Jus­tice for Hills­bor­ough took 28 years. The Gren­fell fam­i­lies can't wait that long

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Seraphima Kennedy

Three months af­ter the hor­rific fire, the Gren­fell in­quiry be­gins. But even at the out­set, there are sig­nif­i­cant con­cerns that jus­tice will not be served. There is a fear that those most af­fected will not get a seat at the ta­ble. This is cru­cial. With­out build­ing trust in the in­quiry process, and plac­ing vic­tims, sur­vivors and their fam­i­lies at the heart of the process, it will be doomed to fail­ure.

Sur­vivors hop­ing to wit­ness Sir Mar­tin Moore-Bick’s open­ing state­ment at the Gren­fell Tower in­quiry will need to get to the Con­naught Rooms early on Thurs­day morn­ing. The venue has a ca­pac­ity of 200: there were 900 homes on the Lan­caster West es­tate alone. Seats will be al­lo­cated on a first-come, first-served ba­sis.

The in­quiry web­site states that pref­er­ence will be given to “af­fected in­di­vid­u­als”, yet makes no pro­vi­sion for de­ter­min­ing who th­ese in­di­vid­u­als are or how the in­quiry team will man­age the process. What if the room fills up with jour­nal­ists or cam­paign­ers be­fore sur­vivors and fam­ily mem­bers ar­rive? Will lo­cal res­i­dents need to bring ID? Pub­lic meet­ings in the area around Gren­fell have been busy, with lots of peo­ple af­fected want­ing to take part. There have been shock­ing fail­ures with lo­cal meet­ings, most no­tably when sur­vivors were locked out of a coun­cil cham­ber where they had been in­vited to tes­tify. Al­though ar­range­ments have been made for screen­ings else­where, jus­tice will not be served if those who should be at the heart of the process do not at­tend be­cause they are un­sure they will get in.

“We’ve done this be­fore,” said one of­fi­cer. But they have never done any­thing quite like this. There hasn’t been a tragedy on this scale since Hills­bor­ough.

The is­sue around seats may seem triv­ial, but it has wider res­o­nance for the in­quiry. At the heart of this are the sto­ries of at least 80 women, men and chil­dren who died, and a ques­tion about who ac­cesses jus­tice. If we have learned any­thing from the fire and the govern­ment’s re­sponse, it is that the old ways of do­ing things have not worked.

“The state is not there to dis­pense favours to the un­for­tu­nate,” writes Lyn­d­sey Stone­bridge, pro­fes­sor of mod­ern his­tory and lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of East Anglia. “Ev­ery­body is en­ti­tled to ju­ridi­cal and po­lit­i­cal ac­cess. If you dis­re­spect the ci­vil­ity of the process, in ef­fect you are dis­re­spect­ing not just peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing, but the very idea of cit­i­zen­ship it­self.”

Trust. It is so dif­fi­cult to build, and so easy to un­der­mine. For the sur­vivors and vic­tims’ fam­i­lies, there is no as­pect of life that has been un­touched by the morn­ing of 14 June 2017. Noth­ing is, or ever will be, the same. Con­ver­sa­tions with sur­vivors, evac­uees and vol­un­teers are full of ex­am­ples of bro­ken prom­ises, sur­vivors be­ing placed in sit­u­a­tions that are undig­ni­fied, in which they are forced to beg for their rights. I have heard sto­ries of sur­vivors be­ing left with­out money to meet weekly ex­penses, of be­ing moved from ho­tel to ho­tel with­out no­tice, of be­ing con­tin­u­ally sent to the wrong of­fices. There is no trust.

Each day brings fresh re­ports of trau­ma­tised sur­vivors forced to re­turn to the area near the tower to ac­cess key ser­vices, of sui­cide at­tempts, fam­i­lies liv­ing on top of each other in small rooms. Against the on­go­ing daily in­dig­ni­ties, ma­jor con­cerns about jus­tice con­tinue to erode trust in the au­thor­i­ties.

