LONDON (Reuters) - A public inquiry into the fire at Grenfell Tower in London which killed 72 people is seeking a guarantee that certain witnesses will not be prosecuted over their evidence, the inquiry said on Thursday.
The 23-storey social housing block, owned by the wealthy borough of Kensington and Chelsea, was destroyed in June 2017 the worst fire in a residential building in Britain since World War Two.
The inquiry, which began in September 2017, has established that a flammable cladding system fitted to Grenfell Tower’s external walls during a refurbishment was the main factor in the unstoppable spread of the fire.
Contractors involved in the refurbishment had been due to start testifying on Monday but that was postponed after some of them made a request for a guarantee that nothing they told the inquiry could be used to prosecute them.
The request outraged survivors of the fire and bereaved families, who accused the contractors of trying to sabotage the public inquiry and evade justice.
But the inquiry, led by retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, ruled on Thursday that it would grant the request and ask the attorney general, who oversees all prosecutions, to provide the guarantee, officially known as an undertaking.
The witnesses in question had known for months that they would be called to give evidence and had previously indicated they would cooperate fully.
“It is very regrettable, in our view, that the position likely to be adopted by the witnesses was not made clear months ago,” Moore-Bick said in a ruling. “But now that it has been raised, we have no option but to deal with it.”
He said the inquiry’s mission was to uncover the truth about the causes of the disaster and it would be harder to do so if witnesses refused to answer questions by invoking their legal right not to incriminate themselves.
The undertaking, if granted, would not amount to immunity.
It would mean that any oral evidence given to the inquiry by a witness subject to the undertaking could not be used to decide to prosecute that witness. A prosecution could still be brought, but would have to be supported by other evidence.
The oral evidence of one witness could be used in the prosecution of another.
The police, who are investigating the fire separately, have said they were considering criminal charges including gross negligence manslaughter and corporate manslaughter. They will not announce any decision until the public inquiry has ended.
Many of those affected by the fire allege that official neglect of an ethnically mixed, largely low-income community had played a part in the tragedy, and that warnings from residents that there were fire hazards in the tower had been ignored.
The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, which used to manage social housing in the borough and was stripped of its responsibilities after the fire, is among the bodies that have asked for the undertaking to be granted.
The request was also made by current and former employees of Rydon Maintenance Ltd, the main contractor in charge of the refurbishment, as well as by Harley Facades Ltd, a sub-contractor that dealt with the cladding.
Editng by Angus MacSwan