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Grenfell Inquiry chief told not to give 'licence to lie' to cladding firms

GRANTING the cladding companies involved in the Grenfell disaster immunity from prosecution would be “tantamount to giving a licence to lie,” it was claimed today.

Corporate lawyers representing the firms responsible for fitting the London tower block with flammable cladding threatened last week to remain silent unless they are granted immunity from prosecution.

At the inquiry into the blaze that killed 72 people, families’ representative Michael Mansfield QC urged the corporate witnesses to withdraw their request. 

The lawyer asked them whether they “really want to put the families through more anguish.”

He told the inquiry: “It is abhorrent to the interest of justice that those who are potential perpetrators of this inferno, who caused a loss of life, injury, loss of homes … dictate the terms on which they will provide their assistance.”

Noting that the request had been made at a late stage, Mr Mansfield suggested that the timing was an attempt to “derail” the inquiry. 

Stephanie Barwise QC, representing another group of victims, echoed his arguments, saying that the firms’ demand “bears all the hallmarks of sabotage of this inquiry.”

Last week, representatives of companies involved in the refurbishment of the block, including cladding firm Harley Facades, building contractor Rydon and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, submitted an application for immunity.

The collective application, sent to inquiry chairman Martin Moore-Bick, said the pledge would “fulfil the inquiry’s primary obligation ... in the most effective and least disruptive manner.” 

Mr Moore-Bick is now considering the request to write to the Attorney General to ask for an undertaking to grant them immunity.

The blaze is also the subject of a criminal investigation by the Metropolitan Police.

Individuals involved in the refurbishment of the block are among the suspects who could face manslaughter charges.

As a result, the corporate witnesses in the inquiry can claim privilege against self-incrimination – which is why they are seeking immunity.

But Mr Mansfield warned: “Were it to be granted, given the climate of denial and the buck-passing, the granting of an undertaking in this case would be tantamount to a licence to lie.” 

He argued that if the blanket undertaking was given, it was doubtful that the witnesses would tell “the unvarnished truth.” 

Despite having had years to submit the request, corporate witnesses “gave no hint” of their intention to seek immunity, Mr Mansfield went on, rendering any sympathies they expressed to the families in recent months “hollow” and “meaningless.”

The lawyer also pointed out that granting immunity would result in corporate witnesses receiving different treatment from the firefighters who gave evidence to the first phase of the inquiry in 2018. 

Mr Mansfield questioned why the corporate witnesses “deserved” immunity while the firefighters who tackled the blaze did not. 

Fire Brigades Union (FBU) representative Martin Seawards also expressed concerns on this issue at the inquiry yesterday. 

He said: “FBU is concerned that if the application is granted there will be different rules for witnesses in phase one and phase two.”

The report from phase one of the inquiry, which focused on events on the night of the disaster, criticised the London Fire Brigade for “serious shortcomings” in its response to the blaze.  

Phase two, which began on Monday last week, will attempt to uncover why the disaster happened, looking at the involvement of companies that produced, sold and contracted the flammable cladding and insulation coating the tower. 

In response to yesterday’s proceedings, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said the witnesses’ request would “undermine” the probe. 

“No firefighter sought immunity from prosecution during their evidence to the inquiry,” he said. 

“They gave evidence honestly and unreservedly so that the community they serve could find the truth.”

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