because these families have already been failed. It needs to learn the lessons it set out so well during the commemorations.

According to Deborah Coles at Inquest: “This is a public inquiry of national importance, and getting to the truth of what happened is of benefit to us all. After all the promises of an inquiry process that would deliver truth and have bereaved and survivors at its heart as active participants, the reality is very different. Their voices continue to be silenced, their concerns ignored. Without the confidence and meaningful participation of those most affected, the inquiry will continue to lack legitimacy and will be flawed.” The inquiry team told me: “We do not recognise this description of the inquiry. The secretary to the inquiry has set out the steps the inquiry has taken to ensure effective participation by all core participants – which can be viewed here.”

Whether the inquiry recognises it or not, it seems there is still a major issue not just about what it is trying to do but how it is doing it. What is being asked for is relatively straightforward, and – dare I say it – basic. The hearing room is small and cramped. A different floor at Holborn Bars, where the inquiry is located, was the first family and friends assistance centre for bereaved families, and holds many painful associations. Holborn Bars itself is open to the public – downstairs, after a day of listening to harrowing evidence about your deceased relative trapped in a smoke-filled flat, you might also encounter an office party, with buckets of champagne on ice. The inquiry published a list of venue requirements in June; but there is, apparently, no venue in west London that meets these.

In a statement by email, the inquiry secretary said: “Making the public inquiry as accessible as possible and providing the appropriate facilities is a priority. We have carefully considered a number of alternative venues to Holborn Bars over the last few months – including all those kindly suggested to us – but none have met our requirements. That continues to be the position.”

Then there is disclosure of evidence. The inquiry is asking families and their lawyers to take it on trust that they have disclosed everything they need to see right now. In a submission last week, Pete Weatherby QC said that only 5% of documents the inquiry currently holds have been disclosed to lawyers acting for families. There have been issues getting hold of “basic materials such as CCTV footage”, and of lists of documents that might be made available in other cases (such as the list of BSRs who might give evidence, or the list of documents the London fire brigade has provided to the inquiry). The inquiry has dismissed this, saying: “The vast majority of documents relevant to phase 1 have been disclosed. There have been over 50 tranches of disclosure made to core participants to date, comprising in excess of 18,000 documents.” But people have different ideas about what is “relevant”, and there is a danger that material will surface in time that undermines the process.

And perhaps what is most surprising, given the prime minister’s early assurances that no stone would be left unturned, is that families’ representatives are not allowed to ask direct questions of witnesses, and that when they themselves are questioned, it will not be by someone who knows them and their stories intimately, but by the inquiry’s own lawyers.

In last week’s submissions, Leslie Thomas QC said: “There have been several public inquiries – Baha Mousa, Al-Sweady, Litvinenko, Azelle Rodney, Anthony Grainger – all of these public inquiries allowed the lawyers for the core participants to ask some questions … Our clients are entitled to effective participation … Our question is, do they have effective participation if all the questioning is done through your own counsel?”

As the process of taking evidence speeds up, we have just begun to hear the first conflicting accounts between survivors and firefighters. We have heard that survival depended on slips of paper, that communications did not work, that firefighters and control room operators were working in impossible conditions as a result of materials added to the building that are still available to buy. Lives were saved or lost in these moments. Public safety demands prompt recommendations, full and effective questioning, with proper participation and disclosure.

Those of us present at the inquiry have watched the number of attendees reduce day by day. There are more lawyers than survivors. At the moment, the processes of justice are being administered in a cramped room where the bereaved sit in close proximity to lawyers acting for those whose actions or inaction may have contributed to the death of their families or friends. In response to the chairman’s ruling, Shahin Sadafi, chair of the Grenfell United, said: “We were told this public inquiry would be for us – to hear our voices, give us answers and to learn lessons, so a tragedy like this can never happen again. What we have is a lawyers’ inquiry that we struggle to attend and participate in. We are upset that once again basic requests, that we shouldn’t have to ask for, are being denied and ignored.”

It is easy to be outraged when it comes to Grenfell – about the injustice, the suffering, the loss of life and privacy, the seemingly endless chain of consequences. With the costly and lengthy Bloody Sunday inquiry hanging over them, it is easy to see why the inquiry would be tempted to exercise tight control over the process. And yet by not listening to concerns about participation, by refusing to allow flexibility in questioning, by not disclosing material relating to phase 2 now to allow sufficient time to prepare and make sure nothing is missed, the inquiry is asking those who have been failed by power to trust in the powerful. It is an unacceptable ask.

The dead cannot give evidence. They cannot tell us what happened, or correct mistaken witnesses. They cannot tell us how they were failed. That is what an inquest is for, and that is what this inquiry must do. The state is investigating deaths in the public realm. The state should be as open and transparent as possible. It is not too late to change this, and to adopt a more transparent way of working. For those who died, and for those who are trying to rebuild their lives, we should demand nothing less.

Seraphima Kennedy is a writer and academic researcher and a former neighbourhood officer at Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation