Family reflections on Grenfell: No voice left unheard
This article introduces the most important takeaways arising out of a report on INQUEST's Family Consultation Day, which was dedicated to the bereaved families of the Grenfell Tower Fire of June 2017.
London-based charity INQUEST conducted a Family Consultation Day in early 2019, its focus being hearing the voices of the Grenfell Fire victims’ families. The day focused on emergency response services in the aftermath of the fire, opinions on all aspects of the public inquiry and the substantial difficulties faced by families who are not UK residents. The complete report is available here and we have also done a quick summary.
The INQUEST report contains a series of findings on the families’ opinions on the aforementioned topics, recommendations for the government on how to proceed with The Inquiry as well as how to modify public policy in order to prevent such deaths in the future. The key finding of the report is that there has been severe governmental mismanagement of the Grenfell Fire.
- A lack of coordinated emergency response and knowledgeable authority figures - families would wait days, weeks, and in some cases months for confirmation of a death;
- Lack of a timely, independent source of advice from the state to help families negotiate complex matters such as reporting a missing person or determining who had responsibility for their relatives’ bodies or funeral arrangements;
- Concerns regarding the management of the Public Inquiry, which is being led by an individual chair employed by the government as opposed to an independent panel;
- Significantly amplified difficulties for families who are non-resident in the UK: prohibitive costs of participating in the Inquiry and fears that their right to be in the UK be rescinded before the conclusion of the process due to visa uncertainty, unacceptable delays in discovering what had happened to their relatives, need for skilled interpreters.
Families’ suggestions for establishing good practice
- There should be an organised coordinated response from authorities e.g. central and local government and emergency services providing a central point of support for families to contact e.g. for information about missing relatives, legal rights, pastoral support etc. Families described this as a Central Support Hub;
- Families should be given a unique reference number relating to their relatives so each time they contact the authorities, they can just quote the reference number, without going through re-traumatisation by having to repeat the same distressing information;
- There should be free, independent mental health support available for families at the critical early stages;
- Professionals (e.g. keyworkers, FLO’s) dealing with families should receive proper training in the skills required to carry out the role effectively
- Every family should have a trained, lead key worker, independent of the council, with responsibility to communicate information/developments and ensure families have the resources required following a disaster on this scale.
Phase two of the Inquiry
- Phase two of the Inquiry should not start until a diverse decision-making panel is in place
- Families should be engaged in an inclusive consultation exercise to determine a mutually acceptable venue
- Wherever the second phase convenes, it would be useful to have a family centre near the Inquiry so that information and support can be accessed centrally and throughout the proceedings
- The Inquiry room needs to be made more comfortable for families attending and netter facilities need to be arranged and maintained for families
- The layout of the room must situate families at the heart of the proceedings rather than as bystanders
- There needs to be a better way to facilitate those who attend the Inquiry with interpreters
- Families’ lawyers should be able to question witnesses themselves without giving prior notice of questions they want to raise
- Duty of candour - public officials and corporate entities should be held to a duty of candour and should sign up to the Charter for Families Bereaved through Public Tragedy. (The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have signed up to the Charter)
- There needs to be more certainty around dates of hearings with advance notice for families who work/live abroad/have other commitments without unnecessary delay
- The Government should implement a mechanism through which working family members can participate in the Inquiry process without losing their annual leave or having to take unpaid leave, similar to the jury service mechanism
- The Inquiry team must review its communication strategy, recognising that some families are not following the Inquiry team on the Inquiry website or social media, and that it is dealing with a diverse group of people
- Implementation of seminars to help un-pick and understand the technical evidence.
What is most striking is the absolute resilience of the bereaved families who have had to battle trauma and emotional distress mostly on their own, with the support of charities such as INQUEST, The Red Cross, Muslim Aid and Grenfell United. From the very beginning it appears that the families have been left to their own devices – they report that the emergency services teams would sometimes take days, weeks or even months to respond to inquiries regarding victims’ names.
With regard to emergency response, the families underline the importance of access to information – be that with regard to missing relatives, legal rights or pastoral support, central and local authorities ought to ensure that this information is indeed provided, easily accessible and easily understandable. They advise that the professionals handling their cases have proper training in handling delicate situations and people suffering from shock and trauma. The importance of free mental health support is also constantly emphasised.
The goal of the Public Inquiry was to determine what caused the tragedy at Grenfell, but also to make interim recommendations to the government on how to prevent this from happening again. Most families feel that the interim recommendations goal has been abandoned in the process and they are unsure as to whether or not the Inquiry will actually lead to public policy change. The general consensus is that the Public Inquiry should be conducted by a diverse, independent panel, as opposed to the current individual chair appointed by the government.
Not only does the INQUEST report provide unprecedented insight into the systemic flaws of the UK Government’s handling of emergencies, it is moving and personal since it so closely follows the words and emotions of the families involved.