THE GRENFELL inquiry heard that Arconic’s former technical manager Claude Wehrle had told colleagues that ‘poor’ fire test results on its Reynobond cladding needed to be kept ‘very confidential’.

Debbie French, the company’s UK sales manager from 2007 to 2014, gave evidence at the inquiry last week, and 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’.

Later last week, she revealed 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 Mr 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. Most recently last week, she confirmed that Arconic continued to sell the PE cladding ‘despite concerns about its safety’, due to ‘cost implications’.

Her replacement in the role - Vince Meakins – took the stand next, and said late last week that he believed the company had a Class 0 test report for the PE product ‘right up until’ Grenfell caught fire. During Mr Meakin’s evidence, it was revealed that Arconic had told French salespeople to ‘recommend a more fire safe product from 2016 onwards’, but ‘did not do the same’ in the UK.

After his evidence concluded, Mr Schmidt started giving evidence, including admitting that more tests ‘should have been carried out’ on the panels used on Grenfell, but that it was not his ‘priority’ to understand tests or certificates, and that they were ‘flammable but not necessarily dangerous’. BBC News, The Independent, Housing Today and Inside Housing all reported on his latest evidence, in which it was revealed that Mr Wehrle had emailed colleagues in 2010 to tell them that the cladding’s ‘poor’ fire test results needed to be kept ‘very confidential’.

This request – made in capital letters -  was responded to by Arconic sales director Guy Scheidecker, who said ‘this shouldn’t even have been mentioned’, and when pressed on this Mr Schmidt admitted that the email ‘suggested customers had been misled’, but could not explain it when inquiry counsel Richard Millett argued that ‘deception was being practised on your watch’. The email had been sent in response to discussions with a Spanish client, which had raised concerns over the PE cladding.

The March 2010 email that began this conversation came from European salesperson Isabel Moyses, who said that a Spanish competitor had moved to only offering more fire retardant panels as they ‘could not obtain’ Euroclass B, and she pointed out that if Arconic did the same ‘our prices are no longer in line with market trends’.

This saw Mr Wehlre respond by stating that Reynobond ‘in cassette form doesn’t obtain level B either […] having aid that, this shortfall in relation to this standard is something that we have to keep as VERY CONFIDENTIAL’. Mr Schmidt accepted that this showed Mr Wehrle did not believe the failed test was a ‘rogue result’, and that ‘in fact he understood that it represented the true fire performance of the product’.

Asked by Mr Millett whether he accepted that the company ‘through Mr Wehrle knew that architects, designers and construction professionals were being misled’, Mr Schmidt agreed, and said he was not told by Mr Schiedecker – his line manager – of this, nor was he able to explain how it was happening ‘on his watch’ as president.

Further emails from July 2010 saw Ms Moyses asked for the fire classification of the cassette system by a Portuguese company, in which she ‘resisted providing it’ before forwarding the email to Mr Wehrle, who replied ‘Isa […] it’s hard to make a note about this…because we’re not “clean”’. He then sent that client a letter claiming that the riveted system represented the ‘worst case’ and that the cassette would perform better as the flammable core was ‘protected’.

Inside Housing noted that this was a ‘total contradiction’ of the test results, Mr Millett asking whether Mr Schmidt accepted that telling the client ‘rivet was worse than cassette in terms of fire performance’ meant Mr Wehrle had lied. Mr Schmidt agreed, and was then shown further emails concerning Mr Wehrle, in regard to the Reynobond panels being retested in 2011 and the riveted system gaining Euroclass B, while the cassettes ‘failed so seriously, the test was stopped’.

This meant it was classed as Euroclass F again, and Mr Wehrle wrote in an email ‘oops […] the classification of PE in cassettes following the test this morning is “F” !!!’. Mr Schmidt denied that this language showed Mr Wehrle was ‘making lifht’ of the issue, before Mr Millett asked if ‘there was any shred or small piece of a view remaining’ within the company that the 2005 test was ‘rogue’, had the 2011 ‘dispelled that?’. Mr Schmidt agreed.

Minutes of a meeting between Mr Wehrle and a representative from competitor 3A – manufacturer of the Alucobond panels – were shown, and noted that the ‘evolution of fire regulation will put PE out of the market in the coming month[s]’, but ‘for the moment, even if we know that PE material in cassette has a bad a behaviour exposed to fire, we can still work with national regulations who are not as restrictive’.

Asked by Mr Millett if this was the strategy pursued by Arconic, Mr Schmidt replied that the firm continued to ‘respond to the needs of the clients’, while further emails from June 2012 showed that Mr Schmidt was invited to a meeting with Mr Wehrle to discuss the ‘serious issue’ of the PE product’s fire classification, with Mr Wehrle writing that ‘we would like to hear you opinion on the position to be held on the market’ – Mr Schmidt declined this meeting.

When asked why, he said he was ‘overloaded with work’, with Mr Wehrle’s witness statement claiming the two had a ‘brief discussion’ and agreed to remove the Euroclass B rating from marketing material. Mr Schmidt ‘could not remember’ if this took place, but documents showed that the rating disappeared from the company’s 2012 brochure, having ‘been present’ in 2010, though nothing was added about the Class E grade.

Mr Millett asked if Mr Schmidt accepted ‘it was a dangerous practice to leave it to the customer to find out’ that cassettes had Euroclass E ‘rather than volunteer to tell them’, to which Mr Schmidt agreed ‘it was risky’. Mr Schmidt stated that the ‘lower fire safety restrictions in the UK’ had ‘encouraged sales’ of PE, while other countries had ‘gradually restricted’ sales of it, and some had even banned it.

Despite this, the UK remained a ‘PE market’, and Mr Schmidt was later asked about a fire in Bucharest in 2009, which saw flames spread up a cladding system to the top of a tall building. Another technical director emailed images of this fire and said they showed ‘how dangerous PE can be when it comes to architecture’.

Mr Schmidt was asked whether, as a result of this fire, Arconic staff were trained or given information about it and its potential risks, to which he said ‘no, not as far as I know’, though he added it might have been discussed at internal meetings. His witness statement had said that pre Grenfell he had not been aware ‘there had been any victims of fires who were living in buildings’ clad in aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding made with PE, and as a result did not believe Arconic’s products were ‘being used improperly’.

Mr Millett asked him whether ‘human injury [is] really an appropriate measure by which the fire safety of PE-cored ACM [can] really be judged?’. In response, Mr Schmidt said that ‘it is one of the elements with regard to the evaluation, yes’, to which Mr Millett asked in turn: ‘So, as a consequence of that do you think it was appropriate to wait to see if anyone was injured before doing anything to mitigate the risk of fire from PE-cored ACM?’

Mr Schmidt replied by insisting he had ‘not said that’, adding ‘I did say it was one of the elements for response. For me PE did give rise to certain risks but there are other products within the building industry which also give rise to certain risks. If the risks are contained or if the risks are mastered it shouldn’t lead to people being injured or affected’.

Of the Romanian fire, he added ‘as far as we know, there had been no injury’, and Mr Millett countered by asking ‘is the reason why Arconic took no steps to do anything internally with (the product) because it only affected the outside of the building, there was no loss of life or injury, and it was a widely used product? Have I got your evidence right?’. Mr Schmidt agreed.