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Grenfell Inquiry report ‘a step towards justice’, says Bishop of Kensington

30 October 2019


Survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire appear at a press conference at Church House, Westminster, on Wednesday

Survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire appear at a press conference at Church House, Westminster, on Wednesday

BEREAVED families and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire will continue to look for answers, but the Inquiry report published this week is “hopefully a step towards justice”, the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, has said.

The Grenfell Inquiry was commissioned by the Government to investigate the circumstances surrounding the fire which destroyed the residential tower block in west London, killing 53 adults and 19 children, on 14 June 2017 (News, 16 June 2017).

The first report of its two-phase investigation was led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a retired high-court judge, and was published on Wednesday morning.

In four volumes of more than 1000 pages, his report details how the fire started, how it escaped from its origin in Flat 16, and how fire and smoke was able to spread throughout the building “in a manner and at a speed that prevented many people from escaping, despite the prompt attendance of the emergency services”.

It also examines the response of the emergency services.

The fire brigade is heavily criticised for continuing to tell residents to “stay put” for almost two hours while the fire spread. The report urges the Prime Minister to review building safety regulations, including the stay-put policy, which is based on the principle that fire doors and other safety measures should prevent fires from spreading between flats.

This compartmentalisation of the Grenfell fire failed and the policy became “untenable”, however, because of the intensity of the heat, which broke through windows, spreading from the outside of the building.

“Although some fire doors held back the smoke, others did not,” the report states. “Some were left open and failed to close because they lacked effective self-closing devices; others were broken down by firefighters or wedged open with firefighting equipment.”

Sir Martin concludes that fewer people would have died if the fire brigade had been more prepared. He also concludes, however, that “the principal reason why the flames spread so rapidly up, down and around the building was the presence of the aluminium composite material (ACM) rainscreen panels with polyethylene cores, which acted as a source of fuel.”

Dr Tomlin, who was with emergency services at the foot of the tower at it blazed, said on Wednesday: “The local community, the bereaved and survivors are looking for answers. What they are looking for is truth and justice. This report will hopefully get closer the truth of what happened that night however hard that will be to hear.

“It also is hopefully a step towards justice — putting things right for the future. They know this report won’t answer all of their questions, but they hope for some clearer recognition of where responsibility lies for the tragedy. They also are looking for the steps to be taken that ensure this will not happen again.”

He continued: “I spent much of the day after the fire with the firefighters and know first-hand the heroic and selfless way in which they went about an extraordinarily difficult task on that night.

“Yet, it does seem that there were failures of process and decision making at the higher level, and there are lessons to be learnt. The fire service seems to have been unprepared for an event of this scale, which seems strange. If lessons were not learnt after the Lakanal House fire of 2009, it is vital we learn the lessons and make the changes that Grenfell demands.”

In July 2009, a fire spread through several flats in Lakanal House, a twelve-storey tower block in Camberwell, London, killing six people and injured 20 others. Sir Martin uses as a case study the fire and the subsequent internal review by the London Fire Brigade of its policy.

“Despite changes in policy, similar shortcomings were displayed by the control room when responding to callers from Grenfell Tower,” he says.

Training and contingency planning for the evacuation of Grenfell Tower was lacking, he says, and there were “serious deficiencies in command and control”. “In some cases, basic information relating to the tower held by the LFB was wrong and in others it was missing altogether.”

Survivors and families have criticised the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, Dany Cotton, for defending the stay-put advice, and for her plans to retire in April on a £140,000 pension, before the second phase of the Inquiry has concluded.

The second phase of the Inquiry, which is due to conclude next year, is to “ascertain the underlying causes of the disaster, including the decisions made in relation to critical aspects of the design and construction of the cladding system, the adequacy of the regulatory regime and the response of central and local government”.

The Metropolitan Police are conducting a parallel investigation into whether any criminal offences have been committed by the people who were responsible for the design, maintenance, or construction of the building, including the addition — as part of its refurbishment shortly before the fire — of the now-banned AMC cladding.

Earlier this year, after pressure from bishops and campaigners, the Government agreed to foot the £200-million bill for remedial work on 170 tower blocks in the UK clad with the same materials which contributed to the Grenfell tragedy (News, 9 May). Dr Tomlin said that the report’s criticism of compliance to building regulations added “urgency to the call to ensure ACM cladding (and perhaps other types as well) on buildings across the UK is removed as soon as possible”.

Media reaction to the report sparked anger from the fire services, after The Daily Telegraph broke the Wednesday embargo and published its story early on Tuesday, focusing on the report’s criticism of the LFB’s response.

Other media outlets followed suit and the Inquiry released a statement which condemned the Telegraph for not giving families and relatives of the victims time to read and respond to the report before the media storm.

Dr Tomlin said: “This past week has been a difficult one for the bereaved families and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. The task of Phase 1 of the report was to establish what happened on the night of the fire, and will go into forensic detail on what happened, so it will bring back all kinds of memories for those whose lives were changed forever on that night as they relive their experiences.

“Survivors live with these memories all the time — as one bereaved father told me last week: ‘I feel like it happened yesterday.’

“In that context, it is unfortunate that various news outlets felt it right to publish details of the report without respecting the needs of the bereaved and survivors (who received the report on Monday) to have some time to process the report before it went public on Wednesday.”

The general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Matt Wrack, said: “Over the next two days please remember: Firefighters did not put flammable cladding on Grenfell Tower. Firefighters risked their own lives time and again during the fire. Government has done nothing substantive in 28 months.”

Dr Tomlin, who published his own report in June on the social legacy of Grenfell (News, 7 June), said that the Government must address “the deeper issue” of the “widespread neglect” of social housing over the past few decades.

“It has slipped down our list of priorities as a nation, with little effective opportunity for tenants to voice complaints or have a say in accommodation standards,” he said. “My own experience visiting families in temporary accommodation since the fire in the North Kensington area tells me that little has changed in this.

“If we believe that each person is created and loved by God and deserves to be treated with dignity and proper care, and that God has a special concern for those with little standing and power, we must move towards a better system of proper regulation of social housing, an effective system for tenants to have their concerns taken seriously — for social housing of the most vulnerable in our society to be the first thing we think about, not the last.

“While we all agree everyone should have access to adequate healthcare, education, and a pension, our undervaluing of social housing suggests we don’t think the same is true of our basic need for shelter and a place to call home, a place we can assume is dry, warm, safe and secure.”

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