The Judge gets down to work but will he tells us what we need to know
The children set off back to school , the politicians return to Westminster and Sir Martin Moore-Bick steps into a palatial banqueting hall in Covent Garden to chair the first day of the Grenfell Tower inquiry.
I make no apology for returning to a subject that has haunted me all summer. The Notting Hill festival observes a minutes silence in memory of the victims . Alan Shearer manages a team in a charity football game for the survivors. Theresa May meets the tenants and makes an arbitrary announcement that the management company will be replaced. Sadiq Khan calls for a social housing czar who can put residents at the heart of decision making . The Metropolitan Police open a criminal enquiry. The cladding on a further 82 tower blocks fails fire safety tests. The story refuses to go away and Sir Martin Moore-Bick has not even taken his seat.
More people died as a result of fridge setting light than in all the terrorist outrages that have rocked this summer. Britain’s worst fire in a century is a tragedy of our own making. There is no external power or extremist ideology to blame. It is impossible to ignore and shames us all.
My barrister friend tells me that judges are best trained to establish the facts. If so, why does Sir Martin needs six months to produce an interim report when some questions seem easy to answer. Did the cladding comply with the fire regulations? Were the fire regulations too lax? Were the safety inspections carried out properly? Did the management company cut corners to save money? We have a right to know the answers quickly.
In an age when information flies round the world in seconds, a public inquiry is an antiquated and long winded way of establishing facts. A retired judge steeped in the establishment who made a controversial ruling against council house tenants three years ago may not give everyone confidence . There was a strong case for a representative panel of many voices but, for now, let Sir Martin get on with the job as quickly as he can.
Even Sir Martin accepts that a wider inquiry of a different nature is needed into the sad state of social housing in the country. This need not wait. In the days after the fire, Theresa May promised that “no stone will be left unturned” but has left her housing minister, Alok Sharma, to conduct an, as yet undefined, internal inquiry. This will not disturb a single pebble on the shore.
Something akin to the Hillsborough Independent Panel is needed to give a chance for experts, tenants and the aggrieved to be heard. Newcastle’s Sheila Spencer is just the sort of expert who is needed. There is no reason why this cannot be held on line or broadcast live and debated the length of the country. Step forward Joseph Rowntree Foundation to fund it. Anything else is obfuscation.
Grenfell Tower haunts me because it lifts the lid on the lives on people living in tower blocks and how we have failed them. Many will be unable to pay the rent because their benefits have been capped and some will live in fear of being tracked down by Border Force. It reminds me of the shock that greeted William Booth’s revelatory study of life in London slums in Victorian times. The well to do just did not know what life was like a stone’s throw away.
The botched handling of the days after the fire led to a collapse of trust between local people and those charged with looking after them; the Chief Executive who stayed in his office and the Prime Minister who did not speak to survivors. No wonder there is so much anger and bitterness.
One of those who died in Grenfell Tower was a 12 year old Muslim girl called Firdaws Hashim. She lived with her father on the 22nd floor. They were both identified using DNA. In his McTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, the journalist Jon Snow spoke of Firdow’s potential after awarding her a prize in a debating competition a few weeks previously. He went on to berate the media for insulating themselves from the harsh reality of life for people like Firdaws Hashim and for overlooking information about the hazards posted by residents months before the fire.
Journalists, Snow says, are losing touch with the disadvantaged and the excluded. The editor of The Journal entertains the widest range of political views in these columns but none of us can claim to be the voice of Cruddas Park or Meadowell.
I have not been too interested in the widespread floods in Texas because I expect the richest country in the world to put things right even though they failed to do so in New Orleans. I am dismayed at the comparative lack of coverage of the floods in India where far more people have been killed and displaced. We become immune to natural disaster and loss of life in places that do not look like home.
The week following the Twin Towers disaster, the Hexham Courant ran a headline that read ”Hexham man in twin towers the previous day”. I bet no one in Hexham has ever been in Grenfell Tower. We need to know what it is like but doubt whether Sir Martin will tell us.
Published in Newcastle Journal 5th September 2017