The fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June 2022 was marked with memorial services and a silent walk, mourning the lives lost and irrevocably altered, amid continued calls for change and for justice and accountability. Five years on, no individual or organisation has faced any meaningful accountability, so there is much still to be done, but the inquiry has nevertheless laid strong fact-finding foundations. It has uncovered widespread fraud and systemic failings.
In December 2018, phase 1 of the inquiry, which examined the events of 14 June 2017, came to an end. Over the next 12 months, core participants prepared for phase 2 evidential hearings. In October 2019, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry: phase 1 report
was published, generally making robust factual findings and providing a thorough list of 46 recommendations arising from the phase 1 evidence (HC 49).1See December 2019/January 2020 Legal Action 22.
The phase 1 report gave the bereaved, survivors and residents (BSRs) some reassurance going into phase 2 that government and corporate witnesses would face the same scrutiny that the frontline firefighters received during phase 1.
The phase 2 hearings began in January 2020 with much anticipation. However, hopes for unqualified candour vanished as various corporate core participants asked the inquiry to request an undertaking from the attorney general (AG) that no oral evidence given by a witness during modules 1, 2 and 3 of phase 2 would be used against those witnesses in criminal proceedings. The inquiry granted the applications and the AG duly issued the undertaking
on 26 February 2020.
The module 1 evidence finally began in March 2020. Then, less than three weeks later, faced with a national lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hearings were halted indefinitely. For many, the prospect of remote hearings meant a tension between the urgent need to see the inquiry make progress come what may, and a fear that true accountability could only be achieved if those affected were physically present to hear the oral evidence of those in power. When hearings resumed remotely in early July 2020, core participants and their representatives followed the livestreamed proceedings on YouTube with the benefit of a live transcript and, for a time, witnesses appeared remotely. Despite some further pauses to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions and infections, at the time of writing, the inquiry was entering what was expected to be its final month of evidence, almost 18 months later than originally anticipated.
Phase 2 has comprised eight modules spanning:
1The tower’s refurbishment, including cost-saving efforts, a flawed procurement process and a non-compliant facade design and selection of facade materials.
2The manufacture, testing and marketing of the tower’s facade products, primarily Arconic’s Reynobond PE 55 cladding, Celotex’s RS5000 insulation with a rigid polyisocyanurate foam core (PIR) and Kingspan’s Kooltherm K15 phenolic foam insulation, exposing industry-wide disregard for fire safety, what Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry, referred to as ‘fraud on the market’ and systemic non-compliance with the Building Regulations for buildings over 18 metres tall.
3The management of Grenfell Tower, including Kensington and Chelsea RBC’s and Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation’s failures to maintain fire safety measures, make evacuation provisions for disabled residents, engage a competent fire-risk assessor, address residents’ complaints and consult meaningfully with residents.
4Firefighting, building on the findings in the phase 1 report about failures on the night of the fire, to look more closely at training, policy and management within the London Fire Brigade.
5Central government’s handling of firefighting, testing and certification, the Building Regulations and accompanying guidance, including repeated failures to remedy weaknesses in the regulatory regime highlighted by previous cladding fires.
6How the immediate aftermath of the fire exposed government’s total lack of emergency preparedness, with community and religious groups filling the void left by the state in supporting those left homeless and bereaved by the fire.
7Expert evidence on smoke control systems, the provision and use of water in firefighting, fire testing of cladding products and, finally, toxicology and the causes of incapacitation and deaths of those who died.
8Outstanding evidence and presentations due in July 2022, relating to each individual who died and the circumstances of their deaths.
From this autumn, the panel will consider final recommendations and prepare the phase 2 report, expected to be published in mid-2023. Those seeking compensation wait for the judgment following a case management conference in April on whether to extend the stay in proceedings to allow for further exploration of alternative dispute resolution. The criminal investigation has continued in parallel with the inquiry, but the wait for any criminal accountability will continue for at least two more years, as no charging decisions are to be made until after the phase 2 report is published.