Let’s make one thing clear from the outset. What happened at Grenfell Tower in the early hours of 14 June was a tragedy difficult to comprehend. We still don’t know what the final death toll will be, but we do know that dozens lost their lives and hundreds lost their homes and their possessions. These people and their families deserve unstinting sympathy and every ounce of support we can give them.
There was also much that was wrong about the immediate response to the disaster. The Prime Minister made a colossal public relations blunder in failing to meet residents who had lost their homes, all the more so given that Jeremy Corbyn had done so, even if she was quite right to meet and commend the emergency services who had struggled to deal with the blaze and its aftermath. Kensington and Chelsea Council also seemed flat-footed and cloth-eared in their initial response; the leader of the Council, Nicholas Paget-Brown, has now resigned, as has the chief executive, Nicholas Holgate.
The inferno which consumed the tower block raises a number of very serious questions. Were safety provisions adequate? Should sprinklers have been fitted? Did the Fire Brigade have the right equipment? Were warnings from residents’ groups ignored? Did the cladding on the outside of the building contribute to the severity of the fire? In essence, could the blaze have been prevented or at least mitigated, or was it simply a tragedy of the kind that occurs from time to time?
On this point, at least, the Government reacted quickly. It was only on the day after the fire, 15 June, that a full public inquiry was announced. Hardly a laggardly response. A fortnight later, the Government, acting on the advice of the Lord Chief Justice, it should be remembered, appointed Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a former Lord Justice of Appeal, to chair the public inquiry. Sir Martin is a distinguished jurist. He spent 11 years on the Court of Appeal, rising to be Vice-President of the Civil Division. He is a Cambridge graduate, and practised at the Bar for more than 25 years. It is hard to argue that he is not a qualified person to head an important and complex public inquiry.
Yet some people have made just that argument, on the most specious of grounds. David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, criticised Sir Martin for being a “white, upper-middle class man who I suspect has never, ever visited a tower block housing estate”. Mr Lammy went on to lament that a woman or someone from an ethnic minority had not been appointed. This is identity politics at its worst. Mr Lammy conceded – how generous! – that Sir Martin is “eminently legally qualified”, but for him, it would seem, that weighs much less heavily in the balance than the judge’s gender and colour.
Of course, Mr Lammy was at pains to point out that these criticisms were not on his own behalf, but on the part of the victims of the fire. “I think the victims will also say to themselves,” he mused, “when push comes to shove, there are some powerful people here – contractors, sub-contractors, local authorities, governments – and they look like this judge. Whose side will he be on?”
Just think about that for a moment. Here is a senior retired judge of decades of experience on the Bench, being dismissed by a member of the British Parliament as parti pris in chairing a public inquiry on the grounds of his race, gender and age. Can you imagine the outcry if another MP of a different political persuasion called for the removal of, say, a black judge, on the grounds that he would be biased in favour of the residents whose skin colour he shared? His or her career would be over as soon as you could say “Race Relations Act”. And rightly so.
Mr Lammy is not alone. The MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, went further. She did not merely, with a righteous sigh, regret the appointment of Sir Martin to head the inquiry. She has actively said he should stand down and be replaced by someone presumably more ‘appropriate’. She told the Today programme: “How anybody like that could have empathy for what those people have been through, I don’t understand.”
There you have it again. A long and distinguished legal career is dismissed with a wave of the hand as “anybody like that”. Am I the only one who actually feels a shiver of disgust at that? Three words which come so redolent with assumptions, about the subject and about the speaker. A retired judge cannot possibly be empathetic with poor and disadvantaged people, but of course Miss Dent Coad is so virtuous that she understands the victims. If that is not a gross assumption of privilege, I don’t know what is.
Opponents of Sir Martin’s appointment have concentrated particularly on a judgement he gave in the Court of Appeal in November 2014. He and his two fellow Lord Justices ruled that Westminster City Council, offering housing to a woman who had been evicted that was 50 miles away in Bletchley, did not have to explain in detail what accommodation was available in the local area but could take into account a broad range of factors. Inevitably, the cries of outrage went up. The appellant’s solicitor said that the decision gave “the green light for social cleansing of the poor on a mass scale”.
(A brief pause: I find the phrase “social cleansing” particularly appalling. It is, of course, adapted from that rather unpleasant euphemism, ethnic cleansing, which makes me think of the former Yugoslavia. How horrible to use the language of mass murder, of genocide, to describe people being offered public housing in an area other than the one in which they previously lived. But I digress.)
Now, it is true that the 2014 judgement issued by Sir Martin and his colleagues was overturned. In April 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that Westminster City Council had not discharged its statutory obligations to the appellant or her children, and should have explained why it had not offered them accommodation in or close to Westminster. A few things to unpack from that. Yes, the judgement was overturned, and so it could be regarded as in some senses ‘wrong’. But the Supreme Court did not rule that Westminster City Council was wrong to rehouse the family in Bletchley. It ruled that the procedure had not been adequately followed, a rather different matter. Besides, the appeals process in UK courts are to some extent a conversation, a discourse over knotty points of law on which fine judgements must be made. Does this to-do make Sir Martin Moore-Bick unsuitable to lead the Grenfell Tower inquiry? Of course it doesn’t.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m picking on Mr Lammy or Miss Dent Coad for their empty-headed gesture politics. Some have gone even further with more emotive and unpleasant language. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor and MP for the west London constituency of Hayes and Harlington, told the cheering crowd at Glastonbury that those who perished in the Grenfell Tower fire were “murdered by political decisions”. Murdered. Now, I am not a member of the criminal Bar or a lawyer of any kind, but I’m pretty sure that murder requires intent. So what Mr McDonnell is saying is that politicians – presumably the hated Tories – took decisions with the specific intent of killing people like the inhabitants of Grenfell Tower. Not a sin of omission, which would be bad enough, but in his view a specific sin of commission. Mr McDonnell is not a stupid man; he knows what effect the words of politicians have, and what effect his own words have, and yet he said that. I don’t know about you, but that leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
What is most wrong with this furore over Sir Martin’s appointment boils down to something else Miss Dent Coad said. “We need someone who can understand human beings and what they’ve been through.” For her, that’s the alpha and omega of the public inquiry. Someone who can emote. Someone who can feel the pain of others. Never mind a background in law, let alone commercial law which will be a vital part of the inquiry process; never mind a long career of sifting and analysing evidence then delivering a calm, measured and dispassionate verdict based on that evidence. None of that matters to her. Presumably she just wanted to see Sir Martin shed a tear.