Logo

Leslie Thomas QC delivers opening statement at Grenfell Inquiry on behalf of survivors and bereaved families

7 June 2018

Leslie Thomas QCThalia Maragh

Leslie Thomas QC is representing 23 clients including survivors, bereaved family members and loved ones. He is assisted by  Thalia Maragh of Garden Court Chambers and Jamie Burton of Doughty Street Chambers, instructed by Cyrilia Davies Knight of Hudgells Solicitors, Robert Berg of Janes Solicitors, Gary Bromelow of Saunders Solicitors and lay clients from Duncan Lewis Solicitors.

Leslie Thomas QC’s opening statement, below in full, was quoted in the Guardian and the Huffington Post.

Watch the full statement on the Grenfell Tower Inquiry YouTube Channel (01:25:59-01:14:35):

As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”
The late Nelson Mandela

  1. Sir, I am instructed on behalf of 23 clients including survivors, bereaved, family members and loved ones. The various firms of solicitors who instruct me are Duncan Lewis, Hudgell Solicitors, Janes Solicitors and Saunders Solicitors. Assisting me are junior counsel Ms Thalia Maragh and Mr Jamie Burton.
  2. This opening statement is made on behalf of the deceased, survivors, families and victims in the group known as Mr Mike Mansfield of Queen’s Counsel will also be addressing you on behalf of G10. We have ensured that our topics do not overlap.
  3. Too many tears have been shed since the tragedy of this fire on 14 June 2017. Many tears were shed last week during the pen portraits.
  4. No doubt by the end of this inquiry enough will have been shed for a mighty river of sorrow to flow. Lost lives, lost loves, lost opportunities.
  5. We do not want one tear to have been shed in vain.
  6. We do not want one life to have been wasted without proper recourse for justice. We do not want one soul lost to this world to be without any meaning.
  7. On behalf of the families, the survivors, the dead we will not permit or stand idly by, and allow the wretched souls lost on that fateful night, to have passed without a proper accounting for their lives which were prematurely extinguished by toxic smoke, fumes, and fire.
  8. Chairman, and your team, have to understand as I am sure you do, that our duty is to those died, those who survived, their families, their loved ones and their friends, and to the wider community, and they collectively demand of us to pursue doggedly, fearlessly and determinedly the truth, the whole truth and nothing less than the truth as to what happened that night.
  9. Sir, –  have no doubt,  dangerous practices will be exposed in this inquiry and we hope that you and your team will have the courage to stand alongside us to expose wrongdoing where wrongdoing exists.
  10. To that end we want this inquiry to focus on:-

(1) the recent refurbishment to, and cladding of the building

(2) the inadequacy of fire safety measures,

(3) gross mismanagement of the building by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation [the KCTMO] and others and

(4) the treatment of ordinary citizens by the ‘corporates’ and public bodies alike.

The firefighters

  1. There has in the openings by others been criticism of the Firefighters’ capabilities and their reaction on the night, that is something that will undoubtedly be considered. However, we must not lose sight of the primary issues. Let us turn to them.

