February 3, 2020 / 2:40 PM / 21 days ago

Survivors of London's Grenfell fire denounce 'sabotage' of public inquiry

LONDON (Reuters) - Bereaved families and survivors of London’s 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people, on Monday accused those responsible for wrapping the building in combustible materials of trying to sabotage a public inquiry into the disaster.

FILE PHOTO: Flames and smoke billow as firefighters deal with a serious fire in the Grenfell Tower apartment block at Latimer Road in West London, Britain June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

The blaze that destroyed the 23-storey social housing block, owned by the wealthy borough of Kensington and Chelsea, was Britain’s worst in a residential building since World War Two.

The public inquiry has established that a flammable cladding system fitted to external walls during a recent refurbishment was the key factor in the unstoppable spread of the fire.

Contractors involved in the refurbishment had been due to start giving evidence on Monday, but that was postponed after some made a last-minute request for guarantees that they would not be prosecuted over anything they told the inquiry.

“The timing of this application appears disingenuous and an attempt at sabotage,” Stephanie Barwise, a lawyer representing some of the survivors and bereaved families, told the inquiry on Monday, describing her clients as outraged.

Many in the Grenfell community have called for those responsible for the condition of the building to face criminal prosecution.

Police conducting a separate investigation have said they are considering charges including gross negligence manslaughter and corporate manslaughter but will not announce any decision until the public inquiry has ended.

Begun in September 2017, the inquiry aims to establish exactly what went wrong at Grenfell Tower, why it happened and who was responsible. Previously, the contractors and officials involved in the refurbishment had indicated they would cooperate fully in the interest of uncovering the truth.

Instead, Barwise and other lawyers argued, they had waited until the 11th hour to throw a curve ball, inflicting new anguish on the families just as the long-awaited moment of accountability was supposed to arrive.

DIFFICULT CHOICE

The inquiry chairman, retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, now faces a difficult choice. If he agrees to the contractors’ request, he risks alienating the Grenfell community. If he rejects it, he faces the prospect of key witnesses refusing to answer questions, citing their right not to self-incriminate.

Richard Millett, a lawyer representing the inquiry itself, condemned the timing of the request, but said that on balance, it was in the inquiry’s interest to grant it.

“Without it, you will not get the truth,” he told the chairman.

A lawyer representing the Metropolitan Police said the force would not give a view because it did not want to be seen to be trying to influence the gathering of evidence.

Barwise said it was impossible to know how any guarantee regarding evidence to the inquiry, if given, might affect subsequent prosecutions, which was one of the reasons why her clients were so upset about the request.

After hearing submissions from all the lawyers, Moore-Bick adjourned the hearing indefinitely to consider what to do.

The request came from current and former employees of Rydon Maintenance Ltd, the main contractor in charge of the refurbishment, as well as from Harley Facades Ltd, a sub-contractor that dealt with the cladding.

The same request was also made by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which used to manage social housing in the borough and was stripped of its responsibilities after the 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 Catherine Evans

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