"We can't breathe" - Oral statement by Professor Leslie Thomas QC to the Grenfell Inquiry on behalf of bereaved, residents and survivors

Tuesday 7 July 2020

Statement made by Professor Leslie Thomas QC on behalf of bereaved, residents and survivors including those represented by Allison Munroe QC & Thalia Maragh of Garden Court Chambers and Birnberg Peirce, Saunders Law, Duncan Lewis, Deighton Pierce Glynn, Russell Cooke and Saunders Solicitors.

Professor Leslie Thomas QC addressed the Inquiry's human rights and equality duties to investigate the issues of race and discrimination during phase 2 of the Inquiry by an appropriately qualified and diverse panel, with the assistance of similarly qualified and diverse assessors and experts. The statement was featured heavily in the press, including Channel 4 NewsBBC News, ITV NewsEvening Standard, The Telegraph, The Metro, Inside Housing and many others. Please see ITV News' coverage below.

Please see the statement in full below, including a recording of the full statement.

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“Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected – those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! – and listens to their testimony. Ask….any black man, any poor person – ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it.” - James Baldwin

Timing of the Submissions

  1. You may be wondering why these submissions are being made now. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is investigating the fire which caused the deaths of 72 individuals and the dismantling of a community. You have rightly confirmed that Article 2 is engaged. Article 14 prohibits discrimination in the ambit of any of the rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. As we have set out in our written submissions, which is worth repeating, the Article 2 procedural duty, read with Article 14, requires this Inquiry to investigate whether discrimination, including race discrimination was a contributing factor to the Grenfell fire and the loss of lives.
  2. The Grenfell fire did not happen in a vacuum and we must be cognisant of the prevailing socio - economic and political realities of the time. This was not simply a local tragedy for West London. It had and has national and global ramifications. Those who are affected come from a culturally, racially, ethnically, religiously and economically diverse group. This disaster happened within a pocket of one of the smallest, yet richest boroughs in London. London being the richest city in the UK. The UK being one of the richest countries in Europe and the World. And yet the community affected was predominantly working class.  That is the stark reality that cannot be ignored; the impact of race and poverty on this disaster and this Inquiry must not ignore them.
  3. We make these submissions not as an adjunct to this Inquiry or as a soft or tangential issue. These are central to the investigative duty to be discharged in the course of this Inquiry, and are founded on sound legal principles and established law.
  4. You may be thinking, Mr Thomas, we are aware of this obligation why are you reminding us? What has changed? Our discussion about Race and the recognition of the need for a cultural shift around race and discrimination.  Firstly, Covid19, which has brought about unprecedented changes to the world, claimed the lives of over 500,000 worldwide; over 44,000 lives in the UK to date. It certainly would not be lost on the panel that a disproportionate number of those who have died in the UK are people of colour.  
  5. Secondly, the death of George Floyd, in the United States of America – the now familiar horrific footage of George Floyd being asphyxiated to death – his last breathe squeezed from his body, by a white police officer kneeling in his neck as he begged for his life, called for his dead mother and uttered the words ‘I can’t breathe” until he could no longer speak. The global outpouring of protests gives a voice to the collective pain and anger. His murder has particular resonance with the Black community in the UK as there is a disproportionate number of black people who are stopped and searched by the police and who die in police custody.  George Floyd’s death has also reignited the conversations around class, poverty, inequality and race discrimination in this country.
  6. The advent of the mobile phone and rolling news allows us all to see in real time as events unfold and nothing can be hidden. Just as with George Floyd’s death, so too with Grenfell, we collectively were viewers and quasi eye witnesses to those horrific deaths.
  7. It has been over 21 years since the publication of the Macpherson report into death of Stephen Lawrence which concluded that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist. Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton first wrote of the institutional racism in 1967 in their book Black Power: the Politics of Liberation:
  8. When a black family moves into a home in a white neighbourhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which most people will condemn. But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. The society either pretends it does not know of this latter situation, or is in fact incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.
  9. Institutional or systemic racism shows in the disproportionate numbers of people of colour are impacted by unequal treatment. In our opening subs literally years ago now we drew your attention to the report by Dr Marie Stewart.  Again I would commend that report to the inquiry team.  It is a concise but very trenchant piece of work.  It explains in very clear terms why issues of diversity are so important in the context of a disaster.  Dr Stewart makes parallels with other inquiries, such as the Lawrence Inquiry, and how an awareness of diversity and inclusion was fundamental to enhancing public confidence and community engagement, and ultimately added value. The Grenfell Tower inquiry would do well to learn from this and how investigating issues of race and poverty can garner the confidence of the local community, encourage their engagement and feelings of inclusion in the procedures in order to improve the investigation by learning the lessons on the importance of social, cultural diversity and poverty.
  10. What does Covid 19 have in common with Grenfell? Race and poverty. A disproportionate number of people of colour have died during the Covid19 pandemic and the majority of the Grenfell Residents were people of colour backgrounds and we know that the majority of those who died as a result of the fire were people of colour. The statistics are glaring and provide a stark and continuous reminder that Grenfell is inextricably linked to race. It is the elephant in the room.

