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Sir Martin Moore-Bick said he was prepared to force witnesses to appear if they refused to give evidence voluntarily.
The former Court of Appeal judge, pictured today, also promised not to “shrink” from making any damning findings or recommendations which could lead to criminal charges against individuals or organisations.
Assessors will also be appointed to advise Sir Martin. However, he ruled out one of them being a Grenfell survivor or another local resident given that it could impact on whether the inquiry is seen as “impartial”.
After a minute’s silence as a mark of respect for the victims of the fire, he said in his opening statement: “It is right that at the very outset of the inquiry I should express on my own behalf and on behalf of all members of the inquiry team the dismay and sadness we feel at the loss of life, devastation and injury caused by the fire.
“We are acutely aware, not only that so many people died or were injured in the fire, but that many of those who survived have been severely affected by their experiences. We are also conscious that many have lost everything and even now are dependent on others for many of their daily needs.
“The inquiry cannot undo any of that, but it can and will provide answers to the pressing questions of how a disaster of this kind could occur in 21st-century London and thereby, I hope, provide a small measure of solace.”
At least 80 people are known to have died in the fire, which ravaged the North Kensington tower on June 14.
Sir Martin outlined how his inquiry would be divided into two phases, which would run in parallel “as far as possible”. An interim report is expected by Easter. Experts on fires in high-rise buildings and building regulations will be drafted in to provide specialist opinions. All hearings will be held in public unless the “particular nature” of evidence requires otherwise.
The first phase will focus on the fire itself and what happened before it was extinguished, as well as the response of the emergency services and the evacuation of residents.
Sir Martin said: “There is an urgent need to find out what aspects of the building’s design and construction played a significant role in enabling the disaster to occur.
“That is important because, if there are similar defects in other high-rise buildings, steps must be taken quickly to ensure that those who live in them are kept safe.”
Former residents will be invited to give their accounts of the night. Footage of the fire and recordings of the calls made to the emergency services will also be analysed. The inquiry aims to ensure that people who lived in the tower will only be asked to give evidence once.
Speaking at the Grand Connaught Rooms in central London, Sir Martin said: “For some of those who escaped from the tower… the stress of giving evidence is likely to be greatly magnified by the continuing effects of what can only have been a most traumatic experience. I am acutely aware of the challenges that presents. I intend to do everything possible to ensure that the process of assisting the inquiry does not result in further unnecessary suffering. To that end I shall be looking for particular help and co-operation from those who represent the victims, the families and the emergency services.
“I am open to suggestions about how I can obtain evidence from those witnesses in a sensitive and appropriate way.”
The second phase of the inquiry will examine how the building came to be “so seriously exposed to the risk of a disastrous fire”.
It will investigate the design of the tower, its modifications over previous years, decisions relating to design and construction for those modifications and the “reasons” for those decisions.
Sir Martin said: “I shall also be asking whether at each stage of its development the building complied with the regulations then in force and whether the regulations themselves were adequate.”
A particular focus would be placed on the most recent refurbishment of the building and the fitting of the external cladding.
Communications between residents and Kensington and Chelsea council and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation will also be examined, given that some local people had raised safety concerns over the tower.
The second phase will also probe the “motivation” for decisions relating to modifications, which is likely to include whether less fire resistant cladding was installed as part of a cost-saving measure.
It will also examine the response to the disaster, including steps taken in the days immediately following the fire to provide food, shelter and other basic amenities to those whose homes were destroyed.
Kensington and Chelsea council has been heavily criticised over how it reacted to the fire. Both its leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown, and chief executive, Nicholas Holgate, have quit.
Survivors and victims’ families watched Sir Martin’s statement live on a screen in Notting Hill Methodist Church. Many families who lost their homes are angry that they still have not been found a permanent replacement flat or house.
About 300 individuals or organisations have requested to be “core participants” in the inquiry, which would allow them legal representation during the hearings. Sir Martin is seeking to reduce this number by getting some of them to co-operate together.
The first hearings may start later this year. Sir Martin said he understood the “great sense of anger and betrayal” among the local community, but added: “If the inquiry is to get to the truth of what happened, it must seek out all the relevant evidence and examine it calmly and rationally.
“The scale of the task is enormous.
“We are all searching after the truth about the cause of the fire and the massive loss of life that it caused and we owe it to those who died, and to those whose homes have been destroyed, to work together to achieve that goal.”
Miguel Alves, who escaped the fire, said residents wanted justice, and for either people or institutions responsible to be held to account.
“It’s very important for us that they will come out with some outcome, some justice,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“This is a big opportunity for things to be changed in the near future. If we save lives from now, at least it’s something.”
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