Grenfell inquiry

THE COMPANY’S French division’s president, Claude Schmidt, admitted 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.

Debbie French, the company’s UK sales manager from 2007 to 2014, gave evidence at the inquiry last this 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 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 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 spoke, first confirming that he had reported to senior figures in the company’s US based parent business and ‘occasionally’ discussed technical matters with them. The Independent and BBC News reported on his continued evidence, in which he admitted that more fire tests ‘should have been carried out’ on the PE panels, but added that they were ‘flammable but not necessarily dangerous’.

Mr Schmidt denied that the failed 2004 test was Arconic’s ‘deadly secret’, stating that ‘extra tests should have been carried out’, though the inquiry heard that there were ‘very great’ differences between the rivet and cassette variants, with the latter having performed ‘spectacularly worse’ in the 2004 test. Despite this, the data was ‘not shared’ with either certification bodies or customers, and these were sold under the same certificate as the rivet form, which had better fire performance.

Inquiry counsel Richard Millett suggested that Arconic regarded the results as ‘rogue’ because it had a ‘general expectation that the cassette ought to have performed better than rivet’, and asked Mr Schmidt ‘is it not the case that Arconic’s view that the rest was a rogue is no more than an untested assumption?’

In response, Mr Schmidt – testifying via a translator – said ‘not confirmed, yes’, with inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick intervening to add: ‘One possible view of the way that Arconic responded to that test we are discussing is that it was irrational and irresponsible not to carry out further tests to establish whether the cassette system performed as badly as the first test suggested.’

Responding, Mr Schmidt said ‘yes’, adding ‘as I said, I think that extra tests should have been carried out’. He also agreed with Mr Millett’s statement that if Grenfell ‘had never happened, no one would ever have known about the failed test’, but when asked if he accepted the test was the company’s ‘deadly secret’, he replied: ‘No. Because, once again, the product that was sold is not dangerous in itself.

‘It did have some risks which were dealt with differently in different countries and according to legislation... there are many things we do use every day which do give rise to certain risks. The test shows that the product is flammable but not necessarily dangerous.’

The BBA certificate issued in 2008 ‘made no distinction’ between the variants, and ‘effectively presented both’ as having a Euroclass B rating in fire tests, but the cassette variants achieved no rating in 2004 and eventually achieved Euroclass E in 2010. Mr Schmidt accepted that the certificate contained a ‘false statement’ but could not explain ‘why that false statement was made’, because he was ‘not involved in drawing up the BBA certificate’.

He added that ‘that was the responsibility of the technical service and I don’t know why that was not communicated directly’. Mr Schmidt had earlier been asked why he did not ‘seek to understand thoroughly the testing and certification which supported’ the product on becoming managing director in 2007, to which he replied that it ‘wasn’t my priority’; asked why ‘fire safety and life safety’ were not his priority, he thought these words were ‘a bit too strong’.

He also said he had only learned about a ‘key’ British fire safety standard post Grenfell, while the inquiry heard claims that Arconic ‘arranged’ for some fire tests to pass. The cladding had not been tested to British standards, only the European ones, and Arconic did not tell the BBA.

The inquiry also heard the witness statement from Mr Wehrle, which said staff were ‘puzzled’ by the 2004 test result, and that it was ‘not seen as a key issue or priority at the time’, with Arconic having ‘had no reason to suspect this was anything other than the rogue result of a standard classification test’, so it did not carry out further tests. An email from 2016 also showed Mr Wehrle state that the material’s Euroclass B rating had been achieved ‘by “arranging” the system to pass’.

Asked how Mr Wehrle might have “arranged” the system to pass, Mr Schmidt said ‘I don’t have an answer’; asked later by Mr Millett about ‘occasions when Arconic did understand what project the product would be used for’, and whether Grenfell was ‘an example of that’, he said ‘yes’.