SURVIVORS OF the fire have called on the French government to ‘intervene’ to allow executives at the cladding manufacturer to be cross examined at the inquiry.

In November, the inquiry’s second phase – in which it is investigating how products used on the building were manufactured, tested and sold – heard that four employees of Arconic ‘are 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 in turn 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’. One witness, technical manager Claude Wehrle, sent emails warning that test results were ‘far worse than it had previously admitted’, with these not published in the UK nor disclosed to the British Board of Agrement (BBA), which issues product information certificates.

In the absence of the employees, Mr Millett said he would use Arconic’s witness statements to demonstrate the roles played by the staff and the company. The company obtained certificates for its panels on ‘a false premise’ by supplying test reports for a ‘more fire-retardant version’ of the product. In 2005, Arconic tested the Reynobond PE product to European standards, discovering a ‘major difference’ between riveted and cassette forms, the latter failing the test ‘badly’.

This test was stopped due to the panel burning, and it was given an E rating, but inquiry counsel Stephanie Barwise said the firm held a meeting in Luton in 2006 where it ‘recognised the need’ to obtain a BBA certificate to ‘capture the public sector of the market’, and it obtained this certificate – shown to the Grenfell project team – in 2008, yet did not tell the BBA about the 2005 tests ‘despite its contract requiring disclosure of all testing information then available’.

The certificate ‘appeared to apply to both’ forms of the cladding, with BBA counsel David Sawtell telling the inquiry that the differences in information were ‘of great concern’, and that Arconic was ‘unable to explain the failure to provide this information to the BBA’s satisfaction’ on being challenged, with the certificate withdrawn in 2019.

Ms Barwise pointed out that Arconic was ‘monitoring’ large cladding fires across the world pre Grenfell and knew that ‘all polyethylene composites react the same way, but it did not warn the Grenfell team. This information ‘went to the top’ after Mr Wehrle ‘made clear to Diana Periera, American president of Arconic Building and Construction, that PE was Euroclass C to E and, in his words, flammable’ in April 2015.

By 2013, the firm had a ‘clearly formulated marketing strategy of targeting architects and investors together with main contractors and installers, pushing the aesthetics of the product onto architects’ via professional training sessions. Arconic said it promoted the ‘cheaper and more combustible’ polyethylene version above the fire retardant one because ‘it was concerned to ensure its products remain competitive in the UK’.

In its opening statement, Arconic said the ‘main fault’ lay with the companies responsible for the refurbishment, and that its staff were not ‘seeking to exploit the UK market place’ and adding that the insulation ‘appeared to have caught fire first’. Counsel Stephen Hockman maintained that ‘the product was capable of being used safely, even for high-rise residential applications, if the appropriate cladding system was designed’.

He added: ‘Core participants have suggested that the company’s employees were or must have been aware that ACM panels would contribute to the spread of fire. We submit, however, that the correct question is whether there was an awareness that the panels could so contribute if the products were used within a cladding system that was not compliant with regulations or otherwise fit for purpose.’

On the witnesses refusing to attend, Arconic was ‘working to get assurances’ to help them do so, and that these people had taken their own legal advice. It believed the product had been ‘misused’ in a way ‘entirely peculiar to Grenfell’ and ‘could not have been predicted’, with the design having involved ‘numerous departures from building regulations’. It had also been ‘entitled to proceed on the basis’ that the UK’s safety regime would ‘create a safe environment’ for the product’s use.

Now, The Guardian has reported on survivors and bereaved group Grenfell United’s call for the French government to intervene, so that the executives can ‘face cross-examination’. It has 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.

Karim Mussilhy, vice chairman of Grenfell United, lost his uncle Hesham Rehman in the fire, and commented: ‘We can’t let these witnesses hide in France. They must face questions here in London. We are urging the French government to do everything they can to bring these witnesses to the inquiry.’

The group will also gather 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’.