The chair of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, has agreed to an application by Studio E Architects and others for immunity from prosecution relating to any evidence they give about the tragedy
The government’s chief lawyer, the attorney general, will now have to decide whether to grant the undertaking, which inquiry chair Martin Moore-Bick hopes will allow those involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower to speak more freely.
In an unexpected move on day three of the second phase of the inquiry last week, the corporate core respondents asked for a ‘formal undertaking that nothing said by a witness in the course of giving evidence to the inquiry would be used in furtherance of a prosecution against that person’.
Having considered the bid, Moore-Bick has now approved the request.
In his letter to the attorney general (see attached), he writes: ‘[We] have come to the conclusion that it will not be possible for the inquiry properly to fulfil its terms of reference if witnesses do not have an assurance that the answers they give to questions will not be used in furtherance of criminal proceedings against them.
‘Without an undertaking of the kind described above, it is very likely that witnesses who were involved in the procurement and design of the refurbishment, the choice of materials and the execution of the work will claim privilege against self-incrimination, or, if they do not, that they will be considerably less candid than would otherwise have been the case as a result of trying to avoid saying anything that might harm their position in the future.’
As a result, the first set of witnesses scheduled to give accounts of their involvement in the project are not now expected to be heard until 24 February at the earliest. The AJ understands Andrzej Kuszell, Bruce Sounes and Neil Crawford of Studio E are among them.
Moore-Bick said it was up to the attorney general to decide whether it would be ‘appropriate for him to give an undertaking and, if so, in what terms’, but added that it would be ‘limited in its effect’. He said: ‘Contrary to reports in the press, it does not grant anyone immunity from prosecution.
This undertaking would 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.’
Earlier this week (3 February) the lawyer advising the Grenfell Inquiry recommended Moore-Bick approve the application to give the corporate witnesses protection from having their statements used against them in prosecution.
Noting it was ‘with some regret, perhaps’, counsel for the inquiry Richard Millett said he believed this was the best way to try and find the truth about how the tower’s refurbishment contributed to the catastrophic fire that killed 72 people on 14 June 2017.
He added that if the attorney general granted the undertaking, it would give the chair the power to compel witnesses to answer all questions ‘under pain of punishment’ if they refused.
Millett’s recommendation had come after the inquiry heard from legal representatives for the bereaved and survivors as well as other core participants.
Gary Porter, Conservative peer and building safety spokesman for the Local Government Association
[We] are 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.
The association 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.