The refurbishment

  1. We say this, that those responsible for allowing this situation to get to the stage where 72 souls were lost in the most horrendous and awful way, should hang their heads in collective shame.
  2. Not only was there the tragedy of death, but also let us not forget that many people were injured both physically and mentally and an entire community became homeless from this building and the surrounding area. There are many important questions that arise.
  3. Needless to say, it is absolutely imperative that this inquiry identifies the failures that caused the loss of life and terrible harm to many others. Equally important, all those responsible MUST be held to account.
  4. One of our clients has said that the refurbishment changed the building from being an “ugly and safe council block” to a “death trap that looked like a pretty private block”.
  5. Whilst those responsible for the refurbishment may dispute just how unsafe they made Grenfell Tower, it is incontrovertible that the Tower was intentionally rendered significantly less safe by the introduction of highly flammable material to its structure and exterior.
  6. We do not yet know everything about what happened, but it would seem that this fact was never communicated to the London Fire Brigade.
  7. The fire-safety of several hundred people deliberately compromised in their own homes and yet the public servants ultimately responsible for protecting them in the event of a fire are simply never told, still less consulted.
  8. Moreover, as Barbara Lane notes, at no time did an independent public official interrogate and conduct due diligence of the corporate decision-making that ultimately led, inexorably and predictably, to the prioritisation of profit over safety.
  9. Leaving aside, for now, any ambiguities in the regulatory regime and the culpability of those involved, this is an alarming state of affairs. By design, complacency, error, or all of these, the state palpably failed in its primary duty to protect its citizens.
  10. As for the corporates…. Silence speaks a thousand words.
  11. The state may have failed to protect the residents of Grenfell from dangerous costs cuts and penny-pinching but have no doubt the Inquiry will not stop there, for we shall not let it. Any attempt to mislead or distract, rewrite history or blame others in an attempt to conceal the truth, will be met with unwavering resistance.
  12. Sir, once you have heard the evidence, you may conclude that for too long representatives of the corporate sector have encountered a state too willing to bow to their demands, too susceptible to manipulation in favour of their interests. Unwilling or ill-equipped to stand firm behind the public interest in the face of corporate greed, the state has permitted a culture of corporate impunity to take root.
  13. Sir, whilst the extinction of this culture is beyond the powers of any single person or judge, you and your team can surely contribute to its dismantling by joining us in ensuring that by holding those responsible for this terrible fire, this Inquiry marks the beginning of its end.

The warnings from the occupants and mismanagement

  1. The role of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation [KC TMO] is significant– it had an accepted management role and was funded by the local authority. The failure of KC TMO to engage with the residents of Grenfell Tower and action their concerns about safety of the building exemplifies this erosion of the state’s social obligation to the residents.
  2. In March 2017, Mr Shah Ahmed, the chair of the leaseholders’ association asked that RBKC conduct a full health and safety audit of Grenfell Tower. He delivered a full dossier to RBKC just two weeks before the fire. He repeatedly asked the KC TMO to provide and carry out a fire drill and queried the absence of any fire safety advice for the residents of the Tower.
  3. The Grenfell Tower fire is what happens when ordinary people are ignored – it is a direct consequence of that failing.

Proper participation in this inquiry

  1. Allied to this, we trust and hope that during this inquiry we that is the lawyers representing the families, survivors, the dead, will be permitted to ask proper and relevant questions – and we are mindful to remind this inquiry that should the residents, bereaved and survivors not be allowed to ask proper and relevant questions through and by their own counsel, this inquiry has the danger of having the perception of becoming a ‘white wash’.
  2. If the residents, bereaved and survivors are told you can not ask questions through their own lawyers in this inquiry, that perception will be perpetuated.
  3. A powerless group of people will be rendered a voiceless group of people. Insult will be added to grave injury.
  4. A group that should be at the centre of the Inquiry will find themselves at the periphery, marginalised once again ignored.
  5. It is in your power your gift to grant this.
  6. Remember Sir, that these good people were not listened to when their justifiable and legitimate concerns were raised and seek your reassurance that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated here. Sir you need not worry, the questions that will ask will not be repetitious or irrelevant.  But pointed, proper and pertinent.  It is important that our clients feel and see that they have an equality of arms in this hearing. Your trust to us will not be abused.

The Inquiry must not contribute to the stigmatisation of council housing or council tenants.