  11. Despite living in one of the most developed nations in the West, poverty is never far from the political agenda. COVID-19 highlighted the fault lines in UK society and how as ever, the poor bear the brunt of the hardships. Grenfell too exposes those fault lines. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is home to such exclusive addresses as: Knightsbridge, South Ken, Chelsea Harbour, Belgravia. Does anyone seriously believe such a disaster would have been allowed to happen to a block of flats in one of those areas? How resources are spent and allocated, how residents are treated and consulted, how seriously their legitimate concerns are dealt with, are all impacted by WHO those residents are and how they are valued.
  12. Social housing in this country, which once provided homes for a substantial proportion of the population, has in recent decades become a residualised service for the very poor.  This disaster happened in a city where there is one housing system for the rich and another for the poor. That social, political and economic context cannot be ignored or brushed aside in investigating it. Nor can it be decoupled from race, in a context where people of colour are disproportionately likely to be poor and to live in social housing.
  13. Disability- We are also looking at a community with a large proportion of whom were disabled, many of whom were placed on the higher floors. It must be morally repugnant that so many of the most vulnerable individuals in society, found themselves discriminated against in this way and placed so directly in danger.

  14. By way for reminder – the ethnic breakdown of those who died which is listed in our written submissions is worth repeating:
  15. 4 people who lost their lives were visiting the Tower. The remaining 67 people were Grenfell residents:
    32 were from the Middle East and North Africa.
    9 were from East Africa.
    7 were White British or White Irish heritage[1].
    5 were from West Africa.
    5 were from Bangladesh or of Bangladeshi heritage[2].
    3 were from the Caribbean.
    3 were from Europe.
    1 was from the Philippines[3].
    1 was of Colombian heritage[4].
    1 was of unknown BAME heritage[5].
  16. It is also worth highlighting the statistics [at para 8 and 9 of our written submissions] to put the figures and disparity into context:
  17. In 2017, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea had a population of 153,000, of which 63.4% of residents were White[6]. And yet of the 67 residents of Grenfell Tower who died in the fire, 57 (85%) were BAME[7].
  18. In the English Housing Survey 2017-2018, it was found that 40% of those living in high rise buildings in the social rented sector are Black, Asian or other. This, compared to the percent of the population (14%), is high.[8] The danger to those living in high rise buildings is significantly higher, especially to those living on higher floors. Most of those who died in the Grenfell Tower fire were from higher floors.
  19. The comparison is stark and the associated risk clear.
  20. George Floyd - what else do the circumstances of his death have in common with Grenfell?
  21. George Floyd’s last words… ”I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe…” were a chilling reminder of the experiences of the survivors and, sadly, some of the last words of those who died. A 999 call at 02:15:07 from someone on the 12th floor reported seeing fireballs and said “we can’t breathe”. Jessica Urbano reported that Raymond Moses Bernard couldn’t talk to the operator because he was “struggling to breathe”. And as she herself became progressively unresponsive her final words were “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe no more…”
  22. Some of the survivors and bereaved have highlighted the similarity of the last words of a black man who died at the hands of the state to the last words of their friends and loved ones, most of who were from ethnic minority backgrounds. The words “WE CAN’T BREATHE” projected on Grenfell Tower for the eyes of the world, on the eve of the resumption of the Inquiry say it all. 
  23. You too may have recognised the parallel themes: race and state obligation are at the heart of all three cases - Grenfell, Covid 19 and George Floyd.
  24. Some will argue that the Grenfell Inquiry has adopted a dilatory approach to its investigation of the issues of race and equality which is in keeping with a tendency to shy away or gloss over complaints of racism or systemic inequality. These are uncomfortable subjects.
  25. In this regard, I place this charge to the Inquiry – you sir and the panel: this is your time of action to break the cycle of disengagement with the issue of race and inequality. One of the questions you undoubtedly ask yourselves must be what is the legacy for which I will be remembered? You will undoubtedly want to be on the right side of history.

    The Panel
  26. It has been 3 years 3 weeks and 1 day since the fire [14th June 2017] and over 2 years since the PM’s decision [10th May 2018] to appoint an additional two panel members to sit with you in recognition of the scale and breath of issues to be considered by the Inquiry. The resumption of hearings yesterday without a full panel constituted by people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and experiences, with one of the two assessors missing, risks breaching the Article 2 procedural obligation and the PSED for the reasons were have set out in our written submissions. These matters are further compounded by the ongoing failure to instruct an expert to report on the history of social housing, the role of tenant voices and tenant participation, as well as an understanding of how inequality and discrimination occur. It is now an immediate and pressing imperative to fill these missing roles, for the Inquiry to continue without them undermines it.

