Grenfell Tower inquiry chairman refuses to let residents who survived fire help assess evidence

‘I cannot take the course they wish me to adopt,’ says head of probe

Harriet Agerholm
Thursday 14 September 2017 18:44 BST
Campaigners say a socioeconomic perspective can only come from somebody with experience and understanding of how communities like North Kensington operate
Campaigners say a socioeconomic perspective can only come from somebody with experience and understanding of how communities like North Kensington operate

The chairman of an inquiry into the deadly fire at Grenfell Tower has refused calls to allow a survivor of the disaster to be part of a team assessing evidence.

Retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, who is leading the probe, acknowledged survivors’ concerns about the impartiality of the investigation, but said they could only provide evidence to the inquiry.

Issuing an opening statement at the Grand Connaught Rooms in central London, Sir Martin said: “I know that many of the survivors would like me to appoint someone from among their own number – or perhaps another resident – as one of my assessors.

“Many of them can, of course, provide valuable evidence and I shall ensure all their evidence is heard and carefully assessed.

“But to appoint someone as an assessor who has had direct involvement in the fire would risk undermining my impartiality in the eyes of others who are also deeply involved in the inquiry.

“I have therefore come to the conclusion that I cannot take the course that they would wish me to adopt.”

Instead, Sir Martin, a former judge at the Court of Appeal, said he would approach candidates who were entirely separated from the disaster.

Demonstrators gathered outside the building where Sir Martin made his address carrying banners that read: “Justice for Grenfell.”

Meanwhile, survivors and victims’ relatives watched a live feed of the statement from Notting Hill Methodist Church, where a silent march was planned on Thursday evening.

No evidence was heard during the opening to the inquiry, which is expected to deliver an interim report by Easter.

Sir Martin did not take any questions after delivering his statement and he was heckled as he left the room.

At least 80 people died in the blaze in North Kensington, which started in a fridge-freezer and spread rapidly through the 24-storey tower block.

Campaign group Justice for Grenfell acknowledged that the investigators conducting the probe should be independent, but said North Kensington residents should be involved in selecting the team.

“There are a range of diverse candidates who would be more than able to advise the chair [of] the real issues affecting communities … that Moore-Bick has no experience of,” said Yvette Williams, a coordinator of the group.

“His next constructive move should be to consult the community or ask for nominations of such candidates to assist. Only this will increase trust and confidence.

“His suggestion that he would approach individuals leaves open for interpretation that he’s looking for his friends to assist.”

She told The Independent: “A community perspective – a socioeconomic perspective as to what happened at Grenfell – is expert advice too. And you can only get that from somebody who has some experience and understanding of how communities like North Kensington operate.”

Beginning his address, Sir Martin called the Grenfell fire “a tragedy unprecedented in modern times”.

“We are acutely aware that so many people died and that many of those who survived have been severely affected,” he said.

“We are also conscious that many have lost everything.

“The inquiry cannot undo any of that, but it can and will provide answers to how a disaster of this kind could happen in 21st century London.”

The inquiry’s terms of reference, which have been approved by Theresa May, include: the cause and spread of the fire; the design, construction and refurbishment of Grenfell Tower; the scope and adequacy of fire safety regulations around high-rises; the actions of Kensington and Chelsea Council and other authorities before the tragedy; and how the fire service and the Government responded to the fire.

The scope of the inquiry has been fiercely criticised for failing to examine wider social housing policies. Campaigners have called for scrutiny of the systemic issues underlying the disaster.

But during his opening address, Sir Martin said the inquiry would address a broad range of issues, including the “motivations” for fitting the building with cladding blamed for spreading the flames.

“The terms of reference encourage a wide range of questions,” he said.

“I wish to emphasise that the inquiry is not limited to factual questions surrounding the development of the fire.

“It is my intention to look closely at the ways in which decisions relating to modifications of the building were reached – including the considerations which motivated them. That will be an integral part of understanding how and why this fire occurred.”

Sir Martin, who was chosen to lead the inquiry by the Prime Minister, has faced calls to stand down by survivors. Labour MP for Kensington Emma Dent Coad said the community needed someone they could trust, rather than a “technocrat” who lacked “credibility”.

Labour has told the Government the inquiry should not be used as a reason to delay improvement measures to tower blocks across the country.

On the eve of the inquiry’s opening, it emerged just 2 per cent of the UK’s social housing tower blocks had full sprinkler systems.

Almost 70 per cent of the council and housing association-owned blocks have only one staircase through which to evacuate.

The Independent reported on Wednesday that, three months on from the fire, more than 80 per cent of survivors had not been rehoused.

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