A need for greater empathy

In the current discussion about the leadership of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry David Lammy MP, who understands these issues so well, has just said:

I sincerely doubt that Moore-Bick has ever visited one of our inner-city tower blocks, but I hope that he will do so soon. I doubt that he has lived in social housing or spent a night in a flat in a high-rise building, but he will now have to stand in the shoes of the people who called Grenfell home, he will have to empathise with their experiences, and he will have to walk alongside them and their families.

If you are middle class in Britain, in the course of your day-to-day life you rely on the state only to care for you if you fall sick, take your bins out and pave your roads. But if you are on the 22nd floor of a tower block, the state literally has your life in its hands. It is the state that told you to stay put in the case of a fire. It is the state that failed to install working fire alarms. It is the state that you rely on to come up the stairwell to save you and your family from a burning building.

I remember vividly the impact that Lord Scarman made in 1981 when he set about conducting a comparably difficult inquiry in a most un-judge like way.  As now, those whose treatment by the police in Brixton had led to riots on a scale not experienced in London for years were intensely suspicious of “establishment figures”.  Yet Leslie Scarman won their trust by going to talk to them on their home ground, by meeting their families, by listening to them and by cracking jokes with them, even to the extent of cracking a joke at the expense of leading counsel for the police when he appeared before him in a formal session of the inquiry.

Like virtually all Court of Appeal judges past and present I have never lived in social housing or spent a night in a flat in a high-rise building.  Unlike most of them, however, I grew up in a family which in an earlier age understood such conditions very well. I remember how in the winter of 1948-49 my mother, as a newly elected Tory Councillor for the Kilburn ward in the old Hampstead Borough Council, went down night after night to Iverson Road to join the tenants bailing out polluted water from their basement flats after the sewers had flooded them[1]. And I remember my father, who had immense experience of London housing issues[2], fighting battle after battle in the years immediately after the 1939-45 war to promote the work of those who were concerned to provide new housing on a massive scale to replace the dreadful slum conditions which were still prevalent in large parts of London and which he knew so well.

Blog-watchers may have noticed a period of unusual inactivity on my part. This is because I am now working flat out on the final stages of the work of Lord Bach’s Commission on Access to Justice. Much of the evidence we have received has been heart-breaking. Somehow or other we have got to record it in a manner which might possibly cause those who have not “lived in social housing or spent a night in a flat in a high-rise building” to sit up and take notice.

We have all got to be a bit humbler about the scale of our ignorance and about the need for greater empathy with those who struggle against the odds in a world all too fond, in the interests of saving money, of diminishing the privileges and protections they used to enjoy.

A civilised modern democracy cannot live at peace with itself if it is willing to tolerate the helplessness which is so vividly articulated in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and in so much of the evidence which on Lord Bach’s Commission we have been hearing and reading across the last 18 months.



[1] At the Council election in 1949, when she retained her seat, each elector had six votes, and she saw a number of ballot papers which contained only four votes – for the three Communist candidates and for Mrs Brooke.

[2] He later became Minister of Housing and Local Government for four and a half years, when he put his massive experience of sub-standard housing conditions to good effect on the national stage.

2 thoughts on “A need for greater empathy

  1. Moor Larkin

    The inquiry as announced is to ascertain the causes and explanation for what seems an unprecedented conflagration in a building that has stood quite satisfactorily for over 40 years. I’m not entirely sure that the residents problems in the aftermath will form part of that inquiry.

    I would have thought their needs must be catered for elsewhere, or at some more Inquest-style investigation akin perhaps to the Hillsborough example of recent times. The causes must be understood before the appropriateness of any restitutions can be figured out.


  2. Pingback: A need for greater empathy (2) – Henry Brooke

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