AS WE approach the first anniversary of the Grenfell disaster, we need to ensure that justice is delivered for the survivors and bereaved families.
Last week, tireless campaigning by Grenfell survivors and bereaved families — and the overwhelming public support they attracted as a result — resulted in a step forward in their battle for justice.
Survivors had said from the start that they wanted an independent and impartial decision-making panel with the expertise and experience to oversee the Grenfell inquiry to sit along with the appointed judge.
This demand was about ensuring that survivors and bereaved families had trust in the Grenfell Tower inquiry. Distrust of the authorities is understandable given how Grenfell survivors describe being let down by local and national governments, both before and after the fire.
A public inquiry aims to get to the truth as a key step to delivering justice. No inquiry can ever achieve that if it doesn’t have the trust of those directly affected. And no inquiry can ever assume it will automatically have this trust, nor can it demand it. Trust must always be earned.
The Stephen Lawrence inquiry, which marked a watershed in uncovering institutional racism, had a similar type of panel overseeing it to that demanded by the Grenfell families. That panel reflected a wealth of relevant experience, including a leading anti-racist, a prominent bishop and former police chief.
Its diversity was its strength, as Lord Macpherson, who chaired that inquiry panel, later stated. Its legitimacy aided the Lawrence inquiry calls for widespread change. This must be replicated with the Grenfell inquiry.
Yet just days before Christmas, Theresa May refused the Grenfell families’ demand for a panel. Instead of settling the issue, it spurred a wave of public sympathy, with over 150,000 people signing a public petition that forced a debate in Parliament.
This was finally held this Monday in support of the survivors’ and bereaved families’ call.
With the debate set to focus media and parliamentary attention on this injustice, the Prime Minister undertook a shift late last week and granted a form of panel, with two members set to sit along with the judge in phase two of the inquiry.
This is a welcome concession. Yet the truth is, after everything they have been through, survivors and bereaved families should never have had to wage such a campaign.
Far too often in this country, politics seem to act as a dam holding justice back, rather than helping justice to flow. Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence and Bloody Sunday are all examples of when the state did not use its great powers to deliver truth and justice, but instead blocked truth and justice for years and years. In all of those cases, the state was accused of a cover-up by those affected. Distrust was sown. We cannot allow Grenfell to join that list.
Race, class and power are at the heart of Grenfell and its aftermath. Justice delayed is justice denied, so it is essential that the Grenfell inquiry gets it right first time. Yet the inquiry has got off to a rocky start. Most people will find it frankly unacceptable that, to get justice, the bereaved and survivors of Grenfell have had to hold marches and organise rallies, petitions and lobbies, when they are still in shock about the horrific events that they witnessed and lived through, when they have lost everything, and when they are still trying to rebuild their lives and, in too many cases, secure a home.
The decision to grant a panel can be a stepping stone to justice. But for that to be the case, the government needs to show that it has understood the wider lesson: that the inquiry has to constantly win the hearts and minds of those affected by the Grenfell fire. It needs to be a sign that the government is going to behave differently.
And lots of questions remain unanswered. For example, why is the panel going to sit only in phase two of the inquiry? What if the panel members need to revisit issues in phase one? Where are we with the second demand in the public petition about survivors’ lawyers having all the evidence from the start? Just a tiny fraction of the material has been disclosed to lawyers so far. Or the other demand from the survivors that lawyers be able to cross-examine the witnesses, as happened in the Lawrence inquiry?
Labour will relentlessly pursue answers to these. It is simply not right for the families to be expected to negotiate with the Prime Minister through public campaigns and petitions, so we also need to have clarity from the government on what formal mechanisms there are for bereaved family members and survivors to request more panel members. Similarly, what formal mechanisms are there to guarantee the ongoing confidence of survivors and of the bereaved family members in the inquiry? How do they make formal requests and what is the formal public way of responding?
Building confidence in the process means there must be no repeat of the delays and denials we have seen in recent months.
More widely, the path of petitions, lobbying and persuasion that the Prime Minister’s intransigence has forced survivors and bereaved families to embark upon shines a light on a key flaw in the current processes relating to inquiries.
We are relying on the Prime Minister, as the minister nominated in relation to this inquiry under the 2005 Inquiries Act, to do the right thing. But justice should not be about the conscience or whims of one person, however powerful. Surely justice should be a right?
That is why the government should pass the Hillsborough law, which the bereaved Hillsborough families advanced as a way of preventing what happened to them happening to others. A Hillsborough law would codify duties on public authorities to act in the public interest and with candour. It would end the “culture of denial” displayed after too many recent disasters. The government knows such a Bill would pass into law unimpeded so there is no reasonable excuse for them not to do this.
The great Martin Luther King once said: “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”
We need to ensure that our laws serve justice and are not seen as a block to justice.
Under a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn, that will be a priority — including in relation to Orgreave, the Cammell Laird shipyard workers, the Shrewsbury 24 trials and Grenfell, if justice has not been done and accountability not asserted by the time we come to government.
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