Grenfell inquiry to resume
THE ATTORNEY general ruled that witnesses giving evidence would be able to ‘without it being used by police and prosecutors to later charge them with criminal offences’.
The second phase began with a focus on decisions ‘taken in the months and years before the fire’, its immediate aftermath and the government’s role. It is expected to last 18 months, with 200,000 documents – including emails, phone transcripts and commercial agreements – to be released. Statements from lawyers for architects Studio E, builders Rydon, installers Harley Facades, insulation manufacturer Celotex and Arconic and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RKBC) opened proceedings.
Opening weeks contained submissions for an overview of the primary refurbishment including cladding, the testing and certification; and fire safety measures including complaints and communications with residents. ‘Key revelations’ included that ‘almost none’ of the clients, consultants or contractors during the refurbishment were ‘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 refurbishers ‘knew cladding would fail’; witnesses threatened to ‘withhold evidence’; and a consultant was not sent a key report. However hearings were delayed due to the witnesses’ threat, which saw them ask for assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’.
Then, with the recent reshuffle seeing Geoffrey Cox replaced by Suella Braverman, the inquiry heard that Ms Braverman would ‘aim to make a decision’ allowing it ‘to be able to resume’ on 2 March. The Guardian reported on her decision to allow witnesses to ‘give evidence without incriminating themselves’, allowing them to do so ‘without it being used by police and prosecutors to later charge them with criminal offences’, meaning the inquiry will restart on 2 March ‘after a delay of almost a month’.
Survivors and bereaved campaign group Grenfell United said the decision made them ‘nervous’, adding that ‘we can’t help but worry about how this will impact prosecutions later. It is clear that corporate lawyers are playing every trick in the book. Truth at the inquiry must not come at the expense of justice and prosecutions. For our continued participation the government must make sure the inquiry process does not undermine prosecutions.
‘If prosecutions are affected by this decision we will hold the government accountable. Grenfell was a tragedy but it was not an accident. The people responsible for knowingly encasing our families in a death trap and the people that allowed them to do it must face the full force of the law. We expect criminal prosecutions at the end of this and will not settle for anything less’.
Corporate entities will not be protected, with protection only applying to ‘some of the issues being examined’ including refurbishment, cladding, insulation and testing, certification and marketing of cladding products. The attorney general’s office stated that ‘any individual who gives evidence … cannot have that evidence used in any prosecution against them in the future. The undertaking does not provide immunity from prosecution against anyone’.
Other issues the protection will apply to include RBKC and Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation’s handling of complaints from residents and communications with them. The Guardian pointed out that many survivors and bereaved are concerned that a ‘broader undertaking’ could ‘hinder attempts to bring charges as serious as gross negligence manslaughter’, though the Metropolitan police were ‘neutral’ on the application, while the director of public prosecutions and Health and Safety Executive were consulted.
Ms Braverman added: ‘In making this decision I have had the victims of the fire and their loved ones at the forefront of my mind. I cannot begin to imagine what they have gone through and I know that the issue of an undertaking will have caused them further anguish. The undertaking I am providing to the inquiry means it can continue to take evidence from witnesses who otherwise would likely refuse to answer questions.
‘These questions are important to finding out the truth about the circumstances of the fire. The undertaking will not jeopardise the police investigation or prospects of a future criminal prosecution.’
Jonathan O’Neill, managing director of the Fire Protection Association, commented: ‘Whilst we fully support the need for full disclosure to ensure that Sir Martin receives a complete picture of the decisions and events that resulted in the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire, it is absolutely vital that the survivors’ needs and aspirations for the inquiry are also fulfilled.
‘Today’s announcement will move things on, and that is welcome; however more work clearly needs to be done in reassuring the survivors that those to blame for this tragedy are fully held to account.’
The NFCC said it was ‘pleased’ that immunity from future prosecution was ‘not granted’, with chair Roy Wilsher stating: ‘I am pleased today’s decision does not protect anyone from possible future prosecutions. I am hopeful that the inquiry can give the bereaved, survivors and residents - plus everyone else involved - the answers we all desire. Witnesses from Phase One did not make such a request and gave unfettered, open and honest disclosure surrounding the tragic fire.
‘The evidence we heard in the opening week of Phase 2 of the inquiry showed that those involved in the refurbishment were aware of the flammability of the cladding installed on Grenfell Tower. It is imperative the truth comes out and all who are called to give evidence live up to their social and moral responsibilities. The bereaved, survivors and residents deserve a full account of the events and decisions leading up to the tragic Grenfell Tower fire.’