CLAUDE SCHMIDT, president of Arconic – the French company that provided the aluminium composite material (ACM) panels for Grenfell – has now agreed to give evidence at the inquiry.

Building Safety and Fire Minister Lord Greenhalgh called earlier this month for Arconic executives to ‘step up’ and give evidence at the inquiry, and that they should not ‘hide behind’ an obscure French law. In November, the inquiry heard that four employees were ‘refusing to give evidence’ because they ‘might breach a law in France which prevents evidence being given to proceedings abroad’.

In response, inquiry counsel Richard Millett said it was ‘hard to imagine’ that the three French and one German employee would be punished for giving evidence, and added that they should ‘do the right thing and come and assist the inquiry’. The company told the inquiry to discuss the issue with the French government, with Mr Millett noting that these witnesses had ‘extremely pertinent evidence to give about the products principally implicated in the rapid and fatal spread of the fire.

‘In the end, if Arconic and its witnesses seek to stand on their strict legal rights and refuse to come to give evidence that is a matter for them’. He said the company might find that the bereaved, survivors and relatives as well as the public take a ‘dim view’ of their conduct, and that ‘it is hard to think that the French prosecutor would wish to punish those individuals for giving evidence before a public inquiry … looking into a notorious fire in which so many were killed’.

Mr Millett added that ‘doubtless Arconic will have considered the impact of its witnesses' refusal to give evidence on how they are viewed in the world beyond this inquiry and particularly in the markets, both in their own products and the financial markets’. Claude Wehrle, its technical manager, had sent emails warning test results were ‘far worse than it had previously admitted’.

In their absence, Mr Millett said he would use Arconic’s witness statements to demonstrate the roles played by the staff and the company. Arconic said at the time that it was ‘working to get assurances’ to help them give evidence, and that these people had taken their own legal advice.

In December, survivors and bereaved campaign group Grenfell United called for the French government to intervene, so that the executives can ‘face cross-examination’. It delivered a message to the French embassy calling for the law in question to be ‘waived’, so that the executives ‘can no longer refuse to give evidence’, with that move having ‘sparked fury’ among the survivors and bereaved.

The group also gathered at Downing Street to call for the executives to ‘be forced to give evidence’, as well as for a ‘ban on any public contracts being awarded to Kingspan’. It was noted that inquiry officials are in discussions with the French government and the UK Foreign Office to ‘break the deadlock’, and Mr Millett said he will ‘empty chair’ the witnesses should they not attend, including reading questions out ‘they should answer’.

Lord Greenhalgh ‘escalated’ the issue via Twitter, despite the inquiry having been ‘communicating directly’ with the French government via the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to get the witnesses to appear. Alongside Mr Wehrle, the other witnesses refusing to attend include Peter Froehlich and Gwenaëlle Derrendinger, with all three citing a rarely used 53 year old French statute in order to refuse attendance for six days of cross examination this month.

Lord Greenhalgh tweeted that it was ‘time for these [Arconic] executives to step up to the plate [and] appear before’ the inquiry ‘rather than hide behind the 1968 French blocking statute’, with the witnesses having ‘ignored warnings’ that not attending ‘runs the risk’ of ‘adverse inference and criticism’. While two UK based Arconic staff will give evidence, a fourth executive – Claude Schmidt – said he would only if ‘certain conditions’ – not made public – were met, which the inquiry called ‘largely unacceptable’.

Grenfell United added that ‘there is no way Arconic staff should be dictating terms about what they are asked or not asked’, while the French government said it ‘did not believe’ that the blocking statute applies. Arconic in turn said it ‘continues to fully cooperate with the inquiry’, and that ‘the individuals who have declined to participate … have taken the advice of separate counsel and [Arconic] does not have any influence on those decisions’.

It added that the three witnesses ‘represented by the company’s counsel are prepared to provide evidence, including Claude Schmidt’. The Guardian has now reported that Mr Schmidt, the company’s president, will give evidence ‘after refusing to do so for the last seven months’, with inquiry deputy solicitor Cathy Kennedy telling the survivors and bereaved of the news earlier this week. The other staff continue to refuse to attend the hearings or give evidence.

The news outlet noted that when the inquiry restarts on 11 February, Mr Schmidt and other Arconic witnesses, including UK sales manager Deborah French, will give evidence, while insulation manufacturer Kingspan’s head of technical and marketing Adrian Pargeter will be ‘recalled’ after admitting he gave ‘erroneous’ evidence last year. Kingspan wrote to the government to ‘dispute a[nother] claim’ that ‘it tried to mislead MPs over safety tests’ during the evidence heard last month.

Earlier this month, it was reported that the inquiry was considering whether ‘or not’ it could ‘resume as planned’ on Monday 11 January, given the new COVID-19 lockdown, and was ‘considering options for restarting sessions’, which had already been paused in early December due to an individual testing positive for COVID-19.

While it was not ‘clear whether’ the inquiry would ‘consider options for running the inquiry virtually’, because it was suspended during the first national lockdown from mid March to early July 2020, the inquiry team later confirmed that hearings would be ‘temporarily suspended’.

The inquiry then announced it will resume hearings remotely from 8 February, utilising video conferencing software as a ‘temporary measure to be used only for as long as is absolutely necessary’. It was ‘aiming to resume’ using a ‘Zoom based video platform’ which will ‘allow all those who would have been required to be onsite for the limited attendance hearings to participate from remote locations’.

Politicians including former Prime Minister Theresa May could be cross examined about their actions, and the inquiry also shared – as Building reported – that making sure the remote working equipment ‘works for remote hearings’ has led to the hold up in proceedings, with testing being undertaken after equipment was sent out to witnesses.

It stated: ‘The Inquiry’s suppliers required time to safely distribute equipment to all those involved in the hearings, including all the remaining witnesses for Module 2, to remotely test that equipment with each individual and to test the new processes to ensure hearings can proceed smoothly when they resume. 8 February is the earliest date by which this can confidently be achieved.’

The inquiry also discussed the revised order of modules, as ‘it is in the public instruct to restructure’ the plan so that the fourth module – covering the aftermath of the fire – will come after the seventh, which focuses on experts. It said ‘one of the principal reasons’ for this was to ‘avoid further delays’ to the fifth and sixth modules, ‘which are increasingly matters of urgency and importance in light of the evidence heard so far’.

The move will mean these modules ‘can still be completed during 2021 as scheduled, and not delayed into 2022’, with the inquiry noting that it ‘continues to recognise the importance of the issues to be examined’ in the fourth module and ‘remains fully committed to a full investigation of them’. It had disclosed 20,752 documents in the first phase and 210,848 in the second, while 639 of 725 individuals applying for core participant status had been granted said status.

In turn, 39 of 83 organisations that had applied for the same had been granted the status.