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No smokescreens

08 June 2018

PUBLIC inquiries deal with two matters: knowledge — uncovering the facts of what went wrong; and acknowledgement — affirming that what happened was significant. The Grenfell Tower inquiry began with the latter, allowing relatives and friends to commemorate the 72 people who lost their lives in the fire on 14 June 2017. This created the context for the detailed technical discussions that now follow. When fault is being measured in minutes and millimetres, it is possible to lose sight of the devastating consequences of materials that were “non-compliant”. The innocent-sounding phrase is used repeatedly by Dr Barbara Lane, a fire-safety engineer, in her report to the inquiry, published on Monday. In the refurbishment of the tower block in 2016, the rainscreen cladding, the window surrounds, the fire doors, the dry-riser water system, the smoke extractors, and the lifts were all described in this way.

Those seeking to find someone to blame have plenty to choose from, therefore: manufacturers, suppliers, installers, building managers, possibly even inspectors. Guilt stretches its fingers towards the planning committee who stipulated the use of the cladding; to the gas company whose contractors had to dig three exploratory holes in the ground before they were able to shut off the gas to the burning building; to whoever was responsible for not repairing the smoke-alarm system when a fault was reported eight days before the fire. The danger with so many targets is that each may try to hide behind the others. Among the lawyers representing companies implicated in the fire were several representing groups of survivors. Stephanie Barwise QC talked of an “inhumane” silence from contractors and sub-contractors. “The corporate silence deprives the families of the degree of resolution and understanding to which they are entitled and has only served to increase their pain and uncertainty.”

Paradoxically, this silence is eating into any sympathy that the public might have for those responsible for the fire. For it is possible to feel sorry for the men and women who know or suspect that their actions, or inaction, contributed to the vulnerability of the building and its inhabitants. The criminal investigation, conducted in parallel with the public inquiry, will not conclude before 2019 at the earliest. It is a long time to wait for exoneration. It is a long time, too, to live under a cloud, prevented from confessing a known fault by corporate lawyers, and thus deprived of the possibility of forgiveness. The same goes for the firefighters, who must live knowing that they could have saved many more people had they not contributed to the one act of compliance on the night: adhering to the “stay-put” guidance until it was too late for those on the upper floors. As Philip Weatherby QC, another representative of the survivors, said on Tuesday: “This not a moment for technicalities; it is a time for candour and frankness.”

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