The Grenfell Tower public inquiry has been thrown into confusion after witnesses involved in the design and choice of materials used in the combustible facade said they were likely to claim privilege against self-incrimination as a reason for not answering questions.
There were groans from the bereaved and survivors when the inquiry chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, announced that Harley Facades, which erected the cladding, some employees and ex-employees of Rydon, the main contractor, and witnesses for the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO) were likely to claim the long-established right when cross-examination was due to start next week with testimony from the architects Studio E.
The move led to hearings being paused and the inquiry room cleared so the bereaved and survivors and their legal representatives could consider their response.
The Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June 2017 killed 72 people and the public inquiry was set up in its immediate aftermath to get to the truth of what happened and why.
Moore-Bick said the privilege being requested “protects a person from being required to answer questions if to do so truthfully might expose him or her to a risk of prosecution”.
The Metropolitan police are conducting a parallel investigation into possible corporate manslaughter and manslaughter charges and a number of witnesses have already been interviewed under caution by detectives.
Moore-Bick said counsel for the witnesses asked him on Tuesday night to request that the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, grants “an undertaking that nothing said by a witness … 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”.
The retired appeal court judge said: “This development has caused me a little surprise because hitherto there has been the fullest cooperation.” No one during the Grenfell inquiry, which started in 2018, has yet claimed the privilege, he said.
The second phase of the Grenfell Tower public inquiry was due to start its third day of evidence when Moore-Bick announced the application had been made. It is examining the events and decisions that led to the fire, in particular the refurbishment. It has already heard explosive evidence that architects, contractors and the client knew about the combustibility of cladding panels.
“Metal cladding always burns and falls off,” an architect emailed a fire engineer in spring 2015. An employee of the facade installer told a colleague: “As we all know, the ACM [the combustible cladding panels] will be gone rather quickly in a fire!”
It has heard how Harley Facades said it could save £454,000 by using ACM. KCTMO gave final approval for the cladding in October 2014.