Grenfell

THE GRENFELL inquiry heard that the company continued to sell the cladding used on Grenfell ‘despite concerns about its safety’, due to ‘cost implications’.

Debbie French, the company’s UK sales manager from 2007 to 2014, started giving evidence at the inquiry earlier this week, where she admitted she ‘knew’ the cladding could burn but ‘did not tell customers’, with the company providing the ‘more flammable’ panels ‘by default’ as part of a marketing strategy. Ms French said that the marketing strategy recognised the fire retardant version that ‘drastically increases fire resistance’ was ‘less likely to secure contracts on price’.

She knew the PE version of the Reynobond product ‘was and is flammable’, and it was also reported that Arconic sought to ‘keep secret’ differences between the polyethylene (PE) and fire retardant versions, with a report from a 2004 test in a French laboratory seeing the panels in a cassette form, as they were used in Grenfell. This test was stopped after 850 seconds because ‘it was emitting too much heat’.

Yesterday, her second day of evidence revealed that she ‘failed to tell’ customers about a report that showed it was ‘unsafe for use on high rises’, the inquiry hearing that in early February 2014 Arconic’s then technical manager Claude Wehrle – one of three Arconic executives refusing to give evidence at the inquiry – sent colleagues including Ms French a test report showing that the PE cladding only achieved Euroclass E – until then, it had used a 2008 report to claim it met Euroclass B.

This was the basis upon which the British Board of Agrement (BBA) had issued it a certificate stating the product ‘may be regarded’ as meeting the UK’s Class 0 rating, which ‘effectively cleared the product for use on high rises’ including Grenfell. Mr Wehrle’s email said that ‘the previous “B” class reported done for Reynobond PE in riveted system[s] can no more be used from now’.

However, the inquiry heard that Ms French ‘made no attempt’ to inform buyers about this update, and sent the ‘by now defunct’ BBA certificate to cladding subcontractors at Grenfell two months later. Inside Housing has now reported on this week’s final day of evidence from Ms French, in which it was revealed that she had said, in a phone call shortly after Grenfell, that Arconic would continue to sell the PE cladding despite ‘concerns’ over its safety due to ‘cost implications’.

The inquiry also heard that she ‘failed to raise the alarm’ after realising that the PE cladding did not have test reports clearing it as Class 0, ‘the standard for use on high rises like Grenfell Tower under English building guidance’. Transcripts from a phone conversation between Ms French and John Simmons – of Arconic client Simco, and who ‘appears to have secretly recorded the call’ – were read out in the hearings.

Mr Simmons asked why the PE cladding had not been withdrawn after an Arconic competitor, 3A, had ‘done so with its equivalent product Alucbond at around the time cladding was being fitted to Grenfell Tower’. In response, Ms French said that ‘there were some discussions around when Alucobond did do that and it was the cost implications’.

Questioned by inquiry counsel Richard Millett about the call, Ms French said she was referring to the difference in cost between Reynobond PE and the fire resistant Reynobond FR, and asked if Arconic did not withdraw the PE product from the market ‘because of commercial considerations’, she said: ‘I mean, as I said, I can only go on what they were giving me at the time but yes.’

Mr Millett then asked if any consideration had been given to the fire safety implications of continuing to sell the PE product, to which Ms French replied ‘I can’t recall any conversations of that nature’. By this point, the news outlet noted, the test report for PE meeting Euroclass B had been withdrawn.

The call – taking place three years after Ms French had left Arconic – was also revealed to have featured her tell Mr Simmons that Arconic had chosen ‘not to put it in the public domain’ that this had happened, and that they ‘are very secret over stuff like that’. She also told the inquiry that she had learned in 2015, shortly after leaving, that the PE cladding had no test report confirming it met Class 0.

Mr Millett suggested that this news ‘would have come as an earthquake’, but in response Ms French said ‘I cannot remember what my reaction was to that other than, you know, surprised at the time that it didn’t have the Class 0’. Asked if she could not remember her reaction as she ‘wasn’t surprised at the time’, Ms French said ‘I’m not sure’; but she denied awareness of the PE cladding not having a test report supporting use as Class 0 for ‘a long time’.

Additionally, she claimed it ‘hadn’t occurred’ to her at this point that she had sold the PE product for use on Grenfell ‘on a false basis’ regarding fire classification, adding that ‘I didn’t have the knowledge to put all those facts together’. Ms French also did not ‘alert’ her replacement at Arconic – Vince Meakins – ‘or anyone else about her realisation’, with Mr Meakins – giving evidence after Ms French – stating he believed Arconic had a Class 0 test report for the PE product ‘right up until the Grenfell Tower fire’.