14 September 2017

Significant questions remain over how the Grenfell Tower Inquiry should be run and whether it can meet the scale of public expectation as the inquiry begins, Emma Norris looks at four of the biggest issues that lie ahead.

Grenfell Tower: How to run the public inquiry

It is critical the scope of the inquiry is right.

Public inquiries rarely satisfy everyone and dissatisfaction often hinges on the differences in expectation about what an inquiry intends to do. Objectives vary from making wide-ranging recommendations for change to using the process as a form of catharsis for victims and their families.

The Grenfell Inquiry terms of reference include looking at the causes of the fire itself, the history of the building and the relationship between residents and the local authority. However, the terms do not extend to looking at social housing policy more broadly or the government response to the disaster.

Very broad inquiries such as Chilcot have often ended in disappointment, so a narrow focus might help the Grenfell Inquiry be more effective. But at the Institute for Government event on the Grenfell Inquiry, Victoria Vasey, Director of the North Kensington Law Centre, argued that excluding the bigger questions on housing and social policy missed some of the vital wider context for the disaster. 

Can the inquiry run effectively alongside police investigations and criminal proceedings?

If one of the most important objectives of an inquiry is to establish the truth of what happened then an ongoing legal process can be problematic. A full inquiry can usually only work properly when police investigations and any criminal proceedings have been completed. The Bichard Inquiry into the Soham murders, for instance, did not start until the trial was over. Continuing police inquiries into a series of allegations meant that the Detainees Inquiry had to be wound down, and severely limited what the Leveson Inquiry could reveal and discuss.

This is a big problem when a central objective is to find out what happened. Sir Paul Jenkins QC suggested at the Institute for Government event that in some circumstances, giving witnesses “indemnity” against their testimony being used as the basis for prosecutions is a way around this, but would be inappropriate for the Grenfell Inquiry.

Victims, families and the community must be heard.

After a series of failures around victim and family involvement – perhaps most famously in the first Bloody Sunday Inquiry – the communities directly affected by tragedies are playing a larger role in inquiries. But if there is broad commitment to involving victims, survivors and families in the process of the Grenfell Inquiry, then concerns remain about what is happening in practice.

Emergency legal proceedings were lodged against the Prime Minister, with lawyers for victims arguing the Independent Expert Advisory Panel for the Grenfell Inquiry failed to reflect the background of victims and survivors, though this legal challenge has now been rejected.

We also heard at the Institute for Government event that the survivors – still reeling, in shock and many still in temporary accommodation – are currently struggling to participate in the inquiry as it gathers pace. It is vital to the inquiry’s success that it builds credibility with the community. This will be particularly challenging given the wider political context of the Grenfell tragedy.

Someone needs to be responsible for ensuring the findings lead to change.

Past inquiries have famously made long lists of recommendations, including the Francis Inquiry into the failings at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust came up with almost 200. But the record for inquiries actually resulting in change is much patchier. Dame Janet Smith, who chaired the inquiry into Harold Shipman, has spoken about her ‘disappointment’ at the limited implementation of her recommendations. Inquiries into child abuse cases often come back to the need for better agency join-up – but the recurrence of this recommendation suggests insufficient progress is being made.

There are some hints from past inquiries about how to increase the chances of impact. Limiting the numbers of recommendations made is something the Institute for Government has written about before. Lord Bichard, the Chair of the Soham Inquiry, took the unusual step of convening his inquiry six months after his report to track the implementation of his findings.

Most important of all is being clear about who is responsible for ensuring that the findings of inquiries are acted upon. The Government needs to be held accountable for ensuring the findings of the Grenfell Inquiry are carried through. 

Watch and listen to the full event here

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