If ever proof was needed that The Government Is Not Our Friend, then the treatment of the survivors and the families of the victims of the July 7 bombings is surely it.
Today being the first anniversary of the bombings it’s worth looking back on the treatment of the people who simply had the misfortune to board the wrong tube trains or bus last summer. Those fortunate enough to emerge alive, many with terrible injuries, both physical and psychological, were met with official incompetence, ignorance, suggestions of culpability in future attacks and, on one memorable occasion, outright hostility.
The testimonies of some of the survivors to the London Assembly’s 7 July Review Committee are a good place to start. As many as 6,000 people who walked away from the scenes of the bombings may have been ‘severely psychologically affected’ but most are not known to the authorities in the absence of formal assistance. They’ve had to form their own support groups. Three hundred of those injured in the bombings are still waiting for their much needed (and let’s face it, paltry) compensation to be agreed.
Danny Biddle who sustained many injuries, had to decide which were the three most severe as that’s all the compensation system will consider. 'It's like going through an Argos catalogue, picking the most expensive things,' he said. Both of his legs, an eye and his spleen added up to just £118,332. According to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority system, the loss of an eye is worth £27,000. They then take 70 per cent off that if it's your second worst injury. Danny put the loss of his legs first. So that was £110,000 for his legs, £8,000 for his eye and £332 for his spleen. He’s still waiting for the money for his spleen. Dewhursts the butchers would have shown more sensitivity.
Smaller things also stand out, adding to the sickening feeling that the survivors were overlooked, forgotten or sidelined while the Government got on with creating headline-catching initiatives to appease the media (and yet of the 64 recommendations made by the task force put together last summer to tackle Islamic extremism, only one has been given the go ahead by the Government). VIPs were invited to the Government-organised memorial service at St Paul’s but not, until they complained, the survivors. One Australian survivor was visited in St Thomas’ Hospital, with its view of Westminster, by the Australian Prime Minister but nobody from the British government. She’s still waiting to be contacted by British government officials. ‘We have had more contact from Australian MPs than we have had from British ones... The answer is: if you are going to be in an emergency, make sure you are not British,’ said her partner.
And then there were the inevitable insults to add to the injuries. The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith refuses a public inquiry on the grounds of how much it might cost (The Bloody Sunday inquiry, for example, is spiralling its way to the £400 million mark). This from a government happy to throw a quarter of a million quid at the Millennium Dome, throw Kilimanjaros of cash at ID cards and shoddy computer systems, allow tax avoidance to cost the nation between 25 and 85 billion pounds every year, fork out £25 billion on redundant nuclear weapons and £2 million a year on an even more redundant Deputy Prime Minister. By way of twisted coincidence, Gordon Brown announced this week that there will be no cap on military spending.
At a meeting with some of the survivors who are requesting a public inquiry into the bombing, two-fisted Home Secretary John Reid sensitively asked them how they would feel explaining to the families of future bomb victims how a public inquiry had diverted attention and resources away from investigations. One survivor’s father approaching the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke at a meeting to ask why there was to be no public inquiry was told, ‘Get away from me, I will not be insulted by you, this is an insult’. (In another display of empathy, while dismissing survivors’ calls for additional compensation, he also compared being blown up on a tube to being ‘stabbed outside a pub’.)
To make matters worse, in the absence of any official support, some survivors have had to, by themselves, fend off voracious conspiracy theorists and journalists. Survivor Rachel North has become a focus, via her blog, of much media attention. She has had to deal with a stalker and a legion of conspiracy theorists who simply refuse to take the facts at face value. Some of them have even imaginatively accused her of being a team of MI5 disinformation agents. (For the record, we should note that we met Ms North recently. We can vouch that she is definitely just one person, charming, urbane and, most importantly, free with her fags. It’s not breaking any confidences to note that she works in advertising which possibly makes her the Devil but we won’t hold that against her here.)
On the question of a public inquiry, the government’s refusal to hold one gives tacit approval to the investigation into the bombings being conducted by gossip. The inquiry into the intelligence failures in the run up to the bombings, along with their causes and ramifications, have been left to the media via anonymous police and MI5 briefings and leaks (although John Reid is now looking to stop all that with amendments to the Official Secrets Act removing the defence of leaks being in the public interest - the problems won’t go away, we just won’t hear about them any more). This serves to stoke even more resentment and paranoia while eroding further the Government’s vestigial reputation as a straight dealer and fuelling the not unreasonable suspicion that it has something to hide. And that’s before we even arrive at the vital conclusion that getting to the heart of this atrocity might just prevent another one. The survivors don’t want glory or publicity; it’s a matter of sparing others what they themselves have been through in the last year.
The conclusion we should take from this is a straightforward one. Maybe too straightforward for these cynical times. Helping the victims’ families and the survivors, and preventing future atrocities, is about simple compassion, reaching out to those in pain. (There are those who disagree. ‘I hate all that shit,’ said one commenter, worried about where his taxes are going, on The Guardian’s Comment is Free blog.) Put plainly though, it’s about who we are and who we want to be. There but for the grace of God and all that.
But it’s also about, and this is where Blair should get on board, it being his catchphrase, Sending A Message. Paint it in letters a hundred feet high. Honour the dead and comfort the living - demonstrate in all the ways we can that we’re better, higher, more civilised beings than the creatures who took their rucksacks to London on July 7 2005 and those who might choose to follow them.