In the days following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, more than 150,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the investigation must be “fully transparent and allow the meaningful participation of the affected residents, their families, and the surrounding community”. It reveals the depth of public mistrust of the official processes that deal with the aftermath of such public disasters.
The public are right to be suspicious when the leader of Kensington Council appeared to blame residents for the Grenfell Tower inferno. There was not a “collective view”, he said on Newsnight, that all the flats should be fitted with sprinklers because that would have delayed and made the refurbishment of the block more disruptive. Seriously?
We’ve been here before. After the Hillsborough disaster, inexcusably, the police, in shameful collusion with The Sun, blamed fans for that tragedy.
Over and over again, the bereaved and survivors have been blamed and excluded, most notoriously in the case of the Hillsborough disaster but also in the cases of the sinking of the MV Derbyshire and the Marchioness, among many other examples.
The problem is systemic. Terrible public tragedies such as Hillsborough and Grenfell Tower inevitably trigger calls for accountability and those in power who feel they might be held accountable use their positions to protect themselves. That’s what denied justice to the Hillsborough families for so long. That’s what happens when the needs and wishes of victims and the bereaved are relegated to the sidelines.
Of course the interests of justice would not be served by removing altogether the impartial state from the response to public disasters. But there needs to be a better balance between the objective discharge of justice and protecting the interests and feelings of the bereaved.
Paul Lambert of the Derbyshire Families Association has described those families’ quest for truth as like being outside a glass bubble, seeing the official response to the disaster going on inside and being helpless to redress any wrongs. Existing systems forget what ought to be a fundamental principle for all politicians: the state serves the people, not the other way round.
At last, the Government has recognised the problem and the Queen’s Speech contains a welcome proposal to set up a public advocate. It appears to be based on a private members’ bill I introduced in the House of Lords in 2014, based on my work setting up the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which aimed to set up an independent, but government funded, advocate to support bereaved families through official processes such as inquests and any public inquiry.
These are turbulent times in British politics but I hope that this will not prevent this much needed reform from making a rapid passage on to the statute book. The Hillsborough families campaigned for justice for a quarter of a century and the Public Advocate Bill is rooted in their experience. If it becomes law, it will be a fitting legacy for their extraordinary persistence and dignity and solidarity by ensuring that future victims of public disasters will never again have to suffer for so long.
Michael Wills is a Labour peer and former justice minister
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