THE GRENFELL inquiry moved to a new phase in which it will investigate how products were manufactured, tested and sold, with criticisms of the manufacturers made on the first day.

BBC News, ITV, The Guardian and Inside Housing all reported on the new stage of the inquiry focusing on ‘how products used in the cladding system’ were ‘manufactured, tested and sold’, with the hearings beginning with news that four employees of cladding manufacturer 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. In an opening statement, bereaved and survivors counsel Stephanie Barwise stated of Arconic, and insulation manufacturers Celotex and Kingspan: ‘It is all too clear that the manufacturers whose products were used at Grenfell were untroubled by the safety of their products and some of them remain so despite the disastrous fire.

‘It is of great concern that even now, Kingspan seeks to trivialise its wrongdoing, and despite compelling evidence to the contrary, Arconic does not even accept that it did anything wrong. Instead, Arconic continues to perversely assert that its product could have complied even though that assertion is undermined by the test evidence.’

She added that both Kingspan and Celotex had ‘abused’ the testing system, and undertaken fire tests that involved either ‘concealing components in a manner designed to facilitate a pass and/or using materials that were not as described in the test reports’, including adding fire retardants to materials to slow down ignition and ‘get through large-scale testing’, which ‘calls into question the viability’ of such testing.

She said it was ‘sinister’ that the companies understood regulations but ‘sought to circumvent it by clever marketing’, saying Arconic, Celotex and Kingspan all ‘went out of their way to advertise’  products as holding the safest ratings for fire spread despite materials not having them. Ms Barwise also read a series of internal emails from Kingspan branding its testing as ‘complete spin’ and Arconic saying ‘we are not clean’.

On Arconic, the company obtained certificates for its panels on ‘a false premise’ by supplying test reports for a ‘more fire-retardant version’ of the product, with Ms Barwise noting all three companies ‘are in general not humbled by the Grenfell fire, and their behaviours are not altered by it’. 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 Ms 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’.

The firm’s 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 attend, 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.

Moving to Celotex, Ms Barwise said the company had displayed a ‘widespread culture of ignoring compliance’, including ‘distorting’ a full scale fire test for the Celotex RS5000 insulation. This had passed such a test in 2014 that used ‘undeclared fire-resisting magnesium-oxide boards’ to ‘fortify’ the cavity barriers.

Ms Barwise commented that ‘on top of all this, Celotex specifically pursued Grenfell: Celotex’s internal email exchange in November 2014 makes clear that Grenfell was Celotex’s number one must-win bid’, and that as mentioned, it and Kingspan had ‘adopted a practice’ of adding fire retardants to products, which had ‘stopped the flames dead in their tracks’ and allowed Celotex to obtain a ‘misleading’ report from the Building Research Establishment.

This ‘concealed the way in which the test had been distorted’, and it then ‘sought to extend the scope of buildings’ the product could be used on via obtaining a certificate from the Local Authority Building Control. She stated: ‘This practice of adding fire retardants is clear from Saint-Gobain papers [the parent company of Celotex], including [a] research paper which makes clear that this practice of including retardants is not only hazardous to health and the environment, but furthermore it is done solely, and I quote, ‘in order to pass unrealistic fire safety tests”.’

A 2015 email from Celotex’s Rob Warren was read out in which he said the company’s approach was to offer the product for use and ‘take it on the chin’ it rejected, and noted the confusion among building control officers about its applicability. It also advertised the insulation as ‘acceptable for use on buildings above 18m’, which Ms Barwise said means ‘Celotex cannot hide from the fact that its intention was to mislead’.

The firm’s opening statement said the product should not have been used at Grenfell as the project team did ‘not follow’ the large scale test the firm had undertaken, and that its combustibility had been ‘clearly highlighted’. It said Arconic had ‘misled’ the market about its panels’ safety; accused construction professionals on the project of failing to follow building regulations; and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s building control officer of ‘incompetence’.

Celotex believed the Grenfell construction professionals were ‘unaware of, disregarded or otherwise failed to follow’ guidance, and that ‘these failings were fundamental and should have been identified by building control. None of these matters was Celotex’s responsibility’. It accepted the 2014 test had been ‘misdescribed’, but said a rerun in 2018 passed, and that as the test was ‘not being relied on’, such discrepancies had ‘no bearing’ on the installation at Grenfell.