Companies involved in Grenfell refurbishment 'could refuse to answer inquiry questions'

29 January 2020, 20:27

Protesters outside the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry
Protesters outside the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry. Picture: PA

By Megan White

Companies involved in coating Grenfell Tower in flammable materials could refuse to answer questions unless they are guaranteed immunity from prosecution.

A "highly reprehensible" last-minute legal bid was submitted to the public inquiry on Tuesday, asking chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick to stop any evidence staff gave being used against them in any future criminal proceedings.

Without the pledge, the hearing was told many would refuse to answer questions by claiming privilege against self-incrimination.

Sir Martin said he was asked to seek guarantees from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox QC that "nothing said by a witness in answers to questions in the inquiry will be used in furtherance of a prosecution against them, thereby giving them complete freedom to tell the truth without any concern for the future.”

It comes after the inquiry heard the main designers, contractors and fire safety consultants appeared to know two years before the disaster that a planned cladding system would fail if exposed to fire, according to internal emails disclosed on Tuesday.

Local residents attend a second anniversary commemoration of the fire
Local residents attend a second anniversary commemoration of the fire. Picture: PA

Scotland Yard is conducting its own investigation into gross negligence manslaughter, corporate manslaughter and health and safety offences and said in September it had so far completed 17 interviews.

Michael Mansfield QC, representing victims, said: "The timing of this application on behalf of certain corporates with regard to whether they will answer questions or have immunity, both are linked, in relation to those questions is highly reprehensible and highly questionable, coming on the eve of the evidence.

"There has been plenty of time for this to be considered.

"We have a major question over why it has been done today.

"It has caused immense anxiety, distress and anger at a time which has come throughout a much longer period of waiting after this disaster, of waiting to get to the point of accountability, as it were, to be almost thwarted at the doors of the court."

Sir Martin said: "I agree this application has come very late in the day and at a most inconvenient time.

"It's very disappointing, I might even use a stronger word."

The Justice4Grenfell group branded the move "disgusting" and Unite the union said it would be a "mockery of justice" if it was granted.

Sir Martin said he would hear the application for firms including external wall subcontractor Harley Facades, main contractor Rydon, and architects Studio E on Thursday afternoon.

The former appeal court judge told Mr Mansfield he would adjourn and then hear his representations regarding the matter on Monday morning.

A spokesperson from the Attorney General's Office said no application had been received from Sir Martin yet.

The spokesperson added: "Should an application be received, it will be carefully considered in consultation with other relevant bodies as appropriate."

Under Section 22 of the Inquiries Act 2005, a witness can refuse to give evidence if it might incriminate them.

But the Attorney General has the power to rule that no evidence given by witnesses, whether oral, written or in document form, "will be used in evidence against him or her in any criminal proceedings" except if they are charged with conspiring to or giving false evidence to the inquiry.

Seventy two people died as a result of the blaze at the west London block after an electrical fault with a fridge freezer sparked a catastrophic fire.