I don’t think I am the only one who has been discomforted by the handling and reporting of the Grenfell Tower fire. Until we receive the outcomes of the criminal and judicial investigations into the fire we cannot know or understand all the facts that led to this tragedy. Despite this there are many who are making assumptions about who is to blame and what caused the fire, as well as critics of the management of the fire. It is undoubtedly a tragedy and there were certainly many things that need detailed review to ensure that such a fire does not happen again and that there is adequate emergency support after such an event. But surely we need to be suspicious of verdicts by assumption?
There has been extensive coverage of the anger that this fire has generated. It has become a political football, hijacked for political gain. John McDonnell has accused Conservative Councillors of ‘social cleansing’ and of being ‘murderers’. Within seconds this was reapplied to accuse Theresa May and her Government of being murderers. Conservative MPs have also been threatened. But murder is a serious accusation and would have required someone taking a match and deliberately setting fire to the building. To turn grief and anger into a march of hatred seems to me both cynical and unhelpful, particularly while the detailed police and judicial investigation is in process.
We have a system in this country that demands that we are treated as innocent until proven guilty. Let’s not reverse that to allow trial by the mob, politicians, media interview, or social media. We should not believe something that has yet to be verified. It may be that there has been negligence or, indeed, criminal or corporate negligence, but the police and a judge are the ones to decide this verdict, based on facts and evidence.
The difficulty has been that facts about the fire have been hard to come by and will take months to reveal, including the number and identity of those lost. There are thousands of tons of rubble to sift through, in a fragile building. It is dangerous work and, as with the Didcot Power Station explosion in February 2016, can take many weeks of careful investigation. The last body was not taken out of Didcot until seven months later. It was very painful for the families but there was no conspiracy, as has been hinted at but not proven, in the Grenfell Tower fire.
The commentary about the fire has concerned me. Reports have focused on blame, on assumptions of guilt, on conspiracies and on the negative consequences and bad management of the fire to the extent that I suspect I am not alone in imagining that absolutely nothing had been put in place to support the surviving residents of the block.
For example I only recently discovered that the Westway West London Sports Centre had been set up as a help centre for the Grenfell Tower survivors, with desks available to service questions about lost driving licences, finance, passports and other concerns. Also that a key social worker was allocated to every family and finance made available. That a Government website was published on 15 June, the day after the fire, see https://www.gov.uk/guidance/grenfell-tower-fire-june-2017-support-for-people-affected. Despite regularly reading The Times, Guardian, Observer, Sunday Times, occasionally the Telegraph as well as following television, radio and on-line media reports, I had not read about these support centres. Had you? I had got the impression that next-to-nothing was being done. Of course whatever is put in place will never fill the terrible void of losing family, friends, home and possessions and in that context realistically nothing can ever be enough to assuage such grief.
Assumptions have also been made in criticising the appointment of the judge to oversee the investigation into the fire. There is, as I understand it, a due process by the Lord Chancellor’s office to suggest a judge to oversee an enquiry and a Prime Minister signs off the appointment. I don’t know Sir Martin Moore-Bick and am not standing up for the appointment as I am not qualified to do so, but equally I don’t feel it is right to judge a lawyer on the fact that he is white, middle class and male. This surely is prejudice. Most judges, barristers and lawyers have not lived the lives of those they represent but they represent them in the law nonetheless. A judgement is made on facts and evidence but that does not necessarily mean those involved lack empathy or compassion. In this instance, where emotions are so high, having a technical thinker to investigate the engineering decisions leading to the fire had the potential to calm the situation. But press reports immediately suggested that he would be unable to deliver justice, despite being well respected by those who know him. In the midst of these allegations it will now, I suspect, be near impossible to gain the trust of residents and survivors.
So where do we go to find a balanced perspective to check the accusations that are being shared by politicians, in the press, and on social media? After all, there are many buildings, in Europe as well as the UK, under Labour-led councils and NHS Trusts , that have also been fitted with the same cladding. Are we hearing accusations to those council leaders of deliberate cost-cutting to put poor people’s lives at risk? I haven’t, have you?
This tragedy appears to be an indictment of building regulations and property management but again this is an assumption and we need to await a detailed technical report on the fire. I am not convinced that it was a conspiracy (by any of the councils) against the poor. I have lived in two private blocks in the same Borough run by private management companies. In each case there have been issues where smoke alarms were not fitted, where fire extinguishers were not inspected and where fire exits were difficult to access. This despite endless letters and emails from us private, and reasonably well-off, residents. We are treated with the same disregard.
The construction and management of property does appear to require a massive overhaul. They need to be more aware of their responsibilities to the residents who will inhabit the blocks they build and manage. Their actions can make the difference between life and death. Theirs are the decisions around fireproofing as they must advise councillors of building regulations and this advice will go into the mix of how a Council will choose to spend taxpayers money, which they have a responsibility to spend wisely.
I cannot, personally, understand how a tower block can pass building regulations without adequate fire safety measures being put in place. It is also beyond me to understand how architects, builders, governments of all colours and councils have been allowed to build tower blocks with only one staircase. As in the case of other tragedies – such as the Space Shuttle Challenger – it has made me wonder whether people feel unable to speak up against the groupthink of their seniors?
In the meantime emotions are being whipped up and I worry that this is driven more by a political agenda than by kindness to those involved. We have to remember that there is an energy of the mob and that it isn’t always correct – look at the followers of Hitler, Stalin or Chairman Mao. Emotions are infectious. Too easy to lose one’s head in a crowd.
And so, until the criminal and judicial reports are complete, we are left with assumptions not facts. And I am left with the question of where to find the truth of a situation as each source of news has a conscious or unconscious bias. If we only read one paper or listen to one news programme we will not get the whole story. It was only when I talked to someone living close to the West London Centre that I discovered the good work being done there. I didn’t read about it.