  1. Sir, permit me share with you one of life’s ironies, coincidences or perhaps quirks.
  2. It may not have escaped your attention that I am of African Caribbean descent.
  3. Both my parents were part of that Windrush generation came here to the UK in the very early ’60s as British dependents to assist with the rebuilding of our country and looking to improve their own lives and create opportunities for their children. Many of the occupants of Grenfell made similar journeys.
  4. My parents, from different Caribbean islands, met in West London. They fell in love and moved onto the Latimer Road. Within a stone’s throw of the site where the Grenfell Tower would later be constructed.
  5. They would later move to Talbot Road, just off Portbello Road which is where I was born.
  6. Our landlord there was a gentleman called Mr Rachman.
  7. Sir, in the ’50s and ’60s, this was a time when if you were a person of colour it was extremely difficult to secure decent rented accommodation in the private sector.
  8. Rental advertisements and signs in people’s windows were not particularly inviting or welcoming. Adverts were common Room to rent but no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs. Remember this was a time before this country had proper and effective anti-discrimination laws.
  9. Not all Private landlords unwilling to rent people of colour, for some the colour of your money was more important that the colour of your skin. However, with very little housing rights to tenants many of the properties rented were not particularly fit for habitation or was in poor state of repairs.  And tenants had to tolerate this if they wanted to keep a roof over their heads.
  10. Social housing outside the private rented sector was therefore extremely important for all people and especially if you were a person of colour because the market choice was limited. It became vital.
  11. Life coincidences do not stop there. My parents were married in the local Notting Hill Methodist church that now stands in the shadows of Grenfell.  Sir, I’m sure you know it is the very church which is doing such great work under the stewardship of the Rev Mike Long and other community leaders for many of the victims and local community affected by this tragedy.  At this very moment there is a live link showing this inquiry for members of the Grenfell community in that church.
  12. That is the very same church where at the tender age of three months I was baptised.
  13. So, yes, I was born in the Grenfell area, although at the time of my birth the tower had yet to be constructed. That would not happen until 1974.
  14. So in a way, this case, this tragedy, this devastation, resonates with me on a very personal level.
  15. Sir, there is no inherent problem with tower blocks – they are the foundation of many strong neighbourhoods and communities. People enjoy living in them. Grenfell Tower was part of a strong and vibrant community in Lancaster West Estate and North Kensington.
  16. The problem is poorly maintained tower blocks.
  17. We want to be clear that it is important not to stigmatise social housing or the people who live in social housing. Social housing is necessary for the provision of accommodation in this country and the notion that, the residents of Grenfell Tower deserved less and they were lesser citizens because they lived in social housing needs to be debunked.
  18. This stigma, which undoubtedly exists, reflects recent political attitudes towards council housing and council tenants.
  19. In 1975, more than a third of the population was housed in council housing. This was a major achievement of post-war reconstruction and improvement of pre-war housing conditions. It benefited the lives of many people.
  20. By the 1980s a rise in home ownership was promoted by the introduction of the tenant’s right to buy council housing, which was of itself unproblematic.
  21. However, the sale of council housing was accompanied by the simultaneous imposition of serious restrictions on the ability of councils to replenish their stock. That process continued with the forced privatisation of much council housing across the country and the increased commodification of housing generally. Owning one’s home was no longer enough – one had to also get onto the “housing ladder.” A home has become not only a place in which to live but an investment opportunity, transfer of public housing stock into private hands, and simultaneously making the remaining council housing less well supported and appealing as an option.
  22. Of course, the inquiry will know that the stereotype does not match the reality of Grenfell Tower. The Inquiry knows that the occupants of Grenfell Tower and the estate of which it was part were mixed and as varied as the population of the great city in which they lived. A significant number of people owned their own homes.
  23. But the perception was there: council housing is for those who have failed in life. People who need to be managed, not embraced or admired. Desperate people without the agency to improve their lives: the destitute, disenfranchised, vulnerable and voiceless. Descriptions not of the people themselves, but of what society has done to them.
  24. This attitude and stereotyping is what allowed the cost cutting and the use of deadly materials to become normalised.
  25. It also led to some appalling and false media reporting after the event which exemplified the prejudice against those people who were living in council housing and tower blocks.
  26. Like all prejudice, that which is based on socio-economic status is based on false stereotypes and stigmatisation. It is deeply cultural as well as social. This inquiry is of course not only a legal process but a cultural and social event, whether or not that fact is fully embraced by the Inquiry.
  27. It is imperative that the inquiry does not even inadvertently confirm the stereotypes around council housing, even when expressing sympathy with victims of the fire. They were not helpless, they just were not helped.
  28. In concrete terms the inquiry can also contribute to minimising the impact of socio economic disadvantage by recommending that s.1 of the Equality Act 2010 is finally brought into force (the “public sector socio economic duty”). Had it been in force at the time of the refurbishment it would have required the public bodies involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower to explain at the time why it was considered acceptable to recklessly cut costs when refurbishing a publicly owned building in the richest borough in the sixth richest country in the world.

