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Grenfell: 'We must hold people to account'

SEEKING JUSTICE: Protesters take to the streets of Kensington

AMID THE trauma, the pain, the appalling and the very preventable loss of life from the Grenfell Tower block inferno, a key question is whether those responsible will be held to account for any negligent or dishonest conduct.

Buildings can always be replaced, but people never can.

For the children, having to attend school besides the empty seats means a friend is probably gone forever. No chance to say goodbye to loved ones, no certainty as to how they passed and no one person to hold responsible.

The pathetic response by the Royal Borough and the Government has added to the trauma. Visiting the scene, the only obvious state presence were uniformed police officers and the humble yet deeply respected fire service personnel.

As a barrister having worked on genocide cases in Rwanda and hate crime murders in the UK, I understand only too well the pain and anguish that all families and friends are going through now.

A public inquiry, chaired by a independent High Court judge, supported by a panel of experts, will need to address its mind to terms of reference that are not dictated by Government, but agreed with by those that have suffered the most.

ACCEPTABLE

Nothing less than that will be acceptable. Delay is not permissible. The system can act within months, as the Bradford Fire Inquiry demonstrated, to produce an interim report.

A coroner’s inquest will normally be adjourned until criminal proceedings are concluded.

The fact that lessons are being learned by governments, tenants’ groups and building contractors all over the world from Australia to Japan will be of no comfort to victims here.

A very high proportion of victims were from many diverse communities and faiths, some of whom were undocumented, but they share a common desire to see justice done. Their daily needs are paramount and being rehoused immediately within the borough is non-negotiable.

A criminal investigation by the Metropolitan Police has already begun, but no arrests have been made, and no evidence seized. Criminal manslaughter charges are difficult to make stick, and health and safety prosecutions are an easier goal to achieve. There is a real danger that the documentary evidence will go missing unless it is secured, as individuals perhaps seek to escape the personal consequences of their actions.

The immediate conviction of individuals and companies may hide the fact that in the culture of cost cutting in the country’s richest borough, taking money from the poorest tenants to give cuts to the wealthiest residents in council tax, is arguably the bigger crime. The cost of refurbishing Buckingham Palace at £338 million could pay for safety sprinklers at all 4,000 public tower blocks in the UK.

DEADLY MIX

We need to decide what type of Britain we wish to live in. The negligence and indifference of successive housing ministers to the plight of Britain’s social housing stock will escape criminal responsibility, but is a far more serious charge. There will be many politicians and officials who will be tried and found guilty in the dock of public opinion.

This was a deadly mix of austerity, neglect and complete indifference to the needs of working class and minority tenants. Any inquiry will expose the terminal decline of quality social housing stock, the ineffective building regulations, and the danger to the whole fabric of society in benefiting wealthy residents at the expense of the poorest, the elderly, the disabled and needy in the wealthiest borough in the UK.

This is an injustice and inequality played out across the country. All families in any such disaster must be given legal aid to pursue justice before an inquest.

INERTIA

If action to tear down inflammable cladding can be taken in Australia within days, we do not need to wring our hands in post-Brexit Britain inertia, while more than 4,000 similar blocks continue to terrify their residents.

Any criminal prosecution will be hard to endure for those who have suffered so much already, but better to try and fail and see those responsible walk free unscathed.

Change must come. These lives must not have been lost in vain. It is our duty to see they are not.

D. Peter Herbert OBE is chair of the Society of Black Lawyers

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