On 15 August the terms of reference for the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire were announced.  These set out the general lines of investigation the inquiry will follow.

Aspire is very concerned that the public inquiry should not overlook the experience of disabled occupants affected by the Grenfell Tower fire and the implications for new and existing buildings this reveals.  Whilst we don’t know exactly how many households affected by the disaster included disabled people, there have been a number of accounts of disabled people caught up in events that night:

  • One is that of Flora Neda, a disabled woman who was carried down 24 floors by her son, Shekeb. 
  • In another account, Nazanin Aghlani tells how her mother Sakineh Afrasehabi, who was “registered disabled”, would have had no chance escaping from her 18th floor home.  Mrs Aglhani describes repeated attempts to have her mother rehoused in appropriate accommodation, adding, “She was put in a death trap, they should have thought of how she’d escape in a fire.” 
  • And then there’s the story of the “man in the window”, Elpidio Bonafacio, a visually impaired pensioner, who was seen waving a white jumper from his 11th floor flat. 

These accounts graphically highlight how disabled people require vital measures to be put in place to ensure their protection and safe escape from a fire or any other emergency.  Some of these measures will relate to how the building is designed and constructed and will be covered by building regulations.  Other measures will relate to how the building is managed and what specific steps those responsible for its management should put in place to ensure that disabled occupants have adequate protection and are able to leave the building safely.  These will be covered by fire safety regulations.    

Disabled people need the public inquiry to ask critical questions to ensure that in the future, their protection and safe escape from buildings of all types is guaranteed.  These questions include:

  • How many of the Grenfell Tower fire casualties were disabled people?
  • Were the Local Authority and Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) fully aware of how many disabled people resided in Grenfell Tower?
  • When allocating accommodation to disabled people in Grenfell Tower, what management plans and evacuation procedures were put in place to ensure their protection and safe escape in the case of fire or any other emergency?
  • When any building work was undertaken to Grenfell Tower, subsequent to its original construction, what steps were taken to ensure that the building complied with the relevant fire safety and building regulations, in respect of the protection and means of escape for disabled people?
  • What lessons need to be learnt to ensure the ongoing protection and safe means of escape for disabled occupants of high rise residential buildings?
  • What lessons need to be learnt to ensure the ongoing protection and safe evacuation of disabled people in general?

The terms of reference for the Inquiry appear to provide adequate scope for these questions to be explored. However, the recently announced eligibility criteria for Core Participant status give us a little cause for concern.

What is a Core Participant?

To assist the inquiry to pursue questions around key aspects of the events being investigated, an Inquiry Chairman has the power to appoint what are known as “Core Participants”.  The Inquiry Rules 2006, which govern the running of public inquiries, state that, “These will be individuals or organisations who: played a direct or significant role in the events being investigated; have a significant interest in the events or may face significant or explicit criticism when the inquiry publishes its report.”  In the case of the Grenfell public inquiry, eligibility has been limited to the following:

  • The survivors of the fire in Grenfell Tower;
  • All individuals who were resident of Grenfell Tower at the time of the fire;
  • The families of those that died or those who were injured and as a result were unable to participate in the inquiry.

This seems a narrow application of the Core Participant criteria, which will potentially exclude individuals and organisations that, whilst not being directly affected by the fire; do have an interest and expertise in the design and management of buildings to be accessible and inclusive for disabled people and would be eligible under rule 5 of the Inquiries Rules 2006 as having a, “significant interest in an important aspect of the matters to which the inquiry relates.” 

A systematic and forensic examination of every aspect of how disabled peoples’ fire protection and evacuation was applied in Grenfell Tower will be vital. Rule 5 states that one role of a Core Participant is “suggesting lines of questioning” to be pursued by Council to the Inquiry.

This isn’t to say that individual disabled occupants and families of disabled victims won’t be strong Core Participants or wouldn’t seek to address these issues.  Our concern is that by solely placing the burden upon individuals already laden with the trauma of the events of 14 June, with limited resources and expertise at their disposal, critical lines of inquiry may be missed and vital questions remain obscured and unanswered.   Assuming of course, that disabled residents or their families affected by the fire apply for and are granted Core Participant status in the first place.

By involving individuals and organisations with disability expertise in addition to those directly affected by the fire, the Inquiry would be more assured of establishing whether the regulations and those responsible for their application are capable of keeping disabled people safe.  The 13.3 million disabled people in the UK would expect Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his team to leave no stone unturned regarding their future fire safety.

Image: By ChiralJon (Grenfell Tower) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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