Legacy beyond council housing and fire risk

  1. This inquiry’s legacy can and should go beyond a focus on fire safety in tower blocks, essential as that is.
  2. The inquiry stands in a unique and unprecedented position to recommend that the right to adequate housing is enshrined in our law. It is a fact that the residents’ concerns about the building in which they lived were not reflected in their legal rights. DESPITE PAYING THEIR RENT they had no ABSOLUTE private law right to live in a safe and habitable home, free of the risk of imminent destruction, but only to a home in a state of repair, and their ability to enforce even that right was undermined by the scarcity of legal aid. This must change.
  3. More than anything the Grenfell Tower disaster was a profound breach of the universal human right to an adequate home Unfortunately, whilst long since recognised as a human right in international law, successive UK governments have refused to incorporate the right into domestic law and allow our courts to uphold it.
  4. An “adequate home” is one that is not in only in a state of repair but also where the physical safety of occupants is guaranteed. There can be little doubt that had the residents of Grenfell Tower been able to directly enforce their right to an adequate home in court then at least some of the fire risks that now we know were present on 14 June 2017 would have been identified and rectified before they came to pass with such awful consequences.
  5. An enforceable right to housing would ensure that this most basic of necessities for a fulfilling and healthy life would be protected for all, whatever the shortcomings in the law, policy or practice that regulates housing in this country. It would provide the ultimate fall-back protection.
  6. The Inquiry stands in a unique and unprecedented position to recommend that the right to adequate housing is enshrined in our law.

