A ritual is now played out every time a public inquiry into some disaster is set up. A highly respected judge is appointed to chair the inquiry. Then a group claiming to represent the victims of the disaster says it has no confidence in the judge and will not cooperate with him or her. In the case of Theresa May’s ludicrous sex abuse inquiry the complaint was that the judge was a member of the “establishment”. The objection to the judge appointed to chair the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster is that he is white, middle class and male.
There is no point in dwelling on the sex abuse inquiry. Its terms of reference are so impossibly wide that there is no real prospect of its ever doing anything useful. It can just continue as a vehicle for agitators to make complaints every now and again for the next ten years or so and to see whether they can get into the Guinness Book of Records for achieving the sacking of more inquiry chairmen than anyone else has ever managed.
But there is a serious point to the Grenfell Tower tragedy. We all have an interest in knowing why the fire spread to the whole building, whether the regulations were followed, whether those regulations were deficient and whether warnings were ignored. Most importantly, we need to know whether other, similar, buildings are at risk. Unusually, this is a disaster which really does need a judicial inquiry.
Politicians tend to look on judges as being people who can divert the flak from politicians. Set up a judicial inquiry into some embarrassing event and all debate can be stopped. But, this time, there are questions which can be answered by a rigorous inquiry. What is more, there will be no need for that inquiry to go on for ever. So long as the politicians restrict the terms of reference sensibly, I can’t see why we shouldn’t have a conclusion within a very few months. Yes, I know there will be many lawyers doing their best to drag it all out for as long as possible, but a highly experienced judge should be able to stop their nonsense.
So, what is needed is a judge who can grasp all the technical evidence and who can prevent agitators, supported, I regret to say, by lawyers who are only interested in making money for themselves, from hijacking the inquiry for political purposes.
Urgent answers to clearly defined questions are needed. A retired judge who is eminently qualified to seek out those answers has been appointed. But the agitators, and various Labour MPs, disapprove. David Lammy tells us that the judge should be replaced because he is white, middle class and male. The new Labour MP for Kensington (who actually approved the refurbishment plans for Grenfell Tower in her capacity as a councillor on the committee charged with that duty and would therefore, were she not fortunate enough to be Labour, be one of Mr McDonnell’s “murderers”) agrees with Mr Lammy that no one who has not lived in a council tower block could possibly find the answers to the largely technical questions which the inquiry must consider. The agitators (self-appointed representatives of victims) have announced that the victims will not cooperate with an inquiry led by a white middle class man. What is needed, so far as I can gather, is a black, female judge who was brought up in a council tower block and has not joined the ranks of the middle classes.
This, it seems to me, presents a problem. It is true that I know a few judges who are not middle class, not many, but there are one or two. The trouble is that they are not working class either. They are probably more accurately described as upper class. I suspect Mr Lammy would be just as opposed to an aristocrat chairing the inquiry as he is to a member of the middle class doing so. What he wants is a solid, salt of the earth working class woman, who is black.
The difficulty we face is that Mr Lammy’s ideal judge doesn’t yet exist. Poor thing, when she does exist she will be horribly overworked. She will be landed with every public inquiry going. But, for the time being, she is not there.
Why is it thought that a highly intelligent judge with massive experience of dealing with technical issues is not up to chairing this inquiry? The answer, apparently, is that white middle class men can’t “empathise” with council tenants. There are, it seems to me, two objections to that extraordinary argument.
First, it is thoroughly offensive of Mr Lammy, the MP for Kensington and the self-appointed agitators to suggest that the middle classes are incapable of imagining how devastating the Grenfell Tower fire was for those who lived, and died, there. Do they seriously think, for instance, that Jeremy Corbyn, about the most middle class member of the Labour Party there is (lived in a Shropshire manor house as a child, went to a private prep school and then to an ancient grammar school), can’t “empathise” with the victims?
Secondly, just suppose Lammy and his pals are right in saying that being middle class prevents people from sympathising with the victims of the fire, why would that mean they couldn’t analyse all the technical issues which have to be considered in the inquiry? After all, it has not been set up for the purpose of saying how sorry we are that so many suffered in the disaster. It has been established because we need to know why the fire took hold, whether the regulations were followed, whether the regulations were deficient, whether warnings were ignored and whether other tower blocks are at risk. Finding the answers to those questions doesn’t require empathy with the victims. It requires a rigorous analysis of technical evidence. Furthermore, and here my readers will say I am being callous, there isn’t actually any need for the victims’ agitating organisations to play any part in the inquiry at all. Their threat to withdraw cooperation is silly: their cooperation will be entirely unnecessary (although we must all hope that those who haven’t been taken over by Momentum etc. will feel free to play their part).