DEBBIE FRENCH, the cladding manufacturer’s sales manager who sold its combustible polyethylene (PE) cladding for use on Grenfell, ‘failed to tell’ customers about a report that showed it was ‘unsafe for use on high rises’.

Ms French’s evidence at the inquiry began yesterday, 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, UK sales manager from 2007 to 2014, 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 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’,

Inside Housing reported on the second day of evidence from Ms French, in which it emerged 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, which showed that the PE cladding only achieved a fire safety rating of Euroclass E – until that point, it had been using a 2008 test 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. Asked by inquiry counsel Richard Millett if she ‘just sat on’ the new information, Ms French said ‘yeah, I don’t remember what action I took at the time’, adding that she thought the BBA certificate was ‘all that mattered’, and that she ‘didn’t have the knowledge’ to know otherwise.

Asked in turn whether she had decided to keep this new information to herself ‘knowing that it could hurt sales’, she responded ‘absolutely not’, but was ‘unable to explain’ why she had failed to pass the newer report on to customers ‘as other Arconic salespeople working elsewhere in Europe had done’. Mr Millett told her that ‘’not a single person’ who had given evidence to the inquiry knew the product was ever identified as Euroclass E, asking her if she should have told customers.

In response, Ms French agreed she should have, but added that ‘I wouldn’t have deliberately withheld it for any reason’. The inquiry had heard earlier in the day that she had ‘rushed to reassure’ customers about Reynobond PE in May 2013 after a major fire on a building in Dubai clad in a similar aluminium composite material, claiming in emails that ‘on all projects’ Arconic was able ‘to offer the right Reynobond specific including the core’.

She ‘backtracked’ on this email at the inquiry, stating that ‘it wasn’t the right thing to put in there […] it was too heavy on the sales side’, and instead stood by her witness statement, which had claimed that the makeup of the finished Reynobond cladding and ‘whether it complied with relevant regulations was a matter for the customer or otherwise the person who designed the rain-screen cladding system’.

Mr Millett questioned whether this claim was an attempt to ‘explain that email away’, to which Ms French ‘insisted’ it was not; however, in the afternoon at the inquiry an email was shown from Ms French to Grenfell’s cladding subcontractors thanking them for ‘hard work and perseverance in putting Reynobond forward’, and extending an offer of ‘lunch or dinner at some point’.

When pressed on this, Ms French agreed that ‘at least in the case of Grenfell’ she was in a ‘position to ensure’ that Reynobond with the ‘appropriate core’ ended up on the tower, and also agreed that her knowledge of the 2013 Dubai fire meant that ‘by this stage she was aware of the dangers’ of the PE cladding on high rises.

She also told the inquiry that she estimated the fire resistant cladding would have cost between €28,000 to €30,000 more to install on Grenfell than the PE version that was used.