Empty seats at Grenfell inquiry disappoint survivors

Government ministers remain absent as well as executives of companies involved in tower’s refurbishment

When the Grenfell Tower inquiry resumes on Tuesday, it is likely to play out in front of more empty seats than people. With the sparse attendance noticeable to those who were present last week, some are asking: who has not shown up, and why?

The housing secretary, James Brokenshire, and the housing minister, Dominic Raab, have been absent and have no plans to attend the inquiry. The same is true of Nick Hurd, the Home Office minister who is the main government contact for survivors and families and friends of the victims.

Executives from Rydon, the company that refurbished the tower with combustible cladding, are not coming. Neither are those from the cost consultant Artelia, which was involved in “value engineering” by cutting costs. The architects, Studio E, declined to comment on whether it would have anyone in attendance. There was no sign of anyone from the firm in the first days of the commemoration hearings that will continue this week.

Some survivors believe they are missing what could be the most important part of the whole inquiry. It is revealing, hour by emotional hour, not only the human impact of the disaster, but also the richness and vibrancy of the community that lived in and around the 24-storey council block that was torn apart by the 72 deaths caused by the fire on 14 June 2017.

Dominic Raab.
The housing minister, Dominic Raab, seen here, and the housing secretary, James Brokenshire, have not come to the inquiry and are understood to be following it from Westminster, reasoning their attendance might distract attention. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

“The ministers are not here, it’s terrible,” said Hamid Wahabi, who lived on the 16th floor and has attended every day of the inquiry so far. “Some have sent officials. But this is the time we want everyone to see [our] feelings.”

“If they came to listen to the bereaved, about how they lived, their families, their children and education they will have some feeling of empathy,” said Sid-Ali Atmani, 42, who lived on the 15th floor. “They have been looking at things professionally and politically. If they came they would see it emotionally. They have missed an opportunity. This is the most important part of the inquiry in terms of understanding what really went wrong.”

Rydon, Studio E and Artelia are expected to give vital evidence later on, while Brokenshire and Raab are overseeing policy proposals for social housing reform widely seen as a key response to the Grenfell disaster.

Observers at the inquiry have wondered if such witnesses’ approach to the inquiry could be shaped by attending the commemoration hearings in person.

The majority of the hundred or so people attending each day have been survivors, their friends and family and lawyers, all supporting those who have spoken about their loved ones. Some politicians have come. The Labour MP David Lammy supported the family of Khadija Saye, a friend of his who died. Elizabeth Campbell, the leader of the Conservative-controlled Kensington and Chelsea council, has attended on most days with her deputy, Kim Taylor-Smith, who mixed easily with many of the survivors.

“The interconnectedness of people at Grenfell has come across very strongly,” Taylor-Smith said. “It was an integrated, linked community. You can see that here with the people coming and supporting. They are being incredibly brave and I want to be here to give them support.”

Asked whether Raab and Brokenshire should come, he said: “That’s a matter for the ministers.”

His colleague on the council, Walaa Idris, said: “You get to see the human aspect. You get to see the real thing. We shouldn’t sit away from this. We should be close and hear it.”

Brokenshire and Raab are understood to be following parts of the commemorations from their offices three miles away in Westminster and have sent a civil servant, reasoning that their attendance might distract attention.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has not attended either.

A spokesman said: “A City Hall official has attended the Grenfell inquiry commemoration hearings every day to update the mayor on progress and will continue to do so until they reach a conclusion. The mayor will also be represented by his legal team at the opening submissions and the hearings that follow.”

Sadiq Khan
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has also been absent from the inquiry. Photograph: Johnny Armstead/REX/Shutterstock

A spokesman for Rydon said: “We did not want there to be any risk that we would contribute to moving the media focus away from the victims, the survivors, the bereaved and their friends and relatives.” He added that its lawyers have been attending daily and have been “humbled and moved by every single commemoration”.

Artelia said its lawyers were attending and it was not thought appropriate to send executives.

Chris Imafidon, who worked as a mentor to children at Grenfell Tower and has been at the inquiry, disagreed.

“They would see the fruits of their labour if they came,” he said. “It would show them the impact of what they worked hard on. Some of them would probably feel they needed to resign. None of them have seen these people or know they have nephews, nieces and grandchildren. They could see the emotion, the widows, the orphans, and understand why the inquiry is happening. No matter how hard-hearted you are you will empathise and that human feeling could affect how you interact with the inquiry.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “The first two weeks of the inquiry are about remembering those who lost their lives in this horrific fire.

“Ministers did consider attending the inquiry, but on balance did not want to do anything that might take the focus away from the tributes being paid by family and friends. They are monitoring the inquiry closely.”

The inquiry is open to the public and continues on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.


Robert Booth

The GuardianTramp

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