How can this judge deliver justice for the victims of Grenfell Tower?
The limited nature of the inquiry and Moore-Bick’s history raise doubts over whether decision-makers involved will be held accountable – and they must be
In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, following the initial emergency services effort accompanied by many impromptu volunteer relief efforts to assist the survivors of the lethal inferno, the public and victims are demanding information and legal action against those responsible. There is a clear case to investigate and prosecute. High-rise fires of this scale and lethality are not supposed to be possible. And very little assistance or information has been forthcoming from the authorities.
Even the most basic information is still absent. Nobody knows how many survived, how many were injured, or how many died. A more accurate number is officially expected in six months’ time.
Kensington and Chelsea council attempted to exclude the public and press from their initial meetings on the subject of the disaster yesterday, weeks after the event. When this was overturned by legal action from the press, the public meeting was quickly adjourned by the council.
While a public inquiry into the causes has finally been announced, the statements from the retired commercial law judge appointed to oversee it, Martin Moore-Bick, have been disappointing. The public investigation into the causes and chain of responsibility will be limited in thoroughness and scope: “I’ve been asked to undertake this inquiry on the basis that it would be pretty well limited to the problems surrounding the start of the fire and its rapid development in order to make recommendations about how this sort of thing can be prevented in future ... I’m well aware the residents and the local people want a much broader investigation and I can fully understand why they would want that. Whether my inquiry is the right way in which to achieve that I’m more doubtful,” he said, after a meeting with residents and survivors.
Further doubts about the inquiry have been raised due to a prior social housing case handled by Moore-Bick, which resulted in a decision which was later overturned by the supreme court: “[his decision] gave [Westminster council] the green light for social cleansing … setting a terrible precedent for local authorities to engage in social cleansing of the poor on a mass scale”, claimed the solicitor representing a council tenant made homeless after refusing to be moved to a location 50 miles outside London.
Will this investigation cover how the clear warnings of local action groups were ignored, warning of the chronic neglect and catastrophic disaster, with the only resulting action resulting being threatened legal action by the tenant management organisation and council to silence their concerns? Will it be a charade and a cover-up, investigating the disaster as though it were a freak accident that nobody anticipated?
Financial interests have increasingly set the agenda of public bodies in the UK
The worst fire in the UK in recent history is a lethal catastrophe, the burning alive and suffocation of the poorest and most vulnerable in their own homes at night, and it has taken place in one of the wealthiest boroughs of one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The borough is home to many globalised commercial interests, with huge influence and enormous wealth.
Around the world lethal and reprehensible conditions are permitted by wealthy elites operating from protected positions of financial privilege or bureaucracy. The death toll globally grows every year.
Underpinning all this is a thriving industry of legal services, PR, corporate espionage, “damage limitation” and “crisis management”, an ecosystem of commercial services for organisations to conceal damage and limit costs. Financial interests have increasingly set the agenda of public bodies in the UK, with “austerity” and “cost-cutting” excusing a relentless and incremental dissolution of the protections and services for the poorest and most vulnerable.
Who are the casualties of austerity? The survivors and the dead of Grenfell Tower are counted among them. There are doubtless many more. How many are yet to come if action is not taken?
Grenfell represents the systemic and globalised disregard for human life – a broad and global business agenda of prioritising profit and the privileged. So what might we expect from this government inquiry on the basis of this one incident?
The local authority must be held accountable for its descent into institutional incompetence, stonewalling of complaints, neglect and heartlessness, driven by the past decade’s national government agenda. This neglect is endemic from the cabinet to the local council level, and cannot go unpunished.