A barrister representing survivors, families and victims of the Grenfell Tower fire today said the disaster had been a ‘profound breach of the universal human right to an adequate home’ and urged the inquiry panel to ‘have the courage’ to ‘expose wrongdoing’.
Leslie Thomas QC suggested a dismissive attitude towards those living in tower blocks, driven by inaccurate stereotypes, had ‘allowed the cost cutting and the use of deadly materials to become normalised’ in their management and refurbishment, leading to the tragic fire.
He said the inquiry must now hold all involved fully to account if it is to deliver any justice for those who had lived there, saying it must not be allowed to become a ‘white wash’ where residents, the bereaved and survivors do not get the answers they need.
“You and your team carry a huge burden on your shoulders during this inquiry,” he told panel chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick.
“Our clients want to whole truth. If there was wrongdoing on the part of individuals, any corporate body or otherwise from the top down, they want that wrong doing properly scrutinised, fairly examined and rightfully exposed.
“On behalf of the families, the survivors, the dead, we will not permit and stand idly by and allow the wretched souls lost on that fateful night to have passed without a proper accounting for their lives which were prematurely extinguished by toxic smoke, fumes, and fire.
“You and your team have to understand as I am sure you do, that our duty to those who died, those who survived, their families, loved ones and friends, and the wider community is to collectively demand and pursue doggedly, fearlessly and determinedly to expose the truth.
“We trust and hope that during this inquiry we will be permitted to ask proper and relevant questions – and we are mindful to remind this inquiry that should the residents, bereaved and survivors not be allowed to ask proper and relevant questions, this inquiry has the danger of having the perception of becoming a ‘white wash’
“If the residents, bereaved and survivors are told you can not ask questions through their own lawyers in this inquiry, that perception will be perpetuated. A powerless group of people will be rendered a voiceless group of people. Insult will be added to grave injury.”
Barrister says inquiry must uncover ‘the whole truth’ and ‘hold those responsible to account’
Mr Thomas is instructed by Cyrilia Davies Knight, of Hudgell Solicitors, representing 14 survivors, residents and bereaved family members and loved ones at the inquiry.
He calling its legacy to ‘go beyond a focus on fire safety in tower blocks and recommend that ‘the right to adequate housing is enshrined in our law’.
Mr Thomas said the inquiry should focus on the recent refurbishment to and cladding of the building, the inadequacy of fire safety measures, the ‘gross mismanagement’ of the building by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation [the KCTMO] and others and the treatment of ordinary citizens ‘by the corporates and public bodies alike.’
He said laws should have been in place which would have ‘required the public bodies involved to explain at the time why it was considered acceptable to recklessly cut costs when refurbishing a publicly owned building in the richest borough in the sixth richest country in the world.’
“Those responsible for allowing this situation to get to the stage where 72 souls were lost in the most horrendous and awful way, should hang their heads in collective shame,” he told the panel.
“Needless to say, it is absolutely imperative that this inquiry identifies the failures that caused the loss of life and terrible harm to many others. Equally important, all those responsible must be held to account.
“Whilst those responsible for the refurbishment may dispute just how unsafe they made Grenfell Tower, it is incontrovertible that the Tower was intentionally rendered significantly less safe by the introduction of highly flammable material to its structure and exterior.
“We do not yet know everything about what happened, but it would seem that this fact was never communicated to the London Fire Brigade. The fire-safety of several hundred people deliberately compromised in their own homes and yet the public servants ultimately responsible for protecting them in the event of a fire are simply never told, still less consulted.
“As for the corporates, silence speaks a thousand words. The state may have failed to protect the residents of Grenfell from dangerous costs cuts and penny-pinching but have no doubt the Inquiry will not stop there, for we shall not let it. Any attempt to mislead or distract, rewrite history or blame others in an attempt to conceal the truth, will be met with unwavering resistance.”
Residents were not consulted over refurbishment, leaving some at greater risk
Mr Thomas questioned whether the refurbishment of the tower, completed just over a year before the fire, had been done in the best interests of the residents themselves, highlighting that they were not consulted about the changes.
“A legitimate question to ask whether the money spent on the tower was not for the residents but for more wealthy people living in the borough, so that the tower was more aesthetically pleasing to them,” he said.
“One of our clients was retired, elderly and blind. He lived on the 11th floor, which was the 8th floor before the refurbishment, and had lived there for 36 years. He could work his way around prior to the refurbishment. However, there was no consultation with him about his needs, signage or allowances for him and his disability as a part of the process of the refurbishment.
“On the night of the fire his daughter in law rang 999 at least four times. She was told to tell him to get out if he could. He could not as it was. Let us reflect upon what that means, he was condemned to die.
“Some of the residents on the top floors of Grenfell Tower had disabilities. Why were persons with disability, which affected their mobility housed on the top floors, where in the event of fire there were no means of evacuation in the event the lifts failed?
“Additionally, in terms of fire-fighting response, there were no fire hoses long enough to extend from the ground to fight fires on the upper floors.
“The big question that we want this inquiry to at least consider is did the fact that the residents were predominantly poorer members of the borough, contribute to the incident?
