Grenfell Towers: Beware the culture of denial and institutional defensiveness

Photo: Grenfell Action Group

In the immediate aftermath of the terrible disaster at Grenfell Towers Pete Weatherby QC from Garden Court North Chambers provides his view on what urgent steps must be taken next

Now the valiant rescue efforts of firefighters, paramedics and other emergency services has come to an end and we are told that the recovery process may well take weeks, searching questions are starting to be asked and the Government has been forced to announce a full public inquiry.  In an area of London which has both conspicuous wealth and obvious poverty was it mere coincidence the disaster occurred in social housing populated by some of the most disadvantaged in our society?  Was the disaster in fact caused or contributed to by austerity, indifference to safety and regulation, privatisation and costs-driven corner cutting?  Or was this simply an ‘act of God’, an unavoidable accident?

With the horror of the disaster still raw, all of our thoughts will be with the bereaved and injured at this time.  In particular our thoughts will be with those going through the extreme distress of not yet knowing whether their loved ones survived.  But as the immediate shock and horror subsides, the above questions will require straightforward and candid answers.  Most urgently the hundreds of thousands of people who live in the 6,000+ tower blocks across the country will require and demand reassurance, relocation and safety changes without delay.  There will be criminal investigations too into gross negligence manslaughter, corporate manslaughter and H&S offences.

The key issues the public inquiry will have to determine must include:

  • why clear warnings by residents and their action group, regarding serious fire safety failings, were apparently ignored?
  • did legal aid cuts prevent residents from being able to access expert advice as to action they could have taken?
  • did the local authority discharge their duties of care to the residents or were corners cut because of spending cuts?
  • was the privatisation of the management of the block a factor?
  • did the block have an appropriate fire safety certificate and if so, how, given the obvious safety issues?
  • were there failings in the safety supervision of the block by the fire and regulatory authorities?
  • why was there no sprinkler system, particularly given the Coroner’s recommendations following the 2009 Lakanal House disaster?
  • were there fire alarms?  If so, why did they apparently not work?  If there were no alarms, why not?
  • was safety advice to residents appropriate: in particular the standing instruction for residents to remain in their flats in the event of fire?
  • was the composition of the cladding appropriate given that the TV footage appears to show it burning and rapidly spreading the fire up the building?  Was it appropriately fixed to the building or did it create a flue effect?  Did it create the same problems as were apparent in the Melbourne and Dubai tower block tragedies?
  • were there other technical deficiencies which contributed to the disaster, for example, inadequate means of turning off the gas main and inadequate provision of water hydrants to upper floors?
  • did cuts to essential services affect the efficiency with which they were able to respond?  The heroism of the firefighters, paramedics and police should not be allowed to conceal serious resourcing problems.  Did austerity cost lives?

There are important lessons to be learned from other disasters.  Hillsborough has highlighted the need for the bereaved to be fully and effectively involved in the investigations and public inquiry.  The key to that is provision of expert legal advice and representation on a level playing field with the public authorities and companies involved.  It is of note that various of those companies and authorities have already put out statements of condolences often adding that – by the way, in case anyone was asking –  they have complied with all regulations.  Deny first and investigate later.  Whether authorities and contractors have acted within the law, within regulations and so far as they could ensured public safety will be determined by the inquiry but there is a culture of public authorities and private entities immediately denying any responsibility for disasters.  A culture of denial and institutional defensiveness.

One of the key lessons from Hillsborough was that some of the main authorities covered up what had happened and continued to deny their responsibility for decades thereafter.  That led to a shocking and iconic miscarriage of justice which persisted for more than 25 years.  Following the conclusion of the Hillsborough inquests in 2016, the bereaved families have been trying to persuade Government to enact the Public Authorities (Accountability) Bill 2017 (or the Hillsborough Law) which creates clear legal obligations for all those involved in a disaster to come clean and disclose all relevant information and documents and to set out what in their view went wrong.  A wilful misleading of the public would expose chief executives and chief officers to criminal sanction.  Hillsborough Law also provides a means for bereaved families to take action to require such disclosure and, crucially, it requires similar provision for legal advice and representation as public authorities involved in the disaster.

‘Hillsborough Law’ has attracted cross-party support and had its first reading – unopposed – on 29 March 2017.  The legislative process was halted by the general election but this new terrible disaster provides further reason why the Government should adopt the Bill and pass it into law as soon as possible. The bereaved need the law to be on their side and they need the scales of justice to be equally balanced.

North Kensington Law Centre has taken a lead in trying to organise and provide assistance to the bereaved and injured and all those who have lost their homes.  Lawyers across the country will add their offers of support to such a tremendous effort and it is to be hoped that the police and Coroner and other agencies will refer victims to the charity INQUEST which provides practical advice and assistance to those bereaved in disasters and other contentious deaths and will refer people on to specialist lawyers.  INQUEST is also well placed to raise with Government the needs of the bereaved in respect of such provision.
Pete Weatherby has represented bereaved in disasters and other suspicious circumstances at inquests and public inquiries for 25 years, including leading the team representing 22 of the bereaved Hillsborough families


Author: Pete Weatherby QC

Pete practices mainly in human rights, public, prison, inquest and criminal law. Pete led the team representing 22 of the bereaved Hillsborough families at the Warrington Inquests

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