Grenfell inquiry paused for 18 days

Grenfell inquiry paused for 18 days

THE INQUIRY’S second phase has been put on hold for 18 days due to witnesses seeking promises that they will not be prosecuted over statements made in the hearings.

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. Most recently, it was confirmed that the hearings have been delayed to the witnesses’ threat, which saw them ask for assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’.

The inquiry has now reported officially that the panel has issued a ruling on the witnesses’ application, in that it will ‘seek the undertaking’ from the attorney general, and that ‘in light’ of this decision hearings ‘will not resume before’ 24 February. The Guardian added that the decision means the government will now ‘decide whether evidence given by professionals and company executives could also be used to mount criminal prosecutions against them’.

Attorney general Geoffrey Cox will be asked to promise witnesses ‘that what they say under cross-examination will not be used to try to send them to jail’, while chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick also responding. He noted that he understood the survivors and bereaved may be ‘indignant’ at the move, but said that the ‘right not to self-incriminate was enshrined in English law’.

The news outlet pointed out that with hearings scheduled to last until summer 2021 prior to this, the extra delays ‘would threaten to push back the inquiry’s final conclusions’ until 2022, and costs – paid for by the taxpayer – would ‘also increase’. It also added that RKBC was ‘almost alone among corporate participants in saying it wanted its present and former employees to give evidence openly without claiming privilege’.

Sir Martin stated: ‘Contrary to reports in the press, it does not grant anyone immunity from prosecution. It does not apply to any statements or documents already in the possession of the inquiry and it does not prevent the prosecuting authorities from making use of answers given by one witness in furtherance of proceedings against another.’

In response to this move, the Local Government Association’s (LGA’s) building safety spokesman Lord Porter commented: ‘The LGA is extremely concerned at the possibility that some witnesses to the Grenfell Inquiry could be granted immunity from having any evidence they give to the inquiry used in subsequent prosecutions against them.

‘The Grenfell Tower fire was an unacceptable failure of building safety that must never be allowed to happen again. All those involved in any way have a duty to fully participate in the inquiry, tell the unedited truth, answer for their actions and accept responsibility for their role in the deaths of at least 72 people and the ongoing trauma inflicted upon the survivors and the bereaved.

‘We are concerned that either granting this request or, if it is denied, any subsequent refusal by witnesses to answer the Inquiry’s questions, will frustrate justice and hamper attempts to learn the lessons of Grenfell - lessons which are all the more urgent given the large number of buildings still covered in dangerous cladding and the subsequent blanket of fear that remains imposed on those who live in them.’

He added: ‘The LGA urges the Attorney General to do everything in his power to ensure the truth comes out in a manner that guarantees those who have a criminal case to answer face justice and does not jeopardise civil litigation against those responsible for rendering buildings unsafe. We are particularly concerned to ensure that the truth is fully exposed as swiftly as possibly in order to assist councils, fire authorities and the Government in our joint efforts to remediate dangerous cladding on hundreds of buildings across the country.

‘It would be hard to imagine that in the future any council would allow the use of any products manufactured by any company who did not cooperate fully with the inquiry.’