Grenfell inquiry delayed over witness demands

Grenfell inquiry delayed over witness demands

THE INQUIRY’S hearings have been delayed after witnesses ‘threatened’ not to give evidence unless assured of ‘immunity from prosecution’.

The second phase began last week, and will focus on decisions ‘taken in the months and years before the fire’, as well as its immediate aftermath and the government’s role. This phase is expected to last 18 months, while around 200,000 documents – including private emails, phone transcripts and commercial agreements – would be released.

Statements from lawyers for architects Studio E, builders Rydon, installers Harley Facades, insulation manufacturer Celotex and cladding manufacturer Arconic opened the proceedings, followed by Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RKBC) as it was owner and manager of Grenfell Tower at the time of the fire via the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation.

This week contained opening submissions for an overview of the primary refurbishment including cladding, the testing and certification; and fire safety measures including complaints and communications with residents. The opening day saw ‘key revelations’ including that ‘almost none’ of the clients, consultants or contractors during the refurbishment ‘are accepting much blame’, and ‘ignored pleas from the inquiry not to engage in a “merry-go-round of buck-passing”’.

That first week also heard that the refurbishers ‘knew cladding would fail’; witnesses threatened to ‘withhold evidence’; and a consultant was not sent a key safety report. The Guardian has now reported that the witness threats on evidence submission have seen the inquiry delayed, because witnesses wanted assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’.

Chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick delayed proceedings to ‘consider’ this demand, while survivors and the bereaved ‘reacted with anger’, stating that this ‘bears hallmarks of sabotage’. However, Sir Martin is ‘widely expected’ to ask the attorney general to prevent ‘the use of evidence given by witnesses […] against them in any future criminal proceedings’ so as to avoid the inquiry ‘being entirely derailed’ – because witnesses could ‘simply refuse to answer questions’.

Lawyers for the companies demanding this said it was ‘necessary because detectives are investigating’ potential crimes, though The Guardian said it was ‘unclear how detectives could be entirely restricted from following up leads generated from evidence to the inquiry’. Lawyer Michael Mansfield, representing one group of bereaved and survivors, said it was ‘totally without merit’, and urged companies to consider ‘whether they really want to put the families through more anguish, more agony’.

Stephanie Barwise, another lawyer representing another group, said that one was ‘neutral’ because it ‘had been impossible to gather the views of all of their scores of clients in such a short space of time’, but noted that there was ‘utter outrage’ at the move: ‘Our clients find themselves placed in a wholly impossible position because they cannot know the nature of the evidence which will emerge and it is not possible to know how these undertakings, if given, may affect subsequent prosecutions.’