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27 January 2020

What will happen in phase two of the Grenfell Tower inquiry?

The company that designed the tower block’s cladding will be under scrutiny.

By New Statesman

Today marks the beginning of phase two of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. The inquiry was commissioned by the UK government in 2017 to examine the circumstances surrounding the fire in Grenfell Tower that year.

How does the inquiry work, and what has it discovered so far? The New Statesman has put together this primer to help readers make sense of it all as it plays out this week:

Is the inquiry run by the government?

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry (GTI) is a public inquiry: all public inquiries are commissioned by the government because they concern matters that pose a “public concern”. The government provides funding for the inquiry and appoints members of the panel. But once instated, the inquiry functions as an independent entity.

So who’s in charge?

Inquiries are led by a panel, which in turn is led by a chairperson. The chairperson for the GTI is Sir Martin Moore-Bick, who retired as a Court of Appeal judge in 2016. He writes the report at the end of each phase, once all the evidence has been heard.

This weekend the most recently appointed panel member, Benita Mehra, resigned. There had been growing concern among victims and their families that she had a conflict of interest because she was formerly president of the Women’s Engineering Society, who received funding from the Arconic Foundation for a conference, the same company who supplied the cladding for the exterior of Grenfell Tower. Grenfell United, a group representing survivors and bereaved families, said the new panellist must be somebody with expertise on “community relations” rather than technical knowledge.

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Richard Millett QC is lead counsel to the inquiry, which means he will lead the examination of evidence, including the questioning of witnesses. He will do this alongside a team of three more QCs (top barristers).

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Are there different sides in the inquiry, like a trial?

No. The purpose of the inquiry is to find out what happened, why, and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. But it is likely that the findings of the inquiry will inform any future legal proceedings, both criminal and civil, which would have a defence and prosecution.

Moore-Bick and then-prime minister Theresa May decided when the inquiry was commissioned that it would not investigate the potential social, economic or political causes of the inquiry, leading to some backlash from survivors and their supporters.

In a 2018 paper, Grenfell United stated that the way residents of the tower were treated by their council landlord before the fire constituted “institutional indifference”.

Why is the inquiry conducted in two phases?

Broadly, phase one sought to determine what happened on the night, while phase two will investigate the underlying causes of the fire. Moore-Bick decided it would be in this order so that what went wrong on the night could be discovered “as quickly as possible”, and the inquiry could recommend safeguarding procedures for other high rise buildings.

The decision proved controversial: phase one was originally expected to conclude in April 2018; in fact, the report was published in October 2019. Changes to fire safety regulations were implemented before his findings were published.

Why is it taking so long?

Moore-Bick has taken an exhaustive approach to gathering evidence – one that, again, has seen him criticised by those who wish him to take a more holistic approach that encompasses broader issues. The inquiry has declared, to date, 75,000 documents relating to phase two.

Did the phase one report blame the Fire Brigade?

Moore-Bick’s report found that the London Fire Brigade suffered “significant systemic failings”. One of the major problems on the night was that residents were advised to stay put in their flats: the standard advice for tower block fires, based on regulations that ensure a fire will be contained to the flat where it broke out.

When the cladding caught fire and the blaze spread, firefighters did not lift their “stay put” advice, causing residents to be trapped. The phase one report was critical of the Fire Brigade as an institution for insufficient training on how to react to this type of situation but praised firefighters’ “courage and devotion to duty”.

Head of the London Fire Brigade Dany Cotton announced she would retire early from her post in December 2019, following calls for her to resign from the survivors and bereaved. She had shocked Grenfell families by saying at a September 2018 inquiry hearing that she “wouldn’t change anything” about the service’s response on the night – remarks that Moore-Bick called “remarkably insensitive”.

What can we expect from phase two?

Phase two will call witnesses involved with refurbishing the tower and installing the cladding, including members from Kensington and Chelsea borough council and the private construction companies responsible for the design. It will seek to identify how the building failed so drastically to prevent a disaster of this scale.

Where is the inquiry taking place?

The phase two hearings will be held at 13 Bishop’s Bridge Road, near Paddington. Phase one was held in Holborn in central London’s legal district. The decision to move to west London followed complaints from the campaign group Justice4Grenfell that the central London location caused travel and childcare problems for those affected by the fire.

Can you go and watch?

There is a live stream of the inquiry available on the website and screened at the Notting Hill Methodist Church. The archive is available on the website and the inquiry’s YouTube channel.

When will phase two be finished?

It is not certain how long phase two will take, but the hearings are likely to conclude sometime in 2021 with the report to follow.