Historians' Watch

Grenfell Fire and the Politics of Public Inquiries

Following the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy – in which 71 people are now confirmed to have died – a public inquiry was ordered by Prime Minister Theresa May to examine the circumstances surrounding the fire. However, confidence of the survivors and the families of victims that this inquiry would achieve anything is low. Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s appointment as chair had already been questioned due to his unfamiliarity with the lives of Grenfell residents, and, upon officially opening the inquiry on 14 September 2017, he was criticised for refusing to take questions after delivering a prepared statement. This apparent snub prompted heckles and accusations that the voices of survivors and relatives of the victims were already being ignored.

Community messages near Grenfell Tower. Photo Credit: Hannah Elias.

Despite numerous calls for such, no local residents were offered a formal role on the inquiry as an assessor. Whilst this was explained as being an attempt to ensure the inquiry was accepted as impartial and independent, it led to complaints that the panel was not representative of the community. More than 500 requests have been received from individuals and organisations seeking ‘core participant’ status, which would allow them advance knowledge of some evidence and the opportunity to make statements during certain hearings. As this is believed to be the highest ever number for a public inquiry in the UK, the desire for residents and families to participate in the inquiry and official response is obvious.

Previous public inquiries – often perceived as having dragged on for years and achieved nothing – were cited as a reason why such participation was essential. For example, Caul Grant, a member of the ‘Justice for Grenfell’ community group, stated: ‘We do not want another Hillsborough. We want an exposition of the truth and on that truth we want justice.’ Indeed, over 25 years passed between the Hillsborough disaster – where 96 people died and over 700 were injured – and the second coroner’s inquest jury ruling that supporters were unlawfully killed due to gross negligence by the police. The decades-long battle for justice waged by the victims’ families had been furthered by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, established in 2009 by the British government to oversee ‘full public disclosure of relevant government and local information’, which consulted with the families of the deceased on their views and priorities.

Despite recent criticism, public inquiries have long been a key component of the British constitutional system, allowing a public interaction and discourse with the authorities in a manner unlike other processes. Usually chaired by a prominent judge or lord, inquiries accept evidence from interested members of the public and organisations, conducting hearings in a more public forum than typical government mechanisms. They are thus characterised as a unique form of discourse with authorities, which engages with local communities, rather than simply encroaching upon them. Whether through genuine belief that inquiries would achieve their aims, or simply as a method for obtaining resources in attention, time, and money, public inquiries have been a popular method for affected communities to participate in the official response to major events.

Community board near Grenfell Tower. Photo credit: Hannah Elias.

However, as demonstrated after Grenfell, concern has long existed as to what extent public inquiries actually include and pay attention to the voices of the victims. Whilst public inquiries have been portrayed as ‘Britain’s favoured mechanism for ascertaining the facts after any major breakdown or controversy’, they can only truly gain the confidence of affected people if they feel included and that their voices are being heard.

One example of a section of the British public feeling that they were being ignored may be seen in the collective violence that spread around England in 1980-81. The events, which can be broadly characterised as anti-police disorders largely involving members of Britain’s black community, led Margaret Thatcher’s government to establish a public inquiry headed by Lord Leslie Scarman. However, such an investigation was not universally accepted or desired.

One vocal critic was the Brixton Defence Campaign: ‘an organisation of black (African and Asian) groups and individuals’ formed to mobilise ‘the black community to be fully involved in the legal and political defence of those arrested/charged/injured as a result of the Uprising’. Viewing Scarman’s inquiry as the government’s attempt to legitimise characterisations of the riots as ‘blameless forces of law and order [battling] mainly black criminals’, they believed any support for the inquiry would alienate the ‘sections of the community we are interested in mobilising’, and thus it ‘must be totally discredited’. The Brixton Defence Campaign wrote to organisations and individuals who were believed to be intending to provide evidence to Scarman’s inquiry, warning them against doing so and criticising them for betraying the community. This is a clear sign of the divisions between those believing participation and collaboration with the authorities would be of benefit, and those who considered mechanisms such as a public inquiry to be a diversionary tactic.

Police with riot shields line up outside the Atlantic Pub, on the corner of Atlantic Road and Coldharbour Lane, during the 1981 Brixton riots in London. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Had local people felt that they were being truly represented by Scarman’s inquiry, perhaps such objections would have been less fervent. For example, a joint statement from local organisations Brixton Neighbourhood Community Organisation, Melting Pot Foundation, and Brixton Domino Working Men’s Social Club claimed that an alternative inquiry that included ‘one or more… Privy Councillors from the Black Commonwealth’ would have ‘allayed the scepticism of many members of the Black Community’.

Similarly, following riots in Moss Side, Manchester, a local inquiry was established by the county council. However, the choice of lawyer Benet Hytner as chair was criticised for – in the words of the head of the Moss Side Defence Committee – bringing in ‘some bloody grandee, who has no understanding whatsoever and has no reason to have an understanding’. Although the Greater Manchester Council had initially discussed potential inquiry panel members with them, the Defence Committee were not granted any further involvement in the investigations and subsequently decided to boycott Hytner’s inquiry.

Whilst Scarman’s public inquiry was established following the 1981 Brixton riots, this had not been the first outbreak of disorder. The St Pauls area of Bristol erupted into violence on 2 April 1980, but no public inquiry was subsequently ordered – despite many local people and organisations believing that ‘nothing else other than a public inquiry can put this matter right’. Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw believed such a public inquiry would be undesirable because the police and authorities would be ‘pilloried to no good purpose’. Thus, rather than local people being given a chance to participate in the riot response, they were again marginalised and Whitelaw subsequently refused to accept there being a possible link between the lack of public inquiry in Bristol and the violence spreading across the country the following year.

On the other hand, a well-attended community meeting in Bristol recorded that those present generally believed that any possible lessons from the disorder would be buried or deliberately misinterpreted, or that nobody would be willing to learn them. Furthermore, divisions appeared between community workers and the local black population over the prospect of a public inquiry. The Guardian noted how, unlike white representatives such as local MP Tony Benn, Bristol City Councillor John McLaren, or Bristol Council for Racial Equality chair Bill Nicks, ‘black spokesmen are regarding [inquiry] demands with scepticism’. This attitude shows a desire in local people for active participation themselves, rather than ineffective state organisations acting on their behalf. Scepticism towards governmental inquiries was reinforced by the belief that previous investigations had identified problems, but nothing had been done to resolve them – a belief certainly exhibited in reaction to other public inquiries.

Nonetheless, some observers have commented in recent years that – in an age of increasing public mistrust of politicians and governments – the relative credibility generally retained by public inquiries is remarkable. If public inquiries are to maintain such a position, victims and their families must be included as much as possible to ensure that they feel like their voices are being heard.


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