A Grenfell Tower survivors’ group has said it is “speechless” after a former Cabinet minister got the number of people who died in the fire wrong while giving evidence to an inquiry.
Eric Pickles, who was secretary of state at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) between 2010 and 2015, said that 96 people died in the June 2017 tower block blaze when the correct number of victims was 72.
The politician, who was also chairman of the Conservative Party from 2009 to 2010, made reference to the victims as the “nameless 96 people” when he appeared before the inquiry into the west London tower block blaze on Thursday.
Following his remarks, survivors’ group Grenfell United criticised him for what it branded his “utter disregard” for victims and called for his removal from Government and the House of Lords:
Eric Pickles’ disrespect at the inquiry has left us speechless. How dare he refer to our loved ones we lost that night as ‘the 96 nameless’. 72 people died in Grenfell and none of them were nameless.
His utter disregard for what happened and to those no longer with us is horrifying, given that he had the ability as Minister of Housing to reform building safety.
The group added:
Eric Pickles must be removed from Government and The Lords. Otherwise, Government continues to show the contempt it’s always had for people’s safety in this country.
Campaign group Grenfell United said it was left ‘speechless’ (Grenfell United/PA)
Lessons not learnt
The former MP for Brentwood and Ongar made the mistake at the end of his evidence while answering if there was anything he would have done differently.
Pickles told the inquiry:
My answer, one I obviously prepared because I had watched you doing this and I realised I was going to be asked – is entirely different from the one I am going to give.
He referred to the coroner’s recommendations following the 2006 Lakanal House fire in Camberwell which killed six people and injured 20 more.
The first report from the Grenfell Inquiry found that lessons from the Lakanal House fire had not been learned by the time of the Grenfell disaster eight years later.
What I was going to say is maybe I should have put in the letter the simple sentence ‘and I accept the coroner’s recommendations’ – would that have changed things?
And your diligence, and your choice of examples, has made me come to the view, I don’t think it would have made any difference whatsoever I think.
There was a kind of mindset that existed in parts of the department that just simply ignored what was happening, made a view about what we were and came to it.”
He said that the inquiry should “never lose sight” that “this isn’t about deregulation”.
Instead, he said it was about the “nameless” victims of the Grenfell Tower fire:
It comes down to Michelle (Udoaka, who died in the Lakanal blaze) and to the nameless 96 people who were killed in the Grenfell fire.
It’s them who we should think about when we’re arguing the toss.
Ultimately, as I’ve said earlier, the dead deserve the dignity of being remembered by name and the dead deserve the dignity of a solution.
And I am sure you will come to that.
Earlier on Thursday, the second and final day of his evidence, Pickles also appeared to become frustrated with how much of his time the inquiry was taking up.
He told lead counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC:
By all means sir, feel free to ask me as many questions as you like, but could I respectfully remind you that you did promise that we would be away this morning and I have changed my schedules to fit this in.
I do have an extremely busy day.
But this is more important than anything, but I would urge you to use your time wisely.
Mr Millett replied:
Right… may I please have an answer to my question?
However, at the end of his evidence in the afternoon Pickles thanked the inquiry for the “professional and courteous” way he was treated.
Activist and rapper Lowkey tweeted on Pickles’ schedule:
1,758 days without justice for Grenfell and Eric Pickles, the former communities minister who cut Section 20 from the London Building Act which fire experts claim could have prevented mass death at Grenfell, is too busy. pic.twitter.com/TUiTo1Dp0k
— Lowkey (@Lowkey0nline) April 7, 2022
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