A Tory MP has urged colleagues and ministers to show more empathy to Grenfell Tower victims, warning there is a danger that the “human element” of the tragedy is being lost.
Kwasi Kwarteng MP, who is a ministerial aide to Chancellor Philip Hammond, made the comments after MPs held a 72-second silence for the victims at the start of a debate on the fire’s inquiry.
The Westminster Hall debate, which was prompted after more than 156,000 people signed a petition calling for the appointment of additional panel members to the inquiry, also saw Labour MP Jess Phillips receive a round of applause for her speech in which she called on the Government “to be parent” to victims and act with “their best interests at heart”.
We begin the debate with 72 seconds silence of remembrance for the 72 that lost their lives. #Justice4Grenfell— Justice4Grenfell (@officialJ4G) May 14, 2018
The Government last week agreed that two experts will sit with the judge investigating the Grenfell Tower fire, following pressure from campaigners.
Theresa May, who had earlier rejected calls for a panel, said the hearings would now have the “breadth of skills and diversity of expertise”.
Mr Kwarteng, speaking in the debate, said: “I think this an incredibly emotive and resonant issue and I think in many of the speeches, not perhaps today, but in many of the things I’ve read I don’t think that there is, while there is massive compassion, I don’t think there’s enough empathy as to how important this issue actually is and how seriously people of different faiths and certainly different communities take this issue.
“There is a danger that people reciting stats, reciting facts simply lose sight of that human element. It was a national scandal that happened in June last year.”
He added: “What I would say to the Government and what I would say to members on my own side is that we have to be very sensitive and we have to actually not just give the impression but actually feel that we are batting for the side of the people who have been affected.”
Labour MP Emma Dent Coad, who represents the Grenfell constituency, later berated the Government over reports a fourth foodbank had been opened to serve victims in the area.
She said: “The Government states they’ve given the council £72 million towards housing and other necessary services, meanwhile a fourth foodbank is about to open to serve the immediate Grenfell area. I find this shocking and unacceptable.”
She added: “No more platitudes, no more lionising those who wish control, no more attempts to pacify, neutralise, sideline and mollify people whose genuine and justified concerns a are being ignored.
“They don’t want charity, they want reparation and justice.”
In a powerful speech Labour MP David Lammy (Tottenham) told ministers the inquiry was not for the Government but the “bereaved families and their broken hearts, it’s for everyone who is grieving and carrying the burden of loss around with them like a scar burned into their soul.”
The Govt has lost sight of who the Grenfell Inquiry is for. It is for the people who were failed before the fire & have been failed since the fire. It is for the victims, the survivors & everyone who is grieving and carrying the burden of loss like a scar burned into their soul. pic.twitter.com/6qbIOma4Qm— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) May 14, 2018
He concluded by challenging MPs, asking: “How do we honour those lives and how do we recognise that it is the state that has failed and how do ensure that we are not too establishment to put the state and those that assisted it, the private contractors and others, on trial?”
Labour MP Jess Phillips received applause from the public gallery for her speech in which she referenced the battle of the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings to get justice.
She said: “It is vital that we take real care of the feelings of the people involved and so far that has not happened because we have come to the impasse were they already feel as if they had to fight with a petition to get us to listen to a basic thing they were asking for.”
She added: “I ask the Government to be a parent to these people and when my son says to me ‘I don’t want to go to school, or ‘I think I’m being a bother’ I say to him nothing you need is a bother to me I’m going to help you in your life to make sure that you feel that I actually care and I have your best interests at heart and we have failed in the past so many times to stop people feeling like a bother.”
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said: “Far too often in this country, politics seems to act as a dam, actually holding back justice rather than helping justice to flow.
“Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence, Bloody Sunday: examples of when the state didn’t use its great powers to deliver truth and justice, but instead blocked truth and justice for years and years.
“In all of these instances, the state was accused of a cover-up by those affected. In all of these instances, distrust was sowed. We can’t allow Grenfell to join that list.
“Race and class and power are at the heart of this. Justice delayed is justice denied, so it’s essential that this enquiry gets it right first time.”
Fire minister Nick Hurd said the Prime Minister had listened “very carefully” to the arguments for additional panel members as he sought to reassure MPs that there is “no intention to hang around on this in terms of identifying the two other panel members that she’s agreed to”.
Mr Hurd added: “We can’t proceed without trust, we cannot proceed without the buy-in of those most important in process, those most directly affected, those whose lives have been ripped apart by this disaster – they need to trust this process and that is at the heart underpinning the Prime Minister’s decision, which is a big one.”