When the ongoing Grenfell Inquiry was last covered as part of Thompsons’ blog series back in February 2020 (The Grenfell Tower Inquiry: who will take responsibility?), Phase 2 hearings had only recently begun. The Phase 1 report had been published in October 2019 and contained a description of the events of 14th June 2017, including a detailed account of that night, conclusions regarding how the fire broke out, and the actions of emergency responders.
The intention of Phase 2 is to investigate the liability of all organisations involved either in the refurbishment of the building or attending at the fire.
During the first week of Phase 2 hearings at the end of January 2020, corporate witnesses – individuals from architectural and building firms involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, including those from the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation – received an undertaking from the Attorney General that any evidence they gave to the Inquiry would not be used as evidence in any criminal prosecution of them at a later date. The decision to give such an undertaking was made to compel those witnesses to answer questions they would have otherwise refused to answer for fear of self-incrimination, and therefore keep the Inquiry process moving. Such a significant compromise has been met with outrage and described as “abhorrent” and “highly disingenuous” by lawyers representing the 72 victims and their families.
A police investigation is ongoing into manslaughter and corporate manslaughter charges and, at the time the undertaking was announced, assurances were given that the investigation would not be compromised. It is difficult to see how this can be the case given that none of the individuals at the heart of the flawed decision making which occurred can ever be prosecuted.
Of course, lockdown restrictions were imposed in March 2020 and the Inquiry was halted. During the course of the Inquiry up to that date, more than 250 other buildings with the same cladding which caused the spread of the fire at Grenfell were identified, and progress to make them safe was similarly stopped in March. The deadline for replacement of cladding on those buildings had been fixed at June 2020, the third anniversary of the fire; a deadline which has come and gone with no sign of action.
The Inquiry was able to start hearings again in July this year, albeit under strict conditions to ensure compliance with Covid-19 restrictions. Evidence has indeed been given by individuals who consulted with or were employed by the contractors responsible for the refurbishment and to date the picture which emerges is at best one of extreme negligence, with fire safety issues being overlooked or dismissed, emails outlining concerns being missed or left unread, and guidance being misunderstood. Worse are the accusations and redirecting of blame between the witnesses heard since the Inquiry re-opened in July, each passing off the responsibility to make adequate safety checks onto another party.
Most recently is the news that one project manager destroyed her notes on her work after the fire occurred, apparently assuming they’d be “documented elsewhere”. Another design manager wiped all relevant files from his devices after leaving that job before the fire occurred.
Unsurprisingly the emerging witness evidence has done nothing to comfort or reassure the survivors and families of victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, nor indeed those living in the hundreds of other affected buildings who now live in fear and are unable to sell their homes without a fire safety report.
Accusations that the mishandling of the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower is an example of institutional racism have persisted since June 2017. It has been pointed out numerous times that Grenfell, and other similar tower blocks, are occupied largely by working class people of colour, and the buildings have not been maintained properly. The investigation into the fire is not just a criminal and civil issue, it is highly political. Assurances from the current Government that the Inquiry’s Phase 1 report recommendations will be implemented has been met with outrage given the lack of action to date, which does nothing to answer the accusations of institutional racism. There has been strong criticism from the opposition at the apparent lack of “political will” to make the necessary changes.
The question posed in the first blog on this issue was “who will take responsibility?” The answer emerging from the Phase 2 hearings so far, disappointingly, is no-one. The real fact remains however that hundreds of people are still at risk due to negligence and inaction and, regardless of where liability may lie, they cannot be left to continue living in unsafe housing.
The Inquiry continues amid changing lockdown restrictions and it remains to be seen what its Phase 2 findings will be. It can only be hoped that they bring some level of peace of mind as well as real change.
Blog by Shona Cocksedge, Solicitor