14:47, July 31 243 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-31 14:47:02
Grenfell fire inquiry may have to suspend work if CPS brings charges

The judge-led inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire is in danger of having to suspend operations entirely for a lengthy period if prosecutors authorise corporate manslaughter charges.

Last week police publicly identified Kensington and Chelsea council and the organisation that managed the tower block as suspects, creating the potential for conflict with Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s public inquiry.

The pace of the police investigation raises questions about which should take priority. Legal opinion is divided although the majority believe that the criminal investigation must go ahead first, a decision that would have repercussions for the official Grenfell Tower Fire Inquiry. However, survivors and residents have expressed alarm at the prospect of the inquiry being delayed or diluted.

The inquiry is aware of the problem and is considering various options, including whether it might have to radically refocus its approach or even delay its hearings for a time. It is due to send recommendations about its terms of reference to the prime minister as early as next week.

An official statement hinted at the dilemma. Asked about the impact of police operations on its work, a spokesman said: “The inquiry is currently consulting on its terms of reference. Once these are finalised by the prime minister, we will assess how our work relates to other inquiries and investigations relating to the Grenfell Tower fire.”

The Crown Prosecution Service has already given detectives preliminary legal advice on the corporate manslaughter investigations. Officers have not yet, however, submitted any files for formal charging decisions.

In a letter sent to survivors and the families of those who died last week, police said: “After an initial assessment of that information, the officer leading the investigation has ... notified Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that each organisation may have committed the offence of corporate manslaughter, under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.”

The inquiry is determined to push ahead with its evidence-gathering once the remit is signed off by Number 10 and will only review the extent of its work – or consider if it needs to recast its remit – if the director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, decides that charges should be brought.

Scotland Yard has warned that its investigations “will take a considerable time to complete”. Asked whether its criminal inquiry or the public inquiry would take primacy, the Met said: “This will ultimately be determined by the inquiry’s terms of reference, which have not yet been set.”

Louise Christian, a consultant solicitor and expert on inquests and inquiries, called for the government to offer an indemnity to witnesses giving evidence to the inquiry.

Corporate manslaughter convictions would only result in organisations being fined, she said, and would not get to the bottom of why the blaze claimed so many lives.

There was a legal precedent for such a move, Christian explained, in the inquiry into the 1999 Ladbroke Grove train crash in which 31 people died. On that occasion, the police’s corporate manslaughter investigation took place after the Cullen inquiry had reported.

Yvette Williams of Justice4Grenfell said people in the community had been worried for some time that the public inquiry could be thwarted by the criminal process.

“People will be very angry. Many members of the community are putting a lot of work into submissions under the consultation process [for the inquiry’s terms of reference]. If it is put back or limited it will be a complete disaster. It’s a car crash waiting to happen,” she said.

Chris Imafidon, a local resident who has criticised the inquiry at public meetings, said he was astonished at the suggestion that it could be derailed by the police investigation. “I hope the authorities will not use this as a way of silencing the public inquiry,” he said.

Emma Dent Coad, the Labour MP for Kensington, said there was “widespread lack of confidence in the inquiry as currently instituted”. A potential delay would only be seen in a positive “if it leads subsequently to the arrest of those who many feel are responsible for this humanitarian disaster.