Corporate witnesses in Grenfell Tower inquiry given immunity from prosecution

Architects and builders behind the refurbishment had threatened to withhold evidence - but victims feared an attempt to 'sabotage' inquiry

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 26 February 2020 17:47
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Grenfell witnesses demanding immunity from prosecution before testifying, chair of inquiry says

Witnesses from firms called to the Grenfell inquiry have won their fight for immunity from prosecution for their evidence, despite a lawyer for the victims describing the idea as “abhorrent”.

Suella Braverman, the new attorney general, has accepted a request from the inquiry’s chairman after architects and builders behind the tower’s refurbishment threatened to withhold testimonies.

The move will also cover the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO), the client for the project, which had also claimed it was at risk of “self-incrimination”.

It is designed to end an impasse which has held up the inquiry and threatened to delay the publication of its report until late 2021 or even into 2022.

Ms Braverman ackowledged the “anguish” provoked by the controversy, but said: “In making this decision, I have had the victims of the fire and their loved ones at the forefront of my mind.

“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.”

However, Michael Mansfield QC, for the victims, previously described the demand as “abhorrent”, accusing corporate witnesses of trying to “dictate the terms in which they will provide their assistance”.

Stephanie Barwise QC, for another group of victims, alleged the timing was “highly disingenuous and bears all the hallmarks of sabotage of this inquiry”.

Reacting to the announcement, a spokesperson for Grenfell United, the community group, said: “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.”

The inquiry was thrown into confusion when lawyers for the firms said they would speak openly only with an undertaking that nothing they said would be used to further a prosecution against them.

The application related to witnesses from companies including external wall subcontractor Harley Facades, main contractor Rydon, architects Studio E, and window and cladding fitters Osborne Berry.

The second stage of the inquiry had heard that the main designers and contractors involved in the refurbishment had predicted – up to two years before the disaster – that the cladding system would fail in a fire.

The blaze on 14 June 2017 killed 72 people. The public inquiry was set up by Theresa May in its immediate aftermath to get to the truth of what happened and why.

The Metropolitan police is conducting a parallel investigation into possible manslaughter and corporate manslaughter charges and some witnesses have already been interviewed under caution by detectives.

Ms Braverman added: “The undertaking will not jeopardise the police investigation or prospects of a future criminal prosecution.”

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