Thursday, July 13, 2017

Judging the Judges

I found it more than a little ironic that the same political party whose senior representatives complained bitterly that the government was not doing enough to protect the independence of Britain's judiciary when the press criticised senior judges as "Enemies of the people" for making a ruling which they liked and the press didn't like, also contains MPs who are the first to attack the suitability of any judge appointed to head an inquiry.

To be fair this is partly a matter of political parties being coalitions of people with diverse views rather than individuals being inconsistent. Some of the same Labour politicians and left-wing publications who were at the fore in urging the government to defend the judges over article 50 have been desperately trying to distance themselves from those in their party and on the left who have been making personal attacks on judges such as Lord Justice Sir Martin Moore-Bick, head of the Grenfell Towers inquiry. But you could very easily be forgiven for missing that fact because this impression does not come over on the media.

Vastly more prominence has been given in both social and mainstream media to comments attacking the government or judges than to any comments defending either. So much so that, until doing some background research for this post, I had not realised that those who people who defended judges over article 50 had generally not joined the media lynch mob against Sir Martin and several of them had actively defended him.

Of course, the former comments fitted neatly into the political or media narratives that various people wanted to push and the latter didn't ...

Nevertheless the point has to be made that judges are, by definition, highly experienced, well paid and famous people who, even if they have reached their position from a humble start, are easy to caricature as members of the establishment. But if unprincipled politicians are quick to use this to jump onto, or indeed start, bandwagons attacking any judge or highly experienced figure appointed to head an inquiry or investigation into some grave event or disaster as a "member of the establishment out of touch with the people" they will make it difficult if not impossible to run such inquiries.

If there has ever been a bandwagon of which it is clear than any politician who joined it proved themself an irresponsible populist who does not deserve election to public office, it is the attacks on Sir Martin Moore-Bick. The Grenfell Tower tragedy was a horrible catastrophe which cost scores of lives - we still don't know for certain exactly how many - and which has highlighted serious systemic failures far too wide-ranging to be the responsibility of one council, one party or one part of the political spectrum. The survivors and families of the victims deserve honesty and respect and to be treated better than being used for cheap political point-scoring.

The task for the head of that inquiry is not primarily to be nice to everybody, it is to get to the truth about

1) Why did the fire start?

2) Why did it spread so quickly?

3) What could and should have been done differently to prevent these events and, given that the fire did start, get more people out of the building alive?

4) What lessons are there from this terrible tragedy for building safety, safety issues in general and our emergency services which Britain should act on to reduce the chances of such a terrible event ever happening again?

The race, age, gender and social class of the head of the inquiry are utterly irrelevant to his or her ability to establish the truth about these things. It is as wrong to attack Sir Martin for being a white straight male "member of the establishment" as it would have been to try to block the appointment of an "anti-establishment" lesbian and person of colour on the grounds of her gender, colour or orientation or any reason other than whether she was qualified to do the job.

There are things you can judge about a person from their record without having ever met them but whether they "understand human beings" is not really one of them, so I was far from impressed that the Labour MP for Kensington, who admits that she has never met Sir Martin, felt qualified to inform listeners to Radio Four that he doesn't. But this was only the worst of a number of foolish comments by Labour MPs attacking his appointment.

I've never met him either but people who have done so speak highly of his abilities. Let's give the guy a chance to do this important job before rushing to judgement.


Anonymous said...

You mean another whitewash by avoiding all the awkward questions

Chris Whiteside said...

Certainly not, and there is absolutely nothing anywhere in the piece above which could give a reasonable person the impression that is what I meant. I specifically said we need someone who can get to the truth.

Anonymous said...

The remit of Inquiry needs to be much wider

Chris Whiteside said...

Perhaps. It may be that the best solution is for Sir Martin's inquiry to continue with the specific remit of establishing what happened at Grenfell Tower and what lessons can be learned from it while a separate inquiry looks at some of the broader issues affecting safety in social housing.

There is something to be said for keeping the remit of any given investigation or study reasonably tight. But I certainly would not want to see the broader issues ignored or swept under the carpet.