Why has no one been prosecuted for the Grenfell Tower fire?

Many are asking why the investigation into the tragedy is moving so slowly. But a show of alacrity from investigators would be just that: a show.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

27 years. That’s how long the families of victims of Hillsborough had to wait for the second inquest into the tragedy to deliver justice.

If those whose lives have been destroyed by the Grenfell Tower fire have to wait anything approaching that long before being able to achieve some level of closure, it would shame us as a nation.

However, the growing clamour in some quarters to see signs of progress from the police investigating the disaster or from the public inquiry, which continues to hear evidence from survivors and the bereaved, is misplaced.

Earlier this week, social media was abuzz with outrage over a deeply troubling video showing a group of people laughing and joking as they threw a cardboard replica of the tower onto a bonfire. When six men were arrested the very next day, some compared the speed with which the police moved to the apparent stagnation of the investigation into the fire itself.

It’s clearly a stark comparison. But it’s also a spurious one.

Painful as it must be for anyone touched by the events of last June, but in this instance the wheels of justice must be allowed to turn slowly. Any show of alacrity from investigators would be just that: a show.

The vastness of the tragedy of Grenfell is matched by its complexity. The inquiry currently lists more than 550 core participants and has received something in the region of 400,000 documents as evidence. There is no set date for when Sir Martin Moore-Bick will deliver his report, but the feeling is growing among those following the daily evidence sessions that it is in the region of years rather than months.

The same applies to the criminal investigation. We know very little of what the police are doing, and into this vacuum of information has rushed plenty of rumour and innuendo. Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick has said it could be years before her detectives are in position to prosecute anyone.

For a community that has suffered so much, it is likely to be a tortuous wait. But swift justice is for the mob, and the Grenfell community has shown itself to be anything other than that in the 17 months since the fire.

The monthly silent walks through the streets of west London to remember the dead are marked by dignity and respect. They are expressions of quiet rage and of solidarity, of patience and resolve. It’s a lot to ask of people who have suffered that they must continue to do so, yet there is no other way if the aim is to get the right result.

For now, we can only focus on the progress that has been made.

The inquiry has revealed the inadequate preparation of the London Fire Brigade to deal with a blaze of this size. Firefighters on the night appear to have been let down by poor communication systems and inexperience. The LFB is also now being investigated by the police over its “stay put” advice.

Evidence has also brought to light a number of issues associated with the refurbishment of the building, which was completed in 2016, just a year before the fire. In some cases, the inquiry has heard, faulty fire doors were not replaced, while other residents reported repeated power surges and electrical faults.

And then there’s the cladding. Thanks to the dogged reporting of Inside Housing, we now know that government officials were warned of the dangers of the aluminium composite material (ACM) polyethylene cladding used at Grenfell a full two years before it was installed. 

All of this provides pieces of a hugely complicated puzzle, but it is far from a complete picture, and it won’t be for a long time.

It is easy to understand why a community that feels let down – fatally – by those in power should be distrustful of the authorities. And yet trust is essential if we are to get the kind of justice that same community needs.

In the febrile weeks after the fire, the Met’s senior investigating officer Matt Bonner faced a hostile crowd at a public meeting. He was stoic as he told residents that the investigation would “not be quick but it would be thorough”. It wasn’t a popular message, and he allowed people to vent their anger; similarly we must ensure he and his colleagues are allowed to do their job.

Of course, there are grounds for criticism of both the police probe and the inquiry. Perhaps the Met could be more transparent, while the inquiry could certainly, at times, have shown more compassion. After a tragedy of the magnitude of Grenfell, no way forward will satisfy everyone and acrimony will almost always play a part.

Yet this is not an investigation into a group of idiots burning a cardboard box; this is about understanding how and why 72 people were allowed to die entirely avoidable deaths. It should and will take time.

Gavriel Hollander is a freelance journalist, who has worked for Inside Housing and Construction News. Follow him @gavhollander.