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Grenfell Tower fire: Judge 'doubt' over inquiry scope

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media captionSir Martin expressed his "greatest sympathy" with the tower's residents

The retired judge heading the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire says he is "doubtful" the process will be as wide-ranging as some residents hope.

Sir Martin Moore-Bick said the probe could be limited to the cause, how it spread, and preventing a future blaze.

He was speaking after travelling to the site of the fire in North Kensington and meeting some of the survivors.

Meanwhile, Kensington and Chelsea Council halted a cabinet meeting, saying it may "prejudice" the inquiry.

The authority planned to have the meeting on Thursday evening in private, without members of the public or press present, citing fears of "disruption" after angry residents attempted to enter the council's offices two days after the Grenfell fire.

But after a legal intervention by several media organisations, the High Court ruled it had to be opened to the press.

While the media have a legal right to attend public meetings of local councils, Kensington and Chelsea's leader Nicholas Paget-Brown said: "We can't have an unprejudiced discussion in this room with the public inquiry that is about to take place, if journalists are recording and writing our comments."

  • Kensington council meeting adjourned

Fire concerns

Sir Martin said the fire was an "enormous tragedy and I can honestly say I have never seen anything like that building which is now completely gutted".

The judge added: "I'm well aware the residents and the local people want a much broader investigation and I can fully understand why they would want that.

"Whether my inquiry is the right way in which to achieve that I'm more doubtful and I will give that some thought and in due course make a recommendation."

He added: "But there may be other ways in which the desire for that investigation could be satisfied otherwise through the work that I'm going to do."

Residents previously told how they raised fire safety concerns for several years before the fire.

The Metropolitan Police has said it will investigate "all criminal offences that may have been committed".

The force says 80 people are now presumed dead after the fire but the final toll may not be known until at least the end of the year.

Prime Minister Theresa May told MPs she expects Sir Martin will want to produce an interim report "as early as possible" to address the immediate lessons from the fire.

image copyrightGetty Images

Sir Martin, a retired Court of Appeal judge, said an interim report could be produced within a year.

But he said the inquiry "could be very challenging".

He said: "I think it's impossible to say how long it's going to take; I have said on other occasions a matter of months, some people have talked about two or three months. I don't think that's realistic...

"I would hope to be able to answer the basic factual questions such as how did the fire start, how did it spread, how was it able to engulf the building in such speed and also questions such as what internal precautions there were, what steps were available for alerting residents and allowing them to escape."

image copyrightPA
image captionSir Martin saw the floral tributes left near the scene of the fire

Speaking after the meeting with Sir Martin, Joe Delaney, from the Grenfell Action Group, said he "seems a genuine guy" but "seems to want to keep the scope very narrow... while we are more looking at why was it started in the first place, why were residents ignored?"

Mr Delaney had earlier expressed concerns that a judge with a background in commercial law would be dealing with what he said was a "criminal matter".

Olesea Matcovschi, chairwoman of the Lancaster West Residents Association, said: "We told him what we expected for the public inquiry, so we will see how it goes, it is too early to say if the public inquiry satisfies our concerns."

Questions were raised in the aftermath of the disaster about the cladding used on Grenfell and other buildings. Cladding from 137 high rise buildings in 41 local authority areas of England has now failed fire safety tests.

Police said a 52-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of fraudulently claiming financial support by saying he had lost family members in the fire.

media captionSir Martin has "to act quickly" to produce an interim report in to the Tower block fire says Lord Falconer

Who is Sir Martin?

Born in Wales and educated at Christ's College, Cambridge, his career has spanned nearly five decades after being called to the Bar in 1969.

As a lawyer, he specialised in commercial law which involved dealing with disputes relating to maritime and land transport of goods.

Sir Martin went on to spend more than 20 years as a judge of the Commercial Court and Court of Appeal until his retirement in 2016.

Leading barrister Michael Mansfield QC, who has met survivors of the fire, said it was "unbelievable that lessons are not learned" from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which is now on its fourth chairman.

He said that inquiry "did not consult with the families and the survivors" and "the same thing seems to have happened all over again".

Grenfell residents have already pointed to a case in November 2014, in which Sir Martin ruled Westminster City Council could rehouse a single mother-of-five more than 50 miles away in Bletchley, near Milton Keynes.

The decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in April 2015 - but addressing residents' concerns over the ruling, Sir Martin said he was surprised at the focus on one of many cases he had heard.

He added: "One simply reaches the conclusion that you think is right, applying the law as you see it, and that is the work of a judge."

He said the incident was of a type he was "very familiar with as a judge", having dealt with disasters on sea and land.

Who are the Grenfell victims?

image copyrightVarious
image captionSome of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire

Eighteen people have been formally identified by the coroner, but not all names have been released.

The opening of inquests into seven of the victims heard six-month-old Leena Belkadi was found dead in her mother's arms.

Most of those who died in the fire were said to be in 23 of the North Kensington tower block's 129 flats.

Some residents tried to move up the building to escape the flames - and it is thought a number may have ended up in one flat.

Police are tracing victims via "every imaginable source" of information; from government agencies to fast food firms.

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