The people living in the Grenfell community

  1. It is important to remember that the people who live in a tower block are not members of a homogenous group. They are reflective of the wider society and hard-working people who make a valuable contribution to our society.
  2. Ahmed (the son of Elsah Elgwahry and brother of and Mariem Elgwahry) said this: there is a misconception that those living in social housing are simply a group of uneducated and second-class citizens that should be thankful for living in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea.
  3. However, the reality of the lives of many of the residents of Grenfell Tower show otherwise – Gloria Trevisan was an architect, Mohamed Amied Saber Neda had his own chauffeur business for the last 10 to 15 years of his life, his son Farhad Neda graduated from Kingston University with a BSc in engineering, Mary Mendy was a carer and worked in the community, her daughter Khadija was a talented artist at the start of a very promising career, Pilly Burton worked as a contract manager for several years for several hospitals in and around the area, including St Charles Hospital for many years, Debbie Lamprell worked at Holland Park Opera House, Hamid Kani was a talented chef, Mariem Elgwahry was a successful graduate from Roehampton University, a primary carer for her mother, a young marketing manager making positive strides in her early career.
  4. The spirit of the Notting Hill Carnival following the fire embodied the spirit of community which is also clear when going through 999 calls made on the night. They came together, that community sought refuge in the block to the end. They may have had the crumbs from the table of richest borough in country, but they were nevertheless a strong community.
  5. As we heard from the testimony of the family members of the bereaved, friends and members of the Grenfell community, Grenfell and the residents captured the essence of community life:
  • Flora Neda, Saber’s wife, said: “We were a close community at Grenfell Tower and our door was always open to our neighbours. Sadly, we have lost many friends and neighbours in the fire, including two young girls on our floor who would regularly come into our flat to see us.
  1. The term “community” is used with the positive and not negative connotations synonymous with “disenfranchised”. The concept of a vertical village we suggest is apt because it simply means what we remember from a bygone age of an old fashioned “community”– Grenfell was not a ghetto or an old people’s home, it was a traditional community, diverse and vibrant. The loss of which is not just personal to many but to society as a whole.
  2. Grenfell tower was a mirror of our society – particularly in our great capital city. It is not about one particular ethnic group or class group – Grenfell Tower fire is a tragedy that has affected a wide range of ordinary people. A few examples – Raymond Moses Bernard – whose parents were a part of the Windrush Generation, from Trinidad. Marjorie Vital, flat 162 who died along with her son Ernie, came from the Caribbean island of Dominica. Dennis Murphy was from an Irish family. Mohamed Amied Saber Neda was from Afghanistan. Mary Mendy from the Gambia. Pilly Burton – Spain. Zaineb Dean – Sierra Leone. The Choucair family from Lebanon. Mohammad AL-HAJ Ali from Daraa, a city in south-western Syria. Gloria Trevisan and Marco Gottardi flat 202 – Italians. Hamid Kani flat 154 from Tehran, Iran. Berkti Haftom – Eritrian.
  3. We agree with Mr Khan that the terms of the inquiry should be broadened, for the elephant in the room must be to what extent did the fact that the residents were or were perceived to be predominantly poorer members of the borough, contribute to the incident. And race should also be considered.
  4. The residents of Grenfell Tower and the Lancaster West Estate were left isolated by the central government after the fire – It is difficult to believe there could be such inhumanity. It was the people of London and not the local or central government that initially responded to the Grenfell Tower fire.
  5. It should also not be forgotten that many people are still not housed and remain in temporary accommodation battling with the authorities to be appropriately rehoused – they are still being ignored.
  6. Additionally, many of the residents and survivors of the fire are and continue to suffer the mental anguish and effects of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the horrors of the night and the aftermath of the fire.
  7. Our clients – victims residents, the bereaved and survivors, are dignified people who have maintained this dignity, despite their tragedy. They have placed a lot of trust in this inquiry, that trust has been front-loaded because this inquiry has yet to start. But there is no reason for our clients to believe that their trust has been misplaced.  We are sure that you will wish to repay that trust.
  8. They are seeking answers from this inquiry which will involve the asking of difficult questions, but the asking of such questions is the very nature of the beast and purpose of the public inquiry.
  9. It is important to recognise that this fire occurred at a time when there are issues with legal aid cuts, a time when there is an assault on rights and even the enforcement of rights in any event. The contract between the individual and the state is based upon enforceable rights, the method of enforcement has been lost to many less wealthy individuals.
  10. The very risk of fire is a very emotive thing for everyone – that is why this tragedy hit home for so many people, up and down this country – there was nothing the residents could do. The tower was meant to be building regulation compliant but it so obviously not.
  11. This incident raises issues across the country on every building where this such cladding is being used. We support the recommendation that there be a temporary ban on anything but A1 classified external cladding on new and existing buildings.
  12. As part of its legacy the Inquiry must seek to ensure that a zero-risk approach to fire safety in tower blocks prevails.
  13. Some of the residents on the top floors of Grenfell Tower had disabilities. Why were persons with disability, which affected their mobility housed on the top floors, where in the event of fire there were no means of evacuation in the event the lifts failed. Additionally, in terms of firefighting response, there were no fire hoses long enough to extend from the ground to fight fires on the upper floors.
  14. Important questions to consider are why the refurbishment was needed. Do not misunderstand what we say about this. Everyone is entitled to a more aesthetically pleasing environment to live in. However, the question must be asked whether the refurbishment was simply about beautifying of the tower, it not being lost that the building in its previous form may have been considered an eyesore to some of the wealthier residents in this borough. It is a legitimate question to ask whether the money spent on the tower was not for the residents but for more wealthy people living in the borough, so that the tower was more aesthetically pleasing to them. This is not to suggest, that poor people should live in ugly blocks, but the point is beautifying at what cost? Were the materials used second rate? Yes, – everyone deserves to live in a nice home, but the way it was refurbished shows that it was not done with the welfare of the residents in mind.
  15. One of our clients, Mr Bonifacio was retired, elderly and blind. He lived on the 11th floor, which was the 8th floor before the refurbishment, and had lived there for 36 years. He could work his way around prior to the refurbishment. However, there was no consultation with him about his needs, signage or allowances for him and his disability as a part of the process of the refurbishment. On the night of the fire his daughter in law rang 999 at least 4 times [02:58:52, 03:57:28, 04:41:00, 05:31:00,] she was told to tell him to get out if he could. He could not as it was. Let us reflect upon what that means, he was condemned to die.
  16. This leads to the next questions, to what extent did fire safe regulations, Fire safety guidance and evacuation procedure take into account the vulnerabilities of children, the disabled and infirmed. 18 children died in the fire at Grenfell Tower. The number of children who were trapped in the Tower, as was bourne out in the 999 calls and whose ultimate fates were sealed as the fire raged, highlights the need for training, clear guidance and strict compliance with regulations around evacuation of the vulnerable and children.
  17. We would expect the inquiry to investigate whether the Fire Service lacked adequate resources and direction when they attended this fire. Have cuts to the fire service, or deregulation contributed to what happened on 14 June 2017?
  18. Take the following namely the National Fire Training Centre, Call Centre and Building Control – all of which were examples of the effects of deregulation which played out on the night.
  19. If it be subsequently shown to be true that deregulation had an impact and contributed to the Grenfell Fire then everyone can understand that, it adds to the outrage, of the voiceless, their frustration and its foreseeability. People loved living at Grenfell Tower there and they were entitled to feel, and to be, safe there.
  20. Firefighters do an important job, and often put themselves at serious risk in doing it. But if we are going to expect them to put their lives on the line, then the public can expect them to be trained and organized to a high standard. The public can also expect that landlords use proper building materials, and that residents are kept as safe. There will always be accidents involving fire but we can and must do more to minimise these risks. Every effort should be made to ensure that deaths by fires in these blocks are avoided.

