Theresa May and David Cameron should be called before the inquiry into the Grenfell disaster to account for missed opportunities to prevent it, councillors are demanding.
Labour councillors in Kensington and Chelsea made the call as part of a double-pronged move aiming to hold central and local governments to account for their “action or inaction” before and after the inferno that killed 72 people in June 2017.
Pat Mason, leader of the Labour group on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) council, said councillors are preparing for the launch of a people’s convention next month to scrutinise the response of the local authority, which has been heavily criticised in the wake of the tragedy.
In the same vein, he said they have called on the Grenfell public inquiry chief, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, to interrogate former prime ministers Mr Cameron and Ms May about “why they failed to take meaningful actions” that could have prevented the fire.
Mr Mason told The Independent the parallel moves are part of an “action plan” geared towards achieving justice for the Grenfell community.
In a letter to Sir Martin, seen by The Independent, he said ministers must now answer “why they failed to take meaningful actions to reform their not-fit-for-purpose fire and building regulations after the Lakanal House fire”, which he said “might have prevented other similar fires, including Grenfell”.
He told The Independent: “Sir Martin Moore-Bick needs to prove that he doesn’t believe ministers are above the law.”
Lakanal House, a residential high rise in Camberwell, London, went up in flames in 2009, killing six people, including a 20-day-old baby. Four years later, coroner Frances Kirkham made several recommendations to then-communities secretary Eric Pickles. These included “encouraging” housing providers to retrofit sprinklers in tower blocks, and a government review of fire safety guidance.
Cladding added to the Grenfell block in a refurbishment overseen by the council was later blamed for spreading the flames so quickly there was no time to get them under control. The intended improvements had in fact turned the tower block into a “death trap”, the inquiry has heard. Hundreds of buildings in the UK are still clad in similar material, and are likely to remain so for at least another 10 years.
As well as Mr Cameron and Ms May, the list of ministers and former ministers in the letter to Sir Martin Moore-Bick includes Mr Pickles, ex-MP Stephen Williams and former housing minister Brandon Lewis.
It also includes Gavin Barwell, who was minister for housing from 2016 to 2017, and who was awarded a life peerage in Ms May’s resignation honours list on Tuesday, which Mr Mason said was “scandalous given his failure to keep people in tower blocks safe”.
In response to calls for Mr Cameron and Ms May to be questioned about Grenfell, a statement from the inquiry said: “In line with the Inquiries Act 2005, the chairman will decide whom he wants to invite to give written or oral evidence (or both), irrespective of whether that person has been designated a core participant.
“Please be assured that the chairman is giving careful consideration to the witnesses that will be called in phase two of the inquiry and this will be made public in due course. Any decision to call a witness will be based on the evidence they may be able to provide as relevant to the issues being investigated by the inquiry in phase two.”
There have been no criminal charges relating to Grenfell so far and, according to a statement from the Metropolitan Police in March this year, none are expected until 2021.
The first phase of the probe, which took place over 123 days between May and December 2018, focused on finding out exactly what happened on 14 June. It heard 140 witness testimonies and received 500,000 documents relevant to both the first and upcoming second phase.
But bereaved families and survivors, who were expecting to hear the conclusions of what happened by spring this year, were outraged when it was announced the first report was to be pushed back to October.
This has caused a delay to the second phase of the inquiry, which will not now begin until January 2020 when it will focus on how Grenfell Tower was allowed to become such a risk to its inhabitants.
Mr Mason said the new North Kensington People’s Convention would work towards devolving powers to residents in the area and is a “response to RBKC’s failure to listen to the Grenfell bereaved families and survivors and the population of North Kensington”.
He added the plan to launch the convention was decided after 13 North Kensington Labour councillors voted to boycott RBKC’s new “Grenfell Community Assembly”, which the authority set up after scrapping a committee tasked with scrutinising its response to the fire.
Mr Mason said the replacement scrutiny system “is not fit for purpose, won’t properly hold the council leadership to account, and will not, as promised, put more power into local people’s hands”.
In a statement, RBKC council leader Elizabeth Campbell told The Independent: “After months of consultation and discussion, scrutiny of the council is being strengthened.
“Separate to our scrutiny committees, the new Grenfell Community Assembly will meet for the first time on 24 September and gives the opportunity for the community to ask questions and get answers they need directly from all the agencies involved in the Grenfell recovery.”
But Mr Mason said the Grenfell and wider North Kensington community did not ask for this change and did not want it. He said the Labour opposition has a “duty to scrutinise council decisions”.
The people’s convention, he said, would now “plan how we are going to force RBKC to listen to the voices of Grenfell and North Kensington”.
He said it would begin by asking residents what kind of devolution and council services they wanted, and would “challenge government to radically reform fire safety and building regulations, and campaign on soil contamination and social housing issues”.
The group will have its first meeting at the Maxilla Club in Ladbroke Grove on 9 October with speakers including Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad, Labour councillor Mohammed Bakhtiar, former Grenfell Recovery Scrutiny Committee chair Marwan Elnaghi, and former chair of the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee Kasim Ali.
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