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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Lawyers slam ‘grossly negligent’ firms involved in Grenfell Tower fire

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Arconic, Celotex, Exova, Harley Facades, Kingspan, Rydon, Studio E. The names may not mean much to most of us but, according to lawyers summing up their arguments at the end of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, they are the construction, design and manufacturing companies whose “grossly negligent”, “fraudulent” and “reckless” conduct led to the deaths of 72 men, women and children on 14 June 2017.

The scaffolding-clad tombstone of Grenfell Tower looms over the Notting Hill Carnival route as a constant and painful reminder of a wholly avoidable tragedy. However, more than five years on, the bereaved families are very far from obtaining ‘closure’ on their loss.

On behalf of the victims, lawyer Imran Khan called for an annual memorial day and an “unequivocal, unambiguous and forthright apology” from companies implicated in the fire. So far, however, companies such as US-based Arconic, which had revenues of $5.7 billion in 2020, have offered nothing to the grieving families.

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The conflagration started as a small electrical fire in a flat that spread to newly installed external cladding. Poor design meant the blaze soon engulfed the whole block. Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation’s failure to act on tenants’ concerns and London Fire Brigade’s ill-judged instructions to residents to remain in place contributed to the high mortality rate.

However, the root cause, lawyers for the victims’ families argued, was a government that treated the UK’s socially housed population “as objects and problems, rather than people with rights”. By rolling back the state, the government gave free rein to greedy private-sector companies that were able to get away with lethal levels of malpractice.

Lawyers dubbed the companies a “rogues gallery” of “reckless and predatory” building industry firms that have indulged in a “merry-go-round of blame” throughout the hearings. Despite the firms’ manifest failings in safety compliance, testing procedures, manufacturing and installation of “highly volatile” cladding panels, lawyer Stephanie Barwise KC noted that “few core participants accept significant responsibility for what happened”.

The victims’ families’ lawyers described the fire as a “human rights disaster” and argued that greed and institutional racism “infected every aspect of the disaster”. Imran Khan slammed the firms for their “callous indifference to anything – morality, honesty, life safety – that was not related to the bottom line of the business”.

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While summing up, lawyers also pointed the finger at national and local government, describing the tragedy as a “disaster made in Britain” and one of the greatest failings of stripped-back regulation and “austerity politics following the global financial crash” of 2008.

The inquiry, chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Bick has reviewed around 320,000 documents and heard more than 300 days of evidence. However, it exists purely to establish the facts; it cannot decide who is to blame. The Metropolitan Police says it will take until 2025 to decide whether to charge anyone with an offence.

The companies will make their closing statements next week and the inquiry report is expected to be issued “later in 2023”.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said in a statement: “I will continue to be relentless in holding those responsible to account and doing everything within my power to ensure the Grenfell community gets the justice they deserve, and all Londoners can feel safe again in their homes.”

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