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A painful process

The Lakanal inquest may provide some answers for families of the victims, but it should not have taken this long

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Yesterday I attended the start of the inquest into the tragic fire at Lakanal House. The inquest is finally getting underway after three-and-a-half years. The fire, which happened in July 2009, killed six people – including three children. Their bereaved relatives – and local people – must have important questions answered at the inquest.

Why did the fire spread when the building’s design was supposed to contain a fire within the flat in which it started? The fire in Lakanal House was not supposed to spread, but it did. It is evident that those who died were the people who followed advice and remained in their flats.

When it was clear that the fire was spreading why did the emergency services continue to tell residents to stay in their flats rather than escape? Why did the advice not change when it was clear that the fire was not contained?

Are the faults that allowed the fire in Lakanal to spread the same for neighbouring and nearly identical Marie Curie House? People living in Marie Curie House can’t be sure that even with improved fire precautions that the fire evacuation advice is right. This has been a day-to-day concern for the people living near to Lakanal House, who saw the fire rip through their neighbours’ homes and saw the bodies being taken out. They have had to go to bed every night worried about their safety and that of their children.

Why aren’t the residents of the neighbouring identical block Marie Curie House allowed to ask questions at the inquest? The tenants and residents group was approved by the first coroner as a properly interested party so that they too could ask questions of witnesses. I was dismayed when the new coroner, Her Honour Frances Kirkham, took away their PIP status. It is essential that the bereaved relatives have answers, but also important that residents’ questions are answered too. Many others have been granted properly interested party status including Southwark Council, building contractors, sub-contractors, suppliers and even a television maker. It is plain wrong that the local residents are excluded and can only sit in as members of the public.

Why did it take so long to hold the inquest?  Every day the inquest was delayed was another day bereaved relatives were left waiting for answers.

The inquest could not take place until the fire brigade and police investigations had reported to the Crown Prosecution Service who then had to decide whether to press charges. Of course there are proper processes that have to be followed but I don’t accept that the full inquiry could not have been held sooner. Since the fire I have repeatedly called on police and fire investigators to ‘get a move on’ to allow the inquest to look for safety lessons.  Following the inquest I will be urging government to learn lessons from this and find ways to improve the speed at which cases are brought to inquest.

Harriet Harman is MP for Camberwell and Peckham and deputy leader of the Labour Party

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Bereaved families give evidence to Lakanal inquestBereaved families give evidence to Lakanal inquest

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