    The need to remind the Inquiry of its Art 2/14 obligation to investigate matters of race and discrimination.
  27. We are conscious that the Inquiry has heard from very few witnesses during Module 1 because of the intervening application for the AG undertaking and Covid19. We would expect that that the Inquiry’s approach to the questioning of witnesses giving evidence in Module 1 and subsequent phase 2 modules will be undertaken with sufficient scrutiny to discharge its Art 2/14 duties and the PSED. We note that Bruce Sounes is due to return on 13/7 and expect that he will be asked the relevant questions by the Inquiry or that Rule 10 applications will be made by the families. We would expect that the Exova, Rydon, Osbourne & Berry, Building Control and KCTMO witnesses as well as the experts will need to be questioned on issues relating to consultation, discrimination, and disability. The Exova witnesses Terry Ashton and Tony Pearson will need to be questioned on matters relating to the needs of the residents (including mobility, age and disability) living in Grenfell Tower and the needs of the residents likely to live in High Rise Buildings, in the preparation of the fire safety strategy (with particular regard to Approved Document M - concerning access to and use of building), consultation with the residents and the use of information obtained from consultation. Bruce Sounes will need to be questioned about resident consultations, how these impacted on the design, how the residents’ needs were considered in the design, and what consideration was given to Approved Document M.

  28. I have faith in you, despite the fact that the panel is white and justice is colour blind, let us turn to the reality of the optics which does not appear to be colour blind.
  29. We can’t be colour blind in looking at the make up of the Grenfell Residents. The fire wasn’t colour blind – the majority of the people who died were black and brown people. The majority of those who died were working class, many disabled. There is, as you are aware at the very least public suspicion that race and discrimination were factors that made Grenfell Tower unsafe and endangered the lives of the residents and ultimately led to their deaths. These are the uncomfortable realities that cannot be ignored. And so, if only to allay those suspicions, the issue of the race and discrimination must be investigated in order to discharge the Art 2 obligation and the PSED.
  30. Equally, the second panel member from a diverse ethnic background with the relevant expertise must be appointed. So must an assessor and expert in social housing, with an understanding of inequality and discrimination and the role of tenant voices and participation, who must be instructed to report on these matters as a matter of urgency.
  31. Finally, I am conscious that I am able to address the Inquiry in real time, which none my clients are able to do, neither through physical attendance or through an online platform that allows for real time dynamic engagement.
  32.  Our repeated requests for such an interactive platform for just the advocates on behalf of clients to allow us to participate in real time has been refused.
  33. Our requests that a platform such as zoom (currently used in another inquiry), or Skype for Business being used in Criminal courts  or any other online interactive platforms used in Courts and tribunals across the country since the lockdown have been dismissed.
  34. Our clients’ perception is that the inquiry is deaf to their concerns and their lawyers are being silenced, and side lined to the status as “youtube watchers”. 
  35. That their voices have been locked out of the process; reduced to emailing questions or requests for interventions to the “solicitors’ mailbox”.
  36. They do not and cannot feel in the circumstances, that they are at the heart of this process.
  37.  During a period of reduced physical attendance at the Inquiry, I wouldn’t anticipate that an interactive platform which is controllable by your team and dignified is unachievable or difficult. My final plea to you is to request on the families’ behalves that such provision is put in place.
  38.  Additionally, as you are aware, for some families effective engagement means being allowed to physical attend the hearings to see witnesses giving their evidence in person.  
  39. A marginalisation of families and advocates from real time engagement renders their participation ineffective. 
  40. That should not be the Grenfell legacy. Ineffective participation reduces access to justice. Reduced access to justice leads to a lack of justice and a lack of justice is just another way of saying this is unjust.

Please see the full recording of Leslie's opening statement below.

[1] Denis Murphy, Flat 111; Steve Power, Flat 122; Sheila, Flat 132; Deborah Lamprell (Flat 161); Victoria King and Alexandra Atala (Flat 172); and Tony Disson (Flat 194).

[2] Rabeya Begum, Kamru Miah, Mohammed Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and Husna Begum, Flat 142

[3] Ligaya Moore, Flat 181

[4] Jessica Urbano Ramirez, Flat 176

[5] Joseph Daniels, Flat 135.

[6] London Datastore: Ethnic Groups by Borough https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/ethnic-groups-borough

[7] See Analysis of those who died at the end of this document.

[8] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/english-housing-survey-2017-to-2018-households

Chapter 1 Annex Table 1.3 . Non White= 40.11 percent of persons dwelling in high rise flats.

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