(Before my concluding remarks, Sir I wish to address you briefly on) The Panel

  1. We welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to appoint panel members to sit with you during phase 2 of the inquiry. Given, however, the inextricable link between the evidence which will be heard during phases 1 and 2 to the cause of the fire and the disaster that unfolded on the 14th June 2017, it is imperative that the panel members are appointed at the earliest to enable them to hear evidence during phase 1 of the proceedings; in particular, the testimonies of the true experts of Grenfell Tower – the residents and survivors of the fire. We also press our call for the appointment of panel members with a true understanding of the ethnic and socially diverse community of Grenfell Tower.

In concluding

  1. Our clients want to whole truth from this Inquiry. If there was wrongdoing on the part of individuals, any corporate body or otherwise from the top down, they want that wrongdoingproperly scrutinised, fairly examined and rightfully exposed. This should all be done in the most open way as is possible in the context of this inquiry, without fear or favour.
  2. They want nothing less than the complete story in relation to the circumstances of how 72 people were killed, told in an honest and unvarnished way.
  3. If wrongdoing is found, they want the Chairman to give a full report explaining how those deaths occurred and recommendations to prevent similar fatalities occurring again in the future. This is the price that they ask for their trust.
  4. The public and our clients have the right to know that these deaths and losses have not been in vain. They want this so that at the very least they can know that lessons have been learned. Out of this tragedy some good may occur and hopefully prevent others suffering the pain they have suffered.
  5. A profound respect for the sanctity of human life underpins our system of common law as it also underpins the jurisprudence under articles 1 and 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
  6. This not only means that the state must not unlawfully take life but must also take appropriate legislative and administrative steps to protect lives.
  7. The purposes of this investigation are clear:
  • to ensure so far as possible that the full facts are brought to light;
  • that culpable and discreditable conduct is exposed and brought to public notice;
  • that suspicion of deliberate wrongdoing (if unjustified) is allayed;
  • that dangerous practices and procedures are rectified; and
  • that those who have lost their relative(s) may at least have the satisfaction of knowing that lessons learned from their deaths may save the lives of others.
  1. Let me repeat that last one, – that those who have lost their relatives or loved ones may at least have the satisfaction of knowing that lessons learned from the deaths may save the lives of others.
  2. Accordingly, Sir, you and your team carry a huge burden on your shoulders during this inquiry.
  3. We are here to help you on that journey to assist you in lightening your load.
  4. Let the words of the late Dr Martin Luther King Jr be your guiding light through this inquiry: –

Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Martin Luther King, Jr

Leslie Thomas QC is a member of the Garden Court Chambers Inquests and Inquiries Team.

Menu