“Were cheaper cladding and less safe material used? If so, who took those decisions and why?
“There is no inherent problem with tower blocks – they are the foundation of many strong neighbourhoods and communities. People enjoy living in them. Grenfell Tower was part of a strong and vibrant community in Lancaster West Estate and North Kensington. The problem is poorly maintained tower blocks.
“The tower was meant to be building regulation compliant but it so obviously was not. As part of its legacy the Inquiry must seek to ensure that a zero-risk approach to fire safety in tower blocks prevails.’
Mr Thomas said the role of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) would be significant in the inquiry, claiming its failure to engage with Grenfell residents and take action upon their concerns about the safety of the building ‘exemplifies this erosion of the state’s social obligation to the residents.’
“An “adequate home” is one that is not in only in a state of repair but also where the physical safety of occupants is guaranteed,” he added.
“The Grenfell Tower fire is what happens when ordinary people are ignored – it is a direct consequence of that failing.
“There can be little doubt that had the residents of Grenfell Tower been able to directly enforce their right to an adequate home in court then at least some of the fire risks that now we know were present on June 14, 2017 would have been identified and rectified before they came to pass with such awful consequences.
“It is a fact that the residents’ concerns about the building in which they lived were not reflected in their legal rights. They had no private law right to live in a safe and habitable home, free of the risk of imminent destruction, but only to a home in a state of repair, and their ability to enforce even that right was undermined by the scarcity of legal aid. This must change.
“More than anything the Grenfell Tower disaster was a profound breach of the universal human right to an adequate home. An enforceable right to housing would ensure that this most basic of necessities for a fulfilling and healthy life would be protected for all, whatever the shortcomings in the law, policy or practice that regulates housing in this country. It would provide the ultimate fall-back protection.
“The Inquiry stands in a unique and unprecedented position to recommend that the right to adequate housing is enshrined in our law.”
Residents of Grenfell Tower ‘were not helpless, they just weren’t helped’
Mr Thomas said it would also be important that social housing or the people who live in social housing, not be stigmatized during the inquiry.
“Social housing is necessary for the provision of accommodation in this country and the notion that, the residents of Grenfell Tower deserved less and they were lesser citizens because they lived in social housing to be debunked,” he said.
“The Inquiry knows that the occupants of Grenfell Tower and the estate of which it was part were mixed and as varied as the population of the great city in which they lived. But the perception was there: council housing is for those who have failed in life. People who need to be managed, not embraced or admired. Desperate people without the agency to improve their lives: the destitute, disenfranchised, vulnerable and voiceless. Descriptions not of the people themselves, but of what society has done to them.
“This attitude and stereotyping is what allowed the cost cutting and the use of deadly materials to become normalised. It is imperative that the inquiry does not even inadvertently confirm the stereotypes around council housing, even when expressing sympathy with victims of the fire.
“It is important to remember that the people who live in a tower block are not members of a homogenous group. They are reflective of the wider society and hard-working people who make a valuable contribution to our society. They included security guards, cleaners, junior doctors, architects, university students, make -up artists, hairdressers, taxi drivers, hotel workers, artists and the retired who had worked all their lives – That was the beauty of this ‘vertical village’.
“They were not helpless, they just weren’t helped.”
Residents have ‘maintained dignity despite their tragedy’ but are ‘still being ignored’
Mr Thomas stressed that it should also not be forgotten as the inquiry progresses that many people are still not housed and remain in temporary accommodation.
“The residents of Grenfell Tower and the Lancaster West Estate were left isolated by the central government after the fire. They are still battling with the authorities to be appropriately rehoused – they are still being ignored,” he said.
“Many of the residents and survivors of the fire continue to suffer the mental anguish and effects of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the horrors of the night and the aftermath of the fire.
“Our clients – victim, residents, the bereaved and survivors, are dignified people who have maintained this dignity, despite their tragedy
“Grenfell Tower was a mirror of our society – particularly in our great capital city. It is not about one particular ethnic group or class group – Grenfell tower fire is a tragedy that has affected a wide range of ordinary people.
Inquiry must also question effectiveness of fire service
Mr Thomas also said the performance of the Fire Service must be questioned.
“We would expect the inquiry to investigate whether the Fire Service lacked adequate resources and direction when they attended this fire. Have cuts to the fire service, or deregulation contributed to what happened?” he said.
“If it be subsequently shown to be true that deregulation had an impact and contributed to the Grenfell fire then everyone can understand that, it adds to the outrage, of the voiceless, their frustration and its foreseeability.
“Firefighters do an important job, and often put themselves at serious risk in doing it. But if we are going to expect them to put their lives on the line, then the public can expect them to be trained and organised to a high standard.
“There will always be accidents involving fire but we can and must do more to minimise these risks. Every effort should be made to ensure that deaths by fires in these blocks can be avoided.
“The public and our clients have the right to know that these deaths and loss have not been in vain. They want this so that at the very least they can know that lessons have been learned. Out of this tragedy some good may occur and hopefully prevent others suffering the pain they have suffered.”