The chairman of the Grenfell Inquiry has asked the Attorney General for a pledge that oral evidence given by corporate witnesses will not be used to prosecute them in future.
Sir Martin Moore-Bick has written to Geoffrey Cox QC requesting an undertaking which will stop any evidence given in person during the inquiry hearings by staff involved in the 24-storey block’s refurbishment being used against them in criminal proceedings.
Without it, many had threatened to stay silent by claiming the legal right of privilege against self-incrimination.
A ruling published on Thursday made clear the rationale is to allow witnesses to furnish the public inquiry with a truthful account without fear for the future, allowing Sir Martin to make recommendations based on the fullest body of evidence possible.
The ruling said: “Any recommendations we may be able to make will depend for their weight and authority on the evidence that underpins our findings… it is essential that we be able to explore with the witnesses their states of mind and the reasons for their actions.”
It adds: “We think it likely that for many witnesses the pressure of being asked to admit shortcomings with the risk of criminal proceedings in the background will prove too great.”
Scotland Yard is conducting its own investigation into possible crimes ranging from gross negligence manslaughter and corporate manslaughter to health and safety offences.
If granted, the undertaking will not act as a blanket providing total immunity from prosecution and does not cover statements or documents submitted to the inquiry.
Described by the inquiry panel as “limited in its effect”, it would only prevent authorities from bringing a prosecution against a witness based on their oral testimony or using that evidence as part of a prosecution.
But “it does not prevent the prosecuting authorities from making use of answers given by one witness in furtherance of proceedings against another”, according to the ruling.
The ruling said: “We shall write to the Attorney General immediately asking him to grant an undertaking in the following terms: No oral evidence given by a natural or legal person before the Inquiry in Modules 1, 2 and 3 will be used in evidence against that person in any criminal proceedings or for the purpose of deciding whether to bring such proceedings…”
Any undertaking will not cover anyone charged with either conspiring to or giving false evidence to the inquiry.
If granted, it will cover the first three modules of phase two which deal with: the tower’s primary refurbishment, testing and marketing of the cladding products, and fire safety measures and risk assessments, including complaints and communication with residents.
It adds: “It is for the Attorney General, of course, to decide whether it would be appropriate for him to give an undertaking and, if so, in what terms.
“It will be for him to balance the competing demands of the inquiry against the need to avoid prejudicing any future criminal proceedings.”
Witnesses from firms involved in the fitting of flammable materials had been due to be cross-examined, but they submitted a last-minute legal bid seeking the pledge last Tuesday.
In the aftermath of the fire two of the firms involved – Rydon Maintenance and Harley Facades – said they would co-operate fully with the investigation.
The second stage of the inquiry has heard the main designers, contractors and fire safety consultants appeared to predict two years before the disaster that a planned cladding system would fail if exposed to fire, according to internal emails disclosed to the hearing.
On Monday, the inquiry’s chief lawyer, Richard Millett QC, advised Sir Martin to accept the request, saying: “Without it you will not get to the truth.”
Michael Mansfield QC, for the victims, previously described the move by key firms as “abhorrent”, saying the “potential perpetrators of this inferno” are trying to “essentially dictate the terms in which they will provide their assistance”.
Stephanie Barwise QC, for another group of victims, said the timing is “highly disingenuous and bears all the hallmarks of sabotage of this inquiry”.
The inquiry has been paused until at least February 24.
The application relates to witnesses from firms including external wall subcontractor Harley Facades, main contractor Rydon, architects Studio E, and window and cladding fitters Osborne Berry.
Lord Porter, building safety spokesman for the Local Government Association, said he was “extremely concerned” at the move and urged the Attorney General to “ensure the truth comes out”.
He said: “We are concerned that either granting this request or, if it is denied, any subsequent refusal by witnesses to answer the Inquiry’s questions, will frustrate justice and hamper attempts to learn the lessons of Grenfell – lessons which are all the more urgent given the large number of buildings still covered in dangerous cladding and the subsequent blanket of fear that remains imposed on those who live in them.”
The collective request to Sir Martin cited the use of undertakings in inquiries including: the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, the Ladbroke Grove Inquiry, the Baha Mousa Inquiry, the Al Sweady Inquiry.
Witnesses giving evidence into the death of Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, who died in British army custody after being detained in Basra in 2003, were granted the pledge to help the “fullest and frankest” account of events to emerge.
Former attorney general Baroness Scotland granted the troops immunity against criminal prosecution based on their own evidence to the inquiry, which concluded in 2011 the innocent civilian died after suffering “an appalling episode of serious gratuitous violence” and that a number of British soldiers bore a “heavy responsibility”.
In 2000, then attorney general Lord Williams of Mostyn QC offered immunity for all evidence presented to the inquiry into the rail crash disaster at Ladbroke Grove in west London which killed 31 people and injured more than 200.