The First Phase Report of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry (GTI) was finally published on 30 October. When this date was originally announced, the bereaved, survivors and families (BSFs) were concerned that this was a ruse to bury it in the fanfare of what was expected to be “Brexit Day”. As it happens, the report was prematurely leaked to the Daily Telegraph and captured considerable attention in the media.
The report’s author, retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, made a number of important points which should be highlighted. First it is absolutely right that he completely exonerated Behailu Kebede, the resident in whose flat the fire started. Kebede did everything right, reporting the fire promptly, alerting his immediate neighbours and helping to ensure that they were able to evacuate.
In addition, Moore-Bick praised the “courage and devotion to duty” of the firefighters who risked their own lives to save others. Their efforts and that of residents and friends ensured that 227 people were able to escape the blaze.
Media stories focused almost entirely upon Moore-Bick’s criticism of the shortcomings in the response of the London Fire Brigade (LFB), however.
The report noted that none of the firefighters in attendance had sufficient training for a fire of this magnitude. The equipment available and used was inadequate and in some cases faulty.
Communications between those receiving emergency calls and firefighters on the scene were flawed and some of the advice given to residents was inaccurate and insensitive.
Most significantly perhaps, Moore-Bick argues that the advice to residents to stay in their flats should have been abandoned far earlier.
LFB Commissioner Dany Cotton came in for particular criticism for her inert response on the night and her initial declaration that she would not have done anything differently. In the wake of this there have been numerous calls for her to be sacked and stripped of her pension.
Cotton’s response was clearly inadequate and insensitive. By contrast, Fire Brigades Union General Secretary Matt Wrack indicated that “On my first day at training school I was taught that you learn something from every incident that you attend and you adapt your knowledge based on those experiences.”
In addition, he was absolutely right to point out that criticism of firefighters and the fire service is a predictable consequence of an inquiry that is being conducted “back to front”. Phase 1 of GTI should have focused on the historical circumstances which transformed the tower into a deathtrap.
Arconic, the firm that made the flammable cladding that encased Grenfell Tower, urged Moore-Bick not to make any findings about its compliance at this stage. He rejected that request and concluded that it was, in effect illegal. It is a tribute to the assertions of the BSFs and their supporters that he felt compelled to do so.
The second phase of the GTI beginning in January must focus on the wider issues such as the decision-making process at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It must also consider the impact of cuts to safety regulations and the fire service imposed by successive governments and their mauling of the country’s building inspection regime that has given developers greater freedom to cut corners.
Somewhat predictably, Boris Johnson, sporting a Grenfell lapel badge, welcomed the report and spoke of the comfort it would bring to the BSFs. It should be remembered that he was the London Mayor who presided over more than £100 million cuts which saw the loss of 27 appliances, 552 firefighter jobs and 324 support staff posts.
“Forever in our hearts!” is the rallying call of the monthly Grenfell silent marches. The BSFs will never get real justice as they will never get their loved ones back and those people will never get to live the lives that they should have.
We owe them our support to ensure that there is at least a lasting testimony; a society in which people are housed safely and no such avoidable tragedy ever happens again.