Public and private bodies criticised for ‘lack of candour’ during Grenfell probe

Grenfell Tower in west London Credit: David Mirzoeff/PA

Grenfell families have hit out at the “amnesia fix” of corporations during the public inquiry, and called the delay in bringing in urgent fire safety recommendations a farce.

Private companies and public authorities who gave evidence last year were criticised for their “lack of candour” by bereaved families who called the approach “disrespectful”.

Individuals from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council, the tenant management organisation (TMO) responsible for the tower, police and fire service were quizzed during the inquiry’s first phase, while corporations involved in the refurbishment of the high-rise provided statements.

A report by the charity Inquest, Family reflections on Grenfell: no voice left unheard, brought together bereaved families to reflect for the first time at a consultation day in February.

Some 38 family members from 21 families attended, while others contributed in interviews and a survey, with the final report informed by the families of 55 of the 72 victims.

All contributions were anonymised.

One respondent said: “We all have lapses in memory. The bereaved and families from our side who went up to give evidence had an extraordinary level of recollection.

“In comparison the corporate entities had an amnesia fix. The chair should have been stronger to say, ‘you have to try and recall’.

“That’s such a disrespectful approach to those who have been affected.”

Another person said: “It feels like certain people are being let off the hook, not being asked important questions. Now the first phase is finished. We don’t feel satisfied.”

The families have criticised the informal mechanism by which their lawyers can raise questions they want asked of witnesses with the inquiry counsel – by passing them post-it notes.

A further attendee said they were frustrated with witnesses saying “I don’t recall”, equating it to “no comment”.

The families are calling for public and private bodies to adopt a duty of candour and sign up to the charter for families bereaved through public tragedy, which the local council has already adopted.

They also want an independent panel to be put in place before hearings resume next year, a venue layout that keeps families at the centre of proceedings and the Government to help workers attend the inquiry without losing their annual leave.

An interim report is due to be released by the inquiry in spring, but the Grenfell community has been given no firm date yet.

Anyone criticised in the report will be offered advance right of reply through a process known as Maxwellisation.

Inquest also identified “outrage and exasperation” that interim safety recommendations suggested by lawyers representing the families have so far failed to be implemented.

These include abandoning the “stay-put” policy for buildings over 10 storeys, and ensuring each London borough has an aerial ladder.

Sir Martin Moore-Bick, chairman of the Grenfell public inquiry Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

In its most recent update, the inquiry said chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick was “considering the range of suggestions made by expert witnesses and legal representatives”.

But one bereaved family member said she was “disgusted” at the lack of progress in making high-rise tenants safe.

Others appreciated the process may take longer than hoped, warning against a “rushed inquiry”.

The report also focused on the immediate aftermath of the fire on June 14, 2017, which led to 72 deaths.

One Grenfell survivor who requested financial help from her key worker in the days after was told the money was coming out of their pay packet.

She said her key worker, provided by the local council, told her: “The money we’re giving you is coming from our salaries”.

Grenfell United, a campaign group representing survivors and the bereaved, called the report a “compelling piece of work we hope will contribute to much needed and lasting change to how we deal with disasters and disaster management”.

Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, said: “There were systemic failings before, during and after the disaster and families feel disconnected from a process that has still not delivered a panel, interim recommendations and where their lawyers’ voices have been sanitised.

“They are in a state of limbo with no clear timeframes which exacerbates mental and physical ill health.

“It is high time the inquiry team and the Government listened to these voices and provide an inclusive and truthful inquiry that delivers structural change and accountability. This should be the lasting legacy of Grenfell.”

An inquiry spokeswoman said the team would continue to publish information and meet core participants, adding: “Making the inquiry as accessible as possible has always been a priority.

“The inquiry has welcomed feedback and made changes as a result, including changes to the layout of the hearing room, providing additional facilities, and finding a new location for the inquiry in west London.”

Councillor Elizabeth Campbell, leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, said: “It is a tragedy that must never happen again, whatever it takes and whatever the consequences for all authorities.

“We will not be defensive, we are a public authority, and we want the clear and unvarnished truth for the victims and the bereaved.”