Pete Weatherby QC asked about Grenfell Tower disaster on BBC

16 June 2017

Pete Weatherby KC

Earlier this morning, Garden Court North Chambers’ Pete Weatherby QC took part in a series of BBC radio interviews. You can listen to these interviews here:

BBC Radio Wales (go to 38:46);

BBC Radio Scotland (go to 1:37:35); and

BBC Radio Five Live (go to 1:52:54).

Pete has represented those bereaved in disasters and other suspicious circumstances at inquests and public inquiries for 25 years, including leading the team (which also included Chambers’ Mark George QC, Kate Stone and Andy Fitzpatrick) representing 22 of the bereaved Hillsborough families.

As part of the interviews Pete emphasised:

  • The horror of the disaster and that all of our thoughts will be with the bereaved and injured at this time.  In particular Pete highlighted the extreme distress of those who simply do not yet know whether their loved ones survived;
  • As the rescue operation ends, the needs of all those affected must be paramount;
  • There will clearly be a criminal investigation looking at whether there were failures amounting to gross negligence manslaughter, corporate manslaughter and/or health and safety offences;
  • The Government has also announced a full public inquiry: the obvious thing to do. The Terms of Reference must be urgently set to cover all relevant issues;
  • Furthermore there needs to be a very urgent assessment of the immediate causes of the fire and why it spread with such devastating effect. This is particularly so because of the hundreds of thousands of people who live in the 6,000 plus tower blocks across the country; and
  • Issues which must be covered by the public inquiry include:

(1) Why clear warnings by residents and their action group, regarding serious fire safety failings, were apparently ignored?

(2) Did legal aid cuts prevent residents from being able to access expert advice as to action they could have taken?

(3) Did the local authority discharge their duties of care to the residents or were corners cut because of spending cuts?

(4) Was the privatisation of the management of the block a factor?

(5) Did the block have an appropriate fire safety certificate and if so, how, given the obvious safety issues?

(6) Were there failings in the safety supervision of the block by the fire and regulatory authorities?

(7) Why was there no sprinkler system, particularly given the Coroner’s recommendations following the 2009 Lakanal House disaster?

(8) Were there fire alarms?  If so, why did they apparently not work?  If there were no alarms, why not?

(9) Was safety advice to residents appropriate: in particular the standing instruction for residents to remain in their flats in the event of fire?

(10) as the composition of the cladding appropriate given that the TV footage appears to show it burning and rapidly spreading the fire up the building?  Was it appropriately fixed to the building or did it create a flue effect?  Did it create the same problems as were apparent in the Melbourne and Dubai tower block tragedies?

(11) Were there other technical deficiencies which contributed to the disaster, for example, inadequate means of turning off the gas main and inadequate provision of water hydrants to upper floors?

(12) Did cuts to essential services affect the efficiency with which they were able to respond?  The heroism of the firefighters, paramedics and police should not be allowed to conceal serious resourcing problems.  Did austerity cost lives?

Pete also emphasised that lessons learned from other disasters, including Hillsborough, highlighted the need for the bereaved to be fully and effectively involved in the investigations and public inquiry and the key to that was provision of expert legal advice and representation.  It is of note that various companies and authorities connected to the disaster have already put out statements of condolences often adding that they have complied with all regulations.  Whether this is so will be determined by the inquiry but there is a culture of public authorities and private entities immediately denying any responsibility for disasters.

One of the key lessons from Hillsborough was that some of the main authorities covered up what had happened and continued to deny their responsibility.  That led to a miscarriage of justice which persisted for more than 25 years.  Following the Hillsborough inquests the bereaved families have been trying to persuade Government to enact the Public Authorities (Accountability) Bill 2017 (the ‘Hillsborough Law’), which would create clear legal obligations for all those involved in a disaster to come clean and disclose all relevant information and documents and to set out what in their view went wrong.  A wilful misleading of the public would expose chief executives and chief officers to criminal sanction.  Hillsborough Law also provides a means for bereaved families to take action to require such disclosure and, crucially, it requires similar provision for legal advice and representation as public authorities involved in the disaster.  ‘Hillsborough Law’ has attracted cross-party support and had its first reading – unopposed – on 29 March 2017.  Plainly, the legislative process was halted by the general election but the Government is urged to adopt the Bill and pass it into law as soon as possible.

Pete also noted that bereaved families should be referred to the charity INQUEST, which provides practical advice and assistance to those bereaved in disasters and other contentious deaths and will refer people on to specialist lawyers.  INQUEST is also well placed to raise with Government the needs of the bereaved in respect of such provision.

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