17 May 2018
Grenfell Tower Inquiry
Politics and Panels?
By John Watson
“Yes, but who?” That is the question posed by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, Chairman of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, when he heard that the Prime Minister is to appoint two panel members to assist with its second phase. Of course, he didn’t put it like that; he merely said that he looked forward to receiving the names suggested. Under the Inquiry Act he has to consent to the appointments.
The decision to appoint new panel members is a reaction to public pressure from the Grenfell United survivors and bereaved group who have been pressing for it for some time. One can understand their desire to ensure that their concerns are fully taken into account. The difficult question is what those new panel members will bring to the party.
Phase 2 of the inquiry is the bit which deals with events leading up to the fire (e.g. the fateful decision to refurbish the block). Although there can be no rulings on criminal or civil liability, its findings of facts will identify the mistakes made and will establish who was responsible. Getting it right is important and will require careful and dispassionate analysis.
Sir Martin, who leads the inquiry, was a Lord Justice of Appeal. That is one up from a High Court Judge and makes him a very senior member of the judiciary indeed. It does not, of course, make him an expert in the many scientific and political areas into which the inquiry has to delve. For that he needs to rely on evidence and, in the case of technical matters such as gas and water pressure, on expert witnesses. His job as inquiry chairman is to take all the information he receives, to synthesise it, to analyse it and to reach conclusions. That, after all, is what judges are trained to do, and his seniority within the system must be an indication that he does it well.
What, then, are the new panel members to add? Mrs May’s letter, informing Sir Martin that they will be appointed, is ambivalent. In one place it says that the improvements are to ensure that the panel “has the necessary breadth of skills and diversity of expertise relevant to the broad range of issues to be considered…”. That seems to indicate that the new members are to be experts. Later on the letter refers to the decision “providing reassurance to victims and survivors of the fire, the local community, and members of Grenfell United”. That might hint at local community leaders. Let’s take these possibilities in turn.
The amount of evidence produced in the second phase of the inquiry will be huge, and the job of assessing it and arriving at conclusions is a highly specialist one. How would expert panel members contribute to that, bearing in mind that much of the evidence must fall outside their particular expertise? Suppose, for example, that one of the panel members was an expert in community relations. He or she would be in a position to add knowledge in this area, but what are they to do with the voluminous evidence on building controls? A panel member who is an expert on the building industry would have exactly the reverse problem. Experts of this sort are hardly equipped to reach conclusions on matters outside their area, and yet, if they are appointed to the panel, that is exactly what they will have to do. If their expertise is needed they should be giving evidence.
If that sounds a terrible muddle, try the possibility that the new panel members are in some sense representative of particular sections of the community, there presumably to make sure that views prevalent in that part of the community get extra weight. Will that make it more likely that the inquiry comes up with the dispassionate and accurate findings that we expect from it? Hardly. Attempts to throw a bias into a judicial process normally have the opposite effect.
How has it got into this mess? There seem to be two reasons, one a lack of understanding and the other political. Originally, there was some criticism of the appointment of Sir Martin on the grounds that he was an establishment figure who might therefore incline towards a whitewash. In any case, his expertise was not focused on local government. Those criticisms misunderstand the function of a judge. He is not there to impose his own views or experience. The function of a good judge is to listen to the evidence, to appraise it, to consider it, to synthesise it and to reach conclusions based on it. It should make absolutely no difference what the judge’s own views, politics or position in the establishment might be. Top flight judges from different areas and backgrounds should come out with identical conclusions. Of course, humans being human, it isn’t quite as perfect as that, but nonetheless it is the standard which men like Sir Martin strive to maintain. How then can it help to try to push them one way or the other, by including experts or people with bias?
But of course it was nothing to do with that, really, was it? It was all to do with pressure and politics, with the anxieties and the emotions of those close to the tragedy, and with a Government anxious to make a gesture. The sad thing is that people who quite rightly want to know exactly what went wrong have, through the pressures they have exerted, made that just a little less likely. Still, we haven’t seen the names of the new panel members yet. Perhaps we will be pleasantly surprised!