Concerns have been raised that a public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire could potentially be a “whitewash” as it will be Government-led and as such will not have the independence of an inquest.
More than 50,000 people have signed a petition calling for an inquest to be held instead of a public inquiry, which Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Thursday.
The solicitor who represented bereaved relatives in the inquests following the Lakanal House fire said she believed the sudden decision to call a public inquiry was a deliberate attempt to avoid close scrutiny of the various public bodies involved in the running and maintenance of Grenfell Tower.
Sophie Khan told the BBC’s Newsnight: “In an inquest, they lose control of what a jury verdict will do. The juries will come out with narrative verdicts which may be very difficult for the Government to hear.
“You can’t have both, you can only have one or the other.”
An inquest into the death would almost certainly have been jury-led because of the possible involvement of public bodies in the deaths, and guided by a coroner who acts independently of the Government. But inquests do not go ahead once a public inquiry has been announced.
The petition on change.org states: “Theresa May’s decision to carry out a public inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy ensures that the Government has control over any uncomfortable revelations about the negligence and poor planning of the Grenfell estate by the Tory-run Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
“Bu choosing a PUBLIC INQUIRY the government protects itself as well as those who should be held accountable. It also blocks any possibility of an INQUEST from taking place: the necessary process would unearth the true causes of the fire for the public interest.”
Started by Andrew Gow, the petition urges signees to: “Prevent the Government from whitewashing the truth and keeping the UK’s planning and regulation laws in the dark ages any longer. Stand with the residents of Grenfell as well as the residents of the UK’s 4,000 other tower blocks and make sure this does not happen again.”
In a public inquiry, surviving residents of the fire and bereaved families will not have the right to participate and ask questions.
In an inquest, they would be able to question the coroner and witnesses and even to call their own expert witnesses with agreement. An inquest is not a trial, although criminal proceedings can result from their findings and from the findings of public inquiries.
Multiple private and public organisations will be probed at the inquiry, with the question as to how the fire was able to engulf the entire tower so quickly at the forefront of people’s minds.
With the death toll almost certain to rise above the figure of 30 already confirmed, the instruction given to residents to remain in their flats will be examined.
Former housing ministers are likely to come under scrutiny after it emerged reports recommending the installation of sprinklers into tower blocks were sat on. Kensington and Chelsea council, which owned the 24-story building, will be one of the public bodies with questions to answer, as will the company KCTMO, which managed the tower on the council’s behalf.
And private companies, including the building companies and sub-contractors who carried out recent renovations to the tower, and the manufacturer of the cladding suspected of having caused the rapid spread of the fire, will also be under investigation.
London Fire Brigade will also have to explain its actions after residents were instructed to remain in their flats after the blaze broke out in the early hours of the morning.
The public inquiry was announced amid growing public anger after the initial shock of the fire. A police-led investigation into the fire is currently ongoing and it is likely to be some time until the inquiry takes place.
Ms May said: “Right now people want answers, and it’s absolutely right, and that’s why I am today ordering a full public inquiry into this disaster. We need to know what happened; we need to have an explanation of this, we owe that to the families. To the people who have lost loved ones, friends, and the homes in which they lived.”
An inquest was carried out into the six deaths in the 2009 Lakanal House fire in Southwark, but the recommendations of the coroner - including the installation of sprinklers - were not acted on by a majority of councils, including Kensington and Chelsea. Southwark Council was subsequently taken to court for being in breach of safety regulations by the London Fire Brigade and fined £570,000.
The Lakanal families’ solicitor Ms Khan said: “Questions have to be asked as to how, after a very detailed inquest, a narrative verdict and a rule 43 report to the Government, why this could happen again.”
She said she did not believe a public inquiry is the best way to get to the truth of the matter.
“That’s not the right way. The right way is inquests. The families have a right to participate, they have a right to cross-examine, they have the right to out questions to all the experts, they are even able to get their own experts if the coroner gives permission.”
She added: “The Coroner is independent of the Government. In a public inquiry, it is very much Government-led, Government controlled, Government outcome.”
Ms Kahn said that in her view, the tragedy of Grenfell Tower was “avoidable” had sprinklers been fitted to the flats.
“The sprinkler, even though they wouldn’t have saved the building, they would have saved the people inside the building. It would have given them time to get out,” she said.
She urged residents to “demand” an inquest. “I’m very concerned as to why Mrs May came out so quickly to say, ‘public inquiry’. What is there that she knows that needs to be hidden?”
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