THE INQUIRY into the 2017 fire has been paused after a positive test was discovered, but before this further evidence was shown relating to Kingspan and its hiring of lobbyists.

In a press statement, the inquiry noted that hearings have been paused until 11 January 2021 after it was ‘made aware today that an individual who was onsite last week has tested positive for COVID-19’, with the individual last at the venue on 4 December. This has meant ‘accordingly’ that a number of other individuals were told to isolate, though as the inquiry has ‘strong precautions in place’ to maintain distancing between attendees, ‘this will hopefully be an isolated case’.

However, as a result of the reduction in staff numbers ‘and in the interest of safety’, chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick ‘has made the difficult decision to suspend hearings’, which were due to finish on Thursday 17 December. Sir Martin said at the close of Wednesday’s hearings that the decision was ‘extremely disappointing’ but unavoidable.

The Guardian reported on the last day of evidence, with the inquiry hearing that Kingspan ‘hired lobbyists’ post Grenfell to ‘try to persuade’ MPs that ‘rival non-combustible products might be no less dangerous’, with Westminster public affairs consultants Portland recruited ‘weeks after the fire’ to get Kingspan’s ‘manifesto in front of … decision makers’. These included MPs and then Housing Secretary Sajid Javid, as well as then Home Secretary Amber Rudd.

The news outlet noted that the company ‘feared a ban on combustible insulation’, and so ‘drew up a list of political targets’ including Dame Judith Hackitt and housing select committee chair Clive Betts to lobby. It also hired another agency, Grayling, to ‘try to persuade politicians’ that combustible materials were ‘no more dangerous than non-combustible materials when properly installed’, according to emails shown to the inquiry.

In 2018, ‘needing evidence’, Kingspan set up tests to attempt to show non combustible insulation ‘would also fail’, and rigged them with deliberately ‘weak structural specification’ and an assembly designed ‘to perform poorly’, according to internal emails. Senior leaders including chief executive Gene Murtagh and executive director Gilbert McCarthy, were copied into planning emails about how to ‘generate evidence for use in both the political arena and with the Hackitt review team’.

While nobody had suggested non combustible insulation was a fire risk, Kingspan ‘set out to suggest it could be in certain systems’, with the testing plan to set fire to two walls clad in aluminium composite material panels, one wall featuring Rockwool insulation behind the cladding and the other Kingspan’s plastic foam.

Planning emails saw discussions about the need to create gaps to get ‘some “draw” to get the flames to get above the … rig’, and about which panels ‘would give most fuel to get the flames up there’. Inquiry counsel Richard Millett asked Kingspan’s director of technical and marketing Adrian Pargeter whether it was ‘engaged in a wholesale attempt to mislead Clive Betts and the select committee … because of the threat of a ban on combustibles, based on a deliberately manipulated test’.

Mr Pargeter disagreed, and Mr Millett added that the ‘reality is that Kingspan’s position, even in 2018 in the face of a government investigation into fire safety after Grenfell, is doing its best to ensure that the science was secretly perverted for financial gain, and that has been your own approach and Kingspan’s general approach for years and it’s still going on’. Mr Pargeter again disagreed, and said the tests were done to ‘explore potential scenarios’.

A summary of the results of three tests were sent to the select committee, ‘without disclosing that they had been designed to fail’, with Mr Millett asking Mr Pargeter: ‘Materials of limited combustibility or non-combustible materials hadn’t actually caused any problem at Grenfell Tower, so what was the point in attacking their use?’

In response, Mr Pargeter said the tests were to check ‘if that assumption was flawed’, with Sir Martin asking in turn ‘are we to understand that the reason for all of this testing was to benefit the public at large?’; Mr Pargeter replied that ‘I wouldn’t say it was entirely altruistic but it’s part of it’. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) responded to these developments by noting that the lobbyists ‘aren’t fit to lace the boots’ of firefighters.

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack commented: ‘The victims at Grenfell had barely been laid to rest, before Kingspan, who made parts of the building's flammable cladding system, hired a PR agency to convince MPs that ‘combustible materials are no more dangerous than non-combustible when properly installed'. They commissioned dodgy tests and tried to leverage the results to secure meetings with Ministers and the chair of Parliament’s Housing committee.

‘Kingspan continues to operate and sold £5m in shares just before the cascade of damning evidence about its lies came to light. The contempt the company has shown for the Grenfell community and the firefighters who risked their lives that night is sadly an all too familiar story.

‘The public will no doubt look at a mega corporation hiring PR gurus to save its reputation and compare that with the risks firefighters took on 14 June in their attempts to save as many people as possible. To be clear, those involved in this immoral lobbying aren’t fit to lace the boots of the firefighters who went up Grenfell Tower.

‘This is exactly the kind of dodgy dealing between government and businesses that led to the building safety crisis which could see another Grenfell happen tomorrow.’