By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) – Several witnesses have asked for guarantees that they will not be prosecuted for anything they say at a public inquiry into a fire that killed 72 people in London’s Grenfell Tower nearly three years ago, the inquiry’s chairman said on Wednesday.
The 23-storey social housing block, owned by the wealthy London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, was engulfed by flames on the night of June 14, 2017, in Britain’s worst fire in a residential building since World War Two.
A public inquiry into the blaze said the key factor in the unstoppable spread of the fire was the presence of a flammable cladding system that had been fitted to the tower’s external walls during a recent refurbishment.
The inquiry, chaired by retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, is due to begin hearing evidence next Monday from people, firms and bodies that were involved in the renovation.
At the start of Wednesday’s hearing, Moore-Bick said he had just received an unexpected request from several of the witnesses, who wanted to make sure they could not incriminate themselves by participating in the inquiry.
“What they’re asking me to do is to apply to the attorney general for an undertaking that nothing said by a witness in answers to questions in the inquiry will be used in furtherance of a prosecution against them,” he said.
Moore-Bick, whose announcement drew audible gasps and protests from people attending the hearing, said he would decide whether to grant the request after lawyers representing all parties, including Grenfell survivors, had discussed the matter.
Many survivors and bereaved relatives have previously said those responsible for wrapping Grenfell Tower in combustible cladding should face criminal charges.
Police have said they are considering possible charges, including gross negligence manslaughter and corporate manslaughter. But they say they will not announce any decisions on charges until the public inquiry has ended as they will need to take into account its findings.
Moore-Bick said the surprise request had come from certain employees and ex-employees of Rydon Maintenance Ltd, a privately owned firm that was the main contractor in charge of the refurbishment, as well as from Harley Facades Ltd, a sub-contractor that dealt with the cladding.
He said the same request had also been made by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), a body which used to manage social housing in the borough and was stripped of its responsibilities after the Grenfell Tower fire.
Certain survivors have alleged that official neglect of their 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.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)