Several witnesses have said that unless they are granted immunity from prosecution they may have to take legal advice and so no more lest they incriminate themselves.
Lawyers representing various participants – including architect Studio E, cladding subcontractor Harley and some current and former employees of Rydon – have written “inviting the Inquiry to consider the need to seek an undertaking from the attorney general that oral evidence given by witnesses during the course of this phase of the inquiry will not be used against them in criminal proceedings.”
The letter was signed by lawyers representing, variously: Harley Façades; Rydon’s Zak Maynard, Gary Martin, Daniel Osgood and Katie Bachellier; Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation; Studio E; Osborne Berry (Harley’s sub-subcontractor); and independent cladding designer Kevin Lamb.
Inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick said: “This development has caused me a little surprise because hitherto there has been the fullest cooperation.”
Seeing immunity from prosecution is, however, an established way by which witnesses are able to help inquiries establish the full truth efficiently. Such undertakings have previously been granted by attorneys general in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and the Ladbroke Grove Inquiry, among others, the lawyers’ letter pointed out.
However, the application for legal immunity caused a predictable outcry.
Michael Mansfield QC, acting on behalf of bereaved relatives and surviving tower residents, said: “The timing of this application … is highly reprehensible and highly questionable coming on the eve of evidence,” said, on behalf of hundreds of. “It has caused immense anxiety, distress and anger.”
The Unite union, which is supporting 65 core participants at the inquiry into the Grenfell fire, described it as ‘absolutely outrageous’.
Unite assistant general secretary for legal affairs Howard Beckett said: “The corporate manslaughter legislation in the UK is already weak enough, without giving companies, who could have been culpable in the deaths of 72 innocent people, immunity from prosecution.
“If the attorney general upholds this request it will be a mockery of justice.
“If the companies involved in installing the cladding knew it was flammable and unsafe and then allowed it to be installed anyway they should of course be prosecuted.
“This is a key test of whether the government wants a proper inquiry which reveals the truth or if they are simply involved in a whitewashing exercise. If immunity is granted then the victims of this terrible and entirely preventable tragedy will lose all confidence in the justice system.”