The fire that killed more than 70 Londoners in the Grenfell Tower back in June 2017 set off a wave of revulsion: the tendency of the combustible cladding with which the building had recently been covered to catch alight, and in conjunction with the air gap to the structure and the funnel effect, render compartmentalisation ineffective, was already known.
Yet residents were told to stay put; firefighters in London were not yet aware of this new risk. Then came the Prime Ministerial visit, and Theresa May’s reputation took another nosedive as a result. Our free and fearless press, meanwhile, having spent years decrying “elf’n’safety”, switched to playing the other side of the field and laid into, er, safety failings.
Martin Moore-Bick, Grenfell Inquiry chairman
The Rotten Lefties™ were spuriously blamed for hijacking subsequent protests. Some even tried to pin the blame on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. But all the froth died away as the business of the Public Inquiry got under way. That Inquiry has now reached Phase Two, which will examine “the decisions which led to the installation of a highly combustible cladding system on a high-rise residential building and the wider background against which they were taken”. This follows on from the Phase One conclusion.
That was that the panels were the cause of the rapid fire spread. But this morning has brought a dramatic development, as Evening Standard courts correspondent Tristan Kirk noted: “Key witnesses to the refurbishment with combustible cladding, are demanding an assurance from the Attorney General that their evidence won't be used against them in any future prosecution. They may stay silent if it’s not given”. There was more.
“Harley Facades, employees and ex-employees of Rydon, the [Tenant Management Organisation], 'and others' are the ones asking for the AG assurance. They are claiming a privilege against self-incrimination which could frustrate the inquiry if they are not given the assurance”. Someone appears worried. This development has not gone down well.
“Groans in the room and chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick has paused proceedings for everyone to digest this news: ‘This has caused me a little surprise’, he said. So far they have had ‘fullest cooperation’ and no one has tried to dodge questions”. Moore-Bick is a former Judge. If he is “surprised”, that is most likely code for “You WHAT”?
Kirk explained what happened next. “Sir Martin's explanation: ‘I have very recently been advised that when called to give evidence many of the witnesses who were involved in the design and choice of materials are likely to claim privilege against self-incrimination as a reason for not answering questions’”. Someone made the decision to choose that kind of cladding. Even if not incriminated, merely being identified could be very bad for them.
As Kirk has told, Moore-Bick continued “‘The rule of law protects a person from being required to answer questions if to do so truthfully might expose him or her to risk of prosecution.’ Says AG undertaking would be ‘nothing said by witnesses to questions in inquiry will be used in furtherance of prosecution’”. Those witnesses should answer questions without requiring guarantees. But it seems he will seek them anyway.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is, first and foremost, about finding out what happened, and how we got there. The latter cannot be ascertained unless and until those witnesses provide the fullest of disclosure. And it needs to happen sooner rather than later.
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