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Grenfell inquiry legal undertaking extended

3 June 2020

ATTORNEY GENERAL Suella Braverman has extended the ruling that means witness statements ‘cannot be used in evidence in any future prosecution against them’, ahead of resumption.

The second phase began earlier this year with a focus on decisions ‘taken in the months and years before the fire’, its immediate aftermath and the government’s role. It was at first expected to last 18 months, with 200,000 documents – including emails, phone transcripts and commercial agreements – to be released.

‘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 asking for assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’. This move was granted, and the inquiry resumed. In March, the inquiry gave an update on plans to continue work and potentially resume hearings remotely, after inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick suspended hearings due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

A later update noted that while hearings are suspended ‘the work of the Inquiry continues’, and ‘potential options’ for hearings to continue were outlined, with core participants and witnesses written to in order to establish their views on three options. These included suspending hearings until social restrictions ‘have been lifted completely’; conducting them remotely via video conferencing; or resuming with limited attendance ‘when social restrictions are partially lifted’.

Responses were requested to be sent in by 27 April. In late May, the inquiry had received responses that ‘indicated a substantial consensus in favour of limited attendance hearings’. It said it had ‘come to the clear conclusion’ that the chosen option ‘presents the best way in which the Inquiry can pursue its important work with the necessary urgency’. Consequently, it was developing a ‘detailed plan for implementing this’, which would enable hearings to resume ‘safely and in accordance with government guidance’.

However, the inquiry was keen to note that it ‘cannot yet make any firm prediction about when it will be possible to implement limited attendance hearings as this is dependent on when and how government restrictions are lifted and public health considerations generally’. The earliest it believed it will ‘be possible to resume hearings’ is July, as ‘it is likely to take up to a month to reorganise the Inquiry’s premises in an appropriate way and to reschedule the witnesses for Module 1’.

The inquiry and the government have now given an update on the witness undertaking, with Ms Braverman said to have, ‘in her role as guardian of the public interest’, extended it. In ‘broad terms’, it means ‘legal persons cannot refuse to answer questions on the basis that to do so would risk self-incrimination, which is a right granted to them in law’. Answers can also not ‘be used in evidence in any future prosecution against them’, but there is no immunity from prosecution for anyone.

Ms Braverman was said to have taken ‘into consideration all representations received’, and ‘since concluded that extending the undertaking will not jeopardise the police investigation or the prospects of a future criminal prosecution’. She was said to believe that it is ‘needed to enable the Inquiry to continue to hear vital evidence about the circumstances and causes of the fire’, and without it ‘some witnesses would be likely to decline giving evidence’.

Ms Braverman commented: ‘The bereaved, survivors and their relatives have been very much in my mind in making my decision and I hope that the extension to the undertaking helps them to find the truth about the circumstances of the fire. It is important to know that I am granting the extension in the knowledge that it will not jeopardise any future criminal investigation or prosecution and that it does not offer anyone immunity from prosecution.’

The inquiry meanwhile acknowledged that Sir Martin had written to Ms Braverman to ‘request and extension’ in late April. After the agreement had been made, testimony from Studio E staff admitted it ‘lacked experience in cladding tower blocks’, and that it was selected ‘despite never having carried out similar work’, without any ‘competitive procurement process, interview or design competition’.

Later, emails between senior fire engineers and consultants at Exova Warrington Fire saw admissions that plans to refurbish the tower were making ‘a crap condition worse’, and ‘no sprinklers [were] wanted’. Studio E’s lead designer Neil Crawford then alleged that Celotex ‘calculatedly sought to deceive’ and ‘deliberately misled’ over its product’s safety ‘as if selling horsemeat as beef’.

Most recently before it was suspended, the inquiry heard that contractors appeared more concerned about ‘cost and delay’ than fire safety, and on ‘appearance and cost’, while the last testimony given came from Exova consultant Cate Cooney, who had carried out a fire strategy report in 2012 on Grenfell in its original ‘state’ but ‘without visiting the site itself’, and which included a ‘number of assumptions’.

Grenfell inquiry legal undertaking extended