Heckles as Grenfell Tower inquiry chairman concludes opening statement

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At least 80 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire
At least 80 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire
14 September 2017 1:15PM

The first hearing of the Grenfell Tower public inquiry concluded to a chorus of heckles after a prominent lawyer attempted to quiz the probe's chairman.

In an opening statement, Sir Martin Moore-Bick told the packed Grand Connaught Rooms in Holborn, central London, that his investigation "can and will provide answers".

The retired Court of Appeal judge said he would not "shrink" from making findings which could affect criminal prosecutions or civil actions, during a hearing lasting more than 45 minutes.

A minute's silence was held at the start of proceedings for the estimated 80 victims of the June 14 inferno, observed by the survivors and bereaved families in attendance.

But the controversy which has dogged the probe was not far behind, as Michael Mansfield, who represents several survivors, attempted to challenge Sir Martin.

Discontent had begun brewing when the inquiry head rejected calls for residents to be included as one of his team of assessors, telling the inquiry it would "risk undermining my impartiality".

As the meeting drew to a close, Mr Mansfield QC said: "Sir, before departing, I wonder if I may make a quick request on behalf of survivors."

He was ignored by the judge as he exited the room to shouts of "hello?" and "rubbish" from gathered residents.

Speaking afterwards, the lawyer dismissed Sir Martin's decision to opt for assessors and branded his departure "disrespectful".

He told the Press Association: "I was making a request on behalf of survivors for another preliminary meeting when they would be there as key participants, as they are all going to be core participants, with designated lawyers to sort out reservations and concerns that they have had from the beginning about this whole process.

"One of them can be encapsulated in the absence of any mention of the establishment of a panel or any panel to sit with him to take decisions, there are other issues, but that's a big one.

"Assessors are quite separate."

Asked about Sir Martin's decision to leave the room, he said: "I feel it is disrespectful to survivors."

Hamid, a former resident of the tower's 16th floor, was also among those watching Sir Martin's opening statement. 

He said: "I think it is rubbish, nothing special, this is a serious matter, it is not good.

"Everything is missing, they never gave us a chance to make a point."

Earlier, Sir Martin acknowledged the "great sense of anger and betrayal" felt by survivors of the fire and those touched by the tragedy but indicated he would endeavour to examine evidence "calmly and rationally".

He expressed hope the inquiry would "provide a measure of solace", adding: "The inquiry can and will provide answers to the pressing questions of how a disaster of this kind could occur in 21st century London."

The shape of the inquiry was also set out during the hearing, focusing first on the immediate causes of the fire and how it spread so rapidly.

Sir Martin said there was an "urgent need" to identify the flaws in the building's design to prevent a similar high-rise blaze in future.

"Steps must be taken quickly to ensure those who live in them are kept safe," he said.

Outlining the timetable for the inquiry, Sir Martin said: "The process of gathering evidence has already begun in earnest but there is much more to do.

"It has become clear that there are many potential witnesses still to be interviewed and many thousands of documents to be reviewed.

"The scale of the task is enormous."

In the probe's second stage, the actions of the council will be scrutinised alongside the £8.6 million refit of Grenfell Tower suspected of fuelling the blaze.

Ignored warnings from residents about potential fire safety issues will also be a focus of the evidence sessions, Sir Martin said. 

Signalling his intent to examine how flammable material was installed, he added the inquiry would examine what "motivated" decisions about its design.

It has been alleged that combustible cladding was wrapped around the 24-storey block to cut costs.

Sir Martin said the probe's terms of reference had been "deliberately cast in broad terms in order to give me the scope to pursue any line of inquiry that seems fruitful".

"My job isn't to decide which two or more parties had the best case," he told the hearing.

"It is simply to get to the truth with the help of all those who have relevant evidence to give.

"The process should be seen as essentially co-operative."

He said: "I'm well aware that the past few months have turned the world of those who live in North Kensington upside down and that former residents of the tower and local people feel a great sense of anger and betrayal.

"That is entirely natural and understandable, but if the inquiry is to get to the truth of what happened, it must seek out all the evidence and examine it calmly and rationally."

A plea was also issued for those who may have evidence regarding the disaster to "do whatever they can to preserve the material and inform the inquiry team at once".

Responding to the day's events, Downing Street said the inquiry would "get to the truth of what happened" and help prevent similar catastrophes in the future.

Theresa May's official spokesman said: "The Prime Minister has said we are determined that there is justice for the victims of this appalling tragedy and for their families.

 "As the inquiry starts today we are confident it will get to the truth of what happened and learn the lessons to stop a similar catastrophe from happening in the future."