Issue 113: 2017 07 13: Who Owns The Enquiry? (John Watson)

13 July 2017

Who Owns The Enquiry?

Chairing the enquiry into Grenfell Tower.

By John Watson

Tragedies have stakeholders, and if you need evidence for that, just look at the protests against the appointment of Sir Martin Moore-Bick as the chairman of the public enquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster.  Let’s begin by identifying some of them, so that we can decide whether or not there is anything in the objections which have been put forward.  Who owns this enquiry?  In whose interest is it being called?  There are quite a lot of answers to that.

The most important stakeholders are the occupants of similar blocks of flats.  If the enquiry does not get to the bottom of what went wrong and it all happens again, it is they, their homes, their children and their families who will be burnt.  For them the important thing is that the enquiry should enable new rules to be framed, rules governing cladding, the length of the fire service’s ladders, sprinkler systems, alarm systems and everything else which is found to have contributed to the tragedy.  If it does that it will have protected their safety and met their needs.

Next there are the victims: those who have lost loved ones; those whose homes have been destroyed and those whose lives are in ruins. In practice their main concern will be the relief efforts, but they are also entitled to know what went wrong and who was to blame.  For them the enquiry should provide a basis for reviewing the actions of individuals, its findings of fact available to be used in any possible prosecutions.

Then we have those who have been blamed in the press but believe that the blame is unfair.  For them the enquiry needs to root out the truth so that their own role can be properly understood.

Less direct are the interests of the politicians.  I do not doubt that many of them were genuinely appalled or that there was real sympathy for the survivors.  Still, they would hardly be human if that sympathy was not followed by an element of calculation.  In the case of the government it was damage limitation, the need to take down the political temperature by putting the question of blame into the hands of the judiciary.  In certain parts of the left (and neither Mr Corbyn nor the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, were part of this) the game was to push the temperature back up by attacking the choice of chairman.  Any sort of mud would do for this purpose, the newly-elected MP for Kensington Emma Dent–Coad distinguishing herself for fatuity with the remark that Sir Martin did not understand human beings, something which, if true, would have made it impossible to him to function properly as a senior member of the judiciary.  David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, trumped this brilliantly with “white, upper-middle class man who I suspect has never, ever visited a tower block.”  The “I suspect” is presumably short for “I don’t really know but I will say it anyway”, and the implicit assertion that a black working class man or woman would be better at sifting evidence than a trained judge is a slightly odd one.  Is there a parallel universe in which judges make the best builders and building workers are the cleverest at sorting facts?

There are lots of other stakeholders in this enquiry, too.  Its importance to the press goes without saying and ambulance chasing lawyers will creep out of their usual gutters.  Suing a wealthy council on the basis of the findings of a public enquiry must beat making endless telephone calls asking people whether they have been involved in accidents which are not their fault.

It is unnecessary to go further to make the point that there are lots of different people who will, quite legitimately, want to use the report of the enquiry for different things.  As a practical matter it cannot be attuned to all the different agendas so it needs to be a dispassionate statement of the facts on which each of them can draw.  Its findings as to what went wrong should be what the government needs in order to draw up new building regulations.  Its findings as to the mistakes which occurred should be useful to the police and also to a public anxious to know who was at fault and who was not.  The results of the enquiry should be an unbiased and accurate statement which everyone can rely on.

In the highly emotional atmosphere following the disaster, it becomes tempting to skew the enquiry in a particular direction.  For example it has been suggested that the chairman should be a judge who specialises in criminal law, presumably on the basis (no doubt false) that such a judge would be more likely to recommend charges.  Mr Lammy’s remarks about colour and class were presumably inspired by a visceral feeling that a black working class chairman, or better still chairwoman, would be more likely to “have a go” at the powers that be.  Yet, as soon as you begin to try to “manage” the enquiry’s findings you take away from the point of it. An enquiry distorted in the direction of either pursuing or exonerating the Council might suit some of the stakeholders but would hardly serve those who want accurate findings in order to avoid future disasters.

What then of the suggestion that as a member of the establishment (which he undoubtedly is) Sir Martin is likely to favour the authorities?  That misunderstands what judges do.  A good judge is like a good computer.  He takes the facts presented to him, analyses them, and makes findings according to his remit.  Normally the remit is the law.  In this case it will be set out in the rules governing the enquiry.  A judge’s reputation stands on his ability to do this without being influenced by the identity of the parties or the stakeholders.  Sir Martin has risen to the rank of Lord Justice of Appeal.  That must mean that he can do the job well.

This is no reason to doubt that Sir Martin is an appropriate chairman for this enquiry but, as always, matters do not stop there.  There are others we should look at too.  There are always those prepared to exploit the agony of others and, as the enquiry develops, a division will open up between those who are interested in the truth and those who seek to distort the truth to meet the requirements of their particular agendas.  It is too early to identify them now but, as the various spokesmen appear on the television screens and in the press, it will be up to us to consider for ourselves into which camp each of them falls.


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