Victims and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire have accused companies who refurbished the doomed building of “sabotaging the inquiry” by threatening to stay silent on their role in the disaster.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is now probing how the tower block was coated in combustible cladding and left dangerously exposed to fire after refurbishment work prior to the 2017 inferno.
But yesterday private firms involved in the refurbishment dropped the bombshell that they want an Attorney General guarantee that evidence to the inquiry will not be used against them in future criminal cases.
Without that assurance, they said, key figures in the controversial works may refuse to answer questions, asserting their right to silence to avoid self-incrimination.
Stephanie Barwise QC, representing Grenfell residents, survivors of the fire, and families of those who died, said today this stance – revealed just days before evidence was set to begin – risked “sabotaging this inquiry”.
“The behaviour of arrogance and complacency which cause the disaster at Grenfell still rages unchecked among the many core participants”, she said.
Ms Barwise said that while the firms are entitled to seek an assurance from the Attorney General it contradicts their public declarations of wanting to help the inquiry, and she suggested the move had been deliberately timed to come at the last minute.
In her opening address to the second stage of the inquiry, Ms Barwise said there were “epidemic levels of incompetence” over fire safety at Grenfell and accused architects, building contractors, suppliers of cladding and insulation material, and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) of “indulging in a blame game” to avoid criminal or civil responsibility.
“They are too firmly fixed on ways to avoid legal liability at the expense of examining what in fact happened”, said Ms Barwise.
“It is misleading for a party to express sympathy, remorse, and sorrow for the horrifying and tragic events which took place on the night of the fire, and then conclude – as the TMO does – that it is undeniable that the design and construction of the refurbishment compromised the safety of the building and led to a tragic loss of lives without acknowledging any aspects of the TMO’s own performance which contributed to the compromised state and that loss of life.”
She added: “This overlooks some very serious failing for which no one but TMO is to blame, and which contributed to loss of life.”
Private firms involved in the Grenfell refurbishment between 2012 and 2016, including architects Studio E, contractor Rydon, Harley Facades, and cladding supplier Arconic, have been accused by counsel to the inquiry of “a merry-go-round of buck-passing” by refusing to accept responsibility for failings in the building.
Ms Barwise said the dangers of using the combustible cladding had been known, but there was an emphasis in the project on cost-cutting and “aesthetics”.
“A hallmark of the Grenfell disaster is epidemic levels of incompetence from a fire safety perspective”, she said.
“It appears the designers and contractors fell broadly into two camps at Grenfell – they either didn’t think about compliance at all or they seem to have understood what was required and ignored it.
“This is one of the more troubling emerging themes, that many of the professionals and contractors wilfully failed to comply with the regulations and statutory guidance.”
She suggested the refurbishment of Grenfell came after years of “mismanagement” by the TMO, and was sparked by Kensington and Chelsea Council seeking government funding for a new school nearby.
She said architect Studio E, which ultimately worked on Grenfell, regarded the block as a “eyesore” next to the new school, while she said the TMO had sought an £800,000 reduction in costs from building contractor Rydon.
“The TMO seems to have given no thought or asked any questions of whether performance including safety was in any way compromised by this reduction”, she said.
Ms Barwise concluded her statement by calling on inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick to make recommendations in his final report that have far-reaching consequences for the whole UK construction sector.
“If the buck-passing of responsibility of the corporates in this inquiry is anything to go by, it’s naïve to think that any but the rarest of companies will change of their own volition in this current regulatory environment.”
Sir Martin is due to hear argument this afternoon on the AG assurances being sought, with evidence on this phase of the inquiry due to start on Monday.
Imran Khan QC, representing another group of victims and survivors, called decisions to cut costs at Grenfell a “death sentence” for residents of the block.
He said in a statement to the inquiry that emails between firms involved in the refurbishment show that the reducing the budget for work on Grenfell was an “over-riding” priority.
He said it was “beyond doubt” that cost-cutting rather than value-adding was the driving principle, and suggested the attitude of those involved in the work was that Grenfell residents’ “lives were not worth” extra costs of safer materials.
“This was less of a missed opportunity and more a death sentence for 72 innocent people”, he said.