Lessons for the Grenfell Tower Inquiry

I have served on a number of judicial inquiries, the most famous of which is the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Many lessons were learned from these, and I have covered some of those in a book called the Hidden Stories of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.

I now see a similar situation unfolding with the Inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire, and want to share some of those lessons with this latest generation of people who will be embarking on a similar journey. That journey is, as before, primarily to find answers for those who were victims of a tragedy and to try to make sense of it. The Inquiry is public and independent, demonstrating a loss of trust in the establishment that needs to be addressed.

In brief, and quickly so they can be of some help, here are lessons we learned from previous Public Inquiries, both from what was done well, and from mistakes made.

1. There is no need to spend time on sorting out appropriate terms of reference.

The terms of reference adopted for the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry will more than do as a model for the Grenfell case too. They simply stated that the Inquiry was to look into “matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence.” This can be adapted into “matters arising from the fire in Grenfell Tower on 21st of June 2017.”

Briefly, the wide-open terms of the Lawrence Inquiry allowed us to go into matters which we would not have expected to address, and which arose during and as a result of that Inquiry. An example was police Stop & Search, where we found that the issue of disparities between white and black young men came up as a problem in all the six inner city areas which we visited during our work.

On the other hand, when I raised with the judge the issue of disparities between deaths of young white and black men whilst in police custody, he would not accept its inclusion. He said “I accept that, like Stop and Search, this is a serious issue. However, we had almost no evidence presented at any stage about these deaths.”

An open remit for the Inquiry allows the Judge and his team to follow different avenues as the arise, pursuing some and abandoning others as is appropriate.

2. It is important to find the right judge.

For the Lawrence Inquiry, Jack Straw, Home Secretary during the whole two years of the Lawrence Inquiry, asked Lord Irvine to select a judge. It may have been either, or both of those two who decided not to appoint the obvious human rights left-leaning judges as they were perceived to be too on-side.

The choice of Sir William MacPherson was, with hindsight, a wise move. He was sufficiently not a part of the human rights legal lobby that Vikram Dodd of The Observer thought fit to publish at a key moment a really quite vicious attack on Sir William. It was based on five old stories of past decisions that were meant to show how illiberal he was. Dodd concluded that Sir William should be removed and replaced by a judge more “sympathetic” to racism. In fact, he failed to understand the need for a Judge genuinely perceived as independent, rather than one already on one side of the debate.

Jack Straw had to excuse himself from the Commons’ debate the next day, on Labour’s first Budget since the 1997 Election. Instead, he spent two hours with Mr & Mrs Lawrence. With difficulty he managed to get them back on side, rightly arguing that, six months into the Inquiry into the death of their son, changing the judge could set the whole project back by a year. They agreed, and the Inquiry carried on.

It is of interest that Straw had, the previous evening, phoned each of the three Advisors in turn for their views on the suitability of Sir William. Unable to consult each other first (our usual way of working), we nonetheless all advised the Home Secretary in almost identical terms: “Judge the judge on his actions while on the Inquiry.”

None of us had any reasons to suspect that he might act other than listening to the evidence and drawing the obvious correct conclusions. This is, in fact, what we ask of judges in this country, and it is something for which they are often misunderstood. They are expected dispassionately and without personal bias to examine raw evidence, and draw conclusions based on that evidence alone.

There were four of us on the panel of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: recently retired High Court judge Sir William Macpherson officially WAS the Inquiry. He was given three Advisers: Tom Cook (a wonderfully open-minded, tough former Deputy Chief Constable); John Sentamu (then Bishop for Stepney and a former judge under Idi Amin in Uganda); and me (recently elected chair of JCORE (the Jewish Council for Racial Equality).

We were all on a learning curve about institutional racism, and Macpherson was possibly learning rather faster than his Advisers, given that we already had backgrounds in policing and racism. But we three had no doubts about his obvious intellectual capacity to respond appropriately to evidence of racism within the police services, as well as his commitment to exposing its illegality under the law.

3. The Judicial Inquiry is required to have listened to, and taken on board disparate views from a variety of communities. It will be essential to ensure that their voices are heard by the judge at every stage.

A great strength of the Lawrence Inquiry was that the voice of the black community’s experience of policing was in the ear of the judge at every decision made, and on every day. In his opening statements Sir William gave to John Sentamu and to me, identical reasons for being on the Inquiry: we were to be the “connection” of the Inquiry with “the communities.“

I do have good connections. Importantly, they were largely different from Bishop John’s. However, John’s personal experience was vital for Sir William. If I had not had John there too, my experience of ’racism by proxy’ would have been too weak to influence the judge incontrovertibly. John’s voice was in the ear of the judge at every moment of every day, and the result showed in our conclusions and in our recommendations. Indeed, a great irony of the Inquiry was that Bishop John was stopped by the police, for no reason, whilst driving to the Inquiry, reflecting the experience of many black men at the time.

How to choose the individuals to be Advisers to the Inquiry is for the Judge to decide. They will have to be a diverse group, which ensures that the experiences of the whole range of people affected by the fire are in the ear of the judge from the earliest moment. From my previous experience, I would argue that civil servants or government officials should not be involved in the choice of any ‘independent’ person within the Inquiry team. I have found in some senior officials an almost irresistible desire to maintain control even of officially ‘independent’ Inquiries. The team must be absolutely independent, from the outset.

My initial suggestion for Government ministers and for senior civil servants is to start by talking with those who asked for the Inquiry. Do NOT talk TO them, then walk away saying “I’ve talked to those affected and what they want is…” That is patronising, and emotionally illiterate.

Having listened and been seen to have heard is when those with the power to set up the Inquiry will have begun to understand what is needed. Having worked as a doctor in Notting Hill for 25 years, and engaged with the community there on many levels, from homelessness to racism, I know there are plenty of local residents within the mature local communities who have long track records of offering sound community advice to the powers-that-be. They may not be known as community leaders. Community leaders are often derided as self-appointed men, which is grossly unfair to several such men who have genuinely led major positive changes for 30, 40 and even 50 years in Notting Hill.

When looking for emotional maturity, and track records for making change for the general good, it is often the women in communities who can be the most constructive across apparent boundaries. Look at Northern Ireland. My understanding is that the peace process began to take off when the women said to the boys and men, “Enough! … enough of losing our sons, husbands and fathers.” So I suggest listening not just to the men, but also the women from the wide range of communities surrounding Grenfell Tower. They are there for the talking.

4. Explain what the Inquiry is, what its limitations and terms are

Naturally the people affected by Grenfell Tower, and by our wider society, want answers. They will look to the Inquiry and to the Judge to find those. He has already cautioned this may not happen, and will take time. It is essential that he, and the leaders of the affected communities, explain clearly what the terms and limitations of his Inquiry are. As I understand it, his job is to establish what happened, why, how it could have been, and could in future be prevented. In parallel there is a criminal investigation ongoing which will look to place blame and prosecute any people who acted unlawfully.

It is important that the Judge clarifies these distinctions. He needs to set expectations from day one, and have those expectations shared and accepted by those he serves. He, and whoever he chooses as Advisors, will need to sit with the local community and get them on board, clear and consenting about the terms of the Inquiry.

Finally, I would urge the Judge and his team to move quickly, work openly, and continue to sit amongst the community, retaining their support and confidence on a daily basis.