Government ministers have been called to give evidence to the Grenfell Tower public inquiry in a move that means senior politicians could next year be cross-examined about their actions in the run-up to the disaster and its aftermath.
Key figures have already been asked to provide written statements and some will face detailed questioning in public, said the inquiry secretary, Mark Fisher, in a letter to local councillors.
The inquiry has not yet decided which politicians will be asked to give evidence in person. Theresa May was prime minister at the time of the 14 June 2017 fire that killed 72 people. Others who may be called include the former housing minister Gavin Barwell and the former communities secretary Eric Pickles, both now Conservative peers.
The inquiry confirmed the decision in a letter to Labour councillors at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) which said “the inquiry is currently in the process of deciding which of them should be called to give evidence in person”.
Fisher said: “Those government departments who made the relevant decisions, both ministers and officials at various levels, have been asked to provide statements to the inquiry relating to their involvement in the matters under investigation and have done so.”
Before Christmas, the inquiry heard how the makers of materials used on Grenfell managed to sell their combustible products by negotiating often-confusing fire safety regulations set by the government, which were partly policed by privatised testing bodies and building inspectors.
For example, Brian Martin, the official in the Department for Communities and Local Government responsible for fire regulations, knew combustible insulation called PIR was being used on high rise residential towers and in 2014 issued a warning to the National Housebuilding Council saying: “People are under the impression that PIR is a material of limited combustibility which it isn’t. You might want to double check with your inspectors that they are on top of this.”
Key events since the Grenfell Tower fire
The fire breaks out in the early hours of the morning, prompting a huge response from emergency services, who are unable to bring the fire under control or prevent a severe loss of life.
The then Conservative prime minister, Theresa May, visits the scene and orders a full inquiry into the disaster, and the government promises that every family will be rehoused locally.
The communities secretary, Sajid Javid, orders an emergency fire safety review of 4,000 tower blocks across Britain, and it will emerge that 120 tower blocks have combustible cladding. Scotland Yard launches a criminal investigation into the Grenfell fire.
The chancellor, Philip Hammond, says the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was banned in the UK.
The retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick is appointed to lead the public inquiry. Kensington and Chelsea council’s first meeting since the disaster is abandoned after the council fails in a bid to ban the media from attending.
Survivors have their first official meeting with the police and coroner.
The inquiry formally opens.
As the final death toll is confirmed to be 71 people, it is revealed that hundreds of households are still living in hotels.
In defensive testimony at the inquiry, London fire brigade commissioner Dany Cotton said she would not change anything about the way the brigade responded to the Grenfell disaster, provoking anger from both survivors and the bereaved.
The public inquiry report concludes that fewer people would have died had the fire brigade been better prepared.
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg is forced to apologise after stating that victims of Grenfell did not use “common sense” and leave the burning building.
Grenfell cladding firm Arconic reveals it has spent £30 million on lawyers and advisors defending their role in the disaster.
The second phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry begins.
Politicians and civil servants are expected to give evidence in two inquiry modules slated to begin later in autumn and winter 2021. The first will examine the aftermath of the fire. The RBKC Labour councillors have asked that May be called to give evidence alongside Barwell, who was her chief of staff at the time, and Pickles.
As Barwell was previously housing minister he may also be asked to provide evidence for a later module looking at the government’s involvement setting fire safety policy in the wake of the 2009 Lakanal House fire that killed six people. Pickles was communities secretary in 2013 when the inquest into that disaster concluded with recommendations for the government to review fire safety and building regulations guidance.
Labour are also calling for Brandon Lewis, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland who was both the housing and the fire minister before the disaster, to give evidence. It is thought unlikely that May would be called for cross-examination, with officials and less senior politicians closer to policy formation more likely to be questioned in person.
“For many months at the inquiry we have all listened to a shocking litany of failure, incompetence, corrupt practices, ignorance, and evidence that profit and share price trumped any duty to build safely to protect lives,” said RBKC Labour opposition leader, Cllr Pat Mason.
He said he has repeatedly told the inquiry’s chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, that ministers should give evidence in person and not be seen to be above the law.