This week, news broke of a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions of theft from a prop­erty in Gren­fell Walk. Th­ese al­le­ga­tions raise sig­nif­i­cant ques­tions around the man­age­ment of the crime scene in the weeks af­ter the fire. On Mon­day, lawyers for the fam­ily of He­sham Rah­man, who died in the fire, wrote to Theresa May warn­ing that the in­quiry risked breach­ing the pub­lic sec­tor equal­ity duty of the Equal­ity Act 2010. There are con­cerns about a fail­ure to give due re­gard to th­ese obli­ga­tions, about the lack of di­ver­sity in the in­quiry team, and of the chair’s fail­ure to ap­point a multi-eth­nic panel.

On Tues­day, lawyers from cam­paign group BME Lawyers 4 Gren­fell, sought a ju­di­cial re­view that was re­jected by the govern­ment “be­fore the ink was even dry”, ac­cord­ing to Peter Her­bert of the cam­paign. “Be­hind all of this is cen­tral govern­ment, and a mes­sage that the lives of poor peo­ple are not worth spend­ing money on.” Per­haps the most ur­gent mat­ter un­der­min­ing faith is that – in spite of the prime min­is­ter’s orig­i­nal prom­ise that all sur­vivors would be re­housed in three weeks – only 29 fam­i­lies have been so far. The process has been la­bo­ri­ous, if not down­right in­sult­ing: sur­vivors have told me they have been of­fered flats in blocks about to face fur­ther re­fur­bish­ment, or of­fered tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion in build­ings ear­marked for de­mo­li­tion.

That is not to say that there has been no im­prove­ment. There are pos­i­tive signs of change from the new chief ex­ec­u­tive at Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea coun­cil and in­cred­i­ble new com­mu­nity ini­tia­tives. But it is hard to imag­ine any trust in jus­tice while chil­dren are do­ing their home­work in ho­tel lob­bies.

As the in­quiry opens, it has emerged that Robert Black, the ex­chief ex­ec­u­tive of Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea Ten­ant Man­age­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tion, is still draw­ing a six-fig­ure salary, in spite of step­ping aside “to fo­cus on the in­quiry”. This will be dif­fi­cult for lo­cal res­i­dents to stom­ach, and un­der­mines ef­forts by the coun­cil to turn the page. “This is clearly an ou­trage,” said lo­cal res­i­dent and Green party cam­paigner Jen­nifer Nadel. “It is an in­sult to all those in the com­mu­nity. It’s ab­so­lutely ex­tra­or­di­nary that this man is still be­ing paid, and that not a sin­gle coun­cil­lor has re­signed their seats. It’s very hard to be­lieve that the coun­cil isn’t con­tin­u­ing with busi­ness as usual de­spite all that’s hap­pened.”

Trust. It is in the in­ter­ests of the vic­tims, their fam­i­lies and the sur­vivors that this process is suc­cess­ful. It is in the in­ter­ests of those liv­ing in both pri­vate and lo­cal author­ity hous­ing across the coun­try that trust is re­built, that the nec­es­sary ev­i­dence is heard by the in­quiry chair, and that ac­cu­rate, mean­ing­ful lessons are learned. It is in the pub­lic in­ter­est that ap­pro­pri­ate rec­om­men­da­tions are made about fire safety, and the kinds of ma­te­ri­als we wrap our build­ings in. And it is in all of our in­ter­ests that the fam­i­lies af­fected by the fire achieve jus­tice. It took the Hills­bor­ough fam­i­lies 28 years. The Gren­fell fam­i­lies can­not wait that long.

• Seraphima Kennedy is a for­mer neigh­bour­hood of­fi­cer at Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea Ten­ant Man­age­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tion

Pho­to­graph: Wik­tor Szy­manow­icz/Bar­croft

Protesters de­mand the res­ig­na­tion of Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea coun­cil’s cabi­net fol­low­ing their han­dling of the Gren­fell Tower fire.

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