Even before the Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s first report into the fire was leaked to the media, ground was being prepared for dismissing it as a stitch up, a cover up or both. Predictions were made that any blame would be assigned to the lower orders, letting the rich and powerful off the hook. “Fears” were reported that former judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his team would ensure that “the establishment” was protected.
Then, sure enough, came the deluge. As expected, the London Fire Brigade has come in for heavy criticism for its performance on that dreadful night. “Systemic failures”, “serious shortcomings” and grave “institutional” inadequacies have been identified: control room officers lacked sufficient training; the controversial “stay put” strategy was abandoned fatefully late. LFB commissioner Dany Cotton has been described as demonstrating “remarkable insensitivity” when giving evidence.
It is clearly a devastating verdict on the LFB, and anyone wanting to ensure that the horrors of Grenfell are never repeated can surely only find it very troubling. However much we admire firefighters’ bravery, how can Londoners feel confident that if a fire of that type and scale breaks out again that they and their colleagues will respond in the most effective way?
Yet for some, the report, far from prompting sober reflection and a desire for lessons to be learned, has instead been appropriated as yet more raw material for the narrative they have created and relentlessly perpetuated since before the Grenfell flames were even out.
The only “truth” such people are willing to believe is that the 72 Grenfell deaths were caused by penny-pinching indifference on the part of toff Tory councillors in Kensington & Chelsea and by the private companies that carried out the refurbishment of the tower that saw combustible cladding wrapped round it. Anything at all – any fact, any finding, any part of this agonising picture that dilutes, or challenges or even augments the “truth” they want to believe – must be attacked and shouted down.
Exponents of this denial mentality have ranged from a discredited local loudmouth who didn’t actually live in the tower yet is still invited to speak for “the community” to, incredibly, some Labour MPs: for Laura Smith (Crewe & Nantwich) the report’s findings demonstrate what happens when “those with power and money start to blame the people who risk their lives to keep us safe”; for the ludicrous Chris Williamson (Derby North), they prove he had been right to question the suitability of Moore-Bick for the job, accusing him of “scapegoating” the fire service.
In fact, Moore-Bick actually pays tribute to individual LFB staff, praising the courage of firefighters on the night and saying that control centre staff “undoubtedly saved lives”. Rather, his criticisms are for the LFB’s lack of preparedness for what occurred. But this basic distinction is of no interest to the mob who’ve already got their Grenfell “truth” story worked out and they are sticking to it, thanks very much.
Another strand of that sorry yarn is that the LFB has been hampered by funding cuts brought in when Boris Johnson was London Mayor. If that issue is addressed in the report it has to appear in the leaked material. What can be said is that the level of LFB resources was reviewed for Sadiq Khan in 2016 by Anthony Mayer, the former GLA chief executive. He recommended there should be no additional reductions to the LFB’s budget but he also said there was “no persuasive case” to increase it by diverting resources from elsewhere or raising the mayoral precept (an add-on to Londoners’ council tax bills).
Some critics of the first inquiry report are effectively accusing Moore-Bick and his team of pre-emptive blame-shifting, front loading guilt on to LBF staff as part of a of sneaky plan to absolve those responsible for conducting and overseeing Grenfell Tower’s catastrophic refurbishment. Some don’t seem to care (or even know) that the vital, fine details of what happened before the small hours of 14 June 2017, taking in the key decisions by all those involved, will be the subject of a whole second phase of the inquiry. The first report already notes “compelling evidence” that building regulations were not complied with, and that phase two will examine why those responsible for the refurbishment’s design “considered the tower would meet the essential requirement”.
Survivors and the bereaved cannot be blamed for expressing emotional hopes for the inquiry’s conclusions or dismay if they are dashed (it seems a number with concerns about the LFB’s handling of the blaze feel those hopes have been fulfilled by the first report). Others, with other axes to grind, deserve no such understanding. For all concerned, the hard fact may turn out to be that the story the inquiry ultimately tells about why the Grenfell Tower fire occurred will not be the one they want to hear. Sometimes the truth is inconvenient that way.
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