LONDON (Reuters) – The inquiry into the fire the killed 72 people at London’s Grenfell Tower was briefly suspended on Monday as protesters started shouting out, angered by a decision to partially shield some witnesses from prosecution.
Yells of “it’s a disgrace” came from the public seating as the inquiry started hearing evidence on the refurbishment of the tower in the years leading up to the June 2017 blaze.
“What’s the point if they (the witness statements) can’t be used in a court of law?” yelled one man as other members of the public remonstrated with him, asking him to let the hearing continue.
Grenfell Tower, a 23-storey social housing block owned by the wealthy borough of Kensington and Chelsea, was destroyed in the fire, which was the deadliest in a residential building in Britain since World War Two.
The disaster shocked the nation, prompting an outpouring of grief, silent protest marches and a wave of soul-searching over whether neglect of an ethnically mixed, largely low-income community had played a part in the tower’s fate.
The public inquiry is running in parallel with a separate police investigation which is considering charges including gross negligence manslaughter.
The public hearings, which started in September 2017, have established that a combustible cladding system fitted to the tower’s external walls during the recent refurbishment was the main factor in the unstoppable spread of the fire.
The inquiry chairman, retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, swiftly suspended the hearing when the shouting started, then resumed it less than 10 minutes later after the protesters were ejected.
“People may feel strongly about some of the evidence, but it’s very important … that the witnesses are allowed to give their evidence with dignity,” Moore-Bick said.
Another member of the public told the chairman that the protesters were not bereaved relatives or survivors of the fire.
The brief outburst stemmed from a decision to give some witnesses, mostly contractors involved in the refurbishment, a guarantee that nothing they told the inquiry could be used to prosecute them.
The witnesses had requested the guarantee days before they were due to appear in front of the inquiry in February, citing their right not to self-incriminate. The request caused a four-week delay while it was processed.
Attorney General Suella Braverman, the government’s top legal adviser, confirmed last week that she was granting the witnesses the protection they had sought, on the basis that they would otherwise refuse to answer the inquiry’s questions.
Braverman’s undertaking does not amount to immunity. Charges could still be brought against the protected witnesses if supported by other evidence than what they tell the inquiry. They could also face charges if they were found to have lied to the inquiry.
(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Andrew Heavens)